© Will Miller
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1. Anyone Who Ever Had a Heart
Nouhou Dembele’s stories of fighting against President Charles Taylor’s ragtag National Patriotic Front of Liberia shocked even the Lyme Road Warriors, gangstas from Farm Estate south of the Thames.
Retrieving a book from his locker, Nouhou felt the gaze of the other students in the corridor. Turning the key, one of his two walking sticks hung from his arm from a leather lanyard. Made from a dark hardwood, the sticks had travelled with him from Liberia.
Aged seven, Nouhou saw his parents murdered and was forced into slavery. Barely a year afterwards, as a LURD soldier himself, he had laughed at his victims’ high-voltage terror.
High on speed and armed with an AK-47, if he had refused to kill, LURD would have killed him.
Now fifteen, and the pariah of Lyme Road School, he lumbered into the classroom on prosthetic legs. His mother told him he had a beautiful smile. “Lots of white teeth in that head, Nouhou.” In the World War III assault on Monrovia, his smile had saved his life.
Some things he hadn’t dared tell anyone, the shame almost too great to bear. He’d never told anyone he’d eaten a human heart, and especially not the Immigration people at Dover. The most powerful hearts gave LURD fighters an immunity to bullets and supreme fighting prowess. His deepest secret was that he had gulped the blood of a slaughtered child from a mud-stained bucket.
Nouhou’s fourteen-year-old commander had said, “Ee you wan Kingdom of Heaven, you eah body and drin bluh of Jesuh Chrise, buh to enter Monrovia, this whah we muss do.”
All wore grigris for protection, and eight-year-old Nouhou had the task of feeding the borfimah, the secret source of his unit’s most powerful magic.
Sitting alone in the classroom, Nouhou hoped he would understand something of what the English teacher said.
His mother had said, “Do you think you would get this school in Liberia? With the most illiteracy in the world? Only Congo people get this education.” A “Congo” was a descendant of the freed American slaves, the children of white slave-owners, who had colonised Liberia over a century ago.
Mrs Alder, the teacher, raised a hand to quieten everyone. “Last week, I asked you to read our class novel, The Famished Road. I expect you have read at least half, and you must finish it by next week, or else.”
Nouhou’s mother had advised him to tell Immigration that he had lost his legs in a land mine explosion. She didn’t want anyone to know he’d been a fighter. He didn’t even tell the Trauma Therapy group at school, where everyone told their stories.
“Or else what?” Abimbola asked. “What you do if we haven’t read the book?” The Lyme Road Warriors called him “Skama”, and Nouhou had seen the tag spray-painted on the brickwork of Farm Estate.
“I fail you and you get do this all over again in a year’s time,” said Mrs Alder. “That’s what.”
Dressed in black and adorned with thick silver chains, the Lyme Road Warriors lounged two desks to Nouhou’s left. None had bothered to bring the novel to class. Nouhou had laboured over a few pages of his copy and found it difficult to understand. His early years he had spent fighting Government troops, often high on palm wine, marijuana and amphetamines. After the war, when he lost his legs, he’d lived in the street. His mother, Lilah, had helped him learn to read.
Frank Allen put up his hand. “Mrs Alder, could we change novels? A book about England? Lorelei, you read books, what’s a book set in England?”
“I don’t read books!” Lorelei said. “Martin Amis’s, Yellow Dog.”
“Definitely not. Amis wouldn’t be appropriate,” Mrs Alder said. “Not for children.”
“Yellow Dog! Yellow Dog!” Frank chanted, and soon most of the class joined in. Nouhou repeated the words the class shouted, but only after several rounds did he understand what they meant.
“If we agree to change the novel,” Mrs Alder said, “that means me too. And I won’t agree to a Martin Amis novel.”
“Stay with The Famished Road,” said Lorelei. “It’s about black magic.”
“OH, YEH!” The class chorused.
“It is?” Frank said.
“I suppose that means no-one has read the book,” Mrs Alder said. “Should we perhaps look at a poem instead? Something by John Donne. He’s very English, Frank.”
“Poem? He spit?” said Westral, one of the Lyme Road Warriors. He rested an immaculate white trainer on an empty chair.
