A Float for Shez by Kavita Bhanot
(published in Roads Ahead, Tindal Street Press, 2009)
It was one of those moments that hits a classroom every now and then. A wave of silence starts at the back of the room, usually the noisiest part, and laps so suddenly across the room that it catches those at the front unawares. It was Shez, sitting in the front, who was caught by the silence. And once the words were out, we both knew she’d never hear the end of it.
It wasn’t what she said. The words, if someone else had said them, would have produced a few laughs, a bit of teasing, but that was all. They would have been forgotten in minutes. But coming from Shez’s mouth, they must have sounded really strange, especially to anyone who didn’t know her. Because someone like Shez wasn’t supposed to say something like that. She was ‘trying to be who she wasn’t’ and that, as far as 9C was concerned, was unforgivable.
The first time little Shez told me that she fancied my brother Shakeel, even I asked her if she was feeling all right. Then I just found Shez’s purely theoretical obsess- ion with the male species funny, assuming it was because she spent too much time with her boy-crazy cousins, who all lived on the same street as her, and were bigger, louder, better-looking versions of her. She copied them in everything, wore their clothes, a hijab, straightened her hair. She had recently started to put on black eyeliner, smudged and wonky.
But that day, in the maths lesson, when everyone heard her, I felt myself growing red with embarrassment. ‘What did you say that for?’ I whispered, dipping my head to join hers, as the girls around us echoed Shez’s words, ‘Ali’s got a nice bum, Ali’s got a nice bum.’
Some girls ask to be bullied. Girls like Mavis, who had an old lady’s name and a stutter, but who still wouldn’t stay quiet; always trying to make jokes that weren’t funny, tagging along with girls who didn’t want her, buying them Brain Lickers, telling them her secrets. And then, when they made fun of her, when they imitated her stutter, she got so splutteringly angry she stuttered even more. But from the first day of Year 7, when we had found each other, Shez and I had managed to make ourselves invisible. Apart from the odd comment about Shez’s headscarf, nobody really noticed us. Until now.
Shez’s words followed us around for weeks. And for the first time, I saw Shez as the other girls probably saw her. She was tiny, the second smallest girl in our class, and the smallest, Louise, was virtually a dwarf. Her school uniform, passed down from her cousins, was too big for her. The long blue skirt swept the ground as she walked and she was always tripping on the rippling waves of material. She wore a baggy blue jumper that came almost to her knees; the sleeves were too long and she was constantly pulling them up to free her hands. And then, to make matters worse, there was the thin black scarf with silver CKs stamped all over it, burying her in even more fabric as she gathered it around her small face.
So when Meena told me I was ‘all right’ and asked me why I was Shez’s friend, I was ripe for the question.
It was a science lesson. A teacher stood in front of the whiteboard, clutching a piece of paper, holding it up close to his face as if he’d forgotten to wear his glasses. As we walked in, he looked up every now and then to say, ‘Hello, girls,’ or, ‘Good afternoon,’ in a foreign accent.
‘We got supply again,’ called Jan as she walked in.
‘Doss lesson,’ sang Sam, behind her.
He waited several minutes for silence, for everyone to look at him. When this didn’t happen, he looked embarrassed, focusing intently on his piece of paper, as if he was too busy to notice us. Smarter than some of the other supplies, he didn’t try to shout over everyone, but turned his back on us and introduced himself on the whiteboard, writing his name and the date in scrawly letters, and underneath, ‘Copy pages 128–135 of Biology 7.’
‘What do you think of him?’ Shez asked me. ‘What do you think of Mr, Mr . . .’ She narrowed her eyes, trying to read his name.
‘Mr Balthusier.’ I screwed up my nose. ‘Shez, leave the teachers alone at least.’
‘What? Teachers are men, too. Anyway, he’s not a real teacher. He’s supply.’
‘But he’s French or German or something. And he’s got a beard.’ ‘Ali’s got a beard,’ Shez pointed out, ‘and he’s cute.’
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t comment, because I’d never seen the famous Ali. Shez had tried to arrange a viewing, but I refused to take the 7.33 a.m. bus that she’d been catching for the past three months, ever since she’d discovered Ali driving it. Just for the pleasure of seeing him – she’d never even said hello to him – she came to school forty-five minutes early every day.
‘He’s coming over,’ Shez whispered, putting her head down. We both picked up our pens.
