An extract from Louise Mangos’s new novel, The Art of Deception, published by HQ Stories on 6 June 2019
The vice of his fingers tightened on my wrist, and tendons crunched as they slid over each other inside my forearm. As he twisted harder, I turned my body in the direction of his grip to try and relieve the pain. His other hand appeared from behind him and the heel of his palm hit the side of my head. As it smashed against my ear, a siren rang in my brain, blocking all other sound.
I kicked out, my foot slamming into his shins. His forward momentum increased as he was caught off balance, and his upper body folded. His shoulder glanced off the picture frame on the wall and it fell to the floor with a clatter. The rebound flung him away from me. As he let go of my arm, we fell apart like a tree struck down the middle by lightning. I staggered backwards, calves ramming against the coffee table, pushing it towards the sofa.
Terror now ruling my fear, I grabbed the ceramic vase toppling from the table. I swung it ineffectually at his head. I was briefly surprised it didn’t break, and the resistance of the vase meeting something solid tipped me further backwards. I let it go and it shattered at our feet. As I fell, my hips and back splintered the glass table top with a rifle-like explosion. Wedged into the frame of the table, head thrown back against the seat of the sofa, I stared at the ceiling in a moment of silence.
‘Stop! Stop it!’ I yell, with my hands pressed over my ears.
My voice rasps in my throat and fills my head. The thudding on the wall ceases abruptly, and I take my palms slowly away. The ensuing roar of silence is tuned perfectly to the blood pumping through my veins.
My gaze is fixed on a pencil-drawn sketch taped to the mottled plaster, a child’s portrayal of a chalet. The house is perched on top of a mountain with stick people skiing down one side of the hill. As my concentration wavers, I blink away a tear of frustration, and rub my temple. I was expecting to see the picture tremble with the thumping. But these partitions are solid brick; raging fists will not move them.
The subsequent stillness is painful, and I try to imagine Fatima in her two-by-four-metre space on the other side of the wall. The expectation of what might replace her anger increases the tension like the static of an impending lightning strike.
They have taken away her son, and won’t let her see him even briefly for a feed. One of the female guards simply marched in, and picked the little thing up from his crib, right in front of Fatima’s eyes. We all came out to the corridor to watch in horror as the head security officer gathered Fatima’s flailing arms and held her while the guard walked away with the baby. Then they locked her in. Who knows how long they’ll keep the baby this time. An hour. A morning. A day? I suck in the musty air of my cell. Annoyance has prevailed over my sympathy. I want to scream and shout too.
Someone has also taken away my son, but I have to keep a lid on my emotions or it may backfire. Losing control would do me no favours in this place, especially as my son is far away, and I don’t know when we will be together again.
I hope they don’t keep Fatima’s baby for long. She stole three packets of Zigis from the new Polish girl who came in last week. The one whose name no one can pronounce. Lots of z’s and c’s. Who the hell risks solitary for a handful of cigarettes? I guess the nicotine-deprived are desperate. They haven’t seen fresh Marlboros for weeks. I don’t even think Fatima intended to smoke them herself. She merely wanted something to trade. The theft led to a fight in the canteen, a messy affair resulting in tufts of hair on the floor and bite marks on various limbs.
I can’t believe Fatima was caught so easily, especially after all the other stuff she helped steal, the stuff she didn’t get nabbed for in her previous life. It turns out she was only the driver when she was arrested.
We all have previous lives. I still find it hard to talk about mine, so I choose to silently observe everyone else’s.
That fight clinched Fatima’s punishment. No solitary, simply take the little boy.
Her baby is called Adnan, and he’s a sweet little thing. The guards periodically use him as a bribe to try and control her anger, but I think it makes her worse. How can they take this woman’s child away? There’s an irony to it, with the tainted history of this place. All they’re doing is building a seething resentment that will eventually rise like the stopper on the top of a pressure cooker. Fatima is close to breaking point.
I know how she feels.
Adnan reminds me of Jean-Philippe, or JP as we called him within days of his birth. Maybe Adnan’s Balkan roots have a vague link to JP’s part-Russian ones. The same penetrating Slavic eyes, a strong squarish head, an almost simian brow. My baby is much older than Adnan, and no longer an infant. But I still think of him as a baby. The name JP stuck when he started l’école maternelle last year. His friends at school even adopted the soft “Shay-Pee” in French.
