Wednesday, 11 April 2007
CHAPTER THIRTEENWhen it is time for the crane to come down it disassembles its own mast.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I say. Then I shout it. ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME.’
Granny isn’t sitting down. She is standing by the window gazing out at the cranes. I can’t see her face properly.
I say, quite gently, as if I was the grown-up and she the child. ‘Why don’t you sit down granny? You’re making me feel giddy,’
Immediately I wish I hadn’t. I don’t like to see granny sitting there on the edge of the sofa, looking like - well, not like granny. Biting her nails. And then taking them out of her mouth, looking at them angrily and sitting on her hands for a moment as if to control them. At last she pulls a packet of cigarettes out of her .bag. I knew she smoked sometimes. But she’s never smoked in our flat before -. now she takes out a lighter too and lights a cigarette and pulls on it gratefully. I fetch a saucer from the kitchen for her to use as an ashtray. I know my mother. .
Actually I am glad of an excuse to be out of the room for a moment. I have a lot of things to get used to. Not just what my grandmother is telling me. I’ve seen a lot of different versions of her before angry, nice, funny, distant, grannies: I’ve grown used to her many different selves, some of them nicer to know than others. It is part of her being a real person, rather than ‘I’ve got to be nice patient person because I’m a grandmother’ kind of stuff,’ which was what my other grandmother, used to be like, the one that’s dead now.
(‘Maybe that’s why she’s dead,’ Trace said when we were talking about grandmothers once. ‘She doesn’t sound cool, not like you’re other one. ‘Yeah, Granny is cool,’ I said. ‘My other granny wasn’t for sure, I don’t think that’s why she’s dead.’)
But this isn’t cool granny. This was one is the opposite of cool; not the granny I know at all. More like granny’s identical twin, perhaps. Like a wrinkled baby. (I’d don’t think I’ve ever noticed before how many wrinkles granny has.)
‘And you believed them?’ I say. ‘They told you you’d killed Ella and you believed them? Rahilah was a twin. Her mother told her she was the blessed one, because she lived. And they told you that?’
How could anyone be so stupid I am thinking? How could anyone think an unborn baby could kill another unborn baby in any proper sense of killing? How could anyone even say it?
‘Alright,’ I say. ‘So you were the bigger and stronger twin and when you were in the womb you so squashed Ella she was born weak and died after a few days?’ (This is the rough, very rough version, of what granny just told me.)
‘So who’s fault was that?’ I say, ‘How could a foetus know what it was doing?’
Granny flinched still more at the word ‘foetus.’ As if it was a word I shouldn’t know. But how can I not know it with all that anti-abortion stuff around? (The pro-life people have got a lot to answer for - giving teenage girls nightmares, Trace says.)
‘Of course I know that now,’ Granny says. ‘Of course I know that NOW. But I didn’t know it for a long time and I didn’t want that happening to you. I didn’t want you grieving the way I did.’
‘For Ella?’ I say.
Granny hesitates. ‘For my twin,’ she says. ‘Ella. They gave me her name too. Or rather added it to mine. Ellanora.’’
‘But you’re Nora,’ I say stupidly. ‘Not Ellanora. That’s a stupid name.’
‘Yes. I’ve always left the first bit off. ‘
‘Ellanora, “ I say wonderingly, sadly. ‘Ellanora.’ And again, angrily. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Why should I have told you,’ Granny says, suddenly almost angry herself. “It wasn’t any of your business. Or anyone’s business for that matter. Except mine.’
‘And Ella’s,’ I say.
‘There was no Ella. There is no Ella. She’s dead,’ answers Granny. She stubs out her cigarette and lights another one. I open the window,
But it wasn’t like that for me was it?’ I say, when I sit down again. ‘My twin was only there in the beginning: then disappeared. It happens to lots of people. It doesn’t mean anything.’
‘No.’ granny says ‘No. Maybe not.’ She looks at the open window. ‘I’m cold, Esther.’
I go and shut the window again. Outside the cranes are swinging as usual. I can see one driver in his little cabin. It seems like a dream that I was up there too, high as that. It was a dream: in a way.
‘And you really think Mum would have told me what your mum told you? That it was ..’
I couldn’t say, won’t say, ‘my fault’. It wasn’t. For a sudden moment I am so angry I want to scream out loud. With mum and granny, both.
‘No, not really. Of course not,’ whispers Granny.
‘Why didn’t she tell me I had a twin that disappeared then?’
‘I suggested she didn’t,’ Granny says.
‘And mum always does what you tell her?’
Neither of us answer. (And actually when I’ve calmed down, and thought about it all, there doesn’t seem any reason Mum should have told me. My twin wasn’t such a big deal, really, we hadn’t spent nine months alongside each other in the womb; he or she’d been gone before I was a real person; it was kind of curious, interesting, not much else. OK I was almost a twin, OK, but so are millions of people, Granny said. Nor should Mum have told me about Granny if Granny really hadn’t wanted her to. It was granny’s private secret. Maybe if Mum had known about the Ella stuff she would have told me. But Ella hadn’t put messages on her mobile, Mum never knew who my imaginary friend was; or that lately she’d come back.) None of this means I felt like forgiving either of them. I still don’t.
‘Did mum know that you were called your name and your twin’s both? Ella and Nora?’
‘Why should she?’ Granny says. ‘She wouldn’t even have known I had a twin if her grandmother, my mother, hadn’t told her. And my twin’s name never was Ella, officially. She wasn’t registered, christened her, she didn’t have a name – they said that was my fault too, and that babies who hadn’t been christened went to hell. I don’t know why they added her name – the one they’d meant for her– to mine. But they did.’
Everything comes back to Granny. It is such a terrible story she is telling me that I shouldn’t be angry with her. But I am.
‘You should have told me,’ I say in a little hard voice that I don’t recognise as my own.
‘I know,’ she replies in a voice so small, so desolate, I don’t recognise it as hers, either. And she adds. ‘But then I thought you did know after all. When the messages from Ella came from your phone I thought – I thought….’
‘And you thought I could do anything like that?
‘I must have done, mustn’t I.’ she says. ‘What other reason could there be?’
She has a point. What other reason could there be? Ella came out of my head didn’t she? Didn’t she?
‘Gross,’ I say. ‘Gross, Granny. Creepy.’ And at this we look at each other at last and each of us shudder a bit, and each of us shakes our head.
We’re sitting side by side on the sofa now. I don’t know where mum is. She’s being tactful, I daresay, just like mum. I rather wish she wasn’t. I tell granny about Jay then. ‘He’s going to be alright,’ I say. ‘They hit him on the head. They tried to burn his hair off. I know he’d been teasing them. But he didn’t deserve that. They called him a terrorist.’
Granny sighs at this.
I say. ‘A girl rang me on my mobile to tell me. To gloat. So I had her number, Trace and I went to the headmistress and told her the number and the police found out who it was. And when they talked to her she was so frightened she told them about Frankie. He’s gone now. He’s not going back to school. I think he’s been put into detention of some sort.’
‘Poor kid,’ says Granny. ‘I wonder what hell he came out of?’
‘Poor kid? That bully? What about Jay?’ I remember Rahilah too. I am not, not, not, going to feel sorry for Frankie or any of them. Without Frankie the rest of them seem quite normal. But I don’t want anything to do with them even so. ‘He has a horrible mum,’ I say. ‘But so what? So do lots of people. Jay could have died,’ I say. ‘Would you still feel sorry for him then?’
‘Even more sorry for him, possibly,’ Granny says.
I shrug in disbelief. Granny doesn’t hug me the way she used to, I wouldn’t let her hug me now, but she does let my hand lie quietly on hers; her old hand, wrinkled and spotted. It feels very cold. It’s not only Frankie I’m never going to be able to forgive, I think. It’s Granny too, in a way. Not the Granny I knew anyway. Not the one who didn’t tell me what I needed to know.
‘You’re so sad, Granny,’ I say scornfully. Granny doesn’t answer. But she doesn’t stop touching my hand. . ‘Poor Ella,’ I say then. And suddenly, no matter what, this new Granny and I find ourselves sitting there together crying for someone who never lived properly, never had a life, never had a chance to know or be known by anyone. Someone who lived side by side with Granny for 9 months in their mother’s womb. Did it matter? Does it matter? Probably not. But then why, suddenly, almost holding, touching hands, are we both so full of grief?
I don’t know what Granny is thinking. I only know that she gives me my hand back after a while like she is giving me a present. And that we keep on sitting there her and me, side by side, weeping our eyes out. While outside the window the cranes keep on making their wheeling conversations.
(They haven’t much time left to talk together now, though. If they’ve things still to say they’ve got to say them soon. Soon the buildings will be all finished. Soon all the cranes will have gone.)
CHAPTER FOURTEENI still like cranes, a lot. Even though I could have died twice over that cold night, of cold, hypothermia, or of launching myself into the air at that great height, as Ella begged me to. But I didn’t die, not once and there’s a bit of me quite pleased that I actually saw into the driver’s cab and so forth. I even wish I’d seen it better, less doped with sleep, with bewitchment, as I was at the time.
There is no such word as ‘bewitchment’ of course. ‘Outside yourself?’ the shrink they made me see suggested, when I used ‘bewitchment’ to try and explain how it felt. ‘Inside myself’ I said. So far inside myself I couldn’t get out, I’m thinking. But I don’t say.
She’s quite nice the shrink lady. She’s made me understand a lot of things much better, even though she hasn’t a clue really about Ella. How could she? She’s just a doctor. Listen.
‘If something really stresses you, Esther, you can make yourself do things like sleep-walking, climbing cranes in the middle of the night; like sending yourself messages from someone else.’.
‘You mean my getting messages from Ella means I’m mad? Means you think I’m mad?’ (Me: angrily.)
‘I’m suggesting that such manifesting such phenomena mean you are under stress. They do not mean you are mad.’ (Ms Psychiatrist: patiently. We’ve had these discussions before. She’s learned by now that I know quite a lot of long words.)
‘So what’s mad then?’ (Me. Truculently.)
‘What do you mean by the word ‘mad’?’ Esther?’
‘Manifesting such phenomena under stress.’ (Me: smartly.)
Ms Psychiatrist sighs. Then she laughs. Then I laugh. She knows I hear what she is saying – I do too. Yet I still believe there is – or was- a real Ella out there. And I prefer Granny’s version of events, which explains some things Ms Psychiatrist can’t. ‘You were like a radio receiver, Esther, picking up the signals. From Ella.’
‘So you were you sometimes,’ I say.
But either the signals have gone now, or I am no longer a receiver. If they’re still coming they come to someone else. Even so, it is nice to have these people on my side. The shrink lady is cool, I think. Cooler than Granny these days. She feels too sad to be cool. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like being sad for her.
Rashid. He saved my life. He did. If I’d been out there much longer, I’d have died of hypothermia. Or I could have been so dazed, uncertain, I could really have thrown myself to the ground. I know that. But he dialled 999, he got all the services there, fire, police, ambulance. Everyone. Including my mother.
A fireman climbed up to get me down. It didn’t take him the full half-hour to climb to the top of the crane, because he was swung part of the way up on a fire-engine ladder. But it couldn’t take him all the way to the top, he had to climb the rest of the way inside the tower, the way the driver does, the way I did, on the ladder. He wrapped me in special blankets like cellophane to keep me warm. He carried me down to the fire-engine ladder over his shoulder, in a fireman’s lift. I must have been unconscious by then, more or less. I don’t remember any of it. I only know what other people have told me. All I remember is waking up on the ground and finding myself lying on a stretcher, being carried out of the building site, my mother on one side, Rashid on the other.
