March 6, 2012 in All, Bernard Smith, South East Asia

My Father's Voice

During their round-the-world motorcycle journey in 2009, Bernard Smith and Cathy Birchall (co-authors of the forthcoming "A Blind Woman, Two Wheels, and 25,000 Miles") made a detour through Kanchanaburi Province in Thailand to seek out the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. In this touching memoir, Bernard reflects on the emotional impact of the experience and of their journey together.


Silence or emotion? Emotion or silence? Looking about me, I wonder which came first. Did the silence sweep away my barriers or did emotions steal in like silent assassins waiting for the vulnerable? Me. Standing motionless, I don’t know. Sometimes it is like that, the not knowing. Times ago, I thought I knew and understood so much.

I suppose those youthful years involved a different person living in a different mental place where everything was so much more certain. Not any more. After so long away from that time, life is now much simpler, so much less complicated in trying to define the world in blacks and whites. Now life resides in fields of greys with so many perhaps and maybes liberally scattered throughout them. Indeed, everything is simpler.

With so many miles of road and life having passed me by, now there is an acceptance of ‘not knowing’ very much at all. Strangely, it is comforting to appreciate how little I understand; it leaves me with so much more to learn, so much more to experience. However, the only thing I do know is that I can no longer read. Not now. The words will not come.

Standing wrestling with eyes dissolving the world into a watery mist, bleariness spreads across the landscape, like rain sticking to a visor to obscure the road ahead. From fluency to stuttering in merely seconds. God, was it only that long? It felt longer. Far longer. The sun fills the quietness with heat as thoughts cascade through my mind. Like a waterfall rushing onwards, forever onwards, without relent, falling without pause, streams of images flood me with emotion. I look sideways to where she stands in the same stillness.

Seeing her, I know this is something she is good at, the waiting. Blindness has made it so and the journey has honed her skills to another level, another dimension. After a lifetime of waiting for something, for someone, it all seems so effortless to her. In the waiting for this, the waiting for that, the circumstances are immaterial as it is the way of blind people. Waiting. Always waiting. For something.

However, there is no need for me to explain my silence as she stands within my melancholy shadow. She knows.

The gravel voice, the creeping hesitations, the slow cracking sound, all will have been like a gun shot to her; betraying me, in one way or another. This is another thing she is good at, this ‘knowing’. Through her bright blue sightless eyes, it still surprises me how good she is at it; how the years have taught her to see beneath the layers people cover themselves in like Russian matryoshka dolls. Unpacking each one carefully, our woven protections have been peeled away slowly, cautiously. Now we stand revealed in our in-between mental places where layers used to be in a journey stripping both of us of our secrets. Thus, she knows. And I do not mind. Importantly. No longer do I hide from her as I once did. Trust can do that to you. Trust makes everything safe, secure, certain.

A voice interrupts, calling from the long gone years of the past.

"Big boys don’t cry."

My father’s voice sits inside my head, clear and distinct, as if standing beside me, here and now in this place. I remember so many times over the years, of emotions ripping tranquillity away with seemingly innocuous events as others laughed, or consoled, depending on persuasion.

"Big boys don’t cry."

Meaningless words that never helped but only ever hindered.

Sometimes it hurts to stare out into the world as you pass through it. It truly hurts. There is no place to hide, no cloak to wrap yourself in to protect you from what you are feeling. Not really. It is the way it is when you are open to it, truly aware of it. By completely embracing it in the way it is - not merely in the way it seems or in reflections of how others may portray it – then the world should move you. If not? Then know something is missing; fundamentals have been lost along the way that stop tears of sadness from falling.

You see a magic exists in the small things of life if you can only see them through the clutter. Innocuous things for many people perhaps, tiny fragments of experiences building layers of meaning beyond the simplicity to what we see, what we experience, what we feel. It happens with a smile of an unknown face, a handshake, the sound of a breeze whispering through foreign leaves. It is in the way clouds seem to drift differently overhead depending on where you are. Perhaps you will see it buried deep within a child’s smile or a hundred kindnesses of strangers. Moving through different lands, the two aliens on the big red spaceship from Mars have both felt it. Now they both understand the openness required to engage in its totality. In its truth.

I look downwards to see the cause of my own openness, my own honesty contained in the here and now.

Sideways they stretch in rows standing in mute testimony to my response. Hundreds of them stand silent, sentinel like, reaching upwards from the ground in their greyness. In the bright blue sky in this different land, they propel me back across thousands of miles to places I know in my homeland. Then my eyes find the cause, the true cause of the encroachment of my stuttering silence. The rows.

"A soldier of the 1939 - 1945 War. Known unto God."

So many rows. So many unknowns.

It’s not much to ask for, is it? Just a name. To be remembered by. To be called by. After all, it is our mark and all that remains when memories fade away after the brief span within which we breathe our lives. But when there is no name...

From the earlier fluent reading to stuttering silence as suddenly, inexplicably, another shot of realisation overwhelms me. They are me and I am them. The only separation between us exists in the chances of time and birth. Meanwhile my companion stands patiently waiting for me to begin again. When I can.

Names begin to flow in memories brought alive here and now in this place as another realisation jolts me. Like an anticipated shock, it still sways my world with understanding; I have passed through more than twice their span while still worrying about the briefness of it. Now on my own downside of time’s passing curve there is little for me to regret in reality. Not now. Not here.

Gazing along the nearby places made special for the memory of the briefness of their time, each is carefully marked with flowers of brilliant reds, vibrant yellows, and mournful maroons. Carefully maintained amongst the green pristine rows in this far off place, I wonder at the serene, poignant, beauty of it.

Meanwhile the famous bridge sits a distance away and I ponder our presence, the meaning of it. Looking for something else to explain my thoughts, my emotions, it sits out of reach tantalising me. I know a ‘must see’ mentality had driven the bike northwards towards this place, like a tourist needing a fix to feel better about our own life, our own existence. Misery tourists? Is that it really? Is that what I’m doing here? Have I really been reduced down to this level of experience, this level of need? Shaking my head to clear these troubled thoughts, I don’t think so. But then again, I have been forever cursed with thinking too much.

Too much imagination, too many fanciful ideas, too many meandering daydreams setting me off somewhere else, always somewhere else in my own mental world. Ever since my childhood so many people have always said so, therefore it must be. Perhaps. Returning my gaze to the ground, I wonder if they are lonely, or have found peace. Another one of those random thoughts breaking off from the cascade as eyes stare off into the misty distance.

A life lost for every railway sleeper laid?

120,000 of them sit on the 415 kilometres of the Thai-Burma railway. 120,000 sorrows join into streams of tears falling silently across time to where I stand adding my own to them. They are all I have to offer, they are all I have to give. Neither shame nor consciousness do I feel in giving them. Silently joining the unending flow, the same quietness eventually soothes me, like a balm wrapping itself around a wound, calming in its presence.

My voice eases back from where it withdrew, from where it hid away deep inside me within the winding sadness. More names and more places emerge from the silent sentinels standing guard. Each special. Each unique. Each remembered. One thousand seven hundred of them sitting in perfect rows, under perfect blue skies, in perfect silence as I look at all that is left of what once was.

Standing here and now in this place where words failed and emotions overwhelmed, I recognise another truth in its entirety.

Today, two hearts shared the same understanding.

Big boys don’t cry?

Yes, they do.

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