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Party politics

There's this awful thing girls do. One walks out into the playground and two others, say Fatma and Rachel - it is often those two - come up to her and say "You're not my friend. I'm not going to play with you." Then they smirk and link arms and - this is the worst bit - look expectantly into their victim's face until they see it crumple. Sheena - it is often her - stands there feeling as if the bottom has come out of her world and the other two mince off, giggling. Their day is now complete.

Yesterday I tried to break this scenario. Sheena rushed up to me with the usual complaint. "Miss, Mi-iss, Rachel and Fatma say they're not my friend. Fatma's not going to play with me any more, Miss!" Sheena, who is not the brightest girl in the world, nor the slimmest, but who is very affectionate, is close to tears. I feel my temper rise but I only suggest, mildly, "Well, why don't you just say, 'I don't care, I don't want to play with you'."

Sheena is nonplussed, but tentatively she tries it, while I look on. I don't know if Sheena is amazed at the result, but I am. Rachel and Fatma, arms linked and ready for the mince-off, freeze.

Fatma's eyes dart sharply at Sheena, then at me. She laughs, unconvincingly. "Come on, Rachel," she urges, but Rachel is transfixed. Rachel looks at me. "I don't know why Sheena should want to play with you if you are being so silly," I say. Rachel stares. Fatma is more decisive. "Well," she reiterates, "we don't want to play with you, Sheena. You're not our friend." And before I can intervene again, they mince off. Before they have gone a few paces, they are giggling. I turn to look at Sheena. She is just as desolate as before. No breaking the wicked witches' spell today.

Considerably ruffled, I go to sit with Fenella, who cuddles up to me in her accustomed manner. "What do you think of Rachel and Fatma? " I ask. "They won't play with Sheena, they say she's not their friend. Isn't that silly and unkind?" Fenella assents to this, though without interest. Almost immediately, Amla comes up and starts messing about in an exuberant, six-year-old kind of way. Fenella looks at her malevolently. "You're silly," she sniffs. "I don't know if you can come to my party." I am shocked. "Oh Fenella," I protest. Fenella is obdurate. "She's too silly, Miss".

Up comes Elsa, who hangs on my arm. Amla, subdued but hopeful, lounges on the bench. "I'm coming to your party, aren't I, Fenella?" she asks.

Fenella peers at her. "Only if you don't bring an extra person like you did last time," she says. "My Mum didn't like that. She said your Mum shouldn't have brung her."

Elsa senses a weak wicket. "I know, I told my Mum. But my Mum said we just had to and your Mum wouldn't mind."

Fenella sniffs again. "My Mum did mind."

I try to change the subject. "What kind of party are you having? When is your birthday?" Fenella smiles her sweetest dimple smile. "I haven't got my party yet. But, here she brightens, "when I do, Rachel and Fatma aren't coming!" Amla cosies up. "Shall I come?" she asks.

Fenella considers. "Only if you're not silly like you are," she states unpromisingly.

Amla seems to accept this and confides, "My Mum doesn't let me have a party."

We are silent for a while. Fatma and Rachel swing up. So does Sheena. "Fatma is my friend now," she announces.

Fatma glares at her. "No, I'm not. You're too fat." Sheena's lip trembles and I get up to give her a hug. The two pals mince off once more.

The bell goes. We line up to go back in the class. I feel as if I have lived through several aeons of time and civilisation has not yet struck. Or maybe this is civilisation?

A boy rushes past. Another boy hits him. They both yell and then resume their place in the line. Which is the gentler gender, exactly?

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