This is a short story I wrote a couple of years ago. Although I’ve changed the names and the timing, these events are very real, and the trade in “scrap-metal” is still a major source of income for those willing to risk all for a few dollars.
Hap sat cross-legged on the concrete floor looking at his wife and daughters sleeping. It was a hot night, and the single bright red plastic fan made a noise each time it pushed the heavy hot air towards the sleeping bodies. The mosquito net, hung from bent nails, like a sail in the doldrums as air moved across it. The noise of the fan had woken him. Grinding out a protest at the apex of its monotonous journey it seemed to pause and gather strength for the return arc. The fan had come with a plug that he had cut off and sold to the hardware store in the village. Insulation tape wound sparingly, two turns around each of the thin wire strands, connected it to the thick white wire he had stolen in Phnom Penh. That wire ran between the gap of the concrete breezeblock wall and the corrugated iron ceiling. No electricity bills ever came here. A cock crowed in the dark of the morning. He scratched his stump. It itched where the mosquitoes had drunk their fill in the night. In his dreams, Hap had two legs.
Veata, his eldest daughter, was five. On Monday, she would go to school for the first time, and she would go with socks and shoes on her feet. Four dollars in three days. That’s what he needed. He looked at her now through the opaque white of the net, on her back, her leg flung over her mothers. He thought her feet beautiful and she was clever, a match to her name. Kolab had turned to him with a question in her eyes when he had told her of his choice of name. She is our future. She will be clever and become a doctor. She will look after you when you grow old. And she was clever. And she had to have shoes. Four dollars. Three days, two arms and one leg, it is enough.
Kolab was beautiful and hard working. He was lucky. Rose, to the foreigners who had sweated over her, when he had lost his leg. They never talked of it. The food she brought, whilst he lay on the floor his stump dressing as red as the fan, words enough. Never again, not her, not his daughters. Veata would become a doctor, and they would always have enough to eat, and a house with proper electrical sockets. A dream he could make happen with four dollars.
Hap crab-walked on his hands and haunches over to the door. His left leg propped against the frame. He strapped it on and stood as quietly as he could. He eased the rusted corrugated door open and swung his left leg into the space. It was cooler outside. Shutting the door behind him, he walked slowly at first, but once clear of the hut he picked up speed. There was no time to lose. The hard dry red packed earth felt warm beneath his foot as he marched with a fling of the left, and a stride of the right, until he reached Sep’s hut. Sep was his friend, and he had a metal detector.
“Sep,” he called in a soft voice. “Sep.” He heard movement, and didn’t call again. The door opened. Sep rubbed the sleep from his eye. The other eye a sunken socket of wrinkled flesh. His leg and Sep’s eye lost in the same moment.
“I need the metal detector.”
“No. Go home.”
“Sep, I need it.”
Sep looked at his friend, his eye blinking.
“Veata has to go to school on Monday. I have to buy shoes for her. And socks. I need four dollars.”
Sep rubbed his head as if polishing a shoe to really get a shine on. He sighed, nodded, and went back inside the hut. Hap heard Sep say something to his wife and then he came out with the metal detector and a canvas bag. He handed both to Hap.
“I only have five blades for the hacksaw.”
“Thank you my friend. Thank you.”
The discarded soil of his efforts lay beside him. Hap had used his leg as a hoe to dig the hole. The bomb now exposed in the pit he had dug around it. Sep’s metal detector propped against a tree nearby with his leg. The pit not wide enough for him to wear it. It was a big bomb. At least 250 kilos. At twenty-five cents a kilo about sixty dollars. A fortune. He had found it in the evening and had started digging then. By morning he had uncovered enough to see the shape of it. Staying away from the fuse, he had scraped around it to make enough clearance for the hacksaw. The scrap merchants would not take an intact bomb, and anyway it was too heavy for him to lift from the pit by himself. He had slept in the pit with the bomb, anxious that if he left someone would find it and steal his dream.
He tightened the screw on the hacksaw, but not too tight. Only five blades and it was a big bomb. Hap stroked the dried caked mud on the bomb about a third of the way from the tail. Wet his fingers with spit, and rubbed until he saw metal. Hap was scared. He knew from experience the pain of a mine. This bomb would cause no pain. He would just be gone. They wouldn’t find enough of him to cremate. Guiding it with his thumb, Hap pulled back on the hacksaw, pushing the thought of death away, as the teeth bit.
The bomb was now in two parts. With another centimeter to cut, the middle piece would separate from the nose. The last blade’s teeth as dulled as Hap’s brain. His arm muscles burned with the effort of forcing the dull blade into the metal but the dream is near to being real. His left leg propped under the nose to stop it from falling too far for when he cut through. His heart was pounding but fatigue had dulled the fear as it had the blades. With a ping the blade snapped. His soft moan of frustration unheard above the lip of the pit. He rested his hands on his thighs studying the last shred of metal between him and his dream. He reached down to the earth by his side and found the broken blades beside him. The longest and sharpest of these he selected. Cutting a piece of cloth from his shorts he wrapped it around the blade and pushing down hard began to cut again.
