Wednesday, 21 February 2007


A trolley runs along the jib to move the load in and out from the crane’s centre

One thing Rashid has emailed me about cranes sticks especially in my head; how they grow right from inside themselves. They sit inside buildings and raise their arm – their jib part – then pick up another section and slot it in underneath; they can go on like that, on and on, as high as they need to. I was so pleased with this one I even told Trace about it one wet day when we’re sitting in a corner of the hall eating our lunch. Trace had marmite and lettuce sandwiches – she always has marmite and lettuce sandwiches. Her mum used to give her peanut butter instead, she says. But that isn’t allowed any more because some people are so allergic they swell up and die if you put a hand on their arm with the smallest trace of peanut butter: if their hand touches it and they lick that hand.

‘I’m not allergic to peanut butter,’ I say.

‘Lucky you, then,’ Trace says.

‘To die just like that,’ I say. And for a moment we both sit in silence. Is Trace thinking what I am, I wonder? – about sudden deaths sitting around us, everywhere we look. Not just the poisons they keep warning us that get into our food. About all the other lurking dangers. Suicide bombers. Dirty bombs. Car crashes. Meningitis. Serial killers. So on and so forth.

To counteract such gloomy thoughts I tell Tracy how cranes grow themselves. And how when the time comes they take themselves down again, using the reverse process.

‘A bit like we do really; people, animals, all of ourselves,’ Tracy says. ‘Growing from the inside. While noone’s looking.’

‘Cranes take their new sections from outside,’ I point out.

‘So do we,’ Tracy says. ‘We eat. We take stuff from outside too.’

I’m doubtful about this. But then Tracy adds. ‘Look at babies. Look at your baby, how he eats.’ And then I do think of him with my usual mix of tenderness and fury; and it’s true he does take a lot of milk and other stuff, he does seem to get seems bigger by the day.

“Well there you are then,’ Tracy insists when I admit it.

‘But people don’t get smaller getting older, and they go on eating,’ I say, thinking of Granny who seems the same size to me that she’s always been.

‘Oh but they do,’ Tracy says. ‘My great gran in South Africa did. She just shrivelled upside herself. Till she shrivelled away.’ She said it almost ghoulishly. Glancing over her shoulder as if to tell her ghosts to get lost.

‘Well my granny doesn’t,’ I say.

‘But she will,’ Trace says ‘She will, she will.’ Why do we keep getting onto to such sad subjects today – now I’m remembering the urn on the shelf in Mnemosyne. But then Trace and I look at each other and giggle as if the best thing to do is laugh. And I ask her about the play and being Potiphar’s wife and that’s all right, that matter’s not sad at all, it’s nice. Potiphar’s wife hasn’t any songs of her own, Trace says. But because she can sing – or so the play producer’s think - she’s being allowed to sing a solo. Potiphar’s wife has to try and seduce Joseph after all and songs are good for that. As long as the producer agrees she can even choose her own.

‘What song are you going to sing?’ I ask.

‘Wait and see,’ Trace says.


In fact it’s only a few days now till the play; only a week or ten days then till the end of term. And now, suddenly, it’s the day of the performance.

At dinnertime, I ask Trace, cautiously, if her mum’s coming. (Trace never talks about her mother. I’m not sure that it’s a safe question.)

‘Of course she’s coming, if she can; if she’s not bleeped.’

‘Bleeped?’ But Trace is calling someone else now across the room. Maybe she doesn’t want me asking more questions. If I don’t understand what ‘bleeped’ means that’s my problem.

Trace is often like that. As usual I’m left to work things out for myself. The only people I know who have bleepers are doctors like the ones in Casualty. If Trace’s mum was a doctor, wouldn’t Trace have told us sometime? I don’t know what to think.

But then it’s evening and everyone’s coming in and I’m showing them to their seats in the school hall turned theatre. The stage at the far end is set with a throne and a palm tree and a blown-up photograph of a desert reaching back far away, a pyramid in the middle distance. For some plays they put up curtains but Mr Painter the music teacher said – according to Trace who did not appear impressed – that curtains – and what he called ‘a proscenium arch’ -were old hat. Theatre in the round was much more interesting. The problem is that there is nothing in the round about our school stage: it’s at end of the hall and that’s that. All he can do is put a few fidgeting seventh years in the aisles and up the sides of the hall dressed up as Egyptian slaves to make the whole hall look like the Pharaoh’s court. It doesn’t. Even a camel – or an elephant – couldn’t have made our school hall look like Pharaoh’s court.

Granny and Stuart arrive and I show them to their seats, correctly. Granny is wearing a dark red coat I haven’t seen before, she doesn’t look the least eccentric, just a nice granny to have. Stuart is wearing jeans and a leather jacket as usual. If he’s got an earring in one ear, so what, there’s plenty of other older brothers have; even some of the Asians have.

My parents are due soon, too. ‘I’m looking forward to this,’ my mother has said, and my father is coming home early especially, even though I’m only an usher.

I don’t show them to their seats. Jay ushering on the other side does that. Looking out all the time for someone who could be Trace’s mum, I pick one or two small and thin women with fairish hair as possibles but I don’t know for sure. And then I see Mrs Scott who’s organising what she calls ‘front of house people’ frowning at me; I’m forgetting to do my job; I have to stop.

All the seats are occupied I see as the doors close and I take up my position at the back. Even though I’m not taking part myself I feel a small shiver of excitement as the room darkens and Mr Philips starts to play his piano accompanied by a brilliant drummer – a Jamaican boy I don’t know from Year ten. Two other boys, one white, one black, neither so brilliant, play guitars – one electric, one accoustic. A girl is playing the trombone, an assortment of drums, bells, clangers, rattles, bangers are played by all sorts of people, boys and girls, of all ages, from all classes. Mr Philips has been training them up since the start of term. The rest of us are sick of the racket.

But it’s different on the night: and with the singers too. I think they sound pretty good. Of course like everyone else by now I know all the tunes and pretty much all the words of ‘Joseph’ by heart. I chant them under my breath most of the way through.

Trace does not come on for quite a while as Potiphar’s wife, though I see her in the chorus earlier on. Then suddenly there she is, reclining on a couch at the back of the stage wearing her golden pyjamas covered in sequins sewn on by me. She has a flimsy veil on her head round which she peers seductively at Joseph while the choir is singing about Potiphar’s wife’s scheming. Joseph is played by a black boy, Clinton Kingston from another class in year ten–.he’s not handsome unfortunately: he got the part because he can sing really well. (Lots of people tell him he should enter for Pop Idol. But he says he’s going to be a doctor, so he won’t have time. Just as well really. Somehow I can’t see him as the next Will Young.)

The choir stops singing. The stage is beginning to darken when the door alongside me creaks open. I’m supposed to stop anyone coming in mid-performance, but for some reason I don’t try and stop this person. She’s so little and light, like a tired ghost, she floats rather than enters, closing the door so softly it doesn’t make a sound. The next minute she’s leaning against the wall besides me. She’s wearing a long dark coat; her hair tied up in a scarf; that’s all I have time to notice, because the lights are coming up again on Trace’s couch. Every eye in the house is on her.

Slowly she gets to her feet – I can almost forget it is Trace now, the slow way she unwinds her scarf, reveals her face, slowly, lazily takes the microphone someone is handing her, leans back against a convenient pillar in her suit of gold. Alone but for a solitary rattle, the trombone plays an introduction tune, and suddenly Trace is singing.

