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"Puberty, first love and a grandparent's death figure in this gentle coming-of-age debut from the U.K., winner of Waterstone's Children's Book Prize in 2011." Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2013
"Readers will enjoy watching Mira gather strength through writing in her diary and confronting her fears." Publishers Weekly, August 2, 2013
When I was still eleven ...
* * *
I have an ache in the pit of my belly, and a metal taste in my mouth, the kind that comes up just before you puke.
Out of my bedroom window I see Millie stride around the corner. I close my eyes and start counting ... making my deal with Notsurewho Notsurewhat. If she's here on the count of zero, I'll go to school; if not, I'm taking a sickie. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zer—
Millie's determined hand clanks our letterbox right on the "o."
Now the usual scuffle as we try to find the keys.
"Who is that at this time of the morning? It's only seven thirty, for God's sake," shouts Dad from the top of the stairs.
"What if there was a fire? We'd all be locked in," yells Mum from the kitchen.
As if prompted, the smoke alarm sirens its high-pitched squeal.
"Krish, you've burnt the toast again," moans Mum, as she confiscates his football mid- flight.
"But I like it burnt."
It's true, he does.
* * *
I'm always the first to find the keys.
"It's only Millie," I yell back.
"Does your bell still not work?" groans Millie, peering round me at the spectacle of Mum dementedly wafting a tea towel at the smoke alarm.
When its screech is finally silenced, Mum lets out a world-weary sigh. Then she spots Millie standing in front of her.
"Ah, Millie! You're the early bird this morning," she chirps, as if keeping the lid on a ready-to-blow pan of popcorn. By the look on Millie's face, she knows my mum has totally lost the plot.
"Muuuuum, Laila's lobbed porridge at me again. It's splatted all over me," shrieks Krish as Mum spins on her heels, tea towel whirling. Millie, who only has one very sensible older sister, stares at the massacre of our breakfast table. Now Laila turns her widest gurgley grin on Millie, as if she's done something to be truly proud of.
"Don't make a fuss, Krish ... just run upstairs and get changed now," Mum pleads.
"Laila, you're such a pain. That was my best Spurs jersey," moans Krish, throwing his spoon across the room, slamming the door, and stomping back upstairs.
"What's all the noise about?" shouts Dad, appearing at the top of the staircase in a towel, his face smeared in shaving foam.
"Oh! Millie, it's you." Dad grimaces, backing away from the banisters.
Millie grabs the door handle, ready for a quick escape.
"We've got to be in early for Literature Club," she announces.
Mum looks blank.
"To work with the writer ... you know, the Spring into Writing project," Millie explains to Mum, whose vacant expression doesn't change. "Didn't you get a letter?"
She didn't because I didn't give it to her. If I show Mum or Dad anything like that, they're always so interested, so enthusiastic, they would just go on and on about how important it is to be able to "express" yourself, so I just don't tell them.
Mum shakes her head, turning to me accusingly.
"You didn't mention it, Mira."
"I forgot. Sorry."
* * *
Only four of us turn up. I think Miss Poplar, our "there for us" year-seven tutor, is a bit embarrassed because she's the one who's set up this whole thing. She keeps fussing on about how well she's advertised the group, but the writer just smiles sweetly and says that we're a "jewel-sized cluster."
The writer woman is called Miss Print.
"Don't laugh—I've heard all the gags before," she says.
* * *
Miss Print tells us that as well as being a writer she reviews "children's books for newspapers. She's doing these workshops as part of her research to understand "the reading habits" of ten- to thirteen-year-olds. It makes us sound like a rare species off Animal Planet.
"Who knows, maybe some of you will write a book for me to review."
That seems like a bit of a long shot to me. I suppose out of all of us maybe Millie could write a book ... one day.
Miss Print starts by asking us our names. She says you have to watch out for writers because they won't think twice about stealing your name if it's a good one. She says if you're going to make up characters in books, names are important. Miss Print wants us to call her Pat, but she doesn't like her name—it makes her think of a footprint in a cowpat ... Pat Print ... now she's said it, I can see what she means. Apparently, in the village where she grew up, there was a fashion to call girls by boys' names. She thinks it's because they were farmers and really they only wanted boys to work the farms so if you were born a girl, they just gave you a name that could be made into a boy's name anyway.
Miss Print, I mean Pat, does look a bit like a man. She's got a bony face and short, brown, wiry hair cut over the ears and right into the nape of her neck. It's the kind of sensible cut my dad hates when he's just come back from the barber's. You can tell she's a woman though because of her delicate swan neck ... and her gentle, watery eyes; they're gray-blue, the color of slate. They actually look younger than the rest of her. Pat Print is one of those people it's very difficult to tell exactly how old she is. She's tall and strong looking. On her feet she's wearing walking boots with dried mud caked to the bottom. It's hard to make out the exact shape of her body because it's covered by a baggy navy blue cardigan, cashmere I think, with holey elbows. She's not wearing any jewelry, not even a ring. Miss Print, I mean Pat, is obviously very posh. My nana says there's no such thing as "posh," but there is—Pat Print is posh.
