Home 1:40 p.m.
Throwing its mouth wide open, the road demanded: And make that decision now.
Because he was at the place where William Street, splitting into curving branches that rejoin at the crest of the hill, allows a concrete tunnel to yawn open, revealing an orange spine of lights leading into darkness, and thus presenting the spectacle of day and night at once, while the Coca-Cola sign, overhead, rules over both realms.
Danny held his throat to soothe it.
On the very next date they had gone on, Sonja knew everything about the Sri Lankan situation, and the Tamil refugee problem, and had even sent a letter to her MP asking for a new policy toward asylum-seekers from that beautiful and troubled island. Danny kept quiet as she explained the peculiar and complex situation in Sri Lanka, beginning each sentence with “As you well know, the treatment of the minorities…”
Eventually, she let him speak.
“Look,” he said, “I reckon we don’t need more people to come into Australia.”
Grinning, and aware he was becoming ugly, he recited the facts of life to her confused face.
“As you well know, there is no fresh water in Australia. As you well know, the builders, they’re the ones who want more immigration. They’re bringing in brown and black people and putting them in slums near the airport and the train stations. To be slaves for white people.”
“My God!” She gaped. “Danny is a conservative.”
Although she concluded that Danny “could do with a bit of empathy on the immigration issue,” Sonja had said nothing else. This was just, she must have assumed, in his nature: his deviated septum, his refractory sinuses, his cussedness. Perhaps she liked him all the more for that.
He had told her nothing about the bump on his left forearm. One thing would lead to another, and she would find out in the end that her man was just an illegal. The shame.
Breaking free of the overwhelming Coca-Cola sign, Danny’s eyes moved to the right.
He could feel Sonja at once—her fingers in his hair, playing with his highlights, pulling it all toward the back of his neck. Those strong fingers now tugged on his hair from the direction of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was just a short walk to the right of the big sign, saying, Come. Come. Let’s have a coffee together.
Didn’t she love coffee? Three fifty a cup, and she drank three a day. (The way Australians spend money!)
On the other hand, Sonja didn’t like to be troubled at work. That was a fact. Their fights usually began with a reference to her work, it was a fact. “A patient pissed on me in the shower today,” she had said last week. Danny had asked: “Isn’t that a nurse’s job?” “What the hell does that mean?” she had demanded. “And if you think you’re so smart, why don’t you become a male nurse? Or do something other than clean houses?”
But if Danny took a left from the Coca-Cola sign, and walked past the drunks, tourists, and pimps, he would find the Clinic, and in it…
Life is but a dream.
Nothing is simple for a man like this one. Not even being helpless. Life is a battle, and though unevenly so, everyone is armed.
He had a story; he had a power. Hefting his cactus in one hand, Danny cracked the knuckles on the other with his thumb.
Life is but a dream.
A fit young female body jogged past. The muscles in her back spoke to Danny of sex, and said, No, no, it is not a dream. Live today to spend tomorrow with your girlfriend.
Turn around, Danny. Intelligent Cleaner means a Cleaner who is Intelligent, no?
But then, coming in from the city, circling over the Coca-Cola sign, half a dozen sulfur-breasted cockatoos made a sudden noise before turning leftward.
Following the white birds, Danny walked into Kings Cross—the Central Pleasure District of Sydney.
Third Year as an Illegal
It is an Indonesia inside Australia: an archipelago of illegals, each isolated from the other and kept weak, and fearful, by this isolation. But after a while you observe that some little islands have joined into bigger ones, and the fear is less here. There is even hope.
On his way back from a one-off cleaning job in Parramatta that Tommo had arranged for him, his astronaut’s silver canister on his back, Danny had seen her. That woman who stood at the railway station. Screaming, “Do not turn a blind eye to Syria! Thousands being massacred, raped, and murdered. Sign a petition now! Massacred, raped, and…” She looked tough, that woman, she really looked like she could take on immigration and the police.
“So why didn’t you talk to her? Why didn’t you ask her for help?”
That evening, they had met, the local illegals, in the benches outside the locked Glebe library, and Danny had described the woman to the others. In reply to their questions, he said:
“I didn’t like her boots.”
“Her boots?” Ibrahim, the Pakistani, asked.
Danny had felt, somehow, that this woman with the long black boots was not really for Syria or Syrians: Pay attention to me, she was shouting to her fellow Aussies, pity the illegal immigrant, but pay attention to me.
Sometimes, it was said, raids in the suburbs were led by social workers, “to protect illegals from exploitation.” When they caught you, they asked, “Are you okay, brother?” and gave you a chocolate bar as you were handcuffed. In the end, you were deported anyway. So what did it matter if it was a good-hearted woman or a massive blue policeman with a gun chasing after you? Idealism and corruption flowed side by side in Sydney like parallel streams of sewage. White people would be lecturing you on your rights all the way to the deportation vehicle.
“Didn’t like the boots,” Danny said decisively.
Smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes, Lin, the illegal Chinese-Malaysian, who made tacos at a Mexican restaurant, said what he always said: “You can get a cigarette packet this thick”—he showed how thick—“for eight ringgit in Malaysia. Just eight ringgit.” Yet Lin also said he was never, ever going back to Malaysia.
Lin, who did two shifts a day at the Mexican restaurant, blinked a lot when he wasn’t working, as if there were gaps in him where there should be anger.
But once he started smoking, he did get angry. “Kuala Lumpur”—he exhaled smoke away from Danny—“is full of illegals. Ten times more than Sydney. All Muslims. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Arabs. The government brings them in. They get their fake Malaysian identity cards. Chinese out, Muslims in.”
This was the first time Danny had heard that there were places in the world where the Chinese, despite their numbers, were the weak. But that made sense. He was beginning to feel that there was a reason some immigrants from Malaysia or Sri Lanka or Pakistan ended up driving big cars in the western suburbs of Sydney and others ended up in places like this, outside the Glebe library, whispering to each other. Two illegal Nepali cleaners he had met one day in Surry Hills hadn’t looked like he expected Nepalis to. Darker and shorter. Maybe they were the poorest people in Nepal.
Does it work like this? You’re not wanted to begin with in your own home. Then illegal immigrants come to your country, take what little you have, and force you to go to Australia and become an illegal there.
He asked Lin: “Those people from Bangladesh and Pakistan who are now in Malaysia—they’re the ones to blame, then?”
Lin shook his head. Danny understood. There must be illegals in Bangladesh and Pakistan who forced them out.
My God. Where does it end, then, and who is responsible for what has been done to us?
Lin smoked the way men did back home: the lit cigarette, in equal parts filter, stem, and ash, hanging from his moist lower lip as he stuffed his hands in his pockets. I too, thought Danny, have fallen to his level.
When you watch the Asian Games or Olympics at home, you are proud of your countrymen who bring a good name to all of you, right? Opposite of Olympics, which is bringing a bad name to their country by breaking the law of Australia, is what they were doing. All of them here outside the library.
“What do you tell them back home?”
The lies were modest, and similar. The Pakistanis claimed to be running the store they worked in. Same with Lin. Nothing about being a millionaire in Australia. The lie was just about their dignity.
“What about you?” Lin asked Danny. “What do you tell your people back home you’re doing here?”
“I don’t tell them anything. I don’t write to home at all.”
And now he could see that they wanted to move away from him.
Because there is a difference between us, thought Danny, looking at the other illegals. For them, shame was an atmospheric force, pressing down from the outside; in him, it bubbled up from within. Even if I were granted citizenship in this country, I would still be ashamed of myself.
Sending a level beam through Sydney’s hierarchies, the setting sun sank. Then the cloud of gloom, of desperation, that had grown so great and black in front of Glebe library, lifted.
Because Lin had begun talking of food. Of a feast. While smoking another hand-rolled cigarette, he had begun describing an outdoor food market, illuminated by incandescent white lights, a night market such as existed only in cities in Asia, one that went on forever and forever. Dim sums steamed in wicker baskets, glazed roasted duck, glazed chicken, skewered sausages, beef cutlets, fresh and fried frogs, everything you ever dreamed of. The two Pakistanis, excited by this description, added to it. Roasted lamb. On skewers. And those ice creams that come alive only at night and only in the open. All this, said Lin, was going to be placed on a large clean wooden table.
They gorged on make-believe duck, chicken, pomfret, and steaming jasmine rice.
Danny had something to add to the feast: hope. There is a way out of our shame, he informed them; the chicken and duck evaporated, and the illegals gathered around him. How? Come closer. The law of Australia can be broken. How? Even closer. See. Danny had been reading in the library. Back in the 1970s, a man named Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, and one day he announced in parliament, in Canberra, “Illegals of Australia, tomorrow is your amnesty.” You know how on Christmas Day, the bus conductor won’t check if you punched in your blue card or not? Same thing. You just go in to immigration and tell them, I’m illegal, and they say, No problem. Welcome.
Amnesty. Gates will swing open, manholes will fly, and an underground city will walk into the light.
Bullshit, said Ibrahim the Pakistani. He had stopped smiling. Not that way. This is how it’ll happen; the only way it’ll happen. See, the other day, from behind a picket fence in Seven Hills, the windscreen of a truck had emerged, emblazoned in Arabic and Roman letters saying—BISMILLAH—like a new sun waiting to mount over a new Sydney. A new law. And as he watched that big, noisy, Muslim-owned machine, Ibrahim knew: he knew what Australia’s future was.
Why not, thought Danny as night fell, and he walked through a dark crowd toward the Sunburst grocery store, why not. Convert the whole fucking country to Islam. That might make men of them at last.
WORLD FAMOUS LOVE MACHINE ADULTS ONLY
STRIPPERS MORE STRIPPERS
EROTICA BOOKSHOP COME IN AND LOOK
PORKY’S NITE SPOT
The names pulsated in red, green, or yellow wattage: GENTLEMEN’S CLUB. BADA BING. RISQUé ADULT BOUTIQUE. WELCOME TO KINGS CROSS.
Already, this early in the day, a few women in fishnet stockings and coral-red lipstick had started gathering beneath the lights. Concave in the cheeks, goggle-eyed, the palest women in Sydney, with legs from which the sunlight had long ago been sucked out.
In Sri Lanka, prostitutes show their breasts. Here they show their thighs. A bull-necked pimp with a shaved head, wearing black, the outfit of his profession, tried to hand Danny something. “Michael Jackson!” he yelled, even as two more pimps, both bald, both wearing all black, gathered behind him. “Would you like to see a woman right now? Michael Jackson!”
They were referring, he supposed, to his golden highlights.
No, thank you. Not for me.
“Gaaandhi!” yelled one of the pimps. “We got Indian women here!” And the other two grinned.
No, thank you. Not for me. Danny moved on.
He knew there was a kebab shop here (Five-Star Syria) run by a man named Haroun: in the old days, when he came here to clean House Number Six, Danny would always stop by to hear Haroun, behind his counter, complain about Australia; Haroun was growing old, working twelve hours a day; Haroun was becoming poor in Australia, spending twenty-five dollars for a packet of cigarettes—and how this jabbed at Danny’s heart, the legal immigrant’s prerogative to curse the land that had welcomed him.
But Haroun was gone, and a younger Arab man with a chopper made bright wounds in the mound of shawarma. As Danny watched, the exposed meat darkened in color again.
Guru Purnima day.
Where are you cleaner? his phone beeped. Danny could see the place from where the text messages were coming.
… on my way, Doctor, I am on my way…
Past the solitary prostitute looking for an early customer, past the dog shit by the trees, and past the branching veins of urine and spit superimposed on the grid of the streets, until he made it to a patio where pale men sat smoking and desperately watching the world around them, while dark glass doors indicated a place of deep privacy behind them.
Danny stood staring at an ellipse of white lights glittering around the word VEGAS.
This was the Vegas Hotel of Kings Cross, also known as the Clinic.
Warning noises came from above.
Up in the air, a seagull, catching a cross-building current, glided over the carnal entertainments of the Cross without moving a feather, only opening and closing its beak and emitting a series of loud squawks. Didn’t it just remind you of a cartoon of a village gossip—sitting in a tea stall all day, too lazy to move a muscle anywhere except in his powerful mouth.
Danny, assuming he was the subject of the seagull’s gossip, winced. He’s free, but that’s all he’s free for: gossiping up in the air.
Down here on earth, he, Dhananjaya, had already placed his hand on the glass door of the Vegas Hotel: he felt it glued down to the door as if no force could unbind it. There were people behind the glass. He saw an audience of a hundred people, dark, multiplied, expectant. Like Kiran Rao in his fine suit at the Sydney Festival, Danny addressed his imaginary audience: A man without rights in this world is not freed from his responsibilities. They applauded. Suddenly, everything made sense, from his hair down to his shoes, and his dark reflection was illuminated at once: half Gandhi, half pig. Let’s see what it feels like.
He pushed the door open and went into the Clinic.
The relief of shade and air-conditioning was mitigated by the tinge of sewage on each dark gust of chill air. The carpet may be moist. Or beer was going bad. Danny sniffed.
To his left he saw the red neon sign VIP ROOM.
And then below it, contradictorily, ENTRY FOR ALL.
He wandered about the machines, observing Aztecs, Zodiac Symbols, Taj Mahals, Bengal Tigers, Lightning Bolts, and Mexican Sombreros. A dozen men and women played at these machines. Some had placed beer glasses on their machines. An Asian woman at one station turned her head robotically from side to side, possibly to stretch her neck. A constant buzzing of mechanical happiness—bing-bing-bing—filled the room, now and then erupting into euphoria before subsiding again into repetitive bing-bing-bing joyousness.
It was like a snake shrine inside the Shiva temple. The gambling room inside the Sydney pub. Every bar had a quiet room where men watched glowing numbers on a TV screen or scanned newspaper pages with a pen. It was an odd vocation, this gambling, very technical, full of numbers, pencils, and calculations, done by the kind of brawny men who did not seem to be otherwise into thoughtfulness or calculation. Men went into debt because of those numbers. Men lost their homes, their cars, their friends, to those flashing numbers in the quiet room. Whites were the first to go crazy, but the immigrants were even worse. Chinese made up three-quarters of the customers in the casino in Star City. Now brown people were catching the disease too.
And Danny had known the King and Queen, the advance guard of the new Indian gambling elite of Australia, hadn’t he?
Dragons Myth; Indian Dreaming; Royal Diamonds; Dragon Master; Mega Moolah; 100 Pandas
Yellow diamonds showed in the dull red carpeting; the cashier, on an elevated desk behind secure black bars, looked like he had a shotgun under his chair. A printed notice read: FAKE FIFTY-DOLLAR NOTES BE ALERT. The best fakes come from CHINA of course. Study the three photographs below.
Danny walked around Central American faces, cactuses, eagles, snakes, and pink Martian landscapes, until he heard, beneath the mechanical noise of the machines, a human voice.
“… I was there in 1991, you know. When I was in the army. Four years. They train you in the forest in Queensland. You walk single file in a patrol, and suddenly, mate, watch out! A tree falls down, and everyone in the patrol, we’d look up to see a big hole in the canopy of the rain forest, right… and then we’d go on our patrol and return, an hour later, to the spot where the tree had fallen, and you don’t believe your eyes. Just one hour gone, and you can see the hole up there in the dark green canopy getting smaller, you can see the leaves of the other trees reaching toward each other to knit the hole in the jungle. Nature heals itself. I love Queensland, I tell you. Even thought of moving there once. Sydney, except for all those rich Chinese people that can’t buy enough of it, is a shithole, frankly. Don’t you agree?”
It appeared to be coming from behind a Super 100 Aztec gambling machine, and Danny walked around to see.
An Indian man in a white T-shirt, whose long black-and-silver hair was clamped down by dark reading glasses, was sitting at a table talking to a white couple and their little golden-haired daughter.
They were listening as if they could listen to him forever; but the Indian man’s smile and grace and kingly manner all crumbled at once.
He had caught Danny watching him.
Below his semi-silvery hair, the Indian man had thick, feathery black brows: Danny had forgotten those brows. And Dr. Prakash’s eyes, even in the dim light of the bar, were hazelnut in color.
There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney—a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressive society. Because even if both of you believe that one brown man holds no special significance for another in Sydney—a city and a civilization built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago—which is to say, even if you want to stay icebox or indifferent in the presence of the other brown man, you are helpless. You have to look at him just as he has to look at you. Eyeshock. Danny knew it well, but he had never before felt it in the presence of Dr. Prakash, who, though he was brown, though he was clearly born in India, had been living here long enough to become Aussie.
But today, those hazelnut eyes were again an immigrant’s eyes. Both men felt it.
Then Dr. Prakash’s eyes, relaxing, expanded in the friendly Aussie manner, and a dimple formed on either side of his nose.
“Well, it’s been good talking to you, my lady,” he said, and, raising the little girl’s hand gravely to his lips, kissed it, and then kissed it a second time. The little girl’s jaw dropped.
The parents were amused. Behind the counter, the cashier was amused. Everyone was amused except for the girl, who stood openmouthed in the presence of a god.
Prakash stood up. Danny walked up to him. Prakash examined him and then smiled. “You’re half a foot taller today, Cleaner. It’s the golden hair.”
Shrugging to indicate But life is full of surprises, no?, Danny smiled back.
House Number Six had gained a lot of weight since Danny last cleaned his place. His hair had much more silver in it, and he looked like the kind of man you would call, back home, an uncle. It’s not him, Danny.
“You came to clean the place, right?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Danny. “Yes, sir.”
“Nelson Mandela, our cleaner,” said Prakash, and suddenly, his voice changed. Now that Danny was closer, he could see the face better.
Prakash had that terrible look of a hungover fortysomething-year-old, now at the stage of his life when the drinking depletes some permanent reserve of strength inside. Is this the celebrated, amusing, intelligent, medically inclined occupant of House Number Six? Danny watched him.
No. This is just an animal inside him. An instinct is sitting here, not a man, and Danny had this same instinct inside him. When the Sri Lankan interrogating officer’s burning cigarette penetrated Danny’s forearm, and he himself felt paralyzed, like the one alert guest in a hotel on fire, this animal thing inside, this instinct, had responded: told Danny to stop screaming and to bend down and lick the burn on his arm, lick it again and again, to stop the fire spreading, until the interrogating officer with the cigarette, showing Danny some mercy, had himself splashed a glass of water on it. This is all that Prakash is today, an instinct to survive, a black rock in the center of a dried-out pond with letters inscribed on it: I AM YOUR SELF-LOATHING.
His old employer’s arms, though, were the same: and Danny’s eyes followed them down to where the half-sleeve shirt ended: the brown skin lightening a shade there in the exposed biceps, which were taut and irrigated with veins.
“Let’s play first?” Leaving the table and motioning Danny to follow, Prakash walked past a row of glowing machines.
Indian Dreaming. 5 Dragons. Sands of Time. Scattered Pyramids.
“I was packing my suitcases at home. Left everything to come here and see you. At the Clinic,” he said.
“At the Clinic,” agreed Danny.
“You want to go back right now to the place in Potts Point? Clean the toilets? My flight’s at six forty-five tonight.”
Does he not know yet? Danny wondered. Maybe he hasn’t read the newspaper yet.
But just below the doctor’s Adam’s apple, there was a fresh red wound.
“No,” muttered Prakash. “No, I see you aren’t ready just yet. You want to discuss. You want to discuss terms. I get it. All right, Nelson Mandela. Let’s play for a while. Pick a machine. Any machine. I’m paying.”
You always felt the temperature drop around this man. Danny remembered now, even as the Indian looked at him with his calm face and endothermic eyes, which could cool any Australian beach. What is civilization?
“It’s Guru Purnima today. You know what that means?”
Prakash smiled approvingly. “Very good luck, all the Indians in Sydney are gambling today, buddy. We’ll gamble a bit too.” He gestured about the gambling room. “I’ve always liked this room, Nelson: reminds me of the mines. I worked at the mines, you know. There’s just one difference.”
Prakash drew his lower lip in, closed his eyes, and nodded. “Yes. You remember everything, don’t you. Sit down and play on that machine. It’s a good one. As far as machines in this city go.”
“I don’t do gambling. No.”
Danny saw the face of an Oriental goddess set in a row with pyramids, hawks, golden ankhs, and other Egyptian emblems. This was the Queen of the Nile, and Danny had been ordered by the King to play it.
Holding up a dollar so Danny could see, Prakash dropped it into the machine. “Go for it,” he said. “I’m going to watch. Wait, wait, wait, I’m coming…”
Okay, thought Danny, maybe he hasn’t read about Radha’s death. Maybe he’s broken up with her. That happens.
Danny kept jabbing a green button that flashed, even as the machine simulated the sound of real cards being flipped (dob, dob, dob), while under the watchful eyes of a sultry Queen Nefertiti, the electronic screen glowed with the symbols of Egypt, and swallowed, in increments of two cents, the dollar coin that had been fed into it.
IS GAMBLING A PROBLEM? CALL THE HELPLINE. 1-800-858-858.
Sitting perfectly still, his head bent low so Danny saw his mop of partly silver hair, Prakash watched the screen—like an exam invigilator, thought Danny. Nothing rash or crazy about him. The King of the Nile.
The door of the pub opened, and an Indian man in an olive uniform with a bubble-wrapped parcel walked in, glanced around, checked out Danny and the doctor, and then squinted at the parcel’s address.
Every day one set of brown men wearing shorts crisscrosses the roads of Sydney to deliver letters, wrapped parcels, fresh flowers, and furniture, but before they can do this, they are intercepted by another set of brown men in starched shirts and black trousers, walkie-talkies in hands, wires spiraling into their ears, guarding every door and gate in the city.
