She didn’t stay long in her parents’ house. Her old room belonged to a girl she didn’t know anymore. It had been a decade and the room was full of things she no longer cared about. She used her terminal leave to get a job, find a flat and move.
The family objected. Girls didn’t just move out. They cited her sister Raquel still living at home and about to be married. They talked about the appearance of the thing. They sent Uncle Charlie to talk to her and he had come back shaking his head, saying, “Let her go.”
It was a nice enough flat in a decent building but Mayin never invited anyone over. She came quietly to family parties and went home, often quieter still. Anyone who ‘dropped in’ only ever saw the kitchen, the dining room and the toilet off the laundry and kitchen. She never mentioned any friends.
A week before Raquel’s wedding her oldest brother’s eldest child needed somewhere to sleep: a combination of father going on the buck’s night; mother having to work; and too many children needing beds for grandma and grandpa to put them all up. Mayin was called and asked if Neoma could stay with her. Surely, for one night, a woman of twenty-eight could house a girl of eight? Put like that, Mayin agreed.
Neoma was deposited in her aunt’s spare bedroom by her mother on her way to work. Her mother checked the contents of the fridge, the state of the bathroom and the dustiness of the bedrooms before pronouncing herself satisfied that the flat was satisfactory for Neoma to stay the night in. She handed over the list of foods Neoma wasn’t allowed to eat and the list of things she wasn’t allowed to do then left, promising to collect her daughter on the way home in the morning.
Mayin fed them both the child’s favourite meal made from fresh ingredients because the ingredients weren’t on the list of banned foods although all the pre-packaged versions of the dish were. As Neoma happily observed, no-one turned pink all over so it must have been all right.
After dinner the ex-servicewoman taught her niece to play adult card games for points. Card games weren’t on the list of forbidden activities. Neither was the manufacture of homemade explosives. Mayin thought Neoma seemed the sort of child to enjoy that but she also thought that card games were less likely to upset the girl’s parents.
The next morning when she was collected Neoma assured her mother and her aunt that she’d had a wonderful time and bounced happily down to the street. As her mother negotiated the transit lanes Neoma said thoughtfully, “Mummy, do you think Aunty Mayin would be happier if she had a green person and some blue people?”
“What are green and blue people?” She inwardly cursed small, dark vehicles that tried to be invisible as they came up from behind on the passenger side.
“Aunty Mayin’s got this big chart on her office wall. People who were in the family before she went away, like her and Daddy, are black. You’re green ‘cause you married Daddy and I’m blue cause I was born.” Neoma waited for her mother to answer.
“I don’t know,” the woman concentrated on the traffic while she spoke, “Did Aunty Mayin say anything about it?”
“It’s in her Reassimilation and Reintegration Plan,” the little girl said the unfamiliar words carefully, “But she’s not sure if they’re essential or just desirable.”
“Reassimilation and Reintegration Plan?” This was beginning to sound like a conversation that she wanted to concentrate on. Why did Neoma always bring these things up in the car?
“Yep,” Neoma looked out the window, “She said it’s her plan for trying to be almost normal again.”