Nile Baby -BY Elleke Boehmer

 

Elleke Boehmer

Beginning

I know this for sure. When Alice Brass Khan saw the baby flop out of the glass jar that day, she saw in its eyes, nose, and mouth the shape of her own face. There they were, she spotted them that very minute, her own high African cheekbones.

The sunlight radiating through the branches of the weeping willow tree made a pattern of silver stars. In the middle of this galaxy stood Alice Brass Khan, my friend the Science Boffin, looking tall and disgusted. The drooping branches and the radiating light split her into strips of shining colour as if she were some person in a legend, a prophet, a healer from a different realm of life.

That was Alice with her bird-bright eyes, she was always more easily looked at in bits, in strips. The same as on the day we first spoke.

From the off, from the word go on that day we first spoke, it felt like those eyes looked straight into me, like she knew everything about me.

Which she couldn’t have done because it was only our second term at Woodpark Secondary and we’d arrived here from different primary schools at opposite ends of the city.

Which she might have done — looked straight into me, Quiet Arnie, I mean — because just the same as me she didn’t fit in here, she wasn’t a neat match. She saw like I saw that Woodpark Secondary crawled with people who were taller, fitter, faster, louder and cooler than we were, by far. And not half as interested in the folded, wormy insides of things, be they alive or dead.

Things like the cold, wet body lump lying here at our feet with its crumpled grey forehead and squashed-in nose. And those tufts of strange, coarse grown-up hair sprouting at the back of its head.

That first time we spoke — it was the middle of winter, a sunny day, the second Friday lunch-break after Christmas—was also the first time I helped carry out her plans.

I crept up that day on her and her friend Yaz Yarnton, Alice swinging inside the stripy green octopus of the willow tree the same as now, Yaz sitting cross-legged burying her sandwich crusts under dead willow leaves. I came along softly like a cat-burglar behind curtains but I could tell she’d noticed me by how she shifted the direction of her swinging and looked at me out of the dark corner of her left eye.

At the very same minute we spotted the crime. It was Justine Kitchen in her shiny pink puffa jacket. Good-at-everything-and-admired-by-everyone Justine taking a pencil-case off one of the little kids, Rahat maybe, or Saif, the kid jumping up and down like a poodle yelping on its hind-legs.

At the very same minute we broke sprinting out of our cave of willow branches. I snatched the pencil-case and put it back in the little kid’s hand. Alice grabbed the outstretched arm, pushed back the pink puffa, and gave the wrist a Chinese burn so sore Justine’s eyes filled right up with tears.

That was Alice. No one so much as committed something unfair, including calling her Science Freak, Brown Boffin, Frankenstein and the other cruel names kids called her, without reaping the consequences.

Another minute and we were back inside the willow tree catching our breath and grinning at one another. And then I knew like she knew but without saying a word that the person standing there in front of them was a friend-in-arms.

By then Yaz with a bored face on had picked herself up off the ground and wandered in the direction of the bike sheds, the place where the girls who talked strictly about girl things always gathered.

That first day was the day we discovered that Alice’s way home was pretty much the same as mine. Down School Road with the smelly ditch on the right, and into narrow Selvon Street. Then my street, Stratford Street, where the two-up yellow-brick terraces looked exactly like the houses in her street, Albion, three streets down and to the left, at a right angle to Stratford.

That first day was the day we also discovered that by walking slowly and in time and dawdling at corners we could cover the whole range of our most interesting topics. Like, the thinness of the best skimming stones. And where to buy the sharpest penknives. And what kind of sticks are softest for whittling (willow is good). Also the problem of growing up, or, better, how to avoid it for as long as possible (by ignoring it mainly, by skimming stones). As we got used to one another we now and then mentioned our sad and untidy families, but this was in short bursts and then on to the next thing. The topics we always returned to were knives, sticks and stones including the ammonite and salt crystal we stole off her classroom’s nature table and, best of all, the inner workings of living things (including the dog’s eye I found for her after several weeks’ searching).

Alice had it in her to be a True Young Scientist, at least that was what our biology teacher Mr Brocklebank said, and as long as I could tag by her side I was happy to help her make her discoveries. He said she had the steady hands and cool heart of a scientist, and, above all, the sharp eye of the pioneer investigator, the one who goes in front. To encourage her he lent her books—The Human Anatomy Picture Book, Paige’s Essential PhysiologyThe Pocket Atlas of the Moving Body—but I lent her a hand, and watched how her lips moved like water around the difficult words. DiverticulatedMitochondrion. SquamousEpithelium.

For whole long weeks Alice and I were a team-of-two, operating in tandem, with Yaz Yarnton and everyone else well out of the picture. To me Alice was Energy and Ideas and Amazingness and all I wanted was to stick to her. I wanted to be her channel, her antenna, whatever it took to give shape to her schemes. I was the kid at school who hardly spoke, who didn’t draw attention. Sticking close to Alice I felt different than myself somehow, woken-up and wide-awake, both at once.

Which is why today was so strange. It was strange even counting the day last month with the dog’s eye. Today, I thought to myself squinting up at her standing against the light, feeling the grey specimen pressing its wetness into my leg, today was the very first time some thingsome body, had properly come between us. Today Alice inside her nest of willow branches looked like she had seen a ghost. A ghost she knew well.  CONTINUE READING >>>>

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