Tom was waiting for the Telefonica engineer to call when Berk’s barking announced that the Moroccans were at the gate. Telefonica was one reason he had bought the mobile phone. "I want a phone installed," he had said. "What's your contact number?" said the girl. "I haven't got one, that's why I want a phone." "You want a phone? We need a contact number." Claro.
When Tom came to Spain, the bank refused him a mortgage. "You haven't got enough money," they said. "I know," he said. "That's why I want to borrow some." But they wouldn't give him any. So he had settled for La Fábrica de Luz. Nobody else wanted to live in an abandoned generating shed. It was also uninsurable. "A zona despoblada," they said, "too remote. Might get burgled." "That why I want to insure it," said Tom, but they wouldn't wear it. And now the bank kept offering him credit cards. "I haven't got any money," he said. "That's why you need a credit card," they said.
There had to be an axiom in there somewhere, something like you can't get what you haven't got, but you can get what you can't have. He had tried that on one of his English classes, but they didn't get it. Instead, Carlos asked for clarification of his 'Song of the Week': Is you is or is you ain't my baby? Which was the other reason why Tom had bought a mobile. Is you is or is you ain't my baby? He didn't want to lose her again because she couldn't call him on a phone he didn't have.
There were three of them at the gate, one plastic bag, an empty water bottle, and a mobile phone between them. "You expecting a call?" said Tom, but they didn't understand – or couldn't hear. Berk was not an aggressive dog, but he didn't like strangers standing at his gate. Once you were inside, he would be curling his leg round your calf for all he was worth. But he wouldn't have you standing outside the gate. The Moroccans mimed eating and drinking: "Comer," they said, "beber." Tom went to fill a bag with bread, olives, medlars, goats cheese. The phone rang, his mobile phone.
"Where's your house?" asked the Telefonica engineer.
"It's difficult to explain," said Tom. It was the first call he had successfully taken on his mobile. Others had been lost, either because he had accidentally switched the phone off while trying to answer, or because he had been in the supermarket. He didn't want to be seen smiling at punnets of margarine and chatting to the cold meats counter. "It's in the mountains behind El Salto del Moro. It's the old Fábrica de luz. I could meet you at the gasolinera on the motorway."
"I'll call tomorrow," said the engineer and hung up.
Tom was used to such hasty retreats. A very gregarious people the Spanish. Any suggestion of isolation and they simply evaporated. Even their hermitages clustered in colonies and 'a day in the country' meant a visit to the restaurant or a paella for fifty in the family finca. Otherwise the countryside was best left to foreigners till it was concreted over.
He had first met Skittles at university. The nickname should have warned him. She was a girl for whom men regularly fell and he was no exception. He spent the first six months gazing at her, slack-jawed and dewy-eyed. Skittles was nice enough about it, but not half as nice as he would have liked. Eventually, she told him that they were, would be, could only ever be ‘just good friends’. "Fine," he said, as the jaw dropped lower and the eye grew glassier. Nobody had expected he could be quite so dogged. True, there had been something spaniel-like about the dewy-eye, but behind that lay the tenacity of a Jack Russell. For the next three years, he gazed at her, slack-jawed, dewy-eyed, unrequited and stubbornly celibate. Then university was over, she was gone, and Tom set off around the world. Ten years later, she walked into the same exam centre as him and he bought a mobile phone. Is you is or is you ain't my baby?
The Moroccans were still at the gate and Berk was still barking. Tom gave them the food. "Trabajo," they said, work. Communication was complicated, but through a mix of barking, mime, and at least three languages Tom could identify, it was established that they were en route to Almería. They had been walking for ten days, had another ten to go, and were very hungry. The garden, they suggested, hopefully.
Tom pitied their optimism. It wasn't that 'the garden' didn't need working on. 'The garden' needed working on like international harmony and brotherly love needed working on. 'The garden' was about as far from being a garden as one can get without departing altogether from the general concept of a bit of green stuff around a dwelling. When Tom bought La Fábrica, the garden had consisted of a square of coarse grass, a small prickly pear bush, a patch of dama de noche, four dwarf palm, six agave, a bed of marine fig, a border of oleander, and scattered clumps of broom and heather. Since then the square had succumbed to the bush, the patch had swallowed half the main building, the dwarfs had grown blowsy and burnt out, the agave had sprouted scapes fifteen foot tall, the marine fig had spread like a rash, the oleander had filled the riverbed, and the clumps had swept across the hillside like wildfire. Apart from his vegetable patch, which was immaculate, neglect had returned the garden to nature. In certain seasons, the spectacle it presented was splendid, but in late June, the tangle of dead thistles, burst caper, scorched groundsel and brittle fennel was a wasteland. It would take a tank to tidy that lot up. Three hungry Moroccans didn't stand a chance. Besides, Tom didn't have the money. He had a nine-month contract and the paro wasn't paid till September.
"You could try up the hill," he suggested.
The Moroccans left, chatting happily, and Berk settled in the shade, well pleased with his afternoon's work. Tom felt a pang of guilt. The Moroccans were bound to be disappointed.
On the western flank of the valley was the weekend home of Curro, a Málaga man who kept himself to himself, which was apparently just as well, mention of his name moving otherwise pacific locals to mutter darkly about drogas – and judging by Curro's heavy, saturnine features, they weren't inferring he was some hippy-dippy, happy-go-lucky dopehead. To the East, was the summer house of Pepe de Arriba, who lived on the coast and only occasionally came to cultivate his garden. Above that was Peter, an aging Dane, dubbed by Tom ‘The Great Dane’ for his compulsion to display his once imposing but now sadly wasted physique. He was married to a woman thirty years his junior, father to a small child, and prone to crackpot business ventures, ranging from a swimming club in his poolless backyard to a plastic-bag factory in his basement. On the far side of the mountain were several small cortijos, whose owners rarely visited and were only waiting for the day when some crazy foreigner would come offering large sums of money for a farm halfway up a mountain without electricity or running water. There was nobody wanting to splash cash out on hungry Moroccans.
The phone rang. Tom hurried indoors, wildly hoping it might be Skittles, though that was unlikely since he hadn't given her his number. He could have. He had bought the phone that same evening. The council rep' would have known where she was staying. But having told her he didn't have a telephone, he hadn't wanted to seem too keen. Devotion hadn't done him any good in the past. Best play hard to get this time. Skittles could track him down through the exam co-ordinator next time she visited Málaga.
"¡Diga! Is you is or is you ain't my baby?" Tom had a regrettable sense of humor. At least, he often regretted it. If it was Skittles, he would sound like an eager fool, which was contrary to current policy. Or it might be his mother and, at her age, she didn't need people asking whose baby she was. There was a long silence then the Telefonica salesgirl told him they had a host of new savings on their terrestrial service and, if he subscribed now, they would give him free Internet access for the first two months.
Teaching English as a foreign language is rarely more than a mask for indigence and Spanish language schools in particular are careful not to pay their teachers more than they would a good cleaning lady; which is grand for the cleaning ladies, but less good for the language teachers, whose education furnishes them with more focussed friends who stay at home amassing small fortunes in the professions. Consequently, the world of ELT boasts an unusually large number of underpaid, overeducated malcontents. Which was why setting up a union at Toxteth College had proved so controversial.
Tom had tried to explain to José-Maria that, for all the borough's sterling qualities, Toxteth was an eccentric name for an academy, but José-Maria had insisted. All the Oxfords, Cambridges, Londons and Brightons, had been snapped up by rival establishments and, whatever its associations, Toxteth had been much in the news during his brief visit to England, thus guaranteeing good brand recognition. José-Maria was not, in any case, very sensitive when it came to foreign languages, except insofar as they kept the till full. He had taken care to learn little English, keenly aware that his poor grasp of the language and his teachers' hopefully poorer grasp of Spanish would help confound claims for unpaid wages and faulty contracts. Contract was not a word that José-Maria liked in any language. The mere suggestion that Toxteth needed a union was therefore already profoundly shocking. That the union would be representing such a feckless, shifty, surly bunch of layabouts as the teachers was simply beyond the pale. It was as an indirect consequence of all this that Tom came to meet Skittles again.
The difficulty with organizing language teachers is that few of them want to be organized and none want to organize. When the French teacher was sacked for getting pregnant at a time of year when she qualified for maternity leave, the foreign staff had assembled and someone, nobody remembered who, pointed out that they wouldn't have to hold these emergency meetings if they had proper representation. It was a pity nobody remembered who suggested the idea. For after much seconding of the motion their enthusiasm foundered on the sticky question of who was to tell José-Maria. Not that he was an intimidating man. He wouldn't be happy about having his staff organized, but nobody minded that. He was however sufficiently repellent to discourage familiarity and it had dawned on everyone that, whoever spoke for them now, would doubtless become their delegate, and would therefore have to spend many hours closeted with José-Maria. It was not an appealing prospect. Most teachers will go to extraordinary lengths to give up teaching –breaking legs, faking madness, even becoming headmasters– but the thought of spending a couple of hours with José-Maria every week was enough to make an afternoon with the J3s seem quite tempting. The teachers sat in silence, fidgeting and gazing at the ceiling. It was intensely embarrassing, so embarrassing that, after about a minute and a half, Tom was horrified to find himself breaking a lifelong rule about belonging-to and standing-for, and saying, "Well, if nobody else is willing to do it." That the same sentiment was expressed almost simultaneously by Frieda, the German teacher, did not help, for she was more softly spoken and, before Tom could give way gracefully, everybody was patting him on the back and making for the door.
Frieda winked at him and suggested there was no time like the present.
"You wouldn't like to come, too, would you?" asked Tom.
"No, thank you," she said, her big face broken by a broad grin. “Maybe some other time.”
Tom was fond of Frieda. They had been flirting with one another for years, in the joking, trifling way of colleagues. She was a heavily built girl, more handsome than pretty, innocent by nature, but cunning by experience. It was typical that she should have blundered into volunteering then neatly ducked the consequences.
"Señor Tom," said José-Maria, genially – a little too genially for Tom, who had braced himself for a wailing and gnashing of teeth. "It is difficult for me."
"Lockwood," said Tom, while José-Maria fingered the Virgin Mary. He had dozens of them dotted about the office, plastic statuettes of Christ, the Virgin Mary and countless saints, ranked on the shelves like spectators. "It is Mister Lockwood. Or just Tom."
"Just Tom?" said José-Maria, swiveling the Virgin Mary round so she was facing Tom. Paint had been applied haphazardly about her head, giving her a disconcertingly bug-eyed look. José-Maria touched St. Joseph's halo with a fat forefinger. "Who is Just Tom? Just Tom. There you have!"
Tom, just Tom, watched José-Maria closely. He never knew how much of this was put on, but he had a strong suspicion José-Maria was no fool. The fact that he drove a Mercedes at the weekend and came to work in a Seat Ibiza attested to that. Somehow, though, the experience of the man was such that he wanted to believe he was a fool, which was one reason he never openly challenged his solecisms.
José-Maria sensed Tom's dilemma and was glad. He toyed with St. Joseph, tipping him off-kilter, turning him in carefully prescribed circles. José-Maria liked Tom. His diffidence and lack of avarice made him an ideal employee. He could teach, too, which was quite useful sometimes.
"Just Tom," he repeated, as if mulling over its suitability as a title.
"Mi apellido es Lockwood, mi nombre Tom."
"¡Vaya con Dios!" exclaimed José-Maria happily, as if, after five years, this was a startling and highly gratifying piece of information. St. Joseph fell over and had to be righted with exaggerated reverence.
The other reason Tom never challenged José-Maria was his sympathy for people struggling with a foreign language. This was partly ingrained after too many years teaching, years in which he had been greatly outnumbered by his students, and had absorbed so much shaky syntax that he often spoke English like a second language himself, groping for idioms and struggling to keep hispanicisms at bay. But there was more to it than that. He was always amazed when colleagues touting for private classes claimed a domino of Spanish. The very idea of dominating a language seemed questionable and he had bumbled along in so many different tongues that he tended to regard them as a continuum, overlapping and infecting one another. After seven years in Spain, he still carefully constructed his phrases to avoid irregular verbs, and made free use of complements and theoretically redundant pronouns to clarify his meaning. He had even resorted to jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the past. He was not a man to challenge somebody else's linguistic inadequacies.
"Why is a union difficult for you?"
"Cambridge," said José-Maria, "Cambridge love an oral examine a door."
"You mean they want one? They want an oral examina . . . an oral examiner?"
"Justly." St. Teresa suffered a painful looking epiphany between José-Maria's fingers. Modeled after Bernini, she appeared to have been recast by some flaky pornographer with a taste for sado-masochism. In contrast to the glaring Virgin, St. Teresa was boss-eyed with ecstasy. José-Maria released her, repeating the word justly with evident satisfaction. "An oral examinador." The UCCA co-ordinator wanted more assessors from the academies and José-Maria had chosen Tom to represent Toxteth. Tom had the diploma and he had a tie, too, which was more than could be said for most of them. This union business simply made the appointment more diplomatic.
"¿Y que tiene eso à ver con un sindicato?" demanded Tom. This was not a matter to leave to the vagaries of José-Maria's English. UCCA examiners in Andalucía were unusually well paid and competition to get on the list was intense. Was he being bribed?
"You is our senior teacher, Señor Tom," proclaimed José-Maria, sticking to English and scanning the apostles for a suitable emissary at this juncture of the game. St. Paul? No, too pugnacious, the jaw too square. He looked like he might bite.
"I am?" That he was senior teacher had not occurred to Tom before. To be fair, it hadn't occurred to the school accountant either, but in a world of short-term contracts and migrant staff –the accountant claimed some of them were downright vagrant– Tom had been at Toxteth longer than anyone else. "But what's that got to do with a union?"
"A sindicato he will take your weather, Señor Tom," said José-Maria, hesitating between a constipated looking St. Peter and a frankly asinine St. James. "It can be a problem with your big job?"
"Yes?" If this was a bribe, José-Maria, a man who knew a thing or two about bribes, was making unusually heavy weather of it. "Would one depend on the other then?"
"¡¿Que dices?!" cried José-Maria, clutching at St. Peter for support. "Señor Tom, I am an honorable man. Nothing depends on nothing. I write today, your name to Cambridge. Today, before one more word is talking of this union."
Whereupon, Tom was ushered from the office, the union in stasis, himself an oral examiner. If this was a bribe? He hadn't been considered worth bribing since he was six years old, when his cousins persuaded him to shave his head for two bars of chocolate and a packet of gum. Prices rise. Half a dozen examining sessions prior to the Summer were just what he needed. He might even be able to visit his mother. If this was a bribe, he had taken it. He could see about the union later. The French teacher had, in any case, gone back to France to have her baby. There was no hurry. Meanwhile, he was an Oral Examiner; and it was between exams at the British Council that he met Skittles again.
Light spilled into his eyes like shards of glass. A yellow bird danced in the mid-distance, darting at invisible insects, incorrigibly energetic in the heat of the afternoon. Slightly to his left, a blue butterfly skittered about like a scratch on a movie. It looked too delicate for the desert, a flake of tissue that should crinkle and burn, yet it was people and other misfits that burned. Sweat dried before it had time to bead. They never urinated, no matter how much they drank.
Amos repeated the number so that he would not forget. He had to hold onto the number. It was the only grip he had.
Was he falling behind? Amos increased his pace. If you fell behind you were finished. The butterfly landed on his forearm. He snatched it, stuffed it into his mouth. It stuck to his tongue. The tongue was slightly swollen, the inside of his cheeks a little numb. Cotton mouth, that was the first stage. Who had the water? Was there any water? He swallowed the butterfly.
Forty-three, one more number for a journey of numbers. $100 for a place on the truck to Niger. Another hundred for the border guards. A fortnight forming the group, fifteen of them from Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, among them several who had worked for months at menial jobs in Niamey to save the necessary money. Fifteen of them walking north, six days into the desert. Another town, another truck, another trafficker, another $100 each. The driver cheated them. Dropped them short of the frontier. Another walk, three days this time, another border crossing, another bribe. Someone died while they were waiting. Some one. He could not remember the name. Names were harder than numbers. Fourteen were left though, fourteen crossed the frontier, fourteen walking.