Moving or watching brown, Danny—friendly or surveillance brown—which one?
Some white guy probably stabbed Radha out there in the creek in Toongabbie, and here you are, putting your bum down on the seat in front of the one Indian you know, to accuse him.
“Busy day,” said Danny. “Very busy day for me. I should go back to work now.”
“Legend,” said Dr. Prakash with a smile. “You just came. We’ll have lunch, and then you can clean my place. That is what you came for, isn’t it?” He held up another golden dollar coin. “Play once more.”
So Danny had to do it all over again, at the Queen of the Nile, in front of the coruscating rows of pyramids and sacred hawks, and lose that dollar too, until Prakash, satisfied, said: “Your luck really isn’t very good today, is it. C’mon. Let’s try something else.”
Leaving the machines, they sat at a wooden table picked by the doctor. Ketchup bottles, salt shakers, pepper shakers, Johnnie Walker coasters; and in between these things, racing forms printed in red, with a black sign above them that said:
$2 COULD NOW WIN $5 MILLION.
A GAME EVERY 3 MINUTES
A blue pencil rested in between the urgent red forms.
Two TV screens near this table showed a rugby match, and there were more screens behind them in a darker alcove that was reserved for hard-core punters: where men, pen and paper in hand, were performing the calculations, the scratchings on white paper, the professional-seeming rituals of the self-ruining gambler. Beyond, there was a black door leading to the street.
If I run now.
This is not the man, Danny told himself for the third or fourth time. He’s just an uncle in a pub.
Danny looked at the door of the pub.
Prakash scratched at his left jaw with his thumb.
“Want a glass? Red wine.”
“Right. You never drank. Just watched other people drink. Right? Yes, I…” Prakash smiled. “… remember you, Nelson. And you were funny. That’s why we kept you around. You said that funny thing about the peacock, didn’t you. What was it you said about the peacock?”
He remembers. What a great memory he has, for an Australian. Maybe he just hasn’t seen the TV. And he will see it later on. Let’s go, Danny. Up, up.
But when he turned to the door of the pub, a bus sped right past, and the sun’s glare ricocheted off its white sides into Danny’s eyes; he blinked, and then another car drove by, again irradiating his eyes.
“You okay, Intelligent Cleaner?”
Angling his body away from the door, Danny used his left palm as a shade.
“Too much light,” he said.
Right outside the door, the bright burning cars kept going by and going by; protecting his eyes with the purdah of his palms, Danny searched Prakash’s face for the truth.
“Cleaner.” Prakash lowered his voice, as if in sympathy for his painful eyes.
Excellent. Some evidence of human feeling. This was a normal man. This is what you came to establish, isn’t it? Now run.
“We wanted to say goodbye to you.” An Australian man brought along his daughter, the one whose hand Prakash had kissed. “This young lady is very impressed.”
“Would you like me to kiss your hand again?” asked Prakash, and the little girl held it out. He took it to his lips, and her jaw dropped again.
“I bet no one’s ever done that to her before,” the girl’s father said meanly.
Lowering his spectacles over his eyes, Prakash smiled. “I’ll be over to visit you one of these days in Queensland. I sure will. May even move there for good.”
Danny watched the father and his daughter leave the pub.
“I said, Cleaner.” Prakash summoned him nearer with his fingers, looking around, and whispered: “After you, we never had another cleaner.” He grinned with a nod. “I did it all myself, you know. I cleaned that damn flat. Even the toilets.” He laughed. “Certain people made me clean and watched me do it. You shouldn’t have left, you really… I don’t blame you, though, Nelson. I know what you are. I know your secret.” He winked.
Prakash handed Danny the racing page from the newspaper and indicated, Read, but Danny shook his head.
“… don’t know anything about betting.”
“Well, I do.” The doctor smiled. “Take a look at the dogs.”
Although he usually had a silver pen in his pocket to do this, the doctor today used his finger to draw a circle around the list of racing dogs.
“Punt on one.” He turned the newspaper toward Danny.
Danny pointed at the first name on the list.
Prakash clacked his tongue. “Nineteen to one, that’s no good, no good at all. You know how I play? By assuming a mispricing in the system, but only”—demonstrating a space between his thumb and index finger—“a reasonable mispricing. At nineteen to one, the odds don’t work for me. Pick another one. Then we can go back to the place and clean it. The toilets really need some work.”
This was rational, sensible, and reassuring. Leave at once, please. Just an uncle in a pub.
(Danny remembered an underground Internet café, right underneath the cinema at George Street, filled with Asian kids wearing white headphones and playing computer games for seven-hour blocks. If only he were in that computer cave, where, for ten or eleven dollars, he could sit all through the burning day. Koreans were strong and tight-knit. They’d protect him today.)
“No?” Dr. Prakash grinned. “No bets today? As you please. I’ll put the paper away.”
(But he also remembered Sydney Harbor as he had just seen it, on his climb up William Street, sparkling and silver: how it reminded him of the lagoon of Batticaloa, which he had seen from the rooftop of his Catholic school. It was the same great ocean, come all the way from Batticaloa to Australia, with no living space on either end of it for Danny.)
Prakash rubbed at something between his teeth with a finger, then ran it down his Adam’s apple. His thick eyebrows contracted. “Where’s your vacuum? You always brought your own along, didn’t you? Professional Cleaner.”
“I like Australia,” said Danny abruptly. “I like Australia very much.” Now the conversation could meander and digress, and then Danny could just slide out of the bar. What do you say?
Right above the bar was a TV screen that pronounced:
NEXT GAME IN 0:43
But only one man here had the power to change this conversation. All at once, Prakash, with a smile, asked, “Buddy, what do you do for Medicare? I mean, instead of Medicare.” Now the doctor looked up. “What do illegals do when they fall ill?”
“I said fucking sit.”
Some great strain had ended: Dr. Prakash was no longer acting.
Danny looked at the door of the pub and then sat down.
NEXT GAME IN 0:58
“Don’t look at the door,” said Prakash. “Look at that man, Cleaner.” He pointed.
Leaning his head back, a bald stocky man in a black T-shirt was glancing up at the TV screen with the horses and the flashing numbers.
“Look at his neck, Cleaner. See how the base of his brain is glowing: the creamy fat packed into the occipital lobe, the root cunning? That’s called the Reptile brain. The Swamp brain. Now, that’s a gambling brain there.”
The bald gambler moved closer to the TV screen… The layer of fat at the base of his neck was throbbing again.
“That’s what you never understood, Nelson fucking Mandela. How to place a bet.”
Prakash gritted his teeth. He kept looking at the bald gambler as if he meant to assault him; but Danny felt the weight of a finger on his wrist, and that finger’s weight told him: Your intuition was exactly right. It is me. That finger’s weight on his wrist lowered Danny back into his seat. Prakash withdrew his hand and stopped gritting his teeth.
Everything seemed normal; and only the tension in the doctor’s jaw, the slight trembling of his white-and-black hair, and the growing pressure of his hand on Danny’s wrist indicated that this man was no longer living at that safe distance from reality that we call reality.
Turning to Danny, Prakash smiled.
“Tell me how you did it, Danny. Your secret.”
“You walk in the open,” the doctor asked, “and no one ever catches you? I know what you are, Nelson illegal Mandela. Tell me why the police don’t catch you.”
And he tightened his grip on Danny’s wrist.
Now you get it, don’t you, Danny? It happens to you too. Some mornings you wake up, and you’ve forgotten everything you’ve done. Same with him. See, this morning he wakes up, and it is like waking up on Bondi Beach: five seconds of paradise, then he remembers. Then he thinks, No one will connect me to the killing. Maybe he believes her body has sunk to the bottom. Because he filled the pockets of that Italian jacket with stones. And even if it is found, so what, who can link me and that body? All the time he is thinking, Maybe, just maybe, I’ve gotten away with murder. Then you call, Intelligent Cleaner. Today of all days. Think about how he feels. You call, and the nightmare starts again. His heart thumps like the horses at Randwick. He hasn’t escaped. Now he has to deal with you. And he will. The man who killed last night will kill again today.
Why didn’t you stay up in the storeroom with the panda bears tucked in to your sides?
Still holding Danny by the wrist, Prakash reached over and extracted the wrapped-up object from his other hand.
“Cactus?” He slowly unwrapped the object from its cellophane cover and sniffed around its base. “Cactus?”
Lowering his glasses from his head and placing them on his nose, Prakash peered through them at Danny.
Before Danny could say it, Prakash had responded to it.
“No.” He slapped both his hands on the table. “You called me.”
The table moved about, and the glasses on it and cutlery shook.
The bartender, who had been wiping beer mugs, turned to them.
At once Prakash leaned back, as if he had lost a point in an encounter. You’re right, Nelson. I can’t draw too much attention to myself.
Removing his glasses, he threw them, almost casually, on the table, and then he reached into his wallet; Danny felt his heels raise themselves off the floor.
His hand in his wallet, Prakash paused to ask:
“You haven’t been to South Africa, have you, Cleaner?”
“Then you haven’t seen civilization. They’ve got honest casinos there. Honest machines. I’ll win the Flexi Trifecta again.”
“Yes, Doctor. I’m sorry. Very sorry.”
“Don’t fucking call me that,” Prakash said. “Don’t fucking call me that. I am not a doctor. Don’t insult me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Danny, “I’m sorry.”
Prakash breathed out and smiled again. “You can beg, can’t you, Nelson.” With his finger, he pushed a piece of paper on the table toward Danny. “South Africa today. This evening. See. This is the plane ticket. Look at the time on the ticket, Cleaner. Look at the time.”
Departing SYD Arriving JNB
Gates close half an hour before flight
Danny saw Prakash again wearing his dark-rimmed reading glasses as he awaited a reaction to the ticket.
“Look at the time on the ticket.”
“Six forty-five p.m. Today,” said Danny, reading off the paper in front of him. “Is this a confirmed ticket?” he asked the doctor.
“Confirmed ticket?” Prakash smiled. “You haven’t flown in a long time, have you?”
“Four years,” replied Danny.
Outside on Darlinghurst Road, a white bus moved through white sunlight; the beer glasses on the table refracted its beams and cast a watery shimmer on everyone’s hands. Danny closed his eyes.
Doctor, she used to call him. He must have hated it as much as I hated being called Nelson.
He heard someone say: “It’s too bright here, isn’t it? Let’s move.”
Danny knew a strong hand was holding him by the wrist and guiding him. He felt himself moved down to the darker alcove at the end of the bar, meant for the serious punters. Killer, Cleaner, and Cactus sat down at a new table.
Maybe Prakash just knows who did it, thought Danny, settling into his chair. He didn’t do it himself. Maybe his right leg is also shaking right now.
“Don’t worry about a thing, Cleaner,” said Prakash, sounding normal again. “We’ll have lunch, then go back to the old place. In Potts Point. And you’re cleaning it. The toilets. Okay?”
But he tightened his grip on Danny’s right hand, and that grip said: You and me are connected, Cleaner. You know my secret, and I know yours.
“Okay, sir. Okay.”
Now you have to do what you always do, Danny told himself.
NEXT GAME IN 0:18
Now you have to tell a story.
In the alcove, four conjoined television screens seethed and spilled over: chestnut horses on one screen, greyhounds on another, white women in wide green hats on a third, then a fourth pulsating with numbers, and all four arranged around another, giant TV screen, which was further subdivided into four smaller screens, each febrile with colored data, like the distinct compartments of a heraldic device. Danny remembered the Jesuit coat of arms over the doorway of his school. Lucet et Ardet.
“Do you know the fishes sing in my hometown? In a lagoon?” he said.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” asked Prakash. “Let’s order lunch. They have steak here. You want that?”
Three white Australians sat in the alcove with paper and pen; Danny wondered how they’d respond if Prakash began yelling about an illegal immigrant.
The TV screens began showing live images from a greyhound race. The dogs were ready for the hunt and awaiting a signal.
The doctor now had the cactus in one hand; with the other, he was still holding Danny’s wrist.
Prakash smiled. He was like one indicating that something very long and painful had only just begun for both of them, and they might as well be comfortable. And have lunch.
Like an electronic compound eye, the TV screens now examined Danny synoptically. The numbers flickered and changed and the big TV at the center of the cluster showed a close-up of a man examining the hooves of a chestnut horse.
What if he still has the knife with him? Has he got it under the table or in his pants?
“No steak,” said Danny. “I want vegetarian food.”
That caught Prakash’s attention, and he looked straight at Danny, who said at once:
“Doctor. What is an illegal?”
“Illegal means legal who is ill, no? That’s a joke, sir. I thought you’d like it.”
Before Prakash could respond to these unexpected sounds—vegetarian, or illegal, or the joke—Danny pointed to the bump on his left forearm.
“Do you see this? This…?”
Prakash nodded. First he placed the cactus down on the table, and then removed his thick-rimmed black glasses and placed them beside the potted plant. “What is it?” he asked.
“Did Radha tell you what it was?” Danny asked.
That caught the killer’s attention. Danny felt the grip on his wrist tighten.
Prakash squeezed his brow to focus his eyes; he looked at the spot on Danny’s forearm.
“What is that thing?”
“I’ll tell you, sir. We have an airport, Doctor, in Sri Lanka. Bandaranaike Airport, international airport. I was in Dubai for a year, in a hotel, working in a Deira business motel. Did you know?”
“You’ve seen the world, Danny. Haven’t you?” asked Prakash.
Danny laughed sardonically. Sure.
Dubai! Yes, he’ll tell you about Dubai, Doctor. Danny, from his little city along the lagoon, went out to meet the world and discovered the great Muslim city in the desert. He worked in a hotel. He wore a green suit and green tie and stood behind the desk of a business motel in Deira, Dubai, that was his job. Millions of men would kill to have a job like that. Brown men.
When he wasn’t updating the computer records, or delivering the morning’s newspapers to each door in the hotel, Danny spoke to his guests, one hand on the green tie, answering their questions about entertainment in Dubai, sometimes extending his answers into discussions of Shakespeare’s identity and the truth about America’s ambitions for the Middle East, if they were in a mood to listen. There was a little white bar in the hotel, and on any given evening, an Arab in a caftan from one of the more repressed emirates, still reeking of desert wind, would be sitting there to utter one word over and over again: “Whiskey.” When the day ended, Danny changed his clothes and punched his time card. Filipina prostitutes clapped their hands right outside the hotel. Standing in front of one of Dubai’s crazy glass towers, Danny thought, When I go back home, they’ll have a small function for me. Dubai Danny. A felicitation. Cross the road now. Gray lizards from the desert, twice as thick as Sri Lankan geckos, sat on the posts at every traffic signal, and when the electronic beeping began, it was as if reptilian diaphragms were pulsing, Cross the road, cross it at once. Danny returned to the hotel to clean up the little white bar and then slept in a room behind the reception with four other workers. His father sent him a letter each month amending a list of warrantied goods, mostly electronic, he was expected to bring home at the year’s end.
Around Christmas, the workers became tense; they had been promised, in their contract, a year-end 20 percent bonus. At the start of December, the bonus was canceled. The workers were powerless. They had been made to surrender their passports to the employer—that was the law in Dubai—and now the passports were held as ransom.
All that was normal in Dubai, it turned out. The employer even had the nerve, when returning Danny’s passport, with his salary but without the bonus, to say, “Would you like to work another year in this job, son? Customers enjoy the way you talk to them. The women, especially.”
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want another year of working here in your Dubai.’ Maybe I’ll try to go to America again, I thought, you know. After working every day for a year, except Sunday mornings, I had two full free days in Dubai. To do shopping for my father.”
Danny felt Prakash’s grip on his arm loosen.
“Not for yourself?”
“No. Not for myself.”
“What a bastard. Not you.”
“I bought what I had to for my father, and then I flew home. But when I came home to Sri Lanka, someone stopped me at our airport, which is Katunayake. A customs officer. I told him I had bought nothing in duty-free, thinking that was the problem. But it wasn’t. You follow?”
Watching the killer’s face, Danny raised and lowered his voice and posed rhetorical questions, knowing from experience that his manner of telling them turned true stories into false ones. He knew that he was always too eager to please.
“So why was he stopping me if it was not about duty-free goods?”
On the TV screen, the horses were getting ready to run. Two other men came into the alcove and looked at the screen.
“The customs officer called me to a room. He asked some questions. Then another officer, not a customs man, came in and asked the same questions while flipping through my passport. More men came like this. Right? After two or three hours, they drove me out of the airport, saying they had to get something sorted out. This whole time I still have no idea what is going on, right?”
Danny explained: the next few hours happened in a daze. He was in a room where he could still hear planes in the distance. Men came and left, asking him stranger and stranger questions.
“I start to understand that they were looking for an LTTE man who was supposed to come from Dubai on my flight. Was I the man? You know… LTTE? Tamil Tigers? Rebels. They asked, ‘Are you a terrorist? Were you raising money in Dubai for bombs?’ No, I kept saying, no, just a Dubai business hotel assistant manager. Then I fell asleep. In the middle of the night, the lights came on in the room, and three new men wearing a different kind of uniform came in and started asking me the same questions. Terrorist? Money? I was very hungry, but I answered them.”
“Excuse me, mate—” An Australian man asked them for the racing newspaper.
“Want a cactus instead?” Prakash smiled as he gave him the paper.
“Listen, Genius Cleaner.” Prakash leaned forward the moment the white man left. “Is this a story or is this real?”
“It is real. It happened to me. Now listen. And be careful about the cactus,” Danny said. “Don’t joke about giving it away.”
Radha Thomas’s murderer placed both hands on the covered cactus, moved it back and forth, and smiled.
Looking at the cactus, Danny explained. Though the interrogating officers changed every hour, the confidence with which each one kept telling Danny that he was a Tamil Tiger—and not just any, but a very specific and real Tiger, one given to use the nom de guerre Danny, also known to pose as a hotel manager in Dubai and fly back to Colombo on Fridays, also known to have a father in Batticaloa for whom he would be bringing back electronic gifts that could be recycled into bomb timers—and their utter imperviousness to his denials—meant that in the breaks from the interrogation, Danny did little other than speculate about this terrorist (also Danny) whom he had somehow been mistaken for upon his return to his own country: what did this other Danny dress like, which street in Batticaloa did he live on or claim to live on, who and what did he fuck; and as a new officer came in and the questioning resumed, becoming more and more specific (“In Kuala Lumpur, how long did you spend at the Tune Hotel on the twenty-third of last month?”), Danny felt like he was in one of those Tamil suspense movies where the hero falls asleep one night in his flat and wakes the next morning in a king-size bed in Bangkok in a blue jacket—finding himself the head of the criminal Mafia in Thailand. He touches his new face, fiddles with his jacket, counts his guns and minions, and has no idea how his life has changed in an instant, how he got to Thailand, or why people assume he is a Mafia boss. After a while though, the hero, confronted by photographs, begins to realize that he is, and has always been, a Bangkok don: and that his earlier life in Tuticorin or Salem as a simple fun-loving youth was the real illusion.
Then his next interrogator came into the room.
“This fellow was always going to be easy to remember,” said Danny. Because this officer had a tic—the right side of his lips twitched upward as he spoke, even as his right eye contracted—like a man who had to squeeze words out of his mouth.
Danny demonstrated; Prakash nodded. He knew the type.
So this officer with the twitch in his lip sat there with a cigarette in the fork of his fingers, looking at Danny.
“What is your name?” he asked. And the same questions again and again. “Do you know the terrorist named Danny? Do you know any terrorists? What is your father’s name?” And then, without any change of expression, he said: “Write your name on this paper.”
“I wrote it. He said, ‘Not in Tamil.’ I wrote it in English. ‘Not in English,’ he said. ‘Write it in the national language.’ Sinhala. I picked up the pen, and my hand was trembling as I wrote. He said, ‘That’s not the way you write it in the national language, I’ll show you how to write Danny in the national language,’ and he stubbed his cigarette into my forearm. As I was screaming, as he kept his cigarette held down, I could hear him ask the same questions again. What is your name? What is your father’s name? What is—”
“—Crazy shit,” Prakash whispered.
On the TV screen, the horses had begun running down the track. Danny could feel through the man’s tight grip on his arm their hooves thumping down his own pulse. Then he felt Prakash’s grip loosen.
In the dark, Danny thought: The story is good.
Moving his head back, Prakash retorted: “I don’t believe. I don’t believe the cigarette. I’ve seen you smoke. You’re not scared of cigarettes.”
“Yes, I used to, Doctor. You’re right, I used to smoke.” Danny showed him his teeth. “You see, I began smoking after what they did to me with a cigarette.”
And that hit the animal’s heart. Isn’t that just how humans are? Prakash let go of him entirely.
“You see, when I went to see the doctor in Batti about my wound on my arm, he said, ‘You also have a blood pressure problem. One forty-nine over one oh three.’?”
“Is that… is that…?”
Prakash began moving a finger slowly toward the bump on Danny’s forearm.
It never reached. With his free arm, Danny rammed a small potted cactus into the murderer’s face, knocking him off his chair and onto the floor of the pub.
By the time the man got up, it was too late—the door of the pub was open, vibrating, and Danny was gone.
Remember that boy in the blue sarong.
That Muslim boy, the one who wore a skullcap and a blue sarong, kneeling before an army officer on a halo of burning sand. A month earlier, the tsunami had struck Sri Lanka. It was 2004. Thousands died in a day. A new curse on this island, which had already had a civil war, and how the people responded: like heroes. Men and women who had been sending their sons to kill Tamils now sent money to save Tamil lives.
