Fiction: For the Greater Good
David Thorpe | 9 January 2018
Carolita was hurrying down the path to her apartment when she was intercepted by her neighbour.
“Oh! They’ve cut me off for the rest of the month! I went O-D on my water account. I must have left a tap running. What shall I do?”
Despite her need to make her appointment Carolita stopped. “Poor you. Do you have enough to last?”
The elderly woman waved at her rainwater butts. “Just, if I’m careful. I know there has to be enough for everyone but…”
“That’s why they measure everything. You’ll be alright.” She obviously wanted some kind of absolution. Carolita felt her shame. Carolita had never run out. She began edging away. “Don’t forget – it’s for the greater good.”
She ran inside to be there for her call. Sensing her presence, her home immediately informed her that the call was waiting. She breathed a sigh of relief. The serious but concerned face of an anodyne young woman formed in the centre of the room where it hovered.
“Hello Carolita. How are you today?” came out of the corner speakers.
“As well as can be expected.”
“I’m Beryl. From the Department of Resource and Population Control Appeals. I’m very sorry to inform you that your appeal has not been successful. We have looked at it in the light of the new regulations and found that you have presented no new evidence to persuade us to change our judgement. If you wish to provide any further evidence we will be happy to look at it again. Remember, although to you the decision is not satisfactory, it is taken for the greater good.”
The face vaporised. It had never belonged to anyone. Carolita was well aware that Beryl was a consensus fiction.
Carolita sank to the floor.
After a while she realised she was staring at the chair because it was where Amas used to sit.
Later she found herself stuck on the path from Leafy Towers because on the grass just there was where Amas had once sat playing with his Suki doll.
In the work canteen a single tear dripped into the creamy whirl atop her morning latte.
It struck her that the future would always be like this unless she did something. She called her mother. She was in the middle of jam making. “The law is the law. Really Carolita. You don’t think a person examined your appeal do you? It’s all done by algorithms. Like everything else these days.”
“I can appeal again,” Carolita said.
Her mother’s pencil-tight lips spoke to her in a way words could not.
“They shouldn’t be able to take my son away like this.”
The pitying look continued. Carolita knew this was her mother’s way of saying move on.
“But where should I move on to?” she thought.
The answer was all too clear. She let her mother get back to sterilising jars. She tried to stand but fell against the edge of the canteen table. A colleague rushed to steady her.
She scuttered out, heading towards her boss’ office. To reach it she had to cross the atrium, passing by the aeroglass wall that formed one side.
The hairs on the back of her head prickled as she became hyper-aware of the restless pressure of the forest garden pushing against the glass from the other side. It crackled with life energy, thrusting from the moist soil and sprouting into fruit and leaves, pressing at the outside world as if earnest to escape. Chilli peppers, beans and cassava were overhung by bananas, vines and lemon trees in a fug of warm, steamy air.
She spotted one of the Bionauts in her blue overalls, toiling away. She envied her, recalling how once she had wished to be one of them, living inside that cloistered world, her worthy perspiration thoroughly blended into the water cycle of the self-contained arcology. That little, pregnant Eden.
Until along came her gorgeous, sexy Javienda and then their darling Amas – whom, if she were a prisoner of Biosphere 4, she would be unable to touch for an entire year. So instead she applied her analytic skills in the support team.
Each day she pedalled to and from the Science Park from Horningsea, between the colourful houseboats bobbing on the River Cam and the endless greenhouses of the condominiums. Each time she counted herself among the blessed.
For five years.
She knocked on the door labelled George Galanis, Director, and entered without waiting for a response.
George gazed up from his work through his luxurious grey eyebrows which he promptly raised when he saw the state of mind presented by his long- time employee. “Carolita.”
“Forgive my intrusion like this, George,” she began.
He sat back. “You must have a good reason…”
“I need to request a leave of absence.”
Carolita sat on the chair opposite him. “It is an emergency. I’d also be grateful if you could authorise me to travel to Barcelona.”
He stroked the leaves of a succulent on his desk. “This is about your partner isn’t it?”
“He’s been…” The word would not manifest on her tongue. “He’s been de-. De-”
“Sent away?” offered George.
“And little Amas too!” She had not wanted to cry in front of him. She did not want him to mistake her behaviour for an attempt at emotional blackmail. Surely he must know her better by now? But she felt she could take nothing for granted any longer.
George leant forward. “Marcella told me about this. The rules regarding who may stay in the country have been adjusted…”
“And Javienda fell foul of them. But he has been living here for six years! And we have a child.”
“Yes it is unfortunate. What is their reason?”
“His work can be done by a British national. And they wouldn’t let us marry because our joint income is not high enough.”
“I sympathise. I suppose you have appealed?”
