Welcome to Paradise
A young woman on holiday in the south of France is confronted with the reality of the refugee crisis
It was a glimpse into Paradise. The sun caught the old town first, its jumble of faded pastels glowing like the gilded ceilings of the Vatican – yellow, pink, rose, white, red, orange, grey and cadmium; medieval plasterwork rising joyously from the silky sea as it had done for more centuries than she could even comprehend.
Next the light would hit the mountains up beyond, their dark wooded valleys and bare silver rock-faces diffused behind the daily haze of early morning cloud. By ten the cloud would burn away, heat smothering the land with a shimmer of dry-roasted air.
Lucy would wake, tie on her sarong and carry her freshly brewed coffee out onto the balcony to watch the day begin.
She would hear them first: the crunch of footsteps on gravel in between the tracks. Always in bands of two or three, sometimes four, though never more than five. A larger group was far too obvious. Red rag to a bull.
At first she was surprised by their tidiness: pristine white trainers, crisp shirts and jeans, mirrored sunglasses, spotless backpacks – once she’d even seen a label still dangling from a pack – and they all had mobile phones glued to one ear, chatting as they cast worried glances back over their shoulders or peered intently up the tracks ahead. The white of their eyes and teeth flashed in the first probing rays of sun and, early evening, when the last few drifted by after the sun had sunk, that same flashing glow of white reminded her of the bioluminescence found in strange alien sea creatures hidden from the known world. The irony wasn’t lost on her; she hated that in some minds such links were literal.
She’d stumbled on the reason for their neatness one evening on her ritual walk. Just beyond the border, where the road wove up the hill towards the first of Italy’s charming little hilltop towns, she’d spied a gully filled with cast off clothes and tattered sandals spilling out of plastic bags. So this was where they ditched the smell of poverty and desperation to don the trappings of the Promised Land – that place where troubles, fears, and deprivation would somehow fall away . . . if only they could get across the border and blend in with the crowd.
They were all roughly her age or younger; predominantly boys, still gangly and cocksure, most in their late teens. Seldom female, though once her mother took pity on a skinny pregnant girl; ran down to the train tracks that bordered the garden of their rented apartment and handed her bottled water and a bag of oranges to stop her wilting in the midday sun. This, so far, had been the sole gesture of kindness Lucy had observed from anyone. Most frowned or looked away. Some, she had no doubt, informed on them to the police.
The police – now, they were in the thick of it. So well turned out. Testosterone-wide jaws. Steel-capped boots, holstered guns, Tasers, batons . . . and that was just the local cops. Of late, big-shot outsiders also came. Brawny men, self-important, muttering into RTs wired with ear-pieces. They crammed into vans behind a veil of tinted glass, sliding doors open to reveal the machine guns slung so casually at their sides. She watched them from a safe distance as she drank smooth Italian coffee at the bar beside the border. A busy junction, plenty of Europeans crossing over each day to buy cheap booze and cigarettes from the Tabac next door. Never questioned. Never a passport shown or stamped.
Some days she’d watch them herd group after group of the unwanted back into Italy, sweat glistening off furrowed ebony brows as they were turned away. Other times, she’d watch the police let a select few slip through, only to nab them further down the street. Cats toying with mice. They waited at the train station, boarded each carriage when it stopped and wandered through, gazes sweeping over every face until they spied the skin tone they were seeking. Always black. Their eyes would focus then. Lock on the target. Their bodies stiffen. She could almost hear their thoughts. Blanc . . . blanc . . . blanc . . . noir! Temps d’agir. Move! Move! Move!
It made her feel ill to see tall thin boys spread-eagled in narrow alleyways that stank of dog piss, frisked while the surrounding throng of police looked on, fingers fondling guns. She saw vans stopped, rear doors opened, trucks turned inside out. Sometimes the Italians joined the Frenchmen at the border, posing in their uniforms (high camp, thirty years ago), sporting silly hats. Would hassle these unfortunates – the poor ‘illegals’ – rub their noses in the fact that no one, no where, wanted them. They had no agency. Had slipped between the global gaps, fallen in the pit between the Haves and Nots. And it didn’t seem to matter what had driven them to flee their homelands or that they were in desperate need, they were still unwelcome. Ping pong balls tossed across the border then volleyed back. Au revoir! Arrivederci. Fuck off. Ciao.
She felt such guilt. She’d come to while away her days floating in the salty Med; share the precious windfall that had brought her parents here for six whole months. But when her parents had picked her up they were preoccupied with this; couldn’t stand the politics. And the very next morning she saw her first troop of shambling teenage boys, skin as black as liquorice, quick-stepping along the tracks. She’d pulled back into the shadow of the eaves; couldn’t bear for them to judge her decadence. Prickly indigestible guilt rose up inside her. Hadn’t lessened since. She’d breezed into Nice airport with a passport stamp; was greeted with pleasant Bonne Journeé. No questions asked. This wasn’t right.