‘Good. Good girls,’ said Mr Balthusier, even though our pages were blank. ‘The other girls, they don’t want to learn, that is their problem, but you, you are good girls.’
I looked around. Apart from Saira, the refugee girl who had no friends and was scribbling away as if her life depended on it, no one else had bothered to pick up a pen, or to open a textbook to even pretend they were working. Hannah was brushing her hair, Jan was brushing her eyelashes and Meena was playing with her phone. Everyone else was talking. He leaned over and I could smell his aftershave, something fruity, mixed with nervous sweat, as he flipped the covers of our exercise books. ‘Shezma Masood and Mariah Ahmed. I will leave a note for your science teacher to say how good you two have been.’
‘Sir, it’s Maariah,’ I said. I hated it when teachers used flattery to divide and rule. And there was no point him leaving a note for our science teacher. Mr Miller had disappeared almost a month before; there were rumours that he’d had a nervous breakdown after some Year 10 girls locked him in the science cupboard for a whole day. We’d been copying pages from Biology 7 ever since, with a different supply taking us for every lesson.
‘Sir,’ said Meena, standing behind Mr Balthusier, a hand on her hip, her open mouth going round and round like a washing machine as she chewed gum.
Meena was beautiful. She’d recently dyed her hair a strange maroon colour and her eyes, that day, were green. Sometimes they were an unexpected blue or a cat- like hazel, depending on the contacts she was wearing, but they were always under the shade of her extra-long, extra-thick, mascara-coated eyelashes. Meena was different from the other Asian girls in our school. Most of us kept our heads down and our mouths shut, but not Meena. She was friends with the white girls. Shez’s cousins called her a coconut and said she pretended to be like them so as to fit in, but it seemed to me they were just jealous.
‘Sir, I need to go now.’
He turned. ‘Go? Go where?’
‘Go and pray,’ she said, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
Mr Balthusier looked the gum-chewing, maroon- haired, short-skirted girl in front of him up and down. ‘Can you throw out the chewing gum?’ he said, irrelevantly.
‘No.’ This confused him. His eyes darted round the room, before settling on Meena again. ‘Only joking,’ she said. ‘I’ll get rid of it. In a bit, though. I only just put it in my mouth. I don’t want to waste it, do I?’ Mr Balthusier blinked. ‘Oh, do that again, sir.’
‘Do what?’ ‘Blink like that. Oh, you’ve got such lovely eyes.’ She turned to me. ‘Hasn’t he got lovely eyes?’ I nodded shyly. ‘What colour are they, sir? Ah, he’s all embarrassed now. Look how pink he’s gone. So, is it all right if I go now, sir?’
‘Go . . . to pray?’ he asked. Meena nodded slowly, with exaggerated patience. ‘Are you the Muslim?’ She nodded again. ‘What is your name?’ She didn’t even pause. ‘Saira Salim.’ The real Saira Salim looked up, opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, but then closed it again.
‘Do you have a note, perhaps, to say that you go to pray at this time?’
Meena sighed. ‘Sir! I didn’t know you would be here in- stead of our normal teacher, did I? And Mr Miller knows I have to go and pray, so why would I bring a note?’
The logic of her argument seemed to stump him. With his big blinking eyes, magnified by glasses, he looked like a trapped rabbit, caught between the natural scepticism of a teacher and the political correctness of a multiculturalist. His eyes fell on Shez and me. ‘Is it true?’ He looked at Shez, at her hijab. ‘So why are you not going also?’
‘We are, sir,’ I said. ‘We have to go too.’ I stood up. ‘Can we go now, please?’
‘What did you do that for?’ said Shez, when all three of us were outside the classroom. ‘We’re going to get into trouble now.’
‘What did you do that for? We’re going to get into trouble now,’ parodied Meena. She set off down the corridor, her narrow hips swaying in her tight skirt, which she had rolled up a few times, making her legs, in their black tights and platform shoes, even longer.
‘Can’t we go back in?’ Shez muttered, as we followed. We were supposed to be praying, I reminded her. We couldn’t go back straight away.
Meena turned suddenly. ‘So who’s Ali?’ Shez blushed. ‘Just a guy I know.’
