AsylumnHe was lying on the beach just above the water line face down in the sand. At first in the blue half light just before the dawn she thought it was a piece of driftwood but the dog went bounding over and by the time she had come running up herself he was sniffing the seemingly lifeless body and licking the open hand. Moving swiftly she flipped him over onto his back and put her face down close against his. Holding her own breath she strained all her senses and then felt a faint whisper of air against her cheek.
There was no time to loose . The eight o’clock patrol would be round any minute. As gently as she could, she scooped up the fragile body and set off for the narrow path which led up the cliff to her house. Ben ran along ahead knowing better than to bark. As she stumbled forward, the boy hanging limply in her arms , a debate raged inside her head.
This wasn’t the first time she had found someone either on the beach or knocking on her door in the middle of the night. Especially now that the summer nights were hot and the sea relatively calm. The makeshift wooden “patras” overloaded with desperate immigrants landed every night and their wrecks littered the shore. But the others had all been older and although often in a bad state, always conscious. She had given them what she could- food, a hot drink, dry clothes, what cash she had and sent them on their way but here was a child, no more than seven or eight year old, she estimated and unconscious. She ought to turn him straight over to the police, so he could get medical attention. But then what would happen? Social services would step in, he would be taken off to a detention centre and begin a miserable life in a no man’s world of children’s homes.
By the time she reached the house, she already knew what she was going to do and slipping quickly inside , she laid him carefully on her bed. Pulling off all his wet things, she wrapped the cover around him.
She made herself a cup of coffee and sat down by the bed. She stared at the pale face, relaxed in sleep and wondered about the fate of the others in the flimsy boat and whether more bodies would be washed up during the morning.
She was torn from her thoughts by a loud hammering at the door. With a relax action she emptied the laundry basket of dirty clothes onto the bed covering the small figure and went to open the door.
“ Yes officer, how can I help you?” She asked with sarcastic politeness.
The civil guard wasted no time on civilities, “ Have you been out this morning?”
“ No.” She lied coolly, “ I twisted my ankle yesterday and can’t walk on it.” And as he looked unconvinced , she improvised, “ In Fact I am waiting for the doctor to come now to look at it. When I heard the knock I thought , it was him.”
The guard looked past her into the room but she stood resolutely in the doorway. His eyes rested on her muddy boots and wet coat thrown over the back of the chair. He knew she was lying and she knew that he knew that she knew that he knew, but she didn’t care.
It was a game that they both played. But since the court case , rules were clearly defined.She has been accused of failure to cooperate with the police, of aiding and abbeting illegal immigrants and of obstructing the course of justice.
“ Justice, pah!” she thought contemptuously. She had retaliated by complaining of police – harassment and infringement of her civil liberties .
The police had been reprimanded for breaking into her house to look for evidence. Consequently they could and did watch her , but they couldn’t enter and search without a warrant. Although she still deeply resented the constant and oppressive surveillance to which she was subjected, she also got a real satisfaction, not to say pleasure from outwitting them and beating them at their on game. And, as on this occasion, she relished the expression of frustrated fury on the guard’s face. But she couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong. She knew they watched her every move and she cursed her own stupidity for saying -she had called the doctor. They would now be expecting to see his car arrive and would have grounds to interrogate her further if it did not. There was nothing to it. She would have to call him.
The phone rang out for a long time and she was wondering what on earth she would do if she could not get hold of him when a bleary and rather irritated voice answered,
“ Chavez speaking.”
“ This is Hannah Jones, Doctor. I’ m really sorry to call you so early but I’ve had a nasty fall on the cliff and twisted my ankle rather badly. I was wondering if you could come over and look at it.”
He did not disguise his annoyance, “ I’ll try and call later on.”
“ I’m afraid I really need to speak to you urgently. I’ll explain when you come.”
Sensing the desperation in her tone he relented reluctantly, “ All right I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
He was intrigued. The English women who lived alone in the house on top of the cliff was known to be aloof and proud and never to ask for favours. Clearly there was more going on than met the eye and he thought about it as he pulled on his clothes and drank a strong black coffee.