How Rashid managed to get himself there, for a girl, not his relative, I don’t know. As a Muslim he wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with me, except what he could not avoid, at school. But he did get himself there. Perhaps the title LIFESAVER or RESCUER gave him special rights in the matter. He sent me flowers in hospital too, even though he couldn’t come to see me himself. He got news to Rahilah, and she came to see me instead, carrying samosas from her mother and special home-made sweets from Rashid’s mother too.
There was piece about Rashid in the local paper, as well as about me. ‘Quick-thinking boy’, it said. There was even a disapproving report on Crane Talk (Another Unsecured Crane) that did not mention either of us by name. At school Rashid was seen as bit of a hero. I was seen either as a heroine –or mad. (Trace definitely thought I was mad, and said so: many times. Just the same she was the one kept on asking. ‘What was it like up there, Esther? What was it like?’ I tried to tell her. But I couldn’t really. I couldn’t remember much, to be honest. It’s sad.)
Ah Trace. An amazing thing, but an anti-climax too- she and he took it all so coolly, that it didn’t seem like anything much. Yet it was a big thing, or should have been. A grandfather finding his daughter and his granddaughter: a granddaughter finding her grandfather: a daughter finding her father. The similarity between Bob, the seventh dwarf’s paintings and Misa’s painting was no accident, after all. He had painted both of them. He really was Misa’s long-disappeared father: Trace’s never-known grandfather. He really was the man from whom Misa’s mum had run because he had bullied her. He wasn’t dead at all. Those sun and moon mobiles that he told me about those weeks ago, had been made for Misa – Artemisa - and for her brother Apollo. (Who doesn’t call himself Apollo, these days, Trace says, just ‘Jack.’) What a coincidence, says Granny. Drily. As if she knows more but isn’t saying,
It doesn’t make any difference really. I find Trace sometimes, in Poseiden when I visit Bob, that’s all. Also she and Misa got special invitations to the private view of Bob’s exhibition at MAC after Easter, along with me and Granny. Misa didn’t go. Nor will she visit the boat. Bob says he doesn’t mind, and maybe he doesn’t. Anyway Trace says she will, in the end. ‘She kept his picture, didn’t she,’ she says. ‘And her moon mobile. She hung it over my cot when I was little. And why did she bring us to live in Birmingham. Where Bob and my grandmother lived, before my grandmother ran away. She says it was just because there was a job here. But there were other jobs she could have. Why did she take that particular one? ’
In the summer we’re going to take the narrow boats out, both of them, Poseidon and Mnemosyne, right out into the country for a week or so. Me and Granny, Bob and Trace. Granny says she can manage the locks and things if we’re all here to help. Trace says if Bob gets too bad-tempered she can always ride with us instead.
It’s nearly summer now. The geese have their goslings; they sit on the grass outside the writer woman’s flats – the woman still waves to me sometimes from her window when I cross the bridge. I wave back. One day she isn’t writing, she is leaning out of the window, pointing at a fat-looking goose just below her. And suddenly the goose climbs to its feet and out from under its wings fall FOUR goslings, tottering a bit in a way that reminds me of Barty. The writer woman and I wave at each other like crazy and laugh. She even blows me a kiss. I’m too embarrassed to blow her one back. I pretend I haven’t seen it, that I’m looking back instead at lovely G.S. BROUGH Washers and Gaskets, still standing there no matter what, next to the Mailbox. But I like it.
(Barty walks now, by the way. He started walking in mum’s sitting-room, the day I came out of hospital. REALLY. )
The flats are finished, except for things like windows and inside decoration. The cranes have almost all gone now. I look out at the window at other people’s homes – or soon to be homes – instead. Things keep on changing, but then they always will. Just sometimes they change for the better.
Stuart has another boyfriend now, for instance. A nice one, called David. They come to see us often.
And there’s the Stampman. Most days now he is sitting outside Holliday wharf holding out his hands with the stamps on. Border wags her tail when she sees him. Granny brings him sandwiches with ham and things inside. (He doesn’t eat the ham. I saw him give it to the ducks once. He only seems to like bread. Maybe he’s a vegetarian. He gives the ducks Granny’s cheddar too. But not always.)
Now Frankie’s gone, his gang has split up. Without him noone dares to behave the way they did round him. Better still, Rahilah has come back to our school. She wasn’t doing well at the Islamic School. She wants to be a doctor, she says, her father agrees with that, so does her mother. If you want to be a doctor competition is very fierce. Without good science teaching you will get nowhere, and the science teaching at Anthony Morris High School in Smelly Poke really is much better than at the Islamic School for Girls, Rahilah says. She and I often do our homework together now, at my house or hers. My marks are improving quickly. Miss Key isn’t worried about me any more, which makes my mother happy too. Good.
Rahilah is definitely, my best friend, even more than Trace is. ‘She’ll turn you into a Muslim before you know,’ Trace says. ‘No way,’ I say. But don’t think I haven’t thought about it. Would I have a family like Rahilah’s if I did? Would my mum be happier? Perhaps I could marry Rashid if I was a Muslim. He and I dare to be more friends these days. We’ve been for two walks along the canal already. He is my protector, he says. I am his sister. We don’t touch each other. Nothing is said. Not yet. We’re only just fifteen after all. For the moment we are brother and sister. There’s years and years and years of the world ahead of us, we hope. But I still don’t really know what’s inside his head.
I’d never ask him to come on our narrow-boat trips, for one thing. He wouldn’t come. Nor would Rahilah - I’d love to ask her, but I don’t think her Dad wouldn’t let her. But he would let her go on little day trips around Birmingham canals; probably we’ll do some of those. It wouldn’t be any use asking Rashid, though, not even for those trips. Anyway I wouldn’t dare.
Jay’s hair is growing back. He’s his old joky self again, almost. Though I don’t think he’ll ever be quite that Jay again, he’s alright. We are friends. But things have changed, as usual; we’ll never be quite the friends we were before.
(Oh and one more thing. I discovered what crane drivers do about peeing up on the crane. They take up a bottle and bring it down again. Of course that wouldn’t do for women crane drivers, like the one who still writes to the crane-driver’s message board, the other Ella -if that is another Ella- I have to assume she is: I don’t know what she does. I’m not going to write and ask her, for sure.)
I think of my Ella sometimes. A bit of me misses her - I liked my imaginary friend. But maybe I liked her less when she became so very nearly real.
Poor Ella, I think. It’s better to have a life than not to have had one. I hope she is peaceful now, no longer struggling.
Her last email to me said. Goodbye Esther.
I was crying as I wrote Goodbye Ella, my very last email to her. Life can be so very sad. So cruel, I thought as I sent the words winging into space. They came straight back to me, marked from Administrator: undeliverable mail. I didn’t try sending them again.
A day or two ago my mobile rang once, twice. Then it rang off. When I looked to see where it came from it just said. Unknown number.
That’s it then. Message Undeliverable. Unknown number.
The only place I can say the words now is into my head. I say them:
GOODBYE ELLA. GOODBYE
Penelope Farmer Lanzarote 2007
Wednesday, 4 April 2007
CHAPTER ELEVENBarty comes to the flat as usual that evening. I play with him while Mum makes tea. His tooth has come through – a darling little white thing on his little pink gum; he’s not grizzling any more. He pulls himself up wand walks around the furniture, grinning away, so pleased with himself it hurts. On the other hand he is so near walking properly that I can’t bear it. ‘This time,’ I think, as if Barty’s learning to walk would solve all my problems. This time he’ll do it. I’m sure he’ll do it.
I put a big cushion in the middle of the floor. I pick up Barty, take him over to the cushion and lean him against it. Then I sit a little way away, holding out my arms. ‘Come on, Barty,’ I say. Come on. Come to Esthi.’
He stands there his head skewed round, laughing at me, his two little white teeth quite plain. I feel as if I could eat him. At the same time I am very determined.
‘Come on Barty. Do it for me.’
He does come to me: but not walking. He just drops to the floor and crawls my way.
I put him back. I take his hands off the cushion, so that he wavers standing there. He sits down again, hard, on his bottom. Then he crawls towards me again, laughing. He thinks it’s all a game.
But it’s not a game to me; not any longer. For some reason I’m almost crying. If Barty won’t walk for me, nothing is ever going to go right again, I think.
‘Please, Barty, Oh please.’
He is back at the cushion, still laughing at first. The front of his dungarees says OSH KOSH. (Osh is the name of a town in some funny place a long way away. Beyond Russia? Yes. I don’t know why I know this, but I do.)
‘Please, Barty.’ He stops laughing now. He looks puzzled. His mouth starts going square, a dangerous sign. Is he going to start crying? He’ll never walk if he does that. So I make funny faces at him and then he starts laughing again. ‘Walk, Barty.’
I pull him. This time he takes a step. But then he topples forward. In slow motion I see him landing on mum’s little stool which I’ve not bothered to move. Barty hits his head: hard. A lump comes up almost as quickly as he starts bawling –screaming. I pick him up frantically trying to calm him down but nothing works and now mum comes running – she grabs him up, and as she rocks him looks across at me and says, angrily ‘Have you been trying it again, Esther? What are you thinking of?’
Concern for Barty has made her forget about the need to be nice to me because of my sleep walking. She shouts at me and I shout back and run out of the room, my problems made worse not better. I go to bed, bury my head under the blankets and howl stupidly and loudly, hoping that she will hear.
When I stop finally I can’t hear Barty crying any more. I hear my mother talking to him, I even hear him laugh. I hear my sister turn up to collect him, hear her and mum talking together in the hall – I can’t hear what they say but I do hear the door shutting behind them. There’s silence for a while. Then my door opens. I bury my head again as Mum comes in. ‘Is Barty alright?’ I ask, from underneath the blankets. It can’t have been very clear, but she still hears me.
‘He’s got a bruise,’ she said, ‘but he’ll live.’ ‘Silly girl.’ she adds then; softly; but my head is out from out of the blanket now. I hear every word.
I am still very upset. I feel a bit better after she’s been but not much. And in a while I feel as miserable as ever. I don’t get up for the rest of the day, and I don’t want any supper though mum offers to bring me some.
I sleep quite well though; I don’t dream, that I remember; I don’t sleepwalk. I wake up feeling better, and go off to school not willingly but not quite so desperately.
It’s not raining today; even the wind has dropped. The sun is coming out as I walk in at the school gates. Maybe life isn’t so awful after all, I think. Even when I notice Frankie’s girls smiling at me I don’t think anything of it. They are just smiling at me and I smile back at them.
Everything seems normal enough. I notice Jay isn’t in class, but he said he had a cold yesterday, probably his mum is keeping him home. His mum always does keep Jay at home for the least little illness, even though he’s very healthy and catches fewer things than most of us. It means that today at least I won’t have to worry about him winding up Frankie. Trace seems in a good mood, too. Rashid scrawls me a notice about our maths, signing it Rashidx. Maybe next time Barty comes he really will start walking, Until break-time I am happy.
