“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
He was a young socialist. His father, a minor official, had thus threatened to disown him. Yet he had remained true to his convictions, for he was possessed of both burning zeal and supportive friends.
They formed an organization, distributed ten-page pamphlets, and held lectures. He naturally attended such meetings regularly, and from time to time his essays were included in the pamphlets they produced. Beyond their group it would appear unlikely that any of these were widely read, but he was nonetheless quite proud of one: Remembering Liebknecht. The ideas it expressed may not have been altogether precise, but it was suffused with poetic passion.
In due time he completed his studies and went to work for a magazine publishing company, though without neglecting his attendance at group gatherings. There he and his comrades discussed the issues before them with the same fervor as before, striving toward their goal like underground water slowly seeping through solid rock.
His father now no longer interfered in his affairs. He found a bride and moved with her into a small house. It was a very small house indeed, but far from being discontent, he regarded himself as rather fortunate. His wife, their puppy, the poplars at the end of the garden…all this lent his life a sense of intimacy and comfort he had not known before.
Now that he was married and caught up in the time-consuming demands of his job, he was sometimes absent from meetings. Yet his ardor was undiminished; at least, he himself was convinced that over the years he had remained quite the same. His comrades, however, took a different view. Those younger members who had joined the league only in recent years were particularly scathing in their criticism of his tepid commitment.
This, of course, only led him to edge his way even further from their gatherings. Then he became a father, and this gave him an even greater feeling of contented domesticity.
And yet his passion still lay in socialism, and in studious devotion to its goals, he burned the midnight oil. At the same time, he became progressively dissatisfied with the dozen or so essays he had written, especially with Remembering Liebknecht.
His comrades had in the meantime grown sufficiently indifferent to him that he was now unworthy even of their denunciations. They simply turned their backs on him – and others, mostly his associates – and plodded steadily forward in the service of the cause. Whenever he encountered a friend from the old days, he would again go through the motions of lamenting his fate, but in fact, by this time he had clearly grown content with his tranquil life as an ordinary citizen.
Years went by. He worked for a company, earning the trust of the men at the top. This in turn enabled him and his wife to live in a considerably larger house and to rear several children. Yet as for his passion of yore, only the gods could say where it had gone. Sometimes, sitting back in his rattan chair, enjoying a cigar, he would recall his youth. Such memories inevitably filled him with a strange melancholy, but at such times the Oriental capacity for graceful resignation would come to his aid.
He had, to be sure, been left behind, but then someone happened to read Remembering Liebknecht and was deeply moved. He was a young man from Ōsaka who had invested his inheritance in stock speculation and lost everything. The essay proved to be the catalyst in his conversion to socialism.
Needless to say, the author was aware of none of this. Even now he sits back in his rattan chair, enjoys a cigar, and remembers his youth – and all quite humanly, perhaps too humanly.
A Chapter from the novel, Black Foam
He placed the suitcase lightly into the tray, and then took off to meet it on the other side. However, the soldier across from him waved him back as he scrutinized the screen in front of him. The conveyer belt moved backwards, and as the suitcase emerged from the screener, everyone looked suspiciously at it and its owner. It moved again and disappeared inside the baggage screener. The man crossed over for a second time to wait for it on the other side, but once more the soldier sent it back to where it had come from. The owner of the suitcase wanted to ask what was going on, but by this time the soldier was busy talking to a coworker. He stepped forward slightly, only to receive a stern gesture to stay where he was. Looking in his wife’s direction, he saw that she had finished going through inspection and was anxiously waiting for him.
The line behind him had grown quite long by this time, and impatient grumbles were getting steadily louder. Faced with no other choice, the soldier instructed the man to step aside for his suitcase to be searched by hand, and gestured to those behind him to pass through. Once again, the man looked over to where his wife was standing. She was witness to what was happening, observing his public humiliation as two soldiers gingerly spread out the contents of his bag for all to see, eyeing him warily the entire time.
“Ok. Go ahead.”
After being engrossed in what was happening to the Arab man in the neighboring line, Dawit snapped to attention at the sound of a soldier’s voice. Fearful of meeting the same fate, he placed his suitcase hesitantly onto the conveyor belt, then straightened up in anticipation. He waited for the bag as it passed slowly through the baggage screener, his eyes fixed on the security officer’s facial expression, which registered no reaction. He picked up his suitcase and turned to the officer, awaiting his decision, and saw him wave another traveler through.
He looked back at the Arab, who was still in the same spot, nervously chewing his nails as he watched his belongings being strewn about. When at last he got the signal to gather them up, his fellow travelers were passing through one after another without being stopped by either the machine or the security official.
Dawit felt sympathy toward the man, perhaps because he himself was all too familiar with the taste of humiliation. He had experienced it first in his home country. From there he had fled from the Blue Nile Valley to Northern Ethiopia. When he first reached Ethiopia’s Endabaguna Camp, he had jumped for joy despite his exhaustion after the lengthy, grueling escape. Yet, despite his initial relief and elation, he had grown wearily accustomed to being humiliated anew in his place of refuge.
It was a voyage of desperation that could have had only one of two outcomes: either arrival at the final destination, or death at the hands of border guards. Nevertheless, his existence in the forced conscription camp had become so meaningless that it made no difference to Daoud whether he lived or died. So, when he crossed the border amid scores of others, he was different from all the rest. Unlike them, he paused to look back. He wanted to take in the full reality of deliverance. He wanted to experience what it really felt like to be leaving humiliation and degradation behind once and for all. There, beyond the distant mountains that had drained his strength to the last drop as he had climbed some and skirted others, lay Eritrea. He felt no nostalgia at all. With every step he took on his journey of escape, nostalgic longing had fallen away from his spirit. He’d been purged by his growing distance from the Blue Nile Valley, emptying out his store of pain and distress in the attempt to come home to his spirit before it was caked with scars.
“Hurry up … quick … this way.”
At the entrance to Endabaguna there was something else one needed to be delivered from, namely, an Ethiopian soldier who was using a whip to make new arrivals line up correctly. The whip missed Daoud and hit a woman behind him, who was so taken by surprise that she had no chance to get out of the way. Everybody was lined up in a snake-like fashion so that larger numbers could be accommodated in front of the registration office, and the soldier took pleasure in either keeping the lines in order or scattering them if they got too orderly on their own, finding sadistically artful ways of drawing their curves with his heavy lash.
The registration office served as the entrance to the sprawling camp. Beyond it lay scattered tents of varying sizes, most of them so threadbare that the blue UNHCR logos printed on them were hardly visible anymore. What with the thick crowds lined up in front of him, the slowness of the registration office bureaucracy, and the noonday sun beating down on people’s heads, the time crept by without Daoud’s turn coming. He sat down on the ground and busied himself drawing random circles in the sand. He ran his hand over his knotted black and white woolen wristband. He shut his eyes and saw black. He opened them again, and the sun, which had been lying in wait for him, hurt his pupils. He held his head between his knees and lifted it up again. Then he repeated the sequence, but nothing changed. He was still just as far from the registration office as he had been before.
“Don’t tell them you’re Muslim.”
Keeping his curiosity in check, Daoud resisted the urge to turn toward the source of the lowered voice. As much as he wanted to follow the conversation he’d picked up on between a couple of young men behind him, he was afraid that if he let on that he was listening, they might stop talking.
