Front Page | Current Issue | Past Issues | Submissions | Competitions | SLQ Blog | Links | About SLQ | Contact Us

CONTRIBUTORS

Akinlabi Peter
Amanda Sington-Williams
A M Gatward
Ayat Ghanem
Bobby Parker
Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.
Dike Okoro
E C Osondu
Katie Metcalfe
Laura Solomon
Mandy Pannett
Michael Larrain
Oge Anyahuru
Terri Ochiagha
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

 

fiction


 

Two Orchids

By AMANDA SINGTON-WILLIAMS

 

I can hear chanting again, a deep, melancholic sound; it mixes with the smell of incense drifting through my open window. The ceiling fan spins above me, shunting air across my hotel room.  I check my mobile phone. Nothing. The chanting changes key, a downwards movement, still minor, and a gong sounds three times.

 

            I switch on the TV and watch the news. The war that started a month before I left the UK, is ongoing and the corpses are being buried in mass graves.  The news camera trails the mourners, women in yellow, red, orange, the colours of the desert that eats its way across the land. My mind meanders; it recreates the flash of your camera, sees bullets searing through your flesh. I imagine your face, ashen, your eyes searching for your scattered cameras, as you lie wounded, waiting for help.

 

            Breakfast is usually with backpackers, on a gap year, or just travelling for the hell of it. Already, I’ve been here the longest. Waiting. This time, you’re the latest you’ve ever been. I’ve told a few about you, about the arrangement we’ve made, the unpredictability of your work, how my job, a freelance travel writer, fits neatly into yours, like a walnut fits its shell.

 

            Today, I am eating alone. A white-water rafting trip has been organised. It left at dawn and it seems everyone is on it. I decide to return to the temple I found yesterday.  I had been searching for a flower market, and it was the perfume of incense that led me to it. The aroma snaked down the alleyways and drifted into the tea-shop where I’d stopped to cool off. 

 

            As ever, even this early, the temperature is climbing and sweat seeps down my face, from beneath the shade of my hat. The chanting from the monastery over the road   starts up again and smells of cooking, of fried chicken, waft from the eating house next door. A bus load of tourists pull up outside. Cameras click. The gong sounds again.

 

            I walk past shops and stalls with sacks of produce spilling out onto the street; vegetables, pulses, flour, trinkets, carvings, postcards and tea stands, the odd chicken trying to escape its curtailed future. A street vendor is selling pineapple dipped in sugared batter. He cooks them in a pot, balanced on the seat of a bicycle. The sickly sweet smell reminds me of your desk. Where wrappers torn from slabs of dark chocolate are strewn around your laptop. Where discarded, half-eaten biscuits surround you as you download your pictures of war, making judgements about which ones will sell, which photos are too graphic, too horrific for public consumption.

 

            The sun bears down on me. After walking, asking, getting lost and asking again, I glimpse my temple at the end of a street where wooden houses crouch and vegetable peelings are scattered over the ground like some peculiar form of confetti.

            The roof of the temple is lined with figures of animals: dragons, tigers, rhinos and mystical creatures with heads of a cat, the body of fish.  I’ve been told they are essential to this branch of the religion that is popular here and that the idols represent reincarnations, the splendour of a better life. The colours are primary; red, yellow, blue, with twists of gold leaf.  The temple entrance is up a flight of steps and guarded by serpents; two golden serpents. I climb the steps. The fog of incense from a vat whose sides bulge like an overgrown onion, is overpowering.

 

            Inside, a figure is crouching at one of the screens that has been placed on either side of the idol.   She has a thin brush in one hand, and is cleaning the curls, the flowers, and serpents that interlock across the screen. Beside the idol there is a tall, porcelain, green vase containing orchids, hibiscus, bird of paradise flowers and more. The golden idol is sitting cross legged, and the cleaner dusts the lips, the flattish nose, the cheeks and creases from its laughing eyes.  He is wearing a cap, flat and peaked, and the flesh on his face looks as if it has been stretched tight over his skull. Reaching up to dust the top of the idol’s head, he moves round the figure until he’s hidden from my view. I turn towards a rhythmic sound that is coming from the direction of the temple’s entrance. Clad in a blue and white overall, a tiny woman sweeps the floor. Her movements are dance-like, graceful. She holds the broom as if it were a lover, and moves the brush in arcs across the floor. The three cleaners work in silence. Like an intruder, I watch them and think of you with your collection of cameras slung over your shoulder. Some people say you must worship war. They wonder where this interest came from, this desire to record killings, the torture and misery of battles fought over territory, power, in the name of one particular god. When they see the photos pinned to the wall of your study, stills of the same scene, villages, men, woman, children, lit with the enemy’s fire, or a face caved in from gunfire, they gasp.  Some people think you must get some kind of pleasure from it.  “It is humankind,” you always say “who idolises war. I am just a witness, a bystander, an observer who takes pictures and provides evidence of our cruelty to our own kind.”