* * *
She starts by asking us our names, but the way she does it isn't like a register at all. It just feels like she really wants to know who we are. Even so, it's me who's sitting next to her, dreading the sound of my own shrill voice slicing into the silence.
"Mira Levenson," I whisper.
There, it's over.
Her voice is steady, low, and confident.
Ben Gbemi booms his name around the classroom as if he's calling across a playing field. And finally, Jidé Jackson speaks. The strange thing about Jidé is how gentle he looks compared to how he acts. The two just don't add up.
"It's Jidé with an accent—not Jeed like speed—you say the 'e' in Jidé like the 'e' in Pelé ... you get me?"
"Acutely!" grins Pat Print. "Now we've got that straight I think we can conclude that some of our parents clearly enjoy alliteration. Anyone know what alliteration is?"
Millie shoots her hand up.
"No need to be so formal," says Pat Print, smiling kindly at Millie, taking her hand and lowering it back down. "That's the beauty of a small group. There's something about people putting their hands up that makes me nervous. It's healthy to be interrupted ... stops people getting too comfortable with the sound of their own voice."
That's a laugh because Pat Print is the sort of person you would never interrupt. Something about her really reminds me of my Nana Josie, like when she says the opposite of what you would expect most adults to say or think. I don't think Pat "gives a toss," as Nana would say, what we think of her. To answer her question about alliteration, we all speak together, so you can't actually hear what anyone says.
"That's right," she shouts over us, as if she's heard each and every one of us. "Alliteration is Pat Print, Jidé Jackson, and Ben Gbemi, with a silent 'G.' As for Millie Lockhart, although you don't alliterate, your name is straight out of a romance novel."
Millie giggles, and just when I think Pat Print has forgotten me altogether, she adds, "And Mira Levenson is obviously a dual history name." I don't say anything so she carries on talking, making another attempt to cue me into her conversation. "Taking a guess, I would say that one of your parents has Indian heritage ... I think Mira's an Indian name, am I right?" I nod. "And Levenson. Is that Jewish? 'Lever' to rise, and 'son' ... could be 'baker's son'? I'm taking a wild guess here, but it's one of my pet interests ... discovering the derivation of names."
The way she speaks you can really tell how much she loves words, as if she's tasting them on her tongue. She pauses for a minute, waiting for a reply, but I blush up my usual attractive color of crimson. I have no idea if that's what my surname means, but she's right about the Indian Jewish thing, so I just nod because I can't think of a single thing to say.
"And I suppose Jidé Jackson isn't a 'dual history name'?" Jidé mocks.
I haven't thought about it before, but I suppose it must be.
"I imagine so, and you alliterate," smiles Pat Print, unfazed. Jidé just scowls back at her as if to say, "It's none of your business." Jidé never wants to talk about himself, but Pat Print won't let this one drop. For next week's class she asks us to research our name. We have to find out why our parents gave us our first names and "the derivations" of our surnames.
"Names hold histories, so get digging," Pat Print orders, rummaging in her beaten-up old satchel and handing out a passage of writing to each of us.
We have to say what we think of the piece we've been given. What I notice first is the tense it's written in. When I read something in the present tense, I can disappear into it, like I do when I'm painting. It's as if I don't exist anymore; I just get lost somewhere in there among the characters ...
It's hard to say exactly what it is that makes me hate school so much. It starts the moment I wake up and realize that I have to step into my bottle-green uniform. That's when it seeps away, what little confidence I have. On with the shirt ... I'm slipping away ... the jumper to keep me in my place ... and now the tie ... to knot tight the hard lump of swallowed words swelling my throat. The day drags on ... hour after hour until 3:30 p.m.
What is it about me they can detect, even through the armor of this uniform? I've never been able to get a comb through my hair, more frizz than curls—that probably doesn't help. Girls are supposed to have silken locks, aren't they? All I want to do is work on the farm, feed the pigs, climb trees, or just stand on the open moorland, catching the force of the weather and never wear this stupid skirt, never, ever again. Instead, I'm trapped neatly in my row of wooden desks, with the golden-locked Jacky sticking the tip of her freshly sharpened pencil deep into my right thigh.
Pat comes over and asks how I'm getting on. I nod. I tell her I understand this passage ... it draws me in. I try to explain the tense thing but somehow it doesn't come out right.
"I'm glad you like that one because it's one of mine. It's a memoir of 'the happiest days of my life' ... Ha! Ha!"
I nod. I want to tell her that I know exactly how she felt, but as usual the words won't come.
"The tense thing is a really complex idea," she agrees, nudging me for a response.
I just sit in front of her, nodding and looking stupid. I can feel everyone's eyes fixing on me, but luckily so can she, so she stands up and taps on the desk, shifting the spotlight.
