Issuu on Google+

r ev enge ink

A B S OL U T ION JOH N F. M C D O N A L D


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 1

ABSOLUTION


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 2

ALSO BY JOHN F MCDONALD

TRIBE “Tribe has an impact first and foremost because it is a novel teeming with imagination and spice...” The Irish Times TALKING TO GOD “The author writes with blood-flecked intensity and makes powerful use of the unspoken...” The Belfast Telegraph CHILDEYES “As well as being a daring insight into American politics, Childeyes takes the reader to the edge of reality… and beyond…” Publishers Weekly OTHERWISE KILL ME “The writing is top class and makes putting down the book to get on with life an irritating activity…” Leinster Express BORSTAL GIRL “A true story of violence and survival, but also a secret history of a London long past. There is no other female memoir like it...” Simon & Schuster Blurb


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 3

ABSOLUTION

JOHN F MCDONALD

REVENGE INK


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 4

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher

The moral right of the author has been asserted British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Revenge Ink Unit 13 Newby Road, Hazel Grove, Stockport Cheshire, SK7 5DA, UK www.revengeink.com ISBN 978-0-9565119-4-2 Copyright Š John F McDonald 2011 Typeset in Paris by Patrick Lederfain Printed in the EU by Pulsio Ltd.


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 5

Dennis Moran is my name Graiguecullen is my station Heaven is my resting place And Christ is my salvation When I am dead and in my grave And all my bones are rotten This little book will tell my name When I am quite forgotten For Dennis


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 6


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 7

MOHAMMED SHARIF

I undo the flies of my field trousers and urinate on the wound. The boy winces but does not cry out. He’s younger than Sharif – maybe not more than sixteen. They’re all young on this patrol. Student rebels from the Shan Army – Karen boys of the National Union. Suli Neng crouches to look at the soldier’s leg and carefully lifts away bits of blood-soaked uniform surrounding the bullet’s entry point. It’s deep, but looks clean enough after being washed by the hot urine. No shattered bone. It needed sterilizing because of the jungle’s invisible killers – botulism and malaria and typhoid and cholera and bubonic plague – predators that are carried by things lurking in the undergrowth and can find their way quickly into the bloodstream. The wound was caused by a bullet from a government soldier’s gun – in a running skirmish with the Tatmadaw on the way to this place. Suli Neng uses a hairpin and a bayonet to extract the bullet – but water is scarce and that’s why I have to urinate on the wound, to flush it out. Suli bandages the leg with leaves and vines and helps the boy away into the jungle, while I return to the hole. A sweet breeze blows up the peninsula from the Sea of Andaman and refreshes me in the high humidity of this late July rainy season. 7


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 8

A smaller stone was originally found here by some refugee hill-tribe people and exchanged with the Karen for sanctuary. The rebels came back and found a few more small stones, which were quickly traded to Viet gun-runners for obsolete weapons. Then they began this open-pit excavation, hiding it when Government troops approached and coming back when it was safe to do so – until they discovered this new stone. This different stone. And that is why I am here. The surrounding jungle is quiet and still, with a thin mist lifting gently from the tree tops that will hang there in a low cloud until burned away by the rising sun. Sharif digs carefully at the quartz-mica host rock surrounding the green tip of this new stone. I don’t know how much more is underneath and I don’t want to risk damaging it. Two Karen rebels dig with me in the pre-dawn moistness. Their green shirts are smeared with earth and grey-white calcite and stained with sweat. Breath comes in short gasps. Now and then they look up quickly like startled animals – at the sound of bird wings or the rustle of some small creature in the undergrowth. Anticipation and fear in eyes that dart into the forest all around us – even though we know Suli Neng and the rest of the patrol are positioned in the trees. We are up in the foothills that spill across the borders of Laos and Thailand into Burma – near the village of Wan En. Government soldiers are not far away. And Sharif was given only Suli Neng and half a dozen boys to carry out this expedition. Most of these people are Theravada Buddhists and Khao Phansa began on the first day of the waning moon and they believe it’s better to stay in one place during this Lenten rain retreat, so only a few volunteers would come. Sharif is a Muslim Kashmiri, so I don’t care about their festivals or superstitions. And my heart is filled with hate and I need to find revenge. One way or 8


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 9

another. I need to purge myself of the demons that torture my brain with images of a dead father and a dead mother and two dead younger brothers. Only by revenge can I return to the peace of happier days. It is a divine mission. A Jihad. Sharif will be an avenging angel when the time comes and I have discovered a purity of soul in the waiting. My people need weapons just like these Karen. Many weapons. A miracle of weapons. Other countries and causes have these weapons – but not the real Kashmiri liberators. We have no America or Britain or Iran or Russia or China to supply us, because we have no oil or diamonds to offer in return. Nevertheless, as it has always been – some are prepared to sell. If only the right price can be found. And destiny is never free – it must be paid for. The visible part of the stone becomes bigger. It’s now the size of an ostrich egg, but still Sharif cannot move it. The others have never seen one this size before and I know it’s a special thing. It is my miracle. My miracle stone. I can feel it. This will buy Kashmiri what we want insha Allah – except the Karen want it too. Already it is magnificent – with a deep green luminescence glowing in the murk of early morning jungle, in the gentle predawn light, with the sun’s rays just beginning to creep up through the trees – casting long shadows, which merge dream with reality. I see explosions in the stone’s verdant reflection and blood flowing down its veined surface. A sign. Allah is great. He is with me here in this foreign place. He has guided my feet to the miracle. We continue to dig. Carefully. In case we should damage any part of this Emerald of God. Suli Neng approaches silently out of jungle shadow. The other men spin nervously round, even though she gives the call of a lorikeet to announce her approach. She is lithe and beautiful, in that serene way which is peculiar to 9


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 10

the women of this place. In another time she would be dressed in colourful longyis – perhaps drinking lapet in front of her dappled house and calling to her children. But she has been fighting in the jungle for so long she cannot remember another life. ‘Sharif... it’s getting too bright. We must go.’ ‘Not yet.’ I can smell the fragrance of her above all other essences of men and jungle. But I keep digging. I don’t look up. ‘How much longer?’ She is concerned for her men. Boys. I understand that. But I cannot leave without the stone. ‘How much longer, Sharif?’ ‘Not long.’ I say this even though I don’t know how much longer it will take to dig the stone free. She is clenching her fists with impatience. I know this even though I do not look up from the hole. ‘How much is this thing worth, Sharif?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I try to keep a calm voice, so she will think it’s just another emerald. So she will not know it is a miracle. Even though she already knows. She moves back from the small open pit and paces around in the clearing. I know this even though I do not look up. She checks the positions of her boys – listening for the slightest alien sound – the briefest unfamiliar movement. She is becoming frustrated and aggravated by the long time this is taking and is uneasy about the height of the sun. She returns to the rim of the hole. ‘We can come back another time.’ ‘No.’ 10


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 11

‘Why should we risk our lives for something we don’t even know the worth of?’ Her voice is slightly louder now and I am afraid she will give our position away. ‘I know it’s worth a lot. I just don’t know how much.’ This time I do look up. She sees I am becoming irritated by her questions. But she’s not afraid of me and she has a natural independence of her own that I admire – even though it irritates me now. She will not go away. ‘How much is a lot?’ ‘I don’t know. I told you I don’t know.’ Still she stands there. At the top of the open pit – and is about to say something else. But I put my hand up to silence her. The others stop digging. We listen. The chattering call of a lorikeet. We all remain motionless, like lizards in the sun. The call comes again. Suli Neng slips away from the rim of the hole – disappearing into the rainforest like a phantom. I signal for the others to continue digging, but they are frightened and climb out of the confinement of the hole to follow Suli Neng. The stone is now as big as a small cooking pot and I can manipulate it backwards and forwards. It is almost free. *** The first shot echoes around the mountains, accompanied by an exodus of flapping wings and a wild shrieking of monkeys. Then a scream and excited shouts from the approaching government patrol. A staccato of random strafing machine-gun fire sends shattered leaves and splinters of bamboo and shredded vines flying through the space above my head. Suli Neng comes running back to the pit. ‘Sharif... now! Let’s go!’ I tug desperately at the stone – digging even more frantically 11


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 12

under it with my fingernails. The jungle around is a bedlam of gunfire and screaming and frightened noises of birds and animals. Suli grabs my shirt collar and tries to drag me from the hole. I shake her off. She tries again. Again I shake her off. She grabs my collar again. Then the stone comes loose. Its weight knocks me backwards and pulls Suli Neng into the open pit on top of me. Gunfire is raging all around. Bullets buzz like mosquitoes above our heads and dying men scream their anguished pain towards the sapphire sky. We hear the shrill voices of government soldiers coming closer and we know we’re cut off from the rest of the guerrillas – from the edge of the rainforest. Suli Neng cocks her gun and prepares to die. I signal to her, not to fire. To be still and quiet. Then I carefully – stealthily – reach out of the hole and slowly, slowly drag a discarded mass of brush and undergrowth across the opening. We sit motionless, with the large green stone on my lap and the smoothness of the woman’s skin against my arm. I feel the contour of her body within the cramped space of the hole. She is as close as a lover. Outside the dig, gunshots die away. We both know the rest of the Karen boys have retreated. Melted away into the jungle to regroup at a pre-determined rendezvous. They will wait for us, but not for long – only briefly, before making their way back north to their base camp in the Shan States. The Tatmadaw patrol has stopped right outside the hole – what is left of the Tatmadaw patrol. We hear the groans of the wounded and shouts of officers. They are close enough to smell. If they discover us now we will certainly die, either quickly and mercifully by Suli Neng’s gun, or excruciatingly slowly by the cruelty of the soldiers. Time passes. 12


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 13

Minute by never-ending minute. And gradually the frantic noises outside the hole subside and are replaced by a nervous composure. Moans from the wounded continue. Continue. Continue. Until one stops. Then they continue until another stops. Then another. One by one they stop until there is only a single voice of pain left. Whimpering. Like a hurt dog. Young. A young voice. Not maybe older than Suli Neng herself. She listens to him from inside the stifling hole and I know she wonders if he fights willingly with the Tatmadaw. Or is he one of those kidnapped from the villages of Karen and Meo and Lahu and Akha and forced to fight and porter for a hated government army. It’s obvious now that the patrol has set up camp and intends to stay a while. At least until the last wounded man dies. It’s cramped and hot in the hole. I feel my knee joints stiffening and I need to move. Stretch. But I cannot. The woman is motionless beside Sharif. Hardly breathing. As inanimate as the green stone itself. Shafts of sunlight slice like bayonets through the cover of undergrowth, glinting with radiance on the stone. It sparkles and seems to speak to Sharif with viridian retinas. Aslaha hamara zewar hai. As if it’s alive. Allah is great. And Suli Neng hates it now. Maybe also me. *** Late in the day, the whimpering of the last wounded soldier stops. Suddenly. And there is silence. Silence for a long time. Silence forever. Then a weary banging with the blunt edge of a bayonet on a metal helmet. Men rise to their feet and make their way towards a smell of cooking. Aromas of food fill the hole and we both realise we have hardly eaten in the four days it has taken us to trek here from base camp. Our only consolation is that the 13


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 14

smell of food has also attracted the attention of red ants that have been biting our arms and legs. They evacuate the hole in marching formation – on their way to attack the patrol’s dinner. Other insects crawl at will across our motionless bodies. Scorpions and spiders and centipedes. I feel her move lightly against my shoulder and I think maybe she’s going to become unconscious. Turning my head slowly I see her eyes are closed and I know she no longer feels the heat of the stifling hole or the thirst and pain raking her body. *** At last, the sun drops behind the tree line, leaving a red glow in the sky like distant fire. Sharif hears the patrol moving out and waits until there is no sound other than the jungle evening. Then I wait a while longer – before climbing out of the hole. I take the stone with me first, then I return for Suli Neng. I collect some water from the giant jungle leaves. Lukewarm liquid trickles from the corners of her mouth and down along her chin onto a sweat-soaked uniform which clings to her breasts. She tries to stand, but her legs buckle from numbness. I rub her thighs and calves until they tingle and blood begins to flow again. Then I put my shoulder under her armpit and support her until some feeling comes back into her limbs. Soon she moves like before, while Sharif makes a sling for the stone, which hangs down my back with the weight taken by my head and neck. We wait for a moment – listening to a calling of cicadas and watching a full moon emerge from behind clouds, like a lantern in the sky, until the clearing is illuminated. We see the bodies of dead soldiers, which have remained unburied, for the jungle to eat. She looks at my face in the moonlight. A strange look which holds no malice, even though I know she hates me. 14


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 15

And the stone. Exotic sounds of a tropical night build to crescendo and we move off into the undergrowth like two strangely cautious spectres. The jungle closes behind us as we pass – leaving no trail in the ghostly moonlight. As if no one has ever been here.

15


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 16

DANIEL HUTTEN

I’m not from New York – not originally. I’m from Philadelphia – well, my parents are. My family. I like to think I’m a New Yorker now. And my name’s not really Hutten – it’s Hullatten, but I changed it to sound less Jewish. Not that Hullatten sounds Jewish or that I got anything against Jewish – I’ll always be Jewish and my family are good people and I love and respect them a helluva lot. And they don’t know about it – it’s like I’m Hutten in New York and Hullatten in Philly. I did it partly because it suits me and partly because of the other goddamn cocksuckers. The ones I owe. The ones I got to pay back soon – otherwise I’m in it. The crap. Big time! What do I owe them? Well – they made things move for me. Got me where I am, so to speak. My family ain’t well off and it’s hard for them. And I’m an ambitious asshole – was ambitious. So they kinda got me where I am, and now – They don’t want me anyway, I guess. Not now. I’m not a Jew to them, they see me as one of the goddamn Goyim. Not that it’s got anything to do with being a Jew, because let’s be clear about this, these people ain’t ordinary Jews like me and you, or even like the Jews who died in the holocaust. The people who’re killing babies in Gaza ain’t the same people whose babies were 16


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 17

killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s about control – it’s a control thing. And these guys are controlled by people who want more control – assholes who won’t show their faces to the world. It’s more than a land-grabbing crusade – it’s a hearts-and-mindsgrabbing crusade – a control crusade. But they know they can’t control me and the jerks won’t let me alone because of it – they won’t let me go free and clear. They made a mistake with me and now I gotta pay for it – either with dough or with my goddamn ass. They gotta make an example, in case some of the other slobs turn out the same as me – the ones they’re grooming to be constitutional Sonderkommandos. In case I go shooting my mouth off and telling people what I know and stirring things up. Not that I’m gonna do any such thing – I don’t want to do nothing like that, because I don’t want to draw any goddamn attention to myself, I just want to be left alone to get on with my goddamn life. But I guess they don’t know that for sure. And I don’t think it matters much to them anyway – it ain’t got nothing to do with me being a Jew, more to do with me being a deserter, a quitter, a rat. And I know they’ll kill me quick as killing a bug, because I represent like a threat to them, even though I ain’t no threat – I just don’t think like them no more. I’m a kinda virus to them, I guess, that could foul up their core. Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no apologist and I spit every time I think of the Einsatzgruppen and their asshole accomplices. See, I know my goddamn history and my heritage – and I know there ain’t no international Jewish conspiracy to control the world or nothing. Maybe there’s a Christian evangelical conspiracy to control the world, I’d believe that ok – in America, at least – or an international bankers’ conspiracy, or an international strip-club owners’ conspiracy, or an international vacuum-salesmen’s conspiracy – and it’s well-known that the 17