‘Does he have nice bum then? Does he? Have you felt it?’ When Shez didn’t reply, Meena shrugged and walked off. She stopped a few minutes later to knock on a classroom door. ‘Is Kate there?’ she asked Miss Rai. ‘Mr Garner wants to talk to her.’
‘Yes, I’m sure he does,’ said Miss Rai. ‘Why aren’t you in class, Meena?’
Miss Rai had taken us for science last year. She was a nice teacher, but she did her best to hide it, especially in front of girls like Meena. When she saw Shez and me her attitude suddenly changed. ‘Oh, you two are with Meena. So she’s not making it up. Right, Kate, Mr Garner wants to speak to you. Yes, now. No, leave your things. Come back here straight afterwards or I’ll send out a search party for you.’
‘You two are useful to have around,’ said Meena, putting an arm through Kate’s and walking on.
It was a whole new world, being out of lessons. There was a different, hushed atmosphere in the school. It seemed as though only we were free, and everybody else was imprisoned in classrooms. We met other fugitives along the way and, whether they were in Year 7 or Year 10, for once it didn’t matter: we were all playing the same game. There were exchanged looks, smiles and warnings. ‘Watch out, Mr Henley’s round that corner,’ and ‘I wouldn’t go that way if I was you.’ We picked some of them up on the way, so by the time we got to the bike sheds, there were eight of us.
‘Can we go back now?’ Shez whispered to me, as some of the girls started pulling out cigarettes.
Irritated, I told her that she had no sense of adventure. She could go back if she wanted to, but I was staying. She looked at me, lips pouting, a hurt expression on her face. As I watched her walk away, tripping over the folds of her skirt, I had an urge to follow her. I was no longer sure why I was staying behind.
‘Where’s your friend gone?’ asked Meena, looking up from the phone she was playing with.
‘She’s gone back,’ I told her.
Meena looked at me, blinking a few times, her eyelashes sweeping the air, her green eyes almost hypnotic. ‘I don’t know why you hang out with her, you know.’
‘She’s not that bad. If you get to know her. Anyway,’ I said, implying that I was bound to her out of some sense of loyalty, ‘we’ve been friends for ages.’
Meena smiled and put her arm through mine. ‘Well, you’re all right.’
I tried not to show the pleasure that was reddening my face. ‘So are you,’ I said.
I carried Meena’s words with me for weeks. Later, I wrapped them up and put them away, taking them out for reassurance every now and then. Sometimes, but not too often in case she caught me staring and thought I was weird, I glanced at Meena and if she caught my eye, she smiled. At other times, as she walked past, she called out, ‘Wassup Mariah!’
‘Am I invisible or something?’ Shez asked me on one of these occasions, as we sat in the dining hall. ‘Why does she always ignore me?’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe she doesn’t like you.’
‘That’s so mean. Why would you say that?’
It was mean. Maybe that was why I carried on, in a twisted kind of self-defence. ‘Because she said so. Kind of.’
‘That day we walked out of science.’
Was I referring, asked Shez, to the day she’d had to go back to the lesson on her own?
‘I didn’t make you, you wanted –’ I stopped. ‘Anyway, after you left, Meena told me I was all right.’ The words that I had treasured, that I had replayed in my head, sounded petty now, even to my ears. Shez didn’t seem suitably impressed either.
I pushed a chip round my plate. Maybe it was a way of making the fading words real again; maybe I wanted Shez to be grateful that I was her friend. ‘She said,’ I continued, ‘that she didn’t know why I hang out with you.’
‘She said that?’ I nodded. ‘What did you say?’
‘I stuck up for you, of course. But she said, if I wanted to, I could be friends with her, with them, instead.’ It might have been the next thing she said, I told myself, if Mr Mann hadn’t come out at that moment and dragged us all back into class.
Something changed in Shez’s eyes at that moment. There was respect perhaps, and something else, fear. ‘So, what are you going to do?’
‘What can I do? I’m not going to leave you on your own, am I?’
Shez never left her pencil case at home. Every night, she packed her bag carefully, then did a check in the morning to make sure she had everything. But that day, somehow, she’d forgotten it.
‘Can I borrow a pen?’ she asked. Normally, I would have given it to her without a thought. But now, for some reason, it felt like a big deal. I rolled my eyes as I reached, in slow motion, for my pencil case and, with a sigh, held out a biro for her.
At the end of the lesson, I asked for it back. ‘I’ll just keep it for the rest of the day,’ she said, ‘so I don’t have to keep asking.’
