The Somalian Child

The Somalian Child

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The Somalian Child

There is a child from Somalia, with an old man's face, sitting in the corner of the lounge room. He must have come out of the television set at some time this evening. It's New Year's Eve, and all the stations have been playing condensed highlights of the year -- so many images of poverty and diseases and war from around the globe. Trying to cram so much human misery into a few short hours, it's no wonder, really, that something overflowed.

He sits there, huddled in a ball, like a tiny wizened dwarf, behind the corner lounge chair. I don't know when he came out. It could have been any time. The television has been on for a long time. His face is blank. An old man on a child's stick body. I pretend he's not there, of course, and go into the kitchen to make a snack. I am about to bring it back into the lounge room, until I think better of it, and eat it in the kitchen. When I get back, he's still there.

It's just as well that I had planned for a quiet New Year's and hadn't invited anybody over, because he smells a bit too. You don't get that when they're on the TV, but it's a smell of old dried cow dung and other things I've never smelled before.
The television is still on, and it's still showing news highlights. There are scenes from some civil war in the former Soviet Union. Just to be on the safe side, I turn the channel to an American sit-com. There are some gorgeous looking ladies sitting around a dinner table making risque jokes. Not much chance of having one of them appear in my lounge room, I ponder. Not in real life. They're only actresses. I steal a glance at the Somalian -- but he doesn't seem interested in the show.

I stay there watching until the show ends, then the news comes on. It's another highlights of the year program. Naturally. A well-groomed news commentator says, rather pompously, “Hemingway sat in the Hotel Florida in Spain and wrote passionately about the blood being spilled in the streets below, trying to convey the idealism with which people were fighting and dying.

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And today, CNN not only brings you the conflicts of the globe, but shows you the faces of those fighting and suffering ...” I miss the rest while trying to read the labels on his sports jacket. Then there is a scene of an old woman lying in a bed in a decrepit old people's home in Sarajevo. Snipers have shot the windows out, and the snow comes in, settling on her bones. She waves a gnarled hand at the camera and mumbles words I don't understand. I also don't understand, despite the amount of television I watch, why so many people are fighting and dying there.
I turn the channel again. More highlights of the year. This time it is the royal family, bemoaning their annus horribilis. Still the Somalian child doesn't show any interest. I wonder what TV is like in Somalia. I also wonder if I should feed him anything, or just leave the television on so that he will go back where he came from. That seems the easiest and kindest thing to do, so I decide to go up to the shops for 15 minutes, giving him the opportunity to disappear quietly.

When I return I hear talking from the lounge room. It has a different quality to the sound of the television. The old woman from Sarajevo is now stretched out on the couch, pulling her blanket up with her gnarled hands and mumbling words I still can't understand. She smells of vomit. I check and see the Somalian boy is still there as well.

The television is still on, showing scenes from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge have been massacring civilians, and some peasants stare at the screen, weeping. Tears are running down their faces like tropical rain. Their eyes are red and burning and loom right up against the screen. It's very disturbing, but the old lady doesn't seem to notice.
I turn the television off and wonder what to do. Something decisive! I go to the front room to call my sister. She always complains that I never ring her since she got remarried, and she seems to thrive on crises. After greeting her and wishing her an anticipated Happy New Year, I'm not sure what to tell her. So I ask how she is going. Fine, she says, but the kids are driving her to distraction.

I can hear shouting and screaming like a minor war zone in the background. But it's not her television, it's her kids. She talks for a moment, and then there is a sudden crash and she says with a voice of urgency that she must go and hangs up.
When I go back to the lounge room there is now a family of Cambodians sitting on the floor. They are regarding both the old woman and the Somalian child with suspicion, and when I enter the room they huddle closer together, and shoot me furtive looks. At least they notice I am there.

I think about it for a minute or two and decide to ring the television station. It takes a while to get through, and then I'm passed back and forth between a variety of people. But at least it sounds less ridiculous to me each time I describe the problem. I finally end up with a man from the news department, who tells me that he is unable to help me as their studio is already overflowing with several hundred Peruvians and Burmese who they couldn't fit into the news bulletins. “If you find them disturbing”, he says, “just ignore them and they eventually fade away”. Reasonably happy with that, I hang up to go back to the lounge room. But I don't even get past the kitchen. There are five wild-looking Afghans going through my pantry cupboards. They are busily emptying out my tupperware containers and putting packet foods in their many pockets. I would protest but for the fact that one of the elder men has an equally ancient-looking gun slung over his shoulder.

I reason that since they haven't yet seemed to notice the fridge, or aren't aware of what it holds, I shouldn't risk disturbing them. I also think it best if I unplug the television at the wall. I put my head down and scuttle into the lounge room. Then I stop short again. There are two men from India fighting wildly in the centre of the room. The Cambodians huddle in one corner trying to look invisible, while the old lady on the couch waves her gnarled hands wildly at them and the boy from Somalia still just stares blankly.

Things are going just a little bit too far, I think, wishing for a UN peacekeeper or two to appear. But they are more than likely all sitting on their hands or doing media interviews somewhere. It is still two hours or more until midnight, and I wonder how safe it would be to leave the house for that time. I watch the two Indians circling carefully and lunging at one another with knives, and decide that if blood is going to be spilled in my house, I don't want to see it happen. I back carefully out through the kitchen and let myself out the back door. There are a family of Kurds under the Hill's hoist, taking plastic off the tomato patch to make a cover over their heads. I couldn't believe it. You should never disturb tomatoes, even this late in the season! I'm on the point of yelling, “Not in my back yard!” when I see a gaunt-looking African with a Kalashnikov walking up the driveway. So I slip quietly into the toilet and lock the door behind me. Just for a moment, I am about to lift my feet up onto the bowl, but then I remember that you can't see under the door. It must have been something I saw on television somewhere.

I don't have my watch on, and realise that it is going to be a long, long wait. At times I long to put my head out and peek about, but just listening to the growing cacophony quickly dissuades me. There are angry voices in German, followed some time later by what sounds like Chinese shouting, and then crying and screaming that could have been in any language at all. Faced with all the turmoil of the world outside the toilet door, I do the only practicable thing: try to ignore it and go to sleep. It is difficult, of course, and very uncomfortable, but some time, deep in the night, curled up in a ball by the cistern, I eventually nod off. I awake in the early hours of the New Year, with the first light coming in the slat windows. My first thought is, “What am I doing here? Why aren't I safe in my bed?” Then I remember.

I stare blankly ahead for a moment and then try to stand up. I am unable. I have to stretch myself first and massage my limbs to get my circulation going. I feel tired, I feel sore, I feel hungry, I smell and I'm more than a little confused. It isn't a good way to start a year. Nevertheless, I note, there is no noise from outside.

I cautiously open the door and peep out. Nothing. Not even a sign that anybody has been there. I had been half expecting to find the house trashed by a dozen neo-Nazis or South African storm troopers. But it is just like it looks each day when I wake up.
I walk carefully around the house, peering into each room and even going out the backyard. Nobody. Nothing. Not a sign. “Happy New Year”, I say out loud and go back into the lounge room. I sit down in my favourite spot, and put the television back on before I notice him. The Somalian child, with the old man's face, is still sitting quietly behind the corner chair.
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