Even when I see the two police officers – a man and a woman - coming in at the gate I don’t think anything of it. The police are always coming to our school. When it’s not to do with someone selling drugs or something, it’s what’s our headmistress calls ‘public relations’; meaning ‘make friends with your Bobby.’ Or: ‘Police means nice guys here to protect you: they don’t beat anyone up, ever.’ They walk into our classrooms carrying their hats and introduce themselves as Constable This or WPC that and advise us on road safety, etc etc etc. Some classes have even been given tours of the central police station. Lucky them, Trace says. I guess she’s joking.
But these police haven’t come to talk about road safety. When they turn up in our classroom – it’s an English class, our teacher, Mrs Adams, has finished with Lord of the Flies, is trying to interest us in “To kill a Mocking Bird’ a book that is supposed not only to improve our English but our moral attitudes towards Racism, ha, ha, ha - they are not smiling. Standing between her desk and the whiteboard, they talk to Mrs Adams in low voices, while we whisper among ourselves, both curious and scared. Something not nice at all seems to be happening: Mrs Adams is looking horrified. Shaking her head as if to refuse what she’s been told, she turns round, waves at us furiously to be quiet.
We stop talking at once.
‘The officers have something to ask you, class,’ Mrs Adams says. ‘I’m sure you’ll all tell them anything they want to know..’ She pauses. ‘If you know it. ‘ Our silence grows heavier.
‘Did anyone see Jatinder Patel this morning?’ the WPC states, looking around our faces. The policeman standing besides her looks closely at us too. But all they must see apart from worry at this is bewilderment. None of us want to think there’s anyone in our class called Jatinder. If Jatinder is someone we don’t know, maybe Jay himself is alright.
‘We all know him as Jay here,’ Mrs Adams says.
Trace, Rashid and I look frantically round at each other. This is our worst fear, what we’ve been waiting for. I feel so angry with Jay suddenly. Haven’t we kept on warning him? The sun still shining outside the classroom might as well not be shining. I gaze fixedly at the shadows of the window bars in the patch of sun alongside the windows. It feels as if they are widening and spreading. They are spreading in my head, as much as anywhere, It doesn’t matter. Jay’s dead, I’m thinking. I can’t bear it. I can’t. And it’s all my fault. Not just for telling him they wouldn’t mind him because he’s Hindu. For liking Rashid better than him, too if Trace is right. I pray she isn’t.
I reach out and touch Trace’s hand. She doesn’t withdraw it. Just lets it lie there coolly, touched by mine. The two police I see are gazing more fixedly at us than ever. Presumably they are noting the horror and wondering why it should arise so fast at the mention of Jay’s name.
Our teacher certainly notes it. She shakes her head. Before the WPC has had a chance to ask her question again, she says, hurriedly - she’s nice, Mrs Adams - ‘Jay’s had an accident,’ she said, ‘He’s in hospital. He’s not...’
‘When did you last see – Jatinder – Jay?’ the WPC breaks in again, touching her silly black hat with its black-and-white chequered band. She’s got frizzy red hair under it and underneath that freckles. She’s wearing a wedding ring, a wide gold one. I prefer noting these things to her words, which are stopping our world still. I note a buzz in my pocket too – my mobile vibrating. We are supposed to have our mobiles turned off inside school, but you can get round that by setting them to vibrate only; most of us do. This is a message vibrate, not a phone call. But I can’t check messages at the moment.
‘Not dead,’ Mrs Adams says.
Someone – Janice - puts up a hand. ‘Jay was at school yesterday,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t come today, so how could I of seen him?”
‘Has anyone seen Jay this morning?’ the policewoman persists. I look around. Everyone’s faces are blank; even the faces of the girl who hang around with Frankie’s lot are blank.
‘Well, class,’ Mrs Adams says. ‘Well if you do think of anything, if you did see him coming to school, or knows someone who did…’
I shake my head. Everyone shakes their heads. And I don’t think anyone is lying not even Frankie’s girl. I want to shout out ‘Ask Frankie.’ But I daren’t. It feels as much as my life’s worth; as much as anyone’s life’s worth.
The policewoman begs a black marker pen off Mrs Adams. Turning her back on us she writes a number on the board. Then she puts the pen down and swings round to face us all again, wiping her hands as if she’s got ink on them. But I don’t think she has.
‘If any of you think of something, anything, ring me. Or ask your teacher to ring me,’ she says ‘That’s the number. My number. Anything you tell me will be in the strictest confidence. Don’t be afraid.’
She touches the uptilted brim of her hat once more; her wide gold wedding-ring catches the sun and flashes a little. The policeman besides her shifts his hat from one hand to the other. He’s wearing a wedding-ring too I notice.
“What’s happened to Jay?’ Trace asks. What we’ve all been wanting to ask, but didn’t dare to; perhaps we didn’t entirely want to hear the answer. At the same time she takes her hand off her desk away from my hand, and folds it with its fellow in her lap.
Write the number down everyone,’ our teacher is saying now, before WPC has the chance to answer. But she does so then; while all our heads are bent obediently, writing. I write the number in my rough book alongside a silly scrawled drawing of Homer Simpson. And a much more careful one of the upper part of a crane with the driver’s cab, drawn it from memory, that I’d been pleased with at the time.
The WPC says. ‘He’s had an accident, I’m afraid. He’s unable to tell us anything about it yet.’
‘Is he unconscious?’ Trace asks. She is of course a doctor’s daughter. If he’s in the QE perhaps Misa is looking after him. Would someone of fourteen be looked after by paediatrician?
I use such pointless thoughts, I use observing silly things like the police officers’ wedding rings, and the pink bobbles on Mrs Adams’s scarf, to distract myself from the screams that are desperate to break out in my head. I try the Simpson’s theme tune, I try Neighbours and Casualty. But nothing works. As I hear the WPC say, ‘at this moment in time I can’t tell you, I’m afraid,’ I stop seeing or hearing anything; I faint onto my desk. Banging my head hard, just like Barty banged his head yesterday. Just like Jay has, probably, if he’s unconscious. Except in his case, probably, someone has banged it for him.
All this is why I too now have a plaster on the side of my forehead, a bruise spreading round my eye. And why I don’t hear the hubbub in the classroom after the police have gone, don’t see the accusing glances being sent the way of Frankie’s girl, don’t see all the people huddled in the playground at dinner time. I am lying flat on the bed in the nurse’s room feeling sick as a dog and waiting for my mother.
I don’t just feel like throwing up; I do throw up eventually. I hear the word ‘concussion’ mentioned. But actually I’m not concussed: I am just sick with fear for Jay my friend. I’m so afraid I almost don’t want to know what’s happened, I don’t ask kind Mrs Adams anything when she comes to see me. But she tells me a little bit anyway. Jay is unconscious. Someone attacked him. He’ll be alright she says. (But maybe she’s trying to convince herself too of that. As well as me.) I miss the whole school being summoned to the hall to be told the news, and given the police number to ring if they’ve any information. I miss walking to the bus past the patch of gardens near the school where Jay had been found, now ringed with striped tape.
But actually I see that just the same. Mum turns up to fetch me after what seems an age. We walk out of the school past huddled groups of kids who look curiously at the big plaster on my head and then go back to their discussions- most of them are looking upset. I see one or two girls crying.
Mum helps me into the car as if I’m an invalid, wrapping a rug round me. We drive the length of the gardens where the blue and white tape is flapping gently in the rising wind. Two or three policeman are standing, guarding it, but nothing is happening inside the tape. The sun is still shining. The bare trees throw long shadows across the daffodils and crocuses.
Mum sees me looking. ‘He’s unconscious, Esther,’ she says. ‘He’s not in a coma. That’s good news, Esther.’
‘Is it?’ I ask.
‘It means his brain’s not too damaged.’
‘What else?’ I say. ‘Noone tells us.’
‘He’s got bruises all over and a broken collarbone. But he’ll wake up in due course. I promise you, Esther. And the bruises won’t last. And….his hair…’
‘They won’t?’ I am not so certain. And then I say. ‘What about his hair? What about it?’
She still doesn’t say. ‘If you know anything about it, Esther?’ She hesitates. ‘You must tell the police.’ So the same thing can happen to me? I’m thinking. I say, because I’m sure it’s what she’s thinking,. ‘Well you see what happens when your daughter insists on going to a comprehensive school.’
‘Do you want to change?’ she asks hopefully.
‘His hair. What about his hair?’ I insist.
‘Shall we find a new school for you, Esther?’
’No,’ I say violently. ‘It’s all my friends. My friends.’ (Mostly they’re my friends, I’m thinking, keeping my fingers crossed. Despite Mum I’m worried sick about Jay. How do I know she’s not skating over the truth until I’m stronger? What about his hair then? What’s happened to it? Why is he so vain about his bloody hair? I’m furious with him suddenly. And then worried all over again.)
Just the same I’m grateful to be put straight to bed when we get home. Mum even brings me hot chocolate and offers a boiled egg. I groan at this. ‘I’d throw it up again,’ I say. But I don’t throw up the chocolate. Ands when she offers me the portable telly I accept it gratefully; along with the extra blankets. On the other hand I slide out from all attempts to give me a hug.
I make her shut my curtains even though it’s not yet dark. For once I do not want to watch the endless discussions between the cranes. I watch all the kiddy TV programmes instead, starting with Tweenies. Going on to Blue Peter, News Round. I don’t take in one word one frame of any of them. It doesn’t matter.
My school trousers are lying on the chair, folded neatly, where mum put them, not thrown on the floor the way they are when I’m left to myself. I notice the bulge in the pocket suddenly and then, about five minutes later, remember my mobile phone.
‘One message’received’ it says, when I dare look at it at last. Huddling back into bed. And also ‘Answerphone message.’ (A missed call? I don’t remember hearing the phone ring. Maybe I had no signal.)
I go into messages and push ‘message options.’
‘Delete Message?’ it offers. I hesitate for a moment.
‘Read message.’ I push instead.
The message says. ‘I’m up the crane. It’s safer there. Join me, Esther.’ It isn’t signed, but I know who sent it; I know that even though it’s from Granny’s number, it isn’t her.
Afterwards I dial up the answerphone . ‘You have one new message’ the smooth voice says. ‘Press 1 to listen.’ ‘First new message’, says the voice. Then another voice whispers in my ear. ‘You see what happens to vain terrorists. Vain ones.’ I don’t recognise the voice. Nor do I recognise the number when I look for that. If I knew whose number it was I think, coolly, through my terror, I’d know who attacked Jay.
Not that I need to know. I know already. Even if I still don’t know what’s happened to his hair.
With the telly still blaring away I fall asleep. And for once I don’t dream anything, not that I remember. I have a surprisingly good and peaceful sleep. Maybe it’s the effect of mum’s hot chocolate. (Thanks mum. I mean it. Your loving – yes- loving daughter. Esther.).
But I wake up in the end. And then I fall asleep again, and that’s quite a different matter.
Some things everybody knows. Or think they know. For instance: there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that I sleep-walked out of my room, out of the flat, down in the lift, out into the Mail Box, then back round into Holliday Street. Goodness knows why noone saw me, noone stopped me, they all say. For noone did. At four in the morning, even under the full moon, there was noone to see, not a single passing policeman or a single passing police car. (They’d looked up the records and there really weren’t. If there had been they’d have stopped me for sure.) Maybe that was why noone saw me. Not because I wasn’t in the street.
There is also this; how did I get out of the front door of our flat without waking anyone? It makes such a big clunking noise that it’s hard to go in and out secretly. It’s true that the chain, usually on at night, was off. But my mother says she can’t remember putting it on that night. So maybe she didn’t, and that was why it was it off. Not because I went out of the door in the middle of the night, and couldn’t put the chain back on from the outside.
The next question was how I got into the building site; not only is it supposed to be like Fort Knox, it is Fort Knox as far as I could tell. Goodness knows I’ve spent enough time trying and failing to find ways in, so I should know. But they found a hole in the wire fence, apparently, cut with wire-cutters. They assume someone else had tried to get in once. Quite rightly they take for granted I didn’t have wire-cutters, that my hands wouldn’t have been strong enough to use them if I had. But the hole was there, and they reckoned it was big enough for me to have squeezed through. In my sleep?!! Cool. Well, if they say so. But if that was so why didn’t their alarms go off? Why didn’t the guard dogs come running and tear me to pieces? If there are guard dogs.
They can believe anything they like. It’s up to them. I know what I think. I believe Ella pulled me there out of time, calling from the stars. I believe she tenderly put the clothes on me so I wouldn’t be too cold and wafted up out of my window still asleep.
The one sure thing I know – and they know because I told them - is that I came to myself, wide awake on a ladder half-way up the crane, under a full moon, the rungs cold under my fingers, my coat not enough to keep me from the cold.
I don’t think I knew what the rungs were at first. I just felt my fingers curled round one cold bar, my toes clutching to another. When the other hand, the other foot reached out to the next bar it seemed an automatic response. Only gradually did I feel the ladder, the structures they joined swaying round me. Only slowly did I know that the light fingers swirling round me, making me feel colder and colder, belonged to the wind. That the silver light that showed me the rungs I was reaching for belonged to the moon.
Above my head I can see the meshed floor of the next level up. I can see the big hole in it through which I will have to climb to reach the next ladder. Slowly I crawl up towards it, shivering now. Going down doesn’t seem to be an option. I don’t look down, not till I’ve hauled myself up through the hole, till I’m standing upright, both my feet flat on the meshed surface. Then I look back through the hole out of which I’ve just climbed.
It’s a long, long way down. My stomach goes down with it. I reach in terror for the next ladder and cling to it. For I don’t know how long I am unable to move. The only thing gets me going again is the cold. If I don’t move I will die of cold, I think. But I can’t go downwards. There is no way now, no possible way but up. My terror doesn’t diminish for an instant, not one bit.
I start climbing the next ladder. Each rung in turn burns cold into my hands and feet. The rungs are all now I see and feel. This is like a dream –like a nightmare rather. Maybe it is. The only change is when I reach the next floor up, haul myself through the hole again, my arms aching more with each attempt. I am weak with terror. It gets harder and harder each time and the air gets colder and colder. I can see the dark mass of the slewing-unit clearly now – it’s only two or three ladders further up the mast. I pause before starting on the ladder again. I’m too tired to do anything else. So tired I don’t know what I’m doing. All round me are the diagonal struts that hold up the tower mast; they are the only things between me and the ground. I do not look at them. Except for the moonlight streaming from it, I’m scarcely aware of the sky into which I’m climbing. Which feels nearer than I’ve ever been to it, except in an airliner. And that’s quite different.
I don’t know how long it all takes. But suddenly I’m through the hole and onto the walkway round the slewing unit. On the edge of it, hung over space is the driver’s cabin. It’s blowing a gale out there. I walk out onto one side of the walkway, clinging to the supports that stop me hurtling to the ground and look up at the arms above me – I’m the under the machinery arm here with its weights and pulleys. It is amazing to see it so close – or it would be amazing if I wasn’t struck still with terror and dream and unable to take it in properly. I inch my way round the inner edge of the walkway, clinging to anything I can find till I am under the jib arm, near the driver’s cabin and look out under that. The arm’s horizontal now of course. But it can swing up diagonally, like me reaching up my arm. I’ve seen that often enough. It no longer looks delicate from here. It looks massive. Gross almost. Scary. Everything is scary. Except suddenly I’m not scared. Whatever, whoever I am I don’t recognise. It’s just strange. I wish Trace was here. She’d explain it to me. Wouldn’t she? It’s only me doesn’t understand anything. Still. Most likely never.
The only thing I want now is to get into the driver’s cabin. I want to see the seat I’ve only seen in pictures, to switch the switches, pull the levers, make the thing above my head turn and dance and talk; that way I could talk to Ella; that way maybe I’d be safe. Out here I can’t do any of these things. The arm is held out there like the leg of a huge dead INSECT. An utterly gross dead INSECT.
I inch my way round again. I have to climb up a ladder onto a gantry to get to the cabin. Then I have to open a door and climb down into it. I work that out, easily enough. I climb the ladder, and reach the gantry. I look through the door; but at first all I can see is my ghost; my twin; a little white face with hair flying staring back at me. Ella? I say. But it is not Ella it is me, myself, reflected in the glass, white with moonlight, dark with moonshadow. Go away I say, and pull down the handle. But the door is locked. I shake it furiously,
DO THEY EXPECT THIEVES UP HERE? Well, of course, they’ve got one. Me. Except I’m not a thief, unless unauthorised use of lever – or intended use of a lever – is thievery. I hammer on the door, yelling to my own ghostly face, let me in, let me in. Stupid. I look beyond my face and what do I see there? An empty crisp packet. A can of Coca Cola Lite. (A fat crane driver trying to lose weight?) A page three girl, curling at the edges. A tiny picture of a woman with a shawl over her head and baby on her lap stuck to the glass on the other side – the Virgin Mary and Child actually. (A Catholic crane driver?) A picture of a woman with curly hair, and two little boys with crew cuts. (A family man crane driver?) And then the two levers one on either side of the black seat, the dials and switches, the technical stuff. All of it colourless in the moonlight. And all of it ungettable at. The door is locked. I CAN’T GET IN.
I howl and howl and bang and bang. I bang louder than the wind. Ella, I shout. Ella! Ella!
No answer. But then at last, clinging to that gantry, by the locked door of the cabin, I look out. Out over the city with its lights and tower, out towards our MailBox flats – I’m higher than my own window, but I can’t pick it out from the rest, unless it is the lit one, with a woman moving about inside. My mother?
And then at last I look down. Down and down and down. The site rises and falls like the sea below me. If I bent my head under the strut and stepped out I could fly over it like a bird. My stomach is out there already; my light head too.
In the pocket of my coat comes a vibration. A mobile phone starts ringing. My mobile phone – it’s tune is the Ride of the Valkeries, noone else has that. MY PHONE. I take it out with shaking fingers. Too late. The tune stops abruptly halfway through – derderder der. I put out a finger to fetch up a number for myself but before I can do it starts ringing me again, so startling me I don’t know quite I manage to hang on up there, but I do, with one hand. The other, shaking, almost drops the phone, but somehow one numb finger presses the green button, connects it. I lift the phone to my ear. A voice – Ella’s voice – the one I’ve kept on hearing that reminds me of someone– asks: ‘Coming, Esther, coming? It’s so lovely up here. Jump. You’ll fly forever. Jump.’ And then it hums my tune all the way through. Derderder der, der der der. der. Twice.
Humming it a second time is a mistake. It wakes me up somehow, makes me angry. No, I say loudly, to noone; I’ve pressed the red button and cut the voice off. And suddenly I’m wide awake, terrified, shaking with cold, wanting only to be down and safe and home. It’s a wonder I hold on now, but I do, I creep down from the gantry, and sit on the platform low as I can get – the moonlight shadows the bars across there, across me too, protecting me, somehow. I’m behind bars, I think. I can’t fall. But I’m still shaking with fright, and, still more, with the awful cold.
I curl my icy feet up under my legs in an attempt to warm them. My phone is beeping: it’s running out of juice I realise. It’s right down, it’s almost out when I look to see. Frantically I press names on my address list, press dial. Trace first, it rings. But there’s no answer, except Trace’s message. ‘You rang. Cool. Leave a message.’ Granny’s phone. Switched off. Who else then? Rashid.- I’ve never dared ring him before. I’d almost forgotten having his number but there it is. I press the green phone to call it. My phone bleeps and bleeps again. A message comes up. 'Battery low’. Tell me something I don’t know please. Meanwhile the number rings and rings. Rashid is asleep obviously, everyone’s asleep obviously, I’m stuck up here for ever; or at least I will be till I’ve died of cold. Any minute the call will click off.
Out over my left shoulder in the sky I see Orion suddenly. The Hunter. The only constellation I know. His sword is at his belt. Right now it’s me he’s hunting. Where is he driving me too? Where where where. I am quite lost.
But suddenly then a sleepy voice. Who’s that? Rashid, help. I say. I’m up the crane. At the moment it all comes back to me. ‘WHAT ABOUT JAY’S HAIR? But he can’t have heard me. At that the phone, the screen everything goes dead. And I drift away into the sky with Orion, still murmuring to myself, weeping. ‘WHAT ABOUT JAY’S HAIR?’
Wednesday, 28 March 2007
What I chiefly feel when we’re back at our flat is how empty it is. Dad’s not home yet; he rarely is till late, and even at weekends he works in his little study at the end of the hall, as far as he can get from my music, he says. (He should be so lucky: I might play loud rock music all the time. I don’t. Except sometimes when I don’t want to feel too freaky and I play a Jimi Hendrix CD that Trace lent me, or a Manic Street Preachers one I don’t mind either. Maybe I’m a normal teenager after all. But not very often)
Except when I play music to relieve the silence, except when other people’s music comes through the floor and the walls, except when Barty comes, our flat is quiet. I’d never realised before how much we were surrounded by other people’s noise; how little noise we made ourselves. Our empty flat is maybe one reason Mum likes having Barty so much. She has few women friends. She rarely goes out for lunch, or coffee mornings. She helps at the Q E hospital once a week but that’s about it. When she’s not looking after the flat and Barty and me and dad, she reads mostly. For the first time in my life I wonder if she’s lonely. Perhaps it’s having seen her so pink-cheeked and lively talking to Mrs Hussein makes me think like this.
It’s complicated feeling sorry for mum. It’s doesn’t make me feel happy either. Perhaps that’s it, I think -perhaps being friends with your mum like Trace is friends with hers, means you can’t take her for granted like I’ve always taken mine. If that’s the case I don’t want to be friends with her. Even though I’m a teenager and should know better, I want to be her child; and cuddled now and then, at least when I feel like it. I want her just as mum.
Next day at school I tell Trace I’d like my ears pierced, I’d like them pierced, like now. Today, even. ‘OK,’ she says, her voice brisk, ‘Cool. If that’s what you want, Est.’ After school we both get on the bus going into the city, and she takes me to a place in the Pallisades Centre, off New Street. The ears are fine. They hardly hurt at all. That gives me courage for the rest: ‘OK,’ I say, rashly, ‘Now my belly button’. But this does hurt, especially when they put the stud in after. At least, I think, grimacing, at least I can hide this from mum. What I can’t hide are the little studs in my ears that I have to leave in for six whole weeks. My stomach churns at the thought of what she’ll say.
Trace goes off to get the bus back along the Bristol Road to Northfields. And I go home to mum all by myself.
I sneak into the flat as quietly as I can. Not quietly enough. ‘Esther’, mum calls, not once but twice. When I go, reluctantly, into the sitting-room, I’m astonished to find Mrs Hussein, in hijab and all-enveloping coat sitting on our big sofa. She beckons me over at once, takes my hand and pats it. She says, to my horror. ‘That’s good, Esther, you had your ears done. It’s something I don’t understand about Western women. Why they don’t have their ears pierced as babies like us?’
