Sinking Ship by Hasti Abbasi
Hasti Abbasi holds a BA and an MA in English Literature. She recently submitted her PhD thesis on Dislocation and Remaking Identity in Australian and Persian Contemporary Fictions. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Antipodes, Southerly, Verity La, AAWP, and Bareknuckle Poet Journal of Letters, amongst others.
A woman as thin as a shoelace is standing next to a tripod aluminum tripod easel. On which “Iranian Film Club” is engraved. “Hi, welcome,” she smiles. “Hi, thanks,” I say. The door in the southeast corner of the hall leads to a big room. A flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall. There are a few people standing around a table, each holding a mug of tea.
A robustly handsome, black-haired man scratches his nose, approaching us. “Hi, I’m Shahab, I usually manage the group discussions after we watch the selected movie. Welcome to our club.” Going by the wrinkles on his forehead, he is at least forty.
“Hi, I’m Celin, and this is my husband, Saeed.”
“Welcome to our club,” he says as the corner of his mouth quirks upward, creating a dimple.
Shahab explains to us, considerately, that there are both tea and coffee making facilities in the kitchen area.
“I’ll grab a mug of tea; would you like one?” Saeed asks me, looking quite sheepish.
Everybody takes a seat. I take the middle seat in the second row, next to a beautiful girl. Her white jacket is appropriate for the cool night air. “Hi, I’m Sara,” she says. “Hi, I’m Celin.”
She appears to be in her late twenties, a decade or so younger than me. “Which city of Iran do you come from?” she asks.
“Lovely. I love your skirt—red’s my favourite colour,” she says. I feel sexy and confident. “Which flight did you take? Emirates or Etihad?”
A pounding in my head starts on the left side and goes up to the top and down the bottom, and very quickly I feel my heartbeat in my neck. Emirates or Etihad? Which one is better? These people have all gotten on and off planes.
“I’m a gynaecologist. What do you do?” is her next question.
“OK dear friends, let’s play the movie. I hope you will all enjoy it,” Shahab says.
Somebody turns off the lights.
What a relief.
Runner. That is the name of the movie. The setting is Abadan, an Iranian port city. My whole body misses this flat salty plain, its sandy and dust storms, and grimy railroad stations. My hometown.
A young boy is enthusiastically shouting and waving at an oil tanker that is disappearing slowly through the mist.
The day I told Mum about our plans, she sat down on the steps silently, flashing me a wan smile as she struggled to keep in her tears. “The sea is bottomless; you will regret what you are sewing when the storms rage.”
The movie is about how a young boy, Amiro, sees the world. In his struggle to survive the adult word, he collects floating bottles from the harbor, and sells cold water. A man on a bicycle rides away without paying for the water, making Amiro run after him for a long time. Why should a young boy fight so persistently for what is rightfully his? Does he know that he is deprived of the most basic rights? Just having the desire to fight is what matters to him, the desire we killed in our son the day we chose the apparently simplest way to fight for our rights.
I feel uncomfortable. I wish I could stop the movie or at least leave the room, but I might distract others if I walk past them. I slowly lean back in my chair and shut my eyes tightly. I will not watch the rest; neither will I think about anything.
I realize the movie is finished when the audience breaks into thunderous applause.
The gynaecologist turns to me, probably to ask further questions. I quickly get up and walk towards the table. A number of curious eyes stare at me as I stretch out my hand for a small biscuit.
A woman with an impressively high forehead approaches us. “Hi, I’m Kimia.”
After realizing that we are new to Brisbane, Kimia smiles and says, “I’ve been in Australia for twenty years. I’m a graphic designer, but I used to be an electrical engineer.” She adds that Iranians living in Brisbane are kind and welcoming, always ready to provide information and support. We, as new immigrants who may have a lot of struggles in the beginning, can ask for their support. “Any time,” she declares.
I shove a hank of my dark hair out of my face. “Thanks.”
People sit in a circle: Nine men, six women.
“OK, friends. Thank you for your attendance. It’s always more enjoyable for me to watch a movie with you all. So, what did you think of the movie?” Shahab asks, “Let’s start with Maryam.”
Maryam did not like the story. That is all she says sternly. Her pullover sweater and striped pants look good on her slim figure.
“I believe the director is expressing his dissatisfaction with the structure of the society, the rich and poor condition of Abadan,” a clean-shaven man says.
They are all talking; one after the other, each giving an example of the new wave in their defence of why they think this movie is a personal and biographical reflection of the director’s childhood rather than a pessimistic representation of Abadan.
“Do you have any idea, Celin?” Shahab asks me.
“No.” I say, waving my hand self-consciously.
I never let the slightest ray of intelligence get in the way of my stupidity. I think an IQ test would come back negative if I did it.
“Give your mind a rest,” Saeed whispers in my ear a few minutes later. I am happy I did not let another child have him as his father.
After they finish discussing the movie, we say goodbye to them, and walk out and down the street towards our car in a swelling silence.
Saeed seems to be concentrating on something. Time for his introvert party. Keep thinking; you’ll come up with a silly question soon. “Were you shy or something?” There you go.
“Why?” I ask, as I get in the car.
“You didn’t say anything when they asked for your opinion.”
“Don’t know,” I say, looking out at a fat, gray-haired pedestrian with a jacket slung over his shoulder. He presses the crosswalk button.
Yes, I was shy. I was embarrassed to sit in a movie club freely while my brother is developing suicidal thoughts.
When we arrive home, I take off my clothes and lie down on the couch. Five minutes later, the door opens and Armin comes in, his mobile in one hand and a Domino’s pizza in the other. As usual, he is wearing his ripped grey jeans and a plain white t-shirt. I explain to him that we have Fesenjan for dinner and he replies with a cold “I don’t like Fesenjan.”
“I’m thinking of going swimming tomorrow,” Saeed addresses Armin. “Would you like to join me?”
Armin does not favor his Dad with a reply; instead, he pulls a long string of gum out of his mouth.
The lunch dishes are still piled up by the sink. I wish we had a dishwasher.
“Mum?” Armin calls me.
“I like your hair. Have you had it cut?”
“Yes, thanks,” I say, as I fill the sink with soapy water.
“I wish you were dead,” Armin had said, looking me dead in the eye when they were taking me to the Nauru hospital. “It definitely is the best way to stop carrying the responsibility of making us more miserable than before.”
Do it again; throw yourself under a car, he whispers in my mind. At least I think it is a he. I mean the ghost who follows me everywhere I go.
I sponge the dishes and rinse them with hot water, heat up the Fesenjan, and set the table.
“My armpits smell so bad recently,” Saeed says as he comes out of the bathroom.
“It’s time you stop having garlic and onion in every meal you eat,” Armin says, with a grin. He takes the pizza out of the microwave. He usually has pizza, fries and soda for dinner.
“I will, and it would be great if you stop eating junk food.”
Armin sits at the table.
“Did you get your tablets?” Saeed asks me, scratching his head in confusion.
What’s your confusion about? You little man. Why didn’t you ask me on our way home?
“Yes,” I say.
He screws up his face in a concentration.
“How much did you pay?”
Armin squirts ketchup all over the pizza.
“What about the rest?”
“They will deduct twenty dollars from my account next month.”
He likes the fact that stupidity is not a crime.
Armin’s lips twist into a satirical smile.
“How’s school going?” I ask.
“The same,” is his response.
How did your meeting with the social worker go today? Did she talk to the principal about the money you are supposed to pay for the textbooks? I desperately want to know.
“Try some Fesenjan,” I smile a quick smile, “you’ll love it.” He gives a mock shudder. “I’m fine, thanks.”
Saeed drops a ladle filled with Fesenjan into his plate. “This is the best Fesenjan I’ve ever had.”
I will call the social worker tomorrow and ask her about the meeting.
Armin makes himself a coffee. “Good night,” he says, stirring his spoon in slow circular motions.
Give me a kiss. “Sleep well,” I whisper.
Armin bestows upon me a kind and generous smile and goes to his bedroom.
Saeed washes the dishes. I take my allocated four pills and go to bed, recalling the night when two officers held my arms, dragging me into a room.
Why are you sleeping? Your brother is so cold he probably can’t breathe, the ghost softly whispers to me.
My brother is subject to twenty-four-hour observation by guards in a camp where the only thing people encounter every day is never-ending insecurity and uncertainty about every moment of their lives.
I moan and grunt and push him away as hard as I can. “Go away.”
I close my eyes and visualize the brutality of the sea and the slap of water on the rocks. Armin is standing on the edge of the boat, gazing out to sea, tall and thin. Saeed is standing above, holding something in his hands. He follows my eyes, discovering my concern. “Armin! Be careful,” he says loudly. Armin turns around and looks straight through me. He walks towards me. “You’ll be fine, Mum, we’ll be there soon.” He takes my hand, and kisses me on my forehead with quivering lips.
In the distance, I hear the shrill of an ambulance. I open my eyes, smelling the insulting sea and its hostile moving water. The ghost appears again: you don’t deserve to be alive.
“Leave me alone,” I plead. He seems to be expecting a response from me. “It was your fault my baby died. You made me take twenty Panadols. Go away, you bastard.” I say, feeling like I am drifting back to the sea.
Sorry about your loss. Sometimes death happens the same way life just happens. But soon you’ll be able to spend some good time with your baby in the other world, he says.
“How do you think I should do it?”
Cut your vein.
Are you silly? You don’t want Armin and Saeed to see you do it, do you? Wait for tomorrow when they both go out.
Saeed opens the door. The ghost disappears. “Talk to you later,” I murmur in my mind.
“It’s your Mum,” Saeed says, handing me my phone.
“Hi my beautiful daughter, how are you? How are Armin and Saeed?”
“We’re all fine, thanks. How are you? Is Dad OK?”
I can hardly hear her. She’s in a noisy place.
“Yes, he’s fine. Have you talked to Kamran? I’m so worried about him.”
“Yes, I talked to him in the morning, he’s doing great,” I lie.
“If only I could hug you and Kamran once more, I wouldn’t ask for anything from God. It’s all I want before I die. Is there any news about when they might send him to community detention?” she asks on the other end of the line, thousands of miles away from me. The woman who held me in her womb for nine months and did her best to raise educated children is now wishing for a simple hug. Just a hug. I hate myself.
She is crying. She has been crying every day for four years. Yes, he’s joining us tomorrow. I’ll make him Ghorme Sabzi, his favourite food. I will protect him forever. I wish these were the things I would tell her. “No news yet, but I’m sure he’s fine and will join us soon.”
Armin is screaming. The phone flies out of my hand as I run towards his room.
He is sitting on the edge of the bed, burying his face in his hands.
“Did you have a nightmare?” Saeed asks as he hands Armin a glass of water.
Armin is stunned. Truly traumatized. I do not know what to do, where to look. “What were you dreaming?” I ask.
“The same dream,” Armin says, locking his hands behind his neck.
“You’re fine now. We’re here,” Saeed says.
I am on the verge of tears. I leave the room.
“Is he asleep?” I ask Saeed when he comes out about ten minutes later.
You shouldn’t have left the room, his look says. “He’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Wash your face and stop crying. Please,” he says, putting a reassuring arm around my shoulder.
“You sleep; I’ll watch a movie first.”
I want to know what happens to the hero of the movie, Amiro. I play the movie. His friends ask him to play football with them. He gives them a wonderful smile. One of the most impressive ones I have ever seen. He is crying because his only friend departs to work on a ship.
“I did not know I was pregnant,” is what I keep telling my social worker. But the truth is that the baby would need a predictable and safe environment, a dream world I never thought possible. That is why I took the pills.
I stop the movie, and get up to look through Armin’s bedroom’s half-open door to make sure he is asleep.
I turn back at my mobile’s message tone.
“Hi, this is Shima. We met in Nauru detention. How are you? Are you awake?”
Oh my God. There is definitely something wrong with my brother. Why else would somebody I don’t even remember message me from Nauru? My head twitches. Saeed, I want to shout. I can’t. I have a knot in my throat.
I call back the number with a feeling of constriction in my chest.
It rings. My heart is being grabbed and squeezed. Nobody answers. I call again. No answer. I want to walk towards our bedroom, but my legs feel weird. I feel like water is running over my feet. “Saeed, Saeed,” I whisper. I open the door to find Saeed faced down naked with his hands flat, next to his shoulders, with only a tiny towel slung on his hips. I hear the running tide and the call of the sea. A sea of blood. “Saeed, Saeed.” Saeed opens his eyes. “Are you OK?”
“Read this message.”
Saeed reads the message, looks at me, reads it again. “So what?” he asks, sounding confused.
“There must be something wrong with my brother. I haven’t talked to him in the last three days.”
“Calm down,” Saeed says, dialing a number on his mobile. “Hello, Yes, this is Saeed. Listen, Celin is very worried about Kamran. Do you have any news about him?”
Saeed lowers his eyes from me, a worried expression creasing his forehead.
What has happened Saeed? Please place the phone on speaker, what’s he saying? Damn you, say something.
“What is it?”
Saeed doesn’t raise his head. “OK,” he pauses, as if to reflect. “Yes, yes.” He ends the call.
“Is Kamran OK?”
“He’ll be fine,” he says, nodding.
“What do you mean he’ll be fine? What’s happened? Has he hurt himself?”
Saeed’s mouth is moving around frantically. For what seems like hours, I can hear nothing but the sound of my teeth being pressed together. The indignity and the most embarrassing moments of my journey all march in front of me, one after another, like a series of flashcards. The wave is about to capsize our boat, and take it down. Armin falls off the boat. He is floating on the sea. People are shouting. Kamran dives into the water and pulls him out. He turns Armin’s head to the side and then back to the center, breathes into his mouth. He then checks his pulse in the deafening silence that follows. Everybody is staring at Kamran. Afraid, shocked, upset. “He’s alive,” Kamran smiles and then cries his longest, loudest cry.
I open my eyes to the sound of Saeed. “Kamran will be fine,” he says, breathing hard. Saeed lets out a sigh and removes a half-smoked and dead cigar from his mouth.