Authors: Siobhan Dowd
Tags: #Ages 8 and up
‘Yeah, s’pose,’ Salim said. His mobile started ringing with the theme music of James Bond. He said, ‘Excuse me,’ and rushed away from the table and out into the hall to answer it. This time I saw Aunt Gloria’s eyes go up to the ceiling. While Salim was gone a conversation started about what we should do tomorrow. Dad had to go to work but Mum had the day off from being a nurse and it was half term so the five of us could go sightseeing, she said. Kat wanted to ride a riverboat. I wanted to visit the Science Museum. Mum wanted to go to Covent Garden to see the buskers. Aunt Gloria wanted to go to all the art museums. Salim returned, putting his mobile back in his pocket.
‘Salim should decide,’ Dad said. ‘He’s the visitor.’
‘He wants to go up to the Tate Modern, don’t you?’ Aunt Gloria suggested.
Salim doubled over with groans and writhed like he had been poisoned. I got to my feet in a panic and nearly put my elbow through the glass patio door. Everyone else laughed.
‘He’s such a practical joker!’ Aunt Gloria said. Salim stood up straight again, looking normal. He stroked the fine line of small dark hairs above his lip.
‘Mum,’ he said. ‘Please. Not
‘But the Tate Modern’s different. It’s an old power station. With a vast chimney. And Tall with a capital T.’
‘Yeah. But it’s full of art.’
‘Salim,’ I said, ‘if you’re a practical joker, what’s a theoretical joker?’
Salim considered. ‘Someone who just thinks about playing jokes but never actually does them?’
I nodded. That made me the theoretical kind. I often think of pranks I could play on Kat, like telling her that a tsunami is scheduled to come up the Thames at twelve thirty and ruin her hairdo, but I never carry them out.
‘What about the zoo?’ Mum said. ‘Or the
‘They’re not very tall,’ I said.
‘No,’ agreed Salim. He scrunched up his eyebrows.
‘I have it. Let’s go to the London Eye.’
‘The London Eye?’ said Kat. ‘We’ve been up twice, Salim. It’s fantastic.’
‘And it’s tall,’ I said. ‘Taller than the Ferris wheel in Vienna. Technically speaking, it’s not a Ferris wheel. It’s designed more like a bicycle wheel. A giant bicycle wheel in the sky. It rotates once every thirty minutes and—’
Kat kicked my shin, which meant she wanted me to stop talking.
‘Great,’ Salim said. ‘That’s what I want to do. Like Ted says. Fly the bicycle wheel in the sky. Please, Mum.’
‘Supposing it’s cloudy tomorrow?’
‘It won’t be, Aunt Gloria,’ I said. ‘We’re in the middle of a large anticyclone and the weather is set fair.’
‘But the queues!’
‘Please, Mum,’ Salim said. ‘You and Auntie Fai can go and have coffee. Ted, Kat and I will line up to get the tickets.
‘Oh, OK – only afterwards we’ll take a
look at the Tate. All that art in a vast industrial space. I’d like to show Ted the Andy Warhols. He was an American pop artist who made pictures from adverts and famous people. Like Campbell’s Tomato Soup tins and Marilyn Monroe.’
‘I’ve heard of him,’ said Kat. ‘He was a weirdo.’
‘He was a Cultural Icon,’ said Aunt Gloria. ‘I’d say he embodied the twentieth century. Some people even think he might have had’ – she looked at Mum– ‘you know. What Ted’s got.’
There was a silence.
‘Like I said,’ Kat said. ‘A weirdo.’
Mum’s lips pressed up tight. I figured out that Kat had made her cross. But I didn’t care. I know I’m a weirdo. My brain runs on a different operating system from other people’s. I see things they don’t and sometimes they see things I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, if Andy Warhol was like me, then one day I’d be a cultural icon too. Instead of soup cans and movie stars, I’d be famous for my weather charts and formal suits and that would be good.
‘It’s a deal,’ Salim said. ‘Art gallery second. The Wheel first.’
Which was how we decided on the London Eye. Or as Salim called it, the Wheel.
Salim slept on the lilo next to my bed that night. I’d hardly ever had to share before. My hand shook itself out. Salim shuffled into a sleeping bag without saying much.
I wondered if I should start a conversation. But what about? Small talk or big talk? I remembered what Mum had said when I started at secondary school last autumn.
When you meet new people, Ted,
keep the talk small.
