Fiction

Prepping

YOUR LAWYER – A woman, for Chrissakes, young and Australian – is making you do some last-minute prep-prep-prepping. That’s really what she calls it: ‘prep-prep-prepping’. But you do not want to prep-prep-prep. You want to lie down, rest your eyes and turn your muddled brain off for a few minutes before they drag you in front of the judges – foreigners, every single one of them – and force you to plead guilty or not guilty to crimes against humanity, whatever the hell that means. By way of reply, at least in your dreams, you will launch into an impassioned and, you very much hope, wild-eyed speech that links Western imperialism with international law, and links international law with the authoritarianism of McDonalds, and links the authoritarianism of McDonalds with that moon landing the Americans faked in nineteen-sixty-whenever, and links the moon landing with the essential truth that sometimes leaders just have to do what they have to do. Boys will be boys. And everyone in the courtroom sitting smugly separated from you by bulletproof glass – judges, prosecutors, guards, spies of all nationalities and skin colours, alleged victims and alleged journalists – will nod in agreement, despite themselves. ‘Not guilty,’ they will chant. The walls will shake.

But you don’t want to plead at all. Why should you? You would prefer to be back in your cell, making a list of goods and services you believe the authorities are legally and morally obligated to supply you with: a firmer pillow, a pedicurist, Italian beer, a chef who really knows how to cook a pig, a woman who really knows how to please an old man.

You suppose your lawyer is trying to lighten the mood when she calls it ‘prep-prep-prepping’ while firing off question after question, as if you’re target practice. Are you responsible? Are you culpable? Are you cold as ice? You’re certain she doesn’t have a speech impediment. She’s far too efficient. Bloody good genes, you think, at least for a woman: you know you’re sick, probably slowly dying, because you’re not lusting after her. The truth is you can’t even piss without help. Some days it takes a tube connected Christ knows where, a plastic bag and a recording of ocean waves lapping to break through the dull sense of longing. And then it’s just a few drops, but you can smell the concentrated yellow inside the plastic bag. You suspect they test your urine, in violation of your legal rights, your human rights. Or maybe they’re selling it on eBay. You’re sure the doctor could fix you in an instant by prescribing some pill or other. But this court has only heard of the Geneva Convention when it suits them.

Perhaps, you think, the prep-prep-prepping is your lawyer’s way of making sure you are taking this circus seriously. And, sure, you’re worried. Who wouldn’t be, faced with a show trial. But on the other hand, you really don’t give a shit. Let them do their worst. You’re tired. And pained. And confused. The court has assigned you a lawyer because you must be seen to get a fair trial. And because your cry of innocence obliges you to pretend that you are penniless and didn’t steal an estimated US$1.3 billion from the citizens, your darling 22.4 million children. The truth is, you could bribe everyone involved in this charade, from the judges to the prosecution team to the guards, and still have enough cash left to build your own tropical island, complete with lagoon.

For your last-minute prep-prep-prepping your lawyer has shoved you in a straight-backed chair in a corner, like a naughty boy, and sent everyone else in the room to the opposite corner. The isolation is brutal. And so is the ache that runs all the way down your leg. You really need that hip replacement, don’t you?

Your lawyer – it might prove helpful, you tell yourself, if you could remember her name – asks you her dummy questions. ‘Did you order the attack on the villagers of Tipsal?’ ‘Did General Sarre report directly to you?’ ‘What can you tell me about how the secret L-15 prison came into being?’

You deny all allegations. You deflect then laugh like a madman then rage at the injustice of international justice. But mostly, you truly have no fucking idea what your lawyer is talking about, which seems to you to be as good a defence as any. And you suspect, even though she’s supposed to be on your side, that she’s playing with your mind, jumping from decade to decade, false accusation to false accusation, that she’s confusing you for the hell of it, for the sport of it because she, too, like all the others, believes that you are some sort of monster. And what does it matter, you wonder, this game of humiliation? You know you’re not going to walk out of this courtroom a free man.

She can see that you hate all this prep-prep-prepping.

‘You’ll thank me later,’ she says.

Thank her? It’s as if she’s saving you from a lethal injection by taking pot shots at you with one of those World War II-era rifles your militia used in the earliest days of the uprising. Before the Americans quietly started arming you. Why on earth did they do that? You suppose they had their Cold War reasons. You suppose they regret it now.

‘Did you order the so-called Pigs Massacre of 2 June 1976?’ your lawyer asks.

She’s wearing a shirt so crisp that you suspect it’s made of concrete. Like her heart. By way of reply, you spit on the carpet. She doesn’t flinch. Good girlie, you think.

‘Did you reach Mount Marvellous before or after the morning of Saturday 27 June 1978?’ she asks.

Truly – probably, maybe – you can’t remember whether or not you got blood under your fingernails that particular day in the murky past. To play for time, you fake a coughing fit, except that the coughing fit turns real and violent and life-threatening – of course it does – and all the assistant lawyers, researchers, translators, double agents, tourists, lost dogs shoved into the room with you and your lawyer pause to watch history in the making: the final moments of a living legend. You cough so fearsomely that your brain retreats to the shadows and you lose a couple of minutes of your life. It’s happened before, you suspect. The sensation is familiar. Comforting, almost.

Eventually you regain awareness of the room, your limbs, your screaming throat, your lawyer, who is still waiting for you to answer the question, whatever the bloody question was. When you unclench your palm, you find you hold a blood-specked tissue. You have no idea where the tissue came from. Nor the blood.

