The motorway is his friend. Lulls him to sleep, a soft black cloak, and carries him away.
He hides in the woods at night. Beds down in a hollow under an old tarp, away from the main camp. In a soggy sleeping bag he stole from a boy just like him, a boy of fourteen who didn’t make it this far.
He tries not to think of the boy, or anything else. Blots it out as the motorway thrums in the dark. He’s not sure about it now, the motorway. He thinks it might be toying with him, with its gentle rhythms and seductive promises. For it can be brutal, too, can just as easily rip him awake in the cold dead of night with a screech of brakes and shriek of horns.
The trucks don’t stop now, the Afghan says.
They’re standing on the ridge overlooking the camp, watching the trucks roar by. Watching but being watched too. The men in uniforms huddled together, smoking. One of them looks up, stares at Tarek through the drizzle. Looks away, stamps his feet against the cold. Tarek flinches, but the Afghan isn’t afraid of them. Says they sometimes give him cigarettes in return for favours. He grins, his teeth wet and black, and shrugs. It’s not their fault, he says. They’re just doing their job. And they don’t want to be here either.
The Afghan is sixteen, seventeen, his face creased like bark.
“Trucks used to stop all time,” he says. “Trucks stop all time and take us far, far away.” He nods towards an indeterminate point in the distance, over another, lumpier ridge. “It easy then, Tarek, before border guards come. Trucks stop all time over there and you climb in and hide and they take you away and you free.” He roots around in the back of his mouth with his tongue, coughs up some hard phlegm and spits it out into the wind. “Now trucks don’t stop, even when they hit you, when they run over.”
He shakes his head. “You hear it, Tarek, in night?”
Tarek hears it, the brakes, the horns, the screams.
“But easy then. Like Yellow-Brick Road! You know, like movie?”
Tarek doesn’t, but nods anyway.
“Like Oz! Click heels and make the wish!”
Tarek digs the heel of his boot into the damp soil and wishes he was somewhere, anywhere, else.
They play football on the patch of wasteland next to the road. Tarek, the Afghan, some others. A woman, a new arrival, who reminds Tarek of his old kindergarten teacher, whose name he can’t remember. The gush of cold air from the passing trucks knocks them sideways, takes the wind right out of them.
One of the guards gave them a black and white ball, brand new. Tarek thinks it might have been the guard who’d been watching him on the ridge, but he’s not sure. They all look the same to him, their grey uniforms, their long white faces.
Gave them a packet of cigarettes too. Tarek asked the Afghan about it, how many favours that cost him. The Afghan wouldn’t say. Stuffed half the cigarettes into Tarek’s coat pocket and said he shouldn’t ask so many questions.
The woman turned up a few days before the Afghan vanished. Striding into the camp, her eyes darting left to right. Wide hips, big head of charcoal hair.
They sit on the ridge together, the three of them: the woman, the Afghan and Tarek.
“We’re the same,” she says, and they join hands. “The same but different.” They agree to stick together, to look out for each other, whatever may be.
Tarek notices the way she looks at the Afghan, and the way he looks at her. He hears them at night-time, in their makeshift tent. Laughing, crying. He can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. When they’re finished, the woman sometimes comes over to his hollow and they listen to the trucks. He tells her about his old kindergarten teacher, about his parents, his sister, his friends. She listens, sometimes drifts off, but he keeps talking.
They scour the motorway, in the days after the Afghan has gone. Heads down, eyes on the tarmac, on the grassy verge. Trawl up and down, a mile north and south of the camp, as far as they can go, sifting through the knapweed and gorse, looking for something, anything. A rucksack, a shoe, a splotch of blood. They find nothing. He made it, the woman says, crying. Tarek cries too. Shudders because he knows what might have been, what a speeding truck can do to a human body. He has seen it with his own eyes.