Melissa Álvaro Mutolo is a young British writer of Mozambican descent, creating historical and post-colonial fiction.
It was nearly time. She smoothed back her hair, her palms slick with sweat. She wasn’t used to wearing it up like this, it felt weird. It felt constrictive. The dress they’d given her was heavy and the fabric itched her skin. They told her she should wear it.
“We want you to look… we need you to look… more like a lady,” one of the caseworkers had said, eyeing her torn trousers and wild hair.
“But I am a lady. That’s why we’re here. Why does it make a difference how I look?”
She could tell the caseworker wanted to roll her eyes and sigh, yet resisted, a paragon of self-control. Instead the woman ran a hand over her own polished hair, a straightened shield of imperturbability.
“We need people to see you in the right way.”
“You want people to see me as weak.”
“We want people to see you as innocent”.
When she pointed out she was neither, an uncomfortable silence hung in the air, thick like jungle fog.
It had to be time now. She glanced around self-consciously, as unaccustomed to her surroundings as she was to her attire. The empty chairs and tables on the balcony may have meant she was alone but she never really was. There were always those voices, looping through her mind. Not the sort of voices that tell you what to do, she had long disregarded those, these were the kind of voices that made you remember.
Beneath the wrought iron fencing, slopes of lush greenery disappeared into the putrid brown of the shanty town.
Of course, she knew she was safe in the confines of the hôtel de choffard, protected by both its protuberant height and the blue berets outside. Yet she dared not look down.
“There are people there,” the caseworker had told her, “who want you dead.”
She already knew that, how could she not? Did they think she didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed outside? It was shameful, the cowardice of it. The Bitch of Bugeroro shouldn’t be hiding under the wings of evangelicals in polyester suits.
Yet that’s what she had done. In return she recited their verses, all hollow to her, and let them gussy her up like a doll. It was for the best, they said, for her own benefit. It was for their benefit too. If they could, they would parade her through the city with a bullhorn blaring ‘We saved the Bitch of Bugeroro! God loves us all, even the vile! No man is beyond redemption!’ Soon that would come, once the charges were dropped.
It was time now. The gold hands on the round clock struck 11. The boy behind the bar served their drinks sullenly. He must know me, she thought, he must hate me. The soda was cloying, overly fruity without tasting like any fruit in particular. She couldn’t drink anything stronger, it wouldn’t fit with her ‘new life’. The man in the t-shirt and jeans ordered a beer. It was irritating that so much effort had gone into this on her part and what looked like so little on his. He was nice to her, asking how she was. But he wouldn’t look her in the eyes. Nobody would now.
She had met journalists before, back in the fighting days. Pink-skinned and covered in red bumps, they made it a habit to intrude where they weren’t welcome just like the insects that feasted on them. They tailed her and chased her for months, for years, trying to catch her with their cameras and microphones. She ignored them and her girls did too. The bundu is no place for foreigners, they weren’t her concern. Her only concern was liberty and the only person who would fight for hers was herself. She was a girl when she ran from her home, blood trickling down her thighs. Her legs nearly gave way but she never stopped. Her cheeks were wet with tears but she never looked back. When night fell, she took shelter near a stream and as she washed away her pain, she made a vow; ‘I will never feel like this again.’
“This is your story,” the man said gently, pushing the little black box towards her.
She had heard all their stories. Back then it was fine, the fiction made her fearsome. Some said she chopped off cocks and wore them on a necklace, she snatched babies from their mothers’ breasts and bathed in their blood, she lay with the hyenas in their den and hacked whole armies down with one machete.
Now even she had forgotten what was real and what was fake.