Our heroine is a complex creature who tells her story in two voices: as a poor, uneducated and brutalized child and as a hard-as-nails woman who served a decade in prison for murder. Mountains of the Moon refers to a mountain range in Africa. As a child our heroine Lulu would pretend she was prowling the Masai Mara, spear in hand, lions hunting her. She dreamed of becoming a Masai warrior. It makes sense: she is very tall and has always had to fight.She would escape to Africa when she was physically abused, or sexually assaulted, or when her mother had a schizophrenic episode.
I get a job in the bowels of a warehouse, mixing mountains of potpourri with a shovel. Every day I choke on a different fragrant chemical. My wellington boots fill to the rim with ingredients from around the world. The boss is pleased about having someone he can trust. I do deliveries to London in the van, serve customers in the warehouse and go to the bank with the cash. I work fourteen hours a day for the same money I’d get on the dole, and he makes sure he gets his money’s worth.
“What do you want from me, blood?” I say. The boss laughs; he thinks I’m joking but I’m not. I lie about where I live and where I’ve been. When the wage packet comes I send a fiver to Bernie in the station cafe with a note saying thanks. I pay rent for the room in the hostel and the use of the kitchen. It isn’t great but it’s somewhere to try and sleep. There’s reporting in and out; a night curfew of ten o’clock; there’s someone who shits in the showers and someone who’s got a gun because the police come wearing bulletproof vests and break down my bedroom door by mistake. A member of staff gives me a list of organisations that help with resettlement and housing. I phone them up. They can help me if I’ve got children; if I’m fleeing from domestic violence; if I’m a refugee or from a minority group; they can help me if I’ve got issues with alcohol or drug abuse. I don’t fit the criteria. I never have. The last one on the list baulks when I mention prison.
“Our organisation only helps and supports young women who have problems with their mental health.”
“OK, sorry to bother you,” I say and hang up.
Upstairs my room has been broken into and trashed. The wages I’ve been saving have gone from my hiding place. I phone the mental health people back. It’s a different woman that answers my call. I lie about my age. She asks me if I have suicidal thoughts; I say yes, about four times a week. They give me somewhere to live, a room in a halfway house. It’s in Bristol, a city I like, the city where my love lives.
I hitch to Bristol down the M4. The house is comfortable, clean and safe. Except that, on account of the other women in the house (who have problems with their mental health) it’s only halfway all right. One mad old woman knocks on my door constantly, threatens to kill herself if I don’t come out. I don’t come out. Another girl phones the police all night, every night, to complain about raging parties next door but the elderly couple living there go to bed at eight o’clock, there isn’t a sound. I am the love object of another, she gropes my breasts and between my legs at every passing chance. I ask her nicely to stop but she doesn’t. I have to get assertive and shove her off but then she does it more, for sport, to wind me up. I could kill her but I don’t.
I have to serve extra time in that house, eighteen months, reducing my suicidal thoughts to once a week, then once a month, until finally the organisation decides that I’m able to take care of myself and they fix it with the housing association for me to have this flat.
I sound ungrateful, I’m not; a housing association flat is, after all, a guaranteed home for life.