When I was at school, they taught us combined language skills and compassion by making us write accounts imagining what it would be like to be caught up in the tsunami, the earthquake, the war. We laid it on thick – the drama, the trauma, the discomfort – not quite knowing or understanding what it would be like. My accounts always ended with improbable magic, floating up and away from the trouble or descending down in to some distracting dream world.
I was thinking back to this as I tried to get to sleep, then when I woke I found a photographer standing over me, taking a picture of me curled up around my belongings. A journalist crouched down next to me and asked if he could ask why I was trying to get into his country. I asked for some time to prepare an answer.
A bunch of us sat by the motorway and shared a breakfast that some kind people had gone to the trouble of bringing out to us. Just toast and tea but. We ate and drank in near-silence, middle-distance stares. I was thinking hard about what I would tell the journalist after breakfast. I imagined I was entering a competition I had found on the back of a cereal box. To win, you had to complete the sentence, ‘I want to live in your country because…’ in no more than 150 words. Of course, I knew I was competing with thousands of other entrants and I needed to write something incisive, something that would stand out, maybe something witty to show my sense of humour in the face of adversity, or maybe just something devastatingly heartbreaking.
I thought about telling the story of how I had worked for the newspaper that opposed the regime, how I had been left with no choice but to get myself and my family out of the country while we still could, but then I decided everyone would have similar tales, so I changed tack and was thinking about writing it as if I was just introducing myself as a person – tall, good-looking, ha ha. GSOH. I can fish, I can draw, I can dance.
In the end I just started by writing, ‘swimming pools, schools, libraries and buses.’ I thought a little longer and then underneath what I had written, I drew a picture of a bus, then I drew myself driving the bus, and I drew the Prime Minister sitting on the bus looking really happy that I was there to drive him through the streets. It wasn’t my best work, but I had just woken up and this was only a first draft, just setting down what I had in my head.
“Swimming pools,” I said out loud, into the morning air. The man next to me nodded. I continued, “swimming pools, schools, libraries, buses.” He nodded again. Then he repeated what I had said so I said it again – “swimming pools, schools, libraries and buses,” – but this time I said it louder and more people looked up from their middle-distance staring. They repeated what I had said. I stood up and declared loudly, “Swimming pools! Schools! Libraries! Buses!” They shouted the words back at me.
Soon everyone was joining in, standing by the roadside, chanting, “swimming pools, schools, libraries and buses.” They were all smiling and I thought that now the journalist would have to write about me and his newspaper would campaign on my behalf and then they would let me in.
Suddenly, a lorry pulled up and out stepped the Prime Minister himself! A film crew followed him, capturing his every move as he walked towards us with his arms outstretched, as if he wanted to pull us all into one warm hug. We swarmed around him, desperate to touch his suit as if he was some kind of messiah. From his pockets he began to pull handfuls of passports that must have been prepared in advance as there was one for each of us, all ready and set out with our names on and pictures of our faces. Inside the back cover the emergency contact details were filled out with the name of someone who will promise to always look after us, and we will promise to always look after them.