The Hotoke Family
There was something strange about Frio. Incredibly beautiful, but even Erika had to admit, a little strange. His skin was always cold, for a start, which was great news in October, when the rains gathered over the hills but didn't fall, black clouds behind the neon purple of the Jacaranda flowers, but today it was chilly, and she pulled her jumper sleeves down over her palms rather than move away from his side.
The bus bumped over a pothole and shifted forwards in the traffic across the Parklands junction. Some of the students opened the bus window and leaned out with coins to buy roasted maize from street vendors, and the driver gave a yell to warn everyone when the road cleared and he was able to move forwards. Erika stole another glance at Frio and wondered what she could say to start up a conversation with him.
He was looking up at the other students, passing their maize around and bickering, spreading chili lemon slices over the blackened kernels. He bit his lip slightly and looked away, and she wondered if he was hungry. She wondered if she could buy one and share it with him next time.
It's not like she never spoke to him. He was in her year at school, but not her form. They did physics and english together, but he did geography instead of history, and he was in middle set maths while she was in top set. They'd been talking at the start of the bus ride, something about their English essay, and God, didn't that just say it all that even she couldn't remember the exact content of that conversation. And she was an English nerd! He probably thought she was desperately boring, droning on about Mr Brocklehurst and his hypocrisy. Oh God, she hoped she hadn't started talking about Jane's resilience in the face of adversity, because she could talk about that for hours. Come on, Erika, come on, don't be pathetic.
"Doing anything this weekend?" she blurted.
"Uhm, I don't know," he said, turning to face her. "It's only Tuesday."
"I think I've got to work."
"You've got a weekend job?"
His pale skin darkened a shade, the slightly greyish colour disappearing behind a blush. "Yes, I, uh, I need the money."
"Where do you work?"
"Just at a plant nursery," he mumbled, fiddling with his frayed sleeves. His arms stuck out of the jumper, pale brown skin stretched over sharp bones. Everything about Frio was sharp. His cheekbones in particular, and his chin, but his eyes softened the overall effect of his face. They were huge, and a gorgeous sort of stormy blue-grey. Faith Nzioka in year eleven said he had to be wearing contacts, but Erika had seen them change colour slightly. She didn't admit to that. She didn't want people to know quite how carefully she'd been looking.
“That’s cool, my parents won’t let me get a job. They want me to focus on my studies.” She rolled her eyes a bit and he smiled shyly, but didn’t say anything.
Dammit. Back to square one.
He fiddled with his hands, twisting them together in his lap. She frowned down at her own, trying out different sentences and questions in her mind and discarding each one until the bus pulled into the Westlands petrol station and squeaked to a halt. He glanced up at her and gave her another of those little smiles, just a little tilt of thin lips that made her stomach flutter and pulled an inane grin from her in response. God, what a dork. She stood, kissed Priyanka and Akeyo on the next seat goodbye, and shuffled down the aisle with the crowd. His arm bumped her shoulder a couple of times as people pushed and laughed behind them.
“Erika!” She looked up and waved at her mum. Tuesdays meant coffee in Java, which was lovely, and she really enjoyed telling mum everything, but she had to admit, there was a little corner of her mind that had kind of hoped she’d be late. That she’d be able to stand next to Frio until his parents picked him up, and maybe talk to him a little bit more.
Mum kissed her on the cheek and pressed the key fob so she could jump in the front seat of the Range Rover, waving off the flower vendor who held wilting roses under her nose.
“Mmhmm,” she nodded. “Got my French test results back, 84%.”
"Priyanka got 92% again," she shrugged.
Frio was looking at the car as they pulled away from the petrol station, and as he caught her eye through the window he lifted one hand in a little wave. Her stomach dropped through the seat and she waved back, way too enthusiastically. Her face flushed with heat and she forced her hand back into her lap.
“Who’s that,” Mum asked, with that knowing lilt that parents and older family members use when they think they know so much.
“Frio Hotoke,” she said, proud of how casual she made it sound.
“Interesting name, where are his family from?”
“I don’t know, actually. He’s not Kenyan, I don’t think, his accent’s kind of...posh, I guess? Or like a cross between posh and American.”
Mum laughed. “I can’t imagine that. Maybe he’s a posh American?”
She scrunched her nose up. “Don’t posh Americans still sound really American? Like Obama?”
