Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Friday, September 19, 2008


“When it’s lit up at night, the bay looks like the Queen’s necklace,” my driver reliably informs me, as we journey north along Marine Drive. Velu is typical of the locals I meet: flashing smile, shake of the head – and, above all, an instinctive pride in his city. It would never occur to him to be otherwise: I wonder how true that is now of the people back where I grew up.

Stuck in traffic a little further along the road, we pull alongside a bus full of children. “Uncle! Uncle!” the bravest among them yells from a window, seeing the camera in my lap. “Take a picture!”

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(Click on the images to enlarge them.)

I point up and snap him, when another head pops out from behind, curious to find out what is going on. “Uncle! Please?” Another voice, from further up the bus. He gives me the thumbs up as I point the camera at him and press.

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As the traffic gets moving again, I hear his farewell: “Have a good day, sir!” Money can’t buy you love, and from what I’m seeing it’s not a prerequisite for happiness, either. The people of Mumbai are infinitely poorer, per capita, than their counterparts in Hong Kong, yet they possess a warmth and humanity that is nowhere to be found in the S.A.R.

And even the rich Bombayites are sociable and polite, as I find over cocktails in Henry Thams’ bar. Circulating easily among the largely expatriate clientele, they’re as self-effacing as any of us Brits, despite their wealth. I’m introduced to Ravi, forty-something owner of the jewellery store in Mumbai’s famous Taj Hotel. He tells a corny joke that falls flat, smiles wistfully and promptly buys a round.

Perhaps because I’m reluctant to leave so soon, and therefore not as positive as usual, the last evening I spend in Mumbai is the only one that disappoints, from a people perspective. After an enjoyable cocktail party where I meet, among others, a Bollywood film producer called Kiran V. Shantaram, the Spanish Ambassador (and his charming – read buxom – wife) as well as a Maharashtra State Minister, I am driven to the airport by Velu. Something I had quietly been dreading reveals itself, in all its dark horror. I have to return to 1987 to explain. When arriving in Bombay for the first time, back then, the initial thrill I felt was quickly tempered when, journeying towards the hotel, we passed row after row after row of what looked like sacks lying by the roadside. “What are they?” I still remember asking my boss, naively. “People,” was all he said in reply.

More than twenty years later, here they are again: the abandoned, the outcast – those for whom there is no social safety net. People whose ‘homes’ are shared patches of roadside dirt, whose lives are so transitory there is neither the opportunity nor point in erecting even temporary structures, to shield them from the rain. People the cocktail circuit would prefer were not there. I try to imagine what it must be like, living as they do, but I fail. The only consolation, I tell myself, is that there seems to be fewer of them. They’re competing less for space, if memory serves.

And finally, at the airport, I encounter the surly, disinterested military personnel who shove and bark as we are processed through security. The only soulless people I meet throughout my stay, and who leave a bitter taste as I leave.

But I’ll be back…

posted by Kirk at 6:20 am  

Thursday, September 18, 2008


First meal and playing it very safe. Two bits of toast with marmalade and jam. The butter tastes somehow richer – more cowy – but the jam is from Tiptree: good old Essex produce. Two choices, too: the obvious strawberry but morello cherry as well. Unusual. They must’ve known that Tilbury’s finest son was coming and got it in for me especially.

Off topic, there’s something I have to mention. The staff in this hotel are incredibly well trained. I’ve travelled a lot over the years, but these Oberoi staffers are up there with the best. From my personal butler down to the lady that informs me, in perfect English, that my room service breakfast will arrive in exactly twelve minutes, they are faultless. Well done to whoever trained them, and well done to them, for sustaining their pride and dedication to duty.

I’m taken to lunch by colleagues, eagerly anticipating my first encounter with a genuine curry. Alas, we go to a Thai-Chinese fusion joint, which to say the least is a disappointment, having travelled nearly three thousand miles from noodle central. Ah well, the conversation is good, anyway.

