Even before she walked down the stairs she knew the house had changed. She paused at the top step where she would be unobserved. Here she could see the sweep of sofas below, their crisp eggshell embroidery ranged around the ocean view. She’d slept later than she thought; two of the Bombay Sapphire lamps were lit. Dusk lapped at the edges of the light.
She heard voices — urgent, loud, male voices. Her aunt’s flute-like voice. A drawer or door being opened, the scrape of a knife. A figure crossed the living room. The figure was tall and wore blue shorts. She heard the slap of bare feet walking quickly across tiles.
She meant to put her foot on the top step of the staircase but a reticence held her back.
Slap, slap, the feet came back. She glimpsed them, although not the body they were attached to. They left glistening narrow footprints on the floor.
The pool gurgled into silence as the pump was turned off for the day. Then a crash of laughter. The sound rushed toward her. Some note in it frightened her.
“There you are,” Julia called from the kitchen. “Come and say hello.”
Two shirtless torsos, backs to her, stood on the other side of the breakfast island. Their faces swivelled around, then lunged toward her and shook her hand. One was the boy from the photograph — a man now — who looked like her aunt, so much so he might be a copy. He was six foot one or two, long-limbed; there were parts of him yet to be soldered together. He had light brown hair with a metallic glint, a vein of colour like brushed chrome. His eyes were the depthless blue of swimming pools. He had a strong face, not a young man’s face. There was an Easter Island stasis about it, as if he had spent his formative years looking out to sea.
As she took her cousin’s hand, she felt briefly unsteady. The sea roared so suddenly she started. She heard water birds screech. Then a strange, dead moment of silence.
“When did you get here?” he asked.
“Today. Well, not long ago. I fell asleep.”
“Awesome,” said the other, immediately friendly, face. “Great to meet you.”
How old would they be? Her mother had never spoken about Julia’s children. Julia called them boys only as a term of affection. She used her medical student yardstick. Her cousin was not quite as old as a newly qualified doctor straight out of med school, who was twenty-five or six, an engaging age. They were intelligent, chatty, charming. They still had the newly minted quality of the young.
She heard herself say, “It’s great to be here. It’s so much hotter than up north.”
She had not worn shorts or bared her arms at night for four months now, and for a very long time in England, either. She felt almost giddy. She could not convince her body to forget the notion that she would not need a pullover or jacket soon. She was used to that moment in Gariseb when the sun was deflected by the horizon, followed by an automatic cooling, as if the day had been a charade.
The young men reassumed the rhythm she’d interrupted. She continued her conversation with her aunt, but her eyes tracked their movements behind her aunt’s shoulder.
Her cousin moved in a series of explosions. He opened the fridge door, took something out — she missed what it was — plunked it on the counter, went toward the pool, grabbed his phone off the table. His friend — he’d said his name but she had instantly forgotten it — stood stock-still and kept her under a steady gaze that was a combination of warmth and wariness. He looked younger than her cousin. He was an ephebe — a word she had learned in her classics elective in her first year of medical school, and which she had instantly loved. Only his face, held tense and self-protective with a certain masculine pride, gave away his age.
“Bill will be home in an hour,” Julia said. “Do you want a drink?”
“What have you got?”
Her aunt shrugged. “Everything.”
She perched herself on a stool as her cousin and his friend flitted away. She looked around to find them gone. “Where did they go?”
“Who knows?” her aunt shrugged. “They come and go like the wind.”
A flare of noise tore the sky open. She sprang off her stool and ducked her head.
When the noise had swallowed itself she emerged from her crouch to find Julia peering at her. “They fly low on the way back. I’m sorry, I should have warned you.”
“Who was it?”
“Army, returning from over the border. They go and come back every day. In England it would be illegal to fly that low, but here the army do what they like.” Julia paused. “I thought you’d be used to this kind of thing.”
“I am. I was. I haven’t been around fighter jets in a while.”
Julia’s slim silver mobile phone emitted a discreet chime. She took it and walked into the living room, toward the garden. Julia returned, the phone clutched by her thigh. “Bill’s stuck in town on business. We can all have our own suppers.”
