Dreamer

It’s cold but I like it, more than the heat of the day. I’ve finished everything I needed to do, the evening time is my time, sitting looking out at the horizon. There’s nothing there, sand and rocks, sometimes an animal runs across the open. Peaceful now the crickets have stopped as the sun lowers in the sky. The orange colour of the sky looks beautiful, if I could paint I would try and paint it, I can’t though so I savour these moments. My father says you should always appreciate everything you are given and you have been given this sunset each day.

I am bored though, this is my problem, I’m too young to leave but not young enough to not care. There is little for me to do. I look after the animals, I go to school and I dream. I want to appreciate what I have but it’s not enough, I want more, I want to see more of the world. I have only left our small village once. My father took me to the city because he wanted to buy something, I don’t know what because he never told me. He met a man and he gave him money and was happy. Why did he take me if he didn’t want me to know what he was buying?

It didn’t matter though, I saw the city. People everywhere, motorbikes everywhere, women dressed in clothes that no girl in our village would dare to wear. The smell of foods I had never smelled or seen before. Even the way they spoke was different, maybe more aggressive, the people walking the streets all looked like they had a purpose, somewhere to go, not like at home where people just go for a walk. I held my father’s hand tightly, at first I was scared but after an hour of walking through markets I was excited. It was where I wanted to be.

Sitting here now, I want to go further. I want to go to another country. Our school doesn’t have much, but our teacher, he is the best teacher anyone could have. He tells us to close our eyes and then he describes a place, somewhere far away, some places we have never heard of, some we know but only from pictures or because everyone knows them, like London or New York. He has seen these places for himself, telling us every little detail so we are there in our minds, walking the streets with him. For the other children it is a dream, for me I want to make it come true. How I do not know, but I will.

The baby crying wakes me from my fantasies of travel and adventure, I can hear my mother shushing her. My little sister, I am so proud of her, I tell all of my class mates about her even though most of them don’t care. She’ll come with me on my adventures one day, even now when she can’t speak and probably doesn’t know what she’s looking at, I show her pictures from magazines and newspapers, telling her where I am going to take her. My mother and father don’t realise I know they are exchanging glances and rolling their eyes.

I must sleep, tomorrow I have to be at school early. Before I sleep I always write in my diary, it is just pieces of paper that I have collected together but I still call it my diary. My mother is still holding my sister in her arms rocking her back and forth, she smiles as I come in. My father is sitting by the window looking out into the darkness, a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. I rub my sister’s cheeks with the back of my hand and she giggles.

“Don’t annoy her, she’s only stopped crying!”

“I’m not annoying her! Look! She’s laughing.”

“Go to bed, you have to be up early, don’t spend too long writing either or you won’t be able to get up in the morning.”

“Goodnight.”

I don’t want to tell them that I want to leave because I know it will upset them but one day I will have to. I can’t stay here for the rest of my life. I love my home and I love my family but I want more, I want to go out and see the rest of the world. Other people are happy living here, keeping their simple lives but I know I will not be. I know that they will have plans for me, they will have an idea on how they want my life to go, that is the most difficult thing, to make my own dreams come true I will have to shatter theirs.

Maybe I am not being fair, just because their lives seem simple it doesn’t mean that they are not fulfilled. Is it me that is wrong for wanting to leave? I am not a good son, I don’t know how my father will feel. No, I do know, he will be disappointed in me, my mother too, and what about my sister? She is too young to understand, I want to take her with me but I know I can’t. One day she can come and find me where ever I may be. What if I go and don’t like it? I’ll come back with my head lowered and they will tell me ‘I told you so’.

Leaving my parents will kill me but leaving my sister would hurt the most. I want to watch her grow up, be a good brother, make sure she does well at school, that she is happy. If I go, I will miss all of that. It is not fair on her even if she doesn’t know yet, she will be missing a brother. I suppose I can come back but it won’t be the same. You have to make sacrifices when you really want something, but I feel this is the biggest sacrifice. Hopefully I will come back when she is older and I can explain to her, tell her that I needed adventure, she is my sister, I am sure she will understand.

What if they stop me from going? Then what will I do? Will I run or will I have to bow to their wishes and stay here, tending to animals, unhappy, always wondering what could have been. If they stop me and then I run I’ll never be able to come back, even if I am successful I will have brought too much shame upon them. I’m still young, I still have time to decide, I must thank you, my diary for listening to me, you are the only person I can tell, well I can tell Alia too but she doesn’t understand. Sleep, tomorrow is another day.

“Ali! Get up, you’re late, writing in that diary of yours again last night. Where do you put it when you’re not here because I can never find it?”

“I don’t want you to find it!”

“Quick, get ready for school, drink this milk and you can eat your breakfast on the way. Your father will meet you after school today and walk back with you.”

“Why?”

“He wants to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“I don’t know, quickly, go!”

Why does he want to talk to me? He never meets me after school, he is always too busy. What if he has found my diary!? Oh no, if he has found those pieces of paper I don’t know what I will do. How would he find them though? They are always with me when I am at school and at night he just sits by the window smoking and drinking tea. No point in worrying, if he had found them he would have taken them. It must still be something important though, no matter, I’ll just have to wait until the end of the school day.

It’s still cool but the sun is rising in the sky. An old jeep passes me on the road, a goat is tied up at the back of it. That will probably be me in a few year’s time, driving to the market a wife at home looking after the children. What excitement! I think I am the problem, I want too much and should be happy with what I do have. It is peaceful here, there are no big problems, we eat well, we are not rich but we are not poor. It’s your problem Ali! You have ideas that are far too big for yourself. Ha! Oh well, even if I have to stay here it won’t be too bad.

The teacher ignores me as I walk in the door. For some reason he never gets angry with me, he just tells me that he sees himself in me, someone who has a big heart, who wants to discover new places. The other kids laugh when he says this, sometimes I laugh too but inside I agree with him. I know he knows my father well, I once overheard my father telling my mother that the teacher said I had lots of potential and I needed to find my own path. My mother didn’t answer him, other paths means not staying here.

“Sir! You said you would tell us about London today, when will you tell us?”, one of the students ask.

“Finish what you’re doing and I will.”

“Sir, why did you come home? Aren’t all the people rich there?”

“I missed my family, and no they are not all rich.”

“What did you do there?”

“Same as I do here, I was a teacher there.”

“You’re crazy sir, you should have stayed.” Everyone laughs, the teacher smiles.

“You’re too young to understand. If any of you ever leave you’ll find out quickly that you always miss home, life here is not as bad as some of you think, it’s good to and see new places, meet new people but never forget where you come from. If I didn’t come back who would be your teacher? It might have been someone that beat you and never told you any stories. Then you wouldn’t be calling me crazy for not coming back.”

“We wouldn’t know you exist sir!”

“Very clever, quickly finish your work and I’ll tell you all about London.”

The classroom falls into silence, everyone doing their work quickly, the quicker they finish the quicker they can listen to him tell his tales. I open my small bag, I have forgotten to put my diary in it! Where did I leave those pieces of paper, they must be under the bed. I hope they don’t find them, or Alia doesn’t crawl under the bed and pull them out. Usually I am so careful! Stupid! There’s nothing I can do now, if they read it then so be it, I will have to tell them of my plans someday anyway. They’ll probably think I am just a kid with his head in the clouds.

Some of the other kids have finished off their work, sitting in silence looking at the front of the class in expectation. I pretend I have finished too, I don’t even know what we were supposed to have been doing. The teacher still has his head down, writing something on a piece of paper. It’s a performance, he knows we are all waiting excitedly, he pretends that he is busy but we all know he isn’t, he’s just pretending to write. He loves this as much as we do, he knows that he has us under his magic spell. He looks up and pretends to be surprised.

“You are all finished so quickly?!”

I remember, I got off the plane in London and the smell was different. Every country you go to the smell is different but England was the first place I had ever visited. I had been to the city before but never one quite like this. Can you imagine? Me, at the time I was young, I’d lived here for most of my life and now I was on my own. They have trains that are underground but they are like a maze, I didn’t know where to go. I am standing there with a map, my suitcase beside me, not knowing where to go, people just passing me by, tutting because I am stopping them from going where they need to be!

I sat on the train, everyone was reading a newspaper or a book, none of them talking to each other or looking at each other. I smiled at the man opposite me, he looked away, his face looking as though he thought I was crazy. I never smiled at another person on the train the whole time I lived there! Also, so many people that dressed strangely, well strange for me at the time, eventually you become used to it. People with different colour hair and jeans with holes in them. If ever you were to see such a person here you would laugh but there nobody took any notice.

I stayed with a cousin, for years everyone told me that this cousin was rich and that he lived in a big house near Buckingham Palace. No! He lived in a small room, not many people there live in big houses. It was nowhere near the Palace. When I arrived, I saw a house but when he opened the door he took me upstairs to a room, I asked him where my room was, he laughed, this was for both of us. The house was not all his, many people lived there, coming and going through the night. I lay awake on my first night wondering if I should just use my money to go home.

The next day I got up early and decided I would explore for a day. If I hated it, I would just go home. I had saved all this money to go to school in England, borrowed some from friends but I didn’t care, I wasn’t sure I could live in this strange place, it was nothing like they had told me it would be like. I took the train once again, in the morning you couldn’t move inside them, people squashed against you, not wanting to touch anyone else but they had no choice. When the doors opened I almost fell out of the train, no one apologised when they pushed you.

Many times, I am sure, you have seen the pictures of Piccadilly, maybe you don’t know the name but you would know if you saw the picture. Red buses, big signs on the buildings. When I came up from the train this is what I saw! The pictures I had seen became real. I stood at the top of the stairs, staring like an idiot, people pushing past me, I didn’t care, they could push me back down the stairs and I would just run back up them again. I wasn’t going to go home. How could I ever leave a place like this so soon?

For the whole day I walked around in a daze. I cannot explain the feeling. The streets full of expensive shops that I was too scared to go into in case they threw me out, hundreds of big red buses on the roads passing you by. The parks too! So much green in the city! I sat in the park for hours watching people, in London it isn’t just English people, it’s people from everywhere! So many languages that people are speaking, I began to wonder if I should have learned to speak another language apart from English!

When I came home that night, my cousin was lying on his bed reading. I asked him why he wasn’t outside, enjoying this magical place. He looked at me as if I were crazy and carried on reading his book. He was the crazy one, he didn’t appreciate it, always sitting in his room reading when he wasn’t working. Can you imagine if I gave one of you the chance to go to England and you sat in your room reading? No, it would never happen! He said I was like a child, I was and I stayed like that child for the five years that I was there, always happy, always looking for something new.

Someone is ringing the hand bell, it is already time for lunch. I was there, I was living in London with the teacher and his cousin. This morning I had nearly changed my mind, decided that I was foolish to want to do such a thing as leave, not now, I have to go when I get the chance. We all eat lunch quietly, everyone is still there in London, trying to imagine red buses and the big signs, the shops and the parks. I wonder if any of us will ever go? Apart from me, I will definitely go, but will anyone else?

“Do you think any of us will do what he did and leave?”

“Probably not, it’s okay to dream and listen to him in class, in reality? I don’t think I would be able to survive in a place like that. I’ve heard it’s dangerous there too.”

“Yeah, it’s safe here, we have everything we need, why would we ever want to leave? We all know he’s crazy anyway, his cousin is right.”

“You all like listening to his stories, you beg him to tell them to you and then when he doesn’t you call him crazy?”

“Ali, he’s a dreamer like you. We like his stories but we know that we’ll never be able to do the same. You should stop dreaming too, you’ll be just the same as us in a few years.”

The rest of the day I can’t concentrate, only thinking about this far away city. Each time I look up at the teacher he is gazing out the window, there is a smile on his face but I think I can see a look of regret on his face. He looks at me and chuckles to himself. I wish the day would hurry up and be over, I want to get back to find my diary, I’ll get little sleep tonight with all that I want to write down, if they haven’t found it that is. No school tomorrow though, I can stay up as late as I like as long as I don’t make any noise.

As I walk out the small door of the classroom I see my father standing there. I forgot. This could end all the dreams I have. He raises his hand slightly in acknowledgement as I walk towards him. He is a man of few words so it must be important if he wants to talk to me. We walk out of the town still in silence, down the long road to our house. I want to say something but I don’t know what to say, he looks ahead still silent, not even looking at me. It has to be something bad, he has definitely found my diary.

“You like school?”

“Of course, you know I like school.”

“You can leave school next year you know?”

“I know.” He wants me to leave school.

“You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.”

“What? I mean really?”

“You want to stay in school then you can stay. I won’t make you leave.”

“You came to meet me to tell me that?”

“No. I want to tell you that I want you to do what you want to do in your life. You see me now? I spend all day working in the heat, looking after animals, walking to the town and back to sell them. Do you think I am happy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course I am happy, I have your mother, she is a good woman, I have you and I have your sister. I enjoy what I do. That’s what I want you to do. I want you to do what you want to do.”

“If I left? When I am old enough?”

He lets out a deep sigh and looks at me. His eyes are watery.

“Do as you wish, Ali. Your mother doesn’t want you to leave but I have told her that you must do what you want to do. I only ask one thing of you though, that you wait until your sister is a little bit older. I have some money saved, if you wait until then I will give it to you and you can go where ever you like. Just promise that you will come back and see us.”

“Aren’t you worried what people will think?”

“I don’t care what people think. Tradition doesn’t make people happy, it just causes conflict. Anyway, I trust you, you’ll be successful wherever you go, just don’t forget us.”

“Of course I won’t forget you, and I’ll wait until Alia has grown up a bit before I leave. Did you read my diary?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“How did you know what I wanted to do then?”

“You spend most of your time sitting outside staring into the distance, you show your sister pictures from all over the world and you think I don’t know what is going through your mind? I used to dream too Ali.”

“Thank you.”

My book of short stories ‘The Unwashed’ is available on Amazon here.

 

Broken Dreams in Phnom Penh

The cars pass by in a blur of light.  Everything is fuzzy.  The warmth envelopes my body.  I see the foreigners walk past and they stare at me with pity.  A pity I cannot understand.  Why pity me?

I am still aware of him standing by me.  He is watching, watching them all walk past.  Waiting to catch their eye, waiting for the person he wants.  Or the person that wants him.

The dust of the street makes me cough.  I keep coughing recently, I don’t know what is wrong.  But what can I do?  Nothing.  Maybe it’ll kill me.  Maybe it won’t.  What does it matter?  Surely if I die it’ll better than here.

I think back to my village.  The village I grew up in.  The place I miss the most.  The people that I miss the most.  As a kid, every day we would walk back from school past the buffalo in the fields, the people working.  Stopping under the trees to hide from the sun.

These are the days that I miss the most.  The days of innocence.  The days when I would arrive home from school and my mother would feed us with rice.  Her big smile greeting us as we walked in to our small house.

She couldn’t read or write but she would tell us stories.  My mother had seen a lot.  She had survived the Khmer Rouge, but she didn’t tell us those stories.  She told us happy ones.  I would sit in her lap listening and watching her face.  I never wanted the stories to stop.

Each morning we would walk to the school.  There was only one teacher but she tried her best to teach us.  To look after us.  She taught me to read and to write.  As I learned I would dream.  Dream of leaving this village and being a doctor in the big city.  I would make money and bring it back home.  I would build my mother and father a big house.

As I got older people told me there was no need for school.  I had to go out and work in the fields.  We had to bring in food for the house.  My dream of being a doctor was over.  How could a poor girl from the village ever be a doctor?

Then one day he came.  He gave money to my mother.  He said he would take me to the city where I could make lots of money.  I could come back to see my family whenever I wanted.  He said I could bring back money so that my family could eat well.

I didn’t trust his dark eyes.  I didn’t trust his smile, but I had to go.  I had to help my mother and father.  Maybe in the city I could start school again.  Maybe one day I could really be a doctor.  So we left and took the bus to the city.

There were people everywhere.  Cars and tuk tuks.  There were men sitting on the side of the street.  Some had no legs, some had no arms.  They always and a small cup in front of them where people would place money.

I didn’t like the city.  I wanted to go back to the countryside.  I was scared.  I wanted to go back and sit on my mother’s lap as she told me stories.  I wanted to see her big smile as she made rice for us.  I wanted to sit under the trees escaping from the sun while dreaming of being a doctor.

He took me to a house where there were 4 other girls.  All of them ignored me.  Their eyes were dead.  They didn’t speak to each other.  Their souls had left them.  They did everything he asked.  They did not question.

I jump as he touches me on my shoulder and points me to the man next to him.  I am to go with him.  I take one last, long pull of the cracked glass pipe next to me.  The numbness hits me.  I will go with the man as I always do.  If I don’t I can’t be numb.  My dreams have been shattered.  My only dream now is that it all goes away.  It will be soon, we never last that long.

About 5 years ago I was in Phnom Penh.  As I was looking for something to eat one night I came across a girl who was probably in her late teens sitting under a lamppost smoking crystal meth.  There was a guy next to her.  As someone who had access to free treatment and support when recovering from addiction, the image of this girl has always stayed with me.  She was never going to have access to that support or any kind of treatment.  I wrote this short story as her.

My book of short stories ‘The Unwashed’ is available on Amazon Kindle and paperback here.