Crooks and Straights: Sample

 

Written and illustrated by Masha du Toit

Copyright 2014 Masha du Toit

Rosemary and Burnt Rubber

chapter

"Four roeties!"

The woman banged on the hatch until it rattled in its frame.

"Hey! Four roeties. Three chicken curry, one veg curry, and two potato wadas."

She shot Gia a look. "Anything to drink?"

"No, thanks."

"That will be thirty-five rand and fifty cents."

Gia handed her a fifty, and tried not to stare as the woman stood on tip-toe to see inside the till drawer.

She's so small! She can't be much taller than Nico.

"Here you go, sweetie." The woman slapped the change on the counter. "Be ready in a minute."

She was clearly curious about Gia, and did not have any inhibitions about staring. Her eyes were sharp and unsettling, and Gia turned away, looking at the shop.

She'd never been in a place like this before, so unlike the clean, modern convenience stores she was used to. It wasn't dirty, but it was old-- decades old, she guessed. Vegetables shared shelf space with stationery supplies. Tools and toys crowded the shelves or hung from the ceiling. A refrigerator stood droning against one wall, dripping quietly into an enamel basin.

Gia felt herself relax as she breathed in the scent of Sunlight soap and curry powder.

"You're from that new place down the road?"

The woman was back on her chair behind the counter, and resumed the task that Gia had interrupted-- scooping nuts into small paper bags.

"That's right," said Gia.

"It's like a boutique? Ladies clothing and that?"

"Not really," said Gia. "Well, sort of. We design and make the clothing ourselves. Fancy shirts, and wedding gowns. Matric dance dresses. That kind of thing."

The woman's eyebrows went up. "Expensive?"

"Very."

The woman nodded, satisfied. "It looks good. Your daddy did up the shop like that?"

"Yes."

"That was old Mrs Moses's house." Another scoop of nuts was poured into a bag. "She lived there for-- oh, many years. Before my time, even. But it's been standing empty too long now. Good to have new people moving in."

She added a few more nuts, then closed the bag with a practised twist, seeming unaware of Gia's fascinated gaze.

She was worth staring at.

Her skin was brown as pastry, and her cheeks and nose were as shiny as if they'd been scorched. A gaudily striped headscarf framed her face and draped her tiny, hunched body. She wore an army of bracelets that clattered and clashed as she moved, and her hands, warped into gnarled roots by arthritis, were loaded with rings.

How could I picture her? thought Gia.

The scent of curry drifting through the hatch suggested the scene.

Gia could see it all perfectly in her mind's eye: The old woman comfortably ensconced in a cooking pot, stewing herself until she wrinkled like a prune. She might even sprinkle spices over herself, and dip a spoon in to taste the sauce.

"And that beautiful woman with the long hair? She's your mother?"

Gia came back to reality with a start.

"Oh? Yes. She's my mom."

"She was in here the other day. A real lady. You can sommer see it."

As usual, once she'd let her imagination off its leash, Gia found it difficult to rein it in again. It would be too easy to think of this old woman as an odd creature of some kind. She might be a worm-pester, an overgrown hobgoblin, even a witch.

You'd never find someone like this in Claremont or Plumstead, or even Harfield Village.

She glanced surreptitiously at the objects above the counter and was reassured to see the usual horseshoe nailed to the wall, as well as a number of rosemary and wormwood charms dangling among the paper lanterns and garlands of marigolds.

No chance of a magical so close to wards like those.

To her embarrassment she found that the woman was watching her. She shook back the bangles from her hands and picked up another paper packet.

"No need to worry, deary," she said with a far from reassuring cackle. "I'm no witchy. Won't put muti in your roetie. You can call me Granny. Everybody does. Everybody knows me."

Still smiling, she studied Gia.

"You don't look much like mom. Take after your father?"

"I'm adopted," said Gia, and waited for the usual uncomfortable pause, but Granny took it in her stride.

"And the little one? He your brother?"

The hatch opened and a teenage boy placed several paper parcels on the shelf below. Gia realised he must have been listening to everything they'd said so far.

"Yes," she answered. "My brother Nico. He's seven."

"That funny one," said the boy, leaning through the hatch. He looked very pleased with himself, and even before he said the words, Gia knew what was coming.

"The retard-- "

Granny whipped round and slapped him on the side of his head.

"Skoert jy," she said. "Hold your mouth about things you don't understand."

The boy ducked back and shut the hatch.

"Don't you mind him," said Granny. "He's an idiot, just like his father. All mouth and no brains. Here's your food. You want a bag?"

Gia nodded, smiling as Granny took a thin plastic bag from under the counter, and packed the food inside it.

"We're open late," said Granny. "You tell your mom, if she ever needs somebody to keep an eye on that little boy of hers, she can leave him here with me. He'll be safe here. Everybody knows Granny."

-oOo-

Outside, Gia stood taking in her surroundings. It was a sunny, late summer day with the south-easterly wind whipping up a pile of clouds over Table Mountain, and sweeping the sky clear of smog. An alarm wailed in the distance. A line of prayer flags whipped and snapped on a nearby house. A taxi came past, booming out the bass-line, rocking over the speed bumps on its shot suspension, the gaardjie hanging out the open door and leering at her.

"Cape Town, girlie?" he shouted, but the taxi sped off before she had a chance to react.

This was so different from Plumstead, where the only pedestrians were street sweepers or security guards. Here, everyone was outside. Children played soccer on the street. Women sat on their doorsteps, chatting and smoking. It was friendly, if a bit intimidating. She felt very visible, the only white person in sight, and a bit too neat in her new school uniform.

Some things were the same, though. Almost every streetlight was strung with newspaper posters bearing slogans of the upcoming referendum.

She set off up the street. As she turned a corner, the alarm she'd been only peripherally aware of, became louder. Children were screaming with excitement, but she could not see what attracted their attention. A yellow-and-black Special Branch truck blocked the road. A line of people stood well back, straining to see what was going on. Curious, she walked closer.

"You get back here, Melia, I'm going to donner you, you don't listen to Mommy!" A woman dragged a small girl away. "Come inside now, Zaaid, Melia! Dadelik!"

Gia found a space next to a middle aged man in overalls with the words "Woodstock Plumbing" embroidered in large yellow letters.

He nodded at her. "They found a nest," he said. "Haarskeerders."

She must have looked baffled.

"Magicals, you know. But small ones. Mr Abrahams was fixing his shed and found a nest. Under the roof."

Beyond the truck a Special Branch officer, muffled in protective clothing, pulled at a sheet of corrugated fencing. He wore a padded jacket and a helmet with nets hanging down from it very much like a beekeeper's outfit, and a large pair of mirrored goggles.

"Isn't it dangerous?" asked Gia.

More uniformed men were moving in to help, tearing back the fence to expose the remains of a shed.

"Ag, no, we should be fine back here," said the plumber. "The cops would get rid of us pretty quick otherwise. Watch-- they've got all kinds of tricks."

The fence was partly down, and she could see what must be the nest, a bell-shaped thing in the angle of the roof.

The man whistled.

"That's a big one. Oh-- look, there's the lure."

One of the Special Branch men moved toward the nest. He seemed wary, head bent, never looking directly at his target. He placed something on the ground, a nodding bunch of mirrors that dipped and flashed at the end of long wires. He bent over them, did something, and the mirrors started whirling slowly, casting spots of sunlight over the walls.

Another policeman approached with a tube that dribbled dark smoke. The crowd murmured in excited interest, and some people jumped up on garbage bins for a better view.

"They're smoking them out!"

The policeman walked right up to the nest, and cautiously stepped onto the pile of fence sheeting that had been torn down. The pile buckled under his booted feet, and something must have shifted because suddenly he was off balance, and his shoulder struck the corrugated iron of the fence with a resounding bang.

The crowd gasped and drew back.

Gia heard the plumber draw in a hissing breath.

Little shapes separated from the nest, leaping out into the air on glittering wings. The policeman regained his balance and, with one arm crooked protectively over his head, placed the smoking tube next to the lure, and opened it fully.

Black smoke gushed out.

More creatures emerged, but instead of attacking the crowd as Gia expected, they seemed drawn to the sparkling mirrors of the lure, spinning and banking around it, oblivious to the rising smoke.

There was a humming buzz in the air above her. One of the things had flown out of the reach of the smoke and was hovering near. Gia stared at it, a rainbow blur like an enormous dragonfly.

Everything slowed.

The wings moved with infinite grace, drawing lingering shapes like smoke trails in the air. The shrill buzz modulated into a lilting song, oil drifting through water, velvet, rainbow shapes--

"Ow!"

Somebody had jabbed her sharply in the ribs.

"Don't look at it, man!"

The plumber had her by the arm and dragged her back, but the creature was already gone.

"You mustn't look at them," he said angrily. "They'll glamour you, and next thing you wake up and you have no eyes, and your hair's all gone."

"Sorry!"

She blinked and put out a hand to steady herself. The wall felt warm, and for a moment she felt intensely aware of it, as though she could smell it with her fingertips. Then the sensation faded.

"I didn't know it could happen so fast," she said.

"That's why they're so careful, Special Branch," said the plumber. Seeing that she was unhurt, he turned back to the scene by the fence.

The smoke from the policeman's tube drifted close to them, and Gia could smell it now, rosemary and burnt rubber.

A Special Branch policeman poked at the nest, pushing so hard that it rocked and tore open, but no more creatures emerged. The ones who'd been circling the lure must have succumbed to the smoke.

After a few more moments, the Special Branch man picked up the lure and the smoking tube. The smoke was dispersing fast, blown away in the wind. The crowd was moving on too, since nothing more seemed likely to happen.

Gia watched as the truck started up with a roar and bumped down off the pavement, hooting to clear the way. Soon nothing was left except the gaping hole in the fence, and a tinge of burnt rubber in the air.

Gia went closer, expecting to be stopped, but nobody paid her any attention.

There would be no bodies, she knew. Small magicals turned into soil and leaves when they died.

She went right up to the hole in the fence, careful not to lose her balance on the sheets of corrugated metal that still lay scattered about.

The nest itself was interesting, broken though it was. It looked like an enormous wasp's nest, made out of translucent stuff much like waxy paper. Parts of it reminded her of a giant bird's nest woven out of grass and strips of packing tape.

Or was that--

She leaned closer, peering at the nest. The main structure was made out of dried grass, but woven throughout there were finer fibres, strands of what could only be hair.

Human hair?

The plumber's words came back to her.

"…and next thing you wake up and you have no eyes, and your hair's all gone…"

She suppressed a shudder.

The torn-open interior of the nest exposed chambers and spiralling tunnels, lined with down. In places strands of hair and strips of fabric had been knotted and plaited together into intricate whorls like basketwork, threaded with tiny objects.

Plastic beads, the metal tabs from drinking cans, a doll's hand, some empty snail shells.

A slender acacia branch poked out of one side. It made a grim sight.

That must have been their larder, thought Gia.

Little bodies hung impaled on the long, white thorns. Geckos and crickets, a dried-out frog, and even a baby bird.

Gia stepped even closer, and something crunched under her foot. She looked down.

She was standing on a scatter of charred leaves and ash. The leaves lay in curved drifts. If she blurred her eyes, she could almost see them as tiny curled-up figures--

There was a fluttering buzz just behind her.

A shadow on the wall beside her, blurred and hazy.

It swung closer, buzzing almost in her ear for an instant, and was gone.

