Saturday, March 14, 2009

AN IQUITOS STORY by Douglas Bruton

A space had been cleared in the great jungle, a space big enough to plant a city, and so a city had grown – a city of sorts: at first a city of corrugated tin and sagging thatch, and wood gleaned from the clearing of trees; later a city of imperfect roads and unfinished concrete and brick dwellings, a work always in progress. And the city brought its own problems and these too filled the space that was made. The city is called Iquitos and the people came and stories were begun or ended here.

I first caught sight of him sitting alone at a table for two. He had grey in his hair and the skin at his neck was pink and loose. He looked lost, like he didn’t belong, as a tourist doesn’t belong. He stared out at the street, stared beyond the people that passed, people who eyed him with interest and not a little suspicion. Three-wheeled motorised rickshaws picked their way between the potholes in the road, taxiing passengers from one side of the city to the other. A man with legs like sticks walked by carrying a heavy sack across the bow of his shoulders. He had a metal whistle that he blew. It made a shrill squeal. He blew his whistle because he thought it would please, and because it gave him pleasure to do so. He grinned at the grey haired man, showed him a toothless smile. The man at the table did not see him and did not hear the piercing squeal of the whistle. He was lost in thought. On the table in front of him was a plate of rice and meat and a glass of hot tea and lemon.

I watched him, this man from another place. I wondered who he was and what he was thinking. I opened my notebook and wrote a description of him there. I noted that his shirt was wet across his back and at the collar, and he flapped a new panama hat back and forth, slowly fanning himself cool. He had the hands of one who does not work, one who shifts paper across a desk, or one who spends his days counting money in a bank. And his eyes were dull and grey, the eyes of someone who has lost his way and all but given up on life. He sipped at the lemon tea, but did not touch the food.

Suddenly a yellow butterfly crossed in front of him and unaccountably this caught his attention where the whistling man had not. The butterfly settled on the dusty ground in front of the café. He watched it open and close its broad wings, fascinated; seeing the world we live in through other people’s eyes we can find beautiful what before we took for granted: there are many butterflies here. The butterfly lifted into the air again, its yellow wings like stiffened cloth folded and unfolded, a silent slow handclap, and I followed its ragged flight across to the other side of the dusty street and away into the trees where washing had been left spread over the branches to dry.

He was getting to his feet when I next looked his way, stiffly, his hat low on his brow now. I closed my notebook and got up to follow him. I don’t know why I did this, but because I did I have his story to tell.

At the hotel where he was staying, I paid to know his name and to know where he had come from. He was from London, the young maid told me, though she had no idea where London was. He had come to Iquitos by plane from Lima. She did not know why he had come. She thought he was a doctor but he had no medicine bag with him. She said that he smoked American cigarettes and drank tea with ice and rum. He slept fitfully, and in the morning his tangled bedsheets were damp with his sweat and smelled of insect repellent.

I wanted to know how long he would be staying; the maid said that there was no departure date written next to his name in the hotel register. I thanked her and pressed a twenty soli note into her small hand. She asked me if I wanted to go to an empty room with her. I knew what she meant and shook my head. She shrugged her shoulders, brushed a fly from her face and moved away without looking back.

At the office where I worked I looked him up on the computer. He was a doctor, as the maid had said. And there was a story to be told. I found an old magazine article on his life. I learned that he was born in China, the only son of English missionary parents. When he was still young his mother and father, and all the other missionaries in that part of China, were ordered out of the country. They refused to leave and were killed for their stiff-upper lip and their obstinacy; the child was turned out onto the streets. The people in the village where he was were forbidden to take him into their homes, but out of love for his parents and following the dictates of Christian charity, they did what they could. They left bowls of food on the steps outside their homes, as you or I would leave broken bits of old bread out for the birds in our gardens. So it was that the boy survived.

His British grandparents eventually got to hear that he was alive and they petitioned their government to rescue the boy. Their influence held sway and at last the boy was taken back to England where he was brought up by his elderly family in a grand house made of stone and with glass in the windows. He worked hard at school and university, and went on to become a doctor, devoting his life to doing good. And now he was here in Iquitos and I did not then know why.

I saw him again several days later. It was no accident. I had gone to the hotel looking for him. The maid from before saw me enter and gifted me a smile. I don’t know if she really remembered me, for she gifted everyone the same winning smile. No doubt she also offered to take other men to an empty room – if they had the money to pay her. I made my way into the bar at the back of the hotel. He was there. He sat at a table reading a three-day-old English newspaper. His glass was empty and I saw my opportunity. At the bar I ordered him a refill and an iced tea for myself. Then I sat down at his table. I apologised for disturbing him, and said that I hoped he didn’t mind. He folded his paper shut and folded it again. Then he laid it on the table beside his empty glass.

“I took the liberty of ordering you another drink, doctor,” I said pushing the glass of rum iced tea across the table towards him.

He did not register surprise. He simply thanked me and lifted the glass to his lips. He took a drink, nodded his approval and set the glass back on the table.

There was a fan spinning on the ceiling above our heads so that the air in the bar was cool. The shutters were open and sunlight lit up the room where it fell, and made soft shadows where it did not reach.

“You know who I am and what I drink. I think you have me at a disadvantage,” the English doctor said.

It was like something from the script of an old film, a movie shot in black and white. The Americans called them movies and the English called them films – I smiled at him, smiled at this thought. I apologised and introduced myself. He reached across the table and we shook hands. And that was like something from a film, too.

We talked about the weather, as Englishmen do when they do not at first know what to say; we talked about the hotel and what was in his newspaper, and about yellow and green butterflies the size of dinner plates, and the hot nights that made sleep difficult and the generator that shut down after ten o’clock so that the fans in the hotel stopped turning and the only light came from the moon and the stars. We talked about the jungle, pressing in on us from all sides, and the noises of the animals it hid, and the slow moving river that coiled at one edge of the city snaking past on its way to join the Amazon itself. Our drinks drained away, the empty glasses stacked like trophies easily won on the table before us. The sun began to slip beneath the trees and the afternoon was soon spent.

Then I asked him; straight out I asked him why he was in Iquitos, what it was that had brought him here.

“Chance,” he said.

I did not understand.

“I am here by chance. I am old,” he said, “old before my time. I have worked hard all my life, worked so hard that I am all used up. I am tired. That is what my doctors at home told me. I should take things easier; I should slow down, see fewer patients. It is not new to me what they said. And one morning I did not go to work. I called in and said I was not well, though I had no temperature and no sickness. I was recommended to take a break. Everyone takes a break, I was told; only, I never had. Not till now. I visited a travel agent and asked a woman there for a ticket to somewhere, anywhere, so long as it was as far away as it was possible to get from everything. She sold me a ticket to Iquitos. So here I am.”

“As far away as it is possible to get from everything,” I said.

He nodded.

Then, suddenly realising the lateness of the hour, and thinking there was after all no real story to follow here, I apologised to the doctor for the second time that afternoon, explained that there was somewhere I had to be and stood up. He got out of his chair and shook my hand again. I said we should talk more, and he agreed, though I did not really think it would happen. Then I left the hotel and rushed out into an early evening storm. The rain was like a blessing in the thick heat. Later, I made notes in my book, recording what I could recall of what we had talked about that afternoon.

We did not meet again for more than three months and then it was quite by chance. I saw him in the market place one day. He was holding the hand of a small boy and together they were buying vegetables and pieces of chicken wrapped in paper, and fish that the woman behind the stall pulled out of a plastic bucket and gutted there in front of them. The doctor looked the same as on that first day, his shirt clinging to his back and damp around the collar, his panama hat low on his brow and his skin still loose and still pink.

“Hello, doctor,” I said.

He recognised me immediately and was, I think, grateful to have someone to speak English with. He shook my hand energetically and said over and over how good it was to see me again. The boy clung to the leg of the doctor’s trousers, his fright-face turned up to see mine. The doctor paid for his few purchases and sent the boy off with them, a slow wave of his hand following the boy along the street. Then we walked to the café we had been in before, that first time, though this time we sat together at the same table. He ordered iced tea for both of us and then turned his attention to me.

