How to shoot down President Trump’s helicopter with a surface-to-air missile

‘It’s absurd.’

‘Completely absurd.’

Cal listened but didn’t say anything.

Selina was dishing out baked seabass with lemongrass. Her red dress crumpled at the front as she leant forward in a way that Cal found so attractive she had to look away. 

‘He’s literally separating babies from their mothers.’

‘If he can do that without any qualms, then his next move doesn’t bear thinking about.’

‘It’s basically a test case for the introduction of Fascism.’

The guests competed for the highest level of indignation. Cal still didn’t say anything. Why had she been invited to dinner? The smile Selina gave her across the dinner table, as she ladled out the last of the sea bass juices, was deliberately bland. Cal raised one eyebrow but Selina quickly looked away. Despite this caution, Cal thought she could feel Selina’s boyfriend watching them, his mild blue eyes glinting in a surprisingly hostile way.  

When she glanced over he didn’t turn away and it felt like he’d been studying her for a while. It was unnerving. She stared back. His mouth quirked up into an ambiguous smile, no, not ambiguous – smug but then he was the kind of man whose natural smile would be smug. This could be well meant.

He was thin, far thinner than her. As she’d taken her seat at the table her hips had felt enormous. He wore black skinny jeans that hung off him and a collarless shirt that had a narrow blue stripe like mattress ticking and probably cost £200 It made Cal feel the garishness of her navy silk shirt with its pattern of red, tropical flowers. He was losing his hair though, only a bit at the crown, but still.

Their eyes locked past the point of awkwardness as the dinner party talk continued around them. Cal switched to an expression of polite, bemused enquiry, but he just kept staring with that stupid smirk. 

Facing him down across the table, Cal couldn’t help imagining him and Selina together, sitting in bed reading, frowning at pictures in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, buying sourdough at the Farmers’ Market. You just had to look at her boyfriend (no, Selina would probably say ‘partner’ to hide the fact that she wasn’t fashionably queer) to know he was a softly spoken, I’m-being-eminently-reasonable, mansplaining prick.  

Their deadlock was broken by another guest passing between them to go to the loo. Cal was sure then, as she glared angrily away at the bookcase, that he knew. To spite him she summoned her memory of Selina in the toilet cubicle at the British Library, her black dress hiked up, head thrown back. 

The guest talking now was a BBC journalist who was certain, although it was highly confidential, that John Goodman (had she heard that right? Rosanne Barr’s ex-husband?) had an audio recording of Trump physically assaulting Melania in a lift.

‘No!’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah,’ a third guest chimed in, ‘Didn’t she cry when he won the election?’

But they’d all read Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or rather the excerpts that had been reprinted in the papers, so this didn’t make as much of an impact.

‘God, he’s just an awful, awful man, isn’t he?’

‘The protest’s going to be rammed.’

Selina, dark hair brushing her shoulders as she lifted the empty serving dish, said, ‘Are you going to come, Cal?’ Her smile was genuinely inviting this time. ‘We’re going to have a session making placards the day before Trump arrives.’

‘Umm.’ Cal had been planning on going swimming at the lido next weekend. There’d been an unusual run of baking hot days at the start of the summer but this didn’t mean anyone should count on the sunshine sticking around. They’d all been hurt by weather forecasts before. 

‘I lead a very selfish life,’ Cal often said to people.  ‘I’m sure you don’t,’ they’d say and laugh in a way that was flattering in its disbelief. 

Selina was waiting, one tensed arm wobbling under the weight of the serving dish.

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Cal said. 

A woman with messy, blonde hair and bright red lipstick broke in. ‘Oh my God, did you see that brilliant tweet, “Think you can hide in Scotland, Trump? Think again,” then there were just loads of photos of Scots with signs saying, ‘Trump’s a bawbag’ and ‘Ya maw was an immigrant, you orange roaster’.

‘Brilliant!’

Cal was pretty sure that Trump wouldn’t understand most of those words.

  ‘The Scots at least have got some sense,’ the boyfriend chipped in as if the whole table had been waiting for his verdict. Cal deliberately didn’t look over at him. She didn’t want to see the white flecks of crud that clung to one corner of his mouth. How could Selina stand to kiss him? Cal just knew that up close his skin would smell of damp plaster.

There were plans to fly a twenty foot blimp of Trump which looked like an orange baby and apparently someone had carved ‘Fuck Trump’ in Russian into a crop circle which he would definitely helicopter over on his way to Chequers. 

‘Well, that should bring him to his knees,’ Cal said, aiming for jovial. As if Trump could read Russian, even read probably.

‘At least we’re doing something,’ Selina’s boyfriend snapped. 

‘Not really, you’re not,’ Cal wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead she thought of the last time she and Selina had fucked, their mouths just missing each other’s, Cal’s fingers buried deep inside Selina.

There was an awkward silence while plates were cleared and Selina brought out a chocolate pavlova glistening with cherries. The boyfriend began to speak at length on the importance of protest and on the parallels between now and 1930s Germany, probably on the basis of an article he’d read in The New Statesman.

Over the expensive cheese and biscuits Cal found herself becoming obnoxious. ‘I don’t believe in the power of protest. It’s just whinging to make yourself feel better.’

‘So what do you believe in?’ asked the boyfriend in a pompous voice. 

Cal snapped a cracker in half and scooped up a smear of brie. ‘Action,’ she said.

The boyfriend gave a scoffing laugh. ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ What made it far worse was Selina resting her hand on his shoulder as if to restrain this overwhelming display of masculine power.

‘Anyone want some more red?’ When Selina looked round the table her eyes had that measured, insincere warmth of someone carefully tucking her feelings away.

When Cal got home that night, drunk and tired, she did what anyone else would have done, googled. She opened an in-private window in Safari and typed ‘buy air to surface missile’ but Wikipedia quickly revealed this wasn’t right. She re-typed ‘buy surface to air missile’. It had sounded better the other way round.

You could buy a book on Amazon which listed which armies had what. According to VICE’s website, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was in the market for one. There was a newspaper report of an auction in Florida that had included a Soviet SCUD missile. Apparently it needed some light restoration but was still expected to command up to $350,000. 

The Telegraph had an article about how the British Army in Mali had found a guide on how to use MANPADS, which were man-portable air-defence systems. There was a helpful photograph of a soldier in desert fatigues with what looked like a length of drainpipe balanced on his shoulder. This seemed much more plausible than the ones that needed to be mounted on the back of a truck. Cal didn’t have a truck, not even a car, no one in London with any sense did. Selina’s boyfriend probably did.

In the guide there were grainy images of Soviet-looking soldiers firing the weapon. Point-by-point instructions explained how to insert the battery, focus on the target and launch. It advised the shooter to change into a second set of clothes after firing to avoid detection. Even though it was only research it felt like doing something.

There was a useful report from the Federation of American Scientists, which did sound like a phony organisation when she actually thought about it. It was entitled ‘Black Market Prices for Man-portable Air Defence Systems’. One could apparently be had for a couple of thousand dollars. Prices were from June 2010, though, so you’d need to allow a bit for inflation. She fell asleep with the laptop open in front of her.

Cal woke the next morning with a headache and went on facebook. She had a friend who re-posted videos and events all the time, adding ‘Share Widely!!!’ Cal had unfollowed her feed long ago but she flicked over now to look. Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Great NHS Sell Off –Film Premier. Stop the extinction crisis of the vaquitas (super-cute mini dolphins!) that live off the coast of Mexico. Come and support the Rio Cinema to become solar powered. Earth’s Cooperative Ecosystem for a Fairer Economy. The Future of Money – tonight! Vote no Heathrow Vote Rally – we must stop the third runway!!!!!!! We need climate jobs not dirty fossil fuel jobs! The first AIDS histories and cultures festival will come to London in July 2018 – so looking forward to this!!! Labour Live Music Festival, White Hart Lane – friends, come along!!! 

Cal remembered how she’d been having dinner with this friend in Dalston and the friend had begun talking about Momentum and the possibilities for change this could unlock in every neglected child and had actually brought herself to tears. When Cal patted her arm, the friend shook her off, eyes shining. ‘No, don’t. I like crying. It’s so cathartic.’ 

If, to save herself from the mortification of having to witness such self-indulgence, Cal had had to sell the entire NHS to buy the last surviving vaquita for a dolphin club sandwich while taxiing down a third runway made of Momentum leaders laid end to end, she would have done it in an instant. That was why people liked Fascism. It made them look strong and powerful, not weak and hopeless, treating themselves to a cry over a £6.50 slice of vegan, gluten-free pizza.

Cal typed a deliberately bland text, thanking Selina for a lovely evening, then slowly deleted it. Instead she messaged her Cambridge friend, Tajana, to see if she fancied a coffee that afternoon. Tajana was Serbian and worked in software development but at university they all used to tease her for her mafia-like band of uncles and cousins. It was hard to broach the topic casually but in the end Cal said a friend of hers needed a portable missile for a performance piece.

Tajana sipped at her espresso. ‘So she definitely doesn’t want it to work then?’

‘No, it has to work.’

Tajana set her tiny espresso cup down.

‘It has to have a real threat, you know, otherwise the energy of the piece will be neutralised.’

Tajana raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow. ‘Since when are you a supporter of performance art?’

Cal had a vivid flashback to labelling an experimental dance piece she’d seen with Selina as two hours of an anorexic laying an egg. She muttered something about doing her friend a favour.

‘What do you really want, Cal?’ Tajana wielded her dimpled smile. ‘Why are you feeding me this ridiculous story?’

‘It’s not a ridiculous story.’

‘Fine.’ Tajana’s ponytail flicked pertly as she cast her eyes up in the pose of an Orthodox martyr. ‘Okay, if I was trying to buy something so secret that I couldn’t even tell an old friend what it was and instead had to make up ridiculous stories, then I’d certainly consider downloading the TOR browser and going to one of the marketplaces that have replaced Silk Road.’

Back home that evening Cal bought two missiles off a dark website called Valhalla. She used the money she’d been saving to try and buy a flat in London. An investment in downing the helicopter belonging to the President of the United States seemed infinitely more likely to come off than her ever owning a studio flat closer in than Leyton. But she’d been hoarding that money for such a long time that it had come to seem like hope. She tried not to think about it and made sure not to check her depleted bank balance in the days after.

Paying in bitcoin was less of a pain than she’d thought. The first two purchases cost $11,000 and £1,500 but these prices turned out to be too high and too low respectively to be evidence of the sellers’ serious intent. Still, she felt a lurch of excitement every morning that week when the postman rustled along the walkway. When polite, then sarcastic e-mails to the sellers had gone unanswered she’d ordered another two, then another two.

Ordering the missiles had become an end in itself so she was confused for a moment when, the day before Trump’s visit, she opened the door to the DHL guy. ‘Whew, that’s heavy,’ he wheezed. His grimace looked less good natured than he sounded. Cal presumed he wasn’t allowed to swear at work. He hefted a long, thin parcel over her threshold and left it propped in the hall.

It seemed portentous the ants were swarming on the day President Trump was due to arrive in Britain, although of what Cal couldn’t have said. Up on the roof of her block of flats it had clouded over but the air was blood warm. Flying ants poured out from a cement crack by one of the risers, a foot or so from where the long tube of the missile lay. 

She refreshed BBC News on her laptop, which she’d balanced on an old plastic chair, and there he was, stepping down from Airforce One at Stansted Airport, clutching Melania’s reluctant hand like he feared she might make a break for it. Trump leaned in and spoke to his wife as they descended the metal steps but her empty face didn’t flicker. 

Cal had to close her eyes to stop herself imagining Selina, her hair held back in an impatient twist, paint-spattered t-shirt tight over her breasts, kneeling forward to splodge a brush over blank cardboard. FREE MELANIA. No, her placard would be better than that. MELANIA, BLINK TWICE IF YOU NEED HELP. Cal’s heart began to thump. 

She quickly picked up her phone, found the message Selina had sent her mid-week, inviting her to the anti-Trump poster making session, and typed, ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more with you.’ Her stomach dipped as she hit ‘send’.

Cal refreshed Twitter. There was a photo of Marine One leaving the north runway at Stansted. Despite the cloud it was hot. She focused on the winged ants crawling blindly on the flat roof. How could they live up here? What did they eat? She was sweating. She’d calculated it should take Trump’s helicopter no more than 12 minutes to cover the 34 miles. 

Until she’d sent that message she hadn’t realised how much the tormenting excitement and uncertainty of her affair with Selina had blotted out the ache of having broken up with her girlfriend six months ago. The loss of the children they’d been planning together was something Cal used to think about a lot, lying in bed on her own, late at night when it was too hot to sleep with the windows closed and too noisy to sleep with them open. Or when she hung, eyes closed, fingers gripping the overhead rail, buffeted by men in expensive shirts, in the muggy depths of the Northern Line. 

Cal put on a pair of black latex gloves taken from a sex party she’d been to a few months ago. Then she clipped her bike helmet on. She knew it was ridiculous but from the footage she’d seen on YouTube of idiots firing missile launchers she’d learnt that she could expect to be thrown backwards by the recoil. She’d considered dragging her mattress up for a soft landing but she didn’t want to arouse suspicion. She glanced down at her phone. No reply.

The thought of Trump and his helicopter exploding in a fireball was as satisfying as a cartoon, though Cal was under no illusion that this would actually change anything. Mike Pence would simply become President – bluster being replaced by the serious, quiet intent of fundamentalism. If anything, this might be worse but England had just crashed out of the World Cup and everyone needed some cheering up.

Still no reply from Selina.

One. Two. Three. She hefted the SA-7 onto her shoulder. Fuck. It felt like she’d put her back out already. She wobbled under the lop-sided weight. The latex gloves were tacky but this let her grip. Sweat dribbled down the back of her neck. She held the smug face of Selina’s boyfriend in her mind and pictured him saying ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ This. This memory seemed to make the weight of the missile lighter. But now she had it on her shoulder she couldn’t refresh Twitter. She’d just have to wait and listen. But if Selina messaged back she’d be able to see as the screen would light up.

It was strangely tranquil up on the roof, like being on a remote cliff. Cal wished she had come up here more often. She peered through the sights and practised tracking a seagull overhead. 

Standing there with the missile heavy on her shoulder, she was using the same technique she used to get through her smear tests – don’t think about what was happening – just break it down into a series of mechanical stages. Trousers off, knickers off, lie on the padded table, place the sheet of paper over your stomach. This was no different. She told herself that once she had Trump’s helicopter in her sights, all she had to do was pull the trigger. Soviet 1960s infra-red technology would do the rest.

She glanced down at her phone. She didn’t have much time. Her stomach felt like it had just reached the rolling boil recommended for immersing tortellini. Why didn’t Selina text back? Please don’t say that. Or even I don’t want to not see you would do. The screen stayed stubbornly black.

The inside of her gloves were slippery with sweat. Her head swum. To calm herself she itemised what she could see: the flying ants, splodges of tar, spills of loose gravel, an old bucket and mop desiccated by the sun into a horrible head of hair. But this didn’t help. Her hair was clammy under the helmet. Every beat of her heart felt like a punch.

She felt her courage begin to slip. Surely it wouldn’t really matter if she simply abandoned the SA-7on the roof, took the lift down to her flat on the third floor, sat on the balcony and ate the rest of the tomato salad she’d made last night? But she knew it would matter to those migrant children who’d been separated from their parents. And any refugees trying to find safety in America. And any Muslims. And anyone who didn’t want to be poisoned by pesticides. Or was a black bear who didn’t want to be shot. Or had a student loan. Or was worried about climate change. And all those Americans who needed Obamacare, so all poor Americans really, and any woman who needed an abortion. She took a tighter grip on the SA-7.

Her phone buzzed. Selina. Im outside yr flat. Let me in? Relief opened up inside Cal like an umbrella. Selina was here. She lowered the SA-7 to the floor, peeled off the gloves, unfastened her helmet.

When Cal stepped out of the lift all she could see was Selina’s back. She was wearing a navy blue dress and espadrilles. She turned before Cal had quite finished wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans. 

‘Where the fuck do you get off sending me texts like this?’

‘Where the fuck do you get off inviting me to dinner with your boyfriend?’

‘You know that we live together.’

‘That doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with him.’

‘I knew it would come to this.’ Selina shook her head. ‘I’m not leaving him, Cal.’

‘Then why are you here?’

Selina’s eyes narrowed. Cal couldn’t decide whether it was hostility or she was about to burst out laughing.

Cal flung the front door of her flat open. ‘Go inside and take your clothes off.’ 

Selina didn’t move. Far away Cal could hear the buzz of a helicopter. She tried to glance casually at her watch. 

‘Don’t let me keep you,’ Selina said sarcastically, as though she wasn’t the one with a boyfriend and a whole other life.

‘Selina, come on–’ Cal moved towards her, ready to take her thin, tanned arm, to lead her into the flat, into the bedroom.

But Selina pulled her arm away, her black eyes unfocused, mouth smaller, tighter. 

‘Fine.’ Cal took a step towards the lift, making sure Selina saw. ‘Look, there’s something urgent I’ve got to sort out.’

Selina’s face flickered.

‘It won’t take long.’ 

‘Where the hell are you going?’

‘Come and see.’

That was the problem with jealousy – you focused on desiring, not on what you desired. Cal couldn’t quite be sure through the closing doors of the lift if Selina was following.

As Cal threw herself up the final few steps, she could already see the helicopter, a black dot growing against the roiling grey clouds. The distant hum had swollen to an ominous clatter.

Shit, there were three of them. But the tail fins of Marine One were unmistakeable. She shouldered the SA-7 missile. More quickly than she could have imagined they were right above her. The noise was overwhelming. She hadn’t meant to let them pass overhead but they were already skimming the trees, over the park, heading towards the grey outline of central London.

Cal hunched her shoulders. The middle helicopter was centred perfectly in the scope. There was nothing left but to pull the trigger. So why didn’t she? She realised she was waiting for the restraint of Selina’s hand on her shoulder.




Before he knew he was lost

Picture Credits: davidawsp

Even before the
man knew for sure he was lost, he was searching. He felt like he had walked
into a room, but didn’t know why. Instead of an occasional moment, an
occasional instance, every room he walked in, he felt like that, even if he
knew specifically why he had entered the room, something tickled his mind and
he wasn’t quite sure why he was there. He would go into the bathroom to take a
piss and, while he was peeing, be sure that there was something else he needed
to do, some other task.

He started writing
down his reasons for entering a room on his arm with a green sharpie. Pretty
quickly his arms were filled with notes like: get banana, or masturbate, or pay
phone bill. Soon the notes looked like old, faded tattoos. That was the best
part of the whole experience, as he had never quite been able to work up the
courage for an actual tattoo. The thought of a needle penetrating his skin was
terrifying, so invasive. Such a vulnerable position and irrevocable.

He tried to
pinpoint the moment that it began, the exact moment when he wasn’t sure why he was going, but it all felt too
nebulous. Had he felt this way when his mother died? When he moved again and
again? When he lost that job? He couldn’t remember, but a part of him wondered
if it had always been like that, if he’d always had a confused look on his face
after entering a room, and he felt embarrassed retroactively.

The green sharpie
didn’t help. Sure he could look down and see throw out dead mouse and know to throw out the dead mouse. The dead
mouse wasn’t the problem. It was the other feeling, suggesting that he was
missing something, that he should be doing something else besides just throwing
out the dead mouse. He thought that maybe there would be a clue in all of the
writing on his arms, like a pattern he could decipher. Maybe if he could
determine why he was going from room to room on a surface level, the subsurface
would begin to be realized.

He wrote down
everything on one long list, but nothing seemed out of place. If anything it
made the strangeness of what he was experiencing more pronounced. Did he never
go into a different room for a strange reason? Like just to go there? Or for
something out of the ordinary? This more than anything else worried him. He
became determined to figure out what it was that his mind was trying to tell
him. That wouldn’t be accomplished by staying in his apartment. He had read
somewhere on the internet about exposure therapy. A woman had been afraid of
water and they had taken her to the ocean. Not right away of course. At first
maybe watching someone sip out of an opaque glass, and then later pressing a
hand to a window pane while it rained outside. But eventually she went to the
ocean and the article or whatever it had been claimed she had swam. So maybe he
wasn’t quite afraid, maybe he wasn’t actively hiding in his apartment shivering
at the thought of going into the hallway. Not yet at least. And that was cause for fear. If he didn’t do
something soon, he was sure to become afraid.

He didn’t plan
anything, or pack anything. He just walked to the next room and instead of
walking back, he kept on. He walked outside, but that was worse somehow, and
the feeling lingered forcing him back inside wherever he could enter. So he
stuck to populated areas, areas with doors. He didn’t like it, but he forced himself
to do it. He was going to get his life back, whatever the cost.

Eventually after a
few weeks or months, he found an abandoned town. The eight-room, strip motel
would become his home for quite a long time. He could move from room to room
without going outside. It offered him a break of sorts. He could keep on with
his task without needing to move to a new city, without disturbing anyone. He
cleaned up the dead birds and settled in.

The previous
management had kept a huge stash of individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats,
and he was eating one in room six trying to remember why he had come to room
six when the door opened. I’m sorry. I
didn’t know this was occupied.
The man, a vagabond surely, stood there in
the doorway checking out the room and dripping from the rain. They stood like
that for a few moments, until the vagabond seemed to realize that the room was
clean and didn’t have any of the man’s things. Are you management? Can I have a room? I don’t have much money, and it
doesn’t have to be this one. This room, I mean.
The man considered it. The
vagabond was clearly on something and he shouldn’t enable that kind of
behavior, but on the other hand, the motel wasn’t really his. Who was he to
turn someone away? Particularly after he himself had been turned away so many
times in his wandering. And it wouldn’t hinder his daily activities; he could
just skip room six. He held out the confection. Rice Krispies treat?

