BY ALLAN HUDSON
Copyright is held by the author. This story received an Honorable Mention in the Douglas Kyle Memorial Short Story contest hosted by The Writers federation of New Brunswick.
THE Neptune Giant is a VLCC — a very large crude carrier. When it was completed in 1979, it ranked among the largest oil tankers in the world. From bow to stern, 75 Cadillacs could park bumper to bumper. The crews used bicycles to travel the elongated deck. With a beam of nearly 200 feet, five bungalows could be placed lengthwise side by side across the deck; her keel is six stories underwater. The raw steel is covered with over 1500 gallons of paint. She’d been given a lifespan of 30 years; instead, she had sailed every ocean of the world, berthed at every continent, rode many storm’s fierce waves and trolled the endless seas for 35 years. Today is her final voyage.
Her last port of call, two weeks ago, was Saint John, New Brunswick, with 2 million barrels of Venezuelan crude. Now, the tanker cruises the Bay of Bengal at 14 knots. At that speed she requires five miles to come to a dead stop. The ship breaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh, are only four miles away. The captain brings the ship to starboard, aiming the aging tanker directly at the muddy beach. The tide is high, which is necessary to allow the gargantuan machine to ground itself like an aged sea lion, as near to the shore as possible, where it will die.
The engine that powers the ship is 89 feet long and 44 feet wide with 12 massive cylinders — one of the largest engines in the world. It weighs 2000 metric tons costing more than the rest of the transport. Its thirst for fuel demands over 1500 gallons of crude every hour. Its last chore will be to power the vessel onto the tidal mud banks, where humans who are dwarfed by its immensity will eventually take it apart, by hand, piece by piece. The work is extremely dangerous with an exceptionally high mortality rate and yet there is no shortage of men.
Of the approximately 45,000 ocean-going vessels in the world, about 700 per year are taken out of service for dismantling. Many go to Alang, India, the world’s largest shipbreaking yard, or to Gadani, Pakistan, the third largest after Chittagong. Where the ships go, the jobs go. As difficult as the work may be, ship breaking is part of the momentum powering the economy of a young Bangladesh. The owners of this particular ship-breaking yard paid $3 million for the Neptune Giant.
With torches, sledgehammers, steel wedges, brute force and painstaking drudgery, it will take six months to dismantle; one man will die and two men will be injured by a 1000 lb slab of steel cut from the behemoth’s hide. It will net the owner millions more than he paid when he sells the scrap metal and he will provide no compensation for men that can’t work. They toil 14 hours a day, with two half hour breaks and an hour for lunch, six and a half days a week. The men will eat their supper when their work shift ends. At least one quarter are illiterate; one quarter are children. The average wage is $1.25 per day.
Azhar Uddin is gently woken by his father. It’s 4:30 a.m.
“Come my little man, you must join your brother at the table. You must leave for work soon. Come now.”
Hafiz Uddin turns from his son, supporting himself with his only arm grasped upon a homemade crutch; the other arm is buried beneath the muddy beaches where he once toiled, severed by falling steel at the same crippling yards where he will soon send his two sons. He wobbles even with his lopsided support; the left knee and lower leg, the same side as the missing arm, were wrecked in the accident also. Unable to find meaningful work with only a single hand, one strong leg and a defeated spirit, he remains dependent upon his male children: Nur is 14; Azhar will be 13 next week. Because they are exceptional workers, they earn 260 takas a day, just over $3.
Rising slowly, he sits up on the side of the bed, Azhar rubs his shoulder. The dull ache in his muscle reminds him of the steel pipes he helped carry all day. Long straight bangs of the fiercest black hang over his narrow forehead. His brown boyish skin is smooth and untroubled, not yet marked by the lines of struggle. A slight dimple on the end of his nose balances the squareness of his jaw. The man’s work he does has not taken the childish shine from his eyes. Blinking the sleepy fog from his brow he rises to find his work clothes neatly folded at the foot of his bed. His father washed and hung them to dry before he retired for the night, as he would’ve done for Azhar’s older brother, Nur, also. There are no women in the house.
Azhar slips on his red and blue striped shirt, the collar and cuffs worn thin bearing unravelled threads. Wrapping a green and yellow lungi around his slim hips, he ties a double pretzel knot to keep it secure. He often wishes for trousers to protect his legs, but they would be too hot for work, and he knows there is no money for such luxuries. Every spare taka is sent to his mother, Naju, in Dhaka. He ponders a moment, thinking of her and his sisters. Rayhana is 11 and works with his mother; and Tasleema is six. He hasn’t seen them for over four months. It is for Tasleema that they all work and save whatever is possible so that she can go to school. As he thinks of her glowing eyes and the tiny face he remembers her promise:
“When we are together again, Azhar, I will teach you to read.”
