Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (5)

Blake compliantly toned down his rhetoric, nodding an apology to the maître d’ while continuing his now hushed diatribe against the unfortunate American who happened to be his boss. Across the table, his mentor’s mind began to drift off. John had heard Blake rant like this before, even if his friend was presently having to spit his tirade through whispered tones. He gulped down another glass of what was now surely the world’s most expensive mouthwash: the balance of its exquisite texture lost upon the palates of this pair of viticultural Philistines. Cutting through his medium-rare USDA sirloin while his thoughts wandered elsewhere – perhaps to the afternoon’s intended massage – John nodded politely from time to time as Blake continued to babble, his protégé becoming less and less coherent with each slurred phrase until… finally…

“Adam!” John was instantly up and out of his seat, still clutching his napkin while rushing around to the other side of the table, where Blake was now sprawled on the floor, unconscious, having keeled over sideways. The tablecloth and half its contents had been pulled with him, so that the Valuri Doyle executive was now surrounded by the debris of his plate, a portion of his lunch, some cutlery and various other items that had once occupied the table top. In the surprised stillness that followed, the diners close by gaped at him in silence. A number of whispers then quickly began to be heard – concerns for the condition of a man most knew as a Brasserie regular: and someone who was generally liked, despite his lush vocabulary.

“Get a doctor!” John suddenly yelled, to no one in particular. He stooped at once to check his friend’s pulse: praying that he was still alive, not having succumbed to a fate of which many his age were prone. But his anxiety was allayed when, within moments, a sweaty and pale-looking Blake stirred and was quickly, if unsteadily, back on his feet – falling groggily into his chair with a waiter’s assistance, while blubbering his apologies to anyone he was able to focus upon. Now that he had begun to recover, his entreaties met justifiably with universal scorn from the gallery of diners that leered at him, as the fleet-of-foot maître d’ took the opportunity to present an uncalled-for bill. Pleading with his eyes for help in getting Blake out of the establishment, PDQ, the man appealed for John’s understanding. The drunk’s predicament was, after all, of his own doing – as his earlier lewd behaviour had evidenced. There was little sympathy to be gained, here.

“The hotel doctor will see the gentleman in the lobby downstairs,” the headwaiter affirmed, continuing to press his case for their forced relocation. “I can bring the bill there, if you wish.” John Barnes offered a sympathetic nod, whilst heading for the exit. Cautiously, the party moved through the restaurant, Blake propped up on one side by a junior waiter, a young man happy to play his cameo role in the lunchtime drama that had unexpectedly unfolded. Two or three tables then suffered minor infractions as the sole contestant in this impromptu three-legged race cavorted its way to the finish line, in this case the elevator lobby.

Once downstairs and out into the painfully bright sunlight, John hailed a cab with the help of Arjun, the Conrad’s Indian concierge – a genial man for whom nothing ever seemed to be too much trouble. “To where are you intending to travel, sir?” he asked, in the manner that only those emanating from the subcontinent can: a classic shake of his head in accompaniment. It could have been a scene worthy of A Passage To India, were it not for the sorry bundle propped against John’s strong shoulder. A consummate professional, the tall Sikh completely ignored Blake’s woefully incapacitated state. “Ferry pier number three,” John replied. “Saam ho ma tau,” the concierge at once repeated the unlikely couple’s intended destination – this time in Cantonese, to the indifferent cab driver.

posted by Kirk at 6:56 am  

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (24)

They collapsed into each other, father and son, both a mess for the same and yet different reasons. Knocking aside a number of chairs around the boardroom table in a graceless but touching waltz, they fell eventually in a heap on to the floor, both sobbing like babies. A few minutes later first the son, and then the father, had recovered sufficiently to utter some simple words of reconciliation. Regrets of a type that would be familiar within most relationships, but which in this instance the pair were mutually offering for just about the first time. “I’m so very sorry, Bapak,” Daman was first to offer his stilted confession. “My boy. My poor, poor boy… please forgive me,” his exhausted father replied.

The old man called for drinks, which were promptly delivered by his ever-willing secretary – a middle-aged lady who had kept a twinkle in her eye for ’Pak Bambang’s son ever since his first visit to the plantation. But the woman did not linger today, or pause for small talk, sensing that some unfinished business was still hovering in the uneasy atmosphere of the room. Now that a relative calm had been restored, father and son sat beside each other at the boardroom table, the strong emotions occasioned by the morning’s startling developments momentarily washed away by the flood of their tears. With a hand resting on one of his son’s, ’Pak Bambang then began to relate the terms of the agreement he had reached with the village elders.

