Beni’s Game – By Paul Alkazraji

by May 16, 2024Uncategorized

Beni’s Game

A short story by Paul Alkazraji


, Beni’s Game – By Paul Alkazraji

Three Albanian words:
shiko – well, look
budalla – stupid
mirë – good

Luan rammed the gears of the Mercedes from second to fourth, and surged down the wrong side of the airport road past a line of cars, flashing his headlights. Jude was thrust back deep into the leather seat with the acceleration. The sky ahead of them had streaks of lilac and molten iron below the black heights as a lone aircraft banked down with white lights pulsing on its wing tips.

‘What time does he land?’ said Luan, tilting his head towards the clock by the speedometer. The illuminated red dial was touching 130kmph as it hovered close to the time – ‘19:45’.

‘In ten minutes,’ said Jude. He slid his fingers through his fringe as he shoved it off his forehead and blew out his breath.

Shiko… I’m doing my best!’ Luan’s voice was dour as he glanced at his friend. ‘You took your time with your pilaf rice. There’s some on your T-shirt.’

‘The waiter went AWOL… bringing it,’ replied Jude. He pressed the switch for the electric window and it dropped half way in an instant. The warm August night air rushed in, smelling of dry grass and field smoke. He flicked the rice grains out. ‘Thanks for coming with me, Luan. It’s Beni’s grandfather I’m here for, really – Gëzim. He keeps goats in the village and comes to the church. He came to meet us in the border forest…’

‘Yes, Jude. I remember Gëzim,’ said Luan, as he rubbed a finger up the side of his Liam Neeson-like nose. ‘So… fill me in a little more.’

‘Well, Beni left for England about a year ago, but I don’t remember seeing him since he was…’ Jude considered. ‘Maybe fourteen? Tousled, brown hair then. Shy, but a cunning little fella. He used to hide “Chance” cards under the Monopoly board at the youth club.’

‘So, it’s not worked out for him, then,’ said Luan.

Jude slid his glasses back into position up the ridge of his nose as he thought to himself, A deportation flight, eh, Beni? Do not even pass ‘Go’ or ‘collect £200’ before…

‘I wonder what he’s been doing there?’ Luan scowled. ‘And who might be waiting for him here? I hope he’s not foolish enough to be carrying something… budalla.’ Ahead of them on the road, a cluster of white and neon lights like a small town grew closer, and soon Luan was braking hard into a roundabout. He flung the steering wheel to the right, past a row of floodlit palm trees, and through a barrier to where the terminal building of Tirana International Airport glowed green from the interior like a great, tilting cube of glass.


The lights across the Tirana horizon line rolled up the aircraft window on Beni’s right and settled level at the midpoint. There was an uneasy hush along the cabin’s interior as the passengers sat apart on different rows. Only an occasional cough interrupted the muted roar of the jet-turbines and the air rushing over the plane’s fuselage outside. He swallowed and the roar increased.

As the lights were dimmed for the descent, he glanced around him; there were so many British officials on board. He felt the pocket of his rucksack and the flat, oblong form inside to check it was still there. No one’s found it, he thought. He wiped the moisture on his palms along his thighs. He turned his hands upwards and stared at them. They were shaking, and he shivered. He remembered how cold they had been that evening – freezing – so surprising for last August. The sea spray had stung his cheeks. A great, grey wall of foaming water had risen above them, and their dinghy had seemed no bigger than an inner tube. Down they’d swirled, into a valley. He’d cried out, ‘Oh, God! Oh, good God, save us!’ When they’d risen out of it to the crest, he’d seen the glint of the sun on the spinning blades of a distant windfarm and a chalky wall of cliffs. Then they’d all tumbled overboard, and the dinghy was like the manhole cover of a drain above his head, and there was no way back up to the light…

He now watched the mauve and orange light above the Albanian hills. He ran the heel of his palm over the corner of one eye. He straightened his back and sniffed. He had held on to an Iranian man. It had seemed like twenty minutes, but maybe it was only five. The man had slipped away from him, sinking under, with a glug from his mouth. He’d heard the motor of the Border Force boat droning through the water in his eardrums before he’d actually seen it.

Later, he’d sat on the shore, shivering, the gulls shrieking hostilities at them as they’d swooped around their heads. His clothes had smelt of sewage.

In a big tent at some old military airfield, he’d been given a mug of hot chocolate and a warm blanket, and he’d sobbed; it was the kindness of it.

Grandad Gëzim had said on the phone that Jude would be there to meet him. He breathed out a little and smiled to himself. He remembered Jude and the sausages he’d cooked in tinfoil on a wood fire in his garden for the village boys. He is a good man, he thought. What would he tell him? Maybe some things were too dark for his ears. Yet, what if one of them was waiting there too?

A line of blue ground lights flashed past his window and, with a jolting bounce, they were down. There was an eruption of clapping behind him. What could those other men like him have to celebrate?

