Different Skies
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The Cat, Play and Home OfficeVolkan Aran

The cat walked on the roof of the warehouse. Three metres away from my balcony, she would come and stop at exactly the same place every night. She knew from the lights in my flat that I was at home. She would meow, and I would call and wave at her with a smile. After looking directly into my eyes, she would walk away with a last meow of farewell. This salutation became her nightly ceremony and almost gave me a feeling of being cherished – yes, by a cat.

That night I went to bed earlier than usual and sometime later heard her steps on the roof. She walked slowly and stopped at her usual place; I knew this from the sound of her voice. She first meowed and then yowled for me, which tugged at my heartstrings. The fact that the cat remembered me even with the lights off in my flat, excited me. I said to myself that I wouldn’t go to bed before she came back the following evening. She was my only playmate now.

At the beginning of that week I had received a letter from the Home Office saying that my application to extend my residency permit had been denied. The reason for this decision was that I had failed under the financial earnings section. To have ‘leave’ to remain, I was expected to earn 33 thousand pounds net annually, but I was running 7 thousand pounds short. The letter stated that, ‘A decision has been made to remove you from the UK by way of directions under Section 47 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006.’ Legally I was now considered an object, a not-enough-earning object.

I don’t want to say that this decision ruined my life. I would probably still have split up with my girlfriend without that letter having been written. She would probably still go on saying that I had triggered her old illnesses, and I would probably still get angry with her for seeing me as the reason for her panic attacks. But that letter nevertheless had an immediate effect on the way I saw my life. After that morning when the post arrived I suddenly grew serious. I started seeing my everyday world as a place where I didn’t belong any more. I would no longer be able to look into the eyes of a stranger, as I would have no connection with this country in the future. I would have to stop smiling at people. More than that, I would now have to take my life and my responsibilities seriously. There was no time for play or for a fight with my partner. My days were now limited before my ‘removal’ and I needed to get all the help I could to prevent this happening. I wanted to go on earning money, paying my rent, meeting up with friends, going out at night, eating, drinking, maybe even smiling again and having a life.

* * *

‘OK,’ said İrfan, ‘it’s not a matter of fairness or unfairness; it’s all about presenting proof. I’ll tell you what documents to prepare and you will gather them all.’ It happened exactly like that. He told me what to do and I prepared to show myself as someone who was genuinely working, who was a tax-payer and was therefore a valuable member of the community. It was like building up my life with cards and papers. Reference letters, my CV, business cards, what I had accomplished, what I was and what I was planning to be. I chose a profile for my future self, reviewed my past and set up a plan with İrfan for how to show this future as realistic based on my past, without stepping on any legal minefield; such as risking being accused of ‘disguised employment’, or being a benefit hunter, instead of self-employed, or in a permanent job. The truth was somewhere in between. But, OK, this was not a matter of truthfulness or fairness; it was a matter of proof-building for a contest before a judge. So the play kicked off.

Her Majesty’s Courts would listen to my appeal, while in the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal I would be the appellant to be removed. The Secretary of State would be the respondent. If the appeal was unsuccessful, the rule was clear: ‘You must leave the United Kingdom immediately. If you do not leave the United Kingdom voluntarily, you will be removed to Turkey.’

‘Don’t worry,’ İrfan had written in his email, ‘we will not let anyone remove you unless you choose to go.’ This was the best sentence I had read for a long time. But all the legal writings were so threatening and so serious that I was having sleepless nights. The cat still visited me but I was no longer in a playful mood.

‘High seriousness, deadly earnestness and the vital interests of the individual and society reign supreme in everything that pertains to the law,’ Johan Huizinga had written in Playing Man, but he had added: ‘that an affinity may exist between law and play becomes obvious as soon as we realize how much the actual practice of the law, in other words a lawsuit, properly resembles a contest whatever the ideal foundations of the law may be.’ My barrister and the Home Office representative were casually talking about another case at the entrance of the courtroom. They were polite and friendly to each other, like sportsmen running into the stadium holding hands. But inside they sat down on opposite sides. When the judge entered the room we all stood up and then sat down again, and it was as though we were all different people. It was as though someone had said, ‘The camera is rolling!’ and ‘Action!’ The judge asked if I already knew the rules. I looked at my barrister and nodded: ‘Yes’. Then she said, ‘I am not representing the Home Office and I don’t have any connection with them. I will judge and decide by looking at objective proof and existing laws.’

Her black gown with its red striped collar had taken her from everyday life and had placed her in a strange, sublime world. Here I was being questioned by the Home Office representative who had previously had no personal contact with me. I chose my words carefully.

‘I haven’t worked, Mr Hamilton, I have provided freelance services for my customers.’

So the investment you provided for your business set-up is only £5,000. Isn’t that too little?’.

‘It is an engineering consultancy. I have used my experience and know-how.’

So you say you are a freelance writer and that you write for a Turkish newspaper? Why are you writing here?

‘Objection: irrelevant.’

Madam, could you ask him not to intervene and address you instead?

So currently you are only being paid by your previous employer, are you?

Madam, I’m afraid this is disguised employment.

‘The lawsuit remains a verbal battle even when it has lost its play-quality in appearance,’ Huizinga had written. And in this verbal battle I was aware that the Home Office would attack me, as this was what was expected of their role. Nothing personal, I thought to myself.

When my barrister took his turn to summarise my defence, for the first time in my life I felt like I had someone backing me who didn’t need my help. To look at a barrister speaking on your behalf is like seeing yourself as a powerful magician in a dream. You have someone more powerful than yourself who knows how to translate your plebeian words into the August language of the law. He read paragraph 21 of the Immigration Rule HC510, Act. 5, which showed that in the requested visa category I could not be judged in relation to my past employment, but could only be judged on my capability to carry out my proposed business plan. I looked at the judge’s eyes when my barrister spoke. I didn’t see that she objected to this ruling.

The judge said that she would read the complete file and give her written decision within fourteen days.

‘Stand up now!’

* * *

That period of my life had been lived as obligations owed to others and paperwork. The day after the court case I felt I was allowed to relax. I came home, sat on the balcony, and breathed deeply under a warm sun. The cat was on the shining, wavy roof, snuggled between two curves. She saw me and meowed, with her head up.

I looked at her, trying to give back all the warmth she had provided me so far. From my balcony to the roof, it was as if my hand reached out and petted her under her neck. She turned her head in circles around my invisible hand and stood up as if to start her routine by wandering close to the edge of the roof. ‘Go!’ I shouted, but gently. She must have understood I didn’t mean what I had just said. She stretched and didn’t look as though she cared for my command. Instead she started to play with a paper pellet she had found in the gutter. After a lot of pawing at it, the pellet rolled and she looked at me. I thought: why do we take life so seriously? Why do we stop playing and think that discussions and fights are more important than play? ‘Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing’.1

The paper pellet fell from the roof. She looked at me. She must have expected me to stop it from falling. No, I wasn’t a magician, but I would always be there when she stepped out. Because this was home.

1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950), p 1.