Williams lurched to the right. The others followed, staggering across the swathe of tracks, stumbling in the deeper ruts, waving their arms. A truck! Amos ran. The truck was half a mile away, heading South. The wrong way. But if the driver gave them water, it would mean another day, another number. It didn't feel as if he was going any faster, but he knew he was running. He was keeping pace with the others and the ground was shaking more crazily. He was running. Or the madness was back. Jonathan fell in a hole where a vehicle had breached. Amos could see the imprint of sand-ladders, the spot where they had scraped sand away from the sump. Everything very precise. He had learned to fear such lucidity. Madness was bad, but at least it sheltered you. When you saw everything as it was, everything clear and inescapable, the fear could be unbearable.
The truck was no nearer. It was fading away. Williams had stopped waving his arms, was no longer running, just standing, gazing at the evaporating mirage. There were no tracks over there. The sand was too deep. No vehicle. No water. Keep walking.
Walking was least painful when you got lost inside your head. It was dangerous. Get lost inside your head and you could get lost outside, too. That was what had happened to Joshua. Lost inside outside, somewhere in the desert. They had turned back, calling his name, but it was hopeless. He was gone. Nobody had noticed when he veered off, fell behind, or simply lay down.
Dangerous, but consoling, too. Amos had painted a picture once, Awale, players in the foreground, board between them, swirling squares of color in the background representing the arithmetic of the game. It was like that when you got lost inside your head, a confusion of colors that occasionally revealed the shape of something comforting, a pattern say or a coherent memory suggesting there was order and logic to this world. The best moments were those when he found himself back in his village. Afterwards, in Monrovia, Abidjan and Lagos was all right, too. It had been bad at the time, but nothing compared to this.
Forty-three. That was all he was. The sum of his days in the desert.
Amos had not always been a number. He had once been less discrete, had belonged to a community. Coffee and cocoa, smoked fish and agouti, palm-wine and koutoukou; fishermen, hunters, planters, palm-tappers, distillers; these were the things that had made up the tapestry of his childhood, a childhood blessed with a faculty few adults possess and many wise men crave. Amos had always seen the world, not like most people see it, as a backdrop to their own being, but as artists hope to see it: clear, coherent, whole. Even when he was small, scratching in the sand, he was depicting a world that others recognized. Later he daubed on old newspapers and decorated wattled walls, mixing the dust of coffee and cocoa beans with pale brown river water to paint his way into the world. Drawing the patterns of their daily lives, Amos gave himself away, betrayed his talent to the eager eyes of the village elders. They did not call it a talent, though. They called it a gift to the community, something to be shared like their other resources. The man who decorated the funeral cloths took Amos to train him. The Gift was valuable to the village. The cloths no longer wrapped the dead, but were hung on hotel walls and sold in shops where tourists haggled until they paid the price the shopkeeper wanted. Sometimes, travellers would visit the village and buy direct. Amos learned how to prove the fabric, which berries to bleed for ink, how to fix his images, which designs sold best, when to add, when to omit. But other eyes had spotted his talent, too, and they called it a talent, something singular to be cultivated individually, and they took him from his community to teach him the ways of talented men. Nobody objected. A free education was a free education. Amos got his Higher Certificate and went to the Academy of Fine Arts, financed by benevolent strangers from abroad. Then the country was overrun by less benevolent strangers from abroad, turning an individual talent into a desirable asset, a commodity to be taken into exile.
In Abidjan he had returned to his original materials, processed this time, painting sketches of lagoon life in Nescafé and vanHouten, sketches that were cheap to make and quick to sell to the expats in Cocody and Bingerville. When he had amassed enough money, he had made his way to Lagos, where his uncle prospered and his proud sister made plans.
Day forty-four. Phillip was missing. They were on a truck. The driver had been unwilling until he saw the stippled scars on Moussa's forehead, a kinship grudgingly extended to include Moussa's companions. Clambering aboard before the driver changed his mind, they had not counted numbers. A day on a truck could match a week or more on foot. An hour later, Williams marked the absence. The driver pretended he had neither the time nor the fuel, but the wailing of the two women persuaded him there was time and fuel enough. There was no sign of Phillip, though. The driver began to panic. They had drifted too far west, they must retrace their tracks or they would get stuck in deep sand and nobody would come to get them out.
Cornered by war, Phillip had concluded it could only get worse where he was. He had left everything, nets, boat, wife, children. He had no money. He had reached Algeria through ingenuity and will power. That was all he had . . . ingenuity, will power and the knowledge that there was nowhere else to go. But it hadn't been enough. It made Amos' quest seem frivolous. Compared to people like Phillip and Williams, who had nothing left to lose but their lives, his gamble was almost whimsical. He had not been reduced to a choice of fight or flight. He was not driven by despair. His incentive was the need to know. It was a weak motive and would not have been enough had he not discovered a hitherto unsuspected gift for endurance. He was not a big man like Williams, not quick like Joshua, nor cunning like Mathew, or feline like Moussa; but he had a capacity to keep on keeping on, a crazy kind of obstinacy that amounted to a talent for survival. Amos was rich, too. He still had $200 under the insole of his shoe – he hoped. He daren't check. His companions were not thieves, but they were desperate and, though the desert generally demanded a different kind of currency, money might buy a lift, it might mean life, which was enough to drive men to murder.
Cycling round the expatriate homes in the reserve selling his paintings, Amos had made good money, money that allowed him luxuries like beer and cigarettes. Amos had made the sort of money others hoped to make in Europe. Amos wasn't after money. He was after his sister.
Abigail wasn't a rebel, not really. She was just interested. What would happen if . . . she broke the taboo, touched the fetish, showed herself in the market during her period, if she did as others did not. She had always been like that, even in the bush, where she walked third in line. Nobody wanted to walk third in line. It was unlucky. Snakes sleep near paths. The first to pass wakes them, the second irritates them, and the third gets bitten. But Abigail walked third in line, scorning superstition. She had never been bitten. The beatings had been terrible, though. When she questioned custom or broke taboos, something had to be done. The demons had to be beaten out of her. Amos would never forget the shrieks of his lovely, headstrong sister. They never broke her spirit, though. Even in the city, where village order had to be enforced by more savage punishment, she did as she pleased. She had been a difficult child and she grew to be a difficult woman, a beautiful, prideful woman who intimidated men, but drove them just a little bit crazy, too.
The battle between her and their parents only ended when it was swallowed up by a bigger more malignant battle, and the family had fled any which way they could, Amos crossing the border into Ivory Coast, Abigail jumping a ship bound for Nigeria and their uncle. He never knew what that passage cost Abigail, only that she had had no money and the captains of tramp coasters are not known for their charity, but her willfulness seemed undiminished when he eventually reached Lagos himself. If anything, she was a little more haughty than before, which made her disappearance all the more distressing.
Abigail had been recruited by an agent. There were jobs, said the agent, in Europe, well-paying jobs as cleaners, cooks and housekeepers. Get a job and you could get legal. So Abigail had gone. That had been Abigail. Never patient, always in a hurry, no sense of consequences. She had borrowed money from her friend, Fatou, a Senegalese who ran a bar in the city. Two months later, the letter came from Spain, enclosing the other half of her photo. It matched the half held by Fatou. Abigail was in Europe and they could pay the balance to the agency. After that, nothing, no word for months and months.
Swollen tongue. Forty-eight days, dead-man walking. Amos did not know where the phrase came from. Sometimes he no longer knew what language words came from. Like many Africans, Amos enjoyed a casual polyglottism that would bewilder most white people. But 'dead-man walking' was always in English. Dead-man walking. A contradiction in terms, further contradicted by the fact that he thought it. Unless he was a ghost. That was possible. The truck driver had left them a little food and a skinful of water. They sipped the water sparingly, but even allowing for that, Amos had the impression he was not really drinking, as if he had no physical being left to feel the sensation. He watched the others. They took no special notice of him, nor were they oblivious to his presence. He pinched the skin on the inside of his forearm. The flesh stuck, puckered for a full minute before it recovered its elasticity. He was not a ghost. Ghosts did not dehydrate. But he couldn't get the words out of his head: 'dead-man walking'.
