Blog, by Michael Jenkins
Our October short story of the month, Blog by Michael Jenkins is based, like last month’s, on the stories of migrants to Europe.
Michael was born and schooled in Swansea and has studied at Manchester, Hertfordshire and Essex universities in the UK and the University of Thessaloniki in Greece. His interests include history, literary theory and remaining working class, Welsh and a punk. After trying to empower the adults he met as a teacher in the classrooms across Mediterranean Europe, most recently in shell-shocked austerity Athens, he returned home and lived as homeless for a year while also taking an MA focussing on Welsh Writing in English. He is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University and writing a novel.
In moments of lassitude and self-recrimination the phrase ‘all that’s solid melts into air’ has sustained my belief in transformation. Not a Kafkaesque nightmare metamorphosis one, but greater fairness, openness and accountability grounded in my core need for social justice.
In my blog, in whose bricolage I weekly assemble what I am, or my self, it is what allows me to look in the mirror when I get up – though that’s probably not actually morning.
All that matters in life and death, all I have to relearn in my howl is just that you’re so cruelly absent. I’d say I’ve compromised too readily since my return from abroad. Can the Leila text be a wake-up call for me and perhaps for some of the followers the blog has? It is already more than a hundred or so years ago that we had the liberal humanist novelist E. M .Forster’s injunction of Only connect cry and don’t get me started on Dickens or the opening of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto from which I opened today’s blog borrowing his ‘All that is solid melts into air’ as his vision of systemic change and collapse before I get into how banks that gain money keep it for their shareholders, but when their profligacy loses them and us billions then government reimburses them and not us.
Leila’s Story – The Rowers was discovered in a plastic supermarket bag on a red, double-decker bus – a cultural icon of Britain and its values, no less. It is a thin, spiral notebook. I was going to say that it is a cheap notebook but cheapness is very much a relative judgement, especially so in this case. It may be a personal story or even an agglomeration of biographies and memoirs. It may have been left accidentally or was there a purpose in leaving it? Though there are lots of crossings out and evidence of torn-out pages it seems to be a diary. By reproducing the crossings out here, I am trying to free the text and its meanings. I think it deserves this. As well as the blog, I will try to place it in front of a wider audience in The Big Issue (preaching to the converted?) and a university magazine (more diverse in range of background and, to use a buzz word from the analysis of the General Election, in aspiration). Leila appears problematic with those missing chunks. There is no beginning or ending to frame the story. Being unfinished may be both its most optimistic and most salient feature. Decide that yourself and post your opinion after you’ve read the blog. Pass it in to a friend, or an enemy.
I suppose the traditional form of the short story is that of: Exposition, Crisis, Climax and Resolution. It is not the only model and I’m with the Barcelona in-residence rebel punk, Roberto Bolano, when he says there are stories that work better without a glossy closure. Leila can have no ending within the realm of writing.
Glean all you can while you have the chance is the recommendation or instruction in Leila’s Story – The Rowers. The added half (The Rowers) of the title we are using in the printed, hard-copy version was written in capitals several times in page margins. We have accepted that as the title in her mind. There’s a line in a Ronnie Lane song that goes something like: ‘Show me a dream better than this.’ I think that bliss can be achieved by paying careful attention to voice in this fragment of writing.
A note on when a word or phrase appears underlined. They are not mine but were in the notebook. They seem to address the reader and writer. They encourage and remind.
***** mark an assumed missing page or pages in the text.
‘They’re sea-horses, that’s what we call them. They come every time the wind is high out in the bay. It’s been like that all night too, I heard on the radio. Have you seen the white waves riding in?’
