Continuing the story of Tianyi Chi (An excerpt from the novel Small Fish Big Fish, by PJ McDermott)
Tianyi has started school in Paisley and made friends with one of the girls in her class.
Not read part 1 yet? Find it here.
Tianyi let her backpack fall and flopped onto the grass. ‘A long walk, Jenny. It’s too hot now.’ She stripped off her jacket and lay with her back on the warm grass, gazing at the clouds drifting across the blue sky. Her friend was too puffed to answer; Tianyi thought she wasn’t very fit. They’d jogged the last hundred yards up the hill and walked another half mile to their chosen spot at the top of the Gleniffer Braes. ‘You like some lemonade?’ asked Tianyi.
‘No, péngyou, but I could murder a cup of tea right about now!’
Tianyi frowned. The English language didn’t make sense to her a lot of the time. Jenny had volunteered to help her, but she still struggled with it. She hazarded a guess. ‘You prefer tea? But why do you wish to kill it? Explain, please.’
Jenny laughed and rolled onto her stomach. ‘I don’t want to kill the tea, péngyou. It’s what you say when you’re desperate for a cuppa—it won’t last long. Do you get it?’
First Day at School
Tianyi smiled and nodded. She was lucky to have Jenny as a friend. Almost thirty months ago, her first day at school had been terrifying. Her teacher made her stand at the front of the class while she introduced her to the other pupils. She’d stared at the floor and waited with her hands clasped behind her back as Miss Bowmore explained that she was an orphan, who’d come all the way from China. During the play-break, some of the girls teased her by forming a ring around her and pushing her from one to the other while singing a silly song.
It was scary at the time, but Jenny McGuire came to her rescue. With a fiery look on her face and fists clenched, she’d glared at the offenders, pushed the ringleader to the ground, then snapped at them, ‘Leave her alone! She hasn’t done you any harm. Doesn’t she have enough problems as it is, without having to put up with bullies like you?’ Jenny was a big girl, and the others wouldn’t take up her challenge. After the crowd faded away, she smiled at Tianyi. ‘Welcome to Scotland, my friend.’
Tianyi had recognized a fellow traveler, a soul-mate, someone she instinctively liked. She said, ‘Péngyou. In China, friend is called “péngyou.”’
Jenny explained that the chant the other girls had been singing was nonsense—meant to be funny, not threatening.
Tianyi understood. Children in China had similar traditions, so she begged Jenny to teach it to her.
‘Sing the song again, Jenny,’ she said now.
‘Please, no, not again.’
Tianyi looked crestfallen.
‘Oh, all right, I will. But only if you join in.’
Skinny Malinky Longlegs
‘Skinny Malinky longlegs,
Big banana feet
Went to the pictures,
An coudnae find a seat.’
Tianyi sang along to the second verse:
‘When the picture started,
Skinny Malinky farted!
Skinny Malinky longlegs,
Wi’ big banana feet!’
Tianyi rolled on the grass and kicked her legs in the air. ‘That is so funny, Malinky farted!’ Tears coursed from the corners of her eyes and she tried to wipe them away.
Jenny blew a raspberry which set her to laughing again. When she recovered, Tianyi sat up and reached for the thermos. ‘Tea then, and afterward, we explore the canyon, yes?’ she said.
They drank their tea, munched on a biscuit, and looked out over the town spread below them. Tianyi pointed out the Abbey and the spire of Coat’s Memorial Church. When they looked into the distance, they could see the hills on the other side of the Clyde River.
‘Loch Lomond is just beyond those hills,’ said Jenny. ‘We should go there one day. I’ve never seen it, but Mum used to say how pretty it is.’ She sniffed, and Tianyi caught the glint of a tear in her eye.
‘Are you all right?’ She placed her hand on Jenny’s arm.
‘Yes.’ Jenny swallowed. ‘I’m fine. Really, I am.’ She took a handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose, and then smiled at Tianyi’s concern. ‘You’re my best friend, Tianyi, and best friends shouldn’t keep secrets from each other, should they?’
Tianyi wasn’t so sure but said nothing. She thought that there were some things you couldn’t even tell your best friend.
Jenny continued, seemingly unaware of Tianyi’s discomfort. ‘I’m going to tell you a secret—two secrets actually, but you must promise never to tell anyone else. Promise?’
Tianyi nodded. Who would she tell? Other than Archie, Jenny was her only friend. ‘Promise,’ she said.
Jenny let go a long breath. ‘You remember I told you my mum died of pneumonia?’
Tianyi remembered. Because both girls had lost their mothers, it created an indestructible bond. They were blood sisters.
‘I lied. She didn’t die of pneumonia, and she isn’t actually dead—although she might as well be.’ Jenny plucked a daisy from near her feet.
‘What are you saying?’ Tianyi was confused. Was this another English lesson? She didn’t get it, though. ‘Your mother is dead, but she is alive?’
‘Listen, I told a lie when I said my mum was dead. She’s alive, in Dykebar—the lunatic asylum.’ Jenny went red in the face. She began to pull the leaves off the daisy, one by one. ‘I didn’t want you to know. I don’t want anyone to know that my mum is crazy, so I invented the story that she caught pneumonia and died in hospital.’
Tianyi shuffled along to sit by Jenny’s side and put an arm around her shoulder. A crushing weight pressed against her chest as she recalled how her own mum had died. Perhaps madness was worse. ‘Oh, Jenny. I am so sorry. I understand. But, please, there is nothing for you to be ashamed of.’ She hugged her. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘I wish I could say there was some romantic story about it, but it happened over the years. It wasn’t too bad to start with. Sometimes, she would just forget to pick up my young brother from school or find herself in the butcher shop and not remember why she was there. These days, I go to see her, and she doesn’t even know who I am. I miss her so much.’ A tear splashed on the daisy in her hand, now almost denuded of leaves. ‘I wanted to tell you the truth before, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wish my mum was well. She always knew what to do. I miss her so much.’
Tianyi reached out to her. ‘I am sorry, Jenny. We both have seen much tragedy.’ She sensed that her friend still held some secret, and she thought Jenny looked desperate enough to tell her but was afraid to. Tianyi thought she understood. In the eighteen months since they’d met, she’d never told Jenny the truth about why she came to Scotland. That experience was too painful, but if Jenny was opening her heart, it wasn’t fair to keep her own secret from her best friend. She held her close as she whispered. ‘I lose my family when we try to get away from China. We leave by boat, but the weather is very bad...’