It was over, that much was clear. I’d hoped perhaps it was just a row, another set of crossed words that we would get beyond, but when she came into the bar and took her own table away from Gil, Aatef and me, I knew we were done and I’d be returning home without her.
Gil was waving his phone at me, triumphantly proving himself right. ‘There, Javad, see for yourself. Jonathan de Guzman was born in Canada. His father is from the Philippines, his mother from Jamaica. He qualifies to play for the Netherlands after becoming a Dutch citizen in 2008. You owe me a drink.’
I shifted my stool so she wasn’t in my direct sightline, waved the waiter over. Someone had carved a heart into the rough wooden table, a jagged peach-drop partly obliterated by embedded wax and wine stains. I moved a beer mat over it and thought again about taking up smoking. I had two packets in my jacket for handing out to the folk we met in the Jungle. They were tempting.
‘Technology has destroyed the trivial argument as a pastime,’ Aatef said, sipping his beer. We were talking in French, the simplest mutual language. ‘We used to sit around with our friends arguing about who scored the winning goal in the cup final or who had more caps, Zidane or Vieira, and it was a form of entertainment in itself, the discussion defining the flow of time, drawing everyone into a shared experience. Sometimes we’d never find out who was right but it didn’t matter, it was the sparring that was important, not being correct. Now we check our phones and spoil the fun.’
‘See Gil,’ I said, gesturing at the waiter for a round as Eva greeted another member of her group, ‘you’re spoiling all our fun.’ As the two women kissed each other’s cheeks I felt a flush at the memory. Nearly two years that had passed since we first kissed outside the Vredespaleis in The Hague, having broken off from the other post-docs, finding ourselves more enamoured with each other than international law. The waiter couldn’t bring the drinks fast enough. It was Friday night, it had been two crushing weeks and I needed to unplug.
‘How many caps did Zidane get?’ I asked Aatef. During the week he was our guide and translator in the Jungle. His family were Syrian but he’d been born in France, his father also a translator, advisor and, later, a political exile.
‘A hundred and eight. The fourth highest behind Thuram, Henry and Desailly.’
‘That headbutt,’ Gil said, miming the act, ‘right in Materazzi’s chest. Bang!’
‘He called his mother a terrorist,’ Aatef said. ‘I’d have done the same.’
‘I thought he called his sister a whore,’ Gil said, reaching for his phone.
‘That’s better?’ I said, taking the drinks from the waiter and handing them around.
‘Zizou’s parents are Algerian,’ Aatef said. ‘He must have heard the terrorist thing a lot growing up in Marseille. I heard it a lot in Paris. You must have heard it in the Netherlands, Javad. Calling someone’s sister a whore is bad, but it’s a universal insult. You can say that to anyone.’
‘Can’t say it to me,’ said Gil pouring the dregs of his last beer onto the head of his new one. ‘I don’t have a sister.’
Aatef ignored him, took his bottle of Corona and fingered the lime into the bottle, sucking the pulp from his finger. ‘Zizou could have said the same thing back to Materazzi.’
‘Does Materazzi have a sister?’ Gil thumbed his phone again.
‘Doesn’t matter. The point is, a white European calling someone from North Africa or the Middle East a terrorist, that’s colonial. It’s oppressive. It cuts deeper.’
Her laugh etched the air. I tried not to look over at her table but failed. A bottle of red, sloshed into big glasses, some dishes they picked at like plover birds. That was the fun table; Wikipedia had nothing to do with it.
I’d hoped to take a trip along the coast with her that weekend, to enjoy the sun and the beach, let the salt air and positive ions wash out everything we’d heard over the last two weeks, everything we’d seen. Horror is contagious and we’d exposed ourselves to a terminal dose. Gil saw where I was looking, knew the score. He waved the waiter over and ordered three shots. ‘We’ll get out of here, go somewhere else.’
For two weeks we’d been interviewing people in the Jungle. Aatef knew his way around and could speak four languages. I spoke three, Gil another one. We questioned, we listened, we recorded. I dished out cigarettes that were thankfully received, smoked or traded. I wanted to do more but short of starting my own country and inviting them to come and live, I was at a loss.
I could recall each face, the shapes and smiles and hairstyles that went with their stories, the transcripts I would type up anonymised, coded, labelled to define the concept they represent, stripped of any identifying details and inserted into reports and papers. Their words would become examples, supporting conclusions, but I’d recall their eyes, their sighs and sobs. There was Ahlem from Syria, who just wanted to stay in France and spent her day pouring over verb declensions. Her turquoise and yellow veil colourful, the exhaustion burnt in her eyes. There was Payam, a tall, skinny Iranian blogger who escaped arrest and beatings and wanted to join his brother in London. Gil said he looked like my younger brother, the same bone structure, the stubble pattern. There was Kamal from Darfur with a scar under his eye and warm, friendly smile, a mechanic who fled the unrest and just wanted to be working. He used his practical know-how to help people keep their shelters dry and warm. There was Helen, one of a group of Eritrean women. She was pregnant and hadn’t seen a doctor in weeks. No one asked after the father.
