Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Part Two Chapters 9-10


What I chiefly feel when we’re back at our flat is how empty it is. Dad’s not home yet; he rarely is till late, and even at weekends he works in his little study at the end of the hall, as far as he can get from my music, he says. (He should be so lucky: I might play loud rock music all the time. I don’t. Except sometimes when I don’t want to feel too freaky and I play a Jimi Hendrix CD that Trace lent me, or a Manic Street Preachers one I don’t mind either. Maybe I’m a normal teenager after all. But not very often)

Except when I play music to relieve the silence, except when other people’s music comes through the floor and the walls, except when Barty comes, our flat is quiet. I’d never realised before how much we were surrounded by other people’s noise; how little noise we made ourselves. Our empty flat is maybe one reason Mum likes having Barty so much. She has few women friends. She rarely goes out for lunch, or coffee mornings. She helps at the Q E hospital once a week but that’s about it. When she’s not looking after the flat and Barty and me and dad, she reads mostly. For the first time in my life I wonder if she’s lonely. Perhaps it’s having seen her so pink-cheeked and lively talking to Mrs Hussein makes me think like this.

It’s complicated feeling sorry for mum. It’s doesn’t make me feel happy either. Perhaps that’s it, I think -perhaps being friends with your mum like Trace is friends with hers, means you can’t take her for granted like I’ve always taken mine. If that’s the case I don’t want to be friends with her. Even though I’m a teenager and should know better, I want to be her child; and cuddled now and then, at least when I feel like it. I want her just as mum.

Next day at school I tell Trace I’d like my ears pierced, I’d like them pierced, like now. Today, even. ‘OK,’ she says, her voice brisk, ‘Cool. If that’s what you want, Est.’ After school we both get on the bus going into the city, and she takes me to a place in the Pallisades Centre, off New Street. The ears are fine. They hardly hurt at all. That gives me courage for the rest: ‘OK,’ I say, rashly, ‘Now my belly button’. But this does hurt, especially when they put the stud in after. At least, I think, grimacing, at least I can hide this from mum. What I can’t hide are the little studs in my ears that I have to leave in for six whole weeks. My stomach churns at the thought of what she’ll say.

Trace goes off to get the bus back along the Bristol Road to Northfields. And I go home to mum all by myself.

I sneak into the flat as quietly as I can. Not quietly enough. ‘Esther’, mum calls, not once but twice. When I go, reluctantly, into the sitting-room, I’m astonished to find Mrs Hussein, in hijab and all-enveloping coat sitting on our big sofa. She beckons me over at once, takes my hand and pats it. She says, to my horror. ‘That’s good, Esther, you had your ears done. It’s something I don’t understand about Western women. Why they don’t have their ears pierced as babies like us?’

After that how can Mum say anything? She doesn’t. But she glares at me behind Mrs Hussein’s back. She is pink in the face again, and the moment I go out of the room I hear lively voices start up again, hers and Mrs Hussein’s both. . It’s nice in a way. But disconcerting. At the same time I want the visit to go on and on, to delay the moment I have to face her.

I will spare you what’s said when she does finally come into my room. Mrs Hussein or no Mrs Hussein she is just as angry as I’d expected. On and on: how she’d thought I had more sense; etc, etc, etc. Boring. I start shouting in the end. ‘You’re so so sad ‘ I yell. I call her an old-fashioned…interfering.. old COW. And worse. I am so angry I almost tell her about the belly-button. I don’t care what she thinks any more. Serve her right. My mum is so really really SAD.

Just my bad luck, one ear gets infected quite badly. It hurts. Mum doesn’t exactly say ‘serve you right.’ She just bathes it with disinfectant, looking frosty, taking no notice when I say; ‘Ouch, it stings.’ She still hasn’t seen my belly-button. That hurts too though not as much. It feels very odd not to say uncomfortable every time I stretch my tummy muscles. I’d never realised before how often you do stretch your tummy muscles.


It’s half-term now. I don’t see anyone. I barely even see Granny. (I’m getting on a bit better with her these days. But when we do meet neither of us mentions text messages from Ella, and we are still awkward with each other: Granny is someone else I can’t take for granted any longer.)

Stuart turns up suddenly, but my relief in seeing him does not last long – he seems unhappy too. He spends most of his time with Granny telling her about some love affair which has all gone wrong. I know this because I hear what they are saying one day when I come to fetch Border. I even hear Stuart crying.

Stuart realises I’ve heard him. When I bring Border back from her run, he comes out and says ‘Not your problem, chicken; don’t worry, it’ll all come out in the wash,’ and he takes me to have hot chocolate at the café to make up for it. He has hot chocolate himself, to cheer himself up, he says. But it doesn’t cheer either of us much. To see him trying to talk cheerfully only makes things worse. (Though I can’t help enjoying the chocolate.)

Next day Stuart is due to go back to London. But when I come to Mnemosyne towards lunchtime to fetch Border I hear him and Granny talking again. This time it’s Granny seems upset. Stuart says something like ‘Don’t you think you should tell her, Nora?’ (Stuart and Norah, our sister, both call Granny ‘Nora’ rather than Granny; which is confusing with Norah having the same name more or less - Norah is a name that’s gone down through Granny’s side of the family for umpteen generations. Granny told mum that being called ‘Granny’ made her feel too old. She must have to have got over that by the time I came along. I think I’m glad.

Tell who what? I wonder, as Granny answers in a voice that almost sounds as if she is crying now, ‘What difference would it make? It might only upset her more.’ These were contradictory statements it seemed to me. Never mind. ‘It’s such ancient history, ‘ Granny says next. ‘Why rake it up again? It can’t have anything to do with ….’ She dropped her voice now. Who? I wondered again. Me? Stuart says again. ‘Maybe not. But maybe it does and maybe you should.’

‘No’, says Granny furiously, in the kind of voice which from Granny, I know, means mind your own business. I could hear it even from here. It makes me want both more and less to know whatever it is she’s not saying. More because yes, it’s a secret, and I always want to know secrets. Less because sometimes, with grown-up’s secrets, when you do get to hear them you wish you hadn’t. That won for the moment really. I suppose I might have gone on wondering about this conversation later even so. Only what happens afterwards drives it right out of my head.

I decide to leave Border for the moment. Seeing smoke coming from Bob’s little chimney I go to see him instead. He shouldn’t have been there, of course, on a weekday, usually he’s out working on the building site - usually I only still see him in the evening. But today he’s not working for some reason. I’m pleased until suddenly I find myself saying something that upsets him very badly. I can’t think why - it was he told me in the first place. But it does upset him.

I’m sitting on a stool drinking tea and looking at the painting on the walls all round me when I suddenly remember who it was had a name like Trace’s mum, Misa, or ‘Artemisa’. Dunking a squashed fly biscuit into a mug of his sweet tea I say, excitedly ‘I heard of someone else the other day with a name like your daughter, Artemis…’ At once the dwarf shouts at me – worse BELLOWS -. ‘What do you know about her, what’s it got to do with you, interfering little…’ so sudden and so loud, I am shocked enough to knock my tea over. ‘Careless little ..’ he shouts even louder ‘Get a cloth, wipe up your own mess.’ ‘You told me about her,’ I say, almost crying as I try to mop up the tea with a cloth from his sink, wrinkling my nose. (The dwarf may be tidy but he doesn’t wash his cloths; it smells. Actually it stinks.)

‘Can’t you wipe up properly? Where were you dragged up?’ he shouts.

I am angry now as well as upset. ‘You told me,’ I shout back. ‘You told me.’

He snatches the cloth from my hand now. ‘Get out --. lazy little…’ So I get out, stumbling up through the door, over the deck, falling over his tiller. It’s a wonder I don’t fall in the canal. I bet if I had fallen in, he’d have left me to drown, I think, running home, tears of rage hurt shock still pouring down my cheeks.. The stink of his cloth remains on my hands all evening. I hate him. If he is one of the dwarves he’s Grumpy. Worse than Grumpy. Horrible.

I meant not to go near him after that. But of course as always when you don’t want to see someone, you keep on running into them. And I keep on running into the dwarf, even though I try not to, in the street, as well as when I go to fetch Border. Worse still he behaves as if nothing had happened. I can’t believe the way he changes all the time, from nice through to horrible. “Hullo, Esther,’ he says, ‘Coming in for a cup of tea?’ I glare at him. Not on your life I’m thinking. But all I say is, ‘Not now thanks.’ Are grown-ups mad is what I’m thinking? It only needs dad to stay at home all day with his feet up, reading the Sun and playing Britney: then I’d know the world really had gone stark raving CRAZY.

I ask Granny about the dwarf. She laughs. ‘He’s like that, Esther, take no notice.’ Fat lot of use that is. Gross. Not to say freaky. He can keep bloody Apollo and Artemis to himself. For ever. No skin off my nose.
And then there's Ella. And cranes. Cranes aren’t my escape any more. She’s taken them over. The would-be crane driver called Ella sends me emails every day with crane information; if not emails, she sends text messages. Kinky. It’s not even interesting – it’s the same kind of stuff Rashid has been sending me for yonks now. …. I won’t bore you with it again. When I don’t answer she sends me more emails on each of which is just one word: Liebherr is the first one: Pecco, the second. And so on.

I am baffled at first. Then I realise, suddenly, that these are the names of different makes of Tower Crane. And sure enough all the others I’ve ever heard of, that Rashid and I have exchanged between us follow: Comanza: Potain: Wolff: Kroll: Lindea: Comedin: Heede: one after the other. When the list ends she starts all over again. On my mobile too. I suppose I should have deleted all the messages without even looking. But I can’t bring myself to do that. Suppose one of those emails or texts explains everything at last?

Is granny getting such messages back from me? I don’t know. I don’t ask. But one day she says quite gently. ‘You seem to like cranes a bit overmuch, Esther, don’t you?’ But that could have meant anything. She is very quiet, Granny, these days. Some days she looks at me as if she’s about to say something. But she doesn’t. What has she got to tell me, anyway?

This is true: that I spend a lot of my time this week gazing out at the cranes, my ears hurting - the infected one hurting. And what I see still are the cranes, growing ever higher as the buildings below me keep on growing upwards. I see that language of theirs, which I still can’t read, which I’ll never read, that’s like everything I’ll never know and long for.

How do I know I’ll never know? I just do. It feels like everywhere I turn comes to a dead end; like every person I know has come to a dead end. Even Rahilah; who sends me the odd lovely email but isn’t there any more. She goes to the Islamic school. I still go to stinking Smelly Poke.

Yet the cranes go on swinging, turning, talking to themselves, and more and more I want to join them.

I dream about them all the time. I’m going up them, walking along their long arms balancing. I’m swinging with their little loads and then I’m jumping, falling and wake up screaming. Mum comes in then, says I’m a bit feverish, it’s that infection in my ear again, silly girl. No, I say, it’s Ella. Ella whose voice I hear everywhere, on the radio, in the lifts. ‘THIS IS THE TOP FLOOR.’

