You may have noticed I’ve been blog silent for a few months. I was finishing… This. My novel. It’s ready for agenting, and I’m gearing up for that. I’d love to hear your comments on these first few pages.
Ash Shamilyah region, northern Sudan. January, 2014
The prison guard outweighed me by twenty kilos, but I’d gotten in one good kick to the groin. Of course, I wasn’t any match for him once he recovered, not least because I was in a long black abaya. Also, the fake pregnancy stomach I was wearing was limiting my range. His extra kilos came back at me like an anvil with arms. He swung me through the cell door and slammed it shut before I’d finished skidding on my back across the gritty floor. My head came to rest against a chamber pot that teetered and sloshed with a stench like a drunk’s vomit. I could see the room through the one eye that wasn’t swollen completely shut, and I saw I wasn’t alone. Of course, it was a man. Too much to hope that they’d have single-sex cells, I suppose.
It is at moments like these that I think most about my mother.
I’m so much like her – stubborn to the point of stupidity, for starters. But I’m also astute, as she was. You can’t put anything past me, just like she caught me red-handed in every escapade. But the way I chose to live out my life, well, it couldn’t be any more different from her if I had lived on the moon and married a Zoroastrian who made handicrafts from potato starch.
The guy on the other side of the room stayed there, but shifted on the ground. Actually, what shifted – ominously – was that place where the legs of his baggy white pants met. From my position of weakness, there by the chamber pot, I knew I had to show him some toughness quick, if I wanted to keep him off me. No one in this country would believe a woman in prison, unveiled, was not a prostitute – or at least openly promiscuous. I was equally sure my captors wouldn’t lift a finger to help me.
I heaved myself forward and to a sitting position, using muscles that had recently been punched into gravy. Seeing stars and grunting lightly, I rolled to my side, put my hands on the ground and pushed upward, trying to raise myself slowly enough to keep my balance and quick enough to show strength. Abdul, as I named the guy across the cell, was still watching me closely when I lifted my head, his heavy lids lifting up with his eyebrows, and he made a move to raise himself from the floor.
“As a man of God you should turn your head from me, in my nakedness,” I said authoritatively. Nakedness was somewhat subjective, since my abaya covered me from tight around my neck to the aforementioned gritty floor. Okay, it was a bit worse for wear, loose threads in an informal fringe around my unshod feet. And I must have looked like hell, covered with blood and bruises and lord knows what kinds of shmeg from the interrogation room. But the lack of a headscarf, a big flowy one that pretty much covered everything but the heart-shape of my face, could be considered an invitation to sex around here. I had to hold myself as a proud, dignified member of the class to which my abaya might once have belonged, and I had to play the part well. When Abdul didn’t look away, but in fact raised himself from his perch, I shrieked: “Turn away from me now, man, or God shall strike you down! I am a God-fearing woman with the highest morals, and if you do not turn away from me and stay to your side of the cell I will shriek until the Prophet Mohammad himself, peace be upon Him, comes to rescue me!”
That seemed to have done it. For a while, anyway. Abdul grunted a bit and sat back down and leaned against the back cell wall, nominally turned toward the far side. I made a mental note to remember my prayers, and not to fall asleep or use the chamber pot until I was out of there. That made getting out a bit more urgent.
I pressed myself into my corner and checked my injuries. The worst was my left wrist, about halfway to my elbow, which felt like it was no longer glued together properly. My left eye was swollen partly shut and quite puffy. I palpated a tender bruise caused by whatever it was they’d tied around my neck to scare me witless. My lower lip was cut and stinging from a backhand thrown when I was blindfolded, and told I’d get to have a sip of water. Instead, I got the knuckles. My hair was matted, probably had some clots of blood in it from my time in the back of the truck, with the overzealous driver careening around corners and me, with hands bound, powerless to stop myself thwacking against the sides of the vehicle. Survey complete. I could live, and fight, with all the things that were wrong with me, but I’d have to protect the wrist.
I rinsed up as best I could in the clean water bucket (important to get that right!) and settled in to have a think. I calmed my hot head down, remembering the prudent words of my hand-to-hand instructor at the academy, “El Moro”: the best way to win a fight is to trick it into not happening. I needed a plan to be long gone when the guards came back. I hoped Abdul wouldn’t take it personally, but no one wants to share a cell with a sweaty Sudanese man in a stained tunic who smells alarmingly of goat and would take advantage of me if given half a chance.
