Preface Many thanks to Ingrid Haring-Mendes for driving home what I should have learned from Stephen Lewis. Thank you too to Fran, for inspiring me as a writer, to lift off the covers and publicly write about things which most people would prefer to keep hidden from the light.
But most of all, thank you to the spirit of Ana and all people like her who, at the end of the day, can cherish the simple act of waking up to life
The collar of my pyjamas stunk from the dun-brown stain of nervous sweat. It was well past midnight, past any time when a respectable man would be sleeping. Yet here I was, once again wide awake.
Now, I’ve known for years reading was not the way to sooth me to sleep. That’s why I’d thrown Ana’s pages to the floor earlier in the night. By tossing them far from my bed, I had hoped I could escape their reach, to slip away into the comparative safety of sleep. But it seemed my dreams had remained as haunted as Ana’s, for I could see my feet were tied in a tangle of twisted linens at the foot of my bed. They were bound by my nightmare every bit as much as Ana was bound by her guilt.
It was then I knew that I was caught up in more than my bed sheets. I was caught up by Ana.
Damn that woman for writing such confidences! Yes, I felt special to read her story. But it was one thing to be pulled into her world, it was quite another to be stuck into her orbit. For despite everything, despite Ana and all her experiences, I needed sleep.
I reached out for my laptop. Idly browsing through photographs was a pleasurable pastime for me, one tried and true way to idle away my time. On nights when my spinning head remained in Drive and refused to slip into Park, I would find the repeatable patterns of nature’s landscapes to be calming. There was a pleasing patina to these yellow sand dunes, the tranquil seasides, those warm sunsets. I knew they could sneak into my thoughts to draw away my attention and gradually lull me into sleep.
So I punched up my usual bookmark. The glowing screen started its flow of images, each one pleasant, each landscape nice to look at but not interesting enough to dwell upon, something like how computer wallpaper becomes a bland background behind the desktop icons scattered across my computer screen.
Autumn trees dressed themselves in their colours, a leafy forest wore its canopy of different greens, and an ocean’s sunset slipped on its soothing tones of yellows and orange. Each of these images flowed before me. The steady beat of the slideshow kept up its pleasing rhythm, photo and fade, photo and fade, a visual metronome for my drooping eyelids.
What the hell? What was that on the screen?
Perhaps if the photo had scrolled off away, I wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps if that one picture had faded into digital oblivion, my emotions wouldn’t have flared up the way they did. Hey, perhaps it was pre-ordained by some higher power, maybe the same power orchestrating everything Ana had gone through. Who knew? I only knew my finger was possessed by some demon, some spirit that had me click down on the cursor key, frantic to command the slideshow to ‘stop’.
There she stood, dead center in the photo, standing out as easily as if she had some bull’s eye pasted onto her head. I can laugh now, rationalizing that it was the contrasts in white and dark that had immediately caught my eye. But to be truthful, it was something deeper than that. Something darker.
You see, that photo was like one of those geography pictures back from my grade school days. You know; the ones about tribal people somewhere over in Africa. This photo had all the hallmarks of those National Geographic picture stories. There were the men of the tribe gathered all around, posing especially for this photo. Some were talking, others laughing, but most of them were just looking self-conscious in front of the camera. And yes, there slightly to the left of center, there was the pre-requisite tribal woman, some black lady wearing nothing but beads to decorate all her skin showing above her waist.
Now, I would hope that a topless African woman would not titillate now me the way she would have done back in Grade 6. That was back in the days when I’d spend indoor recess in the library, thumbing through stacks of National Geographic back issues, deliberately searching for pictures just like this one, hunting for photos of near-naked women and their exposed breasts. I had matured; I was grown up and beyond all that. Wasn’t I?
But as I said, that picture, the one that I had deliberately captured on my screen, that picture was not quite like the way I remembered those 1960’s pictures. And I was certain it was this difference that was capturing my eye. Because no National Geographic article from back then would have shown this.
Right there in the photo, as if caught in the focus of the camera lens, there was the white smiling face of a woman. An obviously young and oriental woman, right in the heart of these Africans, very visible and very much standing out from the crowd. I found myself screaming at this woman as if she was there right beside me in my bed, instead of being some magical apparition my browser screen had conjured up to haunt me. For some reason, I just knew this oriental woman had to be Chinese. And for the same reason, I was positive she was in trouble.
“Yes,” I shouted into the night, “you are young, young and silly, just like Ana at that age. Is that any reason to make such a show of yourself? Why do you have to go around with no shirt on? What makes you so special as to go around topless like that?” for this woman was every bit as topless as the African woman beside her. I shook my pointed index finger at this person, the undressed Chinese girl, and shouted at her again.
“Good for you. So now the whole world can see that your breasts don’t sag, and that your nipples can still stand up, nice and perky. So what does that prove? How stupid you are? I don’t care if it makes you feel all young and sexy. You only prove to me how ignorant you are. Do you think you’re the only one to have ever felt like that? Don’t you know what happened to Ana?"
There it was. That was the real reason why this photo had jerked me out of my good night’s sleep. Ana’s story was still banging about in my head, still grabbing my attention to do more than wake me up from a fitful night’s sleep. And if Ana had taught me anything at all, it was that the very carelessness with which this Chinese woman was flaunting her breasts in front of these people was more than dumb. Her stupidity screamed loud enough in my head for me to be scared for this Chinese woman.
“Who are you, girl?” I shouted into my empty bedroom. “Are you one of those Chinese people who’ve moved now to Africa? Are you one of the colonies of professionals tied up with all the mining and farming projects the Chinese have started up all over the continent?
I bet ch’ya; I bet you I’m right on that. So then, you’re probably from one of those big costal cities, the ones that are so crowded and growing like a weed, maybe Shanghai, maybe Tianjin, some place where all the country people are moving into the city looking for work. I’m sure that in such a city you’re a nobody, just one of the masses. I even think your mama named you something bland like Li. Yes, I bet you’re just some Mei Li, no different in Shanghai than a Jane Smith would be in Toronto or New York, and just as unremarkable, unnoticeable, and unseen.
So yes, young Miss Li, I can see how you’d be excited to get away from all that, to move away from all the noise, all the traffic and pollution. You probably jumped at the chance to move away from the city, some place you could work and even get ahead in your career. I guess you’re making a small fortune too, out there in the middle of Africa.
How do I know? Come on! Your company’s probably given you a nice room over your head, and from the way you’re looking here, girl, you’re obviously not starving. So you’re paying nothing for your day to day things. I bet you’re even sending most of your salary back home, Li, having your poor mama keep it safe for you until you come home, until you come back with all this craziness gone from your head. But you’re not home yet, Li. You’re still living like some Chinese Empress there off in Africa.
So if you’ve got so much going for you Li, why are you being so stupid? To go around topless beside this African woman???? You’re not in some village built specially for tourists, safely tucked into the middle of the jungle! You’re out on the savannah where it’s wide open and there’s nowhere to run and hide!”
I turned away from the bright computer screen, disgusted, Li’s picture still clear in my mind. Couldn’t this girl see the danger she was in? At least Ana wasn’t that dumb. Ana could feel when danger was coming. I turned back to the photo. Look at Li! She was encircled by a bunch of armed men. Really!!! Ana could teach this stupid girl a thing or two.
I couldn’t hold it all in. I was blowing up at this crazy woman, shouting again at my computer screen. “I know you, Li. You’d say it’s just horsing around. I guess it must have been fun posing like a native with these people. But what the hell is with you girl? Turn your head around, look at the woman beside you!”
For even in that different culture, the furled eyebrows and stance of the African woman made it clear what she thought. We both knew this oriental girl was nuts. What did Li really know about danger? I continued talking to the screen, this time mumbling maybe to the picture, maybe just to myself.
“Dear god girl, what do you know about life? You think you know danger because you jumped ahead of your poor mother, back when you crossed the Huangpu River in the ferry boat all by yourself. It was great fun, wasn’t it Li, to leave your poor mother stranded on the banks of the Bund? That was before the subway was finished, when the ferry was the only way back home to the other side of the river.
But you weren’t scared then, were you? In fact, you thought it was fun to be rid of your Dragon Mother, to be alone like an adult, a nine year old girl on the other side of the barrier as the ferry motored out into the river. You weren’t beside your mama to hear her screams while she stood there waiting, furious and scared, helpless until the next ferry docked again in the shadows of the Peace Hotel.
You should ask Ana, girl. Go and ask Ana, did her being stranded on the ferry prepare her for real danger? Was there anything she experienced when stuck taking the ferry into Mombasa Town help Ana later when she faced real danger?”
I shifted my eyes over to the men. Couldn’t Li see that these men were armed? Those weren’t pop guns used to shoot rats stealing rice from the cupboard, those were rifles. Semi automatic carbine rifles that may as well have been machine guns.
“Damn it Li!” I was shouting again. “Didn’t you carry the same carbines when you served in the People's Liberation Army? Hell, those guns are probably even made in China! Look at the expression of the guy to your right. Yes him, the one with the cigarette dangling form his mouth, and the rifle cocked high, up by his shoulder. Is he sizing you up as hostage material, Li? Oh, if only Ana could be here to talk to you, to grab you by the shoulders girl, just the way Roopa always gave Ana a good shake every time Ana was about to do something stupid.”
What the hell. I didn’t know this woman the way I knew Ana. Who knew if this Li girl had a Mark in her life, just waiting in the wings, never mind somebody flamboyant like Erek I reached about and jammed a pillow behind me, then thumped myself back into its softness. No, maybe Li didn’t have a Mark to prop her up. More likely there was someone flashy in her life, some rich guy loaded with government money in some privileged position, his charisma drawing her away from her desk job in the company compound, pulling her out into this adventure in the heart of the Serengeti.
I snapped shut my laptop screen. Not my problem anymore. I had learned my lessons with Ana.
Yeah, this was Li’s time, just like Ana had her time to do something crazy to share with her rich guy together, something to bond them together with pumped up adrenaline. It’s not hard to see Li’s breaking some rigid Chinese taboo, taking off her top like this, showing herself off in the middle of all these armed strangers. But there had to be more to it than that, something other than the tame taboo of public nudity among people whom a topless local woman was not that odd, only different.
I settled down into the comfort of my pillow, my sheets now pulled up around my shoulders to ward off the dampness of dawn, that five o’clock in the morning feeling of peaceful drowsiness finally taking root to control my mood. After all, this Li was only a girl in a picture, some woman acting like a typical tourist. Why should I loose any sleep over her? She wasn’t real to me, not real the way Ana was. Anyhow, those men with their guns, they probably only laughed about her later. I was just embarrassed for that silly lady. At least she had nice breasts.
I smiled. After all, other nights I had drifted off into sleep with far less pleasant sights to populate my dreams.
Wait! Nice breasts? Who was Li really showing off for? Maybe it wasn’t for the locals, these guys with their guns. If this woman Li was really like Ana, then there must be a man for whom she was doing this, some man perhaps who had captured her heart. A man for whom she knew her passions would run wild, but for whom she knew would hurt her in the long run.
Someone who would be pleased to take Li’s picture. A person who would be skilful enough to not be distracted from the immediate appeal of Li’s naked white breasts. A man with a camera who was experienced enough to know that the expressions on the Africans’ faces were the real theme in this powerful photograph.
Someone who was a professional photographer, someone in Li’s life just like Ana’s Erek ….
I lunged out of bed, groping for Ana’s words. I really wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.
Mei Li has not been seen since posing for this photograph somewhere in the Serengeti, while Ana was last heard to be in London, regretting the loss of her Erek. Ana’s memories are being lovingly transcribed into a new novel by her life-long friend, Ingrid Haring-Mendes, and are to be ready for publishing in 2012.
Tom Cameron finds his fictional characters give him the most pleasure. They pretend to be people, for they quickly develop a mind of their own, twisting down plot turns far more interesting than the dry paths of daytime technical writing. These pretend people live in fascinating places such as China’s concrete plaza Tiananmen Square, Gaza’s town of Beit Hanoun, and Vietnam’s islands of Ha Long Bay. Tom gave a reading of "Violated Borders" at CJ's Cafe in June.
Our next reaing night at CJ's Cafe in Bronte will beSept 13, starting at 6:30. Everyone invited. More here.
See Brian's full schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.