After Dingane had left, Stellah moved around the house, cleaning and mopping. She didn’t really like housework, but found the routine soothing. It gave her a chance to think.
If it hadn’t been for the war, she thought, she’d probably never have been in this situation. Her father had been a prominent businessman, one of the richest in the country, and she’d spent the first years of her life in a mansion in the hills above the city with servants to attend to every need, and her future life assured. Her father had been a modern man, and had no patience with ideas about a woman’s place being in the bedroom and a son being the only natural heir. She’d study business administration in the best college abroad she could get admitted to, and after that she would take over her father’s import company. It had all been decided before she was old enough to walk.
But then the civil war had come, and the first of several coups. Her father’s business had gone along with his money and the mansion on the hill, and her parents now lived on a small farm in the country which had once belonged to her mother’s father. Nowadays she rarely saw her parents, and when she did, they did not speak of the past.
Stellah bent close to the floor to clean under the bed, chasing out a few dust mice. Sometimes she wondered if the life her parents had planned for her would really have been better. Now, in her twenties, she had finally begun to acknowledge some of her own limitations to herself, and she was far from certain that she would have been able to handle the stresses of running a corporation. Sometimes she wondered if her current job as a cashier weren’t perhaps too much for her.
Rubbing a painful spot on her lower back, she went to straighten the clothes in the wardrobe. Dingane often hung the clothes sloppily, almost falling off the hangers, but Stellah had a passion for order. She put them all facing the same way, with the same distance between them, as though they were soldiers on parade. The symmetry pleased her, but had many times driven her boyfriend to distraction.
“It’s not the army, damn it,” he’d said once. “We aren’t living in a barracks here.”
“I just don’t like a mess,” she’d said, taping down the curling edge of a poster on the wall. “That’s all.”
“It’s not a mess,” he’d yelled, shocking them both with the outburst. “It’s normal. It’s a normal life!”
Sighing to herself at the memory, she went to fix herself breakfast and lunch. Dingane had been acting stranger and stranger these last few months. They’d been living together for almost two years now, and once she’d thought of marriage, but lately she’d been wondering how long they could even stick it out any more.
Oh, she’d been taken with him, the first time they’d met. It had seemed like one of the tales she’d read about, of love at first sight. He’d been assigned as security to the shopping complex where she’d just started at her job at the emporium. She’d been instantly attracted to his clean-cut good looks, so unusual after the years of pain and terror. But there had been no way to get to know him, because she had neither the time nor the opportunity to spend time with a security guard on rota.
One evening, someone had tried to steal her car. Dingane had noticed the man trying to break into it, in the shadows of the basement garage, and had chased the thief half way down the street. He’d then gone looking for the car’s owner to tell her what had happened.
She still remembered the way she had hugged him with spontaneous gratitude, and how he’d been acutely embarrassed by it. After work, she’d offered to take him out for dinner, and to her surprise and joy he’d accepted. Sitting across each other in the dark and smoky restaurant, with the chatter of other diners all around and boom boxes blaring music in the background, they’d actually talked for hours, and she’d opened up to him, talking about her life, much more freely than she’d talked to anyone – even her parents. By the time they left, she knew she would see him again.
A month later he’d moved in with her. Life had been even harder then, just after the war had finally ended, and pooling their resources had been only common sense, in the interests of economy. That was how she had put it to him; and besides, her small home was much better than the noisome and tiny flat he was then sharing with seven other young men. He’d needed persuading, but eventually he’d agreed.
She’d been amazed by his behaviour in those first days. He’d acted as though he was a guest at a palace, terrified of inadvertently saying or doing something wrong. He’d spoken only when spoken to, and tried to vanish into the background as much as he could. He hadn’t even slept with her for nearly a month, and in the end it was she who’d seduced him.
Scraping her used breakfast dishes into the sink, she felt the familiar empty ache in the pit of her belly. Over the past months, physical intimacy of any kind between them had dropped to vanishing point. When she tried to make love to him now, he reacted as though it was an imposition. He hardly even touched her these days.
She had some idea of what was troubling him, more than he suspected. She knew something of his past, as much as he’d told her, and suspected more, because she’d filled in the blanks from her own experiences from the war years.
He hadn’t ever asked her about what had happened to her during the war, and, except for alluding to the scar that cleft her forehead almost in two, she’d never told him. It wasn’t as though she was ashamed of what had happened to her; she’d played the blame-the-victim game and found it was a loser’s proposition. She hadn’t told him because he had his own demons to grapple with, which made him moan and cry out in the night, and she didn’t want to add her problems to his. Besides, she told herself, she’d handled her past much better than he had. He was the one who needed help – not she.
But even now she often lay awake nights, listening to him breathing, and telling herself that she was safe, that the past was done with and would never come back to trap her again.
And most of the time she could almost believe it.
The war had come to Stellah on a Friday, just as school had ended for the week. The school, which had been boarders only, was one of the most exclusive in Bisaria, and had struggled to keep going even as the country had imploded all around it. The girls, happy at the prospect of two days of freedom, had laughed and chattered as they’d rushed to their dorms to pack for the weekend.
