Thursday, 1 March 2007




The second thing carried by the slewing unit is the cabin in which the driver sits, from which he controls the load.

Let’s face it; everything I’ve been writing here has been like emails to Ella. My New Year Resolution is this; I’m not going to pretend any more that it’s not all messages to her; and if you, whoever you are think I’m bonkers to send messages to someone who doesn’t exist that’s your problem. See if I care. I’M NOT WRITING TO YOU. So here goes; my first – new year - email to Ella.

January 1st. Birmingham.
Dear Ella, wherever you are, whoever you are: my born dead twin or what? Why don’t I hear from you any more? OK if you’re going to be like this be like it. See if I care. And I tell you what, even if you won’t email me, I’m going to email you: till you’re sick of it, really really sick. Assuming you exist. I’m doing you the honour of assuming you do, somewhere, out there, up there, in another world, Harry Potter’s or Philip Pullman’s, or something quite different. I don’t know where you are. I don’t know who you are. I just know you are there. Dead or alive, I don’t care. EMAIL ME!!!!

What’s been going on then? Not a lot. The usual Christmas stuff. Granny came and Stuart and my sister Norah – she’s named after Granny - and Josh her husband and Barty, their baby. I’ve told you about the baby. I’m beginning to like him better. He’s almost crawling. He lies on his front and pushes his bum up and his back legs out. Mum says, fondly, as if she’s looking forward to it, ‘he’ll be a little nuisance once he’s into everything.’. Norah, on the other hand, just groans. I’m not sure she enjoys motherhood. She’s going back to work next week, which means her taking Barty to nursery three days a week, and my mother looking after him one day instead of two. My sister’s supposed to look after him herself on the fifth day, I bet she’ll always be ringing mum up to say she has to do XYZ and then mum will have him on her day too. Why bother with having a baby at all if you’re going to be like that?

I like the way I can make Barty laugh. He laughs almost as much for me now as he did for Trace. Makes me think I wouldn’t mind having a baby of my own one of these days, after all.

I haven’t seen Trace since the end of term; or Rahilah, or Rashid or Jay or anyone. I miss them – especially Rahilah funnily enough, she’s the only one can’t email me, not that Trace does much. No way I miss Frankie and his lot. I did see Frankie in New Street one day. But he was with a white woman must be his mum, which means it’s his dad is black. She looked nasty. I could hear her screaming at him, like he was a horrible insect, not a person at all. Well he is a horrible insect, I should know, but his mum shouldn’t see him like that. He didn’t shout back. He looked angry, and sulky. He wasn’t wearing his ear-ring, he hadn’t got his hood on, even his flat top didn’t look flat as usual; he stuck to his mum like Border sticks to me when I really tell her off and she’s listening for once. He didn’t see me. I scarpered.

At least Rashid’s been emailing me. So has Jay. About cranes mostly, both of them. Rashid wrote; ‘they had to get a crane somewhere in America to lift an elephant!!!! While Jay told me he’d found something about what crane drivers keep in their cabin. “I’ll tell you about that when I see you, Est. Or maybe I shouldn’t!!!!!!” he said, He probably just means they’ve got sexy – what mum calls ‘lewd’ - pin-ups. Why shouldn’t I believe that? Rashid didn’t mention that though I bet Jay told him. He wouldn’t. Not to a girl.

Granny has given me a mobile for Christmas. Mum’s furious – she thinks mobiles are a waste of space. And will make me even more materialistic than she assumes I am already. She must be thinking of those ads which say ‘Does your mobile let you down?’ to make you get a jazzier one to show off to your mates. No good my saying my mates aren’t like that. They aren’t. (Trace is the only one with a mobile anyway, and as far as I can see she never uses it. It’s just so she and her mum can keep in touch.) No use either me saying, airily ‘I’m just a typical teenager, I’ll grow out of it’ this makes her crosser than ever – maybe because I pinched her line – I hear her saying it to dad, sometimes, when she’s talking to him about me. Well why do you think I used it? POW.

(Actually, being a teenager is something I’d happily grow out of. I don’t like it much. Think of Frankie and Co, lurking down the street. Are there bullies where you are, Ella?)

‘Who’s going to pay for all your calls?’ mum asks. ‘Granny’s putting in five pounds a month,’ I say, smugly I admit. That really drives Mum spare as I knew it would. Sparer. Sparest. I send a text to Granny on her mobile to tell her to watch out. She hasn’t texted me back yet. I daresay she can handle mum. She can usually, isn’t that just what drives Mum so totally, utterly mad. At least it makes her forget to be so mad at me.

?love Esther.
PS. I just went out to see Barty. AND HE’S CRAWLING. HE REALLY IS.

PPS. I enailed my number to Rashid.. He emailed his. I didn’t even know he had a mobile! He doesn’t ring me - I don’t suppose he ever will. And I don’t suppose I’ll ever dare ring him!!

PPPS. I don’t know if you have mobiles where you are, Ella. Text me if you do. My number is…..’

I hesitate before writing this. Do I WANT Ella send me texts as well as emails?
I write it anyway, Maybe she won’t text me. And she doesn’t text me. Not at first. What she does is much MUCH worse.

Dear Ella.
Still nothing? Who cares? I’m back at school now. It’s boring. But not as boring as being at home with just mum and me. And it’s good seeing Rashid and Rahilah and Jay and Trace again. Though I still have to be careful about seeming too friendly with any of them, except Trace. You know why. That’s all. Your turn? EMAIL ME. Love? Esther

Actually the very morning after I write this I discover how I can see Rashid sometime outside school. This is how.

A new little newsagent has opened in the corner of the flats in Bridge Street, opposite the multi-storey car parks. It’s more than a kiosk than a shop, barely enough for more than one customer – when there are two, the second one in has to move outside to let the first go out again. Mum thinks a newspaper shop is A GOOD THING. This means she has cancelled the delivery from our old newsagent and until the new man finds a delivery boy - he keeps promising he will - she picks up her Independent from there instead, except on Saturdays when she sends me instead. So it is not such A GOOD THING for me. When I grumble at having to get up early on a Saturday, she says it doesn’t hurt me to get moving even if I’m not like some of those other teenagers she hears about who only get out of bed at the weekends to go clubbing. ‘You wouldn’t let me go clubbing anyway,’ I say, crossly.

(In fact I’m not sure I’m much into that kind of thing. Yet. Not that I tell mum. Trace says clubbing’s dead boring and I believe her, especially as all the people at school who claim they go are boring. BORING. Not to say silly. If Rashid could go clubbing with me that might be different. But I don’t suppose he’s allowed to go clubbing either.)

The second Saturday morning who should I see inside the shop but the builder man who lives on the boat opposite Granny, and who I’ve taken to calling the Seventh Dwarf - not just because he’s shortish and roundish and bearded but because he always carrying something as if he’s off to work like in that silly song. (‘Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work…’ etc). Today, for some reason, he’s got a small coil of rope over one shoulder. He’s buying a bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut, a Bounty bar, a small packet of Old Holborn tobacco, a copy of the Guardian, a copy of Sporting Life and a copy of the Daily Telegraph. He shows me all these things when he emerges. ‘Guardian, man, for your pinko Gran’ he says. ‘Telegraph for me. Telegraph crossword’s better.’

‘Granny only does the easy crossword,’ I say. ‘Sometimes I do it with her.’

The Seventh Dwarf just snorts. Then off he goes with the papers etc under one arm, his mysterious coil of rope over the other. His name is Bob really. That’s what granny calls him anyway.

There’s more room now in the tiny shop. The man smiles at me, says ‘Come for your Independent have you?’ “My mum’s Independent,’ I correct him. And at that moment someone who’s been a bent back till then, sorting out a pile of Saturday supplements just inside the door of the store-room, pops up his head and says ‘Hullo, Esther.’ ‘What are you doing here, Rashid?’ I ask.

‘She’s in my class,’ Rashid mumbles to the newsagent, a bit red in the face: maybe because he’s not supposed to talk to girls. Not that the newsagent seems to mind. “I am Rashid’s uncle,’ he says.’ Rashid’s a good boy, he’s coming to help me out with all these supplements on Saturday mornings. It’s much too much work for me. You will know from school that Rashid is a good boy, that he works hard and is helpful and doesn’t get into trouble.’

I agree that Rashid is all these things; Rashid doesn’t look at me again until I start turning to go out of the shop when he gives me a big wink behind his uncle’s back. ‘See you at school next week, Esther,’ he says.

‘See you, Rashid,’ I say. Maybe he and I can meet on Saturday mornings sometimes, after he’s finished work, I think, as I head for home with Mum’s paper. That is if Rashid would like to. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that it would be safer to meet round here, so far from school.


I don’t stay at home long. Mum is busy reading her paper, dad writing something in his office. I decide to collect Border for her walk. I go the Bridge Street way hoping to see Rashid again, but there’s no sign of him. I don’t dare go looking for him inside the shop.

There’s no sign of granny either. I take my mobile and call her up, but her mobile is switched off and the door of Mnemosyne locked, her Guardian slung in a carrier bag on the tiller. As I stand hesitating, I hear a familiar bark. Bob, the Seventh Dwarf, appears with Border behind him. ‘Your gran had to go off so I took Toilet Brush here. She said you might want her before she could get back.’

‘Her name’s Border,’ I say indignantly.

‘She looks like a toilet brush to me, man,’ he says.

I walk Border along the towpath for a bit, as usual. It’s a grey windy winter morning – even the geese look cold. I’m frozen. I don’t stay long. When I get back to Gas Street Basin Mnemosyne is still locked, Granny’s Guardian still hung on the tiller.

I knock on the Seventh Dwarf’s door. When he takes Border in, she doesn’t seem to mind one bit, even gives him a pleased bark. ‘Cold are you?’ he adds to my surprise. ‘Got the kettle on. Come in.’

I only hesitate a minute. Then I bend my head to his door. I don’t know quite what I expect to find; something deep and fuggy and underground like him, perhaps. And it IS deep and fuggy and underground in a way. There is a reek of paraffin lamp, coal stove and some kind of cooking – onions? - also pipe smoke. There’s a bit of damp - a faintly watery smell; (there’s always a watery smell in these boats; Mnemosyne has it too.) There’s some other smell I can’t quite place. What surprises me is how orderly everything is. Bob’s bed just inside the door is made up as tightly as a hospital bed, a striped blanket folded across the foot. The brass rim to the window is shining. The face on the old-fashioned black alarm clock is white white white. More surprising still this cabin is not just a bedroom. It’s a toolshed. On every wall are rows of hooks, on every hook a hammer, a pair of pliers, a can of nails, a Stanley knife, a plane, a set of screwdrivers in a bag. All the tools are clean; every blade shiny.

There are more tools in the kitchen, a row of yellow mugs lined up like soldiers just below the roof, and another neat row of tins – mostly baked beans and tomatoes - on shelves under the calor gas hob. It’s lit. The kettle is beginning to shout. On the other side, beneath the sink, are rows of smaller cans with lids, all different colours – before I can inspect them the Dwarf ushers me through to the little sitting-room at the back and that is the most surprising place of all. Not another tool room– a picture gallery. Really!! Small pictures are so crammed up against each other you can’t see an inch of the walls. All of them alike. I don’t mean they’re the same picture of the same thing: I mean they’re the same sort of picture. Landscapes mostly - seas, valleys, mountains – and a few of plants –climbing plants like vines covered in exotic fruits and flowers. Some– even fewer – have landscapes and flowers. Sea, mountains, etc are framed by climbing plants.

While the Dwarf (I must remember to call him, Bob) goes back into the kitchen to deal with the screaming kettle, I peer more closely. I see that the pictures are all painted the same way, in tight little lines of colour like cross-hatching. They must take hours of close work. I am not surprised to see 3 pairs of reading specs hung on a hook by the door. There’s also a big jar of mostly fine-pointed paintbrushes on shelf over the stove. The familiar smell was paint, of course. The small cans in the kitchen would be paint cans.

I’m not sure I like the pictures. While I’m wondering Bob reappears with two mugs of tea. He must see me looking at them but all he says is, ‘I had a daughter once.’ Then he fills a saucer with tea and milk for Border. We sit watching her lap it up and he doesn’t say anything more. So I ask him about being a builder and about cranes.

He doesn’t answer that. He just asks me suddenly why I want to go up a crane. I’ve forgotten asking him about this before, obviously he hasn’t. I look back at him silently I can’t – I don’t want - to explain. In the end he says; ‘must be air you like.’ Then he adds, ‘not my element. Water and earth; that’s me. Sky’s not my scene, man.’

That’s right. None of his pictures leave much room for sky. Perhaps that’s why I don’t seem to like them much. This cabin has no sky in it anywhere. Out of the window all I can see are buildings – brick buildings made of earth - and the water of the canal. The bitter smell of coal overwhelms everything as Bob opens the stove door and dumps new stuff on the glowing coals.

‘Not my scene, man.’ I am enchanted suddenly by the Seventh Dwarf’s way of putting things – calling me ‘man’ all the time. ‘Not my scene, man…. sounds like something out of the sixties, like he’s a hippy: or was a hippy. He’s too old to be a hippy now.

Border stops lapping tea, suddenly, pricks up her ears and yelps. A knock comes on the door. ‘It’s open,’ Bob yells. As Border gives a welcome bark, there’s Granny’s face arrives in the entrance. But when I go to hug her she pushes me away, yelling angrily, and pulls her mobile out of her pocket. She stops yelling for a moment as she keys something in, then she hands it to me and starts all over. ‘What do you mean by this Esther?’ I hear. Border is barking now, too. The Seventh Dwarf with his back to us stokes the fire furiously. And I am looking at a message on Granny’s mobile saying: ‘Remember me? Love Ella.’ I look for the number the message has been sent from. My number. Sent at 11.05 am. But it’s only 11.15 now and my phone has been in my pocket all morning switched off.

I throw Granny’s phone back at her and scrabble for my own. As soon as I turn it on the message signal sounds. And there it is; just the same. ‘Remember me? love Ella.’ Sent from Granny’s phone. I hand my mobile to Granny. She only stops shouting for as long as it takes her to look. Then she starts all over again. I don’t know what upsets me more, her being so angry, so unfairly, or the creepiness of the message. I can’t bear it either way.