“Migration organizations won’t pay any attention to your file. I’ve heard that a lot. And they’ll make up excuses without giving you the real reason.”
Daoud knew Endabaguna was nothing but a reception camp and that for some there was a slight chance of resettlement in European countries, while the rest would be distributed among permanent camps in Ethiopia. This was what made him wish he could join in the conversation, make more inquiries. But the whispered exchange was obviously a confidential one. When a silence ensued, Daoud feared that the conversation might still be going on, but too softly for him to hear.
“What to do?”
Rescued by the other young man’s question, he put his senses on high alert. Adjusting his sitting position, he managed to inch slightly backwards, his ears pricked for the answer he was looking for, and which was rather late in coming.
“Do what I did. I got rid of my identity papers and chose a Christian name.”
As sundown approached, Daoud stood outside the registration office, brushing off his clothes as he listened to the question being addressed to him. His head lowered, he gazed at the blank sheet of paper and the blue ink pen hovering over it. Then he lifted his gaze somewhat toward the dark hand with the protruding veins, and from there toward the angry-looking face that was waiting for his answer. The employee repeated his question irritably. As David ran his hand again over his knotted black and white woolen wristband, the employee filled in the box according to what he had heard: “David.”
“Bo’u nelech.” 1 The group coming from Gondar followed the signal from a girl wearing a blue suit and holding a sign that read “Beta Israel” in Hebrew and Amharic. Looking as though they’d stepped straight out of some period of ancient history, this bewildered mass of black humanity piqued the interest of passersby who stopped on both sides to gawk at them, with some of them taking pictures.
In the middle of the group, Dawit pulled his head covering down in an attempt to cover as much of his face as possible. He still felt vulnerable and exposed, as though his features invited attention. For all he knew, his looks called out to passersby, telling them that he was a thief, and in possession of all the evidence of his crimes.
The group proceeded in a semicircular path that ended at a glass door. The door opened automatically, and as soon as it did, cries went up and a commotion erupted. Dawit couldn’t make out what was happening. The group had been thrown into confusion. Some of them wanted to go back inside, but the organizers ordered them to keep going.
“Lama ba’tem?! Lama ba’tem?!” Dawit’s ears were pierced by the screaming of a white girl, who was heatedly asking why they had come to Israel. He looked over at her, only to find her glaring at him. She had picked him out of the crowd to be the object of her enraged stares. Then he stopped hearing her shrieks. He was too busy looking at the greenish veins in her neck that were swollen with rage. When he reached the point closest to her, he averted his gaze and hurried past as her screams tried to overtake him. When he’d gotten some distance away, he looked back to see what was happening behind him. In the process, he bumped into a suitcase, knocking it accidentally out of the hand of its owner, who shoved him and lit into him with curses and insults. Leaning towards a woman next to him, the man grumbled, “These slaves have overrun the country!”
Without a word, Dawit moved quickly away, raising his hands in a gesture of silent apology. Then suddenly the man’s features stopped him up short. It was the Arab who had been searched by the soldiers in such an insulting way.
When he turned to be on his way and catch up with the group, his glance fell on a blue neon sign in bold Hebrew letters: “Broukhim haba’im li Yisrael: Welcome to Israel.”
I’d only been married six years when I started feeling tired and out of breath, especially when I was going up stairs. At first I thought it was a passing problem that would just go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. After doing all sorts of tests, I was told my heart muscle was weak, and that I’d have to get a new one, or else…!
There was a serious decline in my performance of important duties, the most serious of them being my marital ones.
Even the kids’ loving mother got in the act. “Get a heart transplant,” she said ominously, “or else…!”
I waited for the operation for over two years, during which time my condition got worse. Then somehow or other I got the message that I’d have to bribe the hospital officials if I wanted them to expedite a new heart for me, or else…!
I decided as a matter of principle that I wouldn’t try to bribe anybody, even if I croaked on account of it. It was my right to get the spare part my body needed by honorable means, and I was damn well going to hold onto it! So, things got complicated, and it looked as though it was going to be nearly impossible to get what I wanted.
Around that time, my dad discovered he had a relative who’d been buffeted about by one storm wind after another since the first Palestinian Nakba 1 until he’d finally washed up on the shores of Denmark.
My dad sold the last piece of land we owned. Then, with the money from the sale plus donations from good-hearted folks, I took off for Denmark to see his relative, and my wish came true faster than I would ever have expected. Somebody crashed his car into a snowplow and his brain stopped sending and receiving signals, so they removed his good heart and transplanted it into me, in place of my lousy one.
While I was in the hospital, I received a visit from the girlfriend of the heart’s original owner, whose name was Felix. She figured that from now on she had a share in my body, so she started hugging and kissing me, and I returned the sentiments quite enthusiastically.
From the time Felix’s heart was planted in my chest, I lost control over my feelings, which started overflowing every which way. I noticed that unlike before, I’d started falling with the greatest of ease into love’s snares and temptations. When I remembered my sickly, dried-up old heart, I’d think ruefully, “Damn you! You stood between me and happiness!”
As long as I live, I’ll never forget the favor that Dane did me. After I left Denmark, his girlfriend went on emailing me. She’d ask me how her boyfriend’s heart was doing, saying, “I hope you won’t be too hard on it, Abdul!” She’d send him a birthday card every year, and on the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, she wrote, “This was the night when we first made love, Babe, and we were happy even in a snow drift!” As weird as it sounds, when I read her letters, “his” heart would start racing and nearly leap out of my chest. It was like having an island with self-rule inside my body!
I started liking Danish canned meat and fish, as well as Danish dairy products. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to crave things like that in the days of the old heart, and now I was addicted to them! But the real turnaround involved football matches. After siding automatically with teams from Third World countries like Cameroon, Iran and Egypt, I found myself rooting with a vengeance for the Danish team. This irritated friends and relatives, who viewed it as a step backwards ethically speaking, and as a sign of hostility towards liberation movements. As such, it was clear evidence that I was biased toward the European Union, with its wishy-washy position on our cause. Not only that, but if I saw a bottle of vodka on some store shelf with a picture of a couple of stags on its label, my mouth would water as though I knew what it tasted like. But for the grace of God, I would have gotten hooked on the stuff!
My fellow countrymen, pessimistic as usual, expected me to kick the bucket right away. They’d say naïve things like, “That Scandinavian heart won’t work in Abdullah’s body. After all, he’s an Arab!” I found out that a poet friend of mine had started composing an elegy for me so that my death wouldn’t take him by surprise. He also wanted to make sure it was worded just right when he delivered it at the memorial service he was going to organize for the express purpose of having a chance to read the poem. But I disappointed the poet and my esteemed compatriots. In fact, I started attending their funerals one after another, and earning a heavenly reward for each one. I’d often hear somebody say with my own ears, “We expected this to happen to Abdullah, not to so-and-so.”
To spite these folks who’d expected my rapid demise, I went to a big-time insurance company and took out a policy on my heart. In fact, I insured every one of my body parts. In the process, I learned that insurance companies hold Scandinavian hearts in high regard, and that they’re prepared to insure them for five years renewable provided that you get them retested. By contrast, they refuse to insure Taiwanese or African hearts despite the fact that studies have shown African hearts to be of high quality even though they’re cheap.
News got out to the effect that secret negotiations had taken place between the African Union and the German conglomerate Siemens, which had plans to establish a monopoly over African hearts given their low prices, and then use them in heart transplants for Europeans and Americans.
I started grooving to Danish music, which I hadn’t been able to stand before that, and I got all excited about hearing the Danes compete in the Eurovision song contest. Then one day, and without any prior planning, I walked into the Danish Embassy and started shouting like a madman at the top of my lungs, “Birruh biddam nafdik ya Andersen! (We’d give our heart and soul for you, Andersen!)” It turns out that this Andersen guy was a candidate at the time for the position of Speaker of the Danish Parliament. In any case, I didn’t snap out of it until the embassy guard, thinking I was getting ready to commit a terrorist act, intervened. I was insulted and slapped around, and a file was opened on me, and the only reason I ended up being released was Felix’s heart. The Danish Ambassador in Tel Aviv put in a good word for me and gave me a warm hug. And once he understood what had motivated me, he kissed me right on the scar from my heart transplant.
But on my way home I got into a horrible crash that put me in a coma for two weeks. The accident smashed me to smithereens and nearly every part of my body, even the family jewels, went out of commission. The insurance company went to work without delay, and started sending me to all sorts of places for treatment. My first stop was the United States, where I got a basketball player’s legs, and left nine centimeters taller. From there I hobbled to the UK, where I got myself a pair of arms that were in good shape apart from the fact that the left one had a naked girl tattooed on it. I also got a pair of kidneys of Indian origin. The family jewels came from a Dutch guy who’d given them up to join the female camp. The tongue had been pulled out of a French hooker’s mouth, and I was supplied with magnificent amber eyes that had belonged to a Samba dancer in Brazil. So, I went back to the way I had been, or maybe even better than before.
The only problem I hadn’t anticipated was that I started being slow to respond when my name was called. I noticed a lot of people complaining, saying, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t you hear us calling you!?” When I heard the name Abdullah, I’d start looking around, thinking Abdullah was somebody else! After some consultation, my friends and loved ones made a decision: The only solution was for them to start calling me Abdu Felix. Then I’d know who they were talking to! And sure enough, my heart would leap when I heard this name, and I’d snap to attention right away.
Over a period of months, people got used to the new me. Even my mom and dad, who put up fierce resistance at first, had to resign themselves to the status quo in the end and started calling me by the new name: Abdu Felix. When my dad uttered it for the first time, we locked glances, my Brazilian eyes fixed on his misty Arab ones, and there was a sad quiver in his voice. As he listened to my French way of pronouncing things, he trembled as though he were grasping hot coals until I thought he was going to throw up. I knew then that he realized I wasn’t the same old Abdullah, the son he’d always known, the fruit of his loins. And every now and then I’ll hear him ranting, “Abd Felix, Felix … Felix Abdu, Felix Felix!”
*Published in al-Quds al-Arabi and Kull al-Arab newspapers.
The first thing that happens, you tell me, is that school stops.
We are meeting in a room in a London university so that you can tell me, in anodyne safe surroundings, a bit about your life so far; I say so far because you aren’t old, you are maybe 30.
We meet at the front door and follow the man who’s showing us to the room. We go through several doors and down then up some stairs. We go through a lot of corridors, then some more corridors, then down more stairs and along more identical corridors, then further down again and along a corridor with lagged pipes in the ceiling above our heads. We go through some swing doors, round some corners to some dead ends. We double back on ourselves. The man, who’s not sure where the room is, has to keep pressing codes into doors on our way in and then on our way back out again because we’ve come the wrong way or taken a wrong turning.
Eventually we find the room we’re being lent for the two hours. It’s a room with some tables pushed together and two or three chairs in it. There’s a window with a view on to bricks and the side of a building. You put your bags down, one on each side of you, and we sit down at the pushed-together tables.
You begin to speak. You speak as if picking your way over broken glass. You are graceful in the speaking. You are a small man, dainty even, and gentle. You’re so small that the two quite small rucksacks you’ve got with you seem large beside you.
Later, when we leave this room and go back up through the maze of university corridors, you and your rucksacks keep getting caught in the swing doors because you aren’t strong enough to hold them open; the door hinges are stronger than you.
Here’s what you tell me. It’s all in the present tense, I realise afterwards, because it is all still happening.
So: the first thing you remember knowing is that there isn’t any more school. Your mother dies when you are three, you don’t remember. You never see your father, so you can’t remember him. You know, from being told, that your father’s family fought with your mother’s family; his were Hausa, hers were Christian. So you get given by your father’s family to a man in the village and for a short while there’s school under the great big tree, where you sit in the shade on the ground and the teacher sits on a seat and you get taught letters and reading.
Then the school has to have money so the man you’ve been given to takes you to the farm.
You are six years old.
There is definitely no school on the farm.
There is cocoa, there are bananas and plantain, and the harvests run from January to December. The older kids, seven or eight and upwards, drag and carry the sacks. The younger ones, like you when you arrive, do the bagging and drying. Cocoa, you explain to me, has to be dried twice. You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside then pour them into the baskets, then there’s the spreading them out to dry on the leaves or on the tables. The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag, shorts sewn from sack. It’s hot there. Not like here. You look out the window at the bricks. Not like when it’s hot here either; there on the farm it’s the hottest that hot can mean.
You arrive at the farm when you’re six and you run away when you are 21. That’s not the first time you’ve run away. The first time you’re 15. Hunger. Beatings. Headaches. You have a headache, you have it quite often, and you have to have the right medicine or leaves for it or you hit the earth.
One day when you’re 15 and the boss isn’t there, you just go. You get out. There’s a road. You follow it. It isn’t a tarmacked road like here, you tell me. It’s kind of a dirt or dust, an earth road. Anyway the boss catches you on that earth road. There are beatings for a week, and every day between the beatings you’re out to work again carrying the firewood on your head, sometimes five miles, sometimes eight, and at the end of the day the boss coming in to the room with the sleeping mats in it saying how you’re not making him enough money and beating you again.
There’re always beatings.
A man sometimes comes to the farm, he’s in the removing business, he comes to remove the stored beans. He sees the wounds on you when you are 20, 21. He says to you on the quiet, Beaten again? You need to get out of here, he says, or you’ll die.
You think about the boy called Nana, who was beaten so much that he hit the ground. He didn’t wake up. He didn’t respond. He just lay there. You went to work, you came back, he wasn’t in the house any more. Some days later you were told he was dead and that’s when they started to lock you all up at night.
You put your head in your hands, here in the nondescript university room, all the years later, in London.
A very difficult time, you say. A very very difficult time.
I’ve been working here for a long time and I know what I’m talking about, the man says. You’ve got to get out of here.
He says he is going to help you out.
I watch you remember, now, without knowing it’s what you’re doing, the wounds you had then. Your left hand goes to your right forearm, then to your right leg. I notice there’s a scar on your forehead too, the size of a walnut shell, like someone’s at some point scooped a handful-sized piece out of you.
The man tells you to go, when everyone else is busy eating, to the latrine, and when no one can see, to go through the hedges at a certain place. He tells you where the footpath is. He tells you to follow the footpath all the way.