‘Were you present at the killings in Mount Malina?’ your lawyer asks. ‘Did you yourself, as several witnesses claim, take up an axe?’

After another moment, you realise the nurse is gently rubbing the spot where the top of your spine meets the base of your neck. When did he even arrive? He’s always fussing and taking blood and feeling your glands down in your cell, this court-appointed deviant. Oh, he is competent. He has a work ethic, something you have always demanded in acolytes. You trust him, at least as much as you trust anyone, not to assassinate you. But you are insulted by the idea of a man poking and prodding your body. Your nurse should be a woman. Your lawyer should be a man.

‘Are you all right now?’ your lawyer asks.

She sounds neither concerned nor blasé. You suspect that she thinks you’re faking it, and maybe you are. You nod. You don’t mean to. You wish you hadn’t deigned to reply. But it just happens, before you have time to close down. Not a good sign, you think, this lack of control.

‘Okay then,’ she says. ‘It’s time to go.’

Nobody moves. You gaze about the room. There are so many people here, all of them supposedly in your corner. Trust nobody, you tell yourself, as you’ve always told yourself. Look for signs of betrayal and deceit. Act swiftly. And always wash your hands afterwards.

 

NOW THAT THE public show is about to begin, these people are your people, you suppose. But they don’t love you. They certainly don’t fear you. You can see that plainly enough, despite your mild conjunctivitis. They are appalled by what you have done in your life. No, wait, by what you are alleged to have done. And yet, they are committed to your trial, because they believe in the legal doctrine of feigning the presumption of innocence, or because defending you helps pay their bills and build their reputations, or because they once found the mystique and drama of your life and times appealing, or because they are familiar with the famous photograph of you bathing bare-chested in the river the night before you took
the capital.

Your lawyer starts for the door.

‘Wait,’ you say. ‘Me first.’

Leaders lead: you’ve told yourself that many times over the decades. You stand up and shuffle your feet until they face the general direction of the door.

‘One, two, three, four, five,’ you mutter, a trick the rehab nurse taught you, after that episode that may or may not have been a minor stroke, to convince your legs to listen to your brain. Nine times out of ten, it works. But this time your feet remain fixed to the carpet.

‘One, two, three, four, five,’ you say again, more urgently, like a threat. You lurch forward. Someone opens the door. You blunder through it, still accelerating, but your elbow catches the doorframe as you swerve to avoid the guard, dressed in his shiny grey bulletproof suit.

Blood flows from your elbow. It makes you think of when you were a boy. After rain in the hills, you’d sit in a tree above the tumultuous River Blee, counting the bloated pigs floating by. Such happy memories.

The guard sees the blood and panics. No self-harm on my watch, you can see him thinking. For a moment, you think he is going to take out a truncheon and strike you down as punishment for your clumsiness. Or because any excuse will do. Instead, he freezes, as if he needs to say ‘One, two, three, four, five’ to kick himself into action.

You lose track of the moment: it’s just you gazing at a blood-stained shirt, and you can’t remember what’s happened but it occurs to you that you’ve taken a bullet. You inspect your body, looking for holes. Who has done this? Sworn enemies or traitors from within? It amounts to the same thing, in the end.

Your lawyer takes your unbloodied arm and steers you back into the room. The guard tries to follow but you block his path.

‘You may not enter,’ you tell him with a flourish, leaving blood splatter on a wall. ‘Sovereign territory.’

You poke your fat smelly tongue out at him. The guard pretends to ignore you.

‘Leave the door open,’ he says to your lawyer, ‘or I will remove the accused to his cell.’

You sit on a chair. The nurse undoes the buttons on your shirt and eases it off your torso. You clench what is left of your atrophied muscles. The nurse takes your arm.

‘It’s just me. Mal again,’ he whispers. ‘Been in the wars, have you?’

‘Been in the war crimes more like it, hahahahaha.’

You are disappointed but unsurprised that the nurse does not laugh at your excellent joke. He bathes and disinfects the cut with a purple liquid that he squirts from a bottle. Once revealed, the cut is tiny. Pathetic, really. But the bruise surrounding it is world class. The nurse wraps a clean bandage around your arm, once, twice. You suspect there’s a listening device embedded in there somewhere.

Another guard fills the doorway. ‘New shirt,’ he says. He hands it to the nurse.

‘I’m not wearing long sleeves,’ you say. ‘It goes against my cultural beliefs.’

‘But it’s one of yours. I brought it from your cell.’

‘Someone planted it,’ you say. ‘Was it you? It was, wasn’t it? What’s your name? Have I met you before? Do I need to make an official complaint? Do I need to remind you who I am? What I’m capable of? Do I need to fight you, man to man, no guns, no sedatives in the soup, no–’

The guard gives your lawyer a look as if to say: ‘Kids these days, eh?’

‘Here,’ he says to you. ‘I brought a short-sleeved one too.’

‘You know me too well,’ you say. And you mean it.

You put the shirt on unaided, wincing and whimpering for effect, although you can’t feel any pain, unless you count the pain of losing your country, losing your liberty, losing your marbles, losing your access to Italian beer. The shirt’s short sleeves leave the bandage exposed, which you consider a major victory for you and your lawyer. Day one: it’s all going to be okay. It might even be fun.

This is an extract from Skylights, a novella in progress.

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