Locked – BAME Short Story Competition Entry


Back in May, a friend of mine brought the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME Shorty Story Prize to my attention. The competition, which was set up in 2015, is intended to discover and promote talent from Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity backgrounds whose voices statistically tend to get overlooked by traditional publishers. In the spirit of 2019 being the year of my return to fiction writing, I decided I’d give this a go.

At first, I struggled to come up with an idea I felt I could work with but, when I finally got into it, I was pretty pleased with what I produced and submitted last month. The longlist was announced today and, alas, my story was not deemed worthy of continuing in the process. After an initial wave of disappointment, I read through the list and realised nearly all the longlisted entries this year appear to be fairly established journalists, filmmakers, traditionally published authors or have an English or Creative Writing degree from Oxbridge, so the level of writing must have been on another level. I can’t even be upset about not moving on because, who can really compete with that pool of talent (not me, obvs, heehee)? Anyway, I’ve decided to share my entry with you guys as always (hurrah!). Maybe I’ll find another competition to submit it to but, until then, I hope you enjoy what I had to offer.

 

LOCKED

 

“You are Joanna.”

Uncertain if this was a question or a statement, Ezinne nodded to be on the safe side. She didn’t answer to the English name on her passport, but it was the first listed in the document so most people took it for granted that she would. She usually gave it a few days before expressing her preference to be addressed by her Igbo name, although she wasn’t sure she would have that luxury here.

“Is something wrong with your mouth?” the portly man bristled, glaring at her with a raised brow.

“Sorry, sir. Yes, I am Joanna.”

Leaning back in his chair, he scratched his salt-and-pepper beard and inspected her documents for a little longer before nodding and handing the pack back to her. “I see you are with Uchechi, you will be in good hands.”

Ezinne attempted a smile as she heard the room door creak behind her. “Thank you, sir. I’m looking forward to getting started.”

“You might regret those words in a few minutes.”

Spinning around, Ezinne took in the speaker standing in the doorway, a short caramel skinned woman clad in loose fitting khakis with thick multicoloured braids pulled away from her makeup free face. She eyed Ezinne up and down for what felt like an eternity, with toned arms folded across a heavy chest. When she finally motioned for her to follow, the woman didn’t bother acknowledging the man behind the desk as she exited the room.

The chain of command was clear enough for Ezinne to know she didn’t require permission from the man to leave but she hesitated, glancing longingly at the noisy but effective air-conditioning unit which hung above his head. It was only when he waved her off with a deepening scowl that she hurried along behind the woman, suppressing a sigh as she caught up with her. They walked down the narrow fluorescent lit corridor in silence, meeting no one else, until the woman stopped outside an unmarked timber door. She wiped freshly formed beads of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and then pushed open the door, stepping to the side.

“Take off your clothes.”

It wasn’t a request.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“You read the briefing notes?” The woman threw up her hands, as if this was all the explanation that was needed.

Ezinne nodded but her frown remained.

“Then you know that you need to be prepared. Don’t worry, there are no cameras in here. I’ll turn around if you’re feeling self-conscious.” The humour in her voice was exaggerated.

“It’s not that,” Ezinne wavered, peering past her and into the small room. A lone chair was pushed up against a wall with a yellow Hazmat suit draped across it. “I thought there was no contamination recorded.”

The woman laughed but the sound held no mirth. “Come on, don’t you know your people again? Do you trust that they would have gotten everything right?”

No response was expected and refusing to comply was clearly out of the question so Ezinne settled on to the metal chair, sliding the suit to the ground. She had no intention of taking all her clothes off but putting on the suit required the loss of her knee length skirt.

As she leaned forward to slip off her shoes, she caught sight of her reflection in a full length mirror which was propped up against one of the walls. She had thought her white blouse and beige skirt combination were a little too clinical when she put them on that morning but pale colours complimented her carob skin best when she was looking to make a good first impression. It didn’t help that her black rimmed glasses were always perched high on the bridge of her broad nose or that her buzz cut made her look much more uptight than she felt. She needed to come across as warm and amiable today.

And now the stupid suit was going to wreck all that she had worked towards. She picked up the yellow plastic and began to unzip it but promptly stopped when a strong waft of BO hit her.

“You know what?” Ezinne got up and replaced the suit on the chair. “I’ll take my chances. I have already signed the waiver so there’s no need to worry, you won’t get blamed if anything happens. Uchechi, that’s your name, right?” She smiled at the woman to soften the rejection of her authority.

Uchechi’s nostrils flared but she recovered quickly.

“You can’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said as she led Ezinne back into the corridor and unlocked the door beside the room they had just vacated. “Go through there and unlock the door with this key.”

Ezinne hadn’t expected to be left alone so quickly but she didn’t complain. Instead she took the key and did as she was told, only turning slightly when she heard Uchechi lock the first set of doors behind her.

The brightly lit room was almost as bare as all the others Ezinne had been in so far, save for a single bed in the corner of the room. A girl sat cross-legged on it with her eyes closed, the long pale blue gown which draped across her thin body forming a tent across her knees. She looked to be no older than pre-teen and yet there was something about her which kept Ezinne hovering by the door. The idea that others had felt she required a Hazmat suit for this meeting probably didn’t help.

Nobody had used the word dada in the briefing notes but Ezinne knew what she was there for. Her thesis on ritualistic offerings and cultural scarification had been cited when she was approached for the assessment. The markings on the girl’s cheeks were barely visible on her ebony skin but more so because her face was almost completely covered by the thick matted black hair which fell to her shoulders.

Ezinne stood for a moment observing her until she realised the girl had no intention of acknowledging her presence. Resisting the urge to remain by the door wringing her hands, she cleared her throat and took a small step forward.

“My name is Ezinne,” she announced a little too loudly but then, realising the girl may not be fluent in English, she switched to her native tongue and repeated in a much softer tone. “Aha m bu Ezinne.”

The girl’s eyes flew open and she uncrossed her legs, turning to face her visitor. Her narrowed eyes took in Ezinne with one quick sweep. And then she smiled, revealing a sizeable gap between her bottom incisors. “Aha m bu Odera.”

Ezinne could sense the absence of the ridiculous suit had bought her some points. “Do you know why you are here?” She continued in Igbo.

The girl shrugged but her left hand tugged at one of her long tangled locs. “They say I am not safe.”

“They say so but what do you think?” Ezinne took another step closer to show she didn’t necessarily buy into that line of thinking.

Odera tilted her head to the side and stared at her with a blank expression on her small face. It took all of Ezinne’s will power to stop herself from taking a step backwards.

“You should do as your mother asks. She doesn’t want to leave this world with you not speaking to your sister.”

Ezinne’s eyes widened but she managed not to react further.

“We are not here to discuss me. I’d like to get to know a little bit about you.”

Odera frowned this time, almost as if the thought was inconceivable. “If you say so,” she responded quietly and leaned back against the wall, folding her arms protectively across her chest.

Sensing that she may not have given the right answer to facilitate further conversation, Ezinne was eager to recover some footing.  “This room is really hot. How do you survive with no windows? Do they let you out at least for some air?”

Odera looked around the room like she was only just realising it had no fenestrations. The blades of the dust lined ceiling fan were moving so slowly that there was hardly any effect felt but the girl didn’t appear to be sweating.

“I don’t sleep here o. They bring me out when I have to talk to people.”

It was impossible for Ezinne to conceal the concern on her face.

“And you’ve talked to a lot of people?”

“Your mother will be so much happier when you and your sister make amends.”

That was the second time Odera had avoided answering a question about herself by turning the attention back to her visitor. Ezinne couldn’t help wondering if she had played out this scene a few too many times.

“And how do you know anything about my mother? Or that I have a sister?” Perhaps playing along would provide some progress. “Did someone tell you about me? About them?”

A sharp rap on the metal door made Ezinne jump but the girl didn’t flinch. It was almost as if she had been expecting it to come. Ezinne hesitated before turning to open the door. Uchechi’s unsmiling face greeted her through the clear plastic of the Hazmat suit she had rejected. Ezinne couldn’t really see the point of the suit especially as there was no decontamination airlock separating the room from everywhere else but she knew that fear of the unknown tended to be more powerful than reason.

“You need to take a break.”

“But I’ve barely been in there,” Ezinne whispered, stepping out and shutting the door behind her.

“It’s been almost an hour.”

Glancing at her watch, Ezinne was shocked to discover this was true. She hadn’t even asked more than a handful of questions. There must have been a lot more staring going on than she had realised. Nodding, she didn’t return to the room to inform the girl of the break, hoping the abruptness of her departure would unnerve Odera enough to elicit a reaction when she returned.

Ezinne rejected the offer of a cold drink from Uchechi and walked outside instead, sucking in deep breaths of the even hotter humid air. Grey clouds hung heavy above her and she remembered she hadn’t brought along an umbrella. Maybe a few raindrops hitting her head wouldn’t be such a bad thing, they would help soothe the headache she could feel coming on.

The silence out there was only broken by the steady hum of a generator which powered the building close to the rear where she stood. Looking up, she couldn’t see much past the three meter high blockwork wall which surrounded the compound except for a few palm and mango trees in the distance. The looped barbed wire fixed to the top of the fencing also brought her little comfort.

Her hands were shaking as she pulled out a packet of cigarettes from her bag. Then she thought about the smell that would linger on her when she returned to the room and shoved them back in. Instead she retrieved her phone and found a number.

“Mama, this is Ezi. Are you free tonight?”

The conversation didn’t last long and Ezinne went back inside in about an hour and a half as scheduled. This time Uchechi didn’t bother with any formalities, allowing her into the inner room with a chair.

“How is your mother?” The girl asked from her position of safety on the bed once Ezinne shut the door behind her. There was a slight tremble to her voice which hadn’t been there before.

Ezinne ignored the question. Time was of the essence.

“How do you know these things?” she demanded, taking emboldened steps towards the bed. She noticed the girl had pulled her hair away from her face since she left, exposing the scars which forever marked her as special.

“I know them because they are true and I say them because they need to be said.” Her answer was so simple, it almost shut Ezinne up.

“And how long have you known this truth?”

“Always.”

“What about you? Do you know your truth?”

The girl frowned, standing up for the first time since Ezinne met her. With her long legs finally unfurled, she was much taller than she had appeared earlier. “What do you mean?”

“Do you know what will happen to you with this truth that you feel the need to share?”

“People need to be told the truth…”

Ezinne threw up her hands in exasperation. “But not you? You don’t care that this is the reason you are locked in here with no natural light and no idea when you will be able to leave?”

“But I don’t have a choice.”

“Everyone has a choice,” Ezinne managed to stop herself from yelling this at her. She no longer cared that there was probably a camera hidden somewhere in the ceiling, with a disapproving Uchechi watching on the other side. “You just have to think about what you share and who you share it with.”

The girl continued to frown at her. She was asking her to ignore what she could see in her mind’s eye and the concept was clearly alien to her.

“Are you annoyed because I mentioned your mother?”

Ezinne sighed and went to sit in the chair. “No, I don’t care about that. I just want you to understand that you don’t have to be this oracle. You are a child. You should live like a child, play like a child, and have friends like a child.”

“But who else will tell people the things they need to know?”

“They’ll figure it out. That’s how life is meant to be.”

Uchechi didn’t knock this time, she just poked her head in and signalled for Ezinne to follow her. “Time’s up.”

Ezinne nodded and picked up the chair to leave.

“I’m sorry about your sister.” The girl called out just as she started to shut the door.

Ezinne stopped and regarded her for a few seconds. “Do you know what happened between us?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know there’s nothing to be sorry about.”

The two women went back down the corridor and into another room which had a computer monitor on top of a paper cluttered desk. There were filing cabinets lined up along the walls where there were no windows to interrupt. Uchechi pulled up a chair and motioned for Ezinne to sit as she we went to rifle through one of the cabinets.

“You’ve had a session with each of them, that’s enough time to give a fair evaluation. Do you think they are stable?” She threw the question across her shoulder without missing a beat.

“They?” Ezinne leaned forward.

“Odera and Chidiebere Ajagu.” Uchechi found what she was looking for and turned to hand Ezinne a file. “We couldn’t tell you or the process would have been voided.”

Ezinne read through the document in silence, making sure not to skip any page. It was impossible that she had just spoken to two different people but the photographs in the file showed two girls sitting side by side, identical down to their knotted hair, gap teeth and facial moles.

Uchechi switched on the monitor and the screen showed the two girls together in the room she had just vacated. “We kept them apart when we swapped them so there is no way they would have discussed any of the conversations you had with each of them, and yet they were seamless.”

Not so seamless. Odera had been evasive and a little bit standoffish but Chidiebere had been more willing to engage with her. She should have sensed the difference in their characters.

“What happens to them now?”

“There is a research facility in Texas who are keen to…observe them.”

“You’re giving them away?”

“Didn’t you hear me? They’re heading for the USA. Wouldn’t you want to trade this place for a visa and free American food? Their parents are okay with it and that is enough for us.”

At that point, one of the girl’s looked up at the camera and smiled directly at Ezinne. The other carried on playing with the hem of her dress but then stopped and laughed at something only she could see or hear.

“Anyi ga ahu ozo,”the girl who remained smiling at the camera mouthed at her.

Ezinne took an unconscious step forward and placed her hand on the screen.

“So you’ll sign the forms?” Uchechi demanded impatiently, but there was a note of desperation in her voice which made Ezinne wonder how many others had been put through this process and refused to sign the release documents.

Once Ezinne left the facility, she found her way to her car in the almost empty carpark and pulled out her phone.

“You were right, the twins are here, but not for long.” That was all she said before replacing the phone in her bag.

Sighing, she leaned back and ran her hand over her head, pretending her fingers were intertwined with the locs which had crowned her head up until she was thirteen. Her own visions had stopped right after the virgin locs had hit the ground around her. Just as she had said to Chidiebere, everyone had a choice and she had given her mother permission to carry out the deed, not realising how hollow she would feel when her eyes could only see what stood before them.

She had kept her head shaven ever since that first chop but only because she had attempted growing the locs back and found that their new length held no strength. They only served to remind her of what she had lost. And that was the reason she and Kachi had barely spoken in fifteen years. After her twin sister had promised to have her locs cut off with hers, she had reneged the minute she realised what the consequences were.

She wouldn’t let the same thing happen to these girls. Keeping them hidden away in a secret facility on the outskirts of Awka was bad enough but sending them to America would have far greater implications. The science of their link would need to be tested and what better way to do this than to change the one thing everyone was certain linked them to the inexplicable? Someone would come up with the brilliant idea to shave one of them and leave the other active for observational purposes.

The heavens finally began to release heavy droplets of rain as a black van pulled into the carpark and approached the side of the building where she sat.  Ezinne waited until it drew level with her window. The driver wound down his and nodded at her. She had a feeling she had been sent on this mission for her supposed empathic skills but Emeka was the true expert at these things. He would have known how to react, he would have found out more from the girls in the little time that they had. But his greying head full of locs would have been an instant giveaway.

“How many?”

“Five. One is quite old so be careful you don’t knock him out too hard. You may get some resistance from the case officer, I think she may be ex-army. She means well though. I suspect they all do but they don’t understand what they are dealing with.”

After he drove off, Ezinne lit a cigarette and took a long drag as she settled in to keep watch. This could be her last moment of solitude for a while. The girls would need someone to show them that although they were born different, they could also live fairly ordinary lives if they wanted to. She had been given a choice at their age but the ramifications had not been fully explained to her because her mother had no idea what it was to be a dada like them. Ezinne would show them that reverence was due to them and that they also had the power to make a change any time they wanted.

And when the time came, if they asked for it, she would cut their hair.

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    • Mario Stablum
    • July 16th, 2019

    I enjoyed reading this to my twins and they loved this short story!

  1. * “Yes Mother Bitch I’m Feeling Self-Conscious!” should have been her internal reply

    *’Carob’? ‘FENESTRATIONS’??’ OOooooOOOooo I’m learnin’ some’n new 😁

    *
    Uchechi: “B.O or Death?!”
    Ezinne: “…”

    Uchechi: “WELL??”
    Ezinne: “I’m Thinking!”

    😁

    Amazing story Cookie. Love the twins from ‘Constantine’ inspiration with Ezi & her sister, but utilised with a different dynamic

    P.S:

    Before any names were said, when mustachio dude asked if something was wrong with her mouth, my brain said “Okay, so story is firmly set in Nigeria; the entitled rudeness is hard to mistake, like a fine wine” 😁

    P.P.S

    I love when you write story with a supernatural/preternatural edge…makes me feel like you’re coming to join me. Oh, did I say ‘Me’, I meant ‘Us’

    join us Join Us Join US 😂🤣

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