World

Where people fall from the sky

It's Christmas in South West London, a charming and ordinary area but for the lives and deaths of certain travellers. Shannon Gormley reports.

There’s a pretty little part of South West London where dead people fall from the sky. It’s a perfectly charming area. The bodies don’t fall on it all the time, of course, only more frequently than one might have obvious reason to suspect in Richmond-on-Thames, East Sheen, and Clapham Old Town, neighbourhoods ordinarily reputed for their high concentrations of French patisseries, Victorian terraced houses, and Fox & Etc.-ish pubs.

The first one plummeted into a supermarket parking lot that was then under construction. That was in 1996. Two years later, a couple on a date swore they saw a second body hit the same spot, though this has never been confirmed. Another few years, another dead person in another parking lot, this one across from the supermarket which had by then been completed. The area received a decade-long reprieve from the bodies after that, but nothing lasts forever. In 2012 residents found one on a leafy side street; then, in 2015, on an air-conditioning unit on top of an office building. And this past summer, the latest: It plunged headlong into a walled back garden, neatly cracking the pavement open and landing next to a sunbather who responded with an appropriate mixture of shock and horror. That is supposed to have been the nearest near-miss.

The bodies are not from London. They appear to have only the fact of their difference in common. They were foreign, they were poor, they were black or brown, and when they were alive they would have been correct to surmise it would be difficult to enter the United Kingdom by filling out the usual paperwork. So, they skipped the forms.

The five landing sites of the confirmed bodies can be connected by a straight line that cuts through London’s southern boroughs, a line that at its most south-westerly point sits 13 kilometres from Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world. A brisk walk along that line takes two hours. This December, the shop people and flat-owners who work and live along the line busy themselves with preparations for both the holidays and a general election that may determine the fate of men not unlike those who occasionally fall dead on these clean streets.

It is a special time of year, and this, a special year. The twinkle lights are twinkling, the pamphleteers are pamphleting, and as politicians warn of fatal consequences if politicians apart from themselves are elected, in between the roar of jets passing overhead notes from the latest sexy-Santa jingle can be heard drifting out of the stores displaying red-ribboned ornaments and the windows of cars ferrying Christmas trees from shop to home:

“Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane with me,
It’s so magical it’s cooler than your dreams,
It’s the best, so get dressed, and impressed,
With the lights along the window,
There’s no can’ts, cause you’re everything that’s possible.
Take a trip down Candy Cane Lane with me,
Christmas is waiting for you, Christmas is waiting for you.”

* * *

— LAGOS, Nigeria —

When Franklin Chibike stood tall and alone in the middle of the international departures terminal of Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, he was waiting to take a trip. Like anyone who is about to do something exciting, it didn’t occur to Franklin to wonder who or what might be waiting for him.

Today was moving day! That he had been born in Nigeria had never struck Franklin as evidence that he should live there. Not a man to sit still, Franklin had decided to permanently relocate. Had he described his relocation plan to a stranger—and probably he should not have described it, so sensitive was the plan both in nature and detail, but what Franklin planned to do was too exhilarating for him to keep it entirely to himself—the stranger might have assumed that Franklin’s was a plan for freedom. In fact, its purpose was of vastly deeper significance. This was a plan for football.

It was a meticulous plan, it was a diabolical plan, it was a magical plan, this plan for freedom, but mostly for football. “The game,” as Franklin called his plan, and he, “a sportsman,” as he called himself, required only three things: a dream, hard work and a strategy.

Franklin’s parents loved football; Franklin’s parents hated Nigeria; ergo, Franklin was to become a footballer anywhere but in Nigeria. Franklin was good—Premier League-good. His talent promised him more than Lagos could ever give. His family had a bit of land that vegetables sometimes grew on and sometimes did not, and “I’m telling you,” he would tell people, “if you don’t have money, you are nobody.” If he stuck around Nigeria, the flu would probably be the death of Franklin by his mid-40s; if that didn’t get him, a punch to the head or a shot to the heart might. You can’t play football if you’re dead.

According to a footballer friend, the going-rate for stowing away on an international flight was about as much as Franklin could put away working as a Lagos bricklayer over two years. For two years Franklin carried mortar on his head. Brick by brick, he laid a path out of Lagos: Two years of hard labour and football practices had bought Franklin a plane ticket, sort of.

All that remained was a strategy: the airport game plan, supplied by a smuggler with impeccable credentials who was referred to Franklin by his footballer friend. Franklin would report to the airport. He would affect the mannerisms of the kind of man who can procure a plane ticket from an airline instead of a people smuggler. He would do as the smuggler instructed. Most importantly, Franklin would play it cool. No one at the airport must guess what Franklin was about to do: Secure his place in history as one of the greatest footballers the world had ever known.

And that is how Franklin found himself standing alone in the international departures terminal of an airport in Lagos knowing he was about to board a plane with only the faintest idea of how he would do so. For a few minutes, Franklin was just another body in a crowd of people with the money and permission to cross a border. But at the very back of the airport’s forest of suits, one man weaved his way through like a searchlight. He carried a file folder and stopped at the sight of Franklin; he had been waiting for him. The man pointed.

“Come here!” he yelled.

* * *

— CALAIS, France —

Come to Calais! says Calais. Calais has changed its mind about visitors. It rather likes them now.

Three years ago, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, the French port city on one end of The Channel, the busiest international seaway in the world, had discouraged migrants from showing up by instituting a slash-and-burn policy against the migrant camp on its outskirts, France’s largest, known as The Jungle; indeed it had set fire to the place where thousands of migrants lived.

That was then. Now, fewer black and brown people are stowing away on the lorries that transport them and various dry goods and household appliances to a new life in England, or perhaps to an untimely death. Calais wants tourists—British ones, naturally—to take the trip across the Channel and sample its spiced wine: The migrants are gone, and Christmas is here!

An aerial view of the ‘jungle’ camp, taken on Aug. 16, 2016, in Calais, where over 9,000 migrants live according to different NGOs. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

In a way, it is. In a square lined with apartment blocks, a child sits alone in a toy airplane that staggers up and down its pole on a merry-go-round. A giant plastic candy cane smacks the side as it spins. A piece of garland falls off. The road is quiet except for the wind and Christmas carols blaring out of loudspeakers; up a little further, super-sized red Christmas balls clang against a two-dimensional metal tree at a traffic round-about; a bit further still, the Town Hall declares its lawn a Magical Forest—a huddle of trees left undecorated, the better to display the few empty boxes underneath. A man throws his cigarette into the Magical Forest. He lights another. A kid pulls up on a scooter. He looks at the large tree from behind the locked gate. He rides off.

It is time for the main event. A motorcycle revs, then another and another. A biker gang charges ahead, dozens of fur-hooded red capes billowing over leather jackets, come to escort Mr. And Mrs. Claus through town. Their engines puncture the loudspeaker carols and the wind. They are late. Mr. Claus has already gotten his glitter sleigh-car stuck at an intersection; lounging in the carriage waits Mrs. Claus, skinny and with a spray tan and a blonde dye job. She gives the honking cars a dirty look but she’s too bored to mean it.

This is Christmastime in Calais. But hang a left off the main road, go past the lingerie store that has the mannequin with the dislocated elbow posed legs-open in a Santa hat and red corset, past the fashion store selling discount luxury rhinestone platform heels, and past the print shop displaying miniature frosted disco balls next to personalised coffee mugs, and there is the evidence that the wrong kind of people are still coming to Calais, on their way to somewhere else. A sign on a door advertises services for migrants; spray painted on an electrical box outside: “F–K THE BORDER.”

* * *

— LONDON, England —

Body Landing Site 1

It’s lovely here in East Sheen. It’s quiet. Only two people walk down leafy Portman Avenue on a weekday December afternoon. A woman rushes her poinsetta down the street, and an old man drops pamphlets at the white front stoops of the brick homes, their porchlights turned on. Then a plane flies overhead. “Plague!” the man shouts at the sky.

Within moments the plane has disappeared behind some clouds; another will follow in 90 seconds or so. Geoff knows. Geoff times them. He knows everything about East Sheen and Richmond-on-Thames: that its enormous park was donated by Henry the VIII, that on a clear day you can see all the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and that one dead body fell from the sky some years ago near the supermarket where he lives, about a half hour walk away. As he points across the distance to the supermarket, the one thing he does not know is that he is nearly standing on the place where another man’s dead body recently lay. He does not know that more than one body has fallen on his pretty little neighbourhood; that, in fact, several have.

The man who fell here was named Jose Matada. Jose once worked in South Africa as a housekeeper, and was last in Angola before telling his former employer that he would go abroad for a better life. When his body fell onto Portman Avenue in the early hours of a September morning in 2012, a resident in one of the brick homes heard a thud. Jose carried a single coin in his pocket. Four people attended the inquest into his death. There is no white bicycle, cross or plaque in memory of him at his landing place.

José Matada as depicted in this E-FIT (Electronic Facial Identification Technique) provided by the Metropolitan Police on Dec. 7, 2012. (Courtesy of Metropolitan Police)

Geoff does not like the noise of the jets, and other residents do not like it either, and that is one reason why some of them are canvassing for a Conservative candidate named Zac Goldsmith, a young man in possession of millions of pounds and his father’s old Savile Row suits, who in 2015 promised that if he failed to convince the Conservative government to stop the planned addition of a third runway at Heathrow he would resign his seat. He failed. He resigned. Then he ran again, but not before he ran for mayor telling Hindus that the Muslim candidate would tax their jewellery.

While Goldsmith has reservations about the free movement of people, he feels differently about birds. Goldsmith loves birds. As a child, he nursed one so it could fly; as a political candidate, he put a picture taken of himself, sitting in a car made to look like a bird’s nest, on the pamphlets that canvassers hand out to these brick homes. He, an environmentalist, is also partial to the trees birds live in. His campaign has not taken a position on the dead bodies that fall from the sky.

Goldsmith had a campaign event a block down the road and a few shops to the right at the Hare & Hounds Hound pub. Lisa and her husband manage this pub by day and live on its top floor by night. They met and fell in love over their shared passion for pub management; a few years ago she moved to East Sheen to be with him. She doesn’t know much about the body that fell down the road. Some people are so desperate to move. At least there’s just been the one, and after all, resources are scarce everywhere. Anyhow, people don’t talk much about that here. They do talk about the noise. Sometimes, when she’s taking a drink order on the patio, she has to ask her customers to pause and wait for a jet to pass. It’s a nuisance in the neighbourhood, there’s no doubt about that, but mustn’t grumble. People have been very welcoming to her here.

A few blocks east from where the body fell, past the multiple kitchen remodeling shops and the place that sells silver spoons with sayings like “Every Path Has Its Puddles,” a car drives by, a few notes slipping out.

“…It’s the best, so get dressed, and impressed,
With the lights along the window…”

The car passes Goldsmith’s constituency office. Brexit luminary Michael Gove is visiting. Hello, hello! Everyone welcomes him, and he remembers everyone’s names. Campaign workers will be thanked for their great fortitude and endurance, braving as they do the rainfall and the people who do not vote their way

* * *

— LAGOS, Nigeria —

Franklin could have tried to flee. It was a long march past the airline check-in counters, around the security officers, down a hall and into an empty office. There were several opportunities to make a mad break for it. Franklin did not resist, though. The man who was yelling at him was an airport official. Franklin was a nobody. Franklin did as he was told.

Besides: Franklin was paying the man to tell him what to do. The man—trusted employee by day, people smuggler also by day—was telling Franklin it was time.

To the tarmac! Franklin had spent years running down a football field as if his life depended on it, because he was certain that it did. Today, Franklin walked like he’d arrived. When the smuggler had brought him to the empty room, Franklin had taken off the clothes he was wearing and packed them in the black vinyl bag he carried; from that bag, he had pulled out a grey suit his uncle had given him. Now Franklin was dressed to impress, and as he strode down the runway the impression he gave was of a boss-man in a suit doing boss-like things, just as his smuggler had instructed.

Franklin surveyed. He inspected. He nodded his approval. He frowned his authoritative displeasure. That wing? Looking good, boys. Those luggage carts? Keep ‘em rolling. But wait: what about the baggage hold? Well gosh, Franklin had better step inside and take a look. Better take a good long look, go all the way into the hold, keep going in until he was right by the bags, right under the bags, so far in there was nothing to see here but bags. He was in.

