Abdul and Lina.
A Short Story by Max Lane
He didn’t know what people would have thought if they could see him now. His mouth was wide open, his jaws aching from the stretching gape. It was if he was screaming. In fact he was, but there was no sound – except the horrific screech inside his mind. His hands gripped the metal frame under the bottom bunk that he was sitting on. He could feel the sharp steel edge cutting into his hand, but he couldn’t let go. The scream inside his head continued.
Was it his pain, he felt, or hers too Was it a pain they shared? She left crying, her cheeks wet from so many tears and her eyes red.
Or was it just his guilt He glanced down to his arm, just below the short sleeve. He could feel it, but only see it in his mind’s eye. He had told the Indian that he was going to break it off with her.
“It is impossible.” He had said, this time his eyes watering, the tears welling up. “It is impossible. She will be by herself with the child. I promised I would help. I shouldn’t have. I knew it was impossible.”
“It is not your child.”
“I know, but I promised.” He could feel too the fear of the pain he would soon inflict.
“Ok, you will feel guilty. You will have a guilt boil for a while.”
A guilt boil.
Now sitting on the bunk, alone in the cabin, he could see a festering, yellow, pussy boil, almost bubbling ooze on his arm.
His soundless scream continued.
The ship suddenly surged. A big swell. Then it settled but the movement startled him. He let go of the frame and looked at the red marks across his hands. He closed his eyes to try to resume control over his feelings. He stopped the silent pain-filled screech. He already missed her. It was his first ever love, even if only so brief.
But he knew. His task must come first. The ship was in Singapore harbour. His mind turned to how he would get ashore. He had no passport. It was 1967 and there was no way a former party activist could get a passport – except to a mass grave. He already knew what he would need to do tonight when it was dark. It scared him. It would not be easy.
Getting on board was easy, normal: in any case his comrades had organised it for him.
The becak still had a picture of Sukarno painted on its two sides, with a red and white background. The one in front, bearing Sarinah and Joko, was dark blue and had stars and a crescent moon. It was quite close in front and he stared intently and the drivers calves. He had seen pictures of thick wire cable in a magazine in an article about bridges. That’s what he thought of when he saw the calves harden as the man peddled. The becak driver was Javanese. They had chatted before the journey to Joko’s place started. He had been a farmer until two years ago, but the paddy was too small for the five brothers, so he left for Jakarta and became a tukang becak, a becak driver. He was a Javanese whose skin should have been the colour of a ripe sawo fruit, a perfect, light chocolate brown. But he was almost black from the sun. He looked sixty but was probably only 40. His muscles in a long, thick, wiry cable shape as he bore his two passengers up a hill. His shoulders hunched as he leaned forward so as to be able to push down harder on the pedals. There was sweat all around his neck. He was a party member and taking them for free. One day, nobody will have to work like an animal his anger spoke out inside him.
They stopped. Joko hopped out and came back. “We will walk from here, through the lanes. Less . Our meeting is in a warung. Better to just be seen arriving by foot.”
The three of them got out, said goodbye to the two becak drivers, and headed into the lane. They walked among the huts and rooms, along the narrow lane cement pathway. There were plenty of people about but ignored the three. were dressed neatly, but still shabbily enough not to seem alien. They all wore simple sandals. People were talking and chatting in front of the dark, little places they called home. There were children hanging around here and there. Occasionally some were playing marbles. A lot of sweeping. So the kampung was alive enough but somehow still seemed depressed .
15 minutes later, they stopped. They could see a road ahead. They had zigged and zagged inside the kampung’s of lanes just to make sure they weren’t followed. “You stay here”, said Joko. Joko and Sarinah walked onto the road and turned right. stood there alone. He looked down onto the narrow sewerage gutter than ran alongside the lane. It was black and seemed shinily thick. What looked like a child’s turd floated in it, rubbing up against one edge of the drain. Otherwise it had been kept clean of rubbish. It smelled, however, just a little. A woman was sitting on a jerry-made, wooden bench outside her place. She was grinding chilli in a granite pestel . That was a better smell, he thought. He could smell the pungent perfume of kentjur being mixed in. She didn’t notice him, but he watched her. She was in her twenties, he thought. Beautiful too; Somehow the exhaustion on her face and in the way her arms moved didn’t detract from it. Her feet were splayed; . Her clothes looked clean, but faded.
“Come on!” Sarinah was back.
They were at the warung within a few minutes. He was sipping on sweet, hot tea. It was good, especially being hot.
“So this is him, We’ll call you Abdul from here on in, ok?” the man who spoke was very short and very thin.
“Yes,” he answered. “Ok Abdul.”
“You’re the only one of us who has escaped from a prison.”
“Maybe.” Abdul answered.
“You killed a guard.”
“We need you to go to Singapore. We have to make contact with comrades out of Indonesia who can help with money.”
“There are a lot of party members and also people from the mass organisations studying overseas or who were on delegations visiting fraternal countries. They can’t come back now. Some have access to funds. We need their help. We can give you an address in Singapore but you will have to memorise it. We have tickets for you on a boat. It is taking transmigrants to Medan, but it will stop also in Singapore harbour. Will you go?”
“I will be coming back, yes?”
He didn’t answer. Sipped his tea. Added a spoon of sugar and stirred again.
“If you can find a way back, yes, probably. Our contact might tell you to go on further.”
Abdul tensed. The last two years, since September 30, 1965, had been terrible. He had lost scores of friends. Taken by the army: to gaol, or worse. His brother had come home his back gashed from being whipped with a dried, spiked eel. They had taken him again before it even healed. All members o f the party and anybody who had campaigned for Sukarno and Socialisme ala Indonesia were disappearing. Abdul had been taken himself and put in a prison but had escaped. Since then he had been helping hide people as well as circulating leaflets defending Sukarno. He remembered the farmers. He remembered the straining body of the tukang becak. He remembered his brother. He would not give in.
“You must go.” Sarinah spoke. She knew he wanted to stay and keep working in the underground.
“Yes.” Abdul agreed.
Three days later he was on the ship. They had got him a deck class ticket, the cheapest. There were about 30 cabins, but most of the people were crowded in the cargo hold, the gangways and on deck. He sat down to claim his tiny spot among hundreds of people. He had two big families on either side of him, transmigrating to Sumatra. He could see a few white people. In the shipping office on the Jakarta wharf he had heard them called “backpackers”, young people travelling on the cheap. “They travel the world at will”, he thought to himself, “the Westerners.”
It was a PELNI ship but, strangely, with a Japanese crew. Abdul had never been on a ship before. He didn’t want to stand so close so as to be pressing his nose against the glass. It seemed to an area for passengers to sit and rest. There were six sets of big chairs, four in each set. They looked they were covered in leather, but he hadn’t seen such big chairs and such shiny leather before. The tables were low-set and seemed to be made from beautiful dark brown wood. Not teak, he thought foreign wood. But the doors were locked. There was also a rope across the doors. No big, comfortable chairs for any of the three thousand people jam packed into the sweaty holds and corridors. Abdul was suddenly glad he was on the deck. At least there was fresh air.
He wandered the deck. There were hundreds of children. Families were tramsmigrating. The children swarmed around shouting and playing games. Adults shouted at them when they trampled on their mats. He walked down some steps into the inside of the ship. People everywhere. “My people,” he thought. They seemed to be mostly Javanese, but he heard other dialects also being spoken, especially Sundanese. In the corridors, the air wasn’t too bad. There seemed to be some fresh air flowing, though he couldn’t see where from. Occasionally, somebody would come out of a cabin, he caught a glimpse inside. Four bunks, two on top of each other. A small table and a round window. The toilets were off the corridor. He went in to one to piss. “No water!” he realised. It was already smelling of urine and faeces and the ship hadn’t left yet. It would a journey of two days and nights to Singapore. “But my people will be here for days to get to north .”
Down another flight of stairs, there were more full of people. Then the great shock. . He stared from the doorway. There was no point in going inside. It was just too crowded. “If the boat gets into trouble, how would they get out?” he thought. He shuddered. Actually, he was angry. It was things like this that got him into the movement in the first place. It was wrong.
Back up on deck, he went back to his mat. He thanked the matronly, largish woman beside him for keeping his place for him. He down on his back. Looked up at the late afternoon sky and fell asleep. The ship was long out of harbour when he awoke. He had been exhausted. He found a place , not far from his mat. He looked down at the green-, never stopping watery movement. He looked out. There was nothing but sea. Along the ship, several people were lowering buckets on ropes.