For her part Hannah was turning over what she could say. She had intended to tell no one about the boy but Doctor was no fool and would clearly see that there was nothing wrong with her ankle. After considering various half-baked stories she realised she had no alternative than to take him into her confidence.
She weighed up the situation and what she knew of doctor. It was a gamble she would have to take. In his favour stood not only his professional discretion and the issue of patient confidentiality but also what she knew of him as a private individual, information which she had gleaned from gossip overheard in local shops and on street corners, rather than through any personal contact and as she deliberately kept herself apart from the village grapevine this was very sparse.
What they said about him down in the village was that he was a little crazy, that he lived as an ascetic, retired from his work and from the world since the English women he loved had left him. “ We all tried to warn him when he got involved with the foreigner but he was always a stubborn man” they muttered with self-righteous satisfaction.
Hannah could understand only too well why he kept his distance not only from the village but also from her although she reflected that ironically they had much in common in that, she too was known as an eccentric recluse.
She heard his car on the drive and jumped up to check that the boy was still asleep before she answered the door.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” she said. “ Please come in.”
She shut the door hurriedly behind him and spoke before he had chance to protest.
“ I’m really sorry to have deceived you but I needed your help and there was nothing else I could do. I found a boy on the beach this morning and he needs medical help.”
“Then why on earth didn’t you call an ambulance immediately and have him taken to the nearest hospital?”
The doctor made no attempt to conceal his anger. He had been manipulated into a compromising position from which he wanted to extricate himself as quickly as possible. If this silly meddling do-gooder chose to run the gauntlet of the Spanish legal system, that was her business but this was nothing to do with him and while he had no great respect for the police he certainly didn’t want to have any trouble with them. It simply wasn’t his problem.
“ I can see I made a mistake in asking you doctor. I’m sorry. But please could you just look at him before you go?”
Against his better judgment the doctor briskly approached the bed and looked at the sleeping child.
Hannah was watching his lined and weather beaten face closely and saw an unmistakable pang of emotions pass across it. The doctor held his breath for a second and then let it go with an audible sigh. He reached out and took the boy’s wrist to feel his pulse and when he turned back to face her his features were less hard.
“ His heartbeat and breathing are regular and he seems fine. He is probably just exhausted so keep him warm and let him sleep. When he wakes give him some soup and plenty of water. I’ll call round this evening to check he is ok.”
“ Thank you very much,” she said with relief. “ What do I owe you?”
“ Nothing, “ he replied bluntly .“ I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it to settle a debt I owe,” and without any explanation he turned and left.
After he had gone she tried to calm herself by keeping busy. She went round the house closing all the wooden shutters to prevent prying eyes from peering in and also to keep out the blinding light, the suffocating heat and the fine dust which the Levante wind carried from the Sahara and deposited in a fine film everywhere. Then she bustled about the tiny kitchen preparing soup for the boy.
After years of living alone she had developed the almost un conscious habit of talking aloud to herself. So as she chopped and stirred the vegetables her mind dissected and turned over her thoughts.
“ What do I think I’m doing ? I wasn’t going to get involved. It’s not my problem. It’s not even my country. So who am I doing it for? Myself? John? Is this some kind of morbid nostalgia? Nothing can bring John back and no one can replace him and yet this boy has no one and I have no one…”
She left the soup cooking and went over to bookshelf. Reaching out she took down a battered poetry book which fell open at Ben Johnson’s Sonnet, “ On my first sonne”. Even after so many years she could not read it without crying. With silent tears running down her cheeks she read,
Farewell thou child of my right hand , and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,
Seven years tho’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by the fate , on the just day.
She finished the rest and then sat quietly for a moment.
She heard a noise from the bed and turned. The boy was obviously dreaming, tossing feverishly in his sleep.
Suddenly he screamed and woke. He sat bolt uptight and started shouting hysterically in Arabic. Not wanting to frighten him but afraid that the guards would hear, she whispered, “ Shh, police! Shh, police!” The word had an electric effect and the boy fell silent but stared at her with fixed wide wild eyes which glowed in the dark room.
