On 12th June Vulpine Press are releasing the debut literary fiction title from Irish author Vanessa Pearse, Deniable Memories. Vanessa’s novel was inspired by her time volunteering in Sudan in the late 80s/early 90s.
‘We go on a journey with Martha, a young woman looking to carve out a new path in her life after a less than ideal upbringing. We experience both the highs and lows as Martha discovers what this new culture has to offer, and how it can shape her into the woman she knows she can be’
I am delighted to have an extract, from Deniable Memories, to share with you all from chapter 8, a piece where the main character Martha is out visiting a school and an orphanage. I do hope you enjoy.
[ About the Book ]
When asked why she is heading off as a volunteer to war-torn Sudan, Martha’s stock answer is, “I’ve had a good life, it’s time I gave something back.” But the truth is buried in a muddle of memories distorted by her so-called family.
From the moment she lands, trembling into the heat of a run-down Khartoum airport filled with armed guards, she realises that she is ill-
prepared for the dusty, military-controlled Muslim country.
Amidst the unsettling, and at times terrifying, experiences that await her, the dignity, humanity and resilience of the Sudanese people who face unspeakable loss resonates with her.
As she finds joy in an orphanage, witnesses unconditional love in bare hovels, learns to embrace new friendships and the possibility of romantic love Martha is drawn to face her memories.
Africa will change her, as is its way.
Purchase Link ~ Deniable Memories
[ Extract ]
In mid-January, Molly asked Martha if she would be brave enough to face another trip with her to the outskirts of Khartoum, this time to visit a school at a large established refugee settlement. It would be more fun than a blanket distribution, Molly promised, as they had shoe boxes filled with pencils, notebooks, crayons and colouring books from children in primary schools in Ireland to distribute. Despite everything, Martha could honestly say that she had enjoyed the blanket distribution so she was keen to visit a school.
The school, with its well-qualified southern Sudanese teacher, was considered a significant addition for the refugees. It went some way to making up for the education they might have received if they had not been displaced from their homes in the war-ridden south.
They arrived at a single-storey mud building with a metal door and wooden shutters. They had barely pulled up outside when the door was opened by a tall, smartly dressed man.
“Welcome, welcome. Good to see you again, Molly,” he said with a smile that spread across his narrow face.
“This is John Paul,” Molly said as she shook his hand warmly and introduced him to Martha.
Martha shook his hand and stared at his handsome face with its striking tribal imprints on each cheek.
John Paul held her gaze and smiled. Molly explained that they had boxes for his students. He turned and called into the classroom and three tall boys quickly appeared to help bring the boxes from the pickup to the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. The students stood up from their bench-like, mud seats as they entered. John Paul counted up the boxes and, when he was happy there was more than enough for each of the forty-eight children in his class, he got them to line up around the room to receive them. Martha loved how they could hardly contain themselves with excitement and each time John Paul calmed them down it was just a few seconds before there were more whoops of joy and clapping as another child opened a box. Finally, when the last student had received his, John Paul got the children to sing a simple song in a southern dialect for Molly and Martha to enjoy. They sang with great gusto and such was their enthusiasm that Martha expected the tin roof to lift off the cramped room. She felt as thrilled as she had ever been about the possibility of the tin roof lifting off; she was sure she could burst from the pleasure of the shared joy.
They eventually and reluctantly left the school, taking with them some of the children’s excitement and leaving Martha on a high for the first part of the journey back towards the office. But as they neared the office, she fell quiet.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Molly asked.
“Well,” said Martha, “I was thinking that I love going out meeting people and getting a taste of Sudan, why we are here and all that. And, after Liam is gone, I could find myself submerged in boring old figures with precious little interaction with the real world!”
“I have a funny feeling that won’t happen. The reason that Liam is so busy now is because he did very little accounting up until recently and pretty much left Dawit to run the show.”
“Really? So, what did he do?”
“He made grandiose appearances in the office from time to time and at fundraiser meetings etc., but none of us have a clue what he was up to most of the time. Off doing shady deals buying Ethiopian gin maybe!”
“Yeah. He told me that when he left it would be my job to buy the gin and exchange the dollars!” Martha half laughed.
“In the meantime, tomorrow, I have to visit an orphanage to deliver vaccines and other things that the agency who run it have requested, why not come with me?”
After fature the next day, they loaded up the ambulance with vaccines, drips and other medical supplies and headed to the orphanage. Molly pulled up on the side of a narrow street in front of a metal gate with some small Arabic writing, which, it turned out, was all that indicated that this was the orphanage. They entered through the unlocked gate into an open courtyard surrounded by low-lying, painted buildings. There was no obvious sign of life as they made their way over to the nurses’ office, knocked on the door and entered. There were no nurses in the office but, on a desk by the wall, were two small babies lying perfectly still on their sides on small plastic mattresses. They had intravenous drips in their thin arms, which were visible above the thin blankets that covered them.
“The nurses’ office doubles as the Intensive Care Unit,” Molly whispered.
“Intensive care?” Martha whispered back as Molly gently touched the little babies on the forehead to assure herself that they were still alive.
“These poor little mites probably have AIDS and their chances of survival are slim to none. Though, I’m fairly certain they don’t test for AIDS in Sudan,” Molly said quietly while gently stroking one of the little baby’s arms and bowing her head mournfully. “To do so would be to admit that sex outside marriage occurs.”
She straightened herself up, shaking her head as if disbelieving her own words. She headed out the door with Martha following. They walked along the covered walkway through an open door into the next room. Twelve or more cots lined the walls, most of which had two babies lying quietly on bare plastic mattresses, wearing nothing more than plain, short-sleeved, well-worn T-shirts and triangles of green cloth tied around their waists and bottoms. Over at a sink in front of a window, stood a tall, slim man with his back to them washing out a number of these pieces of green cloth. He turned as they entered.
“Alaykum Salaam,” Molly and Martha chorused.
“Martha, this is Abdel, a nurse and manager. He’s been here for the last few years since he came to Sudan from Ethiopia…we know each other from the last time I was here.”
As Molly and Abdel talked, Martha contemplated the room with its more than twenty babies. It felt strange and it was a while before it dawned on her why. None of the babies were crying or making any keening sounds; the near silence was weirdly expectant. In the middle of the room were two large Sudanese ladies, sitting on chairs, each bottle feeding a baby. There was no pausing to burp the babies, no smiles or tickles. When one baby had finished its bottle, another was picked up from a cot. If the green triangle of cloth was wet or dirty, it was taken off and thrown in a bucket and the baby’s bare bottom was put under the tap and washed and a new triangle tied on. The baby was then fed and returned to its cot and the process began again with the next. It was all very different to the litany of tasks and accoutrements required to look after the babies whom Martha knew: sterilisation, hand washing, bum wiping, disposable nappy on, hand washing, clean clothes, bottle, bib, feeding, burping, more feeding, more hand washing…The Grand Invasion of a Baby, Martha jokingly referred to it.
Abdel suggested that Martha help feed the babies. He pulled up an extra chair and, before she had time to feel awkward, he handed her a small bald-headed little boy who was perhaps six months old.
“Kamil,” Abdel said. Martha smiled down at Kamil and was automatically drawn to tickle his long, narrow feet. His over-sized brown eyes lit up and he smiled back and even gurgled. Martha washed and changed him, took a bottle from the side table and sat down to feed him. As she fed Kamil, she wondered at the incredibly silent babies around her. Perhaps they had made noise when they were first born, but it hadn’t gotten them any extra attention or affection, so they stopped. Martha’s mother had told her that she screamed horribly non-stop for the first year of her life and that nobody, especially her mother, had ever wanted to mind her. If she had kept it up that long, then it must have got her something, something more than the eggshells that her siblings said they had fed her to see what might happen. Nothing much had happened. She was still here. Perhaps, she considered as she stroked Kamil’s arm gently, her babyhood had been better than she had previously thought.
Having fed Kamil, Martha moved on to a curly haired little girl with a big smile, Nedal.
“Oh, I could run away with you,” Martha said quietly, not realising that Abdel was standing beside her.
“She is already adopted. She is going to her new home this week.”
“Do you know that Nedal, you’re going to a new home soon?” Martha said with an air of surprise.
Martha looked up from Nedal to Abdel. “Do many get adopted?”
Abdel looked around him and noted that the Sudanese ladies had left the room. He took advantage of their absence to explain.
“Not too many, I’m afraid. We do not know the stories of most of the babies. They come to us having been left in different places, behind bins or amongst piles of rubbish. Some come into this world due to rape and the girls hide their pregnancy by binding themselves. The babies are often born very small. Sometimes the girls may not know they are pregnant and the babies are born unexpectedly and their mothers may either hide them or leave them outside a hospital or somewhere that they might or might not be found. Some of them are born to southern Sudanese girls working for northern Sudanese families. You know?”
Martha nodded solemnly.
[ Bio ]
After thirty years as a reluctant accountant, Vanessa retired from figures to focus on writing and over the last seven years has taken part in writing workshops at Bantry Literary Festivals, The Irish Writers Centre and The Big Smoke Writing Factory.
When not escaping to West Cork or further afield, the author lies in Clontarf, with her husband, three of their four children – one has flown the nest – her black dog Yoda and her black, epileptic cat named Cat.
Her debut novel Deniable Memories is due for release 12 June.
Twitter ~ @VanessaPearse1