THE SILVER LINING
She barrelled through the crowd wrapped tightly around my shrinking figure, a miniature dynamo of flying blonde curls and righteous indignation - "Leave her alone! What are you staring at?!" The other children withered before the onslaught of that fierce blue gaze, melting away with mysterious rapidity. The two of us were left facing each other; I struggled to comprehend my unexpected salvation, as two dimples flashed endearingly to life on Belinda's smiling face.
The ominous metallic thunderclouds overhead mirrored the unenthusiastic welcome I received at my new school. Refugees from the genocide taking place in East Pakistan, in mid-1971 my mother, brother and I moved to London for safety, my father remaining trapped at home. Unsettled from our sudden departure and the murky tensions of this newly-fragmented family life, I was too disoriented to successfully navigate an unfamiliar school environment; that too, armed with a splintered English vocabulary.
I buckled under the weight of the curious stares from my classmates, and my prayers for rain during our mid-morning break went unanswered. Within a few minutes of my eviction from classroom to playground, I was surrounded by children whose badgering questions I could neither understand nor answer. Until Belinda appeared, I'd been drowning in panic.
Now, she put out her small hand, taking mine in her confident grasp. The concept of rejection never crossed her five-year-old mind. I looked down at those pale fingers contrasting so boldly against my own coffee-shaded skin, and for the first time in forever, I felt safe.
And that's exactly how she kept me for the next nine months, before it was time to return to a new nation emerging from the bloodbath. We were inseparable, everyone saw it. And if they didn't understand what had drawn the supremely confident English girl to the shy soon-to-be Bangladeshi, it didn't matter. That's just how it was.
Kindergartners are pack animals; wolves, when they smell blood. Luckily everyone liked Belinda, so by extension, they tolerated me.
Periodically the teachers separated us "for class discipline", or some other girl made an abortive bid for the position of Belinda's best friend. And inevitably, sometimes we fell out ourselves. But when things got complicated, Belinda and I had a foolproof formula to extricate ourselves from the situation. One of us would look at the other and say "What were we fighting about again? I can't remember…"
It worked every time.