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winter mid bleak

It’s winter and the sun can barely slip through. This doesn't stop us from rolling up our skirts so short that from certain angles, you can see our knickers. The students that came before us are the forebears of the rule ‘Thou shalt wear your skirt short, the wind shall knock about your knees and for every year you spend at St Hope's, the length of your skirt shall recede’ - a punitive act we put in place in order to counter the school's regulation of no trousers and because we thought it looked cute. Obviously, no one ever says that but it’s enforced by stares and some mild bullying.

Most Year 7’s wear their skirts below their knees until they catch on, but Alfia and I got the heads up early because of her sister Rashida - who was 3 years above us. Now that we are in Year 10, we are able to fend for ourselves but back then our protection came in a pretty small package. Rashida was no taller than either of us, but she had a mouth that she used often and with expertise. She is now in Year 13 and bubblegum smart.

She is most passionate about reality TV shows, but only the American ones. Her signature look is a top bun propped up by a neon duck clip and on days where she feels she should show some range, she ties old tights around the circumference of her head and into a bow, which pulls her face taught making her eyebrows very straight. This makes it hard to tell what she’s feeling, but for the most part, if she’s not talking about The Real Housewives of Someplace Rich, she’s in a grump. Sometimes, I fancy her.

Today, she jumped off the 244 a few stops earlier to walk with some friends, leaving us seated at the back of the bus, opposite an old woman with skin like gauze and her bag clutched to her chest. As Alfia and I watch her face curdle, we turn to one another and laugh. The condensation glazed the windows on both sides of the bus but we could just about make out where we were; close to the mattress shop opposite the 24/7 off-licence that seems to always be closed.

“By the time we get there, they’ll only have the shit meal deals” huffs Alfia, flicking a stray braid behind her shoulder and accidentally hitting the woman sitting beside her in the face. Alfia turns and says a quick sorry, barely opening her mouth, barely even sorry. I swallow a laugh. Not much annoys Alf, but somehow the idea of being late seems to set her off on a nervous rampage that takes some time to shake. I could have been less careless with my timing on the first day of our second term, as she was already uneasy about going back.

“Finally,” Alf says, pressing the bell, shooting a cold look to the lady with the clutched handbag, as she gets up. I try to make eye contact with her as I move past. She attempts to look out through the glazed window even though she can’t see anything. We step off the bus and I begin to walk to the traffic lights but Alf has another idea. She runs out into the middle of the road before a bunch of cars, which is pretty typical of her. I put this down to her missing our only road safety lesson in Year 5, which meant I had to hold hands with Kamal Matthews, who permanently had a string of snot attached to his nose and at that moment in time, his hand. I stick to the more life-preserving strategy and wait at the traffic lights. She disappears into the shops.

I hurry along the road and attempt to check my reflection in the window. I’m trying to like what I see. When I reach the meal deal section, I can’t see her but then I remember her saying if she didn’t get some nappies for her little brother her Mum would be pissed. I walk to the baby section and she isn’t there so I circle back on myself and find her standing with the Pampers clamped under her arm, shaking her head at the few sandwiches that are left.

“Every time,” Alfia huffs again, this time flicking a heap of braids over her shoulder.

She decides to settle for a BLT after calling it crusty multiple times. We shoot another look at the security guard who had been hovering behind me from the moment I stepped into the shop. Our retaliation is always small but it’s something. We decide to walk the rest of the way, seeing as the lack of tasteful sandwiches has cut her browse short. Along the road, teams of St Hopes students join, creating even bigger bands of us, until the entire street is a big blur of blue uniforms. We look like we are on some kind of pilgrimage.

Before I started in Year 7, I thought St Hopes was going to be like St Trinians but ethnic. It’s nothing like St Trinians but it is ethnic which is sort of good. Before it was an all-girls school, the building was a boy’s grammar school and before that, it was rumoured to be an old mental hospital. A collection of rare murals of white girls doing mundane things, like looking at pots on the ground and pointing at a cat, decorates its hall which somehow makes it qualify as a Grade II listed building. In assemblies, we sing hymns and read excerpts from the Bible despite our headteacher’s pledge that we are a non-denominational school.

The big herd of St Hope’s students are distilled through the narrow alley beside the school’s side entrance in order to get inside. In Year 7, we were all warned not to walk here alone or at night because of what happened with Kara in Rashida’s year. When you walk past her memorial you tend to speak a little quieter or hold your breath by accident. They never found the guy that did it and it didn’t make the news. The girls in her year raised money at a school bake sale to have the plaque put up. Her mum came to see the plaque a year after they had stuck it there and apparently she collapsed to the ground and all the lipsticks in her bag rolled out onto the road. I don’t remember who told me.

We see her sometimes, near the shopping centre, dragging a floral trolley behind her. She’s like a famous landmark. The back of her grey afro, shapeless and matted together like she’s lying down even when standing up. Everyone’s parents say they went to school with her or used to work with her but it’s impossible for them all to be telling the truth. I used to think it was weird that people would pretend to know someone who’s experienced something terrible, but now I think it’s kind of their way of reaching out or holding her closer. I get that but I wish they’d do something real and just invite her round to dinner.

Written by Shanay Neusum-James
Read more about her here

Artist credit: @ChidinmaNnoli_

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