Sean Wayman is an Australian poet and short story writer. He studied English literature at the University of Sydney. He has since taught English in Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia. He has now settled back in Australia with his husband.
A Problem Child
When Trent received the email from Mark, the one announcing his return to Jakarta, he felt an uncomfortable ambivalence. Part of him was excited at the prospect of a visitor, or perhaps even a house guest – that part would depend on Oliver. But he couldn’t deny it; Mark wasn’t just another person: he was an object of concern, a problem child and even a hotly contested site. To call Mark divisive was to flatter him, for by the time he’d left Jakarta, general opinion was firmly, even staunchly, against him. It could only be naïve to presume that his return would be free of controversy.
In another city, Trent may readily have washed his hands of Mark, finding any number of likely pretexts. However, it was hard making friends in Jakarta – foreign ones anyway. Many of the expat teachers were outcasts and misfits, but that wasn’t the biggest issue, as he and Oliver were outsiders themselves. The problem was more that they were the wrong kind of oddball. To use their preferred terminology, most of the teachers were barflies and Lotharios (it was comparatively uncommon to find Western women teaching in Jakarta), and being a gay couple, they had little in common with this crowd. While they’d made a few women and gay friends, Mark had been one of a kind: a straight male expat who they’d got along well with.
Or had they? The statement rather begged the question. On receiving Mark’s email, the first thing Trent thought of was that long weekend in Bengkulu. He recalled, with a wince, the dark mood swings of the Englishman, his sullen hostility to every aspect of the trip. Not a single thing had interested or impressed him – not the casuarina-lined beach, not the grisly old molar of its eighteenth-century fort, not the moldering mausoleums of the British East India Company graveyard and certainly not the exile-house of Sukarno, the country’s independence leader. As they’d walked around the city’s monuments and museums, Mark had grown increasingly unhappy, skulking in corners, his face a scowl of misery and anger.
As they’d stood looking at Sukarno’s bicycle, the star exhibit of the exile-house, Oliver had whispered to Trent, “What’s up with him?”
Just a moment before, Mark had left the room with a flounce, returning to the front veranda, where he moodily stared at the front lawn.
“Who knows? He’s been sulking since the fort,” replied Trent, “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have invited him.”
“No one forced him to come,” Oliver grumpily observed.
It took Trent and Oliver another twenty minutes to look around the house and when they returned outside, Mark was waiting there with an exaggerated pout.
Pretending not to notice, Oliver cheerfully proclaimed, “Oh, I was wondering where you’d got to! Let’s head back to the bungalows. I wouldn’t mind an afternoon swim.”
“Surely we’re not walking back!” cried Mark, his resentment suddenly bursting its banks and swamping their entire party.
“How else do you plan to get there?” asked Oliver, in the manner of a teacher handling a difficult pupil.
“It must be a forty-minute walk,” complained Mark, “It’s absolutely roasting out there.”
“They’ve taken the becaks off the road here,” Oliver matter-of-factly reported, “and I haven’t seen a taxi all day, so we’re going to walk. But, hey, if you want to find your own transport, we’ll see you back at the bungalows.”
“How am I going to organize my own transport?” he demanded, “I don’t even know the address.”
“It’s on the room key,” Oliver wryly observed, “If you find some transport, just show it to the driver.”
“I’ll come with you then,” Mark testily agreed, “but it’s the last time I’m heading out today!”
Yet by the time they’d reached the street, Mark had already fallen behind, and he remained so for the length of the walk. At a couple of points, Trent and Oliver came to a pause so that Mark wouldn’t fall completely out sight. Yet even at such a considerable distance, they could tell how unhappy he was. Indeed, the word ‘unhappy’ couldn’t capture it: Mark’s whole being was turbid with resentment. His was no regular dejection, no commonplace grievance: like some occult emanation, it raced ahead to where they were waiting, enveloping them like a poisonous cloud.
Trying to please Mark, or at least to avoid any further eruptions of pique, they cancelled their plans for additional sightseeing. On the following day, there’d be no boat-trip to Pulau Tikus, nor any visit to the gold-threaded cloths in the collection of the Bengkulu Provincial Museum. Instead, they headed to the Horizon Hotel and spent half the day hanging out at the swimming pool. (Non-guests could pay a modest charge to use it). Lying on their sun lounges, they drank from bottles of Coke and Sprite and gazed at the Indian Ocean. It hovered beyond a fringe of casuarinas, as light and airy as an ether dream. As the day passed without conflict or contention, Trent and Oliver began to relax. They’d defused the hostility of the day before, which had brought them to the edge of some fateful breach. Perceiving a mood of rapprochement, Oliver had even suggested to Mark that the trip to Bengkulu had been a success. This, he soon learned, was a serious miscalculation.
“There’s nothing here,” Mark scoffed, “I mean, the best thing’s been this pool, and we could’ve gone swimming in Jakarta.”
On hearing these words, something in Trent hardened. Didn’t Mark know that they’d changed their plans for him? Was it too much to expect some gratitude or graciousness in return? Failing that, would it have killed him to pretend that he was having a good time? Though Trent voiced none of these questions, they got him thinking, leading him to some unflattering guesswork about Mark’s psychology. Had his parents neglected to socialize him properly? Had they never taught him that relationships required sacrifice and compromise? Or was it because he was an only child? Had he never learnt how to play with others?
As he reeled from theory to theory, finding only a sense of bewilderment therein, he realized that something else was required, something firmer and more resolute. And with that, he made a decision: they’d still meet Mark socially but never go away with him again. Though he’d have to run the idea by Oliver, he suspected that his partner would agree. Hadn’t he borne the worst of Mark’s bile?
And so it had gone. Though they’d spent seven more months in the country, leaving halfway through 2006, there’d be no repeat of that weekend trip, no further attempt at deepening the friendship. Nonetheless, from time to time they’d asked him out for a drink or a meal, preferring the neutral space of a bar or restaurant to the cramped intimacies of a dinner party. However, when Trent and Oliver were leaving Jakarta, heading off for an ill-fated teaching post in South Korea, they’d asked Mark out for dinner at a fancier place – the Thai restaurant on the sixth floor of the Sheraton Hotel. Lauren, a mutual colleague, was invited for moral support. If Mark was in a fighting mood, or sunken in pitchy depression, they could talk to her instead. Known as a cheerful prattler, especially when plied with alcohol, Lauren was viewed as a likely counterpoint to Mark’s gloomy presence.
Yet it almost hadn’t happened. When Lauren had heard that Mark was coming, she’d tried to get out of it, responding with nose-wrinkling, lip-loosening revulsion.
“Why? What’s wrong with him?” marveled Trent, who, despite having his own reservations about Mark, had never reached these depths of abhorrence.
“It’s hard to put into words,” she said, with a look of anxious detestation, “There are times when he creeps me out. I mean, I know it’s probably not his fault. I’ve heard about his accident, so I guess I should be more understanding. But you know how to smiles to himself when no one’s said anything? I don’t know… it just gives me the chills.”
Seeing how badly the invitation was going, Oliver made a timely intervention.
“Mark is a bit eccentric,” he allowed, “I understand where you’re coming from, but how about you sit next to me and we share a bottle of white or two? He’s not usually much of a talker. You’ll hardly know he’s there.”
It was hard to say which was more effective – the promise of white wine or Oliver’s pleading expression – but these joint inducements had soon won her over.
Yet if Lauren’s acquiescence had raised any doubts about her professed aversion to Mark, they were utterly quashed when she turned up at Sukhothai. Finding Trent and Oliver there before her, she sat next to Oliver and asked his partner to move to the seat across from her
“Sorry, Trent,” she said, “but I really don’t want him gawking at me.”
“It’s alright,” said Trent, “A lot of people seem not to like him. I was going to say ‘especially women’ but I’m not even sure that’s true. The other British lads don’t aren’t too fond of him either.”
All four of them were working for English House, commonly known as EH, which was a well-known chain of language schools in Indonesia. Most of the staff were either Brits or Aussies, with Lauren being the sole Australian woman. While Trent and Oliver were in their early thirties, Lauren and Steve were considerably younger – twenty-four in Lauren’s case and twenty-six in Mark’s.
“That’s a gorgeous understatement,” she said, referring to Steve’s unpopularity, her eyes atwinkle with insider knowledge.
“Why? What do they say about him?” asked Oliver, his voice dropped to a whisper. Whatever Mark’s foibles may have been, lateness was rarely one of them, and it was already seven o’clock.
“They think he’s strange,” she said, “No offense, guys – I mean, I know he’s your friend – but that’s what all the British lads say. His attitudes to sex have raised some eyebrows. I guess they see him as a kind of prude. You know how most of the expat men are like. They wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a sixty-year old man with two girls on his arm at Bats – ha, no pun intended! And they’re entirely unfazed by Bruce’s rent boy of the week, but a man who’s been here for nine months and never been on a date …well, that’s just incomprehensible.”
“It’s funny you say that,” said Trent, “because we’ve encouraged him to start dating. We’ve had that conversation more than once. But he’s always kind of resistant.”
“Resistant in what way? What did he say?” asked Lauren.
“Well, we’d noticed that he was spending a lot of time by himself. I mean, we’d go out for dinner with him once every few weeks, but he never mentioned any other friends. He keeps to himself in the staffroom as well. We thought he was becoming a bit of loner. So we asked him why he never went to Stadium or any of the other nightclubs, and he said he didn’t ‘approve’ of them.”
“What did I tell you!” exclaimed Lauren, “He’s a prude! There’ve been times when people were talking in the staffroom – a bit of sexual banter or that sort of thing – and I saw him squirming in his seat. He gets this expression on his face, a kind of disgusted look. It’s like he thinks they’re grubby. And the way he dresses, all sort of buttoned-up and proper … he reminds me of a missionary or something.”
“You’re onto something with the prude thing,” said Oliver, “but I think he’d make a terrible missionary. He’d be too grumpy to win any converts.”
“Oh, he’s an awful sulk, isn’t he?” agreed Lauren, her disdain more evident than ever.
“There’s no argument about that,” said Trent, “but I wonder about this ‘prude’ theory. If it was just a matter of him not liking nightclubs or sexual banter, I’d probably be sold, but he won’t even go on regular dates. One of the office girls liked him – she asked Oliver to put in a good word for her – but when he passed it on to Mark, he wouldn’t even ask her out.”
“That’s right,” recalled Oliver, “I’d almost forgotten. Novi liked him! Do you know her, Lauren? She’s usually on the front desk in the mornings.”
“I do,” said Lauren with warm interest, “She’s cute as a button. I almost feel like pinching her cheeks! God, it makes me angry that he’d turn her down. What does he think he’s doing? You know, it makes me wonder if there might be something to the gay theory after all.”
“There’s a gay theory?” asked an incredulous Oliver.
“Oh, come on,” said Lauren, in a tone bordering on archness, “Can you honestly say you’ve never had the thought?”
“No!” said Oliver emphatically, “I really don’t think he’s gay. He’s had at least one straight relationship – an Australian barmaid who was working in the UK. He said she was ‘sexually assertive’, and he seemed rather pleased about it. Perhaps he wants a woman who’ll take charge in the bedroom. I suppose he’s more of your passive type of male.”
“Oh stop!” protested Lauren with a grimace, “I really don’t need some gruesome image lodging in my brain. But I have to say that I’m still half-persuaded that there might be something to the gay theory. I mean, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that you two are the only foreigners he wants to spend time with. Are you sure that he isn’t in the closet? Maybe he looks at you guys as role models.”
“I’m with Oliver on this one,” said Trent, as if this were somehow an unusual situation, “I haven’t got any gay vibes. There’s never been a hint of sexual tension. Maybe it’s just that no one else likes him. He comes to us like a lost puppy.”
“Oh God!” said Lauren with half-feigned alarm, “Where’s the dogcatcher when you need him?”
Though the whole discussion had been tinged with malice, it showed a little too clearly here. While they tittered with nervous laughter, both Trent and Oliver felt that they’d overstepped a boundary. If they didn’t beat a hasty retreat, they’d be stranded in guilt and remorse. Their eyes darted about, as if scanning the scene for an exit route.
Perceiving the sudden sense of awkwardness, Lauren scrambled to redeem herself.
“Well, that was unkind,” she admitted, “Don’t worry. I’ll be nice when he gets here. I hope he comes soon. I’m looking forward to that wine.”
“Let’s order it now,” suggested Oliver, “It’ll take the edge off our nerves.”
When Mark walked in about ten minutes later, an ice bucket was planted on the table and Lauren and Oliver were sipping at a crisp white. Mark eyed them nervously at first, as if he was afraid of intruding, but Oliver spotted him loitering near the entrance and waved at him cheerily. Visibly relaxing, Mark walked over and sat down next to Trent. The group extended him unusually warm greetings – these were probably by way of compensation for the cutting tone of their recent discussion – and even Lauren managed a plausible smile. Accustomed to much frostier receptions, Mark responded with self-conscious pleasure.
Though the atmosphere was uncomfortable at first, Oliver got them talking about the menu, and by the time they’d agreed on the mains – a mixture of creamy curries and herby Thai salads – their initial discomfort had diminished. By the point when the steamed rice arrived (shortly followed by the first of the mains), the conversation was moving with an untroubled flow. Though this pleasantly surprised them, perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, they all belonged to the same, narrow milieu – that of the Jakarta English teacher. Moreover, visible through any of the windows was a vast field of twinkling lights, reminding them of the enormity of the city that surrounded them. Jakarta was elephantine, a huge, ungainly creature with a lumbering tread. There was scarcely ever a let-up in the trumpeting of its motor vehicles, and its leaden-footed traffic jams were already the stuff of legend. Though expats rarely spoke of it directly, it was both an intimidating and an alienating presence, and it drove them all closer together. Though they little realized it themselves, they saw in each other the surest respite from concrete and haze and blaring car horns.
While Mark was the least talkative of the party, the evening was no second Bengkulu. There was none of the juvenile moping which had marred their trip to Sumatra. Even when he played no active role in the conversation (which was most of the time, really), he still listened in closely. As the others spoke of their mutual acquaintances – the cast of outlandish characters who staffed the city’s ‘language mills’ – he’d tilt his head towards his companions and offer the occasional smile. Yet if this implied a degree of sociability, Mark maintained a mysterious air, a certain enigmatic inwardness. For they couldn’t always tell precisely what had amused him, and nor was he likely to explain it to them. Though he clearly had a sense of humor, it wasn’t synchronized with those around him. He’d sometimes remain stony-faced amidst general hilarity but then grin broadly when no one else was smiling. Yet despite these eccentricities, his demeanor was never alarming. Judging from his countenance, he was in a gentle, tolerant mood, and the others were thankful for it.
Responding to this mildness, Lauren ventured to speak to him directly, asking some questions about his life back home. He’d started university, he said, studying English literature. But he’d dropped out after a couple of semesters, finding the lecturers ‘pretentious’ and the other students ‘fake’. After that, he’d gone back to his local village, living with his parents and doing some short-term jobs. But as he’d approached his twenty-fifth birthday, his father had suggested – subtly at first but more bluntly as the time went by – that it was time for him to move out of home. Seeing nothing for him in the Midlands (or anywhere in the UK, really), he’d done an online teaching certificate and headed out to Indonesia.
“Why Indonesia?” asked Lauren, with a tentative smile.
For Trent and Oliver, it was strange watching Lauren speak to the Englishman. While she was socially adept at work, veering effortlessly between girly gossip and blokey discussion of sports scores, she was a stiffer presence around Mark. Gone was the clever, self-confident Lauren, a steady stream of puns, witticisms and in-jokes. Her manner was now effortful, as if she were goading herself forward with every question.
“I saw a job ad and thought it sounded exotic,” he said, “Of course, I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.”
“Oh? How’s that?” she asked, her smile stretched tight as a drum skin.
“I mean, it’s been an interesting experience,” he allowed, “but Jakarta’s not exactly Paris, is it? And as for EH …well, it’s nothing but clever marketing. With all these newbie teachers, they’re really just flying by the seat of their pants.”
Though these sentiments were not exactly positive, they were shared by the bulk of their colleagues. Even the teachers who’d settled there for years, enticed by the allure of the city’s neon nightlife, would readily admit its drawbacks: the gridlocked traffic and fetid canals were yet to find their champion. And in terms of their employer, even its strongest defenders were guarded in their pronouncements. Yet if Mark’s opinions were commonplace, his tone was too strident for Lauren’s taste.
“EH’s all right for a first job,” she asserted, “but it’s not somewhere to build a career.”
Sensing that he’d just been chided (although gently to be sure), Mark dropped his gaze and retreated to the cella of his private thoughts. Yet it was only a temporary withdrawal. Within a few minutes, he’d been coaxed back into the conversation by Trent, who got him talking about his upcoming trip. He was planning to fly to Samarinda, he said, and head up the Mahakam in a motorized sampan. There were longhouses where you could stay with the Dayak – the collective name for the indigenous peoples of Indonesian Borneo. Upon hearing this, Trent felt a sense of vindication. When he and Oliver had first made friends with Mark, they’d sensed that he was different from your typical Jakarta expat. What interested him wasn’t happy hour drinks, nor the sort of jaded floozies who haunted the city’s beer-bars; he was looking for something authentic. It now occurred to Trent that even Bengkulu had fallen short. Perhaps what he’d been seeking was primordial sense of wonder, a glimpse of the untrammeled wilds – the outer edges of experience. In taking him to forts, museums and swimming pools, they might’ve misjudged him. Had he always been a latter-day adventurer, hankering after the green frontier?
Trent stowed these thoughts away, hoping to raise them with Oliver later. However, he also saw that they were only of academic interest. In a few days’ time, they were flying to Seoul, and Mark – strange, problematic Mark – would soon have dropped out of sight and mind. Still, the Englishman was not yet at vanishing point, and before they said their farewells that night, he had one more surprise in store.
It happened in the hotel lobby, which was six floors down from Sukhothai. Though the space was decorated in an international style, there were also some local accents. The most ostentatious of these was a large wall relief of the Indonesian jungle. Above the crowns of towering dipterocarps, a flock of hornbills sailed by. You could almost imagine their unearthly calls. In examining the scene, Trent was reminded of Mark’s upcoming excursion, and it struck him as a marvelous coincidence. But rather than point out the relief to Mark (who he feared would disapprove, finding it somehow ‘fake’), he gave his friend a hug and requested that he keep in touch.
