July 2, 2015 (Recounted by Princila Murrell)
‘This can't be happening,’ I dropped the pen that I had been chewing for the past thirty minutes or so.
The girl standing at the entrance of my study looked exactly like Courtney ‘Cougar’ Parker, the main character in my middle grade novel Girl of the Book. How this blonde girl found herself in my study was beyond my understanding.
I had locked the main door of my flat before retiring to my study, a habit that I had cultivated after my neighbour, sixty-two-year-old Ms Hatcher was robbed two years ago.
‘What is this place and how did I get here?’ she said, looking around.
For a moment I considered opening the window and jumping out. That would be totally stupid, I thought. My flat was on the fourth floor.
I stole a quick glance at the open door. If this young girl was a ghost, it would be absolutely pointless for me to sprint out of the room. I had read enough about ghosts to know this.
‘This is my study, and I don't know how you got here,’ I said, trying to keep my voice steady. She was only a girl, I tried to remind myself. But who knew what a ghost child could do to a thirty-something-year-old woman who spent most of her day sitting behind a desk, writing and crafting characters?
‘I must be dreaming,’ I said a little too loudly.
She spun around, eyes filled with curiosity and doubt. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I…’ I wiped my moist hands on my skirt and continued, ‘I created a young character who looks just like you in my middle grade novel Girl of the Book,’ I said. ‘A twelve-year-old girl called Courtney Parker.’
Her lower lip trembled and she took a few steps backward. ‘Who are you and how do you know my name? What's happening to me?’ She pressed both palms over her ears and screamed. ‘Where are my parents? And my brother Pete?’
‘Dear,’ I attempted to say, rising slowly from behind my desk, ‘there's no need to scream. I'm just as scared as you and I don't know what's happening either. Would you take a seat and tell me how you got in here?’
She dropped her hands to her sides and looked at the calendar on my desk. ‘2015?’
‘What?' I asked, not sure why my calendar had suddenly become an object of interest.
‘When I went to bed it was 15 August 2011.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it was the 15th of August 2011. I'm very sure about this. Miss Lopez, my new class teacher, wrote it on the board when I took the placement test at my new school.’
August 15, 2011 (Recounted by Courtney Parker)
My new life in Saudi Arabia was boring. And this is just a nice way of saying that life is not fun here. Mum said I had to wear this big, shapeless, black robe called abaya over my dress whenever I went out. All women in Saudi had to wear one, she had said. I was determined I would never wear it—even if I had to spend the rest of the summer indoors. But when Mum called my new school and was told that all new students had to take a placement test on 15 August, two weeks before school reopened, I knew I couldn’t escape any more: I would have to wear that black robe. I would have been even more nervous if I’d known I was going to be under the scrutiny of other new students who would come to take the test.
‘Cougar, we’re running late,’ Mum shouted from the corridor. ‘It’s seven twenty. Hurry up!’
I stared at the abaya, which Mum had proudly pressed and hung in my wardrobe. I held it up in front of me, contemplating whether I should wear it or ditch it. It looked like a rectangular parachute that had been folded into two and sewn on the sides, leaving two openings for the arms and another one in the middle for the head to stick out. Even as I wore it over my Benetton T-shirt and jeans, I thought I looked like a giant walking pillowslip.
The car was quiet as we drove to the new school. A few minutes later, Dad slowed down and stopped in front of a building with a very high fence and enormous green gates. There was a large sign above the main gate with the words JAMEELA INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. Below these words was something written in Arabic, which I guessed was the Arabic translation of the school’s name.
We were greeted by a lady at reception. She asked us to sit in a hall with other mothers and their daughters, who had also come to take the test. Mum pushed the doors to the hall and Pete and I followed her. Several pairs of eyes stared at us when we stepped into the hall, making me feel like an alien on its first visit to Earth. I felt weirder when I noticed that most of the other students looked cool in their abayas, which they wore like overcoats. Unlike mine, their abayas had a zipper or buttons at the front, but they left them unzipped or unbuttoned, flashing their awesome dressing underneath.
