Excerpt from ‘Tick Tock Time's Up’
2nd January 2005
‘Dion, slow down, please.’ No response. Dion was walking some five metres or so ahead, and he neither paused in his stride, nor looked back.
‘Dion, Dion, please.’
Masani was tired; she had been carrying two-year-old Akiki for over an hour. Akiki wasn’t big for his age by any means, but when he was asleep he was a dead weight, and a dead weight that his mother had been carrying along the side of the highway for three miles. She wouldn’t have minded if he was awake, or even a little restless, as any movement however slight would have brought welcome relief to her arms and back due to her current rigid carrying position.
‘Hurry up, Masani, we are nearly there. Look. Look down there.’ He pointed, his arm outstretched, down the hill that fell away in front of them. 'Those are the lights of the port, Masani…the port.’
Masani stopped and sank to the ground, gently cradling Akiki to ensure that he felt none of the impact. She started to sob. Dion halted in his tracks and walked back to where his wife was now sitting. He knelt at her side, placed his arm around her and gently pulled her in towards his chest. He wrapped his other arm around Akiki.
‘Let me take Akiki for a while,’ he said.
Masani was grateful for the relief, but all too conscious that Dion had carried their son for a four hour period prior to her taking over an hour ago.
‘I just need a short rest…I'll be fine.’ She tried to sound confident so Dion wouldn't worry, but was unsure if she was convincing enough. She certainly hadn’t convinced herself.
They sat arm in arm, both cradling Akiki, on the grass verge just off the roadside. Masani placed her head on her husband’s shoulder and sobbed. 'Tell me it is nearly all over, Dion.’ With an air of desperation she continued, ‘Tell me please.’
The journey from Angola had started a little over fifteen weeks ago, and during that time they had trekked through five thousand miles of differing terrain; some urban, some rural, some flat and some that could be best described as mountainous. They had endured temperatures ranging between over thirty-eight to minus four degrees Centigrade.
Masani hoped that with hindsight they would look back and laugh at their adventure, appreciate how the various modes of transport used would provide a series of interesting stories that they would recount to Akiki someday. And that one day…..one day, Akiki would look back with fond memories and a warm heart, recalling stories of the journey, and the sacrifices that his parents made to ensure that he enjoyed a safe and secure childhood, and that he had an opportunity to grow into the man that he had now become….but that would be many years from now.
They had stowed away on two trains; one a high-speed passenger train had taken them almost two hundred miles towards their desired destination, whereas the ride in the wagon of a cattle train had served little more than to divert them sixty or seventy miles in completely the opposite direction. They hadn’t laughed at the time, and it took them five days by foot to recover their original position.
Along their journey they had been thankful, and surprised, by the generosity of many passing motorists who had stopped and provided a lift when they were walking by the side of the road. They had successfully managed to hitch a lift in a car or lorry in every country through which they had passed, the most comfortable of which had been towards the later stages of their journey. After successfully circumventing the busy streets of Paris for the quieter route to the south, they had been walking at the side of the A13 highway towards Mante-la-Ville when a mature lady pulled over to the side of the road. After a mutual acceptance that they were not going to communicate in French, but a mixture of pigeon-English and hand signals, they jumped into the vehicle.
The lady was driving an old minibus that had clearly driven through its best years, but the seats were still all in place, and in a relatively good condition considering the age of the vehicle. Within ten minutes of the minibus pulling back onto the highway, both Masani and Akiki had stretched out across a double seat each, and were fast asleep. Dion, ever alert and watchful, sat upright, staring out of the window watching the verdant green and vibrant countryside fly by, with one eye on the driver and the road ahead.
That journey had taken them almost sixty-five kilometres from Aubergenville to Louviers, and left them less than a hundred kilometres to go to reach the port, during which time neither Masani nor Akiki rose from their slumber. It had been a welcome and long overdue opportunity not only to recharge their inner batteries, but to switch off from the mental stress that the journey presented every day.
Dion knew that Masani felt a terrible pang of guilt that she had to subject her two-year-old son to this ordeal. He, on the other hand, knew that it was due to both Masani and Akiki that they had gotten this far at all. Dion had recognised some time ago, inwardly to himself, that without them they wouldn’t have received the sympathy and compassion of many of those who had helped over the past four months; either by way of offering a lift in Tunisia for a hundred and sixty-six miles between Kasserine and Tunis, or simply the offer of a little food and water in Tortona, just to the east of Alessandria, Italy.
