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The Permit
A short story by Tom Brennan

I think the building must have been used as a farmer’s winter store; I found piles of forgotten dried chestnuts and grain in rotting barrels. I tried the chestnuts but they tasted sour and sharp, and some of them had small teeth-marks in their dark, peeling skins. Paulo said he would bring me food, but that was three days ago.

Yesterday, I heard a car engine getting closer, and climbed up to hide in the rafters of the patched roof, but the Guardia Civil men just looked in quickly through the smashed windows and broken doors before they left. I clung to the dusty wooden rafter, feeling it creak and bend under my weight, and tried to make no noise. My arms and legs grew numb, then began to tremble, and I longed to move, but I waited until I heard the policemen drive off.

I know that Paulo would not have told them about me.

And I know that they will return. When we began the final part of our journey, we were warned that the police patrol the land around here regularly. They are always searching for us, or others like us; the coast of Morocco and the Presidio of Ceuta are only ten miles away across the Straits.

That is how I got here: squeezed in with fifteen other men in a shallow boat meant for eight, with the cold waves reaching over the sides and the night deep and black as a tomb. I have never been more scared. I prayed all the way across, and thought about my family. I told myself, over and over, that I was doing it for them. That trip took almost all of my money. All of the money I had saved back home in Ecuador, all of the money I had worked for on the way. The boatmen left us on a beach in the middle of the night. We lost sight of them but we could still hear their small engine across the waves. Six of us started walking inland but the others waited for the contact, the friends of the boatmen, as they had been told, and met the Guardia Civil instead.

We were lucky: we met Paulo. We found the town and waited until the first bar opened; I went in alone while the others hid in the orchard nearby. When I asked for coffee, the young barman looked at me and nodded. He made the coffee, then disappeared into the back room. Cold and without strength, I wrapped my hands around the warm cup, not caring whether the barman had called the police, not caring about the next moment, just about the present.

But the man had called Paulo, who came and helped us. Paulo is always smiling, always happy. He is from Seville, a busy city of many people, and he knows many people. Paulo found work for us. I made good money on the farms. I picked cabbages, and cauliflowers, and artichokes and broccoli. I picked great round yellow squashes that smelled of rich perfume when you broke them. The farmers hired us by the day, and were content. The local people will not work for the wages we are paid. But there were many farms, and many crops to be picked. We were welcomed.

I shared a small clean house in the town with seven other workers. We had journeyed from Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, even Argentina. Paulo found the house for us – he knew the landlord and arranged a good price. We lived well, with enough food and sometimes wine. I earned more in a week than I could in three months back home, if there had been work to do there. I sent most of the money that was left to my wife and parents, and wrote many letters to them. Then the government changed the rules, so that we needed work permits.

I queued with hundreds of other workers outside the Ayuntamiento, waiting for the application forms. We sat on the stone benches beneath the trees in the Plaça and read the forms. Some of the other workers are from small villages and towns, and cannot read as well as I can, so I explained to them that the government wanted our birth certificates, driving licences, passports and many other documents. Many of the workers had perhaps one or two of these documents, but most had none. I helped the others complete the forms and we gave them to the clerk in the Ayuntamiento. He looked at our documents, stamped the forms many times and told us that they would be sent to Madrid, and our permits would be returned in two or three months. If the forms were approved.

We had to wait. Even Paulo and his friends could not help us.

The first month was not too bad, as most of the farmers continued to use us; their crops were rich and heavy, waiting to be picked. Then some men from Madrid visited all of the farms, and maybe half of the farmers stopped using us. The farmers told us that they were sorry, and we believed them.

So the second month was worse: few of the farmers would use us, and those that did paid very poor wages. We shared what we had, and ate once a day: rice, pasta, bread, cheap food that would fill our stomachs. We began to stare at each other, and wonder which of us would find work. There were fights in the morning, between different groups of workers, when the farms’ foremen came to the Plaça to choose who would work that day. But still we had some hope.

We lost the house in the third month, as we had no money for rent. We were able to get some food from the charity kitchens around the town, and the church, but we found always a long queue and very little food. We took our bags and blankets and slept in the fields. Then the weather became cold and we slept where we could, huddled together, in old forgotten buildings and alleys. Sometimes I dreamed of my family and my home, and when I awoke I wished the dream could continue.

The people of the town stared at us from the sides of their eyes as they passed us. They clenched their hands and muttered, and some of them spat on the pavement. A few of us were attacked and beaten in the dark, and driven from the parks and streets. All of the time, the Police told us to move on, move on.

It is the end of the third month when it happens.

The farmers hire coaches and send them into the Plaça Colom. From four o’clock in the morning we wait in shuffling silence, hands pushed deep into pockets, our hats pulled down tight against the cold and the watching policemen.

By the time the coaches arrive there are hundreds of workers waiting in the darkness. We press forward as the doors open. The foremen stand on the bottom steps of the coaches and ask, “Who has the permit?”

The men with permits hold them up and are allowed onto the coaches.

Some of the workers are from the countries in Europe and do no need permits, so they are allowed on when they show their passports. I go from coach to coach until I see a group of Chileans, who I know have no permits, climb aboard a waiting coach. The leader of their group speaks first with the foreman and shakes his hand, then they are taken on. I stand before the foreman.

“You have the permit?” he asks me. He is broad and stout, and fills the doorway of the coach. His fat neck spills from the upturned collar of his leather jacket. His hair is shaven close to his head. I explain to him that my application was rejected but I have tried again.

“Come back when you have a permit,” he tells me. He frowns as he pulls on his cigarette and looks down the avenue to where the policemen are watching the coaches. I explain to him that that I am a hard worker, that I have eaten only once in three days, that I am desperate to work and send money to my family.

He looks at the policemen, who have started walking along the pavement beside the coaches, and he scowls at me and says, “Go to Madrid and tell them.”

The Chileans are laughing and pointing at me through the coach windows.

The foreman flicks his half-finished cigarette into the gutter by my foot and I punch him in the stomach. He folds over with a small cry.

The policemen look at us and I begin to run, away from the Plaça, away from the coaches, into the dark side streets and avenues. I hear loud running steps close behind me, and the roar of car engines. The shuttered buildings reflect the blue lights.

I slide my body into the shadows of a shop’s back door, behind two tall metal bins that stink of rotting meat and urine. I gasp, and each breath burns. My heart hammers against my chest.

I wait for a long time until the sounds of the cars and people fade. I walk slowly to the end of the alley and look out, but the streets are empty.

I have run almost to the river; I can hear it rushing in the darkness beneath me.

My right hand feels cold. I look down, in the yellow light of a street lamp, and see my hand still clenched into a fist. It looks like the hand of another person, not part of me. A short blade, no longer than my thumb, sticks out from the fist. The blade, my fist, and my sleeve are all stained dark red.

Paulo gave me the knife when I picked artichokes on the farms. The short thick blade is very sharp, made for slicing through the plants’ thick stalks.

I scrambled down to the banks of the river and threw the knife into the night. I heard it splash far away. The river touched my feet. I reached down and washed my sleeve and hand, although the water was so cold, like ice, that my hand became numb. Then I walked back up to the street.

I found some of the other workers hiding in the deserted warehouse we had found. One of them went to find Paulo, who came and told me about the old farm buildings near to the coast road. Paulo was not smiling. I waited until darkness before I followed the road out of the town, throwing myself into the ditch if I heard a car approaching.

The weather has been clear and I have seen the coast of Morocco every day. Across the blue sea flecked with sun, the land is a strip of dark brown and grey, and looks close enough for me to touch. Maybe I could find an old tractor tyre tube around the farm and float across the Straits? Or maybe I could walk along the shore and steal a boat?

I do not want to become a thief. I am an honest man who wants only to work and support his family. But what can I do?

I will wait here for Paulo and listen to him. He will tell me what to do for the best. I know that he will help me.

Copyright © Tom Brennan 2001

Tom Brennan is a thirty-six year old writer living by the sea in Liverpool. He has been writing full-time for a year, trying different approaches, styles and subjects. His story, The Permit, is one of several he has written looking at the trailing edges of society, at the people living in the grey areas of life. His long-term goal is to produce quality fiction.

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Permit is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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