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Lines From Batu Ferringhi

Lines From Batu Ferringhi

from Lines From Batu Ferringhi

Island Press, Singapore, 1978


Thursday, 18th July

Once more morning
Settles on the tree tops
Bright as a flock of birds
chirping with jubilance
And so bounding
With richness
That it overspills,
Trickles down
From the trees
Onto the trim grass;
A tide irresistible
As grace spreads
Across the green
To lie tamely at my feet
Like a pet:
I can feel
Its soft, warm breath.

I’m having my breakfast
On a table laid
Out o the lawn,
Enjoying the strong aroma
Of black coffee,
And lulled by the nearby
Sighing of the sea,
I have all the time
In the world –
It’s so easy to presuppose –
To marvel at
The day falling
Into place.

In the cool shade,
Other tourists
Are having their breakfasts
Or reading.
There is a middle-aged Australian,
Slim and handsome,
Who looks as if
He’s of Italian origin,
Probably a new immigrant,
Playing a game of cards
With his stout, pink wife;
They both
Give vent to
Excitable laughter:
So absorbed
Are they
In their play.

We’re all children
At heart.
We are!  We are!
We forget only
At our peril
When  we treat
Life as a treadmill.
Everything’s just trivia
When we lose
Our innocence.
It boils down
To how  we look at things:
With our hearts
Or our heads?
It ought to be
with both,
Of course!

The bay beyond
In the liquid light,
As if made to order
For us holiday-makers.

It’s different, though,
For the two vendors,
Whom I discern
Deployed on the lawn,
Scrutinizing us,
Sizing us up
Like prey,
And paying no heed
To the glittering bay
At all.

Finally, one of them,
A fat Malay man
With a jolly expression,
Having set his sights,
As it were,
On an old Aussie couple
At the table next to mine,
Saunters over to them,
Ready to impose himself.
He turns on his smile,
He bows his head,
Shining at the dome,
And gets ready to make
His sales pitch.
The most difficult bit is
To overcome the initial resistance,
And, thereafter,
To hold their attention;
He has to employ
Charm and flattery,
Cajolery and tomfoolery,
Every trick of the trade
In order to sell them
What he himself knows
They don’t really want
In the first place.
Certainly, a task
With much art.

Alas, one can’t speak the same
For the art he is purveying;
He unrolls the stack
Of batik paintings,
Unfurling one
And then another,
Displaying to the best advantage
For his captive audience.
From what I could see
They aren’t really any good:
Crude sunsets
And quiet kampung scenes,
Slim sampans adrift
On tranquil rivers of silver,
Kelong stakes in water
And wild, wild storms at sea.

Yet the old Aussies,
Allah bless them,
Are polite, friendly.
“And madam,”
Lectures the fat peddler,
“This one modern:
Picasso style!”
He continues expounding,
On each piece,
Until they buy one –
Of a lean  water-buffalo
Standing alone in some
Impossibly romanticized padi field:
Very idyllic – while the face of
The buffalo reflected
A comic insouciance.

The man charged
$60 for it.
Not bad!
He must get at least
a fifty percent commission:
A neat profit.
One sale a day
will do nicely,
No wonder he can sit
So patiently day after day:
It seems so easy,
No sweat at all.
But I should not scoff.
There’s general benefit
From all this.
Look at it this way:
The artist can live on his painting,
The vendor on his skill,
And even the dear old Aussies,
When they return
To suburban Melbourne
Can hang this quaint scene
On their living-room wall
And be reminded
Of their visit to Asia.
So everybody benefits.

I turn my gaze
Towards the other vendor:
A pale, thin Chinese
Squatting by his bale of cloth;
Under the shade of the foliage.
The batik-printed fabrics
Are myriad petals
In full bloom –
You can hardly find
Colours any gayer –
And when the vendor
Lifts up a piece,
The better to show it off,
It flaps and swirls
Riding on the breeze
As if yielding
To some impulse
That makes it strain
To fly out of the man’s hands,
Fly away to some mythical land.
But it’s only my fancy,
I do indulge too much
In daydreams.
Time to take a sober walk
Out there in the golden air
Along the clean sweep of sand.

This time, I went
towards the far end of the bay
Where the big hotels
Are situated;
The sun was hot,
The sand warm and soft,
Full of footprints
And the pug-marks of dogs.

A young blond girl
In a brief bikini
Ran past me,
Her body lithe and tan,
Her breast bobbing like jelly,
Her buttocks firm and taut,
Ooh how those buttocks jut out!
I must be getting randy!

Walking back slowly,
I stopped and watched a fisherman,
With the help
Of two young men,
Paint the hull
Of his beached boat
A bright blue,
With a broad white band
Around the top.
Later, I swam out
Enjoying the sea’s
Gentle caress,
Surely more loving
Than a maiden’s!
While I was out there in the water,
I saw the old man again
Walking along the beach;
Same green pants,
Same red towel.
By now, the sun’s
A big, yellow  ball.

Luch over,
I’m lost in thought;
The newspapers reported
The coup in Cypress is confirmed,
Makarios is flying to the U.N.
To make a personal appeal
Before the international community.
No, I’m not thinking about that.
I really couldn’t care less
About the archbishop;
It’s all happening
So far away –
The U.N.!  Cyprus!

I was thinking
About the beautiful day
And how, at this very moment,
Bombs  were devastating Vietnam!
It cannot be reconciled,
It doesn’t make any sense –
Red blood issuing from torn flesh
And this fresh, fresh day!

Then my eyes strayed
To a  woman sitting alone
At a table,
Writing a letter,
Then tearing it up
And starting all over again,
Slightly frowning now and then.
I’d say she’s about thirty,
Tufts of brown hair
protruding from her armpits,
Bedewed with sweat;
Must be a great tuft
Down there at her pubs:
Beautiful word, that –
Yes, I must be getting randy!

At five in the afternoon,
I unroll my mat
Under the same shade
To trap silence there.
I don’t  want to be influenced
By Federico Garcia Lorca’s
Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias –
I don’t  want his
Five in the afternoon!
As rifles crack in Vietnam
At five in the afternoon,
As the bombs fall in Vietnam
At five in the afternoon;
And at six and at seven,
And at ten and at eleven –

Silence crumbles
Before the distant
Crack of rifles
At five in the afternoon.

Yes, they visit me here too,
The birds of death!
I dare not even
Sniff the air,
The stench of death
Is everywhere, everywhere!

Suddenly, the sun’s gone behind clouds;
I think it is going to rain,
But Jimmy Lee, the boat boy,
Assures me it will be fine:
The rain has blown
Over to Kedah side, he said.

The buffaloes are out again.
They have a leader
Who walks about ten metres
Ahead of them:
A stout brown fellow
With a pair of pointed horns
Gracefully curved in a U
And a thick rope tied around its neck;
He’s being followed
By eleven other beasts –
Five more than yesterday.
The grizzly old cowherd
Has a short but unkempt white beard;
He goes about without a shirt,
Baring his lean black body.
These few days
Life already seems
To have settled
Into some form of rhythm.
It’s rather reassuring –
For one needs a rhythm.

It  was bright and hot one moment,
And then the next, a stiff wind had risen,
Hissing fiercely across the water,
I had to retrieve
My towel and my papers
Which  were sent flying about.
These black clouds,
Now so close at hand,
Harbinger rain.

And  what a rain!
Downstreaking  from the sky
As if the sky itself broke open!
I gathered up my things
But could not outrun
This sudden storm.

Back in the room,
My body all wet,
And yet, I smile,
Remembering Jimmy’s confidence,
Who thought he could tell
All the manifest signs
In the sky.
But no one,
Not even a native,
Can be sure
Of nature’s caprice.
There’s one more lesson
To be learnt.


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