Authors: Olumide Popoola
I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.
For Mohamed K., Diar R.,
and all the others who so
generously told us their stories.
GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.
The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.
‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’
I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. I normally wait for him to speak.
It’s getting darker, the trees are dipping themselves in silence. The others are looking at their phones. We need to agree on when to start the eleven minutes. We need to plan the forty-nine minutes after that, because if we have to walk all the way to the train station it will be that long.
I don’t want to sleep in this country. Not tonight.
I search the others’ faces. Why is everyone quiet now? I just want to think big; you have to set your bar high. It’s one of the things Calculate has taught me, an expression.
I say to them, ‘It’s just a little fun. Why not?’
I am disturbing their thoughts. They are busy with more important things. Already these thoughts are like swimming with wet clothes. It’s heavy, too much to hold on to. It pulls you back. You could drown.
I have made a habit with this thing, the names and the stories, always distracting them. I think they think that I cannot be quiet. Not when it is needed. Like now. When we are planning the next step, like Calculate says.
Suleyman is coughing. He leans forward; his small chest comes out and he does harh-harh-harh, his tongue tired in his mouth. Earlier today there was a bit of blood in his spit. I check that he is not spitting now. He is leaning back against the tree, pointing his thumb upwards, his eyes closed. He does it all the time, the thumbs up. Even though he himself isn’t thumbs up. Not at all. When I first met him his face was round and black. Now he is grey and thin and his eyes are hanging like a bag of shopping.
MG says, ‘Or Michelle.’
I throw him a look that tells him to shut his mouth. With my mouth I say, ‘You’re not funny.’
‘You don’t understand. You can use it as Michel. It’s French. Man’s name. I learned in school. Michelle better
than Obama. Better brain, my brother says. Nicer to the people, she is really for the people.’
‘And beautiful,’ Calculate says. He laughs again. ‘It would suit you.’
I ignore him and turn my head to the side. He is still wearing the Leicester Hockey Club shirt someone gave him in Puglia. And the fake leather jacket. I told him it wasn’t real leather but he said he didn’t care. His hair and the jacket match. I think he feels older with it, grown up. MG doesn’t usually talk rubbish. His mouth is too quick but he is on his way to being smart. Calculate said it.
I call him MG because he doesn’t use Western Union. Only MoneyGram. He thinks it is better. The rates, the service, the staff.
I said to him, ‘Hey, little brother, it’s just ordinary people. Look at the shops, they are the same: news-agents, small grocers, phone repair shops. Nothing special, same kind, makes no difference if Western Union or MoneyGram.’
The others agreed, but he is not convinced. He taps on his forehead with one finger. It’s shiny. It was the same when I first met him. It was hot there, it is not hot now. Still, his face is sweaty. This boy has a tap inside his forehead. It’s broken. It drips slowly, always leaving something on his skin. He knocks on that forehead, looking at us, when he wants us to listen. His finger is faster than the dripping of his broken tap that makes all the sweat. He looks ridiculous with his
one finger hammering at where his brain is supposed to be. He says he knows, his brother told him. The brother said that they are trying to catch people using Western Union, the smugglers. It is better to leave it alone.
MG put away whatever his brother sent him. Everyone did it that way. Someone sends it, you pick it up later, when you have arrived on safe ground. You couldn’t take money in the boat in case you lost it.
But that guy and his brother. I want to push MG sometimes. Push him into the road, just to wake him up. If your brother is so great, why does he not come for you? Why does he not tell you how to get to the UK? To London even. Why does he keep saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, all has changed,’ when you call?
‘Papers,’ MG says, ‘no papers.’
‘Can you be quiet now? I don’t want to get caught here.’
Calculate thinks he is our leader. Because he is older, because MG looks at him – his eyes asking, Is this right? – when we have to make a decision.
