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The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

Ravine  has been bedridden since the day that Marianne disappeared. Ten years on, she begins to write down all that she remembers, confronting the horrors of her past

When the illness first came I tried not to remember anything. Memories are like stinging nettles. At first you don't realize they've stung you and by the time you do, the needles are already buried under your skin, making you itch until all you can think about is ways to get rid of the sting. I tried to get rid of you, Marianne. I hid all our toys beneath my bed, removed all the pictures from their frames yet still, even when I try to forget, you're there.

The first memory I have of you is all knickers and legs. You can't have been more than six at the time but had somehow flipped yourself into a handstand against the wall of my flat and couldn't get back down. The skirt of your dress was so long it covered not only the bottom half of your upside-down body but also your head. I remember the sight of your tanned legs against the cream of the wall, the tiny flower print on your frilly yellow knickers. Even then I was jealous of you because all my underwear was plain and white and bought from the local pound shop.

Memories are slippery. Although this image of you is clear in my mind, I can't remember what you said as I helped flip you back up. Whether you were dizzy as the blood drained from your head, whether you tried to teach me the same trick and I point-blank refused. But I do remember thinking you were someone I wanted to be friends with, even when all I could see were you knickers and legs. I had no other friends on Westhill and you fitted the bill (i.e. you were my age, you were a girl).

Amma had been worried about me at the time because I hadn't been mixing well at school. I had a habit of hiding from the other children, inventing my own games in quiet little corners and screaming at anyone who found me. At home I stayed superglued to Amma's side, asking her never-ending questions as she did the housework. After I took an interest in you she regularly pushed me out of the flat, making me knock on your door, then, when you answered, telling me not to rush home. Amma decided we were best friends before either of us did.

 

I believed in sleep then because Amma fed me the lie that without enough of it not only would I stop growing but I would shrink. I was too small already

At school we did every project together. There was the time we tried to research a tourist brochure of our local area but the only facts we found out were how the city was (roughly) in the middle of the country, had a cheese named after it and was once home to Daniel Lambert, the fattest man in England. It took us a while to come up with a slogan. At first we thought of Leicester: in the middle of everything, then became more ambitious with Leicester! Eat cheese! Get fat! Get famous! Eventually we decided to steal Rebecca Knight's idea: Leicester - the heart of England. Rebecca Knight sat on the top table and was so clever she didn't have to do partner work. She was a safe bet.

When it came to the actual content of the brochure we decided to narrow our focus to facts about Westhill Estate and, more specifically, the residents of Bosworth House and their pets. Most of those people have left now. The Pattersons still live on the fourth floor (one mother, three boys, two British bulldogs) and Sandy Burke and her twins live on the first (three cats), but other people like old Mrs Simmons across the hall (two budgies and a parakeet) have gone.

People move in and out of Bosworth House all the time. In your old flat next door, a Somali family are getting ready to move after - allegedly - winning the lottery. This was controversial because the Ahmed family are Muslim and the mother had been buying lottery tickets secretly at the corner shop, even though it's against her religion to gamble. You should have heard the way they argued about it. I didn't understand what they said but it sounded bitter. Their two boys slept in the room that used to be yours and, whenever their parents argued, hid there until it blew over. Through the walls, I'd hear them debating whether it was better to do a water-bomb attack from the third- or fourth-floor balcony (third had better range, fourth had better height). But just as I got drawn in to the debate they began speaking in fast beats of Somali that washed straight over me.

I miss their voices. The sound filled emptiness the way your voice did when you spoke to me at night. It was a blessing and a curse that your bed was pushed up against the same partition wall as mine. If you spoke loudly I could hear most of what you said, but if you lowered your voice it was like listening to a radio that keeps losing its signal. If it was past nine o'clock I'd tell you to shut up because I needed to sleep. I believed in sleep then because Amma fed me the lie that without enough of it not only would I stop growing but I would shrink. I was too small already and wouldn't have been so rude if I wasn't afraid of disappearing. Still, you never seemed to mind, carrying on with your jibber-jabber right through the night. 

"If you could have a superpower, what (mumble, mumble)? . . . I (mumble) invisible. I read about this man who (mumble, mumble) but there was a picture of him right there so (mumble, mumble). Or maybe (mumble) was invincible."

I kept my mini dictionary in my robe pocket, and wanted to check what 'invincible' meant but was scared that, if I did, the lack of sleep would make me shrivel into a speck of dust. Eventually my fear of shrinking was outweighed by my need to know and I'd end up sitting cross-legged on the bedroom floor, looking up all the unknown words you bombarded me with.

I was the queen of words back then. I'd constantly look up meaning in my mini dictionary, which you found funny and useful, and your messy-haired brother found plain irritating. He used to shove me in the shoulder when I used a word he didn't understand (which was often), making sure you were looking the other way when he did it. Sometimes he'd snatch my mini dictionary and wave it over my head until I'd have to jump up and down like a Jack Russell to retrieve it. Jonathan always knew how to rattle me. It was his one and only gift in life.

