The sun beat down on Arun’s back, he could feel beads of perspiration trickle down his body. He put down the crate he was carrying and sat down under the shade of one of the orange trees. He reached over to the crate and his big hand grasped one of the oranges that he’d picked earlier. With the deft touch of a professional he peeled the skin off with ease. He picked out a small segment, its juices bursting on the back of his throat as he bit into it. He leaned back and basked in the gentle breeze that the orange tree provided. He closed his eyes as he bit into a second segment.
“Wake the fuck up you lazy bastard!”
Arun felt a kick in his side, he let out a groan as his eyes slowly opened.
Grey drab curtains with a faded pattern hung over a single window with a broken pane. Arun lay on a mattress, a rough brown blanket covered his body. Around him were about twenty other mattresses, each with the same rough brown blanket strewn over them.
Arun rolled over and looked up into the face of the man that had kicked him. Kahlid was Albanian, a face like a skull, sunken cheeks, his skin stretched to breaking point over his bones. A patchy stubbled beard tried unsuccessfully to hide old scars.
“Always you Arun. Why you so lazy?”
Arun kept silent, he’d seen what happened to people who answered back. He rolled off his mattress, turned his back on Kahlid as he put on his trainers.
“We haven’t got all day.”
Kahlid grabbed Arun by the scruff and dragged him outside before he’d had chance to put his trainers on properly.
Arun didn’t complain.
Outside, a beat up old transit van was waiting. Kahlid opened the door and pushed Arun inside, slamming the door behind him. A rancid stench filled Arun’s nostrils, a mixture of stale sweat, blood and urine. There were eight other men in the back of the van, Arun squeezed himself into a spot. Not one of them spoke. Not one of them even made eye contact.
Arun wondered if any of them had an orange grove back home?
His daydream wasn’t allowed to last long, the van trundled into motion, the men swaying with every bump. Some of them chatted quietly amongst themselves in languages that Arun didn’t understand. Their clothes were dishevelled, each had beanie hats pulled tight over their heads and thick stubble on their faces. All of them had hollow haunted eyes, as if their dreams had long since been betrayed.
Arun stared at his feet, at his untied trainers, tried to imagine them trudging through the dried dust of the orange grove, tried to imagine the sun on his back, the same sun that had scorched the orange grove killing the crop forcing him to make the treacherous journey to this grey, cold, wet, hard country.
The van stopped.
All chatter stopped.
The door creaked as it was violently pulled open, Kahlid’s cold face sneered at them. He pulled two of the men out by their shoulders. They stood solemnly as he barked orders at them. The van doors were slammed shut.
Arun could see his mother waving goodbye, good luck charms, some cigarettes, even a little money had been shoved into his hand. It was over forty kilometres to the nearest town and the meeting place that had been arranged for him. His uncle had done the deal, he knew people. His mother had always called her brother the black sheep.
Sometimes black sheep can have their uses.
The van was nearly empty, just Arun and two smaller men were left.
The van stopped again.
Kahlid stood at the open door, Arun was sure he was smiling at him as his shoulder was grabbed, but with Kahlid it was always difficult to tell.
It started to rain again, it always seemed to rain in this country.
Kahlid pushed Arun in the back, moving him round a corner. They stood at the edge of a shopping arcade, Kahlid pointed towards some large wheelie bins. Arun looked at Kahlid.
“You make me money, or I slit your mother’s throat.”
He made a theatrical gesture across his throat.
Arun walked towards the wheelie bins, pulled out a piece of cardboard and placed it on the ground before he sat on it, his back pressed against the wheelie bin.
Kahlid threw a small rucksack at him.
“Make me money.”
Arun watched Kahlid walk away. He wished he had the bravery to slit his throat. But he knew that somebody else would just take his place.
Arun opened the rucksack, in it was a tatty woollen hat and a cup. He turned the cup around, it had no logos, no design, just a plain cup. He placed it on the ground in front of him. The hat at one stage of its life used to be blue, possibly a snowflake design, but now it was a non-descript grey, a small hole developing next to the snowflake. Arun could feel it start to rain harder, he pulled the hat on and pulled his jacket around him.
