Many heartfelt thanks to Jen Brubacher for her interesting prompts delivered daily at her blog. Without it, well Henri’s character may have been someone entirely different. I already see a great potential for this burgeoning friendship (both creatively and politically) Thanks again Jen!
Chapter Three will come to you in four parts! Enough voice over… let’s get the main attraction.
Ryan closed and fastened the makeshift door of his tent, which in reality was nothing more than a flap to keep the weather out. Should anyone want to rob him it would be a simple matter of untying the mess of knots. For a talented woodsmith, knots were something he simply could not understand. Even several months at sea hadn’t turned Ryan into a better contorter of rope. If he thought about it, the bunch of knots represented the best sort of security for only he had the patience to deal with then tangle. There were nights in the first month, when the rum had beat his fingers and he’d spent a cold night on the ground by the door of his tent. Besides, he told himself, he owned so little, there was really nothing to steal.
When he’d first written to his mother from Ballarat he hadn’t experienced the twinge of conscience he’d expected writing he’d found ‘suitable lodgings’. He could have spent hours tied up in the pros and cons of telling his mother the exact truth, that he was living in a tent, dusty in the dry and muddy in the wet, with thousands of other men. The ablutions block consisted of a hole dug in the ground and a bucket of cold water to rinse and shave in.
He’d very quickly stopped the train of thought and penned ‘Suitable lodgings’, knowing a tent in Ballarat’s Shanty Town was just that. He’d seen plenty of men, ragged and starving sleeping rough on the ground with a threadbare blanket. His mother would assume he’d found a nice room to rent if he was sparse on the details, such as exactly what they were, or who is landlord was. And in the letter, he had certainly left out the bit about how he’d brokered his current lodgings compliments of a very generous, but shrewd Chinese shop keeper, named Henri… who he’d accidentally called Hen-Lee for weeks until he’d overheard someone in the high street talking about the Chinese merchant Hen-Ree.
Ryan stood for a moment outside his tent, smelling the cooking fires and listening to snippets of the thousands of small and large conversations, the odd strain of a song or violin or even more occasion burst of laughter carried across Shanty Town. Turning towards China Town, Ryan left it all behind and let the night air, cool and refreshing, after the airlessness of Hutchinson’s workshop, absorb and carry away the day’s weariness and worry with each step towards China Town. Hutchinson Senior worked him relentless with much criticism and no compliments, from sun up to sundown, while he turned a blind eye to the lazy inepitude of his some Jeremiah who often feigned a breathing sickness to leave early.
On nights when Ryan wasn’t expected at Henri’s it took the last of his energy to drag himself into a chop shop for some overpriced slop and a rasping glass of rum. Only on the nights he agreed to visit Henri did he find new reserves of energy. And always, as he made the trip into China he thought of the day he meet Henri. The day he bought his first home, his first cook pot and ventured into the dangerous realm of racist attitudes with innocent blindness.
Maureen Anderson had been explicit in her belief on blame. She’d raised each of her children to assume reasonability for their actions and suffer punishment for their trespasses, yet Ryan easily fell into the mindset of blaming (and celebrating) his mother’s penchant for a fair price which had led him to Henri. Maureen Anderson never bought anything for the sake of convenience if there was a possibility of a cheaper price further afield. In his youth it was Ryan she sent on errands with a tattered piece of paper in hand looking for a cheaper price. And after his father died, and his mother became the authority in the shop, she enacted an unusual business paradigm to increase the number of customers in the shop. Word quickly got around that Widow Anderson would sell for a slightly cheaper price if you were not ‘local.’ And the numbers of customers seeking commerce with Anderson’s Meats increased.
So it was in his blood to seek out a fairer price when it became apparent the first trader he inquired with had, as Rum mentioned, tripled and then tripled again the price of the canvas and rope he sort to fashion a home (of sorts.)
“I’m only asking for canvas and some rope, not bloody sandstone and the services of a mason,” Ryan had blurted out, his cheeks immediately colouring for his profanity.
The shop keeper non perturbed simply said, scratching his beard, “You’re new around here, eh lady? Well go find a better price somewhere else then,” and laughed as Ryan left to do just that.
The entire day, Ryan traipsed up and down the high street, and all the smaller streets and alleyways which radiated outwards, criss crossing into a rabbit warren. Ryan’s boots made it in out of every trader’s store until dispirited and realising his hard saved money was going to be all but eaten up organising the simplest of living arrangements he sunk down on the edge of a watering trough and looked down across Shanty Town. It was then he saw the satellite cluster of tents further down the valley. He stood, jamming his hat on his head and strode down the hill and into the Chinese camp.
If there were any Chinese living in Aberdeen, he’d never seen any on his travels and they had been further than any lad in his neighbourhood thanks to his mother. He tried not to gawk as the passed him in their strange long coat-like shirts, loose linen pants, topless shoes and long black hair snaking down their backs like women. They viewed him with suspicion from beneath their odd wide brimmed hats, looking at the ground when Ryan tried to smile. Later when he told and retold the story of how he came to meet Henri, whoever he was drinking with at the Cock and Bull would look both appalled and fascinated.
“I was just looking for a better price,” he would say, with a shrug.
“More like looking to have yer throat slit by one of them slant eyes,” someone would say, or a comment in the same vein.
Ryan would shake his head, “No, they’re not like that.”
“Sure, sure Ryan.”
“You were just lucky,” someone else would add.
“More like you were all just ripped off lads, and you’re a might jealous of my good fortune,” Ryan would say with good-hearted cheer, raising his glass and immediately direct the conversation to something else. He quickly learnt his association with the Chinese community was viewed with contempt.