Arman, a Syrian refugee, spends his eightieth birthday in a tent in ‘The Jungle’, in Calais. He sits alone on a white plastic garden chair next to a suitcase wrapped in cellophane. It’s freezing cold, but his anger sustains him as he asks himself his perennial question, How could the enemy destroy acres and acres of olive groves in Idlib province, attacking our culture and pushing us into starvation?
I should be pleased. I am pleased, but I’m too old to be a refugee, an asylum seeker, or a survivor. If the Russian air strikes had been successful, I would be dead, should be dead, buried in the rubble that was our family home. I can still taste the concrete dust in my mouth, feel it in my eyes that even my tears cannot wash away. What is the purpose of my survival? My olive trees are destroyed. Only my granddaughter, Saabirah, lives and she is with child. I have nothing but my love for her and the child to come. There was no one else alive to protect her.
Does my hatred of Assam and Putin harm me more than them? I’m filled with sadness or, maybe, a sort of envy, that the West sees fit to fight Putin in the Ukraine but has done nothing to save Syria from the monsters of war, the barbarians, the murderers of children, the destroyers of the unborn, with their bombs, chemical weapons and terror. Envy? The thought disgusts me.
Even as I sit here I can hear village women wailing above the freezing wind outside. Hear the children of neighbours calling out my grandson’s name, Kaashif. The frantic digging of shovels, voices from beyond the grave. They said it was a miracle that there wasn’t a mark on me; the mark is forever in my heart and for that there is no sticking plaster. They found Kaashif’s body; he was only thirteen, just becoming a man. All the time I was washing his dead body, I expected him to wake up and tell me it was all a game. It was no game. I came here to protect Saabirah and the baby. The traffickers took my money and here we are.
You’ll be safe in England.
Is that you, Kaashif?
Yes, Grandpa. Do you remember when we picked olives and a man came and photographed us? I held the olives and leaves in a wooden bowl and you cupped my hands in your big hands. When the photographer showed us the picture on his camera, Mum was cross because our hands were so dirty. You laughed and asked how could they be clean; we are peasants. The photograph was beautiful.
Arman wipes tears from his eyes and gasps. On the upended suitcase there’s the same wooden bowl full of olives and leaves. He rubs his eyes.
Happy birthday, Grandpa.
Is it real?
It will always be real to you.
Where are you? Arman asks.
Unseen, but always near you.
© Phil Cosker 2022
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.