Race Against Time
By Julia Archer
I was riding up my street, coming home from school. I always needed to stay alert on the bike. My street was narrow, and drivers in Gulistan were often looking at their phones.
This day an old guy was wandering up the middle of the street. I rode up beside him and stopped.
‘Salamat siz, Atalar. Hello, Grandfather,’ I said politely.
‘Salamat sen, bala. Hello, son.’ He didn’t look surprised to meet a foreign boy.
But he looked lost, so I said in Gulsha, ‘My name is Joel. Can I help you, sir?’
‘No. I am going there,’ he said, pointing.
It looked like he meant past the end of my street, but why? There wasn’t a lot out there.
Just fenced-off ruined houses where some developer one day was going to build a fancy estate.
‘Makul. Okay,’ I said.
A car was coming slowly from the direction of the Main Road, and the old guy was right in its path. I gently pulled him against one of the high garden walls that nudge the edge of the asphalt.
The car stopped, and a lady and a gentleman got out.
‘Oh, Apa,’ the guy said. ‘Kayda barasez? Dad, where are you going?’
The lady spoke to me in Gulsha. ‘I only left the apartment to pick up the children from school, and somehow he got out.’
‘Maqul,’ I said. ‘I thought he was lost.’
‘Oh, not really,’ the son said. ‘We used to live up there.’ He pointed like his father had. ‘You know, the old neighbourhood. But the government moved us years ago, into an apartment building on Main Road.’
They were gently taking Atalar to the car, but he didn’t really want to go. I felt sorry for the family, but by next day I’d forgotten about them.
Until about a week later and I saw Atalar walking up the street again.
He was walking a bit faster, and more like he knew where he was going.
I rode up beside him and said hello.
‘Hello, son,’ he said in Gulsha.
I got off the bike and walked beside him. He must have caught a bus and then tottered up here from the College Park shops.
His poor family.
I looked around, and yep, there was the son’s old blue Mazda wobbling through the potholes towards us.
The lady and the gentleman got out, pretty stressed.
Now I felt really sorry for them all.
‘I locked the door!’ The lady said. ‘I don’t know how he opened it!’
‘Well, he’s safe now,’ I said.
‘Ha. Rakhmat. Yes. Thank you,’ the son said.
I asked, ‘Why does he suddenly want to come back?’
‘Oh.’ The man chewed his lip. ‘Our fault.’
The lady said, ‘He heard us talking. The houses are finally going to be bulldozed.’
‘When Apa heard that, he was upset,’ the son said. ‘He kept saying he had to go back and find it.
‘We drove him to see the house, but he wanted to go inside, and it’s all fenced, and too dangerous.’
So, they put Atalar in the car, and we all said, ‘Khosh, goodbye’.
Well, the lock on that apartment really needed fixing, because three days later, Grandfather was walking up my street again.
He was walking a bit faster and more in a straight line, but still in the middle of the road.
I’d heard the bulldozers start work this morning as I was getting ready for school.
‘Salamet siz, Atalar,’ I said, as I got off my bike.
‘Salamet sen, bala. Qandai sen?’
‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you. Kayda barasez? Where are you going?’
He pointed in the direction of the ruined neighbourhood. ‘I have to find it!’
‘Makul. Okay. Find what?’
‘Shhh!’ He put his finger over his lips and looked around, as if a dozen people might be listening in. There was nothing in the street except two stray dogs.
Then around the corner came the blue Mazda, bouncing at speed over the potholes.
Grandpa crushed a piece of paper into my hand. ‘Tapmak! Find it!’
I pushed the paper into my pocket. ‘If I find it, where do you live?’
‘Block Seventeen, Entrance Four, Apartment Nine.’
The Mazda squealed to a stop. The lady was in tears, the guy was nearly chewing his lip off, and we finally introduced ourselves.
‘Menin atim Joel,’ I said as the son shook my hand.
‘Ramez,’ he said.
His wife gave me a tired smile. ‘Menin atim Kinaaz.’
Then it was, ‘Come on, Dad,’ again, as they led him to the car.
I was left standing in the street with my bike, watching the blue Mazda head back towards the Main Road.
The bulldozers had been working all day. Was there anything left up there, anyway?
I rode up to the old neighbourhood.
Well, there weren’t bulldozers. There was one tracked orange excavator loading rubble into a truck.
How would I find Grandpa’s house?
I smoothed the paper out. 639. Okay. I wheeled the bike along the road, finding numbers neatly painted on house front walls, slopped on gate posts, screwed onto front doors, stencilled on electricity poles.
I pulled the bike through a gap in the fence and walked along a street inside. It took me less than ten minutes, and I was standing in front of Grandpa’s house.
Green plants crawled over it, there was open triangle between the iron roof and the side wall. The front door had been bashed in.
‘Tapmak! Find it.’ What was ‘it’?
Today I’d seen things left behind in other houses – pictures on walls, religious items, other small stuff.
I pushed open the bashed-in door and walked around inside. Couldn’t see anything that Grandpa might want. I opened the door of a small metal fireplace, felt up the chimney, and only got a filthy charcoal hand.