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 18

goddamn born-agains couldn’t find their way out of a goddamn cornfield without someone to show them the way – but most of us regular Jewish people just want to be left alone, like my dad. And that’s another thing, I’m also scared of what they could do to my family – so I got to get the money from somewhere. Thought maybe to lam it with a bunch of diamonds from Bachofen, Dernesch & Jacob, but what if I got caught? I ain’t no real crook, even though – No, I ain’t no real criminal – and I don’t think I could carry it off anyway. I don’t wanna be no fugitive, and I’d end up turning myself in and admitting everything to the cops and going to goddamn jail. Then my family would really be crapped on. No. I figure there’s got to be some other way. ‘Daniel... could you drop down to Wall Street and sort this out for me?’ Rudolph Seidlitz is my boss. I guess he’s about sixty, but he looks young for his age – not more than fifty. No – not more than that. He always wears a three-piece blue suit with a silk handkerchief cascading from the top pocket – like it’s the only one he’s got, suit that is, but everybody knows it ain’t. He’s probably got a bunch of suits. He’s also got long blonde hair like a much younger guy or a fag or maybe some retro hippie, even though everyone reckons he could never have been no nonconformist. Maybe it’s a disguise and he’s really one of them. Watching me. Waiting. But I know he ain’t – too civilised I guess. Too dégagé. Somebody told me his family came originally from Berlin, way back in the old days – cleared out before the Nazis got them and that’s what makes me think sometimes – but, shit, Rudolph’s ok. Just a little eccentric. Ain’t we all. He can’t be one of those Shabak cocksuckers. He gives me important stuff to do and I get to go all over the world for him because he can’t fly. I don’t mean he can’t fly – he won’t fly. Some 18


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 19

kind of goddamn phobia he’s got and that’s ok with me. I like travelling. I love it. Here today, gone tomorrow. Keep’s me out of the way of the goddamn Shabak. But sooner or later the cocksuckers are gonna get to me – or my family. Unless – Wall Street is buzzing with the lunchtime crush. It’s warm, even though September’s in the air. Down here the streets are crooked and they got names – not numbers. And Wall Street got its name from a defensive wall them old Dutch settler guys built when the place was just a fur-trading post – but I guess everybody knows that. I go round the corner to Broad Street and into the Stock Exchange for a preliminary meeting with some guy from the Colombian Banco de Comercio who wants to invest money in certified diamonds. Nothing wrong with that, and gemstone dealing is chic at the moment, because everybody figures the diamond market is less prone to the cyclical price fluctuations typical of many commodities and it substantially out-performs oil and gold – and the strength of the diamond market is reckoned to continue into the foreseeable future, with the outlook for prices staying positive, particularly for the larger, high quality alluvials and blues. All this is good for business and it’s part of my spiel, so don’t take too much notice. The company I work for is called Bachofen, Dernesch & Jacob – I think I told you that – after the original guys who founded it, even though it’s a much larger outfit these days. The Colombian guy represents some Medellín syndicate that wants to lose a couple of hundred million dollars. Both of us know goddamn well it’s probably drug money, but neither of us care. It’s goddamn business – that’s all. Ok, I don’t mean I don’t care, I got a conscience about these things. But, if we don’t do it, some other cocksucker will. The Banco de Comercio guy is trying to break the ice without giving me the jitters, and he’s 19


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 20

talking in a roundabout way about new orders of investment in the global economy and saying the démodé capital guys who were traditionally the largest providers of money have all but disappeared, and I say there’s always someone prepared to part with their dough – as long as they can be shown the advantages, and that’s where guys like us come in. That puts him at ease. The Colombian guy tells me there’s a Zurich account in the name of Empire Developments and the diamonds could be deposited there as collateral for a loan made by Empire Developments to an unspecified company. This company would disperse the loan money over various secret accounts and then go bankrupt. The diamonds would be appropriated by Empire Developments and transferred to a front company. Sure – it’s done all the time. He goes on for a while longer about how the dough would get back to the diamond suppliers and I wonder how this guy can be sure I ain’t Customs & Excise or DEA or FBI or some other goddamn agency. But then I guess there’s nothing illegal about what we’re doing – immoral maybe, but not illegal. I tell the guy I’ll need to contact the DTC – which means De Beers – for a deal this size, because they control diamond prices by controlling supply. But I don’t foresee any problems. I tell the smiling Banco de Comercio guy I gotta fly to Brazil tomorrow and maybe I can make a pit-stop at Bogotá on the way back, and we shake hands and arrange a more formal meeting with all concerned for a couple of days from now. After Wall Street there ain’t no point going back to the office, so I drive north to my apartment on Beach Street for a shower. I change into something casual and it’s getting dark when I ride uptown to Chantale’s for an Indonesian curry. And I keep thinking about the English babe – she ain’t really English, she comes from Singapore – I think. But she’s English really. And I keep thinking about her. Been thinking about her ever since that night in the Barracuda Bar in Bangkok. As soon as I see her I’m goddamn 20


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 21

hooked. I think she’s beautiful – still think she’s beautiful. Not in an obvious way – in a way I can’t explain. A slightly grotesque way. Like some women are. And I can’t take my eyes off her all goddamn night. Then she does this thing that clinches it and I know I’ll want her forever. She’s drinking whisky or liqueur with this guy Heathcliff or something, who’s her goddamn fiancé I think, and everyone says he’s a real cocksucker, and she just casually lifts her skirt and gives her quim a scratch. I mean, anyone would think this is a disgusting thing to do – but not the way she does it. She ain’t wearing anything under the skirt and I don’t think anyone else sees her except me. Oy vey, I nearly swallow my goddamn glass. It’s so subtle – so swanky and chic. As if it’s the most natural thing in the world, which of course it is for her, and it just completely floors me. I try to get near her a few times after that, but this Heathcliff guy is a real jealous motherfucker and I don’t know how to approach her. I mean, how do you approach a woman who scratches her snatch so elegantly in public? But I got to find a way, I know that. I can’t rest easy till I do. I go to the Landmark Tavern for a drink, because they got some beautiful whisky and also because I arranged to meet some people there. I know lots of broads in New York and all over the world for that matter and I even had a few of them in my time – before Rebecca St. Hilaire. Now I don’t want nobody else and I just think about her all the time. I know it ain’t healthy – I know a shrink would probably tell me it’s obsessional, but I can’t help the goddamn thing. And I’m told she’s a real goddamn lightweight in the brain department – a real airhead. But I don’t care. I figure if I could get with her once, I wouldn’t want to stay. It would be out of my goddamn system and I’d want to leave her where I found her. Friends keep telling me I should go out with this woman or that woman and I say sure I will – just give me a couple of days. 21


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 22

But I never do. I mean, it’s bad enough with the goddamn Shabak on my mind without her as well. It’s enough to give a guy a goddamn nervous breakdown. We drink a lot of Scotch at the Landmark and my friends want to go on to Expo or the Sound Factory or Tatou. But I’m feeling a little tired and decide to go back to the apartment and hit the sack. Long flight tomorrow. *** The Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt agents are catching up with me. They’re after me because I said some crazy stuff like a Jewish zealot is just as bad as a Christian or a Muslim zealot. I’m running and running and running as fast as I can, but they’re gaining. I look over my shoulder and see they’ve closed the goddamn gap. I can’t run any faster. I’m scared. Real scared. They scream pseudo-Hasmonean slogans at me and call me names, like schlamazel and self-hater.. They call me a cowardly liberal kike. They wear armbands with insignia on them – some junk like an Alabama fylfot or a Galveston gammadion or a burning cross cramponnée. And as I run past a newsstand, I see my face on the front pages of all the tabloids and they’re yelling at me – all those words that turn black into white and lies into truth and injustice into some kind of goddamn glorification. I know every cocksucker will believe them and I’ll be stoned to death if they catch me and if they don’t catch me they’ll stone to death my mother and father and brother and sister. They’ll justify this with the mythical laws of the Protocols and the Book of Revelations and no motherfucker in the whole world will blame them. I wake in a sweat – think I hear someone moving about the apartment. I swing my feet onto the floor and get my gun from a drawer beside the bed, leaving the lights off. Making no noise. 22


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 23

After a while, I realise there’s nobody in the room with me and I listen for the noise I heard a minute ago – if I did hear a noise. Maybe I was dreaming. I think I was dreaming that same goddamn dream again, but I’m sure the noise didn’t come from the dream. I’m sure it came from the apartment. No – I’m not so sure. There’s nobody in the goddamn apartment except myself – so I put the gun back in the drawer and pour myself a whisky.

23


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 24

SULI NENG

Night again, after the day of heat. Sun falling like a stone from the sky. We are moving east towards Möng Hpayak and the highway. Suli Neng wants to head for the Golden Triangle and the guerrilla base camp in the foothills of the Shan States – where we came from six days ago. She wants to take the stone there. She thinks it’s hers. Theirs. Mohammed Sharif wants to go south. Into Thailand. Make my way down to Bangkok and maybe find a way to do a deal. The stone for Kashmiri guns. But I don’t know how. I am a geologist, not a gun-runner. The guerrillas know how. But if I go back to them they will use the stone for Karen guns. Suli Neng has a little rice left which she shares with Sharif. She also has some mekhong whisky and some chewing tobacco for bites and stings. I help her construct a basha which will shelter us during the night, but will not keep out the nocturnal noise nor the swarming insects that buzz and whine about us. She is slim and light – with long black hair tied in a ponytail and pulled up under her olive-green cap. She is beautiful – even in army fatigues and sometimes – only sometimes and only for a brief moment. She smiles. 24


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 25

Night is cool after a sweat-soaked day. After mosquitoes and thorns and ticks and scorpions and leeches and knife-edge grass. After the weight of the stone. It’s good to rest beside the woman – feel her body close to me. I know it is good for her too – because she responds when I move closer. Breath comes faster from her mouth when I move my hand across her back. I know her eyes are open, even though she is turned away from me. Her voice is like velvet when at last she speaks – hill-tribe words I don’t understand. Sharif comprehends the meaning of the words but not the sound – and the sound does not matter. Our naked bodies perspire even in the night’s coolness as we come together in embrace. Her face is sensuous and wild. Her hair glows with moonlight and her skin is almost luminous in the darkness. I feel an overwhelming emotion for this girl who Mohammed Sharif has only known for a very few days and whose body now moves gently in rhythm with my own. All thoughts of revenge flow away on a river of passion that pulls me down until I am drowning and the sound of my voice is like some distant animal and my breath comes in short gasps that float like kisses up into rainforest trees. And van manz laal charith anun. ‘Suli...’ ‘Sharif?’ ‘I want the stone.’ ‘Yes. We will have the stone.’ ‘No... I must have the stone.’ ‘You?’ ‘Kashmiri.’ Dawn is breaking when I wake her to speak these words. Words Sharif has thought about all through the night. There is no fire and I am damp and cold in a dark misty morning, despite the woman’s body close to me. Soon the sun will climb 25


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 26

trees to the east. Her words in reply are confused and sleepy. Now she sits, as the first faint fingers of light begin to probe through the foliage and jungle life erupts into its routines of early morning. ‘Kashmiri?’ ‘My people.’ ‘No!’ She is on her feet and reaching for her rifle. ‘We asked you here, Sharif, because they said you are a qualified geologist...’ ‘I am.’ ‘And you will be paid for your work.’ ‘I want the stone. There are plenty of others for your people, Suli Neng.’ ‘Not like this one. Not as big...’ ‘Suli...’ ‘No!’ She points the gun at me and motions for me to stand. ‘Last night... I thought...’ ‘Forget last night, Sharif. We were together in a strange moment. We both needed something...’ ‘And now?’ ‘Now it is morning again.’ We break camp and I carry the stone in a sling round my head. Suli Neng walks behind me with her gun ready. We move east towards the highway, where she hopes to pick up a truck heading north into the Golden Triangle. Any truck will do except Tatmadaw and there may even be some rebels out looking for us. Sharif does not want to break faith with the woman, but I must get away before we reach the highway. I know I will betray her if I have to but I don’t want to – especially after last night. 26


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 27

Even if it was just a strange moment for her. I must get away with the stone. It is the will of God. We are not making good time during daylight hours – we keep stopping to rest because of the weight of the stone and because we are weak without food. Crossing through humid jungle and open river beds, where a merciless sun dries our sweat-caked clothes and bakes our bodies. We do not speak, because talk travels in the air. A cough. The smell of sweat. The crack of a twig – could give our position away to a Tatmadaw patrol which might be only yards away. The terrain is hostile and unforgiving. Suli Neng reacts to every sound – crouching and bringing her rifle to bear each time an animal moves in the undergrowth or a bird flaps its wings in the trees. By midday, the heat and humidity are unbearable. Unearthly. I feel nauseous. Unreal. Incapable of coherent thought. Moving like a virtual man – through a virtual landscape that is all too real. We are traversing a steep ridge. High above the jungle floor, the top of a sapling moves suddenly and a monkey cries out and swings away – crashing through the treetops. I believe it is a monkey but it could be anything. I look up. The stone slips from its sling and rolls away down the ridge into tangled undergrowth below. We remain still. Listening. Waiting for bullets we won’t even hear to rip into our bodies. The rainforest resumes its hum and Suli Neng signals to follow the stone down the slope. Sharif follows the stone. She follows me. But the stone is gone. Disappeared into thorns and leaves and rotting vegetation. Absorbed back into the earth from where it came. Claimed by the jungle that gave it birth. I search frantically and my hands and arms are cut and bleeding from sharp grass and stinging foliage and if these cuts become infected I could die. Will die. And if I die it is the will of God – and if I do not die it is also the will of God. Suli Neng is searching some distance away. She 27


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 28

has shouldered her gun and is no longer watching me. I see a glint of green, but make no sudden moves. She is out of sight now behind some trees and I quickly retrieve the stone and move away into rainforest. After a while I hear her calling and I know she shouldn’t. Too dangerous. But she calls again. ‘Sharif!’ I move further away into the jungle. Further away from the woman’s voice. She calls again. ‘Sharif!’ Again. ‘Sharif!’ Then the sound of gunfire. The jungle is alive with the screams of monkeys or men, I don’t know which, but I run and run and run and run, with the stone cradled in my arms. I am running for my life. For Kashmiri. For God. Crouched over the stone to protect it as I fly. Covering the ground like a gazelle. And I don’t know where this speed comes from except that it comes from Allah. Finally I fall exhausted to the ground. Sharif listens. No more shouts. No more gunfire. I lie and wait for my heart to come back to me and the fire in my lungs to stop burning. I am a river of sweat and pain. The sun has sloped across to the west and I know I must keep going south, but also I know I cannot move again today. Not even to gather leaves and sticks to construct a basha. I have no food. No water. And I think I am probably forty or fifty kilometres from the Thai border. *** Morning comes in a fever of hallucination and Sharif can see many green stones in the grass around me. Even though I know there is only one. I’m not sure – about anything. I try to 28


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 29

remember who I am and where I was and what is this noise in the back of my head. Like screams and gunfire and a sense of betrayal. God is with me. Insha Allah. He is. I collect a little water from the closest leaves and shiver with cold even though my body is on fire. I must go south. South. But my legs won’t stand and I find myself back on the ground. I crawl through the undergrowth, pushing the stone before me. Time is passing. The sun is rising in the east and dragging itself above the tree line. Is it the same day? Has it been one day, or many days since –? I don’t know. But I hear water – close by. I crawl towards the gentle lapping and the smell of river. And then I see it. Some tributary of the Menam Khong meandering its way southwards? Down the mountains towards Mae Sai or Chiang Saen or Chiang Khong. Somewhere I want to go. There is an old deserted canoe moored about a hundred metres along the bank. Maybe I can make it. Insha Allah. If God holds my arm and steadies my leg. I must move as an animal does – not trying to struggle through obstacles but going around them – if I am to get to the canoe alive. Even though I am eaten by mosquitoes and flies and midges and hornets and river-clegs. God allows Sharif to reach the little boat. I do not know how long it takes – hours – to move a mere hundred metres. The sun is dropping from the sky as I lift the stone over the side with my last ounce of strength and then fall in after it. I cast the canoe adrift and the current takes me downstream. Away from Burma and south towards Thailand. Darkness comes to the river. Then day. Then darkness again. Until night and day no longer exist in the world and all is a river of pain. I am alone. With the stone. There is no one else in the world. Just myself and the stone. And God. The tributary widens as we drift south. The canoe and the stone and Mohammed Sharif. Widening. Opening up into a river. The 29


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 30

Menam Khong? I’m sure it is. Even though it could be any river. Widening – and now Sharif has company on the teabrown water. Gentle lapping sounds of wash from fishing boats, sweeping across a muddy surface and breaking against the wooden stilts of shacks – sticking out of the water like stranded treehouses in a flood. Some of the villagers take control of my canoe and steer it towards the shore. They can see I’m sick. Maybe dying. Probably dying. They look at the stone, but Sharif won’t let go of it – I keep holding on to it. Holding on. To the miracle. God won’t let me let it go. They lift me and the stone from the canoe and take us to a headman’s house, which is raised from the ground on stilts like the rest of the village – to keep out snakes and scorpions and jungle rats. They give me water, which I can’t keep down. Drips. Dripping it into my swollen mouth. Women clean my wounds. Using their herbs and spirit medicine to stop infections. Removing the maggots. And then darkness comes and I fall. Fall. Fall. Down a steep ridge into dark undergrowth. I hear Suli Neng screaming. Sharif! Sharif! Then there is silence. *** Maybe I have been unconscious for a week. Maybe more. I cannot understand the words of the hill-tribe who rescued me from the river. I think they are Lawa or Khamu or opiumgrowing Meo. But Sharif can’t be sure. The junoon has left me and my cuts have healed and the women feed me small amounts of pig and monkey meat and snake, with sweet potatoes and some ginger and rice. I am hungry and my strength is returning and I know that God is still by my side. Allahu akbar. I cannot find the stone and I make some signs to show my concern. After a while, the headman enters the hut with some others. They 30


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 31

carry a rucksack which contains my miracle and they hand it over to me. Apparently it has no worth for them and they are unimpressed by its allure. Next day I take to the river again – just as the first shafts of sunlight radiate over the jungle canopy. This time my canoe has a paddle and the hill-tribe people give me water and food in the form of alligator tail and skinned frog and desiccated earthworm. They stand on the riverbank and wave me goodbye. I don’t know why they helped me. They asked for no reward in return – not even the stone. They smile and wave as I drift away from them. Downriver. Seeming so small in the growing greyblue waters swirling round me. Rolling on a river, which has its origins in the Golden Triangle and which will sweep me down to Mae Sai. It is alive now with small boats and canoes and children splashing in the shallows and women washing clothes on smooth boulders. Nobody notices Sharif or the stone as we glide along. Past great spreading trees with gnarled roots reaching right down to the river’s edge. Past curiously decorated pagodas that loom remote and mysterious out of the morning mist. And all the time the jungle is turning to endless padi and rolling hills are framing the horizon. Mae Sai is a small border town selling precious stones and green Burmese cigars. Sharif looks around for some way to make a deal, but I don’t trust any of the gem-buyers and sellers. I know they can’t give me what my miracle is worth – better to bring it down to Bangkok. Instead, I sell the canoe and buy some real food and a ticket for a bus to Chiang Mai. The journey takes almost ten hours and it is dark when I arrive. The stone is safe in the rucksack strapped to my back. I sleep for a few hours on the bus and use the rucksack as a pillow, listening to the stone under my head. I hear what it says. It says avengement. Allahu akbar! 31


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 32

Daylight. Chiang Mai is called the Flower of the North in Thailand and this is because it is said to have the most beautiful women in the world. And because of the orchid-laden trees clothing the country around the city and because a lush green landscape is never far away. But Sharif has had enough of rainforest for a while and I must go down to Bangkok, which is called the city of angels. With my miracle stone. I use the last of my canoe money to buy a second-class sleeper ticket and while I wait for a train, I wash away the dust and sweat of Burma under a shower in the Happy House Hotel. I stay under the cool water for a long time. Forever. The stone stays with me. Then I wash my clothes and hang them on a tree to dry – this doesn’t take long in the hot sun, and helps me pass the hours until it’s time to leave. Night falls again and I go to the train station. My second-class sleeper has a bunk bed with linen and a toilet. What exquisite luxury – all the way to Bangkok.

32


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 33

CHRISTIAN CHILDE

There’s a rather dull frown on the face of this November morning, as if it’s shaking its head at me in despair, as I tramp along this muddy path, with monkey-droppings and damp undergrowth squelching under my feet. The car’s gone now, of course, and I don’t know where the next one’s coming from. It’s gone and I’m not used to walking, even though it must be good for the weight. There’s a time and place for it – walking – in the gym. On a treadmill, with a set of earphones and a reassuring sense of control. I don’t like it out here in the open. It’s all alien to me – traipsing towards those iron chimneys in this frowngrey sky, with wet razor-grass wrapping around my ankles and soft mud sucking at the soles of my shoes. Late autumn rain keeps falling – and falling – and falling. Has been for such a long time – perhaps weeks without stopping, who can remember? Certainly long after Loy Krathong and the end of the season. It’s unnatural – like my situation. So unnatural that uptown, many fretful faces are worrying about the effect on sugar-world and barley-western. And I’m sure I heard the sound of a thousand fiscal hammers. Building Arks. But it’s more than just the prolonged rain, isn’t it? It’s every 33


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 34

bloody thing. It’s me really. For being such a fecking fool. Not just an ignorant fool – an educated fool. An informed fool. And it doesn’t matter, because a fool is a fool at the end of the bloody day. Isn’t he? It doesn’t matter about anything else. A fool is someone who does something rather stupid when they should know better. When they do know better – have the information to know better – the experience to know better. Now all I can hear inside my head is the sardonic cachinnation of the unconscionably unemployed, pointing a perverse finger and saying ‘how do you like it mister high-and-bloody-mighty – how do you like being one of us?’ And I don’t like it. Of course I don’t. I’m not one of them, no matter what they think. That’s why I’m out here, crossing this piece of secondary urban jungle on foot, on a grey wet autumn morning – towards those iron chimneys in the distance. They’ve tucked the place away in a corner. No other light engineering or industrial unit or techno-here-today near it. A high metal fence with sharp galvanised points all along the top, similar to those seen in old pictures of concentration camps in desolate areas of depressed hinterland. I peer in through the iron gate at the covering of black mud across the yard. Never be able to get through it, without getting the stuff everywhere. Up my legs. Somebody should have warned me about this. My last pair of Gucci shoes as well, which cost me a Christmas bonus. And I don’t like it – I just don’t like the whole bloody thing. It’s never been a good idea to move into new ventures at this time of year. Too bloody stagnant and grey and frowny. Gives one a very bad feeling in the stock portfolio, don’t you know. And inside one’s soul. A security guard in a blue uniform gawks out at me through the window of his peripheral gate-hut. Snake eyes – all quite safe 34


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 35

inside. Saying to himself, I’m sure, ‘who’s this mister high-andbloody-mighty and what could he possibly want in a place like this?’ Out of the past. An anachronism in the modern world. A Dickensian prolepsis which should have died with its peers, but still stands – waiting for me to fall from my lofty perch into its awful arms. Brown cardboard cards are assembled in rows in a wooden rack, alongside an ancient clocking machine. Numbers and names? Will I soon be one of them? ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Unemployment...’ ‘What?’ ‘Office. Sent me up here.’ He looks me up and down. Eyes examining the Baumler suit and Carpini pure silk tie and Hugo Boss overcoat and mud-covered Gucci shoes. And he thinks I’m taking the michael. ‘For a job?’ ‘No, a loan.’ Says under his breath, I’m sure, ‘smart mister high-andmighty white bastard’ and asks me my name. ‘Christian Childe.’ A sneer breaks across his face and his lips silently mouth the word ‘queer’. He picks up a telephone, eyes staying on me as he speaks first into the black handset, then nods in response. He hangs up the phone – ‘you need a man called Webster Springer’. Do I? ‘His office – over there.’ Across the black yard and up a flight of steel steps. Retreating back inside his safe-hut, with his porno magazines, he shuts the door tight as well as the windows – keeping out the dull drumming of the rain. And the sound of work, which seems to be coming from somewhere inside the compound. Somewhere 35


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 36

that can’t be readily pinpointed, but which is both specifically located and omnipresent at the same time. ‘Come.’ The word ‘office’ is positively an overstatement. Lumps of metallurgically tested iron rest on the window ledge and bits of mended machinery are strewn across the floor. A few pieces of faded paper are scattered on a wooden desk for camouflage. And a slight man in a white coat rolling a cigarette. ‘Mr Springer?’ ‘That is I. And you?’ I’m the fool. And perhaps you can help me understand why I’m out here in the first place. Why? Yellow hard-hat and a handlebar moustache and a face from quite a different age. European. A colonial face, from long ago, when men were taught to accept things for what they were. The hard-hat frowns at my appearance, before standing and walking to the window and looking out and down on the scene of utter despondency. Surely there’s enough out there to sink even this man’s spirits? ‘Experience?’ ‘Experience... why certainly. What kind?’ ‘Iron foundries, of course. Not insurance companies.’ He smiles at his own sarcasm. Not a laugh – just a smirk in an indefinable accent. Hardly noticeable. Then he turns and looks at me to see if I react. I don’t. ‘In that case... none, I suppose.’ ‘Come with me.’ The Springer man hands me a spare hard-hat and strides towards the door. Then we’re out again on the steel staircase and down the black yard in the rain. A distant rumble grows louder, like a giant’s growl, as we approach the entrance to the foundry – covered by heavy plastic strips swinging in the wake of flying fork-trucks. 36


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 37

‘What have you been doing?’ He really wants to ask me why I’m here. Not many Westerners apply for this work and even then I certainly don’t look the type. But he doesn’t, because they always need men in this place. So they told me at the unemployment office, and they don’t turn anyone away. ‘Unemployed, for the past couple of months. Money running out... you know the sort of thing.’ ‘Before that?’ ‘Stock market. A dealer with Bangkok Equity Broking & Trading. ‘You’ll find this just a little bit different. What’s your name again? I hope you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.’ Once I manage to wash my own blood off them. The muck is now up to my Gianni Campagna socks, as I walk behind this supervisor man. I try to step into the footprints left in the black gunge by his steel-toe boots and he looks back and frowns again at my womanish trepidation. Then we’re inside – to a tremendous blast of noise and the red hot glow of iron all around. The place is like a cavern, with obscure shadows flitting here and there in the low light. The air is full of steam and smoke and coal dust and saltpetre, making outlines obscure. Dark shapes scurry with ladles full of molten metal, fixed to wheels that run along tracks suspended from the ceiling. Some of the stuff spills and showers out cascades of sparks. Belts scream, full of steaming black sand. Machines jump mad and go bang-bang. What I can only assume to be men, sweat and shovel, hammer and haul. Lifts pull. Wheels turn. The denizens of this dark place lift and throw and swing and blow. A furieuxasile. Insane with noise and nerves and violent nebulae. My first instinct is to run. Get away. Back to the safety of known 37


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 38

conformity and limits. This is a frightening fecking place, beyond the scope of my knowledge and the extent of my imagination – up to now. The hard-hat supervisor sees my soul – in my eyes. He pretends not to and looks away into the violent chaos. ‘We operate on a piece-work basis here.’ ‘Is that right?’ ‘Yes. You said you heard the money’s good?’ ‘They said so. Supposed to be, for this kind of thing... you know. So they told me... at the unemployment office.’ ‘Only if you want to work. You don’t work, you don’t earn. Clear?’ As a Nasdaq national market issue. Webster Hard-Hat walks away without my answer. Doesn’t want my answer because he needs the manpower to keep the place going. And he doesn’t turn anyone away. I can’t hear what he’s saying now because of the noise, and he’s gone on ahead of me. I try to keep up and out of the way of danger, which is all around. He’s pointing here and nodding there, as if it should be obvious to me what’s going on – where an Oriental stands high up on a catwalk beside a moving belt – pushing black sand down into hoppers with a rather long pole-thing – under which machines jump and jolt and bang and bump the bloody daylights out of themselves. Wasted words float away on the tropical air. And I laugh like an idiot and smile like a fool and grin like a gombeen – all the time employing frantic contortions to keep out of the way of the molten-iron ladles. Outside again – all of a sudden – in the rain. Sweet little sane rain. Frown-grey and fine. I love you. And all my working life, which isn’t that terribly long in the greater scheme of things, I’ve known only the comfortable click of computer keyboards and the heady scent of air-conditioned office space and the 38


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 39

stimulating strut of the trading floor and the elegance of women and the narcotic nose of money. This is different. But I can’t pick and choose any more, thanks to bloody Heaton. So I have to settle for what’s going – or go hungry. For being such a fecking fool. ‘Well then... Christian?’ ‘Do you think I’ll be all right? I mean my weight...’ ‘What about your weight?’ ‘Will it be... I mean, will I be...’ ‘Weight has nothing to do with it. What’s wrong with your weight?’ He’s obviously being polite and must need men very badly. But I know that kind of thing – people being polite and so very civilised and pretending not to notice – but if he thinks it’s all right – ? Perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I just want an excuse to say no. I can’t say no but perhaps I’m looking for an excuse to do just that. Even though I can’t. ‘Do you still want it?’ ‘What? My word! I... yes. Rather. I suppose so. When would you want me to start?’ ‘Straightaway. Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s ok if you’re unemployed, yes?’ Sign right here on the dotted line – my life and soul away. ‘Christian Childe... English?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Sounds a little... well... like.. I suppose.. ?’ ‘In what way?’ ‘Well... not effeminate or anything like that... just... Not that it matters really. We’re an equal-opportunities employer. No prejudice here, as you’ll soon see.’ ‘I’m not gay.’ 39


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 40

‘It really doesn’t matter.’ ‘No – I’m not.’ ‘It’s ok.’ Well – Springer sounds like some sort of spaniel. Touché. We go back the way we came, across the black yard and up the steel steps to the understated office. ‘By the way, bring your own towel. We supply the soap.’ ‘Towel?’ ‘Shower... or go home dirty. It’s up to you.’ And that should definitely mean a small savings on the fuel bills at least. An economy not to be sneezed at in these crucial days. Destitucial days. A little bonus. But back now to business, and Webster Discarded-Hard-Hat blustering on about passports and embassy access and visas and work permits and I’m not really listening, because even though I said ‘yes-Isuppose-so-and-when-would-you-want-me-to-start’, I meant to say ‘no’. No. And now that little word is huge in my head. No! Webster Springer leans back satisfied in his patched leather chair. He offers me his tobacco pouch and lowers his displeased eyebrows as I raise my hand in refusal. ‘What time should I start?’ These words come out instead of ‘no’. Just as ‘yes-I-supposeso-etc.’ did. It just needs the one little word to come out, but these others come out instead. ‘Seven. Get here a bit earlier... give yourself time to change.’ ‘Change?’ ‘Unless you want to work in those designer clothes.’ ‘Oh I see. Righty-ho. Thank you.’ ‘What for?’ Nothing really, don’t you know. He watches me all the way to the door. Laughing under his breath at the bloody fool. Looks 40


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 41

out through the window after me to see if I run as soon as I get past the sniggering gate-hut and into the urban jungle. Run as fast as my feet will fly. Hide behind a guava tree. *** Back into town and the Marchand-Clown. And, my word, it can’t possibly be 1:30 already, can it? How time – ‘Miller Light please.’ Sydney is sitting at a corner table. She sees me before I see her. ‘Christian. Christian!’ Oh Christ! I walk across and sit opposite. She looks at my shoes. ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Looking for a job.’ ‘My God, Christian... Not manual, surely?’ ‘Afraid so.’ Sydney gives me one of her looks. One of her – you can’t possibly be serious – looks. ‘Isn’t there anything...?’ ‘No. Heaton’s blacklisted me with everybody. Even people who owe me favours won’t speak to me. The money’s quite run out and I have to do something.’ ‘But, manual...?’ ‘I’m qualified for nothing else, Sydney. And the wages are rather good. They told me at the unemployment office.’ Sydney calls for more drinks and grimaces at my dirty shoes. Again. She’s hoping the manager won’t ask me to leave. Or perhaps she’s hoping he will. ‘Have you eaten?’ ‘Not yet.’ ‘Let me buy you lunch.’ ‘Sydney...’ 41


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 42

‘I insist.’ It’s time to stop arguing when Sydney insists. She’s Australian and twenty-sevenish, although she looks much older, with red red hair and black eyebrows. And her name’s not Sydney, it’s Alice, but she uses Sydney because she says it gives her a sense of identity. She wears Van Heusen and River Island and Duchamp and smells of Eau Sauvage pour Femme and we had sex once after a Christmas party, though neither of us can remember it. And, of course, that thing recently – whatever that was. Sydney is a financial analyst with Morgan Stephens & Thaksin and used to getting her own way. So it’s useless to argue. The waiter brings me chump of lamb with chermoula spices, which is quite appropriate and which Sydney orders without asking me. He brings her sesame duck breast and sage rösti and she smiles and puts a finger to her lips to say don’t speak. With your mouth full. ‘I’m sorry I can’t help.’ She only speaks again after the meal and as an aside from ordering more drinks. I know she can’t, or she would. Help. Everybody’s afraid of Heaton and that’s understandable – considering what he’s done to me. Sydney smokes a long, thin cheroot and tries to reassure me in a half-hearted way. Glancing at my shoes every now and then and looking round to see if anyone else has noticed. Then it’s time for her to go and she kisses my cheek and disappears quickly through the door. Like a mirage. An apparition. A visual fallacy – that was never really there and only gave the impression of presence. I drink the rest of the Miller Light and consider having another, but don’t. Everybody looks at my shoes on the way out. Or nobody looks at my shoes on the way out and I only imagine they do. The rain is easing on the walk back to my apartment. Sky now the colour of death. I immediately take off my shoes 42


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 43

and leave them on the mat. Pick up the brown envelopes inside the front door. No point in opening any of them – until I get some wages from the iron foundry. I go straight to the bathroom and weigh myself. Must certainly have lost something in the experience. The trauma. Dodging the iron ladles? No? Compensated for by Sydney’s lunch at Marchand-Clown? I’m bloody sure!

43


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 44

PHILADELPHIA

I’m the youngest of three kids. My parents had me later in life and I might have been a crazy mistake for all I know. I was born in April, so I figure it might have been a moment of summer craziness. Who the fuck knows? I guess my parents do, but it ain’t something I could ask them about – sort of like ask them straight out. Hey Mom – Dad, was I some sort of sexual misdemeanour? Both of them would have a coronary just from embarrassment and Mom would never speak to me again. And who the hell cares anyhow? I’m twenty-four now. My sister Sarah is thirty-four and my brother David is thirty-five. My parents are both in their sixties. So, you see – I guess my childhood in Philly is pretty uneventful and typically Jewish. I don’t remember my circumcision, but things like Passover and Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah are all part of it and I go to the movies twice a week with my Dad and we all picnic in Fairmount in the summer. Then I have my Bar Mitzvah and I’m a man and going to Central High. My Dad’s a carpenter – how’s that for goddamn prosopopeia – he’s retired now – worked in construction all his life and made our house the thing of beauty it is. He’s second-generation Philly, 44


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 45

because my grandfather came over from Poland after the war. He was in Auschwitz-Birkenau as a child, but he never spoke about it – as far as I remember – and I don’t remember all that much about him. My Mom’s people go a long way back – she says even before William Penn and the Quakers, but I guess maybe it ain’t that far back. But still a long way. She tells us her people were the first Jews in Northeast Philly – when there was nobody else but Iroquois and Cherokee – but I doubt that. I’m not saying she’s lying – my mother would never lie about anything – I’m just saying that maybe her memory ain’t as good as it used to be. That’s all. I figure her people came down from New York and I want to go back there when I finish school. My dad says I got to learn a trade, because he can’t send me to college – he still owes money from sending my sister Sarah to the University of Pennsylvania. My brother David didn’t go to college either. He’s a joiner and has a reproduction furniture shop in Boston. Sarah got a degree in telecommunications management, but then she married some guy and stays home to look after her kids. Once I get to High School, I join the Hillel Jewish club – to further my knowledge of my religion and deepen my spirituality and celebrate the rich culture of Israel and meet with teachers and make contacts. I’m a straight-A student and I’m on the Academic Challenge Team and the Youth Partnership and the InSchool Program and the Summer Institute. There’s one teacher I’m real close with – Mrs Sattler and she’s about twenty-five and a real good-looking broad. I guess I’m kind of in love with her in a crazy adolescent way and she tells me I’m far too talented to be a carpenter. I say my Dad can’t afford for me to go to college and she says that can be fixed – for good Jewish kids who got potential. Mrs Sattler encourages me to join Habonim Dror and after that I learn about the Code of Maimonides and the Halacha and 45


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 46

Gush Emunim and the words of Rabbi Kook and I become a junior member of the flying squad – breaking up anti-Semitic meetings and tearing down anti-Jewish posters and invading hostile forums and closing off discussions and suchlike. I’m a dedicated bnei akiva – without seeing the irony of it. There’s little opposition to what we’re doing, because we’re wellorganised and connected and have access to powerful, lobby groups and action committees. Mrs Sattler has high hopes for me and I’m given a good dose of Zionist mythology which dominates my mind. Black is turned to white. I’m a smallaction star and, in return, my parents are told I’ve got an Ivy League scholarship and after High School I can go to Princeton. I like High School – I mean, I got lots of friends there, not just Jewish – all kinds. I make the basketball team and get to do some work for the student magazine – mostly a bunch of tongue-in-cheek stuff about campus happenings and nothing serious. I drink beer before I’m legally old enough and date a few broads, although I never get too serious about none of them – except Mrs Sattler. I mean, I never date Mrs Sattler but she – she’s just interested in all the activist stuff and I never get the nerve to try it on with her. By the time I go to Princeton, the dumb infatuation’s run its course and I ain’t in love no more – if I ever was in the first place. One guy I like in High School more than most of the others is a Catholic, if you can believe that. Well, his parents are Catholic, but he says it’s all bullshit – all this goddamn religion shit and he don’t go to Mass or nothing, even though his parents think he does. His name’s John Francesco Kennedy, believe it or not, and his Dad’s Irish or his grandfather’s Irish or something and his Mom’s Italian, so I guess they’re real devout. But Kennedy don’t give a goddamn about it all. He says there can’t be no God because, for Heaven to exist, every slob would have 46


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 47

to be equal there – like, on an equal level. Otherwise you’ll have some jerks trying to be the big shot all the time and there’ll be no goddamn peace – and if there ain’t no peace in the place, then it can’t be Paradise. He also reckons the Pope’s living in the Middle Ages and the priests are all paedophiles and masturbate in the confessional, and all this Vatican-roulette-birth-control junk and no divorce and no abortions is designed to keep people poor and ignorant, like the slobs were in the forties and fifties. And even though his parents are devout Catholics, they still use contraceptives and his sister had an abortion because she got pregnant when she was sixteen – so they’re all goddamn hypocrites at the back of it. That’s what he says – and everybody talks about everybody else behind their backs and that ain’t very Christian, is it? And I wonder how this can happen – how you can go against your parents and everything you’ve been taught and your traditions and values and all that stuff – and I say it’ll never happen to me. But I still like the guy because there’s something about him – something natural and transparent and crazy and spooky, like you can see all of him and there ain’t nothing hidden or underhand – like he listens to no one or nothing, except what’s inside himself. It’s a rare thing and not every dude can be like that, but once in a while you come across a guy who’s got it and it’s a goddamn breath of fresh air. And he likes me too – even though he knows I’m Habonim Dror and active in Zionist groups. I mean, he don’t exactly like what I am – he just likes me. It’s spooky. And I don’t mean any kind of crazy latent homosexual stuff or nothing – not on my part in any case. Kennedy’s popular with all the broads and he says he’s been laid by ten different babes before he’s even seventeen. Sometimes I think maybe he tries too hard to prove he’s straight, but then I think why would a natural, transparent 47


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 48

guy like him be afraid to come right out with it, if he was gay? It don’t make sense. And I like the way there’s always goodlooking broads around when you’re with Kennedy. He plays quarterback and does some boxing and he’s a real tough guy. Mrs Sattler don’t like me hanging around with him, but I still do – and then she complains to some people about it and they tell me if I want to get to Princeton, I better be careful of my company. After that, a rumour starts about John Francesco Kennedy being involved with a freshman kid and even though the rumour is proved to be false, shit sticks and I don’t see so much of him anymore and keep to my own kind. One other thing – I stop going to the movies with my Dad, and I guess he’s a little sad about that, but he says nothing. I’m the only one left at home now, because David and his wife get their shop in Boston, and Sarah meets some friend of theirs while on vacation and they get together and she gets pregnant and they move up there too. Dad says nothing. Mom wants them to move back to Philly where she can see her grandchildren every day, but they don’t, and then she wants Dad to move up to Boston when he retires but he won’t, because he says Philadelphia is his home. Mom makes like the mourners at the tomb because nobody ever comes to visit – even though they visit every month. I miss my older brother. David and me are close when he’s at home, even though he’s eleven years older than me, and we go to basketball games together and shoot the breeze and he lets me drink beer in his room when his friends are over. Then he’s gone. One day he’s home and the next goddamn day he’s gone. And I miss him. Dad misses him too, but he says nothing – and I guess he’s proud David is staying in the trade. Sometimes he goes up to Boston with Mom to visit and he gives David a bunch of advice, even though he knows David is a master craftsman now 48


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 49

and don’t need it. And David listens to his advice, even though he’s a master craftsman now and don’t need to. I miss my crazy sister Sarah too. She’s ok, as sisters go. I mean, she’s real goddamn crazy, for a girl – woman. I guess she considers herself to be cosmopolitan and kinda chic, because she mixes with that kind of arty crowd and smokes marijuana and wears crazy clothes. Dad says a prayer sometimes when he looks at her, and Mom cries and asks herself what did she raise. But Sarah’s ok and she gives me a lot of cool books and Dad and Mom are secretly proud of her, because she goes to college and gets a degree, and even though Mom wrings her hands when Sarah gets pregnant, the parents are relieved that she don’t have an abortion and the guy’s a good Jew and a friend of David’s, and she settles down to family life like it’s the most natural goddamn thing in the world. My parents like the idea I’m in Hillel, even though they think it’s all some kinda theological thing and they don’t really know much about Habonim Dror or what I’m doing or who I’m mixing with. Even if they did, they wouldn’t understand. So after I don’t see so much of John Francesco Kennedy no more, there’s nothing or no one to contradict me. Even the books Sarah gives me don’t criticise – even though they’re liberal and open-minded and groundbreaking – they don’t criticise. So there’s nothing to tell me I’m wrong. *** I guess every dope knows Philadelphia is Greek for brotherly love. I don’t know why I told you that, and I guess it’s something to do with why I join the Schuylkill Blades rowing club and when I first get interested in precious stones. I never give gemstones a thought before this. I mean, it ain’t as if the parents are dripping with goddamn diamonds or nothing. It just ain’t something I give much thought to. 49


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 50

What’s brotherly love got to do with it? There’s this guy called Art Johnston in the Schuylkill Blades – he’s stroke in my eight crew and he’s a goddamn Quaker. I mean, yeah – just like the ones who came to Philly with old William Penn in the first place. Now, these Quakers ain’t supposed to go in for material stuff or any shit like that, but this Art Johnston’s Dad’s got a secret – he’s got a collection of goddamn gemstones. I’m friendly enough with Art – not friendly like I was with John Francesco Kennedy, but we talk and hang around together at the boathouse – you know how a rowing crew gets friendly with each other – Anyway, I get invited back to his house for dinner one evening and he shows me his Dad’s gemstone collection. I mean, it ain’t the biggest collection in the goddamn world or nothing – just a few diamonds and opals and rubies and emeralds and others I can’t even make out – but the lights are dim in the room and there’s an air of anticipation and I feel like I’m close to some broad I just met for the first time. I look at the stones – Art lets me pick them up – I look at the colours and ignes-fatui and phosphorescence and noctilucae and facets and clarity and all the intermediate phases between dark and light. They whisper to me about ecstasy and agony and honesty and deception and pain and pleasure and true, true beauty – like I ain’t never seen before. And I know right then I want to be involved with gemstones when I finish school. I mean, I just know. Then Art’s crazy Dad comes in and catches us and nearly has a blue fit because he’s a Quaker and he ain’t supposed to have all this stuff and if anyone finds out – I’m made to swear I won’t tell no one, and it’s the end of brotherly love, because I don’t get invited over for dinner no more. I keep asking Art at the boathouse if I can come round 50


absolution288

19/07/11

18:33

Page 51

and see the stones, but the slob says he ain’t allowed and anyway, his Dad ain’t got them no more and then he leaves the Schuylkill Blades and I don’t see him again. I find myself loitering outside goddamn jewellery stores, trying to get that original kick I got in Art’s Dad’s little secret room. But it ain’t the same and maybe that’s it. The jewellery stores are out in the open and I don’t get that feeling of excitement when I look in the windows. In the secret room it was different – mysterious – dangerous – imminent. Like the guy must have felt who first stepped into Aladdin’s Cave or King Solomon’s Mine or some crazy place like that. So I begin to study up on gemstones. I read books and take some classes in gemmology and lapidary arts and geophysics and Mrs Sattler is all the time wanting me to concentrate on politics and law and stuff like that, but I’m getting more and more into the stones – like they’re living breathing things, for God’s sake, which I know they ain’t. But it’s just a thing. Ain’t it?

51


Absolution by John F McDonald