Sunday, September 27, 2015

Five months

My leave to remain expires in 147 days. It will get colder, and then it will be Christmas, and then my visa will expire.  

It was issued nearly three years ago. I remember the day it came, because it really might not have. I held it in my hand in my living room. Outside a magpie rattled the matchbox in its throat. Three years, I thought, three whole years. Plenty of time to turn into a terribly important, awfully successful person -- a person so obviously A Person that the Home Office wouldn't dream of not stamping me into righteousness forever. That hasn't happened, though. I'm still the fairly unimpressive quotidian person I was back then.

I haven't a partner, or children, which seem like the proper kind of roots to have. The ones that seem honestly dreadful to uproot. I'm not fleeing anything. The country where I was born is not at war. It was not persecuting me. Nothing bad will happen to me if I go back there. I'm an immigrant because I like . . . here. It sounds like not much of a reason, even to me. Not life or death. Not true love or the faces of children. Just robins and ash trees, hedges of hawthorn and sloe berries, the strange underwater dry land of the fens, the first time I crushed a hard frost under my boot, every neatly rabbit-trimmed blade of grass wearing lush crystalline fur the day I found a lone badger paw. 

My hair was short that day the visa came, and now it is long, galloping past my shoulder blades raggedly. It needs cutting, but I have become strange and possessive about it, as if it is physical evidence of my being-here-ness, my careful scratches on the wall. My hair would be deported along with the rest of me, but it feels like English hair. Hair made of English food and English air and the hopelessly, scabrously hard water here in Cambridge that coats it with scale and robs it of the gleam it might otherwise have. Sometimes I rinse it with cider vinegar to strip out the bits of the chalk strata south of town where the bore-holes are and I think of knapped flints in wheatfield ploughlines all over East Anglia. 

I do breathing exercises in the border control queues at the airport. I have learned to focus carefully on the soles of my feet, on the way my heels press into the sandals that I wear because security usually isn't interested in inspecting them. I have learned not to make small talk with the officer sitting in the tall white laminate pulpit. Don't smile. Give short answers. Don't stare, but look them in the eye even when they say, you are a liar. Especially then. Answer everything unequivocally.  That is hard because I am a desperately, richly equivocal person. Except about this. Except about England. I don't have any trouble telling you whether or not I want to stay. Yes, yes, I do, with all my heart. They don't ask you that.

I haven't looked yet to see what my options are for renewing my visa, because I don't need to know yet. There may not be any. Or there may now be some which no longer exist by the time I will need to lodge my application in eighty-seven or so days. There may be new options by then. Perhaps ones that I cannot meet. Perhaps ones that I might have met, if I'd worked harder or been braver or spent less time watching police procedurals. Perhaps it will be fine. Surely, says everyone.

For a while I read newspaper reports describing the Home Secretary's plans for immigration control, but I stop. Sometimes I describe myself as an immigrant and people look at me with expressions that tell me I don't fit their mental picture of that word. They mean, of course, that I'm white. That I speak English with an acceptable, even charming, accent. My deluxe assortment of privilege curls around my toes treacherously, mercifully, like a vine tethering me against the vicious current and strangling someone else. People's sons and daughters are drowning trying to get away from a war. I am nothing like them. I am ashamed of my fear that England will be taken from me, and still more ashamed that my shame doesn't make me less afraid. I am terrified.

Sometimes I think about what I will do if I cannot stay. I wonder if Ireland will take me. It is green there. They have robins, too. Or perhaps I will take my English hair back to Australia, find a little house with a corrugated roof in the mountains and make the very lightest of my love for England in caf├ęs when people ask me why I left.  

Last November I was there. Cicadas chirped and rainbow lorikeets kissed and bickered on my brother's balcony railings and I drank coffee with him and we laughed our two different-same laughs. The light was bright and the shadows sharp and Christmas street decorations glittered in the yellow late spring sunshine. Moreton Bay fig trees twice the size of an earth-mover, magpies caroling in the dawn. Not the magpie with the matchbox in its throat. Not really a magpie at all, but it sings like it knows its true name and not the one it got for its black-and-white similarity to a corvid on the other side of the world. 

One day I found a family of tawny frogmouths in a sugar gum in the You Yangs, a stark ripple of granite ridges fifty-five kilometres south-west of Melbourne. Handfuls of butterflies like scuffed snow into the air everywhere you step, gorgeously decked in amber with chocolate trims. Common browns, they're called, in another stellar display of failed nomenclature. Spotted pardalotes and koalas sleeping through the bus-tour people taking pictures.  

That morning the sugar gum held two adult frogmouths and two fledglings. The parents did uncanny impressions of eucalyptus branches, in the way of tawny frogmouths, stretched out as if to be tickled under the chin, long and straight in cleverly unbirdy shapes, fuzzy bark-coloured eyelids almost-shut over huge copper eyes. Almost, because as you walk around they shift with parallax-scrambling intuition, a part of the tree from every angle. The babies hadn't learned to do this yet, or perhaps the sight of me was just too exciting. They sat stock still but bolt upright, their glossy pebble eyes fixed on fascinating, dangerous me, turning their leaf-litter heads as I tried to line up my phone lens with the binoculars.

I long to wake up having learned how to look exactly like a part of England, soft-edged and cunningly merged into the background, even if you walk around to try to see my mismatched Australian underside. But instead I am like the tawny frogmouth fledgling. A bit like the tree, but mostly like a bird, still and watchful, hoping that nothing bad will happen.