The vagabond kept
to himself, apparently content. Occasionally, the man would pop his head in on
his daily tour, as he had begun to think of it, just to check on him. The
vagabond was passed out every time. He couldn’t help but wonder how he
continued to get high. Drugs run out. Wasn’t that the point? Both of the
vagabond’s arms at the soft, inner crook of his elbow were bruised with a
needle hole that wouldn’t quite close, like a cracked doorway. Once, when the
vagabond was passed out, he went in to make sure he was still breathing. He
was, and murmuring a phrase over and over in his haze: arrived now, now arrived.

The man couldn’t
stop thinking about the phrase. What did it mean to have arrived? Certainly in
all his walking he went places, he was in places, but he didn’t feel as if he
had arrived. To arrive meant a conclusion. To arrive meant to know. And knowing
would be a kind of bliss wouldn’t it? Maybe in that way, the vagabond’s way,
through the bliss, could mean an arrival. Maybe a conclusion.

He made a plan to
sneak in the next time the vagabond was passed out and see what he could find
out, but instead the vagabond walked right up to the man as he was debating. He
didn’t know what to say. How could he explain that he was planning on stealing
his drugs? The vagabond looked vacant, itchy, and far away. Take this, and no matter what I say don’t
give it back.
He pushed a small black bag, like a travel shaving kit, into
his hands. I can’t. I can’t, he said.
And he left and locked himself in room number six. The man looked inside the
bag and every bit of it seemed to shimmer.

The man closed the
bag and made his tour. He’d never used before. The needle loomed in his mind.
What would it be like, if he was able? Would he spiral out? His mother, God
rest her, had always claimed he had an addictive personality. What if she was
right? What if by stepping through this door, there was no going back? He
didn’t believe that, he couldn’t. There had to be a way back. But if he had
truly arrived, would he care?

Every day he
smashed a Rice Krispies treat into a thin pancake, almost like a wafer, and
slid it under the vagabond’s door. He wondered if the vagabond might have died,
but there was no smell. For now that was enough. The man knew that some things
were only conquered alone. 

One night, he took
everything out of the bag and laid it out. All the metal glistened. The needle,
oh-the-needle, was already filled with a mercury-like liquid that danced and
thrummed. It moved as if alive, and as he stared into it, he knew it would
never run out, not ever. Even after he was dead, it would still slowly dance
and thrum, and he thought that knowing this thing, pulling it inside him, would
be to know a small bit of eternity.

It seemed fairly
intuitive – just a prick and press kind of situation. He was scared, sure, but
to arrive, to finally know would be worth it. He made a night tour, and as he
walked by room six he was surprised to find the door cracked. He pushed it
open. The vagabond was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his
hands, but he looked up when the man entered the room. It’s still in me, even though I know it’s not. I can’t get away. Do you
still have it?
The vagabond looked so tired. There were a thousand things
that went through the man’s head and all of them false. And he knew then that
paths only diverge, they don’t end. They splinter like light through a prism.
You could head in the same direction and end up with a very different
trajectory. The man nodded. Come with me.

They started
walking, and were several miles away from the motel when the vagabond asked, why did you put it all the way out here? Did
it help to keep away? Did you use it? Of course you did. So you know, then. You
know that it will never run out.
The man didn’t answer.

After a while,
when it became apparent that they weren’t moving toward his gear the vagabond
asked, where are we going? and kept
looking over his shoulder, looking back, though, now, he couldn’t see the way.
The man still didn’t speak, but he did grab the vagabond’s hand and they kept
walking.




An End of a Start

Picture Credits: pixel2013

And they said they felt they could have had perfection, only coming across each other at the wrong point in life, one always in tow, or just wide of the course toward which they both ultimately tended. It seemed to them so much to lack fairness, like all life had conspired to make it hard, and so near impossible, despite that same life having conspired to bring them together in the first place. They realised too, that the difference between twenty and twenty-eight is far greater than that between thirty and thirty-eight; so were maybe ten years out of kilter with a full and easy life together. He was twenty and still wanted mistakes and failings, the thrill of them, and to not be so fucking serious all the time. To work shit jobs and to rent apartments in the wrong places and fail to get it together for at least a few years, which some part of him felt was grounding. And besides, it was what she had done – gone scrappily through the world on not enough sleep, and done things wrong and enjoyed that she had. At twenty-eight living a 24-hour coffee-enabled life was no longer what she wanted, needed, and yes so what if it was sad, she really did get fucking excited about having a mortgage and going to cavernous outlet stores to buy garden furniture. It wasn’t that her adventuring was over and all the romance drained with it, but that it was merely transposed down to a lower key, deeper and, she felt, more foundational. Yet she still wanted him to be able to tinkle about like a piccolo, and he wanted her to live in that new slower world in which she could better come to grips with her current reality. But as they did not converge they tried forcing it, therefore coming down and coming up to a life in between them of about twenty-four, a neither here nor there which suffered all of the instabilities with none of their dumb excitable hectic joy. He had begun to take his way, and she hers, and though momentarily converging, the two having met would not now join. It was a fixed thing, and you could felt you could bring someone along with you but not move over to them. Not out of something stubborn, or selfish, but the mere matter of what was, and what would be; allowing him to go on fine and part-fulfilled by work which gave him nothing but money; and told her she could never again do something if it weren’t for the love of it. The different points along they had reached meant they were both suited to where they were at. But neither could be suited to what suited the other. And the painful thing, what they couldn’t quite understand and what made it now so frustrating and hard, was that this was nothing to do with them. They couldn’t change, and didn’t need to. They had to come to terms with the fact of being unequal, at this moment at least, and there was no getting around it or making it go away. So he was driving home and tears were stinging his eyes and he couldn’t really see his way forward, and she stayed put with her eyes stung by tears and saw too well, both of them pained by it not working and pained further still by the knowledge it was out of their hands.




Intelligent system

Picture Credits: Edar

Amanda was reading her phone when she stepped off the Tube at the wrong station. She halted in the tiled corridor, far too late, with other commuters filing around her. Where was she? Moorgate? She steadied herself. Ok, fine. That wasn’t so bad. She could walk the difference to Old Street. She was wearing the snug green skirt which wasn’t ideal but her trainers made up for it. Her heels were in her handbag. This was her IS’s recommendation based on weather, means of transport, her body temperature calibrated with her resting metabolic heart rate that morning, and her post-work schedule.

Moving stairs took her up to the real world. London in mid-October. Honey sunshine and the blue pleasure of a childhood sky. Her phone was pinging back to life as she pulled it out to share the observation, maybe an off-the-cuff haiku, but her hand was jittery with some kind of aftershock she couldn’t quite sort. Not yet. In the office with a proper heart rate she would tap it out, maybe increase her rankings as a result. Who knew? She could use the higher altitude. Not that she obsessed over that kind of thing. She had followers but lately it seemed she was putting out more than she was getting back so it would be a good time for some balance. First, though, she needed to sort out her actual direction as she couldn’t tell which way was which, so she faced left and then right before her IS chimed its approval. No need to enter a destination. It had already twigged that she was walking to work.

She made her way along City Road with its mixed complexions of stone and steel, shopfronts glassed into living eyes by reflected sky. Traffic snarling in constricted lanes. Charity workers holding out buckets for donations, a busker playing half-good guitar. She could feel the breathing energy of others as they passed. There was a fullness of being in this movement, this flap and flare. The grain of everything sharpened and brightened, washed to its deepest self. It had been happening lately — these slips into alien empathy, how else could she say it — which at first had seemed quirky and shareable until last weekend when she had paused with the mascara wand raised to her face, staring at what she had always known but not. Within and without at once. She couldn’t be the first person to feel such a thing but she also couldn’t twist it outward to common sense. She was twenty-five years old, actually seven months beyond her birthday and therefore closer to twenty-six than twenty-five which meant she was closer to thirty than she was to twenty, a realisation ringing through her recently. She had shared that one. Mum had read it and thought it was supposed to be funny. But Amanda felt the days escaping from her like air from a balloon and it didn’t seem like a healthy phase of thought.

She carried on toward a bright blush of foliage in the gated park ahead—a cemetery, as it turned out, with mossed gravestones and ragged overgrowth tinged with a stained-glass radiance by the canopy of dying leaves. Ochre and umber, blood cherry and rusty brown. She peered at it through the corroded rails with an urge to linger in the melancholy stillness but she was already late so she thumbnailed it and moved on, feeling the hummingbird weight of her life against all those others. She gave a mental salute of thanks for the perspective. At the next block she passed through a vast scaffolding with bars pad-wrapped at street level and white draperies stirring in the breeze like an angel’s anatomy exposed in a parade. This was the pulse of the world. This was her sense of being alive. And maybe it wasn’t so strange after all. Her phone started twitching in her handbag and it seemed like a wake-up call. She was happening constantly, her existence taking shape in every moment with nothing different about it now if she just stepped back from herself and really thought about what she thought.

#

HocusLocus occupied a loft with polished hardwood floors and timber beams and exposed brick. High windows admitted sunlight all year long but no view of the world below. The desks, twenty of them, mimicked a pattern made by cigarettes Ollie had tossed to the floor in search of a non-hierarchical layout to suit the management methods he had picked up in Silicon Valley. There were small conference rooms branching off the central area for actual conversations. This morning, though, Amanda arrived to find everyone packed into the kitchen with mimosas. She changed out of her trainers before joining them.

‘Power up,’ Ollie said, handing her a flute.

She accepted it carefully. ‘What’s the occasion?’

He smirked and moved on without replying, all mischief and mystery. She held the drink to her nose for the refreshing prickle of it. The flute itself made out of bio-refuse, or so Ollie claimed, though it seemed like ordinary plastic to her. She edged in next to Strawberry Zachary and managed to catch eyes with Hannah who transmitted her opinion by imitating one of the emojis they typically used to communicate across the office within sight of each other. As her face lacked the expressive range and precision of emojis, however, Amanda wasn’t sure if it was a bashful smirk with the tongue-peek to say sorry I beat you to it or the eerie smile with the blah-mouth which meant this was some unpleasant thing we must pretend to enjoy, and while the odds favoured the latter, Amanda didn’t know if the unpleasant thing was the occasion itself or the pseudo-champagne which, knowing Ollie, was Napa Valley ersatz, twice as expensive and half as good—not that it mattered anyway as the taste difference was nullified by the orange juice. In this sense the drink was like Ollie himself. A single year in California had infused his public school breeding with American can-do and sunny self-belief. He was an aggregator, a media entrepreneur and software innovator who had raised millions in venture capital to develop HocusLocus and then millions more in advertising revenue since going live. He wore plain blazers and open-collared shirts with Polynesian profusions of colour, cufflinks with extinct currency symbols in droll honour of the European Union, and heeled patent-leather shoes as a dressy pretence, Amanda suspected, for some extra height. He was square-jawed and raw-boned and insistently attractive. Fortunately he wasn’t Amanda’s type. 

He carved out a spot for himself in the centre of the room and theatrically cleared his throat. ‘Hear ye, hear ye, I’ve kept you all in suspense long enough. Time for the reveal.’ He cued Gavin, who played a trumpet flourish on his phone. ‘Yesterday was our highest traffic volume ever. Three hundred thousand page views, which we hit when?’

Gavin glanced at his screen. ‘7.47 pm.’

‘A tipping point, it’s fair to say. Much as I love Gavin, it didn’t seem right to pop a cork just the two of us last night because you’re the ones who helped made it happen. So here’s to HocusLocus.’ He raised his glass and slipped into his faux-American accent. ‘It’s globally awesome!’

She clicked rims with Strawberry Zachary and, much to her surprise, relished the tangy fizz as a missing ingredient in her bloodstream. At home her IS would read the runes in her saliva and suggest a proper remedy. But here, what the hell, she gulped it down. Her nose filled with gas. Her eyes brimmed. Zach caught sight of it and nearly spat out his drink laughing. She batted him on the arm which was standard operating procedure for him as her brotherly stabilizer. As a web developer he was prized for the fine ergonomic sense of Twister, his popular dating app, along with a bargain-hunter called Bearly and some kind of personal encryptor in progress called DustDevil. His code sequences worked like the notations for chemical compounds that turned out to be either rocket fuel or table salt according to minor blips she could never identify. As her eyes cleared she took a breath and told him about the Tube jolt, downplaying the effect. She found herself getting all wry about it. A good anecdote. No biggie.

‘Really?’ He ran a thumb along the corner of his mouth. ‘That sort of thing puts years on my life. It ages my soul a bit. But not in a bad way. I mean, at first it scares the merde out of me, totally out of proportion, and then I realise it’s an inoculation. A flu jab, right? To build up your resistance.’

‘Resistance to what?’

‘Widgets. Bells and whistles. Bouncing balls.’ He waved a hand vaguely. ‘All these shiny objects.’

‘You’re a Buddhist this morning,’ she said to him.

‘I had Koan for breakfast.’

‘Oh stop jabbing.’

‘No jab. It’s a brand of granola suggested by my IS.’

‘I thought you switched off your IS.’

‘It’s an on-again, off-again sort of relationship.’

‘You don’t get as much out of it that way.’

‘You mean they don’t get as much out of it. Koan is made by Belle Foods, which is a subsidiary of Senserious, which is part of Deville.’

He aimed an expectant look at her, practically counting out loud as he waited for her twig it. At a party he’d go vertical right about now. He ascended into critical fits of passion with little notice and otherwise was a site-specific flamer, as he phrased it. He didn’t mind. He wasn’t hiding any part of his life. He just wasn’t a peacock with his tail feathers spread all the time. He was a web developer who thought about pensions because he believed his whole life was actually going to happen. Amanda needed to glean a bit of that.

‘And Deville owns Telmar,’ she said, ‘which makes the IS.’ 

‘Now you’re seeing through the maya.’

‘And it’s making me dizzy.’

‘That’s not maya. That’s the mimosa. And they both cloud your vision. But what happened on the Tube—that was twenty-twenty.’ He tapped her forehead with his index finger. ‘And clarity hurts, Mandi. Am I right?’

A buzzer sounded on Gavin’s phone—a mock-serious signal that had the double-negative effect of ordering everyone to work with a headmaster’s severity—and he began making his way round the room without appearing to make his way round the room. From the back he could be confused with Ollie, but from the front he was pure Gavin, with wide portal glasses and a beard, a flop of stylish hair, not bad-looking as far as she could tell, peering through it all. She smiled, which he returned as usual. As the room emptied out she turned to Zach, who flicked his empty flute into the bin with a high-handed flourish like a Russian nobleman saluting the Czar. Amanda did the same. Right. He had a way of shrinkwrapping a problem and setting it on the shelf. Onward and upward.

She made her way over to her desk and opened her laptop. As the latest feeds materialized she checked her socials ahead of the weekend. She had been counting on a gap between arrival at the office and actual salaried work to share her Tube experience and also triangulate the contact she had been considering on the train because despite her reservations he had praised her recent string of comments, but the mimosas had put paid to all that. One part alcohol, one part Zach chat. A necessary debriefing, as it turned out. She felt oddly behind now, though. She would need to squeeze it in somewhere. As the feeds came up she caught a bizarre piece about an ice hockey player talking like the Dali Lama or something. This came from where? She lensed it up. Nottingham, of all places. They had an ice hockey team—yes, she remembered those adverts by the uni, not to mention the ice rink near to that pub with generous vodka tonics where she had ended up so many Thursday nights her final year. One time she and some friends got mixed up with fans spilling out of the arena all jerseyed and team-spirited. Compared to football or rugby it seemed like a secret society accidentally released into the streets. 

This particular item had come through a sports blog and then replicated itself across a range of platforms before generating enough viral interest to pique the algorithms of HocusLocus. A minor celebrity had splashed it around. And it had hooks, a high repeat ratio. She opened the text and read. Then she read it again with a mentholated clarity in her eyes the way she spotted a dress across the shop knowing it would fit her before she tried it on. That’s for me. That’s mine. Of course the decision was never really about the dress but the possibilities it offered, the kind of person she could be. And this thing? She wasn’t even sure what the guy was saying. She just thought it was cool, plain and simple, a perk of this job, this life.

#

She had landed the job at HocusLocus after a stint at a corporate shark tank and then, in recovery mode, waiting tables at a high-end restaurant managed by one of her inner socials. The better part of that time had been occupied by running two blogs—one under a pseudonym, the other as her true-blue self—while taking in serious literature and art exhibitions, watching her friends develop their careers, and throwing energy into liaisons that never quite reached escape velocity. Granted, some of those had been one-offs or hook-ups, experimental swipes in a culture devoted to sexual pleasure, but that phase had lasted only a couple of months and she now discounted it heavily when she totted it all up. Meanwhile she had spray-fired her CV at herds of job prospects that suited her notion of how she might make use of her English degree, with no success whatsoever. This was frightening. She didn’t mind waiting tables to make ends meet but she liked to think she was more marketable than that. By the time she interviewed with Ollie and Gavin she was ready to avatar herself as the Queen of Sheba if necessary, but all they wanted was someone to tailor up items with viral potential. Or rather, tailor them down. Trim and hem. She played along. As a kind of field test she was given thirty minutes to scale down a piece about subatomic particles which she managed to recast as an extended metaphor involving bracelets and footballs that sounded cool but didn’t make much sense. Shoddy work. Awkward at best. When it was over she calmly gathered herself up and managed to reach the pavement outside before breaking into tears.

She was hired the next day. Ollie said she had a natural flair for it, on par with her predecessor, an editor called Rebecca who, Amanda later learned, had been sacked for the crime of siphoning off a few of HocusLocus’s discards and incorporating them into her personal blog. Never mind it didn’t harm anyone. Ollie apparently didn’t treat that sort of thing like stealing office supplies. That aside, Amanda had to admit she felt the strange workings of a talent. As an associate editor she digested articles tagged by HocusLocus’s algorithms for use on their websites, planting her recrafted versions to see which ones took hold and multiplied most fruitfully, at which point the most successful ones were tweaked repeatedly until they went viral. Her posts, along with their integrated adverts, were seen by tens of thousands on a daily basis. True, the origins were obscured in the text she produced, but there was a ‘hat tip’ at the bottom linking to the root system she had used which usually ended with, or rather began with, a reputable magazine or academic journal. She worked on sites with the highest traffic—mainly Zinger, their flagship, though she also contributed to Soothsayer, Ad Absurdum, and Deep Six, while colleagues like Hannah worked similarly but in different proportions according to what came through the pipeline. Ollie sampled much of what they produced but spent most of his time tweaking algorithms, occasionally calling in some freelance engineers who hot-desked as close to Hannah as they could get despite her boyfriend’s photo propped like a biohazard sign at the perimeter. And while a small number gravitated Amanda’s way, she found it both flattering and unpleasant because none of them were her type.

Who was her type? Not Ollie, not Gavin, not Zach, and apparently not any of those tech turkeys. These days she favoured prospects with at least the possibility of real development. Her most recent contact had moved up the totem of chat with steampunk ruminations about the various gadgets and gizmos he loved rather than the details of his life. He was ambivalent about digital technology with its invisible workings, inaccessible to those who used it, he said, sealed inside a case. How could we trust something without moving parts? He was a retrofuturist who preferred an alternate version of today’s technology as it was envisaged by the past, with pistons and levers and cogs. But was he an utter misfit? That was the question. A face-to-face on her way home from work confirmed the relative merits of his askance photo but revealed an actual personality so hobbled by his own manifestoes of style and substance that he had closed down ages ago without even realising it, and you couldn’t treat this kind of thing as a fixer-upper. Down the totem he went, nudged from voicemail to text to social posts. No ghosting required. He caught on quickly enough.

It occurred to her, of course, that a single meeting would have made all this clear to her from the outset. It also occurred to her, of course, that if not for her dating profile she never would have met him in the first place. This was one of many contradictions she lived with, particularly as her IS had recently noted a correlation between her online social activity and fluctuations in cortisol and dopamine levels associated with depression. This didn’t make any sense because she enjoyed engaging with others, which seemed to mean that she enjoyed making herself depressed. She had grappled with this one on Nulterior Motives, her anonymous blog, but the vague swarm of likes and approvals were perhaps part of the very problem she was describing. Her straightfoward blog, Well Nigh Impossible, posed an even stranger problem as she began to envy the person who appeared there, as if she were missing out on Amanda Nigh. Unable to resolve it, she had decided instead to counterbalance it with more activity and basic being in her life.

She went running, off and on. She phased in and out of power yogas and super spins and crash-and-burns, most of which she liked well enough, but it all seemed to dissolve in the heat of deadlines or excursions or parties trailing each other until she was always starting over, getting back into shape when it was mythical in the first place, this level of fitness she imagined because she knew she was fighting a losing battle with her body type. Even now her midriff resisted the taut tone she noticed in others who swallowed pastries on a regular basis. The only reason she bothered with running was because her IS insisted it was the best way to raise her basal metabolic rate—and in the morning, no less. Fresh air, rise and shine. The ancient activity of feet on the ground. She enjoyed the outdoor element even though her knees ached afterward, probably due to her inconsistency, the lack of discipline in her stride, or so Strawberry Zachary had said, and frankly the seasonal nature of her activity. Winter drained the colour from her soul. Her fuel cells ran down easily and she needed someone in a warm room with flashing lights to yell at her to keep moving. This usually happened during lunch hour if it happened at all because she simply couldn’t haul herself off the mattress early enough, whereas after work she either lost all volition by the time she Tubed back to Shadwell or else joined a few friends at the pub on an empty stomach and could barely read her own screen as she went rattling home, which was probably for the best given that her IS took one look at her blood sugar and essentially recommended a transfusion. 

