Wide Ranging Q and A Session With John Duffy
John Duffy writes short fiction and poetry as a hobby. He studied at NUI Galway in Ireland where he completed his degree and MA. He has contributed to Abandoned Darlings, an anthology of fiction and poetry, The Georgia Straight and also to The Reading Life.
An electrician by trade, John lives in Vancouver, Canada. - author supplied data
The first time I read a story by John Duffy it was during my read through of Abandoned Darlings, a collection of writings by the 2011 and 2012 MA in Creative Writing classes at the National University of Ireland at Galway. His story was about a very dangerous bus trip through the Andes in Bolivia. These words sum up how I felt about Duffy's really well done story, "Death Road".
You might have seen a National Geographic Channel program about the terribly dangerous road through the Andes in Bolivia that the narrator in this story crosses in a bus ride sure to scare anyone out of their wits who is not from there. The first person speaker in this story is an Irishman out for an adventure in the wilds of South America and he happens to hook up with a beautiful and delightful sounding "French girl of Lebanese extraction". Some cynics say the reason the English conquered India was because they could do things and have adventures there that they could never do at home. I think that is part of the deeper theme of this very interesting marvelously cinematic story.
Since then I have had the honor of publishing three of his original short stories as well as a wide ranging Q and A session I recommend to all interested in short stories or Irish culture to read the Q and A session, from there you can link to his stories.
Today I am very pleased and honoured that John Duffy has entrusted me to share another of his stories on The Reading Life, “River of Life”. ( John Duffy is the exclusive owner of this story. As protected by international copyright law, this story cannot be republished in any format without his permission.)
I hope to follow his work for many years
River of life
By John Duffy
At the Chaltalan hotel the space was clean and white and the bedroom smelled like varnished walnut and cherry blossom flowers. It took a moment to recall the location and remember where I’d even come from. Deep sleep ensued throughout the night after several days travel on old busses along treacherous roads through the mountains. I went for a walk around the hotel and it was quiet enough at this place. Morning light streamed in from the bay windows lighting the tiled hallway and pictures inside the hand- made frames.
I wondered if I was the only person staying here. The receptionist lady showed me a living space where there was bread, cheese and fruit on a table. Beside the sink stood jars of tea and coffee.
‘The tour guide will be here at 11.’
After checking in, the evening before, I put my name down for a boat tour of the Lacuma River.
A mini-bus showed up outside with a few people in the back. The driver walked around front and introduced himself as Alejandro.
‘Let’s do this man.’
Such blind optimism for the unknown. I took a small back-pack with some clothes and a few possessions I had packed earlier and jumped in the back with the others. Alex said he was from Manchester and claimed to be a Man city fan, a true blue.
Stella and Beatrice were sisters from Holland and we spoke about Rotterdam, a city I was familiar with as I had lived there some years earlier.
‘Did you own a bicycle when you lived in Holland?’
We chatted about our travels thus far and what we expected from this journey down the Lacuma River.
After a while it was easier not to speak as we were thrown around the bus as it hit bumps and pot holes. There was a steel pole overhead so I held on to it. We went along out of town and soon we were on this dusty, dirt track and soon afterwards we were surrounded by vegetation and jungle growth of the interior. On the road again for sure.
After an hour or so we arrived at a boat launch dock by the river and climbed out of the vehicle. There were a few buildings there and some people working on boats and nets which were tied up by the river bank.
There are times, at outdoor lavatory facilities I use a foot to lower the toilet seat and that’s what happened here, except this time the seat slipped off my shoe and landed with a clatter on the toilet. There was an immediate buzzing sound overhead and I was set upon by a swarm of black wasps. There must have been a nest of them in the rafters. They flew down and attacked, dropping their payload of stingers into head and scalp primarily and when I attempted to swat them away, took more stings to the hands and arms. A vicious horror show for sure and such a searing panic I felt. The pain was sharp and spreading fast, head throbbing like never before. I ran outside and fell to my knees beside a muddy puddle of water and threw some of its contents over my head.
Mother of God.
There was a woman selling drinks and snacks at a stall nearby and I walked over to her in a daze. I don’t think I’ve ever been more attracted to Cola in my life. I bought three cans from her and slugged one of them back. I warned her of the hazard in the outhouse in my best broken Spanish.
Down at the river bank the people were loading bags onto the boat, a long wooden canoe-like vessel with an outboard engine at the back. I let Alejandro know what happened and he seemed indifferent about the incident. Shrugged his shoulders.
‘I don’t know if I should go on this trip. How long will the pain last?’ ‘Seven, eight hours,’ he replied.
I thought about it for a minute.
‘OK. I’ll go.’
We set off down river. Alejandro had another mate Ernesto to help him and once we were on our way, while his co-worker steered the boat by the engine handle at the back, Alejandro sat on the side of the vessel and picked through my hair and plucked some of the stingers out. A sound fellow he was.
It was amazing to be out and about on the meandering river, to hear the Toucan birds call and to see the macaw fly between the trees and see the water flow away from the boat in ripples, fresh water and thick vegetation along the banks of the river, deep green, and there were all these flowers wearing colours I’d never seen before.
After a while we pulled into the river bank alongside some tall trees. Alejandro stood up in the boat and made some whistling sounds. A squirrel monkey showed up at the end of a branch and then another monkey joined him. They had cute, round heads with yellow and black fur. They used their tails to swing among the branches. Slick, nimble movements. He peeled a banana and held the fruit out to the animal who promptly jumped on to the boat for a bite. Unreal. Soon there were more monkeys climbing in the
tree and before long there must have been six or seven of them jumping around inside the boat. We had a good laugh with them. Alejandro held the fruit over Beatrice and there were monkeys jumping all over her. Then he gave us some fruit to feed them.
We continued for another hour or so travelling down river. Then we came to a place where the river split in two and the anchor was dropped around this junction. Alejandro put some fishing gear together. The rig was a small block of wood with some gut wrapped around it. Towards the end of the line there were beads of shot and a piece of meat on a hook. He set up a few of these rigs and handed them around to us. I unwound the line and threw the bait into a pool by the trees. Beatrice and Alex were into some fish already and they brought them on to the boat, flapping about.
‘What are these?’ she asked.
‘Piranha,’ said Ernesto.
‘Are there any other type of fish here?’ ‘No. Just Piranha.’
I felt a bite and wrapped the line around the piece of wood and brought a fat piranha onto the boat. It had a flash of red about the gills. I took the hook out of its mouth. Alejandro had a hunter’s knife and he put the blade through the head of the fish. You could see its teeth.
‘Are we going to keep these?’ Alex asked.
‘This is supper,’ he replied.
‘Fair enough mate.’
After another hour or so moving down river we came to an area where the river was wider, the water was darker and moving more slowly. Alejandro dropped the anchor and spoke to the group,
‘Now we have come to my favourite part of the river. Here you might see some pink river dolphins. And, believe it or not, this part of the river is actually safe to swim in.’
When he said this I stripped to shorts and got ready for a dip. But I had to check with him once more before I jumped in. I had built up a certain trust in our captain at this stage of our journey so when he gave the nod I was gone front crawl up the centre of the river. While swimming I noticed a creature protrude from the water blowing air near the bank, then another further up river. Swimming with pink river dolphins. I could hardly believe it. All of my dreams of adventure were realized in a moment.
I could hear the girls calling from the boat.
‘What’s it like?’
‘It’s like this and that and ah. Jump in and find out.’
I turned over on my back to float. There were a few billowy clouds over head. Then Stella was in swimming and Alex as well, swimming around with the dolphins.
A few minutes later I felt something nibble at my leg, not a bite so much as a nibble but it was enough for me to keep swimming and make for the boat. What a lovely dip in the fresh water after all the stings and headaches. It gave a new lease of life.
We moved on again and after another hour or so on the water we approached our accommodation. Ernesto slowed the engine and turned the boat in towards the station. A plume of blue smoke rose up from the engine as it spluttered into a lower gear.
‘This is where we will stay tonight.’
There were some people waiting at the jetty to help us unload the boat. We pulled up alongside and the vessel was tied with rope. Our accommodation was a collection of cabins with a few generators hooked up outside them. There was light in the buildings and hot water which was a relief.
Later then, after we had settled in, we went for a game of football and met some local people. Not that the boys needed to be shown how to play soccer. The speed of these fellows running up the field and the passing was top drawer. Toe to big toe. The tourist team was down 4-0 after about ten minutes. Then they mixed up the teams and it was a better contest. A beautiful game.
Alex, the Man City boy is in the box, he swivels, he turns to shoot, bang, back of the net.
I was playing at midfield, threading passes through to our strikers, getting the tackles in to block the opposition runs. It was a clean game, full of skill and a load of fun.
Then later, back at base, there was something about the open fire, people’s voices nearby and the piranha roasting on the flames with the sloped forehead and teeth revealing themselves among the flickering shadows.
Alejandro went around the table with plates of salad and bread for everyone. This legend of a man. We couldn’t have done it without him.
It tasted like, well, piranha. It was A1 with a squeeze of lime.
Later, then I found a quiet spot in the trees near the hammocks as the sun was going down, watched this mosquito land on the leg of my pants, the grey stripe on its back, a healthy insect, stabilizing the ship, unleashing the lance, see if she can pierce through now, these worn combats from TK Maxx in London, Bing, felt something there alright, stay still as you can, don’t even let your heart beat, let her gorge, she’ll have a good night, flying through the trees on this concoction, down to the riverbank.
Wonder could they send a message. How are things with you? Or how I’d cheerfully tolerate the abuse just to feel your breath on my neck again.
‘Johan. You want to see something cool?’
Down to the river with Ernesto and Alex. We got into the boat and pushed it out with the oars.
Ernie had a flashlight and he pointed the light in under the braches.
‘Look. You see. The lights.’
There were little globes of light on the water. Then another set nearby.
Their eyes above the water line, bodies lurking underneath, four or five of them swimming about through the darkness.
‘That is cool. Should we go back now?’ ‘Sure.’
Nestled under a net amongst the trees somewhere. Drifting off. Wild sounds altogether from without, an epically wild chorus of croaking and chirping sounds, headlong through the tunnel, counting breaths. Thank you for the day Lord, for the people, the silent flow of the river nearby, distant voices carried over on a cooler breeze, shadows growing taller under stars.
This story is the exclusive property of John Duffy and cannot be republished in any format without his permission
I thank John Duffy for allowing me to share his work on The Reading Life