She said ‘They put me
in a prison, took away
my name, gave me a number
instead. For a year
I was there, called by a number,
answering to a number,
giving a number
when they asked my

My eyes were wet
as she bravely made her speech.
A young woman. I can’t remember
whether she was Tamil, Afghan,
or what. I can’t remember
whether it was her who spoke
about travelling on a boat
across the open sea, with people
getting sick
and dying.

I came here on a ‘boat’, too.
A luxury liner.

One rainy English day
my parents saw a billboard.
Come to Australia! Sunshine, opportunity!
Ten pounds passage—the government
paid the rest.

We stayed one week
in a migrant hostel. The photo shows a cabin
with curtains at the windows.
My mother shy on the wooden steps,
sunshine on her pale cheek,
babies on her lap.

The shire of Bunbury needed a labourer.
For three months we lived in lodgings
on the main street, near the beach.

The next job came with a house.
A front garden, a backyard.
My dad heaved logs into the boilers
of the last steam pump
on the Goldfields water scheme.
The photo shows him shirtless,
all taut muscle.
There were shit jobs then, too

but in the pub
the blokes called him ‘mate’
and the local families
invited us to their parties.

‘They locked me
in a prison, took away
my name, gave me
a number.’

I’m old enough to have gone to school
in an all-white class.
At uni the white students hardly mixed
with the ones from South-East Asia.
We called them ‘choges’.
We said it to name
what we couldn’t speak:
the newness, the fascination,

the fear.

Even now, whenever I meet
a person whose language
is different to mine, whose idea of fashion
is different to mine, whose idea of God
might be different to mine, whose idea of breakfast
might be different to mine, whose manners
are different to the ones my mother showed me

I’m afraid. The stupid reptile
at the base of my brain
is scared that this
unfamiliar creature
might want my eyes
as a snack

but that day, they were wet
as the gentle young woman spoke.

‘They locked me up.
They took away my name.
They gave me a number
instead, for a year.’

She didn’t give this ‘they’ a name.

She was talking about

(First published in Uneven Floor)