“Anyway, posh and American doesn’t mean anything. People all over the world learn English from movies. I once met a girl on that trip I went on to Japan, remember? She learned English by watching the OC, sounded like she’d been to college in California.”
“Like the news anchors on KTN,” Erika smirked.
Mum clicked her fingers and laughed again, her bangles chittering, until a motorbike weaved in front of her, barely missing the car bonnet and she leaned on her horn, yelling in Kikuyu out the window. Sarit Centre rose up on the left as they crawled around the Westlands roundabout, so close and yet so far, but at least it wasn't a hot day. Erika leaned her elbow on the window and watched a matatu mount the pavement to gain a few extra inches, squeezing past painfully close so it could pull off down Lower Kabete road in front of just one more car. Mum gesticulated at the driver and sucked her teeth. "Idiots." She shook her head. "Everyone's so tired all the time these days, with that insomnia epidemic. Makes it even worse."
At last, safe in the VIP parking area, they walked into Sarit Centre and down to Java on the lower ground floor, settling into one of the atrium tables. Erika let her eyes wander around the wide tiled area as Mum ordered lattes, watching people bustle past with shopping bags and trying to imagine what they'd bought. A man in a terrible yellow suit was leaning over the rail on the floor above, fiddling with his phone and watching people walk to and fro in the atrium. As Erika stared, he turned and seemed to catch her eye. She was sure he winked. She blushed, embarrassed, and turned back to face Mum.
Mum pushed her sunglasses up onto her head, beads in the little braids at the nape of her neck clicking with every movement. "Did you hear about the rains in the UK? They said they haven't had such a warm, wet winter in over a hundred years. Not looking forward to my business trip."
"They're always saying things like that, though," she shrugged. "Weren't they saying there was going to be loads of snow this year?"
She shook her head. "That was last year. Looks like temperatures are going to stick in positive numbers for the whole season."
"Don't the British always complain about it being cold, though?"
"Britain is cold! Even when it's ten degrees it feels below freezing, I don't know how they manage it. It's not just the UK though, this year. The US is talking about record highs as well."
"That's global warming for you."
"You learning about that in school yet?"
She rolled her eyes. "We've been learning about global warming every year since I was ten, Mum."
Mum laughed and blew the steam off her latte. "Well, I don't know these things, do I? I'm old. Hey, isn't that that boy you were waving at?"
Erika turned so fast she thought she'd get whiplash, and then immediately realised how pathetic that must have looked. Luckily Frio didn't seem to have spotted her.
He was walking with a group of people that must have been his family, but what a mixed group! He held his little sister's hand - she must have been about four or five, a cute little thing with wild curls falling over her face. She had slightly paler skin than him, still with that same grey-blue tint. It should have been ugly, but it seemed to work on them. Frio most of all, of course.
There was a young boy walking beside him, stick thin and a warmer brown this time, with Frio's pointed features and a twitchy sort of energy. Erika heard Frio call him in his soft voice. "Njala, go help Father, please, he's carrying too much, as usual."
Njala scrunched up his face, but he turned back to a man walking a few paces behind them. And if he didn't have that same pointed face Erika would never have pegged him for being related to Frio. The man's skin was so dark it was almost blue. Erika and her dad were very dark skinned, but Mr Hotoke was striking, a matte midnight that seemed to absorb the light around him. And just to make him stand out even more, his dreadlocks were pure white.
Frio was right, though, he really was carrying too much stuff. He had two or three plastic bags in each hand and his phone, a brick he must have picked up in an archaeological dig, was crammed into the crook of his neck so he could argue with the person on the other end. He was a little intimidating, if she was honest, but when Njala approached him and took a bag from each hand, his face relaxed into the sweetest smile. And suddenly, the family resemblance to Frio was clear.
They were almost level with Erika's table, and she'd just dredged up the courage to call out a greeting when the yellow-suited man dropped the phone he'd been playing with. It fell and smashed on the floor right behind Mr Hotoke, a disproportionately loud crash echoing around the four-storey high atrium. Erika jumped, splashing coffee onto the saucer under her cup, but Frio's family fell apart.
The little girl whipped her hand out of Frio's and ran straight for the door, heading towards the road. Mum was on her feet in a moment, but Mr Hotoke was faster. He dropped everything, all his bags, the phone, and raced after her, followed by Njala.