‘Good morning and welcome to Jameela International School,’ a red-haired lady walked into the hall and said. ‘I’m Mrs Jill Zimmerman, coordinator of middle school. I’ve met some of you before, I mean the mothers. For those of you whom I’m meeting for the first time, I wish to say it’s a pleasure to have you here this morning.’
She coughed, then she continued. ‘Now, girls, you’re going to come upstairs with me, to room Seven A, while your mothers wait for you here. No worries. You’ll all be brought back here after your test.’ She smiled and urged us to follow her.
I stood up. Mum squeezed my hand. ‘It’s going to be easy, honey.’
I forced myself to smile and fell in behind the other girls, who trod behind Mrs Jill. We arrived at a room at the end of a corridor. There were desks in the room and a larger one, which was probably the teacher’s, at the front. A dark-haired lady was at the back of the room, sticking pictures on a board. She quickly came to the front, smiling when she saw us. Her narrow eyes blinked several times, moved from one kid’s face to the other and finally settled on mine. She grinned and I smiled back.
‘Meet Ms Lopez,’ Mrs Jill said. ‘She’s going to sit with you while you take the test.’
‘Hello, girls.’ She shook each of our hands and asked us to take a seat. I rapidly counted: we were nine in number.
‘I’ll be in my office if you need me,’ Mrs Jill said to the lady. Then she turned to us and said, ‘Girls, if you have any questions, just ask Ms Lopez. OK?’
‘OK,’ some of the girls replied. I nodded.
After the test, Ms Lopez asked us to stay in our seats while she marked our scripts.
‘Well, well…’ she said after checking our scripts. ‘Most of you did well in the test. Only two of you will have to come back next week to take the test again.’ She arranged our scripts in a stack and said,
‘I’ll just give these to Mrs Jill, and I’ll be right back within a few minutes. You can take this time to get to know each other.’
The class was quiet when she left. I noticed the girls were glancing at me and whenever their eyes met mine, they shifted their gaze. One of them, a wide-eyed girl, finally spoke. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Are you American?’ another girl asked before I had time to answer.
‘No, I’m from South Africa,’ I replied, trying not to sound bothered by their curious looks.
‘No way!’ one of the girls to my right exclaimed. She had a brown abaya decorated with sequins on the front, and a matching scarf hung around her neck. Her skin was fair, just like mine. Her hair was a pale brown, and it hung in beautiful curls that seemed to spring whenever she moved her head. ‘You can’t be African. You’re white…’
‘You’re also white,’ I remarked.
I was referring to her alone because her skin was lighter than those of the other girls. But she probably misunderstood me because she said, ‘We’re not white. We’re brown.’ She pulled the sleeve of her abaya up her arm and stroked her skin, as if to emphasise her point. ‘Arabs are brown. Africans are black and you’re not. So where are you from?’
‘I’m from South Africa. There are white and black people in South Africa if you didn’t know,’ I said, a little angry.
‘Fine, fine. So are you Muslim?’ the girl in the brown abaya said.
They gasped as if I had said an abomination.
‘You’re not?’ One girl spoke for the first time. She had long straight hair, and her skin was a little darker than those of the other girls. ‘You don’t pray?’
‘What do you mean by I ‘don’t pray’?’ I asked. ‘I pray every day before meals and when I go to bed.’
‘No, not that kind of prayer,’ the wide-eyed girl said. ‘We mean salat.’
‘Salat? What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Prayer, stupido.’ The girl in the brown abaya rolled her eyes.
‘Now, look…’ I was about to say when Ms Lopez walked into the classroom. I glared at the girl in the brown abaya. Whatever her name was, I hoped we weren’t going to be in the same class.
When I went to bed that night, I thought about my new school and the girl in the brown abaya and all the other mean girls. I cringed and wished with all my heart that I could be somewhere else…somewhere far from my new school, my new home, my new neighbourhood.
…To be continued.