The Woman on the Other Side of the Wall by Andrew Blackman

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There was a time, every evening around sunset, when the world seemed like a good place to live in. The other twenty-three and a half hours were what they were, but Rhonda lived for the time when the sun slipped lazily towards the horizon, making the TV aerials on the nearby rooftops and the razor wire on the fence twinkle like fairy lights. Everything became softer. The heat of the day was tempered by the first hints of the cool evening air to come. The wooded hills and the glassy sea all succumbed to a glissando slippage from the harsh light of day to something softer, a minor chord of nature after a day of bold C major. The sounds of people and livestock from the village became muffled. Even the starting of a car or the rough zip of a moped failed to disturb the trance-like state of the land. Rhonda felt her eyelids slipping downwards with the sun and the glass tilting in her hand, the single cube of ice jinking against the side and starting her briefly upright, before the sinking began again.

There are times when they storm the fence and hang there, trapped between the border guards waiting on either side. Rhonda has a perfect view of them as they perch for hours like birds on a wire, staring at the black-armoured guards below. A news crew came once and filmed from her balcony. She gave them whisky to sustain them until the cranes arrived and plucked the bodies from the fence. She wonders what goes through those young men’s minds as they sit there, unable to go either forward or back, knowing that this view of wooded hills and suburban villas will be the closest they get to Europe, at least this time. She admires them for delaying the inevitable moment when strong arms grip them and shackle them, pull them down and throw them in the back of a van. For a few hours, they are alive, they are free. Despite everything that’s facing them, they look serene to her. In those moments, they have power.

#

Rhonda sat up straighter and took another sip, the whisky slipping cool down her throat and spreading hot in her chest. From somewhere, a baby cried half-heartedly and then stopped. Gulls crested on the swells, while a sweep of swallows chattered busily above a spreading holm oak. The discord of the day seemed a distant dream. It was like this every evening. Soon the swallows would settle down, and the gulls would soar away to a distant crag, and the sun would lose its daily battle against the march of time, sending a last defiant explosion of reds and purples into the sky. Then, in its absence, the coolness, at first refreshing, would become too cool. The mosquitos would swoop and dart. The world would slip once more into a new pitch. Rhonda would sip again from her glass, but would find only the ice cube bumping clumsily against her lips, laced with the acrid residue of the missing spirit. She would shiver and stand up and retreat indoors, pulling the balcony door shut behind her, drawing the bolts and closing the curtains. The minutes of perfection would have passed, and the long wait for their return would begin. But for now, all was as it should be.

As she was about to stand up to go inside, something caught her eye. A woman by the wall. Over on the other side. The wrong side. The woman looked up at Rhonda, and Rhonda looked back at the woman. She raised her arm in a shy, awkward wave, and Rhonda did the same. They both laughed slightly at the same time, the way people do when they’re trying to pass on the street and both keep moving to the same side. Even their laughter was the same: they both used their cupped right hand to hide their mouth as if it were something shameful. They stopped laughing and stared more deeply and seriously. Rhonda felt naked before this woman, but not ashamed—it was the simple nakedness of an early-morning self-appraisal in the bathroom mirror.

A small boy ran up and grabbed the woman’s hand, and instinctively the woman turned and squatted and smiled. The moment was broken. Rhonda had nobody to turn to, nobody who would grab her hand. But for her, the mirroring continued in another time and place. As she saw this stranger and her child, she saw herself and Jake at that age, the age of being small and as yet undamaged, the age when all you want to do is protect them and keep them pristine, the age when you still can. The boy was leading his mother away now, chattering to her in a language Rhonda didn’t recognise, probably leading her to a bird’s egg or a strange-shaped rock or some other small-boy discovery. As she left, the woman turned one last time and looked at Rhonda. This time she wasn’t smiling. The woman walked on with her child, and Rhonda shivered and began the process of closing up for the night.

#

Like the sun, Rhonda returned the next day to continue the fight against gravity and, like the sun, she knew how it would end. The edges of things seemed too hard and sharp for her these days. The morning traffic into town was light, but every car engine seemed too loud and close, every particle of pollution impossible to keep out even with the windows and air vents closed. At the English language school where she taught, the students seemed wilfully dull. She slowly went over the exercises and asked concept-check questions like a model teacher, but it felt like a high-wire act. A gust of breeze, and she would be all flailing limbs and screamed curses. In the staff common room in her breaks, she clung to her coffee mug as if it were a flotation device. Her colleagues talked loudly about their plans to teach in Thailand or Hawaii. For them, Ceuta was just a brief halt at a country station, and they looked only briefly through the train window at the shabby platform and the dozing porter before returning to their plans, pitying those like Rhonda for whom this was the destination. And Rhonda, meanwhile, pitied them for believing that forward motion was the same thing as progress.

