Best-selling author of 'Money Power Love', 'The Little Voice' and 'Occupied'.

JOSS SHELDON

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2. ELLIE

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Ellie held her head in her hands and cried.

“Mummy! Mummy!” She whined. “Why can’t I have any of those lollipops?”

“On the Godly bible!” Mama Ellie gasped. “How many times do I have to tell you? They’re for the refugees!”

“But those country bumpkins can’t even read or write. They’re dirty and they smell. I’m your own daughter! It’s just not fair.”

Mama Ellie sighed.

A robin sang.

Ellie scowled.

She had never been close to her mother. Her Eldest Sister had taken care of her when she was young. She had put her to bed each night, read her a story, and slept next her on the floor. But her Eldest Sister had been married off to a foreigner. She had left Ellie behind, with her parents and three youngest siblings.

A glossy photograph was the only possession Ellie had to remind her of her Eldest Sister, and she carried it wherever she went. But it was starting to get tatty. Its corners were starting to fray, and the image was starting to fade. She had drawn a doodle on its back.

Ellie looked down at that picture, snarled through her nose, and then looked up at her mother.

“Those refugees have suffered tragedies we’ll never be able to comprehend,” Mama Ellie explained. “I swear on the grave of the prophet; they’ve got nothing! They’ve lost their land and their homes.

“But whilst they’ll forget the people who harmed them, they’ll never forget the people who helped them. Because the power of hatred is limited, but the power of love is boundless.

“It’s important to have a white heart, Ellie. Don’t you ever forget that!”

Ellie combed her shiny black hair, puffed her chubby cheeks, and tapped her tiny round nose. She stared into her mother’s eyes.

Mama Ellie could tell that her daughter was not convinced.

“Why don’t you come and see the refugee camp for yourself?” She asked.

“Can I have a lollipop if I go with you?” Ellie replied.

She pretended to apply some nail polish.

A chicken flapped its wings.

Mama Ellie sighed.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “As long as you behave yourself.”

And so they left their home and walked down the narrow paths which snaked through Natale. They passed thousands of tiny arches, which held up hundreds of stony buildings. They passed the djinns and fairies who lived beneath those arches. They dodged the donkeys who moved without instructions; serving as taxis, garbage collectors, water carriers and porters. They traversed the field at the bottom of town, where retired donkeys saw out their final days. And they arrived at the refugee camp’s iron turnstile.

“Check.” A Muscular Guard rattled. “Next. Check. Next. Check. Next.”

The Muscular Soldier looked simply too big to be allowed. He looked wild. His head almost touched the ceiling, even though he was sitting down. He had mechanical movements and a robotic voice.

“Check. Next. Check. Next.”

Mama Ellie stepped forward

“ID!” The Muscular Guard demanded.

“You know who I am,” Mama Ellie spat.

“ID!”

“I swear on the evening prayers; you see me every day!”

“ID!”

“Really?”

“ID!”

“Huh,” Mama Ellie shrugged. She removed a shabby piece of paper from her pocket, showed it to the Muscular Guard, and led Ellie into the camp.

The first tent Ellie saw was the Director’s office. Its floor was covered in paving slabs, a sofa was placed at one end, and a television was placed on a portable table. It was powered by a generator.

Ellie had never seen a television before. But the only person watching it was a lonesome Tea Boy, who was dressed in a smart suit. The Tea Boy had one responsibility; to occasionally make tea for the Director. He looked bored.

The other people Ellie saw also looked bored. But their tents were not nearly as nice as the Director’s. They swayed in the breeze, and looked like they were about to fall over. Rainwater leaked through their roofs, and dripped onto the refugees who were crammed inside.

Outside, hundreds of other refugees were competing to get to the only water truck on site. They trod on rotting piles of rubbish, stumbled across the boggy floor, and slipped into the open sewers.

