by Michelle Green

On the other side of the far wall the road is quiet. Our neighbours chatter loudly in the next compound, their heads visible in shadow against the top of their house. Two women talking, then a man. The talking stops. Something liquid hits the fire, one of the heads ducks down. Something solid is slapped as a deep rusted voice speaks a word I don’t know. Someone clears their throat, spits, and then their sounds are swallowed by rustling, by a blanket of tiny smothering noises that presses down.

You are sitting near me in the dark, sculling a harsh drink. Considering your options. Rolling my words around inside you, the open hand, the two eyes.

‘The locust migration takes weeks,’ you tell me. ‘They’ll fly over us for one whole night, then rest when they find water.’

You lean forward, hold the glass up to my lips till I drain the last mouthful.

The locusts form a fluttering glittering ceiling, a sparkling roof of copper dusted sequins, papery lanterns with no light inside. They ripple and surge above us, filling out the whole hollow of the night till every space is packed perfectly with the sound of beating wings.

You were gone by morning, and no one else was around to care. Paula was out on a week-long survey of the neighbouring district, and J was just out, visiting a friend or something. When I emerged from my room he was back and busy, covered already in engine grease and sweat. The sun was still rising and there he was in the yard, face inside the generator, tools in an arc behind him.

Salaam, I called to him, good morning. One arm went up and he shouted back in greeting, didn’t turn around. He kept a low monologue going, talking quietly to the generator and each of its pieces as he worked: little piston what’s wrong now, huh, why don’t you move, what, you’ve lost the love, huh, little piston? By the time I’d changed my shirt and pants, washed myself quickly, the generator had growled and coughed and fallen silent twice more. J swore a little more as he sweet talked the pistons and checked each connecting point with his eyes and hands. He reached one arm in deep, turned the wrench, then pulled back. Slapped the green start switch and held the body of the engine as it started. As it settled into a consistent rumble he clapped both hands together and shouted – Ai!

Marcos my brother, how are you? He bellowed over the noise of the generator, grinning wide as I approached. You have a fun night? He flipped the generator off, then walked off to the kitchen talking about coffee and bread and the radio mast that still needs fixing.

Most of our conversations go like this. J speaks, asks a question, then cuts himself off and moves onto something else before it can progress. You’d sent him over to us after seeing the advertisement, holding a written reference and a personal recommendation. ‘Despite having to leave for Nyala due to a family crisis, J arranged his own cover by drafting in a competent and trustworthy trainee, and completed an engine overhaul before he left. Highly motivated, highly skilled, and highly recommended to any organisation working in the area.’

That was a few months ago, which may as well have been years ago. Early summer, not hot by Sudanese standards, and you were the only one not sweating in the sun at the back of the security meeting. I tell you that now and you laugh. But it’s true. Paula and me were there shining like beacons, sweat finding ever new paths down our sides and backs, stinking of adrenaline and a night spent in the same set of clothes. The Littlest Aid Organisation in the West was how Paula introduced us – just two of us, one truck, and one computer. Sat at the back where the French medics passed around cigarettes and spoke in low murmurs through the whole security briefing. The man leading the briefing capped and uncapped his marker pen. He strode back and forth in front of the flipchart and spoke slowly like time was no concern. Good with an audience: exactly who J would be if he’d been born in Denver instead of a little village on the Chad-Sudan border.

Yours was the only lighter that worked, remember? The medics passed the smokes across the back row and I felt like a kid. Took your lighter. You watched it like a hawk, held your hand out for it once everyone was lit. This isn’t a good place for being frivolous, for misplacing things. You slipped it back into your pocket and introduced yourself. Pointed at your name on the letterhead in your lap while the chair read out the list of No-Gos and restricted areas for the week. I wrote my name and organisation on the inside of my palm and showed it to you, like passing a note in school. You swallowed a laugh, took my hand and held it for a second, like a handshake would be too noisy, too disruptive to the rest of the meeting. Just held it there, long enough for me to feel a trickle of shame at how damp my palm suddenly was.

The meeting broke and you took my hand again, this time the firm squeeze. ‘We’re working in one of the same camps you’re in, I think – Kirinding II?’ I nodded. ‘You’re the ones looking for a mechanic and technician, right? I might have just the guy. I’ll send him over. Come by my office if you need anything else – links with the sheiks, that kind of thing. We’re based right next to the market.’ You were the first person to invite us in with something practical. Not that the other agencies hadn’t been welcoming, but we’re such small fry, me and Paula, only able to work in one camp at a time. Around us these huge multinationals are building whole settlements, drilling for water, and we show up with boxes of exercise books and a football pump. The emergency daycare. Not always easy to get taken seriously.

J moved in with us not long after that, into the room beside the neighbours’ compound. Happy to live and work on site, he said it was better for him as his wife and kids lived in another village anyway. So weird to think of him married, a father. He had those wild kind of eyes like he was a man from a song, some epic tale delivered in a gravely voice. Just can’t picture him in domesticity, surrounded by family. Maybe he can’t either.

He sticks out like a sore thumb that keeps getting hit. The market stall holders see him coming and flit their eyes, checking something that’s not there – the cash bag? A credit note? He arrives like we arrive: speaking a different language. Singing for the other side, the wrong football chant, last year’s bad idea. I see all this cross their faces when we go looking for parts down in the craftsman’s end of the market. We pass the carpenter, then the man selling electrical goods. Look away from the bright arc in the open door of the welding shop. Just round the corner from here is the part of the market that burned down not too long ago – six months, maybe seven months ago. Eaten up by the torches of Janjaweed fighters, revenge for resistance. A proud businessman refused to pay the tithe demanded, or maybe it was done just for effect…no one really knows. Seven died that night, others lost all their stock, every piece of equipment.

‘Brother!’ J bellows into the open front of the mechanic’s shop. The man at the counter flinches a little when J claps his hands together and holds his arms open like he’s ready to take a dance partner. ‘A gasket is all we need, so make me smile and tell me you’ve got the one we want, my good Bahar.’ Bahar smiles with some effort and leans on the layers of wood and cardboard that form his shop counter, every little strip and offcut fitted flush to the front. J’s voice is theatrical, half-singing an engine grease opera with his deep matinee idol voice. Bahar smiles evenly at J, at me, and produces a small piece of paper and a short pencil. He speaks slowly. ‘So tell me then, brother, about this engine you need to save.’

I leave them to it, head out into the street and light a cigarette. They could be a while. Last time we came into the market together J spent the afternoon on long-winded stories and dramatic retellings at each shop and stall we came to, oblivious to the cautious eyes of the owners. Oblivious or more likely just not caring.

We’re not far from your office. A few streets away. I start walking through the throng of buyers and sellers, laden animals and over-stocked carts. A man roars about the quality of his snakeskin shoes – the price! Incredible! A donkey heavy with full water bladders and a chapped hard-on brays at a tree. A tea stand is assembled. Greetings, hands gripped, shoulders slapped, how’s the family?

Two teenage boys walk hand in hand ahead of me, chew fingernails, fifteen and eyes everywhere. An easy grace, and it’s allowed. Snake hips and long lashes and it’s allowed: the kind of male friendships that don’t wash back home. I’ve had fingers broken for less.

My eyes follow the boys as I cross the road to where you stand at your gate. You know the penalty is death, you tell me as I reach your side. Boys like us can hold hands with their best friend in the world, strut down the street together, arm in arm and totally invisible like Queen Victoria’s lesbians, you said, because they don’t exist. They are an impossibility, khawaji, totally foreign. I could smell you, smell your sweat, or maybe it was mine. I called you later to say thanks for the help, and to hear your voice again. Didn’t sleep that night.

In the bad old days I arrived in Vancouver underweight and skint, fourteen and knowing way too much already about the desperate failings of adults. Fourteen and wound so tight with adrenaline it was weeks before I walked anywhere. Running. Hiding. Scaling tall buildings with a single bound, I was invincible then. Broke out, then broke in. Ended up in a shelter on the edge of Low Track. Three years I stayed there as a resident. By the time I got my high school diploma I was working nights on the front desk a few times a week. Turns out I’m a good listener.

When the building got condemned and the funding pulled we all moved on to different centres. I was management by then. Well, that was the title. Ended up helping out at a few other places till eventually I was running a long-stay project just outside the city centre, then that got pulled too. Not a lot of money to be made in housing homeless youth. Not a lot of interest. The city cleanup began with mass removal of the visible homeless. Politician’s logic. The end of us.

Still needed to feed myself, needed to get paid to do something, right? A small ad in an email bulletin: please forward attached to your contacts. Initial contract for six months, field post, unaccompanied, subject to negotiation. No strings, ready to go. Set up a pilot centre in one major camp for Internally Displaced Peoples in West Darfur, providing support to unaccompanied minors – programme delivery and referral. Links to educational and healthcare services as appropriate. Primarily setting up and delivering programme of therapeutic support and mentoring, with aim of community integration. Children who’ve seen things no one should see. The unrepeatable.

Even after more than a decade of working with children who’ve endured the worst kinds of abuse, of addiction and neglect, I have no precedent for this, for the sheer scale of it.

There’s a boy in the camp centre, ten, with no skin. No real skin on his front side, just scar tissue. Dragged behind a horse. So damaged inside that he cries every time he needs to shit. His waste can’t find its way out through the maze of wrong turns that is his colon.

There’s a girl, seven, no teeth, punched out, smashed out on the day she lost her whole family. More stories than there will ever be words to tell.

We get them drawing pictures instead of talking. This one is a school, a favourite playing place, the flat piece of land beside the wadi. Here’s where the football got stuck in the tree, so high it took a day to get it back, all the boys together, and then Mohammed broke his foot bone when he jumped down. Here’s a favourite doll, made from bright pieces of tobe, a peg, see she’s dressed the same as I was, like mango flesh. There are other shades of orange in the pictures. Tangerine rips through pages and pages and pages, crimson splashing and pooling in the corners, collecting beneath horizontal figures. We order more red and orange pencils. We scan and send the drawings to our head office, far away.

There are often hiding spots in these pictures. Bushes, riverbanks, bodies. One girl draws a donkey running beneath the thatch of lit grass strapped to its back. Burning and burning and running through the compound to the main hut where it will collapse and take everything with it. In another, a woman in her tobe, a baby, all wrapped in flame, piled on and roaring. The men in green loom large in these pictures. Their helicopters, their guns drawn in detail. Kalashnikov, the one Russian word that everyone knows. These men here, they are forcing the woman and girl to be wife.

They play cooperation games a lot. If they were adults we’d call it team building but with kids it’s just what they do. Sometimes there’s progress, a big leap. Sudden eye contact or the start of a long stream of words. Sometimes it moves slower. Aliyyah, a teacher and an IDP herself, runs most of the sessions. She plays mother hen to many of the kids, rounding them up, the firm hand full of care. Three other women assist her, and I’m the only one here who doesn’t really speak Arabic. I can relate to the children through translation, or with shrugs, rolling eyes, and big arm gestures. I tell you this and you laugh at me. I stick to what I know – logistics, the paperwork. Boring and necessary.

You see me gesturing cartoon-like to the children the day you come by the community hut to check on us, and call me marionette from then on. I act annoyed. It doesn’t deter you.

I know all the words to the diarrhoea song, I say, as Aliyyah starts it up with the group, clapping time.

We clean our hands/we clean our hands/with soap and water/with soap and water/to stop the diarrhoea/to stop the diarrhoea/so we stay healthy/so we stay healthy
This is as poetic as my Arabic gets. We clean our hands. Then we bring out the tubs of bread and fruit, we sit with the kids and we eat.

