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“The grass is mostly green but there are dry patches and stems that lift a string and a clod if you pull them. Smooth cement paving winds around and through an assortment of jungle gyms, some of metal with crackling paint and some of wood so smooth it can shine your skin. There are sun weathered tyres and a mulberry tree that has fed generations of silk worms to the relief and sorrow of generations of parents. Kildare nursery school, with its creaking tortoise family, fruit and milk breaks and weeping willow where the bank slopes suddenly down to the stream. Everyone wishes there were fish in the stream, there aren’t. Everyone wonders if the eldest tortoise will die this year, and it doesn’t. Brothers and sisters and their sisters and brothers stream up and through the cream coloured institution, baking sandy cakes and stamping small feet through the corridors. One of the biggest things is if you get a peg with a great picture. I can’t remember which ones I had, but I know it mattered. 

I started school when I was five. I’m not sure of the precise reason for this early beginning but I’ve been in a hurry ever since. It had mostly to do with my March birthday and what that meant in the eighties. My mother was filling in for the school secretary the term I started and for a while it was difficult to convince me that her office was not my final destination. I don’t remember this or the confusion it caused. I don’t remember many things, including any names of the Xhosa ladies who hugged and shepherded us.

There is a photo of my first day of school, ready for action. If Peter Pan had been prowling for a new side kick I would have had a good shot. Impish with blonde curls and a dangerously pointy chin, my satchel has red strips and a pleather handle. It is the girl version of my brother’s. He is James and he is older, allergic to cats and dust and named after our beloved grandaddy who was knighted during the second world war. The mystery and possibilities this resumé conjures in my young mind approaches Narnia, as do our annual visits to their London home.

I remember Tharaya. She is our nanny and maid for the first years of my life, and she is muslim. She wears a head scarf and speaks with a slight lisp. Sometimes the scarves have sparkles woven in. She is gentle and thin like my mum and married to a man called Aalie. She has her own daughters but when we walk to the corner park to pick daisies she is all mine. Her eyes sparkle when she laughs and she has gold fillings. One afternoon, I hide her shoes because I don’t want her to go home. Or was that Evelyn. I love Tharaya, and when she gets stomach cancer we visit her in hospital and she is gentler and thinner than ever. She dies and is buried in the muslim cemetery which we drive past when we go to the Blue Peter for breakfast. She is my first connection to Islam, in my twenties I will travel to Syria and Lebanon and think of her.

I have an enemy at Kildare. Her name is Olivia and she wears a purple t.shirt. My favourite jersey is a field or strawberries and in our class photo we sit squinting side by side. Disney’s The Little Mermaid has recently rocked our worlds and my relationship with Olivia comes to a head when, standing astride a wooden turret, she looks down and pronounces me the prince because I don’t have long hair. This is the day I first hate my curls. I have a clothes horse at home that has a cotton doll’s head with a pair of knitted plaits on an elastic loop. When I arrive at breakfast one morning wearing the plaits my mum and brother laugh and I am furious. The next time I wear them everyone is nice about it. I flick the plaits over my shoulders when they get in my way.”

Memories of pre-school and my wonderful nanny, Tharaya.

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