“Send me an email when you get back from Samarinda,” he concluded, “I want to hear all about it.”
“Will do,” said Mark with a smile and then walked across to Oliver, leaving Trent with Lauren.
“All the best, and don’t be a stranger,” said Oliver.
“Aren’t you going to give me a hug?” asked Mark, looking at Oliver with profound dejection.
Spreading his arms invitingly wide, Oliver went to hug his friend. From that point onwards, events gathered their own momentum. Seizing Oliver by the shoulders, Mark yanked him forward and planted a kiss on his lips. It was wet, thick-lipped and full of passionate feeling. Though a look of shock appeared on his face, Oliver didn’t actively resist it. Yet the mere lack of encouragement, Mark’s look of frozen non-responsiveness, was enough to bring Mark to his senses. He let go of Oliver and stepped away from him, already looking down, shamefaced. It showed that the urge that had prompted the kiss was a mystery, even to Mark. Just moments afterwards, he was already seeking to disown it, to pretend it was someone else’s doing. Unwilling to ponder the significance of his action, the inevitable question of what it meant, he avoided the eyes of his companions and went shambling towards the entrance, like someone in search of fresh air.
“My god! Why didn’t you do something?” jeered Lauren, elbowing Trent in his side.
“Like what?” he grinned, finding the suggestion vaguely hilarious. Was he supposed to find a second and challenge Mark to a duel?
“He was making a move on your man!” she insisted, “That kiss was passionate.”
“Come on,” scoffed Trent, “You’re making too much of it. We’re his only friends in Indonesia, and now we’re leaving. He just got caught up in the emotion of the moment.”
Lauren gave him a mocking look, incredulous at his naiveté.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Trent, “but I still don’t think he’s gay.”
As for Oliver, who’d withstood the worst of Mark’s ‘affections’, he continued to stand there in a state of shock, his lips still moist with the Englishman’s spittle.
By the time the email arrived, the kiss seemed but a minor indiscretion. As disconcerting as it had been at the time, it was nothing compared to subsequent events. A few months after they’d left Jakarta, Mark had been fired from EH. Though they learned of it at second hand (with Lauren providing most of the facts), when Trent angled for information from Mark, his friend confirmed the truth of the story. He’d been fired for assaulting his long-term bête noire, a popular, young teacher by the name of Michael. Trent hadn’t pushed him for the details, much less the reasons for his behavior, for he really didn’t want to know. In truth, the news of the attack had upset him, bringing to mind ugly scenes which pummeled his comfortable assumptions. He’d regarded Mark as sensitive and misunderstood, and his attack on Michael ran directly counter to this conception. But he and Oliver had moved to Korea by then, so Trent thought it unlikely that they’d ever meet the Englishman again. Based on this judgment and a desire to preserve a positive memory of Mark, Trent hadn’t dwelt on the incident. Instead, he simply disowned the matter, placing it in the storeroom of shadowy and uncertain things.
If he needed an excuse for doing so (and he did question his unwillingness to condemn Mark unconditionally), he could always cite the rumor about the Englishman’s ‘accident’. He’d deliberately ignored it in the past, viewing it as a particularly grubby invention, but after Mark’s dismissal, he formed a more favorable view of the story. According to the gossipmongers, Mark had been hit by a speeding car, which had left him with traumatic brain injury. He’d received a sizeable payout from the accident, which accounted for such extravagances as his cozy apartment in Jakarta and his planned sampan trip to Borneo. But, the gossipers insisted, it also explained some of his eccentricities of behavior – most especially his fits of temper. And though Trent had never closely looked into it (he was not one of the world’s fact-checkers), the theory did make a degree of sense. Weren’t violent outbursts a common consequence of head injuries? And didn’t that complicate any assessment of Mark’s culpability? Wanting to mitigate the gravity of Mark’s transgression, Trent was eager to believe so.
And yet he also pulled further away. Trent told himself that he was merely busy; there was so much to adjust to in a new country. And while there was a degree of truth in this, he and Oliver hadn’t made friends in Korea, so their evenings were long and empty. If he’d been so inclined, he could’ve written emails every night of the week. Instead, he let Mark take the initiative, sending perfunctory responses which were stiff and impersonal in style. Yet if he was punishing Mark for his misbehavior, or biding time till he worked out whether the friendship was worth preserving, he wasn’t fully aware of it. The story of his busyness was repeated so often that he almost believed it was true.
In the end, Mark headed back to England and stayed there till the end of 2007. Though there’d been some talk of looking for other jobs in Indonesia, he’d eventually succumbed to fatalism. The Jakarta English-teaching scene was a small world, he said, and there was no hiding what he’d done. As soon as people knew that he’d worked for EH, the country’s biggest employer of foreign English teachers, they’d ring up his supervisor and find out what had happened. Though Trent wasn’t convinced by these arguments – reference checks weren’t exactly thorough at the less reputable of the ‘language mills’ – Mark wasn’t for changing his mind.
Once Mark was back home, there was less than ever to write about. In the initial phase of their relationship, they’d had two main things in common: the milieu they occupied and a common interest in travel. They no longer shared the first, and the second was suddenly less relevant; there was no hint of travel in Mark’s future. So all they had to fall back on was a third commonality, one which had played a minor role in the development of their friendship – a shared fondness for certain writers and musicians. It was rickety stuff, but they tried to make do with it. In one email exchange they discussed the second Arcade Fire album. (While Mark thought it was almost the equal of their debut, Trent thought it was only intermittently brilliant. Some of the arrangements sounded labored to his ears.) If this was little more than a statement of preferences, their emails were sometimes more revelatory. Towards the middle of the year, Trent wrote that he’d just finished David Mitchell’s most recent novel, Black Swan Green. He was greatly disappointed, he said, by the retreat from the high postmodernism of Mitchell’s earlier novels. However, Mark had again dissented. He said that it offered a very accurate depiction of the sort of village he’d grown up in. He’d been particularly affected by the scenes where the local boys had bullied the ‘townies’, the newcomers who lived in “little toy mansions”. Those passages, he said, were a potent distillation of all the horrors of his teenaged years.
Though Trent immediately sensed the personal nature of the revelation, he didn’t immediately see its full psychological importance. A few weeks later, it ‘suddenly’ occurred to him that he had a valuable piece of information which was directly relevant to many of the mysteries surrounding Mark. From that point, a series of questions came cascading into his mind, each one taking him deeper into the matter. Had the bullying marked – no! wounded– the Englishman permanently? How many of his ongoing social difficulties were the result of these early traumas? Was it even possible that his assault on Michael was an agonized reenactment of those distant scenes? Had the popular young teacher somehow reminded him of his former tormentors? By striking out at him, had Mark hoped to score a belated victory against the tyranny of the past? Through merely asking these questions, Trent adumbrated a possible backstory for Mark, one which linked his past victimization with the violent outburst which had cost him job at EH. It was likely, he decided, that Mark was still in thrall to some commanding terror. Whether it was true or not, it brought of a softening of Trent’s feelings, and he resolved to be more patient and understanding.
In April 2007, Trent and Oliver returned to Indonesia, grateful to escape the tense, strife-prone work atmosphere of their hogwan (language academy) in Korea. For a few months, Trent put off mentioning the fact to Mark, worried that the news would stir unpleasant memories. But when he finally told him, Mark took it well, casually mentioning that he’d hoped to visit them in Korea one day but would now plan another South-East Asian itinerary. At the time, Trent gave little credence to the idea, but fresh ructions between Mark and his father eventually increased its likelihood. Though the exact reasons were never spelt out, Mark was given a deadline for moving out of home. He seemed to take it badly, railing against a father who was ‘always in his face’, and this upset seemed to animate the dramatic gesture which followed. Rather than looking for a place of his own, he went out and bought a round-the-world air ticket, describing it, in his email, as ‘the adventure of a lifetime’. Though the phrase was irksome to Trent, striking him as both clichéd and grandiose, he found it forgivable in the circumstances. Reeling from his latest rejection – this time from his own father – Mark was probably in need of a sense of purpose. If a little linguistic inflation would help, who was he to judge? Anyway, as far as interest went, the phrase was outgunned by a competitor in the following paragraph. Just a few lines down, Mark wrote that he was going to fund his trip with ‘the last of his compensation money’.
The phrase seized Trent’s attention, as it belatedly confirmed a lot of the rumors from their EH days. It explicitly validated the existence of the money and implicitly linked it to some sort of accident. It occurred to Trent that he was now free to ask questions, as Mark had broached the topic himself. Doing so could no longer be considered indelicate. But he quickly realized that there was really no need. Both the accident and the payout were now established fact. What remained unclear was the question of Mark’s brain trauma and its ongoing impact on his life. Yet once Trent had considered the matter, he saw that he still didn’t want to probe there – it struck him as something private and personal. So instead he wished Mark the best for his journey and requested that he send regular updates.
The second half of 2007 found Mark in the Americas. He was soon sending emails from Quito, Los Quetzales National Park and the colonial old town of Antigua Guatemala. Being short and uninspired, these emails rarely caught Trent’s imagination, and he found himself wishing for some visuals – perhaps a picture of a cobbled old square, or a quetzal resplendent in the cloud forest. Why didn’t he attach some photos to his emails? Trent considered making the suggestion. But before he got around to it, Mark flitted to the United States, showing up (unexpectedly) in the hippie town of Sedona, Arizona. Predictably enough, Mark made some snide remarks about healing crystals and the vortex of swirling energy which could allegedly be experienced at Cathedral Rock. Of more interest to Trent was the casual mention that he’d soon be flying to Bangkok, a city he described as the ‘launching pad of his next adventure’. As soon as he got there, he was going to head for Cambodia, a country he imagined as an exotic amalgam of Angkorian temples and UXOs.
Though Cambodia was still quite a distance from Jakarta, Trent sensed that Mark was getting closer and might even turn up on his doorstep. His response to this was distinctly muddled. While part of him hoped to catch up with the Englishman (perhaps heading for some drinks at one of Jakarta’s expat bars), he was also worried about possible complications. At that stage, both he and Oliver were having difficulties at work, and he saw Mark as a likely cause of further upset. It was as if he were a low-pressure system which was moving towards the region, bringing with it the threat of a rain squall, a possible outbreak of blustery conditions.
However, these anxieties proved excessive, for Mark had no intention of immediately returning to Jakarta. In the end, he remained on the road for the whole of 2008. But if Trent had overestimated his own risk exposure, he wasn’t wrong to think of Mark as a potent source of turbulence. For as soon as he entered Cambodia, there were renewed signs of changeability, the latest swings of a mercurial and temperamental nature. It shouldn’t have surprised him, of course. On the trip to Bengkulu, their formerly quiet and unassuming friend had transformed into a brooding, petulant adolescent. And then there’d been the sudden transformations from sullen passivity to raging belligerence. Though the attack on Michael was the prime example, it wasn’t entirely without precedent. In fact, there’d been warning signs from the first time they’d gone out for dinner together. When the waitress had messed up Mark’s order, he’d lost his temper and shouted at her. Perceiving the shock on the faces of his dinner companions, he’d moderated his tone and accepted her apologies, but if they’d brushed it off at the time, it had a different look in retrospect. And then there was the time when they’d gone out to the pizza place behind Djakarta Theatre and a taxi driver, for whatever reason, had declined to take Mark home. Oliver was astonished when Mark lost his temper and booted the back door of the taxi. But if his temper fits were now a recognized danger, a familiar part of the landscape, the latest change was a different matter entirely; it was more a question of style, revealed through a sudden outpouring of emails.
While Mark’s previous correspondence had been reserved, conventional and more than a little boring, his new ones were lyrical and self-expressed, though sometimes marred by cack-handed attempts at humor. It was as if Mark had suddenly given up the dull, plodding stuff of prose and started his novitiate as a poet. To illustrate the change, it may be useful to offer some excerpts from his emails. The first comes from his time at Siem Reap, his first stop in Cambodia.
Standing in front of the temples, timeworn edifices magnificent in their ruin, you can only wonder how they must have looked in their heyday. I sometimes feel as if I were a player inside a game of ‘Tomb Raider’. (Regrettably, this hasn’t meant bumping into a sweaty, scantily clad Lara Croft lookalike.) Each time I arrive at a new temple, village children greet me with the usual array of souvenirs – handmade postcards, plaster busts of Jayavarman VII and little bamboo flutes. These play strange, otherworldly melodies which sound like something from another time...
