I park the car off Route de Gravelines – six minutes on Sat Nav from the Port – and head, on foot, along Chemin des Dunes: half road, half track. On the right, the last houses of Calais look out now on portaloos and rubbish skips. And behind the muddy banks are tents, like those left behind at festivals – pop-up domes, not made for hard November nights – they look today like lands destroyed and left.
Two weeks before, I’d been here and walked these paths and seen these lives, lived between the rubble and the rubbish and the burnt plastic. But last time, the tents were open to let in light and air and clothes were hung out to dry. Beneath the ‘Welcome to Darfur’ sign, a group of men played cards and mums trudged with toddlers to standpipes.
This time, it rains. And the wind pushes the rain into my face and the faces of the passing men. Good Morning. A nod. A grin. Shit Morning is what we mean. This time, the mud and puddles threaten to fill up shoes and soak socks that will not dry. These pop-up tents are storm-sodden from top down, stuck, like popped bubble-gum to the ground.
Ahmad pulls me into the shelter of a small café and buys me tea. No. I’ll get it, I say. He insists and thrusts one of his few damp cigarettes into my closed fist. Thanks, but no. I don’t smoke. But he lights it anyway and so I do, today.
I should go. I’m lost somewhere between the Eritrean church, Darfur and Afghanistan. I think of Good Chance and its space-age dome. I listen to Ahmad talk about Kuwait, take a call from his mum, watch him stamp out the butt of his cigarette between flapping soul of useless shoe and mud. It rains. Lashing down and blowing pissed-off gales across broken, hopeless homes and sodden sand.
I go. I shake his hand and hope, with all my heart, that he gets to London because we need more Ahmads in our green and pleasant land.
At Theatre Good Chance, there is still a calm that comes partly from art and partly from their fuck off dome, built by refugees and volunteers to stay the course and be the theatre, the meeting place, the village hall, the shelter from the storm and fire and fear, the place to be to show solidarity and share grief when refugees are blamed for terrorist deaths on dark Parisian streets.
Four Iranian men and a boy of eleven are eager to learn English. We start this way – first words, then up on our feet, pretending to be in a café, then to buy a ticket for the London Eye. Mohser wants to meet the Queen. Why? I say. He looks at me with nearly teenage scorn then smiles. She’s in England isn’t she? We write a poem and count the beats in English and then Persian, then Armenian. I try to say, I have three daughters. They laugh. I try again. They laugh some more at me. So. I say. Come on. Let’s write a play. and soon we have the shape of a great morality tale!
THE HERO AND THE THIEF: complete with goalkeepers, the mafia, love, money, jealousy, prison and university. A hero and a ne’er do well – first the egg and then the camel.
My troupe go to queue for food and I turn and see Rosie, my friend from university, and Mohammed Omer A.K.A The Dream. I introduce them and Mohammed feels unexpectedly like an old friend too. Friendships are cemented quickly here with shared cigarettes or poetry.
Back in Café Afghan, I ask for chicken and rice and stand awkwardly for only a beat before there is a shuffling and a space is made for me. More tea. More hands to shake. All muddy boots and charging mobile phones. Happy to be inside, even when the frame is less than greenhouse strong and wind lifts the plastic edges and heaven would be a handful of nails.
I should have brought nails. Today, the jungle needs tarpaulin and blankets and tents and nails.
Abdul writes a play about leaving his love in Afghanistan and the promises he made. We act it out for a small crowd.
And then my raucous band of actors are back, fed and up for it again! Rehearsals, makeshift props are made and a football found for our hero.
We play a game together, a kick about, in a circle in the outer dome, waiting for an audience to gather. And then the show – a mismatched and muddled version of rehearsals with applause on every line and pauses to translate.
They bow and Mohser grins.
And when it’s time to leave, Mohammed Omer walks with me through the dark, back to Chemin des Dunes. There’s garlic and the scent of spice. Small ramshackle shops sell Coca-Cola, Sprite and chai. Dotted about are flowers and white fairy lights. Dotted about are the odd tents still standing. Through the dim, moonless night, Mohammed leads a path between the flooded tracks and mudded slopes and I follow him.
He takes me to my car. I have a boot. He doesn’t ask to get in. He hugs me. Says thank you. I say I hope you make it and he shrugs – almost resigned to this life. Then he smiles: I’ll be alright.
But it’s not alright.
In the last week, a fire raged, a storm destroyed, the police arrested, the fingers pointed.
Hands are lacerated. Men electrocuted. Mohser’s mother died before they fled. Murdered. The twin girls, who pinch my cheeks and paint their nails and laugh are cold and wet. Mohammed’s hands too cold to write. Amhad’s feet are wet.