‘No, I want my pen back,’ I said, holding out my hand. She asked to borrow it again in maths, in French, in English. Each time, she was more apologetic, and each time it was with a greater show of reluctance that I gave it to her, demanding it back at the end of every lesson. In history, I said no.
She kept her hand out, thinking I was joking. ‘What do you want me to do, beg?’ It wouldn’t make any difference I told her. She smiled. ‘Very funny. Just give it, na.’ She reached for my pencil case.
I clamped my hand over hers. ‘No, I won’t. You can’t always expect me to sort you out, Shez. What would you do if I wasn’t around?’ Her smile faded. She took her hand back. But she still waited, still expecting me to give in, to say, ‘Here you are then.’ As she waited, I watched her crumple, watched her sink deeper into her layers, losing her arms in her jumper, her head in her hijab. I watched and felt secretly thrilled.
Several minutes later, a deflated Shez put her hand up to ask Mr Thomas for a pen.
The next day I told her to buy me some chips. She didn’t have enough money, she told me, she only had a pound, barely enough for her own lunch. I shrugged. She could use that. If she had said something then, if she’d put her chin up, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Get lost,’ like the old Shez would have done, I might have stopped there. But she didn’t. She bought me chips, and after that, was buying lunch for me every day.
Over the next few weeks, I discovered parts of myself I hadn’t known existed. I found that the box I’d always lived in, assuming that I had no choice, because that was me, was not made of metal or wood, but of something softer; clay or Plasticine. I surprised even myself as I found I could push at the walls, making the box bigger, changing its shape to create new corners, edges and angles, poking a finger out here, an elbow out there.
I didn’t feel anything when, after telling her that she stank and needed to use a deodorant, I saw a tear spill from her eye and fall onto her page, causing the blue ink to spread out and create a watery black eye on her paper. I actually smiled when, after telling her that she looked like a furry little mouse and no boy, including Ali or my brother, was ever going to be interested in her, she lay her head into her folded arms on the table and refused to lift it until the end of the French lesson, emerging only when the bell went, with bloodshot eyes and her eyeliner smudged all over her swollen face. When we went swimming, I grabbed her float while she was in the deep end, telling her it was ridiculous that she couldn’t swim without it. And I watched her panic for a while; smashing the water with her arms and legs, swallowing water and sinking, before I gave it back to her.
I didn’t let her speak, cutting her off when she tried to tell me about the mela she’d gone to with her cousins at the weekend, or about the argument between her dad and her uncle. I even told her to shut up because she was giving me a headache, when she went on and on about Shahrukh Khan in a film she’d just seen.
Day by day, I watched Shez dissolve. Literally. She seemed to be drowning as her small frame shrank into her clothes, her face peeking out from all the material like a distant head bobbing in the ocean, crying for help.
‘I don’t know why you wear your hijab,’ I said one day.
‘What do you mean? It’s part of our religion.’
‘What, it says in the Koran, “Thou shalt wear a fake Calvin Klein hijab?”’
I didn’t really know about these things, had never thought about them properly. I’d just felt bad for Shez when Jan asked her if she always wore her headscarf, if she slept with it on as well, if there was mould growing in her hair. Or when Mr Thomas said, in front of everyone, looking directly at Shez, that it was a pity that some women couldn’t fight for the basic right to wear what they wanted, after all the suffragettes had done to get women the vote. Afterwards, we’d both made little drawings of Mr Thomas, exaggerating the hair that poked out from his ears and over his shirt collar.
But now, encouraged by Shez’s silence, by her wide-open eyes, the words just poured out. ‘You don’t know anything about Islam or why you’re supposed to wear it. You’re just doing it to be like your cousins. It looks silly, everyone makes fun of you. My dad says that it doesn’t even say anywhere in the Koran that women have to wear the hijab, so I don’t know why you feel so holy, so proud, as if it makes you a better Muslim or something.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with feeling proud of your religion,’ said Shez, quietly.
But the next day, she came to school wearing her long black hair in a plait, with nothing covering it. Her eyes searched mine for approval, but found none. Instead, my lips curled into a mocking smile. She had taken off her hijab because of me.
