Sample 5. Extract from Little Ears by Zaman, M., LGC, 2020 

Chapter 2) The Black Pit

 

Maryam woke up to a nip of cold in her room and sank deeper into the bed, drawing the duvet around her, stretching out her legs. She then remembered what day it was. Oh sugar.The first day at her new school. She poked her head out and reached across for the hearing aids on her bedside table and propped herself up against the pillows. She’d had an awful night’s sleep, unable to get the strange giggles out of her head. She felt confused and nervous, a certain kind of fear taking hold of her. Just then the angels seemed to answer.

The bedroom door opened and Mum walked in carrying her crisp school uniform on a hanger. She placed it on Maryam’s bed and sat down next to her.

‘Did you sleep okay?’

‘Not really…’

‘You were sad last night. Weren’t you?’

‘I guess so. I don’t like it when you and Papa argue. I guess it’s because of me.’

‘It’s not because of you. We argued before you came along. Conflict is part of life and it can be healthy. But it’s not unreasonable to be sad about it. That’s normal in fact. It’s okay to be sad about it Maryam, as long as you don’t get pulled into it … as long as you remember there is always good in life, good is always happening and, in some way, we’re all here to help one another and it’s that old thing that everything happens for a reason.’

‘Something weird happened. I heard someone laughing at me.’

Mum sat up, her body alert and concerned at the same time. A smile then came over her and, when she spoke, her voice was gentle and kind.

‘Sometimes the mind plays tricks on us Maryam. It happens when we’re sad and scared. You need to try and stay calm, not get upset and not get lost in that place. The thing to remember is that you’re in charge of all of that. Now, let’s get ready for school, there are lots of nice new people for you to meet and you have a great teacher, remember?’

Mrs Sawyer had visited them at their old house. She was a smart woman; young, vibrant and pretty, not old and strict like her name sounded to Maryam, like scary old Mrs Atkins used to be. They’d chatted like friends when she popped round and Maryam had talked about her for days afterwards.

‘Yeah, and I’m looking forward to being in Mrs Sawyer’s class.’ Feeling better, she swung her legs to the side and jumped up, inspired by a rush of life, but as she landed, she lost her balance and grabbed hold of Mum, who held her tight with both hands. They sometimes forgot that she had a right vestibular hypofunction. It came with the hearing condition, an extra bonus gift from Allah, and it could really throw her off-balance. Over the years, she had embarrassed herself, bumping into people and knocking things about, often veering towards the right. She and her family had learnt to laugh about it though. The Dizzy Daughter, they used to call her.

‘Mum, if all the hard things Allah gives us are tests, what am I meant to learn from losing my balance?!’

‘Who knows! That everything is always balancing? Or maybe that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about? Just think, you could be immune to embarrassment in under a year. There you go. I guess it’s just as much about tests as it is about seeing things as signs. Allah shows us what we need to understand, to strengthen, and it’s sort of like training. So, you can think of things as tests if you want but sometimes tests can sound hard and scary, and I think that’s the nut to crack, not to see everything as scary and not to be in fear, but to work out what the gift might be. I think that’s how it works. Anyway, meet you at breakfast.’

‘Yeah, meet you at breakfast.’ Maryam said, stood there, in her nightie.

 

Maryam walked into the kitchen in her uniform. It was green and fresh and ironed to a crisp. She walked with an assured stride and her smile was confident. She was ready for the day. Maleeha and Keri were at the table, wearing matching uniforms. Adam looked smart in the boy’s version; his hair neatly parted. He was completely engrossed in a book called A Black Hole is Not a Hole, while eating Coco Pops. Mum was at the counter buttering some toast. Maryam caught her eyes and they nodded, like adults greeting each other in respect.

‘What’s the book you’re reading?’ Maryam asked Adam as she sat down opposite him, beside Keri.

He lifted his eyes for a moment, ‘It’s about black holes,’ and then continued reading. She could see he was genuinely into what he was learning, and to her it was as if he had some gold nugget that she wanted. She could see he was working something out, and she sensed he was getting close to it. Whatever it was.

‘What is a black hole?’ Maryam asked.

He looked up at her, his eyes wide, shining and happy. Now he had someone to share this with, it was like he had even more of a reason to work it all out. He had been onto something recently, but now here was the extra drive he needed. ‘It’s an area of space where matter has collapsed in on itself. The gravitational pull is so great that nothing can escape! If anyone or anything gets too close, they’re sucked in and pulled apart.’ He mimicked something being pulled apart with his hands like an explosion and nodded to himself. He gets it now and so does she.

