Author: The Boy with the Butterfly Mind & The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (Floris Books)

by December 23, 2020 0 comments



We, Sarah & Jess are delighted to host author Victoria Williamson on Day 25 of Advent with Authors 2020 here at our Advent Special Blog! Her children's novels, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind & The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle are published by Floris Books.

Both her novels are available on bookshop.org, an online bookstore that supports local, independent bookstores. Links below.

Victoria's twitter handle: @strangelymagic

NOW, OVER TO VICTORIA WILLIAMSON!

Christmas is a time we come together with family and friends to celebrate, and to share stories of the good and bad times we’ve had over the past year. For the Advent with Authors blog, I thought I’d share some of the experiences that Caylin and Reema had in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, and let them tell you what happened to them in their own words.

When eleven-year-old Reema, a Syrian refugee whose family fled the war in Aleppo, first comes to the run-down Glasgow estate of Drumhill, she finds everything new and strange, and doesn’t think she’ll ever feel at home. Then she meets Caylin, a troubled school bully trying to hide her mother’s alcohol problem from her teacher and neighbours. When they discover a secret they can both share – a family of foxes in the back garden who need the girls to help care for them – they find they have more in common than they first think. Through their shared love of running, they learn to trust each other, and come to understand that home isn’t just a place, but the people you care about.

Here’s how Caylin and Reema have answered the Advent with Authors questions:


MY STRANGEST ENCOUNTER.

Caylin - The strangest meeting I ever had was when I saw Reema for the first time. I came home from the chip shop and she was in my block of flats, and I remember thinking:

There’s a girl standing at the door of number 1A. 

She’s got eyes as big as dinner plates, Grandad’s voice comes whispering in my ear. 

“But she’s a wee skinny malinky longlegs!”

Get lost! I yell at the ghosts in my head, trying to focus on the girl instead. She’s got cheap clothes on, and I can see strands of long black hair that have comes loose from under her green headscarf. She’s holding a picture frame that doesn’t have a photo in it, just a piece of paper with a whole bunch of squiggly writing that looks like a different language. I think she was about to hang the frame up on her hall wall when I stopped in her doorway.

We stare at one another for a long moment, sizing each other up. She’s taller than me, but way skinnier. I could take her in a fight if I had to.

I can see she’s waiting for me to speak. Everyone’s always waiting for me to speak, to open my mouth and embarrass myself with my lisp. If she has something she wants to say then she can say it. I’ve got nothing to say to her. I was here first. She’s on my territory.

Reema - Meeting Caylin for the first time was also very strange for me. I had just left Syria and everything I knew far behind and moved to Scotland, to a small apartment in a place called Drumhill, and when I saw her I thought:

I want to talk to the girl in the doorway, but I am too shy and cannot find the right words. She has bushy red hair tied in a messy knot, and her face is pale, with freckles like spots of dirt across her nose. There is an odd smell of fried food coming from her faded coat, but it is her eyes that shock me into silence.

She has the eyes of a child who has known the war.

I have seen the same look a thousand times over since the bombing began. Narrow, watchful eyes, suspicious of every new face. Hungry eyes, waiting for hours in refugee food queues. Haunted eyes, full of bad memories and troubled dreams.

This country is safe. No bombs. No war. Her blue eyes should be clear and carefree. She should not have the same eyes I see in the mirror when the nightmares wake me from my sleep.

Her eyes are all wrong.


A FUNNY MOMENT.

Caylin – Reema’s English wasn’t great when she first came to Scotland, and some of the things she said were dead funny. There was one time after our sports club practise she nearly made me die laughing. This is what happened:

The other kids crowd round the picnic tables and pull out their chocolate bars and cans of juice. Reema follows them, hovering shyly at the back of the group, but there’s no room for her and it’s clear she’s not welcome. She comes over to sit beside me instead. I shuffle to the end of the bench and stare at ground. 

The loud laughter and chatter from the picnic tables is making me feel so lonely I wish I’d just stayed at home and put up with Brian and Johnny. 

I wish I had friends to talk to. 

I wish I hadn’t stolen that ice cream money and spoiled everything with Reema.

I wish I could think of something to say to her that would make everything alright again.

Reema’s restless. She’s shifting about on the bench, tapping her feet and drumming her fingers on her knees. She’s feeling uncomfortable too. She’s been trying really hard in Miss Lindsey’s games, so she’s way more sweaty than me. She lifts the edge of her t-shirt, frowns at it, then says something I never thought I’d hear her say in a million years.

“I need a shower. I am… pure… dead… bogging.”

It’s so funny to hear her using Glaswegian words that I burst out laughing.

“Do I say that right?” Reema asks me shyly. She’s not sure I’m laughing for the right reasons.

“Yeah, apart from your accent.” I snort. “That’s totally rubbish.”

“Rubbish?”

“Yeah, you know – terrible.”

“Oh.” Reema’s face falls, and I feel a bit bad. She was trying to make friends again and I ruined it. I say quickly, “It’s OK, I’m rubbish at lots of things too.” 

“I am… rubbish… at speaking English,” Reema says slowly, trying out the new word she’s just learned. 

“I bet you think lots of things here are rubbish compared to back home,” I say quickly, trying to keep the conversation going.

“Yes. The weather is… rubbish. And the school dinners… are rubbish.”

I grin at that. “They’re worse than rubbish. The school dinners are minging!”

“School dinners are… minging?”

“And the custard’s totally boufing.” I mime throwing up onto my ratty old trainers.

Reema laughs too. “Minging school dinners… and boufing custard!” she repeats.


MY WORST NIGHTMARE!

Reema – My worst nightmares are all of war. My family did not leave Syria as soon as the war began, we hoped it would soon pass and life would return to normal. But then normal life became the sound of guns and bombs and explosions, sounds that still haunt my dreams. This is a dream I used to have often:

I am woken by the sound of an aeroplane overhead. The engine roars above us, and I tense, barely breathing, waiting for the whine and then the ear-splitting bang as the barrel bomb explodes, sending shrapnel tearing into everything in its path.

I count to ten, slowly, silently, but there is no explosion.

Is it a dud? Or is it a chemical bomb like the one that hurt Baba?

My heart beats faster, and I see in my mind’s eye the thick green gas seeping under our door, spreading through our house like fog. Chlorine gas turns to acid in your lungs. It burns you up from the inside out, choking the life out of you. Baba couldn’t breathe for so long his brain was damaged, even though he was big and strong and fearless.
The gas is even more dangerous for small children. 

“Sara!” I sit up in bed and reach frantically for my little sister.

And then I remember. We are not in Syria any more.

No.

We are safe, and the planes here are not carrying bombs.


I FEAR...

Caylin – Back when Mum was drinking a lot, before Reema came, before we found the foxes and joined the running club, I used to be dead scared that grownups like my teacher, Mrs Gibb, and my nosey neighbour, Mrs Mitchell, would find out that Mum wasn’t able to look after me properly. It used to make me feel like this:

“Caylin, are you listening? It’s time to go home.”

Mrs Gibb is sighing now, and that’s one of her warning signs.

I don’t answer, but I pick up my bag and head for the door. I’m only halfway there when she stops me.

“Look, Caylin, we need to talk.”

Make up your mind.

I stare at my feet and fiddle with my backpack so she’ll know I’m not interested in anything she’s going to say.

“I don’t have time today, I’m running late for a meeting, but perhaps one day next week your mother could pop in for a quick chat after school? Would that be possible?”

My jaw clenches, my hands gripping my backpack straps tightly now for support. I swallow hard, trying to remember just one of the million excuses I’ve invented to explain why no one ever sees Mum any more. The lies all disappear down a deep dark hole right when I need them most, and the fear of being found out is all they leave behind.

The thought of her finding out about Mum and phoning Social Services makes me break out in a cold sweat.


MY FAVOURITE FOOD.

Reema – When I first came to Scotland, all I could think about was my home in Syria. There were so many things I missed, including the food, and I was so sad one day in the park when I realised that my little sister, Sara, did not remember the things about our home that I did:

“We will stay here until the war is over, habibti, and then we will go home, when it is safe to return. Would you not like that? To go home?”

“But we are home!” Sara frowns. “This is home. I have friends here – Jenny and Lauren and Claire – and I like my school, and I like sharing my bedroom with you, and I like our safe apartment, and I do not want to go back to Syria!”

Sara looks as though she is going to cry. I crouch down and hold her hand, trying to make her understand. “This is not our home, Sara. Syria is home. We are only here for a little while until our country is safe again. Do you not remember all the nice things we used to do? Remember when we used to go to the souks and help Mama with the shopping? How you used to love looking at all the pretty dresses and jewellery in the stalls?”

Sara shakes her head. “We did not go out. We hid in the house all the time from the bombs and the soldiers. It was so boring. Here we can go out whenever we want.”

I try again. “Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shwarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous maamoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

“What are you talking about, Reema? We were hungry all the time in Syria and at the refugee camp. There was never any food and the water was dirty. Now we can have pizza and chips and bread and soda whenever we like. I want to stay here forever.”

Sara’s words suck all of the air from my lungs until I am hollow and aching inside.

She has no idea what I am talking about. She is too young to remember all the good times our family had before the war. I spend every waking moment trying to hold on to my happy memories of Aleppo, picturing over and over the blue skies and market colours, the sounds of our calls to prayer and the smells of our spiced food. Sara remembers only bombs and snipers and the desperate hunger that ate us all up from the inside out. 

My Syria is not her Syria, and never will be.


MY MOST MEMORABLE CHRISTMAS/NEW YEAR/FESTIVITY EVER!

Caylin – Reema’s a Muslim, and when I got to know her and her family a bit better, they invited us round for this thing called Ramadan, at the end of Eid al-Fitr. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had. The food was amazing! This is what happened:

Mum and Brian and Johnny and me are at her place now for their end of Ramadan feast, and we’re so full of food I think my stomach’s going to burst. It was a bit awkward at first, as Reema’s mum only speaks a wee bit of English, and her dad doesn’t speak any at all. But with Reema and Sara translating, and Brian making us all laugh with the feeble attempts at Arabic he kept looking up on his phone, dinner turned out to be a lot of fun.

Mum even used her hand to eat flatbread and dips without making a fuss about eating with her fingers, and I liked sitting round the table sharing food from the same plates. It was a proper family meal, and it felt good. Maybe next time Brian comes round with Johnny for dinner I’ll sit and eat it with them instead of just shovelling something onto a plate and hiding in my room to eat alone.

“Try a pastry, Caylin, you will like.” Mrs Haddad hands another big bowl round, and I nearly groan at the thought of trying to cram more food in.
“Thanks, Mrs Haddad, but I’ve had so much chicken casserole and fish and rice my belly’s going to pop open and make a mess on your floor.”

Sara bursts out laughing at the idea, so even though Mrs Haddad doesn’t understand, she takes it as a compliment to her cooking. She puts one of her honey pastries on a wee plate and leaves it on the sofa beside me so I can eat it when I’m ready. I think I might have to wait another hundred years before I’m ever going to need to eat again.


MY PET(S)...

Caylin – I’ve never had pets before, but then one night I heard a weird noise coming from the back garden, and when I sneaked out to see what was making it, my whole life changed:

It’s coming from the bin shed, but when I go to look there’s nothing there but smelly black bags. I check behind them. Nothing.

The noises have gone quiet, like something’s heard me and is holding its breath.

That’s when I think to look behind the shed.

I nearly jump out of my skin when I see yellow eyes staring back at me.

It’s a fox, and she growls at me so fierce and low that at first I want to run straight back up to my room. I was bitten on the leg in the park by a dog when I was wee, and I can still remember how much it hurt. 

Grandad had to take me to the hospital to get the bite cleaned and have doctors stick me full of needles. That was a pet dog though. This is a wild animal.

I’m about to leave her be, when I see there’s something wrong with her. I look closer. She’s not sitting up, but lying on her side, panting. Her growl is angry, but her eyes are afraid. She has a red coat and a dirty white belly with a big dark patch that’s heaving up and down. It looks like she’s struggling for breath, but when I take another step towards her I can see the dark patch is actually a huddle of tiny cubs all sucking hard for milk. The fox looks too skinny to be able to feed them.

I stare at them, a warm feeling of wonder filling up the dark places in my stomach that are usually big holes of worry and hunger and guilt. The fox is trying to get up and move away, but her front leg is bleeding and won’t hold her weight. I can see now the spots of darker red on her coat are dried blood, and there’s a couple of deep gashes down her side that are still bleeding. She looks like she’s been hit by a car. The blind cubs are all shaken loose when she moves and start whimpering for milk. It makes me feel so sad I want to cry.

Feeling brave, I pull off my jacket and tuck it round them, trying to avoid the snapping jaws of the fox who wants to take my hand off. She looks as hungry as I do at the end of the week when the benefits money runs out. I didn’t buy anything at the shops today that I can give them, just toilet roll and toothpaste and tins of beans and soup for Mum to eat while I’m at school. But tomorrow’s Friday, when Mum’ll have her money for the next week paid straight into her account. I know her number, so I’ll nip down to the cash machine by Michael’s Superchippy and get out enough to buy food for the foxes and pay the electricity bill.

If Mum wants to make a fuss about it she can drag herself out of bed for once and stop me.

Huh, like that’s ever going to happen.

I’ll have food for the foxes tomorrow. Tonight they’ll have to make do with my old jacket. I have another one anyway; the one Mum got me at Christmas. She wasn’t sober when she bought it and it’s too big, but at least it doesn’t smell of greasy chips like this one does.

The fox is too tired to do more than snarl at me feebly, but when she sees I haven’t taken her cubs, and feels the warmth from my jacket, she stops growling and just stares back at me with those big yellow eyes.

“I’m Caylin,” I tell her,” and I’m going to look after you.”

The warm feeling spreads when I say this until my whole body’s tingling with happiness. “I’ll keep you safe, you and your cubs. I’ll keep you warm and fed, I’ll keep you hidden. I’ll keep you secret – I’m good at secrets.”

This fox is my responsibility. A secret that doesn’t make me sick to my stomach for once.

My best secret.

Mine.

Reema – My parents were not happy at the idea of keeping animals in the house, so I had never had pets either until I found the foxes in the back garden. I was afraid of what my parents would say if they knew I was feeding them in secret, but looking after them made me feel close to my older brother, Jamal, who we lost on the dangerous road to the refugee camp in Turkey:

I remember the time Jamal rescued a bag full of puppies from the Queiq River where someone had thrown them away to drown. Baba would not have them in the house. He said they would make us unclean and we would have to wash our clothes before prayers if we touched them. But for months Jamal paid his lunch money to the man who ran the bicycle repair shop near our apartment, to let him keep them in the back room. He fed them every day with milk and eggs, and then scraps of meat from the smaller stalls at the meat souk. When the puppies were big enough he went round our Christian neighbours asking if they would like a dog for free. He found homes for them all. Baba always knew when Jamal had been with the dogs, as he washed his clothes himself instead of putting them in the laundry basket. But he did not tell Jamal off, because the Quran teaches that we must be kind to animals. 

I do not think Baba would like me feeding foxes like pet dogs though.

“Do not let Mama see you bringing food to the foxes either, my silly ukhti alsaghira!” I can hear Jamal laughing at me in my head. “Or she will scream in horror and lock you in the closet to stop you going anywhere near wild animals with rabies and scabies and plague ever again!”

I can still hear his warm laugh echoing in my head as I stand in our cold kitchen, spooning the remains of rice and meat from our evening meal into a plastic bowl. I do not know if this is what foxes eat, I only know that feeding them is what Jamal would have done. I will do anything to keep his voice in my head alive, even if it risks making Mama and Baba angry with me if they ever find out.


MY FAVOURITE COLOUR.

Reema – My favourite colour is green, as it reminds me of the birthday present Jamal bought for me before the war in Syria. I still remember that happy memory clearly: 

We are heading for the jewellery section, further up off Souk Az-Zarb, when I stop. Something at one of the textile stalls has caught my eye. Something so breezy and light it would float off on the wind if it were not tied to the display stand by a loose knot. It is a headscarf, like the ones Mama wears, but more beautiful than any I have ever seen.

