They called her ‘Fats’, although her name was Fatima. And she wasn’t even fat. At least, not in that nice, pudgy way that makes little girls look adorable to adults. She wasn’t adorable or sweet, or anything like the sugar and spice and everything nice that little girls are supposedly made of. In fact, she was BAD. Bad in big, bold, capital letters. She was a fighter and had been so ever since she came to the Home as a four year old orphan. She’d been in another home before that. She’d been left there, at the doorstep – abandoned by the mother no one would ever know. That orphanage looked after infants. Now, at four, she was considered old enough to move to a new environment. She’d never been adopted as some of the other babies had.
She hated the new Home from her first day there. She perceived a grayness that filled her with dismay. The forced cheerfulness of the care-mothers and nurses turned to bile inside her and they soon became wary of her sullen, brooding eyes. Never knowing when she’d snap back at them. They kept as much out of the way of this tiny, less than lovely child as they could.
She wasn’t much better with her peers either. The girls returned her sullenness with hostility. In fact, they sniggered behind her back and kept their eyes averted when they came face to face with her. Fatima concluded it was because they feared her obvious unhappiness. As though it were a contagious disease they were afraid they’d catch. They wore their happiness like badges. Fatima wore her grief like armour. And there was no one who cared to find the chinks in that formidable armour to reach the inner depths that must have lurked in this unhappy child.
And the boys. The boys. They laughed at her openly. It was the boys, in fact, who coined the nickname ‘Fats’. They referred to it like a Mafia underworld underling. Like ‘Bugs’ or ‘Lefty’.
They spread malicious stories about her which were mean and untrue. Of how she communed with the spirits of darkness in the middle of the night, of her witchery and her penchant for drinking blood and eating cockroaches off the floor. Stories that made the girls squeal with appealing girlish charm and cling on to the boys’ arms in prettily feigned terror. Some were masters in the art of swooning into convenient arms and could only be revived by the undivided attention of a male admirer.
It made Fatima sick to her stomach. But she also did everything she could to fuel the stories. She dangled cockroaches by their writhing legs and threw them at the screaming girls. She left her dormitory late at night in spite of repeated warnings from the house warden.
What she did outside was nothing more blood thirsty than walk barefoot on the wet grass and rest her head on the cool moss-covered stone walls. For she loved her solitude and guarded it like her most precious treasure. Some nights, she would slip, ghostlike on to the games filed and jog around the track. Bursting now and then into a spirited sprint. She loved the feel of the wind as it whipped past her ears and stung her cheeks. It was about the only time in that place that Fatima allowed herself to laugh out aloud. In a sudden rush of warmth that she dared not describe as happiness, she would leap into the air, arms flailing and whoop with joy.
But then, one night, a couple of girls from her ward, followed her stealthily and watched her strange ritual from behind a bush. The story spread like wildfire. Fats indulged in some sort of witch’s dance – calling spirits and dancing, prancing with them on the games field. And now there were two reliable witnesses to this bizarre ritual to prove the fact. Which they did; gladly and frequently. Word soon reached the hostel warden.
The warden looked at the down-turned dark head. There was no grace, no flicker of softness, no feminine charm to this child. The warden thought as she drummed her fingertips together, not quite sure how to tackle this problem twelve year old. Being in charge of a host of orphans was not the easiest of jobs, but never, in all her years here, had the warden had to handle such a bad apple as Fatima had been termed by the orphanage authorities.
“I’m afraid, Fatima, I have been hearing stories about you…” the warden began. Fatima lifted her head to look steadily just past the warden’s right ear, as though staring at a spider that hung there. Knowing she shouldn’t, the older woman turned her head to check. No there was no spider, or anything else. There wasn’t, of course not. When she looked back at the girl’s face, she was embarrassed by the brief look of triumph that flickered there.
“I need some explanations from you, my child.”
‘I’m NOT your child!’ screamed Fatima in her head. But she kept her gaze steady and unflinching on the spot just past the warden’s ear. The woman rubbed her ear self-consciously, as though cooling it from that burning gaze.
“What exactly were you doing, young lady, out on the games field in the middle of the night?”
A million answers raced through her mind. Some witty, some smart. Some downright rude. But ‘running’ was all she said.
“And why, my dear, do you choose to run in the middle of the night? Don’t you find the games period enough?”