Late one night, after the longest English lesson in history, as we settled on blankets in the darkness of the Calais jungle, hot sweet tea in our hands, one of the Sudanese, an intense man with eyes like light bulbs, caught my attention.
“Mr Teacher,” he says, light bulbs flickering, “I want to tell you the history of John and Henry and of Frederick.”
“Okay,” I reply, thinking these sounded like odd names for Sudanese history.
So the man fixed his bulbs on mine and this is, word for word, what he told me:
John said, “My father is taking me to Paris.” And Henry said, “Oh, you are so lucky! I would love to go to Paris.” Then Frederick asks John, “When are you going?” And John replies, “This time next Friday, we will be in the car that is taking us to Paris.”
I waited for more. There was no more. I looked at the others who shared the blanket; they avoided my eye or smirked into their tea.
I looked back at the story-teller, feeling a little embarrassed. Had I missed something about this short tale, told in oddly precise English for a man who just hours before hadn’t been able to conjugate the verb “to be”?
The man clearly felt a little put out that his story had not had the earth-shattering impact that he felt it deserved and so moved swiftly on, to a story about Ellen and Helen and Margaret and Lauren.
The gist of the narrative was that, while Ellen was busy looking after her mother and Helen had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, the indolent Margeret was sitting in her bedroom listening to the radio. Lauren, our story-teller added, was at work.
Again expecting some sort of moral or narrative turning point, I waited for more. Again, there was no more.
I couldn’t bear the tension that was building around my incomprehension of this man’s clearly significant stories. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“You don’t understand me?” he cried, light bulbs flashing in exasperation. “Then why are you still here?”
I hurriedly corrected him. “No, no – I do understand you, but I don’t understand the purpose of your stories.”
“Ah,” he replied. “They are two histories that I lose in the boat.”
Slowly it dawns on me. “They were stories in a book?”
“Yes, English book. Somebody throws them into the sea.”
Now I understand. This man, one of the keenest of my students, used to have an English textbook. The “story” of John and Henry and of Frederick was clearly a model dialogue used to teach the future tenses.
I imagined my student, on the deadly Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy, reading and re-reading his beloved English textbook, until he had memorised its teachings perfectly.
The irony was sharp. The future tense is our way of envisaging and describing our hopes and dreams. My story-teller’s long journey from Darfur to Calais was fuelled by hope and dreams alone: the electricity that powers those light bulb eyes.
A story of hope and a future of dreams. Until both are tossed overboard.