-oOo-

The rest of the way home, she was too busy thinking to take in much of her surroundings.

She wondered how dangerous the creatures really were. What had the plumber called them?

"Haarskeerders."

That was Afrikaans for "hair shavers." She could see where that name came from. Clearly, the creatures liked to collect human hair, and other things too.

The protective clothing of the Special Branch officers, and their wary tension suggested that the creatures were dangerous. But it was hard to believe that the tiny shapes she'd seen flitting about could inflict much harm. Did they have stings, like wasps, or could they cast spells?

Gia wished she'd had a chance to have a proper look at the one that had hovered over her. It was odd, the way she'd gone all dazed. She must have had time to see it, but all she could remember was a spiralling haze. Thinking about it seemed to bring the strange feeling on again, making her dizzy enough that she had to stand, holding on to a street lamp for balance.

It took a few moments for her vision to clear. Everything seemed fascinating, the silvery wood of the lamppost, the grey and black blobs of the newspaper poster. She blinked and focused, and the blobs resolved into the face of Kavitha Pillay, smiling out from under the words "South Africa's Darling".

The glamour those little things cast must be stronger than she'd thought.

She was still musing on this when she reached number five Lever Street.

Gia wasn't sure how she felt about her new home. Walmer Estate was so different from Plumstead. They'd moved from one suburb to another, but it felt like a new city-- a new country, even.

Her new home was part of a row-house, one long building with many front doors. Years ago each unit must have been identical, each with a balcony above a neat front door. Now, some were ragged with neglect, broken windows boarded up or patched with cardboard. Others were bright and new, wrought iron broekies-lace restored to mint condition, the fresh paint applied exactly to the theoretical edge where one house ended and the other began.

Many years ago the downstairs section of number five had been changed into a shop. There were two entrances: one to the ground floor-- now the premises of her parents' business-- and the other onto the stairs to the living area on the floor above, that Gia still thought of as "the dump".

Carlo Gotti, tailors and dressmakers said the elegant stainless steel engraving above the door to the studio.

Her father had put a lot of work into the shop front, and his effort had paid off. Gia liked the intriguing blend of old and new, gleaming plate-glass windows on either side of the old-fashioned door. She was tempted to have another look around the studio, to breathe in the scent of polished wood and admire her father's handiwork once again. The effect was slick and professional. It made the move seem like a choice, and not a necessity. Nobody could see it and think the business was hovering on the edge of financial ruin.

The last few months had been one long rush of packing and moving. There had been Nico to look after, and her new, not-quite-so-expensive school to get used to.

The scent of food rising from her bag reminded her that her mother would be hungry. The moving vans had arrived this morning, and while Gia had been at school, her mother and Mandy would have been hard at work unpacking.

Gia unlocked the metal burglar gate, and climbed the creaking wooden stairs. Here, too, was a reminder that she was no longer living in Plumstead. There was no modern magic warding here. No carefully obscured chemical or electrical security systems.

Instead, the wards were very visible. The knocker on the front door was shaped like a two-thumbed hand, with an eye embedded in the palm. Five iron nails had been hammered into the wood around it, each bleeding a trail of rust into the milky yellow paint. The only other security was the gate at the bottom of the stairs.

As she unlocked this door, she heard her mother's voice.

"Careful! The cats!"

She slipped inside and closed the door behind her. The hall was filled with boxes and chairs, and it took her a moment to spot the cat, Minou, balancing on a pile of magazines.

"She's been trying to get out all day. It's a wonder she did not slip out when the movers arrived."

Saraswati, usually so elegant, looked crumpled in sweatpants and an old t-shirt, her black hair falling out of an untidy ponytail.

Nico, as usual, hung onto her waist, pulling her off balance.

"Hi, Mom. Hello Minou." Gia reached out a finger.

The cat deigned to lift her nose in greeting, before turning her back and washing her shoulder most expressively. Her son, Pouf, wound himself through Gia's legs, purring a greeting.

"How was your day?" said Saraswati. Then she noticed the food. "Oh, good girl, I've not even had breakfast yet."

Gia squeezed past a stack of chairs and let her mother give her a quick hug and kiss.

"Hello Nico," she said. "I got you some potato wadas!"

Nico detached himself from Saraswati, and flung his arms around his sister.

"Gia!" And reaching for the bag, "Wada!"

She lifted the bag out of his reach. Mandy appeared in the kitchen door and came hurrying down the corridor.

"Is that food? Give me that. No, Nico, you must wait."

"Wada!"

Mandy took the food with one hand, and Nico's arm in the other, and walked him back to the kitchen.

"No, I'm not going to carry you. You must walk like a big boy."

Saraswati sighed and rubbed a hand across her face.

"Could you help Mandy keep him busy just for a minute? I've not had a chance to shower yet today, and I'm all over dust."

Gia considered telling her mother about the haarskeerders, but thought better of it. Saraswati avoided all things magical, and would probably react with worry out of proportion to the actual danger.

"Wasn't Mrs Winterbach supposed to be looking after Nico?" she asked instead.

"She cancelled. We've had an exciting day," said Saraswati wryly.

"But everything's here now?"

Saraswati looked around at the cluttered hallway.

"Everything's here. And we got quite a lot done. All the big furniture has been moved to the right places, it's just this smaller stuff we still have to put away. Your bedroom is pretty much ready; you'll just have to move things where you want them."

Gia grimaced. Sharing a bedroom with her brother was the worst part of her new home.

Her mother was looking tiredly at the boxes.

"I was hoping to get all this sorted before your father came home," she said. "But at this rate--"

"Dad seeing a client?"

"Yes. A new one."

Saraswati picked her way among the clutter toward the bathroom, and soon Gia heard the juddering groan of the old pipes as the shower came on.

Oh great. The whole place rattles every time somebody opens a tap. And the water's probably filled with rust.

