“Calais” (a short story)

By Chris Cleave, February 2016

This is an English version of a story I wrote for the French weekly “Le1”, in their special edition on the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk.


And so I moved to London, like half-a-million other French. The Eurostar must have passed through Calais but I didn’t notice the exact moment. I spent the journey in the bar, drinking lager from cans like the English. One must respect a nation’s culture and values.

I paid rent in advance and no one complained when I moved into my flat in Clapham. Perhaps if you are white and your migration sufficiently pathetic (from the IXème where everything reminds you of your ex-wife, to this petit-Paris where forgetting is no easier) then nobody protests that you aren’t a genuine refugee, or that you are just doing it for a better life.

The year after I arrived, an Englishwoman moved in next door. This was really a French arrondissement of London by now, but I didn’t protest. In matters of the heart I am very Schengen: I believe in the free movement of people who move me. My neighbour is attractive if you are impressed, as I am, by a look of patient sadness. (I feel nothing now for people who have never drowned.)

When I watched my new neighbour carry her life up the path in her own hands – five cardboard boxes and a weeping fig – I thought: this is one of those London films, where we mend each others’ broken heart in 115 minutes, using voiceover and montage.

My neighbour has a teenage daughter who is named after a city to which neither of them has a connection. I know this because I said, ‘That’s a cool name.’ (I really used the word ‘cool’). I said, ‘Is there a story behind it?’

She stared. ‘What?’

‘Calais. Your name. Do you have history there?’

She rolled her eyes and went inside.

Her mother said, ‘I just liked the sound of it. Paris was taken.’

It took me a moment to realise that she didn’t mean Paris was taken by Bismarck, or Hitler, but by the Hilton family.

The neighbour’s daughter inhabits her name but she has no territorial claim to it. She huddles inside the word, in squalid conditions, in a tent donated by volunteers.

Each evening a moped brings pizza for the two of them. The pizza firm is called Domino’s, and indeed the logo on the pizza boxes depicts two stylised domino pieces. My neighbour told me about a game she owns that involves matching wooden tiles, which look just like that logo. She told me the game is called Domino’s, after the pizza company. For her it’s a brand extension – like her phone case, which is styled on Disney’s Frozen. You pay extra for the branding – she tells me she knows this, she’s no fool – but you can’t help yourself if you like the brand, and that’s how they get you, isn’t it? She points to her temple, and winks, and I’m glad to be included in her ever closer union of savants.

My neighbour is not able to work, as she suffers with one of the officially recognised forms of melancholy. In consequence she receives social security. She has her daughter’s name as a wrist tattoo. The daughter goes to school but more often she stays in bed. In time she will have her own diagnosis but for now she is medically stateless, since she has left vivacity behind but hasn’t yet been granted indefinite leave to remain in either anxiety or depression. The Domino’s delivery is free because they are on a voucher scheme from the local authority. Every evening between 18:00 and 18:30 my neighbour and her daughter eat their pizzas straight from the box, watching the TV news. Afterwards they come out on the front path together to smoke.

This week the Calais refugee camp has been on TV incessantly. They asked me about it, on our shared path, while they were lighting their cigarettes and I was arriving home from the bank where I work as an analyst.

I shrugged. (I really shrugged.) I said I thought the UK would refuse the refugees, not because Cameron lacks compassion, of course – who could fail to be moved by the images, etc, etc? But because he would claim a domino effect (by which I meant that accepting these angry refugees might create a locus for more, thereby breeding more anger, even terrorism). My neighbour looked worried: did I mean it would affect her Domino’s vouchers?

When I first saw her, though – just for that minute as she walked up the path with her bruised life in cardboard and mine already unpacked – just for a moment, I believed in our shared humanity.

I have lived in London three years now and perhaps I am drinking too much. I miss my ex-wife. Sometimes I wake up thinking I am home, and then I remember it’s gone. We pass through Calais but we do not notice the exact moment.


Six things we get wrong about refugees

After initial public sympathy for drowning asylum seekers, the backlash has begun and it’s been a week of anti-refugee rhetoric in Europe. There are more than 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world. More than 27,000 refugees have died on their way to Europe since the year 2000. Why do we so quickly forget our first, instinctive feeling of empathy?

(1) We’ve forgotten that migration is heroic

We have to keep going. This is the pulse that beats in our blood as human beings. The drive to set out for some distant idea of home: this was the howl of the wind in Odysseus’s sails and the creak of the timber in Noah’s ark. It was the crunch of the gravel under the sandals of Moses’ followers as they crossed the bed of the Red Sea.

We are all the offspring of refugees. We are the descendents of those who fled from danger, and thus survived. We are an adaptable species, and our survival comes from our ability to imagine a condition of refuge, and to set out for it. We are all, as I’m sure Noah remarked at the launch ceremony, in the same boat.

Continue reading “Six things we get wrong about refugees”