By Allyson Seaborn
He didn’t have a childhood. My dark, almond-eyed friend spent all of his summer holidays labouring; scooping dirt and trash out of roadside drains for pocket money. He walked for miles with a heavy sack of pine nuts wedged into his tired shoulders, hunching while his classmates played, basking in Mongolia’s radiant sunlight. His father died when he was ten and he describes to me the tone of the wails of anguish that came from his mother’s bed. He looks after her now and always will, like all good Mongolian sons do.
Today he speaks of Tolstoy and excitedly describes how he’s only read half of War and Peace, as he likes looking forward to finishing the second half in his old age. He tells me Tolstoy describes many different personality types to exemplify certain ethical truths. I sit, chin perched on palm listening to his comforting voice like Anna Karenina, ironically the only Russian classic I’ve read. The essential problem Tolstoy examined was of course, that the awareness of our inevitable death can undermine one’s sense that life can have meaning.
When we meet again for coffee he describes the despair he experienced when his older brother stole the second half of a precious red apple he had been saving under his pillow. He had been savouring his only piece of fresh fruit that season. Always saving the other half for later.
I like that.
In my mind I try turning down the volume of the existential vacuum which blares around me and light up a cigarette, but my friend tells me not to smoke as my kids will need me when they are older.
“You could do something altruistic,” he gently coaxes. “You are a writer and can do something for kids who grew up like me.”
It’s a passionate plea, and I wonder if this notion can somehow repair my badly damaged inner compass which can no longer distinguish north from south. I haven’t smoked in years, but the nicotine which fills my lungs sooths me.
I change the subject.
“And the half eaten apple which you placed under your pillow is like War and Peace,” I smile, the analogy making him laugh. I want to show him I am as smart as he is. I want him to know I did not forget about War and Peace.
“You remembered,” his face lights up.
The pain in his youthful eyes is gone and his black pupils pierce my soul. The echo of a tune that stopped playing for me long ago resonates inside of me. He talks of social justice and a wave of change in Mongolia. I believe he can do anything. He’s a lawyer now you see, with a bright future ahead of him.
I correct his English, but in truth his grammar and vocabulary are far superior to mine. My friend is also wise, so I ask him to tell me what I really want to know. Does he have any regrets? I briefly think of my countless “if onlys” and he describes a saying he learned during his time at a Russian school.
He was the poorest boy in class and never had any money to buy lunch.
“Do you know how horrible a feeling it is to be the only person who cannot buy food? To know that everybody else knows how destitute you are? To wear second-hand clothes day in and day out?” He pauses and continues; “ Yet if you can smile just before the moment of death and be grateful for all that you have, you have led a good life. If on the other hand you have regrets and wish for one more day….”
I don’t want to hear the rest of his sentence. I know he has no regrets - only countless plans and big dreams.
Later that evening I open the window to let a flurry of crisp, white snow fall at my feet. A windy Mongolian spring is just around the corner, but it always flurries just before the seasons change.
I then light a cigarette in front of the mirror, pondering over what my friend has told me, with a curious mixture of both hope and dread.
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