April 2022

Set new places at the table

This portrayal of the Parable of the Good Samaritan by Carmel Lillis offers a profound insight into the reality of life for refugees through the chance meeting of two strangers.

Out of the black sleet, a cheerful voice calls to a rain-jacketed figure huddled before a security door, “Those buttons ’ave been dodgy for weeks, Mate.”

A swipe of a plastic card over the sensor and the young man who’s bounded up the steps two at a time has the glass door open and Bilal and his insulated pack of spicy pizzas into the apartments’ foyer.

In the mirrored lift, a shivering Bilal presses blue fingers into more numbered buttons. This time, the doors close in response.

“Coincidence! Both headed for the third floor.” The young man stretches out a hand to grasp Bilal’s and beams as he says, “Harry’s the name.”

From beneath his helmet visor, Bilal glances at his saviour in the thick down jacket, notes that he has never missed a feed, and contorts his frozen lips into explaining, “I am taking pizzas to Unit 302.”

“Wow. Same party. My second tonight.”

“Fifth for Bilal.”

“Hell, sorry.” As they step into a carpeted corridor pulsing with the muffled beat of dance music, Harry frowns. “Above that din, my mates wouldn’t have heard their phones.”

“Wait long enough, you always can tail-gate on someone who comes by.”

Along a dimly lit corridor, Harry stops at a shadow and pummels a door.

When nobody answers, he flings it open. For the second time, Bilal nods his thanks to this fellow who has stilled, for a minute, the incessant chant of “time is money” thumping inside his head.

But when a blinding light shines out, and music amplifies into a boom, Bilal dizzies and almost stumbles.

“Come in, Mate. Warm up. You’re drenched.”

Bilal hesitates, pulls his phone from his jacket, double-checks his calls, and with a sigh, follows Harry. A bass thrums. Ghost silhouettes float, white hands gripping glasses.

With fingers that feel like jelly on metal, Bilal fumbles at his bag zip. He leans sideways to steady himself. But the bookcase shifts. A shot fires, he staggers and the arm he juts out to stop his fall bends backwards. Lights snap off. A voice calls as if from the end of a tunnel, “Oh, no. They got you … Stay with us, Bilal. Alhamdulillah, you won’t die.”  

In the grasp of a bearded, sneering monster, a rifle glints. Bilal cowers and strangles down a whimper.

But when no bullets fly past, when no ordinance explodes, he dares to glance up, then to peer closer. The rifle has mutated into an uncorked champagne bottle, its glass glimmering.  How could he have mistaken it for a weapon? Above the bottle, a face wears such a warm smile that it cannot mean “Now you die.” How could he have mistaken it for a triumphant leer? 

Can it be that the mat with WELCOME spelt out in bristle black is truly a welcome mat?

Strong arms lift him on to a chair. Angel hands bring him water; someone passes the pizzas out.

Voices dip in and out. “You OK?” Another voice joins in. “You’re done in, Bilal. How long you out in that rain?”

It takes Bilal a minute to struggle all the way back from the tunnel to the party, where beer cans are popping and people are shouting above the music. When the haze finally recedes and he sees Harry, he replies, “Thirty minutes, maybe.”

“Thirty minutes for five bucks. Since you came to this country, you ever been to a party?”

Bilal scrambles up. “Like I said, my fifth tonight, and I started five hours ago. You cannot beat that, Harry.”

“You got a friend?”

“My wife.”

“Call her. Ask her to get into her best gear. We’ll send a cab. You take it easy.”

“I-I-I must work. So long, my wife has been sick.”

“How much would you earn tonight?” Bilal looks shyly at the floor but Harry pushes on. “You’re sick too. You must not work. So how much?”

“Another thirty. Raining nights, people order in.”

A wad of notes is pressed into his hand.

The smiles thaw him, until his veins pulse warm, the party lights twinkle like stars and he reaches for his phone.

* * *

In the morning, as Harry sees Bilal and Salma on to their motorbike, the cold air is thick with his despair at “our country’s bloody shame, partying for generations and never noticing some keep missing out on an invitation.” If Harry has anything to do with it, things “are gonna’ change.” They are to return … whenever they need to. Harry will organise a lawyer. He knows lawyers and those lawyers know about “every type of visa.” He won’t let them down.

Holding hands, bellies full of hot toast and hearts full of hope, they climb the chipped concrete stairs skirting their blonde brick flats. They pass their neighbour’s cactus in its cracked urn, and it seems that the stunted plant has rustled back to life and is reaching for the sun. Even the drunken blind of the poor fellow who howls into the night, every night, looks less lop-sided.

But when they reach the third level landing, their laughter morphs into gasps.

Sequins blink defiantly on the soggy mess that was Salma’s wedding hijab. Their sheets exhibit themselves shamelessly, draped across the vinyl couch whose stuffing spills from the wound that has split so much wider in its rude turf-out.

Silently, Salma sinks to the concrete. Frantically, she grabs at their cutlery, gathering it in as if each piece is a child who has wandered off.  Then she begins to sort it into piles: knives, forks, spatulas, tongs.

Ignoring the Warrant Notice for Possession glaring from where it is taped inside the window, Bilal tries to fit his key into the uncooperative lock. He jiggles the key and shakes the handle, studies the lock, and shakes again, until at last the key breaks off and he rests his head against the door and sobs.

Salma goes on stacking, higher and higher piles, until her knives tumble and clatter to the ground. Then the air grows thick with accusations. Leaping up, she beats the brick wall to anguished cries of, “Hopeless. Four years we paid rent. Even hungry, we paid. Then I am sick. Six weeks behind, they do this.”

Bilal clasps her hands. “We knew this would happen. I read out notices. From the court.”

“But while we partied, they came. If we had been here, we could have stopped them. “

“When we knew all was lost, we could have cried. But we partied instead, Salma. And for the first time in four years, someone welcomed us at their table. For the first time in our lives, we found a safe place. A haven at last.”

From below, their neighbour howls like a wounded dog. The stench of thrice reheated rice wafts out of the flat alongside. Salma’s fists unfurl and her fingers curve into a cradle around the waist of the man whose face she has never seen so furrowed. Her dark eyes pool with tears that will not fall, and she pushes back her hijab to kiss his cheek.

But as Bilal scrolls down his phone contacts to Harry’s name and taps, all he can feel is his heart pounding out a prayer.

‘Set new places at the table’ was an entry in The Good Oil 2021 Writers’ Award.


Carmel Lillis

Carmel Lillis is a secondary school teacher. Through her writing, she is interested in exploring matters of human dignity and social justice. She has won more than 40 short story awards, including the Banjo Paterson, Cowley, Henry Lawson and Albury Short Story prizes.

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