Waiting in the Shrub House, Ben rolled the black Afghan hashish in his palm. First into a sausage then into a worm, leaving its sweet scent on his dry palm. He was meticulous and gentle. Cupping a hand, depositing a supple cylinder of resin on see-through paper. Humming, he retrieved a cigarette from the makeshift table. A metal sign held up on two columns of cinder blocks. Licking to peel away the paper, lyrics on his mind. I’m feeling good, you know I’m going to work it out.
Every Tuesday morning Katib sat on the bench opposite Chalkwell Hall, idling until his Dad went out to meet his clients. The park was teeming with baby strollers and dog walkers, scurrying like ants on the footpath under the late morning sun. The drifting smell of wood burning from the groundkeeper’s yard mingled with the uplifting freshness of cut grass.
Every Saturday morning, before the shops opened, mom set up a table outside the Woolworths on the high street. My sister and I covered it with pamphlets and booklets. Around us, the bin men cleared the street of broken bottles and half-eaten kebabs. We propped up a poster board behind us, pinned up pictures of blistered and blackened faces, scarred backs and burnt chests. The gruesome collage evidence on behalf of the victims of torture back home. Mom wore her socialist red headscarf and leaned on her walking stick, straightening her crooked back as best as she could. My sister, beaming a toothy gap, hung a collection jar on a rope around her neck. We always made sure the jar had something in it before we left the flat. After setting up, I went and sat on the steps of the office block on the corner. People just gave less when there was an acne-faced brown boy hanging about. Whatever the conditions, we were there every Saturday. Rain or shine. And no matter how bad mom’s feet or back ached. Better the beating rain then the granite-like anger of my father.
Skirting the Rothaar mountains, the BMW glided on the road like a prowling huntress. “Two kilometres from your destination,” the satnav told Lina as they approached the Achenbach estate.
The auto-drive in control, she gazed at the jagged canopy of trees. The tranquil moonlit silhouette worked with the neural blockers she had taken, making her feel dreamy. She embraced the trance-like state. Without the pills, she’d be in convulsions travelling this road again. The memories of that night eight months ago never far below the surface.
I used to say I was a feminist but I didn’t know what it meant. Worse, my behaviour was conditioned by patriarchy in the home, institutionally at school and in pursuit of higher education, in physics and computer science. Then reinforced in the field of work within software engineering.
Vitya watched the speckled panorama, crowded tubes intersecting the domes of the habitats. Each blurred pixel a man, woman or child. Any one of them like him, once an ovum delivered to seed the manufactories of a new world. The spectrum of colours became coarse blocks as the ship rotated in high-orbit. Only the yellow dappled surface of the moon in view.
I am alive. Soles of my feet are wet with fresh dew. The sun beams a pale yellow over the horizon. The dull light bathes my outstretched hands. My hands creased with callouses; the tips white with a new skin, old blisters fade into tanned lines.
The ebony box was a perfect cube, a hand’s width on the sides and unadorned except for a gold lock fastener on one edge. Shiriin knew better than to try to open it. Even if she had the key.
The whirling motor-blades of the craft kicked up a thick fog of crimson dust. The rear wheels settled on the mud cratered surface. The gravity was thick like soup. The front-wheel thudded. Pulling at their safety harnesses, the shaken occupants got up. The marines were already drained by pulling hard Gs in the descent. Their faces masked their relief as they checked their gear. They loaded their packs and rifles. The youngest grunt got out first. Heaving and spewing a stomach load until he settled. More experienced troopers lurched out after him. The vets nostalgic watching the recruit chunder. They taunted him and jabbed their fists on his helmet in good cheer as they passed.