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The ShortRead: Michela Wrong


The ShortRead of 12 August



Author: Michela Wrong

What's the story: Courtroom dramas largely fall into two categories: pop pulp, with wise-cracking legal types sticking it to 'the man', and proper courtroom dramas, like Michela Wrong's new novel. 

Grappling with the thorny topic of the West's flawed history of African engagement, Borderlines follows British lawyer Paula Shackleton, an anti-heroine mourning a lost love, called to represent the African state of North Darrar in its border arbitration case at The Hague. 

A finely crafted début novel, you'll gain a decent dose of education and Western guilt as you plough through this on your holiday.

Release date: 12 August


By two a.m. the glare was really beginning to bother me. African airports don’t, on the whole, go in for soft lighting, and Lira International was no exception. I didn’t need a mirror to know what I looked like in the greenish-white light given off by the fluorescent strip running the length of the ceiling: baggy-eyed, sallow, prematurely old.

I lay on the stiff acrylic carpet, my bag under one ear as a makeshift pillow, hands between my knees, pretending to ignore my guard. He was actually in the next room, but the door had been propped open, and since most of the wall separating the two rooms was glass, he could see me without leaving his desk, where he sat reading a newspaper, occasionally sipping a glass of dark tea.
Earlier, I had gone through the outrage, shocked innocence and I-demand-an-explanation routine that seems de rigueur when a young white woman is suddenly, mysteriously, diverted from a path leading to a boarding gate, the trundle across the tarmac in the warm night air and then, aah, the microcosm of Western civilisation that is the modern aircraft, a little bubble of agreed conventions and soothing yogic rituals. I’d declaimed at considerable length on my key role in the Legal Office of the President. I’d dropped my boss’s name, demanded to speak to the presidential adviser and brandished my files, to emphasise how vital it was that I reach The Hague in time for the announcement of a historic ruling that would shape his country’s future.
Green Eyes, as I had mentally tagged him – like any good lawyer, I’d asked for his name but he’d only grunted – hadn’t turned a hair. The absence of reaction, in fact, was the most terrifying thing about the whole affair. An insincere apology, an attempt at intimidation, anything would have been better than the total lack of expression he’d shown as he had turned on me his light, limpid gaze – so disconcerting in this country of dark brown eyes – and said, ‘No flight for you tonight.’

He had taken me to identify my luggage so it could be removed from the pile. He had led me to Immigration to have my passport’s exit stamp crossed. He had walked me to the kiosk where I’d paid my airport tax to get the dollars returned. Each of these small transactions had been conducted in silence by the officials who had processed me twenty minutes earlier, this time without the friendly smiles. They knew now I was toxic, leprous. Then Green Eyes had brought me upstairs to this room, where the only furniture was a desk, pushed against the wall, and a plastic chair, and indicated I wait.

My first reaction had been to get out my mobile and start composing a text to Winston. I was just typing ‘detained at’ when Green Eyes held out his hand. I handed it over, unzipped my shoulder bag and took out my laptop as if to start it up. He held out his hand again, this time more brusquely, and I passed over my weathered Dell. ‘No computer. No mobile,’ said Green Eyes. ‘All is forbidden.’
Over the next hour and a half, I’d watched through the glass as the other passengers on the flight went through the routine I, too, had been planning: the pointless trawl of the airport shop in search of suitable presents (biography of Julius Nyerere, anyone? Copy of the Ministry of Health’s five-year plan?), a beer at the bar, cigarette on the terrace, the cluster at the boarding gate, a final cursory search before disappearing through the doors.
A few threw curious, embarrassed glances in my direction. Wasn’t that the deputy director of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency? I’d certainly met that blond young man – Norwegian Embassy? Danish? One of the Scandies, in any case – at some party. But I did not call out. ‘All is forbidden’ had somehow done its work. I was already aware of a film between me and my fellow expatriates, the gelatinous membrane that separates the innocent from the compromised. A strange shame held me back, the conviction that they would have walked on past me as I mouthed my silent appeal.

‘Come,’ said Green Eyes. I followed his beckoning finger out of the room, past the café-bar, now closing, and across to the terrace, which looked out over one of the least-used runways in Africa. Green Eyes pointed to where the Alitalia flight was turning on the tarmac, testing its flaps. I knew exactly what the atmosphere would be like on board. Some destinations specialise in jolly flights, others come tinged with relief, a few drenched in heartbreak. Flights from Lira always seemed infused with a certain grim pragmatism. No one aboard would be ending a wonderful holiday or laden with souvenirs. The airport was not the chosen port of departure for fleeing locals: too visible, too monitored. The expatriates, banking generous salaries for what was judged a hardship posting, would be heading off for briefings back at Headquarters, short breaks with semi-estranged wives and children parked at boarding-school. They would be back all too soon.
The plane hurtled past the terminal building. Heading out across the plateau, it wheeled until its nose pointed north-west. I could almost hear the clink of the mini-bar bottles as the air stewards handed out the required anaesthetics, tucking a few extras into seatbacks. A few minutes later, it was no more than a winking light in the careless splatter of stars that was the Lira night sky. Green Eyes savoured my expression, his point made. I was on my own.

‘Come,’ he said again. We walked back to my holding area, where my turquoise case crouched, like a giant scarab beetle. Funny how you can come to hate an inanimate object. In one of those side pockets nestled the passports, cash and academic certificates that I assumed lay at the root of this whole sorry affair. Someone, it was clear, had blabbed. I could guess who that might be.
For a while,

(Images: Flickr/Kate Hiscock; Rex)



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