The Stranger by Timothy Yam

She reached the sea.

It was not what Sukarti had expected. The poster at the bus stop made it look like paradise – azure blue water lapping onto sparkling white sand, framed by swaying palm trees – an image so real she could step right into it. The reality facing her was less seductive. The sand was rough and gathered under her feet in damp clumps. The water was a sickly, anaemic shade of green, and while it was indeed lapping onto shore, each wave bore a load of grimy debris – crushed plastic bottles, hollowed-out coconuts, a broken sun-bleached frisbee.

The beach was empty except for one red tent in the far distance. A rocky promontory, bearing three languid fishermen, stretched out into the sea. Cargo ships in grey and navy blue specked the horizon. A lone mynah hopped on the beach, occasionally digging its beak into the sand. She was alone.

In the suffocating heat, the water looked like an invitation. However, Sukarti knew that it would provide her parched mouth little relief. When she was a girl, her mother took her to the sea. Without even changing her clothes, young Sukarti ran right into the surf and was immediately engulfed by a crashing wave. In her shock, she took a big gulp of seawater. She spat it out, shocked by its salty sear. Another wave knocked her over, with spray and sand stinging her eyes. And another. And another.

She had to be pulled out, bawling, by her older brother. Sukarti spent the rest of the day tethered next to her snoring mother, watching the other children from the safety of a checkered picnic mat. How strange, she would later think on the ride home, gripping her brother’s waist as he weaved and bobbed through the steel and dust of the Riau[1] traffic like a prizefighter. It looked so beautiful, the sea. Pure and glistening, just like the water from the pump that she and her cousins used to splash at each other on hot afternoons. How could something so beautiful hurt so much?

She stepped onto the sand. She could feel the scorch on the soles of her feet. The flip-flops were too big for her, and grains of sand began to collect in the crevasses of her toes.

“These flip-flops last time belong to sir, you can use for now. Maybe a bit big, we see if we can buy you a new one.” Sukarti nodded in response. That’s what Widi at the maid agency used to tell her. If you do not understand what your ma’am is saying, just nod first. Some ma’ams get angry when they have to repeat themselves.

Widi was helpful. This was Widi’s second time in Singapore. She had come as a young girl a decade ago to care for an old woman. The old woman’s children were working, and so it was Widi’s job to do whatever needed to be done – wheel her around the neighbourhood, change her diaper, comfort her when she cried and asked for her dead husband. It was not easy, Widi said one night as they lay on the agency floor trying to get to sleep, her face half-shadowed by the florescent lights peeking in from the shopping mall corridor. It was not easy. Sometimes I pinched her when she would not stop crying. Sometimes I would cry with her. Then she died. After that, they sent me home. But there was no money at home. So I came back here.

Sukarti was chosen the day after the conversation. On the car ride, she followed Widi’s advice, nodding at everything her new ma’am said. Her ma’am did not look much older than her. She was very pretty, and Sukarti had to remember not to stare. Her sir had wrinkles on his forehead and white streaks in his hair. He said little, as did their son Jacob, who spent the journey tapping on red and blue bubbles on his phone.

She was surprised at the size of their apartment. Weren’t they all rich, these Singaporeans? Why were they living in concrete boxes piled on top of each other? How, Sukarti wondered, could sir and mam have a carpet made of the softest fur she had ever touched, yet sleep in a bedroom smaller than her younger brother’s? The refrigerator brimmed with meat and vegetables, but the kitchen was so small that when Sukarti cooked dinner that evening, mam had to squeeze sideways past her every time she poured herself a glass of kombucha. The thought of her ma’am as a crab scuttling sideways up and down a beach made her smile. That night, while lying on the threadbare mattress in the storeroom, she thought of the image of crab-ma’am over and over again to banish the memories of home, until she finally fell asleep.

The strap on her left flip-flop snapped. Sukarti stumbled forward. She continued walking towards the water, leaving the flip-flop behind, half-buried in the sand. She had been walking for five days. She started walking on her third day in Singapore. Ma’am had given her fifty dollars to buy food from the supermarket. Easy. You walk out the back gate – the one next to the swimming pool – and you cross the road – make sure got no cars – then you go inside the supermarket – the place with the red and blue sign. Can? Sukarti nodded.

The lift doors opened. Before her was the swimming pool. It was a vivid electric blue, more like a child’s crayon drawing of water than any real water she had ever seen. It was completely still. She walked up to the edge of the pool and poked the water with a finger, creating a ripple that murmured across the placid surface until it reached the other end and sloshed into a drain. This was not the sea of her childhood. No waves. No movement. Just bluer than blue water trapped in a hole in the ground, under the shadow of baby-pink concrete towers.

Sukarti walked out the back door. She walked past the red and blue sign. She walked past a shrivelled smoking man in a wheelchair bearing candy-coloured packets of tissue packets for sale. She walked past a formation of maids like her carrying book bags on their backs and holding the hands of children in school uniforms. She walked past young people with dyed hair handing out flyers, their voices drowned out by the screech of the subway above. She walked through sweat-stained t-shirts, faces lit by the ghostly glow of phones, voices chattering and chirping in different languages, until she reached the edge of the night.

The sun had set. The streetlights were shining. Sukarti stood next to a playground, empty except for two teenagers in school uniform sitting on top of the slide. They were kissing. She watched them. They paid her no attention. Or they were unaware of her presence. She could not tell. Their lips, tongues, hands roamed across each other with desire. Watching them made her hungry.

In the distance was a golden ‘M’. She remembered what Widi said – if you have to take care of a small child and they won’t stop crying, just bring them to McDonald’s. It always works. The restaurant was nearly empty. A teenage girl sat at one booth writing on a piece of paper. Books and stationery were strewn across the table. She was crying, taking special care to hold her paper away from her face so that tears would not fall on it. A man was sleeping in the other booth with a towel wrapped around his face to shield himself from the light.

Sukarti walked up to the counter. The elderly Chinese cashier glared at her.

“You want what?”

Sukarti nodded.

“No, you want to eat what?”

Sukarti pointed at the largest picture.

“Meal or just burger?”

Sukarti nodded.

“Meal ah?”

Sukarti nodded.

“Eat here or takeaway?”

Sukarti nodded.

“Aiyah I give you takeaway lah. You want to eat here you just eat.”

Sukarti paid with her fifty-dollar note. The cashier held it to the light and stared at it for a while, before sighing and giving Sukarti her change. Five minutes later, she dropped a warm paper bag on the counter.

“This one yours.”

She ate slowly, luxuriating in every chew. It was not that the food was good – nothing that came wrapped in yellow paper could possibly be better than her mother’s nasi goreng[2] – but it was just so much. Each bite was a direct assault of sweet and salty, with no variation in flavour. There were only extremes. Eventually, she finished and left. The girl was still crying. The man was still sleeping.

She spent the night in the playground where the teenagers kissed. She had tried sleeping on a nearby bench, but a rusty armrest welded in the middle prevented her from lying down. She curled up into herself and tried to sleep under the slide. The ground was made of little compressed bits of rubber which dug into her arms and legs. She thought again of crab-mam waving her ragged claws, scuttling across an endless beach, with waves of clearest blue breaking back and forth and back and forth and –

“Eeeh, why got someone sleeping in the playground?”

Sukarti sat up. In the dawn gloom, she could see children shuffling towards a fenced building. A girl and a boy were standing at the lip of the slide staring at her. Behind them, carrying both their bags, was a brown-skinned woman.

“Hahaha, look at her face! Got one dot one dot like that.”

“Auntie, why you sleeping here? Where’s your house?”

Sukarti nodded.

The brown-skinned woman grabbed the children’s hands and pulled them away.

“Your mother say you cannot talk to strangers. Let’s go. Or else late for school.”

Sukarti asked the woman in Bahasa where they were. The woman shook her head.

“Philippines. Not Indonesia. You go. Some of the people here not nice. If they see you they will call police.”

Police. She understood police. Widi told her about them. Be careful. If the police come, everything will be your fault. If your ma’am loses her money and says you stole it, the police will say it’s your fault. If your sir touches you and says you seduced him, the police will say it’s your fault. Don’t trust the police. They protect them, not you.

So she continued walking. For the next two days, she followed the same pattern. She would walk until the cries of her stomach were too loud to ignore. She would go to a golden M. They were easy to find. She would point to the largest picture and give a note to the cashier. She would take the paper bag and eat as quickly as she could, trying her best to ignore the held noses and sideways glares. She would go to the toilet and do what needed to be done. And then she would continue walking.

On the second night, Sukarti slept in a kopitiam[3]. The smell of stale oil lingered in the air. An Indian man showed her how to line chairs together to form a makeshift bed. He told her in broken Bahasa that his wife had left him for another man. They were now living together in his old house. For the sake of the children, his wife had allowed him to stay in the house and sleep on the sofa, but he decided to leave. How could he lie there and listen to another man be with his wife on their marriage bed? A man is nothing without his pride, he said. Nothing.

She would have slept there again on the third night, but he put his hand on her thigh as he talked about how smart his son was, and she knew she had to leave. Sukarti walked for the rest of the night. When the sun rose, she found herself in a different world. The buildings still towered, but they were made of glimmering glass and steel instead of dull concrete. There were no children wearing uniforms, only men in shirtsleeves and women in knee-length skirts. They walked past her without breaking their stride or looking up from their phones. She was a ghost.

That’s when she saw the picture at the bus stop. The sea. Singapore was an island, just like her home. If you kept walking, you would reach the sea. Eventually. She looked up at the sun. It hovered over the steel, the glass, the towers, the phones, the school bags, the playgrounds, the people – above all. There. That way. She would walk in the direction of the sun.

“Not enough.”

Sukarti nodded.

“No, you don’t understand. This – ” and here the cashier held up the green bill “ – is not enough to pay for the Big Mac meal. You got more money?”

Sukarti nodded.

“Where?”

Sukarti nodded. She had walked for five days, and it showed. She stank. There were dark stains on her clothes. She could feel the crust of grime, dirt and sweat on her, accumulated over her five day odyssey. It was an armour. People turned their heads and pretended she wasn’t there. They talked louder to drown out her presence. Even now, the people in the queue behind her were steadfastly looking in every direction but hers. She was more than invisible, a void that repelled the gaze of the teeming, heaving mass of people around her.

“If you don’t have money to pay, I cannot give you any food.”

The cashier shook her head. Sukarti understood. She turned to leave.

“Nurul? Why you not at home?”

The old lady was the first person who had looked her in the eye since she started walking.

“Auntie, this one your maid is it?”

“Yes.”

“She got no money to pay.”

The old lady dug into her bag. In it, Sukarti could see a graveyard of city detritus – used tissues, crumpled advertising pamphlets in faded red and yellow, rubber bands tangled into Gordian knots, plastic bags twisted into intricate patterns. From the bag, the old lady fished out a red bill.

“This enough?”

“Yes. You want what for yourself?”

“Never mind, I will just share with Nurul.”

Sukarti carried the tray and followed the old lady to a corner table. The teenagers seated at the next table giggled and whispered as they sat down.

As they ate, the old lady talked. Sukarti understood enough. It was as Widi had said. Sometimes she was Nurul, who took her to the clinic. Sometimes she was Hidayah, who cooked lunch for her. Sometimes she was Dina – and here the old lady’s voice shook as she thanked Dina for taking care of her husband until the end. It couldn’t have been easy, changing his diaper and bathing him. Now that her husband was gone, Dina could go home. Back to Kalimantan to see her mother and her husband and her children. To see the house that they had built with the money she had sent back over the years. To be with them, and be the one cared for instead of the one doing the caring. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Sukarti nodded.

Her toes touched the water. It was cool, comforting to the touch. She wondered where the old lady was, if she was still sitting at the restaurant, asking children if they wanted an apple pie and smiling beatifically as they laughed at her. She could have stayed and taken care of her until the end came. It would not have been a bad life. But then it came to her like a half-remembered childhood song, the sharp smell of salt, the rhythmic crash of waves, the feel of the breeze on her skin. And so she left, slinking away when the old lady was in the toilet. To the sea.

And here she was.

Sharp shells edged the boundary between the water and the beach, cutting into her skin. Sukarti did not notice. She took another step into the water. And another. And another. Her body gave an involuntary shudder when the water hit her thighs, soaking her shorts. She ignored it and took another step.

A large wave gathered in front of her. She flinched, anticipating the impact. The wave surged onto her waist, pushing her back. Another wave crashed into her torso. This time, Sukarti stood firm. She continued walking into the surf, towards the horizon in the distance. The waves continued to come, but now, they only splashed harmlessly on her body.

Was this it? The terrifying spectre of her childhood bobbed gently around her. Sukarti laughed, a high, ringing peal that echoed across the beach. Nobody heard it. There was nobody to hear it. The mynah gave her a quizzical look and flew away.

She kept walking. The sharp sand receded beneath her into silky mud, enveloping her feet in a warm cocoon. She felt a lightness in her limbs. The weariness that had hung over her since arriving in Singapore began to fade. The water, instead of pushing her back, was now pulling her in. She and the sea moved in a fluid dance. It led, and she followed. They were in perfect harmony. A wave hit her face and she swallowed a gulp of water. The salty sear was as she remembered it. This time, it invigorated her. She looked back at the barren beach. Above, the glass and steel towers loomed, blocking the sky. She turned away and continued walking into the infinite expanse. The silent sea closed over her. From the shore, there was no sign that she was ever there, except for one broken flip-flop, half buried in the sand.

 

[1] An Indonesian island

[2] Indonesian fried rice

[3] A traditional Singaporean open-air coffee shop

 

Timothy Yam

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

2 thoughts on “The Stranger by Timothy Yam

  1. Timothy,
    Is it a heartfelt tale of a child placed in service. Sukarti, the child, is a stranger to this land. She does not know the language, and she feels a kinship to the ocean. She seeps and lives rough. If I had a critical point it would be to explain Sukarti’s situation in the setup. The story had elegant visuals and realistic dialogue and a very sad ending.

    Like

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