When we were kids, Dad used to say “And you don’t take a shower in the high street,” whenever we did something patently stupid. It became a family phrase, one of those private idioms that you take for granted between yourselves, but which raise an eyebrow or a question when used with strangers.
What I loved most about the phrase though, was how it made Mum laugh whenever he said it. She didn’t laugh much, and very rarely indeed at anything Dad said. That phrase, and whatever history had created it, sometimes felt like the glue holding their marriage together.
Walking on the high street is daunting. The signs, the chatter, it’s all alien. I understand so little, and nothing is familiar. I long for home, even knowing I can never go back.
It gets worse when I learn a few words: sound combinations that stick in my throat and taste strange on my tongue. I am certain I’m saying them all wrong. People cast glances to their friends, ask me to repeat myself, tut and mutter “bloody immigrants”.
I shrink just a little more each time, longing for a place that no longer exists. A place where I belong.
I saw something the other day, that said “respect staff who don’t speak perfect English, most of us would have neither the skill nor the courage to take a job in a language that wasn’t our first.” As an immigrant myself, I cannot imagine moving to a country where I not only had another culture and accent, but a whole different language (or linguistic system in some cases). Brenda’s beautiful photograph fills me with that sense of foreign, and respect for those people who choose to or are forced to come here and must feel similarly daunted… but make it through and thrive.
School closed, then opened, then closed for 8 weeks,
Then opened again; the future looked bleak –
For the old woman, because every time one kid got croup,
She’d to keep them all home – which threw her for a loop,
She had only 2 children, one dog, a cat,
But it felt like a dozen to the poor old bat,
And the longer it went on the battier she grew
In her 3-bedroom house that felt like a shoe.
Extroduction – don’t read this, I’m just ranting.
Tricky day today. After finally getting the kids back to school in mid-February, I felt like I might get some sense of normality back. Some chance to ramp up work and start earning money again, to put the house back to rights, to lose the lockdown weight, to regain my sanity and theirs. Last week, S got a cold. We staved off the croup that threatened with it, but still had to keep them both home for the rest of the week pending covid tests. Negative. All clear. Back to school Monday and I felt the hope rising again, then yesterday lunchtime the call came – positive case in D’s class. Come and pick them both up. They could be home up to 2 weeks. Just in time for “March break” for a week from 12 April. After which we have no guarantee that schools will reopen.
I’m bracing myself for having them home now until September. For the loss of time and work and sanity for me, for the loss of education, socialisation and sanity for them. I know we have so much to be grateful for, I know it could be so much worse and I know that we will make the best of it. But that’s the back story of today’s post and why I’m sure the gingerbread woman is hiding tears behind her painted on smile.
Lucy shivered. The afternoon had brought snow, but it was the darkness that chilled her. Streetlamp shadows crept through the trees around her, occasionally rustling.
On the path ahead, she noticed a figure clutching an umbrella and an armful of parcels. Lucy’s mind began to calculate. Company could be reassuring, but how many girls had been trapped by an apparent saviour? Better, perhaps, to remain in his wake.
She hadn’t decided, when he happened to glance over his shoulder and saw her. The surprise made him drop his parcels, and Lucy had no choice but to rush over and help.
They met each night beneath the banyan tree under his hotel balcony; their young bodies entwined like its endless roots. He quoted Romeo and Juliet and she wondered if there could be anything more romantic than forbidden love. But a week later, only his initials remained, carved beside hers on the thickest of the spindly stems. She borrowed the book and read to the end. The fate of her Verona self shocked her. Was love just a death sentence? She swore off boys and returned to her studies. Junior High was too important to miss.
“Miss Rudy says I should audition. She says I might enjoy it. She says being in a play is like becoming somebody else. But I don’t know. What if I forget all my lines? Or fall over? And one of the girls you have to kiss a boy at the end.”
Mrs Mwanna is doing that thing where she wanders around muttering and you don’t know if she’s listening or not. Sometimes she is, but this time I know she wasn’t because she looks right at me and says “You’ll never enjoy swimming if you’re busy looking out for jellyfish.”
So much to say about this one, but here’s the photo and story first, in case you want to skip the expo!
The Fourth Third
Dad would call it an inauspicious entryway. A narrow staircase ascended between dirty red walls into darkness above. Clutter covered half the bottom step. It was a long way from the ranch back home.
But if all went well, this was home now, and its occupants like a new family. I make free adults from children, the university motto began. Faye felt so old to be here, and yet so green to be just beginning. The others were all second years – her guides and chaperones.
A light came on and she recognised Grace from zoom calls.
“Our D’Artagnan has arrived!”
I glimpsed at today’s photo on my phone over breakfast this morning and was reminded of the old university theatre where I spent so many hours of my undergraduate years. I don’t know why, it doesn’t look like the theatre, there was something in the feel of the photo. Anyway, the theatre was exactly like that. Inauspicious. Nothing to suggest upon arrival there that it would be the location I would miss more than the rest combined, when I left Cambridge 3 years later. Nothing to suggest it would be where I found my husband, my best friend and so much of myself in the intervening years.
So I started writing that story, but it turned into this story, set in another country, in a residence not a theatre, and with a lead who is definitely not me. Two things remain, however, of me and the theatre. First, the word ‘inauspicious’, which my best friend and I were just using yesterday to reminisce about our arrival there, and second, the fourth third. Like the musketeers, I was, for a while back then, part of a famous three-some, with 4 members.
“Every girl should get a rose on her sixteenth birthday.” That red rose from Granny had felt more like a judgement than a gift. The first falling petal reminded Viola of Belle, and Granny had been there to mourn her lack of Prince, handsome or otherwise.
Five years later, Granny would have been impressed. Yamin held a rose outstretched, a diamond ring balanced on top and Viola could almost feel a little nudge from behind.
But Viola had been raised on Mulan and Moana, not Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella: marriage would clip her wings, and today, she needed to fly.
“I love talking.” Mum would say, “And he listens better now, especially when he’s got his pipe.” A lifelong non-smoker, Mum had cleaned and refilled that pipe every day since Dad’s death, then placed it unlit on top of the blue carved box that held his ashes. A habit of devotion.
Maria stared at the pipe and box and wondered what she should do with them now. Should she add Mum’s ashes to the box, or scatter them somewhere together?
Maria emptied the pipe into the bin. The tobacco smelled like Mum. She opened the pouch to fill it again.
Lyla woke with a start. The room was dark and quiet. Gentle breathing from her left the only thing to hang onto. The world wasn’t ending.
She wrapped herself in a blanket and padded into the next room. The baby was sleeping soundly, her mouth slightly open, her face calm. Lyla’s mind spiked again with the vision of that same face contorted in terror, dropping away into the abyss and her own arms reaching desperately through the air.
Lyla’s face touched the baby’s hair as she climbed into the crib. “You caught me,” she whispered, finally able to relax again.