After that how can Mum say anything? She doesn’t. But she glares at me behind Mrs Hussein’s back. She is pink in the face again, and the moment I go out of the room I hear lively voices start up again, hers and Mrs Hussein’s both. . It’s nice in a way. But disconcerting. At the same time I want the visit to go on and on, to delay the moment I have to face her.
I will spare you what’s said when she does finally come into my room. Mrs Hussein or no Mrs Hussein she is just as angry as I’d expected. On and on: how she’d thought I had more sense; etc, etc, etc. Boring. I start shouting in the end. ‘You’re so so sad ‘ I yell. I call her an old-fashioned…interfering.. old COW. And worse. I am so angry I almost tell her about the belly-button. I don’t care what she thinks any more. Serve her right. My mum is so really really SAD.
Just my bad luck, one ear gets infected quite badly. It hurts. Mum doesn’t exactly say ‘serve you right.’ She just bathes it with disinfectant, looking frosty, taking no notice when I say; ‘Ouch, it stings.’ She still hasn’t seen my belly-button. That hurts too though not as much. It feels very odd not to say uncomfortable every time I stretch my tummy muscles. I’d never realised before how often you do stretch your tummy muscles.
It’s half-term now. I don’t see anyone. I barely even see Granny. (I’m getting on a bit better with her these days. But when we do meet neither of us mentions text messages from Ella, and we are still awkward with each other: Granny is someone else I can’t take for granted any longer.)
Stuart turns up suddenly, but my relief in seeing him does not last long – he seems unhappy too. He spends most of his time with Granny telling her about some love affair which has all gone wrong. I know this because I hear what they are saying one day when I come to fetch Border. I even hear Stuart crying.
Stuart realises I’ve heard him. When I bring Border back from her run, he comes out and says ‘Not your problem, chicken; don’t worry, it’ll all come out in the wash,’ and he takes me to have hot chocolate at the café to make up for it. He has hot chocolate himself, to cheer himself up, he says. But it doesn’t cheer either of us much. To see him trying to talk cheerfully only makes things worse. (Though I can’t help enjoying the chocolate.)
Next day Stuart is due to go back to London. But when I come to Mnemosyne towards lunchtime to fetch Border I hear him and Granny talking again. This time it’s Granny seems upset. Stuart says something like ‘Don’t you think you should tell her, Nora?’ (Stuart and Norah, our sister, both call Granny ‘Nora’ rather than Granny; which is confusing with Norah having the same name more or less - Norah is a name that’s gone down through Granny’s side of the family for umpteen generations. Granny told mum that being called ‘Granny’ made her feel too old. She must have to have got over that by the time I came along. I think I’m glad.
Tell who what? I wonder, as Granny answers in a voice that almost sounds as if she is crying now, ‘What difference would it make? It might only upset her more.’ These were contradictory statements it seemed to me. Never mind. ‘It’s such ancient history, ‘ Granny says next. ‘Why rake it up again? It can’t have anything to do with ….’ She dropped her voice now. Who? I wondered again. Me? Stuart says again. ‘Maybe not. But maybe it does and maybe you should.’
‘No’, says Granny furiously, in the kind of voice which from Granny, I know, means mind your own business. I could hear it even from here. It makes me want both more and less to know whatever it is she’s not saying. More because yes, it’s a secret, and I always want to know secrets. Less because sometimes, with grown-up’s secrets, when you do get to hear them you wish you hadn’t. That won for the moment really. I suppose I might have gone on wondering about this conversation later even so. Only what happens afterwards drives it right out of my head.
I decide to leave Border for the moment. Seeing smoke coming from Bob’s little chimney I go to see him instead. He shouldn’t have been there, of course, on a weekday, usually he’s out working on the building site - usually I only still see him in the evening. But today he’s not working for some reason. I’m pleased until suddenly I find myself saying something that upsets him very badly. I can’t think why - it was he told me in the first place. But it does upset him.
I’m sitting on a stool drinking tea and looking at the painting on the walls all round me when I suddenly remember who it was had a name like Trace’s mum, Misa, or ‘Artemisa’. Dunking a squashed fly biscuit into a mug of his sweet tea I say, excitedly ‘I heard of someone else the other day with a name like your daughter, Artemis…’ At once the dwarf shouts at me – worse BELLOWS -. ‘What do you know about her, what’s it got to do with you, interfering little…’ so sudden and so loud, I am shocked enough to knock my tea over. ‘Careless little ..’ he shouts even louder ‘Get a cloth, wipe up your own mess.’ ‘You told me about her,’ I say, almost crying as I try to mop up the tea with a cloth from his sink, wrinkling my nose. (The dwarf may be tidy but he doesn’t wash his cloths; it smells. Actually it stinks.)
‘Can’t you wipe up properly? Where were you dragged up?’ he shouts.
I am angry now as well as upset. ‘You told me,’ I shout back. ‘You told me.’
He snatches the cloth from my hand now. ‘Get out --. lazy little…’ So I get out, stumbling up through the door, over the deck, falling over his tiller. It’s a wonder I don’t fall in the canal. I bet if I had fallen in, he’d have left me to drown, I think, running home, tears of rage hurt shock still pouring down my cheeks.. The stink of his cloth remains on my hands all evening. I hate him. If he is one of the dwarves he’s Grumpy. Worse than Grumpy. Horrible.
I meant not to go near him after that. But of course as always when you don’t want to see someone, you keep on running into them. And I keep on running into the dwarf, even though I try not to, in the street, as well as when I go to fetch Border. Worse still he behaves as if nothing had happened. I can’t believe the way he changes all the time, from nice through to horrible. “Hullo, Esther,’ he says, ‘Coming in for a cup of tea?’ I glare at him. Not on your life I’m thinking. But all I say is, ‘Not now thanks.’ Are grown-ups mad is what I’m thinking? It only needs dad to stay at home all day with his feet up, reading the Sun and playing Britney: then I’d know the world really had gone stark raving CRAZY.
I ask Granny about the dwarf. She laughs. ‘He’s like that, Esther, take no notice.’ Fat lot of use that is. Gross. Not to say freaky. He can keep bloody Apollo and Artemis to himself. For ever. No skin off my nose.
And then there's Ella. And cranes. Cranes aren’t my escape any more. She’s taken them over. The would-be crane driver called Ella sends me emails every day with crane information; if not emails, she sends text messages. Kinky. It’s not even interesting – it’s the same kind of stuff Rashid has been sending me for yonks now. …. I won’t bore you with it again. When I don’t answer she sends me more emails on each of which is just one word: Liebherr is the first one: Pecco, the second. And so on.
I am baffled at first. Then I realise, suddenly, that these are the names of different makes of Tower Crane. And sure enough all the others I’ve ever heard of, that Rashid and I have exchanged between us follow: Comanza: Potain: Wolff: Kroll: Lindea: Comedin: Heede: one after the other. When the list ends she starts all over again. On my mobile too. I suppose I should have deleted all the messages without even looking. But I can’t bring myself to do that. Suppose one of those emails or texts explains everything at last?
Is granny getting such messages back from me? I don’t know. I don’t ask. But one day she says quite gently. ‘You seem to like cranes a bit overmuch, Esther, don’t you?’ But that could have meant anything. She is very quiet, Granny, these days. Some days she looks at me as if she’s about to say something. But she doesn’t. What has she got to tell me, anyway?
This is true: that I spend a lot of my time this week gazing out at the cranes, my ears hurting - the infected one hurting. And what I see still are the cranes, growing ever higher as the buildings below me keep on growing upwards. I see that language of theirs, which I still can’t read, which I’ll never read, that’s like everything I’ll never know and long for.
How do I know I’ll never know? I just do. It feels like everywhere I turn comes to a dead end; like every person I know has come to a dead end. Even Rahilah; who sends me the odd lovely email but isn’t there any more. She goes to the Islamic school. I still go to stinking Smelly Poke.
Yet the cranes go on swinging, turning, talking to themselves, and more and more I want to join them.
I dream about them all the time. I’m going up them, walking along their long arms balancing. I’m swinging with their little loads and then I’m jumping, falling and wake up screaming. Mum comes in then, says I’m a bit feverish, it’s that infection in my ear again, silly girl. No, I say, it’s Ella. Ella whose voice I hear everywhere, on the radio, in the lifts. ‘THIS IS THE TOP FLOOR.’
Is it me, going crazy now. Is it ME?
I get a text message from Trace. Meet at MAC, it says, 12 2day? hfterms boring.’ I think hftrm’s boring too. OK I text back: CU. At half-past eleven I get the number Two bus up Broad Street and down through Edgbaston from Five Ways as far the cricket ground on one side and Cannon Hill Park on the other. Then I get out. MAC is the Midland Arts Centre. I’ve been there a few times with Mum for something or other – plays and things at Christmas, or films, but I’ve never met any of my friends there before. It’s better than staying at home round Mum and Barty for sure.
Hi, Trace says casually, when I find her. She doesn’t say anything much else. But we hang out together for a bit, quite comfortably. Trace looks less outlandish there than she does in some places. If anything I’m the one who looks out of place, a mere kiddy, I think, come to play in one of the kiddy playgrounds, even if I have got little studs in my ears these days. Not that I care. Whatever I look like I’m fourteen. And an aunt what’s more.
We drink coffee in the café and eat crisps and yummy flapjacks, go out and look at the ducks. We ignore the notice in the kiddy playground, under 6’s only; we swing on the swings, go on the seesaw, until some mothers chase us off.. Then we come back in and wander into the gallery by the cinema. A large notice offers EXHIBITION OF WORK BY BIRMINGHAM ARTISTS. ‘All crap,’ Trace says dismissively. I don’t see anything I like much either. A few are so way out I can’t make head or tail of them (one has a plastic doll stuck upside down on a photograph of a factory chimney) lots more are boring portraits or landscapes.
Right at the far end, I notice three quite familiar-looking paintings. In a moment I see whose paintings they are –I am quite sure they are; the close lines, the fairy-tale landscapes; closed and open at the same time have to be the Dwarf’s paintings. They look good here, I must say, much better than most. Also a bit sinister. The wreaths of creepers in one painting could choke you any minute. I’m about to say ‘I know the artist, he’s a friend of mine,’ (well he isn’t at the moment, really, but let that pass.) when Trace says; ‘mum’s got a painting like these. It’s by my grandfather. But he’s been dead a long time. I think he has. Mum hates his painting. So do I. I hate these too. I’m off home,’ she says. ‘See you at school next week, Est.’ And she’s gone. Before I’ve had time to ask a single question. I can’t believe this somehow. If it’s coincidence – what else can it be? - it’s yet another thing seems creepy.
The first thing that happens when school starts, is creepier; really creepy. In our classroom after break-time, Trace fumbles in her desk, then hands me a piece of paper. ‘Did you your Ella, at last, like you wanted.’ she says. ‘How I see her.’
She hands it to me face down. I hesitate before taking it from her. I’d almost forgotten asking Trace, it was so long ago, and the way things are I’m not sure I want to see a picture of Ella. She doesn’t exist. Or at least I don’t want her to.
