I first met Attila in the Turkish funeral house where our father’s body was being washed and prepared for its final bed. Chairs lined the walls of the large square waiting room, one filled by Babbanne, another by my aunt Yasmine, and three by my sisters Gulsah, Tugba, and Sumi. Several other miscellaneous older women drooped in their seats looking like sad bulldogs wrapped in blankets. The tacky red rug on the floor was an unnecessary reminder of blood in a place flooded with it. Attila stood in the empty space in the middle. He was unmistakeably a boy – slight, his hair thick and wavy, his body somehow casual. I stood outside, looking in through the bell-shaped doorway, separated from him by two metres, a decade, and an affair.
A harried, bearded man poked his head out of the office opposite the waiting room, and reeled me in with his eyes. He said something in Turkish, the slurping sound of which I was at least familiar with, if not the meaning, and I stared at him.
‘English, sorry,’ I said.
He frowned. ‘You knew the deceased?’
‘I’m his son,’ I said.
‘Aha,’ he said, picking up his pen. ‘Was he married?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘How old was he?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
He glared. ‘You knew the deceased?’
‘I… I’m his son.’ I shrugged, helpless, and backed away from the door. The man came out babbling, but at the same moment my uncle Sedat stepped in from the cold where the men were gathered, letting me off the hook. Relieved, I rushed into the waiting room. I swooped onto Babbanne who was keening and rocking on the spot, interrupting her with my kisses, and then moved through the others one by one with a series of swift pecks on wet cheeks. My autopilot greetings stuttered into awkward silence around Attila, before finally I moved past him, and on to our sisters, who I at least knew. Gulsah, the eldest, held her newborn up like a shield to keep everyone at bay. Tugba came next and seemed more selfie than person, every hair immaculately arranged, a shining light brown crown. Sumi, the last of the girls, was younger than me and the donkey of the family, working twice as hard as everyone else. She was only 25, but defeat had already stamped its fist on her round, kind face.
I sat next to her, and listened to them talk. Attila kept walking back and forth in front of us, constantly flipping his iPhone around in one hand, until I pointed at the chair next to me and said, ‘Sit’. He flopped onto the seat without a word, like he’d only been waiting for a direction. He had faded light blue jeans on, and one of those stupid puffy jackets, khaki green. He leaned over in his seat, staring at the ground, the dark mirror of his phone highlighting his pale face, his sharp jawline. He was prettier than our sisters, even though his nose was as big as a baby’s fist. It worked for him in a way that it didn’t for the rest of us. It worked for him like it once worked for our dad.
Our knees were almost touching, but he might as well have been in another country. I wanted to stare at him forever, kept sneaking looks, kept opening and closing my mouth. How do you talk to a brother you’ve never known? Everything I could possibly say to him ran through my head and all of it was dumb. I told myself it wasn’t my fault that a dead man’s hand was covering my mouth. Atilla’s screen lit up with a notification. I seized on the light, taking the phone from him, dizzy with the force of sudden revelation.
How do you talk to a brother you’ve never known? I told myself it wasn’t my fault that a dead man’s hand was covering my mouth.
‘This is my number,’ I said in an undertone, tapping it in. ‘Call me whenever you want, okay?’ He nodded slowly, then called my phone so that I had his number, too. I slumped with relief. Nothing separated us anymore.
I slept in Attila’s bed that night.
When my sister Sumi suggested I stay with them I barely put up a fight. Truthfully, I was so hungry to know them, it scared me.
‘What about your mum?’ I asked. Her mum, like my own, had never been keen on us all mixing. ‘What will you say?’
‘I’ll say: Omer’s staying with us tonight. She won’t care.’ I love the way Turks say my name, a soft ‘er’ sound on the end making it a purr. Not like the Arab family I grew up with, who make it a hard ‘ar’. Sumi was right about her mum not caring. Though she and I wouldn’t speak for days yet, she didn’t bat an eyelid at my staying with them. I guess after nearly thirty years I was an old sin, a scar past hurting. For her and for my mum, at least. Their place was a new duplex in Guildford, a shiny display house, and it was packed full of Turks. For the next six days, seemingly every relative or random person who had come into contact with my father, paraded through with their families to pay their respects. It was mayhem, with at least sixty kids at any given moment running around hounded by parents shouting their names, while separate clumps of men and women sat in the lounge ignoring each other. Like Arabs, whenever a Turkish family comes together, in grief or joy, it can only be described as a riot.
I guess after nearly thirty years I was an old sin, a scar past hurting.
Attila spent most of his time with his cousin Orsun, another teen boy. From my seat at the men’s table, I only caught glimpses of him flitting through the crowded house like a dream. After a while sitting amongst the older men, who wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to me except to say, ‘Masha’Allah, you have his face, you are him exactly,’ I disentangled myself and went upstairs. It was dark out, dinner was done, it was just tea and muted talk which I could do without now, but I still felt a twinge of guilt beneath the exhaustion.
You are him exactly.
None of them knew the last time I’d spoken to my dad had been months ago – to tell him I am bisexual. None of them knew that we’d argued, that he said my sexuality was a lie, a Western conspiracy, that I was lost and just needed guidance, that of course he still loved me, ‘but son, it’s a short step away from bestiality or even paedophilia’. Not the same, but too close for comfort. None of them knew a part of me was convinced I had been the very last thing my father’s ailing heart could handle, and that it had killed him.