I suppose you won't remember much about Bosworth House, it's been so long. You probably remember the size of it, looming high and wide as it sits on the side of the hill, but you'll have forgotten the details. The bars they extended on the balconies so that people wouldn't throw themselves (or each other) over the side. The narrow steps with a rank stink we only found out was piss when Jonathan told us in a well-what-else-would-it-be tone one day. The way the council comes and repaints the outside walls each and every year but still doesn't send anyone to fix the stupid lifts. The view from the fourth floor where you can see down to the whole of Westhill Estate, white-painted blocks of flats snaking down to the main road like vertebrae. We used to sit up there on the fourth floor with our legs poking out from the gaps in the railings, swinging them in the breeze as we sucked orange-flavoured ice-lollies. We'd turn to each other and shout, 'Open wide and say ahhrr!' in our poshest doctor voices, then stick out tangerine tongues at each other before drowning out the sound. We tried to see who could carry the note the longest. You always won.

No, when I think through the logic of it I don't believe you'd remember any of it. I don't blame you. You haven't had ten years of lying in the same bed with nothing but the same memories running through your head. That's all I've had, you see. That and Amma.

"It's my job to take care of you, shona," she tells me on my bad days. "I will never leave you, Ravine. You cannot be selfish when you're a mother."

When she says this, I don't remind her about yours.

She was beautiful, your mum, or at least she had been in the photographs. She had a whole row of them lined up in silver frames on the dresser in your living room. Glossy shots of her young grinning face, ruffled blonde eighties hair, pink silky lipstick circling her mouth. When she was drunk she would tell us about when she was a beauty queen. We imagined her on stage in an evening gown, tiara perched on big pouffy hair as she rolled her hand in a royal wave. After she'd gone we found a picture under the bed of her sitting on her knees, skin tanned brown as horse hide, chin dipped down to her collarbone as her breasts lay exposed.

Your mother was always so happy in those photogrpahs - even the nudey one. She hardly ever smiled when we were around and never at me. I had a habit or irritating her without meaning to. Every time I called her Mrs Dickerson she'd visibly flinch.

"For heaven's sake, just call me Elaine," she'd say.

I'd nod my head. "Yes, Mrs Dickerson."

In fact, the only time I saw your mother use her photograph-smile was with your dad. Her eyes would light up, every tooth on display. Then, five minutes later she'd be throwing plates at his head. When she sat me, you and Jonathan down to explain he'd moved to live in 'the castle' in the middle of the city, we all believed her. It was only later that we found out this was HM Prison Leicester, which did in fact look like a giant castle, though wasn't home to any lords or ladies. You never saw him again.

On the day that would change everything, the same day we were pretend-playing chess in your living room, Mrs Dickerson only began smiling after she'd opened the letter. It had been lying there on the pile she always banned you from looking at - white envelopes with official type, brown envelopes with red writing at the edges of their plastic windows. But this letter was different. It had a loose handwritten scrawl across it, and when your mother opened it she didn't throw a mug against the wall like she did when she read the other letters, but sat upright in her seat. We were eight then and so used to her slump - lying across sofas, draped across table tops - that when she sat up straight we both looked up from the chess board. Her pale-blue eyes were scanning the pages, dropping down to the bottom of a sheet before flicking quickly to the next. When she'd finished she simply sat, staring at the bundle of papers in her hands. Eventually she smiled. Not the same as the toothy smiles in the pictures, wide and exaggerated, but soft, slow and full of hope. It wasn't long after that she got the vodka bottle from the kitchen and pulled us into a barn dance.

Jonathan watched from the corner of the room.

"For shit's sake!" he said, as she began spinning us around.

She was whooping so loudly that she didn't hear him.

"Ding dong, the witch is dead!" she sang, doe-si-doeing our bodies across the carpet.

Your mother's favourite film was The Wizard of Oz so we didn't pay much attention to the words. Her steps were so quick we almost tumbled over until she suddenly stopped. She looked at the dresser before running over to it and opening all the doors. She was in such a rush that she didn't notice how she'd upset her own pictures. The metal frames clinked against each other as she opened a small burgundy book with a gold emblem of a lion and unicorn stamped on the cover. As she examined the pages inside she didn't notice how the photographs of her former beauty - the same ones she polished each Sunday and banned you from touching - had fallen flat on their faces.

We should have known then that something was wrong.

Find out more about the author

The Things We Thought We Knew

Mahsuda Snaith

AN OBSERVER NEW FACE OF FICTION FOR 2017

'An original and affecting coming-of-age novel' The Observer
'Fuses life's big themes with daily minutiae ... A voice of the next generation' Stylist
'A vibrant portrayal of estate life in the late nineties and an affecting story of friendship' The Independent

Ravine and Marianne were best friends. They practised handstands together, raced slugs and went into the woods to play.

But now everything has changed.

Ten years later, Ravine lies in a bed plagued by chronic pain syndrome. And her best friend Marianne is gone.

How did their last adventure go so wrong? Who is to blame? And where is Marianne?

Heartbreaking, bittersweet and utterly unforgettable, The Things We Thought We Knew is a powerful novel about the things we remember and the things we wish we could forget.

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