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The Scrivener: Paths

"The challenge when writing is to keep history in perspective. Especially when youíre close to it. Thatís because what you would like to happen is not always what does happen...''

Brian Barratt, a man with an expansive mind who readily chats to folk he meets along life's way, hears an astonishing story of endurance and survival.

A small boy in a bright red tracksuit pedalled his bright red bike as fast as he could. Small legs turned small wheels at a furious pace. He wobbled happily along the path.

What a lovely evening to be walking in the wetlands. Late afternoon, rather. The sun was casting long green shadows and the air was tinged gold. The path is shared by walkers and cyclists. Thatís fine if the cyclists are small children or leisurely families. Itís pretty dangerous if theyíre serious racers.

Thereís a problem with those earnest people who hurtle along, clad in their silly skintight spandex things. Many of them think the path is for their exclusive use. OK, some of them have bells, which they ring. Others havenít or donít.
One of them did ring his bell. There was time to step aside. Further along, he and his partner slowed down when they reached the small boy. Watching all this was his father.

Naturally, I stopped to chat with Dad. Somehow, we got onto family trees and ancestors. I say Ďsomehowí but to tell you the truth I started it. The afternoon had been spent writing a potted history of southern Africa as background for someoneís family tree.

The challenge when writing is to keep history in perspective. Especially when youíre close to it. Thatís because what you would like to happen is not always what does happen. One personís victory might be another oneís loss. History isnít something we control.

Anyway, the conversation moved from my ancestors to his ancestors. He was impressed that Iím working with four centuries of ancestors. He canít trace back very far, as the records are in several other countries. Thatís if they still exist. They might have been destroyed.

He arrived in Australia about twenty years ago, but not in the same way as I arrived nearly forty years ago as a £10 assisted immigrant. He was, however, assisted along the way. With a group of other ethnic Chinese people, he set out in a small boat from Vietnam. It was cramped ó they didnít have enough room to lie down for a sleep.
After the first week or so, they saw lights in the distance. Their spirits rose but, alas, it wasnít land. It was a towering oil rig. Their fragile boat bobbing around in the ocean, they called out for help.

For security reasons, they werenít allowed to disembark. However, they were given food, fresh water and fuel. Their pleading for rescue was in vain. Off they sailed, toward a threatening sky and heightening waves, which pretty soon made them decide to go back to the rig. At least they could shelter beneath it.

Meanwhile, a sympathiser had obtained permission for them to be taken aboard. They were hauled up, women and children first.

The, from the safely of the rig, they watched their boat break up and sink beneath the rising waves.

After a circuitous journey involving an oil tanker, a battle-ship, a stay on an island, and interviews with United Nations refugee officers, they were accepted by various countries.

The bright red bike came back along the path. After his long journey, a patient little boy waited for us to finish chatting.

I took them both to see the nearby ĎDragon Treeí. Itís a magnificent native tree of cathedral-like proportions. A broken branch juts out from the trunk, not far above the ground. In the late afternoon light, it looks like the neck and head of a dragon ó a Chinese dragon. Not everyone can see it, but they saw it, and their faces lit up with delight.

Perhaps it reminded the engineer of something heíd left behind. You might choose your path or you might be forced to take it, but you never quite know where itís going to lead, do you? History isnít something you can control.

© Copyright 2005 Brian Barratt


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