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Submission to Fate

by LucyBinghamMcAndrew 

Posted: 11 July 2004
Word Count: 1841
Summary: An aid worker in a refugee camp causes more problems than she solves

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A man, tall, deformed, tucks a bone-smooth stick under one arm, military-fashion and ducks under the frame into the House of Tea. He stands for a moment, sun-blind. Taking his bearings, he makes for a stool, fashioned from a stolen hubcap and covered with grass-stuffed cloth for comfort. Light slices into the shelter through gaps in the thatch, exposing a wedge of dust and flies, dancing over a plate. The man holds up a gnarled thumb and forefinger and a woman, drawn, demure but brightly attired, carefully carries, on a saucer, a glass of clear liquid, full to the brim. The man downs half the drink, tipping his head back smoothly, smothering his choking with a tight fist. Leaning forward to place the half empty glass on a table modelled from mud and decorated with tattered paper, he glances sideways: a game of chess, a cat licking itself, incense smoke rising. ‘Gah Wah’, he calls, in a voice firm from commanding camels to lie down. Draining his glass he leans, shepherd-like, on the crook of his staff, waiting while the woman prepares his coffee. Through the rear entrance of the hut which is half-covered by a ragged curtain, he can see smoke from her cooking fire, drifting, and dispersed by a whiff of quick wind. A toddler, flies buzzing round its face and bottom, investigates the dirt where chickens scratch. Beyond, razor wire against the pale sky.

Beyond the shadow of a high wire fence, in the middle of the hot afternoon, the voices of thirty students chant in rhythm. At the scratched blackboard, wiping the sweat and chalk from the palms of her hands stands Dawn – white, sunburnt, slightly overweight. She has written in uneven letters on the board, ‘Who Owns Africa? The development industry or big business?’
‘Development.’ The chanting makes them soporific.
‘OK, into teams!’ No one moves.
‘Right.’ She walks around the class, pointing at each and intoning, ‘A, B, A, B’. Grudgingly, the students shuffle into two groups.
‘Help each other’, she offers, ‘And remember,’ she adds, ‘ I’m a resource too. Use me!’
Crossing her arms, Dawn withdraws into silence. Her eye is caught by a man, staggering out of a hut nearby. Drunk or exhausted.
‘Right. Who’s first? Fire away.’
She’s perching on a corner of one of the two hand-hewn heavy tables, avoiding the oblong of fierce light that stretches through the afternoon. Re-fixing the bright smile, eyebrows raised to enhance the appearance of interest, she inclines her head. Festo smiles back, his forehead glistening. ‘We think whites should get out of Africa. They have colonised us for long enough.’ Her face is stiff with smiling. She sighs and nods, encouraging him to continue. She longs to be stretched out on a bed under a fan, naked and unwatched.

Later, under a sky pregnant with moon, clouds and stars spinning through the expanding blackness, the sound of cicadas and toads whirling and croaking reaches a deafening crescendo. Through the noise, a handset on the bed crackles. Lima Whisky? Dawn listens, then pushes aside the papers on her desk and takes a bag from a drawer. She dips wrist deep into the bag and scoops out a handful of dried grass. She rolls two joints. An irregular rattle and she pauses. Gunfire. The radio cackles again. She picks it up. ‘Lima Whisky, this is Lima Whisky. Over.’ ‘Dawn, there’s a problem with the Turkana. Something to do with a wedding in Zone Four. You are to come to the compound immediately, I repeat, immediately, over.’ Zoltan’s accent and the static blur the message. Dawn pauses. ‘Papa Bravo, this is Lima Whisky. I did not copy, repeat, did not copy…’ The red light flashes. Her battery is low. The razor-wired enclosure where the whites spend their evenings is three miles away. She only has a bicycle. She throws the handset onto the bed.

The week before, on the way to the Sudanese border, she and Zoltan had come across a man, lying in the road, spreadeagled, face down. He had groaned as they rolled him over and out of his mouth had sighed a stream of blood. They had climbed quickly back into the pick-up and driven on, only for a swarm of locusts to smash into the windscreen. There was no water and the blades had wiped and wiped, smearing the screen with guts.

She stares at her reflection for a long while, listening. Mutterings like distant thunder, a child crying, scuffling, then silence. The skin on her face and hands is as cracked and yellowed as old newspaper. Her cheeks are cold with tears.