I turn the piece of paper over. A girl stares up at me, frowning, the way someone in a self-portrait frowns, staring at themselves in a mirror. But it’s not a self-portrait. The girl doesn’t look the least like Trace. Yet she reminds me of someone. Who? Granny? It can’t be. Yet she does - the young Granny, the one in all those photographs, frowning and frowning. She freaks me out. I hate it.
I don’t tell Trace this. I just smile and say ‘Thanks, Trace. Cool.’ (I’m getting better at Trace: I really am.) But as soon as she slopes off I open my desk lid, pick out my atlas, the only book big enough to hold the sheet of paper and hide it away. Not that it helps. All the time I’m sitting at that desk, it’s if those staring eyes are boring up at me, through the cover of the book, through the exercise books on top of it, through the desk lid. GRANNY. What is Granny doing pretending to be Ella? I don’t know whether I hate her, Trace, or the drawing more.
Another thing freaks me out today and the next day: all week in fact. I’ve said before how everything keeps changing; not just places, people too – the way Granny has changed lately, the way Mum seems to have a bit. (The Seventh Dwarf of course keeps changing all the time from nice to nasty and back again; but I don’t count that. It’s how he is.)
But now Jay has changed and I don’t count that. He’s playing the fool. There’s nothing unusual about Jay being jokey. But usually he’s just jokey with us. He lies low otherwise, like I’ve said. But now he seems to have forgotten about protective colouring. He’s being funny in a way that is dangerous, I think. I can’t think what’s got into him. And I don’t like it. And in some way I think it’s my fault for telling Jay that they wouldn’t think he was a terrorist, they wouldn’t hurt him because he was Hindu not a Muslim.
He keeps on saying to anyone who’ll listen. ‘Who me? I’m a Hindu.’ Meaning: I’m no terrorist; meaning he’s one Asian doesn’t have to worry about Frankie and Co. But who says Frankie knows the difference between Hindu and Muslim? Who says he cares that there’s a difference? I bet he doesn’t. (I tell Jay this. It’s one thing I do say to him, these days; I even email him to tell him.)
Trace says he’s behaving that way because he’s so angry about what happened to Rahilah. ‘Maybe,’ I say, feeling guilty about that too. ‘And because you’re so nasty to him these days, and because’ she adds, ‘Because you dumped him for Rashid.’
I can’t believe this. It really freaks me out ‘You make it sound like he was my boyfriend,’ I say angrily. ‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘He thought it was,’ Trace says.
‘Well it wasn’t. And Rashid’s not my boyfriend anyway. He’s not allowed girlfriends.’
‘Is that why don’t you talk to Jay any more? Suit yourself,’ Trace says, and off she goes, after maddening me as usual. I’ve got enough problems now without this one. Not everything’s my fault, is it? Or Ella’s? And I do talk to Jay, I mutter, about being a Hindu anyway. I sent him an email. But he never answered the email. He doesn’t listen!
It isn’t that Jay does any more than tease. One day he turns up in the playground with fake gold rings in his ears – of course he has to take them out before coming into school. Another day he wears baggies and hoodies over his school uniform and swaggers about just like Frankie. I can see that some of Frankie’s girls do find him funny. The bolder ones snigger when Frankie isn’t looking. And Frankie himself claps Jay on the back, says ‘Wanna join the gang then?’ smiling. Perhaps he’s too stupid to see Jay is sending him up. I am reassured for a moment –Jay can get away with more than the rest of us because he is funny – when he’s not being annoying. Maybe we too can afford to laugh.
These are his bigger teases. The rest are little niggling ones: jokes; comments; silly drawings on the blackboard in our classroom – Frankie can’t see these because he’s in a different class; but some of his girls can and the brightest one at least can see they’re send-ups. All week Jay goes on doing it, all next week too. By which time Rashid, me and Trace don’t find it funny at all, we’re getting really fed up with him. ‘Can’t you stop playing about for one minute, Jay?’ Trace says crossly. Rashid, in particular, gets more and more nervous. Frankie and Co know he and Jay are friends, and as a Muslim he’s in much more danger. He starts pretending he and Jay aren’t friends any longer. He keeps away from him in the playground. I don’t blame him. I keep away from Jay, too. Which only seems to make him worse. Seeing him comb his hair sometimes I’m so irritated with him, besides worried, I want to scream out, ‘How can you?’ But I don’t. While Jay just keeps on teasing and touching up his hair. I don’t know which is worse.
Everything is bad now: I’ll list the bad things, in no particular order.
1) Having to stay in after school three times in two weeks, because I haven’t done work properly.
2) Trace being cross with me because she thinks I haven’t appreciated her drawing. She doesn’t say anything but I’m sure that’s why she’s unfriendly suddenly.
3) Jay being so silly. See above. Frankie and his gang like sharks circling, waiting to get him. (At least that’s how it looks to me.)
4)) I haven’t had an email from Rashid in ages; or from Rahilah. Rashid smiles at me awkwardly sometimes but nothing more. I don’t know anything about what goes on in Rashid’s head, I realise, much less than I know about Jay’s. How lonely I think. That’s another thing bugs me.
5) Granny being bad-tempered again and not having time for me.
7) Border walking on a piece of glass and cutting her paw quite badly. Granny has to take her to the vet which makes her still more unfriendly (see above), her paw is bandaged, but has to be re-bandaged all the time because she keeps biting it off.
8) Barty teething and grizzling all the time he’s with us. We’ve had him a night or two to give my sister the chance to sleep; meaning mum doesn’t sleep so she’s cross too. Barty is still not walking, no matter how much I encourage him. (Leave him alone, Esther! mum says crossly.)
9) Not talking to the Dwarf. (See above.) Even though it’s my fault.
10) Ella/Granny still sitting in my desk, I keep seeing the eyes. I keep dreaming about the eyes, I keep finding email messages about Ella the crane-driver.
11) It never stops raining. The cranes look as if they’re standing in a sea of mud. The builders have mud splashes all the way up their jeans. Even the ones I know are too fed up to talk to me when I meet them in the street – which I do quite often. I walk past the site on purpose, almost every day. I wish I didn’t. But I can’t stop myself, any more than I can stop opening Ella’s emails. ‘GET UP A CRANE,’ she says most days now. ‘YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE LIVING UNLESS YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE WORLD FROM UP A CRANE.’
12. And then there’s dreaming. Dreams about climbing cranes. And falling. And worse than that.
It doesn’t just freak me out the first time. It goes on doing it. It freaks out mum too as soon as she finds out.
She doesn’t find out for a week or two. It only happens inside my room at first.
The first time I woke up on the floor by my bed I thought I’d just fallen out. I could have just about. But the next time I woke up right over by my desk. And I wasn’t on the floor. I was doubled over my computer as if I’d run into my desk. As if this was what had woken me up.
I still didn’t catch on? Why should it? It had never happened to me before. I just went back to bed and fell asleep and in the morning I thought I must have dreamed it.
But it happens again. And again. And each time I’m a bit further from my bed. Once I wake up by the window. Next time I’m half out of the door, the next halfway down the passage. It’s the time after that mum comes out of the sitting-room and finds me almost at the front door, my eyes shut, like a zombie; then, for the first time, she twigs I’m sleepwalking
Before that I’d told tell myself each time; I was only dreaming; I just dreamed I found myself so far out of my bed. This didn’t explain the odd bruise I picked up; on an arm, on a shin; a small bruise on my cheek that I claimed, even to myself, came from someone throwing a tennis ball in the gym. I didn’t want to know let alone say what was really happening; it was much too scary.
I never sleepwalked before Ella came back. I do now though, but not every night. Mum is worried about it. She has even made me admit to myself I am sleepwalking, though I don’t want to. She keeps looking at me carefully, asking me if I’m alright, if I’m in trouble at school. I shake my head. I’m fine, I say.
(I wake up cold, when I’ve been walking. When I dream in bed, I wake up too hot. One morning at breakfast Dad explains that I’m too cold or too hot, because of thermo-regulation – which automatically cools your body or heats it as necessary when you’re awake but not when you’re asleep. The science master at school talked about this – so I know Dad’s got it wrong; thermo- regulation works when you’re asleep. It’s when you’re dreaming it doesn’t. I don’t tell him. It doesn’t matter. It’s his way of showing that he too is worried about me, about the sleepwalking. I don’t think he knows how not to talk like this.)
Mum has even told Granny about it. Granny thinks she should talk to me now, but I don’t want to talk to her. In particular I don’t want to talk about Ella. But she does. She calls me in each day when I take Border back. But I say I’m in a hurry and won’t stop. One day – is this my mother’s doing? - she comes to the flat, and tries to sit me down in the sitting-room while my mother brings us tea. It is just like a tea party – very polite. I am polite. At first. This isn’t the Granny I know, she is polite too, and anxious, and doesn’t seem sure what to say. Her hands pick up her cup and put it down again. Her hands look older than the rest of her I’ve always thought – mottled with liver spots and with veins that stand out like water pipes. But all of her looks old to me today. See if I care.
Each time she tries talking to me about Ella I stonewall her – this is the politer way of saying I shut her up. ‘Why should I want to talk about my imaginary friend?’ I ask. ‘I grew out of her years ago.’ When she’s tried once too often, I snap. I say ‘Has your boyfriend walked out on you Granny?’ (I think this is possible, he never seems to be around any more. If he ever was.) She flushes at this point. ‘Don’t be offensive, Ella.’ Then realises what she’s said and changes it to ‘Esther.’ in a flustered way. ‘Are you sure you didn’t mean Ella?’ I say nastily. (She’d had been mean to me for a while, I remember. So it is my turn.)
Once as far as my grandmother was concerned I could do no wrong – and vice versa. Now it seems I can do no right. She still seems to want to do right by me; she’s trying very hard now, but she doesn’t know how to any more. She’s too old I think. She hasn’t a clue.
Granny looks hurt at the look I give her. I think she does. I wish she didn’t. One, it makes me feel bad for a moment, two, a truly hurt granny is someone quite new to me, and I don’t like it at all.
It’s a relief when my mother comes back into the room. Not long after, Granny says she’s leaving. I glare at her as she goes out. ‘Hadn’t you better come and walk your dog?’ she says coldly, glaring back. ‘I’ve got other things to do this morning.’ It’s a relief to hear her sounding more like normal, sometimes stroppy Granny. She also looks a bit less old from behind.
My mother makes to follow her. Then, glancing at me, she stays just where she is. She sighs when we hear the front door close at last.
‘You two,’ she says in an exasperated way. ‘I don’t know which of you is worst, my daughter or my mother.’
‘Why does she have to be so nosy?’ I ask.
‘You used to be pretty nosy with her,’ my mother says.
‘I’m going to take Border out,’ I say. But when I get to the Gas Street Basin, Border is tied up outside Poseidon, there’s no sign of Granny or the Dwarf for that matter.
I find Trace outside on the other side of the pontoon, coming out of Bob’s boat. She’s carrying a package under one arm.
‘I found out where he lives and came to see his pictures, and to show him Misa’s.’ is all she says. ‘
‘I thought you didn’t like them, Trace.’ I say.
‘I don’t, I hate them. I just wanted to find out if he’d painted Misa’s.’
‘Did he?’ I ask.
‘He wasn’t saying.’ But nor is she saying anything either. Her face is tight. When she sees where I am going she sets off in the other direction. It would have made much more sense for her to get to the bus by going my way, with me.
Does nobody like me any more?
Not even the crane driver seems to likes me. I run into him just one more time.
He keeps looking round to see if his gaffer’s there. ‘Want to get me in trouble do you?’ he asks me, his voice very unfriendly.
‘No.’ I say. I point to the notice under which he’s standing. GUARD DOGS ON SITE. ‘Does anyone ever try to break into the site at night. Do the dogs get them?’
‘What dogs? That’s just to scare people. Mind you, the fence’s hard enough to get over. I’ve heard of wire-cutters used on some sites, but that’s never happened here, not I know of.’ He looks at me then suspiciously. ‘You’ve not got daft ideas have you?
“Of course not,’ I lie. ‘I’ve just got a story to write for school that’s all.’
‘Oh a story,’ he says. ‘That’s it, is it? Nothing wrong with that, that’s all, just goo and write it.’
He doesn’t even say goodbye. He laughs at me and goes back into the site. Even if his boots are as muddy, his donkey jacket hasn’t got a mark on it, unlike the faded and dusty overalls of most of the other site workers, working on the ground. Only their plastic hats look new and shiny. The hats on a building-site always do look new and shiny, unlike the working clothes.
Next morning at school, Jay turns up with a gold earring just like Frankie’s. He even turns up in class with it. Trace passes him a note, which he passes on to me and Rashid. ‘What’s the new look, Jay?’ she writes. The glare she throws him at the same time makes it clear she’s not giving him a compliment.
‘I’m starting a rap club,’ Jay has written underneath.
I add, ‘You can do better than that, Jay.’ I don’t look at him. Rashid adds nothing, but he smiles at me as he hands the note back to Jay; for the first time in ages it’s one of his melting smiles that turn my stomach over, and that I haven’t had enough of lately. Jay intercepts it – he also intercepts the smile I give back – Rashid has made me feel better for a moment. Trace heaves a sigh as if she’s fed up with the lot of us. But I’m sure she’s just as worried for Jay as I am – as Rashid is.
Doorey comes in then and makes Jay take the earring out. But it’s back in his ear at the end of the day. Worse still I see him walking round the playground with Frankie, who is holding his arm and talking to him urgently, smiling what looks to me a very dangerous smile. Jay looks small besides Frankie, stocky as he is.
‘He’ll have a flat-top next,’ Trace says, sarcastically. ‘I guess it’s about time he got himself a new hairstyle.’
I bet she wishes she hadn’t said that. But worried as we were for Jay, how could any of us have guessed?
Wednesday, 21 March 2007
The thing about border terriers is that their necks are quite thick relative to their heads. If you tightened their collars till they really couldn’t slip them, they’d choke. Even loose, though, it isn’t easy to slip them– for sure Border doesn’t slip hers as often she’d like. I don’t worry about it, not even now, as she gets more and more excited, jumping up, yelping, pulling harder and harder. The cleaner’s paper and cellophane packet is swinging too, wildly. I’m too busy craning my neck round the rising walls of the new flats to see the bottom of the cranes where the ladders start to notice. I only notice when the lead goes slack: when shouts start up all round me.
I look down at an empty collar. And up again to see my dog squeeze through the gap between the gatepost and the gate that a man is closing –not quickly enough –behind the empty dumper truck. The next moment, she’s inside, running, dodging heaps of iron bars and stacks of breeze blocks, haring round walls and deep pits where they’re still laying new foundations. One of the builders, wearing a brown macintosh jacket and an orange helmet is less scruffy than the others - only his boots are muddy. His mouth is wide open, his face red, his nose redder; he is bellowing something at me. ‘I except she’s after a rat,’ I shout back. Advancing right up to me, pushing red face up against mine, the man in the brown jacket hisses. ‘I don’t care if she’s after an elephant: GET HER BACK.’
Obediently, I shout her name - through the gate – they won’t let me go any further. ‘Border! BORDER!’ I know it’s hopeless. Once Border gets the whiff of a mouse, let alone a rat, she doesn’t listen to anyone. It’s one of the things I like about her. She has a free spirit. I see men all over the site trying to catch her, running, stumbling, calling, arms out. But she dodges them easily, sniffs busily away as if nothing in the world exists for her now except the rat or whatever it is. Probably it doesn’t: she’s more like a cat than a dog for concentration. (Not like me for sure – concentrate, Esther, I’m always being told.) I see another small group of builders watching the action, just inside the gate. Are they laughing? I think they might be laughing- laughing all the more as the man in the mackintosh jacket grows angrier. Among them, in a red helmet, redder than his beard, I notice Bob. I see him turning and winking at me.
‘You’ll never catch her.’ I say to mackintosh man. ‘She only listens to me when she gets like this. And not even me, always.’ He just growls back at me. one builder has fallen flat on his face by this time, and another has fallen into a large hole. Luckily he just climbs out, doesn’t seem to have hurt himself. Bob comes out of the gate. ‘You’ll have to let her in, there’ he says nodding his head at me. ‘Noone else can catch her. She’s a bugger is Toilet Brush.’ ‘Bugger’ is a word I’m not supposed to know; nor any of the words mackintosh man let’s fly now. But I do of course. You should hear the kids at Anthony Morris, Smelly Poke.
‘She’s not ‘Toilet Brush,’ I yell at Bob. As usual he takes no notice. He’s another one just like Border. ‘She’s just a kid,’ the donkey-jacket man is shouting to anyone prepared to listen, ‘Noone unauthorised is allowed on site. And a kid! It’s not safe. Health and Safety wouldn’t have it.’
‘Border isn’t authorised,’ I mutter to myself. By this time two more builders have fallen over, and Border has vanished all together; with all those new little walls in the way, no wonder. I can hear her yelping the way she does when she’s found a mouse or something. But that’s it. Noone is running any more. They’re all walking round, eyes on the ground looking for her. Bob says again to mackintosh man. ‘You’ll have to let her in.’
The bossman – I assume mackintosh man is the bossman– glowers at him, rips out another string of forbidden words, shouts something at another man. Who laughs, takes off his –yellow – helmet, and hands it over. Unceremoniously the donkey-jacket man jams it on my head. Crooked. Bob very kindly reaches over and straightens it.
‘You’d better get her then. And be quick about it,’ the man says, then mutters, ‘Health and Safety’d murder me for this, the bustins.’ (The looks on faces all around suggest to me they’d love Health and Safety to murder him. I know I would.) I go in through the wire gate now, a little uncertainly, followed closely by Bossman and Bob. I mean to hand mum’s jacket in the cleaners bag to Bob, but I forget in all the excitement; at being here at last, inside the building site.
I still can’t see Border. I can’t hear her any more either She’s quite disappeared down some hole or other. I run around, the jacket swinging awkwardly, yelling her name, tripping over this and that, slipping on muddy patches in my turn. It’s not too long – I’m not aware of going there on purpose, but I daresay I do– before I find myself standing under the widespread legs of one of the cranes. This is the nearest I’ve got to a crane in my whole life. ‘Cool’, I think, peering upwards.
I can see just where the ladder starts. It wouldn’t be difficult to put my foot on it; to start climbing upwards, still clutching the cleaner’s bag. I have forgotten Bob and Bossman, close behind me. I have almost forgotten that I’m supposed to be catching Border. As I adjust my unfamiliar and too big helmet, I hear Boss man saying nastily – he makes me jump - ‘I suppose that bloody dog can climb can she? I suppose she’s after a rat up there. Get out of it. Get on with it.’ Bob winks at me. ‘Go on, man,’ he urges me. ‘Go on.’ Is urging me to climb? Cool. And cooler. Maybe not. Reluctantly I move backwards. And yell again, obediently. ‘BORDER’
Excited yelps. I head towards them, dropping mum’s jacket. And suddenly there she is at my feet grinning and panting. When mackintosh Bossman bends down to grab her, she eludes him, runs off again, he almost pitches head-forward into the mud. I wish he had done. I can hear him swearing still more as I run after her. In a moment she’s waiting for me again, her head turned my way, her tongue out, panting, her sides heaving. When I pick her up she makes no fuss, just licks my face.
We are escorted from the site by Bossman (furious) and Bob (slyly grinning into his big beard and carrying, though I don’t notice yet, mum’s jacket.) The moment we are out of the gate, the yellow helmet is snatched off my head.
‘You dare,’ Bossman says, ‘You dare let that animal anywhere near my site again, I’ll shoot her. I’ll wring her neck,’ he amends, as if realising suddenly there’s unlikely to be a gun available. ‘And yours.’ Bob winks again and hands over the jacket still on its wire hanger, though the bag’s all rucked-up and split, the sleeves of the jacket muddy. Bossman, followed by Bob, goes inside the gate and slams it shut. As Border and I head for home, Border on her lead, me frantically scrubbing at the mud on the jacket, I look back once. A line of builders inside the fence are staring after us, grinning. Some of them even look as if they are clapping.
(I’m in BIG TROUBLE at home of course. I’m sent straight back to the cleaners with the bag. I’m going to have to pay for the jacket to be re-cleaned out of my allowance. At this moment, really, it almost seems worth it.)
Cheered by my adventure in the building site, I send a long email to Rashid, the first in ages. Writing – remembering – brings everything back clearly. (Remembering always makes me live things much more fully than at the time. I think this is sad. I tried to explain to Granny once how my time rushes by too fast, but she only laughed and said; ‘At your age? that’s nothing! Just wait till you’re old!’)
I remember for instance; what it felt like being right under the spread white legs of the cranes. How much higher the top seemed from there, looking up through the platforms, up through all the sections of ladder. Higher than it ever seemed away from them, or even from high up, out of my window.
“It makes you feel really small,’ I write to Rashid, ‘The smallest thing in the whole world. Yet if you once got in there it would be easy enough, even if you’re not very tall. The rungs aren’t far apart and there’s a hole in each platform you get to, which looks easy enough to climb up on.
I have to go back down past the site next day to fetch mum’s recleaned jacket. I glance at the site sideways as I pass it, a bit embarrassed in case someone recognises me. Without Border, noone seems to. But a little way down Holliday Street, I run into another builder. He does recognise me.
‘You proper woon’d up old stinker. All us enjoyed that,’ he says. ‘Site manager’s OK, but foreman’d see you out of a job if you turned your back on him. He gets on us all us wick.’ He seems so friendly I dare ask what I’d have to do to get to go up a crane. The man stares. ‘You’re joking. What you wanna go up thor for anyroad? Folk bigger an’ stronger than you get half-up, look down, start shaking it’s so high and can’t move another step, One o’ us ha’ to fetch ‘em down then, it’s a booger.’ ‘I don’t mind heights,’ I say pleadingly. ‘That’s what all them bustin’s say,’ answers the builder shaking his head, putting up a hand to check his helmet. ‘There’s lots of blokes on this site wouldn’t go up there I tell you. Not like us’
‘Us?’ I say. You mean you are a crane driver?’
‘Who’s askin’ then?’ he says. He’s teasing me now.
‘I am,’ I say.
‘Well then, s’pose I am. What’s it to you? You want to be one ‘n all. Girl like you?’
‘There are some women crane drivers,’ I say, ‘Aren’t there?’
‘None I know. What’s so interesting about cranes to you then?’
‘I like watching them,’ I say. ‘They’re beautiful.’
‘Beautiful?’ he says. ‘Cranes? Beautiful.’
‘Yes.’ I insist.
‘They’re just big tools, that’s all. Try sitting up top of one all day, the way I do. Beautiful.’ He starts laughing again then. But I don’t want to go away now, this is the first crane driver I’ve met, and I’ve got questions for him. Again Border and I wait, not very patiently. As soon as he stops laughing I ask, ‘What have you got in your cab up there then?’