‘Are black holes like the Bermuda Triangle?’ Maryam asked.

‘No. The Bermuda Triangle is to do with weather. Blasts of air come down out of the bottom of a cloud and hit the ocean and then create massive waves. Ships and planes have no chance if they go near one of them. They’d all get pulled apart too.’

‘I wouldn’t like to go near either of them.’ She poured some cereal into a bowl. ‘You’re very clever, aren’t you?’

‘I just like learning about the universe. That’s all,’ he told her.

Mum put a plate of toast down on the table. ‘We’ve got five minutes everyone. Eat up if you can.’

She rushed off and the children sat in silence. Once the silence had settled, they could feel the nerves in the air. It was their first day at this new school and nobody wanted to mention it or say they were scared, out of fear of being laughed at, which made it even more tense. Instead they all just sat there, trying to swallow, dreading what might happen. At least Maryam knew she wasn’t the only one who was feeling scared – this comforted her somehow. And then Keri looked up and gave Maryam an evil side-glance, turning the food in her mouth and pulling her eyes back away from Maryam as if she had just stolen some of her happiness and was now eating and swallowing it to make herself feel better.

That felt weird. That felt not nice. Why did she do that? Oh well.

Suddenly Yasin, Maryam’s older brother, stormed into the room and broke the tension, followed by her older sister, Aishah.

‘All right people!’ He filled up a glass with juice and gulped it down, staring at them all, his eyes resting on Maryam’s beaming face, shining at him, her big cheeks glowing, her hearing aids on show.

‘You all look so cute in your uniforms, all matching and fresh,’ Aishah said. She was only two years older than Maryam but she’d always seemed a world apart, not associating herself with her younger sisters and always moving forward in life, making loads of progress socially and just generally being in good spirits. Maryam definitely looked up to her, was inspired by her. Maybe even wanted to be like her, even though she didn’t give her much attention. Yasin was thirteen going on twenty, and he made time for his sisters, listened to them, sometimes gave his boyish advice. He shoved a slice of toast in his mouth, gripping it between his teeth while pulling on his blazer. He wolfed it down.

‘Bye, sis. Have fun at your new school… and remember, you’ve got a big brother if any one picks on you!’ He flexed an arm muscle, put more toast in his mouth and walked out, leaving Maryam giggling in her chair. Aishah left too and Maryam couldn’t resist following. She didn’t want to be at the table with the grey cloud above them. She stood up, planning to run out behind Yasin. Just then Adam turned to Maleeha, himself desperate to break the tension that was, no doubt, Keri’s creation. ‘I don’t understand people who eat Rice Krispies instead of Coco Pops. Why have plain rice puffs when you can have the chocolate?’

‘I like Rice Krispies. They’re my favourite. With a teaspoon of sugar on.’ Maleeha said. ‘Try some,’ she spooned some into Adam’s bowl.

Maryam put her hand out to stop her. ‘No, Maleeha, I’m sure Adam’s tried them before.’ But it was too late.

‘And I insist you try some of mine, they’re the best.’ Adam poured a spoonful of Coco Pops into Maleeha’s bowl and they all started laughing and in no time, they were all spooning food into each other’s bowls, mixing their cereal and falling into the inevitable group giggles. Adam dodged Maleeha’s next load and the milk spilt down his white shirt, and then a spoon of chocolaty milk went down hers. Keri laughed, her first yet and the giggle level rose, Adam struggling to breathe. Mum walked in and Maleeha looked up to see her mother approaching.

‘Oh no! We were just playing…’

‘You two! We’ve got to leave!’

‘Sorry Mum. We didn’t do it on purpose,’ Maleeha continued – the true ‘little one’ of the family.

‘Lucky I’ve got a spare shirt for each of you. Come on.’ Mum hurried them along out of the kitchen with her mother-hen wings, one chick under each and, all the while, Maryam was still standing by the table. In a way, it had been worth hanging around just to see Keri smile. Was this one of Allah’s tricks? Maryam thought about it and it all became obvious. She was just about to leave the kitchen to avoid the tension and somehow – or for some reason – she was stopped from going. Then, there was this massive laughing show and she got to see Keri smile. She wanted to leave to avoid Keri, but the exact opposite happened. Now she was here, alone, with Keri.

