By Georgina Kanowski, The Cathedral SchoolThe line for the incoming passengers is appallingly small, as it was when I first arrived a year ago. It’s filled with rich, officious looking men, the occasional foreign representative, and several young people whose bright eyes and nervous excitement give them away as newly appointed aid workers. I once shared their enthusiasm; I thought I could make a difference. That was twelve months ago – twelve bitter, twisted, awful months. Now I know better. My stomach lurches and I feel the urge to run and hide, but there is no hiding from the truth. I could swear that in my pocket, the broken button eyes of the little rag-doll are weeping. Although I fight it, the memories flood through me.
The high, reedy whine of the engine rises to an impossible peak as the tyres of the old jeep spin for traction in the loose, sandy soil. Ahead, the gentle descent through the camp stretches out, a mass of gaudily bright tarpaulins dotting the landscape, like a giant patchwork quilt. Here and there, proper shelters are set up, but our destination is clear. The huge white Humanitarian Aid tent is a spark of civilisation amid the chaos. As soon as I recognise it, my light-hearted mood vanishes, replaced by a burning, fiery determination. This will be my home for the next year as I help with the aid effort, and I for one, am determined to make a difference.The line has moved forward again, and I’m getting close to the narrow-eyed customs officer, who glares at us all suspiciously from behind a protective screen. I pat my pockets awkwardly, searching for my passport, and instead find the lump of the rag-doll. I pull it out, and its uneven eyes glare accusingly at me. So much for something that’s meant to be protecting me, I think. Too late, the guilt washes over me and I’m tempted to throw the vile little thing away, but of course I can’t. With the other hand I find my passport, and clutch the doll against my chest.
As I climb out of the car I am overwhelmed by a throng of small, tough boys, who accost me and in rapid-fire, broken English, all start talking at once. One makes his squeaky voice clear above the rest. He is a thin boy with dark, curly hair, framing huge brown eyes.
‘Welcome,’ he says, proffering a grubby hand, which I shake, bemused. ‘This is a protector my sister made to look after you while you’re here.’ He shoves the limp rag-doll into my hand. Leaning forward he appraises me seriously. ‘If anyone bothers you just show it to them and they’ll back off. They know Afnan means business.’ His scrawny chest puffs out boldly and I realise he means himself. Over the following months we become inseparable; Afnan and his friends become my personal assistants, always underfoot and ready to lend a hand. Just as they are that fateful day the news arrives that a Peace Rally is being held in the city.
‘Afnan, with me. We’re going to the march!’
The air whooshes out of my lungs as he charges, wrapping me in a massive bear hug. I pick him up and spin him in a circle and his high voice squeals with excitement. It’s the happiest day of his life, he tells me. Today, the whole world is a better place.
I try to savour the memory of that march. The way the air was so hot it shimmered, but the hundreds of people didn’t seem to care. The way, that with every breath, you could sense the optimism and buzzing excitement; you could feel a broken people strong with hope. The way Afnan laughed at every sight and sound and cheered as loud as any of them, filling the air with his pride. It probably only lasted an hour, but it felt like more.All of a sudden I become aware of something else creeping into the atmosphere, coasting through the crowd with a doomed sense of inevitability. Around me the jubilant faces begin to darken; in a country like this, they learn young to spot trouble before it rears its ugly head. Even as I grab for his hand, Afnan is glancing up at me, open-mouthed. To our right, people begin to scream. A group of men, armed with savage knives and heavy sticks, is spilling into the midst of the protestors from a side alley. They cry cruel, vicious words, over and over again, drowning out the happy cheers of moments before. The only thing louder is the screaming, as the people nearest turn and run. They push against the crowd, desperate to get away from the brutality. Stumbling, I drag Afnan in the opposite direction, a vice-like grip on his too small hand. I will not lose him, I think ferociously. I will not.
The once-thrilling press of the crowd has become dangerous, swarming angrily about us, with peril at every turn. My chest feels tight; my head is about to implode from the pressure. I am only nineteen and in a foreign country with a tiny, precious charge. I feel like I might throw up. The crowd is becoming even more violent, thrashing like a wounded animal, liable to strike out at anything in its way. It weaves around us, over us, even through us; that’s when I feel the sweaty fingers slip from my grasp. Horror fills me. Where is he? I struggle desperately back, but for every step I take, I am swept two in the wrong direction. People ignore my cries in the chaos. Dust swirls in my eyes and hands tear at my clothes. I choke on the smell of fear and cruelty. Then I see them, the riot police decked out in full gear, converging to my left. They’ve come to save us, I think. My eyes focus on a small lone figure. There, on the edge of the crowd, stands Afnan, bewildered but unharmed. I could cry with relief. I’ve only taken one shaky step towards him, when the police raise cold, grey murder to their shoulders, and open fire.‘You can’t take that with you.’ The harsh voice brings me back. For a moment, his uniform blends with my memories, and it is the same police standing before me, but I blink, and it is just the airport security guard.
‘What?’ I say stupidly.
‘The doll,’ he says, snatching. ‘Just as I thought, it’s stuffed with grass.’
I’m holding him in my arms, his frail body like a delicate flower crushed underfoot, as red petals bloom across his chest.
‘It can’t go with you.’
I see Afnan’s friends’ accusing faces, his sister’s tears.
‘I’m confiscating it,’ the guard says loudly and slowly, he thinks me simple. He waves the doll in front of my face.
The work swims in and out of focus as the whole past year comes back to me all at once. Then everything crystallises, and glass has formed around my heart, letting nothing leak out.
‘Yes,’ I say, and I look straight into the guard’s distrustful eyes.
I walk through the gate, taking long, purposeful strides. Behind me, I hear the gentle thud as the little rag-doll is thrown in the bin, just another scrap amid the forgotten items. I don’t look back.
Judge: Esmé Robinson
What a feast of reading I have had in judging the Senior short story. I was impressed overall by the quality of the writing.
This year’s topics included anorexia, unrequited love, schizophrenia, dementia, racism, the plight of refugees, dealing with the tragedy of bushfires, old age, insecurity in relationships, fear of death, World War I, II and Vietnam. Many stories were ‘spin-offs’ from text students were studying eg The Great Gatsby, The Importance of Being Earnest, Pride and Prejudice, The Crucible and poems such as The Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Raven and Futility.
It is interesting to note that the majority of this year’s stories were written in the first person.
The four Highly Commended writers in alphabetical order are:
Melissa Hamper, Hillcrest Christian College, Brisbane, Georgie Juszczyk, The Cathedral School of St Anne and St James, Townsville, Emilia Kurylewska, Our Lady’s College, Annerley and Romany Martin, Mt St Michael’s, College, Brisbane.
Third prize goes to Victoria Robinson of Hillcrest Christian College for her story Under the Waterloo Clock. Through the eyes of the Waterloo Clock, Victoria paints a picture of the busy, daily life of the station and the arrival of an injured homeless man who is finally helped by a compassionate woman and her son after having been shunned by others.
Three Waves by Saskia Hale, again from Hillcrest College, is awarded second prize. Saskia also writes in the first person. She begins in the present tense and then recounts the day her protagonist ‘almost drowned’. Her recount moves very quickly and the reader experiences her fear as, after developing confidence in conquering the waves as she holds her father’s hand, she is left alone to try the waves.
Congratulations to Georgina Kanoski from the Cathedral School of St Anne and St James, Townsville for her powerful and moving story Disillusion. I felt with her first person narrator as, standing in line about to leave the country where she has been an aid worker for ‘twelve bitter, twisted, awful months’, her memories come flooding back. In her pocket she has a rag doll which she had been given as a protector by Afnan, one of the young boys she meets on arrival. They become inseparable in the months that follow. However, tragically, during a supposed peace march, Afnan is killed by riot police. She holds him in her arms ‘as red petals bloom across his chest’.
Georgina’s conclusion is heartbreaking. The airport security guard confiscates her protector. ‘You can’t take that with you.’ The doll,’ he says, snatching it. ‘Just as I thought, it’s stuffed with grass.’
Her last sentence says it all.
‘I walk through the gate, taking long, purposeful strides. Behind me, I hear the gentle thud as the little rag-doll is thrown in the bin, just another scrap amid the forgotten items. I don’t look back.’
Moving indeed, and throughout, masterful use of the present tense.
Finally, a few reminders to writers.
Please check for consistency of tense, check punctuation, and proofread carefully. Do not rely on the computer for accuracy of spelling and grammatical choice. Check that you have chosen the appropriate word. One short story lost its impact totally by the use of the word ever instead of never in the last sentence.
Congratulations to the winners and to all the students who entered. Thanks also the teachers and parents for their support.
I look forward to reading next year’s entries.