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.