By Penny Gibson. This short story is part of our December 2012 and January 2013 focus on Asylum Seekers.
The apartment smelt of stale cigarette smoke when Bedar arrived. He stared around him in silence as Jerry busied himself with bags of food.
“Last fella was a smoker,” he said. “You a smoker?”
Bedar nodded. What had happened to the other man?
“Bedroom’s through here.” Jerry pointed along a passage. “Bathroom, kitchen.”
He looked at Bedar. “You’ll be fine, mate. Take a few days to get used to it, probably.”
He looked around the room, checking. “We’re pretty experienced now, in the Alliance. Our number’s by the phone if you need anything. Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to get to the Centre – you can have a hot meal there, pick up clothes, use the computer.”
Bedar nodded again. He wished Jerry would leave.
“Thank you,” he said. He shook Jerry’s outstretched hand and said carefully, “See you tomorrow.”
“That’s the way.”
After Jerry had gone, Bedar looked around the room. A TV sat in one corner, a couch in front of it. A coffee table with a newspaper. The large words read: CHANGES TO ASYLUM SEEKER PROGRAM. He sank onto the couch and lit a cigarette.
Next to the ashtray was a small pin with an Australian flag. He picked it up, turned it over in his hands. How strange it would be to become a citizen of another country. But it would bring Mahta and Fariba to him. He pinned it inside his jacket, on the left hand side.
He kept to the house during the first few days and slept or watched TV. His mind filled with images from home – his grandfather swaying, eyes closed, as he played the ghichak. The many stories of his father. The brave warrior, Boba called him. How he had wanted to stay, to fight, like his father had.
On the third day he decided to visit the Centre. The smells from the kitchen reminded him of his grandmother’s cooking – the spicy bunjana salad, the delicious mantu dumplings. Mahta had cooked too, but not so well. His heart filled with sadness at the thought of her.
He filled his plate, and sat to eat at a table with a group of other men. The man next to him asked him,
“And where are you from, my friend?”
“I am from Afghanistan. I am Hazara.”
“And you are escaping from the Taliban.” It was a statement, not a question.
Bedar nodded and continued eating.
“Salar.” The man jerked his head towards another table. “He also escapes from the Taliban.”
Bedar said nothing, concentrating on his food.
“Salar! Hey Salar!” the man cried across the table. “Here is a compatriot of yours, a new one.”
The other man acknowledged him with a wave.
“They are good people here,” the first man continued. “But the time is too long.”
When they had finished eating, he said, “Come, let us smoke.”
They were soon joined by the man named Salar. He was a big man with hair greying at the temples. He clapped Bedar on the shoulder.
“So, you are newly arrived? Do you have family?”
“At home,” Bedar answered. “I have a wife and a daughter.”
“Ah. And you hope to bring them here? My friend, your daughter will be a grown woman before that happens.”
Bedar looked at the man. Surely he was making a cruel joke. But the man held his gaze. Then he laughed.
“But hey! This country is the land of opportunity – if you have money. Or luck. There are ways and means, they tell me. And now there is a new program.”
In his mind he heard Mahta cry, “It’s for your daughter, don’t you understand? For Fariba. We will never have an opportunity in this country!”
How long would he have to wait for his case to be heard? How long until he could bring them here?
“How?” He asked the man. “How may I have luck?”
“You must watch the TV. Channel Five. Every day there is an English lesson at two o’clock in the afternoon. You must watch the advertisements.”
Afternoons dragged, and Bedar was pleased to have something to do. He even watched the children’s comic programs until the English language lesson began, and suddenly, there she was. In a tight-fitting blue skirt and a blue top that exposed her belly, she was leaping and twisting her way across the screen and into his heart. He knew her at once. He could feel the connection between them, pulsing through the television screen. Her name was Starr, and she would save him.
He was watching one day when Jerry arrived.
“You don’t want to go down that road,” Jerry told him. It sounded like a warning. He watched her, just the same.
He remembered little of the boat trip, except the endless bucking of the waves, the smell of diesel mixed with the smell of fear, the lack of sleep. And he remembered the vision not of Mahta, but of a houri who called to him as he lay sick in his bunk surrounded by the sounds of the sickness of others. She floated beguilingly above his head, then vanished. The journey ended in their arrest, and, after days of interrogation, the detention centre in the desert.
He was lying in the dusty compound when he saw her again. She hovered in the air a metre or so above his head, just below the razor wire. This time she had Mahta’s face as she danced the belly dance in shimmering blue robes, beckoning to him. He believed that he must already be in Paradise. But when he woke sticky and sweating in the cold nights from dreams of her, he was filled with endless misery and guilt, and he knew that he was in Hell. Mahta would embrace him again only when he had successfully brought both her and their daughter to safety.
And now the woman had appeared again, to be his salvation. Every day during the commercial break of the movie she appeared, smiling and winking. Inviting him. She wanted him to call. This time Bedar was ready, pencil and paper in hand, to copy down the telephone number: 8530 7771.
Breathing deeply, he rang the number. He pressed 1, listened for a moment, then pressed 1 again. Yes, he said, oh yes.
After the letter came, he spent many nights standing outside The House, looking up, looking for her. Every time he came near, there was a strange humming in the air, as if the elements were trying to form a connection between their souls.
Tonight, the windows were all lit. Even the name of the house was lit up in coloured bulbs: “Southern Cross TV Channel Five: The House of Satisfaction”. He knew, because he had heard it so many times, that this was the place “Where Dreams Come True”. Now, leaning against the lamppost opposite The House, Bedar caressed the folded letter in his pocket. He did not need to read it to remember what it said.
We are delighted to tell you that you have been selected as a contestant in our new Reality Show, “Are you Aussie Enough?”
Please be at The House on Friday August 23rd at 6.00 pm.
He had begun to cross the road when he was startled by the barking of a dog, pursued by a heavily built man who cursed as he ran. They ran in a close and intimate connection, as if they were joined with invisible traces. As they came closer, he could see pinpricks of red light running from the man’s hand to the collar of the dog.
He shivered as the man and the dog pounded up the steps of The House. A young woman lounged in the doorway chewing on gum, and spoke to the man from the corner of her mouth.
“Special dog delivery, lady. For the new show. Specially trained.”
“Round the back. You should have been here two hours ago.”
“Don’t blame me. Bleeding dog’s got a mind of its own. Bloody technology, you can’t trust it. Give me a normal collar and lead any day.”
Bedar waited a few moments after the man and the dog disappeared down the lane beside The House. Quickly he mounted the steps. It seemed an eternity before the door was opened again.
“Ah. Good evening, Starr. I am Bedar.” He waited for her to return his smile.
She stared at him as she shifted the gum to the corner of her mouth.
“Are you mad?”
He peered at her. This could not be Starr.
“What are you doing here?”
“I – I am here for the show.”
“Round the back.”
“Oh. I – I thought I might come in.”
The girl raised her eyebrows.
“In your dreams, boy.”
Then, as she shut the door, a parting word:
“Hurry up, they won’t wait for you.”
He turned into the lane beside The House and was almost knocked over by a young man.
“Are you the next?” He waved an envelope in Bedar’s face. “It is very good show. Mite.” He said the word again, feeling the shape of it. “Miate.” The lane opened into a vast reserve, filled with a big white tent. From inside came the sound of laughter and cheering, and sufficient light to show Bedar the back entrance to The House. A receptionist peered through the doorway as he approached.
“Yes? Bedar Mazari, is that right? Are You Aussie Enough? Come in, Mr. Simpson wants to see you, explain a few things, hurry up, we’re running behind schedule already and there are five more after you. We won’t get a tea break at this rate.”
She showed him into a small room with pegs along the wall, on which hung several items of clothing: padded head coverings in various sizes, with holes for eyes and nose; leather gauntlets and shin guards, vests made in stout material. On the opposite wall was a collection of weapons: stun guns, spiked clubs, knobbly wooden sticks, nets. Before he had time to wonder about his surroundings, a large man came bounding through the door.
“Bedar, eh?” He consulted a list in his hand.
“Now let me see, you’re the sixth – ah no. The seventh.” He raised his eyes from the paper and looked at Bedar for a moment. “Yes. Well, the procedure’s very simple. You’ll wear all the gear of course, and you’ll have – ah – the stun gun.”
Bedar tried to speak but his tongue and throat were dry.
“You’ve used one before? Oh, they’re simplicity itself. You just aim and fire, if he gets too close. Stuns ‘im.”
“Who? Stuns who?”
“Why, Leonard of course. The dog.”
“I must fight? With a dog? But no. Men do not fight with dogs.”
His mind whirled.
“I am to be – Starr –
“She’ll introduce you. Look, did you read the pamphlet?”
“No, I –
“Don’t worry about Leonard. Look, you wear the gear, the dog comes out, he looks fierce but he’s a puppy really, he just wants to play. And if anything does go wrong – well, we can control him. Fabulous new technology.” The teeth in his smile were yellow.
“It lasts about ten minutes. Try to keep it going, it gets the studio audience more involved. Don’t worry son, you’ll be famous.”
The man spoke so quickly that Bedar wondered if he had understood correctly. What choice did he have? If he did what the man said and fought the dog, Starr would save him, and he would be welcome in her country and Mahta and Fariba also. Mahta would be proud of him, would no longer look at him with eyes full of disbelief. If he refused, he would have nothing.
He smiled stiffly at Mr Simpson. “O.K.” he said.
As Bedar left, he heard the man talking on his phone.
“Bob? The next one is on his way. All set?”
Bedar walked into the arena. The seats surrounding him were filled with wide, white faces, their mouths large and full of teeth that showed when they laughed. Row upon row of them, they seemed to go on and upwards forever.
Suddenly Starr appeared. She smiled at him, and took him by the arm. Her hands and arms were covered in long blue gloves, her short blue leather skirt was encrusted with silver stars. Above her bare belly, the round breasts were tightly encased in the same blue shiny material. Her hair was sprayed with silver and framed her face, so familiar from the prison of his living room. He was too excited to move.
“Come on.” She tugged his arm. He wanted her to stop, so that he could look at her. He did not understand what was happening. Perhaps she had come to rescue him. But she was turning, and introducing him to the crowds.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Please welcome our next contestant, Bedar Mazari! Will he be successful? Or will Leonard chase him away? Wish him luck, ladies and gentlemen!”
The crowd cheered and whistled. He stared at his arm where she had held it. Tiny pinpricks of light glowed along the leather gauntlet. He rubbed it with his free hand, and the pinpricks flashed up his other arm. He could feel them meeting across his shoulder blades, reaching up to his neck and down his spine, down his legs, to his feet. His spine tingled, his feet felt wooden and heavy. He could not move his arms.
A siren sounded, and the dog burst onto the arena in a snarl of dust. Bedar clutched his stun gun and turned at the sound. The black and tan fur on the back of the dog bristled, so that it appeared bigger. Bedar raised his arm as the dog lunged towards him. On his face, the dog’s breath was hot, stinking of meat. His arm jerked: the gun was heavier than he thought.
He tried to turn away from the dog, but he could not control his body. An electronic pulse ran down his arm and it swung behind him. He was unable to protect himself as the dog landed on his chest, knocking him to the ground. The crowd was cheering and excited. “Go Leonard, get him boy.”
But the dog withdrew, and his limbs worked again. He got to his feet, as the dog renewed its attack. His legs jerked him away from the dog towards the edge of the arena, and his breath came in short painful gasps as he tried to control them.
Now as the dog lunged towards his back, he felt his arms being pulled behind his head so that its teeth tore at the gauntlet, wrenching his arm away from his head.
He tried to look upwards but the light was blinding. He wanted to plead with them to stop, to give him a chance, but the noise of the crowd was too great. He wrestled with the stun gun, but he could not stop the dog.
Then the dog sank its teeth into the leather balaclava, ripping it off, and part of his cheek with it. Blood poured down his face. A siren blew, barely distinguishable above the noise of the crowd. At the signal, the members of the crowd each held up a card. On his back, unable to move, Bedar looked up to see a mass of black, with here and there, a few spots of white. Above the crowd, the blue flag with its five stars fluttered in the night air.
Penny Gibson is a Melbourne-based writer of poetry and short fiction.