Helena was different. It wasn’t just her skin: creamy beige with no hint of English colour such as apple blush cheeks or jolly brown freckles. It wasn’t just her hair: coal black, straight and coarse, and so long she could sit on it. And it wasn’t just her face: round like a bun with almonds for eyes, though it was these which provoked the biggest reaction. At primary school they chanted: “Chinese, Japanese, slitty eyes, dirty knees.”
The teachers pretended not to notice as the children circled her, faces leering, hands shoving, fingers pointing, jabbing and poking.
“You’re a stinky Chinky, Helena Wong. Stinky Chinky, ha-ha ha.”
Ha-ha ha. But they didn’t call her names when they grunted for chips in the Wong’s takeaway. And they didn’t laugh as they handed over their money. But everyone pointed, their fingers jabbing and poking when Helena’s father drove past in his Rolls Royce. They had made him rich, but they hated him for it: he and his family of immigrant mongrels.
“God knows how many of them there are,” one woman tutted as Helena’s mother, aunt and grandmother pottered into the post office.
“Breed like rabbits, they do,” another clucked. “They shouldn’t be allowed here, taking our jobs, taking our houses and claiming our benefits.”
The takeaway was on the high street, its front window regularly smashed. It had a linoleum floor to make it easy for Helena to clean up footprints and litter, fag-ends and Saturday night sick. White-tiled walls, their glaze spidered with fine grey cracks, bore peeling stickers, legends of smiling farm folk brandishing pies.
Helena’s father was eager to retire. He looked forward to giving his only child what he had relished in life. He snorted at her timid words about becoming a teacher. He scoffed when she talked about university. And he got very angry when she mentioned a gap year.
“What do you want to do that for?” he yelled, Helena’s mother copying his open-mouthed outrage. “Don’t be so ungrateful. That’s what lazy English children do. We aren’t like them. We want to work. You want to work. What could be better than your own business? It’s all here for you. Travelling, bah.” He huffed back to his newspaper and shook its crumpled pages. He had bought a set of golf clubs, an early retirement gift to himself, and was itching to use them.
Helena hung her head. She knew she was different. It was like a fire burning in her veins. And as she sat in bed, staring long into the night, she knew she couldn’t spend the rest of her life with batter under her fingernails and hair that stank of chip fat. She wanted something else. She wanted to be far away, somewhere where she wasn’t a stinky Chinky, somewhere where she wasn’t Harry Wong’s daughter, somewhere where she could be just ‘Helena’ and get to know what that meant.
“You should tell them,” hissed her cousin Charles. “You’ll be rubbish anyway. It should be me who gets to run the place. You’re useless.”
Helena bit her lip. She knew better than to retort. She never won.
“You’re weird, Helena,” he growled. “I can’t wait until your dad retires; I’m really going to make you suffer. How long do you think you’ll last?”
It was the beginning of July, three weeks before she would walk out of school for the last time. The golf clubs lurked at the back of the shop. Charles spat on the floor every time he passed. But Helena took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
At the stroke of eleven, the takeaway closed. Harry left Helena mopping the floor. When she appeared upstairs, he was watching television.
“Everything turned off?” He didn’t glance round.
“Everything?” asked her mother, looking up.
“Yes,” said Helena. “Night-night, I’m going to bed.”
She sat listening. Her mother had gone to bed half an hour ago. Now she could hear the flush of the toilet, the ping-pong of the light switch, and her father’s curse as he tripped over the slumbering dog on the landing. She chewed her nails and shivered, in spite of the sticky summer night.
She listened and listened. The dog was making a soft rasping sound. Her father was snoring, her mother sighing in her sleep. Clutching her shoes, Helena slipped along the hall and down the stairs with practised stealth, avoiding each traitorous, creaking floorboard. She gritted her teeth and held her breath as she turned the backdoor key, teasing it millimetre by agonising millimetre, sweating for fear it would make its habitual grind and wake the house. But the squirt of lubricant, the last thing she’d done this evening while locking up, had worked its magic. The key turned. The door opened. She slipped outside.
She froze. Her ears filtered the air for the angry bellow which would mean her absence had been discovered. But there was nothing other than the faint hymn of distant traffic, a sirens’ song from the motorway, praising the promise of faraway places. She crept to the bin near the gate where she’d hidden the bag she’d packed last night. Then, with one last glance around the yard, one last glance at the barred windows of the takeaway’s kitchen, and one last glance up at the white pebble-dashed building where her parents lay sleeping, she slipped through the gate. She hoisted the bag over her shoulder, and set off down the street. Round the corner, she broke into a run. Her stomach might be churning, but her shoulders lifted with every step.
Sam Pennington writes in Lancashire.