Death Comes Ashore

Cold and a bit claggy, just a gripe of rain and the wind has died to a few spiteful huffs, these are the glum remains of hurricane Ernesto. A day for cheering up and praising our Oxford Dics for I can't find the word on word-search. Shibboleth - a word used to denote a foreigner! We still laugh about the English couple we met years back in The John Bull whom we thought were Finnish. A ragged line of seaweed marks the stormbound high water mark; a day for poetry; although my sort of poetry rests with "There was a young lady from Tottenham..." variety. What I do remember is some of the stuff I did at school. Miss Steeples who took us for music also did English Lit. - or Composition as it was then called - and we read out in turns with dull boyhood voices the stuff of great literature. So why do I still remember "To sea, to sea! The calm is o'er; / the wanton water leaps in sport, and rattles down the pebbly shore; / The dolphins wheel, the sea cows snort; And - " ...ermů "And unseen mermaid's pearly song... / Comes bubbling up the weeds among..." yes, and Rudyard Kipling's joyful stuff that was easier to grip than the serious poetry of bygone ages. I can't reckon why my mind turned back to schooldays in October's grim foretaste of winter, maybe the dull boom of surf way out beyond the harbour wall. Was it Kipling who wrote "Tyger Tyger burning bright..."?

Yes - and No. Something is not quite right. This isn't suitable weather for inshore fishing, yet there are boats out... "Fling broad the sail, dip deep the oar, / To sea, to sea! The calm is o'er." I forget who wrote that one though I tried knuckle hard to remember who it was just to please Miss Steeples who was asking questions. It sticks in the boyhood mind like The Pied Piper of Hamelin another rollicking schoolboy poem. And I can't remember who wrote that one either. How such things stay in the back of the mind is beyond my ken. But then I had a special link with Miss Steeples ever since I went out to the school piano and played Middle C.

Death Comes Ashore

A small crowd stands on the rough waterfront by the old concrete pill box. Too far away to hear I can see bent figures and sense a low rhubarb-rhubarb urgency of the situation. Lori waves and comes up to the walkway, clearly upset - his eyes are glistening; a woman, he tells me, the infant still on her back. The police have seen her, she and the infant are certified dead. They haven't found the boat, he tells me, only the woman and child. Her turban had gone but the child was still there bound to its mother's back. She was on the concrete breakwater and some local boat had managed to get boathooks into her and dragged her inside the harbour. Curiosity at a low ebb, I don't go take a look, for today is a joy day marking the arrival of best people.

Only once before had I been in contact with illegal immigrants, just a small silent group, among them a family sitting on a low stone wall. Strange, you don't usually get families. The police had seen them and they were sitting there waiting to be collected and taken to a detention centre. Someone hurried by with fish and chips, gave them to the mother who, with humble thanks, passed them on to her two silent children. Dealing kindly with immigrants is the first notion that passes through the mind. I mean they are people, right? Something we tend to forget when we see them scrambling to board London buses with their prams and push chairs.

In Europe people pay their taxes. In most of north-west Africa people don't: most of these countries have an administrative class put in place by departing colonial governments, but administrative tasks never reach officialdom for such tasks are dealt with at street level and corruption flourishes. Europe is held to be a reachable target for a life free from vice and corruption. So they think it's worth the risk. How little they know of corruption! In my part of the working world police were paid to keep silence.

They haven't found the boat, he tells me again, convinced there must be not only the mother and child but many more victims. Her turban had gone but the child was still there bound to its mother's back - Lori thinks it worth repeating just to share with me the sheer awfulness of immigrant humanity; in my innocence I have considered them as single men taking the risks of a sea journey either across the narrow neck of the Mediterranean to Spain, or into the Atlantic to reach the Canaries. For single men and those with relatives in Europe the risks are bad enough, but for a woman with an infant! It fills one with despair, her desperation more compelling, not just begging for food but the violations that accompany a lone woman among rebels and bandits. Onward and onward to reach the blessings of Europe; but maybe and hopefully she was not alone and traveling with others. So where are the rest of her people?

I have never seen Lori overcome with emotion. There was no sign of it a few years ago when on board his cousin Claudio's fishing boat they found a boatload of immigrants helplessly adrift, having run out of fuel and food. They tried to board Claudio's boat until they were pushed off to a safe distance. To Lori they were vermin, too dangerous to have dealings with, awestruck by their open mouths as if wanting blood. Now he weeps for the mother and child. Despair and anger have overtaken our cheerful gardener.

By mid-morning two more bodies have been found. You land a big fish, people come close to admire, gauging its size and weight. Landing a dead human has little attraction, compelled by curiosity yet repelled, the loose bundle of onlookers widens as if to a safe distance. Conversation dwells on the awfulness of Africa. After all these years of financial aid, food aid, and medical aid, Africa is still in this sorry state, stirring up feelings of disgust, for the world is weary of all this welfare shit. It makes you fair sick to think about tribal Africa. Dunnit?

Yeah right! Why do they try it in crappy old boats?

Because the boats are not expected to make a return journey!

Not from outside, our conversation now treads the boards of charity, for change has got to come from inside - don't you see? From within! I mean Africa cannot continue living on charity, living with its hand out. Well, right, but it's taking a bloody long time, innit - I mean - for Africa to get on its effin' feet? I mean, look at the poor buggers; they've got shits for government, corruption at all levels, war lords killing each other - and these poor sods of refugees still coming, risking starvation and death in open boats. God help us all! They put the poor buggers in holding compounds, you know, barbed wire and stuff.

Dead right, Jack!

And world population is growing. By the turn of the century world population will have reached 9 billion, and these poor buggers are bloody starving already. African countries should have reached lower fertility rates by now - but they bloody haven't. Thank God for malaria and Aids killing off a few million mouths just to sort of balance things out a bit.

Rather a shock to hear this; I expected Erica to give a more generous opinion.

Well, that's the logical way of dealing with it! Problem is, logic doesn't give a shit about human rights!

Talking of shit - remember that last lot two years ago? Well we had them in the Cricketers. They stank like a bloody brick shithouse. We made them sit outside.

I have turned out early to welcome Renton and Betty coming out for the winter. This small interim group of people has Jack and Erica Jordan who run the The Cricketers and two British rods indignant because there is no fishing. The harbour entrance and inshore area are still being searched. Boats patrolling look like a regatta, yet they haven't closed the beaches! You would have thought the beaches would have been closed, wouldn't you?

I tell you, the Spanish give sod all!

Had this poor woman walked across the North African landscape confronting starvation, rape and pillage to find a boat, was she meeting loved ones safe in Europe, loved ones with homes and supermarkets, buses and trains? Or was it a family group traveling full of joyful expectations of urbane and civilized society, now lost in mindless death?

Weeks ago we had this rather wild discussion group at Cristimar. Claudia has done discussion groups for years, but the Manns of Cristimar, being confirmed non-joiners tend to ignore such social functions in favour of their own private business. Myths and legends populate Tenerife history, and now time has held them up for our consideration because some mythical creature stole our picnic - but that was years ago, dammit! Naturally it was Joan who brought our disappearing sandwiches into the picture and brought Father Espinosa and the Longheads and our newest element - The Newbies into discussion. Do Newbie men dominate their professional world as the Oldies do here? I anticipated a sex war for my big mouth but Claudia brought us to order.

Immigrants are a much bigger topic than Steadfast in Time. For how can we live with the guilt of high living when half of the world is starving, riddled with disease and civil war? I can see Claudia setting up immigrants as a suitable topic for the next group... no, it's an old subject and she's probably done it already.

Farewell nods: Must go. See you lot later.

Thank God! Renton and Betty haven't arrived. So I'll wait downstairs to give them a hand with luggage. Betty would not have me wait at the airport in case their plane was late and taxi drivers don't like private cars waiting for business. So I wait on the forecourt of La Estrella which is a much prettier wait. Their apartment, number 52, has the most stupendous view over the harbour.

The drizzle continues. Deserted, the town beach is occupied only by joggers and strollers along the water's edge. There are a few umbrellas - seldom seen in these parts. But something's up: on the car park two ambulances are waiting, and there is a police presence.

And here they are. Glad to be here. Renton and Betty have had a busy season with their Walsingham pilgrims. I am not a huggie-kissie sort of man but Betty is rather special.

They have left behind pilgrims rejoicing in Heaven, columns of them marching behind their leaders bearing large wooden crosses. Who gets to carry the cross? Do they squabble over it like the women in the Parish Church Council who squabble over who's doing the flowers? Brave leaders are the only rejoicers not holding umbrellas. Renton snorts - I mean in our weather! Bed and breakfast pilgrims do prayers before breakfast; some of them speak in tongues which is aggravatingly silly when they are doing breakfasts.

And yes, they have already heard far more than I have heard of our local immigrant situation: the basking shark that turned out to be an upturned wooden boat, a fleet of ambulances, no survivors. Well, not a fleet, with a glance outside, just two.

Betty spent most of her early years in Kenya. Then married to a high government officer, her views often ran contrary to government policy. Immigration in Kenya was not a serious challenge except across the borders to escape their fate as itinerant landless farmers, or escape to the cities to find decent work.

The voice of the resident British was loud and intimidating, enjoying the force of law, buying land at ridiculously low prices often forcing the native Kikuyu from their small holdings. They did this in the name of modernization and to uplift the lives of the native population. In the name of progress the Kikuyu were not allowed to grow profitable coffee and were obliged to pay a roof tax. The talented Tom Mboya, although Kikuyu, held a non-ethnic approach to Kenyan politics urging that the old chiefs who knew the land should be listened to. Betty was pleased to call him her friend. A known trouble-maker he was assassinated in 1969. Some of her British colonial colleagues suggested his death was the best way to keep him quiet.

Strong in Betty's memory, the violent days in Kenya take precedence over our present immigrant problem but, as she suggests, if these people in boats are seeking a better life, can you blame them? Our colonial government killed over 4000 Mau Mau who were seeking a better life in the cities and over the borders and imprisoned many more including Jomo Kenyatta. Some of our people were treating the condemned like a sideshow taking snapshots, so where does that place us in the hierarchy of culture? We Brits have a bad name in Kenya.

I snap quite a lot of stuff but refuse to snap calamity, feeling it is somehow indecent. I sketch today's awful events only by recollection: I see that dying woman striving to keep her infant's head above water; I can't see sympathy yet it must have been there among that curious crowd. And there are sharks in these waters. In all the years we have been here I have never seen one; swordfish, marlin, sailfish and similar sea monsters I have seen hauled up by the tail for onlookers to photograph, but once you have caught your monster and hung it up to be photographed what do you do with the bloody thing? Send it for fish meal? Or get politely bored seeing other peoples photographs? I ignore them now but ever since I first watched those old men swimming across the black waters of the harbour mouth I have shuddered in horror, for I have never been a swimmer. Swimming is bad for you. Swimming brings on early deafness. And you just don't know what's in the water, like that local boy in a small rowing boat inside the harbour who tossed a half eaten sandwich overboard. A swirl and a snap and it had gone. He saw the shark, a young White Tip. It kept circling him, wanting more. Panic stricken, the boy pulled for the harbour wall, the White Tip following him lunged into an oar with enough force to dislocate the boy's thumb. There was a search with baited lines but the shark was not found. In my view the town beach is shallow and fairly safe, but on the wild foreshore beyond with its rocks and millions of stones I feel as the Guanche felt about the sea, dangerously unknown and full of fearsome beasts.

Flt Lt Walker and his Leigh Light

Renton saw a basking shark from one thousand feet up and yelled out: "We got one, boys!" "Nah Skip," his navigator yelled back, "It's a basking shark not a fuckin' Uboat." Felt a right prat, said Renton. Even with the Leigh Light it's hard to see a periscope, and with their snorkell device the U boats don't even need to come to the surface at night. And if they were on the surface they could hear us coming half a mile off and they were bloody quick diving under, which is why we went in low. Go in high and you see more, but they also see more and hear you coming. So I was down to a thousand feet and saw this bloody great thing...

Well, of course it was William Blake not Rudyard Kipling who did Tyger Tyger:

Hear the voice of the Bard
Who present, past and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The holy word
That walked among the ancient trees;

That was Claudia quoting Blake for my benefit. A few words of mine go:

No amnesty his future brings
The scythe laid by on land unsown;
For endless days and nights on him
the eternal present clings;
Our span the reaper claims his own.

No: 'The idle scythe by fields unsown' sounds better, a bit clumsy but they fit the newbie proposition of endless life.

Betty will renew acquaintance at Los Cristianos with friends she has made over many years. Rarely does she mention the family business with the Walsingham pilgrims who seem to be as clearly forgotten as her Kenya experience is clearly remembered. Renton is looking forward to some birding, although it can never be quite the same without Peter and Shirley. Two months ago they received a letter from Shirley who assured the Walkers that she was OK, but Peter's sight is not responding to treatment and he must reconcile himself to partial blindness.

Some of the search boats are coming in. There must be a forensic lab somewhere, and a holding compound, or open prison 'barbed wire and stuff' as Jack Jordon put it. Betty is indignant: You just can't put tribal warriors in prison. Kikuyu don't understand what prison is about. They just die. And here we are doing it again!

The Walkers are comfortable in their beautiful little apartment. It's not my business to speculate but I feel they are happier here than in Wells-next-the-Sea. They don't say, but they know they are getting too old for the bed and breakfast business and are here to enjoy peace and quiet. And I am here to welcome them and, having welcomed these precious people, I should now depart and leave them to their quiet joys.

A short walk back to Cristimar; the woman with her infant have gone. I try to visualize the desperate driving force, the direst dire that sent her from a community she could reach out and touch to nothing but empty space, a vision of Shangri-La beyond the seas with its continuous electricity and a living allowance for food. Now there is an ambulance and a police camione close by and a policeman with binoculars standing on top of the old concrete pillbox.

Denied access to the foreshore, people have filled the Black and White, the Cricketers and the John Bull, which just goes to show: Death is good for business.


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Text & paintings © Alan Mann 2006 - 2012