A trolley runs along the jib to move the load in and out from the crane’s centre
A trolley runs along the jib to move the load in and out from the crane’s centre
One thing Rashid has emailed me about cranes sticks especially in my head; how they grow right from inside themselves. They sit inside buildings and raise their arm – their jib part – then pick up another section and slot it in underneath; they can go on like that, on and on, as high as they need to. I was so pleased with this one I even told Trace about it one wet day when we’re sitting in a corner of the hall eating our lunch. Trace had marmite and lettuce sandwiches – she always has marmite and lettuce sandwiches. Her mum used to give her peanut butter instead, she says. But that isn’t allowed any more because some people are so allergic they swell up and die if you put a hand on their arm with the smallest trace of peanut butter: if their hand touches it and they lick that hand.
‘I’m not allergic to peanut butter,’ I say.
‘Lucky you, then,’ Trace says.
‘To die just like that,’ I say. And for a moment we both sit in silence. Is Trace thinking what I am, I wonder? – about sudden deaths sitting around us, everywhere we look. Not just the poisons they keep warning us that get into our food. About all the other lurking dangers. Suicide bombers. Dirty bombs. Car crashes. Meningitis. Serial killers. So on and so forth.
To counteract such gloomy thoughts I tell Tracy how cranes grow themselves. And how when the time comes they take themselves down again, using the reverse process.
‘A bit like we do really; people, animals, all of ourselves,’ Tracy says. ‘Growing from the inside. While noone’s looking.’
‘Cranes take their new sections from outside,’ I point out.
‘So do we,’ Tracy says. ‘We eat. We take stuff from outside too.’
I’m doubtful about this. But then Tracy adds. ‘Look at babies. Look at your baby, how he eats.’ And then I do think of him with my usual mix of tenderness and fury; and it’s true he does take a lot of milk and other stuff, he does seem to get seems bigger by the day.
“Well there you are then,’ Tracy insists when I admit it.
‘But people don’t get smaller getting older, and they go on eating,’ I say, thinking of Granny who seems the same size to me that she’s always been.
‘Oh but they do,’ Tracy says. ‘My great gran in South Africa did. She just shrivelled upside herself. Till she shrivelled away.’ She said it almost ghoulishly. Glancing over her shoulder as if to tell her ghosts to get lost.
‘Well my granny doesn’t,’ I say.
‘But she will,’ Trace says ‘She will, she will.’ Why do we keep getting onto to such sad subjects today – now I’m remembering the urn on the shelf in Mnemosyne. But then Trace and I look at each other and giggle as if the best thing to do is laugh. And I ask her about the play and being Potiphar’s wife and that’s all right, that matter’s not sad at all, it’s nice. Potiphar’s wife hasn’t any songs of her own, Trace says. But because she can sing – or so the play producer’s think - she’s being allowed to sing a solo. Potiphar’s wife has to try and seduce Joseph after all and songs are good for that. As long as the producer agrees she can even choose her own.
‘What song are you going to sing?’ I ask.
‘Wait and see,’ Trace says.
In fact it’s only a few days now till the play; only a week or ten days then till the end of term. And now, suddenly, it’s the day of the performance.
At dinnertime, I ask Trace, cautiously, if her mum’s coming. (Trace never talks about her mother. I’m not sure that it’s a safe question.)
‘Of course she’s coming, if she can; if she’s not bleeped.’
‘Bleeped?’ But Trace is calling someone else now across the room. Maybe she doesn’t want me asking more questions. If I don’t understand what ‘bleeped’ means that’s my problem.
Trace is often like that. As usual I’m left to work things out for myself. The only people I know who have bleepers are doctors like the ones in Casualty. If Trace’s mum was a doctor, wouldn’t Trace have told us sometime? I don’t know what to think.
But then it’s evening and everyone’s coming in and I’m showing them to their seats in the school hall turned theatre. The stage at the far end is set with a throne and a palm tree and a blown-up photograph of a desert reaching back far away, a pyramid in the middle distance. For some plays they put up curtains but Mr Painter the music teacher said – according to Trace who did not appear impressed – that curtains – and what he called ‘a proscenium arch’ -were old hat. Theatre in the round was much more interesting. The problem is that there is nothing in the round about our school stage: it’s at end of the hall and that’s that. All he can do is put a few fidgeting seventh years in the aisles and up the sides of the hall dressed up as Egyptian slaves to make the whole hall look like the Pharaoh’s court. It doesn’t. Even a camel – or an elephant – couldn’t have made our school hall look like Pharaoh’s court.
