Abdullah phones. I call him Abdullah to protect his Mama back in Sudan.
He must be twirling his phone because the wall of his youth Accommodation Centre spins, the dark ceiling akimbo, the boy entirely out of view.
‘Abdullah, I can’t see you. Show me your handsome face.’
Is he hiding something – depression, a wound from a fight?
There is a precise moment when two people connect. Both or them feel it. This moment comes when Abdullah brings his face into the sightline of the phone’s camera.
“Ah, there you are!’
His face lights up, sweet and shy, with a hint of a mustache and the shadow of ordeals that have aged his eyes, brow, mouth.
He sighs, ‘Mama Betsy.’
‘I am your Mama in California, and you have your Mama in Sudan. Do you have a Mama in France too?
‘No. No Mama here.’
‘How is your family?’
‘I can’t find them.’
“Maybe they had to leave.’
‘Your Mama doesn’t answer her phone?’
‘No, Mama Betsy.”
I don’t know what to say. The camera catches his smile sliding off the manchild face, his foot gliding along the bare floor.
“Are you wearing only flipflops? Do you have warm shoes?’
If I accept the title, I can at least keep his feet warm in the bitter French winter.
He trains the camera on a pair of black lace-up shoes.’I have shoes. You see shoes here.’
‘Do you need anything?’
‘I need help with asylum for France.’
‘I’ll try to find someone.’
‘Listen,’ I say. ‘Wait a minute.’
I pull up youtube and play songs we sang together in Calais Jungle last summer. He sings off-key, seems to have forgotten many of the lyrics to songs he performed in Calais Jungle. He seems to be running his hand, fingers splayed, along the phone, like he’s touching the image of my face, or the music that bursts from his phone.
We talk, without understanding some of the content. I am sinking with the thought that he is worried whether his mother is safe. Maybe the soldiers from whom he fled came for his Mama.
Some days, I can’t fix anything. I sit in front of a screen, a thought circling – I should be able to mitigate the ordeal of this motherless boy who journeyed alone from Sudan to France.
He wraps up the conversation, ‘Thank you for calling me.’
‘But you called me!’
We laugh. He looks, once again, like the seventeen year-old boy I knew last summer. I touch the screen.