THE ONE THING
This looks like a good hole. A short drop through the coal hatch—is there any danger of a rough landing on fuel? Oh, no, that would be too much like good luck. We haven’t come across a decent heat source for months.
I help the others down into this cellar—the Gershons, the Farhardi flock, Mr Tran, the Madukeles, Mrs Djokic and the rest of our army of the dispossessed. Once upon a time, each of us was on the Home Front in any one of a dozen different nations. We’re now the Homeless Front, trudging on from cellar, to shed, to plastic sheeting tied over branches. Down all the days, through the years, across the centuries, forever moving on toward a common fate.
Today has been hard. But then…every day is hard. We woke to snow. A cloud of big heavy planes let it fall. The cold stuff can be melted for water, but this morning’s blizzard was the sort we could have used to light a fire, if it hadn’t been soaked with rain.
The worst you can get from a propaganda drop is paper cuts. Later, the planes came back and strafed us with a more solid form of persuasion. “Harvesting fanatics” they call it, although anybody in our company with the strength to fight would stick out like a bandaged limb. All ten of the Madukele family added together wouldn’t make one complete human body. The bits that haven’t been blown off or infected have been lost to river blindness, or leprosy. Mr Tran is so old, he gets to ride in the cart. He’s a veteran of the Cu Chi tunnels. They were probably more palatial than this dark, dripping refuge.
The last bombardment killed our mule, but you have to look on the bright side in this travelling life. It was heavy work, getting the animal into the cart and we’ve had to take turns carrying Mr Tran, but at least we’ll be able to taste meat again. Shouldering the empty harness and helping to pull the cart was tricky with Baby bundled up in my shawl. The bare night sky sucked away her warmth soon after she was born, but I can’t leave her.
We’re all exhausted. Mrs Djokic makes a fire while the Farhardis butcher the mule. There isn’t time to roast it all, so they hack it into chunks and spike them on green olive branches over the blaze. The smell of fat waxing onto hot stones makes the Gershons think of home. Rebecca cries, rivulets creasing her walnut face. Isaac says it’s a pity we can’t collect the salt from her tears to go with the dripping. That would be a feast, smeared onto thick slices of bread. Except we don’t have any bread. We huddle together for warmth, swapping food porn as we remember the sort of meals that made us the people we once were.
I wish the television crews would catch up. Baby feels like a candle-stump that’s been left overnight on a windowsill. I can still remember candles. Unbroken windowpanes are harder to recall, although we—or people like us— have visited lots of places. Dresden in the North, Moyamba in the South, Guernica in the West. We gather and reform, tidal waves of us, large in number but invisible to everyone until we get in their way. A sea of refugees without the strength to make ripples. Only rich and well-fed voices carrying through marble halls can do that.
Vibrations silence us. It must be bombers. First we feel them, then we hear them. They drag anti-aircraft fire along in their wake, inflaming the small square of night sky we can see through the coal hatch. We start counting seconds between blasts when the rockets begin. Those are fired in multiples of four, and they say that as long as you hear the ‘phwee’ you’ll live to hear the ‘flump’. Who are they? How do they know? It’s like those dreams of falling… you’re supposed to die if you hit rock bottom. But how many dead people have come back to say how they landed?
I wish those guns would shut up. They’ll wake Baby, and I don’t have anything for her. It’s been days since she’s eaten.
The artillery stops. We go on listening. The only sounds come from our cooking fire. The hiss and pop of damp tinder trying to burn makes me wish for the sound of the guns again. Silence isn’t always a good sign. It can be too quiet.
A dog barks. Another joins in. A distant sound of shouting comes running. It’s ground troops. The Enemy. It doesn’t matter what they call themselves—Boxers, Balkan freedom fighters, Generals from Spain, soldiers who bayonetted Belgium, Communists… the list goes on. They’re all loyalists to a man (and woman). The hungry, angry look in their eyes gives them away.
Mr Tran can’t go on. He begs us to push him up into the street, and back out onto the road. Powered by self-preservation, we force him upward so that the top half of his body blocks the hatch. Then we douse the fire, and flatten ourselves into the darkness. If The Enemy assumes he was alone, they’ll kill him and move on without searching.
In my experience, those who die are lucky. The rest of us, the ones who can’t let go of life, are left to carry on suffering.
We hear more running. There’s shouting, gunfire, and we wait for the bottom half of Mr Tran to go limp. It doesn’t. Instead, he jerks his feeble legs with excitement, and calls down to us.
The Allies have arrived! They’ve chased The Enemy away!
But for what?
Pity, gritty in The Allies eyes, announces to the world that they are Our (current) Saviours. The message will run round the world loud and clear in selfies, Facebook posts, and news reports despatched from The Front. The truth is that these are marines, aircrew, and peace-keeping forces. They’re somebody’s Brave Boys, chock-full of the Right Stuff. They are all patriots, right down to the last gender-non-specific one.
Mrs Satō recognises them. These are the sort who fried her grandparents in Nagasaki. They wiped all traces of Mrs Khan’s village from the face of the earth, for the greater good. Mrs Barzan saw her family massacred after their help. The sight sent her limping to the shores of the Mediterranean, and on to a leaky boat heading for Lampedusa.
All of us used to rely on our homeland, our families, and ourselves. Then The Enemy took away our land, our culture, and our identities, so there’s nothing for it. We have to let The Allies rescue us.
We abandon our dignity in the loving arms of The Allies, each clinging on to the one thing that keeps them going.
The Enemy wanted us dead. All The Allies will take is our reputations. There’ll be a limit to the food, shelter, and friendship they offer. Crossing the invisible lines that divide Syria from Turkey, Bangladesh from India or any one country from any other transforms locals into foreigners, and plucky freedom fighters into refugees.
Nobody loves a loser. That means us. Right now it doesn’t much matter whether we fall under the tank-tracks of friend or foe.
Baby and I accept a hand up from the cellar, and out into the night. I squeeze into a truck along with everyone else. I know it’s temporary help and pointless, but there’s only one thing worse than being a nameless face in a troop of refugees. That’s getting left behind. It’s the flip side of Darwin’s theory. The survival of the fittest doesn’t mean gym bunnies rule. It means the ones who fit in get to live. If you’re without a voice, poor, old, sick or alone, you lose the one thing that has kept all refugees going, down the centuries and along this same bitter, beaten track.
What is it? Hope. The last illusion left in Pandora’s box of tricks. The final refuge of the optimist. It used to be called religion. Be good, and you’ll go to heaven. Only the bad go to hell. That isn’t the way it works these days. Life moves faster as the globe warms, and hearts get colder. Soft-centred intellectuals lose out to hard-nosed opportunists, every time. Those empty vessels which make the most noise are filled with backhanders, expenses and honours. Good people become veterans of a living death. They go through hell, so the bad can avoid it.
Don’t waste a second worrying about us though, will you? We’re sure to see you again soon—looking out from your TV screen, your phone, or tablet.
So here’s to the next time…