Danny too had caught the do-good fever, and he went around the coast volunteering in the relief efforts, helping get food and medicine and water to the people who had lost their homes. One particular village of fishermen, all of them Tamils, had lost everything and were living in a church with some blankets, boiled water, and packages of food in plastic. A bucktoothed Muslim in a blue sarong was the one who was bringing them the food and water. Danny joined up with the Muslim. Remember how things were between Tamils and Muslims in the East back then. Reprisals and counter-reprisals. The cycle never ended. But this goofy Muslim boy on a bicycle that was wobbly with food had become, no one knew why, the savior of these Tamils. Bananas, boiled rice, lemon pickles for the refugees, and fresh milk for the children. Everyone loved this Muslim. A cunning devil, they discovered he was, collecting supplies from the army and the rebels, each of whom distributed food and water on the strict condition that it should not be handed to refugees who were taking aid from the other side. After one day off for the tsunami, the civil war had resumed. The local army commander found out that the refugees taking his food were somehow also receiving food from the rebels; and one evening the church was burned down while the refugees watched. The army commander called the Muslim boy to him: “Don’t help the Tamils for twenty-four hours. They’ve been eating our rice and the rebels’ rice at the same time. This is punishment. Understand?”
“Understand, understand,” replied the Muslim boy in his awkward way.
“You know what will happen,” said the commander, “if you break my law?”
Next day the army men in their jeep drove down to the burned church, found that the Muslim boy was still distributing food packets to the refugees, and stopped in front of him. One of them ordered: “Get in.”
Danny was there too, helping, but hid and watched as they took the Muslim boy around the block to where the army camp was, by the water. Here they made the boy kneel in front of an officer who sat on a plastic chair. From a safe distance, Danny spied. The abject sight of that Muslim boy in his sarong, prostrate before the Sri Lankan army officer on that halo of burning sand, the blue Indian Ocean behind and infinite humiliation ahead of him, remains in Danny’s mind—and let it stay there: as an emblem of the fate of a do-gooder in our world.
This business of helping others will make bigger monsters of us than greed ever did.
Rights? You have the right to run, Danny.
You have the fucking responsibility to run.
And that’s all.
STEP BACK DANGER
He had come charging down William Street, taking one street to the right and one to the left to throw off his pursuer, until a man in an orange fluorescent vest stood in the middle of the road with a red round sign.
Danny gaped at the man with the STOP sign, who looked ready to scream if he came nearer.
Behind the man who held the sign, another was being lowered into a manhole by a metal pulley to which he was strapped by a green harness; three colleagues in orange watched from behind a sign that said, STEP BACK DANGER BY LAW YOU CANNOT COME CLOSER THAN 3 METRES OF THIS SIGN.
“Sorry,” said Danny, and walked away from the sign, even as the worker was lowered into it, and onto another narrow street.
He raised his eyes toward the sky. High up on the shining metal roofs, two bald creatures with drooping beaks looked down on him—the jabiru that had stalked him in Hyde Park had followed with a friend. They were the city’s scavengers: they had the first right over every dead or discarded thing in Sydney.
You won’t catch me today—and Danny ran again.
Hop, skip, and leap. Deep inside a side street, Danny stopped running at last.
No one was coming after him, no one else was in that alley. He was safe. That hungover forty-year-old man, Prakash. Imagine his tremulous chest. Dry throat. The lizard throbbing in the pit of his neck. The confusion in the sunlight.
He was in no position to chase a fit triple jumper. You’re safe, Danny told himself, safe.
Although his phone was buzzing and glowing.
Don’t touch it, Danny. You know who that is.
But Prakash will phone the dob-in number: Prakash will tell them the truth about me.
“Cleaner,” Prakash said breathlessly when Danny answered the next call.
“Cleaner. You hit me. In the face.”
“Sorry,” said Danny, and almost laughed at his own response.
“Where are you?”
Danny stayed silent.
“Illegal Cleaner,” said the doctor. “Illegal means legal who is ill, no?” He laughed.
The voice was concentrated and high-pitched, as if it had been forced into a third of its normal range. He must be seething out there. I got him smack in the nose, I think.
The killer chuckled. “You call me today—you call me, you say you want to meet me, and then you come see me and hit me.”
“Sorry, sir,” Danny said. “Very sorry. Mistake.”
“Well, come back, then. Come and apologize. Then we’ll go and clean the flat. I’ll give you sixty dollars. You want more? You want more?”
“No,” said Danny.
“Danny: I am walking out into the Cross now. I am outside the pub now. If you’re around, put your hand up so I can see. No. You’re not around. You bolted. Really bolted.”
The doctor was panting. He’s walking. Quickly. Searching for me.
“Sorry, Doctor. I’m sorry I ran.”
And sorry if you were too stupid to see that blow coming. Ha.
“You think I’m a killer?”
“Yes,” Danny said. The directness of the question caught him. “No, no,” he protested at once. “No, no, no, no. You’re not—I don’t think you are the—”
The phone went dead.
When it rang again, Danny heard no voice on the line.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.”
Heart pounding, he thought: The average weekly take-home pay, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is one thousand one hundred dollars, and I’m not even 60 percent there. If he had to say sorry to the doctor a thousand more times, he would. That must be how Kiran Rao did it—though he never mentioned that in his book.
“You know where I am, Nelson?”
Prakash’s voice became soft. “Should I call the police, then?”
“Mr. Police, Mr. Australian Police, the man who hit me in a pub, his name is Danny. This is what he looks like. This is his phone number. And just because I was going to dob him in, he starts saying horrible things about me. That I hurt someone. Yes, he’s a bad man, this Danny. Shall I tell them that?”
Danny kept quiet.
The man with the advantage spoke.
“There is an immigration dob-in number, buddy. You know about it, don’t you? Wait. I have a question. I have a question, Cleaner. That lovely story… about the cigarette, buddy, did it really happen, or was it just made up? No, I think it did happen. It sounded right to me. Come back here, Cleaner, and I’ll hit you in the face with the cactus. Deal?”
Even if you called them and informed them the killer was in Kings Cross, in the Vegas pub, right now, the Aussie police would not believe you. Never. A man killed a woman last night, and dumped her body in a creek, and this morning, he is sitting in the pub, smiling and playing the pokie machines? I find it hard to believe, son. Danny touched the bump on his forearm. Of course, no policeman in Australia, for all their firearms and powerful physiques, for all the heavy gear they wore on their blue shirts, had that bump on their forearm. Their understanding of the world had not been expanded by a few hours of torture.
“Here’s my story, Cleaner. In return for your lovely cactus story. It’s called Cleaner Does Deportation. The story is this: You’ll be a hero for a minute on Twitter, and then everyone’s watching football while you are deported for the rest of your life. You think it’s a tall story I’m telling, Cleaner? Sure, no one will want to be the one to say, ‘Send the brave little cleaner back to Sri Lanka,’ and some may even ask, in customs and in immigration, ‘Shouldn’t he get a fair go?,’ and hundreds in the street will hold up signs for you, and some may even starve to death for a day or carry a little bomb on a Qantas flight or hold a painting show for you in Melbourne, but in the end, they’ll go home, and you will be deported. Am I lying? Am I fucking with you, Sir Cleaner?”
“No,” Danny replied.
He was right. Prakash was right. No felicitations, no garlands, no shawls, and no gold medals: doing the right thing was like turning the light off.
Do you feel whole again, Cleaner?
His left leg trembled. He smelled broccoli being boiled from an Australian kitchen somewhere nearby.
“Villawood. Yeah. That’ll be fun, won’t it? And you know where you go from there? Christmas Island. You heard of it?”
Danny nodded. Christmas Island. He had heard.
“People will eat nails, and drink things, and cut their wrists to get out of that fucking place. You’ll live pretty well in there, yes?”
The doctor had asserted the full force, the brute power, of his Australianness in that yes. Danny replied with:
“Please.” He lowered his voice. “My father spent all his savings to send me to Australia, and I must pay him back. I have to go to Rodney Accountant’s house and clean it, please. Please. He has a ‘No Uranium Mining’ sign on his fridge and he’s a good man. Please.”
“Danny, you know your voice trembles whenever you lie? Where are you? Come back at once. To the Clinic.”
“No,” said Danny, and switched the phone off.
Now an echoing no came at him, as if from the Coca-Cola sign but in truth from behind it, from the hidden back ways of Kings Cross, a place where men cried like nowhere else on earth—outbursts from bodies that had been untied by alcohol and heroin, and which spread like invertebrates on the pavement—until they suddenly found the strength to sit up straight and howl: It will never end, Danny. Your civil war will never fucking end!
Danny ran again.
He ran until he was between a tunnel penetrated by train tracks, and a raw sandstone cliff on top of which stood tiers and tiers of glass balconies. He was hidden from the Coca-Cola sign and from Kings Cross.
The phone had been ringing all the time. Pressing his head against the sandstone cliff, he answered it now.
The line went dead.
Why did you tell this man everything, Radha? I bet you told him about the dob-in number too. I bet you did. Why?
To calm himself down, he began moving from side to side along the cliff, plucking the ferns.
How did Prakash put the knife in? Danny struck the sandstone again and again, in imitation of a murderer’s blows. I don’t know how a knife goes in, but I do know how a cigarette goes into flesh.
Merrily merrily merrily, came the voice from behind him, and he spun around.
It was just the wind sweeping dry leaves along.
Life is but a dream.
When the phone rang again, Danny let go of the ferns and looked up at the blue sky and yelled loudly enough to be heard all the way up to the Coca-Cola sign: “I don’t think you killed her, Doctor. I said it wrong.”
Closing his eyes, he tried to read the silence on the phone.
“Intelligent Cleaner.” After a pause, the killer laughed. “You always were an intelligent cleaner.”
The line went dead.
Danny laughed too. Crazy man still wants a way out. The King of the Nile still wants to escape.
Fern and grass grew in patches on the cliff; Danny plucked at the leaves and breathed it in, the fragrance of the continent underneath. It felt, for a second, as good as menthol. His nostrils cleared up.
Top-top-bada-daba-daba-bum-bum… Danny’s lips trilled; he played with small ferns growing on the sandstone cliff.
But it had started again: the phone was buzzing again.
Danny looked at the phone and clapped. Go away. Leave me alone.
In response, the cliff began vibrating.
The train to Kings Cross station was passing on the tracks down below, and Danny stepped back from the sandstone cliff. At the same time, his phone kept buzzing, as if it were being battered, again and again, by someone’s powerful muscles. As if it too were demanding, like the cliff, like the train thundering below, Why did you tell Radha you were illegal? Why did you trust an Australian?
Because she promised to help.
“Cleaner,” Radha had shouted over the roaring of Danny’s vacuum, “we won’t be going out tonight. I’m sorry about that. Prakash and I are going to a concert in Centenary Park. It’s for asylum-seekers. I’d invite you, but we’ve already bought tickets.”
“Okay,” shouted Danny. “No problem.”
Maybe it was that word: because Danny felt his forehead shift and his jaw tighten. He polished and cleaned everything twice as well that day.
When he was done, he found Radha on the phone, a beer in her hand. “Yeah, I want to know if I can place a bet on the phone? I’ll be going to a concert today. Can I call in there, or do I have to come in person? Great.”
When she put down the phone, Danny, gathering his courage, told her, “I need asylum.”
She laughed. “What?”
“I need asylum,” Danny clarified. “Because I don’t have Medicare.”
The skin between the Aussie woman’s eyes wrinkled. “Why not? Everyone gets Medicare in Australia. It’s the law.”
Danny shook his head. “I don’t have superannuation. I don’t have a tax file number. I don’t have a passport, and I don’t have a driver’s license.”
Radha’s forehead furrowed again. You could see her mind examining Danny from another angle, like a parrot going upside down with an odd fruit.
She asked: “Why not?”
She said: “Oh, shit. You came here on a boat?”
He had not come here on a boat: he had flown into Australia on Malaysia Airlines, economy-class ticket, and that was the problem.
For three days after Danny returned from Dubai, his father looked at him with a new sympathy, an unknown kindness, as if his son’s horror story had moved him; but before the week was over, he was gossiping with the brazen neighbor up on her first-floor terrace: Men from Sri Lanka, Tamil men, in Canada, Norway, and Germany, have built fortunes, own fleets of motorbikes and cars. But this boy—he goes to Dubai—and returns with what? A black mark on his arm. He doesn’t have anything from the list I asked him to bring. Not even the two-in-one DVD player. He’s claiming it was police torture, but I ask you, why will the police do this to a man unless he is hiding something? Why? The way Danny looked at him made his father shut up. “Come inside for a moment,” said Danny, and led his father back into the house. Closed the door. Raising a wooden chair from the dinner table over his head, Danny smashed it into a cupboard, making a large black hole in its cheap plywood. Then he dropped the chair and broke it too.
He lay in his bed all day, and when it was cool in the evening, he walked about Batticaloa, stood on the Kallady Bridge, and looked down on the lagoon. Sometimes Kannan, his first cousin, joined him on the bridge and, while the cars and bicycles went past noisily, talked to him in a low voice.
“Everyone’s trying to get out of here. I was waiting for you to return so we could go together.”
There were two options for leaving, Kannan informed him—Canada or Australia. They were the only countries still taking in Tamils from Sri Lanka. Europe and America were turning back people.
There was a boat that went to Canada every week from Rameswaram in India—they would have to pay the smugglers, and it was risky.
Australia? A boat went there too, but there was another way to get there, Kannan said.
So, early that Sunday, the two of them took a bus to Colombo to attend the Study in Australia Education Fair, held each year in a hotel by the oceanfront.
About Australia, other than the advertising images found inside the head of every human being on earth (red sand, white beach, infinite sex appeal), Danny knew only this: that a Tamil doctor had emigrated there decades ago, now owned a mansion in Melbourne, and invited visitors from Sri Lanka to play tennis with him and his Aussie wife on his private clay court and later to swim in his private pool. Wasn’t Australia thick with racists, though? the guests asked when his wife left. Don’t they have a law called the White Australia law? By way of answer, the doctor opened a safe-deposit box and invited them to see his collection of twenty-four-karat gold coins, which included half-sovereigns embossed with the faces of British kings and genuine South African Krugerrand.
On a merciless summer day, the conference hall inside the hotel—dominated by a giant STUDY IN AUSTRALIA, YOUNG SRI LANKAN poster—glowed with white lights and perfect air-conditioning. Danny and Cousin Kannan scratched up and down the goose bumps on their naked arms. White men wearing wool suits had brought photographs of their colleges, and in a corner of the hall, one of them stood with his right hand over a TV screen showing Mission: Impossible 2, featuring the one, the only, the legendary Tom Cruise. Set in the city of Sydney. “Now, we can’t guarantee,” said the square-jawed, carrot-haired representative of the Mackenzie Technical College, but added sotto voce, “but let’s just say I’d be a little surprised if you didn’t get a job and a visa at the end.” He looked at Danny and Kannan and added, “That’s irony, by the way.”
Is he telling the truth? Danny thought about it for a second or two. Didn’t matter, did it. The next time he left Sri Lanka would be the last time he left.
The cost of the course, the carrot-haired man added, was $17,400, which was cheaper than anything you’d find in Sydney (but Wollongong, with its vibrant nightlife, is just a couple of hours away). You’ll need a one-semester deposit and a $320 OSHC charge for six months. Overseas Student Health Cover. “I’m in good health,” Danny protested, and that was the first time he was told of this thing. Australian law. OSHC had to be purchased or he would not be given a visa: it was the Law.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Cousin Kannan on the bus back. “The smugglers, they don’t ask for this much.”
They had four days to decide, Kannan said. The boat left on Thursday evening. Danny thought about it, thought about it, and thought about it.
Kannan did not think. He went on his own to Rameswaram and bought a seat on the boat to Canada.
Sharks—smugglers—it was all too brazenly illegal. Honest Danny couldn’t do that. Besides, he had the money to go to Sydney—just about.
To his Dubai savings, his father added nearly eight thousand in Australian dollars. Now that the civil war was over, land prices were rising, and his father had recently sold a flat that he had kept all these years for this very moment. When he and Danny would go abroad for good. It was a lot of money to spend on a dodgy college, true, but Danny didn’t think he would need all of it, because he was going to Australia with a plan—a clever plan, which he explained to his father. The moment he arrived, he would apply for refugee status. His father, who had been avoiding him ever since he smashed the hole in the cupboard with the chair, expressed a mild form of skepticism. Look at him avoiding my eyes, thought Danny. This little man has been scared of the police and the state all his life, and now he is scared of me. I know, insisted Danny, what I am doing. “I meant that it is a good plan,” said his father. “First you go, Danny. Then I will come over. Then the cousins will come. You will bring us all over one by one.”
In Dubai, a fifty-six-year-old Pakistani waiter at the hotel, asked to tell stories of his roaring youth in Karachi, shouted back: “When was I ever young? Tell me when I was ever—?”
I will, Danny promised himself, become young in Australia.
So, Sydney. After a fitful sleep came a red dawn, and deep blue water penetrated by green bays of land that had the pattern of a frog’s splayed toes, before the plane turned sharply to reveal buildings that grew taller and whiter by the minute, creating in Danny’s mind the impression that he was, like Jack in reverse, descending into a city of new giants.
The airplane landed hard.
After arriving in Sydney at 4:30 p.m. I took the train and reached the Mackenzie College on a Thursday evening The city called Wollongong is about 95 to 100 minutes from Sydney Central Station.
Three days later, Danny composed to his father, via email, a progress report on what he had to show, so far, in return for spending $11,300 of the family’s money on himself.
I checked in to my room by eight p.m. [the Mackenzie College was a further forty minutes from Wollongong, on the first floor of a brick building—a warehouse; part of the ground floor was derelict, and the other part was full of fridges and washing machines; you went up the stairs by the side to classes] and by 10 that very evening, just before the college library closed, I sent a letter applying for refugee status via the Australian Immigration Office’s website.
Within twenty-four hours, the Commonwealth of Australia had responded to Danny:
Re: Change of Status from Subclass 500 to Subclass 866
Dear Mr. Rajaratnam,
We have received your request for a change of visa status from Student (Subclass 500) to Protection (Subclass 866). Please be aware that we have zero tolerance for vexatious and/or fraudulent protection claims. Upon reviewing your petition, we find that although you claim to be the victim of torture, and have included a photograph of your left forearm as evidence, your story appears to have a few holes in it. Sri Lanka is a diverse, multicultural nation, and we do not believe that any Tamil should fear to live there. If you were a victim of torture, it was more logical that you should have caught the boat, as quite a few of your fellow countrymen have done. You have clearly had the financial resources to fly to Australia as a full fee-paying student, and you have apparently purchased private health care as required by law, and it was only within the country that you have decided, it seems, that you are a victim of state persecution in your homeland. If you do apply for a Protection visa (Subclass 866) now, inside Australia, be aware that in the light of the zero-tolerance policy you will likely have to spend some time in detention, and your case may well be rejected after.
On the first day of classes, there was banging and yelling just outside the classroom because the Middle Eastern students found out that they had been charged twice what the Asian students had been.
The college gave each foreign student a job, to train for a new life in Australia. Danny was assigned to a curry restaurant on the first floor of a pub. A Tamil man named Venkat ran it—the other kind of Tamil, from India.
Now, Indian Tamils are loud; they don’t stop talking; and that is the difference.
Danny, my Sri Lankan brother, how nice to speak again in Tamil to someone, said Venky. He added: I have lots of DVDs from Malaysia, latest movies, tip-top condition, as he walked over pieces of blackening cardboard, avoiding plastic buckets brimming with soiled dishes, and entered the kitchen. Danny followed and listened. Four-week training period comes first, thambi from Sri Lanka, said Venky. Unpaid, of course. Oozing bilgewater, the cardboard pieces trembled as Danny stepped on them. I thought I was done with this in Dubai, he thought as he smiled back at Venky. Being cheated.
One more thing, said Venky. The legal quota is just twenty hours of employment a week for a foreign student (or forty hours in two weeks), but we can work around that, at ten dollars an hour, “a bit” less than the legal minimum wage, okay?
Little ways existed to get even with Venky as he washed dishes in the kitchen, and Danny knew them all from Dubai. He stole plastic cutlery, tissue paper, and condiments. Why not? Every foreign student in the college was doing the same thing. Getting even. Some downloaded essays from Google and handed them in. Some were not even bothering with classes, just looking for work as fruit pickers in orchards.
This was the racket: Mackenzie College wooed foreigners to Wollongong and sucked fees from them for two years, at the end of which, arming them with framed certificates of post-graduate competence, MBAs and MTechs, it turned them loose to tar roads, install windows, and wok-fry noodles around Australia. White people were cheating foreigners, and foreigners were cheating white people, and no one in the college seemed happy, except for a Chinese girl who hugged a backpack to her chest and always had a big smile on her face, like Jesus Christ with a lamb in his arms.
At the start of his third month at Mackenzie, Danny saw an Asian student striding out of the college building with a dictionary in his hands: a hardbound edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. He began following the dictionary boy. “Hey!” shouted Danny, and the Asian boy stopped, and changed into a Japanese-Brazilian man with long black hair and a goatee: name was Abelardo Nishida, but you could call him Abe. Rhymes with sake, mate! He was from Rio, Abe explained, so he did not speak much Japanese. Just a bit. As he walked, he kept offering Danny cigarettes. Free cigarettes. Thank you very much, said Danny, lighting one up.
