All of the coastline of Sri Lanka is indented, mysterious, and beautiful—but no place is more mysterious than Batticaloa. The city is famous for its lagoon, where extraordinary things can happen. The fish here can sing: true. Absolutely true. Place a reed to your ear, lean down from your paddleboat, and you will hear the music of the fish of the lagoon. At midnight, the water’s skin breaks, and the kadal kanni
, mermaids, emerge out of the lagoon dripping with moonlight.
From the time he was about four or five years old, Danny had wanted to talk to a mermaid.
From the rooftop of his school, he could look over the palm trees and brightly painted houses of his city to the spot where the many-pointed, many-lobed lagoon narrowed before flowing into a greater body of water. Just before joining the Indian Ocean, the lagoon’s face burned like fire, like the unriddling of an ancient puzzle: the motto beneath his school’s coat of arms. Lucet et Ardet. Translated by the gray-robed priests as Shines and Burns. (But what
shines? And what
Now Danny, standing up here, understood.
This lagoon shines. This lagoon burns.
He knew, as he watched the burning spot in the distance, that there was a second place where the lagoon joined the ocean; and that this spot was a secret one—hidden for most of the year, in a spot called Mugathwaram, the Face of the Portal, near the old Dutch lighthouse. Danny was sure it was there, at this hidden portal, that the kadal kanni
came out into the open.
He had to wait till he was fifteen, a few years after his mother’s death, to find the Face of the Portal. One Saturday, telling his father that he was going to a school picnic, he sat pillion on a friend’s bicycle and went, for the first time in his life, to the old Dutch lighthouse and then beyond it, to the hidden beach, from where, he was told, you could see the second opening. When he got down from the bicycle, he was disappointed, because all he could observe in the distance was a continuous sandbar blocking this part of the lagoon: “There is no way it could flow out into the ocean here.” After covering the bicycle with palm leaves so that it would not be stolen, his friend, a Tamil Christian, said: “We have to go out there, and it will appear.” So he and Danny stole a boat from the lighthouse and then took turns rowing it all the way out to Mugathwaram. They drew nearer and nearer, beneath them the music from the fish grew louder and louder, and then it happened: the sandbar parted, its unity revealed to be an optical illusion, and now a gap of meters showed between the two arms of sand.
The Portal had opened.
In the middle of the gap gleamed the magic island of Mugathwaram, coral- and jellyfish-encrusted, on which the two boys alighted to watch—as cormorants, red-breasted sea eagles, broad-winged pelicans circled over their heads—the meeting and churning of waters. Currents of the lagoon flowing out and those of the Indian Ocean flowing in neutralized each other, producing an illusion of perfect stillness in the water: a solitary white egret stood with one black foot in the spot, to mark the gateway to the world.
Danny knew he had guessed right. This was where the kadal kanni
were most likely to come up. Sitting side by side, he and the Christian friend waited for a mermaid. The tide began to rise, and the boat they had brought began to rock. The light dimmed; the ocean had become the color of old family silver. By now his father, who expected him home at five-thirty every evening to begin his homework, would be sitting outside with a rattan cane. Danny waited. He had a friend by his side; he was not frightened. They were not going back without talking to a mermaid.
Housecleaner, Danny was about to reply, sixty dollars an hour, but instead smiled at the woman.
Strapped to his back was what resembled an astronaut’s jet-booster—a silver canister with a blue rubber nozzle peeping out and scarlet loops of wire wrapped around it—but it was just a portable vacuum cleaner, Turbo Model E, Super Suction, acquired a year ago at Kmart for seventy-nine dollars. In his right hand, a plastic bag with the tools of his trade.
“I asked,” repeated the Australian woman, “what are
Maybe, Danny thought, she’s annoyed by the golden highlights in my hair. He sniffled. From the outside Danny’s nose looked straight, but from the inside it was broken; a doctor had informed him when he was a boy that he was the proud owner of a deviated septum. Maybe the woman was referring to it.
“Australian,” he hazarded.
“No, you’re not,” she replied. “You’re a perfectionist.”
Only now did she indicate, by pointing with a finger, that she was talking about his way of having breakfast.
In his left hand was a half-eaten cheese roll, which he’d made himself while walking by opening a packet of Black & Gold $2.25-for-ten cheese slices that he’d brought with him along with his cleaning equipment, and placing two slices in the middle of a sixty-cent wholemeal bun—and then the woman, who had apparently been observing him combine things into a sandwich and take a bite out of it, had made these remarks to him.
Shifting his vacuum on his back, Danny chewed and examined what was left of his self-made cheese roll and looked at the Australian woman.
So this is why I have, he thought, become visible. Because my way of eating bothers her. After four years, he was still learning things, still making notes to himself: Never walk and eat in daylight. They see you.
Now talk your way out of this, Dhananjaya. Maybe you should say: I used to do the triple jump in school. Hop, skip, and leap? Same way: plan, eat, and walk. I do these things all at once.
Or maybe a story was needed, a quick but moving story: My father always said no, I couldn’t eat while walking, so now it’s a form of rebellion.
Sometimes, though, with white people, all you have to do is start thinking, and that’s enough. Like in a jungle, when you find a tiger in your path, how you’re supposed to hold your breath and stare back. They go away.
Although she certainly appeared to be going away, the woman suddenly changed her mind and turned back to shout: “That’s irony
, mate. What I just said about you being a perfectionist.”
Did she mean, thought Danny as he finished the sandwich on his way to the end of Glebe Point Road, from where he would take a left and walk up to Central Station, that I don’t do anything well?
His forehead was furrowed now with the woman’s word: irony
Danny knew what the dictionary said it meant. In practice, he had noted, its uses were more diverse, slippery, and usually connected to a desire to give offense with words. Irony.
So by calling me a perfectionist, she must have meant…
Fuck her. I like eating like this.
Danny made himself another sandwich on his way to Central, and then a third one on the platform, as he waited for the 8:35 train to St. Peters Station.
His five-foot-seven body looked like it had been expertly packed into itself, and even when he was doing hard physical labor his gaze was dreamy, as if he owned a farm somewhere far away. With an elegant oval jaw, and that long, thin forehead’s suggestion of bookishness, he was not, except when he smiled and exhibited cracked teeth, an overseas threat. On his left forearm a bump, something he had not been born with, showed prominently, and he had let his third fingernail on the right hand grow long and opalescent. His hair had fresh highlights of gold in it.
The train was nearly full. Danny had a seat by a window. Stroking his fingers through his golden hair, for which he had paid $47.50 at a barbershop in Glebe, he became aware that he was being watched and turned toward the Asian man with the black-and-white shopping bag.
The man was looking not at Danny but at his backpack.
An astronaut faced growing competition these days, it was a fact. Two-man, three-man Chinese teams were spreading over Sydney offering the same service, at the same price, in half the time. And let’s not even talk about the Nepalis. Four men at the price of one.
That’s why Danny came with his own stuff. He had invested his capital. In addition to the portable vacuum on his back, he carried, in a plastic bag, a paper roll, disposable pads, a foam spray that he used on glass, and a fire-alarm-red rubber pump that would suck the problems from any toilet bowl. Sure, every home keeps a vacuum and brushes and sprays in a closet somewhere, but a cleaner impresses with his autonomy.
Aussies are a logical people, a methodical people.
Also in his plastic bag: a small but thorny potted plant with care instructions stuck into the dirt (I AM A CACTUS ), which he had bought for $3.80 from a woman who sat next to the park in Glebe, and which he planned to give someone later in the day.
A surprise gift.
At Erskineville Station, the Asian man stood up with his shopping bag just before the glass door opened, and Danny knew he was not a rival. That black-and-white bag did not have a portable vacuum inside. This was just a busybody on the train.
Stretching back, running his fingers through his hair, Danny sniffed them to check if the scent of the dye they used at the barbershop was still detectable—nasty stuff—and then raised his fingers to his scalp to stroke himself again.
He remembered the way Sonja’s eyes lit up when she saw his hair. “Weird.” That was what she’d said. That was a compliment. Because people in Australia were famished for what was weird, self-assuredly weird, even belligerently weird: like a Tamil man with golden highlights in his hair. A minority. And once you found out what that word minority
means over here, tasted the intoxicant of being wanted because
you were not like everyone else, how could anyone possibly tell you to go back to Sri Lanka and once again live as a minority over there?
To celebrate his golden head of hair, Sonja had made dinner in Parramatta the previous night, and Danny had kept looking at her as he ate, refreshing his vision of himself through her vision of him.
I’m here in Australia, he thought. I’m almost here.
True, after the flush of triumph following the first night in bed with Sonja, which was also his first time with someone not Tamil, he was confused by the idea of seeing the vegan Vietnamese girl again. He’d always thought that like marries like. How do you end up with a woman who doesn’t speak Tamil, or know a thing about your heritage? Danny reconciled himself to love. There were precedents at hand. In Malaysia, for instance, so many Chinese-Tamil marriages had taken place. Not that Sonja was Chinese, of course, but he was just saying. These half-Tamil/half-Chinese children did very well in life. One of them had come to Batticaloa for a summer. He lived like a millionaire.
A root of a banyan tree, in a village near Batticaloa, burst through the corrugated tin shed protecting the grave of a pir
, a Muslim saint, and touched his green cement grave like a giant’s finger: here on this new continent, Danny remembered that transgressing banyan root, remembered it like one who knew that life had not yet expanded sufficiently through him or through his body.
So he met her again, and then again, and their relationship was now into its second year.
Sonja believed in things. Veganism. Socialism. LGBT rights. Political views. The developers control the Labor Party, yes, but the developers are
the Liberal Party. Do you see the difference, Danny? Some of these things Danny didn’t even understand, but he knew Sonja stood on them. Her Beliefs. He liked that about her. He also liked that her place in Parramatta had a spare room. After dinner, Danny went over there and sat by the duvet on the bed, playing with the table lamp, while shouting answers to the questions she asked from the kitchen.
“Yes! Vocational enrichment! I will investigate evening classes at the TAFE! You are so right, Sonja! Cleaning is not enough!”
Maybe she got the hint. Maybe she’d invite him to live in the spare room.
This morning she had called him just before starting work at the hospital—reminding him, ostensibly, to buy the cactus, but he knew it was just to hear his voice—and when she had asked, “What is your plan for this week?,” for she believed that everyone needed a plan, both for life and for each of its individual weeks, Danny had replied: “The average weekly take-home pay, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is one thousand one hundred—”
“That’s not what I meant,” she had said, laughing. “I meant what is your plan for this week regarding seeing me?”
He got up. Shifting the weight of the canister on his back, he stood by the glass door. He checked the time on his phone: its back had fallen off, and Danny had used Band-Aids to strap the battery into place. The display glass was cracked, an accident, and the time was four minutes fast, by design. The goal was to alternate anxiety—late late late—with relief—four extra minutes, remember, four extra—
a pattern that intensified Danny’s sense of duty.
Hissing hydraulically, the glass doors opened at St. Peters Station. Danny hefted his plastic bag and stepped out onto the platform.
Another workday began.
Four dark steel-rimmed chimney stacks, like Egyptian obelisks, rose right outside the station, as if declaring, This Is Where It Ends—though in truth it did not end here, there, or anywhere—always expanding, this city of Sydney, except for those people for whom it was always contracting. Danny walked. He saw, behind suburban fences, tropical plantains, begonia leaves whose undersides were as red as the tongue of a man chewing betel juice, and frangipani trees whose white petals, fallen over the pavement, partially covered handwritten signs in chalk—ABSOLUTELY NO FREE PARKING HERE—PLEASE PLEASE ELIMINATE CHILDHOOD CANCER. Peeping through the charcoal-colored slats, a pitbull terrier, guardian of the secrets of white people, growled.
Danny sneezed. A blue mist sat in the trees like on a throne and the smell of smoke was everywhere: he guessed at once there was a fire in the mountains. Tonight on TV news, they would say: Bushfires that began last night near Blackheath are being put out right now, though we might smell the smoke for days in parts of the city.
He walked by a parked car inside which he observed a pink rubber shark, a newspaper dedicated to racing and betting, and a lovely relic, a mounted globe, the kind that the supervillain flips on a finger. Danny had stooped before the globe, searching for Sri Lanka, when from behind, someone— Move.
He turned but found nothing human there.
A plane flew low and loud over the suburb, passing from one building to another, the red Qantas logo appearing and disappearing.
A pair of broken classical columns had been deposited by the next gray fence; and next to the columns lay a decapitated cement statue, which represented, Danny felt, one of those gods that white people worshipped before Jesus. With the hint of smoke in the air, it was as if this Sydney suburb had summarized centuries of ruination in a night. Danny looked at the statue, wondering if it would make a good gift for Sonja, a better one than the $3.80 cactus he had in his plastic bag, when he heard it again.
a brown man’s voice.
Walking around the fence, Danny saw the owner of the voice in the garden. He was wearing a gray mover’s uniform, phone wedged against his right shoulder, and talking, as he ripped cardboard sheets apart with casual power. Each thrust of his brutal forelimbs said: I am here, Australians. Whether you see me or not, standing right here.
Stopping his work, the muscular man dropped the cardboard and looked at Danny as if he meant to speak to him.
This brown man was Javanese or Malaysian, surely—not one of ours.
Before Danny could say anything, the muscular man turned to the right, shifted about as if finding a direction, then got down on his knees and closed his eyes. His lips moved. After turning his face from side to side, the brown man began to touch his head to the pavement while saying something. Ah. He’s praying, realized Danny. He was looking at me to see if I was a Muslim too and wanted to join him.
Some human bodies generate time from within them. Like this man’s, right now. All the ticking hands in Sydney were being reset to his heart.
They did it five times a day, didn’t they?
So is this the second or the third? Danny wanted to ask as the praying man turned his face from side to side before touching his forehead to the earth again.
An angel with a red-and-green tail materialized over their heads: when Danny looked up, he saw that it was, appropriately enough, an Emirates flight. Sydney airport was not far away.
He sneezed again, and wondered if he had disturbed the praying man.
With a final look at the Indonesian, who, done with his prayer, was again handling furniture, Danny moved.
Thirty-six Flora Street rose above its neighbors, a three-story brick building, bare and basic, built for young professionals. Danny divided Sydney into two kinds of suburbs—thick bum
, where the working classes lived, ate badly, and cleaned for themselves; and thin bum
, where the fit and young people ate salads and jogged a lot but almost never cleaned their own homes. Erskineville was in the second category. In a suburb like this, a building like 36 Flora Street, with fifteen or twenty units, was a honeypot for a weekly cleaner. Danny sometimes couldn’t believe he had just one regular job here.
First, the key.
A man could break into half the homes in Erskineville just by looking under the doormat or behind the second flowerpot. Here, the key was left someplace even more obvious. Danny raised the broken lid of the mauve mailbox and removed a shiny silver object from it.
Then he entered 36 Flora Street and ran up the stairs.
Empty. Daryl the Lawyer was rarely at home on Monday or Tuesday. Even if you came in the evening to do the place. Sometimes you saw these clients once, on the first day, when you set the schedule, and then never again for months. Years.
Lowering his backpack, Danny dropped it on the floor; removing his T-shirt, he hung it on the bathroom door.
Rule number one: To stay ahead of the competition, always wear a white singlet. As he explained to his girlfriend, “People think the Chinese are cleaner because they don’t have body hair.”
Rules, it’s all about rules. Many of us flee chaos to come here. Aussies are an optimistic and methodical people and they are governed by law. Understanding the concept of the rule that cannot be broken is vital to adjusting here. (“Through my contradictions you grow: an immigrant addresses the native,” page 24.)
The most useful paragraph of the book. From that one graph and its truths, Danny had forged himself so many rules, and as a result of these rules he was now charged with the weekly cleaning of twelve flats around inner Sydney and an entire house in Rose Bay with a view of blue water and yachts that he cleaned for $110 twice a month, though he did pay nine dollars each time for a car share to the house and back.
Danny tapped on his singlet. He coughed.
One more rule: Never wear a face mask, like many Chinese freelancers do—it scares the customers. Dust? Grime? Inhale, inhale.
Strapping the Turbo Model E to his back, he went to work, making sure not to trip over the dull bloodred cord plugged into the wall. Bada-bada-bada-bum:
making noise whenever he hit a tough spot, Danny moved his vacuum over the carpet. His cell phone, via headphones, played him Golden Oldies. Backstreet Boys. Madonna. Celine Dion. Nothing Tamil; everything English. As he moved, he could see three twenty-dollar bills weighed down by the wicker basket in which the lawyer hoarded twenty- and fifty-cent coins.
Danny saw, and saw, but did not touch.
Not till he was done with the vacuuming. Money left on the honor system, money taken on the honor system. Sixty dollars for cleaning the flat, two bathrooms included, fifteen dollars per extra toilet or bathroom.
Danny felt sure that Daryl the Lawyer, House Number Four, had been the first to give him that name; now everyone
said it. He had never felt comfortable with that epithet; and, as he reached around the sofa with his vacuum, he wondered if this was another manifestation of that odd, offensive word: irony. He would have to ask Sonja.
Is Daryl the Lawyer mocking me by calling me Legendary Cleaner?
Why do you
call him Daryl the Lawyer? Maybe you’re
mocking him. That was the kind of thing she would say: point for point.
That woman. Badabadabadum…
He drove the vacuum nozzle under a rocking chair. “Daryl the—! Daryl the—!” Danny raised his voice over that of the vacuum’s roar. Here I come, Daryl the Lawyer!
No cleaner becomes a legendary one without a certain level of aggression against his client. Prrrompppp.
Danny trilled his lips. Ever since his boyhood, he had been making these sounds whenever doing something unpleasant. Badabadabadabump…
His vacuum snout went through room after room. The canister on his bag, inflated with hot air and dust, relaxed when Danny turned the machine off.
Vacuum put away, dishes done, tables and chairs down, now for the core of the job. You will be judged by your toilets. And your toilets will be judged by the bowls.
Removing his gloves as he came out of the toilet, he sat on the lawyer’s chair and surveyed the living room.
He picked up a wine-colored leather volume from the lawyer’s bookshelf: The Reliance of the Traveller: A Guide to Islamic Law.
Don’t they ever read books about Hindu law? White people. Obsessed with Muslims. Because they’re frightened of them. He flipped through the book.
One afternoon in Lakemba—a tip about a for-cash housepainting job from Abe, his Japanese-Brazilian abseiling friend—Danny had seen three Arab men on a porch, each stripped to the waist, each with a sheeshah, exhaling sultanish smoke over a garden of rust and rubbish. Some of Sydney’s western suburbs—very, very thick bum—were filthy, front yards full of rotting wood, overturned shopping carts, little canals slicked over with white petals; but this Muslim mansion was easily the dirtiest thing he had seen in Australia. Danny loved it. Of course you admired the fuck you white guy
attitude, but still you had to wonder, how the hell did people like this
become legal, unless there was someone at the Department of Immigration who actually decided: “You don’t look like a terrorist. Sorry, you’ll never get into Australia. Next! Yes, you with the big beard, you can come in for sure!” See: the other day Yahoo! News had this story of an overweight extremely blind Malaysian guy, who plays the guitar, actually can’t play it at all, and the Aussies had an online signature campaign for him, because he’s Muslim, and gave him permanent residency. I tell you, there are Tamil men burning
Last week this man in Melbourne, this Jaffna man, covered himself in petrol and lit himself with a match when they wouldn’t give him refugee status. Who gets it? This Malay Muslim.
Between Muslim and Tamil there had been frequent violence when Danny was growing up. Satrukondan, Xavierpuram, Siththandy: old names, old bloodshed.
Done with Islamic law. But as Danny bent to put the book back in the lower shelf of the bookcase, he had a clear view of the sofa and beneath it, and he saw a ball under the sofa.
It had rolled all the way up to the wall.
In Australia the unwritten rule is that the cleaner never bends down to touch anything below
the level of a coffee table. Owner has to pick everything up from the floor before you begin work. There are rules on both sides of this business. (“We have to clean up the place so the cleaners can clean up afterward,” one of his clients, possibly Daryl the Lawyer, had grumbled.) Back home, though, the rule is that while the maid will bend and scrub all you want, she will never touch anything above
the level of the coffee table for fear of being accused of theft. Danny smiled. Prrrpmmm. Badabadadum
Let’s do it. Let’s impress him.
Spread-eagling himself on the carpet, Danny reached with his flexed fingers under the sofa only to find it out of reach. The blue ball. Prrrrrp. Ba-da-da-da-dum—
He extended his fingers—
“The average weekly take-home pay is eleven hundred fifteen dollars and forty cents, according to the Bureau of…”
“… the Bureau of Staaaa-tis-tics…”
—till rubber tickled the tips.
(“My strange boy,” his mother used to say. When she found out, for instance, that Danny was the one cutting all the thorns out of the roses in her garden: “The thorns are here to protect the roses. If you remove them, you don’t make the roses safer. My strange, strange son.”)
a legendary cleaner.
Danny’s fingers reached for the ball—gripped it—and extracted it from far beneath the sofa and presented the object from the darkness to Danny’s nose. A ball: a blue ball. He smelled. Using his long fingernail, he scraped at the blue skin and smelled it again.
An acridity like nonliving body odor, which reminded Danny.
Don’t forget the cactus: she’s working at St. Vincent’s today.
It was a different hospital or aged-care center each week for her. “It’s all privatized now,” she said. “We have to work where the agency sends us and for as long as they tell us or that’s the last time I ever work.”
I should go back and get that Greek statue as a gift.
Up on his knees, Danny walked over to the lawyer’s table and deposited the blue ball there, pressing it with his palm to hold it in place, as he looked around the flat.
When he was a boy, he had asked a neighbor, recently returned from abroad, “What is the city of Toronto like?” The neighbor had asked, “Do you know what the Galadari Five Star Hotel in Colombo is like?” Danny had nodded. “Every
square inch of the city of Toronto is like that.”
The things they tell you about the West before you come here. No part of Australia is like the Galadari International. Sydney is filled with roaches, crickets, and flying bugs, except for any room that Danny had just gone over with his vacuum, sponge, and mop.
His phone, which was certainly not
legendary, beeped at once.
9:16 a.m. Message from your phone company: As we continue to build a mobile network for the future, we will have to say goodbye to older forms of technology. That means that the phone you appear to be using, a 2G phone, will no longer work from next week. Buy a new 3G phone as soon as possible from our website, our many convenient retail stores, or any of our retail partners.
The messages had begun two weeks ago. Danny had kept deleting them.
“Welcome, sir,” the man at the convenience store or retail partner says, “a new phone for you, sir? Certainly, sir. What is your tax file number, sir? Do you have your passport with you, sir?”
From the lawyer’s kitchen, the smell of broccoli broke into his nose; his bowels tightened. After all these years, his stomach was unreconciled to that nastiness. How could they eat it, these people, in such quantities, and raw
Still recoiling from the smell of that vegetable, Danny picked his T-shirt off the hook and then dressed himself before paying himself, removing one by one the three twenty-dollar bills from under the wicker basket heavy with twenty and ten cents and other coins useless to white Australians.
Sixty dollars in his pocket, Danny raised both hands to his hair. He felt through his fingertips the power of his gold-highlighted strands, how they would stir envy in every man, of every race, who saw him.
No one would ever again mistake him for someone born outside Australia.
After all: in a city like Sydney, how can you tell who is a foreigner? Observe, understand, and make a chart. Danny’s way.
Us and Them
- 1st & foremost difference: posture.
- Beards (us—too wild) and then haircuts (too docile).
- Paunch. Young Australians don’t have paunches.
- Also don’t spit in public.
- Class (but have no class compared to people back home).
Mimicking a man with an Australian spine, wearing shorts in public, enjoying the low-class thrill of looking like a child again, he had kept himself, for two years, immaculately groomed. Danny’s heart spoke to him in stages; and in the third year, he just grew his hair. Even as a boy, he’d wanted to grow his hair. (That and a dog: an Alsatian.) When his hair had grown so long it curled up at the back, he remembered a man in Enmore. An African who stood below a room he used to clean (House Number Two) and talked about his tattoos. “Finally, I went to Bondi, and the man says they charge two hundred an hour, and it take three hours minimum. You only live once, right? Only live”—as he turned around to show off the tattoo of the parrot wrapping around his black leg, the African’s accent changed and became British, or perhaps it had always been British—“once, right?”
That day Danny had seen his own male form, striped and sheathed in tattoos, and he, the master for the first time ever of his own body, something he could swirl round and round for his own pleasure…
Hierarchies exist in invisibility; there are always better ways to stay unseen.
Instead of tattoos (something low
-class, even uncivilized
, about them), he let his hair grow. That’s not enough, though. No: you are in Sydney. Abe the abseiler colored his hair blond, and he
was illegal—so Danny decided to go to the barber in Glebe and just ask. Reddish-brown streaks in the hair? It would cost $47.50, but Sonja approved; she more than approved. A message from your phone company.
His machine beeped again. As we continue to build a mobile network for the future, we will have to say goodbye to older forms of technology.
There must be, Danny thought, some way to keep this phone for at least another month or two. Not to have to go into the Telstra office and answer questions about myself for another month or two.
The lawyer’s desktop computer was covered in koalas: chintz tablecloth.
He could do it right here: get on the Internet and search for answers. What was, after all, the password on this computer? The return button. Daryl, you so-called Lawyer.
In the past, Danny had
done great things on this very satin-covered desktop computer: he had, in fact, met the love of his life right on this computer.
But since he was going to Newtown today for work, he thought he might check his email for free in the public library there.
Though it denied him medical care, a driver’s license, and police protection, the Australian state offered Danny unlimited and unmonitored access to its public reading rooms and information centers. Not far from the Sunburst grocery store was the Glebe library, a place that every illegal in the area knew well; Parramatta, Blacktown, Surry Hills, and Haymarket libraries were also good; but best of all, because of the high churchlike ceiling and the wide-open first floor where you could lie flat on the floor for hours and hours and forget who you were, was the Newtown library. Danny had even become friends with a smiling bald Indian named Ramesh who worked at the library. That guy was
legal, though. Friendship could only go so far.
Danny packed up his cleaning equipment and heaved the vacuum canister onto his back: an astronaut again.
The next home—Danny checked his cell phone for the time—was Rodney Accountant’s flat in Newtown, about halfway down King Street, where he would find, in addition to a white cat that he was strictly not to let out, three twenty-dollar bills on top of the fridge covered with slogans against uranium mining.
Right. Let’s go.
But it was waiting for his final lookaround to materialize above the lintel: black and threatening, a little Shiva, with many tentative arms.
At once he got his cell phone out, scrolled down the numbers, got to Sonja
And pressed the green call button.
“Danny,” Sonja said, answering, “I’m at work, what is it.”
“I’m at Daryl the Lawyer’s. Cleaning? And there’s a spider. Right above the door. I have to walk under it.”
“What kind? Huntsman?”
“I don’t know. It’s big and hairy.”
“Yah. That’s a huntsman. They’re harmless. Don’t worry. Walk under it. It won’t fall on you, and if it does, it won’t hurt.”
“But I’m a legendary cleaner. If the lawyer comes back and sees this spider, he’ll think—”
“Danny. Don’t hurt it. It’s harmless. I have to work now. I am a nurse, Danny: I have people to take care of. It’s a busy day.”
He put the phone back in his pocket. All right. He stared at the motionless thing above the door.
“Huntsman,” Danny gave the beast its name.
Shooo. Shooo. They can sense when you don’t mean it. More sound effects (bada-bada-bum-bum
A slamming door might scare it.
He turned the knob on the front door and pushed it open to find three policemen in blue uniforms running up the stairs straight at him.
Danny stood still.
Passing him without a word, they kept moving up the stairs to the level above the lawyer’s flat. There one of them began knocking on a door. Another stood still. A third looked down at Danny from the top of the stairs.
“Mate, you live—?” he shouted down.
After nodding, Danny stepped back into the lawyer’s flat and closed the door.
He came back into the security of the huntsman’s stare.
Count to ten, to twenty, thirty: then he opened the door a bit. One of the three policemen, the one who had said something, was running down the stairs.
The policeman stopped and observed Danny through the open door with narrow eyes: he was blue, immensely, whalishly blue, and his belly butted against his shirt and surged over his black belt like a sac of hard blue flesh. Putting his hands on his hips, he pushed it out farther and exhaled.
“Mate. I asked you: you live here?”
“… just the…”
Touching Danny, moving him to the side, the policeman poked his head in and peeked around the cleaned apartment. He sniffled as if he too were about to sneeze.
The policeman said, “All right. Aaaaallll
right. That’s what I thought. Something’s going on across the street. Just checking things out.”
“Yes, sir. Okay, sir.”
At least they have not come for me. At least I am safe for now. Danny locked the door. The thing across the street—the police must be talking of the fire in the Blue Mountains, the one filling the streets with smoke. Nothing more than that. The big spider up there was still looking at him; but Danny knew how to distinguish, within his gut, the treble line of nervous tension (Australian police) from the bass line (Sri Lankan police). Whatever the police are here for, he reminded himself, they are not here for you. They can’t even see you.
So he raised the chintz koala dress off the desktop computer, hit the return button, and waited. As soon as the screen came to life, he went to Google News and typed in: Kiran Rao.
Danny thought he was the only cleaner in Sydney who carried a book with him. A man must keep reading if he must keep thinking. Initially, it had been a pink paperback: Splendid in Satin
, by Madeline Bright. Then, in the Newtown library’s discarded books bin, he had found Kiran Rao’s Through My Contradictions You Grow
, seen Kiran’s handsome South Asian face on the cover, after which this book, smuggled in with the toilet brushes and sprays and Black & Gold cheese slices, had accompanied Danny on his cleaning trips for over a year, until he knew most of it by heart and no longer had to bring it along.
Book of the Century, as far as Danny was concerned. News (past 24 hours) Rao speaks at the Sydney Festival … in his customary dark suit and red tie, Kiran took questions from the audience, on the bitter and the sweet side of the immigrant’s life in Sydney.
Raising his hand before the computer in Daryl the Lawyer’s home, inviting himself into the audience, Danny turned a difficult situation into a question for his favorite author: What should I do if they ask me for my tax file number when I go to hand in my phone, Kiran?
He could hear that respectable, besuited figure turn from his admiring audience at the festival to say: You have plenty of time with the old phone, Danny. Don’t think about it so much. And if I were you, Danny, I’d worry about only one thing. Keeping my relationship working.
(The audience laughed.) That’s the toughest thing for an Aussie, trust me.
Really? Danny hadn’t found it so hard: his relationship with Sonja was great
. And it had all begun right here, at this lawyer’s unguarded computer. A friend, an Australian who knew all his secrets, a person full of wise sayings, had told him about the dating site, and he had logged on to it right here. VeggieDate Love Without Cruelty
“Vegetarians. The best-looking ones in Sydney are vegans.”
“But I eat—”
“Listen, you idiot: they think all Indians are vegetarians because they worship cows. Don’t you have a feel for a good scam?”
Of course he knew it was wrong: wrong to use the lawyer’s personal computer and wrong to contact the women. Vegetarian? Danny loved mutton. He loved pork.
This is wrong, all wrong. They call me Honest Danny. But he did it anyway. He did have a feel for a good scam.
Sonja was the third vegan woman he contacted. They met that weekend in Parramatta.
He got there to the pub first, and waited for her in a wooden booth, observing himself in the wall mirror as he did so. Light settings designed to optimize the sex appeal of a fairer-skinned people garishly illuminated, he felt, the cuticles of his dark fingers and the whites of his eyes. “Look intelligent,” he cajoled his image, and had interlaced his fingers with the thumb bent backward to touch his mouth—a thinking
pose—when she found him.
“You know what I like about Indians? Indians are the world’s only fat vegetarians. Happy, fat vegetarians.”
She was a short, not unattractive, determined girl, wearing a T-shirt that said VEGANS FIRST and with eyes eager for otherness. And she was Chinese.
Vietnamese. Gentlemen did
know the difference?
She ordered beer for both of them, a kind that she said was organic. As she spoke about the injustices done to animals, Danny strained the muscles above his ears and smiled. “You know what milk is? A kind of pus. Think about that, you’re guzzling pus.” She said this and sipped her beer thrice before putting it down. Danny thought, She is also nervous.
About to pick up her beer again, she asked: “Are you a Muslim?” His answer clearly disappointed; but she recovered and noted, “At least you’re not a suit
This was confusing because Danny had always thought of himself as a man who had come to Sydney to wear suits. Tip-top woolen suits with silver buttons and a silk handkerchief in the pocket. Only one tailor in Batticaloa could cut a high-class suit like that, and only four people in town could afford something like it.
“What do you feel about milk as a food source?”
“How actively do you support animals’ rights?”
“Are there vegans where you come from?”
Steering the conversation away from food, he explained to the vegetarian about Sri Lanka and then Dubai. Yes, he had been there. Had worked there for a year, in a business motel in Deira, Dubai. Had worn a green suit and green tie and checked people in with a smile. No, seriously: that had been Danny’s job before he came to Australia. Here? He was a cleaner. Housecleaner. Yes, he was looking for something better.
After a while the two of them went walking by the Parramatta River.
It was unlike any he had seen before: its banks were perfect and green, as if punched into the earth by a river-making machine.
“What does that thing mean?” she asked. “Do you know?”
He noticed that her eyes had wandered to an old building by the river.
“Why do they put letters like that in old churches. What does it mean?”
“Eighteen seventy-seven,” he informed her.
Her mouth opened. “How do you
know all this?” Romans, he explained, had a very peculiar way of writing numbers, which was hugely improved when they stole decimals from Hindus.
She looked at him and demanded: “Did you read a dictionary as soon as you came to Australia?”
Without his saying a thing, she darkened and smiled, realizing how offensive what she’d said was.
From then on, he did most of the talking.
Eventually, she asked: “You live by a real lagoon in Sri Lanka? Why did you give up all that and come to Australia?”
“I have a condition,” said Danny. “It is called a deviated septum.” He touched his nose. “Means I get fever quickly. My sinuses get heavy.”
It was true.
Sinus Safety List
- Warm water: as soon as the sinuses become heavy, start gargling.
- No smoking. Strict. No bad habits.
- Menthol spray on days one and two.
Life with bad sinuses the main subject, he walked with the vegetarian girl all the way to a small dam where the water fell and joined a darker body. She turned to him and said: “Will you stop talking about the deviation in your septum and answer my question?”
“My question was this: why did you give up a lagoon to come to this country?”
Now I’ll have to start lying, Danny thought, when the Parramatta River saved him: a white feather came floating along its surface, and he pointed it out to her.
“That’s because they’ve privatized everything in Sydney,” the vegan said, assuming that he was referring to the floating rubbish. “Even this river.”
“The fishes in my lagoon,” Danny told her, “can sing.”
Really, he told the incredulous woman, showing her how you just placed a reed to the surface of the lagoon back in his unprivatized home, and heard them buzzing and humming beneath. Batticaloa, city of the singing fish. Jewel of the east of Sri Lanka. Fire-walkers at the temple. Tongue-piercers. Silver beaches. Mermaids living in the lagoon. Kadal kanni
, we call them.
“Do you understand a word of what I’m saying?” he asked her, and she shook her head before saying, “Not necessarily, but go on.”
And he did
go on, not necessarily about the lagoon.
“Do you follow football?” she demanded.
“No sports at all for me,” Danny said. “See: the range of human achievement in sports is only one to one point four.”
“What does that mean
Danny grinned. “Achievement means ment that is achieved, no?”
She laughed. “What the fuck
After two years of great care with his accent, Danny had never repressed this peculiarity in his speech. Sugar-free means no sugar, no?
Singsong tautologies came naturally to him. Yes, inside his accent (not quite Australian but neutral), there was an animal from another English, and now, after two years here, he let it purr.
Now he explained to her the essential fraudulence of all sporting glory.
“Average twenty-one-year-old male, given basic training for one month, can run a hundred meters in about fourteen seconds. Okay? Fastest man runs same distance in nine point nine seconds. Not much of a difference. One to one point four is the range. Now, what is the difference between an average man’s intelligence and Einstein’s? Cannot measure it.”
Facts came from Danny like this, strange facts, connected only by a vibrant thread of subversion, as the two walked up and down the river in Parramatta. A small bird zigzagged around them, as if he had found a field of sugarcane all to himself.
The next morning, while Danny was filing cans in the Sunburst grocery store in Glebe, when someone phoned and it turned out to be Sonja, he felt his heart pound and remembered all the race horses together thumping past Tom Cruise in that great, great scene in Mission: Impossible 2
“It must be over now,” he said out loud.
That “thing across the street” must be over. The blue uniforms must be gone, so Danny rose from the computer, stood by the door, and put his ear to it. Can I ask you, Officer, if something is wrong. Sorry. Just standard procedure. There’s been an incident across the road. We were just taking photos of the place from here. Standard procedure. Incident? Yeah. A murder. Holy shit. Who was it? Did you know your neighbors? Not really. No. Which building? What did you say her name was? No, don’t know any woman by that name.
He stepped back from the door.
He wondered how long he would be stuck in here now, and whether he had to call and warn Rodney Accountant he might be late.
And this reminded him too that he had not yet killed the big spider overhead.
Holding a can of insect repellent kept under the sink by Daryl the Lawyer, Danny drew near the brown-legged spider. He started humming the theme music to Mission: Impossible
to give the creature one last chance. But the spider just twitched its legs as if enjoying the music and the joke. Too late, it understood; it began to move. But Danny already had pressed the white button of the spray. It curled up and fell.
Compacted, redder, in death it resembled something much more dangerous, thought Danny as he lifted it up in a paper napkin.
The window above the sink, the only one in the place facing the back road, was always bolted down; holding the dead spider at the end of an extended right hand, Danny unbolted and lifted the window with the other. The first time in months he had done this and looked out onto the quiet road that was behind Flora Street.
Down below on the street, like something that had been conjured there just to punish him for his decision to open the window, a blue and red light turned silently on top of a van, parked right in front of a building.
A police van.
The only occupant of the street, a man in a blue uniform, stood with his back against a big gum tree, exhaling stallion-strength cigarette smoke.
The gum tree was a giant, and its mottled white-and-gray bark was peeling, like old paint. When you first come to Australia, the skin of these trees can frighten you, because they remind you of leprosy and other things that are still feared back home.
Danny’s eyes turned back to the police van and then to the new brick building right behind it, which they climbed up floor by floor.
There. The fourth floor. Danny stopped to check.
On the fourth floor of that building behind the police van was a window in which red tulips grew in a black tray.
Now, the policeman he had seen outside the door had clearly said, There’s been a murder
across the road.
the street. So this, Danny told himself, can’t be the building—can’t. Just can’t.
Because this building in front of which the leprous gum tree grew, the one with the tulips on the fourth floor, you know this one—it is her
Danny’s throat scratched.
Every Monday morning for two years, nearly two years, he had gone to that flat with the tulips with his vacuum and kit. That was House Number Five. There’s been a murder across the road.
The dead spider! He had forgotten all about it. Danny let the napkin drop and saw the weightless red form swirl down to the street. He lowered the window and fastened it.
He breathed one-two-three, one-two-three, like they taught in Dubai in the business motel staff training program. Then he scratched the back of his neck. Removing his cell phone from his pocket, he went down the address book, taking a while to find the number…
He scrolled down to the eighteenth entry in the phone book.
Which was identified only as H5
Meaning, House Number Five.
Yes. There she was. The owner of the flat with the red tulips on the windowsill, right behind
Or across the street. The way Australians speak English. Across, behind.
Just call her, call and make sure she is all right. Make sure it was some other woman across the street.
He was about to press the dial button. But there was a police van down there with a revolving blue and red light. If he called her phone and they were inside her place… They can trace anything back to anything these days, the police in Sydney.
Standing by the wall next to the kitchen window, he slowly looked down onto the road below.
The cop leaning against the leprous gum tree threw away his cigarette just as another blue policeman came over to join him.
Danny stepped away from the window. Then he stepped toward it again and lowered the blinds.
He looked at the blue ball on the desk; then he picked it up, bounced it on the floor, and nudged it with his shoe until it rolled under the sofa again. There. Go back.
This dark spot under the lawyer’s sofa Danny recognized now as another of the forbidden places of the city of Sydney: should never have put my hand in there.
Back at the desktop, sitting down again, he typed in: Sydney murder news
Still waiting for the slow computer to turn up the search results, he brought out his cell phone, opened the address book, and scrolled down, moving his thumb higher up on the list, all the way to the first entry Home
and pressed the green dial button on the phone. Four rings, then a click, then an old man’s voice, slow, with a 1970s pop song in the background.
“Why you calling me? I have so much tension,” said his landlord. “Very bad morning it is for us. Very bad.”
Tommo never used the pronoun us
for anyone but the Parramatta Eels—his football team.
“Tommo. Can you check the TV for me?”
“They say that Joey Mitchell can’t play next year. And don’t call me on your cell phone, Danny. You know this.”
“Urgent. Can you see if there is a murder?”
“In Erskineville. Near Flora Street. Are they saying anything on TV?”
“Murder?” Tommo Tsavdaridis’s voice dropped low. “You are working in Erskineville today, no?”
“Yes. Can you check the TV for news about a murder in Erskineville?”
The phone went dead.
Fuck him. Danny went back to the kitchen. He raised the window again.
Playing with the address book again, he scrolled down to the nineteenth entry on the list, which was identified only as H6
If something had happened to House Number Five, then House Number Six would know, surely.
Instead of calling H6
, though, Danny rang Sunburst
“Tommo, please turn on the TV. I can’t get TV on my phone. Old phone.”
“Danny, why are you calling? I told you once never call me.”
“Just tell me if the TV says a woman named Radha was murdered.”
After a pause, Mr. Tsavdaridis, the owner of the Sunburst grocery store, where Danny had lived for four years, asked: “Why?”
“Just see if there is a woman named Radha Thomas who was murdered last night. In Erskineville. I’m waiting here till you tell me.”
Mr. Tsavdaridis’s voice stayed low. “Danny. Danny. Joey Mitchell was suspended today. We are finished.”
And with that, his landlord and protector hung up.
A pair of perfectly round yellow eyes peered at Danny from the windowsill. A crow—but not the animal called by that name back home—some other creature, twice as large, with cartoonish eyes, sat on that side of the glass, the sun beating down on its glossy skin.
These beasts—Australian crows—had been one of the puzzles in the first few days. What did they feed them here to make them so big? And so loud?
All at once, home is just around the corner.
He could hear from the street murmurs of the police, and the pedestrian indicator that was emitting the beep-beep-beep
Danny stood at the window, watched those red tulips—they looked so vivid, so alive—and thought once again about phoning Radha Thomas, House Number Five. If she picked up the phone, he could tell her to come to the window. Just so he could see her.
But when the tulips shook together, and the window opened—it was no woman but a man, a white man, who peered out of the window to show the policeman the view—Danny knew at once who that white man was. Mark. Her husband. His face was red, and he had been crying.
The lawyer’s home filled with sound; another plane was descending through the suburb of Erskineville toward Kingsford Smith International Airport.
Danny said the word again and again and felt better. He had washed his face three times and chosen not to wipe it dry. Nothing in Australia is hard to understand once you know that all the young people have glassy blue eyes because they’re on drugs.
He made sure he had taken everything with him.
So, Danny. Someone on drugs broke into her home, and shot her dead, or strangled her, or… She may not even be dead. You don’t know why the police are there, Danny. No triple jump on this.
He locked the door behind him, went down the stairs, left the key in the mailbox of 36 Flora Street, and stayed calm, very calm, when two enormous blue creatures, two beat officers, two New South Wales policewomen, walked straight toward him from the other side of the pavement, and Danny froze, thinking, They’ve seen me.
His leg started to vibrate. He felt his teeth bite each other. Villawood!
