ll the man wanted was a beer. He gathered his belongings, careful not to step on others sleeping around him in the park, and slowly made his way up to the empty parking lot. He drank some water from a tap. It tasted bitter.
Beyond the park, in the hazy distance, the city beckoned. He could hear the vehicles on the freeway and they frightened him.
At the bus stop he asked a pretty girl for the time. She smiled at him, told him the time and went back to pushing buttons on her phone. A teenager hiding behind large sunglasses was leafing through a car magazine. The man invoked the similitude of their skin colour and wished, “Hello brother.”
There was no response.
When the bus arrived, he stood recovering change from his various pockets and counted them in the palm of his hand.
“You alright mate?” the bus driver asked him, once the other passengers had embarked.
The man smiled at the driver in his tropical shirt and khakee shorts. He never seemed to have enough money to make the journey into the city.
“You coming or what?” the driver asked.
The man shook his head. The door closed and the passengers, their eyes frozen in lethargy behind the tinted windows, looked past him as the bus pulled away.
He walked barefoot in the sun, past the well-manicured lawns and the freshly painted houses, past tall office buildings with names he couldn’t read, past stores with large window displays, past institutions and places of worship with their oppressive spires and arrogant domes; all of them alien to him, all of them willed into existence without consultation, without the consent of the spirits of the land, without his approval.
Around him people who smelled good, dressed in their best, hurried along without acknowledging his presence, and in the harsh din of progress, his mutterings were silenced, as if they had no place in the new scheme of things. The ones that did notice him averted their eyes instantly, before their minds could register memories of collective sins – past and present.
Above him, in the distant reaches of the heavens, metallic arms on skyscrapers kept vigil over the screaming city. Many visions of the subtle and the grotesque bloomed on display screens. The world was filled with processes and rituals, alien to his inherited dreamings, and the promises of his myths were held captive in the walls of this metropolis, without cause, without hope for absolution.
e ran into a few of his kin resting in front a fountain. They seemed lost and haggard just like him. He shook their grimy hands and kissed their creased faces clogged with dirt.
He sat smoking with them and listened to their tales of the city. They complained that the police were harassing them in the CBD. A woman started crying when the ‘old country’ was mentioned and the man slipped into a daydream about the red earth, now visible only through the mirage of his mind, its vast expanse calling him back to it. He imagined the calling to be a song and saw his father dance to its rhythms, under the stars.
When he got up to leave, he asked them if they had any money, and they frowned and shook their heads. The woman was still crying as he walked away.
The pub was around the corner from the cinema, where a long queue of teenagers drank cola and swore and jostled in anticipation of the midday show. If he was lucky, a kind patron might throw him a half empty can of beer or rum from the balcony of the hotel, while the security was away. Usually, at this time of the day, Fat Bob was the only guard at the joint.
His throat was parched and his vision dimmed and brightened. His skin was cold and burning in the sun. He was awake but he felt like a traveler in a realm of shifting realities. He had finished the last bottle of mouthwash from Woolies the previous night; it wasn’t quite the same anyways.
The man placed his bundle on the floor and checked the balcony to see if his prospects were any good. There was a click and when he looked, Fat Bob was standing at the door. He started muttering all the prayers, his mother and aunties had taught him.
“How’s it going mate?” the guard asked, walking towards him.
“Its all good brother. How’s things?” the man replied raising both arms as if to embrace him.
“Fuck off, will you. Pick up your shit and get lost before the boss gets here,” he said twirling his earpiece.
“I am just standing here brother. I swear, I don’t want no trouble. I am just waiting here for my cousin Jonna.”
“Haven’t seen your lot in a while. Things were tops here for weeks and now you decide to show up. I am going in for a drink, when I come out I don’t want to see you here,” Bob said.
Bob spat on the pavement, placed the piece back into his ear and stepped into the public bar.
The man looked up at the balcony. A group of tradesmen had taken up the spot right above him. They were a noisy bunch, but he was happy they were celebrating. Celebrations usually meant he could count on some generosity, goodwill and pity.
A youngster in a fluorescent green and blue shirt glanced at him a few times and looked away and their rambunctious conversations resonated in the lazy corridors of the pub, but they continued to disregard his penance under the scorching sun.
Just when the man had given up on the raucous celebrants, someone shouted, “Oi!”
When he looked up, he saw the young tradesman leaning forward on the railing with a can of beer in his hand, surrounded on both sides by his grinning mates.
He raised the can and started emptying its contents onto the street.
The man ran to the spot and cupped his hands to collect the drink. He had barely collected a mouthful, when the supply stopped abruptly. When he looked up, the group spat on him and pointed and laughed.
The sounds abruptly settled as Fat Bob appeared on the balcony. He glowered at the group and then shouted down to the man, “Do you want me to call the cops on you, fucking parkie?”
he man picked his belongings and moved on. Tears blurred his vision, but he was thankful for that. The children of the new world, who usually reserved their apathy for him, feasted on his misfortune with their wide eyes. They shook their heads and muttered to each other at the sight of his tattered clothes, his dirty, matted hair, and his face decorated with gobs of spit. It was as if he was reborn, as if the malice of someone’s bodily fluid had made him visible to the sighted and heightened his awareness of the world’s assessments.
“Why do they live like this?” someone remarked.
He was cleaning himself under a tap next to a school, when he heard music from the grounds. He walked towards the gate to investigate.
Students and teachers were assembled on the lawn. The flag that was brought to these shores and the one he had to claim for himself lay limp on adjoining poles. Under the flags, children dressed like his tribesmen played the didgeridoo, sang and danced and raised their impotent weapons to the sky.
After the performance was over, it took a while for the man to realize that they were celebrating his being, and when he did, he joined them in wild applause.
* * * * *
Nikesh Murali’s work (which includes comics, poems and short stories) has appeared in more than 80 publications worldwide. His poems have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. He won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Asian region in 2011. His poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He completed his Masters in Journalism from Griffith University for which he was awarded the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence in 2005, and his Masters in Teaching from James Cook University and a Bachelors degree in English Literature and World History from University of Kerala. He is working towards his Doctorate in Creative Writing. He can be reached online at www.nikeshmurali.net and his contributions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.