Wednesday, 31 January 2007



One thing about Birmingham is that it’s full of Asians. It has, it seems to me, as many mosques and Sikh temples as it has churches. Driving down into Birmingham from above, the domes and minarets of mosque so flash in the sun it feels like driving down into some place out of the Arabian Nights.

Most of the Asian men –all the boys certainly - dress like non-Asian men and boys. Many more of the women and girls though dress like Rahilah, very prim, reminding me of nuns, even though nuns aren’t allowed children, whereas Muslim women often have lots of them. You think the girls must be especially good, much better than the rest of us, thinking holy thoughts when they’re not thinking about babies. Not thinking about pop groups and sex and boys like the rest of us. But then you see them giggling together and after a bit you realise they’re like us really; just as capable of being silly and frivolous and even irreverent. Rahilah is friends with two girls from another class, they’re not quite as strict as she is, they wear dresses and jeans and things, even though they cover their heads with scarves like her. She looks quite different when she talks to them, much less severe than she does in class. I even heard them discussing boys once; who they’d like to marry, who not. (As soon as they heard me listening they stopped talking in English and went back to Urdu.)

There must be some kind of grapevine among them. The day after I’d been rescued by Rashid, Rahilah comes up to me and says she’d heard all about it. It’s almost the first time we’ve spoken to each other outside class and neither of us knows what to say after that. I mutter something about our English homework just to break the ice she starts the same moment talking about a science project. Then we look at each other and burst out laughing and after that I don’t think we feel shy of each other again. I even dare ask her what I’ve always wanted to ask, whether she felt hot under those clothes, whether she minded having to dress like that.

‘Everyone always asks that,’ she answers, surprising me, because I’d never noticed her talking to anyone who wasn’t Muslim.

‘Well then, do you mind?’ I ask.

‘Not really. I’m used to it. And anyway it’s useful,’ she adds. ‘My mother says she doesn’t envy non-Muslim women, always having to worry about what they wear, what they look like, if their hair is neat and so forth. She can put on anything, have her hair anyhow, and then cover it all up when she goes out. Noone can see. Of course not everyone thinks like that. Some women care a lot what they look like even if it’s only in front of their families.’

‘Can you wear anything you like at home?’ I ask. ‘Of course. And I can wear anything I like here. Today I’ve got my favourite blue sweater on under this. It’s got little loops and squares embroidered on the front. And I’m wearing ear-rings,’ she adds, almost naughtily. I look at her admiringly: in awe even. We are not allowed to wear any jewellery in school. I can’t wear earrings at all, ever, except the clip on kind that pinch, and only those when my mother isn’t in sight: she thinks I’m too young to wear earrings, and that ear-piercing is mutilation at any age. (Granny says this is nonsense, and she’ll take me to have my ears pierced if I want, but not till I am sixteen. She doesn’t want still more trouble from my mother.) Looked at like this, Rahilah sounds like a rebel, hence my awe. Thinking about it afterwards, I decide she isn’t as much of a rebel as she sounds. Where she comes from wearing earrings is normal when you’re four, let alone when you’re fourteen.

I like talking to Rahilah in this way. It makes up for the fact that though Rashid smiles at me now, he’s gone back to not talking to me. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, but I am; I’m even cross. I want to talk to him about cranes again. But I can’t; I have to talk to Jay, instead.

I haven’t told you about Jay have I? Perhaps I should. He’s my best friend and I ask his advice about most things. Even about Ella in a roundabout kind of way. Like how you could send emails to someone who didn’t exist outside cyberspace. Which he treats as a serious question, funnily enough: I knew he would, that’s why I asked him. Of course he doesn’t know what I mean by it, he goes off into some story of his own about parallel worlds that he says he wants to write one day. Which isn’t helpful really, not that I expected it to be - I couldn’t tell him about Ella, properly. What is helpful is being able to mention it to him.

Jay: he is taller than me, taller than Tracy but not so tall as Rashid. He’s stockier than Rashid and not nearly so good-looking. His eyes, though just as dark, aren’t more beautiful than Border’s, like Rashid’s eyes. (Not that I could tell Rashid that. Border being a dog he’d think it was an insult.).

Jay’s eyes are not only deeper-set and less brilliant, he covers them with such thick black-rimmed glasses you might think he was a nerd if you didn’t know him. But he isn’t a nerd and I don’t know anyone who really thinks he is. He has straight black hair, cut so it stands up in a brush at front: when he doesn’t comb it down it stands up all over – after he’s been playing soccer in the playground, for instance. He never lets it stand up for long; he combs it down a lot -. his thick hair is the one thing Jay seems vain about. (Outside school I’ve seen him wearing it greased up into in fancy spikes. He has to take them out before his mother sees him, he says.)

The chief thing about Jay, though, is that he’s joky all the time. It’s hard to say anything to him that he doesn’t turn into a joke, even things he cares about like cranes – he’s another one, like Rashid, who says he’s interested in cranes. (Although only after I’d told him I was. Nor does he say he wants to be a crane driver.) His jokiness used to annoy me at first. When I sat next to him in class. I didn’t like the way he teased me - not because it was unkind but because it was boring not to have anything I said taken seriously. Trace is good at throwing the jokes back at him, but I’m not. So what changed that? What made us start being proper friends?

It was like this. We all had to write a story about time travel one day, and some of us had to read them out to the class. This wasn’t much fun, because half the class is too rowdy to listen. Some people gave up reading after a bit, and the teacher, Mrs Adams, didn’t make them go on again. She’s not a strong teacher. She couldn’t make the noise stop, either.

Jay didn’t give up. He has a very loud voice when he chooses to and he ploughed on regardless of the noise. And after a bit people around started to listen to him and then people beyond them did, and it was only some idiots right at the back of the class continued to fool around.

The story was about Jay himself. How he went to sleep at home one day and woke up in the same house but a hundred years earlier. And how everybody in the house looked at him as if he came from outer space and said what are you doing here? Where did you come from? And they drove him out as if he was a mad dog, got into the house – his own house – by accident. And then he wandered round the streets not knowing where to go, and everybody there looked at him strangely as if they hadn’t seen such a person before. And of course they hadn’t – most of them hadn’t – seen such a person before. ‘It was because there weren’t many Indians in Birmingham then.’ Jay said.

In the story a kind Vicar rescued the 100 years past Jay – and took him in and gave him a bed and food. But even this vicar didn’t like it when Jay and his daughter fell in love with each other. He threw Jay out too then. I don’t remember how the story ended. Maybe it didn’t end properly. I just know that Jay stopped reading and some people around started clapping. Then the whole class started clapping. I clapped too. But all the time I was looking at Jay and thinking; this isn’t about Jay a hundred years ago; this is about Jay now, how he feels different because he’s Indian in an English city, even though there are lots more Asians here now. And I knew what he felt like, in a way, even though I am English in an English city and so shouldn’t feel like that. But I do. Sometimes.

I saw him look at me once and I looked back at him, straight in the eye. And I knew he knew that I understood what the story was about. I think he did. We were friends after that. He stopped turning everything I said into a joke, especially when I was talking about cranes. In particular he never turned any of my hints about Ella into a joke. As if he understood somehow what a truly serious subject it was. Even as if he knew it freaked me out.


As for Trace. When she’s tired of joking back to Jay she tells him to shut up. And he does. Joking or not joking, they talk non-stop about everything under the sun: about what they’ve got up to in chat rooms for instance. Not the kind of chatrooms I know about, though. When I tell them the silly stuff I’d found in my kind, Trace shrieks ‘teen chatrooms? – you’ve been into teen chatrooms? – all that junk? – ‘what about Britney?’ ‘Do you fancy me?’ ‘How do you know they’re like that if you haven’t been into them?’ I ask coldly. Trace does get on my wick sometimes. ‘OK, so I did,’ she admits, not quite apologetically. ‘But only once or twice; till I found out what a waste of space they were.’ Her and Jay’s chatrooms discuss the problems of the world; some of the newspapers have them, you can post up all kinds of things and get answers and questions back. Jay says he found one on ‘why Muslim men have problems with sex’ … but he’s pretty vague about what those problems are.

