Senior Secondary (Years 10, 11 & 12)
FAW NSW Hilarie Lindsay Short Story competition for Australian School Children.
SEND ME HOME, MY FRIENDS!
By Freya Cox
Some things never truly let you go, no matter how much space or time you let stretch between you.
I hear a child’s shriek, feel the direct blazing heat of the sun smack my face, smell a particular scent, and I’m sent rushing back, tumbling through the years to land in a gangly twelve-year-old body.
I’ll be sitting on the floor as Mama crouches over the fire pit in the middle of the room, stirring a wooden spoon round and round, singing softly as she does so, her lilting voice rising up to the thatched roof.
Through the door I’ll see my older sister plucking the feathers out of one of our chickens for dinner. Its broken, scrawny neck hangs limp in her grasp. The feathers cascade slowly through the air, light and fluffy as tiny clouds, to litter the ground at her feet.
I remember salivating at the thought of chicken for dinner. I remember the eagerness with which I waited for that meal, but I cannot accurately recall my older sister’s face. I know she had cool hands that would always be there to pick me up when I fell, and that could pluck a chicken in record time. I know she would protect me from boys who thought it funny to tease and torment children younger than them, and for the few years she attended school she was always quick at her work.
But whenever I try to call up her face I can never see it.
Something will jolt me back to the present around about then. My boss will toss a case file onto my desk and ask me to look through it, or ask to see what progress I have made on writing up a report. The image of the past will slowly crumble as I let other people’s problems consume me, and the present re-establishes its hold on me.
I’m walking down the street after work, the buzz and honk of city traffic wrapped around me, when I notice some construction workers by the side of the road. One reaches up to swipe the sweat from his brow, leaving a smear of dirt across his sun-tanned forehead. The face underneath his hand transforms before my eyes and this stranger becomes someone incredibly dear to me.
My father and brother will come back late from working in the fields. Stained with sweat and dirt, my brother will lunge to wipe his grimy hands on me, making me squeal and duck out of the way, almost crashing into Mama where she is trying to set the table. She’ll yell at me, and then when my baby sister starts crying, flap her work-roughened hands at me and tell me to go sooth the baby. I’ll peep over the edge of the crib at the crying wrinkled bundle, who seems to frown at me and starts crying harder, as if reminding me it’s my fault she has woken.
I’ll dip my hands into the cradle and pull her up towards me, settling her in my arms and bouncing her around as I’ve seen Mama and my older sister do. She screams louder. My older sister sees my failed attempts to calm the baby, and quickly takes her out of my arms, expertly settling her in moments.
Eventually we’ll all sit clustered around our low table, shuffling till we’re seated comfortably on the bamboo floor mats. My mother will scoop up a handful of rice with her right hand and place it in my father’s bowl before we’re allowed to start.
The toot of a taxi brings me out of my reverie, and I duck my head and hurry on down the footpath. The stream of people move around one another like a school of fish weaving in and out.
That afternoon my wife and I go to a teashop where the smell of crushed tea leaves permeates the air, to buy a present for her aunt. She lifts up a box for me to smell, curls of red hair brushing her shoulders. “What do you think of this one?”
I close my eyes as the strong, bitter scent of green tea curls around my face.
After dinner, my father will relax back in a chair, stretching out his legs and sipping at a cup of steaming green tea. The mosquitoes provide a comforting background drone, and outside the light slowly slips from day to dusk.
My father will pull out an old tattered book he still has from his time at school – he went to boarding school in the city for a few years before coming back to help his father on the farm. It’s a book of poetry by Tin Moe, one of our nation’s famous poets, whose work my father admires greatly.
He’ll always start by flicking half way through the book, to a well-thumbed page that cradles his favourite piece of writing. He’ll start reading out loud, his voice rising and falling with the mosquitoes.
The cigar has burned down;
The sun is brown.
Send me home, my friends!
After he’s read the poem he’ll muse on its meaning, wondering out loud whether the burned-down cigar and sinking sun refer to the ending of a political regime, or perhaps represent a person at the end of their life, speaking about where they’re headed next.
The poem meant little to my twelve-year-old self. Sitting on the floor of my home, surrounded by the people I loved most in the world, I couldn’t empathise with the poet’s great desire to go home. I couldn’t understand why he would have left in the first place.
In the mornings, when the cold mist hangs heavy and thick in the air as I make my way to work, there are always children rushing to school. Their backpacks bounce an uneven rhythm upon their small backs and their eager feet beat out a background tempo. The tempo of school children’s feet seems to be the same no matter what ground they’re running on. I’m pretty sure my feet beat out the exact same rhythm years ago, although they moved on a very different earth.
In the mornings, I’ll meet my best friend Lwin in front of his house and we’ll race down the road together, my battered writing book clutched under my arm, sweat from my armpit staining its cover. It’s early, but already the sun beats down from above, and we scamper between the patches of shade cast by the jagged leaves of the neem trees that line the road, shoving each other and laughing.
We have one class for all of the children from our village. Our teacher will write on the board with a stick of chalk, and mop his dripping forehead as the sun traipses higher into the sky. Small hands will pop up to answer his questions, and there’s the soft scratching of numerous pencils copying down what he writes on the board. Lwin is just nudging me to show me a funny picture he’s drawn of the boy in front of us, when a shadow appears over our classroom door. Two men in dirty army fatigues stand in the doorway, guns slung over their shoulders.
“We want all the children outside, now,” they bark.
We are herded to the front of the school and made to line up. Two other men wait outside. Eyes run us up and down, evaluating what we could be worth to them. There’s the sharp smell of piss in the air, coming from one of the terrified boys behind me.
Whenever I use a public toilet today the acrid smell of piss still leaves me reeling with fear, and covered in a cold sweat.
One of the soldiers walks up to me and points his gun in my face. I freeze. Gesturing with the butt of his gun he makes me move forward out of the line.
A dozen boys and four girls are selected.
My older sister sees me being escorted out by the soldiers when she is coming back from taking our father and brother lunch in the fields.
With a scream, she tears after me.
Laughing, one of the soldiers grabs her. They start to drag her along with us too, but she keeps scratching at the soldier’s face and keening a wild high wail. They decide not to take her along after all.
My beautiful sister’s body is left crumpled on the road like a broken bird that’s fallen out of the sky, her face pressed into the dirt, her hair splayed out like fingers reaching for help.
In two weeks I learnt how to hold and fire a gun, how to take orders, and how to be a proud member of the national army. For four years I put everything I learnt into practice. Lying on the ground at night, unable to sleep, tormented by the things I had seen and done, listening to the soft cries of the newest recruits, I murmur the words of my father’s poem to myself.
Send me home, my friends!
I came to understand the yearning expressed in that line better than I ever wanted to.
When the government was finally pressured into releasing some of their child soldiers I had a flurry of UN and aid workers assigned to help me. But they couldn’t locate my village. I had no idea where it was on a map of our country, nor could I think of any defining landmarks to help identify it.
I remained in Myanmar for another few years, but the memories crowded in and haunted me. One of the aid workers helped me apply for a scholarship at a university in London, where I ended up completing a law degree, falling in love with a British girl with eyes the colour of neem tree leaves and hair the colour of autumn, and settling down.
Here there is less blazing sun and fewer familiar smells to summon up memories like watery ghosts, rising from the bottom of the well in which I’ve tried to sink them.
A baby’s cry disturbs me, and for a minute I am reminded of my little sister, whom I failed so miserably to sooth that day. The cry comes again, louder this time, and I move to the corner of the room. My own son lies in the cradle, his little face scrunched up, and I reach down to pick him up with much more finesse than I had decades ago in another country. My wife calls out from the study, asking if everything is ok. I look down at my son’s face, the sound of my wife’s voice echoing in my ears, and focus on nothing but the present.
My son’s face pushes out old thoughts, of a different family in a different country.
The cigar has burned down;
The sun is brown.
I am home, my friends.
* * *