To Ellie, that place felt like an open air prison. She was shocked by the things she saw as she walked along its muddy streets. As she walked past an Orphan who was stroking a starving cat. Past a Moustached Refugee who was hugging two sheep; the only animals he had saved from his village. And past Tamsin, who was wearing a patched up dress, and holding out a bowl to beg for food. There was a defiant look in Tamsin’s eyes, as if she had just waved goodbye to her childhood.

“That could have been you,” Mama Ellie said. “I swear on my dead father’s grave; we share the same land as these refugees, the same home. We have the same ancestors too. It’s only by the grace of God that our town was not occupied as well.”

Ellie shuddered.

An unattended Toddler picked up a handful of dirt.

Mama Ellie patted her daughter’s back.

They continued on until they reached a billowy tree. A Pale Teacher was standing beneath its branches, and eighty small children were sitting in its shade. They had eager faces and mucky clothes.

“Who can read the alphabet?” The Pale Teacher asked. She pointed to a line of letters, which she had written on the blackboard: ‘A, B, C, D….’

Her pupils stared back at her, with blank expressions and closed mouths.

“Can anyone read any of these letters?” She tried again.

At first there was silence. No-one moved. Then, in amongst the sea of tiny faces, a Cherubic Refugee tentatively raised her arm.

“Super!” The Pale Teacher cheered. “Please! Come to the front and read the letters you know. I think you’re very brave!”

The Cherubic Refugee stood up. She wiped her runny nose, and tiptoed between the other children.

“C,” she began. “H. N. R. U.”

“Very good!” The Pale Teacher cheered. “Everyone give her a round of applause.”

The children clapped, and the Cherubic Refugee blushed. Her embarrassment mixed in with her pride.

“Before you sit down,” the Teacher continued. “Can you tell the class how you learnt those letters?”

The Pale Teacher was both confused and intrigued.

“They’re all around the camp,” the Cherubic Refugee explained. “They’re written on the side of tents, on sacks of rice, and on the guards’ jackets. My daddy told me they said ‘UNHCR’. It stands for ‘United Nations High Commission for Refugees’.”

A little tear rolled down Ellie’s cheek.

A little bird landed on a branch.

A little star appeared in the sky.

“Now do you understand why these people deserve our lollipops?” Mama Ellie asked.

“Yes mummy,” Ellie replied.

She felt ashamed of herself for having questioned her mother. And so she walked on in silence, until they reached the camp’s exit.

“Can we go home now please?” She asked. “My feet are really sore.”

“Home?” Mama Ellie scolded. “Do you think we can survive just by walking around refugee camps? Pfft. On the three Godly months! Pull yourself together. We have chores to do!”

Mama Ellie led her daughter back through Natale. She went from market stall to market stall, haggled for food, and came out with bags dangling from both her arms.

She arrived home just as her other children returned from school. She fired up her wood-fuelled stove, boiled enough water to fill her bath, and bathed each of her children in turn. Then she washed some clothes by hand, cooked some dinner, and mopped her courtyard.

Mama Ellie’s house consisted of five rooms, which surrounded that first floor courtyard. Below it was a front door, which was always left unlocked. And below that was a tiny basement.

Above it was a raised platform, where a shed housed the family’s chickens. And above that was a flat roof where her children played games. They ran from roof to roof, whilst sparrows hid in the walls.

Each room in her house was built in the ‘cross-wall’ style; they were domed shaped and painted white. The lounge was the only room other than the kitchen that contained a wood burner, and so the children slept in there each winter. That room also contained an old radio, which had split along the middle, and was held together by tape. It was lit by a homemade lamp, which was made from a jar of oil and a fabric wick.

A rifle rested in one corner. Papa Ellie was a tailor, who spent most of his time at work in Collis’s capital. He had insisted on leaving that gun behind, so his family could protect themselves.

The only other items in that room were five cushions. Ellie’s family sat on those cushions to eat their evening meal, which was served on a large metal platter. Alternating sections of yoghurt and salad surrounded a mound of meat and rice, which collapsed as soon as they started to eat.

When they had finished, Mama Ellie turned towards her daughter.

