How Many Camels?

I
How many camels will you take for your daughter?
Not such an unusual question in the Gulf perhaps, but on the deck of a
large passenger ship bound from Genoa for Fremantle, it takes Herbert
unprepared.
I will give you ten camels. What do you say – ten camels for your daughter here?
The man indicates the elder of the two girls.
Herbert looks at his girls. He looks and sees Helenka, his firstborn,
an elf flitting and dipping at will as she plays with Masha, who is
not yet ten. They are playing with their dolls.
At this lull in adult conversation, Helenka looks up. She sees no sign
that she is the subject of the stalled conversation – nor an object.
She takes Masha’s hand and pulls her across the deck to play
hopscotch.
The stranger is watching too. His appraising eye follows the movement
of the elf as she leaps and glides at hopscotch. He sees slim legs
flashing, a hint of fulness at the hips. He looks at the child – a
question still unasked, sees womanhood – a trader’s answer.
The stranger takes Herbert’s silence as rejection of an insufficient
offer. He speaks again: Twenty camels then. What do you say to twenty?

II
In his little dress shop, Herbert is in the clothing trade. Fort
Street, Fremantle is not a chic address, but his clientele is worldly
enough – they come from all corners of the world: in the course of
their escape to Australia, to Fremantle, they have seen the worst of
the world.
Worldly – and fussy too. Never mind the quality, is it cheap? Never
mind style, what’s the price?
But Herbert is worldly too. He understands that his heavy accent is
not a marketing advantage, but that a pretty face and a winning manner
might be.
His older daughter is worth twenty camels: this is Helenka whose face
might have launched so many ships of the desert. So, every day, after
school finishes and on Saturdays, Helenka works as a marketing
advantage in the clothing trade.

III
A couple comes into the shop. The lady has little English, has brought
her man as interpreter. They converse in a Slavic language, which the
marketing advantage happens to comprehend. Helenka shows a seemingly
intuitive understanding of the lady’s needs and her budget. She
selects and shows the lady dresses which cost no more than she is able
to pay. No more, but scarcely a penny less. The lady makes her
purchase and is content. Her bored interpreter notices the imminent
woman inside the child’s school uniform, and loses his languid air.
The child is the only person in attendance and his hungry eyes take it
all in.
A week later, the couple returns to the shop, this time as last time,
well after school closes. The lady needs her new dress altered, which
is quickly arranged. Hungry Eyes is not quickly ready to leave,
however. He chooses dresses, brings them to the young shopgirl, makes
slow enquiries, appears very interested but makes no purchases. He
says he will think about it.
I come again back, he says.

IV
Here in Australia, people are slow and casual. Herbert and Alida are
intense and restless. After a short time, they open a second shop,
this one in Station Street, Fremantle. They still live above the Fort
Street shop. Alida has newly-arrived cousins, fresh from Europe. They
have no home and no income. Alida and Herbert install them above the
second shop, where there is sufficient space for the cousins to live,
and to sew dresses for the shops. Now the newcomers have both a home
and a business.
Freda runs the Station Street shop and it consumes her.
Herbert is an early riser. Each morning he practises yoga, standing on
his head for up to an hour at a time. During this time, his scrotum is
suspended upside down, practically weightless. At all other times, he
feels its full weight and urgency. As soon as Helenka returns from
school, she takes over in the shop from Herbert and he is free to go
elsewhere and attend to his urgency.
And above the shop, Helenka’s mother, back from Station Street,
mothers Masha, washes and cleans, and cooks for two households. Soon,
more cousins arrive in Fremantle, then more, washed ashore, wave upon
wave, generated by the after shocks of Europe. Alida helps them all,
feeding as many as will come and eat.
At such times, Helenka is alone in the shop. She is alone when – true
to his word – Hungry Eyes comes again back.
He asks for an item of apparel which cannot be found on the racks in
the showroom. Helen says she’ll go and look for the item in the
stockroom. She is taken by surprise when Hungry Eyes follows her
there. She turns to explain that he can wait in the shop – she will
bring it, but he moves forward, keeps on moving until he has backed
her against the back wall. She discovers then, as his body rubs
against hers, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards, that he is
just like her violin teacher back in Hamburg: he is a rubber. At least
he is not like her French teacher, not a feeler.
She is not surprised when the rubbing abruptly stops, nor by his
moments of gasping, nor by his rapid retreat with that funny gait.
And she is not surprised when he comes again back, again.
For his part, Hungry Eyes is most surprised by the large Alsatian in
the stockroom, which Helen has borrowed from the Greek boy next door.
And when the Alsatian snarls and bares large fangs at him, Hungry Eyes
runs, with very efficient gait, from the shop and does not return. Continue reading

