Excerpt ten from Nick Alexander’s gripping 13:55 Eastern Standard Time.
Caravan Of Hope
Cheung perches on the edge of the cold stone wall and glances back at the shack to check that Lin is out of earshot. He thinks five is too young to really understand but just in case…
The air outside is cold and his breath hangs in the air – another winter heading their way.
“I want to talk to you,” Juan said. He knows what she wants to say, and he knows that he will listen. Again. And then he will sleep on it and in the morning the spirits of the ancestors will have told him whether he should stay or go.
Juan takes a seat by his side and turns towards him; her face is less than a foot from his own. Around them the Sichuan night darkens, and their ears automatically attune for the sounds of animals. There have even been sightings of leopard cats, which – as concerned as they by the coming winter – seem every year to come closer to their village.
Juan flips the tail of her shawl behind her and reaches for Cheung’s chin, applying the slightest pressure so that he looks her in the eye. “I know you are planning something,” she says. “And I don’t want you to go; not yet.”
Cheung swallows hard and nods.
“The project people are coming soon. Mrs Zheng heard. It could be any day,” she says. “So I don’t want you disappearing on me.”
“Project!” Cheung says quietly. He shakes his head. “You still believe the government will do something for us.”
Juan nods. “Mrs Zheng says, and she always knows everything. Her son’s very well placed in the Party. They are coming, with electricity and to build a school. And not the government, the Americans, the French – charity people.”
Cheung raises an eyebrow. It’s a woman’s role to dream of a better life, to believe that things can change. And it’s a man’s role to assure survival, to take the hard decisions that need to be taken to make sure that they are alive, today and tomorrow and the day after.
“They need twenty good men from the village,” Juan is saying. “A good builder like you…”
Cheung nods and listens and takes her sinewy hand, rough and calloused from her work in the fields. Every year there are rumours of something new, something different, but the government never does anything. The government can’t even provide them with firewood.
“Maybe they will,” he says, stroking her fingers. “Maybe Mrs Zheng is right, and they will arrive and build a school and make electricity. But what if they don’t Juan? It wouldn’t be the first time. And winter is coming, and Lin needs new shoes, and you need…”
“I need nothing,” Juan interrupts. “Except you. And Lin needs her father.”
Cheung nods calmly and smiles. “In Longhua, there will be work. There is always something in Longhua. I can send you money, like before.
“But you won’t come back,” Juan says. “They never come back.”
Cheung runs his hand up Juan’s sleeve, then releases her arm and slides a cigarette pack from his pocket. He pulls the final cigarette from the sleeve and fingers it, considering whether to smoke it now or save it for the journey.
“And if I don’t go? All it needs is another winter like the last. And what if Lin gets ill?” he says. “What will we do then?”
“But you won’t come back,” Juan says again.
“I already did come back,” Cheung says. “Why don’t you trust me?”
“And if there is work here,” Juan says. “If the project people come, how will I tell you if you are in Longhua? Tell me that.”
Cheung shuffles sideways so that his thighs are touching his wife’s. “OK, I will reconsider,” he tells her, averting his gaze and sliding the cigarette back into the pack, and then the pack back into his shirt pocket.
“Come,” he says, standing, reaching for Juan’s hand and pulling her up. “She will be asleep now.”
He leads her across and into the darkness of the shack, lifts his sleeping daughter and places her on the far side of the mattress, pulls off his shoes and slides carefully under the covers.
“You’re not undressing?” Juan asks.
“Cold,” Cheung whispers quietly. “I’m too cold tonight.”
A hand reaches over and covers his mouth. Cheung awakens instantly from a light tormented sleep. “It’s time,” a voice whispers to his right.
Cheung lies for a moment listening to the sound of breathing beside him, takes in the sweet smells of the shack in an attempt to memorise them forever, then rolls carefully from the bed.
Outside, Sun Lee is waiting. Cheung pulls on his shoes, grabs his bag, hidden behind the hut, and, raising a finger to his lips to indicate silence, they creep away. Neither man speaks until they reach the track leading from the village.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” his friend says.
Cheung pats him on the back and then looks across the mountainside where a halo from the imminent sunrise is starting to light up the horizon. Somewhere away to the right a parakeet shrieks.
“You think there is definitely work in Longhua?” Sun Lee asks quietly, the only other sound their feet, crunching on the gravel of the track.
Cheung shrugs. “There can’t be less work than here.”
“And the last time I found work quickly enough. In only two days. Even Juan got work in Longhua. It’s where we met.”
It takes about an hour to walk around the edge of the paddy fields and over the mountain track, and as they walk – their lungs smarting at the icy air – Cheung casts his mind back over the years; so much struggle to make ends meet, but with Juan and Lin, so much joy also. And now this; now they have to live apart again.
When they reach the junction, two men are already sitting cross-legged on the edge of the tarmac.
Sun Lee addresses them, saying, “Morning friends, you heading for Longhua too?”
One of the two men nods silently. “Yes, Longhua.”
“No, Chongquuing,” the second man says.
They sit beside them, and Cheung pulls the cigarette from his pocket. “It’s my last,” he says. “We share it huh? For luck.”
The sky flames red now, and then shifts to pink and by the time the men have smoked the cigarette a dim vague daylight is spreading down the almost fluorescent green valley.
Cheung glances back up the track and shivers.
“You worried Juan will come and haul your arse back there?” Sun Lee laughs.
Cheung looks at him soulfully. “No. I think I may be praying for her to come and drag me back,” he replies.
“Motorbike!” exclaims one of the men, and they all pause and strain their ears until they too hear the distant throbbing.
As the sound becomes louder, a spot appears over the distant hill. It bounces and bounds towards them.
As the bike nears, it slows, noisily crunching through the gears, and then finally stops in front of the group.
The rider, a plump man wearing Chinese army fatigues and no crash helmet pulls off his goggles and smiles at the four men who have crowded round.
“Where are you going, friend?” asks the older man. “You taking me east to Longhua? Is that it?”
The rider shakes his head slowly and grins broadly. “No,” he says, pulling a sheet from his pocket. “Yaaja village,” he reads.
“You’re there, I mean, it’s here,” Sun Lee says, pointing at the gravel road running around the base of the mountain.
The rider peers behind him. “Tell the others,” he says, revving the noisy engine and bumping off down the track. “Wave them down and tell them it’s here,” he shouts, gravel spitting from the rear wheel of the bike.
The other men sit back down but Cheung remains standing, frowning after the motorcycle.
“Don’t worry,” Sun Lee says. “Not Police.”
Cheung shakes his head. “No,” he says, breaking slowly into a smile. “Something else then.”
“Trucks,” the old man alerts them, and the four men stand again and peer at the horizon. A distant rumble, almost like thunder, and then a shimmering, and then suddenly they materialize, six, no, seven, no eight trucks lurching and bumping towards them.
Cheung turns, pulls at Sun Lee’s sleeve, then releases it. “Come,” he says. “Quickly.”
It takes Sun Lee almost a minute to tear his eyes from the unlikely caravan, from the dust and the shimmering chrome pipes, and by the time he manages it, Cheung is thirty yards away, scrambling as fast as he can back up the mountainside.
“But Cheung,” he shouts. “Where are you going?”
“Home,” Cheung shouts back breathlessly. “I’m going home.”
Catch up | Part one Eight Million | Part two Ok Sticker | Part three 13:55 Eastern Standard Time | Part four Slipping through | Part five A bus in Berlin | Part six A Really Good Decision | Part seven Yanks and Paddies | part eight Frozen | part nine The slowlands