We’re all in Selly Oak at the time – Trace calls it ‘Smelly Poke’ - she would – sitting in the bus-shelter in the Bristol Road, outside the big Sainsbury’s. It’s after school, home time, but none of us are in a hurry to catch our buses yet. I look at my watch after a bit, though. I have to go back to granny’s and take Border for her walk before it gets dark. I think of suggesting Jay and Trace come too, but before I can make up my mind. Jay says - he’s looking at me now - ‘Guess what, I just found a new chatroom. For crane drivers, or anyone else who works with cranes.’

‘Cranes?’ says Tracy looking at him as if he’s out of his mind. ‘What’s interesting about cranes?’ (I thought Trace would say this. That’s why I’ve not mentioned them before.)

“Difficult not to be interested in them when it’s all you see around this town these days,’ Jay says, jerking his head. Though actually all you can see of tower-type structures around Selly Oak are the chimneys at the QE hospital, and the dark red clock tower thing at the university which my mother says is the ugliest thing she ever saw. (Typical Birmingham, she says. My mother hates Birmingham almost as much as she half loves it.)

.’Yeah well, takes all sorts,’ Trace says in a bored voice. ‘What do these crane drivers chat about? About looking down on the rest of the world and feeling superior?’

‘Of course not. They talk about different kinds of crane; how they’re used, stuff like that. Where people have seen them. Bet you didn’t know how careful you have to be stop tower cranes overbalancing themselves?’ he adds. I look at him in amazement. It’s never occurred to me that such beautiful things could have problems of that sort. They just are, as they are. That’s how they seem to me. Anyway I’m interested enough to ask for the address of this chatroom on the web, and he scribbles it down on a piece of paper. And then I look at my watch again and seeing how late it’s getting, seeing my bus coming, I wave goodbye to them and run to catch it.


I walk past the building site this evening on my way back home from the bus-stop. I don’t have to go that way, but I do sometimes. It’s interesting to see it from ground level for a change. I stand by the gate for a minute, looking at the bustle, the heaps of building blocks, the rusty iron supports standing up everywhere now, listening to the noise of the machines, the shouting men. The cranes make no sound so far as I can tell. The drivers’ cabins on top look so tiny from down here. Hardly big enough to hold a man.

A gaggle of builders comes out of the gate now: some of them stare at me. They all look alike to me in their shiny orange helmets; except for one who is shorter than most of them and fattish and has a very bushy beard and carries a bucket in one hand. He’s weird, I think.

All this makes me still later for walking Border. She only gets a short run today. I don’t stay with Granny long either. She’s crochetty– maybe she’s had a row with her boyfriend. (You think Grandmothers don’t have boyfriends? – then you’re wrong. Mine does – and not just mine. I was talking about granny at school one time, how unlike a granny she was, and when I said, ‘And she’s even got a boyfriend, ‘someone else said ‘That’s nothing. My granny’s got three. She goes on holiday with them by turns.’ This sounds gross to me. But I daresay it’s true.’)

Turning out my daypack when I get home, I find Jay’s website address for cranes, and decide to try it out. But first, as usual, I go into my email. There’s only one email – from Ella. But it’s not blank this time. What it says freaks me out; I mean SO freaks me, I leave the website for now. It says – exactly like this -: Cranes. CRANES. CRANES. CRANES. CRANES.

The mast grows itself one section at a time.

Next time I see Granny I tell her what Jay said about how cranes stand up. I’d never wondered that. before. They were like dancers to me. You’d never ask why dancers don’t overbalance; it’s just their skill, the way they are. But now I know that cranes need to be embedded in concrete on the ground to keep them steady.

Of course it’s interesting to know how things work. Yet I’d still rather see cranes as holding their own balance, like dancers. When I try and explain this to granny she laughs and says ‘I suppose there are two kinds of people – the kind who assume cranes will stand up and the kind that don’t. Your idea is fine in its way, Esther; but be careful; it can be a dangerous way of going on.’ Did I understand what she was saying? Maybe I did. I’m not sure though. I’m even less sure I want to believe it. I might as well have asked why I keep on getting messages from Ella. When there is no such person as Ella, I made her up. Maybe if I told Granny about Ella, she’d assume I was sending the messages to myself. But I’m not. I don’t think I am; unless I’m doing it in my sleep. I don’t sleep walk so far as I know.

This evening my parents have to go to the parent’s evening at my school. My father has even come home early so he can go too. I’ve been a bit worried about that. What with thinking about Ella and going into chat rooms in the library and so on, I’ve been skimping homework lately.

To stop myself thinking about it I skimp homework tonight too. I go into my email and get up Ella’s crane message. I reflect on it for a while. ‘Does this mean you like cranes too?’ I write at last. ‘I watch tower cranes all the time from here - I think it might be cool to go to the top of one, some day.’ I think a bit more, then I add, ‘I wish I would. Even though it would be scary.’

Do I really believe that? Or do I write it for something to say? What can you say, after all, to someone who, in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe exists? I don’t believe Ella exists I don’t even want her to. ‘One day I would like to..’ I write. “I wish..’ As if! Get real! But the moment I reread what I’ve written I know it’s true. I would like to go to the top of one the cranes I keep watching. Even though my stomach turns right over at the thought of it. I almost don’t send the email off. Because that might make my wish come true.

But I do send it. Straight afterwards I open an email from Jay saying ‘Howdy pardner.. What do you think they’re saying about us at school…?? I’m your boyfriend? GARBAGE!!! Jayxx.’ I liked the xx.

I should have got to my homework then. I really mean to. But I don’t. Instead I put in the address of Jay’s crane-driver chatroom. It comes up at once. Two guys – I assume they are guys – one calls himself ‘GUNMETAL’ and the other ‘SKYDIVER’ - are arguing about whether it’s better to drive a tower crane or one of the much lower, squatter mobile cranes. (There are a lot of mobile cranes on the building site too so I know about them. But they don’t interest me as much as the way the towers do. They’re not beautiful for one thing.)

The tower crane driver says he likes driving tower cranes because it makes him feel he’s right above the world, in a place all his own. The mobile crane driver tells him that up a tower crane he doesn’t have to think for himself. ‘You get your orders about what to lift and where, mate, the machine does the rest. But me, driving a mobile crane I’m in the driving seat, I have to think for myself, it’s just my skill matters.’ The tower crane driver comes right back at him; ‘That’s what all you mobile crane drivers are, cowboys, Michael Shumacher with lifting tackle. Well, that doesn’t appeal to me, mate. That’s boy’s stuff. What’s man’s stuff is climbing all that way up and keeping a clear head.’ And so on. On and on. I get bored after a while.

And then my parents come home, and then I really do wish I was high up a crane far away from anyone. It seems my class teacher thinks I’m just ‘fooling around’ ‘wasting my potential’ along with some other bright kids who should know better. My parents don’t listen when I tell them we’re not wasting our time, we’re into all kinds of interesting things not just schoolwork. They seem to take it for granted that these kids aren’t as bright as me, let alone brighter: not in a comprehensive school. Whereas if I’d gone to the kind of school they’d chosen I’d have been with plenty of brainy kids, all properly motivated, and all of the same class as me – well they didn’t actually say this last bit, but you could feel the words hanging around.

“Excuse me,’ I say. There’s some kids in my class who are near geniuses.’ I’m thinking of Trace, here, which might have been exaggerating a bit, but not by a lot. (I heard one staff mutter ‘Oxbridge scholarship’ round her; I doubt they’d do that of me.) And there’s two really bright Asian boys – ‘Jay’ I say, ‘He’s Hindu.’ ‘It doesn’t sound like a Hindu name,’ my mother says doubtfully. ‘But we did meet a very nice Indian woman, in a sari. Her son was called Jatinder? or something,’ – ‘Jay,’ I say. ‘He hates his Indian name.’ My mother isn’t listening though. ‘She was hearing just the same things about her son as I was hearing about you. How he fooled about at school, and at home spent all his time on a computer playing computer games, or on the internet, and didn’t do his work. We agreed that perhaps we should both ban you from computers some of the time.’

‘Oh great,’ I say, ‘Oh great.’ Thinking almost panicked – my very first thought, which surprised me – but it was my first thought – but then I wouldn’t get my messages from Ella.


My mother doesn’t say anything more over breakfast about banning me from the computer; I’m not going to remind her, for sure. We have a double maths class first thing, so I don’t have a moment to talk to Jay till break time. I grab him going out into the playground and tell him about my mother’s threat. He doesn’t sound impressed; ‘my mother’s always saying that,’ he says dismissively. And before I can say more Trace comes up. ‘Have you talked to Rahilah today?’ ‘Excuse me? During double maths?’ I say. (The small group that includes me, Trace, Rahilah, Jay and Rashid is always being pulled out and given extra work, and the maths’ teacher never lets us get away with anything. My mother would never get any complaints from her.) I’ve noticed Rahilah looking a bit subdued, but that’s all. ‘Look at her,’ Trace says, ‘She’s really upset, all the Asian girls are.’ Across the playground I see a group of them in a huddle; some of them are even crying. ‘What’s up?’ I ask. ‘Why don’t you ask Rahilah?’ Trace says in her usual maddening way. I punch her on the arm a bit, but she shakes her head and isn’t saying.

She gives me an idea, though. If my mother once met Trace she’d give up all her ideas about noone in my school being bright enough for me. I mean she might get other ideas seeing Trace’s pierced ears and pink hair, which is why I’ve never suggested taking her home before. But she couldn’t think she was stupid, possibly. ‘Why don’t you come home with me after school?’ I say, hesitantly. I kind of assume Trace'll say no. I can’t imagine her doing anything so boring after school as coming home with me. To my surprise, though, she says, ‘OK. Right, Cool.’ So that’s that. Which leaves me nervous and apprehensive for the rest of the day. Suppose my mother is looking after the baby? She might be- I can’t see Trace being into baby talk. And what will my mother say about her pink hair?

I don’t get to talk to Rahilah till dinnertime. She brings her lunchbox over and sits down next to me at the table. ‘Did Trace tell you what happened to Naifah in year 5?’ She asks. ‘No,’ I say. I don’t even know which of the Muslim girls Naifah is, for sure: I don’t know anyone much in year 5. ‘She’s disappeared – she went to Pakistan, just for a holiday, her parents said, she was very excited about it, but she’s not come back. It wasn’t a holiday after all. Her father had sent her to get her married. To an old man. Well a man of 40, anyway.’

‘But she’s only fifteen,’ I say, horrified. ‘Noone can get married when they’re fifteen, it’s against the law.’ ‘So? You don’t think things are different in Pakistan?’ Rahilah asks. ‘You can be married at 13 or 14 there. Or younger even.’ ‘And have children?’ I ask faintly. ‘And have children,’ she says. Some of her friends have come to stand behind her, and they are all looking at me. I am 14, I’m thinking. Suppose someone forced me to marry someone twenty-five years older whether I wanted to or not? Gross. Well it couldn’t happen to me. But maybe it could happen to them. I look at each of them with new eyes: Nasrhula. Fathima - I don’t know the names of any of the others. They look back at me. Then they go away, giggling a bit, as if my look of horror has cheered them up. ‘What do you know, baby English girl?’ they might be saying. What do I know, I wonder? Later, when I catch Rahilah on her own I ask if her father could do that to her. She shakes her head.

‘Daddy says he’ll find me a husband, but that’s alright by me because he says he won’t make me marry anyone I don’t like and whoever it is will have to promise he’ll let me finish my education and get a good career.’

How old will you be then? When you marry?’ I ask. ‘Seventeen; eighteen,’ she says. That still sounds much too young to me. But Rahilah just says, teasingly; ‘I might even ask you to the wedding if we’re still friends and you promise to dress modestly and not shock my family. You’d have to come with your father and your mother, of course.’

‘Of course,’ I say faintly. Though I’m not at all sure I’d fancy the idea of my parents turning up at Muslim wedding and being anthropological about it all. ‘How fascinating to see other cultures at work.’ And all that. It’s how my parents are. Never mind.


Trace, if you ask me, belongs to a culture of her own. All the way back to central Birmingham on the bus I wonder if asking her home isn’t a big mistake, if my parents will look at her anthropologically, too. Not only has Trace’s hair been re-dyed lately, it’s pinker than ever, she’s put ear-rings with yin yang symbols into her pierced ears the moment we got out of school, and replaced her school shirt with a crop top. The ring in her pierced belly button will show as soon as she takes her jacket off. If anything I’m still more alarmed about what she will make of my mother; especially if the baby’s there. Taking Trace to see Granny was one thing; taking her home quite another.

But I needn’t have worried. True my mother does look at Trace a bit oddly, but then most grown-ups look at Tracy like that. It doesn’t last for long. If anyone goes on looking at Trace oddly it’s me, the way she plumps herself down on the ground besides the baby, playing with him like she’s done nothing but play with babies all her life. (Which she hasn’t: One of the few things I know about Trace, outside school, is that she’s an only child; of a single mother what’s more.) ‘Isn’t he a duck,’ she croons, ‘Est, you’re so lucky being an aunt. Just listen to him laughing?’ I’ve never heard the baby laugh so much. His rolling chuckles make me want to laugh too. I can’t think what Trace’s doing exactly; she only seems to be making faces at him, tickling him, which is what I do sometimes when there’s noone to see (to stop him creating, I tell myself). But the baby doesn’t think it’s the same at all judging by the way he giggles and chuckles and flourishes his little fists. My mother is delighted – not only by him but by Trace too by the look of it, pink hair and all. After a bit she makes us tea in the kitchen while Trace leans against the units and chats to her like she’s grown-up friend of my mother; or like my mother is a schoolgirl friend of hers. Turns out they’ve both been reading a book by Margaret Atwood – re-reading my mother insists - The Handmaid’s Tale, about women being enslaved to men. It makes me think of Rahilah’s friend married to a man old enough to be her father; but I don’t say. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, even if I wanted; and I have to hold the baby because my mother doesn’t have a hand to spare and his baby chair is still sitting in the other room.

My mother not only produces tea, but also bread and honey and a fruit cake of which Tracy eats a lot, to my surprise, she is stick thin and never bothers much with lunch at school. Afterwards we go to my room and turn on my pc – Tracy says she’ll put me onto one of her serious chatrooms, as opposed to the silly teen ones. ‘I can’t get those anyway,’ I say. My email comes up at once usual. Tracy peers at the list of senders: ‘Who’s Ella?’ she asks. ‘Just a friend from my old school,’ I say hastily, and switch over at once, but not before I notice that a new message coming up, not from Ella, but from Rashid. Rashid? It can’t be, I think. But it is.