For me, they were whining and it’s that noise that I register two hours earlier in the slimy dawn. I’m peering outwards to the stick-like lighthouse. It is sketchy, a chimera, almost not there outline, not filled-out. Its shape is like a non-European child, I think to myself. Lighthouses helped us get here I can just make out I think, slung across the pier’s end, an orangey lifeboat station. Not enough when I was shovelled into the water. Hundreds of friends with families drown every day. Across the pebbly bay, I’ve seen a few rescue boats set out in to rescue day trippers in their boats and their yachts. I read in a history book that there used to be a fishing industry in this country. That must have meant healthy food and jobs and I can’t understand why they stopped doing it. I asked the kind lady what had happened. She said that there were limits and then it got worse when someone called Maggie, an evil invader I guess, destroyed the docks and the coalmines and the steelworks where the local men used to have a job. In the camp we have been warned that the nearby town few proper jobs. I am familiar with her talk of McJobs and zero-hour contracts. All dictators use them. You have no rights or security. When I heard that I began to worry. I wondered about why we have come. But what choice was there? We fled far worse in our homelands. They don’t beat or shoot you in Britain for your religion, your colour of skin or if you don’t belong to the right ethnic tribe or if someone can’t make profit on your back, do they? Of course they don’t. I mean this is Europe.
There can’t be more than a lingering caress of time since we twined green and yellow ribbons onto each other’s wrist in the bucket-held moon high above the ancient port of Epidavros. The shower cascaded like the purple bougainvillea we saw on the rich people’s hotel balconies. Our dinghy had capsized but we sang our old songs, the Greek people came us some water and bread and we still gave our hope to the brokers with their sat-nav phones. We had to curl up close and spend the night in the Peloponnese orange grove and that wasn’t too bad. I can smell that almost Greek trance-like perfume now. We always took a chance. We failed this one, even the ribbon has gone. Pinioned against the boat’s hull, slapped and spat at and wrenched off … a life’s self. I understood their fear. They didn’t know what it was. It might tell the coastguard or FRONTEX where we had come from. They’d send us back to the flames and the bombs of present, past and future. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Syria
After all the flames, all the humiliations and all the losses, there is a part of me where I feel I am bad for me and everyone who has been in my life. Everyone I have ever loved or has loved me has left me. I’m so alone and I hate it. When I am gripped like this you told me something I try to hold onto. I know I am not what I am (Iago’s words in Othello). I still have it in my mind that it is appalling to be me. I think of ending it all with a broken bottle across my neck. I repeat the Iago words and, so far, I begin a transformation. Slowly, but then I worry, is it right that some child might be the one to discover the cut-up body?
Not much happens here. When there is a fight, a rape or a suicide attempt, you can’t stop it becoming a spectacle. Death itself strangely is not a spectacle.
‘Come on, talk to me baby, I can’t understand what you want unless you tell me,’ you’d say when we had a misunderstanding. Everyone has them and they don’t mean anything, anything, anything, nothing and nothing.
I made then a promise for when I would be free. I meant when I got out of there and had my own place and a job. It became a sort of mantra in need: I will go across the shimmering and tell the lifeboat crews how much I want to thank men like them in the rescue boats for their bravery. They should know how much they have done for us who survived the sea-lions.
I believe this Swansea town, where I am, is a place worth staying in, rebuilding in. And this my husband is the life you sacrificed for me to get to here. If I stand on a stump of a tree I can see just the skeleton of the lifeboat station and lighthouse from this distance. Immediately behind it I imagine seems deep forest but after that maybe there is a bare and rugged cove with crab-crawling rock pools. I can harvest octopus and lobster to live on. I asked the kind lady and she surprised me by saying that she wasn’t local but had moved down from somewhere she referred to as The Valleys for work.
‘There is a recreational area over there called The Knab. Interspersed with cafes and ice-cream parlours, you can hire a kayak or windsurf. The owners of the cafes are usually Italian families who originally came here generations ago.’
Their settling here then is just like us. I hope I can be sure of what she says, for it is similar to our story but part of me is frightened of people I don’t know. Maybe a lump of rock jutting out into the sea like a Desert Island might suit me better. It might be safer. I must start being more sociable
Can we get a decent place to live and food too? Can people be that generous? I have doubts but have seen the STAY CALM posters in the camp. Oh Lord, we just need a start and we’ll take it on from there. We had skills and an aptitude for work in our homelands and we’ll build roots for our families and friends again and we want to be part of you. But we need something from somewhere and some space too to recover – recover from each of our own traumas.