“How do you have money for cigarettes in Australia?” asked Danny. Abe, the abseiler, just tapped on his forehead with an index finger.
Danny walked behind as Abe led, drumming on the big dictionary. This Japanese guy looks like a fellow, thought Danny, who has no blood pressure at all.
Three days after this meeting, the Japanese-Brazilian stopped attending classes in the college.
On Saturday Danny took the bus into Sydney and followed his map down to Castlereagh Street, the heart of Sydney’s CBD, where he saw, up there, on the glass skyscraper, the smiling Abe (rhymes with sake!) now transformed into the Legendary Abseiler. Someone had to keep the city clean, so Abe, in broad daylight, glided down glass windows on Castlereagh and Pitt streets, wearing his blue helmet and all his hooks, loops, and chains around his waist, showing his 100 percent illegal arse to all the Aussies down below. Just like Mission: Impossible 2, Danny thought.
They paid him in cash.
Into a green slot machine Abe dropped a blue bus card; then he turned and signaled to Danny, I’m paying for you, and they were both taken by fast bus from Taylor Square to a one-room studio in Bondi full of ashtrays and sea breezes and an unimpeded view of ocean, where Abe swam every morning far, far away from, he explained, all the bloody Asian tourists.
Abe lit a cigarette. Abe had made a long list of observations about Australia, which were accompanied by tapping on his forehead. For instance, “Have you seen how the two-dollar coin is smaller than the one-dollar coin, and the fifty-cent coin is bigger than both of them combined?”
No, Danny had never thought about the meaning in that.
“Do you know how big this country is?” asked Abe. “See this.” He opened the dictionary and showed Danny a map of the continent they were on.
From the window, Danny could see waves creaming at Bondi Beach. Creases tightened around his eyes, making him feel simultaneously wiser and more juvenile. Then Abe offered Danny a cigarette and asked about his life.
“I am never going home,” Danny said, summing up his life.
Abe looked at him from the corner of his eye and nodded. Okay.
“Let’s go,” he declared, and brought Danny, after a bus, a train, and another bus, to the Sunburst grocery store in Glebe.
In front of the spray-painted mural of a strange-looking Lord Krishna, an old white man, alerted by phone or simply by scent of the illegal, stood waiting for them: glossy-faced and shock-haired, Tommo Tsavdaridis looked as if life had been good to him, and he had been good to life. With a grin, Tommo led them into his Sunburst grocery store. Inside, though, his froggy-white hands struggled to open the big glass jars in which he kept plastic-wrapped sweets, each as hard as glass, which he tossed one each to Abe and Danny, an apparent token of his goodwill.
“Glebe is a very good area”—he said to the chewing men, as if advertising real estate to rental tenants—“buses take you everywhere from here Central, anywhere if you can pay for it. So where are you from? Ah… following the cricket, surely? No? No?”
A touch of arthritis, just a touch, you see, meant that Tommo Tsavdaridis could no longer quite do all the work in his store, he explained as he showed Danny the storeroom, up the metal stairs, thrown in as living space for whoever worked in the Sunburst store, at just $120 a week.
“Only one thing,” the old store owner added. “Last man from India I had, he was working here—months.” He held up three fingers. “One day the store is smelling, and I come in, asking him, ‘Vikram, Vikram.’ He says, ‘I make coffee.’ Okay. You make coffee, but why the bad smell.’ Then I see: he is boiling milk in the kettle, and who has ever done that in human history? You must never ever do that, Danny,” the old man said, smiling, “never boil milk and make my store smell bad. Or I murder you.”
Honest men are all honest in the same way: each rotten thing on earth emits its own special stench. This white-haired Greek grocer was not like Venky. His desire for exploitation was, Danny sensed, much more ambitious.
Your call, Abe the Abseiler replied when Danny expressed his reservations. They were back in Bondi, walking along the beach. Danny was thinking of the map of Australia in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. As big as the Roman Empire. As big as America minus Alaska. And most of it red and empty, which somehow tripled its size.
In Dubai, Danny had seen what happened to illegals. He had seen it at the airport. Two Filipino men, handcuffed to each other, due for deportation, had been made to sit in front of a boarding gate. A uniformed South Asian guard sat with them, and the men had to ask permission from him when they wanted to drink water from a faucet. As one deported Filipino tried to bend down to drink, the other, handcuffed to him, had to twist his body contrapuntally. Like two chained monkeys.
Go back to the college, Danny. Go back and give the college a chance.
Standing above the sands of Bondi, Abe watched the women who were sunbathing, providing a running commentary—bikini on this one, towel on that one, and guess what’s on that one—nothing!—while Danny listened to another commentary. At the edge of the beach, a sulfur-crested cockatoo sat on top of a Christmas pine like a rooster on a weather vane, saying, Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you incessantly to the seabathing bodies, now extending his neck and now contracting it, as he kept cawing, Fuck you, fuck you: to the beach, to the ocean, and to the slender airplane moving through the immense sky, while Danny sensed for the first time the power of a new continent, raw, red, and pagan, which was yelling at him in that cockatoo’s voice, And fuck you too, for being a coward.
“If you are scared, go back to the college,” advised a Japanese-Brazilian he barely knew. Abe explained how that racket worked too. “You switch from one course to the other every semester, right? Two years at the college becomes four years. Even five. You can earn money on the side as a fruit picker. After five years, who knows?”
Danny kept looking at the cockatoo on top of the Christmas pine.
He didn’t go back to the college that night. Nor did he drop out. For three days and nights, he stayed with Tommo Tsavdaridis on an experimental basis, working in the Sunburst grocery store, putting toilet paper and condensed milk on their proper shelves, and sleeping in the storage room, thinking, I’m sick of being cheated. I can’t keep paying the rip-off college all that money. On the second evening, he picked up the two panda bears, discarded on the pavement outside, carried them in, tucked them under his arms, and slept tight with them. But in the morning, he saw Australian policemen right outside the store, and his left leg trembled, and no, his throat whispered down into his stomach, no.
No, you can never fuck the law and get away, he thought, going down Glebe and Broadway all the way to George Street, phantasmagoric George Street, a current of healthy young people of various races, Malays, Indonesians, Arabs, and Pakistanis, until pushing through them he discovered the open plaza of Martin Place, the financial center of Australia, a sandstone brag about the wealth of a young continent, full of oversize carved lions and unicorns and emus sitting on top of bank doors, but what made Danny gape here was a man, a white man who did not seem connected to the banks in any way but was nibbling on something from an open paper bag, and looping aimlessly up and down the open plaza, raw freedom radiating from him like the odor of sweat from an athlete’s legs: and the next thing Danny knew, he was again at the mugathwaram, the magic breach in the lagoon that had encircled his whole life, and the wide silver ocean was just a leap away from him. In the distance a clocktower watched. His two hands were trembling. But what more can anyone do to you here, Danny, after what they have already done to you back home? Knowing that there is no way in life to be slightly less fearful, is there, no three little jumps this time, is there?—Danny clutched his hands and leaped. Into ocean. He wrote to the Mackenzie College saying he would not be paying his fees, and hence was dropping out, but he knew he was not going to leave the country. Twenty-eight days after he sent that letter, he became free forever in Sydney. Twenty-eight days after he sent that letter, he became trapped forever in Sydney.
“And now you give this man half of everything? Half of what I give you? O-kay,” Radha declared, shaking her head. “O-kay. How much does that leave you a week?”
He told her. Yes, he knew. It was not much. “But I’m free,” he said. “I’m free in Sydney.”
“But you live in a grocery store.”
Danny shrugged. “I live on top of it.”
“O-kay… Where is this place?”
Danny smiled. It was too late now: why stop. Why stop. “Glebe. I’m next to the Sunburst grocery store.”
“I know the store. I’ve been there. It has the famous weird Krishna mural by the side, right?”
Yes. That mural. Point one, Danny didn’t approve of the way Hindu gods appeared on these murals in Sydney. What can you do, though? Everyone everywhere makes fun of Hindus. But point two, there was art, real merit, in this mural, in the way Krishna had been reimagined as a dreadlocked surfer with a Rastafarian dharma, no denying that.
“Yes, it’s that store. Sunburst. It’s been in Glebe for thirty years.”
“I’ve been in there. I’ve never seen you.”
He smiled. Because I’m just the brown man working at the back of the store.
But Radha was making important discoveries about the city she’d been born in and lived all her life in. “I guess you’re not alone here. Other day I was in Carlingford, and six Chinese guys in singlets look out from above the restaurant, just for half a second. Then they go back in. They looked like monkeys.”
When you’re an illegal, you are exactly that.
“Clean that up,” said old Tommo Tsavdaridis, pointing at the moist dog shit on the pavement outside the store, about two hours after Danny told him he was going to stay. “Yes: clean it up. Customers shouldn’t step on that when walking into my store.” Danny went down on his knees with white tissue paper and wiped the resinous gunk, holding his breath as he carried the paper and its contents to a public waste bin. He returned to placing cans of tomato soup on the shelves. Half an hour later, Tommo called him again. Dogs had begun shitting four times a day outside the Sunburst store. They must have heard there was an illegal there.
In the evening, the old store owner laid down an iron rule: Danny was not allowed to talk to customers. The Persian woman with the hair salon across the road? Has the same rule for her Chinese girls. The illegal ones.
At nine in the evening, with a click—a patriarchal click—Mr. Tsavdaridis turned the lights in the storeroom off. “No noise, Danny,” he whispered, “or I call the immigration.” A roar of laughter.
Twenty minutes later, when Danny, his toothbrush and Colgate in his hand, began walking down the metal steps, the old man came and shouted: “I said no!”
“Toilet,” protested Danny.
Back in the storage room, Danny held on to his two pandas and shut his eyes. If he were writing his own story, he thought, he would call this moment “First Hour of Understanding What It Is to Be Illegal.” He closed his eyes and pressed the pandas into his sides.
He felt his blood pressure going up.
The metal staircase outside tittered. Perhaps the grocer had come around to check that he was in his cage. Yes, Danny thought he could smell the man.
He thought his BP must be at 150/110 already. Even higher. But Danny knew a few old tricks to deal with a bursting bladder. Because when he was a boy, his father never let him go to the toilet once the lights were off.
Things to do when you’re lying in the dark and your bladder is full and about to burst open. First. Breathe. Close your eyes. You are sticking a long straw down your throat. When the straw pierces the wall of your bladder, suck hard. Your mouth is full of fetid piss. But your bladder is light, oh, so light. Second. Crawl to the mattress’s edge. Lick the ground until you find a large crystal of sand. Twirling the sand crystal on the tip of your tongue, intone: “This is a grain of rock sugar slowly dissolving in my mouth. This is a grain…” The thought of sugar will soothe the limbs, relax the mind. Third. Flipping over on your belly, contract your thighs, and…
… the whole time he could feel his fingers walking down his forearm of their own volition, until they touched the bump there, and then his fingers, thinking for themselves, asked, What more can they do, Danny, after what they have already done to you.
This was the second hour as an illegal.
Getting up, opening the door of his room again, Danny left his storeroom, walked down the steps, entered the store, went all the way to the back, and used the toilet that was behind the shampoo and conditioner and coconut-cream soaps. Tommo gaped at him with his legal Australian eyes and said nothing. He didn’t call immigration. In the morning, he didn’t even talk about it.
Weeks went like this. Danny followed some of the rules of the Sunburst and broke some. After three weeks, Abelardo Nishida phoned. There was an opportunity for freelance work.
That evening, after stacking the tomato cans, Danny confronted Mr. Tsavdaridis: “I have to go out on Tuesday. A lawyer in Erskineville has a vacuum cleaner in his house, but I have to bring everything else. If he likes the cleaning, he’ll pay me fifty dollars.”
Old Tommo just gave him a look. Have you gone mad, monkey?
No, he had gone to the library.
“I was reading the law in Glebe library, Tommo. And you know what it says? Any man who employs an illegal and knows he is doing so is going to jail. They’ll put you in jail if you put me in jail.”
Me no dob, you no dob.
He agreed to pay Tommo 50 percent of everything he made. And to work late into the night when he got back on Tuesday.
His career as a legendary cleaner in inner-city Sydney had begun. “Because of me, every illegal in Glebe now asks for more from the boss. Every single one.”
That ended the story, the Australian woman clapped, and Danny found himself, for the first time in Australia, felicitated.
“You’re a bloody revolutionary. Like Gandhi.”
“Yes. Yes. Like Nelson Mandela. This country needs people like you.”
Her limbs pulsated with a sense of his freedom. She saw an athlete of the underground.
Danny sensed this, her exultation at his story, and he shared in it. He was the tiger of her eyes. But no, he wanted to tell her, no, this is all wrong. Because even when he was playing the game Abe had introduced him to, even when he was beating the blue-uniformed policemen, even when he was winning, Danny had been losing. He had not even played the game right. Because he was in a game—a big, international World Cup or Olympics. In this game, people were running from countries that were burning to not-yet-burning ones; catching boats, cutting barbed wire, snuggling into containers at the bottoms of ships, while another set of people were trying to stop, stall, catch, or turn them back; and though it was all chaos on the surface, it turned out there were definite rules in this game: either you braved it, got on the boat, got caught by Coast Guard, went to special jail—in which case there were lawyers, social workers, and people like the librarians at Glebe and left-wing women at train stations who would help you (would rush to help, then to post photos of their generosity on Facebook)—or you arrived by plane, legally, with a visa printed on your passport, went to their dodgy colleges, said Sorry sorry sorry when they yelled, and cleaned their toilet bowls for five or six years, before becoming a citizen in the seventh, when you could finally tell the white people to fuck off. What you did not do was fall in between these two by coming to Australia legally and then sliding under, appearing to be one thing and then becoming another, because that made you an illegal’s illegal, with no one to scream for you and no one to represent you in court. And this custom-made cell within the global prison was Danny’s own: a personal hot coal he had forged for himself to stand on.
But that was not the story she wanted to hear, was it?
“Tell me, Nelson Mandela,” his Australian employer raised her voice, “tell me who’s after you. What do they do. Tell me everything.”
“Who’s after me? They all are.”
“Who’s they all?”
“Customs, cops, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which they renamed Immigration and Citizenship, and then renamed Customs and Border Protection, then renamed Immigration and Border Protection, plus the ABF.”
“Australian Border Force, plus they now have Immigration Taskforce Pegasus, and Taskforce Cloudburst, specially for illegals.”
“What are you talking about?” Radha asked. “I never heard of these people.”
“Rule number one,” said Danny, “is they have your tax file number, so you have to close your bank account. Rule number two is you absolutely can’t work at a twenty-four-hour shop like City Convenience or 7-Eleven. Always being raided by immigration.”
“No. Another place of danger is any Hindu temple in the city. Immigration raided one last year and arrested everyone, including the priest and the holy peacock.”
“Hilarious. You are a fucking legend. Next time we go out, you have to tell Prakash everything you just told me. This is incredible.”
But now Danny shrank in size and begged: “Please don’t tell Dr. Sir my secret? That I am illegal…?”—and the effect of that question was to demolish some image of him that she had constructed for herself, for she said in a weary tone: “Sure. I’ll keep it a secret. And we will help you, Nelson. Sit down.” She pointed to the spot.
“Everyone wants Radha to help them, don’t they? And no one does a thing for me, Nelson. Fine. I won’t mention any names, but I’ll ask a friend of mine at Legal Aid. Hypothetically. No names. No address. Promise. But you know”—folding her arms, she arched her back before smiling at him—“that the moment you came here to work for me, you implicated me in an illegal act, do you understand?”
Arms still folded, she leaned from the hips toward him. “And what do you say when you put other people in trouble, Nelson?”
“I am very very sorry,” Danny replied, and then, “Thank you very much,” and waited, but she didn’t mention it the following week. And he realized that she had never meant to tell anyone about his situation—except Prakash, that is. She must have told the mad doctor about Danny again and again, discussing his case and all its gory details. We should help him, shouldn’t we? We should save him, shouldn’t we? Let’s do it tomorrow. Tonight we’ll have fun.
Which was why Prakash remembered everything.
Write me your name in the national language, son.
Danny’s heart stopped.
A brown man, normally given to interrogating suspects in Sri Lanka, was today in a lime-colored vest, searching among the parked cars, holding a cigarette in his forked fingers.
But the man turned, and he was again a stranger, with CITY RANGER written on his fluorescent green vest, taking photos with his cell phone of the license plates of cars parked on the left side of the road.
“Hey,” Danny shouted at him, just to talk to another brown man. “What time is it?”
Cigarette between black lips, the city ranger consulted his cell phone and held up a certain number of fingers.
At once things, small green things, began hitting Danny. Moving along the ferny cliff, his body had disturbed the burned grass: each drying clump exploded into green atoms, four or five at a time, grasshoppers disturbed from their summer sleep, which zapped Danny before each of them disintegrated into four or five more green atoms. He swatted at himself to be free.
The first number on his phone rang.
“Danny,” said Tommo’s tired old voice, “I told you never bring friends here.”
“I have no friends,” replied Danny. “What are you talking about?”
“Danny. Your friend is here. He says his name is Prakash. I give him the phone.”
There was a shuffle, and a cough, and an apology, while a different voice took over the phone.
“Nelson. You ran away. So I came to see you.”
His left leg, Danny noticed, was shaking.
How did Prakash get to Glebe this quickly? But he’s a normal Australian, Danny. He has a car. He just drove down into the city and into Glebe.
“But how did you…” asked Danny, though he knew.
“Next to the painting in Glebe. Everyone knows the famous painting in Glebe. It’s not Ganesha. Krishna. Right. Jamaican Krishna. I’ve seen it whenever I’ve come for the Saturday market. Nelson. I have your cactus here. You know which one. The one you hit me with. That’s how your employer here… Tsavdaridis, is that right? Is that how you say it? Tommo. Okay, that’s how Tommo here knows I wasn’t joking. I am really your friend.”
He’s parked outside the Sunburst store. While you were hiding here in East Sydney, that man with the ravaged, hungover face went to your clinic.
Blood makes them smart, doesn’t it. After you hit him, Prakash didn’t panic. No.
After the moment of surprise, after getting up from the floor, righting himself in the pub, telling people around him, “It’s okay, I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” the half-mad doctor didn’t run after you. No. He used his finger and drew circles on the racing page. Assessed Dhananjaya Rajaratnam like a professional punter, found the dog reasonably priced, and placed his money. The full moon glowed on Prakash’s face. As he bet he could control you.
Danny ran his fingers through his hair.
No. It wasn’t just when I hit him. That isn’t when he started planning. Prakash’s cool brown eyes had found me long before that. Nelson Mandela. Our old cleaner. He’ll see the news on TV. What do I do about him?
House Number Six would have called me today if I hadn’t called him first.
From high above Kings Cross, spreading and widening, Danny saw a dark net, like the ones tossed into the air by the fishermen at the Batticaloa lagoon, spreading wide and falling faster, threatening to snare and drag him into the tunnel underneath the Coca-Cola sign, down through the spine of orange lights into blackness.
“Nelson,” said the voice on his phone. “Are you okay?”
Danny transferred the instrument to his left ear. “Sorry, Dr. Sir,” said Danny, surprised to hear his voice trembling.
“What should I do about the cactus?”
“I don’t want it, Dr. Sir. I don’t want anything. Me no dob, me no dob.”
“Right.” Prakash laughed. “Right. You keep saying that. I’ll wait here. I’d like to see you again, Nelson. Before I fly to South Africa. Right? Listen.” He dropped his voice. “I’m not going to live here like the stingray, under the glass boat. I told you that once, didn’t I. You take a glass-bottomed boat over the reef and you see the filthy hiding stingray. That’s not me. Never me. I’ve lived well.” His voice almost broke. “I’ve lived really well. You understand, Nelson?”
“I don’t blame you for anything that happened over there at the Clinic, Nelson. For hitting me. I don’t blame you at all. You know who I blame?”
“Who?” Danny asked.
“My boss?” repeated Danny. “Tommo?”
“No. Not him. Your real boss. You’re just a cleaner.”
“Sir, you are right. I’m just the cleaner, and it is an honor to be trusted by you.” Speak as if this were the hotel in Dubai, Danny told himself, and you were behind the desk again. “Sir, I will never forget what we have agreed upon.”
Prakash hung up.
At once Danny thought, I have to tell Sonja. That’s the only thing left to do now. I have to tell her at once.
He ran his fingers through his golden hair.
But what was he going to tell her, exactly? First, in two minutes, let me tell you that I am an illegal and how I became one; and then, in another two or three minutes, let me tell you about the murder that I am mixed up in today.
My history of lying in five minutes. She’ll never forgive me.
Where is that cactus when you need it? Would’ve felt good against his chest now. Right.
But he had been so close to telling her, so many times.
Once was at the movies, naturally: that was on a Tuesday, cheap-ticket day, when they went to the cinema in Parramatta Westfield, where he blankly refused her suggestion that they watch the Tamil movie. They saw something with Tom Cruise in it, and he kept looking at Sonja and wondering if he could just whisper: “I am in Australia because of him.”
Or he could have told Sonja just a fortnight ago when they went together to Bondi Beach. While she swam on the north side, away from Asian tourists, Danny sat on the towel and watched. “I don’t like swimming,” he explained. What? Didn’t you grow up in some sort of lagoon? “I don’t like swimming,” he said, and she knew by now not to argue. He watched her as she swam by herself. Because the shoreline was the line of taboo now: he could never swim in this part of the ocean. Abe had come swimming here in Bondi. He did not want to remember Abe.
