John the Christian
With his bag on his lap and his arms cradling the stone
wrapped in red, the taxi moved slowly in contrast to his heartrate. After
packing and checking out of his hotel, Thomas found the first tricycle taxi
that he saw after leaving his hotel and made it clear he was in a rush to get
to the airport for a flight.
in a hurry. Chop Chop!" The taxi turtled him to the small airport where
he briskly walked to the Mandalay Airline counter.
"Hello. I need a plane ticket to Rangoon."
The woman shook her head.
room on the flight tomorrow or the next day. All our flights are booked," she
replied in a lazy drawl. "No seats for ten days." Her English was heavily
accented so he wasn't sure if he heard her correctly.
sorry, I don't understand. Your accent is very thick."
me sir," she said, and disappeared through a door behind the counter. She
promptly returned with an overweight Indian man. The woman said a few things to
him in Hindi and then sat with a woman at the next counter and listened.
understand you want to fly to Rangoon?" he said, his shirt stained with sweat.
terribly sorry sir but our planes are fully booked until mid next week." He
looked sympathetic, showing his teeth stained with red betel juice. Thomas
didn't attempt to hide his anguish.
I ask why?"
there is a national convention that begins tomorrow in the capital. We have
been booked for several weeks in advance." Thomas remembered hearing about the
convention that was being held to discuss a roadmap for elections that everyone
knew would never happen. The word on the street was that it was a front for the
government to decide who in the old intelligence network under the previous
general will be put to death and who will be imprisoned. He stroked his
moustache and looked at the Indian in the eye, feeling a glimmer of hope.
there been any cancellations? Is there any chance of getting on a flight
tomorrow? I need to get back to catch my flight out of the country."
are very important people going to this convention. I honestly don't think
there will be any cancellations between now and tomorrow morning." They both
looked at their watches.
there another airline that flies from here?" I ask. The Indian nodded.
there is but bad luck. They have mechanical difficulties and they have grounded
their fleet of planes. They are not operating at the moment sir. I'm sorry." In
disbelief, he was becoming angry but the man's empathy diluted his bitter
luck indeed it sounds like," he said. "So, there's no way for me to fly out to
Rangoon tomorrow, is that what you're telling me?" With a long face, the Indian
sir. You must wait until next week to get a seat on an airplane." Accepting the
bad news, he took out his baggie and offered the man a betel nut. The women
spoke to each other as they stared. The Indian man took the betel with a
man-to-man nod as Thomas popped one too.
I can take your name and number at your hotel and telephone number should there
in fact be a last-minute cancellation." The kindness of the man was heartening
despite his frustration. As a reflex he gave him the card of the hotel he just
checked out of.
call if there's an opening. I'm in room 105."
I will sir. I will put your name at the top of the list. I will call your hotel
if there's an opening on tomorrow's plane." He shook his hand.
you sir. I appreciate your help." The women murmurred as he left. Thomas hopped
into a waiting tricycle and reluctantly told the driver to go to the train
station was busy with people loitering, taxi drivers sat in groups smoking and
chewing betel nut, but no business was being done. He approached the ticket
window but there was no one there. After waiting a few minutes he went to the
kiosk to buy some cheroots and more betel nut, and then hunkered down on a
chair thinking about his options. An elderly man white white hair approached
sir. Can I help you?" His first reaction was to tell him to mind his own
business, but something in the man's demeanor was gentle and his English was
noticeably crisp and clear.
need a ticket to Rangoon but there's no one at the ticket counter."
stationmaster is away right now but will be back in 40 minutes. But I'm afraid
no tickets are available for tomorrow's train." Letting his head drop, he took
a deep breath. The man seemed affected by the reaction and stepped closer as a
growing number of people stared at them.
need a sleeper on the express to Rangoon, or a first-class soft seat."
express to Rangoon is all booked except for ordinary class. But you don't want
to take ordinary class. It's very crowded." The voice soft and compassionate,
which, in his moment of despair, caused Thomas to look up to him as one would
look to a father.
need to return to Rangoon to get my flight back to Hong Kong where I live. If I
can't get a seat I'll miss my flight and be stranded here. I tried the airline
but all the seats are booked because of the convention." For a moment the man
was perplexed, but then remembered about the convention.
the convention. Well, you could get an ordinary class seat if you arrived
tomorrow morning at 5:30. I could meet you here if you like to help you because
of my English. It will be crowded and the line up will be long." Thomas removed
his eyeglasses to look into the man's eyes, the bags under his eyes making the
man warm to him. Thomas knew he could not survive another stint in steerage for
40 hours back to Rangoon. He had barely made one quarter of that distance with
English is very good," he said, giving credit where credit was due.
am a Christian. I help out at the Methodist Church here for many years. I
that's great. My name is Thomas. Very pleased to meet you." Extending his hand
as he stood up, the man was surprised at his candor.
am John. I am the retired stationmaster here. I help out because of my English.
No one speaks English here, not since the British left." Under his white hair
the lenses in his glasses were twice as thick as Thomas's. He put his hand on
John's right shoulder while more Burmese stood around watching them speak to
is only one express train tomorrow?"
It leaves at seven in the morning. The milk run departure leaves at eleven in
the morning. But if you need to get to Rangoon by Monday, you won't make it.
You need to get the express tomorrow morning. That's the only way." Taking his
hand away from his shoulder, he let his posture sag.
agree with you that Ordinary Class seats are crowded. I was in steerage on a
milk run from Naba to here yesterday and I'm still stiff." John smiled.
can speak to the stationmaster for you. I will go to his house and then I can
meet you here at 7:15. Is that all right?" Fatigue and frustration mix but it
didn't take hold because of the kindness of this man John.
would be awfully kind of you, sir." It was the word sir that brought a
determined look into his eye.
I can help, I will. I will ask if there are any sleepers or first-class seats
available, and then meet you here."
you for that John. I'll meet you right here in 40 minutes." Shaking hands
again, John walked towards the train office and the Burmese who were gawking
slowly dispersed. Relaxing with a beer to wait it out, when John returned he
said the stationmaster told him there were only Ordinary-class seats left.
get those seats it is first-come-first-serve at 5:30 in the morning." Thomas
was aware that most people slept over in the train station to be the first in
line, and he knew first-hand how cold it became at night up here in the north.
try to get to the station early," he said, but it was obvious to them both he
was doubtful he'd be able to get a ticket. Thanking him he decided to have a
few more beers and splurge for a big dinner. He mulled over the steerage option
but the more he thought of it, the more he thought of the wooden seats and the
endless scrum in the swaggering dance of the archaic colonial train.
night he dreamed that he and Josh built a church and painted a large section of
a wall the color of forest green with scripture written in white that one would
usually find on a foundation stone. Then, as if he and Josh had suddenly gone
forward in time, they hovered above the church and witnessed how subsequent
generations had built on their original church foundation and had chosen to
retain the one painted wall they had made. Much bigger and with many more
people, the church looked as if it had become a Mecca for the spiritually
devoted and that their teachings had been before their time.