The phone call comes while my mother is rinsing her hair in the kitchen sink, with one of those white rubber faucet attachments that don’t quite fit the tap so water spurts every which way out of its would-be seal. I can see from my vantage point sitting on the countertop that a pool is forming between the back of the sink and the windowpane; a couple of dead flies are floating, exposing their bloated bellies, and the spray from the tap is creating a water-feature effect so it looks like the scene is missing only a miniature palm tree. My mother wrestles with the tap and hands me the hose. I angle the spray over to the flies and watch as I make them swirl round and round. Mother winds a pink towel into a turban, then jabs at my arm. I take the phone from its cradle and twist the cord around my finger. She slaps my hand, then the tap shut.
Her expression says someone had better be dead.
Dabbing at her browline with a red and white checked tea towel she rolls her eyes.
—Yes. Yes. I come now. I come now.
Slamming the phone back on to the wall she swears in Kurdish and starts stomping around the house. I pick a tomato stalk out of the fruit bowl and place it upside down in the lagoon with the flies.
I cross the kitchen, grab the baby from the playpen and make a start on changing his nappy. I can hear my mother banging drawers shut in the bedroom. She kicks the laundry basket on her way into the bathroom.
The baby’s testicles and backside are bright red so I reach for some cream to rub on them. This baby is often sick. I hope mine won’t be the same.
I am almost six months pregnant.
I haven’t felt very nauseous, just not at all hungry. My mother makes flatbread and I nibble on it. When flatbread is the only thing I’ve eaten all day, she makes me have yoghurt in the evening. She counts each spoonful I swallow down. She tries to entice me with a small sweet treat after the other children are in bed. But I’ve had no appetite since we arrived in Australia. When we were in the detention centre on Nauru, meals were arranged for us. The food there didn’t agree with my stomach, I don’t actually like rice; it has always given me a stomachache. Before we were on Nauru we spent a couple of years in Zaatari.
All of my mother’s other children are younger than me.
Actually, that’s not true.
There was one other child, older than me, my sister, Esrîn. She died on the way to Australia. I try not to think of her or remember her name. It gives me a pain like I suddenly need to go to the toilet. So I call the other children ‘the baby’ and ‘the twins’ since then.
My mother says my baby will come next year, until then I have to stay indoors as much as possible. That’s why she’s banging about now. She doesn’t like going out, and our routine has been unsettled. She is hiding me, mainly from the other refugees living nearby.
I can join Australian school some time in 2016. The social worker agreed. I am really looking forward to it. The twins already go to school, but they are not interested their lessons and get into a lot of trouble.
My mother and I have to wear abayas and niqabs in public in Australia. We are only wearing them to conceal my pregnancy, so we can pretend my baby is my mother’s when it comes. It’s a new thing for us. My mother says we’ll maybe stop wearing them a year after my baby is born. We maybe can change to just wearing hijabs then. And maybe when we get Permanent Residency she can start working; then we could afford to move away from this suburb and our neighbours who remind us too much of home, war, camps.
I’m only fourteen so my bump is very small, neat and tight.
Mother has not prayed since we were in Nauru. One evening she told me she no longer believed. That was the only time I ever saw her cry.
She didn’t even cry when my father was killed at home right in front of us, nor when the men were on top of her one by one.
I’m not one hundred per cent sure how a woman gets pregnant, because I thought that only married men and women could have babies. My mother told me, shortly after we arrived in Australia, that I would have a baby after the Father Christmas they have here comes. I asked her how she knew I would have a baby. She just said, the baby is already coming.
I thought it had been almost four years since father died and maybe what those men who killed my father did to my mother could make a baby, but my mother had her baby less than a year after that happened. So I still do not know how I am having a baby.
Trying to work it out gives me a bellyache.
Then I feel cold like a block of ice, and smell flowers and tobacco all at once.
Aside from being pregnant, I love it in Australia, even though I can’t go outside very much. I listen to the radio and watch TV in English. My mother and my social worker have subscribed me to Overdrive where I can access literally hundreds and hundreds of ebooks for free online.
We walk to the train station and the baby alternates between uttering gargling nonsense or yammering away in Kurdish from his stroller, all the while swatting blowflies away from his face.
As I bend to adjust the hood forward a seven-foot man passes us by and even the baby holds his breath.
Australian flies are very stubborn. No matter how many times you swat at a fly it will keep coming back – directly at your face. Not a different fly, but the exact same one. These blowies (that’s what they’re called) actually make me glad of my niqab.
My mother sighs with every step.
We get to the train station and stand on the platform, a little girl in powder-blue dungarees flicks pebbles against the back of my legs. She is lying on the platform, making her dungarees very dirty in the process of flicking, rolling around pretending it wasn’t her; then rolling back, and flicking again.
Her mother says nothing to me, the girl or my mother.
My mother wouldn’t be happy if I said anything, or drew any extra attention to us. So I bite my tongue.
I have the beginnings of a headache. Coupled with the flies and the pebbles I’m starting to get pretty exhausted in this heat. My stomach contracts, and I will the train to arrive.
—Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong.
The baby won’t repeat any English words, even though he’s almost three. I play this game with him every day.
—Bing bong. Bing bong. Bing bong.
I was already bilingual by his age. I think his speech is really quite delayed.
Much like this train which is finally here.
A teenage boy with a hole in his earlobe, like a bullet went through it, also gets on and lies on the seat in front of us, kicking his window to an up-tempo beat.
I count trees and houses out of our already scuff-marked windowpane. Swear words and lewd pictures are scratched into the perspex.
Bullet Boy’s phone rings.
—If that slut gets on my train. I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I’m looking out for her. I can’t fucking wait.
My mother sits in such an odd way in public. Her shoulders hunch and curve and her head drops forward like a raven stooping down for food.
Bullet Boy’s phone rings again.
—Yeah? Oh yeah. Great. I can’t fucking wait to see her the fucking bitch.
My mother places her hands on her knees and starts rubbing the fabric of her abaya against her fingertips.
—I’m looking out for the fucking whore. She’d better fucking not get onto my carriage.
My mother crosses and uncrosses her feet at the ankles.
—Yeah. She is. She’s a fucking bitch-faced whore.
My mother leans further forward.
The train stops and people board the carriage through the doors farthest away from where we are seated.
Bullet Boy jumps up and starts screaming.
—Lisa! You fucking bitch-face slut. I fucking see you.
—I fucking see you hiding down the back you whore. I see you.
—No, I won’t piss off you junkie whore. You c-c-c-cunt.
My mother is now bent forward completely, she has her head almost in her lap.
—Just shut up, alright?!
—You junkie bitch. You starved your dog to death and let it die. Spent your money on crack and ice and let your dog die. You fucking junkie whore. You bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Whore.
My mother’s breathing is getting very loud. The people across from us are looking over at her.
—I’m getting off now. Shut it. Just shut up …
—No I won’t shut up you cunt. You cunt. You fucking dog killing cunt.
My mother is shaking. Her niqab quivers.
—Fuck off then cunt. You cunt. CUNT!
I stand at the primary school gates with the baby in his stroller. He is yammering away in Kurdish now. I ask him to please speak in English.
—Te fehm kir Îngilîzî?
I rock his stroller in the hopes of silencing him. Aussie women are waiting several feet from me with their babies and strollers all lined up in a row.
One looks about eighteen, but doesn’t smile or say hello.
My mother has gone inside to get the twins. It’s lunchtime, only time for the infant classes to let out, but the twins, in Year 4, are being sent home early. Again.
The flies at the super school are closer to Adelaide city so they are less aggressive than country blowflies. But, from what little I’ve seen South Australia is all country. Even the city centre is tiny. It’s like it was licked then stuck on top of the countryside like a stamp on a letter. Destination, nowhere.
My tummy feels like some of the powder-blue dungareed girl’s pebbles are stuck in it. They are grinding together in the triangle just below my ribs. The sun is baking down now. If this is November in Adelaide, I am not looking forward to February; I hope my baby will be born by then.
One Aussie woman starts up.
—It’s very hot to be wearing black.
One of the other women gulps.
The first woman continues.
—It really is very hot to be covered in black … so not this season’s colours.
The others are looking at the ground. One stifles a snicker.
The first woman again.
—I personally find black attracts the sun.
The other women are looking at each other, and the youngest one starts pushing her stroller back and forth. Then moves it to the side. Their row is broken now.
—And … I like to show off my figure.
One woman shakes her head. The rest are still looking at the ground.
I feel very angry.
They think I’m stupid, that I don’t speak English, but I went to the international school in Aleppo and I was in the ninety-fifth percentile in my year. My father taught in the university. His English was excellent. He spoke English with me every day.
He used to read books to me in English, every night, before I went to bed. Those wonderful books I grew up with by renowned scholars and authors. My father would read them aloud until I fell asleep. I think it was for his benefit as much as mine, because he would continue reading then marking assignments late into the night. I hardly remember him without a pen or a book in his hand.
My father, my sister and I were always together in those days. He would take us to school in the mornings and tell us of the great many things he knew, the places he had been. And he would tell us that when we were older, over sixteen, he was going to take us to Paris and London on holiday. Until then, we could travel to any country we wanted if we could read, and being multilingual, we were the advantaged ones. We could read more than double the books of others.
It helped me.
It helped me.
Reading books in Zaatari and Nauru helped me.
There weren’t many, and even fewer in Kurdish. I read every time I felt sad, or wanted to remember my family’s names, and in those pages my sadness stopped for a time.
My mother is hurrying out of the schoolyard now. She is holding each twin by their wrist. Roughly. She’s yanking them, and they are scrambling to keep up. She is twisting their forearms a little in her rush. She is muttering to them in Kurdish to be good, and to learn to behave themselves.
My mother passes the Aussie women. Two of them sidestep and shuffle to the right. Quite rudely.
The first one, the loud one, rolls her eyes and says:
—I need to post a letter.
—On the way home?
—We won’t miss the mail. Calm down.
—But there’s a postbox right here … Two, in fact.
Then a shushing sound from the younger one. The rest of the women shuffle away from the loud one. One coughs her disapproval.
—I can just drop it in through one of their eye slots.
My mother motions to me to get a move on or we’ll miss our return train.
I turn our stroller around to face the Aussie women.
The baby says:
—K-k-k … cunt.
His first English word.
The Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize is supported by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation