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I live in Boarhead West. And on the other side, in Boarhead East, live the scarfies, turbans and beards. In between us, there's a great big graveyard. There used to be a textile mill where the graveyard ended - my granddad worked there. The mill's gone now. The graveyard took it over. It's where the Muslims are buried. In the middle is a roofless church, with a huge weeping willow tree near it. That's where the Willow Tree Mob, the WTM, hang out.
In this Northern English town of mine, especially during the long summer days like now, when the sun shone well into the night, I was happy. I belonged. I had my gang, and nobody bothered me. But then I woke up and couldn't work out who I was.
It all started a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday. I was hiding from Mum in my bedroom, listening to Lady Gaga on my headphones. I had a poster of her on my wall, wearing high-heeled, snake-skin shoes. A great big green snake with black stripes, almost as thick as her waist, crossed her legs and went under her back. An orange snake with black patches curled around her neck and slithered across the green one towards her waist, looping around her neck.
The poster covered half the wall opposite my bed. It was huge. It was awesome. It was perfect. It stopped my thoughts from flying out of my bedroom and banging on Donna's head and asking her, 'What did I ever do to you?'
I turned away from Lady Gaga and pushed my head into my pillow. I had washed my face so many times, trying to clean off the cross that Donna had drawn on my forehead; I could smell the soap from my pillow.
I then turned over onto my back. The crack in the ceiling that ran from one end of my bedroom to the other jeered down at me. I heard Mum come out of her room and walk down the stairs. She called out to me when she got to the bottom, but I didn't answer her. I didn't answer her. I could still see an image of Jake, standing under the willow tree, watching, just watching as Donna drew the cross on my forehead. The words she hissed rang in my ears: 'Now you are a Christian.' It hurt when she started but the pain stopped when the other girls laughed. I begged them to stop, but they just laughed and laughed. I wanted to scream but instead I laughed as well.
'Leave me alone,' I said aloud, tossing over again, hoping to chase the memories out of my head. 'You'll feel better in the morning, girl,' I assured myself.
Little did I know how wrong I would be.
It was nearly midday when I got my head out from under my quilt. Mum had knocked on the door a few times, and I had grunted in reply and gone back to sleep. Yesterday felt like a bad dream. I had forgotten to draw the curtains last night, so the sun lit up my room. A ray of light shone up on Lady Gaga.
I rubbed my forehead. I could still feel Donna's pen going up and down and across. The memory of yesterday came flooding back to me. I had wanted to get away from the heavy silence of it. Mum and Dad had stopped talking to each other and I had gone to see my gang. The quickest way to get to the old church was through the broken railings of the Muslim side of the graveyard. I could have walked over the railings but didn't. I took a running jump instead, stumbled and fell. As I was getting up off the ground, I heard them laugh.
Shamshad Ali, a big, busty scarfie who goes to the same school as me and who hates my guts, was pointing at me. Laila Khan was sitting next to her on a bench not far from where I had fallen and Aisha Sadiq, wearing a black tracksuit top and bottom, was doing stretches, touching the ground and standing up again.
My backside was up in the air. I stood up, brushed the dirt off my skirt and wanted to die. A sharp pain ran down my right leg. I tried not to limp but couldn't help it.
After a bit of jogging on the spot, Aisha said something to Shamshad and then ran towards me, shouldering me as she ran past and out of the graveyard.
To get to the old church I had to go on the path that went right past them. As I got closer, Shamshad stood up, blocked my way and said, 'What's with you here?'
I looked at her ugly face and wanted to say, 'Does it belong to you?' Instead, I smiled sheepishly and said, 'Nothing!'
I slowed right down, thinking, 'How could you just say, nothing? Why didn't you tell her, "What do you think? You think you own everything? You think you're better because you're Muslim?"'
'Kali Gori,' Shamshad said, sizing me up.
'You're white inside, aren't you?' Shamshad tutted, pointing to her arm. 'But brown, like me.'
I kept quiet.
Shamshad came towards me, saying, 'Oreo.'
'I like Oreos.' I knew I shouldn't have said this even as the words came out of my mouth.
Shamshad looked at Laila and the two of them laughed. I didn't find anything funny but I laughed as well. Just then, I caught a glimpse of Donna and the gang. I waved at them. Shamshad stepped aside and I ran past her.
No one in the gang greeted me when I got to them. Jake stood on his own, under the flowing branches of the tree, kicking the trunk gently. Megan and Chloe stood on either side of Donna. Megan had her arms folded across her chest and Chloe played with a twirl of her blonde hair. Donna glared at me like I was dirt.
'Alright, Don?' I asked.
Megan scratched her back and gaped at Donna.
Donna ignored me and nodded for Megan and Chloe to follow her; they walked towards a hedge close to me. I went up to Jake and asked, 'What's with everyone?'
He grabbed hold of a small branch in his fist and stripped the leaves off it.
'Ouch, that must have hurt, Jake,' I said.
'It's our Dex,' Jake said, tossing the leaves to the ground.
Before he could say anything else, Donna pushed Laila through the hedge and came out holding Shamshad by the wrist. Laila stumbled and fell. Ripping the hijab off Shamshad's head, Donna said, 'Spying on us, eh?'
