Some view Europe's current treatment of refugees as horribly ungenerous. Have Europeans forgotten that, just sixty years ago, millions of them were refugees themselves in the wake of the Second World War? What if, another half-century down the line, the boot were once again on the other foot. This is the sketch of a story...
She looked half-starved, grey beneath the skin, shaky – and she was the charity worker dishing up thin soup at the head of Brindisi dock.
As her spoon clanked against his enamel bowl, Garrett Miller found his thanks catching in his throat; being a “refugee” still shamed him. But he was moved that at least some locals turned out in support, where most Italian residents had barred their doors, barricaded streets, and called on riot police to keep the ragged influx contained.
He settled against a sun-warmed wall next to Lynda, helped her to some gruel. He twitched aside the grubby blanket around her to reveal Deborah’s tiny face. She seemed terribly still.
“Is she still breathing?”
“She just suckled,” said Lynda. “For what it’s worth.” There was a bitter edge to her voice now; the flight from the war had somehow rapidly changed this quiet, introverted inoffensive wife to one bordering on the vindictive and accusing. As if the whole conflict had been his fault.
They were surrounded by a forest of parti-coloured tents and awnings strung from the fences, a glum hubbub of exhausted faces and slumped shoulders, children too weak to play or wail. On the shoreline where they had come to rest the previous evening, a little way back up the coast, a tiny child had lain, face down in the surf, dead and bloated up tight in its orange lifejacket, ignored. People feared radioactivity or some other contagion, and walked on.
He had scribbled down a note of it.
“Why are you bothering?” Lynda had snapped. “There’s no one to sell your stories to now.”
He had tried to smile. “Once a journalist, always a sucker for a story. And the stories have to be told. Everyone has a story. We’ll look back on this one day and want someone to know our story.”
“Look back from where?”
That, he couldn’t answer. Everyone was talking of vast plains in Ethiopia, fields of green along the Euphrates, cities of golden peace in Syria, but you couldn’t tell how true these visions were, or where the implacable streams of history might carry them. For himself he envisioned African mountains, the liberation of clean air, and water running in spectacular valleys, and birds. Just a patch of arable land, and a circle of friends, swapping their tales of horrors gone by.
The horrors played themselves out in his journalist’s mind as headlines: BREXIT DESTROYS EURO; RUSSIA INVADES TURKEY; SHADES OF 1945: BERLIN FIRESTORM; NUCLEAR FALLOUT ENVELOPS BRITAIN; EIFFEL TOWER TOPPLED BY WARLORDS. It had become almost impossible to follow, let alone believe, the sequence of events that had reduced so much of the continent to radioactive rubble. Maybe it had been like that in 1914: a mush of ill-conceived treaties, undercover monetary loyalties, here a tyrant showing too much muscle, there an assassin pulling his trigger at just the wrong moment, elsewhere a billionaire profiting from weapons sales to all sides, populations on the edge of starvation coaxed into battle as their last resort. Sit and die – or fight, maybe die maybe not.
Garrett had chosen to take his wife and baby and run. For the baby’s sake, mostly. Crawling out of the Underground after their fortnight’s emergency supplies had run out, they’d found London all but flattened, afire from horizon to horizon – H G Wells’ War of the Worlds came absurdly to his mind. But here it was humans themselves who were their own aliens, their own destroyers.
Garrett had had the foresight to liberate some cash the moment the first missiles from Germany had headed for Britain, and they were able to pay a boat-owner – a surly, scowling man they discovered was a Slovenian well-versed in fleecing the needy to ferry them through dangerous waters – to get them from Lambeth to Calais. The Chunnel was choked with exploded vehicles, the Thames cluttered with oily hulks, like something out of Dickens, and the Channel crossing itself swathed in blue-grey smog and haunted by patrol-boats of random allegiance.
And they had to pay the Slovenian pirate again just to get off the boat.
The Red Cross had set up a temporary camp near Calais nicknamed ‘The Jungle’, where they were able to get at least a little warmer, October cold beginning to creep in off the Atlantic. Here, discomfitingly, they found themselves jostling at the food lines with nationalities with whom they, the English, were technically still at war: Germans, Danes, even some Russians who had fled their own corner of Hell. Like any other sane human. Indeed, the Miller family were rapidly being reduced to the essential humanity they all shared: hungry, dislocated, malodorous, shitting in ditches.