IS stood for Intelligence System, a prototype which wasn’t a single app or lens but rather an integration of various custom mappings and attribute transformations into a single functioning network. This was the way it was described, at least, by an associate of Ollie’s who had bestowed it upon HocusLocus’s staff as some kind of divine favour. Hannah eagerly volunteered for the beta test. Zach was wary but offered himself for the benefit of his savoir-faire in the coding world. And for certain proprietary reasons which Gavin was not at liberty to reveal, Amanda qualified to ultra-beta test a model with biochemical interfaces. This required a digital meshing of not only her devices and clouds but also her physical condition as a dataset in itself with its own ranking and stacking algorithms, its own semantic functions, its own rich data. Part of the deal—and, truly, the clincher for her—was a stipend for single-occupancy housing as roommates would have contaminated the data. It had been an elegant excuse to trade an erratic situation in Clapham for a newer flat in Shadwell, cutting not only her interpersonal grievances but also her commute by a considerable margin.

Amanda’s initial misgivings about a system that blended her view-purchase patterns with biochemical data dissolved within the first hour of use. Her IS recommended clothing. It selected meals based on her nutritional needs and the expiry dates of whatever happened to be in the fridge. It notified her of sales at her favourite shops and adjusted her monthly budget and suggested birthday gifts for loved ones and played music suited to her moods as determined by not only her hormonal condition but also facial expressions and vocal pitches, which meant it knew her moods better than she did. These were algorithms keyed to biorhythms, empathic moldings of data. And it reduced the friction of her daily life—the paper cuts of all those little decisions, those little mistakes, those little things you forget. She had firewalled it from Nulterior Motives for a shred of anonymity and her brief experiment with hook-up culture as it was the sort of history she didn’t want to proliferate. She wasn’t ready for omniscience yet. And though she hadn’t tried the verbal interface, and therefore hadn’t selected a voice for it, she was beginning to think of her IS as female. Why not? This was positive discrimination on her part. Objects were gendered in romance languages, after all, which seemed much more honest about the state of things, and Amanda Nigh wanted a different view of herself—Amanda Nigh as seen from the perspective of someone very much like herself, actually, but with more wisdom and detachment. Was that possible? In any case she was avoiding a voice for her IS because she was avoiding a certain kind of commitment. Or maybe involvement. The IS belonged to her as long as she worked at HocusLocus and she didn’t see herself leaving anytime soon even though she didn’t exactly see herself doing this kind of work when she got older. And what exactly was older? She hadn’t squared it yet. There was no almanac for her life. She tasted odd moments here and there like ripe fruit and she told herself it was enough.




Waterlogged

Picture Credits: John Christian Fjellestad

My mother
chose the most inconvenient time of the year to die and I am 99% sure she did
it out of spite. If you knew Mama the way I knew her, you would think the same
thing too. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that just the day before
she departed this earth she left a six-minute voicemail telling me all the ways
I was a disappointment? She always did like having the last word.

When I left
Nigeria, I was determined to leave everything behind. My mother unfortunately
refused to let go. I don’t know how she did it but she always managed to find
me. So I compromised and spoke to her once a year, on her birthday. Though that
didn’t stop her from calling me every few months and cursing me in two
languages.

The day
after she left her colourful voicemail, I woke up to twenty-two missed calls
from an unfamiliar +234 number. Normally, I ignored calls from numbers I didn’t
recognize but twenty-two missed calls in the span of an hour was worrisome. I
called the number back, bracing myself for whoever was on the  line but nothing could have prepared me for
the ear splitting noise that shook my skull.

“They have
done it!” a voiced wailed in lieu of greeting.

“Hello?”

“They have
done it! The witches and wizards have finally done it!” the voice sobbed.

I closed my
eyes and took a calming breath. It had been ten years since I spoke to her and
it seemed Aunty Ebi had still not mastered the fine art of getting to the
point.

“Aunty Ebi,
who has done what?”

“They have
taken my sister. They have killed her, oh!” she lamented. I heard voices in the
background, some crying, some murmuring words of comfort.

“Who has
killed who?”

“My sister.
Your mother. Our enemies have finally succeeded. They have finally killed her!”

It took
some time but her words finally sunk in. After the call, I sat on my orange
couch staring at a muted Judge Judy wondering what was the right thing
to do or feel. I called Papa, curious to know if anyone had told him his
ex-wife had died.

“Tari! My
beautiful girl. How are things?” Papa said, his mouth smacking. He was always
eating something.

“Papa, have
you heard about Mama?”

“What has
that woman done now?” The words came out in a huff but I could hear the
underlying glee. Mama was Papa’s favourite subject. He could spend hours
talking about everything that was wrong with her.

“Mama has
died,” I said.

There was
silence. Then a gurgling sound came down the line. Soft at first, before
gaining momentum and shifting into a deep belly laugh. “I told you! I told you
I serve a living God. No weapon fashioned against me shall prosper. I knew
Jehovah would deal with my enemies.”

Why these
enemies could not have waited a little bit longer, I did not know. It was tax
season, the busiest season at my accounting firm and I knew asking for time off
was going to hurt my chances of getting the promotion I had been eyeing.

I
contemplated not going back home. I took the time to make a list of the pros
and cons of attending Mama’s funeral. In the end, I had eight bullet points for
the cons and zero for the pros.

Still, I found myself packing my bags and booking a
ticket. Familial bonds always have a way of finding you and dragging you back
home.

*

Hopelessness
was odourless but it had a physical presence. It got under your skin, invaded
your senses and weighed you down. I learnt that as a child and I learnt it
again standing in the morgue holding a lantern over Mama’s dead body. The
morgue was in a windowless room at the back of a small crumbling brown building
behind the main hospital. The walls, painted a doleful shade of beige, were
scuffed and peeling. It was obvious I was in death’s home.

I peered
down at Mama’s lifeless body. They said it was a cardiac arrest in the middle
of the night. Her body was found the next morning when a curious Aunty Ebi went
to find out why her sister had not made it to their church meeting. Mama left
this earth alone and probably terrified. Did she know she was about to die? Did
she have any regrets in her last moments? Did she think about me? Out of all
the questions I had, it was the last one that kept me up at night.

Death was a
strange thing. Mama had been so alive, so full of fire and vitriol. Her
emotions rolled off her, heavy and uncontainable. Whatever she felt, everyone
in her vicinity felt too. Now everything that made Mama Mama was gone. All that life, reduced to a still mass of flesh. The
lines on Mama’s face didn’t seem as rigid and as uncompromising as they did
when she was alive. She didn’t even look that dead. Yes, she was extremely pale
and she had two cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils but she didn’t look dead dead. Her dull skin made her round
nose, full lips and wide forehead look even more prominent. I knew that now
when I dreamt of her, I would see this pale face and I had never been more
grateful that I looked like Papa. Mama had a frown I thought death would have
smoothed out, but it appeared I was wrong. Even in death she looked angry. Mama
was always angry. Angry at me, angry at Papa, angry at her in-laws, angry at
the market women. I never bothered to figure out the source of her anger. I
spent a good part of my life running away from it. Until I got to a certain age
and decided to turn around and face it head on. I looked it in the face and
prodded it, taunting its volatility. I hadn’t cared to understand Mama and now
I never could. I wasn’t deeply troubled about that and I couldn’t help but
wonder if I should be.

“Stop
shaking,” the old man who was slicing Mama open said.

I gritted
my teeth and stopped myself from saying something. I was too jet-lagged and I
didn’t want to get into an argument with the man who was currently embalming my
mother’s body. The hospital staff were on strike and that included the
mortician. My relatives had arranged for the old man from the village to embalm
Mama’s body the traditional way and get her ready for transport. I volunteered
to point out Mama’s body, thinking it would be a quick detour away from my
relative’s judgmental eyes, but the hospital had no light and the morgue had no
windows and that was how I found myself holding up a lantern so the old man
with yellow teeth and a missing ear could do whatever it was that dead bodies
required.

I hadn’t
planned on standing over Mama’s body. If I had known, I would not have stuffed
my face with puff puff that Aunty Ebi had made, because now that puff puff was
churning in my belly, trying to find its way up my throat. I just wanted a
reason to get away from the scrutiny of the relatives that I hadn’t seen in
years. They had all looked at me with either curiosity or scorn, because I was
the girl who betrayed her mother by choosing to live with her father. It wasn’t
my fault Papa caught Mama cheating on him in their marital bed. It wasn’t my
fault Papa had thrown Mama out of the house and promptly married his mistress.
I was nine years old and clueless about the details of their broken marriage. I
didn’t understand the intricate family politics involved or the effects my
choice would have. Though, if I did, I probably would have still chosen Papa,
simply because Papa was easier to live with.

My arm
shook and I shifted the lantern to my other hand. “How long is this going to
take?” I asked the old man. He frowned at me but said nothing. I wasn’t even
sure if we were allowed to be here but the security guard at the gate hadn’t
said anything when we walked in.

I looked
away from Mama’s body, but there was no safe place to rest my eyes. Death was
everywhere. The morgue was overflowing; bodies were piled on top of other
bodies. Bags of melting ice had been placed on and around the bodies and I
hoped whoever placed them there would remember to come back and replace it.

*

“You want
groundnut?” Mr Oke asked, pouring a handful of groundnut unto his palm and
holding it out to me.

I looked
down at his hands, the same hands that had held his penis just moments before
and I couldn’t suppress a shudder. “No, thank you.”

He shrugged
before tossing the groundnut into his mouth. Mr Oke was a wiry man with a
patchy beard. He smelled like baby powder and hummed in tune to the radio as he
drove. He didn’t make unnecessary small talk or play obnoxiously loud music.
You would think all this would add up to a good road trip. It was anything but.
I looked down at my watch and barely restrained myself from banging my head
against the dashboard. Mr Oke looked like he was in his forties but apparently
he had the bladder of a man in his nineties. In two hours we had stopped eleven
times, so he could relieve himself on the side of the road. Two of the eleven
times, he went deeper into the bush and was gone for a while, so I suspected he
did more than take a piss. I tried not to think about the fact that he didn’t
take tissue paper with him.

Things were
not going how I expected. I should have asked questions before I got on the
plane. I should have reminded myself that things never go according to plan
when family is involved. Apparently, Mama told Aunty Ebi she wanted to be
buried in her village, the place she was born, instead of the city where she
spent most of her life. Even in death, Mama had to be difficult.

It was the
peak of rainy season. Driving from Port Harcourt to Bayelsa on muddy, potholed
roads while sporadic thunderstorms battered the rusty hearse was not an ideal
situation. I leaned my head against the window, trying not to think of Mama’s
body bouncing around in the coffin at the back of the hearse.

Somehow, I
was once again stuck with Mama’s body. It was as if her soul was trying to
taunt me. I was being forced to spend time with her that I had denied her when
she was alive. Aunty Ebi had guilt tripped me into accompanying the corpse. Since you are not involved in the planning,
the least you can do for the mother who brought you into this world is escort
her body to its final resting place
, she’d said. How could I argue with
that without lowering the already low opinion they had of me? They were already
upset with me for coming back from America empty handed. You would think that
my mother dying would be a good enough excuse as to why I forgot to bring
gifts, but apparently it wasn’t.

“We’re
here,” Mr Oke said, five hours into our journey.

“What?” I asked, looking out the window. We were parked a few feet from a small wooden dock that was so withered it was a wonder the storms hadn’t washed it away. Canoes, rowboats and motorboats, all in various states of disrepair, littered the river bank.

Mr Oke
pointed to the row of rickety boats. “The main road is underwater. You have to
use the river.”

*

The okada
stopped in front of a small red bungalow with a green corrugated roof. I had
never been to my grandfather’s house but I knew I was in the right place
because I could hear Aunty Ebi shouting. The okada man set my hand luggage on
the ground. I would have been impressed that he had driven a motorbike while
balancing luggage between his chest and the handlebars, but I had once seen a
man riding an okada with two goats strapped to his body. I paid him and watched
him drive off, a part of me wishing I could hop back on and drive off with him.
I dragged my hand luggage on the wet ground, past the point of caring about the
mud that splattered against the wheels and speckled the hem of my jeans.

The sun had
retired and only the soft glow of a lantern highlighted the face of a young
girl who sat by a tree in front of the bungalow. A silver tray was balanced on
her knees and she hummed to herself as she sorted beans. She didn’t look up as
I approached.

“Why are
they shouting?” I asked the girl. I wasn’t sure who she was but if she was on
my family’s property she was probably related to me in some way.

“They’re
making arrangements for the burial rites,” she said, her eyes still focused on
the beans.

“Jesus
Christ. I can’t wait for this burial, so I can go home,” I said, more to myself
than to her. I was cold, my clothes were damp and my skin felt sticky. It had
not been a good day.

The girl
finally looked up at me. “You’re Auntie’s daughter? The one that lives in
America?”

I nodded.

She
frowned. “You’re going to be here for the next month?”

“No. I’m
leaving once the burial is over.”

Her
eyebrows pulled together and lines that were too deep for someone her age
appeared on her forehead. “It’s rainy season. The soil is too soft and
waterlogged. Nothing can be buried for at least the next month.”

My legs
almost gave out. “Next month? Why didn’t anybody tell me that? What am I here
for?”

She
shrugged and went back to sorting her beans.

I felt the
change happen. I felt the frustration that bubbled under my skin boil over and
turn to anger. There was only so much a person could be expected to endure.
After waiting for thirty minutes for a boat big enough to carry a coffin to
arrive at the dock, Mother Nature decided to be a bitch and open up the sky. I
spent the entire boat ride scooping rainwater out of the boat so we wouldn’t
sink. That was soon followed by an hour haggling with two men over keeping the
coffin in the village mortuary. One of the idiots actually suggested I take the
coffin home with me, since the body was already embalmed. I had never been so
close to slapping a person.

I was tired,
wet and I could swear the smell of death had slid under my skin and taken
residence in my soul. All that wahala for a burial that wasn’t even happening
for another month. I marched towards to house, indignation propelling my feet,
rage directing my movement. I slammed the door open, “Aunty Ebi, why—”

A hand
snatched my wrist, distracting me from my mission and cutting me off.

“This child
came all the way from America to bury her mother, you will refuse her?” Aunty
Ebi cried out, wrapping her arms around me. “Has this orphan not suffered
enough?”

I stared at
Aunty Ebi, both impressed with her theatrics and extremely confused.

 “Ebi, we have told you. Things have to be done
a certain way. You cannot just come from the city and demand our land,” an
elderly woman said.

I was in a
small living room, surrounded by weathered faces and wrinkled skin. Three men
and one woman who looked like their days were numbered sat on a tattered floral
sectional that was in serious need of reupholstering.

“My
sister’s last wish was to be buried with her parents. Uncle Peter, are you
going to deny your niece her final resting place?”

The man she
called Uncle Peter sighed. It seemed he was impervious to the guilt trip that
worked so well on me. They spoke in Izon. It had been years since I had spoken
the language, so there was a bit of a delay as my brain tried to translate but
I got the gist of it.

As I
watched the back and forth, my anger shrivelled and burnt out and in its place
a bone-deep weariness took hold.

“What do you
need from us?” I finally asked. My words unfurling haltingly in my mother
tongue. I had been gone for some time but I still knew how these things worked.
We wanted something from them and they wanted something from us in return.

Aunty Ebi
pinched me slyly. I stepped away from her. If we did things her way, we would
argue until the sun rose, then set, then rose again.

“We will
give you a list,” Uncle Peter said.

“Okay. I’ll
go back into town and get everything tomorrow,” I said.

*

1 goat
2 bags of rice
2 crates of Fanta
2 crates of Coke
3 chickens
4 crates of eggs
10 bottles of hot drinks
20 tubers of yam

I adjusted
the travel pillow around my neck and shifted in my seat, trying to get
comfortable. Reading the list one more time, I wondered how they had come up
with it, how all these items equaled a hole in the ground for Mama’s body. I
reached for my bag and put my phone on airplane mode, ignoring the fourteen
missed calls from Aunty Ebi. In a day or two they would realize that I wasn’t
coming back and maybe the calls would stop. They could bury Mama by themselves.




The Orphanage

In her corner office, Sister Modesta Cuma opens a notebook and considers a list of boys and girls under her care. She knows the story behind each name.

Lucera, 10. Mentally disabled.
Lives in her own world. Here five years.

As
director of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, a Catholic orphanage for HIV-positive
children, Sister Modesta is responsible for forty-five youngsters ranging in
age from a few days to fifteen years old. The orphanage stands beside a dirt
and stone road that wends through a dense jungle of leafy trees in the village
of Sumpango, about fifty miles outside Guatemala City, Guatemala, and near the
town of Antigua, once Guatemala’s capital and now a popular tourist
destination. Nuns with the order of Small Apostles of Redemption care for the children
behind high walls that shut off the trees and the road and the noise of traffic
converging on Antigua. Within the compound an orderly world of classrooms,
dormitories, a chapel, and a playground, replete with basketball court, swing
sets and slides provide an alternative universe of calm and safety in which
nuns occupy the roles of parent, teacher and protector.

Fernando, 8. Both of his parents are addicts. He has absorbed all of their problems. When he started walking, he would throw himself against walls. He couldn’t be left alone. His parents are now dead. They lived in Zone 18, one of the worst neighborhoods in Guatemala. Fernando’s uncle was shot. He’s hiding somewhere. Drugs, violence, gangs. It’s in his blood.

Sometimes,
when a mother visits the orphanage, her son or daughter does not recognize her.
The child cries and the mother gets angry. She doesn’t understand that the nuns
have replaced her.

Gustavo Ramirez, 11. He has no
family other than an aunt but she rarely visits. Just recently, however, she
took him for a few days.

All
the children were born out of tragedy. More often than not, their mothers
became pregnant after having sex with an HIV-infected man. Some of them worked
as prostitutes. Others were raped. Still others injected drugs with dirty
needles and continued using after they were pregnant. Then doctors and police
get involved. Then the courts refer the children to Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.  

Despite
having the HIV virus, the children impress visitors with their joy and laughter
so much so that a few visitors leave refusing to believe the children have any
health issues at all. However, Sister Modesta knows better. A three-year-old
died in 2014. He was so sick when he arrived that no amount of medication could
save him. The children of Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello live with the threat of
death every day.

Ignacio Bachub, 14. Came to the
orphanage when he was eight years old. He has an uncle in the U.S. but no close
relatives in Guatemala.

Sister
Modesta could never have anticipated that her life would lead here when, as a twelve-year-old,
she told the nuns in her hometown of Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala, that she
wanted to join the church. She had been impressed by their stories of traveling
to Africa and other faraway countries. Many of her teachers had degrees in
medicine, economics and other professions. Their knowledge impressed her.
Unlike her mother, they could read.

The
nuns told her she would not understand the call to Christ until she turned eighteen.
Sister Modesta, however, was undeterred. How much does a habit cost? she
demanded. It’s expensive, they told her. Too much for a twelve-year-old. Still
she persisted. Because of her commitment, or stubborn persistence – she
can’t be sure which, although she leans toward the latter – the
nuns relented and she began her studies to live a religious life in 1982 when
she was seventeen. As a novice, Sister Modesta worked in Colombia and later in
El Salvador. She also earned a nursing degree. In 2015, she was assigned to
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.                  

Abimael Chilisna, 11. He is
allowed overnight visits with his family. However, they forget to give him his
medicine or feed him a proper diet. They work all the time and leave him alone.
When they return him to the orphanage, Abimael won’t take his medicine. His
family didn’t make him take it, so why should he take it now? he asks. The courts have
been informed of the problem. The next time his family asks for him, the courts
will decide whether he goes or not.

Every
year, Sister Modesta knows, a child will leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello. Their
families take them back. The courts transfer them to another facility. They
turn eighteen and are no longer considered children. The sisters hope God will
help them. They pray that the children get through the difficulties of entering
into a world far different from the one they’ve known here.

Heidy Herrera. There are some
things about her life she does not know. She does not remember her mother and
that is probably a blessing. When her mother learned Heidy was HIV- positive,
she locked her in a cage inside the house. Her older siblings took her to her
grandmother’s house and then called the police on their own mother. The courts
placed her here. Her grandmother and uncle visit but not often.

Sister
Modesta closes her notebook, digs into the pockets of her vest to warm her
hands, and sighs. Discharges can end badly. Recently a girl left and began
dating a bad boy and they eloped. Her grades went down. She stopped attending
school and taking her medicine. Eighteen years old. Gone, never heard from
again. Sister Modesta still prays for her.

*

The playground at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.

Heidy
Herrera sits alone on steps that lead into the playground and watches a handful
of children shooting hoops. Their shadows climb walls, shrinking and expanding
as they run. Heidy pulls a sweater around her shoulders against the evening
damp air and the far-off reverberations of thunder. She does not know her age.
The nuns have told her she is fifteen and she accepts that but because she did
not know herself she doesn’t know how to feel about it. She knows she’s getting
older and that she can’t live at the orphanage forever. She does not remember
when she came here, or who brought her. She got really sick while she lived
with her grandmother, or so she’s been told. Her grandmother didn’t understand
the problem. Then the police took her to a hospital where she received tests
and then she ended up here. Her earliest memories belong here.

Heidy
understands HIV can’t be cured but with the right treatment she can live a
normal life. Without medicine, she understands HIV would develop into AIDS. She
feels at ease, tranquil about her diagnosis. She can live with it. She has for
a long time. She is the oldest child in the orphanage. She knows the time for
leaving nears. Thoughts about her future preoccupy her. Her older sisters have
agreed to take her in but they live far from Sumpango. The nuns are her family.
Will she see them again? She does not think so and the thought saddens her and
her eyes well with tears.

She
remembers an older boy who moved out. He was eighteen. He was friends with
everybody. All the children were sad to see him go. When he visits he plays
with everybody. He lives far away and doesn’t come often. When he goes, it
feels like the first time he left.

