Isaac and The Australian
Isaac slid out from under the blanket, crept past the row of sleeping children and edged towards the door. Outside, the sun had barely risen above the horizon and a cool mist hugged the banks of the Madre de Dios River. It made the rainforest look eerily spooky.
‘Come on,’ hissed Oscar. ‘Before they wake up.’
Isaac’s best friend was already outside, his narrow-shouldered frame outlined by sunlight. Isaac could hear the impatience in Oscar’s voice and buried his nerves.
Once outside, the two boys sped into the forest, following narrow paths that were used by people and wild animals alike. A hundred metres above them, a male howler monkey, with its vivid orange fur, boomed out a breathy roar and was answered by another.
Isaac glanced back over his shoulder but the small six-room orphanage had been swallowed up by the trees. ‘What if Maria finds out we’re gone?’ he shouted. For the ten children who called the orphanage home, Maria was teacher, carer and parent.
‘She won’t,’ called back Oscar. He sounded confident. ‘She won’t be back ‘till midday. If that.’
‘Which is why she left us in charge,’ reminded Isaac. He felt irritated, excited, and scared – all at the same time. But most of all, he felt guilty. ‘We shouldn’t leave the little ones alone,’ he continued. ‘What if one of them needs help?’
Oscar only laughed. ‘Cristina’s old enough to watch over them.’
At eight, Cristina was two years younger than Isaac and Oscar.
‘Where’s Maria gone, anyway?’ asked Isaac.
Oscar leapt across a thick line of marching ants. ‘Walter took her down river. To meet the plane. She’s probably collecting supplies. You know how it is.’
The eighteen-seat plane arrived once a week carrying supplies and the occasional tourist wanting to visit the Amazon rainforest. After landing on the grassy strip, it would deposit its load then soar back over the snow-capped Andes Mountains. Back to the city.
‘They must be very rich,’ said Isaac.
Oscar slowed down as they approached a muddy ravine. ‘Who’s rich?’
‘The foreigners who come to see the forest. I was just thinking. They must be very rich.’ He glanced down at his rough sweater and dull red pants. More pink than red, he thought.
‘I wish you wouldn’t start a conversation halfway through,’ complained Oscar. ‘It’s a bad habit, Isaac.’
Isaac ignored his tone. ‘They must be though, mustn’t they? The tourists?’
‘Of course they’re rich,’ continued Oscar knowledgeably. ‘Most of them come from rich countries like Europe and Australia. Where they have three cars. And two houses. Not all of them, of course.’
Isaac shoved Oscar hard. ‘Don’t be daft. No-one has three cars.’
Oscar turned his attention to a row of leaf-cutter ants carrying tiny leafy wedges down the trunk of a tree. ‘I heard some even have four.’
The two boys began a slow shuffle along a narrow trunk that had fallen, forming a natural bridge across the ravine. Down below, butterflies crowded around the edges of shallow pools where the red brocket deer liked to come in the evenings. Followed by the occasional jaguar. He glanced around warily.
‘I bet the Australian has four,’ said Oscar.
The Australian was the reason they’d sneaked away from the orphanage and were now running towards Walter’s clearing. The tall stranger with the odd accent had arrived the day before and was staying in the local village. More importantly, he’d brought a soccer ball.
‘Do you think they’ll let us play?’ asked Isaac quietly.
‘Can’t stop us,’ said Oscar with a smug grin. ‘Not with the Australian watching. They wouldn’t dare.’
Isaac wasn’t so sure. Every year they had the same problem. When someone brought in a soccer ball, the village boys gathered at Walter’s clearing to play soccer. And every year they stopped Oscar and Isaac from joining in. No-one ever said why, but Isaac knew anyway. It was because he had no parents. No-one at the orphanage did. And guess what? No-one at the orphanage was allowed to play. Not officially, of course. No adult would openly agree to such unfairness. But it still happened.
‘There he is,’ cried Oscar.
In the centre of a grassy clearing surrounded by drooping vines and a mass of pretty red passionfruit flowers was a young man wearing khaki pants and a long-sleeved white shirt, stuck to his back with sweat and grime.
He didn’t look like the sort of person who’d own four cars, thought Isaac, slightly disappointed.
‘That’s one cool ball,’ exclaimed Oscar.
Isaac agreed. The bright blue soccer ball, far more worthy of their attention, sat at the stranger’s feet, nestled in amongst a patch of ferns. It looked expensive.
‘Can we play?’ he shouted out. ‘Can we play soccer?’
The tall Australian looked confused.
Oscar playfully slapped Isaac on the back. ‘You can’t talk to him in Spanish, ya ninny. Australians don’t speak Spanish. He won’t understand you.’ He began to mime kicking a ball and shouted out in broken English. ‘Hey, Mister! We play? OK?’
The Australian grinned and gave them both a thumbs up.
The smile on Oscar’s face froze. ‘Watch out,’ he muttered. ‘Trouble’s coming.’
In the time it had taken Oscar and Isaac to cross the clearing, the village boys had gathered into an intimidating group and were closing in. The tallest of the group, Carlos Perez, arrived first and began speaking to the Australian in perfect English. Isaac couldn’t understand a word, but he could tell that the Australian didn’t look pleased.
After a few minutes, Carlos threw Isaac a self-satisfied smirk and his stomach began to churn.
‘I explained to him how you’re both sick,’ said Carlos sweetly. ‘I said you’d both be disappointed, angry even, but that you’d both understand. Soccer just wouldn’t be good for you. Not in your condition. I’m sure he’ll let you watch, though. Isn’t that nice?’
Isaac dropped his eyes to hide the quick tears that blurred his vision. When he looked up, Oscar was being restrained by the Australian. It looked like he’d just tried to punch Carlos.
‘I hate them,’ snarled Oscar, as they strode back through the forest. ‘All of them.’
‘It wasn’t the Australian’s fault,’ said Isaac quietly. ‘He didn’t understand.’
Oscar ignored him. ‘One day,’ he spat. ‘One day I’m gonna go to a proper school and learn English. And when I do, they’d better just watch out.’
Isaac wasn’t sure how learning English was going to help. Not that it was likely, anyway. The only schooling they got was what Maria was able to give them. And that depended on them getting hold of books and stationery. Which was hard.
‘Where have you two been?’
The angry voice stopped Isaac in his tracks. Up ahead, Maria stood with hands on her hips, eyes filled with fury. Behind her was the familiar orphanage and eight wide-eyed children.
‘Get inside,’ she barked. ‘Now!’
Isaac followed Maria inside and flopped to the matted floor. On the table to his left, nine bowls of rice topped with tuna and raw onion had been abandoned. Maria ordered the children back to their lunch then turned on the two boys.
‘I thought I could trust you!’ she shouted.
The disappointment in her tone painted Isaac’s cheeks red with shame. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said quietly. ‘Really, Maria. I know we shouldn’t have gone.’ When he reluctantly explained where they’d been and why, the rage in Maria’s eyes softened into something approaching sadness.
There was a long silence then she sighed. ‘Come with me. Both of you.’
In the room they used as their schoolroom, lay ten brown-paper packages.
‘They came with the plane,’ said Maria. ‘They’re for us. A donation.’
‘Donation?’ queried Oscar. His tone was sullen, unapologetic.
Maria swung on him. ‘A gift, Oscar. A gift from a school in Australia. The children saved up and bought these things especially for us. For you.’
‘Well then,’ said Maria. ‘I thought you might like to help me open them.’
Isaac lifted up the largest of the packages. ‘What’s in them?’
‘Pens,’ said Oscar. His brown eyes sparkled with pleasure. ‘And books.’
The two boys began tearing open the parcels, the noise drawing all of the children into the small room. Within seconds, the room was crowded with laughter and delighted exclamations.
‘It’s sticky,’ cried out little Cristina.
‘That’s because,’ laughed Isaac, ‘it’s glue.’ He removed the blue tube from the youngest child’s hand.
‘But why?’ asked Isaac, after the last parcel had revealed its treasure of pens, colouring pencils, paper, notebooks and other school equipment. ‘Why would they send it to us?’
‘Because we thought you might like it.’
Isaac looked up. It was the Australian.
‘I thought you didn’t speak Spanish?’ said Oscar warily.
The Australian grinned. ‘I speak it well enough. Not that you gave me much time to show you.’ He beckoned Isaac outside. ‘I’m a teacher. At a primary school in Melbourne. The children and I thought it would be nice if I came to deliver the gifts in person.’
A pair of blue and gold macaws burst through the trees overhead and the Australian shook his head in admiration. ‘This place is incredible,’ he laughed. ‘So beautiful.’
Isaac looked around. All he could see were trees and dirt.
‘Would you boys mind showing me around while I’m here?’ continued the Australian. ‘You could show me some of the animals. I’d love to see a giant anteater. Or a howler monkey. You could be my guide.’
Isaac hesitated then said. ‘If you understand Spanish, why didn’t you let us play soccer?’
‘I was going to,’ replied the Australian. ‘If your friend hadn’t thumped Carlos then run off.’ He dug around in a backpack and drew out the bright blue soccer ball. ‘How about we do a deal? You show me around and I’ll leave this here. For the school.’
Isaac’s eyes widened. With a ball of their own they wouldn’t need the boys from the village. They could form a team of their own. Play in a clearing closer to the orphanage. He glanced at the river. It would be fun playing in the water too. He realised he was grinning and stuck out his hand.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
The Australian shook his hand. ‘David. Dave, if you prefer.’
‘It’s nice to meet you, David,’ said Isaac. ‘I’m Isaac. And my friend’s called Oscar.’
David the Australian flipped the soccer ball high into the air and caught it in one hand. ‘I have a feeling, he said, ‘that we’re going to be friends. I hope for many long years to come.’
‘I’d like that,’ grinned Isaac. Then he thought for a bit and said. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, David, but how many cars do you own?’
The look of surprise on David’s face turned the smile on Isaac’s into loud, delighted laughter.