CHILDREN'S FICTION from NINA MILTON
Do you believe in luck? Coincidence, fate, any of that stuff?
Before I knew Jake, I only believed in my own bad luck. The world and its mates were out to get me and mostly they succeeded.
Look at what happened this lunch time. I was hanging around with Alvin and Ryan when a conker flew down and hit me on the head. It bounced off my hair and landed by my feet.
I said, “What-was-that?”
Alvin and Ryan doubled up. Ryan fell to his knees and threw the nut at me.
“Bad Luck, Brandon,” they called out. “Nice one!”
When I was a little kid I thought it’d be brilliant to have a nickname, to be known through the school as the Fearless One, or “Football Ace”.
What do I get called? Bad Luck Brandon.
Why? I’m a disaster area.
I’m the one who gets ketchup down me when we all bite into burgers. I’m the one who gets the puncture when we all ride over broken glass. That’s my luck – non-existent.
It doesn’t worry me too much. I’m a bit of a comedian, I usually turn things into a joke. I picked up the conker and had a go at it.
“Out to get me, huh? Think you’re pretty smart, right?”
That’s when I noticed the boy on the fence. We were hanging out at the corner of the football pitch boundary. There’s this tree, huge, its branches spread right over onto school land and Simon Moore was standing on the fence, banging the tree with a stick.
“Serve him right if I tipped him over that fence.”
I said it as a joke, but Alvin took me seriously. “Go on, then.”
“Don’t be daft,” I said. “He’s no bigger than a zit.”
“He’s a pillocking stuck-up baby,” said Ryan. “He needs a lesson.”
Ryan was right. I didn’t even think about it. I went up to Simon and grabbed him by a leg.
He struggled hard, hanging onto a branch and letting out high, squeaky yelps like a dog with its tail caught. He leaped down and we both ended up on the grass, rolling over and over. It was quite muddy because we’d landed where a million corner kicks had been taken that term.
When he slid muddily away from me, I picked up the stick. I was only messing about. I wouldn’t hit anybody. He ran off, yelping like a dog. I chased after him, and Alvin and Ryan came after me. It was just a bit of fun.
“It was just a bit of fun!” I tried explaining. Just my luck. We’d chased Simon Moore round the annex and run bang into Mrs Browning.
I showed her the conker but felt silly explaining how it fell on my head.
“That boy was covered in mud and very scared,” said Miss Browning.
“He was hitting a tree… I thought I’d better stop him doing any damage.”
“He says you attacked him with a stick.”
“I didn’t hit him.”
“And where were your pals Alvin Stenner and Ryan Atland while this was going on?” Miss Browning has got it in for all three of us. She says we get each other into trouble. So I didn’t say a word, because with Miss Browning, every word you say turns out to be the wrong one.
“It’s serious this time, Brandon.” She sounded a bit sorry. I gave her a grin as Mr Fellows swept by.
“In my office, boy.”
My grin went into sort of fast freeze. Our Head Teacher only calls you “boy” when you’ve pushed all his buttons.
“You’re already on a yellow card, Brandon,” he said as he sat down behind his desk and I stood in front.
That yellow card was another bad luck story… we’d just been having fun with some yoghurt pots… no one had wanted to eat the stuff, anyway…
“I’m sorry, Brandon. I’m putting you on a red card.” He passed me an empty exercise book. ‘Hurting others is always wrong. I must control my temper.’ Say it back.”
I said it back.
Mr Fellows thinks he’s invented this cool system – yellow cards mean you can’t go on trips or be in plays and stuff. Red cards, the biggy: no break time, a letter home, no more chances before you’re excluded.
“Fill up that book. Say those words out loud each time you write them down. It will help impress them upon your lepidopterist mind.”
“My what, sir?”
“Like a butterfly, Brandon. And stand straight while I talk to you. Where is your tie?”
Mr Fellows should have been a motorway policeman. He eyes you up and down, spotting the small things, making them grow important. I can imagine him in uniform, on the hard shoulder… “Your lights don’t work, your tyres are bald and you didn’t indicate properly back there…” He starts getting freaky, does Mr Fellows, when he knows he’s got you for something more major… “Now, if you could just blow into this bag, please…”
“Make sure your parents get this letter.” He handed me a sealed envelope. I took it as if it carried a deadly virus.
“It asks your mother or father to come in and see me on Monday. So make sure you give it to them as soon as you get home. And do you realize it is against school uniform policy to wear trainers?”
I put the letter and the book in my bag. They slid to the bottom. Mr Fellows didn’t know about my bad luck. He didn’t know about what had happened in class this morning. He wouldn’t have cared, either, but I did.