 Nuns also leave. At the end of each year one or two get new assignments. Sister Sandra Flores left in 2014. She took care of all the kids and was really affectionate and playful. Every now and then she drops by and Heidy embraces and holds onto her until she gently pulls her arms away. It seems to Heidy it’s always her favorite people who go. She gets nervous at the end of each year wondering who will tell her goodbye.

*

Sister Flor Ramirez, a teacher at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello.

Sister Maria Chub stops by the clinic to look in on two infants: Kendel, eighteen months old, has a heart condition and doesn’t gain weight. Selvin, eight months old, came to the orphanage because his HIV-positive mother refused to seek medical treatment for herself and him. She fed Selvin water and nothing else. He was horribly malnourished when he arrived.

Sister
Maria sees love in the faces of the mothers who visit their babies but in most
cases they continue living the life that got them sick. Sister Maria doesn’t
judge. These mothers must eat. They are poor and care for themselves in any way
they can. If you don’t feed the body, you can’t feed the spirit, she reminds
herself.  

Still,
she gets angry. One year, the mother of an infant boy Sister Maria had grown
very fond of appealed the court order that had removed him to the orphanage.
The mother got the boy back but did not give him his HIV medicine. The boy got
sick and the court returned him to the orphanage. His mother appealed again and
won. This time she gave him his medicine but it was no longer effective because
he had gone without it for so long. Doctors said he needed stronger drugs
unavailable in Guatemala. The boy died. Just five months old.

The boy’s death broke Sister Maria’s heart. Her anger at the mother knew no limits even with prayer. The mother had an opportunity to help her son but chose not to. The boy looked normal but he was sick inside. Had he been allowed to stay at the orphanage he would have received his medication. He was family. He was so cheerful despite being sick. He really liked it here but his mother wanted him. He was so small. He cried when he left. All Sister Maria can do is pray for his soul now. She weeps with fury and frustration and asks God’s forgiveness of the boy’s mother and herself.

Sister Modesta Cuma, principal at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello .

*

Twenty-three-year-old
Floridalma Perez sits in a park about a mile from Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello,
where she once lived and now volunteers. She watches her three-year-old son,
Alex, play on a slide. Men and women walk in and out of a convenience store
nearby. Discarded bags of chips blow in the wind and Alex picks up one and
Floridalma tells him to drop it. The wind carries it away beneath a gray sky
warning of rain.

—Be
careful on the slide, she cautions him.

When
Floridalma was five years old, her mother died. Her father sexually abused her
for many years and infected her with HIV. She told her older siblings about the
abuse but no one believed her.

When
she started getting sick, her father left her at a hospital. The hospital staff
contacted the police and she was referred to the orphanage in 2006. She was thirteen.
She never saw her father again until she turned twenty-one when he asked for
her forgiveness.

—No,
you have destroyed my life, she told him.

At
Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello no one told her she was HIV-positive until she turned
seventeen. Until then, she took medicine but never understood its purpose.
Perhaps the nuns thought she wouldn’t understand.

At
eighteen, she left to live with an uncle in San Marcos, Guatemala, where she
was born. However, he didn’t want her to stay with him so she rented a room and
worked as a maid in a wealthy man’s house. He raped her and she became pregnant
with Alex. When she told him, he said, Go away. She doesn’t know if she
infected him with HIV. She didn’t know then that HIV was transmittable through
sex. The sisters had never discussed sex with her.

When
she was seven months pregnant, Floridalma called the orphanage and told the
nuns what had happened. They invited her to return and put her on medication.
She stayed at the orphanage until Alex was born free of HIV. Thank God he is
healthy, she often tells herself, thank God. She rents a room near the park
now. The nuns continue to give her food and medication.

Floridalma
wonders, Why is there so much suffering? She worries for the children when they
leave Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello and face a world so different from the one
they’ve known. She says, Hi, how are you? and the children smile a greeting in
return. She doesn’t have a relationship with any of them or with anyone else
for that matter other than her son. She wants him to stay healthy. She wants
him to have the childhood she didn’t.

*

Daily Schedule:

5:30
a.m. wake up, administer medication

7:00
a.m. breakfast

8:30
a.m.–2:45 p.m. school

1:00
p.m. lunch

1:30
p.m.–4:00 p.m. homework, chores

4:00
p.m.–5:00 p.m. recess

5
p.m.–6 p.m. church

6
:00 p.m. dinner

8:00
p.m. bedtime

*

Sister
Aleja Ocox paces the playground as she presides over recess. She took her vows
in 2001 at the age of nineteen. She can’t say why exactly other than she
attended parochial school and, besides her parents, knew only nuns as a child.
As a young woman, her options were limited: join the church or get married. She
knew no boy she wanted to marry so she decided to enter the religious life.

On
this evening, she watches two boys chasing one another in a game of tag. They
both have kidney problems as a result of HIV. One of them, eight-year-old
Fernando, has lived here since he was a baby. He does not remember his
drug-addicted mother. He puzzles Sister Aleja. He steals from the other
children. Why is he like this? Perhaps because his mother was a drug addict and
Fernando was born with crack cocaine in his blood. He sees a psychologist once
a week. He can turn violent. He gets very aggressive and then calms down.
Sister Aleja doesn’t know what to think of him.

Sister
Aleja worked at the orphanage in 2006, was transferred to another orphanage and
then returned in 2014. When she was here the first time, the orphanage didn’t
have a clinic. If a child got sick, they had to be driven to Roosevelt
Hospital, the public hospital in Guatemala City, more than an hour a way. The
clinic has been a big help. Now, if a child falls or gets hurt in some minor
way, they have a place to go within the orphanage. Poor things. They panic so
if they bruise themselves. Sometimes even Sister Aleja panics. The slightest
thing, even a sneeze, makes her worry they might get sick and die.

Sister
Aleja especially keeps an eye on the little ones. She reminds them to take their
medicine before they go to bed. Don’t catch cold, she warns them, don’t get
wet. When the colder weather comes, wear a sweater. She worries all the time.
Please God, let them stay healthy.

About
once a week, Sister Aleja drives a van full of boys and girls from the
orphanage to Roosevelt Hospital for routine checkups. She awakens the children
at four in the morning so they can make their seven o’clock appointment. She
maneuvers through the congested traffic of the capital with the impatience of a
seasoned commuter. The gray-stone hospital rises above a parking lot filled
with beggars and fruit vendors. Sister Aleja parks and hurries the children to
the front doors, passes a security guard, and follows a hall that takes her to
a row of examination rooms. She registers the children with a receptionist and
then herds them together as she finds chairs for them all. They wait until
Sister Aleja hears her name called. Standing, she takes the children to a bare
room with charts of the human body tacked on the wall. A nurse seated behind a
desk beckons each child forward.

Angelica,
12: Pointing to a spot on her left arm, she tells the nurse she knows where her
good vein is to draw blood. Steady, the nurse tells her, so I hit the vein the
first time. The last time I didn’t need lab work, but today it’s my turn,
Angelica reminds her. The nurse nods as she inserts the needle. When she
finishes, she asks Angelica to stand on a scale. She is still underweight, the
nurse tells Sister Aleja, but she has always been a little underweight. Her cholesterol was high the last time
we ran blood. Is she eating oatmeal to lower it? Yes, but she doesn’t
like it, Sister Aleja says.

Nelson,
9: The nurse measures his waist, biceps and arm length and checks his weight.
He watches her as she adjusts the scale. Look, up, look straight ahead, the
nurse tells him. He gained two pounds since his last visit and grew 1.2
centimeters, she comments. How have you been behaving? she asks him. You have a
look like you’ve been misbehaving. He giggles. She considers his chart. Viral
load untraceable, good. White blood cells normal. Kidney, liver very well. Have
you been sick? No. You’re so quiet, guapo.
Why don’t
you say anything? He smiles.

Josue,
9: He gained two pounds since his last checkup and now weighs fifty-five
pounds. He grew one centimeter. Has he been ill? the nurse asks. No, Sister
Aleja says. He’s gained weight, the nurse continues, that’s good. White blood
cells normal, but his fatty acids are up. Give him Omega 3.

After the children have been examined, the older ones who know what it means to be HIV-positive meet with a counselor. The counselor tells them they’ll be OK if they take their medicine. You have limitations but do the best you can with the life you have. Give an example of how you can respect yourself. Do you brush your teeth, shower, eat every day? Yes, a boy answers. Those are things we can do to show our bodies respect and love, the counselor says. Every day you should do something that shows you love yourself. Every day, the boys says, I drink water. Good. What else? I take my medicine. Yes, the counselor agrees, that’s also good. If you take your medicine every day, you’ll be OK. From your blood work, I can see your medicine is working. How does the medicine help you? It doesn’t let the virus hurt me, the boy replies. What’s the difference between contracting and transmitting? If I use a needle, he says, I’ll contract it. If someone sneezes will you contract? the counselor asks. No, the boy replies. If you share a cup of water? No. What about sexual relations? Yes, the boys says, unless I use a condom. Very good, the counselor says.

Sister Modesta Cuma in the orphanage clinic.

*

Dreams.

Gustavo
Ramirez: I dream about my family. I dream about going home and spending
Christmas with them. In my dream I see my family. Everyone is happy.

Abimael
Chilisna: I dream of being with my family. They come and pick me up and take me
to swimming pools. I feel sad about leaving. I’ll leave my friends. All my
friends are here but I’m a little happy because I’ll be with my family.

Floridalma
Perez: I have dreams for my son. I want him to have what I didn’t. I know this
will be difficult because I still don’t have what I want him to have, a home
and safety. I don’t have dreams for myself. I have nightmares. One positive
dream out every ten nightmares. The good dreams are of a life that is not
difficult but once I wake up everything falls away. My nightmares are all
related to accidents, car crashes or in a bus. I’m afraid of something
happening to my son and me.

Heidy
Herrera: I dream of living a normal life without medicine.

*

Social
studies class. Third- and fourth-graders.

Today’s
lesson: de la violencia a la paz. Violence versus peace.

—Take
out your notebooks, Sister Modesta tells the class of eight- and
nine-year-olds. The boys and girls shift in their chairs, rummaging through
shoulder packs, rocking the small desks on the concrete floor and the damp air
made damper from a lingering morning fog clings to the room and the children
rub goosebumps from their arms.

—Give
me some examples of violence, Sister Modesta tells the class.

—If
one boy punches another boy.

—If
one boy says I’m better than you that is violence.

—If
siblings fight for the love of the mother.

—One
at a time, Sister Modesta says.

—When
they drink, people become violent.

—Brothers
and sisters fight for the love of their mother.

Sister Modesta writes their comments on the board. She has chosen this topic because she knows some of the mothers of these children were raped. The children themselves have experienced physical abuse and social exclusion. She wants them to see this behavior as wrong and not repeat it themselves when they become adults.

Sister Modesta Cuma.

*

After
class, Ignacio Bachub approaches Sister Modesta.

—I’d
like to be a chef, he tells her.

—Whatever
makes you happy, she encourages.

Maybe a chef working in one of Antigua’s many restaurants would come and talk to him, she thinks. Perhaps even apprentice him. Why not? These children should be loved as much as anyone and have the same opportunities. They complain that they’re not like other boys and girls. Don’t feel dejected, she tells them. You will outgrow these disappointments, but she doesn’t know if she believes that. With each child she feels the vulnerability of her ignorance of God’s will. She prays for their health and welfare and then waits as uncertain as the children under her care for what the future holds.

The medicine cabinet at Hogar Madre Anna Vitiello, an orphanage for HIV-infected children in Sumpango, Guatemala.




Saving Grace

Picture Credits: Couleur

Grace, a celebrated actor, sat on her
chair in readiness for an interview. She was startled when she saw a huge spider
hovering by the window. But instead of screaming she got up and lifted the
catch. The spider darted through the open gap. Which made Grace feel good about
being so in control. She asked herself what was her worst spider experience. And
came up with the following:

That time when she and her friend Jayne
were nine years old and a spider ran out of the old metal teapot in the shed
when they kicked it over. Because they were playing how to dance like a
monkey.
  Their favourite game. As
they swung low then high their feet crashed into the pot on a flimsy shelf. The
spider fled and the two screeched in terror. Grace’s mother was busy clearing
the shed and she looked a tad put out. She said later that was the moment when
Grace learned to be frightened of spiders. And insisted Grace caught the fear
from Jayne. So where had Jayne caught it from, Grace wondered?  But how could you catch fear anyway, she said
to herself. It wasn’t a disease. Actually, that wasn’t the worst spider
experience because Grace and Jayne were frightened-and-screeching together. And
there was a bit of fun in that. Also, Grace’s mother liked spiders and said
they were good and got rid of flies and helped to keep things clean. So there
was a bit of comfort to be had as well.

What about when she lived in the dusty
cottage with Jake, her then boyfriend? A spider rose on rear legs right next to
them, as though delivering a warning that it was about to attack. But this was
not the worst experience either because love was mixed in with everything else
that happened then, even that.

Well, there was that other incident. A
spider had unexpectedly concealed itself under a cloth and Grace had caught sight of it when
she’d lifted up the corner. She hadn’t been able to stop shuddering.  It was hairy, and so angular. No, because,
she was softened by seeing the creature had eyes.

Then there was the time this spider ran down a curtain and Grace’s partner Mick caught it to put out in the garden. But it bit his hand hard and he killed it by accident in the shock of the moment. And that was very sad. But no, because it was dead and gone so there was a bit of relief for her in that.

Or when, all furry in its netty corner
of the kitchen in her new friend Bill’s house, a spider bobbed and leapt up
over and over. But even though she couldn’t help seeing its roving shadow
inside the tacky web Grace felt this sudden rush of warmth. Because she was
sure it wasn’t about to come out of its cosy nest. Which meant that she was safe.

But it had really got to be the
occasion that Grace stepped out of the bath and got her towel from behind the
washbasin. She’d glanced sideways and seen something running up her bare
shoulder. At the same time this was reflected in the bathroom mirror. It was
the biggest spider ever. So this just had to be the very worst experience.
Grace was hunched forwards yet with her shoulders jerking backwards. And she
couldn’t help repeating this awkward movement even though the spider had run
away by then. In fact she found she was unable to stop. Months later, whenever
she told other people what she’d gone through she’d still kept on reproducing
the way she had expressed her horror. Which was as often as she had an
audience. Because there was something in her that needed to tell everyone and
to make the perfect actions to go with the tale. And with every time she told
them there was a reduction in her own bad feeling as it seeped further and
further into the performance itself. So still no. No! Because that was how she
learned to act.




An Internet of Fungal Threads

Picture Credits: cocoparisienne

EXT. BALCONY – DAY

In a perfect world, Simon’s face and foppish Hugh Grant hair would have been in the pile of headshots on my desk. I would have cast him as Sensible Love Interest: a face that audiences would understand our female lead dumping very early on, maybe even in the opening scene, in order to seek broader horizons.

His face indicated – what we call it in the industry – a potato personality. Square-jawed and attractive in a familiar sense, but bland and unresponsive upon prodding.

Instead of on my desk, though, he would be downstairs in the shared courtyard of our building, locking his bike noisily to the metal gate that runs around the pool. He did that so loud and fast, every night, as if in a mild panic, like he was desperate to pee. I was sure the excessive clanking was for me, so that I could emerge like a thirsty Pavlov’s dog to a bell, hose in hand, all bare shoulders and wine glass, to water the plants on my balcony. I turned the hose up to full power and hastily overflowed my pots, so when he was still struggling with his key in the door underneath me, I could lean over say, ‘Oops, don’t want you getting wet down there.’

And he would always respond like such a potato, smiling nervously and doubling down on his efforts to get into his apartment as quickly as possible. 

I could have climbed that man like a tree.

My colleague Len prefered it when I left the subject of Downstairs Neighbour I Want to Bone right alone. He just told me to get back to Bank Teller #2 and Shocked Passerby #3. In our low-ceilinged beige office we sat, the stems of two decorative palm trees visible out the window. The palm trees meant I didn’t have to make eye contact with men on their breaks, sitting in the driver’s seat of their cars in the strip-mall parking lot, quietly unwrapping greasy burgers like a daily practice of reverse origami. When lunchtime came, I walked past the rows of solitary people eating in their cars, unwrapping their white bread bundles, looking at their phones. Starved of something and trying to get fed.

On our screens, we flipped through face after digital face, pose after pose. My favourites were hand on hip sultry and over the shoulder sincerity. I simply wouldn’t abide a humorous shrug of the shoulders, or any wacky-eyebrowed impresarios.

‘You’ve never even had a conversation with the guy Lou.’

‘But I know faces Len.’

‘You do know faces.’

‘That’s a face I could look at. For a long time. He’s even a little exotic, like British or something.’

I decided not to mention his Hugh Grant hair to Len. Len has the hair of a professional video game player.

‘Maybe I could cast him as the lead in my project.’

‘You don’t have a project.’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘You’re writing a script about the tree internet.’ Len’s voice tightened.

‘Technically you are wrong, because I am not writing it yet, I’m still in the research phase. But we already have a working title: An Internet of Fungal Threads.’

‘Who is ‘we’?’

Len looked at me the same way he always looked at me when I talked about my film, like it was unrealistically ambitious for someone who casts extras to pitch a project to Hollywood execs about the way that trees communicate underground, silently and invisibly, via a giant interconnected web of fungus.

‘Just me.’ I responded quietly.

I had discovered this idea on the human internet, in a viral video that appeared in my feed. I liked it so much I shared it again on my own feed, and as I clicked the button I imagined sending the images and words forth like fungal spores, to germinate and prosper.

This is how the trees worked: their roots go down into the earth and then connect to tiny fungal threads that stretch on for miles and miles. They send messages to each other, they know when one is sick and send each other nutrients. When one dies, they can share what health they have left with other plants. When a new sapling comes up in a place without the sunlight it needs, the older trees can help it survive. When one is attacked by enemy aphids, it sends messages to its neighbours, tells them what is killing it, warning them to produce chemicals to protect them from the same fate.

They are always talking even if they seem mute to us. They are not alone even if they seem lonely to us. I drank this idea up.

‘It’s a feel good story about the benevolence of trees Len, what’s not to love? I already got one call about it, when it was still called Tree Story.’

‘Was it because they thought it has something to do with Toy Story?’

Len could shut up. Fuck Len.

INT. BEDROOM – MORNING

I don’t know why I kept fucking Len.

I woke to the sun on my closed eyelids, my vision pink, embryonic and veiny, watching throbbing organisms of something float across the surface of my eyeballs. Before opening my eyes, I felt a wetness between my thighs of a familiar texture. I stretched my legs and surprised myself with my own nakedness, and remembered the foreign body in my orbit that needed monitoring, Len.

I rolled over to take in the scene, the wrong person in my bed, his hair out of its usual pony, cascading over shoulders shaped by the desk-to-sofa life he led. I needed my decorative tree trunk to prevent eye contact. He was already awake and watching me, looking like he knew something that I didn’t.

He searched my eyes and looked happy, smug. He wanted to be invited in for a long meaningful stare. This was not my face, this could not be my face.

‘Oh, fuck,’ I cried and rolled back over, feigning sleepiness and cursing myself for being there with him, again. With every shake of my head no, no, no, I felt the scrape and clink of last nights empty wine bottles rolling around on the dirty tiled floor of my brain.

‘Oh, Lou,’ he sighed, clasping his hands behind his head. ‘Why do you think we keep ending up like this?’

I had no one to warn me on the fungal superhighway.

‘Could it be that we are perfectly suited to one another?’ he said.

My roots are just dangling around in mid air. Not plugged into anything. Somehow I’ve gone offline and no one can reach me.

‘It’s like I knew when I saw you that you were mine,’ he continued, speaking in the general direction of the ceiling.

I wonder if they were trying, the trees, trying to send a message through the ground, tell me I am so much better than this.

‘The sooner you realize it the better.’

Maybe they were sending me a little message like: You are not that alone. You’re just a thirsty girl right now. Maybe they were trying to send me the nutrients I need to raise my guard and destroy the enemy aphid, the little bug who was clinging onto my waist and trying to suck the life out of me. 

‘We’re only getting older’ He reached around and tucked some of my curly mop behind my ear and whispered tenderly, ‘You’ll dry up soon.’

I spun around at this, finally at my capacity of entertaining Len’s absurd and offensive love for me, with the intention to destroy it once and for all.

Before I could seek and destroy, chains jangled on the wrought-iron pool fence outside, and I sat up suddenly to put my bathrobe on and regard my reflection. More of last night’s drinks found equilibrium in my brain.

Len laid back, exasperated. ‘Who even rides a fucking bike in this city?’

As I wiped mascara crumbs from my lower lash line in the mirror, I made eye contact with myself and thought: you are ripe and fecund. I told him I was interested to hear why he thought he loved me. He opened his mouth and I told him not now. Go home immediately and put it in an email. For now I had a balcony to swan on.

Len left and I prepared my hose and décolletage. Simon loitered outside the pool for longer than usual today, chattering away to Mrs. Goldstein, who was sunning herself by the pool.

When I emerged as casually as one could, to check on my green little friends, I saw something entirely unexpected. To my horror, Len was making a beeline to Simon from the foot of the staircase.

Fucking Len.

INT. MY INNER LOGIC – SOME FRIDAY EVENINGS

Fucking Len was an anthropological exercise, I told myself, and usually came about after some close consultation with my two best friends: refrigerated bottle of white wine from the office mini fridge, and, lack of better options. There was also my animal thirst to be reminded I was alive and my body was good for something that didn’t involve pressing my fingers onto buttons on a plastic keyboard, or my foot onto a gas and brake pedal.
The fact that the something my body was good for was fucking Len, I decided to shove deep into a hollow tree trunk in my mind, hoping it would never poke its ugly head back out to chirp at me like an incessant cuckoo clock, come to pecker away at my self-esteem.

You’re cuckoo. You’re cuckoo.

Last night began like all the other nights with Len. He threw the passenger side door of his Sedan open for me, wiped a week’s worth of lunch wrappers off the seat, and like little paper chrysalises, they fell delicately to the floor of the car. They crunched as I flattened them with my size 9 Converses.

I buckled up, and we headed to the next place to keep drinking.

My back against the wall, I was looking over his shoulder for better options, and he was looking straight at me. There was nothing much to lose with Len, another low-risk low-reward night. I could go home alone, I told the cuckoo clock, or I could continue my character study on Len. Then, in the event I should be asked to cast for Moderate Men’s Rights Activist on Reddit #2, I would be well prepared.

Eventually in the sappy amber light of the bar, Len gave me one of his usual compliments like ‘you’re actually quite pretty’ or ‘your hair looks extra brown today’. And me, with my eyes half-closed, my head in my hands, my hot drunk cheek mashing against my smudgy eyelashes, I conceded. Otherwise my hands would be manicured for no one, my extra brown hair would smell good for no one, my weekend that stretched out in front of me would consist of nothing and no one. I would wake up in the morning feeling physically well, and would have no good reason at all not to open a new file on my computer, stare at the white page, wait for inspiration to come, then write. Then I would simply have to go ahead and write the (convention-defying, brilliant, simple, fantastic, sparse, deeply impossible) opening words to An Internet. 

I laid down in the backseat of the Uber and my head began to spin – I closed my eyes and slurred at the driver to roll down the windows, to ‘let in that California evening breeze.’ Dizzy and horizontal, I tried to fight the warm embrace of sleep, pressed my feet into Len’s thigh, raised my eyes up to the sky, watched the underside of the flat palm trees whiz by, illuminated flashes of trees up in golden yellow lights, spaced my breaths to the passing of each one, each two, each three. I let myself close my eyes a little longer each time, slipping further away from myself, until I was sure the lights from the street were flashing red, filling the interior of our car like police sirens at an accident, wrapping around me like a wet hot cocoon. The red palm fronds were lowering themselves to me, reaching through the windows to me in alarm, coming closer and closer. The car bumped along to the same rhythm, driving us relentlessly onwards, closer and closer to my soft cream-carpeted habitat.

In my bed, the ick and goo of it reminded me always of a just alive organism, frothing away like a salted slug, madly foaming in the last throes of life.

Len rose and cleaned himself meticulously with one of my makeup wipes. I thought about warning him about the sting of the perfumed acetone, but I rolled over and finally let sleep take me.

EXT. MY INNER COURTYARD – DAY

Len continued his beeline to Simon. I anxiously ran my fingers through the leaves of my begonia like I was running them through some foppish hair. I watched on in nightmarish paralysis as Len strode over to Simon and placed a gentle hand on the back of his army green t-shirt.

Then they smacked each other in that way men do when they want to reassure each other that neither of them is a danger to the other. They exchanged words I couldn’t hear, and Len smacked Simons back with a flat palm. Simon patted Len’s back a few times in quick succession like you do with an old dog. 

I blinked and I was walking through  a giant oak forest, hundred-year-old trees towering above me, blowing loudly in the wind, making a sound like water steaming in a small kitchen. It was a place I had never been or seen before.

And then I was back. I looked down to find my hands and wrists crumbed in dark, wet soil, gripping onto a thick vine which ran over the edge of my balcony, running down a lattice and all the way down to the ground, where its roots reached through to the soil in a gap between the blue slate ground of the courtyard. 

Len and Simon exchanged cards. I thought of my own cards that sat untouched in my desk drawer. Printed in forest green serif font, on a backdrop of Monstera Deliciosa against pastel green, featuring an earlier working title we had, it read: 

Lou Benedict
Wood Wide Web
Filmmaker

As Len exited the courtyard, he spun the card into the garden, like an angry man impotently throwing a frisbee into heavy wind. Later, on my hands and knees, the ferns guided me wordlessly to the card which lay discarded at their feet.

Simon Krabb

Gardens Communication Officer

Descanso Gardens, Los Angeles

I imagined a more truthful card I could give him in response.

Lou Benedict
Lonely Horndog
This Apartment Complex, Los Angeles 

INT. THIS APARTMENT  COMPLEX – NIGHT

LOU (V.O.)

I had been watching a lot of videos of plants on YouTube. They were the type you see in nature documentaries, time-lapse fast motion clips of plants from the beginning of their life to the end.

First we see the soil, then within seconds the sprout has burst through and has grown inches towards the light. Shade and sunlight flicker incessantly over the image, lashings of fast-forwarded rain sprinkle over our sapling as it pushes upwards. Halfway through the clip our little plant has reached the pinnacle of its growth and beauty, then before we realize that we have witnessed its peak, our little life begins to fall and wilt. It spurts forth and spews decay over itself, time accelerating impossibly fast now. All that was plumping is now sallowing, the moist and fruitful stem loses colour fast and dries out. The vibrant green fades and starts to brown, the juiciness dissipates and the stem starts to wrinkle. What was going upwards now shrinks downwards, and our little sapling is curling up into a reverse fetal position, arching wildly at the end of its life, browning, and then laying face down in the dirt.

I got up and drove to work every day, spent time with Len because he happened to sit next to me, drove home and then the day was gone. I gave love to whoever was there, and in moments of reflection, I looked back on myself fucking all these ill-fitting men, saw my ripe ass and juicy thighs spasming and decaying over the man’s body in a horrific time lapse video that played over and over in my mind’s eye.

I would repeat this over and over until bigger and bigger chunks of time were gone. I would say my life was falling through my fingers like fistfuls of soil, but I’d never really had a hold on it in the first place. At this point, I was just watching it play out, not knowing when the peak of my glory would come, or if it had already passed me. This was not my life, this could not be my life.

My escape from the time lapse video was my project, my script. When I thought about the trees and how they connected to each other, I felt I could slow down things and experience myself in real time. I felt happy in this cocoon, imagining that the project would take off any day, the door to my new life would at some point pop open, and I would emerge through it, my old life slipping off me like a coat of slime. And when that happened, I would be happy for the slime, and for all the time I spent curled up in its juices, which had given me the nutrients, the saltiness, and the flavor that audiences would come to know and love.

Every time I sat down to work on my script, which was in its infancy, I felt like I was digging myself deeper into this delusion, each shovel of soil that I threw over my shoulder only getting me one moment closer to the inevitable clunk against something metal, a loud clanging sound, which would stop me from proceeding any further. I didn’t want to hit this bottom note because I wasn’t ready to truly contemplate the improbability of it all. This film was my plant baby, and I didn’t want my plant baby to die. So I stopped digging.

INT. BEDROOM – DAY

I ordered a salad on the internet. I knew I was too hungry for just a salad, but I was getting used to the idea that I would never be satiated. Over the next days I lounged around my soft beige bubble of an apartment, ordering food in, watering my plants, contemplating Simon and his slim fit army green t-shirt, those short little sleeves that stopped at the top of his best arm muscle. And when I thought about Simon, I thought about the conversation he and Len had by the pool, what they might have said to each other while I was getting my messages from the plants. And then I thought of Len, and the things he said to me about my life, and how much I wanted him to be wrong.

My vanity table was vintage, with a circular mirror that reached a few feet up my bedroom wall. I had painted it beige to match everything else in my life. I had a few small friends here – a collection of philodendrons and aspidistras.  I sat in front of the mirror and tightened my pink silk robe around my waist. I contemplated my beauty.

Fine lines had started to appear around my eyes and my smile lines. There was something under my jaw which didn’t used to be there, an extra presence, but seeing it in the mirror was like trying to catch my shadow, I could only see it when I span around quickly at an awkward angle, like a frightened cat, or when I opened the camera on my phone and forgot it was facing towards me.

Simon’s business card was there too, tucked into the wooden frame of my vanity.

INT. OFFICE – DAY

‘I guess I know him better than you do now,’ Len said. ‘You know, on account of the fact that we’ve had one conversation.’

I continued to press my fingers into my plastic ergonomic keyboard. 

‘Real interesting guy. I can see why you like him. Or, I can see why you would like him if you had ever spoken to him. Like I have.’ 

I pressed some more buttons and stared out the window at the palm trees. It was pilot season, but on my screen were not hopeful faces waiting to be cast, but the Descenso Gardens website – they were looking for volunteers to get involved on the weekends.

‘I can see myself getting involved with him more. On the weekends,’ I said.

On my screen were images of smiling people in work aprons, holding trowels and tiny plants, next to allotment boxes of soil. 

‘That’s not how you spent last weekend,’ Len said. Without turning, I could hear his face in his voice: greasy. I remembered another morning of waking up next to him in a darkened room, my ripe body rotting in a horrific time lapse over his.

I looked at photos of the gardens. There was a Japanese garden with maple trees and a red lacquered bridge. The leaves were yellow and orange. It seemed Simon worked at the only place in LA that had seasons.

I kept flipping through the images on the site, until I came to an image of the giant oak forest. The pixels matched a place in my mind, a place I had never been before.

EXT. GARDENS – DAY

‘Hello, it’s Louise, isn’t it?’

I looked up to see Simon. Sadly he was in a long-sleeved button up, not a tee. He looked concerned. ‘I had a meeting scheduled. I didn’t realize it was you, that Louise, my neighbour!’ he laughed at the coincidence, still thinking it was one.

I was sitting on a park bench, at the base of a giant oak tree, leaning over to grasp some shrubbery. I released my fistful of leaves to fish into the pocket of my uncomfortably tight jeans for my card, and I handed it to him. Wordlessly, for maximum effect. Then I lent down to the shrubbery again.

As I ran my hands through it I felt a familiar warmth rush through my fingertips and then through my whole body. It was the same drunken heat that had reached in through the windows of my Uber the other night, the red flashing lights and palm fronds reaching out towards me. I had thought I was asleep. That I dreamt this.

The heat was like new air running into my lungs, which I appreciated especially because of my tight jeans and consequently limited oxygen intake. It was the joy of impending connection, an opening of possibilities and new places to feed and nourish myself.

‘Simon,’ I said, deciding to go out on a limb, ‘You’re the Communications Manager here. Do you ever feel like the plants are trying to communicate with you? Like, they are looking out for you and sending you messages?’

Simon cocked his head and looked around us, at the empty forest.

‘I didn’t explain that very well,’ I said. ‘I’m referring to the tree internet, of course.’

He looked at me directly then, and I took this to be assent. He knew of it.

‘Recently I’ve been thinking that I’ve been able to plug into this interweb – that the trees have accepted me as part of their network. That’s the basis for my project that I want to film here.’ I patted the space next to me as I spoke, he sat.

A rush of wind picked up the leaves of the giant trees, which continued their steaming sound like they might soon bubble over the rim of the sky and be too big for this world. I cleared my throat and began to explain my idea.

‘All the loneliness in the world could be solved by invisible threads of connection. An Internet. ’




The Flight of the Swallow

Picture credits: Martyn Fletcher

The
evening has worn on until dusk. It is fast becoming a hot summer’s night. I
sigh and think about how difficult it will be to sleep in my flat. England
isn’t built for this kind of weather. It’s made for cold winters not blistering
heat. The buildings are designed to hold in the warmth not let it out. I try to
push the thought out of my mind and concentrate on the conversation that is
happening right in front of me. The four of us sit outside in the beer garden.
We have spent the better part of a day here. Why waste time moving on when we
have such a good seat, Susan had said? She is right, although I won’t tell her
that. She is talking right now about something. Whatever it is, she seems to
think it’s very important. I try to pick up the threads of the conversation. It
seems to be about tax havens and their connection to Brexit. I vaguely know
what she is talking about, but it’s too hot for politics.

I
am about to excuse myself to go to the toilet, not because I need it but
because I want a break from current affairs when I hear a very familiar sound.
A flock of swallows has just flown overhead. This is their time of night, just
as dusk is beginning to deepen. The noise fills the air and quickly fades as
they go about their business. The sound stills me. The conversation about
Brexit vanishes into the background. The memory comes flooding back. Just like
it always does around this time of year. The time of year when swallows are
visiting England from Africa. They come here to breed and fill the air with
their call. I know very little about swallows, what knowledge I have of them
has been absorbed from years of nature programmes on the BBC. The reason I know
anything about them at all is because of the memory that now fills my mind.

I
was young, just a child. My grandfather on my mother’s side had been in
hospital. He was a heavy smoker, had been for years, and it had finally caught
up on him. He went in for surgery, but something had gone wrong, and the family
had been called to his bedside. I was young but old enough to understand what
that meant. That his death was near, but despite my believed maturity, I still
didn’t fully understand the full scope of death. It didn’t seem real to me.
Something that didn’t make any sense. I could not process it properly. Maybe it
was because I was a very melancholy child, prone to shyness and solitude. Or
perhaps I was just a child. Either way, I knew something was happening when my
mother did not come home that evening.

It
was late; the swallows were at play outside of my third-storey window. I can
hear their calls as they swooped around outside, seemingly rushing around at
great speeds. In my adolescent mind, they were speeding to their loved ones or
passing important messages. Most likely, they were feeding, but I didn’t know
that at the time. I was up late, reading my book in the twilight. This wasn’t
unusual. I was always an avid reader. It must have been The Hobbit
although I cannot remember that for sure. I choose that book because it was the
one I would read over and over again, never growing bored of Bilbo and his
adventures. I squinted in the gloom when I heard the door open and then close
downstairs. My mother had returned from saying goodbye to her father. I can
only appreciate now how hard a thing that must have been. To know someone was
dying and not be able to do anything about it. To say goodbye. How could you
find the right words?

Anyway,
I lay there in my bed, still reading my book in the half-light. Outside, the
evening was turning to night, and the swallows were as active as I’ve ever
heard them. They swooped and squawked in the sky. The noise seemed to fill the
room. I strained to see them outside of my window, but their speed obscured
them from me. I began to wonder if they knew what was happening. As if in some
way they were saluting the passing of another soul from this plane of
existence. A strange thing to think as a child, but then I was no ordinary
child, if such things exist. Suddenly, I heard my mother come up the stairs to
my room. This is where the memory becomes hazy. I do not know why. Maybe grief
clouds the mind. Perhaps it is the years that have clouded the memory. The only
thing I can remember is my mother’s sorrow written all over her face but not
the words she spoke. Instead, what I can remember is the swallows outside. That
noise, that strange sound. It has stuck with me all these years. Did they know
what had happened? Were they trying to communicate their understanding in the
only way they could? I will never know.

Even
now, while I sit with friends outside on a balmy summer’s eve, I become
distracted by that sound once again. Those swallows at play as they fly above
my head. That familiar, beautiful sound. Are they trying to tell us something
right now? Or are they just doing what swallows do? I feel cosy and at peace
with memory. It reminds me of death but also life. Life and death are
interwoven together, linked forever. One cannot be without the other. I find
comfort in that as I listen to the flight of the swallows.




Circumventing the Crowds in the City of Dreaming Spires

Picture Credits: kooikkari

A New NIMBYism

Autumn has descended, and with it, a fresh wave of overenthusiastic university
students upon the city of Oxford. They do not fill a vacuum, but readily occupy
the place of the some 16,000 tourists, day-trippers and student “edu-tourists”
who visit the city every day during the summer travel season. The passage of
time has mercifully dulled my recollection of my own student years at Oxford
University, but I still remember the unceremonious jostling and daily
turf-battles that took place between tourists, townies and students in the
beleaguered city centre. As a final-year student, I reluctantly gate-crashed
many a pristine photo of the Christ Church, or “Harry Potter”, dining hall in
my bid to reach the Examination Schools on time (although, as I was donning a
curious combination of hijab and “subfusc” at the time, I hope the tourists
didn’t feel too short-changed for their photographic efforts).

Oxford is just one of many destination cities that is beginning to suffer
the effects of “overtourism” – a term that hit the headlines in 2017, and has
only gained in traction since then. The term implies not only overcapacity in numbers,
but also the unsustainability, even undesirability, of the associated tourist
culture. Local inhabitants and environmental organisations have led the
backlash against global tourism, particularly in European cities, from the
banning of food trucks and selfie-sticks in Milan, to the recent announcement of
a new tourist tax on day-trippers to Venice. Nevertheless, travellers remain
unabated, continuing to make use of low-cost flights and cheap accommodation
options in their quest to witness, photograph and publically demonstrate their
presence across the globe. Many of us have, by all counts, brazenly severed
ourselves into a dichotomy: both vigorous defenders of our private spaces, or “locals”,
and bold venturers into unfamiliar places.

We might refer to this contradictory reality as the new NIMBYism: one
that exemplifies the many double standards of the human condition. The
backyards that we occupy, with their distinctiveness dulled to our senses, are
now an endless source of fascination to others, and prime opportunities for Insta-“grammable”
moments. En route to Venice in 2016, alongside the twenty-seven million other
visitors who made the same trek that year, one guidebook that I read sagely
cautioned its discerning readers to “walk in the opposite direction to the
crowds” if they wanted to experience the richness of the city. This reassuring
veneer of self-respectability shields us from being identified as part of the “crowd”,
even when we patently are.

Oxford has long witnessed its fair share of “set-jetters” and visitors eager
to absorb the city’s air of historic enlightenment, but a rise in tourism has
left the city centre unnavigable in the summer months, except to those
well-versed in the skill of crowd avoidance. As I transitioned from a student
of the University to a resident of the city, my own NIMBYistic tendencies have
been unleashed. I now watch in dismay as coaches carrying day-trippers block the
cycle lines in Oxford’s cramped quarters, and the tourists shuttled therein
tend to leave after only a few hours – increasing the flow of traffic without
making any contribution to the city’s independent stores. I bristle as I walk
past the £440m Westgate shopping centre, which opened two years ago, and has generated
ghost-town effects on other parts of the city, including the closure of my
favourite coffee shop haunt, Combibo’s. The owners of this shop made no effort
to conceal their chagrin at the establishment of the Westgate centre, affixing
a statement to the shop door in which they proclaimed that “Oxford is a shadow
of the place we all fell in love with” (even I haven’t quite reached that state
of disillusionment). Cornmarket Street, a major pedestrian precinct in the
city, is increasingly inhabited by souvenir shops that sell marginal stylistic
variations on Oxford-emblazoned hoodies and mugs.

To residents and visitors alike, there are bleakly comic undertones to the
growth of tourism in Oxford. University students commend the most creatively
fictitious tour guide anecdotes (one favourite being the “Bridge of Sighs” as
named after the disheartened students who shuffled underneath it in a spirit of
post-exam malaise). One elderly friend, struggling to navigate the crowded city
centre using her walking aid, has confessed to simply using it to mow down
large groups of stationary language tourists. There is even something wryly
amusing by the recent opening of “Britain Heritage” [sic], a souvenir shop that
has confidently taken its place next to Boswells department store, which has been
trading modestly for its part since 1738. In the meantime, retail bulletins and
city councillors alike commend the rise in “footfall” in the city: an indication of the need to scrutinise the
statistics peddled out in support of the travel industry, as well as the
desirability of “footfall” as an end in itself.

In the past, it has been customary to praise or condemn travel chiefly
for its effects on the mind. For Mark Twain, it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry
and narrow-mindedness”; for D.H. Lawrence, it is “an exercise in disillusionment”.
In contrast, the bullish character Mr Thwaites, in Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, had “further
narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad”. And yet, the
unregulated growth of the travel industry over the preceding decades no longer
permits us the luxury of viewing tourism solely through the lens of discovery
and self-fulfilment. We now need to find a more sustainable way of seeing the
world – one that channels both the accountability of the travel industry and
the conscientiousness of individuals.

The conversation has yet to shift significantly in these shores. This
past summer, the UK government cheerily announced the creation of five new “tourism
zones”. Oxford, of course, was granted the privilege of being one of them. With
a prickling of my conscience, I bemoaned this news while descending upon the
city of Bath, seeking welcome respite in its familiar unfamiliarity. In my
defence, I departed the city rejuvenated by its mineral springs, but mug-less
and hoodie-less. This I consider to be no small victory.




The Surrogate

Picture Credits: Tracy Lundgren

I’ve always wanted to go to one of
those fancy-schmancy exhibition galleries, but because I can’t, a surrogate
observer, in patent leather boots, colorless braids, and a patent leather
jacket I always wanted to wear, is doing it for me.

People milling around here and
there, admiring their own shadows, their attention fixates on each other’s
conversations, the blonde waitress with free champagne, and the famous actress
showing up last minute.

Light filters through the skylights
above like the surprised wings of sparkling fireflies.

My surrogate observer goes straight
to the paintings on display—three in total—the click-clack of her heels is
swallowed by the muddle of discordant thought/desire burdens people wear like
second skin.

Here’s what my surrogate is seeing
with supposedly my eyes, but in actuality my husband Ken’s eyes— the result
of years of emotional imprinting as some self-help book or another so
elaborately explains.

Painting no.1:

A bisque doll…Anne-May doll…ancient
doll… IT’S MY ANNE-MAY DOLL…dangling…NO, SHE’S FLOATING…from ugly-colored…balloon…disgusting
red…THE COLOR OF MY INFLAMED INSIDES WHEN YOU FORCE YOURSELF IN… …only one good
arm… holding on to the thread… grey clouds…weird light… not sunlight… YES IT
IS SUNLIGHT…dead doll…disgusting balloon. 

Painting no.2:

That ugly doll…again… THAT’S MY
ANNE-MAY….orange braids…THAT’S STRAWBERRY BLONDE…big red nose…FROM TOO MUCH
CRYING…badly-drawn diamond tears…THATS SMEARED MASCARA YOU IDIOT…she’s a clown…I
AM NOT…In a town of clowns…THEY ARE NOT CLOWNS…where no one sees her…she’s not
funny…YOU DID THIS.

