Chios: on rats and registration procedures

To talk on the peripheries of Chios and to frame the picture therein is my aim.

So there I was, not 23 hours ago, frozen fast by the acoustic of rat teeth gnawing on the hard crust of an oxidised and hardened crumb under the oven. One mop stood across the kitchen, another I wielded in my hands. I rapped on the metal oven, in the hope of displacing the roguish rodent, but, whether out of fear or comfort, it stood steadfast. With a fling of my wrist I swung out the mop as I sought to clang distractingly and dissuade my uninvited guest from his feast. The mop head muffling the potential percussive force of the shaft's arc infuriated me in its complicity with the creature.

Here I had been, encroaching on 30 minutes by now. The cleaning not yet finished and on my Saturday evening, it felt somewhat like this verminous animal was putting it’s three fingers rudely up at me as it devoured the unswept remnants of a meal I had taken so much pleasure in preparing with our Youth Centre participants just an hour earlier. What was it enjoying now, I wondered? A piece of fallen courgette? The crust of a bruschetta caduta? Perhaps it nibbled on the lapsed leaf of basilico, or tested it teeth on a chunk of the burnt risotto rice that Ahmed had caused to char in an absent moment of dabke dancing over due culinary diligence…

Thursday morning registration of new students in Chios’ overcapacity Vial Refugee Camp might by mention alone conjure up scenes of chaos, queues and commotion, but usually it’s a measured affair that involves our current students acting as friendly and voluntary translators, taking time and care to bring out new individuals and to provide language support to strangers wishing to understand and register into our institutions. These helpers assist in explaining to newcomers that we operate our school and youth centre only to those aged between 12 and 22.

There is much playfulness. I find myself caught up in the sad humour of grey-bearded old men joking that they are only twenty. ‘Wallah’. The police, chorus to this drama and in whose presence we conduct registration, don’t care to involve themselves (why would they?) except to ask why I’m registering in full exposure to the Greek sun. At this juncture, ten hands from five countries help me carry my small trestle table to the uneven ground and shade afforded by the first pre-fab container of the camp. Here the individuals crowding round reform in varying constellations and I continue trying to explain why our school has no space, why one student can’t change groups, why I’m able to register two new girls but not their brother and why the Greek school operated by Metadrasi just outside the camp is not only the only option for Saed Montazer, but his best option.

Last week, an Afghani mother and her two boys came out to register. Both boys, 10 and 14, had faces that seemed decades old. Desperate for school, I gave a registration card to the elder and kindly tried to gesture towards the neighbouring Greek school that the younger should register there. The boy went red in ager, shouting in Dari that he would come with his brother to our school. I tried creasing my forehead in sympathy; his mother, understanding, took him away, but the 10 year old, furious and indignant broke free, broke down and began bawling. The hard, sun-tanned skin of his face became wet. His mother, making signs her son was crazy, asked for a ‘fake registration card’ to appease the child. I declined, preferring not to temporarily promise school only to stave off disappointment, and tried to soothe him in a crouch. To no avail.

The tail of the rat, I realised, was lying out like tough lace from under the oven. ‘Grotesque’, I mused from the edge of the room. Alone in this space and with minute after minute of my evening passing, I resolved to try clucking at a full range of frequencies to attempt at an affectation of its latent tail. Yet neither profundity nor altitude enervated its coil, and with the mop still redundantly gripped, and with soft Anglican Choral Music incongruously playing at low volume from the other room, my phone having shuffled itself onto a psalm, I prayed to a god and leapt at the oven, eyes averted high to avoid the ocular horror of the rat’s possible charge home.

It swept right out and past my crusade, mop brandished at arms length and broken Chatham’s boatshoes leaving toes too exposed. It sped into its hole just inside the toilet and victorious I pursued it, rapping the door again and again to keep it hidden as I snatched the toilet’s bin-bag filled with all that Greece’s sewage system can’t digest, ‘ducked’ the toilet fluorescent green, swabbed its basin and now, with marooned toilet paper in one hand and mop in the other, I briskly wetted the floor, extinguished the light, un-amplified Anglicanism and in seconds had turned the key on the cleaning job.

Saturday night could finally begin.

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