Thursday, 5 March 2015

Chapter from my new book

As far as shalwar suits went, this one was understated. It was a bright green long shirt with hurt-your-eyes pink sleeves and matching embroidery, embellished with sequins in tasteful swirly patterns. The baggy trousers were pink and gathered together at the bottom with green and also covered in embroidery, and there was a long, thin, almost transparent, scarf thing which went along with the colour scheme for a while, but then just gave up and burst into exuberant patterns of the wildest colours at the ends.

It was the most beautiful thing Mina had seen in her life.

It was even more beautiful than the pink pretend-pearl necklace that  Nani had sent her last year for her birthday. The necklace had been too good to wear anywhere. She only ever went to school and back and you couldn’t wear something like that to the shops. So sadly, she kept it in pride of place hanging on a nail which had been hammered into the wall in her bedroom, right beside her door.

Last year, Nani had been a dim presence who lived far away and only spoke a few garbled words in a complicated foreign language to her on the phone. But now, here she was, beaming at Mina and holding up these amazing clothes for her to try on.

"Go on, Bitta," Mum said, giving her a little push towards Nani. "Go and try them on."

Nani smiled and held the clothes out closer. Her smile was a true one. Mina had never seen anyone smile the way Nani did. Her eyes shone and all the crinkles in her face joined in. You did not really see her teeth, but her mouth beamed. Even her hair seemed to smile.

Well that was silly, Mina thought, but it was true.

When some people smiled, they held something back. The smile got stuck somewhere and so only a part of it made it up to their eyes, or maybe just their mouths, but when Nani did it, her whole smile filled her face, peeking out to look at the world.

That’s what Mina thought about Nani – and she had only known her for two hours and thirty five minutes now, ever since they brought her back from the airport. She was a little old lady wrapped all over in a white sheet, as if she had dressed herself up like a parcel especially to come and meet her grand daughter for the first time.

She said something to her daughter now, Mina’s mother, in that silly gobbledy gooky language and Nani’s smile erupted into a laugh. Even Mum, who never usually smiled, joined in. They both laughed.

Mina took the clothes and ran upstairs, without even caring about not banging on the steps so as not to disturb the neighbours.

But a few minutes later she was back, clutching the trousers around herself, her eyes scrunched together to keep the tears in,  but with some of her long black hair stuck to her face as if it had not worked.

"They don’t fit!" she wailed in the way that only eight year old girls can.

Mum was in the kitchen by now making one of the endless cups of sweet tea that Nani seemed to need.

"Beta, come over here." Nani patted the sofa beside her. Her voice was thin and high when she spoke English. Her own language came out deep and confident. 

She gently pulled her over and made her hold up the kameez around her middle. Then she showed Mina how to tie the long stringy belt which came with the baggy trousers. 

"See?" she said, eyes twinkling like diamonds, face crinkling up like a little brown Yoda. "It does fit you doesn’t it?"

Mina ran back up to look in the long mirror in Mum and Dad’s bedroom. It was amazing. How did Nani know her size? She twirled round and round, examining herself from every angle. Wait till Jane sees it, she thought. She will be so jealous!

They had a lovely tea with Nani sitting at the head of the table. She had brought things with her in that small grey suitcase of hers. There were eight mangoes! Giant yellow and green fruit which had the sweetest sticky yellow pulp inside. A small pile of pine nuts – little dusty brown things like thick rice which had to be meticulously cracked to reveal the creamy beige nut inside. Mina cracked open five or six at a time and then pushed the whole lot into her mouth, chewing happily. And of course, Mum had cooked samosas and bhajis and Dad had bought jalebis and gulab jamun and all sorts of other delights. After an hour, they sat back happily, all the conversation spent and all the food gone. Mina’s brother, Tariq patted his stomach and Mum frowned at him.

"Ee, that were lovely," he said. Dad frowned at him.

"Go and get some milk for the chai," he said. "You too Mina. I’ll give you some change for chocolates too."

Chai and chocolates! No meal at their house was ever complete without a cup of steaming, spicy tea made with cardamoms and All Spice. Mum ground down fennel and cloves herself and kept everything in a jar ready.

"I couldn’t eat another thing!" Mina said as Tariq pulled his coat on.

"I could!" Tariq said.

"That’s because you eat like a pig!"

"Mina!" Mum said. "Don’t use that word in this house!" She looked sheepishly over at Nani just in case she had heard anything.

"Why not, Mama?" Mina asked innocently.

"Because it is dirty. We don’t say that word." Mina’s mum glanced over at her own mother again with a worried look on her face as she shoved both children out of the room. 

"Just go and get the milk," she whispered through teeth half-clenched.

"Come on, Mina," Tariq said. "Get yer coat on." But there was absolutely no way Mina was going to wear a coat over her sparkly new clothes.

"Suit yersen," Tariq said.

"Stop it, Tariq," Mina said, pushing him out of the front door. "Just talk normal."

"This isnormal!" he replied. "This is how Andy talks. Its howeveryone talks!" He spread his arms as if he were a fighter jet and sped down the road, firing at the cars and frightening Mrs. Hudson’s cat, who jumped onto her fence and turned and stared at him from a safe distance with saucer eyes peeled in case he did anything else.

"What chocolate are you going to get?" Mina said trying to walk on the kerb without falling off.

"I don’t know, we’ll have to see how much money is left from the milk," he said absently. That cat was going to get it if he could find any small pebbles. 

They continued their slow walk down the road in the afternoon sunshine, Mina peering down at her new sequins and holding the scarf out to let it float along behind her. It was really comfortable wearing these clothes. At the first step outside the house she had almost run back inside because it felt like she wasn’t wearing anything. The clothes did not touch all of her skin like jeans did and t-shirts. They were only tied at the waist and gathered at the ankles. It literally felt as if there was nothing covering her. And anyway, the material was so thin that when it did brush her body, it did not make that much difference.

They walked past Jane’s house. 

"Do you like my new clothes?" Mina said, extra loudly to Tariq, hoping that Jane was looking out of the window. It would even be OK if it was Jane’s mum because she would notice these dazzling new clothes and run and get Jane so that she could see how stunning Mina looked.

She stared hopefully at the empty windows of Jane’s house. Jane was her cool friend at school. Jane was so cool that none of the windows in her house had any curtains. Mina always admired that family who could wander around in their rooms without worrying about people looking in on them –even at night.

"Yes, you wally. I already told you didn’t I? What you asking me again for?"

"What?" Mina was admiring her reflection in the curtain-less windows of Jane’s house.

"Comeon!" Tariq grabbed her hand and pulled her away. "Jane can see your clothes another time. Nani’s waiting."

"OK, OK, keep your hair on." She let him pull her down the road for a while and then dramatically pulled her arm free.

There was a shout from somewhere which sounded like ‘backi’. Mina whirled round, being careful to swirl the scarf-thing out behind her - maybe someone from Jane’s house had seen her after all, but there was no-one looking out of those windows.

Tariq was pulling her again.

"Oi, Paki!"

She searched the windows up and down the road and finally saw someone’s head appear for a second in the upstairs window of a house nearby but duck down quickly as soon as he saw her looking.

They were far enough along the road that she did not know anyone who lived in this part of the neighbourhood. 

The head appeared again for a second. A billiard-ball with the short blonde fuzz of a crew cut, pokey little hollow eyes and a wide, gap-toothed grin looking for all the world like Jack Skellington from the Nightmare Before Christmas. 

She stared as hard as she could at the window with her hands on her hips, almost willing it to reappear.

"I like your pyjamas, Paki!" he said in a mockingly sing-song voice without looking out again.

Mina started to feel the blood rising up her face. She always blushed from the neck upwards, as if even her embarrassment was embarrassed to show itself in one go.

"I saw you!" she shouted.

"Mina!" Tariq hissed. 

But she was intent on justice. "Come down here and say that!" she yelled.

Tariq grabbed her arm firmly this time and pulled her hard, almost toppling her sideways out of her firm stance. "Come on, its not worth it."

A tiny pebble came whizzing out of the empty window and landed near her feet.

"Comeon!" Mina let herself be led away again, but kept her head turned towards the window to make sure billiard-ball knew that she wasn’t scared.

As they finally approached the newsagents, she heard footsteps from behind. Someone raced passed her so quickly that she almost jumped backwards against the newsagent’s sign. But as he ran,billiard-ball threw something right at her so hard it winded her. 

The cold started seeping through her thin clothes immediately. The smell was like earthworms. She looked down and saw that the front of her kameez had been spattered with mud.

The boy ran off across the road and stood staring at her, one hand brown and dripping. 

"Oi, Paki, you’re looking a  bit browned off!" He stood, grinning, baring those gapped teeth.

Mina was too mad to say anything. Her face was stony as her anger escaped from her nose in short, sharp breaths like a little bull in a beautifully embroidered green and shocking pink outfit. Tariq pulled her into the shop in silence. Two hot tears raced each other down both cheeks at once.

"Did you know who that was?" she managed when they were nearly home. They were the first words she could bring herself to say.

"Yeah, its some kid from school." Tariq said. "I think he’s in Mrs. Foreman’s class."

"Why did he call me that?" She stamped her foot hard. "Why did he do this?"

"It’s just how they are," Tariq said. "Dad said, you’ve just got to ignore ‘em, Mina. They’re..." He searched for the worst word he could think of. "...pigs."

"But my clothes..." Mina stared down at her amazing new clothes. It was the first time she had ever had anything as pretty as this to wear. It was too much to bear. She burst into tears. Burning hot teardrops forced their way down her face and landed onto her kameez, spreading out quickly on the green material like little grey drops of blood.

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