She fixed him with her steadiest gaze, awaiting his response. He sighed. “There is a reason for the legislation. The climate and harvest forecasts indicate the country will soon be unable to feed the current level of population despite our best efforts.” He held up his hand to stop her speaking. “You know all this, Carolita! It’s simple arithmetic. Those beyond the criteria–”
“But it’s so unfair!”
“You are only saying this because your rational judgement – for which we employ you I might add – is clouded by your emotions. I’m sorry. If I made an exception for you, I would have to do it for everyone.”
The door slammed behind her. Cycling home, her attitude to the view had changed. “Fuck the government’s one planet living push. Fuck the greenhouses sprawling over the countryside,” she muttered to herself as her legs powered the pedals. “Fuck you solar power, fuck you AD towers. What’s the point if you can’t support everyone?”
A decision took shape in her mind. Javi had come from Senegal without a pass. He had Senegalese friends. If she were to tell anyone her plan it would be one of them – Youssou. She would tell that snitch Marcella nothing – nor her mother. She would only worry.
On arrival home the apartment asked her if Javienda and Amas were expected back. No, she told it. They wouldn’t be back for a while. “I’m sorry,” said her home. “I hope everything is all right.”
“No,” she said. “It’s not.”
“Oh,” said her home. “Would you like a nice cup of tea?”
Amas yelped with pleasure to see her, and Carolita smiled through her tears. They held out hands towards each other, mingling in no-space, the same space occupied by Beryl only hours earlier.
“Are you all right, sweetie? It’s not too hot there is it?”
He shook his head and his long golden curls whisked across his dark face. Of course it wouldn’t be.
“Can I hold you soon, mummy?”
She gritted her teeth and nodded. Firmly.
Javienda scooped him up and plonked him on his cross-legged knees in front of the camera. “How’s it hanging?”
“I miss you so much. Both of you.”
“Yeah. I miss everything. It sucks. Big-time.”
“Are you managing all right?”
“Sure? You’re taking care of Amas aren’t you?”
“You can see.” He asked the boy, “You’re okay aren’t you?” Amas nodded vigorously.
“I feel so helpless,” said Carolita.
“Don’t. The money you send helps.”
“I wish I was there.”
“I will try,” said Carolita. “I am trying.”
At Youssou’s place, a tiny bedsit on the north side of Cambridge, Youssou shook his dark, angular head and looked serious. “It’s a fine pickle you’re in an’ no dither.”
“But you know a way around it. Don’t you?” asked Carolita, making her eyes as round and dark as she could. She was very pretty, and she knew Youssou knew how much she and Javi – who had accompanied Youssou from Senegal on that long, dangerous journey – loved one another.
He said, “No. I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
But his hands did something else. They pointed at an Eye hovering around outside his window, and they wrote a message on a piece of paper which he folded and handed to her. “I’ll see what I can do,” she read. Then he took the paper back and shredded it, winking at her.
The Eye had followed her there and it followed her away. As if it knew what she was thinking. She told herself it was just algorithms that drove the Eyes, like everything else, such as this top she was wearing, packed with inbuilt sensors and lined with phase-change wax capsules. The algorithms helped it adjust its breathability, insulation level and reflectivity according to the temperature.
Perhaps algorithms drove her, too. Could algorithms factor paranoia?
She pedalled to the sea front. Stared out at the grey saltwater ribs angling onto the beach, specked by slubs in their weave where submerged trees and other objects broke surface, and she dreamed of what lay beneath – the ghostland of the rich, peaty farmland. It was once known as the Fens. Her parents had lived there, before she was born. They had told her the stories. How the sea had come back to reclaim the land it had occupied only a few decades before. About the Ditch Martyrs, who drowned themselves in an attempt to win sympathy for their cause. How the official calculations argued the logic of abandoning the Fens in order to divert scant resources to protect other regions. How the livelihoods of tens of thousands had been lost and the people rehoused inland.
For the greater good, of course.
“I am not a martyr,” she told the Eye above her. “Nor a factor in some algorithm.”
As Carolita peered past the reflection of her anxious features at the blurred wheat fields beyond the window of the bullet train as it sped across the Limousin region, she pictured herself with Amas and Javienda rambling hand in hand around the streets of Barcelona, sampling its delights. Amas would shriek in delight as she lifted him onto her shoulders and Javienda would slip his arm around her and they would stroll around art galleries, old churches, cafes and beaches.
It would be bliss.
Youssou had done his job. In return she had handed over three months’ salary and asked no questions. But he told her anyway, in another scribbled note: “Even now, even in the UK, records can be changed.”
It was dark when Carolita’s train docked at Molins de Rei station on the edge of Nouvell Barcelona, a string of recent development that straddled the Serra de Collserola. The heat hit her like a firewall after the train’s aircon, together with the odour of something rotten wafting up from the older city, or perhaps the sea beyond.
