‘Christmas is coming,’ people were saying at Rushida’s school.
‘What’s the best thing about Christmas?’ Rushida asked her friend Jane.
‘Presents,’ said Jane immediately. ‘You get lots of presents. And good things to eat—roast turkey and Christmas pudding.’
‘I don’t know if we’ll have that,’ said Rushida doubtfully. ‘What else happens?’
‘Parties happen,’ said Jane. ‘And there’s the Nativity play the Infants are doing—you’ll see it next week. It’s all about Jesus being born in a stable.’
Rushida and Jane were first year Juniors. They felt older than the Infants, whose classrooms were in a different part of the school buildings.
‘I was an angel last year in the play, before you came,’ Jane said dreamily, remembering. ‘Me and Sharon and Mandy and Denise, we were all angels. We had wings. One of mine fell off, I was all lop-sided! You’d have laughed. I also thought your accent was quite funny, but I felt at once we were going to be friends.’
Rushida giggled at the memory too. She and her family had come to England from Bangladesh at the end of February. She remembered how cold she had felt. She remembered many, many things.
‘I hadn’t seen many blue or green eyes before England,’ she told Jane.
‘I’m sure you hadn’t,’ said Miss Robinson, their form teacher, who happened to be passing by their table. ‘You two are very different but you’ve a lot in common. You’re both a couple of Tomboys.’
‘What’s tomboys, then?’ asked Rushida.
‘Girls who like cars and aeroplanes just as much as dolls’, said Jane.
‘Come on, everybody, sit down,’ said Miss Robinson to the whole class. ‘I’m going to read you a story about Christmas. It’ll be here soon. Anybody done some Christmas shopping yet?’
Some of the children answered her, but Rushida kept silent. She knew that Christmas was going to be another of those things that weren’t the same for Muslim families, such as her own. Her family had festivals to celebrate, but they were different ones. Early last summer, there had been Eid, coming after the month’s fast of Ramadan. For all that time the grownups in her family had eaten and drunk nothing between the hours of sunrise and sunset: their religion had forbidden it. When it was all over, there had been a big party with lots of good food, and she, her older sister, her nine-year old brother, Ahmed, and her two-year old baby brother had all had new clothes.
The story that Miss Robinson was reading out loud was called ‘White Christmas’ and it was about snow coming on Christmas Day, and changing the world. Rushida listened attentively. She had heard of snow before, but never seen it. How she longed to see it and find out what it was really like!
When she got home that afternoon she asked her cousin Hassan about snow. Hassan had been in England with his parents and his older brothers since he was five, and now he was twelve. They all lived in the top half of Rushida’s house. Hassan’s father and Rushida’s father were brothers.
‘Snow is like ice-cream. It comes from the sky and covers the whole world, and you can eat it, only you mustn’t eat too much, because then all your insides freeze and you turn into a snowman,’ said Hassan, his eyes glinting.
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Rushida, with dignity.
‘You can pick it up and throw it in balls,’ said Hassan.
‘Maybe,’ thought Rushida. ‘Maybe not.’ Hassan liked teasing her, that she did know.
‘There’s a model of Father Christmas in a shop in the High Street,’ said her brother Ahmed then. ‘He has a white beard, and he’s driving a cart on snow. Haven’t you seen him yet?’
‘Not a cart, a sledge,’ corrected Hassan. ‘Drawn by reindeer. And he has a sack full of presents. He’s supposed to come down people’s chimneys and give out the presents.’
‘You’re having me on,’ said Rushida, and Hassan just laughed.
Christmas Day came at last, and to Rushida’s disappointment it was a day like any other, cold, and raining a little.
‘I hate English rain,’ thought Rushida, as she pressed her face to the window. ‘I hate grey streets, and cars. I want to be back in the village in Bangladesh. I want to run in the fields after the rice harvest, when they are all golden and empty. When the rains come, I want to skim along the water in a boat. I want to see all the relations we left behind… I want to see the ducks and the chickens and the goats and our cow… the water buffalo with his beautiful curving horns that our uncle owns… I want to wade into our pond again, under the heat of the sun, and sit on the steps and dry, oh, so quickly…’
She had been quite happy in England for months, but now she wept.
‘I don’t like Christmas,’ she said to Ahmed.
‘Christmas is for Western people, anyway,’ he said.
The next day was called Boxing Day. What a funny name that was! There was an odd feel to the air, and a kind of quietness, as Rushida got out of bed.
‘Look out of the window!’ Ahmed shouted. Outside, the world was white. Something white lay thickly in their garden, covering the grass, so that no green showed. It lay on the walls and on the bare branches of the trees; each twig had its covering.
‘Snow!’ they shouted. They all dressed as quickly as possible, and rushed outside, even the grown-ups.
They scooped up the snow and threw it, and Ahmed even rolled in it. It tasted of cold water, not ice-cream. It stung the lips and cheeks and hands, it was so cold.
Soon the toddler was crying, and Ahmed was moaning, ‘Oh, the snow hurts. It’s got down my back! Ugh!’
They ran in to find dry clothes and to warm themselves, and Rushida looked back at the garden that had been so fresh and white, sparkling in the sun like diamonds. While they were eating their midday meal, large, soft snowflakes began to drift down from the sky; it grew dark and heavy looking, and the snow fell on and on, quietening the world again.
At last, well into the afternoon, the flakes stopped falling, and their back garden was new.
‘I shall make a snowman,’ cried Hassan. ‘Ahmed, you can help.’
‘I will do something else,’ said Rushida.
She put on heavy gloves and collected deep armfuls of snow, piling it up so it looked like a… It looked like a…
Why, from above it looked like a big bird, an eagle, its wings half outstretched! She carefully added to one wing, smoothed the other. Now the head. She shaped a knob of snow like a bird’s head, cut away snow underneath to shape the body. After much searching, she found a bent twig to be the eagle’s beak, little stones for the eyes…
Yes, there was her eagle looking at her, a truly magic bird. She could fly back to the village on him. He would take her wherever she wished.
‘Yah!’ shouted Ahmed. He was cold and cross, because Hassan had been ordering him about over their snowman.
He kicked at Rushida’s bird. Bumf! The wings lost their shape, the beak and eyes disappeared.
The magic bird was just a heap of snow again.
Rushida ran inside the house and buried her face in the sofa cushions. She stayed there a long time.
‘My beautiful bird, all gone,’ she thought. ‘Nothing lasts. I shall never see the village again.’
Suddenly there was a knock on the front door. It was her friend Jane, who lived near.
‘I’ve got a Christmas present for Rushida,’ said Jane. ‘I couldn’t bring it yesterday, we were out all day.’
She handed Rushida a parcel, wrapped in shiny Christmas paper. Inside was a gleaming aeroplane, about six inches long, with blue body and silver wings. It had a propeller, and wheels that whirred round.
‘I want one too,’ said Ahmed enviously.
‘No. It’s my Christmas present,’ cried Rushida fiercely, ‘given me by my friend. She has changed my bird into an aeroplane. That means one day I will fly wherever I like. Oh, I think Christmas is really great, now!’
‘And next Christmas,’ said the practical Jane, ‘you will give me a present.’