Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas 2008

At 10:05 in room 1005, I took an orange from the complimentary fruit bowl and squeezed its juice into a shot glass. I played a little game with myself, seeing how many of the pips I could flick into the waste bin that nestled beneath the desk in my hotel room. Three out of seven. Mixing a little mineral water with the juice, I then topped up the glass with Bombay Sapphire gin. It wasn’t exactly Bucks Fizz, but it was strong. Real strong…

This was Christmas morning, 2008. The first in my life I had spent alone. No hugs, no kisses; no cards, nor presents. But at least the weather was agreeable: a low sun floated idly across an azure sky, while the morning temperature was a pleasant eighteen degrees Celsius in the shade. On stirring a short while earlier, I had seen images of Queen Elizabeth and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swap places on the television screen. Unable in the haze of rousing to determine what was being said, I struggled to make the connection. Surely the Iranian premier wasn’t also delivering a Christmas message from just over there, across the Persian Gulf?

The first gulp of the gin made me shiver as it bit my throat. But I knew it would help begin clearing the fuzziness in my head. By now, CNN was presenting its version of the year’s events. Sponsored by this… brought to you by that… each feature painted another layer of gloom on the undercoat of the blackest year in living memory: the one we would all be glad to see the back of.

Afghanistan-Iraq-China-Myanmar-Zimbabwe-Georgia-Mumbai… The miserable catalogue of natural catastrophes and man made atrocities spattered the media canvas with blood and grief. And then of course there was the global financial meltdown. The thing that now kept us awake at night. But there were a few bright spots, too. Thailand had a new, young prime minister. Educated at Oxford University, no less. There was also Boris Johnson’s “ping pong’s coming home” speech at the party after the Beijing Olympics. Eccentric, rousing, brilliant. Wiff waff! (Post this into your browser to view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsFRgIb8mAQ) And then, of course, there was Obama. Time magazine’s man of the year – the guy who’ll change things. Who says “we can”, and for whom we have great expectations. Last year they chose Putin, which greatly angered me. (See: http://kirkaustin.net/?p=54) This year, I was much happier with the verdict.

Lunchtime approached and I sat in the sun, awaiting friends. This family was one I had known for over a decade, from back in Jakarta days. Now, they were being generous enough to include me in their Christmas celebrations. We drove to a district popular with expatriates, to the home of another acquaintance (ex-Hong Kong, this time), where the turkey had been quietly barbecuing all morning, over a low heat. Among the guests, it was satisfying to see an eclectic mixture of nationalities and cultures, all sharing the spirit of Christmas while enjoying fine wine and traditional food. Algerian, Bahraini, Indonesian, British, American – the conversation was interesting, genuine and lively: the turkey, succulent. I felt honoured to be a part of this garden gathering, to be invited into their harmonious community.

It was already dark by the time we left, my next destination the familiar atmosphere of the home of another family of friends. I had first met them in Singapore almost two decades earlier: could recall, even, their son as a baby crawling across the table over lunch one day in a Boat Quay restaurant. The young man who now greeted me at the door was both courteous and self-assured, but with a healthy glint of mischief in his eyes, nonetheless. I had always had the greatest respect – admiration, in fact – for the easy way in which this family knitted together, and tonight was to prove no exception to this observation. Carols soothed in the background while the glorious smells coming from the kitchen invited hunger pangs, despite the earlier feast. The conversation was urbane; the food truly scrumptious. Walnut stuffing, turkey breast, roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts – all capped off by a deliciously moist home made Christmas pudding. After two Christmas dinners in one day, I would need little to eat tomorrow.

On Boxing Day I woke to a new experience. Thick fog shrouded the hotel, and it was actually cold outside. From my time spent on the water in Hong Kong, I deduced that the mist was what meteorologists call advection fog – the type caused by a difference in temperature between the air and the sea. Difficult for the sun to burn off, more and more of it is produced until the relative temperatures of the two terraqueous media begin to narrow.

Starting a simple breakfast, I munched on a date while slicing in half a Granny Smith apple. What excellent teeth the old lady must’ve had, I thought, when subsequently biting into its crunchy exterior. By now, it was 10:05 again in room 1005. The sun seemed at last to be winning the day, its first rays poking through the haze. Telling myself that it was in celebration of this solar triumph – but in what was actually becoming ritual – I sipped my first gin of the morning. Proper, this time: with tonic, for which I’d splashed out a whole Dinar (almost two Pounds) for just one 300ml can. (There’s room service for you…) Phooo… I blew through my lips. Christ, that’s strong. A blasphemy to which, in response, I could almost hear my late Grandfather (mother’s side) chastise: “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

Sometime around noon I was again fortunate to be picked up by my ex-Jakarta friend for a tour around the northern part of the island. Accompanied by his cute ten-year-old daughter, we drove out to the Busaiteen seashore in his 6.2 litre Chevrolet tank, across a vast expanse of dusty reclaimed land. On our way to the sea wall, where we would search for signs of sea life, we passed the almost surreal sight of migrant Indians, resplendent in their whites, playing cricket against the backdrop of a city now illuminated by the low sun: 4-runs-in-the-desert.jpg Later, we dozed through some rented movies after snacking on the food of kings: crisps and beer. An early night followed this second consecutive day of festive excess.