As she drove home, Rhonda noticed the needle on the speedometer nudging up past the limit. In all her years in Ceuta, she’d never driven faster than 50 km/h. But now, even as the coastal road twisted around cliffs and coves, she kept her foot on the accelerator, feeling the car tug her towards the rocky hillside at one moment and the cold sea the next. At home, instead of washing off the day in the bath as usual, she went straight to the balcony and paced the boards for several minutes, casually glancing out over the wall as if she were doing something illicit. When she gave up and went inside, the bath didn’t give her the usual delicious feeling of disappearance. The angle of her hand beneath the water reminded her of waving out at a woman and a child, and she started thinking about bath-times with Jake, the hard tap pressing cold against her back as she watched her boy splashing and laughing at the other end. So much was contained in that memory. She wished the world had the strong enamel sides of a bathtub, so that it could have contained him instead of letting him fall.

The sun was still far above the hills when Rhonda settled down on the balcony with her whisky. She watched the sun fall, heard the sounds of the day soften into the stillness of dusk, but all the time she was scanning the little concrete houses and narrow roads of the Moroccan village just on the other side of the wall. She could hear children crying, men arguing, the occasional car or van rumbling by. She saw heads moving behind walls, arms waving, shadowy forms behind windows, living in the cool darkness of their lives. But nobody came to the wall. Nobody looked across to her side. It was as if, for these people, Europe did not exist. The wall marked the boundaries of their world, and Rhonda and her Spanish neighbours were invisible. They lived like actors on a stage, in a world with only three sides.

#

The sun was gone. Rhonda scraped her chair back and pressed into the arms, but the weight of whisky and disappointment dragged her back down. The dark seemed to have arrived more quickly than usual, and the edges of things were merging. At first, she barely saw the small form at the bottom of the fence. But there was definitely movement there. And then her eyes picked out the details: a small boy climbing the fence, his fingers curled through holes in the wire mesh, his feet scrabbling for a hold. Rhonda could see his head tilted upward towards the towering wire fence and the curls of razor wire at the top. He wouldn’t get that far, though. He was only small. But as Rhonda watched, he made surprisingly steady progress up the fence, his face coming into the reflected light of the Spanish streets now, so that she could see his brow creased, his tongue poking out to the side. She stood up, gripping the balcony, feeling herself sway.

‘Hey!’ she called out. The figure froze. He peered through the fence in confusion, and Rhonda realised her lights were off. He couldn’t see her, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know that she was his mother’s friend (was she?), and besides, who knew whether he even understood English? ‘Get down from there!’ she shouted, her voice sounding strange to her.

The boy still didn’t move, so she waited in the darkness, and he waited too, like a frightened animal, and then, quickly and stealthily, he began to climb again towards the razor wire.

‘Hey!’ Rhonda shouted again, and now she went to switch on the balcony light. ‘Dangerous! Peligroso!’

The boy smiled back, as if it were a game, and reached up to a higher part of the fence.

‘Hey!’ Rhonda shouted again, this time so ferociously that the boy, startled, lost his grip and tumbled. For a few terrible moments he was a blur, and then he managed to grip with one hand and hung there, just a few feet from the ground, dangling in the night air with one hand attached and the other limbs thrashing for a hold. Rhonda watched helplessly, feeling that, as with so many things in her life, in trying to help she had made things worse.

And then he was safe. Arms reached up underneath him, voices called out in a strange tongue, and the boy let go and fell into the strong grip of some men from the village. A woman grabbed him from them and shouted at him, swinging him over her shoulder and fiercely smacking his backside. The boy must have been crying, but everyone else was talking so much that Rhonda couldn’t hear. And then the voices and the bodies faded into the night. The drama would continue, but not for Rhonda to see. The last thing she glimpsed was the boy’s mother turning to look at her with that same unreadable expression from the night before. Rhonda smiled and raised her arm to wave, but the woman turned abruptly and carried her child away, and Rhonda was left holding the night’s cold air.

#

Usually, Rhonda loved Saturdays. The freedom from work, from people, from the constant noise of empty words. The world reduced to the boundaries of her apartment. She lived entirely on canned and frozen foods and kept an apocalypse-ready supply, precisely so that there was no possibility of needing to run to the shops. She could stay in the whole day in a silence broken only when she chose to break it—which was normally to watch an episode from her DVD box set of The Golden Girls. But this Saturday was not peaceful. The world had intruded on her apartment, or more precisely she’d let it in, in the form of a small boy and his angry mother. Rhonda stood on the balcony, gripping the rail, scanning the village for signs of the woman. She wanted to explain that she had tried to help, that she may have failed her own child but she wanted to save this one. But the angry look on the woman’s face told her she wouldn’t understand. Rhonda listened to the cries of children from beyond the wall, trying to pick out that of the small boy, wondering if he was still being punished. It was always the weak who were punished.

Then, amid one of Rose’s rambling monologues and the helpless laughter of the audience, Rhonda heard something that didn’t fit. Reluctantly, she tuned out of 1980s Florida and into the world around her. She could distinguish words now: ‘Hello, hello in there!’ She muted the TV. Rose and Blanche still sat at their kitchen table and offered themselves as butts for Sophia’s one-liners, but the voice Rhonda heard was different, with West African inflected vowels, the ‘o’ of ‘hello’ short and abrupt. Rhonda pictured herself explaining this to her class phonetically—anything to avoid getting up off the sofa and going to see this woman. What she had so wanted yesterday and even earlier today was what she now dreaded. After all, she’d come to this place precisely to avoid things like this. But the woman was persistent. She kept calling, and eventually Rhonda had no choice but to go out to the balcony, leaving Blanche and Dorothy in the middle of a soundless sparring match with no laugh track.

The woman was right up by the fence, at the point where her son had tried and failed to climb the night before. The dry earth around her still bore the muddled footprints of all the men who had gathered there to drag the boy down.

‘Hello,’ the woman said.

‘Hello.’

‘My name is Rama.’ She spoke as if forcing the words together against their will.

‘Rhonda.’ Silence for a moment. Even the distant sounds from the village had stopped, as if everyone were holding their breath. Only the birds twittered on heedless. ‘Your son. Is he OK?’

Rama smiled, a lopsided smile of love tinged with frustration. ‘Isaac. Yes, he’s fine. A few scratches from the wire, and some bruises from me.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Rhonda said. ‘I was trying to keep him safe, but I made him fall.’

‘I’m glad.’

‘You are?’ Rhonda felt a surge of gratitude to this stranger. She had almost given up on being understood, and Rama had done in two words what nobody else had done in years. ‘I thought you blamed me.’

‘It was only because of you that anyone realised what was happening. If you hadn’t shouted at him, God knows how high he would have gone.’ She looked up now, either at the wire-topped fence or at God beyond it. Then her gaze returned to Rhonda, and she said, ‘Thank you.’

Rhonda felt the woman’s eyes burning into her, into the secret places that nobody else could see. She felt tears coming. Her fists clenched. ‘That’s OK,’ she said quickly, and turned to go inside, sliding the balcony door shut behind her.

After that, the meetings by the wall became more frequent. Every day, after returning from work, Rhonda would go straight out to the balcony, and every day Rama would appear, sometimes with Isaac and sometimes alone. The fence was always between them, but it didn’t matter. They called out to each other and told stories of their lives, not caring who could hear them. Rama and Isaac were fleeing not war and bombs but a much slower death from lack of opportunity. Isaac’s father had died, and Rama couldn’t find work anywhere in the capital. So she had sold everything she had and scraped together enough from friends and family to make this trip in search of something better—not for her, but for Isaac. The eternal dream of parents, to give their children something better. Rhonda recognised it, and she didn’t want to tell Rama how it ended.

For now, Rama’s quest was stalled at the fence of Ceuta. She didn’t know how to go further, and Rhonda didn’t know what to tell her to do. In town, she had seen those few who had made it over the wall or around it by sea and into Ceuta. They walked around listlessly, gazing across the water at the misty hills of Andalusia, perhaps gauging the distance and the currents. They were in Europe, but not in Europe. They couldn’t take the ferry to the mainland, and they couldn’t work where they were. Most of them would disappear eventually, but not to Andalusia—their applications would be rejected, and they would be sent back to the very place they had spent years of their lives and thousands of dollars of borrowed money trying to escape from. Only Syrians had a chance, but Syrians didn’t come this way. The people here were like Rama, seeking a different kind of escape.

