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).