Is it me, going crazy now. Is it ME?
I get a text message from Trace. Meet at MAC, it says, 12 2day? hfterms boring.’ I think hftrm’s boring too. OK I text back: CU. At half-past eleven I get the number Two bus up Broad Street and down through Edgbaston from Five Ways as far the cricket ground on one side and Cannon Hill Park on the other. Then I get out. MAC is the Midland Arts Centre. I’ve been there a few times with Mum for something or other – plays and things at Christmas, or films, but I’ve never met any of my friends there before. It’s better than staying at home round Mum and Barty for sure.

Hi, Trace says casually, when I find her. She doesn’t say anything much else. But we hang out together for a bit, quite comfortably. Trace looks less outlandish there than she does in some places. If anything I’m the one who looks out of place, a mere kiddy, I think, come to play in one of the kiddy playgrounds, even if I have got little studs in my ears these days. Not that I care. Whatever I look like I’m fourteen. And an aunt what’s more.

We drink coffee in the café and eat crisps and yummy flapjacks, go out and look at the ducks. We ignore the notice in the kiddy playground, under 6’s only; we swing on the swings, go on the seesaw, until some mothers chase us off.. Then we come back in and wander into the gallery by the cinema. A large notice offers EXHIBITION OF WORK BY BIRMINGHAM ARTISTS. ‘All crap,’ Trace says dismissively. I don’t see anything I like much either. A few are so way out I can’t make head or tail of them (one has a plastic doll stuck upside down on a photograph of a factory chimney) lots more are boring portraits or landscapes.

Right at the far end, I notice three quite familiar-looking paintings. In a moment I see whose paintings they are –I am quite sure they are; the close lines, the fairy-tale landscapes; closed and open at the same time have to be the Dwarf’s paintings. They look good here, I must say, much better than most. Also a bit sinister. The wreaths of creepers in one painting could choke you any minute. I’m about to say ‘I know the artist, he’s a friend of mine,’ (well he isn’t at the moment, really, but let that pass.) when Trace says; ‘mum’s got a painting like these. It’s by my grandfather. But he’s been dead a long time. I think he has. Mum hates his painting. So do I. I hate these too. I’m off home,’ she says. ‘See you at school next week, Est.’ And she’s gone. Before I’ve had time to ask a single question. I can’t believe this somehow. If it’s coincidence – what else can it be? - it’s yet another thing seems creepy.


The first thing that happens when school starts, is creepier; really creepy. In our classroom after break-time, Trace fumbles in her desk, then hands me a piece of paper. ‘Did you your Ella, at last, like you wanted.’ she says. ‘How I see her.’

She hands it to me face down. I hesitate before taking it from her. I’d almost forgotten asking Trace, it was so long ago, and the way things are I’m not sure I want to see a picture of Ella. She doesn’t exist. Or at least I don’t want her to.

I turn the piece of paper over. A girl stares up at me, frowning, the way someone in a self-portrait frowns, staring at themselves in a mirror. But it’s not a self-portrait. The girl doesn’t look the least like Trace. Yet she reminds me of someone. Who? Granny? It can’t be. Yet she does - the young Granny, the one in all those photographs, frowning and frowning. She freaks me out. I hate it.

I don’t tell Trace this. I just smile and say ‘Thanks, Trace. Cool.’ (I’m getting better at Trace: I really am.) But as soon as she slopes off I open my desk lid, pick out my atlas, the only book big enough to hold the sheet of paper and hide it away. Not that it helps. All the time I’m sitting at that desk, it’s if those staring eyes are boring up at me, through the cover of the book, through the exercise books on top of it, through the desk lid. GRANNY. What is Granny doing pretending to be Ella? I don’t know whether I hate her, Trace, or the drawing more.


Another thing freaks me out today and the next day: all week in fact. I’ve said before how everything keeps changing; not just places, people too – the way Granny has changed lately, the way Mum seems to have a bit. (The Seventh Dwarf of course keeps changing all the time from nice to nasty and back again; but I don’t count that. It’s how he is.)

But now Jay has changed and I don’t count that. He’s playing the fool. There’s nothing unusual about Jay being jokey. But usually he’s just jokey with us. He lies low otherwise, like I’ve said. But now he seems to have forgotten about protective colouring. He’s being funny in a way that is dangerous, I think. I can’t think what’s got into him. And I don’t like it. And in some way I think it’s my fault for telling Jay that they wouldn’t think he was a terrorist, they wouldn’t hurt him because he was Hindu not a Muslim.

He keeps on saying to anyone who’ll listen. ‘Who me? I’m a Hindu.’ Meaning: I’m no terrorist; meaning he’s one Asian doesn’t have to worry about Frankie and Co. But who says Frankie knows the difference between Hindu and Muslim? Who says he cares that there’s a difference? I bet he doesn’t. (I tell Jay this. It’s one thing I do say to him, these days; I even email him to tell him.)

Trace says he’s behaving that way because he’s so angry about what happened to Rahilah. ‘Maybe,’ I say, feeling guilty about that too. ‘And because you’re so nasty to him these days, and because’ she adds, ‘Because you dumped him for Rashid.’

I can’t believe this. It really freaks me out ‘You make it sound like he was my boyfriend,’ I say angrily. ‘It wasn’t like that.’

‘He thought it was,’ Trace says.

‘Well it wasn’t. And Rashid’s not my boyfriend anyway. He’s not allowed girlfriends.’

‘Is that why don’t you talk to Jay any more? Suit yourself,’ Trace says, and off she goes, after maddening me as usual. I’ve got enough problems now without this one. Not everything’s my fault, is it? Or Ella’s? And I do talk to Jay, I mutter, about being a Hindu anyway. I sent him an email. But he never answered the email. He doesn’t listen!

It isn’t that Jay does any more than tease. One day he turns up in the playground with fake gold rings in his ears – of course he has to take them out before coming into school. Another day he wears baggies and hoodies over his school uniform and swaggers about just like Frankie. I can see that some of Frankie’s girls do find him funny. The bolder ones snigger when Frankie isn’t looking. And Frankie himself claps Jay on the back, says ‘Wanna join the gang then?’ smiling. Perhaps he’s too stupid to see Jay is sending him up. I am reassured for a moment –Jay can get away with more than the rest of us because he is funny – when he’s not being annoying. Maybe we too can afford to laugh.

These are his bigger teases. The rest are little niggling ones: jokes; comments; silly drawings on the blackboard in our classroom – Frankie can’t see these because he’s in a different class; but some of his girls can and the brightest one at least can see they’re send-ups. All week Jay goes on doing it, all next week too. By which time Rashid, me and Trace don’t find it funny at all, we’re getting really fed up with him. ‘Can’t you stop playing about for one minute, Jay?’ Trace says crossly. Rashid, in particular, gets more and more nervous. Frankie and Co know he and Jay are friends, and as a Muslim he’s in much more danger. He starts pretending he and Jay aren’t friends any longer. He keeps away from him in the playground. I don’t blame him. I keep away from Jay, too. Which only seems to make him worse. Seeing him comb his hair sometimes I’m so irritated with him, besides worried, I want to scream out, ‘How can you?’ But I don’t. While Jay just keeps on teasing and touching up his hair. I don’t know which is worse.

Everything is bad now: I’ll list the bad things, in no particular order.

1) Having to stay in after school three times in two weeks, because I haven’t done work properly.

2) Trace being cross with me because she thinks I haven’t appreciated her drawing. She doesn’t say anything but I’m sure that’s why she’s unfriendly suddenly.

3) Jay being so silly. See above. Frankie and his gang like sharks circling, waiting to get him. (At least that’s how it looks to me.)

4)) I haven’t had an email from Rashid in ages; or from Rahilah. Rashid smiles at me awkwardly sometimes but nothing more. I don’t know anything about what goes on in Rashid’s head, I realise, much less than I know about Jay’s. How lonely I think. That’s another thing bugs me.

5) Granny being bad-tempered again and not having time for me.

7) Border walking on a piece of glass and cutting her paw quite badly. Granny has to take her to the vet which makes her still more unfriendly (see above), her paw is bandaged, but has to be re-bandaged all the time because she keeps biting it off.

8) Barty teething and grizzling all the time he’s with us. We’ve had him a night or two to give my sister the chance to sleep; meaning mum doesn’t sleep so she’s cross too. Barty is still not walking, no matter how much I encourage him. (Leave him alone, Esther! mum says crossly.)

9) Not talking to the Dwarf. (See above.) Even though it’s my fault.

10) Ella/Granny still sitting in my desk, I keep seeing the eyes. I keep dreaming about the eyes, I keep finding email messages about Ella the crane-driver.

11) It never stops raining. The cranes look as if they’re standing in a sea of mud. The builders have mud splashes all the way up their jeans. Even the ones I know are too fed up to talk to me when I meet them in the street – which I do quite often. I walk past the site on purpose, almost every day. I wish I didn’t. But I can’t stop myself, any more than I can stop opening Ella’s emails. ‘GET UP A CRANE,’ she says most days now. ‘YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE LIVING UNLESS YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE WORLD FROM UP A CRANE.’

12. And then there’s dreaming. Dreams about climbing cranes. And falling. And worse than that.

It doesn’t just freak me out the first time. It goes on doing it. It freaks out mum too as soon as she finds out.

She doesn’t find out for a week or two. It only happens inside my room at first.

The first time I woke up on the floor by my bed I thought I’d just fallen out. I could have just about. But the next time I woke up right over by my desk. And I wasn’t on the floor. I was doubled over my computer as if I’d run into my desk. As if this was what had woken me up.

I still didn’t catch on? Why should it? It had never happened to me before. I just went back to bed and fell asleep and in the morning I thought I must have dreamed it.

But it happens again. And again. And each time I’m a bit further from my bed. Once I wake up by the window. Next time I’m half out of the door, the next halfway down the passage. It’s the time after that mum comes out of the sitting-room and finds me almost at the front door, my eyes shut, like a zombie; then, for the first time, she twigs I’m sleepwalking

Before that I’d told tell myself each time; I was only dreaming; I just dreamed I found myself so far out of my bed. This didn’t explain the odd bruise I picked up; on an arm, on a shin; a small bruise on my cheek that I claimed, even to myself, came from someone throwing a tennis ball in the gym. I didn’t want to know let alone say what was really happening; it was much too scary.

I never sleepwalked before Ella came back. I do now though, but not every night. Mum is worried about it. She has even made me admit to myself I am sleepwalking, though I don’t want to. She keeps looking at me carefully, asking me if I’m alright, if I’m in trouble at school. I shake my head. I’m fine, I say.

(I wake up cold, when I’ve been walking. When I dream in bed, I wake up too hot. One morning at breakfast Dad explains that I’m too cold or too hot, because of thermo-regulation – which automatically cools your body or heats it as necessary when you’re awake but not when you’re asleep. The science master at school talked about this – so I know Dad’s got it wrong; thermo- regulation works when you’re asleep. It’s when you’re dreaming it doesn’t. I don’t tell him. It doesn’t matter. It’s his way of showing that he too is worried about me, about the sleepwalking. I don’t think he knows how not to talk like this.)