Rhonda didn’t know how to tell her that the main barriers she faced were not made of wire. So instead, she told her about her own life and what had brought her to live on the other side of the wall. It felt good to tell someone the things she had kept hidden for so long. Rhonda felt close to this woman on the other side of the wall. She told her stories about Jake, and as she did so, Jake came alive again, at least for a time. She began to feel selfish for keeping his memory to herself all those years. By telling Rama, she was helping a small piece of him to survive, a memory in the mind of a woman on a journey of her own. Rama probably wouldn’t remember much, but still Jake would exist somewhere in there, jumbled up with the memories of home and the worries about Isaac and the dreams of a life in Europe.

#

Then, one evening, a knock on the door. Nobody ever knocked on Rhonda’s door. She never had anything delivered, she had no friends, and as for the neighbours, they ignored her to the same degree that she avoided them. Even the postman had never knocked—her only mail came in the form of bills and government forms that could fit easily in the small yellow mailbox outside. It was a Moroccan man with a dusty face streaked brown with sweat. He looked harried after a day of work, with the time at his back like a predator. The sun slipping down towards the horizon was, for him, not a soothing ritual but a sign that his day permit would soon expire. He glanced over his shoulder at it even as he stood on Rhonda’s doorstep.

‘I come from Rama,’ he said. He introduced himself in Arabic-inflected Spanish as Walid, a man from the village just on the other side of the wall. To get to her, though, Rhonda knew he would have had to apply for a day permit, travel miles around to the other side of the enclave, and stand in the hot morning sun for hours with men carrying meagre rations and women bearing huge bundles on their backs, being filtered slowly through gates and penned in by wire fences like livestock, before being scrutinised and stamped and permitted to enter Europe, the dream of so many from the world on the other side of the wall, but a dream that expired at nightfall. Walid was speaking so fast that Rhonda had to ask him to repeat what he’d said.

‘I have a message,’ he said, looking agitated and seeming to sweat even harder. ‘It is urgent. I wait for your reply.’

‘Well, you’d better come in, then,’ Rhonda said, not quite believing the words as they left her mouth. Nobody had ever entered Rhonda’s house here in Ceuta. She didn’t even let people in to do repairs, instead doing the best she could with supplies from the hardware store and YouTube videos. She didn’t trust anyone any more—or perhaps it was not so much the people she mistrusted as the world, which had taken so much from her and shown that it could do it again whenever it pleased. But things had changed. The message could only have come from Rama. Rhonda felt the protective embrace of her friend’s strength, this woman who had crossed a continent with a child in her arms. So she let the man in and offered him some iced water, making a conscious effort to steady her voice. Men were like wild dogs; they sensed fear. Walid said yes, and Rhonda fetched it for him and watched him gulp it down, his face upturned, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his stretched neck.

The message was short and simple. A boat was leaving tomorrow, and Rhonda wanted to be on it. She wanted cash, five thousand euros. She knew it was a lot to ask, but it was for her boy’s future. She was desperate. If Rhonda couldn’t help, she would do whatever it took to get on that boat.

Rhonda closed the letter abruptly. Her first instinct was to go straight to the bank and send Walid back with an envelope full of euros. But the more she thought about it, the more she began to doubt. The urgency, the time pressure, the veiled threat of dire consequences if she didn’t comply—none of that seemed true to the woman she knew. Of course she couldn’t have shouted her plans across the fence, but she could have told Rhonda if she was that desperate, and she never had. Sad and somewhat despondent, perhaps, but not desperate enough to need to be on the very next boat. And she could have asked for her phone number and found a way to call her, instead of sending this message. Come to think of it, Rhonda had no way even of knowing if the letter had come from Rama. Some men in the village might just have seen them talking and decided to make some easy money. Or they could have put Rama up to the task of befriending Rhonda from the start. They could have spotted her out on the balcony every night, drinking whisky and looking out into the night for something or someone to take her out of who she was, and they could have served up Rama to win her trust. Or, worse, Rama could have done all those things by herself. That was the possibility that hurt the most, and once the idea of it had dropped into Rhonda’s mind, it spread like ink on blotting paper. She found herself going back over all their conversations across the fence, re-examining every word, every facial expression. Walid cleared his throat. Rhonda felt too confused—she needed time to work out what she believed. There would be other boats, and perhaps they could even work out a less deadly way of getting to Europe. She didn’t need to respond to this artificial deadline. She took a pad of paper and scribbled a reply.

My dear friend, I want to help you, but I don’t know if this is the right way. I need to think. Please don’t do anything desperate. Let’s talk, OK? xx

She fumbled for a fresh envelope and slipped the paper inside, writing Rama’s name on the front with a silly flourish, as if she were sending her a birthday card. She wanted to redo it, but Walid was already standing up and glancing out of the window, anticipating his next task. She licked the gum, sealed it, and handed it over, with a few euros for Walid.

‘Shukran,’ he said, with hand on heart. Rhonda replied in kind, but all she felt beneath her hand was the sweat-dampened fabric of her tee-shirt.

#

After Walid had gone, in the sudden quiet of the flat, Rhonda felt the enormity of her mistake. It settled on her and suffocated her in the afternoon heat. Even whisky didn’t dispel it. She went out to the balcony and tried to take pleasure in the perfect blue of the sky, a cloudless gradient from pale at the horizon to deep blue above. She tried to watch the waves of the Mediterranean sloshing gently against the shore, but it only reminded her of the boat that would soon be leaving. She should have helped her, taken the risk. So what if it turned out to be a scam? The unwinding of Rhonda’s life in England had seen her involuntarily exchanging a family and a life for the compensation of money. The loss of five thousand euros was something she could absorb. No matter the motives of Rama or whoever else had asked for it, they needed it much more than she did. And as for the danger, who was she to judge? If Rama had made the choice to attempt it, Rhonda had no right to stop her. She stared out at the village, willing Rama to come to the fence, but there was only the soporific silence of mid-afternoon. Even the swallows were nowhere to be seen. She shouted out ‘Rama’, but her voice sounded feeble in the vastness of this landscape. It floated out to sea, got lost in the shining branches of the holm oaks, was muted by the damp heat of the immense blue sky. She tried again, louder, but felt like a prisoner yelling behind soundproof glass. The village beyond the wall slumbered on, oblivious to her existence.

All evening she waited, and all of the following day. She occasionally contemplated crossing the border herself, packing Rama and Isaac into the back of her car, and smuggling them both into Ceuta. But each time, she concluded that she’d drunk too much whisky to drive, let alone cross a border, and she drank more whisky to console herself and to push away the thought of what else was preventing her. She had classes scheduled, and she heard her phone ringing regularly through the day, but she kept pouring and drinking and watching. There was no movement beyond the normal village life, no sounds other than the usual distant shouts, squawking chickens and revving mopeds. When night fell, she maintained her vigil. She watched the waves on the nearby beach, illuminated by the gibbous moon. They looked rougher than usual, and Rhonda wasn’t sure whether to be worried or happy about a possible postponement. She peered into the darkness, but of course they wouldn’t leave from within sight of the wall and its Spanish border guards. They would be out there somewhere in the vast, silent night, handing over bundles of money and squeezing into an arthritic old boat that sank deeper into the water with each new occupant. Rhonda would be holding on to Isaac. There would be no lights or noise. Everything would be dark and hushed, fear competing with a tense, fragile hope.

Rhonda knew that she would never see her friend again. She would never know whether they had made it across safely, whether they had even attempted it, where they had ended up if they did reach the shores of Andalusia. If they drowned in the straits, they would do so anonymously; if they lived on the other side, they would probably do so anonymously too. Rhonda would read the news reports and scour the internet, but she didn’t even know Rama’s surname. Unless Rama was the one in a million who got interviewed on CNN or profiled in a magazine or went on to become a best-selling author, there would be only silence. The sun would rise and set, and Rhonda would go to work and return, and she would drink whisky on her balcony and gaze out at the shards of sun sparking off the razor-wire fence, and beyond that the mountains, and beyond the sky, and occasionally in a drunken haze she would again shout out the name of her lost friend, and nobody would ever hear.

glasses

Andrew Blackman

Andrew Blackman is a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now travelling full-time around Europe while working as a freelance writer. He’s had two novels published by Legend Press in the UK, as well as hundreds of articles, short stories and essays published in magazines, newspapers and books.

Details of previous publications & links: 

A Virtual Love (Legend Press, 2013): https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1909039454/

On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Holloway-Road-Andrew-Blackman/dp/1906558086/

Social Media Handles & links:

Twitter: @BlackmanAndrew

https://twitter.com/BlackmanAndrew

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