UKArchive ID: 33589thegeeza
Originally published on September 15, 2014 in Fiction
The recent instances of migrants doing anything to get into the country inspired this cheery tale. If you forget that there is not enough space to let them in, it makes you wonder why they do what they do. It makes you wonder if you might not do the same, if the situation was in reverse.
Alan stood in the dark with his hands in his pockets. He tried to pull up the zip of his thin coat but it was already as far as it could go. He wiped the cold sweat from his brow and rocked gently backwards and forwards. He looked back at the shadow between the enormous freight containers but could see nothing.
‘Over here,’ said a voice.
Alan could not see where it came from.
‘I’m here,’ it hissed.
Alan followed the sound and was pulled into the shadows.
‘Have you got the money?’ said the man, his face mostly in shadow.
Alan unzipped his jacket and pulled a wad of cash from his inside pocket. ‘Two thousand.’
The money was snatched away and handed off into the darkness.
‘This is a special price, friend.’
‘Not everybody gets this.’
‘I appreciate it.’
‘Yes, you will.’
A voice whispered in the darkness.
‘Go back to your family and wait.’
‘Wait? How do I know you won’t just take my money and run?’
‘Run? Why would I run? If I wanted to take your money, I would just take your money. Now go and join your family … do it now.’
The face faded. Alan looked around, zipped up his jacket and turned away. His wife, Mary, looked at him, searching for answers. His young daughter, her blond hair tucked into her coat, looked forward, empty, shivering against the cold. Her face was dirty but he could see her beautiful blue eyes, blinking hard against the biting chill in the air.
‘Well?’ said his wife.
They stood silently, the dark grey sky sitting above the city lights, hiding the twinkling stars beyond.
‘I want to sit down, Daddy.’
‘Okay.’ He took her by the shoulders and looked for a patch of ground that might be dry.
‘What are you doing, are you mad?’ said his wife. ‘They’ll be here in a minute, won’t they?’
He ignored her and sat Mollie down, her back against the giant container. He held her in his arms and told her she would be okay.
‘Where are they?’ said Mary.
Alan stood and walked past her. He looked up and down the wide road, where the trucks came for the containers. Nothing moved. The city in the distance betrayed a world of activity that was now dead to them, nothing left there.
‘Over here,’ said a quiet voice.
Alan peered into the gloom and could see a faint outline.
‘Come on,’ he said to his wife and daughter, ‘they’re here.’
The man was very thin, his skull-like face sitting impossibly far back under his hood. His eyes moved from side to side and he shifted from one foot to the other. He looked behind Alan and took careful stock of his wife and daughter.
‘Nice,’ he said.
‘Where have you been?’ said Alan.
The man touched his wife’s hair, then leaned forward and pulled out some of the hair from inside his daughter’s coat. ‘Nice.’
‘What do you mean … nice?’
The man straightened and turned to Alan. ‘Don’t question me,’ he said. ‘Or I’ll kill you.’ He slowly inspected Alan’s weathered jacket, his tatty jeans, his old and battered training shoes. ‘Give me your shoes,’ he said.
‘Give me your shoes.’
The man stared into Alan’s face, expressionless, no connection. ‘Do not question me.’
Alan looked at his wife. Paralysed. His daughter gripped her mother’s hand as tight as she could. He took off his shoes and handed them to the man.
He turned the shoes over in his hands and then threw one high onto a container. They listened to it bounce on the roof. He handed the other back to Alan. ‘Put it on,’ he said.
They followed the man, walking fast, close to the line of containers. Alan walking lop-sided, smaller strides with the shoeless leg. Mollie struggled to keep up. She whimpered, so her mother put her finger to her mouth.
They reached the dockside and the man did not hesitate as he walked up the ramp and into the enormous cargo ship. The family followed. He disappeared through a doorway. The family stopped and turned.
‘A new life awaits us, Mary,’ said Alan, smiling. The dark shipyard of Southampton Docks gave way to the lights from the road, a few cars speeding one way and the other. It all seemed normal, like the night that followed any day and then waited, quiet, for the rising sun to bring new opportunities with it. It had all changed so fast.
The man marched them through dimly lit corridors, twisting one way and the other. ‘Here,’ he said.
Alan moved to the door but the man barred the way with his arm. ‘Women and children,’ he said.
‘We stay together,’ said Alan.
The man grabbed him by the neck and slammed him against the wall, pulling a gun from his belt and pushing it hard against Alan’s face. ‘I said don’t question me!’ Spittle sprayed Alan’s face. The man held still, contorted and twisted before turning to the woman and child. ‘Go in the door,’ he said. ‘Now.’ They were frozen with fear. ‘Now!’
Mollie made to cry.
