‘Jesus, the heat,’ says Karen. She’s not wrong. Eighteen hours
we’ve been queuing and moved forward two feet. It’s like the whole
planet has turned up in one place where there are no cash machines,
mobile phone signals or coffee outlets. The sun is demonic,
and the tall men with whips remove our watches, rings, small change.
We are barefoot. Sand blows around our nostrils. Several people
have passed out, including the man behind us who lived
in Surrey and dealt in futures. We do not know how long
the wait will be. ‘Is there a hold up?’ I ask one of the men.
He smiles but says nothing. He has large muscles and good teeth.
He appears to be relaxed. Up ahead, some bald bloke is raging,
head red as a lobster, sick with too much sun, and he’s kicking off
real bad, shouting Achtung something. Karen says he was asking
for protein, before he got taken away in a van that patrols the queue.
Karen says she’ll see what the hold up is. I give her my water bottle
and hat, the watch as she walks out of sight. That night the temperature
crashes. I lie together with other humans to keep warm. A woman from Romford
wants to kiss me. Her mouth smells of red wine. ‘Not much of a life is it?’
she asks. It’s days before Karen comes back, face red, looking older.
She shakes her head and says ‘the things I’ve seen.’
‘What?’ I ask. ‘Are there toilets? Mattresses?’ She tells me about the
front of the queue, the walls of the city, the guards, the tiny, inadequate
doorway, the mewling crowds of humans jostling for entry,
malnourished, diseased, blown up, ripped off. ‘Those kids up there,’
Karen mutters, pointing to the front of the queue. ‘Nothing but skin
and eyes. We’ll have to wait our turn.’
The sun was blinding at the ledge,
turning us thirsty, delirious. We peered
at the drop, whistled at gravity
as Joe kicked a pebble into air
and watched it turn to nothing.
We were exhausted, dirty,
our clothes turned to strips of grey cloth
on the journey of bleached dawns
past prehistoric cars, junked prams
and bones. The old world done.
We sat all day, talking about how times
used to be, the stuff we could buy.
Cars. Shampoo. Lager and thrills.
We shared our final tin of corned beef,
then lay down, head to head.
My arm rested beside the drop
into darkness. Wind scarred our ears
as I called Joe’s name, told him I loved him.
In the morning a vulture flapped
four feet from my nose.
I batted it away with my arm,
called Joe’s name. He was gone;
must have turned over in his sleep,
or else struck out on his own.
Drops of rain patted my cheek and nose
as the vulture flapped into the air, eyed me up,
then caught a breeze and fell from view.
Listen. Come close. A hundred new
and delicate promises gather
in my mouth; all the words
you want to hear, the soft pitch
and reel of my voice bringing promise,
reward, gossip, all the suggestions
your petty heart can take.
Every phrase is a jewel, a potion,
a charm against indifference, so lean in,
honey, sugar, darling, babe.
My phrases, like heroin, will
make your head nod until you’re besotted
with surrender. There will be no violence,
coercion, or arms turned against spines.
This is not witchcraft. These are only
consonants and vowels. Nothing more.
Lip to neck and arse by thigh,
we almost choked on each other,
our breath ferocious in a war
to stay human.
I was starving for home.
The smells stayed immobile
in groaning air. Human debris
and the reek of coffee.
We murmured in darkness,
creaked with the timbers,
craved a hard breeze.
When they let us on deck
we filled it like flies
at the eye of a horse.
the waves were tempting.
we were shoved, bossed,
dressed up, starched.
Groomed for parlours,
we stood in shadowed rooms,
kept tight in cuffs and collars.
I waited near tables,
into pale cups and thought
of skin and coins.
I served it with silver spoons to
with small and pretty eyes.
I saw the floor,
remembered my fine brother,
his bold face. His big hands.
I thought of winds twitching at the shore,
the heat in the plantation,
the sun on bare leaves.
The distance between
covered truth and blinding sorrow.
Who fetches coffee
and who drinks it.