If Trace notices she doesn’t say. She’s not staring at the screen any more, her eyes are going round my room at my posters and so forth; I’m glad I got rid of Girls Aloud last week and David Beckham too. She doesn’t think much of Morcheeba, she says, the group on the poster still stuck above my desk. And ‘who’s that?’ she asked staring at the picture of Simon Rattle I’d put up instead of David Beckham. (I know Simon Rattle is old enough to be my father and older, but I think he’s dishy all the same. Granny has taken me to Symphony Hall to hear him once or twice, he comes back there sometimes. Liking classical music is something I don’t admit to at school. And as for Simon– if I could find a boyfriend who looked like him I wouldn’t look any further.) Trace doesn’t seem any more interested in him, though, than in Morcheeba.
Her proper chatroom of course, is a newspaper one. People are discussing what should happen in the Middle East: it reads very seriously, not a bit like the teenage chatrooms. Trace even adds a comment herself, but it’s quite flippant, her heart doesn’t seem to be in it today. She seems more interested in having another session with the baby before she goes home. ‘He’s such a duck, Est,’ she said; ‘Aren’t you lucky.’ I decide to take her word for it, though it’s not exactly how I see myself. I am in a hurry myself now; I want to know what Rashid has to say. He hasn’t spoken to me for days; but then I know he’s not really supposed to speak to me at school. One thing for sure, he doesn’t look a bit like Simon Rattle. Simon Rattle doesn’t have beautiful dark brown eyes like Rashid. Come to think of it I don’t even know what colour Simon Rattle’s eyes are.

‘I like that friend of yours, Esther’ my mother says as soon as Trace has gone. ‘Though I can’t think why she has to deck herself up in such a peculiar way. Thank goodness you don’t want to look like that, at least.’ (Give me a chance I think; though I suspect I wouldn’t be cool enough to get away with it; not yet anyway.) ‘She seems most intelligent,’ mum adds.

‘I always told you there were bright kids in my class, mum. Much brighter than me.’ I say.

Back in my room I head straight for Rashid’s email. ‘Hi, Esther,’ it says. And then; ‘On a website I found the names of all these different cranes and thought you might like them; it’s a bit like a poem don’t you think?
mobile henbow cranes
knuckle boom cranes
pedestal cranes
railway cranes
equilibrium crane
hydraulic truck crane

He’s written it out like that, like a poem, too. Mobile henbow cranes - knuckle boom cranes, I like those names especially. I haven’t the faintest idea what any of look like. I just think the words look lovely set out like that. Jay wouldn’t see them that way, I think. Maybe Rashid doesn’t either, but at least he understands that I don’t see cranes only in practical terms.. Mobile henbow cranes - knuckle boom cranes.. Unreal. They are as real unreal as Ella. They too might as well be from outer space.

See you tomorrow, ends Rashid’s note ends. He doesn’t seal it with a kiss.

Why do I feel so happy and yet so sad? Trace has come to tea. Rashid has sent me an email. Jay sends me emails signed with xx. Rahilah is more and more my friend. What have I got to be sad about except about being a teenager? - which is sad enough, I know - not just sad, pathetic: gross; not knowing sometimes where your body starts and ends. Really it feels like that sometimes and it is sad: as if something you can’t quite catch is over and done with forever and ever, amen. Maybe that’s not what makes me sad. But something does, for no reason that I can see.


Friday, 26 January 2007



Actually, I do have some friends, real friends, in real time. But they’re all from school, and I don’t see them out of school. Where I live, almost in the city centre, is too far away for me to drop in or out of other people’s houses, or for them to drop in or out of mine. I don’t ask them anyway. I told someone once that I was an aunt. But she just said ‘So what? Who wants babies?’ Which made me feel freakier than ever. Trace did say ‘cool’, true, but she’s like that. Anyway she’s got a pierced ears and a pierced belly button, and dyes her hair pink. I can’t see her sitting about in our flat.

I did take Trace to see Granny once, though, on her narrow boat. Trace said ‘cool’ about the boat too, and she and Granny got on famously. ‘Pity I’m a bit too old for all such things,’ Granny said when she saw the pink hair, ‘Aren’t I?’ she asked appraisingly, looking at me. ‘Yes,’ I replied firmly. She did add that she wouldn’t fancy having her belly button pierced, let alone her tongue. ‘You’d look cool with a pierced tongue, Bella,’ Trace said. (Granny’s name is Bella; she’d told Trace to call her that. I was almost jealous.) ‘I’m going to have a tongue stud when I’m sixteen and a little lizard tattooed on my shoulder, but mum won’t let me do it yet. She wasn’t too pleased about the belly button. But I told her she’d had my ears done when I was little what’s the difference?’

Trace speaks broad Brummy of course. So do I when I’m at school. One reason my mum wanted me to go to a posh girls day school in Sutton Coldfield was so I wouldn’t speak with a Brummy accent; it’s the ugliest in England, she says. So I still don’t speak like that at home, though she’s always complaining that I do. But of course I speak Brummy at school; I have to - it’s called protective colouring. That’s what butterflies have when they turn the same colours as the leaves they live on so their predators can’t see them and eat them; we’re doing stuff about evolution in science just now which is how I know about that. It interests me a lot. Partly because it’s how I live my life, at home, at school, everywhere. I hide my freakiness and don’t get beaten up. Protective colouring.

(The one place I don’t need protective colouring is anywhere Granny is. I spoke Brummy to Trace in front of her. I saw she noticed. She smiled a bit, to herself, not me. Not in a patronising way though: just an interested, fond one. I’m in danger of making her sound too good to be true, my grandmother. In a way she is too good to be true, the way she treats me like a friend, talks to me like a friend, not like a child. My mother wouldn’t see it like that. My mother thinks granny is a pain, I know. I’ve heard her say so to my dad. Maybe she is a pain, for my mother. But not for me.)

Living where I do, I should go to school somewhere nearer, like Ladywood, or Balsall Heath. My mother told me I deserved to go somewhere really tough and awful after I’d refused Sutton Coldfield. But even so she couldn’t quite stomach seeing me in schools largely Asian and Afro-Carribean. Of course she didn’t put it quite like that. She just said I’d get a better education in a school in what she called ‘a nicer area.’ Meaning more white; not to mention more middle class. She had to pull lots of strings to do it. My mother’s good at pulling strings.

And it isn’t as if there aren’t Asian and Afro-Carribbean kids at Anthony Morris Comprehensive School, Selly Oak: it’s just that there are fewer of them. There is Rahilah in my class, for instance: a girl who wears a head scarf and never looks at anyone much or talks to anyone much. She won’t talk to me, though once or twice I’ve tried to talk to her. I feel sorry for her in some ways, but in other ways not at all. Why I wanted to talk to her was because she always seems to know where she is, what she wants. When we are asked to write something, she thinks for a minute and then picks up her pen and writes quickly, almost happily, while the rest of us are still looking round and groaning. Her brown face is oval within its white scarf. She has thick eyebrows that I notice her raise sometimes. I’m beginning to suspect that she isn’t quite as meek as she seems.

There are two other Asians in my class, both of them boys. Rahilah doesn’t talk to them either. But then she wouldn’t. Muslim girls aren’t allowed to talk to boys. I know that. Muslim boys aren’t supposed to talk to girls either, certainly not heathen, non-Muslim girls. Rashid doesn’t speak to girls, though he speaks a lot to boys and I’ve seen him smile at some girls, though not me or Trace.

The other boy, Jay, isn’t a Muslim. He’s Hindu, he can talk to anyone; he does. Especially to me – next to Trace he’s the one I like best, in some ways he’s a better friend than Trace because she goes her own way, does her own thing; I never know if she’ll be there or where I am with her, whereas I always know where I am with Jay. Like me he goes in for protective colouring. Both of us pretend to like the kind of rubbish music everyone else does, for instance. Trace doesn’t pretend anything, ever. Shes a bit Goth: a bit retro; that is she is some days, some days she’s not. Other days she says ‘I’m grunge.’ But she never hangs out with the grunge kids. What she really likes is 60’s music, people like Janis Jopling and Jimi Hendrix, who most kids our age haven’t even heard of. Trace has got them all at home. On Vinyl, she says: left by long dead gran in South Africa, she says, but looking at me sideways. Perhaps she’s not always so cool as she seems. If so I’m the only one who thinks it. Most of our class think she’s coolest of the cool; they all want to be mates with her. She’s the cleverest in our class by far.

