Daniel Roy Connelly
Take your finger out your nose & I’ll tell you. Good … ready? … now? … your Daddy once travelled by car, boat & foot to help some people find their British Passports. It was hot as hell, the air was like being in the bath, it was really uncomfortable, like here in July … Daddy took the trip because in those days my boss was always shouting at me … 27 … all the time & I needed a day or two away … it happens, you wait … that’s not true, kids shout too … I started off in a big comfy car with a driver, then when the road ran out I got on a big boat which sailed until the river got too thin … come on, lie back down … so I got on a littler boat with a motor at the back driven by an old man who only had a pair of shorts on like we do when we go on the roof in summer & a towel twisted round his head to keep the sun off … orange.
I’d been traveling all day … I know you’d hate it … it was getting dark like it does in Bangladesh same time year round, when the river had become no more than a stream and the captain stopped the little boat and pointed at some trees. I stepped onto a jetty… a kind of a wooden arm that gets you from a boat onto land so your feet stay dry … & through the trees & into a village full of huts made of mud & sticks, kachcha they call them in Bangla, their language … yes, very poor … smoke rose from a fire where the village women were cooking rice. The boatman shouted something out; next thing I know the village headman appears surrounded by 20 or so of his people, young & old, the ladies covered their heads when I looked at them, there were babies with blobs of ash smeared on their brows by mummy & daddy to keep off evil spirits … no, your Daddy doesn’t, but they do & it’s always important never to laugh … so stop your giggling … just because you’ve never seen something before.
Which none of the villagers had … Something, yes, can you guess what it was? … The colour of my skin. Pinky-white with brown bits, like yours. I had arrived at their village a hundred miles from anywhere & in the gloom to them I was white as a ghost. They all stared, just stared at Daddy’s face & one of the little kids … oh, about 4 … yes, you’re 6 … came right up & touched my hand & I smiled the biggest smile I had in my smile bag even though it was hot as bath-time & the baddy mosquitoes had started to bite & they were much nastier than the ones here …
The headman stepped forward in his kurta … like a nightgown … & I held out my hand & said Assalamu 'Alaikum which means ‘Peace be on you’, which is a really nice way of saying Hello, don’t you think? Take your finger out of your nose, what you doing, picking a winner? & I’ll carry on … okay … & he held his hand out back & replied Wa 'Alaikum Assalaam which is saying the same thing in return & I reckon that’s a much better way of saying Hello than Hello. There he was, holding the only white hand he’d ever seen, for real I mean, they might have watched a movie once in their lives … Star Wars? I can’t be sure … & the twenty or so villagers were still staring & calling out things to me I didn’t understand & chatting among themselves & the kids were still all bug-eyed like you go when I say Ice Cream … scared? Maybe they were more scared of me than me of them … there’s nothing to be afraid of when meeting new folks if you do so with a smile from your smile bag and a little bow of the head when you say Hello in their language and look them in the eye when you shake hands, that’s what I do … that’s it, you’ve got it … everyone relaxes then.
He led me into his hut, like I said, it was made of mud baked by the sun & the roof was the shape of a Samurai’s hat made completely of sticks that fall from the trees, like the ones we swordfight with in the park. There was no electricity but he had candles & the only other light was from the rice-cooking fire I told you about. By now he knew who I was, that I must have come from my government … because he said ‘British High Commission’ where Daddy worked and I nodded and a little tear came to his eye … government? … that’s what people who run all the world’s countries are called.
I pulled out all my documents from my battered leather bag, old paperwork that Daddy used to have to carry around with him in a special pouch given him … brown but not poo brown … by his office. Inside was an old old passport the family said time and again belonged to this man who’d died years ago which meant his children could become British but my office had said No for years & years & … because they didn’t have what’s called Evidence, which is also called Proof … well, it’s like you saying the Colosseum is in Paris and I take you up the road to see it here instead and then I’d say, there, boy, the Colosseum is in Rome, there’s the Proof…
On one side of the hut was a big old grey trunk that the headman went to open … not that kind of trunk, you can’t do that to elephants … it was an oblong tin size of your bathtub. He started to pull out photographs of the same man in the old passport but looking much much younger & he was outside Buckingham Palace in London … where Queen Elizabeth lives … and there was another one of him at Edinburgh Castle … yes, there are hundreds to see next time we visit … there were cans of Brute anti-perspirant from when I was a boy … 10 … it’s the smelly stuff I spray under my arms … & bus tickets from London & tickets to football games in Manchester from years & years ago & payslips from restaurants where he worked … when you get a job they pay you money & your slip types out in numbers the amount you get paid & these were in British Pounds … well one day you’ll have to, that’s that.