It is green like the sea when the wind catches the waves, and the scarf’s silk strands shimmer like sunlight on water. I pull on Jamal’s hand and point, my voice eager above the noise of the crowd.

“That one, Jamal! That is what I want for my birthday.”

He talks to the vendor while I bounce on my toes in excitement, my fingers tingling with anticipation until a price is agreed and the scarf is handed over. Jamal helps me cover my head and wind the long ends around my neck, and I feel like I am wrapped in the cool breath of the sea. I look up at the patch of blue sky beyond the row of stalls, and feel as though every ray of sunshine in the whole of Syria is being soaked up by my special shimmering scarf.


MY BEST FRIEND!

Caylin – I didn’t think I’d ever have a real friend, until I met Reema. She helped make me a better runner, and a better person, and I still remember the moment during our relay race for the Glasgow Schools Sports Competition when I realised she was the best friend I’ll ever have:

The crowd is cheering, and although I can’t hear them up there, I know Mum and Brian and Johnny and Reema’s family are shouting my name too.

It makes me feel like the most important person in the whole world.

All the hurt from losing our foxes melts away, and I know that somewhere in the wild Hurriyah is running too, but not because she’s afraid. We don’t have to be scared of Mrs Mitchell and the exterminators any more, of roads and traffic and Darren and his dog.

All those times I felt weak and useless because I couldn’t stop Mum from getting depressed and drinking don’t matter now. She’s proud of me for being brave and taking part today, and whether I win or lose, she’s going to love me just the same. I’ve been so afraid of letting Mum down by not being as fast as Gran I buried all my memories so deep I almost lost them. But when I let the foxes go at Ravensholm, I found them again.

Gran’s not long gone and forgotten, she’s right here, running by my side. I can hear her call to me as the wind whispers in my hair, her voice as bright as sunshine on water.

“Come on, Caylin! Catch up! You can do it!”

Somewhere up there I know that Grandad’s smiling too, watching me and Gran run the race of our lives together. For the first time since I can remember, I’m not running away.

This time it’s my best friend I’m running to, and I can see her up ahead, standing waiting for me, her hand stretched out for mine.


A MAGICAL MOMENT.

Reema – That race was very special for me too. I gained so much more than a medal when I crossed the finish line. I can remember those final moments clearly:

My lungs are burning, but I suck the air down despite the pain. My legs cry out, my calves aching, but I ignore it all. My vision narrows until I cannot even see the runners on either side of me anymore. All that is left is the finish line and the sound of my name ringing in my ears.

“Run, Reema!” Caylin does not stop yelling at me all the way down the final straight.

“Run, habibti!” I’m sure I can hear a distant voice from the crowd.
“Run, Little Gazelle!”

It is Jamal’s voice I hear in my head as I cross the finish line. He has run by my side the whole way. But as I slow down and stop at the side of the track I realise the voice is not just in my head. Karen is there waiting, holding out her phone so I can see my brother’s face smiling back at me.

“Yes!” Jamal is jumping up and down and punching the air. There are many people with him and they are all slapping him on the back and cheering. It looks as though the whole camp has crowded round the small screen to watch my race. “I knew you could do it Reema, I knew it!”

“I was running for you, Jamal,” I pant, “I was running for all of us.” I reach out and touch hands with him again across the distance, so happy we are together on this special day I almost do not hear the official race result being called over the speakers.

I do not need to listen to it to know that I have come in first. It is obvious from the joy of my brother and the cheers of his friends in the refugee camp. It is written in the grimaces of the girls I have beaten and in the yells of excitement from my teammates who come sprinting across the grass to celebrate with me. Zoe and Lisa are crying again, but this time it is with happiness.

“You did it!” Caylin yells, throwing her arms round me. “You won!”

“No, Caylin.” I grin, hugging her back so tight it hurts. “We won.”

I know now that whatever happens in my life here, I will be ready to face it.

She is the Fox Girl, and I am the White Gazelle, and together we can outrun anything.


_____________________________________________________________
**********


Sarah Forestwood

Organiser

Advent with Authors 2020

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