Mum has even told Granny about it. Granny thinks she should talk to me now, but I don’t want to talk to her. In particular I don’t want to talk about Ella. But she does. She calls me in each day when I take Border back. But I say I’m in a hurry and won’t stop. One day – is this my mother’s doing? - she comes to the flat, and tries to sit me down in the sitting-room while my mother brings us tea. It is just like a tea party – very polite. I am polite. At first. This isn’t the Granny I know, she is polite too, and anxious, and doesn’t seem sure what to say. Her hands pick up her cup and put it down again. Her hands look older than the rest of her I’ve always thought – mottled with liver spots and with veins that stand out like water pipes. But all of her looks old to me today. See if I care.

Each time she tries talking to me about Ella I stonewall her – this is the politer way of saying I shut her up. ‘Why should I want to talk about my imaginary friend?’ I ask. ‘I grew out of her years ago.’ When she’s tried once too often, I snap. I say ‘Has your boyfriend walked out on you Granny?’ (I think this is possible, he never seems to be around any more. If he ever was.) She flushes at this point. ‘Don’t be offensive, Ella.’ Then realises what she’s said and changes it to ‘Esther.’ in a flustered way. ‘Are you sure you didn’t mean Ella?’ I say nastily. (She’d had been mean to me for a while, I remember. So it is my turn.)

Once as far as my grandmother was concerned I could do no wrong – and vice versa. Now it seems I can do no right. She still seems to want to do right by me; she’s trying very hard now, but she doesn’t know how to any more. She’s too old I think. She hasn’t a clue.

Granny looks hurt at the look I give her. I think she does. I wish she didn’t. One, it makes me feel bad for a moment, two, a truly hurt granny is someone quite new to me, and I don’t like it at all.

It’s a relief when my mother comes back into the room. Not long after, Granny says she’s leaving. I glare at her as she goes out. ‘Hadn’t you better come and walk your dog?’ she says coldly, glaring back. ‘I’ve got other things to do this morning.’ It’s a relief to hear her sounding more like normal, sometimes stroppy Granny. She also looks a bit less old from behind.

My mother makes to follow her. Then, glancing at me, she stays just where she is. She sighs when we hear the front door close at last.

‘You two,’ she says in an exasperated way. ‘I don’t know which of you is worst, my daughter or my mother.’

‘Why does she have to be so nosy?’ I ask.

‘You used to be pretty nosy with her,’ my mother says.

‘I’m going to take Border out,’ I say. But when I get to the Gas Street Basin, Border is tied up outside Poseidon, there’s no sign of Granny or the Dwarf for that matter.


I find Trace outside on the other side of the pontoon, coming out of Bob’s boat. She’s carrying a package under one arm.

‘I found out where he lives and came to see his pictures, and to show him Misa’s.’ is all she says. ‘

‘I thought you didn’t like them, Trace.’ I say.

‘I don’t, I hate them. I just wanted to find out if he’d painted Misa’s.’

‘Did he?’ I ask.

‘He wasn’t saying.’ But nor is she saying anything either. Her face is tight. When she sees where I am going she sets off in the other direction. It would have made much more sense for her to get to the bus by going my way, with me.

Does nobody like me any more?


Not even the crane driver seems to likes me. I run into him just one more time.

He keeps looking round to see if his gaffer’s there. ‘Want to get me in trouble do you?’ he asks me, his voice very unfriendly.

‘No.’ I say. I point to the notice under which he’s standing. GUARD DOGS ON SITE. ‘Does anyone ever try to break into the site at night. Do the dogs get them?’

‘What dogs? That’s just to scare people. Mind you, the fence’s hard enough to get over. I’ve heard of wire-cutters used on some sites, but that’s never happened here, not I know of.’ He looks at me then suspiciously. ‘You’ve not got daft ideas have you?

“Of course not,’ I lie. ‘I’ve just got a story to write for school that’s all.’

‘Oh a story,’ he says. ‘That’s it, is it? Nothing wrong with that, that’s all, just goo and write it.’

He doesn’t even say goodbye. He laughs at me and goes back into the site. Even if his boots are as muddy, his donkey jacket hasn’t got a mark on it, unlike the faded and dusty overalls of most of the other site workers, working on the ground. Only their plastic hats look new and shiny. The hats on a building-site always do look new and shiny, unlike the working clothes.

Next morning at school, Jay turns up with a gold earring just like Frankie’s. He even turns up in class with it. Trace passes him a note, which he passes on to me and Rashid. ‘What’s the new look, Jay?’ she writes. The glare she throws him at the same time makes it clear she’s not giving him a compliment.

‘I’m starting a rap club,’ Jay has written underneath.

I add, ‘You can do better than that, Jay.’ I don’t look at him. Rashid adds nothing, but he smiles at me as he hands the note back to Jay; for the first time in ages it’s one of his melting smiles that turn my stomach over, and that I haven’t had enough of lately. Jay intercepts it – he also intercepts the smile I give back – Rashid has made me feel better for a moment. Trace heaves a sigh as if she’s fed up with the lot of us. But I’m sure she’s just as worried for Jay as I am – as Rashid is.

Doorey comes in then and makes Jay take the earring out. But it’s back in his ear at the end of the day. Worse still I see him walking round the playground with Frankie, who is holding his arm and talking to him urgently, smiling what looks to me a very dangerous smile. Jay looks small besides Frankie, stocky as he is.

‘He’ll have a flat-top next,’ Trace says, sarcastically. ‘I guess it’s about time he got himself a new hairstyle.’

I bet she wishes she hadn’t said that. But worried as we were for Jay, how could any of us have guessed?

Wednesday, 21 March 2007



The thing about border terriers is that their necks are quite thick relative to their heads. If you tightened their collars till they really couldn’t slip them, they’d choke. Even loose, though, it isn’t easy to slip them– for sure Border doesn’t slip hers as often she’d like. I don’t worry about it, not even now, as she gets more and more excited, jumping up, yelping, pulling harder and harder. The cleaner’s paper and cellophane packet is swinging too, wildly. I’m too busy craning my neck round the rising walls of the new flats to see the bottom of the cranes where the ladders start to notice. I only notice when the lead goes slack: when shouts start up all round me.

I look down at an empty collar. And up again to see my dog squeeze through the gap between the gatepost and the gate that a man is closing –not quickly enough –behind the empty dumper truck. The next moment, she’s inside, running, dodging heaps of iron bars and stacks of breeze blocks, haring round walls and deep pits where they’re still laying new foundations. One of the builders, wearing a brown macintosh jacket and an orange helmet is less scruffy than the others - only his boots are muddy. His mouth is wide open, his face red, his nose redder; he is bellowing something at me. ‘I except she’s after a rat,’ I shout back. Advancing right up to me, pushing red face up against mine, the man in the brown jacket hisses. ‘I don’t care if she’s after an elephant: GET HER BACK.’

Obediently, I shout her name - through the gate – they won’t let me go any further. ‘Border! BORDER!’ I know it’s hopeless. Once Border gets the whiff of a mouse, let alone a rat, she doesn’t listen to anyone. It’s one of the things I like about her. She has a free spirit. I see men all over the site trying to catch her, running, stumbling, calling, arms out. But she dodges them easily, sniffs busily away as if nothing in the world exists for her now except the rat or whatever it is. Probably it doesn’t: she’s more like a cat than a dog for concentration. (Not like me for sure – concentrate, Esther, I’m always being told.) I see another small group of builders watching the action, just inside the gate. Are they laughing? I think they might be laughing- laughing all the more as the man in the mackintosh jacket grows angrier. Among them, in a red helmet, redder than his beard, I notice Bob. I see him turning and winking at me.

‘You’ll never catch her.’ I say to mackintosh man. ‘She only listens to me when she gets like this. And not even me, always.’ He just growls back at me. one builder has fallen flat on his face by this time, and another has fallen into a large hole. Luckily he just climbs out, doesn’t seem to have hurt himself. Bob comes out of the gate. ‘You’ll have to let her in, there’ he says nodding his head at me. ‘Noone else can catch her. She’s a bugger is Toilet Brush.’ ‘Bugger’ is a word I’m not supposed to know; nor any of the words mackintosh man let’s fly now. But I do of course. You should hear the kids at Anthony Morris, Smelly Poke.

‘She’s not ‘Toilet Brush,’ I yell at Bob. As usual he takes no notice. He’s another one just like Border. ‘She’s just a kid,’ the donkey-jacket man is shouting to anyone prepared to listen, ‘Noone unauthorised is allowed on site. And a kid! It’s not safe. Health and Safety wouldn’t have it.’

‘Border isn’t authorised,’ I mutter to myself. By this time two more builders have fallen over, and Border has vanished all together; with all those new little walls in the way, no wonder. I can hear her yelping the way she does when she’s found a mouse or something. But that’s it. Noone is running any more. They’re all walking round, eyes on the ground looking for her. Bob says again to mackintosh man. ‘You’ll have to let her in.’

The bossman – I assume mackintosh man is the bossman– glowers at him, rips out another string of forbidden words, shouts something at another man. Who laughs, takes off his –yellow – helmet, and hands it over. Unceremoniously the donkey-jacket man jams it on my head. Crooked. Bob very kindly reaches over and straightens it.

‘You’d better get her then. And be quick about it,’ the man says, then mutters, ‘Health and Safety’d murder me for this, the bustins.’ (The looks on faces all around suggest to me they’d love Health and Safety to murder him. I know I would.) I go in through the wire gate now, a little uncertainly, followed closely by Bossman and Bob. I mean to hand mum’s jacket in the cleaners bag to Bob, but I forget in all the excitement; at being here at last, inside the building site.

I still can’t see Border. I can’t hear her any more either She’s quite disappeared down some hole or other. I run around, the jacket swinging awkwardly, yelling her name, tripping over this and that, slipping on muddy patches in my turn. It’s not too long – I’m not aware of going there on purpose, but I daresay I do– before I find myself standing under the widespread legs of one of the cranes. This is the nearest I’ve got to a crane in my whole life. ‘Cool’, I think, peering upwards.

I can see just where the ladder starts. It wouldn’t be difficult to put my foot on it; to start climbing upwards, still clutching the cleaner’s bag. I have forgotten Bob and Bossman, close behind me. I have almost forgotten that I’m supposed to be catching Border. As I adjust my unfamiliar and too big helmet, I hear Boss man saying nastily – he makes me jump - ‘I suppose that bloody dog can climb can she? I suppose she’s after a rat up there. Get out of it. Get on with it.’ Bob winks at me. ‘Go on, man,’ he urges me. ‘Go on.’ Is urging me to climb? Cool. And cooler. Maybe not. Reluctantly I move backwards. And yell again, obediently. ‘BORDER’

Excited yelps. I head towards them, dropping mum’s jacket. And suddenly there she is at my feet grinning and panting. When mackintosh Bossman bends down to grab her, she eludes him, runs off again, he almost pitches head-forward into the mud. I wish he had done. I can hear him swearing still more as I run after her. In a moment she’s waiting for me again, her head turned my way, her tongue out, panting, her sides heaving. When I pick her up she makes no fuss, just licks my face.

We are escorted from the site by Bossman (furious) and Bob (slyly grinning into his big beard and carrying, though I don’t notice yet, mum’s jacket.) The moment we are out of the gate, the yellow helmet is snatched off my head.

