Fiction winner: Burned fingers

My mum has blurred. Not seen her since I’m little. Like looking in a mosquito net. You see but you don’t.

The UN staff give us clothes. Doctors tell me I’m going to a new home. But they don’t say where. I know the names of places from books in school. Real old books. When school was just a tent. Or sitting under a tree. My friends from then are gone. Some dead. Some to other countries. If they see my picture they won’t know this guy.

On the plane they say we’re going to America. But we don’t get there. We land in another place. Malta. Not like the old camp. Here there is soft beds and showers. And strange food. Lots of it. I’m fifteen then. We play music sometimes but not like at home. I meet a lot of African guys. From places like Ethiopia and Congo and Somalia. Don’t know where they all end up. A group of us go in another jet. They give us food in plastic trays that you have to peel open. I see movies on the plane. The actors talk too fast. The men in suits chase other men with guns. Cars crash into shops. Blonde girls scream. Black men have gold around their necks.

The plane lands in a hot country that smells of petrol. Men inside the airport wear robes and beards like holy men. Women are covered up so you only see their eyes. Soon I’m in another plane. This time eating from silver boxes. All the food comes in white plates, like astronauts. We go to sleep but it’s not night. Then when it is they wake us again. Like we’re flying for years till we’re older. But it’s just more airport. This one’s got trees on the inside. Soldiers carrying machine guns. I look away from them. You don’t look at men with guns. Then we’re in another plane. People give us more food. It looks like worms but tastes like heaven.

In daytime a voice on the speaker says welcome to Australia. Inside the airport we meet our guide. He says hello in one of my languages. Then he talks to another African guy in French. I pretend not to hear. It’s the same stuff. Men and ladies from the agency help with our bags. One guy with orange hair has got marks on his arm like scars from a fire ceremony. But it’s pictures. He drives us in his van.

I’m sitting near the front asking questions about cars. They all look new. Red as blood or silver or gold. There’s high buildings and electric billboards. There’s a girl with blue hair. There’s a man with rings in his lip. Another man drives a wheelchair as big as a car. And bikes. Hundreds of bikes.

I tell this other guy from Africa that I want to try the coloured drinks those shops sell. He laughs like it’s my joke but I really want to. There are girls with long legs and shoes too high. There’s a tram. But no time to go on it. The driver takes us to a hostel. After a sleep and another sleep they send us to a kind of school. I meet lots of guys from Africa. Like little Garteh and John.

It’s seven years ago but feels like no time. In dreams I’m back in mud or dust. Hiding from soldiers. I wake but I don’t know if I’m in or out of a dream. The classes are hard. Agency people come from different countries. They don’t talk English the same. One woman is German. One is from Argentina. They show us maps of where they’re born. We put dots where our homes are. Or were. Australia looks like a giant biscuit.

In the hostel bed I don’t get much sleep. At night I go to the storeroom and unroll my prayer mat. I give thanks to the Prophet. Peace be unto him. I’m the only one in that room. I think. The rest are Christian and Buddhist.

In class we’ve got people from other hostels and shared houses. They come from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. And African countries I never heard of like Djibouti and Angola. They sit with their own groups. We learn about the government and the banks and Centrelink. They give us pasta and rice. The vegies look like little trees. The plates are as big as my head. I never had so much. Even on the plane. We meet police who aren’t soldiers. I’m a bit scared of them but they don’t carry guns. They smile and tell us about road rules.

Many things to learn there. Like the names of companies. The types of jobs. How the hospital system works. We visit a bank. The notes are slippery and you can’t rip them. There’s a boy from Burundi who joins our group. He says money in Australia comes from a hole in the wall. I want to find that wall. In the camps you don’t make jokes.

There’s lots of Africans in class. Mostly from Sudan. I think they’re all tall but some are short and wide. My favourite guy is Garteh from Liberia. A neighbour country. He’s the smart one. I make another friend. This is a Sudanese called John who’s got scars on his face. A tribe tradition to burn the sons of a chief with wire. He’s got a friend called Bol who gets teachers mad but he’s cool too.

One day Garteh says the four of us should get a house. I’m not sure. They’re not Muslim. Then I thought maybe it’s God’s will. These guys are ok. We talk to Declan our caseworker. He’s got long hair and an earring. He plays loud music in his van.

The four of us want to share a house but we need his help. If we talk to landlords we’ll have no chance. He takes us to a job agency so the government gives you money. Declan plays CDs in his car and smokes a lot. When he bends to light them it looks like he’s praying. He plays a CD and my feet are kicking. I ask what’s that.

‘A bloke called Django,’ he says. ‘Gypsy jazz. It’s a re-mastered recording.’

I look at the photo of a white guy with moustache. He’s holding a guitar.

‘Lost two fingers in a fire,’ said Declan. ‘But he didn’t give up. Invented a new way of playing. Keep it. Just a copy I burned.’

I don’t understand about burned music or burned fingers but I like the CD.

My feet jump around like goats have got loose. My friends laugh but I can’t stop.

One day at our house I’m playing Django loud. Bol points at the speakers.

‘Is that African?’

‘Belgian,’ I say.

Bol frowns like he never heard of that place.

‘White music,’ Garteh says.

It’s not easy to explain. They think I’m crazy. They chuck cushions. Same joke every time I play it. They call me jazz boy because my feet won’t keep still. But they don’t understand there’s music everywhere It’s in machine noises and animal sounds. It’s in air vents and floorboards. If they listen maybe they’ll hear it too.

Bol jives around. Pretending to play guitar but he can only do the strum. I tell him European countries used to own Africa. They make us slaves. Jazz is black music so it’s African. I explain about gypsies. A kind of black. But he only makes his funny dance. Says he wants to be a rapper and get rich. I told him to learn dancing first. My turn for laughs.

John does business studies. Garteh wanted to be a social worker. He’s our organiser. He wants to bring more of his Kpelle people here. Maybe the whole village if he could find them all. He’s working on that.

A woman from the agency asks me to do work for money. They’ll pay me to teach basketball to African kids. Easy. I want to show my football skills too but the agency guys call it soccer and tell me they already have soccer coaches. The white guys call me Mate. They do high fives. Kids from Africa called me Moose. Short for Mustapha. I knew it’s what I want to do. Be a youth worker. I’ll go to university. No one in my family has done that.

I don’t buy smokes like the others. I keep my money in a suitcase under the bed. Not in a bank. In Sierra Leone we have English and French banks. We don’t use them. I want to save money for a guitar so I can play my own songs.

Declan gets us a house. Not big but clean. With furniture. Beds are too small for the Sudanese but they don’t care. We each get a room. The armchairs look old and bald like an elder. But solid proper chairs. Declan tells the landlord we’re good guys and we’ll pay rent on time.

But we didn’t know much about house living. We need to learn stuff Aussie boys learn when they’re kids. Like how to get tops off tinned food. How not to break the carton when you open it. Declan shows us putting clothes in the machine and adding powder. I watch soapy water go around the window.

When it’s my turn to sweep floors I play Django. Moving with the broom. Not thinking about burned fingers on strings. I can learn. Eighteen’s not too old. I got all my fingers.

In my room I can close the door. And it’s quiet. I put photos on the walls. Cut from magazines. One day Garteh comes in and asks why I was crying. I don’t know. It might be the picture of a boy who’s carrying a smaller boy on his back. I see a lot of kids doing that. One boy from our village carries his little brother who died from snakebite but he can’t put him down so he just keeps carrying him. Or maybe I’m crying for something else, like a boy I knew at school who’s got soldier’s clothes and carries a rifle.

A teacher from the agency says I tell stories all wrong. She says to keep a journal so I can read aloud to class.

My name is Mustapha from Sierra Leone. A little country in Africa that used to be good but then there was the war

But I can’t say it out loud. I get sick if I remember too much. Garteh’s been in camps since he’s six. No family left alive. I’m lucky. The people at Red Cross find my sister in Sweden. Lots of Africans go there. She gets married. Now I’m an uncle. She goes to university like me. She’s coming to Melbourne for my wedding.

Garteh’s going to be my best man. But I don’t know what’s happened to the Sudan guys. Bol’s on Facebook but then he puts sad posts about warlords.

John tells us about Kakuma. With the rapes and gangs. In my camp at night there were sounds of kids screaming and women crying. No police. Just soldiers. And thousands of people pretending to sleep. We hide in our huts. If you hear a scream you’re just glad it’s not you. But you might be next. I start in that camp when I’m thirteen. Two of my friends die there in fights. I learn not to make friends.

In the war I see my father and uncles get killed in a machete attack. It comes back in dreams and I wake up shouting. My girlfriend tells me to pray. I know they die saving me and my brother. But I can’t pay them back.

Even though I don’t read aloud my writing it helps me to sleep better. When you move stories from your head onto pages it’s like catching a demon and locking it up. I remember my father’s stories. Some nights I go back trying to hear his voice. And to forget the cold of our house. We get a TV and a Hi-Fi but we don’t have a heater in that house. Even in spring I can’t get warm. Doesn’t matter how many blankets or clothes. People from Africa never warm up unless it’s real summer. Nobody tells me about winter in Melbourne. When it’s cold even if the sun shines. I won’t take off my sweater till the Aussies call it a heatwave. Then I relax.

Houses in our street all look the same. Just different numbers. In our yard there’s long grass we’re supposed to cut. We didn’t know how. After sunset it goes quiet. If my father is here he would ask ‘Where are all the people?’ He’s got a laugh you can’t see that starts in his tummy and goes up his throat. But his face won’t change when laughs come out. But if I think about him I cry.

John’s got to leave after he hears from Red Cross. There’s four members of his family found alive. We dance and get drunk. Even me. All that time in Kakuma and John’s thinking they’re dead. We go to the airport to say goodbye. He flies to Juba. They’ve got a new country called South Sudan. Oil companies want to give the government money. Just to dig.

After he goes home John’s cousin moves in. Chol is the same age but not a student. He’s got a job in a petrol station. Big like John but quiet. He doesn’t walk into a room. He sort of slides in. Like he might break the door if he hurries. When he talks he doesn’t look up. Same as his cousin he’s got cuts on his face. A chief’s son. He stays in his room a lot. Nobody knocks. Maybe he prays.

One morning while I’m sweeping the floor Django’s playing. Chol comes in.

‘What’s that?’

I don’t understand.

‘That. The music.’

His voice is deep like John’s but shaky. I wonder if he’ll get mad and break the hi-fi. But he walks away.

I tell the others. Bol slams shut his study book.

‘He’s in camps since he’s five. They kill his parents and his sisters. He’s got nobody except John. And now us.’

One night I’m coming home past 7 Eleven in our street. These two white guys on a bench. Strange haircuts. When I’m closer they stand up. One blocks my way.

‘What you looking at Africa?’

The other comes up from behind.

‘This is our street mate. You should be in the outback with abos.’

‘We like your girls Africa. But we don’t like you.’

I try to push past but they block me.

‘Think you’re cool like Americans. You don’t know shit Africa.’

I remember men who walk around the camp in groups. They bash you just for something to do. Maybe these guys are like that. They don’t sound angry. More like it’s a kind of joking.

‘Show us your black moves. Do a dance.’

I can fight but there’s two of them. I think maybe they’ll knock me down. They could have knives. I remember men with machetes.

One of them steps closer. He touches my hair like he’s scared of it.

‘Come on Africa. Do a dance.’

I try to move past. They block me again.

‘Where you going mate? That’s bad manners.’

There’s no noise but I know someone’s come up behind. It’s Chol. He looks even bigger at night. And the burned stripes on his head shine. Now these white guys don’t act so tough.

Chol looks like he’s ready for spear-throwing. One time a chief from our village chucks a spear that goes past trees and huts and lands in a wild pig.

‘Who’s your bodyguard Africa…?’

They stop talking. Maybe because of Chol’s smile.

It scares me. I get a shiver in my back. I don’t want to see it. Not just cause of his bent teeth. But his smile. A kind of crazy. Like a devil that can rip bricks from a wall and break white guys in half and chew on their bones.

They back away. One turns to me. He’s sort of laughing. Like he wants to shake hands after a match.

Chol shows me what he’s carrying. Not a spear. Not even fists. Just a little drum, he says to the white guys.

‘We can dance. Better than you.’

He starts to play.

Still standing. He holds the drum in his elbows. Slow at first but then a thump on the offbeat. He does this shot thing with his fingers. I can’t work it out but my feet are going. I dance. Why not? I’m not even trying.

One of the white boys nods like he gets it. They leave. I don’t see them go. There’s only Chol with his head down. And then it’s quiet.

I try to say something but he goes back to our house like he’s carrying something on his back.

No noise in the street except a bit of traffic far off. People would hear our music but nobody comes out of the houses. That’s not how it works.




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Bill Collopy

Bill Collopy is the author of one novel, one nonfiction book, and various essays and stories. For many years he has managed welfare programs in Melbourne.

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