Pulp.net - Liberation

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Heather Richardson
Cath crunched the jeep down into third gear as she turned off the road and down the track towards the relief post.

Sergeant Barton was in the passenger seat beside her. The rest of the team were in the back, grabbing hold of their seats as the jeep lurched into a pothole. Sergeant Barton wound up the window, trying to keep out the red dust blowing up from the track. Cath parked in the shade and killed the engine.

There was no sound from the refugee women. Fear and hunger had taken their voices. Even the babies seemed to know. Cath watched from behind her driving sunglasses. How many were there? Two hundred? Nearer two fifty she reckoned, and more drifting in all the time. Mostly desert women. Their lives were a pattern of journeys: along the old trading routes that crisscrossed the whole of the Arabian Peninsula and further, onto the Silk Road into the depths of the East. Borders and wars meant nothing to them, but they had been caught here nonetheless. The twenty-first century had come crashing through their unmapped world. Steeling herself for the glare of the sun Cath slipped her sunglasses off and into her pocket. Her head would be splitting by the end of the shift, but rules were rules. Like Sergeant Barton said, people won’t trust you if they can’t look you in the eye.

The platoon of American Reservists who’d been working the relief line since sunrise threw down their grain scoops and walked away, gum chewed dry in their mouths. They swaggered the best they could to try and hide their disappointment. Dishing out humanitarian relief wasn’t their idea of war. Cath and the team took up their positions behind the barrels of grain and nodded the refugees forward.

The line of women moved past, each one holding out whatever container she’d scavenged to carry a ration. Tin cans, old plastic bottles cut in two, saucepans carried from settlements that didn’t exist anymore. The sun wrapped itself around Cath, heavy and soft like a blanket made of lead. She felt the back of her neck blistering, in spite of her Factor 50. When she first came here, she had pitied these women in their head-to-toe robes. Now she was starting to see the point of hiding every inch of skin.

The next woman came past Cath, holding out an empty baby-milk can. As Cath tipped the scoop of grain in, the woman pressed a tight fold of paper into Cath’s hand. Cath glanced up and took in pale blue eyes, out of place somehow above the dark veil that covered the rest of the woman’s face. Sometimes the women would try to bribe them. A twist of gold chain or a worthless banknote in exchange for an ounce or two more food. Cath tried to give the paper back to the woman, but she had moved on. If the other refugees realised what had happened they might turn on the blue-eyed girl, so Cath rubbed her hand on her trouser leg as if she was wiping off the sweat and slipped the paper into her pocket. She checked to see if anyone had noticed her do it, but the guys in her team were too busy squinting against the sun, and the women were focussed only on the grain.

Later Cath sat in the stifling shade of the jeep drinking a bottle of water. She pulled the paper from her trouser pocket. It wasn’t a banknote at all, just a slip of paper folded over and over, limp with sweat. Cath opened it carefully. It felt like it might fall apart. Four words were written on the paper. I don’t belong here. Cath stared at it. Some of the guys who’d been out here in ’91 told stories about the desert people. How there was a trade in girl children, the pale western kids who strayed from careless ex-pat parents in the shopping malls of the cities. Jonesy climbed into the jeep and sat down opposite her. ‘What’s that you got, Paddy?’ he said.

Cath handed him the slip of paper. Jonesy read it, frowning. ‘Think you could find her again?’

Cath shook her head. ‘I’ll mention it to Sarge.’

Jonesy raised his eyebrows. ‘Rather you than me, Paddy.’

Cath climbed out of the jeep and went looking for Sergeant Barton. She showed him the note. ‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘Not our problem.’ Cath stood, the note still in her hand. Barton looked at her more closely. ‘You’re going home soon, aren’t you?’

‘Yes sir. Two weeks leave sir.’

Barton pointed at the note. ‘Throw that in the bin, and get back to work.’

• • •

Cath slept late on her first night home. When she woke in her old bedroom it was gone 11am. The house was quiet. Her mum was working an early shift.

Cath got out of bed and knelt down in front of her dressing table. She’d got it when she was eight years old. It had been pink then. She’d stuck Barbie stickers around the edges of the mirror. Later, when she was a teenager she’d painted the wood white, and tried to scrape away the stickers. They hadn’t come off properly, and the mirror was still dotted with flecks of congealed glue. Cath searched her rucksack and found the note the blue-eyed woman had given her over in Iraq. She’d ignored Sergeant Barton’s orders to throw it away. Now she spread it out flat on her dressing table. It looked odd here, this flimsy piece of sweat-stained paper, sitting on the clean white wood that still smelt of the furniture polish her mum had used yesterday.

• • •

Cath was drinking a glass of milk at the kitchen table when her mum came in from work. ‘I got an extra pint,’ mum said, setting a bag of groceries on the counter. ‘It’s local. Farm fresh milk.’

‘Thanks.’ Cath took another sip. ‘This was what I missed. All we had out there was that UHT stuff.’

Mum made a face. ‘Sure that’s not real milk at all.’

That evening mum came into the living room holding the note Cath had brought back from Iraq. She held it out to Cath. ‘What are you trying to do to me?’

Cath glanced away from the TV. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re only back, and you leave this lying around. It’s very hurtful.’

‘I didn’t write it. You can see it’s not even my handwriting. Someone gave it to me. I couldn’t do anything to help her.’ She reached out and took the note, then turned back to the television.

‘Is this how you’re going to be? Watching that damn box until your leave’s over?’

Cath cursed quietly and switched the TV off.

‘Is that better?’

Mum sighed and walked out to the kitchen. Cath heard the kettle being filled. She went to the kitchen and stood in the doorway. ‘I’m sorry. It just takes a day or two, you know?’

‘Your dad was always the same.’ Mum flipped open the lid of the teapot and lifted a box of teabags from the cupboard. ‘It’s just sometimes I wish you could have got a normal job.’

‘Eight hour shifts on a supermarket checkout for a fiver an hour? No thanks.’

‘It’s good enough for most of us.’

Cath rubbed her hands over her eyes. ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ Sometimes she felt so tired. She walked upstairs to her room, and set the note back down on the dressing table.

• • •

The note stayed there for the rest of her leave. She ignored it as she packed, thinking ahead to her next posting, trying to figure out what the weather would be like in Kosovo at this time of year. When she’d finished she picked up the note and looked at it properly for the first time in days.

I don’t belong here.
She folded it up and pushed it right to the bottom of her rucksack. She wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like it was a souvenir, or a lucky charm. No. That wasn’t why she had to keep it. It was more important than that. More like a promise. The sort that gets broken.

© Heather Richardson 2006