By Christy Collins
This story was shortlisted for Right Now’s Fiction Competition, judged by Anna Funder and Tony Birch. Read the shortlist here.
He had been here several weeks and the camp was thick with litter now: plastic bottles, cartons, discarded stretches of plastic and cardboard once used to protect someone from the sun or the dust or the early light. Later in the day the wind would whip up the loose dust and hurl it against the tents, stinging their skin and their eyes if they did not guard them; they would wipe the dust from their faces, weary of the constant battle.
When he’d first arrived here the foreign doctors had bandaged his feet, anger spilling over into words he did not understand save for the tone in which they were spoken. Of course, by then he had walked so many miles through the pain that his whole frame felt the consequences of the wounds they had inflicted. And he – like the others – had slept day and night until his feet could once again hold his weight, though his body was weakened, cramped.
There is very little for them here. For many it is more than there was at home: some food, some water, a little soap, a place where the authorities in their homelands won’t bother to look for them. There is also waiting and crowding and intermittent wailing. For some there is the comfort and burden of prayer. And God, He sometimes seems very far away.
For Ahmad – despite the people so close around him that they roll into each other in their sleep – there is a desperate, foolish loneliness which he keeps to himself.
It had been the silence, in the end, that convinced him to leave. The silence of the house once the others were gone – there was nothing left to stay for and every reason to leave. But it was an emptiness that had taken up residence in him. There was nowhere he could go that the space left behind wasn’t the first thing he was conscious of when he woke and the last aching thing before sleep finally overtook him at night when, for a few hours, he could dream that his boy called out to him from another room or that his wife might be waiting for him in the garden, her face turned up to watch the night sky, as was her habit when night came into the garden and their child was safe in bed.
In the morning, the heat woke him before the noise or the light through the makeshift shelter had a chance to. There were children and babies who cried day and night – you learnt to block it out. Ahmad had some money, what was left of what he’d brought with him, everything he owned, but not enough to leave. Not yet. He kept the money close to his body. He did not sleep well. No one here did.
In this part of the camp it was often the women who rose first. The summer days were long and feeding themselves and their families depended on queuing in time to receive a bowl of coarse meal and water, bread or hard biscuits the aid workers handed out. There was no guarantee there would be enough for everyone.
Every day more people arrived to find a place for themselves in the rows of temporary squalor grown permanent here on the edge of the city where the sky hung low. They came with bundles of belongings balanced on their heads or clutched at their sides in suitcases and canvas bags. The queues stretched back into the distance. By the time they had registered, many newcomers were too exhausted to speak. They slept for several days after their arrival, whimpering softly in their shallow sleep as memories of where they’d come from followed them through paper-thin dreams.
There was a place at the south end of the camp where you could get water and sometimes soap. Ahmad kept a sliver of hard, white soap which he tried to make last as long as possible. He liked to keep himself clean. He was not the only one. There was a dignity in cleanliness that was hard to maintain elsewhere in their lives.
Ahmad did not know what tomorrow would cost him but he did know he could not turn back. Nothing-to-lose management, he told himself, a joke that some of his friends from the university might have once enjoyed. Now he was alone.
He did not have a plan. At the camps there was the possibility of hope that Canada or Sweden or New Zealand might take him in, but the queues were a lifetime long and he didn’t have a lifetime to wait. If he could just get himself out of here. This was no place to conduct a life, and here was no place to wait for God’s hand. God’s hands were too busy keeping babies from starving, sending aid workers from Tunisia, holding back the rebels who also needed bandages, medicines and food. God was busy and Ahmad couldn’t wait a lifetime for Canada but he spoke English and he had studied and there were places here in the capital – places where men who were free could sit and drink tea, perhaps something a little stronger if the bar staff were inclined to risk or bribery.
Ahmad rose and crossed the camp to fill a can of water to wash. He slicked the water out of his hair with his hands. He would go down into the city and he would find a place where foreign men gathered and he would ask someone: which way to freedom? Which way is out of here? And God knew, it just might work.
There is Before and there is After, and Ahmad does not like to talk about Before.
Before: when they’d taken him to a room with no windows; when they’d ordered him to remove his shoes; when they’d laid the already bloodied pliers at the ready and asked endless questions. Before: when his wife was taken; Before: when his son one day did not return from school; Before: when he had searched the fields on the outskirts of town. And the moment that he had come to understand that, in the end, they were not going to let him live – whether or not he begged, bargained or betrayed the others.
Then there was After. After: when he crossed the land on foot, when he’d paid the men in the marketplaces, when he’d braved the seas in their boats. And After, when he’d reached this new land on the other side of the world.
At the beginning of After there was a hotel in Tripoli and a foreign man with a ready smile. “Tell me about Australia,” he said to the man, for his own country was no longer one where men had quick, unguarded smiles.
The man told him of a land of many faces: fertile and dangerous, mountainous and marked with vast dry lakes, burnt red, new green, dazzling white, steel grey; the oceans teeming with colourful fish, the countryside filled with animals that bounded across the land in long elegant motion and houses surrounded by space for no other reason than to give the children room to play.
“I will go there,” he said to the man. “I will start a new life in Australia – there is nothing left for me here.”
“It is a land of shifting sands and shifting hearts,” said the man, “it is a long way to go for a dream.”
“There is only darkness left here,” Ahmad had said.
The man with the ready smile looked him in the eyes, “I would not advise it.” But he gave him a hundred American dollars. “What about Italy?” he said. “It is much nearer and from there you have all of Europe – there are boats from the harbour every day for those who can afford the prices they ask.” He nodded at the note crumpled in Ahmad’s hand. “I’m only saying.”
Just days later a boat bound for Italy smashed to splinters on the very rocks that promised freedom. Some of those on board were rescued. Some were not.
There is Before and then there is After. Even After begins like this.
When at last they reached land there were bright lights and yelling. The sand beneath their feet was tiring to walk on but Ahmad was grateful for the solidity of land and too tired to do anything but follow the shouted instructions. After that they were on a bus, travelling in the night in an unknown direction, and then there was a place to wash and a place to lie down that didn’t rock as the boat had (though he thought that he dreamed that it did). And so it was that it was some time before he thought to be anything but glad to finally have arrived in Australia.
Later, in a room with too many plastic chairs, he stared at the raw brick walls and read and reread the posters preaching hand washing and vaccinations, collating their headlines like a poem.
They examined him like a new-born: stripped him to the waist, weighed and prodded, testing reflexes, searched him for visible scars. They wore gloves over their cool hands, and masks to cover their noses and mouths. All limbs present, muscle tissue wasted by malnutrition and lack of use at sea; ten fingers, ten toes, twenty perfect, pearly nails and all the usual reactions (plus a few extra, not documented: waking up weeping, exaggerated startle response, reflexive distrust).
They asked more questions than he could answer. With a clipboard (blue) and a pen. They spoke softly, as if all the things that were secret were manifest to them. They asked many questions about his journey. It was still too early to tell.
On arriving at the compound, what Ahmad doesn’t understand is all the metal. There are pieces of wire sharpened to barbs to pierce the skin of those who would leave, or cross from one area to another. There are heavy bars. Even the housing blocks are made of metal, lined up on concrete blocks in rows.
Somehow from what little they had told him, he had had a vision of arriving into an open stretch of nothingness. He is grateful that there will be a bed and some food, but he had not expected the ugliness; he had not anticipated that they would assume that he needed to be enclosed – he is ashamed that they have assumed that he is a criminal and he tries to remember what he might have said to the people in white that they should send him here.
The driver tells them to wait. They had been driving all day through dusty heat and a landscape of increasing emptiness. A man with sweat patches under his arms steps on to the bus to greet them. “This will be your home until your paperwork is finalised,” he says. “There is a meal ready for you. If you come quickly it will still be warm. After you have eaten we will show you where you will sleep.” There is no interpreter so Ahmad translates a few key words for those around him. They look at the compound, and they look back at Ahmad as if they might be more that he had left out. Ahmad has no answers.
From the inside faces watch, from behind the fence line, as they step off the bus. They call out warnings and welcomes in several languages. Someone calls out: “Welcome to Hell!” but Ahmad has arrived in the long slow wait of purgatory.
Christy Collins is a Melbourne-based writer. Her (as yet unpublished) first novel was shortlisted for the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and longlisted for the Vogel. “After” is an extract from the novel. She is currently studying a PhD in Creative Writing at the Australian Catholic University.