If I had to guess, and perhaps excepting present circumstances, I would say Mum would have loved to have had a life like mine. Ten days ago, I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, waiting for a message drop. I was perched on a fluffy hotel cushion, putting oil on my skin in the warm sun, listening to reggae music and smelling picnic meals from families gathered all around the sand. The water lapped lazily – you get the picture. It was very heaven, as the poets say. And there went my drop: a handsome, shirtless man, gliding noisily by on a jet ski, dreadlocks bouncing lazily on his back as he topped across the waves. Now, in general I think jet skis are juvenile, wasteful and annoyingly loud on a public beach. But the guy was hot. And it was a spectacular way to get a piece of information – very James Bond, I thought, smiling. Jenny Bond, perhaps. I swallowed my environmentalist speech, waded out through the crystalline bath-temperature sea, waved my $20 bill as if I wanted a ride, and let him pull me up and over his water hog.
That’s not what Mum would’ve liked so much, I mused as I leaned stiffly against the mud wall of my cell, protective of my battered wrist. But wouldn’t she have just loved the freedom? There’s a disordered, unpredictable, and inherently sort of selfish quality to my days that I think she’d appreciate. I have to be self-concerned to the extreme, as I risk my life for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s the only thing that keeps me alive, this eternal focus on me, my needs, my safety, even my fun.
Quite unlike Mum’s life: waiting on other people, organizing her day round their desires, budgeting the husband’s funds against the children’s needs and wishes, and other elaborate balancing acts. She spared some time for the moving pictures, as she called them, but that was always the first luxury to go when times were tight. Even on Mothers’ Day, she remained humble when we’d crowd round her breakfast in bed with our handmade cards and Dad’s impromptu speeches. He was always good at waxing poetic about motherhood, but of course that one day a year was pretty remote from Mum’s other 364. And she’d have taken a bullet for any of us, of course, while my job is to keep from taking one. I guess that’s another big difference.
I shook off the memories of childhood and mum’s self-sacrifice, though I kept them in reserve in case they’d be at all helpful – I was disguised as a pregnant woman, after all. And I set to thinking through the matter of loosing myself from this joint – knowing, of course, that my captors would have the requisite means employed to avoid that: sturdy locks, guards with guns, jeeps in which they could chase my obviously uncovered head through the surrounding desert. I knew I’d find a way and my chance came two (arguably long) hours later, when my cellmate Abdul had some sort of epileptic attack. When I called for the guards, shouting that there was a medical emergency, I plotted how to make the most of the moment to get out and get far. A crew of guards entered while I wailed about Abdul’s attack and God’s mercy. The guards kept their weapons trained on me but my invented hysteria and tears made them all uncomfortable; they kept their distance and I opened the door wide as if to make room for them to carry out the poor ecstatic Abdul.
I’d opened the door wide enough so that I could step in front of the doorjamb. Waving my right hand wildly (and taking advantage of an Arabic predilection for following the right hand’s movements while rather ignoring the actions of the left), I shoved my skimpy thong underwear into the jamb – right where the lock’s plunger would normally make its home. I left a tiny bit of elastic hanging out toward me and wrapped it around the doorknob on my side so they couldn’t see it. Meanwhile, the crew lifted Abdul out by armpits and ankles, traipsed by me and I helpfully shut the door behind them firmly – still wailing and waving. No one came near the door to check that it had locked. I opened the miniature hatch through which, presumably, they would later have fed me, and continued my tirade while watching them all retreat. I had given them the impression I was a complete nutcase, and every reason to want to be far away from me. Success!
Within about three minutes, before the mayhem abated and before they checked back in on me, I was out of the building. I watched the guards dump Abdul unceremoniously in the back of a pickup and go back inside. I slid out from my perch and negotiated with the driver to allow me into the truck, claiming to be Abdul’s wife. (No one here would ever assume a woman was a prisoner! It’s surprisingly easy to take advantage of that same ignorance that can make life hell. Sometimes it’s your only weapon, and it can be a powerful one.) We left the compound for town, the small border city of Wadi Haifa, the nearest clinic. Abdul slept peacefully on the truck bed beside me the whole way, once his convulsions had subsided. Or maybe he was dead. I never found out. I’m not sure how much later the guards realised I was missing, but apparently it was too late for them to catch us. In Wadi, I made short work of dissolving into the slightly less oppressively sweltering night-time.