Taking a deep breath, it was her chance to spark some kind of something,so they could at least say hello to each other at school. Keri was playing with her cereal and as far as Maryam could see, was retreating into a dark and grey place. Maryam slipped back into her seat.

‘Do you think the others will be nice at our new school?’ Maryam asked her.

‘Well, they won’t be nice to you with those things in your ears,’ Keri replied.

It hit her like an invisible wave of negative energy, numbing her out and shattering her confidence.

Words really can harm you.

Maryam suddenly felt choked and sad. Her hands moved to her chest; the air in her had gone. She felt a little bit mad, and then scared. Mainly, she felt broken. It felt like someone had suddenly hit her bones with a rock and she wanted to run, up to her room and curl up in her bed and cry and cry, but she just sat there in shock, frozen and cold like a statue. In the silence, she stood and approached the bench to wash her bowl at the sink. As she did, her tears fell into the rushing water. Her nerves, lulled by her mum and the breakfast shenanigans, now returned with full force, and thoughts of her master plan came back to her.

What’s the point in all of this? Allah has tricked me. He showed me how it was all happening for a reason, and then this. A massive curve ball of pain!

Surely Keri couldn’t have known she was planning to go into school without her hearing aids today? That she wanted so badly for the other children to be nice to her, could she? She remembered the giggling in her room the night before and she started to think maybe Keri did know things, and that no matter how much she tried to hide her sadness about her ears and her nervousness about making new friends and her fear of her legs sometimes turning to jelly, Keri knew, and she would trip her up and make her fall flat on her face. Could all of this actually be happening?

Mum rushed into the kitchen with Maleeha and Adam and they had their shoes and coats on ready to leave.

‘Come on, let’s go. Can’t be late for your first day!’

 

In the car, Maryam sat in the passenger seat in her own little world. They stopped at traffic lights and Mum turned her head towards an unusually quiet daughter.

‘Are you okay?’

She responded with a nod. ‘Yes.’ But she felt broken. Keri was right, the other children won’t like her with these things in her ears, will they? That’s why Maryam was hatching her plan.

Mum parked near their school and they all clambered out of the car. She waved them off but Maryam lagged behind the others. When she was sure Mum had gone, and the others weren’t looking, she took out her hearing aids and put them in her school bag. Adrenalin rushed through her as she caught up with the others. There was a definite sense of freedom but it was mixed with a kind of rebellious rush. It felt slightly wrong, but exciting at the same time. The closer the school got, the bigger it appeared.

Maybe that’s what big school is about. I’m going to need to fit in. It’s survival time!

Keri looked over at her with those narrowed, evil eyes and gave her a smug smile that was hard to not feel uncomfortable about. A teacher joined them as they approached the main entrance.

Maryam tried hard to lip-read what was going on, and was pleased with herself when she caught almost everything the teacher said.

Papa’s right, eventually I’ll be able to hear, be normal and be better. Until then I can lip-read, it’s not so hard. Come on world, I’m ready for you!

 

And so Maryam’s adventure had begun, a new era full of new challenges and now she was assuming the position of a completely normalnine-year-old girl, she was bound to ace it all, get in there, lip-read it all, and maybe even score some worthwhile social brownie points.

‘Hi, Maryam! Are you ready for your first day?’ Mrs Sawyer walked towards her, smiling.

‘Yes! Definitely.’

‘Great. Come on, let’s go to the classroom.’

They walked together up a yellow corridor and she could smell something familiar, it was like her last school, she realised, and then she lost her balance slightly, falling against the boy next to her, but quickly regaining her composure. Nobody seemed to notice, apart from one boy whose eyes met hers as he mouthed the words, ‘it’s okay’.

Hold up, why is he mouthing the words? Can he tell I’m deaf?

She kept walking and then searched for the boy, but he was gone. Was he even real?Maryam looked up at Mrs Sawyer who was nodding and encouraging her forward towards the class. Maryam shook her head and pressed on, ignoring the smell and the walls and the other kids – so much of it was already reminding her of her last school. That awful place where she’d lost her hearing a whole bunch of times in front of people. She kept her eyes focused on Mrs Sawyer, trying not to let her mind slip back to the old memories, the old school that she was mostly absent from because of the hospital visits she had to attend. Less time at the school had meant fewer friends. None of that was good. None of it was fun.

No, don’t think about that stuff. Just stay with Mrs Sawyer. She’ll lead me. I can trust her.

