Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vignettes From The Career Of E@L

Malaysia 2009

A 7-8 year old boy sits back on his mother's lap, facing inwards, towards her with his legs astride. A Womans magazine is laying open across the front of her chest. The boy is explaining each page to her with the brash confidence of his innocent youth, gesticulating and pointing to the things he sees as he turns each page; makeup, perfume, whatever... His imagination in full flight, his creative powers growing stronger. The mother is looking in his eyes, she tries to suppress a smile, she is going 'uh-huh' and 'mm-mmm' as he lectures to her.


Strangely, a bell rings with a strong clear note. E@L hears people give a small cheer, a prayer of thanks. He looks up from his book. A bell? What the...? It is the ring of a real bell, a big one, maybe 20cm high and 15cm across; he see it now, a ship's bell hanging from a supporting frame off a column in the waiting room. E@L hadn't noticed it when he came in. Why would you notice a bell in such a place, a fertility clinic? It's not something you would expect. You might see 'something' vaguely and not be aware of what is in your vision. You can't be aware all of everything all the time. A bell!

The Nurse who rang the bell is smiling at E@L, and nodding - as if that explains anything.

"Someone is pregnant," says his colleague. "A positive pregnancy test."

E@L wonders if ringing the bell is an old Malay tradition at weddings or honeymoons, or whenever it is couples announce get successfully impregnated the more traditional way. Weird really, this getting pregnant but not from fucking.

It is a big deal, going by the murmer of approval that ripples through the crowded waiting room, it's a bell-ringing ocassion!


Beijing 1998

Cleaners advance though the exhibition aisles like a machine. A dark-skinned leathery faced man at the front of the group sprays the dust and dirt with a mist of water from a container on his back, like a fire-fighter. Two older ladies behind him use wide-beamed two-handled mops made of v-shaped flat boards to spread what is now mud across the width of the floor from booth to booth. A thin layering of moist scum left behind them dulls the surface of the linoleum which was previously clean in at least some spots.

"That's not really doing much in the way of, like, effective cleansing," observes Bruce, standing on the elevated booth platform. He enounces the syllables clearly: 'EEE-feck-tive'.

"It's not so much a cleaning, as a redistribution of muck." says E@L.

He stands beside the old hand Bruce, learning the ropes. It is E@L's first trip to China.

"If only they could redistribute their wealth as efficiently as they redistribute their filth," says Bruce.


In the old Beijing airport two days later, E@L idly watches another cleaner leaning on her hinged dirt-shovel and her rubbish trolley. She is staring into space, day-dreaming. Then she notices that E@L is watching her and she stands up straight with a start.

While still holding eye contact, she casually bends forward to pull an empty Snickers wrapper from her bin. She then throws the wrapper onto the floor in front of her and, as if under a spell, moves forward to sweep it up with her hinged dirt-shovel.

It is only after this that she looks away and rolls her trolley off to clean another part of the terminal, leaving E@L even more bemused than he would have thought possible.


India 1999

A rainstorm threatens to flood the huge marquee where the exhibitors are stationed. The booths are all raised on platform 3-4 inches above the floor (actually a car-park) but the electricity cables run on ground level underneath the booths and out into the various walkways towards the electricity generators. A conference official calls out to some of the laborers who had assembled the marquee and the booths and who have remained hanging around looking for jobs as general gofers, extremely poor and desperate slum or street dwellers, they are paid a pittance for their labor.

He makes them lie down across the doorways to the marquee. They act as human sand-bags to staunch the rush of rain water into the marquee. Exhibition visitors have to step over them to go in or out of the tent.

This lasts about 2 hours, until the rain has eased and the threat of flash flooding has receded.


E@L is thirsty and his mouth fired up after the curry luncheon. All week serves of drinking-water have been supplied in small sealed containers, like you get on planes. It is the last day of the conference. He is talking to a German colleague as he grabs some water, failing to realise that it is an ordinary open topped plastic cup.

"Did you see vair zat come schfrom?" asks K.

"What?" asks E@L.

"Ze vorter, it was not in ze normal containers. Zey must have run out."

E@L leans over to look behind the flap of the marquee. A man is scooping water into cups from an open blue-plastic 40gallon barrel in the sun.

"Oh shit," he says. His cup is empty, he has swallowed all the water without thinking.

On the plane later that evening, it hits him. The world contracts, his vision narrows, sweat breaks out on his lip, on his forehead. He has an aisle seat in Business Class. He just makes it to the toilet in time.

Oh shit, indeed.



Indiana said...

The first India vignette is either the sad or very funny...and I have not had enough martini's for it to be funny.

savannah said...

here's your book, sugar...the real world of business. xoxo

Anonymous said...

That one on China...makes me wonder why they even bother with sweeping and mopping up since the water in the bucket was dirty anyway--and that's Beijing International Airport AFTER the freaking Olympics!

expat@large said...

Indy: if you've been in Asia long enough you don't even notice these things any more.

Sav: I don't even notice these things any more.

Dude: you think some foreign devils coming to run around for a few days is going to change the way some auntie has been cleaning the floor since she first go the job when she was seven?

Unknown said...

Christ! You can't drop your guard for a second.

expat@large said...

Muz: it's us against them...

dibabear said...

Re: the water. You only do that once. I did something similar in Cebu in '97 and spent the flight to Manila riding in the bog.

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