the doorbell’s ringing. Valentino and Rudolf start yapping like maniacs, shrill and murderous by the door. my eyes fling wide open, blinking as fast as my heart and I have no idea why. i’m 9, maybe 10. and its so early in the morning, its still dark.
there’s a sudden stillness in the air, a sticky silence and it drapes itself on top of my head, on my body, on the shadows in the room like a wet woolen blanket. this must be that calm people talk about, the moment before a storm.
mum slides my bedroom door open. a sliver of yellow light slashes my wall then disappears as she slides the door shut. she tells me to get out of bed. i feel clothes gently thrown at me from the closet, the soft thud of my Barbie backpack, jumper, my shoes. I hear voices outside my door, the words abrupt and solemn. the dogs are hurriedly shut up in the kitchen, ‘shush’ hisses my step-father. shush.
‘Can she bring her Gameboy?’ mum asks the dark, her voice flat near my ear. ‘Yes ma’am’ the door replies. ‘but we’ll need to take it away when we get there.’ my mother opens the curtains wide, and I see the white moon-halo of her head against the window. she takes a deep breath,’get dressed Paulina,’ and leaves.
i get up from bed and through the crack of the door, there’s a woman and a man. and my step-dad – bleary eyed and edgy. she’s in a drab grey suit, tight pony tail, pulled back so fierce her face seems stretched. he’s in a uniform of some sort, dark blue jumper, tough leather shoes, kind eyes. he nods when i walk out of my room, and everybody turns.
suddenly i’m the child, i’m the smallest person here. i am in the middle of something, or the start, and i dont know which exactly. everyone’s a stranger – and i panic, mum – where is she? I see her coming out of the bathroom, carrying an overnight bag in one hand and her cheeks are damp. i want to tell her she’s forgotten to wipe her face properly. no lipstick, she holds out her hand to me. i think – something’s very wrong. she’s leaving the house with no lipstick on.
there’s a white van with bars on the windows. we get into the back, sit on benches that face each other. my mother’s rosary beads are swinging between her knees and mine. mum is gripping onto the beads so tight the tips of her fingers are white. ‘play with your gameboy, paulina’ she whispers. ‘dont look outside’. i need to pee, i say to her in my head. i squeeze my legs, and play tetris.
when we stop, we go into an office with metal doors and white, fluorescent lights which make me feel ill. the lady takes me into the bathroom – all metal sinks, white linoleum floors, the smell of disinfectant fresh and arid. she leads me into a cubicle and nods at it, closes the door behind me. i can see her feet behind the door, the boxy leather shoes, and i shut my eyes because it won’t come. i think of mum waiting outside on her own – she might leave without me – and i go in a hurry.
in another room, there’s a white backdrop and a camera on a tripod directly in front of it. i get told to stand on the black X on the floor, and look at the camera. front, turn to your right, turn to your left. mum barks my name when i start to smile. mum has her turn, but she wont look up. i look at her and realise, she’s so small, my mama. im nearly as tall as her. why isnt she wearing any lipstick?
then there’s black ink on fingers, water offered in plastic cups. and then a phone call, when i see my mother cry.
i cling to her waist, watch her twirl the cord around and around her finger. i feel her convulse against the plastic booth, with words scratched into it – love hearts and names, dates and swear words. i can see children playing outside one door, throwing a ball around, and washing hanging on wires behind them. mum is holding onto to the phone, she had put a tissue on the handle, and now she takes it off and uses it to blow her nose. she looks up occasionally, when a person walks past. she’s speaking to my step-dad, repeating words – ‘i dont know, i dont know, i dont know’.
this is the moment when the world i knew took on a different colour. a light was turned on, like a long row of white fluorescent tubes, flickering with an electric hum. i think this was when i went from 10, to 20.
i feel hate rising up my neck, thick, thick.
i do not speak.