It feels like it happened yesterday. Though in fact it’s fifty Christmases since we were in our little house by the sea. Funny how the intense impressions of youth are saved forever on your hard-drive, whereas why you came to the Post Office remains a mystery. The kind Indian man has eyes that twinkle as he runs over possibilities for me: – “Stamps? Letter? Parcel?” He leans forward, for his little joke, “Dri-ving license?” We both giggle inanely. And I point my stick at him as he knows I will. “Rude!” I shout, causing the rest of the queue to stare in alarm at the unsupported stump of my right leg. I used to wear a prosthesis but these days I hardly bother. I am who I am. I see my hand tremble as I sign for the parcel. E. Homes. He puts the small package gently into my hand and closes the fingers around it. He is smiling. “Happy Christmas!” he says.
Ellie did not know what she’d expected, but she hadn’t expected this; a sea of tents as far as the eye could see, thick ribbons of mud and a sharp wind that made the canvas pitch and tremble like boats at sea; piles of rubbish everywhere and grubby children . Men ambled about, shoulders hunched against the weather, shovelling mud from tent flaps or raising mobiles hopefully to the sky. Worst of all were the sounds of despair – savage coughing and moans of pain from behind canvas, cries for help whipped away in the unforgiving wind. She saw a couple of young doctors, about her age, moving from tent to tent, immediately surrounded by men, women and children, asking in broken English for pain killers, antibiotics, dressings. What struck her most, as she made her way to the makeshift school, was the team spirit – the sharing of food, drugs, possessions, the kindness.
“You have it! I can man-age,” she heard a man say, offering an inhaler to a small child. He was wearing jeans and a thin jacket and coughing loudly into wet tissues. She saw women giving their food to other women’s children. She saw a teenager remove his jumper and give it to the coughing man. Craning her neck, she glimpsed the latter’s chip toothed smile as he pulled it over his head. It was thick but tight and the arms were too short. She heard laughter erupting from the group around him. This place, she decided, was misnamed The Jungle, where the each survived at another’s expense. These people had next to nothing, but they shared everything.
The school, with its wooden frame and rows of pallet benches, was full. Weary men sat alongside round eyed children, hugging themselves to keep warm. She took off her rucksack, took our her books, smiled.
The next week was a blur of impressions – days spent teaching English phrases, evenings helping dish out food at the camp kitchen, nights tossing and turning in the tired caravan buffeted by sea winds. In the run up to Christmas the weather worsened – sleety rain battered the camp, the wind was needle-sharp and everywhere the mud deepened and swelled, sliding into everything – shoes, clothes, tents. The students were keen to practise their English but there was one silent child. who always sat on the second bench. He was about eight years old, with thick hair and heavy eyes narrowed by eczema. He sat on the bench and swung his legs and listened. Ellie liked to walk up and down when she was teaching and she felt the boy’s eyes follow her everywhere. A young man always brought him in, lifted him onto the bench, then returned for him after lessons. Curious, one day she asked one of the refugees about him.
“We no know!” He shrugged, “He no speak. Ahmed, he find him on journey from Syria. Ahmed look after him like brother because he alone. We call him Jack.”
From then on, she made a special effort to smile at him. She gave him a chocolate bar and when Ahmed came for him, she asked if he needed anything for the boy. Ahmed, a sullen teenager, transformed into a tender friend where Jack was concerned, bowed politely as he reached for the boy’s hand.
“Thank you!” he said, “We need only place on lorry to England. Everyone do!” And then he left.
The days dragged on. Ellie’s train was booked for Christmas Eve. One day, a French volunteer brought a Christmas tree into the school. It had been roughly cut and shoved into a green bucket that someone had decorated with red paint. A shop had donated it along with decorations and strings of tiny lights. So it was that on the twenty first of December, Ellie found herself up at seven, decorating the school with other volunteers for a surprise party. They made paper snowflakes to stick to the windows, filled plates with tiny Buches de Noel and hung paper chains made from bandage wrappers. Someone had donated a hundred cans of Cola.
When the students arrived, they stared. The children pointed. Even the men smiled and touched the paper snowflakes wonderingly.
“You can only come to the party if you speak in English!” announced Ellie.
“O-kay!” the students called, “We spik Eng-leesh!” They passed food, drank the Cola and Ellie told them they would be playing English party games.
“Chrees-mas tree!” The voice, young and clear, rang out from the back of the school room. Everyone fell silent. Ahmed was making his usual late entry with Jack limping at his side, the boy pulling his sleeve and pointing.
“Chrees-mas tree!” he said, again. Ahmed was trying to smile, pulling his dirty sleeve across his eyes. Everyone was staring. When they got to the front of the room, Ahmed lifted the boy up and held him so he could see the baubles, the lights, the star on the top.
“Chrees-mas tree!” he said again, sighing with delight. The refugees gathered round, smiling, chucking him on the chin. Ellie would never forget that Christmas. There was more laughter, more hope in that room than she had ever experienced. And it came, in true Christmas spirit, from a child. Half way through, someone came in with post for her, a brown padded envelope from her mother. Inside was a note and a gift. “For your little house by the sea,” it said, “To put you in the mood for Christmas!” And inside, wrapped up tightly in bubble wrap, was a decoration from home – one of her favourites : a tiny Christmas tree hung with gold twine. What were the chances of that? She would never forget Jack’s face when she gave it to him. In fact, she would never forget that day. Not ever.
On Christmas Eve, she went early to find Ahmed to say goodbye, but the tent was empty.
“They gone,” said a neighbour sadly, appearing suddenly behind her.
“Gone?” Ellie was shocked, “Gone where?”
The woman pulled her headscarf over her face and readjusted it, pointing towards the tunnel. “There traff-eec jam today. Because of Chris-maas. They go find lorry. Poor Jack. He not want go. But Ahmed, he make him! He need treatment, you know, for leg.”
“What leg?” Ellie was confused.
“jack always limping,” she replied, “In Seey-ria, a soldier, he ask him if he want treat. Then they take him away and they drive over his leg. He need hospital now.”
Distressed, Ellie peered into the tent. The two sleeping bags, pillows and piles of blankets were still there. But clothes, any personal items had gone. She felt heavy as lead. What were the chances of them getting across? Almost nil. Much higher were the chances of injury or arrest. Only last month a pregnant woman had died falling off a lorry. As she backed out of the tent, filled with fear for her friends, her foot fell on something small and knobbly. She bent down and picked it up.
I am thinking of this today as I chunter home, as I think of it every Christmas. The party with the coloured lights, the food, the kindness of strangers. After fifty Christmases in this, my adopted land, that was still my best ever. Those volunteers and friends particularly Ahmed, who looked out for me after my brother died on the journey, they gave me the most precious gift of all – my voice. I found the organisation that Ellie worked for and I wrote to her. We corresponded for years. I told her we shared the same name. They called me Jack while I was silent. But my real name was Elias, Elias Homsi, conveniently anglicised to Eli Homes.
I unwrap the parcel in front of the fire and read the Christmas card – Eli, I always meant to give you this. I’ve finally got round to sending it. Happy Christmas! Love Ellie x
I hang the tiny Christmas tree with its gold twine and painted decorations. I will show it to Ahmed when he arrives tomorrow.
Based on eye witness accounts of the appalling situation faced by the refugees at the Calais camp.
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