‘I’ve assigned you a buddy. Her name is Maya. She’ll sit next to you and stay with you today.’

Mrs Sawyer showed her to a seat and the other children started coming in. Maryam smiled as they greeted one another and took their seats. Exciting times, Maryam thought – so many friendly faces – potential new friends. New adventures. New experiences. She could still hear noises, people talking, without her hearing aids, but it was muffled and unclear what they were saying. She reminded herself how important it was to stay focused on the lip-reading, and to be aware of what was happening around her and the context of the conversations, and not to get side-tracked and to remember that she was here to learn.

‘This is Maryam everyone. I want you all to help make her feel comfortable on her first day. Maya, you’re going to be her buddy today, so you can show her around and help her settle in.’

Maryam turned to the girl sat next to her, Maya.

‘Yes, Miss,’ Maya said.

Maryam smiled at her – relieved to see Maya’s friendly, smiling face. Her whole body relaxed, and all the fear and anxiety melted away and she could feel herself slip into Maryamland, into her dream of making new friends and fitting in. It was imperative though to stay focused and clear if that dream was to become real, which she wanted so very, very badly. She brought herself back, out of the fantasy, and held tightly onto her seat.

Buckle up girl! Keep up with Mrs Sawyer, follow the exercises and we’re all good.

She put her hand up to answer one question. She watched the other faces and mimicked their reactions as the time passed, and she kept an eye on Maya too – just in case she was meant to be interacting with her. Occasionally, Mrs Sawyer turned to the board while she was talking. During those moments, Maryam had to fill in the gaps and guess the words. Exhausting. Maybe her hearing impairment was in fact her greatest teacher, like a punk hanging out on a street corner. All she had to do was be brave like Mum was and get through it all…

She imagined her cheerleaders with their pom poms. Maryam! Maryam! Maryam!Jumping and doing cartwheels. This always made her feel better, like she could conquer the world. They were her friends and made her feel less alone.

Mum had always told her she was clever and talented and that she would do well in life, and to always remember that and to never doubt it because it was true. Maryam always did doubt it though, somehow, she just didn’t think it could be true as long as her ears were broken. The cheerleaders helped.

Suddenly everyone around her was packing their bags, standing up and moving towards the door. The bell. Phew. She took a moment. Yup, she’d just aced a class without her hearing aids, so she took a big breath and let out a sigh of relief. And there was a big grin on her face as she turned to see what Maya was up to.

‘Breaktime, yyyes!’ Maya jumped up. ‘Come on, I’ll show you around.’

 

They walked out into the concrete playground together with kids running around yelling and playing. Maryam’s head spun, thrown by the bright sunlight and the kids of all different sizes running around her in circles. Calmed by the breeze, she spotted Maleeha and Adam playing happily with two other kids. Warmth filled her soul, that place inside her that wanted so badly for other people to be happy and for no one to ever hurt. It was the same feeling she had when she saw an ecstatic-looking dog running in the park with a small branch in its mouth. ‘Look at my big stick!’ ‘LOOK AT MY BIG STICK!’ And she didn’t want anyone or anything to ever snatch that feeling away from that dog; nothing should ever take away the happiness of other people or animals.

Keri was sitting on the grass with a group of girls. As Maryam caught her eyes, she scowled. There was no mistaking it. Maryam didn’t think she’d seen such a deep scowl before but because her day had been going so well, she decided not to take it personally, not to let it hurt her. After a few too many times of crying, Mum had taught her to let go of things. Don’t build walls around your heart. She smiled and waved to Keri.

‘Do you like swinging?’ Maya asked. ‘We could play with Lucy and Clara.’ She pointed at two girls across the playground, one of them was skipping with a pink rope while the other one counted. For a moment, Maryam was confused, Swinging? Then Maya repeated, more slowly. ‘SKIPPING – do you like skipping?’

‘I love skipping.’

They raced each other over to the girls. Laughing and running. Laughing and running. They took turns skipping, and skipped and skipped and skipped. With each jump a spark returned to Maryam’s heart.My sparkle. I’ve missed you so.They chattered as nine-year-old girls do, and each word spoken to her, though mostly read and not heard, created more and more joy. Happiness. Joy. A reason to live. New friends? Maybe. And then something strange began to happen, perhaps it was just Maryamland, but it felt different. Maya, Lucy and Clara looked thin all of a sudden, not skinny, but kind of see-through like tissue paper. She’d seen a TV programme about holograms and this was how her friends suddenly looked. They weren’t real as she knew real. It was like they could disappear at any moment. Then a teacher waved at Maryam from across the yard, indicating that she join the line of students going back to classes, snapping Maryam awake. She wondered where the time had gone. Had she experienced a kind of hallucination?The girls looked very real to her again, familiar and normal. Indeed, they were real and they were her new friends. She followed them back into class and drifted over to her seat, daydreaming about her new friends. This was exactly what she needed and wanted.

