Second part of Chapter 1

2013-4 Revn

© Ramesh N

 

BURNING BUSH

 

 

  1.    THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY

 

PART 2 of Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Blanche couldn’t help but mention patch-nose Buddha during our first day with Zee, but without any reference to its repair.

     Earlier on, when Zee heard I’d studied the play ‘Pygmalion,’ she wanted preparatory coaching almost at once.

     ‘Hey, it’s on tomorrow afternoon,’ I said.

     ‘There is so much for me to learn! So lesser time…’

     So little time for exactly what?, I wanted to ask but held my tongue. Praise Whomever that Zee’s ambition of becoming an international human rights lawyer in the ‘as seen on the TV’ sphere allowed some leeway for distractions. At least, so long as the frivolity could be mined for educational potential. [ Nowadays the scholastic initials ‘PISA’ ought to disambiguate into ‘Perennially Insecure Swotting Asians.’]

     ‘There’s always too much to learn, eh girl?,’ said my sister. ‘About other people’s cultures?’

     ‘I feel much the same way about cricket,’ said aunt Bianca. ‘At least the sport has highly visible umpires.’

     ‘Take, for instance-- the Buddha in the sitting room,’ my sister said. Bianca cleared her throat. ‘Auntie has had an expert or two on the subject over here-- some time ago. It’s probably from Afghanistan. Dug up in a district not too far away from where uncle Max met you.’

    Zee said nothing.

    ‘My dear,’ Bianca splutter-laughed to my sister. ‘We haven’t had the time so far to discuss art, unlike you! Zee doesn’t want to know about ancient history--’

     --’Really?’ My sister turned disingenuously deadpan. ‘Zee, auntie has wondered to me what your homeland would be like-- if Buddhism didn’t die out there over a thousand years ago.’

     Zee’s eyelashes fluttered like loose sails.

    ‘You know what my sister’s talking about? No?’

    ‘Let’s go call on the dude right now!,’ Blanche said.

    ‘Oh, the idol!,’ Zee said after my sister pointed.

    Our aunt trailed last into her sitting room.

    ‘Zee’s been here less than a week. She’s got too much on her plate, my dears, than to endure an art guided tour!’

    ‘What I was getting at, auntie-- is her homeland’s history is so much more complex, even convoluted than ours--’

    ‘Well Blanche, I’m glad your mother isn’t present to hear this!’

    ‘Hear hear,’ I said.

    ‘I need to hear what, please?,’ Zee asked.

    ‘Me!,’ my sister said. ‘I’m not dissing our Aborigines-- but our written history is so recent compared to Afghanistan and heck, the rest of Asia.’

    Our aunt sighed. ‘I wish that were so, but Afghanistan’s written history isn’t much older than Australia’s. The rest was destroyed by, uh, um... Though I’ve seen some very ancient scrolls the British Museum has just acquired...’

    ‘What about the Indus valley civilisation?,’ I said. ‘In Pakistan, Zee. They used hieroglyphics of some sort four thousand years ago. Though nobody’s deciphered much.’

   ‘Just like your handwriting, dude,’ my sister said.

   ‘Below the belt,’ said our aunt, po-faced, before her tone shifted to concern. ‘Zee, what’s the matter, are you okay?’

    Zee had slumped down onto the Biedermeier chaise longue beside the Buddha, hands on her temples. She looked up towards us with a disoriented laugh. ‘Apo-logies, I am not unwell. You people know so much, it… is awesome to consider!’

    ‘Pardon me?,’ Blanche said.

    ‘You know so much more of the history of my lands. Yet I know nothing of your own!’

    ‘Sorry, we’ll try not to overdo it,’ said Blanche, contrite.

    ‘No, no-- no! Please do more please!’

    ‘About what in particular?,’ I asked.

    ‘Anything to everything! I did not know this idol was part of my history. What is the name?’

    Bianca said, ‘Zee, this doesn’t have a title, but we’re sure it’s of the historical Buddha. This was made perhaps eighteen hundred years ago. Still, the artist who carved this lived perhaps five, six, seven hundred years after Buddha. Perhaps many people made this, in a workshop. So it is not an idea of how he really looked. This is what people of the time thought a person of extreme wisdom should look. The historical person was a real man, a prince who lived in north east India. Around a country now called Nepal.’

    ‘How much this is ancient! Excuse me, he has one name also? Bud-dha?’

    ‘Legend has it his name was Siddhartha Gautama,’ our aunt continued. ‘The ‘Buddha’ is a title, rather like Mohammed is called the ‘Prophet.’ A prophet from over a thousand years before Mohammed, over five hundred before Christ. We have no firm records of how long ago.’

     ‘Fascinating,’ Zee said. ‘This idol is what someone thought the prophet appeared like. He is beautiful, no... serene!’

     ‘Yes, he is beautiful,’ our aunt said, touched, eyes downcast.

     ‘Zee, it looks like-- I mean, have you even heard of the name ‘Buddha’ before today? Oh- sorry- you must know the name in your lingo-- yes, ‘Buddha’ must sound quite different in your tongue, yes?’

     ‘I am sorry Blanche. I have never heard the name ‘Buddha’ before.’

     ‘Oo-aah!,’ gasped our aunt.

     ‘You’re shitting us, Zee!,’ my sister said.

     ‘Speak for yourself, my dear niece… Irritation is not a form of flattery.’ 

     ‘No, I know nothing of prophets from India! Only the Persian one who has a name I have been forgetting…’

     ‘Zee, I’m puzzled. Have you ever been to Bamiyan, seen photos of those two massive Buddhas carved into the hillside?’ Bianca sighed and continued on, ‘Peace be on them. They were blown up by the Taliban not long ago…’

     Zee seemed surprised. ‘The standing idols of Bamiyan? Yes, I saw them once, many years ago! I do not understand, they and this are…?’

     ‘All of the Buddha,’ our aunt said.

     ‘They had no faces, they in the Bamiyan!’

     ‘True, they were defaced not by the awful Taliban, but centuries before,’ Bianca said.

     ‘No, I did not know those were of this Nepal holy man,’ Zee murmured. ‘Maybe my mother told me this long ago. But I must have been a lazy student and had forgetting of what she was teaching me…’

     ‘I guess they don’t teach ancient religions-- at least in your schools,’ my sister said.

     ‘You are correct!,’ said Zee, standing up. ‘Do you not see? The Islam, it teaches the people nothing before the coming of Muslims was important! You learn the history, of your country and the world in school, yes?’

     ‘The history teaching isn’t comprehensive, but yes, it’s theoretically there,’ Bianca said with mild archness.

     ‘Auntie means history is but one subject in our curriculum--’

     ‘--A ‘curriculum’- this means what students are supposed to learn each year,’ my sister said.

     ‘A ‘curry-culum’…,’ Zee breathed, with longing.

     ‘Yeah, as I was saying, history’s taught in high school, on a voluntary basis. Which means some students don’t choose to study it. For instance those doing the sciences.’

     ‘Peace be on them!,’ our aunt muttered.

     ‘What have we lost,’ Zee said. ‘My ancient history. So much is lost, yes?’

     Poignant silence rained for a few seconds, as Zee turned for solace in Buddha. Wiping my slightly moist face, I imagined her schools burnt to the ground or blown up. Nothing of the sort survives on film, unlike the grainy video we’d seen of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Within seconds they were celestialised into dust clouds and rubble; yet even before this they were misunderstood by someone as inquisitive as Zee. So go unavenged the deeds of too many fanatics, schemers who destroy history, learning and thus the identities of those they disdain. History’s contested equilibria between rubbing away, blotting out, building upon, erecting beside and besides…

     Our aunt spoke first. ‘Zee, history is made and lost each day, but miracles happen. When people discover again what had been forgotten. India is a vast place, a teeming billion plus. Yet the Buddha and the entire religion he inspired died out in India over a thousand years ago. All the art of the type you see right here, this was all buried and forgotten. It was the British who colonised India and Pakistan. They were the ones who started to excavate, that means dig up these things.’