The introductory tune sounded faintly familiar – I only realise why until a little way into the song which Trace is singing oh so simply, lazily, almost lovingly, when I hear the words… ‘The fundamental things apply…As Time Goes By.’ ‘As Time Goes By is the name of an old sitcom on TV; also the name of the song they use at the beginning and end of it. I don’t like the sitcom much myself; it’s soppy, it’s about people almost as old as granny. Yet now the song makes me want to cry; or maybe it’s just the way Trace sings it makes me want to cry. She’s singing it for me, I think, she’s looking straight at me. And then I see that the little woman in the big coat standing next to me really is crying; and that maybe Trace is not looking at me she’s looking at her. More likely she’s not looking at either of us, too blinded by the stage lights to see anyone at all. And maybe, the way she’s singing, there’s not a person in the hall doesn’t think she’s singing just for them. Even the kids who may be laughing at the soppy thing inside their heads - gross they may be thinking, just as I should be thinking - are silent. It’s the way she’s singing it, probably; in such a mellow, soft loving way. Like she loves all of us. ‘Time goes by.’ ‘Gross’ I repeat to myself, furious for being made to feel so soft; so like crying. But then it’s over. There’s a long pause. Then everyone starts clapping.

I am clapping like everyone else when I hear another faint, beep, beep sound. The next moment I feel someone tapping on my arm. It is the woman beside me in the long coat.

‘If you see Trace, could you very kindly tell her I did come,’ she says. ‘I heard her sing. But I can’t stay. I have to get back to the hospital.’

‘Are you her mum?’ I whisper back, even though I know the answer. ‘Misa,’ she says. And then she’s gone.


I do see Trace after, just for a minute. I do tell her. I say the name ‘Misa.’ ‘Your mum?’ I inquire. ‘Misa?’ She just nods. Then adds. ‘She’s a doctor,’ matter-of-factly, ‘A paediatrician, up at the QE. That means dealing with sick kids all day and every day.’

‘Must have been useful when you were little and sick,’ I say. ‘She was just a medical student then,’ Tracy says ‘She didn’t know anything about sick children then.’ She adds: ‘She’s always done her thing and I’ve always done my thing. It’s all worked out.’ I think she isn’t going to say any more. But suddenly, back over her shoulder she throws. ‘I’m glad she heard me. She likes that programme. She likes that song.’

Granny and Stuart come up then and my mother and father. All of them go on and on about how lovely Trace was. Was that really your friend? The one who came to tea?’ My mother asks. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that was her kind of song.’ (Or Trace’s kind of sitcom I’m thinking, imagining Judi Dench and Co, the actors. All very cosy: unlike Trace. My mother of course loves it.)

‘I don’t think it is her kind of song usually,’ Stuart says. ‘She rang to ask me what she should sing. It was my idea.’

‘You?’ I say. ‘I might have known. You always like such corny things.’ I roll my eyes, and we all go on home linking our arms, in silence. The whole time, though, when I’m not thinking about Stuart and Trace exchanging mobile numbers - how dare they? – my brother and my friend behind my back? – I’m thinking about that song.


It’s about love and lovers of course, as well as time. How it goes on ‘as time goes by.’ Will I still love Rashid’s beautiful brown eyes, I wonder, ‘as time goes by?’ But actually it’s not love so much I think about when I hear those words. It’s time. I don’t know how to deal with time; it scares me the way it moves on so fast. It scares me in Birmingham all the time. All those builders; all those cranes. One minute there’s an empty space; the next zillions of people are living in it, or shopping in it, or driving along it. This summer I saw a notice on an exhibition about Birmingham at the Ikon Gallery. People were asked to write their comments – and one girl said – it had to be a child, she hadn’t got grown-up writing; ‘why does Birmingham have to rebuild itself completely, now this year, this moment, August?’ I knew exactly what she meant.

Even the way the baby keeps on growing scares me sometimes. It doesn’t seem any time since it was a tiny space creature, its eyes looking at nothing, its face crinkled up, its little limbs punching and kicking invisible objects. And now he sits up and looks around himself and chortles; any moment he will be crawling then walking and talking and growing up to go to school like me. Does nothing ever stop for a moment? It’s all time’s fault, I think, that everything keeps on changing, so fast.

Sometimes I try to make time stop still. Eating my school picnic about of my lunchbox, I look around and think; stop; I’ve caught this moment and it’s here for as long as I want it. Jay is nibbling on crisps and a chapatti. Trace’s marmite and lettuce sandwiches are uneaten besides her while she fiddles with her belly ring, her eyes miles away. Ralilah and her best Muslim friend scarved heads together so can you can hardly tell which belongs to which, are giggling; there are the sounds of boys outside and a plane in the sky and the moaning hoot of a train on the railway line. All of it will stay there the same, like people and places in picture, until I tell it to stop. Now, just in this moment, I’m safe.

But then something distracts me. I don’t think of the moment again for hours sometimes, not till I’m home again. And then I think: I’ve lost it. And all those moments in between that I’ve never noticed. Time has simply kept on going by. And by. And by. No matter what.

I wonder if other people my age think like this? If so they don’t say, and I’m not going to ask in case they think I’m crazy. I’m sure Trace would think I’m crazy. Is it because of Ella I think like this I wonder suddenly? (I haven’t thought about Ella much lately: I haven’t had any more messages from her. What with the play and with Christmas coming up, and horrible Frankie, I’ve had too much else in my head.) Do I worry about time so much because Ella lives in the past? Is she slipping ever further away the more time goes on, her emails coming from further and further away? The thought of a growing distance, of a bigger and bigger gap opening between us feels both creepy and sad. Is that what makes me feel so sad?

I don’t enjoy thinking like this. I was so happy after hearing Trace sing and now I’m not happy at all. Only a week now till the end of term, till Christmas, I think, hoping to cheer myself up. It doesn’t cheer me up. I put Simon Rattle and Beethoven on very loudly. But when even that won’t do, I take it off and put on Morcheeba. Tonight I do not go to see if I have any emails; even from Rashid. I don’t want any emails. They’re too scary. My mother bangs on my door. ‘Turn that racket down,’ she shouts. But I don’t. I turn it up. I need it. Loud. Louder. LOUDEST.


Comanza: Potain: Wolff: Kroll: Lindea: Comedin: Heede: different makes of tower cranes.

The day after the play is Saturday. I sit at my desk, doing my homework; well that’s the idea. In fact I’m looking out of the window.

They work on the building site on Saturday mornings. By the car park in Bridge Street, I can see people getting out of their cars dressed for weddings in the Registry Office round the corner. Down below me the workers move around like ants, like pictures in history books on the building of the Pyramids. This side of the site, the foundations of the flats are already rising. Steel girders are set in vertical rows ready to support the next layers of breeze blocks. On the far side mobile cranes are moving about, lifting, digging. One tower crane is working, swinging bundles of girders across to the places where they are needed. The others are both still. Looking down to the bottom of the one nearest me, I suddenly see a man swing himself onto the ladder and start climbing up inside it.

He is wearing an orange safely helmet and a black donkey jacket, with something written on the back of it that I can’t see properly, except once, briefly, when he reaches yet another platform and starts on the next ladder. Even then I don’t have time to read it. He has a green plastic box slung over one shoulder. His lunch, I wonder? Cheese sandwiches? Ham? A pork pie? A flask of tea? Or coffee? When he’s up there in his cabin, does he sit longing for dinnertime I wonder, the way I do during especially boring classes at school. Or is he too busy concentrating, mesmerised like Border in front of a mouse hole, by the little bundle he’s negotiating towards its destination way below? What does he think about all day? What can you think about high up there all by yourself? Maybe his mind wanders just like mine does. Does he have a radio? Does he listen in to radio Birmingham, the way I’m do sometimes? Does he like eighties music? Or seventies music? And how does he go to the loo, I wonder? I really wonder about that. I send the question up to him in my thoughts as loudly as I can.

He won’t be able to hear me though, or what I’m listening to at this minute – a cd of granny’s, Bob Marley that I love to little bits, almost as much as I love Simon conducting Leonora number 3. He can’t hear anything except the wind noise, climbing. I really see, or do I just imagine the wind buffeting the ladder gently, swaying him about? I can hear the wind buffeting my own window.. It is blowing quite a bit today. The Christmas tree at the back of the jib above the counter weight is swaying but only a little. Its lights are winking on and off. Even in the daytime they’re not turned off. Does the man notice them? Do they make him too think ‘good, it’s almost Christmas?’ Or do all grown-ups dread Christmas like my mother says she does. Is he cold I wonder? Does he look down? Does he ever feel giddy with the height? Or does he simply not notice it?

The man in the donkey jacket is almost at the top. He swings onto the platform. He opens the door into the little glass cabin with its slanted front, and disappears inside. He’s shut inside away from everything and everybody. He doesn’t have a mother calling outside the door: ‘Esther!’ ‘Esther!’ ‘Coming,’ I shout, filled with longing and envy. ‘I will get up there myself one day, I tell myself. ‘I will, Ella, I will, I will. See if I don’t. I don’t mind if it’s scary.’

That’s a lie of course. Even if I am not scared at the thought of that ladder – not too scared - I’m scared of lots of other things. In particular I’m scared of Frankie and Frankie’s bullies. They’ve lain low recently. But I know they haven’t gone away altogether.

It’s a sunny day, quite mild really. Even the wind seems kindly enough. I take Border for a longer walk on Saturdays. I take her along the canal as usual, but the other way now, up towards the university. At weekends especially there’s plenty of life; runners, cyclists, families with children, pushchairs, prams; people walking dogs. I usually have to be careful of Border with other dogs, but even she seems laid back today. Just sniffs and passes on. There aren’t any narrow boats. There almost never are in winter. Though one or two might ride the canal over the Christmas holidays.

When we walk back, I see the usual drunks on the seat outside Holliday Wharf. At least I think it’s all drunks. But as I get nearer I see that the man sitting away from the others, on the far end, is the Stamp Man. I haven’t seen him since the day he was attacked. He doesn’t look any different from then, he’s staring at the ground as usual; when I say ‘hullo’ he doesn’t look up or move let alone speak. His hands are dangling besides him. Border goes up and licks them gently as if she remembers him. He doesn’t move them away. He lets her lick as if too remembers her too. I am happy to see that. At the other end of the bench one drunk is waving a can of Carlings Best Bitter and shouting; ‘I’ve got to protect my rights I have.’ ‘Yers’, mate,’ agrees the other. ‘You’ve got to protect them.’. I hope they’re nice to the Stamp Man. If he stays around I can ask Granny to keep an eye on him. I know she walks this way herself.

I take Border back to the Mnemosyne. I haven’t expected to see Granny, she’d told me she was going to see a film at the multi-screen at the top of Bridge Street. But it looks as if she’s been to Tesco instead. There’s stuff laid out for tea, chocolate olivers (wow!) even a hunk of cake from Costa Coffee. ‘Are you expecting someone, Granny?’ I ask. ‘I thought I might be expecting you, Esther,’ she answers. ‘How about staying to tea?’

It’s quite a while since I’ve stayed to tea with Granny. I say yes, wondering what she’s up to.

But she doesn’t seem up to anything at first. We talk about lots of things; the play, Trace, Stuart, school. Very casually at some point Granny asks if bullying goes on. I eye her suspiciously. She looks back, as casual as ever.. ‘A bit, I think,’ I say, equally casual. ‘I mean there are some gangs, and they do rather go for nerdy kids.’

I am not a nerdy kid, I tell myself. I stare granny straight in the eye to make sure she knows it. Granny pours more tea into my cup. ‘You know the theory about bullies?’ she says. ‘That they only attack people they think are weak. Meaning it’s better to show you’re not frightened, that you just don’t care. But I still think it’s a good idea to tell someone in the school that it’s happening. One of the teachers.’

‘That would only make it worse,’ I say. ‘Some of them bully teachers too.’ I think of poor Miss Petty who was new at the beginning of term and is supposed to teach us French, but hardly gets the chance. I’ve a feeling she won’t be there next term.

‘Not that kind of teacher,’ granny says.

‘Then they’d call you – the person – a snitch,’ I say. ‘And it would be even worse.’

‘Does anyone bully Trace?’ Granny asks. ‘I don’t think so,’ I say.

‘You see,’ she says.

I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to see. But Granny changes the subject, starts asking me what I want for Christmas, and when I tell her I haven’t a clue, tries to help me think.

It’s wonderfully cosy in her boat. She brings out old photograph albums for me to look at - one of my favourite things. I leaf through snaps of mum as a child – in colour mostly – but faded – and earlier pictures of granny herself as a child, mostly black and white. There’s little Granny in smocked frocks and fair-isle sweaters; bigger granny in a pair of boy’s corduroy shorts passed on from her brother; bigger granny still in a tweed coat and skirt like a grown-up’s, hair in long plaits. There’s even grown-up granny in black jeans and black polo-necked sweater, her hair cut in a fringe now, holding a baby mum. She looks happier in this one. In all the child photos, plaits granny, shorts granny, smocked frock granny, one thing never changes: the frown on her face.

The stove is hot: I’m perched on a stool in the shape of a hand that fits me exactly. Border is snoring on the sofa, somewhere she’s not allowed in our house –but then we have white sofas. Granny’s little sofa is covered by a bright Indian cloth set with tiny mirrors. Over the top of it is the shelf holding the Indian god and the shadow puppet, between which for a while stood the urn containing dead man’s ashes. Outside it’s dark already. The boat rocks slightly in the water. I wish I could stay here forever.

‘Why are you always frowning in your pictures, granny?’ I ask.

‘Only a week till Christmas,’ Granny says, as if I haven’t spoken.

‘And then what?’ I ask, wanting to ask the first question again, but somehow not able to.

‘And then what indeed?’ she answers. Which is hopeless. And I have to go home lonely. Because not only the bullies, all this stuff with Ella too, not being able – not being allowed - to tell anyone about her is lonely. Lonelier. Loneliest. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t what will happen – what Ella may make happen – next.


Wednesday, 14 February 2007



The slewing unit carries three parts: first the long horizantal jib, the portion of the crane that carries the load.

Waking next morning I can hardly believe any of it. Surely they can’t have left me in the dark all these years? Then I remember Stuart’s hesitations. Maybe there is something I haven’t been told -but who can I ask about it? I can’t bring myself to ask my mother. Usually I go to Granny, but this does not seem something I can ask Granny about. If such a secret has been kept from me, it’s her I’m most angry with. She of all people should have told me. When I take Border back from her walk, I don’t stay to talk.

I try and talk to Rahilah a little. But she doesn’t seem to want to discuss the subject of twins any more. I daresay it hurts her. I look up twin websites on the internet, after school, even though I should have been doing my homework. I can always pretend to myself – or to my mother if she comes into the room- I do once - that I’m still pursuing the subject of genetics. As I am, in a way. But not for homework.

I learn a lot, little of it helpful. I learn that there are huge organisations of twins – mostly identical - who have posted up pictures of themselves wearing the same clothes and looking just the same; copies of each other. A bit creepy I think. Not to say freaky. I’m not sure I’d want to have been a twin if it meant not being a single person at all just a copy of someone else.

Would Ella be a copy of me? Would we really be one and the same if she was alive now? I find the website of a restaurant in New York called ‘Twins’ where all the staff, from the owners to the waiters and waitresses, to the barmen and girls, to the people who take your coats, are look-alike twins, where most of the people who come to eat are twins too, so that everywhere you see double. Surely twins aren’t just twins, I think. Surely they’re separate people too, and different in some ways?

I don’t find anywhere I can just ask questions. I do discover an English organisation called The Lone Twin Network for people whose twins have died. But they don’t have a website, only an address to write to. I don’t know for sure that I am a lone twin. So how can I write to them?

I also come across a scientific site. Many more people in the world than used to be thought, it says, started off as twins in the womb; but the other twin disappears soon after conception; within two or three or four months anyway. How do they know this? Because sometimes two babies come up on the first scan and only one on the second. What happens to the second twin? The first twin kind of ‘swallows it up’, they suggest. Does that mean that the one does get born is made up two people, I wonder? Gross. Creepy. Weird. But the idea’s in my head now. I can’t do anything about it.

Did I swallow up Ella? I ask myself. Is that why I have an imaginary or not imaginary, more likely dead friend? But if I did, surely Ella would seem more like me than she does? I don’t have any idea what Ella would look like. And now I think about she has always seemed like someone older than me, like a big sister, rather than a twin. Why? Nothing is sure about any of this, which is disturbing; I wish I could go back to seeing Ella as I used to. As my imaginary friend, no more, no less.


I don’t tell any of my friends, Jay, Rashid, Rahilah, Trace, what I’m thinking. I don’t tell Jay or Rashid about Stuart either, any more than I tell Rahilah. Like I said, I don’t know what Muslims think about gays. Jay I suspect would just make a joke of it anyway, as he does of most things. I don’t want anyone making a joke of my big brother. Trace, though, is a different matter; I do tell her. With difficulty. I’m not used to talking about my brother to anyone, not because I’m embarrassed that he’s gay, but because people in my family rarely talk about each other, even between themselves. (The way Stuart and I discuss granny and mum is a relief, though it feels odd.)

Trace thinks it’s Stuart’s being gay makes me slow to get the words out. ‘Big deal,’ she says when I make it at last. ‘Big deal. You’re brother’s gay – is that all? Cool.’ Sounding at the same time both interested and bored. ‘Would you like to meet him?’ I ask. ‘Why?’ she sounds more bored than ever. ‘I think you’d like him’ I say. ‘I’m meeting him later as a matter of fact. Do you want to come?’ Trace just shrugs. But after school she heads for the bus stop on my side of the road as if there’s never been any question.

Stuart has suggested meeting up at the same Mailbox café where he and I went before. This time we stay there quite a long time. Skinny Trace eats the way she did at our flat: lots that is. She has two slices of cheesecake and three cappuccinos, but doesn’t look as if she notices because she’s so taken up with Stuart and he with her. I can’t get a word in edgeways. Though on the one hand, I’m glad to see my friend and my darling brother getting on so well, on the other I’m quite jealous. I don’t know a lot of the music they’re talking about, let alone the films. Trace is only two months older than me, so how did she get to see and hear all these things? Through her mum, I suppose. I’d always suspected her mum wasn’t a bit like mine. Now I know for sure.

It’s not just what they talk about; it’s how they talk about it; camping it up, making jokes. I can’t do that. I can talk about things seriously, or not at all. Stuart is quite happy to talk my way with me, but alongside Trace he turns into someone quite different. ‘Darling’, he says, ‘DARLING - in ways which are both like and not like him. As if bouncing off her turns him into someone else.

Trace even says ‘DARLING’ back: but only once. She raises an eyebrow from time to time – she’s had a stud put in the right hand one lately, it looks fantastic - and laughs or says something funny, at least it sounds very funny at the time. But I can’t remember a word of it afterwards – or of what Stuart says. It’s as if they are bouncing words between them. ‘Witty repartee’ I suppose you’d call it. Witty I’m not. All this makes me feel even less so. Stuart smiles at me affectionately sometimes, but it looks like Trace has forgotten I’m there. Nibbling at my cheesecake to make it last, I watch the remaining bubbles in my coffee cup burst one by one and feel gloomier by the minute.

How would Ella do, I wonder? If I’m not witty I’m sure she must be. And then I think: that’s odd, I haven’t heard a word from Ella lately. Not since I heard her voice – if it was her voice – in the lift. Two days ago I even emailed her –but I haven’t had a reply yet. Maybe they’ll be one waiting when I get home. All at once I want, desperately, to be at home, in my room, by myself. But I just keep on sitting in the café. ‘More coffee?’ Stuart asks. I shake my head.

We leave the café at last. It’s a wild night out there, grown wilder still since we went inside. The sign on the nearest crane is swinging madly, reflected as madly in the canal itself. Catspaws of wind are running up and down, on top of water racing along so wildly it looks like a living river, not like a man-made waterway. Up in the sky the wind keeps tearing the cloud apart– I see the whole of Orion the hunter once, my favourite constellation. But he doesn’t comfort me tonight.

Trace and Stuart seem even more excited by the wildness of the wind. ‘Let’s walk along the canal,’ they say. We cross the new bridge –as usual I look up at flats to see if the writer is at her window; but though the light is on, her curtains are drawn – no comfort for me there, either.

‘I’m not coming,’ I say. ‘I’m going home.’ I start running back over the bridge fighting the wind, the bridge thumping under me, my backpack thumping against my shoulders. I don’t look back to see where Trace and Stuart are. I don’t care what they are doing. I arrive, panting, in the hall of the mailbox feeling like the whole world is against me.

‘This is the fifth floor,’ says the lift in its normal voice, reminding me that I’d meant to go and give Border a quick run. Too late now, I think, heading for our front door: not to say too bad. I’d taken her out before school. Granny would have to take her out this evening.

Back in my room I sit straight down at my computer, go online. No email from Ella, not even one from Rashid, which is unusual – most nights we go back and forth two or three times. On the other hand it’s Friday: I know that Friday is like Sunday for Muslims, maybe he’s had to go with his father to the mosque.

I send an email myself: Ella, again.

‘Are you my dead twin?’ I ask. ‘Are you my dead twin? ARE YOU?’

Again I get no reply.


Nearer and nearer Christmas: baby Jesus and all that stuff. Our school is not putting on a Nativity play, of course, that’s for little kids in the Juniors and Infants. We’re doing Joseph and his Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat. Some of the kids in my class auditioned for it: four are in the chorus and Trace is playing Potiphar’s wife. As the time for the two performances gets nearer she’s off at rehearsals more and more, I hardly have a chance to talk to her. I’m still cross with her after the evening with Stuart, so I don’t mind. ‘Why didn’t you audition too?’ she asks. ‘I can’t sing for one,’ I say shortly. ‘I can’t act for two. That’s why.’

The tops of the cranes have sprouted strings of lights and Christmas trees. There’s a competition for the best decorated crane in Birmingham. I don’t know how they’ll choose it. They all look pretty much the same to me. But I do like the lofty little trees scattered with gaudy light. There are coloured bulbs strung over some of the narrow boats in the Gas Street Basin too, along with branches of fir and holly. Mnemonsyne is not decorated; granny says she might put up some lights in due course; but she doesn’t like Christmas to start until the proper time. In her childhood, she says, the proper time was Christmas Eve. But she might do it sooner than that.

She’s not the only one still lacking in Christmas spirit. Some of the kids in our school have so very little that they’ve taken to waylaying me in the playgound at breaktime and after school and they aren’t bringing messages of love and peace, let alone goodwill to all men. Far from it.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t told you about the builder yet. Not that I know he is a builder when I meet him coming off Granny’s boat one weekend. At first I even wonder if he’s her boyfriend, until I realise she’s not the least worried about my running into him the way she might be if he was. Nor can I imagine her having a boyfriend quite like him. He doesn’t speak much except in smiles and grunts. Any boyfriend of granny’s would have to be VERY gabby.

He seems a bit familiar, too, I don’t know why. He doesn’t look easy to forget. With his big belly, his short, stocky legs and his bushy red beard, he’s a more or less full-sized version of one of Snow White’s dwarfs. A matching bushy ponytail sticks out from under a red and black striped woollen hat with a pom-pom on top.

It’s the beard I’m sure I’ve seen before. It reminds me of a rhyme Granny used to recite, and which she recites again, obligingly, when I ask her. ‘There was an old man with a beard, who said it is just as I feared, an owl and a hen, two larks and a wren, have all made their nests in my beard.’