The kind lady hesitated and stooped her shoulders when she spoke to her young assistants. They are volunteers from the university. They’ve donated me paperbacks. We can work in the Detention Centre. There is Special Permission, so that you can work from 9 to 7 seven days a week for one English pound an hour. You work in the kitchens; do cleaning, fix things there and also around the centre. It is best to do it. Lots of people are in shock. We do as we are told.
She has wrinkles today. She curbed her flow. I think she wanted to add that perhaps we gave a different cultural meaning to this sea-lions phenomenon in our languages. She seemed to stumble and reconsider. She was right to do so for the very obvious reasons we didn’t want to dwell our thoughts on the ebb and flow of the sea.
Anime woman was another way I had of referring to the kind woman. I think that was a fashion-choice. It’s the same with the university students who have tattoos. I was unnerved. But the tattoos don’t show the gang they belonged to when they were in prison. I am being bad looking at wrinkles and tattoos and hair colour. But, oh dear, I have a pain in the pit of my stomach and that dizziness I get when I think too much of the club in the masked man’s hand. He was a policeman I am sure. He just hit me out of boredom. He wanted to show the traffickers that he was there and he didn’t do it with the seriousness of the traffickers. They cudgelled you to death, not to aches and swirling heads.
Mrs Thomas is her name; I see it on a badge on her chest. She is straddling an oil drum, covered with hemp sacks that once held our rice. I think she wants to appear to be in control. This doesn’t suit her, this stridency. She has had to gamble that she can make whatever this is all about to work. She has moved out of her comfort zone. This may not work. Guys here have seen everything. They pay attention w
when someone slaps or stings them with acid.
Her thick eyes track the crowd’s gestures and movement and we hers. Not too many guys here are fluent enough in English to concentrate for long on words but she knows that. Like the others, my mind started to wonder and jump around.
Everyone had got or been gotten like me up early this morning through the notices that had reared up late last evening in the food hall and the dormitory doors.
Finally, she is up there and firmly rooted and the centre of our gaze. She abruptly raises her swan-like neck. She’s wearing odd-coloured fingerless gloves … concentrate girl I tell myself and forget what she’s wearing. Her eyes are fathomless, like bottomless Med Sea currents. I remember the catalogue for Med Lingerie you furtively leafed through in the mall: you wanting me to see what you were doing, so I’d get some, as I did.
Gradual-like she’s finding the language, we both are. I think we have something in common – she’s a teacher! I see her delving back into the methodology of classroom control taught to teachers everywhere – if you want to retain the attention of listless and disruptive elements in the group don’t harangue but quieten your voice, for that draws them in as they want to know what’s happening before they can show they don’t care. I think there’s a reason she’s talking like this to us in this intimate style. I think she just made a joke. No one understands. We’re in for something I think that we haven’t had since we were deposited (delivered – brought).
The dirty petrol-rag mass of seagulls fan out to elude a small convoy Jeeps. They’re all egg-white in colour; not the rifle-barrel snout black SUV ones of the in-transit “Move away” shores and swivelling guns. It is odd how you remember. They always wore Designer wraparound sunglasses, day and night or what time we guessed it was. I remembered that because it was strange that the drivers and the people who got out weren’t wearing singlasses and I notive that’s usuallt the case here.
Editor’s Note – in the last sentence there are several spelling mistakes in the notebook and we have left them as we found them as it tells us perhaps that there is more in this memory of Leila’s in regard to men in sunglasses than she can speak of.