The LRW gangstas began making music with their mouths and banging their chests for a beat. Silva began a type of singing Nouhou had heard in the class many times:
You still have – tsch – your watch, your phone
You not yet – tsch – rollin in my zone - my zone
But no need – tsch – even to preten
I be doin – tsch – seven to ten – to ten
My skeng an – tsch – my leng just wait
For you to – tsch – accept your fate – it’s fate
Der no need – tsch – even to preten
I be doin – tsch – seven to ten – to ten
“Enough!” Mrs Alder shouted. “That’s not John Donne by a long shot.”
“Dis John Donne a shooter too?” Westral said.
Reading a book about black magic worried Nouhou. For these people, it was entertainment. Who else in the classroom knew secrets such as those he kept? None of the stories he had heard in the Trauma Therapy group compared to his experiences in the Liberian war.
A knock sounded on the door and the Headmaster’s secretary appeared. “Mrs Alder, may I take Nouhou Dembele?”
“Out of the question. How am I meant to teach if you take students out of my class?”
“It can’t be helped, I’m afraid,” the secretary said. “A disability-needs event.”
Mrs Alder took a deep breath. “Nouhou, would you accompany Mrs Smythe?”
Nouhou remembered many instances of selecting people from a group. In the war, every road had checkpoints where rival groups examined the credentials of travellers. Murder and rape had been normal, and Nouhou had shot many unfortunates himself. Now he had been chosen, and he staggered forward between the desks, not knowing what awaited.
“Come along!” Mrs Smythe said, hurrying down the corridor. “They’re waiting for you in the gym.”
He followed her and, from the classroom windows, the students watched him being led away. At the exit door at the end of the corridor, Mrs Smyth held the door as he ambled through on prothetic legs.
“I think you’ll enjoy this,” she said as she hurried forward and opened the doors to the gymnasium. Nouhou couldn’t quite believe her.
In the hall, a long rack with two empty wheelchairs strapped to it had been assembled on the parquet floor. The PE teacher, Mr Howse, stood beside another man dressed in a padded black jacket. Nouhou noticed several metal rods in a long black bag. The two men grinned.
“As you can’t play the other sports, I thought you might like to try wheelchair fencing,” said Mr Howse. “This is Professor Egan. He fenced in the Olympics so he knows his stuff. If you would like, he’ll show you how it works.”
In the professor’s hand was a mesh mask. “I’m doing a tour of London schools. Would you like to give it a try?”
Nouhou glanced at the exit, but remained silent.
“There are three different swords,” Professor Egan said. “With these two you only use the point. And this one you can use the point and the blade. Which would you like to try?”
“The blade,” said Nouhou. Some of the things he had done with a machete didn’t bear thinking about, but these metal sticks were too thin to hurt anyone.
“Ah, the sabre! All the kids like it because of the pirate movies. If you sit in this chair, I’ll strap you in. Would you also put on this jacket? To protect you. And here’s a mask.”
Nouhou didn’t think he would need any protection, not from these weapons, but there was no point arguing. Kitted out, Professor Egan handed Nouhou a sabre and sat in the opposing wheelchair, although the fencing master didn’t appear disabled in any way.
“Only the upper body is a valid target. Not the legs. On guard. Ready. Play!”
Nouhou chopped him over the head so fast the professor had no chance of defending himself. He would have also chopped off one of the instructor’s arms, or at least pretended to, but the professor shouted, “Halt!”
Had he done something wrong?
“One point to you, Nouhou. We stop after every hit, announce the score and begin again. As though it were a new duel. OK? On guard. Ready? Play!”
The professor lashed out at Nouhou’s arm with a speed that suggested he was keen for revenge, but Nouhou moved his arm and slashed the instructor across the head.
“Blimey, you do hit hard, Nouhou. Two points to you. Ready? Play!”
Before the instructor could even start his attack, Nouhou cut deep into his hand. Or would have cut, if he’d been fighting with a real weapon.
“Halt! I don’t seem to be able to get a touch on you. Three nil. Shall we continue?”
