Malanje, Angolan Highlands, January 2002
You are thrown backwards by the blast, out of the shack, falling and stumbling.
‘Maria!’ you scream as you scramble back up. You’re clawing your way to the doorway. Inside it is black with orange fragments of flame, spread in a circle.
The smoke pricks your eyes and you cover your mouth and nose with the collar of your shirt. You are crying and shouting at the same time. You smell burnt hair and an awful saturated human scent that you’ve never known before.
‘Maria, where are you, Maria?’
You hear voices outside, people who heard the explosion.
Oh God, Jesus Mary mother of God. Maria looks down at her blackened self and feels intense pain, wetness and emptiness where a solid body used to be. She knows this is bad. She sees the horror on DJ’s face.
She looks away, eyes to the ceiling. As she loses consciousness, she asks: I’m not going to make it Lord, am I?
She gets no reply.
You have to get away from there. From that burnt destructive air. Can’t breathe, can’t speak. The breath is screeching in your tightened throat. Your ears pulse with your heartbeat, pounding you into submission and acceptance of this new state. She’s gone. But no, can’t be. Impossible.
The commotion around you is a roar of concerned people trying to put out the flames. They are a blur of silhouettes and shadows, faces occasionally coming into focus and intruding. Well-meaning, too late. She’s gone.
You don’t care about the house, the fire, the damage. It was your home, but they are all brittle pieces of nothing, now that her light is no longer there. You push back, standing up awkward and fast. ‘Sorry,’ is all you can manage as you step on someone’s foot, or something else in the way.
You shield your face from everyone. As long as no one looks you in the eye, you can possibly hold it together. Won’t fall to pieces, not just yet.
They won’t know what’s going on inside your head. Won’t connect the dots. Won’t step forward to stop you.
It was meant for you, you know it’s true. They got the wrong target. An innocent woman, killed.
The starting gun has fired and you are off.
Luanda, Angola, February 2002
Salão de para partidas domésticas. Lena makes her way to the domestic departures hall. The fluorescent lights buzz loudly with a green hue. Metal window frames are twisted and abandoned without glass. Outside, a small plane sits where it crashed years before, nose bent up by the impact. Red dust covers all the surfaces and hovers in the air.
As Lena waits, she looks at her passport in her hand. The document is British, with a Portuguese name: Magdalena Gloria Rodrigues. The English speakers reading it always get it a bit wrong. Her first name doesn’t sound like ‘leaning’; she has always been known as Lena, with a sound like rain. Maybe in Angola, where Portuguese is more widely understood, they’ll get it right.
She catches her hand shaking. She slips it under her leg to steady herself.
Around her, there is a cluster of nuns, faces shaded under simple white habits. Other people are harder to categorise. Two women wearing khaki vests talk over a laptop. An Angolan man in a dark suit sits with a briefcase and a small duffle bag at his feet. A white bloke, wearing a broad safari-type hat, has his legs splayed out, taking up too much space.
A long-legged man with sunglasses and greasy hair walks past. ‘I don’t know if we’ll make it, but I suppose I’ll try,’ he says to no one in particular.
She looks around to see if anyone else has heard. Two of the nuns quickly cross themselves. The man strides through security and it occurs to her that he could be the pilot.
An announcement scratches over the PA system. Even though Portuguese is her mother tongue, she recognises nothing in the stream of words except her destination: ‘Malanje.’ The strangers stand up and gather their belongings. The nuns brush off some of the red dust; the others don’t bother. They all make their way down to a creaking old security scanner.
On the tarmac, an aged propeller plane awaits. It looks impossibly small to fly, but it seems to be the plane for the highlands. The passengers put their luggage directly in the underbelly and then climb up unsteady stairs into the body of the plane.
She chooses a seat by a window. Two nuns sit across from her, quickly fastening flimsy seat belts. The nun closest to her is plump and seems uncomfortable on the small seat. She turns to Lena and shows a bright grin, eyebrows lifting up in expectation. A gold cross hangs around her neck.
‘Are you alright, dear?’ the nun asks.
She nods, too fast. ‘Absolutely fine. It’s my mum who was afraid of flying, not me. She never would have got on this plane.’
The nun holds a gentle smile, feigning belief.
The pilot has to duck his head as he strides through the small cabin. He reaches out to pull the door shut from the inside. He gives a half-hearted recital of a safety lecture. The sunglasses are lowered to give a glance to each row and each seatbelted lap. He seems satisfied as he launches himself back into the cockpit. It takes extra effort to fold his long legs into place.
‘You won’t need air masks,’ he says. ‘This plane can’t fly that high.’
The engines start up. A member of the ground crew gives a thumbs-up and steps back. The plane pivots, bumps towards the runway, then speeds towards flight.
She grips the armrest and tries to focus on her breath. She tells herself to trust the pilot. No choice. One hand goes up instinctively to the St Christopher’s necklace from Mum. She always has it around her neck for protection.
The noise and vibration crowd out everything else. The plane lifts and the vibration changes when the wheels are no longer in contact with the solid ground. There is a moment when she feels her breath is lifting too, and helping to carry them. Then the plane surprises her by banking sharply to the left, heading to the East.
Out of the oval window, the coastline of Luanda arcs away. Heat shimmers off tin shantytown roofs from the vast slums. Sleek luxury apartments rise up in towers of grandeur, ignoring the spread of squalor below. It is a very dusty urban scene, with no green to be seen, except the emerald ocean moving into the distance. Rusty red is the overwhelming colour –the soil, the bricks of the buildings, the haze which refuses to settle.
With bumps and jerks, they continue the ascent. The city is quickly behind them and low mountains unfold roughly ahead. Unassertive hill tracks are visible, void of vehicles. The shadow of the plane races along the ground in the late afternoon sun.
She tries to see if she can recognise any military installations, but none are in sight. She takes out her camera and starts to compose a picture. The dirt on the glass and the awkward angle would make it a mediocre shot at best. She soon gives up and rests it on her lap, turned off. It is reassuring to have something to hold onto. She rubs her thumb over the familiar dials and switches, and squints at the horizon. The dark reds and browns blur and blend like a watercolour.
DJ, where the hell have you gone?