It was the next week that she heard the news. Nasleen told her. “Your father is that white guy who drinks a lot?”she asked. Misha nodded – she had never really talked about her parents to Nasleen, but everybody knew everything at school.

“Listen, I hope this won’t upset you, but he’s moved in with Shereen’s dad. I just thought somebody should tell you.” Misha’s stomach clenched. Nasleen misunderstood the look on her face.

“I’m really sorry, Misha, it probably won’t last long, Shereen’s mom goes through men like – like Shereen goes through cigarettes.”

“It’s not that,” Misha stammered out. Luckily the bell rang and they gathered their books together for the first lesson.

During the day Misha shot quick glances at Shereen. Was it her imagination that Shereen seemed more subdued, smaller somehow? At break time she went past Shereen, and made a comment about how much homework they had to do. Shereen just mumbled and gave her a sullen look and then bent down towards her bag on the floor.

For the first time since her father had left, Misha went to lock herself into a toilet for break. Suddenly the weight that left her so suddenly returned to her shoulders, and her stomach felt that familiar knot pulling tight again. What was her father doing to Shereen and her mother? She felt sure that Shereen’s mother had already started hiding the bruises, and that Shereen had already felt the weight of her father’s body. They were paying for her freedom.

“It serves Shereen right, she’s been a bitch to you,” said a little voice in her head. But that night she had one of her nightmares and when she woke up, sweating, the little voice was drowned by a feeling of guilt that while she was alone in her bed, safe, Shereen might not be.

The next day she woke up determined to do something. She opened up a book, looking for a picture to give her advice but they all remained stubbornly silent. She would have to find a real person to help her. She thought of telling her mother, but the silence between them around her father was sensitive and painful, like the swelling around a gap in the mouth where an infected tooth had been. She thought of Nasleen, but the idea of telling her the things that her father had done made her shudder. How could she even learn to giggle with Nasleen about boys once she had told her?

Then she remembered Miss Hogan. After break she went to her classroom, her heart thudding in her chest. Miss Hogan was teaching a class. “Miss Hogan I need to speak to you,” she said.’ She heard Miss Hogan start asking her to come later, and her heart nearly exploded, but then Miss Hogan seemed to change her mind. “Give me five minutes,” she said, and went back to give the class some instructions.

Miss Hogan sheperded Misha into her tiny office adjoining the classroom that had no window, but a lot of colourful posters on the wall with screaming words like Sex and Condoms. Misha averted her eyes.

“What is it, Misha?” Miss Hogan asked gently. “You seemed to be so much happier lately, what’s happened?”

Misha did not know where to start. “It’s Shereen,” she said.

“You know Shereen, she can be difficult, but you’ve got to remember…” Miss Hogan began.

“It’s not that, Miss,” Misha interrupted. She took a deep breath, and started at the beginning.

At the end she was surprised that Miss Hogan did not look more shocked, more horrified and disgusted. She didn’t even seem to look at Misha differently now that she knew.

She just looked sad. “I guessed it was something like this,” she said. “I’m sorry you couldn’t tell me at the time.”

“What would it have helped?” asked Misha. “What could you have done?”

“I would have spoken to your mother at least,” said Miss Hogan.

Even that seemed a possibility in Miss Hogan’s office. “But it’s not about me now,” said Misha.

“I think you still might need help to heal,” said Miss Hogan. “Come and visit me again. But thank you for coming now for Shereen.”

Later, in Art, Misha’s teacher was astounded. “Misha, I have never seen such a juxtaposition of colours before, that is very powerful,” she said. Misha realised that telling Miss Hogan her story had liberated her in a way she could hardly understand.

But there were still hard times ahead. Miss Hogan called her in. “Misha, have you thought that you might need an HIV test?” Misha felt the blood rush to her face. She closed her eyes in panic. Yes she had thought about it once, but now that her father was gone her body felt whole.

“It isn’t a death sentence anyway, you know,’ said Miss Hogan gently. There are students in this school who are living a normal life with medicine. There is even a teacher on the staff who is positive, he is always happy to help students go through this if you want.”

“No,” said Misha. “I just want you.”

At the clinic there was a kind nurse who spoke to her before she took Misha’s blood. All Misha could think about was her mother. Not even about her life or health. Just the fact that if she was positive, she would have to confront her mother. And she wasn’t sure if her mother was ready to cope with this yet. The thought scared her more than anything. So when Miss Hogan called her in with her results, and told her that they were negative Misha burst into shuddering tears of relief, first about her mother, and then about her own health.