Extreme suffering: chapter 2 of my new novel “Corona Crime” looks at how bad things could get after COVID-19, COVID-35, COVID-103 etc. For the protagonist of the chapter, Sue Phu, things do not go well.
If you have explored my sci-fi thriller “Corona Crime” you will know already that a lot of extreme suffering takes place.
One of those who suffers most is Sue Phu, who appears only once in the novel, in Chapter 2. The picture below brings her to my mind, although Sue Phu lives on a stilt house in the Mekong Delta.
Sue Phu, the heroine of Chapter 2, lives a bleak life (photo: GE)
I introduced Chapter 1 last week.
My post two weeks ago introduced the novel, including a spooky excerpt from Chapter 31 – featuring more suffering even more extreme than that of Sue Phu, as it happens.
More news on, and excerpts from, Corona Crime in coming weeks. Watch this space, and sign up for updates. Comments welcome.
“Corona Crime” Chapter 2
EXTREME SUFFERING JUSTIFIES EXTREME MEASURES
One Life Army atrocity verification code
Sue Phu looked out at the rain and sighed. Three days into her confinement and still no sign of a break in the weather. From her front door the Mekong stretched, shimmering in the downpour. What kind of welcome was this for the new baby? Between her breasts a drop of sweat rolled down, a cool tickle which melted into warmth where her swollen belly rose against her dress. She yelled to her daughter, Last Chance.
‘Last Chance! Is the water still hot?’
‘Come and try it.’
Last Chance was crouched over an open fire in the corner of the hut, watching steam rise from a cauldron. She had helped deliver two of her mother’s children. The first time, the water had been too cold and Sue Phu had nearly died. Water-borne hepatitis, the man in the boat had said when he came for the baby. It was the only time Last Chance had ever seen him leave the boat. He had put on a special suit, like a space man, to take the blood sample and examine Sue Phu, his gloved hands holding back her eyelids so far Last Chance was worried her mother’s eyeballs might fall out.
The man had left lucky charms after that, to help keep Sue Phu and Last Chance healthy. Now they had glass bottles full of powder to sprinkle around the hut; pills to swallow before and after the stud-boys came; and red pellets which fizzed and boiled in the river water Sue Phu and Last Chance drank when the bottles they bought from the supply boat were all empty.
Sue Phu stepped inside the hut, touching the metal box over the door for luck. The box was smooth and cool; the man in the boat brought one whenever a woman in the village bled for the first time. A black dish on the roof stored up the sun in the box and shone it out during the night, from a glass eye on the front. The man in the boat said the box helped him know if Sue Phu needed anything.
Sue Phu had mixed feelings about the man in the boat. He never bargained. The prices he paid were falling. Sue Phu had even toyed with the thought of keeping the new baby, if it was a girl. But she couldn’t afford it. It was good that the man in the boat supplied for free the stud-boys without whom nothing would have been possible. All the women were serviced thus. They never saw any other men, or any other people at all, apart from the man in the boat.
Not since the time of Sue Phu’s great-grandmother had men lived in the village. What had happened to the men was a subject of dispute. Some said the Americans had killed them when they lost the great war, long ago. Others said the corona had killed the men and left the women. That had been when the aeroplanes had stopped flying, and the jungle had grown back across the country.
Some of the younger women said the virus was a myth – how could it exist, when no-one in the village had ever died from it? How could men ever have lived in the village, when the man in the boat took every male child away with him? The man in the boat, when people dared to ask him, smiled and said nothing.
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. Penury had been averted only by the fascination the child exerted on the rest of the village: women had crowded in, taking turns holding the infant and bringing small gifts of food. But the gods had paid scant attention: Sue Phu had gone on to produce four more baby girls, one after another.
A few days after each birth, the man in the boat would visit, examine the baby, then bow to Sue Phu, his right hand flat against his heart. 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: 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 stilt platforms. 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 refused.
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 white bird. On his left wrist was a smooth black band. 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 from her waiting place, three paces back from the edge of the platform. The man was always polite. His face was permanently set in a smile of friendship. Yet there was something about him that 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 more hostile. 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 are 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 do not 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 do not know. Maybe one day you can ask the man in the boat.’
