Joe and Marion call it the love bus. Love. And me with no hijab. ‘Farah from far away,’ they said and laughed and showed me where to hide. My quarters are not comfortable, but I do have facilities so it’s better than the back of a lorry and I don’t have to climb any more mountains.
I watched them across the campsite from my tent to make sure they were alright. The love bus has an awning with yellow and red stripes down it like a fruit-merchant’s, a sliding door at the side and inside a bench and table. They have folding chairs for outside too. There’s a cooker and a sink, blinds over all the windows at night and a radio that plays western music. There’s a TV; I could tell by the blue light that jumped across the trees above their skylight, which is how I knew about the skylight too.
I think it’s a hire-van. When I hurried through it, everything had been put away for the journey home, clean and tidy, not what I’d glimpsed over the few days before. The plastic garlands were gone, the shell ashtrays, the rugs and cushions hidden and everything gleaming. No dirty cups or dishes, no bottles. The rugs and cushions are in the toilet. With me. Can you believe it? A toilet. And not only that, a shower, which surely must be for show? Or at least only for kids. Or maybe only for adults. No, just for show; they’ve hung the flowers from it. And who cares anyway? I’ve got a toilet and blankets and cushions, albeit in a small space. There’s another skylight in here too. I want one of these vans. I could live in something like this no problem. I bet it locks from the inside too. But how silly! All vehicles lock from the inside. Must be the nerves. Need to ‘go’ already. That must be the nerves too. I’ll wait. I’ll have to. I don’t know where we are. I don’t know whether I can do it without making noise. We’ve been stationary for a while now. Not sure how long. Too long.
There’s a squeak and a crunch; the whole van rocks when they open the driver’s door, worse when they shut it. I’m holding the shower rail, my breath, my stomach. Their voices are muffled. The van rocks again and there’s a click and the side door rolls open. I have to breathe, so I let the air ooze out and in, moving my lips like a fish so there’s no sound. The van sways and settles. Their voices are loud now.
‘What a pain!’ he says. ‘You want tea? Make us some tea, will you? I’ll go and see how long it’s going to be.’
‘Doesn’t really matter, does it?’
‘Well …’ A pause. If I can hear this, so could anyone. I’m trying to see it too, in my mind’s eye. Is he nodding in my direction? Mouthing ‘What about her?’? Holding a finger to his lips? My legs are already crossed; I cross my fingers too, pull in my lips.
She’s making tea now. ‘You want tea?’ she whispers at the door. I squeeze my eyes in frustration. Don’t speak. I’m not here. I told you ... I don’t say this, I will it through the door and into her head which is down at the door handle. ‘Sorry,’ she whispers then, a foot higher. The van shivers as she moves away, rinses out cups, makes tea. I tweak the blanket across my head, fix it with the lid of the toilet.
‘You’ve got the right idea there!’ says a voice I don’t know.
‘What?’ Marion says, still busy. ‘Oh, yes.’
‘Great size. How many does it sleep?’
‘Four, at a pinch.’
Four? Did I miss something? Someone? Does that include stowaways?
‘Do you mind my asking how much you paid for this?’
The pause tells me she does. I don’t catch the figure.
‘It’s a strike, you know. We could be here for days. Happened to us a few years ago. The frogs are always at it, lazy bastards! We were here for days sitting in this yard. You can’t go back out because of security and you can’t board until departure time. Fucking crisps, filthy toilets and no information for two whole days. And a carload of Jack Russells behind us.’
‘Really?’ she says. She sounds worried but not as worried as me.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘And not a hint of an apology.’
‘Oh, dear. Maybe they had a good reason to strike. Maybe …’
‘There’s no reason good enough to keep innocent travellers cooped up on a dockside in the rain. It was raining the whole time.’
‘Well, at least it’s sunny today,’ she says.
Yeah, and I’m roasting already. Cooking. What if I cook? What if the skylight is sealed and the heat swells the door and I suffocate or roast? I’m trussed up like a chicken as it is, trying to keep breathing. I’ve wedged my bag against the door and stuffed cushions round myself so nothing can move if I fall asleep or get thrown. Only my arms and head are free. There’s a blanket over the top of me.
He’s still moaning but he’s not official. That’s good. She should make him go away.
‘It’s broken,’ she says. Something slides across outside the door.
‘Come on, darling,’ he says. ‘Save an old man a walk.’
‘No, honestly, the toilet’s broken.’
‘I see.’ The van shakes as if in a wind. ‘I could fix it.’
‘No. Thank you. It really doesn’t matter. It’s full anyway.’
My mouth is dry. I need water. I should have kept the bottle out when we were driving. It’s in my bag on the other side in a pocket. So near so far. And I’m sweating. Wrapped in cushions and scared. Terrified. Fearing for my life, by which I mean the pumping of my heart, but also my proximity to freedom. This is the final stage of a long journey.
A month ago I was dumped at a roadside. They didn’t even stop. A month before that, or maybe longer, I was with twenty other kids in a disused mansion full of rats and dogs. I know why they let me go. Because I wouldn’t hold a gun and because there was no-one to pay ransom. I know why that is too. They killed my parents, probably, but you never know. Maybe they escaped. We have a rendezvous point for just in case. They’ll be amazed when I get there. And I will get there.
Most people think I’m a tourist, a backpacker in walking boots. The truth is it’s someone else’s pack. She looked like me, same size, same age, eighteen, same short dark hair like a man, same room in the hostel. We laughed about that and she said the only thing I didn’t have was a pack. She drank alcohol that night and fell asleep so I took it. I feel bad about that. She let me try her alcohol (It was horrible!) and I stole her pack, tent and all. But she has a home to go to and I don’t, she chose her short hair, mine was camouflage as a man, so it didn’t seem so very unfair. I left her diary and her credit cards. There was no passport.
It’s gone very quiet here. I wonder where they are. Perhaps they’ve gone to report me. They should wait until the other side, after I’ve given them the money. I’m buying a service here. Half up front, half on arrival.
The van’s shaking so they’re here but hiding, whispering, plotting to shop me. How stupid of me to get smart and risk strangers! Everyone else was part of the chain.
Bang! What a fright! Only a door but so loud! And gasping is dangerous!
‘Thank God for that!’ Marion says. ‘Two days indeed! What an arse! Give me your cup and let’s go!’
‘Where’s the key?’ says Joe.
Go, go, go! is what I’m thinking. GO!
The whole thing rocks as they shut cupboards again, put things away. The engine shakes into life. We’re off! We’re off! But we’re not moving. We’re idling. I feel sick with fright. Let’s go! I wonder where the exhaust is and whether it’s safe here. I’ve heard stories. Is that poison-fume sickness or just fear? There’s a knock, hollow, like on glass. There’s someone outside. I can’t hear what’s being said. This is it; this is when they confess I’m in here. Now is when it happens. I’m squeezing my eyes tight again. Ok, I’m not eighteen, I’m fifteen, but I look like that girl with the pack and she was nineteen. I feel like my wee sister, Sanaa, but I can’t think about her. I won’t allow it. I’m doing my fish breathing again. That seems to work, that and irregular verbs: Begin began begun. Choose chose chosen. Swim swam swum.
‘Thank you!’ says Marion. The door slams.
We’re on the move, I can feel it. I lean forward on the pack and breathe. We rock and twist and rumble onto the ship. The doors bang, clang and whump, like others further away. Invisible shoulders rub close to mine on the van-metal, voices echo from unnameable distances then, after a millions years, a noise shakes me like tanks running too close. This is the time to move. I release myself from the cushions, tear my clothes undone and sit on the toilet. Circumstances allow no dignity. This is the safest I can be. I’m glugging back the water too. Outside a low rattle sets in. I stand and stretch and turn my neck. I do this slowly so the van doesn’t move. You never know when someone’s watching silently from a distance or close by, tiptoeing up to you ready to grab you and end it.
I’m doing my clothes up, folding myself back into the cushions, holding my nose against the smell of my own pee, closing my eyes against it, draping the blanket across my head. Waiting.
The rattle is more of a hum now. We’re rocking sideways, slow and slower, so I put my head back again, a pillow on the toilet, and try to sleep.
Sanaa comes to me.
I chase her away.
But she sneaks into my crowded dreams, hiding amongst the rubble of the old mansion’s wash-house. She has a gun. She’s practicing on the rats. I told her not to take the gun but she took it anyway. She cries and points the thing at me. They gave her food if she learnt to shoot, better food, and it stopped her crying of hunger, she said. She was eleven, too young to know strength. But the day she grew up and gave the gun back was the same day we fell from the car. Sanaa first, suddenly. Then me. Her neck broke. I took the biggest rock I could lift, raised it high and while she lay sideways, trembling, twitching, feet jumping, blood oozing through her clothes, I dropped it on her head. She’s dead now; I saved her.
But in my dream she rose and hid in my coat and I carried her across the desert, took the clothes from some dead warriors, cut our hair with their knives and sang songs with her through the mountains. I heard her whispering: We’re not here, as we crossed another border, sighing on the other side. In my dream I can’t find her and though I search everywhere, she’s lost.
I’m cold, now that I’m awake, and dizzy and I start to pull the straps of my bag and hunt around inside. ‘Sanaa!’ I whisper. But all I find is water, someone else’s clothes, makeup and towel and these things fill the little cubicle.
The ship’s engines are growling again. Voices are swimming around me, shivering through the walls of the van, muffled and indistinguishable. We’ve arrived. I pull the money bag from my pocket and count what I owe. The scrape of door tells me they’ve come. I crouch, cover my head. The door thuds shut and we rock again.
I’m not breathing, I’m foetal, tight; eyes, bum, fists, stomach.
There’s a click, plastic rustling. Something’s fallen. The pressure outside has eased, noises are different.
‘Shit,’ says Marion. ‘The door won’t shut.’ I told her not to open it. I told her I wasn’t there. She smiles uncertainly at me. ‘You’re ok. Thank God. I brought you some food.’
‘Thank you!’ I mouth. ‘I’m not here,’ I whisper. Her eyes go to little circles and she stuffs everything back in, door bumping, her feet shaking the van and she’s gone. I can’t hear what they’re saying. Perhaps they’re not saying anything.
We drive. Clank, clank, up a steep hill, then the hum of the engine, the music of its gearshifts and we drive and drive and I sleep again and Sanaa tells me she’s free and she’ll meet me at Buckingham Palace like we agreed, but when I wake again we’ve stopped and there’s no sound at all.
Except a bird singing on the skylight.