By Emma Musty
Aziz. Standing. Queuing. In Calais drizzle.
Mountains had been crossed, seas defeated, for this. He had no tobacco and looked towards the volunteers to see if anyone was smoking. No luck. He had not smoked at home, but then, this was not home.
For want of anything better to do he stared at the queue of Africans, mainly Eritreans, though not exclusively. Like him, they wore other people’s clothes, misshapen lumps of wool and cotton. The colours mismatched and muddled. Hints of a style that was once theirs displayed by caps or upturned collars. Today, they had been made to queue according to race. The organisers had at first tried to do it by country, but they did not have the eyes to differentiate between Afghan and Kurd or Somali and South African, let alone the tribal subdivisions, the laws of history visible only to those who knew what to look for.
Something hot with chicken could be smelt. The scent escaped through the tall metal fence to the queue outside, luring them into the trap once again. Everyday, they entered the cage. The pointed ends of the fence spiked inwards, to prevent people climbing out. One day, maybe, they would close the gate and laugh at them all feeding.
Always, for dessert, with the option of saving it for later, a banana – A fruit that most of these men would recognise from home. It could even have travelled a similar route, but had probably come by plane.
The volunteers smiled and spoke in heavily accented English, their faces too gentle to bear as they handed over the steaming polystyrene containers. They smiled as you would at the elderly or the disabled, at people somehow different that might not understand. Aziz – whose family had been farmers, a respected position in the days when such things were possible in his town – received the look with appropriate humility and quickly walked away to sit on the tarmac.
He had been young when he left, but he felt old now.
At home, he had been a good student. He had thought of becoming a doctor. He had never broken the law. In Greece, he had been arrested for the first time. At sea. At night. In a small boat. When the struggle was over, and the men in the motorboat, the men with the guns, had taken them to shore, the boy from his village – with whom he had laughed and talked and hid – was gone. Without having to confer, the group altered the number of those who had been in the boat by one.
Aziz contemplated his banana, to eat it now, or to save it for later, or to save it to swap for a cigarette. Today, he decided, the cigarette would win. His clothes were damp and he wondered absentmindedly if the sun would come out to dry them. Or maybe, if he walked around long enough, his body heat would do the job for him. It was bad to sleep in wet clothes. It was hard to sleep at night when you might be snatched, but then it was hard to leave food distribution when you also might be snatched, and fingerprinted, and detained, and possibly deported. Though often, you were just thrown back onto the streets.
He had no blanket anyway – it had been taken again at the last raid. His best option was to swap the banana for a cigarette, hopefully find someone with some hot, sweet tea and walk or talk or both until he could no longer keep his eyes open, until his body shut down of its own accord.
Aziz had run out of money for the smugglers so all he could do was try the trucks on his own, but last week a boy had died falling out from underneath. He would not try the trucks tonight. When he got to England he was going to work at a car wash. His cousin had told him all about it over the phone. He would send money to his uncle to pay back the debt from his journey. He was glad, at least, that his parents were not alive to see this.
There was a lot of talk about what life would be like in England. Some of the men had already been there and were trying to get back to their families. Some of them had been to places called Scotland and Wales, some to Manchester and Birmingham. Everyone had lived in, or passed through, London. It was here that they did the tests. Aziz had been told that if they did not believe that you were under eighteen they would touch your … and watch your reaction. He tried not to think about it.
Aziz walked out along the coast road towards the jungle – the piece of scrubland, hidden in the forest, where he lived – avoiding police patrols, and thought, maybe today is a lucky day. His clothes were drying in the breeze, and he stopped for a moment to stare across the water. Sometimes, you could see the other side, and occasionally, people tried to swim.
As he crossed the sand dunes an exchange took place and Aziz drew deeply and gratefully on his cigarette. His feet felt heavy as he dragged them through the soft sand. Tomorrow, he knew, he would walk back to food distribution, queue patiently, contemplate his banana, seek sleep and safety, and possibly fail. And if today was a lucky day, maybe he should take his chances.
At the end of the dunes the shoreline greeted him, its blueness stretching outwards, beckoning. If he did not take his clothes he would arrive naked, so he removed them and tied them into a bundle. He turned to look for the last time at all the secret lives buried in the rolling dunes and scrubby plants. He thought of the plains of Afghanistan, threw down his cigarette, and walked into the sea.
© Emma Musty 2011
Emma Musty has an MA in Creative writing from Bangor University. Her work has appeared in Leaf Books and Duality Books anthologies. She also writes for local magazines and performs her own music. Emma lives in Wales and works for a homelessness charity. She is currently completing her first novel.