It took mere days to lose even the dignity of animals. And it wasn’t long before they learned that even amongst the destitute moved marauders and false friends, that those best equipped to handle all this were those who had travelled furthest, with least conscience, with sly weapons, those who would before the war have been dismissed as tramps and gypsies, gangsters and ex-cons, deluded survivalists and wacko woodsmen. Pampered City journos like the Millers, with softened feet and homey values, limited resources and a baby, were poorly equipped, to say the least.
Within hours of flopping down in The Jungle, a few minutes’ inattention saw the theft of their little plastic baby carrier and her blankets. “Who would do something like that!” Lynda wailed. And then, in the first of such startlingly intemperate outbursts, she yelled out randomly over the clustered, miserable refugees: “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”
It injured Garrett’s sense of propriety, and he wrapped her in his arms just to quieten her. But no one even raised their heads. The gentlemanly virtues, quintessentially English, that Garrett had been taught by his father, grandfather, great-grandfather even, seemed irrelevant here. His great-grandfather, over ninety when he, Garrett, had been ten, had muttered endlessly about 1914, and 1945, and how he saw that every generation had to suffer its own great war, as he had as a child.
“You’ll get your war, too,” the ancient man, the retrograde imperialist, had growled. “Up to you to save our way of life, if all these black-faced immigrants haven’t trashed us by then.”
Now those values appeared always to have been illusory; yet Garrett had not been able to bring himself ever to abuse another refugee. He paid, in money or kind, rather than filch or bully; but such resources were dwindling.
It had become clear to them all that they couldn’t stay at Calais long: the Red Cross were in dire straits themselves, there were rumours of a local warlord’s bands moving closer, and such residents of the town as remained were themselves turning hostile.
Italy, it was said, was more hospitable. Thereafter, the Middle East – having weathered its own wars half a century before – beckoned as a haven of peace. Africa, too, the region that had powered itself to prosperity as the West fell into decay, self-recrimination and directionless war.
But those places seemed to them like evanescent dreams – dreams that nevertheless had to be chased. So they had lurched in trucks to the Italian border, where more money had to change hands to cross the makeshift barriers; then it was on foot, across the southern Alps, in the footsteps of Hannibal, it may have been, Garrett wryly wondered as they trudged past bodies half-buried in snow-drifts. At times troops chased them with teargas and rubber bullets. They were barely able to stagger onto a train that collected them in Milan; the Italians’ mission, too, was clearly to get rid of them as soon as possible. Now, the clash of gates behind them underlined their entrapment at the toe end of Italy.
There were boats, it was said, which would take them from Brindisi across the Mediterranean to – wherever it took them to.
And even as the Millers scraped the bottom of their bowl for the last lick of soup, there was a ripple through the crowd assembled on Brindisi dock. A boat had been spotted approaching out of the sea-murk; there was a surge amongst the people towards the end of the docks, trampling tents and women, with bellows and optimistic screams. The boat appeared silver, a chip of quartz, bright as a promise.
“We need to get down there,” yelled Lynda. But Garrett held her back; she thrashed in his arms, stopping only when the baby fell and whimpered feebly. “We’ll get trampled,” he shouted at her. “They’ll restore order, they will. We’ll find who to organise this with.”
But he scarcely believed himself; he knew the numbers were too great; their only hope lay, probably, in the enfeebled apathy of the majority of the refugees. But he wasn’t confident any more of his own strength, either.
Then the tone of the crowd changed subtly; it was like a swarm of bees turning from enthusiastic hive-making to anger, a deepening of tone amongst those who called out to each other in a Babel of languages, none of which Garrett could understand.
But a pair of binoculars was circulating nearby; through them Garrett could see what had caused the change. A dark grey military vessel, clearly armed, was turning the silvery boat away. And the word was surging back from the dockside, whether true or not seemed immaterial: the word was that Africa was closing its borders, it had taken in enough refugees, no more would pass this point.
“What?” screamed Lynda. “How can they do that? There are millions of acres of land in Africa! How can they be so bloody ungenerous?”
The two boats in time disappeared into the mist; the refugees slumped back into a low, dispirited hum. Lynda and Garrett retreated to their little spot against the wall, a spot that felt almost, now, like a home.
The baby was very quiet. Garrett ran his fingers around her tiny bobble of a chin. “Hey, is she still breathing?”