When they came to Australia from Sri Lanka, his mother, the doctor whose qualifications weren’t recognised here, became someone her friends wouldn’t recognise anywhere. His mother, the doctor who never wore makeup, took to summer’s white heat in Perth’s baking, bleached suburbs to sell cosmetics door to door. He was too young to be anywhere other than by her side, so, with a button-down shirt tucked into polyester shorts and leather-look shoes on his feet, he walked alongside her. From one white family’s front door to the next.
Her customers lived two bus rides away, sometimes three. Three was better. The farther they were from home, the nicer the day would be, the greener the lawns, the more shade across the footpaths. Once (and it only happened once) selling took them four bus rides from home. Balconies bulged from two-storey homes, driveways climbed in curves, backyard pools threw shimmering shapes onto eaves. He imagined they were visiting palace after glittering palace, messengers from a faraway kingdom.
He loved that four-bus day. His mother did too, because even though every white lady who opened the door to them did so in a full face of makeup, every white lady who opened the door to them wanted to buy more makeup, and his mother was there to sell it to them.
He didn’t know what his father did in those days, but whatever it was, it took him from their house with bus fare and a briefcase and returned him in time for dinner.
His name is Kapil. It is a common name in Sri Lanka and is pronounced exactly—exactly—as ‘Cup-ill’. In a lazy moment ‘couple’ isn’t too bad an approximation. He goes by ‘Kap’; rhymes with ‘cup’. But, after years of teachers and colleagues and lecturers and receptionists and mentors and tutors and partners and partners’ parents never quite getting this single, simple syllable right, Kap can’t pronounce his own name with any confidence. Warped in his permanently unsure mouth, the sound comes out as something between ‘cap’, ‘cup’ and ‘carp’. But he’s Kap. Kap, who can’t pronounce his own name.
The day after his fourth birthday, Kapil was slashing at the air with his plastic sword as he and his mother walked to the bus stop at the end of the street.
—It’s a two-bus day today, darling, she said. He kept walking and looking at the bus stop in the distance, which the heat haze had turned weirdly liquid.
—Okay, he said. That’s all he said.
—Two buses is good, isn’t it? Better than three!
He didn’t tell her why she was wrong; he beheaded some daisies with the sword and looked at the spray of scattered stalks. He waited to be scolded.
She stopped, squatted so they were eye to eye.
—One day, she said, and it won’t be long, one day, we’ll live in a street where people come to us to sell makeup.
This confused him. —Will you buy makeup? he asked. Her face changed.
—This makeup? she said as she tapped the face of the white woman on the cover of her catalogue. Would I buy this makeup? She held the catalogue closer to his face. It looked like someone had taken a photograph of a fairytale princess. The woman’s hair looked like actual gold, her skin was like the inside of a seashell and her eyes were the hard blue of the sky above them. He didn’t know how to answer his mother’s question. As he always did in moments of confusion (as he often still does in moments of confusion), he decided an apology would be better than a guess:
—I’m sorry I broke those flowers.
They started walking again and she started to pull coins from her handbag: bus fare. Her face softened.
—Thank you, darling. Thank you for saying sorry. Don’t do it again.
—If you do, I’ll smack you so hard you’ll never forget it.
The first day at the agency, Carlo, the Cary Grant–handsome executive managing director of what seemed like the entire country’s media experience, was there at reception to greet him. Kap’s humility reflex kicked in, and it kicked out a message to his heart that would resonate for years.
—So, it’s Cape-Pill, right?
—Kapil. But everyone just calls me Kap.
—Like the hat?
—Like a cap. A hat. A cap. On your head.
—Yeah. I … I guess
—You know what? You should wear a cap.
—Then everyone will remember your name? Kap! Kap In the Cap! Kap the Cat in the Hat! Kap the Cat in the Cap!
Kap looked at him and smiled.
—Mate, we’re pretty loose here, laughed Carlo. You’ve gotta be loose, ready for anything. Ready for anything is how we’re the best agency in the country.
—I’m ready for anything, Kap lied.
—Fuck, yeah! That’s what I want to hear! Ready to wear a cap tomorrow?
—I … yeah. I mean, maybe. Yeah.
—Kap in the Cap! I love it.
The lift doors closed. Carlo swiped a card across white sensor.
—How do people remember your name, Carlo? asked Kap, smiling broadly now as the lift ascended.
—Mate. Carlo looked straight at Kap. Mate, people remember my name because I run this fucking joint.
Carlo doesn’t run the joint. It’s Antonia, who established the agency and whose tenacity holds it aloft above its competitors, who runs the joint. Antonia runs everything, including Carlo. Carlo knows it, but he won’t admit it.
You could see them through the front window if you passed; his mother the doctor, 14 hours after her 5 am shift started, his father still wearing his tie, Kap’s sister Sharmila, and Kap. Kneeling in the buttery light of votive candles, they murmured the prayers’ repeating rhythms as they moved along the rosary’s loop. You could see them through the front window if you passed; the four brown bodies you might have seen earlier moving as gracefully as they could through hospital corridors and school playgrounds, warming up leftover curries in tax-office breakrooms, scoring goals in the girls’ under-17 hockey regionals. You could see them through the front window if you passed; four brown bodies knelt before a plaster statue of a pale-eyed, white virgin wearing blue and white robes, her hands outstretched in a gesture of welcome and comfort and, most of all—and you’d see this through the front window if you passed—pity.
—You know how this business is going, mate. The shape it’s taking. Carlo looks small in his office, and it’s a small office. In the old building, his office was enormous: two settees, two armchairs, a limousine-sized desk and him, swivelling in the leather throne behind it. In that office, Carlo looked big.
Kap doesn’t know why Carlo’s called him in here, and Carlo has not turned away from the window since Kap came in.
—You know what I mean when I say shape, right? The shape?
—The shape? Kap asks, and Carlo turns around.
—Yeah, Kap, the shape. The trajectory.
—Oh. The trajectory.
Carlo sits at his desk, types in his password, looks up and sighs. —I know they’re two different things. Shape and trajectory. I did go to university, you know. And high school.
—Never doubted it, Carlo.
They both smile, then Carlo sighs again. —Mate, he pauses. He takes off his reading glasses and immediately looks like he’s never worn reading glasses. Like this is how his face is meant to be. —Mate … you know who Fraser Holt is, right?
This confuses Kap. —Sorry?
—Fraser Holt? Fraser Holt who hates women in the workplace and Muslims and Africans and climate science and …
—Yeah. Yes. Yes! Fraser Holt. Carlo looks at Kap. He says nothing. He looks at Kap and says nothing until the reason for this meeting bleeds into the space carved out by all that nothing and all that looking. Carlo sees Kap’s face change and Carlo tightens his lips, blinks slowly as he sees Kap understand.
—Oh, come on! Kap says.
—It’s 40 seconds and 20 seconds for TV broadcast, 10 seconds and 5 seconds for online. The press and outdoor people will take your lead on the creative. There might be radio too.
—He’s part of the package with the buyout, Kap. No Holt, no buyout. That was the deal they made. No buyout, no job for you, no job for me. Holt is going to be paying your mortgage, I’m afraid.
—I have to make ads exhorting people to consume the hideous spewings of Australia’s most famous racist newspaper columnist?
—You do, mate. You do. And I have to be the one who tells you to do it.
—Or it’s … what? Unemployment?
—Yeah, look, I’m sorry. I hate this as much as you do, Kap.
—I don’t think you do, Carlo.
—A 40 and a 20, a 10 and a 5.
—Next Tuesday, maybe Wednesday.
—Jesus Christ, Carlo.
Carlo puts on his glasses again and smiles. —And for God’s sake don’t use a word like ‘exhorting’ in the script. You’re the only person in this building who’s ever said that word out loud, and I’m probably one of three who knows what it means. You can say ‘Australia’s most famous’, though. He smiles again and does something that could be shrugging his shoulders or it could be something else, Kap doesn’t know.
When Kap was nine, his mother the doctor who was still caught in the nerve-churning whirlpool of shift work, found Kap in his room, carefully writing on the wrist strap of his batting gloves.
Her eyes widened.
—Kapil! What are you doing? Why are you writing that?
—It’s my name. It’s so no-one takes my things home. By accident, I mean. Or if I lose them.
—Kapil! That is not your name!
—It’s my nickname, Amma. When we play cricket, everyone has a nickname.
—That is not a nickname, Kapil. Who calls you that?
—Everyone does. What’s wrong with it?
—What does Brother O’Heaney say when they call you this?
—He doesn’t say anything. Oh … Oh. Well, he asked if I minded my nickname and I said no.
—And then what? He said it’s okay?
Kap nodded. His mother walked out of the room and returned with a cloth and a bottle of methylated spirits.
A rage, unlike anything Kap had witnessed before, seemed to scorch the air around her. Kap wondered if he was to blame.
—Wipe that off! Wipe that off everything you’ve written it on! She walked out of the room again. Kap heard her calling to his father.
Fifteen minutes later, tears gathering at his lashes but not spilling from his eyes, his hands sore and dried by the alcohol, Kap looked up as his father sat next to him and smiled.
—Let me see, he said. Kap showed him one of the gloves he’d been cleaning. The was no trace left of the writing.—No, Kapil. Show me what you’ve written. Kap reached across and showed his father the edge of his bat. Kap’s father looked at it and started chuckling quietly.
—What, Thatha? The tears fell as he spoke. Why are you laughing?
—Kapil, Kapil, Kapil, his father said, laughing louder as he stood up.
His father breathed in deeply to hold back more laughter. —Kapil, you’d better wipe that off if that’s what your mother has said for you to do. He left the room, shaking his head and still laughing.
Kap put the cloth to the mouth of the bottle again. He pressed the cloth to the wood and slowly wiped the bat’s edge. He watched his hand move back and forth. He watched the letters smudge and then grow fainter until his nickname was gone altogether. He watched a tear fall to the back of his hand, and he wiped it against his chin.
He heard his parents arguing in the kitchen, but couldn’t understand any of the Sinhala words they were using.
He picked up a batting pad and turned it over in his hands, looking to see where he’d written his nickname. There it was, by the buckle; this one he’d written the neatest of all. Kap put the cloth to the vinyl and scrubbed until he was done. No-one could ever have guessed the word ‘SAMBO’ had ever been there.
GRAND PRIZE WINNER
THE STRAND AGENCY
‘FRASER HOLT: FEARLESS’
Those who were drunk booed, and there were many who were drunk. A few others clapped quietly. Most leant back in their chairs and watched as Carlo, head held high, strode from his table at the front of the room and ascended the stage.
A knot tightened in Kap’s stomach, his legs trembled. He didn’t even know the campaign had been entered for the competition.
At least my name’s not on the screen, he thought. At least this table is close to the exit.
The screen came alive with his 30-second ad.
Kap stood up. —I need to … I need to use the bathroom, he said. He walked towards the back of the room, a bloodless dizziness fizzing at his temples. The green exit sign before him seemed to swing and shift as the room vibrated with the sounds of his ad.
When it stopped, the room was silent. No applause, no jeers. Kap turned around, pressed his palms against the aluminium doorframe and looked at the stage.
Carlo turned the award around in his hands, enjoyed the way it fitted so well there. He smiled, then pulled the head of the mic close. —You know, we already have a few of these back at the office.
Some laughs from the front tables. Some boos from the centre of the room. Silence everywhere else.
—But this one is different. And do you know why? You know why? You know what we all are, right?
Oh God, thought Kap, he’s going to say ‘storytellers’.
—We’re storytellers. Every one of us. The sound of sparse applause leaked through gaps in the groans. The boos were quieter. We are, my friends, we are. We. Are. Storytellers.
More applause this time.
—And I know a lot of you don’t like it but Fraser Holt … Boos again … Fraser Holt is a storyteller too.
A wave of boos and hisses crashed against Carlo and he grinned as it hit him right in his Cary Grant–handsome face.
—I’m guessing a lot of you don’t like the stories he tells, about immigrants, the stories he tells about Muslims, the stories he tells about … I don’t know … Africans. Or … you know … Africans.
He paused, his chest swelled as he felt the room take on a hungry silence, ready for him to continue. —We’re not here to celebrate those stories. We’re here to celebrate the fact that our stories are better than anything he can ever tell.
—We’re here to celebrate the story in every banner ad and scrolling bus ad and radio spot and TV commercial we’ve seen tonight. We’re here to celebrate the fact that storytelling … what we do better than anyone else, all of us … the fact that it’s storytelling that can make Fraser Holt something that people want!
The roar of applause and cheering seemed to shake the room. The knot in Kap’s stomach tightened, seemed to shift upwards inside him.
—And! said Carlo, shouting to quiet the cheers. And let me tell you something you don’t know. This campaign is the story of … a migrant.
Kap’s breath started to grow shallow and fast. He looked at Carlo, holding the award high in his right hand as he spoke.
—The bloke who put this campaign together, the absolute genius teller-of-stories behind all of this … he’s here somewhere. He is! I can’t see him. Where is he? Kap? Kap? Mate, you’ll get a seat at the front table with the big boys next year, I promise!
Kap took a step backwards, into the lobby where the lights were low.
—Kap? Carlo called out again. —Look, he’s very shy, but he’s here. His name is Kap. Kap, like what you wear on your head. And let me tell you something about Kap. Well, Kap is … wait for it … a migrant. The Fraser Holt Campaign is a story told by a migrant. Kap’s parents came here from … India. Right? India. All the way from India and Kap grew up in Perth and what Australia planted in him is … the love of the story. The power of storytelling. This migrant kid from India grew to be a man who knows that the power of the story is more powerful than the words of … of … other people. You know. People who don’t want migrants. The power of the story, my friends. The power of storytelling! The power of storytelling can work something close to miracles if we want it to.
The applause felt like stone pressing against Kap’s skull, squeezing his chest. Carlo was now yelling into the microphone, his eyes wild with delight. —I know you’re out there, mate! Kap! I know you’re out there! You’re a master of storytelling, my friend!
He held the award up high. It caught the light and shone like an actual star.
—This one! Carlo shouted. This one is all yours! Cape-ill De Mel, this one is yours!
Kap turned and ran outside, held his tie against his belly and vomited against the wheel of a parked limousine.
When he was inside Ash a half-minute ago, whorls of stars gripped Kap’s senses, galaxies were born and extinguished spectacularly between them as their leaping tongues and clenching muscles propelled shimmering ribbons out from their bed into the waiting sky.
Now, lying on his back, his breath slowing, the stars still sparking at the edge of his vision, Kap notices that he can’t feel the weight of Ash’s body astride his; together they feel wholly and miraculously weightless.
Kap smiles. Ash smiles.
—I wish you could see what I see.
—What do you see?
—My hands, so pale against your skin.
Kap says nothing.
—And it’s not even all the same! Where my left thumb is now, your skin is a different colour from where my right thumb is now. Where my ring finger is, it’s another colour altogether. God! The colour of your skin! The colours!
Kap says nothing.
—I could look at us, skin to skin, the dark and the light just like this, just exactly like this. I could look at this for the rest of my life and believe that there’s nothing but love and beauty in the world. Forever.
Kap feels something descend. Unseen flakes or particles of … something. Something drifts downwards in silence and Kap feels it settle across his whole body then soak, slowly and surely, into his skin. He tries to sense its weight, notices it has none he can feel right now, but he knows for certain that it’s robbing him of the weightlessness he’d felt before.
Kap watches Ash’s head drop to his chest, feels Ash’s lips and tongue press gentle kisses to the skin there. Kap says nothing, cups his brown hand against the golden storm of Ash’s white-blonde hair and watches his fingers carve a tender path through its soft, accommodating brightness. The kisses linger at Kap’s skin, growing slower, softer softly, softly and softlier still, until Ash falls asleep, head against Kap’s belly. •
Lal Perera lives and works in Perth. A recipient of the Varuna HQ Writers Fellowship, his short fiction has appeared has appeared in national publications.