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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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
joined the freedom fighters. Marcus has become a mercenary.”
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.”
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
“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.
ESSAYS & REVIEWS
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.