December is my favourite time of the year. The sun sways in the bright blue sky like a happy sunflower. And the summer holidays stretch for a full five weeks. This means that we can sleep past 9 o’clock, we don’t have to wear school uniforms, and ice cream. There’s always ice cream.
Aunty Rahma from next door makes the best flavours of ice cream. She calls me Neetha, because she can’t say Nisa. I don’t mind. She’s always nice to me.
All the children in the neighbourhood know that if they stop by her place with a small plastic tea cup from a play set, she will carefully spoon a ball of liquorice or watermelon or some other fruity-flavoured ice cream into their cups. The idea is to find a shady spot under the trees to enjoy the treat before it melts under the greedy gaze of the sun.
The Christmas weekend is usually quiet here in Johannesburg. Most of our neighbours go off to the coast or fly to somewhere special for their holiday. The Malik’s went to Istanbul last year; they brought pictures of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque to school. I think they’re going to Spain this year. The Harris family are in Malaysia. And Aunty Rahma is away at her sister’s place in Middleburg.
Ever since Mum and Daddy got divorced two years ago, we haven’t been on a proper holiday. But that’s okay. I know that Mum is doing everything she can to keep things together. Mum works as a receptionist for Dr Ahmed, the dentist. My younger sister Aisha and I go to the Iqra Academy of Excellence, one of the best schools in Jozi. Expensive, I’m sure. And the twins, well they keep me busy most of the afternoons. Sometimes, being a big sister is fun. At other times, not so much. Ali and Isa are three years old. Our little brat-pack.
Grandma Julie comes to stay with us during the holidays. I love her visits. She’s quiet, just like me. She lives in a small town called Mokopane, where my Mum grew up. She has a kind twinkle in her eye when she looks at us, and when she speaks, her voice sounds like bells on a wind charm.
It makes sense that the weekend is quiet, as it’s my birthday weekend.
We’ll stay in. Mum will bake a cake. She’ll make a small fuss. Just like every other year.
The difference is this year, I, Nisa Qamar, will be ten years old.
It’s a whole new number. Two digits.
On the morning of my birthday, I can smell the yummy cake in the oven.
Mum and Grandma Julie are sipping their tea when I get to the kitchen.
‘Salaam, birthday girl,’ Mum says.
‘Oh, there she is,’ Gran says. She pulls me closer and wraps me in her arms. The smell of her rose talc tickles my nostrils.
She takes out a small pink gift box from the pocket of her wool jersey and hands it to me. A silver ribbon is tied over the lid. I tug at the bow to open it. There’s a little blue butterfly brooch inside the box. It sparkles when the light touches it.
‘I wore it when I was little. Your Mum wore it for a while,’ she says. ‘I want you to have it now.’
Mum pulls me into her lap and kisses my cheeks and then she plants a kiss on my forehead.
‘My baby girl is a big girl now,’ she gushes.
‘Aisha is a baby, Ma,’ I protest.
I forget how much she fusses on birthdays.
‘I’m not a baby,’ Aisha shouts out as she enters the kitchen. Her voice is a bit too loud for a seven-year-old. I wonder if there’s a volume button for her to keep it low.
I shake my head to ignore her.
‘You’ll always be your Mummy’s babies,’ Gran says. She knows what she’s talking about. I see Mum and her smile at each other.
The twins are outside in the courtyard.
I can hear the noise of their plastic scooters scraping the brick pavement.
I don’t hear a bang or a clash so it’s a surprise when Ali starts screaming.
Mum is the first to rush out the kitchen door. The rest of us follow her.
‘What happened?’ Mum is in panic mode.
Ali and Isa are still seated on their scooters under the old maple tree at the edge of the courtyard.
They’re facing the tree. Mum is standing behind them.
By the time I step up to them, they’re pointing at the tree stump. Of course, there’s nothing there.
‘What kind of joke is this, boys? You gave Mummy a shock for nothing,’ she says.
She turns around and stomps back into the kitchen with Grandma and Aisha behind her.
The twins look at each other and shrug their shoulders, and then they return to their game on the bikes, racing up and down the courtyard, squealing at the top of their lungs.
I feel a chill near the back of my neck and turn back to the tree. I see two eyes blink once. Something moves behind the tree and in a split second it’s gone. Stray cats.