by Jo Barker Scott
‘British. Hey, British. Here.’
People don’t want to get involved: who knows where it might end? And if they can avoid your gaze, it’s easier to ignore your troubles. But if you make someone see you, force her to look you in the eye, well, you open the door on her naked conscience, and then you can jab and poke at the twitching, reluctant thing until it yields.
It’s all part of living in London, Karen explained. Stuff happens sometimes, on the train or the Tube, or on the street. But if you get into trouble, you must point to someone, one person, yell at him, YOU! In the suit, with the purple tie! Look at me! HELP ME! You individuate him, make him take personal responsibility for the decision to help, or not.
Karen studied psychology at Goldsmiths, and lived in a particularly godforsaken part of New Cross. She’d had many opportunities to test her own advice.
London, and Karen, are many miles away when the whisper from the shadow of the rocks reaches me; but still I understand immediately. I am being individuated.
‘British. Hey, British. Here.’
A buzz of irritation like a fly at my ear. What is it about me that so conspicuously reveals my nationality? My hair and skin are as dark as any Spaniard’s, my bikini and sunglasses just as ordinary – what is it that gives me away? I lift my chin and peer into the shadows at the base of the cliff, the sun a white ache on the water behind me. The figure crouched in the rocks is difficult to see. I move into the shade, and there she is, folded between two green-bearded rocks hulking like bodyguards on either side of her. She is draggled and ragged, and her arms and legs show a pink tracery of cuts and scratches. The pale soles of her feet are puffy and corrugated, like the pages of a waterlogged book.
I take a step backwards, and despise myself for the impulse to walk on. This is my time, a precious half hour alone while David and the kids dig tidal defences in the sand. I don’t need this.
But Karen was right. It is much harder to look away once your eyes have met.
The woman’s are intense black magnets that glint and stay me where I stand. These are not the exhausted, desperate eyes of a castaway. Or maybe they are. Maybe what I see is the determination, the extraordinary will, that must power her, that is the only way she could have made it here, to this shore, alive.
I take off my sunglasses, crouch beside her. ‘Are you – all right?’ I don’t see how she can be, after what she must have been through, but it seems she is.
‘Oh. Yes, of course.’ That’s easy. ‘I have water, back at – can you walk? I can give you water.’ I help her stand, and she unfolds like a penknife, long limbs and sharp elbows. The skin of her arm feels dry and cool, satined by salt.
She staggers, and pulls her arm away. ‘I can walk.’
Her name is Alice. David and I introduce ourselves with big awkward smiles, the same ones we use for meeting other holidaymakers. Yes, from England, London in fact. We prefer the Atlantic Coast to the Costa del Sol. Whereabouts have you come from?
Over there, Alice says, waving loose-jointed fingers towards the sea. It is a clear day, and the face of the Rif, ridged like pleated steel, rises sheer on the other side of the Strait. On days like this, we often remark, you’d swear you could swim to it.
‘From Africa? You came from Africa? Morocco?’ David keeps his voice gentle, but I can hear the anxiety in it.
‘My country is Sierra Leone.’ She speaks slowly, articulating each word in full. She has drunk nearly a litre of water, gulping steadily while we tried not to stare. She is very black. Apart from the North African hawkers who trudge up and down the beach laden with dresses, or sunglasses, or leather goods, we have seen no black people here: no holidaymaking families, no women, no children. Alice, with her ashy limbs, the raggedy scraps of green dress that hang from her bony shoulders, and her fierce stare, is as out of place on this expensive stretch of golden sand as an astronaut would be, or a Victorian chimney sweep.
‘Did you – come with anyone else?’ I know what David is thinking. He’s remembering the photo that came up on Google when we were researching this place for holiday homes. Callous couple picnic on the sand while bodies rot in the sun. It couldn’t have been a real photo, we agreed. No-one would actually do that.
‘Many people, on a small boat. Lights, noise, in the dark. Fortunately I am an excellent swimmer.’
‘Alice, what will you do now? Do you know anyone here?’
‘Do you have food?’ We don’t. The boys have eaten it all. ‘Then I must go. Men will be coming.’ She gets to her feet slowly, pausing on the way up to find her balance.
I look at David. He sees what I want to say, frowns at me. I frown back. What does he want us to do, smile and wave goodbye as she staggers away into the dunes? ‘Alice, you need food, clothes. Shoes. Let me help you.’
‘You have two houses, that is right? A London house, and this Spain house.’ Alice interrupts me, swallows down the last bite of cold tortilla española. I realise I have been chattering.
‘Well, this is just a holiday home. We’re only here for three weeks in August.’ I cringe even as I say it. How must this sound to Alice? A house that stands empty forty-nine weeks of the year. I bite back the reciprocal enquiry. I can’t ask her about her home. It wouldn’t be tactful. Besides, it’s not any of my business.
‘You can give this house to me. Yes?’ Her eyes, burning blackly, fix on me.
I laugh, weakly. ‘Ha ha! Yes! No! It doesn’t seem fair, does it?’ Looking past her to the patio I can see from the angle of David’s head that he is listening intently.
‘No. Have you worked so much harder than me, to deserve it?’
Well – commuting, demanding clients, children. But – washing machines, supermarkets, childminders. Clean water. Flushing toilets. Perhaps it hasn’t been such hard work, after all.
I frown, annoyed with myself. I’m assuming Alice comes from some dusty fly-blown village, but she speaks beautiful English, she is an excellent swimmer. She might come from the city. She might be a teacher, a lawyer.
Alice’s eyelids are drooping now, her head hanging over the table.
‘You need to sleep, Alice. Let me find you something to wear. You can have our bed.’
I sleep poorly, hammocked sweating with David in the sagging middle of the sofa-bed. Startling awake from a doze sometime after midnight, I look into the hallway to see Alice in the doorway of the boys’ room, silhouetted by orange nightlight.
I sit up, swing my legs over the side of the bed. David grunts and rolls into the dip. I pad across to Alice, who is carved and silent looking in, and touch her on the arm. She doesn’t react, and I wonder whether she is sleepwalking. Her eyes are fixed on the sleeping boys, her mouth half-open, as though she were drinking the air in the room. It is thick with the musty, salty smell of boys, their sweat, their breath, their damp fur. Tom lies curled around his teddy, his hair plastered to his forehead, the sheet twisted around his ankles. James, in the top bunk, lies on his back, one arm dangling over the side. I see new muscle definition there, and dark tufts at his armpit. Oh, but he isn’t even thirteen yet, it’s too soon, surely?
I look back at Alice’s face, and for an instant I think she is screaming, but when I blink she is as impassive as before.
She allows me to lead her back to bed. I can’t stop myself asking, this time. ‘Did – do you have children, Alice?’
Her eyes drift up to mine, but whatever black light burned in them before has been extinguished. ‘Joseph. Short sleeves.’ She touches her fingertips to her upper arm, then to her wrist. ‘Charles. Long sleeves. They are gone now.’
Two boys, like mine, one small, one tall. I feel my throat close, but I don’t want to cry in front of Alice. ‘I’m – I’m so sorry.’
‘Yes,’ she says, and rolls away from me. I can’t see her face, but I know her eyes are open, staring into the dark.
In the morning she is gone. At the foot of the bed the flip-flops I gave her, too small for her long feet anyway, rest neatly on top of the folded T-shirt she’d worn to bed.
‘She took nothing, David. I don’t think she even took a glass of water, or we’d have woken. She went into the dustbin for her rags to wear. I have clothes for her! I wanted to give her your shoes! I was going to fill the backpack with food and water!’
David puts an arm around me and kisses my hair. He is relieved.
I waste no time when we arrive for this year’s holiday. I buy blankets in bulk at Hipercor, three for fifteen euros, and fill a trolley with processed, packaged food that will keep: individually wrapped sweet rolls, pulses in jars, canned tuna. Oranges too, and juice boxes, and bottled water. At home I portion everything out into flimsy carrier bags, twelve of them. Twelve! What a miracle that would be.
‘Your encounter was unusual. We do not often see women from Sierra Leone,’ Rodrigo told me in his second email. ‘The war there ended eight years ago, but in the last year the panga men have started returning to the villages. They want the government to forget the rebellion and move on, and so they are killing off the reminders: the children missing arms or legs, and the women who remember.’
Short sleeves, long sleeves.
‘Of the many thousands who attempt the crossing, perhaps one in a hundred will make it. Of the ones that do, the life that awaits them is uncertain at best, miserable in all probability. What drives them on? I have no idea. But I can tell you that these people are made of purest courage, and it is a privilege to help them. I am very pleased that you want to join us.’
The moon is new tonight, so there will be little light on the beach. Rodrigo is taking the shift with me: the darkest night of August is one of the busiest of the year for the pateras, he says, but one of the last. Come September, the weather shifts, making the crossing even more perilous, and he moves around the coast to Gibraltar and then on to the Canaries where the ‘driftwood’ washes up all through winter.
I understand why people don’t like to get involved. Every encounter with another human soul changes your own, even if it’s just a little bit, and people are conservative with their souls.
I look in on the boys before I leave. James is in the bottom bunk tonight, reading by the light of a pen torch. He looks up and sees me.
‘Good night, Mummy.’
His voice is so deep. He is nearly fourteen.
© Jo Barker Scott, 2012