Extract from ONCE UPON A THOUSAND HILLS. Tense interview between sex shop worker Naomi Lieberman and Rwandan Director of a London refugee centre.
I step inside the room, closing the door behind me.
“Hello, I’m –”
And suddenly, I stop. I’m lost for words. Even though only two words need follow.
He stands up from his desk and walks towards me.
I know this is ridiculous, and it’s going to sound racist, which I’m honestly not, but the thing is, I am completely taken off guard by my first sight of John Paul Chambers. I hadn’t expected him to be … well, black. And suddenly, it occurs to me in a whoosh of mortification that I have never known a black person in my entire life. Where have they all been, these last twenty-four sequestered years?
He holds out a hand to me. “Hi, I’m John Paul Chambers, the Volunteer Manager. So you found us then. Eventually.” He glances at his watch to emphasise the point.
“Yes – sorry I’m late. I got a bit lost.”
He’s also tall. I mean really tall. I have to look quite high up in order to aim my nervous smile at him. And broad-shouldered, with narrow hips. And smartly dressed. Dark trousers and jacket, white shirt opened at the collar, and a tie that’s a bit loose and hanging askew. In fact, he’s all round a fine figure of a man, as Gran would say. He has a firm jawline, very short hair, and a surprisingly refined nose, though I shouldn’t be making general assumptions about what sort of noses different races of people are supposed to have. But even more striking than his refined nose is a scar that he has, just touching his left eyebrow. Not a huge ugly jagged scar, but quite long, and certainly conspicuous.
“Well then, Miss Lieberman,” he begins in that deep, self-assured voice that I recognise from our three telephone exchanges, “if you’re planning on helping us out here, I trust you won’t make a habit of coming dressed like that in future?”
I stall. And then frown, despite my nerves. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
He raises his scarred eyebrow, then takes a step backwards, folding his arms as he surveys me from head to foot. “Nothing, if you happen to be meeting friends for a drink on a Saturday night. But not acceptable here, sorry. That’s the rule.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m quite good at breaking rules.” I laugh, but John Paul does not.
“Well you better hadn’t here. This isn’t a game, you know.”
“Of course not.”
I’m beginning to feel decidedly out of place. Not just in my three-inch heels and snazzy suede miniskirt and black zig-zag tights – but just all round existentially out of place.
Still frowning, he says, “Okay, we can talk about dress code later.”
He touches my elbow – a firm, confident touch – and steers me over to his desk.
We sit down opposite one another. I place my dripping umbrella on the floor beside me and hang my jacket round the back of my chair. While waiting for him to sort through some papers that are scattered about his desk, I have a quick survey of my surroundings. It’s a small room – snug, warm, cluttered in a vibrant way – obviously intended to put people at ease. There are lots of ethnic prints on the walls, as well as posters depicting scenes from different continents, and a large map of Africa. But the thing that makes the room far more personal is the handful of framed photographs that are displayed on John Paul’s desk. Two in particular grab my attention. The first is of a middle-aged couple sitting on a bench – could be in a large garden, or possibly a park. They’re smiling at the camera and the man’s hand is clasped upon his wife’s (I presume), which in turn is resting on her lap. It’s a very soothing, endearing sort of pose. Friends of the refugee centre, perhaps? Benefactors? Anyway, presumably not John Paul’s parents because both faces in the photo are white. The second photo is of a black family: a striking couple standing in the middle of a gaggle of children that are clustered around them, ranging in age from about five to twelve or thirteen.
Suddenly I realise that John Paul is looking at me. “Do you think we could possibly start?” he says. “That is, once you’ve had your fill of examining my photographs.”
“Oh – sorry. I was just thinking how lovely they are. Especially the one with all the children. Do you know those people?”
“I should hope so. They’re my family.”
“Oh, right. Well, they’re certainly a striking bunch.”
“Thank you.” He appears to be oddly uncomfortable with the compliment.
“Especially the lady in the middle. Who is she?”
“Wow. She’s beautiful.”
“Yes, indeed. Now –”
“And you? Are you in the photo?”
“The boy on the left. Now do you mind if we move on?”
“Okay, sure.” But I a sneak a final glance at the boy on the left. He’s the oldest looking child, probably a teenager, and has a huge smile on his face. Bears little resemblance to the stern man sitting opposite me right now.
“So, Miss Lieberman. Have you got that reference I asked for?”
“Yes, I have. I’ve got two, actually. And also the statement you asked me to write.”
I open my bag and take out all three documents. I hand them over to him and he immediately opens the first one – Fred’s reference. He spends several moments scanning it. Then the second one.
“So …” he narrows his eyes at the paper as he reads. “Your grandmother was from Poland?”
Okay, here we go. Eloquence time! No giggling or inappropriate remarks.
“That’s right. She used to tell me all sorts of stories from her youth – her traumatised memories from Auschwitz, then being liberated and eventually arriving in England as a teenage war refugee. Which means I know all about the difficulties of settling in a new country and being surrounded by people who don’t speak your language, or don’t even want you there in the first place. And at the same time knowing there’s a good chance that you’ll never go back home.”
“She was at Auschwitz, you say?”
I nod, though don’t dare to elaborate. The thing is, to be truthful Gran wasn’t at Auschwitz; she was actually at Płaszów labour camp in southern Poland. But Auschwitz is a name that everyone has heard of, whereas Płaszów doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so I reckon that a mere swap of locality is permissible. After all, Gran was incarcerated by the Nazis, that’s the salient point. And the experience was pretty horrendous. When I was old enough to become interested, she used to give me titbits of information about the sorts of things she’d witnessed in her childhood and adolescence. I used to ruminate at length over these horror stories, wondering how God could allow such things; wondering why some of us are so lucky while others, quite randomly, happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up dangling at the end of a rope. So pretending that Gran was incarcerated in Auschwitz instead of Płaszów is only a small lie, right? Not one of my great whoppers.
He nods very slowly, still scrutinising my statement. Then he looks at me with those dark, smoky eyes that are quite unnerving, actually. “Do you have any experience with children?”
I’m a bit taken off-guard by the abrupt change of topic. “Erm … babysitting? And I like them. Children, I mean.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“I’ve actually got three, where I live. I mean not me personally, of course – that is to say, they’re not mine, they’re my landlords’ – but we’re all like one big family. So yes, plenty of experience with children.”
“And teenagers?” Pushing aside my written statement, he opens a drawer in his desk and takes out a notepad and pen.
“Well, I still remember clearly what it’s like to be one, if that helps?” No response. He’s too busy making notes, so I don’t know whether he didn’t like my answer, or just didn’t listen to it.
Then he refocuses his gaze on me. “Are you able to work both Saturdays and Sundays?” It’s an intense gaze – deep, sombre, unremitting, his eyes narrowed. Actually, they’re rather scary eyes.
“Oh – sorry. Daydreaming again. I was always getting ticked off for it at school, amongst other things. I can only work Sundays, I’m afraid.”
“There’s a problem with Saturdays?”
I nod, biting my lip.
“Ah yes, that’s right – Lieberman. You’re Jewish.”
“But not practising,” I add defensively. “Shabbat is just a kind of residue from my upbringing. My honest belief is that most of the world’s strife is caused by religion.”
I nod again, not sure how to follow this. “Anyway, I’m fine working Sundays. All day, if necessary.”
He makes a note of this before looking at me once again. I find it hard not to stare at his scar. It’s a shame about the scar, because it detracts from his otherwise distinguished looks – if you’re into the tragic-hero sort of looks that I suppose Othello might have had. And he’s younger than I thought. I’d guess early thirties.
And then, upon an outrageous impulse which hails from God knows where, I ask him, “How did you get that scar?”
For a moment he appears to be confused, clearly knocked off guard by this, and I’m regretting my stupid blabbing mouth. It’s something I was always getting in trouble for at school. Naomi, will you please take a moment to THINK before you open your mouth to say something!
But then his expression hardens, and he looks at me with eyes that are so cold, I almost shiver.
“Do you really think that’s any of your business, Mizz Lieberman?”