She looked at the objects that filled the hallway.

These must be mostly boxes of magazines. Where on earth would they go? And there were the living room chairs all in a heap. Behind them, almost concealed under a pile of curtains and boxes, was a metal trunk she did not recognise.

Probably full of sheets, or shoes, or something boring like that. Although it's not really the right size. Not big enough.

Her curiosity roused, she heaved aside the curtains, and found new places for a box of clothes hangers and another box full of Nico's toys.

I'll just have a peek.

She tried to lift the lid of the trunk, but it would not come open.

Locked. Odd, to lock up an old trunk like this?

A crash from the kitchen distracted her, and she went to see what Nico was up to.

-oOo-

The crash turned out to be less disastrous than it sounded, just Nico dropping an empty mixing bowl.

"Wow," said Gia, impressed by the change in the kitchen.

When she'd last seen it, it had been a gloomy, dusty room. But Mandy had been busy. The linoleum floor, faded though it was, gleamed with polish. The windows were clean, and let in more light than they probably had for decades. The familiar table from their previous kitchen took pride of place in the middle of the room, covered in the same striped cloth she knew so well.

"Tadaa!" Mandy grinned, seeing her surprise. "We've been working, while you were lazing away at school."

"It looks fantastic."

"It's going to look fantastic, if I ever find room for all this stuff," said Mandy. "This kitchen must be half the size of the Plumstead one. Lucky thing these old houses have lots of built-in cupboards.

"Gia, put some plates on the table and let's have a sit-down meal for a change. We won't wait for your mom. Once she's in the shower she stays in there all day."

Mandy had been with the family as far back as Gia could remember, cooking, cleaning and babysitting, freeing Saraswati to do her part in the dressmaking business.

Now, Mandy tucked an escaped curl of grey hair out of sight under her headscarf, drew out a chair, and sat in it, as at home in the new kitchen as she had been in the old. She lifted an eyebrow at Nico to stop him rocking on his chair, and picked up her knife and fork with a contented sigh.

"Ah, it's a pleasure to eat something you've not cooked yourself for a change," she said.

Gia ate her roeti straight from its paper wrapping. She was glad to see that Nico ate without any fuss.

That was a good sign. Usually, the slightest deviation from his routine caused him to become anxious, and when he was anxious, Nico did not eat.

Still, he was not completely at ease. Gia could see the signs. He ate mostly with one hand, the other reaching out every now and then to touch Mandy's sleeve. As long as he focused on his food he seemed fine, if a little twitchy. But whenever he caught sight of the unfamiliar kitchen, he flinched, narrowing his eyes as if against a too-bright light.

-oOo-

Gia and Mandy had started shifting the boxes out of the corridor by the time Saraswati emerged from the shower, rubbing her hair with a towel.

"Those empty boxes are going to recycling, so just pile them up next to the door," she said. "Where's Nico?"

Gia nodded at the corner where her brother was dismantling a toy telephone. Then she pointed at the trunk she'd been wondering about earlier.

"What's in that, Mom? And why's it locked?"

Saraswati turned to look at the trunk and, for a moment, Gia thought that she stared in surprise. Then she seemed to recover herself.

"That goes in our bedroom. Your father can move it when he gets here." She frowned at Gia. "You going to stay in that school uniform all day long?"

Gia was taken aback at the edge in her mother's voice.

Why should Dad move it? It can't be all that heavy.

"Where are my clothes?" she asked, trying to keep her voice neutral.

"They're in your room. Still packed."

Gia went to look.

The room she was to share with Nico was next to her parents', and was far from ready. The furniture had been moved in, but nothing was where it should be. The little tank with Nico's latest watery creature experiment was on the floor in one corner, with only enough water in it to keep the occupants alive. His rat, in its cage for once, was balanced on top of the record player. The posters and drawings that had plastered Nico's walls in their Plumstead home were still in rolls on his bed, and all his toys, books, and other possessions were in boxes.

Her own things were in a stack of boxes and suitcases against one wall.

Gia looked around, calculating.

The room was much smaller than either her or Nico's rooms had been, but it had similar proportions to Nico's old room, with the door and window facing one another.

If I move his bed over there, it will be pretty much in the same place it was at home. Then I can move the bookshelf over there…

After a good deal of shoving and dragging, she'd arranged the furniture to her liking. The second bed went next to the door, as nearly out of sight as possible, and all her boxes were either hidden under it or stacked on top.

She arranged everything else as nearly as possible as it had been in Nico's room in their old house.

The door opened and Mandy looked through. "Can I leave Nico with you?" she asked. "It's hard to clean with him hanging onto me all the time."

"Sure. He can help me in here."

Nico went straight to the tank and peered into it with a worried expression.

"Nico," said Gia. "Do you know where the buckets are? Why don't you fill that tank?"

That kept him busy while she set up the record player. The familiar ritual of preparing the water with purifying chemicals and siphoning it into the tank seemed to calm him.

Gia lowered the needle onto his favourite record, and he looked up with a smile as the first chords played.

"The solar system," said a deep voice. "This is a journey. A journey into space…"

Nico settled cross-legged on the floor. He'd taken Poepie out of his cage. The rat sat on Nico's shoulder, whiskers twitching as he surveyed his unfamiliar surroundings. Gia was just putting up the last of Nico's drawings-- an enormous dinosaur drawn in cross-section to show its remarkably complicated inner workings-- when Saraswati put her head round the door.

"Oh!" she said when she saw the room. "Gia, that's wonderful. But where's your stuff going to go?"

Before Gia could reply, keys rattled in the front door.

Nico was on his feet and down the passage in a flash. Saraswati and Gia followed, in time to see the door open and Nico fling himself at his father.

"Whoa, boy, you'll knock me downstairs." Karel grunted. "No, you're too big to pick up now."

