Monday, May 14, 2007
Hugh closed the lid of light, and as he did the peppermint blue was extinguished. The passenger beside him opened an eye as the notebook clicked, then closed it to the airplane’s hollow sounding darkness.
A child could have drawn the deep gashes in Hugh’s forehead. His clenched hands pushed down on the computer’s ceiling. His eyes were closed, but not in an attitude of sleep, such as the Asian man beside him. They were pinched shut. Hugh’s thoughts, had focused his face into its present consternation. And his thoughts were the clanging symbols of futility. He had, you see, on a whim decided to open a document he’d been polishing for several years, and after a few final flourishes and finishing touches, he had fiddled and fussed, and somehow lost it all. Now, with the edge of the Philippine’s dark archipelago crawling under the airlerons of the Asiana Airlines Boeing, and his two weeks holiday about to start, his entire being ached with pain and futility. The consequence of confirming to overwrite the file had meant he had lost the original. And with that loss, all the sacrifices, backaches, arguments – the entire restrospective – now amounted to nothing.
Already he began to search for meaning in the loss. Already he attempted to find the silver lining. As he did so he realized the full extent of the loss. Daggers penetrated his chest. Images swam through his mind. The breath knocked out of him by the storm of emotional chaos that flushed through him now, in floods, torrents, and monsoons.
And all the while the aircraft continued to descend to the islands. The randomness, now, of his life, begin to scratch at him. An unpleasant emptiness swelled inside him, like a virus.
If your life fails to work out, it must be because you did something wrong? Trouble is your fault.
He opened his eyes. The crude digital aeroplane on the LCD moved a fraction over a map of the islands. It reminded him of the graphics on Atari games he played as a child.
He glared at the screen. He was now moving rapidly towards a place he no longer wished to visit. With all his work stolen from him, there was no work to celebrate. He would have to turn back and start again. Start over! Repeat what had already been done, repeat what had been accomplished! How could he convey it all as well once more? And to suffer those sacrifices twice? To venture through those troublesome memories, to spend the time negotiating the complex narratives again…
Heartbreak was in the eyes that now blinked in the direction of the notebook.
The aircraft landed, hangars and buildings flashed by the windows in rapid-fire. When Hugh stood up, his body felt twice as heavy. He contemplated leaving the notebook – a burden now – on the seat. He contemplated smashing it on the tarmac under the volcanic nose cone of the plane. He bumped against a passenger and, out of character, did not apologize. He was determined to be miserable. His wretchedness was encouraged by the fact that of the two queues, the one he chose moved half as fast.
He finally emerged in the terminal, utterly defeated, and unwilling to continue his journey.
He decided to sleep on a bench at the airport, and fly back to Seoul the following day. Perhaps he could get a few chapters done in the first week. If he worked quickly, it would save him time and effort, for he’d be able to draw on short term memory.
But he couldn’t sleep. The mosquitoes feasted on him. After two hours he was sitting in the dimness, other bodies snoring around him. Whilst searching for chewing gum (chewing loosened the sulking mouth) he’s fingers found a Lonely Planet. He tugged it out, the rough soles of his shoes causing the cover to tear in half.
He started with pictures, then jumped around, and finally his reading became more focussed, more interested. Fatigue had anaesthetized the memory of the lost file. Now sleep was the priority. And second to sleep, passing the night.
Inexplicably the almost motionless shadow, which every few minutes turned a page, and made almost no sound to disturb those Philippinos sleeping around him, stood up and almost without effort, walked quickly out of the building. A waiting taxi immediately drove him away from the airport, and into Manila.
Having been told where to go, and noticing his unusual Westerner’s accent, the driver began to ask questions. “Where are you from? What do you do?” and so forth.
Despite the lateness of the hour, government troops, their automatic weapons gleaming in the polished night, were gathered at intersections throughout the city.
“Is something going on?” Hugh asked, turning to look at a checkpoint in the rearview mirror.
“Bah,” the driver said dismissively. “Tonight is not special. Many nights like this.”
The driver saw that his passenger was still looking over his shoulder at the receding unit.
“So what job you do?”
Silence, then Hugh turned and sat back. He glanced up, then out the window: “I’m a writer.”
“A writer! Bah.”
He glanced back at the driver, made eye contact through the rearview mirror, then lowered his gaze through the windscreen wipers.
Manila, a dark city, with some tall building looming high like old bones, crept nearer. He didn’t want to go beyond this outer framework of the city.
The taxi driver seemed to have lost interest in talking.
“Is it nearby?”
“Yes, yes, very near,” the driver answered, irritably.
Almost interrupting himself, and in a more hopeful tone, the driver asked: “You will need a lift back to the airport?”
“Yes, first thing in the morning.”
“You call me okay.”
“Okay.” A moment passed. “So you are writer. Where does this word come from?”
“Where does the word ‘Okay’ come from? It comes from a war, a long time ago.”
The taxi turned a corner and pulled alongside the curb.
“It means ‘0 Killed’. O.K.”
The driver nodded.
Hugh handed over dollars. The driver looked pleased. He jabbed his index finger at the card he’d put in Hugh’s hand. “I will pick you up. Tell the lady, then I will find the hotel. Okay?”
Hugh managed a smile: “Okay.” And closed the door.
The air smelt salty.
Another door opened, and inside, wood and women gleamed in the low candlelight.
He sat down and eyes traveled to him, met him, and waited. A waiting game of hope, futility, shame, anticipation and desire – but this last one – a desire for what?
It was while of them, an older woman, pushed and plucked against him that a thought emerged out of a cocoon of memory.
Hugh’s mother had killed herself, he realized, not because of her life, but because of all the hope and promise it once had. She had been a head girl in high school. And a beauty queen at university. And then it all ended when she fell pregnant. It had started as another promising chapter, but all good things game to an end, and the flames that once were, were eclipsed, and then dusted by the too-early humdrum of marriage. Her suicide was merely the confirmation of a much earlier ending of her fairy tale. And her standards, like Virginia Woolf’s, could not permit a life so far below the par she had set herself.
The prostitute bumped against him once more. He asked her, dully: “Are you a mother?”
This caught her off guard.
She continued to babble and slur and make suggestive remarks, but he interjected once more: “Tell me about your children.”
The other prostitutes glanced at them, somewhat surprised that she had managed so many rounds already without being brushed off by this young, western buck.
But then he did brush her off. The brewery that was her mouth, the fumes that shot bullets of spit onto his cheeks, finally made him wince. With a small hand gesture and a small shake of his head, she tasted again the bitterness of defeat.
He glanced over his shoulder at a beautiful woman – no, not a woman – a girl, of perhaps 17 or 18. He patted the chair next to him. The chair was filled by this girl’s companion, almost as attractive. He asked her about procedures and processes, and then costs. Finally he asked for the girl’s name, who was still sitting behind them, watching her friend and him discreetly. He paid the amount written on the serviette, underlined the name, and handed cash and the paper towel to the girl serving drinks.
Hugh stood up, turned, and called out her name. She glanced to two faces, who nodded, one waved scrunched up papers, before feeding them into a till.
And as arranged, a taxi was waiting at the door. Doors opened and closed.
In the lateness, deep in the gloom, he discerned a soldier holding the muzzle of a machine gun to a beggar’s head. The taxi drifted by, like a ghost. Hugh said softly, with eyes closed: ‘If you murder you may come, as Pilate did, to murder the man who is God. Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
She heard the murmured name.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, hesitating, then reaching, shaking his hand.
“No, my name is Hugh. Van Lewen.”
“Van Lewen,” she repeated.
Again she whispered, to the window: “Van Lewen.”
A fist of mist spread in front of her lips, then the silver slipped back into darkness.