Book Excerpts

Book Excerpt: Scared wet dog

scared wet dogEverything smelled of scared wet dog.

The four of them were wearing light-reflecting vests, each holding a corner of bright orange canvas sagging with a body – dead or alive I did not know.

 They paused to align their bearings then hurried towards me with refreshed haste. The route to safety was precarious. A downpour two days ago had washed off another chunk of the gorge wall and the bridge had to be replaced with a makeshift one that had arrived three days late. Instructions had to be given loud and clear before rescuers made their way onto the bridge and then to a helicopter hovering overhead  bearing empty hammock on a tag line. There was no turning back or second takes; the floodwater thundering beneath the bridge would drown all conversation. A moment of doubt or a mistimed step could cut down a life or condemn an already faltering one. The only option was to get to the other side.

The temperature drop was swift with rising wind and the constant helicopter downwash. The sky started to crowd, the clouds stealing more and more precious light to sundown. The generator-powered lights, cranes and bulldozers would soon be overwhelmed by utter darkness in a landscape of half-submerged zinc roofs and mangled streetlamps and the burden of unfinished work. The stench of rotting corpses would rise through the wetness in the morning, getting stronger the next morning and the next. 

I received a message that I had to get back to the camp in Cibinong. It was a thirty-minute trip from the disaster zone. I had not paid any attention to the medic team closing in on the latest victim with their medical trappings: gauze and drips and syringes. But I could not help knowing that the victim was dead as their muffled voices dropped, the rustle of canvas as each one of them slumped back into themselves.

 My feet hit terra firma: levelled and fine, compacted volcanic soil. There were tents pitched in the common compound of a hamlet. Polaroids of faces of the dead, their belongings and macabre remains were serial-numbered and tacked onto two notice boards. The cork board on one of them was coming loose from too many thumbtack marks and the beginnings of a termite colony. The smell of chemical antiseptic and biological rot hovered over the camp in a dull, invisible fog.

“He’s over there!” A volunteer nurse caught up and ran next to me with a clipboard and a box of gloves and bandages. She was a pretty girl; I could not decide if she was local or Filipino. Her young face told me she had a big heart, but its lines told me she was running on empty.

I was running on air. Faces around me were at first somewhat sympathetic, but then they loomed closer; worry and fear were loud and round in their eyes and faces. These were displaced victims stripped of their homes and families, rescuers and volunteers; it was hard telling their faces apart from those of the dead and the dying hovering among them. 

He wouldn’t talk to anyone but you,” said a disembodied voice. The pretty nurse was no longer by my side. 

I almost slipped as I skidded to a halt next to a stack of old rattan chairs. Standing on them were the bare feet of a man just over his prime. My eyes traced the outline of his back, the loose skin hanging off his shoulder blades, the curve of his upper arms to his neck, then rough, thick rope perhaps for tethering boats, looped into a noose. The rope connected to a main branch in a series of artful-looking knots, as if they were done by a sailor or a soldier. The only light was from a kerosene lamp held between the tree roots. His shadow was undefined on the ground, its outline broken by the shadow of leaves and branches.

“You’ve come,” he said. I knew that voice.

“Let’s talk. I’m sure there’s a way.” Sweat gathered on my upper lip.

“There’s no way. My wife’s dead.” His voice was muted by tears, even shame.

“I’m sure you have other family.”

 “A daughter,” he said. “She’s dead too.”

The man kicked the chairs to the ground. I leapt and embraced his legs, tiptoeing as much as I could. I screamed for help, but no one heard a sound. The camp seemed so far from me; it seemed to diminish until it was only a distant cluster of faint lights. Inch by inch, the ball of my feet sunk into the ground, then my ankles and calves.

The next thing I knew I was looking up at the wall of my bedroom in my Tanjong Pagar shop house; the amber reading light was a soft halo over my bed head and a Paul Theroux paperback was splayed open face down on the floor, stress lines on the spine. The first sounds of the morning, of a large vehicle, perhaps a bus, flitted past my window. The cover of my bolster was damp. In a daze, I went to the fan and  clicked the speed to three, climbed back into bed and switched off the light. I lay in bed with a hand over my chest, meditating on calmer, more mundane things until my heart slowed down and I fell asleep.

Book Excerpt: It would start almost normally.

It would start almost normally. She would be sitting in his living room couch, legs crossed, smiling at him, her eyes cast onto the floor. He would forget too many things when he saw her there. Too many.

Just a few weeks ago, she had promised to meet him at the Jimbaran Hotel.

He would pick her up from the lobby about an hour after she had landed at the airport and on his moped take her to the prison wall at Kerobokan. He would make a left turn onto a dirt track and ride past several vast paddy fields, until they came upon a bungalow nearing completion, overlooking a stream deeply embedded in a lush ravine.

It would be such a hot day he could almost see the freshly cemented walls  drying. He had asked the Balinese workers to invite their families and villagers nearby to help themselves to the excess building materials. They would offer to sweep his compound or call a shaman to bless the house on an auspicious day, in exchange for some floor tiles for a new family shrine, or half a sack of cement to patch a leak.

She would smile; he knew she would.

 He would hold her hand as he took her inside the raw, empty rooms one by one, dressing them up with his dreams. In the living room, they would have a daybed and maybe even two, overlooking the river. On the walls, he would hang Balinese ceremonial masks from a street market and in the corner of a stair landing he would place a replica of the reclining Buddha. Upstairs, in the bedroom they would have their four-poster teak bed, a study table for his work, a cabinet  for his camera equipment and an armchair from where he would watch her stir at sunrise or fall asleep in the moonlight. He would want to take pictures of her writhing in his bed. Perhaps on a cool monsoon night, he would tether her ankles to the bedposts and watch her dark nipples rise and fall as he swatted them with a firm hand until the hair between her legs began to glisten. On some nights, they would sit on the balcony overlooking the paddy fields, and watch the rice stems and tillers shimmer as they were ruffled by the westward wind heralding the monsoon.

On that night, the monsoon was fast approaching, but there were no paddy fields. He had been watching the waves roll onto the endless beach all afternoon until it was dark, until the sea foam was no longer visible. It was his fifth day in the cold bed of the Jimbaran Hotel bed, and he did not even have to check his phone to listen to the voice message Tia had left just this afternoon to know that she was not joining him.

And yet today, Tia was here, at his apartment, ringing his doorbell, waiting to tell him about her photo shoot in Kuala Lumpur. He had not answered his phone, but she could hear the television from outside. Perhaps John was showering or sleeping. She would have coffee downstairs just around the corner while waiting for him. After all, he had confirmed with her just hours ago that he was in town for the coming week. She would wait until he called her back, until he was ready to welcome her back in his home.