“I really don’t feel like eating. I think I’ll just go to bed.”
She retreated to her room. There, she sat on the edge of her bed, her head heavy from the afternoon, from encounters with strangers who were so familiar, and yet so removed.
Julia had certainly met her. Her mother had shown her a photo of her three year-old self, snug in Julia’s lap, taken on one of her aunt’s trips to England, lemon sunshine behind them, which had struggled through the bay window of their north-facing flat in the spring. In the photograph, Julia had worn a beaded necklace and a white shirt open to display a shield-like breastbone. She would have been in Africa for no more than five years at that point and already looked like a different species.
She had certainly never met Storm. But he seemed so familiar. As she’d taken his hand she’d felt an odd buzzing in the pit of her stomach.
From down the hall came the same explosive laughter she’d heard in the kitchen. The sea had receded. She could hear its distant rasp, and within it, an echo of the jet that had exploded into the house at dusk. She had caught a shadow of the plane in the corner of her eye as it tore through the sky. Julia was right, it had flown much lower than would be allowed in Europe, as low as in the theatre of war. They must have been taking the scenic route home, getting a thrill from strafing the waves.
The plane would have taken ten minutes to fly from the border 130 kilometres away. She had never been there, but she knew the terrain from satellite images, how the coastal road wound north from Moholo, dipping inland at two wide river deltas spanned by concrete bridges. North of the Mithi River the landscape changes abruptly, becoming dry and treeless before reverting to the mangrove-choked lagoons of the coast. The road arrives at the town of Puku, a tourist gem of whitewashed mansions, their cool courtyards arranged around tinkling fountains and lined with captive Fischer’s lovebirds huddling in cages.
North of Puku the road continues, but no one maintains it. Only one kilometre outside of town potholes begin to appear. Soon after the road becomes impassable to anything but a four-wheel drive or a tank.
Puku itself is a place of women — the men are at war. Women wear buibuis, their faces visible behind a delicate grille. The men who have stayed are either too young or too old, men with slim faces, their almond eyes supported by two strict sails of cheekbones. These men wear full-length kanzus and move like cats — spring and recoil, spring and recoil. Some have cicatrized faces, swirling patterns carved into their cheeks.
The border is thirty kilometres beyond Puku. In those thirty kilometres stand five army roadblocks. You begin to see herds of camels grazing on the dunes, Ali had said, plucking what little they can from the saltbush, the spiky sea grass. The sea comes in blue shards, fronted by foaming yellow dunes. Women’s dress changes there, becomes more raucous, they wear abayas of fuchsia and orange. The faces of the women harden with their eyes ringed in thick kohl, their parched lips.
Yes, she can feel its presence, the border, even in Kilindoni, and the country that lies beyond it, like a black sword poised above their heads. This is the country that serves up the thin men she operates on, far away in the Sahel, near another section of desert border. This is the country that has wiped itself off the face of the earth, a process of erasure that began not in a war or an invasion but an implosion. She has never been there but imagines it sometimes, its gutted stadia and decapitated minarets. But these are not her own images, somehow. They are being projected to her from elsewhere, so that she may filter and broadcast them to her own mind.
She can see him, the generator of her false memories, walking toward her that day in Gariseb when she is surrounded by three of her colleagues who try to protect her. He strides with that matchstick gait the fighters she treated there have. She is beginning to sweat and has lost control of her bladder and a warm stream of pee runs down her leg. No, he says — she understands the word, la, but it is elongated, strung out in Ali’s mouth, laaaaaaaa, then many words of haste and reprobation and the grip is loosened slightly, her hands unbound, her colleagues restrained behind a chaotic cordon of men, the buzz of a pickup waiting nearby. Ali’s words ringing like dark bells in the air. No.
Julia stirred a pitcher of passionfruit juice. Morning sun formed a halo on the patio floor. She sat on a kitchen stool. She saw her aunt studying her. The discerning note in her eye had been replaced by something a shade warmer.
“I was just thinking,” Julia said, not meeting her eye, “about your reaction yesterday.” She paused. “To the jets.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a bit nervous these days. I’ve had a tough four months.”
