We're delighted to present an extract from Run For Your Life, the first children's book exploring Direct Provision, from Jane Mitchell, the award-winning author of Chalkline and A Dangerous Crossing.
Azari’s life has been split in two and the halves are as different as lemons and mangoes. Running links the two parts of her life: sometimes when she runs it is because she wants to, because she feels strong and free. But sometimes it is because she has no other choice.
When Azari and her mother flee for their lives to Ireland they are put in a Direct Provision Centre. They must share a room with a stranger, eat food they don’t know the name of and answer intrusive questions from authorities.
Azari’s life has secrets; she must tell them so she can stop running and live a life where she can make her own decisions.
I need to silence my sister before she puts me off. I focus on my warm-up, stretch out my legs. Run hard. I get there with time to spare. Even though I'm early, Robert’s there ahead of me, bleached head on him. Running tights, shorts, bright orange running shoes. He looks taller than in the library. Strong legs that tell of running and winning. I already know he’s a good runner. I avert my eyes from his tight clothes. Look elsewhere. Mother would have a fit if she knew what I was up to. I smile a little at the thought.
'I’ve an easy loop worked out for us,’ he says, setting his smart watch. ‘Till we get to know each other’s stride. I’ve built in a few escape routes if either of us decides to pull out.’
‘I won’t be pulling out,’ I tell him.
He looks at me. ‘And there’s a couple of low slow hills to push us.’
‘Take it handy to begin with. We won’t push ourselves too hard. Good to go?’
‘Good to go.’
We head off, curving down the long gentle slope in the direction of town. It feels strange and new to have a running partner. I haven’t run with anyone since Ruba, Iman and I ran through the fields and sunny streets around our village. Robert is tall. He stretches his legs out easily, pulling slightly ahead of me. Maybe I should push faster – catch up with him to show I can stay the pace. I increase my speed. He adjusts too. Slows a little. After the first kilometre or so, we match strides and settle into a comfortable pace. Should we talk? Run in silence? In the end, I decide just to enjoy the run for what it is. I relax. Relish the freedom running always brings. We’re on the main road, heading towards town. Plenty of people passing in cars, on bicycles. I feel safe. There’s something nice about running next to him.
‘Look at me now, Sharnaz. Big surprise?’ I think. Then I pull myself up and stop my talk to her. I don’t want to start her chattering in my head, distracting me. I want to enjoy this time. I focus on my stride.
‘Don’t make stupid decisions about running with Robert, Azari-Nike,’ Princess told me when I asked her about it a few nights ago. ‘Stay out in the open. Don’t go off somewhere dif- ferent. Go for your run and come straight back to the Centre afterwards.’
‘You think it’s OK to go?’
‘There’s nothing threatening about it. Go! Enjoy your freedom! Enjoy your runs!’
‘What will I tell my mother?’ I ask.
Princess looked at me. ‘Only you can decide that, my friend. It’s not for me to tell you what you should say to your own mother.’
As I run back to the Centre from the roundabout later that day, I can’t stop smiling inside and out. It was great to be back running properly. I loved it as much as my running club back home. It was fast. Hard. Challenging. I enjoyed Robert’s company and easy chat. Now, on the homeward stretch, my muscles are burning.
‘How was your run?’ Mother says when I get back.
‘Great! Having a friend made it better. Like being back in the running club.’
Run For Your Life by Jane Mitchell is published by Little Island