2019 Open Division: 3rd Place

Boat-Shaped People

Louise Nutbean

My house, my home. Nice gardens of a nice district. Warm days, lazy nights wrapped in the scent of jasmine and night-scented stocks. Shopping trips on the bus with the kids. Ice cream. New shoes. Hair dos. A trip to the park on a sunny day. Sunscreen and pushes on the swings. A bus ride home to cook tea. Kids watching TV in the living room with the love of my life.

Protests on the late news. I watch them throwing bricks and glass and bottles and sticks and stones. The police fight back with riot shields up, tear gas, batons raised. Pressing forward. Close up of a dusty bleeding face, dragged away by the police. Tugging. Pulling. Camera shaking. No second chances.
But this isn’t in my city. The capital is a world away from me, now.

Here in the green hedged, provincial suburbs. Watching the bees dance on flowers that I have planted in my garden. Wondering what all the fuss is about in the big city.
So, they got it wrong.
My government.
It isn’t the first time. Do we really need all of the violence? I’m not apathetic. Sympathetic. Let’s talk first. But the capital is still a world away. Probably a flash in the pan.

School holidays. A day at the beach. Sunscreen and sand. Salty waters and crab pinched toes. The protests have spread. They are making it worse. The government. It niggles at the back of my mind, like a spikey caterpillar that the kids have found on my lettuces. They point and run, screaming to have found such a monster in their own back yard.

They argue on the bus on the way home. The kids. Tired and scratchy from a day of crazy, salty antics. The ride takes us through the city. Someone throws a bottle. It lands against the side of the bus. Next to us. I wait for the explosion that never happens as I hear them shouting. Harmonising with the sound of my terrified children screaming. Or is it me? Running chaos ensues. Separated only by metal and glass. I cradle my children beneath me as best I can, holding them so tight they’ll bruise. Holding my breath. I feel the bus lurch beneath me. The engine revs. The driver is trying to get us out. I hope. I pray to a God I’ve never believed in. To a saint. To an angel. To anyone, as the bus bumps and rocks along the street over God knows what or who, taking hits from more inert missiles.
Why is it in my town? What have we done to deserve this?
A Molotov finds home on the road beside us, warming my back.

Still clutching the kids.

Still holding them.

Afraid to look up.

Sobbing into their hair as they cry beneath me.

At home. In the evening. Still shaking. Watching as the first leaves begin to fall from the trees. Why aren’t they helping us?
This government.
The news feels false in the evening. They are quelling the insurgents. The police. The government. Insurgents? Here? We’ve never had those before. Not like this. Not this close. I wait for the love of my life. Worrying. Hoping. Hoping this is a ‘one-off’. Not a trend. They must stay home tomorrow. All of them.
The trees are bare when I’m woken in the darkness by a rumble that shakes the house. It’s followed by a distant tap-a-tap-a-tap that I mistake for rain. I drift back into a tortured sleep, rocked by another rumble that loosens some of the plaster in the ceiling. The love of my life sleeps on beside me.
The air is frigid. The electricity off. The water contaminated. The children wake me to show me the fog. A strange dense ether that hangs about the houses. Dampening sound. A grey-brown beast that tastes of earth. It drifts through my dead garden, fingered by the empty trees and useless power poles. Sliced by the wires. Wafting and dancing in the wind to the distant tap-a-tap-a-tap that isn’t the rain.
We argue. The love of my life and I. We argue. He thinks we should leave. Now. Don’t wait. Can’t stay here. Broken. The city. The people. The monstrous government.
Us.
I fear he means us. But I don’t want to leave. This is my home with its nice garden in a nice district. My children go to school here. We can’t leave.
But they haven’t been to school for months. There is no school left.
But they did go to school here. I went to school here.

My home.

my home… we have nowhere to go.

He tells me of the refugee camps. He’s booked us a space on a boat. We have to get to the harbour. It leaves tonight. Darkness is the safest time to travel. I ask him why? Why in the dark? Why do we need to leave? Why aren’t they helping us? This government. Why? Will the grass really be greener there? Will they fight us? Degrade us? Look what happened to the refugees escaping Syria, Yemen, Africa.
But it won’t be like that for us. We’re different. We have passports…
The boat’s smaller than he expected. We aren’t the only family crammed into the tiny cabin. The engine strains. Water breaks the bow. The children aren’t speaking. They don’t ask questions these days. They live in an eerie quiet. They cry in silence afraid of what might come for them in the darkness. Too afraid to make a noise.
The risks of leaving are great. The risks of staying, greater.

Water around my feet. Around my ankles. The engine coughing. Still moving. But it’s difficult to tell in the dark as the water reaches my calf. I look at the love of my life. His fear reflecting mine as the engine finally gives out.
I hear shouting. Swearing. I wake the kids. Others climb over us, trying to escape the tiny cabin for the deck. To watch. To help. To swim. I don’t know.

A searchlight. Shouting. Tap-a-tap. Screaming. Water. Freezing. Tap-a-tap. Tap-a-tap-a-tap. Not so distant now. The love of my life has one of our children. I have the other. We hide in the leigh of the boat. Away from the blinding light and the random sprays of bullets. Praying to a God that we don’t believe in. Who hasn’t helped before. Who isn’t listening to my children’s muted tears. Shivering violently. Gasping. Hoping.

My fingers and toes are already numb from the freezing water. I won’t feel the fishes nibble. My coat weighs me down. The tides drag. The screaming is going silent as the searchlight fades. I won’t know the loss. I’m trying to hold my child with failing arms, hearing their little. Tiny. Shallow. Gasps. Slowing. Freezing. As I let go. Everything is slower in the black water. As I let go. Of my child. My dreams. My life. I won’t see the beach as it approaches. Feel the sand against my cheek. As the darkness deepens beneath me. As I join the other boat-shaped people floating in the water. Remembering warm days and lazy nights with the love of my life. Breathing salt water…