The airport worker had chucked a hundred-pound pile of luggage on Franklin’s spine before slipping out of the plane. Of the suitcases and boxes on top of Franklin, one piece belonged to him. His little black vinyl bag held everything he would need for his life abroad: a jersey, some shinguards, and a pair of cleats. Metres overhead, travellers settled into armchairs and asked stewardesses for extra pillows. But a new world was waiting for Franklin. Preparing for takeoff from the moment he could run, Franklin was on his way. Most Valuable Player of Airport Security! Gamer of the Skies! For football! For freedom!

Somewhere nearby, a door slammed shut and everything went dark.

* * *

— CALAIS, France —

The organization with “F–K THE BORDER” outside its door is not in fact officially registered as “F–k the Border.” Many of its members prefer that it be called by no name. You may then ask, what kind of organization is this? “A secret one!” a young woman with dyed grey hair may answer.

It is an organization of, among other things, slogans. “Poverty is violence.” “Borders are violence.” Many things are violence. One of the men who speaks these slogans, who prefers not to speak his own name, moved from elsewhere in France to Calais specifically to help the migrants who came here so that they could get on to England. His friends help too; some, by secreting migrants across the border, he says. In return they may be charged with people smuggling. The charges, along with many other injustices, are of course a function of “repression,” “the face of domination” and, one must never forget, “the f–king system.”

All anarchist aphorisms come to an end when he speaks one name: Amin. Amin was from Ethiopia. Amin liked rap music and thought he might like Europe and that was good enough for his friend the activist. Maybe he was trying to escape persecution in Ethiopia? Or maybe he once watched a movie and there was a pretty cobbled street in there and it looked good? Or maybe he wanted to be just another kid who went to university and got a job and bought stuff like nice clothes and food.

Amin’s motives didn’t matter to the activist—getting out was the whole game. Whatever his reasons, Amin had survived the sea in a boat. He’d make it through a tunnel in a truck. The activist wouldn’t know whether to put Amin in a box marked “desperate refugee” or one marked “economic country-shopper.” Even if he did know, he wouldn’t do it. Boxes are violence.

* * *

 — LONDON, England —

Body-Landing Sites 2, 3 and 4

The households of Richmond-on-Thames can buy Christmas by the truckload at Homebase. “Feels good to be home,” is the slogan of the big-box DIY store, which is where one goes when one needs a singing, dancing, maraca-wielding Christmas chihuahua toy for £15.

“Welcome!” shouts Waqar at the sliding front doors. He wants patrons to know that kitchen remodelling is 60 per cent off. He does not know anything about the corpse that once landed in the parking lot.

When the body of a young man dropped to earth 18 years ago, a Homebase employee found the 21 year old’s body curled under a tree. It was just inside the fence. He was born in a valley in Pakistan where his family grew onions they couldn’t sell for much money. He had worked in construction in the Gulf to send them some money. He had felt so guilty he could not send them more money. It was for them that Mohammed Ayaz finally made it to England.

Waqar knows most of his colleagues would be surprised to learn of the body that fell from the sky onto their workplace, but two employees may be the exception, having been here for many years. Tasha and Jake work away in the Christmas Tree Forest in the parking lot, Tasha the saleswoman in her Santa hat and Jake the gardener in his orange reflective vest. They both know various dead bodies have fallen on Richmond. They cannot agree on precisely how many have fallen, or precisely where they fell, or whether more people like the ones that fell should be encouraged to travel to the United Kingdom safely.

Tasha believes that life is hard enough in England without having to care for newcomers. Jake is less certain. He knows more about the bodies than he thinks is healthy: it is a grim hobby, he acknowledges, to keep track of corpses. This is how he knows about the body of Vijay Saini, a teenager from India who was trying to get away from the people who had accused him and his brother of having ties to a Sikh separatist group; he fell on what was then an abandoned gasworks and is now the Sainsbury’s that Jake can see every day from work across the road. Most of its customers do not know about the body that fell close to the store where, as the tills ring in their purchases of HOHOHO jumpers and ingredients for turkey stuffing, they can listen to that song again.