It’s eight hours to the village. It’s a day when the boss and his wife aren’t at the farm. You go to the latrine. You push through the hedges. You find that path. You walk till it’s dark. You meet nobody. You walk till you get to a village. A woman is cooking under a shade. She sees you. She asks you where you are going. You tell her the man’s name and she takes you to a house.
You sit in this house and you hope you won’t be killed.
You wait there for four hours. The man comes. He says that because they’re already looking for you he has to move you tonight.
You walk almost the whole night to get to a town. You are there in a room for a week. Then the man comes back and another man with him. The other man takes your photograph. We are going to take you somewhere, he says, where you are going to be safe. This is where the white people are, do you want to go there?
You are in the town where the lorry station is for a month until the man comes back with a car. He tells you not to worry. He tells you this all the way through the local villages, all the way to the proper road. You never see that brown earth road again. From now on, instead, you see a lot of lights. Then there’s no lights, then lights again. Then you’re standing at the counter in the airport at the man’s side and there’s a girl, and another boy, and the man.
Say nothing, he says. If they ask you who I am to you, say I am your uncle.
When you get to the other airport, though, it isn’t London. You don’t find out for quite some time. It’s just a shut room that you’re in, and a warehouse. Much later you get to know that it’s called Luton. The shut room is all mattresses on the floor and there are six others and you in the room. There are girls in the room above, men in the room below. That night they give you all chicken and chips and tell you the work will start early so you’d better be ready.
A van comes at 4am. Someone opens the front door. The back of the van, with its door open, is right up against the front door. You and the others get in one by one. The van door closes. It’s dark in the van. You get to the warehouse. You hear the warehouse door go up. The van goes in. The warehouse door comes down again.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Four in the morning. Nine at night. Packing shoes. Ladies bags. Sorting dresses. Cleaning microwaves. They give you a cloth for this. Cleaning TVs. Cleaning fridges. They give you a roll of white rubber to wrap the electric things. They give you a winter jacket, one pair of jeans and a towel. They give you two shoes. They tell you it’s cost them a great deal of money to bring you here. They say you’ll be working till you’ve paid it all back. There aren’t beatings but there’s shouting. There is a lot of shouting.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Five years. Most weeks all week, 18 hours a day. You sit in silence, now, with me. You hold your head in your hands.
You meet a guy, you tell me. He’s the driver. He takes a liking to you. He says he can get you out of there and find you a cleaning job in London. You trust him.
You say the word trust and it is as if your whole body fills with pain. You sit silent again for a moment.
Then London. One place to the next, one place to the next. But you go to a church. You make some friends at the church. You tell them about your life. They tell you there are things that can be done to make this better. You can write to the Home Office, they tell you, and explain to them what’s happened to you, and the Home Office will help you sort this out.
You do it. You write to the Home Office.
They come. They arrest you.
They put you in prison for six months because the passport you’ve got is the wrong kind.
First it’s prison, then detention. That takes two years. Then they release you for six months. Then they arrest you again. Back to detention, another six months. Then they release you. Any moment now they can arrest you again. They say: We have accepted you are a victim of human trafficking. But to go back to Ghana? You have nobody there to go to. Indefinite leave to remain. That means they’ll arrest you again. They can, any time. We accept you are a victim of human trafficking. But we need to reconsider the case.
Most of all, you tell me, you want to go to school. Right now you are in a house belonging to a man from your church, and the man who has the house lets you live there. You do cleaning, do errands, you help look after the baby. It is kind of him to let you stay. There isn’t any money. You sleep in the lounge when they’ve gone to bed. There is a chair you can sit in. You just stay at the house, that’s what you do all day, except for the days you have to report. There isn’t any money for any rail or bus tickets. This is sometimes a problem. Central London to East Croydon is a long walk.
You want most to go to college, you tell me in that university, in the room borrowed for two hours. But colleges need ID. The piece of ID you have, the colleges tell you, isn’t enough for colleges.
You don’t tell me about what detention is like until we walk back up to street level through the interminable swing doored corridors, up staircases that lead to other corridors.
You stop in the middle of a corridor. You look at me and you say: you would ask God not to send your enemies to detention, where fellow human beings treat you not like human beings.
And being out of detention, and knowing they can put you back in detention? It is all like still being in detention. Detention is never not there.
You have seen things, you tell me, with your own naked eyes. The room there in detention has a window, sure. But a window without any air. The only place air comes in is the gap under the door. And the door in detention is an iron door, and when they come to lock it they bang it. They do it on purpose, to make the great noise that it makes. And there’s no privacy in detention. There’s no religious privacy. This is a terrible thing, you say. And there’s no medication guaranteed in detention. Not even for epilepsy, your headaches. Prison is better. At least in prison there is something to do. But not at the removal centre. They call it the removal centre, you know?
You raise your eyebrows at me.
Removal, you say. When you arrive they remove you from a life. Then they remove your phone from you. They make sure it isn’t the kind with cameras. They take it away for several days, and they put it ‘through security’.
But still, I’m thinking to myself as you speak. It can’t be that bad. It can’t be as bad as prison. And surely there’s a reason to take a phone away to check it. It’s for security, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound so bad. It doesn’t sound so rough, not really, and there’s a window. Albeit a window that doesn’t open. A window, all the same.
I am an idiot. But I’m learning. A mere hour or two with you in a university room and I’m about to find out that what I’ve been being taught is something world-sized.
Later this same day I will go and visit, for another couple of hours, what it is to be a detainee, in this day and age, in our country. No, not even that: what I’ll go and visit is only what it’s like to visit a detainee.
I’ll take the train to the removal centre you told me about, the very place where you’ve been detained then detained again, then any minute now might be detained again.
It’s a place so close to a runway that the sound of the planes taking off and landing is its only birdsong. There’s a jolly painted sign above the visitor centre reception desk. PROPERTY CHECK-IN, it says with a big painted tick, for correct, next to it. It’s the first thing I see. Is it a joke? Is it supposed to put people at ease? It’s an obscene irony, and, as I’ll find, maybe the most human thing in the process it takes to visit someone here. There are creatures painted, too, on the back wall of this check-in building, and some toys on the floor beneath them for visiting kids. The painted creatures are meant to be Disney jungle creatures but one looks anguished, as if in pain, and one has huge ferocious teeth.
Everywhere else there are bright information posters proclaiming in words and symbols how people of all origins, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations will be treated equally here.
I will have to fill in two forms. I will get given a bright red wristband. VISITOR, it says on it. (Anna, my companion for the afternoon, is a regular visitor of the detainees held in the centre, and will warn me with some urgency not to lose this wristband.) I will have to empty my pockets into a locker, all the pennies and the five pence pieces, all the bits of tissue, crushed receipts, even the little balls of fluff in the linings of the pockets. I will lock the locker door on my own ID, on everything that proves I’m me, and will get given a number instead and a lanyard. Visitor Lanyard 336.
