An Elephant

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Chapter 9: Salim

Chapter 9: Salim

“The butterfly sleeps well, perched on the temple bell...

Until it rings”

- Yosa Buson

This is a real opportunity, I’m sure of it but that man with him is seriously big and obviously highly dangerous… I need money today, though.

Salim watched as the odd trio headed along the northern edge of the square that was so familiar to him. He dared hope that he got hold of the bag that the skinny, purple-haired guy was carrying, and wondered what was inside. He hoped for hard cash, but it could be drugs, gold, diamonds even. He thought briefly of what he might do if he came into some money, a fantasy he entertained often: Rent a cheap apartment (with a fixed address and some cash in the bank, he could get a permanent job), stop selling hashish, fill the fridge with good food, and learn how to enjoy life.

Much as he loved to get stoned all day, Salim was well aware that the lethargy that the dope caused, made getting out of his hole difficult; and the hole was deepening. There were new dangers: Some recent visitors to the squat, friends of the Dutch couple, Stefan and Susie, had been smoking heroin. Neither Salim nor David had ever tried it, but David had seemed far from repulsed, tempted even, and this had terrified Salim. In the old days, some of the wealthy in Iraq, and large swathes of the Middle East, generally avoided alcohol, but had a long history of opium use. It had many parallels with after-dinner cannabis use for the European upper classes, but its refined cousin, heroin, was different. He knew that heroin was far more addictive, and it represented a lifestyle choice that Salim wished to avoid at all costs.

As much as his bond with David was a strong one, and he could trust him on so many levels, Salim was not prepared to follow him down such a path. David appeared vulnerable to heroin’s temptation and the downward spiral that all too often followed. David had once even hinted that the hustle-score-use lifestyle that they currently followed was similar to that of a full-blown junkie. Despite his lack of a true home and gainful employment, Salim aspired to being a worthy soul in his own way, and for him this was incompatible with heroin on any level.

He had felt the beginnings of fear, an emotion he was more than familiar with. What Salim struggled to reconcile, was that the short term escapism heroin seemed to provide to its users, was barely necessary for the users he had met in France. What fear, pain and suffering did they have to escape from? Granted there was abuse, violence and suffering in many people’s lives - he cohabited with the results of this process - but he found it hardly compared to what he had lived through.

The day he had been taken to prison near Hakmiya, back in northern Iraq, still only a child of seven, he was dragged past what he later found out was called the ‘Rape Room’. The door was open and he had looked in to see it empty of people, but there was women’s underwear strewn all over the floor, and what he later learned to be condoms. In the so-called ‘Washington Room’, he was told that men and women were suspended and beaten with cables, before having their toenails removed with pliers. The most frightening experience of his first day however, was when he was left alone in a cell used to hold only children. He had thought he would be safe, as children were not supposed to be executed and he was not yet ten, but he read some of the words carved into the wall by his predecessors. The first said: ‘Goodbye Mummy and Daddy, they are going to kill me today’ and the second said: ‘I am ten years old. But in the papers they changed my age to eighteen for execution.’ He stopped reading after that.

After an hour, another Kurdish boy of a similar age was brought to Salim’s holding cell. The guard who kicked him into the room had said ‘You may as well confess. They’ll execute you anyway’. Forgotten for a while, their first two days were spent without food or water, but the two could not even look each other in the eye. Expecting the worst, they simply sat, weeping in grim silence, and not a single word was uttered. Salim had wondered what it was that a boy of seven was supposed to be confessing to.

They were then moved down to an underground level of the prison, where they spent the next twenty-six months, flea-ridden and severely malnourished, sharing a tiny sewage-soaked cell with anything from five to twenty-five children and adolescents. It appeared random: some of the teenagers lasted only a few days before they disappeared, some of the younger ones lasted a year or more. By the time their imprisonment came to an end, Salim and Hasan, his brother-in-survival, had been in the room the longest. He never understood how they had managed to dodge death for so long.