“…It’s so magical it’s cooler than your dreams…
There’s no can’ts, ‘cause you’re everything that’s possible…”

A 15 minute walk up the road, past a restaurant called The Hope, lies the Church of St. John the Divine, where Reverend Neil Summers once said a prayer for the body that fell on a nearby building. He knows the people in the pews that day felt sad about Carlito Vale—raised in a Mozambican orphanage, he had been living in South Africa — who crashed through the roof of the office building opposite the church. If parishioners knew more about the other bodies, they might feel sad about those too. Or perhaps not. They are probably more sympathetic toward refugees: “Jesus was a refugee.” The men who fell around his church would often be called economic migrants. Even liberal residents are, as Summers delicately puts it, “conscious of a pressure on local services.”

A police car drives past a building in Richmond on June 19, 2015, where the body of a dead man was found on the roof on June 18 (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

The building that Carlito’s body landed on is the headquarters of a store that sells magical-unicorn bath bombs and personalized heart-shaped travel jewellery boxes; it sits just down the road from the office building where the Liberal Democrat running for town council used to work, directly across from a giant gold box made to look like a Christmas gift in front of which people take pictures of themselves. Gareth Roberts knows that migrants tend to contribute more to society than they take, he knows that they do not tend to be murderers, and he knows this is terrible, truly, he feels terrible about it, but he simply did not know that when Carlito fell on the roof of the building down the road from Gareth’s old constituency office, the body was not the first to land in the area the politician represents.

Carlito Vale. (Facebook)

Nor does he remember much about that day in 2016, except for the ambulances. Neither does the receptionist at the store’s office. She wasn’t around at the time, the day the building got so hot that employees fell asleep at their desks and someone went up to see if something was blocking the air-conditioning unit and found Carlito decapitated by the fall. The receptionist thinks she might have heard something about it. Or maybe she didn’t. She isn’t sure.

“I have actually thought, why aren’t we talking about it more?” Jake the gardener says of the bodies, maybe to Tasha the saleswoman, maybe to himself in the big-box Christmas tree forest. The fact of the skyfallers’ existence has vanished as swiftly as their lives.

* * *

Some 39,000 feet above sea level

Airplane luggage holds aren’t built for people. There are the wayward bags, for one thing. And if the falling objects don’t get you, the air just might. Some holds are properly ventilated and temperature-controlled. Some are not. Franklin’s hold was not.

He pushed the bags off his body when the plane took off. He may have been struck by a pile of them, but he didn’t think of their weight. The air was heavy enough. When Franklin wasn’t passing out he was praying; when he wasn’t praying he was passing out.

“God, take me through,” he’d say aloud, whenever breathing permitted.

God’s work or not, Franklin made it through. He thought he might die in the air that day. For several hours, he waited for death to take him. But finally, there it was: rubber hitting road. And there: the door opening. And there: Air.

This was no London fog rolling in, though. The fever of the desert hit him: Franklin had landed in Morocco. Two years of hard labour in one part of Africa bought a seat in a baggage compartment to another part of Africa.

But never mind! Our hero was a sportsman. Maybe he’d commandeer a dinghy and ride the waves to Europe! Maybe he’d take a deep breath and swim to Spain! It’s just as he liked to say: “Man needs an aim.”

So when the ground staff found him hiding behind some suitcases, when people in uniform screamed that they’d found a terrorist, when security officers rushed over, it was still for football and for freedom that Franklin brandished his bag. No bomb to see here, but behold—shin guards!—and tremble at the power of an aspiring professional athlete in your midst.

Franklin didn’t take this trip to kill or be killed. Franklin came to play.

“I’m! No! Terrorist!” he yelled at the men who came to take him away. “I AM A SOCCER PLAYER!”

* * *

 — CALAIS, France —

Truck trailers aren’t built for people. There’s the lack of air, for one thing: When cargo, stowaways and oxygen are packed together so tight that something’s got to give, it is always the stowaways. But if the asphyxia doesn’t kill the migrants, the falling objects might. Some trucks transport their cargo smoothly. Some do not. Amin’s truck, it seems, did not.