Hidden under the fencing mask, Nouhou knew that if a bullet could not find him, there was no chance this slow old man could cut him with one of these pretend swords.
“Nouhou have you fenced before?”
“No, no fencin.”
“I think I may have found the next national champion. I’ve never seen such talent in a beginner.”
A half hour later, Nouhou stood, balanced on his prosthetic limbs, and stepped away from the wheelchair. The defeated yet delighted Professor Egan dripped with perspiration.
“Did I say national champion? I think you might be a future world champion. Truly. I don’t think I even hit you once. Nouhou, come along to my fencing club tomorrow. I could collect you. Such a talent, I can’t allow you to waste it.”
Nouhou knew what he had. He no longer wanted it.
“Then it’s agreed,” Professor Egan said. “I’ll come and fetch you tomorrow.”
Nouhou wondered if he were allowed to refuse this man the school had brought in.
2. Rachel’s Mum’s Letter
Rachel watched as the Lyme Road Warriors swaggered into class. Each wore a black armband for the gang-members who had died during the recent London riot. Some girls fell for them, attracted to their spirit of rebellion, and were happy for a day, or a week, at most. Not Rachel, though, not after the prophecy.
Ainslie’s fortune-telling rabbit had instructed her to wait until she was twenty-four then date online. It surprised her that fortune-tellers could predict the results of internet dating, but Rachel figured it must be where you found love now. Ten years seemed a long time to wait, but it was better than Aisha’s marriage prediction: that she’d be burnt alive in India next year.
With her Thai mother’s Asian features, attracting a bate guy worried her. Aisha told her she might land a wasteman if she agreed to push his shopping trolley.
Nouhou, the refugee from Liberia, walked in on prosthetic limbs. He’d been taken out of class for something earlier and his expression looked even more troubled than usual.
Mr Urquhart, the History teacher, waited for everyone to sit, then droned on about colonialism in Asia, and Rachel drifted into a romantic daydream until she heard him say “Thailand”.
“One of the few countries in Asia never formally colonised. Of course, they gave massive areas of territory to the French who were in neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and allowed all manner of trading concessions to Western governments and businesses. Nonetheless, it is tribute to the diplomatic skills of the Siamese kings that they were not overthrown. In many ways it was the forerunner of the client states seen today, apparently independent but not really at all.”
Seven years ago, Rachel’s mother had returned to Chiang Rai, not far from the Golden Triangle in Thailand, leaving Rachel with her English grandparents on Farm Estate. Grandpa watched football on TV while her grandma, whom Rachel loved, read romances in the kitchen, in a wooden chair she claimed was good for her back.
Once her Grandpa had said that, if she’d left with her mother, she’d now be up to her knees in a rice paddy. Her mother had sent only one letter and, even after so many years, Rachel had no idea what it said. Thai writing is unlike anything else, except maybe Hindi, according to her friend Aisha. Rachel had hidden the letter in her jumper drawer.
The teacher, Mr Urquhart’s, spectacles made his eyes appear larger than they were. Plus, whenever he spoke, he opened his eyes quite wide. Bazyli Boulos had similar glasses and could do Mr Urquhart’s voice, and that had made him a school celebrity.
“You say Siamese kings? Were der two o dem?” asked Anthony, one of the Lyme Road gangstas. “Joined at the hip?”
“Make it difficult to dead your bruv and take de throne,” said Mustafa, sitting beside Anthony.
“Difficult to sit on de throne, yeh.” Anthony’s gang tag was “Morder.”
“Siam is the old name for Thailand,” Mr Urquhart said. “An ancient kingdom. There are many wonderful ruins there. You must all go and see them yourselves one day.”
“I can just look down de street and see ruins,” said Yoko, a Nigerian girl with hair plaited in cornrows.
“Or look in de mirror,” said Aisha, Rachel’s Indian friend. “I meant de mirror is a ruin, yeh? Not you, Yoko. You a daisy.”
Yoko turned in her seat.