     ‘The same Brits, I mean British who colonised Australia,’ my sister said. ‘The Britons who wanted heat and dust went to India. Those who wanted sun and sand ended up in Aussie.’

     ‘Best Tourism Australia account of the British Empire I ever heard, dear,’ Bianca said. ‘A career awaits.’

     Zee, interposed between the Buddha and Bianca, turned to ask, ‘Why did your British of two hundred years ago care about these Buddhas? They do not worship this, do they?’

     ‘No, they don’t worship,’ Bianca said quietly. ‘They were simply curious.’

     ‘Why were your British then curious of buried history? Why did they unbury and treat these idols nicely? Yet my people destroy and forget their own ancestors?’

     Bianca gently touched the top of Zee’s head. ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve no good answers, no answers at all to your questions, my sweet.’

     ‘You people respect the history, do you not?,’ Zee said.

     ‘Guess so, but we better get you to speak with some of our Aborigines,’ my sister said.

     Zee turned back to face the Buddha, resting a hand over its head. ‘May I?,’ she asked Bianca.

     ‘Please do,’ Bianca said. I had never before made surface contact with this, except for feeling the repaired nose earlier today.

     As Zee contemplated the Buddha, my sister grabbed the camera lurking within her handbag to photograph her in this pose. Blanche didn’t ask Zee to face the lens. I knew from the moment I caught sight of her camera she was interested in the face-off between those two.

     ‘I would like a nose like this,’ Zee said, either unmoved by or unaware of both the shutter clicks behind her and Bianca’s vain shushing gestures at my sister.

     ‘W-what?,’ Blanche gasped. ‘He’s a guy! Zee, why would you want a stone dead prophet guy’s nose? And don’t you know--’

    ‘Blanche!,’ said our aunt somewhat waspishly.

    ‘A nose of sense, which has history. I need this.’ Had anyone else but Zee uttered anything this portentous, my sister and I could’ve sniggered. Knowing what we did of her past, along with our first impressions, this didn’t project as her adolescent fantasy so much as a vow.

    ‘This’ll be a first for my husband,’ Bianca said. ‘Better perhaps you pass the order on to him yourself…’      

 

 

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     I borrowed a couple of books from our aunt’s library on ancient art of the region. I discovered the chronicles of Graeco-Buddhist scavenging began in earnest as Bianca had described, at least on what was then the Indian side of the border. From the early nineteenth century, British civil servants or those in the army inventoried the region, with some personal souvenir hunting. Their classical education covered the exploits of Alexander the Great, firing their curiosity over relics from the region’s missing European past. Natives with blue or green eyes raised questions in those pre-genetics days of attenuated European bloodlines. They didn’t subscribe to archaeology as we know it, so much as looting with gentlemanly precepts against over-exertion. Even the participants used descriptions such as ‘surveying parties’ or ‘shooting expeditions.’ It boggles conception some sculptures now admired in museums were retrieved only to languish in officers’ quarters and messes, reassigned as ornaments, book ends and even hat stands.

     Over the course of the following fortnight my sister produced a picture of Zee musing over the Gandharan Buddha. Two unframed panels sat side-by-side, hinged on their left and right vertical edges to form a diptych. The left half was an enlarged photocopy of a painting in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rembrandt’s ‘Aristotle with Homer’s Bust.’ Blanche only painted its right side. She made no attempt to match her colours or approximate style with those of the Dutch master. She utilised brighter pastel tonalities which vaguely reminded me of David Hockney’s paintings. What I and my aunt found remarkable was how despite these vast differences, each panel evoked a similar, or at least a complementary mood. Our eyes were invited to sweep through horizontally and comprehend a quartet, or a back-to-back couple contemplating sculptures at the sides of the diptych. The stances of Zee and Aristotle were mirror images in their respective panels. Blanche explained her choice wasn’t entirely arbitrary. ‘Aristotle was one of Alexander the Great’s tutors. Rembrandt has painted a medallion with Alexander’s face hanging from the chain the philosopher wears across his body.’ To view two compelling human figures reaching out to caress an inanimate object fired up my mirror neurons to enact the same, to reach out and touch a panel. The viewer completed the circuit of Eastern history, Western history. Or now you, this book in hand as an analogue of my sister’s similarly bound diptych, reads of my impulse to reach out and touch my sister’s creation of two figures in their respective theatres, mimicking us… What a stunning way Blanche made living sculpture of art as a drama of keeping in touch and with insight!

     On what Zee maintained about her historical ignorance, our varying personalities conjured up contrasted but related associations. Our aunt’s frames of reference were the Taliban’s explosive execution of Bamiyan’s giant Buddhas. No more poignant recent memento exists of ancient history going the way of smoke. My sister had her brilliant East-West secular diptych, with Alexander as the common denominator. I imagined a British army Victorian officer’s quarters near the Khyber Pass, where a very similar meditating Buddha had been given the indignity of wearing a khaki pith helmet. Not that my conception wouldn’t happen today. It could, except nowadays a Buddha in army issue headgear would be transferred to the edgy confines of some contemporary art show, filed under the guise of arch multiculturalist-consumerist ironies. Coming and going would be thoughtful urban sophisticates, Starbucks yin to the yang of a bygone officer corps. 

 

 

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     The season during which Max was gifted the Gandharan Buddha became the last he worked in Pakistan for several years. Though the Buddha safely made it to Sydney without attracting the interest of customs in either country, our uncle turned cautious after the incident. He worried he might become the recipient of further unsolicited ‘gifts,’ this time with unsuspected strings attached. Besides, he didn’t want the aid workers tainted by association with smugglers. Consequently, he volunteered exclusively for the eastern Himalayan region, mainly in the Nepalese hospitals already familiar with him. Max also accepted a month’s posting in East Timor, replacing a volunteer colleague who’d fallen ill.

     While in Nepal he heard tales from a recently transferred nurse, who was fresh from the Afghan refugee camps. Within a fortnight, he heard even more from a doctor who’d also recently been there. An attractive young girl with her nose sliced off. One claimed she was a teacher punished by the Taliban for imparting Western ways to her female students. The other had been told she was a student, punished by her husband who was also a Talib sympathiser.

    Max found these tales stirred longings of return to this region. Though Nepal had its simmering Maoist insurgency, there were almost no local cases of grievous disfigurements from landmine blasts. The needs of the Afghan victims were overwhelmingly greater, a better match for his professional skills. Much later Max told me he would’ve eventually returned to the refugee camps had he not heard of Zee. Her story merely accelerated his change of heart by a year or two : ‘The story I’d heard sounded like the start of the most intriguing case study I’d come across. Yet her details were vague enough to be frustrating more than they tantalised. I suppose it was like finding the first 1.9 chapters of a really interesting novel without the rest, even without the dust jacket or the author’s identity.’ As the medical files in the refugee camps weren’t computerised, he couldn’t readily establish the facts of her case. However, he knew where she’d been treated. Unfortunately he didn’t know the names of any medics here, those who might firm up her story purely to satisfy his curiosity. Time to return to his old haunts.

