Fiction

Refuge

EMRE ALWAYS RISES at five. His palliasse has to be slid beneath the couch so that Frau Losberg might use the tiny room through the day for her piecework sewing. Emre is sincerely grateful for this space. It is much more tolerable than the migrant hostel. His wife and daughter are still in the women's quarters but he is quite determined that must end. This present sit­uation is only temporary, though he has been living in Frau Losberg's front room for 10 weeks. An apartment – even if only two rooms – must be found somewhere. Adelaide, he has been told and he believes it, has many houses split up into flats sharing kitchen and bathroom space but they are at least preferable to the dormitories and those inedible meals at the hostel.

As soon as he escaped the hostel, Emre was able to drag his precious typewriter from the leather suitcase, which was all he was able to bring with him. Its keyboard is Hungarian but he can manage English on it. Early on, he typed out, on thick white paper, many repetitions of his calling card and then cut them carefully to size:

Dr Emre Halasz Ll.D
Translator and Linguist.
Personal letters and documents
Typed and prepared to order.

Frau Losberg's address was given. She had agreed to that, on the promise of clear typed copies of her tenancy agreements with all her lodgers, expressed as "reimbursement of outlays and maintenance" to avoid Aus­tralian taxation watchdogs. Emre's typing has always been meticulous, though he worries about the cost of a new typewriter ribbon. Every postage stamp has to be a consideration.

By 5.15 he is washed, shaved and dressed, his goatee scrupulously trimmed. No breakfast. The woollen suit still looks presentable. Frau Losberg turned the cuffs and collar excellently (in exchange for labour in painting the front exterior) and had assured him there were years of use there, if he did not wear out the pocket linings with objects. He pulls on his almost-new homburg (a miracle from Anglicare) and snaps on his bicycle clips. His first acquisition once he got out of the migrant hostel had been the attaché case. He keeps it oiled and polished and has made his own attachment in front of the bicycle to carry it to work. The bicycle was the major investment and he is still terrified – he has nightmares of it being stolen, or smashed, or there being a bomb exploding in the very street, even though he has been assured, with rough but easy laughter by his workmates that bombs do not go off in Adelaide. "This isn't Europe, mate."

Each time he rides it is a dare. He will be paying it off over the next two years. In his entire life he has never committed anything this far in advance. The past seven years have been lived a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time. Even when he and Marie had married, last year in Milan before embarkation, they had both thought of it as being, not an insurance or a certain future, but a vow to stick together for whatever time might be granted to them. The concept of a child had been almost unbearable – but real enough once the signs began to manifest themselves. Marie had been more stoic than Emre. "We shall see it through," she said, knowing there was no alternative. By the time Kotie had been born – somewhere between Aden and Australia – they had both somehow come to the realisation that they were on a very long journey indeed and nothing they had been through might prepare them, either for parenthood or for the forthcoming tribulations.

Emre had been the first to consider plans. Marie had absorbed herself in the immense routine of feeding, bathing, comforting and accommodating the baby. Even the separation of the male and female quarters in the hostel did not seem to concern her overmuch.

Emre had fretted, right from the outset. Fatherhood may have taken him somewhat by surprise, but it also galvanised him in a way that was much more energising than the effort of their survival, which had been the only possible aim over these times. The voyage seemed endless but out of it Emre had found time to think. And, thinking, he had begun to plan.

 

TO ESCAPE THE grim prison-like regimentation and anonymity of the hostel had been the first task. This achieved, the second had been to find some means of earning income. Emre had been directed to an employment agency assisting migrants. He had filled in forms, in English, and listed his qualifications. The university degree and his years (1936 to 1943) as a newspaper journalist counted for nothing. Neither did his command of seven languages or his typing skills. He was allocated a shiftwork labouring job in a vulcanising works – 6am to 4pm.

On his first day there, fresh from the excitement of locating a corner in Frau Losberg's rooming house, and nervous over the audacity of committing himself to the bicycle with its fixed terms and outrageous interest payments, he had arrived 10 minutes early, following the directions supplied by the employment agency on the back of an old printed circular on the Australian taxation "deduction at source" system for employees. He had to stop under several streetlights to confirm road names and turns. He felt elated when he made it.

But his new workmates were another hurdle. They made noisy and dis­turbingly obscene comments on Emre's clothes – the suit, the white shirt and tie (borrowed), his leather gloves, the homburg and his attaché case. Some­times it is a hindrance rather than a help to understand a language. Emre did not catch all the new words, or the slippery, congested accents, but the general impression was clear.

One older man with grizzled short hair directed him to the clerical section to fill in employment particulars and then to the change room, where Emre disrobed and picked out of his briefcase a fresh laundered pair of overalls (he had been given previous instructions). His hands were soft and pale, true, but would harden up ("Piss on them," his new foreman had said). In the refugee camps in central Europe he had done his share of hard manual labour.

The vulcanising works was a place of extremes. Extreme heat. Extreme labour. Extreme language. Emre only had to ask a few times for directions to be repeated or explained. He was always willing, too willing. His workmates rebuked him but he found it difficult to slacken his pace to meet the unspo­ken but definite requirement for minimum performance not maximum efficiency. In the lunch hours or at tea breaks Emre was educated in the finer points of industrial restrictions. He kept his own counsel and at the end of each shift, while the others slewed off to the pub and a few beers, Emre thor­oughly washed himself in the showers and dressed in his formal attire. He put on his clips and unlocked the gleaming bike from its safe place, pulled on his gloves and set the homburg at a firm angle before pushing off, back to the boarding house.

Only once had he been enticed to the pub with the other workers. That was after his first pay and some of the group insisted he must shout them all a round. They had beers. Emre quietly asked for a white wine. He was chi­acked ruthlessly, but even by the end of the first week he knew where he stood, and it was outside.

The gibes about his hat and his gloves and his "bloody briefcase" had subsided. Within a month they would be proprietorial, proud of their resi­dent Perfesser on the vulcanising floor.

But that first payday, in the pub, Emre paid for his difference. To show his conviviality, he began quoting several mildly salacious limericks from his university days (his English tutor preferred them to Keats and Shelley). His accent broke them up. Before the session was over a couple of the younger ones had memorised his limericks and his accent.

 

EMRE MIGHT HAVE proved himself "a good mate" but his pay packet was frighteningly depleted and he spent the bike ride home calculating where he must economise to make up. Breakfast was out. Now lunch must be eliminated also. Fortunately, he had discovered a Hungarian "social club" where he could get proper food quite cheaply, if he did not indulge in the overpriced barak palinka.

His weekend "business" as a translator and letter writer was moving only in fits and starts. He had initially made contact with others in the migrant hostel, men who needed to fill out forms, or to write letters of supplication and appeal, or who could not even write. He supplied verbose and lying epistles to loved ones or distant families, in Italy, in Austria, in Hungary.

But though Emre had busied himself in those early weeks of freedom with following up those contacts – and had even performed innumerable tasks of translation, or transcription, or letter writing – when it came to payment everybody was in the same boat. It was not going to earn him any­thing, except the burden of confidence over awkward confessions. Finally, he tore up the remaining business cards. The typewriter was put away.

His languages had failed him. For so long they had seemed an almost certain passport to small favours or to negotiable concessions. "They can take everything but your education," his mother had insisted. Here in Aus­tralia, education seemed to have been reduced to a fine sense of irony. "What did you used to do?" one of his workmates asked him one day. When he replied that he studied languages they crowed, almost as an ensemble: "No, work. What work?" He had pretended not to understand, but that only brought ribald jokes. And it was true: the dialect they spoke was often enough a different tongue to what he had studied even in Dickens and Som­erset Maugham.

Frau Losberg has been insidious. Although she keeps offering sugges­tions for possible new accommodation and even allows Emre to peruse her Saturday Advertiser or News, the leads always turn out fruitless – rent too high, distance from his job too far, rooms too cramped or too squeezed for a family of three – and always when he returns, glum from another search, Frau Losberg almost inch by inch increases her attention. Emre finally begins to understand.

 

IN A SUDDEN move he changes everything: he takes an apartment in the city. It consists of three upstairs rooms above a hairdresser's and can only be reached through the shop itself. It is illegal. And it has no kitchen and no water – three bare rooms at the top of a creaking staircase. He has had to find a bed, a mattress, coverings, pillow, as well as things for the baby. And what about water?

With the help of a Czech plumber who owes him for a series of duplicitous letters to his wife, an Italian still waiting for him to send her the voyage money, they manage to tap into a water main in the back lane and pass a copper pipe up the external wall (hidden by an overgrown creeper). At least, now, there is a tap. His plumber friend suggests a small spirit stove. There is no electricity upstairs either, he also discovers. Well, he could pick up a couple of kerosene lamps. Marie's cottage in the Austrian Tyrol had only such lighting.

When he feels he can do no more for the present he takes a bus to the migrant hostel. He returns with his family.

Frau Losberg is incensed when she hears, and threatens to tell the author­ities. Emre keeps her pacified only by promising to paint the remaining external walls of her place. That means another month of weekends, which could have been more usefully employed, but it's worth it.

Marie looks at the apartment with its dusty green walls and bare boards and smiles at Emre shyly. From the window they stare out onto a brick wall across the alley.

"Look," she says, and points to a small fern growing out of a crack in the bricks near the top. The baby keeps grizzling: she is teething. They spend their first night together for more than six months in the creaky bed with dusty blankets and only one pillow. The child seems to be restive between them and wakes almost every hour. It shits in the bed. Emre has no sleep. He knows that he must rise at 4.30 in order to cycle the extra distance to the vul­canising works.

Between bouts of feeding and soothing the infant his wife sleeps solidly. Emre tries to remember when it was, how it was, that they first got together. Marie had fallen pregnant so quickly. For the first time he wonders: was that accidental?

 

BACK THEN, HE had no thought of any coherent future. He only knew that his past had disappeared utterly. The apartment in Budapest had long since been taken over by the authorities and nationalised. His parents had not survived 1943. Today he knows only the blowsy woman who runs the "Hungarian club" and two peasants from the voyage over who speak his language. Marie speaks German and has stubbornly refused to master English. Emre now tosses uncomfortably and tries not to rouse the stranger sharing his bed. A streetlight throws a yellowish rectangle upon the wall opposite. The prickly smell from the hairdresser's below cannot be ignored.

For a brief moment he thinks of Frau Losberg's cosy, crowded front room. There are two oil paintings with huge frames: alpine scenery, a secluded chalet. She has heavy drapes on the windows. It always reminds him of an aunt's apartment in Buda. He has no idea where his aunt is now, or what has become of her much-loved furnishings. Frau Losberg's little room had the musty warmth of memories. He knows he must never allow memories to crowd him. But for these moments he has seemed almost to be back there, though of course nothing can be the same.

The vulcanising works is his life now. And for the foreseeable future. This is his existence and it seems almost as tangible as razor wire fencing. Except that circumstances change. Even he has recognised that. One step at a time. One step then one step and even now he can look back and see the burden of despair and dulled endurance receding. The walls of this place, caught in that glare of light, carry echoes he will not remember. They will be simply one further item in the list of things he will not remember. But after his next pay he will take Marie to look for cheap curtain material. Unless she has other priorities. Which might well be so...

In all those years of servitude, flight, desperate and sudden displace­ments, transit camps, barracks, odd jobs and odder black market dealings, he has never thought of such simple but clearly articulated beginnings. Only endings. Each moment has been an end. Every new change is an end. His seven languages were all ends, interchangeable, isolating him internally while at the same time giving him fluency others envied him for. He will cast off things here, as well as take things on. Language is a commodity; he has learned that. It is a tool of barter, not of emotions or feelings or human warmth. Warmth? There is only body warmth. Or body cold.

The first encounter with Marie: even that had another ending, really leading nowhere, except for instant gratification. Instant sleep. Sleep.

It was the beginning.

Preparing to rouse himself, Emre thinks of the hot labour ahead and the rough and ready badinage of his workmates, and he realises his life has always been only beginning. It has taken him this long, and so many endings, to realise that he might, at last, be granted the luxury of looking forward. And that beginnings always lead onwards. Two years' time, he thinks. One year. The thought has him out of the bed (quietly, carefully, so as not to disturb the child. Or the mother) and the cold water for his shave pours out of the rickety tap like hopeful chatter.

The strange surroundings are already part of him, of his new present, and he realises that to remould this space will not be a task, it will be a discovery.

He laughs out loud so that the baby gives a startled cry and Marie reaches out her hand – not to Emre. Six months, he thinks. I will write this down, this room. No, I will get a camera and photograph it. In six months' time we will look back and see how far we have come.

Has he even had such a thought before?

He wheels the bicycle down the bumpy stairwell, careful not to scratch the walls. The cold air outside stings his eyes, but he wonders why he should be weeping.

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