Monday, 20 October 2014

WHY: What's happening for the young? A new festival at the Southbank, launching Thursday

Children and young people stand up for their rights at a new Southbank Centre festival, running from Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 October 2014

WHY? What’s Happening for the Young will take over the entire site for four packed days of talks, debates, performances, free participatory events and workshops exploring all aspects of the current protection and promotion of children and young people’s rights in the UK.

Programmed in consultation with over a hundred individuals, organisations and figureheads, WHY? brings together the voices of children and adults of different backgrounds and experiences to explore what it means to be a child today. The festival is an opportunity for policy makers, social workers, families, children of all ages and their schools to immerse themselves in fundamental questions about childhood today. Inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the topics covered include politics, young people’s access to culture, immigration, career advice and sex education

  • A chance for children to make political banners and learn protest songs before taking to the Southbank Centre streets to participate in the BIG PROTEST for children’s rights (Thursday 23).
  • Events with leading policy-makers, figureheads, teachers and artists including: Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England; writer and Kids Company Director, Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE; classical musician and organiser of Channel 4’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ campaign, James Rhodes; Coronation Street star, Charlie Condou; actor and director, Femi Oyeniran who starred in Adulthood and Kidulthood and artist, banner-maker, Ed Hall. The voice of children and young people will be at the heart of WHY?,with many of the discussion panels including at least one child or young adult.
  • An interactive session led by UNICEF for adults and children to openly discuss and explore the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Friday 24).
  • Bryony Kimmings’ That Catherine Bennett Show – an interactive show for families challenging today’s role models for eight-year-old girls (Saturday 25 – Tuesday 28).
  • Pondling   a family comedy play with Best Actress (Dublin Fringe Festival 2013) Genevieve Hulme-Beaman about the confusing troubles of a growing little girl. (Friday 24 - Saturday 25).
  • Devoted and Disgruntled event focused on arts and sports in education (Saturday 25 & Sunday 26).
  • Hungry Childhoods – an exhibition of artwork by children and young people experiencing chronic hunger and food insecurity (a partnership by The Kids Company and Ella’s Kitchen.) 
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, said:
“All too often children and young people’s rights and creativity are sidelined so at WHY? What’s Happening for the Young? we seek to provide an open platform for urgent conversations about how the needs and ideas of children and young people can be properly included in the world. In this country we no longer take seriously the adage ‘children should be seen not heard’, and we don’t send youngsters up chimneys or down mines or into the mills or fields to earn their keep. With the number of toys, games and clothes aimed at the children’s market other societies might even accuse us of becoming too indulgent of children’s perceived tastes. However, we know from research that too many children don’t experience basic levels of happiness or a sense of belonging. They suffer from pressures at school, online and from notions of ‘fitting in’ that can cause real worry or sadness for them – and too many children still have to deal with violence and neglect inside the home. Once they reach teenage years they are often expected to behave like adults, but without enough support.”
Barbara Reeves, Partner in sponsor Mishcon de Reya's Family Practice, said: 
"This festival will provide a forum for children, young people and adults to debate, probe and question ideas around children’s rights and raise awareness, an issue that we feel extremely passionate about. Our objective is to put children – specifically their wishes, needs and wellbeing – at the forefront during parental disputes and separation. As a nation, we rarely consult children on issues that impact, shape and influence their lives. At Mishcon, we believe it's important to lead a national debate about this critical issue."
Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:
“I don’t ‘campaign’ in my role as Children’s Commissioner for England but I have a legal duty to promote and protect children’s rights, so I am delighted that the Southbank Centre, one of the country’s best known arts centres, is championing children and young people’s rights.”

For further details click here.

All text and images (c) Southbank Centre

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Six

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

About ten women in their sixties strolled into the square and were surrounded by their grandchildren and middle-aged sons. I had no desire to go back inside and wanted to see everything.
“So. This is him,” said one woman. “Even fatter in the flesh.”
She came up very close to the Mayor and pushed her bosoms into his chest.
“Ali,” she said. “I am a good woman.”
“Oh! I’m sure you are…Madam… that is obvious,” said the Mayor, too polite, or too shocked, to actually push her off him.
“I run a decent business and a good home. We knew you were coming today, we know what it’s about, we don’t want to hear it, and I have to tell you, this-is-not-acceptable.”
“We’ve been on this planet much longer than you and we know what’s best for us!” said one of the other women.
“I am a midwife!” shouted a woman.
“I am a cook!” shouted another woman.
“I’m a key-cutter!” shouted another woman. She was small, wiry, with white hair in two stiff plaits that stuck out like tusks. “I’m having to leave this block – your steamrollers are going straight over my shop. So what do you have to tell me, Mister Ali Mercator High and Mighty?”
“Ladies, it’s very unfair of you to expect me to become an instant expert on individual cases,” Ali Mercator’s voice took on an overripe, wheedling tone, “when I have to look after the whole of Binar and its suburbs.”
“The Binari suburbs! Where the Mirian soul goes to die,” shouted one of the men to loud communal agreement. “Binar was supposed to be a city, not an endless suburb as big as the desert.”
The Mayor and his promoters were being backed out of the square by the women, followed by their sons and grandchildren
“We don’t want your bridge. We don’t want your ‘piazza’. We don’t want your business. We don’t want your traffic and we don’t want you.”
“Madam – Auntie – ”
            The women gave a roar of outrage.
“Who are you calling ‘Auntie’? Who are you to be so over-familiar? I’m not your auntie. My sister isn’t your mother – my brother isn’t your father –”
            One of the promoters made the mistake of taking out his phone again, and as quickly as a snake striking a woman’s hand shot out and grabbed, not his phone, but his ear, and twisted it.
“What do you want? Do you want to take away everything we have?” shouted a woman.
“We’re not taking anything away! We’re - giving!” stuttered the Mayor.
 “We don’t use your roads! We can’t pay the city car tax – we can’t afford cars, we use the buses. But we clean your cars. We work in the petrol stations putting petrol in your cars. We can’t afford hotels. We need homes.”
“We won’t be stripped of our rights!”
“We won’t be stripped!” And then a clap. “We won’t be stripped!” A step. “Not by your hand!” And then a clap.
            Now all were shifting and clapping, and I joined in. Attracted by the noise, people from the high street were pouring in through the alleyways.
“You want to know what a woman looks like, stripped of her rights?” shouted a woman.
The women threw their printed stoles onto the ground.
“There! We throw everything we have at your feet!”
“What are we without our rights? Nothing! We are naked women.”
            They began to undo their blouses. The Mayor and the promoter howled, writhing, blushing to the roots of their expensive haircuts. There was no greater shaming for a Mirian man than to be in the presence of a disrobed older lady, regardless of what girls they leered at on the street. The faces of the Mayor and the promoters were like a row of Agony masks. The women lined up and backed their bottoms into the men like a row of reversing trucks. The Mayor and the promoters, unable to take any more, peeled away from the wall, all pride beaten out of them, and ran away. 
We all laughed and cheered while the women retrieved their stoles and smoothed each other down. I had never before experienced the pleasure, of running someone out of town – or rather, I’d  experienced it plenty of times from the wrong end. People waited good-humouredly for the bottlenecks to clear or invited each other down to the riverside for a walk and a smoke. When the square emptied out I discreetly knocked on the Lotus Project door and was buzzed in.
I was met by Nushy, Kushy, Beatriz, Riven, Gita and Devika, who were all crowded around the CCTV camera.
“Are you okay?” Devika asked.
“That was great!” I said at the same time.
“D’you reckon the promoters’ll come back?” I asked Nushy.
“They always do,” said Gita. “You can’t go up against MIDAS.  A demo by forty people’s nothing to them.”
Kushy was scrolling back on the CCTV controls and watching the protest again.
 “You got right in there,” said Beatriz to me.
“I’ll pay for it later,” I said.
            I stood in the middle of all of them, feeling pumped up and exultant, buzzing from the noise and movement and feeling of belonging.
“Why aren’t you taking this more seriously?” said Devika to everyone. “Esha, just what were you doing bringing attention to yourself and answering back like that?”
“I …couldn’t help it,” I admitted.
“You put your hands on one of them.”
“I knocked his arm away. He was filming me.”
“He was filming you answering back to the Mayor.”
“I’ve got every right to do that.”
“It wasn’t safe.”
“I was perfectly safe,” I said blithely.
But she was rattled and my cocky, gloating attitude was making it worse. My voice had taken on a shifty tone that I hated to hear coming out of my own mouth.
 “Disrespecting a state representative is a crime in itself,” she said.
“I’ll tell the authorities what I saw: they were bullying us.”
“But they weren’t! These guys know exactly how to behave - they know exactly what to do to get local people to hang themselves with their own rope.”
            We separated glumly and Gita escorted me to the Lotus Project’s clinic, where a Dr Nanda subjected me to a quick health check, jabbed me with multiple vaccinations and told me I was under-sized and under-nourished, with weak eyes and gingivitis. Afterwards, I went up to ‘my’ floor, collected my vanity case and had a quick wash, using a pea-sized blob of toothpaste and again trying to preserve the soap.
I went to my room, three-quarters expecting it to be occupied by someone else. I couldn’t believe that I had been out all afternoon, had even participated in a public challenge to a man famous from the TV, and all the while the room had been reserved, behind a locked door, just for me. I got into my bed and slept for another hundred years.
            I was woken up by someone knocking steadily on my door, not hard – but they weren’t going to go away.
“Who is it?”

“Gita. Can you meet me in Devika’s office in ten minutes? Something’s happened.”

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Five

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

The policeman noticed Devika, touched his cap and said,
“Afternoon, Madam. Sorry about this.”
“Hullo Pak,” said Devika.
            The promoter tensed his shoulders, looking furious at this subtle betrayal.
“Whose side are you one?” he snarled to the officers. 
The policeman ignored him and said to his colleague,
“Devika Madam runs the community centre. She does a lot of good work in the neighbourhood.”
The second officer brightened in recognition, put her hands together and ducked her head in a traditional Mirian greeting. 
“Officer Elifa Shima – I just transferred from the south. I’m Pak’s cousin.”           
Devika nodded graciously. I noticed that she was careful not to bring me to notice. She and I subtly fell away from each other and I merged backwards into the crowd.
“Look,” sputtered the main promoter, uncertain about who exactly to address himself to. “I need you to disperse. I have every right, in accordance with the law – ”
“Ah! Mirian law!” shouted out someone behind me. “It has more loopholes than your great-grandmother’s crochet. It’s stingier than her weekly budget. It’s stiffer than her knees. It’s dumber than her deaf old parrot. It’s as crusty as her loaf. It’s as complicated as her goulash recipe.” And then everyone, even the police officers, came together for the sarcastic, dirge-like final line, “But just like our great-grandmother, we love it anyway.”
The Lotus project’s front door opened a fraction, the faces of Nushy and Kushy appeared, four arms reached out and pulled Devika inside. The door closed.  
“Listen!” screamed the promoter, almost popping out of his suit. “I have every right to make a projection, for my employers, on the development plans that we have for this area, without fear of intimidation. If you stop me from doing my job, with protection, and with witnesses endorsed by the state,” there was a spontaneous jeer from the crowd, and the police officers shuffled awkwardly,  “ as is my right,  I will have every person who stands in my way arrested.”
            Directly behind me I could hear urbane voices politely working their way through the crowd. More suits strode into the square. They were joined by one other man, who was instantly familiar to me from State TV. More than familiar. Notorious. He had a dirty shirt with a lot of chest hair frothing out of it, a bald head with a greasy comb over smelling of hair oil and a large moustache which was crisped and auburn at the ends from the smoke from his cigar. He was holding a red plastic beer crate. It was the mayor of Binar, Ali Mercator. He was constantly slithering out of court cases for corruption, pimping, receiving and offering bribes, ‘vice’ parties and a lot more, but somehow he always avoided prison.
The two police officers were instantly cowed.
“I hope you’re doing your duty to protect our friend,” said the mayor to them, putting the crate on the ground and getting up on it.
“Oh yes, sir, absolutely, he’ll – come to no harm,” said Officer Pak weakly
            The promoters surrounded the Mayor’s crate. They all set their phones to Record and held them up reverently to film him.
“Your attention please,” cried the Mayor, and the locals who’d been slinking away stopped unwillingly. “I’m so glad I have you all here,” oozed Ali Mercator. “I’ve just had a very promising meeting with the Kader Dock Authority and we and our new friends at MIDAS, the Miriadh Industrial Design and Architecture Scheme, are delighted to confirm the signing of a new development deal: The Prince Raed Bridge! In honour of the state’s dearly cherished son on the year of his marriage to his adorable bride…” He couldn’t remember her name and simply moved on, “a project which will bring untold enrichment to the surrounding area.”
“Huh!” said every single person within earshot.
“This is a bridge that will revolutionise transport and radically improve visitors’ experience of this great capital city –”
“Just like all the other bridges did?” heckled someone.
            The streetlights came on, a fuzzy, dirty orange that barely relieved the darkness. Immediately the air seemed ten times stickier and dustier.
“We have made a pledge to build two thousand units of safe and accessible social housing, a few miles from this site but I assure you still in Binar West, wonderful new homes with all sorts of payment schemes for you,” said Ali Mercator, his loud voice boxing our ears. “You start by renting at controlled rates, and after some time you may be able to upgrade to a rent-to-buy scheme, so, over time, you might be able – ”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
“Excuse me?” said the Mayor. I avoided his eye but felt it pick me out nonetheless. Everyone craned their heads to look at me.
“You know what he’s saying, don’t you?” I said. “The end of the bridge is going to fall exactly here, across this block. They’re going to knock it down, and all the houses and shops with it – ”
“And we’re going to make something better,” said Ali Mercator, “that’s going to create thousands of jobs and hundreds of new dwellings.”
“Not everyone wants to be a waiter in a tourist café or work a toll booth on a bridge,” I said. “Where are local people and their families supposed to live while you build the dwellings? What work are they supposed to do? Where are they supposed to buy food or visit the doctor?” I said.
Another man shouted,
“We’re not building site labourers. We don’t want short-term menial jobs destroying our own community.”
The Mayor had lost the crowd by now, even though he valiantly carried on talking. They were going to build a four lane bridge with traffic going in both directions. At this end of the bridge the lanes would tail off into a massive junction with exits bleeding out into the rest of the city, surrounding a pedestrianised ‘piazza’ with tourist shops and cafes on it. Knowing Ali Mercator I was sure a casino and gentlemen’s nightclub would spring up on it too before long.
I had managed to slide across until I was close to the Lotus project’s door.
“You’re proposing building this bridge, without even consulting us,” cried someone.
“I’m consulting you now!” said Ali Mercator.
“The area needs basic services, not tourist shops,” I said.
“I think we’ve heard enough from you,” said the Mayor.
 “You’re going to knock down this block and drive cars through it!” I finished.
            The Mayor gave me a very cold look and I realised, as usual a second too late, that he’d noted me down as a troublemaker. I realised that I was being filmed by the promoters.
“Get that camera out of my face,” I said.
“Or what?” said one.
            I knocked his hand away and the crowd gave a hiss of released tension. The promoter recoiled, brushing his arm as though I’d given him fleas.  A large group of local men holding bewildered-looking children by the hand burst into the square. My instinct told me the new arrivals were the same men who’d been fighting with the promoters earlier in the day. They had the same dark, square shape. The men thrust their children at the MIDAS men, shouting,
“You said it to our faces without a blush – now say it to our children! Tell my daughter that one day when she comes home, it won’t be there, there’ll be a bulldozer in its place and all her toys will be gone.”
One of the men pushed forward his daughter, who looked up at the Mayor with enormous eyes, her too-big school satchel hanging from her shoulder and her too-big white cone skirt dangling around her.
Instead of being elevated above the common man, the Mayor was now marooned on his crate.
“Now, now,” he panted while sweat gleamed on his cheeks, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves, nobody said anything about bulldozing children’s toys –”
“ARE YOU FILMING MY DAUGHTER?”
            The father had caught one of the MIDAS young men filming him and the little girl as he confronted the mayor. The camera screen glowed in his frozen hand, still recording. The father puffed up until he seemed double his original size.
“I didn’t – I didn’t,” squeaked the promoter. He had been thoroughly abandoned by the other promoters, who had gone around the other side of the beer crate.
            The man with the daughter stuck out both hands. One began throttling the promoter–this was immediately filmed by the other promoters – while the other snatched the phone and threw it on the ground, where it broke. The promoter had gone as limp as a rubber chicken.  The man shook him, then let go. The promoter fell onto the ground, winded, ignored by everyone.
It was stifling in the square and many of the children were complaining about being hungry. Officers Pak and Elifa had been cornered by various people  wanting to talk about neighbourhood matters.
The Mayor got off his crate.
“Well I think this has been very productive,” he boomed, dangling the crate from his hand. “So we want to thank you for that. We hear what you say and what we’re going to do is, we’re going to take it on board and incorporate it into our plans for the new Prince Raed Bridge road and retail space development plan. And you’re all invited to the launch, of course.”
But it wasn’t over. One of the children suddenly squealed,
“Grandma!”

