The day the children received their letters from home, Mohammed had nothing. He was sitting on his own, as he always did, watching his peers at the summer school tear open brown envelopes. Each was marked with a different colour stamp from a different part of the globe.
‘I’m sure a letter will arrive for you soon,’ I said. He hadn’t had a letter from his family in the five weeks he’d been staying at the school.
‘If you say so, Mr. Raine,’ he said, squeezing his shoulder blades together as he waited for his first English lesson of the day. The tips of his brown fringe had been bleached blonde. The July heat was cruel and dry.
‘Tripoli is far away, after all.’ I squeezed his hand. It was half the size of my own and his knuckles were lined with white scars that stood out against his dark olive skin.
The last group of children ran into the hall. They jumped onto the stage at the far end and knocked a plastic table down to the floor, breaking off two of its legs. Mohammed jolted upright and moved closer to me. His eyes became two black marbles and a trail of goose bumps prickled up along his hairless forearm.
Another teacher ran over to the group and started pointing and shouting. Mohammed giggled. The morning bell rang for lessons to begin and the groups of children left.
‘Time for class, Mo,’ I said, gesturing to the door. He looked ill.
‘I will not go today,’ he said, folding his arms across his chest. His t-shirt was sitting looser on his shoulders and back. He’d been observing Ramadan for the past ten days and had only eaten before sunrise twice.
‘Wait here for me then. We’ll go for a walk.’
I left the main hall, and went into an unused classroom. I tipped boxes over and searched through drawers, emptied them of their contents. There was nothing. I wanted a flag, or some sweets – something for him. I walked over to the tall windows and separated the vertical blinds to look out over the seafront. The school was high up on a hill and, on a bright day, you could look right out to where the blue skies met the Channel and see nothing of the horizon.
As I turned around to leave, I spotted a miniature globe on top of the filing cabinet at the back of the room. It wasn’t much. It wobbled on its stand when I picked it up. I pulled it free from the axis, leaving two small holes at each pole.
I wrapped it in some brown paper, found a box to put it inside and taped it up. I wrote Mohammed’s name on the top, along with the address of the school, and left it outside his dormitory for him to find and open later that evening.
I went back to the hall and found Mohammed sitting in the same place. We walked around the school grounds in the sunshine. I had taken a rugby ball from the sports cupboard and spun it in the air as we spoke.
‘Let’s go up there,’ he said, pointing at the hill at the back of the school.
We followed the track of granite slabs that formed the pathway to the top. Each rock was bordered by forget-me-nots. The grass on the way up was yellow from two rainless weeks, and only a small patch of green remained at the top, protected by shade from the tree line that ran along its perimeter. In early June, the hill was gold with buttercups. Now they were gone.
We took a seat on the old wooden bench and looked over the Downs and the distant water. Mohammed ripped a sprig from the summersweet bush next to us. He lay the flower down in the palm of his hand and picked at its pink spire.
‘How does it live, in the darkness?’ Mohammed asked, pointing down at the shaded floor.
‘Some plants prefer the shade.’ I picked a pink flower of my own and twirled it between my thumb and index finger. ‘They become stronger there. I suppose not everything grows in the sunlight.’
‘What is shade?’
‘The cover from the sun.’
‘This darkness?’ Mohammed stretched out his arms, his open palms facing skyward.
‘Yes. Where it’s cooler.’
‘I see.’ He repeated the new word under his breath.
‘Why don’t you want to be in class, Mo?’ I said, standing up and passing the rugby ball into his arms. He caught it with one hand, his other tucked the flower into his pocket.
‘I am only here so I am not in Tripoli.’ He got up and examined the ball, then began trying to do kick-ups with it. It shot off his foot and bounced down the hill and across the playground.
‘Of course there is a point in being here. You can learn.’
He pulled out a creased piece of paper from his shorts pocket and unfolded it for me to read.
‘How do I say this, Mr. Raine?’
‘Tripoli, the mermaid of the Mediterranean! Turquoise waters and whitewashed buildings,’ I read.
‘Mermaid of the Mediterranean!’ he repeated.
‘Why have you got this?’
‘My dad gave this to me before I left. He said I will learn it.’ Mohammed paced in a circle before dropping down on the hard earth.
‘Do you miss being at home?’ I asked.
‘I do not have any home.’ He stayed still on the floor, legs crossed.
‘Your home is in Libya, in Tripoli, isn’t it?’
‘My dad sent me here for all of summer just so I will not be there. After I am here, I will go probably to Tunis, or to somewhere else, but not to home.’
‘Is that why you don’t want to be in class today?’
Mohammed rubbed his eyelids with his hard palms and hummed to himself.
‘What does it matter?’ he said, rising to his feet and moving towards the back fence. He looked into the glade behind the school, through the mesh fence.
Dozens of toys were littered among the lilyturf and bleeding hearts. There were footballs, rugby balls and tennis balls, all scattered across the clearing like a minefield. A skipping rope was draped over a high branch.
‘Before I came here, I never saw so many games. When I am here, nobody cares about all these. There are too many,’ he said.
‘I’m sure they were lost by accident.’
‘Can we go in there?’ Mohammed poked his finger through the mesh and looked up at me.
‘There’s no way in. But we will get them back at the end of the summer.’ I was pretty sure some of the equipment had been there for years. ‘What games do you usually play, at home?’
Mohammed let out a mocking laugh, before covering his mouth with his hand. ‘I am very thirsty,’ he said.
The day was growing hotter as the sun crawled to the top of the sky. With the sun higher, the area of shade had shrunk. It crept up towards us, a few yards below the bench. I handed a bottle of water to Mohammed The sweat on his forehead mirrored the droplets which ran along the length of the plastic bottle.
‘I can’t. I am not allowed this.’ Mohammed crumpled the bottle in his hand. The plastic crackled. He squeezed either side of the dent he had made to pop it back into place.
‘It’s going to get even hotter today. I know you aren’t allowed to, but–‘
‘I can’t.’ He looked white.
‘You can drink some.’
‘Not today, Mr. Raine.’ He ruffled the sweat away from the back of his head, then dug the flower out from his pocket and, just as I had, ran it between his thumb and index finger. He held it up to his eye, closing the other, and faced towards the sun. ‘Why do I get no letters, Mr. Raine?’ he asked.
‘Libya is a long way from here,’ I said.
‘But these letters come from everywhere, but none for me.’
‘Have they forgotten me?’
‘No, of course they haven’t,’ I said.
I was desperate for some water. It was nearing midday. Mohammed still held my bottle, but I couldn’t bring myself to drink.
At the foot of the hill the children poured out from the school buildings. They moved in an excited, colourful wave. The sight made me forget the heat for a moment. Some were kicking footballs, others rested down in the reed grass. A group of girls skipped over a long rope and boys chased each other around with clasped hands for guns. The wind wandered over from the seafront and stuck to my skin.
As more children came outside we could hear the rise of voices in a muddle of languages. The hum of the playground floated up to us on the hilltop. A group of the French girls started singing a song as they played hopscotch. Mohammed stood up and looked at them.
From above we could hear the voices merging into the chorus. ‘Aux Champs-Élysées! Da-da da-da-da! Aux Champs-Élysées…’ A crowd was gathering around the girls.
‘What is it?’ Mohammed asked. There must have been fifteen of them singing.
‘It’s called Les Champs-Élysées,’ I said. They continued their chorus, and the girls with the skipping rope stopped and joined in.
‘Au soleil, sous la pluie; À midi ou à minuit; Il y a tout ce que vous voulez; Aux Champs-Élysées.’ I imagined their voices would carry for miles inland, candied in the waterfront wind.
‘What is it about?’
‘Paris,’ I said. The girls finished their song and Mohammed started applauding and cheering for more.
‘What does it mean?’ he asked.
‘The Champs-Élysées is the most famous street in Paris.’
‘With the Eiffel tower?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I said, unsure.
‘But what are the words?’
‘I only know a little.’
‘What is it?’ Mohammed’s voice cracked. I could hear his tongue coming unstuck from the roof of his mouth.
‘At the Champs-Élysées; in the sun, under the rain; at noon or at midnight; there is everything you want; at the Champs-Élysées.’
‘Aux Champs-Élysées!’ Mohammed giggled.
‘I’m sure they would be happy to teach you all the words.’
‘Perhaps.’ Mohammed continued humming the tune. ‘I would love to see it,’ he said. Far off, the lazy white-capped waves were pillowed by the rocks on the seafront. ‘I have never been to Paris.’
Halfway through the lunch hour, we came down from the yellow hilltop. I left Mohammed sitting in the shade, holding on to my bottle. I walked inside for water. I felt empty, covered in a second skin of sweat. I drank as much as I could.
When I went back outside to check on him, he wasn’t there. I checked the school buildings. Nothing.
‘Have you seen Mo?’ I asked the Italian boys.
‘No,’ one of them said. The rest looked at me with downturned mouths and shrugged their shoulders. ‘Why?’
Before I could acknowledge the question, I made for the hill. I nearly trampled over a few of the girls lying in the long grass. I could see that the clouds had etched a black spot in the sky away to the East. But he wasn’t there.
‘Mohammed!’ I yelled his name between lungfuls of hot air.
Propping myself up against the bench with my back to the school, I looked through the fence. It frustrated me to see how close the footballs and the other toys were. As I rattled the fence, Champs-Élysées started up again. At the sound, I stopped.
Looking down over the playground, I could see Mohammed standing beside the French girls, clapping his hands. A couple of the boys danced around with the song. I could picture the way he smiled, how his cheeks bunched up into apples below his eyes.
I walked down to the playground. Before the final chorus, the bell for lessons rang. Mohammed went to collect my bottle from the shaded spot where I’d left him. He looked at me and knew that I’d seen it was empty. Apples dropped from his cheeks. I looked away, ushering the other children along to their lessons.
Once all the children left, I collected the parcel I’d left for him that morning and carried it to the hilltop, to the fence and the glade. The skipping rope still dangled on its branch. I stepped back and squeezed the globe in the palm of my hand. Running my thumb over the smooth plastic, I traced my fingertip from Tripoli, past Tunis and Malta, across the Mediterranean – between Sardinia and the Balearic Islands, up through the south of France, Paris, and across the Channel.
I raised my head and threw the globe up and over the fence. It carried in the wind and cracked hard against a tree stump, resting somewhere out of sight, hidden in the lilyturf.
Philip Bowne is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. In the UK, his short fiction has been published by The Lampeter Review, Carnival, Sein und Werden, and Birkbeck University’s Writers’ Hub. In the US, his short story ‘Forget-Me-Not’ won the Bartleby Snopes ‘Story of the Month’ competition, and his short fiction is forthcoming in The Atticus Review. He has written extensively for Endsleigh, including a month long InterRail blog detailing his experiences travelling around Europe for a month. The Guardian published an article of his based on InterRail in November 2014.