In light of the recent tragedy in the English Channel, local novelist and S&C Community Reporter Helen Salsbury presents a short story reacting to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in this country. It was shortlisted for the Bedford International Short Story Competition in 2017 and first published in that year’s anthology (now out of print).
On Margate sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
A village in rural Spain. Nothing stirs. July, the cruellest month. Midday, the cruellest time. The metal framework of the farmer’s cart clicks as it expands under the blow-torch sun. Underneath, where Lucy lies, the air is sauna hot. The ground beneath her prickles, yellowy-brown grit turning to dust, the same dust which clings to her sweat-moist skin and scratches at the rawness in her throat. She wandered further than usual today, almost to the next village, and her water bottle is empty. The village square will have a water fountain, but to move now will bring on the want-to-burst intensity within her bladder, will make the need for relief urgent.
Day twenty seven. Early sunburn has faded into a tightness of skin.
How did she get here – ticked off on a list and awarded a bed, a rectangle of space, an existence of kinds? How?
Tightness of skin, tightness of mind. Impossible not to fixate on a safer time, to equate the heat of now to the heat of then. Three years ago she was in the sea, the water all but sizzling against her hot skin. A cheap package holiday under a foreign sky (but not as foreign as this one!). Her mother, placid in the face of Lucy’s refusal to admit that the sun could burn, stripped off her own cover-up shirt and threw it to her. Lucy, standing in the water’s edge, caught between the need for rebellion and the yearning for something softer, pulled it over her head, shoved her arms into long sleeves, felt the shapeless cotton cling and clump against her wet skin as it turned wet and salty and dim – the way memories do.
Others are stamped bold, hard to forget.
‘You don’t understand what it’s like now.’ Her brother’s anger bouncing off her father, ricocheting against the kitchen walls. Every room too small, crowded, when her brother entered it. Her family home; his prison.
‘Then tell me.’ Her father’s reasonableness.
She’d splayed her fingers through the turquoise stripe in her hair and fanned it out, watching both of them between gleaming strands.
‘You’ll never understand,’ her brother said. ‘You’ve got all this.’ He gestured at the ceiling, the windows, the floor. ‘I’ve got nothing. Kent: garden of England! Yeah, right. They’ve taken it all. Bled us dry.’
She’d dropped her hand, let the colour screen fall. This would be her, too, in a year or two: rattling around in the house, unable to leave, unable to root elsewhere. She’d felt the fear, pushed it away. No. She’d be different. The town was top-heavy with oldies. She’d work for them: burgundy rinses and soft perms, softer chat. She’d make herself indispensable, scrape together enough money to pay London price rent on some tiny space where she could define herself. Her brother just wasn’t trying hard enough. That was it. Had to be. She kept these thoughts locked behind her eyes.
She started practising on her best friend, who in return practised on her. The turquoise stripe turned blue, then purple, while her brother turned towards the dark side. She heard it first in the strike of his boots, saw it in the jut of his jaw, felt it in his unexplained absences.
But her father couldn’t see it, had to be told.
The scent of ammonia from the cheaply branded purple dye lifting off her hair and fuzzing around her nostrils while her mum set the table. Her brother’s fiery eyes and militant strut, pacing the small kitchen. ‘We’re called The Eye of the Needle.’
Her father smiling.
A trigger point. ‘It’s not murder. It’s assassination. They’re not even human. Not like us.’
Dad no longer smiling. ‘Have you ever seen a dead man?’
Dad measuring out one word at a time; a monotone, a building narrative. A story about the family dog Lucy had only half known. ‘…crawling back to us after the hit and run, his spine broken, his back legs dragging blood and dirt. I had to take the lump hammer and bring it down on his head, even though he was looking at me, even then. Perhaps I should have called you.’
It felt as if everything could turn. Her mother had a teaspoon in one hand, it was hovering a few inches above the table, her finger and thumb pinched together, her eyes looking directly at the blank wall.
Sometimes Lucy would like to freeze-frame it there. Sometimes she’d like to walk in and across to her brother and take his frozen figure and thrust it at that wall until his head cracked against the plaster. Then time could start again and her mother’s fingers could open and the teaspoon could drop onto the table and her brother could shake his head and look startled and then say, ‘Shit, what was I saying?’
But time didn’t freeze and her brother regrouped. ‘The fucking dog!’ And the expletive was shocking in a house where language had never been allowed. ‘A fucking dog, that’s not the point.’ And he walked to the back door with its patterned glass, its khaki green paint, and he placed one hand against the glass petals and in between each finger the mist and the heat from his palm, from his hand, from his flesh, began to spread.
‘They’ve brought this on themselves.’
You bloody… She saw the words form in her father’s mouth, but he held them back, just lurched across the kitchen in long strides, and her brother was turning and in the mirror of the windowed door she could see the hand print he had left, and her father’s arm was swinging forwards and her brother wanted him to do it, she could see that, and her mother called, ‘No, stop.’
Her father jerked into stillness, one foot forward, one fist forward, his body twisted and his face chieftain fierce, clan fierce.
With an effort he allowed his fingers to open, his hand and arm to fall.
‘I’ve never hit any of you; I never will.’
Her brother opened the kitchen door. ‘You see, you can’t do it. Even to prove your point. If I left it to you nothing would change.’
The door banged behind him, the hand mark on the mottled glass already gone.
Too much time to think under this cart; in this sauna where her clothes cling, wet and wrinkled; in this unmoving time, unmoving air.
She crawls out. One hip and thigh have numbed. Little pins in them as she pulls herself upwards, fingers touching the searing-hot cart for support. There’s no cloud cover, and the furious yellow eye fixes and burns. The last of the purple stripe – now just a blotch at the end of her own mouse-blond hair – sticks to her nose, her cheek. She finger rakes from the roots until it’s off her face, then drapes the boys’ shirt – which is patterned with firework rockets and too small to actually wear – over her head, bends the collar down to shield her eyes. The flat landscape hazes around her, ochre and yellow. There are no bushes. There is virtually no green, certainly no abundance of growth.
The men from the refuge will stand and pee just about anywhere. Couldn’t she just crouch behind that bale of rolled straw?
And yet that peculiar emptiness still somehow has eyes. Her naked bum, visible from three directions. But it isn’t even that. It’s something straight but brittle inside her. It’s not who I am.
She plods towards the nearby village. Blood concentrates in her head, thumps. The soles of her trainers have thinned against these stony roads. Grit infiltrates. Not worth emptying though; they will only refill.
Always tired. Strange sleeping with so many other people, men and women on different sides of the same spider-infested hall, the creak of metal bed-springs whenever anyone turns over. The fear of dreams which trick her backwards, to a different reality.
The village is quiet, the shuttered windows are dark eyes in closed-off faces. She raises a hand towards a sweaty huddle of men and women under a stone archway, catches the shift and shuffle of them as they retreat the few inches required to keep them all in the shade. There’s a kind of community in that movement. Perhaps she’ll join them after she’s been to the café. See if they can squeeze a space for her.
Her heart pounds at the thought – the sticky awkwardness of it – and she knows she won’t. Just as she never stays underneath the shade of the refuge porch. If only the Spanish government would allow her to walk onward to a new destination each day like the pilgrims. Then she could accept the shelter of a refuge with relief.
The square: hot flagstones, yellowy-white stone benches, glaring bright, empty. The trickle and splash of the central water pipe. Three mad-dog Englishmen from the refuge are pressing their faces against the café window. She quietly disowns them.
They make it worse, make us stick out more.
One of them, Andrew, is wearing the sunglasses given to him by a passing pilgrim. She is bitter with envy.
It’s always the loudest.
At least they don’t acknowledge her, they are too intent on the TV screen. She can’t prevent herself peering through the window’s glare, but it’s only a football game.
The village men, dark and wrinkled, own the interior of the café. Their beady stares follow her as she approaches the counter. She smells greasy chorizo and morcilla. Her stomach churns. Hunger or distaste? The proprietor is chatting across the counter, his sentences too rapid for her to detect any of her painstakingly learnt words or expressions.
He mops a spill, then turns, wordless, towards her. Same beady eyes: unreadable.
Her mouth is gritty. She swallows, ‘Puedo usar los servicios, por favor?’
She always fears he will pretend not to understand. Even though it’s not the first time she’s been here with this question.
She fears that one day the villager will keep her here so long, locked eye to eye, that it will be too late.
His brusque nod is a relief.
As she leaves the café she can’t help glancing back at the TV. And it’s there: smoke and fire, frightened dirty faces, sprawled bodies, shells of buildings.
‘Where is it?’ She can’t help asking. ‘Is that Kent?’
It looks like Kent.
But the men don’t know. For all the fervent stating of facts which goes on every evening, no one really knows anything.
By the time the refuge opens its doors at eight pm they are all back, forming that most English of things: a queue. It’s called a refuge, not because of them – the refugees – but because of the pilgrims who walk the Santiago way, starting in France and stretching across Castille and Leon. There are other routes, more beautiful, less dusty, and other halls less vast and sparse. So the refugees often have this refuge to themselves.
But tonight, just as the doors open, three pilgrims appear on the road, two men and one woman. Even though the day’s ferocity has finally waned, the woman is wearing sunglasses and a panama hat.
They’re speaking French, and for once the words seem less foreign, virtually understandable. It’s the woman, something in her tone.
‘You’re English!’ Lucy blurts as they draw level, without pausing to consider whether this is a good idea.
The woman turns. ‘Yes.’ She removes her sunglasses. Smooth eyelids. Late twenties? Blue eyes, something tender and sad in her regard.
Lucy switches her gaze to the sunglasses. ‘But you’re with the pilgrims.’
‘My husband is French. I’ve lived there eight years. Nearly nine. I’m Anna. And you?’
Oh, her voice. That’s southern English, that’s us: me, Mum, Dad.
