I woke to the sound of a cry. A woman’s cry. A cry of ‘no’. Then nothing. It was too close to be outside the building... but I heard it, clear and near. I’d fallen asleep in my desk chair. Still sitting, neck aching, somehow still tired, I wheeled over to the east window that looks out across the uninspired front of our Banlieue, right of the Garonne. I peered out. The flashing lights of police cars lit up the wall. Third night of lockdown, no outside contact barring food deliveries left outside the door. Security cameras line the walls of our building. I dare not open the window, for fear the police on ground floor might see me.
The rest of the flats looked garishly desolate. Red, blue, red, blue. Still nothing. Then, something. A silhouette of a figure, most definitely a man, standing at a window in a room on the opposite wall. Red, blue, red, blue. Each flash reveals something new. A hand, a cigarette, an open window. The man leaning out. His face. I know his face, though I do not know him. He is a gruff man, unfriendly, reclusive. Could the woman’s cry be related to him? He lives next to my friend from university, Sami. He probably knew what the man was up to.
The boredom of lockdown grips me and I lose track of time as I watch him. He douses his cigarette and continues to stand at the window. Nothing more happens. Could I have imagined the cry? My eyes droop. My head falls forward as I sleep. Again.
I root through the big plastic bag of groceries delivered to us, searching for anything my mother would eat. I sigh. I can’t be sure if the meat is Halal, and my mother’s picky palate is also restrictive. I pick out a few carrots.
“Rachida! What's taking you so long?” my mother calls. Her voice has become less shrill since her positive COVID test. There is a silver lining to this pandemic, on top of the fact I was asymptomatic. “Back on Nouvelle-Calédonie, I was the best cook in our village!”
“Let me guess,” I say, as I hand her a tray with boiled carrots and mashed up vegetables. “That is why my father married you.”
“That is why every man in the village wanted to marry me. Good cooking is priceless for a young girl like yourself. Good cooking is good looking!”
I struggle to keep my mouth shut. Previously I would have attempted to explain to her how things are different on the mainland, but it always ends the same way. I change the subject.
“Maman, I… I heard something weird last night...a woman moaning or...”
“Goodness me, I hope my daughter is not turning into a pervert!”
“No!” I snap. As much as I love her, she is beginning to drive me mad. “It was a cry for someone to stop!”
“It could’ve been the children. They can be so dramatic!”
“No, this was different. I thought it had something to do with that awful man. I saw him lean out of his window smoking afterwards.”
She knew the man I was talking about. “There is no reason to suspect him of anything. Some people wake in the night. You know that. And besides,” She chewed a piece of limp carrot. “Men need to discipline their wives.”
I’m appalled. “What did you say?”
“You heard me. Back on Nouvelle-Calédonie, you’d get in serious trouble for peeping in on your neighbours. I didn’t raise my daughter to be like that, do you understand?”
“You don’t control me anymore!”
I see her prepare to respond, but instead her body heaves as she coughs heavily, her throat rattling. I rush to her side, and take her hand. She says nothing; she needn’t say anything.
“I love you, Maman.”
She strokes my hand lightly and smiles.
“Love you darling. Any word on when this prison sentence will be over?”
“No idea, but I’ll be here with you the whole time.” I stroke her forehead. “Watch the news, they report everything even when there’s nothing to report.”
I walk back to my room and look out the window. The empty city is bathed in an orange glow from the morning sun, framed like a picture of another world.
I had never bothered to get my mother to use an iPhone. She was distrustful of them, and found texting an inefficient way to converse. Moreover, she hated the camera. “I don’t want to be the unwilling subject of your third eye!” was what she said, chastising me when I tried to take a selfie with the two of us.
That was over a year ago. Sitting in this apartment, I couldn’t dismiss my mothers distrust of them. I had memorised the position of the man’s apartment window; 2 spaces away from the right-angled wall where my own apartment is positioned. Through the phone's lens, I zoom in on the unwitting subject of my ‘third eye’. He is arguing with his wife. Again. I try to zoom in further, but it has gone as far as it can go.
He throws his hands in the air, shakes his head, and marches towards a smaller figure. Perhaps a child? The glare of the sun makes it hard to see. I get out of Camera and dial 117.
“Gendarmerie, what is your emergency?” the operator says.
“There’s… I think a man is assaulting someone in his apartment!”
“What’s the address?”
“I’m not sure of his exact address — it’s in one of the Northside commission flats.”
Quiet, except for light static.
“Um miss, are you in the commission flat as well?”
“Yes, I am. You must send —”
“I’m sorry miss, we can’t send anyone.” She sounded unapologetic.
“I’m sorry?! Someone is getting attacked!”
“We can’t enter the buildings for a call like this with present circumstances. If you like, you can call us at any time to inform us of anything else you see.”
I hang up and slam the phone on the table. I aggressively rub my brow, a little out of anger, a little out of fear.
“What… What was that? Are you okay Rachida?”
“I… I’m fine. I’m fine Maman.”
My mother would have rather I marry than study, but I pushed to do IT at uni. I was fascinated by the new world of digital surveillance. Setting up a wifi network from my apartment was no trouble. I knew how illegal it was; setting up a dummy network, but it would be for a good reason. Data sent across this network would be there for me to see. All that was needed was for the man to use it. Easy, it was free after all.
Every night for almost a week I spend hours looking through the directory. There is data of all kinds there. Emails, text messages, internet searches. Much of what I find dredges the deepest of people’s inner thoughts. A deeply private world is exposed to me, all for the effort of catching one man abusing his family. Vigilantism? Perhaps. Morally grey? Definitely so. But couldn’t that be said of the police locking down our homes and attaining our details to monitor our movements for the greater good of COVID-19 control? Isn’t this the same? I even find texts and emails from Samy — my friend — someone who’s private life is of no business to me, yet here it is displayed before me.
Then, I find what I am looking for. An email. Strings of emails and texts.
“Hello. It’s Ahmad Hassan…”
Ahmad Hassan. That must be his name! I thought.
“... this lockdown is fucking shit. Bloody police, it’s oppression. Like Saudi...the same everywhere. My wife’s been nagging the whole time…”
My eyes are darting across the entire wall of text, barely hovering on one part of the whole.
“... goddamn woman. Gotta put her in her place.”
This is it. This is what I need.
The call flickers slightly as Samy’s voice breaks apart. I hold the phone to the ceiling, trying to catch the better signal. When Samy’s voice comes back through my headphones, I keep my hand extended.
“The evidence is undeniable!” I say incredulously.
“Yeah… it is.” He answers.
“Right! So do a good job of it and go over there and see what's going on!”
“I’m putting the phone in my pocket and on speakerphone. So, don’t make any noise.” Samy warns.
I bite my lip as I hear Samy open and close his door, and his footsteps moving down towards Hassan’s apartment. Samy knocks on the man's door. The door swings open quickly, making me jump.
“Um… excuse me.” Samy spurts out. “I need to ask you something.”
My hand is over my mouth in apprehension.
“Yes?” A deep, commanding voice rings through my headphones. It’s Ahmad Hassan. “What is it?”
“I uh, wanted to ask you—” Samy stammers.
“Get fucking lost,” Ahmad spits. “Don’t come back.”
“We know you're hurting your wife.” Samy blurts out. I gasp and immediately clamp a hand over my mouth. I know Ahmad heard me, but I pray that he didn’t.
“We?” Hassan hisses. After what seems like a minute, I hear what sounds like Samy being yanked into the apartment. The line goes dead. I frantically try to call Samy back, but my erratic clicking is interrupted by an incoming call. It’s Samy.
“Samy! Are you okay?!” I rush to the window, trying desperately to see him. But instead I see the dark shape of Hassan at his window.
Over the sound of the police chopper, and in between the flashes of red and blue, I look down at his window and I see Hassan. Hand held to his ear, he stares straight back at me. The same deep thick voice emanates from the phone. “What do you want from me, Rachida? You didn’t think you were the only one who could watch?”