Suddenly two more men, younger, maybe in their 20s … it’s a way away yet … came into the hut and it was already tight for space and looking at the mats on the floor, I reckon maybe 8 people lived in there. They were obviously the sons of the man who’d died & never replaced his passport … because they looked just like him … it had run out you see … remember when we took your photographs for a new one? … & they could never go to England where their dad had lived because no-one believed them for years & years & they had to stay living in Bangladesh which is a very poor country & the people don’t have enough to eat & they mostly only eat rice & daal which are chickpeas … okay, but not every day for all of your life … & the sons stared at my face just like everyone else had & there were two windows in the hut full of the bobbing faces … like this … of all the other villagers. The young men knew immediately who I was & they both burst into tears because finally someone had come … we were all of us at it, crying away … they do, grown up men cry too … I smiled another great giant smile out of my smile bag & I nodded to them & gave them my business card … those things on the corner of the desk over there … & they knew I’d invited them to come to Dhaka, where Daddy lived, to come to my office there & I would issue them both with British passports so they could go & live in London if they wanted for the rest of their lives.
No, leave the light on, there’s more. The strangest thing of all happened. One of the women … stop playing with your willy and listen, you’ve been asking me about this for ages … came in with the plates of rice for the family, there were 7 of them … yes, I was wrong … only a handful of boiled grains on each and a dollop of yellow daal. She set them down & sat on her bottom on the ground in a circle with the rest. The headman then poured all the food off the 7 plates onto one big plate that suddenly appeared & he put it on the rug in front of me … yes I was, I’d knelt down a little earlier … sorry …
He’d given me the family’s dinner for that night, to eat up all by myself in front of them … the 7 portions of rice and daal together made only a normal size portion for me … because it’s what Bangladeshi people they do when a kind stranger comes by & they hadn’t seen anyone like me before but what they did see me as was someone to be honoured … it’s a sort of respect … yes, we did speak about that and I gave you a Daddy Look … yes I did feel bad about the food … the children would have to wait till the next night to eat a meal … but I couldn’t hand it back, I wanted to, I felt awful … no, come on, take your face out of the pillow, I know it’s sad but just because it’s sad doesn’t mean I can’t tell you … come on, lift your head to me, here’s a tissue, blow your nose … if I hadn’t eaten all the food they would have been sadder than you because it was their gift to me … come here, shuffle over, give your dad a cuddle.
You know what I think, I think it’s beautiful you have tears in your eyes, it’s a special thing to feel for the children in the world who sometimes go hungry, that’s what it means to be a human being, my boy … no, not a single grain of rice was left on my plate, they all sat and watched me on the ground eating with my fingers same as we do when you come to me for weekends & I love you for it more than ever right now & I’ve always loved you for it this much … okay wider … what’s more I’m going to write this story down for you like I write lots of things about you & because of you.
The boys came to the office a month later with the village head and I was the one who made up their passports for them, and signed them, and felt proud they could live the life they’d always been entitled to. Through my interpreter, the boys told me … someone who understands both languages at the same time, like you and Italian, and can speak it too … they’d prayed to their God every day for 15 years that someone would finally come; they knew their dad was their dad and that meant they were British. They never gave up praying for me to appear. There was such joy in my office like a birthday party. Your daddy wants you to never give up if there’s something … your birthday is December 8 … if there’s something you are entitled to, it might take years and years until one day a real stranger might go miles out of their way & show up with the answer you’ve been waiting for. Take your finger out your nose & I’ll kiss you good night.
About the Author: Daniel Roy Connelly was the winner of the 2014 Fermoy International Poetry Festival Prize, a finalist in the 2015 Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Prize, and winner of the 2015 Cuirt New Writing Prize for poetry. He is an academic, theatre director, and actor who publishes widely. His poetry currently appears in The Moth, Acumen, and Critical Survey. He is a professor of creative writing, English, and theatre at John Cabot University and The American University of Rome. Learn more about Connelly here.