That last fierce sound of her father. ‘Get in the boat, Lucy.’ Darkness.
They’d been standing on the pebble spit as it narrowed into the black sea, the rubber boat a juddering shape in the water – overloaded by clambering bodies – Mum far back on the shore, hidden beneath the walls of the ruined harbour.
‘Not without you.’
She’d thought they were all going, until, ‘We have to stay, in case your brother needs us.’
‘But it’s his fault, all of this. He started it!’
Just like she was six and her brother nine all over again.
‘All on his own?’
How could Dad joke?
‘I’m not going.’ She anchored herself to him with arms and legs, no longer fifteen but younger, so much younger. But Dad just walked into the sea with her attached.
‘Any parents here?’ he called. White dash of arms briefly and precariously raised. He paused, selected, veered. ‘Will you take her?’
Two plump figures, tipping and tilting.
She lashed out. Dad took the blow without a sound. The sea helped him to unpeel her, helped him hoist her, legs first, helped him post her between the surrogates, who wrapped arms around her back. Sides squished against hers. Scent of violets wafting from the woman in talcy waves. Dad’s hands pressed on her shoulder.
The engine powered up.
‘He’s my son and I love him. Just as I love you.’
She spat. Sea salt and fury.
The boat surged out into the blacker, deeper sea. She could still feel the pressure of his hands forcing her away.
‘Are you all right?’ The pilgrim. Somehow, she’s holding Lucy’s hands.
‘My parents are in Kent. What news? I only know what we’re told in the bulletins.’ Printed sheets, delivered weekly and handed round, the information never detailed enough.
‘Kent. I’m sorry. That’s had a bad time.’
To state the obvious. It started in Kent. ‘Do you have wifi? Can you check the area where my home is?’
‘I’m sorry, I left my laptop and phone in France. It was part of the – of what I was trying to do.’
Lucy doesn’t care what she was trying to do.
‘I’ll write it down,’ Anna swings her rucksack off, rummages, ‘and when I get back…’
She’ll forget. This will stop having any reality for her. That’s what happens.
‘Don’t look like that. Wait… Kent… I have something of Kent. You might…’ She pulls a notebook from her pack. ‘Here.’
Lucy takes it and opens it. The first page, dated a few weeks ago:
“My husband tells me I haven’t abandoned my country, but it doesn’t stick.”
‘No! The seascape on the cover.’ Anna’s fingers press against hers, persuade her to close the book, to turn it horizontally.
The colours, the atmosphere, hit Lucy. An impression of sea and sky. The sea lifting up, the clouds… so much movement. And then, between them, a stillness. A length which isn’t sea or sky: a whiteness.
Lucy didn’t know she’d missed all these colours. Didn’t know she’d missed the way the clouds could filter the light, could turn it beautiful. A gift. And that sea! Nothing like the black, frightening one they’d crossed, the thwack of waves across her as she clung with white, cramped fingers, terrified of being swept off.
She’d forgotten any other kind of sea existed.
But here it is, all those different hues, the texture and passion of that sea, those clouds. The vast rightness of it.
This is me. The person who belongs under that changeable sky.
‘It’s a Turner painting,’ Anna says. ‘It’s believed to be Margate. See how, in the distance, there’s a gleam of white. The white cliffs. Like the white cliffs of Dover.’
But Lucy doesn’t connect to this, not like she does to the idea of Margate. Isn’t that where Mum and Dad took them, years ago? Nothing is clear in the seascape, it’s not quite defined. Nothing is entirely clear in her memory, there’s a shining whiteness in the distance though, there’s the taste of sea, there’s the security of her brother standing next to her. The waves are picking them up, putting them down. And the sky keeps changing, the sun breaking through, then retreating.
She pretends to struggle to catch her brother’s attention, kicking her legs, flailing her arms, even though the sand is just beneath her, being stirred into the water by her antics.
He lifts her up, ‘I’ll rescue you.’
The jolting stride, the bony feel of his arms, the white of his knees breaking the surface. She slips in his grasp, one leg splashing into the water.
‘You’ll drop me.’
‘No, I’ve got you.’
Gathering her up again, carrying her out of the sea, both of them acting like she really had needed rescuing. The boniness of him.
Her brother, now with the rebels.
But he hadn’t always been.
‘The painting’s unfinished,’ Anna says.
They are still outside the hall. No one else is near. Lucy has entirely disowned one person in her life. Now, she gives him back a tiny space.
‘My brother is with the rebels.’ Their eyes meet. ‘No. Don’t say anything.’
She thinks of her father challenging her perception, her beliefs. But sometimes it’s hard not to blame, not to hate. And yet, she turns her eyes back to the painting, and she’s there again, held in her brother’s arms, the sea underneath them a vast safety net.
When she wakes in the morning, Anna has gone. But the notebook cover, which has been neatly sliced away from Anna’s words, is lying on Lucy’s bed. She reaches for sea and sky.
Maybe Margate. She’ll never know for sure.
Cover image by Scott Alexander