By Claudia Marinaro
Originally performed by Shola Adewusi
The action takes place in the present day. An ellipsis (…) at the end of a sentence indicates a trailing off. A dash (-) indicates an interruption, perhaps because the character cannot bring herself to complete a sentence.
(Christine enters, takes time to fill the stage and make contact with the audience.)
South Croydon. I had not planned to wind up here. Uganda is miles away but I have a good feeling about this. The hustle and bustle, the energy, the buzz – it makes something vibrate within me. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I know I’ll make it.
And I do make it. After six months, I am given permission to look for work, and it might be not be the kind of work I wanted, or the kind of work that I should be getting at this point, but work it is, and I dive into it head first because you might take the girl out of the sunshine but I’ll be damned if I let you take the sunshine out of the girl, and what if it’s a two-hour train to Surrey and back to clean nursing homes? I’m putting food on the table, I’m looking after my children and their dad, I have everything I need. I have a spring in my step and a twinkle in my eye, I’ve got a full, pumping heart – I have high blood pressure.
I’ve had high blood pressure for a few days and it’s not getting down. I go to the hospital. I think it’s stress, the doctors think there’s too much protein in my blood.
A few days later, they say they have the results, and the results say that I’m positive.
On the train, I stare at the pattern in the upholstery. Was it always like that, or did I fail to notice it change?
Back home, I stare at my children. The second one, I only just finished breastfeeding. He must – I must –
I keep looking into those peaceful eyes of his. Are the signs there? Have I failed to notice?
Does he have it too?
The doctors say it’s too soon to test my children but I don’t know whether they’re telling the truth. Maybe they think my kids would deserve it. That I would deserve it.
They are tested, eventually, and if I ever doubted the Lord, I am once again given proof that He is there, and He listens.
Back in Uganda, people were wasting away. Hundreds dying left, right and centre when I left. We spoke about it because we needed to. But in London no one likes talking about HIV much: it’s too sad a topic to be brought up, a bad omen, perhaps, and so we’re all in the dark, feeling our way through rumours and politics and sound bites.
Amid the silence, time has become elastic. It stretches and stretches until you can hear it crack.
Some times, it’s immobile for days.
Other times, it snaps forward so fast you can feel it whistle in your ear and mess your hair.
I’m scared when time stands still.
I’m scared when it rushes ahead.
Will I be left behind?
I haven’t left the house in days. Haven’t showered, or done anything with my hair.
My neighbour points out this apathy is not fair on my children.
You used to go dancing every Saturday, sing every Sunday.
That was a long time ago.
She thinks I’m depressed.
I don’t care.
She makes me promise to go to my GP.
I make her promise to stop sticking her nose into my business if I do.
We both promise.
A nurse at my GP hugs me and I hate her for it, because I haven’t been touched by a stranger ever since the news spread, and that hug sends a crack through this block, this glacier, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, and now the water comes gushing forth.
You need support.
With two children and no man, I’m the supporter, not the supported.
Everyone needs support. At the best of times, and pardon me, but I think it’s fair to say you’re having a pretty shit time.
She makes me laugh, this woman who has just melted the glacier.
I like her.
I take the brochures she’s handing me. South Croydon Peer Support Group, and even if something about it makes me cringe, I have nothing to lose.
At first, it’s a me and a bunch of gay men. Darren. Steve. Luca, from Sicily. Fabio, his boyfriend. And then Rick and Musa, and Baz. Another African woman joins us after a while, and this group of strangers saves me. I was welcomed, I was taken care of. I was invited for coffees and films. They made me dance again. They took my kids to the Water Palace and made their bellies shake with laughter when I could hardly bring myself to smile.
We celebrate New Year’s Eve in my flat. I borrow someone’s golden scarf and hand out sparkles in return.
“Why do those men have red nails? Isn’t it just for women?” My son is four. We all laugh. He’s picked up and passed around. Everyone kisses him, everyone holds him tight, everyone tickles him. We’re giddy with his laughter. Please God, grant me unlimited time of this.
Fabio was the first one to go. Luca followed, not even a month later, from a broken heart, as well as the disease. And then Baz. Darren. They’re all dead now.
“Mummy, why are all your friends dying?”
My daughter is six and I don’t know how to answer her. I pick her up and breathe in the smell of her hair, of the skin behind her ear. I want to bottle up that smell and carry it around my neck. I want to use it like those coins the Egyptians put on the eyelids of the dead, so that they could pay their passage into the Afterlife. I’ll barter the smell of my daughter’s skin if that means I can be around a bit longer in this life. If I can buy more time in the land of the living.
When my time comes, I know I won’t be ready.
As my friends go, one after the other, I start bargaining.
One more week if I take care of myself today.
One more month.
One more year if I agree to take part in this new drug trial, even if the side effects are worse than the symptoms.
I bargain, and I bargain. Some times I lose, but mostly I win.
I start working for one of the HIV-support charities which is closed now, and there I meet women who were diagnosed before me. Their children were babies when they were first told, but they’re teenagers now.
I start to hope again. Maybe, if I play my cards right, I can also get to have doors slammed and feet stamped. Maybe I’ll still be around next month, next year, in the next millennium.
The new millennium has come, a new decade and then the next. The Apocalypse has been averted at least twice and despite the floods and the hurricanes, the crises and the madness, we’re still here.
I am still here.
And my children.
Some others, many others, have died.
I remember them all. When I can’t fall asleep, I chant their names to myself, one after the other, from the first to the last and then again. I wrap their memory around me as I feel their names through my fingers like the beads of a rosary. I can almost see them forming a ring around my bed, and I know that when my time comes, I’ll be in good hands.
But I’m not ready yet.
If twenty years ago you’d asked me what my wildest dream was, I could have not replied.
There was a time when we had no hope and dared not speak of a cure because we all knew how many hearts that hope had the power to break. In that regard, look how far we’ve come. Medication is better than it’s ever been. Even if you have to fight for your right to choose the drugs that work best for you. even if you always have to fight, if started in time, treatment can give you a perfectly normal, long life.
But we’re more than cells and blood and bones. We’re more than the sum of our parts. Funding has been cut, and so have the support services, the very groups that showed me how to make myself better. The spaces and networks that kept me alive all that time ago have disappeared. People are lonely today in a way they weren’t before.
So much has been gained, but so much has been lost. So very little has changed. The stigma has never gone away. I still have to explain people that they can touch me, or drink from the same cup, or use the same bathroom as me, and they’re going to be fine.
There’s still so much loneliness, and so much ignorance. Fewer people are getting tested these days than back then. It seems to have slipped people’s minds, but I can’t stop fighting because all the people who died, my friends, five of my siblings: what did they die for, if we’re still letting people get ill?
Give me one million pounds, and when I’ll be queen, I’ll start the support groups again. I’ll open new charities, and no one will be alone, and no one will be ashamed.
No one will be alone, and no one will be ashamed.