It’s not until late evening that I’m at last to get what I’ve been savouring all day. I keep it simple: chicken tikka, yellow dhal and a selection of naan breads. In the words of My Fair Lady, it’s scrumptious. Truly, truly scrumptious. How is it possible to have that crunchy, charcoaly exterior and flesh of such succulence all in one irregular cube of tandoori magic? And how do you make dull old lentils taste this good? I fall asleep with a warm feeling inside…

Oh dear. It’s morning and I’m distinctly nervous. Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, say my guts. I do hope it’s not what I think it is. But no, it isn’t, after all, although I do make a substantial contribution to greenhouse gases throughout the day. Must remember to send thirty dollars to someone I don’t know to get some carbon credits back.

posted by Kirk at 10:53 pm  

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Taxis, Trucks and Bajajs

I move surprisingly fast through a new part of the airport, which seems only half-completed. Greeted like some visiting celeb, the Oberoi representative escorts me to the waiting driver.

Last time I was here I was driven to the hotel in a 1950s model Austin Cambridge – known as an Ambassador here – which at the time were still being churned out by Hindustan Motors.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

This time, it’s a Ford Mondeo. I think I prefer the Austin, but that’s probably because of the name.

They say that the floorplate of a Jaguar S-Type is the same as that of the Mondeo: well not this Mondeo, I can tell you. Built in Chennai, they’ve shrunk this version of Britain’s most popular corporate car to fit Indians.

Leaving the airport, you’re straight into the bustling suburbs – there’s no trunk road, or expressway. The congestion provides plenty of time to study the various vehicles competing for space along roads narrowed by the ebb and flow of humanity.The taxis are ludicrously funny – so small that I expect to see Noddy driving one. Click here for a glimpse of what I mean:


And when was the last time you saw white-walled tyres? Most of these black-and-yellow Fiats are covered in elaborate stickers, including those stuck across their rear windows, restricting vision. Horses, spoked wheels, Hindu idols, star shapes and words such as “Bandra” are displayed: I also see “Don”, “Happy Journey” and “Welcome”. One is even adorned with the Nike tickmark, for whatever reason.

The gaily-painted trucks we pass carry descriptions of what they do: “Goods Carrier” seems a favourite, generally plastered somewhere across the front of each vehicle. I see a flatbed truck carrying urns that has the words “Milk Wagon” painted on its sides. Across its tail-end, along with the now familiar “Horn OK Please”, I read the words “India Is Great.”

There seems to be a road safety campaign going on, targeting the “scooterists”. I get a crinkly mouth when reading the campaign slogan: “Helmet or Hell Met.”

An advert on a hoarding also catches my eye: “United Bank. The Bank That Starts With U.” I am beginning to recall the wit and wordplay of the Indians I associated with here when visiting on a regular basis, back in the late 1980s.

Unlike Jakarta, where I lived for a while, the Bajajs of Mumbai are all painted black and yellow:


In the Indonesian capital they were a rusty orange colour. Here, they also seem to have fully-functioning meters, but no doors – further differences.

Meanwhile, the cacophony of hooters is incessant. Don’t these people realise that sound is a form of energy, and that energy consumes fuel?

posted by Kirk at 9:24 pm  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Inflight Update

This is turning into a real adventure. They’re preparing us for arrival in the land of Delhi belly with a jhinga allepey curry – prawn madras, to you and me. A bit like the various stages of formula milk, I imagine. Slowly, slowly, avoidy dysentery. Served with basmati (“sh” sound for the “s”) rice and what looked like potato cubes (but turned out to be banana!), it’s one of the best inflight mains I’ve ever eaten. The alternative was the equally daring vegetable allepey curry (note the use of the English word for “vegetable” – perhaps it’s the same in Gujarati, or Urdu.) The only question mark was over the sauce: two choices of the same madras curry? Where was the vindaloo, or the phal, for us hard-core curry connoisseurs from Brick Lane, or Birmingham?

Next up, some top-drawer Double Gloucester: nice and crumbly, not overly tart – all in all a cheese of great balance. They must’ve thought we needed some sort of correction, after all that spice. A bringing back down to earth. But this West Country dairy sample was in fact a cheese made in heaven. Went down well with the Peter Lehmann Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia’s Barossa Valley – the crucible of antipodean winemaking. The German Cambazola was also good: it looked as if it was going to be overly blue, but it turned out mild and creamy – quite nice, if that’s a permitted description of cheese. From France, the brie was rubbery and bland, which I admit made me chuckle. Schadenfreude might be the only way to describe it, but Boris’s New Britain had won the Eurovision Cheese Contest.

