by Jane Dotchin
When he reached the fence at the end of his shift, he was a man again and wanted to go home. Every night he stopped and had a cigarette, looking over the camp. From here, with its dotted lights it almost looked like a music festival but the twists of smoke with the horrible smell of the scattered fires of plastic and rubbish, were like thin spectres scudding above the tents and the shacks, not the stuff of merry festivities. Each morning though, he was there again for the 9am briefing – because he could help. Machine like – mechanical, methodical, mindless – he could assist, just a little. And they needed his van.
He stooped and rubbed at his knee. Because he’d not been able to bend it today – arthritis and the building of the path from wooden pallets yesterday – he’d been working in the warehouse sorting donations of clothes into types. A satin wedding dress shrouded in gauze and a train with pink flowers came out of one of the bags and was pinned to a board to ridicule. Arnold noticed the dreamy almost-smile of one of the sorters, a refugee herself, always silent, listening, as apparently she understood English, but not speaking. Earlier he’d caught her eye, a familiar stirring for demure beauty and she’d looked away. She’d likely seen that before, and worse, from his type. He went back to throwing the stiletto shoes into a pile ready for the clothes mountain of clear plastic bags. It was heavy work, you had to be fast. As soon as it came in, it was sorted and went out. Today his van had gone back to London, someone else driving because of his knee, to sell the vintage stuff, the nice but not suitable, the bikinis, the ballet pumps, the boob tubes, the glittery hand bags and the outsize clothes – there were few fat people here – and few women.
Two figures, one taller, both slender, were approaching, close to the fence and must have been unaware of him until he turned and they saw the glow of his cigarette butt. They stopped as if startled. He could not see their faces, just their silhouettes before the strings of lights and the fires from the camp below.
Arnold called softly, ‘Hello there. All well?’
The tall one was rummaging in his coat and Arnold came nearer so that he might see them clearly.
‘Boys, what are you doing by here? Go back.’
The short one broke into a smile and Arnold recognized him. Sanjay. The youngest kid, only ten years old, been here for five months, longer than Arnold, talky, already speaking pretty good English and sometimes acting as interpreter, charming. He’d broken most of the volunteers’ hearts. The older one, maybe fourteen or fifteen, his scarf high up over his face, only his eyes showing, was another one of them who didn’t speak.
‘Good evening, Sanjay,’ and Sanjay in his muddiness bowed.
‘Oh sir. We walking. It cold yes? So, we have fire here and we smoke cigarette with you.’
Arnold chuckled. ‘You’re too young, son.’
Sanjay pulled a face, a handsome boy with his front teeth missing. He was tugging at a bundle of plastic sheeting that had blown and pressed against the fence. He freed it and stretched it on the muddy ground at Arnold’s feet and then gestured for him to sit, with quaint ceremony, like bidding someone to lie on an elaborate rug in his drawing room. The tall boy watched Arnold who struggled to squat on his haunches, then also sat. Arnold nodded at him but he looked away. Sanjay was making a little scrappy pile for a fire, taking things from his pockets, a chocolate wrapper, a piece of string, a bit of polystyrene, a plastic bag, what looked like torn pages from a book. He returned the string to his pocket.
‘What’s your friend’s name?’
‘Khalil. He my brother. My brother Khalil. I make him brother on boat.’
‘You made him your brother?’
‘Yes, sir. We stay live if brother. Alone boys into water, into sea. A family stay in boat.’
Khalil was unfolding a pen-knife and Arnold wondered if this was what he was reaching for just moments ago. He was coating the blade with mud and then smearing lines onto the plastic sheet.
‘Did you go to any of the lessons today, Sanjay?’
‘Why not? I think you’d enjoy them. You can call me Arnold.’
‘Well Sir… Arnold, I very tired for lesson. I sleeping. I very busy at night.’
‘What do you do at night?’
‘I catch the lorries. Very tired. But tonight, lucky night. We drink this …’ He pulled out a bottle of Red Bull from inside his coat and held it up to show Arnold. ‘… tonight we not get teargas.’
