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Buttercup Meadow

The Majestic Hotel at Shermouth might have been considered luxurious in the 19505, compared with hotels on the Baltic, but it has seen little by way of refurbishment or even basic maintenance since then. Among its many discomforts are the fact that the lift is broken (Yola and Malta ’s room is on the fifth floor), the water in the communal bathrooms is turned off after 9 PM (en suite? You must be joking) and it is infested with cockroaches. They do, however, have a very nice view of the sea.

But the worst thing about the Majestic Hotel is that inside its massive redbrick-Gothic cockroach-crawling walls are housed some two hundred people, not travellers or holiday makers, but people trying to live their lives here-migrant workers like themselves, asylum-seekers from every strife-torn corner of the world, homeless families from city slums in England-stacked one above the other like souls in hell, jostling in the queues for the filthy toilets, stealing each other’s milk from the mouldy communal fridges, keeping each other awake with their arguments, celebrations and nightmares.

There are no communal meals, and ‘guests’ have to take their meals in cafes or forage for themselves and eat in their own rooms-nice for the cockroaches. And though there is no birdsong, neither is there ever silence; for even in the dead of night there is always someone getting up for an early morning shift or returning from a late one, playing music or having a fight or making a baby, or comforting a crying child, so that the only way to stay sane is to cut yourself off, to block out the crush of humanity pressing in through the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Yola sums it up in three words: “Too many foreigners.”

If this was really Hell, though, there should be devils with pitchforks, thinks Tola. Instead, they have been assigned to share a room with two Slovak women, who are not particularly welcoming to the newcomers, having previously had it to themselves, and who have spread their stuff out and hung their wet knickers to dry all over the place, making the room steamy as well as cluttered. Of course they are not to be blamed that the hotel has no proper laundry facilities, but even worse, in Tola’s opinion, is the type of knickers they choose to wear, which are of thong design. The uncontrolled way these Slovak women’s hefty buttocks bounce around beneath their thongs is deplorable, and Yola cannot for the life of her understand why any woman should choose to inflict such discomfort on herself when generously cut knickers of the white cotton style are universally available, inexpensive, and known to have hygienic advantages, and moreover, contrary to what might be supposed, are considered to be extremely seductive by men of a more refined nature, of whom, she can only suppose, there are precious few in Slovakia.

Marta also views the thong knickers with abhorrence, though for different reasons.


When Yola and Marta were dropped off at the hotel, Tomasz was told to stay in the van, as he was needed at the Sunnydell Chicken Farm and Hatchery in Titchington. He protested vehemently that he only wanted to be with Yola, and he didn’t care about this new job, he would be happy just to sit with his guitar and sing to her. But the van was already on its way, Yola and Marta waving and disappearing through the rear windows.

“No worry. Not far,” said the minibus driver. “You come back when you have good pay in you pocket, then you make good possibility. Heh heh.”

For some reason, all the seats of the minibus had been taken out, so the passengers had to squat on the floor. From this position, he couldn’t see much of the surroundings, but there were fields, woods, and at one point a glimpse of the sea. Then they were negotiating speed bumps on a long tarmac drive, and they had arrived.

The minibus pulled up in front of a pair of small brick-built semidetached houses, standing in a ragged overgrown garden behind a wooden fence. They should have been charming but, even at first sight, Tomasz felt there was something seedy and forbidding about them. The curtains were drawn, although it was late morning, and there were several overflowing black rubbish bags by the front doors which tainted the air with a vile smell.

“Here,” said the driver, indicating the house on the left. “You stay here.” Then, as if to reassure him, he pointed to the house on the right. “And I am stay here.”

Tomasz picked up his bag and slung his guitar across his shoulder. Well, to stay in a house at last would be a good change, he thought, and at night at least he could close his eyes and close the door.

“When you ready, you go to office there.”

The driver pointed across to a double gate behind which was a wide yard and a low redbrick building with a few vehicles parked outside. Beyond that, up another drive, were several huge green hangar-like buildings, some twenty metres apart. That, Tomasz realised, was where the smell was coming from.

I AM DOG I AM SAD DOG MY GOOD STRONS-FEET-SMELL MAN IS SONE MY PUT-OINTMENT-ON-FOOT FEMALE IS SONE MY GOOD-UNDER-SKIRT-SMELL FEMALE IS GONE ALL SONE AWAY GOODBYE DOG THEY SAID GOODBYE GOOD DOG I AM GOOD DOG I AM SAD DOG I AM DOG

The smell from the farmyard was bad enough, but Tomasz was not at all prepared for the stench that would hit him as he opened the front door of the little house: it was a smell of dead air, sweat, urine, faeces, semen, unwashed hair, stale breath, bad teeth, rotten shoes, dirty clothes, old food, cigarettes and alcohol. It was the smell of humanity. And even though he himself was more immune than most to these smells, still it made him gasp and cover his nose and mouth with his hand.

There were two rooms downstairs. One, which had its door open, had six chairs around a table on which the greasy remains of a meal were waiting to be cleared away. The other room was at the front, and Tomasz opened the door to a wave of hot stinking breathed-out air. Inside were six-no, it was seven-sleeping figures curled up on mattresses on the floor, surrounded by their pitiful possessions spilling out of holdalls and carrier bags-a jumble of shoes, clothes, bedding, papers, cigarette packets, bottles and other human debris. There was a gentle chorus of snoring and snuffling. He backed out quickly and closed the door.

Upstairs was the same. In one room, the smaller of the two, there were four mattresses laid out on the floor, so close that you had to walk over them to get to the other side of the room, and on each mattress was a prone sleeping figure. In the other, larger room, there were six mattresses and six sleeping figures. No-one mattress over in the far corner was unoccupied, and Tomasz realised with a terrible sinking feeling that this was the mattress allocated to him.

He went back downstairs into the dining room, pulled up a chair, and with a feeling of despondency so intense that it was almost pleasurable, he got out his guitar. So this was to be his condition, now. What was he but a fragment of broken churned-up humanity washed up on this faraway shore? This was where his journey had brought him.

There must be a song in this.


I was woken up by birdsong, so sweet and close that for a minute I thought I was back at the caravan. I opened my eyes and looked around. Where was I? Sunlight was streaming in low through a dusty window. Then I remembered: at some point in the night, I’d abandoned the three-legged chair and rolled myself in the plastic sheet on the floor. I must have slept like that. My clothes were still damp. No wonder I felt stiff. I stood up and stretched myself, straightening each arm and leg painfully. Ujjas! What a night. I remembered that I’d had a dream-one of those terrifying dreams where you’re running and running, but you can’t move. One of those dreams that makes you glad to wake up to a sunny morning.

My stomach was rumbling again-the effect of yesterday’s chips had worn off. I eased the door open and stepped outside. The rain had passed and the sky was clear, but there were still puddles on the ground. In Kiev, when it rains in the night you wake up to see all the golden domes of the churches washed clean and glittering in the sunlight, and the pot-holes in the roads full of water. “Mind the puddles, Irina,” Mother would say as I set off for school, but I always got splashed.

I was in somebody’s garden. The old garage was at the bottom of a long gravelled drive. At the end, behind a screen of trees, I could see the chimneys of a big house. My feet crunched on the gravel and somewhere not far away a dog started to bark. Was it on a chain? Was it fierce? I stood still and listened. The barking stopped. Then faint and far away I heard another sound-the drone of a car engine, getting closer.

A few minutes later, I saw the vehicle. It was a white van. I stepped forward and waved. The driver slowed down and waved back. Stupid man-couldn’t he see I wasn’t just waving for fun? I jumped directly in front, so he had no choice but to screech to a stop. The driver wound his window down and yelled, “You crazy! What you doing?”

That homely accent! That round face! That dire shirt! I could tell at once that he was Ukrainian. For some stupid reason, I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes.

“Please,” I said in Ukrainian. “Please help me.”

He opened the passenger door.

“Get in, girl. Where you want to go?”

I tried to speak, but I found myself sniffling, which was pathetic, because after all I was alive and nothing terrible had happened.

“OK, girl. You don’t cry,” said the van driver. “You can come with us.”

As the van moved forward I heard voices in the back. I turned in my seat and saw there were about a dozen people, men and women, crouching or squatting on the floor. They were all young. Some were chatting quietly. Some seemed half asleep. They looked like students-they looked quite like me, in fact.

“Hello,” I said in Ukrainian. There was a chorus of hellos, some in Ukrainian, some in Polish and a couple of other Slavic languages I couldn’t place.

“Strawberry-pickers,” explained the driver.

“Ah, that’s lucky! Me too.”

I started to explain about the caravans and the strawberry field, and then suddenly there it was, just flashing past on the right, the little copse, and the gate, and the lovely familiar south-sloping field. But what had happened to our caravan?

“Stop, please!” I cried. The driver pulled to a halt, shaking his head.

“Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Typical woman.”

“Wait. Please. Just one moment!”

I ran back down the lane and opened the gate. The women’s caravan had gone-vanished completely. Only the shower screen was still standing, the black plastic flapping forlornly. The men’s caravan was there, leaning at an angle. I tiptoed up and peeped through the window. It was empty. No one was around. The field was full of ripe strawberries. At the top of the field I could hear the thrush still sitting there in the copse singing its early-morning song.

I climbed back into the van. “Stop? Go?” said the van driver. “Let’s go.”


After the Chinese girls have gone with Mr Smith, and Vitaly has taken the Poles to their rendezvous with the van driver (whom he refers to as the ‘transport manager’), Andriy, Emanuel and Dog go off for a consolatory ice cream to get away from the heat. They arrange to meet Vitaly at a pub in town.

Andriy hopes that Vitaly, with his new mobilfon wealth, will stand them a round of drinks, but when he comes back it turns out that unfortunately he has no cash on him, so from what is left of his two weeks’ wages Andriy has to pay for two small beers for himself and Emanuel and a double Scotch with Coke for Vitaly.

They take their drinks through a door marked Beer Garden into a dank courtyard full of empty beer barrels where the sun barely peeps above high brick walls that are covered with dismal sooty ivy. They are the only people there. Dog finds the remains of a sandwich wrapped in a paper napkin under one of the tables, and gobbles it up, spreading crumbs and shreds of paper everywhere. Emanuel and Andriy sip their beers slowly to make them last.

At once Vitaly wants to know what has become of Irina, and there is an annoying presumptuousness about the way he talks, moving seamlessly between Russian and English.

“I thought you and she would be making possibility by now. I could find her very nice job in London. Dancing. Can she dance? Good pay. Luxury accommodation.”

When Andriy tells him about the night-time abduction, he whistles between his teeth.

“That Mr Vulk is a no-no-good. He brings bad reputation to profession of recruitment consultant.”

“He is recruitment consultant?”

“Yes, of course. But not same like me. Not employment solution consultant with capacity for advance meeting flexi. He is more interested to make overseas contact. My contact is to find work for people when they arrive on ferry. Dynamic cutting solution to all organisation staffing.”

“And he is living here in Dover?”

“In some hotel, not far away I think.”

“Can you take me to him?”

“Aha! I see you are still thinking of making possibility with this Ukrainian girl.”

Andriy gives a studied shrug. “Well, of course I would be interested to know where she is. But she already has boyfriend I think. Boxing champion.”

Vitaly gives him a runny look. “Boxing? This is unusual for high-class girl. Angliski?”

“Maybe. I think so.” He too has his doubts about this boyfriend.

He feels unaccountably furious with Vitaly. Where did he get these clothes, these sunglasses, this phone? And how all the women were dancing around him at the ferry terminal! It couldn’t have been just the mark-up on the beer at the caravan, could it? And why did he keep it all to himself? The strawberry-pickers shared everything, but Vitaly had been secretly keeping something aside for himself all the time. And how quickly this transformation from equal to superior had taken place. Devil’s bum! It had happened overnight. Of course he had lived through a time like this in Ukraine -one day they were all comrades, next day some were millionaires and the rest had…coupons. How had it happened? No one knew. It left a bad taste in the mouth.

And what can you do with coupons? You can’t eat them. You can’t spend them. All you can do is sell them. But who will want to buy? Suddenly, the millionaires were all billionaires, and the rest had enough for a load of coal to see you through the winter and that was it, bye-bye end of story. Now the whole country was run by mobilfonmen.

And this Vitaly-if he finds this Irina, will he ring you on mobilfon and say, hey Andriy, my friend, come and make possibility? Unlikely. And what would she think of this new recruit-consult mobilfonman Vitaly? She considers herself so superior-the new high-spec Ukrainian girl-maybe the new Vitaly will just be in her category. Hello, mobilfon businessman-this is Irina calling-can we make a possibility? And if she makes a possibility with Vitaly, what does it matter to you, Palenko? Now he feels irrationally, fumingly angry with Irina as well as with Vitaly.

“And I have an Angliska girl,” he adds pointedly to Vitaly. “Vagvaga Riskegipd. In Sheffield. I am on my way to find her.”

Vitaly gives him another odd look.

“Listen, my friend, if I see Vulk, I will ask him what happened to this Ukrainian girl.”