In our kind of school other people wouldn’t get away with that, they’d be called nerds, swots, brains. But Trace can get away with anything, just because she doesn’t care. It means Jay and I can hide our brains behind her and so we do. The three of us, along with Rashid and Rahilah are the brains in our class, though noone knows anything else for sure about Rahilah. She has her own protective colouring. So does Rashid, I think. Jay and I have Trace for protective colouring.


Before I had a desktop of my own I used the pc’s at the Central Library in Victoria Square when I wanted to look things up; kids have priority on all of them after school, not just in the Children’s Library. I didn’t mind having to go there. Noone bothered me, I could google away as long as I wanted. Now I only use the library pc’s for chatrooms. Not very often, they’re silly like I said. But someone at school has been going on about a brill teen chatroom, so next time I go to the library for books I see a free pc in the children’s library and give it a whirl.

Estpest I call myself. It looks silly when ‘Estpest enters the chat room,’ comes up on the screen. But it’s a lot less silly than most of the other names in the chatroom with me: SoppySal, Bubbletop, Cyperpot, for three. ‘Hi, Estpest, u wanna?.’ comes back from someone – it seems about the level of just about everything else in there. What’s so brill about it all, I wonder? ‘No wanna,’ I punch in. Bubbletop asks me for a one to one chat then, but I don’t fancy that. Suppose Bubbletop is some old perv pretending to be a teenager? I’ve got more sense than to fall for such stuff. (I know what goes on. My mum goes on about it all the time.) I read some of the other chat that comes in – it is all just as silly. I am about to sign off when, suddenly, I see this; which is not silly at all, not to me. Ella enters the chatroom. ‘Hi Ella,’ someone writes. I don’t write anything. I sit there, frozen, too spooked to leave the chatroom, let alone the pc, though I know I should. I wait for something else to come: as it does come, soon enough. ‘Hi Estpest. How about a one to one with Ella?’ it says. I hesitate. I hesitate so long, the message comes again. ‘One to one with Ella, Estpest?’ This time I type ‘No thanks.’ and sign out of the chatroom, firmly, before I can change my mind. (‘Estpest leaves the chatroom.’)

I go into Google then. I punch in one word – or rather one name: ‘Ella’.

I am amazed by the number of Ellas that come up. Ella Fitzgerald, of course, along with all kinds of unknowns – long-lost grandmothers maybe. But these can’t be my Ella. Ella Fitzgerald can’t be my Ella, for sure; she’s big and old and American and a singer and black. My Ella I realise – and I haven’t thought any such thing before, but I know it for sure in that moment - my Ella is little and wispy. She could be older than me or she could be my age, exactly. I’m not sure about that. But she isn’t old or big for certain.

Ella Fitzgerald and most of those other Ellas are dead anyway. But my Ella isn’t dead. How can she be? Yet suppose she is? Such a thought is gross: creepy. How could a dead person get into a chatroom? If I went back into the chatroom would she still be there? I don’t go back. I try to put the thought away. Scary. I am still sitting quite safely in the familiar teen bit of the children’s library with its comfortable cushions and manuals on looking after yourself and avoiding drugs, and those in-between novels people think we want to read, about drugs and underage pregnancy. (Me I’d rather read about Hobbits, or Discworlds or King Arthur But actually books like that are there too. Plus the Harry Potters of course.) There’s a tall black girl, her hair in beaded braids, reading something by June Jordan, a nerdy boy with a crew cut playing on a Dungeons and Dragons website on one computer, an Asian boy doing what looks like maths on another. It ought all to be fine. But it isn’t.

I’m almost afraid to leave the library in case it would be worse outside. I go back to the Google question bar and key in the word ‘cranes’; cranes should be safe enough.

Cranes as birds come up at first; I don’t want them. I add the word ‘lifting’: ‘lifting cranes.’ That’s not quite right either. To get the kind of cranes that fly like angels above my head, that talk and dance with one another, I have to put the word ‘tower’ in place of ‘lifting’. Words like ‘lifting’ and ‘tower’ sound boring to me. They don’t show how the cranes talk and dance. The cranes are tall, of course, like towers, and their job is to lift, to hoist bundles of steel crates and girders and RSJs through the air all day. But they are so much more magical than that. They are to me. Suppose they lifted things so high that they lifted them right out of the air into the ether? Suppose they lifted me right out into the ether? Suppose I met Ella up there? If she’s dead, I might meet her, I think. But ghosts are dead, and Ella isn’t dead, I tell myself yet again – why do things always come back to that? I dreamed up a live person not a dead one. I know I did.

I shut the computer down firmly. It can’t be worse outside than here: not possibly. I go home to a pizza out of the freezer from Tesco – mum has had the baby all day and is too tired to cook I watch EastEnders, then fall into bed. I don’t dream of Ella. I’ve never yet met Ella in my dreams – or not in a dream I remember when I wake up. I hope things go on that way.


The base connects to the mast or tower. The mast is a large triangular lattice structure. This structure gives the mast the strength to remain upright.

Even though I don’t want to go into chatrooms, I moan at mum endlessly for barring them from my pc. It’s censorship I say. All the other kids are allowed them, I say. We’re allowed them in the library! I tell her, triumphantly,

Other kids are braver than me, I think. Or perhaps they haven’t had their mums banging on about the dangers the way mine does; she goes on about perverts all the time. Not just on the internet, She also, not so much, warns me about the dangers of walking the canal towpaths on my own. But I am much less frightened of them. I’ve always got Border with me for one. And then there’s the Stamp Man.

I’ve known the Stamp Man for ages. He lives – or seem to live most daytimes – on a bench besides the Digbeth Canal, on the more open ground well beyond the smart new flats and the anything but smart BT tower. Why do I call him the Stamp Man? Because he has stamps that’s why. (As my mum says ‘ask no silly questions, and you’ll get no silly answers.’) Whatever the weather he wears a long grey anorak, dirty enough the first time I saw it; it doesn’t seem to have been washed since. It has a hood that he sometimes puts up in winter, and sleeves so long that he has to push them back to show you what’s in his hands. First class stamps are in his right one – about ten, I think – the same number of second class stamps in his left. He always opens his left hand first and when I shake my head he opens the right, smiling. ‘First class,’ he says proudly. ‘First class.’

Sometimes but not always he holds them out to me; he pulls them back quickly if I dare to get too close. That might be because Border used to bark at him and he was scared of her. But she doesn’t bark any more. She just sniffs his legs in a friendly way, sometimes she jumps up and puts her paws on his lap. This one time he beckoned me, and since I wasn’t a bit frightened of him by then– he seems quite harmless, just batty - I got nearer. He motioned my head down; curious, I did as I was told. Next thing was I felt this pressure on my forehead. I put my hand up to find he’d stuck a stamp – an orange first class stamp - on my forehead, right in the middle, in the place where Indian women like Jay’s mother, like one of girls in our school, like one of our Indian teachers, wear little red marks. He was smiling at me meanwhile; the biggest, loveliest, sweetest, yet saddest smile I’ve seen on anyone.

‘Thankyou,’ I said, smiling back. At that moment I didn’t care a bit what anyone thought. I walked back along the canal, Border trotting ahead, with the stamp on my forehead and the silliest grin on my face, feeling like a princess.

Border is my dog; has been my dog since I was about eight. She’s a little brown bustling Border terrier, hence her name – ‘she’s just like a dung beetle,’ Granny said once. When I saw some dung beetles on television later I knew just what she meant, even though dung beetles are black and not hairy, only the dung they push is brown. She doesn’t actually live with me now: we’re not allowed dogs in the flats. (I can’t think why - babies make much more noise and nuisance but there’s no rule against keeping them.) When we were going to move from Worcestershire my mother said we should find her a good home, she wouldn’t be happy in a city. I said they’d have to find a good home for me too then, because I wasn’t going to go anywhere without her. Impasse, as they say. BIG PROBLEM. Even my mother could see that I’d never forgive her, ever, if Border didn’t come to Birmingham. Granny came visiting about that time. ‘I’ll have her,’ she said, to my mother’s astonishment.

‘But you’ve always said you hated dogs,’ she said. ‘So I do,’ said granny. ‘But I don’t like to see Esther’s life blighted.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said my mother, coldly. ‘Noone’s blighting Esther’s life.’ Fat lot she knows I thought, looking her. A blighted life was exactly what I would have had if I’d had to leave Border behind. But I didn’t have to. Border went to live on the narrowboat with Granny. Now Mnesmosyne’s in Birmingham too, the rule is that I have to walk her every day. ‘I’m not being seen out with something looks like a dung beetle,’ Granny said. But this suits me fine. It gives me an excuse to go to the Gas Street Basin most days. Even the days I can’t go, my dog gets a walk or two, whatever Granny says - Border has to have a pee for one thing. Nor does Granny complain about it, though she continues to complain about dogs in general and Border in particular. ‘Yap, yap, yap,’ she said, ‘all the time. Yap, yap, yap, how can you stand them?’ I don’t remind her how she sits by her stove in winter, reading, with a happy-looking Border on her lap, almost making me jealous. Not almost. I am jealous. But not as jealous as my mother was cross, still crosser than she usually is around Granny. ‘I told you, you could do nothing wrong around your grandmother, Esther,’ she complained. ‘I told you.’

Most days I walk Border along the Worcester Canal towards the university and back. There are always so many people there, even my mother would think it safe enough. My walking her all the way round the Digbeth Canal is quite different. Most people, most definitely including my mother if she knew – she doesn’t - would say that was stupid, for a girl my age, on her own. And I admit this part of the canals is a bit creepy in places, especially beyond the BT tower, in the creepy tunnel, which smells of pee. But if I don’t go there, I never get to see the Stamp Man. And I like the creepiness, in a way; it makes me feel brave and adventurous. Also I like feeling that noone except me knows where I am. I like the old iron bridges with their names on neat plaques in the middle – Saturday Bridge for instance. I like the paved towpaths and I like the locks, which lets the canal goes downhill. I even like, I think, the sad fading mural by Farmer’s Bottom Lock, that noone can see properly, because it faces straight onto blank walls on the other side of the canal. At least I sort of like it. And I do, really, like seeing the narrowboats coming up through the locks – not many of them; there are eight locks in this stretch, a bit too much like hard work I think for most holiday narrow boat people.

Border likes the canal too. The whole business of life of terriers is catching mice – or should be if they don’t live on narrowboats . Judging by her excitement there’s plenty of mouse smells by the canal: plenty of rat smells too probably – in fact she did catch a rat once, a young small one, from under a pile of boxes. She bustles about wagging her whole backside, not just her tail, yelping with excitement. And she makes me feel quite safe.

I meet other people walking sometimes – men on bicycles: men with briefcases, in a hurry: nutty looking people like the Stamp Man: sad-looking unemployed-looking men: sometimes groups of boys - Asian boys more often than not. But they don’t bother me and I don’t bother them. Border protects me is how I feel.

And she does protect me, my hairy little dog, the first time I need her to.

One day, in September, a kind, golden sort of day, it felt like a good day for a walk – good enough for walking along the Digbeth Canal. I reached a place I’m glad of usually, the open space beyond all the creepier closed-in ones, where buddleias grow along the walls and geese sit on the towpath. There were no geese that day, only the Stamp Man inhabiting his bench. I saw this group of teenagers – white boys mostly, for once, and one black one - coming towards us, but they weren’t looking at me, they were looking at him and saying things I couldn’t quite hear but that didn’t sound nice. Maybe they weren’t really going to hurt the Stamp Man. But they laughed and pointed and one of them picked up a stone and pretended to throw it. The Stamp Man was cowering; ‘No, no’ came out in a terrible high-pitched wail, giving me instant goose pimples. And then I shouted and Border began to bark and the young men began looking at me instead. They shouted at me – things I didn’t want to hear. They kicked out at Border. They began moving towards me as if trying to back me into the canal.

Maybe they weren’t going to, really. I was terrified just the same. There were at least five of them and just one of me - the Stamp Man curled up, sobbing, on his bench, wasn’t going to be much help. There was Border, of course, my protectress. She kept on barking, standing her ground and showing her teeth; but she looked very small compared to them. One of them aimed a kick at her.

There are some old factories next to the towpath. Not so old that they don’t work still. There was one right here - I could hear its machinery, throbbing away behind a big door in the wall that I’d seen open sometimes and men standing outside, smoking, having their teabreak. It was shut fast now, but I rushed over and tried to open it, and when I couldn’t, I hammered at it hard as I could, shouting at the top of my voice. It flew open, suddenly – I almost pitched straight into the arms of the boy standing there: I couldn’t see his face until we had disentangled ourselves. Even then it took a moment for me to recognise him as Rashid from my class. He was shouting too, shouting in what sounded like his own language – Urdu I think – if you live in Birmingham you know about these things; I doubt if the boys understood the words any more than I did. At the same time he was hauling me inside the factory. He was smaller and younger than the others but he had the door on his side - a good strong door, fortunately. ‘The Stamp Man,’ I yelled, before he could shut it on us, pointing at the bench. ‘Help him too.’ He looked at me as if I was mad, but all the same he went outside and somehow got the Stamp Man off his bench, and then he was inside with us, and Border too, who hadn’t waited to be asked but trotted in between his legs. She was panting and jumping all over me, licking my face, yelping a bit.

Rashid didn’t seem to think much of this show of canine love. I know now, though I didn’t then that Muslims think dogs are unclean, so I expect that was it. As soon as he’d slammed the door he pulled Border off me, not unkindly, but firmly. I saw that the Stamp Man had dropped his stamps and was anxiously picking them off the floor near the door. Apart from a brief glimpse of some kind of machinery, much noisier, now, of workers standing about or working the machines, all of them men and all of them Asian - I didn’t see anything of the factory. Rashid hustled me past the men and the machines, and up a flight of echoing steel steps into a little office, a steel box perched up above the factory floor, in one corner of the roof. He closed the door firmly behind us, shutting out the factory noise.

There was a woman sitting there behind a small desk, typing at a word-processor. She was a Muslim woman, wearing an even heavier headscarf than Rahilah’s that left hardly any room for her face. A long garment covered the rest of her from her neck down to her feet.

‘My aunt,’ Rashid said. ‘My uncle’s wife. This is my uncle’s factory.’ He then said a lot of things to his aunt in what I knew now must be Urdu, to which she responded with what sounded like questions in the same language. I’d half expected she wouldn’t speak English, a lot of the Muslim women don’t. But I was wrong about this one. In a voice pretty much like my mother’s, very correct and without a trace of Brummy, she turned to me and said, ‘You must have had a shock. Can we offer you a cup of tea?’
Rashid’s aunt scolded me gently over the tea. ‘A girl like you shouldn’t be walking in such a place alone,’ she said. For once I agreed she might be right. It was very kind of Rashid to rescue me,’ I said meekly. ‘It was lucky I had my dog too,’ I added, perhaps a bit less meekly. Rashid’s aunt smiled, the light from her desk lamp glinting on her little gold spectacles, on the huge gold and ruby ring she wore on one finger. She almost laughed. ‘Your dog I hear,’ she said, ‘Is valiant. But bad people are always bigger and stronger.’ She said a lot more to Rashid then. Of course I didn’t understand a word. But when I’d had time to recover myself, he walked me home, along the roads though, not the towpath, Border following, tethered to a piece of rope his aunt had insisted on providing. There was no sign of the Stamp Man. When I asked about him, Rashid said he’d gone back to the homeless hostel he lived in. One of the workers had taken him. Good.