Don’t they want to intimidate us and don’t they want to hide their intentions from us? We were inhumanly tired and we’d seen their power to punish with a bullet, a whip and the women and girls pulled away for ... for for. The bosses would finally come out of the car. They didn’t trust minions with our money. And they liked to choose someone. That was on a different shore with kids and us retching and coughing and shivering and throwing up but trying not for anyone to see in case they stopped you there before the final leg on the boats and you did other things too. They herded us regardless of our condition. I think they didn’t want bodies on their hands in their destination jump-off points. There was some international pressure on them I suppose. New faces will have replaced mine.
When I was younger, I read Kafka and Borges at college and Primo Levi afterwards. It was primarily for essays and exams. I understand what they say more today. I know about Wilkileaks, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and surveillance of emails and eavesdropping of all types of social media even in the West. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not as easy to tell the good from the bad guys. For me, it’s to the literary that I increasingly go. It’s there where I think that’s it’s interwoven in a plot and a narrative rich with the layering or depth that allows you the scope to imagine and see. Before I set out on the journey, fleeing, I was not naive about my chances of making it to a kind country. I read a little more and a little more selectively than usual. I was also rehearsing my interview with the Welcoming Committee. I feared it would in truth be an interrogation.
I read Peter Carey’s recent novel, Amnesia, and its account of shadowy events in an earlier Australia that, with the holding hands with the CIA policy of the then government, undermined Australia’s rights and independence. It was to serve the global interests of America and the vested interests of local businessmen and the governing elites. It was interesting to see how Carey exposed that, like all elite and vested interests everywhere, they wanted to remain unquestioned. He highlighted that any alternative narratives or lines of development had to be rubbished and if they couldn’t be then there were the Black-Ops to fall back on. My father, years before, had lost his university job because he dared to investigate and then publish how the Americans had stockpiled arms and munitions dumps across Italy and Greece in Operation Claudius to be used if there were any democratically elected governments that were communist. They were later used in terrorist outrages that were blamed on the Red Brigades my father told me of but was too frightened to include in his book. And then my country became a secret base for Extraordinary Rendition after 9/11. This was not done in my name. Justifiable perhaps to prevent others but if done in such a way how could they/we keep the moral high ground and how could we stop the move to jihadist that I have seen with my own eyes amongst my former students often enough.
(Editor – given the controversial and potentially self-harming nature of Leila’s red writings it is possible that she would not have included all of them in the final version but we at the time of printing we have no means of checking that.)
Of course, it goes without saying that there aren’t random killers in the West. The UK is Europe and I know you have your history, your values and it is transparent here. I am Western too in my values and self-respect, you can see for yourself. I found the Carey too light in tone. I prefer those harrowing stories of Primo Levi who survived the Nazi death camps.
I smile, inside only, as its best not to show that I have got back some capacity to have feelings about how to live. But I endanger myself and I could never be a spy or anything like that. There is a character trait in me that stubbornly insists that nothing is real unless it is written down. I have to tell stories to find sense and calm. As I do so, it slides away from me and exhausts me. I throw away any control and power, not so much of words though perhaps. Once written down, they are out there and not me, but what I experience then is something like loss.
I have been thinking as I write and, as often happen to me, I seem more lucid in what I can recall. Primo Levi said something about this in an obtuse short story whose name I can’t remember but I am sure he’ll let me paraphrase: ‘… felt as if submerged in a long, narrow tunnel that had been dug into a soft, tepid substance, crimson like the light that penetrates closed eyelid.’
The leaving day is a potato day. These delivery day guys in front of me in the vast, fatless camp know nothing. They are new here and it seems that some Manual told them that we’d run to them, lunging but we don’t act like that anymore. The worst I can say is that we’ve learnt they don’t bring the food we want. If I think in a more generous vein, then this is a result of us regrouping a little. Refugees are not homogenous. We come from different villages, towns, countries and customs. Then, also, you must be told about the reasons to flee we each had. Basically, being poor, trod on, raped or brutalised, seem the most common.
