After the siege, Natalia is not the same. She is quiet and terse.
Tell me, Natalia. What happened inside. Tell me that you are okay, Ava says, reaching out to touch her leg, wanting to find some way in, to bring back the old Natalia.
Natalia tells only one story.
You know that we were there for two days, Ava. What did you think we did for a bathroom? We had no running water. We all slept in one of the basement rooms, and in the other, we had a bucket and used it. You know what I mean.
But Ava, she continues. There wasn’t any paper. I held on and everything turned upside down inside me. I had to go. I had some notes in my wallet, though. I used an American dollar bill to wipe my arse, she says, and stops talking.
That’s not so bad, Natalia. I don’t understand how that’s making you so upset.
Ava, there was nothing else in the room. I couldn’t use my hand because there was no running water.
That’s okay, Natalia. So you used a dollar. There are worse things.
Natalia snarls at Ava, but perhaps the look is meant more for herself, Ava can’t tell. When I came out of the bathroom, I told the others about it. I was almost laughing, as if it was funny, you know? Apart from the fact that I needed the paper, I was trying to say that money is shit. I was trying to make a joke.
I can see how that would be funny, Ava says, trying to understand what Natalia is getting at.
But the old lady said, Daughter, where is the money now? Do you still have it?
What do you mean? I asked her. So stupid. I thought they would have understood that I had thrown the note into the bucket after using it.
Where did you put the dollar? The old lady asked me again. Did you clean it up? She wasn’t asking for herself. She did not want the dollar bill. But she wanted to make sure I still had it for myself. She was looking out for me. When I realised that this was what she meant, I backtracked quickly. I said, Oh, of course I still have it, don’t worry. But even then I could not bring myself to go back into the other room and sort through the shit to pull out the money. I lied to her and did not try and change it.
Natalia, that’s okay. It was only a dollar. No matter what you think now, a dollar is different for you. It is. You can see that, surely.
Before they finally let us out, Natalia continues, they crammed us into one corner of the basement and pulled out jars and drums of flour, sugar, coffee, olive oil from the shelves and carried them into the other room. The room we had been trying to keep clean and private, especially for the older women.
They closed the door and we heard them kicking and breaking things. They weren’t shouting, or talking at all, just busting things up, using their feet and shoulders and bodies. We heard them splintering apart the table and a couple of old chairs, and dragging the pieces across the walls and floor.
When they opened the door and left, and said that we were free to stay or go as we wanted, we looked in to the other room and our bucket had been upturned. Shit and flour and oil spread like paint over the walls and the floor.
Natalia, Ava says, but the name comes out strangled. An odd noise which doesn’t sound like sympathy or insight.
Later we fetched many buckets of water and tried to clean up the mess, using brooms, using rags that Sumeir made by tearing up the curtains. We could not get it clean, Natalia says.
The two girls retreat into silence and Ava, afraid, wonders whether she will meet the old Natalia again, or if the hard edge in her friend’s voice will hold her away for good.