breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes – blog tour
Published on 1st August, with 50p of every sale donated to us at Counterpoints Arts.
With thanks to Peirene, the award-winning boutique publishing house based in London, specialising in contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation.
‘The Jungle is like a laboratory.’
In the refugee camp known as The Jungle an illusion is being disrupted: that of a neatly ordered world, with those deserving safety and comfort separated from those who need to be kept out.
Calais is a border town. Between France and Britain. Between us and them. The eight short stories in this collection explore the refugee crisis through fiction. They give voice to the hopes and fears of both sides. Dlo and Jan break into refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. Marjorie, a volunteer, is happy to mingle in the camps until her niece goes a step too far. Mariam lies to her mother back home. With humour, insight and empathy, breach tackles an issue that we can no longer ignore.
breach is the first title in the Peirene Now! series. This exciting new series will be made up of commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day. In breach, the authors beautifully capture a multiplicity of voices – refugees, volunteers, angry citizens – whilst deftly charting a clear narrative path through it all. Each story is different in tone, and yet they complement one another perfectly. Taken as a whole, this stands as an empathetic and probing collage, where the words ‘home’, ‘displacement’ and ‘integration’ come to mean many things as the collection progresses to a moving finale.
GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.
The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.
‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’
I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. I normally wait for him to speak.
It’s getting darker, the trees are dipping themselves in silence. The others are looking at their phones. We need to agree on when to start the eleven minutes. We need to plan the forty-nine minutes after that, because if we have to walk all the way to the train station it will be that long.
I don’t want to sleep in this country. Not tonight.
I search the others’ faces. Why is everyone quiet now? I just want to think big; you have to set your bar high. It’s one of the things Calculate has taught me, an expression.
I say to them, ‘It’s just a little fun. Why not?’
I am disturbing their thoughts. They are busy with more important things. Already these thoughts are like swimming with wet clothes. It’s heavy, too much to hold on to. It pulls you back. You could drown.
I have made a habit with this thing, the names and the stories, always distracting them. I think they think that I cannot be quiet. Not when it is needed. Like now. When we are planning the next step, like Calculate says.
Suleyman is coughing. He leans forward; his small chest comes out and he does harh-harh-harh, his tongue tired in his mouth. Earlier today there was a bit of blood in his spit. I check that he is not spitting now. He is leaning back against the tree, pointing his thumb upwards, his eyes closed. He does it all the time, the thumbs up. Even though he himself isn’t thumbs up. Not at all. When I first met him his face was round and black. Now he is grey and thin and his eyes are hanging like a bag of shopping.
MG says, ‘Or Michelle.’
I throw him a look that tells him to shut his mouth. With my mouth I say, ‘You’re not funny.’
‘You don’t understand. You can use it as Michel. It’s French. Man’s name. I learned in school. Michelle better than Obama. Better brain, my brother says. Nicer to the people, she is really for the people.’
‘And beautiful,’ Calculate says. He laughs again. ‘It would suit you.’
I ignore him and turn my head to the side. He is still wearing the Leicester Hockey Club shirt someone gave him in Puglia. And the fake leather jacket. I told him it wasn’t real leather but he said he didn’t care. His hair and the jacket match. I think he feels older with it, grown up. MG doesn’t usually talk rubbish. His mouth is too quick but he is on his way to being smart. Calculate said it.
I call him MG because he doesn’t use Western Union. Only MoneyGram. He thinks it is better. The rates, the service, the staff.
I said to him, ‘Hey, little brother, it’s just ordinary people. Look at the shops, they are the same: news-agents, small grocers, phone repair shops. Nothing special, same kind, makes no difference if Western Union or MoneyGram.’
The others agreed, but he is not convinced. He taps on his forehead with one finger. It’s shiny. It was the same when I first met him. It was hot there, it is not hot now. Still, his face is sweaty. This boy has a tap inside his forehead. It’s broken. It drips slowly, always leaving something on his skin. He knocks on that forehead, looking at us, when he wants us to listen. His finger is faster than the dripping of his broken tap that makes all the sweat. He looks ridiculous with his one finger hammering at where his brain is supposed to be. He says he knows, his brother told him. The brother said that they are trying to catch people using Western Union, the smugglers. It is better to leave it alone.
MG put away whatever his brother sent him. Everyone did it that way. Someone sends it, you pick it up later, when you have arrived on safe ground. You couldn’t take money in the boat in case you lost it.
But that guy and his brother. I want to push MG sometimes. Push him into the road, just to wake him up. If your brother is so great, why does he not come for you? Why does he not tell you how to get to the UK? To London even. Why does he keep saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, all has changed,’ when you call?
‘Papers,’ MG says, ‘no papers.’
‘Can you be quiet now? I don’t want to get caught here.’
Calculate thinks he is our leader. Because he is older, because MG looks at him – his eyes asking, Is this right? – when we have to make a decision.
I answer that I don’t need to be quiet. There is no one here. No one can see us. But Calculate puts his finger on his thin lips and puts his backside on a bit of cardboard he keeps in his bag and leans against the tree that is near Suleyman. He tells me to be quiet again. MG is throwing his eyes at me, shy. I haven’t replied to his Michel idea. Why? It’s stupid.
GPS moves his shoulders up, then lets them fall. He wants to say sorry that way. Sorry, but Calculate knows what we need to do. I don’t understand GPS sometimes. Have we not made it most of the way without Calculate? But I just open my backpack as if I am looking for something, my lips holding each other tight.