Thank you, Allah. I know I forget to count my lucky stars sometimes. So maybe I will just take this little moment in time and say, I really love being here in the world. It is fun and wonderful.

Maya already had her exercise book and pen at the ready and her eyes were fixed on Mrs Sawyer. Maryam pulled herself together and got ready… a bit too late. Mrs Sawyer was saying something and she only managed to catch the end of it. No doubt she’d catch up.

‘… so, you should be clear now. You’ve got ten minutes.’ Mrs Sawyer sat down at her desk at the front of the class. As soon as she settled, Maryam panicked. Everyone appeared focused, opening their notebooks and beginning to write, and there was a sense of urgency in the room. But Maryam had her head in the clouds. What am I supposed to be doing?The other children were now busy thinking and writing. She also opened her book and took up her pencil, but she just stared at the blank lines, frozen by the pressure building in her head. Of course, she didn’t want to embarrass herself by putting up her hand and asking the teacher what she had said. That would be social suicide. The pressure was growing and growing. She looked over at Maya’s book to see what she was writing but just then Maya looked up at her. In a flash of anger, she transformed from friend to foe.

‘Don’t copy me!’ she said loudly. A few of the students stopped writing and looked over at them, and then at Mrs Sawyer, waiting for her to respond to what everyone had just heard.

‘Is everything okay over there, girls?’ She asked. More heads turned back to Maryam and Maya. Was someone about to get in trouble?

Maryam held her head with both hands – she felt like it was going to explode. She looked up to find Mrs Sawyer looking across at her and speaking but she couldn’t focus on her lips. Then the teacher’s pale-yellow jumper began to move towards her, the yellow becoming more vivid, the closer she got. Maryam’s eyes strained as the yellow got brighter and brighter. Soon all she could see in the room was a bright yellow sun. A switch flicked and suddenly her hearing was gone. The yellow melted into a burning orange and red, and the heat in her head fuelled by the world of silence began to spread through her. Her face, her neck, her palms, her entire body began to sweat, her clothes clammy against her skin, the heat unbearable. She was panicking. She knew an attack was imminent.

Her head turned to look up at the clock, the second hand was moving. Weird that even in the silence she could almost hear the tick of the clock. Objects began to coalesce, as if now everything was melting. People’s faces, the desks. She stared around the room… searching for… something normal, but there was only a void of silence with blurry moving lips. The children were fading away into holographic form, not real, not real. People she wanted to be with and get to know, disappearing from her now, moving from her reach. Please Allah, don’t make me hurt.The green of their uniforms stung her eyes and the silence somehow closed in tighter, it felt like her head was in a vice. She reached her hands up to where her hearing aids should have been. If only she had kept them in. Suddenly, a kind hand reached out. She latched on to Mrs Sawyer’s fingers like a magnet.

She felt like she was floating as she was led through the yellow corridor lined with children’s art and into a white room, and then lifted up onto a bed, similar to a hospital bed. Another concerned face was looking at her, it was round and soft. Maryam looked at the lips and they were mouthing the words: ‘Your Mum is coming.’ Tears rolled down her face and she closed her eyes and curled up on the bed.

Mum’s hand touch her arm and she looked up, relieved. Although she still couldn’t make out figures very well, her mum’s presence was enough. Sorry Mum.Her mum cried a few tears and lifted her daughter from the bed and carried her out of the nurse’s room, cradling her like a small wounded animal. She took her to the car and helped her in. The familiar smell of the family car comforted her. Mum got into the driver’s seat but didn’t start the engine. Instead, she turned to Maryam, so she could read her lips.

‘It–is–o–kay. We will–get–through–this.’ She started the car and drove them home.

