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Type
Short Story Prize

Paper boats | Neilma Sidney Prize, runner-up

Like most migrants, Biaggio lost his name on his arrival to Australia. In front of the rust-spotted bathroom mirror he gazed at his old reflection. His chest was sunken, his bottom front teeth were missing, and his throat burned. He wondered if Biaggio, the brave young man who had boarded the ship to Australia some sixty years ago, had ever existed at all.

‘You’ve got to assimilate mate,’ the cocky hostel owner had said when he first arrived in a migrant hostel on Marrickville Road all those years ago. He had looked at Biaggio straight in the eye and said, ‘Beeajoe … no … Bill’s a good name.’

He opened the vanity cupboard to get his packet of Oxytocin. Even his pain management prescription didn’t have his real name on it.

There was a gentle tap on the bathroom door. She called his name: ‘Bill – li.’

He opened the door. His wife, Nedda, still said his anglicised name with her strong Sicilian accent. She stood, arm in arm with Susie, his friend Ali’s wife.

‘You back already!’

Nedda giggled like a young girl and patted her hair. She wore it with a short fringe and curls piled on top of her head like little choux pastries. Susie was happy to take her to the hairdresser every Saturday morning. They’d have a coffee at the mall, buy some fruit on special and return home. Nedda didn’t remember much anymore but still remembered her weekly hairdressing appointments and how to make paper boats.

Susie handed him a brown paper bag of pears. ‘Nedda’s been asking for Joe. I told her he was at the Gold Coast.’

‘Where’s Joe? Where?’ Nedda asked.

‘He’s on holiday, remember? Gold Coast.’ Bill said.

She nodded and walked to the lounge room.

Sometimes Nedda asked for their son and then had to remember all over again that he had died before them. She would grieve like it was the first time. He’s on holiday became the stock answer. Bill waved Susie goodbye and followed Nedda into the lounge room. She was sitting at the coffee table making paper boats and lining them up against a small canvas of the sea Bill had painted for her.

‘Your hair looks nice,’ he said to her but she was too preoccupied with her paperboats to answer.

Nedda remembered fragments of her life in no chronological order. Snippets from before they emigrated, over sixty years ago, invaded her short memory like loose photos from a photoalbum that had come unstuck, that had become undone. She did remember the words of an old song that, perhaps, her mother taught her, and how to make paper boats.

Ciuri, ciuri, ciuritti tuttu l’annu

 amuri ca mi dasti ti lu tornu.

For years, they had lived happily in a big house on the outskirts of Sydney. Between the roads and the roaring traffic of Canterbury Road, they grew tomatoes and basil in the summer and kept chickens for eggs.

The garden was large, with thin borders of concrete around the patches of vegetables. There was a lemon tree, and, in the centre of the garden, a majestic gum from which Bill had hung a tree swing, where Nedda would swing with Joe on her lap. Time passed in seasons like the garden. The body and the memory let you down like the last crop of tomatoes at the end of summer. At first Bill noticed Nedda would leave the gas stove on, then the doors open, and then she was down the street, asking people how to get home. And now a lifetime of smoking had caught up with him and he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He didn’t have long to live and he wondered if Nedda would even have enough memory left to remember him after it happened. He had always thought life would follow a particular path – he would die first, then his wife, then his son. They would leave everything to Joe.

Soon the social workers were taking her away to live in a home. He would be alone.

 

#

 

Susie and Ali’s corner shop was where he always bought his cigarettes. Sometimes buying a carton meant an hour chat and coffee, sometimes a card game. Today Susie was at the counter, too, scooping pistachios into a paper bag.

‘Ali, Bill’s here.’ Susie put her hand out to him.

‘How are you my brother?’ Ali appeared from the back of the shop.

‘Good, brother. You?

‘Smokes?’

‘Peter Styvestant.’

‘Coffee?’

‘Not today. Need to get back to my wife.’ He didn’t want to leave Nedda alone for too long. A new fragility had overtaken her once strong demeanour. Now she was almost childlike. That afternoon she had tried to apply her makeup but it was too heavy. Large apricot lines streaked her cheeks and the blue eye shadow filled in her sockets up to her eyebrows. When they took her away the following week, at first, she cried a little, asking for Joe.

They took her away the following week as the social worker had promised. At first she cried a little, asking for Joe.

‘He’s on holiday,’ Bill answered, squeezing his hands tightly on her shoulders. ‘And you’re going on holiday, too.’ He found it hard to breath.

‘You coming?’ Nedda asked.

‘Yes, every day.’

 

#

 

The house without Nedda echoed with noises from another time. A child’s running feet on linoleum, a saucepan lid clanging, the coffee pot boiling. A couple of times he thought he heard Nedda singing. He decided to spend those nights when the housed echoed with memories at Susie and Ali’s. There was always a card game in the garage.

‘Just going up to Ali’s,’ he said, as if she was there listening.

They played cards deep into the night, a halo of smoke around them. Many men came, with little English to tell their stories but knowledge of the same card games and a love of playing with the little bit of loose change they had. Bill liked the music. There was Lebanese pop and Wardah and sometimes Bill brought his old cartridge cassettes in an old tape recorder of Albano. And Elvis, too. He always loved Elvis. Then Ali would talk of Beirut and remember the days it was called the Paris of the Middle East. Of the culture, the life, the street murals. ‘The garage needs a bit of paint,’ Ali said.

‘I will paint a mural for us.’ He’d watched the artist on the local community television station, the half an hour show on painting landscape with acrylics. Nedda had taken his painting of the sea. It was small – but surely, he could replicate it on the wall. Make it bigger.

‘You will paint the ship I arrived here on. See?’ Ali stood up to pull his wallet out of his pocket. He opened it to show an old black and white photograph of him and his wife Susie. It was a large white passenger line like the one Bill had travelled on with Nedda to Australia with small portholes and a pointed bow.

‘I will try to paint that,’ he said and Ali laughed and squeezed his shoulder.

 

#

 

The mural took two weeks. There was not much else to do. Mornings, he visited Nedda, afternoons he painted the mural, nights, he played cards with Ali.

‘One day, that ship will take me home to the Beirut I remember,’ Ali said, stubbing his cigarette into the ashtray. ‘I swear I smell the salty sea air from this painting.’

 

#

 

It was an ordinary summer Sydney day when Ali’s life ended. Nothing dramatic to mark his passing in the weather – not a storm or a rainfall – just cloudless blue sky and sunshine. A heart attack killed him instantly. At Ali’s he saw people circling a plastic chair where Susie sat wailing and pointing. Bill looked up at the wall, where she was pointing.

The mural was now only a sea of blue and an endless horizon. The ship was gone.

‘It disappeared, just like that!’ She snapped her fingers for effect. ‘When Ali died.’

 

#

 

Bill stood in the centre of his garden and looked around. The grass needing cutting and vegetable patches grew wild with weeds. The swing still hung from the tree, its ropes now frayed.

It was lonely without Nedda, without Joe without Ali. He couldn’t go there every night now he was gone. He sang the chorus of Nedda’s song. His new companion was the voice of SBS Italian radio.

He fiddled with the radio dial and heard the news reporter’s voice

‘Refugees throw their children into the sea.’

The announcement froze him still. Children thrown into the sea? He twisted the antenna until the crackling stopped. Children? Out on a wild sea to arrive on these shores.

Bill imagined what a detention centre looked like. When he and Nedda had arrived, they’d stayed at a boarding house for migrants. They came and went as they pleased. Signs on shop windows that said ‘Forbidden: Dogs, Cats, Italians and Greeks.’ It hadn’t been easy. Now there was that word causing hatred. Terrorists. But Bill knew that would never be true. Terrorists didn’t arrive in small fishing boats, packed together like sardines with nothing but the edge of the boat to lean over to piss or vomit. The next morning he found Nedda sitting in the sitting room of her new home. There were paper boats on the table she sat at. He sat next to her and cut up the pears he had brought. She ate without speaking. Before he left, she gave him a paper boat.

‘Take.’ She said.

He put it in his pocket and kissed her on the forehead.

 

#

 

He turned on the television. It was the little girl’s round brown eyes that galvanised him. In them he saw the roar of water and the separation from home. There was an organisation to help the children. Their telephone number flashed on the screen. He scrawled it down on a piece of paper and then a terrible coughing took him. He used the paper to cover his mouth. When he stopped, he saw that the number was now spattered with his blood.

The organisation’s office was on top of a real estate agency off Prince’s Highway. Bill traipsed up the stairs, his throat feeling like it had been rubbed with sandpaper.

There was a small banker’s desk with a young girl sitting there scrawling on a piece of paper. ‘Can I help you?’

‘I want to help the children.’

‘Great. How do you want to help? You’ll need to fill in forms and get a police check.’

‘No problem.’

‘Fill these in and bring them back.’

Bill looked at the forms. He could barely write in his own language having only had a few years of school. ‘I’m not good writing English. My son – he do all that for me before he died.’

The girl hesitated for a moment and then put her hand out to shake Bill’s.

‘I’m Soraya. I’ll help you.’

It was just when he was about to write his signature that a lady with long grey hair walking in holding the hand of a little girl. ‘Hello,’ he said.

‘The girl’s name is Zahra,’ Soraya said. The children are allowed out for outings once a week under strict supervision. It’s terrible. So, we try to have activities that will be fun before they have to return to the detention centre.

‘Why they put migrant in gaol?’

‘Politics. Do you know what Zahra asked us yesterday?’

‘She speaks English?’ Bill asked.

‘No, she speaks Hazaragi. We have someone here who speaks Dari; they can understand each other.’

‘What she say?’

‘She asked if Australia has flowers.’

‘I will bring some.’

‘We’ll make sure you get your paperwork in and police checks and you can.’ Bill left feeling sad. There were people who’s lives were not their own. People who fled danger only to arrive to something worse. He took the train and decided to visit Nedda again. Twice in a day. She would like that.

When he arrived a young nurse with a pursed expression came to him. ‘She’s been asking for you and Joe all afternoon,’ she said. He walked quickly to her room.

‘Biaggio? Bill-li? Joe?’ She was agitated.

‘I’m here,’ Bill said and squeezed her shoulder.

‘Who are you?’ She looked straight through him.

Bill couldn’t breathe. It was the first time he was a stranger to his wife. He put his hand in his pocket. The boat was still there. He had almost forgotten about it. He held it on the bus ride home.

 

#

 

The next day he picked fresh daisies from his garden, wrapped their stems in wet paper towel and foil and took them to the office where he had filled in the paperwork. Soraya was there.

‘Hello!’ She said and gave him a warm smile. It had been a long time since someone had smiled at him like that. He smiled back.

‘Sorry, I don’t remember your name.’

‘Biaggio’ He said. He said it! His real name. Not Bill. I have bought flowers for Zahara.’

‘Oh, that’s lovely, Biaggio, but we aren’t allowed to bring flowers into the detention centre.’

‘You keep them, then.’

‘Thanks,’ Soraya said. ‘By the way, your police check came through and all is clear. We are going to visit the children on Friday afternoon for a few hours to do some craft with them. Would you like to come along?’

‘Of course!’

‘Great! Can you be here by 2.30 on Friday?’ We will be going by mini bus altogether.

 

When he returned to Canterbury station he stopped at the newsagent and bought a packet of coloured paper.

Paper Boats. He would make paper boats for Zahra.

He would teach her how to make them.

When he got home the plush carpet smelt damp and the place was cold; fibro houses were like that. He had always planned on bricking the house but he never got around to it. The house was ageing too. He had painted a mural in his room, the same ship on the sea as he had at Ali’s. It kept him busy on the nights with Ali gone.

 

#

 

Zahra made boats in many different sizes and colours. Sometimes she drew stick figures on them, How long could a child stay in detention? But there were no answers. He sang her Nedda’s song.

‘She needs to learn ENGLISH!’ the guard bellowed at him. ‘Do you want to confuse her more?’

Bill stopped but Zahra was quick and had already learned the chorus.

 

#

 

A new season had come. Bill had started playing music again. He played it loud. He played his old favourite Nana Mouskouri. He was wondering if playing music to Nedda would do her good when there was a knock at the door.

‘Police.’

Biaggio opened the door to two policemen. One looking ready for retirement. The other young like a new recruit.

‘You Greek, mate? You listen to Greek music,’ The older policeman said with a grin. ‘I’m Australian. I live here over sixty years.’

‘But you’re not Australian, you’re Greek, right?’

‘So many years, I work, pay taxes, vote, I bury my son in this country. I’m Australian but I come from Sicily.’

The young policeman broke into a grin. ‘You Mafia, mate?’

‘I’m Australian. Australia has Greek music, Italian music, Chinese music, Didgeridoo …’

‘Yeah, okay, we get ya,’ said the older cop. ‘But keep it down, okay? What’s your name?’

‘Bill.’

The first policeman scrawled his details on a small notebook and they left laughing between themselves as they closed the front gate behind them.

He turned the music off. A sinking sensation came upon him. He would go to bed.

But he couldn’t sleep. He stared at the mural of the ship he’d painted on his bedroom wall. His throat burned. He tossed, hot, cold, and dreamed images so vivid he wasn’t sure if he was awake or not. Of Zahra, making paper boats, Joe as a little boy, Ali calling him ‘my brother’ and Nedda’s song. His breathing slowed, heavy and laboured. The walls became liquid, the bed undulating beneath him; it was as if the sea in the mural rippled, the boat inviting him but he was too weak to get up and step on the ship. There was a strong scent of the sea.

 

#

 

It was dawn when they noticed Zahra had first disappeared. Flashing torches into rooms, they saw her blanket pulled up over the pillow, the lumpy shape underneath. When they pulled back the blanket, paper boats tumbled onto the floor and the aroma of brine and salt permeated the cell.

The guard sneezed; how could the paper boats smell of the sea? When he looked out the small window, he saw many of them rolling across the asphalt: green, red, pink, blue and white. ‘She couldn’t just disappear. She must have escaped. With that stupid old dago.’ The guard kicked away the paper boats and returned to the front office to alert security and the police.

 

#

 

It was the same police that called on Bill and found the door unlocked and Bill cold in his bed.

‘Poor old bastard didn’t abduct any little girl.’ The younger policeman scratched his head. ‘Why would you have a mural of an ocean liner painted in your room?’

The older policeman looked up from his phone. ‘What ocean liner? It’s a very bad mural of the sea.’

‘I saw it!’

‘Stop taking those stay-awake pills. Who were his next of kin?’

When they went to visit Nedda in the hospital to tell her Bill had died, she was upright in bed, clutching a small canvas of the sea. She sang an old song that and kept saying a name they didn’t know: Biaggio.

‘Bill,’ they said enunciating the syllable.

 

 

Image: Jason Edwards / Unsplash 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Angela Rega is a writer and teacher based in Canberra. Her short stories have been published in Australia, Canada, United States, United Kingdom and Norway. Her publications include The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and HorrorPS Publishing and Crossed Genres.

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