Saturday, 18 October 2014

China Flash: Film-maker Jenny Man Wu on contemporary Chinese women’s wit, pain and ambivalence

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing, where I am currently doing a stint as Deputy Editor.

Jenny Man Wu is a film-making powerhouse, describing her work as “soul led, not fantastical or abstract” and “inspired by a European arthouse sensibility in terms of the acceptance of the director as an auteur, rather than the Hollywood sensibility where a producer is the most important person and decides on the cast, the setting, the marketing and the distribution. It’s not important to me to make a million dollar movie. I want to continue to make low-budget movies where I have the right to do what I want, to show to and influence a certain small number of people. When I consider the price and sacrifice a director needs to pay to have a high budget cinema-style movie, I can say no to that. And if you’re making movies that you want to be screened in China you have to submit to censorship from the government.”

Over the course of four punchy short films, Man Wu has garnered international attention within just a few years of graduating from her studies in screenwriting and literature at Beijing Film Academy. Some Sort of Loneliness, A Choice (Maybe Not), Crime Scene and Last Words, all produced between 2012 and 2013, feature women in the throes of tragicomic contemporary despair. “It all starts with very little things, small daily situations,” says Man Wu. “Then I start to describe them, to look at them from a different angle.” In A Choice (Maybe Not), two young women are in a coffee shop, “and one of the girls is a little bit OCD about the choices she makes. She doesn’t want coffee. She doesn’t want lemonade. The beer is overpriced. The wine’s been open for two days. It's a comedy but it’s really about the pressure on women to choose. Women in the olden days almost never walked out of the house alone – and now we have all these choices, it seems. But there are so many choices it's hard to tell if you've made the right one or not. And sometimes when you're forced to make a big decision it's easy to put it down to fate, to the inevitable or the subconscious.”

Last Words, a monologue which Man Wu acted in herself, examines the notion of choice in a far darker way. “It’s a stream of consciousness, a woman talking about suicide and presenting her last words. She’s thinking about something [abusive] that happened in her childhood. The core of the film is not about how she develops her obsession with suicide but her recent experience of domestic violence, her struggle with her parents and the restraint she’s experienced from her father. It’s about how a female wants to have a different kind of life, about her struggle against patriarchy and disappointment and her desperation about her future. She feels that suicide is the only thing that she can do because she’s a perfectionist and an idealist – and these beliefs make her suffer all the more. At the end, she looks into the camera and asks, If I kill myself, does it mean I’ve surrendered to the world?”

Man Wu is committed to focusing on the issue of gender in China. “I have a political view about gender in general and that comes through in my work. Gender issues are political issues. I have a responsibility: I understand how it is overseas and how it is in Beijing and feel I must connect the two, to show that women could be living in so many different ways. We had a women’s revolution in China in the 1920s but all this did was release free female labour into the market.” In giving voice to the ambivalence, pain and wit of her women characters, Man Wu points out that she is going against society’s assumption that “women’s feelings and emotions are small and not political.”

When it comes to gender, Man Wu “can’t say it’s going backwards. It’s very complicated, how [society] sees single women. It’s related to capital and economics. It’s also that under the one child policy, girls do feel cherished within their family, they are insulated and protected from the frustrations of gender inequality at a personal level, so many don’t understand why they should fight for their rights. But it’s important to recognise that a lot of the problems in daily life are actually related to gender. For example I know of a young woman at school who wasn’t a virgin. But she was with a new boyfriend and to pretend to be a virgin, she put some [red] colour in herself – and the colour wouldn’t wash off the guy! And this was presented as a big joke by the guy’s friends. But there’s a double standard: girls really are expected to be virgins.”

Man Wu was selected to show at the 2013 Beijing Independent Film Festival, has just got back from the high profile Elles Tournent Film Festival in Brussels and is currently directing the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which will be running at various venues across town until December. However, both the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Queer Film festival have both been shut down by the authorities on their launch dates in the past. One typically clever strategy for circumventing this possibility has been to screen films on special buses driving around the city; yet another example of the ingenuity which has developed in China as a response to the caprices and controls of those in power.

