It was still night, and cold, when Jesme felt herself being shaken awake.
She shook her head, trying to get rid of the sand in her hair, and opened her eyes. “What?”
It was her mother, she could tell that, though the older woman was just a dark shape silhouetted against the stars. She touched a finger to Jesme’s lips and bent over her. “Quiet. Come quickly.”
“What?” Jesme repeated, but more quietly. “Has a ship come?” She felt stupid as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Of course a ship had not come.
“No,” her mother hissed. “It’s food. Come now.”
“Food?” The word felt alien on Jesme’s lips. When had she last had food? Two days? Three?
“Yes,” her mother said, pulling at her arm impatiently. “Come quickly, now. Or they’ll go away.”
Jesme stumbled to her feet. The night air was cold, the wind off the sea making her shiver in her thin dress. The smouldering remnants of most of the few scattered fires had long since died down to glowing embers. “I’m coming,” she said. “You don’t have to pull me so hard.”
Her mother barely seemed to notice. “I hope they haven’t already gone,” she muttered. “They wouldn’t give me enough to bring some back for you. They said you had to be there.”
Jesme peered at the ground, trying not to trip. Things were scattered everywhere. Some of it was what people had brought with them, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres, and then, finally, thrown away, bundles of clothes, battered aluminium utensils, packets of certificates from schools long since abandoned to spiders and scorpions. Jesme knew those things well – she still carried her own certificates in a polythene packet tied to her dress by a cord. It was one of the last things they had left, since her mother had traded the last brass pot for half a chicken for them to eat.
That was the last thing they had eaten, that half a chicken along with some dried grain. Jesme had tried to keep the taste in her mouth as long as she could, but it had faded and even the memory had gone with it.
There were other things on the sand as well, including people. Jesme lifted her feet high to avoid treading on them. Most of them were probably still alive, and trying to sleep. And if they woke, they would wonder where she and her mother were going, and might want to follow.
And if there was food, that wouldn’t do at all.
Once, not that long ago, Jesme had liked sharing. She’d regularly given away whatever she had to anyone who wanted. Now, of course, she knew better. She knew enough to hide what she had to herself, except for her mother. And someday it might come to it that she would hide it from her mother as well. She could see that day coming, and knew it would be the end of the Jesme that she’d been all her life. What would come after that, she had no idea, and she was afraid of finding out.
The dry rough sand under her bare feet gave way to smooth hard wet. Her mother was almost running, pulling her by the arm. “They’ll have gone,” she was muttering. “I took too long to find you. I should have insisted they give me the food.”
“Who?” Jesme asked, but there was no response. She hadn’t expected any. The sea was now close, the heavy oily water slurping against the old concrete walls of the buildings that were now underwater. Over to the right she could see the string of yellow lights from the high buildings which still stuck out of the ocean. There were people living on them, using solar panels to make electricity and eating what they could catch from the sea. Some of the beach people had fashioned a raft and tried to reach the buildings the day before yesterday; the people on them had fired at them, and shot them off the raft, one by one.
But apparently, though they did not want anyone coming to their buildings, they were willing to come over to the beach. Jesme saw them at the same moment that she heard her mother’s relieved mutter. There were two of them, squatting next to the hulk of a boat pulled up on the sand. One of them stood up and beckoned impatiently.
“We thought you weren’t coming.” His voice was rough and heavily accented, as though the language was foreign to him. Perhaps it was. Jesme couldn’t see his face in the dark, just the faint reflection of light on a bare scalp. “Is this your daughter?”
“Yes. I told you she needed food.”
“So you should’ve brought her sooner, or we’d have gone. What were you delaying for?”
“Give her the food, Ulod,” the other man called. “It’s not as though you’re making it any faster by blathering on.”
“Shut up, Tilas.” The bald man, Ulod, handed out something to Jesme. “Here, girl. Eat. Make it fast, we don’t have all night.”
It was smoked fish, salty-sweet and chewy. Jesme’s mouth worked, teeth grinding frantically, her stomach clenching in its eagerness to feel the food inside it. Her mother was watching her anxiously.
“Don’t eat too fast,” she said. “You’ll get a cramp.”
