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.