Her eyes sought out Javienda on the crowded platform. They scoured the bustling station as she elbowed through the Moroccans, Algerians, Gambians and Senegalese, milling amongst the more purposeful Castilians and Andalusians. The Western Saharans, the Mauritanians, Malians, people from Guinea-Bassau, Guinea itself, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and who knew which other African nations further east and south. Too many nations, too many people.
Like her country, like Biosphere 4, the station was bursting at the seams.
She didn’t panic, not quite. After five minutes Javi answered her frantic messages. Something had come up. Could she make it to this address on the edge of the Barri Gòtic? He and Amas would definitely be there.
She changed into a t-shirt, sandals and shorts. She took the bus he’d said but buses would only go as far as the Hospital. After that, there was no public transport, only taxis and rickshaws. So she set off walking. Her T-shirt was soon sticking to her back. The further she descended, the darker, hotter and more humid it became and the more offensive the smell grew, as if she were entering a kitchen that no one had cleaned for a year. The greasy paving stones made her feet slip.
At least there were no Eyes.
The gradient levelled out a little as she crossed the Plaça de Catalunya and found La Rambla. Shadowy persons pushed by, conversing in French, Catalan, and tongues forged in even hotter climes. She was continually pestered for cash – and more. She gripped her bag.
The Barri Gòtic felt like a maze, since half the street names seemed to be missing. Halfway down the boulevard a concrete barrier a metre and a half high barred her way. Beyond it could be seen the mercurial uncertainty of gently lapping water. The clouds had cleared and a half moon hanging low in the sky made silver curves dance on the water. The lowest parts of the maze were under a metre or two of water that lapped against the old worn stonework.
Javi had told her that lower Barcelona had been abandoned by civic society when it was flooded, even before the attempt to construct a dam. It stretched from one side of the old port to the other and was supposed to keep out the worst of the sealevel rise from the city. But it was unfinished. The money had run out, he said. So the lowest levels of the city were flooded and the Nouvell Barcelona district had been rapidly expanded to accommodate the population fleeing from the lower city, which itself had to absorb the continuing flow from Africa.
When she found the address she thought it was a mistake. It was near the docks; an old warehouse, shabby and faceless, with a featureless door. She let Javienda know she was there. One minute later the door burst open and here was his smile, wide with ivory, and his eyes of glittering black tourmaline. His tallness, dark but luminous, bony as driftwood, advanced to embrace her, and for a moment the welcome familiarity effaced everything else. The repoussé coils of his electric hair brushed her face and she drank in his smell.
She drew back. “Where’s Amas?”
“Come this way.” He took her hand and led her inside. The corridor gave onto many rooms, each crammed with bodies. It was not what she was expecting. Dismay returned to unsettle her stomach. He sensed this. “These are all migrants. I will explain later.”
The corridor seemed longer than her trek from the station. Then he pulled her into a small room. She looked wildly around. Four mattresses, one in each corner. Piles of clothes and blankets. Shirts hung from screws hastily fixed into walls. Old smell of stale sweat. On one mattress a heaped blanket. No. Wrong mattress. She scooped Amas up with a feeling of discovering that a legend was true all along. Sleepy eyes opened, slits at first then wide. His arms linked around her neck and she blessed him with kisses.
All three of them fell onto the mattress and stayed awhile.
She said she would pay so he took them to a Moroccan place. Not uptown, too expensive, they ripped you off as a policy. No, your money went further down here. After filling up on zaalouk and khobz with khlia, she said, “Why are you staying in that awful warehouse?”
“Yeah, it’s bad but…my Senegalese brothers and sisters are there. It is the largest such community in Europe. A Catalan man lets the whole place out. Divided among so many, the rent is not too bad.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“You’d have worried.”
“You can’t expect me to stay there!”
He smiled at her. “Thank you for coming. But what did you imagine?”
She grabbed his hand. “I want you to come back with me.”
“You know that’s impossible.”
“We can marry. Then they’ll let us back. They’ll have to, won’t they?”
He took her hand in both of his. “I’m touched, Lita. After all this, you want to marry me! But you know that wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to them.”
“We were happy as we were. It didn’t seem to matter.”
“Are you going to stay with us, mummy?” said Amas.
She cupped his face in her hands.
When they had put Amas down to sleep, they left the warehouse and walked to the water’s edge. The soup of city smells still made her queasy. They looked back at the millions of lights rising up the Serra de Collserola from the windows of the new arcologies like a new Milky Way.
“You do have a job?” she asked. “You haven’t lied about that have you?”
“No, I am working. But I don’t have a permit – it’s impossible to get one. When I was here before I came to England I did all kinds of jobs. The wages were shit. This time I looked up an old friend who runs a cafe. He gave me a job cleaning tables.”
“You, with a PhD. in plant biometrics.”
She nestled in his chest and felt a moment of peace. But then a man came up out of the shadows and Javienda stood up to welcome him. She could hardly see his face, swathed as he was in blue Tuareg-style robes and headgear.
Javienda introduced him. “This is my friend Manello. He is from Mali.”
“Hi.” He offered his hand.
Carolita said nothing.
“He’s had a difficult time,” said Javienda.
Carolita didn’t want to know about anybody else’s difficult time but she had no choice as Javienda urged Manello to tell his story.
“I love Africa, you know,” he told her. “But I had to leave because death is stalking it.”
“Explain how you got out of Africa,” Javienda prompted.
“Not via the Med that is for sure! I think the Mediterranean is the largest mass grave in the history of the world. No, I came via the Atlantic. I gave a man about $5000 and was told to wade out from a dark beach, late one night. I climbed into a small boat with about sixty others. They said they were taking us to a bigger ship, and that would go to Europe, but it was a lie.” He stretched the word out. “We sailed for ten days, having to evade coastal patrols. We were crammed in so close the man opposite me had his knee jammed in my crotch. The boat sprang a leak and we had to bale, bale, bale, day and night. Over the next days, two men disappeared while I nodded off, I guess they fell out or went mad and jumped in the water. There was not enough to drink. Finally we saw land, near Tenerife, 200 miles off the Moroccan coast. From there it was easier.”
Carolita had heard tales like this before. But coming first-hand it drew her sympathy despite herself. “What happened when you got to Spain?” she asked.
“I wanted to transit through Spain to France. I speak French, but they wouldn’t let me through the French border. So I went back to Madrid. Somebody died and I got hold of their ID, posed as that person, and got an on-book job picking fruit and vegetables. It’s okay in Spain. There are fewer immigration sweeps. Then I came to Barcelona because here they harass you less.”
He offered to share a bottle of beer, which Javi took and she felt resentful because she wanted Javi to herself and was aware how selfish this was.
Their room in the warehouse made Carolita’s flesh crawl. It smelled of dirty laundry. Beneath their mozzie net and paranoid about being bitten, she tossed all the first night. Nor could she and Javienda make love, there being others in the room and their son curled alongside. In the morning, she whispered in Javi’s ear, “I can’t stay here. We have to get Amas out as quickly as possible.”
“OK, but you know several hundred migrants arrive in the low city every day. The high city dumps them down here. There is no space.”
“I understand. This is the shadow city cast by the rich enclaves above us. But we must do something.”
“Well, OK,” he said.
Amas had started at an impromptu school run by volunteers in the old Catalan town hall. They walked him there, through streets covered in mud, rubbish, stuff left by the sea when it surged up. A rank stench drifted from turds and toilet paper drying in the sun. How can people live like this? She yearned for the order and cleanliness of Cambridge. The ground floors of buildings were unoccupied, while people crammed into the upper storeys. Laundry was strewn from upper floor windows to dry. She pushed her way through crowds of men, mostly also in Tuareg-style clothes to protect from the sun. They stared at her blonde hair and bright top and jeans, as obvious as a full moon.
“We have to get some robes for you, Lita,” Javienda pointed out.
“But my clothes are fine,” she hissed. “Clothes like these save lives! My top must be working overtime but if I wasn’t wearing it, it would be unbearable. Just ’cause people here can’t afford them–”
“They are clever, yes. But they can be hacked. And they are a surveillance tool.”
She withdrew her hand from his. “Do you really believe that conspiracy nonsense?”
He shook his head at her, meaning he thought her naive.
“They can’t be watching me all the way out here, can they? You think they know I’m here?”
“Britain is obsessed with measuring everything.”
“For everyone’s good!” she said. “Everything is measured so all needs can be reliably supplied. It’s the best way to run a country.”
In his soft voice of sand and wind he asked, “But what if all needs can’t be met? What then?”
And she knew. They were the what then.
Amas ran ahead into the school, greeting friends like he had been there all his life. A twinge of loss pricked Carolita.
“It’s good. At least he’s happy,” said Javienda. He took her across the Sant Jaume square and into the old Madrid ayuntament town hall. It was now a crowded clothes exchange, one big swishing centre, packed with piled high trestle tables. They paid admission and went browsing.
When she came out she was inside a full-length cream-coloured robe tied at the waist, with a built-in hood-thing. She felt like a monk, but, when she had got used to the cotton brushing her ankles, wearing hardly anything underneath, her skin did feel cool and fresh. Behind them they had left three Spanish teenage girls fighting over the hi-tech garments she had abandoned in return.
“Welcome to the moneyless economy,” said Javienda. “When people have no money they find other ways to barter.”
She struggled with wrapping the fabric round her head: it kept unravelling and Javi kept re-doing it.
He began introducing the city to her. He was different here than in Cambridge. She could see he was in his element. His feet danced over the cobbles. He took her to the old La Boqueria covered market. It was still a food market but now also selling everything somebody else didn’t want, a scavenger’s paradise. She was hungry. They hadn’t had breakfast.
Sorry-looking fish lay on the slabs. “Don’t eat them,” advised Javienda. “Seagull meat is better than that.”
To be safe they bought meloui pancakes and a loaf of khobz with salami, clementines and figs, and ate it as they walked through the park. It was full of tents. “Even this would be better than the warehouse,” she said.
“It’s unsanitary, dangerous and the police move them on every couple of days,” he said. “I’ll find something.”
Every time he met someone he knew, he would introduce Carolita as “Amas’ mother” and ask if they knew of anyone moving on who might be vacating a room. By the time they had to pick up Amas they still had no leads. The boy came out of the crumbling old building and made straight to his dad, glancing in confusion at Carolita.
Of course, she thought. He hasn’t seen me like this. He can hardly see my face. She unwound the headscarf.
With a retching cough he fell into his father’s arms. “I feel bad, dad,” he groaned.
Carolita, recalling that in England it was her he would have told first, felt his forehead and made him stick his tongue out. It was white and furry. “Oh you poor thing! He has a fever,” she told Javienda. “I don’t suppose you’re registered with a doctor?”
“Doctors are gold-dust in the low city.”
“Can we go somewhere cool?” She clutched Amas to her.
He took them to the cloisters of the nearby cathedral. It was an oasis of peace and calm, and ten degrees cooler in the stone- and water-cooled shade. The flagstones were clean – maybe it was God’s work swilling them. They sat by the pool and Carolita, with the floppy boy on her knee, dipped her hand in the water and washed Amas’ face.
“It hurts,” he groaned.
“Where does it hurt?”
He waved his stubby arm. “All over.”
“What do you think he has? Malaria?” she asked Javienda. “We must get a diagnosis!”
“Don’t you subscribe to a medical service?” he asked.
“Yes, but… if I use it, won’t Brit Control know I’m here?”
“I think medical data is anonymised. Anyway, isn’t his life more important?”
She fumbled with her phone and booked an appointment that was a couple of hours away. “This place is making him ill. That warehouse must be a breeding ground for all sorts of tropical diseases. Or the school. Just being here…” She patted her son’s face. “Wake up! Open your eyes, Amas. Don’t go to sleep.”
But he couldn’t open them. She pressed his little body to her.
Javienda restrained her. “Cool it, darling. Kids get ill, it’s normal. It’s supposed to happen for their immune systems.”
“They also die.”
Suddenly he retched and vomited. Carolita shrieked.
From a hospital somewhere in England (it was not clear where – Carolita had a subscription to an agency) the doctor took note of the symptoms: joint aches, a red rash, a raging fever.
“I’m afraid it all points to dengue. I’m sending you a prescription,” he concluded. “You must get the medication as soon as possible. Also give him paracetamol to relieve the pain and fever but avoid aspirin or ibuprofen, and make him drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Dengue is often harmless, it passes away in about a week. But in a few cases… Best to be safe.”
He signed off and within minutes the prescription had arrived. All she had to do was take it to a pharmacy. With payment.
“It’s a good job you’re here. I couldn’t afford it on my own,” Javienda admitted.
“You wouldn’t even have got the diagnosis,” she reminded him. “And what if the doctor’s wrong and it’s not dengue but something much worse?”
“Calm down. Come on, let’s take him back.”
“No way am I taking him back to that stinking hell-hole… I’m going to find a hospital – in the top city as you call it.”
She glanced at Javienda and couldn’t tell whether his expression was cold… those eyes always seemed warm. But he didn’t say anything so she hoisted her son upon her hip and strode off. Javienda hurried after her. “You can’t go on your own. You don’t know the way.”
“I can find it. You can’t go. They’d turn you away.” He knew this was true. “Go back to the warehouse and clean the room. Better still, find somewhere better.”
She trudged alone along the ancient pavement. Everywhere she saw disease: an open sewer, migrants coughing and snuffling, with skin lesions, dirty clothes, unwashed ‘locks, piles of refuse, flies buzzing on Amas’ face should she let up for one minute in brushing them away. He remained in a deep sleep.
She made the four kilometres to the Carrer de Provença as fast as she could. Luckily they accepted her visa and admitted her to the hospital. Out of the sun, her relief, was nullified at finding herself packed into a foyer of sick people. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to come. Amas might catch something else.
At a water cooler she wet his face in an effort to draw off his temperature. She was relieved to see him stir. After waiting for over an hour she reached the end of the pharmacy queue and presented her prescription. The assistant showed it to the pharmacist who went to check availability.
“I’m sorry but we’re out of this,” she said on her return. “I can give you paracetamol.”
“I can buy that anywhere!” Carolita wanted to protest. She wanted to scream. She saw herself: a white English woman with touching faith in fairness and rationality alone in a horde – no, that was not the word people like her used – a multitude of the needy dark-skinned. But she accepted the proffered drug with murmured gratitude.