The Third Painting:

Dead doll…THAT’S ME ANNE-MAY…broken
limbs…YOU CAN’T SEE THE BROKEN HEART…hanging…from a clothes line…all dirty…YOU
ARE BLIND…reflected…in a mirror.

When the surrogate is finally home,
we hold hands, conspire, and we do it.

When Ken wakes up the next day, he’s
unduly pleased. The Barbie he’s always wanted is lying next to him.

I hold on to my balloon, happy too,
for him.




Hi

“Hi,” he says to me, and smiles, I think, as I get off the subway, a
human river pushing us past each other. There’s something icky about him, I
think, but then again it’s such a brief interaction. I shrug it off and follow
the crowd up to the yellow line train heading north, and he follows me there.
Or maybe not, maybe it’s just a coincidence. A lot of people head north on the
yellow line, after all – there’s at least a hundred on this platform with us.

I begin to walk down the platform as I catch a glimpse of him out of the
corner of my eye. He’s shorter than me. “You’re here! Hi again,” he says to me
as he approaches and I walk down the platform. I duck behind one of the columns
holding the thousand tons of earth above us and, mercifully, he doesn’t follow.

I’m not used to this kind of attention from men. I’ve only been a woman,
noticeably so at least, for a year, after all. But I recognize lust. I hear the
train arrive, and hope it’s one of the older trains, the ones with segmented
cars. I’m far enough down, I think, that he’d board a different car. No such
luck – it’s one of the new ones, the ones that are just a continuous tube. If
he wanted to, he could patrol the train up and down until he found me, and then
I’d have no choice but to interact with him. Maybe tell him to stop following
me, and rely on the people around me to stand up and help, but it’s not wise
for people like me to rely on the kindness of strangers.

I sit close to the window and make myself as small as possible. I’m only
going two stops away, and there are at least a dozen more stops until the train
reaches the end of the line, so odds are this guy is going to keep riding and
I’m done with him. Still, he might follow me as I get off the train. As it
reaches my stop, I wait until the doors start to close before I jump off the
train. The crowd is big enough that, hopefully, he won’t notice.

I walk up the stairs toward the station’s exit. I don’t see him, but
then again there are a lot of us. Maybe he’s not following me, I think. Maybe he
really just was being friendly, and my imagination is spinning a deeper motivation
from a pair of barely seconds-long interactions. And yet my heart still beats
harder, movement on the periphery of my vision more noticeable. As I continue
to gaslight myself, I exit the station and see him walking away from it, in the
same direction I have to go. The pit of my stomach drops like a sledgehammer on
the plunger of a carnival strength-tester. I look around for an escape. There’s
an alleyway I could duck down that would take me in the same direction I need
to go, but that’s probably far less safe, and then again there’s a fence
blocking it now – that wasn’t there last time I was here.

I get a better look at him this time – he’s wearing a blue jacket and a
red hat. I don’t see what’s on his hat, but I know from experience that people
with red hats are unlikely to be friendly to people like me. He’s got shaggy
black hair and a sparse goatee. He looks a lot like Shigeru Miyamoto, actually,
though I’m wondering if that’s actually true or if I’m just subtly racist. I
try not to look too long, though – people can feel when they’re being watched,
after all.

I walk past him, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. Of course he notices me.
I’m six feet tall, and he picked me out of a crowded subway twice in a row. I
should have waited in the station for a few minutes, I think.

“Hi again,” he says.

“Yes, absolutely,” I say to nobody, my phone against my ear, as though
it were a shield to block his words from reaching me.

“Hi,” he says.

“No problem, do you want me to pick something up?”

“Hey, do you hear me?”

Did nobody ever teach this guy manners? I’m on the phone. I clearly
don’t want to talk to you.

“I know what you are, and I like it.”

God, I’d like nothing more than to just turn around and knock him out.
That’s what I would have done before, when I was pretending to be a man, but
then again I never would have been in this situation before. Even still, I
recognize how futile this will be. The type of guy who follows women and
harasses them on the street isn’t the type of guy to pick a fight with. Who knows
what he’s carrying?

My hand slides into my purse, grabbing my travel-size bottle of
hairspray I keep with me for emergencies. After he starts to walk away, I call
my friends, for real this time. They agree to come meet me, along with their dog.

I’m speed walking toward my friend’s street, now looking behind me,
watching him on the other side of the street talking to someone else, now
looking forward, hoping to see my friends come round the corner to rescue me
with their presence. One of them is a man, and I know this guy won’t mess with
another man. I hate that I have to rely on this. I hate that I need a man
nearby to feel safe. I hate that this is the reality of being a woman, of being
a visibly trans woman. I hate that I am a visibly trans woman. I miss my male
privilege – as ill-fitting as it was, at least I could ride the subway without
being harassed. I hate that I’m a magnet for tranny chasers who fetishize me
because of what they perceive to be in my pants.

I wish regular creeps would follow me.




Waylaid in Bucharest

Picture Credits: Gerhard Gellinger

The airport
in Bucharest was open-aired in the nineties, the walls were glass from the
floor up about fifteen feet, with the last five feet or so open to the outside.
Guards patrolled the hallways in pairs, wearing furry Russian hats, swinging
long rifles as they walked, sometimes holding the leash of a German Shepherd.
To me, they were like the soldiers who guarded the Wicked Witch’s castle in the
Wizard of Oz, and I was afraid of them.

My boyfriend
and I landed in Bucharest on a November afternoon during a snowstorm, for a
short stop to change plans on our way to Bangkok. We had saved $600 on airfare
by using the Romanian airline, Air Tarom, rather than something more
mainstream, and were happy enough with the older-yet-solid jet that flew us
from Istanbul, where we’d been staying, to Bucharest. At some point while we
were in the air, sipping an orange beverage that tasted like Tang and sharing a
giant bar of chocolate, the pilots of Air Tarom went on strike, and when we
arrived there were no pilots willing to fly any plane anywhere.

They told us
the news as we exited the plane. Rather than getting on another, we were to
wait at the airport “until arrangements could be made.” I didn’t understand
when a dark-haired official confiscated my passport, while everyone else on the
plane seemed to get theirs back. When I asked, he looked through me like I was
a momentary shimmer in his peripheral vision, and turned to the next person in
line.

Adaptable as I am, I was not used to being ignored, and not ready to be dismissed. I looked for Erol, who’d gone through the line in front of me, and saw him on the other side. I watched him tuck his French passport into his shirt.

“I need my
passport back,” I told the man. A small woman in a neat blue suit appeared next
to me and informed me that they must hold the American passports, and that if I
wanted to enter the airport, I had to surrender my passport. Those were the
rules, there were no exceptions.

“Only
American passports? Why?” I wanted to know. But my questions were not their
concern, and they took my passport and hustled me along.

My passport
and I had journeyed together across many experiences in the past five months.
My most guarded possession, it provided me with the means to move freely in the
world, yet tied me back to home. It was an extension of my body, strapped
against the skin of my waist in a small canvas belt that had moved with me for
five months. I left it behind, my sense of security amputated from my psyche. I
had no choice.

I entered
the airport and noticed the guards right away. They moved in twos, always
chatting in loud Russian-sounding voices, gesturing at times with their rifles.
Shops and food vendors lined the hall, none of whom could take a credit card
for foreign currency, except for American dollars, which were welcome
everywhere. I had a few American dollars, just a few, and was relieved that I
had the means to buy a hot sandwich, which I did as the first order of
business, and Erol and I sat on the floor to eat it.

As soon as I pulled out my American money to pay for the food, I attracted a crowd of Romanian peasants that I hadn’t seen before. They gathered around me with their bare feet and sad eyes, begging for some American dollars, demanding that I pay them something for their misery. I was a rich American, and they had nothing. One young woman was especially persistent, saying over and over “please to give me some American dollars, my brother is so sick, we are so poor. Please to give me some American dollars.” I wished I could help, but didn’t carry extra money. I was guilty of being American and not living in poverty, but I shut off the awareness, it was too intense, and I had nothing to give.

Snow swirled
through the open windows, mingling with the air in the terminal to fall down on
us. In our T-shirts and sandals, the snow soon became an onslaught of ice
bullets. We were freezing. The only source of heat I could find was a small
space heater in the women’s restroom, and I huddled next to it, leaving Erol to
fend for himself. But one can only spend so much time hunkered down in a busy,
dingy bathroom, and I wasn’t there long before I needed to leave.

Cherie!” Erol called to me from down the
hall, striding up to me with a big grin on his face. “I got this from one of
the guards. Let’s drink now to be warm!”

He held out
a bottle of Russian vodka for me to see.

It was a
cheerful bottle, and a drink sounded pretty good, so I squashed the faint
intuitive nudge that vodka might not improve our bodies’ heat retention before
it could turn into a full-fledged thought.

We found a
dark corner where the snow didn’t reach and sat with our bodies mashed as close
as we could get with our clothes on, and swigged vodka from the battle,
chatting with a couple camped near us, sharing our vodka with them. Before long
we were warmer, and for a couple of hours we had fun, and laughed drunkenly at
the expense of Air Tarom and Bucharest.

And then we
were cold again. Very cold. I no longer noticed my teeth chattering – my entire
body chattered uncontrollably. Delirious with cold and vodka, I thought of my
passport, and whether it was a drunken stumble or a brilliant leap in
intuition, I suddenly knew that our entire future depended on getting my
passport back at once. “I want my passport!” I announced.

“Yeah,” Erol
slurred, “go get fucking passport! Why they take your passport?”

I marched
over to the dark-haired woman.

“Excuse me,
I want my passport right now,” I said. My voice shook.

She turned
toward me, faced me squarely, and stared.

“My
passport?” I said again.

She
continued to stare. Her entire body seemed to have turned to stone, except for
her eyes, which followed me with a scientific detachment, as if I were a wild
beast exhibiting an interesting behavioral trait.

And perhaps
I was.

“Give me my
fucking passport!” I screamed. What was up with this cold Slavic bitch, who
expressed as much emotion as a blank piece of paper? Who the hell did she think
she was? But wait, this woman had a temper, I knew. Because I’d seen her throw
a hissy fit several hours ago, when she went off on a male airline employee,
shrieking and stamping her feet in fury, her heels crashing onto the concrete
like exclamation points. She was not without sharp edges. How could she stand
there and ignore me?

“Hello?!” I
shouted. “Are you going to answer me? I’m a human being standing in front of
you! I’m a customer of your airline! I want my fucking passport!”

She didn’t
move a muscle; her face registered no response to my anger. I didn’t know what
to do, what to think. How was it even possible? This would never happen in
America, I thought, and planted a seed within me for a new appreciation of the
U.S.A.

But I wasn’t
in America on that cold night in November, I was in Romania, freezing and
starving, trying to squeeze my passport out of a statue. What could I do?
Nothing, I realized, and shrank, my hysteria dying with my hope. I stumbled
back to Erol, who seemed to have reached the edge of panic himself.

“We’re in
trouble, cherie,” he said, his eyes
wide. “Come on, we need to keep moving or we’ll freeze to death!”

We linked
arms and jogged sloppily around the airport, exhausted and shaking, our minds
foggy. It was now four in the morning, and we’d been trapped for twelve hours
in this cold, dark place, stripped of the means to keep warm or rest or eat.

But our
nightmare was to end, we were soon told, by the same statue woman who had
repelled my questions so effectively, because “arrangements had been made,” and
we were to be transported to a local hotel until a pilot could be found to fly
our plane to Bangkok. Our baggage, previously impossible to provide to us,
appeared miraculously, and we lined up to wait for our ride.

Erol and I
were third in line, waiting for our bus, ecstatic at the prospect of escape
even though I was still not allowed to have my passport. Erol suddenly laughed.
I looked at him, and he pointed to the people’s bags next to us. White tape
with the Air Tarom logo was splayed across the sides, with the words “First
Class” written in bold red writing. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever
seen, and I couldn’t help laughing. The owners of the luggage looked abased
when they realized why we were laughing, but then they too started in, and the
four of us laughed a long time. It was painful laughter, strung out and
desperate, but it felt good.

The bus, as
it turned out, was a tiny shoe car with three gears, and it carried us two by
two to the hotel, whirring and shuddering as its driver pushed it to its
maximum capacity. I fully expected the little car would revolt and seize up,
but we were dropped off at a decent hotel with no problems, anticipating a hot
shower and warm bed. But we soon learned this was not to be, as all water and
electricity were shut off at night until nine a.m., due to the National Energy
Crisis. We were shown to our room, which had a comfortable bed with a warm
comforter. We burrowed in at once, relishing the comfort as a thing of wonder –
a gift from God.

That
afternoon, the airline found a plane for us and we were called back to the
airport. I was warm, well-fed and clean when we walked into the terminal, and
excited to be headed out once again for our trip to Thailand. As we entered our
departure gate, an attendant handed me my passport. Erol looked at me to see
what I would do, but I had burned off all of the feelings allotted to me for
passport drama, and I took it without comment. We headed toward the plane in
good cheer, until Erol paused and started muttering in French. He didn’t like
the looks of the plane, which turned out to be military, an army transport
unit. Apparently a large part of the Bucharest International Airport was used
by the Romanian military, and somehow they had arranged for us to go by army
transport to the U.A.E., where we would change to a 757 and fly to Bangkok.

The details
of this plan alarmed me. How likely was it that a Romanian military plane would
be shot down when it flew into Iraqi air space? What about all those other Arab
countries that seemed to be always at war? I cursed my inattention to news and
geography.

In the end,
the concerns we had over this new flight arrangement didn’t outweigh our desire
to get the hell out of Bucharest, and we decided to take our chances with the
army plane. We boarded and figured out how to get strapped into our jump seats,
the propeller engines whirred to life, and the old plane huffed down the
runway. As she picked up speed and approached the end of the concrete, I
squeezed Erol’s hand, and prayed to any deity that might be listening to please
hoist this plane off the ground and take us onto our next journey.




Interview with visual artist, Nwando Ebizie

Photo: Anya Arnold

Fizzing silhouettes, low synths, dancing in the dark: ‘Distorted Constellations’ captured imaginations at Manchester’s PUSH festival and Brighton Festival earlier this year. The immersive installation of music, holograms, ritual and dance was designed by Nwando Ebizie, who also performs as part of the work. 

At the heart of the piece is Ebizie’s experience of a rare neurological condition that was barely recognised until 2014. 

‘Visual snow’ came into the mainstream five years ago when Brain, a neurology journal, a paper was published about the experiences of 22 patients. Commonly, people with the condition have their sight disturbed by dots in their field of vision – often compared to TV static. Many also suffer migraines. Authors noted that some patients with visual snow had first been had symptoms misdiagnosed as side effects of anxiety, depression, or even after-effects of LSD. The condition can develop mid-life, or be with patients from birth. There is no cure, and it affects vision, hearing and cognition. For some, it can be disabling. 

For audiences who already experience visual snow, seeing ‘Distorted Constellations’ may be the first time anyone has portrayed, projected and shared the embodied experience of visual snow with people who have no experience of it. 

Ebizie always solicits responses from the audience. (Amongst the 289 recorded in Brighton: ‘one of the most amazing sensory experiences I’ve had’, ‘timeless’, ‘amazing’). Extraordinary encounters seem to be the norm. Recently, she recalls: “An artist who came said that she recently got visual snow. She had had to quit her job: she worked in theatre as a set designer, and she just felt like she couldn’t do her job anymore. 

“Coming to see my project changed her mind because she saw me creating this visual art piece, as someone who has visual snow, and said: ‘Oh, you know, if she can do it then maybe I can still do it.’”

For people affected by visual snow, the work offers them a unique chance to connect and access new research, Ebizie explains: “One of the important things about the project is that it’s offering a model whereby you can have art and science sitting together. You can create an experience that can somehow feeds back into scientific research.” In Manchester, for example, Ebizie hosted an event with Dr Francesca Puledda, a neurologist researching the pathophysiology of the condition at King’s College London. People travelled from Cornwall and Doncaster to attend.

As well as crossing the ‘two cultures’ divide between arts and science, for Ebizie ‘Distorted Constellations’ also fulfills a social mission: “When I started researching visual snow, one of the things I realised is how despairing some people are who have visual snow, and how depressed and anxious it makes them to suddenly have their perception completely change.”

She was doing a project for the Wellcome Collection when she began to develop ideas around visual snow: “Because it was only discovered in 2014, there’s this thing of feeling like it just suddenly appeared. There’s no evidence it has just appeared, but there’s no evidence that it hasn’t just appeared either.”

When she began looking through their library for accounts of symptoms dating from before 2014, she drew a blank: “I couldn’t really find anything, but I realised it was because language and perception is so slippery. One of the main descriptors of visual snow symptoms is seeing something that looks like TV static, which is obviously only something something someone could describe from the latter end of the 20th century. 

“What would somebody have described to us before? So I started looking at other artists, like Van Gogh, like Seurat, who maybe created their reality in a way that actually describes what they’re actually seeing or experiencing.”

Photo: Anya Arnold

For many, tackling such a huge new subject might be intimidating, but for Ebizie she thrives on the opportunity to deep-dive into fresh subjects with every project: “The way I work is, each of my projects works in quite different art forms and quite different kind of subject matters because I get really interested in something and go really in-depth into it. The process always begins with learning a new idea, subject matter or technique. With Distorted Constellations I became a Fellow In Immersion with an organisation called the South West Creative Technology Network and learned about immersive technology. With the opera I’m currently creating I researched medieval Benedictine ritual.”

When I ask her whether she faces any difficult moments working on ‘Distorted Constellations’, she replies: “It’s always really difficult. I’m trying to create something that’s a model of my perceptual reality, which we already know is something that most people don’t have and they can’t empathise with. Neuroscientists now understand that brains are inherently unique, and exist on a spectrum, with some being more typical and some being more atypical. 

“Trying to create the installations, trying to create the systems of the project, can be really frustrating for everyone involved. It’s a collaborative project, so you’re constantly trying to find a shared language of something that hasn’t been created. It’s inherently creative and interesting, but it is also really tiring to feel that you’re constantly explaining yourself, and explaining why certain things are important.” 

The stress was particularly sharp because the work combines two intensely personal (and poorly understood) subjects: “There is a lot of personal material in the idea of the project, because it’s this exhibition that, in a wide sense, is trying to encapsulate my reality. A part of that is my interest in Afro-diasporic ritual, and that’s very much within it, which is a whole other area which most people don’t know about. Having to explain that and weave that in isn’t… Yeah, it’s … Interesting.”

In ‘Distorted Constellations’, immersive sounds and imagery become a medium for sharing the spiritual knowledge and experience that underlie the project. 

One of the two key technologies in ‘Distorted Constellations’ is its visuals. Ebizie’s work with a neuroscientist, Ed Bracey, into neural pathways inspired Its labyrinthine design. Another artist-technologist, Coral Manton, co-developed projections that mimicked visual snow.

The installation’s other key technology is its ambisonic system. Unlike a typical two-speaker stereo system used in many installations as well as cinemas and venues, ‘Distorted Constellations’ has a 360-degree sound setup (in Manchester, on eight speakers, and at other venues, six) to create a more surrounding, immersing sonic environment for its sound ‘palette’ of others’ visual snow symptoms. 

Key to the success of the installation was finding ways to make it more accessible. One collaborator, Guillaume Dujat, produced a binaural mix of Ebizie’s original composition, ‘Twenty Minutes of Action’, by recording the sounds from the ambisonic system on a dummy ‘head’ (the mics sit where the ears would be. For people who will listen to the composition on headphones or audio loop, it provides a really close simulation to listening in-situ). For those who can’t attend the installation in person, an online 3D ‘game’ version of the exhibition is in development.

It’s been a huge year for the artist. As well as touring ‘Distorted Constellations’, Ebizie also held a fellowship with the Southwest Creative Technology Network, launched a new composition at King’s Place last October, and was one of six artists to win the UK’s biggest award for women in experimental music last summer. The Daphne Oram prize, awarded last June, was presented for her work in her pop persona, Lady Vendredi, which has taken her to packed audiences at the Barbican, the Roundhouse and a BBC Music stage at Latitude.

But her achievements have also brought their own stresses with them. From autumn last year to the following May, when Ebizie started working intensively on ‘Distorted Constellations’, she experienced a ‘pretty consistent’ panic disorder: “I was having a lot of anxiety issues and depressive symptoms. I found most things that I do quite difficult because of that.”

A change of scene has helped, she says: “It’s given me more headspace. I felt a constant crushing weight of too much going on, always being on the go. People aren’t like that outside of London.” 

She left London a couple of years ago to move to the Calder Valley, and has been wild swimming and fell-running in her spare time. “If you had told me two years ago I would be doing that I would have laughed in your face,” she jokes, “‘I would never get in zero degrees water, that’s insane’.

“I’m surrounded by the hills so it’s really easy to get away – I mean, not always, because sometimes walking out the door is difficult. But it’s easier than being in London, in that you can go away. In two minutes I’m surrounded by hills, and no people, and sheep.”

Another year looms, and another project. Up next: an opera about a 12th-century mystic. Ebizie discovered Hildegard von Bingen during research into possible historic cases of visual snow. The mystic had already been retrospectively diagnosed by Oliver Sacks, she notes, with what might have been scintillating scotoma. Ebizie performed some original compositions from the opera at King’s Place in London last August, but has even grander plans for the project: “I want to build it up so it’s this kind of modern, secular ecstatic experience related to the ritual that Hildegard, or someone like her, would have gone through when they entered a monastery as a child … A death ritual with a funeral liturgy spoken over them as they laid on the ground, covered in leaves. They would have had to say, ‘I’m leaving this world now…’” She would have been about eight.”

To Ebizie, Hildegard’s significance was more about than her neurodivergence: “I was just really interested in the mind of someone who had that and but was also this crazy, incredible genius at this time when that was so difficult to be. She was crazily strong-willed enough to do it.” As two stars draw together, a new constellation appears. 