I’ve noticed he tries to sign his full name, Jean-Philippe, on the bottom of his little notes and drawings to me now, a challenge for one so young. I hope he’s proud he can spell such a complicated name. More likely his grandmother, Natasha, or Mimi as JP calls her, has insisted he practises his full title. She has always hated the acronym we use for his nickname, and is undoubtedly dragging him back to a more conservative tradition. Her whole philosophy seems so formal, so remote. Since I’ve been here, she’s removed the strings connecting mother and child like a heavily glued sticking plaster, painfully tearing him from his Anglo roots.
He was six years old last week, and I haven’t seen him this month. I have had to be content with sending cards and my own drawings and talking to him on the phone. To think he had a birthday without me, his mother. The court has obliged his grandparents to let me see him once a month. It’s the most I could engineer for the moment. His father’s family is trying to keep him from me as much as possible. It’s a punishment far harsher than my imprisonment, and my heart aches for him constantly.
Fatima knows and respects this, but cannot contain her rage, despite being aware I can hear her, somewhat muffled, behind the wall. Motherhood for her is still fresh. The fear of separation has become a raw terror that something will happen to Adnan in her absence. I understand that, and can identify with it.
It’s a love like no other.
I am shaken from my reverie by a gentle fluttering at the window. It sounds like a moth batting the pane, and thinking I should let it out, I look up to see the first splats of today’s rain blowing against the glass through the bars. The forested ridge to the east has disappeared in a smudge of weather released from the grey belly of the sky.
Fatima starts a keening wail. This is the one she usually saves for the middle of the night. It doesn’t seem so unsettling during the day, lends itself to comical lunacy rather than ghostly guilt without the cover of darkness. But before I can feel sorry for her, I hear a loud ‘Fertig, jetzt!’ from Müller in the corridor. Enough now!
Müller is one of the guards, or carers, as they like to call them here. Makes us sound like we’re in an old people’s home, or a mental institution, which is probably closer to the truth. She is assigned to our block, and spends most of her duty time on our floor.
Fatima’s tone reduces to a series of self-pitying sobs. I barely tolerate her ranting. But when I hear Adnan crying I go to pieces. By some administrative quirk, I ended up next to Fatima when I came in. She was already pregnant, and gave birth not long afterwards. She won’t be on our floor for long though. There are only six units on the mother-child level, and one of them will become free in a couple of days when another inmate’s toddler goes to a foster home. However sad it is for the mother, at least she had some time with her baby. Fatima might face the same fate if she is still here in three years’ time. I’ve never asked how long she’s in for.
It’s a cruel coincidence that they are next to me, given that I would love to have my son at my side. There is already some confusion as to why I am here and not at La Tuilière prison in Vaud, the canton where the crime took place and where I was sentenced. My incarceration here is unprecedented in a country where the legal process is decentralised. It must be the ambiguity of my origin. Although I have lived in Vaud for several years, in the French-speaking part of the country, I never went through the procedures to become a naturalised Swiss citizen. But I have begun to suspect that’s not the only reason I am so far away from JP.
My sketchpad is open on the desk. I pick up a pencil and try to draw, but can’t concentrate with Fatima going on, so I take two paces to my window. I have to lean past the narrow shelf of the desk bolted to the wall to peer outside through drops of water on the glass. Blue curtains frame the window, a lame attempt at helping us to forget where we are, absurdly contrasting the lattice of the bars.
The sky lies like a wet blanket over the flat landscape. The prison sits on a slight mound above the village of Hindelbank. A forested ridge blocks our view of the sunrise, which isn’t visible anyway behind today’s miserable weather. Beyond the community to the north stretches the vast unexciting plateau where the River Emme meanders out of a broad valley. We are a long way from the romantic alpine meadows at the source of its waters in the Bernese Oberland, home to the cows producing the milk synonymous with the famous Emmental cheese. In the distance to the west lie the ancient mountains of the Jura, marching their sheer cliffs along the boundary of France. An almost static curtain of cloud spills slowly like Niagara down their gullies.
If only I could see the mountains on the other side, to the east. If only I could touch in my mind the familiarity of altitude, forever inciting a melancholic longing for home.
Or a place I used to call home.