In another’s footsteps

I once though that the Villawood Solution was an affront to all Australians…..but our current asylum seeker and refugee response leaves me profoundly disturbed….A path, once chosen may prove most regrettable….


In Another’s Footsteps

A short fiction…by Dave Belton

The heat is oppressive as they shuffle across the scorched compound. What started as a routine roll-call turns into something else when his name is called. He tries to blend into the crowd. “It must be a mistake!” They yell louder, more insistent yet barely able to pronounce his family name, spitting it as if in disgust.  Around him, the crowd opens. The other inmates know it’s him who has been summoned and shrink away, leaving him alone and exposed. These officials are not the usual guards or Customs and Immigration. No. They look more like soldiers, not regulars but soldiers none the less.  

The two men in military-style fatigues are hardly more than a blur as they spin him around. The taller one swings his boot and kicks his legs from under him. No. These guys aren’t regular soldiers – this seems too personal.  Gravel cut into his knees through the rips in his jeans. Is this to be another beating? He doesn’t have the strength to fight back. Resignation almost holds sway over any fear of what they might inflict on him.

The smaller soldier moves like a machine, well practiced and precise.  Before he can react, a knee sinks into his back and his face is shoved into the searing dust. His arms reefed together at elbow and wrist with nylon cable ties. Ratcheted tight, a throbbing pain wells up as the blood flow slows to his hands. His guts turn to water with the final yank on the tie.  

Th soldiers’ hands close around upper arms as he’s hauled to his feet, nails sinking into pale boney flesh. They hold his wasted frame so that his feet barely touch the ground, and he can feel the individual pressure of each finger and thumb with extraordinary clarity. Blue orbs of pain throb when they shift their fierce grip. And yet, he can’t shake a sense of understanding of their motivation.

He twists to glimpse at the countless onlookers, unsure whether to seek their help but any pride has evaporated to fear. Just as he tries to mouth a cry for help through parched lips, their eyes refuse his pleading gaze. They turn away, retreating across the dusty remains of an old footy field. He sees only their scrawny backs with ribs exposed, and heads lowered between sunken shoulders.

He’s lost his shoes, exposing a pair of boney, filthy appendages that can barely support his weight. With each passing moment, he seems to lose more of what makes him who he is.

The big guy spins him around while the smaller one yells instructions over his shoulder. They move in an awkward pirouette into the full glare of the afternoon sun. Blinded for an instant, he don’t see the large vehicle approach. A camouflaged truck reverses, blotting out the sun. As the tarpaulin is raised, he can just make out twenty or so men and boys, pale shapes of in the darkness.

The soldiers fling him toward the tailgate, as if they need to further subdue an already limp frame. The splintered timber and rough steel edge leaves him winded. Through a tattered shirt, a new pattern of cuts and bruises appears. 

Abruptly, He’s up-ended into the back of the truck like a bag of garbage. The pale shapes within part, avoiding contact as if the interloper is contaminated or cursed. A stench permeates the canvas, the battered timber floor and the wretched human cargo. The smell of piss, shit and decomposition is thick, like a blanket enveloping all. 

From outside laughter erupts.  He wonders what there is to laugh at in this place? Orders are barked and the truck leaps forward, throwing him off balance. The pale faces in front of him, though, hardly move. They look in his direction without betraying the slightest recognition of his discomfort.

Amidst the numbing roar of the truck’s engine, flashes of sunlight, through torn canvas, illuminate slices of the truck’s interior. Sometimes razor sharp, sometimes dappled, they pierce the fetid steam rising from our bodies.  Like a strobe, they reveal the deeply creased faces of men with sunken eyes, and the drawn white faces of boys. “Is that how I look to them?”, he wonders. Through the murk, an old man’s hand with knuckles whitened, grips the hand of a young boy with wide expressionless eyes.

Now, framed in the light, it’s as if the old man and the boy exude the faintest hint of the familiar, like someone you’ve seen in the past but never really noticed. This is tinged with something darker, infinitely sadder and he turns away, not knowing what it is. Something vile and unforgiven cuts deep into his soul. The pale faces before him seem beyond the fear that he feels. “Is it all spent? Have they none left?”

The truck lurches through dense scrub and the track is getting rougher. A kind of mental myopia descends on him, with the absence of a past and of a future. In every direction vision fades rapidly to blackness. He doesn’t register the truck stopping. His face remains pressed to the cold stinking canvas. As if magnified, the fabric’s finest texture appears with a clarity that unnerves him. 

The canvas snaps back like a camera shutter. In an instant, the gloom of the truck has been swept aside, raw sunlight blinding him like a welding flash. With hands bound and his one support ripped away, he pitches headlong over the truck’s tailgate. His body seems to hang in the air, while he imagines the dream will cease. Struggling wildly to free his hands as he falls, his arms seem to pull from their sockets.

No-one moves to catch his flailing body and he crunches into the dusty earth below. With the breath driven from his lungs, he lies gasping like a fish, unable to inhale, and with nothing to exhale. Every bone seems broken, every muscle torn. Then he hears the laughter and camaraderie of the soldiers, puzzled by its brittleness.

Like the frames of a cheap security video, movement slows as the viewer sees the crime committed, but little else is recognisable. The perpetrators gesture with weapons, faces remain disguised, grainy and distant.  He hears the voices, but can’t make out the muffled words. He sees the dirt underfoot, the bush ahead, but can’t define the trees. Hands grip him lest he should try to slip away. Searing heat spreads from his core and he realise he’s pissed himself. Self disgust threatens to overwhelm him. 

With a powerful shove, he’s flung to his knees at the track’s edge, his wet jeans leaving dark prints in the dust. He glances up to see the soldier resting a hand, casually, on the dull metallic grip of a heavy pistol. On the back of a right hand, the soldier has a tattoo, an eagle. Just like the one hidden between his bound hands. 

The soldier doesn’t notice, or maybe deliberately ignores it, reaching over to shove him roughly forward, driving his face into the scorched grass at the roadside. Snot and blood run from his nose. Grass, dirt and some other filth threaten to block his mouth. 

He hears the brittle, dry sound of the pistol’s action sliding back and forth, still not quite understanding, still disconnected. Then, he knows the truth about this moment, about himself.  The gun barrel presses against the back of his neck and he senses, more than hears, the soldier’s breathing pause – ever so slightly…..

Exploding into consciousness, Mitch Butler, struggles to suck air into his screaming lungs. Aziza, the tired-looking woman lying beside him, tries to shut the vision of her tormented husband from her mind. Frozen in fear, the spectacle is all too familiar, and becoming more frequent, more violent.

“He’s pissed himself again”, she seethes with an anger that gradually replaces the fear. She knows the bed linen will be drenched with his sweat and urine. And, he’ll have torn holes with his still-powerful grip, during the throes of his nightmare. The reek of his fear envelopes her.

Butler reaches across with his right hand, his eagle tattoo glistening with sweat. He needs to touch her fading beauty, to confirm this is reality, even though she smacks his hand away, violently, the way she always does. She curses with uncharacteristic venom and storms out, this time forever.

“Damned if it’s going to become my nightmare,” she mutters, as the ignition quietly turns the car engine over.  “He’s never been quite right”, she thinks. He was a handsome young man with bronzed good looks who once saved her from an awful fate. But he’s always been a man full of dark secrets and relentless nightmares.

Amid the stinking bed linen, he tries to catch his breath and get his head straight.  It’s hard to tell tears from sweat on his drawn, grey face. “Fuck” he thinks, “It’s been decades since Operation Sovereign Borders.” But, all those refugee operations, and all those ghosts of asylum seekers – sanctioned at cultural control centres across Australia – refuse to fade from memory. He now walks in their shoes and sees through their eyes, every moment of every night. 

Butler, too, has reached a decision. He raises the familiar weight of his old service pistol from beside the bed. “Now it’s time. Yes! Now.”  “Do what you pretended to do the last time …..sanction that ungrateful reffo, Aziza”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s