Here is the eighteenth droplet of my novel Biotime. Sue Phu, on the Mekong, gives birth to her first ever baby boy – at the ninth attempt – and the man in the boat arrives. He has long fair hair and a “Peace” tattoo.
Will the man in the boat buy the baby?
Don’t forget the “story so far” page, bringing together the excerpts published up to now.
Santa Monica, California, 1979 – Photo Robert Pimm
[Chapter 4 continues]
Two days later the rain stopped and Sue Phu delivered with the help of Last Chance a yelling, healthy baby boy. Last Chance said the new baby was crying so loud the man in the boat would hear. Sue Phu was delighted. She had never given birth to a boy. The first four babies she had sold had all been girls. Holding on to Last Chance, her fifth, had been an act of superstitious folly, as though such a demonstration might persuade the gods of her indifference to the gender of her progeny. Penury had been averted only by the fascination which the child exerted on the rest of the village as women crowded in to take turns holding the infant, bringing small gifts of food. But the gods had paid scant attention: Sue Phu had gone on to produce three more baby girls, one after another.
A few days after each birth the man in the boat would call, examine the child, and shake Sue Phu’s hand. That meant the baby was OK. He would give Sue Phu a small case wrapped in a pink ribbon – for a girl – containing a number of dollar tokens. Then he would leave with the baby. There were fewer tokens for a girl than for a boy. This time it would be different.
Sue Phu was nursing the child outside her front door when the boat came. She knew the sound well: the roar of the engines rising to a scream as the boat hit a patch of open water, then dropping to a burble as it toiled between the river houses, vulnerable on their bamboo stilts. The man in the boat looked after the women of the village. He had an interest in them, for sure. She held the child to her breast.
The boat came to rest in front of the house, rolling in the dark, calm water. Last Chance peered round the door. The vessel, longer than any two houses in the village and streaked with the rain of a hundred summers, was the most beautiful thing in creation. Life would have ceased without it. Yet its attraction was tinged with dread.
Sometimes, when Last Chance misbehaved, Sue Phu threatened to sell her to the man in the boat. In fact, the man in the boat had several times offered Sue Phu a cash payment in return for being allowed to take her daughter on board. He told her that as Last Chance grew older the price would be less; and that when the girl first bled, the price would fall to nil. Sue Phu had always declined.
On the boat a door opened and the man came out, blinking in the sunshine. He was tall, with long fair hair falling down over his shoulders, and wore only a sarong. The word “Peace” was tattooed on his left breast, above a small white bird. Although the man in the boat had been coming to the village for as long as anyone could remember, he looked younger than Sue Phu.
‘Good morning, Sue Phu,’ he said. ‘I hear you got something good for me.’
Sue Phu nodded. The man was always polite. His face was permanently set in a smile of friendship. Yet there was something about the man in the boat which made her afraid. Not his eyes, which sparkled when he caught her glance. Nor his walk and posture, both of them humility itself. The stalking gait of the boat crew – short, hard men who spoke a language she did not understand – was far more overtly inimical. Rather, it was as if the man in the boat was gazing at her from a place far away, where Sue Phu’s life had no more meaning than the scurrying of an ant on the forest floor.
Many years ago, after a glass of rice wine, Sue Phu’s mother had told her the boat crew were angry because they were incomplete.
‘They’re not like the stud-boys. They are smooth down there.’ Sue Phu’s mother had touched herself between the legs. ‘There is nothing hanging down. Or sticking up. It is the price they pay. It makes them irritable.’
‘Price?’ Sue Phu had frowned. ‘What price?’
‘The price of freedom. They want to ride on the boat, they pay. So they cannot bother us. Simple.’
‘But what if they don’t want to ride on the boat? What happens to them then?’
Sue Phu’s mother had gathered her up and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I don’t know. Maybe one day you can ask the man in the boat.’
But Sue Phu had never dared.
[Excerpt ends][Next excerpt]
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from my novel “Biotime”. If you’re interested in hearing about further episodes, follow this blog by e-mail (top right, “click here”); or follow me on Twitter @RobertPimm (left hand side). I can promise you a fun ride.
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