Sandman – an extract from the sea-crossing

There is shouting on the boat. Commotion. Men and women, encouraged by each other, stronger en masse, pushed against the wall, are demanding water. Haji doesn’t know what started the riot. It could’ve been that more people had pushed up from the stern, escaping the flooding. They were being squashed and have grown desperate. Despair breeds defiance.

Two of the smugglers come down to deal with the situation, both armed. They brandish their weapons in a display of might. Haji sighs. They are deluding themselves if they think they have the monopoly on killing. Despite their guns and their theatrics, Haji reads fear in their faces. People are screaming, waving their fists.

‘No water! No water left!’ The older one of the smugglers presents his empty hands in a gesture of helplessness. He turns and points towards the dark horizon. ‘Italia! Wait! Italia close! Europa!’ The sun rising in front of him hits the metal of his automatic pistol. It shines in Haji’s eyes. People aren’t listening or they don’t believe the smuggler’s assurances. The shouting intensifies and, when that happens, children begin to cry. It’s mayhem. Some passengers have risen to their feet and are approaching their minders, fearless and furious. Demanding water. Pleading for water. The younger of the two smugglers loses his footing and slips. He is angry for his humiliation and to cover up for it he grabs a shabby man closest to him and pushes him down towards the stern. The shabby man falls to his knees, splashing water around him. Another person is thrust on top of him. And another one. The smuggler is throwing people across the deck into the flooded stern. ‘You want water?’ he yells, his voice high with irritation. ‘You got water   down there!’ He kicks another person – it’s a woman. Her companion hurls himself at the assailant, but the older smuggler reaches for his pistol and shoots the man.

Silence.

Dead silence. And then the widowed woman starts wailing and scrambles towards her husband’s body. Others join her and the boat begins to sink.

It was inevitable.

Large bubbles, swollen with air, boil over – the stern submerges within seconds. Everyone presses to the bow, but it’s no good. The bow is going to go, too. Someone, the skipper rushes out of the cabin and sends a flare into the sky. It explodes, red illuminations in the grey morning sky.

People are jumping off the boat before its mass drags them into the depths. The family of five – Haji’s neighbours – are in disarray. The father and Boy have dived in, the father with the four-year-old girl in his arms. The mother and the baby just fell into the sea, and gave in to it without a fight. They went down like a smashed block of concrete. Boy is splashing haplessly, screaming, choking on water. Haji realises Boy cannot swim. He dives in and searches for him in the whirlpool of sinking bodies; his fingers meet Boy’s arm, and they claw at it. He pushes him up towards the light of the rising sun.

It is a matter of seconds for the boat to vanish from sight and a matter of half an hour before the sea swarming with people becomes calm and still. Haji and Boy are treading water, waiting for a miracle. Haji isn’t one to let go and he is right not to – he hears a distant buzz of a helicopter. He recognises it instantly. He knows the slashing of the air with the rotating blades. He points to Boy, ‘Rescue,’ he says. ‘Wave arms!’

They both wave them, and they shout.

The helicopter pauses over their heads. Water ripples around them, unsettling Boy. Haji has to grab hold of him again. A harness on a rope is being lowered from the helicopter and when it hits the surface it is dragged along it, close enough for Haji to get hold of it. He fastens it under Boy’s arms and watches him being lifted to safety. Then he dives between the waves, and swims away. The land – Italy – cannot be too far. He knows helicopters can’t fly far and he can see the outline of the coast. And even if he doesn’t make it to the shore, he’d rather die free than be captured.

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