By Derek Turner

The Connor Post - Exclusive - January 4, 2017

The introduction and part 1 of Sea Changes are here.
Part 2 of Sea Changes is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here part 5 is here, and the last one from 2016, part 6.

Having escaped from the detention centre, Ibraham links up with the people-smuggling underworld of Greece.

Chapter 14 (extract)

A Journey in the Dark

Piraeus, Greece

Sunday, 11 August

The place was one of shadows and shouting. The curtains were closed and the lights were off. When Ibraham’s eyes became accustomed to it, he was surprised to find it almost empty, except for two Arab men at one chipped formica table, and a third behind the counter. They were all watching a football game on a vast screen; the shouting was coming from the fans on the field.

Salaam. I wish to speak to Abdul Aziz.”

The counterhand looked over involuntarily at the table, then asked surlily,“Why do you wish to speak to Abdul Aziz?”

“It is a business matter.”

“What business matter?” It was a new voice, authoritative, from a burly, older man at the table. His companion watched narrowly.

“Are you Abdul Aziz?”

“Who are you and what do you want?”

“It is a private matter.”

“Speak it out; I am Abdul Aziz.”

“I am from Basra, and I wish to go to England. I have been told you can help me.”

“That is illegal. Naturally, I know there are people who arrange such things. But it is illegal and therefore expensive. Where in Basra are you from? Who is your father?”

“Hayyaniyah. My father is dead. He disappeared. He was against Saddam.”

Aziz picked his teeth with a toothpick thoughtfully. “What is your name? How did you get here?”

Ibraham told his name, and about his journey. He omitted only Lavrion, not wishing to alarm Aziz with the prospect of a police manhunt. Even without this, grudging respect dawned in Aziz’s eyes. He signed to Ibraham to sit down. “You seem honest. You must understand that we need to be cautious. The Greeks don’t like us. They think we’re like Turks—what they don’t know is that we’re a whole lot worse!”

Ibraham smiled politely.

“I think I can help you—mostly by putting you in touch with others. Do you have money?”

“Not much left now.”

“That is a pity. The people I will introduce you to are not like us; they are hard people, greedy, not really followers of The Prophet, praise His Name. They are Albanians, and they are involved in many things. I do not like doing business with such people, but we do not have the contacts they do. If anyone can get you to England, they can. Come back here just before evening prayers.”

The rain had stopped when Ibraham left, feeling easier but wondering how he could while away four hours in that place. He bought a kebab and a bottle of Coke, which he consumed as he walked. If he stayed in one place he might attract attention. He wondered if the police had discovered that he was missing.

Those were heart-sinking streets. Sometimes the asphalt had worn away to reveal old cobbles and rail tracks. There were waste patches and building sites where scabby cats yowled—flat-fronted old warehouses with tiny barred windows—prostitutes in doorways—roadworkers, office workers and naval recruits in white uniforms—walls of political and rock-band posters and graffiti from the previous weekend’s anti- austerity riots—closed-up churches—cranes that hadn’t been used since the 1970s—shining offices waiting for their first tenants, who were not expected soon —a torrent of trucks that sent up waves of brown water from new puddles—Green Line suburban trains. There were halal and non-halal butchers and bakers, with windows of too-pale carcasses and fly-buzzed bread. He could see the funnels of ships above rooftops— and then once, briefly beautiful between two houses, the suddenly sunlit sweep of the harbour known to the ancients and even to Vikings, who had scratched runes on the stone lions that had once guarded the gateways before being looted to Venice. Ferries were crossing and re-crossing in the sparkle, and there was a rumour of graceful grey from the naval dockyards at Zea (where the Mithridiates had been built). Further away, there was a tantalizing hint of the magical Europe he had hoped to disover—tumbling rocky headlands with large villas and beyond again to blue islands.

He was back at the now closed café at the appointed time, where he was met by Aziz. They walked for several streets speaking very little, then through a dusty blue doorway and up a long flight of uncarpeted stairs. An era ago in 1867, this had been a newly-rich merchant’s prestigious new house, with secure storage in the cellar and trace elements of neo-classical splendours in the cornicing. There were original mahogany doors disguised under layers of white paint gone grey and greasy with unnumbered fingermarks. Now, it had been sub-divided, sub-let, subsumed. Legal and illegal transients shared the rambling, crumbling building with drug addicts, single mothers, and a former dockworker who secretly, despairingly, voted for whatever was the furthest right party on the ballot.

One of the rooms, once a dining room whose acanthus frieze survived, now divided its degraded hours between television room for an extended Iraqi family and a Shia mosque. The blue nylon carpet was stained and worn, a statically-charged highway for slippered feet by day, a rich hunting ground for brown beetles after dark, themselves hunted by mice which teemed behind the coming-away skirting. Tall uncurtained windows looked over damp-streaked walls, blown guttering and overflowing dustbins—and through the tall windows a grand vista over the promontory, backdrop to two-and-a-half millennia of Athenian navigation.

