Alleyway, Port Au Prince, Haiti
Screams, dust, filth. A bumpy hand-held image records through a cell phone. Armed thugs, skull bandannas thinly masking their faces, pull two young girls no older than 10, towards a battered pickup. The girls with neat, beaded hair dressed in their Sunday best cling to each other terrified, their meagre possessions scattered. One breaks towards an open door in a side building, it’s slammed shut in her face. Shouting, mayhem.
The back of a young black woman enters frame, unnervingly confident, strong and unafraid she strides between the thug and the girl, shielding the child with her body. The thug aims the gun directly at the woman’s head.
“This is not your business, move away,” he snarls.
With one swift move she knocks the weapon from his hand and tears the bandanna from his face, he’s little more than a boy himself. He’s surprised, uncertain how to react. The woman’s body shudders she raises her hands and with a garbled scream starts stabbing herself with an imaginary dagger. She rips off her sunglasses, nose to nose with the boy she spits in his face.
“Jou ma’ koule, Jou ma’ koule, Jou ma’ koule, map vomi sang mwen bay yo.”
“The day I am run down, the day I am run down, the day I am run down, I will vomit
MY blood and give it to them.”
The boy backs away. In the chaos the young girl escapes and bolts down the alleyway breaking the spell. The thugs bundle their remaining quarry into the pickup and make off. A small jelly shoe, a tattered teddy bear and a cloud of dust the only evidence of the girls’ existence.
Unaware of the camera the young black woman turns briefly towards it. For a split second a pair of piercing blue eyes stare directly into the lens before she covers them with sunglasses. The screen goes black.
Road to Into the Light Children’s Refuge, Port Au Prince, Haiti
Andrew Mason, a thirty something celebrity journalist and trending tweeter, tried without success to get a signal on his new iPhone. His ginger hair lay plastered to his white freckled cheek. His forehead throbbed from the sweltering heat, jet lag and one too many at the Hotel bar the night before.
“Christ.” he yelped, as the old, battered Mercedes he was travelling in suddenly swerved to an emergency stop, bashing his head hard against the passenger window.
He recovered to find himself nose to nose with a woman peering in. Crushing her mouth wide against the pane she licked the glass leaving a trail of saliva only centimetres from Andrew’s face. Laughing she turned and ambled off into the crowd, a disinterested baby perched on her hip. Sat on small, battered motorbikes a group of young Haitian men stared at Andrew, their mirrored sunglasses reflecting the stationary vehicle. Colossal piles of stone debris littered the streets.
Simon, Andrew’s local Haitian driver, glanced back at his passenger. “Perhaps best to put you phone away now Mr. Mason. Haitians know when a car’s windows are closed, it’s carrying an important person. There are few people that can afford transport let alone the petrol for air conditioning. We’re a target.”
Andrew hastily rammed his phone into his pocket. This felt more like a warzone than a country in regeneration. So much for the sun-soaked Caribbean paradise he’d envisaged when he’d hastily agreed to the job from his cold London flat. The only beach he’d seen was awash with plastic water bottles and rubbish rather than pristine golden sand and palm trees. No, not all Caribbean islands were like the brochures.
He considered his assignment and not for the first time wondered why Sara Wills, editor of Moi-Même Magazine, has chosen him to report on the 20th year anniversary of the charity Into the Light. He’d known her from their Uni days but they hadn’t exactly been friends, especially after the incident. One wrong turn and a career ruined. His career. And now of all people she was giving him the chance to shed that stigma. She had commissioned him rather than some heavy weight Pulitzer journalist, to write a story on a high-profile charity operating in a country torn apart by natural disaster and politics. And what was the first thing he’d done when he got to Haiti, go to the Hotel bar and get drunk. Why did he so actively participate in casting himself as a loser? The crowds and heat began to close in on him.
Simon studied Andrew through the rear-view mirror. In his mid 40’s in another time and place, Simon could have easily been in a top 100 law firm and yet here he was sat behind the wheel of a car that wasn’t even his. “I have water if you need it, sir. It may help with the heat.” He offered.
“No need to call me Sir.” Andrew replied, coming back to the present. “My name’s Andrew. I’d love some water, thanks.” He grinned sheepishly. “I think we both know it’s not just the heat I’m suffering from.”
Simon’s impassive face cracked open with an enormous smile as he reached down to the cool bag in the passenger seat. “Here, take a couple,” he offered.
Andrew sat back with the ice-cold bottle firmly pressed to his forehead. He gazed out watching pedestrians navigate around deep gaping holes and cracks in the pavements.
"What happened to cause all this damage?” He asked. “Was there a gas explosion recently?”
Simon stared back incredulous. “No Andrew. This was from the 2010 earthquake.”
Andrew leant forward headache momentarily forgotten. “But that was well over ten years ago. Billions of dollars of aid have been spent here since then. Has none been allocated to cleaning up the roads?”
Simon’s expression darkened. “This is Haiti, Andrew. Nothing is what it should be.”
Unable to take his phone out to review his notes on the charity, Andrew focused on Simon’s words. There had to be a story here. Why had nothing been reported in the press? If he could stop self-sabotaging for one minute perhaps, he could be the man to tell it.
