Climbing down the ladder at night is no fun. It is at least eight metres to the water, and we are showing no lights. There is just enough light from a thin sliver of moon to see the white of the breaking waves, and an occasional glint from the wet surfaces of the Zodiac keeping pace with the ship through what looks like a huge sea. Below me on the ladder, a rope and wood affair that dangles from the rail of the ship, is Amina. Below her are another two men, and waiting on the deck above, three more men and a woman, and a child of about twelve, a girl. I have to keep looking down so that I don’t step on Amina’s hands, but looking down terrifies me.
We have been at sea for a week, a week of sea-sickness and terrible food, but at last we have arrived at the coast. One last hurdle and we will be there. Slowly, step by step, we crawl down the ladder. The rope feels greasy and slippery, and even that high above the sea, we are being soaked by spray. The roar of the huge outboard engine on the back of the Zodiac ebbs and flows as the driver works his throttle to keep station at the foot of the rope ladder.
‘What is the point of getting on a boat and crossing the ocean only to be arrested? Years and years in jail, and then deported, most probably.’
Amina leaned forward. ‘We know all that. So what are you proposing?’
‘Do you have money?’
She looked at me. I nodded slightly.
‘Yes,’ she said shortly.
‘Twenty-five thousand US?’
‘Let me see it.’
‘No. Not here. Not now. Tell me your proposal.’
He sat back and glanced around the room. The only light was that from a hissing pressure lamp, throwing shadows into every corner. Over by the rough plank door three men were smoking, leaning towards each other and whispering. He looked back at each of us in turn, and then, as though satisfied, beckoned us closer. ‘We don’t get you to give yourselves up. We prepare everything. We give you new identities, passports, all the papers you need. Even driving licences. We land you secretly and take you to new places and give you a start. We have people in the immigration department who can create the right data. This takes time and money, but you get a new life in a safe place. What you make of it is up to you.’
I looked at Amina. She smiled. I nodded at him. ‘Okay. We’re in.’
He grinned. ‘Not yet. There is more. After six months you pay us a tithe, ten percent of everything you earn.’
Amina’s smile faded. She stared at him. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ she said.
His grin broadened. ‘I will be happy to put you in touch with one of the others, if you want to spend the next few years in a detention centre, and end up deported,’ he said. ‘The choice is yours.’
Amina rose to her feet, furious. ‘You’re nothing but a crook,’ she hissed.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That is exactly what I am.’
‘Come on, Farah, let’s get out of here.’
I took her hand. ‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Sit, please. We must consider this.’
She shook her head wildly. ‘You must be mad. Ten percent!’ She turned to him. ‘For how long?’
Still grinning, confident that we could not refuse, he said ‘For ten years.’
Amina gasped. ‘Ten years! You must think us mad.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Just desperate.’
So we thought about it, long and hard. Ten percent for ten years would amount to a very large amount of money. But staying in Indonesia, possibly forever, would be infinitely worse.
It was Amina, in the end, who realised that we had no option, or at least, no option that was acceptable. ‘But how will he know what we are earning?’ she asked. ‘Maybe we could keep some back.’
‘If he has people in government departments, he’d probably be able to find out exactly how much we would earn. And you can see he’s ruthless… I doubt there’s anything he couldn’t manage to do. Even murder, maybe.’
‘But it’s ridiculous.’
‘Yes, Amina, but the choice, as he said, is ours. If we want to start a new life, we must do as he says.’
The beach is ahead.
Behind it, black against a slightly lighter sky, is the land beyond the beach. There are no lights, anywhere. This is a deserted shore.
The sea around us is black, but the white line of surf is only too clear, even if it is only a very thin line: the backs of waves, from our point of view, are almost invisible. It is only when the waves break and run up the beach that we can see them. The noise, the noise of the surf, is not quite deafening, but added to the roar of the engine it seems as though we are immersed in sound.
There are nine of us. We sit on the inflated tubes of a Zodiac, clinging to the rope which circles the vessel. We are dressed in black. Black wet-suits. We have goggles on our foreheads, ready to cover our eyes if we have ditch in the ocean. No expense has been spared.
Which is just as well, because it has cost each of us a small fortune. We have been well-briefed, too, and trained in English and in our new identities.