The two policewomen walked right past him, and he exhaled. Withdrew his hand from the mailbox and ran it through his hair.
He could see the four gray brick towers in the distance, with St. Peters Station next to them—but the road in between here and there was thick with Zebra Crossings, 50 signs, dots, dashes, curves—a forest of white arcs, swerves, enigmatic numerals, and zigzags of thick paint on asphalt—because this was no longer a road, it was the painted and tattooed war body of the hunter. Called the City of Sydney. Small things fit into bigger ones, automatic toll booths fit into ATMs, and they fit into swipe cards and into pay-wave cards, and all of this adds up to one anytime-and-everywhere machine. Which is hunting for a man named Dhananjaya Rajaratnam.
SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS CONTINUALLY MONITOR THE INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR OF THIS TRAIN, said the sticker on the glass door, although the electronic message in orange letters on the monitor board of the train reiterated the message—with one emendation. … continually monitor interior and the exterior of this train.
Sitting in the last compartment of the train, Danny studied the discrepancy between the sticker and its electronic restatement.
The blue canister on his back, the spray gun and foam brush in his bag, grew heavier.
He looked around. He was going to play an old game.
This woman reading The Sydney Morning Herald
, for instance: her blonde hair in a bun; lines of tension visible in the tight strong jaw. If the Sri Lankan military police or immigration sat that one in a cone of light, she’d just suck her lips in. And say nothing. How she’d eat up taunts: reverse psychology, insults, slap to the face…
But a cigarette in your thigh, miss?
The blonde turned the pages of the newspaper. Danny cupped his hands around his eyes. Ridiculous. You are in Australia. You have been here for four years. Start thinking like them.
House Number Five. Now, she could have beaten the torture. Yes, she
Strong woman, House Number Five, Radha: wide-hipped, muscled, he saw her now, wearing a white shirt that fell over tight-fitting black gym pants. There was strength in this woman, yet she was light; she was a dancer, and Danny saw her on that rooftop in Hong Kong, doing the Lindy Hop. She was quick.
It wouldn’t have been easy, killing her. If
she’s dead. Maybe the police were asking her husband about something else. He’s a real estate agent, isn’t he? One of them was arrested the other day for fraud. It was in the paper.
Just call Radha, Danny told himself. House Number Five. Ask if she’s all right.
The creaking of the rear compartments grew and grew, as if, any minute now, the back of the train would detach itself from the rest.
But if she’s not
all right, the police have her phone.
Near Central Station, a gray-shirted employee of the railways with glossy silver hair and a silver beard, an Aussie version of the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar, his hands behind his back, hunted for something on the tracks.
The train passed the sandstone clock tower of the station: Danny remembered a minaret with a timepiece set into it near Batticaloa that glistened in silver light all through Ramadan. Quick. Stare at it, Danny, note down the time. People used to think like this when he was a boy because they had nothing, not even a wristwatch, in those days. How near it feels again: home.
Just then the silver-haired railway man on the tracks raised his head and found Danny’s eyes.
“O-kay,” Danny said aloud.
That was how she said it: her one peculiarity of speech, the only alien thing that came out of her Australian mouth, a breath of H
on the vowel, and the kay
exploding, a nervous tic, an attempt to placate trouble.
“O-kay,” he repeated.
The air inside the train circulated a reek of rancid animal fat that no other passenger seemed to notice, making Danny worry that it was the smell of his cleaning equipment or his fate.
In the seat opposite to him, someone unfurled the newspaper. Danny saw an advertisement facing him: Chinese Dragon, $8 Menu, 7 Days!
The animal fat smell in the air tightened. Do not do something stupid, Danny warned his stomach, do not vomit. To be invisible for four years, you need the tongue
of an Australian, we all know that. When I was new to Sydney, and I still spoke with an accent like some new immigrants do, I was picked on in school, but I talked sense and reason with the bullies, and they became mates. (“Through my contradictions you grow,” page 12.)
Even before he got to Australia, Danny was practicing becoming Australian. All the way back in Batticaloa. In front of a mirror. Slowing down his V
’s. Biting his lower lip when saying volleyball.
Later, in the Sunburst grocery store in Glebe, while filing cartons of longlife milk and chocolate shakes, he searched for the magic keys to Australianness. He remembered what he’d heard in Dubai, that villagers in China were asking doctors to cut a groove in their tongue so they could speak English without an accent. If they can do that, I can do this. I reckon I can. Because what is the thing that makes an Aussie an Aussie? Sounding Aussie
. Eliminate the tics that Tamils bring to their English: the undulating rhythms, yo
tagged on to words, the use of no
for emphasis or a pause in a sentence.
Because compare and contrast, point for point, with how people back home argue. Smoking causes cancer, you say one morning: O, no, no, re, no!
What about Eswaran over there who has lived to ninety-nine years, no, smoking beedis morning, evening, and night? Exception
to the rule, buddy, the Aussie points out. Danny liked that. Logical. Other day, cleaning House Number Nine, in Ashfield, he flooded the bathroom, but once he’d explained to the owner of the place, a red-haired marketing woman, that the water faucet was broken, and he was able to prove this by demonstration, she calmed down. Not Danny’s fault—and she even felt she owed him twenty-five dollars for the extra time he had put in. Logical people. Your life is yours, my life is mine.
The tongue of an Australian. Never say receipt
with the P
. Be generous with I reckon.
Add a loud Look
—at the start of the sentence, and ridiculous
at the end. If you are happy, talk about rugby: “Go Eels.” If you are unhappy, talk about rugby: “What about the Rabbitohs?”
And do not ever
call it rugby.
You need the tongue of an Australian, sure; but to stay invisible, you also need, at the opposite end, the bowels of an Australian. Chinese Dragon, $8 Menu, 7 Days!
Please turn to another page, Danny begged the man reading the newspaper. I don’t want to shit right here.
Turning away from the newspaper, he glanced behind him and to his left, and that is how he found out he was being watched.
The woman in a white shirt and jeans was reading a newspaper, but her blond child, his head on his mother’s thighs, like a cat on a lap, was looking at Danny.
In the shade of his mother’s newspaper, his eyes began sparkling. The highlights don’t fool me, mate. I know what you are.
Obnoxious legal thing. Danny tilted his head to the side and returned the child’s stare.
Little legal policeman. I am never going back home.
The child tilted his head a little more and a little more and kept staring.
Danny did the same.
I haven’t lasted four years here, little policeman, to be caught by you.
First Year as an Illegal Not even six months in, one morning at the shopping mall in Burwood, they caught him. Holding a powerful green umbrella over her head, she suddenly stopped to stare at Danny; and then the bag in her free hand dipped, as if it had become heavier. She was Tamil, for sure. And she knew at once, he knew at once, he was from Sri Lanka and Tamil. From the fullness of her shopping bag, from her way of walking in the sun rather than avoiding it, he knew she must be legal: and from his way of doing the opposite of these things, she knew he was illegal. At once Danny turned around and ran. When he confessed to Tommo that a woman from back home had spotted him, or almost certainly had, the old Greek man sat down behind his counter, pointed to the street, and shouted, “Get out right now. Get out. I’m a citizen. I have a passport. I took the oath in the public hall in Parramatta, and I have my citizenship certificate, and they can’t do a thing to me. Danny. I could rent this room out to some uni student for three hundred dollars a week. Easy. But I give it to you for free. Why? You are useless. Totally useless.” Running up the metal stairs, Danny lay on the sofa in the storeroom of the Sunburst grocery store in Glebe, his ears alert for
—“Is an illegal down there? Is an illegal from Sri Lanka down there?” He knew Tommo would betray him in a second. I am sorry for what I did, he wished he could tell the police, and immigration, and customs, and his father back home. He wished he could tell them more: that from the day he had become an illegal, he had been trying to reverse things. To find some way around his decision.
I came to Australia on a student visa, but I realized that my college is a “ripoff.” They will not help me find a job here, so I dropped out. But I made an honest mistake and stayed for more than twenty-eight days after I left my college. Can anyone in this forum tell me, is it now possible to make a petition to the department, to give me an extension?
Best Answer (3 likes):
Mate, can’t you read a calendar? As a law enforcement officer, I can tell you what is going to follow very accurately because I have arrested dozens like you: I know perfectly well that you did not overstay by mistake. You chose to be here. Doesn’t matter. Honest or (more likely) dishonest, twenty-eight days after you left your course and had not left Australia, you became illegal. You have probably seen enough of this country to believe that it has zero tolerance for illegal activity of any kind. This is not France. This is not America. We are an island, and you cannot get on or get off without our clearance. My recommendation: kindly surrender at once to an immigration office and receive the sentence of deportation immediately. Because if you keep doing what you are doing, if you run and dodge and hide until you get arrested (and you will
be arrested), then you face a much worse time. Understand that every police officer, taxation man, and immigration or customs officer has the power to arrest you immediately and hold you indefinitely unless you can show, on the spot, documents authorizing your presence in Australia. There is also something called the citizen arrest option. I am betting you have an accent, which in other words means: Hey, law enforcement officers, come check out my legal status not to be here.
Best Answer (3 likes):
And. Son. Let me tell you. And you will get caught, yes, and this comes next: Spending your days in a room with lots of strangers—maybe you’ll have Iraqis, maybe Pakistanis, but basically, they will be a bunch of lovely people. Hope you enjoy Arabic for breakfast! Before we deport you, you will have to face court for your illegal activities and failure to pay tax. Expect the subsequent bill from the government to be over ten thousand dollars. You will pay all of the expenses for your deportation, including the three hundred dollars or so for each day you are held in a detention center. Hey, and guess what… when you logged in with your question, son, your IP was recorded. Since law enforcement actively monitors Yahoo! answers for pedophiles, crooks, druggies, and illegal aliens like you, they already know what town you are in, if not what house you are living in. Do you understand what I am saying, son—do you know enough English?
Best Answer (3 likes):
And what the fuck does that mean? It meant: each time a door opened or slammed in Glebe, Danny’s heart contracted; he saw a brown man who held a cigarette in the fork of his fingers; a Sri Lankan interrogation officer normally stationed somewhere around Bandaranaike International Airport. Each time a door opened or slammed, he wanted to shout, I am sorry, sir. I am so sorry. But what was the point of saying that now? He was now a man without rights in this world.
Seven exits lead out of Central Railway Station, depositing you behind the city, in the shade of Surry Hills; or directing you into the bright central business district through a U-shaped sandstone arcade; or lifting you up an escalator to the light rail; or, in the case of the long tunnel paved with mosaic tales that Danny was walking through, leaving you in Railway Square, a bus stand.
He stopped in front of a sandwich shop with a TV screen affixed to a corner of its ceiling; a woman behind the counter was wiping a plate and looking at the man with the astronaut backpack and the plastic bag.
In a minute he would be told that facilities were only for customers, but for now, mouth open and clutching his bag full of cleaning equipment, he was watching the TV screen: … police are asking anyone with information about the murder of a woman from Erskineville to step forward. The woman, a forty-three-year-old former Medicare administrator, was found near a creek in Toongabbie. After being stabbed to death, her body was wrapped in a leather jacket, which was filled with stones and dumped into the creek in a bid to sink it. But it rose to the surface and washed ashore, where it was discovered early in the morning by a jogger. Police have described the injuries to her neck and head, committed with a knife, as horrific.
Now they were showing an old photo of the dead person, a brown woman with a broad smile and strong thick arms. Unbloodied, unhurt. He immediately closed his eyes. Prrrrrrmp. Badabadabadabum.
I am Honest Danny.
Because once, as a boy, he had walked for six kilometers to return an umbrella left behind by an old relative. “Abraham Lincoln,” someone remarked, “did the same thing at the same age. This boy will become a great man.” He became a business motel assistant manager in Dubai. One day Danny found dollars in a wallet dropped by a guest who was already in a taxi to the airport. The guest sent him a PDF attachment letter of appreciation for his honesty. You had no choice where Danny grew up; in Batti, even criminals had to be law-abiding. One evening, see, the government declared a curfew. Every shop has to be shuttered before eight. Two policemen, walking about the market, hear a noise behind a shutter: “Open up!” Turns out the shopkeeper and his son are having dinner behind the closed shutter. Technically, the two police say, since we could hear your eating noise from outside, you are
breaking the curfew. Come. Father and son wash their hands and go into police custody. Father comes out that evening, drunk as a dodo. Police are misunderstood chaps, really. Lovely people. Son doesn’t come out the next day. The father goes to the station daily to check. A week later, a naked body is found floating facedown in the lagoon, piece of wood around the ankle. Father spends hours trying to identify it. So if the curfew was at eight, you observed the curfew starting at 7:45. If the law said, a
, you said, A
One hundred percent Honest Danny. Prrrrrrrrmp.
And opened his eyes.
The TV was still showing an old smiling photograph of Radha Thomas, his former employer, the owner of House Number Five.
So they didn’t break in to her flat with the red tulips. It wasn’t for drugs or money. The police were there only to question her husband, maybe. Another set of police must be down at the creek, where they recovered the body.
Killed at a creek. Wrapped in a jacket and dumped into it.
A drowned body, he thought, looks nothing like this. Like the TV was showing. He knew. A day after the tsunami of 2004, he’d been standing in a crowd on the Kallady Bridge, which connected Batticaloa to the world, and peering down at the water, watching as those who’d gone missing were now returned one by one by the swollen lagoon—each new bloated, milk-white corpse greeted by a cry of recognition from the bridge.
That’s what Radha Thomas would’ve been like when she washed up. Except she was dead even before she drowned.
Stabbed. What does it feel like, when the blood spurts out? What does blood look like? Shark liver oil, maybe. Danny had been fed it as a boy by his mother. She had told him it was shark’s blood, to make him strong.
A hunger for meat twisted his stomach: a short eat with pork or egg inside, a triangular wedge of paratha with dark flesh wrapped snugly inside, a fried samosa, all the compact fried stuff kept behind glass in Sri Lankan teashops for difficult moments in the day. But no more meat, ever again. That was the price of being with a vegetarian woman.
He shifted the weight of his backpack about, glanced around, and saw a clock.
Wait. He turned back toward the television. What color was the jacket? Did they say that?
“Everything okay, buddy?” asked a lady from behind the sandwich counter.
Danny smiled at her.
The TV was now saying: The fire burning in the Blue Mountains is expected to last most of the
Turning around, Danny walked back toward the trains and ran up the stairs to the first platform he could find. He stood there without knowing where that train went.
A crushed can of Diet Coke, trapped in a vortex of little winds, rattled complicatedly about the tracks.
Call Dr. Prakash. Just call. See if he has heard the news about House Number Five. That’s all.
You could smell the forests burning all the way in the Blue Mountains even here on Platform 17, Central Station. Standing right by the yellow line illuminating the edge, Danny turned from the tracks toward the people behind him.
A weak-eyed boy wearing a Sikh’s turban was staring at the electronic noticeboard as if it were something he had been told to eat. Three Catholic nuns gossiped in what Danny thought might be French, or perhaps Spanish—and he heard Hindi, and also somewhere else on the platform (far away), Tamil: this was inner-city Sydney, and a crowd like this, warm, expanding, like the convection-powered liquid molecules he remembered from his physics textbook, would envelop and conceal Danny—unlike the other sort of crowd he had seen in Australia, on the platform of a country town or bus station far from Sydney—cold and Caucasian, contracting into itself and stranding you farther and farther away. Danny felt safe right here, on this yellow line, at the edge of this platform.
But when he turned back to the Sikh boy, Danny caught his eyes: and they were hazelnut in color.
The color of Dr. Prakash’s eyes. Radha Thomas’s lover. The man whom, for nearly two years, Danny had called House Number Six.
What color, Danny wanted to ask the Sikh boy, was the jacket? The one the killer wrapped her in? Do you
Down on the tracks, the metal can rattled louder and louder, because the next train was approaching.
Behind the glass door of the train, an Indian, wearing a blue suit, waited with her eyes to the floor; the moment the doors opened and the commuters stepped down onto Platform 17, she raised her eyes, threw her hair back, and gazed straight at Danny.
Weren’t you killed last night? Weren’t you dumped into the creek, and didn’t you wash up this morning, and weren’t you discovered by a jogger, who must have, I assume, screamed at the sight?
The Indian woman in the blue suit went past, and swallowing down the lump in his throat, Danny followed, until he lost her in the crowd.
Seven exits lead out of Central Station, and up above the flight of steps, out there in the sunlight, stands the seventh.
That bright street beyond it is Chalmers Street, and when you are there, you are behind the city.
This time the man bearing the silver jet-booster on his back was trying to leave Central Station by the rear exit.
Still on the dark steps, as people took the stairs or the escalator on either side of him, he watched the trees beyond the thick black line, on the road. Prosperous with the Sydney light, the leaves swayed and wooed him. Come on, Legendary Cleaner. Cross the black line. Ask Prakash what he knows of the murder.
But there is a black line Danny had to cross to get to the leaves. No Aussie saw this line, which followed Danny around the world; but anyone who grew up in Sri Lanka in the 1990s knows this black line, what it loudly commands of one, what it quietly permits.
And the black line states: Survive. Don’t be involved in this. You’re a man without rights in this world.
But on the other side of the thick black line, every incandescent leaf tip, each sun-darkened vein in the trees, was saying in a dead woman’s voice: There’s a reason I can’t ever leave Sydney and it is the light. You know I had an offer to work in the biggest hospital in Hong Kong as an administrator. Offers from Dubai too. Everything’s tax-free there. I could have gone anywhere—Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore. But I can’t leave this light.
Looking at the sunlit trees, Danny, an expert negotiator with taboo, proposed this: he had another hour and a half to make it to the Accountant’s place. Another hour and a half before he returned to his day’s duty.
I’ll go out into Central for just five minutes. Then I’ll come back. What are you doing?
The black line thickened.
If he had free time, he should spend it in Glebe. In the storeroom. Or in the library, talking to the other illegals. Not out here.
With each new arriving train, he could hear steel carriages pulverizing that stray Diet Coke lying on the tracks at Platform 17.
Brushing past Danny, a white man hurried up the steps and toward the bright road, turning to check him out from the corner of his eye.
Danny felt it like a punch in his stomach. I must look ridiculous. He could feel the comic weight of all those gold-tinted, shampooed strands of hair on his scalp. It was a huntsman sitting on his head and he was carrying it around Sydney. Go back at once, said his shame, to the storeroom in Glebe and wait.
But then all the leaves rippled in the wind and glowed in southern hemisphere light. But for you, Nelson, this must be a terrible city, right? Some mornings, it must be. A prison of light. I will try to help you, Cleaner. I know people in the government, and I’ll ask them, without mentioning any names, of course. I’ll ask if there’s a way for you to say sorry and be forgiven for what you did. I will ask.
In the end, it was too strong. The dead woman’s voice was just too strong.
Commuter trains packed full of honest suburban people were still drawing into Central Station as he walked alongside the trees with glowing green leaves.
He had done it. Breaking his taboo, he had left the station and run across the road.
Immediately, he wanted to eat something fried, something with chicken, or pork, or egg. Mutton.
If he can’t have meat, a man has to have a friend.
Danny set his teeth and walked.
Down Chalmers Street, he saw a twenty-four-hour convenience store and moved toward it, because he knew at once who ran a place like that.
The door chimed as Danny pushed it open, looking about for the owner.
In the city of Sydney, the shopper is a child in a fairy tale: sweets and colors surround her in a magic castle, and the Wicked Witch squints from government messages.
Behind his mountain of $2.50 candies and $3.50 pink greeting cards stood a brown man, his head blocking a SMOKING KILLS sign, as he guarded his most valuable cargo: scratch-off lottery tickets and cigarettes, both of which were encased in protective glass.
The man behind the counter was burly, bearded, probably Bangladeshi, and, Danny thought, extremely legal.
You can tell from the way he watches you.
The brown man in a white man’s city who is watching other brown men. Danny had studied all the ways this was done, from the amiable glances of the Western Suburbs Indians, smug in their jobs and Toyota Camrys; the easily acquisitive Sab Theek Hai, Bhai?
(or, more recently, the mysteriously Jamaican Hey, maaan
) of the fresh new students in Haymarket, the ones who are running madly across roads; the ostentatiously indifferent I’ve got nothing in common with you, mate
glances of the Australian-born children of doctors in Mosman or Castle Hill (Icebox Indians, Danny called them, because they always wore black glasses and never seemed to sweat, even in summer); and worst of all, those families visiting from Chennai or Malaysia, clicking photos of the beach, or loudly double-checking on the phone with relatives back home exactly which cholesterol medication or marsupial souvenir was needed from Australia. Man who has run from his family, you’re not natural,
brown people told Danny, and he, with his innate instinct for double or nothing, had streaked his hair in a barbershop. Standing in front of a mirror, he had imitated the gaze of an Australian-born man: My father is a surgeon at Westmead Hospital. I don’t have time for immigrants like you.
He had fixed his posture too. On the streets of Sydney, Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans still looked at Danny, but now they looked with envy.
Easiest thing in the world, becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway; but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people, who will see you no matter what. Since they must see me, Danny thought, let me be seen this way—not as a scared illegal with furtive eyes but as a native son of Sydney, a man with those golden highlights, with that erect back, that insolent indifference in every cell of his body. Let them observe that Danny is extremely
, though. Because no one is icebox around Central Station.
Here in these streets still resounding with the bodies of trains passing over old iron tracks, Chalmers and Devonshire, Danny had seen only the raw gaze, the Central Station stare, eyes that convey a desperate truth from one immigrant to the other: every brown man in Sydney, one day or another, has to beg.
Today is my day to beg, Danny pleaded with his eyes to the Bangladeshi, for I am in such trouble today, my legal brother.
Legal? Much more than legal—this young Bangladeshi was a brick wall in which each block said: Ideal Bloody Immigrant.
Returning Danny’s gaze, he folded his arms across his chest, the image of respectability, diligence, and responsibility to family, everything the whites wanted in someone they let into their country: he did not have to talk about the weather, or about cricket or football, to curry favor with his clients; secretly, they envied his faith, his purpose, his strong alien core.
To win him over, step by step, Danny touched the top of a stack of Daily Telegraph
newspapers, curved his spine, hunched, and smiled.
Meaning: Can I look at the paper without buying? Cricket? Only for cricket?
All this without words. South Asian to South Asian, ignoring the highlights.
Without a smile, the Bangladeshi relented, adding: “Don’t make dirty.”
Danny wandered past more greeting cards, small useful metal things hung in plastic, and a freezer just for Magnum ice cream, before he reached for The Daily Telegraph
Danny turned the pages. Don’t make it
dirty. Legal idiot.
Nothing in the paper. So it must have been late at night. Still gazing at the paper, he played the knife murderer and made thrusts into the air. You’d have to be bloody strong to do it. Even if it was a big knife. She was a tough woman. She would have fought.
From where he stood, he now overheard the Bangladeshi store manager whispering into the phone: “… real malik is Louiebhai, he is the real…” and Danny was charmed momentarily by that name, Louiebhai, before he thought, Unless she knew the murderer and wasn’t expecting to be stabbed, so she didn’t, until he was summoned to the present by the snapping of fingers:
Danny looked up. The Bangladeshi was pointing straight at him. Time’s up.
Folding the newspaper, Danny replaced it with a big smile. Thank you, brother.
“I have a cactus,” he said. From his bag, he had removed the thing wrapped in thick plastic.
The Bangladeshi looked at it almost curiously. Danny knew why his eyes were sparkling like that.
Instead of the bonsai version with branches, Danny had bought the other, less endearing, domelike kind of cactus.
“For my girlfriend. Sonja. Nurse. She is a nurse. At St. Vincent’s today. Very good nurse. She’ll like the cactus, I reckon. Yes, I reckon.”
The domed cactus was sixty cents cheaper than the branched kind, and didn’t the Bangladeshi know it? Look at him grinning.
“Do you have Knitting
magazine?” Danny raised his voice. “She likes stitching. Aussie girls don’t stitch, but she does. Very good stitcher.”
“Over there.” The store manager knew Danny by now. “Don’t read it for free.”
By the time Danny had moved over to the rack with the women’s and craft magazines, the TV newsreader had begun talking about sports.
As Danny browsed through the only knitting magazine on the shelf, another customer came in and actually bought something.
“Do you want the receipt?” the Bangladeshi man asked this customer, and Danny smiled: He still pronounces it with the p
But the Bangladeshi man had nothing to hide: he was a legal, and whether or not he pronounced his p
, Danny’s time inside this store was now over.
Louiebhai, Danny thought as he left the store, Louiebhai, the new Malik, the new Boss of multicultural Sydney. He
is the one I have to talk to, Danny thought, right outside the Bangladeshi’s store, as the trains moved over their noisy tracks. Louiebhai, louiebhai.
Stress always made his sinuses painful. Danny felt the holes inside his skull become heavy; the deviation inside his nose hurt; and he shivered. Louiebhai, louiebhai… He looked around for a cigarette butt on the pavement. Please. Even the smell of tobacco made a man more rational.
Walking around Central Station, searching for something to eat or something to smoke, or just to sniff, Danny saw, instead, shards of glass.
A hole had been knocked in the middle of a window, and the pieces lay on the pavement. You don’t ask why in Sydney, because young white men just do these things. Punch, smash, and wreck.
Danny could not stop staring at what lay on the ground. It seemed too horribly intimate a sight. Too eloquent.
It reminded him of death.
… a sudden image: Radha Thomas, healthy, thick-armed, in the luminous glow of a Sydney city swimming pool kids’ section, with a giant water snake of red and blue tiles, a Nagadeva
, right above her head, and children in their goggles and swimwear squealing for joy while this woman with her powerful neck, her powerful shoulders, splashed water on them…
Yes, that evening the doctor and Radha had bought Danny a two-dollar spectator’s ticket so he could stand, watch, and offer funny comments while they swam and played in the kids’ section of a public pool.
That woman who had been so alive in the turquoise water, that woman, House Number Five, Radha Thomas, was dead.
He felt a tightening all along the cord that connects pleasure to terror. The last time he had felt this, Danny thought as his shoe tried to move a piece of vandalized glass, was the twenty-eighth day after he had broken the terms of his student visa in Australia. And become illegal. Forever.
The broken pieces of glass had been painted with black letters… and the moment Danny saw the kangaroo-and-emu coat of arms of Australia, he guessed the original name and began to… M
… restore the broken word with his shoe.
All things in life, all good things, take time to emerge, like a glossy plantain shining deep inside a dark coconut grove. Be slow, Danny. Think this one through.
He moved the first letter into place and stepped back. E
What do you know, Danny?
They fought a lot.
So? Everyone does. Don’t you and Sonja?
Danny remembered his uncle Shankar, who took a Vicks menthol inhaler with him everywhere he went, and sucked on it through a nostril… If only I had a menthol inhaler to suck on right here, he thought as he approached the next piece of broken glass. I
Dr. Prakash was her lover, yes. Radha’s lover. And he is a strange man, yes. He drank a lot. Sometimes he drank twenty beers at a time. But he wasn’t bad. He wasn’t one of the gutter men of Kings Cross. He was a private school boy. He had a cupboard full of ties.
Blocking one nostril, Danny inhaled with the other, an old trick to ease sinus pain.
A train moved noisily into Central Station. As the rattling of the train grew, the bright glass buildings cast incandescent reflections all around, while the great four-sided clock tower of Central, like Lord Brahma with His four faces, rose over the conflagration displaying the time of day to all the meridians of the city. Danny stared in wonder at these familiar things.
Down on the ground, a piece of glass caught his eye. He moved it with his shoe. C
Black-and-white-striped ties. And next to them was a leather jacket. Which he wore all the time.
But it was a red leather jacket that he wore.
And they didn’t say anything about the dead woman being found in a colored jacket, did they?
Danny saw himself now: at the top of Kings Cross, right by the Coca-Cola sign, looking down at the row of Californian palms that divided the traffic. Radha was by his side, waiting. It was one of those mornings in August, when the weather is boiling over in Sri Lanka and the rest of the normal world. But here, it was freezing, and air condensed when Danny breathed. Radha had come so close the shampoo from her hair blew into his nostrils. There,
she said. There.
True enough: walking up William Street, wearing a brand-new leather jacket—not black, but red—was Dr. Prakash, waving back at them—yes, Prakash, in that red jacket of his, exuberant and grinning, looking like a risen leaf, come to inform everyone that their long Australian winter was over.
You’re crazy even to think it’s him, Danny said to himself, walking over to the next piece: A
And then R
Now Danny realized he had missed a D somewhere. Didn’t matter. Working his shoe with expert, subtle movements, he pushed the pieces of glass tighter together until each shard now glinted like a tooth of the sun. ME ICARE
Here’s the thing, though.
Her body was found at a creek in Toongabbie, they said. And she was killed yesterday. Which was a Sunday.
If her body was lying by a creek, and it was on a Sunday, then I think I know which creek that is.
Danny felt himself standing before an audience like the one Kiran Rao had addressed the previous day at the Sydney Festival. Yes, sir: that’s it. I knew something about the dead woman no one else did. My very position as an illegal gave me, strangely enough, this unique power, and I used it to do some good. Through my contradictions, you grow.
But when he looked up and saw the hole in the window from where the Medicare sign had fallen, the back of his throat scratched.
I was just the cleaner, he now found himself pleading with the audience. Once a week, vacuum and toilets, that’s all. He hoped the audience of rational Australians would understand. I like to show off a bit, that’s all. I am very sorry.
Yes, Danny had assembled a name out of the broken glass pieces, but perhaps it was the wrong name. ME ICARE
A white man was now watching him watching the broken glass. Danny turned and walked away, but then another train began to rattle through Central Station, and in the middle of the road, he froze.
The convex glass of the building across the road twisted the zebra crossing he was stepping on into a curvy chalk spine, and Danny caught himself, caught himself incoherent. Gold streaks in the hair, vacuum canister on his back, falsity in his heart, and an Australian accent on his tongue. Thin bum. Thick bum. I reckon. Prrrrrrrp.
Crossing the road, he stood plumb in front of the curved glass. Astronaut.
As he watched it, the image of the weird astronaut before him changed: it became that of Cousin Kannan. Oh, you remember Cousin Kannan, don’t you? The same time Danny flew to Australia, Cousin Kannan had paid a gang of people smugglers who would get people from Batticaloa to Rameswaram and, from there, around Africa and across the Atlantic. Kannan sat inside a boat for seventeen days, eating brown bread and boiled potatoes, watching for sharks, collecting rainwater, until the Coast Guard of Canada arrested everyone in his boat. Eight months in a prison. Then—like a miracle—legal status. A man needed a certain level of self-confidence even to become a refugee.
Danny had come to Australia by plane and then applied for refugee status and been told to fuck off. Could he really blame the Aussie government for doubting his story? It was the same with that interrogating officer back home, the man holding the lit cigarette in his forked fingers: people easily saw through Danny, but they saw through to the wrong thing. The fraudulence, the grin, weren’t concealing any bigger secret.
There are some thick old walls on which poster has been stuck on poster. Peel away the posters—and the whole structure falls.
Honest Danny. Intelligent Danny. Reliable Danny. Reliably Intelligent Danny.
A train sounded a whistle from afar.
All at once, someone began humming the Mission: Impossible
theme song. Danny slid his hand into his pocket and found the cell phone. Good. It felt good and solid in his hand as he looked at it. Scrolling down to the nineteenth entry in the phone book, he found H6
House Number Six
And he pressed the green call button. He waited to hear it ringing.
“Ridiculous,” he said, “ridiculous,” and ended the call right there.
His leg was trembling as if it had seen a policeman; but his lips were parted, and there was joy in his heart.
As Central Station rocked with another incoming train, all around the sandstone wall that formed its perimeter, trees glowed, and their leaves took on the translucence of green grapes. Danny saw in each trembling and incandescent tree the peacock’s tail of fire on which Lord Murugan rode. Vibrating with the locomotive’s passing, the peacock’s tail rippled and promised: You
will be whole again.
Murugan: and he closed his eyes.
Buddha was their
god, protector of the Sinhalas. Murugan, deity of Tamils in need, sat on a peacock holding a vel
, a spear: he had temples devoted to his worship in India, in Jaffna, in Batticaloa, and a golden statue outside the Batu Caves in Malaysia.
When Danny opened his eyes, his phone was ringing, because the nineteenth number on his list, H6
, was returning his call.
Murugan, god of minorities, protect me today, as you have for four years.
Danny answered the call. “Doctor Prakash,” he said. “Is that you?”
Second Year as an Illegal The cactus job in Campbelltown was one of Mr. Tsavdaridis’s tips. In addition to ownership of the Sunburst grocery store in Glebe, and a pawnshop in Petersham, Tommo also ran a little Someone Else network extending across the city into the suburbs. Five saguaro cactuses in a backyard in Campbelltown. Word came down to Tommo in Glebe. Good money. A local gardener, shown the five “gentlemen from Texas,” had quoted a figure for removing them. Too high, felt the owners. “Get someone else to do it,” said the local. That was when word got around, on the Someone Else network, to Tommo, who himself went to Campbelltown. Now, the old man, even in his arthritic state, was always ready for extra cash… but when he stood in that backyard in Campbelltown and saw the five cactuses, even he fell silent. Danny was Someone Else’s Someone Else. Tommo gave him the morning off, and the address, and even paid for half of his train fare, on the understanding that it was to be a 50/50 split. Danny agreed. Before he went to Campbelltown, he bought himself three cigarettes from a store near the train station, smoked one, wrapped two in a white handkerchief, and then picked up a copy of a free local newspaper. Another Death in Villawood
Once again an illegal immigrant awaiting deportation inside Sydney’s Villawood detention centre has killed himself even while he was on “suicide watch.” The Department of Home Affairs acknowledged media reports that a man, identified as a 33-year-old Afghan national, swallowed a razor blade and perished of internal bleeding overnight. Unofficial reports suggest that this is the 698th attempt at self-harm this year among the facility’s estimated 3,500 inmates. It was a long train ride. Three young men sat in front of him with a pair of two-liter Coke bottles between their bare white legs. “So my grandfather was half Scottish, right?” said the one in the middle to the others. “Means they have to give me Right of Admittance in the UK, and then I get an EU passport… not that I want to go to Scotland, mind you—” As Danny got out of the Campbelltown station, passing a row of fish-and-chips shops, he saw four fat Aussie mynahs strutting about. These were not the demure mynahs of home, but plump and noisy, fonder of walking than of flying, gangsterish around french fries. Because Sydney is a city without raptors. The meek can become bold here. He found the house: outside, cut turf was stacked in dark rolls of earth bristling with grass, like homemade chocolate stuffed with nutmeg. Danny licked his lips. An Aussie woman in her thirties answered the doorbell and walked him to the backyard to show him what she called “the gentlemen from Texas.” Saguaro cactuses. Five Texan giants, the tallest a foot and a half taller than the other four, pale, U-branched, thorn-proud, deep into the pebbled backyard; Danny walked around them. “The guys who lived here before us, they fed these things fertilizer, and now look how dangerous they are, and we plan to have a baby next year.” The man who had cut the grass had not agreed to cut the cactuses, Danny guessed. He touched a thorn. “—when we have a baby, we don’t want our baby’s eye in one of those things.” In a shed in her backyard, she showed him tools that included a battery-powered buzz saw. “… taken out by the root, because you know these things can grow again from a stump—and then I want them rolled to the corner. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Danny unwrapped and lit his second cigarette. He understood. On festival days, in the temples of eastern Sri Lanka, Hindu men walk over burning coals, because that is just how people in the East are. In the dargah of Kalmunai, the Muslim faithful pierce their tongue with a metal skewer; in the heat of April, a man opens his forearm with a stiletto. Because this is how people in eastern Sri Lanka are. All through the civil war, the worst things were done in the East by people from the East to people from the East. When Danny extinguished his cigarette stub on a cactus, the Aussie woman let out a noise. She closed her glass door and watched from behind. He loosened up the earth around the first cactus with the shovel. He did this for twenty minutes, attacking the base around the plants and tentatively tapping each one with the shovel. He began singing—and turned the buzz saw on. Thorn and milk and pulp flew out from the cactus. “Wait. Put these on,” the woman shouted from behind the glass door, holding up a pair of goggles. Hacking at the Texas gentleman with the buzz saw, he sang louder and louder. The thorns are there to protect the roses. Danny grinned as he cut into the cactus. The thorns are there to
— “Are you an illegal?” He turned the machine off, removed his goggles, and turned to see the white woman in the doorway, arms folded. “You agreed to work for so little.” Danny put the saw down and got ready to run. But she just went back into the house and closed the door, before opening it to shout: “Once you’re done cutting the gentlemen from Texas, you’re also supposed to roll them away to the wall.” She left him alone for three-quarters of an hour, and when she opened the door again and came out, she saw the five dead cactus trunks rolled up the wall of the garden. The buzz saw had been put away. Danny was washing his hands in the outdoor sink. When she got there, she saw the color of the basin had changed from his blood. “Go to a hospital, it could get infected, which would be suboptimal. Seriously sub—” But she looked at him and knew he couldn’t go to a hospital, of course. She had antiseptic inside the house. And soft white towels. She swathed his hands in them for him. “I used to be illegal,” she said. “Not here, but in America.” Her name was Sam. And she was not Australian either. She was from Zimbabwe. Did Danny know why people were leaving that country? He should look it up on Google. He looked straight at his wrapped arms and waited for her to give him his money. Sam talked. She had tried for seven years to settle in America. Had Danny been there? Sam had lived in Colorado, in Texas, in Las Vegas, everywhere, always trying to get a green card. It never came. She kept extending her visa for years, but then one day it wasn’t renewed. And so she stayed illegally in America, running from one immigration lawyer to another, for eighteen months. “You know when I finally gave up?” she asked Danny. “It was the day I talked to Jose Diego, this man
—this cleaner—at my lawyer’s office. He told me how he became American. His mother, six months pregnant, had walked across the border in Texas—waded through a river—to get into American territory, just to give birth to him on U.S. soil. You had to have such passion to get that fucking green card thing. On the other hand,” Sam added, “some get it just by luck.” See, there was a cousin of hers, Anna, a British cousin, born and bred in the city of London—or so Cousin Anna thought. Because at the age of eighteen, her parents suddenly told her: “By the way, Anna, did we never mention you were born in Hawaii?” They just forgot to tell her, all these years. She was an American citizen by birth. “She lives over there now. Ohio. It takes prodigies of effort or prodigies of luck to become American, and I was capable of neither. “Australia isn’t too bad,” she said as Danny unwrapped his towels and examined the state of his hands. “It’s outside human history. There’s no torture here, there’s no evil in the soil. Is it hard being illegal here?” “I am,” stated Danny, “not illegal.” She went into the house to get him his money. Thanking Sam for the towels and refusing her offer of a beer but giving her his phone number and telling her to call him directly next time, and not via Tommo Tsavdaridis and his Someone Else network, Danny walked over to the Campbelltown station, where he discarded the bloodstained towels and waited for the train.
“Dr. Prakash,” said Danny again. And then, not knowing what else to do, added, “Sir.”
There was a pause, and then a voice he hadn’t heard in months laughed.
“Nelson. Nelson Mandela. That’s you, isn’t it? Nelson our cleaner.”
“Yes, sir. It’s me.” Danny sighed. Too late now to change a thing.
On the other end of the phone, the man laughed again.
“Haven’t seen this number in so long. In so
long. Our Legendary Cleaner. And how nice to hear from you, today of all days.”
The impetus to communicate often came to Danny as mimicry. He heard himself saying:
“Today of all days.”
The doctor’s voice was as clear and unhurried as the headlight of a car in Batticaloa after a late-evening storm has cleared. How could I be the murderer?
it asked, quietly, serenely.
Clap your hands, son, and the day will start again.
Thinking, Aussies are a logical people, mistakes can be undone in this country, Danny said, “Just hit your number by mistake, Doctor. Was looking for House Number Seven. He’s an accountant. On Brown Street in Newtown. Have to clean his place. Hit your number by mistake.”
“By mistake. Today of all days,” said the voice of House Number Six, Dr. Prakash, the man he had once called the King of the Nile.
“A bit strange, Doctor sir,” he said preemptively.
There was a pause, and then the voice on the phone laughed.
“Mr. Cleaner. Nelson the cleaner, it’s great you called today. You know why? I’m flying to South Africa in a few hours. By the day’s end.”
“Yes, South Africa. I told you how much I love that country, right? Gandhi was there as a young man. You remember that. I told you all about it.” The doctor chuckled. “And guess what I need? Someone to clean my place. Potts Point. Someone’s got to give it a clean, then I can head out. And you were the best. You were a legend, Nelson. Come over.”
“Busy busy busy,” said Danny. “Too busy. Have to go to Newtown.”
“Not too busy to call me but too busy to come over. Funny man, our Danny. That is your other
name, isn’t it?”
The voice sounded calm, cool, rational: above all, it sounded Australian.
“Sorry, Doctor.” Danny took a breath. “Big mistake—just a mistake. Have to go work in Newtown.” And he hung up.
Overwhelming relief. There. He had done it. Done his duty: he had checked, just to see if Prakash sounded normal, and found him perfectly so, which meant he had had nothing to do with anything. Fine. Life was fine. Back to cleaning Rodney Accountant’s flat now. Ba-da-da-da-bum-bum
A middle-aged man passed him with a dog on a leash. No breed of dog Danny could name, the animal was the color of blueberry ice cream from New Zealand; around its fist of a neck was a black collar with spikes, and hard white nipples stood erect under the flat belly. How good it would be, Danny thought, to see a fat and familiar Sri Lankan dog right now, like an Alsatian.
German shepherd, they call them here.
His phone began to glow again. H6
Dr. Prakash was eager to resume the conversation.
It must be past noon now. Surely.
Clap your hands, son, and the day will start again. Inhale some menthol, son, and the day may start again.
He walked into Glebe clapping his hands.
Maybe it was the time in the hotel business in Dubai. You have to keep selling your customers your shitty hotel, your shitty room. A man who overpromises to others will overpromise to himself. He says: “Danny is going to solve this murder—Danny is going to be a hero.” And this
is what happens.
He calls the one man he shouldn’t be calling today. The day of Radha’s death.
The smoke was thicker here in Glebe than around Central, and he sneezed again, thinking, Where is everyone, where is the world, as the keening noise of construction rose in the background.
Just two days ago it had been a different neighborhood: the weekend fair was on, and he and Sonja had held hands and gone into a row of white tents where they saw hand-beaten steel jewelry, leather belts, soaps wrapped in colored paper, and fragrant fat candles. A rock band played behind the tents. Sonja looked for the type of black jeans that are slashed open at the knees; also for colored thread for her knitting; and she discussed woolen knitwear with the people under the white umbrellas, and different styles of darning and stitching, a sort of homeliness that Danny did not associate with Australian women, and which made him smile. In the background, the other illegals, who knew he was there, and knew Sonja was coming, stood at a safe distance, grinning.
Saturday. That had just been on Saturday. Today Glebe was like a ghost suburb, darkened by a film of woodsmoke.
Past the white pillars of the Glebe post office, the empty parks, the wrought-iron terraces reminding him of homes in Batticaloa, he ran to the library.
Hide in the Sunburst, or sit with your own kind, Danny. That’s how you’ll survive this day.
Most weekday mornings, the illegals gathered in front of the Glebe library: it was their own market, of damaged goods to barter or sell, and information about jobs and changes to immigration laws. Sometimes Danny read to the others from Kiran Rao’s book, or described to them what Rao had said that morning on TV: Every morning Mum put me on a train from Penrith to the city to attend Knox Grammar, where I was dux of my year. On the way to school, I read a book a day. Thanks to my mum’s “never give up” attitude, today I’m a trained psychiatrist and an adviser to Channel 9 on multicultural affairs.
There was no one sitting in front of the Glebe library today.
Though Danny knew their names—Lin, the Chinese-Malaysian, and the two Pakistanis, Ibrahim and Razak—he had no way of finding them. That was the agreement. That way, if one got caught, the others were safe.
Just two months ago… right here, in front of the library, Lin, the Chinese man from Malaysia, had met a European backpacker who was in tears, saying he had been cheated by a farmer in Tamworth for whom he’d been picking oranges for a month, at the end of which the farmer had paid him a dollar per bin of fruit, so that he left Tamworth with just $120 for a month’s backbreaking work. Lin, amazed and appalled that this white boy had apparently never before been cheated in his entire life, was delighted by the fellow’s habit (he must have been a Britisher, Danny felt) of saying “See you in a bit. In a bit. See you in a bit” to everyone who passed by. Lin smuggled out two sets of free tacos from the Mexican restaurant where he worked, and he and the European ate the tacos together outside the Glebe library. To make the poor boy understand that he was not the only one in trouble, Lin even confessed that he was illegal in Australia, and then the European, would you believe it, after thanking him for the tacos, after saying, “See you in a bit, see you in a bit,” had gone back to his hostel in Town Hall and called
immigration, yes, seriously
, and when the officers drove in a van to the Glebe library to hunt him down, who saved Lin? One of the librarians, a university girl, who hid him in her car for two hours. Two hours. After that Lin changed his phone number and wouldn’t give it to Danny or the others…
From the library, Danny ran down the right-hand side road, following its plunge and vanishing quickly from the main road, past block after block of eyeless houses, to a garish spray-painted mural of the Lord Krishna, portrayed as a blue-skinned Rastafarian on a surfboard, which meant he was nearly home.
He could hear, already, golden oldies playing on 2CH 1170 kHz before he saw a pale old white arm dangling out the open window of a grocery store, tapping a lit cigarette onto the pavement, adding smoke and warm ash, its own pollution, to the bush fire’s.
The owner of the burning cigarette said:
“Why are they always picking on us? Everyone’s picking on Eels. You remember last year, Rugby League Judiciary gave Joey Mitchell a dangerous-contact charge, and it was a clean tackle. Perfectly clean tackle. They pick on us always.”
Summer may be the cricket season for the rest of Sydney, but not in this store just off Glebe Point Road, whose name was announced by an old white sign: SUNBURST.
“Mitchell, he’s the one with bruises on his head, and the Judiciary make him the bad guy.”
The cigarette fell to the pavement, and the arm drew back into the window, as Danny entered the store, walked past all its shelves, turned left, and ran up an old metal staircase into a storeroom whose door he closed behind him.
He was home.
Two panda bears welcomed Danny from above a cupboard filled with stocks of tissue paper. Cardboard cartons were stacked up on the walls, but a blue sofa and a black swivel chair dominated the room. A small cracked mirror hung on the wall.
- In Australia three types of rugby (never call it rugby) exist
- Rugby League (just call it football)
- Big teams
- Eels—Parramatta (Tommo’s team)
- Rabbitohs (very bad team)—South Sydney
- Also they play this game in Brisbane
Next to the mirror, a handwritten sheet of paper was pinned up on the wall, with stickman illustrations.
- Rugby Union (just call it Union)—played by very rich people. This game has the “scrum.”
One of the stickmen jumped high up and caught an oval object.
- AFL (Aussie Rules)—played in Melbourne. Teams are Collingwood, Fitzroy, etc.
Removing his backpack, Danny dropped it over his plastic bag; then he removed the cactus from it and placed it beside the panda bears.
“Why are you here?” a voice asked, and Danny, opening the door, looked down the staircase of seven metal steps.
Tommo Tsavdaridis’s pale face stared from below.
The sunlit cash counter of the store was visible in the distance. Right behind Tommo were a shelf of baby formula cans (Shelf F1) and a shelf of air sprays, tissues, toilet paper (Shelf G1). The numbering of the shelves was Danny’s invention. This reminded him he had to open the cardboard carton with the ramen ready-to-eat noodles and place them on Shelf E, next to the canned soups.
“You have a job today. Two jobs. Did you cancel?”
Tommo placed a hand on the staircase to draw nearer. He had a weak smoker’s voice, and an eye that stored up punishments.
“You have to pay me twenty dollars, even if you cancel. I won’t forget. I won’t ever forget twenty dollars. Danny. You believe me, don’t you. I won’t ever forget.”
Without answering his boss, Danny closed the door on him.
He sat down on the black swivel chair. He drew in the air that smelled of wet cardboard, spices, and carpet. And he knew this was something he did not want to lose.
He had furnished it well and for free. Because Aussies threw out a regular living room every two days. Inside the cupboard, there was even a small electric heater that he was allowed to use, but only for forty minutes a night, even in midwinter, because, Mr. Tsavdaridis said, it consumed too much electricity. Still, the winters were not too bad, especially after he had found the swivel chair, discarded by the Glebe library. Whooooosh
. Danny began spinning round in the chair. In Dubai he had guessed for the first time the size of the world at whose very lowest level, instinct told him—a Tamil from the east of Sri Lanka, a minority within the minority—he dwelled.
Here in this storeroom in Glebe, Danny had added a swiveling chair to his prison. When he sat on it, he became someone else. Kiran Rao, usually. The blood pressure was coming down. He felt it.
Then from down below, from the store, he heard someone shout: “Danny. How much money did you make today? Danny.”
“Tommo,” he shouted back. “Go away.”
“You have to give me the money even if you canceled the job.”
“I haven’t canceled. I’m just resting.”
“Resting?” The old Greek sounded as if he did not recognize that word. “Resting?”
Moving his black swivel chair to the cupboard, Danny picked up a panda and threw it at the door. Get out!
He kept thinking of that face. Mark. Her husband. The one he’d seen today next to the red tulips. Yes, he wasn’t screwing her—maybe that is what got him angry. Jealous. But Mark was a real estate agent, isn’t he? A rich man. (I’m not saying he did it either, Danny felt obliged to tell his imaginary Australian audience. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I was blaming Mr. Mark.) Who else could it be? One of those King Punch things? Random aggression? But whoever did it, and for whatever reason, one thing was almost certain.
The killer was a citizen.
“Something on your mind, Danny?” the old man’s voice said from outside. “Don’t think too much.”
Mr. Tsavdaridis charged Danny a third of all that he made cleaning houses as middleman’s commission; the advice on life was given free.
“The fire alarm went off in the store today, you know. Next door also. Everywhere in Glebe, fire alarms. There was so much smoke in the air. Maybe the smoke got into your head. You’re thinking shit today,” the grocer shouted from below before he left Danny alone.
And he was right: Danny knew. This time Mr. Tsavdaridis was right. He should be cleaning.
His heart pounded as if praying on its own to its own god. One greasy samosa. Just one. One egg samosa.
“Danny. That woman who died today.” The voice was back outside his door. “You’re not home because of her, are you?”
The cunning old man had begun to guess.
“Tommo,” Danny shouted. “House Number Five. You don’t know her.”
“I know everything
“You don’t know her because I never told you. I used to clean… Then I stopped working for her. She died. They don’t know the color of the jacket.”
“You never told me? You never paid…”
Danny could hear Mr. Tsavdaridis struggling with this fact. Four years ago, he had had Danny in his store and in his grip, and with every passing day since then, he knew that his grip had loosened.
There was no need for Danny to say what he did next, except to let the old man know that they had become equals inside this grocery store.
“You remember when I was coming late some nights? I said I was in the library? I was with them. The murdered woman. And the doctor. House Number Five in Erko and House Number Six in Potts Point. I stopped going to both. About six, seven months ago.”
“You were staying out late, you were having fun, you never told me, you never paid me—” From below, the voice turned high-pitched, hysterical.
Danny grinned. He was feeling sadistic this morning.
But the smile did not last long. Every mistake he had made this morning had just grown bigger: his phone was ringing, again and again. H6
Dr. Prakash was calling again.
Danny had picked up.
“You just hung up on me.”
“Sorry. I am sorry.”
“You called me today, remember. You called me. Now you have to come over and clean the place. That’s a fair deal, isn’t it?”
“I…” said Danny. “I… I…” and then just hung up.
In his room, Danny said the word out loud: “Indians.” You knew
they were Indians. You know
Indians are the worst thing for a Sri Lankan Tamil, so why didn’t you stay away from these two Indians?
Why didn’t you call us before this, police will ask, if you felt something was wrong with these two?
I am a victim of state torture.
He spun around on the swivel chair; its metal joints creaked. Is that why you spent your father’s money to come to Australia and then stopped talking to him?
Danny pressed his shoe on the floor to stop the chair from turning.
He reached for the fallen panda bear and placed it back on the cupboard. From in between the panda bears, he brought out the cellophane-wrapped cactus and set it down on the sofa. He sat facing the cactus.
The interrogation had begun. Start at the beginning of the story. That is how the police always want it. Say, “I confess my shame. I’m an illegal. I’ve broken the law.”
And Danny again spun around on the black chair.
… Good. Now, how did you start cleaning the dead woman’s place?
When you do a professional job in this country, people appreciate you, it is one of the things I like about Australia. You do a great job, they say, my friend needs a cleaner too. Someone must have sent me to Radha’s place. I can’t remember who… Remember harder. Who sent you over there?
… Danny slowed down his spinning a bit. Sorry. Can’t remember that now.
This is what he did remember:
The first week, it was just a place to clean, her flat. Yoga mats and gym clothes on the floor, spaghetti in the sink. Radha Thomas, the owner, was watching him as he cleaned, but that was normal enough. They want to see how you do it the first time you clean. There was a photo of her along with a white man on every wall in the place. Her Australian husband. She paid sixty dollars in cash. No problem.
The second time Danny came to clean her place, she stayed on the phone as he worked. He listened in on her conversation. “O-kay,” he said to himself under his breath, mimicking her. “O-kay.” Through the window, he could see the four dark obelisks, the four brick towers, at the end of Erskineville.
Suddenly, these strong feet came pounding up the stairs, and before Danny could turn the vacuum down, the door simply slammed open, and the man had already put his arms around Radha and simply lifted her off the floor. Danny dropped the vacuum handle. Raised above the earth by the powerful intruder, fighting off his kisses, the woman of the house shouted at the hired help: “It’s o-kay. I know this man. I know him. Wait downstairs. Wait. I’ll call you up. We’ll pay you more. O-kay? Oh my God, Prakash, stop touching me in front of—”
The Indian man who had lifted up House Number Five in his arms turned to Danny and said: “Get out for a while, mate.” Did you wait for them?
What else could Danny do?
Closing the apartment door behind him, he went out onto the street and waited next to a white gum tree, leprous and magnificent, wanting to touch its bark, to tickle the mushrooms at its base. He watched the tree and kept mimicking that word. Okay.
A hand grenade of a word: guttural o
, explosive kay
. From above, a woman’s moaning filled the courtyard. Danny looked up: Radha had been growing red tulips in her window.
O-kay. O-kay. Listening in on their pleasure, Danny once again saw in himself a man who had not even been able to express his rage at the world cleanly
, as so many less gifted men had done. A friend from school, not a good student, not good at the triple jump, had joined the LTTE one evening, fleeing by motorboat over the lagoon, then climbing onto the back of a truck and going all the way to a training camp in the north, where he had become a soldier and died fighting the Sri Lankan army. There was honor in that
. Picking up a knife and stabbing a racist policeman in the heart again and again, honor in that
. Getting on a boat and hitting sharks with your paddles and shouting at the Canadian Coast Guard, “I am your refugee,” there was honor in that
But look at you
Before Danny’s eyes, a mural materialized—which he had seen on a wall in his wanderings somewhere or other in Sydney, the artwork done realistically, hair and fur painted with minute attention to texture—of three dead animals. A deer with curved horns, a heron, and a rabbit. Three animals, three corpses, trussed up by wires from the ceiling of a kitchen, and below them, on the butcher’s table, a ram lay, its mouth bound with ropes, its tongue sticking out. The heron in profile had one eye open wide, as if to say: We didn’t even scream when the world was stolen from us.
Forty-six minutes he waited there.
Danny’s knuckles were chafing at the papery bark of the gum tree, peeling it away in white strips, adding them to the crushed mushrooms below, when the woman’s moaning rose and then stopped. When he looked up, the tulips shook after a few minutes, a window opened, and Radha’s vivid, sated face summoned him back into the building.
He ran up.
“Are you a spy, buddy?” up in the unit, the Indian man, still in his boxer shorts, demanded, his hands on his torso. “I can smell a spy: they always send a brown man to spy on a brown man.”
He was still talking about spies when he gave Danny his cash—sixty dollars plus twenty extra—and Danny knew he ought to say nothing, but he had spent a year and a half living in a storeroom. “Are you two rednecks?” he asked, at which the woman just burst out laughing.
“Did you learn that word after coming to Australia, mate?”
“It’s American,” Danny said before leaving.
Halfway to the train station, he heard footsteps behind him and a woman shouting: “You’re right!” Radha came running up to him. “It is American. We looked it up on Prakash’s phone. Come back and have a drink with us. Have dinner.”
After a pause, Danny followed her back.
The routine was set. Have you remembered yet who sent you to her place?
No, not yet. It’ll come. Danny spun around again in the chair.
Every Tuesday he went to the place in Erskineville. But she had another place too, in Potts Point. House Number Six. She was letting him live there: Dr. Prakash. Every Wednesday to that place. But it was the same routine in both places, really. Which means?
Means he was told to wait outside while they did the part they liked best—fucking in the apartment when her husband, that man, wasn’t around. Danny put up with that. He put up with everything as long as they paid him on time, which they did, with tips thrown in.
Then there must have been an incident, perhaps her husband nearly caught them one day, because one day Prakash stopped coming to Erksineville. From then on, they met only at his place in Potts Point. Her
place in Potts Point, which she let him use.
Now, after Danny came to House Number Five and cleaned it from wall to wall, Radha drove him in her car (“Every other cleaner we have is like, ‘I wants to change bedsit,’ and you arrive with polysyllables! How could we let you leave us?”) all the way to Kings Cross, Sydney’s red-light area, right behind which, in one of those sudden shifts of tone typical of the city, was a suburb of whitewashed classical buildings (“seriously thin-bum,” Danny would later tell Radha, making her laugh). This was Potts Point. She stopped her car in front of a building called Regents Court. House Number Six. She went in first; Danny was supposed to wait outside, or buy himself a coffee, or walk about Kings Cross, or stand at the Coca-Cola sign and watch the traffic below until she texted him—All done mate
—and then he hopped, skipped, and leaped back to their place, just like in the triple jump, went in through the glass door and up to Dr. Prakash’s sixth-floor flat, straightening it all up, the bed and the bedsheets.
The black chair had stopped spinning; Danny had picked up his cell phone from the sofa. H6
It buzzed and glowed nonstop now; interrupting his imaginary one, Dr. Prakash was calling to have a real conversation. You keep calling him a doctor. A real doctor?
Reaching forward, Danny adjusted the position of the cactus plant a bit; then he spun another round on his chair. She
called him that, Officer. It was her idea of a joke. She called him Doctor because it’s the price you pay when Radha Thomas helps anyone. Prakash got into the spirit of the joke. Sometimes when he was walking about Kings Cross, he would point at people and say, “That guy’s got a fucked-up bladder. I can tell from the way he walks.” Or, pointing at a jogger: “Arrhythmia.
That man’s got a bad heart. Won’t jog long.” Yes, he played along with the doctor joke. What
was the joke?
He was a private school boy, an icebox Indian, and he should have been a doctor. Not a miner. That was the joke.
Inside his flat in Potts Point, or the flat that was hers and which he was occupying, you did
believe that the man was a private school boy: there was a cupboard full of ties, striped ties, and there was a silver shield he had won in rugby at school, with a motto in Latin. Beside the ties and the school shield, there was a photograph of Prakash in a foreign country, somewhere in Africa, judging by the people around him. Did you remember yet the name of the person who sent you to Radha Thomas?
No. Still trying, though. Do you think Dr. Prakash killed her?
No. (Danny looked again at the glowing phone: H6
You see, each of them could laugh at himself and
at the other. That saves a relationship. I’m telling you. That’s why Sonja and I get along so well.
An example: see, one day Radha stood next to her man and said, “I did what everyone of my generation did, I worked for the government. You’re having an affair with a bureaucrat. Dangerous, aren’t you?”
“Everyone in my
generation became a doctor,” replied Prakash with a bow. “So did I.”
And they both laughed.
See what I mean? Danny raised his arms for emphasis. Those two were great with each other. They had the gambling. And the fucking.
Of course they talked about running away together. Yes, like lovers in Tamil films, they talked about running away, leaving Sydney, leaving Australia.
But Danny never thought they’d do it. They owned property. She owned property. Two places in Sydney.
Danny closed his eyes and remembered that place again. The one in Potts Point. The one she let Dr. Prakash live in rent-free. As he ran the vacuum around the sofa, Danny had a view, framed by the apartment blocks of Elizabeth Bay and the arch of the Harbor Bridge, of a pile of broken porcelain, the Sydney Opera House—which trembled, on humid days, inside a haze of air that seemed to have been blown from Batticaloa.
And she let Prakash stay there rent-free. She wanted him that
much. Why would he hurt her?
Maybe that man
did it. Her husband, Mark, the fellow with the red face whom he’d seen in the window, beside the tulips. But why would she have told him of that creek or taken him there? That place, that flowing water, those stars: those were only for her and for the doctor.
Or maybe it was a stranger, someone who just saw her at the creek that night…
Wait. There was that time when Radha and Prakash were at the creek, and two white boys were jumping in the water with their black dog. And how that dog was howling.
Danny opened his eyes. The metal staircase outside was trembling, which meant Tommo had placed a cardboard box on it, his way of indicating that Danny had to get to work at the store rather than lie and dream in his room.
Getting up from his chair, he opened the cupboard and looked about for the Yellow Pages—he kept it there to call cleaning services and check on their rates. He flipped through the big old book till he found what he was looking for: Important numbers Crime Stoppers 1-800-333-000 Crime Stoppers operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and allows members of the community to anonymously report criminal or suspicious behavior or activity. Your information may be the vital missing piece the police need to solve a crime.
He took the cactus with him as an accomplice.
Opening the door of the storeroom, Danny saw that the seven-runged ladder that led down was blocked by the cardboard carton of ramen noodles, which the old man must have moved over to give him a message. If he wasn’t cleaning for Tommo, he was expected to be filing for Tommo.
The ladder tittered in a bout of metallic nervousness. Holding the cactus in his right hand, Danny went down, taking exaggerated steps over the cardboard box. Can you tell us more about those two white boys in the creek? And about their black dog?
Placing a finger on his lips, Danny urged the policeman to be quiet—just for a second.
While Tommo Tsavdaridis watched from the counter, Danny did the triple jump: hopped past the old man shouting, skipped out of the store, and leaped out into Glebe, while a frenzied voice screamed, “Danny! Come back and pay me my twenty dollars! I will murder you, Danny, I will never forget twenty dollars!”
Not far from the famous mural of the Lord Krishna, a local landmark, stood another treasure of the suburb, a shop called Gabrielle. It baked its own bread, served coffee at a cost 20 percent above the citywide average, and closed every weekday at three p.m., while on a timetable on the glass window, beside Saturday
, a nightgowned body emitted luxurious Z
’s. It was the kind of place run by people who are not migrants to Australia.
As he walked in front of Gabrielle, inhaling the smell of fresh baking, Danny pressed the potted plant to his T-shirt and felt its domed shape against his chest.
From the dark window of the 7-Eleven, which is the kind of place that is run by immigrants, someone was watching him.
Though he took a step back from the window when Danny returned his gaze, the brown man’s eyes grew, like a camera expanding its aperture even as it pulled back, ashamed of wanting Danny’s image and thirstier than ever for it because of that shame.
Danny mimicked his actions. He took a step back; he kept watching the receding face of the brown man in the 7-Eleven.
All at once it materializes before your eyes: the visage of an Egyptian pharaoh on an electronic gambling machine. King of the Nile. He is broad-shouldered and regal, with sleek, understanding eyes, a worthy consort to the tiara’d Cleopatra, who gazes at you from the next machine, the Queen of the Nile.
Danny’s heart began pounding. It is coming,
it told him. It is coming.
A dog ran panting by Danny’s shoes, found them uninteresting, and went back to its master, and then, as he expected, it came. His phone buzzed, and the panel glowed: H6
House Number Six.
Aware that he was still being watched from the 7-Eleven, Danny walked on toward the Glebe post office.
He pressed the cactus into his chest but raised the flesh of his palm just enough so he could see the number he had written on it. 1-800-333-000
And he answered the call by saying: “Yes, Doctor, sir?”
“Isn’t it funny,” a voice on the phone said, “you calling me today of all days, Cleaner.”
Calm, unhurried. There’s no guilt in this voice, Danny told himself. None.
“Today is a special day. You do know why it is a special day?” Dr. Prakash asked.
“Yes, of course I know,” protested Danny. “It’s Guru Purnima day.”
“Oh, you know,” the doctor said, as if surprised by Danny’s answer. Then he stayed silent.
Has he not seen the TV news yet? Should I just tell him that his girlfriend, his secret girlfriend, is lying by a creek in Toongabbie, stabbed to death?
The voice on the other end of the phone laughed a bit now, before sucking in air as if to cool a burning tongue.
“Guru Purnima day means Purnima that is Guru. Isn’t that how you always talked?” The voice laughed again, and then it dropped to a whisper: “How much you want?”
“Excuse me?” said Danny.
Again the whisper on the phone asked: “How much?”
“For what?” asked Danny, saving the situation.
There was a laugh. “That’s right,” said the voice on the phone. “For what? For cleaning the place, of course. And the place needs a final clean. Come over. You’re just the man I need to see.”
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t know what happened to Radha. He’s leaving. He’s been packing.
“You know, they made me clean it after you left, Nelson. They made me do everything. The place is a mess. Come over.”
Now the doctor’s voice dropped. “Danny. Don’t worry.”
Danny asked: “Don’t worry?”
The voice on the phone said: “Yeah, don’t worry. Your secret is safe.”
Before he could stop himself, Danny retorted: “You mean your
“No,” the doctor’s voice grew louder, “your
Like children playing with the word.
“I won’t tell anyone, Danny. Your secret, it’s a terrible secret.”
“What secret?” Danny asked helplessly.
He’s threatening me. He just openly threatened me on the phone. But with what?
secret. Exactly.” The doctor paused. “You live in a grocery store, don’t you, Danny? There’s a painting on the wall next to where you’re hiding. A Hindu painting. Right?” A pause. “Is it a painting of Ganesha?” That
Danny felt the cold phone on his neck—She told him. Told him everything—and tried to find his foothold on what had recently been firm earth. Breathe in, breathe out.
Before she died, Radha Thomas must have told Prakash every secret of Danny’s that she knew.
“Come to my place in Potts Point and clean it. Okay?”
When Danny stayed silent, the doctor, like a reasonable man, changed his proposal. “Or we can meet at the Clinic. You remember it, don’t you?”
Danny simply hung up.
know of the immigration dob-in number. If he calls them first and tells them what he knows of me, I’ll be in the Villawood detention center by evening.
Right outside the Glebe post office, a shirtless white man had prostrated himself like a Hindu, his head bowed to the ground, with his hands around a plastic cup marked HELP ME, as if in a yoga of abasement.
A new text message arrived. You hung up.
Thinking fast, Danny texted, Sorry. Im coming.
And then: see you at the clinic
And Prakash texted back: Secret is safe.
Danny exhaled. But why is he threatening me unless he has something to hide?
Maybe he just knows something about the murder that he doesn’t want to tell the police.
Fuck her. Danny wanted to smash his cell phone. Fuck that woman—that Radha. She told him I was illegal.
Plenty of water, he remembered. Sonja said that would help with sinus trouble. Plenty of water all day long.
Looking at the bent-over white man, at his white begging cup, Danny thought: I have just cursed a dead woman. By way of atonement, Danny drew out his wallet and threw the smallest piece he had, a five-cent coin, into the plastic cup. Like a machine that had been activated by the coin, the yogi suddenly looked up and said, “Thanks.”
Before his head sank back to the pavement.
A great curved building, like a stage set, announced the end of Glebe and the start of Broadway. Now no part of the city was really safe from the immigration machine, but Glebe was a glade inside Sydney’s rain forest of light—leafy, lefty, defiantly full of churches—and when you came and stood here, on Broadway, and saw, a few feet away, two palace-like shopping malls, identical twins, each crowned by a green globe, then you knew you were at the end of Glebe’s special protections.
These were the portals of Sydney.
Danny breathed in.
Flags, neither Australian, rippled above a pair of dark well-articulated brick towers connected by a balcony like the one the pope gives his blessing from.
This is another of Danny’s safe spots: the Lansdowne Hotel, across the road from Glebe.
Stepping out of the black door of the pub, letting out a blast of air-conditioned air, a woman spilled ice cubes from a plastic bucket into a tin box captioned REFRESHMENT FOR DOGS, making a racket as Danny approached the pub.
“You’re late, buddy,” the white woman said without looking up from the tin box, which now dazzled with diamonds, but there was no mystery there. She had just mistaken Danny for some other brown man who worked at the pub.
“Sorry,” said Danny.
She’d never remember the golden highlights in the hair, or anything else about this particular man, if she was asked later on.
Inside the pub, he saw, by the pool table, the flashing screen of Big Buck, the video game in which you aimed black plastic rifles at caribou and reindeer that fled through simulation snow and icy water—each deer, when shot, revealed itself to be a girl who blew you a kiss—and then he went up the flight of stairs: past a pornographic oil painting, there was a lounge with a view of the portals of the two identical shopping malls across the road, with their glass globes.
The lights had not been turned on in the upper level, and as Danny searched for the pay phone, he soon found himself in an area of darkness; but with the first step he took, the lights clicked on by themselves and exposed, in front of toilet stalls with WET PAINT signs on them, a black pay phone.
With the flat of his right palm, Danny compressed his golden hair. This is what he had come for.
So pick up the phone, dial, Policeman, House Number Five was having an affair with Number Six, that’s all I know, bye-bye, hang up.
“Mate, is that a cactus you’ve got?”
Of course, you’re never alone in a pub, not even in the morning. This fellow even wore a suit and a tie, and he was drinking on a Monday morning.
Danny looked helplessly at the green thing in a pot that he was holding. He expected to hear a laugh, but instead, in the young man’s red face, he saw a deep sympathy—either alcoholic or Australian in origin—with something visibly out of place in the world.
“It’s a cactus you’ve got,” the drunken man said unhappily, and left him alone.
In an alcove before the toilets, Danny saw a black phone in a flickering light. Within the misfiring lamp in the alcove, the naked bulb beat like a bird’s heart.
On his palm, in black ink, in the throbbing light, Danny read the number. 1-800-333-000
He put his twenty-cent coins into the pay phone and dialed. Insufficient credit.
One more coin.
Now the New South Wales Crime hotline was ringing. Answering it, a woman’s voice said: “Police hotline. Can I help you?”
“Excuse me,” said Danny.
“Yes, what are you calling for, please? This is the crime hotline. Do you have a crime to report?”
“I have knowledge.” He paused.
“What kind of knowledge? Of a crime?”
“Knowledge of a crime.”
“That’s the kind of knowledge this number is for. What is the crime?” she asked.
“Today is… Guru Purnima,” he said.
Because there is another hotline and another number, isn’t there. And Danny knows that
number by heart. 1-800-009-623 How to make a report to the Immigration Dob-in Service (Border Watch Hotline) What types of activities should you report? We encourage the community to provide information about any person you think: has overstayed a visa (such as no longer having a valid visa) is working illegally has breached visa conditions—example: a student visa holder who is working more hours than the visa permits deliberately lied on a visa application provided false documents to the department arrived in Australia without a valid visa is on a student visa but is not studying is in a fake marriage or relationship to obtain a visa is providing immigration advice but is not a
“Sir? What is the crime, and what do you have to report?”
In the flickering light, the alcove became the Embassy of Batticaloa.
A paraffin lamp hissed and cast shadows around the alcove: the sharply outlined shadows were of humans, humans he might know from home, and the weaker shadows were from all their bicycles, propped up against a wall.
Danny touched a bump on his forearm.
Never going back.
He put the receiver back into the pay phone and ended the call.
He noticed pink-and-white letters stating that the Pay Phone Identification Number was 02379286X2. He followed the long black cord coming out of the old pay phone to its source in a socket of the wall. Electrical wiring rose up from the socket in banded columns before jagging left, like art deco decoration. Now, where are those wires going? One big listening-in machine, the city of Sydney.
The lights in the alcove went out on their own.
Leaving the pay phone and the temptation to be a hero behind, he ran down the stairs, past the pornographic painting, and caught the eye of the woman behind the counter, who said, “Did you get the cheese? The special’s burger tonight.”
He kept walking, pushed the doors, and stood outside, with a view of the twin palaces, the portals of Sydney, across the road.
Below each green globe on the twin buildings was a giant clock, visible for miles around.
As Danny watched, the minute hand on one clock moved.
He said he was going to South Africa today.
That’s where he
always wanted the two of them to run away to.
She would say: “If you want to leave, fine, I’ll come with you, Prakash. But not to South Africa. Let’s go to Hong Kong. I have a job offer there. Or India. You’re from India, aren’t you?”
over there. There’s blood on the highways in India. The way they drive there, I don’t have the nerves for that,” and Prakash would shake his head. “I’m never going back to India. It has to be South Africa. You know the taxes are low there. People live
over there. It’s not stuck up, like here. You don’t have to fill out three bloody forms to go to the toilet over there. You can see lions and giraffes right outside the city. That’s
civilization. And they’ve got honest casinos. Really honest machines. We’ll win every single night we play over there.”
“Hey. I asked, did you get the cheese for burger night, or did you fucking forget again?” From inside the pub, the white woman was shouting at him.
“Sorry,” he yelled back, just to keep her quiet.
If Prakash is innocent, why did he threaten you, why is he saying he knows you’re illegal? You should
call the police.
But even if the police believed you, and phoned the doctor, he would guess at once you were the one who dobbed him in, and in return, he would dob you in as an illegal. He would call the immigration dob-in number about the Legendary Cleaner who was illegal, give his name, and what he looked like, and where he lived, because the dead woman had told him everything.
On the other hand: if you know who the murderer is, you should call the police. It is that simple.
(But if I tell the Law about him, I also tell the Law about myself.)
On the threshold of the pub, Danny neither moved in nor moved out.
The tin bowl that had been so noisily filled with ice cubes for dogs was now brimming with water. Small hard bubbles were forming in the water. The day was already so hot, and the door of the furnace hadn’t yet opened. Danny drew the cactus nearer to his chest.
Girls in white were playing cricket on the green next to Sydney University. Danny watched the young bodies run and turn and scream. I have not even started to live in this city, and you are asking me to leave.
A new text message from House Number Six: On your way? Yes,
Danny texted back. On my way. Yes.
He kept his eyes on the twin palaces, on the twin green globes and twin clocks, opposite him.
His sinuses responded to the clocks: he felt a lump in his throat expand and the temperature in his brow rise.
Someone yelled at him. Leaning out of the window, holding under each of her arms a fat gray pug wrapped in an Australian flag, a heat-crazed white girl screamed, and then screamed again. Licking the summer wind from within their patriotic covering, the dogs grinned at Danny in unison. Mission: Impossible 2, my arse.
Danny sighed. I should have stopped cleaning for them right at the start, Officer, I know this. They were both crack. I knew it.
With the cactus to his chest, he was walking up Broadway. But they laughed at my jokes, Officer. They
wanted me there.
Casually, while reaching under Radha’s sofa with his vacuum, Danny might state: “There is a saying in Tamil, the kingfisher shows off, and the eagle hovers all day over water, but the crow is the one who always gets the fish.” She loved
that one. “I think the cleaner’s making a reference to you, Prakash.” Or putting his vacuum down, Danny might say, “I used to do the triple jump in school, hop, skip, and leap. Watch.”
One evening he disemburdened himself of a question that had bothered him for two and a half years. A question about the water in Australia. “Do they put blue color every night in Sydney Harbor?” Radha ordered him to explain the question. “They spray wax on the apples in supermarkets,” he said, “to make them red. Right? Maybe they do the same with Sydney Harbor. The ocean in Sri Lanka does not look this blue.”
“Are you being ironic, mate?” Radha double-checked, and then called Prakash over and asked Danny to repeat it.
When they were done laughing and wiping away their tears, Prakash said, “I’m telling you, this fellow would have fit right in at Middlington. He’s a private school boy.”
Radha made an O
with her mouth. “Have you seen his private school ties, Danny?”
Of course. Danny had had to pick so many of them up off the floor. Striped black and white all the way down to its broadest spot, where it was stamped with a golden smudge, which, the foreign cleaner was made to understand, was the sign of a very private Sydney school, proof that Prakash was part of the elite, marked out for big things in life.
“Very nice tie,” acknowledged Danny. Of course, he had worn a tie to school too: back in Batti.
“Prakash is so proud of his ties, isn’t he?” the woman said in a manner that might have been, Danny felt, ironic. “He wore the tie to court, didn’t he? To impress the judge. And now he wears them all around Kings Cross.”
“Spying on me?” Prakash asked the woman. “Are you spying on me with your cleaner? You fucking bitch.”
“So civilized. So classy.”
“Civilized?” the doctor asked. “What is civilization?”
“Don’t get angry again, Prakash. You’re mean to me.”
“I asked, ‘What is civilization?’ Lots of blonde women serving you black coffee is not civilization, is it. And that is all we have in Sydney. You tell me, Radha, you worked for the government. You’re really smart, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. Helping other people, like Gandhi. That’s it.”
“No. It is not going to other countries and giving brown or black people your money. Do-gooders. They’re the worst kind of people. And we know one of those people, don’t we, Radha?” he asked.
Radha Thomas changed moods like a lightning bolt. In a moment, grinning wide, she had begun attacking him: “Oh, baby. Baby’s just jealous because we went to a café in Dee Why and all the hot waiters flirted with me. All of them. Now I get it. The doctor’s jealous.”
Prakash said nothing. He rubbed his palms together and winked at Danny.
“Doctor,” the woman said, egging him on. “Do you hate the fact that I call you that? Doctor? Doctor?”
Apparently, yes, for the man suddenly aimed a silver pen at her and threw it.
“You are so fucking low-IQ,” Prakash said. “You really are. Really.”
Removing his reading glasses, he tossed them on the table in front of the woman and began advancing on her.
Radha turned suddenly to Danny, who thought she needed help, before he heard her shouting: “Get the fuck out of my place, you dumb cleaner. Drop everything and run out. Now!”
They live like pigs, Danny told himself as he closed the door behind him. Pigs. He could hear them starting to make out even before he had left.
Walking through Potts Point, he entered Kings Cross and went to the Coca-Cola sign, looking down on the palm trees that led into the city; he knew he had to give them about forty minutes. He turned around and looped back aimlessly, down into the area known as East Sydney, which had a view of Sydney Harbor. This part of the city was empty throughout the day. There was food in these quiet streets for something inside him that had been starved in Batticaloa and in Dubai: something needing unmonitored solitude. Danny talked to himself. “No one ever saw
Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, it is a fact. A total fact.” Through a vista of palm trees, he saw blue ocean and, near it, the white opera house. He talked faster. Until the city, in retaliation, presented to him one of its own wonders. A bleating noise. Turning to his left, following the smell of feces, he found, inside a wooden enclosure, tied to a post, a white goat, belly distended as if it were pregnant, a trapped unicorn, gazing back at him like the emblem of everything the West was meant to be. From somewhere above, whispering. “He really shouldn’t be keeping it there.” “We should tell the cops. Have you smelled its shit? Phenomenal. Stinks up the whole street.”
Forty minutes later, when he had returned to the apartment on Potts Point, the door was open and Radha was smiling and more or less dressed. “C’mon, Cleaner. We’re going out.” Packing his stuff up, wrapping the red cord around his astronaut’s backpack, he brought it into the car with him and sat in the back, accepting this ride as another unicorn, smeared and smelling of shit, which was the best he could expect from Australia. Prakash drove the car, and they were off to explore Sydney.
That mad couple had taken him to bar after bar over those eight months he had cleaned for them. Sports Bar. Jackie Chan Bar. Cricket Corner. Wizard’s Lair. Live excitement. A throbbing neon dragon pointed down the steps to a hidden lair, the frisson of something James Bond–y down there as Danny followed Prakash and Radha into an air-conditioned gambling den, his skin shivering in the luxury cold, he remembered what had been promised about the West. Every square inch of it was like the Hotel Galadari! But when he turned to share this discovery (the West!) with his benefactors, Danny found those two were already changing, right before his eyes, into the King and Queen of the Nile.
It was as if Danny had parted a veil and looked into the heart of this new country. And what do you see there?
, they called them.
King of the Nile was the pokie that they always started off on—and only if they lost there would they migrate on to the other glowing machines: Aztecs, Wild West, Zodiac Symbols, Taj Mahals, Bengal Tigers, Lightning Bolts, Mexican Sombreros. The doctor played by either inserting a white magnetic card or simply feeding the machine dollar after dollar, while Radha watched as the electronic screens flipped and flickered; then man and woman switched places, and she played while the doctor lowered his reading glasses and watched, and then they switched places again, gradually ceasing even to talk to each other, man and woman slipping into a sort of trance in front of the machine, relieved only when they turned to buy another round of drinks, or when men in black vests, the guardians of the VIP room, smilingly escorted them to the men’s or the women’s toilet and back from there into the gambling room, outside which a small sign stated, to no one’s benefit but Danny’s, that the odds of winning the jackpot were worse than one in a million.
“Look at the cleaner’s face. Just look at his face.”
“Don’t mock him, Prakash. Cleaner. Don’t just look. Go and play on the machines. Here’s a dollar. Play.”
“Look at him. I think he’s scared of the machines. Give that man some courage!”
“You!” declared the woman. “Cleaner. Have a drink. On us.”
“That’s outrageous,” said the woman.
“Yes, it is,” agreed Prakash. “What kind of Tamil are you, anyway?” he asked the cleaner. “The Chinese are sullen, solitary, and then they become bitter. It’s not the way the Indian gambles. Do you know what the bhangra is? It is a Punjabi dance: you dance it on the full-moon night, and I tell you, anytime an Indian gambles, there’s a full moon above his head.”
If they ever won, the two of them began screaming together, and holding hands, and she might even sit on Prakash; and once, when they must have won big, the two of them started dancing together by the machines: doing something that they called the Lindy Hop, while the others watched and clapped.
One day, after they had known him awhile, Radha shouted from the bar: “I am
getting you a drink today, Danny.”
She returned with a Diet Coke and said: “A man’s drink! I’m being,” she added, “ironic
, genius cleaner!”
Danny sipped his drink and looked at his employers.
“Cleaner. Do you know this man—this Prakash—once won the Flexi Trifecta and made fifteen thousand dollars on his original seven-dollar bet? Tell him the story, Doctor.”
“Six thousand three hundred and seventy-four dollars,” said the man, concentrating on the screen of his pokie machine and ignoring the woman, who began pulling on his red jacket with her fingers. “Not fifteen.”
She kept at his red jacket with her fingers. “So sensitive. Dr. Prakash. Doesn’t the name suit him perfectly?” She giggled. “I missed you, Doctor. Danny kept the house clean while I was away in Hong Kong. Didn’t you? It was a shit holiday, though. Mark is sitting there in his hotel room, sick, and expects me to baby him, but we’re in fucking Hong Kong, and I want to enjoy, so I go up to the terrace of the hotel, and we’re doing the Lindy Hop up there with all these beautiful young Chinese men. And I’m telling you, it’s like I’m a rock star. Do you know what the Lindy Hop is, Cleaner? I know what you are going to say: Lindy Hop is Hop that is Lindy, no?”
“I don’t know why you go on holiday with that man.”
“Well, it’s not like you’re in a position to take me on holiday, are you, Doctor? You spend all your money right here, gambling.”
“Fuck you,” Prakash said. “That man—he’s a fucking real estate agent. They’re vermin. The lowest kind. Sells houses to the Chinese, you said it yourself. Here’s another great bit of Sydney for you, friend. And another. I’m the one who goes to the army, and he’s the one who owns a place in Potts Point.” Prakash repeatedly tried to brush away the woman’s hand from his jacket.
“Don’t ask me
,” he said later that week, standing before the mirror to straighten his striped tie, when Danny, having cleaned his Potts Point flat, had gently brought up the question of payment. Sixty dollars? Prakash never paid anyone sixty dollars. You know she pays you, the woman. Where is she? Gone out? Let’s go find her, Cleaner. After a moment in the mirror, fixing his appearance, Prakash led, and Danny, his astronaut’s backpack strapped on, followed him down into Kings Cross.
People stopped on the pavement to look. In his gorgeous red jacket, wearing his striped private school tie, the doctor walked past the bankers of Potts Point, a prince among princes, and from there into Kings Cross, past the morning drunks, the drug addicts who were bent over and frisking the pavements for cigarette butts to sniff, the blonde call girl who spent mornings obsessively plucking petals from every single daisy in the Cross, past the man with the pet black cockatoo on his shoulder at all times—until, placing a foot on the splashing disco ball–like fountain, surrounded by the thrashing white wings of jabiru, Prakash stood regally over this little kingdom that he occupied rent-free; before moving into an air-conditioned bar, the Vegas, to play his gambling machines, bet on his greyhounds and horses, and wait for Radha to join him in the place she had nicknamed the Clinic.
It was there, from Prakash, that Danny found out Radha’s story; there he learned that whether or not Prakash was the right doctor, she certainly was a patient.
“You never know with that woman, Cleaner. You just never know what she’s doing the moment she leaves this place and goes home.” He lowered his voice. “She’s got a bit of criminal in her, see.”
Just three years ago, Radha Thomas had been the manager of the Blacktown Medicare office. She was a star in the bureaucracy, yes. She sat in a big air-conditioned office in Blacktown and was in charge of all the receipts. Now, the cash in any Medicare office is checked only at the week’s end; and since from Monday to Friday, there can be fluctuations in the kitty, no one will know or care, just as long as the manager squares things up by Friday. So, one Monday evening, in her white uniform, she stuffed a shopping bag full of crisp new government notes from the vault and walked across the road to the Blacktown RSL club. She gambled five thousand dollars that night and lost it all. The next day she returned and won every single dollar back. What was the point of being young unless you lived young? That was how Radha Thomas thought about things. She had everything her Indian parents had dreamed for her: she was married, to a real estate agent who sold houses in the eastern suburbs to the Chinese for ridiculous
prices; had a great government job, the best kind to have in Sydney, and more than twenty-three hundred friends on Facebook; but she finally found what she needed as she walked out of her office at Medicare, in full uniform, across the road, and into the Blacktown RSL club, to be greeted at the door with an Oriental bow by a besuited white woman, and shown into the hall that was radiant with automatic poker machines. Pokies! Oh, they knew in the club that she was from the Medicare office, they saw that her notes were government-issue-fresh, and they smiled and said, “Welcome.” Though she gambled and lost, she came back the next day and won, and somehow, by Friday, she had always squared the money perfectly: the kitty at the office always added up. And then it happened: starting one Monday, she gambled over three consecutive days, her luck ran out, and she gambled and lost more than seventy thousand dollars of the Australian government’s money. On Friday morning, instead of going to work, she took her passport and drove to the airport to fly to India, but they were waiting at immigration to arrest her. See, Mark, her husband, found out at the last minute and dobbed her in. For her own welfare, he said. The judge didn’t send her to jail. Mark, her good real estate husband, promised the court he would support her. The judge sent Radha Thomas to therapy and group discussion for six months and ticked her off his list as a successful rehabilitation.
That is where she saw him for the first time. Salt-and-pepper hair really goes well with a dark face, doesn’t it? And those thick-rimmed glasses! They were the only two brown people in their gambling addiction group discussion, and they just looked at each other the whole time, and when the discussion ended and the self-congratulatory clapping was over, the two of them, hooking up right outside, went straight to the nearest pub and began gambling again. Even in the Australian summer, Prakash had a face that did not perspire and eyes that lowered the temperature around them. She had never had an Indian boyfriend before, she confessed. Same here: had never had an Indian girl before.
Prakash told her he needed a place to stay. What a coincidence. Her Potts Point apartment, with a view of the fucking Opera House, was empty right now. Her husband’s apartment, technically. Prakash could stay there, and that would be the perfect revenge on Mark for dobbing her in. She wasn’t going to divorce Mark, of course, because that would lead to all kinds of issues (money, food, housing), so she went home and made Smiling Lasagna for both of them; but in the evening she texted the doctor
and set up an appointment either at her place, when it was empty, or over at “his” place in Potts Point. So she began to run two households: a good wife in one and the Queen of the Nile in the other.
The King of the Nile had charmed her with his etiquette, his powerful male body, and his black-and-white private school ties (Danny imagined the doctor wearing them all through the fucking), and in return she fed and housed him. And went gambling, night after night, with him.
Prakash and Radha. Oscar and Lucinda.
Up there in the searing light, they were nothing, but down in the bars and amid the pokie machines, they had the full moon shining above them. Because the second he entered a pub in Sydney, Dr. Prakash was by definition the most brilliant thing in it: two shades darker than the whites and two shades lighter than the blacks, a brown man with powerful shoulders and reading glasses. Everything in the room was evolving toward him.
I did tell her, thought Danny, looking at himself in the mirror above a restroom sink, I did warn her that he might do this.
He splashed water on his face before he looked at the mirror again.
In the crazy civilization of Sydney, where bottled water can cost more than coffee, can even cost more than beer
, the only place to drink water for free is the place you go, in the rest of the world, to get rid of it. On Pitt Street, Danny had slipped into the Edinburgh Castle pub, where if anyone at the bar noticed him, they thought he was there to clean, and he’d run down the stairs into the men’s room, where, letting the water run from the tap, he drank.
When he stepped back from the running flow to breathe, he noticed that the floor of the restroom was a mosaic of small square tiles, which reminded him of toilet floors in another city, another country. How near it feels again: home. Reflected in the mirror, on whose slab he had placed the potted cactus, he saw manual chains that operated the overhead water tanks in the toilets behind him. That too reminded him of Batticaloa. As the water flowed in the sink, he was revived; but when he closed the tap and wiped his face on his sleeve, he shivered, because he saw sentences, alternately in English and Tamil: I did tell her
????????? ??????? ???????? I did warn her
Wetting his finger in the running water, he continued the sequence in English The thorns are there to protict the roses
and had started to correct the error to protict the roses
when his phone rang.
It was Dr. Prakash.
“You are on your way, aren’t you, Cleaner.”
How calm he sounds. How readily he commands obedience in you.
… now the darkness was penetrated by a pair of eyes: Dr. Prakash’s eyes. The hazelnut color that you see in the eyes of an Indian man, toward evening, in a beach suburb like Bondi, when the setting light, low, enters his irises. A mistake, Danny
. Those translucent beach eyes said: You made a big mistake this morning.
“And I’m expecting you to clean my place, Danny. Before I leave for South Africa.”
“What are you doing right now? Why are you taking so long to come?”
“Really? You are working
“Yes, sir.” Danny pursed his lips. “Vroom—vroom—can you hear it, I’m vacuuming, vroom vroom.”
Prakash’s powerful voice expanded with laughter; Danny hung up at once.
The whole time he was on the phone, his finger had been on the mirror, dripping and smudging; now Danny pressed on the mirror and made a wet line. The lagoon. And then he broke the line in two places. The openings.
Someone else killed Radha. If you go to either of the openings in the lagoon, that is all you will find out.
It was crazy even to suspect Dr. Prakash. Because you know the man. You’ve been to bars with him.
He rubbed his fingers through his hair. But.
It’s weird, isn’t it. That he’s leaving on the morning after Radha died. Maybe he knows. Maybe he knows something and has to leave.
I should tell the police. They’d want to know. Wouldn’t they?
Won’t they applaud
Danny for dobbing the killer in—doing the right thing? In the moist mirror, within the wet lines signifying the lagoon and its two openings, he now saw the city of Sydney, when it appeared most beautiful to him, at dawn on a winter’s morning in the heart of the city, with the road-cleaning machines rumbling about Danny as he looked up at the four-faced sandstone clock tower of Central Station held aloft on shattered and roseate clouds: renewing the promise to the immigrant that something as thrilling as the air-conditioned interior of the Hotel Galadari lay ahead of him. It is still yours for the taking, Danny, this city, this country, this paradise…
Now an old patriarch, a former Australian prime minister, a man named Malcolm Fraser, appeared in the mirror, a gigantic southern star above his right shoulder, the flag of Australia behind him. Let’s bend the law for my good friend Danny. Come over here, Danny. Give this man his felicitation, Aussies.
Danny laughed. Fraser vanished. He laughed again. At himself.
There is a culture of praise where Danny came from. If you were someone, you had to be someone up on a stage, surrounded by loudspeakers, microphones, and flatterers. A man at the mike has to be introducing you: “Dignitaries on the dais and off the dais, dignitaries visiting and resident, we are all gathered here to glorify and amplify the achievements of our son…” The grand felicitation. It is the lifeblood of a place like Batticaloa, as it is of every small city in South Asia. You want to be recognized, honored, felicitated. Surrounded by printed posters of you, hand-painted murals showing you with a dove hovering overhead. Then the lighting of bronze oil lamps, the delivery of consecutive thirty-minute homilies, one or two preferably by a minor politician, followed by the marigold-and-jasmine garlanding and presentation of the plaque of honor, usually with your name misspelled. Thunderous clapping. You are now the town’s favorite son.
Five minutes later, everything might change.
For the Felicitation comes with a twin—the whispered subversive truth of the Gutter. Anyone praised up there on the stage must be, later that very day, mocked and tarred. “Yeah, he sits up there garlanded like a big man, but I know for a fact that last Saturday, he was seen at the… doing… along with…” The Felicitation and the Gutter balance each other, and the result is that any celebrated figure in Batticaloa, in the manner of a pig emerging from a sewer at noon, is divided into permanent white and black halves.
Look at the face in the mirror. What do you see? Nelson Mandela, you have been called by some.
But you have heard other names for that face. Other stories.
Half Mandela, half pig.
The place for you today, he told himself, is inside a toilet stall. Go in, lock yourself in. Right. He did just that.
The little cactus, covered in plastic, was sitting on a roll of toilet paper. The owner of the cactus was sitting inside a solid structure of four metal walls, clapping his hands again and again. Clap, clap, hard enough to make that blue ball, that unwanted spider, go away. And then the blue policemen go away.
There was Clorox in the air—too much; that must mean, he thought, that Nepalis had cleaned this toilet. They always used too much of the stuff.
Pubs would be a tough place to do, and pub toilets would be the worst. “Do you fucking know what I am saying, do you fucking understand English?” bellows the white Australian in charge. The women always seemed to be the most determined to offend. “This is a bloody loo. We let you into our country to clean it.” Maybe Clorox is how you retaliate. H6
The text message from Dr. Prakash penetrated through the wall of the toilet.
Danny laughed a bit, and then he thought he’d try another trick from his childhood. One he had used to pass hours and hours by himself.
Take your face in your palms, son. Now place your elbows on your thighs, just above your knees. Think of nothing. Soon you have become a parallelogram of pressure points in the dark: the slab of a butt on the cold toilet seat, two elbow bones thrusting into knees, and a scratch of one long fingernail against your right cheek. The rest of you is…
Danny opened his eyes and lifted his elbows off his knees. He’s packing up
today. Dr. Prakash said he was packing today
Of all days.
There was a printed sign, Danny noticed, over the toilet bowl:
THIS STALL IS OUT OF ORDER DUE TO
SOME VANDALISM! WE KNOW WHO! YOU ARE
MANAGEMENT HAS EYES HERE
That exclamation mark was in the wrong place, and he scraped at it with his fingernail… some
vandalism. Fucking Australians… can’t even speak their own…
Enough of this. Striking the door with his shoe, he left the booth, went back to the sink to splash water on his reflection and examine how the highlights gleamed brighter once his hair was damp.
It’s fishy that he’s packing up today, isn’t it?
Fishy means like a fish, no?
Another message. The doctor wanted his reply. H6 vroom vroom. Come soon. Yes sir I am coming to see you soon.
Danny took a step back from the mirror with his wet reflection. I am coming, don’t worry.
I always knew, he declared to the vast audience of Sydneysiders he could see inside that mirror, that something was weird
about House Number Six.
Now she, Radha, House Number Five, the dead woman—he explained quickly to them—was 100 percent Aussie. Just like you. No question.
—Prakash, House Number Six, her lover, King of the Nile, he was like me.
By that I mean, explained Danny, he certainly had not been born in Australia. He must have come over when he was a boy. You can tell these things, can’t you, from the accent. Must have been born in India, come over as a boy. But he was
in your army, so he is
a citizen. Like you. So he’s both like you and like me at the same time.
And Dr. Prakash got tough in the army, yes.
Because every brown man in Sydney has to beg sooner or later—but not Prakash. He never said sorry. Never. “You’ve been to the reef, haven’t you, Cleaner?” Prakash used to say. “Great Barrier Reef? You’ve gone in the glass-bottomed boat to see all the corals, right? And what do you see? There’s that filthy stingray, hiding squat on the ocean floor, and kicks up mud and it goes fleeing under the glass-bottomed boat with its forked tail, just the most frightened vermin you ever saw. I’m never going to live like that. I’m never going to be a fucking apologist.”
You know he
would stand up to torture. Have to admire that, don’t you? A really tough Indian man in Sydney.
As if in response, the vast potential audience of white Australians had disappeared. There was just a dark wet face in the mirror, and it grinned back at him. He killed her. You knew he would.
Danny splashed water on his own reflection and saw it grin some more.
Point one, Danny responded to the reflection, how do
we know that the dead woman was found by the same
creek in Toongabbie that the two of them liked to visit at night? Could be any creek. Point two, more important, there’s Prakash’s character.
You know—he looked at the mirror—what we’re talking about.
Was it two years ago now? It was a Tuesday evening for sure. Yes: Danny and Prakash were waiting for Radha to turn up at the pub. Danny remembered the decor of the pub: dead animals. A zebra’s trophy head rose over a fireplace; when Danny looked up, he saw the head of an animal he thought was called kudu
A disco ball on the ceiling dispersed glitter without light around the many foreign trophies of the pub.
Prakash was having beer, Danny sipped Diet Coke, and there were three men drinking at the bar.
The three men were white.
They weren’t the kind of men you saw sometimes on a Saturday in Sydney—ribands of Aryan protein, sodden, tattoo-sedimented, puffed with talk of Anzac and Gallipoli and the wealth of their race and the poverty of all other races, bony and bonily eager to bump into bodies that were not white.
These three white men were wearing orange vests, which meant that they were tradies, and gainfully employed; but they were drinking as if it were the weekend already. There was sand on their arms, as if they had come, messily, from the beach.
Prakash ordered a beer, and a Coke for Danny, and kept talking:
“Cleaner, I’ve had enough of this country, I tell you that. It’s not what it used to be. Now, you don’t know what it used to be, do you?”
Prakash told a story.
A month after coming here from India, Prakash, all of nine years old, had removed his worn shoes and shown them to a cobbler, tapping on the soles, only to find the Aussie looking him up and down before asking: “Can’t you just buy a new pair, mate?”
“Australia! Here, when old shoes wore out, you just bought a new pair. Amazing, isn’t it? In those days, there were no Indians here, would you believe, Cleaner. Yeah. You know what my dad and me, we did, when we got lonely?”
Prakash was selling Australia to one who had nothing else to buy. Danny listened.
“We opened the telephone directory, went down with a finger, saw a name, Kumar. You called him. From India? Me too. Want to meet? That is how it was. Now, of course, whole fucking country’s overrun by brown people, right. Australia’s not the country it used to be, mate. Overrun. That’s a fine word. Do you know it, Cleaner? Of course you do. You come from a good educational system. Unlike ours. I regret that. Didn’t do well at school. Didn’t get a chance. Then it was too late. IQ is fixed by the time you’re ten. Did you know that?”
Danny did not.
“Wasn’t given a chance. I was in a private school for a couple of years, yes, as she keeps reminding the world. But we moved too much. The IQ, it didn’t set. I didn’t like the army either. After that, I worked as a miner in West Australia, in the Kimberleys. Down in the mines, down where you go, there is no ambient light. Know what that means? The man in front of you opens his mouth, but you won’t see the teeth. Danger. Rockslides were a danger in those days. But the pay was good. In those days, before the foreigners took over the mining. Now the top-top people are all Chinese, and the pay’s shit.”
Danny had been listening so closely to Dr. Prakash that he had let down his spider sense. Then he heard a loud fart.
One of the three white men had spread sensually over three dark chairs at the bar and farted—and the laughs spread across the three, and suddenly, Danny realized all the men were glancing his way.
Something was said, and though Danny couldn’t hear it clearly, the long, lazy Australian vowels, given indulgence to be even lazier by alcohol, told him: There is trouble here.
Because the television in this pub, which the men were watching when they weren’t looking at him, was not showing racing. It was showing migrants. You picked up the story right away because there were captions. Illegal migrants. There was a boat in the waters somewhere near Western Europe. The boat was packed tight with dirty men. Another boat with men in clean blue uniforms drew close to it. They were about to catch the illegals.
Prakash was still talking. “Back then every bloody Australian, you could go on vacation each year. You haven’t seen what this country was, Cleaner. My wife and I, we went to South Africa. That’s where we saw the statue of Gandhi, and she’s bored, but I’m standing there thinking, This is a statue of an Indian. I’m Indian, he’s Indian. And he’s very civilized, isn’t he? But my wife, she was bored. Ex-wife, shortly afterward. Ha. Dead wife, actually.”
“There’s a statue of Gandhi in Batticaloa too,” said Danny. “It’s a gold statue.”
“But this is a young Gandhi with all his clothes on. Have you ever seen that?”
No, Danny had not.
“From there we flew to Gujarat, where he was from, you know. Gandhi was from Gujarat. Have you been there? Been to India?”
Catch the bastards!—came the shout from the bar, and Prakash stopped talking. He and Danny turned to see the white men.
Catch them, said one Aussie man who was watching the TV. Catch the fuckers.
Fuckers? Danny recognized that screaming man: lean, bedraggled, his neck still coated with sand, a man who had wanted all day long to murder his boss at work. You saw men like this in Sri Lanka too, the fellow who had loud things to say about Tamils.
Catch the bastards! the white men shouted. Catch the bastards!
Get ready, Danny thought, to run.
But there was no need for Danny to get ready for anything, because at that moment Prakash stood up, walked over, and just turned the TV off. With a wink at the white men, he sat down and talked. Stunned, the three white men, even that one with the sand on his neck who had been screaming, just gaped.
“I told you, didn’t I,” Prakash continued, “that I’m sick of this country. I told you.”
In a green field outside Batticaloa, Danny had once seen a bull elephant rolling up grass into a ball and devouring it between its tusks; Danny had not been able to take his eyes off it—that solitary, defiant animal—and, under his breath, had given it a magic nickname: Prabhakaran. Or the nonapologist.
“What a bunch of fucking racists. This is fucking Australia. See why I never became a doctor?”
Later, sitting at the Flying UFO pokie machine, feeding it one-dollar coins, Prakash played and almost scored a jackpot, while Danny, by his side, kept bringing him fresh schooners of Tooheys lager.
“See: this is my theory. Every man today, he’s got two voices inside. He wants to say, to anyone and everyone: I am sorry. I am sorry that I am sorry. That’s one voice. But he has another voice in him too.”
Sipping his beer, leaning back to take a break from the gambling machine, Prakash ran his fingers through his black-and-white hair and exhaled.
“Didn’t your grandfather own a piece of land in the village right by the edge of the jungle? That
voice says to him: Whatever comes into the jungle—deer, tiger, boar, girls, and even the mothers who followed looking for the girls—yours.”
With a smile, as if daring Danny to guess how serious he was, Prakash vibrated his forked fingers.
No wonder, thought Danny, watching Prakash play his next game, no wonder she lets this man stay in that place for free.
Angry with Australia, angry with India, angry with the white, angry with everyone else—a perfect crack.
After two hours on the Flying UFO machine, Prakash groaned, “I got cleaned out, Cleaner, cleaned out. I think this machine is fixed, totally fucking fixed,” and then dug his face into his own shoulder to let out a dirty, self-violating chuckle.
A door slammed. Danny stepped away from the mirror. Someone was running down the stairs toward the male toilet of the Edinburgh Castle pub.
His head down so he wouldn’t be remembered, he pushed the door open just as someone came running in, and leaped up the stairs into the pub, and vomited himself out of the door and into raw sunlight.
As they flew from one side of George Street to the other, the pigeons came so low they barely cleared a man’s skull: Danny had to duck.
He smelled smoke in the air again, from the bushfire in the Blue Mountains. In his free hand he held two wonderful brochures, one offering Asian Street Food to End All Asian Street Food
and the other $10 Haircuts Not Just for Students
, placed there by opportunistic teenagers. He held the cactus, wrapped in plastic, against his chest.
Menthol. The lump in Danny’s throat bulged each time his neck moved. I want menthol.
He was back on the open Sydney street now, and the brutal illumination on George Street compressed his eyes.
Across the road, Town Hall was hidden by its own self: covered, during a period of renovation, by a realistic painting, in soft watercolors, of Town Hall.
The cellophane cover of the cactus was sweating on the inside. Like the sweat, Danny thought, that you drip inside a dream.
Beige towers soared around him. The Central Business District of Sydney. He guessed he had been moving for half an hour without a pause. Chafing his cactus against his T-shirt (and the singlet beneath), Danny glanced up at a white skyscraper studded with black windows.
But who inside those high windows would listen to him even if he shouted up at them? Those windows were full of Chinese, full of Indians. Aussies only liked houses with gardens. High towers, they left to Asians.
Sometimes Danny would see the Indian students in a group on George Street and follow them. They were the ones living up there, seven or eight packed into a thirtieth-floor flat cool with ocean views but humid with curry and discussions of immigration law. He pretended he had the same worries they did. Sometimes even interrupted them at McDonald’s, or on the suburban train, to offer free and accurate advice: “Sorry, I just had to say something. That isn’t right. If your work experience is from India or any other foreign country, the law is that three years is five points. But you will get five points for one year of work done in Australia. The goal is sixty points to become a permanent resident. Look, they’re not unreasonable people, Aussies. Go talk to them if you think you’ve broken your visa and are illegal. One more thing. Don’t stare at people here, it’s very rude.”
From there, from immigration matters, the discussion among the brown men would move on to the next big question: Why is everything in Australia so expensive?
“Because,” answered Danny, the veteran immigrant, “people here are rich. Aussies are so rich.”
But that only led to a bigger mystery: Why are they rich?
“Because,” Danny suggested mischievously, “they’re intelligent.”
Universal response of the immigrant: You must be joking
“Okay, okay, you’re right. Australians aren’t very bright. They don’t work hard. They drink too much. So you
tell me. Why are they so rich?”
“They sailed in big wooden ships one hundred years ago and stole all our money from us.”
“That was the Britishers
. Not these fellows. Do they look like they could
take anything by force from anyone?”
“They’ve got gold in the desert. Sheep.”
“Other countries have sheep. Other countries have gold. But they’re still poor. No. It’s not gold, not sheep. It’s because white people have got the law
, and we don’t.”
This object of wonder, this incorruptible thing, the blondest animal in Australia: their Rule of Law.
He would explain to them. “Indians are good at mathematics, right? So tell me: can a circle have more or less than three hundred and sixty degrees?”
See, Danny finally got it one evening at a happy hour in a pub, when a young male, Indian or Pakistani, leaning over the bar counter, pointing to the machine, pleaded with the Aussie bartender: “Have a heart. Start the happy-hour discount right now, it’s 3:56 p.m.” Only to have the Aussie woman explain: “Happy hour is—see? tap-tap-tap—
programmed in a chip in the cash machine. Can’t start a second before four p.m. Can you change the heart of a machine?” Later, as Danny lay on his sofa in the storeroom, looking at the panda bears, another image, a better one, came to mind. A circle can have only 360 degrees. The law was a magic circle, and inside its protection, Australians surfed and swam and slept like children. Danny had seen countries in which a circle did not add up to 360 degrees. In Dubai the law let employers cheat you of your wages. In Sri Lanka the law was a burning cigarette on your forearm. This
law, as tall and hard as the cliffs that rise up at Pyrmont, was fairer, much fairer. In the Glebe library’s legal aid section, textbooks and pamphlets spread all around him, Danny had studied, understood, and finally come to admire it. Fair? Yes, it seemed fair: everything in the legal code of the Commonwealth of Australia was clear, logical, point-by-point. Special consideration, he discovered, was made for people who were new to the country and couldn’t speak English in court. Vietnamese, Arabic, Bengali, and Tamil interpreters would help them answer the questions posed by the judge. Free lawyers defended indigenous Australians, and those who couldn’t afford their own defense. Fair? Perhaps it was more than just fair. Unless, thought Danny, turning the pages of a book on immigration law, unless all this is just a fairy tale, it was perhaps even the best law that existed anywhere in the world, but the moment he closed this fine-smelling textbook and returned it to the shelf and walked out of the Glebe library, it would immediately start hunting him down again—because that was its nature. Blind and fair. I made a mistake, and it is after me. It will always be after me.
This much Danny knew: If I tell the Law what I know about Dr. Prakash, I tell the Law what I know about myself.
On George Street, people looked up at the sky. A plane was writing the oldest message in the world in white foam: a marriage proposal. The first letters were already smudged; people were trying to guess the name of the lucky woman.
WILL YOU MARRY ME… ET—
“Etta?” shouted one observer.
“Etty?”—another. “Write it quickly, man!”
Danny felt it too: their desperation that the name should be spelled out before the first half of the message was lost. Now it seemed to him that this was the most important thing in the world—the unraveling of the woman’s name, up there in letters in the sky.
He had forgotten all about the murder. The body in Toongabbie.
When he lowered his eyes, something was staring back at him from the top of a black lamppost: its face stiff and expectant, soft gray feathers rippling in the breeze.
Descending from the blue sky of Sydney, it had appeared as if in response to a man’s plea for help.
A seagull. How do you know it’s the same creek, son?
it seemed to ask. The same creek in Toongabbie? There are lots of little gullies there.
Danny shrugged. I don’t know for sure that it is the same creek, Officer, sir.
The seagull now had its beak opened wide, as if in mirth. Go home, then. Don’t call the police hotline and talk shit. Don’t accuse someone.
But it’s an emergency.
Ha. The seagull had flown too often over Sydney. Every man had his crisis every day. Feed me a chip, feed me a fry,
it cried, mine is the only real emergency in Sydney today.
It rose, on strong and taboo-free wings, while Danny looked at it glide down the city toward Pyrmont and the casino, as if it planned to gamble the rest of the day.
But this much I do know, thought Danny, resuming his walk down George Street—that exactly a year ago, on the last Guru Purnima day, the three of us went to a creek. In Toongabbie.
That had been a bad day. The kind that no number of rules can prepare you for. “Oh my God, oh my God,” Radha began saying when she came near the Potts Point apartment, with shopping bags full of food, and found the cleaner waiting outside the door.
As if she had already guessed something bad had happened.
“All I did was ask him for the sixty dollars. After cleaning.”
“O-kay, o-kay, I get it. Don’t complain to me.”
She opened the door to the building and led, and he, safely, followed her.
When the door opened, they saw Prakash sitting there, surrounded by beer cans, with pizza cartons opened.
His black reading glasses lay on a copy of the newspapers, turned to the racing page.
“Have you been spilling beer on the floor again? Why don’t you do some cleaning? It’s my fucking place, stop spilling beer everywhere. Why don’t you get a bloody job instead of drinking all day? Danny, will you kindly fix that spot on the floor? We’ll give you something extra.”
Prakash said nothing, just ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair.
Danny began cleaning. All at once, he realized that Prakash was aiming something at him.
He ducked just in time; the beer can missed and hit the wall, and Radha shrieked; perhaps she thought it was a joke, but when the next can came right at her head, she turned and ran outside with Danny. They slammed the door behind them, and the cans kept hitting it from inside.
“It’s Guru Purnima today. Bloody Indians have a big celebration in Parramatta, but this time they didn’t invite him. They don’t want a thing to do with a man who is down. They just want the big cars and flashy culture. I bet Sri Lankans are the same, right? I know Pakistanis are.”
She opened the door, and another can came flying at the wall.
From outside, she yelled: “Calm down, baby. After dinner we’ll go to the creek, baby. That place calms you down, doesn’t it?”
Still standing by the door, Danny understood that he had to go along with them to earn his wages. Why not? Dinner would be paid for. In the end, if he knew this pair, the woman, out of guilt, would give him a lot more than sixty dollars. From inside the door, the doctor’s voice moaned: “I lost two hundred seventy dollars today. It’s fixed. Every machine’s fixed.”
“Oh, you poor thing,” the woman said from outside, placing her face sideways against the wooden door, “you poor, poor thing.”
“We’re lucky the neighbors didn’t call the police.”
They drove in silence for a while.
Danny watched the back of Prakash’s head. Why didn’t his family help when he was in trouble? Why did they let him become a miner? A man from a private school had to take off his tie and dig mud for iron? But that’s Australia. No high or low here, no class. For instance: in Australia the signs say, MALE TOILET. FEMALE TOILET. Danny was still appalled by this. Toilets are neither male nor female. A toilet doesn’t have a cock, does it? Men’s or women’s. Australians don’t know their own language. This is what happens when you wear tattoos all over your body; when there are no black lines that say, Do not cross this.
Land without taboo, land without class.
That was the first time he thought: I should leave these two. Something bad is going to happen if I stay on.
The woman spun in her seat viciously to face Danny.
“Say something. Make us laugh. That’s why we bring you along and give you free food and drink, you know.”
When they got to the creek, hand in hand, she walked down to the noise of flowing water, Danny trailing.
“Danny,” she said, looking back with a smile, “you know Prakash and I come to this creek every Sunday.”
Lovebirds again, the two of them.
The King of the Nile put a finger to his lips. “There’s a kangaroo somewhere around us,” he whispered. “I can hear it.”
“You’re insane. Prakash, there’s no roo here.”
“I can hear it. I know kangaroos. I’ve run with kangaroos.”
“And when have you ever fucking run with a roo? Is this another of your stories?”
“Hey. Quiet. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen of this country: this was in the Kimberleys, in the mining days. You’re out there at night, in a caravan or in a tent, and you hear them gnawing. They chew on bones all fucking night long, kangaroos.”
“For the salt. The minerals. They chew and chew, and after a while you fucking want to shoot them dead.”
“You see why I like this man, Danny?” Radha raised her voice. “He’s been everywhere. He could’ve been someone.”
“I don’t know where that roo is hiding,” said Prakash. He turned and looked at Danny. “Cleaner. I hate apologists. You know this, right?”
“Right,” Danny replied. He understood that this was an apology of sorts.
“There’s beer in the car. You want?”
“No more drinking, Prakash. And don’t corrupt the boy.”
Trying to listen only to the burbling water behind him, Danny looked at the night sky and saw another immense white cloud of the Australian night, as big and bright as a lagoon.
“Has anyone been to Randwick?” he asked suddenly.
Both the Aussies began laughing.
“Randwick? How the fuck did we get to Randwick?”
“It’s in Mission: Impossible 2
“Mission what? Oh, Prakash dearest”—Radha began laughing all over again—“we really should adopt this cleaner as our baby, shouldn’t we.”
“He’s not my baby.”
“Let’s take him and elope to Hong Kong. Or to India. What do you say?”
“He’s not my baby.” The Indian man shifted his big body about in the grass.
“Yes, he is. Our high-IQ cleaner. He’s our little third-world baby. And this is our little brown Noah’s Ark drifting through Sydney. Hey, Prakash, Danny’s been through torture, do you know that? He’s like Nelson Mandela. You’re not listening, are you? Hey. Danny. Why are you silent? Entertain us. Say something.”
“Even the peacock must scratch its ear now and then,” Danny replied, making them laugh.
“And what the fuck does that mean?”
“It means: even a wise man must go quiet now and then.”
“That’s actually pretty profound. Even the peacock… what was it? By the way: I’ve been meaning to ask you, Danny. Do you have a girlfriend? Oh, that’s a shocker. A real shocker. Prakash! You listening to this? Our poor Nelson Mandela. We’ve got
to get him laid. Danny. I’ll tell you what, I know what you should do, you should go on this site called VeggieDate. All the best-looking women in Sydney are vegan.”
,” Danny protested.
“Who gives a fuck? Aussies think all Indians are vegetarian. The other day, Mark and I went to a beach party in Manly, and these guys turn up, all gorgeous, all vegetarians, and I danced the Lindy Hop there, you know. And the young vegetarian men looked at me and said, ‘You bloody rock star.’ We’re getting our cleaner laid with vegetarians, Prakash.”
“I’ve got better things to do with my life.”
“Like what?” The woman waited. “Surgery?”
Danny, making a mistake, laughed, and Prakash turned around before grumbling.
But Radha was aroused; Radha could not stop now.
“I keep telling you, Cleaner, this man could’ve been someone. We Medicare people, we know things. Take Westmead Hospital. I tell you, there are some doctors out there who shouldn’t be allowed to do surgery. Murderers. Complications every case. This girl, I know this for a fact, was operated on for stomach cancer, and guess what? She gets pneumonia during surgery. Dies from that. That surgeon, a white guy, he’s still there, at the hospital. Imagine if an Indian man got that wrong? It’d be in the papers. That’s why you never got to be a doctor, Prakash. It’s all fixed at the top-top level.”
She paused and smiled.
“That and the fact that you didn’t actually go to university. Unlike every other Indian boy who wore a tie and went to Middlington.”
He’s going to do something, Danny thought, tensing; instead, Prakash laughed. “At least I’m not a criminal. I didn’t get caught stealing money. Ha,” he shrieked into the night.
Her voice changed. “So mean. You’re so mean to me.” Danny thought she was sobbing. “Everyone’s mean to me. Men are always mean. I’ve got these big shoulders, don’t I? Guys don’t like women with powerful shoulders. I hate my shoulders.”
“That’s a trapezius, dear patient, not shoulders,” said Prakash, holding her for an instant.
Radha kept sobbing.
“Where’s the moon tonight?” asked the man after a while. “It’s Guru Purnima tomorrow. Should be a big moon up there. And tomorrow’s going to be a great day for the punters, I tell you, I’m going to win on every horse tomorrow.”
Pieces of living black opal, roaches, ran over Danny’s forearms. He lay passive, looking at the stars, and he thought, I am almost here, stars. That is what I am doing here. Almost being here.
“I should tell Mark I won’t be home, shouldn’t I? I’ll say I’m at the pub with the girls.”
The woman got up.
As Danny lay looking at stars, something pulled the woman down to the grass again. Something hit her. Not hard: just a light slap, the least force necessary to establish that it was a slap. “Don’t say his name. I’ve told you.”
“I’ll say his name if I want to, stop being a fascist.”
“Don’t say his name.”
“He’s my fucking husband. And I’ll say his name if I—”
Radha went silent. This was not, the slap had established, a discussion of equals.
Danny tensed. A finger had touched him on the back. Is he going to hit me next?
But a voice whispered to him: “Buddy, she’s no rock star. You know what I say? You’re forty years old. You’re no rock star. Now look at this, Cleaner.”
He showed Danny something that he’d had concealed in his sleeve the whole time. Dark with meat grease and gravy, but its serrated edge still shone in the moonlight. “That’s
a rock star. Isn’t it?”
“Put that away,” whispered Danny, but before Prakash could do so, the woman shrieked, “Did you bring that fucking knife here? I told you not to take it places with you. It’s gross. Danny. Take that knife away from him. What do we pay you for?”
But before he could answer, they learned they were not alone by the creek. Something was splashing in the water. The three of them rose to see.
It was a black dog, and it was shivering, uncertain of the edge between land and water; and in the creek, two white boys, stripped to the waist, buoying up and down, laughed and mimicked the animal each time it howled, raising their heads to the sky and letting loose long doggy noises—which confused or enraged the black thing that staggered about the rocks, adding its weak protests to theirs. So that was exactly a year ago. Guru Purnima day before this one. Fine. You went to a creek in Toongabbie. He had a knife with him that day. But how do you know it’s the same creek where they found Radha Thomas’s body yesterday in a jacket, weighed down with stones? How do you know a thing for sure, though you keep walking toward the clinic to meet Prakash?
On the sunlit face of an old brick warehouse was a white stenciled sign that looked as old as civilized life in Sydney: REX SIMPSON FINE CLOTHES FOR MEN. Beside the letters emerged a ghostlike silhouette of a hatted gentleman. Danny wished he had a hat like that. It would hide his stupid golden hair. How proud he had been of it just an hour ago.
He looked down at his phone. I am hungry now cleaner
Like a chain tugging him along to Dr. Prakash’s clinic, the text messages kept coming: and someone has to clean this place before I fly to South Africa!
See him now, lowering his reading glasses from his waving semi-silver hair and focusing his hazelnut eyes on the racing sections of the newspaper, Dr. Prakash, former miner, former soldier, King of the Nile. Would the possessor of a pair of eyes like that have anything to do with a murder? A civilized man, a private school man.
On the other hand, he did sometimes carry a knife around, didn’t he?
He looked to the city of Sydney for help and saw, on the side of a building, fading letters that said: SWITCH TO TEA.
In a discount store that has been shutting down since you came to Australia, where a prerecorded baritone booms over sunglasses, T-shirts for tourists, men’s and boys’ underwear in plastic boxes, and Cadbury Fruit & Nut bars, a never-ending closing-down sale goes on and on, right in the heart of Sydney.
“Because this is the final, I repeat, final sale. Everything must go, shoppers, everything must go. Come in and take a look. This time it’s for real.”
What are you looking for? the Lebanese woman asked Danny. No, she replied, they had no menthol lozenges of any kind. Didn’t even know what they were. But yes, they did have kitchen knives.
KENNEMANN KITCHEN KING
NEVER NEEDS TO BE POLISHED
Picking up one knife from the bin, Danny imagined touching its tip through the plastic cover.
He could see the King of the Nile again: that face dark and glowing like anthracite, those black reading glasses that he always kept raised over his wavy semi-silver hair.
Danny’s fever vanished, and his sinuses glowed the way Uncle Shankar’s must have when he inhaled that menthol spray—so light, and in good health. He dropped the knife back into the bin, where it fell on other six-dollar knives.
“Because this is the final, I repeat, final sale. Everything must go, shoppers, everything must go.”
On the pavement outside the store, in a cluster of funky hairstyles, sat young Indians fresh from the homeland watching a cell phone, while separated from them by a waste bin, and processed by the West, raw into refined sugar, bulkier Indians in business suits and suburban pompadours had gathered around their own mobile screen. The ones in the suits were locals, icebox Indians, and they were ignoring the immigrants; but both
of them, Danny noticed, were watching the same Bollywood song.
Sliding down Park Road, down the inner-city grid, Danny came to the Hyde Park intersection.
From where he stood, he could see the three chambers of the heart of Sydney: ocean, park, and hill. If he walked to his right, he would reach the Opera House and the ferries leaving for Manly Beach; in front of him, he could see the banks and insurance buildings arranged around the green lozenge of Hyde Park; but he was looking beyond ocean and park, and at the hill. Rising abruptly from the city, a road named William Street ramps up to an old-fashioned Coca-Cola neon sign, which pulsates from dusk to dawn, and which marks the start of a densely populated part of a mostly empty continent—the red-light district of Kings Cross.
Danny knew that sign well. How many times had he stood right there by the big Coca-Cola sign, up there, while the doctor and Radha were making love, and he had nothing to do but wander, ending up there, at the forehead of the city, looking down a row of glossy palm trees that divided traffic entering the tunnel, and thought: I know something that none of you know. A secret. Because House Number Five and House Number Six were having an affair: and in this never-ending city of Sydney, only he, an illegal immigrant, possessed this fact.
Danny-down-here cursed Danny-up-there: Crack. You are the world’s biggest crack.
Didn’t he once calculate that Radha and Prakash must have spent over five hundred dollars on him in free food and soft drinks in bars while he worked for them? And now, he thought, they are making me pay back every single dollar.
White hieroglyphs—numbers, zizags, dots, and dashes—lay in a mass on the road, painted information for cars driving up to Kings Cross. And beyond that giant Coca-Cola, tucked away in Kings Cross, was the Clinic. Radha called it that because Prakash spent so much time inside it, playing his games and drinking.
Danny could see, on the flesh of his palm, what he had himself written there: 1-800-333-000
Eel, silverfish, avocado, and tuna distracted him. To his right, he saw, beyond flowers, newspapers, and water bottles for sale, and through the darkness of an open door, an intermittent glint on a revolving sushi train—everything just three dollars, just three dollars.
But no samosa here, not one samosa.
He looked up again at the gigantic Coca-Cola sign.
In front of him, a pole studded with a silver button was emitting the rapid beat that said, Cross the road
Beaten, the bull-faced monster had become numb: its eyes were closed, its skin contracted in thick pain as the Greek hero, placid, naked, small-penised, twisted its horn. A mynah, having dipped itself in the fountain, perched on the fallen bull and, in a bid to stir him awake, shook its wet wings, forcing Danny to step back and leave the circle of tourists admiring the bronze giants in the water.
He had failed to do it: failed to break this new taboo. Instead, folding in on his own path and returning to Hyde Park, he had come walking down a promenade of fig trees, until he heard the fountain. Beyond its wet giants, beyond the trees and tourists, Danny saw the russet towers of St. Mary’s Cathedral, which sat like a bookmark on a frivolous, pleasure-pursuing city; and again he turned away and walked back into the park, thinking, Gandhi.
Someone twanged at a stringed instrument, and there was woodsmoke in the air.
Gandhi, yes: that was a person the doctor loved to talk about: in South Africa, see, they had a statue of the young Gandhi, with all his lawyer’s robes on, in the heart of their big city, which is called Johannesburg. Dr. Prakash had stood before it and clicked a photograph. Gandhi! Clothes!
And don’t you remember how he had placed red tulips in his own window in Potts Point to show that he was in love with Radha. Turn around, Danny. Kiran Rao is telling you, mate, to turn around.
Describing an invisible circle around the fountain, a jabiru stalked with a bent head and exaggerated movements of its scaly reptilian feet, as if mocking the solemnity with which humans were taking photos of themselves.
On either side of its body, the jabiru had a yellow tag printed with a surveillance number, and the wind blew burning forests deep into Danny’s nostrils.
As the smoke in the air loosened his bowels, Danny felt that he really really had to shit soon.
Someone was watching him: high up on a stone pedestal, a greenish old Britisher with a telescope, possibly Captain Cook, looked down on him and his cactus; but as the wind blew stronger, the jabiru thrashed its wings, preparing to fly, and the statued Englishman changed right before Danny’s eyes into a young, fully clothed Gandhi. Merrily merrily merrily,
the young mother sang as she went up William Street with her child strapped to her chest, life is but a dream. Merrily merrily…
Following behind her, pressing a cellophane-wrapped cactus to his T-shirt, Danny walked. He was now halfway up the hill. Halfway to the Clinic.
Slowing down in the shade of the banks and the buildings along William Street, he quickened when he had to cross the sunlit intersections. The arch of the Harbor Bridge was visible to the left, and made waiting at the red lights bearable. The whole time, from in front of him, the singing continued. Life is but a
Patting the baby, the young mother sang: Merrily merrily merrily, life is but a. Life is but a
. Warm in her shadow and song, the baby glanced at Danny: and the eye that regarded him was as hard, cloudy, and blue as a Sri Lankan street marble.
Danny wished the baby would look elsewhere. They had crossed at three red lights like this, but at the fourth, the mother and child went ahead.
Danny had stopped by a pub that had tables on the road.
On one table, weighed down by a coaster, a newspaper fluttered, alive in the breeze. Everything now had fever. Somewhere inside those fluttering pages was Radha’s murdered face.
The table outside the pub was moist, but Danny found no clean water anywhere—the only moisture was a ring of lager. He wet his finger and touched the newspaper and wrote. Someone else
Meaning, Someone else will tell the police
He scratched, with his long fingernail, Tamil words over these—
???? ???? But who else…
And scratched those words again
???? ???? Who else knew about the two of them?
They changed bars a lot, and no one really knew who they were. That was the point of switching from bar to bar. Their affair would never be caught out, right?
As if wishing to say something, the phone buzzed: and Dr. Prakash had something to say. H6 I have a flight to catch today. Would be good if you cleaned the flat soon
Dr. Prakash, why don’t you stop bothering me? Toilets esp need work. If I remember you were very good at toilets
Danny sat down on one of the cane chairs outside the bar.
From where he sat, he could look into the bar, where the TV was showing images of the murdered woman: and even from outside, and interrupted by traffic, Danny could listen to the voice on the TV. The body, said the police, was found last night at a creek in Toongabbie, wrapped in a leather jacket whose pockets were filled with stones. The police describe the jacket as being of Italian make and… in color. They are asking for any information about the jacket or for the owner of the jacket to come forward.
Did they say black? Danny went closer to the glass door. But the roar of a powerful truck, going up the hill, blocked out the TV’s sound.
say black, didn’t they?
As if in response, the glass face of the building opposite presented a twisted and palsied image of an endless beige tower, like the one Jack climbed up, and Danny knew it was his own heart he was seeing.
From where he sat on the slope of William Street, the Opera House was just about visible, as was a glimpse of the ocean. Are you going back to your country so easily?
the blue water asked the man. Whether it’s you or the white people here, it’s all the same to
me, the water told the man. I’ll go on shining just like this.
Already forming the words Tables are only for customers
on her lips, the young Australian woman swung open the glass door but found no one at the table outside, just a newspaper stained by damp finger-marks and held down by a Victoria Bitter coaster: no Aussie bartender was going to catch Danny.
He stood at the next traffic intersection. Didn’t William Street have more red lights than any other street of this length in Sydney? He made a note of this to himself—and then laughed.
What is the use of information like this if you’re going to be deported tomorrow, Danny?
He felt he would gladly shave off all his golden hair and make an offering of his vanity to God: if that were the price of just one more day in this city.
As the gigantic red Coca-Cola sign drew him to it, the messages seemed to arrive faster I do have to go to the airport by six. Off to South Africa today. Can you hurry?
To which, to be safe, he texted back I am on my way. Just in Kings X now.
Imagine, thought Danny, that he actually did it. Killed her. And now what? He’s sitting in a pub, texting you? That makes no sense. Merrily merrily merrily,
the Aussie woman singing to her child, merrily merrily merrily,
walking at her own motherly pace, now passed Danny again.
The child was now smiling vertically up at the Australian sky.
Danny saw the smiling child and thought: I could
go see Sonja.
His cleaner’s singlet stuck to his chest.
At the top of the hill, the Coca-Cola sign stood like a referee between Kings Cross, the red-light district, and the road that led to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she was working today. Instead of going to the Clinic, if he took a right from here and walked past the yellow pub and the Thai restaurants, he would get to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst.
He looked at her number, number 16, on his phone’s list: Sonja
And felt better already.
text her. Can you see me just five minutes
. There was a fountain in front of the hospital, right by that memorial to the murdered Chinese doctor. Fresh cool water. Five minutes. Drink the water. Explain every lie to her.