What will I remember from the camp? I don’t want gloomy ones, or too cheery ones either as I haven’t felt either very often – I have tried not to think, neither with mind nor heart. When I arrived, I was struck by these big, marauding birds. Possibly the camp had taken over land that had been theirs. These big birds are not predators on our flesh. They’d starve off us if they were! But the squawking of their rage and drilling of their beaks bring unease and the chore of more watchfulness. Few of us are used to living by the sea. In the hills and further into our very different mountains there are different predators – hunger, disease and corruption. In the camp, the birds eat leftover food, pecking into the rubbish. I don’t know why I am writing this in detail but it soothes. After the initial shock that had given them such an advantage, we started to acclimatise and see what had to be done. They attempted to stare us humans down, make us feel that we were interlopers and temporary in their terrain. They hadn’t met refugees before. They couldn’t understand how we competed on all-fours. It is a habit of need for us. So, the younger ones who had become the breadwinners, contrived to make gloves. They set out to gather in runny rinds of cheese, the bread not soft on both sides called a crust from the dozens of loaves of defrosted supermarket bread. The older ones amongst us couldn’t understand that there was any nutritional value in that bread. They would throw them away in confusion. Gull and man learnt not to touch down or get too close to the newly added barbed wire. Some of the boys sported fresh cuts and scratches that will meld into more scars. They had tried to climb out. They wanted to sample the night-life. They didn’t want to escape. We were all waiting hopefully. The nirvana of an official paper, giving us the right to residence in the EU, was forever rumoured to be coming … tomorrow. Except for those wary of their genocide becoming known to the authorities
Is that Andrea or Chloe approaching? They’ve removed their name tags, some were getting too familiar. The girls are kids helping out and were embarrassed. I know who is who of the two sometimes and it’s the so fragrant Chloe –I remember every perfume I’ve ever had. The Welsh accent is hard to follow if she talks fast. She lets her syllables travel towards and settle on the fragrance- less version of me opposite her.
She probably thought I was in the queue. I had stopped there when I saw her. We can’t choose what we are and what we will become here. Will Chloe give me some more info on our coming dispersal? And I’m going real soon. For the lucky ones, it will be a stage on the way back to respectability and normality. We don’t talk about but we all hope that self-respect will come too. That’s gonna be more challenging. There’s a lot of hurt inside, waiting to get out and we’ll have to cope.
Chloe doesn’t know anything. Mrs Thomas is the Big Boss around here. I think she thought telling us about sea-horses was like telling us a child’s fairy tale. A trope such as riding to the rescue could be established and might ease our anxieties.
I am summoned to her office. I smile, try to remember how to switch it on – I tell myself to think of when you said I love you. I wanted it to be natural and spontaneous. If I do it to please her, I do, I’m also doing it for myself. Is self-preservation what this put-on smile is?
I see you with wisps of seaweed hair in the Neptune fountain in Rome we ogle at in our honeymoon as we drink prosecco. You came to me out of the waves. I try to pull my lips away. Your face is barnacled and your head has holes in it. I think of the candy colours of confetti they throw at newly weds when they come out of the church in this new home-town. I shudder back to the present. It would be a different ceremony if we had the bodies. I mean bodies retrieved from the drowning waves, for the coffins. I mustn’t think if they bloat up or shrink.
‘Yes, sea-horses. It’s nice.’
I’d turned my rusted self blithely to Mrs Thomas. I don’t think she is a punk. I think the violet hair is fashionable. I was a proper punk in my day. I wonder further of the intentions of our guardian angel. She shows us photos: short, round women in black circus ring-master top hats and curtain or tablecloth material spread over their shoulders and a floppy, not sexy tight, long scarlet dress. We who are on the Approved To
Stay For Twelve Months List look at each other and mouth – will we have to dress like that Outside? It must be to make sure we don’t marry a local man. Kind angel saw our faces and began to laugh. She told us that it is Tradition.
‘The Welsh are kind, I hope you’ll see that.’
I cling to that.
If you’re not treated properly, you come to me, you hear.’
There’s such a pounding physicality with the pushing-you-down wind that I make such slow headway through the overcast sky on my last day. I will avoid breaking the Outside rules. I don’t want to be sent back… I have remembered not to divulge my nationality. As I was told, at the first place of entry I made certain that I was fingerprinted and photographed. It was in the shadow of Dover’s chalk cliffs. In this way they can’t send me out of the UK to some bedlam country. The traffickers had told us to say we entered Europe in the hold of a ship in the port of Malmo or Copenhagen. A rephrasing follows We know Scandinavia is best. But my Interviewing Officer didn’t buy it and I had nothing to buy him – I wouldn’t do that, baby.
On this last day, I am all mixed up in memories and forebodings and the sea-shell echo came to me in the sound of the chug and then the cut out of the outboard engine of a motorboat. Or it came to me in my dreams like you come to me every night in my dreams above the cries and yelps and sniffles and screams in the dormitory beds. They lock us in to protect us against another ‘a regrettable incident, if you could identify him?’ It is ‘they’ and I can’t.
The clouds spin and whorl and beyond the perimeter. It is out towards the sea I gaze. I hope that soon I will have the real confidence to look in the opposite direction, inland to the town – what are the houses like, do they all have lawns, apple trees and roses rather than scrawny scrubland, dumped generators, burnt-out tanks and RPG trucks and empty shell casing. I’ll smell the yellow specked daisies on the grassy incline outta here. If I stand on my tiptoes I can see a hundred metres up a narrow lane and through a clustered stand of pines but the storm that is breaking up the seam of overcast sky and sending some clouds scudding and giving me this rainbow light. Like I know your love, I know there’s more beyond and I want to be there. I can’t bludgeon through our distance, not even if I had the ultimate power the cabal of militias and traffickers and army did when the floating bodies came back on the waves. There were the repeated words and gestures that bravely said: ‘Let us reclaim our kin.’ But they herded us away and into the next boat. Many peoples have burial rites set in water and so for those amongst us it was still possible that they could bury their dead with ceremony and respect. There were just plastic sheets … I cannot continue.
We are ushered forward. In a matter-of-fact way, with an almost visible smile, I thought this so unlike those smiley ones used here everywhere on phones but this is more real. It is as an envelope, as thin and white as the bread in the Detention Centre. Is it diet or what, is it education and lifestyle or what but Andrea and Chloe from the university as anorexic-thin, while the local girls who came at first to stare at us were heinously overweight and eating all the time – crisps and jam rolls – and drank Coke all the time. The camp gave us stuff like that at first but the mothers with a child, and there are some, threw it to the vulture-seagulls and said they were being poisoned… I don’t have my child.
I am holding the white envelope. The nice woman called it a gift, a symbol of a better future. It couldn’t be a souvenir of our time in the centre. The upper half is white and the lower is green and in the middle there is a red dragon. It represents a flag. I put it inside the new canvas bag they gave me to carry my possessions in and there was lots of leftover space. I/We waited, again, so much waiting in the last months – to leave and not get anywhere. When the minibus came I dived to the floor behind the seats for self-preservation. I learnt you survive if you aren’t a thorn in their sides – sometimes. I spied upwards in search of a flag like the postcard one but didn’t see any. Is this a nation that doesn’t push itself in your face every day with regalia of victories and wars? I cannot think of the black flags in my country.
What I did see was a surprise. I saw a bronze or copper bell, swinging loosely at the top of a tower. Well, it is strange as you know how our memory works. When I was soon left by myself in my apartment, I saw that someone had placed some pretty magazines on my table and they were colourful lifestyle ones, the type that are nice to have about when you have a home to drink coffee and eat chocolate muffins with a friend besides you. It’s a while now since I got to the apartment, weeks and months yes. I go to the Post Office to get money, get food from the Tesco supermarket like the other poor people and I hurry back. I lie on the mattress, under strips of cloth. There is no shutter on the window to close and I dress and undress in a corner in shame. There is no furniture in the bedroom or in the lounge. There is a table and two chairs in the kitchen and a cooker and a fridge and that is kind. I am supposed to find the rest in Charity Shops. Tables and stuff are donated for free. They sell it to the poor like me but the prices are still too high. I don’t understand how this capitalism works, I mean the charity shops. When those who work can afford to buy furniture they go to IKEA or Argos. Those with no money can’t afford to buy the old one they have donated to charity for free so people like me can have somewhere to sit. I am fine but it isn’t that easy. The apartment is very cold most days. I have to choose between eating and heating, lots of people do the same I know. It is mid-May but very cold after 6 or 7 every night at best. I haven’t yet mastered the balancing trick. I thought Britain was richer than this. It looks rich on TV with all its pop stars, celebrities, royal family and Premier League footballers. I went to a Food Bank. It is in an airport-sized hangar – all that space – and in some you can get a hot meal there. There are hundreds in the UK and three in this town. The sign hanging outside says it is a church. The Food Bank turned me away, sent me packing is a new phrase I learnt today. I didn’t go there as soon as I left the camp.
I am often cold and hungry. I receive help from the State for my home, I told Mrs Food Bank. I was proud that the State values me. The woman frowned and looked away quickly and disinterested, ‘you don’t qualify, my dear’ – qualify, what is this qualify, how can’t I?
Officially, I can’t work with my pending Refugee. I had expected that I’d get hours in a shop. In the city-centre, there are lots of workless workers. You see them striding about every hour. They have bags strapped on their shoulders. They aren’t tourists. They look uncomfortable. The younger locals in the shops talk about the Economic Crash of 2008 and too many immigrants. They complain loudly and aggressively. They say it changed the number and the nature of jobs and how people see others in south Wales. They say the same every time, ‘you should look after your own first.’ The old people roll their eyes, correcting them. ‘Thatcher started it,’ they say that just as often. When you don’t eat very well and the nightmares stop you sleeping, it gets harder to look for work or friends and I stay on the floor under the blanket. I have been to Italy with... I went to Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan and the museums and the wine and the food, especially the fresh panna cotta. This morning I saw the cover of one of those magazines left for me on my kitchen table and I remembered the bronze bell I’d seen the morning I was brought here and given the keys to lock my door – I sleep with those keys under the mattress. On the pretty magazine cover are cypresses and a campanile. It is a photo of Tuscany, Italy and as I can see similarly a campanile or bell-tower on the derelict church nearby, then that must mean that Roman Catholics came at some time to my new hometown. Came perhaps like me?
Here, I can go out. No one will hit me. I won’t be touched or raped. Senselessly, I have become a hermit without a God to worship. I am excessively timid. I know no one and there is no one here to tell my stories to or to listen to me telling mine and I want so much to talk about you my love.
I had an appointment to see my Case/ Referral/Community Integration Officer/Social – I keep being posted so many letters and forms and it is a bit difficult to manage and to keep up with it all. Chest lapel badges change: I got a B and Q Voucher (you’ll think it’s all roses here but it isn’t) to buy paint to make the flat my cwtch; she said flat not apartment and I must remember that. I cried a little. Not the right way to thank a gift, I know but… “Don’t be silly, sweet girl.”
I was grasping the keepsake. I mean the postcard but that is what it is for because I had to leave everything I used to cherish and that gave me solidity behind that other time when I left my country and what was left of my family after my father’s torture and exile – as a member of a traitor’s family I had no rights. I am admitting a lot here, it seems that writing lets me do that more than when I talk. So, with the green, white and red postcard, I realised that the Officer was going to move me on. I craved to keep this whatever this time, however reckless. On the morning I left the Detention Centre, they kept changing the name of the huts but not the conditions, she told me a story. It might be a fairy story. I can’t always get the meaning when they speak to me.
‘You will see the flag flying. It is red for , green for … and white for and it is a symbol of what my nation is…’
I couldn’t make out the important bits. I was crying stupid tears. ‘Everything will be great.’
No, it didn’t happen like that. I mean what I wrote was hard, so hard and awful to tell and I was weak and frightened so much all the time.
‘Leila, Leila, you are such a pretty girl but you aren’t doing anything to make yourself even presentable. You are dressing in rags. There are lots of really nice clothes donated. You haven’t even looked at them.’
I didn’t reply but I didn’t want to be surly at this crucial moment. And she was kind.
‘Yes. I will. Thank you.’
‘What have you done to your beautiful black hair? You’ve cropped it into tufts and put it under that hat. It’s a tea cosy, it’s not a hat.’
I bit my lip, like I was thirteen.
‘It doesn’t hide you. It draws attention but the wrong sort. We have given you a lot. Now you must give us something…’
I looked at her in terror. She stretched out her hand. She moved over and hugged me. This time I didn’t cry.
I wanted to have a sofa to lean back on and curtains and carpets would give me some warmth and the privacy of my own space. I’ll have to wait. I need a job.
With the Voucher I collected the paint. I CHOSE - WHAT AN AMAZING FEELING OF FREEDOM. I painted the floors turquoise and the walls white: in memory. The hallway has checked duck egg shell blue and Dulux white squares but it’s not finished because the paint ran out. But it cheers me.
Outside, behind that bell tower, is a green corner away from the blocks of flats. I have seen squirrels there and there are bluebells and I pick up wind-fallen pink blossoms that feel like kisses on my face. I look around and there is no one. I gather up handfuls and drop them over my head. As I walk back along the adjacent road, a woman steps out and smiles and I take from her a Map of Dylan Thomas’s Swansea – the Poet is from here!
Bought and held for ransom. The agreement was to cook food in cafes to get the extra money. He said stonily: ‘You read the newspapers; it’s harder to get you there, so the price has gone on.’ When the next contact man approached me during transit I knew what was coming. I was going to have to agree and I hadn’t been working in the kitchens. ‘You have to move to another town. There’s more work in a bigger town.’ I needed to get the money quickly or I’d lose my place on the trip – ha-ha- he continued. Anyway, you know what happened. I got a boyfriend and then I was loaned out. I cut myself.
I squish oranges this morning in my flat’s kitchen. The metallic juicer glows. Not bitter. Not sweet. I stand nearly naked. He drowned – one of the unlucky traffickers. The birds are chatter, chatter. I have scars. Yes.
I’m adding below the opening of my own blog of two years ago as an act of solidarity.
A BLOWN LEAF ON THE EDGE OF TIME
Epigraph: ‘It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. We are all dying to give our lives away, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly.
David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest
1 The sheet-glass door opens with the magician’s puff. I let the suitcase travel towards that amber smell of brewing coffee and one, no two, nail-thick raspberry jam doughnuts of the type I haven’t tasted for so long. The wheels lock and stick. I tug raspingly but they grate on the teeth marks inscribed in a roughened-up slab of concrete – ‘tut-tut,’ ‘tut-tut’ chirrups all around. In another millennium, a freckle-fringed boy trespassed here, mesmerised by the synchronised, slow-motion pall of First Man on the Moon landings and their brother whooshing, Thunderbirds are Go, soarings away. There never was a tear-wet, hugging bye or a smiling, hugging hi and he didn’t complain or ask why but it disturbs a little tonight. I tether myself to a passing, marble-veined face. Unlike, when I was the boy, the blank smiles and the looking-aways don’t confuse. The giving and the taking away of love is a wound unhealed. We are struggling to find a pulse in Europe, Africa, Asia, South and North America.
So, I remit to myself what is a reminder that she will shortly arrive
In a sacking-bag light, I did that homage for Leila to her lifeboat station and lighthouse. I discreetly left behind something, like Leila had left a copy of her notebook. One of those in the wetsuits carrying their rowing boat has all mis-mashed up, liquid cobalt hair and I welcome her anew after reading The Rowers. Can literature change attitudes? I think it does. That’s today’s blog. Thank you for following my blog and our Leila.