Kee Kee was 9 months and 2 days old when her father died. She was 3 when she first realised she didn’t have a father, and 5 before anyone explained what had happened to him.
She felt sure she’d had one before, and now there wasn’t one to be seen anywhere. It was the oldest memory she thought she had, this sudden realisation at 3, or at least the oldest feeling she could recall. It wasn’t a picture, more of a sensation, a dent in her heart, and she didn’t know how long it had been there. She wasn’t even sure if it was her memory or if it purely existed because of other people’s stories.
She had hazy pictures in her mind of her mother with a man she assumed must be her father, an extra person eating with them, sleeping on the mats with them, but this hollowness she felt seemed to have been with her forever.
When she was 9 months and 2 days old there had been a shift, a change in the pattern of the family. People had moved places, and she hadn’t been aware of it or known why. She was still at the bottom as she’d always been, the smallest, the baby. When her father died, her mother’s face became tight, stoic. She didn’t smile much, her voice was tolerant and she looked small, tucked in, and clenched. When Kee Kee realised she didn’t have a father, she remembered feeling confused, bare and curious all at the same time, she didn’t know what had happened. She felt bare and unprotected.
It was only when her brother Poe Si explained to her what had happened to their father, what had happened when Kee Kee was 9 months old and 2 days old, that the bruised, empty feeling she had experienced in her young life started to make sense.
Poe Si was 16 years older than Kee Kee. He had inherited has fathers dark skin and looked more Indian than Burmese, with his long lean limbs, sharp aquiline nose and thin face with sunken cheeks framed by sharp bones.
The oldest child Poe Si, like his father, drove for other people. He earned what little money he ever had driving taxis around Bagan. There wasn’t much of a need for taxis in Bagan. The locals never took one, they all had scooters, or motorbikes, or used their carts, pulled by skin and bone ox, so it was only tourists and the odd business person who visited this ancient and dusty temple town of Bagan, standing so proudly on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady River. But even the tourists didn’t use taxis to get them around, they preferred to hire a pony and trap or use one of the latest e-bikes from the local hotels or hire shops. The only trade for taxis in Bagan was ambushing tourists as they arrived by train on the outskirts of the city – offering to transport their weary bodies to their hotel or guesthouse was the best chance of business. Hassle them as they hobbled off the overnight train from Yangon, stumbling onto the platform with their crammed rucksacks, eyes squinting in the glare of the sun, lightheaded from lack of wholesome food on their 18 hour journey and dizzy from hours of fitful sleep on the decrepit and dirty, rocking and rolling train. The 11 hour trip from Mandalay produced leaner pickings, so meeting the Yangon train was always more lucrative. The railway station at Bagan was even further out of town than the little airport, so a ride into town was needed by everyone arriving on the dusty platform – there were no buses and it was too far to walk, and since tourists preferred taking a train journey in Myanmar rather than take a domestic flight to the basic Nyaung U Airport, it made sense to lie in wait at the track side.
Poe Si had started off by watching the taxi drivers. With a passion for anything with an engine, he was content just looking at the cars, and asking the drivers questions.
‘What does it feel like to drive?’
‘How fast does it go?’
‘Can I try?’
After a few months, he’d graduated from hanging around the drivers to sitting in the cars with them. They liked Poe Si. He was easy to get on with, respectful of their knowledge and experience. He was keen to learn from them and they felt flattered. The taxi drivers adopted him as their apprentice, realising another driver would mean they could earn more by working less. It took him a month of driving for free before he started earning. Now he waited at the station for the trains, offering his services to tourists, or ‘travellers’ as they preferred to call themselves, as soon as the train pulled into the open pagoda style station. Before it had even stopped he knew the sleeping compartments at the back of the train were where they would be. Only foreign ‘travellers’ would waste money on sleeping compartments, while Poe Si and his fellow Burmans would sleep in the lower class seats, and save their money for much more important things like food, or sending their children to school, or betel. And like his father before him, Poe Si was also addicted to chewing the betel ‘nuts’, his beautiful youthful white teeth and strong pink gums slowly staining into a dark red gash of evil looking stumps. It wasn’t attractive, but the men didn’t seem to notice and the women tolerated it in their husbands.