It was now midday and the heat in the room was stifling. She poured a glass of cold water and held it out to him. His thirst overcame his fear and he took it eagerly. He handed the empty glass back and said “ Shukran.” She smiled at his courtesy and took the glass back to the kitchen.
As soon as her back was turned he slipped from the bed and ran for the door but she has put the top bolt on beyond his reach. “ No, you can’t leave now. The police are watching the house.“ she said in English and then in Spanish. He obviously didn’t understand either language but she pointed through shutters to the end of the drive where the bumper of the police patrol van could plainly be seen barely concealed behind the wall.
The boy looked and saw but started crying and speaking pleadingly in Arabic. It was her turn not to understand. The only word she could pick out was a name repeated over and over, “ Mohammed, Mohammed.”
She took a piece of paper and drew a moon and stars. Pointing to them she said, “ Night , police go. “
She didn’t know if he understood but as though accepting the hopelessness of the situation he sank to the floor and with his arms round the knees sat rocking and whimpering.
She went back to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of soup and slab of bread which she put on the table. The smell made him look up and she could see the battle between hunger and suspicion in his face. It must have been a long time since he had eaten because in a couple of minute he had emptied the bowl. As he ate she kept her distance but when he had finished she brought a dish of ice cream and put it infront of him. In spite of himself his face spread into a wide smile and as he licked his lips she thought how for that moment he looked like any other child, innocent and happy, despite what he had just suffered.
She felt an overwhelming urge to put her arms round him, to comfort and protect him but she held back, wary of frightening him. Better give him space, she thought, let him trust her in his own time.
She cleared the table and pretended to busy herself in the kitchen. The boy got down from the table and walked round the room exploring. The house was very small, an old fisherman’s cottage, made of stone with whitewashed walls. It really only had one room with low wooden beams and an open fire place which she hardly ever needed to use. There was a sleeping area in an alcove in one corner and a small bathroom and kitchen on the other side. When she had sold her house in England she had been able to buy the cottage outright and an old jeep which she kept out at the back. The rest of the money she had invested so that by living simply she didn’t need to work.
The house was isolated but big enough for her needs. It looked out over the sea with breathtaking views across and straight to Morocco. She could plainly make out the houses and buildings pf the coastal towns with their mosques and minarets and on a clear day the massive Atlas mountains loomed purple and misty in the far distance.
On the hill behind the house were thick pine woods whose scent impregnated the air. On still summer evening she sat on cliff watching the daily spectacle of the sun setting on the horizon. The sky a riot of colours from reds and oranges to lilacs and purples. Until she came here she had never understood how in Spanish the same word could mean both sky and heaven. On such nights she even believed she could hear the call to prayer, “ Allah-O-Akhbar”, drifting through the glassy surface of the water which reflected the colours of the sky above like a mirror. How treacherous those waters were! The opposite shore seemed so close you would think you could swim it and looked so peaceful and calm yet a dangerous and deadly current pulling the undertow.
Behind the house was a large walled garden which was sheltered from the wind. Here she grew vegetables, kept chickens and had a small orchard of fruit trees, an orange, a lemon, a gig and a pomegranate. There was enough for her to be self-sufficient and the small surplus of eggs, fruit and vegetables she took in her jeep to the weekly market in a nearby town and this gave her enough cash to buy the few essentials she needed, coffee, toiletries and so on.
When she returned to the living room, the boy was nowhere in sight. She stopped at the bathroom door and stood watching him pick up and smell the soap, the shampoo, the toothpaste, and the creams. The toilet roll was unravelled all over the floor. The simple things she took for granted were novel to him. He looked up, caught her eye and panicked. She smiled and said, “ it’s OK.” He edged round her and went to sit by the window overlooking the sea.
She tidied the bathroom and then sat down at the other side . She tapped her chest saying, “ Hannah” and then pointed to him but he wouldn’t look at her keeping his eyes fixed on the narrow stretch of shining water and the coastline of Morocco on the other side. Following his gaze she reflected with frustrated irony on how like water language is in both uniting and separating people.