I was surprised that Rashid was allowed to walk with me. ‘I thought you weren’t allowed to speak to girls,’ I said, as we came back to the canal by the NIA opposite the Aquarium, where there are always lots of people so it is quite safe. ‘No I’m not,’ he said, ‘Only relatives; sisters, cousins, that kind of thing. But when I told my aunt you were in my class and clever, and a good girl, not like some of them, she told me to take you home even though I’m not supposed to speak to girls.’ He said more than that. He said she told him I had to be an honorary sister, or an honorary boy or something. Also that it was some kind of duty to help a stranger in trouble. He said this was only a rough version of why he could take me, but it was hard to explain in English, to a non-Muslim, so he wouldn’t even try. We talked about other things after that. About school and things. But then I pointed at some cranes and said ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ and to my surprise he said; ‘I wouldn’t call them beautiful. But I do like them. A lot. Once I wanted to be a crane driver. But my father says that would be a waste of my education and I’ve got to help him in his business – he’s got a clothing business, importing silks and sarees, and I suppose I will.’

‘What a pity,’ I said. Rashid just shook his head from side to side in a very Indian way and laughed

He speaks the broadest Brummy I’ve ever heard by the way; practically Black County. Funny I didn’t know it till then. But he’d never spoken to me before; and you rarely hear him say anything in class. He’s another keeps his head right down.

He didn’t take me all the way home to the flat. When we got to Gas Street basin I pointed to Mnemosyne and said ‘My Granny lives there. Border lives with her, I’ll have to take in. I’ll be alright now really, I promise.’ He looked at the boat a bit doubtfully, said he’d promised he’d see me home, and this couldn’t be my home could it? But he let me go in, when I assured him the owner really was my granny. He wouldn’t come in to meet her. He handed me past the tiller, went back along the pontoon, jumped cleanly, sideways –I envied that neat leap - over the chain looped across the entrance to keep non-boat people out, waved at me, then loped off home. I bent my head into the door. Granny asked me crossly where I’d been, why I was so late. She was waiting to go out. Ignoring the annoyance in her voice, I hugged her anyway. ‘I hope the Stamp Man’s alright,’ I heard myself saying. ‘Who’s the Stamp Man?’ she asked as she hugged me back, in a tone of voice that suggested I’d made him up, the way – I think- I made up Ella. ‘Just a poor old man who likes stamps,’ I said casually - there are some things I can’t tell Granny even. At such moments I realise she’s just a grown-up after all, even though a special one.

It’s Rashid I thought of, though, lying in bed later. Till that day I never realised what beautiful eyes he has; dark as dark, with thick black lashes round. I’ve always thought Border’s eyes the most beautiful, soulful eyes of any in the world. But Rashid’s are still more beautiful, I think.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007


Give me a place to stand, and I will lift the world: Archimedes


I live in the sky, on the top floor of a tall block of flats. They are not so tall as the cranes on the building site next door but near enough. There is a man climbing up the crane nearest me towards the driver’s cabin. Watching him shift up, rung by rung, I wonder if he ever dares look down, and if his cabin sways in the wind. It is windy today: enough to blow the seagulls about.

To my right I can look across the city. Directly below me are men in orange helmets working on the building site, beyond them people walking up Holliday Street, getting in and out of cars. They can't see me. I like that - seeing but not being seen. If they can’t see you they can’t think you're a freak, either. I’ve been into kids’ chatrooms sometimes (but only on the library computers. Mum has barred all the chatrooms on my desktop.) Most of the stuff there is silly. Once, though, I wrote that I felt like a freak and a whole stack of messages came through from people who said they felt like freaks too. A few said freaks were a waste of space. But who cares about them? Actually I quite like being a freak. If I am one.

Looking the other way, up towards the canals and the Gas Street Basin, though I can see the canal, I can't quite see into the Gas Street Basin, see Granny's boat. But I know it's there. This gives me a warm feeling. Granny seems to like me as I am, freak or not. 'In your grandmother's eyes you can do no wrong,' my mother is always saying, with a sigh that implies that in her view I can do no right.

Thinking of granny makes me decide to go and see her. I write an email to Ella to tell her where I'm going - I don't send it; what’s the point. If you are going to ask who Ella is, please don’t. I’ll tell you. Ella is the imaginary friend I had as a child. It’s no use asking me to explain her, though, I can’t explain her even to myself. I just put the letter in the draft folder labelled Ella and pretend to send it.

I wave at the man on the crane– he’s almost at the top now - then I put on my fleece and head out of my room. There are baby noises coming from the sitting-room. I put my head round the door to find the baby sitting in his baby seat wearing a trendy black-and-white striped babygro and my mother making cooing noises. At least the baby's got sense; it's staring at her as if she's mad. But then she is mad. Becoming a grandmother has sent her right off her head. Perhaps becoming an aunt should have had the same effect on me, but it hasn't. It’s my mother's silly noises and sillier faces makes me mad. YUK. Having babies is a mug’s game, I think. I’m not going to, not ever. Get a life.

'I'm off to granny’s,' I tell them. My mother sighs but says nothing. Not to me anyway. 'Who's the best baby in the world?' she asks the baby who continues to stare back unblinking. I wink at it. But it doesn’t take any notice of me, either.

I look beyond them, out of the window. The climbing man has vanished into his cabin. Three of the cranes now are swinging back and forth in that dance of theirs, like it’s a conversation, speaking not speaking, meeting not meeting. They make me sigh with mysterious longing.

'Oh Ella,' I whisper to myself. Then I'm out of the door, into the shining steel lift - 'this is the seventh floor' it says in its husky voice, ‘Going down.’ Out past the reception desk, through the glass doors and up the steps in the mall, along the lines of expensive boutiques where my mother and my sister buy their clothes, out onto the terrace past the cafes and people drinking, eating chattering, clinking their glasses, their knives and forks, their silly voices. Onto the new bridge, at last. I don’t mind the bridge, though; if you jump on it you can make it bounce.

I make it bounce now, looking back at the one untouched building and business that the developers haven’t managed to get rid of. GS Brough, Washers and Gaskets it announces in faded letters. I’m always glad to see GS Brough, relieved that something and someone stays the same. Nothing else does here, these days. Everything changes. (Including me – look at the way my body has changed, is changing, what it does to me every month now without fail. Yukky.)

The bridge I’m standing on for instance, has only been here a year or so. This is a change I don’t mind, though. I like the bridge. I stand for a moment looking across at the not so new flats opposite. In the window at the end a woman sits all day writing. Sometimes I wave at her. Sometimes she sees me and waves back. She doesn’t see me now. I run off down onto the towpath, past the cafĂ©, past the little pub, the Tap and Spile, dwarfed by all the new buildings round it. Over the steep bridge onto the pontoon where Granny’s narrowboat is moored. Onto the deck. Knock, pull the door open, bend my head and climb down in. I’m back in Granny’s world.


I tell Granny about most things. But I don’t tell her about the chat rooms and I don’t tell her about Ella. (I was less careful about things like that when I was little; I told everyone I had a friend called Ella then, but Granny wasn’t around for me to tell.) I tell Ella all about Granny, though, in the emails I don’t send. ‘Granny is my favourite person by a long way,’ I write. ‘She lives on a boat with the crazy name of Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne is the Muse of Memory according to Granny, she doesn’t think it the least crazy. She says it’s the most important muse of all, more important than poetry, more important than history. ‘Where would either of them be without memory,’ she says. “What would we be without memory? How can you face the future, let alone live in the present without memory?’

Granny is apt to talk like that, though. Sometimes I understand her. Sometimes I don’t.

‘What happens if you don’t want to remember things?’ I ask her once. (There’s plenty I don’t want to remember; like being sent to Coventry at school once; like having a tooth out.) ‘Aren’t there things you don’t want to remember, granny?’

‘Of course,’ Granny says, her eyes far away suddenly. ‘But that’s not the point.’

‘What is the point then?’ I ask.

‘Work it out for yourself, Esther,’ she says. This is one of granny’s most annoying habits: seeming about to tell me something interesting and then saying. ‘Work it out for yourself.’ Not much else annoys me about Granny. If I can do no wrong in her eyes, according to my mother, she can’t do much wrong in mine either. 'A mutual admiration society,' my half sister calls us. Maybe she’s jealous. I don’t think granny ever liked her as much as she seems to like me.

