Thursday, 19 August 2010

Keeping it normal

Going to school? Fanny smiles at the children and shuffles the electricity bills around on her desk.

We have brought Tiger this far. A ten minute walk from home. Through the heat, humidity, over the slipper floor, it feels like she jumped ten miles. But we made it here, into the ice-cold, air con office of the property agency.

Shark and Squirrel trotted along from home, down the steps, along the jungly track, onto the Lamma footpaths, all quite happily, pausing to finger poke creepy crawlies and make frogs jump. Shark is liking this island. She's close to the sea, can investigate shoreline, feels capable and independent already, shrugs off our help, and skips alone to meet new friends. Squirrel is Squirrel. She's busy finding her own glitter strewn path, absorbed with the diamonds that grow on the trees, the ones that we strange mortals call raindrops.

Then Tiger. She's eaten, bowls and bowls of pasta bribe, and slept in her bed, two long stretches of twelve hour sleep. After the first long stretch, she didn't return to her line of reasoning that she's sleeping on the sofa until she goes home. I crept into her bedroom and unpacked her case. She didn't say anything, but watched me, mistrustful.

Now Fanny asks - as if everything is normal here in her normal air con office on a normal business day - if the children are going to school. That, presumably, would be normal. Normal for most ex-pat families taking up residence for working purposes. Normal for families coming to Hong Kong. Normal for children to learn in school.

The effect is not unlike the one you might achieve if you were to stand up in the stalls at the opera, Act Two, and yell with all your lung capacity: Bollocks! The audience would gasp and the soprano clutch her bosom and stagger to an actual death experience.

At the question of school, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger stare, open mouthed, not knowing what to say. Not for one moment did they consider the possibility of school when we raised the idea of a long stay in Hong Kong. People who eat fish lips and cow noses, yes, but this!

A fleeting look of terror passes over Tiger's face. So this is why we brought her! It is all a plan! We lied! This is not a family visit to drop off the electricity meter readings at the property agent after all! This is the office of the child catcher!

I'm shouting Don't panic! Don't panic! like Corporal Jones from Dad's Army. Watching the faces of Team Grit, it clearly doesn't work. All is lost. I am inept. It feels like the sniper fire is real. Then I feel panic-struck myself, and sorry for Fanny too, because she's confused by the gasps and reels.

It's so innocuous, her question, isn't it? It's so innocent and casual; a non controversial, non consequential thing to say, like Are you well? Are you settling in? But now. At this balanced moment. Tiger's first outing. After I nearly convinced her. Life will continue as normal - life without school will continue as normal. You'll see. Normal. Just several thousand miles from home, surrounded by butterflies. That's all. And dogs. Normal. Then Fanny unknowingly lobbed a hand grenade into a chest freezer.

Dig leaps in with Home school! Home school! to deflect the bullets, reassure Tiger, and assert some manly status over five startled women, looking blankly at each other without comprehension.

At the words home school, Fanny raises her eyebrows and lets out a long ooooohhh! She regards the children carefully. In China, all children must attend school. It is the law. We need permission, special exemption. I watch her thinking. Perhaps the private school is full. Perhaps we are passing through. Perhaps we are returning home sooner than we think.

Then she turns back to her papers, shuffles the bills, copies out the meter readings, and says good bye. We leave, turned back into the heat, closing the door behind us to keep her air con office cool. Shark and Squirrel recover from the thought, and skip off to our next settling-in job at the library. Tiger, with her troubled face, drops behind.

I wonder how I can make our home ed normal, and whether Fanny's now thinking, These foreigners who come to live on this island? They sure are strange.