‘Come on,’ said Mary. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘Daddy,’ she whispered.
‘It’s okay,’ said Alan, still being throttled through his Marks and Spencer jacket. ‘I’ll be fine. Just go with Mummy and I’ll see you soon, okay?’
Mary opened the door. Alan tried to see in but the man held firm. The door closed behind them, heavy and final.
‘What’s in there?’
‘Woman and children,’ said the man. ‘Any more fuss and I’ll throw you in the sea. Like junk. Okay?’
The man pushed him down the corridor.
‘Get on your knees.’
‘Get on your knees.’
Alan knelt, he could see his soaking wet sock was working loose. It bothered him. It bothered him that this bothered him as he faced death.
‘Do you believe in God?’ said the man.
‘No. How can there be?’
The man put the gun against Alan’s temple. ‘Do not question me again,’ said the man. ‘You mean nothing to me. Nothing. I hate you.’ The man kicked Alan onto the floor. ‘Get up,’ he said.
Alan got to his feet.
The man pointed with his gun. ‘The men stay outside,’ he said. ‘Women and children inside.’
Outside, they walked to where freight containers were stacked. The man walked to one and opened a door. ‘In this one,’ he pointed to the container above them with his gun, ‘electrical equipment.’ He pointed to the open door. ‘In this one?’ He smiled. ‘Scum like you.’
He pulled a bottle of water from his jacket. ‘This might keep you alive.’ He sneered, tipped some out and gave the bottle to Alan as he pushed him inside and closed the door. It was pitch black. Alan stumbled forward, clutching the water bottle to his chest.
‘Watch it,’ said a voice.
A couple of mobile phone lights came on and lit him up. In the gloom, he could see the shapes of people: shoulders, heads, heads, shoulders. The light went out. He felt his way along, searching for a gap. ‘Is anyone here?’ He could feel bodies move, making space, so he turned and sat with his back against the wall.
Other shadows came through the door and took their place in the anonymous darkness.
The air was heavy with breathing and invisible movement. Foul smells drifted across in waves. Occasional coughs but otherwise quiet. The ship moved. He tried to imagine what his wife and daughter could see but it felt black. He reached out with his hands and felt nothing.
He awoke to a voice. ‘Give me that, give me that.’ Hands were on his water bottle, he pulled back. ‘Let me have it!’
Alan struggled, wordless and from the darkness his assailant crashed his head into Alan’s face, again and again. Alan cried out and let go of the bottle. As he did, his own hands reached forward and grabbed the man by his throat.
‘Get off!’ the man shouted. Alan pushed him to the ground and rolled on top of him, hands still around his throat. ‘Get off, get off!’
Alan could see nothing but he pushed with all his strength. The man wriggled, gurgled and lay still. He felt the man’s face. His mouth was open. His eyes were open. He took the bottle, sat back down and tried to push the man away with his legs. No one spoke. Someone nearby coughed. Alan made a fist with both hands, trying to stop them shaking. He took a drink from the bottle and put it under his legs.
He had never even had a fight before. He had been pushed around and punched by soldiers sometimes but had always just crawled away like a stray dog. He wondered if the police would arrest him when they got to their new life in the Nirvana. Could anyone prove it was him? Was it self defence? He touched the man with his foot. He was still there, motionless and dead. The man could have a family, they could be sitting and laughing with his own family right now. He had just murdered the husband, the father, all over a bottle of foul-tasting water.
He could sense people all around. Both neighbours pushed back silently when he moved. He needed the toilet. He would hold it. He would hold it all the way to paradise.
He awoke with a start and he could feel the struggle within his bowels. The pain from his nose and eyes, searing. He felt his face, inspecting the swelling, tasted the dried blood in his mouth. He let his urine out, feeling its warm patch spread around his groin and bottom. His bowel continued to convulse. He resolved to drink no more of the water, yet his mouth was dry, so he wondered if small sips might move more unobtrusively through his system.
‘Where’s the toilet?’ he said, trying to stand.
‘Sit down,’ said a voice.
‘I need the toilet.’
‘Sit down.’ Another voice.
‘There’s no toilet.’
He pressed himself against the wall of the container and slid down. He let it out as slowly as he could, without noise, in silent shame. No reaction from anywhere. Nothing. The putrid smell made him gag but he was in a world by himself, blinded and alone. He felt like he could scream and no one would hear.
He could feel the hum of the ship massage him gently and it began to offer comfort. Incessant progress, inch by inch, mile by mile, all for the new beginning, the sacrifice worth making. He was going to a fertile land of hope and opportunity. They told him. They welcomed migrant workers, took them in, gave them a life. It was time to start again. They told him. His family had to give up everything to be reborn. It would be worth it. They told him. He just wanted a home and a normal life. They told him that he could have it. He wretched and spat into his lap. He took his water bottle and silently sipped it – just a little.