[N.B. Question for Paul Kelly (Hemingway’s Cheese Ambassador): what is the correct procedure if, when cutting into a sliver of Cambazola, one finds that a few crumbles of Double Gloucester have remained on the knife, surreptitiously stealing the opportunity to attach themselves to the krautkäse? Gently brush off the offending flakes? Or perhaps ignore them, and simply chug down the whole fromagesbord together?]

The cabin crew are delightful. It’s like what meteorologists call a “one in three hundred year event”. For example, catching the chief stewardess snaffling a praline (it was either that, or she was going to a fancy dress party as a hamster), I detected no iota of embarrassment. Letting out a mischievous chuckle instead, the ample Indian crewmember made no attempt do disguise her chomping and – for all I know – probably had a second, a while later. And for my sins, I’ve once again become a victim of the in-flight-airline-customer-satisfaction-survey-syndrome. Hey, ho. Got a free pen, though.

Speed over ground, clock ticking down… 49 minutes to go. I can’t believe how fast this plane is travelling. 582 m.p.h.! Can’t they slow it down a bit? I’m not sure I want to get there yet… I’m enjoying this comfortable, Peter Lehmann-fuelled bizclass ride…

On the map I see that we just passed directly over Nagpur. Nagpur… great name for a city, but I wonder what it must be like living there, right in the heart of India… 43 minutes and confess to feeling some anxiety. Will the airport be as tawdry and chaotic as I recall? Christ! The cabin crew are spraying the plane’s interior with some kind of de-infestant!

posted by Kirk at 10:57 pm  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Journey Begins

Well, this is it. I’m in the airport lounge waiting to board the flight to Mumbai. Is this really the precursor to a new chapter in my life? Or am I treating it more like a company-sponsored excursion? The last time I visited was over 15 years ago, when the place was still called Bombay. Sounds better to me, Bombay. I’m not sure if it’s going to feel like coming home, or whether changes in the interim will have rendered it unrecognisable. I’m not quite as excited as I thought I’d be, but neither am I feeling anxious.

posted by Kirk at 2:10 am  

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (50)

“I’ve just sent a fax. To your hotel, Mr. Bla– I mean… Adam.” Anna Li was once again proving her mettle. “All the details are in it. But as I mentioned, the nearest British Consulate General is in Guangzhou, unfortunately.” Blake sighed. Shit. That’s got to be at least four hundred miles from here, he mulled. “OK… OK, thank you, Anna,” he said after a pause, his mind still elsewhere. “You’ve been very helpful.” “If there’s anything else I can do, just let me know. Good luck, Adam. And I’m sorry… So sorry for everything… Everything that’s happened.” The Icicle was distinctly melting.

Blake replaced the receiver, pausing for a moment to reflect on the likely fact that his erstwhile secretary’s final comment referred to something broader than the disappearance of his daughter. Perhaps I judged her too harshly, during those last few weeks at Valuri Doyle. She may have been on my side, after all. Parking the thought, he moved smartly towards the door in order to descend to the lobby and collect his fax. The search for Sophie is the only thing you should be thinking about, for fuck’s sake, he mentally chastised himself, while making his way along the corridor to the lift lobby.

“Fax for Blake, room 414!” he yelled as he approached the counter, rudely interrupting a conversation that was taking place between a desk clerk and a greying Westerner. Bedecked in a Hawaiian shirt, the tourist appeared to have been in the process of asking for directions to some of Guilin’s many attractions. “Wait turn, Sir,” said the young clerk, without looking up from the city map that was spread out on the counter between them. “That’s right, buddy. Get in line!” added the old man, turning, his voice a thick American drawl.

Without warning, Blake lunged across the counter, knocking into the American while grabbing the clerk by his lapels. Pulling the terrified youngster close to his face, he spat his instructions from no more than an inch away: “Get-my-fucking-fax. Now! Understand? Blake! 4- 1- 4!” Released, the hapless young clerk quickly scuttled away, while Blake turned back to the American. “Want to add anything to your previous comment?” he snarled. Backing down, the American simply shuffled off, trailing his map, while mumbling something about the war.

