Here, it’s better than the Motherland with her cold, miserable weather and smelly, overcrowded city. Where I’d been sent me away along with many others.
Here, I’d arrived after having endured months at sea. Sleeping with rats. Crammed into wooden cells. Constantly damp from the rocking sea. Praying I’d survive, while tossing the daily-dead overboard.
Here, I’m part of the ‘Iron Gang’, says so on my shirt along with my numbers. Shackled at the ankle, dragging large heavy chains, working alongside dozens of men.
Here, I’m tall compared to some. Not quite as strong yet, but underweight like everyone else. Don’t ask me how old I am, my dying mum never said. She did say I’d seen too much in the world and called me an old soul. But I reckon I’m sixteen. Maybe younger?
Here, your hair’s clipped short to keep lice at bay. It makes us all look the same. Same uniforms. Same drawn expressions. Same sunburnt complexions. Same squinty eyes. Same lack of soul.
Here, they’ve called us ‘Walking corpses’. But it don’t bother me none. I’ve been called worse.
Here, was better than the hangman’s noose that nearly had me for stealing that loaf of bread back in the homeland.
Here, I’d been given a second chance to live. A chance that others claim as their own slow death.
Here, I’m guaranteed at least one meal a day and I’m supplied with decent clothes. Clothes and food I didn’t have to steal from dead men. But you still do – to survive.
Here, the noon sun burns the back of my neck. Trying to break rocks and lay tracks with sweaty, blistered palms that inadvertently slip and bleed on wooden handles.
Here’s better than the coal mines. Hidden from daylight with coaldust fouling the air, filling lungs, blackening skin, clogging sinuses and ruining tastebuds forever.
Here, working the railroad as part of the ‘Iron Gang’ it’s the same tasks as the coal mines. Even the same threatening whip being wielded daily in search of idle flesh.
Here, working the rail, I get to see the unique countryside, feel the gentle breeze while trying to distinguish aromas that arise from unusual yet novel foliage.
Here, I witness sunrise and the ever-changing brilliant blue sky. Always dog tired and sore, I lay down to rest and marvel at the day’s concluding sunset.
Here, I try to touch the infinite number of stars I wish upon nightly. Hoping Heaven would hear my many whispered prayers.
Here, it’s wild. Untamed. Nothing like my Homeland.
Here, is the loneliest place I’d ever been to.
Here, there’s hope. Because in a few years I’ll earn my freedom and can call this new place home.
Here, I’d be known not as a convict – but as an Australian.