I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
A while ago, I wrote this short story – my first in years, if not decades. And then a few months ago, I sent it in to a writing website’s competition, for which it was shortlisted. I very rarely share any creative work with other folks, so I’m not sure what impelled me to send it in in the first place, but now someone else has seen it and suggested that it might be OK, I’m going to put it out there. Sorry if it is actually bobbins! – Sarah
A security guard found the boy’s body in the early morning. It must have been about five o’clock, just as the blessed cool of the night was yielding to the humming heat of yet another sunscorched day.
He couldn’t have been there long – a couple of hours? – the guard thought. The small, curled-up form hadn’t been there earlier, when he made his last rounds. Some people believed him, some suggested in low voices that at 2am he’d been snoring or drinking tea, listening to the radio, under the buzzing bulb in the watchman’s hut. No-one could prove anything, though, and since none of them thought he’d killed the boy, they weren’t much interested.
In fact, no one was that interested in the entire incident. True, this death was a little unusual because of the boy’s youth – he didn’t look to be much more than eight or nine, although the lumps and corrugations of his ribs and spine and hip-bones under the dark skin made him at once look somehow ancient, archaeological. But the people in this little seaside town with its gleaming white sands and shimmering blue sea were getting more and more used to strangers who passed through silently and rapidly. Some of the men made good money stuffing their fishing-boats with these tatters from conflicts somewhere inland and shipping them to the other side of the narrow sea. But most people just wanted to keep away, hope that there wouldn’t be a raid seeking them out, and hoping that the strangers wouldn’t bother the holidaymakers.
Indeed, worried that some early riser seeking breakfast or a fishing boat to take him out might see the body, the watchman had moved the boy quickly into his hut. He didn’t want him there too long – not in this heat – but if the sight frightened any tourists he’d be in trouble with the cafe owners and shopkeepers of the little seafront. On the offchance that the boy had come with a friend or some family and just wandered off, he went into a cafe – a local one, not a tourist place – to ask around.
At Abu Hamdi’s, the guard could smell the coffee on the stove at the back of the cafe, but Abu Hamdi himself was busy hauling a wet cloth across the floor to keep the dust down. He seemed in no mood to be hospitable, so the cigarette clamped between his gums was probably the first of the day. But even his furrowed face relaxed into compassion when the watchman told him about the small body.
“Allah yerhamu… Allah have mercy on him. Just a kid, you say? It’s a shame, they get younger and more desperate each year… but no. No strangers this week. Just a few tourists, no-one from inland.”
Round the back of the row of shops, on the seaward side, Samir was also opening up his cafe. Restaurante Simon was doing well nowadays, and with his light-brown hair, odd pale eyes and good English and French ‘Simon’ went down well with the tourists. But the watchman remembered him from school, and to him he was definitely still Samir. A couple of holidaymakers were already sitting down to fruit and yogurt and imported cereals. They’d obviously been here for a few days; the man’s vivid pink skin was peeling off in patches. The woman had apparently been more circumspect, but the watchman wished she’d cover up some of the expanses of pale flesh. He could almost hear it sizzling, and it wasn’t even eight o’clock.
Samir, in role for his customers, didn’t seem to want to talk in front of the cafe, and hustled his neighbour into the shade at the back. Sometimes the strangers from inland, while they were stuck here searching for a boat which might take them across the sea, would beg from the tourists at the cafes, and he’d have to chase them away. But he’d seen no small boy, either alone or with a family. At least, that was what he was saying.
By the time the watchman had spoken to Abu Hamdi and Samir and smoked a sad, thoughtful cigarette, the dusty street was starting to get busier, as shopkeepers pulled up clattering metal shutters and started to drag out their wares. Umm Ra’ed, piling up tomatoes and cucumbers in front of her store, welled up as he quietly told her about the boy. “Ya Allah… the poor little thing. And his mother…” He knew she was a tender soul, grandmother to an ever-increasing array of plump, cheerful children. If she’d seen the skinny boy, she’d probably have taken him in, so he believed her when she said she’d seen nothing. Boutros the Christian, piling up sacks of beans and ‘adis, lentils, grunted a ‘no’. He probably wasn’t being grumpy, just weighed down by his wares. At each shop, the story was the same. Nothing. No-one had seen the child. No-one had noticed any new strangers from the inland south passing by in recent days. No-one had witnessed anything.
By now, the watchman was asking himself why he was doing this. He knew nothing about the kid, he wasn’t from the same town or probably even the same country. He didn’t know his name, his family, why he had turned up in this particular little fishing village on this day. Abieh was probably fretting by now, wondering why he wasn’t home from his night shift. But he seemed to have been infected with a sense of responsibility, even as he told himself that there was nothing useful he could do anyway, the boy was beyond any help he could provide.
Only one avenue remained, at least that he could think of, and it was one he had been trying to evade since he started out on this fool’s errand. For there was still Abu Yusuf, ‘the fisherman’. Except in Abu Yusuf’s case, the nickname no longer applied. He was one of those along the coast who, with fish numbers falling and the tourists apparently evaporated into the air since the Uprisings, had started taking those desperate strangers on ‘fishing trips’ instead. Now he spent his night dodging patrol boats from their own country and those on the other side of the narrow sea to take these scared, hopeful, pitiful bands of people whose language he didn’t even understand to places where…
Where what? They would be safe? Where there might be a new life for them? The watchman didn’t know. Like everyone else in the town, he averted his eyes as cars and trucks rolled occasionally up to the port and strangers were crammed into the little fishing boats. We might say a few prayers for them – God knows they need it, there shouldn’t be half that number in a boat that size. But we can’t afford to know too much. Someone might come and want to know about what happens, and we might have to say something someone else doesn’t want repeating.
So he scuffed reluctantly in the direction of his hut, and the harbour, trying to look as if he was just rounding off his shift. The reek of fish and diesel got heavier in the hot air as he approached, and eventually he found Ameen sitting in the sun, drinking sweet tea whilst his younger brother mended their father’s nets.
Ameen didn’t mend nets any more. To his father’s fury, he had taken up with Abu Yusuf instead of working on the family boat. The pickings were richer, but it was dangerous work and besides, said Abu Ameen, it was also wrong. But Ameen just laughed at that, knowing how much money he was slipping to his mother. Did his father really think his fishing was bringing in enough to send the youngsters to school? Abu Ameen was turning a blind eye, and they all knew it.
The watchman sidled up to Ameen, glad of the chance to perhaps learn something from one of Abu Yusuf’s men, without having to talk to the boss himself. Ameen glanced sideways at him and indicated an empty chair, poured a second glass of tea. The lad might have gotten into some bad ways, but he hadn’t yet acquired the hardened arrogance of Abu Yusuf and his older companions. The watchman plucked up his courage and asked.
At that, Ameen’s eyes narrowed. The watchman knew then that he had misjudged, and that he wasn’t going to find out where the boy had come from, if his family knew he was missing, where he was supposed to be going. In Ameen’s glare were innumerable possibilities – defenceless strangers robbed and dumped into the open sea by night, or sold on to bigger players in this shadowy, frighening chain, or betrayed to one set of border guards or another. But Ameen knew something, that was obvious, and knowing that was in itself dangerous, and this hopeless little quest needed to stop right now.
The watchman coughed and muttered out a half-apology, praying that everyone concerned would just pretend that he had never noticed or asked anything. He shuffled off, backing away from Ameen and then turning, striving not to break into a run while the sweat poured down his back and soak the elasticated waistband of his trousers. Somehow, he had overstepped a mark, and now he was going to have to find the way back.
He reached the familiar environment of his watchman’s hut, still with the unfamiliar presence of the dead boy in it. His sadness was mixed with a deep sense of having failed the child, of lacking the courage to press Ameen for some scrap of information. Not that it would have changed anything for the boy, he told himself.
There was nothing for it. He looked down at the body, curled around its vulnerable centre on the floor of the hut. It was too hot for him to stay there any longer, and it looked as if the chances of anyone admitting they knew anything were nil. He’d have to take the small corpse to the police station. The tourist police wouldn’t care, as long as no visitors had spotted the body. The other officers would probably knock him about a bit, just to make sure he had really had nothing to do with the death, but they’d give up after a bit. Even if the chief bothered to send a couple of grunts out to ask questions, no-one would tell them anything. Most of them were new, recently drafted in from the city to this short-straw of a posting, and you never knew if they could be trusted. He prayed fervently that Ameen wouldn’t mention anything to Abu Yusuf, and that they wouldn’t think for a second that he had, in the end, said something he shouldn’t.
For the sake of decency he took one of the sheets from the pallet where he slept on night shifts and wrapped the boy in it. He took a last look at the thin, closed face with its secrets hidden firmly away. Then he hefted the small body into his arms, and set off for the police station.