Dinh's Journey

by Andrew Passey

Chapter 3

I woke up to banging on my door shouting to get up. I'd actually slept fine and it was the first time for who knows how long since I was able to actually sleep on a mattress. Admittedly it wasn;t the cleanest or most comfortable one ever but it could have been worse. At least the men had left me alone, up to now anyway.

Napping on the floor of a lorry or a minibus seat or even just sitting up in a filthy apartment had been all I'd got sleep wise and I hoped things would settle down for me. I was anxious about what would await me when I unlocked the door though. Were the men who drove me here going to rape me like others had? Did they have something worse for me planned like prostituting me out to anyone they liked?

It seemed the banging had only just finished when they opened the door and told me to hurry up. I stood up and tried not to be too grumpy. After all, I knew where that usually ended. A fist to the face or kick to the stomach. If I was lucky. If I was unlucky I might be bent over something as they...no. I didn't want to think about how often that had happened.

On this occasion I wouldn't say what they actually needed for me was a relief but it was certainly better than them using my body. As I came out of the tiny room I could see I was in a house where every room had been converted into growing something. I quickly realised it was cannabis growing under special lights. I had no experience of horticulture but it seemed from what they said that I would be in charge of making sure the plants didn't die. I was told in no uncertain terms that if the plants died things would go badly for me. There was barely any part of the house that wasn't used for growing plants. Just the room I'd slept in, a tiny toilet and a sink. Clearly there was no way of cooking food and the men told me that they would leave me enough food to survive.

It was made clear I wasn't to leave the house although as it seemed they would be locking me in then it didn't really matter. I couldn't get out but even if I could, where would I go? I was to be a slave working all hours to keep their cash crop alive. I was concerned that with all the electrical lights that being locked in was a potential death trap but I knew that they weren't going to just let me go outside. So it was what it was. I suppose it was better than the alternatives but I wasn't exactly going to be living my best life, whatever that was. It was just one of those things I had to do to survive.

The two men stayed with me for the first couple of days showing me what I needed to do. It all seemed so complicated. It wasn't just watering plants and letting them grow. There were strange powders and liquids that needed to be mixed together. They wrote down very rough instructions but I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I was a teenage boy who had no experience of this sort of thing and I was really worried I was being set up to fail, and face whatever those consequences would be.

I watched the men closely to try and learn as much as I could but by the time they left I wasn't feeling at all confident. They left me with a small amount of food before saying they would be back to check on the plants and bring me food in a couple of days.

Once they left life became the most tedious and challenging of routines. I had no idea if it was day or night due to the insulation used across the window and doors to prevent any light coming in. With no watch or phone time just passed in a strange other world feeling. Of course the lack of being able to tell how long I had been there had an unintended impact on the plants. If I needed to water them every few hours how did I know when that was if I had no access to telling the time?

As it was, it was complicated enough. All the mixing of the liquids and powders confused me. They needed to be diluted in lots of water and sometimes I knew I was getting it wrong. The men had shown me what to do but I kept messing it up. Watching someone else do it isn't the same when you're on your own and I wasn't exactly in the best physical or mental state as well. I'd arrived exhausted and broken which wasn't the best time to be trying to learn a new skill.

It didn't help that the liquids and powders were acrid smelling and made me choke. If I got too much on me it would burn slightly and I could tell it was toxic. I also had to be very careful around the big lamps. Touch one with a piece of skin and it would toast you very quickly. I soon had an array of little burns dotted around my body.

Every few evenings the men would come back bringing me food and checking on the plants. If they were unhappy they beat me which happened often. I wasn't killing the plants but they weren't growing as much as they wanted. Logically punching me wasn't going to make them grow any larger but it seemed to make the men feel better even if it made me feel worse. They were dark times for me. But then again when wasn't a dark time for me? I supposed in Can Tho I was being raped by the son of the chief police all the time but I also did get to go to school and learn things. I got to make friends, have fun, laugh, and play. Yes my evenings were tough but I had some semblance of freedom. Not here though. Here I was just imprisoned seemingly forever in this house. Never to leave, never to have fun and certainly no friends to be made.

In the end whether due to my incompetence or for another reason the men decided I was to be moved to another house. I couldn't blame them as I wasn't doing a great job with the plants but would anybody? Maybe they were asking the impossible. In my defence I had no idea what I was doing apart from the basic overview they'd shown me. Still, at least I was safe there and I had no idea where I was heading next as they bundled me into a car.

I was nervous as we drove for a while to a different town. Again I wasn't really sure where we were. I saw the odd road sign but they didn't really make sense. We turned off into a nice looking suburban street and I was bundled inside again under cover of darkness.

It was another cannabis growing operation but this time I wasn't to be alone as there was a boy already working there. He didn't look particularly pleased to see me. He looked a year or two older than me and at first glance seemed even more broken.

His name was Bao and he was clearly fearful of the men. With good reason due to their penchant for violence as a punishment for poor plant growth. The men left me with Bao and told me to get better at the growing "or else".

I could tell Bao had more experience than me as he mixed the liquids and powders with more competence than I did. His plants looked a lot bushier than the ones I left behind. He'd work in silence and wouldn't talk aside from giving instructions to me when he needed to. I learnt a lot from him and it just showed how much easier it was when there were two of you working together.

It was dangerous work for us both though and there was even less room here than there was in my previous house. Burns were common as we squeezed past the hot lights. We didn't have protective clothing so our skin continued to become pockmarked with chemical splashes as well. Like before we were living in squalor. The plants were clearly much more important than we were. They got all the space, we got the bare minimum. There was a solitary mattress in the corner of one of the growing rooms where we could take turns to sleep. Aside from that though it was just the grind of keeping the plants alive while not trying to kill ourselves at the same time. At least we had access to a small toilet and it wasn't totally uncommon for one of us to fall asleep on it due to exhaustion. There was also the world's smallest shower in the under stairs cupboard. Even though I wasn't adult size at all I still had to stoop down in there. I guess the only reason it was there was because the space was too small for plants!

I'd been there a few weeks I think when I started to feel I was on top of the horticulture project. It was still hard to work out the passage of time due to having no natural light but the constant watering and monitoring of the plants gave a certain amount of structure. Up to now Bao would just tell me what to do and not communicate aside from that.

However after a while he seemed to warm to me slightly. Then out of the blue one day he asked me a question. "So Dinh what is your story?"

We had a lot of time on our hands as we worked so it wasn't like I had to get a rushed account. I told him I was from the Mekong Delta and gave him an abridged version of my life there. Then it was the hard part of my journey and I couldn't manage to tell him. So I started with my "Picture a dark and dangerous world, inhabited by demons and monsters" story. When I finished he looked at me sympathetically.

"It's hard to tell someone exactly what happened to you. The pain, the humiliation, the embarrassment, the wanting your life to end. I understand why you have made it sound like you have. It can help. So you made it here, what happened then?"

I told Bao about the growing of cannabis and eventually ending up here. Then I turned to him and asked the question I really wanted the answer to.

"And what is your story Bao?"

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