The great pull of the current draws the turtle east, out of the Atlantic, into the neck of troubled water at Tarifa. Spain is to the north and Morocco to the south – the gateway to the Mediterranean. He is hungry and looking for new feeding grounds. At first, he treads back against the new force, but weakness and hunger prevail and he lets himself be carried through. This is unfamiliar territory to the ocean-going turtle. He succumbs, his big sad eyes blinking in the heave of water lifting him.
It is a busy shipping route and the turtle hears the throb of engines and the churn of lethal propellers. Below the looming rock at Gibraltar and its clinging city, he dives deeper to avoid the boats. So many here – small fishing boats bouncing on the waves, letting out great streams of fine net, and sharp hooks and orange floats; larger vessels ploughing deep furrows through the heavy swells. Still he doesn’t look up, just allowing the sucking surge to carry him through into the new body of water and its intensity of salt. There is no food to be found here yet, and he is hungrier than ever, tiring even as he is carried along. He dives deeper still, to the calm of the seabed. The bottom is sandy and sparse; close to lifeless. Again he hopes there will be deeper parts of this new ocean, with fish for eating. On he goes, until slowly the surge of the current eases and he can sense the beginning of another kind of sea; quiet for now. At a rocky underwater outcrop, he scrapes his carapace to remove the barnacles. He can tell it is a cleaning station used by other turtles before him; the trail is worn. There are a few clams half submerged to crunch on. He rests. Little fish nibble and clean his limbs while he hovers sleepily, forelimbs brushing the sand. Africa, the great continent, is to the south. At its northern tip, Morocco reaches out into the sea towards Europe. Fourteen kilometres of water.
In Ceuta, Mahmoud climbs to the roof of the Migrant Detention Centre to look again at the coast of Europe. The heat here is white, like home. He is eighteen, an adult now, and he has been moved from the juvenile centre to live among the men. He does not feel like a man, but three years ago, his mother said he was old enough to try and get work in Spain. It was a long journey, and now he is closer than ever to Europe, but he has stopped moving.
Looking as always to the north, across the water, he aims his gaze towards the crag of Gibraltar, today wearing a veil of mist. He is, geographically, still in Africa. But Ceuta believes itself to be part of Spain – that’s how it was explained to him by a Moroccan volunteer. Still though, he cannot be free in this little bit of Spanish territory. He must wait behind a high fence, hoping for something to change, even though he doesn’t know what that something might be.
The strait is there every day, sometimes clear across to Europe, sometimes hiding in cloud. The water is always crested white and frightening to him. Fourteen kilometres – an impossible amount of turbulent water – even if you did make it through the wire. He has heard of Tarifa, of bodies washed up near beach umbrellas and sunbathing tourists; of police chases and beating and imprisonment. His dreams are populated by those who had gone before – drowned or re-captured or just missing. Or the lucky ones who disappear into the safety of Europe, where everything is better.
If he says he wants to go home, they will send him, willingly. But there is nothing at home but hunger and the shame of failure. His mother still writes to him, encouraging him to keep trying. She can’t know how hard it is. The sea is a wall he cannot breach.
The mist thins in front of the Rock of Gibraltar; he sees it reaching out into the sea towards him, to Africa. Mahmoud squints one eye closed and holds up his thumb to block out the faraway chunk of coast. He sometimes thinks about going to live in the streets of the town instead of the detention centre; some of his friends are there, sleeping rough, just for the taste of freedom. He misses school, but now they say he is too old. He remembers a geography lesson in his school at home, when the teacher told the class about a computer that was modelling the movement of the continents. They are moving towards each other again, floating on tectonic plates. Africa is slowly travelling north. Someday, millions of years into the future, it will collide with Europe, and they will merge into one great land mass again, like the Pangea of the past. Mahmoud imagines he might feel the great grunting of Africa, as it takes another step towards Europe, squeezing the Mediterranean water out into the Atlantic, a little at a time. He might hear gentle voices welcoming him. He closes his eyes. The gulls continue their calling over the old port.
His throat is dry. There are another three hours before the next meal comes. He climbs down from the roof to the water-tap in the courtyard. Another day.
The turtle – he is a Loggerhead – continues along the north coast of Africa. He has found food along the way, and he is growing stronger. The waters of the Mediterranean are very salty, and he is adjusting to it, his body is allowing for the changes in lift and steer that come with navigating, while it processes the extra salt. Here and there he finds pockets of food and places where other turtles have passed through.
He is hunting late one night alongside the coast of Libya, when a little flotilla of inflatable boats suddenly appear, bobbing low and heavy in the water, small outboard engines struggling to keep them moving. The turtle is startled and flips to dive below, not expecting another boat close by. Something grates against his shell. A small wooden paddle. A light shines down into the water before he can move away. He glances up, rheumy-eyed. A little girl is looking down at him. She is holding a yellow flashlight shaped like a duck. The child stares down at the turtle for the briefest of moments before her fragile boat is jolted upwards on a wave. Someone screams.
The turtle turns to get away, going deeper. He hits sand, and realises he is closer to a beach than he should be. Now all around him the water and the surface are full of loud sounds and frantic movement. There are more lights, blindingly bright, shining across the water from a bigger, faster boat. The hard line of wash from the boat hits the turtle, and he is tumbled over by it. His neck grazes against shoreline rocks. He is hemmed in, disoriented by the lights and noises. He fights against the powerful wash to break free towards the open water.
Further out, the screaming intensifies. One of the little inflatable boats is sinking. The children are standing up in the middle, frightened, and the tipping point is crested. The first of the passengers fall overboard. Over they go, into the dark water, hitting it hard. Their orange lifejackets bob them up momentarily, then begin to soak up the water, because most of their soft sections are filled with sponge and cardboard instead of buoyancy material. They are dragged down, flailing their arms, losing their grip on their children. A small yellow torch floats away, its gentle beam pointing to the dark sky, until it dims and sinks towards the bottom.
The big coastguard boat speeds around, manoeuvring left and right, churning up the water, spotlights throwing a shuddering glare on the hellish scene. They pull people from the water, missing some in the dark. Several of the boats are adrift, engines stopped for lack of fuel. Some keep going. In the space of a few minutes, a nightmare plays out in the small area of open water. The boats spread out, hopefuls still blindly heading north to Italy, Greece, whichever bit of Europe they think they can get to first; others are swimming. Belongings float by. Mute dry-bags containing phones and passports, high school certificates, relatives’ addresses in Germany. The coastguard boat, full of humans wrapped in foil sheets, speeds back to port, back to the detention centres. Then silence.
The turtle hauls himself away from the rocks. He has survived the thrashing waters, he has avoided the spinning propellers and dodged the boat-hooks thrust out into the darkness. He brushes past the floating debris, pulls himself wearily back out into the deeper ocean, calm now, swimming once more with the current, east. As dawn approaches, he finds an empty beach and allows himself to rest warily in the shallows for an hour. Lifting his head out into the air, the turtle weeps. His tears flow heavily from his eyes and stream back into the Mediterranean, releasing the salt he has absorbed over the long journey.
The sun rises on an Egyptian resort as he slips unseen back into the depths. The azure sea darkens to match the sky as the heat builds. He finds a fragmented and partially bleached coral reef, with small fish darting around; some life remains. He passes by pleasure boats and snorkelers, is spotted by some tourists on a catamaran and has his photograph taken.
A few days later, he turns left – north towards Israel and Syria – the water warming as he goes. He has learned that there is a limit to his movements – that this body of water is enclosed and busy with human activity; how different it is to the open Atlantic. In that great ocean, the perils are known – they are older and elemental, unpeopled. Here the water is saltier, the food tastes different. It is hot and unpredictable for a lone traveller. He turns left again, now heading west. He thinks he can smell home.
On the south coast of Crete, a waiter is ending his shift at a beach bar. The evening brings cricket song and the welcome cooling of the hot sand. Ahmed finishes folding the beach parasols and hosing down the wooden slatted path to the water. A few tourists are swimming in the golden light as the sun sets; he watches them striking out parallel to the shore, confident. Occasionally, one of them will make a sound that startles him, but it is just a whoop of enjoyment or a call to a friend on the shore. The sound makes his heart thud, once or twice while his mind decodes it.
Ahmed has not set foot in the water since the day he crawled onto a Lesvos beach. Only four of them survived the crossing. His dreams are full of the others – people he did not know who had paid to be drowned by the traffickers from Izmir. He and the three who lived were good swimmers, and anyway, they couldn’t afford the fifty euros the market traders wanted for those spurious life-jackets. When the boat capsized, the four had struck out for the shore until they crept exhausted onto the hard pebbles. He had not wanted to look back, but he could not keep his head turned away from the tragedy behind them. So many hadn’t made it. It was only two kilometres.
He turns off the hose and winds it up, nodding to his boss before heading to the small caravan he shares with Tanush, the Albanian man who does the night shift. The tip jar on the bar counter is nearly full – maybe this time he will get some of the euros in it. He comforts himself in his loneliness that he survived; he has made it this far. He has refugee status, but now he must wait for the endless processing before he can move on. Germany is the place to be; some of his cousins made it there. Everything takes so much time, so much out of his life.
It is one of those evenings when he feels his heart fill with sadness on the short walk to his bed. In the half light, he feels a hand grip his arm gently. Tanush says nothing, but his wide smile shines in encouragement. Be happy. You are here now, his smile says. Tanush believes in the moment, especially if the past is painful, and the future is uncertain.
Ahmed falls asleep in the caravan, hoping for a dreamless night.
Out in the darkness, the turtle passes the swimmers; he is heading west now over the deepest part of this salty, busy sea. He is less afraid in these waters, where the boats are small and the people less threatening. He may rest again before heading up to the Peloponnese, or into the Adriatic, depending on the fish. One of these days, when he is bigger and stronger, he will swim out of the mouth of the Mediterranean, against the current, back through the Strait of Gibraltar to his home waters in the vast Atlantic.