By Filipa Bellette
This story won Right Now’s Fiction Competition, judged by Anna Funder and Tony Birch. Read the shortlist here.
Mister Riley opened the classroom door for Akinyi Martha. She watched as his soft, dough-like hands turned the handle. Such fragile hands, did think Akinyi. Rich man’s hands. Hands that had never toiled the earth for one’s own food. So foreign they were to Akinyi, that mzungu man’s hands. And that mzungu man himself.
Mister Riley turned to Akinyi and patted her, awkwardly, on the shoulder. “It’ll be ok,” he said. And as he spoke his eyes shifted from her to the crowded classroom of adolescents dangling on seats and tables and twisting pens in their hair. The way his pink mouth creased to a line did not one thing to echo his reassurance. He looked again at Akinyi. She moved her eyes to the ground. Away from his. “You have my number, right? Just give me a call if there’s any trouble.”
Akinyi nodded in reply and watched the dirty shoe-marked ground until she heard his feet shuffle away, heard his quiet sigh, his goodbye. Then she took a deep breath and faced the classroom.
The first day at a new high school. It was a terrifying thing always. Yet even more so when everyone spoke around you with words streaming from their lips so fast, so slurred, that surely they were speaking something not English.
Akinyi thought she knew English. She had been top of her class back home in Kenya. Could spell difficult words like National and Compassionate and Knife. But this language spinning around her in a twisting mess, it was a different vernacular altogether. As she walked to the classroom, towards the teacher with her hands clasped in front of her pleated skirt, she began to feel a headache coming on.
“Hello,” the teacher said in that nasally mzungu way as if she had a peg on her nose and it was the words that were jammed up there. Akinyi imagined this to be true—about the peg—as the teacher’s nose was the narrowest, pointiest one that she had ever seen. The tiny pink slits of her nostrils looked as though they were paper-cuts.
“I am fine.” Akinyi replied the way she had been taught to do at school in Kenya, even though in actual fact she was very far from fine. She heard a pair of girls with silver bangles jangling on their wrists snicker behind her, and Akinyi wondered if she had pronounced the words in the proper Tasmanian way. Her palms grew wet.
“What. Is. Your. Name?” the teacher asked, opening her mouth wide and slow with each word as if she did have honey stuck to her lips. The teacher’s question was a reminder of that third name, his name, Mr Riley’s name which had been forced upon Akinyi by Australia. By the immigration papers. The citizenship papers. The custodial papers. The words on the forms—FIRST NAME, LAST NAME, COUNTRY OF ORIGIN—had been soldier-like in their straight up-and-down capital lines, calling her to the order of things. It was a different way of naming here. She had never heard of such things as last names and family names. She had just two names always. Akinyi Martha. Her tribal name given to her by the sky, by the sun spreading pink across the plains: born in the morning. And her Christian name plucked from the Bible by her mama: a friend to Christ Jesus. There was no need for last name. You knew who you were. What clan you were from. Who you belonged to. So when the third name—the family name—was slapped at the end, she felt as though someone had wedged a foreign muscle to her back. It did twitch there, oddly exposed, not yet gelling with the rest of herself. For she belonged in Kenya, with Mama. But Mama was dead now, buried beneath the ground by the cough, and all she did have left was Mr Riley, that mzungu man who made Akinyi with her mama sixteen years ago.
For just one moment Akinyi saw Mister Riley’s dough-like hands touch her mama. And then he untouched her and disappeared like all those other mzungu do-gooder volunteers who frolicked into her village. And then he returned, but returned too late, for Mama was dead in the ground. His rich man hands did not save Mama. Did not even try. Instead they plucked Akinyi from her home and dropped her in Tasmania like one of his flashy coins.
The teacher asked again, “What. Is. Your. Name?” and brought Akinyi back to the classroom.
“My name is Akinyi Martha.” She purposefully left off the last name. That twitching foreign muscle.
“Ikea? What? Can. You. Say. Your. Name. Again?”
“Akeen…? Hmmph. Martha? Like. Martha. From. The. Bible?”
“Yes, Martha from the Bible! A friend to Christ Jesus.” Akinyi nodded enthusiastically, relieved that at least half her name had been understood, which she was not very at all surprised; mzungus tongues could never very well hold her tribal name, neither could their memories. Even Mister Riley, her supposed baba, preferred to use her Christian name. Perhaps it reminded him less of her mama and the fact that he did not lift his hand to save her. To avoid any further confusion (and thus any additional embarrassment or fountain pouring from her hands) Akinyi clutched at her Christian name and threw it to the world. “I am Martha.”
“Well welcome, Martha. We. Are. Glad. To. Have. You. Here.” The teacher’s eyes sparkled with the satisfaction one did get when they had solved a difficult puzzle. “You. Go. And. Find. A. Seat. Now.” Sparkle. Sparkle. Puzzle Solved.
There was a table at the back with an empty chair. A girl and two boys sat there, gawking at her. They were not the only ones. She felt twenty pairs of eyes stare at her as she walked to the desk. Forty eyes did stick to her like tacks. Never before had she noticed the darkness of her skin. It had been them—the whites—that were being abnormal. Like Mister Riley must have been all those years ago when he sat inching closer to Mama in the village. Breathing her in as if she were something to own.
Akinyi sunk into the chair, stooped her shoulders low, eyes to the floor, hoping to render her five foot eleven body so small as to be invisible. Still she felt the sting of tacks on her skin.
“Hi,” the girl beside her said, flicking a piece of tarnished red hair over her shoulder. “Wherafrom?” A wad of bubble gum lolled around in the girl’s mouth. It made her words slur out in an unintelligible mumble.
“Say again?” Akinyi’s throat felt dry as a rug.
“Where. Are. You. From?” the girl said louder. Sticky honey slow, just like the teacher. Akinyi could be making sense of that.
“Me, I am from Kenya.”
“Kenya? Oh, it is in Africa.”
“Oh Africa! Sweet! Didyalikeseelionsntigersnstuff?”
“Ah…” Akinyi stumbled. The girl was speaking much too fast again, so terribly fast that Akinyi did think that the purple ball of bubblegum was going to shoot out like a cannon. Pop! It would go, and smack Akinyi right in her wrinkled up forehead. One of the boys at the table started firing off questions also. He was having a voice like a horn. Back and forth the boy and girl did go. Bubblegum cannons. Horn blasting barrels.
“Sitrueyalikedonwearclothesoranythinovathere?” The last question caused a bunch of boys at the next table to hoot with youthful gusto. They were sounding as if they were imitating hyenas, piping up strange words such as “showsyatits!” whilst drumming the table.
Akinyi shrunk even further into her seat. Turn invisible. Turn invisible. Be like a spirit that no one can see. If only it were being night. All she would then have to do was to close her lips and button her eyes. But it was day. A sun-splitting day. And the walls were white. And the faces were white. And the desks. And the papers. And even the board at the front. And it did confuse her, that board. How was the teacher ever to use the chalk—which was also white—on that glossy stark board? It was all reversed, all very so upside down: this classroom, this island, this floating heart-shaped piece of land at the bottom of the earth. Suddenly she wished to be back home in Mama’s compound, stirring beans and maize in a pot for supper. With her group of village friends, walking along the cracked red road, walking to school, a school in which there is no teacher with paper-slit nose or white boys acting like frisky hyenas. Nor in a place where there is no Mister Riley with his last name twitching on her back. It was not right. This heart-shaped island of Tasmania. This cold place. White place. Not-home place.
She was relieved when the teacher clapped her hands three times—three sharp quick claps—calling her class to order. The hooting the laughing the cannon ball questioning dropped from the air and clipped to the ground.
“We. Would. Like. To. Welcome. Martha. To. Our. Class,” the teacher began, looking at Akinyi with a sparkle sparkle smile. Akinyi noted that the teacher’s pencil-thin eyebrows were arched high like two malnourished cats stretching as she spoke in her honey-slow way. “We. Will. All. Do. Our. Best. To. Make. You. Feel. At. Home. Wontweclass?” She looked around at the class with the two cats perching high above her eyes, waiting for the class to nod in reply. “Very. Good. Now, evrybodygetyapensnyamathsbooksout…” The teacher’s honey lips had suddenly become unstuck and she was speaking so fast and slippery as if they were now covered with a smear of palm oil. She must have noticed the puzzled look on Akinyi’s face, because she did look at her and asked: “Do. You. Have. A. Pen. Martha?”
Akinyi did not. Mister Riley did not put a pen in Akinyi’s bag. Only two soggy white pieces of bread with a cut up tomato in between. And what was the use of that? She shook her head, wishing she could in fact shake herself away. To disappear. Disappear. The teacher asked the red-haired girl to give Akinyi a pen. The girl did. And as she did, a boy behind her whispered to the girl in a whisper that was not soft like a whisper must be, but cutting and cruel, a sneer that could spear beneath your nail like a splinter.
“Dontoucher, yamightget aids.”
The sneer, it was quiet as a splinter. So quiet that the teacher was not hearing.
Yet Akinyi did hear. She heard. And she recoiled into herself like a pill bug, pulling each segment of self into a ball, into a scrunched up hard up thing that no one could touch. That not even Mister Riley with his soft dough-like hands could touch.
Dr Filipa Bellette lives in Tasmania and teaches online Creative Writing for Macquarie University. In 2012, she completed her Creative Writing PhD on the ethics of cross-cultural/racial writing. She has had a selection of poetry, short fiction and a scholarly article published in literary journals, including Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, The Quarry and TEXT.