Foreigner by Ken Head

November 23, 2014

At this time of year the tour buses arrive early, while it’s still cool. Today, the first are there before he’s finished his coffee, before the street-cleaners have swept and hosed the pavement in front of his building. From the window, he watches the drivers edge their vehicles into place under the plane trees still shading one side of the coach park. Next stop, the food stall, a cigarette, then a snooze on the back seat with the air-con running.

By mid-morning, though, they’ll be gone, so the tourists, mostly interested in seeing the cathedral, being photographed outside it and buying souvenirs from the shop, don’t have time to linger. In a steady stream, backpacking, camera-toting, chattering into their ’phones, full of the joys of affluence, they cross the river by the new footbridge put there to save them a walk through town and wait near the café on the corner for their guide and the back-markers to catch up.

It’s as if they’re gatecrashing, visiting on a raid, impatient to get what they’ve paid for, ticking off items on their wish-list one by one, competitive, dead set on missing nothing. Watching them, noticing how noisy they are, how brash, he wonders if he behaved the same way when he arrived, a self-important stranger adrift between lives, sensation-seeking, trawling the surface of a world he thought he could handle but didn’t understand, scurrying around in circles like a bewildered ant.

Memory says he did. Later, when he’s been to the market, he’ll see them again, footsore probably, because going back has a way of seeming harder. Ready for a drink, too, and to be out of the heat for a while. If he hears anyone speaking his mother tongue, though, he’ll ignore them, he’s already decided that, because the part of his mind that knows he has to go further never stops explaining how much further there is to go.

Although resident in South East Asia for a good many years, Ken Head, who is married and has two children, now lives in Cambridge, England, where he was, but is no longer, a teacher of Philosophy and English Literature. His work, as author, poet and reviewer, appears regularly both online and in print. 2013 saw the publication of Prospero’s Bowl, his most recent poetry collection.