There are no waves, but the ferry drifts in and out, its metallic ramp easing back and forth on top of the tarmac of the road that disappears into the river. It’s a gentle two-step of the river's current being countered by the ferry's engine.
It’s disconcerting. They’ve laid planks of wood to drive upon so that car tyres do not spin out in patches of river water that come and go randomly. They’ve got to be joking, right? But they’re not. And I’m up next. If I want to make it to the other bank to get the hell out of here then I’ll need to man-up and go for it. A horn behind me honks. The queue is getting impatient. And I don’t want the ferry’s crew to get any angrier. One of them is urging me on, looking at me like I’m an idiot for hesitating. I clunk the car onto the planks. I hold my breath. I drive onto the ferry and clunk off the planks and resume breathing.
The ferry is a rectangular tunnel-like structure, upon which a square cockpit with huge glass windows affords the captain a 360-degree field of view. I can see him up there reading a newspaper. On top of the cockpit is the rectangular Malaysian flag, fluttering in the breeze.
Another ferryman ushers me to the third place. He has a faded sports cap and a rag around his neck to keep the sun off his skin.
"Terima kasih," I shout through my open window, above the revving of car engines and the humming of the ship’s motor. He looks bemused with my accent. I pay him for the passage and he hands me a blue receipt like a bingo ticket. I place it in a compartment with other receipts and forgotten bills.
I switch off the engine and exit the car. I walk to the railing and lean on it. It's rusty. Just like the rest of the ship. Decaying, unloved. But pushing on with its usual routine. Until one day, maybe it’ll spring a leak, maybe it’ll capsize, maybe it’ll sink. Who knows. Hopefully not today.
I gnaw on a stick of nicotine gum. There will be enough smokers leaning up against this same railing that would share a cigarette. They would probably expect conversation in return. Not something I want to engage in today. I just want peace and quiet. I chew the gum. The brown river, murky from the silt of logging, pushes around us.
It’s hot, like it is every day. The humidity is overwhelming until you get used to it, she’d said, when we were thinking of coming here to teach English. Quit two average jobs and go to a country we barely knew? "Why not?" she'd said. We got used to the heat after a week. Air-conned hotel suites and classrooms helped a lot too.
A can of coke floats in the water. It’s headed downstream. It may make it to the sea, maybe wash up on the coast of Sabah or Labuan, where it may lay forgotten and the bastard of time will weather it. It’ll lose its gloss, its lettering, its personality. It’ll be another rusted can on a lonely beach.
I push the gum to the side of my mouth as you're supposed to when the taste of the nicotine gets too strong. It tastes intensely peppery. My hands stop twitching and my heart rate slows as the withdrawal subsides.
“Where you headed, friend?” asks a man offering a cigarette. He’s a local, wearing a polo shirt and smart pants. Probably a local businessman.
I shake my head. “Kota Kinabalu.”
He takes a puff of his cigarette and exhales. “I’ve climbed Mount Kinabulu six times.”
I don’t respond. I stare at the opposite bank. The road reappears from the water as if it had continued under the river from the other side. It is the only man-made structure. The jungle’s skyscrapers crowd the eye and foliage hustles the water’s edge. I intend to stay silent, to make it as awkward as possible, but I can’t help asking, “Why?”
He takes a drag on his smoke. “Why not?”
The ferry jerks. It's like a floating car park. The on-ramp has been hoisted into the air. A horn blasts. The ferry seems to drift downstream. The engine changes pitch. We navigate toward the riverbank road. It’s only about one hundred metres and we’ll be there soon enough.
“So long,” I say and spit the foul-tasting gum into the river. I walk to my Mazda and get inside. She hated this car. True, there’s a stain on the back seat that I can’t get out. And the clutch is too heavy and sometimes triggers my gout. But I think it’s zippy. A trusty steed. I turn the key. The engine turns. I’m no mechanic, but it’s sluggish. Begrudgingly, it turns over and idles.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet eases out of the speakers. She hated jazz too. In fact, she hated a lot about me, in the end. As we focused on what we hated about each other, our affection rusted away, until only the hate remained. She watched as I packed my things into the car and said nothing. There was nothing else to say.
The ferry approaches the opposite shore. I rummage around compartments looking for my passage ticket, in case they need it again upon exiting. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter spill out. What the hell. I light up. It’s been a crazy day. I leave my ticket on the front passenger seat. I realise they won’t need it again.
The ferry arrives. The moan of the ship’s engines intensifies. The aftward water churns. There are no ropes thrown -- the craft is held in place by the skill of the captain. The off-ramp clanks onto the tarmac and like a starting gun had fired the front cars bolt. The suspension of my car creaks as I flee too, and then I find myself on an open road, the swaying of the vessel a fading memory.
I’ve ringgit in my pocket, savings in the bank. Borneo’s my oyster. Maybe there’s fun to be had. Maybe I’ll start by climbing Mount Kinabalu, why not? I’ll need to get another job at some point. Maybe jet back home, maybe leave her hemisphere. Ahead, the heat mirages the road. I pick up speed. My ticket whirls in the air and flies out the open window.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
I loved this. So much suggested, so much unexplained but the idea of expectation there as well as the contemplation of what is past. The evocation of the ferry journey was excellent.
Hi Rachel, thanks so much. I think I focused a lot on atmosphere and setting on this one and its one of my favourites because I don't usually write like that but I enjoyed how it ended up.