After the war he came to live in a place with names still unwritten and found work as a mule in the river docks. He carried such and such a load of rice a day from river to godown and back again, this and that number of sacks a day for every meal that he remembered or forgot or missed. He ate two bowls of watery porridge at noon and dusk, salted with preserved vegetables and soy sauce, breath-cooled, in bowls chipped or whole, lent and borrowed, finally broken. Both legs hunched on a single strip of plank which served as a bench, the singlet he wore browned with sweat, then bleached white after the weekly wash, brown and again white. The river stayed gray and sometimes rusty vermillion in spilt sunlight. Gulls hijacked the prows of bumboats. Rats gnawed leaks into sackcloth, a month's worth of dinner for a family of four taxed away by rodents every night. Grime grew on the godown walls, greasy stains and handprints, pauses for breath immortalised and later cracked with paint, demolished.

    For sleep he had the warmth of three men as blanket and comfort, thighs and backs stiff from toil as bedframe and headrest, a candle for moonlight in the long room, the concrete floor chilly as snow. He must have dreamt of home, reliving the escape, the piercing voices of children, weary caresses in the dark. By day the ghosts withdrew, allowed him the peace of labour.

    Within a few years he could rent a lorry and spare his back. The traffic of rice sacks multiplied. The shaved top of his head almost scraped the ungilded roof of his vehicle's cabin and the road was often bumpy, always rough. Men came to him as the man to go to, who never whored, seldom gambled, was wise and thrifty without wife. He lent money and advice, fought as few lethal knife-fights as he could, husbanded his few scars, earned his tattooes, the quiet ear of hard men. Before a decade passed, he was asked, as an elder and man of honour, to take a new wife and so become truly lost to his homeland, folded away from the past and into the future, once again a father.

03 September 2002   22:11 hours
candles { } freedom