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The Girl in the Window
One moment can change your life. Dad unlocks the gate to the allotments. I look across the big road. I see her, in the window. She has big, pale eyes and is darker than I am. Short hair. She looks at me. Then her body jerks forwards, like someone's hit her.
"Come on, Aazim!" Dad gives me a push. "Come on, dreamer!" he laughs.
"Hold on." I say and I look up at the window again but she's gone. I want to help her. But what can I do? I'm fifteen years old and I've been in the UK two years. I speak a bit of English, but not enough to tell the police what I've seen. I've seen this young black girl in a big house, I'd like to tell them. I think the people there hit her. Why would they even listen to me?
We walk downhill. The city is in front of us but you can't see it. All you can see is green. The hedges on both sides of the path are taller than me, taller than my father. Dad unlocks another gate and we are in our allotment.
An allotment is like a bit of farm land owned by the city. People rent them to grow fruit and vegetables. The council let us use this one because we don't have much to live on. Here, we can grow our own food.
It is a cold spring, more like our winters at home.
"How are you, Aazim?" calls Stefan, from the next allotment.
"OK," I say.
"Found a better place to live yet?" he asks.
I shake my head. "We have to win our appeal first." The people on the allotments are friendly. Nicer than the people at school. At the week-ends, it's happy there. People visit each other. They share stuff. We're making friends.
Squirrels play in the apple tree. I mow the grass path. Dad digs up some early potatoes. Thanks to all the rain, they're big this year. We eat a lot of potatoes in our family. Not a lot of meat.
On the way out, I look across the road. I don't see the girl this time. We turn down Hungerhill Road. On the walk home, I think about the girl. Then something happens to put her out of my mind.
Our house is small and damp. I share a room with my little brother, Malik. My sister, Sabeen, sleeps in the living room. When we get back, Mum is upset. Sabeen is crying. There's a letter on the plastic table. Mum hands it to me because my English is best. I can tell Sabeen has already read it. We have lost our appeal. Any day now, they will come for us.
"I don't want to go back!" Sabeen says.
"Where will they send us?" Malik asks.
They can't send us home. We haven't got a home.
"They will put us in a camp," Dad says.
"I'm not going!" I shout.
"We have no choice," Mum tells me.CHAPTER 2
I know what will happen. It's happened to people we know. They'll come for us. They will take us to a detention centre. Then they will put us on a plane. After the plane there'll be a bus. The bus will take us to a camp in the desert. For years and years. No school. No job. Nowhere to grow things. I like it here, except for the cold and wet. I want to stay. I plan to stay. But we can't all stay. Sabeen is eleven. Malik is eight. Too young to work. Too young to go on the run. Mum and Dad can't leave them.
But I can leave them.
Saturday on the allotment. Dad wants to tell Stefan that we'll soon be gone. But Stefan is not here. Tam has the allotment on the other side. He waves at us, but he's busy. Tam has three allotments. Sometimes he gives us stuff. Not today. Tam's not friends with Dad, the way Stefan is. So we don't say good-bye.
"It's a waste," Dad says. "All these things we started to grow."
I look around. There are three beds full of vegetables. We have redcurrants and blackcurrant bushes. An apple tree.
I watch two squirrels playing chase along the fence. I knew this day might come, but I don't know what to do. Should I tell Dad I plan to run away?
It starts to rain and we shelter inside. Stefan's hut is built of wood, so it's called a shed. Our hut is made of brick. It's called a bothy. The roof is rusty metal. When it rains hard, the sound is like a hundred hammers.
Dad looks at me like he knows what I'm thinking. But he doesn't say anything. When it stops raining, we walk home. After he's locked the gate, Dad gives me the allotment keys.
"You look after these," he says. "I have a hole in my pocket."
I can't look at Dad, so I look across the road. I see the girl I saw yesterday. Today I watch her pick up a mop. She is younger than I thought. Too young to mop floors.CHAPTER 3
On the Run
They come at five on Monday morning. I hear them hammer on the door. I knew it would be fast, but not this fast. No chance to say good-bye to people at school. I pull on jeans and shirt, trainers. Malik rubs his eyes. I kiss him on the top of his head.
"I have to go, little brother. I will see you in the next life."
He gives me a blank look. I hope he remembers. Then I'm out of the window. I jump onto next door's garage roof. I hear a shout. There's a man at the back door. He sees me but can't get to me. I climb down into next door's back yard. There is an alleyway. I run along it. I cross the road. No one comes after me. I hid my bag in the bothy yesterday but I dare not go there yet. They'll expect me to hide there. I need to be sure the place is safe.
The streets are empty. I take back roads. I walk on the dark side of the footpath. There is no one about. If they're looking for me, I'll be easy to spot. A police car comes and I duck into a driveway, feeling like a thief. The car goes by.
I get near the allotments but don't dare cross the main road. It takes time to open the big gates. Someone might see me. I must wait until the road is busy.
The big houses on this side have alleys that run along the side. I'll try to hide in one. The first alley I try is blocked by wheelie bins. The second has a locked gate. But the third is OK.