Rachel didn’t learn very much about Thailand, with Mr Urquhart trying to stop everyone from speaking, and repeatedly warning Yoko not to bash Aisha. He did say that Bangkok was once like the Venice of South East Asia: people travelled everywhere by boat and all the houses were built on stilts above the water. He said water taxis still operated in quite a lot of Bangkok even though most of the old waterways had been paved over with four-lane highways.
Even with the highways, it sounded wonderful. Rachel wanted to travel to Thailand and find her mum. They would ride the water taxis in Bangkok and walk through the ruins like tourists. She decided to get her mother’s letter translated because it might contain her return address. The back of the envelope was blank.
After school, Rachel said her farewells and hurried back to Farm Estate. In the flat she found her grandma reading in the kitchen. Rachel marvelled how age had made all her skin sag, having seen the framed photos of her Grandma as a young woman. One day it would happen to her too, Rachel knew, and of course there was death, which everyone had to face in turn, like at an execution, but she couldn’t focus on that. Instead, asked her grandmother, “Do you know anyone who speaks Thai?”
Her grandmother’s well-worn novel looked as though it had passed through the hands of most of her friends. “I don’t think I do. Are you interested in speaking Thai?”
“Did I hear you say ‘cup of tea’, love?” her grandfather called from the sitting room where a TV commentator enthused over a penalty kick.
“Would you get him a cuppa, dear? I’m right in the middle of an exciting part.”
Rachel put on the kettle and retrieved three mugs. “What about Dad? He might know someone.”
“Your father? Why all this interest in learning Thai, dear? I’d have thought schoolwork would be enough for the moment.”
“I want to know what my mother’s letter says.”
“Oh. Well, I have your father’s number somewhere. Just let me finish this chapter.”
Later, when Rachel rang, a woman answered. It had taken a while to work up the courage to call. After so many years of absence, her father seemed a stranger. She might have forgotten what he looked like, except for the photo of his younger self on her grandma’s dressing table.
“You want David? And who might you be.”
“I’m his daughter, Rachel.”
“If you want money, he’s broke.”
“I want to ask him something about my mum.” Rachel’s internal skank-alert blared.
“Who’s that then? Who’s your mum?”
“She’s in Thailand.”
“So you’re another bit of mess he didn’t pick up after himself. Get a pen I’m only reading his number out once.”
Suppressing an urge to shank the bitch, Rachel wrote down the number in silence.
Trying the number, Rachel went to voicemail. She asked about meeting up and, after an hour, her father texted back where to meet up: a martial arts club. Getting off the tube she walked in the dark, the streetlights illuminating the endless red brick terraces. She hoped it wouldn’t be difficult getting home; it wasn’t Farm Estate, but outsiders were targets of choice .
Surreal in between a shoe shop and a green grocer, the glass frontage sported a huge magna-style illustration of Thai boxing. Pushing through the front door and walking past an empty reception desk, Rachel asked a man pressing weights where she might find David Holbeck. He pointed to a man coaching a fighter in a boxing ring. In the opposite corner, an opponent wearing padded headgear bounced on the balls of his feet.
“An inch further away and his punches can’t connect,” Rachel heard her father say. “He has to kick. But you have to be in control of the distance, not him. Get the right distance for the right hit, but use your instincts. Don’t be thinking about it. It’ll slow you down.”
The blond fighter nodded and faced his opponent. Admiring their shining muscles, Rachel watched as they exchanged blows. They fought like sparring roosters, blocking kicks that would have floored her in an instant.
“Hello, what do we have…” her father said. “Rachel! My little girl!” He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers and kissed her head. “You looking to learn Thai boxing like your old dad?”
“My teeth are barely OK now,” Rachel said. He was big, if somewhat pot-bellied, and had a leer that suggested that he was capable of anything.
“I was wondering when I’d see you again. It’s been what, six, seven years? How’s Ma and Da?” He spoke almost as though cheering.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore. She doesn’t do that wheedling thing with you? Nagging and nitpicking?”
“I could have thrown her off the balcony. Anyway, you’re not looking to leave home? Move in with me?” His grin was wide and charming and Rachel understood what the skank saw in him.
“I’ve been meaning to come and see you,” he said.
“Do you know anyone who speaks Thai?” Rachel tried to shift the conversation away from the emotional stuff.