'Oh please don't,' Shamshad cried, trying to get the hijab back. 'Me Dad'll kill me!'
'Me Dad'll kill me!' Chloe mimicked, snatching the hijab from Donna and waving it just out of Shamshad's reach.
Donna's impersonation of Shamshad, especially with her Pakistani accent, was so good I couldn't help but laugh. I laughed all the louder remembering what Shamshad had said to me earlier.
'Stop it, Donna,' Jake said, coming out from under the tree. 'Give it back to her.'
Donna ignored Jake, just as she had ignored me, and kept waving the hijab in front of Shamshad. 'I said give it back to her,' Jake repeated, stepping towards Donna.
Donna stared at Jake for a moment and then screwed up the hijab and threw it into a bush. As Shamshad retrieved her hijab, Laila told Donna, 'You're just a coward at heart, aren't you?'
Donna clenched her fists and turned towards Laila. I had seen her batter people when she was like this. I quickly stepped in between her and Laila, and said, 'That's enough, Donna.'
Donna grabbed me by the shoulders, and hissed, 'Whose side are you on?'
As I stepped away from Donna, I saw Shamshad and Laila run down the path away from us.
When they were out of sight, Donna held up a pretend gun and pointed it towards me, saying, 'Bang! Bang! Bang!'
'What's up with everyone?' I sighed.
Donna put her hand into her trouser pocket, pulled out a photograph and squatted onto the ground. She kissed the photograph and started crying.
Megan went up to Donna, took the photograph from her hand, came over to me and held it close to my face. It was of Donna's boyfriend, Jake's brother Dex, in army uniform posing with a gun.
Donna stood up, pointed the pretend gun at me again and said, 'You Taliban have got my Dex and if anything happens to him, you're dead, Paki.'
'Let up, Don,' I said.
'You're Muslamic, aren't you, Karen?' Megan sneered.
'I'm one of us,' I said, turning to Jake, hoping he would take my side. He just looked at me, a look I had not seen before. Like he was looking at someone he didn't know. 'And it's Islamic or Muslim, not Muslamic,' I added.
'It's all the same, innit?' Donna glared at me and asked, 'You're really one of them, aren't you?'
My stomach knotted.
'Com' on, say it then,' Megan said, poking me in the chest with her finger.
'I'm not a Muslim,' I said and then I laughed falsely. I wanted to say, 'None of us in the Willow Tree Mob believe in God any road,' but instead, I said, 'And unlike you, I go to church, at least sometimes.'
Holding the small silver crucifix around her neck, Donna pointed at me with her fat finger and asked, 'Where's yours?'
Everyone just stared at me. I was frightened and as I made to leave, Chloe blocked my way, saying, 'You're not proper, not like us.' Her freckly, pink face was a burning red.
'I am. I'm proper, just like you,' I said, choking on my words.
'I'll make you proper.' Donna grabbed my wrist. She towered over me. Megan held me by the shoulders and Chloe pushed my arm up my back.
'Jake!' I called out.
He ignored me and went back under the tree.
That was when I felt Donna's pen digging into my forehead. I don't know how long she rubbed it into my skin, but she stopped when I noticed Shamshad and a load of hijab-wearing girls coming towards us. Donna, Megan and Chloe scampered away immediately.
The sound of a song from prehistoric times chased yesterday's nightmare out of my mind. Someone was playing 'Lovely Day'.
Throwing the quilt off me, I sat up in bed and looked around my bedroom. My school jacket was hanging on the back of my door, not on the floor where I had dumped it. My skirt and socks were in the wash basket and not by the side of my bed. The music outside got louder and I said to Lady Gaga's poster, 'It's not your type.'
My mobile buzzed. I tried to remember where I had put it. I saw it flashing in my jacket pocket. By the time I got to it, it stopped. I had four missed calls from Jake and one text. I read the text: Sorry for what they did to you.
Clenching the mobile tightly in my hand, I felt like throwing it against the wall. Instead, I replied to Jake: U? Jake replied before I got back into bed: I did nthng.
Me: Yeh nthng.
I waited for Jake's reply and then I wrote: Lol.
And then I sent another message: A Paki eh. Lol.
My eyes began to burn and blur as I sent another: Cross me forehead+hope 2 die. Lol.
I dropped the mobile on the floor and pulled the quilt over my head. The telephone started buzzing. I picked it up, pulled the quilt over my head and read it. It was Jake. I rejected the call.
He rang again and I answered this time. 'What you do want?'
'You know our Dex is missing out there, don't you?'
'I know now. It's writ on me for'head, isn't it. Besides, I didn't ask him to go, did I!'
'And you know what I think? I didn't want him to go. I hate this war. You know I hate it. I told him "I don't want you to go ..."'
But I'd had enough of Jake and disconnected the call.
He immediately sent a message: Sorry.
I replied: Lol.
He replied: C u @school.
I replied: H8 u.
I sent another: All of you, before turning the mobile off.