Ten days later he wrote again, this time from Battambang, a riverside city known for its French colonial architecture.
I’ve been hanging out with Daan, a crazy Dutchman, and Gemma, an English lass who’s addicted to Valium and various other prescription drugs. Yesterday Daan and I went out to Phnom Sampeau with a guide and tuk-tuk driver. In the dry season, the landscape resembles the African savannah. Dirt roads. Paddies with the look of dried-out grasslands. Sugar palms like great, shaggy lions’ manes. With each potholed mile, we seemed to head further into the past, perhaps even to an earlier century.
Phnom Sampeau is a karstic mountain, with panoramic views across the landscape. Partway up the peak, we came to a halt and followed a staircase down into a cave. From the bottom, you could make out a source of light overhead. There was a ‘natural skylight’ in the cave. As I was looking up, Daan noticed a pile of human bones, some of them retaining a few scraps of clothing. This was the ‘death cave’, the one mentioned in the guidebooks. The Khmer Rouge cadres had bludgeoned their victims at the edge of the ‘skylight’ and cast their bodies down into the cave. It was shocking to think that they’d lain there for thirty years now, the dignity of burial still denied. But in a nearby cave, we found a Reclining Buddha statue and a ramshackle memorial for some of the victims. They’d built a cage out of cyclone fencing and chicken-wire and placed some of the bones inside it.
If this continued the poetic style of the previous email, it also introduced a further element – a propensity for the macabre. Though the two tendencies were still somewhat balanced at that stage, it was the morbid aspect which would soon predominate. The very next email was a sign of things to come.
A few days ago I saw the semi-naked body of a young girl (perhaps no more than 20 years old) who’d been murdered the night before. Her body had washed up on the banks of the Sangkae River. The police had put a small cordon around the body but had neither covered it nor taken it away. A large crowd of locals had gathered – grandmas and grandpas, primary school kids, mothers with babies. The scene had a festive atmosphere, almost like a town fête. Some of the people were taking photos on their mobile phones. Selfies with a corpse. This was the middle of the afternoon – the body having been found some 12 hours earlier. In Cambodia, bodies don’t get taken to the morgue until families come to claim them. Often nobody comes forward. In these cases, they sometimes cremate the bodies at the site of discovery. From what the locals told me, murders are far from uncommon and many go unsolved. The country is awash with guns, and police forces are corrupt and inefficient.
When Trent first read this email, he found it slightly disturbing, but he couldn’t immediately say why. If he’d been pressed, he might’ve said that he found it ‘weird’ or perhaps even ‘a sign of a troubled mind’. It was only years later that he finally saw the true source of his uneasiness – Mark’s covert participation in the very acts of voyeurism which his email decried. Hadn’t he inspected the body too, appraising the woman’s age and degree of undress? Hadn’t he loitered by the corpse, sharing gossip and conjecture with the other onlookers?
Though this was the only first-hand account of a crime scene, Mark stayed focused on murder and depravity. He developed an interest in the seedy side of Cambodian life, reading the Phnom Penh Post and offering summaries of the most shocking and gruesome cases. His emails became compendiums of violence and bloodshed – a knife-fight in a karaoke bar over who got to use a microphone, a machete attack over longstanding debts, and an unexplained shooting in a pool hall. As Trent read through these tales, one after another, they emitted a lurid, backstreet glow. The following is a representative sample.
February 1: He Hang, 23, was fatally gunned down during a nighttime drinking binge in Sapor village, Kampung Thom province. Police said Hang was shot once in the chest with an AK-47 while arguing with Penh Narith, 46, a policeman in Seda commune. A bystander said that Narith created problems after drinking two crates of beer. Narith escaped after the killing.
These emails presaged another change in Mark’s correspondence. He now abandoned all pretensions to poetry and settled on a journalistic style. By this point he was settled down at Lakeside, a backpacker ghetto in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. A small part of Boueng Kak (a poor neighborhood which was slated for demolition in the coming years), Lakeside was known for the cheapness of its lodgings and its bars. While Mark organized his visa extension, he hung out at The Drunken Frog, drinking cans of Angkor beer and sending dispatches on local crime and politics.
His interest in the latter was apparently piqued by Boeung Kak, the community whose wooden shacks and lakeside stilt houses were soon to be struck by the wrecking ball. It was, indeed, a scandalous affair involving corrupt politicians and the theft of land from some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Nonetheless, it was curious subject matter for a string of group emails to his friends and former colleagues. (Mark had now started sending his missives to a dozen or more people at a time. Scanning the distribution list, Trent spotted the names Daan and Gemma, as well as some of the office assistants from their EH days.) Perhaps, Trent speculated, his own replies had been found wanting. As Mark had cast off his former inhibitions, sharing great slabs of impassioned prose, Trent had responded with brief or even perfunctory emails in which the chill of reserve was evident. Dissatisfied with these efforts, Mark had placed him in the group list ‘sin bin’.
To Trent’s critical eye, it seemed that his friend, desperate for attention, was casting his net as widely as possible. It must have been disappointing to have poured out his heart and received such guarded responses. He had offered poetry and been given prose in return. So it made sense that he’d set up a group list. If Trent ignored him, then maybe Gemma, Daan or even Dewi (one of the office assistants at EH) would make time for a detailed response. He was playing a numbers game, maximizing the chance that someone would take an interest. However, it certainly backfired with Trent. He self-servingly concluded that all those other names in the group-mail distribution list were excuse enough for not replying.
In truth, as Mark’s journalistic phase dragged on, Trent stopped even reading the emails. He’d let his eyes skim across the screen, just to determine the subject matter. But finding a set piece on the surveillance state of Hun Sen (the long-term dictator of Cambodia), or the latest batch of victims from the crime pages of the Phnom Penh Post, he’d shake his head and close the email. If this was Mark’s ‘passion’, why didn’t he start a blog about Cambodia or go back to university and study journalism? In short, Trent believed that emails weren’t the most appropriate place for Mark to pursue these interests. An email, as he saw it, was a kind of conversation, and he was starting to feel shouted at.