The gates to the allotments are across the road. I'll be able to tell when it's a good time. I go down the alley. I duck under the wall. The people in the house will not see me. Their bins are at the back of the alley. That's OK. Monday is not a bin day. I should be safe. I look at my watch. Six. In two hours it will be safe to cross the road. I stay by the bins.
I wait. It's light but it's still not warm. Time passes slowly. Rain begins to fall. Near me, I hear a door open. Should I run? Why would anyone come out so early in the morning? I stay where I am.
Mistake. The side gate opens. A tall, slim, black girl stands by me. She has a bag of rubbish. Our eyes meet. It's the girl I saw last week. With all the trouble, I forgot about her.
"Why you here?" she says.CHAPTER 4
"Yes. From Immigration. You work here?"
She gives me a sad nod. "I was sent."
"I ran away," I say, and hold out my hand.
"My name is Aazim."
She waits. Then she shakes my hand.
"I'm Nadimah," she says. "I must go back inside. Don't let them see you."
"OK." I watch her go. A minute later, she's back. She hands me a big, black bin bag. To hide under. To keep off the rain.
Slowly, the big road comes to life. More cars go by. People walk to work or wait for buses. I see the first person unlock the gates and go into the allotments. Soon I will risk it.
The back door opens. It's Nadimah.
"They go out soon," she tells me. "You must leave now."
"OK," I say. She smiles at me and I smile back. For the first time, I see a burn mark on her arm. Then she's gone. I walk out of the alley as if I am leaving my house. I walk down to the zebra crossing. I cross the busy road. No one looks at me. I go back up the hill. I feel like I have a target on my back. Any moment, someone will spot me. I get to the gates. There are two locks. Both are always stiff.
I don't look behind me. I open one lock. The second lock sticks. I try again. It works. I go in. I lock the gates behind me and look back. No one on the street is looking at me. Nadimah stands in the window and lifts her arm. I give her a small wave back. Then I hurry down the hill to our allotment.
I unlock the door to our allotment and push it shut behind me. I unlock the hut. It's dark inside but soon I can see. I check the bag I hid yesterday. It's safe. Rain drums softly on the roof. I clear tools off the bench, then sit down to begin my long wait.CHAPTER 5
The allotment door has a padlock on the outside, but you can't lock it from the inside. The door closes on a hook. Anyone can reach in and push the hook off so they can walk right into the allotment.
When will they come for me? It can't be long. There's no easy way to escape. I could climb a hedge and get into Tam or Stefan's allotment. But the hedges are high.
I've been in our bothy all day. It's cold. I want to be with my family. Now and then I hear people on the path outside. I think about lighting a fire. There's plenty of wood around. There's a little stove with a wide chimney in the bothy. I have nothing to cook, but it would keep me warm.
In my bag I have chocolate, crisps, some sliced bread. There is water, from a tap outside. And there are apples, from last year. Each one is wrapped in newspaper. Half are rotten. The rest are OK. I've eaten three today.
In the week, the allotments are busy between five and seven. People come after work. I dare not go out. I collect bits of wood from the side of the bothy. When it's dark, I light a small fire in the stove. Normally, I go to sleep at ten, but tonight I'm tired. There is an old blanket in my bag. I find a sack to use as a pillow. I get out my blanket and make a bed on the floor. The floor is cold and hard. The fire goes out. I get cold and cannot sleep.
When will they come for me? I'm scared and I'm hungry. My tummy growls. I get out two slices of bread and make myself a crisp sandwich. That's better.
I hear a noise outside. There's someone in the allotment, nearby. I hear them getting closer. Here they are. My heart beats so loudly, they must be able to hear me. I wait for them to try the bothy door. It's bolted on the inside. But they can kick it in.
The noises go on. Patter. Crunch. Pop. Pop? Now I understand. It's not people outside. It's foxes. They're hunting and playing after the humans have gone home. They yelp and bark. I go to the window and try to see them. But there is no moonlight. I listen to the animals as they come and go and I wait for morning to come.CHAPTER 6
A Long Day
When I wake it's light outside. My back feels stiff. It must be late. But when I look at my watch it's only six.
I go outside. My trainers are wet with the morning dew. The air smells fresh. I think about Nadimah. She'll be up and working. But I dare not leave the allotments to see her.
The day passes very slowly. Tam arrives at nine. I hear him go into his hut. He shouts a "hello" over the hedge. I don't shout back because I shouldn't be here. I should be in school. I hear him go about his jobs. At eleven, he leaves. It's safe for me to leave the bothy.
I have a little money. I can buy food. But it is too dangerous to go outside the Hungerhill allotments. I need to take my mind off things. So I weed the potato patch. I water the pumpkins. I look for stuff to eat. The allotment is full of soft fruit but it isn't ready. I dig around the edge of the potato patch. What's this? Two potatoes from last year. The old man who had this place must have missed them. Maybe I can bake them on my fire later. Or boil them.
I think about school and what I'm missing. English. Maths. ICT. School is OK but I have no real friends there. I know a couple of Kurdish boys who I hang around with at breaktimes. Sometimes I play football with white boys. They call me "rag-head" even though I don't wear a turban. My Kurdish friends say they are racist but I say they are only stupid.
I have another crisp sandwich for lunch. Stefan shows up at five. I hear him try to open the door of the bothy. He calls out, "Sayeed?"
That's my dad. I don't know what to do. I don't have a plan. I'm lonely and I like Stefan. So I shout back. "No, it's me, Aazim."
Stefan lets himself in. "Sayeed not here?" he asks.
I shake my head. "He left."
"I've only just got here myself. I've been helping my son out. I taught him most of what he knows on these allotments."
"That's good," I say. Stefan tells me more about his son and the big gardening firm he runs.
"He works in some lovely gardens," Stefan says. "Not as nice as here, though. These are the oldest allotments in the UK. Did you know that?"
"No, I didn't know that," I reply.
"Better be getting on, then." Stefan points at the raspberry canes. "You want to cover those with netting, young man. They'll be ready soon and the birds will get at them."CHAPTER 7
Two nights pass. I've run out of food. There's a toilet I can use, just down the hill but I need a shower. I can only wash with water from the outside tap. I wish I had something to read. Or a radio.
I tell myself that no one is looking for me. I go to a shop up the main road and buy bread, crisps, chocolate.
"Hey, Aazim!" It's Babir, from school. "I heard you were deported."
I shake my head. "Not me. Why you not in school?"
"Dentist," he says. "Seriously, man, the police came looking for you at school."
"Yeah?" I say.
I nod. "They took the rest of my family." I tell him what happened. I have to tell someone.
"Got a job?" he asks.
"No," I say. "What would I do?"
"Lots of work in restaurants, they say. Farms, too."
"Maybe. I got to go. Don't say you saw me, OK?"
"OK," Babir says. "But I wouldn't hang around here. Lots of mean kids."
Babir waits at the bus stop. I head back down the hill. I pass Nadimah's house. A big African woman is leaving. She yells.
"Silly bitch! Clear it up before I get back!"
I know who she's talking to. I stop walking. I look back. Babir is getting onto a bus. The big woman gets into a car. I bend down and do up one of my laces. The bus passes me. The car goes. I cross the road. I walk up the alley at the side of the house. The side gate is locked. I bang on it.
"Who's there?" a small voice asks.
"Nadimah, it's me, Aazim," I say.
She opens the gate. I go in. She's been crying, I can tell. There's a bruise on her left cheek. Who hit her?
"Are you OK?" I ask.
She shakes her head.
"Can I come in?"
Without a word, she lets me into the house, into the smart kitchen. There is something sticky on the floor. Broken glass. I reach into my shopping bag.
"Would you like a bag of crisps?" I say.
She takes it and eats quickly. I find a cloth and pick up the glass with it. Then I clean the floor for her. While I do this, she tells me her story.CHAPTER 8
Nadimah comes from the Ivory Coast in Africa. Two years ago, her parents sent her to a family friend in England. Roland. He paid her fare.
Roland said Nadimah would have a good future. She would go to a good school. But Nadimah didn't stay with him. He took her to a family in Nottingham — the Ubanis. They didn't send her to school. They made her work as a servant. She was ten years old.
"It's better than at home," Nadimah tells me. "If I stay home, I work in a cocoa plantation. Very hard. This is not so bad."
"But you're a slave!" I say.
She does not know what that word means. "All you do is work and sleep," I tell her.
"What about you?" she says. "What work do you do?"
"I don't work."
"No?" She points at the dirt in my finger-nails. "Where does that come from?"
I tell her about the allotment. "I feel safe there but it's cold at night."
"The days are getting warmer," she says. "You will be OK."
"Why don't they let you go to school?" I ask.
"Too many jobs here," Nadimah tells me. She looks at the clock on the wall. "You must go. She will be back soon."
"Come and see me," I say. "They let you out, don't they?" She shakes her head. I see a scratch on her neck.
"Are you OK?" I ask.
"You must go," she says again.
I hurry across the road. On the path to the allotments I meet Stefan.
"Why aren't you at school, Aazim?" he asks.
"I've finished school."
"I thought you had another year to do," Stefan says.
"Me too," I say.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?" he asks.
"Not here," I say.
We go into his allotment and I tell him what happened.
"You need help," he says.
"Please. Don't tell people where I am."
Stefan shakes his head. "I'll see what I can do."
I trust him. I have no choice. I have nowhere else to hide.CHAPTER 9
After dark, the boys come. At first, I think they're foxes. Then I hear a laugh. I hear glass smash. They're in the allotment next door. Tam warned Dad about vandals. When the weather is warm, they come to smoke and drink. One time they burnt down his shed. Tonight they smash the windows of his greenhouse.
What can I do? I pull on my trainers. I open the door. I look over the fence. There are three boys. I hear them talk.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Secret Gardens"
Copyright © 2011 David Belbin.
Excerpted by permission of Five Leaves Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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