Authors: Alan Sillitoe
The boat went between anchored ships with such smooth precision that it seemed to be on train tracks placed invisibly under the water. As it slid towards the pier, Brian heaved himself back on to the lorry. Knotman was alive again, sat with beefy arms folded looking at Malays and Chinese going up the gangways with bundles and baskets. “Christ,” Baker said, “they're like flies. Thousands of them.”
Knotman's face lost its expression of sleep: “Ever been on the London subway at eight in the morning? This is as graceful as a Covent Garden ballet compared to that.” Cars packed on deck slowly unwound and the lorry drove cautiously along the pier, headed through the town, and took to a wide ramparted boulevard leading by villas on to the coast road. All were bareheaded for fear their hats would blow across the beach and out to sea. The town gone, a series of blue bays stretched beyond. When one was left behind, the driver rode his vehicle up the dividing spur before another, and from the short tarmac stretch at the top could be seen other bays and spurs still to be crossed. Then the lorry slid into the steep bay-gully immediately in front, and at the bottom was a sheaf of sand between two heaps of rock, with palm-trees along the banks of a stream. A Chinese family sunbathed by a bungalow, and on the beach children fled from each other into the water. The blade of sea broadened, narrowed to a saw-edge because of tree trunks, disappeared, and the lorry was upward climbing again. “Marvellous,” Knotman said, passing his bottle around. “Let's drink to it. Anybody who won't is dead from the neck up. Why didn't you tell me Pulau Timur was this good-looking?”
“I couldn't get a word in edgeways,” Brian said, handing the bottle to Baker. Marvellous, and he didn't need Knotman to tell him because he'd allus thought so. Who or whatever made this must have had good eyes, wielding his brush over such bays and washing broad streaks of sea around them; and a giant fist to punch the land so that hills came up from oblivion, the same hand throwing jewels along the valleys that turned into temples. Ships sailed from the old kingdom of Barat and anchored in the streets between island and mainland, and a town grew up on the neck of land that was sheltered. Such permanent and colourful scenery, the full depth and meaning of its long life in comparison to his own, the warmth lavished on it by the sky, and the smaller lives he knew to exist in every branch and grass blade that made up the greenery and in the blue that denoted the sea, made him think of death and dying. Overwhelming beauty brought overwhelming sorrow. He stared before him, seeing the hills and ocean no longerâonly the sentence that had fled from somewhere for refuge in his own mind.
Muka was twelve miles from town, several cream-coloured two-storied buildings set a hundred feet above the rocks and beach. “There was nothing like this in Kenya,” Knotman said.
“How long were you there?” Brian asked. They were directed to an upper storey in the central block.
“Couple of years.”
“You bin in the jungle?”
“I went hunting once.”
“Bag anything?” Baker enquired.
“Yes: my big toe and a group-captain. Nothing living, though. This looks like it.” They climbed the concrete stairway: “If you slip on this after a few bottles of Tiger Beer, you'll break your legs.” They had a billet to themselves, and a Chinese to do their laundry for a dollar a week, as well as someone to make their beds, clean shoes, and bring in morning tea for another dollar. These deals settled, they ambled down the rocky path for a swim.
Brian ran into the sea, as if out of the death of the land, to save himself in forests of salt water dragging grittily over his face, falling into it at fifty yards free and releasing his weight against the water until he became a log and felt sand on the bottom scratching along his shoulder blades and spine. It was as far away from morse code as it was possible to get, water pressing milk-warm and forceful even at the palms of his hands and trying to get in, so that he hit the surface near to bursting and opened his mouth, burned by the sun that had waited to grip his hair plastered flat and hard. Eyes still closed, he made a guess as to whether he was turned towards sea or land. If I'm facing land, Mimi will come and see me. If I'm looking out to sea, she'll give me the go-by. He stared at the black sails of a loaded junk entering the straits a mile from the beach, and before he had time to speculate further, Baker made a dive at his legs and took him under. Brian lashed out with fists and surfaced, getting Baker round the waist and pressing him off balance, chin into stream, until his adversary's weight fell from his grasp. Brian held him down, but soon he was up again, fists pounding the malleable surface.
Less than a dozen were at the camp, leaving a free beach most of the time, and good service in the dining-room. “The lap of luxury,” Brian said to Knotman, who threw back a Penguin book by way of reply: “Read this while you're here.”
On the second afternoon those in the camp set off for a swim in a mountain pool on the other side of the island. Brian stood up on the lorry, between an urn of lemonade and a box of sandwiches. A long band of yellow beach ran along the northern shore of the island, ending in the jungled prominence of Telebong Head light. Brian searched out some secluded spot in case Mimi should visit him as promised, though he became pessimistic about it as soon as he saw a cove beyond the farthest village, an ideal place, with a few rocks on either side and palms set behind.
The lorry climbed steeply beyond Telok Bahang, away from the sea and up a looped road with hillside falling hundreds of feet down to the valley. Clusters of huts lay in clearings by a stream snaking through bushes and speckles of sun. A Chinese woman was gathering wood: she was toothless and bald, her face brown and sexless with age, and she straightened her doubled back to smile as the lorry passed. Brian waved, felt the pendulum of his spirit move between desperate unfulfilled answers and happiness.
The hill blocking their view fell away at the road's next bend, so that before and below was a vista of paddy fields, a sheet of bright dazzling green stretched taut, dotted here and there with the brown patch of a village. A flat plain rolling beyond to the darker green of mangrove swamps ended in a blue haze at the sea-horizon. This also brought happiness, for paddy fields meant people working for food, though the vision of it quickly faded as the lorry changed gear and began to descend.
Halfway towards the plain it pulled into the road-side, where a stream came under a wooden bridge from up the mountain and quarrelled between rocks on its way to the fields. Brian dropped from the lorry, followed the stream up course, and reached a large clean pool held in by a horseshoe of cliff, silver fishes turning under its cool surface. The watershed towered two thousand feet above, and the stream came down through forest and gully, making an entrance into the pool where he was standing. Isolation, until the others came shouting in behind, shooting their naked bodies into the pool, which was quickly filled.
George, a warrant officer up from KL for seven days, also came into their billet. He'd not long since been SWO at Kota Libis, so Brian already knew him as a man who must have reached his rank merely by having been in the air force thirty yearsâcertainly not by bullying or ambitious bum-crawling. He was more like the harmless, kindly, nondescript bird-fancier at a branchline ticket-office that British pictures like to show as the typical workingman than the usual sort of sergeant-major. Nothing bothered him, and he was so innocuous he didn't even possess a sense of humourâhaving enlisted to avoid the trivial worries of civilian life, or maybe he had just drifted into uniform with no design whatever. He obviously carried out his routine admin duties with some efficiency, though at Kota Libis he was little in evidence as warrant officer, sitting day after day in his office reading an Edgar Wallace with as much wide-eyed intent as Brian remembered his uncle Doddoe used to scan the racing paper, though in the latter case with narrowed eyes and for only a fraction of the time because Doddoe had somewhat more work to do. “What does it matter how you live as long as you live in reasonable comfort?” George said one day, taking his socks off before going down to the beach. “I've got fair pay, grub, clothes, and a bed to sleep in. In return I do some work (only a little, though, he winked) and lose my independence. You can't have it fairer than that, can you, lad?” He filled the bowl of his large pipe with such complacency that Brian felt like kicking his teeth in. He's dead, the dead bastard, the brainless old bleeder. He's a natural-born slave. “It don't sound a good life to me,” he said. “Maybe not,” George answered, unruffled at what Brian saw as the greatest insult, “but I chose it, didn't I?” Some people 'ud choose prison if they could get a cup of tea, he thought. George was of medium height, bald and pot-bellied and spindly-legged, wore bathing trunks and resembled a white ant grown to a man. He took up his towel and went out, leaving Brian to read. Christ, he thought, he's been in this mob thirty years, and I'm only just twenty. I hope I'm not as dead as he is in thirty years. I wonder if Len Knotman will end up like that? Though I don't suppose so because his time's up in a year, and then he says he's getting the hell out of it back to Canada, where he can get a job up north and be a free man again. “I've learnt to know what freedom means in these last eight years,” Knotman had said to him. “And the bloke who doesn't learn that, sooner or later, isn't fit to be on the face of the earth, because they're the types that end up as the enemies and persecutors of those who know what freedom means.”
At five o'clock he lay on the beach, a coolness coming invisibly in from greying sea. Baker waded in from a swim, maddened by horseflies spotted on to his legs like currants, skeins of blood running from each as they chewed his flesh by the mouthful, having hovered in wait by the water's edge. “They're like flying leeches,” Knotman said. “Ever had a leech on you?” He lay against the rocks, having swum himself out for the day, bush hat on the back of his head though the sun was well down behind the island. “No, I ain't,” Brian answered, slinging a fag over.
They smoked in silence. Gunong Barat lay to the north, a black aggressive monolith coming out of the mainland twenty-odd miles across the water. Brian wanted to ascend through its wet forests (leeches or no leeches, snakes or tigers or elephantsâit didn't matter), to test his strength on its steep incorrigible slopes. Hard labour would be needed, but the claws of endurance would goad him on, turn him into a treadmill of effort as he struggled up. This revelation grew indistinct and gave way to grandiose speculation as to what it would be like to use the distant encircling vision of its eyes from four thousand feet. “I've thought a long time about trying to climb that mountain over there.”
“What's to stop you?” Knotman said lazily.
“Nothing, I suppose. It wouldn't be easy, though. A bloke in the billet came down from Burma the other day and flew over it: he said it's up to its neck in thick jungle.”
“It would be an experience,” Knotman said. “You can't leave Malaya and not know what the jungle's like.”
“What is it like?” Brian asked.
He laughed: “Like a woman maybeâdeep, dark, and hard to know. Dangerous as well, if you don't watch your step.”
“It might not seem like that to me,” Brian said, having already told Knotman he was married and seeing no reason to switch the subject so abruptly.
“It did to me. I had eight years solitaryâmeaning one woman. Then I got out quick.”
“I was talking about Gunong Barat, though. Why does it have to be like anything?”
“Because it does. Otherwise it's got no meaning. And everything means something.”
“All right,” Brian said. “I give in. What does Gunong Barat mean?”
“You mean what does wanting to climb it mean? I read once that you only climb mountains when you've got no ambition, but think you might as well get something out of life. Of course it's different with you: you're just an idealist, meaning you give in to worldly values without dirtying your hands on them.”
“So what? Can't you do it just because you want to?”
“If you like. I expect you can buy a map in Muong. They've got everything taped there. Then you can see what you'll have to cover to get to the top. Can you read a map?”
“Ask for a week's leave then and shin up. Get Baker and Kirkby to go with you.” The mainland was darker, a solid lowdown horizon more important than the distant skyline of the mountains because it was close and immediate. “Start thinking about it seriously,” Knotman went on, now encouraging where before he had been diffident. “The three of you should be able to do it as easily as going for a swimâor taking a pull of whisky.” He passed the bottle: “A sundowner?”
Knotman was not the wild impulsive drinker he had seemed at first, his boozing having enough method to be a helpful and enjoyable habit. The impression bossed Brian that Knotman had developed, through the jungle of years and circumstance, a sort of calm and order into his existence, a compromise between strange perplexity and wakeful eyes, whereas Brian at the moment saw life as something you bashed into without thought or consideration either for others or for yourself, because he had neither the time nor the intelligence to manage things better. Everybody's different from each other, he thought, and I know for a fact I ain't got the wisdom of Knotman. I wonder whether I'll be cleverer, though, by the time I'm his age?
Between bouts of swimming, after a fight with the swell of the tideânear to panic on the last hundred yards to his depthâBrian sat on the beach and, joined by Baker, built castles in the sand. Each structure was enclosed by a complex zigzag of exterior moats, and endless tunnels led from one system to another beneath the medieval story-book designs. They sat with the patience and built-in delight of children, creating edifices out of sand, using skill to keep lines angular and embankments firm. Before climbing back for tiffin at midday they would watch the tide come in, its advance-guard of foam creeping nearer by the inch to the outer wall of fortifications. The first wall crumbled like bread, Brian feeling a quiet I-told-you-so satisfaction at the unalterable laws of the slow war of attrition between earth and water. Artifice made the contest more exciting: tunnels built out to the water led under the highest towers, so that they collapsed while the tide was still some feet away, a subtle fuse of destruction that gave great delight when it worked cleanly.