beside two elephants, for daily servings of carroty broth and bony bread, for cots that were never but already body-warm and scalp-smelling. The five of them talked up taking a ferry across to the other side of Sydney; they talked up trying Pitt Street again and this time entering one of the stores whose windows were grand new worlds unto themselves, going in perhaps for a pocket-watch or a razor; they talked up the brass foot-rails theyâd catch flashes of when the door to a pub would open, which gleamed like holy charms cut from the necks of devout giants. And they began to talk up money, because they had come to understand, not just Sam but all of them, that in a place like this you couldnât ride a notion across the water, you couldnât marvel at its intricacy or weigh it in your palm, you couldnât sip it to waste away an afternoon in a dark murmuring room. Of course they knew how they could make money: ships departed daily from Circular Quay, always looking for boys like them to carry and load, to cook, to clean captainâs quarters and messes and heads. It was also known that there were paying men, Sydney men, once every now and then even a barrel, who came around the warehouse at the weird hours of night, hats tipped low in low light, pockets full of coin and longing. Sam and the others had witnessed brown boys taken off by both situationsâoften one was fast followed by the otherâand they had agreed that they wouldnât leave this place as servants on a ship, or see more of it by serving any white-bellied nighttime needs. They were in agreement but one time Viresh only wanted to point out thatââThat nothing!â Sam cut him off, suddenly vehement and seething. âWeâre not going to see the world by filling our hands with other peopleâs filth.â
Money came, eventually, unexpectedly, after they began to win crowds to their afternoon sessions with the rattan ball. All of them had played the game in the village, and during his nighttime strolls in Colombo, while B. had been busy butchering in his butterfly hall, Sam had also seen boys playing it in the mothy streetlight around Slave Island, everyone too focused to notice a new boy standing at the perimeter hoping for a try, just a touch, looking even for a chance to retrieve an errant throw or dropped ball and be nodded at, if not with invitation or gratitude, then at least with acknowledgement that the ball hadnât floated back to the circle of its own volition but been returned by someone. Someone. But that had been Colombo. Here, in Circular Quay, on the pebbly ground beside their warehouse, Sam not only played, he was in charge. He sent the ball skyward for each in the circle, who then vied to keep it aloft in a competing, scaling show of body music and muscle.
They played with a boy from Java whose ball it was until he left it behind, and occasionally with others who knew the game from their own islands under eccentrically different names. They sent the ball back and forth to him with taps, kicks, elbows, with bounces from the head, hailing and fanning forearms. As each round intensified and more watching white faces ringed their circle, each boy had to top the other until a ball went wide or fell to the ground or, the best times, one of them worked up too fine a combination to be beat and the others knew it and clapped and gave way: as when Sam once threw the ball for Viresh, who took it on one knee and shifted it to the other, then let it drop and drop, nearly to the ground, until a shin kick sent it high enough for a devil-dancer-fast body twirl before the other shin sent it this time waist high for a smiling half-turn finale, a dismissive jolt from the elbow finished with a casual stroll away from the circle, Viresh smiling victory at the crowd, the ball arcing fast and perfectly back to Sam and the others giving a cheer before crouching ready, desperate to beat him on the next throw.