On Being Mary – Sulaxana Hippisley

The Asian Writer Short Story Competition – Runner Up

Angela O’ Connor was the Virgin Mary. Everyone knew it was true. Something about the neon scrunchie with black dots that held up her hair. And her lips. You only saw lips like that in my sister’s magazines. Bliss or Mizz. Those ones where they told you to line your lips first and then put Lipcote on. But Angela O’Connor didn’t need all that.

The first day I saw her I was new in 6D and sitting far from her, trying to spell occasion with a ‘T’. Angela got twenty-four out of twenty-four for spelling every Monday. Our teacher, Mrs Chaterji, held up her book and showed us her neat handwriting, her weird S with the slanted line at the top, not the swirly hoop that normal people did.

S….S…S…S…S…S

I was going to do my ‘S’ like that. Forever.At playtime I watched her in her striped t-shirt and sea blue culottes being surrounded by the other girls. Then there was her sister Melanie. A sturdy half-pounder girl from year four whose game was lifting people. ‘Bet I can lift you’ she’d say. Then you’d say, ‘No, you can’t.’ And then she would. Like you were a bell or something. ‘See? Told you so’ she’d say.

You heard how her Nanna who lived in county Cork sent those clothes every Easter and not just them culottes, but matching long sleeved tops and flowery leggings. Both she and Melanie would come to school in them. Angela in blue and Melanie in purple, the flowers stretched out of shape over Melanie’s thighs.

I told my Dad that I wanted culottes, but he couldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand why the Fido Dido sweatshirt and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jeans he bought me weren’t right. He thought all the bright coloured stuff was for kids. ‘What’s wrong?’ he said to me, ‘These are good things, and only five pounds in Wembley market.’ He didn’t know that some things were for girls and other things were for boys. He didn’t know I cried myself to sleep after he bought me blue slippers with Bart Simpson on them.

The thing about Angela was that she wasn’t annoying nice like those girls who’d play ‘my little pony’ or kiss chase, but properly nice. Now I think about it, she never said much. But she’d let you be her friend without trying at all; she’d let you jump under the rope during Mississippi or just make a gap for you when every one else was linking arms. She made you feel like you were all right too.

One time, she got a new red lunch box and put in a picture of strawberries in the plastic window at the front. A few days later, they were all at it. Meera and Leela had exactly the same picture inserted in their lunch boxes. The same Meera and Leela who would take turns to cry on Tuesdays after swimming because Angela O’Connor sat next to one and not the other on the bus on the way home. When you saw Meera run, you wondered if her bony legs could break in half like chocolate matchsticks. Then there was Leela whose mother had asked her to walk on the other side of the road after hearing I’d had chicken pox.

They’d all been at nursery together. Not like me who came in year six. They’d all held clammy hands and run through the bushes and sung songs in the hall painted by Angela’s carpenter father.
Kum bay ah my lord, kum bay ah.
She even liked the kids that nobody else did; kids like Pissinpants Asha. I used to walk home with Asha. They said she’s pissed her pants once after PE and the smell had never gone away. But even Pissinpants Asha was Angela’s friend.
‘Angela’s going to Sacred Heart in September’ she said to me like she was the only authority on the matter one afternoon. ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘why isn’t she going to David Keele like you and me?’ Both Asha’s parents and mine had decided we were going to the comp up the road with the broken windows. There was no way we’d be put on a bus to go to a school half a mile away.

Asha shrugged, ‘Cos she’s a virgin, you have to be a virgin to go there.’
‘Virgin?’ I said, ‘What’s that? Can I be one?’
‘Dunno’ Asha said, polishing off the last gobstopper, ‘it means you’re special or something. You have to be one to go to the convent. It means you’re Catholic and then you get to wear a wedding dress and then you get to pick your own name. Like ‘Kylie’. Angela’s gonna pick Kylie for her middle name.’
‘Are you one, a virgin then?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, cos I’m going to her party innit?’ Asha said ‘but my mum says I’m not allowed to believe in Jesus cos we have Krishna and he’s better than Jesus.’ She said all this licking her blue lips.

The next day, word had got round. Angela O’Connor’s birthday party. The nice party for nice people she liked. By afternoon, something happened. A pink envelope marked with Angela’s slanting ‘S’ arrived in my tray. Asha told me that none of the boys were allowed to come. It was only for girls and I was one of them. A virgin.
The party was on the first Saturday of the Summer holidays; the Summer holiday after which we would all go to secondary school. Asha and me to David Keele, Angela to Sacred Heart and Meera and Leela to Kingsbury High where all the other Gujarati kids were going. I told my dad a week in advance so he’d get me a good present for Angela. None of the Wembley market stuff that broke after a few days, but something good from Woolworths like a pencil case or a Spirograph or those glow in the dark pens.

At three o’clock that Saturday afternoon, I stood in front of Angela’s doorstep, listening to the pop music and the thudthud of feet. Angela opened the door in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt and reached out to grab my hand. She took me to the back of the house where girls from 6D were lying around on her living room carpet. Under a ceiling with pink and silver balloons, they were tucking into plates of Cadbury’s mini rolls and plastic bowls of Smarties. The whole place smelled like the cleanest clothes you’d like to wear, like Comfort fabric conditioner or talcum powder. It was the smell I recognised on Angela. The scent of the Virgin Mary.

In one of the corners beside a cabinet with a photo of a buck toothed Melanie, Asha sat by herself, gripping a box wrapped in tartan gift paper. She seemed relieved to see me. I went over and sat down next to her, our scabby knees touching. ‘I’ve been here before’ she said to me, ‘when Angela asked me to come and see the guinea pig in year four. You haven’t innit?’ I shook my head. It turned out that Asha wasn’t allowed mini rolls cos they had gelatine and that came from pigs which you couldn’t eat if you were Hindu.

We stared at the pictures of Jesus and Mary with bright red hearts that sat on top of the telly. It made you feel sort of sad but then you thought Mary was pretty at the same time, but not like pretty people you knew in real life. We sat for a while munching on Skips and sipping cherry cola from paper cups. Meera and Leela ran in and out of Angela’s bedroom carrying stuff that we had all longed to touch like relics from a shrine. Hair clips, toys, books, cassettes. Meera and Leela were wearing the same scrunchies; perfect plaits of Sarasvathi black hair bounced out of neon rings.

When me and mum watched Mahabarat on Saturday afternoons, I asked if I could have hair like that. Like Draupadi who was always waiting for Arjun to come rescue her with his tin foil crown. She didn’t like the sound of that, my mum. ‘No, no’ she said. ‘Long hair is for Indian girls, not for us. Those English will think you’re Indian then.’

Soon Angela’s mother (the school secretary you paid your dinner money to on Mondays) gathered everyone together for cake and presents. We sat in a circle and Angela opened her gifts. Meera had given Angela a spray paint kit and Leela had bought her multi coloured hair bands and pens to dye your hair with. Angela looked for the sticky tape tabs on every gift before opening and passed present and paper to her mother who smoothed each sheet and folded them in to squares on her lap like she was going to use them again or something.

Asha (who didn’t want to tell me about her secret present) finally handed over the tartan box. We all leaned in. When Angela finally managed to pull away the paper, Meera started to laugh like she did in class sometimes when Moustapha Ali’s hair oil started to drip down the back of his neck. ‘Awh… she’s already got one of those, hasn’t she mum?’ said Melanie, pointing at the tin box of Maths stuff (protractor, set square, compass, ruler, scissors?) in Angela’s hands. No one said anything. Meera and Leela started to whisper and I felt Asha picking at her scab. It wasn’t even pink, but that tin sort of box with a plain blue sticker. Maybe Asha’s mum was like my dad and thought you only needed useful stuff, not fun stuff. Angela carried on smiling and her mum started to speak like Cilla Black on Surprise Surprise! or something. ‘How thoughtful Asha, Angela will need one of those for school in September!’

Next, it was my turn. Dad had wrapped the present in pink spotty paper. He had listened to my advice. Not from Wembley market but Woolworths, he’d said when he put the wrapped gift in my hands. At least my gift wasn’t going to be naff like Asha’s, I thought to myself as Angela ran a finger along the edge and neatly popped open the package. When the thing finally came out, all I could think about was Angela carrying my present and the other girls asking where it came from.
And then came Meera’s voice. ‘Errr! That’s crap! My present’s better than that!’ she cried as Angela looked down at a pink handbag, so small that it could only belong to a six year old. Then, if you looked carefully at the top right hand corner of the cardboard packaging, you saw the writing: ‘suitable for ages five to seven.’ I felt my eyes itching. But Angela wasn’t bothered, ‘Don’t say that!’ she said to Meera who stared back at her.