It somehow became known to the authorities within the prison that scrutiny from The West was expected imminently, and the Ba’athist regime effectively opened the prison doors for many of the inmates, including the orphaned Salim, Hasan and the other surviving cellmates. He left with Hasan, to be later rounded up and eventually delivered to Metin, Hasan’s older brother. The parents of both were long since murdered, and so a week later, Salim found himself smuggled over the border to Iran in Metin’s lorry, along with Hasan, three other Kurdish children, and ten pounds of heroin.

His sense of relief at escaping the Anfal campaign in Kirkuk, and his eventual arrival in France, had provided safety on so many levels, but he was starkly reminded of his fragile mortality when Hasan died of tuberculosis. Surviving TB himself, Salim was then presented with a far subtler kind of stress. Danger was not as present or as urgent - he wasn’t spitting his teeth out for looking at a guard in the wrong way, or dodging rape on a day-to-day basis, but he was vulnerable to a new kind of darkness.

Six months later he found himself in Paris, newly delivered through a process of international lobbying down a long line of aid agencies. Maltreatment and TB had taken their toll on him, but he took small comfort in the fact that while he was only beginning his adolescence, he was no longer at the mercy of the state, and completely and utterly in charge of his own destiny for the very first time in his life. Salim was able to take advantage of the easy release that drugs offered. Getting stoned helped him to avoid fixating over the losses he had witnessed, and he considered his self-medication positive, a necessity in fact.

Hashish was enough for now, but with his embedded memories of murdered parents and other atrocities, would it always provide enough of a dulling effect? David already seemed to be drifting toward harder drugs, and with his currently unrewarding, soul-sapping lifestyle, soon Salim might feel the same temptation.

He would have preferred to go hungry rather than ask a stranger for money, and since escaping Iraq he was lucky enough to have never been in quite such dire straits as to risk starvation for his pride. David didn’t have such sensibilities, and often talked about how much he used to make while begging in London. ‘There is good money to be made, and the drugs over there are great quality compared to France, but it’s freezing cold and I can’t really speak the language.’ he used to say. David had stayed in a squat in a place bizarrely called Elephant and Castle, until they accidentally burned it down and he got arrested and deported back to France. He often spoke fondly about it, and when he did, it felt like the only reasons David wasn’t involved in a lifestyle of habitual hard drugs in London, were because he had poor language skills and didn’t like cold weather.

Salim hoped one day soon to get on the straight and narrow and leave the squat, but he also needed money fast, to take advantage of another cheap block of hash from Karim. In contrast to his younger years, he now had the immense luxury of being able to walk away if he wanted, and maybe this afternoon’s opportunity and the strange English trio, with their mysterious bag, were his ticket to leave the squat in style. He watched the black holdall swinging from the purple-haired guy’s skinny fingers.

I don’t want to go back home tonight empty-handed… or in need of a loan from Stefan and Susie to pay Karim for our 50 grams. If ever there was a perfect time to steal something, just as a one-off, this is it.

Salim looked behind him to see Giovanni, the local policeman, distracted by the football crowds. Despite being in civilian clothes, he looked a little ill-at-ease, compared with his usual jovial arrogance. Even for Giovanni, Salim thought, the whole feel of Place St George must appear worlds apart from the usual laid back, slow-moving familiarity.

He watched the bag swinging from the hand of the skinny purple-haired man. The angry-looking one with him glanced briefly at the holdall, confirming Salim’s suspicions that it was valuable. Salim wondered whether more people in the square might make his current task easier.

It’s easier to sneak up in a crowd, but there are more people to avoid if I have to make a run for it. He shuddered when he looked at the huge-chested, tattooed behemoth bursting out of his green T-shirt, then yet another danger occurred to him.

I wonder if there are other plain clothes here today? What if I grab the bag and get arrested immediately?

Behind Giovanni, a couple sat right in the corner. Earlier, he had overheard them speaking English. The young blond woman wore a pink vest and faced a pale man in a yellow T-shirt. Salim couldn’t see his face, but his neck was sunburned, and even his arms were flushing red in the early afternoon heat.

She is really beautiful.

He looked at David who looked back, wide-eyed with urgency and anticipation. They were both excited by the prospect of a big score. The body language of the skinny purple-haired one continued to broadcast that he carried something of value: he looked protective of it, and unprepared for his surroundings.

He’s so nervous that he’s a bit switched off from his environment – he’s not even alert. That’ll make it easier.

“Let’s do it.”

“It’s my turn to be decoy” said a smiling David, undoubtedly relieved.

He’s obviously spotted the enormous tattooed muscle problem.

“You were decoy last time,” said Salim, “That girl with the red sunglasses.”

“She hadn’t even seen me, she just forgot them and walked off. And they were worthless shit anyway.”

“I still had to take the risk of picking them up and walking off with them. We were desperate… practically starving” Salim said in his defence.

“There was no risk, she had forgotten them.”

He’s right thought Salim. Shit. There was no point in arguing, David always got his way. Whenever they had differing points of view, it was David’s chosen path that they followed.

David was already speeding up, trying to get ahead of the quarry before they left the square. Salim looked ahead at the purple-haired guy carrying the black holdall. The bag seemed half empty, but Salim was still convinced that he carried something of value.

I wonder what he’s actually got in there? he wondered again, and examined the blue-green tattoos on the huge guy, and then at the eyes of other one with them, who looked as alert as he was aggressive.

This better be worth the danger, but something deep down tells me that it is.

Salim headed toward the North East corner of the square to get behind their quarry, while David headed off at an angle, looking nonchalantly to his left. David was always adept at looking detached and distracted, but was ready to pounce, the moment he got the chance. Salim sometimes found himself so involved in the moment that he got nervous, even during small-time bread-and-butter hash deals. He had sometimes been known to give the game away and ruin their other little scams purely through nerves, just at the last minute. Now he felt jittery, his mind was racing and his mouth was dry. He tried to calm himself and put the situation in perspective:

They’ve come to a place like Marseille on business, which is a message in itself. They’re not police – they don’t make them that big, and one’s got purple hair. They’re up to no good, so I suppose that makes them fair game.

There were no longer strong ethical questions concerning the nature of theft this time for Salim. He couldn’t help but think how hugely dangerous the big guy looked, but it was the one with purple hair who carried the bag, and his fingers looked so skinny they’d have little chance of resisting if Salim simply grabbed it and ran, so they may not even need their tried and tested smoke-and-mirrors decoy system.

There are a few people to hide behind, but I’d prefer a lot more.

Increased numbers should make it easier to go unnoticed on the approach, but he started to get a nagging, eerie feeling that he was being watched.

He looked at the Japanese couple that walked between him and the target trio. He struggled to ascertain Asian people’s ages, but guessed they were early twenties. She wore what looked like a school uniform, with enormous circular sunglasses and a bag with At the Drive-in inscribed on it. Salim imagined this to be a band, but he wasn’t sure. Her companion wore large, perfectly square spectacles and a fine goatee beard, above a T-shirt with a picture of a record shop and the word Endtroducing printed on the back. On his impossibly tiny wrist he also wore a digital watch far bigger than Salim had ever seen.

Japanese people often look so weird and childish, but so cool at the same time. How do they manage that? he wondered.

As they approached the hotel to their right, the purple-haired one shivered as he looked at the bag he carried, then at the enormous tattooed man.

Something significant is happening here.

The rush of adrenalin was making Salim feel nauseous.

David was now off to the left of the thread of passing tourists as he surreptitiously sped up to overtake the targeted trio, ready to act as a decoy when the right moment came. Salim pulled the long hair out of his eyes and back as if to put in an imaginary pony tail, and focused again on the huge man’s tattoos.

He’s absolutely covered in them, even his face. He must be a total psycho…I can’t believe it’s not my turn to be decoy.

He couldn’t help but sigh.

Think: ‘Big score!’ Think: ‘Way out of this life.’ Think: ‘Get off the streets!’ He often needed to take risks, and a part of him somehow dared to hope that this could be the last time he was involved in this kind of thing.

He tried to imagine having the money for his own place, having a bank account, a holiday, even. He wondered what it must be like not to worry where his next meal or spliff were coming from. The peace of mind that not constantly risking violence or prison must bring, was such an alien concept.

That morning David and Salim had eaten at the hostel that Ahmed, the Eritrean ran. Not for the first time Ahmed had told Salim that there was more to life than simply hustling people for short term gain, that it wasn’t really helping him, and his existence had no heart in it. ‘Heart is the most important thing in the world’ he had explained. ‘To be truly happy, you need to be true in your heart.’ Salim was tired, broke and full of self pity at the time he heard the words, and he found them far too preachy for the mood he was in. He only went to the shelter for free food, not for advice on the direction of his life. Once Ahmed had asked him to help serve food at the hostel, but Salim couldn’t see any benefit. After all, he had had some chunks of hash on him, surely he would be better off going out and selling them, that way he could afford to pay for his own food, instead of accepting the charity of others.

I’d rather be serving food or washing dishes right now. That would be a lot better than trying to steal a bag from someone who’s being watched by the biggest guy I’ve ever seen. With those tattoos he’s almost completely blue and green, and with the power in those arms he barely looks human.

He was four metres behind the purple-haired guy with the bag, just behind the monster and the angry one, and he was matching their pace. They were separated by an English pair and the Japanese couple. The huge guy was looking a little too alert for Salim’s liking, but he didn’t think he’d seen him, despite checking the surroundings around a lot.

I could get my arms and legs pulled off by that giant. How can anyone have a chest that big? It’s unnatural… I hope to God they go straight on to Rue Marcel Pagnol past Hotel de la Paix where the road will be quieter: I can run.

That way the route gave him options: There were back alleys, and he had run down the convoluted system so many times that he would be difficult to catch if they continued west and he tried to snatch and run. Turning right down Rue des Pecheurs led them downhill to Le Petit Voisin and open pavements - lots of tourists and probably lots of police today, too.

Far too unpredictable for a decent escape route, if I’m being chased.

He veered slightly to his left as the big guy looked behind and to the right, then crudely reversed the action as the big guy looked to his left.

This would be obvious to anyone else watching. It’s lucky there are just the three of them. I’m really good at nipping in and out of the crowds around here, and the big guy is sure to be slow. It’s actually the third one who may be the problem, even the skinny one looks worried by him, and they’re together. He looks switched-on and very aggressive.

Salim edged his way along the square, passed the book shop and onto the internet café. They approached Hotel de la Paix at the corner. He looked ahead and to his left, where David had taken a wide circle around the crowd, towards the corner of the square ahead. He’ll make it in front of them for the distraction if they go straight on, but not if they turn right down Rue des Pecheurs.

Ahead and to his right, outside the Hotel de la Paix, he saw the three English lads drinking on the terrace. He had heard them speaking, and shouting, earlier. He hadn’t liked what he’d seen and heard.

They look like they might be fighting before the day is out. He had brief eye contact with the smallest one.

Very drunk, maybe even other stuff, too. They could be hanging around for hours yet, we don’t want complications on the patch, and I really don’t want to get attacked, just as I’m about to make a massive score.

Nervously rubbing the back of his neck, he looked at the small one with the curly hair again, who was apparently wondering how to deal with the eye contact himself. His two companions laughed raucously behind him, full of bravado. Salim looked at the small one and thought:

Could I fight him? Adrenalin had been making him blur the line between fight or flight for the last thirty seconds or so.

I need to concentrate on the one with the purple hair, not him.

He had to have that bag.

He was three metres behind the skinny guy with the holdall, with only the Japanese couple between them. They slowed down, looking back at the café on the right, where another pair of Japanese people sat in front of a computer drinking coffee, making Salim’s heart beat faster as he had to slow down with them. He felt as scared as the purple haired one looked.

Which way are they going at the hotel corner? Shit! They’re looking like they might turn right. The really big guy glanced to his left and right, then spoke to the skinny purple-haired one, who looked down at the bag he held, looking confused.

Oh God.

He heard the sound of sirens begin in the near distance. It was coming from down the hill, at the bottom of Rue des Pecheurs, somewhere near Le Petit Voisin.

Oh God.

The massive tattooed guy took the bag from the skinny one with purple hair and unzipped it, pointing at the hotel as they turned the corner and headed to their right, down Rue des Pecheurs. The skinny purple-haired one looked relieved, but now the bag was held in that massive tattooed fist.

Oh God.

How do I get it out of that guy’s hand? Why couldn’t the skinny one keep it? He probably weighs less than the bag, but the big guy’s got forearms bigger than my thighs.

Salim and David glanced at each other with manic frustration, but it was too late to call it off, they had already confirmed to each other the perceived value of the bag. Salim suddenly had a thought that the contents of the bag may be something that was useless to him in terms of resale:

What if it’s specialist equipment, or documentation for espionage, a new kind of computer chip or some other technical thing that needs specialised buyers?

What if it is a weapon? he asked himself. …Or it might also be the cash to pay for something illegal…

A distraction from David was out of the picture for now, and Salim gulped and slowly followed the trio around the corner.

The huge guy keeps looking around. I can’t believe he still hasn’t seen me. God he’s enormous.

The purple-haired one and the angry-looking one stopped at the hotel corner. The enormous tattooed one took the opened bag past what Salim knew to be Table 4. The other two seemed distracted for a moment, confused almost. Salim edged past them and they didn’t seem to notice him. They appeared to be wondering whether to sit down.

A few short steps past the hotel, the huge man with the black holdall veered to his right at the prestige watch shop. He placed the opened bag on the floor while looking into the window of the first shop front, apparently drawn to a particular watch. There was a deep, wide doorway, and he looked through the glass at the TAG Heuer display. He was breathing deeply, presumably in appreciation. The opened bag lay on the ground slightly behind him, and he seemed distracted by the view through the window.

Fantastic! He still hasn’t spotted me so I’m not in even in too much danger.

Salim watched out of the corner of his eye as he pretended to walk directly down the hill past the tattooed guy, the black bag and the watch display. Two women he recognised hurried past him from downhill. He checked that the other two men behind weren’t watching. They weren’t, but Salim was scared anyway. He ran his fingers through his hair.

Am I wasting my time?

He surprised himself by recalling the words of the Sufi poet Rumi that Ahmed had recited to him in the hostel: ‘No more words. Hear only the voice within.’

He looked at the tattooed man’s broad shoulders that seemed to begin at his ears, then at his unnaturally huge torso and arms. A part of Salim told him ‘You are messing with the wrong bloke’. The suffering of his past, and his current, desperate position in life however, compounded by the adrenalin pouring through him, led him to continue, regardless of what the monster might do to him.

He went for it.

This has to be worth the risk.

He stepped briskly to his right and reached forward, leaning over to look into the opened bag. The big guy was still looking through the window. Should he try and take the whole bag and run, or grab whatever was inside and sneak off? He leaned forward some more, hoping for a peek, but of what? What had the power to change his life forever? Cash? Drugs? Jewels? Something super-sophisticated?

He still hasn’t seen me. This is going to work!

As sirens rang out in collective alarm from downhill, for a tiny moment, he wondered if he caught a glimpse of some sacred Qur’anic text on the side of the giant’s neck. He felt drawn forward.

His attention to the bag’s handle was accompanied by fear and adrenalin, and in his anticipation he stepped forward a little too much. He instinctively bent forward and adjusted his right foot to adjust his balance. He found himself leaning over the holdall, and then a few things happened at once: He got a brief glimpse of what was in the bag below him, although it took a second to register, and there was a twisting blur in his peripheral vision. Fear exploded into his core as he felt a strong jerking sensation in his neck. As he struggled to remain conscious and upright, he processed what it was that he was risking life and limb for: The huge tattooed man’s bag seemed to be empty, apart from a two-litre bottle of Evian water.

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