Too tired to walk straight back carrying him, she found a corner of the waiting area where she could sit on the floor cradling her son until a warden shooed her out.
Her battery was dead. She hoped Javienda had cleaned up their room and there was a fresh bed for them all. It was dark when she neared the warehouse. She smelt the fire before she saw the flames. Drawing nearer, their reflection was at times easier to see, flickering brightly in the otherwise black waters between the dark silhouettes of buildings along the narrow streets. Holding her breath, she ran forward. Then her lungs emptied in screams, but she didn’t hear them. Sirens wailed and she fought her way through dark figures just standing, watching, drinking, like it was a show.
“What is it? What’s happened?” she shouted in a woman’s face but the woman backed off.
Growing closer, still holding Amas, her arms and legs dull with his weight, wading through inches of filthy water, she finally let him slide onto a low wall and they sat there watching their warehouse being torn apart by the conflagration. Crowds of residents ran around waving their arms and crying out. No fire engines doused the flames. Instead, two Mossos vans stood by, police officers chatting to members of the crowd.
She screamed at them. “Why aren’t you doing anything?!”
They regarded her as a hysterical patient. The first spoke no English. The second laughed. “With what?”
Her arms thrashed. “What happened?”
The second said, “Landlord says the fire was started by residents. Residents say it was landlord ’cause some people hadn’t paid rent and he wants insurance. Qui sap?” He let his shoulders flap down like he didn’t care. “Happens all the time.”
“But my partner is in there…” she said. “May be in there…” she self-corrected. “And my boy is dying!”
“Well, you better pray hard.”
Amas was burning, and not due to the fire. Clutching him tighter, she wandered around, asking everyone if they had seen Javienda. She found Manello, who shook his head. He’d been inside when the fire began. “All I have is in this bag.” He held it up. Together they searched everywhere for her lover’s familiar shape.
After ten minutes of hell she finally spotted him, snaking his way among the knots of onlookers. But she didn’t go straight up to him, she couldn’t say why. She watched him for a minute. Was he looking for her? He was exchanging words with people he passed, embracing some, high fiving others. She aimed to intersect his trajectory pretending not to have seen him. Was relieved when he jumped upon her. “There you are! Thank God! How is Amas?”
“Not good. I’m so worried for him.”
Astonishingly, groups of Senegalese women appeared with piles of blankets, handing them out to those who needed them. They were followed by a motley flotilla of vehicles. The drivers jumped out one by one and headed for those with blankets to escort them to the vehicles and ferry them away. Because Amas was ill, Javi and Carolita were given blankets. A woman with steel-wool locks examined Amas before beckoning over one of the drivers.
They found themselves taken to a floating jetty in the port and helped onto an inflatable which motored out a couple of hundred metres to a large MV. As the sun rose over the far side of the submerged harbour wall, tingeing the vessel’s mast tips pink then cream then blinding white, they were guided to their own private cabin below deck by another middle-aged Senegalese woman in a bright yellow patterned head-dress. Inside the tiny space they found a bunk bed, a small table and cupboard.
Carolita couldn’t believe it. “Is this just for us?”
“Yes,” said the woman, her bulk somehow large and reassuring. “This is a new emergency vessel just brought in which we were going to use to alleviate the overcrowding. It’s come at the right time instead for this disaster. You may stay until we find somewhere more permanent. If you need anything, come and find me. My name is Yande.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much,” said Javienda.
Carolita laid Amas in the lower bunk and flopped in with him so she could keep an eye on him. She hardly slept, though she was exhausted. She checked on Amas every ten minutes. She found a bathroom – a bathroom! – down the corridor and cleaned up the two of them. In the morning she woke Javi with a glass of clean water and kissed him. He kissed her, gently to start with, and for the first time since arriving in Barcelona she felt the uncoiling of passion. But there was no time.
As soon as she could she went looking for Yande. She was nowhere to be seen. But on a corridor she spotted a woman in a nurse’s bib.
“Please! Are you able to help? My son –”
The nurse followed Carolita to their cubicle. While she inspected Amas she explained, “Don’t worry. I – and the boat – we’re all part of a charity. Spanish-African, of course. We’re here to help.”
She went ashore to see if she could get the medication that Amas needed that the clinic had been unable to provide. While awaiting her return Carolita took Javienda to the galley she had found when seeking Yande.
Scores of Africans sat at the long tables talking animatedly, eating food fetched from a serving hatch. Javienda took some sombi – a sweet milk-rice soup – to Amas while Carolita was engaged in conversation by a young man with a toothy grin.
After satisfying himself about how come she was here – the only white woman in the place – she asked him about himself. “Me? I’m 24 years and I’m from Equatorial Guinea. I came to Barcelona when I was 16.”
“Eight years you’ve been here.”
He waved his lanky arms around for emphasis. “It’s home now. For me, a home is where you make it, where you feel comfortable. But I always remember my roots, I never forget where I come from.”
When Javienda returned it was to find Carolita engaged in deep conversation with a crowd of men and women. It seemed she was trying to defend her own country.
“But you’d never get anything like this happening in the UK!” she was saying. “We can feed everybody, keep them safe and healthy, it’s all properly organised and regulated. They’d have taken Amas in for treatment. They’d have put the fire out swiftly. They’d have arrested the owner.”
A woman nodded. “But are you happy?”
“Of course,” she said without pause.
“Yet you are here because your child and partner are not allowed to live in England any more,” the woman pointed out.
Carolita opened her mouth to speak and then fell silent.
Javienda put his arm round her. “It’s natural for you to love your country,” he whispered. “But now you are beginning to see it as others do. From the outside.”
She clutched him. “I just want… I want Amas to be ok.”
“Of course. Me too. He’s ok now. He drank the soup. The nurse brought the drug. We can look after him.”
She jumped up. “No. I can’t! I don’t know anything about dengue fever!”
“I mean all of us.” Javienda spread his arm around. “Everyone. The Senegalese community is tight. Where I come from the word is a sacred thing. Neighbours are an extension of the family.”
The women and men all nodded in agreement. “I am friends with all my neighbours in Barcelona,” said one. “We always say, ‘look at the community where you live – a mother, a father, brothers and friends – so you will feel protected as a family and people can live in harmony’.”
“And burn each others’ houses down?” said Carolita.
“Yea, they resent us. But it’s not our fault we are here. That’s why, when you leave Africa you have to think of yourself as a citizen of the whole planet,” said the woman, before walking away.
Later, back in their room, Carolita, cradling Amas on the bottom bunk, asked Javienda: “But you liked England, didn’t you? You liked living there.”
Javienda dangled his head over the edge of the top bunk. “Yes, I had enough to eat, I had good work, enough money. But let me tell you. I was shocked when I arrived. Everybody is in their own bubble, they don’t talk to each other.” He flipped down and squatted beside her. “Like in Nouvell Barcelona. Down here they do, because we must collaborate to survive. One day when I first arrived in England, after three days without food, I fell down on the ground. People would step over me, walk past. Did they think they would catch a disease? They may have 3000 friends online, but, you know, what really matters is, if you fall down sick, who will carry you, who will give you water?”
Carolita sensed his anger but it was not hers. It seemed to her he preferred it here. “Did you miss me?”
He took her hand. “Lita. You shouldn’t have to ask. But you need to look at what’s going on.”
She had been able to charge her battery, and her phone beeped about messages. Holding Amas on her knee – “Listen, it’s Grandma!” – she played back the ones from her mother. After the panicking – was she all right, why hadn’t she been in touch? – came: “Where are you?”
She pressed delete. Amas stared at his mother.
Then came a message from her boss, George: “I notice you have seen fit to take unlicensed leave of absence. That’s unfortunate. It’s a busy time here, Carolita. We are coming to the end of the project, there are reports to be written. You do not leave me much choice. If you are not back at your desk within a week I will have to fill your position with somebody else.”
The phone fell with a clunk from her hand. They can’t do this to me! Nobody else could do what I do.
Of course they could, said another mental voice. But not well, her other voice replied, I know the job inside out.
This inner feud was cut by Amas tugging at her sleeve. “Mum, are you gonna leave me?”
She stroked his face. “No. No, darling. I will never leave you.”
He rested his head against her breast. She stared at a pattern in the painted wall.
Javienda said, “If you give up your job, how we going to live? Your wages are keeping us going till I get set up with something better.”
But she couldn’t go back without Amas. And how could she take Amas?
After two days Amas’ fever was melting. Carolita could breathe again. Soon he was running around again, first up and down the corridor, then round the galley, then up on deck. It was there she bumped into Yande.
“All that pent-up energy!” she said.
“I’m getting cabin fever too,” Carolita told her. “I haven’t been ashore for three days.”
“You can leave soon,” said Yande. “Some of the men are getting a place ready in Badelona, just inland, an area called La Salut. It’s prefabs. They’re ok though. New.”
“Some of the men…?”
“Employed by our NGO.”
“And we can move there?”
“That’s right. You will have to pay rent. But it will be legal, not like the other place.”
Carolita tugged on Amas – he was climbing up the gunwale.
“He’s a strong boy.” Yande looked hard at Carolita. “What was your job in England?”
“Was?” The word sounded so final.
“You’re not going back are you?”
“Ah. I might have to. Just to tie things up, you know.”
“Uh-huh. Well what do you do?”
“Yes? Sounds interesting.”
She was unsure how much to say, but Yande looked smart. “There’s eighty people living in a sealed-off dome. Inside they make everything they need to live – food, air, water, energy. It all gets recycled round and round.”
“Yes. A controlled environment. Just to see if it works.”
“So nothing comes in or out?”