Poe Si explained very simply to Kee Kee what had happened to their father.
‘He was driving a truck. It came off the road and rolled down a bank and into a field. When they eventually managed to move the truck he was dead. Squashed underneath.’
Kee Kee understood, but wanted to know more.
‘Why did he come off the road?’
‘Don’t know. All I can guess is that he maybe hit a rock, or swerved to avoid a pothole.’
‘Was he a bad driver?’
‘No. He drove all sorts. That’s what I mostly remember about him. After the horse died, he drove vans, cars, bikes; he was always bringing them here to show us. He was proud, you know, that he could drive all these different vehicles. That’s why I like cars. I want to be like him, able to drive anything, and maybe one day have a car of my own.’
Kee Kee let the words sink in. He must’ve been able to drive well, otherwise how could he have driven all these different vans and lorries and motorbikes. So why did he crash, she still couldn’t understand.
‘How did the lorry fall off the road?’
‘It didn’t fall Kee Kee, not like you and I might fall if we trip over a stone or a branch. He must’ve turned the wheel so that it came off the concrete. He must’ve been trying to avoid something, or maybe hit something that jolted the lorry and meant he lost control of the steering. ‘
‘How did it end up in the field then if it didn’t fall?’
‘It rolled, over and over, 3 times they think.’
‘Just like I can roll across the sleeping mat?’ Her face brightened for a minute as she placed the action of rolling into her life. This was something she could understand. She could see the lorry rolling now.
‘Yes Kee Kee. Just like you can roll across the mat, except he had a huge lump of metal and lots and lots of tree trunks rolling with him. He didn’t stand a chance.’
Poe Si was looking at his feet. His legs were apart underneath his longyi, his feet rooted in the dust on the ground, the tiny red four-legged stool hidden beneath his sagging body. His hands were clasped and twisting together, on top of the checked green weave, and she noticed they were wrestling each other, sliding and rubbing over each other, neither one dominating. He was folded in the middle, his elbows dug into his thighs. He leaned his head forward and looked at the ground. He couldn’t face her, couldn’t make eye contact with her as he grappled with his story and his emotions. His voice had been patiently slow as he told her and answered her questions. She felt she couldn’t ask much more before he might lose his internal fight.
‘What colour was it? The lorry.’ She had to get the details right for the picture she was forming in her head.
‘Yellow. It had a yellow driver’s cab. The rest was just metal and wood. You know what those huge logs look like on the back of the trucks.’ It was a statement rather than a question. She saw his stained red teeth before he pursed his mouth shut. Yes, she did know what the logs looked like, and how the wood smelled as it passed her at the side of the road, the light leathery aroma of the giant tree trunks. It could never be mixed up with the exhaust fumes of the noisy lorry, squealing its brakes and tooting its deep horn as it shunted its way along the main road into town. She had a better picture now of what had happened. She felt a bit more content, comprehending. A little bit of the dent in her heart had popped out. But she still wondered and worried about her father. What did he look like when he was driving the truck, when he came off the road, when they found him? Were his teeth stained red like Poe Si?
There were still questions she wanted to ask, but a few things were already clear in her mind; she didn’t want to be like her father. She didn’t want to spend her adult life taking casual work from other people, never knowing where the next job was coming from, doing what he could, and not necessarily what he really wanted to – and she definitely didn’t want to be a lorry driver. She didn’t want to end up squashed at the side of a road, like some lost animal. She also knew from that day forward that she would never marry someone who chewed betel. It gave her the shivers when Poe Si talked about her flattened dead father through stained red teeth. It was almost as if she could see her father’s blood in her brothers mouth. No, Kee Kee could never love anyone who had that mouth of death.
And, she was absolutely and positively sure that she didn’t want to end up forgotten. No one talked about him, there were no signs of him in the small family ‘house of straw’, and it had taken her at least 3 years to realise he was missing and another 2 years before anyone told her why. There were no tales of his bravery or charm, no neighbours or friends who talked about his friendship and even her brothers didn’t seem to notice his absence. He might have been alive once, but he had left no mark, no sign he had been here, no indication he had made a difference to anyone’s life. Except perhaps her widowed mother. He’d left her with 6 hungry children to raise.