The heat was wet in the air and the red crabs were migrating to the ocean to lay their eggs. They were scattered everywhere, in the showers, behind each door, always at someone’s feet. Abdul had heard that hatchling crabs covered the seashore like a red blanket. He imagined they’d glisten as they moved like a red hologram. He hadn’t had the chance to go outside the camp during the wet season, excursions only happened once every month or two. In the early days the novelty of adventure, however contrived, was a source of enthusiasm. After eleven months in detention, walking out onto a beach flanked by an officer for every two people was a tedious reminder of imprisonment.
Abdul had travelled much deeper into the island than most of the others. The boat he had taken from Indonesia had crashed against the rocks at the edge of the island and turned them out to sea. There was a black space in his mind where the memories of water should be. This new land had a slow pulse and the trees were so old they didn’t recognise what he was.
After a few days of quiet retching his stomach finally took a breath. As the metal fist around his gut opened there came at once a deep relief and a nausea that caused him to heave out a sliver of green bile. He spat impatiently and looked hard at his feet before walking purposefully in the direction of the others. It was offensive this piss poor stain of liquid that was all he had to show for what he had been holding inside. It wasn’t just the water that had pushed his stomach to his throat; it was the slap that almost happened and the smell of charred flesh, and countless other things probably. He pushed these thoughts aside and walked on. After six days of surviving off the land they were found and detained.
Abdul lay in bed, his eyes open. He could hear the movement outside, heavy steps passing each cabin set in a semicircle across the grey grass. He heard the slow thumps of a fist against the metal door next to his, followed by a man’s voice, “Time to get up mate.” It was Jim. He was a nice enough man.
Abdul rolled off the foam mattress onto his feet. He pushed open the door just as Jim reached his cabin.
“Good, you’re up,” Jim said with a smile. “I can always rely on you to make things easy.”
“Can you give me your lighter? Abdul asked, slipping on his thongs. Jim rolled his eyes.
“I didn’t sleep last night, how do you think I can sit up and listen in school?”
“Not sleeping again hey? Have you told the nurse?” Abdul looked at him. Words were unnecessary to convey his derision.
“Yeah go on then mate, bring it back to the guard house before Hala comes on shift. Twenty five minutes,” Jim said looking at his watch.
Abdul pulled a cigarette from inside some rolled up socks and put it in his pocket with the lighter. He stepped outside, surprised to find it was raining. He hadn’t noticed the sound of water on the tin roof.
“You’ll miss those noodles one day, I’m telling you,” Abdul heard Jim call out. It was a slow Saturday afternoon, and the boys were just starting to emerge sleepily from their cabins. Jamal, the lanky Ethiopian boy, had picked up a cup of chicken flavoured two minute noodles and kicked it across the compound.
There was something strangely comforting about Jamal. He was always talking shit, but somehow there was more truth in his comically fabricated stories than in most things. He was like liquid, the way he stooped and glided, and similarly malleable. He was not concerned with pride, at least he didn’t grasp at it. Abdul envied him.
Jamal picked up the cup of noodles and filled it with boiling water. He began eating so quickly it looked like he was drinking, his face twisted into a smirk at the too familiar taste. Upon hearing Jim’s comment, Jamal looked up at him, mouth full, brows raised. Jim stood with one hip cocked to the side and his foot on an angle. It was the stance he took when he felt he had something to say that he wanted heard. When he stood this way the boys couldn’t help but listen.
“When you’re out there in the big world and the fantasy you’ve been growing all these months is shown up to be nothing but a dream; when you’re out of the role of the victim and have to make your own choices and carry your own regrets and failures, you’ll remember these days and think to yourselves, remember those noodles? I fucking miss those days.”
Jamal grinned, “If you like them so much boss, come, sit down,” he said easily. Jim walked away. “Come on, what’s the matter,” yelled out Jamal, “didn’t they teach you to share in your culture?” The boys around him laughed. A few moments later Jim returned from the guard house with a fork in his hand and a smile everywhere but his mouth. “Alright then,” he replied, sitting down and helping himself.
They opened a school in the camp after some people on the mainland made some noise. Abdul saw it on the news. The news was always splayed on the big screens in the compound like an open wound. He had watched three successive immigration ministers cast around his fate like dirt. He tried to tell himself he didn’t care, yet a persistent desperation kept him and everyone else drawn to the screen any time the words ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘children in detention’ were carelessly thrown about by those who assumed the roles of captor or protector.
Their dreams were hanging on hooks, bleeding dry as they waited. Some felt their dreams leer at them, unmanning them further by their very presence. They exchanged them for small tangible things in the present; getting lost in Bollywood films, a night with the Chinese lady in the family compound, winning whenever possible. For others dreams were fuel. Fantasies of the outside became so vivid and intricate they took on a more solid form than life. This connection with a bright and glorious future, where the struggle pays off and one gets what they earn made life bearable by rendering it to the background.
As Abdul walked past the school he noticed the words that had been painted in bright colours across the portable building: Hope, Justice Freedom. There were others, but these were the ones that stood out. They had been there for some time now and the boys often scoffed at their blatant hypocrisy. Jest is a useful tool for living with anger, but its power is only in containment, it cannot transform. Today those words singing boldly in the sun pierced him more deeply than usual. He thought how the guilt earned by all the people of the world seemed to be paid for by a small few, willed into invisible corners by those who were happy.
Feeling restless, Abdul put on his runners and began jogging laps around the compound. He thought back to those first days when there were more than a hundred and fifty boys in the camp and they wore their boat numbers pinned to their shirts. While there was much to complain about, those days were remembered fondly by most. Their heads spun and their eyes were blurred by the victory of arrival. They had made it through the impossible and could stand tall as men. This palpable virility had dissipated almost entirely several months later. Faded momentum hung stale in the air and they began to bleed as unchecked time stretched their minds thin.
As he cooled down to a walk he saw Khalil, the fearless Iraqi boy with the eyes of a made up woman. Khalil had been transferred to another compound because his mouth cut lashes and no one could sit still until a fist met his face. As Khalil approached Abdul walked away from the commotion he knew would ensue. He shook his head when five boys ran towards the fence as Khalil’s voice sounded out. Jim’s eyes were everywhere at once, but he didn’t move. He had developed the ability to discern what would manifest as words and heat and what would become physical violence. He had been working as an officer for three years in detention centres both on the island and the mainland and he was a prison officer for years before that. He picked up the guitar he often brought on shift and begun to sing while his eyes rested on the boys at the fence. He swayed gently as he sang and Abdul sat down next to him.
Sleep was hard for most of the boys to come by. The hungry night caused thoughts and not quite thoughts to stand up in vivid colour. Sometimes the uncertainty of the future became almost paralytic, constricting vessels and freezing blood in its tracks. Sometimes it was dreams of the past that kept them awake.
In his dream Abdul walked and walked, past blood and rubble into a silence deeper than he’d imagined silence could be. He walked until the only sign of the blast was the shattered glass littering the ground that the sound of the bomb had pushed from the village windows. He looked down and saw he was clutching a disembodied hand in his. He dropped it in the middle of the empty road and ran. Laila’s hand was always in his dreams; alone and without prayer, thrown away by a thoughtless boy. An Indonesian girl laid her hand on his cheek with such tenderness that he remembered all that he had forgotten. When she touched him his nerves felt so raw and weak that an impetus surged up within him to slap her hard. He almost couldn’t stop himself. He walked away burning. Then he saw two eyes, two eyes that could be mistaken for deep black pits. They hadn’t forgotten how to feel exactly, maybe that was part of it, but they held a perverse joy in the place of shame that was profoundly unsettling.
He woke up hard. Each time he blinked he saw those black eyes superimposed onto his own. He’d looked into those eyes when he was eight, after sixteen shots were fired and his older brother fell dead by his feet. He shut his eyes tightly and they seared. He imagined himself filling with a black tar like substance suffocating all that was alive in him and replacing it with something base. He wrung his hands together and constricted all the muscles in his body trying to hold it at bay. He dug his nails into his palms until they drew blood. Still nothing. Though the heat he produced washed out onto his sheets in sweat it did not dissipate. By morning the heat had concentrated in his stomach and formed a hard knot. Through cracked lips he swallowed his pain.
“Abdul,” Jamal said placing his hand on his shoulder. “This is getting out of control.”
He was sitting with Jamal on a wooden bench in the compound staring at the TV while Jamal absently moved the backgammon pieces around a board. He hadn’t spoken in eight days now. The morning his stomach started feeding on itself, they found him curled up on a corner of his mattress, his face in a soundless howl. The nurse looked him over and decided he would be taken to hospital. She accompanied him and treated him like a child. She didn’t say anything but looked at him with a mother’s eyes and sat at his bedside until he fell asleep. He allowed himself to lean into her nurturance for just a moment and then pulled himself out before he got lost. He hated his vulnerability, but he thanked her in his heart foracknowledging it. When he awoke she had gone.
He stayed in hospital for three days. His stomach found movement again but he lost hisvoice. He told himself he stopped talking because words were useless, he’d never spoken much, even when he was young. Now, after everything he had seen, how could words ever do justice to the state of the world, or even to a simple feeling? They were pale shadows casting an unpalatable life into a palatable form. He told himself that this was what had muted him, he needed a convincing guise to hide from what his mind couldn’t face. His emotions convulsed, refusing to be tied down to a thought, refusing to acknowledge that he was afraid if he spoke it would not be his voice, but the voice of those nefarious black eyes spilling from his lips, betraying to those he had come to love as family that he was no longer himself. Without the frame of thought his tongue became impotent.
Jamal could see what had grasped Abdul by the throat. “You are kind you know that?” he said, his voice smooth like hot oil, muffling the words in Abdul’s ears. “Just because you can see a little darkness it doesn’t mean…” he trailed off. “You know most of us see it too.”
Abdul said nothing.
“You hold everything so tight, I can see it in your mouth, the way you walk. The world is not how you thought it was, you know that.” Seeing his words weren’t having the intended effect, Jamal took some of the softness out of his tone. “If you keep hanging onto it like a child it will break you. Stop owning things that aren’t yours, that aren’t even there at all.”
Still, Abdul said nothing.
Understanding that it would not be he that tipped the balance Jamal sighed and tossed Abdul the pool cue he picked up from against the wall. “Let’s go and play a game,” he said.
The compound was almost empty. Most of the boys had gone to play soccer and a few were in their cabins. Only Jim lingered outside like a fly unable to stray from the dead. With a sudden single-mindedness Abdul walked over to one of the wooden benches and kicked it hard. It didn’t budge. He kicked it again and again and again until he couldn’t feel his foot. When he stopped he didn’t walk away. Neither did Jim. They sat down together on the bench. He took off his left shoe and sock and stared at his toes; purple, raw and bloody. His eyes were swollen and his face was wet with tears he had no memory of shedding. He wiped his face and took a ragged breath. After sitting in silence for long enough that the sky changed Jim placed his hand on Abdul’s back and spoke quietly, “There’re no words mate, but you know me I’ve gotta fill the silence, and you’re giving me a damn lot of it these days.”
Jim looked at Abdul’s face and a deep inconsolable sadness arose in him that he had only encountered a few times in his life. He breathed deeply and let the wave fall away.
“Find a way through mate,” Jim pleaded gently, “find a way.”