Cut­ting Ice

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From I Don’t Want to Know Any­one Too Well. Pub­lished by Bi­b­lioa­sis in 2017. Nor­man Levine is the author of eight short story col­lec­tions, two nov­els and a mem­oir. He was raised in Ot­tawa, served over­seas in RCAF dur­ing World War II and at­tended Mcgill Univer­sity. He died in 2005.

The class­rooms were above an op­ti­cian, by a seedy restau­rant, over­look­ing a large, bare cathe­dral. When I started, at the be­gin­ning of May, the sea­son had not be­gun. I had eight pupils, the in­ter­me­di­ates. If any­one could carry on a few sen­tences

in bro­ken English he left the be­gin­ners—which was crowded—and stayed in the in­ter­me­di­ates un­til there was room for him in the se­nior class. Each class con­sisted of a small room with ta­bles pushed to­gether in the shape of a horse­shoe. I sat be­hind a desk, at the open end of the horse­shoe, by a por­ta­ble black­board. The win­dows had to be closed be­cause of the traf­fic noise. On a warm or a rainy day, the room was sti­fling.

On the first day I won­dered whether my Cana­dian ac­cent would mat­ter. “Ladies and gen­tle­men. I’m your new teacher. I’m a Cana­dian. And the kind of English I speak is not the kind that English­men speak. So if you have any trou­ble un­der­stand­ing what I say—” But I was in­ter­rupted by an Ital­ian girl who beamed and said how clear my dic­tion was. And they all said they un­der­stood me and com­pli­mented me on

how clearly I spoke. I was get­ting to feel quite good. But I found out, on the sec­ond day, that the English­man I re­placed had a speech im­ped­i­ment. He left with­out say­ing good­bye. That was one of the oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ards. One was hired with­out ref­er­ences and left the same way.

Teach­ing con­sisted mainly in giv­ing them new words, cor­rect­ing their pro­nun­ci­a­tion, dic­tat­ing to them small pieces of any­thing I hap­pened to see while look­ing out of the win­dow. And read­ing ex­cerpts from Con­rad. Or else we played games. I would bor­row one of their watches with a sweep sec­ond­hand and say: “Miss Laroque. You are walk­ing in Brighton from the Steine to the West Pier. Tell me, in one minute, all the words be­gin­ning with the let­ter “M” that you would see. Now.”

“Mouse . . . Mut­ton . . . Mur­der . . . Mis­ter . . . Mis­sus . . . Miss . . .”

“Sir. That’s not fair.”

“Six, Miss Laroque,” I said. “Twen­ty­five sec­onds to go.”

“Mi­mosa . . . Mac­a­roni . . . Man . . .” They were mainly young girls. Some were there for busi­ness rea­sons: to be a re­cep­tion­ist in their fa­ther’s ho­tel; an­other was go­ing to be an air-host­ess; an­other to work in an ex­port of­fice. But the ma­jor­ity were there for a hol­i­day.

I had been there three weeks when Mrs. Siemens came in. The age of the stu­dents didn’t vary a great deal; they were in their teens or early twen­ties. But Mrs. Siemens, a hand­some-look­ing woman, with grey hair combed neatly back in a bun, and very light-blue eyes, was in her seven­ties. The im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion to her presence was to sub­due ev­ery­one. And we got a lot more done. She sat half­way up the left of the horse­shoe, lis­ten­ing to what I was say­ing. Some­times she took out a hand­ker­chief and wiped her eyes. I took it that she had some al­lergy. When it was her turn to read, she read softly and very slow, and apol­o­gized at the end for not do­ing bet­ter.

At eleven we had a ten-minute break. The teach­ers would go into the of­fice and have cof­fee. The stu­dents would ei­ther go to a small cafe nearby or stay in the room, open the win­dows, lean out, and smoke. One morn­ing I came back early and a new stu­dent, a Mex­i­can, of­fered me a cig­a­rette.

“Sir. You like Turk­ish?”

I said I did.

Two weeks later, on a Fri­day, Mrs. Siemens came up to me.

“Thank you very much,” she said gra­ciously. “This morn­ing was my last les­son. I en­joyed my­self very much. I have a small present for you.”

We shook hands. And I went down the stairs hold­ing my books and this pack­age care­fully wrapped in white pa­per with a neat red rib­bon.

In the of­fice I un­wrapped it. It was a large pack­age of Turk­ish cig­a­rettes. I was deeply touched. None of the oth­ers had both­ered to say more than “good­bye.” Per­haps, I thought, it’s just old age that feels it has to pay for even the briefest en­counter.

I asked the sec­re­tary in the of­fice about Mrs. Siemens. She said that Mrs. Siemens was a widow. That she was part of the Siemens, in Ger­many. They were ex­tremely wealthy. Her son had died and the doc­tors ad­vised her to get away and do some­thing to take her mind off things.

And as the sec­re­tary was talk­ing I re­mem­bered that the words I in­tro­duced to the class dur­ing her stay—the pas­sages I chose to read or dic­tate— for some rea­son kept harp­ing on some as­pect of death: on ceme­ter­ies, grave­stones, fu­ner­als, coffins.

But this was Fri­day and there was lit­tle food in the house and I knew that I would have to walk back the three miles. If I had break­fast that morn­ing, I didn’t mind the walk. Af­ter Pre­ston Cir­cus it was very pleas­ant. There were the small gar­dens, each one with the name of an English city and with a sin­gle stalk of corn grow­ing in­con­gru­ously in their mid­dles.

I went into a large to­bac­conist and told the girl be­hind the counter that I had bought this pack­age of Turk­ish cig­a­rettes for a friend as a gift, and I found out that he doesn’t smoke. The girl ex­am­ined the box closely. Fi­nally gave me fourteen shillings.

I went out and bought half a dozen eggs, a tin of lun­cheon meat, a loaf of bread, some sugar, tea, cheese, a news­pa­per, and took the bus back.

But that af­ter­noon—though I watched my wife and chil­dren eat—i felt I had be­trayed some­thing.

Com­po­si­tion (Mother and Child), 2006. From An­nie Pootoo­gook: Cut­ting Ice by Nancy Camp­bell. Pub­lished by Goose Lane in 2018. An­nie Pootoo­gook was an Inuk artist known for her pen and coloured pen­cil draw­ings. She won the Sobey Art Award in 2006. Nancy Camp­bell is a cu­ra­tor of con­tem­po­rary Inuit art. She has a doc­tor­ate from York Univer­sity.

Watch­ing Hunt­ing Shows, 2004

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