It was day forty-nine when Marcus went mad. Marcus had been a quiet, shy boy, skinny, too, which was why the desert went so hard on him. None of the others were fat. But they had something to lose. The women had buttocks and breasts, Williams had muscle, Moussa hips, Amos a gut. But Marcus had no reserve, so it was reason his body shed for want of any other expendable resource. He started running. The others broke into a run, too, then stopped abruptly, for there was no truck, not even a mirage. Marcus was running in circles, skipping like a child. When he began scooping up sand and eating it, they wrestled him to the ground, washed his mouth out. It was no use, though. Water would not replace what Marcus had lost. Reason is fluid, but it is thicker than water. They took turns guarding him, but Marcus was cunning. He played docile. On the third day, he snatched his wrist from Muriel's grip, and sprinted into the wilderness. Williams, Mathew and Amos chased him, but they could not keep up with Marcus' demons. He ran faster than any man in his condition had a right to run, leaping over rocks like a gazelle signaling its vitality to potential predators. They watched him bound away. He would collapse sooner or later. They could have followed. But what then? Bind him? Carry him? Waste water and energy on him? Out of the question. They had no water or energy to waste and precious little sympathy left. They had negative reserves. And you had to want to live. You cannot compel people to live. You cannot enjoin sanity in such an insane enterprise. Either it survives or it doesn't. Williams turned aside and resumed trudging north. One by one, the others followed.
Amos had visited the agent, taking Abigail's torn photo with him. He still had the photo. Cousin Samson had suggested taking a whole photo to show in Europe, but Amos had preferred the torn halves, for they better resembled what Abigail had become. Removed from her family and friends, she was separated from herself and needed her two halves reunited. The agent knew nothing. He got the girls in, gave them their initial contacts. Afterwards they were on their own. Girls? The man had said girls. He did not say men. Did Europe not need men? The men make their own way, said the agent. Only women and children need help. Amos was not reassured. Then the phone call came. To Fatou at the bar. It was Abigail. She was in Minonny, she said. Not loudly. She whispered the name, Minonny, as if she was afraid someone might overhear. That wasn't like Abigail. Abigail wasn't afraid of anyone. Minonny. Yes, in Spain. It was . . . it was not good. She was not happy. Then the line went dead and Amos started borrowing money.
Tom had finished his morning interviewing session and was popping out to prepare himself for an afternoon of stultifying boredom invigilating the listening exams – and there she was! Skittles had never been a wan girl. With long blonde hair, bright green eyes and a gift for vitality, she was bound to attract attention. But as a woman she had bloomed in a way that surprised even his dewy eyes. She had been fun and vivacious and pretty. She probably still was. But now she was glamorous, as well, like a carefully crafted celebrity. There was a time when Tom had thought she was perfect. Perhaps he still did.
"You!" he cried, aghast.
"Tom!" she exclaimed, more courteously. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm going for my sandwich," he said and dashed into the library. Perhaps it would be wise to make a bolt for the shrubbery at the bottom of the garden? He didn't need perfection, not anymore. He was too used to muddling through. Yet he stayed in the library, between Fantasy and Current Affairs, and stuffed his sandwich into his mouth, gulping it down like a dog gobbling a kidney in a crowded kennel. He wasn't sure why he was eating so fast. He had to eat. He didn't want his stomach rumbling during a pause in the listening exam. But it was more than that. There was something underhand about it, like furtively watching women in art galleries – an exhibition had to be really good to earn Tom's undivided attention. Otherwise sane instincts, like lust or hunger, could be perverted by circumstance, becoming vaguely shameful. He had just swallowed the last mouthful, when Skittles walked in. Happily he had slipped his banana into his pocket. It wouldn't do to have her watching him eating a banana.
"You're looking very smart," she said, remembering ragged jeans and baggy T-shirts. He looked quite handsome in tie and jacket. It was strange, seeing him like that. At university, she had felt they were in some sense auditioning for their lives, role-playing what they would become. He had been priming himself for the part of a loser. He'd had it written all over him. She hadn't pictured him turning out like this. He was doing a loser's job. But he didn't look like a loser. "Finished your sandwich?"
The dazzling green eyes glittered with humor and Tom recalled why he had been dewy-eyed and slack-jawed. Perfect, damn it! He did not need perfect. His adam's apple bobbed, as if to prove the sandwich was gone, and he asked what she was doing there.
"I'm a publisher's agent," she said, gesturing at the shelves. "EFL Regional Director. Simplified Texts, course books. I've been meeting the DOS."
The next twenty minutes passed a little hazily for Tom. He felt like he was at the bottom of a swimming pool. He could breathe, but his movements were leaden, his manners clumsy and sodden. Skittles was more at ease, performing neat pirouettes on the surface. They spoke of old friends, the relative health of parents, who had been where, done what. But Tom didn't ask if Skittles was married or otherwise coupled. He didn't really want to know. Not yet.
"Call me," he said, when the bell rang announcing the afternoon sessions.
"I will," she said. "What's your number?"
He bought a mobile phone that evening.
Is you is or is you ain't?
Fifty-nine? Sixty? Sixty-one? Even the number was dim now, darkened with delirium. Amos had woken to find the blue head of a nomad bent over him. The man was spooning a sweet, sticky paste between Amos' lips. They were under a rough white awning suspended by sticks and what looked like a couple of crossed spears. A gun lay beside them, a primitive rifle that would have had the rebels in Phillip's homeland rocking with mirth. In a world of sophisticated killing machines, the nomad's rifle was as pitiable as his charity. Amos did not remember how they had got there, but he did recall the water running out, the goatskin drying and cracking, themselves drying and cracking, the struggle to keep on, the final stuttering defeat, crawling for shelter in the scant shade of the bushes that lined the route, the funereal click of a leathery tongue tapping against loose teeth. They stayed with the nomads three days before setting off with a bag of dates and a new skin filled with blackish, brackish water that left an inch of sand in the bottom of every cupful. Sixty-two? Four? Five? He no longer knew. He hardly cared.
The money had not been given for Abigail. Amos was going for his sister, but his brothers, cousins, nephews, uncles, all those who had made it to Lagos, were investing in him that he might serve the same purpose the uncle had served when they fled Liberia. They were buying a bridgehead into Europe, retaining an agent who would help them there if they needed to take a similar gamble. Amos would welcome them, house them, feed them, find them jobs. They were investing in the future. Even if they never went to Europe, they would recoup their money from the remittances he sent home. If he got there. If he didn't, the investment would be bad, and they would complain that their family was without luck. It was worse for others, though. Passage to Europe could represent years of savings, horrendous debts. There was not so much riding on Amos' success.
Deprived of numbers as a way of holding himself together, Amos sought other life-saving tricks. He tried painting inside his head, hoping to tame the landscape by depicting it. But the space was too big and he did not have the vocabulary for such intense light. Even imagining it made the backs of his eyes ache. So he made an effort to focus on his goal, picturing Abigail on the horizon, beckoning him on. But he couldn't fix her face. There was too much light. As soon as part of her was in place, the rest would begin to break up, and his mind would be scrabbling to recover the image, losing everything as it did so. His talent was not so robust that it could withstand the desert. It was the photo that saved him. Taking one half at a time, he would sketch the other half inside his head. When the face was complete, he would pocket the photo and continue with the face in his mind's eye. Then, when it began to fade, he would take out the other half and repeat the process from the other side. He survived, seeing his sister to see himself through the desert.
More trucks appeared, more people, more settlements. The drivers were less willing to give them lifts, wary of police who exploited every pretext for a fine, and the walkers were occasionally chased by dogs or stoned by chanting kids. But abuse was almost welcome. It meant they were nearing the end of their journey. Besides, most people were kind, giving them water and what little food they could spare. The numbering of days was past. All they counted now was their remaining money. For the moment, the bribes were smaller because the police had less power. They couldn't send the migrants back south and if they put them in prison, would only have to feed them, so a dollar would do where five or more had been needed before. But they were approaching the Moroccan border. Frontiers and frontier towns were expensive. All the guards had to do was turn you back. It made little difference whether you were stuck in Niger or stuck in Algeria, you were still a long way from Europe. It was at the border that Muriel and Rachel were to serve their purpose.
