A Person-Shaped Thing is a Person

Your hands ache and torn cuticles bleed. Callouses are beginning to develop on your fingers, but you still envy the English workers, who work with gloves. Your back also aches, and you wonder how many hours you have spent under the hot sun.

For a moment you pause and surreptitiously look around you, stretching out your spine. To your left and right are long lines of workers, backs stooped, reaching down to grasp cabbages and haul them from the earth. You see white workers, perhaps English, perhaps European. It is hard for you to tell, because you do not share any common language.

You turn your head further, glancing behind you, trying to spot the gangmaster. He is stood fifty yards back, mobile phone to his ear as usual, looking toward the other end of the line. His woman isn’t around - probably off having her hair done again in the town. You wonder if you’ll have the time to wash your hair in the river tonight, or if you’ll just be too tired to do more than eat and sleep after today’s shift.

The gangmaster’s head begins to turn, and the Yi man next to you hisses in warning. He had also taken a moment to rest on his haunches and watch the gangmaster. You both set back to work, grasping the fat round cabbage heads and working them loose from the ground’s embrace.

Your parents used to tell you that the Yi were no good. They were a plague on Guangxi province, your father said, taking good work from Han like you. That lack of work was the reason your aging parents paid to send you overseas, to work and send money home for your family. The Yi were not liked, and you and your parents pretended not to notice as they were harassed on the street, by citizens and police.

But here in England you and this Yi find yourselves in the same situation. The gangmaster is Han, like you, but that hasn’t made him any kinder. If anything, the way his eyes linger on you alarms you, and you try hard to avoid being alone with him.

You murmur to the Yi, “thank you, brother.” He nods and grunts, and drops another cabbage into his basket. Minutes pass. “Later, little sister,” he eventually replies, his voice low and accent thick. And then he glances sideways to meet your eyes, and the hint of a wry smile ghosts his face. “Welcome to England,” he says.

‘Delivery, man?’ comes a cheerful voice. You glance up from your clipboard, smile and wave the vegetable delivery man in. Always exuding cheer, Tom; a towering Jamaican man whose imposing stature is nothing before the irresistible waves of his personality. Even you warmed to him eventually, a man mocked by his very children for his severity and humourlessness.

You tick items off your checklists mechanically: cleaning, stock take, resupply, facing, wastage, opening. The week’s profit/loss looks acceptable; not great for a summer week with thousands more people pounding pavement past your door, but not bad either.

The bell rings as Tom walks back in with more pallets of fresh goods, bright cabbages bouncing, singing softly to himself, skin glistening from heat and exertion. Then it rings again, as a local walks in and up to the counter. “Forty Rothman,” she says, looking not at you but at her purse as she fiddles with the clasp. You slide the tobacco cabinet open, grab the requested cigarettes, and place them on the counter. “Eight sixty-two,” you say. The old lady counts out her change, picks up the cigarettes, leaves.

Time was you were comfortable with such brusque exchanges. A lot of the British are very reserved people, uncomfortable around strangers and unwilling to engage in any form of conversation with them. Coming as you did from a quite different world, one with a childhood rooted in the terror and dashed hope of Intifada, that mutual self-silencing suited you just fine.

But now… now not so much. As Tom strolls past once again, drumming a tattoo against his stomach, you glance out through the window by the counter. Even through the posters, advertisements and pre-paid phone cards plastering the interior of the glass, you can see traces of the spraypaint you spent the dawn hours of the day scrubbing off. “Paki go hom”, it said. Your family is not Pakistani, and is more literate than this vandal, but you doubt either fact matters to such ignorant children.

You drum your fingers on the counter and rub at your mustache as you stare without seeing through the glass. The bell rings again as a young couple wander in, heading towards the back to peruse the wine and beer. Your thoughts turn to your own children. You don’t want them to grow up like you did, friends and family brutalised with bullets and teargas and checkpoints, hopes smashed by weakness and duplicitous institutions. England, your own parents had hoped when they emigrated, would be better. And it was, to a point, although now faceless strangers are using your shopfront as a message board to confuse your identity and express discontent at your presence. Is this how it begins?

The young couple come up to the counter, placing three chilled bottles of wine before you. Tom leans in through the front door. “That’s your lot, Sam,” he says, mangling your name in the way he good-naturedly knows you hate.

“Thanks Tom,” is your flat reply. “See you Thursday.” Tom grins and leaves, presumably hoping that Thursday will be the day he finally gets a retort out of you.

The young man pays for the wine, and you hand him his change. He flicks it over his palm, tallying up the sum, before dropping the whole lot in the worn Gaza Appeal collection tin by the till. He makes eye contact and smiles and thanks you. You shrug in reply as they turn to leave.

You turn back to staring out the window, where a few people have started to loosely gather around a couple of young people with a camera and a microphone. How hard is it to smile, you ask yourself.

You’re nervous in front of the camera, refusing to direct your eyes straight towards its bulbous lens, any more than you can maintain eye contact with the woman holding a microphone towards your mouth. The cameraman is dark-skinned, and you don’t know where he’s from, but his hue makes you more nervous than you already are. But you need to say your piece.

You open your mouth and it all comes spilling out. They’ve come over here and they’ve taken our benefits. They’ve come over here and they’ve taken our jobs. They’ve come over here and used up our healthcare. They’ve come over here and taken our houses. The British will soon have nothing left.

Your heart is racing as you speak, shifting your weight perpetually from one foot to the other. In the back of your mind you hope your family will be proud of you for speaking up and defending them. They’ve all been abandoned by a government that refuses to fix the problem that is so clear to you.

There are no jobs in this town. Your father hasn’t worked in two years. Your mum does a few hours a week in a call centre. It’s what they call a zero hours contract, where companies ring you up on the day if they need you. They usually don’t. Your grandad calls it a crying shame.

“They won’t do anything about all the immigration,” you’re saying. “And it’s not racist to say it. All these people, they aren’t British, they’re not from over here, they’re immigrants and they’re taking what belongs to the British.”

And that’s it. You’re done. The presenter pulls the mic back, opens her mouth to speak, to reply, probably to tell you you’re wrong. TV people are part of the problem, they don’t understand what it’s like to have nothing, so you’re already shaking your head, hands up, walking away. You’re done here.

You can hear distant chanting outside, and the sound of that humanity, distant as it is, makes you smile. It’s a reminder that there is kindness and hope outside these walls and bars.

You run your fingers absent-mindedly over your belly, feeling the warmth and life that lies within, the child who must be. You hope that she will come into this world elsewhere than here, this ugly place with an ugly name.

You think back to your own childhood, raised in a large house with generations of women bustling about, arguing with and assisting one another in the business of living. If your child is born here, at Yarl’s Wood, she too will be surrounded by women, but there will be none of the warmth and love of a family home.

“Asylum seeker”. This is the officious term by which the English categorise you and the other women here. It does not translate well into Dari, or your native Pashto, but you understand the meaning well enough. It is the venom beneath the words, evident on the faces of too many of the officials and guards with whom you must deal, that is less clear.
It is a terrible thing, it seems, to pursue a better life. But then that attitude has been evident wherever you have been: from the fighters who kill themselves over control of your home, the border guards with their rifles and questions and bribes, the smugglers who took you into Europe. One of the women you have befriended, Hasti, a girl from Kabul, tells you of the posters that have appeared around the city, sternly instructing Afghanis not to come to Europe. “The German government paid for those posters,” she said, her eyes fierce and voice sharp. “Truly they must hate us.”

Hasti and several other women embarked on a hunger strike a week before. It is for them that people have gathered outside the imposing razorwire-topped fences around this place, chanting and holding up posters and calling for justice and dignity and other things you cannot yet translate.

You think back on something else Hasti told you, her voice urgent and insistent. “This place… it is Barzakh, purgatory, a place between places. We have escaped hell only to be denied entrance into heaven!”

You close your eyes and lay your head against the cool wall of your dormitory. The faint smells of grass and concrete meld with the muffled chanting as your mind drifts away. Your imagination dances through a succession of dream images, a question at the heart of each such painting: can heaven really be found outside these gates?

It has been a long shift. Eleven hours on your feet, assisting patients, processing paperwork, taking blood and ECGs, screening patients and, of course, advising patients to let the cigarettes go. That everyday reminder of how self-destructive people can be.

You’re sitting quietly on the number 29 bus as you reflect on another day, processing what happened partly because you must, to learn and improve, and partly because this little ritual helps keep you awake so that you do not miss your stop.

This ritual is more difficult today.

For some months you have been experiencing a growing sense of… unbelonging. It began with odd little glances, patients avoiding eye contact, even some colleagues growing slightly colder. Such things were easily ignored in the frantic daily life of an NHS nurse, but you found them disquieting nonetheless.

Three and a half weeks ago, though, the pieces clicked into place. A middle-aged woman interrupted you, as you discussed her options for the surgery she required, to ask: “Where are you from?”

Taken aback, you replied “Sofia,” and a moment later, seeing the lack of recognition in your patient’s face, you added “Bulgaria.” And she looked away, and tutted.

You felt embarrassed, of course, but also confused. It was only as time wore on, and you began to notice the headlines on the newspapers in the waiting room, that you realised what was happening. The British were turning against people from the European Union, particularly Easterners, even those who worked to help save their lives. It is ridiculous to you, but here you are.

Today saw the worst event so far. You called out a name in the waiting room, and a man looked up but did not stand. Instead he looked at you and refused to come. He would wait for another nurse, he said. His appointment was with you, you replied, taken aback. But he said he did not care, that he would not be seen by ‘people like you’. You felt humiliated, and retreated, your face burning. No one else said anything.

Now you feel trapped and afraid. You have dedicated your career, your life, to helping those in need. Your parents taught you that you should help those who are the most vulnerable, that such dedication is where nobility of spirit lies. But now you feel vulnerable, and alone, and you do not know who will help you. Instead you sit quietly on a bus, thinking over how a day’s hard work can turn sour, and avoiding the sideways glances of fellow passengers.

It’s a hot summer’s day, but here in your home there’s a stuffiness to the air, the rank moistness of ingrained damp. A cursory glance around the living room would reveal the telltale grey-black circlets of mould infesting the upper walls and ceiling, and that’s one reason why your gaze rarely strays above head height. The other is your physical frailty, a byproduct of those debilitating nerve and bone disorders that long ago robbed you of the ability to walk. Frankly, you tell your infrequent visitors, it hurts to look up.

Today should have been a contact day, a day when someone from social services came by to check up on you, to provide a few kind if inadequate measures to make your life a little easier. A phone call earlier in the day took that away. The young woman on the other end of the phone sounded apologetic and sincere in a wearily practised sort of way, as she explained that they were simply over-stretched, that they didn’t have the resources this week, that a bout of sickness absence had disrupted everything. You clucked and synmpathised along as was expected until you exchanged goodbyes.

Social services have been inadequate for some years now, worsening since the Tories and their turncoat coalition partners, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, began harping on about austerity and Labour overspend and the need for everyone to knuckle down and get through the recession together. You and the friends you’re occasionally in touch with call bullshit on all that.

You reach with one faintly trembling hand over to the curtains and pull them gently aside. The sun’s warmth instantly licks at your timeworn skin, and for a moment you close your eyes and remember better days. Time was, in your youth, you and your parents would’ve been out on the streets against Tory cuts to Britain’s social safety net. “We didn’t fight and die in Europe and stick Labour in power after the war so the aristo-fucks could increase their profit margins once the blood washed away,” your dad might’ve said. He hated the old British upper class, not least because he’d served under a few of them himself in wartime.

Of course, getting out on the streets poses quite a few problems to a severely disabled man living in a social housing flat in a run-down estate, and that’s just the baseline. If the lift is broken, as has been known to happen every few months, you really are trapped indoors. And indoors, ironically, is what they want to take from you. You can barely stand, let alone walk twenty feet, and whilst your mind is sharp your joints and muscles aren’t. But you’re not disabled enough, according to the corporate sharks to whom disability assessment has been farmed out. Which means your disability benefit is to be reduced, which means your other benefit payments might be recategorised, and which collectively means you may no longer be able to afford your ‘affordable’ rent.

You peer down out of the window, toward the streets, along which crawl the shiny beetle shapes of cars, gleaming in the sunlight, and the brightly coloured spots imitating Brownian motion alongside them, people weaving this way and that as they go about their business. You envy them, but only because their social contracts have been bound in such a way as to not exclude them. How cruel it is to be forgotten.

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

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