Friday, 3 October 2014

If You Would Talk To Me, My Love

The darkness is full of silence, my love, except for the slow drip of water somewhere nearby.

I wish I could reach the water – not to turn it off, even if I could, but to drink a little. I’m appallingly thirsty, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, my throat so dray I find it nearly impossible to swallow. It must be at least a day or longer since I’ve last had anything to drink.

I listen to the water, since it’s the only thing I can hear, and I wish, my darling, that – since I can’t drink from it – that it would stop. The sound of it is torture. At other times I listen to it, and I imagine it’s your voice.

There is no way I can reach the dripping water. There must be a hundred tons of broken building on top of me, and a substantial portion of that is pressing down on my legs, abdomen and right arm. A huge slab of masonry is just above my face, close enough that if I raise my head my nose and forehead touch it. Something has wedged the slab in place before it could fall all the way down and crush me flat.

Maybe someone would say that was a kindness. I don’t think you would, though. Not if you knew where I am, and how.

Don’t you worry about pain, though. I’m feeling no pain at all. In fact, apart from my head, neck, and left arm, I have no sensation, anywhere. The numbness has lasted long enough for me to stop worrying that the sensation would come creeping back.

I remember how you used to laugh at my dislike for pain. You were always the strong one, the one who could tolerate physical discomfort, while I was the one who would wince at paper cuts and twisted ankles. It was the same when it rained; I was the one who would hate getting wet, while you delighted in it, gloried in the feel of the water crashing down and soaking you to the skin.

Now I have no pain and no water, either. You needn’t worry, my darling, on that account.

I wonder how long it has been since the earthquake. I was walking upstairs to the bank when it struck. At first I’d thought it was nothing, one of the tiny quakes we had ten or fifteen times a year, and not even hesitated as I walked up the stairs. Then a giant hand grabbed hold of the building and shook, shook hard, the reinforced concrete crumpling like paper. Running was useless, so I’d stood where I was on the landing till it fell away below me.

The cold is getting more severe. I can feel it stealing up my chest, little by little, like a rising tide. Maybe the water I’m hearing is gathering beneath me, and it’s going to kill me with hypothermia before I die of thirst.

That’s the kind of joke I would have told you if I could have talked to you now. In the old days I’d have laughed immoderately and you’d have called me stupid.

I wish I could hear you call me stupid now.

By now, my love, you must have heard about the earthquake. Wherever you are, they’ll have spoken about it in the media, because a quake that could bring down a building like this would have laid waste to the town. How many injured, how many dead? Ten thousand, a hundred thousand? Is there a count that makes sense?

Once upon a time, I’d been talking to you about the meaninglessness of numbers when talking of deaths en masse. We’d been lying in bed after making love, you snuggled against my side, your arm thrown across my chest, listening to my voice; maybe you weren’t that interested in what I was saying, you were listening to me speak – because that was how much you loved me.

“If there’s a single death,” I’d said, looking up at the ceiling fan slowly turning round and round, “say, a kid run over by a car, then that’s a tragedy. The kid has a name, a face. Its parents are people. Its classmates and teachers can be depended on to shed tears. But if you have forty people, say, killed in a bus that falls off a cliffside road, then that one death is divided by forty. The impact is so much less; you can’t have it otherwise. Isn’t that true?”

“Mmm hmm,” you’d said, your face rubbing against my ribs, your hair spread across my shoulder.

“So you have a thousand killed in a train accident, or fifty thousand killed in a war. Who can even remember their names? Even if you found a list of their names, what would it matter to anyone? You don’t know who those people are, do you? So how does it matter, unless you know one of them personally?”

Your hand had gone tracking down my chest and past my navel, and after that we’d had other things to do than talk.

Oh, but I remember those times, my darling, your sighs as we made love, your laughter as I said something that amused you, even your outrage when we fought. I don’t think I’ve ever remembered them quite as well as at this moment, with the thirst gnawing away my throat and the cold spreading up towards my heart.

So. Now I am one of those faceless thousands – I wonder how many there are who were mercifully extinguished in that first instance. I wonder how many were picked broken by the rescuers from the rubble – for certainly they must be busy, far above, though they will never reach down here, not in the time I have left. And I wonder how many are lying like me under masses of shattered brick and stone, waiting for the end. There must be a lot. Some of them might be within almost touching distance of me, if only I could move both my arms and there was nothing in the way.

I wonder what you’re doing now. I don’t have any sense of time, of course, so I have no idea if it’s day or night up there. I don’t even know where you are now, in what part of the world; maybe the stars are shining down on you while a noonday sun glowers down on this flattened town.  Perhaps you’re at work, frowning over Excel sheets and task lists. How hard you tried to make me understand Excel, and how frustrated you got with my stupidity! It makes me smile, and brings a brief flush of warmth. I wish I could tell you: next time you explain it to me, I promise to understand.

If I could call you, would you take my call? Don’t worry, I won’t be disturbing you at work, or in whatever you’re doing. My cell phone is lost forever, trapped in my trouser pocket beside my right hand; it might as well be on Ganymede for all the good it does me. But suppose I could, would you take it?

I imagine your frown as you see the number on your phone, the old familiar number, after so long. Maybe you wouldn’t take the call. But I’d like to imagine that at this moment, knowing of the quake, you would take it.

“Hello?” you’d say.

I used to tease you about that “Hello”, made always in that defensive tone of voice. “Don’t you even check to see who’s calling?” I used to ask.

“Hi,” I’d say, now, when you took the call. “Hi, my love.”

There would be, perhaps, a brief moment of silence. Then what would you reply? Would it be a flat “Yes,” or would you cry out my name at my call, at that intimation that I’m alive? What would you say?

I know what I would say, though. If you would talk to me, I would walk us through our memories together, the long talks over the phone, hour after hour; the walks down a sandy beach, hand in hand, the ice creams we’d shared while you ordered me not to gobble yours all up. If you would talk to me, I would remind you of the stupid jokes we’d cracked, and how you’d pretended not to know the world was round until I’d realised you were doing that to amuse me. If you would talk to me, I’d tell you about the times I would run to you in the airport arrival lounge and hug you so tight that neither of us could breathe.

If you would talk to me, my love, I would remind you again that I’ll love you forever and always, that my love never died, and never will. Even though my body won’t survive more than a few hours longer at most, and even though I have no belief in any life after death, I won’t go away. I will always be with you.

When you look out of the window and see the crows hopping along the wall, I’ll be those crows. I’ll be the squirrel which runs up to your kitchen window, demanding to be fed. I’ll be the green moth which flutters along your ceiling of an evening. I’ll be the snail which you find crawling slowly along the gutter, and I’ll be the kites which wheel overhead in the afternoon sunshine.

I will be there, my love, when you see the green commuter trains run along their tracks, and remember me sitting by you, squashed against a sweaty fat man with a greasy turban on his head. I’ll be in the rain which comes crashing down and the thunder and lightning, I’ll be there in the wind and the storm, I’ll be there in your waking and I’ll be there when you go to bed.

If you would talk to me, my love, I would remind you of what you’d once told me, a long time ago; that you would love me forever and a day.

The cold has reached over my heart, high enough that I can, somehow, reach round my left arm and touch it; and, yes, it is water. I bring it to my lips, lick the thin film of moisture off my fingers, and dip again. Maybe I’ll drown before I freeze, then. Funny.

My arm moves up and down, mechanically, pulling a few drops to my lips. We’d walk together drinking soda out of bottles, which would turn into sweat in high summer almost as fast as we drank it down.

...I must have slept a bit, perhaps. The water has almost reached my chin. If I crane my neck I can let drops dribble into my mouth. It’s just as well, the cold is numbing, too much to bear, too much for me to move my left arm any longer.

If you would talk to me, my love, I’d tell you about entropy, about how all the energy in the universe is running down to a state of total equilibrium, and when that happens, that will be the end of time and space. Oh, I’d tell you all about black holes and the Big Bang, and dark matter and energy, and how every atom of our bodies, every bit of our energies, came from the stars and would in the end return to the stars again. Would you listen to me as I told you this? I’d like to think you would, at least this one time.

If you would talk to me, my love, I’d tell you about my dreams, about the dinosaurs and vampires and crazy people who did even more insane things, and you’d laugh at me and tell me people don’t sleep to watch free movies, they sleep to get some rest. And then you would laugh at me again, for sleeping so much.

If you would talk to me, my love, I’d tell you about the photos you sent me, with your tongue stuck out and your eyes crossed, and I’d tell you how glad they made me feel, and how they never failed to bring a dash of pleasure to my heart. I would tell you never to stop taking photos like that, if only because I would be in those photos, too.

If you would talk to me, my love, I’d be telling you about the bike rides we’d taken, you yelling instructions over my shoulder as you checked the GPS on your phone for directions, your voice half carried away by the wind so I had to keep telling you to repeat yourself.

The wind was in your hair, the wheels sang on the road, and the warmth was all around, the warmth of your arms around me, the warmth of the sun on our skins, the warmth of your love, my love, the warmth of everything.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Monday, 29 September 2014

In the Dark

He crouched in the darkness, pressing his hands into the earth walls to push himself as far as he could into the bend of the tunnel. The ground around, below and above him was no longer trembling to the concussion of the enemy’s bombs, so he wouldn’t be buried alive – not just yet. But they would be coming, dropping in from their helicopters or riding on their tall boxy armoured personnel carriers.

He knew what would happen after that. He’d seen it many times before. They’d comb the blasted forest, seeking among the charred undergrowth and snapped off tree trunks for the entrance of a tunnel. And if they found this one...

Then they’d flood it with gas, or send in the small brown-skinned soldiers with the pistols and grenades. And he had nothing to defend himself with, not even a knife.

Despite the muggy heat in the tunnel, he shivered. He was afraid, and he didn’t want to be afraid.

Not long ago, he hadn’t been afraid. Not so long ago, he’d been the boldest man in the section, so that his cell commander had given him a dressing down for foolhardiness. But that had been when he was just out of training, and everything had been strange and new and he could do anything he wanted, anything at all.

Back in the hamlet, nobody had ever taken him quite seriously. Old Schoolteacher Van’s son, they had called him, with a mixture of condescension and pity, would never be anything more than a copy of Van himself, small, meek and the butt of everyone’s jokes. And they’d been a bit suspicious of him because, being the schoolteacher’s son, he was a bit too educated. But that was before the war had reached this far, before it had stained the forest and rice paddies, and before the hamlet had formed a defence committee.

Nobody had expected him to volunteer, though. He still remembered the look of shock on the face of the defence committee chief, Minh, when he’d turned up.

“But you’re Van’s son!” he’d said.

He’d looked at Minh. “I’m also one of the men of the hamlet,” he’d said. And Minh had looked away.

“All right,” he’d mumbled. “Report for training tomorrow.”

His father hadn’t said anything when he’d heard. But his face had frozen, and his eyes sunken back into his head. And his mother had cried, but softly, in another room, so that she’d thought he hadn’t heard.

Why had he joined? He hadn’t had any interest in politics, in the Party, and, if truth were to be told, he hadn’t been all that interested in the liberation struggle – not then. That was before he saw villages burned by the hairy pink American invaders, before he’d seen their inhabitants shot and dumped in a ditch. Then he’d become very interested in the liberation struggle.

It was in training that he’d met Phuong. She was from a larger village down on the delta, a place with a road cars could travel and even electricity. He was almost afraid to speak to her, even when they were allocated to the same guerrilla cell. She was too sophisticated, too knowledgeable, and far too pretty for him. But she’d been kind to him then and later, and hadn’t laughed at him even once, not even when he’d stammered and blushed whenever she’d spoken to him.

Little by little, quite naturally, he’d fallen in love with her. He’d realised that in the first bombardment, when she’d crouched beside him in the forest while shrapnel slashed through the trees. He’d realised it when they’d been setting up an ambush for the Saigon puppets, and she – who had been banned from taking part in the fighting – had given him a small amulet on a string to wear around his neck. It was a good luck charm from the village, she’d said. And he’d realised it again, more than ever, one more time.

He’d never spoken of his love to her, of course. For one thing, it was forbidden as long as they were fighting. For another, he was terrified of being rejected if he told her, or, even worse, laughed at. Perhaps she’d decided that she would marry someone in the city after the war, he’d thought. Maybe, if he didn’t say anything, she would finally fall in love with him herself. And then maybe after the war was over they could get married.

So he just loved her, and waited.

Then there came the day when their unit had been surrounded and bombarded. First the shells had exploded among the trees, blasting aside the trunks like matchsticks, and then the planes had come roaring over, napalm exploding over the jungle in a rain of fire. There had been nowhere to go, nowhere to run.

Phuong and he had got away then, though. They and a third guerrilla, the unit commander, who had been temporarily blinded by a head wound, had managed to survive the bombardment and evade the American troops when they had come searching. They had even managed to find their way down to the river, Phuong leading the commander by the hand because he had a bandage round his eyes and couldn’t see. For almost two days they’d kept moving, drinking from puddles and eating leaves when they could no longer stand the hunger. Finally, they’d reached the river,  and once there they’d believed they had managed to escape.

But they’d been still beside the river, waiting for some way to get away to the main force regiments to the north, when the American patrol had arrived. It was his own fault they’d got so close without being seen; he’d been so tired that he’d half dozed away while Phuong changed the commander’s bandage. And then, suddenly, they’d been there, walking along the path by the water, coming right in their direction. It was already too late to run.

Fighting back hadn’t been an option. They’d had no weapons between them but the commander’s pistol, ad that had only half a clip of ammunition. And the enemy had been a full platoon, forty heavily armed soldiers. They wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Another moment, and they’d have been seen.

And then Phuong had got up, and walked down the path away from the soldiers, as quickly as she could without running. He’d seen her do that, known instantly what she was doing, and yet been unable to stop her or even to protest.

The Americans had seen her too, of course, and their attention had been drawn instantly to her. One of them had called to her, in heavily-accented Vietnamese, to stop. She’d broken into a trot instead, not running, not going fast enough to provoke them to fire, just fast enough to make them run to catch her.

He’d watched them catch her, and he’d watched them do things to her. He’d reached for the commander’s pistol then, but the older man, who still could barely see, had grabbed his hand.

“Don’t be a fool,” he’d hissed. “She’s given her life for us. Stay down and don’t move.”

So they had stayed down and he’d watched the soldiers roll Phuong’s body into the river when they’d finished with her, and then they’d stood around smoking for a while before going on with their patrol. And when the night had fallen they’d continued their journey.

He’d been brave then, and reckless with the force of his love for her.

Now he was merely afraid. Now, he was alone in the dark, unarmed and terrified.

It wasn’t completely dark. There was a tiny chink of light, invading from somewhere, a pinpoint-thick dot of illumination showing nothing. He stared at it with hatred, imagining it to be something which would pick him out to the enemy as brightly as a searchlight. He wanted to seize the light, take hold of it, twist it and crush it and bury it where it could do no harm. But he didn’t dare leave his niche in the wall.

Once more, knowing it was useless, he felt about him in the darkness for the carbine, or failing that, anything at all, even a bayonet or a panji stake, which he might use as a weapon. But there was nothing except the stale air and the heat.

Suddenly he stiffened. Surely that was a noise in the darkness? He thought he heard a voice. He listened intently. Yes, it was a voice, and now footsteps. He could imagine the tunnel rats, in the darkness round the bend, pausing as they listened for any noise at all, even that of breathing, before coming further. They’d be small men, tiny by American standards, and they’d have a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other. He’d fought them many times before and he’d won.

But that was then, when he’d had weapons and he hadn’t been afraid.

He began to shake, the tremor starting in his neck and shoulders and spreading down his back and arms, shivering with terror, as the muffled footsteps came closer. He buried his head between his shoulders, and fought down a whimper of fear.

Light flooded in on him.

“Father,” the round-faced middle-aged woman said. “There you are, in the wardrobe again. I thought I’d find you there. Really, you’re getting impossible. Come out at once!”

The old man crouching in the corner got up slowly and shuffled into the room. Tears streamed down his cheeks and his shoulders shook.

“Father,” said the woman, “what’s wrong? You’re crying.”

The old man shook his head.

“The war is over, Father,” the woman said gently. “It’s been over a long, long time.”

The old man didn’t reply. The female interrogator asked him something. He didn’t even try to understand what she was saying. It no longer mattered what they did to him.

Phuong had given her life for him, and he’d been through so much, only to be captured so ignominiously after all, and the tears of shame just kept flowing.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014