I couldn’t see Angela with it; not even Melanie would carry it under her tubby arm. It would go to the back of her drawer only to be wrapped up for Christmas tombola.

I felt sick. I didn’t know if it was because of all that cake or because I wanted to run away from all of them and scream at my dad for forgetting his glasses. Angela’s mother put the music on and moved all the furniture to play musical chairs. Asha and I sat squashed against one end of the sofa, both of us scratching at our satin sleeves with the scalloped edges.
I looked again at the Mary on top of the telly, all covered in a pale blue robe with a face like the lady in the Fairy Liquid ad. For some reason, it made me feel sad. Angela would look like that one day. A face that said it was all right if you brought the wrong present for the best friend you never had. And then I felt something else, seeing Angela’s ponytail swinging after her as she tried to land her bum on the chairs to Chesney Hawkes.

I am the one and only. Nobody I’d rather be. I am the one and only. Can’t take that away from me.
I’d never have thought of it if Angela’s mother hadn’t left all the presents on the coffee table. I can’t remember it now really except that when she sat by my feet on the floor, I liked the feeling of her hair in my hands. She was so used to it, so used to people stroking it like the mane of some horse. She’d let you do that in assembly, let you play with her hair while she sang ‘Michael row the boat ashore. Allelooooooooyah!’

But something about its silkiness, like the breast of a blackbird, made me feel sad too. Maybe Angela didn’t want to be the Virgin Mary. Maybe she just wanted to come to David Keele with Asha and me. So it seemed like the right thing to do to get the tiny scissors out of Asha’s tin box of maths stuff and to snip away at it quietly, watching it leaving a messy pineapple headed mound where the fountain once came out.

***

It was Asha who screamed or maybe Leela when they saw it falling to the ground. I can’t remember what happened afterwards except my mum crying on the phone after Angela’s mother told her. I didn’t know what to say to any of them really. Angela didn’t cry though. She just stared at the hair in her hands. A dead guinea pig at peace. I watched them while I waited by the door for my dad to come and get me; Leela and Meera were on either side of her, fighting to throw their skinny arms over her bird shoulders.

When Asha and I got to David Keele that September, she told me how Angela’s mother had to give her a pudding bowl bob so they’d still let her into Sacred Heart. But even then there were spikes on the top of her head that wouldn’t lie down. ‘D’you think Angela’s a Virgin still? You know, special and stuff?’ I asked Asha as we stood in the corner of the playground next to the burger van. She shrugged and bit into one of her mum’s onion bhajis wrapped in tin foil. ‘Naaah’ she said, ‘not anymore, you’ve got to have proper hair innit?’

Some big boys thundered past us to the other side, kicking a football against the far wall. Just then, two girls walked past, one tall with a mousy fringe carrying a striped bag. The other looked like she’d been crying. I’d seen them in the welcome assembly staring pink faced at Mrs Waughn, our head of year. The tall one turned and smiled at Asha. ‘Hiya’ she said. Asha waved back, still chomping on her bhaji. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked, surprised that Asha had been making friends behind my back. Asha looked at me and grinned. ‘Er…don’t you even know Joanna Pettyfer yet?’ she asked.

Joanna Pettyfer. Joanna Pettyfer. Jo. Anna. Petty. Fur.
It was a good name, a grown up telly name like the ones that belonged to the girls in Byker Grove. Donna, Charlie, Brenda. A name so perfect that it fell from your lips like pear drops. And it tasted sweet. Sweeter than Angela O’Connor.

 

Sulaxana Hippisley moved to London at the age of eight from Kandy, Sri Lanka. She graduated with a degree in English literature from Queen Mary, University of London and completed a Masters in Literature, Culture and Modernity at the same institution. For the past six years she has taught A-Level English and currently teaches in North London. Sulaxana is currently working on a collection of short stories about her mother’s family in colonial Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan diasporic experiences in London. Her influences include James Joyce, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith.