Saturday, July 03, 2010

A little after three in the afternoon

He crossed the road at the traffic light slowly and cautiously till he stopped at the divider and caught his breath. It was uncomfortably hot as afternoons in July usually are, and the metallic rod that held the traffic lights was hot and proved too painful for his palms to hold for support for too long. He removed his hands very quickly and began rubbing his palms on the tip of his calf as if doing so might soothe him. It did but only for a short while and he took out a soiled handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from the back of his neck and his face.

The traffic on the other lane wasn't moving and so he decided to take his chance to dash across quickly to the other side. However, the moment he took a few steps, the light turned green and the cars began to move. He turned back quickly and almost stumbled before getting back again and returning to the divider. Some of the cars honked at him angrily, and one or two drivers even rolled down their windows to hurl abuse at him. One even showed him the finger and threatened to get him arrested or worse.

He didn't seem to have the time to care what they were saying. He just seemed relieved that he was able to reach safely to the divider without getting hit by any of the cars. He was so used to getting slighted that he couldn't even remember when was the last time he was genuinely offended by someone's obnoxious behaviour. It was a luxury he couldn't afford since all that mattered to him was to save his skin and not his pride.

He grinned at the thought of pride, and wondered if he ever had the time or the inclination to ever develop a sense of pride in the things he did and the person he was. The acidity began to bother him and he spat on the divider's concrete slab leaving a yellowish translucent saliva stain that bothered one of the drivers who didn't like the sight of a man spitting. The driver honked and he flashed another embarrassed smile as thoughts of pride disappeared once again.

The traffic didn't seem to stop and he could see the drivers on the other side were getting increasingly impatient. Unlike the drivers, he didn't seem to mind this delay at all. The longer he stood at the divider, the longer he would get to enjoy standing out in the open and not having anyone else invade his space. He hated crowds and hated being in crowded places and that's why he chose to walk to his labour accommodation instead of taking the company transport.

It took him almost forty-five minutes to reach the cramped quarters where he and 200 other workers stayed. The company transport would take him just fifteen minutes but there was always the inconvenience of being shoved in an open pick-up or packed in a van with forty or fifty that could be squeezed into the vehicle. The management reasoned that it was more cost-effective to pack the workers in a vehicle instead of making multiple trips just because some of the workers thought it was uncomfortable and unsafe.

He didn't want to argue with his managers or get into a long discussion on how this was against government rules because at the end of the day he didn't want to lose his job. He wanted to save as much money as possible, return home to his family and to the farm that he lost and now wanted to recover with his meagre savings.

There was also this delicate matter of his daughter's wedding, which was likely to drain some more of his savings since the boy's family insisted on a dowry and it was a matter of honour that he gave more than what they asked. And he wanted his son to study, be an engineer like one of his managers, and make enough money so he won't have to struggle in a foreign country to make ends meet. But recently he had learnt that his son was spending more time with his friends than with his books and was concerned about the consequences.

The walk helped him to clear his thoughts and also reminisce about the days when he had the farm and the family. There was something about wide open spaces that brought back memories he didn't want to let go or even forget even though at times it seemed totally futile. The walk did tend to get tiring and exhausting especially during the summer months but he didn't seem to mind. He enjoyed looking at the cars and the people inside with their happy and prosperous lives: all of them seemed so involved in what they were doing, so focused about where they wanted to go, and so fulfilled in their lives.

He imagined that even the people in the cars might have regrets of their own and wondered if he would ever get the chance to learn what those regrets were. Will they want to talk with him? Or would they find him repulsive because he didn't dress or smell like them?

The light turned amber as the few cars that were there began to slow and stopped when it turned red. He took small steps to cross to the other side and this time he wanted to make absolutely sure that he didn't stumble. It was a matter of a few yards and a quick dash and he would be safe on the other side.

He heard a faint sound that grew louder and louder, and at the very moment he turned he saw the sportscar was getting closer and not willing to stop. He knew the car had to stop because of the signal but the driver was waving at him to move aside. He just stood there in a state of panic before the car hit him, stopped and seeing what had happened drove away as fast as it could.

The next day, the newspapers said it was a 'hit-and-run' accident, and his managers told the police that he repeatedly ignored their advice to take company transport and so they were not to be blamed for the accident. The police later found out that he was not on the company's visa and so their lawyers found a way to avoid the company having to pay any compensation.

When his body reached his village, it came with few of his meagre belongings that his room-mates managed to pack and some money that they and some charitable organisation managed to collect and send along with the coffin. The total amount wasn't enough to recover the farm nor help in meeting the expenses for his daughter's wedding.

His wife stared into vacant space unsure about the future as she looked at her son and wondered if he would do what he must or choose to wander aimlessly as he had begun doing.