Sarala Estruch was born in London in 1983 to a French mother and Indian father. Her work frequently explores questions of identity, and the interplay of different cultures. She was commended for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2015, and was a prizewinner in the PBS National Student Poetry Competition 2013. Sarala is currently working on her first novel.
Saturdays you used to take me out. I would dress up in the clothes you’d bought — my favourite was the white dress with marshmallow-pink stripes. Mum would pick out a cardigan and matching tights; the rest of the week I wore whatever I wanted but on Saturdays my clothes were always colour-coded. I would go to her, hairbrush in hand and she’d tug at my tangled hair till it was liquid as oil. When she was satisfied, she’d pull back the front strands and tie them in a band while the rest of my hair swung loose. The hairstyle was a favourite of my mother’s — ‘fausse queue de cheval’ she called it, in her native French. False ponytail. I don’t know why she loved it so much. By the end of the day, my waist-length hair would invariably be as wild as an abandoned field.
After the Saturday-morning ritual, I would stand in the hallway in my tightly buckled Magic Steps. The patent leather was red like Dorothy’s – those magic shoes that ‘took her home’ – and there was a golden key buried in the sole of the right foot. I was convinced that the key opened treasure chests and wooden doors that were portals into other worlds. I was sure that if I could only extract the key from deep within the plastic sole, I would have access to new realms of reality like Alice in her Wonderland. But try as I did, I could not prise the key free.
When the bell rang, Mum would open the door. You’d stand in the entrance, your bear-like frame filling the contours, and you and Mum would exchange a sentence or two in staccato voices. Then you’d spot me standing in the corner and approach with a smile. You’d lean forward and kiss me, leaving behind the clean scent of cologne and, on my cheek, at the spot where your lips had been, a sharp scratchy feeling from the brush against stubble.
‘We won’t be late,’ you’d say to Mum as the door closed behind us.
First stop was always the sweetshop. We would stock up on Love Hearts, sherbet rockets, pear drops in sugar dust. Then we’d shoot out to Chigwell where the houses weren’t stuck together and each had its own green lawn. Your house was a haven of all the things Mum didn’t allow: TV turned up, feet on the sofa, chewing on pink-and-white marshmallow twists. Occasionally you would open a can of beer, pour it into a glass and let me sip the bitter froth before it bubbled over. You’d serve me boiled egg, slicing into the milky white to reveal a rich yellow sun or hand me a stick of Pepperami and tell me not to tell my (strict vegetarian) mum.
Some Saturdays I would stay over, with Mum’s permission. I would sleep beside you in your big-cushioned bed and, wrapped up in sheets like caterpillars in cocoons, we’d journey to the land of dreams — together yet separate. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, a bad dream would jolt me awake and I would lie there in the dark, listening to the rhythm of your breath till the hand of sleep pulled me back under.
Sunday mornings I’d sit in the bathroom doorway and watch you in the mirror as you shaved. It was like a magic trick. At first your face was scarcely visible, camouflaged beneath a layer of foam, but as you sliced and scraped, your image would gradually emerge, clearer and cleaner than before. You’d look at me and wink. Right eye, then left. Except what I was seeing was not the real you but your looking-glass twin, so really it was the other way round.
Breakfast at your house was the best meal of the day, a fare even Goldilocks wouldn’t have refused. Creamy porridge served ‘just right’ and bread crowned with ruby-red jam. And tea, of course. All meals were accompanied by a tall glass of real Indian tea, served with four sugars and just a spill of milk.
‘Now be careful, Reena,’ you’d say. ‘Don’t touch the glass till the tea has cooled.’
But you drank it while the steam was still rising in ribbons.
In the afternoons, your friends would come round, towing their children. We’d play Hide-and-Seek in all the corners and cupboards while the adults watched cricket on the telly. Hours would dissolve into laughter as we chased, fought and told each other stories but I was always glad when the front door closed on the last guest gone home and it was just you and me again.
Most Saturdays I would play with the boy next door. Leon had small brown eyes that always smiled and yellow hair that was enviably straight. You and his father would sit sipping beers while Leon and I entertained ourselves — in the house, but also, and most frequently, in the garden. (Back then, it seems, Saturdays were almost always sunny.)
One day, Leon took me to his back garden. His garden was a mirror image of your garden. There was the same stretch of lawn, the same evergreen hedges and tidy rosebushes but there was something there that yours didn’t have. Carefully positioned in the shadow of the dividing fence were two large wooden cages. Huddled within the corners were his new pets: a family of gerbils and two albino rabbits. The gerbils had whorls of oily black hair and looked like warped rats while the rabbits nestled together like clots of cream. They looked so innocent until they opened their eyes. Two pairs of liquid red orbs stared out from behind the mesh. They stared and stared and never blinked. A firm believer in goodness within all beings regardless of appearance (having been told by grown-ups not to ‘judge a book by its cover’ countless times) I wanted to play with them but you had told me no. ‘Don’t get too close to the cage,’ you’d said. ‘They have a nasty bite.’
