The Pass

by
Sharif Gemie

Pebble Beach

He’d asked for another interview. His third in two weeks. I checked his file: Tony had seen him and had issued him with a travel pass. What else could he want?

            He was my second-to-last appointment of the day. Then the last appointment cancelled. I could spend forty minutes with him, more if needed. Not likely! I’d sort him out in five minutes, leave early, beat the rush-hour traffic and get a seat on the train. I glanced through his details. 16 years-old. Good school record. Volunteered to help in the canteen. No fighting, no drugs. Orphan, poor lad. Like so many of them! He was on time, I’ll say that for him. Scrawny, dark—eyes that shifted when you looked at him. Bashir. Hadn’t changed his name to Basil or Brian—they all did that a few years ago. T-shirt, jeans, trainers. At least the T-shirt was clean. The jeans had seen better days. I waved to the vacant chair: might as well be polite. He smiled—a nice smile and I noticed his deep brown eyes. Hmmm... Might be popular with the ladies, this one.

            ‘So—this is your third interview in two weeks, Bashir.’

            ‘I am most sorry, sir.’

            Nice voice. Clear, well-spoken. Still with an accent, of course. They could stay here for years and that never went.

            ‘Well, you’re here now. So why don’t you tell me what all this is about?’

            ‘It’s my travel pass, sir.’

            I checked his file again. Unmistakable. Issued eight days ago—he got in just in time, before the new regulations.

            ‘You’ve been issued with a pass. What’s the problem?’

            ‘If you please, sir, I’d like it withdrawn.’

            ‘Withdrawn? But why?’

            ‘It’s causing me—causing me problems.’

            ‘No one’s going to make you use it.’

            He caught my eye, smiled sadly. ‘But they are, sir.’

            Oh dear. This would take longer than five minutes. I sighed.

            ‘I am extremely sorry, sir.’

            I felt a flicker of sympathy for him, a teenager who should be out enjoying himself, instead of sitting in a crumpled little heap in this drab office. He had no prospects and was probably smart enough to know it. But I nodded slowly, thinking that I ought to sound sympathetic. Goodbye early train.

            ‘Here in the Asylum Centre, we’re here to help. So—tell me what’s happened.’

 

            It began with a girl. I should’ve guessed! Bashir, an orphan, had his own room in the men’s quarters and was free to roam around the Centre. He got to talking with Alysha—I reached for her file, but then thought: what the hell. Let him tell the story.

            ‘Nice girl?’ I asked.

            ‘Oh, very nice, very nice, sir.’ He smiled and his teeth gleamed white. They all have good teeth—I suppose because they don’t eat sweets or cakes. ‘A good girl. She has her own room, so finely decorated! She grows pot plants, you know sir.’

            For a second, I thought he meant cannabis. But no: this was innocent stuff. Boy-meets-girl.

            ‘There are so few—so few green things here, sir. No trees, no grassy places. Of course, there are spaces—the corridors and lanes. But they are sad places, sir, with no trees.’

            He expressed himself well. There was a rhythm to his voice, a precision to his words, an eloquence to his hand gestures. My mind filled with images as he spoke. I smiled to myself, remembering my plans for a PhD in anthropology. Structures of language performance. Abandoned long ago!

            ‘Alysha’s room, sir, it is filled with green beauty. Spider plants, lavender and forsythia. White lilies and golden orchids. I bring her old yoghurt pots from the canteen. She cleans them, puts them on her shelves and they become homes for plants. She cares for them, gives them water to drink, feeds them… She has…’

            He frowned, wriggling his hands in front of me.

            ‘Green fingers,’ I said.

            He smiled, radiant and happy. ‘Exactly.’

            ‘And then?’ I prompted him.

            ‘We walk round the Centre because, you know sir, it is not good for me to spend long in a girl’s room. We walk to the hospital, then round to the canteen, then to the entrance.

            ‘And you know how strange it is, for us,’ he said, almost apologetically. ‘There is no fence! We can walk outside, we can see the streets and shops. It is not forbidden.’

            ‘By no means. We encourage your interaction with the local community.’

            ‘But—what are we to do there? We have no money to spend, nowhere to visit and, sir, I am sorry to say—’

            ‘I know. I’m sorry as well. Some of them are hostile, aren’t they?’

