(included in the anthology, A Country Too Far)
The woman who came today - sometimes I can't remember their names – asked if I was lonely. I had no idea how to answer so I stared down at my hands resting on the picnic table between us until they were no longer resting but clapping in time to the music at my cousin's wedding. In this little memory movie I have stopped clapping and I'm taking my handkerchief out to wipe the sweat from my brow. Everyone, including Aasera, is on the dance floor laughing, moving to the rhythm. She's looking at me now smiling, summoning me to join her. 'Sa'eed, you are my dancer,' she's saying over the noise. 'No one dances more beautifully than you, my husband.' She's lying, of course, but with her smile and her beckoning hands she's pulling me onto the floor. As I begin to move she throws her head back and laughs at my jerking, wayward limbs before leaning in to whisper, 'I love you, Sa'eed.' The memory movie stops and I'm left alone in this place without Aasera.
The woman's hand reaches across the table toward mine but it stops, is pulled back, and I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. Three years, two months and eight days since a woman has touched me. I've begun counting even the days. This thing that I no longer have in my life – this three years, two months and eight days – took something from me when it left and although I don't know how to name it its loss keeps going around in my head, torturing me more than the men with their fists ever could.
When the woman returns the following week I tell her that I am lonely. I've been practicing this truth since her last visit, but now that it's out I'm embarrassed.
'We're all lonely,' she says, hand reaching out to cover mine this time. 'Do you want a piece of my orange?' Her hand is gone as she offers me a segment she has peeled. I thank her and wave her kindness away before picking my own orange from the bag she's brought me and begin peeling it even though I'm not hungry. The juice is running down her hand, and as I watch her tongue flicks out to lick it off before another piece disappears into her mouth. A new thought has come to me: Is this woman lonely too? Is that why she visits me?
When she leaves I walk over to the main office to ask the man working there what my visitor's name might be. 'Shivorn,' he says as he checks a list. 'S.I.O.B.H.A.N.' I don't understand. Is this her last name or her first? I'm also confused about the spelling. He notices this and adds, 'It's Irish, or Welsh... or something like that and it's pronounced different to the way it's spelt.' I still don't know if it's her first or last name but I keep repeating the name in my head until I've remembered it.
The question about why the women come to visit us has taken hold in my brain and I need to find the answer. It's always like this in this place – small ideas are unable to escape and begin to whirl around inside your head until they become big ideas that can make you crazy.
Raheem, who sleeps in the bed below mine, is in the TV room watching the screen as if the bright lives he sees are more real than his own. I want to ask him this new idea about the women but his eyes won't leave the screen. 'Raheem,' I say to get his attention, 'will you come outside with me for a second, my friend.' The others in the room are looking at us but Raheem has already turned back to the TV. He doesn't want to miss any important minutes of his life. I sigh and am getting up to leave when he stands too and follows me out to the picnic table under the big eucalyptus tree. At first, when I used to sit there in the rain, the guards would tell me I had to come inside, as if I was a child, but now they just let me sit. Perhaps they think I'm mad. Perhaps I am.
'Do you think these women are lonely, Raheem, and maybe that's why they come to visit us?' He stares down at the cigarette burning between his stained fingers without answering. Even though I've known him for three years I know little about Raheem's life, and although he seems like a simple man he can't be because he has left all that he loves and knows behind and that is not a simple thing to do. But I'm worried about him and I know the doctors are too because they keep asking me questions about how he sleeps, and what he says to me, and how long he sits in front of the TV.
'I don't know,' Raheem says finally, taking a deep drag on his cigarette before looking over to the huge metal fences and the dirt track between them that keep us from the world outside. 'Maybe it's good for them too.' Raheem is a man of few words.
When Shivorn comes the next week I notice that she doesn't have her usual bag of fruit for me and as soon as we sit down she begins digging around in her basket to pull out small packets of seeds that she places on the table between us. 'I've brought you parsley, zucchini, cucumbers and some chives,' she says, separating each packet. 'Oh, and my friend sent you these.' She searches in her basket again before pulling out a packet with a photo of brightly coloured flowers on the front. 'It's a mixed packet of seeds. Potluck.'
'Potluck. What's this pot luck?'
'It sort of means you don't know what you're going to get. Lots of different flowers.'
'I like this,' I say, smiling.
When Shivorn is leaving I thank her again and again until I think I'd better stop because she's laughing and telling me, 'Enough.' She leans in and kisses me on the cheek before turning to go and just for a second I can smell her hair and feel the touch of her soft woman's skin.
Colin is sitting drinking coffee in the staff room, which I notice is not much better than our rooms with their cold linoleum floors and faded lemon coloured walls. 'I'm going to make a garden,' I tell him when he comes out into the hallway so I can talk to him, 'and I'm going to grow vegetables for everyone like my garden back home.'
'Hold on a second, mate. You're getting a little ahead of yourself here. First off, you've only got a few packets of seeds and secondly, you don't have any tools. Bit hard to make a garden with a few packets of seeds.'
'Oh, but I'm sure Shivorn will bring more seeds if I ask her and you can get me the tools.'
He's shaking his head. 'Sorry, Sa'eed, but you can't have spades and things like that in here.' At first I'm confused because I've seen the workmen with them, but then I understand. Colin, though, who has only seen my confusion thinks he needs to explain. 'You might use them as weapons and hit me over the head with something.' He laughs and I laugh too but it's not funny.
My brain immediately begins chasing around in circles with this new problem that needs solving. 'I know. I can use a knife and spoon from the kitchen.'
Colin looks back into the room to the woman who been smoking and watching us. She shrugs. 'S'pose that'd be okay.'
I spend the afternoon pulling up the brittle grass that creeps across the barren patch of dirt outside my window before beginning to dig with the spoon and knife. Soon I'm lost in the remembered feel of my hands working the earth and fail to hear Colin come up behind me. When I sit back on my heels to rest he holds out an empty plastic milk bottle. 'To water your seeds with, mate.'
At the end of that first day I stand and stretch out the ache in my back. Five neat rows of seeds with a jagged line of damp across the top where I've watered them in with Colin's milk bottle. I feel my heart expanding, already impatient to see them grow.
'Look,' Raheem says a week later, holding the cigarette he's been smoking out the window. 'Look at your garden, Sa'eed.' He moves aside to let me look. Dozens of tiny green shoots are beginning to uncurl as they poke their heads up through the soil. 'It's a miracle,' I whisper.
'This miracle happens every day,' Raheem says, flicking his cigarette onto the ground beside my garden before lifting the sheet that hides his bed and climbing back in. Those like Raheem who have the lower bunks have begun hanging sheets around their beds to keep the world out, while those of us on top have nowhere to hide.
'Not here it doesn't, Raheem.'
When he talks to me it's often of returning to Iran but I tell him you can't look back. 'You mustn't think of what your life might've been like because your life isn't like that anymore, Raheem. It's like this.'
I learnt this from one of the Australian doctors. 'It'll drive you mad,' he had said to me.
'I could go back. Your government wants me to go back.'
I'm always testing them, wanting to know if the Australians like me or not. Some, like the doctor give nothing away, but others I can see more clearly. Colin likes me; Shivorn likes me; my lawyer...I don't know. Maybe. No matter how many times I tell myself that it's not important I know that it might be the one thing that decides whether I can stay in Australia or not. It's another one of those ideas that keeps chasing around in my head.
When Shivorn returns I let her know how much I like potluck, but especially how much I like the vegetables. She smiles and hands me more packets of seeds. 'Broccoli, carrots, lettuce and daisies. You need flowers too, Sa'eed.' She then gives me a cutting wrapped in wet newspaper. 'This's called 'never-ending' basil.'
'Basil that never ends? I've never seen this before.' Aasera, who especially loves basil, would love this plant.
When Shivorn leaves I dig up more ground further out from my window to plant my new seeds and my 'never-ending' basil in fresh new rows thinking all the time of Aasera and what she'll say when I tell her about 'never-ending' basil.
'That's one bloody huge garden you've got there, Sa'eed,' Colin says as he stands over my bent figure. My garden has begun to attract all manner of things, not just insects. I smile up with pride before leaning over to break off a piece of the parsley, its scent filling the air and lingering on my fingers as I hold it up to him. 'It's good for cleaning teeth.'
'Are you saying I've got bad breath?' It takes me a couple of seconds to understand that Colin's making a joke and I laugh a little too but I'll never understand these things that Australians find funny.
'Got any peas yet?' calls out Farooq from under the tree where he and Samad are sitting smoking. They have taken to watching me work: the idleness of old men claiming their days as they wait and worry.
'Soon,' I tell him, turning back to dig again. 'Soon.'
My lawyer has arrived. He only ever brings bad news, which he tries to disguise as good news. I tell him that the Australian government is trying to break us to send a message that it's not worth coming to Australia. He doesn't agree with this, but he doesn't disagree either. He's very careful about many things: good at not speaking the truth and very good at not telling lies.
'These people in your government won't listen to what I tell them.' I'm leaning forward now across the Formica table in the visitors' room, my words rising in the air. When I notice people beginning to stare I force myself to sit back down again. I am ashamed. I no longer recognise this man I have become.
'I know, Sa'eed. I know.' He's rubbing his forehead and I see for the first time how tired he is. My lawyer has too many cases; too much worry. 'They'll eventually give you a visa. You know that, don't you?'
I'm stunned and suddenly all the things that have been racing around in my head come crashing to a stop, piling up and banging into each other. 'Relax Sa'eed,' he is saying. But I can't relax and the thoughts have all righted themselves and begun zooming around again even faster and then he is gone. Nothing has been resolved. He'll be back next month unless there's a decision in the meantime.
When I return to my garden I try to still my mind by searching out the grubs that have begun to eat my broccoli, but there is a memory going around in my head that will not let me be.
'You must leave,' Abbas is saying as he sits on the cushion across the floor from me, each of us smoking. The ashtray is full and the hummus and bread are all gone and I'm wondering why Aasera has not come to take the mess away. 'Next time they'll kill you.' I know it's true but I'm finding it hard to speak after being held for so long in the dark - who would have thought that darkness could steal your words away? 'Take your family, Sa'eed and go to Syria.' I look up to see Aasera busy in the kitchen preparing our evening meal and although she isn't looking I know she's listening. And then I know why she hasn't come in. She wants Abbas to say these things to me.
'You'll not come back next time,' she cried that night in our bed. 'And what will we do then, Sa'eed? Tell me... when I have no husband and your children have no father, what we will do? You must go to Syria.'
'Shhhhh,' I whisper, holding her close in the dark. Can she not see that I'm unable to make such decisions? Sometimes this memory is different and Aasera is crying and I'm the strong one but I no longer know which is the real memory and there's no one now to tell me.
Raheem wants to have a smoke but he also wants to meet Shivorn because I've been talking about her too much. She's another thought chasing around in my head. He also wants to hear the answer to what I'm going to ask her.
'Shivorn,' I say, my heart thumping like a stupid schoolboy's, 'why do you come here?' I have practiced saying this because I wanted it to be a nice question but I think it's come out all wrong. Raheem also thinks it's come out all wrong because he's decided that he really does need a smoke after all and gets up from the table. We watch as he moves away to the high wire fence from where you can see the Australian houses.
'I come because I think that what my government's doing to you is wrong and perhaps to give you some comfort. Are you married, Sa'eed?'
'Me too.' I'm relieved to hear this, but strangely I'm also a little disappointed.
'I wish I could show you a photo of my wife, Aasera, but she's only in my head,' I smile and tap my head as if pointing to the place where memories are saved. What I don't tell Shivorn is that the photos in my head have faded so much that even if I could get them out to show to her she might not be able to see Aasera. I decide I don't want to think about these things so I take Shivorn to my garden, watching her closely as we round the corner and it comes into view.
'Sa'eed,' is all she can say as she stands looking out over my garden, which is now heavy with fruit and the bright flowers of potluck that frame its boundaries. Leaning down she runs her hand through the herbs that tumble out across the ground at her feet and as their scent fills the air she breathes in deeply and sighs, 'You have created a thing of beauty in this place, Sa'eed.' I smile. 'But how...?'
As I tell her about the other Australian women who have also been bringing me seeds a white moth, soft and light and as perfect as snow lands on a cabbage. I know it's laying its eggs and that when they hatch they'll start to eat the cabbage, but for now it is a thing of beauty. We walk around the garden as Shivorn points out what she loves most until she asks about my children and the smile leaves my heart.
'I had seven children,' I tell her, 'but one of my daughters died and a son was killed fighting in the uprising.' It's hard for me to talk about this but I also know that it's hard for people to hear because they're too afraid to even begin imagining what it must be like to lose two children. I need to change the subject again and as we walk back to the table I tell her about the new soap we were given that morning. What I don't tell Shivorn is that when I lathered this soap and held my hands to my face my breath flew out of my body. The soap held the scent of Aasara's hair just after it's been washed. But it's always the same: the good memories lead to the bad. They will not be left behind. As I talk about this soap I feel the tears beginning to well and push them back. I don't want my new friend to think I'm crying over soap.
I told the doctor about the soap in our meeting that afternoon because I wanted to know why feelings that came from smells were more powerful than those from pictures but all he said was that I shouldn't torture myself with the soap. This young doctor has no idea. The soap isn't torture. This soap brings me Aasera better than any photo ever could.
At breakfast Farook insists that the peas are ready to be harvested. Even though I don't agree I promised to check them again but when I'm about to go out to the garden the manager of the centre comes to my room.
'You'd better sit down, Sa'eed. I've got some bad news for you.'
The government has rejected my final application. This is the thing I fear the most in the whole world. I sit back on Raheem's bed waiting for this terrible news.
'I'm sorry, Sa'eed, really, really sorry but we've just heard that one of your sons has been killed.'
I'm not understanding this. 'One of my sons has been killed? But which son has been killed?'
'We don't know. We'll try to find out for you as soon as we can. Sorry, mate.' He puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes it before leaving me alone.
I climb back up onto my own bed and turn to face the wall but I don't know which son to grieve for. I can see my little Zaid, when he is five years old. No, perhaps he is younger. I can't remember these things well but my wife will know. 'Aasera, how old was Zaid when we gave him that little red truck he loved so much?'
'Sa'eed, why do you not remember these things?' She has turned from the stove, the spoon she has been stirring the beans with is in her hand, which is now resting on her hip. As I lie on my bed watching her I can tell that she's pretending to be angry with me and I shrug for I know she'll remember. She always does. 'It was his third birthday and he was dressed in the little blue suit Mr Faiz made for him. Surely you can remember that, Sa'eed?'
'Yes, yes, I can remember it now.' Aasera turns back to the beans on the stove. I think she secretly likes being the memory keeper.
We had a photo from that day. I asked Ziad to smile and he gave me what he thought was a smile and Aasera laughed at his silly screwed up face. He looked over at his mother then and started laughing too, even though he had no idea why she was laughing. That's when I took the photo of Ziad, but I can't properly find it in my head anymore and I can't make the sound of Aasera's laughter either. When I don't try to hold these things they're there, but when I try to look more closely they slip away.
I cry for my little Ziad and for my wife's lost laugh until I remember that perhaps it's not Ziad who's dead. Perhaps it's Hussein and I pull up a memory of my older son. He's having trouble with a bigger boy at school – at least that's what I think is happening - and he's sitting on Aasera's knee - I remember thinking at the time that he was nearly too big to do that anymore - and she's holding him, wrapping her mother's love around him until he folds into her and his tears all dry up.
This thin bed facing the lemon coloured wall is not my bed. My bed is strong and was made from the cedars of Lebanon by my great, great grandfather, and there is a window next to my bed that has lace curtains. It is summer and the curtains are drifting in the soft breeze, shadows playing up the wall. Aasera, heavy with our child, is lying on the bed with one hand resting on her thickening belly and the other on the windowsill, watching the curtains dust over her skin. 'They are the fingers of God,' she says as I lay down beside her. 'Listen, Sa'eed, and you will hear him whispering. He's telling me that He will keep our child safe.'
One of my sons is dead. They still can't tell me which one and so I've decided that it's a bad mistake and climb down from my bunk and return to my garden.
'Ah, Sa'eed,' Raheem says, when he notices me. Getting up he dusts the dirt from his knees and the seat of his pants before pulling some packets of seeds out of his pockets. 'The women brought you these, and that woman, Shivorn, she's been asking about you.' He hesitates, looking worried as I take the seeds from him. 'I picked the peas for Farooq. I hope you don't mind. They were ready and I didn't know how long...' his voice trails off with uncertainty. There is a plastic bucket in the middle of one of the flowerbeds. 'It's for the birds,' Raheem says when he sees me looking at it, 'for when they're thirsty.' This is a new, more talkative Raheem who hasn't been watching so much TV. He bends and lays the knife he's been working with back on the ground.
'It's okay, Raheem. Everything's okay.'
There is something Raheem wants to say but he's hesitating. He looks over to the wire fence before looking back at me. 'Sa'eed, you know it's not good for you to think of what you've lost. It'll drive you crazy in this place.'
'Yes, Raheem, you're right.'
I have learnt that it's best to work the garden in the morning shade, but as Raheem and I bend to our tasks it's already late and I can feel the sun beginning to burn through my shirt. I must not think of this thing that I cannot even begin to hold in my heart and so I decide that I'll think only of the sun on my back and of the life it gives to this beautiful garden. That is all I must think about today.