It was the Duty Manager, rather than the young clerk, who presently returned with Blake’s fax. “Mr. Blake? There is complain about your behaviours. You assort my staff,” he asserted, officiously. “Give me my fucking fax! Now!” was all Blake offered in reply. With a sudden lurch, he then reached across the counter to snatch the document from the Duty Manager’s hands, unsuccessfully. “Mr. Blake, is time for you to check out this hotel,” said the Manager, gruffly. “Here you fax.” He handed the article to Blake, who immediately showed him his back, turning to head straight back to his room, and the phone. “I give you half hour pay bill and leave. If no, I call police,” the Manager shouted after him.

Banging it repeatedly, Blake almost smashed the elevator’s call button, before pushing his way into a crowd of tourists as they emerged through the opening doors. Once back in his fourth floor room, he fumbled with the telephone, misdialling twice before finally connecting with the Consulate General in Guangzhou. “Terry Williams,” was all he said when his call was finally answered. “Dui bu qi?” Pardon me? said the voice at the other end of the line. “I need to talk to Terry Williams, urgently!” repeated Blake, animatedly. “Consul-General travel today,” the voice continued, now in passable English. “Who speaking?” “Then give me his cell-phone number,” Blake retorted, ignoring the request. “I sorry. Cannot that. You like talk someone else?” “Are there any other gwailos in the Consulate?” “No gwailo in Guangzhou. We all local. Except Sir William.” “When does Williams return?” Blake snapped. “He due return… er… tomorrow. You like call back then?” “What time does he normally arrive in the morning? Eight?” “He normally come office ten o’clock.” Lazy fucker, thought Blake. Who the fuck does he think he is? “Tell him that Adam Blake will call him at ten sharp tomorrow morning. And remind him that I pay his fucking wages, will you?” Blake barked into the mouthpiece, before slamming the receiver down. What now? he thought. “The police,” he then announced, answering his own silent question.

posted by Kirk at 2:46 am  

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (69)

Consumed by a mixture of anguish and morbid introspection, Captain Farid drove unusually slowly towards the outskirts of Jakarta. Perhaps the result of his torment, he was only half aware when turning off the expressway and through a pair of broken gates permitting access to one of the city’s new satellite housing developments. Following the course of the muddy track that was intended, eventually, to become the suburb’s main thoroughfare, he noted with detached interest that work on the place appeared to have ground to a halt. For whilst dusk was approaching, the call of the muezzin was still some time off; yet there was not a soul about. To the left and right, half-constructed dwellings stuck out of the ground like uneven teeth; the shadows cast in their wake those of manmade decay, blotting intermittently the blood orange rays of another glorious sunset.

Sucking in a deep breath, the Captain suddenly shuddered. There had never been a moment in his life when he had felt less certain about himself. Never a time when he had felt more alone. I want to go back. To when I was a kid, he thought. Want to start again. But he knew in his despair that it was useless. That the hopeless despondency now engulfing him was the result of a series of actions that could not be undone. He had tried, throughout the course of his journey to this desolate spot, to convince himself that it was not the end of everything, that he would – surely – be forgiven. But these words of encouragement, though oft repeated, were now all used up, and instead it was his father’s that returned to haunt him. Filth. Bastard. And, worse still: Never come back. Thinking of the old man’s diatribe, it now occurred to him why, subconsciously, he had chosen a place like this as the setting for what he knew he must do. It’s derelict… Rotten, like me… he reflected.

Coming to a halt where the road ended unexpectedly, Captain Farid killed the engine with a twist of the key. The end of the road. It almost made him smile, but it was too late for that. Rotten, like me… he repeated over and again in his mind. Diseased… Incurable… Rotten to the core…

Ahead, a field that was once rice paddy now sat deserted, an abandoned wasteland offering only an assortment of builders’ detritus. Captain Farid opened the car door and swung himself out, unsure now of exactly how to go about what he planned. Stepping forward, he stumbled as his ankle twisted on a rock. Fuck! He stooped to grab the offending item, intending to throw it as far as he could into the distance, in the direction of some decrepit hutments at the far side of the paddy. But, spinning round at the last moment, he hurled it instead at the windscreen of his army issue Timor. Crack! The rock span away, leaving a spangled indentation at the point of impact, as the laminated glass cracked under pressure. Now adding anger and frustration to the catalogue of his emotions, the Captain moved smartly back to the car, slamming the door behind him after sliding once more into the driver’s seat. Leaning across, he then opened the glove compartment, its door flapping down noisily. Despite the tropical ambient temperature, the metal of the Browning pistol he retrieved from within felt cold to the touch.

Tears had begun forming in his eyes as the moment came for him to push the barrel against his mouth, his lips clenching by reflex, quivering for an instant in a half-hearted attempt to prohibit entry. And now a familiar, perverse contradiction began to tease him; the seeming restoration of his survival instinct challenged by the excitement he felt at knowing what the machine of death he held in his fingers was capable of doing. To Captain Farid, the gun seemed to possess what was almost a sexual element. Once inside his mouth, he liked the way its barrel chinked away against his teeth, and made a clacking sound in his head as he rolled it around, slowly and deliberately. But the metallic, oily taste soon made him retch, forcing the pistol’s withdrawal, a drool of sputum dripping down on to a pocket of his uniform as a result.

What am I doing? he suddenly thought. For now, slowly, his rage was returning, as his head somehow began to clear, allowing him to reflect once more on his driver’s treachery. On the whore who had mocked him. He thought again, disgustedly, of the filthy, prying Detective who had been the catalyst of all this, the agent of his present plight. The bastard Dick who somehow knew everything about his sexual proclivities. But just how did he know? Something was slowly beginning to dawn on the uniformed officer. There had to be an informant, someone who had fed off the dead whore’s knowledge. There had been no relationship between her and his driver, save for their macabre, posthumous tryst. Not him, then. OK. Who? Captain Farid laid down the gun on the seat beside him and sat stock still, squinting into the setting sun as he sought desperately to hear whatever it was his brain now seemed to be yelling at him. And then, from nowhere, the word suddenly sprang into his mind.


He found out from someone at Endang’s.

It had to be!


Gunning the engine, the Captain slammed the gearstick into reverse, accelerating backwards before deftly spinning the car around, narrowly avoiding a pair of street urchins who had been encroaching upon the vehicle, unseen. His hatred fully restored, a new assertiveness swept over him, shoving aside the melancholy that had almost convinced him to take his own life. Backlit by an orange hue, a cloud of dust followed the speeding Timor as it made for the compound’s exit, the expressway, and the place where the unsuspecting hookers were waiting.

posted by Kirk at 10:28 pm  

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (49)

That was a fat lot of use, thought Blake, replacing the receiver. He was beginning to realise that his lack of Mandarin was going to make it difficult for him to communicate. The so-called English speaker the police had eventually summoned from somewhere within the bowels of the station had seemed unable to follow the gist of what he was saying – even when he had shouted the words ‘my daughter – missing’ repeatedly. What good are they, when they can’t even understand what the fuck you’re saying? he fumed, inwardly. The sheer frustration was almost enough to make him cry. Pacing around the room, his temperature rising, Blake wanted to throw something at the wall. But he knew that in reality this would achieve nothing. Think. For a moment, he contemplated snatching a Tsing Tao from the minibar, but he resisted. Stupid fuck. Think, man. Think. And then it occurred to him. Somehow, he had to get the Consulate involved.

“Bri-tish Con-su-late. I want to speak to the British Consulate,” he said for the umpteenth time, while trying to remain as calm as he could. “Blitish what that? Cosrat?” came the hotel operator’s now familiar reply. Oh, for fuck’s sake! Blake slammed the receiver back in its cradle and rose, intending to punch the wall. Barely stopping himself in time, he chose instead to ruffle his hair and then pull on it, hard. Think. Another idea came to him. Something quite unpalatable, but which he would do anyway, now that he had nothing more to lose. Swallowing a good deal of pride, he picked up the receiver, dialling zero again. “Get me an international line,” he barked into the mouthpiece. “Yes: in-ta-nash-o-nal line!”

After three rings, the Icicle responded. As she spoke, the sound of her voice brought back a flood of memories. Thinking of some of them, a smirk almost formed on his face, before he recalled the gravity of his situation. “Good afternoon. Valuri Doyle. Anna Li speaking,” she had said. “How may I be of assistance?” It was cold staccato, the usual soup du jour. “It’s me,” stated Blake, into the silence that followed. He was uncertain what his former secretary’s reaction was going to be. “Adam.” There was a slight pause. “Oh. Er… What is it… Mr. Blake?” Her voice was a little shakier, this time. “Anna, I need your help. A personal favour. Can you help me?” “What is it?” “OK. Look, Quite simply, I’m in a grave situation here. I’m in Guilin. My daughter’s gone missing from a school trip and I’ve come here to find her. I need to contact the British Consulate – urgently – but I don’t know where they are, or what their number is. Could you find out for me?” There was a longer pause this time, as Blake’s former secretary processed the news. And if Adam Blake had been there to see it, he might genuinely have been touched. Because a look of heartfelt sorrow had suddenly, quite unexpectedly, invaded the Icicle’s features, on an afternoon when she had anticipated simply finishing up her work, shuffling a few papers before returning to the tawdry apartment she shared with her mother in the New Territories’ Hung Hom district. For despite her frosty demeanour, she had, as a matter of fact, always held a candle for Blake: the lonely misfit who had been clinging on by his fingernails for so long. Anna Li was nothing if not a perceptive woman. “I’m sorry… to… hear that… Mr. Blake,” she finally coughed. “Will you help me, Anna? Please?” he entreated further. The desperation in Blake’s voice was now more evident. “Yes. Of course I will,” she blurted. In other circumstances, it might have sounded as if she were gushing. “Give me your number. And a fax number, too. If you have it. Just in case.” Blake’s secretary had always been professional, and he was once again enjoying the benefit of this. He gave her the name of the hotel, his room number and the telephone numbers that were at the foot of the notepad lying on his bedside cabinet. “Thank you, Mr. Blake. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.” Her mind was whirring as she spoke, already piecing together the next few steps she would take. “Thanks so much, Anna. I’m in a desperate situation. I don’t know what I’d do without–” “It’s OK, Mr. Blake,” she cut in, more assertively now. “I’m really very sorry to hear about your daughter.” And now it was Blake’s turn to pause. “And it’s Adam, by the way,” he finally said. “Just call me Adam from now on, Anna.”

As she rang off, Blake gently lowered the handset and once more fell back into his pillows. Looking at the cracks that criss-crossed the ceiling, he began to think again of Sophie, his stomach churning. He cursed inwardly the blatant neglect he had exhibited in recent months. Promised that he would atone for his wayward behaviour, as soon as she was found. Where is she? Where’s my baby? How could I ever have let something so precious slip so easily through my fingers…? Never again… Never again…

And something darker also began to form in his mind, as his feeling of hopelessness now began turning to anger. If anyone harms my little girl…

posted by Kirk at 4:37 am  

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (68)

“It’s about your son.” As ’Pak Bambang continued, it seemed that the whole room had fallen silent. Daman, meanwhile, simply froze. “His name is Anath.” He pronounced the word with the accent on the second syllable, his pitch rising as he drew it out. Tears once more began forming in the deep wells of Daman’s eyes. Will this be too much for him to take, in addition to what I’ve just told him? thought the old man, before deciding that he must indeed go on, whatever the consequences. “And I can tell you that he’s here. Here in Jakarta,” he continued, his tone now hushed. “Where? I–” Daman spluttered. “Wait, son. Hear me out.” ’Pak Bambang put down his glass and placed a hand on his boy’s. “He’s in hospital. There was an incident shortly after midday.” Daman rose abruptly. Arms outstretched, mouth gaping, it appeared for an instant that he was in the grip of some form of paralysis. “Son – sit down,” ’Pak Bambang instructed, his voice more assertive now. “It’s a lot to take in, I know. But you’re going to have to be strong. Can you do that?” Sitting again, Daman nodded. Borne perhaps of frustration, anger, sadness, or all three, a tear began rolling slowly down his cheek. “Your son – Anath – was accidentally shot, here.” ’Pak Bambang patted his left shoulder, by way of indication. “It’s not a serious or life-threatening wound, but he’s lost a lot of blood. He’s very weak.” And now it was the son who greedily gulped down his cognac. Wiping his mouth with a sleeve, he then gestured for the waiter to bring another. “I must see him, ayah,” Daman said. “It’s time for this… this torture to end.” Obligingly, the waiter brought the bottle to their table. “Leave it there, please,” the old man instructed. Silently and with good grace, the waiter retreated. Turning back to his son, ’Pak Bambang went on: “We’ve got a lot of thinking to do, Daman. But yes – we’ll go and see the boy this afternoon.” Taking the bottle, the old man gave them both another generous pour of the golden fluid. “But there’s something else I need to tell you.” Daman threw his father a quizzical glance. “Anath’s mother is on her way to Jakarta as we speak,” said the old man…

Detective Adi had sped back through town with purpose. Although he still had no real strategy, he had at least made a commitment to do whatever he could to assist the boy, which left him feeling better about himself. Perhaps this is the sort of thing I’ve been missing, he had pondered while driving. A sense of purpose. The opportunity to make a difference… do some good… Pulling up once again outside Sate Blora, a sudden chill swept across him as he recalled the events of a few hours before. Although the area was now virtually deserted, there was still plenty of evidence of the crowds that had milled around in the aftermath of the shooting. Adi shook his head as he approached the newsstand, ashamed to note that the boy’s entire stock of magazines appeared to have been pilfered. He picked up a number of grubby newspapers that were littering the immediate vicinity, most still damp to the touch, some trodden into the ground. He did what he could to salvage those that looked like they might still be saleable and tucked them under the plastic sheeting beneath which the boy had been sheltering when he had entered the restaurant to confront the Captain. But he knew that this was essentially an empty gesture, since today’s Jakarta Post was tomorrow’s nasi bungkus wrapping. Resolving to restore the stolen stock of glossies – or alternatively just pay for them all – he weighed down the corners of the sheet with some nearby stones, which appeared to have been neatly stacked for just such a purpose. From now on, kid, Om Adi’s gonna take care of you, he vowed.

Just then a large man rounded a corner wheeling a portable stall, the collection of pots, pans and woks that hung from it by hooks clanking away loudly. The tukang warung gasped as he almost bumped into Adi, his eyes darting between the Detective’s battered face and the bloodstained earth beside the newsstand. Where’s Anath? he thought, looking over the Detective’s shoulder. Instinctively, he began to retreat. “Don’t be alarmed by my appearance,” said Adi, flashing his warrant card. “I’m a Detective. Sometimes, I have to put myself in harm’s way, and today was one of those occasions.” The portly man exhaled. “What happened here?” he enquired, gazing down once more to the dark blemish that was staining the earth in the exact spot he would normally expect the boy to be sitting. “There was a fight… Someone pulled a gun… The kid that runs this stand – Anath’s his name – got hit.” Adi was not about to confess his own role in the drama. “Masya’allah! Is he OK?” “Don’t worry, it’s not so bad. He got hit in the shoulder.” Adi tapped his jacket. “Right now, he’s in hospital. Do you know him?” “Have you seen him? Which hospital? I must–” “Do you know him, ’Pak?” “Yes I do, ’Pak Detective.” “Good. I want to know more about him,” said Adi, relieved that he had finally met someone who might be able to help him piece together some information about the boy. “But in the meantime, I can tell you that he’s in Rumah Sakit Medika. I saw him less than an hour ago.” The tukang warung blew out air, reassured somewhat. “What do you know about him?” pressed Adi. “Just that he’s a good kid: always talking about his mother. Sends her money all the time, back to the desa.” Mother? thought Adi. He’s not an orphan, then, after all. “What else? Know anything about his daily routine? Does he live alone, or will someone be missing him if he doesn’t show up at home tonight?” “Oh, he lives alone, all right. Small digs somewhere round here,” replied the big man. Unexpectedly, a voice suddenly came from behind: “He takes a paper every day to some old lady – few blocks south of here.” Detective Adi span around. A waiter was leaning in the doorway of Sate Blora, puffing away on a kretek. “Says charity’s a good thing,” he continued. Detective Adi thought he could detect a note of scorn in the young man’s voice. “D’you know where she lives?” “Think so.” “Well in that case, you can help me deliver it to her,” he half-instructed. “But I’m worki–” “Working? You call that working? Leaning in a doorway smoking a kretek?” Adi bent down to retrieve a newspaper from under the plastic sheeting. “Come on, let’s go.” The young waiter’s soles scrunched on broken glass as he reluctantly followed the Detective in the direction he had earlier indicated. “I’ll be back,” Adi then called out to the tukang warung. “I’m going back to the hospital later. Take you with me, if you want.”

posted by Kirk at 11:45 pm  

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (48)

Checking into the Hôtel de Vendôme in the heart of Paris, Elle felt almost like she was returning home. The place instilled in her a sense of belonging; it seemed to welcome her like an old friend. From the intricate patterns of the lobby’s marble floor to the fresh flowers that were placed daily on the Louis XV dressing table in her suite, everything about it reflected class and a quality she adored. Elle reflected that even the bathroom toiletries were from her favourite Sisley range: it was almost as if the management had researched her preferences, ensuring everything would be to her liking. Smiling at the receptionist as her key was handed across, she thanked her in the best French she could muster, disappointed to then detect what appeared the hint of a scowl in the acknowledgement the woman returned. But although she held little admiration for the Parisians themselves, Elle had nonetheless been infatuated with their city ever since first visiting, as a young student. And she especially loved this particular district’s unique mix of haute couture, antique shops and art galleries. For there was nothing back home in Hong Kong to compare with the range of antiquities on display in the shops and museums of the premier arrondissement, such as the nearby Louvre.

Elle So was someone who fed off the arts, and her regular visits to Paris were always, in consequence, uplifting. But her cheer today was dampened by thoughts of the pain her lover was feeling, the agony he must surely be going through. She wanted desperately to call him, to learn if there had been any news. But in Guilin, she knew, it was already past midnight. Let him rest, she had urged herself. He’ll be needing it. From the confines of her room she would try to share his pain instead, sitting pensively through a sombre evening of solitude, resisting the lure of the boulevards that weaved their enchanted way through the district; the avenues that would, under normal circumstances, conjure up for her a world of grace and beauty within which she seemed naturally to fit.

Right now, there’s nothing I can do for him anyway, she admitted, pulling some notes from her briefcase in order to use work as a distraction. “And this,” she suddenly uttered, aloud, while gazing at the papers she was clutching, “is why I’m here, after all.” The next day, she would be taking a taxi to the outskirts of the city, to test for herself the product that was ultimately to be shipped from the source laboratory to Skin Sanctuary’s godown, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong’s bustling port. So soon into the relationship with her new client, it was vital that the delivery was punctual, while the consignment itself had to be faultless in terms of quality. Elle knew from experience that the process involved in guaranteeing the latter could take at least a day. Somewhat depressingly, it now occurred to her that an order of this size and importance might keep her at the laboratory for longer than usual.

Elle tried to busy herself by running through the range of product she had developed for her client, making a mental checklist of the tasks that would need completing before her return to Hong Kong. She thought of the thrill she would experience once the launch was complete and her brand was at last on display in Skin Sanctuary’s spas throughout the S.A.R. But however hard she tried, she could not desist from mulling over the plight of her lover, of his dreadful predicament. Slapping her papers down on to the surface of an exquisite writing desk, she stared out of the nearby window into the fading Paris light. What am I going to do? she quizzed herself. Her immediate thought was to re-pack her case and take flight, on a direct heading for Southern China, but she resisted the urge. Elle moved into the bathroom instead, where she spoke softly to her reflection in the mirror: “This is so not like you. Not Elle So: businesswoman. Sanctuary Spa contract winner. Not Elle So: independent, unattached. Ms. So, that is – not Mrs., anymore.” Elle blinked. “Not Mrs…. anymore,” she repeated. Suddenly, she sucked in sharply. A tear formed in her eye and then dripped on to her cheek, before slowly crawling down to her chin, in what had developed into a defining moment. A moment in which, with absolute finality, she said goodbye to her husband. Resolved to follow Blake to Guilin, as soon as she could get there. To prove to him how special she was – to steal his love. Elle wiped away her tears with the back of a hand and turned on the bathroom taps. She would take a long soak, with a Sobranie in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. Tomorrow, I’m going to get the job done as quick as I can, and then get myself to Guilin, she resolved, tearfully.

posted by Kirk at 11:55 pm  
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