“She’s pregnant, son,” he opened softly, the cushioned words nonetheless smacking into Daman like an avalanche. The young man felt instantly as though something had tilted the gyroscopes inside his mind; it was as if a trap-door had sprung open beneath, leaving him free-falling through the seat of his chair and further, down through space into a deep, dark well… Falling… falling through the dark… a blind panic consuming his entire body. “Fathe–” he eventually managed to exhale, the word catching in his throat, causing him to gasp for air. “Wait. Let me talk,” ’Pak Bambang interrupted, his voice firmer now. “You must move away from here, son. And stay away until this all blows over,” he continued, imposingly. For there was to be no further negotiation today. “You are to return to your education – get another degree. Perhaps go abroad for a while, before we think again about what is best for your future. It is on condition that you leave the plantation and are never again seen in this vicinity that the girl will be allowed to keep the baby. I will make regular payments to ensure the upkeep and well-being of mother and chil…”

But the father then tailed off, truncating his reiteration of the morning’s events. For Daman was already rushing from the boardroom, a dizzying nausea flowing through his head as he tried to swim against its strong current. A sweetly acrid bile crept up from his throat and on to the back of his tongue, forcing him to swallow repeatedly, to no avail. He ran from the building and out through the gates, turning heads as he wind-milled his way along the path towards the fields of tall grass surrounding the compound. Eventually, he came to a halt beside the dirt track that skirted the neat rows of oil palm. Bent double, exhausted, Daman retched up a pool of sticky yellow fluid before collapsing into the grass, his head buried in the ground, eyes swollen and shedding tears of devastation at what his father had revealed. His insides screeched their sheer frustration at the helplessness of his situation.

It was just as well, then, that his father had been prevented from explaining another of the aspects of the deal he had been forced to strike. That the plantation would henceforth be sharing a chunk of its profits with the village council. And that what was left of this… munificent benefaction… after the elders had allocated an appropriate amount for their ‘expenses’… was to be channelled into a new school project – an institution based upon the teachings of Islam, the region’s dominant religion. A superior and well-equipped academy to which, ’Pak Bambang had further agreed under duress, the child who would soon be born his illegitimate grandson, would never have access.

posted by Kirk at 6:02 am  

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (4)

Blake’s head was pounding as he rattled the receiver back into its cradle, having just endured another dressing down from his American superior, this time over some trivial point the jerk considered so important. The guy rarely drank at all – and never to oblivion. Presumably he had no comprehension, therefore, of the crippling hangover that was battering the inside of Blake’s skull, jack-hammering its way through brittle bone, from inside to out. Fucking Septic, he thought, irritably. What the fuck is wrong with these people? Why don’t they get a fucking life? At times like this, Blake wished he was a smoker; but he had never taken up the habit, wisely following his father’s stern advice. Pausing for a moment, he reflected on the old man, no longer wafting nicotine but perched now upon another type of cloud.

Blake snatched up the receiver again, to call a close friend at one of his firm’s suppliers. It was time to arrange a therapeutic – and expensive – lunch. John was a good listener – and a pragmatist, too. A Grand Master in the game of corporate chess. He would no doubt have some suggestions as to how Blake could tame the lamebrain Yank. Tame the lame – he chuckled at that. The Septic would get his re-worked spreadsheets all right, but only after he and John had downed a substantial quantity of Grange at the Conrad’s Brasserie. “I’m off,” he called behind to his secretary, lifting his jacket from a hanger in the closet, before pressing the button to release the rear exit lock. The woman said nothing in return, simply offering a knowing look as his back disappeared through the door. She wondered what time he would return this afternoon – if at all – and how, in his prolonged absence, she would once more find the excuses to fend off those who would inevitably be seeking after him. Lately, Blake had begun using the firm’s rear door more regularly. It enabled him to avoid walking through the main office, where a hundred pairs of eyes would register him leaving early for lunch, yet again. More importantly, the short distance between his spacious quarters and this portal was much easier to navigate on those rare occasions he did in fact return – when he would simply close his door and spend the rest of the afternoon surfing the net.

Blake was clearly a fish out of water – someone who would instinctively flick to the sports pages of The Morning Post, rather than lust after the business section. Intelligent but unwilling to play the game that was necessary to support his lifestyle, he knew instinctively that he was on a short fuse – that some kind of explosion was imminent. There was little he had not done to try and forestall what he sensed was coming. But all the hints he had dropped about a change of role – the ideas he proposed for a re-shuffle that would see the deck of cards dealt a more efficacious way, giving him and certain colleagues different but more suitable positions – had flown straight over the head of the one-dimensional American executive that supposedly ran the continent of Asia on behalf of Valuri Doyle, Blake’s employer.

“He’s a fucking idiot,” Blake insisted, crunching through a soft-shelled crab. John nodded patiently, imbibing deeply from his glass in order to flush down an oyster, lifted earlier from the salad bar. “Adam: it’s all a game,” he said, calmly. “You’ve just got to stay in it – don’t let him beat you.” The shapely waitress smiled in recognition of the pair whilst topping up their glasses, far too eagerly. But while she was no trained sommelier, she certainly provided an attractive backdrop to their conversation. The girl was overly familiar, however, transgressing all normal dining protocols in what should have been a formal setting. Blake was a regular, though, and the waitress well-versed in his style. She knew from experience that he would soon order another bottle of Australia’s answer to the finest claret – a wine sufficiently expensive that she would in all likelihood never have the opportunity to savour it for herself. This regular Brasserie diner would then become increasingly chatty: something she would encourage, right up to the moment he slipped her a tip that was out of all proportion to the value of her service – when her flirting would suddenly stop. A leg man, Blake thought silently, contemplating her shapely calves and judging the preferences of whoever it was that selected her for employment. Like me, he reminded himself, through the haze that was beginning to envelop his woozy head.