I checked the kitchen and bedroom cupboards. Nothing. I went back outside and looked up at that gap under the roof.
Down the street was a long panel of metal fence lying in a yard. I dragged it back to Grandpa’s and stood it up like a ladder.
If it broke …!
The ceiling was strong wooden planks. I walked all over it. Nothing there. I went down the ladder as carefully as I’d gone up.
Was there a shed? Nuh.
I rode home, cleaned myself up, did my homework and had dinner with the family. But I kept thinking about Grandpa.
The thing was … okay, he didn’t realise he was walking in the middle of the road and could get hit by a car. But he had the smarts to break out of his apartment, catch a bus, and find the route to his old house. He’d also thought ahead, and written down the house number to give me.
I had to take him seriously.
So, next day in school I wondered every spare minute about where Grandpa might have hidden … what?
After school, I went back. What had been houses yesterday were now heaps of bricks, concrete, broken timber, and twisted roofing iron.
The excavator and I arrived at Grandpa’s house about the same time.
The heavy diesel engine revved and spewed black smoke and the tracks squealed and clanked.
The operator extended the long arm, ripped a small tree out by the roots and tossed it aside. He would have been totally shocked if he’d seen me.
He raised the bucket high, lowered it onto the iron roof and dragged it off with a screech like the end of the world.
I was inside now, protected by that strong wooden ceiling, desperately trying to think of one last place I could search.
The bucket hit the bedroom wall with a crash, followed by the roar of falling bricks. Hit the wall again and another roar, the ceiling sagging over my head, the house filled with clouds of dust and grit.
But I’d heard something. Under the roar of the falling wall, the screech of the tracks, and the growl of the engine I’d heard one, other, distinct sound.
As the excavator prepared for a third assault, I ran into the bedroom, threw bricks aside where I’d heard that high, metal clang! and scrabbled madly in the rubble. The rusty yellow bucket came in, dragging the mess out, and I was digging with my bare hands within a metre of it, and the operator didn’t even know I was there. He hooked the bucket through the window, dragged the last of the wall away, and I saw grey metal among the bricks on the floor, grabbed it and ran for my life out the front door.
I collapsed in the wild garden, shocked and shivering, my hands scraped raw and bleeding, the vibrations of the machine throbbing through the ground. But I’d found it. I’d found the brick-sized metal box Grandpa had hidden inside the bedroom wall.
I collected my bike and walked home, the box in my hand, my legs wobbly.
Mum saw me come in. ‘Joel! You’re covered in dirt and grit. You look like you’ve been underground!’
‘Nearly. I’ve been up there where they’re pulling down those old houses.’
So I told her, and she listened, looking sympathetic about Grandpa and his family, then horrified at what I’d done. I showed her the box.
Living in Central Asia had made my Mum resilient. She said, ‘Well, brush yourself off a bit, comb the lumps of cement out of your hair, and we’ll go and search for this apartment.’
She drove down Main Road, and we read the numbers stencilled on the run-down apartment blocks. We found ‘Seventeen’, and Mum parked in a dirt car park beside the kiddies’ playground. Women taking their washing off the drying lines stared at the two foreigners.
‘Seventeen’ was a long building with a big ‘4’ over the last door on the right. A man came out and left the door to close itself. We ducked in behind him, and climbed the concrete stairs. On the third landing, we knocked on the door of apartment Nine.
Ramez opened it. ‘Joel!’
I could hear a TV somewhere behind him, with a children’s program.
‘Salamet siz, Mr Ramez. This is my mother, Laura.’
So he and Mum and then Kinaaz all said, ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’ in Gulsha, and I held out the metal box.
‘I found this in your old house. I think it’s what Atalar was looking for.’
They stared at it, eyes wide, mouths open.
Finally Ramez waved for us to come in, and pointed down the hall, and we went down there. Grandpa was sitting on an old brown couch in a small shabby living room. I went over and presented the box with two hands, carefully laying it in his lap.
He looked at it for a long time, slowly picked it up with shaking hands, then tears trickled down his cheeks. It was like the box had brought itself to him. Grandpa had tried so hard to get to it, and it had called to me, Here I am!
My part in their story wasn’t all that important. Not really.
Grandpa closed his fingers over the combination lock, and without hesitation rotated the correct numbers, the lock fell off and he raised the lid.
I could see it was folded papers, and a few old photos. He took the papers out, one by one, unfolding them, and handing them to his son.
Ramez started reading, and had to go and sit in an armchair.
‘What are they?’ Kinaaz asked.
‘Investment certificates, bank accounts, I don’t know what all of them are.’
‘This is money? That belongs to us?’
‘To Dad. I think. To our family.’
I looked at Mum, and she gave a tiny nod towards the door.
Better for us to quietly leave while they were distracted.
If they wanted, they could find our house.
There was no hurry. Not anymore.- Total nr. of readings: 1,351 Copyright © The author  All Rights Reserved. This story may not be reproduced without the express written permission of the author except for personal use.
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