The rain smelt differently in this country, back home it was sweet and light, a sign of a good harvest. Here it was grey and cold, got into your bones and dragged you down. Arun pushed his back further against the wheelie bin, its slight slope sheltering him. He could feel the rain trickle down his neck soaking into his shirt, he fidgeted but it didn’t make any difference.
People scampered by, dancing to avoid their expensive shoes getting wet in the puddles. Arun might as well have been invisible to them, heaven forbid they let the real world enter their lives. Arun liked to make up stories about them, about what their lives were like, big houses, expensive cars, beautiful wives. Could be him one day.
Arun laughed, threw his head back and laughed. The rain splashed on his face, his laugh echoed off the wheelie bin. His cup clattered.
Arun stopped laughing.
A young girl walked away, Arun hadn’t seen her approach, he glanced at the cup, two gold coins, the young girl kept walking, she didn’t turn round.
Arun whispered thank you.
He took the two coins out of the cup and stashed them in his pocket.
The rain didn’t last long, it never did, but it was enough to make him feel uncomfortable all day. He watched as a mother reprimanded her child for splashing in one of the puddles. It made him think of his mother, the way she spent hours teaching him the correct way to harvest the oranges, then would lecture him for almost as long if he bruised the fruit.
He missed those days.
He missed his home.
He missed the sun.
He missed the oranges.
He missed everything.
He looked at the scraps in his cup, a few silver coins but mostly coppers. It rattled as he shook it. A couple of men in suits walked past, they did their best to deny his existence. Arun shook his cup louder, forced them to look, pure horror crossed their faces.
Arun tried his most sympathetic look, a single note fluttered into his lap, missing the cup altogether. Arun had long ago given up being proud.
The suits carried on their very important lives.
Arun stuffed the note into the cup, underneath the coins.
The sun came out, there was no heat in it at all, what was the point in this country?
The day contained nothing but slim pickings, not many more coins, and only one more note. He knew that Kahlid would not be happy, but then Kahlid was never happy.
Harvest season on the orange grove was the best, when the crates were full and your back ached with the effort, when songs were sung and life was good. Arun’s back felt bad, the metal of the wheelie bin was cold and unforgiving, he just couldn’t get comfortable. He tried stretching, pulled his big arms up high, but it made no difference, just made him feel damp from the rain in different places.
He rattled his cup at more passers by, looks of disdain and revulsion showered down on him. He wondered if he’d do the same in their shoes? Beggars were something he hadn’t seen back home until recently, everybody worked on various farms, but then the harvests failed. Not once, but three times. That was when he started to see beggars.
Arun could remember that he vowed he would never be one, he’d use his uncle’s contacts to find him work abroad. Several thousands later and here he was, doing exactly what he despised, his life savings gone. All he had now were his memories and his dreams.
Arun could recognise the engine of the van from miles away. He looked up and could see Kahlid striding towards him. Without a word Kahlid snatched the cup, he stared scornfully at its contents.
Arun didn’t see the blow coming, the side of his head, and his ear, burned. His hat was knocked clean off.
“What is this?”
The words hissed out of Kahlid’s mouth. Arun rubbed his ear and said nothing.
“Lazy piece of shit!”
Arun saw the second blow coming and managed to shift his weight so that it was only a glancing blow. This only succeeded in enraging Kahlid, he pulled Arun to his feet and dragged him back to the van, not caring who was watching. Arun struggled to stay on his feet, he stumbled and staggered, but he didn’t say a word, he didn’t struggle.
One hand holding the scruff of Arun’s jacket, his free hand wrenched open the van door.
Kahlid’s skull-like face seemed to look right through Arun.
As the van door was slammed shut in him Arun could remember his uncle introducing him to Tariq, the man that would ensure his passage to this, this glorious country. Arun could remember thinking that he looked very, very ordinary. Tariq was more eager to take his savings, sold him the sun with his words.