There is always something to worry about when a migrant secretly hitches a ride. Maybe there will be a fight. Maybe a border guard will get rough. Maybe something will fall.

The French activists cannot say whether Amin had a chance to try to push the heavy box off of him when it tipped over and landed on his body. They know that something fell down and he never got up. People across the Channel worry about terrorists crossing into England, but Amin was no terrorist. Not according to the secret activist who cries over him at the secret organization in Calais. He was a friend.

Elsewhere in and around Calais, activists are regularly prevented from giving migrants food and water, and migrants from sleeping in camps. Their presence might unnerve the people who come to eat Calais’s cheese and sleep in their 3-star hotel rooms.

Back up the road, outside the Grand Theatre, is a Christmas Market. Another merry-go-round spins; a child-sized tank on it sits empty. Treetoppers and candlesticks made of branches are sold in the couple of dozen stands that look like the wooden boxes migrants used to live in as they waited for the right moment to hide themselves amidst various parcels in trucks to get to England. That camp was dismantled, and the port the trucks depart from is more militarized than a standard army barracks. Some still stow away on trucks. Some jump in the sea and swim. Resting for their journey ahead, many sleep in tents in the frosty forest, their bodies curled up underneath the trees.

* * *

 — LONDON, England —

Body Landing Site 5

In the Clapham Common, amidst the running geese, beagles, and soccer players, a man may sometimes be seen standing perfectly still. He peers through a set of binoculars. He resembles a bird watcher, but he is not a bird watcher. He waits for planes to pass overhead. He is here to watch jets. Occasionally he sees something else.

In August, a man such as this saw something fall from the sky. It looked like a body. He knew it was a body. He ran in the direction it fell.

The day the man ran toward the body, he would have run through a neighbourhood going about the petty trials and minor triumphs of its daily business. He would have turned left just before Images, the nail salon where Leway gives manicures in her preferred red, having finally left the laundromat where she found it difficult to work with people she could not easily communicate with, such as, well, old people and forei—but she remembers that her family members are foreign to this place, too.

He would have run past Travel Centre, where from behind her headset Angela books flights for people to take trips home, mostly to Nigeria, usually on vacation. She works beside a cartoon of Mr. Bean, stuck to a poster informing passengers that if they are denied boarding, they are entitled to a full ticket refund. She knows people book plane tickets for all sorts of reasons. The labour-voter worries that too many people move to England for bad reasons. Angela immigrated from Jamaica a few decades ago. She moved because she was bored. She is bored here sometimes.

The man would have run further up the street, past the coffee shop selling hand-stitched dish towels, past the real estate agencies selling million-pound flats, bright and spacious, past the novelty shop selling gold-embossed champagne flutes and books with titles like “Feminists Don’t Wear Pink, and Other Lies: Amazing Women on What the F-word Means to Them.”

Finally he would have made it to the street where the body fell. The discovery: a man cracking the concrete walk open with the force of his fall, red blood splattered on the garden walls. The shock: a sunbather, an electrical engineer, nearly hit. The attention: the cameras, the lights and mostly the question, “What is it like to live under the flight path to Heathrow?” Diana, who lives a few doors down from this final landing site of a man whose name is still not officially known, thought perhaps this question misses the point. What is it like to need to take that path the way these men did?

He must have been desperate, people said of the man then. But lots of desperate people stay home; this man took to the sky. A few months later, as the air freezes, and Christmas songs play about a magical time of year, residents still speak occasionally about this one dead body, and about the 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants found in a lorry in Essex in October. Their deaths are recent.

Family members and neighbours of Nguyen Dinh Luong, believed to be one of the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain, pray in front of a makeshift shrine on Oct. 28, 2019 in Ha Tinh province, Vietnam (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

But everything new gets old, and when memories of migrants get old they disappear; these migrants, too, will disappear. Though most residents do not know the precise number of bodies that have dropped into their neighbourhood, they are sometimes aware of how the bodies have come to land. This is how dead people fall over London:

First, the stowaway takes to the runway, with the lights along the tarmac. Sometimes he makes a game plan with a smuggler, a plan for freedom and for whatever else. And sometimes he just makes a mad break for it, running as if his life depends on it because he is certain that it does.