I’d asked Helen Turner out on a date.
I could hardly believe that Helen had said yes, and now Freaky Fellows had just pulled the flush on my entire weekend and proved me right. I never get good luck. Why start now?
We’re doing this project in History – The Victorians – and Helen Turner is my partner. This morning, I’d been doing my drum kit impression with a couple of her pencils, and it had gone a bit wrong. The fancy thing on the end of a pencil had sort of split in two.
“That was a present from my little sister,” Helen snapped, making me feel mean.
“Sorry.” I gave her the smile I’d practised in front of the bathroom mirror.
“You break something every lesson.”
“I do not.”
“I’m going to ask if I can partner someone else.”
“I’ve got a good idea for a project, and you’re going to ruin it.”
“I’ll buy you a new pencil.”
“You broke something in Chemistry. I saw you hide the bits.”
“It was part of this secret experiment I was doing.”
Helen raised her gaze upwards. “You’re a danger to humanity, you are.”
“That’s rubbish. I could easily prove what rubbish that is. I’ve got these tickets for a free skate at the ice rink on Sunday.” I took a breath. “I’ll share them with you.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d asked Helen Turner out!
“They do good milk shakes there,” I added, trying to sound casual. “Dead thick. Buy you one?”
“I always buy my own stuff,” said Helen. “I don’t believe in favours.”
“Okay, okay,” I groaned. “Buy your own milk shake.”
That’s why I like Helen. She’s fast on the draw and says what she thinks. She’s got this “so what?” attitude. She knows where she’s going and nobody stops her getting there. Her eyes are the colour of the feathers that drift down from our budgie’s cage, a very pale turquoise.
“It’s the four o’clock session,” I said. “You need your own skates, but you’ve got a pair, haven’t you?”
“How d’you know that?” she asked.
“I’m in the Special Branch part time.”
“If you’re going to be stupid…”
“Aw, come on, Helen. It’d be a laugh.”
“You might fall through the ice, or something. That would be a laugh.”
“Meet you outside at four?”
It’s not that I fancy Helen, I just like her because she’s a lot of fun, but I felt good inside, getting that “okay” from her – a bursting, spinning feeling. That’s why I went a bit zany after the conker fell on my head.
Dad was going to ground me as soon as I showed him that letter. I’d have to text Helen that I couldn’t make it on Sunday. She’d text back asking why, and I’d have to tell her, because she’d find out on Monday anyway.
All because of a conker.
I walked home from school, trailed home, crawled home, watched snails overtake me on the way home. The letter weighed me down like a boulder. I was cursed with bad luck for the whole of my life.
Aunty Lorraine’s ancient black Metro was outside our house, which meant she’d be cooking tea. As I went indoors, I could hear her in the living room, chattering to my sister.
I put my head round the living room door. Rosemary was standing on the coffee table, bright blue cloth wrapped about her. Aunty Lorraine was walking round the coffee table, colourful heads of pins sprouting from her pursed lips.
“Hello, Bran,” said Lorraine through the pins. I watched her hands. They always knew where to go. I wished I had hands like that. She snipped, pinned and folded. Slowly, the blue material was turning into a dress.
“I got this at the Friday market,” she said after she’d used the last of the pins between her teeth. “I held it up and said to myself, I can see Rosemary in this.”
Rosemary grinned wickedly and said, “Aunty Lorraine’s staying ’til Sunday.”
“Great,” I said, giving Rosie the same sort of smile back. “Roast for Sunday dinner, then, and pudding!”
Rosie loves Aunty Lorraine. I think she’s great and so does Dad. Funnily, it’s Mum who doesn’t get on with her. She says things like, “My sister exhausts me!” and “I wish Lorraine would sit down and be still for just one minute.”
Mum works long hours in a nursing home, but it doesn’t stress her out, she takes things as they come. Her favourite occupation after a hard day is to watch funny programmes – old sit-coms, that sort of thing. Mum isn’t great at housework, but she has her good points. I’ve never seen her in a temper. Not even if we forget to peel the potatoes before she gets home at six.
Aunty Lorraine has all the energy missing from Mum. She’s got an inbuilt turbo, like her car. She’s a torpedo in the kitchen, vegetables go shooting across the room as she flies from cooker to freezer to sink, her voice rising with the heat.
“I’m taking Bess for a walk,” I said.
We sloped along to the park. I sat miserably on a swing in the damp gloom and threw Bess her ball, but she understands moods, she came nuzzling up and I put my arms round her.
“Remember what it used to be like?” I asked her. “When you were a pup and I was a kid? We had no worries then. It was all swing parks and ball games.”
When I got back, everyone else was at the table, piling curry, rice, chutney and poppadams onto their plates.
“We’re eating Indian tonight,” said Aunty Lorraine. “Spicy food for a chilly day. Don’t let it get cold – ha-ha.”
The delicious food made me feel sick. There was this enormous lump like screwed up newspaper filling my stomach.
“I was about to send out a search party,” said Dad. I mumbled a sorry.
“There’s plenty, Bran, eat up,” said Aunty Lorraine.
As usual after a shift, Mum was wearing her old, comfy tracksuit and every so often she dipped down and gave her bare feet a rub. “There ought to be plenty to eat,” she grumbled. “There’s a washing-up mountain in the kitchen.”
“I’ll do it,” I said quickly.
Everyone stopped eating and stared at me.
“You’re sickening for something, aren’t you?” said Mum.
“I’m great!” I gave them a beaming grin and forced curry into my mouth. I wanted my parents in the best possible mood before I gave them the letter.
I buffed the dishes until they shone and sorted the cutlery neatly. In the living room, Mum, Lorraine and Rosie were watching a DVD – well, Mum and Rosie were trying to watch, half listening to Aunty Lorraine chatting at the same time. Dad was pottering about in the garage; I could see the yellow glow that filled the little back window.
I put the letter in my trouser pocket and joined him. He was tinkering with the model Ferrari we’d made from a kit. They’re remote control, our model cars, and at weekends we race them in the park. Not this weekend, I thought.
“Full of grease,” he said, rubbing hard with a dirty cloth. “No wonder it wouldn’t run.”
He looked at me carefully, and for a moment I thought he knew what I had in my pocket. Then suddenly he gave a huge grin. “Guess what? I sold the Star Car today – a two-year-old Volvo with all the trimmings. Subject to finance, so I haven’t told your ma yet, but it’ll mean a bonus.”
“She’ll be pleased.”
“The first thing she’ll say is—”
“New washing machine!” We chanted together, laughing. Mum says our washing machine is like a toddler – it chews up clothes and dribbles soap suds onto the kitchen floor.
“So,” he squeezed my shoulder, “what’s up with you?”
“C’mon, Bran,” said Dad. “I know something’s up. You haven’t been right all evening.”
“I feel a bit sick about something, that’s all.”
“What is it? Something to do with school? What happened, Bran?”
“It was okay before the lunch break.” I stopped, unable to go on, and waited for Dad to ask what had happened after lunch.
“Yeah?” he prompted.
“Yeah… I… asked a girl out.” I swallowed, opened my mouth to go on.
“No wonder you couldn’t eat your curry,” laughed my father. “First date nerves!”
“I can remember, I’m not that old. What’s her name?”
“Helen Turner. We were going skating on Sunday. But, Dad, that’s not—”
“Don’t tell me. You can’t afford it. Well, it’s Friday, isn’t it?” Dad dipped his hand into a pocket and pulled out a ten pound note. “We both had good days, didn’t we? Here, enjoy yourselves.”
I took in a long breath. My hand hovered close to the note. It was now or never. If I gave him the letter while he was in such a good mood…
My fingers closed round the money. My teeth gritted together in horror. If I gave him the letter after going skating with Helen, I’d be in really big trouble.
I mumbled something about homework and got out of the garage. I went up into my bedroom and hid the letter from school deep at the bottom of an old box of toys I never play with any more. Then I climbed into bed. I could hear the others all laughing fit to burst at the DVD. But I knew it wouldn’t feel the least bit funny to me.
The dragon was coming. Scarlet and gold, its mouth as wide as an open window, it swayed slowly down the centre of the road. The crowd cheered. Low Hee cheered. This was why he’d waited all morning in the sun.
Low Hee and some of his mates from school were messing around in the crowds, scooting between legs, laughing when people nearly toppled. Because it was the last day of the New Year celebrations, their victims laughed back. Old women handed them laisee envelopes, red packets stuffed with coins, and everyone tossed sweets at everyone else. Now, he realized, he was too far back. Cymbals and bells, tumblers and jugglers came first in the procession, but soon the dragon would come into view. All Low Hee could see were the backs of the people in front. He dropped to his knees and wriggled his shoulders between two sets of silk-draped legs. He would be at the front in seconds.
Low Hee’s grandmother had him by the sleeve of his coat. Her face
was grim. He stopped his wriggling.
‘I wasn’t doing anything,’ he mumbled, quickly swallowing a mouthful of chocolate. ‘And the dragon is coming!’ He was longing to see it. But his grandmother’s hold on his sleeve was as tight as her expression. There was nothing else he could do but follow her through the wide portals of the temple.
The gigantic statue of the Buddha dominated a whole wall. It smiled down with a mocking leer. Low Hee longed to poke its huge stomach. He could almost believe that his finger would not his hard, cold metal, but disappear into the softness of fat and skin.
Just by the entrance, a fortune-teller sat behind a small table of ornate ivory. He was so ancient, the skin of his hairless head was as pale and smooth as his table. Behind him, hangings dangled from the wall of the temple, proclaiming his skills in divination. A cluster of people had gathered round him, plucking out straws of differing lengths from vases decorated with gilded serpents.
Low’s grandmother, Ee Tsang, was talking to the wizened old man. She always had her fortune told when she had any important decision to make, but she did not usually include her grandson. Low moved closer, fascinated despite his longing to see the dragon.
‘What is the boy’s age?’ the fortune-teller was saying.
‘He is nearly twelve years old,’ Ee Tsang replied. She seated herself comfortably, at the request of the teller. Low stood beside her, his lips half parted and warm breath moving fast through his teeth. They were talking about him. His future.
‘I wish to know if my grandson will take a long voyage.’
‘Grandmother…’ Low Hee began, but he was quickly silent when Ee Tsang gave him a sharp look, Low knew it would be disrespectful to ask for an explanation. He was only a boy - he had no right to question why his grandmother wanted his fortune told - however much he wanted to ask. He stayed quite still until Ee Tsang raised a silk-covered arm and motioned him to pick a straw.
Low Hee’s fingers hovered over the porcelain vase. His gaze caught the old man’s and, just for a moment, Low looked into the rheumy eyes. It was as though he could see his own destiny in their wet depths, without ever hearing it spoken out loud. He let his finger rest on a single straw. He drew it out and passed it to the old man.
‘The journey is a certain one,’ squeaked the soothsayer. ‘The journey is a long one. It will take the boy to a foreign place. There he will reside. He will not return.’
Ee Tsang’s head suddenly bobbed down on to her finely embroidered New Year clothes. She shut her eyes tightly, but not before the wrinkled skin around them had become wet. Low saw her fingers work around themselves on her lap. The knuckles were white. He’d never before seen his grandmother lose her self-possession.
Embarrassed, he turned his attention to the grinning Buddha. Now he knew why that grin mocked him. His head swam with new thoughts. His lips silently formed the words, ‘My father.’
Low knew he ought to be able to remember his father’s face. He’d been four and a half when his parents had left Malaysia and he could remember plenty of other things that happened when he was four, including the trip across the Straits to the orang-utan enclosure. He knew he’d been taken by his parents as a last treat before they left for England, but although he could clearly picture the apes as they chased each other over the ground and into the high trees, he couldn’t remember his father at all, or much about his mother.
If he struggled, however, he could bring an image into his mind of an almond lady. An almond-shaped face with almond-coloured skin. Even the smell of her was almond. He could recollect bringing his lips to a soft, sweet-scented cheek, and words, coming through a mist, the last words she must have spoken to him.
‘Your honourable grandmother is to be your mother now. Esteem her highly, Low, and carry yourself with pride while we are away. We will fetch you just as soon as we can…’
Seven years. At first, he’d waited every day for them to return, but bit by bit, he’d given up waiting. He didn’t even know what he was waiting for. It was impossible to imagine where his parents had gone, and what they were doing now. He read the letters they sent home, but they didn’t tell him when they’d come back for him. As the years went by, he decided they probably never would. And when he thought about it, he hoped they wouldn’t. It was very hard to imagine living anywhere but in his grandmother’s small village.
Thinking about his village, as he waited for his grandmother, gave Low a warm, comfortable feeling inside. He knew every person who lived there, every dog and silly chicken. He knew the land on every side – the swamp-banked river that became wider and wider as it flowed towards the sea – the deep, mysterious forest of gigantic, creaking trees – the huge stretches of cultivated land where the villagers grew their rice and pineapples and coconuts.
It was quite impossible for him to leave, anyhow. Who would look after Ting-Ting?
Most people in the village kept pigs, and it was Low’s job to look after his grandmother’s sow. Each morning, he boiled up scraps for her feed and cleaned her sty. He loved grooming her with a stiff brush. She’s lie perfectly still for him while he scraped mud from her pink back. When he’d finished, he’d set out along the dusty road to school. Those who were old enough cycled the ten miles to High School. Low and his friends walked south until they got to the primary school. Low was in the top year now. Soon, he’d move schools, which meant his grandmother would buy him a new uniform, and with any luck, a new bike.