It was the day after Boxing Day and another glorious morning. Somewhat spoiled, however, by the news from CNN that a significant portion of the Pakistani army was withdrawing from its northwest frontier with Afghanistan to take up position instead on the border with India. So the Mumbai terrorists’ plan had worked, and the focus on the war against the Al-Qaeda training camps in the tribal regions of western Pakistan was, at least temporarily, being thwarted.

A sorry contemplation, there at 10:05 in room 1005, where Christmas 2008 had come and gone, but the ritual continued to be respected…

posted by Kirk at 7:20 am  

Friday, December 12, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (80)

“Doctor will be so glad you’re here, ’Bu,” said the receptionist, as Ramani enquired of her son. “Can you confirm what your blood type is?” “B negative. Now where is my boy? I must see him. Now,” she insisted, a little too assertively. “Of course,” the other woman, slightly put out, agreed. Without adding to their exchange, the pair then swished through the doors that led to the ward, while the old man who had accompanied her up to this point, seeming to know his place, sat dumbly on a plastic chair beside a couple sat like bookends.

Ramani could barely recognise the figure to which she was led. It must be a mistake. That’s not Anath… He’s… he’s not… not pale, like that. Not that colour… And indeed, as a result of the oxygen mask, the wires that criss-crossed all around him and – not least – his deathly pallour, this mother could be forgiven for not recognising her own son, such was his dramatic transformation from a healthy young man into a waif clinging to life in a place that had only reluctantly admitted him for treatment. Ramani suddenly gasped as the realisation that this was, after all, her boy finally hit her.

“He’s going to be OK,” said the receptionist, noticing. “The worst is over,” she further reassured her, placing a hand on her arm. “Now, we need some of your blood, ’Bu: quite a lot, in fact” – a statement that produced the merest of nods in response, as Ramani slumped into a chair beside Anath’s bed, her hand still covering her mouth in shock.

By now, the boy had been lying immobile for several hours; the optimism the receptionist expressed more an attempt to lighten the mood than something that was based on medical prognosis. But such was their bond that from somewhere deep inside him, the flicker of a smile began twitching around the corners of the boy’s mouth, as he somehow sensed the presence of his mother, close by. Perhaps it was the fact that his father had never been around that had led to the development of this near-psychic attachment between the two; but whatever, her being there seemed to provide an instant filip, as if this alone boosted his chances of survival.

“Ah, you must be the mother,” said the Doctor, as he suddenly swept into the ward to cast his eyes upon Ramani for the first time. “We’re going to need some blood from you, Ibu… Ibu–” “Ramani. It’s Ramani. And you can take all you like,” she replied. “Only bring the equipment here: I want to stay with my boy.” Turning, the Doctor could not help but take a second look at her: still stunning, despite the years.

Pushing along a trolley upon which the requisite equipment was housed, he returned with an orderly to find that the boy had woken properly for the first time since his admission, a stream of bile dangling from one corner of his mouth, while the mask had been roughly pulled to one side. Ramani was standing over Anath, supporting his head as the convulsions rippled through his upper body. The lad retched heavily as the Doctor approached, sending out a shower of sputum that spattered his mother’s legs. “Nurse!” the Doctor called out, to no-one who was listening.

Anath’s throat was sore: parched. “Ma?” he rasped, as his eyes at last began to focus. “S-sorr–” “Shhh…” she responded, now laying the back of her hand on his forehead. God, I’m thirsty, Anath now realised. As if by telepathy, Ramani rose to search for water, while the Doctor placed a hand on her shoulder with perhaps a little too much familiarity, gesturing for her to remain seated for the transfusion. Making conversation, he then began to relate his prognosis of the boy’s condition: “You’ll probably find this difficult to believe, but your boy’s been lucky.” Neither mother nor son responded. “The bullet almost passed right through him. We found it just under the skin at the back of his shoulder.” Smiling, the Doctor held up a petri dish containing the offending item. “Can’t let him keep it, I’m afraid,” he said, shaking it around. “The police will no doubt want it to try and identify the gun.” He tucked the covered dish back into the front pocket of his gown. “The good news is that it missed everything. Miraculous, really: no major artery, muscle or anything else was impacted or torn. We’ve thoroughly cleaned and sealed the wound and, apart from some bruising and pain as it heals inside, he’ll feel very little ill-effect.”

