‘The house is made of red brick,’ Rohan told his wife. The cheap connection to India gave his voice an echo. ‘There is a yard and three bedrooms. And a secure fence around the area so it’s very safe.’
‘I can’t wait to see it.’ Prima sounded distant, which Rohan used to blame on the poor connection. But now he knew that she wasn’t keen on coming to Australia. She’d heard that Melbourne and Sydney were dangerous cities, places where Indian students were being bashed by roaming youths. ‘That’s just the media exaggerating a few isolated incidents,’ Rohan assured her. He neglected to mention that last week, returning from his first closing shift at Coles, he had run the entire way home, his black loafers thumping heavily on the shady paths of a local park. By the time he arrived home, he could not tell whether his chest was bursting with physical exertion or fear. The next morning he asked Glen, his manager, if he could work only daytime hours. Glen shook his head slowly. ‘I can’t have favourites. If I let you choose your hours, everyone will start coming to me with special requests. I can’t have that, mate.’
The phone line crackled with static, breaking up Prima’s words. She told him about her day, what she planned to cook his parents for dinner tonight. For once there was no mention of her rivalry with his brother’s wife, who also lived in the house, though she did say, ‘It will be nice to have a place of our own.’
‘Absolutely,’ Rohan agreed. The word echoed in the receiver, sounding confident. He looked around his cramped room, relieved that Prima’s visa had been delayed again, guilty for feeling relieved. Nothing he had told her about the house was true. They had saved and saved for his journey and first months in Australia, but most of the money had been swallowed by the unexpected costs of official documents, health checks, permits and certificates. Once in the country, all he could afford was shared floor space in a two-bedroom flat. He and five other tenants took turns sleeping on two beds. A sign-up roster for the shower and kitchen divided each tenant’s life into ten-minute shifts.
Prima said something but the static noises overpowered her voice. ‘I’ll call you back tomorrow,’ Rohan said.
‘I can’t hear you,’ Prima said. Then the line went dead.
The next day Rohan invested in a superior calling card and phoned Prima at their usual time. He’d spent a few more dollars on it for the guarantee of a better connection. The shopkeeper, a stocky Italian man who sang along with the radio, had recommended it. ‘It’s worth paying a bit extra for better things,’ he said. Rohan agreed. This time when he told Prima about the house, there was no echo, and he could describe the house without having to hear his lies repeated a moment later.
The following week, Prima told Rohan that she had located a distant cousin in Melbourne. ‘Take down his number. I know you have people there but this is family,’ Prima said. ‘He will take care of you.’
Rohan insisted that he did not need anybody to take care of him. ‘I’m fine,’ he said, forcing a broad smile that he hoped she would be able to hear down the line. ‘Besides, I’ve got double shifts every day.’ He changed the subject before she could insist. ‘How is Nidhi treating you?’ he asked, knowing this would distract Prima.
‘She made a fuss about bills again today. She accused me of using more electricity than her and your brothers. Can you believe that? Just because she saw my light on in the night.’
‘Are you having trouble sleeping?’ Rohan pictured Prima’s face whitewashed by the fluorescent bulb while the rest of the family dozed peacefully.
‘I’m reading in the evenings,’ Prima explained. ‘Her real problem is that I’m reading English books and your sister-in-law thinks I’m rubbing the fact that I’ll be going to Australia soon in her face. Do you know what she said the other day? “In those countries, they speak so quickly that you won’t be able to understand them, no matter how many books you read in their language.” What would she know! She’s never even left the village.’
‘We won’t need to be burdened by those problems here. No tension in our home. Just you and me,’ Rohan said. Prima didn’t respond and Rohan began to talk about the house again to fill the silence, adding ever more detail to the picture. There was a lavender bush in the front yard and when the breeze blew from the right direction, the air smelled fresher than soap. A two-seater outdoor wicker table setting, which had been generously donated by the landlord, sat in the back yard and in the evenings it was the perfect spot to watch the sky slowly darkening. By the time Rohan was finished, he could hear the smile in Prima’s voice. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said this time, instead of the usual goodbye. He felt a pinch in his gut. He ached to have her here in this room with him, but his lies had become too elaborate to unwind, and so he needed her to remain in India until he could provide the better things he was promising.
During work that afternoon, Rohan was assigned to a stocktake in aisle four. He was checking expiry dates on loaves of bread when a teenage girl approached him and asked him where she could find a type of sauce.
‘Sorry? Rohan asked. ‘What is the name?’
The girl repeated herself but the brand sounded unfamiliar: ‘Rooster-Shirt Sauce’. He shook his head. ‘I don’t think we have this.’
‘You do. My mum gets it from here all the time.’ She sighed theatrically. ‘Never mind, I’ll just find it myself.’
‘Sorry,’ Rohan called out after her as she marched off. Moments later, the girl returned. ‘Here,’ she said, thrusting a bottle in his face. Worcestershire Sauce. Its spelling was different from the way she had pronounced it. Rohan apologised again. ‘It’s in aisle seven,’ the girl said. ‘You have, like, four different brands of it.’
On the bus home, Rohan took out the slip of paper on which he had reluctantly written Prima’s cousin’s phone number. The encounter with the girl had made him feel acutely foreign. The bus rolled slowly through the still suburban streets. The homes he passed had inspired some of Rohan’s descriptions: neat rows of fences and bottlebrush trees, lavender bushes and bicycle paths. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to connect with some family in Australia. He typed a text message: ‘Hello Manu. This is Rohan, husband of Prima. Nice to meet you.’ He was conscious of the formality of his English; he knew it was stilted and would probably make him seem stupid and obsequious. Surely this Manu would understand. He pressed the Send button and looked out the window, mentally recording details from the houses for his next conversation with Prima.
While he was eating lunch the next day, Rohan’s phone rang. It was an unknown caller. ‘Am I speaking with Rohan?’
‘Yes, this is Rohan speaking,’ he said.
‘This is Manu.’
‘Hello, Manu,’ Rohan said. ‘You can speak Punjabi?’
‘Not much,’ Manu replied cheerfully. ‘A couple of phrases and some swear words.’
‘I see,’ Rohan said, hiding his disappointment with a laugh. ‘So you are Prima’s cousin. By which side?’
‘Several times removed. It’s a web of relatives, half of whom I haven’t even met, but family’s family I suppose?’
‘Yes,’ Rohan said, not knowing how to go on.
‘You’re living in Melbourne permanently now?’
‘Yes, I am.’ Rohan paused for a moment, ‘Maybe we can meet?’ He was intrigued by the casual manner of this man who sounded so Australian that Rohan would have to see him to believe they were somehow related.
‘Sure. Are you free for drinks on Friday?’
‘I am working on Friday night,’ Rohan said, glancing at the calendar on the room wall where the scribbles of all the tenants’ appointments and work shifts overlapped. ‘I have Saturday free.’
‘Right. Saturday then.’ Manu gave a time and place and they made their brief goodbyes. As Rohan rushed to scrawl the details onto the calendar before they slipped out of his head, his flatmate Sarjeet walked by, buttoning up his uniform for his night shift as a security guard. ‘Lucky you,’ Sarjeet muttered, ‘Having a party on Saturday night, I see.’ He nodded in the direction of the calendar.
‘It’s Prima’s cousin,’ Rohan explained. He thought about the way Manu spoke and chuckled. ‘The guy is Punjabi but can’t speak the language.’
‘Was he born here?’
‘I assure you, he can speak it just fine. These Australian-born Indians hate admitting that they’re Indian. They think their Aussie friends will reject them if they associate with us. The girls are even worse. They laugh in your face and call you “Fresh off the Boat” if you try to talk to them.’
‘He didn’t sound stuck-up,’ Rohan said. ‘He was the one who called me.’
Sarjeet shrugged. ‘I don’t trust them. You think the whites here are racist? The Indians are worse.’
Rohan hoped this wasn’t true. He did not know how Prima would cope with coming all the way here only to find that her own family didn’t welcome her. Sarjeet put the kettle on and peeled the top off an instant noodle cup. He opened the cupboard door and asked, ‘You’re not using this?’
Rohan looked up to see the small square of shelf that had been cleared for him. He hadn’t stored anything there; to do so would be to accept a permanent place in this flat. He thought about the sauce that was pronounced and spelled in two different ways. Rooster-Shirt. What did it taste like? He pictured the shelf filled with supermarket condiments that he had not heard of: herbs packed in plastic green-topped bottles, seeds that looked familiar but smelled entirely different from anything he had ever eaten. He saw himself cooking with Rooster-Shirt sauce in a spacious kitchen with a window that looked out onto a garden where the branches of a flowering myrtle tree reached brazenly for the sky. Prima materialised at his side in this fantasy. She stood by the bench and watched him casually picking the sauce bottle off the shelf and squeezing some into a saucepan.
‘No,’ Rohan told Sarjeet. ‘You can have that space if you need it.’
At the start of Rohan’s Friday night shift, Glen asked him to fill in for another colleague the following Saturday morning, on top of his usual afternoon shift. Rohan agreed immediately. He always took on extra shifts. It dawned on him afterwards that he would have to cut through the park that night if he wanted to get home at a reasonable hour. Otherwise he’d never get enough sleep to arrive at work early on Saturday. At the end of his shift he walked briskly to the park and looked over both shoulders before breaking into a light jog. The path stretched out into the shadows, as if there was no end to it. He sped up into a sprint, ignoring the sharp bite in his toes as they dug into his loafers. His chest began to pound and his calves stiffened. ‘Keep going,’ he whispered to himself, imagining that if he stopped, somebody would pounce on him from the bushes and attack him just for being there.
Rohan didn’t notice the steep dip in the path until he fell. The ground was dark and wet. He stood up and a bolt of pain shot through his ankle. He sat back down again, feeling the wet ground seep into the seat of his pants. Sucking in air, he stood again, placing all his weight on one side of his body, and limped the rest of the way home.
In the morning, Rohan’s ankle was swollen but he could not miss his two shifts. He winced as he stood up and stepped over the other tenants. At work, he swapped his strenuous duties with another worker, a high school boy who liked to do the heavy lifting in front of the teenage girls who worked there. By the end of both shifts, Rohan had trained himself to dismiss the pain. He took the bus home and showered before heading out again to the bar in the city that Manu had chosen.
Stepping off the tram, Rohan spotted an Indian man crossing the road to the bar. This had to be Manu—he had the loose, casual walk of someone who belonged here. Rohan’s ankle prevented him from catching up so he walked several paces behind him. Manu reached the entrance and turned around. Noticing Rohan, he smiled and they introduced themselves. ‘Good timing,’ Manu said. Rohan nodded politely.
Rohan followed Manu to the back of the bar where a spiral staircase led to rooftop seating. Climbing the stairs put pressure on both his feet, and as he reached the top, he had to grab the wall momentarily to brace himself from the dizzying pain that had returned to his left ankle. Manu was busy chattering away, telling him that the bar was owned by an ex-colleague of his who had left the corporate world to follow his dream. ‘There’s a great view up here as well,’ Manu said. He turned around. ‘You all right?’
Rohan smiled weakly. ‘Just something in my shoe,’ he said.
It was a relief to sit down and drink a cold beer. Manu asked Rohan lots of questions, to which Rohan could only give short responses. Seconds after each reply, he would realise that he knew perfectly well the English words and phrases to use but somehow he was too tongue-tied to get them out. He became aware that Manu was starting to speak more slowly and loudly to him.
‘When will Prima come to join you?’
‘Her visa is not yet,’ Rohan said. ‘No visa yet,’ he corrected himself. ‘She like to do some schooling here. Get a degree.’
‘That’s good,’ Manu said. He looked past Rohan’s shoulders. Rohan knew they would not become friends. This drink was an obligation for Manu—somewhere a mutual relative had urged him to make Rohan feel welcome in Australia, but this would be it. Afterwards, they could return to their separate realities.
‘You like Melbourne?’ Rohan asked.
‘It’s the only home I’ve known,’ Manu said. ‘Most liveable city in the world. The quality of life here is excellent.’ Rohan knew better than to argue but he did not think Manu would want to hear about his living situation, his quality of life.
‘You go to India often?’
‘I’ve been twice,’ Manu said. ‘When I was young. After my grandparents died, there wasn’t any reason to go.’
‘But it’s your home,’ Rohan said.
‘Not really,’ Manu shrugged. ‘I’m Australian.’
‘No,’ Rohan said. He did not know why he felt so insistent but he could not let Manu get away with dismissing India like this. He had toffee-coloured skin and hair on his knuckles. He looked like an uncle of Rohan’s from one angle, and from another he almost looked like Rohan himself. ‘You are from India,’ he insisted. ‘I am from India. This country … we are borrowing it.’
There was confusion in Manu’s smile and then he conceded. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I guess I will go to India again one day.’ Rohan knew he was being patronised. He spent the rest of the night giving one-word answers to Manu and watched his patience drain away. ‘Let’s call it a night then,’ Manu said finally after a jug of beer. It was only nine-thirty but Rohan was happy to end this encounter. He swung his legs over the side of the barstool and bore his full weight on his ankles to stand before a shock of pain jolted through his body. His legs gave way and he collapsed to the floor.
‘Whoa,’ Manu said, helping him up. ‘It was only two beers,’ he joked. The couple at the next table laughed as well. Rohan felt humiliation burning in his face. He struggled to get up. Manu’s face was lined with worry. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I am fine,’ Rohan said. He stood again, remembering to put all his weight on his right leg. He gestured for Manu to walk ahead of him and then he limped painfully down the stairs. Outside the bar, Manu flagged down a taxi and insisted on giving Rohan a lift.
‘Looks like you injured yourself,’ Manu said as Rohan gingerly sat in the back seat and pulled his legs away from the curb. Rohan didn’t reply. He was thinking of where to ask Manu to drop him off. His own suburb was miles away from the city, at the end of a train line, and he had a vague sense that they were travelling in the opposite direction. He wanted Manu to see his house. Not the apartment where he squeezed past other bodies while cooking dinner, where he had to stand in line for over twenty minutes just to brush his teeth on some mornings. The house that he had described to Prima.
‘Take a left here,’ he commanded the driver. ‘Right there.’ They wove into a suburb where tall hedges guarded the properties from view. Rohan would never hide a luxurious house this way. It would be on full display for everybody to see.
He noticed Manu looking closely at him. ‘Look,’ Manu said gently. ‘It seems you’re a bit lost. Shall we go out to the main road and start again? What’s your address? Which suburb?’
A house came into view. It was shrouded by shadows but Rohan could see the brick exterior, the white fence bordering a neatly trimmed lawn. ‘Right here,’ Rohan said triumphantly. ‘I live here.’
Manu peered out the window and glanced at Rohan. ‘You’re sure?’
‘I live here,’ Rohan repeated, opening the door.
‘Right. Okay,’ Manu said. ‘Well have a good night, and do call me if you need anything. That was a nasty fall you had back there. If your leg’s still hurting, go see a doctor.’
‘Thank you. Very nice to meet you,’ Rohan said. He left the taxi and lingered at the curb, pretending to check his phone until the cab shot off down the street. The pain in his ankle persisted, and a dull ache had begun to spread through his leg, lodging in his hip. He walked close enough to the house without seeming suspicious and looked at the brick facade, the fence. How much would a house like this cost? He had no idea. He did not know which suburb he was in. There had to be a station nearby where he could catch a train home and walk to his apartment. He began walking in the direction of the main road. His ankle slowed him down, forcing him to notice the details of the other houses in this neighbourhood. There were more tall hedges and landscaped gardens. There were paved driveways and trampolines. Through most windows a warm amber light glowed, as if the people in these houses only needed enough light to see the soft shapes of one another. He reached the main road and chose to go left but after fifteen minutes of walking, he seemed no closer to a train station than before, and his eyes had begun to fill with tears. Everything was closed. He sat on the front stoop of a milk bar and watched the occasional car pass by, wondering if they would stop if he stood in the street and waved his arms.
The phone buzzed in Rohan’s pocket. Prima’s name flashed across the screen. He took the call reluctantly, feeling the truth rise like a lump in his throat. ‘There’s no house,’ he blurted out. Instantly he regretted saying it. Why disappoint Prima with the truth? Now she would never come to Melbourne.
‘Hello?’ Prima asked. ‘Hello?’ It always took a few seconds for the connection to become clear when she called from India. There were mismatched hellos and how are yous until the line settled. ‘Hello, Rohan?’
‘Prima,’ he said, grateful for his confession to be swallowed by static. ‘I am just out at the moment. Can I call you back?’
There was a long pause. ‘Rohan, can you hear me?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I will call you back.’
‘Nothing,’ he said.
‘Something is wrong,’ she replied. ‘You don’t sound like yourself.’
He was surprised that Prima could distinguish the nuances of his tone over this cheap connection, where everything sounded tinny and faded. ‘I’ve hurt myself,’ Rohan said. ‘I fell and twisted my ankle.’
‘Have you seen a doctor?’
‘Not yet. I didn’t think it was serious.’
‘Book an appointment to see one right away.’
‘Prima, doctors are expensive.’
‘But it’s your leg. How will you do anything if you can’t walk?’
‘I’m sure it’s just a bit sore for now …’ he said, but Prima was talking over him.
‘How will you work? How will you do your grocery shopping? Or take your clothes to the laundromat?’
‘That’s what people do there, isn’t it? I was reading about student life in Australia on the internet and they said that taking clothes to the laundromat is a cost-effective alternative to buying a washing machine.’
‘It is,’ Rohan said. ‘There’s no washing machine in the house yet.’ It occurred to him that he had rarely described what was inside his home in these conversations. ‘You know what else? There is an electric stove, but it’s old and the oven takes a long time to heat up. There are two sinks in the kitchen but there’s a leak in one of them. I’m trying to figure out how to repair it.’ These were truthful admissions, and as he listed more details, he gained the courage to speak another truth.
‘I want us to have the best life,’ he said, ‘a life filled with nice things and only small worries.’ There was silence on Prima’s end. Rohan told himself it was just the connection’s delay but he was nervous. None of the other men in his situation, all trying to make something from nothing, none of them had dared voice this wish. Because what would happen if it did not come true? Enough disappointment hovered in the cramped spaces of his flat; hope was a private, precious thing.
‘I do too,’ Prima said. Rohan smiled, feeling the rich warmth of her voice filling him with calm. After the call ended, he watched the passing traffic—cars gliding to their destinations and the occasional cyclist whose back lights flashed urgently to other vehicles: see me, please see me. A light breeze made dancers of the thin tree branches. He stayed on the milk bar stoop and waited till he was ready to stand up again.