Frio was frozen. Erika didn't register at first, but when the others were out of sight, she turned back to him and her eyes widened. He stood in the centre of the carnage, shopping bags scattered around him, his chest heaving, his eyes staring after his family. The hand his little sister had been holding was cupped to his chest, and for a moment she wondered if he had something in it, until she realised he was clutching at his shirt, struggling to breathe.
She ran across to him, Mum close behind, and grabbed both his biceps. "Frio, what's the matter? What is it?"
"It's OK, sweetie, your dad's gone after your little sister, he'll get her." Mum rubbed his back and took the shopping bags from his hand. "God, you're cold as ice, come, let's sit you down."
"No, I can't...I have to...I have to stay here. I can't go...I have to..."
"OK, then you just sit down here, that's it. Deep breaths, there you go. Try to match my breathing."
Other people were starting to gather around them. A couple of old white ladies picked up some of the scattered groceries, tutting over the broken eggs and torn packages. Erika sat on the floor next to Frio and held his hand as he gasped for air, the shallow breaths squeaking, almost whimpering as they came. His whole body was shaking, and she wanted to hug him so badly, but the way he was looking up at the crowd around them, eyes twitching from one to another, made her wonder if he'd be better off with a bit more room. People patted him and offered drinks, but he cringed away from them and his breath came faster.
Like he'd read Erika's mind, a guy from the craft shop started shooing people backwards. "Give the poor boy space, move up. Go on, it's not a show, OK? Here." He handed Frio a paper bag. "Breathe into that, concentrate on the noise of the bag crackling, you'll be fine."
The brown paper inflated and deflated, and Frio's eyes almost crossed trying to focus on it, but he seemed to be settling down already. Erika pulled one of his long braids away from his face, untangling it from where it had got caught up with the bag pressed against his cheeks.
In a clatter of trainers on the polished tiles, Njala raced back and fell to his knees beside his brother, putting his hand on his other shoulder. Erika looked up to see Mr Hotoke, his arms wrapped tightly around the little girl, following behind as well, his eyes just as wide and scared as Frio's.
"Father," Frio said, taking the bag away from his face. "I'm sorry...I panicked, I should have--"
"Shh, shh, Frio, it's fine." He bent down and moved the little girl to one side so he could hold her with one arm and pull Frio's face closer, pressing their foreheads together. Erika moved back slightly to give them room.
"I'm sorry, Father, I failed again," he whispered.
"Do not say that," he said sharply. "You did no such thing, you have never failed me in your whole existence, do you hear?"
Frio nodded, but Erika saw his lower lip wobbling the way hers did when she was holding back tears. She couldn't help putting her hand back between his shoulder blades and rubbing gently.
"Is your little girl OK?" Mum asked, crouching down to Mr Hotoke's eye level.
He nodded and kissed her curls. "Scared still, but thankfully she didn't get out to the road. Someone caught her before she could get out of the building but...she was fighting him and screaming. It took me a while to calm her down." He looked back at Frio. "I'm sorry I took so long."
"Why don't we get off the floor and out of the way. Do you want a coffee?" Mum gestured to their table outside Java.
Mr Hotoke shook his head, though he did look longingly at the cafe. "I am expected back at home, but thank you so much. My eldest son needs to leave for work." He looked at the sorry pile of damaged groceries and sighed. "Come on, children. Thank you all for your help."
"We'll help you carry these to your car," Mum said, picking up a couple of bags.
"We...we do not have a car, we were going to walk home, but thank you."
Mum frowned down at Frio, whose limbs were still shaking as he picked up another shopping bag. "How far away do you live?"
"Only little way along Parklands Road."
Mum shook her head. "You're exhausted, all of you. Come on, we'll give you a lift, we've got space, and we were pretty much done here."
"I cannot possibly impose so much."
She laughed. "It's nothing! Look, our kids are in the same class, we're practically family." She held out her hand. "I'm Gloria Muthemba."
Mr Hotoke gave a soft laugh and visibly gave up in the face of Mum's overwhelming Good Samaritanism. "Teli Hotoke. This is Frio, Njala and Bhaya." He turned to Erika, still hovering over Frio. "And you must be Erika, yes?"
Erika smiled and nodded, and shook his outstretched hand. It was almost as cold as Frio's, even after his dash across the shopping centre. "Nice to meet you, Mr Hotoke."
"Please, call me Teli. The pleasure is all mine. I have heard much about you."
Frio and Erika both blushed, and Erika thought the butterflies that seemed to live permanently in her stomach these days would burst out of her and soar around with delight. Frio had been talking about her!