“I can’t leave Beijing,” vows Man Wu. “A lot of things are happening here. I see the changes and they’re not always good. It’s sad to see old buildings being demolished, places becoming more commercial. It’s always good and bad – but that’s what makes the world interesting. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”

Further reading in the China Flash series:

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Four

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

Lovely stood in the middle of the shop. Her face was large and perfectly made up, jade-coloured eyeliner, thick black brows, powdered skin and eyes as bright and glittering as a jewelled snake. Around her, women and girls were putting fish fries into a small fryer, making tea and serving it on tin trays in delicate crockery.
“You see how many women she employs here – more than she needs to. And I know she pays them more than the other shopkeepers,” said Devika as we sat down.
“If she’s rich, she should,” I said.
Devika shushed me. Lovely swept over to our table and towered over us.
“Devika – sister,” she purred like a lethal jungle cat, “so wonderful to see you. Come for some refreshment, very understandable on a day as hot as this,” went the rolling patter, “and I know what you need . Pistachio, rose and vermicelli rice cakes, small, for two. And two cups of Moonblush blend.”    
            Devika did not contradict her. If Lovely said Moonblush, Moonblush it was to be. Throughout this, Lovely had ignored me, although her eyes had flicked over me as she approached, sharp as a lash, taking everything in and no doubt pegging me exactly right.
            The tea shop was so busy and noisy, with Lovely’s banter, the clanging of tea tins, bubbling of boiling water, clink of porcelain and the hiss of the fat fryer, that it gave us cover to talk freely. There were many women like Devika at the tables and several mixed groups of high-spirited college age students. It made me ache to watch them, in their humour and confidence, peppering American-English phrases and local dialect into their flawlessly pronounced state Mirian. They were the same age as me.
            Devika took a thick bundle of folded paper out of her bag and gave it to me.
“Maps. I thought you might want to orientate yourself. Tilly told me you were asking about the city.”
“Is everything in Binar built on a grid?” I asked, studying one of  them.
“No, that’s unique to Binar West because it’s the most recently built – relatively speaking. Binar North has medieval lanes leading to a market square. Central core’s got  squares, boulevards and royal gardens with straight main streets leading out of them – very good for military parades and Family processions,” said Devika wryly, “so it’s geometric, but it’s not a grid.”
            Lovely’s fist came down between us holding a delicate white plate. On it were two cakes no bigger than a pair of cufflinks, with a shred of rose petal and a pale green pistachio half on top. Next came two white, fluted teacups of golden tea. I looked from them to Lovely’s strong fingers, which I could easily imaging putting someone’s eye out, just reaching in and firmly screwing it out like a light bulb.
Devika was looking at me steadily. She didn’t pretend to have any interest in the tea or the cakes. We blinked at each other in silence for a few seconds – then I broke and told her a little of what I’d seen, starting with Father Francis. I couldn’t tell her about the orphanage. She listened, her eyes never leaving my face.
“You’ve been through a lot,” was all she said.
She finally took a sip of tea, which must have been cold and sour by then. A teashop worker took the empty cake plate from between my hands, where I’d been dabbing up the last white crumbs with the pad of my finger. I saw, just revealed under the edge of her blouse, the blush of a bruise.
“This is a safe-house, isn’t it?” I said, when she was gone. “That’s why there are so many women working here, even though there’s not enough work for them.”
“Yup.”
“They seem to know you. Some of the women who work here came to you first.”
“Lovely’s powerful in the area – some of the shop units along this side of the street are owned by her and leased out. She knows everyone from the officials and petty bureaucrats to the local security personnel to the local transport and delivery businesses. She’s a good woman.”
             The bill arrived, placed squarely in front on Devika. I snatched it over to my side and studied the numbers. Eleven tokens, fifty fractions.
“Where I’m from, one sack of rice flour costs six tokens and a litre bottle of cooking oil costs four and twenty. A cup of tea from a hawker costs one token,” I said, pushing the bill back. “Thank you. For everything.”
“It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. You’re all so damn nice it drives me crazy.”
“But we don’t do it out of niceness. This is our job. I take a salary and so do all the permanent staff. The interns are paid by the hour. Don’t think of us as charitable people doing you a favour out of pity. When you’re on your feet, come back and coach others. Or set up a project of your own, wherever you are.”
 We got up to leave, receiving an airy goodbye wave from Lovely, her sharpened nails expertly painted red. Outside, guys were up on ladders stringing decorative flags across the street. The flags flapped sluggishly in the humidity.
 “The Family are doing a tour of Binar in the run-up to Prince Raed’s wedding,” said Devika as we crossed the road. That’s why those flags are going up. There’ll be crowds all along here this weekend. It’ll be fun. We’ll have a block party. Everyone from the smallest baby to the most senior people come out.”
Out on the street, stalls sold noodles, curried meat on sticks and egg rolls, men and women were returning from work and maids were on their way home, their empty tiffin boxes swinging from tired hands. Drivers where swapping shifts, day shift ending, the long night shift starting. We had to wait for our alleyway to clear, there were so many people filing in. When we got to our square we realised what had caused the hold-up. The promoters were back. They were backed up – unwillingly, I thought – by a couple of short, bored looking police officers. One was a man and one was a woman but apart from the woman’s plait they looked the same.
Devika and I had walked into the middle of a standoff.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Three

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

Tilly whipped around when the man first hit the glass and whipped back again.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said tightly. “It happens all the time. It’s nothing to do with us.”
“What’s on the other side of the glass?”
“The high street.”
            Big, shadowy bodies continued shoving each other into the toughened glass.
The imprints of first a briefcase and then a black barrel shape that must had been a bin flashed through. The glass began to smear with shapes: a whole knot of people fighting. It looked, from the silhouetted, shifting movements that  swept from one side of the glass to the other, that one party was trying to drive off another.
“I’m sorry,” I said, getting up, “I really need to know what’s going on. You said this was a safe place.”
            I put my tray on the rack for dirty things and walked out, giving a grateful thumbs-up to Beatriz when she caught my eye. Tilly followed, too insipid to actually stop me. I went to the entrance. Through the front door – which, I noticed, had four separate locks and an alarm system worked along its edge as well as a CCTV camera trained on it – I could hear the argument more clearly:
“You come here, with your suits and your briefcases, you think you can just wave a cheque and sweep us all away like we’re fucking cockroaches?”
“Just calm down,” a smarmy voice answered back, and I pictured a businessman holding his briefcase like a shield, pointing his pen like a defensive sword. “We’ve offered you the chance to consult with us several times. The state has every right to use up unoccupied land for civic facilities that benefit everyone…”
“Does it look unoccupied to you? Don’t we live here? We don’t need a Starbucks. We need a school. We need a college. We need a health centre. You tell me, do you think that’s right? I’ve got two daughters. Rosa wants to be a doctor. Wadia wants to be an engineer.  Is Starbucks going to send them to training college? Or maybe you think Starbucks wants to employ me? Fuck you!”
The two anoraks at the reception desk were also keeping track of the argument. One of them invited me into the booth to watch on the security monitor. It was as I’d thought: a group of local men in traditional shirts and baggy pants were seeing off a businessman, noticeable younger and thinner than them, with a neater hair cut, no beard and a phone mic clipped over his ear. They had squared up to each other but the businessman, his face impassive, clearly wasn’t interested in a fight. His face said clearly enough that a group of ‘locals’, however angry, never won out against a corporation.
The argument cooled, the group dissipated and the footage showed, once again, the tiny square being criss-crossed by locals: people coming from the riverside with big  square laundry bags of textiles to sell, a young boy with a yoke of emptied and cut open petrol barrels, a woman carrying a broken stereo. 
“Who was that guy, in the suit, out there?” I asked one of the two young women at reception.
“They call themselves promoters,” she said.   “They’re property developers.”
“Property sharks,” cut in the other anorak.
“Are you two sisters?” I asked.
“Yeah,” they both replied.
            Their names were Kushy and Tushy – proper names Kushwani and Tushara.
“Developers see this as dead space,” said Tushy. “They don’t care that two hundred families live here, in a relatively small area, because in their minds, thousands of yuppies could be living here, if they knocked down these tenements and put up luxury apartment towers.”
“Gym, spa, porter, cocktail bar, balcony, river views, underground car-parking, water taxi shuttle service to the financial district every morning,” said Kushy.
“Who would buy those?” I asked.
“All of Binar’s new finance and science and technology and medical graduates.”
“And everyone else can just go hang,” said Tushy. “The developers are heavy handed. We’ve seen it happen all along the river and now it’s our turn.”  
“But first, they pretend to play nice,” said Kushy,
“then they say, ‘Oh, our legal requirement is to send three letters telling you what we’re going to do and inviting you for a consultation, but you didn’t fill in the correct objection forms and take them to the planning office, and you were aggressive at the consultation and so you wasted your chance and blah blah blah.’”
“Hi girls.”
Devika was standing on the other side of the partition, with a handbag slung across her front, sunglasses in her hand and some lipstick on – and no anorak. “Hello Esha – I take it you slept okay?”
“I did. And I had lunch, too.”
“Good. Very good. Your room was empty but your things were still in there so I knew you hadn’t hopped it.”
“Do people run away?”
“Sometimes,” said Kushy.
“I was going to come and see you,” I said, although I’d forgotten.
“Want to join me now? I’m just going for a walk,” she said, although I doubted it. She was too dutiful to go for a walk in the middle of the day for her health.  
            Devika and I walked along the alley to the high street. I had thought that the moment we were out, I would feel relief and release. Instead, there was fear in leaving behind the protection of the building behind. In only a day I had let it get under my skin, make me feeble.
“There are sometimes drug raids on the nearby houses,” she remarked. “The drug squad park off the high street then file into these alleyways. One of them gives a signal and they slither into a building. We’ve seen it.”
“Do they ever arrest anyone?”
“Sometimes.” She dropped her voice. “But it’s usually for show. The corruption around here… We find it hard to deal with officials.”
            The high street was narrow, so that the two directions of traffic passed each other with barely an inch of space and all the shops seemed to stoop in. The ‘pavements’ were long, sagging lengths of broken stonework, the dips and ditches covered over with soggy wood or muddy plastic, the kerbs barely an inch above the road.  
“Don’t be put off by appearances,” said Devika. “We have everything here. Medicines and homeopathic remedies. That’s the place where they fix everything that’s broken. That’s the phone-and-photocopying shop and Internet cafe. Ladies’ salon. Betting shop. That shop buys gold and silver. The traditional sweets and yogurt shop. That man runs the dairy stall for eggs, curd, churned cheese and milk. The big market’s once a week. If you go round the corner there’s some cycle rickshaws, and if you follow tit down you’ll find the auto-taxis, and you’ll see the bus stop from there.”
“What direction’s Binar central core?”
            She pointed towards the cycle rickshaw park.
“It’s far – the city’s huge.”
“How many people?”
“Eighteen million and growing. Not that we’re all on top of each other. Binar’s like a pool of crude oil, always spreading out at the edges.”
As we passed different shops, Devika was greeted respectfully by the men and women inside, who called her Sister, Mother, Daughter or Auntie according to their ages. I was enjoying our walk, even though we were constantly dodging the people walking into our path. We passed numerous alleyways cutting back towards the river. While some of the passageways were empty, most were full of children playing.
            I could see a sign saying Lovely’s Tea Room at the end of the row. There was  picture of a tea cup, with the word Lovely spelled out from the steam. Inside, the place was the size of a tram carriage. There were round canisters of tea on the left and tables and stools along the wood panelled wall on the right. The wood panels were made from the sides of tea shipping crates, marked with transit stamps and customs stickers.
“Lovely built this place from nothing,” said Devika. “Her father and mother were tea-hawkers. They had bicycles racks on the back. They sent Lovely to school – and very slowly, she developed this place. There are private quarters upstairs.”

I realised that a simple shower and change of clothes had immediately lifted me away from the dirty looks, roughness and dismissal I would usually encounter in a place like Lovely’s, especially if I was alone. I was no longer right at the very bottom, as I had been. I was in disguise and it was working.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Two

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

When I was finally done I dried the soap carefully and diluted the shampoo with a couple of drops of cold water to make it last longer. The best thing in the vanity case was a pot of plain white cream. I touched the perfect surface with the pad of my forefinger, barely lifting any off, and rubbed it into my face. I resisted taking more.
There was also a toothbrush and a large tube of toothpaste. I began brushing, groaning in relief; my teeth and tongue felt as though they were covered in scales and moss. My teeth were moving as I brushed them. They weren’t swinging loose, but they shifted slightly in the gums. When I spat out, the froth was striped with blood. I looked into the mirror, something I’d been avoiding since I first got into the bathroom.
            The person in front of me had a peaky, bashed, asymmetrical quality. My hands and face were burned dark and I had blackish freckles over the bridge of my nose and the tops of my cheeks. My eyeballs were yellow, with grey bags underneath.
There were scratches and bruises all over my body, old and new, fresh and healing, layered over each other. Worst of all was the expression in my eyes. It was hard and mistrustful, wary and wounded.
I decided not to bother with mirrors again. I put the towel around me and was about to creep out when I remembered the clothes Devika said she’d leave for me. There they were, on the bench, smelling of washing powder. Under the bench was a pair of sandals. I put everything on: the cheesecloth shirt, the soft cotton scarf that went with it, the linen trousers.
            I came out. Someone was waiting for me, texting on her phone. It was Gita, the anorak who’d shared her tea with me.
“Hey!” she grinned, tucking her phone into her pocket. I could tell by the way she looked at me that I was a huge improvement.
“I feel a bit more normal now,” I said.
“Let me just … there,” said Gita.      
She rearranged my scarf, widening it out around my shoulders. I checked the bathroom to make sure I’d left it neat. I took my towel with me, carrying it over my arm.
“Sorry for hogging it.”
“You didn’t,” said Gita, leading me back to the landing. “There’s  a bathroom for every three bedrooms, people shouldn’t have to wait or ask permission to do basic things like wash or use a toilet or give their kids a bath – that kind of control is what some of them are escaping from.”
I could hear voices and kids’ laughter, and radios kept on low, around the building. From a lower floor I could smell lamb cooking, yet while my mouth watered, my stomach tightened painfully. I was too tired to eat and had an instinct that rich food might make me sick. It was odd, but somehow taking all those layers of dirt off myself seemed to have taken away a few layers of strength, too. I felt soft and weak.
            We stopped at a door which had a chess piece painted on it, and Gita keyed in the code. 
“There’s a keypad on both sides. I’m afraid we can’t let you lock yourselves in.”
            She showed me into a tiny room with a bed, a towel stand, a wooden trunk and an empty bookshelf. The room smelled of fresh cotton from the bed cover.
“It’s not much,” Gita started.
“It’s perfect, it’s perfect, it’s perfect, it’s perfect.”
“I’m sorry there’s no window.”
“I don’t care about that.”
            I arranged the towel on the stand, spread out so that it’d dry quickly. I sat down on the bed, felt the mattress sink under me and mould to me. I got under the covers in my day clothes, my body melting into the bed.
“Take as long as you need,” said Gita, already half out the door. “We won’t wake you – although, if it’s okay, we might just look in on you once or twice. When you feel rested, come down one flight and find one of us. We’ll get some food in you. The food’s good here. We make a point of it.”
“Do you eat the same food as us?”
“Of course we do. And after that, Devika would like to see you.”
            Gita shut the door. The room was quiet. The room was safe. Nothing bad was going to happen. Yet as soon as I was alone a great terror opened up, and an emptiness. Every time I closed my eyes they snapped open again. Eventually, I did sleep, I wasn’t sure how long for. The sleep was absolutely thick, with no dreams and thankfully no nightmares.
            When I finally awoke, my head felt clear, my thoughts brassy and freshly washed. I edged around my room, exploring it. There wasn’t much to see. The trunk contained another change of clothes, a bag, some nightwear and some underwear. I was ravenously hungry and thirsty. Feeling shy and out of place I opened the door, punching the stiff buttons of the security lock, and stepped out into the corridor. Because there were no windows I couldn’t tell what time of day or night it was, but I could hear talking from the other rooms.
The landing of the first floor was full of women of all ages, types, appearance and religious symbols, plus kids. It was the children I noticed most. The littlest ones were bonny and free, but the slightly older ones had a silent, clenched, still quality. I knew that well.
There were three anoraks sitting behind a trestle table, on which were stacks of printed leaflets. They were guides to legal representation, counselling, healthcare, community housing. Every fourth word had to be chopped through, or I had to mouth the words as I read them, and some of the grammatical quirks of formal Mirian – the dashes and underscores that could change the meaning of a word almost to its opposite – defeated me. Either I hadn’t got far enough in school to learn them, or I’d forgotten them.
            One of the anoraks, a young girl, introduced herself as Tilly:
“I was on the boat that came out to get you yesterday morning.”
“That means I slept for twenty four hours straight.”
“That’s a good solid run,” grinned another of the anoraks. 
“It’s normal, sweetie,” one of the women in the room said to me.
“Gita mentioned that I might …be able to get something to eat?” I said.
Tilly took me back to the ground floor and into the canteen, the most vibrant part of the Lotus project I’d seen so far. Three tables at the far end were given over to lessons for different age-sets of children, and there was a soft play area for the smallest kids. On the long side, facing the street, the windows had been frosted thickly.
            We greeted the woman at the serving hatch.  Her tunic sleeves were pushed up to reveal two small but clear prison tattoos. There was a whole zone of outer Miriadh given over to mega-prison complexes.
“You’re a new face,” she smiled.
            We introduced ourselves – her name was Beatriz.
““I got here yesterday. But I’ve only just woken up,” I said.
“When I first got here, me and the girl in the next room used to have competitions to see who could sleep the longest.”
She was standing behind six lidded tureens. She clinked the edge of one with a serving spoon.  
“Pearl barley.” Up went the next lid: “Salmon and fennel.” Up went the next lid: “Peppercorn pork.”
            I couldn’t decide, so she gave me a little of everything.
            Tilly was sitting primly at a table. I joined her and without a word ate my meal until there was nothing left.  Eventually, I was done. I sat back, stretching my legs and rubbing my stomach. My eyes felt heavy. I forced myself to make conversation.
“Could you tell me, which part of Binar West are we in exactly? What’s it called?”
“This is 7B, block Q.”
It doesn’t even have a name?
            I had grown up dreaming about the capital city’s famous sites: the Toshi skating rink and mall, named after one of the commerce ministers; the great bridges; the Beurgalance art museum that contained treasures from across the Mirian empire,; the palaces; the four interconnected pleasure gardens that, if you followed them, led you diagonally from the north east to the southwest corner of Binar central core, and were each named after queens from the Family’s ancient history, Ankita Anirban, Agra Coron, Riga Erata and Gabria Kuo; the Maxim theatre,  a great wedding-cake-like behemoth established by the Family to show the best operas. The idea that any place outside these famous destinations in the central core would not even be graced with a name had never occurred to me.
There was a loud thump on the frosted glass, from the other side, and for a split second the shape of the back of a man, his rump and shoulders and splayed arms, was imprinted there, dark, before being snatched off again. There was a  fight going on outside.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty One

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

The smell was the first thing I noticed. It smelled... decent. Not of sewers, or unwashed bodies, or old cooking oil long burnt away, costumes covered in sweat, or toxic paint, or pain or fear. Two of the anoraks went into the office on the other side of the glass, two more went behind the door to the rest of the ground floor. Devika, Riven and I went upstairs.
“What’s on the ground floor?” I asked Devika.
“A drop-in centre. Staff work there full time and the interns, who you met, divide between shift work in-office, answering the helpline and being on call. My office is upstairs. We have residential rooms in the most secure parts of the building.”
“Is the whole building yours?”
“It is,” she said proudly. “You should have seen it when we took it on. There were so many holes that you could stand on the ground floor, look up and see the sky. We started off with one room, in winter, with no heater and three phones. We had to rent chairs and tables for the first six months. That was twenty years ago.”
            Inside, the building was organised like a family home, with rag rugs covering every inch of the tiled floor and wall-hangings to muffle the noise from the outside. The place was dark but cosy, like a clan dwelling that had been there forever, but for the fire alarms and panic buttons on the walls, the laminated lists of emergency phone numbers and a heavy grille dividing the top of the stairs from the first floor landing.
“I’m just going to check on the crèche,” said Riven, and tactfully left.
“What would you like to do now?” Devika asked me.
“Do I have a choice?” I didn’t know why I was so aggressive with her. I couldn’t help it.
“Of course you have a choice. This isn’t a prison. What would you like to do? Right this minute?”
“Wash. Get clean. Sleep.”
“Eat?”
            I considered it, putting my hand to my stomach. It wasn’t growling. It was actually numb.
“Could I wash first? And …I don’t want to beg, but if you have some clothes that would fit me? I smell.”
“Of course. But after that, when you’re rested, and only when you want to, I’d love to talk to you. Only so we can figure out how to help you best.”
“I’m not against that,” I said grudgingly.
            Devika unlocked one of the doors, keying in the code on the security pad.
“The code changes every two days.”
“What do people think this building is?” I asked.
“A community centre. And we do work that way.”
The lights over the stairs had been triggered by our movement. I looked down at my hands. They were shaking with tiredness and the nails were rimmed black. We got to the top and Devika keyed in another code.
 “Lot of security,” I said.
“It’s not to keep you in. It’s to keep others out,” said Devika, pushing the grille and holding it open for me. A healing space, was painted in flyaway words on one of the landing walls, the last word blooming into an image of a soft pink lotus. “Individuals sometimes turn up and cause trouble downstairs. They’ll say anything. Sometimes we’re raided by private search officers with warrants, on the excuse of looking for a woman who’s been registered missing by her husband or father when she left. And there are exploiters and traffickers.”
“That’s not what happened to me,” I said.
But there was Father Francis. There were the visitors to the orphanage. There were the beautiful girls, aged six and above, who went missing from the place all the time. She found a loving home, was what we were told.
Devika had unlocked a storage cupboard and was getting me a bundle of things. I stood far back, not wanting to dirty anything.
“We know of several cases where women and girls were conveyed on rubbish barges just like the one you were on. The smell fools the police dogs and none of the dock officials want to weed through all that muck. Half the officials are on the take themselves – organised crime doesn’t work without the co-operation of the legit world.”
How clever that barge was, I thought. A prison cell with no roof and no walls. 
Devika gave me a towel and a white plastic vanity case and took me down  another long hallway lined with doors. Between the doors were children’s  drawings, and there were  mini-blackboards hung on each door, with chalk doodles on them – but no names. We came to a door which had a wooden plaque on it in the shape of a penguin wearing swimming trucks and holding a bucket and spade. A wooden sliding sign read Vacant but even so, Devika knocked and called Hello.
“Sometimes people forget to slide the thing across,” she explained, “and stupidly we put it too high up for kids to reach. Beginners’ mistake.”
“I’m handy. I can fix it.”
“Well, bless you for that.”
The bathroom was huge, with a shell shaped sink and a large wet room. There were no sharp edges and no high-up rails. There was a laundry basket for used towels, a low bench with fluffy white robes folded on it and slippers underneath it. In the wet room part the shower head was set seamlessly into the ceiling. So children couldn’t get hurt by accident, and adults couldn’t hurt themselves on purpose.
“This is.. just… too nice to use,” I stammered, “and if I do use it, I might not come out for six hours.”
“If that’s how long you need, take it.”
I turned on one of the taps and put my hand in the thick flow of clear water. It smarted. As the dirt washed off I realised that the skin of my palms was swollen where I’d fallen onto it on the barge.
“Do you know what clothes and shoe size you are?” she asked.
“I’ll wear anything.”
“Do you prefer jeans or traditional? Or a mix?”
“Anything.”
“We buy things from charity shops and keep them laundered and sorted. You’re lucky it’s summer, we have a hard time finding affordable down jackets and padded boots in winter. Once you have them, they’re yours to keep. If it’s okay with you I’ll come in and leave them on that bench while you’re showering. You’ll be behind the wet room wall. I’ll have someone make up your room. Sleep for as long as you need to.”
“What if that’s days and days?”
“That’s fine. But after that, please do come and find me on the first floor. My door’s the one with the wooden anchor sign.” As she was leaving she added, “The one thing we do ask is that you clean up after yourself. I don’t mean scrubbing, just not too many splashes, so no-one slips. Leave it as you’d like to find it. We want you to feel that this is your home for now.”
            I didn’t react to that. ‘Home.’ It was an empty word. I was in another building full of strangers, another set of strangers’ clothes, another place to wash, another bed, none of which were mine.
Devika closed the door behind her softly and I heard the wooden slider click from Vacant to Occupied. I reached over to lock it but there was no lock. I put the shower on, took off my clothes and put them straight into the bin.
            I had the water up as hot as I could stand. I was so dirty that I could actually feel the grime dissolving under the water, the surface cracking, thinning out and washing away in a black grit stream around my toes. I hopped out, groped my way into the vanity bag that Devika had given me and found a bar of  glycerine soap and a tiny bottle of shampoo, went back into the nearly scalding bliss of the wet room. It was obvious that the shampoo and soap were good quality. They made a froth and didn’t run out thinly the moment they were on my skin. I was careful to put the soap in a dry spot when I wasn’t using it, and I only used a drop of shampoo.
            As I washed, I was sighing constantly. At first I didn’t realise I was doing it. I wondered what the noise was, if it could be the water pipes. But it was me. The sighs got deeper and wetter and my throat began to smart. Then I was groaning. I realised how tired I was. I washed myself until my skin was raw and my hair squeaked when I pulled it. I had soaped myself so many times my arm ached.
I was trembling and was suddenly too weak to stand up. The steam filling the room made me light-headed. I sat on the floor of the wet room. From my inner core there rolled up and out an unstoppable wave of pain and fear, weakness and unknowing, shame and anger, longing and terror, and I began to cry hard, my eyes running with thick tears.

The crying came from so deep it almost felt like I was throwing up, expelling the memories and crawling misery I’d carried inside my guts all my life, and when it was all out of me I felt physically lighter, hollowed out, shocked into awareness. My ribs and stomach hurt. I felt that I had washed myself clean and was starting again, empty. At last I saw the point of the beautiful bathroom, the expensive wet room, the water that never ran out, the good quality soap. This was what they meant to happen. They knew that women cried in here, that this was where we washed away the sins committed against us, and rebaptised ourselves, made ourselves new.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

