I am in the classroom, writing with my fountain pen in the grey London County Council notebooks. I dip the pen in the ink well that nestles in the hole in my desk. When it runs dry Miss Routledge fills it again. You have to be good at writing to be given a fountain pen, some people still use pencils because their handwriting is not neat enough or their spelling is bad. Writing and spelling are my best things and arithmetic is my worst. Chandra sits beside me, she is my desk partner and she hasn't yet been given a fountain pen.
We made friends when I told her that I liked curry and rice. Shyly she told me that she and her sister ate curry and rice at home every day because her family was from Pakistan. She invited me to her house for tea. We ate rice with dall and a sauce with chicken wings that was so hot it made my tongue feel bitter and burned but I ate it anyway and said it was nice. Then her sister gave me a piece of something hard and white that tasted of old boiled milk, Chandra said it was a sweet. She lived in a basement flat where the electric lights were always on because there was hardly any light from the outside, and the electric heater was on, three bars of it, even in summer because it was cold in the basement and Chandra said her mother and older sisters felt cold all the time in England.
Chandra is writing in her notebook with a pencil, her fingers pressing on the stub as she concentrates. The paper has flecks of brown and shiny yellow. Miss Routledge says that paper is made of trees. I can see pieces of the tree in Chandra's notebook. I can see the words she has written: Humpty Dumpty is walking and he is going to see the wite rabit and he is walking and he is going to the play grond and he is walking.When Chandra came to my house I read her some of Alice in Wonderland, the part where the White Rabbit makes a flustered appearance, saying oh my paws and whiskers.
Rabbits don't wear gloves, said Chandra.
It's just a story, I said.
But rabbits can't wear gloves, said Chandra, because they haven't got fingers.
So I stopped reading and we went to the playground.
Humpty Dumpty is going to the swing and he is going to the bech and he is going to the party and he is walking.
In the summer holidays Chandra and her sisters went to Southend for a day and that was their summer holiday.
It isn't a holiday if you only go for a day, I said.
It was a holiday, she said, we went on the beach and we had ice cream.
I decide to copy everything that Chandra writes. I want to know what it is like being Chandra.
Humpty Dumpty is walking and he is going to the shop and he is walking and he is going to the play grond and he is walking.
I whisper, you already wrote that he is going to the playground. Chandra looks at me and smiles. Then she shrugs and carries on writing.
Humpty Dumpty is going to the bech and he is walking.
Chandra furrows her brow when she writes, she gives it all her concentration. Humpty Dumpty is walking, she writes. I begin to notice a pattern - an activity, or a particular destination, followed by the repetition of Humpty Dumpty walking. He doesn't seem ever to arrive at the beach, the playground, the rendezvous with the white rabbit, he is in a state of perpetual motion, walking always intending somewhere or other. The walking, though, is the thing, and we come back to it, Chandra and I, as I faithfully copy her words, mesmerised by the seeming purposelessness of Humpty Dumpty's walk, stirred to some extent by his persistence in always finding some new destination. I picture his large egg shape, eyes open and hopeful, his short legs with tartan trousers moving quickly, arms out at his sides.
Miss Routlege is standing behind me, looking over my shoulder.
What is this rubbish you are writing, she says? What do you think you are doing?