Granny and Stuart arrive and I show them to their seats, correctly. Granny is wearing a dark red coat I haven’t seen before, she doesn’t look the least eccentric, just a nice granny to have. Stuart is wearing jeans and a leather jacket as usual. If he’s got an earring in one ear, so what, there’s plenty of other older brothers have; even some of the Asians have.
My parents are due soon, too. ‘I’m looking forward to this,’ my mother has said, and my father is coming home early especially, even though I’m only an usher.
I don’t show them to their seats. Jay ushering on the other side does that. Looking out all the time for someone who could be Trace’s mum, I pick one or two small and thin women with fairish hair as possibles but I don’t know for sure. And then I see Mrs Scott who’s organising what she calls ‘front of house people’ frowning at me; I’m forgetting to do my job; I have to stop.
All the seats are occupied I see as the doors close and I take up my position at the back. Even though I’m not taking part myself I feel a small shiver of excitement as the room darkens and Mr Philips starts to play his piano accompanied by a brilliant drummer – a Jamaican boy I don’t know from Year ten. Two other boys, one white, one black, neither so brilliant, play guitars – one electric, one accoustic. A girl is playing the trombone, an assortment of drums, bells, clangers, rattles, bangers are played by all sorts of people, boys and girls, of all ages, from all classes. Mr Philips has been training them up since the start of term. The rest of us are sick of the racket.
But it’s different on the night: and with the singers too. I think they sound pretty good. Of course like everyone else by now I know all the tunes and pretty much all the words of ‘Joseph’ by heart. I chant them under my breath most of the way through.
Trace does not come on for quite a while as Potiphar’s wife, though I see her in the chorus earlier on. Then suddenly there she is, reclining on a couch at the back of the stage wearing her golden pyjamas covered in sequins sewn on by me. She has a flimsy veil on her head round which she peers seductively at Joseph while the choir is singing about Potiphar’s wife’s scheming. Joseph is played by a black boy, Clinton Kingston from another class in year ten–.he’s not handsome unfortunately: he got the part because he can sing really well. (Lots of people tell him he should enter for Pop Idol. But he says he’s going to be a doctor, so he won’t have time. Just as well really. Somehow I can’t see him as the next Will Young.)
The choir stops singing. The stage is beginning to darken when the door alongside me creaks open. I’m supposed to stop anyone coming in mid-performance, but for some reason I don’t try and stop this person. She’s so little and light, like a tired ghost, she floats rather than enters, closing the door so softly it doesn’t make a sound. The next minute she’s leaning against the wall besides me. She’s wearing a long dark coat; her hair tied up in a scarf; that’s all I have time to notice, because the lights are coming up again on Trace’s couch. Every eye in the house is on her.
Slowly she gets to her feet – I can almost forget it is Trace now, the slow way she unwinds her scarf, reveals her face, slowly, lazily takes the microphone someone is handing her, leans back against a convenient pillar in her suit of gold. Alone but for a solitary rattle, the trombone plays an introduction tune, and suddenly Trace is singing.
The introductory tune sounded faintly familiar – I only realise why until a little way into the song which Trace is singing oh so simply, lazily, almost lovingly, when I hear the words… ‘The fundamental things apply…As Time Goes By.’ ‘As Time Goes By is the name of an old sitcom on TV; also the name of the song they use at the beginning and end of it. I don’t like the sitcom much myself; it’s soppy, it’s about people almost as old as granny. Yet now the song makes me want to cry; or maybe it’s just the way Trace sings it makes me want to cry. She’s singing it for me, I think, she’s looking straight at me. And then I see that the little woman in the big coat standing next to me really is crying; and that maybe Trace is not looking at me she’s looking at her. More likely she’s not looking at either of us, too blinded by the stage lights to see anyone at all. And maybe, the way she’s singing, there’s not a person in the hall doesn’t think she’s singing just for them. Even the kids who may be laughing at the soppy thing inside their heads - gross they may be thinking, just as I should be thinking - are silent. It’s the way she’s singing it, probably; in such a mellow, soft loving way. Like she loves all of us. ‘Time goes by.’ ‘Gross’ I repeat to myself, furious for being made to feel so soft; so like crying. But then it’s over. There’s a long pause. Then everyone starts clapping.
I am clapping like everyone else when I hear another faint, beep, beep sound. The next moment I feel someone tapping on my arm. It is the woman beside me in the long coat.
‘If you see Trace, could you very kindly tell her I did come,’ she says. ‘I heard her sing. But I can’t stay. I have to get back to the hospital.’
‘Are you her mum?’ I whisper back, even though I know the answer. ‘Misa,’ she says. And then she’s gone.
I do see Trace after, just for a minute. I do tell her. I say the name ‘Misa.’ ‘Your mum?’ I inquire. ‘Misa?’ She just nods. Then adds. ‘She’s a doctor,’ matter-of-factly, ‘A paediatrician, up at the QE. That means dealing with sick kids all day and every day.’
‘Must have been useful when you were little and sick,’ I say. ‘She was just a medical student then,’ Tracy says ‘She didn’t know anything about sick children then.’ She adds: ‘She’s always done her thing and I’ve always done my thing. It’s all worked out.’ I think she isn’t going to say any more. But suddenly, back over her shoulder she throws. ‘I’m glad she heard me. She likes that programme. She likes that song.’
Granny and Stuart come up then and my mother and father. All of them go on and on about how lovely Trace was. Was that really your friend? The one who came to tea?’ My mother asks. ‘I wouldn’t have thought that was her kind of song.’ (Or Trace’s kind of sitcom I’m thinking, imagining Judi Dench and Co, the actors. All very cosy: unlike Trace. My mother of course loves it.)
‘I don’t think it is her kind of song usually,’ Stuart says. ‘She rang to ask me what she should sing. It was my idea.’
‘You?’ I say. ‘I might have known. You always like such corny things.’ I roll my eyes, and we all go on home linking our arms, in silence. The whole time, though, when I’m not thinking about Stuart and Trace exchanging mobile numbers - how dare they? – my brother and my friend behind my back? – I’m thinking about that song.
It’s about love and lovers of course, as well as time. How it goes on ‘as time goes by.’ Will I still love Rashid’s beautiful brown eyes, I wonder, ‘as time goes by?’ But actually it’s not love so much I think about when I hear those words. It’s time. I don’t know how to deal with time; it scares me the way it moves on so fast. It scares me in Birmingham all the time. All those builders; all those cranes. One minute there’s an empty space; the next zillions of people are living in it, or shopping in it, or driving along it. This summer I saw a notice on an exhibition about Birmingham at the Ikon Gallery. People were asked to write their comments – and one girl said – it had to be a child, she hadn’t got grown-up writing; ‘why does Birmingham have to rebuild itself completely, now this year, this moment, August?’ I knew exactly what she meant.
Even the way the baby keeps on growing scares me sometimes. It doesn’t seem any time since it was a tiny space creature, its eyes looking at nothing, its face crinkled up, its little limbs punching and kicking invisible objects. And now he sits up and looks around himself and chortles; any moment he will be crawling then walking and talking and growing up to go to school like me. Does nothing ever stop for a moment? It’s all time’s fault, I think, that everything keeps on changing, so fast.
Sometimes I try to make time stop still. Eating my school picnic about of my lunchbox, I look around and think; stop; I’ve caught this moment and it’s here for as long as I want it. Jay is nibbling on crisps and a chapatti. Trace’s marmite and lettuce sandwiches are uneaten besides her while she fiddles with her belly ring, her eyes miles away. Ralilah and her best Muslim friend scarved heads together so can you can hardly tell which belongs to which, are giggling; there are the sounds of boys outside and a plane in the sky and the moaning hoot of a train on the railway line. All of it will stay there the same, like people and places in picture, until I tell it to stop. Now, just in this moment, I’m safe.
But then something distracts me. I don’t think of the moment again for hours sometimes, not till I’m home again. And then I think: I’ve lost it. And all those moments in between that I’ve never noticed. Time has simply kept on going by. And by. And by. No matter what.
I wonder if other people my age think like this? If so they don’t say, and I’m not going to ask in case they think I’m crazy. I’m sure Trace would think I’m crazy. Is it because of Ella I think like this I wonder suddenly? (I haven’t thought about Ella much lately: I haven’t had any more messages from her. What with the play and with Christmas coming up, and horrible Frankie, I’ve had too much else in my head.) Do I worry about time so much because Ella lives in the past? Is she slipping ever further away the more time goes on, her emails coming from further and further away? The thought of a growing distance, of a bigger and bigger gap opening between us feels both creepy and sad. Is that what makes me feel so sad?
I don’t enjoy thinking like this. I was so happy after hearing Trace sing and now I’m not happy at all. Only a week now till the end of term, till Christmas, I think, hoping to cheer myself up. It doesn’t cheer me up. I put Simon Rattle and Beethoven on very loudly. But when even that won’t do, I take it off and put on Morcheeba. Tonight I do not go to see if I have any emails; even from Rashid. I don’t want any emails. They’re too scary. My mother bangs on my door. ‘Turn that racket down,’ she shouts. But I don’t. I turn it up. I need it. Loud. Louder. LOUDEST.
Comanza: Potain: Wolff: Kroll: Lindea: Comedin: Heede: different makes of tower cranes.
The day after the play is Saturday. I sit at my desk, doing my homework; well that’s the idea. In fact I’m looking out of the window.
They work on the building site on Saturday mornings. By the car park in Bridge Street, I can see people getting out of their cars dressed for weddings in the Registry Office round the corner. Down below me the workers move around like ants, like pictures in history books on the building of the Pyramids. This side of the site, the foundations of the flats are already rising. Steel girders are set in vertical rows ready to support the next layers of breeze blocks. On the far side mobile cranes are moving about, lifting, digging. One tower crane is working, swinging bundles of girders across to the places where they are needed. The others are both still. Looking down to the bottom of the one nearest me, I suddenly see a man swing himself onto the ladder and start climbing up inside it.
He is wearing an orange safely helmet and a black donkey jacket, with something written on the back of it that I can’t see properly, except once, briefly, when he reaches yet another platform and starts on the next ladder. Even then I don’t have time to read it. He has a green plastic box slung over one shoulder. His lunch, I wonder? Cheese sandwiches? Ham? A pork pie? A flask of tea? Or coffee? When he’s up there in his cabin, does he sit longing for dinnertime I wonder, the way I do during especially boring classes at school. Or is he too busy concentrating, mesmerised like Border in front of a mouse hole, by the little bundle he’s negotiating towards its destination way below? What does he think about all day? What can you think about high up there all by yourself? Maybe his mind wanders just like mine does. Does he have a radio? Does he listen in to radio Birmingham, the way I’m do sometimes? Does he like eighties music? Or seventies music? And how does he go to the loo, I wonder? I really wonder about that. I send the question up to him in my thoughts as loudly as I can.
He won’t be able to hear me though, or what I’m listening to at this minute – a cd of granny’s, Bob Marley that I love to little bits, almost as much as I love Simon conducting Leonora number 3. He can’t hear anything except the wind noise, climbing. I really see, or do I just imagine the wind buffeting the ladder gently, swaying him about? I can hear the wind buffeting my own window.. It is blowing quite a bit today. The Christmas tree at the back of the jib above the counter weight is swaying but only a little. Its lights are winking on and off. Even in the daytime they’re not turned off. Does the man notice them? Do they make him too think ‘good, it’s almost Christmas?’ Or do all grown-ups dread Christmas like my mother says she does. Is he cold I wonder? Does he look down? Does he ever feel giddy with the height? Or does he simply not notice it?
The man in the donkey jacket is almost at the top. He swings onto the platform. He opens the door into the little glass cabin with its slanted front, and disappears inside. He’s shut inside away from everything and everybody. He doesn’t have a mother calling outside the door: ‘Esther!’ ‘Esther!’ ‘Coming,’ I shout, filled with longing and envy. ‘I will get up there myself one day, I tell myself. ‘I will, Ella, I will, I will. See if I don’t. I don’t mind if it’s scary.’
That’s a lie of course. Even if I am not scared at the thought of that ladder – not too scared - I’m scared of lots of other things. In particular I’m scared of Frankie and Frankie’s bullies. They’ve lain low recently. But I know they haven’t gone away altogether.
It’s a sunny day, quite mild really. Even the wind seems kindly enough. I take Border for a longer walk on Saturdays. I take her along the canal as usual, but the other way now, up towards the university. At weekends especially there’s plenty of life; runners, cyclists, families with children, pushchairs, prams; people walking dogs. I usually have to be careful of Border with other dogs, but even she seems laid back today. Just sniffs and passes on. There aren’t any narrow boats. There almost never are in winter. Though one or two might ride the canal over the Christmas holidays.
When we walk back, I see the usual drunks on the seat outside Holliday Wharf. At least I think it’s all drunks. But as I get nearer I see that the man sitting away from the others, on the far end, is the Stamp Man. I haven’t seen him since the day he was attacked. He doesn’t look any different from then, he’s staring at the ground as usual; when I say ‘hullo’ he doesn’t look up or move let alone speak. His hands are dangling besides him. Border goes up and licks them gently as if she remembers him. He doesn’t move them away. He lets her lick as if too remembers her too. I am happy to see that. At the other end of the bench one drunk is waving a can of Carlings Best Bitter and shouting; ‘I’ve got to protect my rights I have.’ ‘Yers’, mate,’ agrees the other. ‘You’ve got to protect them.’. I hope they’re nice to the Stamp Man. If he stays around I can ask Granny to keep an eye on him. I know she walks this way herself.
I take Border back to the Mnemosyne. I haven’t expected to see Granny, she’d told me she was going to see a film at the multi-screen at the top of Bridge Street. But it looks as if she’s been to Tesco instead. There’s stuff laid out for tea, chocolate olivers (wow!) even a hunk of cake from Costa Coffee. ‘Are you expecting someone, Granny?’ I ask. ‘I thought I might be expecting you, Esther,’ she answers. ‘How about staying to tea?’
It’s quite a while since I’ve stayed to tea with Granny. I say yes, wondering what she’s up to.
But she doesn’t seem up to anything at first. We talk about lots of things; the play, Trace, Stuart, school. Very casually at some point Granny asks if bullying goes on. I eye her suspiciously. She looks back, as casual as ever.. ‘A bit, I think,’ I say, equally casual. ‘I mean there are some gangs, and they do rather go for nerdy kids.’
I am not a nerdy kid, I tell myself. I stare granny straight in the eye to make sure she knows it. Granny pours more tea into my cup. ‘You know the theory about bullies?’ she says. ‘That they only attack people they think are weak. Meaning it’s better to show you’re not frightened, that you just don’t care. But I still think it’s a good idea to tell someone in the school that it’s happening. One of the teachers.’
‘That would only make it worse,’ I say. ‘Some of them bully teachers too.’ I think of poor Miss Petty who was new at the beginning of term and is supposed to teach us French, but hardly gets the chance. I’ve a feeling she won’t be there next term.
‘Not that kind of teacher,’ granny says.
‘Then they’d call you – the person – a snitch,’ I say. ‘And it would be even worse.’
‘Does anyone bully Trace?’ Granny asks. ‘I don’t think so,’ I say.
‘You see,’ she says.
I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to see. But Granny changes the subject, starts asking me what I want for Christmas, and when I tell her I haven’t a clue, tries to help me think.
It’s wonderfully cosy in her boat. She brings out old photograph albums for me to look at - one of my favourite things. I leaf through snaps of mum as a child – in colour mostly – but faded – and earlier pictures of granny herself as a child, mostly black and white. There’s little Granny in smocked frocks and fair-isle sweaters; bigger granny in a pair of boy’s corduroy shorts passed on from her brother; bigger granny still in a tweed coat and skirt like a grown-up’s, hair in long plaits. There’s even grown-up granny in black jeans and black polo-necked sweater, her hair cut in a fringe now, holding a baby mum. She looks happier in this one. In all the child photos, plaits granny, shorts granny, smocked frock granny, one thing never changes: the frown on her face.
The stove is hot: I’m perched on a stool in the shape of a hand that fits me exactly. Border is snoring on the sofa, somewhere she’s not allowed in our house –but then we have white sofas. Granny’s little sofa is covered by a bright Indian cloth set with tiny mirrors. Over the top of it is the shelf holding the Indian god and the shadow puppet, between which for a while stood the urn containing dead man’s ashes. Outside it’s dark already. The boat rocks slightly in the water. I wish I could stay here forever.
‘Why are you always frowning in your pictures, granny?’ I ask.
‘Only a week till Christmas,’ Granny says, as if I haven’t spoken.
‘And then what?’ I ask, wanting to ask the first question again, but somehow not able to.
‘And then what indeed?’ she answers. Which is hopeless. And I have to go home lonely. Because not only the bullies, all this stuff with Ella too, not being able – not being allowed - to tell anyone about her is lonely. Lonelier. Loneliest. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t what will happen – what Ella may make happen – next.
END OF PART ONE.