“But you aren’t near any fighting in — in the north. Where was it you said you are working again?”
“Gariseb. Near the border.”
“I thought all the western donor agencies had pulled out of there after the attacks on aid workers last year.”
“They did, but two medical corps stayed.”
Julia seemed to be considering something — whether to believe her, perhaps, even though everything she said was perfectly true. Julia might know that in the company of someone else — a colleague, or someone better informed — she would not have resorted to such pat explanations. The truth was that all the international NGOs who had worked in the area for twenty years — Oxfam, Save the Children, even the UN — had decreed the area unsafe for their personnel, even though it was now a demilitarized zone.
“It must take guts to be somewhere everyone else has left.”
“Only certain people can do it,” she agreed. “But when you’ve had as much experience in conflict zones as I have, it’s almost a relief to be on your own. And there’s no jets there,” she said, trying a rueful smile.
The careful note had returned to Julia’s gaze. Her aunt was wearing another beach dress, this one the sand colour of her eyes. Her feet were bare. She wore no jewellery apart from a pair of glistening earrings she assumed were diamond. Julia’s pageboy haircut made her face look delicate and strong at once. Her body appeared hard, planar, but also somehow yielding, as if it had retained its memory of fleshier incarnations. Something of her mother’s cast — a very minor echo — the slope of her aunt’s cheekbones, perhaps, pressed upon her memory.
“How did you come to Africa?” she asked.
“Weren’t you a model?”
“Did your mother tell you that?”
The sharp tone made her back away. “I don’t know where I heard it.”
“I was a photographer.”
Julia told her the story in a slightly famished monologue, as if she had been rehearsing it, as if she’d had no one to tell her story to in years.
She started with her parents — Rebecca’s grandparents, who she remembered not very well, they had both died when she was twelve — how they were inattentive bohemians, useless at university applications, no money. About her confusion about what to do after university, a sudden passion for photography, a chance decision to try to find a destiny, a flight to a city she had never heard of before, then called Lourenço Marques.
“I thought it sounded like the name of a dictator, and it was, in a way.” Julia’s chime-like laugh hung in the morning breeze. Julia told her how she had cut her teeth in Madagascar — a long-forgotten failed revolution — then on floods in Mozambique and finally in Zaire, photographing child soldiers. It was this last assignment that had finished her off, as she put it. “The look in their eyes,” Julia said. “I’ve only seen eyes like that on snakes.”
She watched her aunt absorb the memory of what she had seen. It temporarily weighted her, and for a second Julia became a different person — a version of the woman she might have been, perhaps, if she had stuck with her job. Julia with a blue UN flak jacket. Julia wearing a necklace of cameras and binoculars.
“Why did you stop?”
“Digital came in and I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t adapt. Everything was so fast. I used to have to persuade businessmen to take my photographs back to New York or London with them. I’d put the rolls of film in an envelope and write ‘useless if delayed.’ Everyone did that then, all the AP and Reuters people, until they got satellite. I bought a digital camera in London but I never liked the process. It was too easy. I think the magic was destroyed, for me.” Julia was silent then, heavy with something unexpressed. “It got too real. I saw people killed.”
Julia’s lovely, unlined mouth tensed. “I decided I wasn’t built for it,” she went on. “I couldn’t get what I’d seen out of my mind. Other people I worked with could. Mind you they drank more than I did. On one of my last assignments — it was in Brazzaville — I met Bill.”
“How did you meet?”
“Around the pool at a hotel.”
That moment when Julia and William encountered each other appeared to her fully realized, as if she had lived it herself. The green glasses containing weak gin tonics, the scruffy palms on the street outside, the unhealthy algal glow of the pool, and a man, Bill’s blue eyes shrouded in sunglasses, looking so much like the son he would eventually bear with the stranger in a blue-and-white striped bikini sitting two tables away.
The light had thickened. It fell into the kitchen in a yolky wedge. “Rebecca?”
Her name, in Julia’s mouth, sounded old, settled. As if it belonged to another person.
“You’re tense. You know, you’re as stiff as a board. Any little noise makes you jump. We’re worried about you. Maybe it’s right that you’ve come here. You need to relax.”