This is the extract I read aloud during my Hay Festival event with Rosie Goldsmith on Tuesday 1 June 2021. I chose this because it describes a group of people on a night out on the town, something many of us haven’t experienced in over a year. The Anthill is a novel about modern-day Colombia, focusing on Medellín and a group of volunteers working at The Anthill, an after-school centre. It explores what it means to travel – the value of it, and the pitfalls. Personally, literature and literary festivals have been my way of travelling over the past year. I’m so thankful and appreciative of Hay Festival giving audiences access to so many different voices across the globe – literature is truly the best passport.
“They take a taxi into Centro, Mattías in the front seat and the three of them crammed in the back. Shauna and Maryluz gossip the whole time about former Anthill children: the Vallejo twins, whose mother was stabbed by their father; Filoberto, who was run over by a milk truck and had to use a catheter and whose genitals (Maryluz whispered) were now completely useless, poor thing, at age 13, imagine. Clarabella, whose brother dragged her out the building by the hair; Luisa, set on fire on the bus by her boyfriend. ‘Animals’, Shauna sighs, but Maryluz shakes her head: ‘Compared to humans, Shauna, if someone were to call me an animal, I’d take it as a compliment’.
They get out at the plaza with the Botero statues, near a donkey pushing its face around in a tower of garbage. As Mattías pays the driver, a man with no shoes and an unbuttoned shirt approaches them, hissing and clicking his tongue in approval. ‘My queens’, he says. ‘My gorgeous dolls.’
Maryluz says, ‘Mister, don’t be gross’.
He retreats behind a concrete pillar, but not without whistling one last time. Getting out the taxi, Shauna trips over her ballet flat, which flies off her foot and into the gutter.
‘I’ve got it,’ the new volunteer says, quickly scooping it up.
She slides it back onto Shauna’s foot, Cinderella style. Shauna rests one arm on Maryluz’s shoulders for balance.
‘Do I seem drunk?’ Shauna says. ‘Am I embarrassing myself? Oh God, I’m so embarrassed.’
‘You’re fine, Shauna!’ Maryluz says.
Shauna drapes her other arm over the new volunteer’s shoulder. It feels heavy, like a bag of sand (could Shauna be that drunk already? From four bottles of wine, split between five people? Is she drunk herself?). The three of them follow Mattías like that, half-dragging Shauna along, like soldiers carrying their wounded captain away from the booming cannons, because no one deserves to be left to die alone on the too-much-to-drink battlefield, not out here, not like this. It’s like the Anthill children when they help an injured teammate off the football field, their skinny arms wrapped in determined support around each other’s waist. Why, they’re just children themselves, aren’t they? She and Mattías and all the rest – children watching over other children! Like her mother and father before her! How could she have not realised this earlier? ‘I’ve got you,’ the new volunteer says, as Shauna’s fingers press into the flesh of her arm for support. ‘I’ve got you.’
Mattías takes them to a bar with picnic tables and ceramic ashtrays with surprisingly beautiful patterns, swirling blue flowers and yellow insects. A few feet away from their table, a shirtless man lies on his back on the sidewalk. He brings a paper bag to his glazed face and inhales deeply, but Mattías nudges her and whispers, ‘Don’t stare’. So she orders a beer for everyone and food from her childhood for herself, tasty treats that would definitely not fall under the category of clean eating or paleo: fried meat empanadas (putting Cornish pasties to shame!), buñelos (their glorious sour yucca cheesiness! Their soft white bellies, hidden by the tough brown crust!). The lady gives her five different options for sauces and she requests them all. Mattías orders French fries draped in thick drippings of ketchup, Shauna orders a hamburger, and Maryluz orders an enormous paper plate of greasy yellow potatoes. The new volunteer’s order is the cheapest thing on the menu and the smallest serving, which makes her unbearably proud.”
Julianne Pachico grew up in Cali, Colombia, and lived there until she was 18. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, and two of her stories have been anthologized in a Best British Short Stories edition. She introduced her new novel The Anthill at Hay Festival on Tuesday 1 June 2021. Watch her event again on Hay Player