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Iñaki Friera Urbistondo > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

2001 | Susa

High and Dry

One day was much like the next for the men crowded into the dark rooms. When they woke up they headed one by one for the only tap in the kitchen to freshen up their faces, the backs of their necks and their armpits. Then on the fire lit on the floor they would heat up the milk brought in from outside and stir in some instant coffee, and then each one would return to the corner of his own room. Having drunk the coffee, they would immerse themselves in their solitary thoughts, because they had little to say to each other.

On occasions one of them would try to relieve that heavy silence with stories or tales from his home country. Other times they would talk to the rest about their plans once they had reached Europe, even though they had to do so in whispers. But in the end the usual silence fell and once again they became absorbed in their own thoughts.

Abdurahman did not try to cheer Ahmed up. He would sit down next to him, either to eat the tinned sausages or to drink the coffee that had just been heated up or to have a sleep; but afterwards, he would seek out a fleeting conversation among the others that would take them out of that kind of prison for a few minutes.

And that is how they spent the days and nights until the order arrived for them to leave:

Aziz went from room to room telling them to get up:

-A lorry will soon be here outside the door to collect you. Be ready and don't make any noise when you get on; it'll take you to the beach. When you get there, hide and wait quietly until the boat arrives. I want the money before you get on the lorry!

The twenty-four men crowded together inside that hostel started to hover nervously on the thin line where joy merges with fear. They were dirty, because there was not enough cold water in that hostel for them all, and the soap Abdurahman and Aziz brought had been used up ages ago. Even those who had something to shave off had long before stopped bothering.

The clothes they were wearing were grubby and creased: they never took their trousers off and they used their shirts as pillows underneath their heads. And they did the same with everything else they had on them.

As they left the hostel one by one, they gave Aziz the sum of money that had been fixed. They stopped in the hallway and crouched down next to the steps, protected from the moonlight which poured in from outside. Immediately they heard the engine of a lorry coming up the street. It stopped outside the old door and a man jumped down: Jalal.

"Get on, get on!" he shouted at them and shoved the grubby men as if they were animals.

Jalal lowered the tarpaulin at the back of the lorry and told them to keep quiet inside and stay there until they heard him knock twice. The lorry set off again, gradually leaving the Príncipe Alfonso quarter behind them. Shortly afterwards they reached Benítez beach. He drove the lorry very carefully to the side of the road, switched off its engine and glanced around him. All that could be heard was the sound of the waves a few metres away. Then he put his hand out of the window, which had no glass in it, and knocked on the rear metal panel of the trailer twice. In response to Jalal's sign they immediately lifted up the tarpaulin at the back of the lorry and quickly got out.

Jalal did not hang around, the moment the last man had stepped onto the ground he released the handbrake and let the lorry move on, without its lights or engine switched on.

Twenty-four men ran across the beach until they could hide among the rocks. They crouched there, and as they melted into the rocks they did not take their eyes off the sea that opened out close by. They could not believe it: their dreams were about to come true! The days that had passed until they reached the beach went through their minds, quickly, as if competing with their heartbeats.

Ahmed sadly remembered the month he had spent in that tiny hostel in Ceuta, the month during which he would gaze out of the window longing to see, smell and feel Europe. Piled on top of one another like old tools they had spent the whole month appealing to hope and praying while they took it in turns to sleep on the rough wool and straw mattresses until the news came through that the boat was ready.

One long month and maybe a bit more as well, since they had arrived at that unknown city which greeted the visitors, each of whom had made his own way, with a cold "Bienvenidos" (Welcome). One long month and maybe a bit more as well since they had begun their search for the saviour they did not yet know, as they wandered up and down the alleys of Ceuta; until the voice they had been longing for whispered words of help to them.

One long month and maybe a bit more, until they were told that a lorry carrying a special consignment was due to arrive in Ceuta. One long month... and even a couple of weeks more they gazed at the sky waiting to see when the fearsome levanter would calm down and when conditions for sailing would be favourable. Until that dawn, helped by the waning moon, until Jalal's old lorry made its way along the alley to the hostel and picked them up outside the door.

All of a sudden a blinding light pierced Ahmed's thoughts:

-Nobody move! Police! Nobody move!

Twenty-four men scrambled to escape in an attempt to get away from the police coming down the beach. Once again those hopeless fugitives were not the only ones waiting to see when the levanter would die down, because the Ceuta police knew very well that the period of calm would have to be a perfect opportunity for the tuna fish who wanted to cross the Straits of Gibraltar.

The police caught most of them. There was resignation on their faces: they were weak, vulnerable and defeated. They were terrified and had lost everything. Trembling. from cold and fear. They had had their dream within grasp in a few hours' time, yet they had not been able to make it.

The arrested fugitives were immersed in great pain as they sat on the ground with the bottoms of their trousers wet and waited for the police vehicle. One approached one of the police officers and said:

-We've done nothing wrong. We aren't planning to stay in Spain, anyway; we're heading for Italy. I've got cousins there, they've bought a car and clothes and have lots of money. We will have a good life. I can't go back home, because I'm the youngest in my family, all the rest left Morocco ages ago. We've done nothing wrong -with his teeth chattering he pleaded again with the police officer, who remained adamant.

Abdurahman was also trembling. Deep down he was frightened, he wanted to hide his face in the sand on the ground as he clutched onto the little plastic bag in which he carried his stuff. He was the only one who carried a bag: the rest wanted to do the sea crossing in what they were wearing, in their shoes, shirt, jacket and trousers. Not forgetting the little scrap of paper with the phone number of a friend who was expecting them in Europe.

-How is it possible? -he said to himself, as he gazed at the sea which was calm, friendly and just right for sailing-. How could it be? We were as quiet as mice hiding behind those big concrete blocks...

"Why are you arresting us, we've done nothing wrong, we were going to Italy and..." they said over and again to the police officers who were pushing them towards the police vehicles. Most of the Moroccans were limping and stumbling because they had hurt and cut their feet on the edges of the concrete blocks that for a few minutes had afforded them refuge.
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