Six days after the funeral, I attended another. My friend of more than ten years, a woman only a few years younger than my dad, had also died of a heart attack. Inside the chapel at the crematorium in North Ryde, her daughters and friends told heartfelt stories, sang songs, and played a video montage of her that left most of us in tears. At the end of the service, I stood outside in the bright light of the day, dizzied by the stark differences that separated me and the largely white, Anglo crowd of mourners. I thought of the funeral house where Dad’s body had been cleaned, then wheeled out on a gurney cocooned in white cloth like a grey un-butterfly, something that would never bloom. How we’d gathered around it; how Attila’s head snapped to the side he’d looked away so quick, blinking away tears; how we all touched the cocoon; how I’d leaned over and kissed Baba’s cool forehead, seeing bits of cotton stuffing peeking out of his nostrils. I had been around dead bodies before, but I’d wanted to gag at that detail, the wrongness of it; a blockage where air should be.
None of them knew a part of me was convinced I had been the very last thing my father’s ailing heart could handle, and that it had killed him.
He was whisked away into the waiting hearse, placed in a temporary metal coffin, and taken to the mosque in Auburn. We prayed there; first inside with the community, then outside alone as a family, a row of men and some boys, bowing in front of a tin box wrapped in a green tapestry. It was a short drive from there to Rookwood cemetery where a freshly dug hole waited.
There was no song, no series of anecdotes or speeches, the brutal reality of the body was before us the entire time, and it had to be lifted, then lowered, then covered by a mound of red clay chunks. I can still feel the roughness of that earth in my hand as I scattered a handful into the open grave and said goodbye. There was – from start to finish – a sense of brisk efficiency, even urgency to it. The sooner he was buried, the better.
A month passed before I could return to Sydney and see Attila again. I’d had to leave for work, and he’d been on my mind the whole time. The one week we had in June was the worst and best of my life; a chance to see him and be part of his world, even though it meant occupying his room and him having to sleep in Sumi’s bed. The one thing I wanted the most that week was to see him play soccer, which everyone said he was a star at, and which the trophies in his room affirmed. It didn’t happen, of course; though he’d been so ready first to train, and then to play. We were both disappointed in that, for different reasons. Dad had died in his sleep the same morning he was supposed to take Attila to a match. I keep thinking of him in his long shorts and jersey, his boots on, waiting to be picked up. Waiting for Dad that day the way I waited for a lifetime, or at least a childhood, which feels like the same thing.
Now that I was back, I was determined to see him play. I was staying at a friend’s place this time, so I had to get up at 6.30am, shivering in the cold, and get across the huge sprawl of Sydney. I got to the house at 8am, and was welcomed in by his mother, who I shyly kissed hello. I still felt new and strange around her. Attila wasn’t ready yet, and both Sumi and his mum took turns yelling at him to change into his team uniform, and get his boots, while he groaned that it was still early, way too early, they had plenty of time. I sat in the background, simply happy to be there. But smiling too, because Atti – I can call him Atti now, like everyone else – clearly hadn’t figured out that Middle Eastern women operate on a schedule half an hour to one hour faster than everyone else and if they tell you to be ready by 8, they’ll be in the car by 7.40.
I tried to burn the image of the boy, my brother, the other son, into my mind: his not-yet graceful tallness, his gawky build, the way he seemed to float not run.
It took most of an hour to get there, which is true of any place in Sydney, but seems especially so for suburban sports grounds, which are always in out-of-the-way places surrounded by hills. I watched Atti greet his teammates, the boys slapping hands, saying, ‘What took you so long, bro?’. They began a few warm-up exercises on the field, a row of boys in purple trotting up to a line of traffic cones, then kicking their legs to the side in a slow arc before starting the pattern again. It could have been a chorus line, and it was as mesmerising as a dance. Were they limbering up their ankles? I had no idea. I’ve never had a reason to pay attention to soccer before, and this was the last match of the season, but I was prepared now to make it my new obsession.
My sister Gulsah arrived with her husband and kids in tow. We sat on the sidelines as the game started, my brother-in-law shouting out encouragement to Attila. I ignored everyone, taking about a hundred photos, trying to burn the image of the boy, my brother, the other son, into my mind: his not-yet graceful tallness, his gawky build, the way he seemed to float not run, a little bit aloof from the whole thing. My heart was beating too fast, my mouth dry. It was happening, I was here now, and I wasn’t. I kept seeing him at the funeral house, crumpled against the wall crying as the hearse slowly drove away, his sisters and mother crowded around him; how I’d pushed through them, grabbing his stupid puffy jacket to crush him against me; how he’d clutched at me, thin body shaking, tears wetting my cheek; and how strange it was that I had known from the second I saw him through the doorway that I loved him completely and with every cell in my body, this boy I had never really met before.
A whistle pierced the air. There was a smattering of yells from parents, the sun bearing down, there was my nephew holding up a toy plane against the blue sky, and a whole field of sons kicking out at something – a ball, a patch of grass, each other. And just like that, it was over.
An extended version of this piece will appear in Meet Me at the Intersection (ed. Ambelin Kwaymullina & Rebecca Lim) to be published in September by Fremantle Press.