Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (61)

It was a weary, anxious mother who rode the bus towards the capital, her mind racing in spite of her fatigue. Urging herself to stay calm, Ramani repeatedly tried forcing herself to doze, only to reawaken after each attempt, wide-eyed, to the nagging fear that nestled deep inside her. Every bump in the road or switch in camber seemed intent on rocking her head against the window by her side, adding to her discomfort. She fiddled with her overnight bag, opening and shutting it for no reason. And although she had brought along some kacang disco for the ride, the ever-present churning sensation in her stomach saw to it that she had little appetite for this, her favourite snack. Less than twenty minutes into the journey she was already losing patience, willing the driver to accelerate, to overtake recklessly around the succession of blind bends she knew were to come. Come on, come on. For God’s sake, get us there quickly, she urged. At all costs.

Ramani shook her head, annoyed at her own stupidity. The trip would take just as long as it was going to, and there was nothing she or any other passenger could do about it. Once again she closed her eyes and tried to get some sleep. There was, after all, no better way to endure what she knew from experience to be a wholly featureless journey. But still she could not rest, fidgeting this way and that, then back again – much to the annoyance, she imagined, of the passenger sitting beside her. With this in mind, she at last made a conscious decision to still herself, closing her eyes to settle for the appearance of sleep. For Ramani was nothing if not considerate. But inside, her thoughts continued to whir away, cartwheeling through her mind, as flashback after flashback of Anath the toddler, Anath learning to read, Anath in his teens mercilessly tormented her. My boy. I must see my boy. And there it was again: a surge of dread. And again. What are you trying to tell me? Please? she begged the demon inside.

By now, the rain had left the village and raced ahead of them across the plains of West Java, on its way to Jakarta. As the bus rounded a bend in the road, she saw with a slight turn of her head the black sky far in the distance, sitting ominously above the city like the shroud of night. A black cloak over the capital, she thought to herself. It could only portend the worst. Ramani shifted nervously in her seat again, casting an apologetic glance in the direction of her neighbour, whose irritation she imagined must surely be growing. Sit still. Growling its way along the route, the bus meanwhile continued to bellow dust and smoke into the countless shops, shacks and stalls that lined the arterial road leading to the big city. Stretch by stretch, mile by mile, they were completing the sections which, laid end-to-end, would lead them to their destination. As she continued to look aimlessly through the window, ignoring as best she could the man sat beside her, Ramani now resolved to take her mind off things. She recalled the short summer she had spent with her only lover, now a quarter century ago, even managing the suggestion of a smile as the words formed soundlessly on her lips. You’re safe with me. Sighing heavily, she then glanced for no reason to her right, at which exact moment her fellow passenger suddenly struck up conversation.

“Don’t fret, ’Bu,” she thought she heard him say. “It’ll be all right.” He did. He did say it. Ramani froze, suddenly fearing that the man possessed a third eye, could see inside her head. “Going to the city, ’Bu?” he then enquired – a question that was more accurately a statement, given that the bus had only one destination. But whilst mundane in nature, it was a line of enquiry she was nevertheless relieved to hear. “Ya, ’Pak. Actually I’m going to visit my son,” she replied after a pause, shuffling in her seat so that she sat in a more upright, formal posture. “It’s a… a surprise visit.” “Oh, I see… daerah mana?Which district? “Maybe we can share a ride.” The old man flashed her a warm, toothless smile. Ramani responded to what had now become a rather intrusive line of questioning in the submissive way she had been taught, which after half a lifetime was now instinct. In the wake of her response, she learned to her surprise that the stranger was heading for the same part of the capital. Without suspicion, she agreed immediately to join him on the final leg of her journey.

Taking out the kacang from her overnight bag, she tore open the packet before offering him some. The old man held out a palm, gratefully. Ramani paused. Was that some kind of look in his eye? Something more than just polite acknowledgement? She continued, pouring the flour-coated peanuts into his hand. Ramani could not be sure, but for a moment she felt certain there was something he wanted to say, something that was more than just idle conversation. But instead he coughed, choking on the nuts his aging jaw now found difficult to chew, and the moment passed. Then clearing his throat, the man began to deliver a lilting monologue, describing as her eyes grew heavy his life in the desa from where they had recently embarked, the extent to which he missed his dear, departed wife, and his other devotion: that to the generous employer for whom he had worked his entire life. His soft baritone seemed hypnotic to Ramani, soothing her such that within a few minutes she was able to fall into the deep slumber she had so desperately sought at the journey’s outset. For the old man, the first part of his mission was now complete.

posted by Kirk at 11:55 pm  

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (41)

Poor Sophie had spent much of the night retching into a bucket – by morning, there was little of anything left inside her. Her stomach felt as though it had been sucked inside out by a giant vacuum cleaner – the muscles there were tired, and aching. As was her head. The throbbing in her temples was a hitherto unknown feeling for the seven-year-old, and the confusion as much as the pain it caused only added to her anxiety. Feeling teary, she thought constantly of home. “Mummy,” she whispered under her breath, as if just saying the word would break the spell, and she would wake up back in Sunny Cape again. Like her heroine Dorothy, she wanted to click her heels together three times and say: There’s no place like home. But despite her tender years, Sophie secretly knew that this would not work, either.

Familiar with the danger of dehydration at sea and recognising Sophie’s symptoms, a sympathetic crewmember had sat in vigil by her side all night, to no avail. For everything he poured down her had come straight back up. Now, as the rays of the morning sun played a dance on the crystal waters off the coast of Vietnam, he encouraged her once more to take in fluid. “He shui ba.” Here, drink some water. Silently accepting the plastic bottle he offered, Sophie gulped greedily, only for the man to quickly snatch it back. Through crusty features, he acknowledged the sad and confused look this action produced with a tender smile. For it must have seemed to the girl a cruel and despicable trick. In truth, the deckhand was merely attempting to slow her down, lest she drink too fast only to waste the precious fluid by retching it all up again. Little by little, he tried to convey in a manner as best he could, gesturing with a hand, its palm face down. Quick to understand, the young girl slowly nodded, when he allowed her to take back the bottle. Once more, he gave Sophie an encouraging smile. Shui ba. Compared with the other crewmembers he was unusual, this particular man. Gentle, and with a conscience, he appeared to be on her side. It seemed that he cared. Having witnessed the constant misery suffered by the young guimei since they left port, the man was now completely unsure about his involvement in what was, after all, a delivery voyage. Whose cargo was human and young and innocent. And although the man was Godless, growing up under the ruthlessly atheistic Communist regime, the goodness inside him now vowed that he would try some day to make amends for his participation in the whole sordid affair.

The crewmember’s concern for Sophie’s welfare was somewhat allayed when a huge grin suddenly lit up her face. Just moments earlier she had been staring listlessly over his shoulder, but now a radiant beam seemed to shine from her innocent blue eyes. Swivelling to look in the same direction, he saw immediately what had thrilled her. A dozen or so humpback dolphins were speeding effortlessly alongside the launch, accelerating now and then to leap ahead of the vessel and tease her bow, before veering away once more. The juvenile play of these stunning creatures gave Sophie a welcome distraction, lifting her momentarily from the grim despair of her predicament. And while the rest of the crew largely ignored their playful incursion, the man beside her hoped, as she did, that the pod would stick around for a while. They’re my friends, the young captive told herself. They’ve been sent here by God to look after me. But after diving beneath the hull, the group sped off on the starboard beam, leaping and diving through the waves with breathtaking agility. It was breakfast time in the fishing grounds, it seemed.

Soon after, however, another welcome diversion came slowly into view, in the form of Ha Long Bay’s staggering array of monolithic rocks. Surveying them wide-eyed, it occurred to Sophie that they resembled mouthfuls of crooked teeth, jutting from the ocean as they did, at a variety of angles. And it was then that she remembered recently losing a tooth herself. Probing around with her tongue, she now flinched as it pushed into the hole where the incisor had once been rooted. For while it did not really hurt, the sensation produced by making contact with the soft tissue there gave her a funny feeling, putting her a little on edge. My Dad always says you get money when your tooth falls out, she reflected, a tear now forming in the corner of an eye. But you’re s’posed to put it under your pillow. And now the tears began to fall again in earnest; the heavy sobs returning as she realised she had literally lost it somewhere back at the place where they had boarded the launch, when the horrid man had grabbed her and pulled her roughly from the car. And neither did she possess a pillow, she contemplated sorrowfully, nor even have a bed in which to lie down.

Tremulously, and for a strange moment fearing that he, too, might shed a tear, the deckhand put a strong arm around her, in comfort.

posted by Kirk at 9:26 pm  

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (60)

The voices coming from behind the door were becoming louder. Noticing that it was slightly ajar, Ketu positioned himself so that he could see through the narrow crack. From his new vantage point, he was able to glimpse flashes of the woman’s figure as it circled around the white coat of a doctor. It was clear that a war of words was taking place, fuelled he imagined by her insistence that the rules, on this occasion, were to be bent. I had her all wrong, he now admitted, feeling a sudden twinge of guilt. She’s been arguing our case all the while. As the door was then pushed open momentarily, he saw in the instant before it swung back that she was waving the cash he had given her under the doctor’s nose. Unfazed, the young physician was simply staring her down, in a classic posture of defiance. Arms folded across his chest, his entire body seemed to exude a resolute no. Ketu could control himself no longer. Vaulting the counter, he burst through the door and into the room, to the surprise of both its occupants. “Call yourself a doctor, you bastard?” he screamed, forcing the other man to feel for the wall behind him, as he backed up in fright. It was the receptionist who responded. “Get out of here!” she shrieked, fearing that Ketu’s actions would only make matters worse. But it was too late for reasoning. Rushing towards the doctor to grab him by the collar, Ketu spat the words into the startled man’s face: “Listen to me, asshole. There is a young man out there who needs your attention. Immediately. You are going to treat him – now! Understand? Because if you delay any longer, he will die, and as God bears witness, I swear I will take his revenge… on… you!” With each of these last few utterances, Ketu shook the doctor violently, before finally pushing him against the wall, with a thud. “OK, OK!” the young physician squirmed, twisting away from his aggressor. “Bring him through, then!”

Ketu was already disappearing back through the door as the shaken doctor finished patting down his lapels. Hardly the smaller man, he had easily been overcome by the speed and ferocity of his adversary’s attack. And as well as the shock of the physical onslaught, the man’s words had stung him, too. Smarting at the recollection, the doctor then went about reasserting his authority, rounding on the softest target he could find. “What’s so special about this… this peasant boy, anyway?” he barked at the receptionist. The woman flipped over a sheet on her clipboard, trying to ignore him. “Because I tell you something, ’Bu – you’d better make sure this friend of his comes up with the rest of the money. The next time he turns up here, it’ll be more than just an overworked, underpaid doctor he faces.” “Meaning?” the woman broke her silence. “Well, let’s just say he might find our sekuriti officers a little less easy to bully.”

Back in the reception area, a slovenly pair of orderlies finally arrived to lift Anath’s limp and seemingly lifeless body on to a trolley. Wheeling him through a pair of swinging doors and out of sight, they appeared to move in slow motion, painfully unaware of the urgency of the situation. Job done at last, thought Ketu, sighing as the doors swung shut. Exhausted, the group leader was now bereft of inspiration. “Now what?” he asked the rest of them, tired of being the one that had to make all the decisions. “I suppose some of us should wait here,” piped up someone. It seemed like a good idea, although in his fatigue Ketu was struggling to pinpoint why. “I agree,” he said wearily, unable to formulate a more constructive response. But, digging deep, he then managed to put a framework around the man’s proposal. “OK, this is what we’ll do. Two of us should stay here at all times, rotating every few hours. Sort it out among yourselves who’s going to be the first.” There were no volunteers. “OK, you and you,” he once again took charge, gesturing to the man whose idea it had been, and the woman sat beside him. “We’ll come back in a few hours and replace you, OK?” Somewhat reluctantly, the pair nodded. Then, addressing the rest of the group, Ketu instructed: “Come on, let’s go. I’ve still got work to do.” Ushering them towards the exit doors, he had almost left the building himself when, glancing behind, he saw that the receptionist had returned to her post. Ketu walked back across the room to return to the counter, a sheepish look on his face. “I’m going to see the head of the kampung,” he began. “’Pak Lurah needs to know about what’s happened today. And I’m also going to ask for his financial support. For the boy. His treatment.” The woman remained silent. “Look, I’m sorry about what happened earli–” “Go!” she instructed, curtly.

The driver was asleep in his cab when they returned to the mikrolet, their reappearance alerting a bleary-eyed parking attendant, who had been dozing on a stool nearby. The man stretched as he rose, before rattling the loose change in his satchel. Masya’allah, thought Ketu. Now we’ve got to pay to leave the damn place. Shaking the driver awake, he instructed him to hand over the five hundred Rupiah required for the ticket, while he and the rest of the group re-took their positions in the rear passenger compartment. The place still stank of blood, causing one or two of them to retch. “You might have washed it out,” complained one. Shrugging his shoulders, the driver fired up the engine and handed the parking attendant a fistful of scrunched-up notes, before pulling away. Making stilted progress initially, the inexperienced supir counteracted each shuddering motion by slipping the clutch, to the accompaniment of a cacophony of screaming revs. “Oh, for God’s sake!” shouted Ketu, his head in his hands. “Just get us home, will you, and safely. And there’s no need to drive like a maniac any more.” Without another word from anyone, they drove slowly through the hospital gates and into the traffic, heading back the way they had come.

posted by Kirk at 11:29 pm  

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (40)

As he surveyed the magnificent array of monolithic rocks through his top-of-the-range Leicas, Barry Sweet could have been forgiven for thinking that his formative years in London’s Camden Lock had instead taken place in some parallel universe. Sitting aft on the deck of the Morning Glory, a one hundred foot super yacht he had commissioned from Valencia’s boat yards a few years before, he felt refreshed by the early morning breeze. The sky was of an azure blue that only nature could paint, with not a single fleck of disfiguring cloud. Having spent the best part of a week anchored here in Ha Long Bay, Bazza, as he was better known to his public, knew that an early morning canopy such as this would later herald a noonday sun so fierce that neither he nor Plums, his lifelong sidekick, would be able to bear exposure to it. The afternoons over this past few days, then, had generally been spent below decks recording in the Glory’s built-in music studio, or just romping around on the bed in his master cabin.

Now in his early sixties, Bazza was learning to allow his greying temples to reveal themselves – it seemed he had finally grown tired of the endless cycle of dying, bleaching and re-dying his tightly curled afro; a process which, during the London club scene of the eighties, had created such an unusual appearance as to prompt the nickname “Guinness” from among the beautiful people with whom he shared the limelight on the circuit. But despite this moniker – and whilst it was true he had almost always been a fake blonde on top – Bazza’s skin tone had never actually been what might be termed ebony. No, the unknown couple who had accidentally created him during a drunken one night stand had managed through that careless encounter to produce the perfect, coffee-coloured child the Swinging Sixties were later to adore.

If the orphanage had taught him anything, it was that whenever he was punched, kicked or bitten he had to fight back, or forever be destroyed. So by the time he was released on to the streets of north London, now in his late teens, he already possessed the grit that would later see to it that Barry Francis Sweet, as the nuns had christened him, would succeed at whatever vocation he chose. Obligingly, the nineteen sixties represented a carefree, almost magical era where anything seemed possible – especially for a young, independent soul who was himself a by-product of the principle of free love. After briefly trying his hand in the fashion industry, he made an abrupt switch to music, styling himself as the UK’s answer to Jimmy Cliff, developing as he grew into this role the repertoire of original, pop-reggae crossover songs through which he achieved a lasting fame.

But something else was happening to Bazza at around the same time that his music stock was rising. Having always considered himself to be totally straight – in spite of some of the less savoury things that had happened to him at the orphanage – an unfamiliar feeling had begun creeping up on him, something that crystallised with the sudden appearance in his life of one Harold Cheeseman. ‘Plums’, as Bazza would soon affectionately begin calling him, was a driving instructor whose daily mission was simply to guide his Austin A40 through the streets of London’s NW1 postal district with as little incident as possible. And it was there, on the slippery white stripes of a Camden High Street zebra crossing one day, that one of Harold’s students almost rubbed the budding reggae star off the face of the earth. “Fuckin’ ’ell! You’re supposed to brake on the black stripes, you prat!” he had screamed at the unfortunate woman sat beside him. Without another word, Harold had then jumped out of the car and helped the victim off the A40’s long bonnet and back on to his wobbly feet. Recognising it as the face of someone he had seen on Top Of The Pops, Harold’s heart sank – another hike in his insurance premium would be more than his struggling private motor school could bear. But he had in fact no cause for concern. For in the instant their eyes met, Bazza had inexplicably fallen in love.

“I mean, shit on sticks, Plums,” Bazza would oft recount, years later, as they journeyed to Stringfellow’s or another of London’s latest ‘in’ places in Harold’s recently upgraded Mini Metro. “None of this would’ve been possible without your lightning reactions and that dual set of pedals in your old A40!” At this, he would squeeze his ginger lover’s thigh before checking in the vanity mirror that, once again, he looked just perfect. One never knows whom one might bump into, after all.

Apropos of nothing, and still staring absently through his binoculars at the stunning panorama this serene morning, Bazza quietly began chuckling to himself at the sudden recollection of how he would always make Plums drop him off a couple of blocks away from whichever club he was going to, on account of the large and unsightly white plastic pyramid that sat atop the Metro’s roof. As if on cue, his loyal sidekick’s call announced that breakfast was now being served on the poop deck. The wafting of strong Arabica coffee had already alerted Bazza to the imminence of the morning’s first ritual, producing a warm feeling inside. God, I’m lucky, he thought, surveying his surroundings once more – for he knew it to be true. And boy, this is gonna be one hell of a day… mark my words… he mentally added, a mischievous look on his face.

posted by Kirk at 5:16 am  

Friday, July 18, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (59)

Ayah, there’s something else I need to tell you.” Captain Farid was reaching the climax of his confession. “There… there’s something… wrong with me. In the… the sexual department.” “What? Are you… sick, son? I mean, have you got some kind of disease?” asked the General, screwing up his face in concern. There was a pause. “Not AIDS–” the General continued to prompt, a little nervously now. But his elder son had already cut in. “No, father. It’s nothing like that,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh God, Papa, I just don’t know how to tell you.” But it was time, and he knew it. He threw a sideways glance at his brother. “OK, look. I… I’m attracted to women, just like the rest of us. But there’s something else I like, too. Some other… Look, I’m like, er… different…” And while the General continued to stare at his elder son without comprehending, the grimace that was forming on the face of Farid’s kid brother showed that he had guessed immediately what was coming next. Yudi turned his head away, unable for now to look his elder brother in the eye, while the Captain paused again, swallowing hard. “Ayah, I’m sorry, but at the end of the day I can’t think of any other way of saying it. I… I like… men, father… Men… as well as women. There, I’ve said it. I’m… bisexual – gay, if you like.”

So there it was. He had managed to get it past his lips. It was out. He was out. To Captain Farid, it felt as if a ten-ton weight had flown up and away, off his shoulders and out there deep into space – gone forever, never to return. For there was no coming back from this moment – it was not something that could ever be forgotten, or dismissed. Euphoric, he smiled, glad it was over. But now, in the teak-panelled study, an absolute silence descended. It seemed as though every sound wave had been sucked out of the room, to leave only the latent energy of a residual tension the three could almost feel physically touching them, crackling away like static. It was the General who then suddenly broke the silence.

What? What did you say?” The Captain remained silent, his head bowed. “What?” The General could neither accept nor comprehend what he had heard. For homosexuality was not only something the military forbade, it was also… well, against the will of Allah himself. Leaving his Cabana smouldering in an ashtray, he moved around the beautifully carved desk to place his hands upon his elder son’s shoulders to try and deal with the situation in the only way he knew how. Denial. “Son… Come, now. Calm down. Don’t get confused. What’s the matter with you, eh?” He shook Farid gently, as if he were still a little boy. Both of them even managed to smile, momentarily. “Look at you – you’re all shaken up. In shock. Come, now… Come and sit down.” He playfully slapped his son’s cheek. But the Captain’s grim expression had returned, and he simply reached up to take his father’s arms and gently but forcefully push them away, while the tears once more began to form in his eyes.

Papa, I knew you wouldn’t listen. That’s why I’ve never been able to tell you. I’m sorry, ’Pak… but it’s true. I’m gay. Gay, d’you understand? A fucking bencong, I know! There’s nothing I can do about it!” He sought his kid brother’s support, to no avail. “I’ve been fighting it for years, but it’s driven me mad, made me a monster. At first I thought I could stop it… the urge, I mean. And for a while I did. I kidded myself that it was just a phase, a habit I could kick, but then…” Captain Farid tailed off as the expression on his father’s face went through a sudden and dramatic change. Spinning on his heels, the General moved briskly away, returning to his chair where slowly he turned to face what had finally emerged as the biggest disappointment of his life. His firstborn son, for whom he had held such high hopes, for whom he had covered up so much, protected for as long as he could. A fucking queer. Someone his fellow officers would despise. And worse, a transgressor of God’s laws. Without pause for further thought, the General silently slid open a drawer. “Father–” Major Yudi began, sensing for a second time what was to come. But the pistol was already in the old man’s hand, which he now raised up unsteadily, until it pointed squarely at the Captain’s chest.

