Friday 16. March.
It’s a sign of the times when you can’t even board a domestic flight without wanting to claw your own eyes out.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s me. Maybe in the rush to leave home, I missed the bulletin that went out this morning, saying the War on Terror had turned into the War on Feminine Hygiene.
Christ knows the evidence is definitely there: so that’s the wipes, the hand sanitiser, and the anti-bacterials – all gone. Confiscated at the airport.
Almost like someone decided I was the risk during our short trip across The Channel.
Here, the reception lounge is chilly and has the feel of an abandoned government project; the luggage conveyer belt seems rusted shut, and the rubber flap thingys on the end of it are squint and, in some cases, missing completely.
It looks like some toothless addict with a bust face is leering out at me, cold air whistling through the gaps in his teeth as he slurs, hey arsehole: we know all about you, and we lost your luggage … you bet we did.
I get it.
I might look like I could play a Walton in a B-movie spin-off, but I’m not a Walton – and I know the power of hints – so I totally get what all this is.
It’s the universe bloating with portent; warning me I shouldn’t have come here to do what I’m about to do.
I know that. But at this stage, I have two options: either stay here and own the support worker job, or go back to London and hire one for myself.
Stick, or twist?
The conveyer belt gives a metallic grunt that I interpret as an answer. I try not to take it personally when my suitcase is the last one to be spat out – upside down and guts bulging.
I grab it and quickly remove the awareness ribbon that my mother has attached to the underside handle as a marker.
The Boomer’s equivalent of taking a selfie with a bemused subject, wrapping the image in a flag that would lose points in a pub quiz, then re-tweeting the whole sorry package under a trending hashtag.
Nothing says, ‘I Care’ quite like a trending hashtag or an awareness ribbon, that’s true, but I really don’t need any more reminders that I’m here for all the wrong reasons, so I drag the case into the arrivals hall, all worked up and hot and wondering what I’ll do if my contact isn’t here to pick me up.
It’s entirely possible that he won’t be. This whole thing has been slap-dash and quixotic and went a bit like this: I replied to the glossy Curas ad on Twitter, got a vague phone call two days later, a dispassionate speech at their branch in Bethnal Green the day after that, and then I got flown here – all within a week.
Alderney’s new offshore processing centre is a work in progress, the woman who interviewed me said. It’s a pilot initiative, and there are few enough people inside that they can trial the role of support staff.
Even as I digested all of this information, I felt the interviewer was trying to put me off the job, somehow.
There weren’t too many people willing to work with asylum seekers, she said in loaded tones. They seem too ‘other’. They have a lot of bad press and not enough advocates to counter it. So was I sure, she insisted on knowing, that I wanted to come here?
I was careful not to say that I wanted to come for exactly the reasons she’d listed; that I feel like I can only get perspective if I’m exposed to real adversity.
This fact doesn’t exactly make me proud of myself, but look: I didn’t invent the phenomenon of using other people as a baseline to measure my own wellbeing. Most of the philosophy in our meme culture revolves around the theme: (it could be worse; always someone worse off than you).
Pseudo-science always boasts that altruists live longer and are less depressed, and it’s incumbent on any analytical mind to ask: well, why are they? And why do they?
It’s because they know.
They know what real darkness is, and then, ironically, they see.
It’s high time my eyes opened to something real – and the contact from the camp would be a very good place to start.
I’m about to head back the way I came when I hear a deep, drain-like voice coming from my left-hand side: “Kate,” it says. “Kate Maddison.”
There’s no introductory inflection. My name is not a question. Even though I’ve never been here, and it really should be.
I turn around to see this person who thinks they know me so well.
The guy waiting is mousey-haired and lean, with a wiry strength and air of authority that gets played down by his casual jeans and jumper.
He holds himself with a weird charisma, and I get just the slightest hint of cult leader vibe coming off him; that false Messianic whiff of a zealot who would impose ethics on others that he wouldn’t necessarily apply to himself, not when he’s alone in the dark with no one watching.
A bit heavy for a first-time glance across the hall, I know. But that’s my thing: seeing through the human skin that we all wriggle into each morning, and getting right down into the good stuff.
My mother hates this about me. She’s always taught me that constantly calling out bullshit is an exhausting waste of time, and I’ve since internalised my observations. But I remain the world’s biggest cynic, and this guy? Well, he’s definitely drip-fed more than a few unthinking acolytes in his time.
I make note to be on my guard and go over, powering up Walton Smile. It’s hard to maintain because up close I see I was right; my new colleague is perfectly decent from the outside, but behind it all something’s gone off; started to rot between his eyes.
“Hi,” I make myself extend a hand. “I’m Kate.”
“I know,” he says. “I’m Samuel Brady, the centre manager.”
I wrench my fingers back and wonder what to say, in the end deciding that mock humility always goes down well with these types. “I’m sorry you’re waiting,” I offer. “The flight got delayed and my suitcase took ages.”
“No worries,” Samuel responds. “Happy to wait. We don’t get many visitors down here, even less in the centre.”
I smile, but it’s that warning again – the one I got during my interview. I brush it off and move for my case. Samuel sees me doing this, but he beats me to the punch and, without waiting or asking to see if I want him to, starts lugging my entire, neatly packed life towards the exit.
Like the crushing handshake, it’s a power play; probably the result of some middle management course, where they knock all the authenticity out of you and replace it with humanoid crap like: take charge in those first seconds! Own them!
I’m supposed to be leaving all that behind, not reliving it. So I catch up and, with a tight, “let me”, claim my life back.
In the car, we exchange a few half-baked pleasantries before awkward silence descends. I ride it out as we curl along the rugged, wind-bitted landscape of the island, away from civilisation and into Alderney heartland.
It’s hard to believe this place is Britain. All the signs we follow are quasi-French (Grand Val to Fort Clonque) and the air blasting through the crack in my window smells baked and lush, like spring rain.
Unfamiliar birds craw outside the car, their alien calls suggesting that the landscape is full of exoticism, and secrets.
A theory that the strange, concrete bunkers slipping past the window don’t do anything to damage.
As I watch them with a strange unease, I feel Samuel’s gaze scuff the top of my head every half minute or so. I imagine he’s trying to reconcile this ice queen with the saint I described on my online application form.
I ended up putting everything they wanted to hear. But in the text box where it asked, why do you want this job? I initially just sort of blinked and thought, well, why do you think I want this job?
For the same reason everyone wants these jobs: I burned out in the system and now it’s time to rise; safely away from the call of white-collar damnation.
I fell into that, you see, like we all do. I ignored the tug of my own dreams – and my creative, introspective nature – to make easy money account managing consumer goods that move so brainlessly fast, I’m miffed as to why they need entire PR teams to flog them.
It was a dumb but seemingly adjacent move towards journalism on my part.
Even though I knew from the beginning that my particular agency was all business; a high-performance (read: high-turnover) organisation lorded over by a cabal of standard issue white-collar sociopaths, all hiding behind their ‘cool’ culture (read: Ping-Pong table), asymmetrical haircuts and ‘rad’ silver shoes.
I went for it anyway, because PR itself is also meticulously spun. It’s all, Come! Write! Brainstorm! Be creative – and feed yourself!
So that’s what I did. I settled into the mediocre, the safe, the easy, the celebrated and abundant, the path of least resistance that pays for mortgages and therapy bills.
I forced myself to Lean In, even though I was mostly just thinking Piss Off.
And fairly recently, the reality of being a Working Woman caught up with me. I found all my free time was being spent trembling like a brain bleeder, dreading the cheery ping! of an incoming message or email, and wishing – with every cell in me – that my manger bEN (small b, capital EN, bitches!), and my clients, and my incompetent direct reports would all just perish in a work accident while I was taking one of my many ‘sick’ days.
In my head I imagined a big, hot office fire, where the alarm goes off but bEN insists everyone stay to answer just-one-more-email. On the really bad days it was a mass shooting, staged to protest this flaming garbage can of a work culture that we’re all forced to cower around, just so we can stay alive and (un) well in our safe but existentially barren society.
None of the atrocities panned out, so I bought a knock off bike from Brick Lane market and actively started building the courage to steer it into traffic, hoping I would break a leg/arm/neck (the body part felt irrelevant) on my commute to work.
That disturbed even me. So I started to bus it again – and then I snapped.
So, in a nutshell: that is why I want – no, why I need – this job.
“You right over there?” Samuel asks, piercing the membrane on my space out. “You’re dead calm. More than I was when I came here.”
Ha. Calm. I get accused of this a lot now, actually. I think it’s all the yoga, which I get congratulated on, too. Like I’m upside down twice a day for the good of my own health.
“Yeah, great,” I say. “Was just thinking.”
“You must have a million questions.”
“Loads,” I say, though I really don’t. I’ve always hated small talk for its own sake, and the silences have only gotten longer since I was fired. It doesn’t help that all the words I know (disrupt; deadline; deliverable – bonus if you get them all in during one breath) just sound utterly bankrupt.
Still, I can sense that Samuel likes his newbies verbose, so I work the ennui out of my thick tongue and ask the one thing that has got me vaguely curious. “Are you Aussie?”
Samuel grins, showing small, sharp white teeth. “Yeah. I’m from Bendigo, near Melbourne. You?”
“London. Well, Essex originally.”
