Caius Atlas

THE BABY-NAME BOOK is the size of a pack of cards, left on top of a bin outside the port. I picture a pregnant woman reading it, circling her belly with her palm, looking up to see the ferry arrive which will take her back to England. She’s been on holiday, beside a clean, warm beach in France. Maybe she left the book by mistake, having found the perfect name, or maybe she and her husband could never agree. Maybe, the baby never arrived.

I write Almaz on the inside cover and take it back to my tent to read. My Eritrean name isn’t listed. Temperance Ophelia and Claire Adelrune are my favourite names for a girl. For a boy I’ve chosen Monroe Carlisle and, my favourite, Caius Atlas.

Once, I helped deliver a baby in my hometown. In between pushes, the mother rested on all fours, fear in her eyes. She knew what was coming and she gripped her own mother’s hand and tried to come up for air. She squalled and shuddered and screamed for a day and a half and the baby – the bones of its skull making the shape of a diamond inside her – lingered too long. The mother was blood-sore and ready for peace. At the last minute, like a passenger waiting for her ferry to arrive, the baby put down her book and looked up. I was that baby. A blind and slippery sea creature that pulled itself out. And my mother rocked on all fours, let go of my grandmother’s hand and wept in pain before she died.

It’s starting to darken outside in the Wasteland when I hear voices. I shouldn’t sleep in the afternoon. I should study my book and think about my future as a midwife in England, or concentrate on picturing the Queen and squirrels and big football stadiums. When I do it’s like I’m in England already, pulling myself up onto a bright red bus with a book under my arm, on my way to university.

Abel rushes into my tent, head low, his voice knock-kneed. ‘You coming? Let’s go.’

Through the flapping tent door, I can see dozens of people shuffling towards the port. They’re better dressed than Abel and me, in scarves and coats.

‘Who are all these people?’

‘Locals,’ Abel says. ‘They’re on our side. See, Almaz? Not everyone wants us dead.’

He hands me a sign written in black. WE ARE HUMAN. He takes my hand and pulls me outside.

The factory owners bury chemicals in the ground next to the Wasteland and they lock the back doors of the lorries that go in and out. If I had a son here named Caius Atlas, I wouldn’t be able to stop him playing on the poisoned ground, and the soles of his feet and hands would be blistered and then maybe scarred forever.

I hold my sign high.

Abel grips his in both hands. STOP THE VIOLENCE. Abel reckons the police took his shoes. These gendarmes slice through the rows and rows of tents at night and tip our bottles of water out onto the road. Yesterday one snatched up a boy’s football, bouncing it from hand to hand. Curl-shouldered, the little boy drooped, knowing what was coming. But the policeman, without saying a word, let the ball fall to the ground, grinning as he dribbled the ball back and forth between his feet then he lobbed it back. The boy let the ball roll past and stayed silent until the policeman walked away.

Ahead of us in the night, the port is lit. Last week I counted ferries, lined up like pigs at a trough.

‘There aren’t as many,’ I say.

‘We only need one.’ Abel’s grin is brassy.

Crowds push past before I can reply. GIVE US DIGNITY. We walk. The locals chant but I can’t catch all the words. On our side the voices are French, English, Arabic, Pakistani. A lot of the migrants say they have family in England, but why wouldn’t they help them get there? I have no one behind me and no one in front. When I’m in England I’ll learn to ride on the Underground. I’ll write letters to nobody and post them in a red box on the corner of my street. I’ll go to a football match and cheer for both teams.

‘That’s where we jumped the fence,’ Abel says.

Abel and his brother say they came this close to boarding a ferry last week. The police ran after them, charging till the troop of skinny men scattered, hands in their pockets. The ferry was too quick. But the fence is easy to climb with only a bit of barbed wire at the top. The men ran across the road, saw the ships up ahead. This was the closest they’d ever come. They felt alive, Abel says, and they would do it again.

‘Again!’ someone yells, and the chant at the front of the group starts up.

Abel and I don’t talk about how we will never see each other again. On a bright street in London, I won’t be looking for the faces I once knew. When lorries slow down to a stop on the long road into the port, packs of men check to see if the back is unlocked. One or two of them climb in. No one says goodbye. The others just shut the door and run off, hoping that next time will be their turn. I need the Wasteland to last just long enough.

Facing us now in a long chain are policemen in bruise-blue. Their plastic shields fitted tight as shells, batons by their side. They are expecting our decaying lot.

Abel’s brother Sammy arrives breathless and jogs beside us. WE WANT FREEDOM.

‘Another three hundred this week,’ he shouts over the noise of the crowd. ‘They’re going to do something about us soon.’

‘What can they do?’ I shout back. ‘They give us nothing.’

At night, the men fight each other with cigarettes and bottles in their hands. They’re hungry and dull and desolate. Sitting low-jeaned in the opening of their tents, they heckle one another. Tomorrow, though, they’ll offer a brother a fork, a sip from a bottle. A man Sammy knew, practically still a teenager, lay down behind a reversing lorry. I picture his arms folded, crossed over his chest and the dimness behind his eyes before the first nightmare tyre touched his legs. Some can stand the waiting better than others.

‘They can destroy our tents – all of them, in the middle of the night.’ Abel counts on his fingers, answering me. ‘Take our water. Bring in more dogs. Close the port.’

‘What are we supposed to do then?’ asks Sammy.

‘We will get there, brother,’ Abel says. ‘We’ll try and try. Charity people will keep bringing us food. There’ll be ferries just over there and lorries with doors that we can open.’

We’ve heard some lorry drivers leave their doors unlocked deliberately.

A teenager in an orange shirt strides towards Sammy. In his right hand is a thick broken branch reaching up to rest on his shoulder. He could be whistling. His three friends in beanies and sweatshirts have weapons too. They roll their wrists till the sticks touch the bitumen before bringing them back up, close to their chests.

‘You.’ One of them points. Sammy raises his chin.

The boy in the orange shirt finishes the thought. ‘You stole the gun.’

He swings the branch onto Sammy’s cheek and I catch him as we fold to the ground, thinking, Here. On the ground, Sammy, you’re in pain. This bit of grass, sit down. Bury your fingers in it. No chemicals here.

Abel rushes his brother’s attacker.

‘Police,’ I say from my spot on the ground. I point at the protest up the road.

‘We’re done here,’ the boy in the orange shirt says, stepping backwards, waving his branch at the night sky. ‘You should go find the gun. Then you give it back.’

‘Jesus, Sammy. Your whole face,’ I say. He wails low, in swells, into my shoulder. ‘All right, all right, Sammy.’

Abel and Sammy came up through Lampedusa a year ago, where they said a local woman fed them fish. When her husband came home, she swore in Italian and chased them from her yard.

Abel doesn’t remember being born like I do, and he says his mother doesn’t know if he and Sammy are alive. Stuck here among mud and pools of blankets and broken crates, my body feels like a used and dirty thing. I watch pregnant women sway to standing from the gutter, trying not to touch the poisoned ground. In England, I’ll be the one to help them, kneading my hands over their bellies, nodding when I find the top of the uterus, counting the baby’s size with my fingers. But here I just watch. I don’t want to deliver anyone’s baby in the Wasteland.


WHEN I DELIVERED myself on the floor of my mother and father’s house, the world was swollen with light and agony. I was outside of my mother’s body, trying to help her stay in one piece, saying breathe breathe breathe, that’s right breathe, but I was also inside being a nuisance, tilting my head back until my forehead met my mother’s opening, getting stuck, forgetting the first person you need to save is yourself. I grew up beside the sea. The earth beneath my father’s house seethed as though it were waiting to be sucked back in at any moment. The ocean water had been corralled into a concrete rectangle and I went there alone, carrying a dry shirt to come home in. The first day I tried to teach myself to swim, I assumed my body would know what to do the second I hit the water, like all the boys backflipping from the concrete high above me.

One of them noticed me hanging on to the side and he struck out to me.

‘Hold your arms like this,’ he said. ‘And your legs, like this.’

‘Don’t tell me what to do.’

The boy’s head was a slick hard melon beaded with water. He reached for my leg. I kicked away his hand and plunged down, feeling like I was breathing evenly. My head filled with constellations. Month after month I spent at the pool, pushing my limbs away, calling them back again. From under the water, I saw the boys passing overhead like birds.


THE WALLS OF my tent are stitched in several places, stretched tight with repairs. The aid workers brought in boxes of food and water this morning. I shut myself inside as best as I can, reaching for the baby-name book and searching for my name, knowing what it means, knowing it isn’t listed. Yesterday I circled Viola, Rosetta, Calliope and Magnus. I touch the space on the page where my name should be.


Abel unties the rope and enters, stooping.

‘Sammy’s okay. He’s with the others now. We’ll fix it tonight.’ ‘What’s happening tonight?’ I use my finger to mark the page. ‘We’re going to stand up for ourselves.’

‘And try for a ferry?’

‘Tonight this is more important.’ He takes the book from me.

‘Do you want to die here? Do you want to get arrested?’ I ask him. The French have offered us refuge but France is not the goal. I grab his arm. ‘Do you want to live here?’

Abel’s face is polished with sweat. I see him as a little kid scrabbling along a street in Eritrea, the thin bones of his legs churning through the dust, pummelling the air, taking flight, beating his brother home for dinner. His mother sighs through a dry pink smile and fixes Abel’s wriggling form onto a chair. At the table, he looks towards the Red Sea and spoons fish into his mouth.

‘You must deliver yourself,’ is what I say out loud, just to me, though Abel is there. He edges his hand along the top of my thigh.

‘Is that right?’ He wants to sleep with me again, doesn’t care if I get pregnant. And if I stay here in the filthy tent that’s what will happen and I’ll be no closer to anywhere. Here, it’s better to be attached to someone than be alone. But now there’s more than the space in the tent between us. More space than the salty channel between here and England. Abel is a dark sculpture, wet and marbled in the dusk. I touch his forehead. I think, You’ll never leave.

‘Here,’ I say. I toss my packet of biscuits. ‘Have these.’ I stand and grab the book on my way out.

A woman at the service station hoses the concrete while she drinks a Coke. She stares at me and yanks on the hose and it whips behind her like a snake. I cross the car park, a stretch of bitumen muddied at its broken edges. Half-a-dozen lorries are parked, some with their doors open. A man with a shaved head like Abel’s talks on a phone and smokes. Another balances on the edges of his naked feet, trying to wedge something off the bottom of his boots. I choose a lorry with a Union Jack on the door. I have to believe there’s a driver inside who will take pity on me, or, more likely, ask for something more. And I will give it, but I’ll arrive in England whole. Delivered. When I leave the Wasteland, the bones of my skull will finally settle.

Other girls have done it. Girls I used to know at the Wasteland did it for a lot less – a bit of dinner or a coat or even just a proper shower. Smart girls square the days into a calendar on the back of a bit of cardboard and keep it close. They circle the digits, count their chances on the days most dangerous and avoid the men.

‘Hello?’ I thump on the passenger door, stepping up to peer in through the window.


I POCKET THE euros – five notes folded in my hand – and walk to Tigre Sport half-a-dozen blocks from the Wasteland. Inside I choose a grey wetsuit, hand paddles, flippers, goggles and a zippered plastic case that the teenager behind the counter assures me is watertight. I slip the baby name book inside the case and hand over the money.

‘Wetsuit inside out first,’ he tells me, banging the register shut with his palm. ‘With the arms like this.’

He watches me leave.

At the beach by the edge of the water you can see the white cliffs across the Channel that look like the teeth of a whale. No one can tell me why they’re white. One day I’ll come back to those cliffs carrying a baby of my own, little Caius Atlas with his fingers wrapped around my thumb. We’ll point things out to each other, like how France looks so close it seems we’re separated by nothing more than a lake. Just a line of water on a map you could swim across, pulling yourself up onto the beach on the other side, waving back at where you’ve come from.

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