Torchlight streaks the deck above, piercing the cracks as we wait,
silent and expectant, in the dark, fetid air of the hold. A man barks
orders, his voice crackling over the megaphone. I hear the
of heavy boots, then the sound of bare feet padding across the
deck as people are herded onto the navy vessel anchored alongside
our creaking junk. In the darkness I wait, packed like a sardine with
70 other sweaty, salt-gritted bodies yet no one makes a sound. The
hatch is suddenly thrown open and a torch beam sweeps over us;
there is an expletive from the invisible man above and he reels from
the stench that hits him like a train. In broken Vietnamese, he orders
us to come up. I join the milling crowd of asylum seekers on deck, my
head swirling with thoughts of what the future may bring. In the
commotion, I notice the weather has turned; a grey fog rolls in from
the inky sky over the heaving waves, transforming the junk into a
tumultuous, shifting seesaw.
against a starless sky the night we arrive on
Christmas Island. A menacing razor wire fence and rows of squat,
grey buildings greet us. Aman dressed in a crisp uniform announces:
‘The fence surrounding the detention centre is designed to stop
detainees from entering or leaving the premises without permission.’
His pale blue eyes scan our curious, dirty faces with indifference.
Apprehension courses through me, then Quyen whispers in my
ear. ‘Be brave child, this will lead to the bright future your family
desires for you,’ and my fear recedes.
I am allocated a room with Quyen and we are given bedding and
new clothes, including two pairs of jeans each. We squeal in delight,
pouncing on the jeans and lifting them in the air like trophies.
Quyen exclaims, ‘I have only ever seen jeans in posters of western
I laugh and shoot imaginary bullets like a cowboy shouting. ‘And
I have only owned two pairs of pants at the one time!’
We collapse on the bed in fits of giggles.
As the days pass, people begin to feel safe and we emerge from our
shells. Each muted word is no longer a jarring note in the silence, a
dissonant affront to one’s solitude. I befriend a woman named Tara
and her sister, Ming, and we trade stories, although I find it difficult
to share my journey without plummeting into despair. I can’t forget
the hold; the crush of contorted limbs clawing and writhing in the
confined space and the arctic gush of saltwater. My throat constricts