The nights were cold but the days became increasingly hot, the atmosphere ever more oppressive. He was convinced people were dying quietly in the dark. The dead man still lay at his feet. From time to time, he swayed to his left or right, just to feel the push back of another person. He never heard them drink, he never felt them do anything. He had to punch and kick and fight off hands that occasionally challenged him in the darkness.
The ship stopped. He took a sip from the bottle, now empty. He thought of throwing the bottle but it was his only possession.
Hands attacked him. He gave up the bottle.
He listened. He cocked his head. He could hear something. He wondered if madness had taken him when he heard it again. A shout. From the outside. He could hear shouting. Louder and louder. A crashing sound against wall. The shouting was louder. Another crash, high up on the wall of the container. Some indiscriminate noise on the top of the container. Another crash. Shouting. Louder. A mob. He tried to hold his position as his dark world lurched one way and then the other. His neighbours fell on him, he on them. They pushed each other for balance. The disgusting smell, the rivers of human waste rushing under him. The container moved to the left, to the right. He felt the sensation of lifting, listing to one side, then back the other way. The crashing noises continued, the shouting and then they fell in silence.
The fall was arrested as they crashed into the water. Alan could sense people standing, shouting. People pushing people, screaming, hammering on the walls, trying to find the door. A wave of water washed over Alan’s sock. It was cold. He reached down and splashed the salt water against his face. The crashing sounds smashed against the walls. Gunshots. The crowd were chanting. The water was getting deeper.
‘Help us!’ shouted Alan, surprised at his own volume. Someone pushed past him and knocked him into the knee-high water. He was kicked in the head. He choked on the sea water. He scrambled up. He would keep getting up, keep going. Survival, a basic instinct. He hammered on the wall.
The water came up around his shoulders and he had to kick his legs to stay afloat. Hands grabbed at him from below. He punched and he kicked and he butted and he bit. The water pushed him towards the ceiling. He angled his head, his mouth sucking in what was left of the air.
If only someone would just tell him that his wife and daughter were fine. Getting off the ship, getting to customs, granting them asylum. A pleasant Egyptian policeman, ‘welcome to Egypt, Mrs Saunders. Hello to you, Miss!’ he’d say, playfully pulling on Mollie’s cheek. ‘We’ve got pyramids and rivers, diving and all sorts of fun things for you to do!’ She would skip down the airport corridors, playfully chastised by his wife, ‘stop running!’ she would be saying. It would have to be like that. It couldn’t be anything else as that was all he had now. His hope was now just a dream. If someone could just tell him, just get him a message, that they were well looked after, that this was just an accident, that this was his penance, his punishment for something, the price he had to pay, that the world was a good place after all. If someone could just get him a message, that was all.
Alan spat out some sea water and gulped in some air. His last.
Archived comments for New Beginnings
Mikeverdi on 15-09-2014
I read this first thing this morning, I wanted to come back again before I commented. I think the premise is well thought out (put your self in their position). The story was well told and the menace was palpable. Well worth the Nib.
Mike - many thanks, appreciate the read and the feedback. Steve.
bluepootle on 16-09-2014
Hello! Really strong stuff. Great use of paragraphing to build that feeling of claustrophobia, and that deliberately downbeat ending is hard to take, but how else could it end?
I'm not sure about the 'nice' only because it would send huge alarm bells ringing for me and overcome even the desperation to get out of the country. It felt maybe a little overplayed.
The last line also feels overdone. Is there some other way you could suggest his fate without having to spell it out? 'His last' just takes me right out of his point of view. Something more subtle, maybe a moment of self-realisation, might be stronger. Anyway, hope that helps.
Thanks, BP - appreciate your reading and comments.
In 'nice' you mean that they have no edge? I agree. I saw a news article recently - and rather than shady characters with swag bags over their shoulders, ready to commit crimes (and there are some (perhaps even a lot, who knows), of course), they were normal people with supermarket carrier bags containing all their worldly possessions, trafficked by unscrupulous people, just wanting a better life for themselves. A house, a job, schooling. Just people like you and I. I wanted the family to be normal UK people but just to reverse the flow direction.
I agree on the last line. I shall have a think!
e-griff on 27-09-2014
Very interesting concept. And justified to highlight the problem without partisan feelings. I imagined at first they were escaping the UK for Europe, but you went further ...
Some tidying would help, but it is an excellent basis for an excellent story.
Thanks, Griff. It's an interesting topic that I can't reconcile easily. I do intend to re-write the last paragraph a bit, as per the previous suggestion by Bluepootle.