The day the children received their letters from home, Mohammad had nothing. He sat on his own, as he always did, watching his peers at the summer school tear open their 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 looked at me. He hadn’t had a letter from his family in any of the five weeks he’d been staying at the school. He squeezed his shoulder blades together as he waited for his first English lesson of the day.
“If you say so, Mr. Raine,” he said. I noticed the tips of his brown fringe had been bleached blonde from the last few weeks in the sun. The July heat was cruel and dry.
“Tripoli is a long way away, after all.” I squeezed his hand. It was less than half the size of my own and his knuckles were lined with white scars which stood out on his dark olive skin.
The last group of children ran into the hall. A few of them ran onto the stage at the far end and knocked into a plastic table which crashed down to the floor, breaking two of its legs clean off. At the noise Mohammad jolted upright, and instinctively moved closer to me. His eyes dilated like two black marbles, and I noticed a trail of goose bumps prickle up along the outside of his hairless forearm.
The bell rang for lessons to begin and the groups of children left. Mohammad stayed seated.
“Time for lesson, Mo,” I said, gesturing to the door. He looked ill.
“I will not go today,” he said, locking his arms across his chest. I noticed 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.
We went to the bench on the hill at the top of the school. The grass on the way up had yellowed from the past two rainless weeks. Only a small round patch of green grass remained at the top of the hill, which was protected by shade from the tree line that ran along its perimeter. From way up there we could look down on the rolling grassland of the Downs that merged into the distant water. Mohammad ripped a sprig from the summer-sweet bush next to us. He lay the flower down in the palm of his hand, picking at its pink spire.
“How does it live, in the darkness?” Mohammad 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,” I said.
“What is the shade?”
“It’s the cover from the sun.”
“This darkness?” Mohammad stretched out his arms with his open palms facing skyward.
“Yes. Where it’s cooler.”
“I see.” He repeated his new word under his breath.
“Why don’t you want to be in class, Mohammad?” I said, standing up and tossing a rugby ball into his arms. He caught it one handed, with his spare hand tucking his flower into his trouser pocket.
“There is no point. I am only here so I am not in Tripoli.” Mohammad stood up and paced around a small circle before plonking down on the yellow grass.
“Of course there is a point in being here. You can learn lots.”
“How do I say this, Mr. Raine?” He asked, pointing at a scrap of paper he held out in his hands.
“Tripoli, the mermaid of the Mediterranean! Turquoise waters and whitewashed buildings,” I read. “Why have you got this?”
“Mermaid of the Mediterranean!” Mohammad shouted. “My Dad gave this to me before I left. He said I will learn it.”
“Do you miss being at home?” I asked. He stayed very still on the floor, at peace, legs crossed.
“I do not have any home.”
“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 at there. After I am here, I will go probably to Tunis, or to somewhere else, but not to home.” He examined the rugby ball, before trying to do kick-ups with it. The ball shot off his foot at an angle, and went bouncing down the hill towards the school buildings. “Rubbish football!”
“Is that why you don’t want to be in class today?” Mohammad’s eyes reflected the shimmer on the surface of the sea water. He rubbed his eyelids with his hard palms and hummed to himself for a few moments.
“What does it matter?” He said, rising to his feet and pacing 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 the bleeding hearts. There were footballs and rugby balls, tennis balls and rackets scattered across the clearing like a minefield, and a skipping rope draped over one of the tall branches.
“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,” I replied, knowing all too well that they were more than likely tossed over the fence by rich kids in a tantrum.
“Can we go in there?” Mohammad poked his finger through the mesh and looked up at me with raised eyebrows.
“There’s no way around or through. But we always get all of these toys 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?” Mohammad let out a mocking laugh, before covering his mouth with his hand out of politeness.
“I am very thirsty,” he said.
The day was growing hotter as the sun crawled to the top of the sky. With the sun’s new height, the area of shade had shrunk — creeping up towards us, a few yards below the bench. I handed a bottle of water to Mohammad. 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.” Mohammad scrunched the plastic bottle in his hand, forcing an impression into it, before squeezing either side of the dent he had made to pop it back into place.
“It’s going to be really hot today, you should drink some.” He looked white. The pallor rose from his neck and took hold of his whole face.
“Not today, Mr. Raine.” He slashed away the moisture on his brow, then dug the flower out from his pocket and ran it between his thumb and index finger as I had. 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.”
“Something will be here soon.”
“Have they forgotten about me?”
“No, of course they haven’t,” I said. I was desperate for some water. It was nearing midday. Mohammad still held my bottle but I couldn’t bring myself to take any.
At the foot of the hill the children appeared on their morning break. Some were kicking footballs about, others laying down in the sunshine. 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 felt uncomfortable on my skin. I could feel the sweat drying on my armpits. As more children came outside we could hear the rising of excited voices in a muddle of languages. The hum of the playground clambered up to us at the top of the hill. A group of the French girls started singing ‘Les Champs-Élysées’ while hop-scotching around the school yard. Mohammad stood up and peered at them. From above we could hear the voices merging into an excited chorus — “Aux Champs-Élysée! Dada dadada! Aux Champs-Élysée…” A crowd was gathering around the girls.
“What are they singing?” Mohammad asked. There must have been fifteen of them performing the tune.
“It’s called ‘Les Champs-Élysée’,” 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-Élysée.” Even those from Portugal and Italy started to pick up the words. I imagined that their voices would carry for miles inland, candied in the waterfront wind. They were a choir for all of England.
“What is it about?”
“It’s about Paris,” I said. Far-off, the lazy white-capped waves were pillowed by the rocks on the seafront. The girls finished their song and Mohammad started applauding and cheering for more.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“The Champs- Élysées is the most famous street in Paris.”
“But what are the words?”
“I only know a little–”
“What is it?” Mohammad’s voice sounded parched and hardened. 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-Élysée!” Mohammad giggled. “Dada Dadada!”
“I’m sure they would be happy to teach you all the words.”
“Perhaps.” Mohammad continued humming the tune. It has a certain quality that has always stuck with me. “I would love to see it,” he said. “I have never been to Paris.”
We came down from the yellow hilltop. I left Mohammad sat in the shade, holding on to my water bottle. I went into one of the unused classrooms to look for things. I tipped boxes over and scrambled through the desk drawers, emptying them of their contents. There was nothing of use. I walked to the staff room to have a glass of water. I felt empty, covered in a second skin of sweat. On the desk, sat a small model of the Eiffel Tower. It was bronze and sat easily in the palm of my hand. I didn’t know who it belonged to. It could have been abandoned by someone, or found in a dusty cupboard. It could have been important to someone. Without delay I wrapped it in brown paper, and found a small box that I emptied and put it inside. I taped it up. I wrote Mohammad’s name on the top, along with the address of the school, and left it outside his dormitory.
When I went back outside to check on him, he wasn’t where I left him. I looked to the top of the hill but he wasn’t there. I checked the school buildings — nothing. I went back to the playground. Champs-Élysées started up again, and at the sound, I stopped. Mohammad was stood with the French girls, clapping his hands. His cheeks bunched into apples just below his eyes as he sang, and a couple of the boys followed his lead and joined in. They wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders. Before the final chorus, the bell for lessons rang. Mohammad went to collect my water bottle from the shaded spot I had left him in. He looked at me and he must have known that I knew it was empty. I looked away, ushering the other children along to their lessons. Once all the children had gone, I removed the parcel from outside his bedroom.