But probably she never had the chance to get to know Granny the way I have. Granny didn’t live on a boat when my sister was little. She lived all over the world, and rarely came home to England, until I was eight or so. She got her narrow boat then and has lived on it ever since, going up and down the canals.

Granny kept the narrow boat out in the country mostly then. But the winter of the Foot and Mouth epidemic, she decided to bring it up to Birmingham to see us – this was not long after we moved there. She’d planned to go on from there up the Worcester canal, but when they closed the towpaths to prevent the infection spreading, she said there was no point, she had stayed all spring in the Gas Street Basin. Even when the restrictions were lifted she’d stayed on. She goes off for a week or two sometimes but she always comes back.
My mother said it was a good thing, because granny was getting on a bit. She couldn’t keep moving the boat all by herself here there and everywhere. There was too much heavy lifting. Suppose she got sick? And it was true I could help her empty the Elsan – her loo – now, things like that. I do help her. But I don’t think that’s the reason she stays. I think she really likes the things everyone thought would drive her mad here in the middle of the city. Like the jazz on Sundays from The James Brindley on the other side of the canal. Like the people, the music, the general bustle to and fro. Admittedly she’s a bit deaf, the noise is less of a nuisance to her than it might be to someone else. But even so. It’s one of the nice things about granny. That she likes all sorts of things that most grown-ups think of as a trial; or even illegal. (Like that faint smell in her cabin sometimes, which I suspect is something it shouldn’t be. But I don’t say. And nor does Granny.)

Today, for instance, when I negotiate my way round the tiller and knock on her double door, she puts her head out of the door and says ‘Are you hungry, Esther? How about a bite at the Tap and Spile?’ ‘Cool,’ I say. But Granny is cool. (Not like my parents: they’re the uncoolest of uncool.) She doesn’t mind the least, for instance, that we have to sit outside because I’m too young to go in the bar, even though it’s not very warm, if sunny. It’s especially nice because it means Border – my dog that she keeps for me - can come too.

Afterwards we go back to the boat and she makes coffee: real coffee in a little espresso pot she puts on top of the calor gas stove. I’m not allowed coffee at home. It’s nice down there in her cabin - the opposite of being in the flat at home. The flat is like a nest in the sky. Granny’s two little cabins crammed with books, pictures, bits and pieces from all over the world, feels like a burrow, underground. Never mind the water rocking slightly underfoot, never mind the seagulls swooping past the window, the geese and ducks sitting on the towpath or swimming round the boat hoping for scraps. Granny likes feeding the geese. When Border barks at them – she always will bark at them Granny tells her to shut up and she does. (Drat her. Border never shuts up like that for me.)

I also notice outside the window some newly-arrived cranes. The whole city is like a building site these days. ‘I do like cranes, though’ I tell Granny now, dipping a piece of chocolate into my coffee. ‘So do I,’ Granny says. ‘I’ve always wanted to go right to the top of one. I don’t suppose I ever will.’

‘Wouldn’t you be scared?’ I ask. ‘Probably,’ Granny says. ‘But so what? I asked if I could once, the man I talked said a lot of people who went up got halfway up and then lost their nerve and were hard to get down. He said I could ring up and try to get permission if I wanted, but every time I rang the man I needed wasn’t available. I think he made sure he wasn’t. People like me would be a nuisance to them.’

I wondered if I would be scared; if Ella would.

I’d better go home now,’ I said. ‘I hope the baby’s gone.’

‘You don’t like him, do you?’ Granny said.

‘Why should I like him? Mum isn’t interested in anyone else now. She isn’t interested in me.’

‘I don’t think that’s entirely true, Esther,’ Granny says quietly.

‘Anyway I don’t like babies. They smell and scream and they’re always in the way.’

‘I’m not that fond of babies either,’ granny says.

‘Why don’t you like babies?’ I ask, surprised. ‘You had one once. You had mum.’

‘Have another biscuit, Esther,’ Granny says, as if I haven’t spoken; her eyes look distant again..

‘Mnemosyne’s a really silly name for a boat,’ I say thoughtfully. Then I grab another biscuit, kiss Granny and go crouching out of the door onto the pontoon and home again; past the James Brindley this time and Bridge Street and the multi-storey car park.

When I get back there’s a note from Mum – no her, no baby. ‘Back in half an hour,’ it says. ‘If you’re hungry there’s a pizza in the fridge.’

But I’m not hungry after coffee with Granny. I switch on my email to see if there are any messages. There is one, but from someone I’ve only pretended to send messages to. Someone who doesn’t exist except in my head. Or so I think – yet there the message is - subject ‘hello’ - from someone called Warily, I click the mouse and get it up. But it’s quite blank. I click reply. The reply form leaps into its little square; from it says, as before. But the message space still comes up blank. I write a large question mark; add my name ‘Esther’ and send it. The message goes.


The base is bolted to a large concrete pad that supports the crane.

1. My family is very small. 2, My family is very big. How can two opposite things be true at once? Discuss.

1. My family is very small. There’s just me and my mum and my dad – sometimes. More often there’s just my mum and me. A smaller family than that you cannot have. Often, when anyone asks me, I say I am an only child. Because I am in that way.. Just me and my mum and sometimes my dad living in our flat in the centre of Birmingham.

2. My family is very big. I have three brothers and four sisters. My father is old, though not as old as Granny. He’s more than old enough to retire, mum says, but he doesn’t. He keeps working harder than ever, and isn’t at home much. He has been married three times and has five children apart from me, all of them years older than I am. My mother has been married twice and has two children apart from me, and the one grandchild. I don’t know how many grandchildren my father has, or how many times I’m an aunt on that side. His three older children are married, but they won’t have anything to do with him because their mother doesn’t want them to. I wonder sometimes about these brothers and sisters of mine, but they don’t feel like brothers and sisters – they’re much too old – only ten years younger than my mother. Their children must be as old as me if not older. His other two children I have met but neither of them are married yet or seem interested in starting families. As for my mother’s other children: I do see my sister, the baby’s mother - a bit more often than I want really. Even before the baby she didn’t take much notice of me and now she doesn’t take any. My brother’s alright. I like him a lot, and he seems to like me. But he’s been all over the world – China, Vietnam, Russia, Africa - teaching English as a Foreign Language - and lately he’s been living in San Francisco, learning to be a designer. We rarely see him, and last time he came he told my mother he was gay: no nephews and nieces there, either. What a relief.

That’s it for my big family. Since we’re never together, it really it doesn’t mean much, except a certain amount of complication and upset, every now and then. Most of the time I feel part of a small family, an only child. I don’t get the benefits of being only child, though. Both my parents have spent too much of their lives bringing up children to find anything very special about me. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got the worst of both worlds: big families and small families.

There are some advantages. I get to do pretty much what I want, most of the time, no questions asked. And above all I get granny, mostly to myself. And that’s cool.

So you see two opposite statements can both be true 1, big family, 2, small family. Me, mum, dad, granny, my little family. Quite big enough for me.


A second message comes from Ella, as blank as the first. This time I reply with two question marks. As the little bar fills up with green marks – ‘sending message 1 of 1’ – I wonder where it is being sent to - and through what. I’ve never thought much about cyberspace before; I suppose I thought it was a bit like space. Maybe it is like space- an emptiness full of silent – and, thinking of the internet – not so silent chatter. Can they hear our chatter on other stars, I wonder? Is Ella on another star? She just as well might be. In which case my message might have to go way back in time to reach her: the blankness of her message might be thousands of years old.

The thought of all that space, all that time makes me shiver. I’m not sure I like these messages very much. I don’t think I’d like them any better if they weren’t blank. It’s real friends I need, not spooky ones from out in the ether, whether or not I’ve made them up myself.