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Authors: Brian Caswell and David Chiem

Only the Heart (6 page)

BOOK: Only the Heart
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6

FAIR EXCHANGE …

TOAN'S STORY

I was never jealous of Linh.

I mean, you hear stories sometimes … They call it “the cuckoo syndrome”. A kid moves into a family, like a stepsister or someone the parents decide to adopt, and then they begin really moving in. And pushing the other kids out. It's easier I think, at least with some families, for the new kid to imprWe have companess with little touches. To use the sympathy and the uncertainty of the parents to get what they want, while the kids who were there already suffer.

You hear stories …

But that never happened with us. I guess, really, we'd always be more like a brother and sister than cousins. Back when my uncle disappeared, and Aunt Mai brought Phuong and Linh back to live with us over the store, I was hardly old enough to be aware of it. And I think the twins secretly liked the idea of suddenly becoming ‘'big brothers” to the girls. Even if Phuong was a couple of years older than them.

So it wasn't such a huge adjustment to have them living with us permanently when Aunt Mai …

Anyway, in those first few months after we left, there was no chance that any of us was going to get spoiled.

So I was never jealous of Linh. Not when we were kids, not later. I always loved her in a way that's impossible to explain without it sounding … wrong. She was my cousin, my surrogate sister, and something a whole lot more. She was my friend.

I wasn't even jealous of Miro. In spite of the fact that he seemed to be better than I was at just about everything and Linh seemed to have no time any more for just “hanging out”. I tried to volunteer for “chaperone duty” wherever possible, partly to be around them but mainly so that they could have a bit of freedom, and I always covered for her when she asked me to.

It wasn't hard to see how she felt about him. How they felt about each other.

Which made Linh's reaction later on so strange. I mean, even when everything went so horribly wrong, it was the last thing you would have expected … At least, it was the last thing I expected.

But then, I never claimed to understand girls. Especially not Linh.

The thing is, Linh never trusted happiness.

It wasn't that she didn't believe in love. She did. It's just that she never expected life to be fair.

“I loved my father,” she told me once. ''To me he was the whole world. He knew the answers to all my questions. He was strong enough to carry me on his shoulders in the marketplace, so I could look down on everyone. He made my mother smile in a way no one else ever could. I thought he was … invincible.“

I remember we were sitting in the car and she was staring off into the distance as she spoke, as if she could see the things she was recalling. Then she suddenly pulled back, and her eyes fixed on mine.

“But then he died. It wasn't heroic or earth-shattering. They didn't announce it on the news. He just disappeared and never came back, and everyone knew. At first I couldn't forgive him for that. For not being invincible. For leaving us without warning. For being human, I guess. I watched my mother not crying, and I taught myself to do the same …”

*

2 March 1977
South China Sea
7°N, 104°E

MAI

Morning.

The time of day matters little. Some light finds its way below, driving back the shadows, but light alone cannot lift the gloom which rules their foetid prison.

Hold on. Focus on the future. Endure. Soon it will be over.

Phuong whispers a request and she nods assent, watching her eldest daughter move across to the ladder and climb out.

She smiles to herself and turns to watch her other child.

Linh's eyes are closed, but she is not asleep. Sometimes she likes to pretend she is, but her body gives her away. She tenses with the rolling of the boat, and grips the spaces between the planks to keep herself from slipping towards the filthy bilgewater. Mai leans over and pushes a lock of hair away from her daughter's eyes.

Suddenly they are open and Linh smiles. The act is over.

“You are awake. ” The girl's hair has fallen back. She brushes it away again, licking her fingers before attempting to flatten it into place. “How did you sleep?”

The little girl stretches theatrically but does not answer the question. She is looking at the empty space on the other side of her mother.

“Where's Phuong?”

Mai looks up at the hatch and indicates with a movement of her head.

Linh moves closer, whispering.

“Toan was sick in the night. He threw up in the water.” She looks sympathetically over towards her sleeping cousin.

But her mother's eyes are turned upwards, staring at the clouds.

*

PHUONG

It is a relief to be above deck, even for a few minutes. Even if it is just to go to the toilet. The “facilities' are primitive, hidden from the gaze of the crew by a make-shift curtain, which blows in the wind and offers no protection at all for a girl's modesty.

But what does it matter? The conditions in the hold have made a joke of modesty already. Three cramped spaces, each holding about twenty people, fighting the overpowering stench, struggling to keep their feet above the filthy soup of bilge-water, diesel and vomit which washes back and forth with the movement of the boat as it lurches from wave to wave, turning the contents of your stomach over and over until it can no longer be held in. Linh suffers terribly. Linh, to whom even a harmless bus-ride was always an ordeal. But there can be no relief.

Except on deck. And such escapes must be kept to a minimum.

She stands and looks out over the rear of the boat. The sea is grey under the rolling clouds — a bleak, depressing sight, but at least it is not raining. Not yet. She thinks about the days of the journey which still remain, and what awaits them at the start of their new life, and it is a few moments before the voices of the crew break through the barrier of her thoughts.

There is agitation and a sudden flurry of activity. But mostly fear.

And as she forces her attention back from the horizon and looks around, she sees the cause of their unease. 1Wo vessels, each larger and faster than their own, are closing in, one from each side. She wonders how they could have come so close without her being aware of them. But then the larger of the boats sounds a horn and the question becomes irrelevant. Beneath her feet the deck ceases its vibration as the motor slows to an idle. If these vessels are friendly, it is stupid to flee. If they are pirates, it is pointless.

Time stretches and the vessels drift closer. All eyes are fixed outboard, and no one yet has noticed her standing there behind the billowing curtain, watching the scene unfold. Then her uncle moves across to stand beside the trap-door to the central storage space, the one which holds his family. He leans down, slightly, and whispers something, but he makes no other movement. Then his eyes shift and he catches sight of her. And a sudden fear flashes across his expression.

With a slight movement of his head, he calls her to him. There is an urgency in his eyes that sends an icy chill through her, and slowly she moves to obey.

Now that the engine is quiet, the boat is at the mercy of the swell, an irregular tossing which makes walking difficult. She is halfway to the hold when she stumbles slightly, grabbing hold of a stranchion for support. Instinctively her eyes stray to the deck of the nearest boat, which is now quite close.

And she realises that he is staring at her; sees the cold smile that begins to spread upwards from his lips. She tears her gaze away but it is too late and she knows it. He has seen her and nothing will change the fact.

She reaches the hatch just as the man speaks, his voice clear, even over the sound of the wind and the waves. “We have come to help you,” he says. But the mocking edge to his voice seems to be at odds with the words.

“I'm sure you won't mind if we come aboard …”

The words are lost as she makes her way below, but the memory of that cold smile remains fresh …

*

MAI

Slowly Mai becomes aware of voices speaking their fear on the deck above. Then the rattle of the engine slows and the hull is still. Within the cramped space, the sudden silence is like a shout. The boat rolls and pitches on the waves, and no one speaks. Twenty people staring in silence at the single small square of light above their heads.

She stands and moves awkwardly towards the hatch, intending to look outside, but the way is suddenly blocked.

“Ngôi yên!”
Stay still! The words are hissed. Minh, her brother, stands at the top of the steps. His face is pale and his eyes are wide. He does not need to say more.

Pirates.

She looks back into the cramped space behind her. The adults are awake and watching. Most of the children are asleep. Except for Linh. She sits silently, her feet drawn up out of the filthy water, staring at her mother.

For a moment the scene is frozen.

Then Phuong makes her way down the steps. She says nothing, but the expression on her face is eloquent. She touches her mother's shoulder gently as she passes, and moves across to sit beside Linh.

Crossing the space between them, Mai takes her youngest daughter by both hands, and draws her gently to her feet. She brushes the hair away from the girl's eyes, and turns towards the light, as if to shield the child from what is coming.

While no one speaks a word.

But Linh is eight years old, no longer a baby to push aside.

For a moment she resists, forcing her way past her mother's hip to look up, and the familiar stubborn look ghosts across her face, but something in her mother's expression drives away resistance, and she bows her head, stepping back.

Still, if she angles her head just so …

Time slows, and she is reminded of swimming under water; the lightheadedness and the eerie silence are the same. But then she hears someone breathing nearby. She holds her breath, the sound stops, and she realises that the someone is herself. She can feel her heartbeat pulsing in her head, and she closes her eyes momentarily.

The hold has come alive, but it is a strange sort of wakefulness. A few muffled whispers and no movement. She moves her head slightly, trying to shift her field of vision, but the view through the trapdoor reveals only sky. Her mother remains unmoving, staring fixedly at the open hatch.

Something heavy thumps against the hull behind her and she hears the footsteps on the deck above her head. Suddenly she is aware of voices. Harsh words in a foreign language and screamed instructions in her own. Someone in the dark space behind her starts to cry, and a young child begins a low, keening whine.

No one attempts to keep it quiet. There is no point.

Phuong has moved across to stand beside her mother, and they both look towards the open hatch. Neither of them shows fear. Their shoulders are squared, and for the first time Linh notices how alike they look.

And yet, how different.

The noises on deck grow louder — footsteps, shouting. And a single burst of gunfire. Terrifyingly loud at such close range, it is punctuated by a short scream of pain and moments later by a barely audible splash. In the stinking half-dark the room holds its breath.

Linh shifts her gaze from her own family, looking for Toan. He is standing wrapped in his mother's arms a few metres away, but he is not looking towards the hatch. He is staring at her.

He attempts a weak smile, but Jails.

Suddenly the light from the hatch is blocked and he looks away. She follows the line of his gaze and in that instant she is staring into the eyes of death …

TOAN'S STORY

All I remember about him is how big he was. And those eyes.

He filled the hatchway, and with the light shining in behind him he was like … a monstrous silhouette — except for his eyes. I don't know how, but even with his face in shadow they seemed to catch whatever light there was below deck, and focus it. At least, that's how it seems to me now.

Just how many times I saw those eyes in my nightmares, I couldn't count. I never ask Linh about them — or about anything else to do with that morning. I brought it up once or twice as we were growing up, but she just froze me cold, and I learned to avoid the subject.

Whatever …

He made his way slowly down the steps and stood in front of us. No one spoke, and for a long while he just stared. A couple of his men came down and joined him, but no one even looked at them. It was obvious who the leader was — even to a six-year-old.

Then he just nodded and the men went to work, rifling through the possessions of everyone on board, looking for gold and jewellery and anything else of value. One man tried to resist, and they clubbed him to the ground, kicking him until he slid down into the filthy water and stopped moving. One of the pirates took hold of the man's hair, dragged him to his knees and placed the muzzle of his gun against his victim's temple. Then, without even changing expression, he squeezed the trigger.

The hammer clicked harmlessly on an empty chamber.

Twice more he squeezed — with the same result. The leader said something in a language I could not understand and the man looked angry. He reloaded the empty gun, checked the chamber and took aim again. My mother tried to shield me, but my eyes were drawn to the scene being played out barely three metres from where we stood.

On the floor the injured man raised his bloody head and stared into the eyes of the leader, holding his gaze defiantly. He didn't even blink.

BOOK: Only the Heart
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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