But Sue Phu had never dared.
Now the ritual was beginning. Still standing in the boat, the man put on a face-mask and gloves, then took from one of his grim-faced crew a package sealed in plastic. He tore it open to extract a white tray with high sides and a fabric lining. He placed the tray on the cane matting at the edge of the platform and stepped back.
‘May I see the baby, Sue Phu?’ the man in the boat asked.
The tiny boy began to cry. Sue Phu did not kiss or comfort him. It was too late for that. She laid the infant gently in the tray, then knelt down at the back of the platform. She saw a fat tear well up on the baby’s cheek and trickled down, but suppressed the urge to step forward and wipe it away. Instead she watched, expressionless, her hands folded in her lap, as the man tickled the baby’s toes, examined its eyes, and, using a disposable syringe, extracted a sample of blood. The baby yelled lustily. Sue Phu bit her lip as the crewman took the blood inside, slamming the door behind him.
Everyone said they tested the blood to check that the father was one of the stud-boys. If the results came out wrong, the man in the boat would still take the child but would pay nothing. Sue Phu could not remember this happening. How could it, with no other men in the village? But they always took blood into the boat before any baby was passed fit for dollars.
The door stayed closed. The man in the boat sat in a chair at the stern, gazing at the river, ignoring Sue Phu and the baby. Sue Phu stared at the door into which the crewman had disappeared, willing it to open. There was something painted on it, faded by rain and sunshine. It looked like a severed hand, transfixed by a knife. A lizard ran out from the house onto the floor matting and stopped dead, its eyes rotating comically as it tried to decide whether to stay frozen or run away. Further down the riverbank, beneath the overhanging trees, something splashed into the water.
At last the boat door opened and the crewman emerged. His face revealed nothing. He said a few words in his guttural language. The man in the boat continued to gaze at the river. As if he had all the time in the world. Then he turned to Sue Phu and placed his right hand flat over his heart.
His palm was covering the white bird, she saw.
‘It’s a deal,’ the man in the boat said.
Sue Phu blinked. Her eyes were filling with tears. Eight times before, the man had taken her baby. It never got any easier. Behind her, she heard a whoop. Last Chance was jumping around and yelling. Two pregnant women peeked from the doorway of the next hut.
‘You done it, new baby,’ shrieked Last Chance. ‘You done it.’
Ignored by everyone, the baby cried.
The man in the boat stepped forward and looked down at the child. ‘Say goodbye?’ he said to Sue Phu.
Sue Phu shook her head. She had no baby now.
The man watched her for a moment, then addressed the child. ‘Say goodbye to your momma, kid.’ He took the plastic tray and placed a package, tied with a blue ribbon, on the cane matting. ‘This is for you, Sue Phu.’ The infant continued to sob, reaching out a tiny hand like a gesture of farewell.
At the rear of the boat, a crewman grunted as he lifted a pack of groceries onto the far end of the platform that surrounded the house. He sprayed down the package, sprayed his hands, then returned below deck.
‘May I say that we’re grateful for all your good work,’ the man in the boat said to Sue Phu. ‘If you are thinking of having another child, I should remind you that with eight already in our care plus little number nine here, you only need one more to retire and receive a regular payment for the rest of your life. Then you can leave all the work to Last Chance.’
Sue Phu spoke quietly. ‘You bring the stud-boys. I will be waiting.’
‘We will be back. As soon as we think you’re ready.’ The man picked up the tray and walked towards the rear of the boat, which slipped its moorings and began to move out into the channel. Sue Phu could hear the baby crying as the man opened the door and went inside. Then the door closed, and the crying was gone.
I hope you have enjoyed this excerpt from Corona Crime. Extreme suffering? You decide.
Here is Chapter 3.
If this post has prompted a taste to explore more, my most recent books are: my blackly comic Seven Hotel Stories, hard-hitting Berlin thriller Blood Summit and Corona Crime – the thriller for a world in the grip of coronavirus.