“Among the writers who cast a brief spell in this lot are Sally Chadwick, Michele Freeman, Juliet Ritcher and Shelley Keeble. In each of these cases, the writer has honed a traditional craft. They tell stories that create poignant moments between people in troubled intimacies”.
Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald June 26-27, 2004
As the bombs were falling
* * *
On the dusty street corner she hails a taxi, a beat up white car with a small yellow square on top. Any of the cars here could be taxis, she thinks, they all look the same. Only the coin rack nailed to the dashboard gives the game away.
She still hasn’t found a translator so she leans over from the back seat and hands the man a piece of paper. It has the address of the UNHCR office written in Farsi. He nods. The locals know why she is here, they know why every foreigner is here. The war.
Zabol only pretends to be a town. It has been flung from the hand of Iran, thrown east as though it deserves to be forgotten. Like a stone, it landed in the desert, not quite in Afghanistan. It hasn’t rained for five years and the Taliban blocked the flow of a shared river. Like a flower someone forgot to water, the town bundles up boulders, clay and dust, pushes them into shops and homes just like a child on a beach pushes sand into castle shapes.
The taxi takes her along streets that map out the town, through something empty and vast. She sits straight on the edge of the seat, trying to peer over the top of one story buildings. She drove through desert to get to this town, she is knows there is nothing out there, but she still cranes her neck to look.
They pull along side a concrete building, covered in the ubiquitous orange dust. A large gate blocks the entrance and, beyond it, a few mangy dogs skimp for food.
‘Ehh,’ the driver nods his head at the gate. No, she thinks, this can’t be it, don’t leave me here. Sometimes she is frightened of how alien she is. Then she spots the blue and white sign of the UN dangling from a corner of the gate.
When she rings the bell a face wound with its own white cloud smiles at her.
The man leads her to an office, pieces flashing before her eyes if they have just been photographed – computer, fax, coffee table, polished wooden work desk, other foreigners sitting around the rim of the room. It doesn’t look like Zabol.
She takes her place at the meeting, smiling nervously around the room. They are doctors mostly, or logisticians, they report on their activities in the camp. She feels nervous, less professional. She has never worked in a refugee camp before. The others can save lives. She is just here to help, volunteering to manage the emergency schools in the camp. She works alone and sometimes her confidence fails her. She has stepped into her role like someone stepping into a pair of wobbly, high-heeled shoes.
It is her turn to talk and in a shaky voice she starts to rattle off the state of the temporary schools her organisation has set up.
“In Camp 46 classes are going well. The number of children coming to class has increased dramatically. We also have six new Afghani teachers who have come forward to help. We are bringing supplies for the classrooms every week, and fresh fruit every three days.
Unfortunately, in the other camp we have a problem. We can’t keep the classrooms running because the Iranians will not extend our permits. We have to close our project down.”
There are a few deflated sighs around the room.
A young man two seats up from her is wearing a green woolen beanie. His skin is the colour of a chestnut. He doesn’t speak. What, she wonders briefly, is he doing here?
* * *
The house she has rented sits behind a concrete fence, with a big metal door. Inside there is more concrete, every wall and all the floors, cold, grey, unfriendly.
The translator she has found must live here as well. She can’t afford to have him stay in hotels. His name is Vahid, but secretly she calls him her mountain, steady and patient.
It is an empty house, no furniture or carpet. She is happy to have the place, but it is so large and bare, so far away from her own country, that she knows it will never really feel like a home to her. There is not much money to buy anything, all the money is for the project in the camps, but she gets two plastic mats for the bedroom floors and foam to sleep on. For the kitchen she gets a camper’s gas cooker and sets it up on the bench.
Oddly, these few things make the place look barer. She tries to make furniture, an old door resting on bricks becomes a bench, wooden fruit crates become a stack of shelves. In the room where she sleeps she sticks old postcards on the wall and hangs a blanket on the window for warmth. She buys a telephone from the market, willing it to ring, to fill the empty space of the house.