Sydney had become a city full of bad magic and interdictions, places he must never visit again: there was an intersection in Rose Bay, for instance, where a policeman’s horse snorted, dilating a vein over its nose, as it found Danny through blinkers. That shopping mall in Burwood where the woman with the green umbrella had spotted him was still off-limits after three years. Just a month ago, waiting for Sonja, Danny had begun walking about on his own along a new part of Parramatta River, till the sight of a distant metal structure made him remember the Kallady Bridge in Batticaloa. A whistling rose, as if the fish in Parramatta River had learned to sing as well as those back home: You abandoned your father. In his old age. Parts of Parramatta were henceforth also forbidden. Labyrinth of remembered errors: or the world’s most beautiful city, Sydney.
“What a weird man you are, my Danny,” Sonja said when she’d returned from her swim and, having washed herself under an open-air shower, sat down for him to dry her hair. Danny covered Sonja’s head with a white towel and said: “Ready?” As he rubbed it vigorously, Danny looked up at all the houses, at all the windows that glittered in the evening light like fool’s gold over Bondi Beach.
Dried and changed, Sonja drove the two of them up the hill to a vantage point where she insisted that he step out of the car. If he didn’t want to swim, fine. But he had to see.
Beyond Bondi Beach, a rocky promontory extended into the water, a lion’s paw of the continent resting on the ocean. Beyond it stood another rocky promontory, another beach. Danny saw, in all her authority, Australia.
Dark green waves crashed into the rocks below.
Sonja, a driving woman, had rented a Ford for the day, and she drove them next to see her mother. It was the first time Danny had taken a long car trip in Australia. Various shadows fell on them as she drove, a school of birds, the massive dark rafters of the Harbor Bridge, before they were in new country: North Sydney. In a living room on the sixteenth floor, Sonja’s mother gave them a bit of English conversation and lots of Vietnamese vegan soup; she stared at Danny’s hair all through dinner. Afterward, under powerful lights, mother and daughter showed Danny some of what they had knitted: sweaters, wool socks, and mufflers. Next, Sonja’s mother brought out her Medicare card, senior card, and library card, placing them all in a line for Sonja and Danny to inspect: it was her idea of propriety and Danny’s idea of happiness. So that, thought Danny, is how it looks like from their side.
Seizing the bump on his forearm, he probed it with his sharpest fingernail. He remembered those thatch-work shadows of the massive Harbor Bridge that fell on him as Sonja drove the car, and felt how those shadows webbed but did not support him as they supported her.
“Are you a Muslim?” the old woman asked.
“Mum. Not again.” Sonja turned to Danny. “Look at his smile. Why are you scared of him?”
Danny let go of his forearm. “I am not a terrorist,” he replied, “so explain this to your mother, please.”
Now the old woman understood that she had given offense, because she told her daughter a long story, which had to be translated for the boyfriend’s benefit. “Mum wants you to know this.” Sonja looked from the old woman to Danny. “Back in Vietnam, when my father was trying to get her attention and he was too shy to talk to her, he came to the village market, but he couldn’t say a thing to her. So you know what he did? My father shaved his head. To prove his love for her. And she understood what he meant.”
“She wants me to do that?” asked Danny, and the women laughed, as if he were very stupid.
“Next year,” Sonja said, holding a piece of shortbread from the after-dinner platter her mother had made, “we are going on holiday to Cairns. Aren’t we, Danny?”
He ate shortbread. His passport had expired three months ago, and he would need some form of identification to go on a plane, surely. He dodged the issue whenever she talked about Cairns and snorkeling around the Great Barrier Reef, a place that he suspected would prove to be an overpriced version of the Batticaloa Lagoon.
“It’s Sri Lanka up there in Cairns, so tropical, you’ll love it there.”
“How do you know what Sri Lanka’s like?” he retorted.
“Right. Right.” One day, he told Sonja, he would tell her about Sri Lanka, the world’s most beautiful country. Then she would stop talking about this Barrier Reef and whatnot.
She turned to her mother to say: “If he doesn’t want to go to Cairns, that’s fine. I say, ‘Let’s go to Sri Lanka and see your home.’ But he won’t even talk about it. Always changes the subject. He thinks I haven’t noticed.” And that reminded Sonja that she should really get Danny an herbal spray from that ayurveda place in Harris Park run by that lovely lovely Sri Lankan family. For his famous deviated septum? By the way, what a beautiful accent those Sri Lankans have. Why isn’t yours like theirs, Danny?
So Danny did it again, changed the subject, but cunningly: instead of Sri Lanka, Batticaloa, or the mystery of his nearly Aussie accent, he began telling Sonja’s mum about Tamils and Aborigines.
Yes, ever since that day, on a deserted street in Campsie on a summer’s morning, when Danny had seen a brown man and a girl who were dancing to no music but the sunlight—he shirtless, she in a bikini top and blue shorts—wearing, in fact, nothing except their glistening heat-resistant skin—and had drawn nearer and nearer to the two of them, only to realize at the end that they were not Indian, not Sri Lankan, but Aboriginal. How they danced. Ever since then he’d been researching at the Glebe and Newtown libraries. And he’d found out all this stuff online.
Sonja did the translating into Vietnamese as Danny talked.
“Listen to this, Mummy. It’s a great story. See, he’s saying that brown people, or Tamil people in particular, were here in Australia before anyone else, because Aborigines originally spoke a kind of Tamil. Mummy, he says it’s true. The scientists, they have the facts to prove all of this. This kind of scientist, he wants you to know, is called a linguist. See why I love this man? Now he’s saying that next time he and I come over the bridge to North Sydney, he will bring a linguist with him to prove scientifically that everything in Australia originally was Tamil.”
Sonja shook with laughter. Even her old mother no longer thought Danny was a Muslim. He was a legend. More than a legend. He was eating their shortbread, and they were eating his stories.
You could have told her even then. This is what I really want you to know: my own story.
But to tell her everything today? Today, of all days?
We have been together two years, and you never told me you were illegal? And now you’re mixed up with some murder? she might scream at him. Even worse, he could imagine himself crumbling, begging: Don’t tell anyone I’m illegal—please. And her: Don’t tell anyone? I fucking took you to see my mother, Danny. And she was right about you.
Turning to his right, Danny saw a great fig tree sparkle in many places inside its dark canopy of leaves, like a thing that knew its own heart.
When the phone rang again, he realized he hadn’t moved.
“Nelson. I’m right outside your place. There’s a library here. I bet you come here, don’t you.”
“Sir. I am very very sorry. Please don’t tell the police where I live, sir.”
A man laughed.
“You really know how to beg, don’t you, Cleaner. I never told you what happened after you left. When they made me clean the place myself. I learned things. Yeah. I learned about black drops. One day I pick up the toilet seat to clean it, the way you must have done, and I find black piss drops on the underside. Now I’m clean when I piss. I’m an army man. Never leave drops. But here I’m seeing black dried-out drops. Someone else’s urine on my seat. My toilet seat. Someone’s had my view of the Opera House as he pissed in my pot. And then he may have used my bed. It wasn’t you. No, I never blamed you. It was your boss.”
Is he talking about Tsavdaridis? Danny wondered. Is he going to kill him now?
The doctor’s voice quivered. “It’s really hot here outside the library,” he said. “I’d better move inside to the air-conditioning.”
Danny heard the creaking of a door being opened.
“Public libraries, they’re all a fucking waste. Most people’s IQ, it’s fixed at age ten, right, and it can’t increase.” Prakash paused. “Did I tell you of the incident at the mines, Nelson?”
“Well, I’m not going to tell you now, am I?” Another laugh. “Man. This is nice in here. Air-conditioned.”
There was a sigh, and then a noise, and Danny thought that Prakash had sat down. Maybe on a chair in the Glebe library in front of a computer.
“You know you’re driving on the bloody Mitchell Highway for the long weekend and you see that red Toyota smashed and you wonder what happened to the people inside? That was me. Are you listening?”
“Yes. Is this the incident at the mines?”
“No. This is another one. I was driving on the highway. I told you. It was winter. I had a jacket on. Leather. Canadian goose feathers inside. Expensive. They slit my leather jacket open and laid me on a hospital emergency bed. When I woke up, snowy feathers were floating about, and there was a big disc of light above me, and I thought, I’ve become an angel. These are feathers from my wings, and that big shining disc up there is my new angel’s brain. When I learned I was still alive, I tell you, my eyes filled with tears. Her father—there was a woman in the car too—her father didn’t see me as an angel, of course. When he accused me in the hospital, buddy, I tell you… First the mine and that accident, and now this—but I never gave in, I tell you. I never apologized. In court, the judge and the lawyers made me tick this box—that box—and then I was free. The gambling started after that, and next time when I got into trouble, they sent me to this rehab thing, right. That is what they wanted from me. Do you feel sorry for me, Nelson?”
“Yes,” said Danny.
There was shuffling, and he heard Prakash say, “All right, I’ll go out. All right. I’ll go. I won’t say sorry. I’ll go,” then continuing, “Fucking librarian. Wants me to leave. All right. I’m out of this shithole. You know they treated me badly at your library, don’t you, Nelson?”
“I don’t blame you for a thing. Just the fucking Cleaner. There’s a flight at six forty-five p.m. I can’t stay in Glebe forever. Have to go back and do the packing. And the cleaning. Don’t you think you owe me, Nelson? They made me do it. Now you come and clean up one last time.”
“No,” Danny said, and hung up.
That was a mistake. It upset Prakash, who texted back.
whats the dob in number oh yes 1-800-009-623
I hear its terrible inside Villawood all those gangs
People kill themselves rather than stay there
From the bushes all around, grasshoppers flew into Danny’s legs.
The phone began ringing again.
Sonja, Danny hoped, using a landline at the hospital? His fingers moved to the button… No, she wouldn’t call from a landline.
It kept ringing.
What can they do to you, Danny—he pinched his forearm—that they haven’t done already?
“Yes?” he almost shouted as he answered the phone.
“Mate,” the voice on the phone said after a pause, “this is Detective Sergeant Michaelos from Homicide. Who am I speaking to?”
Falling through leaves, a magpie swooped on a branch near Danny; the point of its beak, glistening in the sun, turned into a knife.
“Yes.” Danny began moving at once. “Yes. Yes.”
“Who am I speaking to? I’m calling you in connection with the investigation of a murder. Can you tell me your name, please?”
The voice on the phone informed him that his number had been found on a cell phone belonging to a Radha Thomas, who was murdered last night in Toongabbie, and could the police please ask a few questions of him. For now, just on the phone?
“Name, occupation, address. Yes, suburb will do for now. Phone number?”
Bunching up the ferns and pulling them out in clumps, Danny moved along the cliff face as he answered each question.
Then: “Were you a friend of hers? We’re calling everyone on the list.”
“I used to clean her place,” he said. “That’s all. But it stopped a long time ago.”
“How long ago?”
“Eight, nine months ago.” He consciously added a month to the estimate. “At least.”
“I see.” The sergeant asked: “Is there anything you can tell us that would help in the investigation? Anything suspicious you saw?”
Danny tried hard to remember. “No,” he said.
Think, Danny. Raising his ferny hands to his face, he inhaled the cool scent. If the police were checking her phone for numbers, then they’d find Prakash’s number. And they’d catch him on their own, wouldn’t they? Someone would remember an Indian man who wore a striped tie to a pub. Some white Australian would have wanted to smash his nose in. He’d remember. He’d know it’s his duty to tell the police.
Me no dob, you no dob.
When Danny glanced up, he saw a pair of Chinese eyes trained on him. A man in a blue-striped sailor’s T-shirt leaned out from the glass balcony of a building above him. Yawning up there, the Chinese observer scratched his arms, and he grinned.
Mate, can’t you read a calendar?
The Asian man kept smiling from up there.
Danny saw through the open door of the balcony a view of cool upholstery, electronics, an earthern urn, and the sure hint of a wife more beautiful than the man.
Stay in Australia, Danny.
Danny wished he could shout up and explain. See: he felt the pulse pounding against his sore throat. That made him want to go back to Sunburst and lie down on the sofa. But see, it also made him think of Radha’s throat and Justice.
From up on his safe perch, the Chinese observer began chewing something and watched Danny with moving jaws.
Did the cop call u too
Prakash had texted again.
Yes, Danny replied.
What did you say
At once the phone rang and the killer asked: “What did you say?”
“I told you. Nothing.”
It was a plea. Danny could finally hear Prakash for what he was: Gambler, King of the Nile, Boss of the Sydney nightlife—and someone who was now beyond all hope of remission or amnesty.
“Yes, Doctor. Really really.”
“Stop calling me that. I’m no doctor. Don’t insult me.”
Prakash waited. Then he asked: “You really told him nothing? Good. I never blamed you for a thing, Cleaner.”
The killer sounded almost grateful. With some luck, thought Danny, he’ll stay in a civil mood for the rest of the day.
A second later, though, his voice had changed. “Nelson. You—you hit me in the face.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry. Ten times sorry, Doctor. Twenty times sorry.”
A pause, and then: “I don’t blame you, I know you’re just a cleaner. It’s all fixed at the top-top level. We know who fixed it, don’t we?”
Instead of answering, he said: “I’m flying this evening, Nelson. I have to get in good shape. You know where I’m going? What time?”
When Danny had answered those, the murderer returned to his earlier question.
“We know who did the fixing, don’t we?”
“Who?” asked Danny.
“The top-top man.”
“The people selling this country out. That’s the top-top man.”
Hissing, “Top-top,” Prakash hung up.
Who is he talking about? Danny wondered.
High up in his redoubt, the Chinese observer nodded, as if he too were wondering the same thing, then stretched his arms over his head and yawned before walking back into his dark home.
An ambush. Two dozen black hoods gleamed at Danny from an open shed. In the middle of a deserted street, halfway down the hill that led from Kings Cross to Woollomolloo, Danny stood gazing at sleek, evil European things—an Italian car showroom.
Right outside the showroom, he saw a crushed thing—a rat (or some marsupial version thereof)—and now the shock of this country, the horror of white people, their use of toilet paper, the stench of broccoli, the obsession with rugby (never call it rugby), presented themselves in that pulverized rat-or-rat-like thing.
Hop, skip, and leap. Jump over the rat and move, Danny.
Ten feet away from the showroom, high over a concrete bridge, he saw the tall, stony pinnacles of the Gothic cathedral superimposed over the weblike steel cables of the Centrepoint Tower. How scary it looks, thought Danny, who saw it almost every day.
Things must seem like that to Prakash now. The world in a murderer’s eyes must be as shiny and terrifying as in an immigrant’s. No Australian policeman would understand that.
From around him, Danny heard gnawing: the gnawing of the night kangaroo… chewing on bones for living salt.
He turned back to the Italian showroom. Three cockatoos with their split sulfur crests held on with their gray claws to the hood of a black car, like the logos of a nervous new luxury brand—and Danny’s phone was ringing.
“Yes?” said Danny, looking at the cockatoos on top of the car.
It was the police, yes—but not the same police as last time.
“Look. I’m Detective Chief Inspector Jeffries, and I’m the squad commander, which is to say team leader, on this case, you should have gotten the call from me, not from Detective Sergeant Michaelos. I’m sorry about that, it wasn’t correct procedure. I hate it when that happens, and I’m sure you do as well. I appreciate that you have spoken to Sergeant Michaelos, but I have to ask you a few questions again. Now: can I ask you a few questions, sir?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Danny, and answered the questions again while walking under the bridge.
How long did you know this woman?
Did you clean her place often?
Did you ever notice anything unusual?
“No, sir,” replied Danny.
Do you know anyone who might have wanted to harm her?
“No,” said Danny, and more confidently this time, though his leg was still shaking.
“Nothing at all to tell us?”
“Nothing, sir. Can I go now? Have to work.”
“Yes,” said the policeman after a pause, “you can.”
Danny knew that eyes under the concrete bridge were looking at him, perhaps observing his humid discomfort, his lie-perspiring face, but there was nothing to worry about: they were the eyes of homeless Australians.
“When immigration finally catches you, Nelson, what you need to do is look those fellows in the eye and tell them, free me and I will do your plumbing.” Rubbing her face with cold cream, Radha Thomas walked into the bathroom one day while Danny was on his knees, scrubbing the ring of stains inside the tub. “Nelson, did you hear me? See: we only appear to like rules and regulations. What we really like is plumbing.”
Danny kept scrubbing away. He never knew, with half the things she said, was she joking, was she serious? Or was she in that place in between, which seemed to be what Australians called irony.
After a while, though, the jokes, or irony, or whatever it was, dried up in Radha Thomas.
“The accountant keeps asking,” she began to say, “where is that money from that flat going, and he’s going to mention it to Mark one of these days.” Nothing can escape rent in the city of Sydney—not even a wild love affair. Prakash must know that the moonlit bhangra was coming to an end. A good time, Danny thought, for me to leave as well.
Yet Danny stayed.
She paid like an honest woman, on time and with tips, didn’t she? Never made him clean the dog poo on the pavement outside, did she?
Week after week, he had put off the decision to tell Radha, just smiling at her when he was done cleaning her place; until one Tuesday six and a half months ago, Bada-bump-brrrrrump, after cleaning the carpet, doing the toilets (with special care), after making sure that everything in the flat was just right, and then accepting his sixty dollars, he took a breath, tightened his back, and told House Number Five he had to quit cleaning here. For good.
The windows were open that day: she stood near her red tulips, punching at her cell phone, without looking at him. She had a copy of the racing newspages with her.
Beyond the open windows, Danny could see the back of Daryl the Lawyer’s flat—House Number Four—and it looked like peace of mind and relief.
He stood running his right hand through his hair and grinning. Finally, to get her attention, he spoke.
“I have to quit,” he said, “this job.”
He knew his grin was so ugly that day, because when she finally understood what he meant, the third time he said it—quitting this job—she asked: “You think we’re freaks, don’t you?”
She went over to the sofa and sat down. “You hypocrite. Do you even know,” she said, “there are these people locked in Villawood writing poems about suicide, and here you are, going about Sydney town dressed up, cashed up, and enjoying the whole Aussie lifestyle. You bloody hypocrite.”
Danny stopped smiling. And now he felt brave enough to say: “Prakash is a little crack, Miss Radha.”
He had already turned around when she snapped: “Hey. You can’t say stuff like that and leave. What do you fucking mean?”
So he explained: it was just what they said in the Tamil films, what Danny’s father told the neighbors about him when he came back from Dubai (“My son is a little crack”).
Crazy, it meant. Like the boy in school who tells tall stories.
Radha placed her phone facedown on the table before the sofa. “Crazy?” she said. “Is that what you think of us? You were like family for us, you know: for Prakash and me. I… have spoken to people about your illegal status. I have… asked people to help you.”
Danny replied, “Thanks.”
“Crack.” Radha folded her arms and looked at him. “Don’t fucking grin. You look so ugly when you do. Listen. Prakash and Radha, Radha and her Prakash. The Indians over there in the western suburbs, they hate Prakash, he can’t go there. They hate us both. Because we’re Oscar and Lucinda. We’re not living the Indian lifestyle in Sydney, which is what, just buying bigger and bigger cars and celebrating Hindu festivals louder and louder each year in Parramatta. Stop fucking grinning, I said.”
Her phone buzzed, and she picked it up and played with it, talking to Danny the whole time. “He’s from an Indian background, his whole family are surgeons, and that’s what he felt he had to become, like his brother. Instead, do you know what he’s had to go through, the army in Queensland, then working as a miner in the Kimberleys. He’s been around the whole world, you know. The whole fucking world… are you”—she smiled and looked up at Danny—“listening to me, Cleaner? Life owes him. He could have been Gandhi. Or Fred Hollows.”
“Or Nelson Mandela,” Danny said—with a smile.
“Are you mocking me?” Radha looked at him. “Are you fucking mocking me? I invented you. You didn’t even exist before you worked for me. Look what I found online, Cleaner.”
Danny stopped smiling. She showed him the cell phone screen—and she had not been betting after all.
“Look. Read. ‘Anyone who is aware of an individual, business, or employer who might be facili—facili…”
Danny took a step closer. He looked at the phone.
“Don’t do that again. ‘Facilitating visa fraud or illegal work is urged to contact Border Watch at Australia dot gov dot au slash… border slash slash…’?”
Radha slapped the phone facedown on the table. “Slash slash,” she said.
After the silence, she said, “I didn’t mean that. You made me say it. You don’t know the first thing about Prakash. All the terrible things he has been through.”
“… I can’t clean here anymore.”
“Nelson. I mean, we could go to Hong Kong. There’s a job there for me, it’s the job of a hospital administrator. But I can’t leave this light. Sydney, the light is too strong, you can’t leave it so easily. Sometimes I think he’s going to hurt me, you know. He’s going to hurt himself and then hurt me and then hurt Mark too. He’s becoming so jealous.”
“Go to the police,” said Danny. “Tell them.”
She turned to him and let out a sardonic laugh. “Police.” A shake of her head. “There’s nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide in this city. No one will give me a job or a fair go. I know they’re talking about me everywhere. That crazy woman in the Medicare office. Who stole money from the government and ran, and her own husband dobbed her. The police got me into this mess.”
She let the phone drop on the table. “All we do is gamble all day, and we can’t take one bet on ourselves.”
She wiped away her tears with her left hand. Danny tightened his hand around his cleaning bag, in which he had a box full of paper napkins.
“?‘Prakash,’ I keep telling him, ‘a man in prison has a choice: either break out or make his cell as big as the world.’ I keep telling him.”
Danny looked at the door. When you have two lives, you simply double the number of places you want to escape from.
“Nelson. Do you know Randwick? Of course you do. It’s from Mission: Impossible 2. That bloody movie, it’s all you talk about. Listen. There is a flock of black cockatoos, living in secret in the heart of Sydney, and every summer evening, around six or seven, they make semicircles over Randwick, just in front of the big pub there—and you’re watching the sunset sky, these crested things, their black wings outstretched, they’re like the fucking Spanish armada. If you ever see those black cockatoos, think of me, think of Radha. The woman you didn’t want to help. Now get the fuck out of here if you want to.”
Should I beg her again, Danny wondered, not to tell Prakash that I’m illegal?
Ten minutes later, when, after warning him to stand right there while she went into the bedroom to bring him the business card of a woman she’d met on the train the other day who just happened to be an amazing immigration attorney, Danny left the apartment.
She did call him many times after that, true. His phone had vibrated, and he had seen that it was:
Maybe she told Prakash everything she knew about the wonderful Cleaner, that he was an illegal, because she was angry. Maybe when they got drunk, she rang up the immigration hotline in front of Prakash, and nearly told them everything—before pulling back, and hanging up, and laughing with him.
Maybe that’s why she betrayed Danny’s confidence. To get even.
She may have betrayed you, but she’s dead now, Danny told himself. Do not judge her. The Queen of the Nile.
By the base of the sandstone cliff, in a clump of succulents, caught by a strand of spider silk, a small leaf was being spun round and round in that windless spot by its own torsion. He got down on his knees to watch it.
Her? No, she was not the one who needed judging—not Radha Thomas.
For months, she had been right there behind Daryl the Lawyer’s home—the window with the red tulips was right there, behind or across the road—and, holding tight to his cleaning gear, Nelson the Cleaner could have gone over, could have said hello, just to see how Radha was. Five minutes it would have taken.
But that was one black line he had never crossed.
Danny was still squatting by the succulents. Like a perpetual-motion machine, the leaf trapped in the spider’s thread kept turning round and round.
Not murder: calculation.
Not madness but the calm sweat after a mad rage. That’s why he killed her.
Down on his knees, watching the little turning leaf, Danny could see a scar on the doctor’s neck; it was more vivid than ever, a fresh red semicircle, something that was no shaving wound. As if a fingernail had cut deep into it. And growing brighter and redder. She had fought him to the end.
What did she say to get him angry?
Did she say, for instance:
Fine. We don’t have to go to India. You can get a job and make a new start right here. But we can’t continue like this. You’re staying for free in Potts fucking Point, and who can live in Sydney without paying rent? You have to start again, Prakash.
Was she trying to help him, as she tried to help Danny? And is that why he killed her?
That man with his private school ties, that obsessive gambler, cut off from community, but one who liked to roar up in his cage in Kings Cross: one day he attacked Radha, the way a lion attacks its tamer.
Grasshoppers again flew into Danny from the disturbed bushes, and he kept swatting at them, knocking some of them down senseless, missing others.
Or maybe… he’s doing the talking. Yes. He’s been telling her that he’s going to stop drinking and gambling… and they have to run away to South Africa, and why don’t they go along together… and suddenly, she replies, It’s over, Prakash, you have to leave the Potts Point flat, the fucking accountant is really asking questions…
It’s Guru Purnima tomorrow, he says. You’re throwing me out on Guru Purnima day? But she says: Mark is starting to suspect something, and you have to leave that place. You have to move into a lodging house or something, I can pay a part of the bill, but Mark is getting very—
Don’t fucking mention his name.
His name is Mark, all right?
Don’t mention his name.
Does Prakash now look up at the night sky, hoping it will calm him down? Yes. He does that. The clearer the stars, the more disturbed he is. Yes. He puts his hand inside his red jacket and finds—he has a knife there. Excellent. And how smart of him to bring it along. Come right down to the water, Radha. Yes, come right here. Shall we try the Lindy Hop again?
Maybe they danced by the water—yes, they certainly did.
And just when something cool and rational inside a madman whispered, Do it, while she kept saying, Poor Mark, I had better tell him I am out late, I’ll just text him a moment, poor Mark, because she mentioned his name, or because the stars had shifted their positions, he shouts that she is no rock star, just a forty-year-old woman, and it’s that whole show-off Indian culture he can’t stand out there in the fucking suburbs, and even then he did not want to hurt her, maybe he held her down to the ground with his powerful arms, and only then did he discover that he had brought along a knife with him, what a fine thing to have brought along, and as he stabbed at her again and again, did he chant—What is civilization? What is fucking civili—?—before he covered her with an expensive leather jacket, filling its pockets with cold stones so she would sink all the way down. And then all the ambient light went out of Sydney.
Danny’s phone beeped.
Message from your phone company
As we continue to build a mobile network for the future, we will have to say goodbye—
In a single motion, Danny took the phone out of his pocket, raised it high up, and smashed it down on the road: where it broke into pieces, flying into the succulents.
I am never going back home.
In response, from above came the three-and-a-half-note birdcall (short-short-looooong-half) that had always sounded to Danny’s ear, amidst the incessant firecrackers of the Sydney aviary, like the firearm of a trained shooter. Even as he turned an eye up into the canopy of the tree and searched for the bird, the three-long-and-then-a-half-note call sounded again.…
Danny laughed at himself. In the middle of the summer day, shivering from fear and with heavy hurting sinuses, he clapped his hands, again and again, over the wreckage of his phone.
It won’t happen this way, Danny. You can’t start the day again.
Down on his knees, he reassembled the phone, strapping the battery into place with the Band-Aids, and turned the machine on. It cheerfully came back to life. It could not be killed or murdered. It was too cheap.
Message from your phone company
As we continue to build a mobile network for the future, we will have to say goodbye—
But the time on the phone now said
and blinked. How long is it from now to 6:45 p.m.? Danny thought. Wondering if he could ask someone the time, Danny turned toward the bridge and saw one homeless man offer his friend a choice of five exquisite cigarette butts to pick from, a gesture of mateship. Danny watched, ravished. He wished he could go nearer. Even the smell of tobacco made a man more rational.
Fucking madness, this. Changing your mind in the middle of a busy road in Australia.
Having started to cross William Street, toward an epic pile of governmenty sandstone, whose face was covered by scrolls illustrated with giant red spiders from the Outback, Danny stopped, remembering that the building must be a museum of some kind, and that if he went too close, he would find tourists from Sri Lanka or South India or Malaysia there, and that was why he had not gone near that place in years, and although he knew that the lights had changed, he stopped, turned, and recrossed William Street, running just ahead of oncoming traffic, with the cars blasting their horns—for a moment the Sydney road became as loud as a South Asian one—and kept running, driven by the momentum of his own misadventure, over the pavement and past people, and then over a green bank and up a pair of steps. These steps jagged sharply to the right and deposited him, of their volition rather than his, before a great church.
Ten feet ahead of Danny, an Asian woman in a white wedding dress posed with a bouquet of red roses outside St. Mary’s Cathedral, while a man in a tuxedo crouched and photographed her, and for a moment, Danny thought he was in an East Asian version of Disneyland—before the leash tugged again at him.
The phone buzzed in his trousers.
“Cleaner. Where are you right now?”
Danny said nothing.
“You won’t tell me. That’s fine, Cleaner. Guess where I am? Your boss wanted to get rid of me. Tommo. Isn’t that his name? So he said, ‘Go to the library and wait for Danny there.’ This must be a favorite spot of yours, right?”
“Are these other men sitting here illegals too?”
“No,” said Danny.
The Asian woman was being photographed again, this time while holding a bouquet of yellow roses to her chest.
“You don’t want to get them into trouble. That’s good of you. Where is this house that you’re cleaning right now?”
“Newtown,” said Danny. “Vroom vroom.”
The murderer considered his answer. “How do you get into these places you clean?”
“Key’s usually under the welcome rug. Or in the mailbox. Under the first letter.”
“And the money?”
“They leave it right on the desk. Sixty dollars. Cash.” Danny paused. “They trust me.”
“People didn’t trust me,” said Prakash. “Some people made me fucking clean the place after you left. But I tell you what. I’m not going to clean the place today. And at six forty-five, I have a flight to catch. And if I’m not going to clean it, guess who’s going to clean it? Fucking Nelson…”
The bells of St. Mary’s struck, and Danny turned the phone off.
With the first four peals of the bells, Danny grew weak, because he remembered Sonja, and with each subsequent peal, he became strong again.
An Asian bride clapped with joy, and the phone rang again.
If you have no idea where you are going, he told himself, you might as well go see her at the hospital.
When Danny looked up, he could see through the buildings on William Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital. It would be lunch break now. She’d be walking with two other nurses in indigo uniforms up to the coffee kiosk on the green hill outside St. Vincent’s.
“So it’s a soy latte, skinny cap, and a big flat white. Correct?”
I was not a vegetarian when I joined VeggieDate to meet women like you. I was a smoker too. After meeting you, I became a vegetarian and, what was much harder and required much more willpower, a nonsmoker.
I cannot, however, through willpower alone, become legal.
Soundless above the sandstone buildings, a flock of cockatoos soared, perhaps the same flock that had led him into the Cross, preserving the shape of a white cloud, like a thought bubble over the city.
Get back to work, Cleaner.
Fifty-three Brown Street, Newtown. Rodney Accountant’s building, which he entered by punching in the numeric code: 1987.
Of course, Danny didn’t have his vacuum on his back, which meant he would have to use the old one on the accountant’s shelves. Suboptimal, he told himself, seriously suboptimal.
If the church weren’t enough stimulation for the tourists, a glass roof allowed them to peer into a public swimming pool beneath their feet. The tourists understood that this was the real religion of this country: swimming. Down below, in the underground nave that paralleled the one in the church, pilgrims with goggles were thrashing up and down their aqueous prayer lanes.
Standing by the glass roof and looking at the swimmers in their lanes, Danny now saw a dead woman, alive…
One morning she and Prakash, to do something different, had driven Danny to a swimming pool near Central… and he had held the two-dollar visitor’s ticket in his finger and stood watching while the two of them, in their trunks, swam into the kids’ section to frolic about underneath a spreading snake, a Nagadeva of colored mosaic tiles, while the Aussie children in their goggles watched the two happy Indian swimmers; and then, calling Danny near the water’s edge, Radha and Prakash had splashed water on him: Redneck! Redddddneck, come back!
House Number Five. You must have fought hard when he stabbed you. You were a strong woman. A strong swimmer. A mistress of two households.
Won’t someone else call the police and tell them who killed you?
As Danny stared down through the glass panel into the pool in the depths, the blue water gaped, and swallowed the swimmers in a blink.
A month ago, he had been sitting on the bus to Marrickville, when two men who wore blue shirts, as if they were policemen, got on—“Ticket checking”—and Danny, almost proudly, showed them his ticket—like all illegals, he was scrupulous in these things, and Fine, sir, you’re good, said the checkers. But in the row right behind Danny, a young Aussie proved not to have a ticket. At once the ticket policeman turned into a cartoon figure, raising his eyebrows and emitting a stream of high-pitched outrage, as if he thought he had to look and sound like a clown before he could dispense the law; but his manner only incensed the ticketless young Australian man, who protested more and more, until the blue-shirted ticket policeman and his colleague—“I said now”—just seized the offender and almost carried him off the bus. That poor citizen boy, thought Danny, didn’t he look as if all those giant piles of sandstone blocks, all the nineteenth-century government buildings banked up against Circular Quay, had slid down on him, crushing his life breath. If he’d had a newspaper at that moment, Danny would have dipped a finger in water and inscribed over its Australian English in Tamil: A legal is just someone who is unwanted in the same way everyone else is.
A long fingernail scraped against the glass. Down in the swimming pool below St. Mary’s Cathedral, young Australian bodies rematerialized: summoned by Danny’s touch.
The Blue-10 bus card slipped quickly into the green time machine, which, after grumbling and rejecting the card, suddenly reswallowed it and noisily printed something on it before grudgingly releasing the card.
After smiling at the Arab-looking driver, Danny went to the back of the bus. He looked at the fresh black ink on the back of the plastic bus-travel card and reread the time the traditional way. Three-thirty.
Danny was back at Central Station. The four-faced sandstone clock tower was somewhere behind him as he walked down the bus, looking for a seat that felt safe. Forget that Coca-Cola sign and everything behind it. Forget the long walk up the hill to Kings Cross. Danny had wound this day back to where it had been at eleven in the morning: he was back in the flat, honest part of the city. He was going to work.
A bearded Indian man in the middle row raised a two-liter carton of whole milk and took an endless drink from it: Danny’s mouth watered. But Prakash is also doing that right now, he thought. Drinking and getting madder and madder by the moment.
He sat down.
Sun hit the windows of the bus. Scratch marks in the glass, cut with a schoolboy’s keys or with the bottle cap of a first beer, glistened like loops and loops of silver thread all around Danny.
The bus moved through construction noise—the same keening of giant drills that could be heard anywhere in the itchy, restless city, though when he glanced out the window, Danny could see only two compliant earth-digging machines, their metal heads bowed as if in mock deference to the passing humans, and high over them, beyond the green lawns, a series of unattainable sandstone peaks: the University of Sydney.
The air-conditioning in the bus was not working well.
On the university’s lawns, next to a flowering jacaranda, stood a gray North American totem pole. Topmost on the pole was a ferocious eagle with a yellow beak. A mop of silvery hair appeared on the eagle’s face, and black-rimmed spectacles now framed its giant hazelnut eyes. Danny sweated from his roots.
The bus stopped to pick up a group of Chinese students wearing fresh new University of Sydney T-shirts. Each stood with his finger inside a red passport with golden stars on the cover as if he expected the bus conductor would ask to see it. That must be what life in China is like, thought Danny.
Their faces were too raw, too terrible, for him, and he closed his eyes and tried to imagine it.
Sometimes in his dreams he still saw her, their neighbor in Batticaloa: a woman with close-cropped white hair whom he had nicknamed the Brazen Starer, because from the day “Dubai Danny” had returned, this neighbor had stood with her hands on her hips, elbows thrust out, on the first-floor balcony of a new building that had come up opposite his house. She stood like that and she stared at him. From her balcony, she commanded a view of the door of Danny’s house, and didn’t she know it. Danny did obvious things with his teeth, but the Brazen Starer just didn’t care. Below her on the street, people came and left, like changing denominators to her constant hands-on-hips numerator. Anytime Danny entered or left, this creature, a permanent grin on the face, stood up there watching—no, sucking up his image, as she must have sucked up his story, so many times over, from the other neighbors: Dubai? Torture? Our Danny? Oh, tell me again. Dubai? Torture? Our Danny? Gossip back home was so dense, so cementlike, it ought to be renamed. Goddip. Belly-filling Tamil goddip. Imagine, even if you somehow survived Villawood, extradition, the flight home, the Sri Lankan army, and intelligence men—imagine, after all that, having to go back to your home and endure the Brazen Starer’s wide grin from her first-floor balcony: Australia? Illegal? Arrested and sent back? And he was mixed up in some murder? Our Danny? Tell me the story all over again.
Danny was sure he would rather kill himself.
“It’s hot out here in Glebe, Danny. Why don’t you come over?”
“I have to work now, sir.”
“I said, Come over right now.”
Looking around, wondering if anyone would guess he was talking to a killer, Danny dropped his voice. “I’ll be there in the evening. I have to sleep there in the grocery store.”
“But I’ll be in South Africa by then. I’m flying premium economy tonight. Good legroom, Nelson.”
How can you talk of premium economy today, Danny wanted to shout at Prakash.
But maybe he already knew the answer. Remember, Danny told himself. He remembered a morning back when he was six or seven, standing in a crowd at the market in Batticaloa, watching a moist yellowfin tuna. The fish was three and a half feet head to tail. A man with a boat had caught it in the ocean and brought it here to show them: after displaying the monster to the public, the fisherman, removing the scales, sliced it open with a cut into the gills, then carved deep into it, piling pink fillets on the scales and more wet pink fillets on top of them. The boy stood on tiptoe. At the end of the performance, when the monster was just a string of dark wet organs attached to a tuna head, the fisherman held it up again for his audience—not that they would buy it, no, but so that, as they clapped, they could feel once more the thrill of being counted among the living.
That’s why you fly premium economy on a day like this.
“Nelson. You’re thinking of something. You didn’t answer me.”
“Sorry, sir. What did you ask?”
Slowly, as if giving him plenty of time to think, the doctor repeated himself: “How did all this start, Mandela? Why did you call me today?”
“Because I forgot, sir.”
“What did you forget.”
“That I was an illegal here.”
The killer breathed out. “Cleaner. Where were you this morning when you called me?”
“I was cleaning. The lawyer’s place. The police came in asking about her. The lawyer’s flat is in Erskineville. Close to… her place.”
“It’s just behind her place. Thirty-six Flora Street.”
“I told you, the police came and asked questions. That’s how I knew she’d died.”
“Why didn’t you stay there? Why did you get mixed up in all of this, Nelson?”
“Because of the blue ball.”
Danny sighed. “Nothing.”
And the phone went dead.
Danny calculated. The flight is at 6:45. International flight. He has to be there by 5:45. So, well before 5:45, Prakash will pack a few of his ties in a suitcase and start to move toward the airport. Just two hours left for Prakash to be gone. Danny clapped his hands.
The bus at once filled up with young Asian students, which meant they were close to the university, which was not far from King Street, the central avenue of Newtown.
Hope is a kind of rigor. Despair is sugar. Remember, Danny reminded himself, the mistake you made at Mackenzie College. Seduced by Abe the Abseiler. Do not despair today. It’s just two hours. Let Prakash go.
He glanced a last time at the bearded Indian man with the milk carton, whose face, milk-fortified, radiated the calm and peace of a South Asian village.
But if everything does go wrong in the next two hours, they will have ice-cold milk in Villawood, won’t they? Even if they send me from there to some Pacific island, there will always be cold milk to drink. Life will go on.
Danny pressed the red button to indicate that the bus had to stop.
His card punched out
and then he got down on King Street. He could barely move. The door of the furnace was wide open now. Blowing as if through a desert, the wind hit him in the face. They certainly won’t have cold milk for you back in Sri Lanka, son.
If it has names like flat white, latte, or doppio, if it is hand-brewed by men or women who wear aprons, and served in porcelain at a cost of four dollars a cup, then it is what white Australians call coffee. They insist that this coffee is very good—perhaps even the best in the world—or at least good enough to prove (along with universal health care, gun control laws, and a sense of irony) that their country is not America, not American, and not just a remote refueling stop for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
But for the immigrant to Sydney, coffee is what comes out of a self-service machine made in China and imported into 7-Eleven stores throughout the city. The cost is a dollar for a plastic cup, black and strong. The machine even pours you milk if you press a button. Yes, hot milk.
A line of taxi drivers, foreign students, and backpackers invariably stand waiting for coffee in any 7-Eleven, but this particular store on King Street was empty, and Danny, walking in, found out why: MACHINE BEING CLEANED, read the sign.
In any case, Danny watched the black drops dripping from the machine and changed his mind. He could feel his blood pressure rising. Maybe 145/110 now. Coffee made that worse.
He should have kept his Black & Gold cheese slices with him.
Next to the cash counter, beside the warm evening-edition newspapers that probably had a murdered woman’s photo somewhere inside, he saw a golden corn muffin in a plastic wrapper. It was marked two dollars, and he knew it was stale. Just by looking at it.
It was exactly the kind of muffin sold at the Sunburst store.
“Gluten?” He held the plastic-wrapped muffin in between two fingers and showed it to the young brown man, who looked North Indian, behind the glass counter. “Gluten?”
What? The man behind the counter grimaced. Who?
“Gluten is bad for my sinuses.” Sonja had told him that. “Does this have gluten?”
The Indian behind the counter shrugged.
Danny sighed. “Give me a discount.”
If the Indian man hadn’t heard of gluten, he certainly hadn’t heard of discount.
Tearing apart the plastic cover, Danny ate the two-dollar golden corn muffin on a bench right outside the 7-Eleven. He was aware that his phone was buzzing. Prakash, probably.
He picked up pieces of corn that had fallen on the bench and licked them off his fingers.
He had gluten and common sense in his guts now, and his odds of survival again felt good to Danny. He kept licking. Prakash will leave well before six. I just have to go clean Rodney Accountant’s place and keep myself occupied.
After eating, he always had to crack his knuckles. Danny almost began doing it and stopped. He looked around. White people did not like the sound of knuckles being cracked. “Stop that,” they said, as if he were spitting in public or farting.
“Fuck off.” He said it out loud. And began cracking the knuckles of his right hand.
Glancing sideways at Danny, a white man wearing a black suit but no tie, holding a leather black diary in his hand, walked past. Then another man, dressed identically, holding the same black diary, followed him. Danny got up and followed them. Both walked up the steps and into a grand building with a sign on it that said, as if it belonged in a children’s game of Monopoly: COURTHOUSE.
Danny walked up the steps and entered an Australian court of law.
Six lemon-colored globes were suspended from the ceiling, and they cast a twilight glow inside a large hall full of wooden benches. A dozen people of various races were spread about the benches. Above a raised wooden podium, and beneath a wooden pulpit mounted by a golden lion and a silver unicorn, sat a man in a black gown who was, Danny assumed, the judge.
