Story: The River
Author: Phoebe Condon, Ruyton Girls' School
Award: 1st place Junior Prose
No, I couldn’t do it. I stood high above the world, watching over the silent bush. I knew I wanted to do it, but I just couldn’t do it. It was way too high. Gazing over the top of the trees I breathed in, I could do this, couldn’t I? “Is she meditating?” a voice called from down below. Three people were down there. One was under a tree, sunbaking on a towel. The other two were standing knee deep in the clear blue water. They all had their heads tilted up, starring at me with clear concentration. I knew this because I could remember, I didn’t want to look down.
“No” I answered stubbornly, closing my eyes and control ing my breathing again.
“Yes, you are” one person yelled upwards. “Shut up Freddie! It’s real y scary up here” I called down. Slowly I lowered my eyes down to look at the people below. They were exactly where I’d thought they would be. “Did she just say she was scared?” Cassie gawked, walking towards the water. “She did” Matt said, putting his hands over his eyes so he could look into the sun. The tress swayed in the breeze, but not as gracefully as normal. They didn’t move with grace, they move with the feeling of nervous, worried, and upset.
“OH EM GEE!” Cassie squealed, jumping up and down clapping her hands. “I never thought I’d live to see the day Elisha Pepper admitted that she was scared” Freddie yel ed grinning. “Oh, who cares?” I screamed at them, “Everyone gets scared” I muttered. The thing was, I never got scared. Ever. I never got scared of creepy crawlies, the dark, haunted house or horror movies. I was scare-proof. “I’m not sure if I can do it guys” I yel ed down to them squeezing my eyes shut. ”Come on ‘Lisha!” Matt yelled, putting his tiny thumbs up.
“You can do it” Cassie screamed smiling.
“If anyone of us can do it, you can Elisha!” Freddie cal ed. Apparently I could do it. Could I? I had no idea. When a looked at my friends, even from far away, I could tel they weren’t lying. Freddie, Cassie and Matt truly thought I could do it. I looked up from my supportive friends facing the empty space in front of me. If I jumped, I couldn’t go back. There was no possible plant for me to cling onto. There was one choice and one choice only. I looked around the Australian Bush, wondering why I had come here. Why did I go to school? Why, why, why. It’s probably one of the most used words in our vocabulary. There’s always a why question to everything. Coming here was like a dream. Freddie, Cassie, Matt and I had been on one of our adventurous bush walks when we had found this place. The flowers looked different, instead of a lovely green stalk and the petals a beautiful bright colour. They stood tall and as proud as can be. The flowers looked nothing like that today. Colours on the flowers petals were diluted and the stalk was gold. They didn’t stand tall, al the flowers did was droop. The plants were reflecting my feelings. It was like a message, jump. The plants wanted me to jump so they would be tall and proud again. Jump, so the trees would be beautiful again. Jump they told me, Jump. Now there was only one thing left to do, jump. So I did. I pushed off the cliff into the air. I started to fal . I knew I couldn’t turn back now. I felt my stomach shoot upwards, the exact feeling of when you’re on a rol ercoaster. All I could see was a whirlwind ful of colours whizzing past my face. I knew the fall would come soon, so I squeezed my eyes shut, pointed my toes and stuck my hands to my sides. SPLASH! Cool water splashed up around me, cooling every single part of my body. I felt the tiny air bubbles I’d created fizz past my body, tickling me. I tasted the feeling of pure success. I’d done it! Yes! I giggled as I pushed off the river floor kicking to the surface. I broke the clear blue glass surface of the river, gulping in air. As I wiped the water out of my eyes I heard my friends run toward me through the water. Splash, splosh, splash splosh. “You did it!” Cassie screamed hugging me. “We’d though that you’d chickened out up there!” Freddie screamed as well. “You were up there for so long!” Matt yel ed. I giggled, they knew me better.
“Who would have thought, that I, Elisha Pepper had chickened out of something!” I giggled again. “I want to have a go” Freddie yel ed running to the shore, removing his t-shirt as he went, Matt fol owed after.
“Race you!” and they tore off. Cassie started to run out as well, removing her sunnies and earrings. “Come on Elisha!” we sprinted off after the boys who were reaching the bottom of the cliff. As I ran after them all, I noticed the plants. The trees swayed gracefully. The flowers stood tal and proud. Al the plants were ful of excitement, eager for more. Exactly how I was feeling. “You ready?” I asked as we stood at the top of the cliff, ready to jump.
“No!” Matt shrieked looking down bel ow. Freddie just stayed quiet. “Oh come on you guys! Don’t chicken out!” I told them holding their hands. “We’l do it together” I starred at them all in the eye until they nodded and started to smile. “On three” I began, “One, two three!” We jumped. When we jumped, at that moment I realised that I had an answer to that question before. Why had I come here? The answer was, this memory. Memories are the things that drag us back to places. Memories are more than a thousand words, they’re better than a picture. A picture last for a while, but a memory lasts forever.
