Shortlisted in the 2020 winter quarter Retreat West bridges-themed flash competition.

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Dragon Gift

A faint slap of water rises from the clogged canal through the barely bobbing mass. Ahmed balances a foot on a bottle, splays his toes over the famous red letters for better grip. The other foot rests on a rusted drum. He see-saws, grinning, happy with his skill. He skips to a mud-caked carton, moving quickly, arms spread, keeping tight hold of the bowl clutched in his hand. A final stride and he is over.
He squelches past dirty chickens to where Grandad squats on his porch on shrivelled haunches, his caved-in chest a slice of brown beneath the open faded batik shirt.
‘Selamat sore,’ Good afternoon, Ahmed says.
Grandad mumbles, ‘Datang,’ Welcome, and chews betel. His mouth is stained purple-black, his toothless gums the same.
‘So old-fashioned,’ Ahmed’s mother always says, rolling her eyes, but smiling.
Ahmed hands the old man the bowl of rice and prawns. ‘From Mother,’ he says, although Grandad receives his evening meal from Ahmed’s mother every day. Grandad grasps the bowl, scooping up the rice with long, knobbled fingers.
Ahmed once asked his mother, ‘Ibu, why doesn’t Grandad live with us?’
His mother rolled her eyes again. ‘So he can spit betel all over my floor?’ She laughed. ‘Grandad won’t leave his home. He’s happy there.’ She shook her head, sighing.

Ahmed’s mother earns money showing over-loud Americans, over-friendly Australians and sweating British tourists the sights of the city. She speaks good English, and insists Ahmed will speak the language even better.
‘You won’t live your life in a hut on a rubbish-infested canal,’ she tells him. ‘You’ll go as far as you can in school, and afterwards you’ll study more, maybe in Australia or America or England, and become a doctor.’
‘The prawns are tough as old tyres,’ Grandad complains. He scowls at Ahmed, then returns to eating, slowly. It’s hard with no teeth, even prawns and rice.
Ahmed squats beside him. ‘Mum says I should study hard so I can be a doctor when I grow up. But I’ll be a dentist instead, Grandad, and make you new teeth.’
Grandad spits out a prawn tail, and grunts. He thrusts the empty bowl at Ahmed who takes it and stands up. ‘Selamat djalan,’ Ahmed says. Then in careful English, ‘Goodbye.’
Grandad blinks at the foreign word.
Ahmed skips down the bank, bare feet slipping in the curdled mud where cartons, torn bags and crushed bottles fester like rotting mangoes. He leaps towards the drum, his toes sending it spinning in place, nowhere to go in the dense detritus; then he springs to a dirty white container which once contained diesel. He is light, flying, confident of where he will land next.
He is over. He turns his head briefly to watch the swaying litter which marks his crossing before running up the bank, along the palm-shaded lane to home, and his books.

2 thoughts on “Bridges are what you make of them”

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