1. Pearly White
Bu M. was a fair way outta the usual profile. But this was Indonesia of course. The first morning she rocked up 20 mins. late on the back of a motorcycle, explaining later she was delayed having brekkie with her hubbie. That was him in front, stylish walking shoes a giveaway. More on the man shortly. Bu hums golden oldies & operetta while she works—the music was not for her patients. Touch me now, hold me now this morning for the second appointment. In her scarf and long cover a trifle surprising, before an English speaker in particular. This morning she had made the bule, the foreigner who was paying top prices, wait over one and one quarter hours out in her hot waiting-room part open to the sky and without any fan, much less aircon. One patient exited after 35 mins. Forty-five later another pair from the small room, although there was a bench seat in there. All three women. Laughter had rung out throughout with occasional passages of music. Thought was the assistant—hardly looked a bona fide dental nurse—was lightening the ordeal within. At a couple of points, briefly and the matter uncertain, hints of sharper tones suggested that the women were discomforted by some of the procedures. Being Indo, you were free to engage the professional anyway you liked, especially if she was nervous charging high fees. (Hearing you were staying in a losmen rather than hotel gave Bu M. some caution, as well as the experience with Bapak Faris no doubt, pleading for rock bottom in his parlous position. The recommendation for Bu M. had come from Bapak.) Bu was Jakarta-born. Never been to Tanah Abang incidentally; strange for her to hear enthusiasm for the place housing the largest slum in the capital. So, then, what brought you to Jogja, Bu? You married here? In fact it was well guessed: married there. But that was not exactly how Bu herself would have put it. Bu had done her studies at Gaja Mada U, and…“someone took me for his wife…” Aha. I see…No need remind Bu the man had been sighted on the last visit. A few years older, lighter on his feet and keeping himself in trim at the gym most likely. A not particularly comely woman Bu in her early forties. Bu would not have been much more attractive twenty years before either. The trifle horsiness hadn’t come on in middle-age all of a sudden. But some man had taken her for his wife even so. Bu had someone to touch her, hold and care for her. It had been clear enough in the momentary glimpse of the pair together. The chap had slid a brief sideways smile passing back to the bike after he had escorted his wife to her door. They had something good going. Certainly Bu was lovely in her ways, polite, warm, easy in spirit. Rather delightful. It was what had attracted the dude, perhaps even more than good earning prospects. (Bu herself would not have sported such fetching shoes, but might have been proud of her partner’s adornment.) Bu needed to know her patient was OK with the scale of her charging for simple filling—about a fifth of Sing or Oz rates. Another question Bu: Did Bapak Faris ever complain a bit perhaps about that music?…Surprise on Bu M.’s face. Genuine like all the rest of her; no professional persona here. What, the old irascible trained classical pianist, an Arizonan converting to Islam and thereby banished from the family, had sat in that chair there without a whimper while the Simon & Garfunkel had dribbled down upon his head and Bu herself humming accompaniment the while? The Carpenters. Lloyd Webber. The woman had worked on what teeth the old indigent Prof. had retained for free, without any shadow of doubt.
2. Nowhere to Hide
A food court behind Beringharjo without a single drinks stall serving either teh tawar or teh jahre — black or ginger tea. (Ginger with susu, milk did not appeal when it was likely condensed.) A short sit without then. Busy lunchtime, a place had been staked with the folder and a couple of mandarins while the teh was investigated. Returning from the scout, a young lass—fifteen she turned out, in Sec. 3—was found at the table. On the approach she had watched the tall bule’s stride with apprehension and growing horror, it was later clear. The handsome panama only added consternation. Daughter of a cruise ship worker, talkative chap keen to practice his English again after a long holiday from that employment. (Cringing from the lass as Dad hoed in indefatigably.) Coming to a stop at the table where the girl was marooned, with Dad nowhere in sight initially, the place clearly marked for himself by this tall stranger she now saw, what was a young lass to do with herself? The usual smile and some blushing? Following a brief nod lowering eyes to her lap? What was it to be? Scarved young schoolgirl hailing from a town a couple hours out and boarding in Jogja, dad subsequently informed. What, would she jump from her chair, grabbing the two drinks that had been placed on the table-top and flee for her life? Really? Not immediately. First, before she could gather herself, steel her mind and rise to her feet, this young girl would crumple, take to the table-top to hide herself head down on a crooked arm for shame. Precisely thus. A trapped animal hopelessly cornered might lose strength for either fight or flight in such circumstance. Oh my! Surrender complete and utter; hiding her dreadful mortification. Down for the count perhaps five full seconds. Leaping up quickly after that with mind enough to collect the two tall plastic cups and outta there. Two minutes later, here was Dad circled round behind. My daughter. Sorry… Modesty and delicacy like you wouldn’t believe. Deference like you wouldn’t credit. (The panama was not a young man either; certainly intimidating.) Somehow Dad was able to reassure her they could return to the table, the bule had expressly invited. Chewing the ear thereafter for all he was worth; sweet young kid squirming. Four or five times Dad had been round the world. Round world trips were much preferable to circling the Caribbean and suchlike. Once Michael Crichton had been aboard, best-selling No. 1 Jurassic Park. The waiter had been given advance notice of the Hollywood film about to go into production at the time. Michael Douglas more than once a guest. Another notable was the King of Jordan. (With his pretty young wife, chap was reminded.) Table Mountain in Cape Town. Anchorage, Alaska. The Bering Strait. A real estate venture was doing well in Semarang now. Talk the legs off the chair Dad, go on. The dutiful girl sitting angled away from the eyes of the stranger the whole time, rocking herself now and then. Glimpses of polished cheekbone once or twice; never corner of an eye. Dear me, when a loose strand of mee dangled and swung from her mouth, by golly! it did take some reeling in. The ceremony of parting with dad gave the girl time to slip on her niqab unnoticed. With that added screen she could bear up beneath the gaze for her own farewell, brown eyes staring out like the fox again and colouring under cover. From the father one would never have guessed such a creature. During formative years he had been absent and it was a pity the mother remained at home.
3. Fashion Statement
Quart noon in the same window seat on Sabang, the office crowd hardly to compare with the orang of Tanah Abang. On closer inspection the bench seat at 16 Sabang was in fact not red velvet at all; more like crimson industrial wear fabric. Overnight the same 5 1/2 & 2 hours late tidur, disturbed by the muezzin, who remarkably the morning prior had failed to make any impression. Warnet first up, then perhaps another attempt to fax the bank docs to Sydney. (After almost six years one had been financially violated and a question now whether the CBA would accept responsibility.) Difficult to enter that elevator for the 12th floor and confront the Sidney Sheldon fan at reception of the office share around the corner. Over a dozen various stores around Sabang had been tried before an operable machine was found, on that particular day malfunctioning for some reason. Back in Sing Saturday the operation could be performed painlessly. Perhaps the woman on the 12th had now recalled the particular movie star doppelgänger. GROAN. In this instance at least it seemed not to have been Mr. Bean. The passing thought against all odds too at that visit yesterday ought be owned: behind the closed door of the one office there remaining for letting—Rp1.3m monthly—after briefest of preliminaries and essentially wordlessly (though the woman’s English was more than adequate), a flame of rapido sex overlooking all those rickety rooftops at ground level, the phone in the corner and abundant desk space available. In a not too distant universe the same was being enacted with different flora and fauna. Further noting too: it would be almost inconceivable envisaging anything of that kind with that woman’s equivalent in a Western setting, Western garb and English pitter-patter. As the old Brits in the 50s used to remark, dreadfully cock-shrinking. Admittedly, here in Jakarta the lady had developed quite a bit of smooth front desk blather herself, but there were most definitely layers close beneath the surface. Sashaying around the counter and through the corridors like her forebears had done across the water-logged paddies; that glossy fabric falling over her belly, her hidden drooping breasts and sagging bottom. Cleopatra head-dress richly patterned in black and gold and shadowing the tight oval of her painted face. A world of difference. Long had the Javanese, and especially the Central Javanese, developed those marvellous folds and wraps, the dyeing and finely judged assembly of colours, tones and fabrics. This was why high class escorts went to so much trouble and care. (In youth that kind of persiflage had been entirely underestimated.) Were one properly equipped during preliminaries, crucial passages of Sheldon might have been piped into the lady’s ear. Perhaps some compassion ventured for poor Setya, being dragged over the coals currently and seemingly about to be abandoned by all and sundry, never mind the veiled threats and menaces. One recalled cheeky Marcel down in Melbourne a few years ago at the kebab shop in the presence of the beautiful young Arab girl behind the counter. You would take all her clothes off, said the Frenchman glinting, but not ogling. Only leave the scarf. In the present case on the other hand the more advisable course would have been to leave in place all the clothes in fact and work entirely beneath cover. Aduh! It had been the wearying hunt for the fax that was to blame.
- Setya Novanto is a former Indonesian politician, presently serving a 15 year jail sentence for corruption
4. Husband & Wife Fantasia
Not an unusual sight. It was the actors and the circumstances that raised the platform here in this particular case. The long haired hippie string-bean who either kept a shop at the base of Joo Chiat Complex, or else managed for the owner, could be found afternoons on his stool out along the passage just by the escalator off the corner. Day by day the same, the man as if pasted on a billboard; or as if he were one of the manikins further ahead. This Saturday rather than an installation, suddenly a drama unfolding before one’s eyes featuring an august Raja receiving from his companion, his good wife in her black scarf, hooded Arab eyes and hook nose to match, lo and behold! the deepest, heart-felt bow in creation. Woman going whole hog too, dropping her forehead onto the back of husband’s palm…Everyday scene of course; nothing extraordinary. Perfectly familiar in that quarter. How many times had it been witnessed in precisely that form? Day by day this pair took turns out there by the entrance to the shop. Man getting away to Wadi occasionally, where there was always a nod offered in passing and a half smile. Going by his shop the same. Wife the same in her case too. In the wife’s case her acknowledgements came in the form of a greeting as a lover might make in a busy bazaar, no telling where the eyes of the husband and his clan are. Rarely did the woman leave the stool; certainly never ventured to Al Wadi unaccompanied. In fact she had never been sighted other than against the wall by the escalator, slumping a little, droopy lids that elsewhere could denote only one bad thing. (Sleep deprivation here in the punishing heat.) But just now had she returned from a late lunch? Visited her mother in hospital perchance?… Surely she could not give such honor to her husband at each and every change of shift, every meeting and return. (They almost never sat together in company out front of the shop.) What was that remarkable ceremony all about there as dusk fell early on the first Saturday of March? What bonds had been forged between the pair over how long a term? (Six years and more under the eyes of one witness.) Forget about four wives, harems, genital mutilation and all the rest: so often here the heart was raised and spirits soothed by the scenes of mothers, fathers and children, the elderly and their kin and husbands and wives coming together and reluctantly drawing apart on these pavements. Robert Plant was the reference for this chap, the Zepplin guy. Or was it the other, Robert Page, with the great frizz? (Schoolboy friends had been the real fans when Bette Midler’s Surabaya Johnny first began pointing in another direction even at that early stage.) Similar vintage in this case, the years weighing more heavily on the wife.
Geylang Serai, Singapore