As he shuffled down the aircraft steps inside a Perspex tunnel, the warm air seemed to revive him. He raised his hands to feel its familiarity once more as he smelt the runway dust and aviation fuel in this Tirana night. He stared around him and noticed the pool of light under a parked Lufthansa plane as a man shone a torch under its belly. There was something like a golf cart caterpillar with a frantic neon light on top, and other vehicles like severed insects still moving along the ground with the rear of their torsos missing. It’s strange to return this way, he thought. The line of uniformed men eyed him
indifferently as they led them towards the waiting Policia van.


, Beni’s Game – By Paul Alkazraji



Jude snatched a chair at a café table and turned it so he could watch his friend. Luan was jogging across the inside of the terminal building; his chest seemed raised and thrust forward, a little ridiculously, as a corrective for his bulging midriff. He is displaying his rank, Jude thought, smiling to himself. Luan unhooked a black partition cord on a chrome stand, and a man in a lime security vest jumped forward to challenge him. Luan produced a card from inside his suit jacket, his Albanian Secret Service card, no doubt, and they disappeared together through a sliding glass door.

Jude shook a sachet of sugar and tipped it into the tiny white cup of Segafredo espresso. He took a hasty bite out of his pistachio doughnut, and cast his eyes around the exit doors to see if anyone waiting caught his attention by acting suspiciously. He could not tell: this was Luan’s kind of work. He could sense things in his spirit sometimes, though, and this evening, like the rising whine of a jet-turbine, there was an alarm there. The tube lights reflecting on the glass windows looked like the dots and dashes of a Morse code message, but he couldn’t decipher it. He flicked open the copy of The Times newspaper he’d bought, and eyed a headline: ‘Bodies of 18 Asylum Seekers Uncovered in Greek Forest Ravaged by Wildfire’. Well, Beni, he reflected, whatever happened to you, it could have been much worse.

Luan jogged back towards him, spinning his car keys around his index finger with a sharp, flicking sound.

Shiko… he’ll be through in a few minutes, but not here,’ he said. ‘The charter flight deportees are processed at a police station. Come on… it’s about a five-minute walk.’

Jude looked wistfully at his doughnut as he rose in the rush. It seemed a shame to waste it at these prices. Luan grabbed it and stuffed it in his mouth with a grin.

They strode along the footpath past an old, red biplane until they came to a grey building with a small car park. Next to it was a wire mesh fence with a huge sliding gate. Jude saw several others loitering there around the dark edges.

‘Let’s keep a little distance… and watch,’ whispered Luan. A line of white lights high on their poles stretched down the runway perimeter like beacons towards the last traces of dusk’s tangerine aura. There was a metallic screech as the gate was slid open. Jude felt the hairs rise on his forearms. The first passengers shambled through. He studied each one – young men, all of them. It had been many years since he’d seen Arben Driloni: Beni.

One man stopped and glanced around him. He was wearing a crumpled shell suit, and with his untidy curls and goatee tuft, he looked to Jude like a seedy Mr Tumnus from the Narnia books. A P&O Ferries carrier bag dangled forlornly from his fist.

‘Hey… did you get a first-class cabin?’ shouted a policeman by the gate. There was a cackle of infantile laughter. Jude touched Luan’s arm. He felt Luan give a sharp tug backwards on his T-shirt sleeve. A man in a black, quilted nylon jacket with the hood up slid an arm through Mr Tumnus’ and began to lead him away. Luan was just a few paces behind them.

‘Beni… is that you?’ Jude called out to him. The hooded man spun around and raised the long, thin blade of a knife. From the holster under his jacket, Luan drew out his pistol. The man turned to flee, but suddenly, Beni stuck his foot out. The man tumbled and Luan leapt on him like a big cat, and pinned him down.


, Beni’s Game – By Paul Alkazraji



Beni slumped into the rear seat of the Mercedes, pressed the heels of his palms into both eyes, then sat back and drew a deep breath. He gazed out, smiling at Luan, but averted his eyes as the man got in and slammed the driver’s door. Some kind of off-duty policeman, Jude had said. I wouldn’t like to cross him when he’s on duty, he thought. He pushed his rucksack down, out of sight, between his legs.

Pastor Jude turned around in the front passenger seat and smiled at him with a warmth he suddenly remembered. He still had that chipped front tooth, but his sideburns had greyed and his face was fuller. He watched him push his uneven fringe to one side.

‘So,’ said Jude. ‘How was your time in England?’

‘Well… good, pastor. Mirë,’ he said.

‘Sure it was!’ snapped Luan. ‘So great you had a plane-full of British officials to escort you home personally.’

Beni glanced at Luan and back at Jude. He felt the lid of his right eye begin to twitch.

‘It’s OK,’ said Jude. ‘He’s on other cases – not yours. He’s a friend. You can tell us about it, if you want to?’