I answer that I don’t need to be quiet. There is no one here. No one can see us. But Calculate puts his finger on his thin lips and puts his backside on a bit of cardboard he keeps in his bag and leans against the tree that is near Suleyman. He tells me to be quiet again. MG is throwing his eyes at me, shy. I haven’t replied to his Michel idea. Why? It’s stupid.
GPS moves his shoulders up, then lets them fall. He wants to say sorry that way. Sorry, but Calculate knows what we need to do. I don’t understand GPS sometimes. Have we not made it most of the way without Calculate? But I just open my backpack as if I am looking for something, my lips holding each other tight.
When I met MG some days ago I looked at him and said to myself, This guy is scared. Sweating too much. It’s just a line, I wanted to say, for you to wait in. Nothing can happen now, little brother. You survived the boat, you have been picked up by the coastguard. You survived the crazy people who want to keep their beach clean, free of refugees. They think refugees make their summer income leave through the back door. Tourism does not want to see any dead bodies floating onto the sand. A man told me this. That man spat in front of my feet. I didn’t understand him. That is how I met Calculate. He translated it with his funny Arabic. I didn’t spit back. I just nodded. And smiled.
I would never talk to strangers like that in my country. My first lesson in this Europe. But there are others who have a different view. Tourism or not, there is war. People are fleeing. They feel it is their duty. One of those gave me a backpack. She was waiting at the street that runs by the beach. She said there were clean clothes inside. And some food. There was also a note, a postcard written by a child. It said,
hope that you will be happy and that you will be with family and friends. Safe
I wanted to say to the sweating boy we didn’t yet know, Nothing can happen now. You are in Europe. This was before the man with his opinions and Calculate’s translation.
GPS and I smiled at MG. GPS stretched out his hand. The fingers danced in front of his body: it’s beautiful. He stopped when they had touched enough air, waited for MG to shake it.
‘Welcome to Italy,’ he laughed.
MG, who we didn’t call MG then, laughed too. His hand went swimming in GPS’s. He wiped his face with his T-shirt.
It was the first thing he said.
GPS says MG is in love with his brother. I think he is just too young. He says he is nineteen but I don’t think so. There is no hair on his face.
I said, ‘Your brother?’
But he replied, ‘Welcome you too.’ Then he smiled. Big smile. This is the best thing about MG. Besides the brother who sends money. He can make his face become a curtain that opens fast. He can make it very large, big, happy. First there is nothing, just a boy who pretends to be a man, with a few lines on his face that make him look like an old man Photoshopped onto a baby’s picture. Then, sunrise, the movie is starting, the face is already the happy ending. That is how MG smiles.
GPS turned to me.
‘I think this is what they mean by cute,’ he said.
He asked MG, ‘Are you here with your brother?’
‘No,’ MG replied. ‘Alone.’
I didn’t ask him, that first day we met, why he was alone. He is too young. Even a mother from his culture would not agree that you can leave your home alone if you are a baby like MG. Even if there is war. But I didn’t ask. You can’t ask everything. Instead I said, ‘They gave us a tent. We need someone to share it with. It’s for four people.’
The nights that we have been travelling MG sleeps early – it must be because he is still growing. GPS and I sit together and talk about the future. When we get there. Calculate doesn’t sleep until late. He always calls his family, who are still at home, in Syria. He walks off with his short legs, his belly showing under his shirt, phone in hand, his hand scratching his growing beard. I say to GPS that you can still shave, that Calculate could have asked the volunteers for razors. GPS’s reply is quick: ‘It’s not important. That man has other problems, much bigger than shaving.’ I think that it is not good to come with a beard that is not even stylish, looking like you have not washed properly. I too have bigger problems than that. Still. But it is me who started, so I leave it.
When he finishes on the phone Calculate wants to talk, always. His shoulders will be hugging his belly, his
face so tired he will have to hold it sometimes, his arms on his knee. He will sit next to MG and put his arm around him and MG will put his head on Calculate’s shoulder. They will sit like that while Calculate gives us lessons in good English.