He almost hopes that Vitaly will offer him a job-good pay, luxury accommodation, etc-just so that he can have the pleasure of turning it down. But he doesn’t, and Andriy’s pride won’t let him ask. They arrange to meet in the same pub at the same time tomorrow. As Vitaly strolls away, he takes his mobilfon out of his pocket and starts to talk, waving his free hand up and down for emphasis. Andriy tries to make out what language he is talking.

The sun is blazing at full heat, cutting short hard shadows onto the cracked pavements. He wanders back towards the caravan with Dog and Emanuel, still feeling irritable and resenting the money he spent on Vitaly’s double Scotch. Worse than that, he feels shabby, poor and unattractive. Is he jealous of Vitaly? How shameful it is to be jealous of someone who is inferior in every way, except that he has a mobilfon and better trousers. This is what Vitaly has done to him. This is what Vitaly and Irina between them have done to him. Yes, he thought Vitaly was his friend, and all the time he was taking a bit on the side. Well, here are his true friends. Hey, Dog! But Dog is off on a trail of lamp posts. Hey, Emanuel! Emanuel has found a half-full packet of smoky-bacon flavour crisps in the beer garden, which he shares with Andriy, shaking out the last bits into his hand. The artificially flavoured salt dissolves on his tongue, tasty and toxic.

“Hey, Emanuel. You like fishing? Maybe we have big luck.”

“Sikomo. Fishing is very interesting. But where will we attain good nettings?” Emanuel starts to sing, “I will make you fishers of men.”

They stroll down to the pier together. The Bulgarian lad who sold him the fish yesterday said this was the best way in town of making quick money. Down a side street, in a maze of car and lorry parks not far from where they left their caravan, they find the entrance to the Admiralty Pier. It must have once been quite a grand structure, but now the ornate cast iron is decrepit and grimy, covered in pigeon-droppings, and a few dead pigeons fester where they have dropped behind the barriers. The stench hits you as you come in.

A couple of men are hanging around at the entrance with a selection of rods and buckets, some blue, some yellow.

“You wanna buy or rent?” asks the older of the two, who is wearing a black woolly hat pulled down over his ears, despite the heat, and a black vest which reveals arms and shoulders covered with an incredible array of tattoos. “Rent is five quid a day. Or you can buy it for twenty-five quid. Superior tackle. Great investment. Pays for itself in five days, and from then on it’s sheer profit. Are you gonna be here for a few days?”

The man is talking too fast. It is stretching Andriy’s English to its limit. What is the price, he wonders?

“What it is?”

“Quality tackle. As used by all the top competitive fishermen. Fella caught a twenty-five-pound cod off of here the other day. Got fifty quid for it. Cash in hand.” He looks Andriy and Emanuel up and down, as if appraising their fishing potential.

“Put food on yer table every night, and the surplus you can sell to us. A quid a kilo. Easy money. No tax. No questions asked. Yours to spend as you wish. Just five quid for the day. Try it out.”

Andriy picks up a rod and examines it. He hasn’t been fishing since he was a kid, but it can’t be so difficult-that Bulgarian lad didn’t look particularly bright.

“Five quids? Five pounds?”

“That’s it, mate. Big shoal of mackerel coming in with the tide. You’ll cover the cost in no time, and then all the rest’s yours to take home to the missus.”

Andriy hands over his five pounds. The man gives him a rod and a blue bucket.


As the Ukrainian driver pulled in through the gate, I saw the gleaming white field that I’d spotted from the hillside yesterday. It had looked as though it was covered with plastic, and it turned out to be just that-rows upon rows of tunnels made out of polythene sheeting stretched over metal hoops. Down the centre of each tunnel was a row of straw bales, with bags of compost on them, planted with strawberries. It was like a whole garden under cover. The air was humid and warm, sweet with the scent of ripe strawberries, and another sickly chemical smell that clung to the roof of my mouth. Despite the smell, I was so hungry I couldn’t help myself-I reached out and started cramming the strawberries in my mouth. The others laughed.

“You can’t be a real strawberry-picker, Irina! We’re not allowed to eat them. They’ll sack you if they catch you,” said Oksana, who seemed to have taken me under her wing. Oksana was from Kharkiv, a bit older than me, and nice, though not very cultured-but all that seemed much less important now.

The supervisor, Boris, was also Ukrainian. He was a bit fat, and not too bright, with a thick Zaporizhzhia accent. He kept looking at me and saying if I proved myself today he’d put in a good word for me, and sort out my paperwork when we got back to the office. He was sure they’d take me on, because the warm weather had caused the strawberries to ripen early and-this was the third time he’d said this, what was the matter with him?-he’d put in a good word for me.

When he told me the wages, I couldn’t believe it. It was twice what we got in the other place, and I started thinking about all the things I would buy-some lovely scented soap, nice shampoo, new knickers-little sexy ones that Mother would detest-a massive bar of chocolate, some strappy sandals, and I needed a hairbrush, a new T-shirt, maybe two, a warmer jumper, and don’t forget a present to take back for Mother. And the picking was so easy; no bending, no lifting. Yes, I thought, I’m lucky to get this chance, and I’d better make the most of it, so I picked like crazy, because I had to prove myself.

At the end of the shift, when we went back to the strawberry farm, Boris came up and said it was time for me to prove myself. Then he pushed himself up against me in a disgusting way and kissed me on the mouth, with wet slimy kisses. I wasn’t frightened-Boris just seemed stupid and harmless-so I made myself go limp and let him kiss me, because I really really wanted this job. His gaspy breathing on my face made me feel cold inside. On the scale of sex appeal I would give him zero. OK, it’s a transaction, nothing more, I told myself. I tried to imagine Natasha and Pierre kissing, lost in each other. Were men different in those days? When he’d finished, I wiped my mouth on my T-shirt, and followed him up the stairs to the office.


Andriy walks down the Admiralty Pier with his rod and blue bucket in his hands and Emanuel at his side. The pier is a bleak span of concrete almost a kilometre long, reaching like a crooked dog-leg out into the sea, and every metre seems to be occupied by a fisherman, bucket at his feet, rod or line pitched over the water, staring out over the waves. In some of the buckets there are a few small fishes, but nothing to speak of.

About halfway along the first leg, Andriy and Emanuel come across the Bulgarian lad who sold Andriy the fish. He introduces his two friends, who are Romanian and Moldovan.

“Usually two or three of us here,” says the Bulgarian. “Next few metres is Baltics. Fish fryers. Up there”-he points for Andriy’s benefit-“Ukrainians and Byelorussians. Beetroot-eaters. Over there”-he points for Emanuel’s benefit-“we even have Africa. God knows what they eat. Down that end are Balkans-Serbs, Croats, Albanians. Best steer clear of those. Too much fighting.”

“And Angliski fishermen?”

The Bulgarian lad points at the end of the pier.

“That’s where all Angliskis go. Right up to end. Past Balkans. You can tell which is Angliski. Every one wears woollen hat. Even women. Pulled down over ears. Even in summer. Very good at fishing.”

“You get good fishing?”

“Plenty. Plenty fish everywhere. Easy money.”

Andriy glances down into the lad’s bucket. There are a few tiddlers. Who does he think he’s kidding?

“How long you been doing this fishy thing?”

The lad looked shifty. “Few days.”

“Where you get this fish line and bucket?”

“Man by pier. Same like you. Easy money.”

“Easy for him.”

The Bulgarian lad looks away and fiddles with his fishing rod. Andriy feels like thumping him, but what’s the point?

“He says plenty plenty mackerel coming this morning,” the lad calls plaintively to Andriy’s disappearing back. Poor mutt, doesn’t even realise it’s the afternoon.

“I go find Africa!” Emanuel heads off towards the two black figures hunched over their rod near the angle of the dog-leg.

Andriy picks up his bucket and rod and goes off to find the Ukrainians. They are two thin-faced youths, one with a shaven knobbly head, one with a sticking-up Klitschko-style crew cut.

“Hi, lads.”

“Hi, mate.”

“Any luck?”

“Not much.”

In fact, judging from the content of their buckets, none at all.

“Where you from?”

“ Vinnitsa. You?”

“ Donetsk.”

Andriy positions himself in the small gap beside them and takes a look at his rod-he’s paid for it, so he’d better try to get his money’s worth. Then realises he didn’t get any bait. He asks the lads if he can borrow some.

“No need for bait. Just stick feather. Mackerel go for feather. They think it’s fish,” says the knobbly-headed one.

“Must be bit stupid.”

“Yeah. Huh huh huh,” the lad sniggers.

“Does anyone ever catch anything?”

“Yeah. Course. They must do.”

“I mean, enough to pay for rod and bucket?”

“Yeah, I reckon somebody must. Why d’you get blue bucket?”

He notices their bucket is yellow.

“Blue, yellow. What’s the difference?”

“Blue is you rent. You give back at end of day. Yellow is you keep. Use every day.”

“You mean I give back bucket at end of day? Even if I catch nothing?”

“Maybe you are his fish, and he has caught you.” The knobbly-headed lad grins. “Not even with any feather. Huh huh huh.”

“Devil’s bum!”

Andriy looks up and down the pier. There are mostly yellow buckets, a few blue ones, and some buckets of other colours, red, green, black, grey. Really you’ve got no one but yourself to blame, Andriy Palenko, for listening to that moon-faced cretin. He counts the yellow and blue buckets and tries to calculate how much profit the Mr Tattoo has made in a day. Easy money.

Over in Africa, Emanuel seems to have been abandoned by the others and left in charge of their fishing gear. What’s going on? There is something about Emanuel that brings out a protective impulse in Andriy: he too is an innocent soul lost in this rriobilfon world. Andriy gives him a thumbs-up sign, but Emanuel doesn’t notice. He is staring intently at the sea.

Andriy also stares down at the waves, their dismal unpromising churning, their slap and gurgle against the concrete, the obscure and disgusting-looking bits of debris that come to the surface from time to time. The sea is very overrated, he thinks.

The next time he catches Emanuel’s eye, Emanuel is looking agitated and beckons him over. He seems quite distressed.

“Africa Mozambique men say please look after our fishy things, we go for toilet. One hour. Two hour. Still not coming back.”

What on earth is he talking about?

“No problem, friend.” Andriy lays a soothing hand on his arm. “Everything normal.”

This is strange, he thinks. Why is this bucket red?

After a couple of hours, the Mozambicans have still not come back and the two Ukrainian lads, having caught four fish between them, are celebrating with a roll-up cigarette and a bottle of beer and then a few more bottles. They offer him a bottle, but he shakes his head. He likes a beer as much as the next man, but there’s something desperate about the way these lads are drinking. He’s seen it on the Donets often enough-a lad has a beer, then a few more, then for a laugh he jumps into the river to cool off, and that’s it: bye-bye, body never found, end of story.

A cool breeze has sprung up, and those that have brought jackets zip them up; those that haven’t, including Andriy and Emanuel, start to shiver. The slap and gurgle of the sea gets stronger, and sometimes a spray of water splashes over them. The tide has come up. At one point there is a ripple of excitement along the pier. A shoal of mackerel has been spotted, and is definitely on its way. But it never seems to arrive.

As evening approaches, most of the fishermen are ready to call it a day. There have been a few bigger fish caught up at the Angliski end; the Balkans, too, have had a run of luck, and a fight has broken out over who gets what. Andriy still hasn’t caught anything.

“Hey, pal,” says the Klitschko-crew-cut Ukrainian, “you should keep on to that rod and bucket. Why give it back to Mr Tattoo? Then at least you get something for your money. Five quids is robbery. Better get yellow like us next time. Investing for future.”

Hm. There seems to be some logic in what the Ukrainian is saying.

“But Tattoo man waiting for us at end of pier?”

“You can get past him easy. Look, Ukrainian boy, we help you a bit. We put your blue bucket inside our yellow one.” He takes the bucket and with a quick slop transfers the four little fishes. “See? We take one rod each. We meet you at pub-over there.” He points. “You buy us pint of beer, and rod and bucket will be for you to keep.” He gives a big toothy grin. “OK?”

“OK.”

Andriy wonders if there’s a catch, but if you can’t trust a fellow Ukrainian, who can you trust?

Suddenly he hears a shout from the Africa sector of the pier.

“Reel it in! Turn the reel!” A big man in a woolly hat is instructing Emanuel, who is wrestling with a rod that is bent right over into an arc. He tries to turn the reel, but it seems stuck and he starts to tug and jerk.

“Steady, steady,” says the woolly-hat. “Wind her in gently.”

Emanuel starts to wind again; then something great and silver breaks the surface of the water, thrashing and splashing against the waves. There is a stir of excitement from the other fishermen, and suddenly everyone has gathered round to watch. The creature is massive, wild, and fighting for its life. Carefully, Emanuel reels it in, then with an incredible flip lands it on the pier, where it bucks and slaps against the concrete.

“Get it in the bucket!” someone shouts, but it is too big for the bucket.

“Haven’t you got a net?” someone else shouts.

“Or a knife? Get a knife to it!”

“No!” cries Emanuel.

He puts the still-trembling fish into the Mozambicans’ red bucket, nose down in a few inches of water, its huge tail bent sideways and quivering above the rim. Andriy pushes through the crowd to pat him on the back.

“Good job, my friend. We sell this fish make good money.” Several woolly-hats have arrived on the scene, and everyone is talking excitedly about how much the fish will weigh, with the highest bid corning in at twelve kilos.

Mr Tattoo is waiting at the exit, stopping people with blue buckets as they come out. His sidekick has a spring scale and they are weighing the puny catches and doling out puny amounts of money. His eyes light up when they see the giant fish in Emanuel’s bucket.

“Nice bit of cod you got there, mate. Big as a nigger’s dick,” says Mr Tattoo. “Unusual for this time of year. Want to stick it on the scale?”

“This fish is not for selling. Is for me,” says Emanuel with emphasis. “I catch. I keep.”

Mr Tattoo’s eyes narrow. The mermaid on his bicep seems to frown.

“Fair enough, mate. Catchers keepers. It’s a free country. But you got to give your rod and bucket back now.”

He reaches for the rod. Emanuel grips it tighter.

“No! This is rod and bucket of Mozambique Africa men.”

A small crowd has gathered. Andriy loiters on the edge of the crowd, trying to make himself invisible.

“What about the gear we hired you?” Mr Tattoo can’t take his eyes off the fish. “You got to give it back now, chum. Givee hackee bucketee. Or givee fishee. Comprenday?” He has raised his voice.

“No!” Emanuel is getting flustered. “This bucketee is of my Mozambique friends go toilet.”

Mr Tattoo grimaces. “Yuk! That’s disgusting. Don’t you black-boys get potty-trained? There’s toilets at the end of the pier.”

Pleased with himself, he looks around the crowd for approval. Andriy is keeping his head down. He is waiting for the moment to melt away and get out of the quay unnoticed, but the sidekick spots him and makes to grab him.

“There he is. That’s him what got the gear off of us.”

“That was not me. That must be other Ukrainian.” Andriy sidesteps quickly. “The one that was with dog.” He wants to make a run for it, but he can’t abandon Emanuel.

From the corner of his eye he can see that the other Ukrainians have cleared the quayside and are making their way over the roundabout, his blue bucket cunningly concealed inside their yellow one.

Another woolly-hat fisherman steps forward from the crowd and challenges Mr Tattoo.

“Let him have the fish, Bert. A fisherman’s got to keep his catch.”

“You keep out of it, Derek,” says Mr Bert Tattoo. “The bugger’s trying to nick off with me tackle. And he’s been using the bucket for a toilet.”

He looms over Emanuel menacingly and grabs the handle of the bucket.

“Give me the tackle or give me the fish. Tidge, sort him out.”

Tidge steps forward menacingly.

“Hang on a minute, Bert. That ent your bucket. It’s a red one. It must be one of Charlie’s.”

The Bulgarian lad, who has been waiting for his catch to be weighed, is getting impatient, and now he pushes forward and tries to slip his three measly tiddlers on the scale. But Mr Tattoo is having none of it.

“Dogfish. No use to me. I told you yesterday. Are yer thick, or what? Eat ‘ em yerself. Or give ‘em to the dog.”

As if summoned, suddenly Dog appears across the road, wagging his tail.

Andriy sees Dog. He also sees that the two Ukrainians have walked right past the pub, and are heading off up the road. They have broken into a trot. Devil’s bum! The thieving rat-faced scoundrels!

He breaks out of the crowd, grabs Emanuel’s fish out of the bucket, and starts to run after them.

“Here, give me that fish!” yells Mr Tattoo, dropping the bucket and lunging forward. He grabs hold of its tail. It slithers out of Andriy’s hand, and then, as if alive, it skips out of Mr Tattoo’s hand too and slides across the ground flapping its tail. A dozen hands reach for it at once.

“Let the fisherman keep his catch! It’s a lawful size!” shouts Derek.

“That red bucket must be one of Charlie’s. Before ‘e kicked it. God rest his soul!” cries another woolly-hat.

Bending and shoving like a rugby scrum, they try to grasp the fish, which is still thrashing about between their feet. Dog watches with interest from the sidelines. It seems as though Mr Tattoo has it at last, but he can’t get a grip on it. Then suddenly, like the cavalry charging in, Dog launches himself from the edge of the action, makes a low tackle between the legs, grabs the fish in his jaws, and he’s off.

I AM DOG I RUN I RUN WITH FISH FOR MY MAN BIG LIVE FISH FLAP FLAP I HOLD IT TISHT IN MOUTH TAKE CARE NO BITINS GOOD DOG MY MAN LIKES FISH I WILL BRIN6 THIS FISH TO MY MAN I RUN MEN RUN AFTER ME BIG PISS-ON-TROUSER MAN RUNS AFTER ME HE SHOUTS I RUN FASTER I RUN ON ROAD I RUN ON SMALL STONES BESIDE BIS-WATER RUNNINS MEN ARE FAR BEHIND HERE IS ONLY BIS-WATER I SLOW I TURN I WALK I WILL BRINS THIS FISH LIVE TO MY MAN I WALK BESIDE BIS-WATER THIS WATER IS BAD IT JUMPS ATME WITH SNAKE NOISE SSSS FEET WET I BARK WOOF OFF I BARK MOUTH OPEN FISH JUMPS OUT OF MOUTH INTO BIS-WATER FLAP FLAP SSSS WOOF FLAP SSSS BIS-WATER SWALLOWS FISH ALL SONE I HAVE NO FISH FOR MY MAN I AM SAD DOG I RUN HOME I RUN I AM DOG

Andriy is sitting on the step of the caravan by the beach waiting for Emanuel and Dog. His forehead is covered in sweat. He is drinking water out of a bottle and brooding darkly on the events of the afternoon. He caught those lads; he ran all the way up the hill after them, and he caught them and asked for his gear back. And they just laughed at him. Rat-faced thieving Ukrainian scum. And when he made a grab for the bucket, the lad with the Klitschko crew cut drew a knife on him. Well, he backed off, of course. He wasn’t going to risk his life for a stolen blue bucket. But the incident left him feeling depressed. What’s happening to his country? What’s happening everywhere? His dad is dead and all his dreams and ideals are dead with him: solidarity, humanity, self-respect. All the things he believed in have turned to dust, and the new world is run by mobilfonmen.

Later, when Emanuel comes back with the Mozambicans’ rod and bucket, he brightens up a bit.

Dear sister,

I am now in Dover. All the mzungus expecting Andree have departed and in place of picking strawberries I am now a fisherman. This stirs me up with memories of our happy childhood days beside the Shire River and I wonder what has become of you my sister and whether we will ever meet again. If my letters receive you please come to Dover where you will find me always on the pier for I have become like one of the Disciples of Our Lord at Galilee but our fishing here is not with netting but with rods.

When we came upon the pier we met a mzungu who had an outstanding tattoo on his arm it was a picture of a woman who was half a fish combing her hair and looking in a mirror shaped like a heart. The fulsome wavings of the woman’s hair obscured her nakedness and down below were modest fish scales which glimmered as the mzungu moved his arm. And a story fizzed into my memory told by some fishermen who adventure on the Mozambican shore of our lake of a beauteous woman whose bottom half is fish who sits on a rock and lures sailors to their deaths. Could this be the same one!!!

And on this pier I fell into the company of some Mozambican fishermen who were friends of our cousin Simeon’s brother-in-law in Cobue. And after some chatter they confided their rod and bucket to me and went away. When they did not return I was confounded for I could not leave their things having in memory the Chichewa saying a man’s rod is his dearest treasure and I prayed for their return. After some whilings a great fish came upon my rod which made me tremble for this fish resembled the beauteous woman of the story and it was an outstanding big job to lift her from the sea with all the mzungus crowding round and shouting in their languages. As her flappings became weaker I put her in a bucket of water for she was tormented in breathing and I wondered again about the Mozambicans was she my fish or theirs??? For she was the most resplendent fish I have ever met and reminded me of the woman in the story.

And this question was subdy resolved by the dog who grabbed the fish in his jaws and put her back in the sea. And every day since then I have come to the pier with the bucket and rod of the Mozambicans but neither they nor the fish have ever returned.

The office was through a door across the courtyard. Tomasz thought at first that there was no one there, then a tall skinny man with a terrible rash of acne on his cheeks popped up behind the desk. He looked delighted to see Tomasz.

“Yes, mate, right. You’ve come at the right time. I’m Darren Kinsman, the foreman. We’ve got another bloody supermarket promotion starts next week-buy one get one free-and we’re short of hands for the catching team. We usually do it at night, but the team’s got another job at Ladywash and they’ve got to get going. It’s easy. All you got to do is catch the birds and load them onto the lorries. Nothing to it. My boy Neil’ll show you the ropes. Start in half an hour.”

“No problem.” Tomasz wondered when would be the right moment to raise the question of his accommodation.

“Then all you have to do is scrub out the barn for the next crop. Nothing to it.”

“How many chicken?”

“Plenty. Forty thousand.”

“Ah.” Tomasz tried to imagine forty thousand chickens, but his imagination failed.

“Where you from, pal? Ukraine? You got papers? SAWs? Con-cordia?”

“ Poland.”

“ Poland, eh? You won’t need papers then. Don’t get many from there now. Not since they joined Europe. Listen, pal-what’s your name?” He glances down at the passport Tomasz has pushed across the desk. “Tomasz?-you work for the agency, not for us, if anybody asks you, OK? You get six quid an hour, but for every hour you work you do another voluntary, OK?”

“So is six quids for one hour, or two hour?”

“No, six quid an hour. The other hour is voluntary, like I said. You don’t have to do it. There’s always plenty that do. Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Kenyans, Zimbabweans, you lose track. Jabber jabber jabber round here. Day and night. It’s like United bloody Nations. We used to get a lot of Lithuanians and Latvians, but Europe ruined all that. Made ‘em all legal. Like the Poles. Waste of bloody time. Started asking for minimum wages. Chinesers are the best. No papers. No speekee English. No fuckin’ clue what’s goin’ on. Mind you, some folk do take advantage. Like them poor bleeders down at Morecambe. Jabber jabber jabber into the mobile phone, tide comin’ in, and nobody’s got a clue what they’re on about. What’s the point of having foreigners if you got to pay ‘em same as English, eh? That’s why we went over to the agency. Let them take care of all that.”

Darren finished the paperwork and with a flourish thrust the passport back across the desk to Tomasz. Tomasz understood from this that he was now in some oblique way employed by Vitaly. He was getting a bad feeling about this job.

“And accommodation is provided?”

“By another agency. Well, it’s the same really. They’ll deduct that from your wages, so you don’t have to worry about it. Health. Tax. Insurance. Transport. They take care of all that for you.”

“And the house is this one…” He pointed across the road.

“That’s it, pal. On the left. Didn’t Milo take you there?”

“Yes, I saw. It was very full.”

“Don’t worry about that. They’ll all be gone by seven o’clock. They’re the night shift. We bus ‘em off to Shermouth.”


“I’ll put a good word in for you, Irina.” Boris led me up the steps to the office at the Sherbury strawberry farm. Obviously he thought I’d proved myself sufficiently. Next time he tried anything, I’d put a knee in his gut.

The first thing the woman at the desk asked was, “Have you got your papers? I need your passport and a valid Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s certificate.”

I explained that all my papers had been stolen. She raised her eyebrows, if you can call them that, though they were really just two little arches drawn in pencil.

“The agent who brought me here. He tried…He wanted…He took me…”

I didn’t know the English words to explain the horror of it. “He kept my papers.”

The woman nodded. “Some agents do, though they’re not supposed to. We’ll have to sort it out if you want to work at Sherbury. We don’t do illegals here. Some supermarkets get a bit funny. Leave it with me. I’ll have to make some phone calls. Do you remember the agent’s name?”

“Vulk. His name was Vulk.” Just saying it made me shudder.

“I think I’ve heard the name. And the farmer?”

“Leapish. Not far away from here.”

The little bald eyebrows bounced up again. In my opinion, people should leave their eyebrows alone.

“The one who was run down by his strawberry-pickers? Did you have anything to do with that?”

“Oh, no. I had no idea. It must have happened after I left.”

OK, so it was a lie, but only a small one.

“So why did you leave?”

“Not enough ripe strawberries to pick. I wanted to earn more money.”

OK, two small lies. The woman nodded. She seemed happy with my answer.

“You’ll earn good money here. After expenses.” That word again!

“Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used a bent agent. There was some funny goings-on on that farm.” The woman dropped her voice. “They say that Lawrence Leapish was having it off with one of the pickers, and Wendy Leapish had a Moldavian toy boy.”

What on earth, I wondered, was a Moldavian toy boy?

“They say that after her husband came out of hospital, she sat him in the wheelchair and let him watch their carrying-ons. Can you believe it-here in Sherbury?”

“That also must have happened after I left.”

The arch-eyebrow woman scribbled some notes. I have seen a number of eyebrow disasters in Ukraine, including Aunty Vera’s, but these were among the worst. She gave me a temporary number, until my paperwork was sorted out, and assigned me to an empty bunk in caravan thirty-six, with Oksana. There were two other Ukrainian girls there too, all ex-factory workers from a closed footwear factory at Kharkiv that used to supply boots to the Soviet army, and they all had certificates from the same non-existent agricultural college as me.

“Welcome to the crazyhouse,” said Lena, who was the youngest of us four, with very dark sad eyes and hair cropped like a boy’s. She produced a bottle of vodka from her locker and passed it round. I was going to say ‘No thanks’, but instead I said ‘What the hell’ and took a large gulp.

See, Mother, Pappa? I’m OK. Everything’s OK, As soon as I could get to a phone, I’d ring them. I wondered what had happened to the picture of them that I’d stuck on the wall of the caravan. I wondered what happened to the caravan, and the people-the Chinese girls whose bed I’d shared; Marta who was so kind; the nice-looking Ukrainian miner from Donetsk. Would I ever see them again?

Tomasz is finding it hard to imagine what forty thousand chickens would look like, and even after he has seen them with his own eyes, he still can’t quite believe what he has seen.

When Neil opens the door of the barn for him to look inside, a wave of heat and stench hits him, and in the half-darkness he sees just a thick carpet of white feathers; then as Neil turns up the light, the carpet seems to be moving; no, crawling; no, seething. They are so tightly packed you can’t make out where one chicken ends and the next begins. And the smell! It hits him in the eyes as well as the nose-a rank cloud of raw ammonia that makes his eyes burn, and he coughs and backs away from the door, his hand over his mouth. He has seen paintings of the damned souls in hell, but they are nothing compared with this.

“Plenty of chickens, eh?” says Neil, who has been assigned to look after him. He is Darren’s son, seventeen years old, skinny and tall like his father, and with the same acne problems. “So that’s all you got to do-grab ‘em by the legs, four or five at a time, and stuff ‘em in these cages. That’s all there is to it.” He slams the door of the barn.

“Plenty. Too much plenty.”

“Yeah, too much plenty. Heh heh heh.” The lad chuckles. “That’s good. It’s because they grow too fat. They start off as little yeller chicks, and in six weeks they’re like this-too fat to walk around on their own two feet. Mind you, you see people like that, don’t you? Fat bastards. Did you read about that woman who had to have two seats on a plane, and they charged her double fare?”

“Double fare?” Tomasz wishes the lad wouldn’t talk so fast.

“You can get some overalls at the office.”

“But this is normal?”

Tomasz still cannot take in what he has seen. Just in the area in front of him-in about a square metre-Tomasz counted one, two, three…twenty chickens, all jostling together desperate to get out of the way of the men. Yes, they call them chickens, but their bodies look more like a misshapen duck’s-huge bloated bodies on top of stunted little legs, so that they seem to be staggering grotesquely under their own weight-those of them that can move at all.

“Yeah, they breed ‘em like that to get fat, like, quicker.” Neil pulls a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, puts one between his lips, and offers one to Tomasz. Tomasz shakes his head. Neil lights the cigarette with a match, puffing lots of smoke out, and at once starts coughing and sputtering. “It’s the supermarkets, see? They go for big breasts. Like fellers, eh?” Cough cough. “Did you see that woman on Big Brother?”

“Who is big brother?”

“Don’t you know Big Brother’? What do they have on telly where you come from? It’s where they lock ‘em all up together in a house, and you can watch ‘em.”

“Chickens?”

“Yeah, yeah, just like chickens. I like that.” The lad chuckles again. Actually, he’s quite a nice lad, thinks Tomasz. Friendly and talkative. About the same age as Emanuel, with the same gawky innocence. “And there’s this voice that’s like telling ‘em like what they’ve got to do. And they’re not supposed to have sex, but one of ‘em did-that one with the big, like, knockers I was telling you about.”

“Big like knocker?”

“Yeah, massive.”

“But how can they walk when the breasts are so large? How can you tend so many?”

The lad gives him an odd look.

“Is that like…what ‘appens…like…in your country?”

“In Poland everybody…”

“Poland?” There is a note of awe in the lad’s voice. “Wow. Never been there. So the women’ve all got big knockers?”

“Yes, many people has. Keep it in shed at side of house.”

“Oh, you mean chickens.” A flush of enlightenment creeps over his youthful face.

“Of course. We have to look after it.”

“Oh, it’s all taken care of, in here.” The lad looks oddly disappointed. “See them pipes? That’s where the water comes in, see? And the food comes in down there. As much as they can eat, cos they want to fatten ‘em up fast. Fast food, eh? Geddit? They keep the lights on low, so they never stop for a kip-just keep on feeding all night. Bit like eating pizza in front of the telly. The low lights calm ‘ em down. That ’s why they usually catch ‘em at night. It’s all scientific, like.”

“But so many together-this cannot be healthy.”

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of. They mix the feed with that anti-bio stuff, like, to stop ‘em getting sick. Better than’t National Elf, really, everyfink provided. Best fing is, when you eat the chicken, you get all the anti-bio, so it keeps you helfy, too, if you fink about it. Prevention is better than cure, as my Nan says. Like Guinness.”

“And cleaning up mess?”

“Nah, they don’t do that. Can’t get to the floor. Too many birds. Can’t get in. Just leave it. They just have to walk about in it. Chicken shit. Burns their arses, and their legs. Who’d be a chicken?” As he talks, he is zipping himself into a blue nylon overall. “You don’t want to get it on your shoes. Go right over the top. Burn yer socks off. After they’ve gone, that’s when you go in to clean it all out, ready for the next crop.”

“Crop?”

“Yeah, it’s what they call ‘em. Funny, innit? You’d fink it was vegetables or somefink. Not somefink alive. But vegetables is alive, ent they? Are they? I dunno.” He scratches his head and takes another drag on his cigarette. “Vegetables.” Cough, cough. “One of life’s great mysteries.”

Then he stubs out the cigarette, and carefully returns the unsmoked half to the packet. “I’m just taking it up, like, steady, a few puffs at a time,” he explains. “Building up to full strengf. Anyway, you’ll need some overalls, pal. What’s your name?”

“Tomasz. My friends call me Tomek.”

“Tom-Mick…whatever. Mind if I just call you Mick? You’ll need some overalls, Mick. Let’s go see if there’s any left.”

They walk across to the office. At the back is a storeroom, and there is a pair of blue nylon overalls hanging on a peg above a bench on which is scattered a jumble of male clothing.

“We’re in luck,” says Neil.

Tomasz zips himself in. The overalls are too short in the leg and nip around the crotch. Neil looks him up and down critically.

“Not bad. Yer a bit big for ‘em. Here, you’ll need these.” He passes Tomasz a ragged pair of leather gauntlets, and puts a pair on himself. “And some boots.”

There is only one boot left, a green one, though fortunately it is the right size.

“One’s better than none,” says Neil, “Count yer blessings…D’you remember that song? My Nan sings that all the time. When she’s not singing hymns. She’s very, like, Christian, my Nan. Always says a prayer for the chickens. But she likes her Guinness. You’ll have to meet her.”

“I would very much like to.”

Neil hunts around and eventually finds a black Wellington boot under the desk in the office, which is a smaller size. This is becoming quite a regular thing with me, thinks Tomasz, stowing his odd-sized trainers under the bench and putting on the odd-sized boots. Maybe it is a sign of something.

He walks back to the barn stiffly because of the tightness in the left boot and crotch.

“Ready?” says Neil. “You’ll soon get the hang of it. We’ll have a practice before the team gets here. In we go.”

He opens the barn door and they wade into the roiling sea of chickens. The chickens squawk and screech and try to flap out of their way, but there is nowhere for them to go. They try to nutter upwards but their wings are too weak for their overgrown bodies and they just scramble desperately on top of each other, kicking up a terrible stinking dust of feathers and faeces. Tomasz feels something live crunch under his foot, and hears a squawk of pain. He must have stepped on one, but really it is impossible not to.

“Grab ‘em by the legs!” yells Neil, through the inferno of screeching and feathers and flying faecal matter. “Like this!”

He raises his left hand, in which he is holding five chickens, each by one leg. The terrified birds twist and flap, shitting themselves with fear, then they seem to give up, and hang limply.

“See, it calms ‘em down, holding ‘em upside down.”

There is a snap, and one of the five flops and sags, its thigh dislocated, its wings still beating. At one end of the barn is a stack of plastic crates. Neil slides one out, thrusts the birds in, and pushes it shut. Then he wades into the melee for another five.

Tomasz steels himself and reaches down into the seething mass of chickens, holding his breath and closing his eyes. He grabs and gets hold of something-it must have been a wing-and the bird struggles and squeaks so pitifully in his hands that he lets go. He grabs again, and this time he gets the legs and hoists the poor creature up into the air, and not wanting to risk losing it, stuffs it straight into a cage. Then another. Then he manages to get two at a time, and then three. He can’t hold more than that, because he cannot bring himself to hold them by just one leg. After about half an hour he has filled one cage, and Neil has filled four.

“You’d better get a move on,” says Neil, “when the catching team gets here.”

As if on cue, the barn door opens and the rest of the team arrives-they are four short dark-haired men, who are speaking in a language that Tomasz can’t understand. They spread out along the length of the barn, and now the screeching and flapping intensify and the whole vast barn is a storm of feathers and dust and stench and din as they work furiously, grabbing the chickens five at a time and bundling them into the cages.

“Portugeezers,” shouts Neil to Tomasz above the racket. “Or Brazil nuts! Respect!”

And he raises a gauntleted hand. Tomasz does the same. What is the lad talking about? Fired up by the other men’s example, he grabs at the chickens with a renewed energy, and even manages to get four in one hand, holding them each by one leg. And again. And again. And again. It is exhausting work. Inside the hot nylon shell of his overall, he feels his skin running with sweat. His eyes are burning. His hair is stiff and matted with excreta. Even his nose and mouth seem clogged with the disgusting stuff.

The cages are filling up; the captive chickens, exhausted with terror, tremble and cluck hopelessly, covered in the excrement of the newly captured birds still flapping and struggling above them. After a couple of hours enough of the chickens have been caged that they can begin to see the floor of the barn. It is a reeking wasteland of sawdust, urine and faeces in which injured and ammonia-blind birds are staggering around.

At his feet he sees a bird with a broken leg dragging itself through the muck, squawking piteously, weighed down by its monstrous breast, and he realises with a stab of remorse that it was probably he who broke the creature’s leg by stepping on it.

He reaches down for it, gets it by both legs and hoists it into the air, and as he does so it swings round and he feels the other leg break, and the bird hangs there limply from its two broken legs staring at Tomasz in terror.

“I’m sorry, little chicken,” whispers Tomasz in Polish. Should he put it in a cage? He catches Neil’s eye.

“Yeah, don’t worry, Mick. They’re always doing that.” He moves round towards Tomasz, waving four chickens in the air. “Brittle. No strengf, see? They can’t move around to build their legs up. Should get ‘em playing football, eh? Chicken football. Of course some of ‘em do, but the chicken’s the football. Who’d be a chicken, eh?” Tomasz picks up the broken bird and puts it into a cage, where it collapses beneath a pile of other chickens that scramble on top of it. He is beginning to feel sick.

“Time for a break, pal,” says Neil.

Outside in the sunshine, they take deep gulps of air and splash themselves with water from a tap at the side of the barn. Then they slump in a line on the ground along the wall. Neil takes out his half-cigarette and has a few puffs, coughing away with a determined look on his face.

“Getting there, getting there,” he says.

The Portuguese, or the Brazilians, light up cigarettes too. They have unzipped their overalls, and Tomasz can see that they are wearing nothing but underpants underneath. In fact one of them doesn’t even seem to be wearing underpants. That is sensible, he thinks. Then he thinks about the too-tight-in-the-crotch overall that he is wearing. Who wore it before? He turns to the young man who is sitting next to him. He is a bit shorter than Neil, and probably about the same age, with curly hair and beautiful teeth.

“Portuguese?”

“Yes,” says the young man.

“Brazilian?”

“Yes.”

Tomasz points at himself.

“Polish. Poland.”

“Ah!” The young man beams. “Gregor Lato.”

“Pele,” says Tomasz. They shake hands.

“You like football?”

“Of course,” says Tomasz, for the sake of friendship, even though it is not strictly true, as he finds all sport tedious, but if anything would prefer to watch Juvenia Krakow play rugby. It is one of those little areas of dissent he has carved out for himself, like drinking wine instead of beer and listening to foreign music.

“Later we play.” The young man’s teeth flash in a smile.

“Later we play bagpipe.” The other man sitting next to him has a mad glint in his eye.

“Scottish?” Tomasz asks.

He winks at Tomasz. “Scottish.”

As they are finishing their cigarettes a huge lorry trundles up, and the four men jump to their feet and go across to talk to the driver, who also seems to be Portuguese. Or Brazilian.

“They are from Portugal or Brazil?” Tomasz asks Neil.

“Yeah. One or the other. Some are Portugeezers pretending to be Brazils. Some are Brazils pretending to be Portugeezers.”

“They pretend to be Brazil?”

“Yeah, mad, innit? Yer see Brazils are illegal, so they get in by saying they’re Portugeezers. But the Portugeezers are legal now, wiv that Europe like marketing ring, and some of ‘em’ve been making trouble, so nobody wants to take ‘em on any more. That’s what me dad says.”

“They making trouble?”

“Yeah, trade unions. Minimum wage. Elf and safety. Brazils don’t cause trouble, see, ‘cause they’re illegal. So if the Portugeezers want a job, they have to pretend to be Brazillers-Portugeezers pretending to be Brazillers pretending to be Portugeezers. Mad, innit? It’s a mad mad mad world. Did you see that film? Went to see it with my Nan at Folkestone. Best film I ever seen.”

“Very.” Tomasz shakes his head.

“You ever been to Folkestone? My Nan used to take me there when I was little. They call it Folkestone pleasure beach. Pleasure my ass. I wrote it on the road sign. If you go to Folkestone you’ll see it. Pleasure Beach my ass. Yeah, I wrote that.”

“Interesting.”

“Yeah, I made my mark.”

“What is minimum wage in UK?”

“I dunno. Not much. Do you have that where you come from? Poland?”

“We have one very famous trade union. Is name Solidarnoszc. You know it?”

“Sounds like something you could get yer teeth into. Solid-er nosh. Heh heh. Geddit? Yeah, I reckon I’m going to Brazil.” He throws in this bit of information so casually that Tomasz, who is still thinking about trade unions, almost misses it. He looks at the lad with renewed interest.

“So you make voyage of discovery?”

He had been like that at Neil’s age, always looking for a way out. Of course, when he was seventeen, that had been in communist times, and the only journeys to be made were the inward ones. He remembers how one of his friends had got hold of a pirated tape of Bob Dylan and they had sat, four of them, in his father’s car locked inside the garage, the windows misted up with their spellbound breath, listening to the music as though it was the chimes of freedom. In every life there is a moment when you can break free of taken-for-granted situations and strike out in a different direction. That evening had been a turning point in his life. He had taught himself English in order to understand the words, and a few months later he bought a second-hand guitar from a Czech gipsy who happened to be passing through Zdroj. And he made himself a promise: one day he would come to the West.

“Voyage of discovery? Heh heh. I like that,” said Neil. “One day, when I save up enough, I’m going to Brazil. It’s my dream. Everybody’s got to have a dream. That’s why I’m learnin’ to smoke.” He looks across at the four Portuguese-Brazilians, who have zipped up their overalls and are making their way back to the barn. “Maybe their dream was coming to England. Come to England and work up to yer ankles in chicken shit. Funny dream, eh?”

The four Portuguese-Brazilians have started to load the crates of chickens onto the back of the lorry. They beckon to Tomasz and Neil, who reluctantly go across to join them. They have made a line and are passing the cages along to the truck, the tightly packed chickens screeching with panic as they fly through the air and land on the back of the truck with a thump. It is amazing how many cages they have filled, and yet the number of chickens in the barn hardly seems to have diminished.

After the lorry has gone, it’s back into the barn for more catching and caging. The day drags on, tedious, dirty and gruelling. Tomasz’s arms are aching so much he thinks they will drop off. His legs and forearms are bruised from the pecking and thrashing of the struggling birds. But worse, his soul is bruised. He is already losing his sensibility of the chickens as living sentient creatures and, through the same process, of himself also. At one point he finds himself thrusting five birds at a time into a cage with such force that one of them breaks a wing. What is happening to you, Tomasz? What kind of a man are you becoming?

By the end of the afternoon, the floor is littered with dead and dying birds, some trodden into the sawdust and excrement, some still flapping and struggling to stay alive. Tomasz feels his own soul is like a dying bird, fluttering in the mire of…of…Maybe there is a song in this, but what chords could be plangent enough to express such desolation?

“Did we kill so many?” he whispers to Neil.

“Nah, don’t worry, pal,” says Neil. “Most of them was dead already. See if they break a leg, or if they’re a bit weak, they can’t make it to the feeding line, so they die of hunger. Mad, really, when there’s all that food there for ‘em, but they just can’t get through to it. Anyway, they only live five weeks from hatchin’ to catchin’. Five weeks! Not much time to develop a personality, eh?”

“Personality?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to develop-a personality.”

Another lorry arrives, and trundles away into the leafy lanes with another load of screeching misery. It is time for another break. Neil carefully smokes another half-cigarette. The Portuguese-Brazilians race to the tap and splash around, laughing and wrestling each other’s heads under the water. Tomasz drinks gulp after gulp from the tap, then washes his hair and face under the cold running water. To have longish hair and a beard in this situation is definitely a disadvantage. If only he had some of Yola’s nice scented soap.

“Uh-oh.” Neil looks over towards the Portuguese-Brazilians, who are becoming increasingly raucous. “Bagpipes. Yer’d better not look at this, Mick.”

But Tomasz is transfixed.

One of them, the one with the manic eyes, has seized a bedraggled broken-legged chicken, and tucking it under his arm, its head poking out backwards behind his elbow, he is sneaking up on his friend, who is bending down to close a cage. As he straightens up, the other man squeezes the chicken hard with his elbow, like a bagpipe, and a torrent of excrement flies out of the chicken’s tail end and hits the man in the face. The chicken squawks and struggles to free itself, excrement still dribbling from its behind. The victim bellows in fury, wiping his face with his hands, which just spreads it around even more. Then he grabs another chicken, sticks it backwards under his arm, and squeezes it hard at his friend with a rough pumping action. The chicken lets out a long screech of pain. Excrement flies. The older man comes rushing across, shouting at the other two to stop, skids in the slime and ends up wallowing on the ground in all the muck. The fourth man just stands and watches, clutching his sides and weeping with laughter. Neil also stands and laughs, whooping hysterically, tears pouring down his face. To his horror, Tomasz finds that he is laughing too.

The foreman pulls himself up and fires off a stream of abuse in Portuguese. Sulkily, they resume their work. There is an edge of barely suppressed excitement as the number of birds diminishes, and catching the remaining ones becomes more challenging. It is incredibly hot, the shit on the floor steaming like a manure heap, but they still can’t leave the doors of the barn open. These last few chickens are the survivors, the tough ones. They are all having to run around more, shouting and swearing, as they skid in the muck trying to corner and grab the birds.

In the end, there is just one chicken left, a large canny bird that dodges and sidesteps with amazing skill as they try to close in on it. Then one of the Portuguese-Brazilians-the football enthusiast with the beautiful teeth-catches the fleeing chicken with the tip of his boot, sending it up into the air. Its wings are too weak to carry its weight, and as it flops down the second Portuguese-Brazilian runs up and gives it a mighty kick, sending it up into the air again. It is spinning and screeching. Feathers are flying everywhere. The older man is shouting to them to stop, but the game is too exciting. The first one boots it right across the feeding trough and raises his arms in the air shouting, “Goal! Goal!” The bird, dazed and dishevelled, picks itself up and starts to run again, limping. It is running towards Tomasz. Suddenly it stops and looks at him, its strange round eyes blinking. He looks back. They stand and face each other, man and bird. Then with a quick swoop, he bends down, grabs the bird, and holding it in both hands, dashes across the barn, opens the door and runs outside. Still holding the chicken against his chest, he sprints through the yard to a low wire fence beyond which is a dip with a hedge at the bottom. He leans and puts the chicken down on the other side of the fence. It stands there, bewildered, blinking in the bright light. He leans over, gives it a shove and whispers in Polish, “Run, chicken, run!” The bird hesitates for a moment, then suddenly it dashes towards the hedge as fast as its stunted little legs will carry it, and disappears into the undergrowth.

The others have followed him outside, with puzzled looks on their faces.

“What yer doing, Mick?” asks Neil.

Tomasz turns to face them with a mad grin.

“Rugby. I score.”

By the time they have finished, he is so burnt out with exhaustion that he longs for that filthy mattress with five other sweaty exhausted bodies stretched out alongside. The four Portuguese-Brazilians have gone off somewhere with the lorry driver. Tomasz is too tired to go with them, and decides instead to stretch his legs and walk down to the village to see whether he can buy something to eat. Their pair of houses is on the outskirts of Titchington, which turns out to be no more than a cluster of quaint steep-gabled cottages with gardens full of roses, clustered around a pretty medieval church. He wonders whether the villagers know the horror that is happening on their doorstep. It was said that the villagers who lived near Treblinka had only a hazy idea of what was happening behind the barbed wire fence a few kilometres away. They, like the villagers of Titchington, must have been bothered by the smell when the wind blew in a certain direction.

There is no shop or pub. He realises with dismay that he has nothing to eat, and there is nowhere to buy anything. When he gets back to the house, it is empty. The sleepers have all disappeared-there is nothing but their lingering smells and their shabby holdalls and overflowing carrier bags lined up against the walls to remind him they were there. He hunts around in the cupboards and finds some slices of stale bread and a tin of tomatoes. In a drawer in the kitchen there is a tin opener. He eats the tomatoes just like that, out of the tin, mopping out the juice with stale bread. At the end, he still feels hungry. If only there were some pilchards. Or some chocolate biscuits. And a nice glass of wine. Chianti. Rioja. He wonders where Yola and Marta are, and what they are eating. Rabbit maybe. Or fish. He imagines he can smell the dish, fragrant with herbs, and Yola, smelling of soap, passing a plate to him and smiling. Come, eat, Tomek.

Then there is a knock on the door and, without waiting for him to open it, Neil walks in. He has changed out of his overalls into jeans and a black leather jacket, and he has a motorcycle helmet under his arm. In his other hand, he is holding something in a paper bag.

“Here, Mick. I got this for you. Solid-er nosh.”

The bag is warm. Tomasz opens it. Inside, in a foil container, is a small chicken-and-mushroom pie.

“Thank you.” He starts to unwrap it. The smell is penetrating and delicious. It must be the tiredness, or all the pent-up horror of the chicken barn, or maybe just loneliness that makes the tears spring into his eyes. “Thankyou. You have saved me from desolation row.”

“Desolation row.” Neil nods. “That’s good. Is it a film?”

“It is song.”

“I like that.”

“And good luck with your voyage.”

“Yeah.” The lad shuffles his feet backwards towards the door. “Yeah. I’m getting there.”

There is a full moon that night, which shines in through the open curtains of the upstairs bedroom, lighting up the five sleeping figures curled on their mattresses on the floor-five strangers, who arrived at half past midnight and made such a noise when they came in that they woke Tomasz, who had gone to bed three hours earlier. Now, despite his weariness, he can’t get back to sleep. He listens to their deep, rhythmic breathing, and stares at the moon. He is thinking about the chicken-the one that ran away. Is it sleeping in the hedge tonight, under the moonlight? Is it enjoying its freedom? What is freedom?

“Yerll be on chicken-shit clear-up for a few days. Then they’re sending yer to the slaughterhouse,” Darren had said, and Tomasz had shuddered.

“Is there not another job I could do?”

“Nah, pal. Yer’ve got to go where they send yer.”

“Where black is the colour and none is the number.” Darren gave him a funny look.

Is he freer here in the West today than he was in Poland in the years of communism, when all he dreamt of was freedom, without even knowing what it was? Is he really any freer than those chickens in the barn, packed here in this small stinking room with five strangers, submitting meekly to a daily horror that has already become routine? Tormentor and tormented, they are all just damned creatures in hell. There must be a song in this.


Yola was in a foul mood. She had discovered that morning, don’t ask how, that the Slovak women who shared their hotel room had no pubic hair. How could this be permitted? Presumably they were not born this way-well, presumably they were, but acquired it in the natural course of things, and had taken unnatural steps to remove it. There are many bad things that can be said about communism, but one thing is certain, in communist times women did not abuse their pubic hair in this way-a practice which is unnatural, unsightly, undignified and, without being too specific, potentially dangerous.

Brooding on the abuses that women perpetrate on themselves and each other, Yola arrived at Buttercup Meadow Farmfresh Poultry near Shermouth already spoiling for a fight. And her mood darkened even more when she discovered that she, a woman of action with two years of supervisory experience and an advanced knowledge of Angliski way of life, and of life in general (which she will tell you about later), was not immediately appointed to a supervisory post within the plant. Instead the supervisor of her section was a rather coarse and disagreeable Romanian woman called Geta, who spoke appalling English and had difficulty in communicating with her workforce, who were mostly Slavs and who had no conception of the importance of sexual harmony in maintaining a pleasant atmosphere in the workplace. She had a distasteful habit of spitting onto her fingers as she reached for the chicken pieces coming down the line, and Yola supposed it could only be her blond hair, which anyone but a fool could see was dyed, and her shameless bosom, which was clearly held up with latex foam and underwiring (an abomination on which Yola also has some strong opinions which she will tell you later), and her Diploma in Food Hygiene from the Polytechnic Institute at Bucharest, which anyone but a fool could see was a forgery, which had secured for her this enviable position.

Anyway, this underwired fake-diploma fake-blondie starts trying to show Yola how to put two pieces of chicken onto a polystyrene tray, which anyone would think from the way she goes on you would need a polytechnic certificate for, when all you have to do is grab two bits of breast from the conveyor belt which has all kinds of chopped-up chicken meat on it, and you don’t have to spit on your hands like that fakie-Romanian does, and when Yola points this out to her she gets huffy and says, you Polish women now you legal you think you know everything but you don’t know anything, and you put your two bits of breasts on tray like this, and you tuck all loose bits of fat and skin underneath to make breasts look nice and plump, which when you think about it is just what latex foam does to fake-blondie’s underwired bosom, in fact fake-blondie discloses that these chickens also have water, salt, pork meat and other stuff injected in to make them look plump, which is even worse than latex when you think about it, because you have to eat it, which you don’t with latex-though things what men do nowadays nothing would surprise her-and then you just cover them with bit of cling film from this big roll, and then you send them down belt to women who do weighing and stick labels on, yellow labels for one supermarket, blue labels for another, and so on. You don’t need a certificate for that, do you?


Malta’s job is even less challenging.

When she arrived at Buttercup Meadow she made it clear that the job she wanted was feeding the chickens. But her supervisor, a nice friendly Lithuanian chap who had no front teeth, but in spite of-or maybe because of-this spoke quite good Polish, explained that there was no longer such a job, because the feeding of chickens was now completely automated on account of the mixture of hormones and antibiotics they get, and in any case the poultry barn is very smelly and is not a suitable place for a young woman of her sensitivity.

Instead, she was assigned to the part of the plant where chickens are graded. They come through from the slaughterhouse on a belt, and all Marta has to do is examine the chickens, select those which are plump and undamaged, and place them on another belt-these are the ones which will be packaged and sold as whole birds. The birds which are a little bruised, or just have, say, a leg broken, or ammonia bums on their hocks, are left on the line, and they go through to another part of the plant where they are chopped into chicken pieces and then go through for packaging, where Ciocia Yola is doing her bit. The chickens which are very badly bruised and mangled go into a huge plastic tub, from where they will be taken and processed for the catering industry-pies, restaurants, chicken nuggets and school dinners.

At first, Marta is too engrossed in spotting and selecting the whole and undamaged birds to think very much about the process, and she doesn’t question why so many birds are coming through those folding rubber doors in such a terrible state. The chickens she selects, although unfortunately dead, have a pleasant and peaceful look about them as well as good plump breasts, and she passes the time thinking up delicious recipes through which they could pass into the next world with dignity. For instance they could be stuffed with oatmeal, tarragon, lemon and garlic, or with cranberries, brown sugar and belly pork-that is her mother’s favourite-or with breadcrumbs, butter and dried fruits, or with chestnuts and…actually chestnuts are quite nice by themselves. And they can be coated with a tasty marinade of paprika and yoghurt, or honey and horseradish, but not too much horseradish, that can be a bit strong, maybe just pepper, cracked black peppercorns that crunch when you bite, and a sprinkle of marjoram, which is always nice with white meats.

She would like to ask the supervisor, who is quite nice for a Lithuanian, whether she could take a chicken home with her one day, to try out that horseradish recipe-of course she would pay for it-but then she remembers that they are no longer in the caravan, and there is nowhere to cook in their cramped hotel room. Well, that is one more thing that will have to wait until she gets home.

She finds that when she is not thinking of recipes or the deeds of the saints, which can get rather repetitive after a while, she is thinking increasingly of her home in Zdroj, of her older brother, who is still living with them, her mother, who is a teacher, and her father, who works at the town hall and is a colleague of Tomasz’s-what, she wonders, has become of him?-and little Mirek, who is often part of their family too, when Yola is in pursuit of a new husband. And though Tola’s ways are sometimes rather sinful, it is not for us to judge her, because none of us is without sin, and who knows what we would do in that situation, and it was a disgrace that the baby’s father left her, walked out and left her with a Down’s syndrome baby to bring up on her own.


“When are we going home, Ciocia?” Marta asks Yola, as they stand in the sunshine outside the plant, counting their first week’s wages.

“When? When we are millionaires.” Yola smiles grimly at her niece. Surely there has been a mistake. The wages are about a quarter of what Vitaly promised. There is a slip of paper in the envelope with them, with all kinds of incomprehensible letters and numbers. There was never any of this nonsense with old Dumpling. Just cash in hand.

“Deductions-what is this mean?” she asks Geta, who is standing nearby, also counting her wages, which look considerably more than Yola’s, even though she does nothing but strut around and stick her nose into everything. At least when Yola was a supervisor she set an example through her own hard work.

“Deductions is everything what you paying,” squawks Geta in her appalling English. “See-transports, accommodations, taxes, superannuations, Nis.”

“Nis?”

“In England, everybody paying. Is law.”

“And this one-TR. What is this?”

“This is mean trenning ret. You no skill you must hewa trenning.”

“Trenning? What is it?”

“Trenning is learn. You must learn how to do this job.”

“This job every idiot can do. How I am learn?”

“I teach, you learn. I teach you to put chicken on tray.”

“And for this I pay?”

“After two week will be normal ret.”

“And you are pay more?”

“Of course. I supervisor ret.”

Yola feels a red-hot pressure building up inside her as though she is about to explode, and Marta has to hold her back, and who knows what might have happened at this point were it not for the intervention of an incredibly handsome young man with long blond hair and muscles in his calves the size of prize-winning marrows such as most women can only dream of-and yes, he is wearing shorts, which most men cannot get away with but in this case it is acceptable, in fact it is excellent, because the legs are suntanned and covered with fine blond hairs, and have muscles the size of-yes, we know that already. Anyway, this godlike man steps forward and says, “Do you need any help with your payslip?” Well, in this situation what woman would not?

And marrow-legs explains everything, how the superannuation is for her pension when she retires, but since she will be retiring in Poland not in England she will not see a penny of this, and she will probably not see a penny anyway because these bloodsuckers will not pay the money into any pension fund, but will put it into their own pockets to spend on Rolls-Royce cars and luxury yachts, and yes, since she has mentioned it, probably they will also buy uncomfortable underwears for their sluttish wives, and the same is with this National Insurance, and maybe the tax too-if the taxman sees any of it he will be lucky, and the deductions for transport and accommodation are not strictly illegal, but they are excessive, and he will look into it if she likes. And at the end he asks her whether she would like to join the Poultry Workers’ Union. Well, in this situation what woman would not?


Tomasz, too, has been recruited to the Poultry Workers’ Union by a young man wearing shorts who accosted him on the way in to work, though the young man’s legs were not a factor in persuading him-it was a deep unaccountable anger with Vitaly, and everything that he represents. That Vitaly, he is too impatient-he is so much in a hurry to get rich that he has forgotten the basics of how to be a human being. And Tomasz felt angry with himself, too: he should never have got involved in Vitaly’s schemes. He had come to England to hunt for some rare Bob Dylan numbers and see a bit of the world before he got too old, and yes, maybe even find love if it should come his way. Yet somehow he had allowed himself to be degraded to the point where he could inflict suffering on other living creatures without so much as a quiver of sentiment. He had become a pawn in their game.

It was only seven o’clock in the morning, and already two terrible things had happened to him today. When he had gone down at dawn into the squalid eating room of the house to stuff his mouth with a few slices of bread, margarine and jam-yes, he had invested in some apricot jam-before the white van came for him at six o’clock, he sat down to work on the song which he had been composing in his head during the night. And that’s when he discovered that his guitar was missing. He couldn’t believe it at first. He hunted everywhere, under the table with its debris of food scraps and crumpled wrappings from last night’s meals, in the mouldy kitchen cupboards, through the bedrooms still clogged with the over-breathed air of exhausted sleepers, in the grimy understairs cupboard. That was it. There wasn’t anywhere else to look. Someone had stolen it. One of these desperate anonymous men from some impoverished or war-blasted region of the world had stolen his guitar, and by now had probably traded it for-for what? A bottle of vodka? A chicken-and-mushroom pie?

This time he didn’t even cry. What was the point?

Milo let him sit up front in the passenger seat of the van, because he was the first to be picked up. As he climbed in, he remembered with a stab of regret that he hadn’t even said goodbye to Neil, his only friend. He was being taken to new accommodation in a seaside boarding house on the outskirts of Shermouth, closer to the slaughterhouse of the processing plant where he was due to begin work at six-thirty. If he’d been sitting in the back, he probably wouldn’t have seen it; but up there in the front seat, he couldn’t miss it: there, right on the bend in front of them, the squashed remains of a white chicken that had been killed on the road. So that’s where its freedom had ended. Milo put his foot down and ran right over it. There must be a song in this, thought Tomasz; then he remembered about his guitar.

But if there was one thing which brought home to him how much he and the chickens really had in common, it was what happened later that morning: the incident of the Chinese slaughterman’s thumb.

When the chickens arrived at the slaughterhouse, Tomasz’s job was to hang them up by the feet in shackles suspended from a moving overhead conveyor, where they dangled, squawking hopelessly, especially those with broken legs (though by now he was immune to the squawking), as the conveyor despatched them, head first, through a bath of electrified water, which was supposed to stun them, before their throats were cut with an automatic blade. But just in case the water didn’t work or the blade missed, which was often enough, there were a couple of slaughtermen standing by to slit their throats before they were sent through to the steam room, where they were plunged into the scalding tank to loosen the feathers. Then they were mechanically de-feathered and de-footed before being eviscerated by another team of slaughtermen.

The slaughtermen were Chinese, skilled with the knives, but they were a bit short for the height of the overhead belt, so they couldn’t always see what they were doing; and it just so happened that one of them grabbed at a bird that had got stuck in the automatic foot-cutter, and somehow managed to slice off the end of his thumb, just above the first joint. At first you couldn’t even hear him screaming because of the noise of the chickens. Tomasz stopped the line and rushed off to find the supervisor, who immediately got onto his mobile phone and started shouting for another slaughterman to be sent, while the rest of them hunted around for the bit of thumb among the blood, droppings and feathers on the slaughterhouse floor; but it had disappeared, and all the while the man was yelling and moaning and clutching his hand in a fist to try and stop the bleeding. In the end, they gave up on finding the piece, and somebody just drove him to the hospital to be stitched up as best they could.

Then the supervisor started shouting at Tomasz for stopping the line: “We’re losing money, yer twat, just get the bloody line moving, so we can get some bloody chickens coming through. What d’yer think this is, bloody Butlins?”

He looked only a few years older than Neil, without the acne, but also without the charm.

“Here.” He handed Tomasz the slaughterman’s knife, still covered with blood, though whether it was his or the chickens’ he couldn’t tell. “You’d better take over, ‘til the replacement gets ‘ere.”

If I were to lose my finger, Tomasz thought, I could no longer play the guitar.

“Gloves. I need leather gloves.”

The supervisor looked at Tomasz with narrowed eyes.

“Are you some kind of troublemaker?”

“Same gloves we had in chicken catching. Without such gloves this work is dangerous.” For some reason, he still felt angry not so much with the supervisor, nor the owners of the plant, but with Vitaly.

“Listen, mate, people been doin’ this work without gloves for nearly two years.”

“And?”

“We’ve only lost three fingers. Well, four if you count this thumb.”

“Without gloves I will not do it.”

“Where’re you from?” asked the supervisor.

“Poland.” Tomasz smiled, knowing it was not the answer the man wanted.

“Oh, I should’ve guessed. Effin troublemakers. You’ll be wantin’ bleedin maternity pay next. Here, wait. You keep shacklin’ while I find some friggin’ gloves.”

“No,” said Tomasz. “Even for shackle work is need gloves.”

The supervisor went a horrible purple colour.

“Listen, yer bloody Polish big girl’s blouse, next time I get any lip from you, it’s down the road. It’s only because we’ve lost this chuffin’ Chinaman, else yer’d be down the road now.”

But he went and found a pair of gloves.

Tomasz pulled them on slowly, pensively, one finger at a time. There was another phrase that nasty supervisor had used that got him thinking about Yola: where was she? What was she doing? Was she thinking of him?


In the rest of the plant, the sudden stillness of the conveyor belt created a welcome break. Yola sighed and looked around. She hadn’t realised how noisy that conveyor was until it stopped. The narrow windows of the packing room were too high to look out of, but shafts of sunlight were angling in up there, with their bright reminder of summer. How had she become trapped in this place? The pressure in her bladder was becoming more insistent, but the thought of asking Geta’s permission to use the lavatory was just too humiliating. She held on. All around her people were taking the opportunity to relax, chat to their neighbours. Two of the Slovaks even tried to nip outside for a cheeky fag break, and Geta rushed out after them yelling, “No smok! No fudigin!”

Yola thought this would be a good time to sneak out through the door unnoticed, but Geta spotted her and insisted on accompanying her, claiming it was her responsibility to make sure that the toilet opportunities were not abused, especially by Poles and Ukrainians, the devil only knows what they get up to in there, sometimes you could see the smoke coming out under the door. How can you be expected to relax and enjoy a nice toilet break when this underwired harridan is standing outside and trying to hurry things along by rapping on the door and telling you to get a move on? Yola stayed firmly locked in for an unnecessarily long time, and made all kinds of toilet noises, just to annoy her.

“And don’t forget to wash hand after,” snapped Geta.

