The Same

By Andy McQuestin
Creative Commons

Damien walks all the way home. Starting in his cell, through the exercise yards, visitation, processing and out the gate under the small sign that reads Sarahdale Correctional. Nobody there to meet him, but there wouldn’t be. Tom lost his license, never had a license, whatever. None of the others drive. So he walks. Along the highway, through towns, through thoughts of family, into his hometown, into the recess of three lost years.

He walks all the way home and when he gets there home is empty.

Damien sets his backpack down and washes his face in the sink, mouth open so he can drink as he washes. He sits on the living room floor. It looks unusually clean, the furniture pushed back into the corners, the television gone, from poker probably. The same way his Auntie lost the stereo, her rings.

Night. The front door creaks open and his sister, Amy, enters. Damien smiles and slowly gets to his feet. It’s been two years since he last saw her. They embrace, holding each other’s arms, and Damien signs nice to see you. I missed you. How are you? Amy signs back but it’s broken, hard to read. Must talk, brother, or something. Your language, sis, he signs, what’s happened? She cries. She can’t explain. She speaks in town language. She sounds just like them. He follows as best he can.

‘You can’t stay here. We don’t be here anymore. The house is new reason, not for us. Come. Auntie isn’t but some of us are. Together. Come.’ Damien lets Amy go, her arms, her whole body. She walks into the dark streets, smaller and smaller until she is lost to the night. He doesn’t follow.

Morning. A van and three townspeople. Damien meets them on the doorstep. They speak to him and it’s just sound. Grant. Reedervellup. Con-sined tacamp twenty-six. He knows twenty-six, he knows most of the numbers. They have a woman who signs. She smiles apologetically because there are no signs for whatever the man is saying. She tells him this place is theirs now. You got your payment, it’s with your Auntie. There are settlements, but for now you should go to this place they have. Twenty-six, then she says the foreign sound, camp. ‘Camp twenty-six.’

Can I stay?

No.

Can I go to my Auntie?

Do you know where she is?

No.

You should go to the camp, brother.

The camp is like a big town made up of identical houses. Damien is taken into a house at the entrance to the camp. Inside a single globe casts bright light onto two chairs either side of a small table. Damien sits and uses sign and simple town language to communicate with a man who, confusingly, flings his hands out when he speaks in a way that could be read as leave or you are my guest. Damien isn’t sure the man means to say either of these things.

‘You can choose your own room. Find one you like, with space. With people you like.’

Damien walks the rows and columns of the camp grounds. He is free to walk anywhere within the fences. There are a lot of men, but women too. Some from other towns with their own signs, but they sign hello about the same. They sign be careful the same. Two men sign his language and he follows them to one of the houses. It smells like sweat but there is a spare bed. The men explain the rules of the camp. The free feed, the times you can leave, how you can leave for good if an advocate says so. For ‘advocate’, they speak the word. Nobody can explain what it means.

Two weeks, maybe three, pass. Nothing happens. Damien is asleep on the lowest bunk when a light rapping on the door wakes him and in walks a woman in a suit with a clipboard. She is with the smiling woman he met on the doorstep of his home. The woman in the suit, he learns, is an advocate. An advocate, he learns, can help you. It is his turn to be helped; his turn won’t come again.

‘How can I assist you?’ she says. The smiling woman signs, What do you want?

Find my family, Damien signs.

‘I can’t make any promises, but I can see if they are registered here, then make some enquiries at the settlements.’ Don’t know where they are. We’ll look for them.

Thank you. ‘Not a problem – again, I can’t make promises, but I will try.’

A week later. Damien sits in the rear of a quiet car with the advocate and the smiling lady. They pass through Damien’s hometown. Already he can see the change. Enormous frames for new buildings line the residential streets, like skeletal remains of fallen giants. Like bad omens. They drive out onto the highway then abruptly take an exit onto a makeshift road, which cuts through what used to be paddocks of long grass, powerlines, nothing much. As they turn a corner, a cluster of cabins appear and the car stops.

People come over to the car and stand around it, signing hello but nothing more. Damien walks past them while the advocate makes rapid small talk and the smiling woman frantically tries to bring meaning to it all. Damien thinks if he runs now he will be truly free, for the first time in years. He thinks back to the other night in the house when he held arms with Amy and realised this was the beginning of something else and the end of everything before, everything that had sustained him in his cell in Sarahdale. But run where? To what?

A cabin door opens and Amy walks over to him. He starts to cry before he even feels the relief that causes it. Her family language is almost all gone now. How fragile a thing it must have been, to dissipate so fast. Hello, she manages, So Happy. Love you.

There are more people he knows, spread across two cabins. Their brother Tom, some cousins, some of the Smith family who used to live across the street. But there are others, too. Tom signs, We share space here. We have to, at least until we build more cabins. We all get along.

Where’s Auntie?

We don’t know, she won’t accept it.

What?

Any of it.

The advocate appears beside them and starts talking with Amy. Tom and the smiling woman get involved. There is speaking and signing in all directions. Damien understands this is an important conversation and signs questions to Tom.

Eventually it is understood that the advocate is offering to put them on the list for re-placement, which means to be placed in one of the new apartment buildings in their hometown.

Who? Damien asks Tom, the smiling lady, the advocate herself, Who? Who?

‘All of you, Damien. You, your family here. Everyone in these two cabins.’ Your lot and this lot signs the smiling woman.

The Smiths? They’re not us. And some of these others, I’ve never seen them before in my life.

‘Space is at a premium, so family and friends need to share. Naturally. I would think family and friends, and some new friends, would want to share?’ You can share with them. You’re all the same.

We are not the same.

‘I’m trying to help, Damien. Either you all get on the same page or it will be difficult to find you a home.’ You are the same now.

Damien looks around at his family, the Smiths, the others. Generations of difference. Identities. Nothing now. Lost.

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