“Thai? This is a muay thai club, Thai boxing. Quite a few guys here speak Thai.”
Rachel showed her father the letter.
“I didn’t know she sent this. Too hard for me. Hey, Ananda!” he shouted at a guy slamming his shin high up into a boxing bag. “Come here a sec.”
Sweat drenched the fighter’s tee-shirt and a headband secured his shock of black hair. His skin was a light gold like hers. Rachel wondered whether these guys used internet dating. Like, were they even signed-up?
“Could you read this for Rachel?”
Ananda opened the folded page and scanned it. “It is from Chailai Holbeck...”
Waiting, Rachel listened to the blows hitting bodies and punching bags, the grunts and groans of effort. She wondered what it must feel like to fight in a ring. It probably hurt quite a bit.
“We should speak in private,” Ananda said.
“In my office.” Her father led the way into what looked to be a sports equipment storeroom.
“She’s writing to tell you why she left,” Ananda said.
“She says the police went to her father’s home and found your mother’s London address. Then your mother’s owners contacted her to say unless she returned and honoured her father’s debt, her family was in danger. So she went back to Thailand. She’s says she’s trapped in a brothel. But not to visit her, because they will do the same to you. The debt can never be repaid.”
Rachel fought back tears. “Is there an address?”
“No.” Ananda handed back the letter. “No address.”
“Did you know about this?” Rachel asked.
Her father shook his head. “She told me her father needed help with the harvest. We met in Bangkok. I only vaguely knew where she came from.”
“Why didn’t you try to find her? Holy fuck, Dad!”
“I did. I flew to Bangkok. No-one knew anything about her. I thought you knew all this. That’s why I left when you were little.”
“And afterwards? Why didn’t you come back?”
“Those fucking parents of mine wouldn’t let me. They said you’d been abandoned twice and you were with them now. I had nothing left when I got back. I was living on the streets. I couldn’t argue.”
“How did you meet Mum?” Rachel wondered if her parents had met in a brothel.
“She was a dancer in a bar. We used to trade insults every time I went for a beer. One day I realised I was in love with her. I bought her a ticket to London and she came.”
“We’re helping her escape again.”
“She’s dead, Rachel.” Her father said.
“A few years back. The police found her body at a rubbish dump. My friends wrote to me.”
“And you didn’t tell me? Who did dis? I will fuckin kill them.” Rachel breathed hard as though she had been running; in the space of a minute she’d discovered her mother had been trafficked into a brothel, then murdered and dumped onto a rubbish dump. Someone had to die for this or else there was no justice.
“The brothels there are run by the Army. We can’t fight an Army,” her father said.
Rachel waved toward the gymnasium on the other side of the door. “What in fuck is all dis? What use is it, if you couldn’t protect Mum?”
“There, there, pet!” Her father stood and held Rachel’s shoulders. He hugged her. “There’s nothing we can do. She’s gone. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing?” Rachel stared at her father and Ananda in turn. “Nothing? Someone’s going to fucking pay! Tell me who did it!”
3. Nouhou in Therapy
The Lyme Road Warriors surrounded Nouhou in the school corridor. He gave them his biggest smile. With gang members in almost every class, the LRW ran Lyme Road school, while the older members controlled Farm Estate. He had seen them extort money Andrew Patel and others, though they had always left Nouhou alone.
“Hey, Butcher Boy, we see dis retro movie call Doctor Strangelove.” Silva said. “He cripple like you. But in a wheelchair. He do cool ting wid his hand, yeh? Like a salute.”
“So cool, yeh,” Westral said. “Wid the right arm. You try it, Butch. Yeh. Dat it. Everyone tink you cool you do that. An we call you ‘Doctor Strangelove’, yeh?”
Nouhou imitated Silva, and held his arm out straight, his hand flat. It made him happy to be interacting with his classmates, even if they were the LRW.
“Maybe you get a wheelchair an do it, yeh?” said Morder. “Dat even more like Doctor Strangelove.
“You do it lots, an everyone like you,” Waffy said.