“What are they doing?” he asked the person next to me.
“They will sell the water for bathing. There is no other water,” she replied. Abdul hadn’t noticed at first that she was a woman. He turned to look at her properly. He was fascinated by her face. It was beautiful, but not in some classical way. Not like the young Javanese women from Solo he had seen, or from Bali. It was strong. The eyes watched. . The smile was happy, not just for appearances. She was holding the hand of a child, a boy about ten years old. He wore neat clothes, worn thin from age and constant washing without soap, which would have been too expensive, and using punishing stones.
“You are going to Medan,” Abdul asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “my sister and her husband are already there. My name is Lina.”
She was forward, he thought, giving her name like that. Like a comrade.
“My name is Abdul. I am from Semarang.”
“I am from a village south of Cilacap.”
“You have one child?”
“Yes, his father died soon after he was born. So just one. He was ill and died. We don’t know what it was. There was no doctor in our village.” The happiness vanished momentarily.
The boy tugged at her hand and pointed to seagulls sitting on the water. She gave him a swig of water from a thermos.
“Our water will run out soon. We will only have enough money to buy from the passengers selling water for the first two days.”
Abdul didn’t say anything. He felt lonely for her. And worried. He looked beyond her over her shoulder at the other sea, the sea of people out all over the deck.
“Can we move next to you.
“I don’t know you.”
“The man next to me is not nice. He says impolite things. I am a little frightened.”
“Very well,” he said.
“Excuse me, Bu?” Abdul addressed his matronly neighbour. “Can we fit in Ibu Lina her boy here too They are alone. Her husband died of illness.”
“Please, please,” she replied. “There is room.”
Lina and the started chatting. The boy fell asleep. Abdul got up again, restless, and wandered the ship.
“Watch out, mas, be careful,” the man spoke to Abdul in Javanese. He spoke softly, but clearly, in low Javanese, but politely. He called Abdul “mas”, big brother. Abdul was startled and looked at him more closely. He was the same age as Abdul, in his early twenties, sparkling eyes clouded with concern, and wore office clothes, though very crumpled.
“Sorry, what, mas?”
“He is a policeman, the man who has been watching you since this morning.” His eyes pointed over his shoulder. Abdul saw the man with the short cropped hair. .
“Why would he be watching me?” Abdul was sure nobody would know he was a party member in hiding: indeed on a task. He was not from Jakarta and, most of those whom he did not know in Jakarta were dead or in prison or in the underground.
“There are not many young, single men on the boat. Almost all families. There are always intel on the ships, looking for PKI families trying to get out of Java.”
Abdul stared at him. The main was poker-faced, but his right hand, the policeman couldn’t see it, briefly touched Abdul’s leg.
“Better get off in Singapore. Don’t wait for Medan. Try get into a cabin. Some of the foreigners in the cabins are taking in people if you pay them. There are a couple of Indians doing that.”
Yes, stay inside cabin until Singapore, he thought.
“One Indian is in the cabin at the end of Gang A1. Here, some water off me now, then I am gone.”
Abdul gave him some rupiah and took a big bottle of water. It still had the peanut oil label on it.
Abdul wandered around. The policeman shifted position so he could watch Abdul, but didn’t follow him downstairs.
He knocked on the Indian’s door. A tall bearded man opened it. Abdul could see it was a better cabin with just one double bunk and two chairs. It was marked second class on the door. They bargained, Abdul in broken English. The Indian wanted Abdul to take shifts with others. He was really just renting the bed and access to the 2nd class toilets. Abdul needed the cabin to hide but he didn’t want to say that.
“I have a woman and child with me. We need the cabin the whole time.”
The Indian demanded more money. Abdul had been given a good wad of money by Sarinah and Joko before he left. “You will need to buy Singapore dollars when you get there and find a place to stay. It might take you a few days to find the contact. We only have an old address.”
Abdul said he would pay when they were all in the cabin. The Indian agreed. But he insisted he must have the bottom bunk at night. The woman and the boy would have to sleep on the floor.
“A man was asking about you,” said Lina when he got back to the mat.
“Yes, very nosy,” said the matronly ibu. Her husband was still snoring on his mat on the other side of her. “Rude too.”
Abdul leaned close to Lina to whisper about the cabin. But he felt his heart beat a bit harder too. He was crouching on the floor and was unbalanced and put his hand on her leg to lean. I have just met you, he thought, why am I like this?
“I have got a cabin below. There is space for you and your boy. Get your things and come with me now.” Abdul wanted to move quickly while the policeman wasn’t around.
Lina looked at him with wide, open questioning eyes. Just for a second. Then she rolled up the mat, woke up the boy, gave him the water to carry, though it was heavy and she took the rest. He took them a long way around so their ibu neighbour and the others crowded around them would give misleading directions if the policeman asked. The Indian was waiting and let them in. He smiled lecherously at Lina and she shuddered.
For 36 hours they slept, when the Indian was there, and talked when he went out. The boy bought crackers and bananas from a couple in the gangway outside. They knew what it would be like on the boat and had brought food to sell. They charged a fortune. Abdul paid for it. He gave Lina extra money too. He soon saw that Lina had too little money. She burst into tears weaping when he saw that. Malu, she said, and Javanese for ashamed. He comforted her with an embrace, as awkward as it was. The boy stared.
She told him about her village. The villagers were rice-farmers mainly, though not on their own land. Most of the paddy was owned by three families. The farm labourers were given a measly share and went hungry. She knew that Bung Karno had brought in land distribution, she said, everybody in the village was talking about it all the time. But the landowners ignored it. At one end of the village, they had occupied the land for a while. But soldiers and police came, and men with machetes, and chased them off. Those labourers left the village. An extra soldier was stationed there after that. She said the Bung Karno followers still had meetings and the people got angrier and would go to the local big town to join demonstrations.
He looked closely at Lina. She liked talking about the politics. Well, he thought, the whole people had been listening to Bung Karno on the radio for years. He was in the Party and believed in their work, but it was Sukarno and his arguments that gave his mind the confidence that he was in the right. As a party member he read the Daily and it was the daily excerpts from Sukarno’s early revolutionary speeches, that he liked most. “No, not talk less and work more, but talk more and work as well” was one of his favourite speeches. The people have to know, to understand, Abdul had always thought. Lina had started down that path, he could see.
“But my Ibu was against politics,” she said. “Her brother was in the Army and all the family had to be against politics.” She held Abdul’s hand. “She was hebat, strong and could do everything, but she was against politics.” Lina told how she had five brothers and a sister. The brothers had joined the army. The sister had married a school teacher and been sent to Sumatra. “She is in Medan now,” she said hoping. She didn’t mention her father. She didn’t mention her husband either. But she could describe the paddy-fields in great detail. “I learned in school, in primary school, she said about c. That’s what makes them so green,” she said, “the green is living.”
Abdul knew the village well. Not her village, but one the same. Green and fruit trees everywhere. And exhausted farmers. And their women. Bending over cutting the rice stalk by single stalk with their little bamboo ani-ani scissors. Their backs ached and ached, and then they would stand-up straight and chat and joke while they re-positioned their spines. The village women. “Including my mother”, he thought. “Ibu.”
His father too worked in the paddy. Sometimes he would sit next to his father on a bamboo bench under a bamboo covered shelter near the paddy, which was owned by the richest family in the area. His father would tell him the ins and outs of how a rice plant grew, what it needed and what it didn’t like. But, for some unknown reason, when Abdul thought about those sessions, he most remembered his fathers’ toes. They were splayed out wide. His father had never worn shoes his whole life. But the feet looked webbed. The purest was stuck between the toes, still wet but sticky, half-hard enough not to be dislodged by the act of walking. After talked, and his father was ready to go home, he would grab a stick, bend over and scrape away that fertile mud. They would walk home then where his father would wash his feet properly with water before going into the house, .
Lina’s father was probably the same. But he guessed her husband had died young. He told her about his father’s toes and it made her cry. They embraced again. He kissed her on the forehead. They down on the narrow bunk, and embraced and he kissed her many times on the forehead. They didn’t make love. It wasn’t something either of them would have thought doing. Not that making love before marriage wasn’t common in the village. It was, and then quickly followed by marriage, and often not long after divorce. The passion there was a of living close together and being lonely for something more than the daily life the village could offer. No, they were a gentle souled couple: falling-in-love and their blood stirred, but a kiss on the forehad and an embrace was enough. And sharing their stories, sometimes pulling the boy up on the bunk to listen also.
