Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
Alice In Cognito
‘Your middle name. Carroll not Carol.’
‘Do you sing?’
‘Pardon? Look, I’m in a bit of a hurry…’
‘Sorry. Carroll? Carols? I know, rubbish joke. Merry Christmas, Ms Dodgson.’
‘You too. Thanks.’ Alice took the laminated card and grimaced. If only they’d just used ‘Alice’. She wouldn’t stand out. Why was she so short with that man? He seemed nice enough. She wondered where he was from.
She had two days of induction into the school and then a break before the new term in January. ‘Come on Alice,’ she told herself.
‘Hi, you Alice?’ A tall woman appeared to Alice’s right. ‘I’m Marje. Your guide, maybe chaperone. Hard hats and coffee this way.’
Marje strode ahead, making Alice scurry to keep up. ‘So what do you think of Kush?’
‘Our IT and admin guru.’
Alice still looked blank.
‘He did your pass. Indian looking, not that we can say that. A person of colour. Sorry, does that make you uncomfortable?’
‘Anyhoo, moving on, let’s show you the school. I may be able to find the science block for you. ‘Here be dragons and all that.’ They don’t let English teachers in usually.’ Marje peered at the pass. ‘Interesting name.’
Alice’s heat sank. She knew it would come but why so soon?
‘Alice Carroll Dodgson. Is this because your parents loved Lewis Carroll or are you related?’
In her thirty-two years she tried every response. Denial of any link; incredulity that someone might see a link; and an abrupt ‘mind their own business’. The worst was in 1998, the 100th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s death, when her mother had milked the family connections. She’d been made to dress as Alice and had been in countless photoshoots.
Now she was resigned to it. Sort of. She found it easier to get everything out of the way, even if she ‘overshared’. ‘He’s some great-great something uncle. My mother was the opposite of my grandmother. She, granny, married a Perceval and happily changed her name while mum, following her divorce took Dodgson back and changed my name too. I’ve had it like a mark on my forehead ever since.’
Marje eyed her. ‘Not keen on the links?’
‘Oh I don’t know. I’m used to standing out, people commenting, staring sometimes if something is said. Anyway, let’s see the science facilities.’
The unspoken question burnt into Alice’s neck as she walked ahead. It would be asked soon enough. ‘Why’d you choose science not English or creative writing? Or sometimes ‘Why not mathematics?’ But Marje said no more.
Two days later, Alice sat in the dining hall as the last of the students filed out. She had finished her induction and could go home but lingered over a cup of tea hoping the rain would ease. The west coast of England was proving to be as wet as she had been warned. She looked up as the chair next to her scrapped back.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ It was Kush. ‘Only I’m usually on my own and it’s nice to sit with someone over lunch.’
Alice smiled. ‘You are the first to call this meal lunch; everyone else calls it dinner.’
‘Ah but then I’m a soft southerner like you and they are all died in the wool Cumbrians. Or Lancastrians or something. I’ve not worked out exactly what yet.’
‘So where in the south? Far south?’
‘What Punjab? No, born in Peckham. Sorry, did that offend. I didn’t mean to imply you…’
Kush’s face coloured as the blush took hold. Alice quickly shook her head.
He went on, ‘That’s two of my jokes that have crated already. Can we start again?’
‘Really I don’t mind.’ She picked up her cup. ‘Tell me about Peckham. I’m from Kent and all I know about Peckham is Only Fools and Horses on repeat at my granny’s and if there’s a riot Peckham joins in.’
Kush wobbled a hand. ‘Yep, give or take that sums it up. My parents are Sikh. Me too, I suppose, not that I practice, or this,’ he patted his head, ‘would look different.’
‘Oh yes. A turban.’
‘That and I’d not cut it. I’d give you a run for your money in the long locks stakes.’
Alice looked at the cup, not sure what to say. Kush took a mouthful of stew and added, ‘Makes me a bit of a disappointment to my folks, though when I’m home I’ve been known to put one on. Not that I need a turban to stand out here in the back of beyond. They barely see a tan with all this rain, let alone a brown face so I’m something of a minor curiosity – I might have said celebrity but that would suggest it was a plus.’
‘Don’t be too sure.’
Alice waved a hand. ‘Celebrity. I don’t think it’s anything to rave about. So if you’re a Sikh, sort of, what do you do for Christmas holidays?’
Kush stared and then laughed. ‘I go home and we eat a turkey – well apart from my youngest brother whose vegan – and have crackers and play charades and watch too much telly and then dad and my brothers and I drink port and fall asleep. I’m British first, Alice. We’ve absorbed the culture and while my turkey might be spiced with cinnamon and cumin it’s still turkey. Sorry, was that rude? I’m not doing very well. Look, let me make to up. You’re going soon, aren’t you?
‘I’m not psychic but I am in charge of IT. I saw the email about your induction finishing when I fixed the head’s computer earlier. It said you could go after lunch – dinner. Let me give you a lift into town to avoid the rain. You haven’t asked for a car parking space so it’ll be the bus. I’ll even buy you a decent coffee if you have time.’
Alice, who had settled in to her temporary digs well enough but had yet to explore the town looked at the amused eyes watching her as Kush ate and nodded. ‘Yes that would be lovely.’
Two days later, Kush pulled up outside the house where Alice was staying and peeped his horn. She trotted down the steps and tossed her holdall in the boot. ‘You are sure this is ok?’
Kush shrugged. ‘Nah, it’s a complete pain but I need charity points to be staff member of the year. Or I need the company and you can stick pins in me when we reach Birmingham to keep me awake. Not sure which.’ He met her smile and she slipped into the passenger seat. ‘Is it ok if I drop you at West Croydon station. My folks have moved to Addington. They’ve gone all respectable suburban – neighbourhood watch and Rotary. They probably vote Tory.’
‘That would be fantastic. Mum will meet me. I’ll even get an extra brownie point if I’m in time for her panto.’
‘She’s in the panto?’
‘She runs it. It’s her thing.’
‘What’s she putting on?’
‘Always the same thing, with her own twist.’
‘Are you expecting me to guess?’
‘If you like.’
‘Er, Jack and the Beanstalk?’
‘Babes in the Wood? Aladdin? Puss in Boots?’
Alice laughed. ‘Think about me. I’m your big clue.’
‘Goldilocks? Cinderella? Sleeping beauty?’
‘Come on Kush, stop messing.’
‘Really, I don’t know any more.’
She studied his profile. He was telling the truth. She said, ‘My name?’
‘Name? Oh, Alice? Carroll! Got it.’
‘Surely it’s all round the school. Me and my name?’
‘Not that I know. I’m a geek, remember. I don’t do books, only manuals.’
Kush burst into laughter. ‘Sorry. Have I missed something? And I meant to say wow! Alice in Wonderland in my car? I suppose it’s neat, that name. Are you…’
Her tone stopped him. ‘Oops. Soz. Another subject?’
‘No, it’s ok. I’m his great great great niece or something. I may even be his nearest living relative. Only I have his bloody name – I look like a model Alice, well I did as a girl and it was always there, in the press, my sweet smile and blood hair. Talk about a pushy mother. It’s awful, people peering at you like you’re a freak, pulling at your hair, calling you names, making up stupid rhymes. I hated it. You can’t imagine.’
They were quiet for a while. Then Kush said, ‘When my dad came here in 1971 – his family was turfed out of Kenya by Idi Amin – my grandfather was an engineer but he couldn’t get work. He became a bus driver – a university degree and he drove buses. He always said he could build a better bus than what he drove. He was grateful, though, to be given even that chance. My dad and his brothers all stood out at school in south London; they were picked on and they especially hated the turban. The symbol of their difference just as much as their skin. Grandpa made them wear it with pride. Like your mum did with you and your family name.’
Alice coloured. ‘It’s not the same. She just wanted fifteen minutes of fame. Same tonight when I’ll be brought out on stage and introduced. Grim. Your grandpa was only following his traditions.’
‘I know. But does it matter how or why it happens. It still hurts. People can be cruel.’
‘Is that why you don’t wear the turban?’
‘It’s complicated. But in a way, yes. I stand out less; well I did in London. Especially after 9/11. Turbans weren’t a great fashion choice. I suppose if you cut your hair, dyed it and changed your name no one would make any connections. I…’
‘I wondered why you don’t change everything. If you hate the connections so much.’
Alice smiled, aware Kush couldn’t see her. His hand sat lightly on the gear shift and she rested hers on top, giving it a squeeze. It felt warm and soft. She saw him grin. ‘It’s complicated,’ she said.