World Refugee Day: The Lorry Driver’s Tale, as told to Chris Cleave
‘If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing.’ A celebrity journalist goes along for the ride with a lorry driver but all is not as it seems
Bestselling author Chris Cleave is one of several well-known writers to have contributed a story about refugees to Refugee Tales, a collection published this week
We aren’t at all like you. They keep us apart, for your protection. There’ll be a blue sign at the entrance to any ferry port or motorway services: you take this lane and we’ll take that. Fifty feet on there’ll be red-and-white MarroBar between the lanes, in case you have a last-minute change of allegiance. You won’t, though. You’ll keep right, our lane will turn left, and you’ll never think of us again. In your life you’ll have more conversations with optimists and murderers than you will with lorry drivers.
And yet there are more of us than there are of farmers, police and teachers combined. Our average age is 53. We’re male, and white, and we have bad backs. We’re twice as likely as you to be divorced or separated. But we don’t ask for your sympathy. Read the stickers: all we ask is for your cyclists not to pass us on the inside. There are 700,000 goods vehicle drivers in Britain and we are all self-medicating with bacon rolls. We’re three per cent of the workforce, 20 per cent of the studio audience for Top Gear, and 40 per cent of the petition to have it put back on TV. They say we’re the core of the UKIP vote, but they shouldn’t take us for granted. As the lorry driver said to the politician: if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.
When it comes to illegals, we know what the media won’t tell you. We catch them sneaking round the back of our trailers. We find them crawling behind the cartons in the load. You probably know the global economic push factors or whatever, but we know how they smell. We’re the ones who have to drag them out of the space above the axles. They’re in the shadows whenever we turn our back – it’s like a horror film. As long as their country is a nightmare and ours is a dream, they’ll come in the night. But you’re the ones who are sleepwalking.
On this one trip I’ll tell you about, I was doubling with another driver and we were homeward bound through Calais. If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. You see them out of the corner of your eye at first, when you’re still a couple of hundred kilometres out. Say you’re pulling in to Saint-Quentin for diesel. You give them the hard eye and they act casual, hands in their pockets – but no one’s fooled. Because they’re Somali and Rwandan zombies, not Parisian zombies with berets and baguettes. A blind lefty could pick them out of a line up.
The illegals can pick out the lefties, too. They’re the ones driving home from a little place with lavender and wi-fi. They always call it a “little place”. If it was their own lady parts they were referring to, they couldn’t be more coy. They keep to their side of the services, topping up their tanks while the euro is so weak. They think the illegals should be allowed in, but when they say “in”, they don’t mean in their car. It would be easy to do – it’s not as if the Border Force ever look in the boot of a family motor – but that isn’t how liberals think. They’re intellectually fearless, rather than actually brave.
So the zombies creep towards our lorries instead. We’ll be in Saint-Quentin, filling up, and all the time we’ve got one eye on the pump and the other on the illegals. Take your eye off and they’ll sidle up to the trailer and do the stupid stuff they do. As if we’re not going to look in the back before we get to the ferry port. As if we’re not going to go up on the gantry and find them clinging on, and tell them to eff off. If there’s one English phrase they’re going to learn, it’s that. I feel sorry for them, for what it’s worth. They’re desperate and they’re not very bright and I know this because there are three easier ways of getting across the Channel than stowing away in an HGV.
On this one trip I’m telling you about, we were double manning, as I say, and so my co-driver – I’ll call him Mr Hyde because he’s yellowish and rough – he could stand on the other side of the trailer and shoo the illegals away while I filled up the diesel. And on this trip we had a journalist along too. I’ll call him Clark Kent but you know his name – he’s famous for slagging off restaurants. And once every six months he writes about a burning social issue so people won’t start thinking: hang on, you’re just a tiring man who doesn’t enjoy eating out anymore.
I suppose the six months had come up on his tachograph because here he was, sitting up in the cab, dropping his aitches to make us feel at home. The boss had said to be nice to him. She’d given me 500 extra in cash, with a warning that she’d take it back off my wages if the famous man didn’t have a nice day. The 500 was still in its manila envelope, safely tucked under my seat.
Once I’d done the diesel fill I climbed into the cab. Clark Kent had set up a webcam on the dashboard because apparently he was live-streaming the whole thing. Mr Hyde didn’t want to be in the shot, so the camera was just on me and Clark. It sat there on the dashboard like the unblinking Eye of Islington.
‘So what do these buttons do?’ Clark was saying. ‘Do you have alarms and whatnot?’
‘Those are the temp dials for the trailer. That one turns on the stereo.’
‘Oh, do you listen to music?’
I wondered what he thought we might listen to – the speeches of Enoch Powell – but the camera was on so I just said, ‘Yeah, whatever’s on the radio.’
‘Mind if I twiddle?’
‘Be my guest.’
‘I haven’t used one of these things for years,’ said Clark, prodding away. (I honestly don’t know what he meant. His fingers, maybe.)
He found Autoroute FM, which does bad French songs on a playlist, and he thought it very droll. We all laughed about it. It was hilarious that foreigners had radio stations featuring hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We rolled on towards Calais.
‘You don’t talk much,’ said Clark to Mr Hyde.
In fact I’d told him not to talk, because I knew how that would end.
‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He was on until we picked you up in Reims.’
‘You take the driving in turns, do you?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we take Benzedrine and fondle each other to stay awake.’
Actually I said, ‘Yeah, in the EU it’s four-and-a-half hours each, then switch. We have a digi-card that keeps track of our hours.’
‘It must get tiring.’
‘No worse than journalism, I suppose. You have deadlines, don’t you?’
‘Tell me about it. Before I came out for this trip I had to do a Michelin-starred place in Maidstone. It was utterly bogus, and then I had to write it up on the ferry. I couldn’t work out if I was furious or seasick.’
‘Still,’ I said, ‘I’d swap with you.’
‘You say that, but there are only so many menus a man can read before he wonders if this is really his life’s main course.’
I wondered if he talked like that when the cameras weren’t on. I had a flash of what it would be like being married to him. I was exhausted already, and we’d only just met.
We reached the turn-off for Arras, which is where the zombie menace starts to be obvious. There was a bunch of them lurking on the slip road, all bones and nylon parkas.
‘Christ,’ said Clark. ‘You weren’t joking.’
‘No one believes it until they see with their own eyes. It’s a plague.’
Clark talked to the webcam. ‘I can see one or two dozen dark-skinned males, loitering by the exit from these services.’
‘More like three or four dozen,’ I said. ‘There’ll be more of them hiding behind that toilet block.’
‘Do you feel sympathy?’
‘We can’t, can we? It’s us who get punished when one of them stows away. We get an eight grand fine. Two strikes and we lose our licence.’
‘Still, they’re human beings. Don’t you feel compassion?’
He gave me the same look as when he’d seen my UKIP flag on the back wall of the cab – as if I wasn’t necessarily evil, but that I couldn’t be expected to know any better.
‘I have to think of my career,’ I said. ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’
He laughed, at least. ‘But seriously, don’t you feel any empathy?’
‘Do you? When one of your reviews shuts down an eatery?’
‘That’s different though, isn’t it? No one forces a Michelin chef to serve me a flightless vol-au-vent.’
Mr Hyde scowled at him and said in his Italian accent, ‘No one forces these scum to hide in my lorry.’
Clark turned to look at him. ‘I feel like we haven’t met.’
I laughed to calm things down. ‘Ignore him, his mother’s an I-Tie – he’s practically an immigrant himself.’
‘I’m a racist,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘There. Put that in your bloody newspaper. I hate illegals because I love the UK.’
I shushed him. ‘He means that if it was your mother the illegals were moving in next door to, you’d see it differently. If your kids couldn’t get a flat because immigrants get higher on the housing list, you’d be sick of it.’
‘Then you’re complaining about a social housing shortage, aren’t you, not an immigration crisis.’
‘You say potato.’
‘Actually I say croquette of heritage King Edwards à l’hollandaise, and I wouldn’t mind if these people made a new life next door to me.’
Mr Hyde opened his mouth but I shot him a look to shut up.
‘Please,’ I said, ‘you’re in the wrong lorry if you want to talk about the philosophy of it all. All we can do is show you what it’s really like out here on the frontline, and your readers can make up their own minds.’
‘Alright, fair enough. Then I think my first question would be: how do the stowaways make it through, if you’re always checking your lorries?’
‘Some drivers are careless, aren’t they? Me, I won’t stop within a hundred kilometres of Calais, but there’s always some Charlie who lets his hours expire and has to pull over. By the end of your statutory break, you’ll have illegals in your load, in your wheel arches, in your engine compartment. You’d be amazed at the gaps they squeeze into.’
‘Don’t the border guys find them? They have scanners, no?’
‘They’re only human. Zombies will always get through if they’re well-enough hidden. And some of the drivers, for a fee, have ways of hiding them.’
‘Really? There are drivers who’d risk that?’
I had to smile. ‘Listen, what do you make in a year?’
He winked at the camera. ‘I make 52 Saturdays less dull.’
‘Well I make 28k, with an ex and a current and four teenage kids. If I was unpatriotic, I could triple my money. Not all illegals are skint, you know.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘The situation is what’s serious. Ever since the Trojan horse, there’s been people smuggling. Ever since Han Solo took Obi Wan Kenobi’s money, in a galaxy far, far away.’
‘I’m warming to our chauffeur,’ said Clark to the camera. ‘I came expecting that a lorry driver would be unreconstructed, but maybe there’s more to this profession than I gave it credit for. Have your say by using the hashtag #stowaways.’
We drove through the outskirts of Calais. I pulled into the HGV lane and we joined the queue for the ferry port. In their own lanes the normals rolled past, refugees from their little places. Behind the glass you could see their lips moving as they argued whether there would have been time to stop at the last supermarket, to stock up on saucisson and those French school exercise books, the ones with the graph paper pages.
Clark said, ‘What would you do, if you found someone in the back of this lorry right now? What would you say to them?’
‘Well for a start I’d need to scrape the Brie off them. We’re carrying eighteen thousand kilos of it.’
‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’
‘God! Have you ever done that?’
‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’
I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’
‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’
He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’
‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’
Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’
It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises – as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless – they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman – he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports – we could have travelled on our library cards.
Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.
‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’
‘There is that, I suppose.’
‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’
‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’
‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’
‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’
‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’
‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’
‘There you go – you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’
He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’
‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’
We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already – it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.
‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’
‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’
‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.
The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby – First Plaice – and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.
I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it – he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck – just a germ – although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.
After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’
‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’
Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’
‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’
‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’
‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’
He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.
‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’
We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.
‘How many times have you done this?’
‘Do they pay you for it?’
I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’
‘So why do you do it?’
‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’
‘What made you start?’
‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help – life’s over so fast.’
‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’
I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’
‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’
The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.
‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.
He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’
This is taken from Refugee Tales, published by Comma Press on June 23rd