Short story by Michael Botur
The proprietors open shop at 0800 hours, two hours subsequent to my calisthenics, a blacking of the boots, and setting the pot to boil on the stove (a boiling pot is a trick to fool vandals into thinking someone’s at home.) I am the first customer inside the Kathmandu store. I monitor the time on my pocket-watch (a quality Brit-made model I picked up in Johor) as I must be returning promptly home to check on the stove.
I purchase the Everest 1400. The staff look at me cock-eyed. It’s khaki coloured, camouflaged. They ask me if the tent is for my son. No, tisn’t, I haven’t a son, although Debbie did. I’m still living on the hill in the same pad in which I lugged Debbie over the threshold on our wedding day, I mention, and they laugh, and my face burns. They ask if I’m sure I can afford this item, and I tell them I’m no bleeding pauper. Besides, I’ve no wife to look after any more, thus the ol’ Super payments stretch a tad farther.
I don’t leave the store immediately: they have a compact foldable shovel on offer and, after turning it over in my hands and checking the lacquer (I used to have a similar model when stationed on Puncak Jaya), I purchase the thing, along with an extra set of tent pegs. The buggers are exceedingly sharp.
The Negress at the counter assures me that the Kathmandu Everest 1400 is toward the sturdier, more reliable end of the spectrum. I pay and exeunt while she frowns and consults her manager.
I see when I’ve trudged through the thistles and into my yard that someone has dressed me in my pyjamas and slippers. The slippers are black with wet. Somebody’s also left a pot boiling on the stove, which is blinking dangerous. I leave a note instructing my wife not to do such a thing again.
I peg her down in some of the softer, mushier soil. Peg the tent, I mean – not the wife, ha-ha. The winter is attempting to settle, dotting the orb-webs with dew, flogging us with hourly rains, and we’re not even that far into the day, ten o’clock at best.
If I hadn’t my sense, I might be tempted to say it was autumn. I lose track sometimes, and have to call for Debbie to confirm the date. Certainly the paucity of deciduous trees in this confounded country doesn’t help one to establish the time of year.
I erect the tent to overlook a square of yellowing grass which has been redeemed as a softball pitch. This is all quarry land: the hill is being eaten by diggers, for its bauxite is valued. The diggers will soon devour my house and my neighbours’, which is why I am the last tenant on the mountain. Indeed, the vandals are sacking my hill and they’re buying old Van out for a few hundred grand. I don’t require money, but they don’t accept this. They don’t understand that I’ve been assigned a hill to defend. They send a different representative every time, as if testing a new weapon on the ol’ Dutchie. Such ‘representatives’ are merely lawyers. Don’t be deceived.
It is on Sundays that the baseball pitch at the bottom of the hill is occupied by Orientals; during the Weekdays, the pitch is occupied by duskier brethren, Feejee Islanders, by the look of them. They make robust infantrymen, those Feejee men, I can tell you, and their backyard taro plantations smell so much like Java, why, toss in a few datura trumpets and you’ve got yourself a regular overseas deployment, ha-ha! Your Feejeean is not a patch on your Gurkha, but he’s not bad either. They’re pious, eyes-down folk, some of whom lugged in supplies during my term on the mountainside. Yes, I can certainly eliminate Feejeeans and Gurkhas from my list of vandalous suspects. It is a duet of Goths, actually, who dress entirely in black and wear lipstick and have earrings, for God’s sake, whom I suspect may have caused the vandalism on my property. It so incenses me that my fists shake.
I often shake… I must take a wee something to palliate the shaking once back in the kitchen.
I realise I am kneeling in wet dirt, clutching tent pegs. The skyscrapers are looking through the drizzle towards me. What am I up to? I shalln’t reveal. I hammer the pegs in firmly. Then, an intercrossing of poles provides an X which curves from an elevated meeting point until it plunges into four holes, and this roots the frame to the base of the tent flaps. Fancy waterproof nylon indeed… a bivouac would have sufficed perfectly, as plenty of bamboo grows on my mountain, it’s just that it’s difficult to bend anything at my age as my fingers have become as weak as pipe cleaners. Also, I don’t mind parting with $350 for a tent so long as Debbie’s son doesn’t get our money. His children are vandalising brutes. Debbie called them grand children; I call them a grand problem.
I dash back inside and I’m alarmed to see a pot of water frothing across the hot stove, hissing and reeking. I scald myself turning the stovetop off, and yell out to Debbie, but she doesn’t respond. In the garden she’ll be, then, presumably.
I stand in the kitchen for a moment. The house is as silent as frost. With my fingernail, I scratch a notch in the fuzz of mildew which has darkened the walls. The ceiling is baubled with droplets and a cloud of steam. Debbie must attend to the spring cleaning. First order: bleach the mildew.
Returning to the surveillance tent with a rousing cuppa, I observe that my vest is heavy with sweat. I sit on the upturned wheelbarrow and take a respite, noting a packet of Holiday tobacco on the grass: the Vandals’ leavings, then? I know the grass under the wheelbarrow has yellowed and died, but my wife, you see, was moving that very same wheelbarrow moments before she was seized by a heart attack. I scarce not move the wheelbarrow.
Someone – or something – has left footprints in the garden bed.
You know, when I was a teacher, freshly returned from Kuala Lumpur and short of days after surviving a bout of malaria, I never put up with the scallywags who sat at the back of the class. They soon came to know it. If the board were going to label my discipline ‘misconduct,’ why, they should have let me back into the Reserves. (I’d been discharged from the army due to…. certain matters which I am now perfectly well medicated for), and anyhow I –
I crouch. Sniper?
I rise slightly – the cracking returns. It’s my knees. There are footprints in the soil leading to where I’m standing – well, er crouching. Vandals have trespassed on my property and trampled Debbie’s flowers. Like Beowulf, like Ajax, like Montgomery, I have felt it imperative to take a stand against such invasion. Several hibiscus have been rumpled, many of them snapped. These hibisci, it belies me to inform you, were the planting project of my late wife Deborah, or ‘Debbie’ as I was fond of calling her in private. The date upon which Debbie planted the hibisci escapes me… it was the date I first carried her into our new home, but which year?… Gosh, I’m sorry. My memory’s…. sieve-like, today. I do apologise.
Teaching, yes. Blackboard and five flowers ready to go, ha-ha.
Knuckles, rather. Not flowers.
Let me start again: The reason for which I have kept such close scrutiny on the flower plot is that I want to catch the blighters in the act of vandalising the flower beds Debbie tended with such affection. The sun has peaked and I hope they’ll come before dark. Debbie, you see, had her passing two months ago, approximately, depending upon which day of the week it is now, and not too long after her passing, our chickens also perished, apparently starved to death. Oh, the Vandals will certainly pay for that too, worry you not. Could the Vandals have followed me home from the hiking supplies store? Quite possibly.
Nobody witnessed Debbie’s passing. I was inside at the time, boiling a brew. I recall the paramedics informing me that her allergy to the ammonium phosphate in the fertiliser triggered her allergic upset. Yes, yes, I told them, and explained the incident years earlier when Debbie had suffered a seizure from airborne particles whilst I was my drying my rifle with ammonium sulphate fertiliser (which is a ruddy decent degreaser, mind). It rumbled me to see them prying her frozen fish fingers off the lip of her blouse so that they could attempt CPR. Atherosclerosis was the culprit, I was informed, ‘though I wasn’t listening terribly closely, just enjoying the syllables in the word, atherosclerosis, imagining a strategy to teach it to my pupils, standing in the chook guano, nodding, wanting to machete the wimpy foppish hand patting my shoulder in sympathy. A real man shouldn’t be seen to be vulnerable. Leave a vase in a busy street and it’ll be vandalised; call it a sculpture and it’ll stand. I recalled what it felt like to have the hands on my shoulders in Borneo – intrusive, invasive, and shocking after an entire tour of duty, alone with only rain and leeches and my precious letters.
I thought it ironic that I’d trampled Debbie’s hibisci in my panicked flap when I first saw her sink to her knees, touch her breast then hug her knees and go to sleep. I’d been preoccupied at the time, trying to locate a six-pack of lager which I had stashed in one of our linen closets some time ago at a party when the Pigeon Boys had rocked up and caused a commotion. The Pigeon Boys, I’ll bet, are all in a home for old fuddy-duddies, now, their retirement watches sliding over their bony bird-hands, ha-ha! All I found, in my rootings and diggings between the couch cushions, was a bottle of dermatitis pills which, for some reason, Debbie appeared to have ordered in my name, as my name was on the bottle. It was when I strutted across the flowers to give her a sample of my knuckles that she first seized and clutched her collar bone, as if witnessing the Madonna. The bag of fertiliser softened her landing; the flowers were ruined under my feet.
A note on the besiegement: There remains, in the black volcanic soil, what looks to be the imprint of Debbie’s brow, cheekbones and eye sockets, a sort of Shroud of Turin in soil. Daily, I pick the leaves from the dent. The hibiscus stems remain snapped, the flowers floppy and brown.
Whichever vandal trampled Debbie’s flowers has a thing or two coming to them, believe you me. I shot them dead in Irian Jaya, you know? Shot them from my hillside. Commies, those vandals, polluters of irrigation and poisoners of wells. Five months in the drizzle, leaves for bog-paper, bullets which I had to keep dry against my flesh, bullets as precious as organs, bullets I feared might have gone off if my body temperature had risen too high. My letter paper and pencils were swathed in three layers of leather. Dysentery and diarrhoea, yes, certain things haven’t changed… I still find, on occasion, some scoundrel has tipped casserole into my underpants and I think that I must get more tannins down me.
Up to a thousand head of cattle you used to find on this hill. There were unsealed roads not ten minutes from here. You could see the roads from our hilltop, palled with brown dust. Hayseeds in the wind, the stink of manure. I taught down there at the college, taught classical verse… Dryden returns to me, Dryden who silenced the vandals at the back of the room, scribbling mucky ink on the school’s textbooks, scribbing and practicing horrible rhymes I pretended not to hear.
Mr. VD has a hole in his head!
Mr. VD woulda been better dead!
Mr. got VD in Indonesia!
I hope the hole in his head has a seizure!
I’ve just a few lines in response. If you’ll allow me:
Rome raised not art, but barely kept alive,
And with old Greece unequally did strive:
Till Goths, and Vandals, a rude northern race
Did all the matchless monuments deface.
No, I wouldn’t want to be a Goth and have that said about me.
On the assignment goes.
My shovel bites into the soil like Debbie’s grandson devouring chocolate pudding, spilling it all over his non-regulation shirt. I have to retreat inside the house at least once to cool my brow, although a cloud is dragging its soggy bottom over the hill. You know, in Johor, when we’d have a decent sweat on, we’d remove our shirts, squeeze the sweat into a canteen and pass it around! He who’d sweated the least had to drink the sweat of the victor, ha ha!
Inside I see Debbie has yet again overheated some bubbling pot on the stove, its base it glowing orange and I call out some words of discipline, but she refuses to confront me. Debbie’s always been flighty. I see she’s left her pills in the kitchen, too. Tiny letters on the bottle say it’s for the relief of symptoms of dementia, not dermatitis. Quite queer this vandalism that’s occurring, quite mean, quite sinister.
In the yard I resume shovelling. I wink the sweat from my eyes and sup from the garden hose. Have I mentioned that in the Orient, we had to boil all of our drinking water? Once the hole is a good metre deep (just enough to slow the vandals down), I take Debbie’s tomato stakes (she shalln’t need them: she’s dead) and whittle the ends off with my machete and stick the stakes, and the sharp tent-pegs, into the generous soil at the bottom of the hole, which yields half a foot. Half a foot’s a satisfactory depth. The vandal, you see, runs across the top of the hole, unaware of the punji sticks beneath him, and falls into the hole where the blighter is impaled. Bush justice, some call it.
I pull Debbie’s tomato sticks from the tomato bed, a good dozen of them, and tear the leaf matter off and lay the sticks in a lattice over the hole. They’re an inch wide, each stick – sharpened bamboo, sturdy and greeny-tan. I then cover the sticks with a handful of oak leaves until the hole is entirely concealed.
Your Malayan Gook has been known to smear faeces on the stakes, a move which is animalistic, devilish, and quite simply ingenious. I’ve little trouble squatting over an ice cream container and half-filling it as the evening’s fog comes sniffing around the yard and I begin to paint the stakes. I do hope I have a nasty stomach bug to pass onto the vandals.
Diggers and earthmovers look like so many Tonka trucks from up here. They’re tearing out the wild hibiscus and making a small hill as they scoop a depression. Labourers point up to catch a glimpse of the unyielding Dutchie. I’m glad my Everest 1400 zips up securely. If the camouflage serves it purpose, I’ll disappear from view.
I leave the tent just once, to enjoy a cuppa from our kitchen. We’ve a mildew issue in the kitchen. Debbie really must stop leaving the pot on.
The air becomes wet as the sun moves away from me. The Royal Dutch Second Infantry abandoned me too, which was why I was resolved to switch Queens.
I am almost certain that autumn has been passed over this year. I don’t recall authorising leaves to fall from the oaks… The leaves smell like basements, like fungus, piled and orange-brown and sludgy. Debbie stuffed a handful of Morton Bay fig leaves down the back of my coat one gay May stroll along the Batavian boulevards, and I recall laughing at it, and Debbie running ahead, as if she sought for me to follow her. I climbed a curvy tree and when, weeping, she returned down the track, I ambushed her and taught her a jolly wicked lesson about being observant. We rolled about in a thick bed of leaves and then I cocked an eye at her and she blushed and bit her top lip.
The farthest mountains blaze orange before giving in to the night. The perfectly-camouflaged punji hole, concealed by sticks and leaves, becomes invisible in the dark. I used to watch every sunset from the wet hillside, cleaning my rifle, setting traps in a circle around the bivvy, carefully unfolding and re-reading letters from Debbie, tracing her handwriting with my fingertip.
It’s as if Debbie’s son waits by the phone; the bastard answers immediately when I telephone, ‘Van? Hey, that you?’ I cannot stand the half-breed, but I let him dispatch his twin progeny to my residence. The two of them subscribe to a fashion which calls itself Goth. What this ‘Goth’ lacks in sensibility it makes up in logic, considering that the vandals were offspring of the Goths. It was upon my return from Kampala that I taught schoolchildren. Hard to recall the uniforms, then. Some larrikin has sneaked in during the night and vandalised my memories.
It’s almost amusing when the boys arrive in the rain which hangs in the air like a bead curtain, and search the house and backyard for me. They check the tent, unaware that I’m concealed underneath it in a depression which, while chilly and moist, conceals me effectively. They call my name but not their grandmother’s: quite rude. Thankfully, they don’t hear my whiffling nose from where I’m hidden. I see one of them spit on the lawn, and I’m tempted to reach out and strangle the brute.
I emerge in the dark lavender of the night and return inside my tent, feeling un-alone. Vandals are like a man’s back: always behind you, but impossible to confront.
The vandals conquered any Moors whom they encountered; the vandals made trouble for Germanic specimens including my ancestors in Vlaams; and ultimately, the vandals were responsible for the sacking of Rome, the desecration of the gardens of the Dordogne… good God, man!
Droplets have collected on the bridge of my nose and my nostrils are leaking sludge. For now, I withdraw into my nylon fortress, alone on the dripping mountain. There are but two sounds: That of Debbie’s pot bubbling in the kitchen, and a sharp cracking when, leaving the tent to piddle on the lemon bush, I step upon a pile of leaf-covered sticks which Debbie must have left out here.
July 1, 1944
I find myself sitting upon the foothills of Puncak Jaya, the loftiest of all the peaks in Irian Jaya, overlooking a marshmallowy, ambrosiac froth of cloud which, once it has absorbed enough sun, results in a downpour of localised rain not unlike being under a waterfall. Steam wets this paper, unfortunately. I hope my words aren’t blurred. Are you intimate with Dryden?
I long for the crispness of Auckland’s winter. I long for the crispness of your fingers, leached of moisture from your pottering in the good soil. Your skin crinkles like newsprint; there is irascible dirt in the deepest cracks of your fingertips. (I am not quoting Dryden here. I quote myself.)
Did you know tropical soil has a pH level low enough to prevent most crops from growing, but that hibiscus thrive here? I should post some plantlets for you. Remarkable place, it really is – even the sugarcane must have a tough skin to survive here! The guerrillas have been sacking what few plantations exist, removing the topsoil and channelling seawater into the padis. Dastardly vandals. Knowing such things makes me agonise about your exposure to allergens in the fertiliser they sell in that country of yours – do take care, dear. You’re an autumn leaf, thin and quivering. Do hang onto that branch, won’t you?
Please know that, although I have been permitted to build only a camouflaged bivouac (your mutinous insurgent can detect English canvas from two valleys over), I have made it a perfect bivouac. Its frame is sturdy; I selected particularly robust saplings for the Y-frame.
I intend to put a genuine roof over you when I return, Debbie, but roofs are only fit for married couples. So: a certain complication to be resolved, no?
I shalln’t be long. Why, a joker even suggested to me that if I were to contract a head injury, my secondment to the Antipodes might come sooner than otherwise budgeted for, ha-ha! At first, I chuckled at his little spoof, but alone here on the mountain with only my back for company, I find myself giving the man’s queer suggestion some consideration. Certainly, my jaw is just wide enough to accommodate the barrel of my rifle if I really wanted to expedite matters. The pension would more than compensate for any plastic surgery needing doing.
I long to smell your neck. Until then, I’ll continue to keep watch and protect you from those who would vandalise the noble things in this world.
Private R. J. Van Dahl