Best-selling author of 'Money Power Love', 'The Little Voice' and 'Occupied'.

JOSS SHELDON

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3. ARUN

NEXT CHAPTER Front Cover

Arun sat in his new mobile home, dressed in his new clothes, and began to perspire. A pearl of sweat rolled over his tiny round nose, and reached his chubby cheek. Arun flicked his shiny black hair behind his ears, and opened a window, whilst a wall-mounted heater rumbled away.

He turned around, sat down on a sofa, and beamed with pride.

It had taken his family years to get to Protokia. Years of hardship, years of sorrow, and years of pain. Years spent hiding in vast forests, cold and hungry, living with a strange mix of partisans and crooks. Years spent working on an assortment of different farms, never knowing when Papa Arun’s crippled arm would fail. Years spent denying their names, their identities and their religion; not knowing who to trust, or who to avoid.

But all the dreams which sustained them during those years had finally come true. They had arrived in their homeland, and moved into their very own cabin.

Arun sat back and took it all in.

He took in a giant pouf, which sat on the linoleum floor, and a piano which ran alongside a plasterboard wall. Behind that wall was a shower room, which contained the first flushing toilet Arun had ever seen. To the side of that room, a tiny open-plan kitchen was flanked by three shelves, which supported jars of red paprika, orange cinnamon, and green herbs; rice, flour and lentils.

The kettle whistled.

Mama Arun, a stout woman who had wide shoulders and cobalt eyes, painted white flowers onto a turquoise light switch. A model giraffe, which was missing half a leg, watched her in silence.

Papa Arun scratched his bumpy nose, asymmetrical ears, and off-centre parting. He was sitting on the other side of a door which did not have a lock, in a marquee which was bigger than the cabin itself. Its walls were made from plastic sheets, and its roof was made from palm fronds. Two sofas and an armchair surrounded a table and a water pipe. A wood burning fireplace, which Papa Arun had made from an old oil barrel, rumbled away in the corner.

Papa Arun had spent every penny the Protokian government had given him. Every loan, tax break and grant. He had taken out a subsidised mortgage to furnish his subsidised home. And he felt satisfied. He was sure he would make a good impression on his guests.

The first person to appear was an Orthodox Settler, who wore lilac lipstick and pungent perfume. She introduced her husband, who had a bushy beard and straggly eyebrows. They were followed by a Militant Settler, who wore khaki trousers, and his wife, who wore a floral dress. They talked for an hour before an Economic Settler entered, ran his fingers through his curly hair, and glanced at his lover’s plump derriere.

“It sure is good to be back in the land of the Holies,” he said.

He talked about how cheap it was to live in a settlement, and how he had prospered there. The Militant Settler nodded along.

“God will provide,” he said. “He gave us this land, and he will give us opportunities to thrive. We just need to ensure we protect his gift.”

The Orthodox Settler scowled.

“We just need to obey God’s rules, that’s all,” she said. “We don’t need to do God’s work for him.”

She paused, glared at the Militant Settler, and then turned to Papa Arun.

“So what’s your story?” She asked.

Papa Arun smiled.

A palm frond rustled in the breeze.

Arun, who had been listening from inside the cabin, ran into the marquee and sat down on the floor.

“Tell them your story, daddy,” he pleaded. “Go on daddy! It’s the best story in the world!”

Papa Arun ruffled his son’s hair.

A cat wandered into the marquee.

Arun looked up at his father with eager eyes. He had heard his father’s story hundreds of times before, but it still excited him. He loved it when his father spoke about his adventures. It gave him goose-pimples.

“Okay, okay,” Papa Arun chuckled. “But first let me make some more chai.”

Papa Arun went into the kitchen and returned with nine cups of tea. He fired up his water pipe, inhaled, and passed the mouthpiece along. He sank back into his armchair and began to speak:

“Well it all started on the ‘Night of the Broken Glass’. Of course the Holies had been persecuted before that. I was caned every day at school, my Sister was denied hospital care, and we all had to wear red suns. But things took a turn for the worse that night, when the Colonisers looted our shops and burnt our temples.

“‘The authorities will protect us’, my father argued. ‘I served in their army. Have some faith.’

“But he was bundled into a car and taken away the very next day. That was when we went into hiding. People were saying the Colonisers were slaughtering Holies. They were calling it the ‘Great Genocide’!”

Papa Arun’s guests nodded. There was an empathetic sort of sadness in their eyes, as if they had experienced similar tragedies themselves.

“I heard they lined Holies up, shot them, and buried them in mass graves,” the Militant Settler said.

“I heard they stripped Holies naked and hung them from trees,” the Orthodox Settler added.

“I heard they threw Holies into acid wells,” the Economic Settler agreed. “I heard they dressed them up in striped pyjamas, locked them in cramped chambers, and poisoned them with Zyklon gas.”

Papa Arun drank some tea.

“Well, I knew a Pharmacist who was kind enough to hide us in her attic.”

“Tell them about the Pharmacist, daddy,” Arun cheered. “Tell them about her nose.”

“Oh, she had some nose on her, the Pharmacist. It was the biggest I’ve ever seen!”

“It was as big as a cavern!”

“It sure was. I swear there was a clan of goblins who lived in there, boiling up cauldrons of green snot. That snot used to fizz, bubble and pop. It sprayed out of the Pharmacist’s nose and covered everything in her vicinity! If you weren’t careful, you’d end up looking like a swamp monster after five minutes in her company!

“But she was a nice lady nonetheless. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for that Godly.”

Everyone stared at Papa Arun.

“A Godly saved you?” The Militant Settler asked. He looked gobsmacked.

The Economic Settler looked astonished.

The Orthodox Settler looked amazed.

“Oh yeah,” Papa Arun replied. “The Godlies have a saying in their bible; ‘If you save another person’s life, it is as if you have saved the whole of humankind’.”

“We have the same saying in our bible,” the Orthodox Settler said.

“For sure,” Papa Arun continued. “Well, the Pharmacist took that saying very seriously. She saved our lives, but to her it was as if she was saving the whole of humankind. It didn’t even bother her that she could have been killed. Her friend was executed for withholding information about some Holies, and the Pharmacist didn’t even batter an eyelid.

“‘Besa, besa,’ she said. ‘It’s a matter of honour. I have made a promise to protect you. And anyway, you would do the same for me’.

“So she hid us in the attic above her pharmacy, where we shared a single bed for over a year. It was dark and dingy in there. Only a thin sliver of light made it through a boarded up window, which rattled during the air raids. The rest of the time it was silent. We didn’t speak, because we didn’t want anyone to hear us.”

