by Shameelah Khan
A very Happy Easter to everyone celebrating.
I used to love the film Gremlins, but I don’t anymore.
I hold the memories of the playground and everything about my primary school years close to me. We daydreamed ourselves out of abusive homes, trauma, poverty and psychological difficulties. Things were not easy back then but play provided an escape from our realities, healing us. We would invent worlds of our own, trying to forget the pains of growing up, as if moving from grade 3 to 4 was a world of heightened anxieties on our backs. My friends and I had a special playground-cave, where we had rose keys that gave us powers to enter. Once we crossed the strings of cascading leaves, we entered into another dimension. We had rituals and we lived by them for 7 years. We bought the R4 hotdogs at our tuckshop drenching them in cheap watery tomato sauce. We all had our names graffitied or “stoekad” as we called it, onto our Karrimor bags. Listen! You were not cool if you didn’t have a Karrimor. We would exchange books and get lost in debates about which Roald Dahl book we had liked best. We competed for excellent marks and we always bought ice cream from Mashamplum (pretty sure that wasn’t his name) after school. The jelly and custard and the bubblegum were a hit. We would plan our matching outfits for days when we could dress up out of school uniform. We would tease each other about boys in our class. And, believe it or not, we even went on strike in grade 7, literally staging a protest outside of class, speaking out against injustices and then we got sent to the principal’s office and learnt that strikes were not that simple, even as 13 year olds. We would plan the best sets for the talent shows, the stage was a happy place. It was an easy time, a less stressful time. We were prefects, head girls, deputy head girls, mini-city councillors. We were organisers and trendsetters. We were “nerds”. We would go through the years getting our first periods together, having stay awakes at each other’s houses, building memories at camp. School was a good time.
There was this one, brief period though, where the playground began to sink beneath my feet and pulled me under. I was hiding and not seeking. I was caught up in my own tug-of-war. I was a sensitive child. I still am a sensitive adult who holds inside of her the child she once was, unravelling. I was sad and I didn’t know how to tell my friends or teachers about it, because I was too little to understand grief. I was too caught up in the whim of play, that play was all I knew. It all began when I devised a plan to skip school, a mastermind one if you ask me. My parents’ best friends had lived with us at the time with their three sons. The middle son, Waheed, who I had been extremely fond of, had contracted chickenpox, and when I heard that it was contagious, I did the right thing and rubbed my arm against his. At first, I didn’t get the pox and I was upset. My plan was failing. I was at school the next day, walking around the playground, and suddenly an itch. An itch that needed to be scratched. I rushed to the bathroom, and saw some red spots on my arm. This was it, I thought. My plan was finally working out. Yeah, not so much. GOOD GRIEF!!! Waheed and I were forced to incubate in my mother’s room, where we were basically in prison (a back-in-the-day quarantine, you could say). We weren’t allowed out to play and we were not allowed to scratch ourselves. One day, I remember whispering, “if I give you these sweets will you keep quiet and not tell them?” Easy-crowd, I didn’t have to say much else. I was scratching, digging my nails into my skin. There was relief. A burning relief.
I was miserable and he was not the best company. I was a lot older than him. He was about 4 years old at the time. Imagine being stuck in a room with a 4-year-old who was overly hyper and had preventative oven mittens on. I had to watch over him, pulling his hands down every time he couldn’t fight the urge. Days had passed by and he and I were slipping into pox mania. We were creating our own little playground. We were playing blind’s man bluff, and I was reading Matilda to him. He was a fan of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory though, only because he loved giggling at the Oompa Loompas. His favourite film was Gremlins and everyone called him a Gremlin. We watched it all week on repeat. By the time the itching had stopped and the plastering of chamomile lotion had discontinued, we were let out into the real world again and I was finally able to get back to school and see my friends.
I missed it though, the playground Waheed and I created confined to the four walls, between our itchiness and carefree joy. I didn’t have a younger brother yet, so he was mine. My own gremlin.
We went on holiday that December, his family and ours. They weren’t living with us anymore though. But once you go through the pox together, you are bonded for life. He was a playful person and we loved that about him. He was on the jungle gym and then he fell off of it. I was at the bottom though, and I broke his fall. His mother always told me that if I hadn’t been there, who knows what would have happened to him on that day. Months after, we returned to school, backpacks packed and the smell of new hardcover books, Space Cases and our Karrimors. Then I got the news, Waheed had developed a brain tumour and at the tender age of six, he had passed on, his tiny busy body under the weight of his own creative mind. The playground never really felt like a healing space after that.
In this issue:
Tell Me 3 Things About Yourself — Shameelah Khan
Odd Bookers: Books You Have to Read Before You Grow Up — Kelly Ansara
Odd Bookers: A tree, a bud and a flower — Radiyah Manjoo
Odd Bookers: Celebrating the African Child — Zaakirah Cassim Cachalia