In the half-light, Dawn emerges from her room, manoeuvring her bicycle. She bumps gingerly along the rough camp road. Already there are hundreds of people walking like ghosts swimming through limbo, thin dark figures carrying water drums, holding children by the hand, dogs barking, chickens, ducks, scooting across the road, cows, flocks of goats, camels in slow motion, turning to stare.
She is out at last through the gate, past the police barracks (the camp’s most unfortunate trapped there, sitting in cages, looking at the ground) and onto smooth tarmac. The wind is against her. She headbutts her way forwards. Across the bridge and through the village, corrugated iron rooves and advertising on the hoardings, the bus stop, bars, a couple of shop fronts, all shuttered now, and finally out onto open road. The sky is a peach ripening.
The road has stopped meandering and stretches straight for three miles. Her legs and lungs sing with effort but she feels herself becoming free, the camp dropping away behind. Either side is moon country, open, brown, cacti and thornbrush - balls of thornbrush on the road in places - dry earth, patches of harsh grass, oases of flowers. The uneven ground is baked into spiked bundles and fallen cracks. An eagle pivots high on a thermal.
A man strides steadily towards her, a worn stick cradled across his shoulders, his hands looped over the ends, like a walking crucifix. The sun’s rim gleams red over the horizon. She whizzes past a herd of camels. A fox lopes across the road in front of her. An antelope looks up and bounces away. A swoop of birds, white-crested, like hoopoes, singes past. She wishes she knew what they were. She has turned the two bends and crossed the dry ford. Now she is tired and sticky and the sun’s heat is already creating mirrors in the road.
She turns for home. The wind is behind her and she allows herself to be coasted back until she is about half a mile from the village, where she boosts the bike into a sprint. She is doing this when she notices the man again, walking close to the road. She slows a little, though still approaching fast, and rings the little bell.
He breaks into a run, sandals flapping against his heels, the noise echoing, the brown cloth bouncing over his shoulders and down his thin arms. The narrow back of the man’s head is still turned away, he is in the middle of the road now, he turns and sees the approaching bike, feints to one side then double-feints.
In the split-second before collision, time slows enough for Dawn to realise the rush of crushing gravel will smooth into her cheek, the black is blood, the world has turned. A brief explosion of sound, a muffled humph of impact, metalled meeting of bicycle, road and flesh, the softest tearing, and a searing begins. She wants to lie still but rolls over, disentangling herself. The man beneath her is utterly still.
She gathers herself into sitting, knowing she must move, staring ahead of her, her heart still thumping fast from the ride, the world spinning and freeze-framed in turns. Faces coagulate about her with mingled shock, fear, and the dawning of some distance. She must leave. There develops a roar. She realises it is an engine and fingers the ground gingerly, exploring the possibility of standing. A whoosh of anger gathers as she stands, the other body still inert under the bike. A hand hoists her into the cabin of a pick-up, screeched to a halt behind her. The remains of her bike are yanked unceremoniously off the man and clattered into the back. The driver – a Kikuyu aid worker she has met somewhere before but cannot name – stares ahead through the gathering crowd, not waiting for the road to clear, forcing the slow dignified stride of the pedestrians into a flapping, hassled trot.

‘You’ll do what he says. Money. That’s all they understand. And then get out.’ The Sister puts down the tray and rolls up her sleeves to give the injections.
Her mother picks her up from the airport. It is raining. Dawn stares hypnotically at the windscreen wipers’ rhythmic motion. Their lights cast the only arc for a long stretch on the black road. It takes her slow moments to take in the increasing brightness coming towards them. She looks across at her mother whose head, she now notices, has sunk into her shoulders. Dawn utters a sound, an intake of breath, barely perceptible but enough to jolt her mother who swerves round the blasting, screaming truck. Absurdly, they are both giggling.
‘That was pretty close, Mum!’
She’s about to say more but her mother has descended into a single pointed concentration on the road. The engine settles back into a drone, against the whine of the wipers. The wedge of yellow light nudges north.