“Get out of my sight, you disgusting piece of filth! Get out, do you hear?” he exploded. “You’ve been bringing trouble on this family for some time, and now this!” The General’s bile flecked the desktop as he spat out the words. “Get out of here, you shameless bastard!” Physically shaking, the old man needed Yudi’s support as he then slumped back into his chair. With surprising calm under the circumstances, the young Major gently prized the pistol from his father’s hand and uncocked it, before looking up to see the back of his brother rushing from the room. “And never come back, d’you hear? Never!” the old man screamed.

But the Captain had already left, leaving the door to the General’s study flapping as he careered down the corridor towards the lobby, his hands cupped over his ears in an effort to blot out the sound of the most terrible words he had ever heard.

posted by Kirk at 5:04 am  

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (39)

The sea was angry as Blake journeyed back to the Cape. At the horizon, sea and sky seemed to meld in an ill-tempered blur of grey-green haze. Since boarding the seven o’clock ferry, he had thought about nothing but Elle. What am I going to do without her, while she’s away? he mulled, his mood as black as the weather.

He did not notice the stares he drew from a group of acquaintances who were waiting to board as he disembarked the vessel at the end of its short voyage. For some years now, he had been one of their gang: commuting to work at roughly the same time, the group would reassemble almost every evening to share a few drinks on the way home. As Blake stumbled down the ramp on this overcast morning, one of his friends made to call out to him, only for the words to get caught in his throat. Another, noticing, put a finger to his lips, signalling that whatever he had intended to say was best left for another, more appropriate time. Had Blake been more alert, he might even have wondered what this silent exchange meant. But, alone with his thoughts and with his eyes gazing far off into space, he did not in any event notice.

Blake wiped his feet nervously after pushing open the door to his Caperidge apartment. Arriving there by a route he could not remember, there had been no need for him to put his key in the lock. For unusually, the door was slightly ajar. The first thing he saw upon entering was a Doctor’s bag, lying open atop the dining table. Further alarm bells rang when he then noticed the woman dozing on the sofa, her legs drawn up beneath her. Although unable to recognise her, he could see that she was obviously western, and someone who might therefore be an acquaintance of his wife. As his stomach slowly began churning, there was only one thought in Blake’s mind: Kate’s done something to herself.

“I’m terribly sorry to hear your news, Mr. Blake.” Announcing itself out of the blue, the man’s clipped baritone made him jump. Blake swivelled to face its owner as, independent from his bodily movement, his mind began to whir. News? What news? “Your wife is heavily sedated. She’ll be out for some time. Give me a call when she starts coming round and I’ll try and get here to assess her condition.” The man he now recognised as Doctor Elliott spoke in the tone of an assured professional. Factual, but strangely lacking in soul.

A wave of panic so strong he thought he could hear it now rushed over him. Blake was desperate to know what had happened, but something was stopping his mouth from moving. He simply nodded before unintentionally brushing shoulders with the Doctor, in his eagerness to rush down the corridor that led to his and Kate’s bedroom. Whatever it was, this news, he sensed it was something he could have prevented, had he been there when it happened. Unused to philandering, Blake was already feeling guilty about his overnight absence.

The scene that greeted him as he swung open the bedroom door took a full minute for him to decipher. As he had expected from the Doctor’s description, Kate was out for the count. Lying on top of the bedclothes, still fully dressed, her cheeks were stained with mascara, indicating that she had been crying. Heavily. He could see that her hair was a mess. Someone – perhaps Kate herself – had been pulling at it. But aside from this, there were no other signs of injury, or attack. What the fuck’s happened? Despite the hum of an overhead air conditioning unit, he could hear himself breathing, shallow and fast. And then he noticed it. Clutched tightly to her chest, her arms folded around it in a protective embrace, was a picture frame. Must be the photo of her mother. The old girl had, after all, been showing signs of imminent demise lately.

Blake felt a slight sense of relief at this notion, for whilst he would naturally be needing to summon up whatever sympathy he could, the death of his mother-in-law was something that would leave him feeling much less hollow than it would his wife. He was, then, almost smiling as he began moving closer to her, when suddenly he sensed the presence of someone just behind him. Wordlessly, he turned to face the woman he had earlier seen dozing on the sofa. “I’m so sorry…” she began. “I know,” Blake cut her off. “She was getting on a bit, but it still must’ve come as a shock.” The woman stopped, her mouth agape. “What?” Blake asked, his guts now preparing to smash through the floor beneath him. For suddenly, it occurred to him that the situation might be much worse than he had led himself to believe. “Your d-daughter… D-don’t you kn-no–” the woman stammered. “What? What are you saying?” “Oh my God! Oh no, oh my God! I’m… I’m so sorry… Your d-daughter–”

Blake almost knocked the woman over as he pushed past her to rush across the corridor to Sophie’s bedroom. Please, please, dear God… Please let her be asleep in her bed… But as he burst in, he saw that the room was empty. Neither were there any signs that it had been occupied recently, save for an indentation where someone had perhaps sat on the bed awhile. Oh fuck, no! his head shrieked. Not my Sophie! Please, not my Sophie!