 

             Pictures of you, lying dead on a makeshift stretcher stream through my mind and I turn to look at the idol, the smiling statue, then below at its feet where there is a hand of bananas, a  green plate loaded with mangoes, a bowl filled to the brim with kiwi fruit - this idol seems to prefer a healthy diet.   The woman who was cleaning the screen,  rises from her squatting position.  She, too, is tiny, barefoot, wearing a black and white overall over navy trousers that flap round her calves as she walks, like sheets on a washing line caught by the wind. Of oriental origin, her eyes are set in a face that looks shrunken with age. I look at her, willing her to return my gaze. She ignores me. Taking a bunch of incense, she holds it to the other smouldering incense sticks embedded in the vat, allowing the specks of light to merge. Then, without looking at me, she offers me a bundle. I take it. My eyes, unused to the smoke, water.  She nods towards the statue, then bows her head. I copy her. My smile is not returned. I stare up at the idol and ask it to spare you. When I look away, I find myself alone. I wonder what you would say if you knew of my prayer.

 

            On the way back to the hotel, I drop in at an internet café. There is always a chance you’ve connected, or a friend has news of you. There is no family. No mother, father or siblings. The boys’ home; crucifixes in every room, priests with tales of burning in hell; I know you kept a lot of your history there from me. But you told me enough for me to understand your need to show in pictures, the damage idols and their worshippers can do. There are emails from my friends and family, but no news of you. I put my head in my hands. The woman at the next computer glances towards me and I smother my tears in a pretend coughing fit. I check my mobile, but now there is no signal.

 

            Tonight, I can’t sleep. At 4 o’clock I switch on the news. It is focussing on the same war. There are appeals for humanitarian aid; a newsreader explains the history of the conflict. It winds back years, and stems from the naked hatred of two opposing idol worshippers, two religions that clash in their beliefs. The casualties of war are increasing in numbers. The militia are gaining ground, as freedom fighters join their armies and it is hard to know who is fighting who. There is nothing about a photographer who’ll sell his war photographs to anyone who will pay a living wage. That doesn’t mean you’re safe.

 

            The next morning, I decide to go to the temple again. I’ve been thinking about the idol and its disciples; their brooms and sponges, scouring away every particle of dust. It is hotter today, so I take my time, stopping in tea shops and smelling the flowers in the market.  I pick up an orchid. Perhaps I should buy a gift for the temple.

 

            “You take two,” the market seller says. “Another one for your husband. Lucky for you.”

 

            I don’t tell her there is no husband, but I buy two and tell her to keep the change.

 

            I see only two cleaners at work in the temple today. The vat is so full, heat runs off it and the glowing incense sticks emit a heady, flowery scent. The sweeper has a bucket of water and is mopping the floor.  Her movements are rhythmical, as they were yesterday. I watch the patches of water she dabs on the floor; they evaporate fast in the heat of the day, while her feet caress the floor as if they are responding to a waltz. The idol is being dusted by the man wearing the flat peaked cap. As I watch, he takes from his pocket a packet of mandarins which he places in a copper bowl, then bows to the idol, before picking up the cloth again. I give him the orchids and he adds them to the other flowers before returning to his task. He cleans the right hand of the idol that rests idly on the plump knee.

 

            The third cleaner appears from the back of the temple.  She is carrying a tray with a tiny teapot and three cups. I think how interesting it would be if I was invited to join them. I could question their devotion. I want to know what’s in it for them. Why they put so much energy into a good reincarnation. But it is as if I don’t exist. The three of them move to a dark recess of the temple where they squat in a row and sip tea.  I start to make my way back down the steps.

 

            There is a tap on my shoulder. This time, it’s the floor cleaner who is offering me a bunch of incense before she bows to the statue then resumes drinking her tea. I am aware of them watching me as I light the incense and place the bundle into the sand filled vat. I move close to their idol; the cheeks are plump, the nose squat. I stare into its eyes.

 

            My voice is a half-whisper: “How can you sit there with that smug smile on your face while the world tears itself apart for their beliefs, while people kill each other for the sake of religion?”

 

             The temple resounds with silence. It’s as if someone is holding their breath.    I turn. The cleaners have again vanished, leaving behind their empty cups and teapot.

 

            Superstition holds fast.  I cannot resist pleading with the idol to make sure you’re safe.

 

            There is a message for me at the hotel reception.

 

            I only met the author of the message once; he’s another freelancer with a set of cameras. He asks me to ring him. He is in the same war zone as you. There is still no reception on my mobile.

 

            “Can I use your phone?” I ask the man at the desk. “An emergency.”

 

            “Sorry, not for guest use,” the man says. He turns his attention to a form he has been completing.  I run out of the hotel onto the street.  I weave in-between the tourists queuing for the monastery, bumping into their cameras, knocking their rucksacks sideways. Saying, sorry, sorry, excuse me. I can feel my face burning. My heart beats loud and fast. I run past the eatery, the smell of fried chicken following me like a flag.

 

            I reach the kiosk where a pay phone sits in an airless glass box. The shop owner wants to practise his English. He smiles at me and asks me where I’m from. His kiosk, smells of candy and he dishes out some pink and white sweets to some children that are waiting. I don’t want to appear rude and briefly converse with him about the differences between here and my country of birth.  Eventually, he dials the number and indicates to me to take the call.

 

            I can barely breathe inside the telephone box; sweat is dripping down my torso and legs. I get through to my messenger immediately:

 

            “We haven’t seen Marcus for several days,” he says.

 

            “But you know something. You must. Or you wouldn’t contact me,” I say.

 

            There is a pause. The line is surprisingly clear.

 

            “He was drinking a lot. Did you know?”

 

            “You phoned me to tell me he’s drinking a lot?”

 

            ‘The last time he was seen, he was armed with a gun and was in a village…it was burning. He was…well he wasn’t taking photos…I’m sorry. I thought you should know.’

 

            “What are you telling me?”

 

            “Clara. He’s joined the freedom fighters. Marcus has become a mercenary.”

 

            “That’s ridiculous. What are you talking about?”

 

            “Some kind of breakdown…It happens. I’m telling you the truth. I’m sorry, Clara. I really am.”

 

            After I’ve paid the man in the kiosk, I half run along the street. People stare. I knock into a sack of grain. It empties onto the road. I run into carts full of produce as I cross roads. Cars peep their horns and bicycles swerve to avoid me. I reach the temple and bound up the steps. Tears are running down my cheeks and I am gasping for air.

 

            I pick up a mandarin and throw it at the idol. Another one, and another. I grab hands of bananas and with all my strength, hurl them at the idol.  One hits the vase of flowers; it crashes to the floor.

 

            “I asked you to look after him,” I shriek. I reach for the bowl of kiwi fruit and one by one chuck the green balls at the idol. “Didn’t you hear me? Are you deaf?” With my fists, I start hammering the slumbering idol.

 

            I am pulled away, dragged to the back of the temple. The three cleaners are staring at me, shaking their heads. Their pointing fingers tell me that I should stay put. I sit shivering, watching, without seeing. They pour me a cup of tea and start to clear up the mess.

 

The End.

 

 

OCTOBER INDEX
EDITOR'S NOTE
DRAMA
ESSAYS & REVIEWS
FICTION
POETRY
COMPETITIONS


Amanda Sington-Williams an MA in Creative Writing and Authorship from Sussex University. Her poetry has been read out on BBC radio. Her short story 'The Carving' was shortlisted for the Asham Award and another short story 'The Zoo Keeper' was short listed for a Ms Lexia competition. 'The Zoo Keeper', was also selected for a reading at a 'Short Fuse' event at The Komedia in Brighton during April 2009. Another short story 'Windows that Sparkle' won an online competition with 'The Bulletin Board.' She teaches Creative Writing in Brighton.

Amanda's website


 


 

 

 

 

October Index | Editor's Note | Essays and Reviews | Fiction | Poetry | Competitions | Drama

Sentinel Literary Quarterly is Published by Sentinel Poetry Movement | Editor: Nnorom Azuonye

©2009 The authors and artists as credited. All rights reserved. Reprint permissions.

A magazine designed and built by Eastern Light Web Services for Sentinel Poetry Movement