Moussa conducted the negotiations. Amos watched the women, careful not to let them catch him staring at them. He felt shame for what was happening, but lacked the energy to protest. This was simply how it worked. Muriel and Rachel did not seem disturbed. They knew they were currency, the most valuable commodity the group possessed on this stage of the journey, had long resigned themselves to one more trial reserved for women.
Six Moroccans lounged in the lee of the customs shed. Muriel and Rachel stayed behind while the others continued to a patch of scrub a mile or so along the road, where they had agreed to wait. It was an unpleasant night, imagining their companions' fate, wondering if the Moroccans would honor their word or simply deport them once pleasure had been taken. When the women eventually arrived, nobody asked how they were. Nobody met anybody else's eyes. Even Muriel and Rachel did not seem inclined to look at one another, had no pride in the work they had done to save everybody. The act was done, that was all. The group got up and began walking again.
It was known that the Moroccans were less welcoming than the Algerians, though not why. Maybe they feared these southerners would soon be competing with their own sons, cousins, fathers, for places on board a boat and jobs lá-bas. Or perhaps they were already too close to Europe. Returning home in the Summer from work in France and Italy, crossing Spain in rackety old vans and clapped out cars heaped high with bikes and beds and mattresses, the Moroccans had long been hassled by bored policemen, robbed by opportunistic thieves, abused by impatient motorists, and had in turn learned to hassle, rob and abuse the migrants crossing their own country. Thus the last leg of the journey was in some ways the worst, for it was a warning of what was to come. In the South, the land had been their enemy, people their allies. In the North, it was different. There were caves and occasional springs in the hills, there were clumps of prickly pear, untended orchards of almonds and medlars, they could forage for wild spinach, fennel, asparagus, and if you were lucky, groundmist might cover the break into Europe. But there were also those who would cheat and betray and exploit. Nature helps, people hinder. In such circumstances, that curious open-heartedness that can often be found in those who have endured great suffering must be shuttered, for trust is a liability.
Three weeks later, Tom was sat in his car with the Moroccans when the telephone rang – the land line. As it happened, the ‘land line’ wasn't on the land or in a line. His home's isolation made telephone lines too expensive, so Telefonica had installed a teléfono rural, a radio-phone that kept cutting out at key moments in the conversation. Tom left the Moroccans warily watching the dog squeezed behind the back seat of the Seat Terra. Berk had already tried mating with one of them. The other two had laughed so hard that it hurt, but Berk's paramour had failed to see the funny side. Saïd was not enjoying Europe. So far he had been hot and hungry and thirsty. He had been overworked, underpaid, and shouted at for being a lazy scrounger. And for this he had paid $800! Having a perro andaluz mount his leg was almost more than he could bear.
Tom had been surprised when the vet called Berk a perro andaluz. He had not supposed Berk had a breed. Berk looked like he had been hastily put together from several different dogs. The individual parts looked all right, but none of them seemed to go together. He had come from an animal-shelter, where he had been dumped by an embittered expatriate divorcee who had named her dog in honor of her former husband in particular and all males everywhere in general. So when the vet said Berk was a perro andaluz, Tom was delighted. Not only did Berk have a pedigree, he was, via Buñuel, a surrealist dog. "That's what we call a dog that hasn't got any race," added the vet, dashing Tom's hopes. Berk was a bastard – and determined to go forth and multiply.
Tom had never ascertained precisely what excited Berk about some people and not others. Doubtless scent came into it, because there were certain women whose groins were so overpowering that Berk just had to stick his snout up there. Tom didn't always agree with Berk's taste, but he envied his technique. It wasn't only scent, though. Berk also loved white trousers and the whiter they were the randier he got. On one occasion he had expressed himself all over Carmen's immaculately bleached bell-bottoms. That was another thing that excited Berk, young girls – and the younger they were, the happier he was. A very young girl in very white trousers was Berk's idea of heaven.
A fortnight before Berk mounted Saïd, Tom had been passing The Great Dane's house when the man loomed over the ramparts and gleefully announced that three Moroccans had 'fallen from heaven': "Three Moroccans, immigrants, I have employed them. We will build two flats, here, over my garage."
"I thought you were going to have a showroom there? Furniture. From Sweden."
"From Finland," said The Great Dane. "Very good furniture. But there were problems. With the Finns." Tom could well believe it. All The Great Dane's projects fouled on some snag sooner or later. The swimming club had collapsed when nobody was willing to subscribe to have the pool dug, the plastic-bag factory was frustrated by a total ignorance of plastics, and his business importing yachts from Denmark failed after the first boat he brought south sank six minutes into its maiden voyage. There was always something. Finnish furniture involved submitting a costly franchise tender, so he was going to build two flats instead with the help of his Moroccans. "Then I will rent them."
"What, the Moroccans?"
"No, the flats. The Moroccans I rent now. You want them to clean your garden? I rent them to you at a good price."
Tom declined. He hoped the arrangement was satisfactory to the Moroccans. It was not. A week later he met them on the road down to El Salto. The Great Dane was not treating them well. They worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, were fed tinned sardines and bread, warned not to wander for fear of the Guardia Civil, and were paid ten euros a day. Tom was appalled. In the garden centers behind Vélez-Málaga they got twenty a day and in Almería much more. Wages everywhere were pitiful and in the greenhouses they were systematically poisoned by pesticides, there were even dark rumors of slave farms, but nonetheless, ten a day. That was what a language teacher got in an hour.
"Taxi, you know a taxi?" they said. "For Almería. We have work. Amigos, contracts."
Almería was over a hundred miles away. It would cost a fortune, always supposing they found a taxi willing to take them. Only the week before, a driver had been jailed for carrying illegal immigrants. Others simply took the money then denounced their clients.
"But I'll take you," said Tom, impulsively. The academic year was almost over. He could continue to Cabo de Gata, spend the weekend camping. It was ridiculous risking all their money on such a hazardous undertaking. When the Moroccans understood he was offering to transport them to Almería for free, they were so grateful that they determined to clean his garden in return. Tom protested. He liked it the way it was. But they wouldn't listen or didn't understand. This was their day-off and they were going to clean his garden, no problem! By the end of the day there was a pile of dry grass and dead weeds as high as the house. "Friend, amigo," they said.
"Very nice," said Tom, surveying the denuded ground where his garden had been. "You must tell Peter, though. He must know you're leaving." Even if this was a mission of mercy, Tom did not want any trouble with his neighbors. The Great Dane was weird enough without provoking him. Tom had met him in the mountains one day, wearing nothing more than a mock leopard-skin thong and a single transparent plastic glove. Tom never did work out what the glove was for. As for the thong, it was not a pretty sight, not on a man past sixty, but The Great Dane hadn't minded. He had wandered off, giving Tom a good view of his wrinkled buttocks. There were plenty of things he did mind, though. When Pepe de Abajo presented him with a bill for the water he had been siphoning off Pepe's reservoir, The Great Dane flew into a fearful rage. Another time, Pepe en Medio had been invited for a drink. Looking for his host, he had walked inside only to be met by The Great Dane screaming: "Fuera! Fuera! Out! Out! I can't have you in here. It will make me very nervous." Spaniards were only entertained on the terrace. Moroccans were confined to a caravan up the hill. It was also said he had poisoned a neighbor’s dog for barking at him. Tom did not want Berk poisoned by a disappointed Dane. Everything had to be clear and above board.
Three days later, the Moroccans returned to clear a corner of the garden they hadn't finished. They still hadn't announced their departure. "We said this Saturday," said Tom. "I can't be sneaking off behind his back." The Moroccans laughed delightedly at Tom's snaking gesture and promised to tell – on the eve of their departure. No problem! They had come to similar conclusions about The Great Dane. He was not a man to antagonize. "You must tell," insisted Tom. "No tell, no go. Understand?" Friday evening, the Moroccans returned. They had told The Great Dane. How had he taken it? Very well. No problem! You're sure? Sure, no problem! He was very content. Very content? Very content. Only they hadn't told him Tom was taking them. Tom wasn't naturally devious. Subterfuge made him nervous. So when the phone rang as they were about to leave, he feared the worst. The Great Dane? The police?
"Hello, Tom? It's Skittles. I got your number."
"Now?" he cried. "You're calling me now?"
"Sorry, is it too early for you?"
"Early? Of course it's not too early. You could have called at three in the morning and it wouldn't have been too early . . ." Steady. Hard to get, remember. "It's just . . . I'm going to Almería. I'm taking some people. I've got to go, now." Tom wondered why he had to go. For some reason, the journey did seem imperative, a kind of moral obligation. He had told them he would take them, so he would. It was unfortunate really. Morality wasn't much use in the modern world. It was like an atrophied remnant of the once vital organ that had had Moses hurrying down mountains and Augustine cursing mankind with Original Sin, a sort of spiritual appendix, essentially useless in processing our present diet, but there all the same, liable to flare up and cause stomach pains unless surgically removed, even potentially fatal. It would be just his luck when the woman of his dreams walked back into his life, to be struck down by an attack of moralicitis and get himself arrested. But the Moroccans were already in his Seat Terra. "I've got to go. How long you here for?"
"A week," she said. "I'll call you when . . . " the phone cut out. Silence, then she added, "Be careful."
"I will," said Tom, wondering why she was concerned. She didn't know he was doing something risky.
"I've got to go.” He paused a moment, then decided to take a chance. “Skittles? Are you married?"
"No," she said, "I'm . . . " another breach. "Why?"
"I've got to go," he said. "Really, I've got to go. Call me back. You will call me back, won’t you?"
Is you is or is you ain't my baby?
Jaime scanned the smudge of brown hills with his binoculars. When he first came to Ceuta, he had been glad of the extra money. He had not understood the true cost of this work.
He paused over a darker patch of ground. A rock shadow. There was no sign of life, but that didn't mean they weren't there. They were there all right, a dozen, a score or more, waiting to make the break, as he waited for them to make the break. Between the perimeter road and the hills were two fences, thirty CCTV cameras, dozens of arc-lights and electronic sensors, frequent patrols and waves of razor-wire banked against the nearside fence. It looked like a prison camp, except the obstacles were made to keep people out, not in. Freedom and safety were to be found inside the wire and those on the outside would stop at nothing to get inside. An averagely fit European might take a minute to climb one of those fences, but Jaime had seen the outsiders scale them in twenty seconds before recklessly wading through the razor wire.
Jaime had soon wished himself back in his pueblo, poor again and without his bonus, for this was not a job a man could relish, watching people mutilate themselves before patching them up and pitching them out again. But the mind learns to protect itself from other people's pain. See people reduced often enough and low enough, and you stop seeing them as people at all after a while. They become something else, something less, something contemptible, beyond pity, to be repudiated for the lingering guilt they inspire. It had taken Jaime fifteen months to cultivate his own protective layer of loathing, but it had come. He had learned to hate the people he had pitied, to hate them for their suffering, their despair, and their ludicrous hope that all would be well once they had crossed the line and got into Ceuta. The trick worked. For a while, Jaime no longer cared, or was able to pretend he no longer cared. Only for a while, though. Vulnerability costs less in the long run.
The man had been Moroccan. Jaime had been in charge of the detail escorting that night's detainees back to the border. A routine job. Those that were not too badly bruised or cut were shepherded back into the hills beyond the fence. It was not a routine night, though. There had been a young girl. He did not know her age. It was hard to tell with Africans. But she had been young. And pregnant. They had decided to make an exception, to let her stay. Only nobody told her in time. In the few hours it took to clear the paperwork, she had given up hope, and had cut her wrists with a teaspoon. It was that detail that had unhinged Jaime. Others had killed themselves, but a teaspoon? They were thin teaspoons, pressed from cheap metal, but they were still teaspoons. The girl had had enough, though. The tenacity that had brought her so far, turned in on itself and was concentrated on ending it all. Steadily, without fuss or noise, she dug through the tendons of her wrist with the teaspoon and bled to death in the dark of her cell. It was not a normal night, even for Ceuta.
Something snapped inside Jaime when the Moroccan made a break for it. They were nearing the first fence when the man dropped out of line and dashed back toward the enclave. He was soon caught. There was nowhere to run to. He didn't even reach the perimeter road. The incident should have ended there. But it had not. Jaime had been incensed by the man's temerity. That he could still run while the black girl lay dead in her cell, the unborn baby dead inside her. To the horror of everyone present, not least himself, Jaime pistol-whipped the fugitive. The man reeled and fell down. Then he got up and walked again. The detail continued about its business, but everyone knew Jaime had overstepped the mark. He knew it himself.
He reported the incident to his commanding officer the next day. He was ready to be disciplined, even wanted to be punished. But he was lucky. The attack could have ended his career. Instead, he was given counseling, extended leave, and offered a posting back on the mainland. He accepted the first two, but rejected the new job. He had to prove himself where he had previously failed. It was necessary if he was to recover his self-respect. Thus compassion had come back into Jaime's life. Compassion and a certain melancholy incomprehension. It wasn't that he did not understand. He understood all too well. Acceptance was the difficult trick, treating your understanding as truth and thus properly comprehending it. These people he was working against were not, except in the strictest, most literal sense, lawbreakers, nor were they obvious enemies of the public good. They were just people doing what people had always done, looking for a better place, a better way of life, following the money when the money would not follow them.
A yellow dog ran the length of the perimeter fence, the only creature Jaime could recall looking for a way out rather than a way in. He would not have seen the humor in this when he first arrived. He had been so keen and so dull. He had even believed he was protecting the security of Europe. Now he knew better. He wasn't protecting anything. He and his colleagues, with their gadgets and dogs and fences, were merely a filter, the last in a series of filters ranging from child-mortality through poverty and hardship to the Sahara desert itself, the effect of which was to select the most resilient and resourceful would-be migrants. That was their function. Sifting the strongest and fittest from the rest. Willing, Adaptable Workers Required. Apply within.
Jaime readjusted the binoculars. His thoughts drifted back to the pueblo. The hills there were similar at dusk when the bright light blued and the landscape recovered its contours. Virginia had gone back for Semana Santa. He could imagine the delicate interrogation she would be facing. Semana Santa was difficult. The candles, prayers and incantations. Why could people not leave you alone? Sly comments, silly jokes, looks. Virginia and he would fashion a life around the absence, then they would be shoved back to its empty centre by some wild new medical hope, or by the visit of a friend plus family, or by a prying aunt probing the wound. They did their best. They took expensive holidays, cultivated hobbies, redecorated the house, but somebody would always remind them, one way or another, inadvertently or maliciously. People are greedy for children, they need to feed off youth, and if you don't contribute, you must pay in other ways. He had watched older childless couples. They were always a little childish themselves, infantilizing one another, nurturing a passion for apparently childish pursuits. It was as if they were playing at being the child they hadn't had, trying to bluff the world into believing they were putting their mite into the pot of youth.
There! Somebody was injudiciously moving forward in the late afternoon light.
Tom could have sworn they hadn't been there when he turned to look at the girl. Him the Moroccans, even Berk, especially Berk, they all turned to look. She was that sort of girl. And she was wearing a bikini, but only just. A white bikini, as it happened. Berk could barely contain himself. 'Exiguous', thought Tom, meaning the bikini, not the girl; 'Europe', thought Saïd, peopling the continent with an infinity of bikini-clad girls; 'White', thought Berk – each happy in his own way. They were looking at the girl in the white bikini when there was a loud bang and everybody was flung forward.
The trip had been uneventful till then. There were few pedestrians about. At that time of year, the only walkers seen in Andalucía were purple-faced English expats hiking for health, scrawny illegal migrants marching to Almería, and deranged vagrants tramping along the motorways. Occasionally the first and last categories overlapped. Motorized traffic had also been light as it was too early for the tourists and commercial travellers, too late for the revelers and fishermen. But there had been an alarming number of policemen: at the bottom of the track to the Fábrica de Luz, the Policia Local had been inspecting a recently dumped pile of gas cylinders; in the garage there was a Guardia Urbana Nissan Patrol; on the motorway slip-road, two motorcycle cops had stopped for a cigarette; and in a lay-by near Nerja, a Guardia Civil stepped out, started to raise an arm, then had second thoughts and let them pass. Each time, Tom had stared ahead, eyes trained on the road in a way that, in Spain, was suspicious of itself. In fact, he didn't turn his head till they had passed La Herradura and got to the girl.
