A story for the Hungry Ghost Festival
In a special story for this, the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival, Theo Kwek shares with the TIONG BAHRU blog his short story What The Jetty Heard, inspired by the iconic Bedok Jetty.
Theo’s wistful story, written in 2009, features in the fifth of the Writing The City filmlets, looking at The Magical in fiction writing, which you can also view, here. Enjoy them both!
What The Jetty Heard
Let me tell you a story.
Here there is sky the colour of the leaves, sky that blooms an emerald blue but only when you don’t look at it. Once in a while rare flowers spring from the sky; most often it rustles with the scent of casuarinas, and you simply know that it is there.
A single jetty sinks towards the surface of the water ever so slightly with the weight of a dozen families. At the same time it embraces the sky, with whom it spends dark-grey afternoons while the waves churn beneath. Somehow in the periphery of your vision there will also be children, there will be frisbees and there will be the stuff of sandcastles, but if you wait and look very quietly for very long, there will always be the jetty and its sky sitting softly on the beach, looking beyond you into the distance.
Tuesday afternoons a man appears on the land-edge of the jetty in jogging gear; he is middle-aged, though not yet graying.
You do not know him but you are immediately given the impression that you do, you have seen his close-layered mop and incumbent spectacles somewhere – reading in the park, getting into the cab you leave, on a page of the morning daily. A son has given him earphones, and these now play quiet nostalgia at him.
Reluctantly in his footsteps a young man follows, a ponytail dusting the air from his shoulders. From a distance the pair seems to echo the lopsided symmetry of a forgotten smile, as they move towards the end of the jetty, past the half-time fishermen and the fifty-cent ice-creams.
When they reach the joint beyond which all one sees is blue, he asks him tentative questions; Maurice shall I keep some food for you tonight? Or Maurice who else is going on this, holiday with you, besides Tom? Sometimes these questions take on edges of timid anxiety, Maurice have you decided what to do with your life yet?
But always, the disdainful half-reply – Dad, it’s Maureen. And here the conversation halts, snipped by the sea wind.
His shoulders fall suddenly and imperceptibly into broken footsteps, even when the blue is an inviting one his eyes flicker with a planted tiredness.
Hands worn smooth by the office find the railing for security, where fingers remember childhood calluses, and drum in anticipation of home with its empty dinner-table.
Hearing the uneven beat ragged as his breath, and watching the young man slink away towards the car-park, the jetty begins to heave itself upwards with the tide, brimming with comfort to whisper in his ear.
But each Tuesday the earphones choose a livelier song and the man turns back to run, leaving the jetty flat in exhaustion.
Wednesdays come and go, Thursday noon-times bring with them a young lady who sings the name Tina to herself. It is from Christina, which her birth certificate claims she was named before and ago.
Unlike the first man she does not run, but walks regally down the salt-sprayed stone, slow enough to greet the lamp-posts but fast enough to get to the end before her stepmother calls, and asks where she is.
When she reaches this sea-end, she swings to the left where the faded arrow on the footpath points to her right, and sits herself beside Zulhaqim. They watch the point where the water kisses the sky.
She has done this all her life, slipping from home between awkward encounters, and finding the spot that Zulhaqim saves for her every Thursday.
He is four times her age but the seat he leaves is always the one further from the other fishermen, the one where it is easier for dangled feet to pretend to reach the water.
Here she tells him about school and other things, and after he has made her laugh they share something from his catch, roasted on the spot over a small electric stove.
Occasionally their mirth is shared by a brahminy kite, drawn from its linear flight by the aroma of delectable joy. It calls out their joint hilarity to the waves with each gem of Zulhaqim’s humor, except for the week that he does not come. She is as curious as it is.
Kenapa tida datang? Why weren’t you here?
I am an old man, he switches to English for her sake. And doctor said last Wednesday, soon you will be alone on the jetty.
The kite falls silent, and buries its head in the water. Unforgiving stone does not afford her this luxury, and instead she buries him in her arms, staying that way so he will not see her eyes fill up after they have dealt with her shock.
The old man and the girl and the sea sit that way for an hour, perhaps two, while the air weeps in their silence. His crimson buoy in the water is tugged by many fishes but today there is no catch. Sighing beneath them, the jetty collects their tears and gives them as pearls to lonely oysters; hopefully one day they will be her dowry.
Still Sundays are always the most painful, as things concerning first loves are.
Towards sunset a couple leaves the bridge, you can make out their figures outlined against throbbing sky. They have been there for two hours, which are their happiest in the entire week, and the jetty’s saddest.
It used to be just she who would appear on Sunday evenings, singing a wistful song to the faint silhouette, of a distant island. Those evenings had brought the jetty a strange and confused joy, for it had fallen in love with her the first time she hoisted herself onto its palm, her dark eyes glistening with tears and saltwater. Each Sunday after that the jetty’s heart would leap, unspeakably, then sink again as she knelt to its stone, weeping for her sister and her home.
Now she comes with him, and she does not weep anymore.
As they sit cross-legged and he cradles her touchingly she lifts her eyes from her hometown to the sunset.
She calls him Manuel and he calls her Yani, which is not her real name – the jetty has heard her call herself Azilah. But this does not matter to her, as it does not matter that she speaks to him in broken English and he replies in the same; for she cannot understand Tagalog or he, Malay.
You beautiful, he musters, and she translates, saya chantek, her words melding into his like dollops of cream into scalding coffee.
They proceed to exchange secrets and nothings, and beneath their warmth the jetty averts its eyes, cowering beneath shame and silent affection.
When they finally part the jetty is as silent as before, but it is a very different kind of silence. After a few moments it prays that she has returned, perhaps safely to her household.
All this the jetty has kept to itself for as long as it can remember, and the stories accumulate into a permanence on its pillars.
On days when the sun beats brighter the jetty looks into the sky and asks: why, why, do I not have enough secrets, that you try to fill me with more?
And inadvertently the sky replies, ask the sun, ask the sun, but as for me I would like to know what your many secrets are. To which the jetty has always given a firm and deliberate no, it sees itself the keeper of stories with an office of potent trust.
It is an answer that mildly angers the sky.
Have we not been friends enough, the sky asks, that you cannot share these thoughts with me? What blessing have I not shared with you, in my sun and rain and clouds? There is nothing that is mine that you have not seen, but still your secrets are secret from me.
In fact the sky is not truly angry, it is genuinely and worriedly concerned, but it is the gift of those who bear the wind to fluctuate between moods like the weather. In return the jetty is calm and collected.
These are not my secrets, it murmurs, they are the secrets of others!
This is a lie, but at this the sky will leave the jetty alone. They have known each other long enough to understand each other so.
One day in many days, there is a sudden fading from the air, and orioles with impossible voices disappear into white grey. The jetty notices something is amiss. It cannot tell which day of the week it is, because the customary shadows are gone; there is no sign of the man in the running shorts or the double-plaited girl, or even the indelicate couple. A number of unfamiliar souls continue to fish the lapping waters, but otherwise the coast is unusually somber.
Even the casuarinas have paused their sway. No laughing children prance onto the jetty, the last couple finds that they do not know what to say to each other, and turn to leave without holding hands. With them a number of fishermen reel in their lines and pack their equipment while the others stay on, addicted to the possibility of catch. But these are stoic individuals whose secrets are cast out like bait.
Loneliness sweeps over the jetty. There are no stories today, none at all.
In the instant of realizing this the jetty feels impossibly alone with the thought of all the stories it bears, and even those of its own. All these people share little parts of themselves with me, the jetty muses, and I do enjoy sharing them but, I can’t do anything about them.
Sky, sky, the jetty asks. Do you ever hear the secrets of people?
Of course I do, old friend, the sky smiles. You don’t know how many people hurl angry prayers in my direction.
But do you hear them think, the jetty persists, at the tops of tall buildings or even in planes, and do some of their thoughts stay with you?
I do not, the sky concedes, and they do not. Do people leave things with you?
Look under me, says the jetty.
I can’t, says the sky.
You can, says the jetty, bend and try.
So the sky does, slipping itself into the silver of air beneath the jetty at low tide. On the grey and crusted belly of the jetty the sky is taken aback as it sees seaweed and barnacles in heartfelt recesses. Among them are words and sentences strewn into paragraphs of time by the absence of hands. There are half-tales of memories, some old and some fresh.
These the sky begins to read with an interested fervor, pausing only to catch its breath or shed a rainy tear. Soon the sky meets Maureen and Tina and Azilah and the others, neatly woven into stories amidst distant islands, overgrown pearls and unfinished thoughts.
Who are these stories, asks the sky, where are they from?
When the jetty replies it is with the simultaneous nervousness and relief of one who has just let out many heavy secrets.
These are the people who come to walk by the sea with their sorrows, sky.
And then the jetty begins to tell the sky long and starkly possible stories of the people it has met, tentatively at first, then gushingly and eloquently.
As the sky listens its attention is drawn away from the clouds and the rain, and it catches on to each vignette of hope and longing, of confidence and self-doubt. Where there are tiny missing details the jetty embellishes with made-up names and places, which gives it a twinge of guilt. But it consoles itself that the essential stories are the same, and these stories are what the sky wants to hear.
Still, at the end of its telling, it remembers the cause for its loneliness, and instead of the triumphal ending the sky has been expecting, it breaks down into tears.
I know all this, sobbed the jetty, but I can’t do anything!
I do not see the need to do anything, says the sky. It is slightly miffed and returns to its temperamental self, even though something inside it has changed in the hearing of the stories.
We cannot do anything, the sky interrupts and continues. You are fixed in the seabed for eternity, and I cannot leave my place up here. But it is only because we cannot change where we are that we are given to hear these things. Don’t you think that by hearing, simply hearing, we can already make things better?
Sky, asks the jetty, for it is confused. Do you think they know that we listen?
They do not, the sky responds, with a little tinkling laugh. They are too busy listening to themselves to hear us beside them. But I see them as they leave you, and they are smiling.
You are not just here to keep them from walking into the sea; you give them each a bit of yourself, a space where they can meet them. And for this, I am very proud of you.
When the sky says this it means every last word of it, for its heart is bursting with the knowing of such a friend.
The jetty ponders on this point, on and after the day is over. Gradually with the shifting of the waves and the sand upon the shore, the jetty begins to see that the sky is right.
If you wash yourself onto the beach any of these days, you might be a teacher, a nurse, a priest, or simply someone who has heard more confessions than those of your own.
And you will find the jetty and its sky sitting softly there, still there.
The former is curving slightly under the weight of a dozen families, while the latter is comforted in its embrace.
As you sit and watch you will occasionally see the sky slip downwards, a little bit, and you will know that a still day has come, and once again the jetty is telling the sky stories.
But if you step onto the jetty, then forget all of this.
Forget the starkly possible stories and faint recollections that are told and retold in the things we don’t say.
Think about your secrets, breathe them and drop them.
The jetty will smile knowingly underfoot and listen as it always has, then weave you a story as a manner of farewell.
Afterwards as you leave, remember to leave the jetty a smile, and wave a goodbye to the sky.
They will smile and wave back, only you will never know.