Tinderbox

by Alice Bishop

BACK WHEN THEY’VE not yet met, Ameer wears a pressed shirt in his profile picture, Ada a cellophane stare. Then it’s winter, June, and a soft-screen glow lights up her face like his, silvery crescent moons cupping both pairs of eyes. Marjan the lion, lapis lazuli, fire- and-forgets. Ada’s smudged laptop glass shows new search histories, not her usual Facebook feed, framed by too-bright ads for geometric wedding rings and maquiladora-made clothes and shoes. Her Tinder top, crab-coloured, lies scrunched on the redwood floor. Filling moments, Ada scrolls, comparing other people’s pictures to her own – marked by three emoji suns (☼☼☼), a bunched smile, along with other musts: ‘twenty-six years old, mostly happy, five-foot ten’.

They speak, online, about Kandahar and Flowerdale, about ,ىاچ هنش .Preston – how you can get good, cheap coffee in all three Ameer types that first night, attaching a photo of the warm drink, beside a bowl of defrosted pomegranate jewels – red juice bleeding over hills of no-name ice cream: vanilla bean. The pomegranates of Kandahar, Ameer writes, they grow like money does here – on trees. Ada continues learning what she can on stalling wireless, tabs open to ten: the open plains of Bamyan, his country’s glaciated north, along with sleeping butterfly mines – laid to wait by roadsides. All the cars back home, Ameer adds much later, when they are comfortable on the phone, were Toyotas when I left. Every one.

Ameer Sahar: ‘thirty-one, sometimes lawyer, five-foot seven’, is working in translation – Pashto, Dari, Arabic – sometimes for VicRoads, in Sunshine, but mostly on Christmas Island. They take his phone from him up there, his shoelaces too. When Ada asks him what it’s like working in the camps Ameer asks her if she has a driver’s licence, and if, when he comes down, they can go to her hometown – to see the houses with the brick fences you can step over, the koalas in the trees. There are no trees there, anymore, Ada writes, and koalas are rare. Are there really bears in Kandahar? Ada asks, her keyboard sticky from honey, from on-sale brie. Lots of them, Ameer says, his buried voice crackling, later, through the island’s chalky line, in the Pamir hills.


ADA’S OWN TOYOTA,
rusting, starts to frost over most mornings: the last owner’s bumper stickers (for RRR, for Bright ) peeling from mid-morning mist, from sun. She unpacks her only surviving teenage jumper – pink galahs and sulphur crests knitted in. Taking a photo in the Colgate-flecked bathroom mirror, her caption for Ameer reading: Cockatoos like these ate our decking when I was small. Walking to the milk bar, later – for a Caramello Koala, for canned cola – Ada feels Flowerdale gravel beneath her jelly sandals, not the Coburg pavement it actually is. The power poles are the trees around her family home, still standing – uncharred and tall.

Afghanistan’s about the size of Texas, Ada reads, in between Googling ‘Ameer Sahar’ again and again. She finds hundreds of people with the same name, along with a short essay written in Pashto that Google can’t quite translate. The title is clear, ‘Same Boat, Now’. When Ada asks Ameer about his flight here, he only mentions the warmer weather on Christmas Island – comparing it to the VicRoads office, Sunshine, the place not nearly as sunny as he’d first thought it would be. In other news, he says in a short voicemail left on her phone, it’s our fasting month. Just ten more sleeps ’til morning coffees, ’til cigarettes. Ada, sitting against her back wire door, thinks of Ameer’s fingers – short, rough, nicotine-stained – threaded through her own.


THE FLOWERDALE RIDGE
once bloomed with Victorian wildflowers: wax-lip orchids, early Nancy’s, native heath. But Ada only remembers the leaning gums, smelling of home, and Septem- ber-blooming wattle: silver, yellow, grey. She tells Ameer about the cockatoo with the cable-tie anklet – the escaped one she always saw on the deck when she was small. Perhaps, she thinks, it was some eccentric type’s long-lost balcony bird. Maybe it was that one that screeched, Ada almost writes, when I looked up to the sulphur-streaked flock, fleeing smoke. But as usual she just deletes the details – her keyboard’s Cmd + Z short- cut worn.

Four bedrooms, mountain-ash floors, silver-flecked doors Ada is Skyping Ameer, video-off, when he eventually asks about her family home – his island wireless stalling and Coburg cats yawping over the bin-night scraps on her street outside. My first one? she asks, remembering a leaning hen house, along with the smell of toast in carpeted, photo- lined halls. Yes, your first place, Ameer answers, mentioning his own dad, then the ice-cream he bought him and his brothers back from the Afghan highlands – made from snow, he says, it had a taste all of its own. Are your brothers here? Ada types, before wondering if she should have. ‘Ameer is typing’ shows up, then vanishes. Then Ada goes to the fridge for coconut water – carton printed with ersatz-blue ocean, with cartoon-like leaning palms, bending to some unseen island wind.

Before letting Ameer pinpoint where in Victoria Flowerdale was, or perhaps of what it became, Ada begins speaking of snow – of a planned trip to Hotham, maybe Thredbo. Was it ever cold in the Kandahar plains? Ada writes, before looking it up on Wikipedia, at the average mean temperature of 18.6 degrees Celsius. Kandahar winter begins in December, she reads, and sees most of its precipitation as rain. Flowerdale, Ameer almost repeats, sounds very nice. But then, Ada says – remembering neighbours’ cars like dried-out, blackened beetles – Christmas Island, associations aside, that place sounds nice, too.

Two thousand nine hundred and sixty one Ameer spells out, word-by-word – his font changing to Palatino, to ten-point instead of twelve. Those thousands of people, Ada reads, eat Weet-Bix and angel-hair pasta with sauce most days – tinned peaches on Saturdays, too. Occasionally though, Ameer adds, one will eat carefully crushed Coke-bottle glass. When Ada asks if he finds it hard, seeing people confined up there, Ameer mentions that it’s just six weeks on, then six weeks off, for him: You can’t think of it another way.

In her rented yard, the backs of her bare thighs covered in milk- crate print, Ada closes her laptop around ten – mid-morning sun catching clumps of unwashed mascara, the toast crumbs of pilling knits. The overgrown garden bed of dried-up artichoke hearts, of zucchinis, gone to seed, makes her think of the roundworms lacing Christmas Island soil – of reading that nothing there grows. There are no fresh vegetables here, Ameer confirms on Monday, his voice again sounding smaller on the phone. And Ada wonders if Ameer83@gmail’s knees would fit into the backs of her own.


PAKISTANI DETAINEES, WANTING-EYED,
drink Noon Chai – a pink-milk, pistachio tea – if they have a big anniversary or if there is a newborn in camp. The babies, Ameer says, are very quiet up there – very well behaved. My boss company is good in that way, he says, they give the mothers clean blankets, nappies, formula even – if the women are too stressed to feed. Do you drink Noon Chai at lunchtime? Ada asks, not knowing, for a moment, what else to say. What are your favourite foods? Ameer answers, Are you vegetarian or paleo like a lot of the Austra- lians up here? He talks about the Seaview chippy – where he goes with co-workers on Friday nights for a feed. Ada sees men and women in their business-blue Serco shirts, ordering with small voices, with eyes on an oily, linoleum floor.

It’s long before they meet. July turns to August. Ameer’s told not to document the names of his ‘clients’, only their numbers: 673/ RYB/039, maybe 160/AEB/086. Then, Placement’s over soon – Ameer types, on Facebook messenger – his profile shirt crumpled at the sleeves. Ada looks at the curve of his cheek, the dimple in his chin: the new photograph taken against bare white walls. Ameer says he can’t wait to try Coburg coffee, his own toast. I hope you have a cat to keep you warm, Ameer writes, and I’m still looking forward much to seeing the bush.

هلین’:the Pashto word for blue. Ada practices writing it on yellowing newspapers, old receipts and flattened Kelloggs’ boxes – taken from the neighbour’s paper recycle overflow – always spilling into her own. She tries to say it out loud, in preparation for the day she meets Ameer in person – appearing through arrival doors. They’ll drink Styrofoam coffees, maybe eat an $8 airport-lounge caramel slice before she drops him home – the freeway out to Sunshine, perhaps sunny this one time. Can we take the Toyota to Flowerdale, tomorrow? he’ll say, reaching out to touch her corduroy thigh. Perhaps then he’ll mention the ferns with yellow, powdery flowers, the kind he’s seen on Christmas Island tea towels, on the TV. Maybe, Ada imagines she’ll say, leaning into his scratchy chin – his kiss tasting of airline aftershave and peaches, tinned.

But still waiting, Ada drives out to Flowerdale, to her parents’ caravan home. She watches the local library’s cooking shows on the donated iPad – her mother noting how to cook the smaller rainbow trout, how to cut carrots into the tiniest match-thin sticks – for when she has a kitchen to call her own again. They both fill themselves with pastry knots, recently bought, from the rebuilt Flowerdale Bakery – each parcel filled with cauliflower and cheese. Do you ever feel like you’re just floating? Ada asks – her mother’s lap full of just-begun knitting and her irises, bright blue, flecked gold. Yes, she replies. I do. And in the quiet that follows, flakes of pastry fall about them like ash.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.