Laps of Honour
Pipe of Peace
The Grace of God
Can't Help it
(from The Hard and Soft Landings Chronicle)
In the former Samaritan Hospital in Soho, you passed the Marie Stopes Family Planning centre on your way down to the basement to get to the victims of torture. The rest of the building was sealed off. Our clients were mostly Somalians. As they were newly arrived and did not speak English, they smiled a lot.
The project was set up to establish a pattern in torture techniques. The government wanted a ‘bona fide grid’ to slot asylum seekers. A pattern, it was thought, would exclude cases of tribal branding and self-laceration. It seemed to me unlikely that anyone would go to the trouble to mutilate themselves in order to stay in England, and tribal branding could sometimes be a form of torture, but my boss, Malcombe, had been allocated the head and neck and I wasn’t going to stick mine out.
The protocol said that direct contact with clients would make objectivity difficult. And so, since most soft tissue damage would have healed in any case, we worked from x-rays. The evidence would be black and white. Thus relieving us of what I sensed would be an emotional experience.
‘Non-accidental injuries’ to the mouth and genitals were most common. Eyes were untouched. ‘So they can see what is happening’, it was said. My job was measuring bone loss, a mechanical task, so when I had time on my hands I wandered into the waiting room. I got to know the pleasingly long-limbed Somalians, at least to exchange smiles. They were more relaxed than other refugees, probably because they carried in their persons evidence that would make it impossible to send them back.
Nails imbedded in the upper jaw were a particular specialty, and when I suggested that perhaps they should be extracted, Malcombe said, ‘Unless they are superficial or infected it is better to leave them alone. The bone thickens around them. It is like the pins in your elbow-joint, Augustus (I had just had my bike accident). You feel them only when it’s cold. And it’s a hot place, Africa. Moreover, removing the evidence would do nobody any good.’
There were no children. ‘They don’t have information’, Malcombe said.
‘But one would think that threatening children would be a good way of getting it.’
‘Undoubtedly. But maybe the threat works, or the little ones don’t survive.’
I wasn’t enjoying my work. I avoided the staff room.
Once, an interpreter showed me an x-ray of a lower jaw with an axe stuck in it. A gangly Somalian stood by smiling proudly, as though I was being made privy to a family snapshot. There was what looked like a tree trunk studded with nails in the background. The image was more like a work of art than a piece of medical evidence. A radiograph would not show up a tree, of course. The victim clearly was dead and nailed to something.
‘Where did you get this?’ I said to the Somalian, who spoke through the interpreter, his eyes avoiding mine.
‘Who are you to ask?’
‘If you don’t know who I am, why are you showing it to me?’
‘He wanted a reaction’, said the interpreter.
‘It’s not right playing games with torture.’ I spoke too loudly. ‘It’s bad enough as it is.’
They talked together in a tongue that seemed to me like arcane poetry, euphonious but harsh around the edges. I listened, nodding my head, bowing slightly, sorry I had shouted, until they began to smile again.
The interpreter explained that the x-ray had puzzled all the doctors and his client had thought I might be able to throw some light. He had picked it up in a market in Mogadishu.
Malcombe laughed. ‘A piece of contemporary archeology. The Third World often throws up strange things. It’s probably an artifact produced by trick imaging. But, I think, Augustus, you should move on. Hanging around too much isn’t helpful.’ I think he was alluding to a rumour that a member of the team had been approached with a bribe to swap x-rays.
I saw my part of the work through to spite Malcombe, but avoided the waiting room. I found I could no longer smile.