Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Snowdrops in a Storm

by Anne Elizabeth Edwards

Hester dragged her case unopened along the floor and when it stuck in a groove made by broken tiles, she hadn’t the energy to lift it. Barely taking in the details of the hotel room, she noted that there was a bathroom and its location, then lay on the bed without undressing. She was almost asleep, when abruptly the room’s other occupant arose with a “Harrumph” of annoyance, flat-footed bare feet slapped across the floor, switched off the room light and slip-slopped back to bed.

There followed a full, trumpet, fart. Hester opened her eyes to check that what she suspected might be true. The room-mate was male, angular back of a shorn head towards her. Mole-covered skin on his exposed, naked back, sun-damaged by years in the tropics with no regard for dermal protection. White bum cleft exposed by the inadequate cover of ‘Minions’ boxers. Those shorts looked bizarrely familiar! That vulture of a photographer Otis? Unprincipled git, elbows everyone out of the way to get first dibs of starved-to-sticks people or first gawp at a mass grave. Human garbage that picks over the garbage life of other humans. She was too knackered from travelling to be properly annoyed; she would save that for breakfast. Plink! Hester’s lights went out.

Morning, he was one step ahead of her. She showered in lukewarm water smelling the residue of his pine-scented man-wash. She breakfasted alone on local grains and fruit mixed with fruit juice, surrounded by the debris of his consumption on uncleared plates and a half-finished cafetière. She ordered fresh coffee that never came, eventually consigning herself to his used cup, which she rubbed on a corner of the tablecloth, and the remains of his insipid brew.

Of course, he was in the lead Land Rover. He was already matey-mates with the driver. Bottles of water, sparkling blue in the dawn-light, were passed through the windows from some supplier he had charmed. Hester glowered in the back of the third car. Already the heat and the fuss over her uncovered hair and immodest dress was getting to her. She knew she shouldn’t have put on shorts and a vest top; it was a rooky mistake unworthy of a seasoned journalist such as herself. Giving in to the hiss of the local woman reporter and the stern face of the driver, she headed back to her room. When she returned dressed in Salwar Kameez, the first two vehicles had gone ahead. Even the woman she was meant to be sharing with had disappeared. She must have squeezed herself into one of the other two cars.

The journey was a jolt down a rocky wadi that would be a river in the rainy season. At first, she clung to the frame handles and seat belt, trying to grab some stability. Then she wedged her feet under the armrest till she lost the feeling in her toes. When the driver stopped for a smoke and a piss, she did the same, then boldly braved his disapproval and sat in the front seat. Here, at least, her teeth might not clip her tongue.

She could smell the camp before she saw it. They wound up the windows and put on the AC but the stink penetrated the air filter system. Flies filled the air like black hail. They coated the wipers and windshield. The driver used the wash and wipe but it was futile; he was reduced to peering, changing the angle he looked through until his vision blacked out and he came to an abrupt halt.

“This it!” He said. No further explanation required. Hester, gave him 40 US brand cigarettes. That would at least keep him keen to take her back.

The refugee centre was the typical grey-tented village. There was a chaotic swirl of people moving around the outside of the tents. Very quickly Hester adjusted to the fact she could not see them as individuals, only as a many armed and legged homogenous mass that she had to pass through in order to get into the main arena. Again, Otis had gone ahead of her. No doubt his arrival had been met by a security crew who would have parted the waves of humanity for him and allowed him safe passage without the grabbing and pinching, the plaintive appeals and menacing demands of these desperate people.

She took a moment to prepare. Her long plait she tucked down the inside of her shirt. She wrapped her head tight in the scarf, tying it under her occiput. Everything loose went into the satchel, which was zipped and buckled. She tightened the strap to armpit length. Holding it tight to her chest she began her egress from the car. Immediately there were hands upon her, fluttering, pressing, tweaking. Voices: ‘Hey Madame! Please Madame. Please Miss. See baby. See baby boy.’ Voices: all pleading, all needing, all wanting.

Hester tried not to engage with anyone, not meet anyone’s gaze. There was a surge of movement, the crowd protested. She tried to move forward but felt she only got a few steps. She turned her head to look back to see if she could return to the car. She couldn’t see it. Surge again and a rough hand grabbed her arm. She protested, then felt her feet lifted as she was hustled to the right. Instinctively she felt this was the wrong direction. She pushed against the arm only to be moved faster still. Then, weirdly, a pop of air as she appeared like Alice through the rabbit hole into the tent.

Of course, it would have to have been Otis, her rescuer, the hero of the hour. There was a chorus of ‘Well done!’ from the assembled journalists. Mortified, Hester stood, still shaking from the ordeal. A trickle of sweat trailed from her hairline to the small of her back. Someone passed her a water bottle. She gulped gratefully, the plastic neck banging her teeth.

There was a massive television showing a film of all that had been achieved so far. The ordered clinics dispensing vaccines, the singing school children in camp uniform, the refectory feeding a happy throng. It was all in contrast to the seething want of humanity outside.

The venerable head of the relief organisation took her place on the platform as the film credits rolled. She spoke first in the local dialect, then in English; thanking them for coming, encouraging them to be positive about all that had been achieved. She answered questions. Yes, there would be opportunities to meet the refugees. Yes, the aftermath of the war was hard on civilians. Yes, they were a host country with a conscience.

There was a kerfuffle at the door. Someone had crept in from outside. Large eyes in the gloom. The reality from outside of the tent had contaminated the sanctity of the inside. A security officer began shouting, his immediate aggression incongruous after the soothing tones of the venerable lady.

Otis and Hester moved forward, their instinct for a story leading a breakaway of the journalists from the assembly of dignitaries. A child of maybe six or seven years old had come in carrying a doll. The doll must have been heavy for her, as she was near to dropping it. Round the back of her legs peeked another little face, a child of two or three years old. The tableaux broke as the doll mewed. Second glance from Hester; she realised that the supposed doll was a new-born. She took her head covering and wrapped the baby. Close up, she could see the umbilical cord was still soft grey; this baby was born today. She looked up to see if Otis was recording this encounter. He winked and gave her an encouraging nod. Life through a lens.

Two official-looking suits spoke to the security officer. They threw covert glances over and spoke into their mobile phones. The venerable lady’s team approached. One made a hand motion towards the children, like shooing away hens. Somehow, that motion of equating the children with the nuisance of poultry awoke compassion in her soul. Hester, aware of Otis and his clicking, whirring camera, crossed the journalistic Rubicon. She continued to hold the infant close and bound the two children to her by encompassing them in her arms. Promising them safety, working out in her head how it could be done, as others had done it before to the inevitable detriment of their careers. These individuals would not be relinquished, not let out of her sight until she could bring them home to her parents in Stornoway.

She was weary of the burden of impartiality; that duty lauded by journalists; that golden rule to observe, not interfere. Something else too, the thought that her days of chasing stories were over. This was the last time she would fly out to the arse end of the globe and watch men fight while women and children became the snowdrops in the storm.