Nwando Ebizie presents ‘Distorted Constellations’ in London on 22-24 November




The First of the Gang to Die

It happened two days ago and felt like time travel, only it wasn’t a time trip at all. I woke up in black and white, like I ran out of colors, only it didn’t feel like my fault at first; I thought the world was to blame, not me. Like the world was black and white in the old times when there weren’t color TVs, only it wasn’t, but it kind of feels like it was when you have only seen the past in old films.  

How selfish of you, my wife said, when I told her. Like there wasn’t depth perception before three-dimensional TVs. That’s stupid, I said, because I know what the world seemed like before they appeared and I definitely experienced depth without them. She shrugged like she made her point and I realized she did. I asked if she accused me of being too young and she said I wasn’t or else I’d easily find a job. I’ve been unemployed for the last couple of months but it’s not the young who took my job. It’s the stupid machines. If I had more skills, the stupid machines wouldn’t have taken my job, she claimed, only I never thought I’d compete with machines for a position in the rat race.   It’s not a rat race if you’re a machine, she said and I couldn’t argue with that. Damn you, said the parrot we keep as a pet in the living room and I felt like the bird read my thoughts. That stupid bird didn’t seem that cute in black and white. It doesn’t usually repeat what I say, only what I think about, only if it’s inappropriate. Sweet birdie said my wife, turning his way, and started petting the bird. That ended the conversation abruptly, only I didn’t mind, because I had already started losing my temper, cursing inside, and I didn’t feel like hearing my thoughts aloud, spoken by the bird. 

*

Jim’s standing in line. He will be next and he knows. Only he has four mouths to feed and not a high-skilled wife like I do. He’s so desperate, he even practices smiling at home. He stands in front of the mirror and tries to fake a smile, only he hasn’t yet mastered the art of faking authentic smiles, he claims, which I find contradictory, or even ironic, but he doesn’t see it that way. Practice makes perfect, he claims, or at least tolerably better, in his case. He’s been my best friend for years, that is since after high school, when we both found the job at that fast food chain store, at the same time. He’s terrified at the prospect, but can’t do much. He’s just standing there, waiting for his turn, like we’re toy soldiers in a Morrissey song and I was ‘the first of the gang to die’ but the rest will soon follow my path. I don’t think Morrissey’s song was about our situation at all, it was mostly about love problems and all, or even actual death and other existential issues we don’t have the luxury to think about, I say, although Jim reminds me I have no clue what Morrissey was talking about. I nod, yet chances are he wasn’t talking about people like us. 

I tell Jim about the word gone black and white and he says it’s normal. He claims it comes with age. I find it strange though that no one ever warned me about it. I didn’t think it really happened. I mean literally. He’s rolling his eyes, asking: You meant literally? I nod. Like in those old films? I nod again. That’s serious stuff, he says after some pondering. I thought you meant you lost the magic or something, metaphorically speaking, like in the Logical song, he says, like you lost that sense of magic now the world’s made you practical and responsible and all. We speak through songs, cause that’s how we communicate best. Because we’re not machines, for fuck’s sake. I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, I sing to him jokingly, but I’ve also lost colours, I add, no singing this time. He passes me the cigarette he’s holding; he knows I can’t afford smoking now I’m unemployed. Jim’s a real pal. He’s not looking down on me, like my wife is, now that I’m jobless. Then again, I don’t cost him that much. You smile more often now that you don’t have to smile, he says. And I smile again, like I’ve swallowed spring and summer and all joy the world has ever offered, because I know he’s right. I can’t stop smiling now I don’t need to, which, for a strange reason, makes Jim laugh his heart out, like he’s just swallowed all jokes the world has ever offered. You should see a doctor, he finally tells me, after he stops laughing. 

*

I’ve been replaced by a smiling machine. The project is still on trial, but I was the first to go, for I was the one who smiled the least. Customers come here to feel good, the manager told me a year ago, advising me to smile more. Customers come here to eat, I argued, but he insisted they’re not coming for the food. Not only for the food. They come to treat themselves. It’s not like we’re a special restaurant, I said. For god’s sake, it’s only a fast food store. He got angry which I didn’t really get, because it’s not like it’s his own store, he only works there, but he took it personally, as if I had offended him personally, like I said he wasn’t special enough or something. Things escalated fast, because I was offended too, wondering how on earth he dared asking me to smile, when he didn’t even pay me on time. You should be grateful you have a job, he said and left. In hindsight, I realize my argument was wrong. I mean, even if he paid me on time, even if he gave me tons of money, would I be able to sell my smile? 

The day I got fired, my wife brought the parrot home. I wasn’t crazy enough at the time to believe the bird was a mind reader, although strangely enough, as soon as he saw me, he started making strange noises. We got closer, my wife and I, until we could clearly hear him talk, saying – stupid boss, stupid boss, stupid boss – repeatedly, as if he was inside my mind already, but my wife said be must have been abused by his previous owner and I believed her. The bird didn’t stop repeating those words all evening, and spoke without emotion, like a machine, like I wish I could express myself, calmly, firmly, not a sign of anger or sorrow in the tone of his voice. I liked him in the beginning, because I felt exactly the same, only emotions overwhelmed me, feelings I couldn’t tell apart, so I experienced them in silence, while the bird did all the talking, as if we were on a stage and we had split the roles, the parrot doing the talking, me the feeling part.

*

My wife asks what the doctor said. I tell her he didn’t smile either. He only checked the test results, without even touching me. He’s skilled enough to keep his job even without touching me which seems weird, yet who am I to judge? She only wishes to know what he said, not my opinion. I light a cigarette before letting her know. She looks at me like I’m a hopeless case. What? I ask and she rolls her eyes. She didn’t mind me smoking when I had a job which brings me to the conclusion it’s not my health she cares about. It’s all about the money, her money. She won’t admit it though. She says she’s read about all those famous people who had boyfriends or girlfriends who put them down, claiming they’d never succeed and how success is the best revenge. I have no clue where she’s getting at so she moves on, claiming, that when success comes for her, I won’t be there to witness it, for I’ll be dead. I put out the cigarette, knocking on wood with my free hand. You’re already successful, I tell her but I then realize she doesn’t see it that way. She’s not successful enough for her standards and I don’t put her down actually, only I hold her down, which is even worse. 

The doctor prescribed meds and therapy. He said that I should smile more and colors would come back. I smile often enough, I told him but he insisted I didn’t or else I wouldn’t have lost my job. And I can’t help but think I’m wasting my wife’s money with that therapy thing. Funny thing, said the doctor before I left, but not so long ago people were so hopeful about the machines. I stared at him to make him explain, cause machines never seemed that nice to me. I realize they make life easier from time to time, but they’re mostly annoying. Like talking to a child, the man moved on, explaining his thought; automation would replace human work and that’d mean more leisure for all of us. Who would give the paycheck then? I asked. He made a gesture as if delving more into the issue was impossible, as if I wouldn’t understand anyway and he showed me the door. That was the sign I should leave. I didn’t expect more; that therapist is just another cog in the wheel, the cog that enables smooth turning of the wheel. 

*

I can’t find Jim on the phone, so I call his wife. She hasn’t seen him since last night, she says. What happened? I ask. What happened is he got fired, she says sobbing over the phone. Those fucking machines have won, she adds. I hang up to tell my wife. Although I’m deeply worried about Jim, a part of me feels relieved I’m not the only victim anymore. Not all people are up for this, she says. Up for what? You know, life, she replies, as if life means silently, obediently, working day after day to make ends meet. On top of this, you have to smile, as if things went as planned, feigning happiness, even when dead inside. It only takes a moment before I snap. Life isn’t supposed to be like this. Life should be about authentic smiles. I throw my phone out of the window and then take hers and step on it, and jump on it like a maniac but that’s not enough to calm me down. I hit the TV with all my strength until it’s on the floor in pieces and then take a hammer and hit the laptop on the table, until it’s smashed and then the parrot mechanically repeats from the living room, ‘fuck all machines’, like a song on the repeat but without the emotion, cause that’s what I’m thinking about and the bird knows and spits the words hiding in my brain, remaining calm at the same time, like I wish I could, yet I’m not a machine. Or a parrot. 

The doctor arrived an hour later. It’s us against the machines, I said. Better than blaming the foreigners, but not too different, he answered. I asked what he meant but he didn’t care to explain. He prepared an injection to calm me down. I wish those stupid machines had never been invented, I said. It’s not who invented the gun, it’s not even about the guns at all, it’s who pulls the trigger, he told me before he left. The parrot was staring at me without talking, for my mind went numb with the injection and didn’t speak either, but the parrot nodded, as if he agreed with the doctor.

*

And I feel like the child in the African proverb who wasn’t embraced by the village and was ready to burn it down to feel its warmth, only the rage turns inwards, it becomes internalized and it feels like I’m now eating myself from the inside, like I was me and now I’m slowly vanishing, wondering who’ll replace me after I’m gone. Most probably, it’ll be a machine, or a parrot, or a parrot-like machine. The world’s gone mute too, along with the bird, like in those old black and white films, in which there was no other sound but music, background music playing, and I realize I must have regressed even further, instead of getting better. 

They say my problem is I can’t keep up with my time but I don’t want to either. I still cannot decide whether that’s a comforting thought or not, but apparently, I wasn’t even the first of the gang to die. Jim was. Perhaps many more have preceded him, yet they weren’t part of the gang, so they don’t count. 




Kirabiti

It’s on a trip you take to the Isle of Rum that she
mentions Kirabiti. That’s what she calls it. Kinloch Castle is on the far side
of the island to where the ferry boat comes in. You wheel hired bicycles off
the landing ramp and leave the foot passengers trailing. The unsealed road
crackles like bubble-wrap beneath your tyres as you pass finely gritted
beaches, white stucco-covered houses – one with black metal crows above the
doorway – and a community centre you’ll later discover to be the only public source
of wi-fi on the island.

You snort the sea air as you pound the pedals, trying
to keep up with her, feeling increasingly irate that you can’t. She has good
legs, egg-shaped muscles on the backs of her calves. You’ve never noticed them
before. Her rucksack is strapped to the back of her bike, so her white shirt billows
out behind her like an untethered sail. She always wears shirts or cardigans
over vest tops, to hide her broad shoulders.

“Family trait,” she confessed once like a guilty
secret, when you teased her about them, the third or fourth time you slept
together.

No one prepares you for good weather in Scotland. You
are carrying a daypack on your shoulders, containing your top, boots, washbag, and
your new cagoule, ankle gaiters and torch. The torch jiggles against your back,
agitating your skin. The decision to rid yourself of your merino wool sweater,
hiking boots and alpaca socks, to ride bare chested, bare footed, seemed louche
when you set out. But now you’ve sweated off the bug-spray the midges have
swept in, working themselves across your chest and up the legs of your distressed
jeans.

You’d mocked her optimism as you watched her pack,
back in London, two days ago. With departure time approaching, her wardrobe half
empty on her bed, she’d balled up sleeveless tops and cotton shorts and
scrunched them into her rucksack.

“Forecast’s nice,” she’d protested, but she squeezed a
couple of jumpers in anyway, to please you.

She seems unaffected by the midges now, her light clothes
flapping them away. It needles you, her comfort in surroundings that make you
feel so out of place.

Another irritant: this fine, unexpected weather, the
sunlight bouncing off cresting waves, is making you think of Lisa. Specifically,
that last holiday you took as a couple, to Liguria for Dee’s wedding. You had
booked an Airbnb with Shaun and Martha: a villa high up in the hills overlooking
Monterosso al Mare. It had a crescent-shaped pool, a balcony and a bar. It was hot
like this, and you’d been sweating then too, basking on a sun lounger, your
skin freckling and freshly pinked. Martha – ever the leader – had gone off in
search of lemon trees, Recottu and triofe. Shaun was swimming lengths in
the curved pool as best he could, training for his next triathlon.

Lisa had been sitting by you, flipping through an old
art catalogue on Futurism that she’d found in a drawer somewhere. She had kept
trying to engage you in a conversation about Balla’s “Mercury Passing”, knowing
full well you had never seen it. Or perhaps you had, perhaps at one of the
countless exhibition openings you’d been guest-listed into over the past three
years – “Oh, you’re Lisa’s partner? She’s a force.
And you’re in … research?” But it had been hard to remember anything in that
fat heat, two Pirlos down with the scent of chlorine and sun cream rising.

Kinloch Castle grows steadily as you approach, red sandstone
stark against blue sky. It’s a rectangular building, stocky round turrets at
each corner. An outer wall fringes the inner one, unnecessarily shoring it up with
archways and buttresses, as though trying to create the illusion of a building
three times the height. Stained glass windows glare down at you, bisecting
sunrays. Some panes are smeared: old handprints; traces of children’s nostrils
pressed against the glass. The entrance is indicated by a tall pink tower,
unmistakeably phallic, set in the centre of one of the long walls. As you pull
up, a tour guide opens an oak door carved with lion heads.

“Welcome, welcome! What weather – can yous believe
it’s September?” Spotting the bicycles, he adds: “We’ll wait for the ones on
foot. Yous took the smart route.”

You prickle gleefully; the bikes were your idea. You
uncurl the wire lock from the bicycle’s frame and look for a place to chain it.
She slings hers onto its side in the driveway as though tipping a cow.

“No need to worry about that here, Toto,” she says. “We’re
not in Kansas anymore.”

You find a gutter pipe to lock the bike to then attach
hers as well, to make the point. Untying the sleeves of your jumper from around
your waist, you pull it over your head as you enter the castle. Your skin barks,
darkening your mood.

“You alright, hon?” she asks, as you join her in the
lobby. You don’t answer.

As you wait together she begins to fidget, brushing an
imaginary stray hair from her forehead, shifting her weight from foot to foot, tucking
the back of her shirt into her shorts. The movements hover in your peripheral
vision like midges; you want to swat them away. Has she always been this nervous?
You try to think back over the last five or six months but the answer eludes
you. As she re-rolls her sleeve you put your hand out to stop her. She
misinterprets the gesture and holds it, smiling gratefully. You shake free of
her grasp – the smile drops – and walk over to one of the blood red walls to
study a painting. It’s a clansman in full tartan garb: kilt, sporran, Sgian-dubh. His hands are on his hips,
his right foot resting on the body of a dribbling stag.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” she says immediately, behind you.
“So imposing.”

It recalls to you – suddenly, perfectly – the moment
you first met. It was at the exhibition launch of some Twitter follower of
Lisa’s, that you’d attended half-hoping she’d be there (she wasn’t). You were
scowling at a gold frame filled with pages from Jeffrey Archer thrillers,
defaced with intricate geometric knots.

“I like to feel something, I guess,” a voice sighed apologetically,
addressed to the fey-looking man she was with then. “Abstract art just never
lets me in.”

You give a non-committal shrug and bend down as though
to study the signature on the clansman painting, which sits next to a small
puddle of spittle. In your mind’s ear, you hear Lisa sigh, slap her catalogue
shut and slip into the pool.

Through eyes that had refused to stay open or closed,
you’d observed her cut across the water with short, determined strokes. Time
took on a fluid quality as you’d ebbed in and out of sleep, images and sounds
careering and colliding. Lisa’s tanned body glimmering like an eel’s as she
twisted, changed direction. Lisa treading water in the centre of the pool,
forcing Shaun to pull up in front of her. Shaun lifting Lisa up on his broad
shoulders. She, tumbling backwards into the water, pushing her wet hair back as
she resurfaced. Lisa eyeing the inverted triangle of Shaun’s torso. The two of
them sharking a slow circle around each other, disappearing behind the water
slide. Laughter, splashing, shrieking, silence.

When you’d awoken, they had been sitting at the edge
of the pool, heads bowed in conversation. The knot of Lisa’s bikini top was
off-centre, but you couldn’t remember if it had always been that way.

The castle door creaks open.

“Welcome, welcome,” you hear the guide greet the other
tourists. “What weather – can yous believe it’s September?”

As the lobby fills, he strides up the stairs of the
Great Hall to a mezzanine level to signify that the tour is starting. He stretches
out his arms like an emperor at the Colosseum, the group looking up at him.

“Kinloch Castle,” he says, “was built in 1897 as a
hunting lodge for George Bulloch, who inherited the island from his father. The
sandstone was imported from a quarry on the Isle of Arran. Construction took three
years and involved up to three hundred workers. The young Master Bulloch, as
you’ll see, was not a modest man. In fact, this whole castle was designed to
emphasise his position at the top of the Highlands and Islands social ladder.”

The group trails his steady stream of patter around
the building: the Gold Ballroom, the Billiard Hall, the Lady of the House’s En Suite,
bedrooms with four-poster beds, a secret passage to the maid’s quarters (her
hand brushes your arse through your jeans). Stag heads adorn each wall, their
antlers great skeletal hands that hold an alternative history, of the land
clearances that made way for hunting reservations like these. Back in the Great
Hall, the guide opens a mahogany cupboard under the staircase, revealing an orchestrion.
The group oohs and aahs at a series of long brass cornets, lined up like
hunting rifles, a small drum perched on a shelf at their mouths, a rusted
triangle poised beside it.

“Only three of these exist in the world today,” he says,
proudly. “This is the only one that works.”

He loads a cylindrical cartridge dotted with braille
into the machine. As the room fills with a noise like off-tone bagpipes and
childhood days at the seaside, the line loops in your head: the only one that
works.

She hadn’t liked it when you told her you’d agreed to
meet up with Lisa at the start of the summer. But she’d listened while you
explained it to her, nodding sadly as you said it was something you needed to
do, were going to do. You had always been clear about your feelings – certainly
she couldn’t charge you with that. The pub was on the canal by Camden Lock, one
of those awful, busy, minimalist places that Lisa knew would annoy you. You had
perched on the end of a wooden bench beside a concrete table, nudged
intermittently by the elbows of a girl having an argument with her boyfriend.

“I just want you to care,” she was shouting, “to actually
give a shit.”

You’d ordered a cortado so you could finish it before Lisa
got there, to emphasise her lateness.

When she’d arrived it was in a flurry of activity, as
always: talking hands-free, smoking a cigarette, taking off her sunglasses to
squint down at your face.

“Bye-bye-bye,” she’d said to the person on the phone
while smiling at you.

She’d looked good: healthy, athletic. You wondered if
she’d been training – then, with whom. She’d sat down as you got up to hug her,
but otherwise you’d chatted away like this was any other date, like you’d never
left her, like there’d been no year-long void. She’d teased you for re-reading
Rilke (“Relic with a God complex”). You’d feigned offence that she hadn’t
invited you to the Tate’s Clinton Hill retrospective (“The ICA’s”). She’d asked
if you’d ever finished that PhD and when you’d said you had her face lit up
with childish joy, an exact copy of the first time she’d ever seen her name on
the RA’s Summer Exhibition programme, six months into your relationship. And
for those fleeting moments it was like old times, like the oldest – those that
sit inside the bones of you and make them strong and, later, unbearably weak.

Eventually, because you’d known she wouldn’t say it
unprompted, you’d asked if she was seeing anyone.

“Yes,” she’d replied, carefully.

“Shaun?”

An eyebrow arched. “Of course not, silly.”

Her tone had left you with more questions than
answers. She hadn’t asked if you were dating again. You’d considered telling
her anyway but couldn’t find a way that didn’t seem like return fire. Besides,
you didn’t even have a photograph.

“Is it serious?” you’d said at last.

“I think so,” she’d replied, offhandedly. “They bore
me, though. You didn’t bore me.”

It had felt good to hear her say that, even though
you’d doubted it was true.

“Leave him, then,” you’d given back.

“For who – you?”

It was like a guillotine falling.

“Thought not.”

She’d waved for the bill and paid, even though she
hadn’t ordered anything. You’d stood up as she left, so she’d be obliged to peck
you on the cheek, at least. Her hair smelled of oranges, which reminded you that
it always had.

Back in the lobby at the end of the tour, under a
bronze cast of an eagle eating a monkey, the guide’s tone turns serious.

“This house is falling down,” he says. “Such was
Bulloch’s desire to show off his wealth, he demanded construction be rushed, so
the structural support is poor.” You wait for him to ask for a donation on the
way out, to support a roof fund or some-such. But instead he adds: “We can only
work to preserve it as long as possible.”

“Like Kirabiti,” she breathes beside you.

“What?”

“Kirabiti,” she whispers. “You know, the island. The
one that’s disappearing because of climate change. Rising sea levels, nothing
can change it.” The volume of her voice rises, becomes more animated, as she
sees your interest is piqued. “There’s a weightlifter from there. I remember
seeing him on the Olympics. He dances after every attempted lift, whether he succeeds
or fails. It’s so that people will love him and remember him and remember Kirabiti.
He came third or fourth, I’m not sure – but I remember the dancing and
Kirabiti, so it works. Isn’t that amazing?”

“It’s Kiribati,” you say.

“What?”

“Kiribati. You said Kirabiti.”

“Oh,” she says, going red.

That night, you stay together in a pine camping pod,
the shape of a fortune-teller’s caravan. The shower is outside, surrounded by a
staked fence, and charges fifty pence for hot water that never comes on. She
hasn’t said much since the tour, but she makes a campfire, deftly spinning
pieces of kindling between her fingers, lighting the match and slowly feeding the
flames with smaller sticks until the logs can go on. She has a patience with this
sort of thing that you’ve never had for anything practical. She catches you
watching her.

“Girl Guides,” she says and laughs.

It’s an apologetic laugh, she uses it often: at
academic functions you’ve guest-listed her into, when she’s asked who she’s
reading and she replies “Karin Slaughter, mostly”; with the few friends you’ve
introduced her to when she has to remind them of her name. You find it
embarrassing in front of other people yet here, alone, it’s endearing. There’s
an assurance she needs that only you can give her. And, away from everything, it
feels like something you can give.

You
read Rilke aloud to her as she works:

“Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.”

