Swimming was something Mehret had never really thought about, there had never been much need. From living on the margins of the Sahara, they had moved to North of the Arctic Circle, where any open water was ice-cold and accompanied by a cloud of midges. The mountain streams of the last few years had been too shallow to swim in and the rivers had been more like torrents, fine for white water rafting, but nobody swam in them, except by accident.
She took the swimming costume out of her gym bag, hoping it would fit, she had never envisaged using it, perhaps she could just watch?
‘Come on, what are you waiting for?’
‘I’ve never been swimming before, I’m not sure what to do?’
‘Never been... Are you trying to get a rise out of me, young lady?’
‘No ma’am. We never lived anywhere where you could swim.’
‘Everyone lives somewhere they can swim, your parents just never made an effort, that’s all. That’s shameful. Well, it’s never too late.’
Mehret felt shamed, she wanted to stick up for her father, but that would mean arguing with a teacher. She had quickly learnt that teachers were not interested in dialogue and most attempts to engage in discussion were seen as effrontery. A child in the US was clearly a second class citizen, no wonder they had to be bribed all the time. She spent an embarrassing afternoon as the only non-swimmer in a roped off area at the shallow end of the smaller pool, while others swam lengths and used the diving boards. What was it about Wednesday afternoons?
Sylene was waiting as Mehret got off the bus. ‘How did you get here so quickly?’
Sylene smiled. ‘I have my ways. Are those torcs working?’
‘Talks?’ What is she on about? Wednesday afternoon just carried on and on.
‘Those bracelet things, you know like orcs, goblins whatever, with a t at the start. Torcs Naena say I should ask.’
‘Oh.’ Mehret decided to look up that word, whatever it was, when she got in. ‘I guess, but I think I fixed the amulet, should I give them back?’
‘You fixed the amulet? How?’
‘I don’t know,’ Mehret tried to remember just what had happened. ‘I was half asleep. I was just thinking very hard at it to get better.’
‘Okay.’ Sylene’s eyes were wide.
‘It was weird.’
‘I bet. Is it working now?’
‘I don’t really know, it looks better.’
‘So what happened to it anyway? How’d you break it?’
‘I got really angry and it got really hot, it looked as if it had melted. That’s how I burnt myself.’
‘Oh. Well, keep the arm things until Naena asks for them. You never know. I gotta run, seeya.’
‘Thanks, Sylene, see you tomorrow.’
There was a difference in the air as Mehret climbed the stairs, something flowery. It didn’t seem right, lurking under the earthy, fruity, spicy smell from the shop. What could it be? Was it perfume? As her key rattled in the lock, Mehret heard laughter, a female voice. Please let it not be that Charlotte. Even on a Wednesday there was only so much a person could take.
‘Hello Mehret, how was your day?’
‘Charlotte is going to have dinner with us, isn’t that nice?’
‘Oh. Hello.’ Mehret made a dash for her room.
‘You must be very proud of your father.’ Charlotte passed a dish of potatoes to Mehret.
‘Why?’ And why are you acting as if I want to talk to you?
Charlotte smiled without it getting as far as her eyes. ‘He’s doing an important job, and he’s written a very good book.’
‘Written...’ Mehret tried to give the word a freight of derision it could not hold. She wanted to scream, she clenched her jaw. If it was written he wouldn’t still be spending all this time on it.
Poppa raised his head. ‘What’s that, dear?’
‘Nothing.’ Mehret scowled at her plate then proceeded to shovel in food as fast as she decently could, she hoped that if her mouth was full she could avoid having to say anything.
‘She has such a good appetite, doesn’t she.’
‘She’s a growing girl.’ Poppa gave Mehret a funny look. ‘She must have put on ten centimetres over the summer. Isn’t that right, Mehret?’
‘So, what did you do at school today?’
‘Not a lot.’ Mehret managed to mumble it without losing any food, by the cunning expedient of not opening her mouth.
‘Please. Manners at the table.’
‘Sorry, Poppa, but you asked me a question when my mouth was full.’
‘Hard to avoid, the way you are eating recently.’
‘Ha! Manners.’ Mehret forked potato into her mouth and cut a piece from her shark steak so that the next mouthful was lined up, she dipped it into the lime and coriander chilli sauce she had made on Saturday.
Charlotte smiled. ‘We learn the importance of manners from the rude.’
She’s talking about me isn’t she? She just called me rude. Mehret looked at the glossy lips, the glossy hair, and had an urge to push Charlotte’s face into her plate. She couldn’t stop herself from grinning at the thought.
‘What’s so amusing?’ There was a slight edge in Charlotte’s voice.
Mehret shook her head and lined up her next fork-full.
‘Answer the question, Princess.’
Mehret looked at Poppa, pointed to her mouth and shook her head, she carried on chewing until nobody was looking, swallowed and started on the next mouthful.
‘I was shy when I was her age too.’ Charlotte fluttered her eyelashes as if she was trying to cool herself down.
‘I’m sure that shyness in you was quite charming.’
‘Most of us are shy at one time or another,’ Charlotte looked straight at Poppa. ‘I’m sure you had your moments.’
‘There’s a difference between shy and surly.’
Mehret felt herself go rigid, Poppa should be standing up for me, instead, that woman was.
Charlotte glanced at Mehret, then turned to Poppa. ‘Come, now, Professor; you kept her on a mountaintop in the frozen wastes of Asia, so I hear, and now you expect her to behave like a perfect little urbanite at the drop of a hat? That’s hardly fair.’
This is so wrong, is that woman making it happen? Is she taking my side so that Poppa can’t? That’s sneaky.
‘Well, perhaps not, but she has always been so well behaved, before.’
Great, talk about me as if I’m not here, why don’t you? Mehret looked from one to the other, she wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. ‘May I be excused?’
‘We haven’t finished.’
‘I want to go to the bathroom.’
‘Oh. Go on then. Are you ready for dessert when you get back?’
As Mehret came back to the table Poppa was at the sink, Charlotte was sitting at the table sipping a glass of wine. She stood in the doorway a moment watching them.
Charlotte twirled her glass gently by the stem. ‘I’m not surprised she hasn’t made many friends,’ she took a sip.
‘It’s all very new to her, living in a city, school, all that. She’s always got on well with people before.’ Poppa rinsed the last plate with warm water. ‘But she does seem immune to your charms.’
Charlotte spluttered, she put her glass down and gave Poppa’s back a look that Naena would have called ‘signifying’. Mehret returned to her seat, she didn’t think much about dessert, she couldn’t have said what it was, even as she was eating it. She stayed awake a long time that night, thinking about that look.