Running in the Breeding Grounds of Yangon

The weather forecast is for a hot day. That’s the forecast every day in Yangon. My own forecast – it’s hot now at 8.00 am, it will be hotter soon: if I am going to run today I should leave now.
I take a taxi to the park. Were I hungrier for inhaled hydrocarbons I’d run there, but I’ve already breathed enough smog to create a decent cancer.
Yangon boasts the largest city park in the known world. I do like to boast that I have run around the largest park in the known world: in Vancouver I ran around the world’s biggest, then in Bristol I did the same on the Downs.
But this beauty might just be the real thing. I can’t see its further end. Its jewel is the lake, a lime green affair that stretches further than my eyes or legs can follow.
The world’s longest boardwalk is a joy, bouncy and springy underfoot, launching my every next step upward and onward – and backwards in time to when running fast was effortless. Zooming around the lake, I find myself running parallel and close to the shore, close enough to feel like a voyeur as I pass numerous courting couples. The young people, engaged discreetly in the business at hand, hear my footfalls and look up in surprise. I keep my eyes on the winding boardwalk which flings me around bend after bend. At every turn I disturb another couple’s progress.

The shoreline is ringed by tall trees and shrubbery. Between the botanical specimens the park’s designers have placed benches large enough for two adults to recline, one beneath the other. The plantings afford privacy which the occupants appear to enjoy and take for granted. So when an old foreign mountain goat speeds into their breeding grounds, the locals are surprised. The consternation is mutual and thankfully brief.
After a time the boardwalk deserts the shore and heads off into open waters. The circumambient lime-green is the colour of too much life, of a watery milieu where plant growth is phenomenally fast and rotting keeps pace. The confectionary colour makes me slightly uneasy: I’m not anxious to take a dip in it.
Abruptly that becomes a real prospect as the boardwalk comes to a fullstop. I jam on the brakes and retrace my bouncing steps. Once again I disturb the courting couples, who, I cannot help noticing, are making good progress.
It reminds me of Buenos Aires, city of the long slow kiss. Another town where the poor are many and libidinous and strong urges find no indoor accommodation.
I leave the lake and head deep inland. Atop a rise I come to a large emerald of lawn. Eight slim men, bare chested, wearing longhis, trim the grass, each wielding sort of scythe, a linear metal blade about a metre long, with which they shave the green. Labour must be cheap: the area they ‘mow’ is about the size of a doubles tennis court. Hot work on a hot day, their bronze bellies shine in the sun.

***

I’d like to have a longhi. Which man wouldn’t?
I enquire and the smiling men of the mowing brigade direct me to the market. Happily I get lost many times: lost among the strong-smelling smoked fish sellers, lost among the fruit vendors, lost in the laneways clustered with jade merchants, lost among the corn on the cobmen, the hot food stallholders, the fabric traders, the toysellers, the tobacco factors, the beggars, the amputees, the gleaming smiles of white, the grins that drip red with betel juice.
At last I ask: longhi? – indicating my below waist area. More smiles on every side. The word goes around, people point and smile and tell their neighbour about the old foreigner who points to his privates.
A kindly soul – they all seem kindly – taps my shoulder, points to the shop directly behind me and nods: longhi, longhi.
The shop is narrow, but easily wide enough for the four or five – they come and they go, so the count is fluid – four or five fetching females who attend to me. They show me bolts of fabric, all smartly pattered cotton affairs. I choose the two lariest fabrics. The four or five fit me with my longhi. I leave, beaming, a prince among princes, splendid in my longhi in Yangon.