“I be inna group?” Nouhou asked, his smile blazing, holding his arm out. Maybe they liked him, it occurred to Nouhou. The LRW were on nobody’s list of favourite people either.
“You do it enough,” Skama said. “We review your case tomorrow, yeh?”
Nouhou lowered his arm and headed towards Trauma Therapy. Tomorrow he might be a member of the LRW. He saluted a group of older girls, his walking stick dangling from his arm on its leather lanyard. All along the corridor he gave everyone the straight-arm salute. Nouhou wondered whether he had to try harder, as some of the students told him to “fuck off”. He tried smiling as he saluted, but not even that won his classmates over. The expressions on the faces of all the students was either distaste or confusion. He wondered whether the walking stick hanging from his wrist had made them think he was threatening them.
Nouhou sniffed his armpit.
Then he saw Andrew Patel. Six months ago, Andrew had been appointed Nouhou’s “school buddy” to help him integrate. Nouhou felt no more integrated than his first day.
“What in fuck are you doing?” Andrew Patel pressed Nouhou’s Nazi salute down. “Never ever do that!”
“They call me ‘Docca Strangelove’. Say I muss saluhe.”
“So that’s what they were saying.” Andrew was Indian yet spoke like a Londoner.
“They say if I do ee, I be in grouh tomorrow, na.”
“What? They’ll never let you in their group. Do you even know what it is, that salute? It’s a Hitler salute. He murdered millions of people in extermination camps. Sixty million people died in World War Two because of him. Sixty million. They’re saying you’re like Hitler.”
Nouhou fought back his anger. He hadn’t heard of Hitler, but he sounded far worse than anyone fighting in the Liberian War.
“They’ll probs call you ‘The Hitler Youth’ instead of ‘The Butcher’.”
Nouhou wanted nothing more to do with violence. In the war, he’d stopped counting after the first ten, but he’d killed hundreds of people. Maybe even thousands. Most had been government “pay yourself” soldiers like himself, but many were not. Using a machete to save ammunition, he’d cut down women, children, and old people. Pushing the memories aside, Nouhou forced himself up out of a well of sadness.
“Listen,” Andrew said. “I’ve just heard about blood diamonds. If you can get some, we could make real money.”
Rough diamonds had been traded for weapons. Little people couldn’t get diamonds. Big people had the trade tied up. But little people did the work, knee deep in mud panning gravel while there was light.
“You havva girlfrien?” Nouhou asked. “Neeh a diamon for a rinh?”
“For a girl? We can make money, Nouhou. With diamonds. You understand?”
Nouhou shook his head. Andrew didn’t understand.
Travelling across the Sahara, Lilah, his new mother, had explained that a Sierra Leone rebel group sold blackmarket diamonds via Liberia. President Charles Taylor had used the blood diamond trade to keep his government afloat because, after he his election, International aid was refused and the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions.
“Can you get diamonds or not?” Andrew asked. “We’ll sell them through my uncle. Big money, you understand?”
LURD had been formed by the West to stop the diamond trade. Back then, at the beginning, Nouhou had a Congo name: “Saturday McIntosh”. He’d lived in a small house with his mother and father and sisters and brothers. McIntosh was the surname of Nouhou’s white slave-owner ancestor, whose child had been freed and sent from the US to live Liberia. His non-white ancestors had been from the Congo. Nouhou’s first memory was of the day LURD came to their house.
“The war ee over, na. Diamon alla finish. ” Nouhou flashed a smile at his official school buddy. “No diamon.”
“For fuck’s sake. From Liberia and can’t get any diamonds.” Andrew gestured at the door of the school psychologist further along the hall. “And no more saluting, Hitler Youth.”
On his walking sticks and prosthetic legs, Nouhou felt like a massive crab sidling into Mrs Brown’s office. In a circle on plastic chairs, the other Trauma Therapy students acted as though he did not exist. Mrs Brown pointed to a spare seat.
Nouhou clattered into a seat beside Lorelei, his sticks falling to the floor. He knew her from his class, although they had never spoken. Further along sat a Pakistani girl named Patasa beside her brother, Jahangir.