‘Those officials accompanied the others… and me,’ Beni conceded to Luan. ‘Some Brits will now work at the airport, we heard…’ Sweat was beading on his chest and he wiped his T-shirt over it. It’s so hot after England, he thought. He lowered a rear passenger window with the switch. A guard dog by the car park entry hut rattled its chain as it rose and barked once before it settled again. Beni flinched and rubbed his ear lobe. He sat forward. ‘I saw these adverts on TikTok last year in the spring… so I took the chance and crossed the Channel with their help. It was a nightmare. Later, I found out the British police were calling them the Dragon gang. I ended up in a hotel in Ramsgate with some other asylum seekers. I called my friend, Bledi. He came in his car late one night… and I slipped out. I stayed with him on this north London road with lorries passing at every hour.’ He remembered their spray dribbling down his window on wet winter nights, the odour of mould, and the walls of his room vibrating as the lorries hit the low drain cover outside. ‘I worked in restaurant kitchens, dirty ones and shiny aluminium ones, for some months… but it was for less than the minimum wage, and another Albanian – Blackbeard, they called him – invited me to work with him in the West Country. One of his businesses was a grass house in this small-town suburb. He had a hundred cannabis plants growing under UV lamps in a blacked-out attic. I moved into the agricultural sector… so to speak.’

Luan had been scrolling on his mobile phone and jiggling his leg on his toes as he listened. The car was rocking from it now.

‘Was the pay a bit better there, then?’ he asked, with heavy irony.

‘Yeah, but… well, Blackbeard let me out occasionally for some fresh air, to work at a car wash he owned on the A37 in Somerset,’ continued Beni. ‘I was picked up there last month in an undercover police raid. I’d just sponged their windscreen really well, too!’ Luan huffed from his nostrils. ‘I went there to work, Pastor Jude, not to get into crime… honestly. You do believe me, don’t you? I’m not a bad person.’ He watched Jude lift off his glasses and fold the arms together before resting them on his lips.

‘I’m sure you set out with good intentions, Beni,’ said Jude, as he turned away. He reached back a moment later, handing him a packet of sunflower seeds. ‘Do you still chew these?’

‘Oh… I haven’t since…’ Beni tore open the packet, put one in his mouth, and split it with his front teeth. As he drew out the kernel and spat the salty shell into his hand, he was thinking. Yes, he would do it.


As Luan eased the car towards the airport entrance roundabout, Jude leaned out of the passenger window a little, with his elbow surfing the night air. A high whistle of cicadas wafted in and out like a weak radio signal. The distant blues and reds of the airport lights were mingling with the low stars. He shuffled around to look at Beni.

‘Will you try again… for England?’ said Jude.

‘For that life? I don’t think so,’ said Beni. ‘Anyway, they stamped my passport with an entry stop to the Schengen Area for three years.’

‘You could have been sent to Rwanda,’ said Luan, with his face fixed towards the road’s unbroken white line ahead. ‘Anyway, you’ve a bright future waiting on café tables in Tirana to look forward to.’

Jude saw Beni sniff and shrug as he lowered his eyes. He then reached down further and rustled by his feet. He handed something over, and Jude felt the weight of it settle on his hand. It was a burgundy hardback Gideon’s Bible.

‘It’s for you, Jude. I want you to have it,’ said Beni. Jude felt his right eyebrow rise even as his forehead furrowed. ‘Open it at the end – near the book of Revelation.’ Jude pressed the nightlight switch above their heads and, under the yellowish glow, the pages fell open in his palm. The last centimetre was stuck together as one. ‘Tear off that top page…’ In a hollowed-out section, Jude saw a red £50 note on top of others. He tilted it for Luan to see. ‘For the poor and orphans… Jude… take it.’ Beni’s eyes widened with a look of appeal. Jude noticed his eyebrow had just a single chevron like a corporal’s razored through it.

‘Beni… this is grass house money, isn’t it? I can’t,’ said Jude. ‘You made a hole in the New Testament for this? Treasure in heaven was one part you cut out.’

Luan ran a finger up the side of his prominent nose, and then around the back of his ear. With one hand gripping the wheel, he reached over and let the note corners flutter over his thumb. He then flipped the wad out onto Jude’s lap.

‘Sprinkle it with holy water… It’s just two or three thousand,’ Luan scoffed, with a wry grin. ‘That’s what our friend by the airport gate had come to collect – wasn’t it, Beni? Or… shiko, you can have it put in a police filing cabinet until it disappears, or post it back to Blackbeard, if you like?’

Jude stared at it. No… he couldn’t.

On 23 August 2022, 1,295 migrants made the crossing over the English Channel in twenty-seven boats. ‘Beni’ was one of them.

Editor. Sheila Jacobs.
© Paul Alkazraji 2024. All rights reserved.

, Beni’s Game – By Paul Alkazraji

‘Beni’s Game’ is based on characters in two novels by Paul Alkazraji ‘The Silencer’ and ‘The Migrant’.

Read Chapter 1 of ‘The Migrant’ – CLICK HERE

Find copies of the novels  – CLICK HERE

Find out more about the author – CLICK HERE

Email. [email protected]