The Little Pronghorn, a short story from Qatar.
In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.
It was the winter of 2001 and I’d just finished an uneventful evening of classes at The Language Teaching Institute. Gathering up my books, feeling more than ready to head home, I hadn’t noticed Mona shuffling over to my desk.
‘‘Mr Lie-ton… my husband would like to speak to you’’.
‘‘Oh?’’ I replied, the last of my students trooping off towards a squadron of waiting jeeps. Surely I hadn’t said anything even vaguely flirty? Been culturally insensitive? Or perhaps I was in for a weekly lecture on the benefits of converting to Islam?
‘‘He is here. Will speak to you now’’.
She hadn’t even finished talking and he was already drifting into the room like a robed apparition. As he came towards me, Mona took several steps back, eyes to the floor. Stopping in front of me, the man paused a moment and looked me over. This gave me the opportunity to regard him: curly black hair, cold, humourless eyes, trim beard. ‘‘As-salamu alaykum’’ I offered cautiously as he continued to look me up and down. “Wa alaykumu as-salam’’ he responded in a commanding voice as thick as old leather.
‘‘My wife tell me you good teacher. And good man, kind man’’ he said, hands clasped behind his back. So I was a good teacher eh? Well, that wasn’t so bad. I would have felt relieved had the look on the man’s face not completely betrayed the words he’d just spoken. In contrast to being pleased, he actually looked as though he wanted to kill me.
‘‘Thank you’’ I responded, as he continued to glare. ‘‘I think you are perfect teacher for my son Saadi. His English not good enough, must improve. You will come to my home and teach him, two times a week. Monday morning, Wednesday morning. Each time two hours’’.
He paused for a moment to scratch his beard. ‘‘I will pay you 350 Riyals an hour. You will be pick up from your home. You will be take back to your home when finish’’. I merely stood nodding throughout his speech like a poorly controlled puppet. Furthermore, I couldn’t help but wonder if at any point my agreement would be necessary.
‘‘I will pay you 350 Riyals an hour”.
‘‘Ok…’’ I said eventually, after he’d stopped talking and resumed the staring. There was a further lull in proceedings before he cleared this throat. ‘‘You start this Wednesday’’. I nodded yes and with a handshake that almost broke two of my fingers he bid me farewell and strode out of the classroom. As he went, Mona gave me a curt nod and scurried off after him.
When Wednesday rolled around I was surprised to see a pristine white limousine pull up outside my place. Refusing to believe it was for me, I just stood there eyeing it dumbly until a young Indian man stepped out and ushered me over with an open palm. ‘‘Mr. teacher sir’’ he said, opening the back door. It was only during the ride over that I learned that Mr. & Mrs. Mona didn’t actually live in Doha! Instead, we were driving out to the nearby city of Al Wakrah. This was something Mr. Mona had failed to mention in his brief.
Our brisk, thirty minute journey concluded in front of a walled mansion at the end of a dusty street somewhere in the outskirts. The driver led me through a long garden stuffed full of plants, flowers, bushes and rows of homegrown vegetables. Further on, near a giant patio, a grizzly old dog slept peacefully under a large palm tree next to a small pond.
At the house itself I noticed a sliding door had been left open in anticipation of my arrival. And so I was led into a vast, shadowy study where I took a seat at a gargantuan wooden table. It was the only room of their house I would ever get to see, aside from the small toilet in the adjoining hallway.
A few minutes after my arrival the oaken door swung open and in walked Saadi, a tiny, robed, eight year old boy with floppy black hair that hung over a pair of big, brown eyes. As he took the seat next to me, I was struck by how he looked like a handsome little prince. A heartbreaker in the making. However, I was also quick to observe how he’d inherited his father’s serious demeanour. Especially in the way he spoke: unsmiling, direct, seemingly joyless.
‘‘Every lesson we read this’’ he stated, producing a tatty children’s book from his schoolbag. ‘‘Father says I must be perfect. No mistakes’’.