Yenor, a girl from Sierra Leone, sat next along. Then came three students from Iraq: Farrah and her brother Jamail, and Shatha. Nouhou noted Shatha’s scarred face through the gap of her niqab.
On Nouhou’s other side sat Ulan, a girl from Sudan, who had been a slave in London.
Mrs Brown raised a hand. “Just to remind everyone. If we share our fears and memories, it lessens the heavy load we carry. It’s the best path to healing. Remember, anything we speak of must never be repeated outside this room. This is our safe place. Everyone, please welcome Jahangir, who has recovered from the gunshot to his chest. Jahangir would you care to say something?”
“The damage was all mental, yeh,” said Patasa, his sister.
“In riot, I went to mosque.” Jahangir wore white Islamic clothing. His hair hung long and dark, and his eyes shone bright blue. At first glance, Nouhou had wondered whether he might be a girl, but his mannerisms made it clear he was male. “When my brother is shown to me, he has bombs tied around him. I see pistol on floor and I shoot imam. And one other. For what is done to my brother. They kidnap him to be a shaheed bomb. We escape, then police shoot us. In the chest. Here.” Jahangir pointed.
Jahangir’s clothes had none of the decoration that Nouhou remembered of the Vai and Mandinka Muslims in Liberia. Lilah said LURD had began with Muslims. Money had been transferred to them through a mosque.
“Our brother was murdered by de Feds,” Patasa said.
“How do you feel about everything now you are out of hospital?” Mrs Brown asked.
“I am angry police kill my brother,” Jahangir said.
“I read in the paper you pointed a gun at the police,” Farrah said.
Jahangir shook his head. “They say mistake.”
“They seem to make a lot of mistakes,” Mrs Brown said.
“They said the Iraq War was a mistake,” Jamail said. “One million of us died.”
“Dey dead our brother Janan next to him,” said Patasa. “Then de sniper bullet miss de Jangsta’s heart by this much, and dey say, ‘Oh, it all a mistake’, yeh.” Patasa closed a thumb and forefinger to a small gap. “A mistake dey miss, innit, because dey mean to kill him. Janan shot through de heart.”
“A mistake, but never an apology. Never compensation,” Jamail said.
“Jahangir, is there any chance it was really a mistake?” Mrs Brown said.
Jahangir snorted, but didn’t reply.
Mrs Brown’s said to Jahangir, “You don’t have to speak until you’re ready. All in good time. Does anyone else have something to share? Something about your lives.”
Nouhou wondered whether he should tell the group about himself. Mrs Brown said sharing was the path to healing, and he had heard people say Lorelei had been cured. Maybe talking to the group could stop the sadness.
“I say somethin,” Nouhou said.
“Wonderful, Nouhou. Are you ready to share with us?”
“The truh, na.” Nouhou glanced at his prosthetic limbs. “My lehs cuh off wi machete. By Presiden Taylor’s Anti-Terroriss Unih.”
The therapy group stared.
“What did he even say?” Patasa said.
“Your legs were cut off with a machete?”Mrs Brown said. “You told us it had been a landmine.”
Lilah had told him to say a landmine so that Immigration would not know he’d been a LURD soldier. “When I try say abouh ee, I fee sih.” That was true.
“You feel sick speaking about it? That’s a normal reaction, Nouhou. But you feel you can now say something about what happened.”
Nouhou closed his eyes. To speak about losing his legs felt like being on a tightrope, where at any moment catastrophe might occur. To speak of the fear was to summon it back. “Ee the attack on Monrovia, we call World War III. We go firs so Governmen use up bullehs. Wearin costume, so they know no-one cah killa us. I am in fronh shootin, then no ammo. When I looh around, my unih all die. Many governmen soldier shootin. I wear yellow raincoah, yellow t-shirh and big ha, and they chase me. I throw ee all away an hide, buh no gooh.”
Nouhou’s fighting name was “Tsetse Fly”. He remembered his comrade-in-arms better than his own brothers who had vanished after LURD had kidnapped them. All of his family were dead.
“Anti-Terroriss Unih pull me ouh. Hih me, many time. I wahe up hung up by the arms.” Nouhou lifted his arms to demonstrate. “Many LURH. Captah, corporah, solja, all tie uh.”