Fourteen was bad. It was a bad year. Sleeping in car parks, finding beds any way I could, eventually the shelter. Cold, a lot of the time. Before that, thirteen. Holes in walls. Holes the size of fists, the size of heads. Blood thicker than water, thick as a scab that keeps getting torn, I am your family, boy, and you do as I say. A one-man terror squad, he was. Attacks in the night, guerrilla style, stealing each of my things one by one till I had just the clothes I lay in. Stripped, hearing her on the other side of the bedroom wall, hearing her through the holes as she tried not to make a sound. Purple in the morning, a scary smile that didn’t bend right. Twelve. She was still intact at twelve. My reason for living. She knew. Knew about me and told me she loved me anyhow, that no matter what, love was the one thing worth anything, son, worth everything to me. He was there then, prowling round the edges, watching, monitoring and controlling my time with her. That last year with her was the worst. The best and the worst – flowering out like a rose bloom before it really dies, that intoxicating smell, the colours so rich. I saw my mother in all her terrible beauty that year, knowing what came next, just trying to breathe in lungfulls of her before I left for good.

Fuck, I think. Fuck. Now I’m talking way too much, spilling onto the dusty Geneina ground my whole sad, sad childhood story. I am a good listener, I tell you, and laugh. So tell me something incredible. Something I would never have guessed. A joke with an amazing punchline, anything. It’s now midnight, way past curfew. If you get back in your truck now you’re taking your chances, risky roads at this time of night. For confirmation, a gun cracks out two shots in the direction of the market. An answer shot replies. And another.

Here’s something incredible, you say, and you lean in, and you tell me.

J started drinking. He drank before, but he really started drinking when Paula was away. Didn’t want to let loose in front of the lady, perhaps. He smelled of fermented dates and each morning was quieter than before. Wound tight. Never quite drunk at work, but getting close.

I can’t sleep in that room, he told me when I asked why he’d been sleeping on a mat outside the kitchen. I need to get away from the neighbours’ wall. I need the sky above me, some air, he said. His beard was growing in patches across his cheeks and chin. His lips were cracked. He worked as hard as he ever did, now weatherproofing all the electrics for the rainy season. Still a few months away, but we must be ready, he told me.

The sleeping mat moved. From outside the kitchen to the side of Paula’s room, then finally right near the front gate where the truck parked. I offered him my middle room, a swap. ‘You can’t sleep outside in the rain, man, you need some shelter.’ He wouldn’t do it. He cleared his few belongings to one side of his room and spent no more than a few minutes in there each day, always during daylight.

On one particularly insomniac night, I decided to move myself into his abandoned room the next day. Perhaps he’d move into mine if I was out of it already, if the shifting had already been done. I lit a candle and packed up my few possessions, lay back on the bed, and waited for daybreak.

‘Marcos’ I was returning from the kitchen with a coffee when he stopped me. ‘Morning J, how’d you sleep?’ I asked. His hands were on his hips as he spoke. ‘This room by the neighbours is not good for you. You must move back.’ His eyes crackled like coals on a low fire. ‘It’s fine,’ I told him. ‘No problem. You stay in my old room, I stay in this one.’ His face was deadpan. ‘You can’t sleep in the rain J, so just move your stuff into the middle room and we’ll both be fine.’ He wasn’t moving or reacting, not one bit. I’d never seen him like this. A muscle in his jaw flickered and he didn’t blink. Just turned around and walked away.

That night I lay in J’s abandoned room and drifted between sleep and wake, images and sounds fanning through me. Ten years old; beach scene, ice cream, one eye closed against the sun, the other on all the boys, all the girls. Fourteen; screaming, not me, screaming, dark room but the moon is half full. Fifteen; screaming, me full of joy on a roller coaster, throw up afterwards, don’t care. First blowjob. First hand held. In love and I feel sick. Nineteen; funeral, moon half full. Can’t cry. Want to. Can’t. He’s there and I don’t cry. Twenty; phone call from neighbour to tell me he’s dead. Buy myself the hugest bunch of red flowers and put them in my room. Don’t care if it looks faggy, they smell amazing. I’m alive and the flowers smell amazing. Twenty eight; pink grows round the compound door, pink that looks like leaves, grows in a vine, next to small white swirly stars, hits me in the lungs when I walk in. Sweet and thick. Screaming. The moon is half full. Crack, something hits the wall. Crack. Pink flowers, long trail catches on the radio mast when we drive in. Crack. Scream. Breathe in, breathe out. I left the mozzie net off and now the ants are walking on my face, whispering feet, loud breathing, ‘Marcos.’ Heavy breathing. ‘Marcos. I have to go man. I’m going.’ J’s face is inches from mine when I open my eyes. His breath smells like metal, old pennies. His face shiny. ‘I’m leaving. I’ll come back if I can, but for now I go.’ J is panting. His teeth show. He is panting when he leaves, when I stand, when I make it to the door of my room to see him closing the gate and disappearing into the night.

The wall of J’s old bedroom is shared with the neighbours. Us on one side, them on the other. A sound like a siren is coming from the other side of the wall. Like a broken siren that struggles to scream. A wail. She is crying, next door. I hear her through the breeze blocks and mud, like a faulty alarm. I go back to my bed and I lie still. Feel ashamed for doing so, fucking coward, but lie still, barely moving to breathe. When the first light hits the sky she is at the gate, banging. I let her in. Fatima, I think. I say hello, good morning, like an idiot tourist and she lets her veil fall back across messy bedtime hair. ‘Mister,’ she says. ‘Where is he? Where?’ I stumble and shake over the answer, the nothing answer that’s no good to her at all. ‘I…I don’t know.’ ‘Good,’ she says, before I can get another word out. Good. She studies each of my eyes in turn, then leaves.

I don’t mention this brief visit when the police question me later that day. I just don’t. The translation makes it easy to leave it out. Her husband was found dead in his room in the early hours of the morning. His wife got up to light the stove, looked round the open door, and there he was on his bed, head caved in, smashed beyond recognition. Terrible.

Terrible, they say in the market. So terrible to meet this end. And now J is gone, that madman, disappeared. Always a strange man, a bad man. I never trusted him, no, no neither did I – they talk and they talk. I’m just a stupid khawaji, know nothing worth knowing, so I am exonerated, and everyone is so so sorry.

In my head I invent explanations, convince myself of one thing then unpick it with another. He was a gambling man, J. A man of many debts. Risk taker. Big talker. Pulled one over on the wrong man, took the wrong guy for a ride so had to cut his losses and move on. Or he was a drinker. Never really on the wagon even when he was. Slow suicide with bottles of home brew, ethanol tinged, cheap and brutal. Known to cause hallucinations, delusion, paranoia, psychosis, all sorts. Or he was a seducer. A ladies man who took what he wanted then faced the wrath of the husband he’d shamed. Or maybe he was a vigilante fighter. Maybe, hearing things through the wall. Hearing his neighbour in distress, beaten by her beast of a husband on the other side of the breeze blocks and mud, day after night after day. Maybe he can no longer stand to hear it, not one more slap, not a single punch more. He hears, and he goes next door. Maybe he confronts the man, face to face, right in the eye, confronts him and calls him the coward and low life shit that he is. Maybe they fight. The man swings at him, outraged at having his authority challenged, in his own home no less, and J ducks. He grabs the man unawares and hits him. He hits him and he hits him and he hits him with something hard, a torque wrench, till the man lies still. Maybe he is brave enough to do all that.

You leave your office as soon as you hear, drive fast, arrive with wide deep eyes and your hands jumping up and down to cover your mouth. ‘Thank god you’re ok,’ you say, ‘thank god. I’m so sorry, I’m so so sorry, nobody knew he was such a psycho.’ I think of telling you right then about my vigilante theory, that he might have done the very best he could do, stood up rather than walked away, that J might be a hero, but I don’t. I swallow. You take out your lighter with a shaky hand, light your cigarette. The glow of the flame catches on wings and shells as around us lie the bodies of the locusts that didn’t make it, the ones that hit the wall as they flew over us that night, looking for water and rest a long, long way from here.

Copyright © Michelle Green & Comma Press, 2010.

Follow us on Facebook Twitter