As Blake continued to top up the level of alcohol in his blood, his exact whereabouts began to blur in his mind, such that he could have been sitting in any one of a dozen or so regular lunchtime haunts. His peripheral vision had completely disappeared and as a result he leaned forward into the table for reassurance, gesticulating animatedly in emphasis of every point he made. Unaware that he had racked up the volume several notches, his conversation could now be overheard throughout the restaurant, and was littered with expletives. Whilst trying to remain supportive, his ally across the table, meanwhile, continued to counsel caution. “I’m going to fucking well have it out with the wanker. This afternoon,” Blake insisted, ramming his finger into the tabletop as he raised a glass to his lips yet again. “You should do that at some point, Adam,” his mentor replied. “But you might want to wait until you can express a more… er… considered position. You don’t want to give this guy any ammunition.” “I can’t wait any longer. The cunt’s driving me crazy!”

At this last exclamation, the olive-skinned maître d’ sidled over and quietly whispered something in Blake’s ear. Apparently, there had been a complaint about the colour of his language. “Bollocks! Who the fuck does he think he is? Some snotty-nosed banker is it? Bollocks!” “I’m sorry, sir, but actually he’s a judge,” the swarthy headwaiter advised. “And he’s lunching with his wife. She’s a little… er… starchy, sir, if my English is correct. I do hope you understand.”

posted by Kirk at 5:10 am  

Monday, January 14, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (23)

Captain Farid glared across the table at Yudi, seething with envy at the contented smile on his kid brother’s face. The Major’s two sons were busy stealing territory from each other, alternately wrapping their arms around their grandfather’s neck, vying for the old man’s affection. The scene, oft repeated, made Farid sick to the stomach – further steeling his resolve to make his dreadful and ill-conceived mark. What did I ever do that was so bad, so wrong… so utterly unforgiveable… that I deserve this… this constant humiliation? he seethed, inwardly. Sitting immediately to his left, his wife was busy trading the usual, pathetic small-talk about the price of this, the price of that, who’d done what and who hadn’t with anyone who was willing to listen: petty gossip that irritated him such that he had, on a number of occasions, narrowly fought off the compulsion to put a loaded gun to her head. Unwittingly, he chuckled aloud at this thought, his spirits lifted for the second time today – just as they were when he had goaded the peasant kid, outside.

But today there was something else on the Captain’s mind, as he sat ignoring his food in the bustling arena of Sate Blora’s main dining hall. He was beginning to feel distinctly bothered by this prick of a Detective who had recently had the audacity – no: stupidity, he consoled himself – to enter the fray and start throwing his weight around. Who the fuck would have the temerity to try and threaten me, if they knew what I’m capable of? the Captain now thought, testily. To insinuate that I had better sit down like a good little boy and have a quiet chat – for my own good? The sheer fucking impertinence of it!A few days earlier, when the smart-arsed Dick had approached him in the Duta Satya and insisted he did just that, there had been only one reason the Captain had not taken him out, right there and then. And that was his complete and utter surprise. The Detective’s approach had been so totally unexpected that he was too shocked to think of a retort: to conjure what he now wished had been a cutting riposte in dismissal of the anjing’s unbelievable impudence. But Captain Farid was a man simply unused to insubordination – this sort of thing never happened to him. I’ll show the fucking upstart who’s in control of this situation, he began to reassure himself. He’s going to regret he ever–

Sensing momentarily that his father was staring at him he abruptly threw a downward glance, noticing that the fork he had been playing with, somewhat absently, was now bent double in his hands, forming a neat u-shape. He straightened it out slowly, careful not to snap it in two, while offering the General a sheepish half-grin, his eyebrows raised in a strangely comical arch that stretched across his forehead. Deep inside, beneath the curious veneer his assembled features now projected, the Captain’s vengeful thoughts remained focused upon the Detective. And in particular, the stare the cocky sisterfucker had cast in his direction, on the flight back from Yogya to Jakarta. Does this jerk really think he can take me on? Farid simply could not believe it. Especially now that he had returned the Detective’s so-called ‘message’ with interest – in the form of two bodies. Never again will that piece of dog shit be able to betray me, he thought, recalling the score he had settled with his driver. Fucking Judas got what he deserved!

And as for that bitch hooker

For a fleeting moment, the Captain allowed himself a contented sigh. Part of him was indeed beginning to sense that he had gained the upper hand. But this annoying ass-hole of a Detective kept nagging away at him, like a pebble in his shoe. What fazed him most was the persistence and energy of the guy’s seemingly relentless pursuit. He began to wonder what the Dick’s next move would be – whether he had something else up his sleeve. For although he was aware that his illicit arms trading had been exposed, this did not particularly trouble the Captain. There had never been a paper trail – no written evidence that could be turned up in court, or used to entrap him. No: it would be one man’s word against another – a stand off he was confident of winning. In any event, he further consoled himself, he was planning to put the Detective to sleep at the next available opportunity.