Perhaps the policemen were looking at her, too. Certainly, neither party was prepared for the impact when the Seat Terra drifted off course and smashed into the back of a parked patrol car. It wasn't drifting fast, but quick enough to make a horrible noise and throw everyone every which way.
The Moroccans were the first to recover, shortly ahead of Berk. They piled out of the car, sprinted across the road, and started haring up the mountain. Berk piled out of the car, sprinted across the lay-by, and started haring up the girl in the white bikini. By the time Tom emerged and was staggering forward to grab the dog, the police were calling for the Moroccans to stop, while the girl in the white bikini, who was, strictly speaking, no longer in the white bikini but about three quarters of the way out of it, was ineptly slapping at one very happy Berk.
Then one of the policemen produced a gun. Saïd and his friends evidently didn't intend stopping till they got to Almería. The policeman raised his gun. The Moroccans carried on running. The policeman shouted a warning. Tom veered away from the girl. The policeman braced his wrist, aimed. Tom jumped and knocked the gun aside. It skittered across the road and disappeared under the wheels of the first juggernaut of the day. This was not an unusually clever move, even for Tom. Policemen probably got quite attached to their firearms and this one was gazing forlornly at his mangled revolver. Happily, his companion was pursuing the Moroccans and camaraderie proved stronger than rancor. The policeman ran across the road and started scrambling up the rocks.
The white bikini bottom was down to the girl's knees and Berk was tugging at the waistband for all he was worth. It was remarkably elastic material, but everything must give sooner or later. Tom collared Berk and heaved, the bikini bottom snapped and the girl went sprawling.
Only later, when they pulled over on the track to Guajar, did Tom notice that Berk still had the shredded bikini in his mouth. "Oh, well done, Berk," he muttered, "please, bring the evidence with you." Berk thumped his tail on the door panel and tore off a strip of nylon. What a mess! Tom's desperately jolly lo-siento as they fled the scene was hardly going to mollify a young woman left stark naked by the roadside, even if she hadn't been very comprehensively dressed in the first place. As for the police. He peered at the track behind him, but there was no sign of pursuit. Only a few desiccated eucalyptus and the scorched stumps of a burnt pine forest. He had been in such a panic he hadn't checked to see if he was being followed. He couldn't even remember the road spiraling up from Almuñecar. He had just driven in a daze. Now he was a fugitive in a battered Seat Terra with a bent bumper, smashed radiator grill and no lights, and he didn't know where he was going to go or what he was going to do.
Monday evening, when he should have been taking the register for the J3s, he surrendered himself to the first official he found. The man from the forestry commission was surprised to have this disturbed looking individual hand himself over. The fact that forestry commission pick-ups had a flashing light on the cab, hardly equipped its officers for apprehending criminals. But it was obvious Tom wasn't going anywhere until something was done about his case. He had given himself up to the authorities and that was that, end of personal responsibility. Four hours later, Tom was sat in a cell.
Beyond the wire, two lights flashed intermittently. But somebody behind him was hissing. Amos hesitated, turned back toward the rocks. He had not suspected another presence, but only a dozen paces from where he had been hiding himself, a man grinned at him, beckoning him back from the wire.
“Vous êtes trop pressé, mon ami, regarde.” Amos glanced in the direction indicated, but saw nothing strange. “Walk with the shadows of the world and you will not be seen.” Amos watched the Arab warily. Though he had said nothing, the man had switched to English. Amos had learned to mistrust Moroccans. Williams’ party had split up, but even alone it had proved impossible to pass the villages undetected. Dogs had been unleashed, stones thrown, policemen paid. “It is too early. Look, the shape of you.”
This time Amos understood. The sun was setting and his shadow had been huge.
“Thank you,” he said, sinking behind a rock beside the Arab. “I had not thought.”
“You have come a long way?”
“A long way. Perhaps too long. And you? Your English . . . ”
“I have been a boy. I cook and clean for an American family. I have twenty-seven years and I am a boy.”
He seemed pleased by the incongruity.
“But why are you here? If you have work with white people.”
“My white people have gone. If more white people do not come to me, I must go to them. My name is Khaled, please.”
Forty minutes later, Amos and Khaled left the shelter of the rocks and began running toward the fence. It was a good night for crossing. The moon was new, the hills were shrouded in slow rising mist, and the beams of the arc-lights were diffused by the dusk.
Amos reached the fences first. He hauled himself up, checked Khaled was following, then dropped over the far side. An alarm went off, not near, but clearly audible and so immediate that it must have been triggered by his weight.
“Hurry!” he hissed.
Khaled was gingerly lowering himself from the fence. Amos dashed to the second fence, scaled it, jumped down, then gasped, breathless with pain. His legs were tangled in razor wire. Lights raced along the perimeter road. He started stepping over the razor wire. There was still time. There was a culvert on the far side of the road.
Khaled screamed. Amos turned. Khaled had fallen. Amos glanced toward the culvert. The first vehicle was fast approaching. But he might still make it. He was almost out of the wire. Khaled moaned. His chest and arms were snarled on the wire.
“Come!” urged Amos. “Ignore it, we must hurry.”
Khaled tried to extricate himself, but the pain stilled him. He had watched the line, asked questions of those who had crossed and been sent back, he had known what was there, but he had not expected this pain. He had thought he was nimble enough to pick his way through the razor wire. But his bleeding flesh told a different story.
"I can't," he murmured. "You go."
Amos stepped back into the wire to pull Khaled free, but the Moroccan shrank from his touch. Amos faltered. It was strange that, after so much suffering, after the loss of Joshua, Phillip, Marcus and the others, people with whom he had shared so much yet had abandoned to their fate, he should hesitate to leave a man he had only just met and with whom his sole bond was gratitude for a timely warning. But hesitate he did and, though he eventually decided there was nothing he could do, it was too late. Amos had not survived the Sahara after all. He had exhausted his instinct for self-preservation. The two jeeps had turned and were bumping towards them. Khaled looked up, still stuck on the wire, his dark eyes gleaming in the headlamps. Amos gazed back at him, but not with reproach.
"I am sorry," said Khaled. "I think I am too soft. I have been too comfortable for this. I am not hungry enough."
"You will be," said Amos, "you will be."
Doors slammed, Spanish voices shouted, lamps swayed erratically across the razor wire.
The sounds of Europe. The lights of Europe.
"But what did you think your were doing?"
"I didn't think I was doing anything. I didn't think at all. That’s the whole point. I just hit him and legged it." Tom could have done without Frieda's big, laughy face being quite so big and laughy just then. She was a lovely girl, but there were places where big-and-laughy was not what you needed – and the holding bay in a police station was one of them.
"No, I do not mean that," she said, bigger and laughier than ever. "I mean taking them. The Moroccans. You must have known it was risky. Why did you do it?"
"I told you. The Great Dane. My neighbor? Peter? He was taking advantage of them."
"José-Maria takes advantage of everyone who works at Toxteth, but you do not drive them to Almería to find another school."
"No, I represent the buggers, don't I? What's happening with that, by the way? You said you'd come about the union, too."
"Later. Tell me this thing first. Why did you help them?"
It was Wednesday morning when Frieda turned up, bringing Tom's correspondence from school, where all his letters went, La Fábrica de Luz being too remote for postal services. Tom hadn't contacted anyone, not out of shame, but because he wasn't sure who to call. He had thought about Frieda. She was the prison-visiting sort. But he didn't really need anything and he quite liked the idea of disappearing while José-Maria scrabbled about for a substitute. Unfortunately, combining as it did the two principal immigrant populations of Andalucía, his arrest was news in the local press. Frieda had bought three dailies and a weekly, all with pictures splashed across the front page: 'the corner where', 'the car that', 'the immigrants who' . . . Saïd and his friends had been caught. Tom had got himself arrested for nothing. Frieda also bought a bill from Telefonica, a puzzling offer from Pepe de Abajo to buy La Fábrica de Luz, a postcard of the Virgin Mary from José-Maria, and a present from herself, a lottery ticket. It was a mark of Frieda's naiveté that she was an assiduous player of the Loto, regularly investing an entire day's earnings in a ticket.