But mother and son were ignoring the Doctor’s monologue, staring quietly instead into each other’s eyes. “Ma,” the young man began again, his voice cracking with the dryness of his throat. “How did… you know? What made you come here?” “Just call it a mother’s instinct,” Ramani softly replied.

posted by Kirk at 11:57 pm  

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Number One Under Heaven (60)

The journey to Qinzhou was an uncomfortable ride on sticky seats, over worn out track. Blake kept close vigil on the Zhongguo ren sat opposite him, instinctively unable to trust the man. “Want some fruit?” Elle piped up, a little way into the journey, while plucking a pear from her bag. “No,” replied Blake testily, before: “Sorry. It’s just tha–” “It’s OK,” his lover reassured him. “Don’t worry, Adam. We’ll be there soon.”

Outside, the indistinct Chinese countryside was flashing by – mile after mile of agricultural smallholding criss-crossed by countless dirt tracks and punctuated, on occasion, by the random clusters of buildings forming yet another nowhere town. The day itself had turned into something as dreary as the expressions on the passengers’ faces, while the sky was as heavy with foreboding as Blake’s heart. He was about to say something when, unannounced, the pickpocket suddenly stood up. Without hesitation, Blake reached out and grabbed him – a move that caused some consternation among those sitting about them. Hearing the petty thief’s grunted objections, Elle was prompted to speak. “Adam – he needs the toilet. Let him go,” she instructed. Releasing his clutch, Blake was nonetheless tempted to follow the man, fearing his intentions. But what can he do, anyway? he suddenly figured. Jump to his death? No: if the lowlife had changed his mind and was planning to make a run for it, he would do so upon arrival in Qinzhou. That much was surely obvious. Blake made a mental note to keep a particularly close eye on the man when they reached the end of their journey.

Some time after the petty crook had returned to his seat, the squeal of brakes announced that they had reached their destination – the grimy platforms of the port city’s central railway station sliding ever more slowly past, while the train itself began to shudder. Blake took up the rear as the three alighted, sticking closely to the man’s back lest his earlier hunch proved correct. “I’m starving. Can we eat first?” said Elle as they stepped down, with what was more of an instruction than a plea. Blake silently nodded his assent, after which they trudged off through the station turnstiles and out into the street to find a café. Noticing at this point the helplessness and fear etched into his face, Elle quietly interlinked her arm with Blake’s: an act which almost brought a smirk to the pickpocket’s face – something he thought better of, however, once he caught sight of the woman’s knowing glare.

“The first thing we need is a phonebook – we need a list of all the car hire companies,” she encouraged, as they waited for their dim sum to arrive. “You’re right: they’d have used a hire car,” Blake replied. “The old woman said it was big. Black, right?” “Yeah, and he said he thinks it was a Toyota.” Elle jabbed a hostile thumb in the petty thief’s direction. “Fucking animals,” said Blake, staring directly at him. “Anger’s going to get us nowhere,” his lover quickly replied, denying her own feelings. “Sorry – you’re right,” Blake admitted, glumly. Squirming as if he could sense what was being said, the man opposite them had nowhere to look, his eyes darting about in search of some kind of distraction. “And there’s another thing,” she added. “Which is?” “He’s not the ringleader, this one here.” Again, she spiked a thumb in his direction. “Not clever enough.” “No?” “No. He’s just a pawn. A paid hand. There’s not a single original thought inside that fucking wooden skull of his…” “And you say I need to calm down,” Blake chastised her.

It was just then that Elle, ignoring his comment, noticed the ashen look that had begun to creep over their reluctant associate’s face. Following his stare, her eyes were directed to the front page of a local daily, where the headlines bore witness to the sorry tale of suspected murder: that of a promising young Customs official, no less. She noticed that the man appeared fixated by the garish characters announcing the poor fellow’s demise, accompanied as was customary by a series of touched-up photographs, resplendent in vivid red.

“Adam!” she suddenly burst, her mind at once contriving the possibility of a link. “He’s scared! I think… I think there might be a connection.” “What’re you talking about?” Blake responded, not quite catching her point. “Look at him: he’s fucking petrified!” “I have no idea what you’re on about,” Blake continued, flustering. “The headlines in the newspaper! Some Customs official was found dead on the quayside – I… I think there’s some kind of link… It’s like… like he knows something! Look at his expression!”

