Mehret ran up the stairs, she burst through the door of the apartment like a force of nature, she wanted to fling herself into her father’s arms and beg him to take her away. He wasn’t home. She called out for him just as the phone rang.
‘Hello Poppa, you aren’t here.’ Mehret wanted to kick herself, what a silly thing to say. It annoyed her when someone said anything so obvious, especially when she did it herself.
‘I’m sorry, I’m on my way. I had to cover for a colleague, I didn’t realise it would keep me here so long. Can you survive without me for half an hour?’
‘Of course I can.’ Mehret felt herself catch her breath, ‘see you soon.’
‘Love you, Princess’
‘Love you.’ Even if you aren’t here when I need you. Mehret closed her eyes for a moment, it wasn’t his fault. Well, it was, really. They had moved because he had accepted the post, but he couldn’t have realised how miserable Mehret would be in their new home. How could he have known when Mehret had no suspicion herself?
Mehret threw herself onto her bed and tried not to think. It didn’t work, the disappointment of that afternoon gave her no rest. What was the point of going to a school with a running track when the only time you ever get to go to the track they make you do cheer-leading? Mehret had known, vaguely, that there was such a thing as cheer-leading, but had never for a moment supposed that she would be expected to take lessons. All those strangely tribal chants that everyone seemed to know, everyone but her, that is. If a lesson had been planned to make her feel as foolish and as out of place as possible, it probably wouldn’t have succeeded as well as gym this afternoon.
There had been little consolation in finding her shoes in the showers. She had had to ask Ms Hooper to get them down, they had been balanced well out of Mehret’s reach, on top of the wall that divided the showers from a row of washbasins and mirrors. She had heard all the other girls laughing, as even Ms Hooper had to jump to reach them.
Mehret wanted to go somewhere that didn’t have such a thing as school, preferably some place where the very idea of school was unknown. Perhaps the great white waste of the Antarctic would be far enough. Only now that she heard her Father’s key in the lock, she realised she couldn’t think how to tell him.
‘Hello Princess, sorry I’m late, how was your day?’
‘It was interesting.’ Mehret wanted to say she would rather have spent her day being knocked down by traffic, but couldn’t bring herself to say so; her father looked tired. He was always in when she got back from school, obviously something out of the ordinary had happened.
‘Good. Interesting. I’m too tired to cook, shall we have pizza?’
Pizza was great, but three time in a week? Besides, all the cheese had made her dream really odd dreams lately. The smell of spice from downstairs took her imagination East, not Indian though, they had eaten enough of that in the last few weeks as well. ‘Chinese?’
‘Good idea, I’ll call now.’
He did look tired, and worried too. His mind was on something else as he asked her what she would like, she knew, because when his full attention was on her it felt like standing next to a lighthouse, in a good way. Brightened, illuminated by the beam of his smile. Perhaps now was not the time to tell him how she felt about school, especially after the trouble he had gone to, taking time off to come in with her this morning. Mehret wondered how his day had been, had he had an interesting time too?
‘So, what do you think of the city so far, kiddo?’
He was doing that silly voice he so often did when he was talking about America, he loved old black and white films. She smiled dutifully. ‘It’s a good place to be if you’re hungry?’ Mehret couldn’t say how she really felt, that she wished they had never come, she knew how important it was for her father.
‘And my Princess is always hungry, right?’
‘Oh Pops . . .’ Mehret had gone from tubby to gangly since last winter, her arms and legs seemed to have doubled in length and no longer seemed completely under control. They were all so much further away, somehow. By the time the message got from her brain to her hands and feet, nothing did quite what it ought to, as if there was a time zone or a language problem. Her hands were doing Quechua while her feet were doing Cantonese. Who knew what her mind was doing, Mukluk? Oh no, that was the boots . . . Inuit? This hadn’t been a problem until a few weeks ago, mountains and forests were pretty hard to break. But now? She was surrounded by things to snag her and trip her and break if she so much as looked at them.
Between eating because she was growing, and the comfort eating because she just didn’t want to be here, she thought she was eating as much as her father. Even more, somehow, in the last few days. She certainly wasn’t getting fat, it was more as if she was stretching. She doubted that she could get fat if she wanted to, and her father was the same, tall and lean.
She picked her book up without knocking anything off the table and carried on reading about Huckleberry Finn, hoping that the book would help her make sense of this strange new country. So far, after three weeks at school, she felt she understood Chief Bromden, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Chief had pretended to be dumb, so he didn't have to talk to anyone. Mehret wondered if it was worth a try.
As they were eating, Mehret noticed the ’phone was still on the table, it wasn’t her father’s phone, it was smaller and sleeker, with a touchscreen.
Her father glanced over. ‘I wondered when you would notice. I’ve been meaning to get you a cellphone for days, well, since we got here.’
‘Is it for me?’
‘Of course, sorry I took so long to get you one.’
‘It’s nice.’ Mehret picked up the glossy black ’phone and put it by her side. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’ve put in my number and the department number, and my mobile number, on speed dial one two and three, in case of emergency. I’ve got your number on my speed dial number one, now, too.’
Mehret picked the ’phone up again and looked at it more closely. ‘Wow! It’s got a camera and it plays music.’
‘They all do apparently, these days. And it has a radio and you can surf the net with it, but don’t do too much of that please, as that costs more than it should. I didn’t get you the one that plays movies and makes popcorn as well; you need a special pocket to carry that one around.’