As it turns out they never use half of the house, so they peg blankets over the doorways to try and close the space in, making just the bedrooms and the kitchen suffice. Sometimes she pulls the blanket back from the door and stands in the old concrete room. It is long and empty like a forgotten ballroom. She holds her hands around an invisible partner and sways around the room, her feet sweeping up the old dust and dirt that has settled on the cold floor.
* * *
She sees him again in a hotel lobby in Zahedan, a city 250 kilometres from Zabol, the only place where she can access the internet. They stop, recognising each other.
Yannis is from Greece, a doctor, his accent thick, his English broken. He seems so young to her and there is a casualness in the way he wears his own skin. He is staying in a hotel in Zabol, she knows the one, it is too expensive for her to stay for one night, let alone months. She tells him she is renting a house and invites him and his translator to come for tea sometime.
She is surprised when they visit the next day, Yannis clutching a white cardboard box which he passes to her, smiling coyly. It is full of sweets. He has learnt the local customs well.
She smiles to herself as she shows them through the house, it is as if she has broken in to it, turned it into a squat. They sit on the plastic mat in her room and Vahid makes black tea for everyone. One pot for the boiling the tea leaves, another for just the water. In small glass cups he mixes the two in perfect proportions, his movements delicate and respectful.
As she sips her tea Yannis tells her he likes her place. “It is simple,” he says trying to please her.
When they are leaving he asks her what she’ll do for Christmas. There will be a little party at the MSF house she tells him, he should come.
She watches their car retreat down the road, red dust spraying up from the tyres. Standing at her gate, the empty house hers again, she is unnerved by his eagerness to befriend her.
* * *
They go to the Christmas party together.
Christmas day had passed unceremoniously, without decorations or gifts. At the camp she hadn’t remembered what day it was until one of the French doctors passed her, “Merry Christmas,” he’d said and she’d realised too late to return the greeting.
She appreciated the doctor’s good wishes but Christmas greetings seemed incongruous in the cracked desert, in the tent houses of Muslim refugees.
The MSF house has a rosy-cheeked cheer. Rich red carpets cover the floor, people are laughing and there is food everywhere. As she takes off her coat and scarf she sees him sitting on top of the kitchen bench his deep brown eyes, perfectly round like ceramic bowls.
“Come and sit with me?” she says.
They wander into the lounge room past the seated crowd on the floor and sit on the floor next to the stereo. She is happy they have music playing, the sweet familiar sound of jazz. She turns to him wanting to explain how much she misses music, the shape of it, the place it finds in her bones. She says nothing but he smiles as if he understands.
* * *
A few days later he tells her that he must make the trip to Zahedan.
“Would you like to come with us, we have a driver?”
Usually she would have to get a taxi. Go to the outskirts of town and wait at the depot, queuing and jostling amongst the locals. The taxis won’t leave unless they have at least four passengers, usually five, and only then would they would speed off to Zahedan. Sometimes she would throw her hands over her eyes in fright as the drivers swerved in and out overtaking in the face of oncoming cars.
She loves the drive with him along the single road through the desert, not of sand but stones and dirt. Shifting shades of red earth. Open plains. Jagged, rocky mountains, all of it too big to fit in the car window. With an open palm against the glass she watches eagles stretch their wings above her, their eyes fixed, circling. She has never seen land like this. She thinks of her Australia, of single black ribbon roads that cut through open country. Of gum trees that mingle with boulders and cows on the bare shoulders of farmland. She wonders what he would think of her home.
“It is beautiful, no?” he asks interrupting her thoughts. “Maybe we stop, walk here?”
Vahid says something to the driver who stops at the foot of some hills. Yannis is taking off his jumper. Elbows out, it goes up over his head swallowing his face. Playfully and on purpose he bumps her in the head with his elbows “sorry, sorry” he says, though she suspects he is not. He laughs and does it again, “sorry.”