     Max arranged his next volunteer stint to be at Zee’s camp. This would occur in three rather than the customary five months after his current posting concluded. Nobody at home queried the earlier timing, since they were financially secure and his children had left home. He didn’t tell Bianca about the mystery girl in the West. There was no guarantee this person would still be a patient there by the time of his arrival.

     Max broke her news to Bianca just before flying off for this tour of duty. Our aunt told me later, ‘When I first heard Max mention Zee at the Canberra UNHCR function I thought, so what? As you appreciate, my husband’s descriptive powers are short sellers. I asked him whether he’d be writing up her case for a journal article. She certainly sounded fascinating, I mean as a clinical challenge…’

     Zee was there, biding her time for whatever cosmetic relief could be offered from the overstretched aid budget. When Max first examined her, he was perturbed almost nothing had been done to remedy her wounds. At least beyond preventing further tissue losses from infection or gangrene. Though he knew this particular camp hadn’t been able to provide anything near adequate reconstructive surgery for its refugees, was this good enough? He supposed here he thought like an arrogant and well-resourced Antipodean surgeon, but this was palpably appropriate. Goes with the territory. As for Zee’s, even were there no threats hanging over her life had she taken the next donkey home, her marriage and employment prospects were virtually nil the way things stood.

     Naturally, Bianca’s curiosity was further piqued after Max’s first phone calls from his new posting. This time she couldn’t wait to fly over and investigate for herself. ‘I was unprepared to say the least for the emotional wallop I took, meeting Zee for those first few days! No, she wasn’t love at first sight! Certainly not the way I felt when I met dear Max for the first time. Dear me no, my husband was nice but completely underwhelming on that occasion, though I was far too gone to care… Zee was fireworks, in her own quiet manner. Any pretence on my part, along the lines of yet another most deserving patient of Max’s, this was blown away. Just as I was blown away…’

     When I asked Bianca what she meant by this, she said, ‘I first saw her studying in what passed for the camp’s best school. This wasn’t one run primarily by the local Afghan residents. Yes, there were locals who helped mainly with translating, but many of the staff were with the various aid groups. How were the students selected for these classes? Some were there as they already had skills in reading or writing English. Many of the others had psychological trauma from what they’d been through. Deformities which might ostracise them from their peers. This was therapy as much as it was formal schooling. By local standards Zee was an adult, being married, but there were no similar classes for those. Max had asked someone to show her to me the day I arrived. I wanted to make this quite informal, so as not to spook the girl. Believe me, I’d no idea beforehand I’d want this girl to be in Sydney! I was mainly curious why my phlegmatic husband felt so intrigued. What staked claims on him unlike any previous patient?’ I’d entertained some notion of just stopping by, seeing how she was doing, inviting her and a translator to share a meal with me. Thought I might surprise her with my familiarity of Pakistani cuisine. The school buildings were prefabs, which was certainly better than conditions would be in tents during their bitter winters. Max adapts far better than I do to the cold at altitude. Just as well now he’s older he volunteers only during their springs and autumns.’

     ‘When I got there, a teacher aide was about to lead me straight to the girl. I thought the better of this. Asked the woman to point her out, then let me observe without her knowledge. I’d come dressed in their style, so I wouldn’t stick out from a distance. I was told by this aide I could’ve passed for an elegant Hazara lady, you know, the group around the Bamiyan Buddha area! I kid you not, my chum inside her lovely Lahore home dressed far more Euro than I did for meeting Zee. I didn’t need anyone to point out my quarry, even though many of the other girls wore bandages. Even peering through a window into a fullish study room, one caught my attention almost immediately.’

     ‘She was seated at a desk, glancing through what seemed to be three opened books. Something about her manner, that’s for sure. She was neither more still nor more demonstrative than the others. Really, the room seemed eerily quiet and  studious by our standards. Two girls moved past me, opened the door and entered the room. The teacher aide gestured to me I should follow them, which I did. I took a magazine out of my tote, sitting where I could glance at her above the pages I didn’t read.’

     ‘She was livid concentration itself. Unlike most others, her lips didn’t betray her reading. Instead her brows would crease, or thin as she smiled, as if these furrows were like the eye’s pupils : adjustable shutters into her thoughts. This cycle repeated itself at short intervals, spliced with consultation of another book, one she flipped forwards and backwards. A dictionary, I deduced, or at least some reference material. Zee gave the appearance of mastering this knotty text, one she enjoyed by her success in systematically unravelling. I compared what I saw of her read-consult-discern-enjoy-advance algorithm, to the body language of the other quiet, studious pupils. Granted, they all seemed younger, but in none did I detect, amongst their brainy exertions, any candlepowers of delight. This must seem a strange conceit, when we use ‘play’ as the opposite to ‘study.’ I was no closer to knowing what my husband saw special in her as a patient. Yet what I saw was exceptional within her was drive, resolve, character. She was playing as she read and here I don’t mean play-acting. I’m certainly not implying she was inattentive in any way. I didn’t have the foggiest what it was she was engrossed in, but in this moment, it meant the world to her. This can’t be faked in an adolescent, unless she was the greatest actress of her age. If this sounds all so cerebral, well, it had to be. I didn’t detect any, how shall I put this, sexual frisson in her manner. Her mental drive, élan, was the most physically tangible I’ve seen, even exceeding your sister’s! Surely this person I was privileged to spy on was destined to go far, were she given half a chance. Now I know what it must feel like to be a talent scout in something, when coming from nowhere is a figure which triggers every hunch in your body. Mental mousetraps all going off snap, snap snap! Yet there seemed something more, which gave me pause. This didn’t come to me then, but later during the night. I felt destined to be there, the way that Buddha from years back seemed to have our names predestined as future owners. A person who is so far ahead of her times and milieu, this spells trickiness, surely, even when the candidate is whisked to a more conducive niche. I felt wary, yet tasked with an immense responsibility, were I to set myself this goal of realising her potential. I feared it would be easy to do something cruel to her without knowing until it was too late. Yet this was mutually assured. A person who has that capacity to grow, could also grow to hurt us, does this seem absurd? Female intuition, I don’t believe this is soft-focus neurosis with nail polish… Enough!’

    ‘Eventually I cleared my throat. She looked up from her books so quickly straight at me, it was uncanny. I felt myself startle back in my chair. Perhaps I’d been found out some time ago, so in actuality she was humouring my ignorance of this recognition. Zee smiled, or rather she was smiling even before I made this giveaway sound. As if she’d been pretending to read her book while I was faking my magazine perusal; she was curious over my ineptitude. I went up and introduced myself as Max’s wife. Her face lit up. ‘Thank you for coming here,’ were her first words to me. ‘I think I have been expecting you,’ she added. Later I asked her why, but she wasn’t forthcoming there. Max denied telling her I would be visiting the camp, so I don’t know if this was her use of female intuition on us.’

     ‘Close up, the whites of Zee’s eyes were reddened. I’d guessed this was eye strain from overstudy, but Max said she suffered allergies. Her spectacles also perched in peril. You can guess how, above the packing which shot a bulls-eye into her face. I told Max, ‘For God’s sake, get the eye folk to take her under their care pronto, or at least spend more time on her!’ I said I’d foot the bill for any contact lenses and eye drops which she needed. We could get the contacts made at home if my optician received her test results, then posted out here. My husband seemed chuffed to hear this from me. I get his dilemma. Any displaced persons’ camp is a damn fine balance. I mean, not just for the refugees but their helpers. I’m not unaware if too much effort is expended on some patients, then others are short changed. It’s obvious itchy eyes and wonky eyeglasses are scarcely matters of life and death. Max has to steer within professional codes, but a busybody such as myself can kick impartiality into touch!’