‘I don’t think old red-beard could manage the hen,’ I say thoughtfully. ‘Or even the owl. But the larks and the wren could have made it for sure.’ We both crease ourselves up laughing, till Granny stops and says warningly, ‘We shouldn’t laugh, really. He only brought his boat here last week. He started helping me out straight off.’

Turns out he’s been lugging her Elsan about for her and bringing in coal, even lighting her stove sometimes when it’s playing up. His narrow boat is moored at the pontoon on the other side of the walkway. ‘He’s works on a building site,’ granny says. Immediately my mind replaces the striped hat with a plastic helmet. I remember the bearded man coming out of what I think of as my site.

Next time I run into him near his boat – it’s called Poseidon - he’s carrying a coil of rope over one shoulder and a bucket laden with coal in the other hand. ‘Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go,’ I hum to myself. Is he Bashful? Or Grumpy? I wonder. He smiles at me but clearly doesn’t want to stop.

Never mind that. ‘I saw you at the building-site once,’ I say. He nods, passing the coal bucket from hand to hand as if it’s filled with something light as paper.

‘I live in the flats’ - I eye him closely.‘I’m always watching the building. I like the cranes.’

‘It’s flats we’re building,’ His jeans look like they could do with a wash; so does his beard. I can smell the beard. I imagine I do. Maybe it’s the birds inside. It is quite big and bushy enough to hide a bird - or three.

‘Are you a crane driver?’ I ask. He looks startled, shakes his head. Puts the bucket down now, shifts the rope to the other shoulder, picks the bucket up again and moves one foot forward.

I block his way still. He can’t get round me.

‘I’d like to climb one of those cranes,’ I say. ‘I’d really like to climb one.’

‘More than I would, man,’ he says.

‘If I went and asked would they let me?’ I enquire out loud.

‘Likely not, man’ he says.

‘Who would I ask?’ I persist.

‘Foreman. Site Manager, to you. Don’t waste breath.’

You don’t waste yours, I’m thinking. But he does not look hostile, he’s smiling awkwardly, shifting his bucket between coal-grimed hands and at last I take pity on him and stand aside to let him pass. He grunts a goodbye. Looking back over his shoulder, he jerks his head at Mnemosyne and says, ‘Tell her in there I got her more coal up.’

‘Alright,’ I say, wondering why Granny’s boyfriend doesn’t do these things for her. Maybe he’s too posh. Lifting my left leg over the chain, I hop onto Granny’s section of the pontoon, then step up onto the boat. There’s a jar of mixed holly and fir standing on top of the cabin now, but still no sign of Christmas lights. I can hear Border yipping on the other side of the closed door, which means she’s heard me coming. She doesn’t make that yipping noise for anyone else.


Meeting the builder is alright. What isn’t alright is my other meetings these days, in the playground, or just outside the school gate.

It’s boys mostly. Big year eleven boys. Plus some girl hangers-on, year tens mostly like me. They don’t say much just giggle obediently. I know the boys’ leader; everybody in the school knows him: he’s very tall, and part black, though I don’t know whether it’s his dad is black or his mum. It doesn’t matter. His name is Franklin – after Frank Bruno, everyone says – the boxer. You have to be aggressive to be a boxer and this Franklin – Frankie they all call him – is all of that. ‘Our Frankie’s got form,’ they say in between pride and terror. He’s got a flat-top, and one gold earring. Despite his colour – or part colour – his skin is not that much darker than theirs - the gang he hangs around with is all white, bar one boy, a really dim Jamaican who’s a cousin of his. Some of the white boys have flat-tops too which look pretty weird on them.

Seeing that lot hanging around together, some stupid teachers see it as good racial integration in our school. Ha bloody ha. Black boys and white ones may get on but both kinds have it in for the Asians. This is why they are getting at me. ‘Paki-lover,’ they chant, ‘Hanging round with Paki girls. and boys. Terrorists. Got the hots for Paki terrorists have you?’

‘Maybe she’s a lezzie,’ one of the girls chips in. ‘Maybe it’s the girls she fancies. Maybe she wants to know what’s under all those clothes. A pervert.’

I think they can see into my head. I think they see how I fancy Rashid. I’m terrified. I’m also angry.

‘So,’ I say. ‘SO?’ The threatening way they crowd round me then, hiding me from the safer people who might come to my rescue, I wish I hadn’t. Someone – a boy I think – leans over and pulls at my backpack. Immediately I pull it round and hold to me closely.

‘Got love letters in there, have you?’ a voice behind me says. I can’t see whose voice it is. Another adds. ‘Does she know what happens to paki lovers? Does she know?’

‘We could tell her,’ says someone else. It’s all the worse for being someone I can’t see. ‘Leave my bag alone,’ I say.

‘And just listen to her fancy accent,’ yet another voice chips in; one of the girls this time. Esther bloody Rantzen are we?’ I almost laugh at this; wondering what my ma would say. She’s always complaining that I sound like a Brummie these days. Someone tweaks my hair. Someone else puts a small punch on my back. A little kick meets my shin. I stop laughing straightaway.

‘Watch it, paki lover, just watch it. Keep away from terrorists or else.’ This time I can see who’s speaking: Frankie himself. He bends his head towards me, good as rams his greasy flat top into my face, his little gold earring bobbing. Then he stands back, pulls his hood over his head, jerks his hand, and suddenly the group parts, lets me out into the normal world. Still noone else dares come too near. People skirt round me, looking the other way. I stand by myself, in the middle of the playground, shaking.

‘They’re bullies,’ Trace says when I tell her later. ‘Take no notice. The more you do the more they’ll go for you.’

‘They might go for Rahilah,’ I said. ‘Or Rashid.’ I am terrified for Rashid, suddenly, and for Jay too, still more terrified than for myself. Sometimes aggro like this ends in knives. Oh yes I’ve heard it. But how could they know about Rashid? We never speak to each other except in class, when we have to, during some lesson.

‘Don’t give them an inch,’ Tracy adds. If I can stick around with you, Tracy, they wouldn’t, I think. But Tracy is never in the playground these days, never comes out if school with me at the end of the day; she’s always rehearsing. She does suggest, though, I help with the props and costumes for the play. This means my working in the artroom at breaktime instead of spending it in the playground, means I can stay on after school until everyone else has gone home.

But still, sometimes, they get me. I feel a punch at my back, coming from nowhere, I hear hisses from people I can’t see: ‘Paki-lover’. Once I find a nasty little note topped by a skull and crossbones stuck onto my bag. ‘Keep away from TERRORISTS’ it says.

I stop hanging out with Rahilah. I see her only in the classroom, or outside school where it’s not so obvious. Rahilah hasn’t got a pc so I can’t warn her by email. But to both the boys I write ‘I’m getting a bit of aggro – if I seem a bit stand-offish, don’t worry. I just don’t want you getting aggro too.’ I guess they know what I’m talking about. Once Jay finds me by myself in the art room sewing sequins on Trace’s mother’s gold pyjamas from M and S that she’s going to wear as Potiphar’s wife. He gives me half of an awkward hug, surprising himself as much as me from the look on his face. He’s gone at once and I wonder vaguely why he’d come there. He’s not working on the play, he had no real reason. But I’m glad he did.

Nothing actually happens. Nothing. No word comes from Ella either. ‘Are you my twin?’ I ask again. Nothing.

‘You look peaky, Esther,’ Granny says next time I deliver Border. ‘I’m fine,’ I say. Wanting and not wanting to tell Granny what’s happening. I’m afraid that for once she might tell my mother who would see it as one more reason I shouldn’t have gone to Anthony Morris. ‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Just fine.’ I tell her about Joseph just to change the subject. ‘Would you like me to come?’ she asks.

‘Please,’ I say.
‘’Right,’ she says, ‘Tell me the day and then get me a ticket.’

‘Do you want to come with mum?’ I ask.

‘Only if you want me to.’

‘Of course I do’ I say. All the same I’m hoping that granny won’t put on one of her more outlandish get-ups.