Standing there in front of the rabbits, I remembered your warning. But I also remembered something else. The White Rabbit. In Alice’s adventures. He had red eyes too. And it was the White Rabbit that led her to the rabbit hole and revealed the passage into Wonderland. I leant in closer to the mesh and tried to make out if these creatures had magical potential. But it was too dark inside to see.
‘Leon,’ I whispered, ‘let’s let the rabbits out.’
‘I know, I know. But I don’t want to touch them.’ I want them to take me to their rabbit hole, I didn’t add.
He hesitated, looked at me closely for a minute. Then he reached out and put his fingers on the latch.
‘Reena!’ It was Leon’s mum. She was standing at the back door, her pale hands wrapped around the telephone. ‘It’s your dad. Time to go home.’
There were Saturdays when you wouldn’t take me to the house in Chigwell. Instead, we’d go to the park where you’d rock me on a seesaw and push me on the swings. With you behind me, I’d scream, ‘Higher! Higher!’ The wind ripping through my hair, tears stinging my eyes. Or you’d take me to a shopping centre and help me pick out dresses and toys. I would come home with bags bulging and my little sister would ogle the gifts and start to cry.
‘Reena, stop making your sister jealous,’ my stepfather would say. ‘You’ve got to learn to share.’
But I didn’t want to share. The things you bought me were the only things I had that she didn’t — they were mine and mine alone. It was bad enough that we shared a mother.
More often than not, Saturday evenings would end with me in my room, staring angrily at the empty walls, so mortified I couldn’t even squeeze out a tear. I was Rapunzel locked in her tower, waiting for her prince to save her. Except I somehow knew, even as a girl, that it was those Saturday outings that were the fairy tale while this – this council flat, these blank walls – this was my real life, the life I woke up to everyday. And in this life I wasn’t a princess, I was just seven-year-old Reena.
If only I had the key, the little golden key, I could free myself. I would let myself out of this world and into the next, step through a magical portal into new and wondrous lands. Once I had it in my possession, I would even be able to use the key to let myself back in. That is if I wanted to come back after adventuring in worlds where there were no parents or stepparents, no siblings or half-siblings, no rules and certainly no half-rules. Which was a verybig ‘IF’.
All children know what half-rules are: the rule that is created by a parent especially for you, so that you have to ‘Eat up all your brussel sprouts or no dessert’ but not your little sister. The pinnacle of injustice!
It was at times like these that I would steal into the kitchen, pick up a knife and tiptoe back to my room, slipping my Magic Steps up my sleeve. Behind the safety of the bedroom door, I’d sit, right shoe in hand, and poke and prod and prise. But nothing – no effort of mine – would release it.
Then there was the Saturday we walked to the car and there was a woman in my seat.
‘Reena, I want you to meet a good friend of mine,’ you said, climbing into the driver’s seat and draping a heavy arm around her needle-thin shoulders. ‘Her name is Harjeet. Harjeet, this is the little girl I’ve told you so much about.’
She looked at me through long black hair and shadowed eyes, said ‘Hi’ in violin tones and smiled through lipsticked teeth. I parted my lips but before I could speak she had turned her head in one quick swish, leaving me staring at a curtain of black.
From the backseat, everything looked different. I could see the thinness of the hair at the back of your head — so meagre, in places, the scalp was visible. And you had spots on your neck. Translucent spots, the colour of your skin, and small as pinpricks, but there were hundreds and thousands of them. You spoke loudly (even louder than usual) and you both kept laughing all the way to Chigwell, though I couldn’t figure out what the joke was. Every five minutes or so, you would brush the woman’s knee like she had crumbs or something on her skirt.
‘Ro,’ she said at one point. I had never heard anyone call you ‘Ro’ before. ‘Make sure and stop at the pharmacy.’
‘Not for me, for the girl. Didn’t you see her knees? Her mother clearly never creams them.’
When I got home that evening, I was bearing a large pungent bottle with the words ‘Pure Smooth’ on it, holding it in front of me like an award. My mother snatched it from my hands and placed it in a cupboard I couldn’t reach.
Another Saturday (when she wasn’t there), we played chess as it rained outside. You taught me how to protect my Queen and let me win every game but one. We sipped tea (strong and sweet, as always) and you sat me on your knees.
