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.