By ABDULRAZAK GURNAH
She said she'll call later, and sometimes when she says that she does. Rachel. She sent me a card because I don't have a telephone in the flat, I refuse to have one. In the card she said that I should call her if her coming was a problem, but I haven't. I have no urge to do so. It's late now, so I don't suppose she'll be coming after all, not today.
Though, in the card she did say today after six. Maybe it was only one of those gestures that was complete when it was made, to say that she had thought of me, in the sure expectation that I would take comfort from that, which I do. It doesn't matter, just that I don't want her turning up in the deep hours of the night, shattering its pregnant silences with a racket of explanations and regrets, and blurting out plans to take away more of the remaining hours of darkness.
I marvel how the hours of darkness have come to be so precious to me, how night silences have turned out so full of mumbles and whispers when before they had been so terrifyingly still, so tense with the uncanny noiselessness that hovered above words. As if coming to live here has shut one narrow door and opened another into a widening concourse. In the darkness I lose a sense of space, and in this nowhere I feel myself more solidly, and hear the play of voices more clearly, as if they were happening for the first time. Sometimes I hear music in the distance, played in the open and coming to me as a muted whisper. I long for night each arid day, even though I dread the darkness and its limitless chambers and shifting shadows. Sometimes I think it is my fate to live in the wreckage and confusion of crumbling houses.
It is difficult to know with precision how things became as they have, to be able to say with some assurance that first it was this and it then led to that and the other, and now here we are. The moments slip through my fingers. Even as I recount them to myself, I can hear echoes of what I am suppressing, of something I've forgotten to remember, which then makes the telling so difficult when I don't wish it to be. But it is possible to say something, and I have an urge to give this account, to give an accounting of the minor dramas I have witnessed and played a part in, and whose endings and beginnings stretch away from me. I don't think it's a noble urge. What I mean is, I don't know a great truth which I ache to impart, nor have I lived an exemplary experience which will illuminate our conditions and our times. Though I have lived, I have lived. It is so different here that it seems as if one life has ended and I am now living another one. So perhaps I should say of myself that once I lived another life elsewhere, but now it is over. Yet I know that the earlier one teems and pulses in rude good health behind me and before me. I have time on my hands, I am in the hands of time, so I might as well account for myself. Sooner or later we have to attend to that.
I live in a small town by the sea, as I have all my life, though for most of it it was by a warm green ocean a long way from here. Now I live the half-life of a stranger, glimpsing interiors through the television screen and guessing at the tireless alarms which afflict people I see in my strolls. I have no inkling of their plight, though I keep my eyes open and observe what I can, but I fear that I recognise little of what I see. It is not that they are mysterious, but that their strangeness disarms me. I have so little understanding of the striving that seems to accompany their most ordinary acts. They seem consumed and distracted, their eyes smarting as they tug against turmoils incomprehensible to me. Perhaps I exaggerate, or cannot resist dwelling on my difference from them, cannot resist the drama of our contrastedness. Perhaps they are only straining against the cold wind that blows in from the murky ocean, and I am trying too hard to make sense of the sight. It is not easy, after all these years, to learn not to see, to learn discretion about the meaning of what I think I see. I am fascinated by their faces. They jeer at me. I think they do.
The streets make me tense and nervous, and sometimes even in my locked-in flat I find myself unable to sleep or sit at ease because of the rustlings and whisperings that agitate the lower air. The upper air is always full of agitation because God and his angels live there and debate high policy, and flush out treachery and rebellion. They do not welcome casual listeners or informers or self-servers and have the fate of the universe to darken their brows and whiten their hair. As a precaution, the angels release a corrosive shower every now and then to deter mischievous eavesdroppers with a threat of deforming wounds. The middle air is the arena for contention, where the clerks and the anteroom afreets and the wordy jinns and flabby serpents writhe and flap and fume as they strain for the counsels of their betters. Ack ack, did you hear what he said? What can it mean? In the murk of the lower air is where you'll find the venomless time-servers and the fantasists who'll believe anything and defer to everything, the gullible and the spiritless throngs that crowd and pollute the narrowing spaces where they congregate, and that's where you'll find me. Nowhere else suits me quite as well. Perhaps I should say nowhere else suited me quite as well. That is where you would have found me when I was in my prime and pomp, for since coming here I have not been able to ignore the misgivings and the agitation I feel in the airs and lanes of this town. Not everywhere, though. I mean I do not feel this agitation everywhere and at every time. Furniture shops in the morning are silent, expansive places, and I stroll in them in some equanimity, troubled only by the tiny particles of artificial fibre which fill the air and which corrode the lining of my nostrils and bronchials, and which in the end drive me away for a while.
I found the furniture shops by chance, in the early days when they first moved me here, though I have always had an interest in furniture. At the very least, it weighs us down and keeps us on the ground, and prevents us from clambering up trees and howling naked as the terror of our useless lives overcomes us. It keeps us from wandering aimlessly in pathless wildernesses, plotting cannibalism in forest clearings and dripping caves. I speak for myself, even though I presume to include the unspeaking in my banal wisdom. Anyway, the refugee people found this flat for me and brought me here from the lodging where I had been staying, from Celia's bed and breakfast house. The journey from there was brief but full of twists and turns through short streets with lines of similar houses. It made me feel as if I was being taken to a place of hiding. Except that the streets were so silent and so straight, it could have been a part of that other town I once lived in. No, it couldn't. It was too clean, and bright and open. Too silent. The streets were too wide, the lamp-posts too regular, the road-side kerbs still whole, everything in working order. Not that that town I lived in before was excessively filthy and dark, but its streets twisted in upon themselves, curling tightly on the corrupt detritus of fermented intimacies. No, it couldn't be part of that town, but there was something alike in it, because it made me feel hemmed in and observed. So as soon as they left me, I went out, to see where I was and to see if I could find the sea. That was how I found the small village of furniture shops round the corner from here, six of them, each as large as a warehouse and arranged in a square marked out with car-parking spaces. It was called Middle Square Park. Most mornings it is quiet and empty there, and I stroll among the beds and the sofas until the fibres drive me away. I enter a different store every day, and after the first or second time, the assistants no longer make eye-contact. I wander between the sofas and the dining tables, and the beds and the sideboards, lounging on an item for a few seconds, trying out the machinery, checking the price, comparing the fabric of this to that one. Needless to say, some of the furniture is ugly and over-decorated, but some of it is delicate and ingenious, and in these warehouses I feel for a while a kind of content and the possibility of mercy and absolution.
I am a refugee, an asylum-seeker. These are not simple words, even if habit of hearing them makes them seem so. I arrived at Gatwick Airport in the late afternoon of 23 November last year. It is a familiar minor climax in our stories, leaving what we know and arriving in strange places, carrying little bits of jumbled luggage and suppressing secret and garbled ambitions. For some, as for me, it was the first journey by air, and the first arrival in a place so monumental as an airport, though I have travelled by sea and by land, and in my imagination. I walked slowly through what felt like coldly lit and silent empty tunnels, though now on reflection I know I walked past rows of seats and large glass windows, and signs and instructions. Tunnels, the streaming darkness outside lashing with fine rain and the light inside drawing me in. What we know constantly reels us in to our ignorance, makes us see the world as if we were still squatting in that shallow tepid pool which we had known since childhood terrors. I walked slowly, surprised at every anxious turn that an instruction awaited to tell me where to go. I walked slowly so that I would not miss a turning or misread a sign, so that I would not attract attention too early by getting into a flutter of confusion. They took me away at the passport desk. `Passport', the man said, after I had been standing in front of him for a moment too long, waiting to be found out, to be arrested. His face looked stern, even though the blankness in his eyes was intended to give nothing away. I had been told not to say anything, to pretend I could not speak any English. I was not sure why, but I knew I would do as I was told because the advice had a crafty ring to it, the kind of resourceful ruse the powerless would know. They will ask you your name and your father's name, and what good you had done in your life: say nothing. When he said Passport a second time, I handed it over, wincing in anticipation of abuse and threats. I was used to officials who glared and spluttered at you for the smallest mishap, who toyed with you and humiliated you for the sheer pleasure of wielding their hallowed authority. So I expected the immigration hamal behind his little podium to register something, to snarl or shake his head, to look up slowly and stare at me with the blaze of assurance with which the fortunate regard the supplicant. But he looked up from leafing through my joke document with a look of suppressed joy in his eyes, like a fisherman who has just felt a tug on the line. No entry visa. Then he picked up his phone and spoke into it for a moment. Smiling openly now, he asked me to wait on one side.
I stood with my eyes lowered, so I did not see the approach of the man who took me away for questioning. He called me by name and smiled as I looked up, a friendly worldly smile which said with some assurance, Why don't you come with me so we can sort out this little problem? As he strode briskly ahead of me, I saw that he was overweight and looked unhealthy, and by the time we reached an interview room, he was breathing heavily and tugging at his shirt. He sat in a chair and immediately shifted uncomfortably in it, and I thought of him as someone sweatily trapped in a form he disliked. It made me fear that his distemper would indispose him towards me but then he smiled again, and was soft-spoken and polite. We were in a small windowless room with a hard floor, with a table between us and a bench running along one wall. It was lit with hard fluorescent strips which made the pewter-coloured walls close in out of the corners of my eyes. He told me his name was Kevin Edelman, pointing to the badge he wore on his jacket. May God give you health, Kevin Edelman. He smiled again, smiling a lot, perhaps because he could see my nervousness despite my best efforts and wished to reassure me, or perhaps in his work it was unavoidable that he should take pleasure at the discomfort of those who came before him. He had a pad of yellow paper in front of him, and he wrote in it for a moment or two, taking down the name from my joke passport before he spoke to me.
`May I see your ticket, please?'
Ticket, oh yes.
`I see you have baggage,' he said, pointing. `Your baggage identification tag.'
I played dumb. You might know ticket without speaking English, but baggage identification tag seemed advanced.
`I'll have the baggage collected for you,' he said, keeping the ticket beside his note-pad. Then he smiled again, interrupting himself from saying more on the subject. A long face, a bit fleshy in the temples, especially then as he smiled.
Perhaps he was only smiling in anticipation of the mixed pleasure of picking through my baggage, and the assurance that what he saw there would tell him what he needed to know, with or without my assistance. I imagine there would be some pleasure in such scrutiny, like looking into a room before it has been prepared for viewing, before its truthful ordinariness has been transformed into a kind of spectacle. I imagine there would be pleasure too in having an assured grasp of the secret codes that reveal what people seek to hide, a hermeneutics of baggage that is like following an archaeological trail or examining lines on a shipping map. I kept quiet, matching my breathing to his, so that I should feel the approach of annoyance in him. Reason for seeking entry into the United Kingdom? Are you a tourist? On holiday? Any funds? Do you have any money, sir? Traveller's cheques? Sterling? Dollars? Do you know anybody who can offer a guarantee? Any contact address? Was there someone you were hoping to stay with while you were in the United Kingdom? Oh, bloody hell, bloody stupid hell. Do you have family in UK? Do you speak any English, sir? I am afraid your documents are not in order, sir, and I will have to refuse you permission to enter. Unless you can tell me something about your circumstances. Do you have any documentation that might help me understand your circumstances? Papers, do you have any papers?
He left the room, and I sat calmly and still, suppressing a sigh of relief, and counted backwards from 145, which was where I had got to while he was talking to me. I restrained myself from leaning forward to inspect his pad, in case he had seen through my dumb silence, but I suspected someone would be peering at me through a spyhole, watching for just such an incriminating move. It must have been the drama of the moment that made me think that. As if anyone could have cared whether I was picking my nose or secreting diamonds up my bowel. Sooner or later they would get to know all they needed to know. They had machines for all that. I had been warned. And their officials had been trained at great expense to see through the lies people like me told, and in addition they had great and frequent experience. So I sat still and counted quietly, shutting my eyes now and then to suggest distress, reflection and a trace of resignation. Do with me what you will, O Kevin.
He returned with the small green cloth bag I had brought as my luggage, and put the bag on the bench. `Would you mind opening this please,' he said. I looked agitated and uncomprehending, I hoped, and waited for him to elaborate. He glared at me and pointed at the bag, so with smiles of relief and understanding, and placating nods, I got up to unzip the bag. He took one item out at a time, laying each one out carefully on the bench, as if he was unpacking clothing of some delicacy: two shirts, one blue, one yellow, both faded, three white T-shirts, one pair of brown trousers, three pairs of underpants, two pairs of socks, one kanzu, two sarunis, a towel and a small wooden casket. He sighed when he came to the last item, turning it round in his hand with interest and then sniffing it. `Mahogany?' he asked. I said nothing, of course, touched for the moment by the paltry mementos of a life spread out on the bench in that airless room. It was not my life that lay spread there, just what I had selected as signals of a story I hoped to convey. Kevin Edelman opened the casket and started with surprise at its contents. Perhaps he expected jewellery or something valuable. Drugs. `What's this?' he asked, then carefully sniffed the open casket. It was hardly necessary, as the little room had filled with glorious perfume as soon as he opened the box. `Incense,' he said. `It is, isn't it?' He shut the casket and put it down on the bench, his tired eyes sparkling with amusement. Interesting booty from the reeking heat of some bazaar. I sat down on the chair as he instructed me, and waited while he went back to the bench with his pad and noted down the grubby items he had laid out there.
He went on writing for a moment longer after he came back to the table, having now filled two or three pages of his note-pad, then he put his pen down and leaned back, wincing slightly as the back of the chair bit into his weary shoulder-blades. He looked pleased with himself, almost cheerful. I could see he was about to pronounce sentence, and I could not suppress a surge of depression and panic. `Mr Shaaban, I don't know you or know anything about the reasons that brought you here, or the expenses you incurred and all that. So I am sorry for what I now have to do, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to refuse you entry into the United Kingdom. You don't have a valid entry visa, you have no funds and you have no one who can offer a guarantee for you. I don't suppose you can understand what I am saying, but I have to tell you this anyway before I stamp your passport. Once I stamp your passport as having been refused entry, it means that next time you attempt to enter the United Kingdom you will automatically be turned away, unless your papers are in order, of course. Did you understand what I just said? No, I didn't think so. I'm sorry about this, but we have to go through these formalities none the less. We'll try and find someone who speaks your language so that they can explain it all to you later. In the meantime, we will be putting you on the next available flight back to the destination you came from and on the airline that brought you here.' With that he leafed through my passport, looking for a clean page, and then picked up the little stamp he had placed on the table when he first came back.
`Refugee,' I said. `Asylum.'
He looked up, and I dropped nay eyes. His were angry. `So you do speak English,' he said. `Mr Shaaban, you've been taking the piss.'
`Refugee,' I repeated. `Asylum.' I glanced up as I said this, and started to say it a third time, but Kevin Edelman interrupted me. His face had gone slightly darker and his breathing had changed, had become less easy to match. He breathed deeply twice, making a visible effort to control himself when what he would really have liked to do was to pull a lever and have the floor beneath me open into an airy and bottomless drop. I know, I have wished the same myself on many occasions in my earlier life.
`Mr Shaaban, do you speak English?' he asked, his voice mellowing again, but this time more sweaty than oily, officially soft-spoken now, labouring. Maybe I do, maybe I don't. I was catching up with his breathing again.
`Refugee,' I said, pointing at my chest. `Asylum.'
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