‘You dare,’ Bossman says, ‘You dare let that animal anywhere near my site again, I’ll shoot her. I’ll wring her neck,’ he amends, as if realising suddenly there’s unlikely to be a gun available. ‘And yours.’ Bob winks again and hands over the jacket still on its wire hanger, though the bag’s all rucked-up and split, the sleeves of the jacket muddy. Bossman, followed by Bob, goes inside the gate and slams it shut. As Border and I head for home, Border on her lead, me frantically scrubbing at the mud on the jacket, I look back once. A line of builders inside the fence are staring after us, grinning. Some of them even look as if they are clapping.

(I’m in BIG TROUBLE at home of course. I’m sent straight back to the cleaners with the bag. I’m going to have to pay for the jacket to be re-cleaned out of my allowance. At this moment, really, it almost seems worth it.)

Cheered by my adventure in the building site, I send a long email to Rashid, the first in ages. Writing – remembering – brings everything back clearly. (Remembering always makes me live things much more fully than at the time. I think this is sad. I tried to explain to Granny once how my time rushes by too fast, but she only laughed and said; ‘At your age? that’s nothing! Just wait till you’re old!’)

I remember for instance; what it felt like being right under the spread white legs of the cranes. How much higher the top seemed from there, looking up through the platforms, up through all the sections of ladder. Higher than it ever seemed away from them, or even from high up, out of my window.

“It makes you feel really small,’ I write to Rashid, ‘The smallest thing in the whole world. Yet if you once got in there it would be easy enough, even if you’re not very tall. The rungs aren’t far apart and there’s a hole in each platform you get to, which looks easy enough to climb up on.

I have to go back down past the site next day to fetch mum’s recleaned jacket. I glance at the site sideways as I pass it, a bit embarrassed in case someone recognises me. Without Border, noone seems to. But a little way down Holliday Street, I run into another builder. He does recognise me.

‘You proper woon’d up old stinker. All us enjoyed that,’ he says. ‘Site manager’s OK, but foreman’d see you out of a job if you turned your back on him. He gets on us all us wick.’ He seems so friendly I dare ask what I’d have to do to get to go up a crane. The man stares. ‘You’re joking. What you wanna go up thor for anyroad? Folk bigger an’ stronger than you get half-up, look down, start shaking it’s so high and can’t move another step, One o’ us ha’ to fetch ‘em down then, it’s a booger.’ ‘I don’t mind heights,’ I say pleadingly. ‘That’s what all them bustin’s say,’ answers the builder shaking his head, putting up a hand to check his helmet. ‘There’s lots of blokes on this site wouldn’t go up there I tell you. Not like us’

‘Us?’ I say. You mean you are a crane driver?’

‘Who’s askin’ then?’ he says. He’s teasing me now.

‘I am,’ I say.

‘Well then, s’pose I am. What’s it to you? You want to be one ‘n all. Girl like you?’

‘There are some women crane drivers,’ I say, ‘Aren’t there?’

‘None I know. What’s so interesting about cranes to you then?’

‘I like watching them,’ I say. ‘They’re beautiful.’

‘Beautiful?’ he says. ‘Cranes? Beautiful.’

‘Yes.’ I insist.

‘They’re just big tools, that’s all. Try sitting up top of one all day, the way I do. Beautiful.’ He starts laughing again then. But I don’t want to go away now, this is the first crane driver I’ve met, and I’ve got questions for him. Again Border and I wait, not very patiently. As soon as he stops laughing I ask, ‘What have you got in your cab up there then?’

‘What haven’t I got,’ he says.

‘Like what? I insist.

‘Everyone asks me that,’ he says.

‘Well then?’

‘I’ve got a flask and a plastic box with my dinner,’ he says. ‘And a radio. I like listening to Radio Birmingham, the pop one. I had a request played the other day. That Darius. I like him, or rather my missus does. I got it played for her.’

‘What else?’ I ask. ‘

A photo of my missus and kids. One or two others.’ He winks. Pin-ups I bet he means. I scowl anyway - pin-ups are worse than Barbie, of course they are. (‘Degrading for women, Trace would say, in that voice which might or not mean she’s sending that idea up along with the pin-ups.)

‘What else?’

‘Want to know it all, don’t you,’ he says.

‘I do want to come up a crane one day,’ I say.

The man laughs. ‘That’s what they all say. Till they’re halfway up.’

He leans down pats Border approvingly. Laughs again and goes off. And I still haven’t managed to ask him what he does about peeing up there. Or poohing.


Back home in my room I get up the crane site on the internet. I go into its message board. There’s a message from an administrator. ‘Yet another unsecured crane.’ There’s also a message from someone who signs herself ‘Ella.’ (A woman crane-driver! Or who will be. So much for the man crane-driver saying there weren’t any, I think, triumphantly.)

‘Hey all you guys up there,’ it says. What’s your advice to a gal who wants to be a tower crane-driver? Probably you’re going to tear my butt off. sooner than see female up there? I can't wait to get started. I love buildings, so why the heck not build them? I love cranes, especially Towers. So why not earn my bread and butter working with them? I know the job will have its sucky moments, but doesn't everything?’

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps quite another Ella. This Ella doesn’t write all like my Ella. I think she doesn’t. This Ella too sounds properly grown-up. But all the same it’s creepy.

(If it is her, I wonder suddenly, is she telling me to get up there, to be a crane driver too? Noone has answered her yet. I’m certainly not going to.)

I go into my email. Ella again; yet another message; the first for ages. ‘Crane drivers united. Reach for the sky, it says. xxElla’ And then my mobile beeps and here she comes again. ‘Keep on climbing, Ella.

I don’t know if Rahilah gets emails and so on from her dead twin, but I do know she understands what it is to have someone else out there, just beyond reach. bugging you. In my desperation I give the number to my mother at last and stand over while she rings her.


Going to tea at Rahilah’s is lovely: almost the last nice thing that happens. It’s almost all downhill afterwards.

Mum comes too – Mr Hussein says he can’t expect her to drive me all that way and then come back again later. I’m cross about this at first, but it turns out fine. Cool even. Mum looks really happy, she and Rahilah’s mother get on like anything, even after Mr Hussein comes in and doesn’t leave them alone for a minute.

I’ve never been in such a crowded and busy house. It’s not just all the people, men women and children. It’s also the noise – at least two radios, though not in the room where we are. (From one
comes the voice of a waily singer, from the other Banghra. It’s also all the furniture and ornaments and decoration. There are sofas, chairs, tables, sideboards, mixed up with bright-coloured plastic gear for babies and small children. There’s even a baby bouncing up and down, laughing, in a baby bouncer anchored to a doorframe. People going in and out – they go in and out all the time – have to push him aside like a curtain. It just makes him laugh the harder..(‘We never had any of those Baby Bouncers in Pakistan,’ I hear Mrs Hussein say to Mum.)

There are figured metal bits and pieces, jugs with tall spouts and elaborate knobs on the lids, china bowls, plates, cups. There are patterns on everything, on the china plates, on the fringed tablecloths, on the chairs and sofas, on the walls. And there’s even a kind of patterned, smell – incense – cooking – spices – babies. All mixed up.

And the food! It’s a feast. The coloured sweets and cakes Rahilah brings to school sometimes, so does Jay - Gulab jamum, and bright coloured squares made of I don’t know what (boiled down milk, Rahilah once said, but it doesn’t taste or look like milk.). Also savoury stuff, parathas and samosas, onion bhajies, little kebabs on sticks. And there’s fruit – apples and oranges, but also papayas and mangos. And there’s tea, of course, and juice and coke. Mum and I are made to eat and drink till we’re stuffed. Rahilah sitting next to me laughs and eats much less. But then she’s not being asked to eat too much.

It’s the first time I’ve seen Rahilah without a headscarf. Her hair is long and glossy and very black. She’s wearing jeans and a bright t-shirt just like me. Unlike me she has ear-rings and three or four gold bracelets on each arm. Her sisters and sister-in-laws – I count at least four – there are no men or boys around except two little boys and a rather sulky-looking twelve year old who says nothing – are wearing western dress, too, apart from their jewelry.

Even Rahilah’s mother isn’t wearing a hijab, though she does wear a long dress, like a kaftan. I remember Rahilah explaining saying why her mother liked to cover herself up. It makes me laugh to myself. Her mother laughs back as if she knows what I’m thinking. Then she whispers something to my mum and laughs again. By the look of it Rahilah’s mother finds life one huge joke. Even though what happened to Rahilah was no joke.

Rahilah and I are allowed to leave the table eventually. We go upstairs to the room where Rahilah sleeps -they’ve fitted in a desk for her now next to her bed, with her new pc. She still doesn’t have it to herself of course. Three other beds are jammed in besides hers. It looks like their occupants have to crawl over each other to go to bed. Above Rahilah’s desk are four shelves, reaching almost to the ceiling. The three lower ones are crammed with books – school books, story books: Harry Potter I notice. Also books with Arabic writing. (Can Rahilah really read that? I wonder, very impressed.) . The top shelf holds ornaments – two little perfume holders with long spouts; two little candles, two little patterned plates.

Why two of everything? I wonder. Is it because of Rahilah’s dead twin? It doesn’t seem tactful to ask. I don’t. I am feeling quite shy of Rahilah after all this time: after what happened to her.

“Are you alright again?’ I ask her. ‘Are you really alright? It was all my fault.’

‘No it wasn’t,’ Rahilah says. ‘It was never your fault. It was just those stupid girls and Frankie.’

I shake my head. She shakes her’s back, smiling. ‘But are you alright?’ I insist.

‘Don’t I look it? Of course I am alright. OK, it was horrible at the time. But it’s over. There’s not even going to be a scar, not even where the stitches were. Look,’ she says and lifts back her black hair from her cheek. I can see the scar now. I am horrified. It’s quite jagged, though beginning to turn white, not raised any longer.

It makes me feel still shyer of her. As if she guesses, Rahilah says. ‘It’s alright, Esther. STOP WORRYING.’ She says it crossly. For a moment her face turns bleak. It’s alright,’ she repeats as if to convince herself as well as me. Then she giggles. And I giggle. Things are OK again, just about. Even though what she says next would have made me feel me bad again if she hadn’t glared at me meanwhile, daring me to feel bad.

‘I hate the Islamic school. It’s boring. All girls, some of them so religious it’s boring. And the teachers put you in straight lines and talk at you, and you’re not supposed to talk back, let alone disagree with them, the way you’re allowed to sometimes at Smelly Poke. (I was amazed to hear Rahilah calling our school that. She never did when she went there.) ‘And there’s all that religion. Gross,’ she says. ‘Gross.’ This is a new rebellious Rahilah. But I don’t think that’s Frankie’s fault, I really don’t.

‘Can you read Arabic writing?’ I ask. ‘The Koran yes. I’ve always had to read that. Some people says girls don’t need to, but my father says girls should, just like boys.’

‘Why don’t you ask to come back to Smelly Poke, if you hate the Islamic School?’ I ask.

‘My father says he won’t let me go to a school where you have boys like that. He says ‘it will be murder yet.’ Here Rahilah uses, rather wickedly, the accent both her parents have talking English, very different from her own Brummy. But maybe she doesn’t know she’s doing it. Maybe she talks to them that way herself.

