In this Issue - Fiction
Verbena. What kind of a name is that? I s’pose it’s OK in Guyana or one of them Caribbean places, but in Haringey? No way. My bloody parents’ fault. I shoulda had a British name, not something that makes out like I’m some kinda tropical flower, so that they can harp back to those ‘good good days’ before they came here. If they were so bloody ‘good good’, why on earth did they up sticks and em-ee-grate to London in the first place?
Listen. Here’s a story from the era of General Chun Doo-hwan – one of the more preposterous dictators to have ruled our land.
Thirty-odd years have passed since these events transpired. Yet as the fate of our protagonist-hero demonstrably shows, sometimes it makes no difference at all that whole decades have gone by. Today he’s still a wanted man, just as he was then.
I can hear crickets, luminous crickets singing inside my veins, singing and telling stories of sun-baked earth and marshlands and bogs, crickets merrily taking those stories into my pumping heart.
Everyone was talking about the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. Yun and her classmates had seen angry commentators dominating the news every day since the event had occurred, a month before, in May 1999.
We float and swim, we boat and punt on the storm waters aglow in the weak sunlight. In a freak occurrence, an accident of the El Niño year, warm and cold currents met and mingled, a dance of opposites that birthed the rains in gleaming rivers. If there is a line that separates land from warm turquoise, it blurs, and we fall into our shadows or perhaps our shadows swallow us, the outlines of boat and people, wavy lines of form.
In the summer of 1875, exactly a year after my wife died, an English hunting party set up camp by our village in the Satpuras. I was twenty years old, and woke up each day hoping it would be my last. My parents thought me mad. Every year, all across the hills, people died of ailments for which we had no names. We buried our dead, and then we forgot about them. But I could not forget. My fingers were still stained yellow from the turmeric my wife had applied on her skin; I heard the clatter of her bangles as I ploughed the landlord’s fields. Men whispered as I passed them, and plotted exorcisms with my parents. I took to walking on tracks that had known only the hooves of deer; I learnt to summon clouds of quiet in my head that softened the shrillness of other people’s voices. Then the English arrived and I made up my mind to leave with them.
‘Please get ready. Number 36.’
We move into position, me behind Wee Kiong. He bends low, legs apart. The sensors on us light up and begin clicking. Those embedded in us – the permanent ones – start ticking, the wiggle of worm-crawl under our skins. It is not an unpleasant sensation; in fact, it is mildly sensual.
I prepare myself, using the lube. The air-con in the room dries it up quickly. I apply a dollop on Wee Kiong. His muscles clench, then relax.
The sound of dogs barking woke him up. Ahn reached out reflexively for his phone, which he had placed at the head of his bed. It felt familiar and solid in his hand, but his ears were still mistaking his ringtone for the barking of dogs.
Coincidentally, he had been dreaming that he was being chased by a pack of black dogs and had just ducked into a phone booth with broken glass. The barking dogs were slavering at the mouth, sharp teeth bared. Ahn clutched the phone with trembling hands as his knees nearly buckled from a sharp urge to urinate.
Hello? Is s-somebody there? Ahn sputtered, when the signal finally went through. The dogs vanished as suddenly as if they’d been swallowed by a thick fog. Not just the dogs, but the streetlights, the vandalised phone booth, and the handset he had been clutching, leaving Ahn standing alone in a deserted field.