But the real question was what else the bastard knew and, more importantly, whether he had shared this information with anyone.

The Captain needed to know this, before he killed him.

posted by Kirk at 2:49 am  

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (3)

Kate was relieved to make it to the team gathering in time for the six-fifty ferry to the Island, settling sufficiently by the time they reached the courts at Victoria Park to play her part in a narrow doubles win. Overall, the team was victorious, too – winning by a single match in a hard-fought tie. Now returning together on the ferry, the group celebrated “B”-String’s excellent start to the season with a round of large vodka-Red Bulls. Kate sat next to Tommy, her coach, who managed the team well but was now doing a poor job of maintaining his self-discipline. The super fit athlete simply could not stop his blue-eyed gaze from constantly surveying the rich topography of the beauty sat beside him. Scanning up and down her tanned and shapely legs, he reminded her that they had a date the next afternoon: “Don’t forget your lesson tomorrow.”

As if she would.

This guy is not just Adonis, he’s the Donis, she began thinking to herself, smiling contentedly as the vodka smashed its way through the neurons in her brain. Feeling tipsy as much with the euphoria of her victory as with alcohol, she slurred her reply: “Of course I won’t. But I’ve been thinking. Can we make it a bit later than usual?” “What time?” Tommy asked. “Well, what time is your last lesson, normally?” “Nine-thirty – why?” “Can I take that slot tomorrow?” “That’s usually Rob Porter’s slot. I’ll have to check if he can re-schedule. I’ll get back to you.” He smiled at her as they then touched their plastic beakers together. That’s a bit late for the mother of a young girl to be out gallivanting, isn’t it? he thought, mischievously. “You did well tonight,” he then reaffirmed, while inside his mind another idea was beginning to germinate. Is this what I think it is? he wondered.

For Tommy the tennis pro was something of a sniffer dog, and always in the hunt for an opportunity such as the curvaceous, if somewhat mature, Kate.

posted by Kirk at 10:10 pm  

Friday, January 11, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (22)

Daman had only ever known the kindly, generous bear of a man that was the persona his father always projected. And so when he was summoned by telephone to the boardroom for an urgent, unscheduled meeting the terse, aggressive language ’Pak Bambang spat into the mouthpiece had caused him considerable disquiet. What had happened that could so drastically alter his father’s ordinarily gentle and easy-going manner, sending him spiralling down into a mood so dark that he would speak to his son like this? As he approached the boardroom expecting news of some calamitous or otherwise adverse business development, he saw from a distance that the old man was pacing back and forth in front of its large, floor-to-ceiling double doors of solid teak. For the first time, Daman began to feel a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. A surge of dread that this meeting might not, after all, be connected with the oil palm business, but something else altogether. Something that involved his daily excursions to the edge of the Kampung. Thinking quickly, he sought reassurance by reminding himself that he had tried for some time now to find a way to broach with his father the subject of his burgeoning love for Ramani, never quite managing to engineer the opportunity, or compose the words in a way that might lead to the old man’s acceptance.

Knowing the extent of his parent’s aspirations for him, Daman was afraid that any suggestion of what was, by now, his intended betrothal to an uneducated peasant girl would be rebutted point-blank. He was also aware they would never permit an illicit affair, for this would transgress God’s laws. Thus, to expose his love for Ramani at this stage would amount to an all-or-nothing gamble: a risk he was not yet willing to take. So as he crept ever more nervously towards his father’s suite of rooms the young graduate, still feeling his way in the world for what was essentially the first time, had every right to feel apprehensive. And his instincts on this occasion were quickly confirmed when, as he neared his father, he sensed immediately the fierce rage that was burning inside him. Daman had scarcely let out a word of greeting when – shockingly – he was physically grabbed by his father and sent crashing through the boardroom doors, which the old man then slammed loudly behind them.

What the fuck have you done?” he screamed at him, a droplet of bile spat from his mouth catching Daman on one cheek. It was the first time the son could remember a profanity leave his principled father’s lips and it left him cold, and trembling. “What were you thinking? Masya’allah! Are you trying to ruin your whole life, bodoh?” Bellowing into the silence of the unnecessarily cavernous meeting room, his words resonating in the heavy air, the old man’s rage tore at his vocal chords. His pulse surged, the blood pumping under such pressure that his eyes began to bulge, seemingly willing to leap from his swollen, flushed face. Tears of anger now streamed from their sockets, flowing in rivulets down his cheeks, the product of unbridled fury mixed with love of a type and intensity that may be felt only by a parent for his child.