‘You are lucky to be allowed to wear earrings,’ I say gazing enviously at Rahilah’s gold dangles. ‘I keep asking mum to let me have my ears pierced but she won’t let me.’ (I don’t add that Trace has said once or twice. ‘She can’t stop you. I can take you to an ear-piercing place if you like. It’s nicer to have someone to go with.’ Does Ella have pierced ears, I wonder, gazing up at Rahilah’s twin plates on their high shelf.)


Rahilah’s father, Mr Hussein, has arrived home by the time we go downstairs. He is wearing a little grey fur cap and a big coat which he does not take off. He is fattish not very tall and talks all the time, loudly and effusively, (this the first time I’ve had the chance to use the word ‘effusive.’) He makes the room seem smaller than ever, He tries to persuade mum and me to start eating all over again. ‘My family has been starving you, I can see. Muna, Fatima, what are you thinking of, bring tea, bring cakes, bring samosas! You are quite neglecting our guests.’ Rahilah’s mother just laughs and takes no notice. He does not seem to notice she is taking no notice. He accepts the cup of tea she hands him, sits down on the chair next to mum and proceeds to question her closely and precisely about my academic progress. A small boy is sitting at the table next to him now. All the time he is talking to mum, Mr Hussein is feeding titbits straight into his mouth, just as if he was a little bird – some samosa here, a sweet thing or a piece of meat, there. The boy opens his mouth obediently and gobbles up every one. His dark eyes are staring at me all the time. I smile at him but he is too busy eating to smile back.

Mr Hussein turns to me after a while. ‘Your mother is giving me a good report, Esther,’ he says. ‘And Rahilah is telling me too you used to help her with her school work.’ I blush: it was so much more the other way about. I see my chance though. ‘Rahilah helped me,’ I say. ‘I don’t do nearly so well when she’s not there. I hope you’re going to let her come back to Anthony Morris one day, Mr Hussein.’

But he is not having this, not now. He sighs and throws his hands and eyes in the air and says ‘Mrs Hussein and I are both saying, Esther, that it won’t do. Your school has many merits, the teacher in your class, Miss Key, is an excellent teacher. But we cannot allow our precious daughter to come to a place where are lurking such dangers; such wicked boys and girls who can such things.’

My mother is frowning at me. This is clearly something I should not have mentioned. And in any case, it is time for us to leave. We do – with many requests for us to return again soon to what Mr Hussein is calling his humble abode and which is growing more and more crowded as Rahilah’s brothers and brothers-in-law start arriving home.

Mr Hussein has taken the bouncing baby down from the door -people now merely have to push the baby bouncer aside when they want to go in and out. He has the baby on his lap. He is bouncing it up and down there, bouncing it even more emphatically when he has a point to make. The baby doesn’t seem to mind. It laughs the harder, or else looks wonderfully puzzled and solemn. (Though this baby has much darker eyes and a lot of much darker hair, it reminds me of our baby Barty when he was a bit younger. I’ll never see that Barty again, I think, feeling a little sad.)

‘Mum can I have my ears pierced, please,’ I ask on the way home. ‘Rahilah’s are, so why can’t mine be?’

‘Certainly not Esther. You are still much too young. Rahilah comes from a different culture, it’s different for her.’

‘The Islamic school does sounds boring,’ I say..

‘There you are then,’ mum says, as if it settles everything.

It doesn’t. I’ll take Trace up on her offer to go with me to have it done, I think. I really will this time. And I’ll get my belly-button done at the same time. See if I don’t.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

PART TWO Chapters 5-6


The machinery arm contains the machine’s motor and electronics as well as the large concrete counterweights.

The only nice thing about Spring Term is its name. Actually it’s got nothing to do with Spring, it’s just winter, grey and wet and cold and miserable on and on and on. BORING. I hate February. The only nice thing ever happened in February was about three years before we came to Birmingham when Granny arrived out of the blue. ‘Only my mother would be mad enough to make such a long canal trip in WINTER,’ my mother said.

I rather liked the idea of granny being mad. I thought my mother was much madder, not to say boring, for being sensible all the time. Bringing Mnemosyne our way in winter was much more like fun.

That was the first time I got to know granny. I’d only seen her a few times before, and only for a short time. She made up for now. She let me stay overnight on Mnemosyne, in her little spare bunk - I loved the way the boat rocked gently all night. And not long after she took me for a three day trip up the canal towards Birmingham.

‘Bring your bike,’ Granny said. She kept it for me on top of the cabin, alongside the jumble of ropes, boxes, plant pots with flowers in them. Sometimes I sat there too watching the towpath roll past. Sometimes I sat alongside Granny in the stern while Border sat on the roof, watching in her way, unmoving, like a cat. Sometimes I rode my bike along the towpath besides the narrow boat, Border running after - we went much faster than the boat and had to stop to let Granny catch us up. Other times, best of all, Granny let me take the tiller and showed me how to steer and turn without hitting the bank (the hard thing is you have to push the tiller the opposite way to what you’d expect.) She taught me how to open the lock gates with the special metal tool, called a key, though it doesn’t look like one, to swing them open, so that she could steer Mnemosyne into the lock. I enjoyed working the locks.

Once, when another narrowboat owner was there to work the bottom gate I’d got back on to Mnemosyne with Granny. But I didn’t much like the boat going down and the dark damp-streaming walls of the lock getting higher and higher round us. When the gates opened again and we went out onto the open canal it felt like being let out of prison. Suppose the gates don’t open? I’d thought, for a moment. Suppose we never managed to get out?

Now I come to think of it this so called ‘Spring’ Term in Birmingham feels a bit the same. Some dark damp place from which I’ll never get out. Only worse, especially after what happens to Rahilah.


For several days after I’ve talked to Rahilah I don’t go to school; I’ve got a bad cold, a bit like flu. with a temperature. That’s another of the bad thing about the Spring Term, everyone gets ill; the classroom is full of people coughing and sneezing.

I don’t mind being ill for once; it’s nice having mum fuss round me. It’s nice not having to listen to this teacher or that complaining about my work. It’s nice not having to wait for the bus in the rain, morning and afternoon, and being turfed out into a cold damp windy playground during break and at lunchtime. It’s nice not having to think about Frankie and his lot.

I creep out of bed every day though to check my email. I send a few with those down-turned mouth not smileys to show I’m ill to Jay and Rashid -. I don’t get any back, but I’m feeling too bad to mind much. I don’t get any from Ella either. Thanks for that.

I go back to school on Monday; no Rahilah. I assume she’s got what I had; quite a few other people in the class are away too. I certainly don’t connect it with the smirks of some of Frankie’s girls when I come in through the school gates. I do wonder why there’s a group of Muslim girls in headscarves looking at me and whispering; but that has happened before during Rahilah’s and my friendship. I don’t have time to hang about the playground and talk to anyone. I’m late.

It’s double maths first, my hated maths, still worse than usual because I’ve missed a week and don’t understand anything, especially without Rahilah to explain. I’d have asked Trace but she’s not there: she has got flu, the teacher says during registration. It’s no good asking Jay maths aren’t his thing either; Rashid I can’t ask for the usual reasons –I do send him a note saying ‘why haven’t you emailed me?’ But he shakes his head glumly and doesn’t look at me. Jay doesn’t look at me either. Maths: I think. As usual that teacher has got us by the…But I begin to feel a bit uneasy.

I try to catch Jay when the bell goes, but he rushes out. So does Rashid. I feel uneasier still. I’m not made to go out into the cold playground this break-time because of just being back from flu. I go back to our classroom, and open my desk take out my copy of Lord of the Flies ready for the next class. A piece of paper falls out. On the back of it are rows of smilys in red ink. On the other side is written, also in red ink


Rahilah, It has to be something to do with Rahilah. I grab the first person who comes into the room, not a friend, a fat girl called Janice, who doesn’t seem to like anyone much, not surprisingly since noone much seems to like her – people say she smells, though I’ve never noticed it. I feel a bit sorry for her but that’s about it. She jumps when I scream at her; ‘What’s happened to Rahilah?? What’s happened. ‘ Janice blinks. She’s like that.

‘How should I know?’ she asks.

‘Rahilah,’ I scream back; ‘in our class; the one wears a headscarf.’

‘Oh, a Muslim girl,’ she says, as if Muslim girls don’t count really. ‘Oh her.’ She adds reflectively as if glad to find someone even less popular than her, ‘She got attacked; out of school, by some girls – girls from our school, probably, but noone knows for sure, they had balaclavas on.’ (Oh don’t they, I think. I know who. I know who exactly.) ‘How badly attacked?’ I ask, furiously. Janice blinks again.

‘Her scarf got torn off,’ she said. ‘She was wearing earrings, someone said. We’re not allowed to wear earrings at school.’

‘But was she hurt,’ I scream. ‘Was she hurt?’

‘She might of got a black eye. All her books and papers were pulled out of backpack and torn up.’

I can’t bear it; it’s ALL MY FAULT. If I hadn’t talked to her … they told me not to talk to her. I could hardly see Janice now for tears though I can hear her– she hasn’t finished yet. ‘She – the Muslim girl - had red paint poured over her,’ she says.

Why haven’t Rashid and Jay told me? I’m angry with them now; it’s easier. I’m angrier with Jay, I don’t want to be angry with Rashid.

The rest of the class come in then and look at me curiously. I go on crying, who cares what they think. One or two of the nicer girls try to comfort me, but they can’t. Rashid and Jay I notice looking uncomfortable. I hold tears enough to glare at Jay. ‘But you’re a Hindu,’ I say through them. ‘Not a Muslim. They won’t hurt you. Why couldn’t you tell me?’ The teacher arrives then. She sends me to the school nurse. The school nurse is very nice, makes me lie down for a bit until I stop crying and shaking, she says I’ve probably come in too soon after flu. She asks if my mother will be at home and when I say yes, she sends me home.

But when I go to get my coat etc from my locker, I find everything has been pulled out and thrown on the floor and my anorak has been slashed and daubed with red ink, and the covers of my books have been daubed too and some of them even torn off.


Quite how I get out of school and on the bus, I don’t know. I walk home via the Gas Street Basin – I’m calmer now, zombified more like. I hammer on the door of Mnemosyne – a surprised gull flaps up from the roof of the boat. I can hear Border barking inside, whining, whining ever more frantically – I want her almost more than I want Granny. I want to see her smile at me, and make her greeting noises. I want to bury my face in her lavatory-brush brown coat. But I can’t reach her. Granny’s not at home. I think she would have let me in otherwise. Hearing me scream the way I am doing. People are looking at me from the other side of the canal. I don’t care. I’m weird. GROSS. I don’t care.

No good trying Poseiden. The Seventh Dwarf won’t be back from building yet. All I can do is go home, creeping into the flat very quietly so that mum won’t hear me. So that I can go into my room and hurl myself on my bed and cry, scream, whatever I need to do to shut out the horrible pictures in my head. Pictures of Rahilah, my friend, above all; of what has been done to her. I don’t seem to know what the world is any more. I don’t know which way it’s facing.

But I am not quite quiet enough. Before I can get to my room, Mum comes out of the kitchen and sees my torn, dirty, anorak – ‘What on earth,’ she starts saying, then she must have seen my face. ‘Oh Esther,’ she says, and to my surprise I fling myself into her arms, glad she’s there after all, howling and howling into her red winter sweater instead of into my bed. I even end up telling her what’s happened, while she makes me sweet coffee, because it’s what I say I want. She doesn’t once say I shouldn’t be drinking coffee at my age, doesn’t once hint once that nothing like this would have happened if I’d gone to the nice kind of school she’d planned for me instead of the Comprehensive in Smelly Poke. She’s alright sometimes, my mum.


But for some reason when I go to bed that night, the face I see while I lie tossing about isn’t Rahilah’s let alone Mum’s. It’s Granny’s. Not her present face. The face of Granny as a child frowning through the family albums stacked above her bed.

In all the times I asked her why she looked so sad she only answered once: ‘I was an only child; Esther. I expect I felt lonely.’

‘I’m only child,’ I said. ‘Pictures of me aren’t sad. Not like that.’

‘You’ve got brothers and sisters,’ granny said. ‘I didn’t have any.’

‘Grown-up brothers and sisters,’ I said. ‘I might just as well be an only child. It’s just as lonely.’ I was almost feeling sorry for myself now. Granny just laughed, though. And I still don’t have a clue about what was biting her those long-ago days, frowning at the camera as if the miseries of the world were on her back.

Thinking these words, ‘the miseries of the world on her back’ makes me remember Rahilah. I cry a bit. I can’t sleep.

At school next day I want to ask her friends if she’s alright. Which is stupid of me, after all Frankie’s lot might do the same as they had done to Rahilah if they saw any of them talking to me. They know it. They hurry away as soon as I come near. They look at me as if I am a murderer, as if I am dangerous.

Trace is back at school now. ‘Not your fault, Es,’ she says once from nothing and nowhere. She even touches my shoulder. But then she goes away again. And though I don’t get any more nasty notes, one of Frankie’s girls seems to be there, smirking at me, wherever I look. I hate them. I hate the world. If anyone took a picture of me now, I think, I’d look just as sad as Granny in all those pictures - just as lonely. I switch off my mobile. I don’t even bother to check my email when I get in. Who could be texting me, who could be writing to me except Ella? And I don’t want to hear anything from her.

Surprisingly – surprising to me anyway – my best comforter now is Barty, my little nephew. When I come in from school and hear him there, I run to the sitting-room. I love the smile comes over his face, his shouts of glee when he sees me.

He is crawling everywhere now. He is also pulling himself up. He’ll be walking soon, I think. I want to walk him for me before he walks for anyone else. I kneel a little way away and hold out my arms – ‘Come on Barty, come on, walk to Esther,’ I urge him. But each time he smiles, drops to the floor and crawls my way.

‘He’s not ready yet, Esther’ my mother chides. ‘He’s not 10 months He’s only just learned to crawl.’

But I want him to walk towards me now, this minute. Then the world will seem right again – nearly right – I think.


The motor in the machinery arm lifts the load.

That night in bed, I fall straight to sleep. I dream I am running away from something, running and running. I can’t see where I am at first; the legs of tall steel towers loom around me. Not solid legs – open legs cross-hatched with steel girders. They are cranes, I realise. In a moment I am on a ladder in the centre of one of them. I am climbing, fast as I can, gasping for breath. Then I am at the top, gazing dizzily at Birmingham spread widely below. I look towards our flats. I see a face at my window. Granny’s face I think at first – then - Ella? -or is it me? – ‘Ella!’ I cry ‘Ella!’ and make a huge jump towards the window – where Rahilah’s face awaits me now; not one but two Rahilahs – twins. For a moment I soar ecstatically. Suddenly I am falling, falling - before I can hit the ground I wake up, shaking, sweating, crying.


I don’t feel like going back to sleep after that. I get out of bed and turn on my computer. Almost without knowing, I get my email up, my finger poised on the delete button in case there’s anything from Ella. I won’t read any message from Ella, not ever again.

I do have a message. I click on and inspect it. And to my amazement it’s not from Rashid, not from Jay, certainly not from Ella. It’s from Rahilah who doesn’t have a computer, who’s never sent me an email before.

Dear Esther, I read. Fatima told me what happened to you. I am so sorry. And I wanted to tell you that what happened to me was not your fault. Not at all. Our friendship is good, it doesn’t deserve that. My father says the same thing. I told him that they’d done bad things to you too, and he said that it was a betrayal of your hospitality to me, that we should make amends for it. He has asked if your mother would be so good as to come with you to our house one day, for an example of Muslim hospitality. He has asked me to give you our phone number so your mother can ring us and arrange a day.

Rahilah sounds so formal here it might be her dad speaking. Maybe it is her dad speaking. But at the bottom she adds – and this has to be real Rahilah: I am not coming back to Anthony Morris, Esther. I’m going to the Islamic School for Girls. Daddy has given me a computer to make up. I miss you Esther. You are my friend. love Rahilah.

I am almost as angry with Rahilah now as I am pleased to hear from her. NOT COMING BACK TO SCHOOL? HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME, RAHILAH? I turn the computer off straightaway. I do not give my mother her phone number.

More than ever I hate this time of year. The sky is always grey. Winter seems everlasting. At school I still spend my time looking over my shoulder for Frankie’s lot but they don’t seem on my case any more. I miss Rahilah so much. Without her, I’ve got noone to giggle with. (It’s funny I should remember her for that - I’d always thought Rahilah so serious.) Trace doesn’t giggle, ever. And at the moment she seems totally wrapped up in her own concerns, just as Rashid and Jay are. Both the boys seem wary of me too, especially Rashid (I can’t blame them. I’m wary of myself too, when it comes to Frankie.) What’s more suddenly they seem thick as thieves. It’s as if Frankie has thrown them together. I get silly notes and emails from Jay still, but he sends copies of the emails to Rashid too. I don’t bother to answer them. I’m still angry with Jay for not telling me about Rahilah. I don’t talk to him at school any more if I can help it. I see Rashid working for his uncle on Saturday mornings still and I get an email from him occasionally about one crane or another – this doesn’t say ccJay; it’s just to me. He still smiles at me sometimes, his brown eyes beautiful as ever. But that is all.

To make things still worse, the school seems to think it’s time to stop us all getting overweight. Every class is made to go on a run once a week, no matter how cold and wet the weather. Even the fatties have to; they puff along at the back looking miserable, and end up walking back to school. Afterwards we congregate round the machines in the hall and get out twice as many cans of pop and packets of crisps as usual. Once I see the fat girl in our class, Janice, still red and sweaty from her run get four packets, two cheese and onion and two salt and vinegar and three cokes and gobble them straight down. So that’s no good, is it?

As for lessons: they have never seemed so boring – I skimp my homework as much and more than before. Doory – Miss Key –has given up on me; she has stopped telling me to pull my socks up, anyway. She looks at me in kindly way and shakes her head. Obviously she thinks I’m a hopeless case. I am a hopeless case. Granny thinks I’m a hopeless case. Why bother?

Not even the cranes cheer me when I feel like this. Instead of staring up at them from my window, I look down at the building site. Breeze-block walls are rising. Soon there’ll be a whole set of buildings hiding my view across the city toward Brindley Place and its clock tower and its lit-up clock and no more cranes anywhere; or at least not near us. Why does everything have to keep on changing, I wonder as usual Why does nothing ever stay the same?

The good things in my life are: 1) Border: 2) the woman who writes in the flats I see from the new bridge. (She seems to know I’m miserable: suddenly, most times I go over the bridge she sees me and waves; I wave back.) 3) Barty. 4) when he’s at home, Bob, the seventh dwarf.

I feel as at home in Poseidon now as I used to feel in Mnemosyne. I love the smell of Bob’s Old Holborn Tobacco and his acrylic paints and his fry-ups. I’m getting to like the strong sweet tea he gives me. He even paints sometimes when I’m around, squinting at the page as he fills in his endless little lines. His tiny half reading glasses look ridiculously small against his big face, his big beard, his woollen hat. He doesn’t take his hat off even in his hot hot cabin.

He is not painting the country and sea and flowers any more, I notice. He’s painting the city and the skyline – and the cranes too! I like that. But there’s still no sky there. As if he is afraid of sky. His cities look as unreal, as much like places in a fairy tale as his country landscapes used to. Weird. AND WEIRDER. I think. I’m not sure I like them much. I don’t say. The dwarf doesn’t like people contradicting him or what he does. He’s a tyrant. (When I told him I didn’t really like sugar in my tea, could I have it without now? he threw the contents of my mug down his sink and told me to go home AT ONCE. I did go home. And next day when he handed me sugared tea again I drank it anyway. I almost like sugar in my tea now, at least when it’s his tea. I think I do, really.)


One day, though, Trace grabs my arm as we are coming out of school and says; ‘Ok, right. You’re coming home with me today.’

‘Who says?’ I say, not very friendly. I’ve been pretty pissed-off with Trace lately. Most days she doesn’t seem to notice I’m there. Why should I jump just when and as she says? Why should I?

‘I do,’ she says. ‘Have you got your mobile? Ring your mum.’

‘I don’t need to ring my mum,’ I say haughtily, following her sulkily, just the same. Why does everyone assume they can tell me what to do? I’m thinking. On other hand I’m pleased in a way. I liked Trace’s place last time I went there. Now I like it all over again. It seems familiar even though I only went there once.

Her mum, who Trace calls Misa, not mum, is at home, this time, looking as tired, as thin, as ghostly as ever. (I feel like a ghost sometimes myself, these days.) Besides her Trace seems all angles and sharp as knives. It surprises me that those knives don’t slice straight through her wispy mum but they don’t. They seem as easy together as a married couple. Or as a mother and a child - Trace more the mother, her mother more like the child. At the very least they could be best friends. Is that how it is when your mum’s a single parent, I wonder? (I love my mum when I don’t hate her. But she never feels like my friend.)

There’s this too. Trace’s mum not only looks little older than my older sister, I know for a fact that she isn’t so much older than my elder sister. Trace herself could almost be my mum’s granddaughter, then, what a weird thought. Gross even.

Misa has all her papers spread out on the table when we come in, listening to music – Mozart I think. She is filling in forms of some kind. She turns off the music and clears the forms away at once, but not before I’ve seen her name printed neatly at the top of one form, Artemisa Miriam Falconer: Artemisa explains the ‘Misa’, I suppose. (Though it seems a funny name, I’ve heard some name like it quite recently – I’m not sure when - so it can’t be that unusual.)

I notice the African masks and the figures more than I did last time. I don’t like them as much as the rugs. The masks I find quite creepy. The figures are better, though; the men and women with short bent legs and big heads look much less unfriendly. The one I like best is actually two figures; one carried pick-a-back by the other. The carrying man has bent short legs like all the figures. The wood is dark and with a deep sheen on it. It’s beautiful.

I find Misa standing behind me. ‘They’re Dogon figures,’ she says. ‘From Mali. The Dogon culture is based round twins. This is supposed to represent cooperation between two halves, making up a whole.’

I can’t understand what she is saying. I don’t see ‘Co-operation.’ here at all.

Trace doesn’t see it either. ‘Co-operation?’ she says. ‘Come off it, Misa. The bottom man is just a horse; the other one’s exploiting him. That’s not co-operation. No way.’

