Nia Ch. 01bybeachbum1958©
Many thanks to Mriceman1964 for his help and valuable editorial assistance in putting this story together!
When I was 2 years old, my father married Anh, a lovely, tiny little Vietnamese lady. I always thought she was my mother, or at least until I was old enough to work out that she couldn't possibly be. I still called her mum, though, because in every way I needed her to be, she was my mum. I had a sister, or rather a half-sister, Nguye't, which means 'moon', I think, but we all called her Nia, and dad sometimes called her 'nugget', telling her she was his precious little golden moon. Mum usually called me Huyn'h, which means 'Older Brother' although it sounds like someone sneezing in a distant room, instead of my given name, James or Jamie. Nia usually called me anything she could think of if she thought it would annoy me.
We lived in South London, not far off the South Circular Road, that traffic nightmare that girdles South London like a ligature, and dad would curse it every evening after negotiating it for several hours. Mum would, quite reasonably, ask him why he didn't just get a bus to Streatham and get the train into Central London, but dad was convinced that if he left his designated parking space at work unoccupied it would be given to someone else, and apparently status in his company was measured by whether or not you had your own parking space, and how close it was to the CEO's parking space. It took me years to understand this; I used to wonder what happened to his parking space when he was on holiday, did they chain it up, or something? All very baffling. In the meantime, he'd come in every evening, exhausted, road-raged to the max, huffing about the London traffic planners, London buses, congestion, the people who play silly-buggers with the timing of the traffic lights in London, bus lanes, in fact, everything. We all learned to stop listening, or at least parallel-process, so we could drop-in reasonably apt comments in the spaces in the rant where one was called-for, while simultaneously watching TV, without actually paying the blindest bit of notice to what he was saying. After the requisite time ranting, dad would go off and sit in the greenhouse, talk to his geranium cuttings or secretly drink, or whatever it was he did in there, and reappear in time for dinner, usually in a good mood.
When he reappeared, he would be besieged by one or the other of us, needing help with our homework. Dad's approach to homework was simple. "You should have learned this in school, what do the taxpayers pay teachers for, if we have to teach our kids at home at the end of the school day?" Not helpful. But when he was in a really good mood, he could be great fun.
He once boiled the last 1,000 years of English history down as follows. "All you need to know about English history is the following; for the last 1,000 years, English history has consisted of us annoying the French, beating-up the French, annoying the French while simultaneously beating them up, or watching and needling as the French beat themselves up. If you want a definition of how to lose a war, look up the word 'French' in any dictionary. Norman Schwarzkopf once said 'Going to war without the French is like going hunting without your accordion' – says it all, really!"
His attitude to mathematics was the same. "Have you ever seen a logarithm crawl out from under a chair, or bitten into a tangent? Or swung on a trapezium lately? No? That's because they don't exist. I refuse to be lectured on imaginary arithmetic by some Greek standing on a hillside 3,000 years ago dressed only in his underpants, and so should you!"
I dutifully wrote all this down, and then mum had to come to the school and pacify the headmaster, the mathematics teacher, the history teacher, and the history teacher's French wife. The head gave her some parting advice.
"Mrs. Morrison, please ask your husband not to help Jamie or Nia with their homework in future; his definitions may be very nearly right, but he's damaging their chances of passing their SAT's, so please, I beg you, keep him away from their homework!"
I think dad was secretly a subversive, with anarchic tendencies, which is quite a stretch for a security manager in a huge American bank...
When she was young, Nia would take in all of dad's pronouncements with wide-eyed acceptance, but at quite an early age she picked up on the fact that he may just be feeding her a line, playing her as straight-man for his latest stooge-gag, and she developed the habit of checking with mum when dad gave her some facts, sincerity blazing in his eyes; little Nia's eyes would flick over to mum, and a tiny nod or headshake would be all she had to give for Nia to either buy it or back away and ask mum when dad had left the room.
She was a pretty little girl, fair skinned, with definite Anglo features, but with a nice mix of mum's finely sculpted ivory-figurine features too, so no mistaking her heritage, with her long, straight, jet black hair and slanted almond eyes, bright blue, like dad's and mine. When she was born, Mum had asked me to help her look after Nia, as I was her older brother now, and it was my job to watch over her. Nia had picked-up early on the fact that I was incapable of saying no to her, and used it to browbeat me into doing anything she didn't want or couldn't be bothered to do, and dad was no help, he just said "Jamie old son, you walked into that one eyes wide shut. Serves you right, next time I suggest you look before you step in the cacky!"
