White Dust

I was changing the tea urn at the refreshments table in the mess tent when a bearded man approached. He wore a button-down white shirt with frayed collar tips. He took his time choosing a mug from the tray even though they were identical, and flipped the tap on the coffee urn. When the cup was full, he added four spoonfuls of sugar. There was no milk because I hadn’t refilled the jug. He wasn’t paying me any attention, but I decided to speak to him anyway.
‘Warm in here, isn’t it?’ He looked up. I pantomimed wiping sweat from my brow in case he spoke no English. He grinned at me, still stirring his coffee.
‘Yes, but the ground is frozen outside,’ he said. ‘We have to store the heat of the balloon in our bones if we are to survive a day in the city.’
The balloon was what the residents called the inflatable mess tent. The man’s voice was rough, but well-formed like a clay pot. He scratched the back of his neck and brought the mug to his lips. The scalding temperature of the coffee didn’t seem to bother him.
‘Wait until summer comes,’ I said. ‘The nights are hot and the days are worse. It’ll be like a furnace in here.’
‘I’ve experienced your summer already. Last year. That’s when I travelled from my home to here.’
‘How was the journey?’
‘Very dry and very hot. Perhaps I could tell you a little about my time on the road while I drink my coffee. Of course, only if you’re not busy.’
I shook my head. We moved away from the urns and sat down at a trestle table.
‘I will not tell you about the boats. Too much drama for a sleepy morning like this.’
‘Start wherever you like.’
‘Good. When I arrived in Greece, I made my way through Macedonia. I could have bought a train ticket, but I had been told that the authorities were making checks, so I took a taxi instead. It was still possible to get across the border by showing a passport and having it stamped, especially if one travelled alone. Unfortunately, taxi drivers charge a premium for transporting refugees. I imagine they prayed for us never to stop coming. By the time I reached Serbia, most of my money was gone.
‘After I was dropped off in a large city – I do not recall the name – I decided to walk for as long as I was able. For several days I followed the main highway north. It was called the A1. Very simple to remember. I made sure to stay off the road itself, but tried to keep it in sight. It wasn’t always easy. The landscape in Serbia is harsh. I mostly travelled at night, passing cities and towns whose names I couldn’t pronounce. During the day I slept in fields, barns, forests, anywhere that offered a little shelter. But I wasn’t comfortable. You have a good phrase for this: I slept with one eye open. I was afraid of being discovered. And I’d heard about the bears and wolves. I am not a brave man.’
He rarely looked away from me while he spoke. My own gaze wandered over the walls of the tent and the ground until I brought my discomfort under control. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t listening.
‘I wouldn’t have been brave about it either.’
‘After much walking, I looked at a map and decided that when I reached Novi Sad, I would find a train to take me to Budapest. I was lonely and exhausted and I was prepared to take a chance with the authorities. In Belgrade, I managed to read the bus schedule and found one to take me to the city limit. It was risky. Every resident knew what I was. I stuck out like a sore thumb.’ He smiled. He obviously liked a good idiom.
‘After the bus, I walked until dawn and collapsed just after the sun came up. I woke late in the afternoon, wrapped in my sleeping bag near a stream. The first thing I did was to check the document holder around my neck. That was where I kept my passport, money and birth certificate. Very important. In the trees, the birds were laughing quietly about my plight, but I did not mind. That afternoon the world felt soft. I washed my face and my neck, stowed my sleeping bag in my rucksack and pulled on the boots I’d been wearing since Iran. They were starting to fall apart.
‘I started walking at that wonderful time when the sun dips everything in gold. I followed a trail of dried mud and stone. There were trees on either side of me. The map showed that it was going in the same direction as the A1, and I could hear cars growling in the distance. I was dressed only in shorts and a t-shirt because of the heat. I had to keep wiping my forehead with a cloth to stop the sweat from stinging my eyes. More than once I found blood on my hand after slapping away a mosquito. I am only thankful that the flies on this continent aren’t as hateful as the ones we have. It is torture.
‘I didn’t eat before I started. Setting off on an empty stomach spurred me on. And when the rumbling became too much, I dipped into my rucksack and ate on the go. I had a cereal bar and the last of my dried fruit from Greece. My crunching drowned out the buzz of the car engines. If I could have had a cup of coffee and a cigarette at that moment, I would have been content.’ He raised his mug. ‘Coffee is my Achilles’ heel.’
‘The coffee here is terrible.’
‘It’s not bad, though I do miss the coffee I used to drink in my town. It is the tea that is undrinkable here.’ He paused, then frowned and stroked his beard. ‘I apologise. I did not wish to insult your hospitality.’
‘Don’t worry. I know the tea is awful.’ I peeled off my gloves and wiped my hands on my trousers. The scent of rubber would be on my skin for hours. ‘Please go on.’
