At the Citadel in deep ponds the koi, like shards of afternoon light, swam at the surface waiting for crumbs. I stood with my eldest son in the rain. Tiny frogs hid in cracks between the pavers while we traced a spray of bullet holes on a wall, the mortar crumbling damply beneath our fingers. The rain, in sheets, closed out the distance and we shivered in the small space where we stood, between the darkened sky and the wet stone.
My notebook from that trip is a child’s exercise book. It is dog-eared from dampness, the writing smudged, pages missing. I wrote in hotel rooms and airports. At Khe Sanh I wrote as I watched ladies in conical hats sweep the ground slowly with metal detectors and the sun was high between the hills around us. On the train south from Danang I wrote perched on a bench greasy with years of use, the smell of old smoke and the carriages rocking like a boat at anchor.
One lunchtime at a cafe outside of town we perched on kindergarten sized chairs, and the children, delighted, fed the resident cats with their fingers and drank coke straight from the bottle. I still have a bottle opener from that trip, a thin piece of wood and two screws. It was made by a man who couldn’t speak. On it he wrote, “Hue 2011.” When you use it, the beer bottle tops fly off like insects.
I don’t often look at my notes after I have written them. I prefer to dwell within my own, less reliable memory of events. But the act of writing seems somehow vital to the process of remembering. At the moment I have three stashed around the house, all in various stages of completeness. Usually I write, sometimes I sketch (badly) and sometimes I just hold them open and wish that the words would fly through the air, stab themselves into the page and reflect the light, like a flight of tiny, silver arrows.
To help remember I also take photographs. On a conference trip to Japan I took photos of the train station signs so that, like Hansel and Gretel, I could find my way home again. In Medan, at a private library owned by a granddaughter of the sultan, we photographed page after page. Black and white photos of a city in which well fed white men in safari suits and women in lace dresses walk down streets filled with horse drawn dokars and jute wrapped bales of tobacco. I like to photograph insects and the kinds of plants that grow at the sides of roads and alongside drains. Reptiles too intrigue me, the pudgy, sticky feet of geckos and the luminescence of their skin.
I take photos of moments too. I finished the edits for Seeing the Elephant in the back of the horse truck at a competition. It was dusk and the horses were already rugged up against the night. Outside, the light was fading to amber and in the air the smell of barbecues and the sound of the dry wind in the stubble fields. Just before I saved the file and closed my laptop I took a photo of the words on the screen. It’s like a selfie of the inside of my own head, no longer naked and unedited but dressed up and ready for business.