The air was getting thin and so were we. We were hungry and weak. Exhausted from the trek to the meeting point and the sharp and sudden farewells to loved ones we might never see again. Family and friends watching us leave, hoping we might change our mind and stay, wishing things were different, prayers filtering out to Gods who’d thus far failed to listen. A gathering of grief and fear standing beside the idle truck, knowing that in reality, there was no alternative. Knowing that from the moment doors slammed shut and engines spluttered into standby, things would change forever and nothing would be the same again, not the soul beneath their skin nor the hope behind their children’s eyes. The world was moving on and we were stuck within in, travelling across the land searching for a place to stay, a place to call a home away from home, a place to die alone.
I’d taken my place beside the other men and we sat in silence as the miles continued to slip away outside. It was hot and uncomfortable and I sat there motionless as a fly buzzed overhead and landed on my sweaty skin. I watched it slowly crawl across my arm, its tiny legs balancing between my hairs as it roamed around my rough flesh and finally paused to wipe its face. The man next to me scowled and shook his head and when I looked back the fly was gone and the sound of its wings was lost amid the grinding of the dogged gears beneath. I could feel the sweat escaping from my pores and as I leaned forward a bead of perspiration ran down my nose and hung there for several seconds before falling to the ground between my feet. I stared at the tiny puddle and wondered how many of my cells would perish and whether I would miss them. I breathed slowly and carefully, sucking in as much air as I could and holding it there, waiting for it to repair the life within, hoping it would but unsure of whether there was anything left to heal.
Despite how long we’d been stuck together, none of us spoke. There was nothing to say. Thinking was enough. I wondered how the others got here. Why they sought a change. What it was they left behind, or who. In the end, we all left something behind, whether we wanted to or not. Desire did not exist. There was no choice. There was only the road ahead, forever damaged and broken, like us. We were all the same whether we liked to admit it or not and this journey was all we had. A final chance to make things right. To do something which might make a difference before our days were done. There was no way to tell when it might happen, how it might happen, or why, but we knew it would, and in the meantime moving meant more than our mortality. There were things we needed to do, people we needed to please before the road ruined us for good. We were human after all, even if we tried to ignore it.
We started to slow down and the man next to me made the sign of the cross and began to whisper psalms of preservation. He pulled out a small copy of the Bible, his hands unsteady and trembling, the nerves within contorted by the calmness of the silenced engine. We sat there and looked at one another, unsure of what was happening, whether we had finally arrived or whether this was as far as we would get. We waited and listened. A door opened. Voices. Footsteps. More voices, this time louder. The man next to me pulled out a photo from within the pages of the Bible and stroked it, the tips of his dirty fingers caressing the fading image of a little girl stood beside her smiling mother. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, the photo clasped between his hands and holding him together. The rest of us sat there silently as the voices vanished and stillness descended once again. I held my breath and thought about my parents. I thought about the home I’d left behind and the fading health of those who’d helped me live longer than my youth. I thought about their diminishing endurance and how the hills were all they had now that I was gone. But I had to leave. I had to find a way to pay them pack, to show them it wasn’t all for nothing, that I was worthy of their love. I wanted to help. I needed to help.
The engine started up again and we began to slowly move over the uneven terrain. I released the air from within my lungs and sat back, the craving for a cigarette greater still despite the tightness of my chest. Placing a cigarette between my lips I wondered how long we had left to go. I wondered whether this trip would be worth the money. There was no way to tell. Stories were common but trust in truth was rare. I sat there and looked once more at all the people sitting beside me, all of them different – all of us different – yet all searching for the same thing. I wondered if we’d ever find it, and if we did, what would happen once we had. I wished we would. I wished we all would. God knows we deserved it. Maybe not all of us, but enough to justify the faith. Finally the tyres ceased spinning and the engine died. Footsteps stirred the ground outside. The lock unfastened. The door opened. It was time. We had arrived. This was it. This was our new beginning. This was England. This was hope.
Listen to ‘Carmelita‘ by Fred Eaglesmith as the soundtrack for the story above.