Blake wanted to scream. He tried and failed to let out a wail that would have been heard right across the Cape. He wanted to punch the wall, himself, the mirror. His insides felt like they might snap, worse than the most excruciating cramp he had ever experienced. And his next instinct was to run – up the wall, out the window… But to where? Where is she? Where’s my Sophie? “Where is she? Where is she?” he screamed at the woman, turning on her as she once again crept up behind him. “Ssschool t-trip…” she floundered, flinching at his animal aggression. “What? What are you talking about?” “Ssschool trip. Ch-china.” By now, the woman had begun to sob. Fuck, no! Blake begged, inwardly. Nooooooooooooo! He slumped to his knees. His head seemed to be pumped full of air, like it was going to burst at any moment. He wanted to cry but no tears would come. He banged his fists against the marble of the floor until the pain eventually got through, alerting him to the damage he was doing.

And then, slowly, he rose, before silently making his way back down the corridor, towards the lounge. Blake had known for some time that his life was changing, perhaps forever. That he was less in control of his destiny than before. But this was, without doubt, a real turning point, he now saw. And in this instant he vowed to avenge whatever harm had come to his daughter, to slay the perpetrator of whatever crime had been committed. Breathing heavily, it took every ounce of his courage to utter a final word to the woman, who had also now emerged from the dimly-lit corridor. “Alive?” he asked.

posted by Kirk at 5:04 am  

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (58)

By now, the group had been waiting for over ten minutes. Still there was no sign that the boy would soon be receiving treatment. Ketu paced restlessly up and down in front of the receptionist, his brow furrowed. “Masya’allah! Can’t you see we’ll lose him if nothing is done?” he suddenly bellowed, turning to face her. How can she be so dispassionate? “Look at him, will you? He needs to be seen to right now! Immediately!” “As I’ve already told you, ’Pak, the doctors are working as fast as they can. It’s busier than usual for a Sunday. Your friend will just have to wait his turn.” The woman’s obduracy angered him. But she had seen it all before. “Take a look at him, I said!” Ketu was now pointing across the room to what could easily be mistaken for a corpse, so pale was the boy’s apparent death mask. “He’ll die if he doesn’t get some blood. Fast.” Ketu’s voice was now beginning to sound tired. Although urgent, it seemed to contain a hint of defeat. For a moment it appeared that he, too, was giving up on what seemed the impossible task of saving the boy.

Tenang, ’Pak.” Calm down. “I’ll go and talk to the doctor. See what I can do to have him bumped up the order,” the receptionist promised. “But remember this is the Casualty Department – everyone here is in need of urgent treatment. Everyone,” she added, officiously. “In the meantime, kindly fill out this form and have a credit card ready so that we can process the admission quickly, when the time comes.” The woman handed Ketu a clipboard, before disappearing into another room. Credit card? he thought, reeling in the pen that was attached to the board by way of a dirty length of string. Credit card? None of us has one of those, surely?

With a mixture of bemusement and grim resignation on his face, Ketu returned to the group of five or six kampung folk who remained sitting around the boy, offering what comfort they could. “Does anyone here happen to own a credit card?” he asked, to a sea of blank responses. Thought so. “OK. Look, we’re going to have to chip in all the money we have on us. Put it all together,” he cajoled, pulling a wad of low denomination notes from a pocket. “All the cash you have on you, OK? Come on, quick! We’ll sort it out later.” Jotting down on to a piece of scrap paper that lay beneath the admission form, he noted what each of them had contributed, before counting out the notes. “…Thirty-six thousand, thirty-seven, forty-two. Forty-two thousand. That’s never going to be enough!” The others said nothing, avoiding his eyes. “Come on, everyone. There’s got to be more than that.” Silence. “Hey! Come on! I’ve coughed up everything I have. What about you?” Ketu scanned the reluctant expressions all around him. He knew it was unfair to ask these people for more, particularly when many of them were concerned about how they were going to put rice on their tables that evening. But there was no other choice. “You’ve got to give me everything you have on you. There’s just no other way!” He shook his head. One by one, the group members begrudgingly passed him whatever notes they had left, while another let out a heavy sigh as he robbed his pocket of some coins. Overhearing Ketu’s plea, a bystander made a further contribution, waving away a request for his contact details. It seemed that there was some goodness left in the world, after all. Ketu counted the notes again. He now had sixty-eight thousand Rupiah in all, plus a few coins. The equivalent of seventy US dollars.

Sucking in a deep breath, he began to move slowly back across the room, thinking all the while how he was going to frame his next request. The receptionist reappeared just as he reached the counter, announcing the good news immediately. “OK, I’ve managed to get your friend priority treatment.” She sounded as though she deserved a medal. “The doctor will see him right away. Where’s the form?” Ketu began filling it in as she watched. “Right… er, we don’t know his family name, only his given name…” he mumbled, almost to himself. “We don’t know his address… We don’t know his blood type and… we don’t have a credit card…”

He handed her the partially completed form and the collection of notes and coins the group had managed to cobble together. “Then I cannot admit him.” “What?” Ketu exclaimed. “What do you mean, you can’t admit him?” His voice was beginning to rise again, which served only to help the woman dig in her heels. “’Pak, we have rules here,” she now stated, calmly. This was clearly a speech she had oft practised. “Like I said: no credit card, no admission. Those are the hospital rules.” “Stupid fucking rules.” “Bapak… Bapak. You’re going to have to change your attitude.” If her voice was now soft and purring, her words were harsh. They stung. “Profanities won’t help your cause. They’re not tolerated here–” “Another stupid fucking rule, I expect!” Ketu cut in. “’Pak! We have ru–” “OK, I’m sorry… I’m sorry,” he interjected once more, apologising. “But look – you’ve got to admit him, or he’ll die. It’s that simple. We don’t have time to move him elsewhere – he’s too weak. Look at him. Please help, I beg you. Please.”

The woman paused for a moment, saying nothing. Finally, it seemed that he was beginning to break down her intransigence. “Here. Take this money, please,” Ketu continued, taking his opportunity. “Admit the boy for treatment and I’ll go and find some more to cover the bill… I guarantee it. Please?” She looked back and forth from Ketu to the admission form and then across to the prostrate boy. “I’ll have to talk to the doctor first,” she said at last. “OK, but cepat!Hurry!

posted by Kirk at 10:46 pm  

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (38)

Peering through the crack of a half-open bathroom window, Blake could almost sense the coming heat of the sun, as its rays began creeping over the horizon. He thought of the tides of sweat his alcohol infused body would drip when he later made his way to the ferry terminal, vowing in this same instant to get moving without further delay. The morning after paranoia was beginning to nag at him, in all its terror. Christ! What the fuck am I going to tell Kate? Blake needed the harshness of the sun’s light like a fine silk tie needs olive oil. His head was already pounding as he turned away from the window to look once more at the reflection of someone he used to know. But the face that stared back at him seemed to belong more to some luckless hobo than a recently displaced company executive. Look at you, you fucking loser. Bloated. Spotty. Unshaven. A total fucking mess. Get a grip, son!

Splashing water over his face in an attempt to wash away the signs of decay, Blake hoped that he would be able to leave Elle’s apartment before she woke. Stood before the sink, a harrowing sense of neglect now swept over him and for the first time in a while, he suddenly began thinking of his daughter. She’ll be back from her trip by now, he thought, picturing her sleeping snugly under Barbie Doll covers. Blake’s eyes moistened. I’ll pick her up from school this afternoon. Buy her ice cream. He knew she loved ice cream. Sophie always had, ever since they gave her some to soothe her gums when she was teething… Where did all the time go? he wondered, wishing for a moment that he could turn back the clock, return to that time and place in England, when everything had been simpler, happier. When he and Kate had been the perfect couple, with their perfect newborn child. It now seemed as if it had all been a dream.

The swoosh of air as the door suddenly opened made him jump. “What’s wrong?” asked Elle, bleary eyed. “Why so jumpy?” “You’re up early,” was all he said in reply, trying not to look at her, lest she saw what he had seen reflected in the mirror. But this was not to be Blake’s day. “God, your face is so red,” she continued, unapologetically. “I can’t stand looking at it.” Thanks a million, babe, he grumbled inwardly. And I was having such a great morning, too. “Come back to the bedroom,” she half instructed. “I need to give you a treatment.” “No, Elle… Elle, I’ve got to get goi–” “Come on, it won’t take long. I know you need to go home,” she further insisted, now tugging at his arm. Then pulling him back into the bedroom, Elle turned her head to give him the strangest of looks. A look that made him blush. So. She’s guessed that I’m married, then…

Pushing him down on to the bed a little too forcefully for his liking, she patted the sheets, gesturing for him to lie down while she fetched some of her product. Blake groaned as she then began to apply a cooling cream around his eyes, the effect of which was instant and, frankly, sensational. “Reconstructive face gel,” she simply stated, reading his mind. Reconstructive face gel, he mused, his mood having lightened somewhat. “What – so you mean that at the end of this I’m going to look like George Clooney?” he managed to quip. “Silly!” Elle scolded.

But despite their playful banter, inwardly Elle was still unsure of the pace of recent events. It had perhaps been her nervousness at going home to someone – or some relationship – that had caused her to stop off in a bar before returning the previous evening. She vaguely recalled being grateful that Blake was asleep. Comatose, in fact. But while she could not fully recall what had happened during the night, the feeling in between her legs this morning suggested something had. Removing one of her hands from his face, she scratched herself there, absently, while pondering whether to ask the question that had framed itself in her mind, or not. “Adam,” she then began, finally forcing it out. “Yeah?” “Are you… No – I mean, do… No, no. Forget it,” she stuttered. “No, go on. What were you going to ask?” Now it was Blake’s turn to be firm. “Sorry, I forgot. It’s just that I’m a bit confused, that’s all. I’m not very good, first thing in the morning.” Well you’re a damn sight better than me, thought Blake. “Anyway – what’s there to be confused about?” he eventually asked, after a pause. “Well, us, for one thing,” she responded. “What’s confusing about us?” “Never mind. Like I said, the mornings are not my favourite time of day. Let’s talk about it over dinner, when I get back,” she suggested, in an attempt to finish the conversation. “I don’t think I can make it tonight, babe. Got some things to do.” “I don’t mean tonight, silly!” she teased him, laughing. “I mean when I get back from my trip.” “Trip? Where?” “Paris. Don’t you remember? I’ve got to do a quality control check at the supplier’s lab. I told you, I’m sure.” Blake shook his head, dolefully. He felt more than a little annoyed at her dismissive manner. Sensing this, Elle ventured an explanation: “The first shipment to Skin Sanctuary’s coming up. It’s a big order, and being the first one, I need to personally test the product range. I can’t take the risk of, you know, falling short of expectations at the first time of asking.” “When are you leaving?” Blake asked, still smarting at her revelation. He was now beginning to realise how quickly he had begun relying on her – how he liked her being around for him, whenever he needed her. Until now, he reflected, he had not given much thought to the fact that Elle was a mature, independent businesswoman, who had priorities other than simply existing in order to help deal with his problems. “Lunchtime. Today. The Air France flight,” she continued, jolting him from his reverie. “How long for?” he then asked, his voice that of a sulky little boy.