“It is good that we meet again.”

There was something different about him and it was immediately obvious: the grey had lifted from his eyes and his gestures were more animated than before.

“I am surprised to find you still here, doctor, still as far away from everything as it is possible to be.”

He agreed and laughed. I had not heard him laugh before.

“I have a house here,” he said. “In Iquitos. A simple house made with adobe bricks and a tin roof on which the occasional rains drum so loud that they break my sleep. There are butterflies in my garden and I keep a bird in a wooden cage, its feathers green and yellow and red. Its singing wakes me in the morning. And every morning I breakfast on fresh picked plantain cooked in a little butter.”

I was surprised and it must have shown on my face.

“I have a place here and a job to do.”

“I thought you were here to rest?” I said.

Then he told me a story. It is a true story, though it is I who tell it now to you.

One day the doctor was eating at a small café just like the one we were sat in. It was around the middle of the day and the heat rose up from the road and made the walls of the buildings opposite ripple as though they were reflected in disturbed water. A man walked by, weighed down by a heavy sack that he had thrown across one shoulder. He was blowing a whistle every few steps, a shrill squeal that made the doctor look up. The man took the whistle from his mouth and grinned at the doctor and shouted something across at him and waved. The doctor could see the rheumy glint in the man’s eyes, the black gaps in his teeth, the dust on his skin, skin the colour of milky coffee; but he did not understand the words that the man spoke. He returned the wave and nodded at the man. It was enough.

Then the doctor was suddenly aware of a hand reaching from the darkness beneath the table where he sat, a hand that stole the food from his plate. It was the hand of a small child, a boy, the bones of his slender wrist showing like knots beneath the skin. The doctor did not move. The doctor understood the need; it was something he recognised, something from somewhere in his own past.

He returned to the same café and sat at the same table the next day, and the day after that. Sometimes the man with the whistle passed and each time he shouted an incomprehensible greeting across at the doctor and the doctor looked up and smiled and nodded in recognition. And the boy beneath his table fed from his plate, and the doctor pretended not to see.

That is the story that the doctor told me. Then two glasses of iced tea were delivered to our table and the doctor paid.

“And so, you see,” he said. “I have a place here and a job to do.”

In Iquitos when the poor cannot feed the children that they have, they turn them out onto the streets, turn their backs on them. This is what the doctor had discovered and this is why he stayed in Iquitos, using up his last years to feed and care for the boys who had been abandoned by their families.

I met with him many times after that day; we drank iced tea and talked, about the weather and what was going on between the pages of three-day old newspapers, about the butterflies that came to his garden, and how the rain kept him awake some nights and the still heat on others. He talked about the extension to his house that he was building and the school he had planned; I noticed that his hands were rough and calloused, a workman’s hands now. But mostly he talked about the boys he found: Luis, Gelen, Gabriel, Segundo, Alexsandar. He knew them all by name and spoke of them fondly, as a father might speak of his sons.

And then, some years later when he died - the doctor - I wrote his story for the newspaper I work for, and others reading what I wrote came to carry on what the English doctor had started.

If this was just a story in a book, you would think that I make these things up. But it is true: there are butterflies the size of dinner plates in Iquitos – yellow and green and orange and black and red; and a man walks the streets with legs like sticks and blowing a whistle just for the fun of it; and three-wheeled motorised rickshaw taxis pick their way around pot-holes in the imperfect roads; and the nights are sometimes too hot to sleep in. And once there was an English doctor here and he worked the last years of his life rescuing abandoned boys from the dark beneath the tables of Iquitos, a city built in a clearing in the biggest jungle in the world, a place that is as far away as it is possible to get from everything.


AN IQUITOS STORY earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Douglas Bruton is a teacher at a high school just outside Edinburgh, Scotland. He has been writing stories for several years, stuffing them into blue-green glass bottles sealed with cork and pitch, and tossing them out to sea. Sometimes the stories return to the beach from which they were launched, in different bottles,with small notes of thanks folded between the pages. That is enough.