Christmas 2015
Story by Tann vom Hove; Illustration by Kevin Visdeloup

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METRO MENSCH
Metro Mensch in Baghdad
Metro Mensch in Berlin
Metro Mensch in Folkestone
Metro Mensch in India
Metro Mensch in London
Metro Mensch in Madrid
Metro Mensch in Mexico
Metro Mensch in São Paulo
Metro Mensch in Strasbourg
Metro Mensch in Washington DC
Metro Mensch in Zurich


A refugee
at Christmas

And they praised the English Queen and they wished her Merry Christmas and they shouted “we are safe, we are in England.” It was the tall bearded Uzbekistani who broke the silence the group had kept since leaving Calais hidden in a truck. All started clapping, some laughed, more cried. Thirteen refugees, from across Asia, hugged, kissed and shook hands. In three hours they would be in London, some with addresses to go to, others with a little money and a great deal of hope. Ahmed wanted to teach.

But the joy of the group was to be short-lived because among them was a man who made his living by delivering refugees to the authorities. Already a helicopter swooped low over the truck and two-dozen police cars set a roadblock five miles ahead.

Enthusiastic police officers, wearing sci-fi uniforms, pushed the Asians, whose faces showed stoicism rather than fear, one by one towards the jaws of snarling dogs. Ahmed, noticing a few seconds of uncertainty between one of his companions and the police, used the delay to roll underneath the truck. Moments later he slid down a steep embankment, leaped over a ditch, zigzagged across a freshly ploughed field and entered a copse of young trees.

With hands raised to protect his face from broken branches, Ahmed struggled through the narrow gaps of densely planted conifers, taking comfort that, behind him at some distance now, the growling of dogs seemed unchanged. His flight had not been noticed yet.

The footpath, Ahmed had stumbled across, led to two rows of dull houses. Streetlights brought danger rather than comfort. Ahmed moved from shadow to shadow, using parked cars as cover. He reached the main road, which was lined with small shops, still open hoping to attract a late, late Christmas shopper.

Ahmed felt safer the busier the road became, briefly even considering stepping onto a bus. But unfamiliarity stopped him. Small stores gave way to supermarkets, which further down the road were replaced by crowded restaurants and deserted fashion boutiques. The smell of cooked food from his Asian homeland made Ahmed realise how hungry he was. Through plate glass windows he saw bowls of saffron-coloured rice, curried vegetables and tandooried chicken but also starched tablecloths and smartly dressed people. Doormen in black shook their heads disapprovingly and often hostile.

“You never get into one of these, mate, even if you’ve got the money.” Ahmed turned round to face a dirty-looking man, but not dirtier than himself. Unshaven too, but without scratched hands, torn trousers and yellow mud clinging to cracked boots. “Get away from here, mate, they’ll give you nothing, not even at Christmas. More likely, they call the police.” Noticing Ahmed’s panic, the man pulled him away. “Don’t worry, mate, you’ve got nothing to fear from me. Come and meet my mates. I’m Stan. You?” “Ahmed.” “Pleased to meet you, Ahmed!”

A group of men, only two women but a considerable number of dogs sought warmth from a wind-blown fire burning some broken up wooden boxes. “This is Ahmed, he needs feeding,” Stan said. “No chance yet, the canteen wont get here until five,” said one of the women. “Sit here, love, share a mince pie and a drop of our best.” Ahmed didn’t like either.

Slightly removed from the group, under several layers of cardboard, Ahmed noticed a figure. Occasionally he or perhaps she would be moaning and rolling from side to side. “Leicester hurt his leg. He’s got no respect for cars,” the women explained, offering Ahmed the cider bottle again. “The last time he got hit, the doctors wanted to send him in to a mental unit. I don’t share with idiots, he told them then before he jumped out of the window. Now he refuses to go near a hospital”

“Shall I have a look at him,” Ahmed asked. “What do you know?” “Where I come from they teach you either to repair guns or bones. I learnt about bones.” “Go then and look at him – mind, he doesn’t like to be touched.”

Ahmed carefully removed the cardboard from Leicester. More moans and also shouts of fuck off.

Not quite understanding, Ahmed continued: “I need some light and a knife.”

Some of the men had now gathered around Ahmed and Leicester.

“ Bring a candle, Stan.”

“A candle won’t be enough, is there no torch?”

“Ok then, a candle will do.”

Ahmed spoke quietly to his patient, using words nobody understood but which seemed to sooth Leicester’s mind. Sitting cross-legged on the earthy ground, Ahmed examined the injured leg by letting his fingers gently glide from knee to toes.

“He has been lucky, his shinbone has only been fractured in one place. But, it needs to be stabilised and he will have to use crutches for three to four weeks. Also, wash his leg with alcohol twice a day, your drink will do the job.”

The mobile canteen arrived shortly after five.

“Sorry guys, Christmas has been cancelled,” said the young man from the homeless charity.

“The power has been off all day down at the kitchen. You will have to do with sandwiches this year. The birds are going back into the freezer.”

 “You must be fucking joking,” was the mildest form of insult the hapless guy from the charity had to endure. Even men, who had spent all day curled up next to their dogs, jumped up and started shouting. There was much spitting and kicking from the two women.

“Why are you all having a go at me? Can I help it that we can’t get an electrician on Christmas Eve.”

Amid the screaming and swearing, Ahmed tapped Stan on the shoulder. “I can repair electrics.”

“Hey, can you shut up for a minute,” Stan tried to make himself heard. “Our new friend here says he can fix electrics.”

“Wow, first he is a doc and now a sparky.”

“Don’t tell us, where he comes from, kids either learn to repair guns or mend fuses.”

“Very funny, Peter, but tell us if you’ve got a better idea. I say, we all go down to the kitchen and let Ahmed have a go."

After some mild persuasion, the charity guy agreed to unlock the kitchen; he even offered to drive all of them, including dogs. Ahmed was worried about Leicester, but the prospect of a hot meal seamed to outweigh any pain and discomfort.

“At least give him some room, so he can stretch his leg.”

The charity kitchen was on a small trading estate, not far from the beach. Opening the gate, the driver stroked the head of the sleepy guard dog. He then unlocked the back door of his van to let the men, women and dogs out.

Inside the building, a few paper chains and a single sprig of mistletoe, taped to a doorframe, were the only evidence of the festive season.

“No point looking at the fuses, they’ve all been checked and checked again,” the charity guy told Ahmed. “I’m not sure what you think you can do here, but there are some tools on the shelf in the back room.”

“I will go on the roof.”

Most of the group squeezed onto a couple of benches, placed against the walls. Some started to open cupboards until charity guy told them not to touch anything. Stan tried to kiss one of the women under the mistletoe, but only received a kick to his shins. “Don’t you try on anything or you’ll end up like Leicester.” Grimacing with pain, Stan hoppled away. Ahmed had been on the roof for more than half an hour.”

“Looks like he’s better with bones than electrics.”

“Oh shut up, at least it’s dry in here.” And then the lights came on.

“He has done it!”
“Hallelujah.”
“Fuck it, he’s good.”

All spoke at once, as Ahmed came back.

“Well done, mate.”

“It was easy. Only a broken wire.”

“Well, let’s start cooking now!”
Where are the birds?”
“Any potatoes?”
“I hope, they’ve got some sprouts here.”

“You can only have one of the turkeys,” charity guy told the two women. “You are not the only hungry people in town.”
“And for the rest of you, start peeling potatoes and, for Christ's sake, don’t make a mess.” “You’ll all have to clean up afterwards, anyway.”

The peeling and chopping and scrubbing were done in near silence. Even Leicester stopped whimpering. The water in the saucepans started to boil. The women checked on the bird. Ahmed sat on the floor, eyes closed.

“You alright, mate?” Stan asked.
“Yes, thank you.”

Some three hours later, dinner was ready. “Hey, you clowns, we are not serving you. If you want to eat, come and get it.” The men all rushed to the kitchen at once. The dogs joined in too.

“An orderly queue, if you please.”

With food in front of all of them, the shouting and joking stopped. Occasionally someone would say: “Best turkey ever.” Or “Shame, there’s no stuffing.” The dogs jostled over bones. Ahmed ate in eager silence. The women had given him the best bits, with nobody complaining. Some of the men soon dozed off at the table; two bottles of cider were passed round; the women looked pleased. Merry Christmas!

It was the charity guy who broke up the party. “Guys, start clearing up. We need to be out of here before anybody notices.”

In fact, somebody, probably a passer-by, had already done so and phoned the police. Five officers arrived, not particularly worried. Disturbances at the charity kitchen were nothing new.

“Christmas is over,” was all they said when they piled into the room. “Who let you in, anyway?”

“The door was unlocked.”

“Of course, it was – but now get out, all you.”

They remained friendly until one of the officers noticed Ahmed. “And who is he?”

“He is one of us,” said Stan, moving in front of Ahmed.

“We’ve never seen him before. Let’s check him out. Strange clothes he’s wearing? Not English, is he?” The officers talked to each other, one of them into his cell phone.

Stan was first to notice Ahmed’s fright. “Don’t worry mate.” Then the officers started to whisper and seconds later, Ahmed was gone.

“Hell, where has he gone?”
“You had an illegal, here!”

All five officers stormed out of the room, one phoning for some back-up. They asked for dogs when they saw Ahmed, in some distance, running towards the beach. More police cars and dogs arrived within minutes. By then, Ahmed had reached the promenade – lit up hotels on the left, the sea at night on the right. He leapt over a stone wall onto the pebble beach. Angry dogs behind him. Amid the barking, shouts of “Police, stop!”

Ahmed slowed down now. A few more steps and he was up to his knees in the frothy surf. The lights of the pier bounced off relentless waves. Ahmed stopped and turned towards the town and his pursuers. They held back too.

Ahmed looked at them for some seconds and shrugged his shoulders: “Maybe another time.”

He then turned away, stepped onto a breaking wave and, with long strides, walked towards France.

Overhead, an El Al plane prepared for landing at Heathrow.