Rob took the ticket with his queue number. The room was full. All the more time before his fate would be decided. With his swarthy complexion and dark eyes, he blended in with local people; a shaved head dealt with balding. “Tea, coffee, Coke, sandwiches?” The snack vendor must have been puzzled by these Westerners anxiously queuing to renew their Southland visas when Southlanders were risking their lives on overloaded traffickers’ boats to emigrate. For Rob it had been the possibility of living life in a slower lane—that was becoming a thing of the past. His decision to reside in the country also had had to do with its energy, which was good for the soul.
“Why do you always wear black? You’d better try something more upbeat,” a colleague had advised. “Remember, it’s been getting more and more difficult to renew residency after the troubles,” someone added.
Now as he faced a few hours waiting, Rob had plenty of time to go over what he had said and done since his last visa renewal. “We ourselves don’t know who ‘they’ are or what they’re after,” a Southlander colleague had said.
Rob ordered a coffee. A recent episode came back to him. Colleagues from school had organized a farewell gathering for Verna, whose contract had not been renewed. They met at Beverly Mall on the outskirts of Neapolis. The taxi got lost in a labyrinth of roads and clouds of dust in this area under construction. Rob who had gone there with Virginie, the French teacher, entered the huge ground plaza. “Sorry we’re late.”
“Good to see you.” Verna, elegant as usual with just that extra spicy note, greeted them warmly and seated them between Franck who taught geography, and Dax, the maths teacher.
“There’s IKEA and Bloomingdale’s. I love to go shopping in a cool and clean place,” she said.
“We were talking about the bridge,” said Jack who worked for admin.
Rob’s heart sank.
“I hope they’ll go ahead this time,” Jack added.
“They’ve been talking about it for decades,” said Verna.
“West Island’s national parks and wildlife are already under stress.”
“Rob, You sound like a mouthpiece of Antopian propaganda,” said Jack sharply. Half a century earlier, the Southland province of West Island had been under Antopian occupation for several years.
Rob felt exhilarating bubbles of anger rise—and dissolve. Visa renewal was soon due.
“But I’m a biologist,” he had mumbled.
“For Southlanders who work in RSE, it will be that much easier than to take a ferry or go by plane and there will be more tourists from RSE,” said Verna.
“My uncle has a diving centre in Shark Bay. People are very worried. I go down there to help in the holidays. They have invested all their money into it,” said Dax.
“Be scientific. How many jobs will be created, how many lost? It’s a mega project. Thousands of miles of roads and mining all over West Island,” said Jack with enthusiasm.
“If they go ahead with the bridge, Shark Bay will be just another shopping place like Dubai,” said Dax sadly.
“Or like here”, said Virginie flinging her arms out.
“The really big ones are in China,” Franck commented.
“It’s good old liberté, égalité, fraternité recycled as consumer goodies for all,” Virginie quipped.
“Southland deserves a better future. It’s not just the West or BRICS,” said Jack.
“When did your uncle open his centre?” asked Rob, deflecting the conversation.
“I went there in 1996.”
Back then Rob was married. Rina was from Southland. They had camped just the two of them in a cove. As they snorkelled, their vision filled with the sea world: coral shrimp, Christmas tree worm, cleaner wrasse, decorator crab, diadem sea urchin, elephant stone coral, feather star crab, grey reef shark, harlequin fish, hawksbill turtle, moon jellyfish, red coral, Spanish dancer nudibranch, spinner dolphin, spotted ray.
A pink and orange fish had invited Rina to play, or so she had said, and she had named him Shikshik. Rob had found her ridiculous. Now she was a finance director in London.
Virginie suddenly remembered to ask, “Dax, could you replace me for the Green Club on Monday?” Before Dax could answer, Rob blurted, “You should think twice about the club. The one or two poor kids who go green for good…”
“Actually, parents love the club.”
“OK for Monday. But I don’t have the time to prepare something.”
“Show them Johnny Express. It’s a Korean animation.” “What’s it about?” “Johnny works for a galactic delivery company. He must bring a microscopic parcel to a miniature planet.” “What’s the connection?” “When Johnny gets there he unknowingly tramples all over the city and people, too small for him to see, and causes devastation.” “I still don’t get it.” “I want to use this as an allegory. The minuscule planet represents the undersea world going about its life at its own rhythm, blissfully ignorant of the Armageddon we humans are concocting for it in the world above.”
“Too far-fetched for me. I prefer a wildlife documentary.” “That’s OK too.”
Ruminating further about the bridge, Dax observed: “In 25 years time consumerism will be out like our diving centres are today and you’ll be left with abandoned shopping centres, a decaying bridge and an underwater wasteland.”
“Don’t worry. Life goes in cycles. Mother Nature will take care of it all. It happened in Bangkok. Fish reclaimed a derelict mall,” Franck facetiously consoled him.
“So, you’re saying just go with the flow?” said Rob.
“ My fallback plan is the monastery.”
“No! You, Virginie, are thinking of taking the veil?”
“Not exactly. It’s a self-sufficient community in France. I bought a share. Its motto is inspired by words of Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation: ‘We’ve been given minds to take care of the wild animals and plants and the rivers.’ I hope I can pay back my loan before the whole system collapses.”
“That won’t happen anytime soon,” said Rob.
Franck got up. “Sorry. I have to leave. See you on Monday. Verna, good luck and let’s keep in touch.”
Rob handed the empty cup to the waiter. He was getting older. It would be difficult to find a job back in Europe. Maybe there would be a cell for him in Virginie’s monastery. A recorded female voice announced his number as it flashed on the digital screens.