My father was a poet in Iran. He wrote love poems at first, lyrics of great passion and beauty, epics inspired by Persian history, but after Mossadeq his work became more political, obliquely, then increasingly direct. Not long after the 1979 Revolution he criticised the new regime at a festival in England. He and my mother stopped over in Amsterdam on the way home and it was there they had to apply for political asylum. My sister Mina was born a few years later, and I followed two years after that, a Dutch-Iranian with full citizenship and an EU passport. In the Netherlands he became a journalist, a trenchant critic and explainer of the regime. He passed away in 2008, never having returned home.
I thought about following in his footsteps but my poetry was doggerel and though we spoke Farsi at home, Dutch was my first language and Dutch is not a friend of verse. Law, he told me, law is the way. Law is the bulwark against tyranny. Through the law I could defend the weak against the mighty. I saw inequality around me and I thought I could fight it.
What is justice? What does it look like? How can it be delivered?
How can the law help the weakest in society stand up to the abuses of the powerful?
That’s what we were doing in Calais, Gil and I. Eva and others. Different groups with different tasks, different specialities. With Aatef’s help we’d learn how to help people like Helen, Payam and Kamal before they ever had to climb into inflatable rafts or refrigerated trucks.
A just world is one where oppression is unimaginable.
Oppression is all too imaginable.
‘Let’s go to the airport,’ I said as we staggered from the casino into the pre-dawn haze. ‘Let’s go to the airport and play the flight game.’ My legs weren’t doing what they were told and something had made the Earth spin faster. I rested a hand each on Aatef and Gil’s shoulders to steady myself. Gil sat heavily on the ground and I went down with him.
‘What’s the flight game?’ said Aatef, lighting a cigarette, looking down at us.
‘You go the airport,’ I said, pointing at the sky, ‘and you get on the first flight leaving. Doesn’t matter where it’s going. You go. In the hands of fate.’
‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ Gil said, shifting onto his knees and then standing like a baby deer.
‘I did it once. With Eva, just after we started going out. It was a disaster.’ I looked at them to check they understood this profundity. ‘Even then it was a disaster. Fate, you see. Fate fucking with us.’
‘What happened?’ Aatef pulled me up and we set off in search of a cab.
‘When we got there the first flight was to Prague. Eva’s Czech. She didn’t think going home was the romantic trip we’d intended. So we picked the next one.’ The sun was starting to rise, the streets filling with a sickly yellow tinge. ‘Ghana. I didn’t have the right immunisations, so they wouldn’t let us go.’
‘Where was the third flight to?’ said Gil, leading us off the street and through a park.
‘I can’t remember. We went to the airport bar and played pool until we were drunk then went home. Fate. Fuck it.’ I patted my jacket pocket, pulled my passport out and waved it at the crab-meat sky. ‘Let’s go. First flight.’
‘Why have you got your passport?’ said Gil.
‘I didn’t want to leave it in my room. No safe’
‘Yeah, but why do you have it anyway? We came here from the Netherlands by train. No passport required.’
‘I thought I might need it,’ I said holding the photo up against my face, giving him the same dour expression I’d given the camera. ‘Didn’t want a cop mistaking me for a refugee. Brown skin is just brown skin to them. So. Airport?’
‘No,’ said Gil. ‘Bed. Anyway, I don’t have my passport. It’s safely lying somewhere under a pile of washing in my room back in Utrecht. Also my credit card is maxed. I couldn’t afford a ticket to Paris right now.’
‘We could take the Eurostar. The first train must be soon, what time is it? Hey,’ I put my passport away, realising I could drop it any time, ‘we could try and sneak on, see how hard it really is. That would be something to put in our paper, eh Gil, actually getting into England with a group of migrants. How many researchers can say that?’
‘It’s too hard,’ said Aatef. ‘And not something to joke about, I think. Gil’s right. Time for bed.’
A taxi came round the corner towards us but we were near enough home that we let it go by. Gulls screeched, and we kept a wary eye out for falling shit. Somewhere out at sea the fishing trawlers were dragging their nets through the Channel. People would be getting up soon for whatever Saturday morning promised them. Eva would be long in bed, on her side, one arm crooked under the pillow, her knees pulled up to her chest. She mumbled sometimes as she slept, nonsensical bursts of syntax. I thought of my own bed, empty and cold. Ahead of us the thunder-rattle of shop shutters as a bakery opened for business, the doughy scent strong in the brittle morning.
‘Breakfast!’ I shouted and started running towards the shop. I was suddenly famished, the alcohol lashing around my stomach raising in billows of nausea needed pummelled into submission by hot, soft baguettes and steaming croissants.
I stopped at the door, my hand tight on the bitter morning metal, the sight of crates of loaves stacked, the taste of fluffy white bread already tingling my palate. Payam would love some pan au chocolat. What was Ahlem contemplating for breakfast? Had Kamal ever had a baguette still steaming from the oven? What did Helen’s unborn baby need? Giving out cigarettes was one thing but this, this was something I could do, something that would make a difference. I could take them breakfast.
‘Aatef, wave down a taxi. Gil, come and help me.’
‘Do what? We’re two minutes from the hotel, man, why do we need a taxi?’
‘We’re not going home. We’re on the breakfast run. We used to do it when I was an undergrad. If the night hasn’t ended when the sun is up you go and buy breakfast for the party. We’re going to fill a taxi with crates of bread and take it to the Jungle.’
‘The people in the Jungle didn’t have a party last night.’
‘All the more reason to bring the party to them.’
‘You’re going to buy enough bread for the whole of the Jungle?’
‘Enough to fill a taxi, then we can divide it up.’
‘Did someone slip something in your drink at the casino? Do you think you’re Jesus feeding the five thousand with loaves and fishes.’
‘I’m not Jesus,’ I said, waving my wallet at him. ‘Jesus never had Mastercard.’
‘Is this your way of getting over Eva? By turning into a drunk cross between Mother Theresa and Marie Antoinette?’
‘Let them eat bread!’
By the time we got to Payam’s shelter my hangover had kicked in. Gil had returned to the hotel freeing up more space in the taxi so Aatef and I handed out the loaves and pastries. The weight of the crates stacked in my arms as we moved around the village, slipping on wet, uneven ground, pricked out a cold sweat. I’d drunk far more than I had in years, aided in no small part by a line of coke in the casino toilets, and the comedown was hitting like an anvil on each shoulder and hot flames in my knees.
What we were doing was patronising and condescending and patriarchal but it still felt good, the warm selfish buzz of a done deed. Kalam’s shelter was empty, Jan, his neighbour said he’d left in the night with a group trying to get to England. I wished him luck. His shelter would be filled by the evening. I left a loaf inside to welcome whoever followed him.
Payam laughed when he saw me, ‘The state you are in!’ he said in Farsi. ‘Come and sit down.’
I was too tired to argue, sinking into the folding chair he offered me.
‘You need tea and sleep, big brother,’ he switched to English, keen to practice. Gil was right, we did look like family. I’d always wanted a brother but there was just me and Mina. ‘You are so different from yesterday. What happened?’
‘Women trouble,’ Aatef said, and they laughed, a hug of a laugh, men who understand men, women trouble.
‘It’s over, Payam. She left me.’
‘People leave, Javad. And new people arrive. This is life. Here.’ He handed me a metal mug of tea, sweet and fragrant.
‘It took me a long time to like tea,’ I said. ‘At home mother always prepared tea like we were still in Iran, but we weren’t.’ I shook my head, trying to stay awake, follow my thoughts. ‘My friends all drank coffee and I wanted to be like them.’
‘We all want to fit. I didn’t fit in Tehran, so I had to leave. I don’t fit here, no one does.’ He gestured at the rows of blue tarpaulin, the white stacked box homes on the far side of the camp, the rising smoke from fires, shouts, laughter and tears. ‘Maybe in London.’
‘I miss my father, Payam. I’d like to see Tehran. I’ve never been. This,’ I pulled out my passport and showed him, ‘this says I’m Dutch, a European citizen, but that’s only part of me. A group left last night for England. ‘You didn’t go?’
‘I’m not so strong,’ he said. ‘Climbing, running, being chased by dogs and men with sticks, guns, it’s not for me. I apply for asylum. My life is in danger if I go back. They must take me eventually.’ He was looking at me intently, I realised, and dug deep to find some energy, pushed myself back up from my slump. ‘Javad, you could help me,’ he said, slipping back into Farsi
Aatef had wandered over and was talking to some men cooking up a soup, the smell renewing my hunger. Payam and I were alone. ‘How?’
‘With that, big brother.’ He nodded at the passport resting on my lap. I couldn’t remember why I’d brought it out of my jacket. ‘I’ll buy it. I have some money.’
‘But it’s my picture. My name. I’m six years older and I look it.’
‘We look like brothers, your friend said so. We can be brothers. I can be you. To these guards we all look the same anyway. I can be Javad until I’m in London.’
‘I don’t know, Payam. If you get caught…’
‘I’ll say I bought it off a Russian gangster. You say it was stolen.’
‘I wait forever and maybe they say no. You are a good man, Javad. The bread. The cigarettes. You are a good man. With this you can be a saint.’
I looked around. Aatef was pointing at the soup and laughing, an argument about spice, herbs. Three women sat with their babies squeezed close. Boys kicked a battered football in a small space between the shelters and the road. The day had started, another day in the Jungle, a day of hope and pain and waiting, waiting, waiting. No one was looking our way.
‘I need to sleep.’ I finished my tea. ‘Thank you for your hospitality, Payam. My father always said hospitality is a great gift. Even the poorest can offer it, and do more frequently than the rich. Hospitality is one of the oldest law codes, did you know that? The rules governing the treatment of a guest are among the first codified in any society.’ I yawned, stood, held out my hand for Payam to shake. ‘Salam, Payam. I wish you the best.’
I joined Aatef, the strong smell of cumin scorching the morning air, and together we walked down the road back to the hotel munching the last two pan au chocolat, gulls circling over returning trawlers.
Iain Maloney is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “The Only Gaijin in the Village” as well as three novels and a collection of poetry. He lives in Japan where he teaches writing and covers Japanese literature for the Japan Times. www.iainmaloney.com @iainmaloney