The man gouges his ear as they wait, screwing and screwing with his little finger as if he is turning a tap on full. Every so often he inspects the long, sharp nail closely, then starts over again.
‘Stop doing that,’ Yalda says in Arabic. ‘It’s repugnant.’
When the door opens, he sits on his hands.
Most of them talk too fast, desperately spewing their stories before their case is closed. She has to think quickly, so the officials do not think she is incapable. But language is a minefield. Words don’t cross borders as boldly as boats do.
Last year, during her first roster on the island, she’d been called in to interpret for the interview of a Hazara man. He had pleaded in Pashto with the officer, cried that he had seen his son killed. He sent his wife and daughter to Iran, but had no way of finding out if they were safe. He will die if he returns, he said. The man spoke of their great affliction—zaar—in Afghanistan, but in Yalda’s haste, in her anxiety to impress, she’d not listened closely, focusing instead on translating with perfect grammar. She translated the word in Dari, said the man had a great house in Afghanistan. When she immediately tried to correct the mistake, the officer had reprimanded her. ‘You don’t speak for yourself. You only speak for him. Don’t try to explain.’ He had then shut his folder and left, and Yalda could not look at the man with shivering hands sitting beside her in the plastic chair.
After all her studies and travel she still stumbles over these false friends: words that look or sound similar but have different meanings across languages. She writes these sneaky shape shifters in a journal so they cannot trick her again.
Beraten in German means to advise or discuss.
The interpreters don’t play table tennis with the immigration officials. These Australians with their badges and pens have shorter rosters than the interpreters, caterers, security and medical staff, but they arrive already hard and leave three weeks later with eyes as narrow as splinters. They don’t like it when Yalda is asked for by name to settle a brawl in Oscar block, when the gymnasium fans are broken, the computers don’t work or a doctor is not available, when a man refuses to eat for the fourth consecutive day and wants instead to tell her about his son’s birthday party. Sanjaya, another interpreter, is popular with the detainees, too. His long body moves as though he is cross-country skiing, arms and legs slicing evenly as he crosses the thrusting scrub to the lime huts. He is often roused from bed to quell disturbances in the big dormitory late at night, when there is weeping that exceeds a reasonable duration or volume. Sanjaya’s voice is even and soft, the sharp edges of any definable accent polished away, and it is not long before he slips back to the staff ship that is shackled to the shore, leaving behind only the drone of mosquitoes and the bored click of the fans.
‘Did you know that in Persian the word sad means a dam, a barrier built across a river designed to stop water from flowing?’ Yalda asks.
‘Yes, I did,’ he replies, smiling. He is missing a tooth halfway back and she thinks of a felled tin duck in a sideshow shooting gallery.
Sanjaya worked at the centre when it was first opened. He was transferred to Christmas Island when the facility shut down years ago but was one of the first interpreters offered a contract when the relocations resumed. He does not talk much unless he is called up to translate and runs each morning along the dirty shoreline as the sun claws itself up from the ocean. The undersides of his arms are like a river map. When he collects his plate at the dining room, she sees fine blue tributaries branch out like the Mahaweli and disappear under his shirtsleeves. She knows he can speak Sinhala, Tamil, Creole Malay, Hindi, Punjabi and Marathi and suspects he knows more. She thinks he is Tamil, but he says he is just Australian.
Sensibel in many European languages means ‘sensitive’.
Yalda is used to all these SAMs now, these single adult men. She no longer notices the absence of women in the detention centre, although sometimes wonders if they would choose different words to tell their stories. Here, the interviews are almost all the same: hostile or resigned. Her breath no longer catches when accounts of slaughter, rape, persecution and poverty slide from her lips. Instead, she listens to the men’s clicking tongues and feels centuries of cultural heritage pass through her. She knows how much is lost as she reshapes their stories into flat English syllables that are tapped into a blank form topped with long numbers by an official across the table.
‘Where did you get the money to buy passage to Australia?’
The young man is taut and strong. He has been here for months but there is still a flame in his eyes. He clenches and unclenches his fists and then rubs his fingers over his knuckles as though he’d punched the officer. Yalda wouldn’t blame him if he had. The Pakistani has answered this question twice already.
She translates the man’s insults verbatim as she runs a thumb over a ragged fingernail. Her hair is also splitting in this heat.
When she arrived she thought she’d never be able to repeat such language. So she would sanitise, redress and accessorise it. ‘I am very saddened to suspect you do not believe me. I am concerned you are prejudiced against my skin colour,’ she relayed. But after a day, she was taken aside. ‘You say exactly what they say,’ she was told. ‘And tell us only what is answered in response to our questions.’
She is also meant to repeat exactly what the officials say, but sometimes she slips in more. ‘Have you got any family in Australia? And don’t you dare use those obscenities in my presence. Would you like your mother to hear you say such things?’ she would say, blank faced in terse Farsi.
There is a swell of excitement, no, perturbation, at the centre when three men escape during an authorised excursion. She knows one of them quite well, a Sudanese man who told her his wife was pregnant but there was only room on a boat for him. Yalda scans the thick, dark hills that loom over the facility and wonders if the woman has given birth yet. There is no search party. For two days, officers stand on the deck of the staff ship. A few extra security guards patrol the fence line. Early the following morning, the three men emerge from the jungle and lie down against the wire, their skin swollen, whipped and bleeding from bites and branches. Sanjaya is called to deliver them news of their punishment.
Brutaal in Dutch means ‘bold’.
In some interviews detainees try to speak for themselves in fractured English. Yalda sits to the side and winces as they stutter and flounder, their hands fluttering at the air as though the language is hovering above them, dangling just out of their grasp. They always choose the wrong words but the officers don’t seem to notice. The men say they are fleeing control instead of oppression, use the word injuryinstead of brutality, scared rather than terrified. The French know how important it is—le mot juste—to choose exactly the right word for the right occasion. But even if the men managed to do so, their claims would never translate with the same force as in their native tongue. And so their experiences are diluted and spayed, and they sit in their chairs, spent, as the officers shake the ink in their pens and scribble on a line at the bottom of the page.
The ship’s upper deck is quiet in the late afternoon, and she knows to find him here when the day has gone stale. Sanjaya always stands to starboard, binoculars sweeping the ocean for an ancient shell or a graceless dugong to break the surface.
‘Any action today?’ The light is draining from the sky, and the water looks grey and leaden.
‘A couple of turtles. Nothing more.’
Once, she asked to have a turn. After she had skimmed the water, she turned the lenses portside, towards the barbed wire and tin roofs. He took the binoculars from her then. ‘Let them be,’ he said.
‘One game before dinner?’
He nodded and followed her inside.
She likes interpreting for the Relaxation Therapy sessions. From the front of the room, she chants softly after the instructor. Close your eyes and breathe deeply through your nose. Feel your shoulders sink. Now picture yourself in a lovely place. Yalda transports herself home to Margaret River and presses her spine against a jarrah’s rough grooves, rakes her fingers through low sand dunes that face off a churning winter sea, rolls oysters on the back of her tongue. She imagines Peter in the kitchen, whistling as he peels the skin from mushrooms. They argue over this sometimes. That’s where the goodness is, she says, imbued in the mottled skin. He is older, but takes good care of himself and is always ready to appreciate her when she returns between rosters. They didn’t meet till she was forty-six, too late for children, but she never wanted them anyway. He only speaks English and compensates for this shortfall by emailing her with marvellous words he finds in her hulking dictionary. ‘You are so illecebrous and I want you to absquatulate from those island nomothetes right now.’ When she is home she fattens him up with traditional Persian meals of lamb Koresh, almond chicken and Tahdig. She passes him pomegranates with saffron-stained fingers and tells him stories from the island, such as the man who tried to swim to Australia but turned back after twenty minutes when he was stung by a jellyfish.
‘You will not be transferred to an Australian hospital,’ she repeats in Tarjik to the young man with blood congealed in his ear. ‘You are not haemorrhaging from your brain. You have just ruptured your ear drum and you must take these antibiotics.’ He has a long, sharp nail on his little finger and brushes the packet aside, stretching himself up like a cobra to where the doctor stands. ‘You did this to yourself,’ she adds in a low voice. ‘I have seen you.’
‘That man is junk.’ She raises her jaw and expels the word across the ping pong table to Sanjaya. ‘They must send him back. Maybe he does not plan to make big trouble, but he is a liar and a bully. No, he is no good for Australia.’ She hisses through her teeth as her paddle swats the air. Sanjaya picks up the ball from the floor and rolls it in his palm. ‘You are possibly right.’
The French word for ‘possibly’ is éventuellement. You are eventually right. She loves France. French words are so lithe—parapluie, décolleté, dénouement, déclassé, échapper—and she swallowed them greedily and easily when she visited once, long ago, on a semester break. When she returned to her studies in England the same words fell out, graceless and dull. Umbrella, low-cut, outcome, reclassified, escape.
Yalda met her husband there, long before Peter, on the banks of the river. He had an engineering text on his knees and greeted her in Farsi as she lay nearby. They married shortly after graduation, but when he wanted to return to Tehran she refused. She left all that behind when she won the scholarship to Cambridge. Besides, there was no future for linguists in Iran, especially during a war. And so they hugged, and she put him on a plane. Yalda visited him once, long after she’d settled in Australia. ‘Shazbot!’ she’d shouted when he opened the door, but he had forgotten their oldMork and Mindy joke. He was stout, and sweaty clots of grime darkened the hollows of his ankles. She had not stayed long.
Compromiso in Spanish means ‘commitment’.
Yalda starts walking in the mornings. Sometimes she spots Sanjaya’s figure far ahead on the shoreline, his limbs cutting through the early heat. If she rises late, he is already out on the jetty where he sits and stares at the horizon. She does not know if he is praying. She asked him once if he was a Hindu. ‘I suppose I could be,’ he replied.
When she returns to the ship there is a note on her door. She showers and heads downstairs to where the gangplank hangs from the staff ship like a dog’s lolling tongue. The flies are bad, and she flaps in front of her as she heads towards the dormitories. She passes a cluster of barefoot Iraqis who kick a football, sending up puffs of dirt that seem to stick momentarily to the heavy air. Outside Oscar block a chirrupy support worker is trying to rouse a music session, but the tambourines and maracas hang limply from the men’s hands like ornaments on a Christmas tree in January.
‘He’s asking for you,’ the officer says when Yalda reaches the end of the hangar, and there is the slightest note of scorn in her tone.
The man sits on the thin bed and she notices that his hands tremble. He looks at least fifty, but she knows he is thirty-seven.
‘What is the problem, friend?’ Yalda asks in Pashto.
‘I want to go home now.’ She looks at his stretcher and can see he has packed his belongings. A T-shirt, shorts and a pair of thongs are stacked neatly beside him.
‘But look at what you did to get here,’ she says. ‘And you have nothing to go back to.’
‘I want to go home,’ he repeats.
She leaves him there on the bed and signs statements and forms for the officer outside. On the trek back, one of the footballers whistles at her.
‘You have been here too long,’ she calls back in Arabic and just for a second, he laughs.
Sin in Spanish means ‘without’.
One of the catering girls finds him on her dawn walk. The rope was too long and had been wound all along the thick branch, so from a distance it looked as if he had been plucked clean off the ground by a thin tree snake. They cut his body down and arrange it on the floor in one of the ship’s cold rooms, covering it with a blue tarpaulin. Yalda is sent to retrieve his belongings.
Sanjaya’s room is bare, the bed is made neatly and curtains are drawn. In the corner, the air conditioner sighs. There is a pen on the desk and a notebook open to a blank page. The bin is half filled with crumpled paper. She rummages through all her languages, all her vowels and consonants, but in the end, Yalda is unable to find the right words either.