‘You know I love you more than anyone,’ you said. ‘You know that, don’t you? You know that when I go, I’ll leave you everything. Everything. It’s all yours.’
I bent my head and smiled politely. Why this talk of leaving on a Saturday afternoon?
I was always a little shy of you. Though you didn’t like it, I called you by your first name. Somehow I knew that you didn’t truly belong to me. You were like a library book. Borrowed, not owned. Sunday to Friday I lived in the flat on Dynevor Road with my mum and New Dad and a sister who was only half mine. It was only on Saturdays that you’d appear. Like my favourite cartoons (Captain Planet, He-Man) and pancakes for breakfast.
One day, you and I took a trip, not to the park or zoo but to a tall white building with a car park. We walked through a maze of corridors till we came to a room filled with chairs. Half of them were empty and half of them were occupied by people who looked empty. Their faces were bloodless, their eyes downcast. They looked as if someone had taken an ice-cream scoop and scooped the souls out of their bodies. Either that or their souls had been captured by Skeletor.
The fact that we were sitting in a room full of ghosts (because that was what they were; shipwrecked souls, shadows of people) didn’t seem to bother you, particularly. You went right ahead and sat next to an especially ghoulish man with hollowed cheeks and a single tooth in his raw, red mouth. I had no choice but to take the chair beside you. Sitting this close to the man, we could smell him — a mixture of sweat and dirt and weeks-old urine. I gagged once, lifted my hands to my nose and mouth and made some sounds like I was suffocating. But when I turned to see if you were joining in, your eyebrows were bunched together like angry fists.
We sat in silence till a woman in white called your name. She said your name funny but you didn’t correct her. We followed her into a small square room where she told you to sit on a narrow bed and I sat on a chair by the door.
The woman handed you a transparent tube and said, ‘Blow into it as hard as you can.’
You lifted the tube to your lips. The tube fogged up, then cleared, and tiny dewdrops slipped along the glass.
She told you to blow again and again you placed your lips on the mouthpiece.
Your cheeks bulged and your eyes went shiny but the tube stayed the same. Then you let the tube drop, put your hands to your chest and coughed a cough that rattled like pebbles in a glass. It was like you were Ariel from The Little Mermaid and she was Ursula but instead of your voice, she had taken your breath.
It was around this time that I started having strange dreams. Or rather — dream, since it was always the same dream that visited me over and over with little or no variation. In the dream I was walking back to the flat on Dynevor Road with my mum, stepdad and half-sister. It was night and the sky was thick with clouds, dark clouds that were lit up from behind by a full moon that kept appearing and disappearing. Something else was moving in the sky, something black and large (I could see that it was large even though it was far away) and it moved in long swooping movements like a nocturnal bird. As it grew closer, we stopped walking and stared. It was an enormous bat. We watched as it took a final swoop and landed on the garden wall. It tucked its wings into its back and perched there like a gargoyle, still and silent. Somehow I knew that it had come for me. I approached the creature – slowly, silently – and scrambled onto the wall. From there it was easy to take the final climb onto its back. The bat leapt up and we headed for the sky.
You changed. You started coming late. Sometimes I would wait for an hour or even two. I began keeping books in the hallway. I would sit with my back against the door, coat zipped and buckles buckled, flipping through the pages of Snow White or Rapunzel, marvelling at the pictures but too distracted to read the words. Mum would try to get me to take my shoes and coat off and join her in the living room.
‘Reena!’ she would call. ‘Come and play with your little sister. Who knows when he’ll turn up.’
When you finally arrived, you hardly talked. We would walk to the car in silence. (Maybe the nurse had stolen your voice.) Once inside, you’d turn on the radio.
‘Ooh baby baby, it’s a wild world,’ Maxi Priest would croon. ‘It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.’
You started driving a different route, one that took us along an endless road of grey and flickering white lines. The other cars drove by so fast our car would rock from side to side each time one passed. When I asked, you said we had passed the sweetshop a long way back. Luckily I had a pack of Hubba Bubba saved in the bottom of my coat pocket. I practised blowing bubbles as you stared ahead, eyes fixed on the long straight road.
One time, I blew a bubble so big it burst and covered my face in a mask of pink slime.
You didn’t laugh. ‘You shouldn’t eat so many sweets, Ree. They’ll rot your teeth. You only get one set once the baby ones have grown and gone.
‘You have to take special care,’ you said. ‘Make the most of them. Because they’re precious. Little enamel jewels.’
I picked off the plasticy skin and chewed, guiltily.
‘And Reena,’ you said, ‘how many times have I told you? Call me Daddy, not Rohan.’
One Saturday in November 1990, I stood in the hall in my pink-striped dress and magic shoes and waited for the bell to ring.