She then remembered having heard amongst the rest of gossip about the doctor that he had lived for a time in Morocco. So he probably spoke Arabic. She hoped more than ever that he would agree to help her. She wondered what had brought about his change of heart that morning but with her very English sense of respect for privacy she knew she could not ask him.
The day wore on through the inexorable heat of the afternoon. It was too hot to do anything but sit and doze, too hot to move, to read, to think, to talk, to breathe. The air was thick and heavy and still. She could feel the blood boiling in her veins and pounding in her temples and the sweat pouring down her back.
She went and stood in the shower letting the cold water trickle over her head and run down her body. Drenching her hair was the only way of cooling her scalp and for a short while it was refreshing although within seconds of getting out it was dry again.
They sat and waited, she on the sofa , he by the window , until at last the sun started to go down but only after it had sunk into the sea , the temperature gradually did become more bearable.
Hannah prepared a light supper of bread, cheese and fruit and a jug of fresh lemonade made with lemons from the garden. She had just put it on the table when she heard the doctor’s car in the drive.
“ the police have gone,” were his first words. “ I passed them in the lane.”
“ that’s a relief , “ she said with a feeling. “ Please come in and have some supper with us. We were just going to eat.”
The doctor walked past her. “Salam-a-lekum” he greeted the boy putting his hand on his heart in the muslim greeting.
“ Wa-a-lekum-asalam” the boy responded timidly.
The doctor sat at the window next to him and began speaking in Arabic.
“ My name is Cristobal ,” he said, “ What’s yours? “
“ Ayoub,” replied the boy.
“ Don’t be afraid. We want to help you. Who were you with in the boat?”
“ Mohammed. Mohammed, “ Ayoub intoned and then started to sob.
The doctor let him cry for a moment and then continued gently.
“ and what happened?”
“ We came across the sea and we were nearly there and then we saw the police. The man in the boat had a knife. He made us all jump in the water and told us to swim to the beach but my brother and I can’t swim. I saw a box floating and I held onto it but then I don’t know what happened. I woke up here.”
“ And do you know anyone in Spain?” asked Cristobal.
“ My father. He came last year to work on the farm so my mum said Mohammed and I should go too but now I don’t know where he is.”
He started crying again.
Cristobal turned to Hannah and roughly translated what Ayoub had said.
“ Are you satisfied now? “ he finished. “ We have to take him to authorities.”
“ There is another way,” replted Hannah. “ We could try to find his father. Please help me. I’m a woman and I don’t speak Arabic. I can’t do it alone.”
“ Why do you want to get involved? “ he asked.
“ When I came here I was a kind of refugee too, escaping from my past and I was drowning in my own pain and emotion. In a way doctor I think we are all refugees, all travellers through the world, through life.”
“ Hippy idealism!” he scoffed.
“ No, I left all that behind” she retaliated. “ When I was young in the 70’ s we used to demonstrate and protest against everything . We thought we could change the world. We felt powerful. I had everything , a successful career, money, a house, a family. Then one day my son was killed in ab accident and nothing mattered anymore, nothing was worth fighting for. So I came here seeking peace, asylum from the world. I didn’t mean to get involved but sometimes things happen and you can’t deny them.”
She poured three glasses of lemonade and took one to Ayoub. She gave other to Cristobal who seemed deep in thought. It was then that she noticed a St. Christopher round his neck.
“ I’m not a catholic doctor but I like the story of your namesake who carried a child through the flood and by saving him saved himself. We all do what we can.”
Without realising it she had hit a nerve and his reaction was immediate.
“ I’m not a Catholic either but I believe in Karma, what you give you get back and what you get you should give back. I wear the St. Cristopher because it was a child who carried me through the flood. In the 70’s Spain was very different from England you know. While you were leading student revolts we were still in the grip of Franco’s dictatorship. Like many others I went to Switzerland , a political and economic refugee. I found work and made a lot of money but I was always treated as an immigrant, an outsider and I had to deal with open hostility and racism in the village where I lived. I was desperately homesick. I missed the sun , the intensity of light here in Andalucía , my people, my culture, the music, the wine, the food, the beauty of the land. Every spring I used to cry remembering the smell of the azahar , the orange blossom. My only friend was a young boy who used to walk with me through the woods and sit and talk to me . Without him I would have been so lonely.”
“ So will you help us? “ Hannah pressed him.
“ I don’t know. I don’t see what you can do. You can’t keep him here. You know how they watch you.”
“ I already have an idea,” she came back quickly. “ Tomorrow is market day. I always take my spare fruit and vegetables to sell and the orange crates are big and well ventilated. I think Ayoub would fit in the bottom of one just until we got out of town. If I leave at midday the guards will all be taking a siesta and no one will be on the streets except mad dogs and Englishwomen. Will you come with us?”
After a while he reached a decision,
“ OK but it’s better if we don’t leave together. I’ll meet you at the market and we can go on from there in my car.
Before leaving he explained to Ayoub what they were going to do.
“ Don’t worry . Tomorrow we are going to help you find your father. Do what Hannah tells you and I’ll see you later. Salaam.”
“ Besalaamah” replied Ayoub , the relief evident on his face.
Cristobal went but Ayoub would not leave his place by the window so Hannah took a plate of bread and cheese over to him. The police had gone now so she opened the window and threw back the wooden shutters. The air was still hot but there was a warm breeze like the air from a hair drier which at least brought some movement into the stale and stifling room.
They sat in silence watching the last tones of turquoise and violet gradually fade and the sky become a deep inky indigo separated with bright stars.
Suddenly from behind a distant mountain a huge full moon appeared. It rose visibly, changing as it did from a soft creamy yellow to dull white and finally a brilliant , shiny silver, small and hard like a newly minted coin, its light almost dazzling.
“Moon, ‘ Hannah breathed without taking her eyes from the sky.
“Qamar” said Ayoub looking in the same direction .
“ Kumar” copied Hannah tentatively.
“ Qamar” repeated Ayoub making the Q deep in his throat.
“Qamar” she tried again and then added slowly “ moon”.
“ Moon” said Ayoub.
They looked at each other and smiled. By the time the moon had passed over the house she had learnt khobz ( bread) , jben ( cheese) , lesheen ( Orange ) and mah ( water).
Hannah stared out to see again lost in her thoughts and when she looked back Ayoub had fallen asleep in the chair. She lifted him carefully onto the sofa thinking how light he was and laid a sheet loosely over him. Then she went to bed ready for an early start and a difficult day ahead.
She woke early as she always did to take advantage of fresh morning air. She longed to go for her usual predawn walk along the beach to watch the sun rise but she didn’t want to leave Ayoub alone and anyway she had a lot to do before the heat became intolerable. The dog came sniffing expectantly round her ankles. He knew the routine.
“ I’m sorry Ben , not today . You go, go on off you go.”
She watched enviously as he trotted off in the direction of the path leading down the cliff to the beach.
Then she turned to the pile of wooden orange crates stacked against the side of the house. She chose the largest and put it to one side. The rest started to fill, one with oranges, one with lemons and one with pomegranates. She picked the vegetables that were ready and packed them into smaller boxes, courgettes , aubergines, and tomatoes. Finally she checked the hen coup and filled a tray with fresh brown eggs keeping a handful back for breakfast.
She backed the jeep along the side of the house so it was out of view of the road and loaded it up putting the large empty crate in the centre and stacking others around it.
When she went back into the house Ayoub was awake and back at his post by the window. He looked up and said “ Bonjour Madame”
“ Bonjour “ she replied without thinking and then laughed at the incongruity of an English women and a Moroccan boy both in Spain greeting each other in French. She supposed it was the way he had learnt to address all European women.
“ Hello” she added.
“ Hello” he said gingerly and grinned.
She squeezed half a dozen oranges and poured the juice into glasses. Then she cooked the eggs , cut thick slices of bread and prepared coffee and put it all on the table.
“ Come and have breakfast,” she said indicating the chair opposite her. Ayoub came and sat down and they ate together.
Just then Ben came bounding back in and dropped something at her feet. It was a wallet caked in sand the leather stiff with salt sea water. She opened it up and saw to her amazement that although the water had saturated it the bits of paper inside were intact and the writing on them still legible. She pulled them out one by one and laid them on the table. Ayoub watched wide eyed and finally let out a cry as she took out the innermost item a crinkled photograph of a man and woman. He put his head in his hands and his body shook with sobs. Hannah put her arms round him and held him quietly while he wept.
She collected up the slips of paper some of which had names and addresses here in Spain which could be useful in their search and she put them back in the wallet which she supposed must have belonged to his brother Mohammed . She put it safely in her bag but after a moment’s thought took it out again and gave the photograph to Ayoub who tucked it quickly into his pocket.
They were both impatient to leave but she knew they would have to wait until midday when the sun casts a spell sending everyone to sleep, even the guards at their posts.
At last it was time. She gave Ayoub some water and then passed him another large bottle to hold which she took from the freezer. It will melt quickly but keep cool for a couple of hours. Checking that the coast was clear she beckoned for him to jump up onto the back of jeep and into the crate. He looked very frightened.
“Don’t worry” she smiled. “ We’ll find your father. “She covered the top loosely with a piece of sacking and jumped into the driver’s seat.
As she had hoped the police had gone and they drove through the village without seeing a soul. It was like ghost town. Nothing moved on the streets, not even a dog and all the people were indoors, behind shutters and blinds hiding from the merciless heat. Only as they passed the police station did a sleepy guard see them and flag them down.
“Damn” she muttered under her breath.
He was irritable and abrupt. “ Where are you going, “ he demanded. “ To market as I always do on Wednesdays” she replied curtly.
“ I thought you’d twisted your ankle and couldn’t move” he snapped.
“ The doctor strapped it up for me and it’s much better now thank you” she replied with mock courtesy showing her leg and thanking Cristobal’s foresight in bandaging it the night before.
Since he had no reason to stop her he had to let her go and as she drove round the final bend out of the village and started to climb the hill she breathed a great sigh. They had passed the first hurdle. The narrow road climbed sleepily and twisted throw the hills. She tried to drive carefully because the surface was very uneven and she didn’t want to jolt Ayoub in the back. She thought about him as she looked at the landscape around her, more African than European with its great sand dunes sculpted by the wind. Behind these lay miles of thick pine woods full of lizards and snakes . Then it opened out into wide rolling hills covered with nothing but short scrubby yellow grass reminding her as it always did of the mangy fur of an old lion and dotted here and there with gnarled and ancient olive trees. There was not a blade of green, everything yellow and brown, arid, parched and scorched by the burning sun.
She thought wistfully of “ England’s mountains green “ and felt a brief pang of home sickness. How strange! She never thought she would miss the rain but there hadn’t been a drop here since April and none would fall until October or even November.
Cristobal was waiting for them at the market. She parked the down a side street , away from the prying eyes and immediately climbed up onto the back to check on Ayoub. He was curled up in the bottom of the crate fast asleep and still clutching the bottle of water. She gently shook him awake and said. “ Come on it’s time to go.”
“ Let’s get out of this heat and find somewhere a place to have lunch. Then we can decide what to do. If anyone stops us let me do the talking. Ayoub you don’t say a word . OK. “ Cristobal added in Arabic.
They found a quiet tapas bar and ordered a plate of fried fish , some salads and bread.
“ Help yourself Ayoub “ said Cristobal. Then turning to Hannah, “ Now where do we go from here?”
As they ate she told him about the wallet and suggested they follow up some of the addresses most of which were in a town a couple of hours drive away. Cristobal then spoke to Ayoub,
“ Hannah has told me about the photograph. Please may I see it? “
Shyly he drew it out of his pocket and laid it with great care on the table.
“ Are they your parents?” Cristobal asked softly. Ayoub merely nodded. “ What are their names?” and then as he didn’t reply, “ We want to help you find them. What’s your father called?”
“Mukhtar Benaissi” answered Ayoub.
“ And your mother?”
“ And do you have any other brothers and sisters at home?”
“ I have a big sister called Najia and a baby brother called Abdelali.”
“ Thank you. Now put your photo away safely” he added quickly seeing that Ayoub was on the point of tears, “ and tell me where your home is.”
“ Meknes. It’s a very big town.” Said Ayoub proudly. We live with my grandparents and my aunties. It’s a big house with a green door.”
“ And what did your father do?” asked Cristobal finally.
“ He didn’t have a job. That’s why he went to Spain. We had no money for food and my mummy used to cry all the time.”
“ Ok don’t worry now. Everything will be all right Insallah. “ They waited until the worst of the heat had passed and then sat off together in Cristobal’s car making sure that the jeep was secure and well out of sight.
As they drove across from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast the country opened out into wide sweeping fields which were mostly covered with long arched strips of low plastic sheeting giving the whole scene the rather surreal appearance of a lunar landscape.
They arrived in the small town just before sunset.
“ I’ll find the mosque and start my enquiries there” said Cristobal. “ It’s almost time for the evening prayer so everyone should be meeting there and someone might be able to help us.”
From his bag he took a long cotton robe which he slipped over his head. It covered him completely and when he put the hood up all that could be seen of him were his dark eyes above a silver grey beard. “ I always travelled like this in Morocco” he said, amused by their looks of surprise .
“ Non muslims are not allowed to enter the mosques but like this I could pass anywhere.”
“ Well be careful. We’ll wait for you in that bar on the corner.”
They sat in silence for what seemed like hours waiting, tension palpable berween them.
At last they saw Cristobal coming out but she could see from his face that the news was not good. He sat visibly shaken.
“ Have a coffee. Tell us what happened, “ she said.
“ There is no time . We have to go now. If we don’t I’m afraid he won’t wait. It was difficult to persuade them to help at all,” and before she could ask he added, “ We to follow that man over there but discreetly from a distance. I’ll tell you as we go along.”
They got up and left the café . As they opened the door the shadowy figure on the other side of the street set off ahead of them close to the wall and not looking round.
Ayoub sensed Cristobal’s seriousness but still he has to ask , “Did you find him?”
“ I think we have Ayoub but you must be very brave. If this is your father I’m afraid he may be very ill.”
“ What’s going on, “ asked Hannah frustrated at her inability to understand but seeing from Ayoub’s face understood that things were bad.
“ I ‘m sorry I can’t explain now. We mustn’t lose this man. He is our only hope. I promise I’ll tell you everything later. “
The man they were following had slipped into a side street and they were having difficulty keeping him in sight while maintaining a safe distance as he turned first one way and then another through a warren of alley ways.
Finally they rounded a corner just in time to see the man disappear through a doorway and when they reached the house the door had been left slightly ajar. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one else was in the alley Cristobal stepped inside and beckoned them to follow him.
Inside it was dark and musty but as their eyes got used to the lack of light they could make out a corridor and a half and an open door from behind which came muffled voices. They went in.
In a corner of the room was a low single bed and on it lay an emaciated figure. Ayoub gave a cry and ran across throwing his arms round the man’s neck. Hannah heard him whisper “ Ayoub “ but then he was suddenly convulsed in a fit of consumptive coughing. Ayoub fell back shocked and frightened and Hannah put her arms round him . Cristobal stepped forward and knelt by the bed. Hannah watched him check the man over, putting his ear to his chest and taking his pulse and temperature.
When the coughing had subsided the man held out his arms to Ayoub who moved quietly to sit by him. Cristobal came back to Hannah and she could see the anger in his eyes.
“ It’s his lungs. They have been destroyed by inhaling all the chemicals they have to spray on the crops. There is nothing we can do. The damage is irreversible.”
“ But surely we should get him to hospital.”
“ They wouldn’t let us. He’s too frightened even though he’s dying. “
“ But what are we going to do with Ayoub? We can’t leave him here.”
At that point Ayoub’s father motioned to Cristobal and whispered, “ God bless you for saving my son and bringing him to me. I have a brother in Barcelona who will take him in and look after him. I want to get him away from here, somewhere he will be safe. “
“ Do you want us to take him?”
