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That lunch break began as any other. I was at the edge of the playground, on a stone bench – alone – one leg crossed over the other, shoe laces tied neatly.

Unwrapping my slice of byorek, a pie stuffed with cheese and spinach, I carefully spread out a lavash bread, positioned a neat line of mashed byorek down the middle, rolled up the lavash and tucked in the ends so the cheese wouldn’t spill. I regarded the ensemble for a moment through my long eyelashes. Yes, my eyelashes were my only redeeming physical feature, besides my cherub face.

I was going to shove one end of the lavash into my mouth when I suddenly remembered Mama with an ache. When I was just four or five, sometimes on hot Sunday afternoons Mama would lie down on the cool floor with me wrapped in her arms. She would hold me close till our foreheads were touching and flutter her eyelashes against mine and whisper,” Butterfly, butterfly, flutter your wings…there…” and we would furiously flutter our eyelids against each other, giggling hysterically.

After a while, she would pull apart, regard me with marveling eyes and then clutch me tight and launch into that tale about the old woman who escaped a bunch of wolves by getting inside a large pumpkin and rolling herself down the hill to the village below. I never thought to ask her what the old hag was doing up the hill anyway. Maybe she was Jill who had gone up for a pail of water with a boy called Yohan and lost her way, remaining up there till she was old.

I pushed Mama’s dear face back into the shadows and started to take small bites as I watched the other boys horsing around the playground. The ball rolled down my way sometimes and I would daintily nudge it back with the tip of my shoe, scattering a clutch of blue jays that had been crowding around for a morsel from my lunch box.

To the boys, I was the nerdy cherub-faced geek they wouldn’t like to be caught spending time with. But if they needed an extra player and insisted I join them, I got up and ran clumsily around in an awkward, feminine gait. The ball was always just outside my grasp and I had to scramble, stumbling after it with a shy, apologetic smile. The boys yelled and cursed, every time the ball slipped out of my hands. “Ssorry,” I stammered. The stammer was recent, brought on by what – I had no idea.

I couldn’t wait for the bell to summon us back into the classroom. Once class resumed, I was in my elements. Well prepared, homework up to date, text books neatly stacked, pencils sharpened. The seat next to mine was the hottest ticket, at close peeking distance. Getting to sit next to me at term finals could mean the difference between passing and repeating the year, for some of the boys in the back.

The boys saw me as one of those mimosa ferns that curled up if you touched them. And to the girls, I was a harmless pooch. They knew mine were the only pair of 15yr old male hands in class that didn’t have any sudden travel plans, any need to visit places they shouldn’t. The girls jostled with me, squeezed up next to me at assembly, mussed my hair, gave me random pecks on the cheek and walked around at recess with their arms draped round me. They giggled hysterically, screamed, laughed and shared with me their innermost thoughts. I was one of them. Only better – I had no petty jealousies. I was no threat or competition. For the girls, I was the perfect pal to have. You should have seen me during Vartevar, when complete strangers doused you with water. The girls would turn their giggling wrath on me then.

Not Leyla. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember the girl I mentioned somewhere way back in Part-1 . Yes, the topper, Leyla. The only daughter of a big-shot Soviet Party official, Leyla Pashayeva was a petite dusty grey blonde with mesmerizing eyelashes. She was bone china. At 15, she looked like she was 20, with a fully developed bust, in a blouse with buttons that are busy obeying a restraining order. Leyla’s were the first in a long line of breasts that I have had the pleasure to cast my eyes upon at close quarters, through the years.

But all that beauty was rounded off by a glassy, imperious smile. An impermeable force field shimmered around Leyla, with an invisible neon sign warning all, “Look, don’t touch’. To be in her inner circle, you would have to do things for her, be a serf. To all the boys in the class, with the exception of yours truly, Leyla was a dream and for Arkadi, Abram and Davit at the back – a wet one.

Leyla saw me as an object of scorn, for my quiet, almost effeminate demeanor, my narrow shoulders and frail build. She regarded me with some concern too – at the thin sliver of a gap that separated our overall scores and at the very real possibility that I might better her in the next round of tests. Somehow she couldn’t live with being second.

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I won’t forget the autumn of 1987. It was almost two years now, since my parents had died and I was happy to be back in my elements, the classroom.

A week into the first term, I began to notice that Leyla wasn’t around. She must have moved to another part of town, I thought. Somehow the fact that her absence made me the class topper by default, didn’t inject any elation in me. While I was relieved not to have to face Miss Hoity Toity Prim n’ Propah, I missed the prospect of the race to the top.

It was another two months before she appeared all of a sudden one day and began attending school once again. The sleek chauffeur-driven Zil from which she would step out regally, was gone. I found out years later that her Dad had been purged. Yeah, the Soviet system was like living inside a guy with irritable bowel syndrome holding a bottle of Milk of Magnesia in his hand – you could get purged any time without notice. But if you were well connected and those connections stood by you (like in Leyla’s dad’s case) you didn’t end up in a Sakhalin gulag. You just lay low for a while.

She sat in one corner of the school bus, away from the rest of the kids. Her trademark look of haughty disdain seemed to have vanished. In it’s place was a drawn, pale, scared, vulnerable girl, looking down at the floor.

I found her that way when I boarded at my stop that day. Finding the seat next to her empty, I hesitated and then went and sat down next to her. The ever present Paryur Sevak novel she carried around with her was missing. Not having anything to hold on to, she mashed and ground her fingers against each other.

I reached out then and took her soft palms in mine and she shuddered. We were like that right up to the school gates. As she disengaged her hands from mine, she whispered, “Təşəkkür…” (Thank you, in Azerbaijani).

Leyla was an Azerbaijani Muslim – a minority in Nagorno-Karabakh.

(to be continued…)