“Sixteen traffic offenses in fifteen years is no small thing,” he said into a microphone.
“Yes, Your Honor, but…” Down below, placing his hand on the shoulder of a perspiring overweight man who looked like the defendant, a young lawyer tried to respond to the judge. “Not one of those offenses was committed since 2004, you will note.”
“True, but for this particular offense he was driving on the highway,” responded the judge, who looked, Danny thought, more and more like the old prime minister Malcolm Fraser.
“Without denying or diminishing his guilt, Your Honor, I ask again that you consider the defendant’s family circumstances. He is a good father, and I assure you his two sons love him.…”
It was like a scene out of Kiran Rao’s book come to life: everyone was being logical and civilized. Though he could have played the bully up there, the old judge, abandoning pomp, speaking plain English, making the Australian accent sound more attractive than it had ever before to Danny, seemed to be trying his best to understand why the man on trial had made the mistake he had. When it was the lawyer’s turn, the judge held his jaw in his hand and listened.
Asylum! Danny had so often pleaded his case before an imaginary audience, but this was the real thing. The lion and the unicorn up there were the law: and they were not menacing, the way any symbol connected to the government of Sri Lanka was. As he listened to the judge and the attorney spar with each other, Danny felt once again the attraction of the law of Australia, its promise, more elemental than any ocean he had seen: fairness. But where did it come from, this fair law? Danny looked around the courtroom. White, or black, or Arab, the people who lived in Sydney weren’t particularly decent or civilized.
So who built this wooden hall, who suspended these six lemon-colored lamps from the ceiling, who created this expectancy, which everyone sitting here seemed to feel, that justice was the likely outcome of this hearing?
And isn’t this, Danny thought, the obverse side of the question that he had asked every day in Sri Lanka. Because individually, no one there ever seems bad, whether Tamil, or Sinhala, or Muslim. But it does exist—evil. A man puts on a uniform, and becomes the uniform. Danny touched his left forearm: this bump in his forearm was real.
If you accept the mystery of evil, why can’t you accept the mystery of a more-or-less just law?
“You are now free to leave,” said the judge, liberating someone else in that hall, but Danny’s heart, too, beat faster.
Maybe he could walk right up to that high wooden seat and demand that Malcolm Fraser up there feel the bump in his forearm, and then argue: “That’s a pretty good case for asylum, don’t you think, mate? Next, I want to tell you all about a man named Dr. Prakash. Will you listen?”
It was as if the court answered him directly. A wooden door swung wide, and a man in blue wearing a vest that stated SHERIFF walked into the hall, hitched up his black belt, and looked around.
This person too, thought Danny, who will in a minute start talking and acting like a figure out of a TV cartoon—bullying and shoving people around—had his place in the order of things. The thorns are there to protect the roses.
But when Danny, opening another wooden door and slipping out of the hall lit up by the six lamps, had left the twilit courthouse and reentered the summer afternoon, he began cracking the knuckles on his hands once again.
Sun-baked fissures widened in the tar, and as he crossed the road toward the accountant’s place (53 Brown Street), he half expected to see smoke rising up from below him. Why not? He’d seen it happen before. Roads in Sydney in summer often steam up when a little rain falls on the hot asphalt. Do it, Danny dared the small-hearted city of Sydney, do it, he dared the petty road—burst into smoke, become a bed of live coals while I’m walking. I’ll survive. I’ll beat you again. (But he also thought: Let someone else walk on these coals today. I’ve been on them for four years.)
Fourth Year as an Illegal
“They’ll never catch us,” Abe had begun to say. “I know this country by now.”
For eight months, Abe the Abseiler was nowhere to be seen on the skyscrapers of Pitt and Castlereagh streets. He had left Sydney, gotten on Greyhound Australia, and traveled into the countryside, working illegally. Cattle farms, painting fences, picking fruits, for eight months Abe worked anything that was available. Stuffed with Aussie dollars, he returned to Sydney.
“Did you see kangaroos?” asked Danny.
Kangaroos, bulls, horses, rabbits. Every other living thing has its head down, gobbling grass all day long, except the roos, which stop everything they’re doing and just look at the passing bus, and their ears are up (Abe demonstrated) like this. “They know we’re bad.”
After two days on the bus, Abe shouted: “Stop, driver.” They had reached a place where there was pink fire on all sides: cherry trees in full blossom. Mildura, the place was called. Abe picked cherries for cash, and it was like the United Nations on that farm—the cherry pickers were from Vietnam, Indonesia, Tonga, Fiji, and not one white man around except the boss. The farm was not far from a river, and now and then, when the farmer blew a long whistle, the workers left everything and ran down to the water. It was a prearranged code. Immigration officers were raiding the fields and they had to hide. The river was called the Murray, and dead white tree trunks stuck out of it. Abe and the others huddled along the river, waving at Chinese tourists who went by on boats, sipping from glasses of champagne. Then came another long whistle—meaning, immigration was gone, and they had to return to work.
“I lost,” said Abe, jabbing at his tummy, “five point eight kilograms when picking fruit. It is the kind of weight a man loses and never regains.”
“Don’t the farmers out there ever get arrested for hiring illegals?” Danny asked.
“No.” Abe laughed. “No one’s going to fucking arrest an Australian farmer. He’s a bloody legend. You know what he does? He gets poor Malaysians to water his plants, pick his cherries, pack them into boxes, and then ships those boxes to Kuala Lumpur, where rich Malaysians buy them, paying any price that’s demanded, because they think white people grew these cherries. That is legendary.”
See: Abe had solved the riddle. Rich Asians and poor Asians don’t seem to talk a lot to each other, and that’s how Australians make most of their money.
“All the immigration officers out there are rotten, right. They just watch the whole season while you work, and the day you are supposed to get paid, the farmer phones immigration—and immediately they come, with their dogs and vans, picking you up.”
Immigration wasn’t the real danger in the countryside, anyway. You could always run from the fat men in blue and hide by the river and watch the black birds sitting on the dead white tree trunks in the water. But one day Abe was walking up to an orchard where he was working, right, and a black pitbull terrier started following him. The fellow looked sunburned, or confused, or hungry. When Abe stopped, the dog reared up on his chest. When he moved, it nipped and took small bites of his jeans. It growled. Abe thought, If it bites me and I have to go to the hospital, they’ll find out I have no Medicare. He stood by the highway and tried to stop a car. “Help,” Abe shouted, “help me.” The moment you shout help, Australia becomes empty. It’s a fact. After Abe ran from the pitbull for half an hour, a policeman came along on a bicycle. “We wouldn’t want that dog to be hit by traffic,” he said as he led it away. (It was only when the white policeman stopped his bicycle in the distance and glanced over his shoulder that Abe recognized the look in his eyes: the look of a people losing their grip on a continent.)
After leaving Mildura, Abe kept going along the Murray River until he got to South Australia. Here, you saw plenty of white boys picking grapes. They were all young European backpackers. In the evening, after slogging on the vineyards, the white boys went back to their hostel, dialed a number, and then a middle-aged brown man came sweating on a bicycle, carrying sixteen boxes of pizza for them. Sixteen boxes! The white boys, stripped to their undies, stood on the balconies of the hostel, yelling, “Faster, faster!” They ate all those pizzas in twenty minutes and then dialed that man for more pizzas and waited on the balcony so they could yell “Faster, faster!” once again. All day long, these white boys were the farmer’s slaves, but at night this brown man was their slave. Wasn’t that funny? Abe had thought so. But that’s the problem with Australia: there’s never anyone to share a joke with, because no one sees a bloody thing.
In a town called Berri, in South Australia, Abe had met this fifty-two-year-old fruit picker from Malaysia, Chang, and he had been illegal for nine years. The Malaysian Chinese, they were the best at staying illegally. Abe, out of respect, began calling him Chang Uncle.
Nine years, thought Danny. If a man called Chang Uncle had made it for nine, Danny could make it for ten.
And then, just like that, a week after returning to Sydney, Abe the Abseiler was arrested. Immigration raided the construction company even as he was strapping on his abseiling gear. Tom Cruise was kept in detention for two weeks and then deported. He phoned one day from Villawood. “You know, Danny, the funny thing is, everyone who stayed at Mackenzie College did get a job in the end. I keep seeing them wherever I go. They’ve even bought cars. You’ll be cleaning their houses one day. Isn’t that funny?”
Which was how Danny knew that it had always been a game for Abe. That guy probably left Australia shaking hands with immigration officers.
Two days later, reading a local newspaper, he learned that an illegal immigrant from Senegal had died on the last seat of a bus; the police said he was diabetic but probably too scared to get medical attention in time.
It rained that night, and wandering down Glebe until he could see the twin white buildings, the Portals of Sydney, Danny watched the green globes on top of each building—blurred in drizzle and mist, like two glowing miniature earths held up by invisible giants, and each saying the same thing: But you abandoned the worlds you had to carry, Danny. And what did you get in return? A pair of Chinese pandas to hug at night.
Danny awoke in darkness and splashed water on his face in the bathroom at the Sunburst store.
Honest Danny. Brave Danny. Intelligent Danny.
Danny shook the water off his face and wiped it dry with Tommo’s towel.
He had his regular cleaning job in Rose Bay that day; from there, he took the bus into the city. The bus moved through the heart of Sydney, going past East Asian–run canteens that fed white people junk food toward white-run boutiques that fed East Asians luxury goods. Freedom, fine leather, suits, Danny observed them all go past. At Central Station, he stood on the platform watching a train with a glowing Villawood sign pull in; how it pounded, his heart.
“Murugan,” he prayed, “bring me back to this very spot on the platform.”
He helped a mother lift a pram with a child over the edge of the train, while a man in a blue uniform walked by, wearing a dark pistol holster on his belt. The three bodies—child, mother, policeman—overlapped like an essential truth.
Then he was on his way to Villawood.
“Murugan,” he said each time the train came to a station. At the last stop on the train, he got off, saying, “Murugan,” and walked to the Villawood Immigration Detention Center and stood outside and folded his arms. Inside its thick brick walls were Greeks, Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis; their strong eyes burned through the brick wall and said, It’s only a matter of time, Danny. No one ever beats the law here.
In the open, in Australia, Danny turned his head to the side and spat. No. I’ll find a way. I’ll stay out. Somehow. But I won’t say sorry for what I did four years ago, and I won’t live in fear ever again.
The white cat was waiting, and as soon as he entered the accountant’s flat, on the fifth floor of the building on Brown Street, it made straight for the door, forcing Danny to kick the door shut behind him. Thwarted, the cat rubbed its furry sides against the closed exit, purring seductively as Danny removed his shoes and placed them on a bookshelf to protect them from the animal’s vengeance.
Had to remove your shoes before entering Unit 6, 53 Brown Street, because street dust triggers allergies. As do pollen, wind, flaxseed, most flowers, all bees, rust, bark, asbestos, and many other things.
Rodney Accountant, House Number Eight, had been extensively tested for nervous weaknesses, and employed Danny once a week on the strict understanding that there were various conditions to be adhered to, including that Danny not use synthetic deodorants or nonorganic soap on the morning of his visits, and Danny, who had followed a long string of careless cleaners, had managed to stick to all of these requirements for six months and two weeks.
He knew there was an asthmatic vacuum in the allergen-free closet, behind the fridge with the progressive slogans. He found the machine, plugged it in, and went about the room, thinking, Maybe I shouldn’t take sixty dollars today from the accountant. I’m not doing a good job. Maybe fifty dollars is enough.
Forty-five. That’ll do. I’ll explain next time. My sinuses were bad. As an allergy man, he’ll understand.
From here, Danny could see the pay phones across from the Newtown library. Across the road stood three side-by-side Telstra pay phones, two of them colored red, the one in the middle pink.
The gray needle of a church rose over the houses.
He closed that blind.
Ba-da-da-dum-dum-ba-da… The white cat came into the room with its tail up and watched him.
Of course, the good accountant won’t consider the possibility that you, cat, are the source of his allergies. Danny vacuumed his way into the study.
Because of its height over Newtown, each window in the accountant’s flat had a view of a large graffiti artwork painted in a different style, from the Renaissance to the contemporary.
LOVE IS THE ANSWER, declared the giant blue-and-red slogan on the back of a white building that could be seen from the window of the study. Maybe not today, mate. Ha.
Into the bedroom next.
Finding the window closed, he tucked the nozzle of the vacuum under his arm and raised it.
He saw it again—on the side of a house, a mural of a deer with curved horns, a heron, and a rabbit, tied up above a butcher’s table.
So this was where he had seen that image. From this window.
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 suspended heron in profile had one eye open wide. Looking at the viewer. This is how the world is stolen. Right before your eyes. What a terrible image, and painted with such sensuous cruelty, such precision, to say: You did not even scream as everything was taken from you.
Cousin Kannan, Danny thought. Cousin Kannan did scream. That is why he is now a citizen in Canada, which he deserves to be.
From down below, a dog barked.
As the vacuum fell down and sucked air from around his ankles, he raised his fingers to his nose. He thought he could smell something on them. Broccoli?
No, not that. Not that, and not shark liver oil.
You will see her, Danny. You will see her when the clustered white masts in Rose or Rushcutters Bay sear your eye; you will see her when the light falls through the fig trees like soft wood chips on the Domain; and when the banks and life insurance buildings that make a glittering glass mangrove at Circular Quay are holding on to the last of the sunset; or even when a bicycle wheel deflects the light of passing traffic, you will see her, as she was in the pool that day, under the Nagadeva and splashing water on the children.
Laughter from a murdered woman filled the air.
Letting the vacuum rumble on the carpet, and leaving the white cat to watch over it, Danny walked back to the living room, lifted up the blind, and looked down at the three Telstra pay phones outside on King Street.
Jumping on top of the pay phones, three rats then ran straight up a painted wall before becoming the dark wings of pigeons scattering over the white-hot street.
He picked the pink phone booth, the one in the middle.
Painted white and red, and standing as tall as a skyscraper, a giant crane made a clear geometrical statement high over King Street: a vertical shaft, a horizontal bar, and two isosceles triangles formed by cables that were suspending rectangular containers half a mile above the city, the whole thing topped by a gold-white flag fluttering in the blue sky, like a euclidean republic that had declared independence from the messy human city below.
Danny noticed the structure as he walked up to the Telstra phone booth.
The police hotline was ringing.
He was inside the phone booth now, the pink one, the one in the middle. He had not changed his mind. After finishing his work, he had returned the vacuum to the accountant’s closet, lowered his shoes from the bookshelf and laced them on, and then come here and looked at the faded numbers on his palm while dialing
As he listened to it ring, he used his fingernail to begin writing in Tamil on the cold plastic handle of the phone.
Age one to thirteen: No original thoughts. Mother not well. That was the problem. So: Father’s creation. Religious, superstitious. No politics.
Age thirteen to fourteen: Does God exist? I begin to doubt. I secretly support LTTE and openly support Che Guevara. One day I find pornography in Father’s cabinet. Small black-and-white photos. Woman in a bra.
Age fourteen to sixteen: Total change: 50 percent atheist, 50 percent communist. I eat raw eggs every morning after reading that Muhammad Ali did the same when training.
Age sixteen: 100 percent atheist, 100 percent communist. I stop eating raw eggs.
And now, sliding down the handle of the phone, his finger kept writing over his forearm, edging closer and closer to the bump.
Politics: I start hating the LTTE but not Che.
Age seventeen: Back to 50 percent communist. My voice breaks very late. Father is calling me a “crack.”
The line rang and rang, and no one picked up. He transferred the phone from one hot ear to another.
“Got a cigarette on you, buddy?”
The voice startled Danny. He was immediately aware of someone hovering about him, murmuring and moving around him.
Wearing a gray jumpsuit, like an oversize baby, the white man had a medication-stunned face and keen blue eyes, and he touched Danny on the shoulder. “Give me a cigarette, mate? Give an Aussie a cigarette?”
“Don’t smoke anymore,” said Danny.
The blue eyes of the man-child contracted. “He won’t be a smoker, I knew it. If he was a smoker, though, he wouldn’t give an Aussie a cigarette anyway, would he.”
Danny looked up for relief.
Through the interstices of a fig tree, a bird dropped like a hot white stone.
God, make me whole again. Danny overcame the urge to put the phone down. He heard the police hotline number ring again and again.
And then it was picked up.
A man answered this time. “New South Wales Police Hotline…”
He could see the owner of that voice: seated in his immense chair in his suffocatingly blue uniform.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Every morning,” Danny told the policeman, “my mum put me on a train from Penrith to the city to attend Knox Grammar.”
“Excuse me?” the policeman said.
“Thanks to Mum’s never-say-die attitude, I now advise Channel Nine on multicultural affairs.”
“Sir. Do you know it is against the law to call this number for frivolous purposes?”
Tell them, Danny. He pinched the bump on his forearm. Tell them who murdered Radha Thomas and dumped her body in the creek. Wrapped in an Italian leather jacket full of stones.
There was a sign pasted on the inside of the phone booth.
Attention Foreign Graduates: done with your uni degree?
INTERNATIONAL MIGRATION CONSULTANTS AUSTRALIA (IMCA)
99% PLACEMENT SUCCESS
“Sir,” the person answering the police hotline said. “Sir?”
Sending sullen looks Danny’s way, the Australian man-child in the gray jumpsuit still stalked around the pink Telstra phone booth, murmuring, “Won’t give an Aussie a cigarette, will he?”
Danny’s left leg was trembling again.
Policemen stood across the road.
There they were, on the other side of the buses and the traffic, massive, square-jawed blonds, bearing on their blue belts a locksmith’s pride of silver pouches, sashes, and chains, plus a leather holster bulging and buttoned.
Danny felt certain he was urinating down his left leg.
Across the road, he saw one of the policemen looking straight at him.
What is your name, son? What is your father’s name?
Write your name for me, son.
Now write it in the national language
Danny raised his eyes from the policeman to the green-painted balcony of an old building.
Be very careful, Danny: that wrought-iron balcony, that turmeric-colored paint, don’t they remind you of another city?
He could hear them now, the packed buses spurting out diesel, he could smell deep-fried fish in the air, he could see alcoves on a summer’s day that were pitch dark but for the dim ivory of a human figure sitting inside with unsold bread.
Didn’t you say you were never going home again?
Danny felt a fingernail scraping over the side of his moist neck.
People do it all the time in Villawood. You swallow something; or cut your wrist; or eat nails; or find fuel and set yourself on fire.
“Sir?” said the man on the phone. “Do you have any information?”
He smashed the receiver down.
He began laughing at once. So you did it again, Danny the Brave. Went to the phone and backed off. So many hours later, Danny was still on that three-dollar sushi belt, alongside chopped silverfish and raw eel, going round and round: and now Prakash was on the belt with him too. The whole city was on that belt.
“Won’t give an Aussie a cigarette, will he?” said the Australian man-child in his jumpsuit, circumambulating the phone booth.
Danny, about to say Fuck off, noticed that the man-child’s eyes were a familiar color.
He saw another face superimposed on this Australian one: a pair of fierce eyebrows and thick black reading glasses on top of a mass of rebellious salt-and-pepper hair.
All of Newtown’s walls were at once stenciled with hazelnut eyes.
You nearly fucked up, Cleaner. You nearly made that call. And once you make the call, you lose everything.
He ran to the train station.
As the train approached Platform 2 at Kings Cross Station, cool wind blew over him, and he felt Sonja’s fingers through his hair, and he knew he had done the right thing.
Absolutely done the right thing.
Sitting on a wooden bench, a boy who was not catching this particular train opened an illustrated book and recited from it to the woman beside him, “We eat chicken and another kind of chicken eats us.”
A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.
Danny stood before a stately building with a double row of pillars that reminded him of government offices back home. St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Facing the hospital, up on a green hillock, was a coffee kiosk where nurses in medicinal indigo gowns came to talk to their boyfriends on their phones. Danny glanced up, making sure she wasn’t there.
An ambulance drove past as Danny walked into the lobby.
Jai Baby Jai.
Jai Jai Baby Jai Jai.
Behind the glass panel saying RECEPTION, the Indian secretary, her elbows propped up on the white hospital desk, watched a catchy Bollywood song on her iPad.
“Nurse Tran,” said Danny. “I’m her boyfriend.”
“I’ll see if I can locate her, okay?”
The Indian lady turned slowly from her iPad to dial a number on a green phone, and handed that receiver to Danny, who found himself on hold, and thus in a position to watch more of the Bollywood song, until the voice finally said: “Danny, I am working today.”
“I lost the cactus that you wanted,” he said, and she did not respond.
“Sonja,” he said, lowering his voice, knowing that this always affected her. “Can we have dinner tonight?”
“No. I have a second shift tonight. You know this.”
He said nothing.
She paused. “My first shift ends at six-thirty. Come at six-thirty exactly, okay?”
The Indian lady at reception had begun bobbing her head to the beat of the song as he put the green receiver down.
Steel jaws clicked as Danny came out of the hospital; sticking his arms out of a loose gray smock, a man on a bench tried to cut his fingernails with a pair of trembling scissors.
From the heart of the city, a gun stared at Danny. Leaving St. Vincent’s Hospital, he had gone down to Oxford Street and walked to where the street joined Hyde Park, until he gazed, across the road, at an ancient naval cannon.
“This old gun,” Danny sometimes said, when he imagined himself standing before an audience of logical, sensible Australians and pleading his case, “has been, for four years, my only family in this whole country.”
