Liam Kennedy is a film director from the north of England. Alongside short fiction he writes screenplays, advertisements and travel memoirs. He has a travel blog that can be found at liam-kennedy.squarespace.com. 2014 is the year he intends to make the move towards becoming a full time fiction writer. In his spare time he loves reading, snowboarding, travel and photography. This story is his first fiction publication.
Sing For Your Supper
by Liam Kennedy
“No woman no cry,” sang the cycle rickshaw driver, “No chapatis no chai!” A gap where his front teeth should be curled ‘chapatis’ into a whistle. He smiled at the woman in the back seat. She was pig-like and dripping in sweat and patriotism. She wrapped herself in American flags: matching shorts and shirt, topped with a star-spangled cap. She turned up her snout and ignored the driver, leaving his broad, warm grin to linger on the flattened punchline. The driver put eyes back on the road, clacked his tongue against the gap in his teeth and cocked his head like a confused puppy. Don’t show desperation. They hate that. Chin up. Make them laugh. Try again.
He felt around in his pockets for inspiration. In one muddy brown-stained pocket he had a half chewed liquorice root, frayed at both ends, and a pocket knife. He half considered making a funny fake mustache out of the liquorice but shook it out of his head. Too childish for this one.
His other pocket held a packet of chewy ginger sweets, gooey and misshapen in the heat. He grabbed one and threw it high in the air in front of the rickshaw, peddling faster to catch it in his mouth. He caught it and pretended to choke, desperately clutching at the air in fake torment. The American tried hard not to notice while keeping one wary eye on the driver. Finally, he spluttered, hit himself hard in the chest and slumped over the handlebars.
“Hey…” The American nudged him. “Hey!”
The driver’s eyes glowed with mischief as he turned to her. He opened his mouth to show the sweet stuck in the gap between his teeth then lapped it back and swallowed with a gulp and a giggle. The American tutted and rifled through her purse for her phone.
“Look, I can just get the hotel to pick me up,” she said as she dialed.
“No no! It’s okay. Okaykay okay…” he waved his hand in front of his face, wiping away his shame. Too much. The driver faced front and pedaled. He couldn’t lose this one; he was lucky to have even picked her up. She had been dropped at the ‘Taj View Grand’ by her previous driver instead of the ‘Grand Taj Mahal View’. When she had refused to pay, the angry driver had abandoned her there. It was a lucky coincidence that he had been passing on his way to his usual spot, half a mile from the Taj Mahal Eastern gate.
She was heavy. He knew that at a glance. He also knew the ‘Grand Taj Mahal View’ was at least three miles away and the quickest route was through the sweltering heave of morning rush hour traffic. She wasn’t going to be an easy task for a man approaching sixty, pedaling with bare feet. Make them laugh. Don’t let them notice the slow pace or the times you get bullied off the road.
He wished, as he had in every morning prayer and every sleepless night in the cramped backseat of his rickshaw, that he had never left his family behind. He had come to Agra with the promise of rich pickings and an easier life for the ones he loved, but he hadn’t predicted the coarse engines and coarser drivers. He was lucky if he picked up one customer a day, and even then he could only charge half the rate an engine could.
He longed for the peace of his village and the warmth of his love, but how could he return? Four years and nothing to show? Pathetic. All he needed was some regular work. Just enough to save a little each day and perhaps a year from now he might be able to afford a second hand engine rickshaw. He would have to settle for a beat up model, but it would be better than the rattle and rust he was currently heaving away on. Another year and he would earn enough with the engine to return home. Then he would be one of only a handful for miles around with an engine. He would be able to make a living from the people he knew and trusted and one day he would pass his legacy to his grandson, give him a good start.
His grandson had been born two years previous. The driver had been trying to raise enough to visit home and see him, but every pedal towards his goal seemed to throw up a speed bump. Burst tires on broken roads; minor collisions with other drivers and the aggressive extortions of money for damages to their vehicles—even when the damage wasn’t his fault— that followed; police bribes to freely work unlicensed.
The past four years had aged him quicker than he deserved and his sunken eyes and matted hair belied a strong patriarch. He was weak now. Years of farm fed muscle had dripped off his body and left only loose skin and scars. He would never recover.
They cycled past a street, blocked across its mouth by a makeshift barricade and lined by a mess of souvenir shops and tourists.
“Down there is Agra Fort miss, okaykay?” He waited for a response. She was busy typing something into her phone and hadn’t looked up for at least a minute. “Agra Fort has very rich history. The Sultan of Delhi…”
“No thank you.” She cut him off with a wave of her hand.
“Free of charge, miss. No no extras. Just talking my knowing.”
“No thank you,” she said without a glance; bitter and final. She slid her finger around the face of her phone then held it in front of her, posing and forcing a fake smile to snap the fort in the background. As quick as the smile grew, it fell. It hit the dusty road and rolled under wheels and heels until it returned a plump, misshapen pout that sat beneath the American’s snout and mocked the driver.
He’d seen this happen before. Smiles weren’t freely given around Agra. He often had to tend them; cultivate them until they bloomed. He would sing his little ditties or perform his jokes and tricks and usually they worked. Sometimes he would be lucky: a particularly cool day; a festival; a few kind hearts among the crowds. On lucky days he would be able to pick smiles growing wild on the side of the road, or find an entire bouquet in his back seat. Lately though, lucky days seemed to be occurring much less frequently. He couldn’t blame people for the most part. As Agra poisoned his own body, so too did it poison his smile. The driver was terrified that those kind hearts would eventually leave his own behind to blacken in Agra’s smoke. Maybe he would forget how to freely offer a smile altogether.
Snaking traffic slowed to a slither. The driver parked the rickshaw and hurried ahead to see the delay.
“It is celebration. Laxmi day! We wait for the parade go past. Not long time, okaykay miss? Very pretty parade miss.”
“Can’t we just go around? That guy is…” The American grunted in the direction of a moped driver that had taken to the curb. “Do that,” she said as she returned to her phone.
The parade swelled as it scooped eager participants along its course. Some tourists who had climbed out of a shiny engine rickshaw had gotten too close while trying to take photographs and had been swept away by a wave of color. They re-emerged 30 yards down the road, twinkling with baubles, blessings and wonder.
The driver pointed at the tourists. “Lots of blessings for Americans miss, see! Very good time to be in Agra.” She tutted and humored him, bending over the side of the rickshaw to take a look.
“Great. Now, go around,” she said, though there was obviously no way around for his cumbersome vehicle .
The driver watched the parade with reverence. In Agra he took the small victories, the moments that reminded him of home. His village would be having a parade this very moment, smaller in scale but enormous in heart. He watched as a beautiful dancer painted arcs of spice and flower across the sky. She twisted and spun in hypnotic rhythm, plumes of deep crimson and jade flying from her sleeve, swirling together in pools of fire. Even among the color and chaos, she stole him. He burned in her passion and in the dance of her emerald eyes.
Her eyes. He took them and made them his own. The street became his canvas and he painted home. He danced, and around him his world brightened. Lush greens and fresh, clean blues splashed and clashed with every shade of sand then settled in a watercolor puddle that shimmered under sunlight, un-blotted by oppressive smoke and high-rise hotels. He painted his own parade, picking up people as he danced through his village, throwing spice and shimmer as he searched for his family. He willed himself to form faces on the colorful splashes that danced around him, each leaving their own frail paint trail, but whenever he felt close to recognizing a smile here or a flash of almond eyes there, they would smudge and fade and mash into a mess of blue, red and white. The parade moved to paint the next street over and traffic began to stir. A sharp tug on the driver’s shoulder drained the color from his canvas, leaving behind a naked street coated in bleached-out stars and stripes.
A begging boy who trailed the parade reached a hand into the back seat of the rickshaw.
“One chapati? One chapati…” He pretended to feed himself with dirt-blackened fingers. His lips, crusted by sores, mouthed teary pleas that darted between driver and passenger.
The driver ignored the boy; his job dictated he abstain. Don’t overstep the bounds. Neither help nor hinder. Remain impassive. The boy tugged at the American’s sleeve.
She pulled away, whipping her sleeve and moving across to the other side of the rickshaw. She tapped the driver on the shoulder.
“Can you tell him to beg somewhere else?”
The boy turned to him, cupped hands held high and brimming with hope. If the driver could have filled the cup with anything worthwhile, he would have. Instead, he took the boy’s dusty hands to his lips and kissed his fingers. The boy flinched but the driver held firm; two weary faces drawn near translucent with fatigue studied each other. Wormy blue veins under sun-darkened skin.
The driver offered the smile he hadn’t yet forgotten. His grin revealed another ginger sweet, hidden between the gap in his teeth. He dropped the sweet into grateful hands and at once the cup overflowed, spilling hope in splashes along the street as the boy ran, bumping and squeezing through the crowd.
“Why would you do that?” Said the American. “You gotta ignore the lil bastards or they win…” She huffed and balled her fists.
The driver suppressed a snarl. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing more for this one. He climbed back onto the rickshaw with a new resolve and picked up his pace. He would be better than his lot. He wouldn’t crumble in the crush; he wouldn’t balk at tiny gaps or sidewalk shortcuts; he wouldn’t fan his heat, his dust, his noise, his culture away from him. He would breathe it. His lungs burnt and the world blurred. He scraped scrapes and kissed metal on metal as Agra swirled around him. Inhale dust, dirt and sweat. Exhale home. Inhale ignorance and impatience. Exhale family. Inhale Agra. Exhale India.
The ‘Grand Taj Mahal View’ stood tall and garish, stained pink with chipped paint and boasting a blown up photograph of the Taj Mahal on a banner across the porch entrance. The driver slowed and creaked his rusty bones. Now he could show her what she was worth; a few drops of effort and an achey afternoon. He climbed from the saddle and grabbed the American’s luggage. She noticed for the first time that he had a limp but she wasn’t going to allow pity to creep through her bad mood.
The American dug around in her purse, fat with promise. She held a hundred rupee note between her lips as she fingered through wads for the eighty rupees they had agreed on. The driver had never seen such a pregnant purse. She held out a handful of tattered twenties and mumbled through her money. ”Here…” The driver stared through her. She stood mute for a few heartbeats. “What?” she fired at him as she tucked the hundred back into the safety of her purse. “What are you staring at?” Her thin patience had dropped some weight. ”You waiting for a tip? You ain’t getting one buddy. It’s gonna be a long wait.”
But he wasn’t.
He was weighing her up. She was a butcher’s dream; a stuck pig worth a small fortune. His hand drifted absently to the knife in his pocket.It wasn’t much but it could cut. Her purse was heavy enough for an engine, he could cut a year from his struggle in a moment. I should bleed her. I should cut her and slice the fat from her purse. I should leave her in the mud to roll around and squeal. He wouldn’t even need to do that. He could point his knife at her and she would squeal and cower and hand over the purse without an ounce of pride. All he had to do was threaten her. No one would see; no one would care except him and her. She was depriving him of his home and his family. She was the reason he had never seen his grandson. She owed him his cut.
“If you don’t want it I’ll keep it…” Her voice wavered a little as she readjusted the money in her hands, fanning the notes to show him all four twenties.
Do it. He gripped the handle white-knuckle tight. Do it. Make them squeal if they won’t laugh. Do it. The American dug around in her purse again.
“Look, I can stretch another ten but I gotta go. That’s my last offer. Take it.” She thrust the notes at the driver. Her battered pout was near bubbling.
Do it! He twisted the blade in his pocket; felt the weight and the fit. It was light. Unnaturally light. It felt like it was making him lighter on his feet; younger and quicker. He held freedom in his fist. DO IT!
He braced. The morning sun hated them both, it drove their patience wild. He clenched his teeth so they wouldn’t chatter with anticipation. He could smell India again and it burned into him. It wasn’t Agra that filled his consciousness, with its smog and its stench of burnt plastic tourists. It was a different India. It was the smell of his wife, sharpened sweet by a day of motherhood. It was morning dosa and masala chai. It was fenugreek fields and dusty roads. It was a new smell, the scent of his grandson’s hair as he fell asleep leaning on his chest. He could hear his shallow breath and his daughter cutting coconuts behind the shack in preparation for the morning market. He could hear the gentle buzz of village life, itself a beat slower on the metronome than the city. He could hear the throaty choke of an engine, one that could turn petrol into rupees. The engine roared proudly, angrily; louder and louder until he could no longer hear his grandson breathing. Louder, until the steady beat of the machete licking coconut flesh lost out to the rattle of metal and fire.
DO IT! The engine deafened him. DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! His nostrils burnt with the smell of petrol, turned sour in its excess. His ears screamed and his grip tightened. DO IT!
The world hushed. The blade bit flesh. A life of frustration sang through his body and focused on the tip. He felt the warmth course through him as the wetness spread. He twisted the knife and exhaled, his teeth finally chattering over the stuttered sigh.
Then the pain struck.
Hand still in his pocket, he pulled the knife slowly out of his thigh as he reached out to take the ninety rupees. He turned away from the American to hide his blade; his anchor; his shame. He reached his hand into his other pocket, pulling out a sticky ginger sweet to throw it in her direction with a broad smile. He clacked his tongue against the gap in his teeth to draw her attention from the purse she was putting back in her handbag. She looked in time to watch the sweet fly past and hit the floor by her bags. The American didn’t pick up the sweet. She didn’t thank the driver and she didn’t smile. Instead, she entered her hotel and found a bellboy to take the brunt of her heat-tempered fury. The driver didn’t really mind. He was already on his rickshaw and pedaling towards the Taj Mahal Eastern gate.
As he rode, the brown-red stain over his pocket grew and darkened. Half a mile before he reached the gate he picked up his second customer of the morning, a rarity before noon. He softened his grin long enough to whistle a couple of bars. “No woman no cry,” he sang. The man in the back seat, a retired accountant from Colorado, smiled.
“No chapati no chai!”
The man from Colorado laughed and clapped a little, unaware that he had saved a life.
Copyright 2014 by Liam Kennedy