Writers write what they know. Like most clichés, this one contains some truth. I work for a charity that supports destitute asylum seekers, and Not Safe is the story that came to me as I listened to their accounts of difficult, often dangerous journeys of hundreds, even thousands of miles to find a safety that was denied them.
Take E. For example: she came to the charity for help. She and her 8 month old baby were homeless. She had no money and had spent the previous night in emergency accommodation. The social services were threatening to take her baby – a well-cared for, happy child at that point – into care. The Borders Agency were going to send her and her British-born child back to Cote d’Ivoire where her husband and family had been butchered as rebels and where the government of Laurent Gbagbo still ruled by fear and oppression. E was hanging on to her safety and her sanity by her fingernails.
No one in authority believed her story. In her initial interview, on which her claim for asylum was assessed, the interviewer had asked her, ‘If your husband found (at work) information that incriminated the government, why didn’t he hand it over to his line manager?’
I am also working with M who is unable to prove his membership of the MDC in Zimbabwe, as nothing he can obtain is acceptable to the authorities. He will shortly be sent back to face the well-documented retribution of Mugabe’s men. ‘Do you think I want to live like this?’ M, a qualified and experienced teacher, asks. He is recovering from TB. He lives on the streets, survives on handouts from friends and charities, but at least he is alive and free – for now.
Women like E and men like M have stories that make the soul bleed. Not Safe draws on these.
In writing this novella, I returned to a character who appears in three of my South Yorkshire books, Tina Barraclough. In my first book, Only Darkness, she is a young PC who plays a minor role in events. In my second book, Silent Playgrounds, she is central to the investigation and is caught in its devastating end when it goes horribly wrong. In the fourth book, Bleak Water, she is denying her experiences by living a party life of sex, drink and drugs and is in the process of destroying what was once a promising career.
Tina’s vulnerability is that she empathises too much. In Not Safe, she has been moved from the elite serious crimes squad to a backwater of community policing. She is working with groups who support destitute asylum seekers, and she is trying to clean up her act.
Farah Jafari is a young woman who dies on the streets of Sheffield. Investigating her death is not Tina’s job, but she can’t stand back and let a possibly innocent man be convicted of murder. Not Safe is Tina’s story. The asylum seekers in the book move in the shadows of the police investigation, the way they move in the shadows in real life. They support each other, protect each other, and survive as best they can in the interstices we allow them. They are vulnerable to crime and exploitation, and like Farah, too often fall victim.
Not Safe is not E’s story, nor M’s story, but I know they walk the same streets as Farah Jafari, and I know that as Tina moves between her world where order rules, and Farah’s world where order has broken down, I am in territory they would find all too familiar.
Not Safe is published by Five Leaves