Mum paid for their coffee and led everyone back up to the VIP parking area, chatting to Teli, her loud laugh echoing up the stairwell. "Are you OK?" Erika asked Frio as they brought up the rear.
He nodded and ducked his head down, hiding his face behind the curtain of braids. She'd never known any boy to have a proper full head of braids. She very rarely bothered with them herself, preferring to keep her hair short and natural, but they suited him perfectly. Although it was possible that Erika would have thought anything suited Frio. "Thank you for helping me," he said.
"Any time," she said, and, feeling brave, she patted him on the back. "What happened back there, anyway?"
His shoulders curled slightly like he was ashamed, and Erika felt guilty for asking. "They're called panic attacks," he said. "I get them when there are loud noises sometimes."
"Come on, Erika, keep up," Mum yelled, and Frio immediately walked faster. She glanced at his closed off face and decided not to ask the question again.
What To Do With Broken Eggs
"Wow, your car is amazing," Njala said as Mum pressed the key fob.
"Thanks," she laughed. "Get in, then. Bhaya will have to go on her dad's lap, but you guys can all fit in the back. Shopping bags in the boot first."
Even Teli stared around the car when they climbed in and Mum started the engine. Njala was stroking the leather and pulling open every pocket and storage area he could find, chattering away at high speed and pointing them out to his big brother. Teli directed Mum down Parklands Road, just past the giant white model of a lotus flower outside the Raja Yoga centre.
"There it is," he said, pointing to a mustard yellow block of flats. Mum puled off the road onto the dirt driveway and waited at the black gate for the askari to let them in, while Erika stared open mouthed and tried very hard not to judge.
The thing was, they went to a private school. Erika's family didn't consider themselves particularly wealthy - comfortably middle class, maybe, but there were other kids in Erika's class who lived in mansions and got five thousand shillings pocket money every month. She wasn't stupid, she didn't think she was that naiive, and she was well aware of the vast inequalities in her country. All Kenyans knew how bad some people had it, and at least this place wasn't one of those shanties the city council would bulldoze and set on fire for kicks like they sometimes did in Kibera, but even so...
The building was seven storeys high, loomed over by skyscrapers, or building sites for skyscrapers. Grey water stains draped down the walls like grasping fingers, TV ariels stood crooked on the roof with wires sagging from them. Every window up to the top floor was barred, and no attempt had been made to twist the iron into something decorative. There was laundry hanging on wires in every balcony.
It was the kind of invisible place she saw every day from the bus window, stared at unseeing when stuck in Nairobi traffic jams. If she ever really thought about it, it was probably the kind of place their maid Florence lived in.
Njala waved to the askari while Teli climbed carefully out of the car with a sleeping Bhaya and beckoned them all upstairs. The stairwell smelled of fried fish and cabbage, and someone was washing the second floor landing with a broom, sluicing water across the concrete so that it dripped down to the steps below and made them precariously slippery.
Their flat was on the third floor, and as Teli juggled the keys into the heavy iron gate in front of the door, a young man opened it from inside and ran out, and apron still round his waist and arms soapy to the elbows. "Father, you're back early."
Of all the Hotokes, he looked the most...well, normal was probably an insulting word. But he was. He had a round, friendly face with the family's high cheekbones, curled black lashes and a warmth to his brown skin that none of the others shared. He really didn't look like Teli much at all. He looked like a younger version of Erika's dad, actually, and she couldn't help smiling back at him when he spied her and Mum behind his dad.
"Hello, new people."
"Hi, I'm Gloria, nice to meet you," Mum said, flashing her white teeth in her standard self-confident grin. "This is my daughter, Erika."
"I'm Ummah," he said, taking half of Mum's bags. "And is this the Erika?" He smirked at Frio, who rolled his eyes and ducked his head again. "Sorry, little brother. Come in, please."
"Is he really your dad?" Erika blurted, unable to stop her bad manners. "Sorry...but you don't really look alike - and Teli looks really young as well."
Teli smiled, a darkly amused thing. "I assure you, I am older than I look."
"What she really means is she thinks I'm old," Mum grumbled, smirking and nudging her.
They crowded into the tiny flat, Njala dumping his bags on the counter of the kitchenette and running off to one of the bedrooms. Erika caught sight of a double and a single mattress on the floor before the door shut.
Ummah went back to the washing up. Mum beckoned Erika and Frio over to the kitchenette with her head and they started sorting out the items that had been damaged in the fall while Teli took Bhaya to another bedroom and lowered her onto the double mattress on the floor there. He stroked her curls with a sad little smile, then gathered the mosquito net around her and backed out, closing the door.
"What happened, Father?" asked Ummah.
"Loud noises. Shouting. The usual," he said wearily and joined the pair sorting the shopping out.
Ummah winced, his face scrunched up in pity as he looked over to his little sister. "Did she get far?"
Teli shook his head. "No. But she was distressed when I caught up to her. I...at first I do not think she recognised me."
Ummah turned in the small space and wrapped his wet arms around his father's waist. Teli pressed his nose to his son's hair and hugged him back, a slightly wobbly smile on his face. Erika pretended not to see him wipe his cheeks as they returned to their jobs.
"I do not think much of this flour is salvageable," he said, crinkling his nose up as he lifted a paper bag of Exe out, torn and slimy with egg.
"Have any of the eggs survived?" Mum asked.
"Five are unbroken, another three are cracked. They should be fine if we use them soon."
Ummah checked the clock. "I can buy more on my way back from my shift."
"You should not have to waste your wages on--"
"Shhh!" He said imperiously. "I will help you whenever I please, Father, you are a fool if you think any of us would not." He dried his hands off and leaned close to Mum, lowering his voice to a mock-whisper. "He thinks he does not need any help."
"Ummah!" snapped Teli, and the boy winked at Mum.
"I like this one," she laughed.
"That makes one of us," Teli grumbled.
"Well, I like me too, so I believe you are outvoted, Father. Now, I must go, or I shall be late." He picked up a battered backpack from the corner and threw his apron over the back of a chair.
"Ummah," called Teli as he got to the front door. He turned, eyebrows raised in question. Teli came round the counter and hugged him very tight. "I love you very much. And I like you quite a lot too."
"I love you too, Father," he said, a smile in his voice.
He locked the door as Ummah left, and stood by the window to wave at him. Erika heard the clunk of the main gate, and Teli turned back, pausing for a moment to brush his fingers along a small side table with a collection of odd items. A teddy bear, a long speckled feather and a collection of candles on a white cloth, which formed a U shape around a beautiful glowing crystal ball. It looked a little like one of those plasma balls she'd seen in Physics lessons, just smaller, with a soft, almost sleepy light inside. She wished she knew where they'd got it from, it was beautiful.
Teli cleared his throat as he looked up at them, clenching his hand away from the objects. "You do not need to do that, really, you have been very kind."
"It's no trouble," Mum said cheerfully. "So how long have you guys lived here then?"
"Ah, well, nearly a year."
"Where were you before then, where are you all from?"
"North," he said with a vague smile, and turned around to throw some of the dirty packaging in the bin. Mum raised an eyebrow at him, but left it alone.
"What are we going to do with these eggs, Father?"
"You could make cupcakes," Erika said.
"Ah," Teli frowned. "I'm not sure I have a recipe for those."
"I could write one down for you," Mum offered. "Erika and I make cupcakes every week, practically, don't we?"
"Cupcakes?" Njala squeaked. Erika hadn't even noticed him sneak back in. "Are we having cupcakes?"
Teli sighed. "I suppose just this once..."
"Sorry," Mum grimaced.
"No, that's fine," he said. "They deserve a treat after all, it has been a while."
"Can we stay and help you guys make them?" Erika asked, looking between the two parents. Frio immediately looked up at his dad as well, and Teli rolled his eyes.
"Very well. It is not as if I know how to make them myself."
Mum grinned at him. "I promise I won't let them make a mess. Where do you keep the sugar?"
"Sugar..." he grimaced. "Ah. Is that a necessity?"
Mum frowned at Erika, then back at him. "Uh, yeah, it's a pretty integral part of it."
"Oh, no," Njala moaned, and leaned his head on the counter. "I'm starving!"
"Well, I was planning to make pancakes."
"That's not the same." The little boy's words were muffled as he pressed his face against the wood.
"Hey, how about this," Mum suggested. "You guys can come over to ours one day and we'll make cupcakes and decorate them, does that sound good?"
Njala leaped up. "Really?"
"Could they come this weekend? On Saturday?" Erika asked, her hands pressed together under her chin. "Please?"
"If you're not busy, we haven't got anything on."
