Mum says lies are wrong.
“But you can’t tell the truth all the time,” I insist as she gets up from her prayer, folds her mat, places it back in its gap on the bookshelf. “It’s not possible.”
She gives me the look. She hates it when I do this – carry straight on with what I was saying before the muezzin’s call from the Kabaa-shaped clock on the window sill.
“Sara.” She is stern. “Have you made your sandwiches for school tomorrow? Have you even done your homework?”
I avoid her eye and look around the living room – over the sofa and chair by the telly, round past the books, front door, stairs, to the table where we eat.
“Sara! Your little sister did her sandwiches and started her homework half an hour ago – is she more grown up than you?”
Best not to answer. Rhetorical questions, they are called. Mrs Chowney taught us the word last week, after she asked Ben Rogers what he thought he was doing with his hand down the front of his pants. It’s when everybody knows the answer.
“I’ll do it now.” I head up the stairs.
In our room, Nabila is taking up all the space at the desk as usual, her fluffy round head bent over her maths, glasses sliding down her nose. She didn’t shut up for a week when she needed glasses and I didn’t. She’s absolutely sure it makes her brainier, which shows how brainy she isn’t.
“Move over.” I shove her books and pencil case to her side, save her the trouble.
She grumbles, pulls her precious things closer, and curls her arm around her work. Like I’m going to copy year three arithmetic for some reason.
I reach back and pull my rucksack from the end of the bed, take out my exercise book and open it to today’s homework page. Creative writing: After the incident, human beings could no longer…
We free-thought about it in class. Tasmina Ali whispered “poo” and Mrs Chowney heard and said that could have some interesting medical consequences, leading to a tale of scientific discovery. We all laughed and Tasmina went a bit red. She’d never dare actually write it.
There were a few interesting ones – die, have babies, speak. Tanya Crisp said “make any weapons”, which is interesting but could come out a bit cheesy.
I kept my ideas to myself. Kill, but that’s a bit close to Tanya’s one. Count, which would be interesting for money and business and stuff.
And then the one I thought of on the way home, which was what I wanted to talk to Mum about: After the incident, human beings could no longer lie.
A story itself is lying, making things up. What I’m interested in is how the world would be without it. I choose my green pen and write the date and my name. Then on a new line,
After the incident, human beings could no longer lie. At first, there were a lot of arguments. Adults said things like “yes, your bum does look big in that, because you have a big bum” and children said things like “no I won’t come to your party because your house smells funny.”
It would be like that, in the beginning, but people would probably get used to it, the same way the traveller kids at school don’t even seem to hear what Callum Wilson calls them anymore.
After a few weeks everyone had already heard anything bad you could say about them. People’s feelings got tougher, so the number of arguments went back to normal.
Some people, like police and TV interviewers, were happier without the lying because their jobs got a lot easier.
Nabila is reading over my shoulder. “That’s stupid,” she says. “Bank robbers and naughty celebrities could just refuse to answer any questions!”
Lately Nabila says everything I do is stupid, but she has a point. I must explain –
When someone didn’t want to talk, police and journalists learned to ask strings of little questions that led to answers. They learned to ask the gradual questions that make people tell.
Like Mrs Olalere the other week.
Since the traveller kids have been ignoring Callum, he’s started getting at everyone else, saying worse and worse stuff until the other week in the playground, he shouted at Tasmina and me why don’t we go back where we came from.
That was a big deal. Callum’s mum’s in prison, so usually they’re all really soft with him, but this time a dinner lady took the three of us to the office. Callum kept telling the dinner lady he never said anything, but Mrs Olalere made him own up. The way she did it was she started with the easy truths – “Were you in the playground, Callum?” – and he just said yes to everything till she got all the way to him shouting that at Tasmina and me, and then it was too late.
So in my story you can’t just avoid any tricky questions because you don’t always see them coming.
Then the only secrets left were the ones that nobody even suspected. It doesn’t matter how good you are at asking questions if you don’t know to ask. A lot of secrets were completely hidden and stayed that way.
People sometimes asked the right questions by accident, though.
In the playground, when Callum said that, I went a bit shaky. Not because it was racist, which was exactly the same thing for Tasmina, but because of the question “Why don’t you…?” That bit was different. Tasmina goes to Bangladesh every summer holidays – her family have the right, but we don’t.
Then when we were walking to the office, Tasmina whispered that back home is way more fun than here anyway, right? I panicked and said yeah, I love it when we go to Algeria. Now Tasmina only has to ask Nabila and she’ll know we haven’t been out of England for years. We could go to Algeria, but we couldn’t come back – to school and work and home, where we live.
Tasmina doesn’t even talk to Nabila, but if she does it won’t add up. Little, gradual questions.
When someone asked the right question by accident, they might or might not notice that there was a secret. Or someone else might notice.
After Mrs Olalere sent Callum and the dinner lady away she had Tasmina and me sit down, and asked us how we were feeling. It was obvious that Tasmina was fine, and she was really asking me. The back of my neck was sweaty and cold, which always means my face is white. I wanted to tell Mrs Olalere everything, so she would wrap me up in her chubby arms the way she does when the little kids cry. I couldn’t tell her anything, though, so I made up that I had a tummy ache and felt dizzy. I said I’d felt that way since the morning. Mrs Olalere sent me to the nurse and I missed today’s chapter of Matilda, but I’m still glad I did it.
Sometimes, even though they could get all the answers if they wanted, people wouldn’t ask too much. For example, if they knew the other person didn’t want to answer.
I used to follow mum even to the bathroom with questions. Stand outside as she washed her hands and face and feet, asking her through the gap in the door – “But why do we never go away on holiday?” “Why can’t we change to a closer dentist?” “Why can’t you get English classes at the college?” Only when she took her mat from the bookshelf, and smoothed it down on the floor, would I be quiet. But I would stay, watching like a hungry tiger as she prayed away my questions.
Nabila is doing her addition on the wonk – adding her units to her tens, her tens to her hundreds, and so on. I lean over and rub out the bottom number for her, line it up properly and show her how she went wrong. She knows nothing.
On the bus last week, a woman was on her phone saying something like “I don’t mind the ones that have a right to be here, that work and stuff…” Mum got smaller in her seat, as if that woman was really talking to her, and I wanted to shout “We all work! Even Nabila and me go with Mum when she teaches Arabic after school, and we help out with the little ones!”
But I kept quiet because Nabila was there. And Mum.
Even though I talk a lot – too much, Mum says – I’ve stopped asking her about us. One time, about a year ago, she finished praying, gave Salaam to her right and left, and then, still kneeling, looked at me as the tiredness came back to her face. She was preparing herself for me to carry on asking, like I always did. I just took my bag and went upstairs.
I keep a list in my head of the dangerous topics – when I last saw my grandparents, holidays abroad, anything about my parents’ studies and why does your dad work in a kitchen then? I watched Mum and Dad and learned how to change the subject, move attention somewhere else. I’ve made a public bubble around myself where grandparents and passports and master’s degrees don’t exist. If they don’t exist, they can’t be asked about.
Then one day the Home Office people came to our house. They’d been to our school and asked Mrs Olalere questions and questions until she got stuck. Now the Home Office people had come to ask us too, to find out for definite. They took us to a special police station and put us in separate rooms. They asked me all the questions I used to ask Mum. They weren’t mean – they gave me juice and sandwiches, but they didn’t stop asking and asking.
After three days in the room I was so confused I couldn’t make sense any more, and it was me, in the end, who couldn’t dodge the questions. It was me that told on my family.
Undocumented migrants. I heard those words on the news last night. I thought finally, a name to call myself, to call my mum and dad, and my little sister.
I have written too much. I can’t hand it in – I’ll have to write something else instead. I take my ruler, place it at the edge of the page and carefully tear my story out of my book. I scrunch it up, turn to throw it in the bin and stop dead. Nabila is staring at the ball of paper in my hand, eyes huge behind her glasses.
“What are you writing?” Her voice is thin and her hands are sweaty fists in her lap, bunched up tiny.
“A story. For school.”
“Is it… about us?”
Secrets are like degrees on a thermometer. They’re not completely secret or completely known, just like a room isn’t completely hot or cold. And secrets don’t belong absolutely to one person or another. That day when Mum was looking at me, so tired, a secret got divided up – a bit for her, a bit for me, neither of us sure how much the other one understands.
I force a laugh. Nabila’s fists uncurl a little and I laugh harder. She isn’t ready. If she was, she’d be asking me a whole string of questions, gradually closing in.
“No,” I tell her, rolling my eyes like this is the maddest thing I’ve ever heard. “It’s just made up.”
I squash my story into a small, hard ball and throw it away.
Anne Wilding is an English langauge teacher, originally from the UK and now living in Bilbao, Basque Country. She works part time and spends the rest of her time hiking, travelling and writing. Her work has been published in Montana Mouthful, 101 Words, Microfiction Mondays and has appeared on the podcast The Wireless Reader. She’s not on twitter, but you can get an idea of what inspires her on instagram @anniewilding.