Papa Arun drank some tea.

“You’re going to tell them how I nearly got us caught, aren’t you?” Arun asked.

“I sure am,” his father replied.

Arun giggled.

His father gave him a mischievous look.

A spark flew off the fire.

“It was when the Colonisers came to search the pharmacy. Four of them rushed into the building. We could hear their heavy footsteps. We could hear their conversation.

“Arun cried. He was going to get us caught!

“So we crushed a sleeping pill, mixed it in with some milk, and made Arun drink that concoction.

“But that only made him more alert than before! We had to give him another pill before he passed out. I tell you, our hearts were beating like drums. We thought the game was up.”

Mama Arun looked at her son, grimaced, and covered her mouth.

Papa Arun chuckled.

His guests shuffled towards the edge of their seats.

“Well the Colonisers left, and the Pharmacist came to check on us. Only Arun wasn’t responding. He had overdosed on pills! We thought we had lost him.

“The Pharmacist tried to resuscitate Arun. She breathed into his mouth, and pumped his ribs.

“After several minutes had passed, Arun woke up. He vomited all over the Pharmacist, and kicked his legs in the air.

“We were ever so relieved, but we knew it was time to go. We knew it would not be long before the Colonisers returned. And we knew we’d be killed if we stayed.

“So the Pharmacist bought me an army uniform. She found us some fake papers. And she arranged for us to go to the port in the back of a lorry. We just had to meet that lorry on the edge of town.

“We made it to the meeting point without any troubles. But whilst we waited there, outside a bakery, I heard a sharp voice at my shoulder.

“‘Well, well, well,” it barked. ‘What do have we here then? Why aren’t you at the front?’

“I turned around and saw a Policeman.

“‘I work in munitions’, I replied. ‘I’m on my way to check a shipment’.

“I was so nervous, I started to feel nauseous.

“The Policeman looked me up and down, read my papers, and whistled. I thought I’d gotten away with it.

“But the Policeman had received an anonymous tip off. He knew we were Holies. And so he arrested us, and took us back to the station.

“We thought we were done for.”

The Orthodox Settler looked at her husband.

The Militant Settler looked at Papa Arun.

Papa Arun winked, sucked on his water pipe, and passed it along.

“We were put in a processing cell together. We hugged, we cried, and we attempted to save our lives.

“We swallowed some pills, and scratched ourselves all over. By the time the Policeman returned, we were covered in a horrific rash. It was pink, blotchy and raw.

“The Policeman took a step back and covered his mouth. He was aghast.

“We told him, ’We think we’ve got scarlet fever’.

“Well, the Colonisers were really scared of infections like that. The Policeman didn’t want anything to do with it. So he sent us to the hospital.

“The security was not nearly so tight in that place. There was just one guard on our ward. So we pretended to be asleep. And when the guard went to the toilet, we jumped out of bed and ran to the window.

“Our ward was on the second floor. But we didn’t have the time to worry about that. I climbed onto the ledge, swung my feet outside, and jumped. I held Arun in my arms. But when I landed, my knee buckled, I stumbled, and I crashed down upon my side. My elbow shattered into a million little pieces. It’s still crippled today.”

The Militant Settler winced.

The Orthodox Settler grimaced.

Papa Arun rubbed his arm.

“I put Arun down, moved a pile of soft rubbish below the window, and watched my wife jump.

“Then we ran off into the forest. We hid there for two days.

“Eventually we saw a parked cart. We climbed into that waggon, which took us to the coast, without the driver ever knowing.

“We were almost free!”

The Economic Settler exhaled and sank back into the settee.

Mama Arun made some more tea.

Arun jiggled his legs.

“We had missed our boat, and so we asked around to find another one. It was a massive gamble. If we had spoken to an informant, we’d have been arrested within minutes.

“Fortunately for us, we found two fishermen who were happy to take us across the bay, to a vessel which was heading abroad. But those kind men were stopped at the opposite shore by a Customs Officer.

“We huddled together in the hold, shivered and prayed.”

The Economic Settler looked up to the heavens.

Mama Arun poured some tea.

Arun cheered.

“Tell them what happened,” he shouted. “Tell them what the fishermen told the Customs Officer.”

Papa Arun chuckled.

“Well, there were two empty bottles of rum up on deck. When the Customs Officer came aboard the fishermen grabbed those bottles, stumbled about, and slurred their words.

“‘Do you know that it’s a criminal offence to be drunk at the controls of a boat?’ The Customs Officer asked.

“‘Go kiss a pig’, the Wide Fisherman slurred.

“‘It would be more enjoyable than kissing your wife,’ the Narrow Fisherman added. ‘The pig would be more attractive!’

“‘Right, that’s it,’ the Customs Officer snapped. ‘How dare you talk to an officer of the law like that? You’re both coming to the station.’

“So the Customs Officer arrested the fishermen instead of searching the boat. We were able to escape without getting caught!”

The Militant Settler shook his head.

“You’re the luckiest person I’ve ever met,” he said.

Papa Arun chuckled.

“Perhaps,” he replied. “Most Holies didn’t receive the assistance we did, that’s for sure. We were the fortunate ones.”

The guests bowed their heads, and shared a moment of silent contemplation.

Water dripped from a tap.

The fire rumbled.

A clock ticked.

“Well, we found the vessel and approached the Captain, but he wanted more money than we had to offer. We felt stumped. We felt that all our efforts had all been in vain.

“Then my wife spoke up.

“‘Take this’, she said. And she offered the Captain her wedding ring. ‘It’s worth more than you’re asking for’.

“The Captain paused to think. He took the ring, sold it in town, and then returned to the ship. He led us down into the hold, and locked us in a cage.

“We huddled together with a group of Holy escapees. There was a Doctor, a pair of beloved actors, an elderly couple who cherished life more than anyone else, a Young Mother and her three year old Child. That woman spent two sleepless nights teaching her Child to use an alias.

“Finally, we arrived on neutral land. We got off the boat and met a local lady, who gave some lipstick to my wife, and some lollipops to Arun.”

The guests all exhaled.

A chicken clucked.

Mama Arun poured some tea.

“We stayed in that country until the end of the war, although it was a struggle at first. We had to go from farm to farm to find shelter. I worked to pay our way, but we had to move on whenever my arm packed in.”

“Tell us the tales you told, daddy,” Arun pleaded. “Please!”

“Okay, okay,” Papa Arun chuckled. “Well, when people saw I had a gammy arm, they weren’t prepared to employ me. I needed an ice-breaker to build rapport. So I told all sorts of tales to make them laugh.

“I told one person that my arm had been squashed by a rampaging tank. I told another that it had been mauled by a red-eyed tiger. And I even said it had been crushed by the Great Dictator himself!”

“Tell us about the owl man, daddy. Please!” Arun cheered. “Please! Please! Please!”

“Okay, okay,” Papa Arun chuckled. “Well there was one Farmer, who looked like an owl. His eyes were bright green, and separated by a wide nose. He had a flat face and pointy ears.

“I told him that I had destroyed my arm during a fight with a naked sumo wrestler. That I had pushed that obese man out the ring, but he had stumbled over, and crushed my arm beneath his blubber.

“The Farmer didn’t believe me, but he laughed, which was all I wanted. The Farmer warmed to me. And whilst he didn’t have a spare room himself, he knew a Widow who did.

“We stayed with that Widow till the end of the war.

“She was warm-hearted and brave, but above all else she was practical. She dressed us like the natives, got us official documentation, and overwhelmed us with advice.

“‘Don’t ever take your pants down or relieve yourself in front of a local’, she told us. ‘Don’t ever eat fish on a Sunday. And don’t ever compliment a man on his looks’.

“We still felt like refugees, but we felt protected too. So life was good, until the Colonisers occupied that country.

“But things never got as bad as they had been. The locals stood up for us. They protected us from the Great Genocide!

“When the Colonisers made us wear red suns, all the locals wore them too. Even the king wore one! When the Colonisers paraded through town with their arsenals of weaponry, the locals turned their backs and walked away. They left the Colonisers without an audience! And when the Colonisers asked for directions, the locals pointed them the wrong way.

“So we were able to keep our spirits high. And we had faith that the Colonialists would beat the Colonisers. That twenty two nations would come to our rescue.

“Of course, that’s exactly what happened. The Colonisers were beaten, and we made our way to Protokia.

“I’ll never forget that Widow though.

“‘Remember to be friendly to everyone you meet’, she told us before we left. ‘Take care of persecuted people, like I have taken care of you’.”

 

* * *

 

Whilst Arun was comforted by the familiar story his father had told, he also longed for adventures of his own. And so the next day, when his mother sent him out to buy eggs, Arun snuck down into Natale.

He walked along a tarmac road, which was perfectly clean and totally empty. There were two lanes running in each direction, either side of a row of trees, but there weren’t any other settlers in sight.

He walked past a rickety assortment of caravans, cabins and shacks, which had been scattered across the hillside in a hotchpotch manner.

And he walked through the established part of his settlement, where settlers had built identical homes. They were all big and bold, with front gardens and fat cats.

A bus passed by, carrying settlers to their jobs in Protokia. And then the silence resumed. The only thing that moved were the birds, who sang to their heart’s content.

Waves of tiny flowers covered an ocean of empty hills. Yellow and blue petals fluttered in the breeze. And an eagle soared through the sky.

Arun walked around a concrete football pitch, an artificial pond, and a plastic playground. He approached the perimeter fence, which was three metres tall, and topped with curls of barbed wire.

He waved to the Muscular Guard, who was standing by the gate. The Bedouin, who was tending to his flock. And the Militant Settler, who was shouting at Papa Ellie.

He entered Natale for the first time in his life.

He felt claustrophobic as he walked down that town’s narrow alleys, which were all surrounded by tall walls. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach, and his spine tingled. His hands shook.

He loved the thrill of the unknown.

He ran up stairs and skipped down lanes, before he turned a corner and saw some children who were playing football. Their pitch was marked by a low wall, a crumbling building, and some small stones. Bigger stones were used for goalposts. The playing surface was a mixture of dust, pebbles, sticks and wire.

A group of children, who were too young to play, watched on from the side. A Lanky Refugee, who was older than the other players, dominated the match. And the ball, which was made from scraps of old cloth, slowly fell apart.

“Hello,” Arun said. “I salute the God within you.”

Those were the only words of Godliness, the language of the Godlies, which Arun understood. He spoke Colonialist, and he was learning Protokian; the language the Holies had just invented.

He pointed to his chest, pointed at the ball, gave a thumbs up, and nodded his head.

The other children stared back at him.

Arun kicked his foot through the air.

“Hello,” he said again.

He gave another thumbs up.

A Scruffy Refugee spat on the ground.

Tamsin sniggered.

“Let him play,” she said. “Let’s see what he’s got.”

Arun did not have a clue what Tamsin was saying. He just bounced on his toes and bobbed his head.

Tamsin waved him over and gave him the ball.

As soon as the game restarted, the Scruffy Refugee tackled Arun and passed the ball to Tamsin, who kicked the ball between Arun’s legs. Arun fell to the floor. A puff of dust engulfed him.

The other children stood over Arun and laughed.

“Are you okay?” Tamsin asked.

She stretched out her hand, pulled Arun to his feet, and kicked the ball into the air.

Arun’s team scored, then the opposition scored. They were losing by four goals to two when the Mad Lady hobbled past. Pus was dripping from her wart, and a beetle was crawling about in her hair.

“You play today, but you’ll fight tomorrow,” she wailed. “Oh yes! All the goblins are saying it!”

“Oh shut up,” Tamsin shouted back. “What do you know, you batty old witch?”

They played football for another fifteen minutes. By the time they had finished, Tamsin was covered in sweat, and Arun was covered in dust. They both had stitches. Their ball had completely disintegrated.

They sat down on a low wall and tried to speak.

“Holy?” Tamsin asked. She pointed at Arun’s chest.

Arun nodded.

“Godly?” Arun asked. He pointed back at Tamsin.

She nodded too.

They looked each other up and down.

They both squinted.

“You eat chickens, don’t you?” Tamsin taunted.

Arun looked puzzled.

“Chickens,” Tamsin repeated. “Chi–keh–nez!”

She flapped her arms to make them look like chicken wings. Then she moved her hand towards her mouth, as if she was eating.

“Ah,” Arun replied with a smile. “Yes! Yes! But you eat cows!”

Arun moved his hand towards his mouth.

“Moo! Moo! Moo!” He said.

Tamsin giggled.

Arun giggled too. He pointed at Tamsin, opened his mouth, and pretended to be sick at the thought of eating beef.

Tamsin pointed at Arun, and waved her hand in front of her nose, to suggest that eating chicken made Arun smell.

They both guffawed.

They both slapped their thighs.

They both looked at a Geeky Refugee, who sat down beside them.

“I speak Protokian,” she said. “I can translate if you like.”

The Geeky Refugee began to translate.

“I heard you pray six times a day, facing north,” Tamsin teased.

“Of course,” Arun replied. “You know it makes sense. God won’t hear you if you pray to the south. And only praying four times a day is just lazy.”

“Lazy?” Tamsin spat back with fake disgust. “At least we pray properly. You don’t even separate men from women!”

“You’re not even baptised!”

“You’re not even circumcised!”

“Your hymns are solemn!”

“Your hymns are brazen!”

“Your angel is a peacock!”

“Your angel is an elephant!”

“You write from left to right!”

“You write from right to left!”

“Your calendar is based on the moon!”

“Your calendar is based on the sun!”

“You worship fire!”

“You worship scrolls!”

Arun blew a raspberry.

Tamsin stuck her tongue out.

Arun scrunched his nose.

Tamsin blew a sarcastic kiss.

They both laughed in unison.

The Geeky Refugee rolled her eyes.

“Stop praying to a piece of wood,” Tamsin continued. “Come with us and join the Godly religion. It’s the one true faith.”

“I’d rather not,” Arun replied. “My dad would kill me.”

Arun wanted to change the subject.

“What does your dad do?” He asked.

“He’s a market trader,” Tamsin answered. She was always happy to talk about her father. “He sells satsumas.

“He was a tailor, but a Protokian firm undercut his prices. They offered him a job in their factory, but he wanted to keep his independence. He didn’t want to work for anyone else. He’s an entrepreneur!”

“That’s good,” Arun replied. “His hard work will pay off in the end.”

“Yes. We’re going to be wealthy. Just you wait and see!”

Arun chortled, stood up, and left.

“That’s right,” Tamsin teased. “Off you go to your fake little village, with your plastic grass and your concrete cows.”

Arun rolled his eyes.

Tamsin pulled a silly face.

They both went to their temples, said the same prayers, and glorified the same God.

 

* * *

 

Arun played with the Godlies several times over the months which followed. Papa Arun did not seem to mind. His son was being ’friendly to everyone he met’.

After they played, Arun and Tamsin chatted, with help from the Geeky Refugee. And, as time passed, they learnt each other’s language.

Sometimes they spoke about their long journeys to Natale, sometimes they spoke about their homes. They spoke about their favourite meals and their least favourite classes at school. Tamsin said her uncle was a Holy, and Arun said a Godly had saved his life.

They played in the field where retired donkeys saw out their final days, in the refugee camp, and near the Protokian prison.

“I heard it’s full of Godlies who don’t want the Holies to be here,” Tamsin said one day.

“Don’t be silly,” Arun replied. “You only get put in prison if you’re naughty. That place is full of two-headed madmen, rabid zombies, and walking skeletons! They’ve been locked away so they can’t hurt us.”

“I heard they dunk the inmates into tubs which are full of snakes!”

“I heard they rip off men’s testicles with pliers!”

“I heard they chop off women’s breasts!”

“I heard they tie inmates to the back of their jeeps, and drive around until their bodies completely disintegrate!”

Arun and Tamsin looked at each other with wide-eyed amazement.

“Let’s explore!” They cheered in unison.

They giggled.

They bounced on their toes.

A leaf fell off a tree.

Arun and his friends snuck towards the prison, with trembling hands and sweaty brows. They tiptoed around the prison’s perimeter, and looked up at the top of its wall. Tall concrete slabs stood side by side, decorated by a mixture of spikes and barbed wire. But the only things they were able to see, were three watchtowers; gangly contraptions which looked like garden sheds on stilts.

“It’s impossible,” the Geeky Refugee said. “There’s no way in.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

Arun tensed his cheeks.

Tamsin had an idea.

“Let’s go to the stadium,” she said. “There’s a game on today!”

Arun’s eyes lit up.

“But we can’t afford the tickets,” the Geeky Refugee replied. “We don’t have any money.”

Tamsin raised her eyebrows.

“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “The stadium’s wall is nowhere near as daunting as this one.”

Her friends looked at each other, grinned, and then followed Tamsin through town.

The game had already kicked off by the time they arrived. The only supporters who were still outside, crowded around two ticket office windows. Those at the back pushed those at the front, whilst the nimble tried to jink through, and the long-limbed passed money over their heads.

The Geeky Refugee, Tamsin and Arun, walked past them. They made their way to the opposite end of the ground.

Arun looked around. He put his foot on a padlocked gate and scrambled up. The gate wobbled. Arun heaved himself over, and jumped down on the other side.

“Come on,” he called back. “There’s no-one here. Hurry up!”

Tamsin and the Geeky Refugee followed. They sneaked towards the main stand, climbed the stairs, and traversed the terrace. No-one seemed to care. Everyone’s eyes were firmly fixed on the match.

Elderly men worked their way through bags of sunflower seeds. They bit the husks apart, spat them onto the floor, and chewed the tiny kernels which were hidden inside. Middle aged men drank silty cups of coffee, which were as thick as cement. And boys ate boiled sweetcorn, which was covered in salt and spices.

At the front, some teenagers faced the crowd, and led their chants. When they saw someone who was not joining in, they wagged their fists, and gave that person a dirty look. Another teenager produced an uneven beat on a battered drum.

To the side was a concrete building. Armed police, and a small selection of fans, stood on its roof. They watched on as Natale scored.

The crowd went wild.

“Wahoo!!!!” Arun screamed.

“One nil to Natale!” Tamsin cheered.

“Natale! Natale! Natale!” The Geeky Refugee chanted.

Then she fell silent. A hand had clasped her shoulder.

“Well, well, well,” a gruff voice rung out. “What do have we here then?”

The Geeky Girl, Arun and Tamsin, all turned around. Their hearts all sank. They all thought they had been caught.

“We’re just watching the game,” Tamsin said.

“I can see that,” the Tall Policeman replied. He had a warm face, with round cheeks and soft eyes, but it was clear that he was flustered. “Tut, tut, tut! Do you think it’s acceptable for little girls like you to be here?”

Tamsin shrugged.

“Look around,” the Tall Policeman continued.

Tamsin looked around.

“What do you see?”

“Football fans”

“What sort of football fans?”

“All sorts. Young and old. Rich and poor. Fat and thin.”

“Male and female?”

Tamsin paused, looked around, and shrugged again.

“Football matches aren’t for girls,” the Tall Policeman continued. “I’m going to have to ask you ladies to leave.”

Tamsin and the Geeky Girl did not know whether to feel angry or sad. They just froze and looked down at the ground.

The Tall Policeman looked down at Arun.

“Did you think it was okay to bring girls to a football match?” He asked.

Arun remained silent. He slid his thumb up and down his finger.

Tamsin clasped her hands together.

The Tall Policeman cleared his throat. He squatted, looked into Arun’s eyes, and put his hand on Arun’s shoulder.

“Where do you live?” He asked.

Arun translated the question.

“Liberation Village,” he finally replied.

The Tall Policeman turned pale.

“Liberation Village?” He repeated. “You’re a Holy? You’re a Protokian? The horror! Protokians aren’t welcome here. I’m going to have to take you back to your parents!”

He patted Arun on his back and led him away.

“A Holy?” He muttered to himself. “Here? The horror! Whatever next?”

 

* * *

 

Papa Arun welcomed the Militant Settler into his marquee, sat him down, and gave him a cup of tea.

Papa Arun sat down himself. He sank back into his armchair and took a swig of water.

The two men talked.

“It really is amazing to see how Liberation has grown,” the Militant Settler mentioned.

“Oh yes,” Papa Arun agreed. “I see new immigrants arriving here every day. Settlers are building homes everywhere I look.”

“They’re bringing the same prosperity to Collis that the first wave of immigrants brought to the rest of Protokia. This place was a dusty outpost, inhabited by a small handful of peasant farmers, before we returned. And now look at it! We’ve turned Protokia into a prosperous country, fit for the modern world!”

Papa Arun shifted in his seat.

“I’m just happy to have a home,” he replied.

“You lack ambition,” the Militant Settler continued. “I’m telling you, one day we’ll be as rich as the Colonisers and the Colonialists! At the rate we’re going, we’ll be a superpower! It takes big balls to do what we’ve been doing; creating a Holy nation, here amongst the Godlies. Don’t you ever forget it!

“We’ve come of age. We’re not the weaklings of the world anymore. We’re men, we’re strong, and we’re going places!”

Papa Arun wore an awkward smile.

Mama Arun made some tea.

The Militant Settler rubbed his hands along his thighs. It was clear he was about to broach a delicate matter.

“Your son,” he said. “What’s his name? It’s Arun, right?”

“That’s right,” Papa Arun replied.

“I thought so. Well, it’s come to my attention that he’s been spending time down in Natale, mixing with the natives.”

Papa Arun nodded.

“You knew?”

Papa Arun nodded.

“And you haven’t stopped him?”

Papa Arun clicked his knuckles.

“I want my son to be friends with everyone,” he replied.

The Militant Settler paused, tapped his knee, and shook his finger.

“People have been talking,” he continued. “And the things they’ve been saying have been far from complimentary.

“You see, relations with the natives are, how do I put this? ‘Delicate’. We need to watch where we tread. We can’t afford to kick the hornets’ nest, so to speak. We need to keep our relationships professional.”

Papa Arun tilted his head, as if to say, ‘Go on.’

“Look, it’s okay to be seen with a Godly if he’s working for you. If he’s repairing your car or cleaning your home. But you shouldn’t get too close. Too personal.

“The Godlies have been living rent free in our country for centuries. We can’t allow those bloated leeches to think they can get away with such liberties. Protokia is the cradle of Holy civilisation. It’s the land of the Holy people. Our people! Those Godlies, those circumcised ferrets, are our guests, nothing else. They’re not our equals.”

The Militant Settler gave Papa Arun a stern look.

“It’s up to you how you choose to live your life. It’s a free country after all. But if your family continues to pally up to the Godlies, I think you’ll find opportunities hard to come by. I think you’ll struggle to fit in with the other settlers.”

The Militant Settler tapped his chin.

“You’re new here, you need time to learn our ways. It’s fine, I understand. But if you want to be part of this community, you need to act like a settler. You’re a Holy, not a Godly, after all.”

The Militant Settler smiled at Papa Arun.

Papa Arun smiled back.

The Militant Settler stood up.

“Thank-you for the tea,” he said.

“Any time,” Papa Arun replied. “What’s mine is yours. You’re always welcome here.”

They embraced, the Militant Settler left, and Papa Arun sank back into his chair. He took a deep breath. And then he heard a knock at the door.

The Tall Policeman entered with Arun by his side.

“Good day sir,” the Tall Policeman said in Godliness.

“Hello, come in,” Papa Arun replied in Protokian. “Would you like some tea?”

“No. No thank-you. I can’t stay for long. Things to do! People to see!”

Papa Arun wore a blank expression.

“He says he can’t stay,” Arun translated.

“Oh,” Papa Arun replied.

“Your son was at a football match.” The Tall Policeman explained.

“He said I was at a football match.”

“Oh.”

“Apparently that’s not allowed.”

“Oh. I see.”

Papa Arun shook the Tall Policeman’s hand, showed him out, and walked back into his marquee.

“Sit down,” he told Arun.

Arun sat down.

“Do you understand how important it is that we settle here?” Papa Arun asked. “This is our home now. It’s not just another random town we’re passing through. We’re here for good.”

Arun rubbed his eyes.

“Well, that means we need to behave like the other settlers. We can’t afford to be different.”

Papa Arun paused.

The fire flickered.

Arun waited for his father to continue.

“You see, the other children in Liberation don’t play with the kids in Natale. So I think it’d be for the best if you didn’t either. It’ll help us to fit in. It’ll help us to become upstanding members of the community.”

Arun turned pale. He was aghast. He felt betrayed, abandoned and cheated.

“But daddy!” He protested. “The Widow who saved us told us ’to be friendly with everyone we meet’. I just want to honour her.”

Papa Arun blushed.

“You make me proud,” he said. “It’s very important to be friendly with everyone you meet. Very important.

“But that doesn’t mean that you need to meet everyone on the planet. You can pick and choose the people you meet.

“I’m just asking you to spend your time in Liberation. Be friendly with the children here. Forget about the children in Natale. That’s all.”

Arun’s face turned red.

Tears dripped from his eyes. Snot dripped from his nose. And saliva dripped from his lips.

“But daddy!” He cried. “That doesn’t make any sense. That’s cowardly. Who cares what the settlers think? I only care about what the Widow would think.”

Papa Arun looked at his son. He felt sympathy with Arun’s point of view, and he respected his son for speaking up.

But Papa Arun was determined to settle in Liberation. He was determined to lead a trouble free life, after all the hardships he had faced. So he decided to put his foot down.

“I don’t want you playing with that Tamsin, that dizzy-eyed midget, ever again!” He shouted. His face turned purple and his eyes turned red. “I don’t want you going anywhere near that creepy elf! I don’t want you going into Natale again. Understand?”

Papa Arun had never shouted at his son before, and so his tone shocked Arun, who trembled in fear.

He put his head in his hands and hid from the world.

He never played with Tamsin again.

 

* * *

 

Over the months which followed, Papa Arun did everything he could to fit in, and establish himself as a pillar of the community.

He welcomed new people into his cabin each day. They sat in a circle, drank an infinite amount of tea, patted each other’s backs, chatted and chortled.

Papa Arun offered everyone the same warm welcome, whether he knew them or not. Whether they were good or bad, clean or dirty, new immigrants or established settlers.

“Come in!” He always said. “You are welcome here. Have some tea. You poor things, you must be hungry. Eat something. Have some tea. Please! Share! What’s mine is yours. Have some tea.”

When he was not hosting guests, Papa Arun worked in Protokia, in a factory which produced cheap suits.

He spent his wages on an infinite array of bits and bobs; on cushions, cupboards and curtains. He bought a brand new bed and a second-hand desk. He even bought a television.

“Daddy! Daddy!” Arun cheered as his father entered. He grabbed his father’s leg and hugged it as tightly as he could.

“Hey there,” Papa Arun replied. “Look what I’ve got.”

Arun gazed at that television as if it was a spaceship from another galaxy. It looked so alien to him; so modern, futuristic and strange. He stared at its screen without even turning it on.

No-one else in Liberation had a TV, so owning it made Arun feel special. Although the ‘big magic box’, as he called it, did scare him a little at first. He was dazed by the rapid movements of the black and white figures who danced across its screen. His ears vibrated whenever they spoke.

That television was big news in Liberation. Everyone talked about it. And everyone watched it too.

Papa Arun hosted more people than ever before. Adults squeezed onto his sofas, and children sat on his floor. Their eyes were glued to the screen. Their conversations stopped. They were shushed whenever they spoke.

They watched the news. They watched nature documentaries. And they watched the prime minister address his nation.

“Holies should live in and around every Godly town in the land,” Atamow said, whilst staring into the camera.

Everyone in Arun’s cabin stared back at him.

“We must expel the Godlies and take their places. Because there is no Protokian colonisation, or Holy state, without the eviction of Godlies and the expropriation of their land.

“So everyone should take action, should run, should grab more hilltops and enlarge the settlements. Because everything we take now will stay ours. But everything we don’t grab will go to them.

“If we can guarantee our right to settle peacefully, then we must do so. But if we have to use force, then we have force at our disposal!”

There was a brief moment of silence.

A cat rubbed up against a settler’s leg.

And then everyone applauded. They gave the prime minister a standing ovation, hugged each other, and shouted:

‘Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Hip hip hooray! Long live Atamow!’

“That’s our boy!” The Militant Settler cheered.

“He’s got our back!” An Elderly Settler roared.

“We’re in this together!” A Housewife cried.

The Militant Settler’s son, Jim, looked at Arun. He gave Arun a sinister smile, and an ominous wink. He emitted a devilish snigger.

 

* * *

 

Arun went to school in a row of cabins which had been welded together and painted pink. It stood in the centre of Liberation, surrounded by a small playground, and a large line of flower pots.

Arun tried to befriend every other pupil. He tried to be friends with the Pale Settler who looked like a ghost, the Owlish Settler who had a hairy ear, and the Cherubic Settler who had a runny nose. He tried to be friends with Jim. It took them a while to accept Arun, but they grew closer as time went by.

They played games after school each day.

When it rained, they raced twigs on the water which gushed down the hill, and bet on which stick would win. When it was sunny, they sat in the shade, and played noughts and crosses in the dust. And when the sun began to set, the girls took on the boys in choreographed bouts of tug of war.

By the time they had finished, they were covered in a thick layer of sweat and dust. They breathed heavily. They sat down on a low wall and began to speak.

“Brother,” Jim told Arun. “You’re a nice guy. You want to be friends with everyone. I like that. But you’re naïve. You need to understand that those Godlies aren’t what they seem to be. They’re fine on the outside, but you can’t trust them. They’re dangerous. You should treat them with caution.”

Jim looked into Arun’s eyes. He smiled. It was an unnervingly large smile, which made Jim look like he was about to go for Arun’s neck. His cheeks were slightly too wide, and his eyes were slightly too narrow. They juxtaposed with Jim’s broad shoulders, and his beautiful buttocks, which looked like a pair of flattened mangos.

“Protokia is our home,” Jim continued. “Don’t ever forget that. We had to wait two thousand years for the peaceful liberation of this land. And we have a duty to ensure those Godlies don’t take it from us again.”

Arun looked back at Jim.

“It’s their land too,” he said. “They’ve been here for hundreds of years.”

Jim shook his head.

“No,” he replied. “Look, if I went to live in a random country for ten years, I couldn’t claim that country was mine. It would still belong to the people who lived there before me.

“Protokia is the land of our ancestors. We lived here first. The Godlies’ can’t say it’s theirs, just because they’ve been here for a few hundred years. Their claims have no legitimacy.”

Jim spat on the floor. His saliva sprayed in every direction. It glistened in the sunlight.

“Haven’t you heard my father talk? Didn’t you pay any attention to Atamow’s speech? Haven’t you realised that the supremacy of the Holies is absolute?

“I tell you, we should put the Godlies on a bus and drive them into the sea. Their nation has no right to exist!”

Arun was confused.

“Why can’t we live together?” He asked. “I’m tired of all this hatred. I just want to live in peace.”

Jim looked at Arun and laughed.

“You see!” He told the other children. “This is exactly what I was talking about.”

He put his arm around Arun’s shoulders.

“I like you Arun. You’re a good guy. A genuine chum. A brother from another mother. But my word, you’re naïve.

“My friend, we live in a dog eat dog world. There are only two types of people out there; the hunters and the hunted, the persecutors and the persecuted, the lion and the sheep.

“My brother, we’ve been the sheep for far too long. The Colonisers slaughtered millions of us. The Godlies took our land. We’ve been banished, chased and enslaved.

“But no more! It’s time for us to take control. It’s time for us to be the lions!”

The Cherubic Settler stamped his foot.

The Pale Settler saluted Jim.

The Owlish Settler cheered:

“The Godlies are a bunch of godless atheists!”

“I’ll give you three out of ten for that insult,” Jim laughed.

“They’re rat-faced, fat-raced infidels who suck their own father’s dicks!” The Pale Settler said.

“That’s more like it! Eight out of ten.”

“They’re uncivilised mountain men who don’t have any culture!” The Cherubic Settler added.

“Meh. Four out of ten.”

There was a moment of silence.

Everyone turned to face Arun. He felt their steamy breath on his cheek. He felt their glaring eyes. But he did not say a word.

“Come on little brother,” Jim cajoled. “It’s fun. Insult the Godlies.”

Arun bowed his head.

The Owlish Settler tapped his head.

