Elementary Mechanics by Anne Goodwin

Anne Goodwin's moving story of two immigrants in Britain haunted by their past, and their sheltered child; first published 2010 in The Yellow Room, Issue 5.

Odaye gets back from work to a house that is unusually quiet. At this hour, he'd expect to find Vashila chopping vegetables with one eye on the news on the kitchen portable. Or opening a bottle of wine and contemplating the flyer from a local takeaway. He'd expect to hear Pollyanna huffing and puffing up and down the scales on her oboe. Or on her mobile, sharing intimacies that couldn't wait until she saw her friends at the school gates the next morning. He checks the calendar for some appointment he might have forgotten - a sleepover or a parents' evening or a trip to the hairdresser - but today's entry is blank.

Loosening his tie, he trots upstairs to change. In the coffee-and-cream bedroom, he finds his wife lying on their bed, staring at the ceiling.

"I didn't think you were home." As he bends down to kiss her, she seems to flinch. "What is it? Another migraine?"

She rolls away from him onto her side, screening her face with a veil of black-brown hair.

Odaye flings his tie to the floor. "How can I help if you won't tell me what's wrong?"

Vashila shrinks further into herself, wrapping her body around a battered hardback book as if it were a wounded animal she wants to love back to health. Odaye hangs up his suit and pulls on a pair of jeans.

A wailing sound wafts across the landing from their daughter's room. It tugs at his stomach like a chorus of women from his childhood protesting at another death.

Still in her school uniform, Pollyanna lies sprawled across her bed. Her face is blotchy from crying and there are spots of blood on the lilac pillowcase. Odaye's gaze darts towards the window, but there are no indications of forced entry. As far as he can tell, the clutter of teddy bears and makeup containers and unwashed coffee mugs is undisturbed. He kneels on the bed and takes his daughter in his arms.

"Oh, Daddy! Why does she hate me so much?"

"She doesn't hate you. She loves you."

Pollyanna stops crying and looks into his eyes. "Then why does she have such a crazy way of showing it?"

Vashila had been part of his life since childhood. His father was her father's driver. The children used to race each other through the alleys around her family home, watched by the old men smoking in the doorways of the dark cafés. Although he was a month older, she was always a couple of steps ahead, so that if she should slip between the women examining squashes and aubergines to filch an apricot from a kerbside stall, he would be the one who would get caught and cuffed around the head.

In her teens, she had been just like Pollyanna: smart and confident and headstrong. Ambitious: she told everyone she was going to be an engineer. Or a ballet dancer. He feared for her even then. She wanted more than was seemly for a girl, even a girl with a wealthy and liberal father. For what kind of father would let his daughter continue her education long enough to become an engineer? What kind of husband would permit his wife to balance on her toes in a skimpy dress solely for other men's entertainment? It worried him to think what she'd become once disappointment came to slap back her dreams.

Of course he was in love with her. As much as a boy like him was able to love. But he couldn't tell her, not then. Even if he hadn't been the son of her father's chauffeur, he would never have mentioned it. It wasn't how things were done.

When they took her away he came to curse his reticence, his playing by the rules. In his dreams and daydreams his declaration of love would have had the power to save her. To spirit her back into his arms, like in one of those European pop songs she and her friends were so fond of.

He takes a tissue from a lilac box on his daughter's desk to dry her eyes. Balls of cotton wool in pastel colours from the ceramic bowl in the en suite to dab the blood from her ear lobes. He eases the silver hooks through the tiny holes to remove the sparkly earrings she says her mother tried to yank from her ears. He runs her a bubble bath and promises to make her a soft boiled egg with soldiers.

In the master bedroom, his wife is sleeping. He takes the book from her hands and draws the quilt around her shoulders.

After the revolution, it was no longer proper for Vashila's father to employ a man simply to drive his car. It was no longer possible to withdraw money from the bank to pay him. Or his son's school fees.

Vashila's father had sent them both to the international school. From six to fourteen, Odaye learned about a world where the Yanks had all the best lines. He was tolerated by the progeny of diplomats and taught by men and women who believed anyone could be anything: a girl could become an engineer or a ballet dancer, a boy from the slums could marry a girl from a home so vast there was even a separate room for the car. Yet when his father told him it was time to get a job, he was ready. He'd always known he'd have to take a different path to Vashila. As with any long-anticipated journey, it was a relief to depart.

Money could be extracted from the bank, it seemed, for Vashila to continue her education. But the school changed. The senior teachers were nudged into alternative employment. Those who resisted discovered they'd committed crimes they'd never heard of and woke up in prison. They were replaced by young men and women from the provinces whose only qualification was enthusiasm for the new regime. The diplomats sent their progeny to board at schools in countries where the USA was still considered the centre of the world.

Odaye was apprenticed to a baker. He wondered how lessons in the glory of the revolution would give his friend the skills she needed to become an engineer. Or the grace to dance on her toes.

Odaye opens a bottle of Pinot Grigio and slumps down on the sofa while he waits for his daughter to come down from her bath. He wonders if it would have been easier if she'd been a boy and Vashila the one to stand bemused at the ringside with a first-aid box at the ready while father and son wrestled with his demons. Perhaps not.

He picks up the book he took from his wife. Elementary Mechanics. Bound in faded green cloth fraying at the edges, with the spine hanging on by a few grubby threads, it looks as if it has passed through many a schoolgirl's hands. He flicks through the yellowing pages of line drawings: triangles, pulleys and weights. He skims the invitations to calculate resultant forces and velocity-ratios. He can't remember if there'd ever been a time when he would have been able to do so.

His eyes fill with water and the text blurs so that he wouldn't have been able to solve the equations even if he'd understood the formulae. He feels a hand on his shoulder but when he reaches up to touch her, his daughter pulls away.

"Oh, so she's shown you the evidence, has she? And now you're going to bollock me, like she did. I know I shouldn't have ripped it, but it's only a book. And she had no right to go rummaging in my schoolbag."

"Even so, you should look after your things."

Pollyanna flops onto the sofa beside him. "I know. I just wish she wouldn't go on at me so much. Pay attention to your teachers, Pollyanna. Do your homework. It's your passport to the future."

Odaye winces. His daughter mimics his wife's accent perfectly. An accent that was considered near-enough native English at the international school. An accent that everyone assumed would lead Vashila to great things, even if she didn't make it as an engineer. Or a ballet dancer.

His hours at the bakery were long and, on some days, he thought he might faint with the heat, but he enjoyed rising early to knead the rubbery white dough. He was too busy to think about Vashila and his old life. But when he heard the customers talking about the student strike at what used to be the international school, his stomach flipped just like it used to when he'd listened to her boast of her aspirations for her future career.

People were saying that a female student had raised her hand halfway through a lesson that had once again degenerated into a recitation of revolutionary rhetoric, and challenged the teacher to return to the syllabus. The teacher had told the student that, if she didn't like what was being said, she could leave. At which she did. Along with a good three-quarters of the class.

Odaye prayed that Vashila would be among the minority that had stayed. But he also knew that, if she had, it could only be because she was no longer the headstrong girl he had loved when he chased her through the streets around her home.

"What lesson was it?" he asked everyone and anyone who brought the news to the bakery.

They'd raise their eyes to the heavens or shake their heads at his employer. "What does it matter what lesson it was? They've arrested the ringleader, that's all I know."

Eventually he found someone who could tell him. "Applied mathematics." The very foundation of her engineering career.

"So you had a fight about the book?"

"Sort of. Well, the book was just the start." Pollyanna bites her bottom lip. "Promise you won't fly off the handle like she did."

His daughter has wrapped her black-brown hair in a lilac towel, tucked in around her ears. She has threaded tiny gold rings through the holes in her ear lobes. The blood has all been washed away.

He has never hurt her. He never would. "I promise."

Vashila was seventeen when they sent her to the place where so many of her esteemed teachers had been taken a couple of years before. Everyone knew that the only way out was to the burial ground next door. Odaye concentrated on not burning his hands as he slid the round flat loaves out of the ovens.

"You know Fashion Idol?"

"That programme you watch on Thursdays when your mother's working late?"

"The one she hates. Well, they're holding the heats next week at the sports centre and Miss Goldsmith - she's this really laid-back art teacher - said she'd take us if the other teachers agreed. But guess what? It's Wednesday afternoon when I've got extra maths and Mr Patel - he's such an anal retentive - announced today that our class can't go. Too close to the exams and all that bollocks."

Odaye sips his wine and tries to look sympathetic. Imagines her mother's reaction and does his best to compensate. As always.

"Do you know what I said to that?" Pollyanna's eyes sparkle. "I said, Mr Patel, that's an abuse of our human rights, and if you won't let us go to the Fashion Idol heats, I'm not coming to class. I'm going on strike."

Odaye looks down at his hands, still strong from the years of kneading dough at five in the morning. Stares at the elegant glass of white wine they hold by the stem.

His daughter punches his arm. "Don't you think that's cool?"

When the rumours filtered through that there was a route out of prison other than in a box, Odaye began to knead the dough with extra vigour. They were saying it wasn't a route that was open to everyone. Certainly not to middle-aged teachers. Nor to men of any age. When, on his way home from work, he saw a young woman shrouded in black walking two paces behind one of the brutish prison guards, Odaye averted his eyes.

"How old are you?"

"You know how old I am. Nearly fourteen. Dad, don't look at me like that. You're making me nervous."

Odaye reaches out for her hand. "Did your mother tell you about the time she organised a school strike?"

"Mum? But she's such a stickler for the rules."

"Even so."

"But that's so cool. What happened?"

"It was the time of the revolution. She was a bit older than you. Seventeen. They sent her to prison."

Pollyanna gasps. "Wow! You mean it was against the law? Supercool."

In the city, life went on. The bakery continued to produce the round flat bread that people ate with the squashes and aubergines the women brought home from the market. As long as they didn't dwell upon the starvation and the beatings, the hoodings and the electric shocks, the executions mock and real within the prison walls, those outside could keep going from day to day. The greater freedoms they had once enjoyed were best forgotten. So when people saw a pretty girl shuffling along the street in the company of a man who earned his luxuries attaching electrodes to the genitals of their former neighbours, they didn't rejoice in a survivor. They saw a daughter who had relinquished her virginity without her father's permission, and spat at her.

Odaye lets go of her hand. He wonders if it's an indication of their triumph or failure as parents that Pollyanna thinks prison would bring a spark of excitement into her life. That they've shielded her so completely from their own nightmares that she hardly knows who her mother is. Just as they hardly know her. With Vashila's almond eyes and black-brown hair, with her courage and her sassiness, he'd thought he understood his daughter. Lounging on the sofa in her easy western clothes and hair wrapped up in a towel-turban, he sees now that Pollyanna is more attuned to the world of fashion and earrings and reality TV than the terrors that drove her parents to seek asylum far from the alleys where they used to play. He gets up.

"Are you going to make me my egg?"


"Oh, Dad, you're so forgetful. You said you were going to do me a boiled egg with soldiers."

Odaye laughs. "You're too old for that."

Pollyanna pushes out her bottom lip.

He remembers a time when he used to find that endearing. "If you want a boiled egg you can make your own. I'm going to check on your mother."

He saw Vashila once. She was with the man they called The Butcher and she was no longer as pretty as he remembered her from the international school. She waddled two paces behind him, a chain linking her wrist to his, one hand on her swollen belly. He called out to her, but softly. She didn't raise her eyes from the dusty street.

The bomb in the central square was what changed things for Odaye. The bomb that splattered bits of The Butcher over the walls of the mosque. The shockwaves that set off contractions in Vashila's womb for which neither she nor the baby were prepared.

These alone may not have been sufficient to give him the confidence to follow the precepts of those over-optimistic teachers at the international school and work towards a future where he and Vashila would be together. But the bomb brought the revolutionary guards to the bakery. They accused the owner of counter-revolutionary activities and smashed the brick ovens with a sledgehammer. Odaye had no job, and there was always the chance they would come for him next. So he went out to comb the alleys and squares in search of Vashila. He found her hiding in the latrine behind The Butcher's house, battling the flies and the rats for custody of the body of her stillborn child.

Two years it took them to reach Britain. Another three years before they were granted permission to stay. A couple more before they felt safe enough to have a child of their own.

Many a time, sweltering under blankets in the back of a truck or waiting, at a border encampment, for the moment to risk a crossing, he'd thought to ask Vashila about the school strike and its consequences. To fill in the gaps between the day he left school and when he tracked her down, squatting in the latrine, half-mad with grief. He'd thought about it, but he'd looked at her face closed up with pain and told himself, Later. When she's ready.

In the coffee-and-cream bedroom he watches her sleeping, black-brown hair strewn across the pillow, eyes darting left and right behind closed lids. Roughly, he shakes her awake. She whimpers like a wounded animal. Then she recognises him and smiles.

"Tell me what happened." The harshness of his voice surprises him.

Vashila pulls herself up and leans against the headboard. "I'm sorry I got cross. You know how it is sometimes. Tell her I'll take her shopping on Saturday and buy her some new earrings."

"I don't mean tonight."

"What then?"

"I'm talking twenty-odd years ago. In prison." He almost spits. "And with that man. The Butcher."

"Don't ask me about that, Odaye. It was so long ago. Another country. Another life."

His hands are clenched in fists. The hands with which he longed to pummel The Butcher as they kneaded the dough all those years ago. "You've never spoken about it."

Vashila's bottom lip trembles. But she doesn't turn away. "You've never asked."

Odaye waits. From downstairs he hears the lament of his daughter's oboe. He fancies he sees his wife's body stir in response. Easing her shoulders. Pointing her toes. He waits for the girl who thought she could be anything to reach out to him. For the boy who followed her through the alleys to catch her up.


  1. Thanks for publishing this, Charlie, and for the lovely intro.
    Look forward to any comments.
    This story gets a mention on my blog today on How to Be a Heroine, and I'll be exploring the theme further next Wednesday with a post about the aftermath of trauma. Very jolly I know!

  2. this certainly is moving, i think it´s a must read, if only to give People an idea of why the less fortunate seek asylum, what they´ve been through, and, until they are granted permission to stay, the fear and uncertainty they must feel.
    needless to say it is extremely well written, the characters are alive.

    Michael McCarthy

  3. So many things to comment on here as this really has so much to offer. The characters, as Michael notes, really come to life, but it's because with the wonderfully laid out back and forth in time, we get to know them, how they came to be who they are. And the backdrop of the story being the plight of those who leave everything behind to seek a better life, though that path is often fraught with pitfalls and heartbreak as well. Nicely woven tale and wonderfully told.

  4. This is well written. I agree that this story gives people an idea as to why the less fortunate seek asylum. As a Nigerian, I could relate to certain things in this story. When I tell stories of my life back home to my friends in England, they have no idea what it's like. I'm just glad this story captures the hardship they faced, the struggle for a better life. This story has inspired me to work on a short story that reflects on my life back in Nigeria and how I felt more at home in England than my actual country.