Granny as usual knows exactly what I am thinking. ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ she says ‘I’ll wear my ordinary old lady look. If Stuart’s around why don’t I bring him too?

‘Only if you get him to wear his ordinary old lady look,’ I say. Though it’s not such a good joke really, we both burst out laughing. And suddenly I feel much better, better than I have for days.

‘There,’ Granny says, ‘You’ve stopped looking like you’ve seen a ghost. Good.’

The word ghost sends my eyes to the shelf to see if the urn full of ashes is still standing there next to the Hopi Indian pot. It isn’t. Granny sees where my eyes are going, shakes her head, but says nothing. I’ve been too angry with her recently to visit much. But I realise now that I need her more than ever. I need to ask her about Ella more than ever. But I can’t. It’s as if she won’t let me somehow – and at that thought, for a moment, I’m angry with her again.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007



Attached to the top of the mast is the slewing unit. The slewing unit allows the crane to rotate.

The year’s moving on. The baby, Barty, is not just sitting up, he’s almost crawling I see when my sister brings him over again. Now the clocks have changed it gets dark so early I need to take Border for a walk first thing in the morning, or else straight after school. Meaning I can’t hang out by the bus-stop any longer. Granny doesn’t always like me coming first thing in the morning, though, no matter how quietly I open the door, no matter how softly I call Border. She never has liked being woken early, mum says - quite often when she was a child she had to take herself to school. Sometimes, too, I suspect that Granny’s boyfriend is staying, and none of us have ever been allowed to meet him. (Perhaps her boyfriend was one reason she agreed to remain moored in the Gas Street Basin instead of moving Mnemosyne all over the way she used to. But I don’t think that was exactly what mum was thinking of when she urged Granny to stay put. Poor mum.) Those times granny shouts, ‘Forget it, Esther. I’ll walk her later myself.’ And I have to go away leaving Border whining in disappointment behind me.

Clocks changing means Halloween and fireworks night. Fireworks have been going off for a week or two, and every day there are more and more of them. I see rockets, sometimes, reflected in the canals and going up into - where Ella is? – if Ella is?….if I haven’t just invented her.

I love fireworks and fireworks night, I love them almost as much as I don’t any longer like Halloween. I’m too old to go trick and treating the way I used to when I was little, in the village in Worcestershire. I don’t think Trace ever did that here, in Birmingham, let alone Rahilah and Rashid and Jay. Noone in my class does it now, for sure, except for the really bad boys. And they’re not interested in treats unless the treat are real money. They just like the excuse to play tricks, meaning things like throwing bad eggs at peoples’ front doors. One advantage about living in a high flat is that we don’t get even the little kids dressed as witches and ghosts wanting sweeties, let alone the big ones wearing devil masks and t-shirts with skulls on, throwing eggs or flour or whatever.

The boat-dwellers don’t seem to get it either, luckily for them. Or so granny says when I visit her next day, November the first. My gay brother, Stuart, who has come to stay at our flat, is visiting her too. ‘It’s All Souls Day today,’ he says. ‘In Mexico it’s much more important than Halloween. They call it the Day of the Dead, and buy sweets and candles, toys, masks, decorations shaped like skulls, skeletons, coffins, and put them in their windows and all round their houses. It’s kind of creepy, and it’s kind of fun. It’s taking death seriously and laughing at it at the same time.’

I like the sound of this. At the same time I don’t like it. My brother is into death these days and for good reason considering his friends who have died.


Of all my older siblings Stuart’s the one I really know and like. Granny likes him best after me. And I know he likes Granny, he comes to see her as much as me and mum. Though he’s been living in San Francisco lately, he may come back to London now for good. A friend in London has offered him a job in a design studio. He looks happier. Good.

Some of his friends in San Francisco died because of AIDS, he says, some would have, but for the new drugs. On this visit he’s brought the ashes of one of the dead ones in an urn. He was English, like Stuart, and he wanted his family to scatter his ashes in England. In the meantime, Stuart says, would Granny mind hanging onto them until he goes to see his dead friend’s family? It’s awkward hauling the urn around with him all the time. (He must have had the urn in the flat till now, I think. I’m glad he didn’t tell us. Creepy.)

‘Of course,’ Granny says. And she sets the fancy metal urn on a shelf between her Hopi Indian bowl and her Indonesian shadow puppet. It’s creepy yet interesting to see it sitting there: I can’t stop myself trying to imagine the dead person inside: the ashes of the dead person. When I ask my brother what human ashes look like he laughs and says ‘like any other ashes, grey and powdery. Do you want to have a look?’

‘No thanks,’ I say. It doesn’t stop me staring at the pot, remembering Ella for some reason. And thinking: ‘she’s a dead person. I know she is.’ I don’t know why I do think this suddenly, instead of just wondering about it, but I do. If so, it means that that I can’t have made her up in my head, after all. I don’t know which spooks me more: thoughts of a dead Ella or the ashes on the shelf. Maybe the ashes on the shelf more when Granny says, looking at the urn, ‘I’ll be that way myself before any of the rest of you, or so I hope. Good for me, I daresay, to contemplate all that.’

‘No it isn’t,’ I say violently. ‘No it isn’t.’ Though I know that people die – even young ones – someone at my school died once, of asthma – I also know that I couldn’t bear it if anyone I loved died. Granny, mum, Stuart, whoever. How can they sit there being so cool about it all? How can they? They both look at me then. They start talking about other things and I look at them and think how they are two of the people I love best and that’s alright. The cabin of Mnemosyne feels altogether so cosy and normal that after a bit I stop feeling spooked.

‘You couldn’t have left that urn with Mum,’ I say as Stuart and I walk home. ‘Granny’s much cooler than mum don’t you think? I expect that’s why I get on with her much better than I do with Mum.’ My brother laughs. Then he says, ‘Mum’s alright really. Granny gives her a pretty hard time, haven’t you noticed? She’s always given mum a hard time. I mean what would you feel having to grow up with a mother spouting all that sixties stuff the way granny did? Even before the sixties.’

I don’t answer him at first. I watch a line of geese swimming alongside us and think of the way Granny and my mother argue about nothing very much. Only last week, for instance, I heard them going on and on about Granny’s shopping habits: Granny talking to my mother as if she was a cussed teenager – a bit the way my mother talks to me – my mum talking to granny as though she was about ten.

My brother says. ‘They’re bound to be like that because they’re so different, chalk and cheese.’

‘I don’t think it’s as simple as that,’ I say. ‘I mean if Granny’s the chalk one there’s quite a lot of cheese in her too; whereas mum’s got quite a lot of chalk. If you see what I mean,’

My brother laughs. ‘You might be right,’ he says. I add, crossly, ‘What’s it matter if granny hauls all her stuff down from Tesco on foot, instead of letting my mother drive her to Sainsbury’s? Who cares? I feel like telling both of them to grow up! Grown-ups,’ I add. As if my brother wasn’t a grown-up too. Which he is, but also my brother, and so not just another grown-up like Mum is, like Granny is too, though I don’t usually see Granny as an ordinary grown-up.

Because Stuart is my brother and because he also knows about death, I say something I don’t think I could have said to anyone else. I hardly know I’m going to say it to him, until I do. ‘Do you think it’s possible to get an email from someone who’s dead?’

It’s almost dark already. The bright blue lights on the bridge reflect gaudily on the water. We’re about to walk onto the bridge, my brother has his hands on the rail. But he stops dead now, removes his hand, and says quietly, ‘What do you mean Esther?’

I wish I hadn’t said anything. Of course Ella never lived; of course she’s just an imaginary friend. I mumble about it just being an idea for a story or something. But my brother says, ‘Really, Esther?’ When I don’t answer he says, looking at the brightly lit cafés opposite, ‘I think I need a bit of pepping up. Granny does wear you out somehow. How about a cappuccino, Esther?’

‘I love cappuccinos,’ I say. ‘I usually only ever have them when I’m with Granny. Mum thinks coffee stops you growing.’

My brother looks me up and down here with a very serious look on his face. ‘I don’t think you’re in danger of being stunted, Esther,’ he says. ‘Come along.’

As we cross the bridge, I look up to see the writer woman’s room lighted. She can’t see me in the dark, she doesn’t wave – I don’t tell Stuart about her, of course. She is my secret. And soon we are settled in a quiet corner of one of the cafés, and I am taking the chocolate off the milky froth at the top of my coffee with a teaspoon, sighing with pleasure. Stuart allows me a first delicious swallow, before asking, still very seriously–‘What is this about, Esther. You’d better tell me.’ Adding more kindly. ‘If you can tell me? Can you?’

‘I’m not sure I can,’ I say. But he is sitting so quietly and so sympathetically, not pushing me at all, that at last I manage, ‘Did you know Stuart, that I had an imaginary friend called Ella when I was little?’

‘Did you?’ Stuart says thoughtfully. ‘No I don’t think I did know. I didn’t see much of you when you were little, if you remember.’ I nod. He hadn’t come out to mum then about being gay, so he never came home much.

Secrets, I think, so many secrets. I hate them. Even if Stuart’s secret wasn’t secret any more, I know there are others. ‘I had an imaginary friend,’ I say. Then I say –it sounds so silly, so completely loony that I wish I hadn’t the moment the words are out of my mouth. ‘Everyone thinks I grew out of it. But I didn’t. I still have an imaginary friend called Ella.’

‘So?’ Stuart says.

I don’t know what makes me go on then. Maybe it’s remembering Stuart’s dead friend sitting on granny’s shelf between the Indian pot and the shadow puppet; maybe it’s thinking that because of this Stuart more than anyone knows what sadness is about. ‘I imagine I’m getting emails from her. Only I’m not imagining it, not really. I do get them. And so I’m wondering,’ I say – and though it’s such a new thought it seems a very certain one just now; ‘I’m beginning to think there might really have been an Ella once; only she’s dead.’

Stuart is silent then. He starts pinching the little gold earring in his left ear – there isn’t one in his right. I add, anxiously. ‘But it’s only a thought. I still think I made her up, really. I must have, mustn’t I?’ At last he says ‘I think I want another coffee. Would like one, Esther?’

‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘But I wouldn’t mind a piece of the chocolate cake.’ I feel ravenous suddenly.. Suddenly it feels as if there is another person inside me, a hungry one that can’t eat for itself. I fall on that cake when Stuart brings it like I’ve never eaten in my life before, while he sips his espresso in its tiny white cup looking at me with amazement. Gross, I think. But delicious just the same. In a moment I’ve finished the delectable squidgy stuff; am saying contritely, ‘Oh Stuart, I’m sorry, I should have given you a taste.’ Then I say in a sudden rush of worry. ‘You’re not going to die of AIDS are you, Stuart, I couldn’t bear it.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘I’ll die someday, we all have to, you too. But not for a long time yet. I haven’t got AIDS. And anyway you get treatment these days, at least if you live in Europe or the U.S of A. People with AIDS don’t die necessarily. My friend Simon was unlucky.’

‘I couldn’t bear it if anyone else dies.’ I say.

Stuart looks at me again. Anyone else? What can I mean? He starts to say something then he shakes his head and stops. But he does add, after a minute – I’m not sure it’s what he’d been going to say before, ‘Granny’s one of those people can’t ever let go. It what makes her so interesting and so alive, but it’s not always comfortable to be close to her. I don’t always think it’s good for you, Esther.’

I look back at him, staring him out. ‘But I love granny,’ I say, furiously. ‘She’s the best.’ Stuart knows too many dead people, I’m thinking. I’m angry with him, even though it’s not his fault.

‘I never said she wasn’t,’ Stuart says. Maybe he’s guessing my thoughts. He’s said all he’s going to say for now, anyway, more than I want to hear. As for the rest… secrets? For now I think I’d rather they stayed that way; particularly if they are to do with death. (I remember suddenly, fleetingly, the way Granny’s eyes went back and back to that shelf, as if fascinated- as if – this thought comes from nowhere suddenly – as if she was checking out part of herself. No sooner has this thought arrived than it vanishes.)

I stare regretfully at my smeared-with-chocolate but otherwise empty plate. Stuart takes his last swig of coffee and pays the bill. And then we are outside again, by the water. The reflected blue lights of the bridge are like the twins of the real ones. To the side of us, on the building site, a pair of cranes are swinging back and forth, lights winking from the top. They are still swinging back and forth, when we arrive home, in the flat. We stand in the dark looking out of the window, watching them. ‘Twin cranes,’ I say, ‘twin cranes talking to each other,’ not noticing the odd look Stuart gives me then: though I remember it later. I’ve had enough of death suddenly, of ghosts and all that. I tell Stuart about the cranes and about Rashid and Jay. I show him Rashid’s email which I’ve printed up, the one with the different crane names on them, like a poem. I say, wistfully, ‘I’d love to go to the top of a crane one day and look down on everything.’

‘Me I’d rather look down on everything from a plane. It’s safer,’ said Stuart. ‘Lucky you’ll never get the chance to go up one, Esther. I wouldn’t like to think of you doing that,’ – he points to the man, a little pin figure from here, climbing down the long ladder through the middle of the crane. ‘I’m not so sure about that ladder, either,’ I say.

‘Good,’ Stuart says.

I’m not angry with my brother any longer. ‘You’re so cool, Stuart,’ I say looking at him affectionately, ‘I mean cool for a grown-up.’

‘Is that meant to be a compliment, little sister?’ he asks, aiming a pretend blow at me.

We hear my mother’s key in the lock. A moment later she marches into the room, carrying the baby in its little chair. ‘Hullo little nephew,’ says Stuart gathering the baby up in a way that makes me feel almost jealous. After a bit I go to my own room. I don’t think anyone noticed. See if I care.

I switch on my computer and investigate my email. Two new ones: Rashid first, something about homework. Then Ella. I hesitate a moment before getting that one up. ‘Hi, Esther,’ Ella says. ‘LOL Ella.’ Why should that make me think of a grey powder with nubbly stuff in a thin metal urn? But it does. I put on Stuart Rattle playing Beethoven very loudly to drive her away, which works, even though my mother does put her head round the door after a bit and ask me to turn the noise down. Stuart’s head follows. ‘Be grateful its not heavy metal, ma,’ he says, winks at me and disappears. I put my headphones on and listen to the music through them afterwards. I only vaguely hear the doorbell go, hear my big sister’s voice outside. When I come out of my room again she and the baby and Stuart have gone.

The motors that drive the slewing unit are located above the unit’s large gear.

Rahilah and I are friends more and more. One day – it’s pouring with rain outside, we don’t go out at breaktime but hang around in the classroom talking about this and that – I ask her, ‘Would your mum let you come round to my place after school one day? We could do our homework together. And you could meet my mum.’

I don’t believe she’ll say yes, I don’t think she can, coming from her kind of strict family. And she just says, ‘I’ll ask at home. Maybe. I’ve told them I’ve got this nice English friend, and I think my mum noticed yours at the open evening with the teachers. She said she looked nice; older than most of the parents.’

‘She is older,’ I say glumly. I don’t really expect to hear any more about it, I am surprised when only a day or two later Rahilah says, ‘I can come home with you one day, if you like. Only would your mum take me home afterwards?’

‘I don’t see why not,’ I say. My mum would understand the reason, certainly. Even if she won’t much like having to drive through the Bristol Road traffic in the rush hour. And she does say she will do it, provided it’s not one of her baby-minding days. Between us all we arrange things for the next Wednesday. And on that afternoon, instead of Rahilah staying at the bus stop opposite we wait together outside Sainsbury’s, then sit side by side on the top deck of a bus heading for the City Centre. Some girls from our school are sitting three seats back. As we make for the stairs on our way out, they stare at us. They’re not girls I know. I don’t think anything of it.

It’s getting towards Christmas already. New Street is seething with people. The lights along the middle of the street provided by our local electricity power company advertise the company as much as Christmas. Not very charitable really, Rahilah and I agree, dodging Big Issue sellers and shoppers and the remains of Farmer’s Market that always takes up the middle of the street the first and third Wednesdays of the month.

Very soon we are under the motorway, under the arrays of round multi-coloured lights – my mother calls them vulgar: ‘only in Birmingham,’ she sighs. But Rahilah and I agree that they’re pretty as we walk beneath them, and up the stairs through the red façade of the Mailbox. All the smart shops, Harvey Nichols, Armani, are empty as usual. Rahilah stares in at the clothes with much more interest than I feel. I almost have to drag her away from them and in through the private entrance to the flats above.

Rahilah seems awed by everything. Awed by the husky voice in the life, which breathes, ‘you are at the first floor,’ or you are at the second floor,’ and finally ‘You have reached the fifth floor’ - awed by the view out of the windows of the flat when we reach it at last. ‘Yasmina lives on the top floor of the council flats near Northfields,’ she says, gazing at the canals, the lights, the cranes, the cafés over the way, ‘but it doesn’t look like this from her flat.’

What awes her most of all is the fact that noone lives in our flat except my mother and me and my father when he comes home. (Though Stuart is still supposed to be staying with us, he’s gone to London for a few days: just as well, I think, rather meanly. Rahilah would be surprised he wasn’t married yet. All her brothers are married by the time they’re twenty-five. I don’t know what Muslims think about people being gay.) Rahilah’s house, she says, is not only much smaller it’s crowded with people. Not just Rahilah’s parents and unmarried brothers and sisters, but also one of her brothers and his wife and their two small children live in their house. ‘And there are fewer rooms in our house than you have here,’ Rahilah says. She looks at my room as if she can scarcely believe it’s all mine.

‘You don’t know how lucky you are, Esther,’ she says. ‘I do my homework with babies crawling over me, and the television on, and my mother holding conversations with everyone in the front room even when she’s cooking in the back.’

‘We do sometimes have a baby here,’ I say. ‘My sister’s baby comes often.’ I know it’s not quite the same thing as having him live with us all the time. Still, Rahilah and I agree that our both being aunts is something else we have in common, even though this is more usual in large Muslim families like hers than it is in English families like mine.

‘We can do our homework without babies, that’s one good thing,’ I say.

‘Good,’ Rahilah says.

Our biology homework today is about a monk called Mendel who discovered how peas pass on their genes. We have to write an essay describing this, and draw a diagram of inheritance patterns; how each gene has two parts to it called alleles, how you inherit one from your mother and one from your mother. How everyone in a family gets different combinations of these, except in the case of identical twins, created from a single egg, whose genes are exactly the same.

Rahilah’s diagram is better than mine, much neater and stronger. As I stare enviously at her work, Rahilah says quietly: ‘I was a twin, but my twin died when we were born. I think we might have been identical but I don’t know for sure.’

‘You are a twin, Rahilah? I mean you were one?’ My mouth is open with surprise. ‘But that’s so sad. Having a twin, but not being one.’

‘I don’t remember it,’ Rahilah says quietly. ‘But yes sometimes it makes me feel very sad. Sometimes when I think of her I feel quite lonely. My mother told me she was alive a little while, but very weak. And then she died. And she tells me I’m the blessed one because I lived, so they love me all the more for that.’

More death. It’s all I want. But still I eye Rahilah with astonishment, imagining two of her; trying to imagine what it must be like to have a sister exactly the same age as you. ‘What do Muslims think happen to people when they die?’ I ask. ‘What do they think happen to babies?’

‘They go to heaven,’ Ramihah says. ‘Muslims think only Muslims will go to heaven, everyone else who doesn’t believe in the prophet and obey his laws will go to hell. But of course a baby born to a Muslim family must be a Muslim too.’

‘Christians think babies only go to heaven if they’re baptised,’ I say. I don’t know how I know this but I do.’

‘That’s not very nice,’ Rahilah says.

‘Do you think I’d go to hell because I’m not a Muslim, assuming there is a heaven, there is a hell?’ I ask her.

“Would I go to your Hell because I’m not a Christian?’ she asks me.

I hesitate. I’m not sure I believe in the existence of hell, either Christian or Muslim. Nor in heaven either, which is much sadder. I know my parents think that when you die that’s the end of it. So do I really. Though sometimes I wish I didn’t. I like the idea of living forever, in heaven. I want to know what Rahilah believes, just the same.

‘Christians –some Christians – think only people who are baptised will go to heaven, that everyone else, including Muslims, will go to hell. What’s the difference?’ Rahilah asks.

‘Perhaps Muslim and Christian heaven and hell are quite different places,’ I say, imagining the universe out there full of little paradises, little gardens of Eden, all designed for people from different religions. And equally a whole lot of different hot places in the bowels of the earth, making hells for non-believers and evildoers from I don’t know how many different populations and different beliefs. Maybe Rahilah and I are having the same thought. The two of us look at each other and nearly – very nearly –burst out laughing. But we don’t. I think Rahilah takes religion much more seriously than I do. She says: ‘I know a lot of good people who aren’t Muslims, you for instance and I can’t believe all of them will go to Hell.’

‘And I know plenty of good people who aren’t Christians,’ I say, thinking of Granny in particular who always swears she is an agnostic; thinking of Rahilah too. Thinking of my parents come to that. I can’t believe any of them will go to a Christian hell. Assuming such a place exists.

I say, thoughtfully. ‘Jay says Hindus don’t have heaven or hell. You just get reborn as someone else. If you’ve behaved badly in your life you get born as someone very poor and miserable, or even as an animal; if you’ve behaved well you get reborn as a rich man or woman or anyway as a fortunate one.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ says Rahilah, briskly.

‘It sounds far-fetched to me,’ I say. (Though to be honest I’ve sometimes thought it might be quite nice to be reborn as a bird, say, able to fly. Or how about being reborn as Kylie? Or Eminem? Or David Beckham? Or Posh? Or Simon Rattle? Or Simon Rattle’s girlfriend? I’d sooner be Simon’s girlfriend than David Beckham’s wife, any day.)

I had not said any of this to Jay at. I do not say it to Rahilah now. Without a word, we agree to leave it at that and turn to our maths homework.

It’s much nicer doing the work alongside someone else, instead of by myself. Rahilah seems to like it too. Yet I can’t stop thinking about her dead twin, in or out of heaven. I think about her while we sit and eat tea. (Eggs fried with tomatoes; no bacon.) I’m still thinking while my mother is driving us through the traffic to Rahilah’s house, and while I watch Rahilah’s father come out of the house and greet my mother standing by the car, waiting to see Rahilah safely inside. He shakes my mother’s hand. ‘I am glad to see Rahilah friends with a modest English girl who has a decent woman for a mother like your good self,’ he says. (Modest? Me? As things stand I don’t dare be anything but modest. But things might be different one day. I hope one day my legs will look good in miniskirts. I hope I’ll have a boyfriend, at least.)

I am still wondering about Rahilah’s twin while we are driving back home. Turning into the underground car park below the Mailbox, a horrifying, not to say scary thought strikes me: perhaps I’m a twin, too. Perhaps my twin died at birth too; perhaps Ella, my imaginary friend was never an imaginary friend, at all, but my dead twin. In which case why has noone ever told me about her? And is this why I sometimes feel so sad? The next moment I am angry. Angry angry angry.

I clench my fists all the way up in the lift alongside my mother. The voice sings out. ‘This is the fifth floor.’ The usual voice. Except it isn’t the usual voice; it’s a younger one, almost a child’s voice. ‘This is the fifth floor’. ‘This is the fifth floor’. Ella’s voice?