Jim shook his head. He gestured for the Pale Settler to continue.

“They’re the offspring of whores and rapists!”

“Six.”

“They’re red-headed devil worshippers!”

“Five.”

“They’re maggot-infested scrotes, who bathe in cow’s semen!”

“Nine!”

Everyone turned to face Arun.

“Don’t you want to give it a go?” Jim asked. “Don’t you want to be one of the gang?”

Arun paused to think. He took a deep breath. And then he looked Jim in the eye.

“They’re a bunch of sissies,” he said.

Everyone cheered.

The Pale Settler howled like a hyena, the Owlish Settler punched the air, and Jim high-fived the Cherubic Settler.

“That’s only two out of ten,” he cheered. “But it was good for a first try. You’re one of us now.”

Jim made an approving gesture.

Everyone else sat back down.

Arun puffed his chest.

“They’re animals,” he said. “Animals! Like on the nature documentaries. All of Natale is a jungle. There are monkeys, dogs, gorillas and pigs down there. They drink their own urine. They throw their shit at each other. They’re uncivilised. They’re uneducated. They’re not human like us. They’re animals. Dirty filthy animals!”

There was a brief moment of silence. No-one could believe what they had heard.

And then everyone cheered. They jumped up and down, shimmied and danced.

“Ten out of ten!” Jim shouted.

He picked Arun up, put him on his shoulders, and strutted down the street. The other children skipped around him in a circle.

“He’s one of our own,” they sang. “He’s one of our own. This boy called ‘Arun’, he’s one of our own.”

 

* * *

 

Back at home, things followed a sure and steady routine. Papa Arun would not have it any other way.

As if by clockwork, Arun’s family woke up and went to sleep at the same time each day. They ate the same food each week. They went to school, and they went to work.

Their lives had a calming rhythm, which only hit the buffers when the school holidays came around. Arun was left with time on his hands, which he filled by playing with his friends.

But they soon got bored of Liberation. It was a pleasant place, but it was sleepy and small. Every building looked the same. The birds made more noise than the people. There were only so many times they could go on a seesaw, chase a skittish cat, or tie each other’s laces together.

So Arun and his gang explored the surrounding hills. They scrambled up rivers and bathed in pools. They hid in caves. They had picnics on hilltops, and they ate wild berries.

They were always on the lookout for new places to visit, and it was usually Jim who led them on. He led them over hills and he led them into valleys. He led them through woods, forests and thickets.

He faced his friends each morning, with his hands on his hips, and announced his plan for the day:

“Today, my friends, we’re going to town!”

Everyone nodded.

Everyone walked out of Liberation.

Everyone walked into Natale.

Their senses were dazzled by the hubbub of constant motion. By the traders who moved supplies, the shoppers who carried bags, and the wild dogs who sniffed for food. By the call to prayer, which rang out from the Godly temples. And by the soldiers, who stood on every corner, chatting to their comrades and caressing their pitch-black guns.

Jim squatted down into a sniper position, and motioned for his friends to do the same. They were at the end of a shady alley. Ahead of them was a corner, beneath which was a set of stairs.

Jim put his finger to his lips. He picked up some pieces of rubble, and gestured for his friends to pick up some stones.

They waited there in silence.

A piece of paper danced on the breeze.

A cockroach scuttled into a crack.

A butterfly flew overhead.

Jim heard a group of children climb the stairs. Their footsteps created a chattering sound, which echoed down the passage.

Jim stood up, walked to the top of the stairs, puffed his chest and stood proud. He lifted a rock above his head and swung his arm with all his might. His rock flew through the air, and hit a Freckled Local on her chin.

“Aaaah!” She screamed. Blood poured out of her skull. She pivoted, pushed past her companions, and ran away.

Her friends ran after her.

Arun’s friends lifted their arms and threw their stones. A storm of rubble and rock filled the air. Pebbles pounded the walls, and smashed into bodies. High pitch screams reverberated off of every surface.

Arun watched on until his vision was blurred by a cloud of dust, when an eerie sense of horror descended upon him. His whole body froze.

His friends emerged from the dusty haze, brushed themselves down, and high-fived each other.

“That felt amazing!” Jim cheered.

“I feel like a God!” The Cherubic Settler replied.

“I feel alive!” The Pale Settler chanted. “I’m on top of the world!”

He hugged the Owlish Settler.

Jim sniggered.

Everyone turned to face Arun.

“Why didn’t you join in?” Jim asked.

Arun shrugged his shoulders and dropped his stone.

Jim grinned, winked at Arun, and patted his back.

“Don’t worry, my brother. You’ll get another chance. Just you wait and see!”

Arun nodded.

Jim nodded.

Everyone nodded.

Everyone followed Jim down alleys which twisted and turned, through passageways which clung to the hillside, and along lanes which squeezed in between wonky buildings.

“In here,” he said.

He gestured for his friends to enter an empty house.

Arun explored that place with his eyes. He looked up at the shiny beams, which were a pale shade of gold. He looked across at some cushions, which surrounded a low table. And he looked out at a pretty mosaic, which decorated a shaded courtyard.

Jim went outside, and collected some stones.

“Take these,” he said.

He took a stone himself, and chucked it through an open window. It hit a Disabled Local, who was sitting in a wheelchair.

Arun’s friends all followed suit. The Pale Settler hit the knee of a Pretty Local, who was holding a baby. The Owlish Settler hit an Elderly Refugee’s walking stick. And the Cherubic Settler hit Mama Ellie’s belly.

Ellie gripped her mother’s leg.

“Don’t just stand there!” Mama Ellie screamed at a Greasy Soldier. “I swear on every verse in the Godly bible; do something, or the gods will!”

The Greasy Soldier leaned against a wall, ogled a Pretty Refugee, and touched his crotch.

“Settlers are throwing stones at us!”

The Greasy Soldier made a duck face.

“You’re lying,” he quacked.

Ellie clenched her fist.

“What’s your name?” The Greasy Soldier snapped.

“Ellie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Shopping.”

“Why aren’t you at school?”

“It’s the holiday.”

“Where are you from?”

“Natale”

“Why don’t you go and live somewhere else?”

“I was born here.”

“Why is your mummy making unfounded allegations?”

“She’s not!”

“You’re a disgrace,” Mama Ellie growled. “I swear on my sexual honour and betrothal! How dare you interrogate an innocent little girl like that? You’re a disgrace! A disgrace!”

She grabbed Ellie’s hand and stormed away.

The Greasy Soldier guffawed.

Jim sniggered.

“A Holy doesn’t arrest a Holy,” he said.

Everyone nodded.

Everyone waived at the Greasy Soldier.

Everyone watched as the Greasy Soldier waved back.

Jim gave Arun a vicious glare. He looked like a caged animal, locked inside an enclosure which was too small for him. He seemed to fill the whole room. He seemed to tower over Arun.

“My friend,” he said. “You’re up!”

Arun’s emotions mixed within him, like liquor in a cocktail shaker. Guilt, despair and terror, merged to form one transcendent sensation. Shame and horror sploshed around his belly. Fear and fury made his saliva froth. Vulnerability made his knees knock together.

He hated his society. He hated himself. And he hated Jim for putting him in that situation. He wanted to beat Jim. He wanted to destroy Jim. He wanted to kill Jim. He wanted to see Jim’s corpse, broken and twisted, in a bloody heap at his feet.

But he did not have the courage to dissent.

So he took a deep breath and looked out the window. He saw some locals, who all had bad hairdos. He saw some mice, who all had big teeth. And he saw Tamsin, who was hawking satsumas to everyone who passed.

Arun felt guilty for abandoning his friend. He felt ashamed. And he filled with hatred for Tamsin, for triggering those negative emotions.

So he took his stone and threw it at Tamsin’s foot. He regretted it straight away. He felt worse than he had done before.

“That’s my boy!” Jim cheered. “Doesn’t that feel amazing?”

Arun winced.

“Come, come,” Jim continued. He put his arm round Arun’s shoulder. “You became a man just now. I’m proud of you. King Arun of Natale! King Arun the Conqueror!”

The Cherubic Settler patted Arun’s shoulder.

The Pale Settler gave Arun a thumbs up.

The Owlish Settler winked.

Jim threw another stone. It hit a Bespectacled Refugee, who threw it straight back at Jim. The Greasy Soldier spat on the ground, arrested the Bespectacled Refugee, and dragged him away.

Arun dragged himself towards Liberation, with his head hung in shame, and a tear in his eye. He walked through Natale, across some fields, and along a stony lane. He approached his settlement’s gate.

Jim approached the Militant Settler.

“Hi daddy!” He cheered.

“Hi son,” the Militant Settler replied. “What have you boys been up to?”

“We’ve been throwing stones at the infidels! It was great fun, daddy. Really nasty!”

The Militant Settler took a step back, paused, and then smiled. His cheeks bulged so much, his skin became taut. His eyes, which were full of joy and wonder, almost popped out of their sockets. His lips parted.

“That’s my boy!” He said. “You’ve done the Holies proud! If every boy in Protokia behaves like you have today, we’ll have a bright future ahead of us. We’ll drive all the Godlies away!”

The Militant Settler looked at Jim’s friends. They all grinned. They all flushed with boyish pride.

“Come with me,” he said.

He took them to an ice-cream parlour.

“Order anything you want. Anything at all. You boys deserve it!”

Jim devoured a chocolate-fudge sundae. The Pale Refugee devoured a bowl of cherry sorbet. And Arun devoured a banana split.

“Are you still hungry?” The Militant Settler asked him.

Arun tilted his head towards his shoulder.

“How would you like a milkshake?”

Arun’s eyes lit up.

He drank his milkshake so quickly, his teeth became numb, and his head spun. He felt ill. He returned home, sat in a corner, and gripped hold of his aching stomach.

 

* * *

 

“Come and eat your dinner,” Papa Arun told his son.

“No-thank-you,” Arun replied. “I’m not hungry.”

Papa Arun looked puzzled.

“You’re always hungry at dinner time,” he said. “It’s part of our daily routine. Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

Arun nodded.

“Yes daddy,” he replied. “But I ate quite a lot of ice-cream today. I don’t have any space in my tummy.”

Papa Arun tapped his lip.

“Where did you get ice-cream from?” He asked.

“Jim’s dad bought it for us,” Arun replied. “We threw stones at some Godlies, to drive them away, and Jim’s dad rewarded us with ice-creams. He said we were ‘patriots’. He said we should be proud of ourselves.”

Papa Arun’s face turned red. It was a blood-curdling shade of red. A shade of red which was so dark it was almost purple, so bold it made his face pulsate, and so loud it seemed to scream.

In the blink of an eye, he had puffed his chest, lifted his hand above his head, and swung his arm with all his might. His knuckles crashed into Arun’s cheek with so much power that Arun fell to the floor. His legs were tangled. There was a bruise on his cheek and a tear in his eye.

“What was the one thing the Widow asked us to do?” He bellowed.

Arun trembled.

“Ru-ru-ru-remember to be fu-fu-fu-friendly to everyone you mu-mu-mu-meet,” he stuttered.

“And?”

“Tu-tu-tu-take care of persecuted people.”

“And is throwing stones at people the same as taking care of them?”

Arun shook his head.

“So why on earth did you do it? Really! After everything we’ve been through. You should’ve known better.”

Arun wiped his eyes, whimpered, and looked up at his father.

“Bu-bu-bu-because you told me to ‘behave like the other settlers’,” he replied. “And the other settlers were all throwing stones.

“Yu-yu-yu-you told me that ‘we can’t afford to be different’. If I had refused to join in, it would have made me different.”

Arun looked into his father’s eyes.

“I did it for you,” he said.

Papa Arun shivered. His heart sank and his face froze. He was completely lost for words.

 

* * *

 

Arun ate in silence the following morning. His cheek was still sore, and his confidence was still shaken. His trust in his father was shattered.

Papa Arun felt guilty.

“Son,” he said. “This may cheer you up.”

He went into his bedroom and returned with a long brown tube. He removed its cap and unrolled a large piece of paper.

“What is it?” Arun asked.

“These are the blueprints for our new home.”

Arun’s jaw dropped.

Mama Arun made some tea.

The Bedouin arrived outside. He unloaded his yaks, and left a pile of bricks on the ground. He waved at Papa Arun, turned around, and disappeared.

Arun watched as the Bedouin was replaced by a group of day labourers. They were a ragamuffin crew, with floppy sandals and unkempt hair. Their shirts were covered in a haphazard selection of holes, and their trousers were grey with dust.

“It’s cheaper to employ Godlies,” Papa Arun explained. “They’ll turn up for an egg and an apple, and do double the work in half the time. They don’t ask for holidays, their breaks are unpaid, and they don’t mind risky jobs. They don’t have any legal rights!”

Arun twiddled his thumbs. He ate a mouthful of toast, and looked outside. He saw an incredibly hairy man, who had a look of childish innocence. His clothes were still clean, as if he had not worked in them before. And he stood on his own, away from the other labourers.

That man looked back at Arun, and gave him a mischievous wink.

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