Low couldn’t wait for that new bike. He was also looking forward to being a High School student. And before that, to the birth of Ting-Ting’s piglets. Nowhere on his list of things to hope for was there a journey to a foreign land.
It took only a moment for Ee Tsang to compose herself. She rose, passed the fortune-teller his fee and shuffled off in search of candles and prayer-papers, for now she had an important petition for the Enlightened One.
I should go with her, Low thought, make her tell me what it all means. As if I can’t guess.
But voices were floating in through the open temple portal. ‘The dragon is coming! The dragon is coming!’ and Low Hee ran out into the sunlight, choosing a friendly red monster against a nameless, shapeless one.
No one wanted the festivities to end. In every home, special food was laid out and there were sweets in abundance for all the children. Low and his grandmother had to visit everyone in the village, just as everyone had visited them, before the Dragon Procession. It was dark by the time they reached home, and the air was filled with the fragrant smell of the frangipani trees.
Grandmother lowered herself into a chair, took off her best silk slippers and rubbed her feet. ‘I’m too old to do so much walking,’ she complained. But it was a wonderful New Year, wasn’t it?’
Low nodded. He had a pocket stuffed with glace fruits and sweetmeats, which he was slowly chewing his way through. He was getting more and more impatient. When would Ee Tsang tell him about the fortune-teller’s prediction?
He watched her kneel, as she usually did at bedtime, before the shrine of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, which stood in one corner of their wooden bungalow. She offered up a bowl of her finest egg noodles, then bowed her head in contemplation.
Low knew she’d be there for some time. While her back was turned, he practiced his moves. He worked first on his arm strikes and then on his leg kicks, trying to get them as smooth as possible. Flowing movements, that was the aim. He stopped quickly when his grandmother finally began to rise. She disliked his keen interest in Kung-Fu, so he didn’t practice when she could see him.
Grandmother shuffled to the ornately carved bureau where she kept her private things and took out a piece of crisps blue paper.
‘I’ve had a letter from your father,’ she said, handing it to him.
Low read eagerly. His father’s writing was very beautiful, the Chinese characters carefully drawn. It must take him ages to write his letters, Low thought. He read the letter through a second time. Then he folded it in two.
‘It’s a long way to England, isn’t it?’ Low asked.
‘Yes, I believe it is.’
‘My father is a wealthy man, now, isn’t he?’
Ee Tsang gave a hint of a nod. ‘He regularly sends me money orders in his letters. Your mother and he make Chinese dishes for the English to eat.’
‘Do the English like Chinese food?’
‘They must do. They pay great amounts of English money for them.’
‘Does he have a stall, like Tai Tung?’
‘Not a stall,’ said Ee Tsang. ‘It’s indoors, like a restaurant. But there are no tables.’ Low could see that his grandmother was as puzzled by this as he was. What was wrong with an open-air stall, where you could buy food and eat it as you walked along in the sunshine? ‘But your uncle Haw has a restaurant,’ his grandmother reminded him. ‘In the same part of England.’
‘I thought…’ Low found his voice was failing him. His words came out in a whisper. ‘I wondered if they had forgotten me.’ Although often he wished they would, secretly he wanted to be remembered and loved by the parents whose faces he found difficult to bring to mind.
‘No, no, they never have forgotten you,’ said Ee Tsang. ‘But it is not easy, in a new country. It was not easy for my great-grandfather, when he came from China to live here in Malaysia. He worked in the tin mines until he was too old and worn out to enjoy the money he’d earned. Your parents have worked just as hard to make a good home for Low to live in. It has taken them all this time, but now your father is coming for you, so that you can be together.’
‘Honourable grandmother?’ Low whispered.
‘Yes, my Low Hee?’
‘I don’t want to go to England.’
‘You should be with your mother and father.’
‘You have always been my honoured mother.’
‘I am what I am. Your grandmother.’
‘Can’t I just stay here?’
His grandmother was able to draw herself up and become several inches taller when she was displeased. ‘Low Hee must do as his father instructs.’ She used very formal speech and clipped tones to remind Low just how little choice he had. Low bowed his head. Of course he had to follow his father’s wishes. Every one of his friends had fathers who expected obedience from their children, and got it, without question. That was the Chinese way.
Low felt breathless and tight inside. When he looked down, he found he’d folded the letter from England so many times, it was now a damp and grubby square no bigger than a postage stamp.