chapter
6 Pages

Making the grade

ByFIONA DOWLING

Fatima’s hand reached up under her armpit and then slowly traced down her taut, hour-glass body as far down as her hips. Had her younger brother been watching her closely, his intimate and affectionate knowledge of his sister would have enabled him to detect a hint of a smile light up what, to him, was her beautiful face. At this rushed breakfast time, his head was as usual practically in the cereal bowl and he remained therefore oblivious to the fact that she was sizing up her current body shape. Like most 11-year-old boys, Rashid paid little attention to the morning newspaper and preferred instead to muse over the cartoon or latest offer on the back of the Kellogg’s packet. He remained thus in ignorant bliss about the latest findings of yet another national survey concerning the Norwegian population’s body mass index. On reading the headline, Fatima’s thoughts had immediately returned to last night’s Facebook exchange, and she’d began to wonder how she’d look in Pia’s new designer dress. She rather fancied herself in the sixties, Jackie Onassis-style shift dress and she concluded that the ivory linen with its graphite top stitching on her mocha-coloured skin would, quite simply, be stunning. Theodor couldn’t fail to notice her in that outfit! A swift glance at the wall clock jolted her back to reality, ‘Rashid, we’re

going to be late again! Grab your rucksack, we have to leave for school immediately. No time for teeth this morning! And don’t forget your packed lunch!’ Fatima pointed impatiently at the small, greaseproof paper package with an apple on top of it, lying on the Formica kitchen counter beside the rice cooker. How she longed for the day when she could reasonably expect her youngest brother to assume responsibility for this daily chore. Having deposited Rashid at the primary school gate, Fatima hurried on her

way to the senior college. She’d have to take the short cut through the woods again. Why had someone decided to steal her old, battered bike? Couldn’t they have taken someone else’s? She made a mental note to readjust the alarm clock for the remainder of the semester because there’d be no chance of bumping into Theodor this morning, either. He certainly didn’t walk through the woods at this hour of the day. The challenge of finding something

appropriate to wear simultaneously paled into insignificance, as the sickening thought of failing to find a partner for the school dance once more reared its ugly head. And even were she to pluck up enough courage and invite Theodor, he might reject the offer. If he said ‘yes’, she’d nevertheless still have her Mother to contend with. A ‘no-win situ’, she thought. She hoped that she and Rashid hadn’t awoken their Mother this morning. She needed to rest after being on the late shift at the supermarket. Why people needed to shop as late as midnight was beyond Fatima’s comprehension but, as her Mother reminded her often enough, late-night opening hours put bread on her table. Alas, they don’t put Jacki-O dresses on the table, she thought. A rustling noise startled her, but her momentary increased alertness rece-

ded at the sight of a black Labrador retriever, stick in mouth and wagging tail. ‘Morning!’ boomed the owner, who was a 40-something businessman, as he ran past her so fast that he couldn’t possibly have heard her soft greeting in reply. Pia’s family have a dog and Fatima began to imagine what it must be like to have to take it out for daily walks. Perhaps it’s almost as much as a tie as it is to have to help Rashid with his homework? Mind you, Pia’s Mother was so keen on running that she more often than not seemed to exercise the dog, so Fatima couldn’t muster much sympathy for her friend. She felt a bit guilty for having these thoughts, but somehow she couldn’t seem to dam them up. She tried to rationalize Pia’s position. After all, it’s not as if it’s Pia’s fault that she has a Mother who runs a lot and exercises the dog. Nor is it her fault that her Dad earns so much money that a designer dress for the end-of-school dance is seen as normal. And Pia’s extremely kind and fun. Why else would I spend so much time with her?, Fatima reflected. But take today, she thought, today she’ll have an inbuilt advantage com-

pared to me in this silly PE test. She’s bound to get 6 out of 6 for doing a handstand and executing a perfect cartwheel, but little old me, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a 3. Fatima feared with good reason that Nasir’s crash course at the weekend wasn’t going to help her much in her PE lesson. She could feel adrenalin begin to rush around her blood vessels. The indignity of it all, and the sense of helplessness she felt at being forced into a no-win situation! It’s not as if a person needs those kinds of skills! And we’ve barely spent a single lesson on gymnastics over the past two years! I suppose I could have practised a little more, but I’d be a laughing-stock had I done that in our public yard behind the flats. It’s so unfair to think that she’ll get a 6, when the most I can hope for is a 3. How can I compete with the likes of Pia when they’ve spent half their childhood being driven to Rhythmic Gymnastics competitions? A 3 today can drag my average mark down to 4, and that means my overall grade average will suffer. And who gets into medicine these days with less than a 5.2 average? Fatima felt her breathing restricted as this realization swept through her

body. All her hours of studying thrown away because she couldn’t bear to have her head lower than her feet? Perhaps she should have let Nasir help her earlier? Panic was gaining the upper hand. She couldn’t fail her Mother’s

dreams. Not after all the sacrifices she’s made. She couldn’t possibly let her Mother down. She’s managed to keep us on an even keel after Father deserted us. Fatima so admired her Mother’s dignity and strength. No one could deny that it’s taken courage and determination to be a Pakistani divorcee. Rejected from the Pakistani community and still standing on the threshold of the Norwegian society. She would be eternally grateful that her Mother had chosen to leave the Pakistani community in Eastern Oslo. Sure they didn’t own their flat, and many neighbours still stared at them in their western borough, but thank goodness she’s not ended up like her cousin. Not allowed to go out, not allowed to play football, not allowed to play with Norwegian friends. What a wretched life her poor cousin must lead. Andwhat’s more, she’s putting on weight. Another pang of guilt engulfed Fatima. How could she have such damning

thoughts about her dear cousin? She was faintly disgusted by her derogatory thoughts about her Pakistani family. She loved and respected her grandparents, and her aunts and uncles living on the other side of town. She blushed at the idea that one of them could have read her thoughts. And soon she’d be travelling with them to Pakistan to spend her annual six-week summer holiday there! The hot, sticky, dusty, overfilled city of Islamabad awaited them. On further reflection Fatima hoped that her years of football training, her

passion for swimming and her daily cycling would nevertheless hold her in good stead today in the gym. Compared to her poor cousin Sara, she could be classified as an all-round athlete! She thanked her Mother once again for her understanding of what counts in this neck of the woods. Fatima strode across the school yard just as the bell was ringing. The

babble of chit-chat in the PE changing rooms was a little louder this morning, no doubt on account of the nerves most of the girls were experiencing. She swung her rucksack down onto the bench next to Pia and, smiling at her good friend, asked, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Sure, this is nothing to get uptight about, Fats,’ Pia reassured her. ‘Can you

come up to the lake this evening? We were just discussing getting a group together ’coz of the heatwave. It’d be fun, and Theodor might be there!’ Sliding on her training tights, Fatima glanced up at Pia and replied, ‘Sure, that’s nothing to get uptight about. My Mum’s on late shift again but, for once, Nasir can look after Rashid.’