Four years ago, when he had just come to Sydney and was reading the inscription next to it, he was astonished to learn that this ancient weapon was a trophy of the Emden, the German ship that had shelled Chennai in World War I, becoming a byword for terror even down in Tamil-speaking Sri Lanka. Emden. A dragon over there, it had become a dodo over here, and was destroyed; and now the last piece of the Emden, this gun, perhaps the same one that had set the waters of the marina ablaze and lit nightmares in Chennai for generations, was mounted in a park in Sydney.
Anything can happen in Australia, because the world’s upside down here. Danny clapped his hands in front of the monster.
It was still bright here in Hyde Park, but darker up there, behind the Coca-Cola sign. Danny knew that it would be already evening in Kings Cross, and wouldn’t the shaven-headed pimps in their black T-shirts just know it. Their hands were growing warmer with every cooling minute; there would be no such thing now as a casual passerby, no innocent man in the Cross. The pimps would be swarming over Prakash as he walked back to Potts Point, to his flat with the view of the Opera House. Yes, Danny could see the situation up there, in that boiling fleshpot on top of the city.
Even as he stood around the gun of the Emden, his phone began to buzz.
The voice on the phone said: “Vrooom vrooom.”
Danny laughed. He got the joke. The murderer is up in Potts Point, cleaning up the flat.
“Place is a mess, Nelson.”
Danny believed that. The private school ties must be lying on the floor.
“Nelson. Did I tell you about the drops. The black drops.”
“The black drops on the underside of the toilet seat. I have to clean them before I go. You should have done it for me.”
Prakash laughed. “Premium economy. That’s all I’m thinking of, Cleaner. It’s almost over, isn’t it. Me no dob, buddy. Have the police come for you? Call your boss and ask him if the police are there. He’ll say no. I didn’t betray you. Although you know what, he betrayed you.”
“He did?” Danny asked. “Tommo?”
“Tsavdaridis. Yeah. He betrayed you. I didn’t tell you this. But you know, before I left the store, he gave me a small sweet. A chocolate. I sucked on it. Nasty. Then he says: ‘Glebe is a very good area. Easy to see the cricket from here.’ You know what? He’s pitching his store, Nelson. He wants to get rid of you. Maybe you’ve been demanding too much? He asked me if I knew anyone who would work in his store. Can you believe that? He asked me. Thinks all of us Indians know illegals. I’m telling you, Cleaner, white people.”
“No class,” said Danny.
Absolutely no class. He could see old Tommo in his store, already planning to get rid of Danny. All this talk about murder was making him nervous. Yes. He’s begun asking people again. Someone else? You know someone else to work in the store?
“Prakash, sir,” asked Danny, “do you still have that cactus?”
“Will you do something for me, sir?”
Because somewhere in Sydney, the young Indian or Sri Lankan or Fijian student is still being told, You will work for half minimum wage and sleep downstairs, okay? Because next to the mural of Lord Krishna in the middle of Glebe, Tommo Tsavdaridis is dangling his left arm out the window of the Sunburst store with a live cigarette, tapping ash onto the Sydney street. And waiting. For the next young illegal to walk into his store looking for work. And the old man is thinking: Better make the new fellow Chinese. Someone who can’t speak English well. That way he’ll stay here longer. Because the day in Sydney is just starting. As it is out there—in the lush grape lands of South Australia and Victoria, all along the Murray River where nothing will grow without the sweat of foreigners who will then, the day after harvest, as they line up thinking they are about to be paid for their labor, be chased by police dogs and police vans, as if they were vermin.
“Will you take that cactus, Prakash, sir,” asked Danny, “go back to Glebe, and kill that old Greek man with it? Before you go to South Africa, will you do that for me?”
I mean it. You go there and I’ll live here like Chang Uncle. For the next twenty years.
The murderer heard that; he laughed.
“Now I know you didn’t betray me, Danny. Now I know you didn’t call the police. Did you?”
Prakash replied: “I’m leaving for the airport now. I already checked in. Don’t fuck up now, Cleaner. Day’s almost over.”
“Bye, sir,” said Danny.
Just half an hour left. All he had to do was make sure he didn’t give in to a rush of blood pressure and call the police again.
Go to South Africa, mad Prakash—Danny brought his palms together to his forehead in a namaste—and live free there.
Leaving the Emden behind him, Danny walked back toward the hospital and then, to kill time, wandered behind it, into streets full of quiet houses. He looped about till he saw an old house with a stucco lion resting its paw on the globe up on the ceiling. The house was so ancient that the electrical mains were in a box beside the door, like in homes in Batticaloa. Ancient, yes, but lovingly preserved, and each of its diverse surfaces glistened; and everything strong in the suburb, in the city, in the continent of Australia, seemed to be at work in this well-maintained structure. Tin, wood, brick, tile, rusticated stone, wrought iron, paint, and lacquer had joined into a commonwealth here; on top of everything stood an inscription, Maybelline 1924, and resting above it, the old lion of the British empire.
There was a sturdy bench right outside the fence, naturally.
A cigarette stub, placed upright on the pavement, cast a long shadow like a sundial; Danny scratched at his singlet and sat down on the bench, facing the house. Up there. That cozy room in the attic. That would be their bedroom, up there.
Etta, Etty, he remembered. What was the name of that woman to whom the airplane above George Street was proposing marriage?
Then he took his face in his palms. Etta, Etty.
He placed his elbows on his knees. Soon he had become a parallelogram of pressure points: the slab of a butt on the cold bench, two bones thrusting into his knees, and a scratch of one long fingernail against his right cheek. The rest of him was…
Startled, Danny looked up—and found the source of the music. Having lowered the window of his silver-top taxi, a saffron-turbaned Sikh was corkscrewing the rectilinear streets of Sydney with jubilant spirals of Punjabi pop. Danny stared at the passing taxi, and at the house, and knew he was free.
The cliffs around Pyrmont were gone; law is gone, the white circle is gone.
It was past six o’clock now.
Prakash has gone to the airport.
I reckon he has, thought Danny. I reckon he is on his way to South Africa. And now it was time for Sonja’s second shift to end.
“G’day, mate,” said Danny, coming back to life as an invisible Australian.
As if in celebration, the first bats of the day became visible.
Lord Murugan’s peacock, incarnated here in the Southern Hemisphere as a flying vermin, emitting a sharp squeal as it approached. Lifting his right hand, Danny flexed his third finger, with its magnificent nail, in a salute.
This day of the illegal can go on a long, long time yet, Lord Murugan: years.
A brown-red smear of blood was illuminated in the bat’s wing for just an instant, before it disappeared behind him. Danny’s sinuses cleared up at once.
Some things take time to emerge, like a glossy plantain shining deep inside a dark coconut grove. Some things emerge at once.
Danny could see now that Prakash was certainly not on his way to the airport.
He was, in fact, nowhere near the airport.
Remember what Abe said.
A black dog attacks you in a field, and suddenly, there’s no one around. The country is empty. The continent is empty.
Sonja had said not to come back till 6:30 p.m., so he couldn’t go there, but he had to ask someone to look something up on the Internet for him.
Flight times to South Africa.
And of course, they’re never around when you need them, Australians.
Then, in the middle of an empty street, Danny saw a discarded white sofa and ran toward it, thinking, Where things exist, there must be people, and as he did so, three men, who looked as if they were waiting there for him, got up from the sofa.
Three white men.
One of them wore a hat, an Akubra hat. “Mate,” he said. “Are you part of the resistance?”
Danny looked at the white man in the hat and shook his head.
“Sorry. You look like one of us,” the man said. “Your hair.” He smiled. “I’m being ironic.”
Only then did Danny observe that there was a handwritten cardboard sign on the white sofa
We are being forcibly removed from our homes
Your city won’t look like your city in five years
The moment he saw the soft white leather of the sofa, Danny couldn’t resist. In a day full of excruciating adult decisions, he took a childish joy in sitting down on the lovely white derelict sofa. He grinned. He felt ready to fart.
Glancing at Danny, a bright red-faced dwarf with probing eyes began rummaging through the waste bin next to the white sofa. Capillaries, like fine red surgical thread, like his knowledge of the law, looped, arced, and semicircled all over his fat right cheek. He moved his hand through the rubbish so volubly that it seemed to speak to Danny.
You are sitting on a white sofa, buddy. An Aussie sofa. Not meant for your arse, legally.
The sofa felt so comfortable. Danny kicked his legs about. Not going.
The older man, the one in the Akubra, read the situation, the unspoken words. And smiled.
“You shouldn’t mind him. Sleeping out in the open does nothing for the manners. That little fellow, he knows all about the laws to do with eviction and force majeure, every detail and subdetail. He’s going to help us in the press conference, I tell you. He’ll be in the nightly news tomorrow. If you’re not part of the resistance”—the man in the hat looked slyly at Danny—“what do you want here, buddy?”
Force majeure, Danny said to himself. I should know what that means, but I don’t. He looked at the homeless Australians.
“Can someone do me a favor?” he asked. “Flight times. Do you have Internet? On your phone?”
The man with the Akubra hat did, sure. Danny explained again what he wanted. To know the flight times from Sydney to South Africa. The city of Johannesburg.
“Tonight?” asked the man in the hat. Letting go of the trash can, the dwarf came and stood by his side.
“Tonight,” said Danny.
“Let’s check Expedia. No, you have this other place that tells you all the flights. Just check the airport website. That’ll tell you.”
The dwarf knew that something was not right with Danny.
“Don’t you have a phone of your own, mate? Check the flights yourself. Why, you going there?”
So Danny showed them his phone. The resistance men, passing the phone from one to the other, thought it was “a bit crook… a bit crook.”
Appalled, the white men agreed to check on their phones for him. “Where are you from, mate? Which country? Don’t they have good phones there?”
The hatted man, after going over the options, said: “Can’t see a thing. Sorry. Can’t see a thing. No flight to South Africa tonight. Next one leaves at… tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?”
“That’s what the Internet says. Does the Internet ever lie?” The man with the hat regarded him. “Why you asking? Going to South Africa?”
On the Portals of Sydney opposite the Lansdowne Hotel, the minute hands on the twin clocks moved together.
He’s never been after you, Danny. You were just the cleaner.
Now Danny saw the man whose white face he had observed this morning coming out of the windowsill with red tulips: the one in tears, the one talking to the police. The top-top man.
That’s the one Prakash wants.
The one whose name he couldn’t ever say. The real estate man. The one who left the black urine drops on the underside of the toilet seat.
Mark, her clueless husband.
Sure, the police were thick around him in the morning. Except the police must have left by now. And it is Guru Purnima. Full-moon night. You know how Indians like to gamble on a night like this.
The moment you called Prakash, you convinced him someone is going to be held accountable. And he knows he isn’t going to escape for long, so he thought, Why not. Let me at least get Mark. Two murders are the same as one.
The four dark obelisks, the chimney stacks of St. Peters, rose up once again before Danny’s eyes.
From Glebe he must have driven over to Erskineville. Prakash was watching House Number Five right now. He was watching it from someplace across the road.
Or you would say behind the road.
36 Flora Street.
You told him the address.
Prakash was probably there now. He certainly knew how to get into the flat. Where’s the key left in all these places, Cleaner? Under the welcome rug—or in the mailbox.
Found the key, went up the two flights of stairs, opened the door, and is now at the window, watching the home with the red tulips opposite. He could be doing that.
He’s got the blue ball in his hands, maybe.
Or: he’s at the desktop computer, having removed the shiny cover patterned with koalas. It’s just a question of hitting the return key. He’s figured it out. Maybe he’s reading the latest racing results on the computer while watching the window. He’s placed his thick black glasses down on the table. He’s drawing circles with his finger on the computer screen.
And the moment he sees Mark alone over there, in the window with the red tulips across the road, he’s going to run over. Ba-da-bum-ba-da-bum. He’s going to stick a knife into the chest of that man. The same knife, probably.
“Hey, mate,” someone said in a kindly voice. “Mate. Are you all right.”
Danny put his head down and covered his ears. He felt the blood pound against his folded earlobes. Top-top.
A man who is illegal dobs in another man who is a killer but is so stupid he doesn’t remember he’s not legal and is deported. Read and laugh, Australians. Read and…
He could see it before him now, the newspaper article. He wouldn’t even make the Telegraph or the Herald. Just one of those two-page community papers they gave you for free at Pizza Hut.
“I think he’s not well. What do you reckon?”
From a rooftop behind him, a blackbird cawed. It kept cawing even as he tried to block his ears. He heard the bird cry subside into a low parched note that was almost a gloating croak: he could see behind him the black throat swollen up like a bullfrog’s.
Hearing footsteps around him, he assumed it was the dwarf, come to taunt him once again. “I’m not getting up from this white sofa. I’m not…”
But when Danny looked up, a girl was staring back at him.
Kadal kanni, he thought at first. Mermaid. A little mermaid.
He got up from the sofa and took a step toward her, and the little girl took a step away from him.
“Sam,” a man called, and her parents followed, and the girl, losing her magic, turned into a restless child again before she ran down the road, while her parents followed.
A Tamil man sat there on a white sofa watching the girl.
He was thinking: There is no way, Danny, for you to keep silent today and live tomorrow.
“No, he’s all right. Bloke’s stood up. He’s not crook.”
“Could thank us, though, for helping him.”
“Maybe he’s going to South Africa.”
From far down the road, the little girl’s giggling could still be heard, though Danny walked faster and faster.
He was headed in the direction of Oxford Street, where he assumed the nearest pay phones would be, when it began glowing again.
No one spoke; but when Danny answered the mobile phone, on the other end, he heard something that sounded like sobbing. Is he crying? Has he guessed, wondered Danny, that I have guessed?
Wherever you’re going from here, Dr. Prakash, I hope it’s not as bad as where I’m going.
Danny sighed into the phone before it went dead. Looking at it, he realized there was no need to go searching for a pay phone. He could call the police hotline right here, from this ancient thing in his right hand.
Transferring the phone to his left hand, he pressed the numbers one by one with his long fingernail.
It rang, and rang, until a woman’s voice answered:
As he heard his voice say, “I have information about a murder that took place last night,” Danny was no longer in Sydney: because the Brazen Starer, up there on her first-floor balcony, hands on her hips, was grinning down at him, and next to her was a small and terrible old man he had not seen in four years—his father—and now Danny was pressing the phone so hard to his earlobe that it had grown warm against the side of his skull, even as he said to the Australian woman who was answering the police hotline, for the third time, “Yes, her name was Radha Thomas. R-A-D-H…”
Remember the tsunami of 2004? It happened far away from Australia. Many of those dead were in Sri Lanka. There is a city on the coast, a small but famous old city. It was partly destroyed in the tsunami. Danny was going about the country in those days, trying to help people. This old city was a mess when he got there. The water came right into the market and killed all the sellers and buyers of vegetables. A thousand people or more in that city died in two hours that morning. But one group of people in the most affected area survived unscathed—one group of men. You know who they were? There was a cinema in that city up on a hill, and all the people who were watching the movie there were kept safe during the whole tsunami. What kind of movie was showing in that place? It was a blue-movie theater. So down in the market, the honest people died; and up on the hill, the men watching the dirty picture—at ten in the morning—God let them live.
Recalling this story on his way to St. Vincent’s Hospital, his old cell phone still warm in his hand, Danny smiled. This, it occurred to him, was irony. The way that word is used here.
Right outside St. Vincent’s Hospital, he stopped and looked up at a tree: he saw something with stripes of outrageous color around its neck, like a multivitamin parrot, flying into a gum tree and clinging onto a white branch, upside down.
Named correctly, the Australian bird flew away.
Inside the hospital, as Danny was running up the stairs to meet Sonja, someone came running down.
A man with flaps of shampooed black hair covering his ears in the manner of something preserved from the 1990s, and on his back, he had a vacuum pack.
An astronaut—Nepali, for sure, probably from the least prosperous part of that country; and that shiny blue canister on his back was from Kmart, the new eighty-four-dollar version of the seventy-nine-dollar silver model Danny had carried with him for nearly four years. In the man’s right hand, a plastic bag with extra sponges and sprays. You knew there was lots of Clorox in there. Maybe this astronaut had just cleaned the toilets in the hospital.
The young man saw Danny—and the eyeshock, which occurs when one brown man sees another in the city of Sydney, occurred.
Then one of them descended and disappeared, while Danny rose up the stairs and into artificial light.
“Weren’t you here before?” the Indian woman behind the glass panel marked RECEPTION wondered. She put her iPad down.
“Yes. I’m here to see Nurse Sonja.”
“You mean Tran. Sonja Tran. I think her second shift has started. I’ll have to locate her.”
Danny sat and waited.
His cell phone began ringing, and the cracked display said:
Danny answered it to hear the thin voice of Rodney Accountant on the phone.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Danny. I just got back into my place, and… I’m not accusing you of anything, mate, but you know there was a whiff in the air when I got back. I was sneezing. My allergies were all triggered. Now, you know the reason we’ve had this long working relationship is that I’ve been impressed by your integrity. So I’ve got to ask, friend, is there anything you introduced into my flat today? New material unchecked for allergens?”
You could tell him, I used your own vacuum. I did your toilet with your own brushes. Your own cat watched me the whole time.
“Sorry,” said Danny.
“Sorry? You know I’m very sensitive to these things.”
Danny noticed that the patient in the gray smock who had been outside was now sitting here, in the waiting room, still trying to cut his fingernails.
“I will give you ten percent discount next time.”
The accountant said nothing.
“Twenty percent.” Danny sighed. “Okay, I give you a hundred percent discount next time.”
“That’s a bit too much,” replied the accountant, “but I appreciate the gesture. Twenty percent will do. And please be careful. That’s all I ask.”
“No,” said Danny, “I’m giving you fucking a hundred percent off next time,” and turned his phone off. He laughed.
“What is it?” Sonja came out, removing the baggy indigo tunic that the nurses, even the contract ones like her, wore over their clothes. She put the tunic down on the floor and sat on a chair beside Danny in the waiting area. “You’re late. You know that?” She jabbed at Danny.
He jabbed her back. “Yes, I know. I know. I have to tell you something,” he began. “I’m not a vegan.”
She waited. Then she laughed. “Yes. I know.”
Even after a full day’s work, she smelled of floral perfume. Smelled great. Just like frangipane.
“What I meant to say is when I met you, I wasn’t even a vegetarian.”
Sonja smiled. “I know that too. You told me. Have you forgotten? It’s okay. Vegetarian men are the most self-obsessed men in all of Sydney.” She asked, “Did you deal with that huntsman?”
Danny clapped his hands together.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have, you really shouldn’t. They’re harmless,” she said.
Yes, she’s not scared of spiders, thought Danny, but she was still too scared to come into the Sunburst store that day.
Where do you live? She had been asking him a long time, and she had even dropped by Glebe one Saturday to see him, until he took her near the Sunburst store and pointed up at his little window over the store, and as if she couldn’t cope with it, she gaped. You live in a storeroom? Really? And because she didn’t really want to know any more, she had refused to see his room or his twin panda bears, though he had gone in to get her a Kit Kat bar, which he later repaid Tommo for. Honest Danny, of course.
You could have been Brave Sonja that day—had you come up to the room and seen the truth about your Danny.
Later that same night, they had dinner at Pizza Hut, and then they went down to the river at Parramatta—the two of them rushing together, excited by the prospect of the breeze from the black river at night. “What do you want in life, Danny?” Sonja had asked as they stood on the bridge with a view of the flowing water below them.
“To be felicitated in Sydney,” he had replied. “Like Kiran Rao.”
When he explained the idea of the felicitation, she laughed at once; and then, making an oblique but obviously dirty joke, she announced that she would shortly felicitate him, and he would felicitate her in return. Oh, he got it, he got, and reached for her arm—before he stopped. Because a square of the pavement in Parramatta had suddenly moved beneath his shoe. While Sonja watched, Danny troubled the loose square with the tip of his shoe: as it trembled, he felt all of Sydney from Richmond to Manly, with Parramatta in between, tremble with it. “I’m here,” Danny told all of those people. “And I’m never going back.”
“What are you doing, Danny?” Sonja drew closer. With a frown, she watched him shake the square of the pavement, as if she understood; and then, after kicking at his shoe, she shouted: “Felicitate me! Felicitate me!”—and ran down the river. It was just a game for her.
You should have been braver that day, Sonja.
Now Danny chafed the polished floor of the hospital with his shoe. He saw a fingernail down below and was glad that the fellow in the gray had summoned up the strength to do that. Must keep oneself clean, even in the hospital. Even in jail.
“Is there anything else?” she asked. “My second shift is about to start.”
“I’ve got a story for you,” he said.
Reaching over, she touched the tip of his nose. “Danny always does. Too many stories. You’ve got the sinus trouble again, don’t you? Your voice is different today.”
She traced with her finger the fault line inside his nose. The famous deviated septum.
“I don’t think surgery is a good option, you know. We see kids who’ve got it, and then… the problem just gets worse. I don’t know what can be done about it, Danny. Maybe you should go paleo for a while, that might help. You know, just fruits and nuts? But I have to get back now. Second shift. I said come at six-thirty. We could have discussed all this. But you are late.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
What a thing to lose she’d be, to any man.
“But I have to tell you right now why I was late.”
She leaned back and waited. In the cold hospital air, Danny rubbed his forearms.
“I had a call to make. It took a long time to finish.” He lowered his voice. “A very important phone call. There were many things to explain.”
She frowned. “Who were you talking to?”
Danny looked at Sonja for a little while before he scratched at his neck with his fingernail and said: