In the second chapter from the novel "When we get to the island", Hani recalls fleeing from the bombed-out ruins in Syria and the fatal crossing to what he hoped would be the safety of Europe. "And when they got to Europe? No one was waiting for them there. No one wanted them."
Hani gazed out of the hangar at the morning light as it began to steam on the distant fields. A sudden pain assaulted him, like a bee sting. He should have been concentrating. The sharpened blade had sliced the flesh of his right hand.
Blood spurted and to his shame he began to feel faint. Reena leapt to help him, but even as he fought the dizziness his legs collapsed from under him, and all he could see was a mountain of carrots growing ever taller and higher.
They made him sit in a corner on the concrete floor and the gang-master stepped towards them.
“You!” Yusuf said, looking at Reena. “Back to work.”
Then Yusuf bent down and inspected twelve-year-old Hani. He seemed to speak gently when he said “What will I do with you?” and for a hopeful moment Hani thought he had detected a touch of compassion in the man.
“If you cannot work?”
Yusuf lifted one long finger to his own temple and gestured, as if holding a pistol there. He fired the imaginary pistol then shrugged and laughed.
Hani was terrified.
“Hani in Arabic means ‘happy, joyful, delighted,’” Reena had told her little brother, on their journey over here. Hani did not feel like that right now. It was a long time since life had lived up to the expectations of his name.
He had memories of fleeing the bombed-out ruins in Syria, of war-torn streets reduced to rubble, the crump of bombs and missiles, the terrifying balls of red flame, the laser-show of military might sweeping across the city skyline with deadly precision while they sheltered and hid in the ruins like rats, with no electricity or running water. He also had memories of a time before, when they had lived in a beautiful apartment, when he had friends and schoolbooks, and a leafy rooftop garden, when fountains would trickle against ornamental tiles and catch the sunlight, but these memories were becoming harder and harder to retrieve.
Instead, what replaced them were nightmarish visions of crossing the water, the terror of that crossing, seeing others drown. Then arriving in Calais and waiting in interminable queues behind wire, living in mud in the tent city, the Calais jungle, without parents to protect them.
And then Uncle Giorgio, with his smile.
And now this…
Reena and Hani’s parents had stayed behind in war-torn Syria. It was hard to imagine they might still be alive. They had paid a great deal of money, all their life’s savings, in order to pay a trafficker to take their children across Europe to safety.
They could only afford to pay for Reena and Hani – not for themselves. It was a sad parting and the children tried not to think of it. If their parents had known, would they have parted with their money and their children so readily? They had had no choice.
Once they were loaded onto the inflatable raft which was to transport them through high seas, squashed in with a hundred other people, they never saw the trafficker or their passports again.
Hani closed his eyes. He had a terror of the sea. He could still hear the persistent wailing of a small child, young men clutching the side of the raft, the terror in their eyes as the waves rose and splashed their faces. Grey waves bearing down on them and no land in sight. No food or water and no hope. Reena had clung to him, holding him close. If we drown, we drown together…
The terror of that crossing is something that will never leave him; it will never fade, and he will never forget it until his dying day.
When one child fell in the sea, no one could save him – not even his mother’s desperate screams. He was left to drown.
They saw another craft, several hundred yards away take on board water, flip and sink. Everyone on board sank and drowned. Hani turned his head and watched the small coloured specks on the surface of the sea that were people, crying, waving their arms. Who could save them? They were quickly swallowed by the height of the waves.
Hani and Reena still do not know how they survived that journey.
And when they got to Europe?
No one was waiting for them there. No one wanted them.
Except Uncle Giorgio.
They were a plague on the face of the planet.
“One day we will write to Mama and Baba,” Reena whispered at night, when they lay on their dirty mattress. “We will tell them we are safe. Ask them to join us.”
“I’d rather go back to Syria,” Hani said, thinking of home.
But when he thought of home he thought of a place that no longer existed, that had been bombed out of existence, flattened, scoured, reduced to rubble. They did not really believe their parents had survived in all of that.
Their mother had been an English teacher in Aleppo, their father a doctor who cared for people, worked to heal the sick. The hospital he worked in and the school building their mother taught in had both been destroyed in the fighting. Children wanting to learn, and sick patients unable to move, were seen as easy prey and were deliberately targeted. They had moved from their modern apartment with its beautiful views and balconies to a derelict room in a ruin with no electricity and no running water other than that which ran down the inside of the walls when it rained. They had once led lives like the people in Europe, with modern conveniences and luxuries, surrounded by the chattering of TVs and radios, laptops, the internet, washing machines… but once the war happened they lived in darkness, sitting in the circle of one candle, which hid the filthy broken walls from view.
Hani’s mother had cried a lot. He remembered that… but he did not want to think of it because she had always been so strong before the war.
Reena suddenly appeared next to him in the shadows, smiling, and handed him something.
A chocolate biscuit in a gleaming silver wrapper. A bright treasure.
“Where did you get it?” he gasped.
She winked and nudged him. “Come on, stand next to me and work. We don’t want the ogre noticing us, or he’ll think you’re lazy.”
“I’m not lazy,” Hani said immediately.
“I know you’re not,” she smiled.
How did Reena always manage to have the most reassuring smile, even in the blackest of times? She would be a teacher one day, like their mother. She could tell stories, and loved reading books.
There were no books here, though.
Reena had thought about teaching the other children, setting up her own school here – wherever ‘here’ was – but there were not enough hours in the day. They were worked from dawn till darkness fell, and by the end of their shift they were too exhausted to do anything other than collapse on their mattresses.
“Eat it,” Reena said, “it will make you feel better. Keep up your blood sugar.”
Hani shook his head.
“Share it with me!” But she refused.
“It is for you. I had one earlier,” she lied.
He couldn’t bear to eat it in front of his sister. “I’ll save it for later,” he said, slipping the silver-wrapped biscuit in his pocket. “We’ll share it then.”
Reena held out her hand and pulled him upwards.
Yusuf was watching them from a few yards away, even though he was pretending not to. Reena could feel his eyes on them, so she kept her head down and told Hani to do the same.
They stood at their work-bench, the only place they now knew, and dragged the frozen carrots across the blade, for hour after tedious hour.
Carrot-topping was not the only labour they were given. It changed with the seasons. In summer, they would pick berries and leeks in vast polytunnels.
But for now it was carrot-topping, mountains and mountains of frozen carrots, still rock-hard from last night’s frost.
BLOOD © Alex Nye 2020