With this, Blake’s mind and body synchronised in a sudden burst of activity – every ounce of frustration he possessed crystallising into a parcel of energy he directed with shocking, unexpected force into his hapless victim’s face. The outflow of blood was sickening, drenching their clothes and spattering the tabletop with globules of scarlet fluid that was, to all intents, still living. Elle retched before reeling away from where they were sat, while Blake, swallowing, grabbed the semiconscious man by the arm and began dragging him towards the door.

In his other hand, the copy of the local rag remained tightly gripped.

posted by Kirk at 10:37 pm  

Friday, December 5, 2008

Through The Godless Hours (79)

It was not a religious affair, Ketu knew: more a simple dispute between a few kampung folk and the man who controlled the coffers, the Lurah. Nevertheless, he knelt to seek the advice of his God, as he did in all other matters. And on this occasion, as in others, he was rewarded for his faith. Of course, it now occurred to him. That’s what I should do. Go and see him again. Give him a chance to do the right thing. Change his mind. Careful not to end his prayers with unseemly haste, he nevertheless curtailed his contemplations much sooner than he normally would, and made ready to slip out into the night.

Rap, rap, rap!

Ketu’s knuckles connected with the door, sharply. “’Pak Lurah! ’Pak Lurah! Open up! I need to talk! Please!” There was a lengthy pause and he was about to knock again when the door was opened inwards with such velocity that the air was sucked from behind him. “You again,” sneered the occupant, irritated at this further intrusion into what should have been a restful Sunday. “What is it now? What do you want?” “’Pak. Please. I’m appealing to your better nature. Help us out, here. In this difficult situation we’re in. We don’t have much money, and the boy has even less. I know you’re sitting on enough cash to help him out. Look – I’ve thought about what you said earlier. About your concerns. What if I were to act as the kid’s guarantor? If he doesn’t repay his debt, then I’ll take responsibility. It’ll be me who owes the money. How about that?” “I told you before: go and ask whoever it was who shot him to foot the bill. Isn’t that more appropriate?” The Lurah’s intransigence was beginning to infuriate Ketu, and it told in the next words he spoke: “’Pak Lurah, I didn’t come here to make threats. But I’m warning you that if you fail to come to our aid – fail in your duty as our leader, as I see it – then the consequences will be dire, and will be on your head.” “Get out of here with your threats!” the older man screamed back at him, now furious at the effrontery of what was, after all, a mere kampungan. “Get out, I say!” “Then on your head be it! On your head… sir!” yelled Ketu defiantly, as he disappeared off into the darkness…

In the wood-panelled study of his luxury home, the General woke with a start. Slumped in his chair, he observed the half-empty bottle of cognac on the desktop gradually take form, at an angle of approximately forty-five degrees. Forcing himself to sit upright, the next object to come into focus was his Cabana, long-extinguished but somehow still emitting its acrid stench. Was all that… some kind of… dream? the General quizzed himself, vaguely recalling the ugly exchange that had taken place between him and his elder son. His head still half-cocked, it looked almost as if the uniformed man were listening to the sound of distant artillery fire. No… No it wasn’t… the demons in his mind now intervened, teasing him. Not a dream… Oh, no… Nothing as convenient as that… No… It was real, alright… Your boy’s a bencong… A fucking banshee… Snatching up the bottle in front of him, he sloshed another three fingers into his glass, angrily. It bothered him little that almost half the liquid racing around the bowl of the goblet splashed back over its rim to spatter the desktop. Taking a large gulp, the General then exhaled through his nose, once the burn allowed. What am I going to do about him? he pondered, wearily. What… am… I going… to do?

Another set of images began to fill his mind, as this additional, heavy dose of alcohol topped up what was already in his system. His wife. Screaming. Hysterically. As if – like everything else to happen that was not quite to her liking – it was all his fault. Screeching into his face. Pummelling her fists into his broad, but sagging, chest: What have you done? What have you done? At a time he needs us more than ever, you kicked him out? What right did you have to do that? And on my behalf? You… you monster! It was after she had slammed the door behind her and left him alone to fester in his study that the Camus had been uncorked, enabling him to embark upon a one-man drinking contest – destination: oblivion.

And now he was returning there, necking the rest of the contents of his crystal goblet before pouring another huge slug, while gazing absently at the pistol lying on his desk. At first slightly out of focus, an image that slowly sharpened while his thoughts, from nowhere, began also to crystallise. And as he continued to stare at the gun, the blood drained from his face as the darkest possible scenario occurred to him, then took hold of his troubled mind. A shiver ran up his spine at the morbid contemplation. A frightening vision of his son, sufficiently unbalanced to consider taking the easy way out. No, no, no… Not that… Please! he screamed inwardly.

posted by Kirk at 10:36 pm