They had done a considerable amount of walking during the last four months, but the best story which they were hoping to tell their son in a few years was the time, about two weeks ago, when they stole two bicycles and rode forty miles. Having never had the opportunity to do so in Angola, due in no small way to there being very few bicycles, they found the experience to be both relaxing and exhilarating. The bicycles had been leant against a stone wall at the entrance to a vineyard on the outskirts of Auxerre. Masani was unsure at first, and was certainly initially against the idea of simply stealing them, but had been talked around by her husband. Dion had created a makeshift sling and young Akiki had been safely and securely strapped to his back. Their cycling experience had only ended, and ended abruptly, when Dion’s front tyre had blown after riding over a shard of discarded metal in the road. A sleeping Akiki was briefly woken as his father wrestled with the front of the bicycle before it came to a halt at the edge of the uneven and stony road, and without causing injury to either of them.
Having walked for a further forty-five minutes, they arrived at their penultimate destination, Le Havre ferry port. Dion saw what appeared to be a transport café in the distance on the right-hand side. The inside lights were on and it appeared to be open.
As they rounded the final corner following the long descent of the windy and treacherous road that overlooked the ferry port; their eyes were drawn to what appeared to be a small camp site over to their left. The area didn’t benefit from any overhead lighting, but Dion could see half a dozen small fires burning.
As they got closer they could see that it wasn’t a camp site, well not one that they were familiar with even in Angola, and certainly not one that was constructed of parallel rows of polyester tents. There was just enough light, both from within the camp, and that being received via the nearby ferry port buildings, to see that the camp appeared to be a mixture of makeshift shelters. The shelters were constructed of materials varying from wooden pallets and corrugated metal sheets, to cardboard and tarpaulin.
It took Dion less than a minute to realise that this was a camp where people just like himself and his family had converged in the hope of finding passage across to England. But he was shocked by the sheer size of the camp, and despite the meagre light and the relatively late hour, he could make out fifty, sixty, perhaps over one hundred bodies milling around.
‘Who are these people, Dion?’ asked Masani.
Dion pulled her close and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. ‘Don’t worry about them. Look, the café, let’s go inside.’
They walked into the café and sat at the table closest to the door. The proximity of the table to the door provided little more than a seriously cold draught when the door was opened, as it appeared to be so every second minute as other customers came and went, but it also provided Masani with the required level of reassurance of being able to bolt at a second’s notice. It also provided a reassuring line of sight to Dion, who had just left them both and was outside talking to a group of lorry drivers huddled close to the side of one of the lorry cabs thirty metres from the café door.
‘Your coffee, Madame.’ The waitress placed a white glazed mug on the table, it was emblazoned with the slogan French truckers do it ALL night long, but it was the steaming hot contents that Masani was interested in; added to which she couldn’t read English, or French for that matter. ‘And your muffin, little man.’
Akiki took the muffin directly from the hand of the waitress as she held it out; and he gave her the broadest of pearly white smiles. She smiled back.
‘Thank you,’ mumbled Masani as she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. She placed them on the matt resin table and started to sort them with her index finger, separating the Euros from the other currency that she had picked up along the journey. The waitress, Veronique, gently placed her hand on top of Masani’s hand.
‘No.’ Masani moved to respond, but before she could... ‘No,’ was the gentle reinforced message. They shared a brief smile and a clear understanding before Veronique turned away and returned to the hot plate to collect more plates to be handed over to waiting diners.
Veronique had been working at the transport café for almost six years, and during that time she had seen more than her fair share of refugees, asylum seekers, travellers, loners, tramps and vagabonds; and she generally took pity on each and every one of them, but none to date had looked as frightened as Masani, and none as vulnerable as two-year-old Akiki. She had hoped that they would choose to stay in the café for another few hours to keep warm and dry, during which time she would ensure that they both received a hot meal. However, more than anyone else she knew what went on in the lorry park outside, she knew that money changed hands, and that people just like this latest family of three, disappeared into the back, or the underside, of the lorries, as the drivers spun their own virtual version of a roulette wheel and gambled on banking the money for a successful undetected crossing. Veronique knew that if they could strike the right deal with a driver, this threesome might be on their way very soon, perhaps tonight.
Dion came back into the café and sat across from Masani, and next to Akiki. He rubbed his hand over his son’s head and leaned over to kiss his forehead. ‘Is that nice?’
Akiki smiled, but had too much of a mouthful to provide a verbal confirmation that it was. He carried on eating his muffin.
‘I have been talking to some of those men outside; you know those from the camp site that we saw. Do you know that there are people here from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and from other countries that I have never heard of? Some of them have been living at this camp site for months.’
‘Same reason we are here, Masani, they are trying to get across to England.’
‘Why are they still here then?’
‘They are not able to enter England legally, just like us; but they do not have the money to pay for their passage either. All they have is the clothes on their back in most cases.’
‘What do they do for food?’
‘One of the men told me that there are some charity volunteers that give out food and blankets during the daytime, but they are not here every day, and do not come at all during the night time. He tells me that it can be quite violent sometimes at night.’
‘How do they hope to get across to England if they have no money to pay the lorry driver?’
‘They try and stow away in the lorry, Masani. I have been told that you will see dozens of them chasing moving vehicles, trying to open the rear doors, or even climb onto the undercarriage and cling on. It all seems too dangerous to me. I think that we are very lucky, Masani.’
There was a slight and unexpected pause in conversation.
‘So…?' asked an eager Masani.
‘We are sorted. I have agreed it with one of the drivers.’ He gestured towards the parked lorries with an outstretched finger. ‘We need to be ready to leave in an hour.’
‘Are we going tonight?’
‘No, but we need to be in place, well hidden, before the driver sets off at six o’clock tomorrow morning.’
‘You mean that we have to sleep in…’ Masani stopped herself from finishing the question. In a flash she had recalled some of the low points of their journey, and actually how sleeping in the relatively warm and dry environment in the back of a lorry would be better than some nights they had spent on the road. ‘When do we have to be ready?’
‘The driver that has agreed to take us will come into the café in an hour and fill his flask with coffee, this is the signal to follow him out, but we must wait a further ten minutes before we do.’
‘Yes, he was quite specific.’
‘When do we pay him the money?’
‘I have paid him the money already. He insisted on receiving the money before we set off.’ Dion became a little defensive. ‘I told him that we would only pay once we had reached the shores of England, but he said that it did not work that way and that no-one would take the risk without the money upfront.’
‘So…’ said an increasingly inquisitive and concerned Masani. ‘What happens if we get caught on the journey? What happens if we get thrown off the lorry, the ferry, and get deported back here?’
‘Well, we lose the money, Masani. We lose the money.’ He shrugged his shoulders in a very matter of fact manner as though it wouldn’t matter that the money they had saved, begged, borrowed and stolen, and that they had guarded with their lives over their epic five thousand mile journey, would be gone, in a flash. ‘That is the risk. The driver keeps our money whether he gets us across successfully or not.’
‘Go and get our money back, you foolish, foolish man.’ Masani was speaking from a position of ignorance and clearly hadn’t been involved in the negotiations in the car park; neither was she as worldly-wise as her husband, but she could see their entire future in jeopardy and thought that there must be other ways to reach the United Kingdom, perhaps with less risk.
Dion was not often found to be putting his wife in her place and he did not enjoy shouting at her in the slightest, but on this occasion, at this very point in their journey and on the crest of potential freedom and happiness, he lost his temper temporarily. ‘I will not give the money back.' He tempered his volume a little as he looked around at the other occupants in the café. ‘I have negotiated our passage across the sea to England, this is the way things are done and I know what I am doing. Do not question me, woman.’
‘We are moving again, Dion, we are moving.’ Masani had woken from her slumber, arms still draped around little Akiki who was still fast asleep. She hadn’t been in a deep sleep at any point during the night and the slightest noise would no doubt have woken her, but she had found the position in which they were wedged to be quite comfortable, and the walls of the truck together with the full pallet load had done much to soundproof any outside noise from disturbing her.
‘Hush, Masani, we must be quiet.’
Masani, now barely audible above a whisper, asked, ‘How long have we been moving, Dion? Do you know where we are?’
‘We have been moving for just a few minutes, but I’m not sure where we are. We must be quiet now, Masani, we might be at the other side.’
As they sat hand in hand smiling at each other, hopefully now nearing the end of their long and tiring journey, Dion reflected upon his rationale for choosing a country five thousand miles away, and inwardly recalled how he had used the internet to research which countries had lax border controls and a general acceptance of immigrants or refugees. He had spent countless hours in an internet café in the city of Kuito, reading blogs and forums where dozens of people had posted the most intimate details of their experiences trying to get into the United Kingdom; and had read their varying degrees of success in being accepted as an asylum seeker. The internet, it seemed, was now the most open and transparent window into everyone’s lives. The intimate detail of people’s lives was apparently both revered and open for critique in equal measure. There had been far more stories with a sad ending, but Dion had read almost universally that it might take years for them to be deported should they be unsuccessful in their asylum application, by which time he expected that Akiki would have benefited from a few years of good education in a proper school environment. The risk was worthwhile, for this alone.
After a couple of minutes the truck came to a stop and the engine switched off. They could hear voices outside, but the dense wall of the wagon sides muffled them to the point whereby no coherent words could be identified.
They slowly shuffled lower down in their positions and eventually reached a point at which they were lying on their stomachs in the crawl space under the pallet furthest from the doors. Akiki had started to stir, and Masani pulled him close to her, she placed her hand over his mouth to muffle the yawn that he had started, and Dion placed his hand over hers. It was a non-verbal communication that Masani clearly and immediately understood; keep him quiet.
There was a loud crack and a long drawn-out creaking noise, followed by an almost immediate waft of cold air. The back doors had been opened.
‘What’s your load?’
‘Plastic mouldings for the automotive industry.’
‘How many pallets in your load?’
‘Where…?’ He was cut short.
‘Look, mate, you have all the answers to your bloody questions on that manifest in your hand. Stop pissing me about and let me get on my way.’ The border control officer scowled back at him for a second.
‘Where did this load originate?’
The driver, accepting that the guy was only doing his job and that he should be co-operative as possible in light of his special cargo, confirmed that he had come from Bucharest.
The officer climbed on top of the pallet stack, and as there was only enough room to crawl, he made his way on his stomach towards the middle of the container.
‘Sierra Delta Five.’ His radio crackled into life. He ignored it.
‘Sierra Delta Five.’ He ignored it again as he crawled his way over the top of the pallets for a further ten feet.
‘Sierra Delta Five. Rob…Rob, you tosser, answer the fucking radio.’ He reached back and drew his radio from the belt holster.
‘This is Sierra Delta Five, what’s up? I’m climbing over some fucking pallets in a forty-foot artic over in bay five.’
‘We need you over in bay one, Rob, we’ve hit the jackpot.’ The officer placed his radio back into his holster and crawled back towards the rear doors. He hauled his above average frame down over the final pallet and jumped down to the ground.
‘Okay, close them up and get on your way,’ he advised the driver.
It was almost forty minutes before the truck stopped again. The driver pulled into Rowhams Motorway Services and parked up at the far side of the car park; it was light but still early, and there were very few people around. He climbed down from his cab and walked around the rear of the trailer, he knocked down the lever and pulled open the right-hand side door.
‘Out you come.’ No response. ‘Come on, out you come now.’ Still no response.
Dion was urging his wife and son to remain quiet, as he didn’t know if this was the driver or an immigration official trying to catch them out without having to climb into and search the trailer. Furthermore he didn’t recognise the voice, and he couldn’t immediately match it to the driver with whom he had spoken last night, although to be fair he had spent less than twenty minutes in his company.
‘Hello…Hello, are you asleep? Are you still alive? It is time to leave, and you need to leave now…This is as far as I take you.’
Dion lifted up his head and took a chance. ‘Yes, we are here.’
‘OK, thank God for that, I thought you were bloody brown bread for one minute.’
‘Brown bread?’ inquired Dion from over in the distance.
‘Don’t worry, my son, it’s just a saying. Look, you need to gather your family and get out now.’
Dion helped his wife to her feet and lifted Akiki in his arms, and they all crawled slowly over the top pallets towards the rear doors. Upon reaching them, Dion stood on the edge of the trailer and looked out at the bright morning sun, although it was unfortunately subdued by the near zero temperatures. With Akiki in his arms he jumped down to the ground and grabbed their two bags before offering a hand to Masani.
‘Is this it, Dion?’ she asked expectantly.
‘Yes,’ he confirmed. ‘We are here, this is the United Kingdom. This is the start of our new life.’