This is pretty much the way I am seeing things. I can almost hear the man on top saying ‘Gee up.’ I laugh. So does Trace. But then I stop laughing. ‘Twins’ I think. (Look at Rahilah burdened by her dead twin - she always did seem quite burdened. And then Ella: ELLA. My twin? Or not? Burdened by Ella whoever she is - my twin or someone else’s - I feel sorry for the man doing the carrying. I like him much better than I do the man on top.)

We eat cheese on toast with Misa. She makes it for us this time – sprinkles chilli on it - surprising but quite nice – we ask for more. (My mother never sprinkles chilli on her cheese on toast. And she calls it Welsh Rabbit.) Afterwards Trace and I go to her room to do our homework, leaving Misa to her papers. I hear the music go on again then. Not Mozart now, but still classical. Trace is making a face.

Trace’s room is as tidy as ever: much tidier than mine ever is. There are no piles of drawings on her desk. It’s set out for homework with pens, paper. She only has to take the books from her daypack and turn on her desktop in case we need it. I find myself thinking of Rahilah, ‘I miss Rahilah,’ I say suddenly as I get my maths book out. Trace opens her own. ‘So do I,’ she says. ‘Rahilah’s the cleverest of all of us. I like having someone to compete against.’

That’s not why I miss Rahilah, exactly, but I don’t say anything. Trace goes on. ‘Now I’ll have to make do with you, Esther. You’re not so stupid either. When you try.’

‘You sound just like Doory,’ I say sourly. ‘Don’t Rashid and Jay count?’

‘Boys,’ Trace raises an eyebrow.

‘What’s wrong with boys?’ I say furiously. For two pins I think, I’ll go home. What’s with Trace? ‘Why do you have to be so bloody superior?’ I mutter beneath my breath. Maybe Trace hears me. She laughs, anyway.

‘No skin off my nose,’ she says.

‘If what?’ I ask.

‘Anything you like,’ she says, copying something off her notes. ‘If you’re not going to work you can always go home.’

But I don’t want to go home yet. I shake my head. ‘Cool,’ Trace says. She’s not even looking at me.

‘What’s the point of working, Trace?’ I ask her. And now I do really want to know what she thinks. ‘Look at Rahilah,’ I add almost without knowing I’m going to. Trace stops writing then and looks at me.

‘Not working’s letting that lot win,’ she says. ‘Isn’t it?’

‘Is it?’ I say. ‘They’re going to beat people up just the same.’

‘Poor them,’ she says. ‘Poor you.’

‘Poor them, Trace?’

‘Poor them. You’re not going to stay in school forever, Est. What then?’

‘University, I suppose,’ I say. I haven’t thought about any of it much, in spite of the school meetings about GCE plans, about A level plans, about careers and all that. None of it seems real to me. ‘What about you, Trace? Do you know what?’

‘Of course. Medical school. Like Misa,’ she says. ‘I want to be a paediatrician. That’s what I’ve always wanted.’ I look at her in amazement here. Fancy knowing what you want, fancy seeing your grown-up life so clearly. I haven’t a clue about mine, apart from wanting to grow up more like Granny than like Mum. No wonder Trace seems so grown-up. Too grown-up, I think, for a teenager. Almost boringly grown up. I look around her room, at the books, at the posters for singers I’ve never heard of. At a pair of heavily embroidered jeans – dragons I see on it, snow-topped mountains. ‘I never saw a doctor with pink hair before,’ I say. ‘Or with studs in their eye-brows.’

‘Well you have seen one now,’ Trace says. ‘Don’t let those bastards get you down, Est,’ she adds. She starts working on a maths problem. Slowly, reluctantly, I get out my books and do the same. We don’t say any more. Through the wall, faintly, I hear Misa’s music, while I do my maths homework properly for the first time in weeks.


I go straight home after school next day, dump my stuff then set off to fetch Border.

It’s getting lighter these days, the seventh dwarf is never home so I have to go to Mnemosyne. Granny is still not saying much to me, she doesn’t ask me in for tea. But since I haven’t had any more text messages from Ella, I suspect she hasn’t either. Some days when I knock on the door she not only hands over Border, she even smiles. ‘You’ll be the death of me, Esther,’ she says one day, almost fondly. ‘I don’t want to be,’ I say. ‘Watch it then,’ she says. Another day she says, ‘I had a call from Stuart. He says he’ll be up again soon.’ But he hasn’t come up yet and today Border is tied up on deck waiting for me: Mnemosyne is locked and dark. A note says, ‘Take Border back to Bob’s please. xG.

I walk her along the towpath for a bit as usual. But mum has asked me to pick up a jacket from the dry cleaners across the road from Mailbox. I keep Border with me and then, instead of going back up through the Mailbox I decide to walk along the side of the overpass and back up Holliday Street, past the building site I look at from my window.

The gate in the chain-link fence is open for some vehicle or other; an empty dumper truck, like a wide tricycle with an engine and a big barrow in front driven by a man in a yellow helmet. I take the chance to stand by the gate close as I dare to try and get a better look. I hold tight to Border. I can hear her getting excited about something. She’s pulling on her lead, but I’ve got her safe; I think I’ve got her safe: but I haven’t.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

PART TWO Chapters 3-4


The third thing carried by the slewing unit is the much shorter machinery arm.

I’m not writing any more emails to Ella, I think grimly. I don’t. But I’m also too disheartened to write any more to Rashid. I get one from him, though. ‘Give me a place to stand’, it says. ’I will move the world. ARCHIMEDES: Who invented levers.’ (I suppose he means that Archimedes, whoever he is, said it.) ‘Cranes are enormous levers,’ he adds, in case I don’t know: ‘Love Rashid.x’ This almost cheers me: but only for a moment. After a moment I feel more patronised than happy.

The worst thing is that Granny stays in such a strop. She still thinks the message – messages now – there’ve been more, just the same - are my fault. That’s one thing. But why should Ella bug her so much. If Ella is anyone’s twin she’s mine. (This still seems a crazy idea to me, but I can’t think of any other way to explain what’s happening.) Strange messages on your mobile are even creepier than unknown emails. A bit like having a stalker. (I only just thought of that! But yes.) I keep telling her it’s not me sending them, how can it be me sending them if I get them too, from her mobile? But she doesn’t take any notice. It’s as if she just wants someone to blame; anything except believe it could be Ella. What’s it to her though? How can my possible twin get up her nose? The only time we encounter each other – by accident – near her boat, she just bolts her mouth and looks angrier than ever. Weird. Scary, in fact.

I’m so desperate I even ask my mother. ‘Who’s Ella?’ But she looks at me as if I’m crazy. ‘That was your make-believe friend, Esther,’ she says. ‘I don’t know anyone else called Ella.’ Do I believe her? At the moment I don’t believe anything that grown-ups say. Every day now I have to pick up Border from Bob’s boat – ‘Poseidon’ is the Greek god of the sea, he says - not from Mnemosyne - Muse of memory. Who’s remembering who then? I miss Granny. I wonder if she misses me. She’s behaving like someone my age I think. It’s like this with schoolfriends sometimes. But not with Granny? Surely?

School is school, the same as ever. Frankie and his gang look at me evilly but don’t do much. THANKS FOR THAT. I daren’t spend time with Rahilah after what they’ve said, but we do smile at one another. One good thing happens; Trace invites me home with her after school. ‘Will your mum be there?’ I ask.

‘Could be. She was on call last weekend. Sometimes she’s home earlier on days after that.’

But Trace’s mum wasn’t there at first.

Trace lives in a council block – I’d never have guessed. It’s not a very nice one either: the lifts smell of pee: the hall and corridors smell of disinfectant. But once inside her door it’s lovely. The flat’s full of African stuff – blankets – hangings – rugs; also African statues. ‘My grandmother came from South Africa,’ Trace explains. ‘My grandfather was some kind of bully so she ran away from him when Mum and her brother were little and went back home to her mum. Mum stayed there till she was 17 and wanted to go to university. She hated South Africa, because of apartheid and all that. She won’t go back there even now. And my grandmother won’t come here. That’s why I’ve never met her. Lucky you, Esther.’

Not so lucky just now, I think. ‘But I don’t want to talk about granny, not even to Trace. ‘Your mum still likes African stuff,’ I say, looking at it all. There’s a blanket over the sofa that smells of something strange. (‘Goat-hair,’ Trace says casually, when I ask.) But I love the look of it. It’s white and black and red, with small animals and patterns in rows. It’s from Mali, Trace informs me. Not knowing where Mali is, is something else I don’t admit. I’m used to not knowing things Trace takes for granted. I’m used not to understanding her at all really. Maybe she doesn’t understand me. (I don’t understand myself sometimes; not when I wake up terrified out of a nightmare shouting ‘Ella! Ella! Ella!’) Outside this flat, now, in the hallway, I hear shouting and screaming. Trace takes no notice. When she sees I’ve heard she says: ‘The people next door are always fighting. It doesn’t matter.’

There’s more smell of goat in Trace’s room – another blanket is spread across her bed. There’s no more African stuff though, just bookshelves everywhere and a view over the not particularly pretty part of Brum she lives in, not far from the Rover car factory at Longbridge.

Trace has a pc on her desk like me. And she has a heap of cartridge paper, covered in drawings. Seeing me look at them she says, ‘Be my guest,’ making me feel nosy. Trace is just so brilliant, I think, enviously. I knew she was clever and could sing. But now I find she can draw- really draw – and she doesn’t even take art at school! The drawings are all of people, unlike the Seventh Dwarf’s pictures; though they are as tight and detailed as his. When I ask Trace if she does paintings too, she just says. ‘Nope,’ and goes on turning the sheets over.

More and more people appear. I recognise some of them: Rashid, Jay, Rahilah. And suddenly there I am too and I wish I wasn’t. ‘Do I really look like that? Does she always see me as frowning? I wonder Just like Granny in her photographs. Weird.

Perhaps I should ask her to draw a picture of Ella, I think. Which is crazy; Ella doesn’t exist and even if she does, how could Trace know what she looks like. I don’t know what Ella looks like. Yet I almost find myself saying, ‘Trace will you draw someone from me?’ But the words won’t quite come out. Next time, I think. Next time I’ll ask her.

Trace nods as if she hears my thought. She doesn’t say anything, merely turns up a drawing of a thin woman I half recognise, but don’t know. Lots of pictures of her follow: sitting in armchairs, reading, standing at a stove. ‘Your mum, Trace?’ Before she has time to answer a key turns in the lock, and Trace’s mum herself is flinging herself and her bag down on the sofa, not even bothering to take off her coat.

‘Tea, Misa?’ Trace asks. (She hadn’t asked me if I’d like tea, I think. But then why should she? And maybe she was going to ask me later.) She sounds just my mum when I come in from school, or when my dad comes from work. Tea comes out –biscuits - chocolate digestives, like I’ve been getting from Bob the Seventh Dwarf – and her mother drinks the tea and eats the biscuit and livens up fractionally, and tells me, that yes, she remembers me from the school play.

‘Have you got to go back to the hospital, Misa,’ Trace asks. (Is ‘Misa’ a special word for mum, I wonder; or is it her name?) Her mother nods. ‘Sorry love. So I need a bit of sleep now. But we can eat something together before I go back.’