The room filled with a plethora of accents as men arrived for prayers, and laved their hands and feet in plastic basins. The women and girls worshipped in the smaller room downstairs. There were jeans and T-shirts, robes and hybrids of these modes, from Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, Egypt, Yemen and yet more places. Ibraham was intrigued to see paler complexions—the first white Muslims he had seen. Aziz whispered, “There you are! Now, those whites are the Albanians! Those are the fellows who can help you. They’ve got many friends, and don’t mind what they do. People, drugs, drink, guns...whatever they can get. Between us, they’re scum, but you need them!”

Ibraham wondered how these “scum” told each other apart. They were wearing new-looking European clothes, and took little notice of their Arab co-religionists. One took a call on an expensive-looking mobile. But one also had prayer beads, and when the imam went to the head of the room, near the inked-on mihrab, the Illyrians knelt with the rest, bowing and sitting up apparently as assiduously as the rest.

Afterwards, most of the worshippers filtered away, but Aziz went over to a short, slim, black-haired, crater-cheeked Albanian of about 50, wearing jeans, sports jacket and a big-collared black shirt and white tie. This was Lekë Kruja, a former sergeant in the Kosovo Liberation Army and a prominent member of a clan from Veliki Trnovac. He was a legal refugee, augmenting his benefits income transporting diverse cargoes across Europe without asking questions of the transporters. He looked at Ibraham searchingly while Aziz explained, and even at a distance Ibraham felt abashed. Aziz came back took him aside.

“They can get you to the coast in a truck leaving tomorrow, then they will put you on a boat to England. The journey would cost you $1,700, and take four days. That includes the boat. You would bring your own food and water. It will be uncomfortable, but it might be the quickest and easiest way. It’s also cheaper than I had thought. But he must know now.”

England in a week! But it would mean all his money gone. And the Albanians had eyes like scorpions.“What do you suggest, Mr Aziz? If I pay this, I will have no money left. And I don’t like the look of these people.”

Aziz looked over his shoulder. “These people are filth. But they know what they’re doing. And they keep their promises because it’s good business. The police can’t break them, because they’ve got family all over Europe—Kosovo, Serbia, Italy, Germany. They call it kanun— family honour—and besa—secrecy. No-one will screw with these guys. It’s a lot of money, sure, but whatever way it will cost you a lot. And this will be the quickest way. Take my advice, and be on that truck—and in a week’s time you’ll be drinking chai with the Queen of England!”

So Ibraham handed over $100 as a deposit, with another $100 to be paid when boarding the lorry, the rest to be given up in Rotterdam. Kruja nodded, barked instructions to Aziz, then clumped away down the uncarpeted stairs. The hard sound made Ibraham remember he had nowhere to stay that night, no money, and the streets were damp. But Aziz seemed to have taken a liking to him.

“Where are you staying, my friend?”

“Nowhere. Can you suggest a very cheap place?”

“I’ve got a room you can use!”

“But I have no money!”

“Forget it; call it Basra kanun!”

Ibraham was intensely moved. He had not expected such disinterested helpfulness on the journey. He felt bound to be honest.

“You are very kind. But I must tell you something. I escaped from Lavrion. There was a riot—and I saw a chance to get away. So the police may be looking for me even now. I do not wish to place you in trouble or danger.”

Aziz laughed and slapped him on the back. “No trouble! You are not the first young man I have met who does not want the police to know where he is. Those police are racists and infidels. Who cares about them and their filthy laws? No, my friend, I offered you hospitality and hospitality you shall have. The police—ha!—the police can look after themselves!” He snapped his fingers scornfully, took Ibraham by the arm and propelled him down the noisy stairs and onto the clamorous road.

He lived in a new house with his wife and ten-year-old son, who had joined him in Athens last year as part of a family reunification scheme. They shared lamb pilaf and apricot while Ibraham told of his journey. By contrast, Aziz was obviously reluctant to talk about how he had got out of Iraq, and it would have been impertinent to persist. Ibraham wondered what he was hiding, or trying to forget. There were secrets there.

But whatever had happened in Mr. Aziz’s life, whether it was sorrow or shame, their kind hospitality over the ensuing 24 hours made him even more anxious not to implicate them in his troubles. He was therefore relieved, but also genuinely sorry, the following evening to make his adieux and accompany Aziz to the metro stop.

Ibraham had never been on a metro before, but he did not have much time to relish the experience, for the rendezvous was just a ten-minute hurtle away. They alighted on an almost deserted road of old factories, alongside a fence behind which waited dozens of lorries in a floodlit enclosure. A few hundred yards away across the road, a shape stood smoking. Aziz grunted “ That must be our man,” and led the way.

“You’ll be travelling in one of these lorries, Ibraham” he explained. “It will not be very comfortable, but it should be reliable. Anyway, it’ll only be for a few days—and you will have company. They didn’t lay on this little trip just for you, you know!”

“I know, Mr Aziz—I’m sure I’ll be fine.” But he wasn’t at all sure.

The waiting man was Kruja. As they approached, he looked at his watch and along the street.“So you are here. Good.”

Salaam; here is the young man.”

“We must go now—but first I must search you.”

“Search me—for what?”

“Recording machines, cameras, weapons.”

Ibraham stood while Kruja frisked him professionally and searched through his bag. Then he walked away, clearly expecting Ibraham to follow. Ibraham turned to Aziz.

“Thank you, sir, for your kindness. I will send you a letter from Great Britain. Goodbye.”

“Ha ha, best not to do that, eh? But goodbye, and go with God!”

The Albanian was already 20 metres away, stomping towards a gateway in the fence, and Ibraham had to run to catch him. He was amazed to see Kruja simply walk past the security guard in the kiosk, who never even looked up from his newspaper as Kruja and Ibraham stooped under the red-and-white barrier. The guard was a poor man, and the small bundle of Euros he found in the desk every month came in useful.

They walked through the lorry park without meeting anyone, although the Albanian looked around constantly. They stopped beside a large, new refrigerator lorry bearing the logo of an Athenian meat processor. Kruja looked around one last time, then unlocked one of the back doors. A blast of cold air rushed out. Ibraham looked at him in suspicion and surprise. The Albanian said in execrable Arabic: “Is OK. Warm inside. Secret compartment.”

He clambered up and Ibraham followed warily. There were rows of cow carcasses hanging from hooks. The interior was divided into compartments, with doors between each one. The Albanian flicked on a light, and walked between the carcasses to the end of the first compartment, where he opened a door, lit another light and went through, leaving the door ajar. Tensed for some trick, Ibraham came slowly in the Albanian’s wake into the second compartment, past more dead cattle—and the bodies of pigs. He shuddered superstitiously.

Kruja fiddled at the bulkhead at the end of the compartment—and somehow revealed a small, secret door. Ibraham saw now that the second compartment was shorter than the first, and a secret area had been created by placing an insulated false wall partway along. The door had been painstakingly cut and disguised. A dim blue light crept out, and the Albanian beckoned.

The secret compartment would have been surprisingly spacious, if it hadn’t been for the 11 people sitting against the bulkhead, packs beside them, some with bedding already unrolled. The space was lit by two battery-powered lanterns. There was a smell of chemical toilet, mixed with the smell of feet and sweat. Bottles of water were stacked alongside the toilets, and there was a small air conditioner linked to hidden ventilation pipes. It was an impressive operation.

He took a deep breath and made to enter, but Kruja held out his hand and said “One hundred dollars.” He examined the proffered bills with a magnifying glass.“OK,” he said, and withdrew his arm so that Ibraham could enter.“We go one hour. Stay quiet.”

Ibraham sidled in smiling nervously, and found a space in a corner, uncomfortable against a right angle of the bulkhead. He unrolled his blankets and tried to make a tiny zone for himself. He was already feeling claustrophobic, and could not help touching those on either side. The large black man seemed mercifully to be asleep. The Arab on the other side glared, ostentatiously rubbing his leg. “Sorry! OK!” said Ibraham in Arabic and smiled placatingly. The man sat back with a martyred look and shut his eyes, pulling a black PVC jacket around his delicate torso.

As Ibraham’s eyes acclimatised, he could make out more detail. Opposite Ibraham, there was an Indian couple with a very young baby, the man’s feet almost touching his. There were two more Arabic-looking men. There were five Africans, one of them a good-looking girl, and four young Chinese men. Some had huge rucksacks; others just a plastic bag. It was much too crowded. It was sickening and stifling. He was thinking about changing his mind just as Kruja came back and said in Arabic and again in English:

“We go ten minutes. Close doors now. Open doors soon. Plenty air and water. No cigarettes. No talking when not moving.”

Then he and another man closed the secret door with a horribly conclusive crump. The bright light and coolness from the frozen compartment were sealed out, and Ibraham had a spasm of panic, which he beat down angrily, surprised at this unsuspected phobia. Childish! Contemptible! He plugged his ears so as not to hear the squeaks of screws being driven home. Then there was the muffled roar of a blowtorch as the Albanians welded the seal. The noise stopped, and the men could be heard dragging heavy objects along the floor, and securing them against the bulkhead. Those in the compartment listened with fascination. Ibraham couldn’t stop thinking of tombs, until somewhere within him he found reserves of endurance and faced down the djinn of small spaces.

He tried to make conversation with the Arab men, but the exchange languished. The Africans talked in a language Ibraham didn’t recognise, while the Chinese were introspective. The baby cried, and its mother seemed unable to stop the noise. The lorry’s back doors were heard and felt being banged shut. The engine started; the lorry lumbered through the raised barrier, waved through by the guard, and swung north.

Next Tuesday - Part 8
Happy New Year!

Copies of Sea Changes are available from Amazon (a few copies of the first edition still available)


- Derek Turner has appeared in a number of top-notch news outlets, including Taki's, Chronicles and the Times.

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