It was for a good long second that the world turned wrong, and of the stars that hung above his head, they were now sliding madly beneath his feet. A falling sensation ensued, and it was not at all pleasant. It panicked him. It instilled a surge of fear so deep inside the pit of his stomach that it nauseated him. While he had tried his best to anticipate the moment of his inevitable landing, gravity, however, was not so easily bested. The ground rushed eagerly to meet him and, without warning, knocked him windless. Hard, jagged stones from the mud-encrusted gravel lacerated his bony elbows and pierced the skin that clung thinly onto his shoulder blades. The taste of rusty iron on his tongue dizzied him. Curled onto his side Phillip Fairchild could do little else but to endure, and of his skinny frame that consisted nothing more than skin and bones, there it laid, broken, in the stinking, sodden mud of the earth.
He rose in the doorway – a dark silhouette of a man in soldier’s uniform, large, well built, and strong. For even though Phillip Fairchild weighed nothing more than a small gunny sack of rice, still, it must have taken a strong man to toss him six feet into the air and a further ten feet away. His imposing shadow soaked up every ray of golden light that was escaping into the dark night; so determined was he to deny Phillip Fairchild every little grandeur of the merry-making that took place within, inside the Town Hall. The soldier disliked vagabonds. He disliked them as much as he hated communist insurgents. With contempt swimming in the white of his eyes, he unslung the military rifle from his shoulder, took aim at the nook between the young boy’s eyes, and pulled the trigger with an evil curl on his lips. The hollow click of the empty barrel echoed in the still night air, mocking death. He smiled afterwards, as if entertained by his own joke. He slung his rifle deftly back onto his shoulders, and took a menacing step down the stairs. His heavy boots thudded mercilessly against the cold, hard cement; he was a butcher approaching his meat.
Phillip Fairchild retreated from the approaching soldier on all fours, as he had yet to regain his balance, and in his singular purpose to escape the soldier’s terror he barely minded the gravel stones that scrapped and cut into his palms and knees. His fear seemed to fuel the soldier’s every advancing footstep. But just as the soldier was about to complete his descend, a manic shriek from behind stunned him. He turned around curiously and saw an old woman, dressed in a grey, weathered sari, about to assault him. And as she was much smaller in stature, weak and wobbly besides, her desultory attacks amounted to very little, except having gained some attention, perhaps. The old woman punched and pounded away upon the soldier’s steel-like chest, to little effect. As his patience thinned, he shoved her simply and roughly to the ground, down to the muddy gravel where Phillip Fairchild had since crawled to some fifteen feet away. The throw disoriented her for a moment, when upon recovering, she was met with cold, calculating eyes that stared intently down upon her.
An impatient growl rose from his throat like crackling thunder.
“You wretched hag,” he said.
“You do not belong here. This is village property. So bugger off! And take that malodorous boy of yours with you.” He spat to his side. “Rift rafts and beggars are unwelcome here. Young and old alike."
“How dare you . . .” She whispered, at first. “How dare you! Violence? Against women and children? Tell me, are you truly a man of the English military? The boy and I are of this village, just as much as all the good folk in there.
“Tell me, you uncouth, scoundrel of a man. Where is your honour? Where is your honour!”
“What? Honour? Say that again?” He laughed. “A wretched hag who wishes to be genteel in this god-forsaken village?
“Very well . . . You can keep your honour to yourself, milady, if it is honour that feeds you proper.” He spat to his side. “And since we are all honourable people here, let me remind you just one thing. And that is the military does not abide to any stealing of food and rations. Not by beggars, nor for beggars. There will be absolutely no stealing.
“Do you understand me, hag? NO – GOD – DAMN – STEALING! THOSE – ARE – THE – RULES!”
The soldier’s rage exploded in one powerful roar, and Phillip Fairchild had to cover his ears and shut his eyes for the want to hide himself. Yet, in spite of the soldier’s commanding authority, the old woman would not bow down to him; her defiance for him and her compassion for the boy would not allow her. With a few grabs of the fabric, she rose unsteadily to her feet and gathered the now sullied sari around her frail, shaky legs. The old woman was determined to stand tall – a resolution born out of the necessity to preserve and protect her dignity – but of her quivering lips and her trembling hands, she could do nothing about them. She did not wish the soldier to see her quake. Thus, she begged the kindness of the night to cloak them from sight, and to bestow her the necessary courage.
“You vile, treacherous man.” She retaliated with as much spite as she could muster. “No . . . No. You . . . you are hardly a man.”
The soldier eyed her curiously. Perhaps it was the spears behind her words or her conviction that caused him to appraise the old, hunching woman in what seemed to be a slightly better light, if not, a little more respect. But, whatever it was, it did not linger for long.
“Yes. Not vile enough? Perhaps. But I am certainly not man enough,” he said.
“For if I had my way about this, I would have done away with all this malarkey.” He tapped his weapon upon his shoulder menacingly. “And I would have shot you both on first sight instead. For a couple of communist sympathisers.”
In a methodical, condemning fashion, he tapped the watch that was strapped onto his wrist. “The military does not abide to the breaking of curfew either, unless under the strict purview of the military, which, obviously, I do not remember the both of you have.”
There was a long moment of silent, smouldering contempt that seemed to charge the air between them, before the sounds and laughter of merry-making brought about a temporary truce.
“God damn it,” said the soldier.
“I believe we have arrived at some form of mutual understanding? Right? Good. Now would you kindly sod off? And take that stupid boy with you too.
“Bugger off now. Before I regret the gentleness in my heart.”
The old woman didn’t wait for the soldier to disappear back into the golden light before she turned her attention towards Phillip Fairchild, ambling over as quickly as her shaking legs could carry her. The boy had kept his eyes and ears fearfully shut, and his knees were pulled tightly up to his chest. When she got to him, she saw that he was trembling uncontrollably, and so, she dropped to her knees and draped an arm across his shoulders.
“Phillip? Oh, my dear Phillip. I’m here. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything is fine now.” Her voice was raspy and gentle. “Are you alright?”
Phillip Fairchild peeped at the sound of her voice. When he saw the old woman’s kindly face, and the soldier was, indeed, nowhere to be found, he mustered a little nod, although he continued to tremble.
“Hush now, my dear. A man can’t go around crying now, can he?” She wiped a droplet of tear gently off his face. “Oh, look at you. Let me see you.”
The old woman fussed over Phillip Fairchild like a mother wolf preening her cub. As she tended to his wounds, pangs of hurt and anger pierced her own, tender heart. Softly, she muttered curses at the soldier (that vile man, that imbecile), if only to allay the frustration boiling within her. And as she pinched out the tiny gravel stones that had wedged themselves into him, Phillip Fairchild put on a brave face. He told himself that a man would not go on crying forever, and he did not wish to worry the old woman.
The wounds on his back required greater attention, one that required the blessings of light, and so, the old woman helped him to his feet and, with his hand in hers, left the Town Hall behind and went quickly on their way home. Once or twice, in the distance, they heard a raucous roar and a bang of a door; each time they looked back, fearing the soldier had decided to give chase after all. They hastened past house after house, many built from simple brick and wood, as they travelled to the edge of the village. Those that did not attend the feast had locked themselves in their houses well before nightfall; the English military maintained a strict curfew, despite the demise and diminishing numbers of communist insurgents in recent months.
It was not long travelling in the pitch-black darkness before Phillip Fairchild recognized the shadow of the drying well and the feel of the crusty path underfoot, which led to a familiar tree line in the dense Malayan rainforest. And when they were greeted by a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes rolling in the hot, humid air, he knew, without a doubt, that they were finally close to home.