Plenty more where you came from.


I’m down on my knees, the puddle creeping up my boiler suit. A face in the water looks up at me, the swab stuck over the eye with tape. I work at the betel nut leaf, chewing through the last minutes of the sun then scatter red spit into stone.

The sky is as pink as a Westerner’s suntan, the air thick with the smell of ash; they’re burning the trees over the border. And me, the stench of cauliflower and fear has sweated out of my grey skin.

I drink from a bottle, but it’s too late for my gut which is curved and hard like a rock. Boss doesn’t like us boiler suits taking toilet breaks.

A pearl of sweat hangs from the tip of my nose. I get up and walk, trying not to move my head. It’s full of scream and swear words.

The highway zooms behind a line of pillars. I reach the concrete clods. Rusty spikes are tangled there. A green bird lands then flutters away.

There are seven containers in all. Out front, there’s a pair of work boots, a cricket bat on the ground with no sign of a ball. I go inside the windowless container with B12 painted at the side of the door. The toilet cut into the bottom spews its stink.

Iqbal paces the floor. His hand is a tight fist at his side.

‘It’s not right, man,’ he says. ‘27 they promised me and 14 is all I’m getting.’

The other men sit bare-chested on top of shelves. One of them scratches his head and harvests the dandruff with a thumb nail. Everyone has lost something here: Fingers, kids they never get to see and things that don’t show on the outside. It’s only an eye, I think.

I lie on a shelf and pick up the dictionary. I take the photograph of Prem from between the pages. I’m lucky; I’m the youngest of five, so only have to worry about me, her and Kid. There are shrimps in her hands and Kid is beside her in his green school shorts. We could be related, me and Kid, with the lips all thin except I’m the colour of steel.

‘How can I feed my family with this bullshit, lah?’ Iqbal says.

His voice swirls around me and presses. I’m getting double what he is. Just a bit less than I was promised. Trouble is, Boss wants $3,000 from me to renew.

‘Keep your head down, that’s the best bloody way.’ That’s Kamal. The old timer.

Been here nine years. Two of his fingers on his right hand have gone. Every time he closes his palm around a cup, it’s a shock. That, and that necklace of his, a blue eye staring out from the stone. He’s the only one apart from me who can read. The men feed us with their letters.

I push myself up on an elbow, put my feet to the floor. Iqbal sits beside me. He runs a hand through his crew cut.

‘Does it hurt?’ he asks.

I shrug off his concern. He pushes a paper bag into my hand. I fold up the dosai and chew. Iqbal blows air from between his teeth.

‘He can’t treat me like this,’ he says.

‘You complain many, many; you get worse than nothing,’ I say.

‘I told Boss that I want to send my kid to school,’ Iqbal stabs the heat with a finger.

‘Just keep your mouth bloody shut,’ says Kamal.

Iqbal folds his arms. I pick up the dictionary.

‘Canoodle,’ I say. ‘To embrace and to hug.’

‘What?’ says Iqbal.

‘You know,’ I shout, ‘Kissy, kissy!’

‘Oh!’ says Kamal then laughs a curve of brown teeth.

Iqbal turns away.

‘Hit me with another!’ says Kamal.

I fan the pages again. ‘Fartleberry.’

‘Fartleberry, I like the sound of that one,’ laughs Kamal.

Small balls of faeces on pubic hair, I read. ‘Shit berries up your fundamental,’ I say.

Kamal smacks a hand to his chest. ‘Chance would be a fine bloody thing!’ he says.

I wake in the night. The heat is as solid as concrete. I get up and go outside. I thud shoulders with someone in the dark.

‘Watch where you’re going!’ the person shouts.

There’s a speck of light, the smell of burn. I don’t need to see a face to know who it is.

‘Sorry, Sir,’ I say.

The torchlight finds me.

‘A blaster with bad eyesight,’ Boss says.

‘No Sir. My eyesight is good.’

‘Perhaps you need a test then we’ll see, won’t we?’

He steps towards me, lowers his face to my ear. ‘And, boy. You should know that there are plenty more where you came from.’

He walks into the container then comes back outside, the torchlight going over the scrub.

‘What the hell?’ It’s Iqbal’s voice.

And for a moment the torchlight finds his reluctant steps and further on, Boss’s hand squeezed around his arm.

‘It’s over for you,’ Boss says.

I fade myself into the black, my heart punching my bones. Boss hasn’t come for me yet.

When they’ve gone, there’s nothing but a dot of light out there in the wasteland. I walk towards it, grind my foot into the still smouldering stub. It fizzes like yesterday’s mistake. The goggles went loose while I pointed the jet at the steel, making the rust and barnacles fly. Then something sharp went into my eye.

Mistake. Isn’t that what Prem said to me when she told me about Kid? She’d been having the canoodles with Fisherman. Married, he was. Her father had wanted our wedding done quick.

Four weeks after the ceremony, Prem spilled her stomach into a bowl. She went to her knees and held my ankles. ‘Please don’t turn me out.’

‘Don’t bow to me,’ I said.

I took her hand in mine and pulled her to her feet.

I feel my way through the dark now, touch the open container door. I go inside. I push two painkillers from the pack and swallow them dry. My head swims through slush then I’m gone again.

It’s light when I wake, a headache boxing my skull. I listen for the others phlegm-dragging, shaving, the scrape of canvas against leg hair. There’s nothing but the tek-tek-tek of a gecko and leftover sweat. No one woke me up. I climb out of bed and the metal burns my feet. I push on my flip-flops, but the thong breaks away on one of them. I kick it off and walk towards the mirror.

I tear off the swab. There’s the red marble of my eye, the still grey skin around it. I go to Iqbal’s shelf. There’s a paper triangle taped to the wall where the photograph of his son used to be. All that’s left of Iqbal is that and his pack of cards. I push them into my pocket then pick up the dictionary.

‘Invisible’, I read. Out of sight. Hidden, it means.

I was going to earn money big. Bring the tap inside, string the roof with wires. But when my pass to work here came through, I dropped out of college. The money was too good to pass over.

Prem hugged me, Kid still in the belly pressed between us. I shut my eyes and felt her breath on my face. Her father thought she might stand a chance when he married her off to a college boy. Yet still her fingers have that sea gut stink.

I limp to the bus stop and sit down on the empty bench. A storm is coming, making the palm trees dance. The wind slaps my dizzy face. The sky blackens and the rain comes down, flooding the concrete, spilling across my bare feet.

The bus with its slashes of purple comes down the highway. I get on and stare through the window at a woman driving a Mercedes, a pink leather bag on the passenger seat. A blue taxi with the light shining hired, a suited man in the back, stabbing his nostril with a finger.

I get off at Racecourse Road and walk past the temple, blue and pink Goddesses piled high. A priest in a dhoti wanders barefoot behind the fence. An old lady sits cross-legged on the ground eating watermelon, the juice coating her chin.

There’s a building made of turquoise glass, people passing by. I go inside the Mustafa Centre and stand under the haze of an air conditioning vent. I walk along an aisle, the kids shoes, a row of bras with hearts between the cups. I stare at those bras and pull a price tag towards me. In the men’s shoe aisle, I find what I’m looking for. A pair like the ones that have broken except the thongs have lines through them. I pay for them and go outside. The heat’s like holding your hands too close to an electric drier; it swallows me up. The rain has gone.

I walk past the shuttered shop houses painted yellow and blue. Someone churns his throat and spits into the gutter where a banana leaf has been left alongside an open can of Haywards 5000. I put my earphones in and let the tambourine shimmer and the thud of the dholak carry me through the streets. There’s the smell of cinnamon. I trail my hand through hanging strings of jasmine. I buy a box of mutton curry and sit on a kerb looking up at the dark sky.

There’s a bang. Heads turn towards it. There’s fear in my chest like indigestion. I burp and walk on, unsure of where I’m going.

Men are thumping their fists against a bus. There are six of them, then eight, then too many to count. The bus tilts sideways; its wheels smack back on to the road. A man on the pavement holds his arms out, trying to keep the people back. There is a child in a pram, gold studs in her ears. A bottle is thrown. People break away from the man. The running makes a breeze that wasn’t there before. The bus goes over then, slamming against the concrete, spouting dust. A stand of bracelets falls, the circles of plastic spinning like loose wheels.

Though my eye is throbbing, there’s a kind of happy inside me. Another bottle is thrown then another. One shatters into diamonds at my feet. The street is bright with shop signs: Monalish Tailors. Electronics by Naranjan.

The men run off, with cans, bottles, empty boxes, things grabbed from shops as they pass. I follow them, throwing their fists to the sky. Up ahead, the hazard lights on a car flash on and off. The men pick up speed and I run after them, my new flip-flops quiet in the din. I push myself into the men. I shout, getting them all out, the bad words that have been trapped inside me. We push and push and this car struggles against us until it falls, cracking down on to its side.

In the distance, a bus is on fire. I smell petrol. The yellow flames lick and grow. The men carry on shouting, bumping against each another. The men run away, but I stay there looking at the soon-to-be skeleton of the bus. My eye is fizzing, but I feel nothing except heat. I turn to look at the shops, the shutters closed. And there is my chance. An open door and a cash register with no one behind it, a rack of pink cheongsams.

I go inside and press the keys until a drawer springs open. I put my hand over the slotted-in notes and breathe. I turn and in the shiny cabinet on the wall there’s a reflection. It’s hard to make out what it is against the blue eye necklaces and key rings inside. Then I see its detail: A face that reminds me of someone I once knew. I smile at him and he smiles right back, a hint of colour in his cheeks that isn’t grey. I put my hand to the glass.

Someone gasps and I look down. Kneeling behind the counter is a small man, white hairs on his chin. He is speaking Mandarin.

‘Please, Sir,’ I say.

The man takes my hand and I help him to his feet. He stoops in front of me, shaking. Then I let his hand slip from mine and walk out into the night where I am invisible again.

I think about what will happen if they force me into a car and speed me towards the airport like Iqbal and all the men before. Then I open my hand and look at the necklace I took from the cabinet, with its blue eye for luck. I close my fingers around it then start to run, past the shops and the glass on the ground, past the still blazing bus which paints my face with more colour. And, the charm hanging now around my neck, bangs my chest like a heart beat.

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014