“Kader Dock Authority,” said a mechanised voice that gave off silvery half-echoes. “Make yourself known.”
            I didn’t move. After a few seconds the same voice said the same words. I crept out. I had a long distance to walk, every inch of it under the hard eyes of the two men who now stood along the back curve of the boat. Two men were in ordinary sailing work gear: crusty jumpers and baggy oilskin trousers. One of them held the megaphone. The other held a long, thin black gun.
The chain stalled and the barge gave a tough jerk which knocked me off my feet. I immediately heard a gunshot which broke a glass by my shoulder.
            The megaphone spoke again.
“That was your warning. Put your hands above your head and proceed forward slowly towards myself.”
            I did so. We were stopped in the middle of the Kader and other boats were passing on either side.
            I got to the edge of the barge, spooked by the foot or so of water between us. The sailors reached over, pulled me across and dumped me in the bottom of their boat. One of them began,
“You know what we do with stowaways?”
            His words were soaked up by the quick, loud whirr of a siren, squeezed out and rapidly quenched. Bumping alongside us was a tall white boat, its fibreglass edge several feet above our own. Everything on the ship was white, except for the three green rubber rings slung across the side and green anoraks worn by the five or so women and men on board. The white boat cut into our space, casting a shadow.
            A woman came to the end of the white boat and called down,
“Good morning.”
            The sailors grunted in response, barely turning towards her.
“We’ve had a call from a gentleman, dockside, about a young woman on board,” said the woman. “We’re here to pick her up.”
“That – is an illegal – stowaway,” said the older sailor, pointing hard at me.
“I’m not,” I said.
“That’s fine sir, we’ll handle it from here,” said the woman, cordial and steely.
            Her team put a slatted, three foot wide ramp across the two boats.
“It’s okay,” said the woman in an over-gentle tone, “you’re safe now.”
            She and the other green anoraks were smiling and nodding.
 “For your own safety, come aboard,” said the woman firmly.   
            I turned back and the two seamen were standing shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed. I gripped the ramp and hoisted myself up.
“Don’t look down,” said the woman. She and a younger man were standing on the other side holding their hands out to me.  Scummy black water licked up the sides of the two boats.
“I’m not standing up,” I said, crouching on the thing, holding onto the edges.
“That’s okay. Just inch along,” said the woman.
            I got to the end of the ramp and they helped me off it. Without asking I helped them take the ramp down and strap it inside the boat. The woman went to address the sailors again but as soon as the corner of the ramp was off them they outstripped us, working the engine until it  made an ugly, strained sound. 
“They’re getting away,” I said.
“It’s fine. Let’s get you inside,” said the woman. She led me  down some steps under a shed-like structure in the middle of the deck. “We’ve got the boat registration number and we can get copies of their transit papers from the dock officials and trace their route.”
 “What were they going to do?”
“You can imagine.”
“What if nothing comes up on your checks?”  
“Everyone has a record.”
The inside of the boat was spotless, and I was so dirty. I put my hand on the wall and it left a clear black set of fingerprints. At the bottom of the steps was a strangely furnished room. There was a soft carpet,  a sofa facing two slightly higher upholstered chairs, a low table with books on it. But the other half was like an office. There was also a red box full of children’s toys.
“I’m Devika Menon. And this is Riven,” said the woman, indicating the young man, who had also come down. “He’s training with us.”
“Hi,” said Riven, nice and nervous.
“You can trust him,” said Devika.
            They sat down in the two chairs and leaned towards me as if anything I said to them would be interesting.  
I sauntered to the toy box and, while they watched, took out the first thing I touched. It was a much-washed flannel duck. I held it at arm’s length. When I was young at the orphanage we didn’t have soft toys. I let it fall back into the box.
 “I’m Esha Ex,” I said. Riven took a notebook and a mini pencil out of his anorak’s front pocket and wrote this down in tiny crooked handwriting.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I’m sorry. We have to. This is all confidential,” said Devika. “We’re a charity group. The Lotus Project.”
“What do you want from me?” I said, refusing to sit down. I felt afraid and mistrustful.
“Just… to help,” said Riven.
“Why?”
“Just – in case you need it,” he croaked.
“Do I seem like I need your help?”
            Devika watched, taking it all in. Somehow I had backed myself – literally – into a corner, and was standing in the tiny gap between the toy box and the sofa.
 “Do you all live on this boat?” I said.
“No, it belongs to a very kind donor,” said Devika, “a very famous pop star who’s been affected by the issues we deal with. She got in touch with us and asked what we needed and we said if there was some way we could get on the water, to intercept river craft, it would really help us. Our offices are in Binar West, on the other side of the city from the dock, so we’re following the river quite a way down.”
I  sat on the sofa – Devika and Riven exuded strong approval of this - and noticed that behind the desk was a narrow hospital-type bed with a length of wide tissue paper on it.
“What’s that bed for?”
“Emergencies.”
“What emergencies?”
“Trauma. We sometimes meet very traumatised individuals.”
“Who are you people really?”
“We run a safe house and provide service for at-risk young people,” said Devika, “we were contacted by a gentleman, a driver going to the docks. He said he saw a young woman being taken against her will, signalling to him.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said. “So I can’t take your services.”
“It’s free,” said Riven.
“You mean the Family’re paying you?” I asked.
“No, there’s no government grant for this type of service,” said Devika.
“Then how do you survive?” I asked. That was the one and only question of my life, the thing I was constantly wondering about others and myself.
“Donations,” said Devika. “You can put your feet up, if you like. We’ll be there in about ten minutes or so.”
            It was only then that I really noticed that the boat was in motion, smooth and steady and pop-star-gift expensive. My eyes were getting heavy.
“Were you patrolling the river?” I asked.
“No. We sometimes do that, but if we did it regularly then traffickers would know how to avoid us.  It’s better for us to investigate cases in a more strategic way. There’s a blanket under one of those cushions.”
“Huh?” I said, and my voice already sounded groggy and submerged.
 “We should nearly be there. I’ll check,” said Riven, jumping up and going up the stairs on his long, skinny legs.
Devika stood up and said,
“Would you give me permission to check your temperature? Nothing complicated – I’ll put my hand on your forehead for a moment.”
            She perched on the coffee table, looking at me closely. I felt her soft and neutral hand covering my forehead for a moment. I murmured,
“Don’t. I’m dirty.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
I fell asleep for a second, only to be jolted awake when the boat stopped.
“Ready to go up?” asked Devika, who was back in her chair.
             I followed her back up to where the other green anoraks were gathered, each one more bright-eyed than the next. They all said hi to me. It make me squirm to think that they might be telling themselves what a worthy day they were having, rescuing another dreg like me.
            The boat nosed between two poles coming out of the water. This part of Binar, the west, was nothing like the docks. The buildings were made of soot-blackened red brick, crammed close together in blocks separated by thin alleyways which led straight out of the water, up slimy steps. A few other boats were moored on either side of us.
“Those are water taxis,” said one of the anoraks. “In Binar anyone can own one, as long as they get a license-”
“And give enough of a kickback to the police,” I said.
            She laughed, but cautioned me,
“We should be careful what we say around here. The street patrollers are out. They  look out for pickpockets and stuff, but they do tend to keep their eyes and ears open and report back on anything ‘interesting’ that’s said. It’s all part of one network after all.”
“And it ends with the Family,” I nodded.
We all got out and walked in single file along the alleyway for a minute or so. I craned my neck up at the tightly packed buildings on either side. There were narrow, but deep.
“These are old workers’ homes,” said Devika. “Tenement blocks. More than a century old. There were waves of contagious illnesses here, water-borne and airborne, and to do with the overcrowding. The place got a bad name and a lot of them were abandoned. It became, not just a slum, but what we call high risk: high unemployment, high alcoholism, gang problems, low schooling, low opportunity, low expectation, high domestic violence.”
At the end of the alleyway was a small, paved square surrounded by high buildings in all sides, with other alleys leading out of it.
“That’s our door, there, “ said Devika, pointing. “We don’t have signs up.”
“My stomach’s turning over,” I said.
“It’s travelling on water,” said Devika. “Let’s wait a moment.”
            One of the anoraks produced a flask from her rucksack and poured me out a hot, sweet tea. She gave me the little cup with a smile.
“I’m Gita,” she said, surprising me by taking the cup when I’d had a few sips, and drinking from it herself without wiping it.
            One of the other anoraks opened the main door to the Lotus Project and some of them went inside. I saw a staircase, a reception desk behind thickened glass and a short passageway leading to a closed door. I followed everyone inside.