The alley hangs between two city buildings. One of them is well-maintained and freshly painted, and its owner charges standard city rental to the law firms and accounting practices that rent out its fifteen floors. The other building is old and run down, its landlord – a slum lord – charging cheap rent to the not-for-profits that have no other choice than to pay what they can afford.
Roqué is the manager of the interpreters’ association, which also employs one administrator and four part-time interpreters. They have about fifty freelance translators on their books, who between them cover most of the languages of survival in New Zealand. They translate at doctor’s appointments and the police station, in school offices and at Work and Income. They do a lot of work upstairs for the law centre, where the people of his community go for help when the craving for family dwarfs the difficulty of bringing them to New Zealand.
Roqué speaks only Spanish and English, but he knows hello from every angle and sets colleagues and clients at ease. His third-floor office overlooks the alley, and he’s arranged his desk so that he sits tucked between it and the window. Without judgment, he pays close attention to what happens out there.
He’s inhabited this office for so long he’s seen the languages change, from Spanish in the days of the Latin American coups, which brought him to this country in the first place, to Vietnamese, Samoan, Arabic, and now Khmer and other tribal Asian languages that have nothing to do with commerce or free trade. Time flies. Forty-five years since Pinochet. Fifteen since Afghanistan. Great grandchildren have been borne since then.
He looks to the window. Forty, fifty, countless generations of pigeons.
Several of them perch on the window sill, heads bobbing. He moves towards them slowly. They see him, their hearts race, they poise for flight. He freezes, they calm down, he moves closer. They’re nipping at the tiny bugs caught in the cobwebs. He’s pleased that they’re surviving off this, real food, not human produce or refuse. Good on you, birds. He gets right up close, eye to eye through the dull glass. His eye must be so large the birds can’t see it for what it is.
The association is about to lose its funding. They’ve been undercut by Ersco, more than ironic given its history of running deportation facilities for refugees across Europe. Roqué met yesterday with the ministry officials, bearers of the news they have no control over, either. If they understood the irony, they weren’t allowed to admit it. But after the meeting, Carmen, one of the officials, invited him out for a drink. He accepted, despite his better judgement. He felt the brazen heat coming from her, but he owed it to his staff to give it one last shot.
“But Carmen,” he’d said after the obligatory small talk, “what if we had some half-decent ideas for how to make the funding go further?”
“Honestly, Roqué, the ministry doesn’t give a shit about your good ideas. It’s too late for that.” She’d only had two wines and was already letting her hair out.
Roqué was mildly surprised she’d shown her hand so quickly, and to hide it he said, “That’s a bit premature, Carmen. Here, I’ll get us another round.” He smiled and made his way through the crowd of suits inside to the bar. He hadn’t pictured the ministry official for such a lightweight. With her blaze of grey hair and expensive suit he’d assumed her to be a seasoned bureaucrat, a bottle a day drinker at least.
He returned to the table with the drinks. “How exactly did you get into this side of policy work, Carmen? Competitive tendering, I mean,” Roqué asked then. “Aren’t you too senior to be interfacing with a little NGO like us.” Half a compliment, half a body blow. Roqué’s way with English meant he could get away with murder.
“Oh, you know, I used to work in the community too. I know your sector inside out.”
“You do?” Roqué asked, still smiling. “That’s a relief.” He was reminded of a schoolyard bully who hit the kid she most wanted to be friends with. “Which one of us did you work for?”
Carmen hesitated. “Community Law, actually, just upstairs.” But Roqué had been drinking with Community Law for years. He couldn’t place Carmen and had never heard her name mentioned. He raised his eyebrows.
“Just briefly,” she rushed on. “But I always knew I could have a bigger impact inside government. Charities,” she blustered, “so much inefficiency.” Roqué saw the doubt in her face, or perhaps it was regret.
“And did we ever have a chance at winning this tender?” Roqué was tired, suddenly, and sick of flirting.
“Let’s be real, Roqué. The charity sector’s corporatising. If you’re not prepared to modernise, you’re out.”
“We can’t keep up with Ersco, Carmen.”
“No,” she said. “No, you can’t.”
A day later, Roqué is still gazing out the window on to the alley when a pigeon flies into the grimy glass. It rebounds off his window on to a ledge jutting out of the building opposite, two storeys off the ground. The pigeon lies still, its wings broken and twisted upward in abject semaphore. Is it dead? Roqué can’t tell. He forces himself to watch it, watch for signs that it is suffering. The wind picks at its feathers, revealing the soft down close to the bird’s skin.