     ‘My first impressions convinced me the girl deserved these small medical luxuries. Having lost her natural beauty, her home, her family, her country, all she had left was her future. Even if it sounds mawkish or cheesy in the movies, this was real life. If education gave Zee the way to a credible future, reading glasses and better eyes were a necessity. Doubtless my husband knew this, but was afraid to have his evenhandedness questioned. This may have happened if he did what was needed, for Zee, out of his own pocket. At least if other staff knew I was looking out for her, he had the best alibi in creation : the nagging wife!’

     ‘I had no more luck with her than the others about her Afghanistan past. I was told Zee slept in a women’s refuge sector of the camp. When I asked the teacher aide if this partly had to do with Zee’s clothes, she reluctantly agreed. During the warmer days when I was there, Zee had dispensed with her headscarf. This was most unusual with Afghan women since the end of communist times. She also wore jeans or pants. Compared to her, the teacher aides were conservative souls.’

 

 

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     Blanche, not our aunt, first told me the source of Zee’s Western-style camp attire. None of these had made the trip with her across the border. Zee had been able to chat in basic English with the foreign aid workers from the time she’d arrived. Having struck up friendships with a few nurses, she received her jeans, pants and tees as donations by these people. A further windfall came her way, a trail bike owned by a male nurse. Not only did he allow Zee its use, but he loaned it to her on a long term basis before his return home, with the stipulation it was shared out to others who also wanted to ride. He wouldn’t be back until a year later, if at all. To us, it seemed baffling a person with such grievous facial injuries would risk more from a fall off a bike. It was even odder a health worker would tacitly encourage the risk by loaning her the means.

     My sister conjectured, ‘If so many kids in the camps needed psychological therapy, perhaps the gift-- it wasn’t so weird after all. Maybe the staff knew they couldn’t give her the care they could-- I mean, in a developed country’s hospitals. Even a grungy old trail bike must’ve meant heaps to a kid with empty pockets. It’s one way the staff can express to her she means something. Clearly Max and Bianca weren’t the only ones smitten!’

     Zee first told my sister how much the trail bike meant to her. She’d owned a child’s pushbike as a small girl, her greatest treasure apart from some foreign books and magazines of mainly Soviet origin. After she arrived in the camp, she caught glimpses of the biking male nurse. His relative freedom on two wheels sent pangs through her heart. None of the Westerners who rode it ventured away from the vicinity of the camp, due to the risks of robbery, even kidnapping. Her conversations with other staffers eventually reached its owner. She persuaded the nurses her past biking history would drastically reduce her risk of tumbles, compared to a novice. Zee’s first rides were staged entirely under their watchful eyes. Her nose emerged unscathed each time she took to its wheels.

     As a girl, Zee found the areas where she could bike safely were even more circumscribed than for Westerners. During her second week of brief excursions she was stoned. She didn’t see the missiles coming. She heard the first thump land behind her, the second whizzed in front of the handlebars by not more than a tyre’s diameter. Another grazed her back, enough to bruise without lacerating the skin. Luckily she’d been given a cyclist’s helmet, lined with tea towels for a snugger fit. She understood what the outraged voices-- all deep, all male, were shouting. Infidel! Whore! Crusader! Homosexual! Devil on wheels!

     Her assailants weren’t enraged local Pakistanis, but fellow refugees. Even though she’d worn a headscarf while riding, principally to allow a firmer fit for the helmet, this wasn’t enough. She’d worn jeans, which afforded more protection for her knees if she fell, but these were tantamount to scandal on a woman. Zee told Blanche a woman seen riding a bike without the supervision of male relative was equated to a prostitute on her way to spread venereal disease amongst God-fearing men.

     My sister said to me, ‘I asked her, Zee, refugees fallen on hard times-- surely they could go easy on someone having a little bit of fun? She cut me to the bone with her deep, swimming pool eye-stare. She didn’t need to say anything. I got the ‘what planet are you from?’ message. Zee made the point these were a handful of male chauvinist p- I mean, hotheads. When Zee said this wasn’t a mob lynching, this made me feel gutted. I mean, when is four or five vicious boys not a mob mentality? Here’s this brave girl who’s just been stoned for doing nothing wrong, unless fun is a crime. Here she is-- sort of standing up for these hooligans, hinting it could’ve been far worse… awful, isn’t this just shocking to hear?’ I wanted to know why these hatetheists thought-- a girl wearing jeans on a trail bike amounted to a prostitute plying her trade. How could I ask such a sensitive question to this lovely person I’ve barely met? How could I even phrase this in such a way she wouldn’t misunderstand-- assume I was being judgemental against her? Then it came to me without having to ask-- I’d closed my eyes and imagined it was me steering those handlebars near that ratshit camp. I imagined the stones zipping past me-- it was the bike, the damn bike! The bastards who attacked her weren’t to know the wheels were on loan from a nurse-- or her jeans were similar castoffs! When they saw a penniless young girl with foreign stuff-- they assumed she’d acquired them on the black market. I don’t think it’s a stretch to deduce this. How else can a kid in her position get wads of cash? Then I thought, how many girls-- and I never guessed I could say this-- how many in a less fortunate position than Zee, are forced to sell their bodies? Isn’t it incredible a simple gift can, excuse the pun, blow up in the face?’

 

 

     It was only after my sister told me of Zee’s stoning that I understood the depth of Zee’s isolation, kept for her safety away from her own people. Maybe her bookishness had become her default travel companion through enforced solitariness. It was clearer to me the appellation ‘own people’ lost credibility when it became a proxy for ethnic, tribal or religious affiliations. I’m not saying Zee struck me immediately as a ‘wannabe Westerner,’ but she appeared naturally curious about the wider world, with an explorer’s restlessness, a cosmopolitan attitude and dare I say it, a proboscis for trouble. A brave new life, worlds away from her old…

     Returning to our aunt’s story of meeting Zee, ‘Her teachers just by their manner confirmed what I’d noticed from the outset. Zee was an agent apart, despite her mutilation. She didn’t fit in. The teaching staff never said so outright. Was I imagining things when I saw in their eyes a plea, ‘Foreign lady, get this girl off our hands-- for her sake and ours!’? I knew this could be my wishful thinking, either in part or totally. I knew I was becoming over-involved, emoting on a wing and a prayer. Yet this was for a good cause. I couldn’t see how leaving Zee here to her fate was screwing up her best interests. After all, she’d come from a country where fifteen-hundred-year-old giant Buddhas had caused so much offence they were blown up! When I said to my husband, ‘Maxie, am I digging myself into an emotional hole?,’ he knew exactly what I meant. He replied it was impossible to make good prosthetic noses here, let alone undertake facial surgery of this delicacy. Even in Australia, this would be at, or beyond, the cutting edge of medicine. So this was it. To leave her here would be an impasse at the very best. Her future didn’t lie in this region at all.’

     ‘Surely Zee had to reside in a developed country for the time being. Max said to me, ‘Against our better judgement we’ve already got a track record of smuggling one looted antiquity! Why not extend this to a living person? Except this time we do this legally. I’m sure the UN will help with travel papers.’ I vowed to Max I’d sponsor her myself, alone, if the rules stated health workers couldn’t do so for their patients. I fretted Max might raise objections, such as blurred professional boundaries. However, he noted if medicine’s prime directive was ‘first do no harm,’ leaving Zee here to fester was a violation in itself. Max had a valid point when he speculated, if we were able to evacuate her, how long this would last. I guess his idea was purely medical, along the lines of finishing what treatments were possible. I said to Max, ‘Honey, you’re thinking of a wholly medical time frame, but that’s not holistic. Zee’s more than a once-pretty face. She has an amazing attitude and character. If she doesn’t get homesick, the long game is to get her over until she finishes her education. She’s university material through and through!’

     ‘Zee claimed to have no family or relatives in Pakistan, not as legal residents or displaced. Staff in the camp tried to sleuth. Others in the camp had known her by sight. These sources hailed either from where she grew up or from where she ended after marriage. Whether hearsay or corroborated, the info went into her medical file. Max told me her birth family were, by local standards, middle class with some formal education. The girl had almost certainly gained her love of learning from early in her formative years. ‘Zee’ is most definitely her own coinage, since the informants gave the name she grew up with, plus those of her husband. I wish I could skim through her file, but Max is ethical there to a fault. Can you believe he won’t disclose her real name, either to me or to her school? Incredible, huh? She’s insisted this is under medical confidentiality! My husband is adamant if I want to know, it’ll have to be from Zee, under her terms. Max did get off his professional high horse to give me reasons. A psychiatrist was able to interview her. She feels Zee’s given names had become symbolically self-tainted. Something in what she was known as became associated with the act of disfigurement-- in the girl’s mind. Either that, or to some tripwire incident in the chain which triggered this catastrophe. Max only gave me the shrink’s conclusion. She feels Zee’s eccentric makeover through a unique name is her good luck charm. It gives her confidence she has a clean state for a fresh start in life. Since my husband won’t reveal squat on this, it’s my turn to play the psychobabble card. All this reminds me of converts to Islam. Most take a new Muslim name as part of their religious rebirth. Perhaps for Zee this operated in reverse? If the Taliban caused this barbarism in the name of their beliefs, could this be a way for the girl to respond? I mean, by deliberately choosing a name which has no association with Islam; but not containing any Western echoes either? This doesn’t mean Zee has converted to Christianity or Zoroastrianism. Organised religion doesn’t appear to play much role in her current life; at least, from what Max and I have witnessed. ’

     ‘I had more luck with Zee elsewhere. Naturally I asked, ‘What do you hope to do with your studies? What do you hope to become?’ The girl replied at once, ‘I will be International Human Rights lawyer… seen on the TV!’ Zee pronounced this so emphatically, if I had synaesthesia I would’ve seen her capital letters! I replied, ‘Oh, an international one? What would this entail, I mean, what would you do internationally?’ Zee seemed surprised, as though her meaning was obvious. ‘What it means in your Queen English. I travel the International way, working in the Human Rights!’ It was time for me to ask, ‘Does this mean returning some time to help your homeland? You know so much better than me how much Afghans need good justice.’ Zee seemed perturbed I’d mentioned anything about repatriation, even for her distant future. ‘Go back, excuse me? I am all ready all here. This is international for me, now… And what you mean, ‘help your homeland’? I help myself first, yes? This is my human rights, is it not?’ I felt I’d gone too far, even hypothetically proposing her return.’

    ‘This eventually led to farce. If she’d set her heart on becoming a global human rights lawyer ‘as seen on TV,’ who was I to object? Still, her choice of what she called herself bugged me heaps. So I put this to her : ‘Zee, TV stars have to start off with a full name, even if it’s only for their bank accounts. Banks will not accept made-up nicknames. Yes, many famous TV and sports stars end up being known by one short name, like yours. As for lawyers, the same applies as for the banks. With no full legal name, no one in the modern world can work as a lawyer. True! I do suggest, for your career as a world-class human rights lawyer, you return to your original name.’ Zee screwed up her face so violently I worried for the integrity of her nasal packing. ‘Oh, if you don’t like reverting--’ ‘No, I will not be reverting!,’ Zee interrupted. I continued, I cannot even tell if ‘Zee’ sounds more like a first name or a family name. If you must, keep it, but add another name. I’m sure the UN staff will add whatever you choose to your file. Choose carefully, since once they are given your second name, it will be very difficult to change.’ She appeared quite pensive after my suggestion, so I left her to it. I would’ve liked to have been involved in choosing this with her, but you only get this chance with your own children, pets and boats.’

     ‘When I met her the next morning, she beamed. ‘I have researched the magazines and books. I have what you say, a short list?’ My heart fluttered when I heard her mention magazines. Visions of appropriating ‘Vogue’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ ran through me! She handed over a card. Written on it in painstakingly well-formed capital letters were ‘ZEE WENDI’ and ‘VOLTAIRE ZEE.’ I couldn’t help but cough. ‘Vogue Zee’ or ‘Cosmo Zee’ sounded delectably catchy compared to her choices! Then I thought, philosophically speaking, she could’ve done much worse. What if she wanted to be known as ‘Zee Kant’?’

     ‘I mustered as sympathetic and even a voice as I could. ‘My dear, ‘Voltaire’ is not a real name.’ She asserted, ‘Voltaire, I am sure, is the European writer of the Enlightenment! Knowledge is Enlightenment. Having this name will be for good luck to me, no, yes? I know a man he was, but I know some Western names can be used both ways. ‘Robin’ is the one both for the man and the woman, true?’ I said, ‘You need to be known totally as a woman, my dear. You don’t want ‘Robin.’ As for ‘Voltaire,’ I appreciate your grasp of history. For your personal use, though, so sorry, no way. You see, ‘Voltaire’ was his chosen made-up name. This is funny- no, I mean this feels curious for me to say, but this was his ‘Zee.’ I’m sorry, I can’t recall what his actual name was, but it was a slippery, forgettable thing. Not as dramatic-sounding as ‘Voltaire’ for sure! Um, this leaves your other choice. ‘Wendy’ is perfectly acceptable. It’s a lovely girl’s name. Yes, my husband and I can imagine you as ‘Wendy’ quite well! She is spelled this way, see, with a ‘Y’ at the end, not this ‘I’. I’ve never seen ‘Wendi’ the way you’ve written it. Could you show me where you got this version?’ She said it wasn’t copied from anything in print. Two previous members who’d worked here had been called ‘Wendy.’ She took to its ring but had some unspecified objection to the ‘Y.’ Seems likely at least this spelling was echoed in her actual name, but who am I to know? ‘Zee, ‘Wendy’ is a perfectly good first name, but it looks very strange as a family name. ‘Wendy Zee’ certainly sounds and looks better than the way you have written it down. My honest opinion is that ‘Wendy Zee’ would blend in perfectly well as a woman lawyer’s name. If you choose this, as I advise you to, professionally you will be known as ‘Ms Zee.’ Friends, especially women will call you ‘Wendy,’ not Zee. In Western countries, people don’t call friends or social equals simply by their last names. Particularly for women, this never happens unless someone is trying to be rude.’ Zee appeared deflated. ‘But I want to be called ‘Zee’! I only choose a second name for your insisting!’ I pondered how much I further I ought to take this, deciding to quite while ahead on points! ‘If you want to be an international lawyer, my dear, don’t call yourself ‘Voltaire’! It’s much better when people know you by what you have done, not by how unusual a name you have.’ This was how I summed up her situation.’

 

     I feel Bianca had reached a fair compromise. In due course ‘Wendi Zee’ appeared on her UN travel documents to enable her Australian entry. [ Zee hadn’t arrived in Pakistan with any Afghan ID papers. Since she’d never been out of her country, she’d never been issued with a passport. Max and Bianca never explained the sleight of hand by which ‘Wendi Zee’ had gained de facto official status.] Bianca decided to explain ‘Wendi’ away as the equivalent of Chinese who took unofficial Western names. Zee was being admitted as a medical case, not as a refugee applicant. She was arriving as Max’s private patient. She wouldn’t be allowed any treatments through our public health system. Furthermore, Max and Bianca were sponsoring her, which meant guaranteeing all living expenses.

     Our aunt had confided to us Zee’s desire to be a human rights lawyer, well before the girl met us. When we asked Bianca if Zee had given reasons for her ambition, the grisliness of the answer overshadowed its lameness. ‘The way she looks, who better to fight for justice? She needs no reminders.’ On second thoughts, our question itself was lame.

     Bianca arrived at the heart of the recipe; how not to make a meal of an un-tastable future, channelling instead one’s hopes into serving up some palatable probability. ‘Goodness, she has every reason to grow up bitter and twisted. Fingers crossed Zee pouring her heart and soul into study isn’t going to frustrate her further. I mean, if she doesn’t achieve her goal. For a girl of her drive and fortitude, with her potential, is it downright pessimistic if we advise her to aim lower? I mean, until we see how she copes socially, academically, in a modern school? Sooner or later, I should make her acquainted about Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way.’ I mean, when middling through is far from simply muddling through…’

     Zee’s fetish for learning was couched by our aunt in uncharacteristically saucy terms. ‘Well, I guess auto-didacticism is better than auto-eroticism.’ I wondered to myself what subtexts Bianca was keeping coy about. We knew from sundry sources that school sex education in the entire Indian subcontinent was derisory at best. The teaching staff at the camp told our aunt Zee had come to them with better than elementary English. Her reading and writing skills significantly outstripped her conversational acumen. They noticed the girl hung out with foreigners whenever possible, honing her speech. She barely played with the other, older children, or the young adults. She didn’t mix with Afghan boys or males, only the Western visitors. Since school classes were exclusively single sex, her opportunities to mingle with Afghan male peers were limited. Even then, she didn’t seem to have grasped those fraternisation chances which came her way.

     Bianca asked Zee and her teachers about their reading materials. All of the meagre English language texts had been supplied by the UN, or were donated in a private capacity by foreign aid workers. [ The internet didn’t exist in this region at the time.] In one way, Zee was lucky. Most poor Pakistanis received next to no formal education due to pitiful levels of government funding. Many of these were indoctrinated in madrassas, religious schools which promoted extremism and little else. Zee had impressed the camp workers sufficiently to have been fast-tracked into the best resourced teaching facilities available in the camp.

     Our aunt reported, ‘When I asked Zee what fiction she read, either in the camp or before she fled here, the girl seemed nonplussed. ‘I have no time now to read stories!’ This wasn’t strictly true, since a teacher told me the girl perused all the English-language paperback fiction handed down by visitors. She’d never seen Zee finish a novel. The girl preferred magazines with crisp factual articles and illustrations. When prodded by Bianca about her reading tastes in Afghanistan, Zee conceded, ‘I once knew a little of poetry. Rumi. I learned some Persian from my mother to read him. Mainly, she read Rumi and Hafez to me. She read verse by last Mughal emir of India. My mother, she is now dead as I told you before. My verse reading is dead with her. I now have no soul for it.’ I have to say, I found it upsetting this brave girl had quit reading Rumi, the Shakespeare of Muslim culture. Zee was given access to what passed for the volunteers’ library. She didn’t touch the health periodicals, but she avidly went through most of the rest : ‘Time’, ‘Asiaweek’, ‘the Guardian Weekly,’ the ‘New Yorker,’ ‘New Scientist,’ ‘Vogue,’ ‘Cosmopolitan,’ ‘House & Garden,’ ‘Paris Match,’ the ‘Australian Women’s Weekly,’ ‘Asian Babes’- don’t know how this one was displayed! Most of these were intact copies which had evaded the Pakistan censor’s Islamic scissors.’

     ‘In my luggage I had Patrick White’s ‘the Vivisector,’ along with the latest Salman Rushdie. Yes, they were both really challenging reads, even for me, but the girl had asked if I’d brought anything along. She’d gone empty-handed with Max, who reads almost no literature, as you two know. Zee hadn’t come across any Australian book before, either fact or fiction. So I suggested, were Max and I able to get her to Sydney for treatment, she’d better make a start with this! I also presented her the Rushdie. Actually, I feel a real chump for not having the foresight to pack my bags with more relevant reads for her. Zee thanked me graciously for the books. She flipped through each in my presence. I told her not to show the Rushdie to anyone else, but didn’t delve into the furore.’

     ‘Auntie, why did you give her the Rushdie?,’ Blanche asked.

     ‘I strongly suspected she wasn’t observant. Max had mentioned nobody had seen her pray. Yes, I know it was a risk to give it. I admit I got carried away. Getting away from the politics to the small print, I got the impression she was rummaging for illustrations. She’d discerned they weren’t factual. In fact, she was far more interested in my bag. To cut to the chase, I decided to gift it to her along with the make-up inside.’

     My sister said, ‘Auntie, I don’t remember seeing your Céline for some time…’

    ‘Yes, it was the Céline tote I gave her. It wasn’t that new…’

    ‘It wasn’t that old either,’ Blanche said. ‘She must’ve been over the moon?’

    ‘Certainly! If she’d been living in the main body of the camp, not the unit for orphans, I would’ve thought twice about the gift. The teachers allowed her the use of a secure locker for her things, so it ought to be safe.’

     Blanche said, ‘Did you tell your friends, like your theatre club, you’d given a penniless refugee a designer tote? Crikey!’

     ‘Nope, not yet at least! Yes, I know some will think me mad. I haven’t even told your father! But I know you two will respect my reasons.’

     ‘Sure auntie,’ I said, not having the foggiest idea.

     ‘Look, if I said to my theatre and book clubbers, ‘Each time I visit the sites of Max’s overseas tours, I walk around with a carton of biscuits I have. I give each deserving patient a packet, telling my interpreter to say, ‘Here, impoverished victim of this crappy country. Fill your stomach and have a happy day!’ Many would believe this is aid just at the right level. Refugees or the totally poor deserve all the bikkies they need against malnutrition.’

    My sister said, ‘So you think that’s patronising?’

    ‘Sure it is!’

    ‘You wanted no condescension-- so no condensation?’ [ ‘No condescension by no condensation’ was my sister’s locution for no tear-jerking sentimentality.]

    ‘Absolutely, dear!,’ said our aunt. ‘Why shouldn’t Zee deserve that Parisian bag, when I have others at home? More pricey too, like my Hermès crocodile Kelly and Birkin. I treated her the way I’d appreciate being treated, had our tables in life been turned.’

    ‘Auntie,’ I said cautiously. ‘But how many thousands of poor Asians has uncle helped down the decades? Isn’t this lady the first one you’ve treated so, um, extravagantly?’

    ‘Undoubtably Zee’s the first! If Max and I hadn’t had children, perhaps-- no, probably we would’ve extended the same to more… That’s all water under the bridge, for now.’

    Blanche said, ‘Don’t get me wrong-- I think it’s brilliant you’re doing so much for this person. I can’t wait to meet her if she can get a visa here-- This Zee sounds… extraordinary! But isn’t the designer bag, like, a bit of overcompensation for not doing this, um, earlier?’

    Bianca’s gaze avoided our personal space. ‘Perhaps… but there’s no question in my mind Zee deserves the best…’

    While Zee was still overseas, my sister painted an acrylic which she titled, ‘Displaced Person. A Long Walk with Freedom in her Heart.’ My sister imagined Zee negotiating a dusty lane between tents, her nasal cavity improbably exposed to the elements. She defiantly carried our aunt’s Céline tote. A diagrammatic dog-shaped hole through its leather revealed where Salman Rushdie’s latest was secreted, between other books.

    Blanche’s painting omitted the trail bike. We didn’t understand its significance until Zee told her about the narrow escape. However, our prior knowledge of Bianca’s other gifts further contextualised Zee’s stoning. Because she improbably had a Parisian bag and an old bike without any discernible income, they’d jumped to the whore conclusion. What we didn’t know was if her assailants were aware she also possessed a Rushdie novel. If they weren’t aware of Bianca’s literary gift, what might they have inflicted had they known?

                     

 

                                 *                            *                            *

 

     We were clearly getting along with Zee at our first meeting. After coffee and introducing her to Buddha sculpture, my sister said, ‘Zee, do you want to hang out with us?’

     Zee blanched. ‘You are going to see hanging, a public execution?’

     Bianca said, ‘Words, kids! Zee, ‘hanging out’ does not mean that! No executions in this country.’

     I noted how ‘public execution’ had already entered Zee’s English database.

     ‘Sorry, I didn’t explain!,’ said my sister. ‘It means-- to stay with someone to play. Or similar stuff. I can drive you to our home and back. Hey, uncle and auntie don’t have you on a curfew, do they?’

     ‘Excuse me, what is ‘curfew’?’

     ‘Zee is, was a married woman. She can come and go as she pleases, my dear.’

     ‘The play, yes please! Hanging out with the play at your home. Anywhere! And teaching more of the ‘colloquials’! At your conveniences if both of you do not mind.’

     Blanche drove the three of us home. Zee’s gaze alternated with almost sinusoidal regularity between the roadside scenery and us. I repeatedly reminded my sister to concentrate forwards. Perhaps Blanche’s interpersonal oversteer was to show Zee we weren’t averse to her appearance. The drive was short and uneventful, no thanks to Blanche.

     As we entered our home, with its ambience of Victorian-mansion-with-madwoman-in-attic, Zee induced a rare blush from my sister. ‘Your father is not here now? I had been looking forward to meeting your mother. She must be as beautiful as you. Your aunt explained she is overseas?’

     ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘In Israel. On ‘minding my own business’ which is what she usually declaims to our father.’

     Blanche patted my head with an avuncular if curt glance. ‘‘Declaims’? Really?’

    ‘Oh, your mother is a business woman, attending her businesses there? Excellent! In the developed world, women can grow their businesses without their husbands’ permissions, true?’

     ‘Our mum isn’t a business woman really,’ Blanche said. ‘She researches stuff, mainly on family history. She dabbles in-- um, this means she volunteers to help out mainly Jewish charities and foundations.’

     ‘Your father works. A bank man, so I have been told.’

     ‘A hard working banker who plays hardball,’ I said. ‘We don’t know where he is right now. Maybe smooching with--’

     ‘--With clients!’ Blanche’s eyes slitted towards mine. ‘He has meetings at all hours. You don’t want to hear my bro yakking about the douche, I mean the juice-- banker’s, um juicy work stories are really boring-- eh, bro?’

     ‘Yup.’

     Zee whipped her eyelashes my way. ‘Oh, I find no talk has the boring content. You house is so quiet!’

     I said, ‘Yep, which is why our friends call it ‘the bank vault.’ Unless my sister or I are practising music.’

     In the middle of our sitting room Zee closed her eyes, face tipped diagonally up and flung her arms out. If Zee ever prayed, I felt this dervish without the whirl stance epitomised her; back not bowed, not ashamed of showing her face to the heavens, a lightning rod to what future?… She seemed to sigh in appreciation, then came round. To Blanche she said, ‘In the camp where I was it is but anything--’

     ‘Anything but?’

     ‘Thanking you. Anything but quiet. There and before, in Afghanistan too, I learned to study through the noise, study against the noise. One would think we three are alone here. How many servants are in your father’s and mother’s employ?’

     The words Zee chose underscored our acute over-privilege. ‘No staff, at least indoors! My sister and I do the cleaning and home maintenance for pocket money. Aunt Bianca’s gardener also helps with ours.’

     ‘In this country we don’t usually term domestic help-- ‘servants.’ ‘Domestic help’ or ‘housekeepers’-- they’re the same thing, though.’

     ‘Oh, excuse me. ‘Domestic help’ or ‘housekeepers’ are servants but they all have international human rights?’

     ‘Everybody has the law to protect them-- theoretically,’ Blanche said.

     ‘This is great, truly, to hear!,’ Zee gushed. ‘You must correct me when I say wrong things. It is the colloquials I need to brush up on.’

     ‘That’s an excellent one, ‘to brush up’,’ I said.

     ‘You must teach me the colloquials declined for our age band!’

     Blanche laughed and hugged her before saying, ‘Sure we will! First though, wouldn’t you like to play something?’

     ‘I am here to study for this play tomorrow.’

     ‘Girl, my brother will need a few minutes to dig out his study notes. Boys file things worse than women can allegedly read maps--’

     ‘-Speak for yourself, sis!’

     ‘We brought you here-- so you might have some fun! There’s nobody our age near uncle’s and auntie’s house-- as you may’ve noticed. What do you like to play? Um, hope it’s not chess…’

     ‘Blanche, maybe Zee shoots basketball hoops.’

     She glared with ridicule. ‘Pardon me? How could she know of--’

     ‘Yes, I know this!’ Blanche seemed amazed. Zee went on, ‘All of our youth knows of shooting the hoops. I practised this in the camps. The foreigners had basketball hoops, and a court for games. They allowed me to use after I was harassed by the Afghan males--’

     ‘How did you get hassled?,’ Blanche asked.

     ‘I will tell you about this later. The refugees like me, we had hoops also. But women not allowed to play usually. Or they got the old, bad basketballs. These old toys, if I am saying this correct, they sucked.’

     ‘Men are bastards, aren’t they Zee? There, this is an essential colloquial! Repeat after me--’

     ‘Men are bastards!,’ Zee said almost in unison with Blanche.

     ‘Zee, here’s another you must learn-- Women shall not be second class citizens!’

     I said, ‘I’m gonna get those notes now…’ as my sister counted, ‘One, two--’

     ‘WOMEN SHALL NOT BE SECOND CLASS of CITIZENS!,’ I heard as I departed, with only Zee uttering ‘of,’ causing a two-part canon for ‘citizens.’ As I headed upstairs to my bedroom, I realised those two chants were a pithy summary for much of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion.’

 

 

     By the time our aunt phoned, we’d shot plenty of hoops and introduced Zee to the play, whose premise fascinated her. Blanche wanted to return for a sleepover with Zee, though this could’ve been achieved merely by staying put. I insisted on coming along.

     Uncle Max returned in time for dinner, a Nepalese curry which Zee and Bianca prepared together. After dinner, as the women chatted, Max showed me his latest auction trophy, a surgeon’s saw from Egypt or the Levant. Somehow this was dated to the glory days of Islamic medicine, meaning the early medieval period by European standards. He gave an impromptu history of how many of the Islamic world’s most renowned physicians were Christians or Jews. ‘Mum’s already most of that,’ I said cutting him short, wanting to return to Zee.

     As we returned, I noticed my sister clearing photos from the table.

     ‘Aunt Bianca was showing Zee photos of the theatre-- both inside and out. So Zee knows what to expect tomorrow.’

     Bianca announced dessert, which I sincerely hoped was neither Nepalese nor some Tibetan Buddhist delicacy made from rancid yak butter.

     ‘Vanilla ice cream with brandy, walnut and raisin ice cream laced with rum. Both are Zee’s favourites.’

     ‘Yum. Restricted to the staff canteen at my last posting,’ Max said. Due to the difficulty of distributing alcohol in heavily Islamic Pakistan, this was one of the few ways non-Muslim health workers could get a taste.

     ‘Um, did you say this was Zee’s favourite?,’ I asked. ‘Isn’t it forbidden for Muslims, even in flavouring?’

     ‘What has this forbidding to do with me?,’ Zee said stonily.

     Spoons clanked more noticeably against the ice cream bowls. The belly-warming dessert was so spirited this would surely have violated my sister’s limited licence conditions had she attempted to drive home.

     The house, apart from the bedrooms of their absent kids, contained two guest rooms. Zee had already been assigned one, so Bianca suggested I take the other. It was left to my sister whether she wanted to sleep in Davinia’s room or Zee’s.

     Blanche came to my bedroom in her pyjamas. She had an affectation for male PJs since they contained more pockets. ‘Hey, in case you forgot to pack your blow-up girlfriend, you could read this.’ She handed over a substantial hardcover. ‘From auntie’s book club two months ago. I’ve skimmed through it but would like to know what you think. This is between you and me.’

     ‘Why did you bring this up now?’

     ‘Unwet dreams, cheerio!’

     Faint chatter diffused through the Laura Ashley floral-papered wall from the adjoining guest room. I’d never attended meetings of Bianca’s book club. Most of its members overlapped with those of her theatre group, whom Zee would meet for the first time tomorrow. Blanche and I had attended so many performances with them in recent seasons through our parents’ tickets, we were considered honorary members. They were all old enough to be our mothers or grandmothers.

     Printed on the novel’s dust jacket in flowery typeface ranging from brick to bordello red : BungaBunga Lane. The author’s name, one Ruby Wewege, took formal black Roman lettering. The back cover was a well-lit colour photo of the author which effloresced her mild non-whiteness. Was this subtly overplayed? I made a mental note to discuss this with my sister. With our own cultural mixed-uppityness, this was a subject near albeit not dear to our hearts. [ Coming across this book again years later, I thought a black-and-white version of the same author photo could’ve conceivably passed her off as Caucasian collateral damage of the indifferent printing standards afforded to literary fiction. Especially for novice authors.] However, even at fifteen I vaguely understood female authorial portraits took soulful expressions which ran the gamut from A to B. Principally male authors were allowed the Martin Amis ‘pleerty boy’ look- a pout-leer hybrid - or heroic levels of psychotropic gravitas [ no names ]; and as for Angry Non-White Males, more A meant less N or G.

     Bianca, presumably as research for her club’s discussion, had filed numerous review clippings between its endpapers. From this I discovered the plot concerned an African who escapes a sham marriage which has allowed her European residency. Amidst poverty and grinding isolation she takes to prostitution, meets a V.I.Politician, or perhaps that causality is reversed. Why did my sister want me to read this plodding worthiness when we were with an incipient Pygmalion, one who’d cut through her own Third World pages to enter our lives so serendipitously?

     A gnawing stomach after dawn guided me kitchenwards. My sister and Bianca were already there, conferring in subdued tones. Bianca wore a silk dressing gown embroidered with all manner of Buddhist iconography. My sister had ditched her PJs for running shorts and tank top which confirmed her as a holdout against shaven armpits. This year she had submitted for a school art project a couple of plaster cast reproductions of Classical male nudes, with some ‘additions.’ She’d taken metal brush bristles and stainless steel scourers, dipped them in bitumen, then fixed them as pubic, armpit and head hair. She’d also drawn on their musculature molecular diagrams of anabolic steroids and other chemicals prohibited in sport. 

     At the fridge I said, ‘I don’t believe mum would mind Zee spending time at our place a bit while she’s having her nose job… I take it she’ll be staying here with you and uncle?’

    ‘Fingers crossed,’ my sister said.

    ‘As I was telling Blanche, it’s not as simple as Max and I had hoped. You see, technically Zee’s still a minor until her next birthday. This is despite already having been married!’

    ‘Zee’s divorced or separated?,’ I asked.

    ‘She told me last night she doesn’t know for certain,’ my sister said. ‘Seems in Sharia Law the guy just has to-- blab ‘I divorce thee’ to some buck-toothed turbanhead. Even if the wife isn’t present! How could Zee be anything but divorced and disowned!?’

     ‘Now, now, niece! ‘Mullahs,’ if you please. Don’t think goodness, gracious, how nugacious. I don’t need to make a song and dance over insensitivity.’

     ‘A song cycle then, auntie. Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Mullahrin.’ Oh, sorry, mullahs can’t be female.’

     Bianca said, ‘Zee told me in the camp her parents are dead. So she’s essentially a divorced orphaned child.’

     ‘Gee, that’s tough to get my head around at the crack of dawn,’ I said.

     ‘Tisn’t dawn cracking your head, dude-- it’s the hangover from the creamed booze you guzzled! But poor Zee-- an orphan child once married to a rapist Taliban-loving butcher!’

     ‘Sis, what else did she say to you last night?’

     ‘Dude, what you’d like to know is more than I should say!’

     ‘Kids, when outsiders hear Australia is the self-styled ‘Lucky Country,’ they don’t get this means they have to get very lucky to be allowed in. As you know, Zee has UN-supplied papers to get her here for private surgery. I hope our government will look on her case, her long-term future, more sympathetically. I mean, since she’s still a child. Maybe so, but it opens a can of worms. If our application to have her stay with us is declined, then she gets fostered out.’

     ‘Is that bad?,’ I asked.

     ‘No, but she wants English-language immersion. Social services foster children to families of matching cultures. I just hope flexibility, how shall I put this, is the compassionate face of policy.’ Bianca sighed. ‘What I’d just told Blanche is I’ve applied for Zee to attend her school as a special student. I’m defraying all those expenses. She’s going for an assessment and interviews there in a few days. If Zee wants, she could be a boarding student for language immersion. I mean, if she goes to a Muslim foster family where English isn’t the household lingo. We’ll wait with bated breath. Hope for the best.’

     ‘Don’t count on your bureaucrats before they hatch,’ said my sister, perturbed.

 

 

 

     END OF CHAPTER 1

 


 

 

       2.      THE VIVISECTOR

 

 

 

 

 

     Besides her arrival last week at Sydney airport, Zee’s excursion to the theatre would be her second major public outing. It wasn’t that our aunt clipped her wings to the property. Bianca was attempting to mitigate any culture shock. Perhaps she viewed her house vis-a-vis Zee, with its holdings of Asian art, as some form of cultural decompression chamber. Zee seemed to understand this, giving no signs of impatience at the incremental exposures. External events so far included shops, parks, introducing her to Max’s private medical rooms, plus a trip to the movies. [ As for her journey downunder, a UN staffer had been amenable to accompanying Zee for all legs of her journey from Pakistan. Our aunt had paid for both sets of airfares, along with the woman’s brief holiday in Surfer’s Paradise. This wasn’t overkill, since Zee hadn’t been in an airplane before.]

     For the matinee of ‘Pygmalion,’ Zee had new court shoes and a herringbone Marni suit filched from Davinia’s wardrobe. Her recent trips had included a shoe shop as well as for alterations to the commandeered outfit. Bianca’s tailors, Iraqi Christians, had mistaken Zee as Iranian. According to our uncle, cosmopolitan Iranian fashionistas were fans of nose reduction surgery. Bianca hadn’t overlooked details. A subdued paisley silk trapezoid was clipped over her nasal packing. Nose scarf. Nine of Bianca’s theatre group would attend the performance, meaning a party of fourteen.

     Before we set out, Blanche asked Zee, ‘Hey, what’s happened to your bangles?’ Zee’s jacket sleeves were bracelet length, but only a Swatch was visible on her left forearm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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