Excerpts from


By Audur Jónsdóttir

A FOOTHOLD (pp 35-57)

‘It’s a good idea,’ whispered Gisella in the doorway. She struggled for breath as her guts squirmed in a desperate bid for the loo while Marta mounted slowly up the stairs. ‘It’s a good idea,’ she repeated. Her stomach did a somersault. The footsteps came closer.

She was wearing a knee-length dress, white with red spots, low cut, a silk scarf knotted neatly round her neck. Slim and long-legged with a boyish crop of black hair streaked with grey, a narrow bird-like nose and thick glasses that magnified her eyes till they reminded one of a curious young animal – a large calf, more than anything. At first glance it was hard to believe she was only thirty.

‘Hello, Marta,’ said Gisella heartily. At least the woman didn’t look like an axe murderer.

‘Hello,’ replied Marta, craning her neck into the flat like a stork. It was an unusually long neck. Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as she peered around.

‘Please, do come in.’

‘Thank you,’ said Marta. A draught flapped the hem of her dress as she stepped inside. And there she stood, in Gisella’s home, head held high, eyes glinting as she stared at her, impatient to take the next step. The staring eyes saw right through Gisella. Words coming out in a rush, she invited Marta to take some refreshment in the kitchen.

‘No, thanks. All I need is a quick look round – may I?’ asked Marta, not in the least bit shy, rearing back her long neck. She spoke in a loud voice seasoned with a hint of an accent, a faintly rolling quality to her ‘r’s.

Before she could answer, Gisella’s stomach gave a lurch that hurled her into the kitchen where she gripped the table, panting convulsively. Blithely insensitive to her suffering, Marta glided after her and continued to stare as she straightened up, mopped her brow, groped for a bottle of water and half-drained it in one go. Marta was clearly still waiting for an answer to her question but in the meantime she let her gaze play over the things laid out on the table, opened her mouth, then closed it again when Gisella asked if she had lived in the city long.

‘Four years,’ answered Marta briskly. ‘A countryman of yours brought me here. He was taking his summer holiday in my village and popped into my parents’ café; we get a lot of visitors because our village is of historic interest and lies near a bottomless abyss that attracts thousands of tourists every year.’

Out of politeness Gisella commented: ‘Oh yes, the famous abyss. When I saw the advert I thought it’d be interesting to visit your village some time.’

A smile passed over Marta’s face. She emitted a squeal so piercing that Gisella recoiled. What was it – a moan of pain, a cough, an attempt at laughter?

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeee,’ she tittered. ‘My husband said the mountains were like a fairytale the first time we met, when I brought him a milky coffee and a pear schnapps. Oh dear me, yes!’ Eyes screwed up, Marta flung out her arms and nodded her head vigorously, recalling how the man had pulled out a chair and invited her to join him. The effect the mountains had on quiet types, well, it was no exaggeration. But the strange thing was that she herself had grown short of breath and hot all over, though she’d been familiar with the thin atmosphere and alpine sun ever since she was in her mother’s womb. She’d laughed so loudly that the people at the next table lowered the fans they had bought for rip-off prices in the neighbour’s souvenir shop.

Speechless, Gisella watched the woman being tickled by her memories. Marta laughed at her own peculiarity; sipping pear schnapps in a mountain village where red-faced tourists in shorts condescended to the villagers who had evolved stork necks from a hundred years of bowing and scraping.

The trill died away and her eyes grew intent again when she added that her future late husband’s gaze had been so hot that her legs had turned to dough and her brain to newly churned butter, so there was really nothing she could do but smooth down her apron and take a seat beside him. As the words tumbled from her lips her calf-eyes subjected the room to a careful scrutiny: well, hopefully he was being cradled on a cloud by now.

‘On a cloud?’ exclaimed Gisella.

‘In heaven,’ answered Marta, staring at her matter-of-factly. ‘I promised him every evening for two years that they were waiting for him on the edge of heaven; whispered my childish belief. He used to laugh at it when he was well but little by little he stopped laughing; it took him a long time to die. But it was all over last autumn. Lung cancer.’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ sighed Gisella. She briefly considered asking more about the childish belief but didn’t get a chance as her stomach gave another heave.

‘I suppose it was approaching death not the fires of love that shone in his eyes that time we drank each other’s health in pear schnapps… and it all began,’ said Marta with a click of her tongue. She spun on her heel and her neck was off, full-steam ahead into the living room, as she flung back: ‘How many thousand a month – do you reckon?’

Flustered, Gisella asked her to hang on a sec, she just had to nip to the loo.

Marta had completed her inspection of the living room by the time Gisella returned. She seemed perfectly satisfied though Gisella expected her to quibble over details, she looked the type. But maybe she was preoccupied with something else; the memory of her husband, the pleats in her dress, whether she would actually get the room…

With vigorous nods of her head she confirmed that everything she’d seen would do her nicely. Then adjusted the glasses on her nose, sucked on her cheeks a little and seemed about to stalk into the next room when she was interrupted by the doorphone. ‘Are you expecting other people?’ she asked, having trouble hiding the anxiety in her calf’s eyes.

‘One moment,’ said Gisella, hurrying out. She’d learnt her lesson now and spoke more firmly than before.

– – –

The woman flew up the stairs and introduced herself, hand on heart: ‘I’m Dasima.’

‘Hello, Dasima,’ Gisella greeted her, moving aside and looking her up and down. She would have preferred her lodgers to be over twenty-five but Dasima’s advertisement had sounded better than most; she may only have been twenty-four but she seemed to have her life sorted. As Dasima stepped inside she thanked Gisella for inviting her for an interview; at least it gave her hope of finding a roof over her head.

‘You’ll find a home,’ Gisella assured her, and was surprised by the dimensions of the smile that split Dasima’s face. She gave such a rip-roaring laugh that Gisella was amused. But the amusement was wiped off her face when Marta barged in front of her and bent over to subject Dasima’s face to a thorough inspection: eyes like two chips of obsidian above high cheekbones and a flat nose overshadowed by broad lips and large, brilliant-white teeth that exploded her face when she smiled. Glossy black hair swirled past her strong jaw, slightly acned neck and powerful shoulders, right down to her flat butt – and from under all that hair emerged a neat pair of sparrow legs.

Dasima’s rowdy laugh rang out again. The big laugh contrasted oddly with her high voice. Gisella got an impression of restlessness from her manner, even uneasiness, but before she had time to give any thought to this Marta butted in: ‘You’re looking for a room… Dasima?’

‘Yeah – you too?’

‘That’s why I’m here,’ answered Marta, then, with a look at Gisella, asked whether there were many more in the running.

The doorphone smothered the answer at birth.

– – –

As the third visitor negotiated the stairs, Gisella’s stomach took another dive. Suppressing a moan of pain, she invited the women to take a seat in the kitchen where they’d find both coffee and tea. Dasima admitted in relief that she’d be glad of a coffee since she’d just come off her morning shift. Marta fixed her with a purposeful look and asked bluntly what she did for a living.

‘I’m a helper at a home for disabled children,’ answered Dasima. Marta’s face took on a look of astonishment. From her clothes you’d have thought Dasima worked in a fashion store or trendy café; they looked as if they came straight out of a magazine: miniskirt, knee-socks and trainers, black-striped crop top and shiny turquoise jacket.

Gisella gaped at Dasima, suddenly remembering having read in The Fist – News for the Children of Earth that the city authorities turned a blind eye to people without a residence permit so long as they took jobs in care. The funding-starved institutions were plagued by staff shortages, despite the fact they packed in far more residents than originally intended. Could she have misunderstood the wording of the advert and phone conversation? There had never been any question of admitting illegal immigrants to her home; they brought nothing but trouble. Gisella pushed away her suspicions. Of course not all employees of care institutions were illegal immigrants, just because some of them were. She smiled at Dasima who was glancing round for the kitchen, and told her where to go.