He held the can aloft and it glimmered.
‘Have you been?’ Tear gassed?’
‘Yes Sir Arnold. Us … u…ally. Usually.’
He said this with satisfaction like it was a new word. He went back to making his fire and gestured for the lighter. Arnold passed it.
‘Many, many times. They pull us off lorries and say ‘Go jungle!’ and usually I get teargas.’
He frowned and blew at the fire, it glowed. He prodded it with the plastic Tesco bag he’d rolled up into a poker and it melted and curled and emitted a foul stench. Sanjay looked up at Arnold, ‘but tonight, I have Red Bull. Me and Khalil going to London!’
He sat back on the sheeting and pulled up one trouser leg and rubbed his ankle. It was swollen. Sockless, both boys were wearing too big shoes with the backs folded down like slippers. They were caked in mud and enormous. They were donated men’s shoes, the kind that Arnold wore, for outdoor types, those who go hiking and camping, or to the supermarket or to a café for a latte. The shoes made Arnold sad – sadder – Sanjay’s leg above the ankle was slender and smooth like a plant shoot, youth and health still there, just, beneath the bruise from being dragged off last night’s lorry.
Khalil was painting what looked like the shape of a boat on a rough sea on the plastic sheeting, dabbing and smearing the mud with the knife.
‘You know there’s some art stuff … lessons … going on. Perhaps Khalil would like that.’
‘Yes yes, Sir Arnold, I seen there. Very good. Next to …’ he frowned, ‘… dis … dis … dis… in… fect …ant…?’ he put his head on one side questioningly and Arnold nodded, ‘… disinfectant centre.’ He shrugged. ‘We sleep in day.’
Arnold nodded and took out another cigarette. Sanjay passed him the lighter and gestured as if to take one and Arnold flicked the packet away and into his pocket. Sanjay lifted his shoulders and dropped them.
‘Khalil be artist in London.’
‘I work in bank. Or doctor. I be very good doctor. In UK want doctors, yes?’
Arnold tried to smile and dragged on the cigarette.
‘What your job Sir Arnold?’
‘I’m a builder. Retired.’
‘Maybe …I’m a builder. In UK want builder, yes?’
Arnold made a gesture to Kahlil to let him look at the image he was painting. Khalil leaned back and Arnold peered closer. Beside the boat, little specks twisted in the sea.
Sanjay spoke to Khalil quickly. Khalil shook his head.
‘I tell him take away scarf. Sir Arnold not journalist. Sir Arnold builder. Maybe I builder also.’
They sat in silence, Sanjay on his haunches, his head back, face to the sky, Arnold rubbing at his knee, first looking at the boy looking at the stars and then at the boy looking at the ground, moving, busy, using his fingers to add to his painting, on his knees, carefully smoothing the plastic as he worked and stretching as the picture got bigger. The moment was calm almost peaceful and Arnold felt a tenderness as strong as tree roots, stretching from him towards the boys and holding them to him, firm, fierce.
And then there was some kind of signal for suddenly both boys were up. Sanjay grasped the Red Bull, plucked the pull and took a swig and then passed it to Khalil who lowered his scarf and gulped from it too. He looked down at Arnold still on the ground and then bent and took his arm and helped him to his feet. Arnold winced and held on to the boy. There were little dark specks in the brown of his eyes. He nodded and blinked. Arnold blinked back and then they released each other’s arm.
Sanjay gulped the rest of the Red Bull and then tossed the can on the fire.
‘Sir Arnold. We go.’
They were running off into the dark.
Arnold looked after the blackness and then down at the camp. He placed his foot on Sanjay’s fire and began to tamp it out but then stopped to peer at Khalil’s mud painting. The weak fire threw weird shadows across it. The image stretched from the crude boat and the sea and the little specks to land and trees and buildings and birds. A childish sun beamed down in crazy zig zags.