I’d asked her what this meant. Did it mean to use only words of one syllable? She’d laughed and said no, it meant sticking to everyday subjects. Like the weather? I’d asked. And she sighed and said, ‘OK, Ted. Like the weather. Only not big weather. Small weather.’
Which meant I could talk about anticyclones and minor depressions but not major storm systems or global warming.
‘Salim,’ I said, ‘do you do small talk?’
‘Hey?’ said Salim. He sat up. ‘Nah. Small talk’s boring. It’s what people do to pass time when they haven’t got anything interesting to say.’
‘So you prefer big talk?’
‘Yeah, Ted. Big talk. Every time.’
‘What do you think weather counts as? Big talk or small talk?’
‘What, rain and snow and stuff?’
‘Rain and snow. Storms. Fronts. Global warming.’
‘Big talk. Definitely. Global warming’s great. I saw this movie. All New York was under water.’
‘London might be, one day,’ I said.
‘Nah,’ Salim said. ‘Not London. Not Manchester. Just New York.’ He brought his knees up to his chin.
‘My mum hates Manchester,’ he said. ‘She says she hates the rain.’
‘I like rain,’ I said, thinking about how all life depended on it.
‘I like rain too,’ said Salim. ‘It’s cool and calm.’
‘Without it, we’d die of dehydration.’
‘But too much and you get a flood.’
‘Yeah.’ Salim smiled. ‘A flood. Like Noah’s Ark.’
‘Some people,’ I said, ‘say the Bible flood was real. And that it could be coming again.’
Salim’s head went off to the side and he looked straight at me. ‘Why you so interested in the weather, Ted?’
I thought. ‘It’s a system. And I like systems. The weather system is hard to understand because there are so many variables. And variables are interesting. If the system goes wrong, it’s a disaster. And some people think the system is starting to go wrong and that could mean the end of the human race. I want to be a meteorologist when I grow up so that I can predict things and help the human race to survive. But I will have to study very hard and find out about all the variables.’
Salim whistled. ‘If a flood’s coming, will you let me know, Ted? So I can build my ark on time?’
‘I will,’ I promised.
Salim lay down and I turned off the light. I listened to us both breathing. This was when I normally switch on my radio to listen to the shipping forecast. I keep it on the desk next to my bed within easy reach. Mum had said not to do it while I was sharing with Salim. My fingers were twitching under the duvet.
‘Salim,’ I said after a few minutes, ‘are you asleep?’
‘Nope. Not yet,’ he said. ‘It’s hot.’
‘It’s a new area of high pressure,’ I said. ‘Moving in from the Atlantic.’
‘What are you thinking about?’ I said. I’d been thinking about convection currents, isobars and isotherms. I’d been imagining the shipping forecast.
Lundy Fastnet, variable three or four
. Perhaps Salim had been doing the same.
‘Nothing much,’ he said. ‘What about you?’
We were quiet again. ‘
Becoming south or southeast
five or six
,’ I said out loud.
‘Sorry?’ said Salim.
‘I’m pretending to read out the shipping forecast and instead of this calm we’re having, a storm’s brewing. Out at sea.’
‘A storm,’ he said. ‘Yeah. That would ground planes.’
‘It would take a very big storm system to do that.’
‘Gale-force eight or nine. A fog would be more likely to ground the planes.’
I heard him sit up again. ‘Ted?’
‘You know this – this syndrome thing you’ve got?’
‘Hrumm,’ I said, wondering who had told him.
‘Hope you don’t mind me asking. But what is it? What’s it like?’
No one had ever asked me that before. I lay back on my pillow and thought. ‘It’s this thing in my brain,’ I said.
‘It’s not that I’m sick.’
‘I know that.’
‘But I’m not normal either.’
‘So? Who is?’
‘It’s like the brain is a computer,’ I said. ‘But mine works on a different operating system from other people’s. And my wiring’s different too.’
‘Neat,’ said Salim.
‘It means I am very good at thinking about facts and how things work and the doctors say I am at the
high-functioning end of the spectrum
.’ I’d also once heard a doctor say to Mum that my developmental path was skewed. I didn’t tell Salim this because I looked up ‘skewed’ in the dictionary and it said ‘crooked’, which makes it sound as if I am a criminal, which I am not.
‘That sounds good,’ Salim said.
‘Yes. But I’m rubbish at things like football.’
‘So am I,’ said Salim. ‘Tennis is my game.’
‘My favourite sport is trampolining,’ I said.
‘Yes. I used to have one. I jumped on it every day and it helped me to think. Then it broke.’
‘Too bad. I love trampolines.’