“Here’s water,” Ulod told her, “if you want to wash it down.”
The water was tepid and tasted of plastic, but it was water. Jesme drank it too quickly, and felt a painful bubble of air trapped inside her stomach. The fish was finished, quicker than she’d realised. She handed the empty bottle back.
Tilas got up and stretched. He seemed younger than the other man, taller and more thickset, with a bushy head of hair. “Was it good?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks.” Jesme managed to tease a few fibres out from between her teeth with her tongue. There was a gap between her teeth which she had been supposed to get braces for, but that was back in the old time. “It was tasty.”
“Right.” Jesme’s mother suddenly seemed impatient again, and tugged at her arm. “Let’s go, Jesme.”
“Go?” Ulod asked. “What about payment?”
“You’ve already been paid,” Jesme’s mother snapped.
“For your food, sure. But what about her food?” Ulod pointed. His forefinger, almost touching Jesme’s nose, was tipped by a nail that was split and the colour of slate. “It’s not free, you know.”
“It isn’t,” Tilas agreed. He wandered over past Ulod and prodded at Jesme’s breast through her thin dress. She flinched at the touch. “Why did you think we asked you to get her here?”
Jesme’s mother slapped his hand away. “Run, Jesme,” she said, pushing Jesme so hard that she almost fell down. “Run and hide somewhere, quickly.”
“Go!” her mother shouted, and slapped her. It was the first time the older woman had ever hit her. Jesme started in shock, and then, as Ulod reached for her again, she took off running.
It was midmorning, and Jesme’s mother had still not appeared.
Jesme had run until she could no more, and then thrown herself down and tried to hide herself by burrowing in the sand. She’d lain like that for a long time, for hours, until it was light in the east, over the city behind the beach. Then she’d gone back down to the beach, cautiously, ready to flee. She’d found the empty plastic bottle, and the crumpled paper packet which had held the fish, but there was no boat and no trace of her mother. She’d looked out at the buildings half-submerged in the sea. They were like broken teeth, the teeth of some gigantic beast gnawing at the land. She could imagine eyes looking back at her, and suddenly she’d wanted to cry. But there were no tears left to let fall.
In the harsh sunlight the air was like fire, and what little beauty the beach had at night had long since vanished. It was more crowded than ever. More people had arrived at dawn, attracted by the hope of ships.
A couple, the woman heavily pregnant, sat down next to Jesme. “We’ve been walking for ten days,” she said. Her face and limbs were skeletal, making the huge bulge of her belly look bizarre, as though it was a tumour consuming her. “There’s nothing left, no food, nothing.”
The man, whose eyes were sunken so deep that he seemed to be peering out at the world through twin tunnels, jerked a thumb landwards. “The city people, they’ve put barricades of barbed wire and concrete slabs to stop us. We had to give them everything we had to let us pass.” He glared accusingly at Jesme, as though it was somehow her fault. “Somebody said that they hadn’t done it when you all came.”
“No, they hadn’t,” Jesme had replied. She’d been desperate to get away from these two, the woman with her obscenely distended belly and the man with his tunnel eyes, but she had no idea where else she might wait for her mother. “When we came, they just told us to move along. They didn’t do anything like that.”
“Their time will come,” the man said. Deep in the hollows of his sockets, his eyes glittered with anger. “The sea will rise more, and the water will give out, and the food will give out. Then the fighting will come to them as well, and it’s they who will be sitting on the beach in rags, waiting for the ships. You wait and see.”
Jesme said nothing.
“We’ve nothing to pay the ship with,” the woman said eventually. “We had to give away everything. Do you think the ship will take us without any payment?”
“None of us has anything left, Auntie,” Jesme told her. “All of us are hoping the ship will take us.”
“If there is a ship,” the man said, echoing Jesme’s unspoken thought. “Are there ships, girl? Have you seen them?”
For a moment Jesme saw red. “My mother’s lost,” she wanted to scream. “I nearly got raped for a mouthful of fish, my mother’s lost, and you think any of this would have happened if there had been a ship? Do you think any of us would have still been here if there had been a ship?” But she bit her lip, took a deep breath, and waited until her voice was under control. “I haven’t seen a ship,” she said, “but there was a man who said there was a ship just leaving when he’d arrived.” She didn’t add that the man had been half insane from fever and had later wandered out to sea and drowned. “He said it was badly crowded and that it would be a while before another came.”
“We’ll have to wait.” The woman reached out suddenly and grabbed Jesme’s arm. “I like you, girl, you’re at least human – more human than any of the others. Will you do something for me?”
“What?” Jesme tried to free her arm with an experimental tug, but the woman’s grip was strong. “What do you want me to do? I have nothing.”
“You don’t have to give me anything,” the woman said quickly. “Not at all. It’s just that...” She patted her swollen belly. “This is due any day. Maybe today. If – if I die having it, you know, you can see what it’s like here. If I die having it, will you take it? Take it along with you on the ship, and bring it up?”
Jesme stared at her, and then a great bubble of laughter came rising out of her, slowly at first and then uncontrollably, until she was shaking with laughter and tears, pointing down at her own ragged dress. “This is all I have,” she managed. “I don’t even know what I’m going to eat today, or if I’ll be alive this time tomorrow, and you want me to take your baby?”
“But,” the woman began, “listen...”
“No, you listen.” Jesme was still laughing, but now the tears were of anger. “You don’t know who I am, I don’t know who you are, we’re all of us on a beach dying of heat and hunger, and you want me to promise to do something I literally can’t? My mother told me not to lie.” At the thought of her mother she began crying harder, shaking with sobs.
“Let her go,” the man snapped. “You can see she hates us.”
“I don’t hate you,” Jesme said. “But don’t ask of me what I can’t give.”
“No, you hate us,” the woman said. “I can see it.” She dropped Jesme’s arm and climbed to her feet. “I hope someday you find yourself in my position, that’s all.” She tried to spit, but had no saliva to spare. Leaning on the man’s shoulder, she wandered off down the beach.
Jesme sighed and tried to wipe her eyes on the hem of her dress. And then she discovered that the packet of certificates was gone. At some point in her panicked flight of the night before it had fallen off.
What did it matter anyway, she thought bleakly, and stared out at the heavy, sluggish sea. What did anything matter anymore?
After some time she went down to the water and splashed it over herself.
Far out to sea, a cloud drifted by, and she watched it go.
The sun was a red and orange ball of fire touching the waves when Jesme’s mother returned.
She came trudging up the beach, her arms wrapped around herself, and sat down beside her daughter. For a while she said nothing and replied to nothing Jesme asked.
Eventually she stirred. “I’ve got some fish,” she said. “Would you like to have it now or later?”
Jesme’s mouth moved. “Later,” she whispered. “Not now. Not now.”
Jesme’s mother nodded. “Tell me when you want it. It’s all for you. I already ate.”
“Where have you been?” Jesme asked for the third or fourth time.
“Out there,” her mother said eventually, without making any attempt to explain what that meant. “They asked me to go back again, but I said no. But they were still generous enough to feed me, and give me some for you.”
“Generous? They’re evil.”
“No. They’ve got to survive, just like the rest of us. In their position we might not have been so kind.”
Together the two women, the young one and the younger one, watched the sun sink into the sea. “Mum,” Jesme said eventually. “Where will these ships take us? To a country where people treat us like those two last night? Is that all there is?”
Jesme’s mother shrugged. “What else is there?” she said. “We can’t keep walking any further. The ships are all we have left.”
Jesme remembered what the insane man had told her about the ship, a blocky rusting box of steel with so many people aboard that they were literally perched on the railing along the sides. “And the ship will come? There will be a ship, won’t there, mum? It’s not like the whole world is like this, is it?”
“Of course,” Jesme’s mother said eventually. “A ship will come. Tomorrow, maybe. Tomorrow a ship will come.”
“I lost the certificates,” Jesme said.
Her mother sighed. “Certificates don’t matter anymore. Education doesn’t matter anymore.”
Somewhere, not that far away, there was a sound. Jesme turned her head away from it, and pressed her hands over her ears. It was a newborn baby, crying.
“Then what matters?” Jesme asked.
“Survival,” her mother replied. “Survival.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017