I quite often get given lanyards in my job. At literature festivals they’re used as passes into all the events or the hospitality and the green rooms. I throw away several lanyards a year without thinking. This one, the one I’ll be given this afternoon, will render every other lanyard I’ve ever been given and ever will be given from now on nothing but a frippery. The little plastic wallet it’s in will be bent as if it’s been twisted over and over in someone’s hands, chewed by a hundred nervous people or their children – a beaten-up lanyard, a lanyard with a history. I will have to go through a guarded door and then through an airport scanner – no, something much more down market, scale down your vision, more like a body scanner would have been if this was back when I was in my twenties, 30 years ago, and was ill and was claiming invalidity benefit at the DSS and part of that process of signing on had ever involved being body scanned. Before this, a man will write down my number. He will check that I’m me from a photograph that’s already been taken, a minute ago, front of house, by a security camera. After it, a woman will come out of his glass-barrier office. She will make me take my boots off. She will thump them, shake them upside down. She will go through all the pockets of the coat she’s made me take off with more thoroughness than I’ve ever had at any airport. She will find a pencil sharpener and a spare coat button in a little button envelope in my inside pocket. She will hold them both up.
Were you going to use this sharpener to sharpen a pencil and write on this envelope? she will say. No, I’ll say. I didn’t even know that envelope was in there.
As I say it I will feel guilty, though I’m telling nothing but the truth.
She will put the things on a table by the scanner machine.
They may or may not be there when you come out, she’ll say. We take no responsibility for what’s left here.
Then, after she’s searched me from head to feet, the woman will unlock a door and we’ll go into a waiting space and the woman will open another locked door on the other side of the room which will open into a yard with a razor- wire fence so high and encircling such a tiny yard space that it would pass as a literal example of surreality.
Then she’ll unlock another door and we’ll pass into the Visitor Centre H-Block.
There will be placards everywhere. Inside the H-Block the placards will all be inspirational messages about how good the teamwork and the care are here.
Up some stairs there’ll be another security check.
Altogether there are four security checks, before you can visit someone here. Then a man will unlock a door into a big square room, somehow both bright and dim, with blue carpet tiles, blue chairs. We will be shown to a seat. The form we will have signed says we have to take the seat we are shown to, and no other seat. We will do as we’re told. Someone will unlock a different door behind us. The man we’ve come to visit will be shown through this different door.
No, not a man, something closer to a boy – a sweet tired boy, not much past adolescence. He is Vietnamese. He will find his painstaking way in English for just over an hour, telling me he is embarrassed not to be better at speaking it. I will tell him not to worry, that my Vietnamese isn’t up to much. He will laugh at this. The laugh, like a clear little torchbeam, will light up the true and profound state of this young man’s dejection. Anna will tell me later he spoke no English when he arrived here, and the epic nature of the story he tells me in hard-won broken phrases, of the one-and-a-half months hidden in the back of a lorry it took to get him here, will be pretty clear even though all the time I’m trying to listen to him all I’ll be able to hear are the guards of this place, three or sometimes four of them, rattling their keys and their keychains incessantly up and down the length of the room, though there’ll be no one here to guard but us and one other family on the cheap blue seats.
Airless, the room, and its windows barred and perspexed – and suddenly I’ll understand what you were telling me this morning, about how a window, when no air can come through it, isn’t the same thing as a window. You didn’t even mention the bars.
I will ask the boy I’m talking to if the windows in this room are the same as the window in his room. Yes, he’ll say. Do they have those bars on them? I’ll say. He will nod gently. I will ask him what the food is like here. The guards, male and female alike, will walk up and down, shaking their keys. It’s okay, he’ll say.
He’ll have his dictionary in his hand, a Pocket Vietnamese- English paperback. Its spine will be several times broken. The guards will jaunt up and down the room, joking with each other over and above our conversation and the whole time I’m there I will feel the paper edge of my VISITOR band round my wrist rough under my sleeve – I say paper, but I suppose I mean plasticised paper, because later when I try and rip it off I can’t, it won’t tear, and I’ll have to remove it with scissors – I will feel it keenly, the whole time, the reminder that I can leave. I will long to leave.
Meanwhile the young man will be looking overjoyed at the slip of paper Anna has given him, which means he can receive a little blank notebook she’s brought for him, though he won’t see it for several days because it’s got to go ‘through security’, though already we will have spent quite a long time, when we arrived in ‘check-in’, filling in forms about the notebook and having the notebook weighed and processed. He will say, several times, how delighted and grateful he is to have had visitors. Two visitors! Anna came! And another person! Like he can’t quite believe his luck. Again this moment of brightness will mean I catch the real low ebb of his spirit.
He will tell us in broken English that his mother, at home, is ill right now, how she doesn’t have a phone, and how someone from home has phoned him and told him. He will tell us he told his friend to tell her how he is fed and has a bed to sleep in. He doesn’t want her to worry, he will say. He will rub his forehead with his thumb between his eyes above his nose, trying to get to the right words. He will struggle, again, for polite enough, good enough words of apology about his English not being better.
Then it’s back to the H-Block reception and back through the barbed wire coiled yard. The man unlocking the doors will small-talk Anna and me about the weather. It’ll be a grey, grey English day, the day I go to the detention centre. My pencil sharpener and button will still be on the table and, as we go out, Anna will tell me she is surprised I managed to get through and keep both my pairs of glasses since, a couple of weeks before, she’d been disallowed a pair of clip-on shades she sometimes wears over hers and they’d sent her back to ‘check-in’, made her check in all over again.
We’ll go out to the carpark in the regular noise of the planes, another taking off, another one landing as we drive along the barbed wire airport fences through the new no-man’s-land.
After I get home, because I’ll finally have sensed the real depth of depression in the young man I’ve just met, I’ll do a bit of digging around in what information there is, to see if there’s such a thing as therapeutic help for people in detention.
Even if you’re traumatised? Even if, when you arrive there, you’ve seen deaths, been tortured? It isn’t provided. Even if you’ve got a mental illness? Like schizophrenia? Surely the place is full of people with post-traumatic stress disorder? Since nobody leaves home for no reason. Nobody crosses the world crushed in a crate in a lorry, drinking his own urine for one-and-half months; nobody gets flung on a plane from one trafficking destination to another, without terrible mental consequence.
For terrible mental consequence what there is is isolation, where the light is on 24 hours a day, where there’s no sheet on the bed and nothing else in the room, and where Security check on you every 15 minutes.
When I find this out, I’ll think of you and the epilepsy, and the beatings, and something you said in passing about how difficult, in detention, it is, to get the simplest medication.
Anyway, I’ll be out of there, and on my own safe way home. Anna will drive me to the station. When we get there, she’ll lean over, open the door for me and thank me for making the journey today.
Me? I’ll say. Making a journey? Today?
I’ll think of the young man in the lorry. I’ll think of you on all your roads, the road between the gone school and the farm, the first dirt road the time the boss caught you, the ground coming up to meet you when you fell with the headaches, the footpath to the village, the brown earth road you didn’t see again when the road to the airport took you to another country.
I’ll think of me asking you if you ever had visitors in your own time at the removal centre, and of how your face softens when I do for the only time in our talk.
Yes, you say. Mary.
Then you don’t say anything else.
This morning, in the university room, just before we attempt to find our way again around that building, I ask you if you’ll mind showing me the piece of paper that they give you as the proof of who you are – the proof that’s not enough, when it comes to ID, for colleges.
I watch you go through your bags. I realise, by the length of time it takes you to find it, that it is a very painful thing I’ve asked you to do. The longer it takes the more terrible I feel for having asked you to find it and show me.