‘My syndrome means I am good at remembering big things, like important facts about the weather. But I’m always forgetting small things, like my school gym bag. Mum says I have a brain like a sieve. She means that things drop through the holes in my memory.’
Salim laughed. ‘Maybe I’ve got the syndrome too. I forget things myself.’
‘My mobile, sometimes. Or my homework.’
‘I never forget my homework. Kat says that’s why, at school, they call me a neek.’
‘It’s a cross between nerd and geek. They don’t like me because I only talk big. I’m trying to learn how to talk small. But it’s hard.’
‘You know an awful lot,’ Salim said. ‘I can tell from all these books.’ He pointed at my shelves of encyclopaedias. ‘Why bother trying to be something that you’re not?’
‘Mr Shepherd says if I learn how to be like other people, even just on the outside, not inside, then I’ll make more friends.’ Then I told him something I’d never told anyone before. ‘I don’t like being different. I don’t like being in my brain. Sometimes it’s like a big empty space where I’m all on my own. And there’s nothing else, just me.’
‘Nothing at all?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Not even the weather. Only my thoughts.’
‘I know that place,’ said Salim. ‘I’m in there too. It gets real lonely in there, doesn’t it?’
I heard him lie down again. He whistled through his teeth. ‘Lonely as hell,’ he muttered, and was quiet. I thought he’d fallen asleep, but a moment later he said, ‘You got called a lot worse things than neek at my school. It was all boys, no girls, and really rough stuff.’
‘Yeah. Fights and dares. One boy had a knife. I didn’t like it. But then I got friendly with my mate Marcus and it got better. He and I, we were the top moshers in Nine K. Marcus used to be Paki-Boy, like you’re a neek. But he isn’t any longer. He’s a mosher now.’
‘A mosher?’ I said. ‘What is a mosher?’
‘It’s northern for “casual, cool dude”. Last term we starred in this play called
. Marcus was a huge hit. He’ll never be Paki-Boy again.’
?’ I said. ‘Is that about the weather?’
‘Yeah. It’s by Shakespeare and starts with this massive storm out at sea. It’s right up your street.’
After that he did fall asleep. I lay back listening to him breathing in and out. I wondered how
could be right up Rivington Street, where we live. Then I realized ‘up your street’ was another funny thing people say that doesn’t mean exactly that. My brain waves started whirling around the big hollow in my head, like molecules in a cumulonimbus cloud that’s about to burst. I made up my own shipping forecast.
Malin Hebrides, northwest
seven to severe gale nine, deepening low moving north-
east, rain, becoming variable
. . . A cool breeze came in through the window. Salim gave a sigh, as if he was working something out in a dream. I thought about what Aunt Gloria had said about Andy Warhol being a cultural icon and maybe having what I’ve got. Then I remembered how some people say Einstein had it too. My brain waves calmed down. And then I fell asleep.
We Go to the Eye
When I woke up, the sleeping bag on the lilo on the floor next to my bed was empty. I looked out of the window to do a weather check. The sun shone. The anticyclonic pattern of the recent days continued. Barometers would be set to dry and fair and isobars would be far apart, just as I’d predicted yesterday.
I found Salim with Kat in the bathroom. He had Dad’s razor blade in his hand and was shaving off the faint hairs over his upper lip and laughing at the same time.
‘But I thought it looked good, Salim,’ Kat said. Salim turned and winked at me. ‘Thing is, the more you shave it, the more it grows back. It’s like lawnmowing.’
This made Kat hoot with laughter. When owls hoot, it doesn’t sound like humans laughing so I don’t know why people say ‘hoot’ but they do. Nor could I see any logic in hairs or grass growing longer by being cut off. But I laughed too because I wanted to be Salim’s friend. Then I ran a finger over my own upper lip. There were no hairs there and this was good. I wasn’t sure about the idea of hairs growing on my face. For one thing shaving is dangerous. Dad often comes out of the bathroom with bits of blooddrenched toilet paper stuck to his skin. For another thing facial hair is a sign that we have evolved from apes. And when you remember that we evolved from apes, you have to admit how limited human intelligence is mostly.
Then we had breakfast. I had forty-three Shreddies, Kat had toast and Salim started on a bowl of cornflakes but didn’t finish it. Then we left the house with Mum and Aunt Gloria walking behind us, talking up a storm. This is one of my favourite things people say. It doesn’t mean they were arguing, which is what it might sound like. It means that they were talking non-stop and not paying attention to anything else around them. When storms happen, it is hard to pay attention to anything else.