New Girl (A Short Story) by Christine Johnson
NEW girl comes from a war-torn place. Her arrival, refugee rural re-settlement. Everyone knows that.
What they don’t know is she thinks of her past as if sitting in an oasis, a garden with men, women and children lying under the palms. These ghosts lying in the shade are all that remain. Confronted by the rubble of a destroyed city, months in a crowded camp and now shifted into foreign, rustic emptiness, she clings to them.
At school she turns up wearing the standard checked uniform dress. The giveaway is the scarf wrapped around her head. She stands at the front of the classroom. The teacher waits until fidgeting stops. Students chant the ritual, ‘Good morning, Mrs Bates.’
‘This is Amani.’ Mrs Bates’ eyes scan the room. ‘In coming days let’s make her welcome.’
Murmurs ripple as the new girl approaches her desk. The backpack strapped to her body attracts nudges – bomb rather than packed lunch?
The lesson starts. Freed from the threat of focus, she retreats; swims back and steps ashore in her private haven. She takes her place with the others, lying under the trees.
When the recess bell jangles, out everyone spills from their desks, jostling into the sun-drenched yard. Boys forge ahead. Greg’s cockerel laugh leads his mob, their massed breaking voices sounding like cracked china. Clever Tracy emerges next, surrounded by her coterie of girlfriends.
New girl arrives last. Hesitates. Strident sounds all around attack her flesh. She finds a spot to sit alone, at a distance on the library steps. Her shadow sits with her, the colour of a bruise, leaking uncertainty.
Tracy and her coterie approach. Greg and his mates follow.
‘Did you see lots killed?’
‘Greg!’ This is Tracy.
The argumentative words fall close, like an exchange of bullets.
Tracy takes charge, her tone permeated with sympathy. ‘Were you frightened?’
The question baffles. Sometimes in her dreams Amani breathes an air so dense with groans and strangled sobs it reaches out and chokes her.
Greg interrupts. ‘Hey,’ he says, pointing at the headscarf, ‘do you wear that to bed?’
The boys laugh. A tussle and skirmish of assumptions follow.
‘Will you have an arranged marriage?’
‘Or work? Study at University?’
‘How come you got away? Here, to our country?’
At this point Amani’s heart beats faster while her blood freezes, wishing to run backwards, to avoid the pain at her centre. How to imagine so many who have died? Let alone understand why she is not amongst them.
She will never forget one old man. Thin legs and the threadbare coat he wore made him seem an ancient bird with fraying feathers. That time he came wobbling along the laneway on his rusty bike, heading for the main street. Crouched outside her ruined house in what remained of her doorway, terror beating like trapped wings in her belly, she should have stepped forward to warn him. But thumping fear demanded she survive. So, she watched. Sensing the rumble, he falters, and looks up – too late. A lorry full of soldiers travelling at speed smashes into him. The bike buckles. His body flies up, crushed. His brains spill onto the road.
After plying new girl with questions that never receive answers, most shrug, give up. A month passes.
New girl looks up, startled. The other girl grins, eyes crinkling at the corners, dimple-craters in her suntanned cheeks.
‘Can I sit with you?’ She does anyway. ‘You new?’
‘Sort of. Yes.’
‘Yeah, me too. First day.’
Amani glances at her. ‘From overseas?’
The other girl laughs. ‘Not me. Naradhan, know where that is?’
‘Yeah, well. Neither does anyone else.’
The two chew sandwiches eyes gazing at the drought-dry oval. The other girl breaks the silence.
‘So, what do you play?’
Amani’s brows arch, questioning.
‘Sport,’ the other girl grins.
‘Nothing…’ She sees the grin fading. ‘Except …’
In the camp, a coach came. She trained us. Soccer.’
‘Yes, the soccer team with girls. I liked that.’
‘Girls’ soccer – even better! Hey, what’s your name?’
‘I’m Samantha. Call me Sam.’
Sam arrives next day with the black-and-white ball. Amani looks at it and remembers a similar ball rolling over rough ground an entire world away.
She recalls bare feet racing on gravel. That, and cheap plastic sandals caught up in hot pursuit. One girl plays in socks. Another manages one-legged, on a crutch. Screams swell from the sidelines after a goal and then fade back into a chorus of urge-on chants. The ball’s panels of light and dark breach columns of sunlight and stir up dust motes. The dust dances. Caught up by a hot breeze it whirls, escapes the high wire fencing of the compound; carries up and through all barriers to celebrate wild freedom.
And Amani senses a tingling beneath her skin. She no longer wants to stand in the shadows. When she runs Sam chases after. They weave and dodge, kicking the ball back and forth. Sometimes they stop, panting, feet apart and hands resting on knees, staring into each other’s eyes like animals. No language, but determined to meet. Then the stillness between them breaks into peals of laughter. It rings out as their play continues.
Greg and his mob turn to see who is causing such a row. Tracy and her girlfriends huddle, looking on in amazement. Mrs Bates, on yard duty, strolls across. Greg moves to within earshot.
‘Girls playing soccer, it’s not right!’
‘Why would that be Greg?’
‘Footy, it’s for boys.’
Mrs Bates gives a rare smile. ‘Well, soccer may not cure the entire world’s problems, but from what we’re seeing here it may shatter certain boundaries.’
By the end of the week what started with two playing soccer has grown – to become the beginnings of an enthusiastic girls’ team. Mrs Bates causes a stir, putting herself forward as coach.
Amani has her first and closest friend, Sam. Inseparable, they do everything together.