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
THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS TO TERRORISTS. KEEP OUT!!!!
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.
KEEP AWAY FROM TERRORISTS the notice says.
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.