2nd Prize: Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition 2012
Saturdays, Always The Same
'Why do I always have to go to Granny’s?'
I perched on the seat of my father’s bike, his steadying arms around me. My feet were hot and sweaty in my wellies on such a hot day, but it was my own fault. I had hidden my sandals. I had fallen over in the hall, and squeezed my eyes so hard real tears had come out. But none of the tricks that worked on Mum worked with my father.
‘Mum has to sleep and I have to work. Saturdays, it’s always the same.’
Saturdays, always the same. We took the long road past the shops, the halal butchers and the mosque, shabby in the June sunshine. Past the church hall where girls in pink leotards and satin shoes were dancing. I could hear the piano music through the open door, and the voice of the teacher, shouting instructions. I wanted to be there. But when I asked my father, he gave me that look again.
‘Dancing’s not important. Anyone can dance.’
‘It’s ballet.’ I told him.
‘Makes no difference.’
I pressed my lips together, and neither of us said another word till we got to Granny’s house.
‘Come in, darling,’ sang Granny. ‘Come and see what I’ve got.’
Granny was short and fat, with brown skin like my father. She had on a woolly pink hat, her ‘indoors’ hat. Her cardigan was fastened up at the neck very tightly with a safety pin. England was full of draughts. She held her cheek close to mine to be kissed. She smelt of talcum powder.
'What is it?' I demanded. 'What have you got?'
Granny led me into the small cluttered room.
'Can you see? Over there on the big table.'
Granny’s table was untidy. There were piles of old letters and magazines, little bundles of this and that. All that stuff was pushed away to make room for a large cardboard box.
'How did you carry that home?’ my father said accusingly. ‘You should have asked me to fetch it.'
Granny did that wiggle with her neck.
'I got the man to carry it. But then I decided to save it for Mena to open. Open it, darling.'
I felt my father come up behind me. I didn’t need to turn round to feel his frown. It made my fingers nervous. I looked at the box. It was yellow, and had a picture of a big tree on it. There was some writing too - KASHMIR IMPORTS. What did that mean? There were air holes in the box. As I felt for the edges of the lid, there was the tiniest rustling. Was something inside alive? Would it scurry out when she lifted the lid?
My hands flew to my armpits.
'I don’t want to!'
Granny laughed. 'It’s nothing scary. Come, I’ll help you.'
Granny’s two plump hands, scarcely bigger than mine, gently unhooked my fingers, and brought them back to the box. My heart started beating. Perhaps it was a kitten. Then what would my father do?
Together we lifted off the lid.
All I could see was a lot of shredded paper.
'Feel underneath,' said Granny Floor.
Slowly, slowly, I put in my hand. The paper rustled and shifted, and then I touched smooth cold skin. I yanked my hand back out of there like I had been slapped.
'There’s a snake!’
Granny and my father were laughing. Out loud laughing, not English held in behind your hand. I was offended.
‘Never mind, Mena,’ Granny said. ‘I’ll show you.’
She reached in and pulled out a small oval. It had dull yellow skin and looked liked nothing at all.
'Fruit?' I was angry now, angry and disappointed. 'Just fruit? But why’s it wrapped up in that box as if it’s something special?'
'It is special,' said Granny Floor. 'These are honey mangoes, from Pakistan. I ate them when I was small like you. Then when I got married and went to Uganda, we had a mango tree in our compound. Let’s cut it and you can try.'
My father fetched a knife and a plate I couldn’t believe it. He was letting the mango make him late for work.
He cut two big slices, and licked the juice off his fingers.
'This is the best thing you’ll ever taste.'
He held it out to me.
I looked at the smooth yellow mango flesh. What if I didn’t like it? What if I wanted to spit it out?
He was watching me with such expectation. I brought it to my mouth and took a little bite.
We all smiled in relief. My father laughed, but not like before. This time it was a high, boyish laugh, a laugh I had never heard from his mouth. It made me happy. The mango was sweet and tangy and filled my mouth with honey juice. I finished it quickly, down to the skin. Suddenly Granny clapped her hands and began singing. Her voice was out of tune and old, but Dad joined in, and his voice was lilting. He grabbed my sticky hands and whirled me round, once, twice -- the room danced with us, and I was singing, though I didn’t know the tune.
In a flash it was over. Dad’s eye had caught the clock. He let go of my hands and I stumbled back against the table, making the plate jump. I held my breath, waiting for the reproof. Instead, he smiled. Reaching forward, he pushed my hair out of the way and kissed me softly on the forehead.
‘My girl likes mangoes.’ he said.
And he walked out of the door, whistling.