Stellah had then been all of twelve years old. Like the other girls, she’d been only vaguely aware of what was going on outside in the world, and had had no worries about the future. She had stuffed her homework and a few clothes into a bag and gone down to the school gate with her best friend, Karima, to wait for her father’s big black car to pick them up. Karima’s parents frequently travelled abroad, and the girl had stayed over weekends with Stellah many times before. There were many other girls, similarly waiting.
Instead of the parents’ cars they expected, a line of big green trucks had turned up, and soldiers in green uniforms and carrying guns had got out and forced them back into the school. They had shouted a lot, and cuffed the girls who’d been slow to obey. The girls had all been forced into the big auditorium and the soldiers had moved around the school with their guns, shouting and banging around. Everyone had been very frightened, because they had no idea what was going on.
That night there had been shooting, so much that the walls had trembled like an earthquake. The school staff had tried to barricade the doors of the auditorium with desks and tables, but close to midnight the doors had been burst open and a lot of men and boys had come in. They weren’t in army uniform but were heavily armed and had begun slashing around them with knives and machetes, and shooting in the air. Stellah had tried to crawl under a desk but had been pulled out by the feet. She remembered the light flashing on the edge of a machete as it came slashing down at her head.
When she’d regained consciousness, it was morning, and she’d been outdoors, in a ditch. All around her were bodies. She’d been lying on bodies. She’d recognised most of them. Just beside her had been Karima, her head almost severed from her shoulders. Her teacher was there too, her round face covered in blood. Stellah had not cried, She’d been in too much pain and shock to cry.
After some time she’d managed to crawl out of the ditch, and found herself on the edge of the school’s football ground. She’d begun crawling along the field towards the school buildings, dripping blood as she went, until she’d got dizzy and passed out again.
When she’d come back to her senses for the second time, she’d found herself roughly bandaged and a captive of some of the boys and men who had broken into the auditorium. They’d treated her with a rough kindness at first, and not beaten her or starved her. When they’d left the school, they’d taken her with them. The rapes and beatings had come later.
She’d spent most of the rest of the war as a slave. She’d cooked and cleaned for the militia, and acted as a pack animal when she had to, and as a sex slave most nights for whoever had wanted her. She’d learned fast, in those days, what it took to survive, and she’d done whatever she’d had to do. She’d realised early on the virtue of good looks, and had played off admirers against each other to get the best deal for herself, in terms of food and drugs, the small gifts that had made life bearable. She’d also lied and stolen, when she could, what she could, because her only allegiance had been to herself.
There had been other things she’d done. Once or twice, when the group had been hard-pressed, she’d even had to get a gun and fight alongside the men. It had been a kind of education she’d never have got in school, and sometimes she’d been obscurely grateful for it.
And afterwards, when a ceasefire had been signed and they’d finally let her go, she’d been told that she was a whore and worse. But the people who had told her all that had never had to go through what she’d had to go through, and it had been easy to ignore them. They didn’t signify.
But sometimes she wondered how badly she was scarred inside from the war. She wondered if the past ever really went away, and whether it was possible ever to have a normal life again.
Stellah glanced angrily at her watch and pulled on her stockings. If Dingane wasn’t back within ten minutes, she’d have to take the bus to work, and she hated that. She hated the looks the men gave her, and the way their hands seemed to be itching to poke and prod at her flesh. It made her feel dirty, like a piece of meat at the market, far worse than her days as a sex slave. It was the reason she’d bought the car, even though she couldn’t really afford it.
Maybe she should call him, she thought. But he hadn’t taken his cell phone with him – it was sitting on the bedside table. Even if he had taken it, why should she call him? He had to learn to begin keeping promises without being nagged, hadn’t he?
She thought again of how Dingane had changed in recent months. He’d always been reticent, keeping a part of himself withdrawn from her, and, she suspected, withdrawn even from himself. But in these last weeks and months he seemed to be shrinking into that part entirely, like a snail into its shell. She could barely talk to him any longer.
Once again she wondered if the time had come to leave him. If they couldn’t even interact meaningfully, maybe it was better that they parted. One of her colleagues at the clothing emporium had a larger and better apartment and was looking for someone to share it. She should perhaps take the woman up on her offer, and let Dingane have this place. At least he wouldn’t have to go back to sharing his space with eight or nine other men.
But she didn’t want to. That was the simple thing, when you came right down to it. She didn’t know if she loved him any longer, or whether she’d even loved him in the first place, but she did want to heal him if she could. Perhaps, she thought, it was a conceit. Or perhaps she had simply learned to get what she wanted, regardless of the consequences.
And what she wanted was to heal him, if at all she could. She owed him that, she thought. And maybe she owed it to herself.
She’d finished dressing and was about to leave the house when she heard the car draw up outside. Dingane was walking up the steps when she opened the door, holding the keys up in his hand for her to take.
“There you are.” Only now, as she took the keys from him, did she realise that she’d been worried for him, that she’d been afraid that he’d been hurt in an accident, or worse. “Where have you been?”
“Out.” He didn’t look at her. “I told you I’d be back in time.”
“I left breakfast for you,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“Thanks.” He still didn’t look at her. “Have a good day at work.”
She tried one last time. “You’re on the afternoon shift today, aren’t you? Noon to eight?”
Without replying, he pushed past her and into the house.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011