He gave Nico a friendly shake, careful not to dislodge the rat, who still perched on Nico's shoulder.

"Sari," he said with a smile at his wife.

"Close the door," said Saraswati, giving her husband a kiss. "The cats will get out--"

"Gia, there's a visitor for you," said Karel.

Gia tried to see who stood behind him.

"Fatima!"

The girls embraced, a little clumsily because Fatima held a motorbike helmet.

"I missed you!" said Fatima. "You should have come with. We had the best time."

"My school started on Monday already," said Gia. "And I had to help here."

"I suppose. Has Ben been round yet?"

"No, I think he's still at that math camp thing."

Karel, one arm still around his wife, said, "Why don't you two move into the kitchen? It's a bit crowded here."

"Sure," said Fatima, moving down the corridor. "You guys still unpacking boxes? Jeez, I'm hungry. My mother's starving me. This the kitchen? Hi Mandy-- did you have a good holiday?"

She plunked her helmet on the kitchen table and stuck her head in the fridge.

Saraswati looked on bemused. "Fatima, if your mother has you on a diet, I don't think--"

"Oh, she'll never know. Anyway, there's nothing here. You guys seriously need to do a shop."

Fatima closed the fridge and sighed dramatically.

"I'm doomed to starvation. Wanna go out Gia? There's a new burger place at the Gardens Centre."

"I'm afraid not," said Saraswati. "Gia has to unpack her bedroom, and I'm sure she has homework. And this evening she has to watch her brother."

She turned a serious look on Gia.

"We have to meet the new client, so I'm relying on you to look after Nico. And it's a week night in any case."

"Oh, Mom!" flashed Gia. "As though I ever stay out late. I always get stuck looking after Nico, and I've not seen Fatima for weeks--"

Her mother's lips narrowed. "Gia Rozalia, don't take that tone with me. I'm not repeating myself. You know our rules."

Gia felt her cheeks flush. It was one thing for her mother to nag when they were alone together. But to speak like that in front of her friends--

Karel appeared in the door behind Saraswati.

"Gia, why don't you show Fatima around the house, and the studio. She's not seen that yet, have you Fatima?"

"Oh cool! I'd love that," said Fatima. "But Mr Grobbelaar, check it out."

She struck a model pose, hooking her thumbs under the collar of her leather jacket.

"Tibetan Troll-hunter's jacket. Cool, no?"

Karel moved in for a closer look. It was an eye-catching jacket. Blood red leather, figure hugging, with a high ribbed collar and sleeves belling out into exaggerated cuffs.

Karel ran a professional finger down a shoulder seam. "Not bad." He tweaked at the collar. "Quite well made too. Mass produced?"

"Oh, I got it at Edgars! But it's pretty nice."

Fatima unzipped the jacket to reveal the black silk lining. "And look-- " She patted her hip. "These loop things are what the troll hunters hook their metal probes on. Red hot. That's why it's all scorched there. But that's just kamma-kamma, of course, not the real thing. And these-- " She ran a finger and thumb over a series of large metal rivets. "These are supposed to be a record of how many trolls you've killed."

Karel lifted his eyebrows in mock respect. "You are clearly a dangerous young lady."

Saraswati was also studying the jacket with interest. "It's nicely put together, for a mass-market jacket. Lovely colour. This is popular now, Fatima?"

"Oh, it's the hottest thing."

"Well, it's certainly slimming."

Fatima laughed. "There's that, too. Well Gia, you going to show me around?"

"Sure. Let's start downstairs."

-oOo-

It was fun showing Fatima around the new studio. She was suitably impressed with the gleaming expanse of floor, and looked with interest as Gia pointed out where the interior walls had been taken down to open the space.

"Your dad did all of this himself?"

"Well, he got people to help him, of course, but he did as much as he could himself. This is the fitting room."

She held aside the curtain so that Fatima could see inside.

"Wow. That's from your old place, isn't it, that mirror? But it looks so much better here." She posed in front of the antique three-way mirror. "Nice light in here. Flattering. People are going to love this."

"You think so?"

"Oh yes. It's all so exclusive looking."

They inspected the workroom at the back, a space rarely seen by clients and consequently a lot less glossy. This was where most of the equipment was housed. Overlockers, sewing machines, presses, and shelves full of patterns and rolls of fabric.

Upstairs, they sidled through the main bedroom, which was filled with boxes, and peeked into the en-suite bathroom, still steamy from the shower.

"Good thing your parents have got this," said Fatima. "Just imagine if you all had to share the same bathroom. Why does the shower look like that?"

The shower stall had a waist-high wall, so that the lower half was more like a small, square bathtub.

"Mom likes it like that, so she can soak properly. This is the only bit that's been changed about the upstairs. The rest is all still the same."

Gia showed the other bathroom, a much dingier room with a rusted bath, tiny basin, and a toilet with a cistern high up against the ceiling that had to be flushed by pulling at a dangling chain.

The living room was a jumble of furniture and boxes and they decided not to risk going out onto the balcony.

"That's scary," said Fatima, looking down at the street through the holes in the boards. Then she noticed the work table that had been shoved in between the sofa and the display cabinet.

"That's your mother's spot? Is she working on another dress? Why doesn't she set up downstairs in the studio? Lots more space there."

Gia shrugged. "I think she likes to do that kind of work away from the client stuff. And Dad gets on her nerves when she's working on her own things."

"Is she doing another peacock dress? That was stunning."

"Something like that. But this one is white."

After a quick glance at the door, Gia opened one of the boxes. "Look," she said, lifting a length of white silk. "She's already started embroidering."

"Wow. That's so cool."

The ice-white fabric was criss-crossed with undulating lines of black embroidery that branched and curled like the tendrils of a bramble, studded with tiny, sharp, embroidered thorns. Some of the thorns bore little red glass beads that glinted like drops of blood.

Fatima sighed in admiration.

"Wow," she said again. "It's going to be gorgeous."

Gia opened another box, and both girls looked at the rows and rows of little bottles full of beads.

"Look at these!" said Gia, and she lifted out a small box. Inside it nestled four large beads. They were shaped like smooth teardrops, each as large around as one of her fingers. From their weight Gia guessed they must be some kind of semi-precious stone, and they had a depth and lustre that drew the eye. Each was like a tiny clot of blood, living red on the surface, but with a curl of black in its heart.

But now Fatima was getting uneasy. "Better put those back," she said. "Before somebody comes in here and catches us snooping."

Gia replaced the beads reluctantly. She felt the urge to suck her fingertips, as if the beads might have stained them.

"But where's your bedroom?" said Fatima. "You still have to share with the little monster?"

"That's what Mom thinks," said Gia as she closed the boxes and checked to make sure that no one could tell they'd been opened.

"I'll show you."

She led the way through the kitchen, into a narrow room that must once have been a pantry. It was lined all the way to the ceiling with shelves and cupboards.

"These are still full of the previous people's stuff. All kinds of odd things," said Gia. "But we'll look at that later. This is what I want to show you."

She pointed at a set of wooden stairs, almost as steep as a ladder, which ended in a trapdoor in the ceiling.

"You. Are. Not. Serious." Fatima looked up. "Up there?"

"Come." Gia climbed the stairs, and pushed open the trapdoor, a heavy wooden thing that slid back stiffly. She climbed through, and was soon followed by Fatima, who looked around at the tiny attic room.

"Wow. Dusty! There must be like a kingdom of spiders up here."

"Come look at the view."

Gia walked over to the dormer window set in one of the slanting walls, and Fatima came to stand beside her.

"Wow. Nice!"

The sun was just about to move behind the mountain. The long, low, golden light of late summer spilled over the houses and streets. In the distance, the harbour lights were on, and below them Eastern Boulevard was a river of red brake lights.

"That is awesome," said Fatima. "And you could put your mattress on here, and sleep right here in the window!" She patted the broad window seat.

"That's what I thought," said Gia.

Fatima gave her a calculating look.

"You want to move your stuff in here, make it nice to convince your mom to let you stay up here?"

"You got it."

Fatima considered the room.

"We'll have to do some more cleaning first then. You go get a bucket and rags. And a vacuum cleaner. Look, there's even a plug point, so we won't need to run an extension cord. But how are we going to fit a mattress through that?"

She pointed at the trapdoor.

"We can scrunch it up," said Gia. "I'm sure we can manage."

"O…kay, if you say so. Ben's going to love this."

Gia was about to climb back down through the trapdoor, when she heard the ladder shake, and Mandy's head appeared.

"What's going on here?" said Mandy. "I thought I heard something moving around. Ugh. Just look at those cobwebs. What are you up to?"

Gia had hoped to keep things secret until the room was ready to show off, but Mandy might make a valuable ally.

"I want to clean this up, Mandy, to make this my room."

"Your ma will have something to say about that."

Mandy, still only head and shoulders through the trapdoor, looked about the room. Gia said nothing, hoping that the challenge of a thoroughly dirty room would do more than any pleading words from her.

Mandy gave a nod. "But you'll have to purify it first. Once you've got the dust out. No knowing what's magical goggas been living up here all these years. I'll give you a salt mixture and show you how to do it. We should probably do a good smudge with some sage too."

"Just show us what to do," said Gia happily. With Mandy on her side, the battle was half-won already.

-oOo-

Cleaning the attic room was a lot more difficult than either of the girls had expected.

Mandy gave them old shirts to wear, after making Gia change out of her school uniform.

It was satisfying to see the difference their work made. The floor appeared from under the dust of many years: dark, wooden planks. The walls, that were the sloping sides of the roof, had to be swept clear of cobwebs, but there were not many live spiders among them.

Not that their cleaning was without excitement.

Fatima, sweeping up a thick layer of dust from under the window seat, shrieked with surprise as a clot of dust bunched into a bundle and scrambled up the broom handle at her.

Their screams brought Mandy up the ladder again, just in time to see Fatima slapping wildly with a cloth until the thing exploded in a puff of dust.

"You make that much noise, Madam will be up here," warned Mandy.

"What the hell was that!" said Fatima, eyes wide.

"Dust bunny," said Mandy. "Haven't seen one that big for years. Keep the noise down."

"Looked more like a dust spider to me" said Fatima with a shudder.

They were more careful after that, poking at the dust with the broom handle before sweeping it up, but no more dust bunnies appeared.

Gia found a bundle of newspapers in the angle between the ceiling and a roof beam. It was lined with rags, and smelt strongly of cigarette smoke.

"It looks like a nest," said Fatima. "But what makes a nest like that?"

Now that she looked at it, Gia saw there were other things in the bundle. Scraps of sweet wrappings, all bright colours. Bronze-red, golden-green, emerald, and many other shades, mostly metallic. There were also some lumps of crumbly white stuff that might be sugar, and a tiny plastic-framed mirror.

She looked at these things doubtfully. The nest was already falling apart in her hands, and she could hardly put it back.

"I'll throw the newspapers away," she decided. "But I'll put these other things in an envelope, and put it back up there.

Fatima stared at her. "You're serious? And you plan to sleep up here, with some thing crawling about to get its stuff back?"

She shuddered.

"Well, rather you than me."

When they finished dusting and sweeping, Gia vacuumed while Fatima washed the windows. Then, under Mandy's watchful eye, they purified the room with a mixture of salt and nutmeg, sprinkling the mixture all over the floor and sweeping it up again, careful to always sweep in the direction of the trapdoor.

"Sucks up the bad luck," Mandy explained. "And keeps the goggas away."

At the mention of magicals, Gia remembered her experience with the haarskeerder nest, and told Fatima about it as they worked.

"Scary stuff," said Fatima. "I didn't know you still got them in the city. All magicals give me the creeps."

Getting the mattress through the trapdoor proved trickier than Gia had thought. Luckily her parents had taken Nico out to find if there was a park anywhere near for him to play in. Otherwise they would certainly have investigated the amount of noise that was made.

It took Fatima pulling from the top, and Gia balancing on the ladder and pushing from below, and even so the mattress did not go through undamaged.

"Shit," said Fatima, inspecting the tear. "Well, we'll just put the sheets over that and nobody will ever know."

At last, the room was ready.

The mattress fitted on the window seat, and looked inviting, neatly made with blankets and pillows. Mandy had found a wooden box to act as a bedside table, and a lamp to go on top of it.

Gia looked at it proudly. The room was small, much smaller than the bedroom in their previous house, but that did not matter.

It was hers, and hers alone.

They had even set up the tea corner like the one she'd had in her own bedroom back in Plumstead.

On the floor, for the moment. An electric kettle, some mugs, several tins of tea, and a packet of biscuits.

"So, are you going to show me the doll?" asked Fatima, sitting on the bed and stirring sugar into her tea. "You done more on her?"

"Tons!" said Gia. "Hang on, I'll get her out."

She closed and bolted the trapdoor, then opened one of the suitcases that stood waiting to be unpacked.

"Your parents still don't know about this?"

Gia shook her head and lifted out a cardboard box.

"There's no point in talking to them about it. I'm sick of arguing. I've been working on her when no one else is around. Or at night. Which is partly why I can't share a room with Nico."

She sat next to Fatima and placed the box on the bed between them.

"You still going to take First Exit then?" said Fatima, as Gia opened the box and pulled back the layer of felt.

"Yes," said Gia. "Mom and Dad won't like it, but they can't stop me."

"Oh, Gia, you've given her hair!"

Gia took the doll's head out of its nest of felt.

"Human hair," she said. "It took me ages."

She brushed the fringe back from the doll's forehead to display the tiny, regular pin holes. "I had to root each lock of hair separately. But it's worth the trouble."

"She's going to look fantastic when you put her all together," said Fatima.

She picked up one of the doll's hands and examined it, holding it in her palm. "You painted this one again. The skin's a different colour."

"No, that's from firing," said Gia. "Makes it change colour like that."

She stroked the doll's hair.

"Do you think she's good enough, Fatima? Will they accept this as an apprentice piece?"

Fatima considered the head.

"Well, I think she's gorgeous," she said at last. "But the thing is, they might not see it as an artwork at all. She's so pretty. And she's a doll. Maybe you should-- I don't know. Plunge a knife through her neck and make her all gory, or something like that. Say it's a statement about violence against women."

Gia laughed. "Or make her lots and lots of hands," she said. "And sew them all over her body. Except, hands are a mission to make. And anyway, I don't want to do something like that to her."

"I know," said Fatima.

They both looked down at the doll head in Gia's lap.

Is she really good enough? wondered Gia.

Maybe I do have to do something to make her more of an artwork, and not just a doll.

The image of the blood-red beads in her mother's box returned to her. That was the effect she hoped to capture: beautiful and unsettling.

Even just one bead might be enough, if I combined it with embroidery. But I can't ask Mom for them without explaining what I want it for, and she'll notice immediately if I just take one.

The doll was her apprentice piece, her chance to win a scholarship and gain admission to the Ben-Haspeth School of Arts. That was the plan she'd been working towards for more than a year. Instead of finishing high school, she would take First Exit and join the art school as an apprentice. Her parents would never give permission, but that did not matter. She was sixteen, and she could take First Exit without their consent.

As long as the art school accepted her, of course. And that would only happen if her apprentice piece was good enough.

Both girls started as somebody hammered on the trapdoor.

"Open up, Gia," shouted Mandy.

"Coming!" Gia hurriedly tucked the doll back in the box, and put it away.

She opened the trapdoor.

"Madam's home," Mandy said as she climbed through.

"Gia!" came Saraswati's voice from below. "Where are you?"

"I'm here, Mom," called Gia, feeling a flutter of nerves. "Come have a look."

There was a silence. Then her mother's voice, much closer.

"Gia? Where-- ?"

"Here, Mom. Up here."

The stairs creaked and her mother appeared, head and shoulders through the trapdoor.

"What's this, Gia?" Saraswati looked around at the room, frowning.

"Move on up!" came Karel's voice from behind her.

"Just wait, Karel--" But Saraswati had to climb all the way through and move aside to make way for Karel and Nico, who were both impatient to see what was at the top of the ladder.

"Just look at this!" said Karel, coming through the trapdoor. "Did you girls clean this up now? Looking pretty good!"

Nico was wide eyed. He looked far too interested for Gia's liking.

"This is my room, Nico," she said. "Just like back home. No sneaking in and messing with my stuff, understand?"

She caught her mother's disapproving eye. "I wish you would not talk to your brother like that. And we've decided this already. You are to share the room with Nico--"

"No obvious leaks, and the floors quite safe," said Karel. He stamped a foot. "Solid. Are the windows warded?"

"Iron wards," said Mandy. "Old-fashioned, but nothing wrong with that. Won't go down in a power failure like these new-fangled electric system, anyhow."

Saraswati turned on her with a frown. "Mandy? Did you help them do this?"

Mandy met her gaze blandly. "You all need more space here, Madam. Nothing wrong with the room. And little Nico will do better on his own, you know that. We've just got him used to sleeping by himself."

Saraswati seemed about to argue back, then she laughed despite her irritation. "True enough. Our one victory." She looked around the room again, rubbing her hands over her upper arms. "You're sure it's safe, Karel?"

"Absolutely," said Karel. "Floor's solid as a rock. No signs of leaks, but we'll know for sure when it starts raining. I can put some bars over the windows, if you like. You'll need some shelving, Gia."

"It seems the decision is made then," said Saraswati. "But I wish you'd asked for permission, Gia. I don't like this sneaking around behind my back."

Gia gave a little jump of joy, and high-fived Fatima.

"Thanks Mom! That's fantastic!" She stepped in for a hug. For a moment her mother was stiff in her arms. Then she relaxed as she relented.

"Just don't fall down that ladder in the dark," she said into Gia's hair.

-oOo-

Fatima left, after a last attempt at getting Gia to go out with her.

"I'm sorry, Fatima," Sariswati had said. "Karel and I have to go out tonight. Meeting a new client. We can't leave Nico on his own."

So that was that.

Gia sat on her parents' bed, watching her mother get ready.

The house was quiet now. Nico was in bed, listening to a record to help him fall asleep. Karel was downstairs in the studio, working on something. Mandy had left for the day.

That was another change.

In Plumstead, Mandy had only gone home on weekends, to see her grown-up daughters and their grandchildren. Now she would be travelling every day, taking train and taxi to get to work here in Walmer Estate.

"Gia, would you brush my hair for me?"

Saraswati sat with her eyes closed, rocking slightly as Gia pulled the brush through her long, black hair.

Gia loved her mother's hair. It was so different from her own, which was short, brown, and tended to curl in unwanted directions. Saraswati's hair was ink-black, dead straight, and hung to her waist. These days it was laced with a few silver strands among the black, but Gia thought those were beautiful too.

"Are you going to put it up?" she asked as she gave back the brush.

Her mother smiled at her in the mirror. "You like that, don't you?"

She reached back and twisted her hair expertly into an ornate loop. Gia handed her the two long wooden pins which Saraswati stuck in at just the right angle to secure the hair.

"There," said Saraswati, tucking an escaped strand behind her ear. "That will do."

Gia watched as Saraswati put kohl around her eyes and deftly applied a touch of lipstick.

She always thought that Saraswati looked like someone from the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Maybe not a princess-- her hooked nose and firm chin were too fierce for that. She dressed simply too, and wore no jewelry except for two wide silver bracelets that reached almost from elbow to wrist.

Gia had never seen Saraswati without her silver, and the bracelets seemed as much part of her mother as her hair.

Dressed in white linen, her coiled hair emphasising the graceful length of her neck, Saraswati looked like a queen.

"Gia, could you stay down here with Nico until we get home?" she said, gathering her things into an evening handbag.

"I know you want to go up into your new room, but if Nico wakes and--"

"It's okay, Mom. I'll stay."

Her mother gave her the lightest of lipstick-saving kisses, surrounding Gia with her jasmine-and-sandalwood scent.

"Thank you, my darling. We'll try not to be out too late."

-oOo-

The record reached its end, filling Nico's room with its rhythmic bump and scratch until Gia lifted the needle.

She stood over to the bed, and saw that Nico was not yet asleep.

His unhappiness was apparent in the lines of his skinny body lying stiff and tense under the blankets. His eyes were wide open, large and dark, staring up at the ceiling.

She sat on the bed and took one of his hands, which was promptly jerked away again.

Poor old Nico. What was it like for him?

It was going to be a while before he really got used to things. There were going to be some bad dreams tonight.

If only he would talk more.

Gia pictured all the words that Nico did not use building up inside him, looking for ways to escape. No wonder he got so twitchy.

She wondered what went on inside his head. He could speak and understand perfectly well, but he used the words one or two at a time, or strung awkwardly together, as if he were signalling with flags.

Careful to keep her voice to a low monotone, she started reciting: "If all the seas were one sea…"

She waited.

Nico stopped twisting his head, and stared up at the ceiling. For a few moments she did not think it was going to work. Then he whispered, "What-a-great-sea-that-would-be."

Gia smiled, and continued. "If all the trees were one tree."

Once again a pause, and then the response, a little louder this time, "What-a-great-tree-that-would-be."

They continued like that, call and response. Gia let her eyes wander over the room. The fish tank was bubbling quietly, the skeekers visible as busy little shadows, swimming about inside. Occasionally one of them would pulse with light. Poepie scratched about in his cage, restlessly moving his bedding around.

Gia looked at the boxes of her clothes and books piled up in a corner. She'd have to cart those up the ladder tomorrow, and figure out a way to store her clothes neatly.

"If all the men were one man."

"What-a-great-man-that-would-be."

She looked down at her brother. His eyes were closing.

He was so sweet like this, all quiet and sleepy, that it was easy to forget how much trouble he could be. Although to be fair, things really were better now that he went to Mrs Winterbach.

There had been so many others before that, doctors and therapists who'd insisted on this diagnosis or that, allergies, diets, even hypnosis. At least Mrs Winterbach was sensible. Her saccharine voice put Gia's teeth on edge, but unlike the others, she seemed interested in Nico himself, rather than seeing him as some kind of experiment. Still, Nico would have to go to school soon. Strictly speaking he should have started already, but Saraswati had resisted, saying he was not ready yet.

And these days, could they even afford to send him to school?

"And if the great man took the great axe."

There was no reply.

Nico's eyes were closed, and his breathing slow.

Asleep at last.

Gia sat for a while, leaning back against the headboard, thinking about the events of the day. She was slipping into sleep, and the memories crowded back, in an almost dream. Granny, grinning at her from behind her counter. The charred leaf-bodies of the dead haarskeerders. Fatima, showing off her blood-red jacket. The scent of nutmeg, burnt rubber, and rosemary.

Catching herself nodding, she shook herself awake and stood, careful not to wake Nico. She left softly, leaving the door just open enough so that she could hear if he woke.


nico

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