‘Down the corridor and you’ll find the kitchen. There’s a thermos of coffee on the table and a kettle with hot water for tea.’

Dasima spun on her heel and flew down the corridor. As she went Marta sighed and finally accepted refreshment too. For a few brief seconds Gisella enjoyed solitude. Then it was over.

– – –

The woman silently implored her for help; silver-grey coals glittered in eyes sharp as those of anyone fighting to keep their heart beating, to keep up the flow of hot blood to a brain long ago exhausted. Delicate veins bulged on her cheeks and upturned nose, crawling through fat tissue, skull and brain to tangle up her thoughts in their coil. Her fair hair was tied back in a ponytail, wisps falling forward on to her bony face.

Gisella puckered her lips. At no point in the phone call or advert had the woman mentioned a single word about a child. No, only a thirty-ish woman who gave children home piano lessons and was in need of cheap but adequate accommodation after a long stint of putting up in the abandoned wreck of a car. How dare she push her up against a wall like this? Force her to show in practice whether she was the sort of person who would turn away a child or make it welcome? In actual fact, this woman had been chosen over other applicants precisely because she was living in an abandoned car. Gisella had hoped she would be able to introduce her to single mothers in a similar situation, who would be willing to contribute their sob stories to the article. But this really was the limit! An angelically blonde little girl gazed up at Gisella, hesitated, swinging her gangling limbs, then sought refuge against her mother’s thigh.

‘You must be Anna,’ sighed Gisella eventually.

‘Yes,’ said Anna, pulling up her emaciated body in its ragged dress and gripping the little girl’s shoulder. Then asked in a clear but toneless voice if she was prepared to give them the time of day. The question was blunt and Gisella was at a loss for an answer. She doubted the woman had the money for a piano or bus tickets; mother and daughter’s trainers were scuffed and trodden down; their ragged yellow dresses looked as if they’d been made from a worn-out curtain. The obvious course would be to reassure them that a room was waiting with the bed made up, pretty furniture and a big window, but indecision snarled up the words in her throat and converted them into a low cough.

The stroppy tone and aggressive plea in Anna’s eyes awakened a longing in Gisella to slam the door in their faces, crawl into hiding under her bed, close her eyes and forget the whole bloody thing. Then her thoughts went to the Friday club.

She imagined their reactions when they heard that she had shown a homeless child the door. She was bound to blurt the whole thing out over a glass of red wine in hope of expiation while Lovisa rolled her eyes through a cloud of smoke and Andres maintained a disapproving silence or started preaching some guff about it being that or else. The gutless so and so. Serve him right if she directed the mother and daughter to his bachelor pad. Yes, or to Lovisa’s house. What had she ever done for anyone?

OK, so maybe she’d be able resist the temptation to scrounge absolution from them. But would she be able to grant it to herself without a hell of a lot of soul-searching? Could it be that she was afraid of children? Her eyes focused on the little girl, encountering a healing smile that distorted the girl’s face, revealing a row of snaggle teeth.

‘You’re quite safe to come in,’ Gisella blurted. But Anna merely tightened her hold on the little girl and asked what guarantee she had that Gisella could be trusted.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Who are you?’

‘I’m… just me. My intentions are perfectly honourable,’ answered Gisella, extremely disconcerted. The woman’s voice had a faint accent, detectable in the definite consonants and pronounced stress on her words.

‘How do I know my daughter will be safe here?’

‘Well, you’ll just have to take a chance on that. Anyway there’s not much point accusing me of anything since I didn’t even know you had a child in the first place.’

‘No,’ said Anna. ‘Or you’d never have invited me here.’ The clear voice contrasted with the churlish tone, weather-beaten hands and eyes reflecting a world of temptation, shadows and love. Taken aback, Gisella somehow forced her lips into a smile and conveyed the information that there were two other women waiting in the kitchen.

At this Anna drew a deep breath and asked her very huffily to forgive her if she seemed rude but the child was totally dependent on her decisions and the only thing she knew for certain was that the city was crawling with sleazy types: the sort of creeps who were old hands at winning people’s trust, only to betray them; the sort who had dubious intentions and premeditated scams for making a fast buck; the sort who spared nobody – and since she didn’t know Gisella or the other women in the kitchen how could she be sure they weren’t her accomplices, only too ready to sacrifice a few expendable mothers and kids for the sake of profit.

‘Well, there’s no point taking this any further, then,’ spluttered Gisella.

For a moment Anna regarded her intently, the coals in her eyes glittering as she weighed up the situation. Then she relented, released her grip on the little girl and said: ‘OK then, we’ll see; if there’s anything underhand going on it’ll hopefully soon come to light.’

Gisella stepped aside. ‘No doubt,’ she said.

The little girl perked up like a tulip in spring sunshine when they stepped into the newly refurbished kitchen.

Her features were strongly marked: her smile creased right up to her nose, out to her dimples and down to her chin with its dent the size of a little-finger joint; all in all, such a collection of lines, hollows and dents crumpled her face that it seemed on the point of disappearing into itself. Her grey eyes slid towards her nose as she fixed her gaze avidly on Marta who poured herself a cup of tea and added milk and a generous dollop of dark honey, oblivious to her audience. She stirred the tea, then sipped it while Gisella introduced mother and daughter. Her face impassive, she introduced herself: ‘I’m Marta.’

‘And I’m Dasima – and I’m looking for somewhere to live.’ Dasima grinned at the little girl as if they had known each other all their lives and asked if she could pour her a cup of tea. Although the little girl was obviously very taken with Dasima, she darted a questioning look at her mother. Only when her mother indicated her approval did she accept the tea with an eager nodding of her head.

‘Is she hungry?’ asked Gisella.

Anna reddened. ‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s my custom to offer children something to eat when they come for a visit,’ answered Gisella, as if her sense of hospitality had been offended, quite forgetting that no child had set foot in this flat since she herself reached puberty.

Anna was taken aback. Muttered that she hadn’t meant to be obstructive. Gisella waved away her words of apology with an airy gesture and turned to the fridge, taking out yoghurt, oranges and a honeydew melon which she offered to the little girl. ‘Yoghurt mixed with fruit tastes like the best ice-cream in the world,’ she said cajolingly. Before her mother could say a word, the little girl had nodded her head.

– – –

Dasima’s ringing laugh was as refreshing as a splash of cold water. The little girl had told a joke about a man who confused his school bag with his parachute – and was ready with another the moment the laughter had died away.

It occurred to Gisella that a child might be good for the atmosphere in the flat after all. Pensively she poured more coffee, then began to slice the oranges into the yoghurt; the juice made her fingers sticky, giving her a sudden urge for sex. The coffee bubbled on the gas. Outside the heat haze thickened. The temperature was rising. How she envied the lovers flocking to the beach in the midday sun, hand in hand, forgetting all the paranoia about skin cancer and sea pollution that filled the magazines these days. It was understandable, really. The warm weather made you feel as if you’d live forever and the sea breeze was so forgiving.

The idea of a child in the house was growing more appealing to Gisella with every second. She glanced at the little girl and felt a peculiar sensation, like hot water spreading through her chest. Probably the heat. She smiled and passed the bowl to the little girl. Then sat down at the kitchen table, halfway between Dasima and Marta, facing mother and daughter.

The little girl shoved her hands in the yoghurt, grabbing the fruit with both and shovelled it into her mouth till the melon juice dripped down her chin, moaning with ecstasy. Anna followed her assault on the food intently but apparently didn’t have the heart to make her mind her manners. She waited for the coffee and once the pot was on the table poured herself a tiny splash and stirred in three spoonfuls of sugar.

‘Nothing like forbidden pleasures,’ murmured Gisella, filling her own cup; ignoring her stomach as the bitter coffee filled her mouth. She was forced to suppress a moan as it trickled down her throat. Then she asked them to introduce themselves. They hung back, until finally Marta jutted her chin and asked if it was her intention to take in more than one lodger.

‘I’ll answer that when you’ve all told us something about yourselves,’ replied Gisella. The tension in the air was almost palpable; their desperation for accommodation so boundless that they asked neither about rent nor permission to see the rooms before going any further. Only Marta had seen beyond the kitchen and corridor. ‘Housing crisis’ had to be the right phrase for the situation in the city – she would bear that in mind for her article. But now she must assert her authority and allow herself no wavering: ‘Would you start us off, Marta?’

So the women got to hear about the man who had ordered a milky coffee and pear schnapps in the mountain sunshine, only to wake up in bed with her after a blaze of passion that from the description sounded to Gisella more like a nasty dose of sunstroke.

‘We got married just a few days later,’ said Marta. ‘And that evening my mother and father served joints as succulent as a baby’s bottom – the savoury blood dripped on to his sunburnt knees as he ate and our dog Bastard licked them like pork bones.’

Marta tittered as she told how her husband had winced away from the rasping tongue, enduring it until she noticed the attack, shooed Bastard away from the table and anointed his knees with olive oil. At this point she broke off as if her loquaciousness had taken her by surprise. Long fingers gripping her cup, she sipped the tea with half-closed eyes, then put down the cup, opened her eyes wide again and breathed easier when Gisella darted her a smile.

‘Then we moved here,’ she said, enunciating clearly. ‘Into the flat he rented in a district of apartment blocks. He carried on selling technical supplies, as he always had; I got a job at an organic café in the suburbs. I soon started at a language school – but it was tiring having to struggle with the metro and two buses every evening just to sit for four hours in a stuffy classroom so I persuaded us both that pillow talk would have better results. And I was right; I never learnt to write the language properly but I suppose you could say the “language lab” turned out more productive than my womb.’

Anna smiled at this, but her smile grew rigid when Marta added that a year ago her husband had suddenly wasted away from cancer. Towards the end she’d had to take a lot of time off work to sit at his deathbed – and was now trying to put in as many hours as possible so the café owner wouldn’t think grief had sapped all her energy. Even so she couldn’t keep up the payments on the apartment on her own, so she had moved into a guesthouse for the money she got for the contents. She’d been living there for five months now. Was down to her last penny.

The women gave Marta sympathetic looks. Dasima put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. Even the little girl put her head on one side, stopped eating and made a sad face. ‘Poor you,’ she sighed. Her mother joined in with a mournful smile. Their sympathy was apparently welcome. Marta thanked them for their understanding in an extremely meek voice. Then topped up her cup and leant back in her chair like an elder stateswoman after this long narrative. She seemed like someone you could trust, thought Gisella. Next she asked Dasima to take up the baton.

– – –

‘I’m from the city like you,’ said Dasima, eyes darting to Gisella before flickering between the others. Then tilted her head on one side and fiddled with the battered old sugar bowl. It held her undivided attention as she added that her mum, on the other hand, had grown up in a bamboo shack deep in the jungle of another country: where the houses breathe at night, lightning strikes on the dot of eight thirty and the buffalo paint richly expressive though entirely abstract works in the soil as they wallow in the mud after the rains.

Her own eloquence made her burst out laughing as if the words were at once absurd yet tragic. The others joined in the laughter without quite understanding what had triggered it. Gisella wondered if she’d had lessons in art history. It seemed unlikely. As soon as their laughter died away Dasima explained that her mother had had the misfortune to be wife number two and enjoyed little respect in her father’s bamboo house where the first wife ruled the roost – she loathed the younger woman and used to amuse herself by sprinkling sugar in her bed so the ants would bite her.

The women shuddered, except Gisella who mentioned that she had always wanted to visit the country; nearly did during her travelling years but always happened to find a cheaper flight somewhere else. She smiled wryly and acknowledged that Dasima’s mother had certainly had an adventurous life – but what of Dasima herself?

Dasima’s face grew serious as she assured them that her mum’s story was inextricably woven with her own. Ever since she was a girl her mum had longed to go to the city in her old country where the rich swam in pools on the roofs of high-rises and the range of humanity was as diverse as the wildlife in the jungle; she wanted to finish her schooling, go on to study nursing. She’d just started studying in secret with support from a cousin who’d made money designing jewellery – on the pretext that she’d got a job in the city at the jewellery store of her cousin’s best friend – when her father turned up demanding that she marry his neighbour.

He pointed a hunting rifle at her when she refused to obey, backed up loyally by her cousin. But to stop her cousin from provoking her father into doing something crazy she had quickly capitulated and returned up country with him to marry a dozy farmer who fathered Dasima while his first wife writhed in torments of jealousy. ‘But after the ants had nibbled away my mum’s little toe she was convinced that even a bullet would be better than ending one’s days as ant food – and fled abroad with the help of the cousin, all the way to the big city. All the way here.’

Several months later she gave birth to Dasima in a dilapidated hospital; a middle-aged primary-school teacher waiting in the wings. He had found her begging, heavily pregnant, and advised her to come home with him. Offered her a roof over her head and lessons in the official language of the city in return for nursing him through the DTs every few weeks. But on Dasima’s fifth birthday his DTs had been so bad that his heart conked out and since then mother and daughter had been passed from man to man; one of them had infected her mum with AIDS but none had bought her any drugs, rattled Dasima. She smiled at the little girl when she saw her horrified expression, and hastily brought her tale to a close: ‘By the time I finished elementary school mum was so ill that I gave up studying to look after her and took a job at a care home so at least I had the money for food and painkillers. We were living in a temporary shelter for the homeless when she died… since then I’ve lived all over the place – and taken art courses whenever I could afford it. It may sound crazy but what I want more than anything is to make a living from… my art.’ Her eyes went to Gisella. ‘Now do you understand why I had to tell you about mum in order to tell you about myself? My mum’s story is my story.’

‘I understand,’ Gisella assured her, her expression gentle. The other women were gaping at Dasima. The little girl squeezed her shoulder, just as she herself had squeezed Marta’s, sighed gustily and promised that she could borrow her mother.

The women’s laughter lightened the atmosphere and Dasima kissed the top of her head. ‘You’re a good, kind girl,’ she said, winning a shy smile from the little girl.

Gisella lent forwards: ‘Your grandfather wanted to marry off your mother in her teens. Did it have anything to do with religion?’

‘No, just blokes and booze,’ flashed back Dasima. ‘The most my grandparents believed in was bits and bobs they’d picked up from neighbouring religions; that and the harvest and the magical powers of Bacchus on special occasions.’

‘I understand,’ said Gisella again. ‘As a matter of fact I came across some arranged marriages back when I was on my world travels – but it always seems so extraordinary to hear about that sort of thing. Especially when it involves children or teenagers.’

‘Yes,’ said the little girl vehemently. ‘My mummy was nineteen when I was born – and she says I’m not to do that on any account.’

Anna paled as all eyes turned to her. She hushed the little girl and told her to stop yakking; all she had said was that it was tough for a teenage girl to be a mother. But the little girl, basking in the attention, insisted she had also said that teenage girls were too silly to be mothers. The assertion brought smiles to the more worldly faces but they vanished as soon as Gisella asked Anna to tell them about their life. She complied, with the faithful support of the little girl who had heard numerous versions of the past and pounced on every detail, ignoring her mother’s glances, which resulted in a lengthy saga.

– – –

As a little girl Anna had lived in a bright-red wooden house surrounded by mountains in a country of big, open spaces but few people. In summer she used to munch her cornflakes on the front steps which were made of grey concrete with protruding rusty wires. She would sit on the top step, resting her feet on the bottom, knees jutting to either side, holding up her bowl like a fine lady invited to a duchess’s tea party. She gazed at the mountain range, at the sunbeams melting the patches of snow on their slopes, and kidded herself that the world ended at the roots of the mountains as she winked at a redpoll on a nearby post.

In winter the steps were either slippery with ice or buried in snow. After Anna came home on the school bus she used to spread grit on them or shovel away the snow as her mother – the grass widow – had more than enough on her plate with the little brats careering around the house, equally fast on two legs or four, leaking streams of snot like the slimy wet grass that emerged from the snow in spring. Afterwards she would sneak off to watch TV until the grass widow wailed that if Anna didn’t help her she would drop down dead. And because she loved the grass widow and couldn’t bear to think of her dying she would slouch off to tend to her brothers and sisters. On Saturdays Anna would force curds down the toddlers while the grass widow snatched an indulgently long shower, the water sluicing over her woman’s body that was covered with hair in the most peculiar places; the children found it monstrous – was it possible that she was an ogress though they were human? And that their dad at sea was really an ogre? The man who used to come home on Saturdays and squeeze that body as if it were a cuddly panda, squeeze it until a new baby plopped out like toothpaste from an empty tube; afterwards the baby would be shoved on top of the rest of the brood in the ogress’s cave for her to look after while the ogre disappeared back to sea every Monday night.

‘Please, please, for my sake, don’t start smoking or get yourself pregnant before you’re twenty,’ the grass widow would beg every day, flapping away the cloud of smoke to get a better view of Anna. She slurped black coffee and picked at the children’s leftovers so as not to get her only nourishment from her whore’s breakfast of coffee and a fag. Anna promised to be as good as gold, blinking her grey eyes reassuringly. But the grass widow would look at her sceptically, aware that dreamy types were only too likely to believe in romance. Her mother’s intuition proved right. Anna tore open her first summer wage packet to buy her first packet of cigarettes. At sixteen she dropped out of school, took the mountains in her stride and fled overseas, and during her third year of an aimless existence washing dishes abroad the little girl was planted in her womb. Her impregnator made himself scarce the moment he heard the news and she herself quit smoking for good.

‘Then she gave birth to the cutsiest-wootsiest, ickle girl on her nineteenth birthday,’ contributed the little girl.

‘I preferred the tough life in the city to the mountain prison,’ said Anna.

‘How on earth did you manage to bring up the girl here in the city?’ burst out Marta, apparently involuntarily. Though her eyes were admiring, the skin twitched around her mouth and her voice was unsteady; she couldn’t afford to show Anna too much sympathy, it might lessen her own chances of getting a room. She stared at Anna with pursed lips like a teacher waiting for the confessions of a classful of bolshie teenagers.

‘I’m not totally uneducated; I do teach children the piano,’ snapped Anna, blushing, apparently unused to other people poking their noses into her life.

‘I learnt the piano as a child before I left home – and I’ve always been good at playing by ear. But I haven’t been able to finish my studies and get my teaching qualification due to lack of time and money. Luckily there’s plenty of demand for piano teachers – and qualified teachers cost a bomb – so lots of parents keep their questions to a minimum when they hear what a generous discount I give. My hourly rate’s more like a babysitter than a private teacher so I don’t feel guilty.’

‘She’s really good,’ said the little girl, boastful as a salesman with total faith in his product. But the expression on her mother’s face soon put a stop to this advertising of her skills. Anna plonked swollen red hands on the table along with the statement that she fed them both mainly by cleaning offices.

‘You must be a real hard worker,’ Dasima complimented her, to the little girl’s boundless delight.

‘Thank you,’ said Anna diffidently, but immediately tensed up when Gisella asked:

‘I assume you must have a residence permit if you clean business premises?’

‘Oh, the impregnator had a pedigree going back to the city founders,’ answered Anna in a mocking tone. ‘His family managed to wangle a residence permit for me – so their granddaughter would have access to state schools and healthcare in the city – on condition I didn’t try to sponge off them for anything else.’

‘What do you mean “sponge off them”?’ asked the little girl.

‘Don’t keep parroting everything I say,’ pleaded Anna wearily, explaining that sponge meant quite simply to sponge. She finished the dregs in her cup, looked at Gisella and added quietly that they had lived for years in a perfectly bearable basement room in the high-rise district. But when the apartment blocks were demolished to make way for office buildings they had been forced to move into an abandoned car. They’d been sleeping in the car for months now and if things went on like this she would have to scrape together the money for the ticket home to her old country. At least she’d try, though it would be easier said than done. She had come to the city young and these days she sometimes found herself thinking in the language of the city-dwellers; she was split between two countries – though she now had deeper roots in the city than in her homeland. She had given birth to her daughter here – the little girl went to the local state school and spoke the language of the city-dwellers better than that of her forebears. She couldn’t bear to tear her daughter away from her school; it was the only fixed point in her life. But then again they couldn’t go on living on a patch of waste ground in a wrecked car. It would be the death of them. Either way, they needed a roof over their heads so she could work as much as possible.

‘You mean we might be moving to the mountain prison?’ tutted the little girl, rolling her eyes with the effort of imagining such a thing.

– – –

The atmosphere crackled as Gisella muttered: ‘Well.’

The women tensed; hope fought with fear, the waiting seemed unbearable but in spite of this they seemed to like one another well enough; it was probably only the strain of having to compete that prevented them from meeting each other’s eyes. Anna’s fingers picked out a tune on the table top, Marta’s lips fidgeted with one another and Dasima flickered her eyes round the kitchen, then tossed a smile to the little girl. The smile was received gladly. The little girl leant up against her and asked if they could be friends even if her mother got the room instead of her.

Anna gasped, her fingers losing track of their tune. Then swallowed her gasp when Dasima laughed. This time her laughter was not shrill, it was a preparation for disappointment, like the expression on Marta’s mouth, like Anna’s silent playing, like the little girl’s wishful thinking. Like almost everything they did, every day.

‘Well,’ repeated Gisella. ‘There are four bedrooms in the flat so you can all stay if you like.’ She topped up her coffee, sipped it, and replaced the cup on the saucer with a loud clink.

They sat frozen into stillness. Not until Gisella had mentioned the rent, enumerated two rules1 and concurred cheerfully with Dasima’s suggestion of calling them ‘Gisella rules’ did their relief explode into laughter, filling the kitchen with iridescent-blue doves. It had finally come home to them that this was real, that no one was mocking or lying to them, that this woman had actually invited them to live here – them, of all the hordes who tramped the streets in search of shelter. With a little economising the rent shouldn’t be beyond their means. And if they proved themselves tidy and responsible tenants over the next two months the accommodation would be theirs.

They learnt that the contract would be ready next day. Then Gisella turned the conversation to her lifestyle and habits. These had been allowed to form unmolested over the years so it might be difficult to put one’s finger on them straightaway but they were her anchor, so the women would have to adapt to them. She probably had more little foibles than she realised – so she wanted to retain the right in the contract to impose more rules and enforce them – in case that was a problem. Gisella raised her brows as if she had just discovered her own conservatism in this speech.

The women were so elated that she laid down a third rule for them right away: the house-owner is to have the last word in any disagreement.

Their smiles approved the rule.

When the iridescent-blue doves had crooned their way back down the women’s throats, Gisella announced that the first payment would be higher than the rest because it would be necessary to pay two months in advance, as a kind of deposit. There were lots of valuables in the house and, after all, it wasn’t as if she knew them. Also she understood that advance payments were customary on the rental market.

The women gave their consent. Marta rolled up her sleeves in hearty agreement and demonstrated with picturesque gestures how easily she could earn the extra down payment. The performance interrupted Gisella’s train of thought but she was back on track after a moment: ‘I think it best to use a legal contract for flat-sharing like this, to fix the amount of rent and advance payment. It protects both landlord and tenant; the rental market out there is a complete jungle. According to the contract, I am to pay back the deposit if you choose to move out within two months due to problems with the accommodation. It’s a fairly new demand from the Tenants’ Association because apparently a lot of people are unlucky enough to move into uninhabitable or illegal housing in this good old city of ours.’

This last sentence provoked gentle laughter. The women knew exactly what she was getting at. But their laughter was cut short at what came next: ‘By the same chalk I have the right to turn you out without warning at any time during these two months if you cause trouble. In fact, the contract only really kicks in after two months. But naturally we hope we’ll all get on well together.’

‘Oh, yes…’ sighed Dasima, and the other women looked at her understandingly. ‘Hear, hear!’ exclaimed Marta, and Anna nodded

‘Is this house our home now?’ asked the little girl eagerly.

Gisella was happy to say yes. But her mother was cautious and whispered: ‘Yes, darling – if we get on all right with the others, then we’ll have a home.’

Dasima winked at them. ‘Now all we have to do is prove ourselves,’ she joked and the others laughed.


Protest March (pp 199-207)

Three men in red helmets were busy putting up scaffolding when Gisella strolled out early that morning in a pretty summer dress, green as an unripe banana.

She was surprised the men had started work so early; she hadn’t heard the noise because her room faced on to the back garden and she had skipped both shower and morning coffee to avoid any nosiness about where she was going so early in the day. Fortunately, there had been no sign of the women; they had probably all gone out already, otherwise they would have heard the clanking of the scaffolding like any other noise from the street. The precautionary arrangements had been unnecessary after all and Gisella smiled wryly as she bid the men good morning.

They returned her greeting in high good humour, wiping away the sweat that poured from under their helmets and cursing the sunshine like freezing wind before getting back down to work.

Underground a heat haze hung over people’s heads. While Gisella waited for the train she wished the weatherman on the Net had been precise about the time when he promised rain after lunch. The air conditioning in the carriage was a welcome relief and she breathed easier despite the crush, hanging on to the handle with eyes closed as the train hurtled between stops.

Soon be there.

– – –

The high-rise district showed more signs of life on her second visit than it had on the first. Five boys playing football on one of the basketball courts attached to the blocks. A middle-aged woman in dark-green overalls sluicing down the pavement nearby with a hosepipe fed from a water truck. Another younger woman in a maternity smock beating a rug outside on a balcony, raising clouds of dust in the heat haze.

Gisella felt an instinctive sense of relief to discover that there was life here beyond the grey concrete blocks and a man dancing on the brink of insanity in a caravan. The moment she was within sight of it she saw the man swaggering along so bouncily that the shock of white hair whirled up round his head. He was staring over towards a neighbouring block, a boyish figure in his denim jacket.

‘Ah. You, is it?’ he said when she was close enough for him to hear her footsteps.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘See that dog?’ he asked, pointing towards the block.

Bemused, Gisella looked over and saw a mangy mutt gnawing at its fleas by the wall. ‘Do you mean that one?’ she asked, nervously.

‘One hundred per cent I do!’ he bellowed, his youthful eyes shining. ‘That son of a bitch. I’m going to invite him to come and live with me on condition he gets acquainted with the cat and a flea bath.’

‘Be careful! He might bite,’ she warned.

‘He’s more likely to bite if I think that way,’ the old man chuckled. ‘Dogs sense mistrust; it makes them aggressive. But trust, now, that makes them loving and docile.’

Gisella smiled disbelievingly. She raised her brows and cleared her throat; they had business to discuss. But the old man seemed in no hurry as he asked: ‘Do you think it’ll make any difference when you’re in your grave whether you lived your life as a man or a flea-bitten mutt?’

‘I doubt it,’ muttered Gisella. She didn’t have time for this charade; it was bad enough having to slog all the way out here. Why couldn’t the old man use a phone like other people? Another, more urgent question burst from her lips: ‘Could I possibly extend the deadline? I know I should have asked before but six weeks seemed like long enough – only now they’ll soon be over and I’ll have run out of time. The article’s proving much tougher and more complicated than I expected,’ she gabbled.

‘No problem,’ said the old man, and Gisella relaxed. ‘I already have enough material for the next issue. A contact of mine has written such a long article about small shopkeepers that it’ll fill up the page quota all by itself.’ He stuck his fist in his back pocket and pulled out some crumpled pages. ‘Here, take a look!’

‘Thanks,’ said Gisella, shoving the pages in her bag.

‘I really enjoyed reading that article,’ said the old man. ‘It finally proved to me the total lunacy of hanging around in queues in supermarkets while old people pass out, epileptics and diabetics drop like flies, children cry, their mothers screech – and the red wine pools like blood on the floor where bottles have slipped from shaky hands. Far better to pluck your oranges from a basket at the corner shop and enjoy the local colour: the students, the unemployed, the old-timers and the little rascals hanging on their mothers’ skirts.’

‘Yes, no doubt,’ muttered Gisella, lost for words in the face of his garrulousness, but relieved that the deadline had been extended. Although it meant she wouldn’t be able to cadge any more assignments from him for the time-being. His speech turned her thoughts to the greengrocer in the basement, the man with the heart-shaped face that lit up when he smiled. She had somehow failed to register till now that he didn’t get to vote at house meetings, though he kept them supplied with fresh fruit. But the rules were based on quite different criteria. She ought to know that by now.

She pushed away these odd thoughts when the old man piped up: ‘There’s a better world in your shopping bags. My friend uses a familiar old cliché as a headline for a thought-provoking article.’ He puffed up with pleasure. ‘I read there about one shopkeeper who’s a trained biophysicist – and another who’s a trained paediatrician. Do you know, those hardworking men are referred to as newcomers in this city, though both moved here in their teens and quickly picked up the language. They speak it fluently enough to have got themselves an education, but neither has found work worthy of his skills; instead they both make a living selling vegetables, toilet paper and coffee. We should be supporting people like them, just as we do poor farmers in backward rural districts, by shopping at their stores. It’s just as important to support them as it is to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their coffee beans.’ He stared at her like an eager investor.

Gisella inclined her head in agreement. What on earth was she doing in this bizarre place? It would have been child’s play to take the money and run; what had prevented her? The hope of more assignments, she thought, comforting herself with the memory of how her friends had laughed loud enough to knock over glasses. She smiled when the old man said: ‘But your article is absolutely vital, don’t you forget that, even if I do go on at tasteless length about my friend.’

‘That’s great,’ she sighed. And that was all it took to oil the old man’s speech organs. He inflated his chest, licked his chops like the flea-bitten dog and said meditatively: ‘They’re all over the place, those mothers and children. You see them walking the streets, breaking into a run when their children totter dangerously near the traffic. Pushing second-hand prams round the churchyards, scolding their elder children while feeding the younger ones milk from their bodies. Sometimes they sit in cinemas, hushing their children in the dark, dozing through romantic films and laughing at the heroes’ naïve belief in the happy ever after; their laughter so cynical that the other cinema-goers hiss at them. They’re too big a reality for the rest of us childless types to take in. But I secretly watch them sometimes, as I’m curious about the stories I’ve heard of single mothers forced to live in cars abandoned by the rich on patches of waste ground because they can’t be bothered to take them for recycling when they buy a new model. Children sleeping in the back seat, mothers in the front. In the driver’s seat. Some of them fat and tired, others thin and stubborn, others both at once; round yet flat-chested, flabby thighs drooping into their scuffed shoes, or big-breasted with protruding bellies and skinny legs. They come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they have in common is trying to survive on thin air. I’m so keen to get a good article that you can have six more weeks to finish it. Be my guest.’ He produced a new bundle of money from the pocket of his denim jacket.

Gobsmacked, Gisella was at first reluctant to take the bundle. But the old man ordered her to stick it in her pocket; it would take twice as long to write the article as they had originally anticipated – and he was relying on it forming the main feature for a whole issue as the content was bound to cause a stir. She’d better take it now; he needed to get a move-on before the dog wandered off.

‘Thanks,’ she said. She slipped the notes into her bag and watched him dance away on his clogs towards the dog that was panting in the heat, jaws beaming, eyes darkly warm; the flea-bitten mutt looked as if it had been waiting for him since time out of mind.

She was encouraged by the old man’s interest in single mothers; God knows where she’d find another like him. Though she wouldn’t exactly be hard-pushed to find a single mother.

– – –

The sky had darkened over the city while she was underground. When she emerged on to the surface it was raining so densely and unremittingly that people were fleeing into neighbouring cafés. The sound of voices and footsteps faded as the crack of raindrops intensified. Her dress was soaked through in an instant; rivulets trickled down her face from her hair. She peered round for a café that wasn’t bursting at the seams.

The sound of shouting carried to her ears. Holding her bag over her head she stood up on tiptoe, curious to know who could have such a lot on their mind that they were prepared to brave the downpour to shout their views. In the distance she glimpsed a truck with a big, white banner fixed to it bearing the words: ‘We have no homes.’

The vehicle was surrounded by people with placards, horns and drums, yelling slogans, clapping their hands and singing battle anthems. The noise was deafening.

The protest march advanced closer and closer. Gisella retreated, the march seemed to be heading straight for her; did they mean to trample her underfoot? Heart pounding in her chest, she broke into a run and pushed her way into the nearest café, regardless of the crush.

A reek of wet clothes mingled with the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans filled her senses as she entered. The café was so heaving that it was impossible to take another step so she leant against the door, watching the approaching march. Gave a groan of pain when an elbow jabbed her in the side. No one apologised. She pressed her face against the glass of the door.

Behind the truck came a tractor pulling a float bearing a ten-man drum band; the players, all men, glanced around flirtatiously, singing of justice and sex in the same breath. She caught the odd word through the hubbub of shouting and boom of the tractor engine. In her mind’s eye she pictured a procession on National Day at home when she was a little girl with her granny and they used to trip along the doll-like streets, like her schoolfriends and their grannies, all singing patriotic verses in her mother tongue – she’d had no idea at the time just how many people wished to learn this language. No doubt she would have waved her homemade flag with redoubled pride in the belief that people wanted to learn her native tongue because they were so taken with her homeland. But perhaps she had known, in her own way. Perhaps she’d had an inkling. Perhaps she had been more aware then than she could now remember.

– – –

‘We want homes!’ shrieked a big, raw-boned girl in a headscarf and square glasses streaming with water that threatened to slip down her nose; she was marching in the vanguard, the procession spilling out behind her like a mudslide.

What do these people want? wondered Gisella. Why don’t they use the time to sort themselves out instead of wasting it in protest marches? She could understand the deliberate provocation when teenagers occupied buildings from a combination of hormonal perversity and boredom, but most of these protestors looked on the wrong side of twenty. Suddenly a burly man knocked into her, giving her the shock of her life. Sweat sprang out on her wet forehead when the man apologised, saying he’d been pushed into her by the crowd.

Unable to speak, she opened the door and rushed out. Drew a deep breath and hurriedly tried to work out which way would take her through the crowd as fast as possible and in the direction of home. She had to get out of here; there’d be risk of a riot if the police tried to disperse the mob. Heart pounding harder with every second, Gisella trod water; the protest march was thickening and spreading, filling the boulevard and sweeping her along like a river in spate.

Gasping for breath, Gisella ran with the protestors to avoid being trampled underfoot. Kept peering round frantically for an escape route, a side street or park gate. Right until the moment her gaze was brought up short by a couple; a strikingly dark man with strong features and angry eyes, holding the hand of a delicate but sinewy-looking woman with slender sparrow’s legs emerging from under a sea of hair and chips of obsidian for eyes. She was marching along in a sopping red jumper, uneasy in the midst of the high spirits as usual, eyes darting from side to side, her face radiating a previously unsuspected zeal.

It must be her. Briefly glimpsed with a man in tow. Gone just as quickly.

But at the same time surely it must have been another woman. Why should Dasima be marching against homelessness? She who was the very model of careless unconcern. Who lived with Gisella. Feeling perplexed, Gisella managed to stumble out of the march and seek refuge in an ice-cream parlour.

Eyes glued to a mint-green ice in the freezer, she recalled her original suspicions but doubted nevertheless that Dasima was an illegal immigrant; surely she couldn’t have kept it hidden all this time. But something troubled her. Was it conceivable that the mother’s story was in fact the daughter’s story? Was she an illegal in the city? When the women had described their circumstances she had given more weight to her mother’s life than her own. And yet. Perhaps Dasima had other lives in some way she couldn’t imagine? She didn’t know what to think. Her thoughts went round and round like a spin drier. Dizziness toppled her to the floor.

Instead of answering when the assistant offered her a hand, Gisella ran out of the shop and didn’t stop till she got home.

The Advertisement (pp 208-220)

The scaffolding almost covered the front of the building by the time she got back. The men greeted her cheerily, saying they meant to carry on working for as long as it took; they would get a bonus if the advertisement went up the same day. That was fine by her; the advertiser would be paying the fee inclusive of today.

Best finish it as quickly as possible, she said, it didn’t bother her. She laughed her comfortable laugh but slipped her hands into her the pockets of her dress as they were still shaking after her scare in the protest march. She must have appeared calm, though, judging by the way the cheery men had greeted her.

It occurred to her to go and pick up some soothing tea from the greengrocer, and this reminded her of the old man and his verbal diarrhoea about supermarkets and single mothers. The thought was too much for her; she was almost overwhelmed by a need for the safety of home. But she nerved herself and hurried down to the basement. She needed that tea; just knowing that it calmed the nerves gave her a sense of reassurance, and anyway it would be nice to own something she didn’t have to share, for once.

The aroma of spice filled her nostrils as she stepped down into the cool basement and was greeted by the greengrocer. His smile lit up his face and Gisella tried but failed to force up the corners of her mouth in return. She was on the verge of collapse as the greengrocer opened a paper bag with nimble fingers and shovelled in some green leaves. Then placed the bag on the counter and waited.

Usually Gisella found his quietness comfortable but this time it felt different. The silence became oppressive as she scrabbled around in search of her purse, unable to find the bundle of notes anywhere in her bag. She fumbled uneasily at the bottom of the bag while the greengrocer waited, perfectly at ease. She stifled her curses, the sweat trickling down her temples. Where was all the money?

Hastily she flung down some coins on the counter, seized the paper bag and ran past the workmen and up to the flat. Her hands shook as she stuck the key in the lock while her mind’s eye presented her with the elbow in her side, the man who had stumbled into her, the protest march that had swept her along. At what point had the money disappeared? At last the door flew open.

Some things are impossible to know.

– – –

Her thoughts sailed into calmer waters after a good cup of tea. She lay on the corner sofa as had been her habit before the women moved in, enjoying her solitude and shutting out their clutter from her eye-line. She didn’t want to know that the needlewoman Marta had placed a decorative basket of knitting beside the sofa and someone else had stuck plastic flowers in a dirty glass vase on the coffee table; just about tolerable in overcast weather like this but a hideous eyesore in sunlight.