"Pick out one line from the passage you've been reading, something that really grabs you, just a line or a phrase ... something you would like to have written yourself. It's an exercise I call Stealing Lines."
I know without even looking again the exact words I'll choose.
"Now, swap them round, so you each read someone else's favorite line," orders Pat. "Come on then, who's going to kick off?"
"I am Rajvathan Rathour, ruler of the Ancient Palaces of Patiala," booms Ben Gbemi.
Jidé grins as he hears his own favorite line blasted around the room.
"What did you like about that line?" Pat Print asks.
"The character's like a superhero!" Ben shouts. He always shouts, no matter how small the room.
"Anything to add, Jidé?"
"He's a noble character, mythical ... from an ancient land," shrugs Jidé, knowing he's got exactly the right answer, but pretending he doesn't care that much. Jidé tries too hard to hide the fact that he is the brainiest boy in our class ... probably in the whole of year seven. It's because his mum's head of history that he's so keen not to look like a creep, so if he's here you know it's because he really wants to be. Probably, he persuaded Ben to tag along with him, just like Millie persuaded me. He catches me watching him and I feel the blood start to snake its way up my neck so that the whole world can track the hot path of my embarrassment up my throat and over my face, and all because I think, just maybe, Jidé Jackson might have smiled at me. I can't even be sure of that though, because I now have my head stuck deep into Pat Print's writing in a pathetic attempt at covering up my blush.
"Exactly, and what was Ben's favorite line?" Pat Print asks Jidé.
I can't even remember what we were talking about now.
"I didn't have one," interrupts Ben.
"OK, next time," says Pat Print, not even glancing up at Ben.
"Now, Millie. Let's hear what you've got."
"... The tie ... to knot tight the hard lump of swallowed words swelling my throat," Millie reads.
I keep my eyes trained on Pat Print's beaten-up old satchel. Was that her school bag? I wonder.
"I think it's about someone who finds it hard to speak or say how they're feeling," Millie answers.
"That was me at school. Now, you can't shut me up!" Pat Print smiles. It's weird because the way she smiles at me makes me feel as if she already knows who I am.
"What about Millie's chosen line, Mira?"
Somehow it's not so bad reading out Millie's line ... I suppose it's because I'm not responsible for what it's saying.
"At the Tate, the modern sun shines through a long winter," I read.
"What do you think?" Pat looks to me for an answer.
Millie jumps in like she always does to save me the embarrassment. "I like the 'modern sun,' because the sun is so old, but in a way it's always new. Every day there's a sunset and a sunrise ... Every day you wake up, it's new. I saw that exhibition at the Tate Modern."
"Wonderful, wasn't it?" Pat agrees and then catches sight of a bored-looking Ben sprawled over his desk doodling graffiti.
"I can see I'll have to find something more interesting for you, Ben. We don't want to bore you senseless. What are you into?"
"Skateboarding!" he booms.
Pat Print is amused. "Not one of my specialist subjects but I'll do some research."
Then she springs this on us.
"Now you can do something for me! Your ongoing project is to write a diary. We'll call it the May Day Diary—I like that." Pat Print grins, pleased with herself for coming up with the title.
"Only it's still April," Ben grunts.
"No need to be pedantic, Ben. It's called 'artistic license' ... a tool of the trade ... comes in handy, I can tell you."
Ben and Jidé shoot each other a sideways glance as if to say, "What have we got ourselves into?"
"Writing is about writing. You can't learn to write if you don't write. If you never keep a diary in your life again, at least you'll have captured a month of your lives to look back on."
"Why would we want to look back?" mumbles Jidé under his breath.
"One day, you won't need to ask that question."
"One day when?"
"What's the point of doing it for just one month?" moans Ben, tagging on behind Jidé.
"A lot can happen in a month, Ben." Pat sighs, as if she's remembering something important.
"Not for me. All my days are the same," grumbles Ben.
Pat completely ignores him, picks up her bag, and starts to pack her things away. That's it! Ben's been dismissed.
"Mira, would you help me gather up these papers?"
Actually there's hardly anything to clear up, but teachers always do that when they want a private word with you.
Everyone leaves. They know the score.
"I thought what you said about the present tense was fascinating. That passage you read ... first time round I wrote the whole thing as a memory ... I got to the end and it just didn't work. It took me ages to find out what was wrong, but it wouldn't come alive until I rewrote it in the present tense."
"I find it easier to paint than write," I tell her.
"Mira, we can't all be talkers. Think of writing this diary as painting a portrait in words. Make a start in the present tense if it's easier for you, but you can be sure that before long, the past will creep its way in there somewhere. Even at your age, there's plenty of past. Right then! See you next week." She waves me off without looking up.
As she walks out of school, she leaves a trail of dry mud behind her.
Excerpted from Mira in the Present Tense by Sita Brahmachari. Copyright © 2011 Sita Brahmachari. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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Posted January 21, 2014
Posted December 24, 2013
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