Monday, December 17, 2007

Steps

by Ari Methi

Sham's arms and hands twirl high over his head, darting flirtatious eyes at us. "I dreaming Egyptian belly dancers lah. Why you kacau me?" He is teasing. He knows our salary, like his, falls far short for such luxury trips.

"Wake up!" Din had shouted at Sham earlier, with a point, a light elbow jab to his ribs.

"Oi!" in a heartbeat space Sham had straightened his jacket, wiped the corners of his lips, missing a spot (I don't tell him, leaving the caked spittle on his beard fodder for a good laugh later, he's good for that, always) and began his dance.

Sham -- quite the squirrel -- proceeds to advertise he has managed another publisher 'sponsored' Egypt holiday this year. His 'creativity', condoned by our superior, is promoted by their silence. It is easy to see why as Sham paves annual 'study trip' for them. I hope not to hear where our betters are going again.

Hawaii. Sham declares, promptly describing grass skirted girls with ample chest, bare thigh and the 'entertainment' they provide with gusto. Sham has stooped teasing, he's seducing now.

Din succumb, listens rapt to Sham's return to tales of nubile young girls with smooth supple skin in shimmering skirts 'of light olive tones and western features whose hips move, sway and thrust better than dangdut superstars, better than Bollywood stars even'. I see Egypt in Din's eyes, now saucers that bare his desires.

We three late thirties men, under the pall of yellowed florescent light, look nearer to fifty. Confined to a room whose white partition has turned dusky with age, furnished in dog-eared furniture and devoid of any sense of time or place by want of any window are tasked with sanctioning next years school 'workbooks'. My voice sounds closer to sixty as I hear it.

"Our meetings have to restart. Breaks over. Need to get back to work lah." I chuckle to diffuse my interruption. "If we wanted to work, we wouldn't be here lah," Sham and Din chorus the unwritten motto. I add my laughter to their's with just enough zest, lest they think I take my job seriously. I am still laughing falsely when the next publisher knocks on the door.

Our drudge through the river of publishers resumes. Each drone their products as vital- that students need them. The same spiel rerun in infinite ways, buy my books. Listening to them I feel my brain shrivel to a prune -- the seedless type. They needn't try so hard.

All their titles will be bought, by us or someone we tell to. The directive on my orientation years ago was clear, support the printing industry. Children learn what they want anyway, my then superior preached. "Publishers are flies" she had added between giggles, "that infest our halls every year after budget day." What that makes us, I wonder? If they are flies ...?

I tune from that memory, to visit my fantasy refuge. Where tranquil beneath cloudless deep azure skies, I am sheltered by swaying palm trees, worries are drained away through toes sinking in soft giving sand, leaving me solace to savour sensual sea breezes whispering pass my skin. This is my Hawaii, Din and Sham can keep their grass skirted girls.

Then Serenity steps into the room and introduce herself into my life.

Her model silhouette, ebony silk hair and soft eyes framed by a face touched by half the lines women a decade younger barely begin her. "Call me Serene." slender wrist, soft palm, she offers a hand untouched by manual labour. She holds my hand longer than she does the others.

Serene's presentation declares she comprehends the syllabus. Innocently, she has shamed Sham. In breath and depth her knowledge exposes him as charlatan, pretender to his duties. So he attacks.

Her parries are nonchalant. Each reply bites Sham conscience, every concession made carves away pounds of his pride. Serene’s grace and dedication shames Sham, he rants after she leaves, labels her "Serene the Shark". I don't listen, feeling a void waxing within me; it's there for the rest of the day.

Our responsibilities discharged, adding further 'burden of knowledge' to next year's schoolbags, we end our workday. Leaving the room I finally pocket Serene's calling card. I switch off the lights, committing her cell number to memory as I go.

I dial her number. My emptiness wanes before her voice.

Three months of being together and the days have crept to the festival season. The subject of where either of us will be for the holidays is mutually made off limits by our common silence. One more matters for us to skirt around. She doesn't ask if I'm married, I don't ask about the stretch marks around her navel.

Serene, she doesn't call anymore. Once light with interest, hollow indifference now answers my calls to her. We whisper our feelings to each other when we meet (rarely now, after our first month of passion); her words sound distant, more to convince herself than declarations. She is pulling away.

"There's a book launching tonight," she suddenly calls to say, in the manner of one calling a pet. I agree to go, to be close to her, better to be an appendage over being forgotten. We meet at the venue, a popular upmarket nightspot. She sashays in with me in tow. I hope my desperation does not show, and if it does, not too much.

"You need a holiday," Yee tells me, obviously noticing my unease. Serene, who had introduced us, still well within earshot, turns and moves away. My eyes follow her to the writer, Jac, whose book is being launched. I notice Yee watching too. I am not surprised when Serene orbits Jac. Yee hands me a glass of wine, offers a cigarette and cocks his head towards the balcony. I take the cue.

The night air on the balcony is crisp, cold. I smoke my first cigarette in years. "She isn't easy to be with is she?" Yee probes. His soft, chubby (with a permanent cherubic smile) face lets him gets away with asking the question.

"You need a break dude, you are bone tired and worn out by her" presumptuous ... if the words weren't true. Yee continues, my silence giving him ample space to, "Everybody needs a life; she has a knack of making people dedicate theirs to her. When they do, she looks elsewhere. Why? Because one can't have a life while living theirs for her! ha ha ha hah” his laughter is braced with sad, bitter, humour.

"Did she dump you?! Is that why you are saying all this?!" breaking my silence. I hear my own raised voice, its defensive, weak-the voice of a child fearing his mother's rejection.

"Dump? Dude, she never allows her conscience to be soiled by doing that. She finds ways to make people leave her," calmly delivered, as though talking to himself.

He offers another cigarette as a peace offering. I take it, return to my silence and smoke slowly, the confrontation over. From the balcony we see Serene laughing, giggling to attract Jac. She once saw me worthy of such attention.

"Dude, when you decide to live again, call me ..." he offers his calling card, I see he works on a cruise liner "... can't promise you much, but my ships sailing to Langkawi next weekend, I can arrange a 'working trip' for you. Do some light work and you can sail for free."

"Why are you doing this?" my suspicions stirred by how casually we met, this strange conversation and now his sudden offer.

"If you think she set all this up, forget it. She didn't know I was coming. But I do need help on the ship, and for however she is, she is a good judge of character." He lightly punches my shoulder and forces down the rest of his wine -- to prevent himself from saying more?

Yee offers no further explanation. I don't pursue the matter, volunteering instead to refill our wine glasses. Making my way back to the balcony from the bar the host tells me Serene has left. Back on the balcony, as Yee takes his wine glass, I accept his offer.

True to his word, a phone interview the next day, an exchange of details and I'm a crew of Yee's ships for the coming weekend. The week passes quickly, my mind numb from 'work' without a call from Serene.

Yee is right, it is light work. My tag says 'steward' but my role is more of an Usher, deemed by the hospitality manager as appropriate due to my 'good English'. My thoughts are heavy though as I go about my duties. Yee, who I am deputised to as partner Usher, doesn't pry.

We are assigned to the main event, a fashion show cum competition that takes the majority of the two nights. We join the models after the first show in the ships nightclub. There, under rapid flashing lights and music too loud, Yee reveals.

"The liner provides the models, the fashion schools (there are so many nowadays) hold their students shows on board. The models later come to the club to get noticed by the high rollers from the casino (which the liner can only operate in international waters and its main source of income) and everybody gets what they want."

The school gets a venue for their shows, the models regular work, the liner passengers. Yee and I free trips as usher, and now chaperon. An arrangement so transparent, obvious, clear and far removed from the facade of my work. I luxuriate in its honesty and celebrate living life at face value, reveling the night away with abandon.

We call on Langkawi by morning and I take Yee's advice, checking into the same beach front resort as him for a day stay. We agree to meet up in the lobby after sunset-at seven-to leave for the ship together. He finally mentions Serene as we part at the elevator. "Did she cross your mind last night?" the etched polished metal doors closes before I can answer, leaving me staring at my scarred reflection.

In my room I draw a bath, turn on my cell phone and call her. Her voice asks me to leave a message, its tone as when we last spoke. I put the phone down after the 'beep'. A missed call is message enough between loved ones. Sinking into my bath, I allow the lightness from soaking in near scalding water rise to my head, I wait for her to call back, falling asleep, still waiting.

I dream of her, of work, of life, with many other thoughts, each a woven rope. All mangled into a tightening Gordian knot, threatening to tear itself apart under its own strain, me waiting at its side for a sword to cut it before it does. But I am no Alexander. I awake feeling suffocated by the room, in water long gone cold.

Stepping out from the bath I check my phone, no calls. I leave my room hoping for relief, from feeling cornered and head for the beach. I reach it still restless, uneasy in the company of families having picnics, children frolicking between the waves, couples cozy together on sun beds. Happy people, people who are not alone, who have lives and live it. Why do I resent them so?

I keep walking along the beach, away from them, from life, and watch sand pass briskly under my feet. My unease, this tightness inside that makes my head swirl and fingers tremble, if only it would go as easily as the sand. I wish to run but my breaths are short rasps. I lose track of time. I hear her music first.

"... don't carry the world on you shoulders ..."

A holiday taker jogging with an iPod strapped to her arm. In the prime of her youth, sensibly clad in loose t-shirt over swim wear, she’s passes me from behind. She turns, glances quizzically at me, continues a distance, stops and begins jogging on the spot with earphones out, the flicks of her short dyed blond hair catching the rays of the setting sun somewhere behind me. I look to my feet again, avoiding her, afraid to infect her with my misery and continue walking.

"Don't be sad lah." She flashes a smile, still jogging on the spot as I near her. "You in paradise mah." With that she picks up her pace, and continues her jog, taking her tunes away.

"... you'll be alright ...”

Unexpected kindness, unexplained, unasked but given freely. I observe her, replaying the event in my mind as I do, until she is around the cove and out of sight. Stock still, upright where she spoke to me, the thoughts behind her words surface, rise above my distress.

Forcing my breath to deepen, I take the kernel from her act and raise my eyes to the horizon. I turn to see that which I had missed, taken for granted and abused. I begin my walk back.

Steady measured steps under blue skies burnt by the setting sun, listening to palm fronds rustling unhurried in harmony to waves lapping sand. Breathing in sea breeze, I return to the resort past steps in the sand.

Past my steps. Steps that lead only to me.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. Very brave of you to write this. Like the way the storyline lets the tale subtly unfold. AK

Anonymous said...

Please, please improve. Not that it has flaws or anything. The person who commented before me says its good because of the fancy description decorating th real body of the story which is quite uniteresing. Silverfish should move from publishing overly done mediocre works to publishing simple mediocre works.

Anonymous said...

The piece is annoying and pretentious. I don't even know what the story is.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments, brickbats and all.

Rumaizah said...

Good try, Ari. I agree with comment no 1, 2 and 3. However, I think it doesn't take that much re-writing to make the story works. The writing style is very poetic (rather than straightforward), but if you can get the story out clearly, I think it'll be a beautiful piece.

I'm looking at 2 things: 1) who is the story about and 2)what is the story about. For no 1, I'd like to know more about the 'I' character, I'm totally lost on his profession, especially. Also, on Serene's profession. For no 2, it depends a lot on no 1. 2 spots in the story make me confused whether this is fantasy or reality ie. a) when Serene enters his life and b) their encounter at the end of the story.

Oh, you may want to think of an alternative to using '...' for emphasis/hidden meaning.

Hey, do try to re-write it. My 2 cents:)

RaWe said...

Maybe thats how the writer thinks. In states of emotional turmoil things are often expressed in a convolution. I think he was telling it as it came to his mind.