CHAPTER SEVENAttached 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.
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?