            ‘Indeed, sir.’ He sighed. ‘We were there, Alysha and I, at the entrance, looking out at the shops, the supermarket, the cars and buses. And Alysha said to me, with all the sadness in her heart, “If only we could travel.” So I asked: where would she go? And do you know, sir, she has never seen the sea?’

            I laughed, but it wasn’t unusual. She was an infant when she arrived here, and—while her case was pending, over long, long years—she’d stayed put.

            ‘So I told her, sir, we could travel. Passes are issued, permitting free travel and allowing the holder to take a friend. “Why don’t you get one?” she asked me. “We could go together.”’

            Bashir turned away from me, caught in some emotion. Then he sat up straighter and looked right at me.

            ‘At that moment, sir, I knew my mission. I would get a pass and I would travel with Alysha. We would see the fine buildings and great history of this land.’

            For a second, I wondered if he was being sarcastic. But no: Bashir was a true innocent and, like many asylum-seekers, prone to outbursts of the most naïve patriotism.

            ‘A pass?’ I thought it over. ‘Of course, you’re entitled to request one. But there has to be a valid reason.’

            I was unsure of the exact regulations. Discretion was possible, wasn’t it?

            Bashir seemed awkward. ‘A valid reason, yes sir. And taking Alysha to the sea—’

            ‘—would not count as valid.’

            We looked at each other and smiled.

            ‘So I needed advice, sir. I went to my oldest friend, Hamzi.’

            ‘The translator?’

            ‘Exactly, sir. A wise man.’

            ‘He’s certainly clever.’

            ‘He greeted me, offered me tea and we exchanged our news. You know how we people like to talk.’ He smiled apologetically.

             Indeed I did. Another abandoned Ph.D: forms of sociability among exile communities. They were a polite people, mostly, I’ll say that for them.

             ‘And Hamzi—well, sir, he has studied the regulations.’

             Of course he had. Proper barrack-room lawyer, that one, as I knew to my cost.

             ‘My friend Hamzi, he told me about the formal application for a travel pass, issued for work purposes. Of course, I have not found work.’

             Here Bashir sighed, a deep, world-weary sigh. Poor lad.

             ‘So the formal route was not available to me. But Hamzi—such a clever man—he also knew about the informal route.’

             ‘Discretion?’

             ‘Exactly, sir. I could ask for discretion to be exercised in my case. But to do this—I would have to prepare properly.’

 

             I smiled, trying to imagine what they might have presented Tony.

             ‘So how did you prepare?’

             ‘Sir—Hamzi advised caution, but I threw myself into this mission. It was Alysha, sir, that girl—she made my passions run riot.’

             I wanted to laugh, but stopped myself. The lad deserved a girl, didn’t he?

             ‘I had plans, I saw a whole future for myself and Alysha. When Hamzi said that smart clothes might help, I gave up everything to find clothes fit for a British gentleman. I painted three rooms for a shirt, I swapped five of my books for a blue tie, I gave up half my savings for a pair of leather shoes, and as for the jacket and trousers…’

             ‘Yes?’ I said, wondering what dreadful sacrifice Bashir had made.

             ‘I borrowed them, sir, from a friend who is the same height.’

 

             I nodded, relieved to hear that it had cost him nothing.

             ‘Hamzi booked my appointment. That morning, I shaved carefully, I polished my new shoes, I put on my suit. I looked in the mirror and I said to myself that anyone would think I was a proper British citizen.’

              You’re pushing it a bit far there, I thought. Citizenship is more complicated than that.

              ‘I walked slowly down the main lane, sir. The stalls lined the pavements—’

              Stalls, I thought. Planks on buckets. A few tins and broken phones on offer. How their horizons shrink!

              ‘—and, I swear sir, the stall-holders cheered as I walked by, wishing me good luck and God’s blessing. They admired my suit, they said I was now a true gentleman. Alysha was there too, selling her plants, and she gave me a red rose for my buttonhole. She smiled at me and told me I could not fail.’

              He grinned again, radiant and joyful. ‘I believed her, sir.’

 

 

              ‘And Tony?’ I asked.

              ‘Mr Lawrence—took a different view.’ The smile vanished. ‘He saw me here. He is—forgive me, sir—he is a strict man.’

