- (bluebirds come and gone)
Flannel trousers be damned, you’ll not catch me growing old here.
In Dover. The camp is bloated, its fringes beginning to skirt a perch atop the postcard cliffs which are scrubbed daily by the repeated scour of time and tide, at a relentless booming tempo. Loose canvas and plastic crumpled like bedding well-used, a wind-flapped crowd of tents, printed on their side: UNHCR. From the highest point in the camp can be seen the valley of the River Dour. Its waters scuttle and slop, though port and beyond, laying deep the essence of England into the lace-lined sea. The border is closed, the rough surrounding waters keep it so.
In the middle of this mass I sit, two stools for Stewart and I, at a table with cards, digestives, and a thermos of tea. We sit, and we talk, we moan about our aches and pains. ‘I worry about the grandkids,’ he says, ‘they don’t have a hope with that wretched boy my daughter calls a husband hanging around.’
He takes a biscuit and dips it in his tea, holds it delicately with two pinched fingers, submerging it completely. Upon resurfacing, a chunk is lost, sinking to the soggy depths, and he crams the rest in his mouth, one rueful bite.
‘Your boy’s in government, no?’ he asks. ‘Could he arrange a visit? Just to see them, if only through the fence? If only for a moment? Could he arrange it all?’
I take a well-practiced shake of the head. Sip some tea with a slurp. ‘Spelthorne council worker? Migrant camp visits not entirely his purview, old boy. Can’t afford to be making waves these days.’
Stewart nods, a well-practiced nod. Sips some tea with a slurp. ‘Shown you pictures of my grandkids, have I? Here, take a look.’
I take a look. The smiling faces of his grandchildren smudged by many doting forefingers and thumbs.
As we sit in the shifting morning light, the shoppers come to us. Harry picks up his daily dose for back pains, Margaret a copy of the Radio Times (for old time’s sake). A red-faced Terry tucks the latest addition to his favourite erotic novel series deep into the inner fleece of his parka pocket, while a coy June picks up a small bag of pungent herb (never too much, she said, but if she’s treated like a vagrant she may as well act like one).
Stewart deals with the money, he seems to have a knack for it: the counting it, the splitting it, the recording all the sales. Something he must have picked up when he was treasurer for his local miners’ union, back when the days left him dusted with coal. His back is hunched, his nose close to the page, with watery eyes fixed sharp to the lines, he writes each sale in wavering script. The money is deposited in a Fox’s biscuit tin.
‘Something for the grandkids that the wretch won’t get,’ he often says.
We’ve had an age to develop our foibles, and once we’re set on them, we’ll pay through our bulbous noses to keep up with them. There’s money to be made in this place, and at least it passes the time.
So here we linger – the retirees – we butchers and bakers, we candlestick makers. Worked out of work and left to expire, exploited of all perks and driven to retire. The sunless, we aspire to the sunlands. Enough of the Dour, let us leave for the wine of the Vale do Douro.
These umber days of our autumnal years will not dwindle away in perpetual autumn. The buds upon the trees have long since sprung, and summer has slugged its way along, yet here we hang and haemorrhage time: beneath tarpaulin, between chain-link. If I am to be put into the heavy belly of the earth, it shall not be here, not England. No, this is not the place to be, not for me.
Those at the border have never been sympathetic to our cause. The guards – shiny buttons, shiny buckles, black sunglasses – jeer at us from the other side. We, bleached and puckering, our gum-mouths gurning, jeer back. Good thing there is fence in-between, or our dust-speckled, work-heckled hands would pull them naked from their uniforms and tear at their clothes and tear at their bodies and leave them for dead in a ditch.
Let us shrivel and brown beneath the Iberian sun until skin peels red from skin. Let the greeny blues of the bright briny waters lap soft at our callused feet. Let the sangria drip bloody into our mouths, and let the paella fall fluffy from our crusty lips.
I stand by my point as I stand daily by the fence: those at the border have never been sympathetic to our cause. Take the treatment of Geoffrey, who came back to us not two nights ago. Caught red-handed as he attempted to scale the barriers, tangled in barbed wire. Geoffrey was returned to us, and his carefully tailored shirt was quite violently disarranged by zealous hands – one naked shoulder peeking out. They had gone through the little leather satchel that swings by his hip and found his manuscript (a harsh critique of the banking world from which he had recently departed), and their dirty fingers had picked through it all, and they had laughed at slight discrepancies, accused him of sensationalist tendencies and, like his shirt, disarranged it.
Geoffrey was forced to sort through the creased and crinkled pages, and his waking hours trailed into the early evening late hours, where the light runs pink and gold across the pitches of the tents.
There is no understanding of our situation. No sympathy that we have duly paid our dues, nor that now we wish to leave. These sun-soaked countries say we’ll suck away their sun, leave us caged before our border, refuse us the chance to live out the rest of our wellness before unwellness untimely takes us and keeps us for its own. They keep their Croatian coastlines and Maltese fine wines (a growing industry) to themselves. They leave us with the offal that is dreary England.
Who are they, to condemn us to such intemperate internment? They doom us to a painter’s palette of washed-out grey.
- (how cold and late it is!)
Comes the boatman before even the earliest blush of dawn. We wind our way through the ramshackle lean-tos, across mud-strewn boards, along the high street (wryly dubbed the Champs-Elysées). We meet behind the main marquee. It is the centre of this place. From here are thrown out the quivering tendrils of well-trodden pathway that pulse in dead-straight rows for a few hundred metres before disintegrating amongst the scattered, pus-white swellings of tents.
Stewart is smoking a cigarette. He’s not a smoker, it’ll kill him one day, his chest is weak already. He thinks the subterfuge of the night demands it. I don’t deny it makes him look mysterious, a little roguish, like the photos he shows us from long ago. In this night-time cold, at this hour, his face is made solemn, lit by the intermittent glow of an ash-orange flare. And in each glow-dripped wrinkle, I could count out the many solemn hours he’s weaved his way through up until now.
The lights are out, the hum of toothless chatter is quiet now, instead a toothless snore. Ours is a small group, we who make this excursion through the night. We are gathered in the once green square, now brown from the many rains and the many feet upon it. It is weathered like all things of England, and our worn and whittled shapes shiver in the still night chill.
Enid has arranged it all. Upon a plastic table, marked grimy by our nights of cards and dominoes, she stands. Just a hint of a hunch. Her life as a mid-level manager at the Milford Docks during the height of its oil enterprises has left her comfortable with the task. A small charter ship – the Italians are the best sailors – nice and discreet, and a simple course to navigate.
She waves her arms a little, as though to quell raucous chatter (we do not chatter) and she begins to speak to us:
‘Whatever happens must happen within the hour.’
Each ‘happens’ is swallowed, muted at the end. The ‘hour’ rolls around her mouth before sliding out. It gives her speech a sweet whispered lilt, the distinguished ‘welshness’ that set her out so acutely when she moved to Kent, before her husband died. She divulges her plan, and placidly, we listen.
There is a main gate in the camp that leads down to the port. The gate is always padlocked, always guarded. By it regularly beat our frail fists. The best of us, a gallant grouping, will make a diversionary charge at this gate, while the rest of us slip away, for the boat. It awaits us in a close-by bay.
In the south-western corner of the fence, a cut has been made, one we can creep through quite quiet and unnoticed. It takes us to where the land slopes a little before the cliffs, where the lights of the port are not so many, where we can cross, in cool shadow, a cattle-crowded field. And from there: a short shuffle, to the sea.
Clive shall lead the doomed parade. He has made his peace and happily remains, to see the many behind us safely through in the coming weeks and months and years. One time a civil-servant, in his declining years (his reclining years) he has finally ascended to a position of leadership. He rarely talks of his time at Whitehall (more than my life’s worth to spill those beans old bean) but he eagerly gropes for his chance in the field.
It is a cabal of never-to-convalesce convalescents who join him. Clive awaits a hip replacement (doc says no long journeys for me). His cohort is a collective of cancer cases and other incapacitates.
The time comes as the postmen in the nearby towns make their rise before the light frost begins to soften and turn once more to dew. The old make their charge, a wrinkled storm of murmuring hearts. They point fingers and throw about their arms, they scream and abuse. Many go in with cloth over their faces, they take it off when it becomes difficult to breathe. They are washed down by water cannon and many slip and fall.
Paramedics are called. All in fluorescent green and yellow, they stand at the side-line. Occasionally, they dip into the aged tide of troublemakers, retrieve the odd fallen fellow, fix an oxygen mask upon his face, tend to him gently (not long for this world, poor souls).
A few break through and make it to the slopping waters down by the port. There they stand, Clive at their head, and wanderlust tugging at their heartstrings. They gaze upon the boats in sea-time slumber, they gasp a little from the struggle. The ebbing moonlight casts mournful sheets of light across the bay, illuminating their fresh cold breath. And when the guards come to them, they go quietly. Back to the camp, to the Champs Elysées, a borderman hand supporting each of their elbows.
It is enough. Whilst they are overcome, rasping profanities at the men who guard them, we abscond and wade our way toward the boat, a raft of withered humanity and me.
- (our boots and clothes are all in pawn)
We laze upon the boards, rounded shoulder wedged to rounded shoulder. Occasionally a salty gust of spray breaks over us. Some of us talk of all our times at sea, some of us talk of our families, some of us retreat within ourselves, be it blissful serenity or the bliss of carefree senility.
There is a man at the back who works the engine, grim. A man at the front watches the way ahead, grim also. And a third watches over us. We leave them to their grimness. Too old are we, to indulge the sailors in their life so surly.
I do not know which hour the engine stopped (we removed our watches when we grew too old to care to tell the time). I only know the engine was stopped. The waters still washed the raft around and no land lay in sight. The man whose job it was to watch us moved through us all, and we were told our money paid covered only half this geriatric escapade.
There were some of us who were still firm believers in honour and the deal done. Their blood boiled as it ran along blue and purpled veins, and they splashed frustration at the surface of the sea, and the sea took no notice. These cantankerous few were given a simple proposition: to pay, or to drift with the shoals that shimmered in the deep below. So they paid, and we did also.
The money was counted at the back, by the engine. The money was counted again. Stewart yawned in sleepy stupefaction, remonstrating in reedy tones about cuckoo smugglers seizing his grandchildren’s paltry nest-egg. He raged against them, against the sea, against me, when I whispered gruffly: ‘Keep quiet old boy, that’s it, borrow some from me, let’s be sensible now, no use messing about out here.’
And I forced some cash from my hand into his, and he patted my shoulder weakly, and he thumbed away the last of his notes at the end of his beaky nose. We sat penniless, reddening, below a pulsating sun.
- (and only a thin plan staves off death)
Time leapt, it always does these days. Mid-morning skipped into early afternoon. The weather turned. The boat sagged in troughs that the sea playfully wrought upon us. The grim sailors grew grimmer, and we began to join them in their grimness. Winds, released from whichever stormy corner of the globe they had been kept, whistled with gleeful liberty. They turned us to the north, to the south, to the north again. Some of us were sick. The ancient mariners among us lurched for the dripping ears of our crewmen and wailed their advice, and they were batted back by sailor, and batted by squall alike.
Wave and wave marched upon us, and their white waters sent a volley of stinging bullets across our thinning hair. The fickle cried for England, the stubborn for Mediterranean Sea serene, and the hopeless spoke out to their old friends – Jonah Jarvis, Tom-Fred, and the good Lord Kitchener – that they’d soon join them in cockle-bed.
Hours again and hours again, we went onward with the ferrymen. The waters boiled beneath us, our penny-round mouths held agape. Steadfast through the thrashing swill, were Charon and his crew. He at the engine, he at the front, he among us all, stood firm upon protesting planks, a platoon of rattling boards. And though many cried backward, to England! and many cried onward, to Sunland! it seemed instead we could only head through the whirlpool gates: one stop below, our Kingdom come.
Enid declared her love for Clive, our hero left on dour beach home, and she wailed he’ll never hear her. Geoffrey, huddled beneath a seat, whined of who he could have been (I wish my art were seen!). When Stewart thought he saw a chance, a lull between the froth-flecked peaks, he stumbled toward his pills (they were the only things to calm him). The boat lurched, Stewart lurched. He made feeble steps, forward once, backward twice, his arms outstretched as though in sweet farewell, before he was lost below the waves.
I wish I could say I said to search for him. I can at least say I said to stop, though weakly and without substance. My words went fluttering, unheard in the fly-away gusts of wind. I imagined I would soon flutter with them. And so, through storm, I mused forlorn, because upon no lawn could my son lay his mourning flowers, for me, in maritime grave, and he, in maritime lament.
- (where the sun it never sets, my lads)
Yet see, the sea soon levelled, the gales, like us, retired. And the boat, hanging by the barnacles, limped to limpid waters, and then to dew-soft land.
We splashed into the shallows, washed up among the shells. The sand held us where we fell, sailors bade us – goddamn – farewell. Distant (through malfunctioning hearing aids), distant (through sea-salted ears), we heard the silken sounds of approaching souls spewing out language deliciously indistinct.
Let the waves lather with soft sea foam our callused feet, let the sun bake dry our clothes and brown our paper skin, let the dunes shelter our shrunken shanks, let them let us in.