‘The newspapers called them people smugglers, but here they had a different name. They were the Ghost-Men’
Extract from The Jungle
By Pooja Puri
Forthcoming from Ink Road
Much of the action of this story takes place in Calais, France. Here, on the border between land and sea, formerly lay the migrant encampment more commonly known as “the Jungle”. Its inhabitants came from far and wide – some to find a better life for themselves, others to escape political violence and war. The difficulties they endured on their journeys are unimaginable. Life in “the Jungle” was not much better. Facilities were, at best, basic; at worst, non-existent. There was little food. Charities did what they could but resources were limited.
While writing this book, I have tried to present as accurate a picture of the camp as I can. However, it is important to note that this story and its characters are a work of fiction. As such, there may be inevitable distortions between “the Jungle” as it existed in real life and the setting presented in the book. I hope, nonetheless, that in reading about Mico and Leila, readers can start to understand the despair and courage of those willing to risk everything for a brighter future.
Mico was stealing.
He was lying in the dusty undergrowth, hidden by a screen of dense shrubbery. A thin layer of sweat had collected beneath his clothes; tufts of dirt and leaves clung to him like a second skin.
He inched forward. Ahead of him stood the tent. There were hundreds like it here, rising up from the ground like giant anthills. Small dots of people milled about them, their voices carrying across the air in an endless watery babble. If Mico closed his eyes he could almost imagine he was back home, fishing for squeakers or redfins. Almost.
The tent had been propped open with a bucket for ventilation, leaving just enough of a gap for him to see inside. In contrast to its neighbours, it was kitted out with everything: pans, clothes, a radio, chairs – real wooden ones, not the cobbled scraps used in the rest of the camp. The bread was on a table. Just looking at it made Mico’s stomach hurt.
Slowly he raised himself onto his haunches. He had been careful. He’d waited at the front of the camp until he’d seen the men leave. The newspapers called them people smugglers, but here they had a different name. They were the Ghost-Men. The men with magic; the spirits who could pass through borders without being seen.
There were always two of them. One was built like a crow, tall and beady-eyed; the second was a lizard, short with stumpy legs and stumpy arms. It was him you had to watch out for. Almost unconsciously, Mico raised his hand to his left shoulder. The skin had almost healed but there was a scar there now, a gift from the Lizard’s belt. He narrowed his eyes. One day, he hoped to return the favour.
Sometimes, the Ghost-Men would have other people with them, but today they had left alone. Mico had watched until they were no longer in sight of the camp entrance. He’d counted another five minutes just in case they’d forgotten anything. Then he’d crept the long way round the back of the tents. He’d made sure to stay deep in the bushes so that nobody would see him.
There were always plenty of people waiting for the Ghost-Men. Mostly new arrivals. They’d wash up on Calais hoping the Ghost-Men would help them. But the Ghost-Men were businessmen. Only if you could afford it would they spin their spell and help you disappear. Like him, most of them wanted to start a new life in England. For seven hundred pounds you’d get a place in a truck. It wasn’t the most secure option. Not now there seemed to be police on nearly every single checkpoint. Better to go in a car boot. Officers didn’t like stopping ordinary vehicles so as long as you had a decent-looking driver you’d be safe. But you needed money. A lot of it.
Mico shifted uneasily. He did not want to think what the Ghost-Men would do if they found him in their tent. But the bread was only a few paces away now. He gritted his teeth, readying himself to spring.
Suddenly, there was a movement to the far left of him. Mico dropped down like a shot. He saw the grasses rustle. Little by little, a foot emerged, followed by a hand, then the mud-stained face of a boy. He glanced warily around him, before taking a couple of steps forward. He stopped again, his ears pricked for any sound. Finally satisfied he was alone, he darted towards the tent.
A knife of frustration stabbed through Mico as the boy snatched up the bread. For a moment, he thought about confronting him. He could threaten to reveal him to the Ghost-Men. Force him to hand the bread over. But the boy was a lot bigger than him. A bruise the size of an orange gleamed on his chin. One thing was for certain. Mico wouldn’t be able to make him do anything.
He watched as the boy lay down on one of the camp beds. What was he doing? He had the bread. Why didn’t he leave? But the boy was clearly in no hurry. Snatches of tinny-sounding music swelled into the air as he turned on the radio.
“Get out, stupid,” whispered Mico.
The boy’s head snapped up. Mico instinctively flattened himself against the ground but it was not him the boy had heard. Through the long grass in front of him he saw the Ghost-Men entering the tent. The Lizard came first. The Crow, as always, followed behind.
‘The architecture of cities became a battleground for the Victorian soul’