The thought causes him to bend down to retrieve the tattered comic book from under his bed. In the dim light of the bare bulb from the kitchen, he scans the torn cover. The masked man with the flowing cape, he knows, is called Batman. One of his first jobs when he was only 10 was to retrieve any usable items from the grounded ships that could be sold to the recyclers: rolls of unused toilet paper, cleaning supplies, pots and pans, furniture, bedding, tools, discarded books, coastal maps, light bulbs, cans of paint, rope, wire. The comic book had been in a waste basket; it was torn and thick with many readings. Azhar had seen other comics before but he wondered where this one came from and how far it had travelled when he found it. His boss Mojnu told him to keep it, otherwise it would be tossed out. He was always impressed by the coloured pages, the photos of cars, tall buildings, fancy clothes, fight scenes, smiles and scowls — and he longs to know what the squiggly words mean. More than anything, he wants to read.
Tossing the book under the bed once more, he tugs the frugal sheets into place neatly, as his father expects, before joining his brother at the table. Their home is corrugated metal divided into two rooms with few possessions, its shape a replica of the many shanties lining the dirt street where he lives. Theirs is different because their father keeps it clean. The walls are painted a bright blue inside and out; their roof doesn’t leak when it rains.
The smell of oatmeal greets him as it drifts from the boiling pot his father is bent over, stirring, on the Bondhu Chula, a cook stove. Oatmeal for breakfast is not common in their home or their neighbours for that matter. Most breakfasts are rice, sometimes with red or green chillies. Or paratha, a pan-fried unleavened flatbread. Yesterday Old Angus Macdonald, the burly Scotsman who visits them sometimes, dropped off a bag of rolled oats. They have no idea where he lives or where he comes from. They only know him from the story their father has told them.
The man was almost 70 when he commanded the Atlantic Pride, one of Canada’s largest ferries, to the yards in Chittagong when it was retired four years ago. He stepped on shore after he grounded the ship and he never left. When the torches cut a section of aged steel from the nose of that very ship, a huge chunk crashed to the ground beside Hafiz, pinning his arm to the sand and breaking his leg. Had the piece fallen several inches more to the left, Hafiz would`ve died. Maybe that was why the elderly man stopped by once in a while with his bag of oats or some other staples and a few taka notes. He never stayed long, spoke very little Bengali. Always laughing, always a mystery.
Nur sits in front of a dish of flatbread, resting on a makeshift table — is a piece of discarded plywood his father has sanded, painted and polished. It’s the same teal that decorates the home, the same teal Hafiz got for free.
Nur looks up with his usual wide grin. “Good morning little brother. Will you be having paratha or paratha for your meals today?”
Hafiz has his back to his boys, cooking their breakfast. He doesn’t turn around when he scolds his oldest son. “Be thankful you have food, Nur. There are neighbours who may not have any today, or tomorrow. Don’t make fun. And Azhar, wash up, do your morning duties, and hurry. This is almost done.”
Both boys answer in unison, “Yes, Baba.”
The man that owns the property their home sits on is the same individual who owns the breaking yard the boys work at. Not totally without empathy, he provides running water and outhouses. Perhaps it is benevolence that has him supply these accommodations; it’s also his desire that his employees should be healthy so they don’t miss work. Hence the covered latrines and cold, life-giving Adams’ ale. Azhar goes to the sideboard, where water heated by his father steams from an old porcelain basin that is storied with nicks and scratches. He washes the sleep from his face, tames the cowlicks on his head, before taking the bowl outdoors to discard the soapy residue. Setting it on the doorstep, he rushes to the outhouse to complete his morning ritual. Returning to the kitchen, he finds Nur bent over a smoking bowl of hot porridge with the grandest of smiles.
“Azhar, we have brown sugar this morning. Our Baba is good to us.”
Hafiz sits at the opposite end of the table, his own porridge barren of anything sweet. There is only enough for the boys, he feels. The used plastic bag that sits on the table holds about three tablespoons of crumbly dark crystals. Azhar sits at his seat, an upended orange crate padded with a cushion his mother made.
“Eat up boys. Divide that between you.”
As Nur digs into the bag, Azhar watches his father stir his breakfast to cool it, knowing such a treat is rare.
“What about you Baba?”
Nur halts his sprinkling to look at his father.
“No, no, I don’t want any. Take it. And hurry, Ismail will be along soon with the truck to take you to work.”
Suddenly the kettle’s steam whistle erupts. Hafiz sits closest to the cook stove and twists about with his single arm to lift the heated pot to fill the three mugs for tea. When his father turns his back, Azhar hastily reaches into the bag pulling out almost half of what is left. He stretches to sprinkle the sugar about his father’s bowl. Nur grins and tosses in what is left on his spoon. The boys are giggling as Hafiz turns around with the first of the mugs.
He stops in mid swing when he sees what they have done. He guesses it to be Azhar, so much like his mother. He holds his youngest son’s gaze for a moment before looking at Nur. Mistaking the look on their father’s face, thinking him upset, the boys grow quiet. Hafiz briefly studies his sons, soon off to do men’s work, still childlike in their hearts. He yearns for them to run free, not to need their strong backs to survive. He is overcome with this simple gesture of love; a glistening tear zigzags down his haggard cheek.
“Thank you, my sons. You are fine men.”
With everyone shy, the meal passes in solitude. The boys hastily finish so they can get ready for work.