All Stories, General Fiction

Where Our Lives Come From by Tom Baragwanath

We used to make tables from soft balsa. I can still picture them now; so many thousands of little tables, all the same shape and colour, stacked drying in rows inside warehouses. This was near Pattaya, Thailand, a few months after we left Myanmar. I would take the drums of lacquer – it was three years in this country before I found this word in English, lacquer – I would roll them around the outside of the building, where the high-pressure hoses were attached. I was a sprayer. Aung worked the assembly line, drilling holes for dowels. It was repetitive work, and the warehouse was sometimes so hot that all day sweat would be in your eyes. Still, we knew there were worse ways to make money.

The bosses wore gloves and masks and never came too close to the chemical mist. One day, after we had been there a few months, a stack of lacquer drums tipped from a forklift, and one of them clipped a boy who wasn’t so quick out of the way. He must have been thirteen, maybe a little older. The drum snapped his collarbone; we saw where a piece of it came through the skin on his shoulder, sharp and white like a broken plate. The section boss pointed from across the warehouse and yelled something to the second in charge, and the boy was taken away on the back of a scooter, pale and confused. We never saw him after that. Aung told me the bosses would take care of him, that he would still receive half a day’s pay and money for the clinic. Aung always tried his best to calm my nerves. Sometimes he would lie to make me feel better. I knew he lied; it didn’t matter.

I still come across these tables every once in a while here, in this country. It’s hard to pick them out, but you can tell if you look closely enough. I just have to imagine the lacquer gun in my hand, the sour, oily smell of the mist, and then I know whether the table is one of mine. There was one in my English tutor’s house, and once I saw one in the waiting room at the Work and Income office, holding a pile of forms and papers. Strange to think they have followed me here. How far they must have travelled, so many thousands of kilometers from that boiling hot warehouse, to end up holding forms.

Not long after the incident with the boy we left Pattaya to look for better money. A shrimp boat was hiring on a two-month trial, so we signed up. I never got used to sleeping on the boat; the constant rolling always made me ill, even close to the shore where the waters were calmer. I used to wake up in the early hours, three in the morning, sometimes four. Aung would sense that I was awake, and would be there with me, sitting up in his hammock, his eyes shining in the black. He was always ready to talk until I could sleep, ready with words and whatever else I might need. We used to take care of each other. Home was so far for us, you see.

There was one morning when he did not wake, but stayed in his hammock, eyes shut tight, his chest rising and falling so softly. I couldn’t rest, so I slipped out of my hammock and felt in the dark for the door to the deck. It was a windy night, and a gust pulled the door open so that it banged against the wall, but no one seemed to notice. Back by the stern were a circle of lit cigarettes; I saw the shapes of men standing in the dark. I heard the mixing of low quick voices, words being spoken in urgent Thai. From the light of the bridge I could make out a figure stretched out between the men, still, his face pressed against the deck, an arm reaching out at an angle that was strange. Two of the men held pinch bars, shining wet in the moonlight. One of them turned to cross the deck to the railing. He saw me watching from the door. He stopped, and a cold smile came over his face. He gestured over his shoulder to the man lying on the deck, then pointed with the pinch bar over the side of the ship. I stepped back inside and pulled the door closed, then found my hammock and shut my eyes.

The morning was so long in coming that night; it was like someone had slowed the world. I hoped if I lay still enough in my hammock no one would come for me. There was no word about anything from the captain or any of the supervisors the next day, or the day after that. Everyone on the boat just kept working the nets, doing their best not to look anyone in the eyes. At nighttime we tried not to notice the empty hammock swaying in the dark, its plastic bag of clothes tied to one end. Four days later, when we had anchored close to Rayong, we climbed overboard and swam to shore in the middle of the night. We never said anything to each other about the boat again.

It’s twelve years I’ve been here now. The settlement agency found a job for me in the city straight away, cleaning hotel rooms. I used to work the early shift, five in the morning, sometimes a little earlier. I would wake up and walk to work, the city around me holding itself so quietly in the dark, with not even the birds stirring the trees. It was a special kind of stillness, one I’d never known before. I tried to explain it to people when I called home, but it was too hard. The old words aren’t always there when I reach for them now.

After a while the hotel moved me to the night desk, where I would take calls about lost property and help guests find their keys after too much beer. There are a few others here from Myanmar, including a girl from my state. She cleans rooms, and sometimes heats the breakfast buffet. Some mornings when I finish my shift I find little pastries from her in my locker. She smiles at me when we pass in the hallway, staring at her feet. Sometimes I imagine how it might be for us to talk, but then I think of my sisters at home in the mountains, carrying water and wood, and I know conversation between us would be impossible. Perhaps in time the right words will come. Perhaps one day we will talk.

Even on my days off, I still wake in those early hours, when the city is darkened with that special stillness. Sometimes, if I can’t sleep, I walk down to the park by the beach and lie on my back in the cold grass. I listen to the steady crashing of the water against the seawall, and I think of Aung. The wind moves over me with its long fingers, wrapping my body against the grass. The sound of the water helps to still my thoughts until I can go home and find sleep again.


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3 thoughts on “Where Our Lives Come From by Tom Baragwanath”

  1. Hi Tom,
    No matter what, I truly believe that where we begin is what defines us.
    Even though the story engulfs you, this is still a very perceptive piece of writing that stays with the reader.
    All the very best my friend.


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