Then they are heading west, further into the night, the rain and the quiet. When they crunch down a drive, the rain has turned to drizzle and a slight breeze ruffles the high branches. The sea smell embraces them and then disappears beneath the dense cold scent of earth.
‘You’re getting some work done.’ Noticing Dawn’s look, her mother replies tightly, ‘A sun porch,’ then changes the subject. ‘Is this everything?’
‘I think so.’
‘Come in, then.’ The dog greets them joyously.
A scoosh of water and her mother plugs in the kettle. The scrape of the shovel as she cleans the grate, then her mother disappears into another room. Dawn takes the basket and fills it from the shed, groping in the dark, slamming the back door with her foot. They sit by the light of a side lamp, drinking coffee laced with whisky, looking into the fire.
‘It was only cold in February this year,’ announces her mother, as though the revelation demands an explanation. But Dawn only rounds her mouth to an O and nods. The silence lengthens uncomfortably. When she thinks her mother is looking away, Dawn fingers the skin around her eye.
‘Do you want to go to bed?’
‘Not really, Mum, if you don’t mind. I think I need to unwind a bit.’
‘You look tired.’
Something in her mother’s voice causes her to look up. Her mother is crying.
‘Your face is…’
‘It’ll get better, Mum.’

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Comments by other Members

Terry Edge at 11:52 on 11 July 2004  Report this post

This is a superb piece of writing. You maintain a terrific tension throughout and do it through brilliant description that the reader knows is relevant, is building an emotional picture for us, not just a physical one. Perhaps I should confess that I don't normally like description-based pieces but I just couldn't stop reading this piece because it was so beautfully put together. The dialogue at the end is a great example of how to use speech sparingly to great effect. There is quite a lot talk on this site about Show not Tell, and this exchange is a very good example of how to show.

Ordinarly, I wouldn't say it was that important in an early (?) draft to try to produce something that's error-free, but here I think your care with getting details right actually helps provide an intactness that increases the tension in the story - that something bad or significant is going to happen.

Have you thought of writing a novel?


Nell at 12:44 on 11 July 2004  Report this post
Hi Lucy, welcome to WriteWords. I agree with Terry - this is gorgeous writing and there are such good things here, too many to list but I noted a few: The sky is a peach ripening... She headbutts her way forwards... The uneven ground is baked into spiked bundles and fallen cracks... An eagle pivots high on a thermal...
...like a walking crucifix... She gathers herself into sitting... Faces coagulate about her...
- I'd better stop now and leave some for others. Your descriptions of place take us to the camp, the road, place us among the people and animals, yet there's more than evocative description here, there's insight; what is left unsaid speaks volumes about human emotions, the overriding concern for those we love, the blind spot to which we consign things that are difficult to handle. Great story, look forward to reading more of your work.


Jubbly at 20:41 on 11 July 2004  Report this post
Hello Lucy, let me second that welcome. This really is breathtaking writing, just divine. I was totally drawn in to the care worker's world , simply immersed. You've pared down each sentence beautifully. I wondered at the description 'Oases of flowers' should it be 'oasis'? Or is this a word I hven't yet come across? Anyway I'm so glad you gave us the opportunity to read your work and I too, look forward to more.


Anna Reynolds at 10:51 on 13 July 2004  Report this post
Lucy, a stunning piece of writing. I wondered if it is a one-off story or part of a longer piece of writing? I'm hoping the latter as I'd like to read more, although there's something oddly satisfying about only knowing what you've chosen to tell us here..

Mooncat at 15:25 on 13 July 2004  Report this post
Hi Lucy,

I agree with the others - great writing. Your desription is fantastic. I especially liked 'a sky pregnant with moon, clouds and stars spinning through the expanding blackness...'

Hope to read more.



sorry - that should be 'description'

Jumbo at 23:50 on 14 July 2004  Report this post

Welcome to WW!

This is great writing. I particularly liked Light slices into the shelter through gaps in the thatch, exposing a wedge of dust and flies, dancing over a plate.

A very moving piece, and I hope we see more of your work.

All the best


scottwil at 05:58 on 21 July 2004  Report this post
Hi Lucy, I'm late on this and can only agree with previous comments. This is very impressive and leaps off the screen. It does feel like the opening of a novel. The only line I was unsure of was: ...crushing gravel will smooth into her cheek. The word 'smooth' threw me. '...crushing gravel will rake her cheek'? flay? tatter? rip? Sorry, getting carried away now.

Look forward to seeing more.

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