A short story by Nicola Barker. Illustration by Janet Woolley
As a small child I developed a UFO fixation which verged on the pathological. I still don't know why. The first time I thought I saw a UFO was when I was four and my sister, Tania, who was six, was trying to make me jump from her second floor bedroom window, holding a balloon, to see if I would float. Just before I jumped, I noticed a large silver sphere, glinting in the field which backed on to our garden. I became convinced that it was a UFO and I wouldn't jump. I simply stood and stared. Tania became increasingly agitated. She yelled and she prodded. But I remained stationary, gazing, dumbstruck. I thought it was simply the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

My mother told me that if I thought it was a UFO then she was sure it was a UFO. She was a passionate free thinker. She let her pet hamster wade through our porridge at breakfast time, if the fancy took him. And the fancy always took him.

My sister told me that it was a metal trough for watering the cows. I didn't believe her. I didn't check out her story either, though. I didn't dare look too close. Just in case her story was true. At four I learned the true joy of self-deception. It was fun.

Of course, she was trying to kill me. That was the first time. The second time she tried I was nine and she was slightly more successful. That time I jumped from a tall tree, on her instigation, and smashed my arm to a pulp.

You might imagine that my sister was evil, but no. She was angelic, in general, and only turned truly bad at 15. I, on the other hand, was the devil's seed throughout my childhood, and only became good in the summer of 1979 when I turned 13 and got religion.

Religion was my undoing. I should have been out puffing fags, kissing boys, enjoying myself, but instead I was in, reading the Bible, furtively, in my bedroom.

There's no such thing as a bad child, but I did a pretty good impression of one. To this day I am the world's fussiest eater. I have been told that this is because I was badly weaned.

In fact, my mother breast-fed me until I was old enough to drive a car, virtually, and this against her better judgement after I bit a large piece out of her breast with my supernaturally hard gums. She let out a scream and looked down to see a stream of blood dribbling over my chin and on to my frock while I absentmindedly turned a significant chunk of her nipple around on a scarlet tongue.

I spent the first nine years of life bellowing, eating sweets and catching worms from the family dog, a collie called Prince Kellington. The first time, in an attempt to make me feel better about my affliction, my mother sketched a small but seductive description of the life, the loves, the reason behind such worms.

I subsequently thought catching worms was a cause for universal celebration and pride. Imagine, a whole community of creatures down there, rooting and burrowing and itching. What could be better? I was generous with my worms and gave them to everyone. Tania first, always, and she hated me for it because she was neat and clean and extremely fastidious.

We bathed together. I'd hold my bladder until we were both in the bath and then I'd pee, watching the water turn yellow, making gentle waves with my knees while she screamed.

She was prone to migraines. Resenting the attention this got her, I'd smash my head against my bedroom wall until I too had a headache and then howl fit to burst.

I was a blight. I was a boil on the backside of my sister's childhood.

Tania, aged eight, bought two pictures of Jesus at a jumble sale and presented them to her teacher, Mrs Coleman, a dragon, who fell in love with them and hung them up on the classroom wall. Two years later I was in that class. Every day I'd gaze balefully at the pictures of Jesus ascending with a bright pumping heart in his hands and Jesus with the little children. Jesus got on my nerves.

When I was nine, we emigrated to South Africa. Our neighbours left shortly before we did. George and Eleanor, they were called. They sent my parents glowing letters about how great it was out there. My parents believed them, packed up our stuff and off we all went.

When we finally tracked George and Eleanor down, they were living in a high rise flat in Pretoria, desperate, destitute, and George had contracted yellow jaundice.

"Will he be yellow?" I asked, standing miserably in the lift, trying to find something to feel cheerful about.

"Of course not," Tania scoffed.

He was as yellow as a pint of custard. More yellow. The bastard.

My parents got divorced. But George and Eleanor moved out to Roodepoort, which was close to where we lived; my sister, my mother and I, after the divorce, in a house in a conservative white suburb called Discovery.

My mother had started to work for a black educational paper called the Learning Post. She spent her evenings teaching children in Soweto and Bosmont who had left school because of the 1976 boycotts.

I wasn't interested in such things. I spent my days trying not to pronounce the letter 'h' with any emphasis. There were two of us in my class at school: English girls. Our teacher made us kneel before the class and say 'h' with our lips next to a candle. If the candle flickered she caned us. I was from the South of England and my accent wasn't too strong. My hands were purple and swollen, but Karen was from up North. Her hands bled. I didn't care about Karen. I was just glad I wasn't from Yorkshire. I had all the moral sense of a red ant.

At the start of the summer of '79, the nights began to heat up and I grew increasingly restless. I was 12. I hated the heat. I'd burn and peel, burn and peel. During the hot days I spent much of my time looking for reasons to stay indoors. But I could find no good reasons, only evil ones.

One night, finding it hard to sleep, I saw the shadow of a man outside my bedroom window. I was too frightened to move. I watched him for hours. When I told my mother in the morning she was phlegmatic. She pointed down the road. "See the white car?" I nodded. Two men, always there, watching us.

Opposite the house was a church. The Dutch Reformed Church. Someone in the church had noticed a couple of black men going into our house through the front door. They reported my mother to the police. They said they thought she was running a brothel.

