Laden with human cargo, container M-61/t sat neatly stacked in a row of other containers. Seagulls floated noisily in the moist early evening air. Soon, very soon, these containers would be on their way from France, across the English Channel. Only then would this leg of the journey end for Javed Qureshi and the dozen other men, all strangers to each other, who had sat silently huddled together, in total darkness, in one corner of one of these boxes, vainly trying to keep warm. Almost eighteen months to the day when he had left England, Javed Quershi was on his way back again.
Three loud bangs against the outside of M-61/t signalled the start of the last leg of the journey. The darkness stiffened apprehensively as hands grabbed hands and backs pressed against cold metal walls, and the cold damp air, already pregnant with fearful sweat, became heavier to breathe.
Though his eyes were wide open, all Javed Qureshi could see were misshapen ghostly outlines of human figures of the men he had entered into the container with. Grainy darkness, bound together into a featureless form by an outline of reddish yellow light, slid effortlessly into a deeper darkness, a formless blackness, imprisoned by a chain of light that was shadowed by darkness. All floating aimlessly around in the darkness, bumping into each other, merging into each other only to slither out again. Somewhere, in the midst of the sound of heavy breathing, and occasional coughing of the men inside the container, were distant thoughts racing around trying to escape Javed Qureshi’s mind and flash out in this darkness.
–The village drowning under a halo of mist.
–The lifeless black kicker tree.
–Strange smiles of his friends.
–The wedding. And the shame.
–Mocking eyes that followed him everywhere
–Javed’s mother all flushed with happiness to have her son back in her arms.
–His sweet little sister, whose voice he used to long to hear. Too shamed to face the world.
–The rope still dangling off the branch and his sister’s body turning round and round and round and round. Only moments earlier she had said to him, ‘Elder brother, you should have spoken when they gave my hand to him. He was only interested in abroadi money and now I am done.’ He had heard her words but had not listened to her. He had been buried under his own shame.
He had only left the house to bury his sister and then when he had come back home he had said to his mother, ‘I have to go back to England.’
‘This is not that son who I sent to England,’ she had replied. Raising her hand she had asked of the Almighty, ‘and what have you done with my son who I raised and whom I toiled to educate?’ Turning to her son she had said, ‘And you my son, unlike me are MA pass and you are all I have left now. God willing you will get a job, soon. We will not starve. And I have two other daughters and I will not let them die also. And you my son are all I have.’
‘Give me your jewellery mother,’ he had said, ‘I have to go back to England.’
Something heavy crashed against the outside of container M61/t forcing it to shake violently. A deafening noised reverberated around the inside. This was not quite the sound Javed had been expecting from a forklift truck, which he had anticipated was going to move the container along. He had imagined the teeth of the forklift screeching down into the sides of the box, but this had been more like something had knocked against it. After a few moments of trying to visualise what going on, Javed concluded that it must be the crane putting its chain around the container. The container jerked violently before swinging from side to side. Some of the men’s grips loosed as they flew across the arms and legs of other men. A box fell somewhere in the darkness and someone screamed for his mother in a language that Javed did not understand.
‘Ssst now my friend,’ a heavy African voice whispered. ‘You are going to get us all caught.’
The man who had screamed cried out again. His voice was drowned out by sound of an engine roaring somewhere in the distance and the clanging and creaking of metal rubbing against metal as the container was lifted through the air towards the innards of the ship.
After a few moments the container settled down with a loud bang that ricocheted around the walls in the blackness. A metal chain was unhooked from the top.
‘When I get to England, I am going straight to a mosque and praying,’ a crisp youthful voice shouted out from somewhere in the lightless room.
‘Be quiet now, son,’ an elderly voice interrupted, ‘we are to no talking. Yes!’
‘Even God can’t hear us from this hell,’ the youthful voice laughed. ‘And I have done that since I was a kid.’
‘All money I have, I have paid for getting to England. Now please you keep quiet,’ the elderly voice said.
‘You can talk as much as you like now friend,’ Javed said, brushing something wet and warm from his forehead. A sharp throbbing pain began to rip through his head. Javed tasted the wet substance. It was blood. Pressing onto where he thought the cut was, Javed said, ‘You can talk or you can shout. There is no one to hear you now.’
‘Help me, Jaanilaal, help me,’ the man who had earlier screamed shouted meekly.
‘Just hold on, elder brother,’ Jaanilaal replied, ‘I coming to you.’
‘How long before we get to England?’ Yousaf asked over the groans of the injured man. ‘Does anyone know?’
‘Not long and too long.’
‘Who said that?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘In God’s name, Jaanilaal, where are you?’
‘Here, here elder brother,’ Jaanilaal said, ‘I’m here. Here, drink some water.’ Then Jaanilaal shouted loudly into the darkness, ‘My brother needs some help. He has damaged his leg.’
‘There is no help for him here, my friend,’ said Javed.
‘He is bleeding very badly.’
No one replied.
‘I am not going to let my brother die.’
‘It is so cold in here we are all going to die,’ someone said.
After a brief pause Jaanilaal starting bashing his hands against the sides of the container, shouting ‘Help’ all the time.
‘Can someone give me something to knock against the wall?’
No one replied.
‘This will do,’ Jaanilaal said to himself as he began to bang some metallic object against the sides of the container.
‘For God’s sake, stop it now,’ someone shouted angrily above Jaanilaal’s knocking.
‘You don’t want this container’s door opened till we have crossed Dover,’ Javed warned.
Jaanilaal continued on with the banging and shouting for help. An eternity seamed to pass when Javed heard a different sound bouncing off the walls of the darkness. Someone was knocking from the outside.
‘God help us now,’ Javed said.
The door of the container suddenly swung open. The men inside turned their heads quickly away from the blinding light, which suddenly exploded into the darkness. Droplets of rain rushed in on gusts of sea air.
Javed Qureshi’s body stiffened in terror as he tried to focus his eyes on the figures silhouetted in the entrance. A small round man was standing in between two much taller ones. The small man moved forward a little, inhaled on a thick cigar and held the smoke inside before breathing out again. The smoke spiralled upwards in the shaft of light that was tearing into the container. The small man cleared his throat and said, ‘I am captain. We tell you no noise.’
‘I am hurt very badly sir,’ the injured man said whilst squinting his thick brown eyes.
The captain stepped inside the container, looked across at the injured man, shouted something across towards the ship-hands standing at the entrance, smoked on his cigar and calmly walked out of the container. The ship-hands quickly moved into the container, grabbed hold of the injured man and dragged him outside. Jaanilaal was about to stand up when Javed pressed tightly onto his hand and stopped him.
The captain stopped by the entrance, turned around and ordered, ‘no more noise.’
As soon as the captain was out of the container, the doors were slammed shut again, imprisoning the men into darkness once again, but this time, it was resounding with fear.
‘Were these English men?’ the youthful voice asked.
‘They were Eastern European,’ Javed replied.
‘Which country?’ the youth asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘They were Ukrainian,’ the African voice said.
‘How do you know that, brother?’ someone asked.
‘I have worked there.’
‘Well, at least they will sort my brother out.’
‘ ‘That is not what they said.’
‘What did they say?’ Jaanilaal asked fearfully.
There was no reply.
Perhaps it was the motion of the ship labouring over a rough sea that had rocked Javed into a kind sleep. Or maybe it was the dance of the macabre shapes floating in the darkness, just above where Jaanilaal’s brother had lain groaning that had taken him out of this darkened consciousness. He was in a world that seemed like a dream. A world in which he felt conscious of his own being. He was looking at himself, staring over his own shoulder, at his mother, whose distraught face gleamed silently on, gazing at him, through him, past the taxi which had come to collect him, and dissolved deep into the dark brown rugged hills in the distance. She had just said,
–You don’t have to go, son. God will provide for us.
The hills echoed back, –God will provide for us.
Parrots from the ancient peepal tree, which had shaded his childhood went eerily silent.
The door of the taxi swung open.
Javed’s mother’s tears fell loudly to the ground.
Startled parrots flew noisily out of the tree and hovered over Javed’s head. The sky rained heat.
–At least tell me why you must go back to the white man’s cursed land.
The hills hissed back, –That cursed land.
–I have to regain something, Mother. Something I have lost.
–There is nothing that we need which we cannot buy here.
–It is not something that can be bought.
–I need nothing but you.
–I am now nothing without it.
–What is that which my son seeks so much that he can leave a grieving mother?
He lowered his eyes in shame.
–Lift up your head, my son.
Javed’s mother was hugging him. He smelt her strong sweat and remembered the days when she used to take him into the fields where she had cut grass for the animals.
Javed snatched himself free off his mother’s embrace and got into the taxi. His mother slapped the hot roof of the car with her open palms.
The hills echoed the cries of the mother’s slapping. The banging got louder and louder as the car pulled away from under the shade of the peepal tree and raced towards a long dark tunnel. It was cold inside the tunnel. He tried to block the sound of the noise with his hands. The pain became unbearable and he screamed.
‘Who was that?’ a couple of voices asked in unison.
Javed Qureshi opened his eyes. There was a pungent smell of urine mixed with the heavy musky smell of the imprisoned stale air. A bitter chill gnawed into his bones. For a moment he half expected to see himself coming out of the tunnel, but then the monotonous roaring darkness brought him back full to consciousness.
Javed Qureshi smiled to himself as realised that he had been dreaming about the noise, but something was knocking against the outside of the container. It was as though someone was dragging a metal bar along side of the container. The rattling noise started at one end of the container and slowly passed over Javed’s head and continued on towards the door where it stopped.
‘Are we in England,’ someone asked excitedly.
‘We are still at sea.’
‘I think we have stopped.’
‘This ship is still moving …’
The doors of the container suddenly crashed open. The beam of a powerful searchlight captured the men in its merciless glow. Javed Qureshi turned his head away from the light but it bounced off the back wall, cut through his hand with which he was trying to protect his eyes and burnt itself into his mind. A ripping pain rushed through his already aching head. Javed slowly turned his head towards the light. All the men were huddled together. An engine of some sort roared close to the source of the light.
‘Get up and get ready,’ the captain ordered as he stepped into the light. His shadow stretched across the container and covered all the men.
Looking out of container, Javed realised that it was still dark.
‘Get up and get ready,’ The captain repeated himself coldly.
The men stood up and moved into the shade of the captain’s shadow.
The tall strongly built dark-skinned Jaanilaal walked nervously towards the captain and asked, ‘How is my brother, sir?’
The captain stepped out of the light and walked out of the container. Jaanilaal turned his head away from the light.
‘Pick up all of your things,’ the captain said firmly from the shadows.
‘Where is my brother?’ Jaanilaal asked softly, rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
Four tall uniformed men, carrying long metal bars, stepped out of the shadows and walked into the container. Two more uniformed men, carrying automatic weapons, stepped in after them.
. ‘I just want to know about my brother,’ Jaanilaal said apologetically stepping backwards.
One of the uniformed men took a few quick steps towards Jaanilaal and struck him violently across the head. Jaanilaal screamed and then dropped to the ground. Two of the uniformed men grabbed Jaanilaal by the legs and dragged him out of the container. One of the doors was now slammed shut but the other was left slightly ajar, that filled the interior with a soft grainy light that bounced off the walls.
Before Javed and the other men had had the time to come to terms with what had just happened more uniformed men came entered the container. Javed felt a large rough hand tightening its grip around his arm. He felt a jerk and then found himself being pushed into a line of men that stretched towards the entrance of the container.
‘What is going on, mate?’ Javed asked the man who had just pushed him into the line.
The man looked ahead and pretended not to hear. His long thick reddish- brown moustache twitched nervously.
‘At least tell us what is happening, mate,’ Javed asked again.
The man brushed his moustache, waited for a few moments and then quickly whispered to Javed, ‘The English coastguard may be boarding this ship.’
The door of the container opened fully a moment later and Javed saw Younas being frog-marched out.
‘Are we going back to France?’ Javed asked as the door was brought back to its earlier position. The guard looked stiffly forward.
The door opened again and another man was marched out. There was a long pause before the door opened again. The ship-hand guarding Javed moved closer to Javed who noticed he was struggling to hold back tears.
‘I am so sorry,’ the ship-hand said with a quivering lip.
My new novel is out:
In a town seething with Islamophobia…