‘That’s OK,’ Trace says. ‘I’m used to it.’ (Her mother grimaces at that. But I don’t get the feeling Trace means to be unkind. I think she just means exactly what she says. Trace always does.) ‘Go and sleep then. I can cook. Shall I make the salmon and rice dish?’

I am impressed by Trace. At the same time I’m glad I don’t have to be like that. I’m glad my mother has time to look after me really. I wish granny still did. WHO IS ELLA? WHAT IS SHE DOING TO US? I shout inside my head. Again I almost ask Trace to draw her picture. But I don’t.

We do homework after that; some difficult maths that Trace has to help me with, then notes on Lord of the Flies which we’re finishing in English. Poor Piggy, we agree, seeing what’s done to him by the others on their island.

‘Makes Smelly Poke seem a doddle,’ Trace says. Thinking of Frankie I’m not so sure.

Tracy walks me to the bus stop in the Bristol Road, then goes home to cook salmon rice and I go home on the bus, and with the help of Google look up Mali on the map. (It’s just South of the Sahara if you’re interested. They make beautiful blankets there. But you know that already, whoever you are.)


All the next week I continue to collect Border from Poseidon not Mnemosyne. Bob leaves the door unlocked for me the days he’s not going to be home – mostly he is; the site stops working when it gets dark. I see the lights on in Mnemosyne and smoke coming from her chimney. I see that plant pots and things have been moved on the top of the cabin. But Granny I don’t see. Her curtains these days are drawn. I feel horribly shut out

An email from Rashid suggesting we meet after his next stint at his uncle’s shop makes me feel better. When I collect mum’s paper that Saturday he winks at me behind his uncle’s back so I know it’s still OK. Outside the shop, three geese are sitting on the patch of grass as if they own it - it’s littered with their round green turds. Turds and all I love them. This morning I love all the people walking up Bridge Street, or getting in and out of cars, mostly Indians today – there must be an Indian wedding at the Registry Office in Centenary Square. The women wear gorgeous silk saris edged with gold; even the children are wearing bright silk clothes and have silk ribbons in their hair. They make English wedding clothes look boring, I think. It makes me still more pleased to be meeting Rashid. Pakistanis wear saris too.What would I look like in a sari, I wonder? If, if? If what?

We don’t meet in Bridge Street – that’s too near Rashid’s uncle – but in the Gas Street Basin, just by the Tap and Stile. Even on a day like today people are standing outside it with beer glasses in their hands. We walk past them, past the car park, round the corner along Holliday Wharf. The Stamp Man is sitting on the bench outside, huddled up in what looks like an old army coat. He doesn’t look at us.

I feel very shy suddenly. ‘Look at all the geese’ is all I can think of to say, reminded of the geese sitting outside the newsagent’s shop. ‘My uncle is always getting complaints about the geese from people in the flats,’ Rashid answers. ‘He just says, “they live by the canal, so what do they expect? There are too many terrible things in the world to worry about geese.” He should know.’ Rashid falls silent a moment – when he does speak I wish he hadn’t. ‘A lot of my family were killed in India when India split from Pakistan. Some of them were pulled off a train and murdered. Another uncle was killed in anti-Muslim riots in Gujerat, not very long ago. He had his head cut off.

I stare at a duck swimming along the canal, at a wok sitting on the other side of the canal below some flats. My mind is so awash with this awfulness, I hardly notice it. I’m trying to imagine such things happening to Granny…. I can’t - I don’t want to imagine it. I cannot believe I’m talking to someone in whose family such things can have happened.

‘You seem to have a lot of uncles Rashid,’ I say, at last.

‘What’s a WOK doing there?’ asks Rashid.

He must have realised how much he’s shocked me. He takes my arm – he almost takes my arm and then takes his hand away. He’s not supposed to be out with a girl, I know, let alone touch one. He points at a crane far over to the left of us. ‘I still find cranes so beautiful,’ he says, ‘But I don’t think I want to go up one, not the way you do, Esther. I don’t like heights,’

‘I don’t like heights either,’ I say. ‘That’s not the point.’ But I’m not even sure what the point is. There’s a big dog ahead of us, now. ‘Border.’ I shout before she can try to attack it – she’s not afraid of big dogs. She comes running back and I put her on the lead.

The ice between Rashid and me is broken now. We walk along quite happily, talking when we feel like it, not when we don’t – just how things should be between friends, I think. We go through the long tunnel up towards the university. The ground is uneven there, it’s dim almost dark in the middle, damp-smelling, altogether creepy. We don’t go far beyond it. Rashid says he can’t be too late and nor can I. Coming back through the tunnel, I stumble, fall against Rashid who steadies me; for a moment we are almost holding hands. We look at each other in the dark – I think Rashid is looking at me– and hastily separate. Then we walk back silently along the towpath. A train trundles along the line besides us. Two cyclists ring their bells to show they want to get past. Border strains after two more ducks on the canal and barks loudly. ‘Shut up,’ I say. Rashid laughs. When we reach the staircase that leads up to Bath Road, he says; ‘I’d better go now. I can catch the bus at the top of Broad Street.’ ‘See you Monday,’ I say. He smiles and is off, his feet clattering on the iron rungs.

The Stamp Man is still sitting outside Holliday Wharf. He holds out his Stamp Hand when I go past; I blow him a kiss I’m feeling so happy. So happy in fact, I even dare knock on Granny’s door - the curtains are open; I know she’s there. I see her face staring out of the window. I knock still harder, but she doesn’t answer. I hand Border in at Poseidon and suddenly I’m not so happy any longer.

‘What have you been doing to your grandmother?’ Mum asks when I get in. ‘She seems quite upset.’

‘What’s she been doing to me?’ I say, and run out.

I slam my bedroom door behind me. Even the lovely warm thoughts of Rashid can’t stop me bursting into tears. Again. These days, it seems to me, I’m always bursting into tears. It’s BORING.


What would I do without the Seventh Dwarf? When I bring Border back after her evening walk these days, he almost always gives us tea and a biscuit. The tea is the strong sweet stuff we never have at home; mum drinks green tea mostly, and dad, coffee.

Bob is so used to me now he even gets his paints out sometimes and his drawing-board. But he covers what he’s doing, never actually paints while I’m in there. Nor does he say much. Once he says, out of the blue. ‘Apollo was my son’s name. I made him a mobile when he was born. With suns all over it. Apollo was the Greek sun god.’

‘ I know,’ I say huffily.

Another day he says. ‘My little girl; she was Artemis. Moon goddess. She got moons. On her mobile.’

‘I bet it was nice,’ I say, not particularly interested. I’m not feeling happy today. I’ve been unable to stop myself thinking about dead babies; what happens to them. Was Ella in hell because she hadn’t been christened? Is that why she keeps plaguing granny and me? I suppose I ought to feel sorry for granny too, if so, but I don’t. I just feel angry. And a bit frightened. As well as alone.

At home I spend a lot of my time on Google putting in words like ‘twins’ and ‘past lives’ and ‘unborn’ and ‘ghosts’ and even ‘cyberspace’. I get a lot of stuff back but none of it helps. It doesn’t seem to cover ghosts sending emails, let alone text messages. I go back to cranes with relief; I know all the sites now. Or I think I do. I especially like the message board, its chatroom. Even though you can get too much of crane drivers boasting about the view from cranes in places like Cincinnati or people called things like ‘Bossman’ droning on about safety precautions and security on tower-crane sites- about people getting to the top of cranes who shouldn’t - ‘another unsecured crane,’ I read, over and over. It takes a while for the penny to drop. That this means people like me do get to go up cranes sometimes, in spite of everything done to stop them. I’ll remember this, I think. For a moment I feel encouraged.

My homework doesn’t go too well now. Even when I do it, it’s pretty skimped. Miss Key our class-teacher (politer nickname ‘Doory’ I’m not going to explain why; just guess) shakes her head and says I’m going to have to pull my socks up or I’ll be demoted. (Miss K – Doory- is always full of phrases like ‘pulling up socks,’ which I put up with because she can, mostly, keep our class in order, unlike some.) I worry about this in a distant way, but not so much that my ‘socks’ don’t remain round my ankles.

Trace seems to think it’s my problem, nothing to do with her. Jay teases me as usual. I’m fed up with Jay making a joke of everything; nothing feels like a joke just now. I feel ever more fed up too, with the way he fiddles with his hair. Sometimes I almost hate him. I glare at him, and he looks back – his expression might look hurt on anyone else; but not on Jay, I think. Rashid doesn’t say anything; he just gives me the odd worried glance. Rahilah fills in stuff for me, finds answers, tries to help me keep up with the rest of them. Probably it’s thanks to her I stay where I am, for the moment.

I haven’t been to Trace’s again. Rashid hasn’t suggested another walk. Suddenly Rahilah seems the only person in the world who’s nice to me apart from Barty who’s taken to shouting with pleasure every time I walk in at the door. I can’t think why he does, though.

I need more and more to talk to Rahilah. She’s the only person who might understand what’s happening, I think, because of her own dead twin. But I don’t want her to think that I’m crazy. Sometimes I feel as if I am.

Forgetting about Frankie, let alone his mates, I corner her in the Year Ten cloakroom one day, and ask her ‘do you ever dream about your dead twin?’ It feels tactless even as I say it. ‘Your dead twin.’ Rahilah, her coat in her hands, crumpling and un-crumpling it between her fingers, considers the question very seriously. ‘Sometimes, perhaps,’ she says. ‘But I don’t remember my dreams very often.’

‘Do you ever hear her speaking to you in your head?’ I ask still more urgently. She drops her coat – it’s a dark green anorak with a tartan lining. She bends to pick it up – stays down there as if thinking very hard. Again, though, rising to her feet, not really looking at me, she shakes her scarved head.

I can’t stop now. ‘Rahilah, can you imagine getting letters from your twin?’ but this time she throws her head back, thrusts her arms into the green anorak, pulls the trailing end of her hijab out of the way, and says almost crossly for her – or is upset? – I wonder: ‘Esther do you think I’m crazy?’

‘Of course you’re not,’ I say. Wanting to add. ‘Do you think I am?’ But I don’t. Perhaps because she might say ‘yes.’ And also because I know she is sad about her twin. I also know, suddenly, looking at her, – I don’t know quite how I know, but I do – that her sadness is quite different from mine, much sadder even. Compared to hers, my sadness seems as much about loneliness –bewilderment - anger – fear -as about grief. My grief, though real enough, feels almost like it belongs to someone else.


Talking to Rahilah has been against all my rules. But Frankie’s leaving me mostly alone this term has made me forget. Also, seeing him in New Street being shouted at by his mother has made it harder to see him as scary. Even though I still know that he is.

Silly me then. One of his girl hangers-must have been seen me and Rahilah hobnobbing in the girls’ cloakroom. What happens next is my fault, for sure. I wish - I really wish – it has happened to me, not Rahilah. Fat lot of good that does.

It wasn’t Frankie did it anyway – I guess Frankie’s a bit too fly to attack a Muslim girl himself. He let the girls do his dirty work for him: out of school what’s more.