We kept in contact with George and Eleanor. They lived the other side of the railway line. One evening, early that same summer, we went over for a barbecue at their house and found the whole of their street out in the road or standing on their porches. At first we thought it was a bush fire. But it wasn't a fire. It was a UFO. A giant sphere with coloured lights which came down, vertically, from the sky and hung in the air over the railway line for ten minutes before ascending just as rapidly, just as silently, just before we arrived.

I stood on the porch for hours that evening, hoping to see it, but I did not see it. Finally, I went back inside and mooched.

I became fluent in Afrikaans, much to my whole family's amazement. My mother refused to have a maid, but Josephine materialised one day in our back room and she spent her afternoons looking after me. We spoke only in Afrikaans, an ugly language that we mutually despised. But nobody else in the house understood it. We abused the language in secret until it cried out for mercy. Our vocabularies were entirely mischievous.

Josephine had a daughter, the same age as me, Lydia, who'd drop by sometimes and visit. We hated each other. Lydia, usually a calm child, would only have to lay her eyes on me to be reduced to a frenzy. She'd jump up and scream, "You are a witch!" while her mother fought valiantly to restrain her. I'd bulge my eyes and spit out my tongue.

And then I saw The Cross and the Switchblade at a school cinema show. The true story of Nicky Cruz and his battle against drug addiction and crime. Sitting there, inside, in the dark, it struck a chord. He had the same name as me, after all.

I became puffed up and inflamed with a kind of dizzy reverence. I got a Bible. I memorised a psalm a day. I stayed indoors and prayed for hours. I made a decision to be a good person.

My sister determined to form a perfect behavioural figure of eight. That summer she started skipping school, smoking, dating, wearing enough eyeliner to frighten a koala. My stepfather was conscripted and then put into detention for threatening a superior with a gun. He was a pacifist, you see. My mother's friends were all being put under house arrest.

Religion in South Africa at that time was divided between the nice, progressive kind and the other sort, which was nasty, hard-core, small-minded, blighted, ugly, ignorant and all-pervasive. My entire family looked on in slack- jawed amazement as I transformed into the most righteous and simple-minded creature in the southern hemisphere.

Sometimes I dreamed of spaceships. Mostly, I quoted Revelations, under my breath. I fell in with a nice family. The nice family belonged to a girl at school called Michelle. She lived in a beautiful, wealthy district called Konstantia Kloof. Her parents were happily married and they had a dog called Schnapps. A miniature poodle which the whole family doted on.

Michelle's family liked my sincerity. I was trustworthy. They invited me along on their summer holiday to Durban. At night I prayed to be more like Nicky Cruz and that my mother would give me permission to go. And after Durban, I wanted to go to America to save the poor from drug addiction.

Schnapps was a sweet dog, and very friendly. He was black with a little red bow in his hair. I didn't like Schnapps. I thought he was over-indulged and boring. But in truth I didn't like him because I wanted to be him. At night I prayed to be more like Schnapps. I was almost 13. The grass was dry and yellow. Bougainvillaea bruised the porch of every house in our neighbourhood. My mother relented and I packed my bags.

A good family, at last, and me such a good girl.

Durban was a tropical heaven. Michelle and I spent hours hitting giant spiders with a broom handle and watching their legs fly. Schnapps didn't like spiders.

After the first week I started to get on Michelle's nerves. Why? I was bitten by a jellyfish. In the water one second, screaming on the beach the next, with a long, blue twine spun around my thigh. Two bronzed lifeguards rubbed my legs with sand and then cactus water. Michelle's parents were astounded by my fortitude and bravery. I became Schnapps.

Michelle became truculent. She sensed the Demon Seed in her family's midst. She kept searching the beach for jellyfish so she, too, could sting her own thighs and get the guards to pore over them.

And then it happened. That little chink in my armour. That little chink with black hair and a bow.

We were having a barbecue, outside, in the sun, and I was happy to stay outside and sit in the sun with this good, uncomplicated family. But as a preventative measure I ran indoors to get some sun cream.

Parquet floors. Schnapps ran too, utterly sociable, close to my heels.

And I felt him close to my heels and I was so sure of my victory over him. God had given me Durban, Michelle's family, the sunshine. God would take away Schnapps. Instead of slowing down, to avoid a clash, I speeded up and lifted my heels, hitting him in the chest. Schnapps made a sound like a wounded pigeon and collapsed. He spun on the wooden floors like a duster.

He was paralysed. It was my fault. Vets were called. The barbecue forgotten. Schnapps would not be able to use his back legs for many months, and only then after surgery.

I went home.

"You'll never guess," my mother said, "Jane was walking her dog at the aerodrome last night and a spaceship came down and hung above her head, rotating. When they went there this morning, the grass was scorched in a giant circle."

I'd missed it. I turned 13. I had a party. Michelle came, but it wasn't the same. She gave me a couple of cuddling teddy bears which were attached to each other with Velcro. When you tore them apart, they made a curious ripping sound.

After my birthday, Josephine left. Her daughter, Lydia, not yet 13, was pregnant. I lost my religion. It was like a spaceship. It came, it went, it didn't really ever truly happen. I learned that deceiving yourself on purpose was no fun at all. No fun. I resolved to spend the rest of that summer, the rest of my life, deceiving myself accidentally. And burning, and peeling, and burning, and peeling

Nicola Barker is the author of the prize-winning collection of stories 'Love Your Enemies', and the novel 'Reversed Forecast'. Her novella, 'Small Holdings', is published on Monday by Faber and Faber, price pounds 8.99

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