It had been perhaps the most valiant time in my life, and not even in retrospect, not yet. I saw myself in pictures carrying heavy equipment through the pissing rain and underneath icy mountains with a big laughing smile across my face, hiding perhaps embarrassment or anguish, I can’t remember. White teeth smiling out from a big flooded field of dirt and shit. Like lackadaisical sincerity. And all the time I had a feeling like I didn’t recognise him – I was thinking, who is he?
One day, after it got hot, after those most heroic and awful first moments, when things began to become more stagnant and routine – as much as they can be – I was asked to go to the side of the trailer. There was somebody who wanted to see me. He was one of those young men with old faces.
“Do you live in Polykastro?” He asked me.
“I do.” I wiped my brow, looking back at the queue.
“I wanted to ask you, if you know how much it will be – for the fishing – ” he staggered a little, “– the fishing – machine?”
“The fishing … machine?” I replied. “The fishing machine?”
“Yes, the fishing machine.”
“What the fuck is a fishing machine?” I said. I looked at the queue again.
The man then arched his back like a cat, and threw both of his arms fully forward down into the dust. Then, standing upright, he brought one arm back to the shoulder and started making little circles with the free hand, his fist clenched shut. I got it. It amused me quite a lot.
“Ah – the fishing machine!” I fell about laughing, forgetting about the queue. “I don’t know – 50 euros, maybe, for a really cheap and bad one?”
“I really need to know,” said the man, “And I want you to find out for me. Just to ask.” He was suddenly sincere, almost gravely. I considered for a moment.
“My friend, I will get you a fishing machine by the end of the week.”
“No, no, no. I just want to know – just how much – how it costs – for the fishing machine.”
“Okay then. Meet me here tomorrow. I’ll let you know about your fishing machine.”
“Thank you,” he said, “I will be waiting you.”
A fishing machine. That tickled me.
The next day I was sat under the sun, over some onions. I was sat with some new people who were doing everything I said. I was hungover and I didn’t know any of their names. I started talking about fishing machines.
“Does anybody know where I can buy a fishing machine in this town? Christ, I really need to know,” I said.
“A fishing … machine? What’s a fishing machine?” Said one of the people. She was one of those young women with kind faces.
“You know – a fishing machine!”
I arched my back like a cat, and threw both of my arms fully forward down into the dust. Then, standing upright, I brought one arm back to the shoulder and started making little circles with my free hand, the fist clenched shut. Nobody got it. They all just looked at me, bewildered.
“A fishing machine?” Said somebody else, stupidly.
“Yes, a fishing machine!” I said.
They kept skinning onions. Nobody said anything for a couple of minutes.
“Doesn’t anybody drive?” I asked the faces.
“I drive.” Replied a blonde European girl.
“Well, will you take me into town and help me find a fishing machine?”
“A fishing machine?” She said. She recognised me but I didn’t recognise her.
“Yes,” I said, getting to say it another time, “a fishing machine.”
We drove into town, the blonde European girl and I, and we entered a store which sold guns, knives and other hunting equipment. I looked around but I couldn’t see any fishing machines.
“Excuse me,” I said to the old man at the desk, “but you wouldn’t perhaps know where I could find something like a fishing machine?”
“A fishing machine?” Said the man. He was all grey haired and brown skinned and doubled over. He was one of those old men with old faces. We didn’t recognise each other.
“Yes,” I said, the mischief gleaming in my eyes. “A fishing machine.”
“What is fishing machine? He asked.
Then the old man and the blonde European girl started speaking to each other in German. Out of the discussion now, I looked around at the guns.
After a while, getting bored, I arched my back like a cat at the old man, and threw both of my arms fully forward down into the linoleum. Then, standing upright, I brought one arm back to the shoulder and started making little circles with my free hand, the fist clenched shut.
“Ah!” Said the old man finally, “fishing machine!” He took me by the sleeve and led us next door, into a warehouse. It was full of hunting jackets ad headgear. On the back wall were a row of fishing machines. I seized one of them.
“How much is this fishing machine?” I asked the old man.
The fishing machine was 18 euros. I bought it directly. Emerging triumphantly from the store, I kissed the blonde European girl on her blonde hair. I asked for her name, for the next time I would recognise her.
When we arrived back, I went up to the counter of my hotel. There was a young man there.
“Do you have anything tasty I could put on the end of a fishing machine?” I asked the man. He was one of those young men with young faces. I recognised him but he didn’t recognise me.
“A … what?” He said.
“A fishing machine.” I said, decisively.
“A fishing …” He struggled. “What is a fishing machine?” He said, with a bothered expression.
I arched my back like a cat, and threw both of my arms fully forward down towards the tiles. Then, standing upright, I brought one arm back to the shoulder and started making little circles with my free hand, the fist clenched shut. He didn’t move.
“A fishing – machine?” He said, confusedly. His eyes squinted a little. He looked tired.
“Forget it.” I said.
Later that day I emerged from the trailer, wet with soup and dirt and sweat and lentils.
“Shit.” I said, leaning against the rig. I wiped my brow and leaned there for a time, doing nothing.
Then a man approached me. He was another one of the young men with old faces. I got ready to dismiss him.
“Hello there,” he said. He recognised me but I didn’t recognise him. Then he just stood there, grinning in the dirt, expectantly.
“Ah!” I said, jumping up, realizing. “Of course! You know I have a fishing machine for you?”
In surprise, his eyes lit up and then darkened. For a moment he looked frightened, almost hurt. He said nothing. I suddenly remembered, again, where I was.
We walked together to the truck, and I opened the boot. I pulled out the fishing machine, and handed it to him, smiling.
“This is for you.”
“No,” he started, “I didn’t want – you didn’t have -” I raised my hand and shook my head. Then he just held it there, looking at it. For a moment I thought he was about to cry. Then for a brief moment I thought that I was, too.
“How much do I have to give you?” He asked me.
“No,” I said again, “this is from me. For you. It’s a fishing machine.”
“I had one just like this in Turkey.” He said, smiling.
As I walked away I thought about what an absurd turn of events that was, what an absurd turn of events this whole circumstance was. I never saw the man again.
And it’s little things like that, that I really remember. The god of small things lives in aid work and delivers them, just now and again. It wasn’t the meals, the 12 hours of work every day, the heat, the exhaustion, though these were all worthwhile and I’d do the whole shit again, the whole wet pallet-carrying soup-stained awful shit, just to feed one hungry man. I recognise that. But it’s the fishing machines that get you through it. Perhaps that’s where that smile comes from in the pictures, the one I sometimes don’t understand. I’ve been doing this almost a year now and it still hasn’t gotten old – I am still a young man with a young face. The blonde European girl agrees with me.