The Zodiac wallows in a trough, then battles up the back of the wave in front. The shadow of the land disappears and we grip the rope behind us more tightly. As we struggle to the crest of the wave I see that we are very close to the beach.
Suddenly the Zodiac staggers and we are thrown forwards. The engine roars, the driver screams. A following wave lifts us and we surge forwards again, but it is clear that the engine is no longer driving us forwards. We turn sideways to the beach, but our motion is forward, despite our heading. The people on the port side scream as it dips into the ocean, and we on the starboard tube are thrust high into the air, the Zodiac almost toppling over into the foam.
We sink back into a trough and we see nothing but oily black turbulence. The driver is standing over the engine, twisting the throttle and making the engine roar, but producing no drive. At the bottom of the the trough the boat shudders once more. The driver is screaming, but what he is screaming is unclear. I clamber back onto the tube and pull Amina up beside me. She is shivering with fear, and has lost her goggles. I hold her as tightly as I can with one hand.
We have risen to the crest of the wave and it is clear that we are going to be thrown to the shore on the next wave. ‘Hold on,’ I warn, but I realise that only one of the others speaks Dari, and I repeat it in English. Too late. We begin to slide down the face of the wave, the boat tipping as it falls, thrusting us under the water. I grimly hold on to Amina, my goggles, too, dragged from my head. It feels as though we are twisting and turning under the surface. I feel sand in the water against my face, and, still rolling towards the beach, my head smashes into something.
When I regain consciousness, Amina is holding me tight. I try to say something but she puts her hand over my mouth, pressing hard. I can hardly breath, but clearly she wants me silent. I stifle my fear and try to lie still.
A searchlight of some sort sweeps across us without stopping, and I realise that it comes from a vessel beyond the breakers. It is moving, but moving across the bay rather than coming towards the beach. Amina grips my shoulders and pushes me forward, her mouth close to my ear. ‘Are you alright?’ she asks.
‘I don’t know.’ I can feel my toes and my fingers. I flex my neck. Everything seems to be working, but my head is thumping. ‘I think I’m okay,’ I tell her.
‘Then let us get off this beach,’ she says, and rolls from under me, staying low and crawling. ‘Come on,’ she tells me in a loud whisper.
Together we crawl over the sand, past the tide line and into the dry, soft stuff. When we reach the scrub that skirts the beach we stop and wait. It is not long before someone comes, slowly, quietly. He too is wearing a black wet-suit. He is carrying a bag. He thrust it at us.
‘Take this,’ he says. ‘Get out of your wet-suits. Put them here. Dress in these.’
Amina strips off her wet-suit with difficulty, and I follow. There is a towel in the bag. We dry ourselves and dress in jeans and black shirts. Black shoes. We put the wet-suits in the bag, and carry it back along the beach until we come to the rest of the group.
The driver of the Zodiac is giving out satchels, reading out the surnames on them: ‘Aziz?’ he asks quietly, and a hand shoots up. He passes the package. ‘Ahmadi?’ Again a raised hand and the passed package. ‘Nawabi?’ Amina reaches for the package. The others wait for theirs.
When it is done we load the bags containing the wet-suits into the Zodiac. The driver has removed the propellor from the engine and fitted a new shear-pin before putting everything back together. We drag the Zodiac to the water’s edge, the driver gets in. We hold the boat in shallow water before the driver gets in and starts the engine. Gently he noses out into the waves, and with great skill heads out to the open sea once more, driving carefully over the incoming surf and disappearing from view.
We turn once more and move to the beginning of a faint track heading inland from a corner of the beach, and very soon the track widens and becomes a small parking area. As promised, there is a small bus; silently we climb aboard. Immediately the bus draws away and very soon we are on a narrow road.
We open our packages and find our papers. As we head west the sky is lightening behind us. Everyone looks eagerly from the windows as our new country emerges from the darkness.
Within an hour we have reached what looks like a small town and we disperse, each to our own destinations via different routes and different vehicles, to our new lives. I turn to Amina. ‘Hello, Mrs. Forsyth,’ I say and she smiles. It was to have been Fitzimmons, but both of us had difficulty with the precise pronunciation, so it was altered to Forsyth.
We have a great deal to learn, but we are confident. In this huge land, we have many days of travel before we reach our new home, a city in the south. So far, the organization that brought us here has been very well prepared, and all has gone well. It is up to us, now. I reach for Amina's hand and gently squeeze it.