 

Maryam cried and cried, feeling grateful Mum didn’t question her about what happened, that she didn’t ask where her hearing aids were or why she had taken them out. Of the times she could remember, this was the fifth or sixth time her hearing had shut down completely. Mum knew not to speak to her much when it happened, she knew that everything was overwhelming, and that someone speaking to her reminded her of how utterly soundless her world was. And that each time the What if my hearing never comes back? thoughts would swim around and around her like a shark circling. Probably even dogs with big sticks in their mouths wouldn’t make her happy if she lost her all her hearing forever, and her inner cheerleaders would just torment her. Mum knew how to do it, how to be with her. The problem was that Mum was like her comfort blanket. With Mum being there, it allowed Maryam to play risky games. But the idea of taking responsibility and growing up into an adult was off her radar, especially on the first day of school, where all she wanted to do was make friends and be normal. Maybe even be a little bit better than some of the others. What’s happening? Why am I here? What is the point of this life? Mum brought her into the house and got her up to her room.

Later, she lay on the couch while her family fussed over her and, naturally, they all felt sorry for her – this was the worst, as she so hated being pitied by other people. Who could blame her? Their mouths moved and their worried faces all turned to one another. Eat this, drink that, here’s a magazine, here’s a teddy bear. Maryam was stuck in the middle of it all – a helpless doll.

There are things I want to hear in the world, Allah, but not these things. I’m sure I can get out of this somehow. Did I create this situation? I want them all to go away, even though I understand that they are trying to help. That’s surely normal. Where is Mum? I need to be stronger than this. I want… I want…The things she wanted to hear were the sounds of things like her favourite films, her friends’ voices, and the rain, Maleeha’s Rice Krispies popping, Adam’s stories about the universe, Mum’s voice so gentle and kind. And that was just the stuff she already knew. What about all the things in the world she hadn’t yet discovered? She hadn’t even been to Alton Towers yet or heard an Elephant spray water. Allah, make my hearing come back. Then, when she asked her Creator that question, she had an epiphany, a realisation, a kind of aha!moment.My hearing went because I took my hearing aids out. I did that to avoid stress and stress happened. That’s when it happens, without my hearing aids or when I bang my head.And then, as quickly as she had the realisation, she slipped back out into what normal people call ‘the real world’. And mostly, she forgot about the epiphany and began to feel sad again.

Alone again, in her room at last, she got up to look in her school bag for her hearing aids, craving what she might be able to hear with them, though she knew it was far-fetched. I probably don’t deserve to hear!If she put them in now, they wouldn’t help anyway – they wouldn’t bring back her self-esteem, but she needed to show Allah that she wouldn’t take them out again. She rummaged around her bag but she couldn’t find them. She panicked and then with a sinking feeling realised… they were gone. Mum would have to get her new ones, and that was not something she should need to do.

Maryam sat on the edge of her bed and saw her reflection in the mirror. Mum’s mirror. It was white with intricate, flowing, flowery engravings. It was special and beautiful. The girl in the mirror? What a silly one! She thought. She’d lost the hearing aids that she’d promised her mum and Allah she’d keep in and was now stuck here with nothing apart from self-pity and this reflection. Damn real world. Surely, it’s not meant to be this hard?She looked at her ears and suddenly felt enraged, angry with them – her own ears! – for making her world so silent, so creepy, so cruel. The shape of the pattern at the top of the mirror made it look like she had a tiara on her head, like a princess, and she thought of her mum looking in the mirror when she was younger. My mum was a warrior, she thought, and she wanted to be a warrior too, but the podgy face in the mirror, wet from tears rolling down her cheeks, and the useless ears stuck on to it seemed not to possess those abilities. I’m no warrior princess, but maybe I can learn to be in a million years!Her gaze moved sideways. Next to the mirror was the fairy tale magazine Maleeha had given her. On the front, in big, swirly letters, ‘The fairy tale castle is surrounded by dragons. Can you reach it?’

Maryam picked up the magazine and took it to her bed. She got her small torch out of the drawer in the bedside table, switched it on and turned her bedside table lamp off. She climbed under the duvet cover and made a tent. She looked at the picture on the front of the magazine, it was of a fairy tale castle and two dragons were flying around it. Then her torch light began to fade until there was only a small light, flickering as if teasing Maryam. Then it went out and she heard a voice, from God only knew where, especially since she didn’t have her hearing aids in. ‘Come fight the dragons with me,’ it said. And in the pitch-black deathly silence, Maryam’s heart sped up and her palms went clammy. Something was happening …

 

… The covers aren’t touching her anymore. In fact, they aren’t even there and she cannot feel the bed under her. This isn’t to do with her vestibular hyperfunction, this is something different. Something weird. She feels around with her hands, but there is only cold air, and it starts moving past her like she is being sucked through something by a million ghosts. Maybe I’ve entered a black hole.She checks that her body is still in one piece. Thankfully, it still feels like her. She cannot make sense of the weird feeling.Instead of snapping back to being in bed, the weirdness keeps going. The cold air begins to turn warm and then hot – it feels like a giant magnet has sucked her and dropped her somewhere different. But where?

