No 162 - 2000
The ferry crosses the river at first light so that it can be seen and will not be shot at by accident. There is only one shot. It strikes a pontoon, and the sound of the report follows dull and flat across the wide river surface. On the shore a voice shouts in an uncertain language and there are no more shots. We move across towards the other shore, breasting the river mist, heading into the red of the sun. There is a time before we turn south again when we are out of view of both towns, and here Singh surrenders his weapon to the waters. When I avert my eyes from the sight they are caught by a last bright star alone in the morning sky.
French customers pronounced his name something like Sang. He made jokes with his English customers about this, and about his singsong accent. An accent which in fact he did not have. But in matters of humour he was much influenced by these English, and so did not permit facts to get in the way of a joke. Singh was a man so proud and rooted in who and what he was that he could take as make jokes about it. This, too, he shared with his English, but it was not among the things he had learned from them. It was a natural part of him, a good which he had brought separately to this trading place on the giant river. U Thet, the Burmese, with that clear precision in each language he spoke from Yunnan to the delta, called him always Mr Singh.
Behind the smokestack and between the woodpiles U Thet stands with Mrs Kaur, who is the wife of Singh, and with her two girl children.
‘I have given up eggs,’ I tell him.
He smiles appreciatively. I cannot see Singh.
‘It is all gone,’ Mrs Kaur says. ‘We are destitute.’
The daughters of Singh clutch at the bright cloth of her long shirt. Other children climb over the stacks until stokers coming up for fuel chase them off, men and children laughing.
‘What has happened?’ I am out of touch. ‘Where is your husband?’
When I was put on the boat it was by the bow gangplank. The decks were crowded and people were still moving around, looking for the missing. It has taken me until now to find them towards the stern.
‘He is on the ferry,’ U Thet assures me. ‘But you may have to wait.’
So we wait, and we watch the world stream past.
Crossing the river you first head south towards the other bank. From the low decks of the ferry this seems immensely far. At dawn the light gathers over the waters as they sweep eastwards. If you look towards the country to which you are travelling, the night falls back on your right, and to your left the day advances. The sky and the river mist are already the fading pink-grey of fresh mushroom gills, and the moving air that felt almost fresh begins to warm and thicken.
Midway between shores runs the frontier. Here the ferry turns downstream. To your left now is the town where you embarked, its white buildings peach and low on the sombre green banks. For some way the ferry goes with the flood sweeping east and south. Then it is east again, and you see the town where you will land. By then the light has been up for three parts of an hour. It is full day, and as the bow turns to battle the current you can see that the buildings are patched and grubby.
For the short stretch the river runs south you are out of sight of both towns. There is only water and sky held narrowly apart by thin banks. The light has shaded all the way from pink to grey and is low and clear until the next bend when the sun burns in the tops of the forest ahead. Now, seeing neither its past nor its future, the crowd has calmed.
‘We will have to be careful,’ U Thet tells me. ‘Do not approach him.’
‘What has happened?’
He shrugs: ‘What happened was back there. But he carries it with him. Until he leaves it behind, no one is safe with him.’
It is clear I must wait for U Thet, as well as for Singh.
The town we have left is dwarfed by the river. Without its levée it would be swallowed in a single season of floods, and leave no trace. The river banks are of bleached stone roofed with the overhang of the forest edge. When the snows melt in Tibet and the monsoon blows in these low cliffs are penetrated and the marshes of the savannahs between the forests deepen and widen into broad lakes. On either side of the river stretch the plains and the mountains are far away. For all their soldier-green the plains are not uniform. In the sea of silt and marsh lie islands of clay on which stand villages with thatched roofs and whitewashed stupas among palms. Until the war there were no roads for fighting vehicles. Later the government built causeways of dredged gravel and towed heavy guns out to the firm ground and set the artillery batteries in clusters on the plain around three sides of the town.
Back in the town the markets will be opening despite what has happened. They are why the town is there. A covered market built by the French forms one side of the square away from the river where the government buildings are. There is another from the time before the French behind the levée where the ramps come down from the steamer jetties. The goods are flowers and fruit, cotton cloth and silks, digging tools and the farmers’ long parang knives. Singh traded in cloth and U Thet dealt in hardware. Their shops stood opposite on good corner sites where the road from one jetty joins a main street leading to the square.
Singh, U Thet, and I share an enthusiasm for good coffee. Even when the verandah bar of the hotel on the square remained useful I would meet them two or three days a week. When the Americans left and the French turned wary it became every day. We took turns or went in pairs to buy selections, discussing with the traders over their folded-back sacks of hessian the flavours and aromas of Java and Celebes. Which was how I discovered that the coffees of Vietnam had come into the town and were much appreciated by the French of a certain background although, as coffee will with some, it worsened the state of their nerves.