'Karen, you're really one of the gang now, aren't you, girl?' I said aloud, taking my head out from under the quilt. 'Islamic, Muslamic.' I thought about how I had laughed at the way the gang made fun of the hijab-wearing women. I then felt very guilty as I remembered how I had laughed when Jake had gone up to a man with a long beard and a turban, and said, 'Run for your wives.'
I frowned, and could feel the pain coming back in my forehead. I knew now, I never did belong to the WTM, my gang. They never saw me as I saw them. I never saw me as they saw me. I thought I was just me. And who was I? Mixed-race? Oreo? Christian? Muslim?
The image of Donna and the gang fleeing at the sight of Shamshad and the hijab-wearing girls flashed through my mind. I felt a pang of jealousy. They knew who they were. They belonged. They believed. They didn't need to pretend to be anything, they just were. And me, what was I? I certainly wasn't what I thought I was. What a messed-up family I had. A Muslim Dad who loved beer and bacon and a Christian Mum who didn't believe in God, but went to church.
I lay in bed thinking back to how Mum used to take me to church on Sundays. How beautiful she looked in her flowery red dresses, with her blonde hair falling on her shoulders and her thin nose. She wore a silver nose stud, which she only put on when going to church, one Dad had bought her when they had first met - and the story of which she always ended with the sly remark, 'If Man U had not won, I am sure he would never have bought this for me.'
Sometimes, getting ready for church, I would stare at my own nose in the mirror. It was thin, but no matter if I looked at it a thousand times and told myself it looked like hers, it just didn't. And whenever I asked her about this, she would go silent for a moment, as though I had asked her the most difficult question in the world and then squeeze my nose, saying, 'It doesn't matter, dear. You have the loveliest nose in the whole wide world.'
Mum's chin is beautiful and perfectly round and I hate mine. It's pointy and too long. Mum's eyebrows are so perfect, she never needs to have them plucked and mine grow so fast, one day I'll need a hedge trimmer.
At church she would smile at this person and laugh with that one, her green eyes lighting up each time, like she had not seen them for ages. She once told me she got her eyes from her Dad and blonde hair from her Mum. But I never did see these grandparents of mine. They died before I was born, Mum said. They were upset with my Mum 'cause they didn't want her to marry my Dad. They didn't think much of Pakistanis. But Mum loved my Dad. Even though he's a slob, my Dad, Mum still loves him.
The last time I went to church with Mum, Dad was fidgeting about in the living room. Looking at us, he sniggered, 'And say hello to Him and His son.'
Mum cleared her throat, letting out a disapproving, 'Ahm.'
'Stop filling me daughter's head with all this rubbish,' Dad said, as we were about to leave the house.
Mum looked at me, grinned, flicked her eyes, shook her head, and then shouted back to Dad, 'Make sure you keep an eye on the chicken, it's simmering.'
'Not going to lay an egg now, is it?' Dad replied.
In church we stood in our usual place, in the last aisle near the door, holding our hymn books, but as soon as we started singing the first hymn, 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', Mum grabbed my hand and whispered. 'I hate this one,' and led me out of church. I was glad.
When we got home Dad was stomping around in the kitchen.
'I bet he burnt the chicken,' Mum said to me.
'I turned it off, before you ask,' Dad said, coming out of the kitchen, rubbing his head in both his hands.
He had curry stains on his white vest, which he had clearly tried to wipe off, smudging it all the more.
Mum folded her arms in front of her, smiling one of her herehegoesagain sort of smiles and nudged me in the ribs.
As Dad was about to leave the kitchen, Mum said, 'Well, Lucky, aren't you going to ask how it was?'
'How was it?' Dad asked, opening the door to the living room. The television was on. And what else would he be watching but football?
'Aren't you a bundle of laughs to come back to,' Mum smirked, following him.
I loved moments like this, with Mum and Dad. They were such kids.
'Aren't you going to ask your daughter how it was for her?'
'How was it, Karen?' Dad asked, placing his elbows on the coffee table, his chin in his hands and his eyes fixed on the television screen.
'We left just when the first hymn started,' I said.
'Go on, sweetheart, sing it for your Dad, you know it by heart.'
'Go on, dear, you know how much I love seeing him like this,' Mum breathed into my ear and then gave me one of those great big smiles, which meant that if I did what she asked, then there were a lot of brownie points for me.
I started singing: 'Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus going on before.'
'Oh God, why this,' Dad snapped and stood up. When he turned around, he was white with rage. His fist clenched.
Mum pushed me behind her, saying, 'Lucky, don't you bloody well dare.'
I thought Dad was going to hit Mum. I had never seen him like this. He stood there shaking. After a moment, he pointed at the television screen and said, 'City are at the top of the league.'
I slid out of bed, went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. I was a flat-chested, brown girl with a thin nose. I screamed, thinking, 'Who are you?'
The girl looking back at me had shoulder-length, curly black hair. She had black pupils and thick eyebrows. Her arms were like her face, brown with black hair on them. This wasn't me. I must be dreaming, I thought, and slapped myself on the face. I felt numb.
I screamed again, and this time I couldn't stop.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "You're Not Proper"
Copyright © 2015 Tariq Mehmood.
Excerpted by permission of HopeRoad Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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