She is lying face down on the ground, on damp, soft earth and the air is stale. She doesn’t want to lift her head for fear of what she might find, so she stays frozen. Maybe it will pass, and she’ll be safe in her bed again.

‘Finally.’

The voice comes from somewhere above Maryam’s head. Why can she hear all of a sudden? Her hearing only ever comes back after the steroid injections.

‘I was starting to think you’d never make it.’

The voice sounds strangely familiar. It sounds a bit like her, only – better, more confident. She pushes against the dark ground with both hands and lifts her head slightly, one eye closed. She just needs one tiny glimpse of whatever it is out there to decide whether to remain still or to explore. Then she sees something – two feet that are more or less the same size as hers, and in amazing, sparkly shoes, like the ones she’d wanted at Clarks but that Papa wouldn’t get her because they weren’t sensible enough. He’d made her get clumpy ugly ones instead.

‘Hey, get up; I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just a girl – like you, only better– of course!’

Maryam pushes herself further up, breathing some of the dirty air, but then she gasps as her eyes rest on the girl. The dirty air leaves her lungs.

‘What?!’

The girl is a prettier version of her. And so pretty! Even prettier than her older sister. She can still tell that the girl is actually her, in a funny way, though she isn’t wearing the hearing aids.

‘Hi.’ Maryam stands up, expecting to lose her balance like she normally does, but she stands up perfectly. Wherever she is, she likes it, but only for a moment – she quickly changes her mind when she looks around. What a strange and dark place.The only way Maryam can describe it is as a huge, never-ending tunnel… or, it is not even that, it is just sort of… ‘nothing’. No sunlight, no breeze, no sounds, although her voice is still echoing, and the air smells a bit like when her brother’s bedroom door has been closed for a long time and she goes in there to play on his computer.

‘Where am I? And who are you?’ she asks.

The girl, who is like Maryam but better, stands tall with her hands on her hips. She is confident and has a pink jumper draped around her shoulders like a superhero’s cape.

‘This place… is nothing. People call it the Black Pit. You’re on your way to somewhere better though, if you just follow me, that is. I’m who you could be if you choose to. I guess I’m kind of like your mentor. But we can be friends too. My name is Better.’

‘And do your ears work?’ She dusts some dirt off her nightie. This girl just seems way too perfect to her, she feels a little inferior standing there, in front of her.

‘Yes, my ears work perfectly. And yours do too, but it only lasts for a while here. That’s why you have to come with me. It feels good doesn’t it? To have ears that work?’

‘Really good. And to balance like normal.’

Better takes Maryam’s hand. ‘This way. I don’t like hanging around here too long.’

‘What about home?’

‘No! If you go back there, you won’t be able to hear, and you’ll be your usual clumsy self. But don’t worry, I’ve got it all figured out. We’re going to make your real life better, and you can go home whenever you want. But for it to work, you’ll have to come with me first to be honest.’

‘Umm, where exactly are we going?’

‘Just start walking, and you’ll see.’

She takes a few steps and then begins walking, following Better, and the blackness gradually lightens into colours and these take on shapes that materialise into a familiar place – her own bedroom. Strange. At least it is almost her own room, only a better version of it. Everything is the same but better – the walls are shining and there is a dress that her older sister had had and that Maryam envied, hanging on the wardrobe. It looks like it is in her size and she opens the wardrobe and every item of clothing is more beautiful than her own and perfectly folded or hung up on posh hangers, not like the plastic ones she has. Things are glowing. It is like heaven… sort of. She turns around to see Better. A smug, proud grin is spread across Better’s face.

‘Welcome to Better Land! Where everything is better, and we are better!’ She grabs a giant glass bowl of lollypops from the top of the chest of drawers and offers one to Maryam. ‘All purple, your favourite flavour.’

Maryam takes one. Her eyes linger for a while on the spot where her Mum’s mirror should be. Better plonks herself on the bed and pats the spot next to her for Maryam to sit down on. Maryam complies.