‘What haven’t I got,’ he says.
‘Like what? I insist.
‘Everyone asks me that,’ he says.
‘I’ve got a flask and a plastic box with my dinner,’ he says. ‘And a radio. I like listening to Radio Birmingham, the pop one. I had a request played the other day. That Darius. I like him, or rather my missus does. I got it played for her.’
‘What else?’ I ask. ‘
A photo of my missus and kids. One or two others.’ He winks. Pin-ups I bet he means. I scowl anyway - pin-ups are worse than Barbie, of course they are. (‘Degrading for women, Trace would say, in that voice which might or not mean she’s sending that idea up along with the pin-ups.)
‘Want to know it all, don’t you,’ he says.
‘I do want to come up a crane one day,’ I say.
The man laughs. ‘That’s what they all say. Till they’re halfway up.’
He leans down pats Border approvingly. Laughs again and goes off. And I still haven’t managed to ask him what he does about peeing up there. Or poohing.
Back home in my room I get up the crane site on the internet. I go into its message board. There’s a message from an administrator. ‘Yet another unsecured crane.’ There’s also a message from someone who signs herself ‘Ella.’ (A woman crane-driver! Or who will be. So much for the man crane-driver saying there weren’t any, I think, triumphantly.)
‘Hey all you guys up there,’ it says. What’s your advice to a gal who wants to be a tower crane-driver? Probably you’re going to tear my butt off. sooner than see female up there? I can't wait to get started. I love buildings, so why the heck not build them? I love cranes, especially Towers. So why not earn my bread and butter working with them? I know the job will have its sucky moments, but doesn't everything?’
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps quite another Ella. This Ella doesn’t write all like my Ella. I think she doesn’t. This Ella too sounds properly grown-up. But all the same it’s creepy.
(If it is her, I wonder suddenly, is she telling me to get up there, to be a crane driver too? Noone has answered her yet. I’m certainly not going to.)
I go into my email. Ella again; yet another message; the first for ages. ‘Crane drivers united. Reach for the sky, it says. xxElla’ And then my mobile beeps and here she comes again. ‘Keep on climbing, Ella.
I don’t know if Rahilah gets emails and so on from her dead twin, but I do know she understands what it is to have someone else out there, just beyond reach. bugging you. In my desperation I give the number to my mother at last and stand over while she rings her.
CHAPTER EIGHTGoing to tea at Rahilah’s is lovely: almost the last nice thing that happens. It’s almost all downhill afterwards.
Mum comes too – Mr Hussein says he can’t expect her to drive me all that way and then come back again later. I’m cross about this at first, but it turns out fine. Cool even. Mum looks really happy, she and Rahilah’s mother get on like anything, even after Mr Hussein comes in and doesn’t leave them alone for a minute.
I’ve never been in such a crowded and busy house. It’s not just all the people, men women and children. It’s also the noise – at least two radios, though not in the room where we are. (From one
comes the voice of a waily singer, from the other Banghra. It’s also all the furniture and ornaments and decoration. There are sofas, chairs, tables, sideboards, mixed up with bright-coloured plastic gear for babies and small children. There’s even a baby bouncing up and down, laughing, in a baby bouncer anchored to a doorframe. People going in and out – they go in and out all the time – have to push him aside like a curtain. It just makes him laugh the harder..(‘We never had any of those Baby Bouncers in Pakistan,’ I hear Mrs Hussein say to Mum.)
There are figured metal bits and pieces, jugs with tall spouts and elaborate knobs on the lids, china bowls, plates, cups. There are patterns on everything, on the china plates, on the fringed tablecloths, on the chairs and sofas, on the walls. And there’s even a kind of patterned, smell – incense – cooking – spices – babies. All mixed up.
And the food! It’s a feast. The coloured sweets and cakes Rahilah brings to school sometimes, so does Jay - Gulab jamum, and bright coloured squares made of I don’t know what (boiled down milk, Rahilah once said, but it doesn’t taste or look like milk.). Also savoury stuff, parathas and samosas, onion bhajies, little kebabs on sticks. And there’s fruit – apples and oranges, but also papayas and mangos. And there’s tea, of course, and juice and coke. Mum and I are made to eat and drink till we’re stuffed. Rahilah sitting next to me laughs and eats much less. But then she’s not being asked to eat too much.
It’s the first time I’ve seen Rahilah without a headscarf. Her hair is long and glossy and very black. She’s wearing jeans and a bright t-shirt just like me. Unlike me she has ear-rings and three or four gold bracelets on each arm. Her sisters and sister-in-laws – I count at least four – there are no men or boys around except two little boys and a rather sulky-looking twelve year old who says nothing – are wearing western dress, too, apart from their jewelry.
Even Rahilah’s mother isn’t wearing a hijab, though she does wear a long dress, like a kaftan. I remember Rahilah explaining saying why her mother liked to cover herself up. It makes me laugh to myself. Her mother laughs back as if she knows what I’m thinking. Then she whispers something to my mum and laughs again. By the look of it Rahilah’s mother finds life one huge joke. Even though what happened to Rahilah was no joke.
Rahilah and I are allowed to leave the table eventually. We go upstairs to the room where Rahilah sleeps -they’ve fitted in a desk for her now next to her bed, with her new pc. She still doesn’t have it to herself of course. Three other beds are jammed in besides hers. It looks like their occupants have to crawl over each other to go to bed. Above Rahilah’s desk are four shelves, reaching almost to the ceiling. The three lower ones are crammed with books – school books, story books: Harry Potter I notice. Also books with Arabic writing. (Can Rahilah really read that? I wonder, very impressed.) . The top shelf holds ornaments – two little perfume holders with long spouts; two little candles, two little patterned plates.
Why two of everything? I wonder. Is it because of Rahilah’s dead twin? It doesn’t seem tactful to ask. I don’t. I am feeling quite shy of Rahilah after all this time: after what happened to her.
“Are you alright again?’ I ask her. ‘Are you really alright? It was all my fault.’
‘No it wasn’t,’ Rahilah says. ‘It was never your fault. It was just those stupid girls and Frankie.’
I shake my head. She shakes her’s back, smiling. ‘But are you alright?’ I insist.
‘Don’t I look it? Of course I am alright. OK, it was horrible at the time. But it’s over. There’s not even going to be a scar, not even where the stitches were. Look,’ she says and lifts back her black hair from her cheek. I can see the scar now. I am horrified. It’s quite jagged, though beginning to turn white, not raised any longer.
It makes me feel still shyer of her. As if she guesses, Rahilah says. ‘It’s alright, Esther. STOP WORRYING.’ She says it crossly. For a moment her face turns bleak. It’s alright,’ she repeats as if to convince herself as well as me. Then she giggles. And I giggle. Things are OK again, just about. Even though what she says next would have made me feel me bad again if she hadn’t glared at me meanwhile, daring me to feel bad.
‘I hate the Islamic school. It’s boring. All girls, some of them so religious it’s boring. And the teachers put you in straight lines and talk at you, and you’re not supposed to talk back, let alone disagree with them, the way you’re allowed to sometimes at Smelly Poke. (I was amazed to hear Rahilah calling our school that. She never did when she went there.) ‘And there’s all that religion. Gross,’ she says. ‘Gross.’ This is a new rebellious Rahilah. But I don’t think that’s Frankie’s fault, I really don’t.
‘Can you read Arabic writing?’ I ask. ‘The Koran yes. I’ve always had to read that. Some people says girls don’t need to, but my father says girls should, just like boys.’
‘Why don’t you ask to come back to Smelly Poke, if you hate the Islamic School?’ I ask.
‘My father says he won’t let me go to a school where you have boys like that. He says ‘it will be murder yet.’ Here Rahilah uses, rather wickedly, the accent both her parents have talking English, very different from her own Brummy. But maybe she doesn’t know she’s doing it. Maybe she talks to them that way herself.
‘You are lucky to be allowed to wear earrings,’ I say gazing enviously at Rahilah’s gold dangles. ‘I keep asking mum to let me have my ears pierced but she won’t let me.’ (I don’t add that Trace has said once or twice. ‘She can’t stop you. I can take you to an ear-piercing place if you like. It’s nicer to have someone to go with.’ Does Ella have pierced ears, I wonder, gazing up at Rahilah’s twin plates on their high shelf.)
Rahilah’s father, Mr Hussein, has arrived home by the time we go downstairs. He is wearing a little grey fur cap and a big coat which he does not take off. He is fattish not very tall and talks all the time, loudly and effusively, (this the first time I’ve had the chance to use the word ‘effusive.’) He makes the room seem smaller than ever, He tries to persuade mum and me to start eating all over again. ‘My family has been starving you, I can see. Muna, Fatima, what are you thinking of, bring tea, bring cakes, bring samosas! You are quite neglecting our guests.’ Rahilah’s mother just laughs and takes no notice. He does not seem to notice she is taking no notice. He accepts the cup of tea she hands him, sits down on the chair next to mum and proceeds to question her closely and precisely about my academic progress. A small boy is sitting at the table next to him now. All the time he is talking to mum, Mr Hussein is feeding titbits straight into his mouth, just as if he was a little bird – some samosa here, a sweet thing or a piece of meat, there. The boy opens his mouth obediently and gobbles up every one. His dark eyes are staring at me all the time. I smile at him but he is too busy eating to smile back.
Mr Hussein turns to me after a while. ‘Your mother is giving me a good report, Esther,’ he says. ‘And Rahilah is telling me too you used to help her with her school work.’ I blush: it was so much more the other way about. I see my chance though. ‘Rahilah helped me,’ I say. ‘I don’t do nearly so well when she’s not there. I hope you’re going to let her come back to Anthony Morris one day, Mr Hussein.’
But he is not having this, not now. He sighs and throws his hands and eyes in the air and says ‘Mrs Hussein and I are both saying, Esther, that it won’t do. Your school has many merits, the teacher in your class, Miss Key, is an excellent teacher. But we cannot allow our precious daughter to come to a place where are lurking such dangers; such wicked boys and girls who can such things.’
My mother is frowning at me. This is clearly something I should not have mentioned. And in any case, it is time for us to leave. We do – with many requests for us to return again soon to what Mr Hussein is calling his humble abode and which is growing more and more crowded as Rahilah’s brothers and brothers-in-law start arriving home.
Mr Hussein has taken the bouncing baby down from the door -people now merely have to push the baby bouncer aside when they want to go in and out. He has the baby on his lap. He is bouncing it up and down there, bouncing it even more emphatically when he has a point to make. The baby doesn’t seem to mind. It laughs the harder, or else looks wonderfully puzzled and solemn. (Though this baby has much darker eyes and a lot of much darker hair, it reminds me of our baby Barty when he was a bit younger. I’ll never see that Barty again, I think, feeling a little sad.)
‘Mum can I have my ears pierced, please,’ I ask on the way home. ‘Rahilah’s are, so why can’t mine be?’
‘Certainly not Esther. You are still much too young. Rahilah comes from a different culture, it’s different for her.’
‘The Islamic school does sounds boring,’ I say..
‘There you are then,’ mum says, as if it settles everything.
It doesn’t. I’ll take Trace up on her offer to go with me to have it done, I think. I really will this time. And I’ll get my belly-button done at the same time. See if I don’t.