‘It is bad for business, this Viet stuff,’ Singh complained. ‘I will not drink it.’
Whoever bought the coffee, Mrs Kaur prepared it. We sat on the boardwalk under Singh’s shop windows. U Thet could watch his store from there, and they both could observe the youths in torn T-shirts and worn sarongs who sat on the empty crates where the waste packing materials were left for clearance. Occasionally one of them would get up and do some business. Occasionally I would write down something they said in my pocket notebook. Mostly we sat and drank coffee for an hour, and Singh’s wife or their older girl would come out to see how we were. I do not think we drank the same combination of beans twice, even when we liked something very much. Yet our talk was always the same mix: business, and the two armies in the grey-green forests beyond the white houses.
‘They will not fight,’ U Thet stated.
‘Which of them?’
‘How can they have a war without fighting?’
‘By being businesslike.’ This was Singh.
‘War is never businesslike.’
‘That is a western point of view which leads to casualties. Mr Singh, would you explain?’
‘One bunch of incompetents is about to win by accident and is totally unprepared for this in terms of resources. The other bunch is overstocked with precisely those resources, but has placed itself in a position where they will be of no further use. There is accordingly a trade to be made.’
‘Good explaining, Singh.’
He ignored me.
‘U Thet?’ he prompted.
They were playing a fish on two lines.
‘The soldiers of both armies must now be given new careers to dissuade them from continuing to shoot people once the political issues have been resolved. That is what they now discuss, the purchase price of new lives. And it is why they will not fight.’
I stared at them in turn and disgust: ‘Smart arses.’
They were as delighted as schoolboys told how wicked they are. There was more to be had for the asking. Some of this I wrote in my notebook.
‘These new lives. Where are they to be lived?’
‘Most here, of course.’
‘The ones with the red stars,’ Singh added playfully. ‘Or no stars at all.’
‘And some anywhere but.’
‘The gold stars.’
‘And at whose expense?’
‘That is not a question to ask a trader,’ replied U Thet. ‘There may be a difficult period.’
‘Although a foreigner,’ added his colleague, ‘I am optimistic as to the outcome.’
Singh was younger than me by the same margin that U Thet was older. A generation stretched between them, and he took a correspondingly brighter view of life.
‘We are like equal steps up to the platform on which the funeral pyre is built,’ he observed of our friendship.
‘That,’ suggested U Thet, ‘is easier said from the foot than the top.’
‘My view will be the same when I achieve your height.’
This I believed would be true, though for all his bravery of spirit I had fears about his physical courage. He was a slender and feminine man. If there was trouble in the shop it was Mrs Kaur who dealt with it.
‘I am afraid of what he might do if I let him loose,’ she told me.
This was the only hint ever that she shared her husband’s sense of humour. Now under the woodsmoke of the ferry her face was empty of all save the cold fear of ruin and U Thet and I could not struggle through to see what the situation was in the stern or what the crowd were staring at with their backs to us.
U Thet was different. He drank the red local brandy which Singh never touched and it would transform the smooth coffee of his throat to a turkey cock’s wattle. Pale across one shoulder was incised the slash of a parang, and a bullet scar ploughed the length of his shooting arm. I had much doubt as to the man’s morality, but none on such other matters as might arise.
This U Thet who sold shotgun cartridges in his ironmongery was a Buddhist of a certain kind and informed me I should not eat eggs because they are potential life.
‘And the actual life your ammunition blasts to oblivion?’
‘It is not my intent that should happen. I am responsible only for what I do.’
Me, too. But I eat eggs when I can, and that morning in my hotel the menu was black tea and there was news of eggs at Choi’s. The streets were strange seen from the hotel breakfast room but a silence surrounded me. The brandy of the night still worked in my brain and I had left the square and seen the empty boardwalks stretching into the morning haze before it had figured out that an army had disappeared in the night. By then the old black Citröen was alongside.
After this, first came the difficult part, which it is not necessary to explain, then the firing squads, after which it became easier. The flat sound of the shots reached us in the room muffled by the trees and low cliffs at the river’s edge. When the wind fell it faded and we strained to listen. For the three parts of an hour it took night to fall we heard the gunfire in bursts and single rounds, as regular and persistent as a dimly-loud factory on the edge of town.
The boss Australian said: ‘It’s from west of the jetties. There’s a way down trucks can take onto the foreshore. I always reckoned they’d take them there.’
One of the other two looked up from his cards.
‘I always thought they shot them at dawn.’
Then at dawn he was the one who had trouble with the food.
‘I usually have steaks for breakfast,’ he muttered apologetically. He pushed his plate away.
The boss told him: ‘Shut up.’
‘It is steak,’ protested the other.
‘What did you say? Did you say it was steak?’
‘Yeah. I said it was steak.’
‘Nah. It’s too thin. It’s snake, I reckon.’
‘Shut up, both of you.’ He turned to me. ‘How about you, mate?’
‘I heard there were eggs at Choi’s, but I never got there.’
His eyes told me I had disappointed him.
‘I usually have eggs on my steaks for breakfast.’
The plate was pushed further away. The other began eating his cautiously.
‘Eat it, or stuff it, but shut up about it!’
U Thet the egg moralist had given me advice about virgins also.
‘They do not last. Have some while you can.’
He was a widower with sons in many ports. To him the trading towns of the river were so many homes from China to the sea. Not all his sons were by the woman who had been his wife and it was unclear how many mothers they shared between them.
‘This one is ready, but may be wasted.’
Singh had been called by his wife to a customer. The older girl had come in her mother’s place to remove the coffee things. I watched her go. From the front she remained a child, but already from behind had begun to turn woman. U Thet always knew.
‘Unless some storm shakes the orchard.’
He spoke of them as fruit to be picked and enjoyed in season. A season to which all other seasons of their lives were a building up, and after which there was only a decline.
‘But they’re so young.’
‘Ripe is ripe. Try one and see.’
I ignored this too. Then in the nights after it became easier, as I lay in that shut room without further terror listening to the snores of the Australian who had doubts about his breakfast, it was not my failure to accept advice about eggs which made me sweat more than the heat justified. Nor was that why I was awake and taut when the door opened in the dark preceding dawn. As it had before, but this time the one guard only, the one you could talk to, and a whispered summons which sounded almost as if it might have been as gently refused.
‘I have never been in gaol,’ U Thet claimed. ‘Ask why.’
‘Oh all right. Why?’
‘Because it is profitless,’ he hissed.
‘Well that is shocking. No wonder my mother warned me off.’
‘She was a good woman your mother.’
That he would have sold his own, market and margins permitting, I would not have questioned. But I kept that to myself. This U Thet who paid for virgins was not a man whose mother you would insult even as you negotiated her price. When we took brandy together I was always a little controlled, never too much taken with the drink. With Singh I was always more relaxed, and wrong.
He waited for me in a whitewashed room with a loud clock on the wall. I could not tell if it were the same room. The windows were closed against the night and the air was stale. The guard stood by the door. There was a small table with iron legs and two school chairs. If you sat and talked very calmly the sweat oozed rather than ran and it was not necessary to brush it out of your eyes too often. An olive cap lay on the scarred varnish with a dark red star in its band and a red line ran across his forehead just below the scalp. Beside the cap was my notebook.
‘You know what has happened to the king?’
I had forgotten they had a king.
‘You know?’ Urgent now.
I shook my head. I had discovered answers without words are less misunderstood.
‘He goes to the fields today.’
‘It will kill him,’ I said.
‘It is meant to cure.’
Who of what, my friend? You cannot cure the world of being the world. Silence. An abrupt nod at me.
‘The work will kill him.’
‘Work is compulsory. Death is incidental.’
‘You know it will kill him.’
‘That is not what is meant. Even if foreseen, such another consequence of the work is unintended. This is a moral way to proceed. In medicine we term it the doctrine of double effect.’
‘You are a doctor?’
For a tick of the clock he was afraid.
‘I have spoken to doctors. Many have passed through here.’
Angry, now; his fear thrust back at me.
‘I am not a doctor.’
‘You are a parasite. You write lies for money.’
‘That is a misunderstanding.’
‘It is the way you make your living.’
I did not comment on the way he made his.
Yet: ‘I am a servant of my people,’ he gave, as if in answer. ‘I am concerned with their service. Lies do not serve them.’
‘I did not intend to write lies.’
‘We have discussed this.’ He glanced at the notebook. ‘I concede that you were misled.’
There were no names. But there had been the coffee drinking.
‘My mistakes were mine.’
‘This is true.’
‘So others should not pay.’
‘Always images of money. This is about friendship.’
‘As a friend I will write the truth if you tell it me.’
‘We know who our friends are. You will see that.’
It must have been taking place as we spoke.
‘What will happen?’
‘You will leave ...’
He meant then, right then. As I reached the door it was swung open. Behind, my chair clattered to the floor.
‘ ... and the king will die. Write that.’
The same guard drove me to the foot of the gangplank, checked there was nothing left to steal, and wished me a safe voyage.
‘Good luck,’ I told him.
‘Thank you.’ He was pleased. ‘It was not your notebook.’
‘He just wanted you to feel bad. He wants everybody to feel bad.’
‘Then I am sorry for him.’
‘So am I. His wife was killed.’
Because of this kindness of the guard I could face looking for my friends.
‘The crowd is parting.’
‘No,’ says U Thet. ‘It is retreating.’
‘We will not rush things. Like the gentlemen who came so successfully out of the trees, we will hold back a time in wisdom.’
‘What kept them, by the way?’
‘The big guns.’
‘They were never fired.’
‘Setting a price.’
‘They sold the artillery!’
‘There was hard bargaining.’
‘How did they settle?’
‘The royal gunners threatened to fight.’
‘They didn’t fight for the king.’
‘Would they have now?’
‘It was about money.’
‘Ah,’ I smile.
‘The reason you are a poor man is your frivolity.’
‘You and Singh are poor men also.’
‘Until we are rich again. I have my sons, and Singh has me as a friend.’
I think of Singh’s daughter. U Thet smiles now.
‘You are our friend also. You may buy us a drink when we land. We will keep you poor, at least.’
‘Except Singh doesn’t drink. Or didn’t.’
‘I think still not. You and I may be Dutchmen, but he remains Sikh.’
‘D’you think now?’
‘Soon. The others grow bored with him.’
The crowd has thinned, and we can approach the stern. From there we remain just within sight of the town, but the ferry is beginning to turn beneath us into the bend. Singh stands at the rail looking across to his right at the almost vanished levée. A single column of smoke twines out of the rooftops. He has more than enough space in which to swing a cat. The long parang looks comfortable in his hand, and the blade lies along his black trouser leg like a silver cavalry stripe. I do not need to be reminded not to approach him. He remains quite still and makes no sound. Off him comes the thin cruel smell of the urge to kill.
‘One of yours?’ I mutter to U Thet in the silence of the crowd and the rushing of the waters off the hull.
‘I had not thought to ask him. I do not think I will.’
U Thet tells me then what he saw before the ferry sailed.
They came, as they try always to do, in those hours which crowd upon the dawn when the spirit huddles on its roost and is afraid to fly. U Thet awoke to splintering crates as they built a fire at the intersection. In the days since they had entered the town there had been nothing. A few officers had shopped, paying for what they took. Now they had come.
At first the fire-makers were the boy soldiers with their empty rifles, oil rags stuffed in the magazine slots. The older soldiers who kept to the flickering shadows under the shop eaves shouted at the youths who had sat up from their sleep on the boardwalks and they ran to the rubbish piles and began feeding the fire also. U Thet went out to the older men and gave them his keys and they placed a guard on his door and told him when he could leave for the ferry.
He stood inside his dark shop looking at the flames through the clear red spirit in his glass. Then it seemed to him that the fire split in two. The brandy was in the way and confused him. When he lowered the glass the flames were in Singh’s shop.
The boy soldiers and young men surged from their fire to Singh’s. He stood with his back to the blaze at the top of the steps that led up from the street to his shop front.
There was a flash of reflected light and the mob ebbed. The men in the shadows with loaded weapons watched. They watched the front of the shop burn out and the rolls of cloth inside blacken and Singh standing with that terrible stillness. Then they said something to him, called across the street, and Singh looked behind at the flames which threatened his neighbour’s shop, and he walked away along the boards to where Mrs Kaur waited with the two girls, and the youths and boys rushed up over the boardwalk to overwhelm the fire with brooms and water buckets.
Singh walked with his family above the street as far as he could and then stepped down into it. U Thet swallowed the last of his brandy and followed. In this manner Singh came to the ferry. His step was uncaring and lightly sprung and the blade swung leisurely at his wrist. His wife came in a separate dignity, carrying the younger child still in her nightclothes and with one hand resting on the slender shoulders of the older girl. Their way was lit by street fires and soldiers watched with interest as he passed. One waved as if at a fellow drunk returning home. Another laughed, like a man at a friend’s unexpected mischief.
The ferry takes the bend in a wide sweep and only the thin smoke marks the vanished town. Singh brings back his arm. The last of the crowd surges away. The parang spins far out, and the wake and the river mist close over it. The crowd does not press in again and at last U Thet and I manage to reach his side.
Speaking behind Singh’s back U Thet tells me: ‘And I have given up virgins.’
John Brooke has had poetry and short stories published in the UK and overseas. In the 60s and 70s he worked for the Diplomatic Service in Africa and South East Asia. This is one of his stories from that time.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The