“Would you like a lollipop?” She asked. “You’ve been a good girl today. I think you deserve one.”

Ellie looked up at her mother, paused to think, and then shook her head.

“No thank-you,” she replied. “The refugees need those lollipops more than I do.”

 

* * *

 

Ellie and her mother grew closer over the months which followed. They shopped together, cooked together, and volunteered together.

Ellie helped her mother to set up an embroidery collective for female refugees. Mama Ellie sourced cloth and thread for those ladies, who made pencil cases which featured slogans like, ‘Women can do everything – Men can do something’. Then she sold their work to an exporter.

The women in that ‘Women’s Union’ laughed and joked whilst they sewed. They felt free. They felt human. They achieved a new sense of self-worth, learnt new skills, and earned money which their husbands never saw.

Their newfound confidence rubbed off onto Mama Ellie. She welcomed new people into her home each day. They sat in a circle, drank an infinite amount of tea, put their arms around each other’s shoulders, chatted and chortled.

Mama Ellie offered everyone the same warm welcome, whether she knew them or not. Whether they were good or bad, clean or dirty, local or foreign.

“Come in!” She would say. “You are welcome here. Have some tea. You poor things, you must be hungry. Eat something. Have some tea. Please! Share! What’s mine is yours. Have some tea.”

Mama Ellie’s confidence rubbed off onto her daughter. And so when an international relief agency supplied two battered guitars, three broken drums and half a black recorder, Ellie volunteered. She helped them to form a music school for refugees.

‘Natale Refugee All Stars’ were born.

Ellie rounded up all the children she could find, and encouraged them to sing for their homeland. They whistled with their hearts and they hummed with their souls. They clicked with love and they clapped with joy. With smiles which were brighter than the sun, and eyes which shone like tiny white stars.

As their camp became cramped, those children grew closer.

As the days became colder, their hearts grew warm.

As their tents fell down, their spirits rose up.

Ellie’s confidence rubbed off onto those children. She could see it in their postures; in the way they walked and danced. She could hear it in their voices; in the way they sang and spoke. And she could sense it in their auras; in the way they pranced and prattled.

She could sense it in a girl called Jen, who walked in fixed motions, like a chess-piece moving around a board. That little girl, who had tousled hair and ruffled clothes, played an instrument made out of metal scraps.

And she could feel it in a girl who taught herself to play the guitar. That little girl, who was a total wreck at first, became self-assured. Her health improved. She had chubbier cheeks and plumper arms.

“Hi,” she said after band practice. “My name is Tamsin.”

“Hi,” Ellie replied. “I’m Ellie.”

Ellie smiled.

Tamsin smiled back.

“Do you want to play hide and seek?” She asked.

“Okay,” Ellie replied. “But let’s get out of here and play in town.”

Ellie led Tamsin past a Bread Boy, who was selling rolls out of a wooden cart. Past a Baker, who was scowling at that boy from inside his empty shop. Past a dusty café, where dusty men were smoking from dusty pipes. Past camels who proceeded at an inaudible pace, men who held hands, and fat cats who perched on the thin rims of rubbish bins.

“Okay, okay,” Ellie panted. “Let’s play here.”

Tamsin closed her eyes and began to count.

“One. Two. Three. Four…”

Ellie ran away. She ran past a Mother, who was picking nits out of her Infant’s hair. Past a Barber, who was cutting hair. And past the Bald Local, who did not have any hair at all.

She stopped, climbed a drainpipe, and hid on a rooftop bed. It was surrounded by a white sheet, which was supported by four black poles.

Beds like that one sat on every rooftop in Natale. People slept on them each summer. The sheets blocked out the sun, but they did not block out gravity. At least two people fell off their roofs each year.

“Got you!” Tamsin cheered. “Now it’s my time to hide.”

Ellie looked bewildered.

A white sheet rippled in the breeze.

Tamsin giggled, waved, and ran away.

Ellie looked for her everywhere. She climbed the stairs which ran from the valley below to the castle above. She trod on cracks and tripped on rubble. She slinked between homes with thick walls, and homes with small windows. She looked down their wells and up their wind towers. But she could not find Tamsin anywhere, and so Ellie became frustrated.

She wobbled her head, sighed, and stopped moving. She muttered to herself. And she jumped up into the air when someone tapped her shoulder.

“Got you again!” Tamsin cheered. “You’re not very good at this, are you?”

“It’s a silly game,” Ellie whinged. “Hide and seek is for babies!”

 

* * *

 

Ellie and Tamsin never played hide and seek again. But they did play plenty of other games over the weeks and months which followed.

They fashioned kites out of sticks and scraps of cloth. Then they ran around Natale’s castle, flying those kites, and shouting as loudly as they could.

They made toys out of any old rubbish they could scavenge. They hammered bits of wood into the floor, picked up pieces of metal using magnets, and made towers out of builders’ bricks.

When it rained, they raced twigs on the water which gushed down the gutters, and bet on which stick would win. When it was sunny, they sat in the shade, playing noughts and crosses in the dust. And when the sun started to set, Ellie returned home to play-fight with her Middle Brother.

Ellie put her Middle Brother in headlocks, and her Middle Brother threw Ellie to the floor. They rolled on top of each other, and pulled each other’s hair. Sometimes they got grazed. Occasionally they got cut.

“Mummy! Mummy!” Ellie whinged. “My brother cut me. Look!”

“Wash yourself up then,” Mama Ellie replied.

“But mummy! He hurt me!”

“Well don’t fight him then. I swear on the sacred bread; if you play like cats, you’re bound to get scratched.”

“But that’s not fair! Why don’t you ever punish him?”

Mama Ellie looked at her daughter with a look which seemed to say, ‘Isn’t it obvious?’

“Really?” She replied. “Really Ellie? I swear on the twelve heavenly commandments; ever since you were able to crawl, you’ve been like a hyena with him. You used to come to my breast whilst he was suckling, push him away, and stick my tit in your mouth. You’ve got another thing coming if you think I’m going to stop him from protecting himself.”

Ellie stomped away in a mood. She sat in an empty room, folded her arms, and grinded her teeth. She pretended to make herself look pretty. She put on imaginary make-up, and brushed her hair with a fork. She only left that room when Papa Ellie returned.

Everything about Papa Ellie was bent or off-centre. He had a cleft-palate, a hatchet-like nose, and a mouth which was shaped like Cupid’s bow. If worn by another person, his body would have been described as ‘unfortunate’. But Papa Ellie held himself well. He made his ugliness seem alluring, and imbued it with a certain sense of moreish-ness. Random strangers stopped to stare at him. Most of them liked what they saw.

Papa Ellie was bombarded by his children as soon as he entered. They hugged him and would not let him go. He had to walk up the stairs with four children attached to his legs. He made big, slow steps, like a tentative clown.

“Leave your papa alone,” Mama Ellie scolded. “On my reincarnation in heaven! Give the man a break. He’s only just come through the door!”

But despite her gentle scolding, Mama Ellie was just as happy to see her husband as everyone else. And her children’s affection gave her a warm feeling inside. It made her smirk.

Papa Ellie sat down in the living room, emitted a big sigh of relief, and threw a handful of chestnuts onto the fire. He handed out some coconut pyramids. He looked at his children and smiled.

Ellie smiled as well. She was happy whenever her father returned home. She just wished they could spend more time together.

“I want to stay here with daddy,” she said the next morning.

“I don’t care what you want,” Mama Ellie replied. “You need to go to school.”

“But it’s cold mummy. It’s raining. I’ll get wet on the way to school and spend the whole day shivering. They don’t have a fire at school. I’ll catch a cold. I won’t be able to concentrate. I won’t learn a thing.”

Papa Ellie did not say a word. He was happy to let his wife do all the talking.

“On the Godly temple! I swear you’ve got an excuse for everything, young girl. Well it doesn’t wash with me. You should count yourself lucky to be receiving an education.

