22 September – 22 October
He got on and off buses and trains at stations and stops he didn’t even know the names of. He covered long distances on foot without knowing where the city ended – past shopping centres, car parks with sparkling windscreens, railways – and where the countryside began: cultivated fields and farmhouses in a rust-yellow landscape that smelled like rain, even when it hadn’t been raining. If he had to say what he would really have liked to show Nadir, he knew what he’d pick: the morning fog that smoked across the fields, like steam from a giant pot.
He even managed to ride a few stops on a school bus for visually impaired kids. One of them even asked him to help unfasten their jacket because the zip was stuck, and when one of the girls sitting behind Khaled said, ‘You stink. Oh, you’re mute! You stink, you know?’ the same boy shut her up with a whole argument about the ventilation system on the bus, which was a real piece of junk. ‘Don’t worry, brother,’ he confided. ‘Washing’s a real effort for me, too.’
After the ordeal with the lorry driver, he steered clear of hitch-hiking. But a couple of times, he managed to climb onto the back bumper of a lorry, miraculously pulling the suitcase behind him with a strength he didn’t know he had. Gripping the tailboard, he chewed through mouthfuls of dust and smoke.
When he set off on the road weeks ago, he couldn’t have imagined all this crazy roving around. He was sure that the south was at the end of one long, straight road, but maybe he hadn’t understood Padre Buono’s directions properly. This hadn’t been in the plan before Nadir died the way he died, because of some fucked-up thing that would never have happened if he’d done his job as a big brother.
In the end, he stopped in a city by a river. Padre Buono had spelled out its name several times: To-ri-no. Turin. ‘There are friends there who can help you out.’
When he reached the enormous disused factory where they ‘resided’ (that was Padre Buono’s word), there was no one inside, except for an old man.
There must have been a whole load of people here until a few days ago, judging from the number of blankets, clothes, mattresses and rags clustered in certain areas of the warehouse. Bottles and stacks of crushed cans were scattered all over, especially in the yard, among tangles of brushwood, on top of bits of brick and dust.
‘Careful.’ That’s how the old man introduced himself.
The fact that Khaled understood every word spoken by this big, tall man – or maybe the coat just made him look imposing – suddenly made him feel better, even though he was exhausted. He’d never thought about his own language like that: like a warm bath he could slip into, offering a bit of comfort.
In the days he spent at the dilapidated old factory, the one thing that never left him was the nausea. Because of the stench, a concentrate of faeces, urine, food, alcohol and embers – a kind of bubble that intensified even more when the old man heated up ‘stuff to eat’ on a camping stove, the most precious thing he owned, along with his knife.
‘At the back there, Central Africans. On the right, Romanians; there, North Africans, and fucked right off over there, the junkies.’ Now they’d all packed up and gone. But the old man never explained why. He just showed Khaled the little room where his bed was: a mattress on a wooden table and, beside it, a stub of a candle. He was particularly proud of the bars on the large window through which the light fell directly onto the bed. ‘First-rate work,’ he said, pointing at it like someone who knows what they’re talking about. ‘And this old carcass,’ he added, digging his fat, wonky thumb into his chest, ‘isn’t going anywhere, not even if they come in here with bombs.’
Khaled screamed like crazy when he heard the crash. The commotion had jolted him out of a deep sleep. At first he lay petrified, his face pressed into the mattress, with the deafening sound of caterpillar tracks crushing iron and stone in the middle of the yard. Then he jumped up.
With slow, dinosaur-like movements and huge pincers, the machine broke and mangled sheet metal and frames as if they were as soft as butter.
It was on the second roar, as a dust cloud invaded the warehouse, that Khaled darted into the old man’s room. He shrieked that there was a war outside. But nothing. The man raised one arm and then gave a sign with his enormous wonky thumb as if to say, ‘It’s all okay,’ just as a piece of metal and a shower of glass crashed to the floor nearby. Then, Khaled started to tug at the old man’s arm, in an attempt to drag him out of the room. At that very moment, the glass in the large window, and the bars with it, literally exploded onto the bed.
He can’t remember how he ended up face-down on the floor. He only remembers that, when he managed to get to his feet, spluttering in the middle of a greasy cloud that made it difficult to breathe, he could see the body bundled up in the coat, in among the rubble. The old man’s face and hair white with a powder that didn’t look real, and in the middle of his forehead, a red trickle of blood. It ran onto his nose, between his unblinking eyes fixed on the filthy patch of sky the machine had opened above his head.
‘Stupid old man!’ Khaled yelled, hunting for the suitcase in the wreckage, swearing and almost crying in the effort to pull it out from under a girder, grazing his hands and knees, and finally running as far away as possible. ‘Stupid old man!’ he kept saying to himself, with a lump in his throat, as if he had to stay there with that guy for the rest of his life. He was a moron, that’s what he was!
Crouching by the river that runs through the middle of the city Khaled is about to leave, he thinks back to something the old man had told him one night, spurred on by wine and the crackling of a fire he’d made like a work of art.
He’d gestured to the iron structure holding up the vast warehouse. ‘Imagine how it must have been . . . building engines for boats . . . huge beautiful machines . . .’ Even he, who had been a metalworker in his country, had trouble imagining it. ‘Engines. For. Boats,’ he repeated, enunciating slowly, full of admiration. ‘It’s beautiful, sailing,’ he said at last, evoking something immeasurable. And then, poking his arthritic finger into Khaled’s chest, he breathed into his face the booze-soaked phrase: ‘When you have a destination, even the desert becomes a road.’
Crouching by the river, Khaled wraps his arms around the suitcase standing on its wheels. Tomorrow he will resume his journey. He has a whole night to contemplate the duplication of trees and lights on the dark, glossy surface of the water. And its gentle yellow-brown shimmer, a liquid stillness he had never imagined, offers some consolation as he strokes the salvaged red plastic suitcase.
Photograph © Jon Evans