posted by Kirk at 10:06 pm  

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (57)

The General had somehow managed to acquire the luxurious family home a decade earlier, despite the modest pay of a soldier coming through the ranks. Situated on the outskirts of the city, the seven bedroom, two storey structure was fronted by a mock Georgian façade that resembled a miniature White House. As the army-issue Timor now approached, one of its huge wrought iron gates was slowly swung open by the jaga, an elderly man who had been in the General’s employ for many years. “Selamat sore, ’Pak,” he greeted his boss, holding open the driver’s door once the vehicle had finally halted. Good afternoon, sir. But it was a quizzical look that was trying to write itself across his face, despite the neutrally polite manner of his address. How come the General is driving? he mused. And his efforts to maintain a stoic expression were further challenged when he next saw the condition of the disembarking Captain. Sensing this, the General flicked him a glance – more a form of plea than a warning, but a look that nonetheless conveyed a cautionary signal: Best keep this to yourself, my loyal servant… If you know what I mean…

Once out of the car, the three men moved together through the spacious lobby, making directly for the General’s study. Its high, fanned ceiling and teak-panelled walls made it a comfortable retreat, where the old man would often sit alone with just his thoughts for company. On these occasions, his impressive collections of fine cognacs and cigars – mostly gifts from visiting servicemen – would vie for his attention while he mulled ponderously over piles of spurious paperwork. But on this particular occasion, the atmosphere was far from relaxed and as he swivelled around in his large leather desk chair, it was evident from his expression that the gravity of the day’s events had returned to haunt him.

“Relax, Farid,” the General’s deep baritone suddenly cut through the tension, in an address he might easily have been making to himself. Staring directly at his elder son while clipping off the end of a Cabana, he continued: “I want you to know that whatever is said within this room will stay right here, never going any further, never leaving the trust of this family.” Major Yudi nodded in conformity, turning also to look towards the Captain, who now cleared his throat. “Bapak,” the elder sibling began, falteringly, swallowing in order to lubricate the dryness that had returned there, now that he realised this is it… this is the moment… my chance to wipe the slate, to start again… After pausing for a second to compose himself, he went on: “I have a number of things to say, after which I would fully understand it if you chose to disown me.” Captain Farid dropped his head. He had the look of someone who knew that a great burden was about to be lifted, but who was crestfallen all the same – ashamed, in fact, that the course he had chosen to follow had ultimately led him to this particular moment in time and space. “Father, I have struggled with myself in terms of whether I should tell all… or if, in fact, it might be better to hold something back. I’ve wrestled with the problem all the way here, and I’m now convinced that I will only be able to break free from this… from what is consuming me if I tell all: so here it is. I’m… I’m sorry… I just want to warn you now, dearest Papa, that you’ll… you’ll be shocked by what I’m about to say, so please be prepared for the worst and… and above all… I beg you… I beg you to forgive me.”

Strangely, this precursor to the confession that was to follow uplifted the General and, to a slightly lesser extent, Major Yudi. For both men had seen the Captain’s circumstances careering out of control for some time now. It seemed at least that the person they thought him to be was now coming to terms with whatever demons had been haunting him. There was even a shared sense of pride that Farid had the guts to face them, was seemingly prepared to reveal everything, whatever the cost.

The Captain then began his sorry tale by first unveiling his trade in arms with the Colombians: whose demands, he regretted to say, he had barely been able to keep up with, and whose recalcitrant payments had now begun starving him of cash flow. “It should have been so different,” he offered at one point, to the assent of his father and kid brother alike. “If they’d kept to their side of the bargain, I’d have brought thousands of dollars into the family coffers by now.” Admitting for the first time the failure of his enterprise, he now felt foolish that it was not working out as planned – that the risk he had taken in setting up the scam had so far shown such little reward. But neither his elder son’s morals nor the relative lack of success of the illicit commercial venture he had embarked upon bothered the General one iota, the old man nodding his encouragement throughout his son’s preamble. The only flicker of anxiety to flash momentarily across his face came at the mention of the Komdak Detective by the name of Adi. The asshole who had been the aggressor, back there at Sate Blora. But this concern passed quickly, with a mental note to call the Chief Superintendent there – pulling rank if necessary. Then, while sucking on his Cabana, the General barely managed to suppress a smile at his son’s description of how he had organised the demise of his treacherous driver. For turncoats were, of course, universally loathed within the military.

Now that he was almost beginning to enjoy the process, the old man failed to notice that his elder son was starting to lose a little of his confidence as he stuttered towards what was intended to be the grand finale. The description of what a deceased hooker named Bonny had witnessed; the secret that was known, too, by the filthy, prying Detective the Captain had tried to kill, as recently as an hour ago. For up until now, everything the General had heard was manageable, could be quickly put to bed, erased – proved, even, to have never existed. The wily old General had the solutions to all of that, no problem!

But the big secret was not yet out.

posted by Kirk at 12:44 am