Carolita nodded. “Apart from sunlight.”
“It’s for Africa.” She registered this wasn’t quite the right thing to admit even as it came from her lips.
Yande arched an eyebrow. “Africa?”
Carolita hugged Amas tight as he struggled to escape. “The idea is, when it’s out of R&D they’ll be offered to places like the Sahel to house people in desertified lands so they don’t need to leave their homes and…”
“Come to Europe?” finished Yande.
Amas slipped free. “Come back!” Carolita shouted.
“Tell me.” Yande touched her arm. “Have any Africans asked for this?”
“I don’t – I don’t know. Amas!”
Amas stopped and sat on the deck alongside another Senegalese boy toying with the rope of a life-belt. The two women strolled towards them.
“Let me get this right,” said Yande. “A lot of white English people are making a prison to put black people in that will stay in Africa so they can’t come to Europe, and the black people haven’t asked for it but the whites are giving it anyway. Out of the bigness of their hearts, is that it?”
“Why do you call it a prison?” cried Carolita.
“‘Nothing comes in or out apart from sunlight’?”
Carolita’s open mouth filled with still air. She shut it. Why was Yande twisting this? Then she remembered she had once thought the word herself.
Amas was chattering to the other boy and she realised she couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It must be Wolof. When did he pick that up? He was slipping away from her and she would lose him if she went home. He would become more and more African. And then what?
She turned back to Yande. “The UK leads the world in this stuff! We measure everything because it lets us manage our limited resources optimally. We have to manage the population. But we are sorry for–” She gulped. This wasn’t coming out right. “We don’t want anyone to die elsewhere because of our changing climate. So we do this – development work. It’s not neocolonialist. Really it isn’t.”
Javi had sauntered up as she was speaking. He was watching her. She felt both their gazes – Javi’s narrow face, his penetrating intelligence. Yande’s broad face, solemn and square on. Her head-dress made her seem regal.
“Isn’t it better to be proactive rather than being victims and always reacting to horrendous disasters?” asked Carolita.
Yande asked Javi: “You approve of this dome thing?”
“I think it has a value. It’s what she lives for. It depends how it’s used…”
“Well. I wouldn’t want to live in one of those.” Yande walked off.
Javi and Carolita talked into the night. After damming it up for weeks his anger was unleashed.
“They threw me out like rubbish. Didn’t matter that I’d brought Gambian sunshine into their tight dark English cracks. Didn’t matter that I’d made their stiff halls ring with gay Senegalese chants. Their gratitude was as thin as a coat of paint on a rusted old bike.”
Carolita stroked his head. “I know. It was awful.”
“This is me the day I got the news. I am on the floor. I taste vomit but manage to gulp it back. The red haze gradually fades into the brightness streaming through the triple glazing. The buzzing in my ears segues into the aircon hum. Yet there’s no chance of appeal, their ears are stoppered like a mothballed oil well. I got five days–”
“–Five days to pack.”
“I helped you. I cried too.”
“And little Amas here. He don’t know why he can’t see you any more, never touch you, why he must say goodbye to his friends in the crèche. He don’t know about your country’s precious ecological footprint and why he is not worthy to be part of it.”
“What difference does it make to the planet whether our footprint is in Spain or England? Our footprints that trod from Africa to Europe just like your ancestors a hundred thousand years ago. We all have a footprint just by being alive. So why send us away? Why not euthanise your sick centenarians that are kept alive by technology when in any other time – or in most of Africa – they would have died decades earlier? ”
“You’re not allowed to kill people ’cause they get old.”
“But you’re allowed to split up families.”
“You’re sounding like I make the policy.”
“But how can you live in a country that treats people like that?”
“It’s my home. And I’m proud of how it leads the world in how to live with climate change.”
“–By getting rid of ‘superfluous people’.”
“And I love my work.”
“–Which is about keeping ‘superfluous people’ in Africa.”
“That’s twisting words. Wouldn’t they rather live in their home? I would.”
“We belong wherever we choose to belong.”
She withdrew, breathing heavily. “You’ve changed since you came here. You sound like you hate me. You don’t want me to come and live here.”
“I do. I do, Lita. But you need to see the other side.”
Clutching tightly onto Amas’ little hand, and propelled by his anticipation,Carolita sought out Yande. They found her on the deck. With her broad hips and proud neck, Carolita could not help but see Yande as matriarchal.
Carolita’s voice seemed oddly childlike as she asked her carefully prepared question: “Yande. You know, your charity. Is… is there some way I could be of assistance? I do know a few things about growing crops – the sort that used to thrive in West Africa. Perhaps there’s a community garden or something I could get involved with?”
Yande’s smile broadened. “You mean for the common good?” She swept her arms around Carolita and Amas. “What a fine idea. Yes. I’ll see what I can do.”
David Thorpe is a UK based writer and regular contributor to The Fifth Estate
See his website