“ No, no my friend you have done enough. One of the people here is going next week. Ayoub can travel with him and I can have these last few days with him to prepare him, thanks to you.”
Cristobal told Hannah what was happening and then said,
“ I think we’d better leave now. We’ve done all we can.”
As they made to go Ayoub ran over and put his arms around her.
She held him for a moment very tightly and then let go,
“ Goodbye and good luck . God be with you. Salaam.”
“ Besalaamah” replied Ayoub putting his hand on his heart.
It was dark as they drove back and for a long time neither spoke each lost in their own thoughts. Hannah broke the silence,
“ Is there really nothing we can do?”
“ Not for Mukhtar. It is too late. As for the whole business I don’t know. It’s very dangerous and they all begged me not to get involved. They are very frightened of the mafia who organises it all.”
“ Yes but I’m sure it goes that. The whole system is implicated and there are a lot of powerfull vested interests at stake. Who knows how far it goes or where it ends.”
“ What do you mean?”
“ Well I think the mafia probably bring them in to order. With the huge labour shortage there is at the moment the farmers must be desperate and let’s face it no Spanish person in their right mind would want to do such awful work. Can you imagine spending all day in a polythene green house when its nearly fifty degrees outside and so dangerous spraying inscticides on the crops with none of the protective face masks they should have.”
“ And I suppose the farmers prefer using illegal labour” added Hannah, “ because it means they can pay them a fraction of the normal wage and they don’t have to worry about tax or national insurance.”
“ Exactly “ agreed Cristobal, “ they pocket huge profits as do the traffickers for their part. Immigrants come eagerly because they are promised jobs and anyway there is no work at home. If they have no cash to pay the fare they are told they can just pay it back later from their wages.”
“ Except , of course that those are barely enough to live on” cut in Hannah.
“ Well that’s the catch isn’t it “ said Cristobal , “ Instead of having money to send back to their wives and children as they had hoped, they end up working just to pay off their debt and here’s the really sick twist, because they have no money for accommodation the landlords generously let them sleep in the green house which just increases their exposure to the toxic air.”
“ So what happens to the ones who get ill ?”
“ They just throw them out and get others to replace them” said Cristobal bitterly.
“ Yes but then surely the mafia must lose out too because if they’re not working they can’t keep paying off the debt,” Hannah argued.
“ Oh they never write off a debt,” he said with mounting anger, “ If workers can’t pay , their families back home are threatened with violence and even death. There is talk of kidnapping, blackmail and ransom.”
“But even so we can’t do nothing, “ protested Hannah passionately. “ If we can’t go to the police , what about the press?”
“ I don’t know. I need to think about it, “ said Cristobal resisting her impatient pressure.
Hannah seethed with impotent rage as much as against his obstinate cautiousness and the situation as they talked about it.
They parted when they got back to the market. By now it was very late and they were both exhausted physically and emotionally.
“ Thank you for all your help Hannah said sincerely.
“That’s Ok “ he answered “ You ‘re right we have to do what we can.”
The next day he woke early and after making himself a strong black coffee sat down on his desk . He took a piece of paper and after addressing it to The Editor , E1 Pais , wrote underneath : To whom it may concern, I wish to bring to your attention an evil and vicious trade in human slavery which is going on every day under the nose of the authorities while everyone turns a blind eye. Something must be done. This has to stop.
Hannah woke later from a turbulent dream in which she was trying to protect a boy who was sometimes John and sometimes Ayoub. Her head was churning with unanswered questions and conflicting emotions but above all she felt a burning need to write.
Before she ‘d made up stories as a way of understanding the past, making sense of the present and dreaming about the future. But she hadn’t written for so long. Since John’s death past had been too painful, there seemed no sense in the present and had no hope for the future. People had urged her to use her pain to write but that had seemed to her irreverent. She couldn’t exploit it and anyway she’d felt barren not creative. But now something was niggling away inside her like the grain of sand that gets into tightly closed oyster.
She got out the old type writer and ran her fingers along the keys. They itched to start and without waiting to get dressed she put the paper in and wrote,
“ He was lying on the beach just above the water line…”