By Derek Turner

The Connor Post - Exclusive - January 17, 2017

The introduction and part 1 of Sea Changes are here.
Part 2 of Sea Changes is here, and here is part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.

Ibraham, and many others, depart Rotterdam on the last stage of their secret journey to England.

Chapter 16 (extract)

Passage to England


The travellers followed their guides through lines of lorries bearing the names of towns they had never heard and phone numbers with too many digits. There were very high buildings in the distance, and the sky was abuzz with hundreds of thousands of lights. All seemed quiet except for the swishing of ring-road traffic.

They came to a deserted road of old and inconvenient warehouses, some bearing faded 19th-century names. There was a CCTV camera high up on one wall, but it was pointing in the wrong direction and moved tiredly. Long before it had tracked drily towards them, they had dashed across the exposed thoroughfare into a cat-smelling alleyway, breaking up an amorous encounter between a tom and his queen, sending them spitting and scattering behind dustbins. At the far end was an expansive view of the night city across a slick ebony channel of the Nieuwe Maas, with brightly lit, humming vessels berthed in the foreground by a long, straight quay wall scored by rusty rails, with weeds growing between the cobbles.

As they were about to leave the shelter of the alley, a Dock Police van came round a corner and everyone froze—but the bored driver was groping for a CD in the glove compartment and his eyes slid carelessly over their shadows against the slightly darker background of the alley. When it turned the corner and disappeared, Kruja signalled to wait, then darted over the road and up the gangway of a battered-looking trawler several hundred metres along the quay wall. A tall figure came out of the shadows at the top of the gangway and the two disappeared below decks for several very long minutes.

Those waiting felt horribly conspicuous. But the port traffic had almost all moved downriver when the container ships had become too large to come so far upstream; these areas were given over mostly to chandlery, light repairs, and foxes scratching a living on rats and rubbish. Even the sex shop that had done so well out of ships from buttoned-up countries had long since closed. There were hectares of docks like these, used just often enough not to have been redeveloped for apartments, patrolled by acrylic-uniformed guards with hair below their collars who rarely got out of their cars, and monitored by cameras whose footage was never checked. The Dock Police’s under-resourced attentions were on other sad ships and woebegone warehouses. So the quay remained electrically empty in both directions when the travellers clumped and stumbled up the steep gangway in answer to Kruja’s beckoning. The trawlerman silently signed to them to descend into the hold, counting them in as their feet felt gingerly for the icy rungs of the metal ladder. Ibraham felt sick as he renewed his acquaintance with rancid fish and essence of diesel. That such a feculent vessel should be his ticket to hygienic paradise!

A fluorescent light flicked on to expose a salt-crystalled cavern running most of the vessel’s length. The Albanians relieved their clients of the final installment of their fees, as agreed a continent away and what felt like years ago. The travellers had heard stories about 20 minutes of machine gun fire near a certain Serb village, and paid without demur. Kruja was not a man to annoy; besides, he had not let them down.

The Sint Niklaus Enterprise, launched in Vlissingen in 1963, was one of the last wooden trawlers to be built in the Netherlands. It had been already outmoded in 1981, when a deckhand had painted a naïve flag and haloed saint on the stern to commemorate the 10th anniversary of municipal status—a solitary hint of former pride in the ferrous old stager. It was crewed by two Dutch deckhands and the tall man who had received the migrants, who was both owner and skipper. Down below somewhere, there was also a faceless engineer.

Shortly afterwards, this mysterious operative switched on the boat’s still powerful Eindhoven engines. There were purposeful movements above, and the businesslike voice of the Kapitein. The hold hatch was rolled shut; ropes thumped against the hull and were hauled dripping aboard, and the Enterprise edged into midstream as she had done thousands of times before.

She moved slowly downstream between banks sparkling with streets. Vehicles ran remorselessly along the coast road, headed for or from houses, factories, airports, railheads, galleries, concerts, wives, husbands, prostitutes, philosophy, fights, cannabis bars, revivalist meetings, Maasluis, Utrecht, Breda, Tilburg, Germany, Belgium, France, and further. Cranes worked or were still, men watched or were inattentive, buoys flashed in their sequences and distant lighthouse beams stroked the universal plain, signalling the congress of Land and Zee, dangers to be avoided, coasts to be conquered. It was a scene of constant movement that even now could sometimes make the Kapitein’s dry heart flutter in excitement.

The Enterprise dropped anchor quietly an hour later, a few hundred metres off a north shore village chartered in 1336, civic bearer of a Delft- blue triton emblem once borne in battle against Alva’s tercios, but now almost overwhelmed by industrial parks and ironically incandescent dormitory suburbs. The engines were powered down, and Ibraham and the others settled as comfortably as they could in the dripping clamminess.

A few hours afterwards, a launch buzzed businesslike across the channel, crowded with heads made black by the brightness behind, almost shipping water with the weight of scions of Sierra Leone, Somalia, Cappadocia, Kurdistan, Canton and points east and south, transported to this boat on this night at this time by a half-understood impulse and the organisational abilities of an Albanian syndicate.

Kruja exchanged muttered greetings with a bearded co-clansman in the bow of the launch, then secured the expertly thrown painter. The launch-man held the craft to the Enterprise’s rope-ladder with a boathook as his passengers clambered up clumsily. A young Sierra Leonean woman panicked, and refused to climb the ladder. She had to be threatened and prodded for some minutes before she finally essayed the rungs, breathing and moaning heavily all the way until eventually she plopped panting over the gunwale like a porpoise disgorged from a net. The launch then went back for more human cargo, and these last few additions to the freight were accompanied by large waterproofed packages.

There were sotto voce farewells, then the launch buzzed back into the darkness while below the original occupants shifted and grumbled to make room for another 25 would-be British citizens. Ibraham sat fastidiously slightly apart with his back against a slimy bulkhead, looking with displeasure at a large and stolid black man wearing a colourful shirt and jeans. Beside him were his gaudy-robed woman and their child, all surrounded by plastic bags. They spat out semi-masticated pistachio nuts onto the deck, while talking loudly and at length in a language Ibraham didn’t recognize but tended to dislike. He felt these were not the sort of people he would have chosen as companions on this important boat.

The engineer flicked switches somewhere, there were orders on deck, and the chain clanked in the hawse-pipe as the Enterprise gave up her sucking purchase in the mud. She edged into the channel and chugged gamely seawards, rigidly following Traffic Separation so as not to attract attention, a crewman steering in accordance with infrequent instructions from the captain, who was standing on the wheelhouse wings drinking cognac-laced coffee against the chill (and his conscience).

The Albanians hid as the Enterprise passed the pilot station, where launches with powerful lights came and went at all times. But the pilots ignored them, except to acknowledge her passing by radio. Their horizon was densely populated with ships awaiting tides and guides... Liberian container ships with Chinese iPods for Dutch high streets, Japanese tankers bearing Gulf oil to keep the Ringstad shining up to the satellites...and they had little interest in such a regular sight as the sad old Sint.

The waterways were opening out. Bright embankments had become black, bird-hung reedy islands fringed by mud, and now these were getting further apart and further away. The Enterprise started to feel the slop of the sea. It nipped neatly between two tankers that towered over it like cliffs—and Rotterdam’s port and civil authorities relinquished responsibility for the Enterprise with a final blazoning of buoys.


The hold hatch had been opened, but the only illumination came from a storm-lantern on the bulkhead. The noise had abated except for snores or odd murmured exchanges, but Ibraham felt again thrillingly awake. Slight nausea notwithstanding, this was too good a feeling to miss—the last stage to England. He would look back on this night when he was grey, sitting at ease in his beautiful London house!

He hoped there would be grandchildren to tell how he, an uneducated labourer, had stepped out from all he had known one spring day, with just a few things in his kitbag—how he had crossed a country in chaos, crept secretly across the face of the Middle East, passed over seas of shining creatures, through riots and over fences, by plane, truck, and on foot until making the last step over this final defensive ditch.

It was like one of the great journeys of old times—Sinbad brought up to date—and at the end there would be the realization of a life-long fantasy. He felt superior and strong—a man who had risked all and come through intact. And he was more than intact—he was tougher and wiser. He tensed the muscles of his stomach and relished their tautness; he curled and uncurled his strong fingers and toes. Every part of his body responded just as it should, in tune with his dauntless will which had carried him here through such difficulties.

He carried his soon-to-be-vastly-increased belongings toughly and wisely up the companionway. It was as pleasant on deck as he had hoped—cool breeze, colder than on the voyage from Antalya but pleasant after the old fish and new people, an indigo-purple sea with the radioactive coast carelessly letting them escape. He could see the strong reassuring silhouette of someone—the Kapitein—behind the wheelhouse glass—no common mariner he, but also a sort of saviour.

That tall tactician’s plan was to head north then north-east towards the Dogger, to drop his cargo in 26 hours on a desolate sandy beach he had picked out from the chart weeks ago. Filip Duplessis had fished legitimately for many years, but catch restrictions and his desire for a nicer house had eventually impelled him to seek riskier income. A meeting a few months ago with a man who knew a man who knew of someone who wanted to do some discreet business in England had therefore been fortuitous. He preferred not to think about the details of that business, but sought unsuccessfully to assuage his shame by telling himself that the migrants were refugees, just wanting to get away from war. Wouldn’t he have done just the same?

Such rationalizations, easy in the abstract, had been undermined by Kruja’s appearance. “Schlecht, that one!” he had told himself, surveying the round-headed client with the scarred forehead and the little sharp brown eyes. And some of the migrants didn’t look like refugees either. There was one down there now on the deck now, an Arab, wandering around—looking for something to steal, probably. He looked too well-fed, un-traumatised to be a real refugee—almost as if he was enjoying himself.

But Filip was in too deep now. He told himself that this would be the first and last time. “I’m getting too old for this kind of shit. Eh, Jan?” The man on watch smiled loyally back, his teeth seen momentarily in the glow of the binnacle.

The radar screen was pleasingly clear except for a fishing-boat sized blob satisfactorily far away. After a while Filip set the automatic pilot, left instructions with Jan and headed to his cabin. The watchman paced unceasingly across the wheelhouse with a sea-gait like the skipper’s, scanning the horizon and periodically checking the autopilot and radar—a blond genius of the dog watch, listening to Europop beamed across the widening wastes from Rotterdam.

Ibraham leaned over the stern and watched the off-white wake. How far he had come and, in fact, how easy it had been! All those lucky meetings—the coincidences and connections—the tests he had passed—the Iraqi border officials who didn’t care—the guards looking the wrong way—the perfect timing of the riot at Lavrion—the weak spot in the fence and the nameless Moroccan who hopped over with him, and their smiling dazzlingly at each other, how they would have been great friends.

How amazing, really, to have done all that—and now to be so nearly in England. He could almost touch the streets of tomorrow. He hoped the police and the people would be kind. But why shouldn’t they be kind? They must understand that he had not embarked on his journey lightly. He was coming to work; he would pay his way. He would be grateful; he would learn the language and make the others learn it, too; he and they would fit in. He would touch a fair girl and see her smile back in love and loyalty. It was only right. The English were a fair and tolerant people, a people defined by their willingness to welcome people of all backgrounds, as their distinguished-looking Prime Minister had once said in a TV broadcast, glimpsed years ago in a shop window one breathless Basra afternoon.

It was too chilly on deck, so he went back to the hold and curled up in his by-now-distinctly-fishy spare clothes and blankets. There was pantomime whispering between the African nut-masticators, who were all wrapped up together, exchanging echoing, hissing remarks with the big Equatorial Guinean who had sung so beautifully on the truck. But their noise did not annoy him now. In a way, it was reassuring to think of others being alert while he was helpless—and looming above all in the hold was the calm, sleepless, almost angelic watcher in the wheelhouse. Soon he slept while the whispering went on.

Next Tuesday - Part 10

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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