As Joshua and Abigail walked along a concrete walkway between steel warehouses and a substantial container ship, he felt the first few tentative drops of rain hit him from the endless array of clouds overhead.
He looked to his right as he walked, his mouth gaping. The essentially flat ship had a mini tower block near the centre with a bridge at the top and a series of windows to other rooms punctuating the otherwise pristine white surface that shielded and looked out over the majority of the containers. I suppose it’s easy to hide a people-trafficking container in amongst this lot.
He made a guess at the number of containers aboard the vessel. Eight wide, around fifteen along its length, stacked five high. If every gap is filled, that’s a one in six hundred chance of anyone finding us, and that’s if they bother looking.
Joshua considered his past sea voyages. The last one, back across the English Channel was not a pleasant one. He looked at the towers of coloured containers, stacked across the length of the ship at different heights. I’m not sure if I’ve got the sea legs for a trip like this, stuck inside one of those boxes.
Despite his reservations, Joshua was grateful for long-established trade agreements with far-flung countries. These container ships would arrive and depart from Dover several times a week. Their frequency would serve to reduce suspicion about the contents of the cargo containers. It’s the perfect way to get out of the country unnoticed.
Cranes further ahead, which would have been busy minutes or hours earlier, were sitting motionless against the backdrop of the white cliffs, looking greyer in the increasingly dull weather.
Without warning, the few spots of rain turned into a torrent of sleet. He felt as if he was being pelted by thousands of tiny grains of uncooked rice. With each wearing only light jackets, they picked up their pace en-route to the gangway. Joshua held a hand near his face, with the other holding the single suitcase he was carrying.
In the moments between parking the car in someone else’s car park and looking to embark, he had transferred everything he needed into one full, heavy case. He was grateful to have a hand free to shield his face from the weather, and to have the option to retrieve Sergei’s gun, should there be a need to do so.
Up until that moment, however, Abigail had been strangely subjective. There was not a hint of objection, rejection or anything of the sort. She looks like a girl with a broken will. I don’t know if that’s my doing or someone else’s, but I’m grateful for the peace it’s affording me.
Reaching the point of entry, Joshua stopped and waved Abigail on first. She shrugged and obliged. He followed, hefting the case with him, panting by the time he reached the end of the short uphill slope.
A man dressed in thick yellow waterproof clothing was standing there, staring at them, saying nothing. The guy looked as if he’d spent his entire life on a series of rough sea voyages. There was a look of distrust in his eye and a stern look across his stubble-covered face. His arms were by his side, his shoulders were broad, and his chest was puffed out. He didn’t look like he could ever put on the fake smile seen on the faces of so many employees in the service industry.
Joshua pouted and raised his eyebrows. At least he’s not demanding we leave the ship.
With the storm hammering the decks, producing the only sound anyone could hear, Joshua decided to speak in as loud a voice as possible. “Sergei informed me that a container has been reserved for my use.” The man showed no signs of having heard and understood the message. Joshua paused, doing nothing but staring at him. I wonder if he even speaks English.
After a few seconds of pelting sleet Joshua added. “Number 37.”
The man nodded and said, “I was told you would be alone.” His words sounded as if they had been dredged up from a gravelly sea bed.
“There was a last minute change.”
The large man in the waterproofs again remained taciturn for more time than was comfortable before saying, “Not ideal, but not a problem.”
He turned and walked away. Joshua decided to take Abigail’s arm and follow. I wonder if this guy’s spent so long in the cold that his facial muscles no longer function. Either that, or he’d make one hell of a poker player.
Proceeding through a thin alleyway between various sizes and colours of containers, piled high enough to block out almost all light, they reached a point where they could only proceed in single file. Abigail, still unwilling to resist, went ahead and Joshua squeezed through behind her.
The narrow gap opened up and the light returned. Somewhere amidst the containers was a clearing of sorts. Around them, on the edges, the metal boxes were still piled five high, but towards the centre some were one, two and three high.
There seemed to be little by way of organisation in terms of layout, as if the whole lot had been put in place in the way an impulsive child constructs from building blocks. From a thin gap the grumpy man produced a ladder and leaned it against the side to the left. He didn’t wait for them to climb before flying up the ladder himself.
Peering over the edge of the container, sitting apart and without anything above it, he seemed to suggest that they should follow. They did so, and found another ladder to climb atop one more. Following again, another ladder took them up the height of another two containers. The man stopped at the base of a dark red steel box, yanked at some levers and swung a door open.
He climbed in, Abigail followed, and Joshua climbed up, struggling against the elements and the weight of his case.
Feeling exhausted, he dragged himself into the box, expecting something other than the luxury apartment into which he was looking.
The walls were smooth and painted. Two floor lamps illuminated the space. A large, cream leather sofa for two was positioned near the centre, with a black glass coffee table in front of it, both bolted down to prevent sliding during transit. Two single mattresses, topped with folded, fresh linen, were sitting in the corner.
As the bulbs in the lamps warmed up, they illuminated more and more of the long container. It seemed to continue further than Joshua had thought possible. There was a false wall towards the back, into which several electrical cables disappeared. Two ran to the lamps, one at either end of the makeshift cabin. Another powered a large fan heater, necessary for a winter’s journey. The remaining electrical item was an under-counter refrigerator, next to a cupboard of a similar size.
It was a few moments later that Joshua realised the soft feeling underfoot. He looked down to see a thick, dark blue carpet covering the entire floor.
Abigail, uninterested in anything, took a seat on the right-hand side of the sofa, leaning forward with her arms wrapped around herself, staring at the blue carpet beneath her.
As he surveyed his surroundings, the man of few words walked to the door. “I’m locking the door. Don’t come out.” The door slammed shut and steps on a ladder grew quieter before he heard the scraping of the ladder being removed.
He smiled, thinking about the parting comment. There’s not exactly a latch on the inside of these things. How would he expect us to get out, and where would we go with no ladder?
Hungry from a day filled with action and missing substantial food, Joshua approached the refrigerator and found drinks, sandwich spreads and several types of fresh vegetables and fruit. He withdrew a small bottle of orange juice and let the door swing closed under its own weight. He turned his attention to the cupboard stocked with dry foods, several large packs of crisps, a tub of crackers and a loaf of bread. He withdrew a large, sharing bag of hand-cooked crisps, picked up his bottle again and took a seat on the sofa.
He opened the crisps, the rustle of the packet sounding almost deafening in the small space. After crunching through several, he tilted the packet towards Abigail. “Hungry?” he asked.
Abigail shook her head. As silent as ever. Considering the things she had witnessed in the past day or so, it was no surprise. Joshua had looked through the window of that house and had watched as two men carried the corpse of a young girl out of the back of the house with complete apathy.
He withdrew the packet of crisps from her and raised an eyebrow. It’s hardly surprising she’s not talking. He shoved a few more crisps in his mouth and chewed them slowly. Some of the girls I’ve collected have probably never spoken again, and she’s seen much more than they ever have.
With the closing of those doors, time had run out. Joshua would no longer be in receipt of a phone signal. He would no longer be able to email Abigail’s father with instructions. Doing so at that moment would have been suicide anyway. I wonder if it’s time to start considering the life we’ll have together.
He put the snacks on the table and picked up his drink, looking sideways at Abigail again. “Would you like me to get you a drink?”
Abigail once again shook her head. Joshua thought he saw a tear fly from her cheek as she did so. Something had died within her over the past few hours. The spark she had, the fight, the intelligent obstinacy had been dimmed, if not extinguished beyond all hopes of reigniting.
Joshua let out a long sigh. I hope she shows some signs of normality soon, or this will be a very long journey. Regardless of the aesthetic appeal of my travel companion, it will be no fun at all if her spirit is completely broken.
In time, surely she would realise that her life had been saved by him, even if he had ruined it in the first place. She would have to be grateful. His intervention had given her the chance of a fresh start on life. No ties. No baggage. Nothing ahead but opportunity. If she started to respond in any way to his attempts at conversation, she might be persuaded to see her future through his eyes.