‘The sun fell and the dusk drew in. The reds and the purples mellowed to a deep blue and the tree trunks and leaves faded to black. I put a sweater on over my t-shirt and running trousers over the shorts to keep the heat in. Then I picked up my pace. I wanted to go as far as I could while I could still see what lay ahead. Forest trails become much more dangerous once the light is gone. Sleeping roots are perfect for twisting an ankle and putting an end to your walking plans for a week.
‘The trail began to slope downwards. The cicadas played their music, but I ignored them. The time for enjoying my surroundings was over. But I was too single-minded, too focused on making good time. After a while I realised I could no longer hear the cars on the road. I panicked. I was afraid that I’d gone too far off course. Retracing my steps would have cost too much time and energy, so I kept walking. When the trail reached the next clearing, I saw that I was near the bottom of a gorge. The road was far off to my right, hugging the slope of a steep hill until it turned away between two peaks. I couldn’t remain on the trail any longer. I had to get to the road and follow it between the mountains. I was afraid of encountering other people, but I didn’t have any other choice. And in the back of my mind I hoped a truck driver might be willing to take me the rest of the way to Novi Sad.
‘I tried to keep my fears in check. Fighting my way through a dark European forest in the middle of July was not something I had ever expected to find myself doing. To distract myself, I thought of home and I imagined where I would be in six months. I crossed a stream that wet the caps of my boots and passed a half-collapsed cottage that appeared from nowhere. Then I cut through a couple of fields, climbed over a stone wall, and found myself among more trees.
‘But you made it to the hill eventually?’
‘Yes. It looked like a mountain. There were no paths up to the road, only loose rocks and dirt and a few trees and bushes that had managed to cling to life. I could hear the traffic above. It sounded as though the hill was sighing. I started climbing. I only had a splinter of moonlight to show me the way. I slipped a few times and had to dig my feet in to stop myself from falling. I scratched the palms of my hands and grazed my knees. By the time I reached the top, my calves were burning, my t-shirt was soaked in sweat and I was covered in thick white dust. I brushed my legs and my sweater, but it wouldn’t come off. It was in the cracks of my hands and under my fingernails.
‘There was more traffic than I’d thought. I kept my head down, hoping I would be ignored. The road released a good heat while I walked. I can only imagine how miserable it would have been to make such a journey in any other season. I was lucky.
‘My mind was beginning to drift when I heard another engine behind me. Yellow light pooled around my legs and cut long shadows across the tarmac. A car slid by my shoulder. I watched it stop a few metres further up the road and for a moment I thought it was the lift I had been hoping for. The doors opened and three men emerged. My hope soured. They covered the distance between me and the car in a few seconds. I couldn’t run. My feet were battered and bruised and I was worn out from climbing the hill. Anyway, there was nowhere for me to go. So I stood my ground. They were large men with hard, chipped faces. They asked me a couple of questions, but I couldn’t understand their words. I held out my hands to show that I didn’t want any problems. They didn’t care. It only took a couple of punches and I was out like a light.
‘When I woke up, my mouth tasted metallic. I spat blood onto the road. The back of my head ached and there was a lump that would stay with me until I reached Prague. I looked around, but I was alone. I was shivering from shock. My rucksack had been thrown into a bush. It was empty. My clothes had been scattered by the side of the road and were still intact, so I scooped them all up. Only then did I think to check my document holder. It was gone. I searched for it along that stretch of road for almost an hour. I tore at the undergrowth until my hands were bleeding. I even stumbled part of the way back down the hill to see if it was there. It was no use. They had taken my passport and my birth certificate and all the money I had left. I suppose I sat by the road for a while, wondering what to do next, though I don’t really remember.
My next concrete memory is of me marching down the road, following the contours like I was liquid. And I felt calm again, as though I had passed a test. My feet were no longer tired. My pack was light.’
‘What sort of test?’
‘I couldn’t say. Perhaps I will find out one day.’
‘I can’t believe you were attacked.’
‘It happens. I responded to it as best I could. I didn’t lose everything, anyway.’ He smiled. ‘The dust from the hill stayed with me for days. It covered my boots, my arms, my skin. It was only a couple of days later in a service station toilet that I was able to wipe away the worst of it.’
We sat in silence for a few moments. He finished his coffee. I wasn’t sure what to say. The corners of his mouth crinkled again.
‘Another useful phrase: you look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘That’s a good one. Did you get a new passport?’
‘No. I cannot. If I am granted asylum, I may receive a refugee travel document. But I will have to wait and see. Now I have to go. A family has asked me to translate for them at the administration centre. The ice and snow are waiting.’ He offered me his hand and I shook it. He left through the airlock. I began to wipe up the sugar that had been spilled across the refreshments table.

About the Author

Grant Price

Grant Price is a writer from the UK currently living in Berlin. His debut novel, Static Age, was published in 2016.

Read more work by Grant Price.