However he reaches the plane, if he reaches the plane, he often heads for a wheel. He hoists himself into the wheel-well, a space just big enough to curl his frame into. There, he braces himself. Or he panics.

He braces himself if he knows what’s coming. The spinning of the wheel, the thunder of the engines, the climb above the Earth, the freezing air, the oxygen-starved air. He panics if he realizes he’s been misinformed by a deceptive smuggler or a hopeful idiot, told that above the wheel lies a secret trap door that leads to a secret tunnel in the underbelly of a plane that magically carries its passengers to a better life.

And then he’s killed, probably. Around three in four wheel-well stowaways are, in one of three ways. When the wheels retract, some stowaways are crushed by the landing gear. When the plane hits high altitudes, others are asphyxiated or freeze to death. And when the wheels go back down, those still holding on to life have probably lost their hold on consciousness before they slip out of the well and drop to Earth. That is rare, though. By the time the landing gear opens—often, over a pretty little part of South West London that happens to sit under a flight path to Heathrow—the typical plane stowaway is already dead.

When Franklin took to the runway, he thought he would travel under the wheel-well. The smuggler had to beg him away from the well and into the hold. If only his plane had headed straight for what he’d imagined might be his final destination, if only he had headed there the way he’d always intended, Franklin might have been another frosted body falling from the sky onto these clean streets.

* * *

 — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa —

There’s a big violent slum in North Johannesburg where Franklin lies in a wooden box. The box is nondescript, as boxes go. All that distinguishes it from any other is that it’s covered in the dirt of Diepsloot, one of the most dangerous ghettos in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. In Afrikaans, “diep sloot” means “deep ditch.” This, then, is the ditch Franklin ended up in.

A few feet from his box, businessmen negotiate pharmaceutical trade agreements with each other on the dusty curb until, occasionally, their neighbours are stirred to action by some poor soul they’ll call a criminal should anyone ask why they chased him down, bashed his face in and lit him on fire. But there’s little point in asking. Everyone knows they’re looking at universal justice: When police are too scared to show up, everyone’s a cop.

A man walks along the outer border of the impoverished Diepsloot township outside Johannesburg on April 16, 2014 (Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images)

Franklin’s box sees it all, upright and above ground. By day it’s a beauty parlour run by a woman named Winnie who gives manicures on a broken plastic stool under the box’s only wall decoration, a laminated piece of paper certifying that Winnie has studied fingernail painting. By night it’s a bed for a man who curls his athletic frame into a ball on a floor not much bigger than a coffin.

Franklin lives, still. But it’s like he says when someone is stupid enough to ask how life is going: “Look at where we are.”

Franklin Chibike

No one had to shoot him in Morocco over a decade ago. Governments have planes on hand for men like Franklin. He cried in the cabin the way most men would cry in the hold, but after a year in Lagos, onward to Johannesburg. He hasn’t exactly arrived. He side-eyes guys getting themselves smacked with purses outside the box as he thinks about his footballer friends who made it. Made it to Europe, made it in life, those men. They’ve got it made, those men.

Man’s gotta have a dream! Franklin’s hasn’t cooled. Plummeting through the sky has to be better than going to ground like this. Show him another plane, then, and he’ll climb underneath. This time, maybe he’ll make it to London. This time, maybe he won’t get caught. This time, maybe he’ll try the wheel well. He has nowhere to fall; he was born down and out.

* * *

In anticipation of the New Year, Britain elected a new Conservative government this December. Not far from where Parliament sits, a migrant once landed. This migrant travelled in a wheel well underneath the same jet as the migrant who crashed through an air conditioning unit in 2015; unlike him, he survived. The surviving stowaway spent a few weeks in hospital, then disappeared into the city, evaporating like a memory of his less fortunate fellow travellers, the dead people who fall from the sky on a pretty little part of South West London. Britain’s government will try to prevent more men such as him from taking more trips to the United Kingdom. It will try, and often it will succeed. Sometimes though, when a plane flies overhead here, the birds alight from the frosted trees, and they travel so close to the light of the sun it can be hard to tell what is human and what is free.

CORRECTION, Jan. 4, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Heathrow as the busiest airport in the world.

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