When I told her that she was too hairy, that she should get her arms and legs waxed, her eyebrows and moustache threaded, she asked her cousin to take her to Shiraz Beauty Parlour. When I told that she needed to change her uniform, to buy a new skirt and a jumper that fitted her properly, she went shopping. She looked better as a result, but the more she changed herself to please me, the more pathetic she became in my eyes.
In the middle of the spring term, I got appendicitis. For weeks there had been a dull ache in my stomach, but Dr Gupta kept sending me home, telling me it was constipation. Then the pain got worse and I could hardly breathe. In the end, I was taken to hospital in an ambulance, almost screaming, and even though the violence in my stomach was filling my brain, I enjoyed the drama of it all. When I arrived, the doctor told me that if I’d got there an hour later, my appendix might have burst.
Shez came to visit me in hospital, bringing me a box of Quality Street and a poster of Shahrukh Khan. I sat up, leaning weakly against the pillow, and told her again and again about my almost-encounter with death. She seemed suitably impressed, although by then she was impressed with everything I said. She looked depressed when I told her that I wouldn’t be back at school for at least another two weeks since I had to have full bed rest at home.
Every day, I expected her to come, but after that first time, Shez didn’t visit me again. Not even to catch a glimpse of my brother. In the past she’d often made excuses to come round, just to see him, although he hardly noticed her.
Each day of those weeks at home dragged on, with nothing to do but watch daytime television, programmes about redecorating houses, cooking and makeovers, or repeats of serials on Zee TV and PrimeTime. I lay all day on the settee downstairs, while everyone carried on their lives around me. Shakeel was always busy with his boxing or his friends. Abu came home in the morning after his taxi shift, watched television with me for a few hours, then went upstairs to sleep. Ammi was always attached to her Singer sewing machine, which sat in the living room and sang out its tune every day from eight o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock at night. Sometimes she gave me piles of belts to turn the right way round and then stuff, or skirts and trousers that had gone wrong, to unpick the stitches on. With no one to talk to, I found myself having imaginary conversations with Shez, collecting thoughts and stories to share with her when I next saw her.
On my first day back, as I walked into the history class, I saw Shez sitting with Saira, the refugee girl, in the second row. I noticed that she was wearing her hijab. Both she and Saira were laughing about something. I had never seen Saira laugh, or even smile before. She usually wore a blank expression on her face, looking perpetually lost, as if she didn’t know where she was or how she had got there. I remembered how Shez and I had often imitated and laughed at the ‘Saira Face’.
‘Hi, Shez,’ I said. She didn’t reply. I sat in my usual seat in the front row, waiting for her to join me, and when she didn’t come, I turned towards her. She was still talking to Saira as if I wasn’t back at school after three weeks away. ‘Shez!’ I hissed, patting the chair next to me, but she didn’t even look at me. She was ignoring me. I glanced at Meena, sitting a few rows behind her. She was looking in my direction, but right through me, as if I was invisible. I had been gone for less than a month, and everything had changed. I turned to the front, stared straight ahead as if I didn’t care, but found myself blinking away the tears that were filling my eyes.
‘Mariah,’ said Mr Thomas loudly as he walked in. ‘Welcome back!’ He froze in mock horror as he stood in front of me and looked at Shez, then at me, then at Shez again. ‘Sitting alone?’ he said. ‘Have the two of you had a fight?’
For the rest of the lesson I burned with the embarrassment, highlighted so crushingly by Mr Thomas, of sitting alone. I refused to look behind me, using my back as a shield against Shez and the rest of the class, but I could hear Shez and Saira talking away in Urdu about the latest Hindi film Jab We Met, how they didn’t like Kareena Kapoor but thought Shahid Kapoor was so cute and couldn’t believe Kareena had left him for Saif Ali Khan.
She doesn’t care at all, I thought, as I heard her giggle. Even if she wants me to, I’ll never talk to her again.
But when a piece of lined paper, torn from an exercise book, folded and folded and folded again, until it was the size of the tip of my thumb, with Mariah Ahmed written in curls on the front, landed on my table, I was glad of the acknowledgement that I existed.
Each word was written with a different colour gel pen, in the same curly handwriting. I know that you would rather be friends with Meena and I was stopping you before, but now I have Saira, and I like her, so you don’t need to worry about me
I read it several times. Then I tore the paper up into smaller and smaller pieces, until it was a pile of confetti in front of me. Picking up my bag and my books, I went to take the empty seat next to Shez and Saira.