Still, I had to admit, being Nia's personal slave and chief bottle washer had its rewards. When she wanted to be, she could be absolutely adorable, and she was a very nice kid when she forgot she was a miniature fiend in human form. When I eventually moved to secondary school, at age 11, I felt a definite pang. My routine at primary school had been to wait for Nia until she'd finished her last class, then get laden down with all her stuff, projects, school bags, sports bags, welding equipment, bowling ball and spare sink, and schlep it all home for her like a good little Sherpa, while she would be off buying vast, clinically damaging quantities of sweets from her seemingly inexhaustible supply of pocket money.
Moving schools meant I'd only ever see her in the early evening, as I finished later, then would have to get two buses, so instead of getting home at about 3:45 pm, it would be nearer 6 o'clock before I got home, or later, if the buses were playing-up, just in time to say goodnight to her; her bedtime was 6:30 pm, even though she was 8 years old; mum and dad were a little old-fashioned about children and their bedtimes. The first day at my new school was traumatic enough without this sudden hole at the end of it, where I should be walking Nia home, and suddenly I wasn't. It was a funny feeling, and not in a good way – I realised I actually missed the little swamp-donkey, missed her flaunting all her spending money, the sweets she'd bought, or, if her flying monkeys had slaughtered some munchkins in the next village and put her in a good mood, her prattling on about her day.
When I got home, mum sensed I'd had a mixed day, and sat me down, hugged me, asked about my day, and gave me a bowl of home-made mango ice cream as a reward for not imploding. As I was telling her all about the school, the sheer number of people there, she said "Nguye't miss you today all day, she was crying for you."
I looked at mum in disbelief. "No, really? Why? I was going to throw a broomstick gag in there, but I saw mum was serious, looked sad. "She is still only little girl, Huyn'h," she said, in her careful English, "and she miss having older brother there in case she need him. You go and see her; she ask for you especially to come see her when you get in." As I am constitutionally incapable of refusing mum anything, I went and knocked on Nia's door, went in.
"Nia, it's me, are you OK?"
"Jamie? JAMIE!!" and a little body hit me amidships, Nia jumping up and down, holding on to me, her hair braided in a thick queue at the nape of her neck, her long nighty all the way down to the ground, looking cute and wholesome, like a character in a Disney cartoon.
"Jamie, I missed you, mummy took me to school and had to come and get me, I missed you all day, why did you have to go to another school, can I come there with you tomorrow, I MISSED YOU!!"
I had to stop her and catch my breath, and I hadn't said a word yet.
"All right, demon-child, calm down!"I told her. "First off, get back in bed it's past your bedtime, and secondly, sorry, no you can't come to school with me, you have a school of your own, and you're not old enough to come to my school. You'll see me every night, though, before you go to bed, and at weekends, isn't that enough for you?"
She stared at me for a second, and started sniffling, then tears ran out of her eyes, and then her face rolled up and she really let rip with the crying. And it was real, Nia-in- distress crying, not her usual 'I want my own way' crying. What could I do, I'm a sucker for her when she does that, but I also knew the difference between when she really was sad and when she was being the manipulative little baggage that was her ground-state.
She hugged on to me, crying like her pet dog had died, so much so that mum poked her head round the door to see what was going on, backed out when she saw me cradling the little girl while she sobbed, excessively so, I thought. I fished out a handkerchief from my pocket and tried to mop off her face, but I was fighting a losing battle between her eyes and her nose, which was chugging out truly amazing quantities of something truly nasty.
"SSSHHH Nia, it's alright, you'll see me every evening, you'll be OK, Monkey-girl, I promise!" I soothed her, once her crying had died down to hiccups, wondering at this sudden outburst of affection, and guided her back into bed, pulling up the bedclothes around her, before trying to leave.