By early March, Mark had left Cambodia, heading back to Thailand to obtain a tourist visa for India. By this point, he’d abandoned both his crime reportage and his exposés on the corrupt, authoritarian Hun Sen regime. Perhaps the other people in Mark’s distribution list had been just as unresponsive as Trent to the subject matter of his emails. Whatever the cause, he’d dropped the affectations of his Drunken Frog phase, reverting to a simpler, more functional style. Once more grounded in practicalities, he weighed the benefits of the possible gateway cities (Kolkata? Delhi? or perhaps Chennai?), as well as the various classes of visa. Was the three-month visa enough or should he err on the side of caution and opt for the six-month option? Then there was the question of the single versus multiple-entry variants. If he got the latter, he’d be free to do side-trips to Nepal and Bangladesh. In the end, he got the six-month, multiple-entry visa. Things going well, he’d stay in the subcontinent till the end of August and then spend the autumn in China.
With Mark’s arrival in India, the kaleidoscope continued to turn. There was no return to Mark’s ‘activist’ phase, nor to the lyricism of his first emails from Cambodia; the eyepiece was filled with new shapes and colors – some of them strangely foreboding. The dominant theme was now travel as adventure, and he appeared to chart a haphazard course. Armed with his six-month visa, he had all the time he needed to explore the country at leisure. He had no fixed dates in his calendar, nor even a bucket-list of ‘must-see’ attractions. He used this freedom, this lack of commitments, to indulge every whim and follow every fancy. On one occasion, he was led to an obscure temple-town by an intriguing photo in a museum. On another, he was directed to a hill-station by a comment overhead in a restaurant. But if Trent observed a bold new pattern in all this openness and spontaneity, darker tints were soon to intrude.
Within a month, Mark was complaining about the prevalence of scam artists in India. Though he’d yet to visit the country himself, Trent certainly wasn’t surprised. It did have that reputation with travelers. But it seemed that Mark’s attitude was much less philosophical; he expressed his fury in a ranting email whose colours were broodingly dark. This ominous portent notwithstanding, Trent was still shocked when things got physical. It wasn’t too serious, wrote Mark – really just some pushing and shoving. But his ‘self-restraint’ was to prove short-lasting. Outraged by crooked guesthouse-owners and duplicitous auto-rickshaw drivers, the Englishman started fighting back. Predictably enough, the results were abysmal. There were further references to ‘arguments and scuffles’ and there was a palpable sense of escalation. Trent found the following lines especially worrying.
The local swindlers are out of control. It seems like every other Bajaj driver has got a guesthouse scam running. They’ll swear that your preferred option has shut down, closed for renovations or even burned to the ground. You name it, they’ll try it. But of course they just want to drive you to one of the commission-paying places. Anyway, I’ve started giving them a piece of my mind, and they don’t like being on the receiving end. The truth is, I’ve got into a few scraps lately. I can hold my own if it’s one on one, but that’s not how they fight in India. Indians are a social bunch. They always seem to have friends – lots of friends, actually – and if they see one of their mates in a brawl, they’ll join in without a second thought. It got a bit hairy the other day.
At this point, Trent wrote a lengthy reply, expressing serious concern about the direction things were taking. He said that while he understood his friend’s frustrations (it was galling to be viewed as an easy mark by scammers), one should try to keep things in perspective. Was it worth getting beaten up for the sake of a few rupees? Every year, thousands of travelers didn’t make it home from their adventures. If things were getting ‘hairy’, wasn’t it time to pull back and reflect on the risks?
Though he’d felt it necessary to issue a caution, Trent was worried how Mark might respond. He had the strong impression that Mark considered himself the ‘master of his own destiny’ and didn’t look favorably on input from others. But Mark took his warnings good-naturedly enough, saying that Trent was probably right and promising to take a step back. Whether the Englishman had actually moderated his behavior was quite another question, but there were no more emails about street brawls. It occurred to Trent that he might merely have shamed Mark into silence and the fights were really as frequent as ever. Notwithstanding his possibility, Trent decided that he’d fulfilled his obligations. However juvenile Mark seemed in his behavior, he was an adult, after all, and had to make his own choices.
Yet there eventually came hints that Mark’s aggression hadn’t disappeared but rather metamorphosed to a strange new form. If his previous strategy had been head-on confrontation, he now switched to games of cat-and-mouse. The fact that these were invariably played with security guards seemed of considerable symbolic significance, but like much else about Mark, its exact meaning was open to competing interpretations. Fortunately, the practical details were a more straightforward matter. The facts were as follows: whenever Mark visited a museum, he’d find rooms with security stationed on the door and then wait inside long enough to arouse the guard’s suspicions. He’d time how long it took for the guard to come and check on him, sometimes heightening the fun by lurking around corners or crouching between display cases. Finally growing tired of his bespoke version of peekaboo, he devised a much more elaborate game. Seeking a bigger arena, he shifted the venue from museums to historical monuments. He’d visit them in the daytime, buying a ticket like anyone else and using it to scope out the site. While most tourists would focus on the picturesque aspects – the brickwork, the carvings and the ornate façades – Mark would have other concerns. He’d be scanning the walls for security cameras and calculating where their blind spots were. He’d also be looking out for places to hide – walls that he could crouch behind, or ditches where he could flatten himself. As it neared closing time and the site emptied of visitors, he’d retreat to some nook or cranny and wait for the sun to set. Once it was dark enough, he’d emerge from his hidey-hole and explore the ruins by starlight. Mindful of where the cameras were placed, he’d weave a course through the deserted site, enjoying sole possession of the historical treasure. Finally growing tired, he’d rough sleep in some shadowy corner, and when the site re-opened the following morning, he’d dust himself off and walk out through the main entrance.
These adventures usually went off seamlessly, but he did have a brush with danger at a famous hill fort. Perhaps he’d missed a couple of the cameras, or maybe he’d just encountered an especially conscientious security guard, but after one of Mark’s flights around the complex, a guard came out with a powerful torch and did a circuit of the grounds. Squatting behind some crumbling masonry, Mark peeped out at the courtyard ahead of him, the one that the guard was passing inspecting. Yet before he reached Mark’s corner of the fort, he turned around and headed back, his way lit by a trembling flashlight.