“Do you know what happened when I asked my parents to go to school? My father said, ‘No! You’re not going. It’ll only make you strong willed. You don’t need an education to be a housewife’.”

Mama Ellie scowled at her daughter.

“Would you rather I took that approach with you?” She asked. “Would you rather be an ignoramus like me?”

Ellie shook her head.

“Well get moving then!”

Ellie tutted, picked up her bag, and left for school. She had to wait another six days before she saw her father again.

But when Papa Ellie did return, he was not his normal self. His gentle persona had vanished. He seemed frustrated, agitated and tense.

“Listen up,” he said once he had sat his family down. “I have some bad news.”

Papa Ellie looked stressed.

His family looked worried.

Mama Ellie poured some tea.

“I’ve gone out of business,” Papa Ellie continued. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to make some cutbacks around here. We’re going to have to stop all this hosting of guests. We’re going to have to survive on a diet of rice and soup!”

His family stared at Papa Ellie. Their stomachs dropped. Their eyes looked hollow. Confusion covered their faces.

No-one said a word.

The silence lasted for minutes.

“It’s those bloody foreigners!” Papa Ellie finally said. “It’s those bloody refugees; coming here and taking our jobs. Pfft! We should have never let them stay, with their strange ways and peculiar habits. What have they ever done for us? Nothing! They’re no bloody use to anyone. And now they’re stealing our livelihoods. What chance do we have, when they’re prepared to work for peanuts?

“We should expel those bloated leeches! Those circumcised ferrets! Those one-dollar whores!”

He glared at Ellie, slapped his thigh, and continued his rant.

“It was your friend, that Tamsin, who’s to blame. It was her dad who’s put me out of business; selling dodgy suits for half my prices. He can’t even sew! He’s got no bloody experience at all! Yet, because of him, we’re going to have to live off rice.

“So I don’t want you playing with that Tamsin, that dizzy-eyed midget, ever again. I don’t want you going anywhere near that creepy elf!”

Ellie trembled.

She ate in silence that evening. She went to bed straight after dinner. And she went to school the next morning without making any complaints.

* * *

 

The weeks which followed were hard for Ellie’s family. They spent their savings on rice, and their chickens supplied them with eggs. Some of her erstwhile guests brought Mama Ellie food, but others did not. Her family never had quite enough to satisfy their hunger.

Papa Ellie stopped being a passing stranger, a mythical creature whose absences added to his allure. He became an overwhelming presence, who seemed to appear at every turn. He brooded, he muttered, and he snapped at the slightest provocation.

“It’s those bloody foreigners,” he roared. “We need to kick those refugees out. We can’t live with them; they’re too needy. And we can’t let this stalemate continue; it’s killing us. They’re playing for time, and we’re playing into their hands. New refugees are arriving here every day! We need to fight them every day, or we’ll never get our town back.

“They should bugger off back to their own country!”

“Oh give it a rest,” Mama Ellie slammed. “Don’t you think they’ve been trying? Protokian soldiers shoot them whenever they get close.”

“Well they should go to another country then. Our town is bursting at the seams with those fish-lipped maggots. We don’t have the resources to support them. They’re stealing our jobs!”

“They’re spending their money too,” Mama Ellie argued. “I swear on my dead father’s wounds! Our neighbours are doing a roaring trade with them. Some refugees are even employing locals!

“The opportunities are out there. If you’d only get up off your arse and look for them, we wouldn’t be living off of rice.”

“Poppycock! Refugees only do business with their own.

“Now listen here woman, I’ve had enough of your lip. I think you forget your place sometimes. I give you far too much freedom.

“Well I don’t want you going near that camp again. You hear me? I don’t want you mixing with those elfish aliens! Those hoary freeloaders! Those mad moustachioed malt-worms!!!”

Mama Ellie bit her tongue. She never questioned Papa Ellie once he had put his foot down. She never disobeyed her husband’s rules.

But Ellie felt uncomfortable. She did not like it when her parents argued. So she left the room. She looked into a mirror, adjusted her hair, and went out to play with her friends.

