Near Brownsville, where the Rio Grande zigzags from border to border, a man and his twenty-three-month old daughter float face down in the murky river. Beneath his sodden t-shirt, she’s clinging to her father in one final, primal embrace.
“Alaska, that’s where it starts.”
Kingi’s smoke ring floats for a moment, then dissolves into thin air. “Godwits travel twelve-K to get a good feed in New Zealand. Longest known non-stop flight of any bird.
Not like the others – godwits they don’t even stop for kai.”
He studies the glowing embers at the end of his smoke. “Maori call them kuaka.
We reckoned the godwits accompanied the spirits of the dead. We all have our secrets, see godwits breed in the northern hemisphere, up in the tundra, so we thought they were very mysterious because we could never find their nests.” He cracks a ragged grin. “Still used to eat them though.”
He smears butter on a tan arrowroot biscuit, oval as a rugby ball. “Tiny birds –
only weigh about as much as a block of butter, eh.” He pops the biscuit in his mouth in one go. “Make that long journey every spring. Takes them about nine days. Driven by nature to survive. Pretty scraggy and hungry by the time they get here. All that way…” He sweeps the white-cloud sky with his battered hand. “Helluva migration when you think about it.”
In Clifton, your taxi – booked by the nice Spanish man at reception – arrives outside your hotel right on time. It’s a black Mercedes; gleaming outside, plush and clean inside.
You smile, sink into the leather and enjoy the cool contrast to the strange heat-wave that’s scorching Bristol.
As you wend the snaking streets of the old port city, the driver hears your accent and asks where you’re from.
He grins. Long way from home. New Zealand nice place, he says firmly, and he tells you that he knows people who moved to live down there.
He’s Kurdish, from Afghanistan. Back home, it’s bad, he says. The exchange rate. Bad.
People here think the trouble is over. He shakes his head. The war. The bombs. He woke in the night and he and his family and friends all had to go to a bomb shelter. In the morning,
he woke with blood streaming from his hand. Shrapnel from the bomb…He bites his lip.
Over three thousand miles from home. A fifty-two-hour drive, non-stop. He’s a chemical engineer, moving people around the West Country in a taxi.
Near Bodrum, three-year-old Alan Kurdi sprawls on the golden Mediterranean sand. Flotsam.
When he saw the famous photo of the boy on the shores of Bodrum, he says it made him cry. Mothers, they drug their babies to stop them from crying, he explains.
Tears. The taxi-driver looks at you in the rear-vision mirror, eyes pleading, searching for some shared humanity. You know?
Yes, you say. But there’s knowing and knowing. In a truck, you repeat.
He nods. Between the wheels, there’s a space and the metal is turning and your arms holding…holding and the road is wet and dirty and you are holding…and the metal is turning…
The axles, you say.
Yes. Axles. Moving all the time. Not in. He hums like a CD player searching for a track. Under, he says, trying to show you without taking his hands off the steering wheel.
He travelled under an articulated truck, wedged between the axles, using his leather belt as a makeshift harness. He rubs his forearms…axles moving…moving and my arms….
And you can’t imagine. Yet anyone who survives that endurance test deserves a place.
The boy, he wants to talk about the little boy on the beach.
I see that picture and I want to cry. He moves his head from side to side, but the trauma doesn’t shift. I saw them, the mothers and they give the little babies the tablets so they don’t cry and get found out…and sometimes…he shakes his head…too much you know…they don’t wake up.
He drives you past the lush Downs where the kids are playing cricket and punctuates your conversation with World Cup Cricket news. And you understand his need for normal.
After witnessing all he has, he would want to smack something very hard, to drive it far,
far away. And you realise the word, that poetic word, sorrow…that’s what you are seeing, that’s what he’s living, his nightmare is stuck, replaying. You can’t tape over PTSD.
He’s not sure who will win the match later today, but he’s backing England…although the
Black Caps are strong, he acknowledges graciously.
In Istanbul, when you are a refugee trying to swim to Europe and you fail and you drown, your destination is not a continent. It’s a grave without a name. All you are fit for is a number.
“Round the Waitemata estuaries, the pollies are letting developers build and build – even though they all know full well that the run-off water and soil erosion from their construction leaves heaps of sediment – and that smothers the food that the godwits rely on.”
Kingi raises his wiry eyebrows. “We better put up a fight. For a country so keen
on sending its kids north, you’d have to be a mug to let developers bugger up the godwit migration.” He plucks a thread of tobacco from his bottom lip and mutters. It sounds like fuckwits. “Happy to plaster the cute little birds on stamps and fancy wine labels though.”
He grinds out his tab end. “That’s marketing and the media for you, eh?”
From Ireland in the 1840’s, Canada is a better destination than New York as far as the suits in the mass transportation business are concerned; the fewer regulations the better. Stack ‘em high below decks, huddled cheek-by-jowl and sell ‘em cheap.
Coffin ship crossings are for the brave or the desperate. Made broke by the fare, they are crammed in. Crossing the Atlantic in six weeks, already weakened passengers taking flight from the Great Hunger, are provided with as little food and water as is legal – if the suits obey the law at all. In steerage, you might see the light of day for an hour each day. At most.
Luck? There aren’t enough shamrocks. Up to one in five migrants, or even more, die on the voyage. Some say it’s more like fifty per cent.
So many bodies are thrown overboard that sharks learn to follow the ships. They too are looking for an easy feed.
In Alnwick, five generations ago, Earl Grey – of scented tea fame – turns his mind to a deadweight in the overflowing workhouses; the problem of surplus girls.
In the new southern colony, nearly eleven thousand miles away, there are eight men for every woman. In Sydney, wives and domestic servants of good character are needed.
Two birds, one scheme. Across the thirty-two counties of Ireland, the Earl has orphans of the Great Hunger vetted, for the Three R’s, and screened to check they are free from disease, industrious and of good character.
The girls, some of them your relatives, make a teen gamble, choosing a beautiful tropical adventure over the frightful conditions of home and the legacy of serial famines. Most have already lost one parent. They take the horse and cart to the port, to a buckshee voyage on the bride ship. It’s a no-brainer. Far away fields are always green.
Four thousand girls, transported to the bottom of the world to become little mothers, drudges for convicts with notions. Where would a girl straight off a remote subsistence farm have learned the proper way to polish silver? The best laid plans…
Soon the girls are labelled as bog-trotting pig chasers who can barely tell the inside of
a potato from the outside. Alternative facts about the girls’ incapacity, insolence and immorality flourish and spread across the new colony. Tales of the girls’ neglect and cruel treatment; those stories sink. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Or a bad one.
In the plush, comfortable Mercedes, the driver ferries people around the city all day, every day. Passengers bitching about the traffic and the swing bridge and getting stuck again and the price of the fare. People who think it’s all over, over there. No, he says. Not over at all. Maybe it is just beginning. Life for them is very bad.
He strokes his long, silky, black beard. Sorry about New Zealand, he says and you know he means March 15th. The Christchurch Massacre. He hands you his business card, a receipt on the back and says, that lady prime minister, she’s very good. Real leader.
You ask his name.
Irfan, he says, and he wishes you well.
You thank him and leave the cool interior of the Mercedes and face the searing heat.
When you get back to the hotel that night, you look up his name. In Arabic, Irfan means knowledge, awareness and learning.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, doused in myths, you think: we understand migration. We know about othering. The chiefs, Paoa and Tupaia and the seven canoes – maybe more waka – and then centuries later, Pakeha follow the man-god Cook’s wake. Displacement is in our air, in our bones.
Empire, OE. Every woman, man and their dog travels to those cloud-smudged islands that are drenched by sun and rain. They land chasing something…whales, kauri gum, gold.
Those are their public stories and then there’s their private business. Running after relatives. Running from the law. Running from disease. Running from the end of the world to the end of the world. There’s always another side of the story.
Around the world, you stumble over history, you witness journeys, knowing that the others are always out there, the others you never see, the ones you never hear. Alaska, Afghanistan, America, Calais…all the others, the ones in transit.
Kingi says a godwit is nature’s jet-fighter, sleek and efficient, using her energy to fly, to survive. He rolls himself another racehorse and reckons that people are like godwits, it’s in our nature to fight to survive, to take flight to get by, eh?