At first, Mark took her for just another illegal: they all looked the same, heads down, feet shuffling, dressed in off-white paper suits so thin that the whole line trembled on their way up the ramp and into the back of the lorry. It was only when she looked up that he realized who she was.
Asha to her friends. He had been one, once.
He had fallen for her hard, the first girl he had ever thought of as more than just a fluffy pink annoyance. The entire spring the year he turned fourteen had been spent trying to impress her and the entire summer holiday spent longing for her. He cried when he returned to school in September and found her gone. He suffered his first broken heart by proxy, victim of Asha’s family moving away from London to care for an elderly relative.
Six years had barely changed her; she was still Asha, still dark-haired and dark-eyed and petite, a cocoa-skinned pixie. She shuffled past on the ramp and for a second their eyes met. When she didn’t seem to recognize him, didn’t even blink, it was a sucker punch right in the gut. She was in the back of the lorry before he could catch his breath, just another illegal for Jones to tick off on his clipboard. Once the rest of them had joined her the ramp was lifted, sealing her away in the dark.
Jones drove, easing the lorry through the gate and out of the holding camp, a squat building that had once been a primary school. The outskirts of Leicester were a ghost town of hollowed-out take-aways and boarded-up corner shops covered in graffiti: “Illegals Go Home”, “Britain for the British,” slogans from the government’s last election campaign. They made Mark think of the prisoners, crammed in the back of the lorry like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Jones was old-school; shaven head, bulldog tattoo on one forearm and a pin-up on the other, a faded St George’s Cross poking out from the collar of his camo shirt. They hadn’t worked together before and Jones was too big, too imposing, for Mark to be the one to break the silence. Instead he checked the clipboard, as discreetly as he could. The girl in the back of the lorry was definitely Ashika. Seeing her name made him tingle.
“Done this run before?” Jones asked, making Mark jump.
“No,” Mark replied. “You?”
“Thought not,” Jones said. “Would’ve recognized you. Done this a few times meself. Never gets any easier. Searchers keep finding more ‘n more of ’em.” The older man flicked him a glance. “Strange, that, eh?”
There was a challenge in Jones’s voice that demanded the correct answer, something that was safe and appropriate to say. “Well, y’know, they breed like rats, don’t they?” He thought of Ashika and felt disgusted with himself. “So,” he added, trying to move the conversation on, “you been in the regiment long?”
“What did you do before?”
“Bit o’ this, bit o’ that,” Jones said noncommittally. “You?”
“Nuffin’,” Mark said.
Jones frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked. “Man’s gotta work.” There was another challenge in his voice, sharp and almost angry.
Mark swallowed; Jones was six inches taller and six stone heavier, built like he could bench-press the lorry. “It was hard,” he said, “until we started kicking this lot out. I’m working now, aren’t I?”
“Coming over here, taking out jobs?”
Jones nodded as if that told him everything he need to know and turned his attention back to the road.
Outside, the Midlands were slowly becoming the Fens, the hills and farmland becoming flatter, gentler, duller. Mark was afforded a view of very little for miles in all directions.
Twenty silent minutes farther on the road was blocked by plastic barriers. Soldiers patrolled on foot or glared from the Plexiglas windows of the temporary building that had been erected in the nearby lay-by. Mark and Jones got out and had their paperwork checked and double-checked. Still unhappy, the checkpoint’s lieutenant ordered the passengers out and the register confirmed. Jones rolled his eyes but they had to comply; there was no stronger force in Britain than bureaucracy. The passengers sidled back down the creaking ramp, arms wrapped around themselves to try and keep the cold out, the drizzle turning their paper suits translucent. Mark tried not to stare at Ashika.
“What have we got here then?” the lieutenant said, scanning the clipboard. “pakis, niggers, polskis. Got your hands full then.”
“Yeah.” Mark laughed obligingly.
“Keep up the good work.” The lieutenant slapped the clipboard into Mark’s chest. “Everything will be better once they’re gone, mark my words.”
As the prisoners filed back up the ramp Mark couldn’t resist glancing at Ashika. She was glaring down at him, eyes narrowed, disgust etched in every line of her face. He looked away, like a kid caught staring in public. His shame burned, not just for what he had said but for the whole sorry situation, for the fact he made his living from carting illegals away like rubbish to a landfill. Seeing Asha had made him uncomfortably aware that illegals weren’t the enemy they had been painted as; they were people, too.
His newfound anxiety continued in the cab as they drove on, the landscape continuing to flatten around them. After long minutes of consideration he plucked up the courage to speak. “That’s weird.”
“Well, says here that some of the illegals are third generation. I thought we were only authorized to deport second generation.”
“Bet they’re plannin’ on changin’ the rules again,” Jones said. “You can report it if ya like?” He grabbed the cab’s radio mike and held it out.
There it was again: the challenge, the anger in Jones’s voice. “No, no,” Mark said quickly. “I mean, it’s been checked, right? I’m sure someone would’ve said something if it’s wrong.”
“Thought so,” Jones muttered, and slammed the mike back.
The villages they passed seemed frozen in time, unchanged by current events. It was from here that the country’s new elite drew their power and support, and no matter how bad the cities got, how many homes and businesses burned to ash and how many lives were destroyed, the villages remained peaceful and picturesque. On the drive up Mark had found the sight of them comforting, the epitome of traditional Britishness. Now the sight of them made him feel sick.
They hit a pothole and bounced, painfully. Mark imagined Ashika thrown across the back of the lorry, smashing her perfect face against the metal wall. He screwed his eyes shut until flares of light replaced the image. He searched for a distraction. “Any plans for leave this weekend?”
“Football,” Jones said. “You?”
“Yeah, the same.” He didn’t want to admit that he planned to play games online instead. “Who do you support?”
A sudden banging cut off Jones’s reply. “They’re gettin’ rowdy,” he said instead.
Mark pictured Ashika again, this time face down and still, the other prisoners hammering desperately on the walls as blood pooled around her face, soaking her soft, dark hair.
Jones slowed the lorry and swung it into a lay-by. He swallowed nervously, the St George’s Cross on the back of his neck rippling as if caught by a strong breeze. “Better check ’em.”
“Make sure they’re not causing trouble?” Mark said, hiding his relief.
Jones opened his door. “The UN are about, inspecting. Can’t turn up with a lorry fulla dead people.”
“Might make our job easier.” The joke spilled from Mark’s lips without consideration from his brain, something he’d heard back at his base. Jones ignored him, climbed out, slammed the door behind him.
The lay-by was deserted. The Fenland wind gathered so much speed over miles of featureless terrain that it could cut to the bone. They dragged the ramp down for the third time in less than an hour and the prisoners peered out, wary, as if suspecting a trap. The acidic stench of something deeply unpleasant made Mark’s gorge rise.
Ashika was the first out, and Mark’s heart sang to see her safe. He didn’t want Jones to think him soft, though, so he put a shaking hand on the pistol at his hip. “It’s Aggy,” Ashika said, head up, defiant. “She’s sick.” Her voice was pure Midlands now, no trace of her old London accent remaining. The change made Mark inexplicably sad.
Jones said nothing but looked across at Mark. It felt like another test. “What’s wrong?” Mark barked, using the same imposing tone the other soldiers used with illegals.
Asha narrowed her eyes. “She’s sick,” she repeated, as if he was stupid. She was fearless, one hand on her hip, head cocked, staring him down, demanding that he do something. Her fierceness made him want her more than he had ever wanted anything or anyone in his entire life and for a crazy moment he saw himself racing off with her, across the flat Fenland fields, her knight in camouflage uniform. The sight of Jones, shaven-headed, tattooed, muscled fit to burst, was enough to freeze him in place, indecisive, hand on his gun, doing nothing.
Jones shook his head and spat onto the tarmac. “Get her out,” he said.
Ashika helped a tall blonde girl, probably Eastern European, down the ramp and held her hair back as she vomited in the bushes.
“Water,” Jones said. It took a glare for Mark to realise the instruction was for him. He fetched a plastic bottle from the cab. Jones snatched it off of him and offered it to the sick Aggy.
It felt to Mark as if he was failing Jones’s tests.
Once Aggy was finished the two girls trooped back up the ramp without being told. Ashika turned to Jones. “Thank you,” she said. Mark burned with jealousy. He wanted to scream, to tell Asha that Jones was only covering his back, making sure they passed inspection, but he managed to stop himself.
They got back in the cab and started off again. “Are the UN really inspecting?” Mark asked Jones He envisioned himself turned whistleblower, the UN allowing Ashika to stay, her calling him her hero. He liked that.
“Yeah.” Jones stared at the road ahead like he wanted to kill it. “There’s a lotta talk that what we’re doin’ is wrong. Crimes against humanity, they’re callin’ it.”
“They reckon some of ’em go missing, don’t make it back where they’re supposed to.”
Silence descended, demanding to be filled. The bulldog and the pin-up on Jones’s arms danced as he twisted the steering wheel in a strangler’s grip. Mark had heard rumors, of course, but hadn’t given the matter any thought. Until now.
He searched for the right answer, thought of what his dad might say. “No great loss, eh?”
Jones’s laugh was bitter. “Some people,” he said, “killing’s too good for ’em.”
Silence reigned. Mark’s guts writhed like fighting snakes, afraid for Ashika and what might await her once their journey was complete. Lost in dark thoughts, he didn’t pay any attention when the radio squelched and Jones answered.
“Change of plan,” Jones said. “Heading south to Stansted. Gonna hook up with a civvie flight.”
“A civilian flight?” The snakes in Mark’s stomach tied themselves into tighter knots. “They’re off to five different countries. Makes no sense.”
“They’ve got another camp there,” Jones said. He looked pissed off at the prospect of doubling their drive.
“Never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t of. It’s secret. Can you believe, they call it a ‘black site’.” Jones’s laugh was still bitter.
Jones words thumped home with the weight of a block of concrete, pressing on Mark’s chest, crushing him, making it impossible to breathe. He lowered the window and tried to get some air.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jones asked, devoid of sympathy.
Mark fought to control his breathing. “Travel-sick,” he croaked. Jones muttered something sharp under his breath and carried on driving.
In the distance Peterborough still burned, a year on from the troubles. Smoke drifted on the horizon. They turned aside and headed south on the A1, following signs for London.
Mark had to do something, now, before they reached this “black site”. No – Jones had a personal radio, would be reporting back to base in seconds. Could he overpower Jones? The older man’s shaven head was dented and scarred, his arms thick, his chest twice as wide as Mark’s. There was no way Mark would win any kind of physical confrontation.
There was always the gun.
Mark had barely fired the thing, had barely practiced due to his quick enlistment, a product of the troubles. He’d certainly never pointed it at anyone. The thought of shooting another person made him feel sick. Jones didn’t know that, though. All Mark had to do was scare Jones into getting out, leave him on the side of the road, and take off.
It was a crazy plan, had be if he was considering pointing a gun at someone driving a lorry at seventy-five down the motorway. He had no plan for what he would do after, either. He knew no sympathizers, no-one who would take in a dozen illegals. He was certain to lose his job, his family, everything.
But he couldn’t just leave her.
The pistol’s grip was cold.
“I need a piss,” Jones declared. Mark’s hand sprang away from the gun as if it had burst into flame. They pulled over into the next lay-by and Jones got out, boots crunching on the thick layer of rubbish that littered the verge. He stepped into the bushes.
Mark knew he had to get that radio off of Jones, at any cost. He got out on hollow legs and stepped round the front of the cab. Could he even pull the trigger, if Jones resisted? What if missed, gave himself away, got himself caught? As he tried to screw his courage up Jones turned, drawing his own pistol. “Hands up!” Jones yelled.
Mark did as he was told.
“How’d you rumble me?” Jones jabbed at him with the gun. “What are ya, special ops? SAS? Fucking MI5?”
“What?” The concrete block was back, pressing on Mark’s chest, starving his brain of oxygen, making it impossible to think.
Jones flicked the muzzle towards the back of the lorry. “Move,” he said.
Mark stumbled round the lorry like new-born Bambi.
“Let ’em out,” Jones ordered.
Mark fumbled for his key. The ramp crashed down, chipping the tarmac. When he opened the hatch Ashika was waiting for him. Up close she stank of sweat and fear and weeks without washing, but looked perfect. He raised a hand to smooth the hair away from her face. If Jones was going to kill him, he wanted Ashika to know it was all for her.
She grabbed the pistol from his holster and smashed its butt into his face, turning the whole world white and sending him crashing down onto the ramp. When he could see again she was embracing Jones.
“You did it!” Ashika cried. “Uncle Steve, thank you!”
Jones grinned. “Sorry it took so long, Asha.” He looked over her shoulder. “Good swing.”
Ashika gave Mark a look of utter contempt. “I thought he knew,” she said. “Bastard wouldn’t stop staring at me.”
“I know.” Jones sneered. “Fucker was gonna pull a gun on me earlier.”
Mark spat a mouthful of blood onto the ramp. The illegals in the back of the lorry stepped away as if he was diseased. “You’re helping them? You can’t be.”
Jones laughed. “Why not?”
“Look at you,” Mark said. “Skinhead, tattoos…”
“Typical,” Ashika said, “judging everyone by their appearance. And the things he said…”
“No, no,” Mark cried, raising his hands, “I was only trying to fit in. It’s just how people talk. I wanted to let you go. I did!”
Asha laughed. “Really?” Mark nodded. “Then why’d you always have your hand on your gun? Itchy trigger finger?”
“No, no -”
“I nearly punched the little shit,” Jones interrupted, “blaming others ‘cos he couldn’t get a job. Said immigrants were rats!” He ticked Mark’s offences off on his fingers. “He didn’t wanna stop when you were banging. And he stood there watching Aggy puke without a care in the world!”
“No…” Mark trailed off. There was too much, all at once, for him to take in and make sense of. “Look,” he said, starting again, “Let me help. I can prove myself. I’m not like the others!”
“That’s what they all say.” Jones strode forward and jammed the gun into Mark’s face. Mark quailed. Jones laughed. “They’re always cowards, too.”
“We went to school together.” Ashika spat the words out as if the memory disgusted her. “I quite liked him. Bastard’s changed. Probably thought I was just another Paki. Either that or he recognized me and didn’t care.”
“No -” The rest of Mark’s sentence was choked off by a sob. “No, I knew. I wanted to help you run away. Please, you have to believe me!”
“I don’t have to do anything you say.” Ashika held up a small radio transmitter that had been concealed in her hand. “I heard everything you said, how you called us rats, how you laughed when we were called names, how you said it wouldn’t matter if we all died.” She bared her teeth in a savage snarl. “No. Great. Fucking. Loss.”
“I didn’t mean it,” Mark sobbed. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ashika raised the pistol. “Pull the other one.”
There was a bang, and blinding pain.
The world went white again, then black, then swam into focus. Asha stood over him, frowning. “We need to hide him,” she said. “Get him in the bushes.”
Grey clouds slipped sideways as someone dragged him by his ankles. He tried to kick out but his legs were frozen. White hot pain engulfed him as he was spun off the side of the road. Spindly branches cracked and fractured the sky. Asha, beautiful Asha, loomed over him, arms laden with plastic bottles and fast-food wrappers. “In with the rubbish, where you belong,” she said, and threw an armful of rotten litter onto him.
She was probably right.
The last sounds he ever heard were her footsteps, leaving him behind.