The bomb snapped in two. Hap’s heart paused in time with the saw. The nose rolled over his plastic leg to the end of the pit. He waited, not moving, not breathing.
Khem wiped his hands on the dirty white cloth hung on the steering wheel. He looked in the cracked side view mirror to see if they had finished loading yet. His coach is old and missing the driver’s side window. Raindrops darkened the khaki of his shorts. A full load. He looked at his watch. It is as old as the coach is; midnight. The last of the weekend travelers from Phnom Penh are leaving Sihanoukville. The two hundred-thirty kilometer drive will take at least six hours, with the rain, maybe eight. He leaned on the coach’s horn, impatient to be off. His “boy” shouted, “Ho, ho,” and ran to the open door, the coach already moving. Khem pulled the door lever shut, pressed the clutch in again, and with a crunch got the coach into second gear as they pulled onto the main road. A belch of black smoke the departing salute.
Khem was plotting where he could gain time. His remaining headlight casting a weak yellow light on National road 4. The traffic through the night will be heavy with trucks. Slow in the mountain passes, but he knows he can make up time on the road into the capital. There’s no one better at weaving through traffic.
“Sep,” Hap called softly standing outside the door to Sep’s hut. The door opened and Sep’s head appeared. He looked at his friend. Hap is covered in mud, a ragged tear in his shorts, his proud shoulders stooped, the metal detector and canvas bag in one hand. New, black, girl’s shoes in the other. His teeth showing white in the night.
“You found one then.”
“I found a big one Sep. Here, this is for you.” Hap pressed the 25,000 Riels, about five dollars, into Sep’s hand as he passed him the metal detector and bag. “I broke all of your blades, they’re in the bag.” Nothing that won’t rot is ever thrown away.
“Go get some sleep. Kolab is very angry with you and me too. She’s not talking to me and says you are a stupid buffalo.”
“Yes she would be, but she will forgive me when she sees the shoes and the money.”
“Go get some sleep now you look like hell,” Sep said, smiling, his one good eye wrinkled with happiness and pride for his friend.
Hap sat cross-legged on the concrete floor looking at his daughters sleeping. Kolab was outside washing. Sep was right, she was angry. She hadn’t spoken to him, just looked at the shoes and the money lying on the floor beside the pallet they slept on. He sighed, no sex for at least a week, and smiled. A small price to pay. He reached under the mosquito net and shook Veata’s arm gently. She woke and looked at him, a smile spreading on her face. So beautiful and smart. He looked down, the white ankle socks clean against the shiny black of the shoes. She followed his glance and her smile broadened. Ducking under the mosquito net she knelt before him. Placing the palms of her hands together, she raised them to her forehead and bent her head to the floor, her hair brushing his stump. He reached out with his hand and stroked her hair softly.
“Hurry now my clever one, it’s time to go to school.”
The run through the mountain pass had been slow, and Khem was making up for lost time. His boy hung one-handed from the open door of the coach. His arm wheeling in large circles waving them onward. One hand on the wheel and one on the stick, Khem wove a thread through the tapestry of motorbikes, cyclo’s, trucks, cars, and people in the Monday morning traffic. Twenty-five minutes to get to the coach park. If he missed the cut-off time, he lost his five dollars for the night’s work. A hand on the horn, his fake Ray Ban’s slipped down his nose. He downshifted, and took his hand off the wheel to push the glasses back up. A loud bang and the coach veered sharply to the right.
They sat side by side, as she put on her new shoes. She had gone barefoot through the fields not wanting to get mud or dust on them. Her socks and shoes the first new things she had owned. They were a size too large, but that was a good thing. Hap looked down at her and smiled. The dream had begun to be real.
He heard a loud bang behind him. Her face changed to fear. Mouth open, eyes wide. The sound of screeching metal on the road. He turned to see a coach on its side hurtling towards them. The driver hanging out of the front window being dragged along the road.
Hap grabbed Veata and jumped with her in his arms into the irrigation ditch. His plastic leg snapped off at the foot as he landed on top of her in the muddy water. The world went black as the coach went over them. And then silence.
Clutching her to his chest Hap wriggled them out from under the truck. The ditch had saved them. Veata cried, looking at her now brown socks and mud splattered clothes. Hap laughed and cried. The dream lived.
Copyright © 2010 Simon Royle. This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to people or places, living or dead, is purely coincidental. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system,without permission in writing from Simon Royle.