Travelers Welcome

Travelers Welcome

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Freeze Frame

by Bryan Murphy

Joshua is late for the longest night of his life.

The party has long since started by the time he reaches the detached house set back from main road and surrounded by stone walls. Despite their thickness, the walls are crumbling in places. The grounds of the house are darkened by thick trees. They seem to extend a long way behind it. The house itself is a concrete-and-glass construction with no distinguishing features. A heavy iron gate swings open as Joshua presses the bell. He walks up an unlit path toward the well-lit house, from which little noise emerges. The front door is ajar. Joshua goes in. No-one greets him; no-one challenges him.

By the time he reaches the most crowded room, Joshua has summed up the event as staid. The music is muzak; the guests might have been commissioned from a bourgeois Rent-a-Crowd. Joshua finds he can freeze the scene in front of him, to survey its individuals members faster and more closely. As he looks over their still figures, the little finger of his left hand instinctively traces the pattern of a recent scar on his cheek. His practised eye fails to pick out any potential informant, partner or supplier. Then he feels the pressure of a palm on the small of his back, and time restarts.

“So there you are.”

The words resonate first in his brain, then in his ears. The speaker moves round to face him. She is a woman near Joshua’s own age but small, slim, her hair short and black, her eyes dark and evasive, her features indistinct. Joshua knows he has never seen her before. Nevertheless, she takes his hand, her slender fingers enfolding his stubby ones, leads him across the main room and out of it, down a long, wide corridor, through a set of open French windows, across an unkempt lawn, into an orchard heavy with an aroma of persimmon and apples, at the heart of which stands a green-painted wooden gazebo. She pushes open the unlocked door and steers Joshua inside. Oriental rugs cover most of its floor. The air is cool and expectant.

Time clicks forward. Joshua lies on a rug, bare; the woman, the same woman, sits beside him, discarding her own clothing with flowing, languid movements. She turns to him.

“You can call me Ayeesha. I want to tell you about war.”

“I know about war.” Joshua pulls her down to him. “I’ve been telling the world about war for seven years. That’s how I earn my living.”

“It’s time for you to listen.”

He feels the satin texture of her flesh on his, and begins to listen.

She tells him about the long occupation of her distant homeland by people from far-flung islands; the oppression which everyone in the archipelago suffers for long years under a fascist regime only collapses on its own rotten core when its puppet masters discover that democracy is not incompatible with kleptocracy; the oppression and abuse she suffers personally and at length from her own fundamentalist society; her fight to be an individual, to be treated as a person not a chattel; about the tsunami; the slow reconstruction; the fragile peace that emerges and survives after the waves have washed away so much hatred with the bodies; the chance that peace brings for her to flee, to rebuild her life using reason, not handed-down prescriptions; the loneliness, tempered by hope, of her enduring exile. Joshua listens. As their minds and bodies came together, separate and return to each other, searching for ever deeper points of contact and understanding, Joshua drifts in and out of consciousness. The hours multiply.

Dawn comes. The tale of war and its aftermath continues, turning back on itself to garner fuller insight. The woman telling it fingers her long blonde hair as she expounds the details in the same intense, breathy voice that has instilled itself into Joshua’s brain, and made a home there during the night. Joshua is now watching her through the open door of the gazebo. She is squatting on the porch, hugging her knees through a thin sarong, addressing her words to an older couple seated a few feet beyond her, her green eyes fixed on them. The middle-aged man she is speaking to looks familiar to Joshua, although he cannot make him out clearly, the older woman barely at all, for she is partly hidden by the man. Joshua cannot bring her into focus, yet the silhouette of her head, like a child’s sketch, sets his mind trawling for memories he cannot quite bring to the surface. Her companion, his brow knitted in concentration, leans forward, as though to hear better, simultaneously running a finger along a faded scar on his left cheek.

Time fails to stop.

Joshua switches his attention to the story, listening with his mind and his ears, letting the words in the unknown woman’s clear, familiar voice flow into him.

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