Parable of the Unwelcome Stranger

Eureka Street

THE YEAR is 2001. You live in a large sharehouse on the south side of town. The place has millions of rooms and people are always coming and going. One day a stranger knocks on the door. ‘Help!’ he shouts. ‘The people in my house are trying to kill me! I need to hide here for a while.’

Instinctively, you reach for the door handle. A wrinkled hand, old yet firm, grabs your wrist. You look up and see your landlord, a bald man with thick rectangular glasses and bushy eyebrows. ‘We will decide who comes to this house and the circumstances in which they come,’ he says, sternly.

He locks the door.

Later, you watch as workers erect a chicken wire enclosure on the traffic island near your neighbour’s place. A sign reads ‘Processing Centre’. The stranger is placed inside.

Every morning for the next seven years, you stand by the window, watching. Thousands of strangers are now crammed into the small enclosure. They wrap their fingers around the chicken wire and shake it. They say they want to be let out, to see a lawyer, to live and work in the house. They say they have done nothing wrong; they are simply fleeing for their lives.

The old landlord steps in front of you and closes the curtains. ‘Just ignore them,’ he says. ‘They’re lying. They should have waited their turn.’

*****

Then, in 2007, something astonishing happens. The old landlord dies. He’s gone, just like that. A new landlord takes charge, a nerdy man with square spectacles who speaks a different language. He opens the curtains and points at the enclosure on the traffic island. ‘We have a moral imperative to prioritise the streamlined decommissioning of that facility,’ he announces. Nobody is quite sure what he means.

But it doesn’t matter, because he keeps his oddly worded promise. You sit by the window, watching as the enclosure is boarded up, a smile spreading across your face.

*****

The year is 2010. The new landlord has been murdered. Stabbed in the back. A house meeting is called to elect a replacement. You sit among your fellow permanent residents — more than 20 million of them — gauging the discussion.

The first candidate stands. He’s a bronzed, blokey guy with ears like radar dishes that he tunes into people’s fears. ‘I will take direct and real action,’ he says, ‘to protect our property, and stop the strangers.’

‘If necessary, I will turn the strangers around. Force them right back up the garden path.’

The next candidate stands. She’s a fiery red head, and says the same words over and over again in a hypnotic accent. ‘Moving forward,’ she says, ‘we need a regional approach, and that means a regional processing centre, moving forward.’

‘I am in discussion with our neighbour Jose about a new processing centre on a different traffic island so we can move forward differently,’ she adds.

The room is silent. You look around at your fellow permanent residents. They lived here when the old landlord was in charge. They saw the group of strangers suffering out the front because no one would let them in. They witnessed the overcrowded enclosure, the strangers with their lips sewn together, the children behind chicken wire. And they know many of these people were eventually let into the house — they were held in that enclosure for no good reason.

You expect someone to stand up and say ‘these strangers are in need’. You expect someone to say ‘we have an obligation to these people’. You expect someone to say ‘I was a stranger once, but you let me in’.

But wait — the residents are applauding. They’re giving a standing ovation. ‘A tougher stance,’ they say. ‘We don’t want any bloody strangers hopping the fence into our backyard.’

You can’t believe what you’re hearing.

*****

The year is 2011. A decade since you first met that stranger at the door. A decade in which little has changed. The red-headed woman has reopened the old enclosures. Once again, strangers are locked up, screaming to be let out. A respected doctor, Resident of the Year no less, says the enclosures are sending the strangers mad. Nobody listens.

Exasperated, you call a house meeting. ‘Fellow residents,’ you say, ‘we pride ourselves on giving everyone a fair go, so we should give these strangers the benefit of the doubt.’

The residents murmur uncomfortably among themselves.

‘Perhaps these strangers are not lying. Perhaps they really are fleeing from danger?’

The residents stop murmuring and stare.

‘And besides, the number of strangers is very small, far too small to affect our way of life if they are let inside.

‘Finally, we should remember that we ourselves are strangers to this house. We barged in and kicked out the previous inhabitants, so we have no right to say who can come and go.’

The residents are silent. Then a ruddy-faced man in singlet and thongs staggers to his feet. ‘Look mate,’ he bellows, ‘if you don’t like it here, why don’t you just piss off where you came from?’

*****

You stand on the traffic island near your neighbour’s place, your fingers wrapped around chicken wire. You should have known this would happen. Of course they were going to throw you in the enclosure. By questioning their way of life, you showed you were different. In their eyes, that makes you a stranger. And, as we’ve all come to learn, strangers aren’t welcome anymore.

This article is available for republication. Email greg.foyster@gmail.com.