Writing by Caitlin Tambini, artwork by Lou Vachez.
Rosie smoked Vogues. Nostalgic from a Parisian holiday aged 16, she bought a packet when she arrived in France, and they became her brand. When men in bars or parks asked her for a cigarette, she would send them on their way, the elegant circumference alien between their fat fingers.
I say France, but Calais doesn’t feel like France. Not really. Just 21 miles from Dover, it was captured by France in 1558, and ceased to be the ‘brightest jewel in England’s crown’. It's strange to think of Calais as a jewel now. It’s strange to think of it having any history at all- virtually razed to the ground during the Second World War, it now resembles a toytown- yellow, bell shaped street lamps hang, daffodil-like, over dumpy houses. The city always seemed a strange harbour for the situation it hosted. ‘Be nice to the locals’, Tom reminded us before our first distribution. ‘They didn’t ask for a humanitarian crisis in their back gardens’.
Humanitarian crisis. Human. Crisis? Where in this epithet are the moments of profound, overwhelming joy? Sharing a joke; identifying a mutual interest; being taught Kurdish dances while distributing in Dunkirk. Day to day attempts to find trivial happinesses. Moments of humanity with the very people governments are determined to dehumanise: talking, dancing, eating together. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.
In November, we moved house. Isabel’s had been warm, quiet. We debated with our housemate on the best version of ‘Beggin’: Maneskin, Madcon or Frankie Valli. We tried to keep dinnertime conversation light. Nat hosted volunteers in her old style house with its high ceilings, five floors and lack of central heating. Rent was cheaper, and it was closer to the centre. Easier to get to the pub. Easier to get to the vigils which happened only too often in those darkening winter weeks. We shared a shelf of the fridge, and Nat took a liking to us, showing us how to make crepes on her broken gas hob between her shifts at the COVID vaccine centre. She even made us pineapple upside-down cake when the boat sank.
It was cold, and we went after work to a charity shop next door to our warehouse, behind a used car garage. We were heading towards the bus stop when Cindy, a soft spoken Harvard graduate, looked down at her phone and swore. A sinking; another one, and the death toll was looking high. Fifteen people so far.
We ran into Rosie at the bus stop. ‘Have you heard?’, she asked. ‘They were saying twenty three when I left’.
The number climbed through the evening. Our attic room was cold. We tried to sleep.
We headed back to the warehouse as a chalky sun was rising over the pharmaceutical manufacturers and oversized supermarkets. We had a morning meeting; we had business as usual. As the meeting drew to a close, a member of the group raised their hand. ‘Today of all days’ they said, ‘can we make sure we’re looking out for each other, and checking in on people’s capacity before we start a conversation?’. A ping shattered the silence. A text from my mum: ‘I saw the news, I hope you’re okay. I love you. Xx’. My first tears fell.
Comfort took a strange form that morning. The severe looking French woman saw Rosie crying, and handed her two bananas from a green plastic crate, saying ‘I think you need these’. We ate them as she chain-smoked ‘emergency Vogues’ - banana in one hand, cigarette in the other.
When I came back this summer, we swam in the sea. Playing catch, throwing ourselves with joyful shrieks into the murky waters. The lethal waters. The same waters into which, that evening at the vigil, we threw roses. Into winds so strong they simply blew back into our faces.
We passed the day in a fugue state. Unable to stop crying, Rosie and I were sent to convalesce in the shed. It had a radiator, so we obliged. Opening the door, we were hit not only by warmth, but with the flatulent scent of the sauerkraut which had been fermenting, forgotten, in the corner. We began to giggle. Tears and snot and laughter filling the rickety wooden structure, positioned, as it was, between the warehouse and the shipping container filled with slowly mouldering veg.
Rosie had a ferry booked to go home the next day. We walked to say goodbye in the milky morning, pondering the ease of her 90 minute ferry journey. Rosie was not going to die; Rosie had a passport.
‘How is it?’ I texted her that afternoon. ‘Is it weird?’.
‘Mum bought me a lagerita’, she responded. ‘She said I’d had a hard week’.
Bananas and lageritas. Who were we to grieve? Ferries and passports, and mums who, in their own strange ways, tried to show us they cared.
I shouldn’t know Rosie. We never should’ve met, wandering through the booze cruise warehouses of Northern France, lost, in our raincoats. We shouldn’t have had to be there.
Rosie works in London now, at a charity for unaccompanied minors, the ones that make it. They call her professor, because of her glasses, and tell her about a dance party that was held in a Calais wasteland. ‘I know’, she says, ‘I was there’.
And we were, albeit a million miles away.