The following extract is from The Anthill by Julianne Pachico. The novel is set in Medellin, Colombia, where Lina, who was sent to England after her mother’s death when she was eight, returns, searching for the person who can tell her what’s happened in the time that has passed. The Anthill explores what we choose to do with inherited and self-created identity. It’s an affecting depiction of what redemption can be – for a person and for a country – in the wake of trauma. Pachico’s work is published by Faber.
It’s the faded pink building down the road from the grocery store. An hour by bus from the Metrocable stop. Telephone wires cross the sky, chickens cluck from a nearby balcony, a dog with enormous testicles flees uphill. 1 p.m. Here they come.
Chattering busily, streaming through the propped-open door. Ponytails bouncing, shirts untucked and speckled with dust from Tocineta and De Todito crisps. Some are in school uniforms, white socks pulled up to their knees. Most are in shorts and flimsy flip-flops, thin vest straps verging on uneasily inappropriate. Sweaters are tied tight over belly buttons or draped over shoulders. They’re never that many, and the majority are regulars.
The new volunteer’s first day.
—Hello, what’s your name? Donaldo. Hello, Donaldo, nice to meet you! And yours? Hello, Julián. Nice to meet you, Dulce. Margarita – what a beautiful name. No running, please. What’s your name, sorry? Becca? Betina? Sorry, Betina. Sorry, sorry. Thank you for standing in line, Dulce.
Five minutes in and she’s sweating.
The Anthill has been running after-school programmes in this neighbourhood for over three years now (is that right? Is Mattías going to give her an introductory talk, a tour of the premises?). One p.m. to three thirty. Five days a week. The children arrive by foot, mainly from local neighbourhood schools, sometimes further. They hitch rides with uncles and brothers on the backs of motorbikes. They weave through traffic jams of stalled cars and honking trucks. They hop over puddles and stroll past piles of cement blocks and ladders propped against unfinished buildings, homes that look more like construction sites.
The Anthill children, arriving. They come with crusty nostrils and reddish-purple bruises under their eyeballs. U-shaped scratches on their foreheads and cheekbones. They come with lips split open from Lord knows what: grandmothers smacking them, wrestling matches in the schoolyard. After barely ten minutes, the new volunteer is already taken aback by the consistent presence of injuries: the cut-open knuckles, the beetle-shell-shaped scabs, eyes so swollen they can only peer out at the world through thin dark slits.
Assembly is only just getting started, on the flattened dirt round the back that doubles as the football field. Thirty-something children sitting in three messy lines, calling out to friends. She makes her way through the sea of collared shirts and muddy trousers. Her assigned position this week is the line of little ones, kindergarteners to first-graders (ages five to seven). She already likes this age group – for the most part they seem well behaved, respectful of authority, easy to deal with. She doesn’t dare cast a glance in the direction of the older kids (ages eleven to thirteen), as though eye contact alone can be deadly. Girls with colourful beaded bracelets, stubby tongue piercings that only show when they talk. Boys with crucifixes and Nike logos shaved into their bristly skulls. They lean against each other and giggle, legs sticking out instead of crossed.
She’s perfectly happy working with the young ones for now, thanks.
It’s Maryluz who supervises the older ones. Maryluz: caked-on eyeshadow and tight white jeans. Silver piercings in her nose and eyebrows; hoops in her earlobes and lip. The tiny heart-shaped jewels sewn on her pockets match the studs on her sandals, and her hair hangs down in a ponytail so long it needs two fat scrunchies to tie it back. Maryluz is, as they would say in England, a total babe, but the coldly efficient way she supervises the older kids (rapping the boys’ heads with her ringed knuckles, sternly intoning Keep your hands to yourself, please!) – it’s both awe-inspiring and intimidating.
Eight to ten-year-olds, that’s Shauna’s watch: cheerfully North American (Montana? Wisconsin? One of those sad weird middle states), shockingly blonde-white hair (potentially dyed?), a Roberto Bolaño quote tattooed on her inner wrist in typewriter font. She gives the new volunteer the sunniest of smiles; the new volunteer smiles tightly back. If Shauna is a warm bubble of sunshine, Maryluz is a gritty, glittery rock. She makes accidental eye contact with Maryluz, who raises her floss-thin eyebrows and mouths a single word, piercings flashing in the sunlight:
The new volunteer shakes her head. More like a twitch. Where could he be; when is he arriving; is he coming or not? But then a few children start shouting. Pointing like sailors who’ve just spotted land, their chants growing louder and louder: Mattías, Mattías, Mattías!
Here he comes, dashing up the dirt road. Sweat stains on his long-sleeved shirt, a fully inflated football tucked under his armpit (is that where he ran off to? Where would he have found a pump around here?). He’s giving high-fives, he’s calling out greetings, hugging children and calling them by name, hey Jordy, hey Nanci, I haven’t seen you in ages, Francisco, where have you been? He’s distributing fist-bumps, he’s racing to the front. He comes to a stop by the wall mural: stick figures holding hands, the Colombian flag with a heart in the middle, a floating blue peace sign. And then there are the squat words in streaky paint, the Anthill’s motto:
He raises his hands, conductor style, ushering everyone into respectful silence.
—Good afternoon, boys and girls!
The reply is right on cue, a messy chorus: —Gooooooood aaaaafternoooooooon, Mister Mattías! Picking at shoelaces, wiggling fingers into ears, pinching their friends.
Julianne Pachico was born in 1985 in Cambridge and grew up in Cali, Colombia. She is a graduate of both the MA and PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she currently teaches on the Creative Writing MA. She is the only writer to have two stories in the 2015 anthology of the Best British Short Stories, and her short fiction has been published by The New Yorker among other publications. In 2017 Pachico was shortlisted for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.
The Anthill by Julianne Pachico is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99 Hardback). For more information and to buy the book, click here.
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