Outer London, September 2016, and neighbouring eight-year-olds have homework: prepare a traditional story to perform with their families at a school festival. But Nathan’s father thinks his son would be better off doing sums; Sky’s mother’s enthusiasm is as fleeting as her bank balance, and there’s a threatening shadow hanging over poor Alka’s family. Only Mandeep’s fragile grandmother and new girl Xoriyo really understand the magical powers of storytelling. As national events and individual challenges jostle for the adults’ attention, can these two bring everyone together to ensure the show will go on?
In this extract Safiya, mother of seven year old Xoriyo, describes them sharing a picture book Xoriyo has brought home from school.
“Mummy, you’re not making food, are you?”
Xoriyo puffs out her tummy, gazing down with worry on her face. Each family visit for Eid yesterday offered more goodies we couldn’t refuse. By the time we got home my stomach felt like a bag hung round my neck on weights and Xoriyo, who normally scampers everywhere, could only just drag herself along.
“No, my love, don’t fret. Let’s look at your beautiful book from school instead.”
We settle to the story of a flying carpet, its jewelled weave thick and heavy. Our old sofa becomes a nest of luxurious cushions blotting out the landlord’s dingy room.
“Wow, look at all these colours …!”
Tufts of orange and ruby weave through the carpet, turquoise shading into sapphire and jade green into pine and colours running away from my eyes. Below the carpet scenes stretch to the horizon at the edge of the page, hills, valleys, isolated farms and crowded towns, minarets and domes. Xoriyo traces a winding river to the sea, then jabs her finger back on the carpet.
“Pretend we’re there too!”
“Yes! Imagine you’re swooping up and down, gliding, falling, rising …”
“Ooof.” She makes a face and holds her stomach.
“Oh, don’t worry. Look, if the gusts become too hard the carpet calms the wind. ‘Wind,’ the carpet says, ‘Go and play with the trees or flirt with the waves’.”
Xoriyo prods the tassels in the picture. The carpet is flat in the smooth air, flying calmly to the best destination. Xoriyo wonders at the landscapes spread across the double pages. She’s enchanted by shadowed pink clouds that ride between the carpet and the ground. The pictures and the lulling words draw me on board with her. We’re passengers, peeping over the edge, bathing our faces with pure droplets of iced water and, because it is a story, we feel no pain from the sharp cold.
Xoriyo’s enchanted, but the altitude sums up my darker memories of a journey when I was younger than she is now, a journey she must never make. Nobody told my school, or even me, that I was going away, but suddenly one day we were on a plane, all hard edges and pale grey plastic, cold metal hurtling through the sky until I was a day older, with films I might not watch. It was dull on the outward flight and painful like serpents inside me on the return, and I have only hazy notions of what happened in between, while we were away.
I remember turbulence: stewardesses whipping things away, passengers tensed and braced, even the fat businessmen no longer nonchalant, everyone lurching and gasping in the air.
On Xoriyo’s magic carpet there are no such problems. No seatbelts, no metal trolleys, no pain inside, no weary ladies in lipstick and high heels with fake smiles like that mum with her beauty business leaflets in the playground.
“Let’s invite guests on the carpet, Mummy. We’ll offer them food and drink, like yesterday.”
“Some of your new friends from the new school, would you like that?”
“No … o, … just people we make up.”
Her talking voice, different from her reading voice, reinforces her imagined world. I snap my fingers and a genie appears, balancing a tray on one finger like the Cat in the Hat, with decorated glasses streaked with gold and magic bubbles.
“There’s sherbert,” Xoriyo suggests, “or hot chocolate …”
The genie has ruby juices and golden drinks like honey, sorbets and cocktails and warming winter syrups that glow through your body.
On the magic carpet with Xoriyo I’m a child again, whooping with joy and laughter, swooshing, swirling, fearless of the height. We’re children together, but also wise: we know the languages of the places we see, our homeland and those of others. We can communicate with any of our fellow travellers … Xoriyo sees curving blue rivers far below and she knows they are called meanders; she sees oxbow lakes, murrains and wadis and she knows what all these are too. On the magic carpet we understand all people we meet: the goatherd, the engineer, and his toddling twins. We may choose to wear whatever we like from abayas to swimsuits. We are confident in our choices and violence and ignorance can do us no harm.
Really there is no reason my daughter should not make friends at this school, new friends, who can take this journey with us through fresh places and new joys. We can have every passport and none, here; we can belong and invite others to belong with us.
On the magic carpet we are free.
Thank you, Jessica Norrie and Random Things Tours.
About the author
Jessica Norrie was born in London and studied French Literature and Education at Sussex and Sheffield. She taught English, French and Spanish abroad and in the UK in settings ranging from nursery to university. She has two adult children and divides her time between London and Malvern, Worcestershire.
She has also worked as a freelance translator, published occasional journalism and a French textbook, and blogs at https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com
Jessica sings soprano with any choir that will have her, and has been trying to master the piano since childhood but it’s not her forte.
She left teaching in 2016. The Infinity Pool was her first novel, drawing on encounters while travelling. Her second novel The Magic Carpet is inspired by working with families and their children. The third is bubbling away nicely and should emerge from her cauldron next year.
Social Media Links
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/wordsandfictions/
The Magic Carpet is available at https://tinyurl.com/y2gk2g7q The Infinity Pool is available at getBook.at/TheInfinityPool