It’s three more day’s travel to the edge of the city and the first thing that strikes us, even from some distance away, crossing the desert is the grey yellow gas that passes for sky here. Sunlight reaches the ground only weakly, as if from a grease-encrusted fluorescent tube on a low nicotine-stained ceiling. The land around becomes increasingly featureless and devoid of life.
Then there is the stink, which is overwhelming. I’ve been unlucky enough to come across large dead animals that have been lying out in the rain on a hot day and recognise the appalling stench of dead meat. Here it is further mixed with the smell of stale urine and other ordure, and some chemical, solvent vapour I half remember from a warehouse I worked in once for about a week. Soon it becomes apparent where the stink is coming from.
Across a vast puddle of human waste we see dwellings built so close to the edge they are almost falling into the water. Some appear to have already done so and yet there are still people living in them, perched on bits of board or corrugated iron, burnt and rusted, strapped with rags to a wooden frame that is itself rotted and tilted, but which supports a clothes line, a TV, a yellow plastic beer crate for a table. Everything is stained a sickly greyish pink. The only bright colour is from discarded plastic items that lie about or float in the sewage. Thank whoever there are no children here. Our wagon rolls on. Only a hundred yards separate us from them on the other side of the lake. Hundreds of bored eyes watch us go by.
Down in the water, if it can be truly said to still be water, stocky orange crabs and gross, turd-like toads struggle and flop about in the warm excrement. Occasionally, huge eels squirm among them. We watch, fascinated as a toad swallows a crab more than half it’s own size. The crab tears a lump out of the toad’s nose with its claws as it is engulfed.
Looking beyond the first rank of shanty dwellings, a solid mass of similar constructions, some unbelievably on two or even three levels, and all strung with cables, aerials and clothes driers, covers the entire hillside and disappears over the top. The smog cuts out any further view of the city itself, which, we are told by Jeb, lies over the next hill. Its towers apparently would be easily visible on a clear day but they don’t have clear days here.
Finally there’s the noise – sirens, shouts, gunfire and running feet over the corrugated iron flooring somewhere close to the water’s edge. And then behind that the more distant sound of machinery, and of fire, and of traffic. We all sit in stunned silence, willing the mules to move faster. And yet, as I say, we are fascinated.
Quite quickly it comes to seem unreal – more like a film or a computer game. We glance at each other but have to look away. We have nothing in common watching this. There is nothing we can say. At one point the lake narrows and becomes a frothing channel and we get a closer look at the locals who wade half way across and stand, expressionless in the diarrhoea. None of them has an intact body. All of them are missing some part or other, or has some sort of rotting scar or gash. Their clothes likewise hang off them in stained rags, revealing damaged and discoloured bellies and breasts. In the water, bodies lay in various states of decomposition, but then we see one move and we realise they can’t be dead of course. The prospect is too horrible to contemplate and several of us throw up – our breakfasts mingling with the fluid before us, and actually looking relatively wholesome by comparison.
Mercifully we roll on over a mound and leave the view of the shanty behind for a while, although the stench and the noise still reach us. We stop for a while and stand about. We look at each other again now. Mike stands bent with his hands on his knees, like he might vomit again. The girls, as Agnes and Muriel have come to be known, sit silent and motionless in the wagon. I look at Shamim and try to think of something to say to her, but it is Nicky who comes over and throws her arms around me and cries. Shamim looks away. Jeb looks on. He has a job to do, that is what his demeanour tells us, and he’s bloody well going to do it. The Sadeghis come over and hug their daughter. Well that’s right. Nicky is my friend and she doesn’t have anyone else to go to. I hope they understand. She smells of peppermint.
I shuffle around, waiting for Jeb to make a decision. I kick something half buried in the ground and realise it is an old congealed pot of paint, and I wonder what it’s doing here. Then I crouch down and look more closely at the ground and realise it is composed entirely of fragments of trash, and there are bits of wire and polythene bags protruding. We’re standing on some enormous landfill, trodden and bulldozed into a hill. It gives slightly under foot, and exudes a smell of rotten garbage and solvents. We go over to its highest point and from there we can see right across the shanty to the desert beyond, but the city skyline is still obscured. Looking down I can see treacle-like fluids leaching out of the mound we stand on into the lake.
‘Can we go now?’ says Nicky to Jeb as we head back to the wagon.
‘I’m afraid we’ve hardly begun’ he says and gets back up into the driver’s seat. We all reluctantly get in the back and resolutely avoid looking out at the view. I look at Shamim, but she sits with her parents and looks elsewhere. Her father has his arm around her shoulders protectively. I sink down lower among the baggage and let my mind wander but the images of those diseased and tortured individuals on the far bank won’t go. I decide to look at Shamim anyway, whether she likes it or not. She curls up and closes her eyes. Her mother looks like she might be praying. I wonder who to.
We travel on a little further through a barren rocky landscape, like the floor of an immense quarry until darkness falls, and in this case, “falls” seems like a very good description of what happens. It’s as if a heavy grey cloth is pulled over us and it takes us some time to readjust and make out the patterns of lights around us – tiny, weak flickering violet glows from candles and hurricane lamps in the shanties, and then behind them we can make out the floodlights of what appear to be factories or mines casting their glare onto the fumes, and rows of taller lamps for the roads. The sounds of heavy machinery, of tons of steel crashing and grinding seems louder now than it was in the day, as are the yells and the sirens and the guns. As the night wears on I notice more lights further back still – hundreds of lights, high in the air, some static, others flying about. I realise one of the sounds I’ve been hearing all day is helicopters when one swoops low over the shanties, spraying it with bullets.
Mrs Sadeghi is indeed praying when I go over to them. Shamim is leaning against her father, who is lost in thought, or maybe dozing. It’s hard to tell. I kneel in front of her and startle her a little when I place my hand on hers. She smiles and I ask her if she’s alright. She nods.
‘Do you want to come and sit with me for a while’ I ask, not really expecting her to leave her parents at the moment, but she gets up immediately and we go back to where I was, watching the choppers soar about. Her parents immediately coalesce into a single shape.
‘Why do you think anybody would choose to stay here?’ she says sadly once she’s sat down. I look down at her and smile as warmly as I can.
‘Come down here and be with me’ she says, and I sit behind her, much as her father had, with my arms and legs around her protectively and my face over her shoulder. She turns her head and we kiss for the first time. It’s such a small, soft kiss and yet I feel it run through my whole body on tiny silver feet. I nuzzle into her hair and kiss her ear. She smells of cinnamon. We sit like that and watch. The straffing seems to have stopped but now there’s blue flashing lights and sirens down there, and more gunfire.
She turns away from it and kisses me again but this time more passionately.
‘Good place to fall in love’ she says quietly.
All I can do is smile and kiss her some more.