“Dis a war story, innit.” Patasa rolled her eyes. “I’d be sick, yeh, cept I can’t understand a word. Safe.”
“Respect, Patasa,” said Mrs Brown. “Go on, Nouhou.”
Nouhou made a hand action of chopping. “They choh arm or leh and ask a question. An again. When man die, he push ouh window. They kill many people I know. Then I am nexh. Las one. They tie rohe aroun my leh and choh off fooh. Choh, choh. They thow my feeh in buckeh.” Nouhou closed his eyes and recalled the pain. He shouted out, “The fear, ee tahe over. I tella everythin. EVERYTHIN!”
“That’s enough, Nouhou, for now.” Mrs Brown glanced around at the horror-stricken faces in her group. “It may be better to hear it part by part. Of course, if you wish to discuss your experience privately, I am always here for you.”
“I wih waih, Miss. Than you.”
Tied up in the hut, the Bush Spirit in the borfimah had told him to smile. When the soldiers had laughed at him, Nouhou said it was the worst dream he’d ever had, and began a wheezing, rhythmic laughter. The borfimah had given him the strength to laugh. Later that night the Anti-Terrorist Unit had retreated. The following morning, West African peacekeepers cut him down. Nouhou had been the only one to live.
“Tell me. Which side you on again?” asked Yenor, the girl from Sierra Leone. “LURD or MODEL? Or the NPFL?”
The other members of the group pulled faces in confusion.
“LURH,” Nouhou said.
“RUF cut my parents’ hands off so they could not vote,” Yenor said, “so I thank you.”
“Whoa!” Patasa said. “Each name like a spoon of alphabet soup. Who can understand any of eet?”
“What is the RUF, Yenor?” Mrs Brown asked.
“What is alphabet soup” Farrah asked.
“The Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone,” Yenor said. “They killed fifty thousand people, and mutilated even more. Search on RUF and see the photos.”
Sitting on top of a truck crossing the desert in Mali, Nouhou’s new mother, Lilah, had told him LURD had been every bit as murderous as the RUF. Lilah knew many secret things because she had once been the “wife” of a commander of the Liberian government’s main force. Western companies, she had said, wanted to transport billions of tons of iron ore from Guinea through Liberia, but President Taylor had asked for proper compensation. So British intelligence, the CIA, and neighbouring Guinea funded a rebel group from the remnants of the muslim Ulimo-K rebel group and called it LURD, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.
“Anyone else?” Mrs Brown asked the group. “What’s happening with you, Lorelei?”
“She in love,” Patasa said. “Need more psychiatric help.”
“Oh, is that a… good thing?” Mrs Brown asked Lorelei. “Someone from the school?”
Nouhou noted Mrs Brown’s smile, expressing happiness for Lorelei. He decided that talking about Monrovia hadn’t helped him at all. Maybe the borfimah could cure him. Make him strong in his mind like he had been during the war, although he wondered if that had been a different sort of madness. Lilah had said the Second Civil War killed almost a quarter of a million people. It ended in 2003 when President Taylor fled to Nigeria.
Patasa again answered on Lorelei’s behalf: “He a gang leader, yeh? Wid entourage, yeh? White tattoo power.”
Mrs Brown’s expression assumed a professional serenity. “Lorelei, how old is your boyfriend?”
“Twenty-two,” Lorelei looked like the angels Nouhou remembered from missionary hymnbooks he’d seen when his unit raided a church. A white girl with yellow hair. Jesus, too, was a white man.
“That’s quite an age difference,” said Mrs Brown.
“We’re like brother and sister,” said Lorelei. She pushed a hank of angel hair behind a pale ear. Nouhou forced himself to look away.
“What do you mean?” Mrs Brown asked.
Lorelei shrugged. “Our mums were best friends.”
“Lorelei, you are too young for sexual relations. It’s not healthy for you. At the very least find someone nearer your own age.”
Lorelei pursed her lips and leant back in her plastic chair.
Recalling how he’d lost his virginity in the civil war, Nouhou fought back a powerful urge to weep.