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Two orchids

by  amandajane

Posted: Monday, May 04, 2009
Word Count: 2498




I can hear chanting again, a rich, melancholic sound; it mixes with smell of incense drifting through my open window. The ceiling fan spins round above me shunting air across the room. I check my mobile. 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, imagines bullets searing through your flesh. For ten minutes, I watch the news. There’s nothing more about that particular war.
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. I 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 into 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’ll spend the day alone. I want to return to the temple that I came across yesterday, while I walked the streets of this city that squats across the equator. It isn’t like the temple that lies across from the window of my room. That one is large and famous, a monastery where monks meditate and chant all day, where tourists take photos and drop money into a large brass plate at the doorway. The idol in that temple is nearly as large as a house, has its eyes closed, the lips parted in an expression of bliss, and the table beneath it is strewn with tins of condensed milk, packets of biscuits and small cakes. There are cloisters and a garden with sculptured dragons, urns and generously shaped trees that give plenty of shade.
No, the temple I came across yesterday was off a back street. It was on a smaller scale, with a team of workers who kept the area free of dust; there didn’t appear to be any monks. 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. But it was far from the city centre, I must have walked for over an hour.
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 opposite starts up again and smells of cooking, of fried chicken drifts out from the eating house next door. A bus load of tourists pull up in front of the monastery. Cameras click. The gong sounds again.
I walk in the same direction I went yesterday, past shops and stalls with bags 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. 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 temple entrance is up a flight of steps and guarded by two serpents; two golden serpents. The roof is lined with figures of animals, dragons, tigers, rhinos, 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 plate. The fog of incense from a vat whose sides bulge like an overgrown onion, is overpowering.
Inside, a figure is kneeling at one of the screens that has been placed on either side of the idol. She or he, it is impossible to tell which from where I am standing, has a thin brush in one hand, and is cleaning the curls, the flowers, the figures of serpents that interlock on the screen. Another figure crouches in front of the idol. The gold statue is sitting cross legged, and the cleaner dusts the lips, the flattish nose, the cheeks and creases from its laughing eyes. I can see this cleaner’s profile. He wears a cap, flat and peaked, and the flesh on his face looks as if it has been stretched over his skull. He moves, reaching up to dust the figure’s pointed cap and his profile is hidden from me. I turn away. 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 for territory, power, in the name of one particular idol. 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 in horror. Some people think you must get some kind of pleasure from it. It is man, you always say, not me that idolises war. I am just a witness, a bystander, an observer who takes pictures and provides evidence of man’s cruelty.
Quite suddenly, I feel intensely lonely. I have barely spoken with anyone all day. Pictures of you, lying dead on a makeshift stretcher stream through my mind and I turn to look at the idol, the beaming statue, then below at its feet where there is a hand of bananas, a green plate loaded with mangoes, a bowel filled to the brim with kiwi fruit - this idol seems to prefer a healthier diet to the one that sits across from the window of my hotel room. The woman – for now I see it is a woman – stands from her task of cleaning the screen. 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 mass embedded in the vat, allowing the specks of light to merge. Then 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 part of the full history of your time 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 start to cry. 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.
I don’t sleep well that night. At about 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 is based on 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 on the outskirts again. I am drawn by its serenity, perhaps I could light some incense for you again. And it is far from the hub. It is hotter today, so I take my time, stopping in tea shops and smelling the flowers in the market. I buy an orchid.
‘You take two,’ the market seller says. ‘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.
There are only two cleaners at work in the temple today. The sweeper has a bucket of water and is mopping the floor, her movements are rhythmical, in time to her music, as they were yesterday. I watch the patches of water she dabs on the floor; it evaporates 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 resuming his dusting. He is concentrating on the right hand that rests idly on the plump knee clothed in golden robes. The vat is so full of incense, heat runs off it. The sticks glow in the enormous container and emit a heady, flowery scent.
Just as I am wondering what happened to the other cleaner, I turn to see her climbing the steps. She is carrying a tray with a tiny teapot and three cups. I think how good it would be if I was invited to join them. We would communicate through sign language, or perhaps one of them knew a little English. I would tell them about you, explain what I asked of their idol yesterday. 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. They don’t speak much. I peer up at the golden idol who stares back at me, then I start to make my way down back down the steps. There is a tap on the shoulder. This time, it’s the floor cleaner that is offering me the bunch of incense before she bows to the statue then resumes drinking tea. I am aware of them watching as I light the incense, stick it in the sand filled vat, then take a small bow in the direction of their god. I ask it to take care of you. Just this once, I say. I won’t ask again. I turn towards the cleaners. I want to tell them I’m going. But they have again vanished silently, leaving behind them their empty cups and teapot.
There is a message for me at the hotel reception.
I only met the author of the message once. Another freelancer with a set of cameras. He asks me to ring him. 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. Sweat is pouring off me. I can feel my face burning. I weave in-between the tourists queuing for the monastery, bumping into their cameras, knocking their rucksacks sideways. Saying, sorry, sorry, excuse me. My heart beats loud and fast. I run past the eatery, the smell of fried chicken following me like a flag.
I reach a 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 for me to take the call. I can barely breathe inside the telephone box; sweat is literally 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 might have joined the militia.’
‘The militia?’
‘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 saying? I don’t understand -’
‘Some kind of breakdown…It happens. 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 a hand of bananas and with all my strength, hurl it at the idol.
‘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?’
I am pulled away, dragged to the back of the temple. The three cleaners are staring at me. They indicate to 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.