It’s not easy when you hardly speak the language of the place you’re living in. You embarrass yourself. I can’t help being aware I’m a complete outsider every single waking minute. I’ve got this plan though – to learn a few new English words every day. I’m going to focus on one letter at a time then choose some which start with that. But I’m not doing the alphabet in order. My approach will be more personal.
I is the letter I’m concentrating on first because I just love the fact it’s a word in itself. And it’s me – I am. A handy reminder of what would normally be a simple fact. Because I have to tell you that in the kind of life I’m living now it can sometimes be quite hard to remember you exist. I have no papers and it wouldn’t be safe to be on show. So I try to make myself as Inconspicuous as possible and I walk close to the gutter with my head held down because I live in constant fear of coming to the attention of the authorities and being deported and there’s a lot more of that happening these days. I have my debt to pay off to the organisation that got me over here. And at work each day in the leek field I look down too, keeping my eyes on my task. If I forgot to do that for just a couple of minutes or so my hand might slip and then it could be sliced into with my hacking knife or it could be cut right off. Well maybe I’m exaggerating there but that knife’s horribly sharp and it does bother me. I can’t bear to even think of any more trouble as I’m unable to handle what’s on my plate already. So I mustn’t take any more chances than I have to. As I’ve said, I’m trying to improve my English, but this takes time. I say my chosen words to myself silently sitting by the damp table in the wrecked bus where I’m living now. I repeat them over and over again until I know them thoroughly. And starting with I does seem to make the best sense as now and again, when I’m shuffling along I actually do find I’m starting to forget the true me and am becoming in my own mind how everybody else sees me. Well, when they see me at all I mean. And this is very scary. So, yes, I feel good about the I word and I believe that saying it helps me avoid that lost feeling you can easily develop in an alien world. Another nice thought is that at the end of one year I’ll have maybe a couple of thousand words belonging to me. I don’t think I will feel so desolate then.
Here I am in the leek field, my place of work. I’m leaning forward, ripping one out from the dense earth at this moment. Very often it feels hard being me and I ask myself if I’d like to be another person instead. I don’t know about that, and I suppose, if I think about it, the answer is no, not somebody else, I’d always wish to be me. But I do long and pray for other things to be different. Not me, the world; the world around me.
There’s something else about the letter I. I just love the fact I rhymes with ‘eye’ and for some reason this reminds me of my own Inner eye. You might say it’s just in my Imagination but I honestly feel there is an inner eye in me that sees what the ordinary eye does not. Well I hope this is true because there’s no one out there to keep a watch on things and make sure I’m safe. Secretly, I feel there are two of me, the one you can see which is fairly superficial and another, more significant one you can’t. It is of course, the hidden me that looks out from this other eye. Perhaps this is what loneliness can do – make you Invent a second self so there’ll be someone else to talk to. I is for Isolated. I’d rather not have it as one of my words but that would be denial. Because I have to say it’s what I’m feeling most of the time, both in the leek field and in the local town.
In fact, walking around the town this morning I felt so entirely cut off from all the other people there it very nearly made me cry. I made sure to keep my head lowered but at the same time I couldn’t stop this terrible craving to be looked at from suddenly welling up in me along with the tears. There was this terrible urge to come out into the open. I wanted it more than anything. Because, the truth is I can’t stand the fact that no one ever sees the real me, only the form of me shuffling along as close to the gutter as I can get. Imagine being protected by being simply unseen. But it is so because if anybody became aware of me that could be it. I am an Illegal. It hurts my mouth to even form that word but as I’m trying to say, I think it’s essential to keep on being aware of the truth of things. So this is to be one of the main words I will make myself memorise.
I never want to be under any Illusions about what I am and what I’m doing in this place. Illusions is also a useful word to concentrate on. Because I need to remember that it’s all too easy to fall into them if you don’t keep your wits about you. I think of Zara my tiny daughter and what I need to do to keep her alive and to help her find a life better than the one I’ve had so far. First off, I need to work and can’t afford to start fantasising about being here in any other way or what will become of her? I think of my aged parents looking after my little girl. They try their best as they’re not bad people and would always do what they could in any situation. But money is what it basically comes down to. And this is what I have to earn. For them. Having any other wish or ambition is an indulgence I can’t allow to happen. No, I have to stay focussed and not let myself get distracted by daydreaming.
A crazy saying comes into my head, ‘Another day another dollar.’ And that’s exactly what my own life boils down to. I earn, there is no other aspect to me which is meaningful. If I lose sight of this I’ve lost everything. I lift my right hand, grasp at yet another leek and tear it out of its dank earth spot. Then I hack off the tough outer layers with my knife and tip the leek into my bag.
People live nearby as the town is fairly close to here – just a mile or two away. They often drive past me in cars when I’m walking back from work in the fields. Children on the back seats like to wave. The first time I realised one of the children was waving at me I felt uneasy. Had they seen me and all there was to see? An Illegal migrant. But no, the more I thought about it the more certain I became that it was quite safe. I felt sure all they saw was a stranger passing along on the road and they’d forget as soon as I was out of sight. At first though, I was so scared about the children noticing me it started a bad pain stirring in my gut. An ache of fear. That’s when I realised how fear and the workings of the body are very fundamentally linked. But no, the kids don’t know anything about me. I’m just a person. Two arms, two legs. They wave. It’s Instinctual, a game of registering what you see. Except they never see the real me, only the shuffling one. Of course I’m relieved about this because I shouldn’t like word to get around. I don’t want to be deported, please not that.
I’m going over all of this when a car suddenly passes me as I trudge along the lane towards the derelict bus at the end of my day shift. Inside are a group of children. They wave as they overtake me, though from where they are looking – the slightly cloudy rear windows of the car they’re travelling in, I can be little more than a shadow. My step feels lighter for a minute registering this. Then the car vanishes into the evening. I as me had gone unseen. Which is reassuring, but knowing it makes me suffer. And I’ve already had too much of that to last a lifetime. So that now, by contrast, I want to talk about a strangely uplifting moment.
Once, in early Spring, I’d knelt down to look at a tall bright flower growing by the side of a lane. This narrow lane ran between two large flat fields and at first when I looked around me I didn’t see anything except weedy and dusty stretches. Then I’d become aware of this singular plant. I’d been traipsing along, head bent as usual when I noticed its stem coming out from surrounding twigs and leaves. At the summit, I saw the rich silky purple of its elongated petals with creases cutting inwards to a centre which nobody would be quite able to ever see try as they might. I pictured a crinkly half hidden face. Later I found out that the name for the flower was Iris and I’m definitely keeping that word in my growing vocabulary as when I looked at it I’d almost seen myself etched into the lines of its Imaginary features. It was a touching sight and I started getting a very strange feeling: As if I were it and it were me. This creased up fairly secret thing that was also full of beauty. Because I do feel I have that in me too. And I don’t exactly mean physical beauty, I’m just saying there’s this quiet inner part to me and when I glimpse it, as I do on rare occasions, that’s the way I see things. I feel good then, about who I am. All my harsh bits, my dissembling bits and my cynical bits, have been wiped clean away or left behind on the surface crust. This inner me is Iris purple in colour too and petal soft.
That’s why, when I looked down into the weedy roadside I really did get this sense of seeing myself there and I had this Intense urge to pick that flower and press it into my pocket for keeps. I reached over with my hand to do just that. But no, I stopped myself, for what would the point have been as the little delicate thing would have withered to nothing right away. So I resisted the temptation and just stood still in the lane for a minute or two gazing at the flowerhead. At last, with raised spirits, I carried on my way.
JAY MERILL has work in 3: AM Magazine, A-Minor, The Bohemyth, CHEAP POP Lit, Ellipsis Zine, Entropy, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, The Manchester Review, matchbook, The Literateur, Lunch Ticket, Spelk, SmokeLong Quarterly, Storgy, Unthology 10 and Wigleaf. She has 2 collections published by Salt: ‘God of the Pigeons’ and ‘Astral Bodies’.