"Well, Thomas?" Frieda was the only one to call him Thomas. Everyone else used the diminutive. "Why did you do it?"
Truth be told, he didn't know. It had simply been a whim. Except Tom didn't believe in whim. Whim was just the will's way of disguising itself. Drop the Ls, stick in an H and an M, and Will's your auntie, wafting about all fey and nebulous and I-wouldn't-know-my-dear, I-just-drift-about-on-life's-lovely-currents. There was a reason and, whatever it was, it would have little to do with exploitative Great Danes or noblesse-oblige. It would be altogether more selfish than that and he wasn't sure he wanted Frieda to know about it. He was none too sure he wanted himself to know about it. It was never wise to start delving into motive. You never knew where it might take you.
Frieda and Tom's flirting had begun the day they bumped into each other on the nudist beach at Almayate. Frieda had stood out among the mounds of neatly trimmed, heavily muscled gay couples, though she would have stood out most anywhere with her statuesque physique. It wasn't a modern physique. The belly, bottom, breasts and hips were modeled after the fashions of a different era, describing forms that would not have been alien to Rembrandt or Renoir. Nonetheless, it was not a physique to be ignored. Not by Tom, at least. He was emphatically unignoring her when he noticed she was smiling at him. I'm in here, he thought. Then he recognized her. She was not smiling at Man Tom, she was smiling at Colleague Tom. He had blushed, discovering to his dismay that the body blushes where it is exposed. That embarrassing start had foreshadowed the entire afternoon. Later she had said: "Yes, it is . . . how do you say in English, an 'imperfection'?" "Oh, I wouldn't say that," said Tom, who had been covertly admiring her breasts. A little on the large size, perhaps, but that could be ascribed to a generous nature, not imperfection. Granted breasts must be a bit of a burden. Doubtless if you were nursing a baby or bobbing up from a sinking ship they furnished a certain emotional or physical support, but the rest of the time, they were either getting in the way and sagging, or being ogled and pawed at by people like himself. Worse, there was a one in forty chance the things would kill you. Even so, imperfection was a bit strong. Then he noticed she was pinching a beige stain on the underside of her left breast. Her 'imperfection' was a birthmark. He had blushed again, all over. Yet, despite his gaffs, a friendship had developed that verged on intimacy. They were both expats, both exiles from their respective expatriate communities, and there were shared interests through the school. But the relationship had not yet gone beyond that, friendship verging on intimacy.
So why had he helped the Moroccans? He suspected it had something to do with his own sense of not-belonging. Tom had never really fitted in anywhere and felt a natural kinship with displaced wanderers. As a teenager he had immersed himself in W. H. Davies' Autobiography of a Supertramp, Jack London's The Road, in Kerouac and Hamsun, the whole gamut of footloose literature. Travelling, he had loved the sense of moving on, not visiting or sightseeing, just drifting from place to place. The modern clandestine migrant, Spain's sin papeles, were part of that wayfaring tradition, ciphers moving through a landscape without a clear identity or secure place in the world. Also, Tom felt indebted. He had spent three years in Africa and, wherever he went, he had been welcomed with a generosity that was inversely proportionate to the poverty of his hosts. But he couldn't tell Frieda he identified with migrants and was beholden to Africa. It sounded too precious, like some pampered celebrity parading their empathy.
Frieda was watching him, her lips parted in anticipation of a reply. She had a nice mouth. There were a few too many teeth in there. The best mouths always had a few too many teeth behind them. It wasn't one of those crowded hungry little mouths swarming with tiny, regular teeth. But the front teeth were a bit too big, making the lips look fuller, giving an impression of poorly disciplined liberality.
"It was impulsive," he said. "I offered to take them, so I had to do it. You know."
"But I do not, Thomas. It interests me. Why people do the things they do."
Tom was tempted to play hero, to claim some noble calling to save suffering humanity, but doubted he could pull it off. At the same time, he did not want to look like some mindless fool with a talent for trouble.
"I don't like the idea of fortress Europe," he said. It was said casually, but it was true. He didn't like 'fortress Europe', exclusion of any kind. Nationalism, even patriotism, had always been a problem for Tom. They invariably relied on exclusivity to define themselves, 'what we are not' rather than 'what we are', and Europe's well-publicized immigration crisis was another example of that, keeping people out to keep ourselves together. "You know, the way everyone's in a panic about foreigners. We should help them. It sounds silly, helping people get poisoned for pocket money. But it has to be better than turning your back on them."
At which point, Tom was summoned to an office at the back of the station. Frieda waited on the plastic molded seats in front of the reception desk. She regretted her persistent questioning. Men never liked being made to examine their motives. But she was fascinated by why people do the things they do. It was part of her inheritance, trying to rationalize what had happened to her own family, her grandparents, her country seventy years before. Tom's attempt to help the Moroccans was akin to what she would have liked her grandparents to have done in the thirties, except in that case it would have been smuggling people out rather than in. That they hadn't, had in fact done the opposite, had left her with obscure feelings of guilt and a fascination for any act of quixotic rebellion against authority. When Tom emerged from the office, he was smiling, despite the sour look the policeman was giving over his shoulder.
"I'm out!" he announced, gleefully. "They're letting me go!"
"And did they charge you?"
"Not really, no. Not in the legal sense, anyway."
They were charging him in another sense though. Despite the acerbic tone of the interview, it had been clear from the start that the police were not going to prosecute. As a teacher, Tom immediately realized the lecture was designed to scare prior to letting him off the hook, the sort of don't-do-it-again harangue that made life easier both for authority figures and transgressors. He was free so long as he paid for the damage to the patrol car. His insurance company were going to love that. But at least he was out of gaol. Largely, it seemed, thanks to Berk. They got some peculiar looks from the handlers in the dog pound. Apparently Berk liked the policemen in charge of him, really liked them, liked them so much that they just wanted him and his master off their hands –and thighs and knees and calves– as fast as possible. The dog was certainly in no hurry to leave. He gazed back at the kennels regretfully.
At twelve years old, Ismael was a veteran. He was not one of the elite who had reached Europe. But the waiting, the dodging and hiding, the frantic dash, the scramble up the sides of the truck, these he knew well. He had tried to get across so often, tried and failed, that it was remarkable he was still alive. The price of failure was generally dearer than cuts and bruises.
He had been one of the breakwater kids, hiding with the rats in the rocks near Tangier docks, sniffing glue, stealing bread, stalking backpackers, sidestepping the police, waiting for the opportunity to jump a truck. Some had reached Europe several times and were respected as old hands. Others, spoken of in the hushed voices accorded to legends, had never returned. Ismael had not reached Europe, but he had come to a conclusion concerning his community of street urchins: if you stayed in the breakwater too long, you got stuck on the glue. He had seen children who had sniffed too long and too often. They would never enter the ranks of legend.
Ismael went to Rabat. You didn’t get stuck there. You might be killed, but you didn’t get stuck. Drivers greased the handrails and the mean ones drove fast over rough roads to shake you off. They weren’t allowed to do this, but if they were caught, the punishment was not severe. Fifty dollars was the penalty for a death, the price of a life like Ismael’s. There was also the risk of falling off from exhaustion and, even if you tied yourself to the chassis or the undercarriage, or hid between the cab and the trailer, you might be crushed by the suspension when the truck hit a pothole.
But Ismael was a clever child. He had studied the question and visited the factories. And he had stolen a pickaxe. The frozen-food factory was not, he thought, a good idea. Ismael had never seen frozen food, but he had touched a block of ice once, and did not want to lie in ice like a slice of white fish. So he had settled on the clothing factories. Cotton T-shirts, brightly colored underwear, terrycloth towels, plush bathrobes, blue jeans, polyester football shirts, nylon anoraks, these were his target. All he had to do was scale the loading bay wall or clamber aboard at the junction where the trucks slowed for the lights. With his pickaxe, he would dig through the roof and hide himself in a box of textiles, an unforeseen promotional gift, like the plastic toy at the bottom of a packet of cereal.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace