‘The Stowaway’s Tale’ is taken from Refugee Tales IV, edited by David Herd and UEA alumna Anna Pincus. It is published by Comma Press on 28 July 2021, and is available from all good bookshops or direct online at:
Something happens, something violent, and you have to leave your home. You have no ties to keep you, nothing left to leave behind. You sneak on board a ship, a ship to anywhere but here, to a place where you think you might find a new start, and prosper. Your life has not been full of opportunity, so you take this one. You hide below decks until your hunger drives you out of your hiding place and you are discovered by the crew. The captain of the ship is kind to you. You arrive in a new country. You are a young man in search of a better life.
This is something like your story. This is the familiar shape of the stowaway’s tale: a story about pluck and prospect, full of risk and daring and charm. But that’s not your story, not quite.
You are a young man, in your twenties. At home, you worked as a kind of porter, you helped people carry things and they paid you what they could afford. This was the kind of work available. Certainly not much in the way of opportunity. But then something happened and you had to run, you had to get on a ship and leave. You don’t want me to write about the particular, unspeakable thing that happened to you and your family and your home, the thing that you ran from. So all I will say is that it was brutal and quick and confusing, that you escaped, and that you believe now that your family are dead. I ask if you have heard anything from home, since you arrived in the UK. Who am I going to call? you ask. I opened our conversation by apologising in advance for any stupid or tactless questions. You don’t know anyone from home, now. You don’t have any more family. When you ran away you waited for them at the port, you waited for news, and when the news came and it was bad, you knew you had to go. You tell me the story quietly, flatly. You tell me you have nightmares, you have flashbacks, that this is what you see when you’re sleeping and when you can’t sleep.
When we first speak, this is what you describe – the thing I won’t describe here, the violent thing that happened. It’s early in 2021 and we are speaking through a screen, of course. I am in my home with all my stuff around me and you are speaking from a plain white room, the only feature of which I can see is the line between the wall and the ceiling behind your head. I listen, and I don’t know what to say; the usual platitudes for loss will not apply here. I think I say I can’t imagine what that’s like. Well, but that doesn’t help you, does it.
The second time we speak, I ask you more about the journey, your journey as a stowaway. I realise that I have been picturing a small craft, possibly rigged and made of wood; you told me you’d found a small hiding place and I’m picturing some below-deck hold to curl up in. This is just the image that arrives in my head, vaguely historical, eighteenth century. I don’t really think that this is what it was like. People arrive this way, stowed away in boats, of course; it’s on the news. I know this. But I have not imagined what that’s like, have not known how to imagine it, the space or the time of it. I ask you to tell me. It’s an ugly, frightening story and there is nothing romantic about it.
So once you had waited for weeks at the port, and none of your family had turned up – once you had heard that they weren’t going to – then you knew you had to leave, and you found a fisherman who would take you to a ship. You helped him with his fishing and then he brought you close to what I now understand was a huge container ship. You didn’t care where it was going to take you as long as it was Europe, because you thought you would be safe there; and you knew this ship brought cars to your country, and you thought: all ships that bring cars, they all go to Europe. You climb onto the ship, a docking bay at the back. At the back of the ship, there are boxes, things that look like a box, you explain. There are loads of them. Now I can see it: one of those impossibly massive ships stacked with crates and crates in different dirty colours, that can be seen off the coast of Kent. And when you are inside one of the boxes, no one can see you from outside. When you got on board you found some other stowaways there already, and you each had your own box. You had a few biscuits and a plastic bottle of water for the journey. You didn’t know how long it would be, since you didn’t know where you were going. You stayed in this thing like a box for eight or nine days, you think. I ask how it felt, being in the box. It is what it is, you say. You didn’t care about the days; you didn’t know how many had passed until you arrived in England. You just wanted to get far away.
The thing that looks like a box is not that wide, to sleep in. You can only sleep on your side. And so you sometimes leave the box and talk to the other people there. And if you need the toilet you go down to a small place, you say, and you grab onto something so you don’t fall overboard. One night, you hear a shout, and you realise that someone is missing. The thing he was holding wasn’t strong enough. You and the others try to open the door to the deck, then, to get help from the crew, but it’s locked. Later, another night, you are hungry – of course you are hungry – and you try the door again and this time you manage to force the lock. You’re hungry and one of you has fallen overboard and you’re realising you will have to get out of this space to survive. You and another stowaway go to look for food in the kitchen and this is when they find you.
At first, the captain and the crew are nice to you. It’s the captain who advises you that when you put into port, you should seek asylum. You didn’t know this word. They put you and the others in a cabin, and they lock it, but they give you food and are nice to you. But then things change; something seems wrong. The captain has been in contact with the company that owns the ship, and the company wants to send you back home. Now the crew leave food for you at the window when you’re asleep and it’s cold by the time you wake up. Cold, you say. By which I think you mean frozen – this is winter, and it was a very cold winter. Something is not right and you’re scared now, scared you’ll be taken back home. The window of the cabin is welded with an iron bar, and someone manages to pull the bar free and you all climb out and find somewhere else to hide.
When the crew find you they have weapons, you say. Metal poles. You and your friends take the bars that were used to bar the doors, to scare them away you say, just to leave us alone. The crew retreats; the captain keeps telling you to get back in the cabin but you know that they will lock you in more securely this time and take you back and you refuse. You stay outside that December night; you take it in turns to sit in a bathroom for warmth. Then the authorities come, and they put you in handcuffs and you’re in port by now, you are in the UK, and the police say come down, you’re okay. It’s a weekend, and you sleep at the police station until Monday. And on Monday you’re taken to court. Court for what? you ask. There are charges against you. Affray. At the court, they say this case can’t be dealt with in this court. And you are taken away again, and this time they take you to prison. A week later this process is repeated: to court; this case can’t be dealt with in this court; back to a different prison. You are bewildered – as you’re telling me, you’re bewildered. You didn’t know what ‘affray’ is, you’d never heard that kind of word before. I was trying to have a conversation with the captain, you say. I didn’t threaten anybody, I didn’t threaten anyone – so why are we going to court? From that day I arrived, you say, I don’t know what’s going on.
You keep coming back to it: how you arrived and you went straight to prison. You can’t process it. In fact, it’s the very first thing you said to me, when I asked why you wanted to share your story. You said: Because I don’t see the point, if someone is coming here from another country, seeking for asylum, and the same day is sent to prison. You repeat this phrase a few times: I don’t see the point. There is a kind of exasperation, bafflement, that comes into your voice. Rhetorical questions. You shake your head in disbelief. When you were in prison, waiting for trial, the solicitor told you not to worry, it’s going to be over. It’s going to be over?! It took months. You rub your eyes as you speak, and I think you are very tired. You have nightmares, you have flashbacks. You tell me: The thing that I’m trying to say is, if people run away from their country, they don’t run away for no reason. And if they run away for a reason, I don’t see the point why immigration can’t help them. You expected detention; you expected a slow process. You didn’t expect to go to prison. You tell me: If I’d had a sign from my country that this was going to happen, I’m not going to get on the ship. I’m just going to die in my country. Yeah. I’m just going to stay there and die.
You were in prison for ten months before trial. During this time, you felt you had been forgotten. That no one cared about you, or even knew about you. An immigration officer came to interview you, and they brought you a paper to sign to say you wanted to go back to your country. You say, I wasn’t in my senses, I was stressed, I was depressed. So I said there’s no point. That they should send me back, let me go back to my own country and die if that’s the case. You signed the paper. But here, a stranger’s kindness intervened: another prisoner noticed that you were not in a fit state, not in your own senses. And you were seen by a doctor and given medication and your claim was renewed.
You went to another prison, a third prison, for the duration of the trial, which was two months. The charges make no sense to you. You are, again, animated by the absurdity of them. How would we get a knife? How did we hijack the ship? You are cleared of some, but not all of the charges. By the time you received your sentence, you had been in prison so long that you had only a few months left to serve. And when those months were over, the day your sentence was finished, you were packed and ready to go, to be taken into detention. What had you packed? I ask. What were your possessions? This is another of the stupid questions I warned you I might ask. My clothes, you say shortly. You have brought nothing with you. Just the clothes you have from prison, in your bag. The day comes and goes. What’s going on? You’re told you’re being held under immigration laws. They say it’s up to them when you’re let out of prison. Whenever they’re ready. Almost a month later you are released into detention.
In the detention centre, it’s a little better. You have some space to yourself, after months of sharing rooms with strangers. You can move around, exercise for more than 45 minutes a day. You have things to do: you serve food to the other detainees, you clean. It takes your mind off things. But you can’t sleep. You see a doctor. He gives you medication for one week. He doesn’t tell you it is just for a week. When you ask for more, you are told you can’t have these drugs for more than a week. At this time, you are sleeping less than 30 minutes, 25 minutes, you say, that’s the whole of my sleep. You are having nightmares, flashbacks. The things you saw at home and the things you’ve seen in prison. These things keep coming into your head all the time, and you don’t know how to make it stop. You have harmed yourself. Two times, you tried to kill yourself. So there’s nothing I can do, you say, I just keep bearing the pain like that until I got out of detention. You look at the camera, at me, for a long moment and I don’t know what to say, and you look away.
You came here for a better life, in a safe place. Now you are waiting. You live in a house that the Home Office put you in and there’s not much to do. We’re in lockdown now, of course, but I don’t think it makes much difference, except that the gym is closed; you can’t work, anyway, though you would like to, and you don’t have much to live on, only what you’re given. You work out, clean your room. You skip meals so you have a little more to spend. If you can stay, if your claim is approved, then you can finish your schooling. You tell me: I do have a plan – if I can start working, anybody that needs help, if I’m in a position to help them then I’m going to help them. Because the way I see people, suffering, I don’t like it. But I’m not in a good position to help them.
You have been changed by what’s happened to you. Now, you don’t feel yourself; you don’t do things correctly, you say. You find it hard to concentrate. There are two other people in the house you live in and you talk to them sometimes, but sometimes, you tell me, I just lock my door, stay inside. I know it’s not supposed to be like that.
I’m not going to lie, the prison and the detention has fucked my head up, because I don’t think I’m going to be normal for years, you say. This is the only time you swear and you say it very softly. But the way I am now – there’s something wrong with me in my head, because sometimes I do harm myself, sometimes I do try and kill myself because when I have those nightmares… the things I’ve seen in prison… honestly I do see them, and I do have nightmares of those things. And I’m not supposed to go to prison, I don’t know why they took me to prison. I know, people that have been sent back, they’ve been killed. If I know they’re going to send me back, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Because I’m not going to go back. One day they might find my dead body in the house. That’s it. I’m not going to lie.
This is another phrase that you use – I’m not going to lie – and it’s idiomatic and when you say it, you sound like any other young man but you also sound like you mean it, you need to be believed, and I do believe you.
As we come to the end of our conversation, your housemate keeps calling for you and you shout that you’re coming, you’re on the phone, and you smile and shake your head. I ask if there’s anything you wanted to ask me. You laugh and tell me that if I was from the government you’d have loads of questions to ask me. What would you ask? You say, anyone that came to this country, they came for a reason. They should be given a chance. You tell me: The important part of my story is that when people leave their country, they come to this country, they’re not supposed to be sent to prison. Most people, they don’t have enough strength to cope. It shouldn’t be like that. Because those things, they do cost, to a human being.