Insults rained down on Arun as much as blows, when finally they stopped he could see, through a half closed eye, Kahlid putting his jacket back on. He looked back at him with a sneer as he left the room.
Arun lay on the floor, he could hear the others in the backroom, their vibrations travelling through the floorboards. He listened to them through his fingertips, he could feel blood swimming in his ears, in fact he could feel blood almost everywhere on his face, could taste it in his mouth.
He couldn’t move. His body cried out when he tried. So he just lay there, listening to vibrations.
The sun weakened as they travelled. Arun reckoned they were heading north. Six of them huddled on the back of a pickup truck, three other men, a woman and her child. They travelled through night and day, stopping only for gas. Arun noticed that the other men could not maintain eye contact, he wondered if they were criminals. The woman was constantly whispering something into her child’s ear, words of comfort, of love, of warning. The child stared at Arun throughout the entire journey, watched everything he did. He found it unnerving.
Arun groaned as he felt his ribs being nudged, he rocked slightly on the floor.
“He’s still alive.” He heard someone say, it wasn’t Kahlid.
He felt his body being lifted, someone had hold of his legs, another held him under his arms. He rocked back and forth as they carried him, one of them didn’t have a very good grip of him and kept readjusting.
He was glad when they clumsily laid him down on a mattress. He could hear other voices now, he was obviously back in the back room. Arun decided to keep his eyes closed for now. Judging by the voices he could hear they were nervous, seeing Arun’s battered body had scared them, he didn’t need to understand their language to know this.
The journey on the pickup lasted for what felt like days. Eventually they were all ushered off, as Arun looked around him he realised it was nothing more than a lay by at the side of the road. Tariq ordered them all to stay put as he marched off to talk to a tall fat bald man, dressed in brown trousers and a vest. Their conversation didn’t last long, they both walked back to the group. Tariq explained that Mohammed would be taking them the rest of the way. Tariq then wandered back to his pickup truck and drove off.
Mohammed spoke gruffly as he pushed them towards his lorry, one of them made to climb up to the cab. Mohammed grabbed them and pulled them to the ground, yelling in their face, screaming abuse. He then marched them round to the back of the lorry and swung open the heavy doors. The back of the lorry was stacked high with boxes of fruit, Arun could even see some with oranges, he tried not to think of home. Mohammed pointed up to the top of the stack of boxes.
After a precarious climb they discovered a hidden space, not big enough to stand up in, but if they squeezed they could all fit.
The door of the lorry groaned shut and closed with a thunderous boom. They were plunged into near darkness, the only light coming from a small slats in the side of the lorry.
Arun would never forget the noise of the door closing for as long as he lived.
“You must eat.”
Arun forced open one eye slowly at the sound of the voice.
“Eat to get strong. He’ll kill you if you’re not strong.”
Arun felt a spoon of hot soup pushed against his lips, its aroma rising up his nostrils, filling his head, the smell reminding him of home.
It hurt as he swallowed,
Another spoonful quickly followed.
The liquid ran down his throat, he could feel it all the way, coating his insides.
The rain battered the side of the truck, a final break to the intense heat, the storm had been brewing for days. Arun could, at first, feel the moisture on the walls of the truck, then he put his lips to the wall and tried to drink deeply, he didn’t care what it looked like, didn’t care for dignity, he only cared for survival. The others saw what he was doing and quickly followed his lead. The child was particularly voracious. Anybody outside hearing the loud slurping noises would’ve been completely bemused.
Arun was convinced that for the first time he could see the others smile.
The backroom was staring to feel like a prison, Arun looked round at the other mattresses, the blankets twitching, the others trying to block out the outside world. Arun gingerly hauled himself into a sitting position, his head span, his ribs ached, he knew not to cry out, the one thing he’d learned. Gingerly he lifted up his shirt, his chest was various different shades of blue and green, it looked like a map of a strange world. He flinched slightly as he prodded at the bruises, no worse than being kicked by a horse he reasoned.
He could hear Kahlid’s voice out in the corridor, he never seemed to be very far away, controlling, manipulating everything. One day, Arun thought, one day he would be free of him. All debts paid off, then he could resume his life.
The darkness was all encompassing, Arun couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face, never mind the others. He presumed the truck had entered a tunnel, there was a constant roaring noise accompanied by a sort of electrical hum. It seemed to go on for hours. Then finally there was respite, thin shards of light shone through the walls of the truck. The child’s face stared back at him, she looked scared. Arun put out his hand for comfort, but she recoiled. He wondered what the mother had been constantly whispering.
There were suddenly voices, lots of voices.
Arun tensed, held his breath
Please don’t let there be dogs, he thought, please don’t let there be dogs.
The voices seemed to swarm round the truck.
Everybody pushed themselves into the furthest corners of their hiding place, breathing stopped, every muscle tensed.
Banging came on all sides, Arun’s body started to ache with tension, even the child stopped moving, cowered into her mother.
Arun squeezed right up against the wall of the truck, he could see through one of the small gaps, he tried not to move, but he could see around six guards circling the truck.
They knew they were here!
Someone had given them up!
Arun tried to see if he could see Mohammed, the driver, but he was nowhere.
It must be him.
He must have given them up.
Could he make a run for it? Would he be able to get out of the truck before the guards spotted him? If he ran though, he’d give the others away. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t have that on his conscience.
Kahlid held up Arun’s hands and let them drop. He pushed his head to one side with a single finger and glanced at the bruises.
“You work now.”
Not once did he look Arun in the eye.
Arun knew he didn’t exist anymore, the more he stayed here the more he disappeared.
He had to get away.
Much to their surprise the truck started to pull away, startled eyes looked all around, loud gasps, hugs.
The truck trundled on.
Arun was woken with a shake from his sleep, a large calloused hand on his shoulder. He almost lashed out, but he realised it was one of the other men.
The truck had stopped, they were all getting off.
Arun clambered out of the tight space, his legs felt wobbly and weak when he finally got to stand up straight. It was dark, they seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, in the distance were the lights of a small town. Arun could smell the sea.
Mohammed gathered them round, he explained that there would be a man waiting for them in the town. The others started to chatter loudly, Mohammed told them to be quiet.
Arun tried to work out where the sea was.
Mohammed explained further that he had had to bribe the guards and they now owed him for the bribe.
The chatter stopped.
They had no money, their life savings had paid for this trip.
Mohammed explained that they would have to work for the man in town, until the debt was paid.
Startled eyes looked all around.
Arun cursed his uncle.
It was raining again.
The town, the place, the country, the rain. All seemed to seep into Arun’s bones. He sat on the same spot, huddled in against the wheelie bin, staring out at the dancing puddles. People walked by, to him they didn’t have faces, he didn’t look up. In any case they didn’t see him, he was like a ghost, he could probably do anything he wanted and they wouldn’t even notice, probably wouldn’t even care. The rain dripped down his neck, sticking his clothes to his back.
Why so much rain?
Not just rain, cold rain.
Arun shivered and pulled his tatty jacket tighter, he looked at the holes in his trainers, the one that was letting in water. He leant forward to pick at it. In front of him was a pair of highly polished ladies shoes, he looked up. Looking down at him was a smiling face, kind eyes. She seemed familiar, but Arun couldn’t place her, but he was sure he’d seen her before.
She held out a hand, Arun glanced at it, he couldn’t see any money in it. She gestured again with her hand, Arun was confused, he looked round to see if he could see Kahlid. She reached down and took his hand, pulled him to his feet.
Arun followed her, he felt no fear.
She held his hand and he followed her.
The sun was shining, the blanket didn’t scratch. Arun rolled over and yawned. There were voices, there was laughter, the blanket slipped from his shoulder, he could feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. For the first time in ages he felt safe. His hand clenched tightly, starting to ache, he opened his hand wide and looked at the two gold coins.