It was the lesser of two evils to get worked up about their stuff than about the bundle of money that had vanished. She had to push that thought away, otherwise she might blurt something out to Dasima that she would later regret – it wouldn’t do any good anyway. Naturally Dasima would immediately deny all knowledge of homeless pickpockets who overran the shopping streets to terrorise and rob the citizens with their rabble-rousing. She would probably even deny her part in the protest march.

Irritability hung over her like a cloud. It had started raining again; thunder rumbled in the distance. The amplifier on the floor emitted a flow of mellow jazz: a woman’s voice emerging from a man’s throat, throbbing with poignancy. Gisella yawned.

The tea had its intended effect.

– – –

Two hours later there was a fiddling at the front door. She stirred and heard someone enter. Certain it was Dasima she pricked up her ears. The temptation would be to ask casually what she’d been up to today. Yet an irrational fear made itself felt; an icy fist clutched at her heart, squeezing extra beats from it till the world went black before her eyes. What if Dasima lied about her whereabouts? What might she be hiding? What sort of people had she admitted into her home? Robbers?

Relief struggled with disappointment when Marta’s grey-streaked head peered into the living room. As a cheerful hello was thrown her way, Gisella rose up from the sofa, returned the greeting and decided to take this opportunity to give Marta more clothes; with the atmosphere in the house this brittle it wouldn’t hurt to have an ally.

‘I’ve been picking out some clothes I rarely wear,’ she said, and was pleased by the smile this produced on Marta’s face as she shook off the rain like a dog that has encountered a muddy puddle on its walk. She stepped closer, her eyes looking as if they were about to pop out of their sockets and right through her thick glasses.

Gisella gave a light-hearted laugh, appearing calm and collected in spite of the day’s dramas. ‘The clothes are as good as new,’ she said. ‘They’re all designer pieces I bought in bouts of extravagance that are tight in all the wrong places.’

‘Thank you so much – I know nothing about the city fashions, I’m such a country bumpkin. But I used to know the styles in my old village!’ Giggling at herself Marta leant back with half-closed eyes, hands fumbling in the air in search of an imaginary off-button for laughter. Gisella’s gaze became fixed on her boyish crop. She noticed that it had grown out of shape and her hair looked greyer than it had appeared at first. An idea struck her. ‘Would you like the name of a brilliant hairdresser, Marta?’ she asked.

‘Your hairdresser?’

‘Yes,’ said Gisella, darting her a smile.

‘Of course,’ gushed Marta open-mouthed. ‘You’ve got a fantastic haircut… and your highlights, I can’t stop admiring them – but isn’t your hairdresser terribly expensive?’

‘He’s a friend of mine,’ replied Gisella. ‘So I get an extremely good discount. If I tell him you’re my friend you’ll only have to pay a fraction of what you’d have to shell out at an inferior salon. And he’s a real artist; one of the most exclusive in town.’

Marta couldn’t speak. Her eyes, shining with excitement, remained glued to Gisella as if the chance would be lost if she so much as looked away.

‘But don’t tell Dasima or Anna,’ requested Gisella in a low voice. ‘I can ask him to help you because we’re friends but he can’t possibly dole out discounts to all and sundry.’

‘You can rely on me,’ assured Marta, biting her finger joint like Gisella when she had a lot on her mind. She had got the message – and now whispered: ‘Understandably, some things have to remain hush hush.’

‘Understandably,’ said Gisella with a smile, before going into her room.

Marta had tried on two blouses, one top and three pairs of trousers, thrilled with everything, before she remembered the scaffolding that had caught her attention on her way indoors. While they folded up the garments, apart from the trousers and blouse that Marta had decided to wear for the rest of the day, she asked if Gisella knew what was being done to the building.

‘They’re putting up a wall advertisement,’ yawned Gisella.

‘Oh… really?’ mumbled Marta, awaiting further explanation. When it was not forthcoming she shrugged, arranged the folded garments in a pile and hugged it in her arms. She tensed when the front door opened, and listened, smiling apologetically at Gisella. A face appeared in the doorway. This time it was Dasima.

She was wearing a raincoat buttoned up to the neck so it was impossible to see if her jumper was red or if she was even wearing a jumper at all. Her eyes flickering back and forth between Marta and Gisella, she asked if they knew anything about the scaffolding outside.

Gisella was on the point of answering when she felt rage fastening its claws into her. However irrational, the feeling was directed at Dasima. She was almost sure that Dasima had been on the march, which meant that the bundle of money had been stolen either by her brothers in arms or else by someone using the chaos created in the street as a cloak for his own dirty deeds. Either way, she held Dasima and her fellow protestors responsible for the fact she’d been robbed.

Her rage was real enough but could she trust her eyes when she had only glimpsed the woman for a few brief seconds while she herself had been out of her mind with terror? It was too risky to start trying to get to the bottom of it. Of course she could fire leading questions at Dasima about her doings that day. But she was in such a rage that her self-control was bound to give way to ruthlessness. And if she turned out to be wrong, after all, the atmosphere in the house would be insupportable.

She had to control herself. In spite of everything, the women had a right to their private lives, however intolerable the thought seemed – and let’s face it, it would be downright dangerous to tolerate if her worst suspicions turned out to be based on fact.

One thing she was sure of: the fear inside her was genuine. It was bound to have some basis in fact. If not, she must be cracking up and there was no way she could reconcile herself to that thought.

Dasima had repeated her question three times in vain. She lingered in the doorway, fiddling with the doorknob, growing more uneasy with every second. Gisella regarded her thoughtfully, without saying a word. Finally, feeling it would be best to answer for her, Marta replied that it was a wall advertisement.

‘What for?’ exclaimed Dasima, like a bewildered tourist.

‘I’ll tell you all more about it this evening,’ said Gisella expressionlessly.

Dasima agreed, rather reluctantly, hesitated a moment, then said she was going to lie down. She gave a quick smile before her head vanished from the doorway. Gisella bit her finger joint and decided that instead of giving way to her bad temper she would make the effort to be friendly to Marta.

– – –

Marta watched as Gisella rang her hairdresser. Her excitement was so overpowering that she reared up on tiptoe when she heard Gisella greet her friend and wheedle out an appointment at a generous discount; laughing comfortably as she admitted that the appointment was not for her so he’d be forgiven if her friend had to wait ten days or so. She hoped the wait wouldn’t be much longer – though of course she understood perfectly that a friend couldn’t expect to receive as big a favour as herself.

‘Just call and let us know when you find the time. We can’t wait,’ she added, kissing the receiver goodbye. She was met with such a deluge of heartfelt gratitude that she couldn’t resist the impulse to offer Marta help with her homework. Anyway, it would be hopeless trying to get down to writing the article so soon after the theft of her wages. Her offer was gratefully received and shortly afterwards Marta plonked herself down at her desk with a handwritten essay; her writing was clumsy in comparison with her needlework but the contents seemed genuine enough in Gisella’s opinion. She pointed out places where Marta could make the phrasing more natural to a native speaker.

They chatted about the original settlers, ancestors of both Gisella and the city. Marta found it odd to think that she herself was descended from the first settlers of her old country. For what it was worth; few people wanted to live there except in early summer and autumn – and then everybody wanted to live there. That’s what it was like living in a tourist paradise: ‘either too little of everything or too much of it,’ she tittered, adjusting her glasses on her nose. Gisella nibbled her finger joint abstractedly, then said:

‘You should hold a course.’

‘What?’ Marta looked at her enquiringly.