I thought MG was calling him uncle, but GPS says it’s
Calculate says when we arrive we should present ourselves at the first police station. There we claim asylum. I ask him how it works, claiming asylum. He says you just say you are a refugee from Sudan. You want to claim asylum. They will interview us and that is how it starts.
Calculate knows good English because he has studied it. He likes English literature, he says. If he hadn’t become an engineer he would have become an English professor. I also studied engineering, so I look at him thinking why. English is good to speak, but it is not a profession. My eyes are wider than they should be, my question is there, anyone can read it. But with my mouth I say, ‘I understand.’
Calculate says that what he’s teaching us is just some tips, some things his friends who are already in the UK have told him.
‘Most people don’t know enough,’ Calculate says.
MG jumps in. ‘Some of us want to go to Germany, some to the UK, others to Denmark, because we don’t really know where it is best, who will welcome us.’
That is when Calculate says, ‘You are getting very smart.’
MG pulls open the curtain from his face, like he is running out of time. In one second his face is beaming.
There are five trees here. Suleyman is leaning against one, one hand on the grass, the other on his chest. Alghali is sitting next to him and gives him water once in a while, when the harh-harh-harh starts again. Not like laughing but like spitting air out with great force. You can hear the scratching inside his chest. Alghali is so light that I say to him he is just like an Egyptian. He doesn’t think it’s funny but that is not new to me – he never laughs at my jokes. I think he is worried. How will you present yourself at the police station and say you are from Darfur when your skin looks like you are Arab? But it’s not my problem. Alghali is never smiling, his forehead is always making lines, thinking. All of us are thinking a lot, but Alghali makes the most lines on his face.
Suleyman and Alghali cannot be without one another. Like GPS and I, they are good friends. But they never separate, not even to speak to someone.
Ibrahim is sitting by the tree closest to them. He keeps his eyes shut, but I can see he is watching them, trying to be part of whatever they do, as usual. That’s why I call them twins plus one. Unnamed. But I never say the unnamed part, it’s too long. Sometimes I say to them that they are only six days old. It’s a joke, because in my country you get your name seven days after you’re born. The whole village comes and looks at you. Although you
are covered up because of the evil eye, still the whole village will come to greet you and to hear your name. If you don’t have a name you must be less than seven days old. The twins plus one don’t laugh. Their eyes are tired. I talk too much.
Ibrahim takes out some water and offers it to Suleyman. It’s stupid. Alghali is already doing that. But he wants to be more than plus one – he wants to belong to them. Good luck with that.
Calculate’s phone is ringing. He gets up to walk down the hill for privacy.
We met Calculate in Puglia. All of a sudden there was this man by our side, pretending to be our friend, walking with us. I didn’t notice the three standing by a street corner.
I walked straight into Alghali, our heads knocking together. They were about to get upset because they thought I wanted to make them angry. Calculate looked behind him. He was coming from the police station, but no one had followed him. So he explained how it was all his fault, my walking into the twins plus one. We started talking.
Here we are now, making plans for eleven and forty-nine minutes.
‘Distant relations, you are,’ Calculate says, because GPS and Alghali are third cousins. But because they have
never met before they only move their shoulders up and down, quickly so Calculate does not really notice. Calculate sums it up: ‘It’s not very close.’ He explains that ‘sum’ is used in different ways but that summing up is also something that we might have to do in the future. When it comes. The summing up of our situation. Of what is going on in our country.
‘When you claim asylum you sum it all up.’ He laughs and his eyes become so small they fade into his unshaven face until you only see two lines with a little hair.
I can make jokes at any time but even I don’t understand why he laughs. ‘How do you sum up genocide?’
He is quiet after that.
I tell GPS that I think Calculate likes to be a philosopher, but GPS says it is just because Calculate wanted to be an English professor and now he has to compensate for it. Both of his hands are open like a question. The long fingers curled upwards, his shoulders raised. I know he learned it from Calculate. To compensate for something. I heard them, but I was busy thinking of a new name.