Agal ran down the escalator to the Metro, knowing he was probably already too late to catch the train, cursing himself for sleeping those fifteen minutes more. It had just been the start of a cascade of events, each delaying him just a little more until he was so late that he’d had to run for the bus to make it to the Metro station in time – and then he’d missed the bus anyway.
The people on the escalator stared as he ran down past them. A pretty woman in a white faux fur coat cursed as his foot struck the bag she’d put on the step, knocking it over. A burly man with a shaven head tried to grab at him as he ran by, but he twisted past with the skill of long practice. He couldn’t stop to apologise. He didn’t speak the language well enough.
That was one reason he was running.
For the first time in the entire day, he was lucky. The train had, apparently, been delayed too, by just long enough. It was still at the platform when he dropped his token into the turnstile, sprinted past an old grandmother with a shopping bag, and into the train. She threw out an arm, probably in warning, but he made it just in time. The door tapped his sneaker heel as it closed.
Agal sat down on the seat next to the door. A pretty goth girl with piercings about everywhere he could see was sitting opposite him, and smiled at him tentatively. He began to smile back, and decided against it. His life was complicated enough already. Besides, he found piercings off-putting, always had, and she probably was pierced in all the places he couldn’t see, as well.
She got off on the second stop anyway.
His destination was a seedy building in the oldest part of the city, which was long overdue for demolition and reconstruction. The plaster on the walls was peeling, the windows were cracked and dirty, and few of the lights still worked. But at least it allowed the refugees to use it, and that was more than other places.
The language class was on the top floor, in a room that had probably once been fairly handsome, with wide windows that looked out on a playground. Now the playground was long gone, and the windows looked out on to a dirty, whitewashed wall. The whiteboard was so cracked that it was hard to tell just where it stopped and the wall began. And since it was one of the few rooms in the building which was still in somewhat usable condition, one could never depend on the benches being free of clutter. Last week they’d found sewing machines on each desk, the floor still littered with scraps of cloth and stray pieces of thread.
Today, at least, the desks were clear, though only one of the overhead lights was working and only three of the other students had turned up. Agal slipped into his usual place in the third row of benches, next to Issa. She glanced at him sidelong from her slanted Central Asian eyes.
“I thought maybe you wouldn’t come.” Her voice was cool and expressionless.
“Why not?” He looked around. “Where is everybody?”
“There are demonstrations in the town,” Issa said. “Haven’t you heard?”
“Agal doesn’t know about demonstrations.” It was a familiar voice, and he didn’t need to turn his head to know who it was. “Agal doesn’t need to know about demonstrations. He’s got the luck to not have to live in the refugee camp like us. Excuse me, the refugee centre.”
“It’s not exactly my fault, Cilla,” Agal said, turning.
Cilla’s hot black eyes didn’t waver. “Does that make a difference?” Her voice was rising steadily. “Did you watch from your window as they marched back and forth outside waving their red and black flags and burning torches? They threw petrol bombs at the building, did you know that?”
“It’s not your fault, Agal.” Charis, as black-eyed and hot-blooded as Cilla, but more restrained in speech, slipped on to the seat beside Agal. “But, you see, you might as well be living in a different world from us.”
“But I come to the same place.” Agal waved at the dilapidated classroom. “I study the same things as you.”
Charis opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment they heard the familiar noise of the teacher’s heavy, limping tread in the corridor. “I’ll talk to you later,” he said, going to join his sister.
The teacher’s name was Gedoran. Past middle age, he was a retiree probably eking out a miserable pension by teaching. Nobody was quite sure what he’d been before, but it was certainly not a teacher, a role for which he was totally unsuited. He looked a bit surprised when he saw the four of them. It wasn’t possible to tell whether it was because only four had turned up, or as many as four had.
“Grûn gé,” he said, and turned to the whiteboard before they had even finished greeting him back. His marker moved over the broken board. “Nedükar Se,” he wrote, and pronounced it carefully for their benefit. “Nedükar Hãi.” They repeated it in a ragged chorus without knowing what it meant. Gedoran spoke little English, and seemed to assume repetition was the key to comprehension. They all had dictionaries, but they weren’t always of much help.
“They don’t even bother to learn the language,” the flag wavers always said. “They come here like rats, they want to take our jobs, they live free of charge in the refugee centres, and they don’t even learn our language.”
How on earth were they supposed to learn the language anyway, when the only teachers to be found were those like Gedoran? No wonder half the class had dropped out already.
By the time the class ended it was raining, snakes of water wriggling down the dirty windowpane and dripping in on the floor. Agal walked down the stairs with Issa. She didn’t look at him.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, turning up his collar at the door against the rain.
“Yeah.” She kept her gaze on the ground.
“Issa,” Agal asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Didn’t you hear what Cilla said? We’re just here on sufferance. One of these days they’ll burn down the centre when we’re sleeping. It’s not as though they wouldn’t have done it already if they could.”
“She’s right,” Charis said from behind them. “It’s time we made a stand.”
“What kind of stand?” Agal looked over his shoulder. “What are you talking about?”
“We’re going to have to fight fire with fire,” Charis replied. “If they’re going to attack us, we’ve a right to defend ourselves. You know as well as I do that the police here are useless. Remember when they beat Khasim half to death last month? What did the police do?”
“So what do you intend to do – attack them?” Agal blinked. “Are you totally crazy? All that’s going to do is get us kicked out of the country...those of us who are left. Do you want to go back to your country? Things weren’t any better there than in mine, last I heard.”
“We’ll see.” Charis and Cilla exchanged glances. “Remember what I said. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
There was a brief silence as the two of them left. “I’ve got to go,” Issa said finally. “We shouldn’t just stand here like this in the rain, talking. It draws attention.”
Agal hesitated a moment, and then reached for her hand.
“Come back with me,” he said. “I need company and so do you.”
She looked at him and finally nodded. “All right,” she said.
Issa and Agal huddled on the bed, holding each other. It wasn’t the first time they’d ever made love, and it wasn’t the best. It was more as though sex was a barrier they were trying to throw up against a monster that was waiting, just beyond the wrapping of their skins, a monster with black and red claws and teeth of fire.
Issa shivered. “How long do you think we can manage like this?”
“You mean, here in this country?” Agal watched the lights from the street reflect on the rain falling past the window. “Would you go back home if you could?”
“You know what they say,” she replied. “You can’t go home again. Assuming there was a home left, but there isn’t.”
“Charis is going to make trouble for everyone,” Agal said. “It’s going to be terrible trouble.”
“And, of course,” Issa said, “he’s right. We can’t just wait to be wiped out. There’s that too.”
“You could move in with me here,” he said. “You wouldn’t be in the refugee centre then.”
“Even if they allowed it,” Issa said, “it wouldn’t work. You and I aren’t ever going to be accepted here, Agal. They’ll never look at us in the streets and call us anything other than foreign interlopers. I don’t suppose, not living in the centre, you really know that. I don’t mean you can’t understand it, but you don’t really know.”
“I once had a run-in,” Agal said, “with that lot.”
“When?” She sat up and looked down at him. “What happened? You never told me.”
“It was last month. There was nothing really to say.” He tried not to think of the memory of running down one back alley after another, a pack of them in pursuit, yelling as though on the hunt. “An old woman saved me.” He’d almost been caught. Panting, a stitch in his side, he’d run down one final alley when a door had opened and the old crone had beckoned him urgently inside.
“They banged on the door,” Agal said, “and I suppose demanded that she send me out. I could hear them shouting. But she didn’t. I can still see her, standing at the door with her arms crossed on her chest, just looking at them. And after a while they went away. She was just an old woman, with a face like an owl, but she had more guts than all of them put together.”
“If they’d tried to attack her,” Issa asked, “what would you have done?”
“Don’t you suppose I’ve asked myself that a hundred times?” Agal shook his head. “The answer is, I just don’t know. I suppose,” he said bitterly, “I might have thought that they were all the same anyway, and that they were killing one of their own, so while they were doing that I’d take the chance of running out the back way.”
“But they’re not all the same.”
“Try telling the black and reds that,” Agal said. “Try telling Charis that, or Cilla.”
Issa pulled him to her, and held him until she felt the tension in his muscles relax slightly. She rubbed the back of his neck. “I heard that there are lorry drivers who’re willing to smuggle people north,” she said. “Up across the border. Some have already gone.”
“Are you telling me to go?”
“I’m not telling you anything. But it’s an option.”
“Things aren’t better up north,” Agal said. “Things aren’t better anywhere.”
“Back home,” Issa said, “we have this little bird. It’s grey and white, nothing much to look at, but it never sits still. They call it the firebird in my language. I don’t know the name in English. They say it always keeps flying from one place to another, as though it’s one flap of the wing ahead of a fire.”
“That’s us,” Agal said. “Firebirds, that’s us.”
“Or we can do as Charis and Cilla said,” Issa replied. “They’re firebirds too. Birds of fire.”
“So it’s keep running before the fire, or be burnt in the flames. Only there isn’t any kind of renewal when you burn.”
“That’s true enough.” Issa smiled at nothing in particular. “It feels as though I’ve been running since before I was born.”
“Will you come with me?” Agal asked.
“Where? The lorry north, or the fire?”
“Does it matter?” Agal glanced at her and away again, quickly. “Does it matter where we go, when the fire’s everywhere? Does it matter what we do?"
Issa tiled her head, considering the question. “It does matter,” she said. “And we both know it. Your old woman knew it, too.”
Agal frowned at his hands. His fingers twitched. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”
“I’ll come with you,” Issa said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016