Chemin des Dunes

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I park the car off Route de Gravelines –
six minutes on Sat Nav from the Port –
and head, on foot, along Chemin des Dunes:
half road, half track.
On the right, the last houses of Calais
look out now on portaloos and rubbish skips.
And behind the muddy banks are tents,
like those left behind at festivals –
pop-up domes, not made for hard November nights –
they look today like lands destroyed and left.

Two weeks before, I’d been here and
walked these paths and seen these lives,
lived between the rubble and the rubbish
and the burnt plastic.
But last time, the tents were open to let in light
and air and clothes were hung out to dry.
Beneath the ‘Welcome to Darfur’ sign,
a group of men played cards
and mums trudged with toddlers to standpipes.

This time, it rains.
And the wind pushes the rain into
my face and the faces of the passing men.
Good Morning. A nod. A grin.
Shit Morning is what we mean.
This time, the mud and puddles
threaten to fill up shoes and soak socks
that will not dry.
These pop-up tents are storm-sodden
from top down,
stuck, like popped bubble-gum to the ground.

It’s shit.

Ahmad pulls me into the shelter
of a small café and buys me tea.
No. I’ll get it, I say.
He insists and thrusts one of his few
damp cigarettes into my closed fist.
Thanks, but no. I don’t smoke.
But he lights it anyway and so I do, today.

I should go. I’m lost somewhere
between the Eritrean church,
Darfur and Afghanistan.
I think of Good Chance
and its space-age dome.
I listen to Ahmad talk about Kuwait,
take a call from his mum,
watch him stamp out the butt of his cigarette
between flapping soul of useless shoe and mud.
It rains. Lashing down and blowing pissed-off gales
across broken, hopeless homes and sodden sand.

I go. I shake his hand and hope,
with all my heart, that he gets to London
because we need more Ahmads
in our green and pleasant land.

At Theatre Good Chance,
there is still a calm that comes partly from art
and partly from their fuck off dome,
built by refugees and volunteers
to stay the course and be the theatre,
the meeting place, the village hall,
the shelter from the storm and fire and fear,
the place to be to show solidarity and share grief
when refugees are blamed for terrorist deaths
on dark Parisian streets.

Four Iranian men and a boy of eleven
are eager to learn English.
We start this way –
first words, then up on our feet,
pretending to be in a café,
then to buy a ticket for the London Eye.
Mohser wants to meet the Queen.
Why? I say.
He looks at me with nearly teenage scorn then smiles.
She’s in England isn’t she?
We write a poem and count the beats
in English and then Persian, then Armenian.
I try to say, I have three daughters.
They laugh. I try again. They laugh
some more at me.
So. I say. Come on. Let’s write a play.
and soon we have the shape
of a great morality tale!

THE HERO AND THE THIEF:
complete with goalkeepers,
the mafia, love, money, jealousy,
prison and university.
A hero and a ne’er do well –
first the egg and then the camel.

My troupe go to queue for food
and I turn and see Rosie,
my friend from university,
and Mohammed Omer A.K.A The Dream.
I introduce them
and Mohammed feels unexpectedly
like an old friend too.
Friendships are cemented quickly here
with shared cigarettes or poetry.

Back in Café Afghan,
I ask for chicken and rice
and stand awkwardly for
only a beat before there is
a shuffling and a space is made for me.
More tea. More hands to shake.
All muddy boots and charging mobile phones.
Happy to be inside, even when the frame
is less than greenhouse strong
and wind lifts the plastic edges
and heaven would be a handful of nails.

I should have brought nails.
Today, the jungle needs tarpaulin
and blankets and tents and nails.

Abdul writes a play
about leaving his love
in Afghanistan and the promises he made.
We act it out for a small crowd.

And then my raucous band of actors
are back, fed and up for it again!
Rehearsals, makeshift props are made
and a football found for our hero.

We play a game together,
a kick about, in a circle
in the outer dome,
waiting for an audience to gather.
And then the show –
a mismatched and muddled
version of rehearsals
with applause on every line
and pauses to translate.

They bow and Mohser grins.

And when it’s time to leave,
Mohammed Omer walks with me
through the dark,
back to Chemin des Dunes.
There’s garlic and the scent of spice.
Small ramshackle shops
sell Coca-Cola, Sprite and chai.
Dotted about are flowers and
white fairy lights.
Dotted about are the odd
tents still standing.
Through the dim, moonless night,
Mohammed leads a path between
the flooded tracks and
mudded slopes and I follow him.

He takes me to my car.
I have a boot.
He doesn’t ask to get in.
He hugs me. Says thank you.
I say I hope you make it
and he shrugs – almost
resigned to this life.
Then he smiles:
I’ll be alright.

But it’s not alright.

In the last week, a fire raged,
a storm destroyed,
the police arrested,
the fingers pointed.

Hands are lacerated. Men electrocuted.
Mohser’s mother died before they fled.
Murdered.
The twin girls, who pinch my cheeks
and paint their nails and laugh
are cold and wet.
Mohammed’s hands too cold to write.
Amhad’s feet are wet.

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