“Why you say this to me?” hissed Yola, from behind the still-locked lavatory door. “I am a teacher not a piggy.”

“I am fudigin qualify you not,” squawked Geta.

“I piss on your certificate.”

“Not certificate, diploma.”

“I defecate on your diploma.”

She farted noisily.


Marta, meanwhile, went round and chatted to the young women on the other side of her belt, who turned out to be Ukrainians from the west, and one of them had been to Poland though not to Zdroj. So, like many people all around the plant, she was away from her position when suddenly the belt started up again with a judder, and she had to race round to catch the first chickens going through. She picked them up off the line; there was something repulsively solid and wooden about them-in fact it was just as if they had been cooked-boiled-complete with their feet still on and their innards inside them. While she was wondering what to do with these horrible whole-boiled birds, another bird came through that was definitely not boiled alive, in fact though it had lost most of its feathers it seemed fairly intact, as though it had bypassed foot-cutting and evisceration altogether. As she reached for it, the poor, limp, featherless thing started to struggle in her hands. It was still alive. Then the next one came through, and to her horror, it was alive, too. Or half alive. And then another. The line had picked up speed now, and was going at its usual pace. What should she do?

She grabbed the three half-alive birds off the line, and started to scream.

The Lithuanian supervisor was the first to arrive. He laid a soothing arm round her shoulder and offered her a handkerchief. Geta, having abandoned her thankless toilet vigil, was next on the scene. The live birds had by now recovered from their shock and were scuttling around the factory floor. The boiled birds had moved on down the line, and there were more half-alive birds coming through, faster and faster. Geta started shouting at Marta, and at the feather-less chickens that were scurrying here and there between everybody’s legs, and at the Lithuanian supervisor, who shouted back that Marta was a sensitive type, and should not be upset.

“Polish is not sensible, is lazy bastard!” Geta shouted, which was too much for Marta, who burst into tears. Then one of the chickens made a dash through the door which Geta had left open, and the others followed, straight through into the packing room. At the far end of the packing room another door opened, and Yola, having realised that the live audience for her toilet noises was no longer listening, was sauntering back into the plant. Seeing the chickens darting towards her, she naturally held the door open for them. And they were gone.

“Sack! Sack! You sack!” shouted Geta, her face blotched with fury, and gave Yola a little shove.

“Sack youself!” Yola shouted, and shoved her back.

Yola was not without friends in the breast area, and friends of friends in drumsticks and thighs, and Marta was not going to stand by and let her aunt be insulted, so Geta suddenly found herself surrounded by an angry crowd demanding that she apologise and reinstate Yola at once.


Meanwhile, news of the Chinese slaughterman’s thumb had spread like wildfire around the plant. In the evisceration room, it was his whole thumb that had been cut off; by the time it reached drumsticks and thighs, the poor man had lost his whole hand; and in weighing and labelling, his arm had had to be amputated above the elbow. The Chinese were marching around stamping their feet and chanting incomprehensibly, their pockets bulging with chickens’ feet, while others were unshackling the chickens, which were tumbling dead and half-dead onto the belt and the floor.

All at once several doors of the plant flew open, and out into the bright sunshine of the yard poured the workforce. The three naked chickens were still there, clucking around and wondering what would happen next.

Tomasz noticed that the blond man with impressive calf muscles who had recruited him to the union was still hanging about by the gate. He looked as though he had been about to get on his bike and call it a day, but turned back when he saw the commotion in the precinct. Then Tomasz spotted Yola. She came bursting out of one of the doors, rushed up to the union man in a dramatic manner and threw her arms around him. So Tomasz’s joy at finding her was tempered with desolation at finding her in the arms (well, almost) of another man.

“She say sack! She say you sack!” she was wailing.

“Hold on, hold on.” The union man’s voice was calm, but with a nervous edge. “Let’s establish a procedure. Is anyone from management here?”

Geta came forward at once. “Is Polish no good working. Too much toilet. Chicken run away.”

The three liberated chickens clucked wildly, as though to prove her point.

“Hold on,” said the union man, his voice now sounding more nervous than calm. “Let’s just get the facts. What chickens are we referring to here?”

Now the slaughterhouse supervisor, the one who had argued with Tomasz about the gloves, pushed his way through the crowd.

“Listen, mate, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but you can bugger off. OK?” He turned to Geta. “Shut up. Don’t talk to him. This wanker’s a nobody. We don’t want him on the premises.”

“Hold on. I’m the representative of…”

“Bugger off or I’ll call the police.”

Suddenly the Chinese men from the evisceration room arrived on the scene, and they were still carrying their fearsome-looking knives. They started shouting and waving the knives in the air, and though no one could understand what they were saying, you could see that they were pretty mad. The supervisor got his mobile phone out, but one of them knocked it from his hand onto the floor, and stamped on it again and again until it was completely smashed.

“Hold on!” The union man held up his hand. “No violence, comrades. I’m sure we can resolve this through peaceful negotiation.”

The supervisor looked only fleetingly grateful.

“Listen, matey, the only negotiation I’m interested in is getting these dossers back to work.”

“Hold on. Hold on. First we must hear their grievances.”

There was a clamour of voices and squawks. Everybody seemed to have a grievance, even the chickens.

“Every minute that line’s stopped, we’re losing money. It’s all very well sayin’ hold on friggin’ this, hold on bleedin’ that, but the soddin’ supermarkets don’t hold on, do they? Buy one get one free, mate. That’s what we got to give ‘em. By Friday. Otherwise we lose the supermarket contract and it’s bye-bye Buttercup Meadow, and all these friggin’ tossers that’s shoutin’ for workers’ rights can say bye-bye to their bleedin’ jobs.”

“Well, all the more reason to resolve matters speedily. Now…”

“OK, tell ‘em if they get back to work now we’ll meet all their demands.”

Tomasz could see that this union man was getting nowhere, and that the supervisor was out to trick them. He jumped onto an upturned crate and cupped his hands around his mouth.

“This is no matter for negotiation! It is violation of human dignity! And chicken!”

Yola spun round. “Tomek!”


One of the annoying things about men, Yola has observed, is that you spend years looking for a good one, then two come along at once. This blond-haired man with calf muscles like prize-winning marrows would be any woman’s dream, and those blond hairs on his legs, what woman wouldn’t like to…But let’s be realistic, he is in England and probably you will not be able to persuade him to come to Poland, and even if you did, what would he do there? Only make trouble. And this Tomasz, although he has certain defects he is getting better, and she is confident that if she could scrub him up with bit of nice-smelling soap and get rid of those socks which are probably nylon and replace them with some nice wool or cotton ones, which are more comfortable and don’t make your feet sweat unnecessarily-whoever invented nylon socks should be castrated-and get rid of those sports shoes which do nothing for a man and replace them with some nice leather shoes, there are many excellent shoes made in Poland and quite wide-fitting, then the problem would be all but solved, and a pleasing sexual harmony might develop.

And she can see that he is a kind-hearted man, and he has already expressed some interest in becoming a father to little Mirek. And although she has not yet told him of Mirek’s difficulty, and she wishes her God-prattling niece would shut up and not let the cat out of the bag too soon, she is sure that when he sees him there in the flesh and sees what a darling he is, what a little darling, he won’t just walk away-like the last one did.

And besides now this Tomasz is becoming quite a hero. See how he jumps up and shouts in a big manly voice, “How many years must these persons exist before they learns to be free?”

“Hold on, hold on,” says marrow-legs, with a panicky sound in his voice. “We must concretise the demands.”

Really, these men, even the nice ones, do talk some rubbish.

And now a large silver car arrives, exactly like the Rolls-Royce that marrow-legs has described, and a middle-aged man with silver hair, a very respectable-looking type, could even be a doctor, definitely not a type to have wife in sluttish underwear, mistress maybe, comes over to find out what is going on, and marrow-legs explains that one man had to have his arm amputated and a woman was wrongful dismissal for spending too long in toilets. Rolls-Roycie says, “Hm. Hm,” and rubs his chin, and marrow-legs says she must be reinstate and the man must getting compensation, then that bossy Romanian cow butts in unnecessarily and says they are all taking advantage, especially no-good Polish who think now they in Europe they can do what they like, and Rolls-Roycie says, “Hm. Hm” again. Then the senior supervisor, an inferior type given to unnecessary bad language and degenerate behaviour, who pinches the girls’ behinds and says they must make sex with him if they want to have a job (‘No one wants to make sex with you, you poky-penis dog,’ said Yola), this supervisor arrives and says that Polish man with long hair is a troublemaker-could it be Tomek he is referring to? Everyone looks for Tomasz but he is disappeared, and where is Marta? She is disappeared too, though nobody could say that Marta is a troublemaker. And then they have another thing to worry about because suddenly the whole yard is full of chickens running and flapping everywhere, except some which have broken legs can only crawl, really these chickens are in very poor condition, and one of them makes poopie-poo on Rolls-Roycie’s shoe, and he says, “Where did these fucking birds come from?” Really it is quite surprising when a gentleman of such refinement uses a bad language. But where did these birds come from? It is a mystery.


Andriy and Emanuel turned up for their meeting with Vitaly at the pub and spent an hour and a half sitting there drinking their half pints of beer, but Vitaly didn’t arrive. What should they do? Emanuel wants to head for Richmond near London-he has found his friend’s address-but Andriy still feels reluctant to leave. That girl-maybe she is here, and Vulk, who knows where she is, is definitely here. And Andriy has heard what can happen to Ukrainian girls in England. So even if there is definitely nothing between them, and even if he has definitely decided that he will go and search for Vagvaga Riskegipd, is it not his responsibility first to find this girl and return her to her parents? Because if he doesn’t do this, who will? Not those other good-for-nothing Ukrainians who think only of looking after themselves and drinking beer; no, he is not that type of man.

They agree to spend a few more days in Dover, parking their caravan up at the carrot-field and travelling in daily by Land Rover. Emanuel says he wants to develop his fishing skills, now that he has established his rights over the red bucket, and the Mozambicans have vanished without a trace-the rumour on the pier is that they have been deported-and though he never repeats his luck of the first time, he manages to provide dinner every day, and even to sell some to Mr Tattoo, who seems to have completely forgotten about their previous disagreement.

Andriy spends his days combing the streets and hotels of Dover. One day he finds the shop with the Indian shopkeeper. Now her sari is blue, and she seems to have got smaller and plumper since his last visit. Although he has only a little money left from the two weeks’ wages he earned at the strawberry farm, and he really must put petrol in the Land Rover, he buys some more bread and margarine. He considers buying some pilchards, too, but he doesn’t want to offend Emanuel, who takes his fishing role very seriously.

“You are not eating balance diet,” she chides gently.

“Yes, yes. Also we eating fish.”

“You must have vitamin. Otherwise you will be getting diseases of poor nutrition. Lemon is good. Here, on your right. Not expensive. After you cook fish you squeeze some drops.”

He takes a lemon.

“And you need roughage to establish a good bowel habit. You must eat vegetable.”

“We eating plenty carrot. Every day carrot.”

“Carrot is a first-class source of roughage and essential vitamin A. Make sure you wash it good.”

“Thank you, lady, for your advice.” He tries not to stare too obviously at the appealing brown bulge at the top of her sari. Really, plump women can be rather sexy.

“You know in this town is too many poor people eating bad diet. Drunken sailors. Out-of-work miners. She”-she points to the picture of the lady in the blue hat above the counter-“is perfect example of how with good diet you will ripen into old age.”

He learns from the Indian shopkeeper that here too, not far away, there were once coal mines, which closed after the great strike of 1984. Now he understands why this town has a feel of the Donbas about it. Although he was only five years old, he remembers vividly the solemnity with which his parents donated their gold wedding rings to buy food for the British miners. What happened to all that money? The Ukrainian miners could certainly do with it now.

“I am looking for man named Vulk. Gangster type. Dressed up in black.”

The shopkeeper shakes her head. “In this town now is too much gangster. But I am pleased to say none of it has ever come into this shop, for if it did I would chase it away.”

“And one Ukrainian girl. Long dark hair. Very…” Very what? Is she pretty? Is she beautiful? “Very…Ukrainian.”

“Ah, Ukrainian girls also we have plenty. Every night you see them on street and on beach making sex for money.”

“Not this girl.”

The shopkeeper smiles diplomatically, and he leaves the shop in a foul mood.

Back at the pier he is surprised to find Emanuel surrounded by a small crowd, and at the heart of the crowd is Vitaly. Vitaly grabs Andriy by both hands, and embraces him like a brother, elbowing Emanuel out of the way.

“My friend. Good you are here. We have excellent business opportunity. Good work. Good money. You will be rich. You will return to Ukraina millionaire.”

Andriy disentangles himself from Vitaly’s embrace.

“What is this opportunity?”

“In factory. Twenty kilometres only. Good work good money. All these people”-he waves his arm to include the dozen or so unsuccessful fishermen he has recruited-“can have good employment. You and Emanuel also. Twenty pound an hour for you. Supervisor rate. You have transport. You bring caravan, put all inside, take to factory.”

He must have read the doubt on Andriy’s face.

“I give you money for petrol.”

Still Andriy hesitates.

“And transport. How much you want?” He pulls a wad of notes out of his pocket. They are all twenties.

“But I have only Ukrainian licence. To take so many people maybe I need special licence.”

“Is no problem. Only if vehicles is with seats for more than eight people you need passenger licence. Now all modern transport is without seats.”

This seems an odd arrangement.

“The caravan is not here.”

“No problem. You fetch it. We will wait here.”

By the time Andriy and Emanuel have returned with the caravan, the crowd has grown. Vitaly climbs into the front of the Land Rover beside Andriy, with Dog at their feet. Emanuel and three other passengers sit in the back, and some fourteen hopefuls squeeze themselves into the caravan. Those that cannot fit onto the bunks sit on the floor hugging their knees. Andriy notices that the Bulgarian lad and his friends are among them. He waits until Vitaly has peeled off five twenty-pound notes from his wad and handed them over before he will even turn the engine on.

It is money well earned, for with such a weight on board, the caravan bucks and swerves all over the place and he has a job keeping it on the road. He has to drive mostly in first gear, with one-hundred-per-cent concentration, to avoid overturning on a bend. They have been driving like this for almost an hour, down roads which are becoming increasingly narrow and difficult, before at last Vitaly directs him down a lane with a sign saying Buttercup Meadow Farmfresh Poultry and a picture of a little blond-haired girl, holding a bunch of buttercups in her hand and clasping a fluffy brown chicken to her chest, with a slogan beneath: Partnership in Poultry. It all looks very nice.

But as they approach the entrance, a scene of wild commotion unfolds before them. What’s going on here? The iron gates are open and police in riot gear are holding back a screaming battling mob which is surging towards them, while a flock of crazed chickens is running round and round the yard squawking and flapping frenziedly.

“What is this, Vitaly? Where have you brought us?”

He puts the Land Rover into first and starts to nose his way forward through the gate. Suddenly he hears a high terrifying howl and a wild Chinese man wearing blood-spattered clothes and wielding a knife bursts through the police cordon and hurls himself onto the bonnet of the Land Rover, chicken feet spewing out of his pockets.

Who is this man? What does he want? His mad black eyes meet Andriy’s for a moment through the windscreen, his mouth jabbering urgently, then two policemen throw themselves on top of him and drag him struggling away. By the gate, two more policemen are wrestling with a big blond man wearing shorts, forcing his arms up behind him and bundling him into a van. This is definitely not a good situation.

“Why does this Chinese want to kill us? What is all this police, Vitaly?”

“Is OK. Police on our side.”

“But why police is here? What is going on?”

“All is because of troublemakers. Lazy Chineses refusing work. Police defend you right to work. We will show them good Ukrainian-type work. Good work, good money, eh, friend?”

Andriy is beginning to feel uncomfortable. To drive the overloaded caravan through this throng with all these police watching, when he is perhaps an outlaw on the run, and definitely has no passenger licence, and still has that five-bullet gun hidden in his backpack-is this a good idea? But it’s not just that holding him back, it’s something his father had said that had stuck in his memory, repeating the words of the visionary blind man of Sheffield in his speech all those years ago. He’s trying to recall-it was something about solidarity, the essential fellow-feeling of man-his father had drummed it into him-something about self-respect. Be a man-is this what he meant? That there are some things a man should not do, not for any amount of money?

He puts the Land Rover into reverse and starts to inch backwards.

“No, no. Go on! Go forward!” Vitaly jumps up in his seat waving his hands, and inadvertently steps on Dog’s tail. Dog lets out a yelp, leaps from the Land Rover and, drawn by a powerful smell of chicken, dives into the melee.

“Dog! Come back!” Andriy hits the brakes. “Come here! This chicken is not for eating!”

But Dog, seeing the challenge of the situation, wants to show them his true colours, and weaving in and out of the crowd with a few courteous woofs he soon has the chickens neatly rounded up in a corner of the yard, where they stand looking a bit surprised and clucking obediently.

Suddenly there is a bloodcurdling shriek and a small fierce figure, petite but voluptuous, breaks out of the crowd and hurtles towards them, arms flailing.

“Yola!” cries Andriy. “What you doing here?”

“I want home to Poland! This place is hell! All is cheating and lies!”

Then she spots Vitaly sitting in the front of the Land Rover and turns on him with her fists, pulling at him through the door, howling, “This is the one! This is root consul flexi dynamo!”

A policeman tries to drag her off, but she holds fast and fights like a fiend, biting and scratching, struggling against the policeman’s grip and kicking him so hard in his sensitive parts that he is forced to let go. Emanuel grabs her by the arm from the back of the Land Rover and pulls her in. Then Marta runs towards them, and Tomasz, and they are hauled in too, and all the time the Land Rover and caravan are backing up gently and Vitaly is shouting, “No, stop! Stop!” until they come to a place where it is wide enough for them to swing round, and at the last minute Dog comes bounding up too, leaps into the back, and Andriy puts his foot down and they’re away.

By the time they get back to Dover, Marta, Yola and Tomasz have told Andriy and Emanuel about everything that happened to them, Vitaly has tried unsuccessfully to get Andriy to give the money back, and most people in the back of the caravan have been sick.


Marta regrets that she didn’t manage to bring a chicken with her for their supper, but her views about food have changed in the last few days. After dropping off their passengers in Dover they make their way back to their favourite spot by the carrot-field, where she manages to improvise a delicious supper from white bread, margarine and cold fish, supplemented with carrots and garnished with lemon slices and roadside herbs.

Yola and Tomasz are helping to peel the carrots, and Yola is telling Tomasz about her disagreements with Geta. Tomasz gazes with fascination into Yola’s eyes, asking her to repeat the sounds she made in the toilet, which she does in her typical vulgar way, and they both fall about laughing like children. And Marta thinks, here we go again.

She remembers last time this happened, when Yola met a nice man, a plump greengrocer, and it was all holding hands and giggling and stolen kisses. And then Yola took the man back to her house in Zdroj, and as soon as he met little Mirek, as soon as he took one look at the boy, he was out through the door again like a cornered tomcat. He didn’t even take off his hat. He didn’t even let go of the box of liqueur chocolates in his hand.

“I piss on your cabbages!” Yola shouted at his retreating back, but the words slid off him like butter off a hot dumpling.

It took Yola a long time to get over that. And you have to give her credit for this-she didn’t blame Mirek. Not once.

“Yola,” says Marta, lighting the gas for the stove, “why don’t you show Tomasz your photos?”

“I’m sure Tomasz has no desire to see my uninteresting photos.” Yola gives Marta a kick on the shins. Yes, her shins are already quite bruised.

“I would like very much to see your photos,” says Tomasz.

So Yola has to get out the three photos she always carries with her. The pretty house in Zdroj, with its garden sloping down to the river and its orchard of plums and cherries. The four Masurian goats, a bit blurred, because they wouldn’t keep still. And Mirek, sitting on a swing in the garden, that sweet smile on his big round face, his tongue sticking out, his cute pointy eyes wrinkled up with laughter.

“This is your son?”

“My beloved son, Mirek.”

“I would like very much to meet him.”


Early next morning, Andriy wakes up feeling disoriented. There’s something different in the caravan. He can hear whispering and giggling. What’s happened to Emanuel? In the other single bunk, where Emanuel should be, Tomasz is fast asleep. At the other side of the cabin, the double bunk has been pulled down, and in it are Yola and Marta. Andriy shuts his eyes again and pretends to be asleep. A little while later, the whispering stops, and Marta gets up and puts the kettle on. Emanuel, who had obligingly gone off to sleep in the Land Rover, comes to join them for breakfast.

It is mid-morning by the time they get to the ferry terminal in Dover, and they are all in a rush. Contrary to what Vitaly had said, Yola, Tomasz and Marta have no trouble changing their tickets. There are tears and hugs and exchanges of addresses as they say goodbye in front of the harbour.

“We will come again,” says Tomasz.

“For sure,” says Yola. “But not for strawberry or chicken. Now we are in Europe marketing we can earn good money here. I will be teacher. Tomek will be government bureaucrat. Marta…what will you be, Marta?”

“I will be vegetarian,” says Marta.

“One day Ukraina will be also in Europe marketing.” She kisses Andriy on each cheek. “And Africa too.” She gives Emanuel two little kisses, and he blots his eyes on the sleeve of his green anorak.

How hard it is to tear up old boundaries, and how easy to set up new ones. Andriy watches with a heavy heart as the ferry pulls away from the dock. As well as the sadness of parting, there is the sadness of knowing that he is on the far side of this new boundary across Europe. It will be a long time before he can work freely in England; even in Russia, now, Ukrainians are illegals. Will Ukraine soon be the new Africa? He puts his arm round Emanuel’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

They walk across the harbour, where a crowd is gathering to greet a ferry boat coming in. Andriy stops to watch, remembering his own arrival almost a month ago. Where is the innocent carefree young man with terrible trousers and a heart full of hope who disembarked from that boat? Well, the trousers are still the same.

A little ripple runs through the crowd. Two figures who had been standing together move away from each other in opposite directions. He spots a shaven shiny head cutting towards the terminal-Vitaly-and he remembers the lb65 he still has in his pocket after rilling up the tank with petrol. They’d better get going before he sees them. On the other side a line of darkness opens up as the crowd gives way to a dumpy black-clad figure walking fast with his head down. Andriy knows at once that it is Vulk. His heartbeat quickens. Should he go up and accost him? Or should he be friendly and try to wheedle information out of him?

In the end he does neither-he just goes up and asks very directly, in English, “Please tell me, where is Irina?”

Vulk looks startled. He doesn’t recognise Andriy.

“Irina? Who is it?”

Andriy feels a red-hot surge of anger. This monster who tried to take her didn’t even ask her name. She was just a bit of anonymous flesh.

“Ukrainian girl from strawberry-picking. You remember? You took in you car?”

Vulk looks around shiftily. “That Ukrainian girl is not vit me.”

“So where she is?”

“Who are you?” says Vulk.

Thinking fast, Andriy puts his hands in his pockets, narrows his eyes and tries to put a Vitaly-like expression on his face. “I am from Sheffield. I know someone who will pay good money for this girl.”

Vulk gives him a canny look: this is a language he understands. “This is valuable high-class girl. I too vill give good money for it.”

“I am expert in finding disappeared people. My friend”-he indicates Emanuel-“is very skill in track and footprint.”

“Mooli bwanji?” Emanuel beams.

“And we have dog.”

Dog woofs.

“If you find it you vill tell me?”

“How much you pay?”

“How much is pay other man?”

“Six thousand. Six thousand pound, not dollar.”

Vulk whistles. “That is good price. Listen, ve vill make a business. I vill give three thousand, plus percentage of enning.”

“What is enning?”

“Ven it is enning money, you vill get percentage. Good money, my friend. This girl vill be enning every night five hundred, six hundred, even more. Maybe even ve vill take it to Sheffield. Exclusive massage. I hefF contact. Executive elite VIP clientele only. English man like Ukrainian girl. Good clean no-boyfriend girl like this one, first time is man take it pay five hundred.” Then he pauses, shakes his grizzled ponytail. His face softens. “No. First time Vulk vill take it. I lose a money but I heffa loff. Hrr. Good loff.”

He smiles a wet tobacco-stained smile. Andriy feels the blood beating in his head. He clenches his fists by his sides-this is not the time to lash out. He forces a smile.

“But this girl-this high-class girl. She will not stay with us. She will run.”

“Aha, it vill stay, no problem. I heffa friend,” he winks. “Friend mekka little visit to mamma house in Kiev, say to mamma Irina no good verk you family get big trouble. Maybe somebody get dead. No problem. Every girl stay ven I tell it this. In two three year ve vill be millionaire. And one more good advantage is this-ven it has time for rest, ven other man is not in, ve can enjoy.”

Pressure is building up in Andriy’s chest like a steam hammer. Control yourself, Palenko. Stay in control. His throat so tight he can hardly talk, he asks, “What percentage I get?”

“Fifty-fifty,” says Vulk. “Better money in girl than in strawberry-picker. Strawberry soon finish. Girl carry on. One year, two year, three year. Always good income. Little cost. No wage to pay, only food. And clothings. Hrr. Sexy clothings.”

“OK. Fifty-fifty is good business.”

Vulk gives him his mobilfon number and describes a grassy picnic spot on the Sherbury Road, between Canterbury and Ashford. Andriy knows the place exactly.

“She is there?”

“Was there. I was look. Now I think she gone. Or dead. Maybe dog will find it.”

“Where she can go?”

Vulk shrugs.

“Maybe London. Maybe Dover. I still looking. I heffa passport for it.”

“You have passport of Irina?”

“Without passport it cannot go far. Maybe on other strawberry farm. Somebody telephone to me yesterday from Sherbury, near this picnic place. Ukrainian girl no pepper. Maybe is same one. I go look. If it is same one, I vill heffit. Or maybe other nice Ukrainian girl vill come to Vulk. Make loff. Make business. I vill give it passport. I heffa plenty.”


Bye-bye Strawberry. Hello Mobilfon | Two Caravans | Five Bathrooms