You will not tell me how you got here. You cannot tell me how you got here, but I do not even ask. Why don’t I ask?
This is how you paid. It will be worth the price they said. Business men, used to transactions, went back home down dark stairways.
You will not tell me how you got here. You cannot tell me how you got here.
The soldiers still whisper, they float up around your ears and call your name. You said you only recognised one of them, he was one of the village boys who never went to school. Your father was to choose who you married. Your father would not have chosen him, if he had asked before they killed him.
You think you see him here sometimes, here in this cold country, where you live in a prison, where you wait and wait and wait to see will they send you back or keep you here. You are not sure what you want anymore. You miss the open space, the heat. It is grey here. You are grey.
You see him through the greyness. You keep your face down in case he sees you too, whispers in your ear, because then you would know he was real. You inhale when you pass him in the corridor, the man who is not him sucks his teeth when you won’t look at him.
But they are all him, all of them.
You shouted it in the thin corridor, I came here with the dowry money, you said, it was no use for anything else, not there. You shouted this, banging on all the doors in the reception centre. They come out into the halls to see, the small ones behind their mothers’ legs.
The men came for you, the white men, dressed in bright yellow. You lay still but they didn’t touch you like that, they took you into the back of their van, and you lay down. They took you to the hospital. It was white and clean.
Then the men were women, in white they rose above you. They told you shush. They gave you tablets.
There is a fog, it came down, it is grey, it is like the mist that floats in the swamps around Kinshasa. It has come for you, come to take you back. The ladies think this is good. You say OK, because that is the right answer, they made it clear though, they want to send you back to the dark place.
You ask them, make me feel like I am at church. They tell you to go back, you tell them to take the mist away. It comes out of your mouth when you speak.
I see it too. It travels slow. I do not want to breathe it in.
I look at you when I speak to you and you look panicked and look sideways at the translator. You slide down into the chair and now the translator looks panicked too, she knows you from church.
I am your counselor. I am a blank slate. The things you tell me do not remind me of me, but the things you tell me remind the translator that she has come from what you have, though she has escaped it for now. She wants to block her ears and flick her tongue against her upper lip rapidly. She wants to block out the noise of what you are saying. The soldiers came- blah la la -and the soldiers- blah la la la- and then the soldiers left.
I see it all enfold in the green of a jungle, where it didn’t happen. I see a clearing, where it didn’t happen. I see a hut, where it didn’t happen.
None of these things remind me of anything. I have never been to Africa, so it does not really exist.
I tell you about the North. I imply I am from there, which I am, but it does not mean what you think that means. The soldiers did nothing to me, they faded into the background on the red bricked streets like sculptures. Their guns were toys to people on my side of the border. No one like me was ever harmed in the daytime, as long as you left before nightfall and stuck to the main streets and did not go up behind Littlewoods you were safe.
I have never even seen the murals. I left the dark chaos of Wellworths’ pick and mix upstairs when there was a bomb scare and then came back for the double wrapped cherry rectangles with blood red plasma inside their purple glass lozenges.
The one time I got taken to the station because I stole a kitchen roll holder, a woman was with me at all times to keep me safe from the soldiers. We talked about TV, I had the same TV stations as her, her hair was dyed blonde.
Here you can read other short stories by Aoibheann McCann: