Viva Shortlister: Joshua Mostafa

An Excerpt from Offshore

Since the hearing that wasn’t a hearing, my cabin-mates’ elation has faded, but even though we have as little to occupy ourselves as before, the previous listlessness has not returned. There is still the monotony of each day resembling the last in almost every aspect (at least, until one miraculous instant today—I will get to that in a moment), but it is leavened by a tension that no one has put into words, except Linh, who was previously friendly, but now scowls at the sight of me. Thanks to you troublemakers, she says, meaning Lee and me, we have no chance of getting out of here. They’ll keep us here until they throw us into the sea—or send us back to Australia—proud of yourselves, are you?

In fact, there has been no sign of anyone being sent anywhere. Maybe that will change now that the hearings have started. But so far, the population of the camp has kept getting bigger. There were only four of us in the cabin when I first arrived, and now there are eight. A week ago, a set of new cabins was installed at the north end of camp; they arrived prefabricated, and were dumped into place by a small truck-mounted crane. The camp feels very crowded now. Every few days, the patrol ship comes into harbour with a fresh load of people, ten or twenty at a time, invariably Australians.

The latest batch arrived this morning. The new arrivals’ prison uniforms looked brand new, and a slightly different shade of beige than those of the rest of us. As they filed into the dining hall, collecting their bowls at the door, my cabin-mates and I were already seated at one of the long tables. There was a tall, middle-aged woman with prominent cheekbones and unruly red curls: I pegged her as a theatre-goer, no children, worked at a not-for-profit, lived in Glebe or Fitzroy, unfailingly nice except on the tennis court, where she could not bear to lose and thus had a rule only to play against strangers. A man with thick, wide-set eyebrows and narrow, bewildered eyes; office worker, cycling enthusiast, unmarried, teetotal, engaged twice—it was the women who broke it off both times—kept his wealth as gold bars in a safe, in the belief that its value was stable, an error that nevertheless paid off when he found himself needing to pay people-smugglers. A slight, blonde woman in a uniform several sizes too large for her, so that it could accommodate her pregnant belly. I had barely begun to imagine who she was when I realised—

Sarah! I shouted, rising from my seat. My spoon clattered onto the concrete floor.

She turned this way and that, seeking the source of my voice. When she saw me hurrying over, she looked as astonished as I felt. What are you doing here—I can’t believe it! I cried out. I had to be careful not to squeeze her too hard; her belly was round and firm.

How are you alive? she said, when we had released each other, and she felt my face with her fingertips. They stabbed you, threw you onto the highway. And Toby? Is he with you?

One of the guards shouted an order at us, and motioned for us to sit. I sat beside Sarah as the kitchen staff began to work their way down the tables, ladling unappetising slop into each bowl. I told her that Toby was dead, tried to summarise the past few months as best I could, and asked her what had happened since I’d fallen from the back of that van: where had they taken her, how had she got away? I wanted to ask her about the pregnancy—who was the father? was he here with her?—but thought it best to wait until she spoke about it of her own volition.

I had a better grade of smuggler than you did, she said. You were stuck in the hold the whole time? A fishing boat? Yuck. We had ocean views. I even saw a dolphin at one point. They only crammed us all indoors when they spotted a patrol ship heading our way. Didn’t do any good, obviously.

I could not stop smiling. For Sarah to be here, on the island; of course it would have been better if her boat had evaded the patrol—and mine too—and for us to have run into each other as free people, somewhere on the other side of the world. But I had not had anything to be happy about in a long time, and I savoured it, her presence. Her voice was the same, her dry observations, the sceptical look in her eye. There was something different in the way she moved, a slowness or a gentleness. I guessed it was the effect of pregnancy.

I told her about the hearings, and asked her if she had managed to bring any paperwork with her, a passport, ID.

No, she said, nothing, just the clothes I was standing in. How about you, though: hands over the ears, eh? And they hated that, did they? Civil disobedience, peaceful protest—Toby would have been proud. I’d never guessed you’d turn out to be a rebel.

I started to ask her how she had escaped from the militia. But at that point the bell rang, and we had to leave the dining hall, each group back to their own cabin. As we parted, Sarah pointed up the hill: her cabin was among the new ones on the north side of the camp.

To have a friend, not to feel entirely alone: it makes everything seem different. I found myself chatting almost cheerfully with my cabin-mates. In today’s new light, even Paul seems tolerable.