Once, in a land unknown to its child, where drought reigned, with poverty in abundance and water in scarcity, was a family. Father and mother worked hard for their family and village. Two sons helped with gathering the crops, and picking the dead heads off the scorched wheat. One daughter walked daily in the beating sun to find water; ten miles there, ten miles back. The other daughter wove carpets and cared for the baby.
Baby Syanura was a quiet and tolerant child. She did not complain if she slept through mealtimes, though she grew thin and weak. She did not wail for attention when she was left alone for hours on end, while her sister spent time socialising with the other young people of the village. She did not care that she scarcely saw her father, and she seemed to know that the more he was away working the more likely the family was to survive.
Syanura seemed to be a gift from God, for though she was another mouth to feed, she did not complain or fuss that she was neglected and undernourished. It was not her family's fault. They risked everything for her wellbeing, the more so for her good temper, and she seemed grateful, with a quiet dignity that only a special person can have, even at such a young age.
Then Younger Brother fell sick. A great heatwave fell on Africa. Life was becoming poorer, as Younger Brother was too ill to work in the fields, and Mother had to stay home to nurse him. Older Sister started working in the fields in the hot sun, and Baby Syanura was left to her own devices in . If Baby suffered, for she did, she did not complain.
"If she is meant for this earth alive," Mother cried to the heavens, "she cannot stay here!"
But there was nowhere for Baby to go. The desert was ruthless and desolate. Death-doomed and heaven-bound, the family settled for a long summer. Famine set in as the crops would not grow. Younger Brother would not recuperate. Baby would not grow healthy. It was a miracle she stayed alive at all.
"I wish we could all be magically taken from this hole!" said Mother. "I love this place. I was born here, and here I am likely to die, and tp bring my children to love it too is one of my greatest dreams. Yet this merciless climate will never allow my children to love it as I love it. It may just kill us all!"
Devoid of food and water - if only the rains would come! - , the family set out for a long walk to a town nearby where there were food stalls. The food was imported from other places, and could be relied upon to be good if not fresh. Father and Older Brother stayed to help in the fields. Younger Brother, though sick and weak, was forced to rise and walk along with the others, supported by his sisters. Baby Syanura snuggled in a sling around her mother's neck, for though she was over a year old she was a tiny baby weighing less than a bowl of corn. And so the family set out for the long walk in the hot sun.
Twenty-five miles away, and a day later, the family walked into the busy market. Having rested only once on the way, they had walked all night on empty stomachs, and were near collapsing from exhaustion.
Two of Older Sister's carpets were traded for bread and fish; an outrageous price, but the family was desperate. Then as Mother bent down to place the bread in her woven basket, the sling around her neck broke. Younger Sister took the basket. Older Sister and Younger Brother had vanished, the boy probably feeling the vomit rising in his throat what with the bustle of the market.
Mother held Baby Syanura in her arms, and looked around for Older Sister. As she turned her head a particularly rude man shoved past her. Mother staggered, but the man shouted and shook his fist at her.
She was looking away for merely a few seconds, yet when she looked back again Baby Syanura was being torn from her arms. The last time the African woman saw her baby, and the last time Baby saw her Mother, was when Syanura was being snatched from her mother's tender arms and swallowed up into the crowd. Baby Syanura had been plucked from the desert; indeed, from the harsh hot climate, but also from her family.
It was precisely the 19th May. A farmer was visiting Pretoria, South Africa, on business.
Christophe le Tissier was French. At least, his family were French, but Christophe had been brought up in South Africa, returning to his home country only to go to college. His wife Sylvie Hender was half-French. Her father was English, as her surname betrays, but her mother had been French, and Sylvie was born and brought up in Toulouse. The pair met at college, married and travelled back to South Africa, where Christophe followed his dream and set up a farm on the plain. They had a son, René, who was just three years old, and were considering another child to be a playmate for him, when the farmer took his trip to Pretoria.
Christophe was a round Frenchman with white skin tanned dark by constant exposure. He had dark hair and eyes, and a way about him that dark anyone to argue with him, though at the same time was the kindest and jolliest man ever there was.
Going back to Pretoria, Christophe was trundling down an alley, taking a long-cut to the station, his busines dealt with, and at liberty to dream about his wife's silky brown hair and ripely brown skin, and to think of how René's joyful face gleamed in the sunlight as he danced in the fields, and to remember how...
A whimpering noise at his feet attracted his attention. Peering over a crate, lying in a pile of dustbin rubbish, wrapped in a soiled cream-coloured blanket, was a girl. She looked to be about two years old, dark-skinned, dark-eyed and dark-haired, but lacking in the usual facial features accompanying dark skin. But she was evidently unhappy in some way. Christophe saw the starved look in the intense brown eyes and he lost his heart to the girl in the rubbish. Reaching out his hand to her, he saw a scrap of paper pinned to the blanket. In English, it read:
'Where I come from my family could not feed me. Please help me.'
Without a word Christophe took the child in his arms and started back down the alley to the Police Station he had passed a while ago.
The police were very much worried by the case. Christophe argued when they said that the child must be put into care, or an orphanage, and they finally agreed, helped by his fierce determination to keep the child, to let him take care of her until further notice.
“That means until we have traced her family,” the officer told Christophe sternly.
“And if you don’t find them?” Mr le Tissier returned. “May I keep her then?”
“Perhaps. Probably not,” the officer replied. “If you are running down on money she will be taken away from you, you understand.”
Six months of investigations revealed nothing, and during that time the child became fast playmates with René Hender-le Tissier. She hardly ever cried, and though she could only speak a strange language, soon learned French with a great aptitude for languages that spoke well of her intelligence. She turned out to adore animals, and the colour dark blue held a certain lure for her.
Her name caused a little dilemma. She pointed herself out to everyone as possessing of a name quite unintelligible, which Sylvie interpreted as Shia. And Shia it became, as no one else attempted to figure it out, and the child soon forgot that she had had any other name.
After many enquiries leading to nowhere, Christophe immediately decided to foster her temporarily. The police would not allow adoption for at least five years in case her real relations were found, or the Henders changed their minds due to money problems (the police were familiar with this situation), so more they could not do.
Five years later the Hender-le Tissier family were faced with financial difficulties as the police had predicted. Shia was seven, her birthday measured by the day she had been found in the rubbish in Pretoria, when the last goat was sold. This too failed to have much impact on the family, apart from the devastating fact that they could no longer keep Shia, as the police pointed out heartlessly.
She was sent to the orphanage with many regrets, the police agreeing thereby.
The orphanage, it must be understood, was gradually sending its inmates to England where they had a better chance of being adopted. Shia was one of those to be moved to England that September, just a month or two from the time when she arrived at the orphanage.
She had only a month or two, therefore, to brave the orphanage.
The orphanage was hot, stuffy and unwelcome, and not a breath of cool air reached the dry building all that winter. There were no animals, fields or loving people around. It was very unlike the life to which Shia had been hitherto accustomed.
The Matron was a hard old woman who had been waiting forever for her retirement which she could not get until the whole establishment had been moved to England. Consequently she was very impatient with everyone and with everything, and took out her frustration on everyone she saw and everything she did.
The children had been there a very long time and were not especially excited when a new person arrived to take up more space and eat more food, though the food was scarce and tasted like cardboard, quite different to Sylvie Hender’s magnificent cooking. The orphanage was low on funds too, for the England move was taking up a lot of money.
There were also much older children there, who were even less friendly than the ones Shia’s age, and inclined to bully the younger ones for the sake of a little amusement. Many times Shia was beaten by the older children, who took their frustration and desperation out on the beautiful new girl who was so shy and tolerating and closed her eyes without a flinch and let herself be the beaten scapegoat to the poor children. But when they turned on her purely for malice and hatred she fought like a lion.
The authorities were tired. They had been moving the orphanage gradually since Easter, but it was ever-growing and as soon as a batch of children had been sent out to Britain the police pushed a whole new load of orphan brats onto them. They had tried arguing. They could not take any more. But the authorities would not be argued with. They simply concluded the situation with an order to cooperate. The authorities took their anger and aggravation out on the poor children inside the orphanage. Especially the new ones.
Cold at heart, warm in body, dank and miserable with despair, a small desolate seven-year-old made her way around the desolate building with her dark head down, her dark eyes desolate, and her back hunched. Yet even this seemed to make her bullies angrier. She carried herself with an air of martyrdom and humble perception she was unaware of, and an unconscious dignity that made her pursuers squirm with something like envy.
So Shia bore a month in the terrible stone prison until it was her turn to be transported. With trepidation she packed her tiny bag of belongings from the French farm which had been hidden for the past few weeks in a little slot under a squeaky floorboard in the cracked bathroom, for fear of them getting stolen. She was anxious about the orphanage in England. Would that be better, or worse? It was not bearable to think about. England was such a long way away. So Shia did not look to the future. She decided to take life as it came, whatever it would bring. The tiny seven-year-old was far older than her age. You could tell that just to see the great blue bruise stretching over the back of both her calves.
She and a few other younger children sat in a stuffy coach for days, only getting out when the driver felt like a break every six or so hours, or longer. His wages were already paid, and the sooner he had deposited his human cargo the sooner he could find other work.
The children ate, slept and sat in the coach on hard seats with their bags on their knees. Shia, who was not friendly with any of the other children for they looked down their noses at her, sat still, gazing out the window with her hungry eyes.
Days later they reached the sea. They were not allowed to get out and see it properly, but Shia saw from her seat. She had never seen the sea. Blue, sparkling, winking at her a thousand times every second. She longed to wade in it, to taste it. Would it feel different to normal water? Would it taste different? Would it make her skin go leathery? Would it feel clean? Was it cold or warm? Would it sting? She didn’t know, but as she watched it fade and the bus turned a corner a sinking, desperate feeling came into her heart. What she would give to be out in that never-ending sea with no one else there. All alone. By herself. Free. Her eyes stared dryly into the distance. It was impossible.
Then soon the bus stopped at a dank dusty town by the ocean, and the children were shepherded on a large floating house shaped oddly like an eye, but symmetrical: a boat. They were sailing to England!
The few days on the boat were heaven to Shia. She spent most of her time up on deck, for as long as she was in the supervisor’s sight she would not be told off. There she stood or sat by the railings, spending hour upon hour gazing into the blueness of the rippling waves, and imagining and thinking and spending time to herself she had not had in a long time. Many of the children got seasick, but not Shia. She was simply not affected. In fact, she loved the sea motion, the breezes and though she found it chilly she enjoyed the driving rain when the day was overcast.
The journey was bliss, for a few days, and the small seven-year-old did not need to worry about her future. Not yet.
In Plymouth the children disembarked, and Shia immediately got swallowed up into a world so unlike her previous homes that she could hardly think to herself. There was everything here in England. It seemed like the space age. What Shia was used to can be compared in no way to the sights that greeted her bewildered dark eyes as they eagerly scanned the horizon in the train.
Dazzlingly, houses flashed past, fields, greenness, and it was raining the whole way. That in itself was not new to her, but it rained constantly, and the grass looked fresh and lush and green, and the people were not worried or surprised at the amount of rain tipping down. In fact, they grumbled! They grumbled about the blessed rain that made the crops grow and let the animals and people drink and wash! It was beyond comprehension. Shia was familiar with the dry months of the farm out on the dusty plain. Perhaps, though, this was the rainy season in England. Shia, who had learned a little English at the orphanage, though they spoke French too, could pick up phrases like ‘horrible rain’ and she marvelled at the calmness with which these people took the holy rain of her country.
She watched the people themselves too. They were mostly white. Of course, Shia had seen white people in South Africa before, but never as many as were on that train. As she had not seen many white people before they looked mostly the same, but she noted their blue, green, brown or hazel eyes, and red, brown and blonde hair.
Eventually, the children and the supervisor clambered out of the train, into the crowd and began to push their way through. After a while the thickness of the people dissolved and they walked freely for quite a long time. It was the city of Swaydon.
After an hour of walking fifteen tired children reached a large cream-coloured building. They were shepherded into it, past an office and up some stairs, over a hall, down a corridor and into a room full of about ten clean white beds.
“The girls will sleep here,” they attendant told them, and Shia caught the word for girls. The attendant with the nine boys left them, and the girls were left to it. The six girls hesitantly took beds, sat down on them and unpacked their few belongings into a little bedside table. A chest of drawers at one end of the room would be for their spare pairs of clothes.
Shia lay down on the bed and immediately felt out of place against its pristine purity. She felt dirty and unclean, and longed for a bath. A bath! She had not had a proper bath in months. At the orphanage in South Africa she had been afraid to bathe because the door had had no lock and she was so used to being bullied. But these fifteen children had not bullied her. They were mostly younger, and were also used to being bullied. Shia wondered how many other children were at this new orphanage. At least there were enough beds, she thought as she rolled off it and lingered at the door.
Presently she saw a white-clothed attendant saunter past.
“The bathroom,” Shia said, that being the extent of her English.
“Down this corridor, right, then third on the left,” the attendant said, then turned to go.
The attendant led Shia and two other girls who wanted a wash down the corridor, right, then through a door third on the left as she had instructed.
The room was long and had benches and hand basins down one wall, and about fifteen cubicles down the other wall.
“Do you need a shower?” asked the attendant, and the two girls nodded. Shia nodded too with them, though she was unsure of the question.
The attendant unlocked a cupboard and brought out three white towels, three white flannels and three pink bars of soap.
“These towels will last you two weeks, and the bars of soap until they run out. Don’t waste, please. Now what are your names?”
The two girls gave theirs, and Shia, guessing what was asked, said, “Shia.”
Then the attendant directed each girl to a cubicle, then picked up a bundle of towels, flannels and bars of soap obviously to take to the other newcomers, who presently trooped in.
In the shower cubicle Shia took a minute figuring out how to turn it on, then fiddled with the temperature till she had it right. A tube hanging on the wall provided shampoo and she had a most relaxing shower. After turning it off and drying herself she unlocked the cubicle, and, wrapped in her towel, made her way back to the bedroom, unsure of what to do next.
Her feet sank into the carpet in the room as she found her bed by the window, at the end of the room. She quickly changed into her spare pare of clothes while no one else was back. Then she sat down on the window sill and gazed out.
Huge stone or painted buildings rose from the earth over cobbled streets where hundreds of white people passed and passed and passed. Shia’s heart leaped whenever she saw the occasional black person, because she knew that she and a lot of the other orphans were not alone.
Fascinated, she watched for half an hour and her damp hair turned dry, and the other girls came back, not talking because they hardly knew how to talk, after the South African orphanage, which was a very poor one.
An attendant came in and showed them the towel rails at the end of their beds, and the washing baskets. She got out a black marker pen and began to name everyone’s spare clothes. This had not been done in South Africa. The children washed their own clothes and found them after being hung up to dry as they had washed them, often shrunken, soapy, dripping and crumpled. While she showed them these things the attendant poured out a wave of chatter Shia judged to be instructions. She caught just a few words, and decided that she would have to copy the other children in a lot of things.
Finally a bell rang and the attendant led them downstairs, routing out other bedrooms of orphans as she did so.
In the huge dining room Shia saw that there were forty or fifty children in all, ten white-clothed attendants and several teachers. She gathered that the attendants were the equivalent of Matron back in South Africa, and she liked the difference.
After a dinner of soup and bread, more delicious than anything since Sylvie le Tissier’s cooking, the children tumbled into their white beds and slept with no mistake. There finished Shia’s first day at the English orphanage. She spent just three months there, but it was a peaceful time where she made friends with several other children and was cleaner and better nourished than any time during her life. She had been happier with Sylvie, Christophe and her friend Renee, but England was not unpleasant.
As the year drew on towards Christmas adoption agencies took down the children’s details to try and match them to parents seeking adoptees. Shia had no interviews until November 29th when she dressed in several jumpers (she found the rainy overcast days very cold) and was taken to a downstairs room near the secretary’s office. The attendant who worked mainly with Shia’s bedroom, Anna, took her, and outside the room she gave her a kiss and said, “good luck!” Shia did not understand the words, but she smile. Anna knocked, opened the door and pushed Shia into the room.
Shia looked about as the door closed behind her. She saw a carpeted sitting room with an electric fireplace, open windows displaying the miserable rain and several comfy sofas.
“Ah, this is Shia,” Ms Dean, a teacher, said. “Shia, this is Mr and Mrs Piccadilly. I will leave you alone for a while.”
Ms Dean made her exit through a door into the staff room next door and Shia was left with two strangers.
“Hello, dear,” Mrs Piccadilly said in a kindly voice. “Take a seat, please.”
She motioned to the sofa next to her and her husband, and Shia sat down stiffly.
“How old are you, then?”
Shia stared back blankly.
“I do not speak English lots,” she said brokenly.
Mr and Mrs Piccadilly exchanged glances. Shia felt hot. Mrs Piccadilly opened her mouth eventually.
“Oh, dear. What language do you speak, then?”
Shia guessed that ‘language’ meant ‘langue’ and answered, “Le francais.”
“I speak a little French,” Mrs Piccadilly said in English, then seemed to rack her brains for something to say in French. She found something.
“Quel age as-tu?”
“Sept,” Shia answered easily. “Mon anniversaire est le dix-neuf mai.”
“J’aime les animaux, et j’aime jouer. Je veux aller a la mer.”
“Bon. Errrr….” Mrs Piccadilly seemed to reach the limit of her French, and she looked to her husband for help.
“Tu aimes l’Angleterre?” Mr Piccadilly asked with an appalling accent.
“Oui, j’adore l’Angleterre. Il fait froid, mais je ne m’oppose pas ca.”
“Do you want to be adopted?” queried Mrs Piccadilly in English, evidently forgetting momentarily that the little girl could not understand.
Catching ‘adopted,’ Shia said, “Je veux une famille.”
Mrs Piccadilly exclaimed kindly in English and gently put her arm around Shia. “Poor girl,” she said. “How I do want to adopt you now. The dear, sweet child. Ralph, why not?”
“Later, Penelope,” Mr Piccadilly sighed. “We’ll see.”
“But isn’t she a dear little girl? Ce qui est votre couleur préférée, enfant?”
“Bleu. C’est tres jolie, non?”
“Lovely,” Mrs Piccadilly agreed. “I wish we could find out more about you, if only we spoke the language. You be a dear and make a big effort to learn to talk about yourself in English and we’ll be back in two weeks’ time, won’t we, Ralph?”
“Yes, of course, dear.”
“Did you understand that, dearest?”
Shia did not, so she kept quiet.
Mr and Mrs Piccadilly, helped out by each other, managed to produce a few words trying to tell Shia what they meant. Eventually she nodded that she understood, and would learn to speak about herself, and they left and Ms Dean re-entered.
“How did it go?” she asked in French, for she was the languages teacher in the orphanage, and could speak about seven languages.
“It was a little awkward that I can only speak French and a very little English,” Shia said slowly.
“Ah, yes. They were matched to you because they were one of the only families who filled on their form that they could take a child who spoke French or Spanish. Apparently they have four children, three of which speak either one language or the other. Did you like them?”
“They were very nice. I would like to have brothers and sisters. They told me to learn to talk about myself in English because they will return in two weeks.”
“Of course. I should have taught you before. I assumed they spoke perfect French because of what they put on their form. I told them down the telephone that you were a little French child; I suppose they forgot, or didn’t hear properly.”
Shia went back to her bedroom with an English dictionary and proceeded to look up every word that she might need in her autobiography.
Two weeks later Mr and Mrs Piccadilly returned, and Shia was once again directed to the little sitting room with the electric fireplace.
She studied them as she sat down. Mrs Piccadilly had shoulder-length bob of glossy brown hair, blue eyes and a long thin neck. She was as skinny as you can expect to be a forty-year-old mother of four, and of medium height. She wore dark flaring trousers and a red top with a blue scarf. Mr Piccadilly had hair exactly the same shade as his wife’s, and eyes just a little darker blue. He wore a grey beige suit with a dark green check shirt. He was of medium height, and in good shape for a forty-year-old, like his wife. They could almost have been twins.
Shia told them many things about herself. That she wanted to learn, she loved animals, she wanted to live in England with its fresh weather (Mr and Mrs laughed at this), that she loved good food and ate anything, that she wanted to have three children when she grew up, that she wanted to live by the sea and play in it every day, that her birthday or ‘found-day’ was the 19th May.
All of these things Mr and Mrs Piccadilly liked to hear. They, in return, told her that there was a good school near their home, that their daughter Millie wanted liked to help in the city zoo where they lived, that where they lived the weather was wet in the winter and hot in the summer, that they lived by the sea but were not sure about playing in it every day. They also told her about their children.
“The oldest is Vi. She is nineteen and at University studying French and German. Millie is fourteen. She’s animal-mad and has red hair. Peter is ten. He has a bit of a temper. Jamie is the youngest, at five. He likes cars and racing. They are all fussy eaters, so it would be good to find a girl who likes to eat everything. The girls ride horses, and we have dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Peter used to have foxes but he didn’t feed them, so we gave them away.”
Shia struggled to keep up with this account, but she understood a few words, and by the end she had more or less memorized the names and ages of the four Piccadilly children, which were obvious.
Mr and Mrs Piccadilly went away after a while, after saying that they would talk over adopting Shia and let the orphanage know before Christmas.
It was the most tantalizing time in Shia’s life. Everyone else was very kind to her, hoping and praying that Shia might find a home with ‘the nice couple from Harrington City’. And Shia did not say so to anyone else, because she was naturally so shy and reserved, but she hoped too that Mr and Mrs Piccadilly might become her adopted parents, that Vi, Millie, Peter and Jamie might become her adopted siblings, and she might become Shia Piccadilly.
Of course there is more to Shia's story than this. I have not told of the violet-eyed young woman on the train, who was herself half-French, and who gave Shia her business card, and they met some years later through the woman's independant young daughter. I have not told of Mr and Mrs Tailor, the elderly couple who were planning to adopt Shia but were beaten to it by Mr and Mrs Piccadilly, to everyone's relief. I have not told of Millie Piccadilly, and her grudging receival of her new sister, or how she and Shia grew over the years to share a great respect and friendship beginning with Millie's comfort administered to the younger girl after a nightmare in which she cried out for the family she could not remember knowing, in a language she could not remember learning. Nor have I told the remainder of the story of the Hender-le Tissiers, and how . . . that is another story, and not one that I will neglect.
Suffice to say that Shia is now fourteen years old, beautiful and quiet, with an aura of dignity about her not easily missed, but so rare. Her influence is a great blessing in the Piccadilly family, and she is now much loved by her family, and will always be a part of them.