Story: Untitled
Author: Imogen Whittaker, MLC
Award: 1st place Senior Prose
But she would never leave her tower.
People would point and stare and laugh at her. They’d mock her and stuff pil ows into their shirts to try and replicate the disgusting monster that was walking in front of them. Look at the whale, they’d say. How can she even look in the mirror in the morning? How can she bear to walk out the door? How can she even breathe when she knows she’s wasting the world’s oxygen? Every day, the nurse came up to the tower and handed Rapunzel her food. Sometimes she brought salad, sometimes meat, once she even brought fish and chips.
Rapunzel stares at the food with disgust. How could she be expected to eat that? In her head she begins counting: twelve calories in every fifty grams of fish, along with the seventy calories with every fifty grams of batter, not to mention the fifty calories per chip. She’ll turn into a bal oon if she eats a single one of those. How can she be expected to eat those? She stares down at the flab on her arms.
Disgusting. Even Tianlooks better than she did and she’s spent the last year thinking she was a frog so god knows she never did any exercise.
It wasn’t fair. Rapunzel never stopped moving-squats by her bedside, leg lifts under the table, star jumps and arm holds using the weights she had hidden under her wardrobe. She counted her carbs, she weighed herself in the morning and night (the nurses never really searched the room hard enough to find half the things they weren’t al owed. The girls here were cunning. Cinderel a had her bleach, Ajax and razor blades in the mattress, and if that wasn’t desperate then Rapunzel didn’t know what was), and she never, ever cut her hair. Not when it was the only good thing going for her.
It was fal ing out on its own, anyway.
It had started two months before she was taken to the tower. She had awoken to find long, golden strands littered around her pil ow. When she’d had a shower, more had fallen through her fingers. Her hair started losing its shine, and no matter how many products she bought, it never real y came back.
The doctors told her, in no uncertain terms, that her beautiful, gleaming hair wouldn’t shine again until she started getting nutrients back into her body. So Rapunzel had started taking her iron and mineral pil s religiously, craving for the shine to come back.
She only had one friend outside the tower. He had faith in her, that she could reach perfection, that she was strong enough not to listen to the doctors and nurses who didn’t know a single thing about how she was feeling. He would never touch her, not even a hug, but gave her the promise- ‘When you’re perfect, I’l marry you, and then you can have me all to yourself’. When she first started living in the tower, he would come every night, cal ing softly- Once, a nurse had come round to do a late night bed-check, when she had walked in to find Rapunzel talking to him. He had jumped out of the window, leaving Rapunzel to explain his appearance to the startled nurse.
The next night, she had been given a yel ow tablet, and was told it would help with her hair. She had taken it gratefully, hoping her golden hair would return. It didn’t, and neither did he.
After a few weeks of taking the pil s, and him not returning, she woke up with a raging fever. After two nights out of the tower, they stopped giving her the yellow pill, and gave her a white oninstead. That night, she tongued her pil , not wanting to be forced out of the tower again. At midnight, Rapunzel woke to hear a soft voice call- She smiled softly, walking over to the window. He had come.
She unfastened her braid and let her hair down the tower, feeling the familiar tug of his lithe weight as she pul ed it back up again. He stood in the window, eyebrow raised. She sighed contentedly, knowing that the nurses were asleep, and no one would find out.
You’ve let yourself go, haven’t you?’ He smirked, giving her another once over.
I swear you’ve put on weight since I last came,’ he sneered. ‘And your hair was much softer last time, too. Have you no self-restraint?’ Rapunzel felt tears coming to her eyes. ‘I’m doing as you say!’ she sobbed. ‘I’m doing squats, an-and I haven’t eaten anything more than a smal salad in three days!’ He looked down at her, bored.
Did the salad have dressing?’ he asked.
Dressing. How could she be so stupid? ‘How do you expect to be perfect if you can’t even count properly?’ he spat, scathing. ‘I can’t bring home a monster like you to meet my parents-no matter how kind and lovely you are on the inside, how can they see past that great lump of fat standing in front of them? They’ll be repulsed!’ Rapunzel stood, frozen, as he sighed. ‘I can’t believe you expect me to keep coming if you’re never going to improve.’ And he turned and jumped out of the window.
The next night, Rapunzel took the pil . He didn’t come again It was almost a month later it happened.
A month of trying, and failing to lose weight. A month of congratulations from the doctors -‘Two pounds! Great job!’ -, a month of hair loss and broken nails. Tiana had left already, as had Snow White-both of them had reached perfection, and their mothers had come to pick them up, showering them in love and praise and ‘I was so worried about you’s. Cinderel a still spent hours scrubbing her floor, and Bel e still woke up in the middle of the night, screaming about pots and kettles and beasts with roses, reaching out for her needle. Sleeping Beauty was stil in a coma, Alice spent hours talking about caterpillars and card games, and Megera was still as self-obsessed as ever When Rapunzel started to feel dizzy, she put it off as hunger, weakness. When she started to get stabbing pains in her chest, she went as sat in the window for some fresh air. And when she started falling, al she could think was- Character
Mental Illness
(can result in the inability to swallow, hence apple) Alice (Alice Todd’s Syndrome Comes from use of marijuana, in notice, long periods of sleep with no awakening, Story: Waiting
Author: Grace Zhang, MLC
Award: 1st place, Junior Poetry
My hands are clasped, my ankles are crossed Cold from the steel bench seeps through skin Biting wind breaks the shelter’s walls to keep me company but I am the eye of the storm watching a hurricane of Cars and concrete go round and round roaring Engulfs my mind and captures my heart as I obsess… Sights and sounds and smel s, oh the beauty! Empty beauty which holds no thrall for these eyes, as I long Through the dark and the empty my saviour comes With tinted windows and noisy engines; it comes My hands are clasped, my ankles are crossed Story: Nike
Author: Jenny Au, University of Melbourne
Award: 1st place, Senior Poetry
under garish neon fabric and bleached white socks.
The one crowned and graced with the aspirations ready to be fitted, fixed and forced into your The tantalising temptress tormenting from afar underneath the paper effigy of a sporting superstar.
The thunderous blaring of Charon’s foghorn as he ferries metal monoliths across the cold China sea. I am the prattle of slaving machines.
The systematic slaughter of fabric by cold dead hands Standing in cold stone upon a rocky acropolis.
Jousting across a blue tennis court.
Story: Derek Pickle
Author: Aaron Firth Donato
Award: 1st place, Open Short Story
Derek Pickle snuck into his Grandmother’s room. She was stil there, even though she was dead. The plastic canister poked above the duvet and rested on her pillow. Derek felt very uncomfortable, but in order to have a traditional normal person experience, he needed the contents of the bedside table’s third drawer. He creaked the drawer open. It made a sloshing noise. In the drawer, nestled between an old negligée and a tea towel with a map of Mexico on it, was a dark bottle with a faded hand written label.
Derek washed out one of his Grandmother’s unused catheters in the sink. He poured the liquid from the dark bottle down the tube and into the clear pouch. The liquid was a strong amber yel ow and smelled like rotting cactus. Derek didn’t know where his Grandmother got the bottle, but every year on May the 4th she’d put on her negligee and have a glass ful . Derek wasn’t supposed to know about her ritual. He’d been playing at having an imaginary friend, when he’d accidental y locked himself in the wardrobe of his Grandmother’s bedroom. He was asleep by the time she got home from bingo and when he awoke the ritual had already started. Derek spent an uncomfortable night in the wardrobe that May 4th.
Derek attached the pouch to the inside of his jacket and tucked the tube into his trouser pocket. He was almost ready to go. He looked at his watch. 5:58pm. He stil needed to clean his camera lenses.
She’d been dead two weeks. Some of her was now sitting on their mantle in a silver sugar pot, well dusted and gleaming after a stern scrub of Silvo. Propped up in front of her was Derek’s new goal. It was a ticket. Derek’s first concert ticket. He had found Lick Brave and Feed after a CD fell out of his weekly library book. It wasn’t a particularly gripping novel.
Derek remembered showing them to his Grandmother. He remembered her response. He’d been surprised by it. She’d ripped the headphones off her powdered head and told Derek to throw the CD away. Derek didn’t. It was one of many little rebel ious acts that Derek had found himself doing recently. Derek put it down to a change in his medication. His Grandmother had been slipping for months and Derek had become less regular in taking the pills he’d been prescribed.
And now she was dead. Derek stared at the ticket that rested against his Grandmother. He wondered if he’d done anything to speed up her departure. Derek also wondered how long he would live for. His Grandmother managed 83. His Grandfather managed 56. At 25, Derek supposed he was approaching middle age.
Derek opened his wardrobe. Five light green shirts, two suits – a brown one and a dark brown one. They were his Grandfather’s. Derek’s Grandmother didn’t believe in unnecessary waste. And anything that could go on bingo wasn’t going to go on clothes for Derek. The mothbal smell washed over an oblivious Derek as he slowly got undressed. He thought about Auntie Caroline who had left him three casseroles and fifty dol ars and who had vanished as soon as the funeral was over. She was an attractive woman Derek thought. She was short and round, a little furry around the edges and dimples in both her cheeks. Derek supposed that that’s what he’d look like if he were a woman. Derek wondered if he’d meet a girl at the concert tonight. He stood up and looked at himself in the mirror. He’d chosen the darker of his brown suits. He thought he looked pretty dapper. He wondered how one started a conversation with a girl. His Grandmother had started all their conversations. She didn’t al ow other girls in. Or boys. But that didn’t matter, nobody ever wanted to be Derek’s friend.
On the tram, Derek sat on his seat and clutched the pole with one hand. He was nervous, very nervous. He’d never been out alone before, especial y not on public transport. His Grandmother used to drive them everywhere in her 1973 Ford Fairlane Station Wagon. He didn’t notice the strange stares or the stolen glances, Derek was more concerned with slipping off his seat. He had heard that alcohol calms nerves. So with his free hand, Derek took the tube from out of his trouser pocket, undid the nozzle and sucked. The strong liquid hit his tongue like glorious fire. He was hardly al owed salt, let alone this ferocious substance. He coughed and wiped his mouth. The girl opposite him stared baldly at him, all pretenses abandoned. Derek smiled. He guessed this was how conversations started.
“Hello.” She didn’t respond. Derek pressed the matter, feeling very brave. “Would you like some?” She grimaced in disgust and quickly vacated her seat. Derek wondered which bit he’d gotten wrong. There was a loud gruff voice behind him.
“Tickets please”. Derek didn’t have a ticket. He’d forgotten. His heart started to beat through his green shirt. Perhaps he could buy one off the nice man.
“I-I don’t have one. Could I purchase one off of you?” “I fine you buddy, I don’t sel you tickets.” Derek didn’t understand the concept. He sat there bewildered. “What’s that in your hand?” Derek forgot that he was still holding the tube in the air.
“Oh, oh, I’m terribly sorry. It’s a catheter” Derek explained. In a fluster, he shoved the end of the tube into his trousers. The ticket inspector stared at him, bemused. Derek tried to explain himself. Derek opened his jacket to show the inspector his pouch ful of yellow liquid, “See? It helps me relax”.
The ticket inspector had never come across a man like Derek. He was a simple man, a bully of sorts, but he was scared of Derek. He decided to leave wel enough alone. The inspector grumbled something about having a ticket next time and he moved on down the tram. Derek smiled. What a nice man, he thought. Derek watched the scenery whip passed and absent-mindedly took the tube out of his trousers. The passengers around Derek had al been hooked on him since the moment he sat down. There was absolute silence in Derek’s section of the tram. He undid the nozzle. Somebody let out a gasp. Derek sucked the liquid up through the tube. He smiled with contentment and shut his eyes.
The crowd outside the Forum was uncomfortable for Derek. Not since his short lived venture at school had Derek been surrounded by so many people. These people can’t be real fans like me, he thought indignantly. They’re not even dressed up.
Al too quickly Derek had to be amongst them. Crushed by flab and muscle, suffocated by clouds of sweat and deodorant, Derek was pushed forward and into the venue.
Derek considered the question. His Grandmother occasional y laughed at him for inexplicable reasons. Derek had never meant to be funny when she laughed though. He’d sometimes repeat jokes he’d heard on the radio. His Grandmother never laughed at those. On balance, Derek decided that he probably wasn’t that funny.
Derek unzipped his bag. Inside was the large plastic canister containing his Grandmother.
Derek prided himself on his intellect. It was one of his few qualities.
“Sir, I’m very smart and it is impossible for me to get stupid. So I wil stay smart.” Derek did what his Grandmother taught him. He scanned the area for somebody with more authority. A big bald man on the stairs had three walkie talkies on his belt and one in his hand. This was Derek’s man. Derek fought through the foyer to the bald man. Derek wrinkled his nose. He didn’t realise concerts smelled so bad. The bald man had already spied Derek. He’d seen Derek’s interaction at the security table. The bald man had twenty years of experience behind him and those twenty years taught him that Derek didn’t belong in this crowd. This kid was going to be a special case.
“Sir? Sir, the man at the door won’t let me in with my Grandmother.” The bald man congratulated himself on being right.
Derek’s breathing had become short and shal ow. His eyes were damp from the explosion of emotion that had erupted from him in the foyer. Derek couldn’t stop tapping his foot. He was extremely agitated and couldn’t understand why he’d found himself in the security office. It was high school all over again. Time after time in the principal’s office with no idea why. The bald man patted Derek’s shoulder kindly and placed a plastic cup of water in front of him. “Derek, we can’t allow you to take human remains into the auditorium. Think about it from your Grandmother’s perspective. What if you were mugged?” Derek was worried. He thought security would be better here. “I thought security would be better here?” The bald man smiled and sat in his seat. He knew there was no malice behind Derek’s question, “It is very good, but we can’t foresee everything. You could be knocked, you could lose her ashes all over the floor. You would never forgive yourself.” Derek was distraught. He always thought himself a very careful person. But this bald security man was right. Perhaps he’d been very reckless bringing his Grandmother to the concert. She didn’t even like Lick Brave and Feed. The bald man proposed a solution, “Now Derek, I don’t want you to miss your first concert. Why don’t I put your Grandmother in my safe here and you can collect her after the show?” Derek was ready to pack it in and go home. He couldn’t stand how difficult it had all become. “My Grandmother doesn’t like to be in tiny spaces!” Distressed, Derek fished for his tube.
The bald man laughed, “She can’t much like that canister then!” Derek looked back at the bald man stony faced. The bald man dropped his smile.
Derek lifted the tube and sucked on it. The amber liquid flowed through the tube and up to Derek’s mouth. The bald man frowned.
“Son, you can’t bring alcohol into my venue.” Derek noticed that the bald man’s tone had changed. He lowered the nozzle from his mouth.
“I’m going to have to confiscate it off you.” “I’d read that it was a concert thing to do.” “Derek, you mustn’t believe everything you read.” Derek knew that. He’d read lots of contradictory texts in his time. With a heavy heart at being told off, he handed over his pouch and tube. His eyes searched the ground, embarrassed. He felt the bald man’s hand on his shoulder. Derek didn’t like being touched. He could feel each individual finger, even though the bald man wasn’t pressing. Derek looked up. The bald man was standing next to him.
“Come on. Why don’t we leave her on the desk and I’ll lock this door so that nobody except me can come in. Then at the end of the night, you come and find me here, or just ask somebody where I am, and I’l open it up again.” Derek blinked slowly. The bank of security televisions showed that Lick Brave and Feed had just come on stage. Derek was missing it. He looked at his Grandmother. He looked at the bald man. He was a kind man. Derek trusted him.
“Thank you, sir. She won’t be any trouble, I promise.” The bald man followed Derek’s eyes to the television showing the stage. He grinned.
Derek’s skin tickled all over with excitement. The lovely bald man had taken him through a backstage door and out right in front of the stage. Derek was so close he could almost touch Jo Rush, the lead singer. They were halfway through their second song by the time Derek got into the auditorium. His hands shook with excitement as he raised his brand new Canon 5D digital camera. Derek had been quick to spend his inheritance. His Grandmother would never have allowed such an extravagant acquisition and the guilt from that knowledge gnawed at him all through the purchasing process. But it was worth it for his very own photos of Jo Rush. Derek adjusted the zoom, focused, and snapped, snapped, snapped. Somebody bumped him, but he barely noticed. Derek was euphoric. He didn’t want it to end. Jo Rush pounded the stage with his feet, jumped, sprayed water over the crowd and crouched in front of Derek. Right in front of Derek. Derek’s hands shook so much that he couldn’t get the camera still. Jo Rush roared into the mic, staring straight into Derek’s eyes. Click.
Jo Rush stood up and paced away, continuing the song. Derek breathed in all at once. He’d forgotten to, he’d forgotten everything in that last minute. Derek pulled the camera down from his face. He pushed the button to see how the last photo turned out. The adrenaline was pumping so hard through Derek’s body that his eyes could hardly focus. The background was a blurry shaky haze of smoke and lights. Derek’s heart fel . He blinked. Jo Rush was in perfect focus. His eyes stared out from the picture with apocalyptic fury and his face was contorted into a glistening hel fire. Sound came back to Derek all at once. He hardly noticed himself jumping up and down, screaming, yel ing for Jo Rush’s attention. It was three more songs before Jo Rush noticed. Derek again. Derek waved his camera in the air, tapping the screen. Jo Rush yanked it out of Derek’s hands. Derek saw Jo Rush shake his head in disbelief and he said a word into his microphone that Derek had never heard before.
“I told you, Derek Pickle. This is my Grandmother, Esme.” When Derek had gone back to pick his Grandmother up after the show, the bald man wasn’t at his office. He also hadn’t left the door locked like he promised Derek. Derek had felt the red prickles of anger and tears welling in his cheeks and stormed the office, taking back his Grandmother and her catheter. He’d attached the pouch back to the inside of his jacket and put the hose down in its rightful place. As Derek was leaving the office, he’d seen the bald man coming up the hallway. Derek didn’t want to run into him, so he’d slipped through the backstage door that had led him to the auditorium. In the passageway, in his haste to get out of trouble, Derek ran right into somebody coming the other way.
Derek considered. He’d not had enough interactions with other people to formulate an opinion “I don’t know” Derek’s vision was going in and out. The entire band of Lick Brave and Feed were sitting around staring at him. Jo Rush grinned and slapped Derek on the arm. Derek rocked from side to side.
“So, did you get any more cool snaps of us?” Derek had taken hundreds of photos, but he was only confident showing them a few.
The room col apsed into uneasy silence. The akubra wearing bass player reached inside his jacket. Derek was enjoying himself. Five new friends and all from his favourite band. This was the best result he could have hoped for.
Derek felt comfortable in the silence. He was also happy that he hadn’t broken his Grandmother’s number one rule of never going anywhere without her.
Derek focused. The bass player was holding out a large oval pill.
“Oh, no, thank you. I’ve got my own.” “You haven’t had one like this, I guarantee it. Take it.” “How do you take it?” asked Jo Rush.
“It’s a pessary,” answered the bass player.
The rest of the band shrugged. Derek was confused. All around him the band members were lowering their pants. His Grandmother had warned him this might happen if he ever talked to people. Derek stood up.
“I have to take my Grandmother home.” The band started laughing. Derek didn’t know why.
“Thank you very much for the concert.” “You’re welcome, man,” Jo Rush sighed as he took his tablet.
Derek picked up his Grandmother and left. Derek thought to himself that he must indeed be strange indeed if normal is sitting around with a finger up the bottom.
Story: Something was wrong
Author: Michael Doyle
Awards: Best Boroondara Entrant, Open Short Story (also 2nd place overall in
that competition
An old blanket, hanging across a rope, divided our freezing room. She, always up early, was
on the other side. There had been people banging on the door, forcing their way into our lives.
Something was wrong. I lay on our bed, listening to men with strange loud voices.
The sheet under me was wet. Again. But I knew that she wouldn’t be annoyed. She never was, of course. And it made me confused. She ought to be sad or angry or at least disappointed. But no, she would simply pick me up, place me under the wobbly table with my stuffed toy, Izzy, and take the sheet off. We only had the one, so she would have to wash and try to dry it today. Perhaps she would even sing His song. The one about Him … but that didn’t happen much now. Probably because He hadn’t been here for a few months. I couldn’t help but be glad, because it meant she had more time for me.
I could hear her saying something in that shy-soft voice of hers. She was confused and frightened, asking questions. But a man’s voice interrupted, shouting the same cruel words over and over and then the door crashing shut with a violence that shook our flimsy walls.
The people in the room next door were being visited by the rude men. Shouting. Screams of disbelief and horror. The nice lady next door had once, long ago, given me a piece of a biscuit. I could hear her pleading and begging. A slap, more screams, a shout, then silence. A door slammed and the men moved along the corridor to the next family. The same shouts, the orders, the ignored pleading, and the breaking of glass. It seemed never-ending. Something was very wrong here.
Anyway, my thumb was good. Warm, soft, wet. Sucking and sleeping was good, too. I was safe and I knew she would be here soon to give me a cuddle. With one hand she lifted the blanket from the rope, the other was dragging a tatty and broken suitcase. Ignoring the wet sheet, her eyes darted around the tiny room. She seemed to be begging me not to cry as she almost pushed me into my day clothes. I tried for a quick cuddle. She paused, stifled a sob, and held my arms.
“Come, Bubkin. We’re going for a ride.” I clapped my hands. “Bubkin like rides.” “Yes. I know, my Love. But we must hurry.” “No. NO! There’s no room for Izzy.” I began to bawl. Izzy meant almost more to me than her.
“Oh , alright. We’l take the damn thing!” Something was very wrong. She had never spoken to me like that before. To Him, yes. But not to me. Although shocked, I was also a little pleased. Perhaps I real y was taking His place.
There was a piece of bread in her hand. I ate quickly, as I usually did these days. She almost smiled and, stroking my hair, made me drink some water. For a brief moment I thought she was feeling safe in our shared love. Now she was sweeping the floor using a broom with very few bristles. The nice lady was outside, shouting that we had to go. At once. She opened our door, gasped and almost laughed.
“What ? What for you sweep NOW? We’re al leaving! Are you mad? My God! Cleaning? … My God! Mad, mad!” “I know … but this was our … home … I didn’t want to just …” Mama took my hand and grabbed the suitcase. She looked down at me and sighed.
“Ohhh … Go get him, then! Quickly. Get your Izzy.” In the snow-slushy street we became a tiny part of a wobbling crowd of women, children, and old men. Each of us seemed to be carrying or pushing something. Sacks, cases, carts, ancient prams. Pathetic scraps from years of families, stuffed into whatever was available. Mainly tattered clothing, a few documents, and maybe a torn photograph. Everyone had brought whatever they could grab, pack, and load in those last few moments. And here was I in the familiar street, now ful of legs and pram wheels, being jostled and nudged. It was not total confusion because we were all moving in the same direction. The guiding forces were grim-faced men who pushed and poked anybody that appeared to hesitate from the chosen way. Her hand grasped mine, tight, as if to release my tiny sticky fingers would be disaster. It was cold and snowing. We shuffled down the middle of the tram tracks, onlookers gaping from the pavements. Frightening monster-men, each dressed in a terrifying standard black, shouted and pushed to keep us moving. The grey-brown slush, the dreary streets, and our drab clothes made a perfect picture for the government photographer. The cinema crowds would lap up the propaganda newsreel next week. They would have loved it even more if they had seen the woman in a fur coat push between some guards, step from the pavement, and spit at us. Mama couldn’t help but pause as the warm saliva splattered and dribbled down her cheek. She said nothing, stared emotionless into the woman’s eyes, and then put down our case and wiped a tiny nothingness from my hair and smiled at me. The woman sneered, but aware that she had been defeated in her moment of triumph.
At the railway station we had to queue and hand over whatever we were carrying. There was no time for anybody to neither wonder nor care how it would be stored or returned, because we were soon being pummel ed into cattle wagons. I managed to keep a grip of both Izzy and Mama’s hand. But that was when the disaster happened. My knee was wacked into the wooden side and I screamed, of course. The worse thing was that Mama hadn’t noticed and nobody seemed to care. I looked at the bloody graze and bawled my heart to the heavens. Mama bent and kissed the knee, oblivious to the pushing and shoving from the uncaring others. The doors were bolted shut.
“There, there. Oh, my poor darling soldier-Bubkin” she whispered, “Shush-shush, we’l soon be going on our ride.” But nothing seemed to be happening except we became more and more cramped. Al around us there were sobbing, wailing children, and murmuring grown-ups. After several cold, cold, hours the train lurched. Everyone was standing and people lost their footing but few fel because we were squeezed so tightly together. The swaying soon became rhythmic and, our weariness overwhelming, we almost dozed off. I felt for Mama in the darkness. Even with the stifling stink of the others, I could smel her warmth and her love and I felt safe. “That’s good, my darling,” pul ing me closer.
We had managed to somehow sit down side by side amongst the muddy feet, her face almost at my level and her arm wrapped around me. “Do you remember when you and I and Da’da …” Oh. Just when I was thinking that she now belonged to only me. Why bring Him up? His name seemed to shatter my special moment. “… when we all played in the park? It was so warm, wasn’t it? You and Da’da played hide-and-seek in the bushes, and you laughed so much that we knew where you were? Remember?” “Yes. My darling. Me too. Try to sleep. Hm?” She hum-hummed so quietly to me, and the train rocked so peaceful y, that I soon fel into the deepest of sleeps. I woke when someone accidentally kicked my back but, still sleepy, I couldn’t summon the energy to cry. Mama sat wedged into a corner, knees drawn up, and an arm stretching to me. I crawled closer, cuddled her so-thin legs, and slept again.
Everyone woke when the train juddered-lurched-juddered to a halt. There had been plenty of stops and starts during the day and night. But it was obvious that this was it - we had arrived. The train hissed one more time and then there was a short silence. Silence until people realised what this meant and several of the old women, as if waking to a nightmare, began to whimper. Mama clutched me tight, so much so that I was going to complain. But then I decided not to. It was a long time before we heard the bolt being pushed and the wagon door was opened. Freezing cold air blew in. Beautiful, oh-so beautiful, fresh air. We gulped it down as if it was warm chicken soup and adults helped each other out and down from the wagon. It must have been early morning. Snow was falling. There were no black-dressed monster-men. Here were bored, sleepy, uniformly grey-clothed men with rifles and I thought of the time Da’da had showed me a book with pictures of cowboys and Indians. But these strange men had no horses. Why did they need rifles? Why were they shouting at us to stay where we were and just wait? Anyway, that’s what we did. Huddled together like innocent lambs, trying to keep warm, waiting to be sheared.
It was snowing again, the flakes sizzling as they fel on to a fire of branches and logs that the men, smoking and drinking coffee, were clustered around. We were kept wel away from the glorious warmth. But I could smell the green-sweetness of the pine cones as they splintered and exploded in the fire. Some things cannot be kept to oneself. I looked away and up into the heavens. The stars seemed incredible and only just out of reach. A little grey-haired lady touched my shoulder. Ancient and terrifying, her back was twisted and bent so much that her head was almost touching mine. I shuddered from her grip and clutched Mama. She placed a wet and very muddy Izzy into my hands and looked at Mama.
“Some of us have more to lose than others, eh? “ Then she silently took Mama’s face into her wrinkled hands, smiled sadly, shaking her head, and wept. She wept. And wept.
We formed a straggly line, each couple or family group making up a row, and then we began shuffling down the track. There were so many old people and women with babies and toddlers that I had no problem keeping up. I actual y began to enjoy crunching through the thin layer of snow and ice. We stumbled and straggled through some gates towards a hut and waited outside. And waited. Eventual y people began to be directed, with plenty of pushing and shouts, to take their turn in front of a desk. They would be officially processed, as they had become used to, answering questions and doing as they were told. Sometimes a woman would be led away, and her son would be sent in another direction. There was usually a moment of confusion and a hurried kiss and a quick whisper of encouragement. The tears could come later. Then it was our turn. A bored and weary man sat on the other side, writing in a large book. He demanded Mama’s name and papers. Hearing her voice he looked up as if to check whether she was as good as she sounded, and a half smile disappeared when he saw me. I wriggled. I was smal for my five years, yes, but I was proud of not being a baby. “Hush, Ba-ba. ….He’s big for his age, isn’t he?” The man stared at me without really looking. We joined a mass of women and young children. Nobody knew what was happening. Everyone asked the next person. Someone said that we would soon be given soup. Another said something about a shower. Another said that she had heard we were to be loaded onto another train and taken back.
A group of soldiers, men and women, with huge and terrifying dogs appeared. The dogs seemed to be under control, but they barked so much that I began to shiver and clung even tighter to Mama. “Attention. ATTENTION !!! You will all be having a shower!” A woman near us nodded and looked around, as if to say, “There. I told you.” Nobody moved. For the first time, there seemed to be a suggestion of rebellion.
Someone at the back shouted, “We haven’t had anything to eat yet.” One of the soldiers waved a short stick or club, I wasn’t sure.
He pushed through the mass of bodies towards the centre.
He had no idea who had said it, but simply struck out at somebody. Hard and viciously. A woman squealed in surprise as much as in pain.
“You will do as you’re told! Now … Everyone! Clothes off and piled on the tables!” The barking dogs lurched forwards and people started to strip. I pul ed away, but she pul ed me closer and dragged my trousers down. Women who had been accustomed to undress in the dark, even in front of their husbands, rushed to unbutton and peel off their clothes. Once the outer garments were off, it became essential to avoid embarrassment and to hide the poor quality of the underclothes by throwing them onto the pile. Soon everyone, including children, was naked. Even Mama. A few of the women tried to casual y hold their hands in front, but most felt it less vulnerable to stand as still as possible with arms crossed. The soldiers, their clubs in hand, watched and then walked through us. They didn’t try to hide their smiles as they pushed, elbowed, and touched shivering bodies. Sometimes the push was more of a grasp. With my arms wrapped around Mama’s legs, and her hand shielding my head, the soldiers preferred to focus on the unattached women. The sound of a klaxon was the welcoming sign that something could stop this nightmare. The soldiers froze. They looked at each other and then realised what had to be done.
“Alright!!! Everybody outside. NOW !!!” The hut had been cold, but the freezingly-sharp air outside was different again. It hit our bare skin so much that it ceased to hurt. And we even failed to notice the snow melting between our toes as we ran and slid, goaded by the soldiers and the dogs, towards a long brick building.
There was no furniture, no windows, and the walls were bar. But at least it was almost warm. Our blue, shivering, bodies squeezed into a huddle and we awaited the drenching shower water. More and more people were crushed inside. A young woman was pushed ever closer to us. She looked like Mama, but she was alone and had a huge swollen bel y that she tried to support. Eventually, the doors were shut and bolted. It was black as the blackest night. The children whimpered and asked answerless questions.
“I’m scared. What’s happening? Mama! I’m scared. I can’t see you, Mama!” “Why did they put us in here? When will we eat?” Even though there was confusion, there was also a strange acknowledgment that there would be no shower.
Mama said something to the woman with the belly. Then she whispered to me, “Thanks be to God that I’ve had you for as long as this …” Mama seemed to think it a miracle for which we needed to thank God. “Yes, Mama. Good-good Izzy. Bad men …. not hurt him, Mama. Nooo.” “Good Boy! Hold him close, my Darling.” She pul ed me to her and wrapped her arms around me, whispering in my ear.
“You’re my boy, aren’t you? You’ll always by my little boy, eh? Always?” “ I know … listen … you love Mama, don’t you?” “Good boy … we’ll be together… for always. You can’t understand this, I know …but … I would have liked to … have known you what you looked like as a young man … a young man, like Da’da … And to have met the woman that you fel in love with, just as I fell in love with Da’da … and … ” She was talking so fast, it was scary.
“Shh. … I would have liked to hold your child … seen you playing with … my grandchild … seen him … her … walk … laughing … smiling at me … to have cuddled your child …” “Mama, I’m your baby boy … I love you, Mama” “… But, listen. You and I wil be always together. We’re going to be with Da’da, too, very soon. And then we’l al be together for always and always… and always. It’ll be warm and we’l have all the food we need and we’l always be together and nobody will be bad to us ever again … and …” There was a loud hissing sound and a strong, strong smel .
I could hear the others screaming, but Mama’s whispers seemed louder.
“Mama …” It was so difficult to speak.
Her voice became softer, with gaps, as if she too was struggling to say the words. She knelt down, holding one hand around my head. The other was holding the big-bellied woman’s hand, pul ing her to us. “Darling … clo…se … your eyes.” “Shsssh … we will … be … always … togeth …”

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Chp383903 20.20 ++

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