They played Seven Stones; throwing a ball at a pile of pebbles. They played Tag; jumping from roof to roof. They played football. And they flew their homemade kites.

Those kites soared behind them as they ran down narrow alleys. As they ran between sloping graves. And as they ran through the field where retired donkeys saw out their final days.

Ellie’s arm swung up into the air. Her kite’s string had been caught in a tree. It pulled taught and yanked her back.

Ellie could only watch as her kite broke free, rose, and floated away.

She paused to think.

And then she ran after her kite. She ran through the field, hurdled a stream, and sprinted down a stony lane. She reached the refugee camp.

She paused to think again.

She knew she was not allowed to enter that place. She knew she would get in trouble if she was caught. She knew there would be pain and sorrow.

She had never disobeyed her father before.

So she stood there and weighed up her options, whilst her kite floated above a sea of white tents.

Whilst refugees queued.

Whilst the Muscular Guard rattled on like a machine: ‘Check. Next. Check. Next. Check…’

The more she tried to hold herself back, the more she wanted to enter the camp. The more she resisted, the more she was tempted. She wanted to break her father’s rule, simply for the sake of breaking it.

So Ellie simpered, puffed her chest, and walked through the turnstiles.

She felt an enormous thrill. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, and her spine tingled. Her hands shook.

The first thing she saw was the Director’s office. His tent had been replaced by a pink cottage; the only permanent building on site. Pretty flowers were planted by its door, next to three jeeps. Three drivers looked bored.

The second thing Ellie saw was the graffiti:

‘UNITED NATIONS RESOLUTION 194. Refugees wishing to return to their homes, and live at peace with their neighbours, should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date’.

Beneath it Ellie scribbled, ‘We are the 99%! The people of Natale support the refugees!’

And beneath that, a peppermint plant fluttered in the breeze.

Ellie ran after her kite. But she ducked for cover as soon as she saw Tamsin. She felt guilty for abandoning her friend. She felt ashamed. And she filled with hatred for Tamsin, for triggering those negative emotions.

So she picked up a stone and threw it at Tamsin’s foot. She regretted it straight away. She felt worse than she had done before.

But Tamsin did not notice the pebble which skimmed off the ground in front of her. She had other things on her mind.

“Why can’t I see papa anymore?” She asked her mother.

“Your papa is working really hard,” Mama Tamsin replied. “He’s a real hero. He’s working a hundred hours each week! But don’t worry, hard work gets rewarded. His tailoring business is sure to take off. We’re going to be rich!”

“I miss papa.”

“I know, but he’ll visit us in six months. You’ll see him then.”

Ellie’s shoulders drooped, her torso slouched, and her kite drifted out of sight. She ambled back to the entrance.

A Brunette Refugee vomited in the middle of the street.

A Blonde Refugee sprinted through that vomit.

“Our neighbours are coming to save us!” She cheered. “They’re going to drive the Holies into the sea! We’re going to get our land back! Yippee!!!”

“We’re going home!” A Noisy Refugee chanted. “Protokia has no right to exist!”

Hundreds of refugees turned to face each other.

“We’re going home!” Half of them whispered.

“We’re going home!” The other half cheered.

 

* * *

 

“They’re finally going to bugger off home,” Papa Ellie said. “Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. Everything will go back to normal.”

Ellie looked up at her father, and back down at his suit. She polished its brass buttons for the seventh time that evening. Then she ironed it with a box iron, until its corners were perfectly crisp, and its lapels were perfectly flat.

“My daughter, you’ve whitened my face,” Papa Ellie said. “You really are worth ten sons!”

He did not realise that Ellie was only cleaning that suit to assuage her guilt. Ellie had gotten away with her visit to the refugee camp. So she exhaled. She clung to that small victory. And she felt triumphant.

She rolled over, brushed her father’s suit, and grinned.

Papa Ellie also grinned. He assumed that his daughter was excited about his upcoming interview. He had spoken of little else for the previous three days.

“I’m going back to work!” He said. “Oh, I do hope I get that job. It pays almost as much as my last job! I’ll get a day off every week! Every week!

“They’re only interviewing three of us. Three locals! No refugees. I’m in with a chance, I tell you. Our days of rice and soup could be behind us!”

Mama Ellie passed her husband his seventeenth tea of the evening, sat down, and listened patiently without saying a word. She told her children to go to sleep, led Papa Ellie to bed, and made love to him for the first time in weeks.

But Papa Ellie never made it to his interview.

His whole family was woken up by the sound of gunfire and grenades. The walls shook and the floors quaked. The skies turned black with soot, and the sun hid behind the moon.

The Protokians had launched a counter-attack. They were grabbing as much land as they could.

Papa Ellie grabbed a sack of rice, and escorted his family into their basement. They huddled together, and waited for the bombardment to stop.

Ellie moved the charms on her necklace back and forth.

An ant ran away with a tea leaf.

A jar fell off its shelf.

But the bombardment did not stop.

They sat in that basement for what felt like an eternity. Their conversations ran dry. They played games until they were bored. Then they stared at each other’s faces, without saying a single word.

Ellie had never paid so much attention to her mother’s face. She noticed that it had three peculiar features. A round bone poked out of her nose, about half way down. It was not big enough to make her nose look bent, but it did skew her appearance. Her aural canals were asymmetrical. One was curved like a kidney bean, whilst the other was round like a chickpea. And her parting was slightly off-centre. It swerved to dodge a scar at the front of her scalp.

Ellie looked at everyone’s face.

An ant ran away with a grain of rice.

The door rattled.

But the bombardment did not stop.

In the darkness of their basement, it was impossible to tell when one day ended and the next one began. Ellie’s family slept to pass the time. Yet they were never fully asleep. They were in a permanent stupor. Their eyesight was blurry and their minds were numb.

Ellie looked at herself in a compact mirror.

An ant ran away with a splinter.

A chicken clucked.

But the bombardment did not stop.

“I’m scared,” Ellie said.

“Our lives are in the hands of God,” Mama Ellie replied. “Governments rule, but God is the only ruler. He’ll protect us.”

She gave Ellie her nail polish. Ellie spent hours applying it to her nails, slowly and methodically, with the utmost attention to detail.

An ant ran away with a grain of sugar.

A bottle of urine fell over.

A cat meowed.

And the bombardment finally stopped.

That war became known as the ‘Seven Day War’. Some people said it had only lasted for six days, but no-one could be sure. Everyone in Natale had stayed inside on the seventh day, because they had been traumatised by the shelling. They only emerged when the Protokians announced their victory on loud hailers.

Ellie’s family faced a scene of devastation.

Their stairs had been crushed. There was a hole in the roof, and a hole in the kitchen wall. Their courtyard had been turned upside down. Pieces of the ceiling were spread across the floor, and pieces of the floor were wedged into the ceiling.

It took Ellie hours to find the courage to leave her house.

When she did finally step outside, the first thing she saw was a dead donkey, whose corpse was attracting flies.

The second thing she saw was a group of Godlies, who were fleeing to a neighbouring country.

A Sinewy Local was wagging his fist at them.

“Cowards!” He shouted. “You should be standing firm! You should be fighting for our freedom! You poisonous toads! You good for nothing toe-rags! You clapper-clawed barnacles!”

And the third thing Ellie saw was a Hunky Soldier, who wore a smart uniform and a friendly smile.

That Protokian teenager squatted down, looked into Ellie’s eyes, and offered her a sweet.

“I bet you’d like some lollipops,” he said. “Help yourself. What’s ours is yours!”

Ellie stared at the Hunky Soldier, cried, and ran back inside.

 

* * *

 

Everything changed slowly, but everything changed.

A barbed wire fence was erected around Natale’s castle, which was turned into a military base. A Holy flag, which could be seen from anywhere in Natale, was raised in its centre.

A giant billboard, the first in town, was erected at the bottom of the hill. It featured a black and white poster, which said, ‘Love the Protokians: They have liberated you’.

Ellie’s school was renamed ‘Atamow Elementary’, after the Protokian prime minister; a man who was so cold, his facial features had frozen. His eyes had turned red, his lips had turned blue, and his hair had turned white. His skin was frosty and his voice was bitter. His blood was icy cold.

Hundreds of Protokian soldiers arrived in Natale each day, dressed in neatly pressed uniforms. And thousands of Protokian administrators followed them. What they gave with one hand, they took away with the other.

They assembled pylons which brought electricity to Natale for the first time, then closed every well in town. They repaired the houses which had been damaged during the war, then demolished those houses to build new roads. They tarmacked Natale’s existing roads, then drove their vehicles into the walls which surrounded those narrow streets.

“They’re here to stay,” the Mad Lady told anyone who would listen. “They’ll never leave. A magical toad told me so.”

“Oh shut up,” a Dairy Farmer shouted back. “What do you know, you batty old witch?”

The Mad Lady scowled at the Dairy Farmer; a man who smelled of stale manure. Her pupils became so small, they almost disappeared. Her wart seemed to wobble. She wagged her finger and walked away.

The Dairy Farmer walked towards his fields, which covered the hill adjacent to Natale. He waved at Ellie, who was playing catch with her friends. And he approached a group of soldiers, who had just fenced off his land. They stopped him from reaching his cows.

“This is my land!” The Dairy Farmer bellowed. “Bugger off and take your bleeding fence with you, or I’ll call the police!”

“The police?” A Punky Soldier replied. He picked a piece of tobacco out of his teeth. “We are the police!”

“But this is my land!”

“Can you prove that?”

“I’ve been farming this land all my life, you can ask anyone in town. This hill has been in my family for generations.”

“Have you registered it with the authorities?”

“The authorities? This land has been in my family since before there were any authorities!”

“Do you have any papers to prove that? Do you have any deeds?”

“Papers? Deeds? Why do I need deeds? I walk on this soil every day. Even the worms know that it’s my land!”

“If you don’t have any deeds, it’s not your land, it’s the government’s land, and you’re trespassing on it. So I suggest you move along, or I’ll be forced to arrest you.

“The government has given this hill to a group of Holy immigrants, who plan to build a settlement here. It’s Protokian land for Protokian people. It’s not for troublemakers like you!”

The Dairy Farmer lifted his fist. But he stopped short of punching the Punky Soldier, because he felt an overwhelming presence behind him. He turned around and saw seven soldiers. Fourteen eyes glared in his direction. Seven fingers hovered above seven triggers.

So the Dairy Farmer made a quick retreat. He rushed past Ellie, spoke to his lawyer, and returned the following morning.

“You’re in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention!” He cheered triumphantly. “Article forty-nine point six states, ‘The Occupying Power shall not transfer its own civilian population into the territory it occupies’.

“You can’t give my land to Protokians. It’s against international law! You’re in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention!”

The Punky Soldier looked at the Dairy Farmer, furrowed his eyebrows and snickered.

“Does this look like Geneva to you?” He mocked. “Now I’ve warned you already. If you don’t step away, I’ll arrest you for trespassing. So bugger off. Get out of my sight!”

The Dairy Farmer shook his head, wagged his finger, and stormed off.

He stalked past the Muscular Guard. He stampeded past Mama Tamsin. And he cursed as he stomped past Ellie.

“Bloody Protokians! Bloody foreigners, coming here and taking our land! Bloody Holies, with their strange ways and peculiar habits. What have they ever done for us? Nothing! They’re no bloody use to anyone.”

Ellie shuddered. She was startled, shocked and stunned.

But she soon grew accustomed to that sort of behaviour. It became commonplace as the Holies moved in. As they built an aquifer, which sucked up water from beneath Natale. As they turned the green fields grey with concrete roads. And as they scattered their mobile homes across the hillside.

She finally understood Tamsin’s ordeal.

She returned home, shook and shivered.

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