She laughs too, looking at him. She hasn’t taken much notice of him before, but now that he has made her laugh with his stupid joke, she likes him. His playfulness reminds her of friends at home. He has surprised her with laughter, here.
* * *
In Zabol she invites him to dinner.
She goes to the market to desperately seek out vegetables, the only thing she knows how to cook. She hates the market, it is not exotic and fragrant as foreign places are meant to be. It is dirty and dark, most of it under a maze of tinned roofs. She passes by carcasses of sheep and resists the urge to peg her nose with her fingers. Flies swarm all around the dead animals and she is grateful she is vegetarian. The drought and local diet disappoint again. She can only find potatoes and some green grassy stuff that wouldn’t satisfy a cow.
She buys only a handful of things, accustomed to the unfriendly grunt she gets from the farmers selling it to her. Her purchases are too small and difficult to weigh.
The market spits her out on to the street where sun and dirt wash out colour. The corner of broken footpath is crowded with street vendors, goods laid out at their feet, hollering and rolling their tongues. People elbow past.
She pushes her way to where she has seen men with spice stalls. She runs the colourful bags before her nose, recognising nothing. Guessing, she buys a few packets and heads home.
She doesn’t know what she is making, just throws it together, adding spices randomly and generously, imagining herself a queen of middle eastern cuisine.
When he arrives she lays out the plastic mat on her bedroom floor and places the mush before him.
“I made a kind of curry.”
They start to eat, greeting each mouthful with silence. She catches him making a face into the bowl.
“I’m sorry. It’s terrible isn’t it? I don’t know how to cook here. I don’t know what anything is. You don’t have to eat it.”
“No, no, it’s good,” Yannis says looking up at her. “Very good,” he bursts out laughing. She laughs with him, loving the sound of his laughter bouncing off the concrete walls.
He is looking at her. She is wearing a necklace – a fossilised shell woven in hemp. He leans towards her, taking the necklace between his fingers. “This is beautiful,” he says smiling at her, his eyes only an arms length away. She can feel the back of his hand against the skin of her neck. She breathes in deep but her heart is racing. His hand lingers on her neck and then drops away.
“A friend of mine gave it to me,” she says still feeling his touch.
After dinner she walks him to the gate. “I like to see you again,” he says.
“I am going to stay out at the camp for a few days.”
“You stay at the camp? You don’t sleep here?”
“Usually I come back before dark so I can cross the border. But I want to stay, you know? To sleep where they do, to not always leave every night to something better than they have.”
“I’ll see you when you get back. Hab-ah-hoob-baninie.”
“Sweet dreams. I learnt it in Farsi. Habahhoobbaninie.”
He closes the gate. Behind it, she is smiling.
* * *
She spends the next day at the school in her camp, a clump of six tents. With Vahid she goes from classroom to classroom, counting children, distributing fruit, checking stock. Boys in the morning. Girls in the afternoon. She greets them all. ‘Salom’ the chorus back.
She spend most of her time with the teachers in the staff tent, far more lavish than any of the classrooms, blankets, a teapot on a burner.
The teachers, Iranian and Afghani, could talk to her all day, and often do. They drink round after round of bitter black tea, sucking sugar cubes as they talk. Through Vahid she listens.
They show her the children’s work, paintings of bombs and bloody limbs. She holds them in front of her face so no one can see her distress.
She hasn’t stayed in the camp beyond the afternoon before. Usually she drives out before sunset, crossing the Afghani boarder at night means to risk death.
She is excited to be at the camp now, as the sun starts to dip in the sky. The desert takes her breath away. She feels guilty sometimes, loving it the way she does. The people here just sit with their eyes fixed on the horizon, waiting for the bombs to stop, waiting to go home.
Ayatollah, her favourite teacher, insists that she and Vahid eat with him. She is reluctant at first, she hasn’t felt well all day.
They shuffle into his tent, a small triangle of a home. His wife comes from the tent next door, where food is prepared and lays the dinner before them. Ginnie knows they survive on rations, given out by the Red Cross, but she is thankful for every mouthful, more thankful than she has ever been for food. She brought some cheese with her to the camp, she pulls it out of her bag and offers it to them.
When they are preparing to go Vahid tells Ayatollah that Ginnie is feeling unwell. Ayatollah motions for her to hold out her hand. He places a small brownish lump there.
“Medicine”, he says. Ginnie looks at it and laughs “this is hash!” she exclaims. Ayatollah smiles “good medicine,” he says.
* * *
By the time Ginnie gets back to Zabol the sickness has hit her.
She lays in her bed shivering, unwilling to move.
She places a hand on her forehead and feels the burning. I am dying, she exaggerates to herself. She picks up the phone and calls Yannis.
When he gets there she is feeling better, over the worst of it.
He comes inside in a flurry, places his doctor’s bag on the floor, starts pulling things out. Pills, stethoscope, needles, scalpel, more pills.
“What are you planning to do?” she says.
“I don’t know. You say, come, I am sick, and I don’t know, I bring everything,” he laughs
She laughs too. “I have a fever.”
“Ah, I have other things then,” he reaches for his backpack, pulls out a carton of orange juice and some writing paper, the frilly kind, colourful, decorated with birds and trees. She picks it up and looks at him quizzically.
“To make you happy,’ he says simply. “It is happy paper, no?”
She smiles. “You are a good doctor. You can cure with paper.”
* * *
A few days later he bangs loudly on the metal gate.
“You scared me,” she said. “Vahid isn’t here, he’s staying with his parents.
“I come to see if I can take your sleeping bag. I must go to Zerange tonight.”
Zerange is further inside Afghanistan than the camps. All the NGOs have been trying to get in to work there but it has been too unsafe, the roads closed.
As he takes the bag, he gives her the key to his hotel room. “Stay in my room tonight. It is safer than to sleep here alone,” he says to her softly.
She waits until the afternoon before catching a taxi to his hotel. Excited about staying there, she is thinking of luxury, of a hot shower that she doesn’t have to have outside, struggling with the oil burner and waiting half an hour before it is hot.
When she opens the door and looks around the room she sees him everywhere, his clothes lying on the floor, a pile of medical books, tapes scattered on the table, a book of poetry. She walks around the room, running a finger lightly over his things as though she were blind and he was braile.
* * *
He comes to her house after he returns from Zerange. Sitting on her floor he pulls things from his bag. “I went to the market,” he explains.
He is wearing a cotton scarf around his neck, the same kind the Muslim men weave around their heads, but it is bright orange and blue. She leans over to feel the fabric. The colours make her smile.
Blushing, he lays things out before her, in a line at her feet. A wooden flute, orange and purple. A white bottle the size of half her finger. An aging charm, the shape of a magnificent bird. For you, he says.
She picks them up, one by one, turning them over in her hands, not knowing what to say, tracing his face with her eyes while he looks up at her. She collects the gifts and puts them on the windowsill. “Thank you. They are beautiful.”
“I have your sleeping bag too.” He pauses and then softly adds, “you left your scent in my bed.”
* * *
He tells her stories about a baby in the camp, asleep in it’s mother’s arms. When he places the stethoscope on its chest the cold metal makes it’s eyes spring open, when he takes it away the eyes fall shut. The baby never cries, just opens and shuts its eyes each time he touches it.
In Greece they must do military service, he says. It is compulsory. He tells her that he faked a mental illness. Admitted himself to hospital, glazed his eyes over and didn’t speak for a week. His sister helped him. She admires the lengths he has gone to stay free from the army.
She wants to know why he choose medicine. She is expecting a story, some heroic scene he witnessed when he was five sealing his fate. But it was simple, he was eighteen, had good marks and didn’t know what else to do.
He says he doesn’t practice very often now, only sometimes on projects like this, or in Greece out in rural areas. He doesn’t really want to be a doctor anymore. He makes money doing odd jobs, taking photos at weddings, delivering pizza.
He asks her about Australia. Not sure what to say, she simply tells him it’s big and hot.
“And what about these?” he asks running his fingers down her forearm, letting them linger on her skin.
“Freckles?” she laughs.
“Freckles? Is that what you call them? – I have never seen skin like this before.”
* * *
They smoke hash with a rainbow of coloured crayons at their feet. They draw, all over the concrete floor and walls between the kitchen and the bedrooms. Oversized flowers and vines, bright orange Greek scrawled across the wall – what we don’t love, doesn’t exist.
The night catches them high, colour smeared over their hands.
She puts an old jazz tape on and covers the lamp in her bedroom with material so a warm orange light falls over the room.
Yannis takes a white tissue from its box and wipes at the colour. He lets it go and it sails to the floor. Taken by its movement he grabs another and another and another, pulling at them from the box, floating them in the air. Soon the whole room is filled with them, small white squares of tissue dancing around their heads.
She bumps into him and he grabs her arm, holding her there. A tissue sails down between their faces. He blows it towards her lips. Suspended in the air with their breath – then it drifts – down. He catches it, blowing it up again, moving forward pressing the tissue against her mouth.
Through this thin white curtain she feels his lips. He pulls away smiling, holding the tissue between them so she can she the shape of their kiss, marked on the tiny white square by their mouths.
He pulls her down to the bed.
* * *
When she wakes he is playing with her hair, fingering the knots and dreadlocks that have started to form in her curls.
“It is a jungle” he chuckles leaning in closer to her head, parting more hair. “Ooh, I see a bird and a giraffe! Big jungle on Ginnie’s head.”
Laughing, she brushes his hand away. When she looks up at him her stomach churns. “I’m so glad I met you,” she says, curling into his naked body.
* * *
Summer approaches and soon they must both leave. The camps will close, the desert too hot to house the refugees. They will be sent back to a country still torn by war. The rest of the world turning its back again.
With only two days left before they fly out, she and Yannis go into Afghanistan together.
The last time in she was in Zerange she was swept along in a taxi from the Governer’s office to inspect some schools. She hadn’t expected much but was shocked as she walked through the large concrete buildings, hollow and riddled with bullet holes. The lonely sound of her shoes clicked on the concrete and reminded her that the place had long ago been deserted by children.
Now she is returning a final time with him.
They catch a taxi together along the dry riverbed that runs from Afghanistan into Iran. She had never really imagined it as a river until she saw fishing boats with their colourful coats peeling in the sun. It is the strangest thing she has ever seen, boats littering a desert, not a hint of water in sight.
She walks over and sits in one, picking up an oar and squinting out into the ocean of sand around her. She pats the boat affectionately. ‘You’re a long way from home, my friend’, she says.
Zerange is poor. Its few streets are made from dirt and lined with ramshackle stores of cardboard, corrugated iron, and wood. In the middle of the day it presses against her skin, her eyes squinting from the harsh desert light.
Men are everywhere. They squat in the dirt on the side of the road, sipping bitter tea from clear glass cups, watching. The older ones lean back on their heels and their eyes follow them. Younger boys follow more excitedly, intrigued by their presence. Near the end of the street she discovers a huge eucalyptus tree dripping shade over men sitting crossed legged at a tea stall – an old carpet flung down on the dirt. She stops for a moment, wanting to quietly breathe in it’s familiar perfume.
Yannis walks on without her. She watches him move away, his orange and blue scarf loosely wrapped around his neck, the end of it trailing down the length of his back. The sight of him walking away is like a punch in the stomach. She has tried not to think of leaving him, or this place. She breaks off a leaf from the eucalyptus tree, crunches it up in her hand and holds it to her nose. The comforting smell barely enough to stop her from wanting to cry out, to break down in tears. The blue and orange ebb down the street. In two days these colours will be the last thing she ever sees of him as he waves the scarf out a train window.
* * *