“Lovely,”
she says. “Really nice.”

It doesn’t last, of course, the weather. The rain comes
down, the fire’s snuffed out, and you retreat into the cabin. She has midge
bites on her ankles from where she took her socks off before making the fire.

“Silly,” you tell her giddily, brushing your thumb
across a blushing sore. “I told you to put the spray on.”

The cotton sticks to her skin as you try to pull her
shorts down. She wiggles out of them, yanking her knickers back up as if trying
for some ridiculous sense of striptease. You push them aside and lick her
hungrily where her thighs meet. She resists for a moment – embarrassed by her
smell, the sea, the sweat – before parting her legs, the stubble raised up on
goose-bumps. You make her beg before fucking her.

Later, when the rain stops, you roll yourself
carefully out of the camp bed, your back objecting. She is snoring comfortably,
has been for the past four or five hours. You, meanwhile, have been staring at
the ceiling of the pod, shivering and counting spiders, real and imagined. You
step out on the porch, roll a cigarette and light up, idly fizzing bug-spray into
the air to keep the midges at bay. The sun is rising, you can see it through
the haar, a Pointillist blur. She told you earlier that the twilight hour, the
pinking dusk, is called the gloaming. What is the opposite of “gloaming”, you
wonder? Perhaps they covered that in Girl Guides too.

It can’t carry on, you know that. She must know it too.
It’s the subtext undercutting every nervous laugh, every action designed to
please you: “I just want you to care, to actually give a shit.”

The last time you heard from Lisa was two weeks ago, when
she’d phoned to say she was getting married and asked you to give her a reason
not to. Your heart had stalled but you’d kept your tone neutral.

“How many exes are you phoning tonight?”

“However many will pick up,” she’d answered
sarcastically.

“Shaun?”

A sigh. “Of course not. Silly.”

After a pregnant pause you’d told her to send you a “Save
the Date” and you’d be sure to raise a toast to the happy couple from afar.

“I keep giving you these chances,” she’d said.

“To what?”

Her hair still smelled of oranges, even over the phone,
even after she hung up.

You hear her stir inside the cabin, call your name
unsurely, as though you might have run away in the night. It grates. She’s like
the weightlifter, you think, always dancing in your presence. The image is
pleasing: her with a great inflated body, tucking the back of a t-shirt into a
leotard, a stupid grin on her fat face. Her cheeks puff out and her skin
purples as she hoiks the barbell to collarbone level, squats to the floor.
Slowly, she straightens her wobbling legs, then places one behind her ready for
the jerk. But the angle is bad: her arms push forwards and the weight slams to
the floor. She reels backwards onto the mat, and sits there for a moment,
stunned. Then she gets up, bows, laughs and starts to wriggle. Her hands draw
circles as her weight shifts from foot to foot, her bottom swinging,
desperately trying to draw attention to an island already drowning, already
gone.

You take the last drag of your cigarette and stub it
out on the wooden porch. It leaves a black mark which you press your finger
against, to feel the residual burn. There’s a new bite on your wrist; the
little fuckers get through every time. But there’s something else hovering just
outside the frame, something you can’t swat away. It keens towards you now, steeling
itself to bite.

“Because if she is the weightlifter,” it says, baring
its teeth, “what does that make you?”




On Going Fast

It’s easier going fast. Even now, as I write
this, I’m on 36 mg of Ritalin, drinking my second coffee of the day. Black with
one shot of espresso. Usually I order a cold brew, but Starbucks was all out.
When I pointed at the cashier and called him a sinner as a joke, he did not
laugh.

I love the chemical aid. The charge of energy
that keeps me alert – eyes open, mind going. Heart pumping. Dreams running. The
quickening of the keys beneath my fingertips, an ethereal rainstorm pouring
down a world of thought fueled by Speed – bolts of energy. But the question
that always haunts me is if I truly need the stimulants. If I ever did.

In America’s fast-paced, career-driven, competitive
and creative society, one must always be sharp. On point. Ready to go-go-go! Maybe it’s more up in New
England, something in the college-saturated water. But we all feel it to some degree, as humans. The pull towards ease.
Towards what’s convenient. Towards going fast. And as I grow older, nearing thirty,
I find myself loving efficiency more and more. I find myself wanting to take
the shortcut.

Drugs are good for this. My old man has ADD,
always had it along with dyslexia, which led him to drop out of high school and
join the Marines. My brother was given Ritalin probably too early on, and – due
to its less glamorous side effects – quit the drug. He became a C student, a gifted
hockey player, a lone-wolf skateboarder, and now plays video games
competitively. His eyes wide-open staring at the screen into the wee hours of
the morning. So the learning disability is in my genes, I guess, but I never
remember taking an official test at the doctor.

About a year ago, my husband took me to the Boston
Museum of Science as a celebration for completing my MFA program. We sat down
at a station with a bulky screen that lit up with a test telling you not to get
distracted by random objects that would pop up. Cats! Purple cats! Trees!
Storms! Street signs! Ghosts! Ghosts? Gorillas! I oohed and awed, my score
plummeted, the screen buzzed, and my husband walked away laughing his face off.

Online there are quizzes you can take to measure
if you have ADD. According to one site, if you score a 34 & Up, it’s likely
you have adult ADHD. I score above 40 every time. But the part that doesn’t
make sense is that if I’m on the medication, shouldn’t I be scoring better on
these tests? If I have ADD, shouldn’t I go slower on the meds? The validity of
my diagnosis has always been questionable. What came first – I wonder – the
problem or the panacea?

I began taking Adderall illegally in high school
and quickly became addicted to amphetamines. I got A’s before taking the drugs
and I got A’s after. In college, I’d take my smart pills alongside my
successful peers. Pop shortcuts on huge projects off the palm of my hand.

Then one day, during my sophomore year of college,
I quit all drugs cold turkey. Butts. Pot. Pills. Even my anxiety meds. I
started seeing tiny blue demons on the vacuum cleaner at work. I also wasn’t
able to read books very well, my English grades starting to slip. My doctor
decided to put me on Ritalin as a safe, happy-medium between my addiction and deficiencies.
And to keep the demons at bay.

Nearly ten years later, I still take the drug. And
even though I’m thankful for the help it provides – for the time it saves – I
wonder now what life would have been like if I never got on the stimulants. How
different things would be. I wonder why I was always so afraid of going slow – why
I’m still afraid.

I think it’s the hardship. The humdrum of life. The
stuff silence says. The limitations one feels when losing help. The challenges life
brings when one slows down enough to face them.

And when that naked day comes, I’ll write about it. But for now, I don’t mind going slow.




Gli Elefanti sono Stanchi

It was his
beauty. I loved looking at him. That’s why I found myself going back. He
wouldn’t pretend. He needed my help then he needed me as a woman. No more than
a couple of times. It was always up to me and I would always say yes. He gave
me plenty of space to say no. The way he asked, seemed he expected that. I
never tried to be elusive. I would go to the address he would give me. Two
different addresses. Two different times. One was his. One was his friend’s.

 I remember seeing him one day at the meadows. He wore a garish blue nineties T-shirt. A bit oversize. He was sitting a minute away from me. I had texted him if he was around for a drink. Hadn’t seen him while I composed the message. It took me half an hour to write a couple of lines. I used my two native friends. He replied the next day, saying it was a good day for it. Exclamation mark. The previous night, I slept with a guy I met that evening in the meadows. When I saw he would not reply to my message sitting a minute away from me, I would turn my head the other way, twenty minutes or so. When I finally looked at where he was supposed to be sitting, he was gone. After a couple of weeks he asked me to help him with his orals. I said yes. I met him the same day at the pub of the university. He was anxious. He wanted to get that done and leave. He didn’t order anything. He went along with his presentation. I pretended to have listened carefully to what he said. I ended up staring at him in an effort to focus on his voice. People were loud and his accent made it difficult. Then I gave him tips to avoid trap questions. If there were any. I remember trying to start a conversation.

We went out
he rolled me a cigarette and I rushed to finish my cider. Fringe was coming. He
said he wanted their money- those idiots who come and spend it there.  I didn’t think of asking him if he ever
enjoyed the festival. Next day, he thanked me saying he spoke cogently in
French.

Most of the times he was silent. That wouldn’t change even when he talked. He would say something but had no means to sustain a conversation. His words would linger a bit and drop. Beauty cupped it up. Out of all men I’ve slept with, I craved for two.  He was one of them. He couldn’t know that. I would look at him, look at him a lot. When I was dressing up, putting on my shoes. He looked back at me and smiled. It was more of a reaction to my staring at him and saying nothing. I had nothing more to say. I understood he wouldn’t see me again.




I See You

Picture Credits: Ella 87

I wake when you do. Your alarm clock is mine, the digital bird harmonies that enter your ears are the same ones that enter my own, the loss in quality almost imperceptible as the sound travels through the fibre broadband that runs into my flat. It thrills me to think of this physical connection between us, that there is a wire that starts behind the paint and plaster of my bedroom and travels down into the ground, twisting and turning and emerging many miles away into the fine white interior of your beautiful house. It is a physical connection between us, like a vein or a string of muscle. We are part of the same body.

Of course, I can’t match your routine. I rise when you rise, but I lie on the floor as you perform your morning exercises: the sit-ups, press-ups, ab curls and pec pounders. You grunt and call out encouragements to yourself as you go. You are always pushing your body. If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re holding yourself back, you always say. I have that tattooed on my left forearm. I see the sweat glistening on your abdomen, and if I concentrate I can feel it too. The burn, you call it. The wall. The mountain. I am there, perched on your shoulder, trembling through your ascent.

I shower when you shower. I start on my arms as you do, soaping down each one before moving on to my chest. Your viewer numbers spike at the time, and I can see the likes and comments as they come in. I don’t pay them any attention. I know you know I am here.

Out of the shower and it’s on to the skincare routine. I do my best to keep up. I have the cinnamon and bergamot body oil, the guava and pomegranate face scrub, the moisturiser with the hygroscopic molecules. I can’t afford the peptide serum; one bottle would use up my entire salary from the warehouse, but as I soap my face with the scrub and run the same specialist clay you use through my hair, I feel as if we are one.  

When it hits eight I’m out the door, but I keep your feed in the top corner of my Visor. I keep it on all day. The audio cuts if someone needs to tell me something, but most of the time I’m with you right through – hearing what you hear, seeing what you see. I watch you eat breakfast as I’m waiting for the shuttle bus. I can taste the ancient-grain acai berry granola, the avocado on sourdough.

It takes a long time to get into the warehouse. My shift doesn’t start till ten, but I queue for an hour at the security gate. Once I’m in, it’s a twelve-minute buggy ride to my section. I have a forklift to load the packages and take them out. Everyone has a Visor at the warehouse, even the foreman. 

I clock off around eight – it’s a ten-hour shift – but it takes me a while to get out of the building. They strip search everyone before they leave – it’s company policy, they have to make sure we’ve haven’t taken anything. I don’t mind, they let me keep my Visor on and I have your feed running full screen while they do it. Usually, you are in the gym at this time, bench-pressing three-hundred pounds or battling through a stage of a virtual Tour de France. You stop now and then to drink one of those cold-pressed juices you’ve been talking about lately, kale and blueberry or beetroot and snowberry. Snowberries have the highest antioxidant count by weight of any berry. I learned that from you. You say something like Time for a power-up before you drink, briefly pausing on the bottle and the company logo. I mouth the words and take a drink myself. Mine’s water, but you have the power to transform it. 

By the time I get back, you’re often at home relaxing. Sometimes you’re on the sofa with your latest girl. At the moment it’s some actor from the latest Superman reboot. You move through them quickly, but they’re always actors or models. You switch to your premium rate on these nights, but I always pay the extra. Sometimes I switch to your partner’s feed, to see you as they see you, but not for long. Besides, there is always a mirror nearby. Your bedroom is full of them: you hold the light a prisoner.

Actually, it was a mirror that brought me here. I know how careful you are – and I understand why. The software you use is excellent at blurring out the details – street names, signs – and the way the video drops when you’re approaching or leaving your house is a wise move. You never know who’s out there.

But the software isn’t as clever as you thought. A few days ago, on your early morning jog, you stopped at a corner and checked your hair in that small mirror you carry, the one some dumb commenters call a make-up compact. I could see half a street sign in the reflection.

And that’s how I found your house.

All I had to do was to take that frame, zoom in, and I had the clue I needed. One word: BISHOP. 

I searched online for a long time to find the right place, looking over the whole country for street names that matched. There were lots of variations – Bishop Street, Bishopsgate, Bishop’s Lane, Bishop Road – but only one, in Hampstead, that was the right fit. 

Bishop’s Avenue. When I looked on Street View I could see the corner where you paused that morning. 

Finding your house was trickier. From the corner you stopped at I knew it had taken you one minute and fifty-six seconds to get through your front door. So you had to be close to home. Given how big the houses are in that neighbourhood and the distances between them, that narrowed it down to a handful of properties. The final piece of the puzzle, though, was which one?

I’d really hate to have broken into the wrong place.

Street View wasn’t giving me much insight, what with the huge driveways and high walls, so I switched to satellite view. I remembered the pool party you’d hosted last year, when you were upset because you had invited David Beckham and he hadn’t come, and then it was easy.

You’re the only one around there with a twenty-five metre swimming pool.

I waited a few nights. I knew you wouldn’t just let me in if I turned up at your gate. And I didn’t want to scare you by sneaking in while you were there. Then, earlier tonight, you went out to the gala dinner for that cancer charity you support, so I knew I had a few hours to play with. That tuxedo was made for you, by the way; it’s no wonder there’s talk of you as the next Bond, even if it is mostly you doing the talking. 

It was easy enough to get over the wall. I had a mini step-ladder in the boot and a tarpaulin to throw over the razor wire. I ignored the warning about the dogs. I know you only have a chihuahua called Luigi, and I knew he’d be locked up inside. The pool was all lit up, and there were spotlights around the edge of the building. But I kept to the shadows, creeping along the path towards the darkest spot I could find along the side of the house. I could see you were getting ready to leave the gala. The hall you were in was emptying out, the black-suited waiting staff stealing through the crowds to collect the glasses and plates. You were standing near the entrance adjusting your cufflinks – Leroi & Etude, you’ve been talking about them a lot recently.

But even if you had left immediately, you were still an hour away. I had time. Of course, I’d given a lot of thought about how I’d get in to your house. I didn’t want to break anything or cause you any unnecessary pain or difficulty, but in the end smashing the kitchen window was my only option. There was always the risk of the alarm, I know you have one but you don’t always set it. Besides, I knew the security company would call you even if the thing went off. They’d call you and I’d see you answer it on my Visor. There’d be time to back out.

I’m so glad I didn’t have to.

You look shocked, but you really shouldn’t be. I know it seems like I’m a stranger, but it isn’t so. I know you intimately. I know you have a mole on the inside of your left thigh that you are worried about; I can tell by how often you look at it. I know your favourite place is your chalet in the Dolomites; I can feel the crisp freshness to the air whenever you visit, can tell how it inspires your soul. I know you believe in love despite your reputation as a player; I can tell from how often you look at that slideshow of pictures of you and Meghan Vow on Miami Beach, the one in the e-photo frame from that new Korean manufacturer. 

Three million people subscribe to your feed, but no-one sees you like I do. How many of your other followers watch the blackness before your eyes when you’re in bed at night?

I’ve watched every moment I could since you started broadcasting, back when you were just some fitness instructor living in a shared house in Notting Hill. And look how far you’ve come! I’ve watched you in the bath, on the treadmill at the gym, eating dinner at your favourite restaurant, sitting on the toilet and reading the book of poems you keep there with a pen to underline your favourite parts.

 I’ve backed you every step, been inside your head, your most devoted follower, a spirit on your shoulder, willing you on. I’m part of you; your memories are my memories; your mind is my own. 

I’ve seen everything of you, and now you can see me. And I can see you, seeing me. Have you checked your viewing figures? Half the country’s watching us right now. Don’t look so pained, step into the room and close the door.

The world is at home tonight, watching other people’s lives unfold on magic screens perched on the bridges of their noses. And whether they choose to watch it through my eyes or yours, they’re all going to see what happens next. 




The Woodcutter

Picture Credits: Ching

Anna
hated cherry blossom’s dying sprawl. The untidiness of it. The neediness. How
the fallen petals clung to her shoes, like wet, white moths, as though she was
dry land to them. She laid down the axe on the grass and raised each itching
foot in turn. She shook until a few petals unstuck and fluttered to the ground.
The rest held fast.

“Whoosh!”

Prue
swooped with airplane arms through the blossom’s sickly-sweet gunge and
giggled. Her red hair swung behind her in an arc. So pretty, Anna thought – but
as her daughter sprinted towards her and the blossom’s winged petals flapped
and flailed and stuck to the little bare legs and the new blue dress and that glossy
hair, she winced. Stop, she wanted to shout. Don’t come any closer.

Every
spring, it was the same. Prue clapped and whirled around the shedding tree and
the blossom flew to her. She loved the tree and it seemed to love her back in
its cloying, dying-throes way. It was all his doing.

“Our
daughter’s tree,” he had said the day he planted it. Anna gave birth that
morning – “gave light”, they would have said back home – and when he arrived at
the hospital, he cradled their little Prue for ten, perhaps fifteen minutes,
before rushing away to plant a cherry tree at the foot of their garden. Prunus serrula, he said. Gorgeous. White blossom rather than pink. Bark the
colour of glistening cherries.Your
twin, he had whispered to Prue every day since, for the last eight years; until
the night he left without a word’s explanation.

“Hello,
lovely twin!” Prue sang as she approached the tree. Her laugh today sounded a
notch higher than usual.

“Look
at the state of you already.”

Prue
flushed at Anna’s words. Her raised arms froze mid-air. Her elbows and wrists
jutted out, like nubs on brittle, wintering branches.

“Your
father didn’t think about that, did he?” Anna insisted. Sometimes she couldn’t
stopper the voice inside her.

Prue
stared up, silent.

“The
mess this tree leaves behind,” Anna explained, training her daughter’s raised
arms back down to her sides.

Prue
still said nothing, but her eyes said she understood: Mum meant another mess
left behind.

Anna
wiped a petal caught in the crook of Prue’s neck and brushed at her winged
dress. As she tidied, she looked across at the rhododendron by the fence. It had
become a monster too. All those showy, purple flowers. All the waxy leaves that
would curl into orange mulch come autumn. Every season in this garden brought
its own particular untidiness and neediness. She glanced down at the axe lying
beside her: a sharp, clean thing that might end all this mess.

“He
always left me to clean up the mess.”

Prue
stumbled forwards and let out a small whimper.

Anna
reached out a steadying hand. “All right, petal?”

She
needed to stop using that word. Petal.
That was his word.

“Mum?”

“Sweetheart?”

Prue
took another squishy step closer. “I could ask him.”

“What?”

“I
could ask Dad to come and sort the garden – tidy the mess?”

Six
months gone, with no explanation apart from metaphorical fogs and craters, and still
Prue dreamed and plotted her father’s return. Every morning when Anna woke,
there was her daughter hovering at the foot of the bed. “Is Dad home?” she’d
ask. Anna would shake her head and Prue would sidle closer and pat the cold,
empty side of the bed from head to foot – as though she’d rather doubt her own
senses than hear her father’s silence and what it said.

“Can
I ask him?” Prue’s mouth quivered.

“No.”

“But—”

“No,
you won’t beg your father to see you. He should be asking you. Instead, it’s
radio silence.”

A
shudder passed through Prue’s body. Anna could feel it vibrate in the earth
beneath them, like the drumming of a gull’s feet. Prue had never cried since he
left. She only shook, as though she didn’t have the voice or salt for tears.

“He’s
not silent. He messages me sometimes.”

Anna
stared now at the rosebed he’d planted a couple of years ago. There was the
first sign of his wanderlust, his edging towards mists and gorges. It was a
blanket of red and yellow deadheads now. She’d already taken the secateurs to
it this morning to avert the impending mess. Prue hadn’t noticed yet.

“Sometimes?”
Anna repeated back. “Once in six months?”

Another
shudder passed through Prue. For a moment, Anna wondered if she should stop – but
it was time to break his story’s spell. Girls aren’t fables. Trees don’t make
good sisters. Absence isn’t a place to sow seeds or to water or to try and make
grow.

“We
don’t need your father,” she said. “I can sort this garden.”

Prue
waited.

“I’ll
cement it over.”

“Cement?”
Prue blinked, as though learning some terrible swear word.

“Like
a pavement.”

This
time, the tears rose to Prue’s eyes. A fold of petals drizzled from her dress. She
stared down at Anna’s hands, saw the roses’ stings in them and flinched as she
looked over at the blanket of deadheads.

“It’ll
make our lives much easier, sweetheart.”

Prue’s
eyes shone. “You’re going to chop it down? Everything Dad grew?”

Anna
reached out and brushed her daughter’s cheek. “It’s much for me, on my own.”

“Even
my tree?” Prue trembled.

Anna
pointed to the mulch. “It makes too much mess.”

Prue
tugged at a petal on her dress’s hem – or perhaps it was a moth, this time. “I’m
sorry.”

“Why?
It’s not your fault, sweetheart.”

Prue
flushed. “She’s my tree spirit. And she makes a mess.”

“No,
Prue. It’s just a tree. That was your father’s fanciful story.”

Prue
fell to her knees and grabbed the axe with both hands. “I’ll help you tidy, Mum.”

Anna
stared at her little girl’s wiry strength. “Put that down.”

“It’s
fine.” Prue half-smiled. “I know how to use an axe. Daddy taught me. Undercut
first, he said.”

“Undercut?”
Anna asked.

“Here.
I’ll show you.”

Prue
planted herself, feet apart, in front of her glistening tree and swung the
blade.

“I’ll
fell me.”