Raiko is a Bosnian refugee. In this extract he remembers his first day at school in Australia, when he met his best mate, Jay.
“This is Raiko Stenkovic”, Mr Martin the Principal had explained at Assembly that morning, pronouncing the name correctly. Stenkovich. “Raiko and his mother have come to live in Wilsonvale from a place overseas called Bosnia.” Mr Martin then talked about Bosnia Herzegovina and Yugoslavia and the war that had ripped so many lives apart. But no one really took in the history lesson because all eyes were on the new, lanky kid with a funny name from a far-away place with an even funnier name.
“Stenkovich?” Raiko remembered being tugged at by a small hand during lunchtime that day. “Weird name, ay. What are we gunna call ya?”
“Raiko. That’s what you gunna call me.” Raiko had learned some English at school in Yugoslavia, but this Australian accent was not so easy to get his tongue around.
“I know that”, replied the small boy. “I’m talkin’ nicknames.” He stared at Raiko for a moment, searching for a name. “Itchy? Nah, not the itchy type.” Jay eyed Raiko up and down. “Stenko? Stinko? Stinkabit? I know!” He gave a big white-teeth grin and shouted to some other kids. “This is Stinky, you guys.”
“I’m Jay, by the way”, he continued. “Jay King. But you can me Joe, if you like. Joking. Get it?” When Raiko stared blankly back, Jay shrugged his shoulders and continued talking rapidly. Raiko heard the machine-gun gabble. He saw the grinning face, and the hand poking out at him, and he suddenly realised that the boy was offering friendship. This caught Raiko by surprise. He hadn’t known friendship for a long time, chased out of his life as it had been by fear and hate. He stared down at the hand.
“You gunna shake it or what?” Jay cocked his head sideways. Raiko reached out at once, embarrassed by his own delay. “Don’t play basketball by any chance, brud?” Jay added, inspecting Raiko’s hand.
“A little”, Raiko replied. He’d actually played a lot.
“Terminal! You’re on my team. We need a few wins. What else?”
“What do you mean, what else?”
“What else do ya play? What sort of sport, sport?”
“I run – um, how do you say? – the far distance.”
“Aw yeah. Hey Jammo”, Jay shouted to a tall boy in the crowd. “Bit of comp here, mate.” Then he turned back to Raiko, whispering. “Don’t worry, he’s hopeless. You’ll deck him easy, speshly with me as your PT.”
“PT?” Raiko asked. “What is this PT?”
“Personal Trainer! Gotta have a Personal Trainer. And lucky for you I just happen to be available at this point in time.” He slapped Raiko on the back. “Yeah and what else?”
“Football, er soccer.”
“Did I hear soccer?” Jay’s eyes brightened. Of course Raiko played soccer, what Balkan boy didn’t? It was in his blood. His father had played at national level, and had spent every spare moment kicking a ball with Raiko, until – Raiko closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
“Yes. I play some of the soccer.”
“Woh!”, Jay shouted to everyone this time. “He says he plays some of the soccer”, mimicking the new boy’s accent in a way that made Raiko himself laugh. “You can be on my team”, Jay added
“Let me guess.”, Raiko grinned. “You need a few wins, huh?” It was his turn to laugh at Jay.
“You said it bro.” Jay stuck up his hand for a high five. “Wait’ll old Greggo hears. He’ll do a heart restart.”
By now many of the kids had moved closer and were standing around Raiko. One of them had a soccer ball. He flicked it at Raiko. “Let’s see what he can do”, the boy smirked, sending the ball straight at Raiko’s head.
Raiko reacted instinctively. He dipped slightly, caught the ball on his head and sent it high into the air. Several times he bounced the ball on his head, then on his shoulders, then his knees, and finally let it fall to his feet. For a few minutes he toyed with the ball, effortlessly bouncing it from one foot to the other, onto his knees, chest, head, never letting it touch the ground. Once he kicked it right over his head, catching it on his back foot. Then he flicked the ball up and caught it on his forehead, balancing it there for what seemed ages. Finally, when he’d had enough, Raiko kicked the ball back to its owner. Suddenly he was surrounded by clapping and cheering. Jay was slapping him on the back, shouting to everyone as he did so.
“Not bad ay? And the good news is, he’s on my team.”
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