"Really, that is not necessary." Teli looked slightly lost. "Please do not feel obliged--"
"I don't," Mum frowned. "I don't do everything out of some obligation, Teli. I like having other people over. You don't have to come if you don't want to, but I'm genuinely offering." She shook her head. "Come on, Erika, we need to let these guys get on."
"Father," Frio grabbed his dad's wrist, and Teli rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"I meant no offence," he said. "If you really don't mind..."
"No," she smiled, her voice still a bit exasperated. "I really don't, I wouldn't offer if I didn't think the kids would have a good time. Here, let me give you my address, we're only on Brookside Drive. Is Saturday OK?"
"I have work," Frio said softly.
He nodded and smiled through his braids at her. She scribbled their address and her phone number on a notes page in her schedule, then tore it out and handed it to Teli.
"Bye, Frio," Erika said as Teli let them out.
Frio waved at her and pushed the braids out of his face, tucking them behind his ear. "I'll see you tomorrow, Erika."
She followed her mum down the stairs and kept quiet until they were in the Range Rover. "Why do you think Teli's so weird, Mum?"
"I don't think he's weird," she said, frowning a little. "Just awkward. Anyway, we'll see what happens on Sunday."
"How come they're so poor?"
"No, really, Mum. I think all the boys share a bedroom, how can they even afford the school fees?"
She sighed and tapped her long nails on the steering wheel, but didn't answer. Erika looked out of the window as they pulled onto the Westlands roundabout yet again. "I felt kinda guilty that we've got all that stuff and they don't even have sugar."
"They might not have sugar because Teli's trying to keep them healthy."
"You know what I mean, though."
"Yeah," she said. "I know what you mean."
Erika didn't get a chance to talk to Frio the next morning on the bus. Priyanka's dad had found a text on her phone from her boyfriend, and she was terrified he was going to disown her. She and Akeyo sat on the back seat of the bus with their arms around her, talking softly about how he'd come round, she was fifteen, and it's not like they were sleeping together or anything. And if the worst came to the worst, she could always come live with one of them. Erika knew her mum and dad would definitely let her stay as long as she liked. She looked at her friend's red eyes and sent out a silent prayer of thanks that she had such modern, understanding parents.
She didn't see Frio at all during lessons that morning either, and at break time she had to run an errand for Mr Henderson. She was beginning to think she wouldn't see him at all when she sat down for lunch with Akeyo, smiling at Priyanka all snuggled under James' arm.
Her head whipped up, and there he was, standing there, shuffling his feet and holding his plate of macaroni cheese. "Hi," she breathed.
"May I please sit with you?"
Akeyo nodded, her mouth full of salad, and shifted along the bench, pulling Erika when she forgot she had to move up too.
"Thank you again for yesterday," Frio said softly, glancing up at Erika quickly and away again at his food.
"That's OK. I hope your dad wasn't too annoyed about the cupcake thing."
He shook his head. "He wasn't annoyed at all!"
"Oh. He sounded mad, like he didn't want you to come over or something."
He shook his head again, braids flicking into his face. "It's not that. We just...we don't find it easy to make friends, I guess he was surprised anyone was asking."
"Aww," Akeyo said, leaning over. "Well be your friends, Frio."
A flush rose up his cheeks, pushing away the silvery grey tint to his skin and turning him a warm brown. "Thanks."
"See?" she grinned. "Making friends is easy! So whatcha doing this weekend?”
Frio stared. “It is still only Wednesday!”
“Yeah, meaning we’re half way through the hellscape that is the school week.”
“I like school,” he said softly.
“I do too,” said Priyanka. “Ignore her, she’s just dramatic.”
Akeyo gasped and clutched her chest. “I am not!”
Erika shoved her friend. “So where do you usually sit at lunch, Frio? I don’t see you in the hall most days.”
James nodded and raised an eyebrow. “And she would know, huh.”
Akeyo and Priyanka both nodded, the traitors. Erika kicked them under the table.
“I usually take my food outside,” he said. “I...um...there are these birds in the field, if you put out crumbs they come really close.” He blushed again and Erika fought the urge to clutch at him and go ‘awwwww’.
“Oh, the colourful ones?” said Priyanka. “Yeah, they’re cute, aren’t they. Superb starlings, I think they’re called. Do you like animals then?”
He nodded. “I never got the chance to get close to animals where I used to live.”
“Where was that, the states?”
“North,” he replied, and Erika narrowed her eyes at him.
“North of what, man, like the North Pole?” James laughed.
“Haha yes. I lived at the North Pole.”
“You’re funny,” James grinned, stealing one of Priyanka’s chips. “Are you Santa Claus?”
“No, that’s his dad, stupid,” Akeyo said. “I always knew Santa was black.”
“Wasn’t he Turkish?” Priyanka asked.
“Who, Frio’s dad?”
“No, idiot, St Nicholas, the original Santa Claus.”
Akeyo patted her hand and looked concerned. “Priyanka, honey...Santa isn’t real...”
She leaned over and smacked the cackling girl. “Don’t say that, his son’s sitting right there, you’ll give him a complex.”
Frio had never sat with the same person more than a couple of days in a row. He’d always seemed to blend into the background so people didn’t really think about moving to sit closer to their friendship groups or to sit next to him just to have a bit of time alone. Even Erika hadn’t wanted to sit with him too often in case she started to annoy him. She’d always thought he kept to himself because he didn’t like people much. But now he’d introduced himself to her group, she considered that tacit permission to include him in everything they did. And the way his eyes lit up when they found him at break time and sat at his bench without asking, or when Erika paired up with him in a Physics experiment, made her wish she’d been brave enough to make friends with him earlier. When he’d first arrived in the middle of year nine people had flocked around him, but he’d been so quiet they got bored after a while. Better late than never, she thought as he listened wide eyed and smiling to one of Akeyo’s stories about her three older sisters.
When Friday came around, James hugged Priyanka tightly in the bus queue. “You sure you don’t want me to send you a bitter breakup text to get your dad off your back?”
“No. I’m fifteen, we’re not doing anything wrong. I’m just going to be brave.”
James frowned and looked at Erika over Priyanka’s shoulder. “OK. But if he gets mad—“
“I know,” she smiled and pulled back. “I’ll get out of there and go to Akeyo’s.”
They all nodded. “And if Akeyo hasn’t got space, ring me from her house and my mum will pick you up. You’ll be able to stay as long as you like, I know it. Mum likes having guests.”
Priyanka huffed a laugh, then hugged James one last time and boarded the bus with the others. Erika sat with Frio across the aisle from her and Akeyo, and they slipped the windows shut with a screech as the bus pulled out, kicking up a storm of fine red dust.
"Do you think Priyanka is in danger?" Frio asked quietly as they clattered along the highway.
Erika checked to see that her friends weren't paying attention before leaning closer to him. "Her dad can be a bit...he loses his temper sometimes."
"With her, though?" he frowned.
"Well, yeah. Everyone gets smacked once or twice, but--"
"You get smacked? But why?"
She squinted at him. "Yeah...you know, when you're a little kid and you do something naughty, that's your punishment...has your dad never spanked you guys?"
"Of course not!" He looked absolutely horrified, and Erika's eyebrows shot up.
"Wow, OK. Well, maybe that's a cultural thing, because my mum used to smack my backside with a slipper when I was cheeky. Ask anyone, we were all smacked as children. It didn't do us any harm or anything--"
"But that is harm - hurting is harm!"
"You know what I mean - it only hurts for a moment, and we learned not to be cheeky, and we grew up to be polite human beings. My point is that this was all when we were little children. Priyanka's dad still does it now. Sometimes he hits her for the tiniest little things, sometimes he hits her really hard and she's just...are you OK?"
Frio looked like he was about to cry, his huge eyes fixed on Priyanka. His hands were clenching and unclenching and to Erika's horror his breathing was starting to speed up and become shallow. "Frio - Frio! Calm down, it's OK."
"But...but how can he? Her own father? What...what if he hurts her again? What can she do?"
"That's what we've been sorting out," she said, stroking his shoulder and rubbing on his wrist at the same time, trying to get him to relax his hands. "If she needs to, Akeyo only lives across the road from her. She can run over there and then phone me - Akeyo doesn't have much space in the house. Look, Frio, it's OK, really. This sort of thing has happened before, it always blows over. Priyanka's dad's been away most of this week, we're only worrying because he's coming back tonight. But James has been deliberately not texting her, so hopefully there won't be a reason for Mr Sharma to get angry."
Frio took a long breath and let it out slowly, shakily between pursed lips, staring out of the window. Erika kept rubbing his arm and wishing she knew the right thing to say, rather than blundering into things as always. "Are you OK now?"
He nodded. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you. Just...are you sure she'll be safe?"
"Yeah," she said. "I'm sure she'll be fine."