              ‘That’s true.’ It was one of Tony’s strengths.

              ‘I greeted him as I went in, I asked him how he was—all on the advice of Hamzi. Mr Lawrence stared at me and said two words: “Work documents?” I explained that I had none, but was asking for discretion. “No discretion,” was his reply and he pointed to the door.’

               Poor lad. For a second, I thought he was going to cry. Perhaps Tony had been a bit harsh? But then—how would anyone feel after seeing ten or fifteen of these chancers and schemers in a row?

               ‘Sir, I could not face walking back down the main lane. The humiliation of seeing those people who had smiled and cheered me only ten minutes ago! I walked back the long way, to the canteen and then to my quarters. I sat, still and quiet, alone with my misery, feeling the whole world was against me.

               ‘After an hour or two, Hamzi visited. He guessed what had happened. And—you know, sir—he understands my moods.’ He paused for a moment, looking round the room and then straight back at me. ‘There is so much misery in this camp, sir, you cannot imagine!’

                Camp, I thought. You cheeky rascal. It’s an Asylum Centre.

                ‘But you went back…’ I said.

                He pulled himself together. ‘It was on the advice of Hamzi, sir. Our plan was to wait two weeks until you attend this office and to appeal to your judgement. But then we heard of the change of regulations, to be implemented in one week. Travel passes would only be issued to those over eighteen. And so—’

                ‘Another plan?’

                ‘Exactly, sir. Hamzi said we needed a different strategy. One evening, we sat and talked for hours and hours.

                ‘Hamzi was of the opinion that my first application had been based on a strategy of rights. He said—forgive me, sir—that Mr Lawrence may not have appreciated my claim that I had a right to travel. Instead, I needed to present a different argument.’

                ‘Indeed,’ I said. I wondered: what other scheme could they have devised? And how had it succeeded? ‘And you got another interview? The next week?’ This struck me as extraordinary.

                ‘It was Hamzi, sir. A most capable man.’

                I’ll say so!

                ‘Once again, I needed the right clothes, sir. But this time, no suit.’

                ‘No?’

                ‘I searched the camp, high and low, for the oldest, most faded pair of workman’s dungarees. I swapped my leather shoes for them. And then—Hamzi gave me strict instructions. For two days before my interview, I did not wash my hair or shave. I made sure my hands were dirty. Alysha, sir, she was so disappointed.’

                ‘What was this strategy?’

                ‘Hamzi advised that I had to look as if I didn’t want a travel pass.’

                ‘You didn’t want one!’ I burst out laughing.

                Bashir gave me a sly smile and nodded. ‘Exactly.’

                ‘And the interview?’

                ‘This time, no stall-holders cheered as I walked along the lane. They hardly noticed me. The first time, I had marched along the centre of the lane, my back straight and my head held high. The second time, I kept to the edges, I moved from doorway to doorway, I skulked like a shadow, sir. And when I entered this office, sir, I said nothing to Mr Lawrence. I looked at the floor and waited for him to speak. When he asked me what I wanted, I complained, sir, at great length and in poor English, making many basic errors. I told Mr Lawrence that I had debts, that I had to take whatever work I could find and that someone had asked me to help in a garden—I made it clear, sir, I would not do the gardening myself, I would merely dig and clear the ground for the real gardener, and I would be out in all weathers, as the job had to be done yesterday.’

                 ‘But it wasn’t true?’

                 Bashir looked down and swallowed. He shook his head. ‘Sir, I told a lie.’

                 ‘And Tony—Mr Lawrence—didn’t check?’

                 ‘No, sir, he did not.’

                 That was a surprise. Tony—an infringement of the regulations! Of course, I wouldn’t report him.

                 ‘So he fell for it…’

                 ‘He fell for it, sir, hook, line and sinker.’

 

                 A smile flashed over Bashir’s mouth, whether from pride in the success of his strategy or in his mastery of idiomatic English, I couldn’t say.

                 ‘And you got—’

                 ‘I got my pass!’ Again, that smile: radiant, happy.

                 ‘And Alysha?’

                 The smile vanished.

                 ‘Ah, Alysha, sir.’ Bashir sighed. ‘Everything changed.’

                 ‘Already?’ I knew the course of true love ne’er did run smooth, particularly among the young, but this seemed a bit fast.