But there it is at last. You unfold it there between us. It’s an A4 piece of paper, a photocopy whose ink is creased and flaking, beginning to disintegrate in the folds.
I pick it up. I hold it in my hand.
What kind of a life are we living on this earth when a photocopied piece of paper can mean and say more about your life than your life does?
On the train home this evening, I’ll think of the moment you say to me, as we’re saying goodbye: people don’t know about what it’s like to be a detainee. They think it’s like what the government tells them. They don’t know. You have to tell them.
On that train home, and all these weeks and months later, I’ll still be thinking of the only flash of anger in the whole of your telling me a little of what’s happened to you in this life so far.
It was a moment of anger only. It surfaced and disappeared in less than a breath. Except for this one moment you’re calm, accepting, even forgiving – but for these six syllables, six words, that carry the weight of a planet, weight of the earth – yes, earth, like those roads there under all our feet, whatever surfaces we cover them with, under all our journeys, the roads you walked between one place and another in the mix of fear and hope and the dark falling.
But when I came to this place, when I came to your country, you say.
I sit forward. I’m listening.
You shake your head.
I thought you would help me, you say.
The nighTMaRe always sTaRTs in the same way: a big man standing at the foot of my bed, shouting at me. ‘Get up! Hurry hurry hurry! Pack up your stuff! We’ve come to take you away.’ I call out to my parents, but they’ve disappeared. My little brother starts yelling, but the man just shouts again.
Sometimes it’s a nightmare, and sometimes it’s for real.
The first time it ever happened, it was for real, but it felt
like a nightmare. I was only eight, and my brother was seven. We were fast asleep in bed in our house in Bradford, when suddenly the light was switched on and the big man in a uniform was standing there. In fact there were four men in the room, all wearing the same dark uniforms. I tried to scream, but it just came out as a squeak.
‘Where are you taking us?’
‘We’re taking you home.’
‘But this is my home!’
‘Don’t argue. Just get your clothes on, and pack what you need.’
‘Where are my mum and dad?’
‘They’re downstairs. No, you can’t talk to them. Just pack
up all you need to take for your whole family.’
I was only eight, so I had no idea what to take. I took my favourite toys, and some bed-sheets and towels that were in the room, but I didn’t think of taking clothes or anything useful. My brother was screaming. I asked to go to the toilet, and I had to leave the door open, so they could watch me. That was horrible. When we’d finished packing, we were taken downstairs where our parents were being watched by four other officers – two per person, so there were eight altogether in our little house that morning. My mother was crying, but I couldn’t comfort her.
We still weren’t allowed to talk to our parents, but then we were all quickly bundled outside into a van. It was still dark outside. The van had a wire cage in it, and we were locked in the cage as though we were wild animals or something. It felt terrible.
‘We’re taking you home,’ they kept saying, as we drove away and left our home behind.
Later I found out that they weren’t policemen or soldiers at all, they were called ‘escorts’ and they worked for a private company that is contracted to the government. I don’t know who draws up the guidelines for how they should treat people they are deporting, or keeps a check on how they behave. It seems a bit incredible that they thought they needed four grown men to manage me and my seven-year-old brother – we were so dangerous!
Hours later, we arrived at a place called Yarl’s Wood. We were given a bag to take in what we needed, and my parents got upset that we had packed so much useless stuff. But of course we didn’t know what to take. My first impression of Yarl’s Wood was a funny smell, like a hospital and long grey-painted corridors with lots of doors that had to be unlocked and locked each time you went through. We were given two adjoining rooms, my parents in one, my brother and me in the other, all the furniture was bolted to the floor and there were bars on the windows – but one of the worst things was they could just come into your room at any time. We had no privacy. If I stood on tiptoe and held onto the bars I could see a small playground down below enclosed by high walls. That was the only place we could be allowed to feel like children.
We stayed 24 days in Yarl’s Wood. Each day started with a roll-call at 6am when they marched into our rooms and counted us: one, two, three, four. Breakfast was from 7:30 to 8am, it was always the same: eggs, toast, cornflakes, in a big canteen and everybody sat with their families. That sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? But it was actually quite scary, because there was often someone who was screaming, or panicking, or having a tantrum, and banging and shouting. Once we overslept and missed breakfast, and that meant we would not have anything to eat until lunch at one o’clock. Then my dad lost it and started shouting and crying. It was terrible to see him like that. My parents were quite good at hiding it, but suddenly at times like that you realised the stress they were under.
At that time, I didn’t know anything about their application for refugee status and why they kept on getting turned down – I just knew what it felt like to be eight years old and not know where we were going or why my parents were so upset, or when the big man out of my nightmares would appear again at the foot of my bed. Later on, I learned that my parents couldn’t stay in the former Soviet country where they came from, because my mum is a Christian and my dad is a Muslim, and mixed marriages are not allowed and people said they would kill us. When my brother and I went to school, some kids would always pick a fight with us, because our parents were different.
Everybody in Yarl’s Wood was in the same situation or worse, they did not know whether they would be allowed to stay or what would happen to them if they were sent home. Some people went a bit crazy, and my mum got sick with asthma and high blood pressure and panic attacks; she got very thin and nervy and she didn’t seem like my mum at all. Whenever she went to the medical centre, they said, ‘Are you sure you’re not just making it up? Go and take a paracetamol.’
It was me that had to look after her, and I had to be like a grown up even though I was only eight.
During the day, we spent our time in the library or the playground, or sometimes we went to school. It wasn’t a proper school, we didn’t learn anything, we just did things like colouring-in to pass the time, but one of the teachers was nice and encouraged us. Most of the security guards just shouted at us like we were just animals.
One day in the dining room I met a young Kurdish girl, and we made friends. She was so funny and lively, she wasn’t scared of anything, and that made me feel better, and after that we stuck together.
After about three weeks, we suddenly got news that Mum and my brother and I could be released. It felt good to be free, and I was so glad to say goodbye to Yarl’s Wood. Little did I know that I would see that horrible place again. We were taken back to our house in Bradford, but our dad was not allowed to come – they took him to a place near Oxford. Being at home without him was scary, because we never knew when we’d see him again. Mum was crying all the time, and she got very dependent on me, even though I was classed as the dependant.
Then after about three months, it happened all over again – the banging on the door at 6am. The big man at the foot of my bed shouting, ‘Quick, hurry, get up and pack! We’ve come to take you home!’
This time they took us straight to the airport, where we met up with our dad. The guards were shouting at us, saying, ‘If you try anything, we’ll have to handcuff you.’ So we didn’t struggle, we just got on the plane, and I don’t know what happened next, because I fell asleep, and when I woke up we were in our country.
It felt so strange being there – although they said we were going home, it was not like being home at all but somewhere strange and unfamiliar. When we got back, Mum blacked out and was rushed to hospital, and we were separated from our dad; we had nowhere to go so we just kept on moving around to different people’s houses.
Then Mum tried to come back to England again. I was so happy to be back in Folkestone again, because I felt safe. This time we were not sent to Bradford, we were sent to Wales. Mum started to cry at first because it was unfamiliar, but it was very nice. I went to school and started to make friends. Everything seemed normal, but Mum kept saying, Don’t buy anything new, clothes or toys, don’t get too settled, because we may have to move soon!
But that wasn’t the end of the nightmares. They carried on, always a bit different, but always the same. One night I had a dream that I was lying on a sofa in the dark when a man walked in and started shouting to get up and hurry, they were taking us home. I woke up screaming, then I realised that it was just a dream, and I fell asleep again. Then it happened again, and this time it was real. It was the same thing over again. This time there were six people all in the bedroom, including a woman who was taking photos of us, and Mum was once more on her own downstairs while we packed.
They got us into the caged van – but this time we only went as far as the police station. Mum told them we hadn’t had a reply to our letter – our case was still pending – and they made us wait inside the van while they checked, so we were taken back home.
That time of waiting was the worst, or maybe it was because I was older and could remember more. I started to be scared of everything; I had the nightmare early every night. My brother started wetting his bed. Mum was anxious and got very thin. She kept the door locked all the time, and wedged it with a rolling pin.
Then a couple of months later, it happened all over again – the banging on the door in the early morning, the shouting, the packing, the caged van. Only this time, one thing was different. I had a friend at school, and I managed to ring her, and she told her parents, and lots of people came from all over the area and gathered outside our house, protesting and pleading with them to let us stay. It felt much better, because we were no longer alone, but people could see what we were going through. It didn’t make any difference, we still had to go. They took us all the way back to Yarl’s Wood. They wouldn’t even let us get out to go to the toilet, and Mum was so embarrassed because she weed in the van.
Once again we were in Yarl’s Wood. To my delight my old friend was there too. She said it was the fourth time they were trying to deport her. But this time it was different. Far more people were now aware of the situation in Yarl’s Wood, through the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and there was a big campaign building up with people including Natasha Walter and Juliet Stephenson, for women and children not to be held there. Through them we were also put in touch with a solicitor, who had more experience of immigration law, and wasn’t just trying to take our money and do nothing. I found out later that there had been a big campaign for us in Wales, too.
In spite of all that, though, we were still told to prepare ourselves for deportation. We got all packed up and I said goodbye to my friend. This time, I told my mum, I wasn’t just going to go quietly, I was determined to protest. At 2:30 in the morning they came and took us out to the airfield. I was praying that the flight would be cancelled, or that we would get a letter at the last minute. Then just as they opened the door of the van, the guard’s phone rang. Everything went quiet. ‘Yes,’ I heard him say. ‘Yes.’
Our deportation had been cancelled. Our new solicitor had succeeded in stopping it at the last minute. Mum fainted. I just sat in the van holding my breath until the plane took off without us.
We were taken back to Yarl’s Wood, and everything seemed as before for a couple of weeks. Then one day we were called by the teacher to go to reception. I was terrified because I was sure it would be something bad. But we were told we would be going back to our old home in Wales.
It was lovely being back in our old house, and seeing my friends, and all the people who had been campaigning for us and signing petitions for us while we were away. While we were in Wales, we also got news from our dad. He was in France, and he had been given refugee status there, and he would apply for residence to come to the UK. In 2009 we were all reunited. Now I’m a student in my third year at LSE, reading law.
So you might think this is a story with a happy ending, and in a way it is. But in a way, I feel I was robbed of my childhood, I was forced to grow up and have to deal with things no child should have to deal with. Whatever people think about the rights and wrongs of immigration, it can never be right to treat children like this. From time to time I still wake up in the night shaking with fear when I hear a loud banging or shouting. But then I realise it’s only a nightmare.
John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.
‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’
When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.
I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.
John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.
Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’
By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’
This is only the beginning.
Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.
A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.
The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.
This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.
He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.
The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.
And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.
This is nowhere near the end of the story.
Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.
‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.
He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.
One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.
Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’
While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.
This still isn’t near the end of the story.
While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.
In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.
Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’
He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.
‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.
After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’
For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.
How could this possibly be the end of the story?
Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.
Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.
This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.
John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.
His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.
But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.
In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’
Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.
Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’
It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.
I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.
I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.
‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’
we aRen’T aT all like you. They keep us apart, for your protection. There’ll be a blue sign at the entrance to any ferry port or motorway services: you take this lane and we’ll take that. Fifty feet on there’ll be red-and-white MarroBar between the lanes, in case you have a last-minute change of allegiance. You won’t, though. You’ll keep right, our lane will turn left, and you’ll never think of us again. In your life you’ll have more conversations with optimists and murderers than you will with lorry drivers.
And yet there are more of us than there are of farmers, police and teachers combined. Our average age is 53. We’re male, and white, and we have bad backs. We’re twice as likely as you to be divorced or separated. But we don’t ask for your sympathy. Read the stickers: all we ask is for your cyclists not to pass us on the inside. There are 700,000 goods vehicle drivers in Britain and we are all self-medicating with bacon rolls. We’re three per cent of the workforce, 20 per cent of the studio audience for Top Gear, and 40 per cent of the petition to have it put back on TV. They say we’re the core of the UKIP vote, but they shouldn’t take us for granted. As the lorry driver said to the politician: if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.
When it comes to illegals, we know what the media won’t tell you. We catch them sneaking round the back of our trailers. We find them crawling behind the cartons in the load. You probably know the global economic push factors or whatever, but we know how they smell. We’re the ones who have to drag them out of the space above the axles. They’re in the shadows whenever we turn our back — it’s like a horror film. As long as their country is a nightmare and ours is a dream, they’ll come in the night. But you’re the ones who are sleepwalking.
On this one trip I’ll tell you about, I was doubling with another driver and we were homeward bound through Calais. If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. You see them out of the corner of your eye at first, when you’re still a couple of hundred kilometres out. Say you’re pulling in to Saint-Quentin for diesel. You give them the hard eye and they act casual, hands in their pockets — but no one’s fooled. Because they’re Somali and Rwandan zombies, not Parisian zombies with berets and baguettes. A blind lefty could pick them out of a line up.
The illegals can pick out the lefties, too. They’re the ones driving home from a little place with lavender and wi-fi. They always call it a ‘little place’. If it was their own lady parts they were referring to, they couldn’t be more coy. They keep to their side of the services, topping up their tanks while the euro is so weak. They think the illegals should be allowed in, but when they say ‘in’, they don’t mean in their car. It would be easy to do — it’s not as if the Border Force ever look in the boot of a family motor — but that isn’t how liberals think. They’re intellectually fearless, rather than actually brave.
So the zombies creep towards our lorries instead. We’ll be in Saint-Quentin, filling up, and all the time we’ve got one eye on the pump and the other on the illegals. Take your eye off and they’ll sidle up to the trailer and do the stupid stuff they do. As if we’re not going to look in the back before we get to the ferry port. As if we’re not going to go up on the gantry and find them clinging on, and tell them to eff off. If there’s one English phrase they’re going to learn, it’s that. I feel sorry for them, for what it’s worth. They’re desperate and they’re not very bright and I know this because there are three easier ways of getting across the Channel than stowing away in an HGV.
On this one trip I’m telling you about, we were double manning, as I say, and so my co-driver — I’ll call him Mr Hyde because he’s yellowish and rough — he could stand on the other side of the trailer and shoo the illegals away while I filled up the diesel. And on this trip we had a journalist along too. I’ll call him Clark Kent but you know his name — he’s famous for slagging off restaurants. And once every six months he writes about a burning social issue so people won’t start thinking: hang on, you’re just a tiring man who doesn’t enjoy eating out anymore.
I suppose the six months had come up on his tachograph because here he was, sitting up in the cab, dropping his aitches to make us feel at home. The boss had said to be nice to him. She’d given me 500 extra in cash, with a warning that she’d take it back off my wages if the famous man didn’t have a nice day. The 500 was still in its manila envelope, safely tucked under my seat.
Once I’d done the diesel fill I climbed into the cab. Clark Kent had set up a webcam on the dashboard because apparently he was live-streaming the whole thing. Mr Hyde didn’t want to be in the shot, so the camera was just on me and Clark. It sat there on the dashboard like the unblinking Eye of Islington.
‘So what do these buttons do?’ Clark was saying. ‘Do you have alarms and whatnot?’
‘Those are the temp dials for the trailer. That one turns on the stereo.’
‘Oh, do you listen to music?’
I wondered what he thought we might listen to — the speeches of Enoch Powell — but the camera was on so I just said, ‘Yeah, whatever’s on the radio.’
‘Mind if I twiddle?’
‘Be my guest.’
‘I haven’t used one of these things for years,’ said Clark, prodding away. (I honestly don’t know what he meant. His fingers, maybe.)
He found Autoroute FM, which does bad French songs on a playlist, and he thought it very droll. We all laughed about it. It was hilarious that foreigners had radio stations featuring hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We rolled on towards Calais.
‘You don’t talk much,’ said Clark to Mr Hyde.
In fact I’d told him not to talk, because I knew how that would end.
‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He was on until we picked you up in Reims.’
‘You take the driving in turns, do you?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we take Benzedrine and fondle each other to stay awake.’
Actually I said, ‘Yeah, in the EU it’s four-and-a-half hours each, then switch. We have a digi-card that keeps track of our hours.’
‘It must get tiring.’
‘No worse than journalism, I suppose. You have deadlines, don’t you?’
‘Tell me about it. Before I came out for this trip I had to do a Michelin-starred place in Maidstone. It was utterly bogus, and then I had to write it up on the ferry. I couldn’t work out if I was furious or seasick.’
‘Still,’ I said, ‘I’d swap with you.’
‘You say that, but there are only so many menus a man can read before he wonders if this is really his life’s main course.’
I wondered if he talked like that when the cameras weren’t on. I had a flash of what it would be like being married to him. I was exhausted already, and we’d only just met.
We reached the turn-off for Arras, which is where the zombie menace starts to be obvious. There was a bunch of them lurking on the slip road, all bones and nylon parkas.
‘Christ,’ said Clark. ‘You weren’t joking.’
‘No one believes it until they see with their own eyes. It’s a plague.’
Clark talked to the webcam. ‘I can see one or two dozen dark-skinned males, loitering by the exit from these services.’
‘More like three or four dozen,’ I said. ‘There’ll be more of them hiding behind that toilet block.’
‘Do you feel sympathy?’
‘We can’t, can we? It’s us who get punished when one of them stows away. We get an eight grand fine. Two strikes and we lose our licence.’
‘Still, they’re human beings. Don’t you feel compassion?’
He gave me the same look as when he’d seen my UKIP flag on the back wall of the cab — as if I wasn’t necessarily evil, but that I couldn’t be expected to know any better.
‘I have to think of my career,’ I said. ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’
He laughed, at least. ‘But seriously, don’t you feel any empathy?’
‘Do you? When one of your reviews shuts down an eatery?’
‘That’s different though, isn’t it? No one forces a Michelin chef to serve me a flightless vol-au-vent.’
Mr Hyde scowled at him and said in his Italian accent, ‘No one forces these scum to hide in my lorry.’
Clark turned to look at him. ‘I feel like we haven’t met.’
I laughed to calm things down. ‘Ignore him, his mother’s an I-Tie – he’s practically an immigrant himself.’
‘I’m a racist,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘There. Put that in your bloody newspaper. I hate illegals because I love the UK.’
I shushed him. ‘He means that if it was your mother the illegals were moving in next door to, you’d see it differently. If your kids couldn’t get a flat because immigrants get higher on the housing list, you’d be sick of it.’
‘Then you’re complaining about a social housing shortage, aren’t you, not an immigration crisis.’
‘You say potato.’
‘Actually I say croquette of heritage King Edwards a l’hollandaise, and I wouldn’t mind if these people made a new life next door to me.’
Mr Hyde opened his mouth but I shot him a look to shut up.
‘Please,’ I said, ‘you’re in the wrong lorry if you want to talk about the philosophy of it all. All we can do is show you what it’s really like out here on the frontline, and your readers can make up their own minds.’
‘Alright, fair enough. Then I think my first question would be: how do the stowaways make it through, if you’re always checking your lorries?’
‘Some drivers are careless, aren’t they? Me, I won’t stop within a hundred kilometres of Calais, but there’s always some Charlie who lets his hours expire and has to pull over. By the end of your statutory break, you’ll have illegals in your load, in your wheel arches, in your engine compartment. You’d be amazed at the gaps they squeeze into.’
‘Don’t the border guys find them? They have scanners, no?’
‘They’re only human. Zombies will always get through if they’re well-enough hidden. And some of the drivers, for a fee, have ways of hiding them.’
‘Really? There are drivers who’d risk that?’
I had to smile. ‘Listen, what do you make in a year?’
He winked at the camera. ‘I make 52 Saturdays less dull.’
‘Well I make 28k, with an ex and a current and four teenage kids. If I was unpatriotic, I could triple my money. Not all illegals are skint, you know.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘The situation is what’s serious. Ever since the Trojan horse, there’s been people smuggling. Ever since Han Solo took Obi Wan Kenobi’s money, in a galaxy far, far away.’
‘I’m warming to our chauffeur,’ said Clark to the camera. ‘I came expecting that a lorry driver would be unreconstructed, but maybe there’s more to this profession than I gave it credit for. Have your say by using the hashtag #stowaways.’
We drove through the outskirts of Calais. I pulled into the HGV lane and we joined the queue for the ferry port. In their own lanes the normals rolled past, refugees from their little places. Behind the glass you could see their lips moving as they argued whether there would have been time to stop at the last supermarket, to stock up on saucisson and those French school exercise books, the ones with the graph paper pages.
Clark said, ‘What would you do, if you found someone in the back of this lorry right now? What would you say to them?’
‘Well for a start I’d need to scrape the Brie off them. We’re carrying eighteen thousand kilos of it.’
‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’
‘God! Have you ever done that?’
‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’
I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’
‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’
He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’
‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’
Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’
It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises — as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless — they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman — he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports — we could have travelled on our library cards.
Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.
‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’
‘There is that, I suppose.’
‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’
‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’
‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’
‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’
‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’
‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’
‘There you go — you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’
He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’
‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’
We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already — it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.
‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’
‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’
‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.
The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby — First Plaice — and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.
I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it — he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck — just a germ — although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.
After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’
‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’
Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’
‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’
‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’
‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’
He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.
‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’
We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.
‘How many times have you done this?’
‘Do they pay you for it?’
I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’
‘So why do you do it?’
‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’
‘What made you start?’
‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help — life’s over so fast.’
‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’
I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’
‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’
The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.
‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.
He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’
It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon