The sands lolled and swam in the sun’s blazing rays all day, then when darkness fell, they patiently waited for the sun to rise. As far as the eye could see, the sands swelled in every direction, wild and silent. It even felt like they were stealthily watching us. Everyone except the leader and I slept like the dead. We had walked barefoot the whole day, but the journey ahead was still long. The sun had hollowed faces and etched deep lines; lips were painted the color of ash.
Life became nothing but a dark tunnel. The mothers’ milk had dried out, none of them had eaten since yesterday. Emaciated and pallid, hunger shone from their vacant eyes. Returning home was a forlorn hope because home was gone. Chased by fatigue, thirst and hunger, we fled amid the growing clamor of children crying. I heard fear in their panicked screams, perhaps alarm at a threat not visible to us, the adults. Their ribs clearly defined, the children wept with tearless eyes and pinched faces anything but childlike. Hunger and the strong rays of the sun had robbed them of their vitality during the arduous journey.
The boundless sands merged with the horizon to make the desert in front of us unending. No hint of clouds absorbed the blazing heat. The drought had invaded valleys where mirages shimmered. Drought and war had crushed even the most resilient desert plants.
The leader was a tall imposing man who watched the group closely as they walked. He was silent and fearless but helpful to all and with respect for everyone. Now he spoke of fortitude, his voice kind and gentle. “Now, we eat. Then we must continue marching.”
Then the leader went to pray. In a clear voice, he recited his prayers and asked Allah to ease the sufferings of the journey, bless the children and provide solace to anyone mourning the loss of their home. Then he made his own lengthy and mournful supplication.
We resumed our journey across the sands. Our group included fifty women, ten children and a pregnant woman about to give birth.
Time passed so slowly, every minute felt an eternity. We walked a long way until, in the middle of the wasteland, we reached a village. Engulfed by sand and barely visible from a distance, the village stood alone against the hellish winds of the desert. Half a dozen families inhabited the village, and they came out of their huts to welcome us. Dressed in filthy garments damp with sweat and gritty with sand, they had rifles over their shoulders. Their faces were blistered as if they had emerged from the underworld. Even more wretched than us, they had nothing to offer. Their thatched huts were the height of a man with entrances just above the dirt. There was no place for us to rest. With the emptiness still ahead, we continued crossing the vast expanse of sand. The sun crawled toward its final abode, its rays still flaming.
Our guide said to me, “Beyond that tongue of sand is the border, but first we have to pass the village of Turayba just before the border.”
We walked in silence, even the children’s screaming died out. The donkey’s hooves the only sound. The calm was shattered by a woman’s screams. It was her time to give birth.
Quickly, we picked a place to camp and set up a tent for the pregnant woman. Other women sat with her in the tent, while her mother, who said they would need hot water, lit a fire. Shortly, the pregnant woman crawled out of the tent screaming. Other women followed the trail of blood behind her. It seemed she was hemorrhaging and I asked them about her husband. They said he had died in the last attack, the one that had forced us to leave our homes. The pregnant woman was pouring with sweat. The other women gathered around her while I stood back observing the situation to see if they needed me. She gripped her mother’s arm, begging them with her eyes.
One of the women pointed at me. “Dig a hole the height of one and a half men and get a thick branch long enough to rest over the top.”
The guide and I wasted no time in digging. The pregnant woman’s moaning grew more distinct, yet sadder and deeper, and one of the women shouted, “Hurry up or she’s going to die.”
When we had finished, the oldest woman told us to tie a rope to the middle of the branch The other end of the rope was looped around the pregnant woman’s hands, so her body could be suspended inside the hole. It was my first time to see a rope delivery.
Unable to stand, the pregnant woman hemorrhaged blood all over her clothes. Her palms tied together with the rope, I carried her to the hole and lowered her down. The woman who told me to dig the hole also climbed down and sat on the bottom where she undressed the pregnant woman. The other women gathered around the edge to offer encouragement.
The woman in the hole called up to us, “It was a very difficult birth and she is still bleeding.”
Her mother was sobbing loudly, so I went over and stroked her head. “She will be all right. Pray for her.”
“Half of our women bleed to death. She will die,” said her mother.
I didn’t know what to do. My body trembled like a pigeon as our eyes, mine and the women’s, moved to the baby, who moaned softly. She was a tiny girl. Compassion tugging at me, I lifted her in my hands and hugged her as passionately as a real mother who had just given birth. Then I laid her tiny body, newly washed with blood, on a piece of cloth stretched out on the dirt inside the tent. The girl child was long and a native desert-brown color. Minutes passed like centuries, and I wished I could stay with the women inside the tent. Overwhelmed by emotion, I immersed myself in the child. Outside the tent, the new mother continued to bleed. The women tried hard to stop the bleeding with no success. The new mother stared at a point on the horizon where a mirage and false hopes shimmered. Despite the pain, she smiled. She was fifteen years old, her mother told me.
Everyone was distraught except her. Even the leader lost his patience and circled the tent like a millstone. Mute, her earthly body still, the dying woman calmly surrendered her soul to divine salvation and crossed purgatory into the Holy Kingdom. The women loudly mourned her, throwing handfuls of sand over their heads. I mourned too, but with the silence of a Darfurian man already ravaged by disaster that had left him dispossessed of his homeland, robbed of his home, and forced from his village.
Some of the women busied themselves preparing the body, while others ceaselessly wept. Then they noticed that the new-born girl was not moving. A gnarled old woman picked up the motionless child. Largely silent during the trip, she yelled now in a voice bigger than she was, “The child is dead too.”
Everyone drifted along a stream of sadness, their tears falling to the sand before being rapidly absorbed. They wrapped the body of the mother in her own clothes with the baby on her chest. Wailing, we carried the bodies to their last home, lowering them in after praying for them. I could no longer stand as I pushed the dirt into the grave, so I fell to my knees and keened at the edge. The sun had completely vanished, the darkness condensed and hid the expanse of space.
The guide said, “We have to keep marching so we reach the border quickly.”
Huddled together, we walked slowly on. The guide followed the stars, and we used the moonlight to guide our footsteps and keep us safe from the menacing darkness. War had slain the life of the desert, the ancient trees, the hardy thorn bushes that fed the cattle during drought. Everything had gone.
As we fought to resist the aching breath of the desert, the voices of our women mourned the home, the birthplace, they had fled. Everybody was hungry, children and adults alike could not bear it, and we had little food left. When most of the women were unable to keep going, I distributed a handful of dates. Their eyes followed me, speaking the language of misery. Fleeting looks, enough to translate the feelings behind them. Before the hunger could fade, thirst took its place.
We camped and lit a fire to make gruel. Hollowed out by hunger, the women worked steadily until a breathless and horrified voice from the back of the group broke the silence. The leader spun around, tripping over his own feet as he rushed to see what was wrong. I was close behind him.
“Batool!” said the woman standing near a prone body.
“Is she dead?” asked the leader.
Not replying either yes or no, the woman’s eyes overflowed with tears as she stared down at the dirt. There lay Batool on her back, eyes so wide open they were ringed in white. She seemed to be staring at the distant horizon, caught in a futile struggle to see the refugee camp beyond the mirage of the border. Her vacant stare was so strange that fear and horror percolated through me. In her last desperate expression, I saw dignity savaged by the loss of land, farm and home. She gazed at the heavens, at lost hope. Her hands clasped the sand where we buried her in a moment charged with fear and reverence. When the funeral was done, we laid a big stone on her grave.
The leader sat on a low mound staring into the vastness. “My son, most of the sand you see was once spanned by villages. Hundreds of families flourished here.” He sighed deeply and continued, “Now they’ve dissolved into nothing, forever a part of the desert.”
The leader withdrew into the darkness, and I followed him. We sat together under a sky free of clouds as the desert sank into darkness. In the face of the impenetrable silence, nothing could be heard except the sound of faith in Allah the Almighty, silent in His glory.
After midnight and before dawn, the voice calling to the journey summoned us to resume marching across purgatory till we reached salvation.
When the waste and dreariness of her life become too much for Zivia, the younger and more embittered of the two unmarried Pozis sisters, she stops eating and washing. Wearing only her shift and a bandana tied around her unkempt hair, she attacks the house in a frenzy of cleaning, sweating and panting as she works. The large salon that no one ever uses now gets special attention. With the greatest care she wipes the yellowing wallpaper and scrubs the walls and the balcony until they shine. When someone speaks to her, she doesn’t respond; if she is called into the dining room for dinner, she flies into a rage.
Often she won’t even drink a glass of tea and stays in her unmade bed all day, sometimes two days, sobbing pitifully and crying out in desperation, “God in Heaven, we’re rotting here before we’re even in our shrouds! This is a living death!”
The older sister, Rochele, who never leaves her side when she’s like this, takes it all to heart. She is thirty-four and short, with a delicate mustache above her upper lip. Through the open window she sees their neighbour, the cooper’s wife, straining to pick up a tub full of laundry. Her dress is torn and hitched up front and she tries to balance the tub on her high belly while she carps continuously at a grubby little girl who keeps getting underfoot. Rochele can see her thick, swollen lips move up and down but can’t hear what she’s saying. There are tears in Rochele’s eyes and she bites her knuckles, unable to stop thinking about Zivia even for a minute. “Dear God in Heaven, what does Zivia want from my life? Zivia, Zivia, do you know what you’re doing? Zivia!”
As she repeats these words she remembers all the other times. It mostly happens after the Pentecost holiday when summer is approaching and the thick walls of the old neglected house begin to sweat and smell musty. The house is sinking into the damp ground and the bricks, which have become spotted with white lime, give off the sour-sweet odor of clay being baked in the factory.
This is the time of day when the house is quiet and cool. Old Mr. Pozis, the father of the household, lies on the sofa in the dining room. He is blind. His sightless eyes are covered with a white film and he blinks nervously when he hears Zivia sobbing in her room. “What is she crying about in there?” he wonders.
Bored, he scratches his head and his gray beard and lets out a long, loud sigh through his twisted mouth as he mutters weakly, “Oh, dear God and Father, King of the Universe.”
The old man is waiting for Yekusiel, the bookbinder and inept beadle of the Sadegerer Synagogue, to come join him in a glass of tea. As they pass the time of day together the beadle is sure to bring up the subject of his daughters. “They have no luck, poor things.” Then he’ll report the news around town and finally the conversation will turn to himself, Kalman Pozis, and his former business affairs. Again he will tell him the story of the time he bought an entire forest for a song – the Zavalina, it was called. It seems like only yesterday.
“We cut down a lot of trees in the Zavalina – for twelve years we cut down trees and made a lot of money. You know, Yekusiel, Kalman Pozis was considered a very clever man once, very clever. But when the wheel turned it was his wife Leah who became the smart one; she had rich relatives. Now his children think he’s a fool.”
“Eh – what will Yekusiel say to that?”
Yekusiel is a nice man and not unintelligent, but he doesn’t talk much. He has a handsome flaxen beard, a close-cut mustache and large, impressive flaxen eyebrows. Entering the room with an amiable expression on his face, he smiles at old Pozis from a distance. “There’s nothing much new, Reb Kalman. What can be new? Things are bad; it’s hard and bitter to be so poor on this long summer day.”
All at once the old man is flustered; is Yekusiel referring to himself or to the old, impoverished Pozis? For a while he just lies there feeling worthless and blinking his opaque, sightless eyes in embarrassment.
“Sit down, Yekusiel.”
“Thank you, Reb Kalman.”
“Things were different once, eh, Yekusiel?”
“Yes, they were different.”
“Those days are gone now, Yekusiel.”
“Gone, Reb Kalman.”
The old man is lost in thought.
“How old are you, Yekusiel?”
The old man would like to know what the world looks like and what Yekusiel looks like, too – he hasn’t seen anything for twelve years.
“Yekusiel,” he asks cautiously, like a person who is walking on tiptoe, “do you have gray hair yet, Yekusiel?”
But Yekusiel is gone. He could feel that something was wrong and that there was no chance of getting a glass of tea today, so he left early. Old Pozis is alone in the large dining room again, listening to Zivia’s melancholy weeping. He is bored, bored to death with waiting.
In the late afternoon heat the shadows grow longer on the paved streets of the shtetl. The mailman, sweltering in the scorching sun, might be stopping at the house at this very moment to leave precisely one hundred and fifty rubles and the usual note: “On orders from your son I am sending herewith, etc.”
The envelope is from Shmiel, his only son, who owns several distilleries somewhere near Yekaterinaslav and who sends a monthly check for living expenses. The mailman never comes except to bring Shmiel’s letter once a month. The summer days seem endless – and Zivia is crying. The old man scratches his gray head and beard and with every long, drawn-out sigh he mutters, “Oh, God in Heaven – oh, dear God.”
Something happened. There is a letter from the rich son, Shmiel, inviting Zivia to come for a visit. His daughter-in-law added a few words, too: “Zivia won’t regret it! And she needn’t worry if she doesn’t have the proper clothes.”
It’s as clear as day – they have a match for her. And there’s no doubt that if Shmiel and Broche like the prospective groom he’s sure to be somebody special, someone who’s looking for character and family and not just a pretty face.
The old man lies on the sofa, feeling gratified and blinking his opaque eyes in excitement. “What then? Wasn’t it clear all along that Shmiel would find her a groom?”
He’s beside himself with curiosity about the prospective bridegroom and even more about the groom’s father. There must be a few words about this in Shmiel’s letter and he tries to coax the girls into reading it to him.
“Rochele, darling, tell me again how many distilleries Shmiel has,” he pleads, knowing that the girls think the world of their brother. Over and over again, he repeats, “As a young man he was a Hasid – right after the wedding he went to see the rebbe with his father-in-law. And now they say that he wears kid gloves and shakes hands with rich noblemen. He’s bound to have a thick black beard, Rochele, don’t you think? A thick black beard.”
The girls are convinced that it was their late mother, Leah, who had the brains in the family and that their blind father is a fool. They don’t say a word to him about the family and respectability and their expressions seem to say “Just look at whom we have to answer to.”
For a few days the house is filled with unrestrained excitement. The local seamstress, who used to be Rochele’s friend, is always in Zivia’s room, sewing and offering advice. She has three children already and her face is covered with brown spots from her fourth pregnancy. Raised in the city by a rich step-grandfather, she is self-confident and talks as if she’s an expert in the art of attracting grooms. She claims to know some useful charms and herbs for the purpose.
Finally, Zivia is ready to leave. A hired driver waits in front of the house with the luggage and Rochele is there, too, her pathetic, slightly crossed eyes brimming with tears of yearning and repressed envy. She pats the cushion: “Zivia will be comfortable sitting here.”
But four weeks later Zivia is back. She is exhausted and her face is sunburned, as if she’d taken the cure. Now her heart is filled with even more despair and she has a terrible headache on top of it from the long night without sleep in the coach.
Stepping off the carriage with a smile, she seems happy to be home. The house has a holiday air about it, there’s a clean yellow tablecloth on the dining room table and the family is drinking tea. Zivia, frowning, complains of a migraine; the week-long celebration at Shmiel’s rich father-in-law’s house was very noisy.
“Oh my, oh my,” she moans, “it was ear-splitting. Whenever the door creaks I think that the klezmer band is still scratching away.”
The old man lies on the sofa at the side of the room, his blind eyes blinking quickly.
“Well,” he asks, “and how are things in their house? He’s rich, eh? They run a lavish house, eh?”
No one mentions last month’s letter from Shmiel. Zivia sleeps late, but when she wakes up she can still hear the roaring in her ears. Every time the door squeaks she imagines she hears the band playing or the train whistling.
The summer days are long but the house is cool. Lonely and bored, the old man yawns as he lies on the couch in the dining room, scratching his head and pulling on his beard. And with every long, drawn-out sigh he mutters, “Oh, God in heaven – oh, dear God.”
It seems as if nothing will ever happen in this house again.
It is just before sunset on a clear, beautiful day late in summer. The old man is lying on his couch, waiting for his daughter to help him into his Sabbath gabardine and take him out for a walk. Not long ago his old partner, Yisroel Kitiver, died and left a lot of money to his grandson, Notte Hirsh. Now he’s busy refurbishing his grandfather’s house and extending a balcony into the market.
Blind old Pozis imagines himself standing there in his Sabbath gabardine, pointing his stick at the house and saying: “Look here, Notte Hirsh – I remember that there was a deep ditch in the very place where you’re planning to extend the balcony. You’d better dig down and see if the foundation will support it.”
And the people from the shtetl who are watching say, “Well, what do you think? He knows what he’s talking about. Kalman Pozis has a lot of experience in building houses.”
The old man can hardly wait to get to Kitiver’s house in the market.
“Rochele darling,” he calls out every minute, “where is my Sabbath suit?” But Rochele doesn’t answer.
Something happened! A telegram has arrived. The messenger handed it to the sisters through the open window and took off. It’s from Shmiel, the wealthy son. In two days’ time, on his way abroad for the cure, his train will stop briefly at the nearby railroad station and he wants the family to come to see him.
This is surely a portent of good things to come. Suddenly everyone talks at once; a holiday spirit has replaced the usual gloom, and hope has been restored – forever and ever. Shmiel’s telegram must surely be linked to the letter he sent at the beginning of the summer when he invited Zivia to his home. He’s probably bringing someone with him – he can’t be traveling alone.
Rochele’s pained, slightly crossed eyes well up with tears and she is so overcome with emotion that she can only smile and say, “Shmiel! It’s been eight years since we’ve seen you!” And calling out his name, she has the feeling that he’s in the adjoining room.
All the next day the sisters work – they bake ginger cookies, wash handkerchiefs, iron their white jackets. The windows are wide open. The servant-girl watches as Rochele curls her hair and the old man, lying on the couch in the dining room, hears the sisters singing in the back room where they are pressing their clothes, running back and forth between the stove and the table with the hot iron. Yekusiel, inept beadle from the Sadegerer Synagogue, is with the old man.
“Shmiel was a good Hasid, eh, Yekusiel,” he says. “Right after the wedding he went to visit the rebbe with his father-in-law. And now Shmiel is rich – very, very rich.”
Then he becomes thoughtful and silently blinks his sightless eyes, trying to picture what Shmiel looks like now. “He has a beard – he’s sure to have a thick black beard. And he wears kid gloves when he shakes hands with the great lords and landowners with whom he does business, my Shmiel!”
He hardly sleeps at all that night. In the morning, wearing his good coat, he goes out with one of his daughters to the rented coach that is waiting in front of the house. But he doesn’t climb on right away; first he walks around the carriage, touching it here and there – he wants to know if the seats are made of genuine leather. He imagines people from the shtetl standing around on the paved street, watching. Kalman Pozis is going off to meet his son.
“Is there a leather hood?” he asks. “Ah, there is.”
The sisters, wearing their best holiday clothes, pile on all the good things they’ve prepared. They drive around the wide postal road, as excited as if they were going to a wedding. Everything is perfect except for the old man’s constant jabbering. But when they arrive at the station they realize that they set out much too early. They will have to spend a few long hours waiting for Shmiel’s train. Finally it comes. It’s a fast train with reserved seats only. The conductor wears a fancy uniform and has no consideration for the people waiting on the platform. He blows the whistle twice as soon as the train pulls into the station and can hardly wait to blow the third.
“Finished yet? Eh?”
As they rush around the platform they hear a deep, rich baritone voice shouting, “Poppa! Here I am, Poppa, standing near the window!”
A broad-chested young man with a thick black beard and shining, arrogant eyes is standing at the window. It is Shmiel, the rich son. He stretches his hand out toward his father and the old man, excited and shaking like a leaf, feels around with trembling fingers, his cloudy eyes blinking nervously. The sisters take hold of his elbows and guide his arms towards his son.
“Is it Shmiel’s hand?” he asks. “Eh? Shmiel’s hand?”
By now the conductor has blown the whistle for the third time and the train begins to move. The old man keeps tapping the air, as if he were still clutching his son’s smooth kid glove in his hands. Finally he lets his arms down slowly.
They turn to go. The train has left the station and is far away by now, swallowed up somewhere in the furthest corner of the late summer horizon. When they climb into the carriage the sisters search the cabin; they’ve lost a tablecloth full of ginger cookies. But why did they bring the cookies in the first place?
No one says a word in the coach. The horses are tired and move so slowly that the bells around their necks hardly make a sound. But even the faint tinkling gets on Zivia’s nerves and she cries out, “God in Heaven, those bells will drive me mad!” When they get to a wider part of the road she makes the driver stop and remove them.
In the west, over a little wooded area, the sun is about to set. There is a flowing stream in the distance, clear as crystal – pure amber. A short, rosy stripe stretches across the sky and fades in the distance. The sun looks as if it will remain suspended where it is forever, like in Givon.
The old man doesn’t say a word now, heeding his daughters’ warning about his prattling. He blinks his opaque white eyes and smiles into his beard. “Psheh, they think I’m a fool,” he says to himself.
Slowly and silently, without the sound of tinkling bells, they wend their way home. They are eager to be there already – the sooner, the better. No one utters a sound.
Now nothing will ever happen again in the old, neglected house. Next summer, when the thick walls begin to sweat, Zivia will walk around half-dressed and clean all the rooms. She’ll stop eating and drinking and finally take to her bed – and then she’ll sob her heart out. And old Pozis, lying on the sofa in the cool dining room, his narrow, opaque eyes blinking, will engage Yekusiel in conversation. He doesn’t want him to hear Zivia crying.
“The years have passed, eh Yekusiel?”
“They’ve passed, Reb Kalman.”
“They’re gone now, Yekusiel, eh? Not even a shadow is left.”
“Not even a shadow, Reb Kalman – like a dream.”
*This story is taken from: The Short Stories of David Bergelson: Yiddish Short Fiction from Russia, ed. Golda Werman, Syracuse University Press, 1996.
Due to the imminent end of my summer break, and shortly before resuming my work at the Teacher Training College at the beginning of the third week of September, I reassured my wife, Zuleika al-Nadra, that we would not delay another day. She had already complained to me that there was a lot waiting for her to do at our apartment in Oran. I asked her to get ready the leave the following day. Then I headed out. A few meters away – thirty paces as counted years before with a child’s steps – on the other side of the street, I came to a stop. I had never stood like that before, with such sadness, in front of Chaim Ben Maimoun’s house. Like a being turned to stone, it looked haunted by emptiness for the three months since fate had effaced the last of its bygone residents.
I stepped forwards. By the silent door, the one I had seen Chaim coming out of twenty-eight years before with his satchel for us to go together to the Ecole Jules Ferry for the first time, I unhooked the cold piece of metal hanging from a small ring with “house key” written on a label. I inserted the key in the keyhole and turned it twice. Then I went inside and once again I experienced feelings the likes of which I had not felt even on the day when I went back to my grandmother’s house after her death. Such an oppressive calm brooded over the hallway, which was neither long or very wide with its red floor tiles and its walls painted a very light brown. Such a silence that rendered the doors to the three rooms and the kitchen mute as they stood facing each other, two on each side, all open except for the locked door that led to the backyard.
Everything, all the furniture, seemed in exactly the same place as Chaim had left it for the last time, how I had wanted it to remain for him since having told the cleaner Ouniya not to move anything when she came to clean the house every fortnight and water every week the plants in the backyard that needed watering.
It really seemed as though this was the first time. The hallway seemed longer and the wall-clock larger than when I had passed it as a child. Chaim’s bedroom, it’s window overlooking the street with its white curtain with a peacock pattern, looked bigger. Now, however, the room was a study with a wicker chair and an oak desk. The Parker fountain pen and bottle of black Waterman ink were still on the desk and between them a diary that I had seen when I went in two months ago and had been drawn towards as though responding to an ambiguous siren call saying that the diary had been left like that to attract my attention. Otherwise, Chaim would have tucked it away somewhere it couldn’t be seen or placed it on a bookshelf. Despite that, I had hesitated a few moments before opening it.
Here was his parents’ room, which became his bedroom after they died. It too had a closed window with a blind that overlooked the street. The wardrobe was still there, bedding and covers arranged on two tables on either side of it; the large bed and two bedside tables, a lamp on one and a seven-branched Menorah and a Bible bound in dark brown leather on the other.
The sitting room likewise had a large window with a sheer curtain with a pattern of oat florets overlooking the backyard. There were the two sofas and the two wooden armchairs and the low table on a rug. Here it was that three years before I had drunk with Zuleika the coffee that Chaim had offered us after he had escaped being beaten up on the morning of Independence Day. On the wall to the right hung three oil paintings. On the wall opposite were large framed portrait-style photographs: the first of Moshe, Chaim’s father, in a broadcloth turban; the second of his mother, Zahira Simah, whose kind, benign gaze, earrings and necklace, and tight headband made her look like my grandmother Rabia. The third photograph was of Chaim himself as he was in his first year at the Ecole Jules Ferry. I was filled with a nostalgic longing to sit down with him at the same table; for the smell of ink, the crackling of the logs in the stove, and the ringing of the bell; for the crush of our alleyway and the town square when it snowed and we threw snowballs at each other; for the river valley in the heat of summer when we once swam naked and discovered we were both circumcised.
“Since that age, I felt a secret attraction for your gentle features, calm manner, and dreamy eyes,” I whispered to his image. I imagined him smiling back and I added, “Do you remember our last piece of mischief?” That was when we got scared by Alphonso Batiste shouting at us; he had caught us up the pear tree on his little farm in the southern suburb by the western bank of the river. We jumped down and slipped away like two sly foxes between the wires of the fence. Our legs raced off with us in our shorts, cardigans, and rubber sandals. We didn’t pay attention to anything until the arches of the bridge loomed above us. Nearby we could hear the roaring of the engine of a car that I had seen when I glanced behind me. It was eating up the dusty road close to the Sigoura bar and causing clouds of dust as thick as Alphonso Batiste’s rage as he pressed on the accelerator as hard as he gripped the steering wheel. As I felt this, I imagined how he would deal with the Arab boy and the son of the Jewess.
“It’s because he knew who we were,” Chaim reminded me years later at the restaurant of the Orient Hotel, where we had lunch when the place appealed to us and talked about our old teacher at the Ecole Jules Ferry, Monsieur Jaime Sanchez, whose funeral we had attended a few days before at the Christian Cemetery in the eastern suburb of the city. We recalled his strictness and his fairness towards his pupils without discrimination. We only learned at his funeral that he had been a communist in the Republican ranks against Franco.
I have no doubt today that to Alphonso Batiste as he fumed behind us changing gear or swinging the steering wheel left to right we were far worse than two little devils who had disturbed his siesta. Alphonso Batiste – as during our lunch Chaim told me he had imagined – thought that once he had caught us, after having exhausted us and made us surrender, he would throw us into the boot of his car trussed back to back like the trophies of a hunt and take us back to the same pear tree. Then he would snap off some branches from other plum and apple trees, and raise and lower the amount in compensation he would demand from the families of the two little thieves, as he called them, or else he would make a formal complaint against them.
I still felt that shiver of fear whenever I remembered that Alphonso Batiste’s car would have caught up with us between the Sigoura Bar and the viaduct over the river. The fear had started to creep into my knees, and Chaim’s gasps behind me made more frightened that he was going to collapse. An idea flashed across my mind: jumping into the water. I signaled to him with my hand and he followed me as we suddenly swerved away to the right, using our arms like two birds for balance, down towards the river, slipping down the steep slope. We jumped into the water, and like two beavers, swam across to the other bank. When we got there, we turned around in terror and saw Alphonso Batiste, who had got out of his car and run after us. He stood there on the edge of the water, shouting incomprehensibly and gesturing threateningly. Laughing, we turned our backs on him and disappeared into the olive groves.
On the way back to our street, we crossed the railways’ lines and went down Jerriville Street, which, like the other streets, was almost devoid of movement on that burning-hot afternoon. Nothing moved apart from a car whose engine whined and whose wheels whooshed on the tarmac, a woman passing in a white cylindrical hat, and a man standing smoking on the opposite pavement in the shade of a plane tree.
“I was about to fall over,” said Chaim. “Then he would have trapped me like a rabbit.”
I laughed. “I could tell your tongue was hanging out like a puppy dog.”
“Yeah. But how did you come up with the idea?”
I replied that I didn’t know. I had only been planning to shorten the route.
“We were lucky that it’s summer and the river is low. Otherwise, we’d have drowned,” added Chaim as he tugged his sodden clothing off his stomach at one moment and off his thighs the next.
“That wouldn’t have happened because fear would have given us the strength to cross an ocean!” I said as I rubbed the water out of my hair.
Chaim raised his fist in victory and laughed in delight and I joined in.
Once we had gone past the clocktower close by the box-like sundial without the gaze of the suspicious policeman disturbing our steps, the Ecole Jules Ferry appeared to our left. We stopped and silently turned towards it. What voices of elation, disappointment, and deceit had filled it for six years!
Then, hand in hand, we turned towards our street, east of the town hall with its black slate roof. To our right was the Orient Hotel at the end of Izly Street. Close to our homes, we took shelter in an abandoned, roofless hut at the end of our street. We sat down on two rocks under the sun. As we waited for our clothes to dry, we went over our plot against our schoolmate Max Batiste, on account of which he had complained about us to his father Alphonso. He claimed that we had made fun of him one time in the playground because he had wet himself when the teacher had asked him to solve a long division on the blackboard, and that we had laughed at him on another occasion when he had been unable to learn the fable of the Crow and the Fox by heart. He told his father that the teacher, Monsieur Sanchez, mostly turned a blind eye and played deaf.
“I know, son, because Mr Sanchez sympathizes with the Jewish and Muslim natives,” Max’s father said at the time.
Those words were soon doing the rounds. When they reached Monsieur Sanchez, he devoted a civics class to integrity. On the blackboard he wrote something for us to copy into our exercise books: “A school teacher does not discriminate between his pupils and does not favour some over others on the basis of religion or race.”
What Max had concealed from his father was that we responded to his inducements in the form of the sweets and chocolates he kept in his pockets and helped him with his homework at the school gates before going in or when leaving.
Mr Alphonso Batiste visited the headmaster one day and asked him to clarify the matter. Monsieur Sanchez was summoned and questioned about the matter, which he firmly denied. Mr Alphonso Batiste was not convinced, however. He threatened to end his charitable contributions to the school unless the two guilty pupils – Arslan the Caid’s boy and Chaim the Jew boy – were made an example of. I only learned later that Mr Alphonso Batiste was a supporter of Marshal Pétain. The headmaster proposed bringing the three of us to his office straight away to discover what had happened. Alphonso Batiste conceded, promising to keep quiet this time, but threatening to make a complaint to the head of the town council if his son was upset again.
We, two little devils, looked at the marks of our schoolmate Max, which were poor in comparison with our own excellent marks, and we realized that nobody would dare punish us with expulsion, transfer, or detention, or even being denied lunch in the school dining room or the monthly film show in the school hall. Instead, we got a telling-off from the headmaster in front of our teacher.
Standing in front of Chaim’s photograph, I found it amazing that we should have come up with the idea of taking revenge against Max’s father in that way. I knew, just like Chaim, and we were both confident in our belief, that Alphonso Batiste would never make another complaint to the headmaster of the Ecole Jules Ferry, because we were never going back there, unlike his son Max, who had to redo the year, since we had won the competition to enter year six.
That year we would turn twelve, and in another year World War II would be over.
I turned away from Chaim’s portrait to leave, but I stopped again before the diary between the pen and the bottle of ink, unable to make up my mind for a few moments before setting off down the corridor towards the door out.
They are nomads. They grace only Paris with their presence for months and are niggardly to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid, and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home; for them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which can be gazed on through the lowered curtains of grand-hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until they are convinced that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch sight of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. They sleep until lunch. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards, she is a great beauty, but she has never been beautiful. Don’t believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: white face, rouge, eye shadow, and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage, she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend their luncheons, which are given in her honor or which she occasionally gives before leaving one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first glance; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, silver or bloodlines. These luncheons are not boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. Their poses are rather informal: neck turned one way, head the other and one elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to hers. They are almost all drunk, and their behavior is quite forward as if they’ve known her forever. If they had just a bit more to drink, they’d be cheeky. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (never forgetting to say “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and apparently are not afraid of making fools of themselves. Some gallantly heave themselves over the table to kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smiling beatifically and drinking only red wine, which is often especially good at the luncheons.
She, queen of the table, is dressed in a wardrobe that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears massive, smooth bracelets on both wrists. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. Her face glows as she bestows a wide smile on all her fellow diners. She has the ability to smile at everyone all at once, to speak with everyone, to nod her head sweetly; her head nods are for each person at the table. If you look at her face, you’d think that she is sitting with a group of her closest and most beloved friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. On the back, right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but her poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you forget for a long time how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? He sits, le mari d’elle, five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot and eats a lot, and is silent a lot, and rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. As you look at this figure, you feel that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with streaks of bald spots across the top of his head. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have furrowed his face, leaving deep wrinkles. He is about 35 years old, no more, but he looks older. His face seems to have been soaked in kvass. His eyes are fine but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe, for some reason, he got the nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat, he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners do not notice him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought and keeps these two people together.
When you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the entrepreneurs, contracts, and agreements. She only associates with her adoring public and does not deign to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. Therefore, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a considerable salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, he robs her together with the maid, throws away her money, carouses recklessly and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that because they can’t get to the heart of the matter, so they judge by appearances. They regard her as a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman is really not worthy of love. And she isn’t worthy of hatred. She ought to be shown no attention and her very existence should be ignored. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, she has two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, she had two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinary agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, in all of her form there is one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that, I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with a crude manner: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks her whole body back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example of this: she tosses together clean underclothes with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a dirty mess. Or why tell you about it? Just look at her at noon when she wakes up and lazily crawls out from under the covers, and you would never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes sleepy and puffy, in a nightgown with torn shoulders, barefoot, hunched over surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least no worse. She lost half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll lose the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. Unless it is praise, she doesn’t like it when people tell the truth about her. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is not trained. Her brain lost its elasticity long ago. It is covered with fat and is asleep.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not in money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because she has developed the conviction that there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland, she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A wicked woman, thousand times over!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her and, I beg, you, look carefully. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, those crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly about the air when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the theater shakes with applause.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep, we sleep until morning and wake up to curse one another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions, I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German dotted with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
“You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. For what? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. Judge for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he grouses and gets into fights. He even hits me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a thing.
He’s always very shabby although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I will never attempt to monitor him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He is disdainful of women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all he does.
He never graduated from school. He was expelled from the university for insolence in his first year.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness, that is, I’m acting up, he stomps around like a corpse and makes fists.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my life. It took place in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to drink. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a company. On one spree as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests got very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered that he be served wine. It turns out that this temperance worker drinks wine very well indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence by marrying him.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. He says this word with a deep voice deep, with a catch in his throat and a facial tick. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — regardless of who it is — says a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says:
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — coincides with his utterance of that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I guess a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost male handwriting. You won’t find a single grammatical error in it.
Was it merely deception or something more?
The paths were so exhausting, and the days were so hard!
Wouldn’t it have been better to take the short-cuts?
Nothing is of any use now. All that matters is that he’s home at last, and his eyes have embraced the sea after an arduous journey of which he recollects little, and that took up two ages of his life.
Nothing has changed. Everything is just the way you left it when you were dragged from this world.
Knock on the door now. It’s all over. Knock!
At their first reunion, every barrier and limit melted away. The frozen time of separation melted. Yet the homeland, the dream, became a song burning with passion in head and heart.
She rested her eyes over his and collapsed to settle in his body. Inside her eyelids she drew him as an ideal beauty despite the stench of blood exuded by his briny limbs.
Open your eyes wide. Can you see her? Your wife, whose features you are now delineating so you can remember clearly. She sleeps like a wound lodged in your joints, which are branded with the scars of imprisonment. You loved her. You weren’t a romantic hero who won the hearts of the neighborhood beauties. Yet each of you settled in the bleeding of the other, a homeland rearranging its face. The first time you saw her, you were a sailor eking out a life in squalor, his only possessions hunger and dreams to fight for, and hoping against hope for a wife to warm his nights.
As he stood there thinking, the sea leapt before his eyes in its infinite grandeur. Discovering these aquamarine worlds for the first time, he placed his hand on the closed door on which he had still not dared to knock.
“What on Earth? Only an inch separates the sea from the prison cell, but it’s still so far off.”
Don’t you know? You’ve scaled your third decade, and now you’re afraid that the one who loved you when you smelled of hunger and the sea and who shared your dream won’t recognize you anymore. It’s been six years, long enough for entire dynasties to fall and rise. You’re coming back to her from exile in cold prison dungeons. Eternity is etched in your flickering eyes. How did you get out with your limbs still attached to your body? The torture was brutal. In the city, kids ran after you shouting. Streets, seedy cafes, and filthy alleyways pelted you with stones. You were written off as a madman, because your features were clothed in nakedness and fear.
“All your exacting questions remain unanswered.”
That time, you were Jean Valjean, buried alive in jail for the sake of a crust he’d stolen when starvation lay siege to the four quarters, and when death lay down with thousands of rebellious hungry mouths.
Wolves. Wolves. Wolves.
You remember them well. They were a night of black beetles. They led you away, drenched in sweat, like rabid beasts. Then your friends carried you, like a crack in the head and a mine ready to explode in the heart.
You knew very well that you would be led off to a place from which no visitor returned, because your body exuded the scent of the night, and they hated that sort of person. For the twentieth time you faced the sea in search of work, your eyes bathed in sadness. You accepted grudgingly in exchange for a few hungry Francs. Years later, a flood of warnings swept down on you because you had stepped out of the circle of silence, arming consciousness with an explosive device.
You were suspect.
You were a wanted man, accused of disturbing the peace of the city and distributing clandestine pamphlets.
The shackles bit into your wrists with a strange longing. Your little dreams from childhood were savaged by horses of fear and beetles of the night. The sinister police herded you onto a jeep that roved the narrow streets and quarters of that infested city. Your comrades of the sea saw you off in silence, the wound in their chests as deep as the heart.
They threw you into a dark dungeon and shrieked in your face. You’d become nothing but merchandise to be sold in the torture chambers.
“Wipe the blueness of the sea from your memory.”
“But the sea is the soul of my starving city.”
“You’re not from there anymore. You have no city.”
Defiance showed on your broad features; kicks rained down from every side and the whips engulfed you. Copious blood flowed from your limbs, murdered in broad daylight. You were no mythic hero and you tried in vain to wipe the colour of the sea from your eyes.
“Beware.” you thought, “Colours are part of you. If they’re erased, you’ll disappear with them.”
With a jolt, you remembered you were nothing but the colour blue.
Not far off, the train burst into a high-pitched shriek. He well knew that between a train coming and a train going were ages of struggle with death. The dream had emerged from his memory maimed and paralyzed. Against the contours of his face and his trembling body there formed a tragedy that recalled its every moment with its wails and groans. The whistle of the train and the shrieks of prisoners were superimposed into one, yielding a situation charged with death and destruction and moments of overwhelming terror.
When they flung you into the ring of interrogation and torture, the cold was a shaft lodged in your body. You held your tongue, maintaining a glacial silence despite the deafening screams. But they were too strong for you.
“Bid yourself farewell in this dungeon.”
One of them was in your face, his eyes those of a cat, and his face scarred from smallpox. Fear flickered in your eyes like a gazelle being pursued by an aged wolf.
They laughed among themselves when they put a bottle of wine under your nose.
“I only drink on special occasions and with friends,” you said.
One of them laughed, saying. “And we’re friends too.”
When with your vacant eyes you discovered that the bottle was empty, you understood the charade.
They made you, naked as a new-born mouse yet to open its eyes, sit down on the bottle.
In front of you a woman, a comrade, fainted, and went limp as a rag. She had clung in desperation to one of them, but he showed her no mercy. He pushed her down, sending her sprawling onto the freezing floor. Blood trickled out from between her parted thighs, forming surreal images. You, like a vanquished hero, turned your eyes away from her lacerated body and shut them tight. In vain you tried to erase the scene from your mind.
You swore, “Sons of bitches. They know the most painful and cruellest spots,” and were afraid they might have heard you.
One of them woke you up, his hand stained with her blood. “You’re all the same when the silence hollows you out,” he said. “Your friend is dead. Your woman comrade has fallen. You’re in so much pain, you’re about to scream. You know you’ll succumb soon, just like all the others. Talk, and before you know it, we’ll bring you back to life.”
A deceived black man, he devoured your limbs and more as maggots hatched in your hands and knives sprouted in your torn body.
Between an imminent death and a life now distant, you mumbled words that bounced back into your gut.
“Ah, if only I could meet him in a deserted forest …”
“And what would you do with him?”
“I‘d banish him from life forever. I’d kill him without the slightest remorse. A woman’s body is sacred. How could he take pleasure in lacerating and mutilating it? He must be sick and crushed inside.”
The whip cracked again on your hands. The knife carved a deep furrow in your chest.
“You‘ll die right here if we don’t get the list. Tell us, and you’ll be free of us.”
“What list are you talking about?”
“The one in your head.”
“There’s nothing in my head. Do I still have a head?”
Before you finished the sentence, the whip writhed like a serpent over your body. You hid you head between your hands and let it devour you slice by slice, relishing the pleasure of cutting you to pieces.
It was a black day when you received a telegram that said: “The streets uprooted themselves this morning, but the demonstration was routed and the sailors withdrew. The governor expects a repeat, so communiques were issued and different posters put up in the days that followed. Khabra was hanged at a public display. KS, Mohamed al-Himm, fell under torture because he wouldn’t talk. Little Larbi was caught at sea distributing clandestine pamphlets, so they shot him. Hussein Busafaia was found bloated one morning on the seashore with critical documents lying unread in his stomach.”
The comrades had kept the commandment.
The city took it upon itself to spread the news via dispatches and the radios planted along the sides of the road.
When you were in prison this was happening. The names of people who had shared with you the joy and terror of the sea had dropped off the list of those who had incurred wrath.
It’s said that when the demonstration erupted again, it was fiercer than the ones before.
Now you’re standing there like a soldier not brave enough to knock.
“Just knock, and you’ll see.”
Homesickness is killing you. The sea is just a hand’s breadth away. You can plunge into your dream through its wide-open gates. You can throw yourself in, bathe, and heal your bleeding scars with its salt. You can do anything without fear. Be quite convinced of that.
Ooof. Don’t be scared. Nobody’s watching. The eyes of the dogs who have been allowed to return to their distant cities will not follow you anymore.
Everything he saw seemed strange: the house hunkered by the sea that had spewed it out, its eroding roof and walls. The sea salt had eaten away at its wooden frame, which had begun gradually dissolving.
“From these shacks your son emerged consumptive from the damp. He embraced the verdant forest, carrying the same dispatches and orders that lie sleeping now in your brain.”
He ran his hands slowly over the door. It was as heavy as the grief of the one who had carved it.
A thousand and one times your heart told you to run away, and your nose broke against the rough metal of the door. How often did the blows rain down on your temple and the whip scourge your back? The guards threatened to kill you and make an example of you because you were an outlaw whose blood could be shed with impunity.
When they threw you in the dungeon, they confined you between four walls that oozed with damp. They made you clean clogged sewers and toilets and pick up cigarette butts despite the gaping wounds left on your back by the scourge’s gluttonous feasts.
“Dogs and sires of dogs, that’s all they are. Where did they come from? How did they rob the country and turn it into a secret arena for the daily taking of life? Where did they come from, and where were they before?”
All wishes are unacceptable.
You dozed off once and dreamed another dream the size of the buried moon. The night guard’s rifle came down on your head. He dragged you like a carcass and locked the door to your dungeon. You slept involuntarily under the impact of the vicious beating.
“To dream is forbidden… It’s forbidden to dream.” Those were the only words you heard before you fell.
Your clothes went stiff on your body. A six-year regime of attrition is no easy matter. During those years you dreamed yourself to exhaustion. Other things you faintly regretted.
The deserted streets of your city, which were your constant companion and upon which you spread your frigid nights, clearly recall your face’s sea-chiselled features.
He curled up inside his body like a frightened snail.
“You’re dissolving in your own blood now. In your guts howl the barrels of soapy water they forced you to drink so that you would confess the list in your head. Your dream that has fallen into the dustbin nestles among your open wounds. When the blood flowed from every part of you, you realized that before daybreak you would die in this filth.
“If you die, so what? Will the Earth start spinning in the opposite direction? A dog is better than you. The law will suffer no defeat after you, because it exists to protect those greater than you.”
He ran his hands over the wall again. The house had become old and decrepit, haunted by time, and furrowed by quotidian trials.
“Come on, be brave. Knock on the door. Knock! You won’t lose anything by it. Behind these boards eaten away by the sea’s blind woodworms lies your other face. Inside is a glorious culmination on a scale with these sufferings and this memory. Knock! Knock! you won’t lose anything.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You don’t know how your hand fell so heavily on the door.
Suddenly, it seemed as if you were hearing a song of the sea coming from somewhere nearby. Your eyes slid towards the light that inhabits the sea. It seemed as if folk melodies were ringing out, sung by the blue people of the sea and the boats.
Then a great silence fell. He felt a deep sadness disfiguring what remained of his features. The first time had died, leaving behind a plague-stricken time.
“What? The big fat boss might have been itching, in this darkness, to add the last fishermen’s boats to his fleet and sell their labour on the market. Years ago, a fortune teller predicted: “When Jacques leaves, the boss will still be here.”
Departing never ends.
(You turned slightly. The dream seemed to expand and take on the shape of a new map shaped like the sea.)
The streets, departing with their shouts, were shut fast with split-open corpses in the press of the night. The hands of the fishermen interlocked in what can only be called a wonderous way to bring back the boats, the colour of the sea, and the beautiful songs.
Grandfather, who was swallowed up by the sea one night, used to repeat a wise old saying: “The river is the dream of the poor; the sea the dream of the stranger; and the night the memory of lovers.”
“You learned that by heart and repeated it as a unity because you combine exile, poverty, and the greatest love of life any person could have.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You knocked again more urgently. The door opened ever so gently.
“Sir? Do you need something? Like you, we have nothing to give except a little warmth, if you’re cold from the rain and afraid of the thunder.”
On the doorstep, a worn-out woman was speaking, her days exhausted and decayed by the years. Between her wheat-coloured wrinkles dwelt ages resisting death. The glow of a candle and the jet-blackness of the night outlined her features.
“Her! She’s only changed a little.”
He alit on the surface of her eyes like an incandescent star that illumined all the dreams and cities of blue.
In vain you tried to wipe out your memory.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes. Behind the thick beard that had stolen the light of your face and beyond the many wrinkles, she saw you. She clasped you violently and curled into a ball to settle in your chest as a green tattoo. She collapsed onto your body as a sea and sails billowing in the wind.
At their second reunion, at a time when both of them hauled a train of weary years behind them, all the barriers and limits fell away. She rearranged his face, and he hers, both of them, forming in their eyes a sea and a map of the fugitive homeland.
“Departures will never end.”
“That was the first age. This is the second age. The beautiful age will come.”
Their sea eyelids widened in an effort to forget the years of loss and deception.
“Was it just a nightmare that resembled deception, or was it something more?”
Perhaps it was something else. They stole everything from you. The homeland; your life; your spouse; and your children who died in your absence. They stole your ability to love.
Now you have to relearn everything afresh. You have to teach your killer how to become human. You will tell him: “The war is over. You have to devote yourself to rebuilding a land that turned to ashes, and whose heirs made it a widow.”
Heirs? Beware of saying that word. You’ll be accused of being a Communist, an infidel, an atheist, a nationalist, of manipulating the faith, of treason … No matter. Say nothing, but just teach your killer to see you as a human being like him.
You heard her murmur: “You’ve come back, and that’s all that matters to me. We’ll mend ourselves over time.”
You shut your eyes, and she plunged into a vortex of bitter sobs whose source you couldn’t identify.
*[Written in 1977, this story was published in the collection, Asmak al-Barr al-Mutawahhish, [The Fish of the Savage Land], Dar al-Jamal, 2010.]
“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.”
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.