'LISA THINKS SHE'S the hottest girl around.'
'She's so up herself. She doesn't even have a Facebook page.'
'Guys! Guys! Who's the hottest girl in this school?'
'You're the hottest girl in this school, Charlize.'
'You've got like the sexiest legs, Charlize.'
'So why do boys pay so much attention to Lisa when I'm around?'
'That guy over there likes you. Oh my God, he's staring right at us!'
'That one. The…African guy. You know, the black guy.'
'The refo from Sudan or Egypt or wherever? He's so gross. What's his name, anyway?'
'I don't know, Charlize.'
'Oh my God, you're right. He's staring at me. I bet he's a Muslim and wants to rape me or something. He's so disgusting.'
'He's a pervert.'
'He's so black!'
'Shoosh! Maybe he can hear us, Charlize.'
'He probably can't speak any English anyway. He looks so dumb.'
'It's like he knows we're talking about him. He looks sad.'
'No he doesn't. They don't have the same feelings as us. Where is he going?'
'I think we've, like, offended him.'
'Where are all the normal guys, anyway?'
'They're at footy practice, Charlize.'
'I hope they're not hanging around that ugly slut Lisa.'
'I bet she thinks she's prettier than you, Charlize.'
'I'll show that bitch. I fucking will.'
HASSAN IS BECOMING used to being laughed at. And ridicule by a handful of teenage girls should technically be nowhere near as upsetting as everything that happened back in Somalia. But being called 'dumb' and 'gross' – the latter must mean something like 'ugly', he assumes – is still quite hurtful. He is, in spite of himself and his mother's warnings, starting to feel attracted to frankly obnoxious Australian girls such as Charlize Stevenson.
He knows very well that a girl like Charlize would never go out with him. He tries to suppress his disappointment and trudges away from this latest scene of humiliation. He'll go to the library, the only place that offers him some respite from the sorrows of the playground. He'll spend the rest of lunchtime there, pretending to be improving his English by flicking through magazines or looking at American music videos online.
But an unusual sound distracts and attracts him as he walks past the empty assembly hall.
There's nothing strange about a student practicing the piano. And Hassan, despite having been born and raised in one of the most damaged and impoverished places on the planet, is no stranger to the sound of the classy Western musical apparatus. He had once been to a piano concert in Mogadishu before he turned ten, before the militants came and took him and the other boys from his school. Hassan and his classmates were marched to a camp and caned before being told to choose between fighting for God against the Infidel Government or getting shot for being Godless Apostates.
He breathes heavily and forces himself to forget his past. He's in Australia now, in a public high school in Melbourne. And it is only an unsettling coincidence that the tender melody emanating from somewhere behind the assembly hall reminds him of the tune he heard at the UN concert before the horrors of his childhood.
He can't help desiring to seek the source of this soft music. He traverses the hall cautiously and reaches the music room. There is no one here other than him and the invisible pianist inside the room. He steps towards the entrance and stops, wondering if he should be there at all. He feels anxious and decides to turn around before anyone has noticed him.
And the restrained yet resonant notes of music continue to enter Hassan's mind. It's as though the fingers producing them are magically seeping through his scalp and caressing the knots in his brain. He feels calm and happy. Confident that the person behind this soothing music will not find him intrusive; that such a soulful artist will not be gruff and dismissive like everyone else in this school.
Hassan puts down his bag and walks to the rhythm of the piece, towards the open door of the music room. He takes a deep breath, steps in and moves his eyes towards the figure behind the piano.
And his lips are forced open by the exhalation of intensified air. The girl behind the instrument, with her faultless face and brilliant long reddish hair – or is it what they call 'strawberry blond'? – is the meaning of that odd English word, 'breathtaking'. And her mesmerisingly pale complexion is the colour of morning light or snow and nothing like the shades of other white people's skin.
She notices him and stops playing. He's often anxious about speaking to strangers or speaking at all – most kids at school, and even a few teachers, either laugh at his accent when he speaks English, pretend not to understand him, or obsessively correct his grammar – but there's something about this girl which makes him happy to talk.
'I'm sorry. I disturb you. I am so sorry.'
'That's okay. Did you want to practice too? I'll only be another couple of minutes.'
'No. I don't play piano. I don't know music pieces. I hear your music. It is so beautiful. It is Mozart? Beethoven?'
The girl smiles faintly and her opalescent face assumes a touch of pinkness.
'Oh no. It's something I made up. You're too nice.'
'You compositioned that music yourself? You are amazing.'
She is now nearly laughing and the sight fills Hassan with an entirely novel, entirely unbelievable sensation.
'No I'm not. I'm just…Lisa. I've seen you around. What's your name?'
'DON'T BE ANGRY, Charlize. Everyone knows you're the sexiest girl…'
'Shut up you bitch! Didn't you see Dan chatting to Lisa, that stupid ugly whore! Dan knows how much I love him. Why is he trying to come on to that frigid pale ginger bitch? She's like a fucking ghost!'
'He's just a male, Charlize. Guys can be really insensitive.'
'I don't give a shit. I want that bitch dead. Stupid skinny arty bitch. I hate her so much. I wish she had a Twitter account so I could send her pictures of dirty redheaded sluts like her getting raped and kicked and shit.'
'Hey, Charlize. I've got an idea. Something I saw in a movie.'
'What did you say? Can't hear you. Speak up, will you?'
'No, listen. Come closer. You know about Joel's party next weekend?'
'Of course I do, you stupid cow. I was one of the first people to get invited.'
'Maybe we should invite Lisa to come along with us.'
'What the fuck for?! I just told you I want that bitch wiped off the face of the earth.'
'Keep it down, Charlize. Listen. In this movie I saw, the cool hot girls got this dorky chick really drunk, right, and then…'
'Oh my God! That's a great fucking idea! You're a bloody genius!'
'We'll post photos of her all over Facebook and Instagram.'
'My brother knows a drug dealer. He can get us something to spike Lisa's drinks.'
'We'll take her to one of the bedrooms and then we'll get Joel and his mate from the footy team to…'
'Oh my God! That'd be so much fun!'
HASSAN OPENS HIS lunch box and offers Lisa one of the pastries. She takes a sambuusa and inspects it temporarily before taking a small bite. She frowns and grunts delicately.
'I am so sorry, Lisa. You don't like? It is too hot?'
'No, it's just… I think it has meat in it.'
'Meat? No, it's green pepper and fish and…'
'It's the fish then. I'm sorry, Hassan. I haven't had any meat or seafood for years. I'm a strict vegetarian. I can't eat this. Here, you can finish it for me.'
'I have banana too. Do you want it?'
'No, Hassan. It's very generous of you, but I've actually had my lunch. I don't eat much anyway. I'd rather listen to music, go for walks and read books. I can't stand the Internet. Do you like reading books?'
'My English is not too good to read books. The book we're studying for English now is very hard.'
'Everyone struggles with Hamlet, Hassan. Did you know Mr Anderson can't say most of the archaic phrases properly? And your English is very, very good, anyway. You're new to Australia. Soon you'll be speaking better than most of the idiots around here. Anyway, let me know if you want a good book to read. Are you going to Joel's party this Saturday?'
'Who is Joel?'
'Oh I'm sorry. I thought everyone had been invited. I'm sure it'll be pretty boring anyway. I'm going with Charlize and her crew. Do you know her? I thought she hated me but it looks like she wants to be my friend.'
'I don't like Charlize. She is cruel and treacherous.'
'There you go! You have a great vocabulary, Hassan. I don't really like Charlize either, but it'd be nice to make a few new friends.'
'I am your new friend, Lisa.'
'I know, Hassan. And I'm your friend too.'
Hassan closes his eyes so that the image of Lisa's ethereal, spellbinding beauty won't intimidate him from saying what he's been meaning to say since he first met her.
'I love you, Lisa.'
'Oh Hassan, you hardly know me. And I'm just…not ready for a relationship or a boyfriend. Are you…are you okay?'
HASSAN AVOIDS HIS mother and brothers. He nurses his broken heart in the back shed, the only quite place in their overcrowded house. This is not the first time he has been let down by life. He experienced a much stronger sense of self-loathing and terror after the first raid on a Somali Government military convoy. The older Al-Shabbab militants had forced him, then only twelve or thirteen, to use a bayonet on a dying soldier to prove his loyalty to God. It's this vile recollection which haunts Hassan as he stands motionless and weeps among the stacks of boxes and suitcases in a suburb of Melbourne, so far away from the bloody wars of Africa.
But there is sadness and conflict in this new country too. He returns inside to help his mother with supper and tries not to think about Lisa. But he can't do it. It is not that he is infatuated with her – or at least it's not only because of his infatuation – that her gorgeous, angelic face appears before his eyes every time he blinks. He feeds one of his baby brothers and gives the other one a bath while wondering why someone as sadistic as Charlize Stevenson would want to take Lisa along to a party with her. Hassan may not understand Australians all that well, but he knows malevolence when he sees it. Should he try to talk Lisa out of going to the party?
He wrestles with the idea all night and the following morning, which is the morning of the party, and sends her a text: hello lisa.i am sorry to be emotional and teary at school. i promise not to say i love you again & not to make u uncomfortable with me. But lisa pls dont go to the joel party with nasty girls. pls give me a call. He waits all day to hear from her and finally decides to act. After dinner and putting his baby brothers to bed, he tells his mother that he wants to go for a very long jog.
'YOU'VE NEVER HAD apple cider? It's yummy. Here, let me pour you a glass.'
'That's really nice of you Charlize. I just…don't want to get drunk. I don't drink much.'
'Just one drink won't get you drunk, Lisa. You wait here. I'll go to the kitchen and fix you a drink. You look lovely tonight, by the way. You're so hot.'
Lisa ignores the ogling boys. There are seven boys and five girls, including Lisa, in the backyard of a large suburban house. Loud techno music and occasional outbursts of animalistic laughter from the boys do not diminish the unease in the air. Lisa feels as though she's under surveillance. She drinks two glasses of apple cider slowly while trying to join in the gossip with Charlize and her friends. She soon finds herself dancing with the girls, and is having too much fun to wonder why she's feeling so intoxicated so quickly.
'How you feeling, Lisa?'
'I'm just…great. Thanks, Charlize. Thanks for inviting me…I thought you didn't like me…Charlize.'
'Are you kidding, Lisa? You're the most awesome chick. Hey, are you OK?'
'Here, let me help you. Guys! Come and help me get Lisa inside. I think she needs to have a lie down.'
Joel and two other boys help Lisa back into the house. The other boys run up the stairs ahead of them. Charlize and the girls are giggling with excitement and preparing their smartphones. Charlize orders the girls to let the guys get started before they go in to take pictures. Lisa is fast asleep by now. The boys lift her and carry her like a corpse up the stairs. The seven boys then dump Lisa on Joel's parents' bed and take off her clothes.
'OH MY GOD this is gonna be so awesome!'
'We should get the guys some condoms, Charlize. What if they get her pregnant?'
'That'll show the bitch.'
'Did you hear that, Charlize? I think there's someone in the kitchen.'
'Who's…oh my God! A black guy! How the fuck did you get in?'
'Quick someone, call the police.'
'Wait a minute. You're the guy from school. The African refo. What the hell are you doing here? Were you invited to the party?'
Hassan shakes his head and glares at Charlize Stevenson. He has quickly located and taken possession of a suitable weapon upon breaking into the enemy compound. It is a large bread knife not too dissimilar to the serrated blades he used when he was a child soldier with the brutal insurgents in Somalia. He holds the knife's handle with assurance behind his back and speaks with as much calmness as he can muster.
'Where is Lisa?'
The pimply blond hisses.
'Lisa?! Who gives a fuck about Lisa? Get out of here before I tell the boys you're here.'
Hassan notices that Charlize's eyes shifted, almost imperceptibly and no doubt unintentionally, in the direction of the stairway when she uttered 'boys'. That's all he needs to know. He pushes her out of the way and marches up the stairs. The girls start to scream and three half-naked adolescent boys appear outside the door at the top of the stairs. They seem only mildly annoyed to find Hassan interrupting what they're planning to do to Lisa. They exchange conspiratorial glances and run at Hassan as though they're on a football field and the young Somali is a member of the opposing team.
Sadly for them, their tackle is no match for Hassan's knife. He would have chosen a sharper knife – what they call in English, rather understandably, a 'steak knife' – if he was planning to stab the enemy fighters. But he has chosen to not simply cause injury to incapacitate the oppressors.
He jumps back a few steps down the stairs as the boys – all of them shorter than him, appearing quite dwarfish in comparison – hurl themselves at him. Hassan calculates where the head of their leader would be in five seconds, and dashes his free hand to that spot in front of his body. He takes hold of the boy's rough curly hair and, with the knife in his other hand, slices the attacker's throat.
He lets go of the first kill instantly and runs back down the stairs while howling a customary battle cry in Arabic. This is to frighten the enemy. The other two boys are now tumbling down the stairs, as Hassan had expected, having tripped over the first corpse.
Hassan pounces on the larger one of the two and ends his life with a determined incision. The last fighter of the first wave of the enemy counterattack – a boy called Tom or Tim or maybe even Tex – is horrified by what's happened to his two comrades and is crawling away towards the sofas and armchairs in the downstairs living room. The beaten boy is desperate to join the shivering cluster of petrified girls hiding there, but Hassan cannot take the risk of letting him live, and he cannot take a prisoner. He clasps his hand on the nape of Tom's (or Tim's or Tex's) neck to stop him from moving, squats and carefully cuts into the boy's neck.
He then sprints back up the stairs and kicks open the door to the bedroom. As he expected, Lisa is on the bed, unconscious and naked. Hassan remembers that an old militiaman once told him that rape is a potent weapon of war. So this is the case in this advanced affluent Western nation as well. He knows that the remaining enemy combatants must be either in the room or nearby, so he cannot check on Lisa yet. She is no doubt being used as bait. The rapists must be hiding under the bed and in the closet.
Hassan howls the war cry again – it means 'There Is No God But God' – to unsettle and provoke the enemy into an ambush, and it works. Two boys crawl from under the bed, one with a cricket bat and the other with clenched fists. Hassan slaughters them quite easily before the last two have had the chance to emerge from the closet. These two are so shaken by what they see – the no doubt horrific sight of a towering black man covered in blood standing above the corpses of their friends – that they break to their knees and start to whimper, cursing and begging to be spared.
Hassan walks over to the two kneeling adversaries and butchers them methodically. He then cleans his hands as best as he can on the quilt, and finds Lisa's pulse. She is alive, and seems unharmed. He tries to wake her up, but she's deep asleep. Hassan wonders what the vicious foes have given her. He should take her to a hospital. He dresses her and carries her in his arms downstairs. The girls have escaped and there's increasing noise coming from outside the house.
He walks out with the figure of his petite beloved.
It's very dark but Hassan can make out the blue and red lights of a police car at one end of the street. He places Lisa on his right shoulder and starts to run. Someone shouts and a shot is fired. Hassan feels a fierce pain in his back but has no time to stop and inspect the gunshot wound. He growls 'Yallah'and commands his body to supersede pain and carry Lisa. He's not a wounded boy but an indestructible warrior. He quivers, jumps over a fence into the front yard of a house and runs towards the backyard. He climbs over a fence and finds himself in a very dark back alley. He runs in what he hopes is the opposite direction to the shooters.
Hassan's instinct is right and his pursuers are nowhere to be seen. He finds himself on the bank of a small creek and sits down on a park bench. He lowers Lisa from his back and lies her on the bench with her head resting on his lap. He sighs and groans. His wound is much worse than it feels. He knows too well that so much bleeding can only result in death. He doesn't bother with thinking of ways to seal the hole where the bullet came out.
Hassan apologies to his mother and also to the souls of those he was forced to kill in Somalia. He even mumbles a prayer of contrition to the ghosts of his latest, Australian victims. He then looks down at the sacred face of the only woman he has ever loved. She is extraordinarily beautiful or, as they say in English, a 'stunner'. He lowers his head towards hers, knowing that he may not possess the strength to lift it back up. With the last of his energy he aims his lips at her forehead, and plants a blood-soaked kiss. He dies a happy young man, sensing that Lisa is slowly waking up. She has recovered from the poison.