Into the Light Children’s Shelter Port-Au-Prince
After two hours on the road, Simon finally drove through a set of open gates into an oasis of calm. The compound’s dirt driveway swept clean, led to a neat one storey build with a freshly painted white and blue veranda with a hand painted sign neatly proclaiming, ‘Into to Light’. Pots of flowers lined the entrance, their heady scent along with the feeling of space and cleanliness gave Andrew an over whelming impression of welcome and care, a world away from the chaotic roads he’d left just a moment ago.
An attractive tall blond woman in her early 50’s dressed in functional light cotton slacks and shirt came out to greet him. Her pale blue eyes in a weather worn face commanded authority. Andrew wished he’d taken more effort with his appearance, his stained crumpled shirt and rum tainted breath at odds with the imposing woman in front of him.
“Mr. Mason? Welcome to Into the Light! My name is Claudia Dixon. I’m the Chief Operating Aid Officer for all of the charity sites serving survivors of abuse here in Haiti.”
They shook hands, Andrew acutely aware of his sweaty palms against the cool dryness of her skin.
“Sir Peter our chairman, asked me personally to lead you through the history of the charity and its aims. Esther, our local responder, will then take you on a tour of this site. I assume you speak French, Mr. Mason?”
“Sorry only schoolboy French I’m afraid.” Andrew instantly regretted his merciless derision of his old French school teacher.
“Oh. I thought it would be a pre-requisite for any reporter taking on an assignment in Haiti to speak French.”
The full weight of Claudia’s disdain drilled into Andrew. “Seems I was mistaken. This is not ideal. Esther only speaks Haitian Creole and French.”
They both stared at each other, Claudia’s thinly disguised animosity like the hot sun, beat down on the top of Andrew’s head like a sledgehammer.
Claudia eventually broke the silence. “Well, I suppose your trade is more on sound bites and images rather than in-depth analysis. Perhaps photographs will be enough to tell the story?”
For Claudia to take the effort to travel to the site to explain the charity’s history but then not act as interpreter on the tour didn’t make sense to Andrew. The commission was a celebration piece after all, not an expose. He was about to protest when Simon stepped in.
“I’m happy to translate if you’re too busy, Miss Dixon,” Simon courteously offered.
“Thanks Simon. That’s brilliant, let’s do that.” Andrew interjected instantly.
A flicker of annoyance shimmied over Claudia’s hardened features.
Undeterred, Andrew pressed home his advantage. “As time is precious for you shall we start with the history and then I’ll cover the sound bites later?”
With a charming smile, he returned Claudia’s stare. If he could get a World Champion Boxer’s Mum to sit down, have a cup of tea and reminisce about how hard it was raising her son alone and working three jobs, he wasn’t going to be deterred by some cheap shots about his reporting style.
Claudia’s well-rehearsed lines of the inception of the charity came out smoothly.
“Into the Light is a charity set up to serve child survivors of abuse in Haiti. It was the brainchild of Philippa Stammers, the daughter of the billionaire Sir Peter Stammers.”
Andrew studied Claudia. He was well aware of the 21year old giddy socialite’s journey from tabloid splash to earnest philanthropist. By all accounts, her knowledge of how the social elite worked had jumped started the incredible success of the charity. She may have been young, but she was far from stupid.
Claudia continued. “After a chance encounter with a young African doctor called Jacob, whom of course she later married, Philippa began to understand how wasteful her life was. Jacob brought her here to Port-au-Prince. She saw when they walked the streets what it meant to be enslaved, to have everything taken away from you. To deal with all of that and only be 6 years old.”
Claudia paused for effect. “From that day forward she vowed to provide a place of hope within the bleak chaos of Haiti. That’s how she came up with our motto ‘We work in the dark so those less fortunate can play in the light.”
Andrew looked around him, compared to what he’d seen of Part-Au-Prince he had to admit every detail of Into the Light’s entrance lived up to the charity’s motto. The same couldn’t be said of the vanilla spiel that had just emanated from Claudia. He hadn’t come all this way to hear a regurgitated mission statement. He needed more than this to make a story. He decided to change tack.
“Philippa and Jacob’s huge success with Into the Light is well documented on your website. What the readers would love to understand is what happened after their tragic death? How did the charity manage to survive and prosper without them?”
For a split-second Claudia’s confidence wavered. “This is not some kind of cheap fairy tale tweet Mr. Mason.” She replied vehemently. “Into the Light has raised close to two hundred and eighty million dollars over the past twenty years.”
“Actually,” Andrew countered, “I’ve investigated the accounts and it’s closer to four hundred million dollars. Most of that raised after their death.”
He felt her uncertainty. “Claudia,” he said softly. “I’ve done my research. I know how glamour and tragedy keep the gala dinners flowing, but that was over twenty years ago. I want to understand what’s happening now at ground level. What does the future look like for the charity?”
Claudia’s face closed. “Haiti is a complex environment. The very basics of clean water, sanitation, even the safety of our team travelling to work are called into question every day. We exist on our wits. Look around you. We’ve tried to create a haven for children. But push past these whitewashed walls and there’s chaos thumping at our door trying to get in.”
Claudia sighed, any joy long since gone, worn down through years of aid working. “This is not a sexy story Mr. Mason, nor one that can be told at a Fundraising Luncheon. By consenting to work in the shadows we must accept to play by the rules of the dark. No matter how much money is raised it will never be enough to save everyone.”
Before Andrew had a chance to reply she thrust her hand out giving him little choice but to shake it. “This meeting is over. Esther will be out shortly. Goodbye Mr. Mason.”
With that Claudia turned and without apology got into her jeep and left leaving Andrew and Simon alone in a swirl of dust. They looked at each other dumbstruck.
“Well, that didn’t exactly go according to plan.” Andrew offered more to himself than Simon.
Wow, Claudia was one tough woman. Andrew wondered if there was any human left under the cloak of cynicism she wore like a shroud. What did she mean playing by the rules of the dark? Why was she so reticent in providing information about the future when donations were rising sharply? His head started to throb again. God if that was the Chief Operating Officer what would someone who worked in the shelter be like? He was about to find out.
In her late twenties, Esther’s voluptuous frame exuded life as she stepped out from the shelter’s entrance. Her long-braided hair interwoven with blue and white ribbons made a happy contrast to the rest of the stale brown uniform.
She beamed at Andrew and Simon. “Akeyi. Welcome.” She said hesitantly, self-conscious of her broken English.
Simon stepped forward. “Mwen renmen riban nan cheve ou yo, yo se koulè yo nan klib foutbòl pi renmen m '- tradui.” He motioned to Esther’s hair, eyes twinkling. “Èske ou sipòte Chelsea tou?”
Esther chuckled, nodding her head.
“What did you say?” Andrew queried.
“I asked if she supported Chelsea Football club as she’s wearing their colours in her braids.”
“You know about the English premiere league?” Andrew asked Esther, astounded that his first interview question to her was about football.
Simon quickly translated. Esther nodded her smile even broader.
“Hmmm.” Andrew queried in mock gravity. “You know about football and yet you support Chelsea?” He pointed at his chest gravely. “I’m an Arsenal man.”
Simon and Esther looked at each other nonplussed.
“Arsenal? Good luck Sir,” Esther replied in halting English with a mischievous grin. “You need it.”
Simon clapped Andrew on the back. “You too have learned to live with disappointment. That’s good. You’ll fit in with us Haitians just fine!”
With the ice broken Esther led them inside.
A small reception area, empty apart from four battered plastic chairs led to a big classroom. One wall was entirely covered in breeze blocks with rough holes cut out to let in light and circulate air. The rest of the room was bare concrete. At the front stood an old green board faded and so dusty with chalk, the large numbers of the eight times table were hardly visible. The teacher turned towards the visitors. In unison twenty-five young faces did the same.
Aged between four and sixteen all the children wore clean light green checked shirts with beige pinafores for the girls and trousers for the boys. The girls had short tightly braided hair with matching green bobbles to their uniform. They were tightly packed together along straight wooden benches, their position determined by age. All stared at Andrew through hooded eyes.
Andrew stuttered out the pre-learned Haitian Creole lines. “Bonjou tout moun! Mwen gen lollies pou ou si pwofesè ou di li nan ok?”
“Hello everyone, I have lollies for you if your teacher allows it? “
All heads turned away from Andrew and looked to the teacher. With a resigned sigh he gave the thumbs up. Maths would have to wait until tomorrow.
“Wait.” The teacher commanded as the benches scraped back. “Let us practice our English first. Repeat after me. Good morning Sir. How are you?”
The children hesitated, worried about not getting the sentence right. The teacher
repeated the phrase turning the words into a mini rhyme. The class continued stumbling over the unfamiliar sounds, suddenly anxious about making a mistake.
After their third try, Andrew sensing their frustration shouted out. “Mwen byen di ou mesi.” “I am well thank you.”
The tension broken; the teacher signalled the class to line up to receive their present. Andrew made a point of giving each child a huge smile as he presented them with their treasure. Dark unfathomable eyes stared back at him. Past terrors provided a quietness to their action. Each child was unsure what they’d have to do for the white stranger in return for the lolly. They didn’t trust him but the thought of the sweet drove them on. Only one little 6yr old girl remained alone in the row of empty benches.
The teacher tenderly spoke to her. “Rose, are you not going to come and get your sweet?” He prompted gently.
Rose remained stock still looking at Andrew.
“It’s ok, you’re ok to take it.” The teacher said trying to entice her. “Nothing will happen.”
Although her eyes were big for the gift she didn’t budge.
“Not to worry.” Andrew said in English. He squatted down to the same height as Rose and put the lolly on a table next to him.
“This can be for later.” Simon quietly translated for the little girl.
Deeply moved the visitors left the room and headed for Esther’s tiny office.
I need to read more
I was completely captured from the start. The dialogue is brilliant, matching the characters well. I want to know what is going to happen to Andrew - does he get his story? Wonderful read so far.