At night, after the dishes were done, her parents always settled down to catch the BBC world news. Within a week of Lucy arriving, another boat from Africa had sunk before they made it safely to Lampedusa’s shore. Dozens dead. Teenagers. Mothers. Fathers. Kids. Most had walked for weeks, left family, sorrow, war, death, rape. Sold their bodies, sold their souls, just to chance that dangerous crossing from Third to First. There, they said, they would find work, live real lives, laugh, shop, have sex, get a decent education, do something to make a difference back at home. They lived on hope, yet hope was also what they sought – a chance to make a future different from the bleakness that had come before.
As her mother watched the shell-shocked faces of the few survivors and the poor bastards who pulled the bodies from the sea her tears fell freely.
‘I can’t bear it, Johnny. How can they just sit there and let these tragedies unfold before their eyes?’
‘Come on, you know it’s not the Italian’s, love, it’s the roughish bastards who . . .’
On it went, this discussion they returned to, night on night: how countries had a right to police their borders, how the underlying problem was inequity, how the police were reluctant meat in the sandwich, how the situation was creating a climate of hate like the years leading up to the Second World War . . .
Lucy took to walking after dinner. Couldn’t settle with her parents; had to outpace her sense of helplessness and ever-growing guilt. She was so white. So privileged. And yet she had so little real power.
She walked up the road towards Italy, the huge stratified cliffs with their seams of pink and orange looming over her and the sea smoothing its ruffled feathers way down below. She’d cross the border, thinking how she’d tell her friends she walked from France to Italy and back each night, past the row of police cars and vans, the bored faces, the huddles of watchful Africans further up. As darkness fell, one by one they’d give up for the day and start the long grinding trudge back to Ventimiglia, the closest town.
Since she’d started this nightly walk their numbers were rising. At first there were only one or two hanging back, not daring to meet her eye, hoping for a lucky break. Now the footpath was cluttered with groups, some exhausted, some resentful, some just lying on the ground. She refused to ignore them like the other walkers who were out; would meet each eye and give a friendly smile, the kind she’d give to anyone whose path she crossed. She’d walk up to the vantage point that spread the view before her like a dreamscape – France off to her right, with the spire of Menton’s ancient church reaching for the last light, and Italy claiming the coast to her left, its terraces and dry-stone walls snaking around the hills like contour lines – and let the beauty of the scene soothe her, steel her, for the trek back down.
Her friendly smile didn’t go unheeded. Some spoke to her now, a few in French, to which she’d have to say ‘Désolé, je ne parle pas français’, ironically her most polished phrase. Most times, they’d switch to English then, always polite, asking questions she was sure they knew the answers to. Is the border far away? Are there any police there? Is there a bus back to Ventimiglia? How long will it take to walk? Were they merely craving conversation, some acknowledgement that someone, anyone, would treat them as a fellow human being? Or was it a prelude to some call for help? If so, it never came. Just polite questions to already established facts.
But when she stopped to speak with them she found she was the target of disapproving glances from any Europeans who passed. It cemented something in her, a determined stubbornness, an increased fury at the blatant sense of Them and Us.
One night on her downward beat she was greeted by a tall pleasant-faced youth. ‘Hello. You speak English?’
She stopped and smiled again. He wore stiff blue jeans and a teeshirt that said Nike 72.His shoes were so white they emitted glare. ‘Yes, I do.’ He had tired rings under his eyes and a slightly stale smell of sweat, despite his pristine clothes.
‘Are any police down there – at border?’
‘Yeah. Sorry. Still quite a few.’
‘You are English?’
‘No, I’m from New Zealand.’
‘New Zealand. Wow. You live here?’
‘Just visiting. My mum is doing some research here for six months.’ A car drew level with them, its female driver glaring as if Lucy was passing state secrets to the enemy. She turned her back on the woman. Felt her cheeks heat up. ‘What about you? Where are you from?’
‘Eritrea. You know?’
‘Yep.’ She laughed. ‘Well . . . roughly.’ Felt ignorant. ‘It’s near Ethiopia, right?’ Fingers crossed.
He smiled, a warm smile that lit his eyes, and jerked his head towards the groups nearby. ‘Sure, sure. Next door. And there be lots of Ethiopians here too.’ He swiped the sweat building on his top lip onto his shoulder and sighed. ‘My home not safe. You know? Many in jails. Many dead.’
‘I’m sorry.’ What else could she say?