"DON'T GO!" she shrieked, so I had to stop and sit on the bed and talk to her some more, tell her about my new school, all the boys there, how many people were at the school, while her eyes grew big. I ended up reading to her, 'The Worst Witch' or something like that, until she finally dozed off, then slipped out of her room, holding my bulging handkerchief at arm's length.
This became the pattern of my evenings. Come in, tuck Nia in if she was already in bed, answer her questions about my school, and read to her until she fell asleep. Some nights, though, she'd vary the routine. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, and she'd be there, rolled up next to me, fast asleep, so I'd go and get her duvet, cover her up, and go back to sleep; the one time I tried to take her back to her own room, she made such a fuss she woke the house, and mum had to put her in bed with her just to get her to go back to sleep. It got so I became used to feeling this little body scrunched up next to me in the middle of the night, and took to keeping a spare duvet in my room, to throw over her when she sneaked in. Nia had won, again, she'd got her own way, and I had to share my room with her. Like I said, manipulative little baggage.
On weekends, though, she was almost tentative with me, never moving more than 6 feet or so away from wherever I was, one eye always cocked in my direction, never obviously trailing around after me, but always there; if I went to the bathroom, she'd be playing in the corridor outside when I came out, If I retreated to my room to read or watch TV, she'd find a thousand reasons to come in looking for something, or ask me a question or some other reason. She also became more touchy-feely, which weirded me out, as I usually took great pains to avoid having her sticky little paws on my clothes; usually whatever she had been eating was all over her hands, and now it would be all over me. The one time she leaned over to kiss me, I honestly thought she was going to bite me, going for the germ-warfare option, and I ducked backwards, causing her to fall over, start screaming, big family post mortem, why can't you be nice to your sister, she's only young, she only has you, etc, etc. Spoiled, conniving, manipulative little troll-spawn.
As she got older, the screaming for her own way tailed-off, and she actually became more tractable, easier to deal with. The sneaking into my room and sleeping next to me never stopped though, and it actually got to the point where I felt almost cheated if I woke up in the night and she wasn't there. When she began secondary school, at 11, like me, I fully expected this to stop; there was more scope for friends, new people, new subjects to study, so I was confident her life would stop intersecting with mine quite so much. It didn't stop, not at all.
I was 14 by then, and girls were definitely a subject of mucho interest, for me and all my friends, hell, my whole generation, so I was glad Nia was fully occupied with her own life, at last, and I could start hanging with my pals on weekends without Nia hovering in the background. I met a nice girl, Lisa Simons, sweet, cute, red hair, and we dated for a while. Dad just grinned, and said, in his own inimitable way "Behave yourself, you dirty little beast!" and mum was distressed that I was dating, she thought I was too young for entanglements, I was still just a little boy. Nia hated her, refused to speak to her, acknowledge her presence, or speak to me. Suited me fine. The chance of spending an evening in a dark cinema with a pretty girl, as opposed to spending it staring at Nia and her captive-troll expression, what do you think I fancied more?
And then, one afternoon I brought Lisa over, Nia saw her in the house, and was rude and nasty to her. At last I blew my top.
"What the hell's your problem, Nia? All I'm doing is dating a girl, it's not against the law, why do you have to make it so difficult, she's only my girlfriend, for Chrissake!"
Nia reared right back.
"Why do you have to bring that...that girl to my house all the time, this is my house as well, and you're my brother, and you belong to me, not her!"I looked at her in shock. Was she really that freaked-out by me having a girlfriend? Why? Lisa left after that, and wouldn't see me anymore. Thanks, Nia.
Eventually, dad had to ask me what was going on with Nia and me. I confessed that I was baffled; she had her school friends, she had her own interests, she was in secondary school now, and I couldn't understand why she had been so hostile towards my girlfriend – she acted like she was jealous, even though I could only ever see Lisa on weekends, and her curfew had been 9pm, so what was the problem? If she wanted me around, she had me every evening plus all day Sunday.
Dad thought about it for a while, then held forth.
"Jamie, she's had you dancing attendance on her all her life, whether you liked it or not, and she thinks, quite rightly, that you're getting too grown-up for her, school, and sports, and girlfriends and so on. Give her a chance to level off; she'll eventually accept that you're moving on from her to someone else. Just be patient with her, and try not to snap too much – she's still only young, so ignore it, it will go away."
So, for the next four years, I manfully held my patience. Nia never accepted any of my girlfriends, never tried to be nice, or even polite, and I took to not bringing them over to the house any more, making her even more incensed that I was dating someone she had no chance of sniping at. I followed dad's advice and blithely ignored her artless little questions about whoever I was seeing at any given time, and it drove her bonkers. Other than that aspect of our lives together, we mostly got along just fine. Periodically, though, I would wake up and find her huddled against me, but thankfully, as her teen years progressed, this tailed-off and had stopped altogether by the time I left for university at 18.
I was studying Environmental Geosciences at Bristol, as I wanted to work in the Oil industry, and I was living in halls in Clifton. My days were pretty full; the course didn't offer much latitude for spare time or socialising, which was pretty much what the Course Adviser at 6th Form College had told me, but I was enjoying myself. I didn't get much opportunity to go home; lectures were usually scheduled on Saturdays, and funds were limited; after paying my expenses, a trip back to London was usually out of the question. Even my summer was no break, spending it as I did mentoring and coaching A-Level mathematics to earn enough money to get a deposit for a flat-share for year 2. At the end of my first year, I had been home a grand total of zero times. I felt guilty, but dad was breezy and unconcerned about it; he understood from his own student days. Mum just used to weep down the phone at me, and Nia refused to talk to me at all.
My second year, I got a job in a supermarket, unloading the trucks, tough work, but it was nights, so it didn't cut into my classwork, and it enabled me to pay for an apartment-share in a student flats complex near the uni and feed myself. As it meant working weekends, plus my Saturday classes, again I couldn't get home at all reliably. Luckily, dad's bank had a regional office in Bristol, so he would come down every so often, pick me up and we'd have dinner, talk about the family, bring me mum's letters and any home news, advice or messages mum had. Nothing from Nia, though. I was saddened by this. Although we squabbled about any and everything, often fought like two cats in a sack, I did love the bone-headed little cave-troll, and I couldn't believe that she could be so offended by my going to uni as to cut me out completely. Dad was more pragmatic.
"She's hurt by you going away; she thinks you deliberately left her, and she's offended that her brother, (who she owns, by the way!) could actually walk away from her, and leave her alone. Let her work it out for herself. She's a teenager, Jamie, she's having it tough enough right now, she'll find a way; in the meantime, get used to it!"
The third and last year was more difficult still; I had to spend part of the academic year working in industry, so I wangled a place with a geophysical exploration team, surveying the possible oil bearing strata off and around South Georgia, Elephant Island and the Falkland Islands, in the South Atlantic, 600km off the tip of Patagonia. It was a hard and arduous assignment, winter in the South Atlantic polar regions is rugged and treacherous, and we had to be protected by the Royal Navy picket ships as Argentina was claiming the area. We had several heated exchanges with Argentinian patrol boats until the Royal Navy boys unlimbered their 20mm Oerlikon cannons, at which point the Argentinians would remember pressing business elsewhere. 6 months of this, followed by 4 more months of analysing my findings, creating survey charts and drilling forecasts, estimating yields, and then writing the whole thing up as part of my Bachelors thesis, so a very hectic final year. I graduated with an Honours Degree in Environmental Geosciences, foregoing the graduation ceremony as I was eager to go home. I already had my degree and paperwork, and, as my sometime girlfriend/sex-partner/Friend with Benefits, Bev and I had finally broken it off permanently, I had no pressing need to remain. I left Bristol forever, glad to be finished, looking forward to a few weeks of lazing before I had to find a job; luckily I had some very good contacts from my months in the south Atlantic, so I'd contact them as soon as they were contactable.
When I arrived home, mum was all tears and hugs, reaching up to touch the top of my head in wonder at my height, marvelling that she couldn't get her arms all the way around my waist anymore, fussing over me gratifyingly. There was no sign of Nia, which was crushing for me, a sharp pang echoing through me. Despite all our arguments and fights over the years, I still adored the malicious little goblin, although sometimes it was difficult to remember why! Dad was away at a security show in Birmingham, would be gone for a couple of days, so I had mum to myself, her wonderful cooking and warm presence. I was so glad to be home after 3 years, all that was missing now was the demon-child.