Gisella laid down the obvious facts: ‘Your country’s an incredibly popular tourist destination and you speak the language of the city; really you’re the ideal person to teach the people of this city about your culture; the food, the art, the handicrafts, the language, the nature. You should devote yourself to teaching the people of this city all about your old country. They’re always looking for new ideas for their summer holidays – and not just for holidays. Your culture’s really hip these days. And you’re lucky enough to be based here, so you can study towards it in your own time after the language school has finished. Otherwise I suppose it wouldn’t work.’

Marta gazed at Gisella with stars in her eyes, but before she could answer the front door was flung open and the little girl shouted:

‘The house has got a dress on…!’

– – –

A moment later Anna appeared and barked did Gisella know anything about this.

‘This?’ exclaimed Gisella.

‘Yes: THIS. THIS THING that stops me looking out of my bedroom window,’ hissed Anna, pulling the little girl against her as she tried to sneak past. She had no sooner uttered these words than Dasima appeared, rubbing her eyes and commenting that someone had stretched a cloth across her window.

‘It’s only an advertisement,’ mewed Marta, breaking off abruptly as Anna contemptuously measured up her new outfit.

Gisella seized the initiative: ‘Just a moment – I’d like a chance to fill you in about this properly,’ she said, taking out the advertiser’s brochure. ‘I expect you’ve noticed adverts like this all over the city.’

Anna nodded suspiciously, the little girl imitating her rather more eagerly. The others stared at Gisella, mystified.

Gisella cleared her throat. ‘The advertisements have given rise to an interesting debate in the press and on the Internet. We were given this brochure when we held a house meeting about it.’ She brandished the brochure so the women and little girl could see a picture of happy-looking children in colourful clothes. Then she began to read aloud:

Red, yellow and green like the colours of the rainbow – you’ll have seen the pictures decorating any number of apartment blocks in the city these days. They’re there to remind us of ourselves, of the people who live behind all those closed doors: of our children, of the child in all of us. The pictures bring colour to our lives as they dance in the dawn light, turning our buildings red, yellow and green, picking up the hues of the clothes and complexions of the children who make wishes on the rainbow: a tropical girl in a glittery dress lends a golden glow to the sofa; a Nordic boy in dungarees casts a peanut-butter shade on the coffee table; an oriental youth in an orange t-shirt brightens up the bookshelves; or what about the Caucasian in his plum-coloured summer clothes? These children remind us that a house is more than just a house, for every house is home to a child. Every city is a child.

The little girl swelled with pride at this purple prose about the children of earth until deflated by Anna’s snort: ‘What rubbish is this?’

Ignoring her question Gisella continued reading: Some regard the pictures as works of art rather than advertisements, others are of the opinion that advertisements are art, and that art is an advertisement for the artist. What do you think?

The words tickled the little girl’s ears. She brightened up again; for a moment she was the spokesperson for all children. When she had finished reading Gisella laughed her comfortable laugh and said: ‘I hardly know what to think about this debate myself. But it’s lively enough – judging by the stuff on the Internet. And the colours compliment the vegetables in the greengrocer’s crates! I just hope it boosts his trade.’

The little girl nodded but the women were staring at her with dazed expressions; Marta with a frozen smile on her lips, Dasima apparently more perplexed with every second, Anna pursing her lips till her skin grew taut, her grey eyes like chips of the same granite as the little girl’s when she was displeased. ‘Why didn’t you consult us?’ she stormed at last. ‘Warn us? Then we might have reacted better.’

The little girl’s eyes reflected martens darting around the room, biting each other’s throats. Gisella protested that she had only wanted to protect them.

‘Protect us!’ snorted the silver marten. ‘From what? It would have been better to inform us. Then at least we could have bought ourselves lamps.’

The golden marten now entered the fray: ‘It would only have caused you unnecessary worry – you know that perfectly well, Anna.’

‘Yes, Anna, you know that,’ squawked the bird, Marta, attracting glares from both martens. Then the golden one stepped forward and hissed at the silver one that thanks to this she would be able to avoid raising the rent. There was nothing else to be said – except to remind them of the rule that the house-owner always had the last word.

These words shocked them all, even the little girl who looked with scared eyes at Gisella, though the latter didn’t notice.

‘The rent’s not exactly a bargain as it is,’ said Anna sharply.

‘And it’s not exactly exorbitant either,’ retorted Gisella. ‘You live in the centre of town, don’t forget that. In a good apartment with decent, furnished rooms and access to a living room, kitchen and bathroom.’

The answer was burning on the tip of Anna’s tongue but the other women’s eyes shut her up.

Gisella was relieved. ‘Why don’t you just get yourselves some nice lamps? And light pretty candles in your rooms.’

‘But it’s expensive to have the light on all the time,’ blurted out Dasima. Gisella’s forbearance towards Dasima was at an all-time low. She fought to hold on to her temper – after all, Dasima did have a point.

‘You can use candles in the evenings. And during the day the advert will cast beautiful colours into the rooms,’ she said, after a moment’s thought.

Anna could contain herself no longer: ‘Not that I mean to be prejudiced,’ she said huffily, ‘but the child in front of our window is a lot darker than the children in front of their windows. It’s as black as night.’

‘Don’t compare a dark-skinned child to the night,’ pleaded Gisella good-naturedly. ‘Why not compare it to liquorice?’

– – –

Anna stormed out, Dasima and the little girl hot on her heels. Meanwhile Marta grabbed the brochure and peered at it. Then looked at Gisella with the comment that it would be amusing to follow the debate on… she glanced back at the brochure and read stiltedly: ‘… the artistic value of the advertisement and its impact on society.’

Gisella’s brows lifted. ‘Just what I thought!’

‘Of course,’ said Marta, clicking her tongue. ‘The others just need to get used to the advert – and we both know what a short fuse Anna has.’

Gisella laughed in acknowledgement, thinking to herself that she should invite Marta out with her one of these days; she seemed the sort one could confide in and she might even turn out to be sitting on some information about Dasima.

She congratulated herself on her own caution; she would have made a good spy and the thought amused her. Then it dawned on her that really she knew nothing about her tenants except the stories they themselves had cooked up for her. She mustn’t forget that. The word ‘cooked’ gave her a sudden appetite and she suggested to Marta that they check out the day’s menu.

In the silent company of the other women Gisella put away half a fillet of fish, swimming in butter and salt. You had to hand it to Anna, she did bring in fresh fish, a luxury item that cost an arm and a leg. She must have contacts – with her old compatriots probably, perhaps even with fishermen from the trawlers down at the docks. She vaguely remembered the little girl saying they sometimes went for a walk down by the docks where mum taught a one-legged deep-sea fisherman to sing nursery rhymes in her native language and play a rickety piano in the corner of a bar which the little girl said was full of jolly old men, dusty postcards and cobwebs.

At the present moment Anna’s manner didn’t exactly invite questions so Gisella pushed aside these thoughts and thanked her for the meal instead. She tried to be tactful, aware of the risk that Anna might put an end to the times she spent with the little girl. Actually, she hadn’t expected Anna to be so furious about the advert – but thankfully she hadn’t mentioned the little girl so far. Hopefully it was because she was unwilling to doubt her landlady’s word too vehemently. It was against the rules, after all. And they were still in the trial period.

– – –

Mother and daughter washed up after the meal but the little girl put on such a martyred expression at this forced labour that Dasima went and helped them in order to prevent a quarrel. Anna, however, was fuming; she banged the dishes in the sink, bursting with kitchen philosophy about ingratitude.

Marta was frightened into her room by the crashing of crockery. Gisella could hear the click of her knitting needles as she put on her make-up. Then she headed out into the cool evening, stopping in front of the house to admire the advertisement. Soon she would receive a fat fee for it and there would no longer be any need to get worked up about the robbery. Let alone about the eccentric old man and his article. Was he all right in the head?

1 These have been mentioned earlier in the book.