The lecherous smiling Indian wasn’t lecherous. He turned out to be kind and would bring some food back from the 2nd Class dining room, even a fried chicken leg, a skinny but tasty chicken leg. He seemed to like listening to them , though he knew no Indonesian or Malay. He liked to show the boy card tricks. He told them he was getting off in Singapore. Abdul didn’t say that he would do the same, not to Lina either.
After the first 24 hours together, in the same room, sharing, talking, embracing, and resting a while, he knew he was in trouble. And he had done a terrible thing. He didn’t understand how he could have done it, and so quickly. He told her he would help her settle in Medan. She was worried her sister might be hard to find or not there. She whispered very softly close up to his ear: my sister was in Gerwani, the huge organisation of communist women. She moved away and then back again: she was a leader. There was one tear making a line down her right cheek. Gerwani women were being arrested, or killed, or raped and killed. “She might not be there.”
Abdul told her he would go with her.
He knew he couldn’t. He made himself forget this and they fell in love some more during the next twelve hours. Their hearts beat with excitement, but they beat faster too because of the sense of impending pain.
It was black outside. The dirty porthole meant that you couldn’t see any stars, but the night blackness was there hovering outside. Lina had taken the boy to the toilet. The ship had stopped. They were in Singapore. It was 7 in the evening. He would have to be gone before daylight. He would have to tell her when she came back.
He never in his inner will about getting off the ship and carrying out his assignment. He had committed to a cause. He believed in it. Bung Karno had made speeches about character-building. If you believed in a cause, you must fight for it. Soul! Struggle! These were the words he believed in. Strength of character. It didn’t mean that he did not think about the temptation of looking after Lina and the boy, named Muhammed after his father, Muhammed Hasan. He loved both their faces. Their voices.
“Son, come here, now!” he remembered his father’s voice and face. Both were so often tired, lined – even his voice seemed to have lines of exhaustion through it. That was ten years ago now, Abdul’s father had died. Of old age, at 50. Abdul had always been drawn to faces. After he joined the party and was assigned to working in the Peasants Union, he saw so many faces. Young and old, but all worn out. That was the best – seeing bursts of happy energy banish the tiredness with great smiles as they discussed the organisation, planned an occupation, or made jokes about the local landowner and moneylender, the “village devils”, the party had named them.
So many faces. And arms, and bulging calves, and bent backs, and sun-blackened skin.
And deserving souls. Like those jammed in the cargo hold below. “My people,” Abdul thought.
He saw again in his mind’s eye, Lina’s beautiful face. More oblong than round. High cheekbones. Black hear streaming back, down to the waist. Eyes always saying something. Intelligent. Absorbing. Worried then smiling and then her eyes loving her son.
He had told her and she had gone out to cry. So he had sat their wailing inside himself. With his own pain, his puss-oozing guilt blister, and maybe some of her pain too. He didn’t see her again that night. Though his inner wailing came back.
He asked his new Indian friend to help him leave the ship. . They had wrapped his wallet and money up tightly in some plastic, and prepared another plastic bag as well, and some string the Indian had found somewhere. There was one part of the deck reserved for cabin passengers and at 3am it was deserted. The Indian held the bag while Abdul stripped down to his underwear. He took off his shoes and socks. They were bundled up tightly in the plastic and tied to his wrist. He climbed up onto the railing. Unlike the Indian, Abdul had no passport or visa to disembark in Singapore. He would have to jump and swim ashore. It was about half a mile to the nearest land. Abdul could swim thanks to the local, strong flowing river near his village.
He thanked the Indian for his help.
He swing his legs over the railing, so he was in a sitting position.
He could hear the water but only really seen the moon’s shimmer on it, enough to know it was there. “Lina,” he cried, tearfully inside. He saw his fathers’ face too. And he saw Lina look at the boy. He kissed her forehead in his mind’s eye again.
The Indian heard the splash. Abdul was gone.
The Indian wasn’t worried. He could see that Abdul had an important task he had to do and which he would finish.
The moon glanced a beam off the white sand beach on St John’s Island. It looked like a welcome smile.