‘Purple’s your favourite flavour lolly too?

‘Yep.’

‘What’s your favourite film?’ The sugar rushes through Maryam’s system.

Ice Age. The first one.’ Better giggles.

Maryam recognises the giggle straight away; it is the one she’d heard the night before.

‘That was you giggling last night! And that was you who said come fight the dragons with me, right before I ended up here!’

‘Yep.’

‘And, where are they? Where are the dragons?’

‘The dragons are out there, Maryam, not here. Everything is good and perfect here. I’m going to train you to fight them out there though.’

‘Oh, okay. I’ve never seen any dragons before.’

‘Yes, you have. Your mum and dad are dragons. Your hearing impairment? That’s a dragon. Those kids who don’t want to be your friends are dragons. Keri? A little fat dragon! Dragons are the enemy.’

‘Really? But what do you mean?’

‘Well they don’t want you to get better like I do, they bring you down, they ruin your life. And you basically don’t need them now you have me.’

‘Does that mean I don’t have to do everything my parents say?’

‘No way! Just stick with me, and I’ll show you.’ Better stands on the bed with her hands on her hips and her head held high. Her lustrous black hair and her pink jumper-cape blows behind her in a wind that comes from nowhere, just like in a movie. ‘Together, Maryam, you and I will create a better world, a better LIFE!’

She can’t help but get excited; this charismatic girl is impressive… and she wants to be like her because she is… undoubtedly… better!

‘Are you in?’

‘I’m in!’ Maryam says and she stands up on the bed and Better grabs her hands.

‘YESSS! We are gonna have somuch fun, girlfriend!’

‘Here’s the plan. The first step is to be more like your older sister and have lots of friends and confidence like her. She can be your model. But then the next step is to surpass her, because you’re better than her, obviously. And, you know how everyone loves your brother?’

‘Oh God, yes, don’t I know it!’

Better laughs. It seems like everything is going according to plan…

‘He’s the opposite of a bubaar, isn’t he?’

‘Yep, and I’m the stupid idiot who nobody likes!’

Just then, the smell of Mum’s cooking wafts into the room, followed by a new voice that seems to be coming from above and beyond the walls. What is happening now?

‘Come home,’ the voice says.

‘What was that?’ Maryam asks.

‘Oh, just ignore that.’ Better looks around her with an annoyed expression. ‘Now, listen to me carefully: I’m your guide and I have your best interests in mind. Only I know what you desire. And I’m here to help you fulfil those desires.’

A sudden urge to return home hits Maryam and it isn’t something she can easily explain. This all feels a little ‘too good to be true’ and she knows she could be naïve, too idealistic.

‘Mum was going to take me to the hospital for my steroid injections after preparing the dinner. I should go back.’

‘Fine, go back. Go back to the enemy and your problematic life… instead of seeing how much better things could be. Go back to the piercing sound of nothing and those stupid ear injections that only pretend to make you better.’ Better’s face glows a purple hue and she crosses her arms and turns her back on Maryam. Maryam begins walking back in the direction she has come from. She opens the bedroom door and steps out into the black. The pinks and lilacs of her room swirl out with her, along with Better’s giggles. She keeps going and everything gradually disappears and dissolves into the nothing of the Black Pit. The still, airless chill gives her the feeling she is in a bottomless void, making her think of black holes. Adam said that they pull you apart; they are a space entirely devoid of matter. She arrives at the spot she landed on and feels the pull of the giant magnet again and nothing but the stagnant chill around her. If this is like a black hole, this could be it for me. Finito. A wave of terror grips her and she doesn’t want to see. When she opens her eyes again, she is back in her soft bed, and in front of her is a person she recognises, a lady, a woman. It is the face of someone she definitely knows but cannot quite place. Could it be a relative visiting? Maybe I have died.The lady looks a bit like Aunt Laila, she realises, with her thoughtful, knowing face and her colourful headscarf. She is so wonderful to observe, made of light and a mix of crystals, rainbows, water sparkles and normal reality. She is completely and utterly magical.

But Aunt Laila is in heaven, along with Maryam’s goldfish, Mr Fish.

The lady shimmers in front of her and smiles. ‘The way out of this is in facing yourself,’ she says, and then she fades into holographic form and then vanishes, leaving behind Maryam’s room and the real … I’m dreamingMaryam got out of bed and shook her body and rubbed her eyes to wake herself up.