‘It’s free,’ she said. ‘A free service. Meaning you don’t have to pay anything.’ Sylvie sounded as tired as he felt. He knew he must smell bad too; her nose had twitched when she reached out to draw him into a hug. As usual, he hung back, stiff-armed while she tried to embrace him. There was way too much inter-sex hugging and cheek kissing in this country. She was tall and his eyes were always at breast height with her.
‘The people are kind. I used to volunteer there when I was a student. Everyone works gratis, you know. Everyone. Lawyers, social workers, interpreters, everyone. And you could really use an interpreter. I know you understand English perfectly well but if they think …’ Sylvie didn’t finish her sentence. She used lots of hand gestures when she spoke to him. She also repeated herself a lot.
Aslam clicked his tongue at the word lawyer. It was like saying policeman and had the same nasty connotation. A lawyer had caused the current mess he was in, anyway. Shirin had gone to a lawyer, suggested to her by that woman, Janet, who hated him.
Shirin said it was about convenience, and how it was no longer convenient for her to be with him. She didn’t tell Aslam that her dad had paid her college fees for two years and told her to get rid of that useless bastard; he found that out from Janet. No, instead she told him she loved him and waved a ringed hand around the shabby room they shared with two other couples.
‘If Abba sees we are still together, in this place’ she said, ‘he’ll get really upset and make me go back. There are so many wagging tongues here, among our people. I’ll move out temporarily, and Abba will see how well I’m doing, and he won’t care if I see you again. He thinks you’re holding me back. I’m sorry. But for the next few months at least, we shouldn’t see each other.’
He told her he’d take on a couple of extra night shifts to pay for her new course, that fancy Associate Degree in Criminology and Justice, because the Certificate in Hospitality was not good enough, even though they had both signed up for it as the easiest option. He begged and cried.
Shirin looked at him as if he had gone mad. ‘You think your 50 bucks extra a week are going to pay for my course? Really Aslam. Why do you have to make everything so difficult?’
She touched the loose knot at the nape of her neck and he thought he would die if he didn’t see her every day. She was making it sound like it wasn’t such a big deal, but he couldn’t let her out of his sight. He saw how they gathered around her, the Pakistanis, Afghanis, Indians. The white boys loved her too. She wasn’t shy, like other Asian girls. She gravitated into the centre of the crowd and they made room for her. He hung back and scowled and she pulled him in. When they were children, Aslam was the gregarious, popular child and Shirin the awkward gangly one. And Aslam’s mother, so loving to the only child of her dead friend, reminding Aslam of his duty to look after the girl. What would Ammi say now, if she could see him, impotent, angry and unable to hold on to the girl he was supposed to protect?
They’d met Janet at one of those compulsory lectures all overseas students had to attend, and the woman had become a permanent fixture in their lives since. Shirin started dressing differently, ditching her bangles and anklets and long hair and loose kurtas for tight jeans and sleeveless tops. It made the boys look at her even more. Aslam wished Janet would have an accident one day and he’d cheer her demise, but Shirin laughed at them both and said they’d better get along, her two most favourite people. Then Janet introduced Shirin to that lawyer. Words like 457 visas, sponsorships and in-demand courses drifted around the house when the three of them talked, barely looking at Aslam as he clattered around. They talked about him as if he wasn’t there. Janet once said – ‘you don’t want to end up like Aslam, do you?’ when he walked in, dusty and hot after collecting trolleys all afternoon. Shirin turned to stare at him and he wanted to hit her then.
When he came home one Saturday evening, a week after that look, he knew something had shifted. Janet was in the kitchen, holding a mug of tea that she raised in the air when he walked in and he could hear Shirin in the lounge. He stared at Janet and followed her into the other room. Shirin turned as he entered, talking to a man in a blue suit while indicating the packed bags at her feet.
‘I’ve found somewhere nice,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Jake found it for me. You remember Jake? He’s just finished the course I’m doing, so he’s almost a real lawyer.’
‘You’re leaving?’ Aslam smelled the sweat under the three-day-old shirt and folded his arms across his belly where the imprint of greasy trolleys was stamped. He licked his lips before he spoke, muscles screaming with dehydration and hunger. Janet brushed past him again and returned with a cup of tea. He took it and downed it in one gulp, thankful that Australians usually made their tea warm and excessively milky.
‘Just moving out temporarily, honey.’ Shirin’s voice was someone else’s. She’d never called him honey before.
The almost-lawyer had already taken her bags to the waiting car and Janet stood between them, determined to prevent any scenes. Aslam sat down on the rocking chair still covered with one of Shirin’s old dupattas and took his shoes off.
‘Go,’ he said. ‘You’ll never see me again. Be sure to tell my Ammi this is your decision.’
‘Are you threatening me? Don’t be such an ass.’ Shirin flicked his cheek with a finger and walked out.
The car pulled away and when Aslam looked up again, he was alone. He licked the last of the tea from the mug he still held, stomach growling. There was a strict rule in the share house that you did not eat what you hadn’t cooked. They worked odd hours and cooked when they could. To eat the food that someone was looking forward to after a long shift was wrong. Aslam did it anyway and threw the container in the council bin at the park. That night the Gujarati boy, whose dal and rice he had stolen, looked inside the fridge several times before he went out to buy a burger and chips.
When Aslam didn’t turn up for work the next day, they fired him. His housemates were sympathetic but impatient. They all struggled with the courses they’d enrolled in to get their student visas and the long hours they worked at supermarkets and petrol stations took the shine off their compassion.
‘Talk to Sylvie, yaar,’ the Punjabi boy said to him, a week after Shirin’s departure. ‘She works with refugees and all.’
‘I’m not a refugee.’ Aslam shouted, and the boy laughed.
‘That’s the spirit. So, talk to her. She knows people and she can help. Nice woman. Dresses nicely too.’ The boy laughed again and cupped his man boobs while sliding his tee shirt off one shoulder.
‘You have no shame,’ Aslam said and the boy shrugged and left him alone. But he brought Sylvie back with him. Tall, long legged, compassionate Sylvie, who had once trekked through the Swat Valley and loved Kabul and Peshawar and imagined that’s where his people came from. And after weeks of trying to persuade him to go with her and ask for help – free help – she kept emphasising that; she looked ready to give up.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’ll go. What should I say?’
‘Tell them the truth. Ask for help. Mention what would happen if you went back. They know about the situation with the Hazaras. Tell them you are seeking asylum. And ask for an interpreter. Someone who speaks Pashto.’
‘I don’t speak Pashto. A little bit of Dari, but mostly Urdu.’
‘Of course, my mistake. Sorry. I always get the languages mixed up. Urdu interpreters will be easier to find, so make sure you request one. I’ll go with you the first time, but they will want to speak to you alone.’
The interpreter was a middle-aged Indian woman who reminded him of a kindly aunt. When the lawyer went out to get some tea, they chatted briefly about how nice it would be to get real chai with elaichi and adrak instead of the watery concoction that would soon be placed before them. When the tea arrived, they smiled at each other.
They filled out forms electronically, the lawyer stopping after each line to check if ‘Aslan’ understood what she was saying. The interpreter, whose name he never found out, kept calling him Aslam with an M, but it made no difference to the lawyer, who clattered energetically on her keyboard and twisted the monitor around to show them what she was writing. Aslam’s discomfort escalated with each keystroke and the interpreter touched him once on his arm as if she knew. When the lawyer finished her form filling and went away again to make photocopies, he turned to the interpreter and told her in Urdu that he wasn’t really Hazara.
‘I know,’ she replied.
‘Why didn’t you say something then?’
‘I am a volunteer interpreter. Not an ethnicity expert.’
‘But what if they find out?’
‘Aslam,’ she said, ‘you cannot worry about what you can’t control. You need to eat and sleep and find some work. Maybe you get to stay here. Maybe not. But you deserve respect and peace. Sometimes you have to stretch the truth a little to get what you want. That’s not a crime.’
‘Why are they so eager for me to say I am Hazara? Where I come from, people don’t say it out loud. It could get them killed.’
‘Exactly. That’s why it may help you stay here. If you want to stay at any cost. Consider yourself fortunate you’re not on Manus Island. The real crime is locking people up in a country where they are not wanted because they are the wrong colour,’ said the woman as if they were discussing the price of goat’s meat at the halal butcher’s. ‘These nice white people who want to help you have never seen where our people live, when they first come here. We live four to a room, sleep on mattresses on the floor and pretend we haven’t felt the landlord’s hands on our breasts when we pay the rent. All you have done is to grieve for that rich girl who left you in this state. And claimed the status of your ancestors.’
‘Aslan?’ The lawyer stood in front of him with a stack of papers.
‘For heaven’s sake,’ the interpreter pushed her chair back and addressed the lawyer directly for the first time. ‘His name is Aslam, not Aslan. How can you help him if you can’t even get his name right?’ And she patted Aslam on his arm before striding out, leaving the lawyer staring after her.
‘Right, Azlum, sorry about that. It is important to get the details right of course. So, it looks as if we’re on our own. Your interpreter has vanished. You do read English, don’t you? Let’s go through all this one last time and I’ll make another appointment for you.’ The lawyer fiddled with the front of her low-necked shirt and Aslam looked away.
A month later Aslam was back at the centre with the same interpreter but a different lawyer. This one was a skinny young fellow with an ear stud and shiny black hair. He was confident they would have approval for Aslam to stay in the country. Aslam signed more forms, answered more questions about the ordeals of a Hazara-by-birth in Pakistan, admitted to being smuggled across the border as a child and prayed his mother would never find out how he lied. If he’d remained a believer he would have acknowledged the Prophet’s mercy all around him, because why else would complete strangers spend so much time making sure he had food, shelter, work and maybe a permanent home in this country?
The interpreter was waiting for him outside when he emerged, blinking in the December sun. She offered him a lift and he accepted, thankful not to have to walk to the bus station in his flimsy rubber thongs.
‘I can drive you home, if you like,’ she said.
‘Oh no, bus stop is fine. It’s a long walk in this heat so …’
‘It’s no trouble. Really. Let me drive you home. I have a son about your age. He’s also breaking his heart over a girl who doesn’t care. A white girl.’
They drove silently the rest of the way. She dropped him outside the ugly red brick house in that neighbourhood he had recently begun to notice was ‘dodgy’ and waved him away as he stammered his thanks. He invited her in for chai and she smiled and asked if he had elaichi, then laughed at his frown as he tried to think.
‘I’m only joking. I hope you do well Aslam-Aslan. I hope you roar. Do good things. And ring your mother.’
The woman wound down the window and waved again. He remained standing on crisp brown grass until her car disappeared around the corner, watching the old drunk from the park lurch across the street towards him. The kids from the corner house readied themselves with water pistols in case the derelict walked past their place. The oldest kid yelled that there were effing wogs everywhere and Aslam thought being sent back in disgrace to that colourful Peshawari market where his father sold embroidered topis, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He turned to go inside, showing his middle finger to the kid with the pistol.
A smell of frying garlic and chilli greeted him and Suman, their latest housemate, called out from the kitchen. He walked in to find all the housemates gathered around the girl, holding bottles of beer and clapping each other on the back. Aslam’s blank look made her laugh and she said her application was through and she could stay on as a resident Australian. She was cooking for everyone tonight. Tomorrow she was moving out.
‘Don’t look so sad, yaar.’ Suman put down her spatula and hugged Aslam. ‘It’ll happen for you. For all of you. This is the lucky country, so why shouldn’t we be lucky, hey? And Aslam, you better call your mum. She rang and left a message.’
Shortlisted for the KSP Short Story Award judged by Michelle Michau Crawford