                 ‘Yes, sir. Her pot plants, sir—they were too successful.’

                 ‘Too successful?’ That was a phrase that few asylum-seekers used.

                 ‘You know the supermarket, sir?’ He gestured in a vague manner towards the entrance.

                 ‘Yes.’

                 ‘They offered her a contract, sir, to supply them with plants for the summer. They promised a lot of money.’

                 ‘And so she—’

                 ‘She gave up her dreams of seeing the sea and visiting the wonders of this land, sir. She said she had to be serious, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She even asked me to assist her—to get compost, to find another space where she could grow her plants.’

                 ‘And you—’

                 ‘I am not interested in that sort of work, sir.’ His voice had a new firmness to it. I wondered about his parents. Had he inherited this patrician pride from them?

                 ‘Did you go out at all?’

                 He shrugged. ‘I had a pass. It was not an opportunity to be missed.’ Then a shadow crossed his face and he sighed.

                 ‘What is it, Bashir?’

                 ‘Within the camp, many heard of my success. Of course, Hamzi deserves much of the credit—’

                 ‘Of course,’ I agreed.

                 ‘But it was my success. People came to ask favours—I did not like the tone they used. I do not owe favours to anyone.’

 

                 Again, a hint of arrogance. This lad should watch out. It’s easy to make enemies. Do a few favours, make a few friends when you’ve got the chance, that’s the way to succeed in life.

                 ‘On this matter, I disagreed with Hamzi: he suggested I should accept some requests.’ He stared at me, proud, almost willing me to challenge him. ‘But among my new admirers, there was one who appealed to me, sir.’ I could see the colour rise in his cheeks. He swallowed, fiddled with his fingers. ‘And that was—Zaina.’

                 ‘Zaina!’ Even I’d heard of her.

                 He started and his blush deepened. ‘I know, sir. I shouldn’t have listened to her. Hamzi warned me: that girl is trouble. I told him to mind his own business, sir.’ He sighed. ‘Alysha had deserted me, Hamzi had argued with me—I was lost…’

                 ‘What did Zaina want?’

                 He looked awkward. ‘At first, it seemed harmless, sir. Like Alysha, she wanted to see the sea.’

                 I nodded. Of course. She would start that way, wouldn’t she?

                 ‘But, sir, I have reason to believe that her intentions are not—honourable.’

                 I had to stop myself from laughing out loud.

                 ‘She has—connections, sir.’

                 He was being discrete, but I could read between the lines. Dealing, of course. Bashir sat up in his chair, pulled himself together and looked me in the eye.

                 ‘I think you now understand, sir. I am not capable of resisting this woman, but obeying her will lead me into trouble. For these reasons, sir, I have the honour to request the withdrawal of my travel pass.’

                 I thought about his story. I believed him. His circumstances were unusual and it was probably true that his problem wasn’t entirely his fault. He’d bent the rules, but I’d no intention of throwing the book at him. If any of our clients were to make good, they’d need to bend some rules.

                 ‘Well, Bashir.’ He looked up. ‘You’ve got yourself into a pretty pickle, haven’t you? Look where your pride and ambition have led you.’

                 He nodded.

                 ‘But I think I may be able to help you.’

                 Hope lit in his eyes.

                 ‘My father—he needs a damp course.’

                 ‘Sir?’

                 ‘Needs some preliminary work in his house: removing all the old plaster. It’d take a week or so, I expect. Certainly keep you out of trouble. Cash in hand, of course. Are you up for it?’

                 Bashir sighed, looked sad, then nodded.

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Sharif Gemie is a retired Professor of History. He was a university lecturer for 32 years. He wrote (or co-wrote) eight non-fiction works, and countless academic articles. His most important books include: Women and Schooling: Gender, Authority and Identity in the Female Schooling Sector, France, 1815-1914 (Keele University Press, 1995); Galicia: A Concise History (Cardiff: UWP, 2006); French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: UWP, 2010); Outcast Europe: Refugees and Relief Workers in an Age of Total War, 1936-48 (London: Continuum, 2011), co-authored with Fiona Reid and Laure Humbert; and The Hippy Trail: A History (1957—88) (Manchester University Press, 2017), co-authored with Brian Ireland.