“Ahh,” he says, and I know he doesn’t have the faintest clue where or what Essex is. It’s not a bad thing (I can’t take one more Essex girl joke), so I twist in my seat, another level of interested now. “How come you’re all the way down here?”
Samuel looks at me for clarification.
“What’s the Aussie-Alderney connection?” I ask.
“You don’t know?”
“No,” I say. “Should I?”
His thin shoulders shrug under the ribbed jumper. “Maybe. If you’d done your homework.”
The atmosphere clicks from light to...something in seconds. In the next beat, Samuel smiles, and I wonder if I’ve imagined it.
“Just playing,” he says. “So the company I work for ran ops in the offshore sites Down Under. I’ve managed all the biggies, so they asked me to head the pilot for you lot, and here I am.”
I make noises of interest in the back of my throat and wonder what to say next. I don’t want to show my ignorance again, or that I’m not as connected to the centre’s narrative as I should be.
In my current state, world events feel like an expensive luxury, for people who have the time and the mental health to worry about them.
I’ve followed what’s gone on outside my head these past twenty-four months the way I’d follow a BBC Radio 2 debate floating in from my back room. I’m aware of the what, but not the deeper analysis behind it.
I know, for example, that a psychological maniac became President; that Apple released an upgraded amalgam of steel and plastic right around the time big hair made a come back; I’m aware that policies and rights got tighter after Britain divorced the EU; and that Alderney opened to deal with anyone who couldn’t quite get over the break up.
I string all these events together like a candy bracelet and feel a sliver more confident. “Some people back in London are up in arms about this place,” I offer, thinking that has to work; most people in London are up in arms about something.
When Samuel’s jaw pulses, I know I’ve hit a spot. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
“Should they be?”
“No,” he says too quickly. “And a little insight into my personality for you: it really pisses me off when left wing hippies get up on their high horse about what we’re doing. These people risk their lives trying to cross and we offer them the only port in a shit storm. And where are the social justice warriors then? I’ll tell you where: in their McMansions, bumping their gums from behind a screen.”
He jams the steering wheel through white knuckles, and the cult leader vibe thrums stronger. “This is a humanitarian project,” he adds, sounding rehearsed now. “If anyone gives you stick, that’s what you tell them: we do good. Alderney bridges the gap between what they want and the resources we have.”
They. We. Samuel’s ad hominem lexicon sets off a small alarm in my head. It feels too dangerous to explore, so I force myself onto the next choice phrase: Alderney bridges the gap.
I know that one. It was on the job ad: We’re bridging the gap and helping Europe’s asylum seekers across troubled waters. Come join us, and make the difference.
Listening with fresh ears, it sounds a lot like the kind of fluff I used to come up with at the agency, and I can easily imagine a group of over-paid spin doctors spread around a table, sipping Starbucks lattes and feeding key words – English Channel; Asylum Seeker; – into a word cloud that auto generates a soulless tagline for them.
“Who runs the programme?” I ask Samuel, suddenly needing to know this isn’t just another branding exercise.
“A few people,” he says. His silence implies he doesn’t want to say more.
I wait it out, and he finally concedes. “The Home Office have contracted Alcorp to head up operations. Rocka do our security, The Alfred Group cover healthcare, and now that all the basics are in place we’ve got the charity on board.” He looks over at me. “You’re the first, and this is a difficult gig. You do know that, right?”
I channel the forced lilt six years in PR has drilled into my vocal chords. “I know, they told me in the interview.”
“Yeah, but I’m guessing they didn’t tell you about the non-stop complaining, and the depression, and the threats of self-harm?” I stay quiet, and Samuel goes on, “I need you to watch over this lot closely, be my eyes and ears. If you see anything that worries you, you report it to me or to Aly, understood? She’s my right-hand woman. You’ll love her.”
I find more positive noises coming out of my throat while I try to ignore the sick feeling that I’ve been brought here to be a support worker for Samuel, not the people inside.
I lean my head against the window and go back to the scene sliding past the glass, trying to relax into the breeze stroking my hair.
We’re at the coast now, the Easternmost point in the island, according to the Satnav. The cliff tops are snowy with gulls and the light is spectacular, the way it sifts out from scudding clouds in rays of gold that are sharp as glass. They make the water sparkle, like a million tiny bombs are going off on its surface.
It’s perfect, or it is until a ghetto of sterile containers, watch posts and high razor wire slip into view as we pull a sharp left and veer back on the coast.
I glance at Samuel, whose jutting chin speaks only of calm, and pride.
Without taking his eyes off the fortress he asks, “Ready?”
Later, when I’m actually in the camp, I won’t even remember what the preppy lie was.
I’ll just know that it was naïve – and wrong.