For Daman, this onslaught represented a pivotal moment in his life – perhaps the very instant he became a man. He knew at once that the special relationship he had hitherto enjoyed with his mentor – the man he loved with all his heart and looked up to as a model of integrity, and success – was over. Gone, forever. “Fathe–” he began to plead, desperate now to atone for his transgressions in the grass beneath the rustling canopy of the trees, to pretend that the clock could be turned back – that he could have another chance, this time behaving with more control, acting less with the haste of the infatuated, the lustful. But Daman was harshly interrupted. “Shut up! Shut up I say! What have you done, my son? How will we overcome this…this impossible situation?” The old man then slumped back into a boardroom chair, looking ten years older than he had earlier the same morning, and buried his face in his hands.

posted by Kirk at 5:57 am  

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (2)

Blake alighted from the ferry into the throng of the Cape’s piazza, where groups of revellers were already drinking – as they would be long into the night – dissolving the day’s frustrations. “Adam!” called out an acquaintance, pint in hand. The man was among a group standing around one of the large waste bins in front of a bottle shop. “Come on over, mate! Join us for a drink!”

Half-reluctantly, he diverted across to link up with them, keen to preserve his reputation for socialising but also aware that he had promised his wife he would return home early this evening. Kate was a keen tennis player, tonight playing her first match for Sunny Cape Resident’s Club “B”-string. Her game had improved significantly since she started taking lessons from Tommy, the Club’s Australian tennis pro, gaining her selection to the Club’s second team. Tonight’s tie would be played on Hong Kong Island, which meant she would need to join her team-mates at the pier before taking the ferry in the opposite direction to which Blake had just travelled. He was aware that she felt nervous on this, the first occasion she would represent the Cape and had promised himself he would get back to the apartment on time. That will at least allow her to relax in the knowledge that I’m taking care of Sophie, he had figured. Then she’ll be able to concentrate on her game.

He was disappointed with himself, then, when leaning against the bin clutching his third large gin and tonic, that he happened to glance at his watch and find that he was already an hour late. Blake took his cell-phone from his pocket and grimaced as he registered the eighteen missed calls, all from ‘Home’. Why did I switch the damn thing to ‘silent’ mode? he cursed inwardly, before remembering that he had done this in order to avoid any further irritating calls from London. His handset had also recorded several voicemail messages, to which he listened in turn – quickly truncating most, as Kate’s initially pleasant requests for him to call gradually descended into a fiery diatribe. She had guessed exactly where he was and what he was doing, he learned from the last, to which he was still listening as she then rounded the corner clutching the hand of their seven-year-old daughter. Already dressed for tennis, the shapeliness of Kate’s legs was very much in evidence.

“I’m late,” she said harshly, flashing him an angry look as she dropped her sports bag to the ground, off a shoulder. She bent down to attend to Sophie, who was still clasping her mother’s hand. “OK, sweetie?” she said to the pretty young girl, hugging her at the same time. “Mummy will see you in the morning. Daddy’s going to make your dinner and then put you to bed with a story, all right?” “Yes Mummy, but will you kiss me goodnight when you get back, even if I’m already asleep?” “Of course I will, sweetheart.” She pecked her daughter’s forehead before grabbing her bag and casting another frown in Blake’s direction. His friends around the waste bin leered at her, bleary-eyed and belching, unashamedly sizing up her slender and carefully maintained figure. For indeed, Kate truly was a stunner for her age. Without a further word she then moved smartly off, in the direction of the pier, turning after a few paces to smile and wave another brief cheerio to her daughter. “Darling…” Blake implored, calling out after her. But Kate had gone, not wishing to engage him, tired of the excuses she had heard him repeat so many times before, and sick of his apparent descent into alcoholism.

And it was true: Blake’s character had changed lately, for the worse. Partly because of work-related stress, but also as a result of the cure he had prescribed for himself: hitting the bottle, big time. She’s right, he now thought. I’ve got to stop doing this. I’ve got a family and career to think about. “Daddy, what’s for dinner?” his daughter suddenly asked, jolting him from his daze. “Mmmm… Let me see… Shall we go and sit at Hemingway’s?” he suggested. “You can watch the Wonderland fireworks while we eat.” “Yay!” Sophie squealed, leaping up and down excitedly. “I love Hemminways!”

They ate in near silence, his daughter picking at her food while playing with the dolls her mother allowed her to bring from the apartment, not knowing as they left how much time they would need to kill before locating him. Blake, meanwhile, was falling down what had lately become a familiar hole. Pushing the food around his plate, he was unable to eat heartily because of his alcohol infusion, but was pouring more liquid down his throat nonetheless. He knew that later in the evening he would crave for junk food, when his resolve to eat healthily would once again fail, leading him to order a take-out kebab, or pizza. As the uninspiring firework display reached another forgettable climax, Sophie was ending her meal with a large ice-cream, despite insisting that she was really full-up, Daddy just a moment earlier. The food on Blake’s plate remained largely untouched. He called for the bill and then put his platinum Amex on top of it, racking up another charge to the card, which now seemed to suck away half his wages at the end of each month. These days he dreaded looking at his on-line statement, especially if Kate had been on one of her shopping expeditions, which were now more regular than when they first came out East. She’s bored, he thought to himself. That’s what the spending’s all about.

The problem being, it was his money she was squandering. Since quitting her secretarial job in England to move with him to Hong Kong, Kate had never sought employment, whilst her spending habits had, if anything, become more extravagant. It was not that Blake objected to her having the things she wanted, but that she always paid top dollar in the malls of Hong Kong’s Central District. He knew that a short train ride to Shenzhen in China’s southern-most province of Guangdong would ensure the money went much further, as he had demonstrated by going there himself, to buy a set of Callaways. The golf clubs had cost the equivalent of a little over a hundred US dollars, bag included. But although he had encouraged her to follow his example, she objected on the grounds that to knowingly purchase fake designer merchandise was, strictly speaking, illegal. As bad as the manufacturers who produced it, she insisted. He sensed, however, that this was not the real reason for her reluctance to cross the border; that it was instead her instinctive dislike of Chinese men – and more particularly the way they gawked at her blonde features – that confined her shopping sprees to the expensive Island malls.

posted by Kirk at 11:31 pm  

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (21)

The procession crept slowly through the tall grass, treading nervously as if on a tiger hunt, before mounting the raised bank that ran alongside the paddy. Slopping through the odd puddle atop the muddy way, its seven members continued to make faltering progress en route to their intended destination: the plantation. At the head of the column, the two most senior Kampung elders walked side-by-side, their expressions moulded in the grim severity only the God-fearing can muster. Keeping as much distance between them as she could maintain without accusation of effrontery, Ramani followed behind, reluctant to associate too closely with those who had passed sentence upon her. Bowed but undefeated, a steady resolve kept within her heart, this beautiful would-be bride wore a mask of cool composure. But beneath her stoical expression anxiety nevertheless lurked, for there was one aspect of the deal the elders were determined to strike upon which there could be no negotiation. The living, kicking thing inside her. It terrified her to consider the possibility that there might be those among the party willing to sacrifice her baby: perhaps through adoption at birth, or something altogether worse. And in this latter scenario, she would not even be able to afford the luxury of threatening suicide before this could happen. For perhaps the first time in her life, Ramani felt truly vulnerable – unable to visualise an escape route. Daman, my love, where are you? The thought of her lover once more restored some confidence. Whatever else, she decided, her baby would live.

At Ramani’s back trudged her miserable, guilt-ridden parents: the betrayers she would in time forgive. Too weak to stand up for her at a time she most needed their support, they were now wishing they could have summoned the strength to offer their daughter better protection. Behind them, two witnesses selected from amongst the ordinary village folk brought up the rear. Viewed from afar it might have seemed that the party was weaving its way towards some joyous occasion, but this was no wedding procession and there were no garlands of flowers around their necks, no petals of melati cast before the feet of the child-bride and no handsome suitor awaiting her at the end of the march. The weather, too, was befitting the occasion – offering not a thunderous downpour in judgment of her crime, nor the sun’s radiant blessing. Instead, a mild drizzle came and went, seemingly unsure of whether to attend the full programme of events that were planned for the day.

It was an unusual sight, then, that confronted the plantation’s gatekeeper as he followed the column’s snaking approach over its last few hundred yards. Coming to a halt at the main gate one of the elders, whom the security officer knew well, stepped forward and delivered the party’s simple request – no, demand – that they were granted an audience with the owner. Immediately. After a brief telephone exchange between the gatepost and the office, the party was then permitted to enter the compound, whereupon they were escorted to the main building. Once inside, the grim-faced elders were ushered into the private suite of rooms occupied by ‘Pak Bambang himself. The others remained seated without, in a small antechamber.

As she sat in the relative quiet of the dreary waiting room, Ramani felt the ebb and flow of a tide of conflicting emotions. First, a fear of the unknown: of the deal that was assuredly being struck inside, through the muffled exchange of bid and counter-bid. And whilst she could not decipher with any degree of precision the words that were uttered, she could sense with some clarity the emotion they conveyed. Behind the door, a sequence of loud and aggressive barks were calmly, systematically being fended off with patient and conciliatory counter-tones, the texture of which, she now detected, resonated with more than just a trace of her lover’s deep baritone. However, it was not Daman who faced down the aggressors inside the boardroom, but his father – ‘Pak Bambang – from whom she now realised he had inherited a number of traits. Ramani began to relax: if the father were anything like the son, then her destiny was in safe hands. But at once a feeling of anger swept over her. Anger that this conversation was taking place entirely without her involvement, with no consideration for her feelings. Anger that decisions would be made with complete disregard for any input she might wish to make. But before this emotion could firmly take hold, a rush of something altogether more positive – excitement, even – engulfed her, as she realised that her lover was close – somewhere in this building, perhaps. Or at least within the compound, nearby. Come now, my sweet… Take me away from all this… she dreamt, ruefully.

And it was the sense of Daman’s proximity that ushered in the final and strongest of her emotions as she sat in the quiet unease of the room, resolutely awaiting her fate. For his near-presence engendered in her a determined resolve that whatever else – whatever other sacrifices had to be made – there was one thing she was never going to allow. No, Ramani was going to keep her baby – come hell or high water. And that was non-negotiable.

The noise from inside the boardroom had already diminished when suddenly, after what seemed an eternity, the handle of the antechamber’s door turned sharply and the two elders emerged, wearing satisfied looks. It was immediately clear to those present that they had gained all – or most – of what they had come for. Without uttering a word to Ramani, or even acknowledging her presence, they nodded a simple gesture of affirmation to her parents and then filed past the waiting party, before exiting through the door. Heads bowed, her parents stood and meekly beckoned her to follow, an instruction she dutifully obeyed despite her quiet rage. And once more, the two silent villagers made up the rear of the party as it traipsed down a single flight of stairs and stepped outside into fresh spots of rain that fell like tears from the grey canopy of the sky. Politely thanking the gatekeeper as they left the compound, Ramani then trudged without enthusiasm back to the village with the rest of the party, by the same route as they had come.

posted by Kirk at 3:49 am  

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (1)

The fiery orb of the sun began to dip in the late afternoon sky, while radiating a hazy glow. Refracted through layers of thickly polluted atmosphere, its filtered rays were compressed within a narrow band at the red end of the spectrum. Northeast monsoon winds this chilly autumn day had once more played gracious host to an unruly guest, carrying with them trails of noxious gases: a by-product of southern China’s unscrupulous – but equally unstoppable – industrial machine. Bellowed constantly from the world’s factory, clouds of the antisocial miasma were once again obscuring Earth’s star to the extent that it resembled an orange buoy floating in a grey sea of gloom. The filtering effect of the heavy air was strong enough to permit the human eye to stare directly at it, lingering without damage or pain. Indeed the man in the window seat was doing just that as the ropes were cast off and the big ferryboat began to chug backwards through the oily waters of Victoria Harbour, away from the pier. He watched as the beleaguered sun then began to set behind the near-distant hills of Lantau Island, wondering if it was relieved to be casting its light Westwards, beyond the Southern provinces of China and on to the Himalayas, and the subcontinent of India. Then over the Gulf States and further, towards Europe, in the direction of clearer air. Clearer air and what, for him, was home. For England was the one sure reality he knew: the place he missed most.

The journey from Hong Kong’s Central District to his apartment in Sunny Cape would take a little over twenty minutes, covering a distance of eight nautical miles. Throughout the typically smooth voyage, the high-speed catamaran would follow a course that was essentially due West. It had been a particularly bad day at the office for Adam Blake, after a series of frustrating telephone conversations with his American boss, who was located in the company’s Singapore hub. To Blake, the young regional executive appeared to have morphed into an overpaid postman in recent months, delivering a succession of requests for the same basic data to be cut a myriad different ways, all at New York’s bidding. Why doesn’t he intervene? Blake now thought. He knows that much of what they ask for can be distilled from information they already have, supplied in earlier activity reports. Surely the least efficient way of re-engineering data is at local office level, where resources are generally thin? But his immediate superior’s lack of teeth was not in fact his main frustration. Lately it had seemed that every new business initiative he tabled suffered the same dreary fate. It was either stymied by excessive red tape or held captive by an ineffective central management team that appeared incapable of reaching a decision, one way or the other. And this in spite of the hefty charge for central costs that is posted to my profit and loss account each month, he further reflected.

Whatever the cause for their reluctance to lend support to his proposals – or alternatively fire him – the resulting vacuum had left Adam Blake: Country Manager, Hong Kong behind the curve in terms of growth projections. Quite how he was supposed to develop the local operation’s static business portfolio without head office approval for at least some of his proposals was difficult to know, however – especially in the highly competitive environment that Hong Kong represented. Letting out a long sigh as he sipped the large gin and tonic purchased earlier from the pier bar, he asked himself what was becoming a familiar, daily question: What the fuck am I doing here? Blake took another gulp from the clear plastic beaker provided by the pier bar: the type that somehow had a flavour of its own and seemed to take the edge off the cocktail’s intended taste. Its lack of zest served only to add to his sense of frustration. In fact tonight he was seriously wondering why he had ever decided to take the risk and leave the secure position he once held in the City of London, opting instead to try his luck in what he had perceived from afar to be a more exciting environment. For since living in this Special Administrative Region of China, he had come to know much more about what oiled the wheels of local commerce. And despite the general verve of the place, the deals he had cut so far had not always been founded on the principles to which he was accustomed, and that he had been led to believe prevailed without exception throughout what was dubbed Asia’s World City. To him, the environment seemed artificial: a cosmetic brand-label propped up by a puppet administration, with no agenda but that of appeasing Beijing. In a nutshell, he felt the place was soulless.

Just as he was pondering these thoughts, Blake’s cell-phone abruptly rang, startling him to the extent that he spilled a good portion of his drink over a leg of his newly laundered suit trousers. Shit! But on answering, he could barely hear the caller above the chattering of what seemed a dozen or so people who were simultaneously engaged in the same activity. More frustration. Fuck! Matters became even worse when the sole piece of information Blake managed to decipher from what he determined was a London-based secretary was an instruction to participate in a conference call later that evening; or rather two o’clock the next morning, local time, in conformity with New York’s scheduling. Fleetingly, he was tempted to pretend he never received the directive, but in his heart he knew that he would be there, biting his tongue as always lest his true feelings emerged, his loathing of the corporate bullshit into which he was forced to buy revealing itself, to the detriment of his carefully constructed career.

posted by Kirk at 1:52 am  

Monday, January 7, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (20)

It was in the same small kitchen a quarter century earlier that Ramani had first revealed signs of her pregnancy. Retching up her breakfast over the dishes in the sink, she was first admonished by her father before later, in the quiet of her darkened room, being interrogated more tenderly by her tearful mother. And when the old woman eventually found the courage to lay a gentle hand on her eighteen-year-old daughter’s stomach, she slowly raised her eyes to the heavens, knowing instantly the prognosis. Emerging back into the daylight of the family room, the look his wife then cast the aging and somewhat reluctant head of the household conveyed a forlorn helplessness, causing the old man’s head to sag in despair. For no words were required to communicate the simple yet devastating message her expression alone projected.

Ramani’s father was a weak man who was ill suited to his position as head of what was, in local terms, a mercifully small family. Lacking the fortitude to pause in measured consideration of his only daughter’s plight – perhaps steeling himself in the process against the inevitable public outrage – he fell quickly into a tailspin. And so, when what she needed was his resolve to stand by her – come what may – his reaction was instead to panic. Almost immediately he learned of his daughter’s transgression, the old man sought the advice of the village elders. These dogmatic men of office were naturally quick to judge: privately, they had rubbed their hands together in glee, certain that this chance development would serve to further strengthen their moral stranglehold over the barely literate local populace. And so whilst she did not exactly endure a mediaeval-style inquisition, Ramani was nevertheless to suffer great ignominy at the hands of these pious and unforgiving bigots…

Startled by a firecracker thrown mischievously into her yard by some pranksters, Ramani’s thoughts were jolted sharply back to the present. Once more, she focused her gaze on her son’s photograph. How much he reminded her of his father Daman – her sweet but distant memory of a lover – she could scarcely find the words to express… And whereas she rarely saw her son, she was convinced that this was merely a temporary state of affairs – that he would one day return to live in the Kampung, triumphantly brandishing the success of his achievements in the big city: perhaps even showing off a beautiful and intelligent new wife. For Ramani had always been confident that her boy would ultimately defeat his less capable foes through the sheer self-evidence of his superior intellect. She faithfully believed that good would someday prevail, forcing Anath’s tormentors to accept, finally, that they had wronged him. Above all, she knew that whatever it was they threw at him, they would never break her boy’s spirit. Swathed in the fabric of these stirring contemplations, Ramani could have been forgiven for allowing herself a satisfied smirk, as she completed her meal. But these days her confidence needed always to be fished from deep within the lonely waters of her heart, where rival emotions also took advantage of a generous and accessible haven. And, true to form, as she now settled back in her chair to savour a cup of sweet tea, she began to sense the encroachment of an uncommon fear, rising from the pit of her stomach.

Curiously, a distinct dread had entered her. She had the strangest feeling that someone – something? – was trying to contact her. But from where was this message, and what did it seek to convey? Unlike most in the Kampung, Ramani was hardly superstitious, but she was nevertheless certain that on this occasion some primal instinct was alerting her to danger – signalling that something, somewhere, was wrong. Terribly wrong. She shivered: felt the hairs standing on her neck. It was as if a ghost had swept through her body, momentarily freezing her heart. Ramani could almost detect the smell of ozone as the ethereal whisper then seemed to whirl around the room, fizzing in her ears whilst chilling her to the bone, despite the tropical ambient temperature. In its wake the skin on her forearms pricked up, masking their normally smooth texture. At once, her intuition began to make a crucial link. She was suddenly consumed by the notion that this…this warning… somehow involved her boy – her beautiful, gifted son of whom she had only just been daydreaming. The cutlery clattered on to the wooden table’s surface as she let it slip, absently, from her hands. But she heard nothing of this harsh, earthly sound. Standing stock-still now, her head slightly cocked, she tried to lure a further visitation of the message, in an attempt to gain a better insight. Ramani now closed her eyes in the loaded silence. Nothing. Resetting herself she then clenched her fists, once more urging it to return. Nothing. Nothing. Damn it! Now hurriedly wiping her hands on a towel, she tore off her apron and moved quickly through to the hallway. Without pausing to check her appearance in the mirror, she rushed from the house, not thinking to lock, or even close, the main portal to her modest dwelling. Once outside the wooden gate at the end of the short pathway, Ramani turned and began cantering along the dusty road, making directly for some friendly neighbours – and in particular, their telephone. She did not notice the few drops of rain that just then began to spatter her face: her eyes blinking purely out of reflex. For her anxious mind was focused squarely on one thought only: she simply had to speak to her son.

posted by Kirk at 1:09 am  
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