‘What your name?’
‘Eyemlucee? Okay. Hello!’ She tried not to smile as he offered his hand, not wanting to embarrass him by correcting this. His fingers were long and pale, nails wide, chewed to the quick. He pointed to himself. ‘Hayat. Means lion.’
‘Cool. How do you do?’ She shook his hand solemnly, aware of the leathery texture of his skin. Wanted him to know what she’d been feeling all these days, that she was on his side, but was scared it would come out all bleeding-heart. Besides, it was far too big. Might make her cry. Always did, when something meant a lot to her.
Out of nowhere, as if channelling someone braver, stauncher, more daring than herself, a crazy idea fluttered up and flew straight from her lips. ‘I’ll walk you through, if you like.’
‘You what? Pardon?’
Holy shit. Had she really said that? ‘The border. I’ll walk you through like you’re my friend and the police might not stop you. It’s worth a try.’
He stood staring, mouth agog, as her heart rapped so hard and fast she was sure he’d hear it. Was she mad? What would they do if they caught her? Could they send her home?
‘You think that work?’
She grinned now, adrenaline goading her. Shrugged, like she did this all the time. ‘I can’t promise anything, but we could try it.’
‘Really? You would do?’
‘Yeah, why not?’ If nothing else it would ease a little of the guilt, more practical than a Hail Mary.
‘Okay!’ His eyes mirrored her own terror-laced excitement. ‘Let’s do!’
They started walking downhill together, side by side, but he was a good half a metre taller and his long legs soon outpaced her. ‘Slow down,’ she said. ‘This is supposed to be a friendly stroll!’
He put the brakes on. Eased back beside her. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
They side-stepped around a guy who sprawled across the footpath, fast asleep. ‘My friend, Yemane.’
‘Is he okay?’
‘He walked long way today.’
The border was just around the next corner now. ‘So, tell me about your family,’ she said, hoping to strike up a conversation that might look natural. Immediately regretted it. What if his family had suffered some terrible misfortune? Stupid, stupid.
‘Two sisters and five brothers,’ he said. Sweat coursed down his forehead and she could smell his fear mingle with her own. Feral. Sour.
Ahead, two policemen lounged against an open van door, three more playing cards inside. Only one faced up the road towards them, his body-language relaxed as he chatted to his mate. But as Lucy and Hayat approached she saw him stiffen, and when he fixed her with his stare she fought its intense gravitational pull. Mustn’t look at him. Mustn’t seem to notice him at all. Out. Having. A. Friendly. Stroll.
She lunged for Hayat’s bony elbow and hugged it to her. Started prattling. Made it loud. ‘Yeah, and remember that time we went to the beach and you fell in the water?’ She faked a laugh, tinny to her ear.
Hayat stared at her as if she was completely off her rocker, but she couldn’t stop. Could feel the policeman’s scrutiny zero in, detonating a sonic boom inside her head.
‘Yeah, yeah, you know, and Sally said that if we wet her she’d . . .’ Fuck knows what else she said. Just kept up some kind of pointless dribble until they were through the border, had crossed the road, and high-tailed it up the steps onto the street above. Out of sight. She punched the air. Out Of Fucking Sight!
When she dropped Hayat’s arm she nearly buckled as her knees gave out.
He steadied her. ‘Okay?’
‘Yeah, thanks.’ She gulped down air. Pointed along the road. ‘If you keep going that way you’ll avoid their usual hangout down by the tracks. This’ll take you right into the middle of town.’
‘So much thank you, Eyemlucee. You go back get Yemane now?’
‘What?’ Her elation evaporated.
‘Yemane. He needs too.’
‘But I . . .’ Could she? Maybe? No, not tonight. They’d recognise her. Saint Lucy of the fiery red-dyed locks. She wasn’t exactly a wallflower. ‘Look, I’m really sorry but I can’t. They know me now. If they see me come through again with someone else they’ll stop me, you can bet on it.’
She forced herself to look into his eyes, so he could read her disappointment, her regret, and know that it was real. But it hurt, seeing the realisation dawn on him. Like watching a movie without the sound. He worked through frustration, shouldered his resentment, and then shook off his resignation to gift her a genuinely grateful smile. ‘Goodbye Eyemlucee. To you I give my thanks.’
They shook hands again and she wished him luck. Watched him walk away, this tall lion of a boy, alone on this tidy suburban street with the darkening Mediterranean sea below. Hugged herself.
Welcome to Paradise, she whispered. She couldn’t quite suppress a shudder.
This short story first appeared in the Edinburgh University Press publication Katherine Mansfield in Translation: Katherine Mansfield studies, Volume 7 2015