She barreled through the crowd wrapped tightly around my shrinking figure, a miniature dynamo of flying blond curls and righteous indignation. “Leave her alone! What are you staring at?!” she barked, her sense of authority belied by her diminutive stature.
The other children withered before the onslaught of that fierce blue gaze, melting away with mysterious rapidity. The two of us were left facing each other. I struggled to comprehend my unexpected salvation, as two dimples flashed endearingly to life on Belinda’s smiling face.
The ominous metallic thunderclouds overhead mirrored the unenthusiastic welcome I received at my new school. Refugees from the genocide taking place in East Pakistan, in mid-1971 my mother, brother and I moved to London for safety, my father remaining trapped at home. I was unsettled from our sudden departure and the murky tensions of a newly-fragmented family life, too disoriented to successfully navigate an unfamiliar school environment. That too, armed with a splintered English vocabulary.
I buckled under the weight of the curious stares from my classmates, and my prayers for rain during our mid-morning break went unanswered. Much too soon, it was time to go out and play. But with whom, I wondered, my panic-stricken breaths tattooing an unsteady rhythm inside my chest.
A sympathetic look accompanied the pressure of the teacher’s palm against my rigid back as she made it clear I could not linger indoors during playtime. And within a few minutes of my eviction from classroom to playground, I was surrounded by children whose badgering questions I could neither understand nor answer. Until Belinda appeared, I’d been drowning, sinking inch by painful inch.
Now, she put out her small hand, taking mine in her confident grasp. The concept of rejection never crossed her five-year-old mind. I looked down at those pale fingers contrasting so boldly against my own coffee-shaded skin, and for the first time in forever, I felt safe.
And that was exactly how she kept me for the next nine months, before it was time to return to a new nation emerging from the bloodbath. We were inseparable at school, everyone saw it. And if they didn’t understand what had drawn the supremely confident English girl to the shy soon-to-be Bangladeshi, it didn’t matter. That’s just how it was.
Kindergartners are pack animals; wolves, when they smell blood. Luckily, nearly everyone liked Belinda – so by extension, they tolerated me.
Periodically the teachers separated us “for class discipline”, or some other girl made an abortive bid for the position of Belinda’s best friend. And inevitably, we sometimes fell out ourselves.
But when things got complicated, Belinda and I had a tried and tested formula to extricate ourselves from the situation. One of us would look at the other and say “What were we fighting about again? I can’t remember…”
It provided an invaluable face-saving option for two little girls who both had more than their fair share of pride.
And it worked every time.
Farah Ghuznavi is a writer, newspaper columnist and development worker, whose writing has been widely anthologized in the UK, US, France, Canada, Germany, Singapore, India, Nepal and her native Bangladesh. Her story “Judgement Day” was awarded in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010, and “Getting There” placed second in the Oxford University GEF Competition. Farah was Writer in Residence with Commonwealth Writers in 2013. She edited the Lifelines anthology (Zubaan Books, 2012), and subsequently published her first short story collection Fragments of Riversong (Daily Star Books, 2013).