The ticket booth is sepia-coloured. The seller wears a beaked cap. His mouth hides behind a thick moustache. He tells me I can go on the steamboat or the train or even one after the other. As my sleeve brushes the counter, my fingers turn shades of pale grey. The gold pound coin falls from my hand and twenty silver shillings land in the centre of his square palm.
I step onto the platform. I look down and there is a newborn baby in my arms. There are black surgical pen marks tattooed all around his tiny cranium. The bosomy, wide-hipped woman who takes my tea-stained ticket looks at him admiringly. She does not see the oddity of his scars.
I board an open-top train and cling to the infant. Together we ride around the roof of a red-brick wool factory amidst an industrial landscape, over and over again.
The red-haired woman is very angry with her husband. She asked him to write a note, a sort of memo to the staff but he had done a very bad job of saying the right thing. The angry wife tells me to review the note and re-write it. Then she says lots of things that she does not like about her husband till my head hurts and I forget where I am.
I find the husband hiding at the back of the book shop between self-help and foreign languages. He is tall, lanky, nervous and has poor control of his limbs, as though he just grew into a man only moments ago and hasn’t quite got used to his new proportions. He is wearing a navy jumper over a sage green shirt, mustard yellow corduroy trousers and tan moccasins. His short, brown, utilitarian hair is reminiscent of schoolboy crops. I ask to see his note and he hands me a jar of puffed rice and it tumbles but I catch it before it smashes on the floor. He pulls a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and mops his brow.
I clutch the jar carefully to my chest and walk to the wooden bench in the window and take a pew on a wobbly stool. I dip a stainless steel dessert spoon in and eat a spoonful of puffed rice. It is coloured brown and seasoned with soya sauce and star anise. As I chew a mouthful, a sentence emerges from mist in my mind. Each grain of rice is a word and each spoonful I eat, a sentence. The saltiness of the rice is so tastily moreish that I gobble more and more. Words drop down my jumper and land on the floor and passers-by tread on them and as grains of rice crunch under boot heels and get stuck in shoe grooves and carried to the pavement, their meaning is shattered into tiny alphabet crumbs.
I eat over half the jar, almost the whole memo, till my belly swells and I undo my belt and top button before remembering with a final gulp of Asia’s grain, that I cannot edit a note if I eat it all. But how strange it is, I ponder, that crumbs are the alphabet and rice is words and mouthfuls are sentences and a full jar of rice is one complete, imperfect note.