‘Hiya! Back! Got a pal over,’ Fatima shouted. All in one breath. I followed her upstairs. I glanced around as we went up. Deep yellow walls. Through a doorway I could see overflowing bookshelves.
I looked around her room. All the houses on our street were the same, like, exactly the same inside. Built to the same plan. Fatima’s bedroom corresponded to mine. Same window. Same off-white walls. Same space. Almost expected my own fuckin posters and blue curtains. But it was nothing like that. There was a massive mural painted on one wall.Two trees grew up from the floor on either side of her bed. Smooth bark. Loads of tiny thin trunks instead of one big one. They branched out from the bottom. Twined round themselves. Made two big fan shapes above her pillow. Full of green leaves and round red fruit. Birds, too. All sorts of colours. I looked up. Birds fuckin everywhere. Flying around the walls and even the ceiling.
‘Oh, my Dad painted that when we moved here, for my weest sister,’ said Fatima. ‘Now I’m in here. I wanted to paint over it, like, but Mum wouldnae let me.’
‘What else would you have?’ I said. ‘They’re great, Fatima.’
‘Aye, no bad, eh? But they’re a bit…I dunno. I wanted just the birds. And on a blue background, none of this cream shite. Just the sky. Don’t like the trees much. Especially fuckin pomegranates! Nasty wee fuckers.’
‘I’ve never seen a pommy-granite tree,’ I said.
‘Me neither.’ She sat down on the floor. Crossed her legs. I sat down next to her. Awkward, getting onto the floor. We leant against the tree that was furthest from the door.
‘So,’ she said, grinning. Her fuckin twinkly grin that meant she had something daft planned. ‘Tell us a story, then.’
‘Aw for fucksake, Fatima,’ I said. Grinning, though. ‘He hasnae taught me any yet.’
‘So make one up!’
I gave her a look.
‘Or just tell me about the storyteller,’ she said. ‘Tell me the story of how you ended up being all apprenticed to him. You haven’t told me anything about him yet.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Once upon a time…’
‘Aw for fucksake just tell it normal, like,’ she said, pushing my shoulder.
‘Am are!’ I pushed her back. Too fuckin gently. ‘That’s how you do it.’
‘Naw, just tell me how it started.’
‘Aye, that’s what I’m doing! You wheesht, right,’ I said. Wanted to push her again.
‘Fine.’ She folded her arms. ‘Better be good!’
I started again.
‘So, it started in the summer, when the Storyteller first came over, I’m just like sitting in the front room and he rings the bell, I didnae even recognise him at first, stood there aw scary like, an he comes in and asks ma folks, can I apprentice yer boy, and they were like, whit Tommy? but he’s rubbish, basically, and then they talked, fir ages like, that’s what it felt like anyway, hours and hours, and then eventually they all come out and that wis me! Except, wait, ma folks hadnae seen him before, so off they went, had a right good time like, thought he was dead good, and then we started lessons, it was proper weird at first, right, ’cause…’
It was like a train, my story. Slowly firing up, awkward to start with as it shifted into the right gear or register or whatever, then moving off all clunky and jolting until it got going. Then it sped up. Smoothed out. I went through it all. The hillside, with the wind and the cold and the fuckin shouting. The Burns. The fuckin Shakespeare. What the sounds were like when I said them. How the evenings got earlier and earlier. I watched her at first. Tracking her reactions. A smile. How her eyes flickered. After a while I started just enjoying myself, though. Talking to the whole fuckin room, all the birds and that. And just to myself.
I noticed her giggling. Stopped mid-word. Fuckin self-conscious. What had I done? What was so fuckin funny?
‘Sorry, it’s just…you’re so serious! You’ve got dead into it! Naw, it’s fuckin great!’ she said. ‘Keep going. C’mon, Tommy, I didn’t mean to laugh.’
I ignored her.
‘Tell me about Alan, then,’ she said. ‘How’d he start being a storyteller?’
‘Well, apparently he was broke, right, like proper broke, and he went into this pub…’ I began. I was cautious though. Didn’t want her fuckin giggles. Tried not to get too into it. I told her about how he was paid in drink. ‘You should be getting me a vodka or something,’ I said.
‘I can get you some tea, how’s that?’
‘I was joking, Fatima…’
‘Naw, but I kindae want some. You?’
When she came back she sat down a little closer to me than she’d been before. Touched my hand as she handed me the mug. I put it down. Too hot. Started talking instead, describing him. I’d forgotten her giggles. Began to enjoy myself again. Told her how he lectured. How he frowned when I wasn’t quite getting something. His fuckin annoying instructions. I changed him a bit, too. Added lines he’d never said. Took out bits that didn’t fit. I made him an easier character, basically. It was great. So easy to just make up shite.
When I was finished she gave me a mock round of applause. I held up my mug in mock-thanks. We clinked, like adults drinking wine. Laughed at ourselves. I tried to take a sip. Still far too hot.
Fatima put her mug down. Her eyes were dead serious. I tried to find a surface for my mug without breaking her gaze. Spilled a bit. Burned my hand. It hurt like fuck but it didn’t matter because of how soft her skin felt on my face when she kissed me.