Already marvelling at the quality of his English, I received the book from him and read the front cover. ‘‘The Little Pronghorn’’. What the hell was a pronghorn? From the looks of the cover it was some kind of beefed up deer or antelope.
Our first read through lasted around fifteen minutes and in truth I found the whole thing pretty dull. Basically child pronghorn wants to be a brave leader like his father. He subsequently learns important life lessons whilst avoiding becoming lion chow. In the end, everyone’s a winner. The only thing missing was an Elton John soundtrack.
Even as Saadi finished reading the final lines, I knew I was struggling to identify what, if anything, he was doing wrong. The kid had clearly been forced to read this drivel a thousand times over already. As a result, he’d succeeded in learning it by heart. Finally, the only thing I could think of was to try and make him a bit more expressive. To introduce a greater sense of theatrical ebb and flow. Maybe even coax the kid into cracking a smile.
“The kid had clearly been forced to read this drivel a thousand times over already”.
After an hour we were both pronghorned-out, hence I decided to switch things up and do some word games designed to practice comparative adjectives. But after a few minutes I realised it was too easy for him, so we stopped. We were about forty five minutes into the lesson when the family maid appeared with a silver tray of snacks and a cup of freshly brewed coffee. As the weeks passed I came to greatly anticipate her arrival. Sometimes she brought a round of egg mayonnaise sandwiches. On other occasions it was a plate of Indian style samosas. One week I gobbled up a doorstep wedge of homemade walnut cake. Whatever she brought me it was always delicious and I never left a crumb.
It didn’t take long for Saadi and I to settle into a routine. We’d do The Little Pronghorn to death and then move on to stuff of my own choosing. Generally listening exercises, crosswords and grammar tests that my young student was always quick to master. As far as I could tell he experienced no sense of triumph from the successes of language learning. Nor did he betray a flicker of disappointment on the rare occasions he made a mistake.
At some point I finally abandoned my attempts to befriend him or build up any kind of camaraderie. The kid was simply impenetrable, a kind of Stepford child programmed to be practical, polite and dutiful. Back at L.T.I. Mona never once asked how the lessons were going. Therefore I decided not to mention it either and just continued to jump in the limo, do my thing, eat their food and take the money.
Friends of mine were green with envy, describing it as the private job that was ‘‘too good to be true’’. Ultimately they were right. I’d been teaching Saadi for around three months when one day, after class, Mona dropped a brown envelope onto my desk and scuttled off. Instinctively, I realised the game was up, even before I’d opened the envelope and read the typed letter inside.
‘‘Dear Mr. Leighton, Thank you for your recent efforts with Saadi. Last week he performed The Little Pronghorn at his school’s English competition. He won first prize; naturally we are all very pleased. Consequently, we no longer require your services. Please accept my apologies for the sudden nature of this news. I feel the enclosed bundle will certainly make up for any inconvenience’’.
Delving further into the envelope, I pulled out a bulging wad of notes, around two thousand Riyals in total bound together by an elastic band. Sitting down to re-read the letter again, I could only conclude that yes, it definitely made up for any inconvenience!
Some years later I was sick in bed with the flu, watching a nature program on TV. I remember being right on the edge of sleep when the focus suddenly switched from some breed of endangered gorilla to the plight of the North American pronghorn. The pronghorn!? It was the first time I’d heard or even thought of the word since my final read through with Saadi.
In an instant I was fully awake and propped up against my pillow, lost in a flood of cascading memories. Among them Mr. Mona’s cutting glare in the silence of the dusty classroom. The unblemished whiteness of Saadi’s robe as he marched into the study. The smell of coffee as glorious rays of afternoon sunshine danced in sharp angles off the silver tray.
‘‘The little pronghorn looked up at his father…’’ said Saadi, finger hovering across the page. ‘‘… wishing that one day he would be just as brave… just as strong… just as fearless’’.
‘The Little Pronghorn’ is the sixth chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.
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