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Flash Fiction Reprint: Enrique

by Jay Mer­ill

Secret­ly, I feel there are two of me. The one you can see is fair­ly super­fi­cial but there’s this oth­er more thought­ful one you can’t. A sur­vival strat­e­gy. Since I arrived in the UK from Bogotá six months back I’ve been aware of this sec­ond self. I leap from the one me to the oth­er, I play my tin flute, and I store words. At the end of one year I’ll have over three hun­dred belong­ing to me. I don’t think I’ll feel so iso­lat­ed then. I’m con­cen­trat­ing on one new word each day; am already up to suf­fer­ing.

I’m shar­ing a barn with three oth­er ille­gals. We don’t speak the same lan­guage and most­ly have to make do with signs. But all of the signs spell mis­ery I guess, in what­ev­er lan­guage you’re using. A late snow has come. I stare out at the wide Dorset fields, the end­less white. The win­dows can’t be opened and there’s a whiff of rot. But in the present big freeze the air smells clean. 

I have work in a fish pro­cess­ing fac­to­ry down the road. Eleven hours a day sur­round­ed by cold flesh and scales, by grey fish-skin and spikey bone. At my lunch-break I slosh through rank and chilly water. Every­thing in the can­teen is soak­ing wet—the blue paint­ed walls, the red plas­tic table­cloths, the han­dles of the tea-mugs. The local work­ers gen­er­al­ly keep to them­selves though two friend­ly girls said hel­lo to me today. I tried to answer but no sound came out when I opened my mouth. I need to fast-track my lan­guage skills. 

The air is hot with fry­ing and the siz­zle of bub­bling fat seems cheer­ful. It’s a Fri­day. I’ve brought back a bag of left­over fish scraps which I fry up with diced pota­to and a tin of corn. I offer this around. Peo­ple give what they have here. Shar­ing is a kind of com­mon lan­guage. Most, like me, are try­ing to learn Eng­lish. We some­times spend the time we have togeth­er try­ing out new words. It’s hard man­ag­ing the pro­nun­ci­a­tion as we nev­er get to talk to native speak­ers, but we do the best we can. And then these days are over.

I leave Dorset late one night and am dri­ven up to Lon­don by van with oth­er migrant work­ers. I’m glad to be say­ing good­bye to the mouldy barn in the field at last. Sit­ting hunched up against the win­dow I look out at the dark. The hid­den me won­ders what I’m doing here. In Colum­bia I lived a life of pover­ty and this is what drew me to the UK. I took big risks get­ting here, being keen to bet­ter myself. I’d imag­ined there would be plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties. Now I ask myself what I’d been think­ing of. Per­haps this is what lone­li­ness can do, make you invent a sec­ond self so there’ll be some­one else to talk to. I’ve come to see that being one on your own leaves you vul­ner­a­ble. Two or more would spread the load, shoul­der­ing the weight of exis­tence. It’s what I believe any­way. I is for iso­lat­ed.

In Lon­don con­di­tions are even worse. I’m shar­ing a shab­by room in Haringey with eight oth­er migrant work­ers. Some of them are already out of their heads. It’s des­o­late and filthy here. A mean mouthed gang-mas­ter keeps an eye on us. Work is in short sup­ply which means you’re clock­ing up debt for unpaid rent. When you get the odd day, pack­ing for a super­mar­ket say, what­ev­er you earn is tak­en to pay expens­es. One night, after an inmate turns fer­al and stabs the gang-mas­ter in the throat I decide to make a dash for it. I run and keep on going. There’s safe­ty in num­bers; I keep to the crowd­ed areas. In the kind of life I’m liv­ing now it’s not so easy to remem­ber you exist but I’m fight­ing back with words.

Today I’m busk­ing at Hyde Park Cor­ner. If I see a police-van near­by I’ll up and leave at once, for fear of depor­ta­tion. There’s a lot more of that hap­pen­ing nowa­days. The me you can see plays the caña de Camil­lo. But I’m mul­ti­ply­ing fast – inside my mind there are three more of me already. Our eyes are every­where. The now-word is beware!


The sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the sum­mer 2013 issue of the Adroit Jour­nal (Issue 7).

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