by Fikret Pajalic

I'm lying in bed in my underpants trying to read. The two pillows propping my head are drenched. Drops of sweat are forming everywhere on my body, making trails on my skin and travelling downward to soak the sheets and the mattress. The thirty-dollar portable fan I bought yesterday from a local hardware store on McIntyre Road was a waste of money. Only air-con can save you on a day like this.

I've been on the dole since arriving in Melbourne, six months ago, straight from the Balkans and can only afford to rent this crap-hole. At the airport I was greeted by cold winds that froze my spine, but then December rolled around and ever since Christmas I was roasting like a lamb on a spit. It was still better to be slowly baked alive than bombed and shot at, all day, every day.

I prefer to endure the heat in bed. My cough is a little better that way. I've had it since I landed from northern summer into southern winter, not expecting that getting acclimatised would last this long. Eventually I went to see a doctor.

'Your body is malnourished and immune system is weak. I suppose it is because of the war diet,' the doctor said. 'You're barely twenty. You'll recover in no time.' He squeezed my shoulder reassuringly.

So the game of yo-yo started. I would get better for a time, but the cough would come back again. I was on my third course of antibiotics since August and everything I eat comes out of me fast and watery because of it.

A meow comes from the bathroom. My cat Blackie is in the shower, on his back, white paws in the air, tongue out and eyes half shut. It's the coolest place in the flat. The showerhead drips water and every time a drop falls it creates a small burst of coolness as it splashes the cat.

He isn't exactly mine. When I moved in, he hung around the flat and rubbed against my legs while I carried my stuff up the stairs. I thought he was trying to trip me, his movements at the time seemed pure sabotage, but the poor bugger was just anxious. My neighbour Hermann told me his owner just took off and left him.

In the flat there was an old wardrobe, an even older television and a bed with wheels that looked like it belonged to a hospital. The landlord told me I could keep it all, so I did, just getting rid off the mattress.

I bought a new one that same day on Main Road East, carried it on my back, across the train tracks, all the way to Washington Street. That night I slept like a dead man on my new mattress with plastic wrapping still on. From my next dole payment I was able to afford bedding.

'It's his flat,' Hermann said about the cat. 'You're the newcomer moving into his territory. Cats are more loyal to the place they live than to their owners, you know.'

'So it's a good thing his owner abandoned him, right?' I quipped.

'Oh, no, that guy was a prick. Just give the cat some food and he'll be ok. He'll be easy to maintain.'

'I don't want a cat,' I argued.

'Don't be like that. It's just you isn't it? You'll need company and he won't be in the way.'

'Why don't you take him, then?' I asked Hermann, whom I affectionately later called Hermann the German. He would always screw up his face when I called him by his new moniker. It turned out that Hermann was actually Polish who still resented the Germans for invading his country in 1939.

It was then that Hermann opened his robe and revealed the skeleton that was hiding underneath. He was painfully white with large spider angiomas on his body, as if Jackson Pollock splashed cherry red paint over him. It was one of those things that are hard to look at, yet your eyes are inevitably drawn to it.

'Cirrhosis, mate. I don't have long,' Hermann said and closed his robe.

I nodded, not knowing what to say. I've seen the dead before, but never spoken to someone who was close to dying.

'Where are your folks?' he asked me then, feeling that the barrier of the unknown between us was broken.

'Bosnia.' I said. 'Yours?'

'Long gone,' Hermann said in undertone.

'Refugee?' He followed up quickly and I nodded again. 'Welcome to St. Albans, mate.'

Within two days of moving in, Blackie was sleeping on my bed with me. Usually at the foot of the bed or if it was really cold he'd wrap his fury body around my head. My flat doesn't have heating. Or a stove. I cook on a portable electric cooker that has one hot plate and a deep fryer.

I walk over to Blackie with a magazine, flap it above his belly and try to cool him down. When I get tired I stop. He meows and lifts his head. His dark eyes ask for more so I do it for another few minutes.

The radio beeps signalling it's four o'clock and the news start with the announcement of the current temperature and weather forecast. It's forty-two degrees and rising, the voice says in a monotone as if there is nothing to it.

I stretch myself back on the bed and try to think of my home. Snow and winter fill my mind, but it doesn't get me any cooler. During the past few weeks with all the doctor's examinations and no relief I formed my own diagnosis.

I reckoned there was a bloody cat hair stuck in my throat. I quickly got to love Blackie, he was my mate now, but I swear I must have swallowed thousands of his hairs. He is longhaired and sheds like crazy. Little black balls of fur form on the floor and travel across the lino like tumbleweeds.

My cough gets hoarse. It doesn't feel like a hair anymore, but a fur ball stuck in my throat causing a persistent tickle. I squeeze my Adam's apple with my fingers in frustration, hoping the tickle would ease when I hear knocking on the wall.

'I'll make us a cuppa,' Hermann yells.

'In this heat?' I manage to answer, my eyes watering.

'It's good for your throat.'

Hermann thought that for every ailment there was a natural remedy. He managed to extend his suffering with the help of a naturopath and was converted from alcoholism into healthy eating and drinking.

He would bring platters of vegetables with various dips and pita bread and for dessert bowls of fruit. One day he brought a mango. I'd never seen a mango before. I took it and eagerly started peeling the skin making Hermann laugh so hard I thought his chest would burst open.

'Give, give,' he said taking the knife from me, 'I'll show you.' Moments later my mouth was slurping carefully cut squares off the mango skin.

'I told you those antibiotics wouldn't work,' Hermann says as he enters my flat with steaming teacups. 'Try this, it's marshmallow tea. It will clear your throat, I guarantee it.' He sounds like a cheery commercial and hands me a cup. 'When are you supposed to see that quack again for the results?'

'Next week,' I say, 'after these.' I show Hermann the pills. He shakes his head and waves his hand indicating I was wasting my time.

My doctor was running a full blood screen, throat swabs, urine and stool, the whole works. He also sent me to do an ultrasound of the throat and neck. A woman with pretty blue eyes rubbed jelly on my throat and pressed the scan-gun on my neck. I asked her if it was the same thing they used to check the babies in pregnant ladies and she said yes.

She started scanning and said 'don't worry I'm sure you'll have plenty of babies,' patting me gently on the chest. But after that she didn't say anything. She was maybe ten years older and I thought for an instant she was flirting with me and she got embarrassed, so I kept quiet too. When she was done she said the results would be sent to my doctor and 'good luck' as I was walking out.

Hermann picks up the brick-size remote control and turns on the television. The cricket is on and Hermann looks at me, his eyebrows lifting. It's my turn to shake my head and he switches the channel. Images of bush fires come on, fire fighters and people trying in vain to stop the blaze.

On the screen I see immense lizard-like tongues of demonic fire licking the sides of the trees from the bottom. The higher they climb the smaller they get. But those small tongues of fire climb up the branches and leap from tree to tree with the frightening ease of a chimpanzee. The forest is making a cracking noise. The sound of the fire is a menacing guttural roar coming straight out of the devil's throat. The burning beast unsatisfied with the trip upward runs along the ground in a half moon front helped by the wind, igniting leaves, scrub and brushwood and swallowing houses, cars, sheds and people.

To my eye it looks like the whole earth was burning and even though I am boiling in my own skin I shudder and a cold chill goes down my spine.

'This is only hundred kilometres from here,' Hermann tells me. 'Not far from where we lived.' He is talking about his family.

We watch for a few minutes in silence. A giant helicopter that looks like a huge dragonfly hovers above a lake sucking in water with a hose. In the next shot a blonde reporter girl in a shirt too tight for the occasion is talking to locals who lost everything. One man says he still doesn't know where his family is. He is volunteering at the fire front. He's crying as he talks.

'That could break the toughest man,' Hermann says and stays quiet for a little and then adds. 'Losing someone like that.'

I look at him and notice he isn't watching television anymore. He holds a wallet size family photo in his bony hands. In it, a man that vaguely resembles him, only plumper and with a beaming smile, hugs two girls and a woman.

As he stares at the image of his past life his words hung and I don't ask any questions, not wanting to be reminded of my own loss.

'Most fires are started by firebugs,' Hermann continues. 'Sick bastards. If only I could get my hands on one of them,' he says with sudden venom in his voice.

It is the first time I hear that word. Hermann explains there are men out there who love seeing a fire eat everything.

'They get off on it. Get a woody or something.'

The phone rings and I stand up and pick up the receiver. The voice on the other end is my doctor's. I listen to him for about a minute and say 'all right' a few times. When I finish Hermann waits in suspense for news.

'The doctor booked me for a throat biopsy first thing tomorrow morning,' I say.

Hermann bites his lower lip.

'He said one of the tests is elevated.'

Hermann stays silent, not knowing what to say.

I walk out of the flat. Behind the building there is a patch of lawn in front of the Hills Hoist. I sit down on the grass in my soggy underpants. The sun above me mercilessly bakes the earth, but I can't feel its sunrays.

Blackie comes and rubs his face on my sweaty leg. He purrs and I scratch his chin.

BIO: Fikret Pajalic came to Melbourne as a refugee and learnt English in his mid-twenties. His fiction has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Etchings, The Big Issue, Writer's Edit, Regime, Verity La, Gargouille, Verge Annual, Seizure, Tincture, The Minnesota Review (USA), Crack the Spine (USA), Fjords Review (USA), Bird's Thumb (USA), The Red Line (UK), Structo (UK), and JAAM (NZ). He is working on a short story collection funded by Arts Victoria.