In writing of the incident, Mark conveyed a heady sense of exhilaration. Though Trent couldn’t relate to his friend’s reaction, he sensed how much the adventure had meant to him. It wasn’t just an exciting experience, it was the apogee of his whole adventure, his closest approach to some lofty ideal. For this reason, Trent issued no further cautions. Though the whole thing struck him as foolhardy (almost the equal, in some respects, of his fights with auto-rickshaw drivers), he didn’t want to steal the Englishman’s glory. After all, exultation was hardly a commonplace feeling, and who was he to cast it into the dirt?
So he left Mark to his peculiar excitements, paying less and less attention to his emails and not even commenting when he left India for China. Yet in some sense, it seemed as if Mark himself had a dimming interest in his great adventure. As the year entered its final quarter, his emails became less and less frequent, and those he did send were marked by flat affect. He now seemed tired and apathetic, as if interminable months of travel had exhausted his capacity for wonder. The singular passions that had characterized his earlier emails were now replaced by conventional reportage, none of it very engaging. Though he complained of the grey skies of China’s cities, his emails were scarcely any more colorful. It seemed like he was moving about aimlessly now, searching for the resolve to call an end to his travels.
Then in early 2009, Trent got a personal email – one directed to himself alone. Mark wrote that he was almost out of money and was considering looking for another job in Indonesia. By this point, both he and Oliver were doing well at their new schools (Oliver was newly promoted to the Academic Team Leader position), and they were well accustomed to life in Jakarta. There was little of the restlessness which had marked their first stint in the city, and having finally obtained a degree of stability, they now looked unfavorably on possible upsets. It was against this backdrop that Mark was about to reappear. Fresh from his street fights and his midnight occupations of forts and temple complexes, he seemed an anarchic figure, a threat to their equilibrium. But out of loyalty to an ideal of friendship, Trent said that he’d talk to Oliver and see what they could do.
“You can’t be serious,” said Oliver, “From what you’ve been telling me, it’s clear he’s lost his marbles.”
“He is eccentric,” Trent allowed, “but haven’t we known that all along?”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘eccentric’ to punch someone in the face,” said Oliver coldly, “He’s much more unstable than we’d imagined.”
“I see what you’re saying,” said Trent, “but that must’ve been two years ago. Doesn’t he deserve a second chance?”
“How long since his last fight with a taxi driver?” asked Oliver, “Or should I say a mob of taxi drivers?”
“I think he’s dropped all that,” said Trent, “He hasn’t mentioned any fights in months.”
“And what about that weird stuff about hiding inside monuments at nighttime? How do you explain that?” challenged Oliver, hard and unrelenting.
“You’re right, of course,” said Trent, “That was strange, but I don’t think he meant any harm. He’s just some sort of fantasist, I suppose. He gets carried away with flights of fancy.”
“You’re telling me!” scoffed Oliver, “Do you think I’ve forgotten that night at the Sheraton?”
“What, you mean that kiss he gave you?” said Trent irritably, “Like I said to Lauren at the time, he was just caught up in the emotion of the moment. I wouldn’t read too much into it.”
“Trent, he slipped his tongue in,” said Oliver impassively.
“Like, inside your mouth?” asked Trent, who was still hoping for an accident, perhaps some sort of overshoot.
“Of course inside my mouth!” said Oliver testily, “Where else were you thinking?”
“Oh don’t!” protested Trent, “Poor you, hon. Imagine having that Crazy Mark slobber all over you!”
“It wasn’t pleasant, believe me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” asked Trent, more curious than accusing.
“Well, he was leaving, wasn’t he? I didn’t see any point in making a scene. But if he’s coming back here – and, speaking frankly, I don’t see the point myself – then you should know why I don’t want to see him.”
“Is that why you’ve never written to him?” asked Trent.
“No…well, maybe that’s part of it. But what’s there to say? I haven’t seen this guy in two and a half years. And who wants to read his deranged travelogues anyway?”
“How about we just go out for dinner then?” suggested Trent, “Stay on neutral ground.”
“If I have to,” said Oliver, “but he’s not staying here. I wouldn’t be comfortable with him moping around the apartment.”
“The spare bedroom’s on the left, Mark. You can put your bags in there.”
“Are you sure this is okay?” he asked, “If it’s inconvenient, I can get a place in Jaksa.”
“Not at all,” said Trent, “We’re glad to have you.”
It was a bit before eight and Trent hadn’t been home long. Oliver had just texted him, writing that he was on his way but the traffic was even worse than usual. Trent told him that Mark was already there and promised to get some takeaway for dinner. Oliver was yet to get back.
“Have you eaten yet?” asked Trent, lingering in the doorway of the spare room.
“I had some noodles a couple of hours ago,” said Mark, “but I could eat again.”
“We’re just going to order some nasi goreng,” said Trent, “Do you want me to get you anything?”
“Yeah. Why not?” said Mark, “What kinds do they have?”
“Chicken, beef or seafood,” said Trent, “I’d recommend the beef.”
“Sure,” said Mark, “And any chance of a couple of Bir Bintang?”
“No worries,” said Trent, “There’s a supermarket in the basement. I think it’s where all the cockroaches come from.” He’d noticed one slowly climbing the doorjamb.
By the time he got back with the takeaway and the beers, Oliver was already home. He’d removed his tie but was still wearing dress slacks and a business shirt. He was standing in the lounge-room and talking to Mark, who was sitting on the sofa with his laptop balanced on the armrest. Trent observed that even though Oliver seemed tense, his tone was civil and respectful. He was ‘being good’ about it all.
“Should I get some plates or are we okay to eat out of the containers?” asked Trent.
“I’m alright with Styrofoam,” said Oliver, and Mark nodded his agreement.
“Should we start the beers now or wait till after dinner?”
“Let’s have one now,” said Oliver, to which Mark added his enthusiastic support.
Trent handed out the nasi goreng boxes and opened three longnecks, putting the rest in the fridge.
The conversation was faltering at first, with Trent asking Mark about his holiday and receiving only brief replies. Trent had forgotten the severity of Mark’s social anxieties. In the past, he’d been much more at ease around Trent and Oliver than the other teachers, but an absence of two and a half years had undermined their erstwhile familiarity, leaving it precarious, at risk of collapse. For his part, Trent was disappointed by Mark’s reticence, yearning for some of the freewheeling lunacy of his emails. So he tried to draw him out, asking open-ended questions about his travels, hoping to elicit some colorful new tales. But though many travelers were prone to garrulity, gushing over places that meant nothing to the listener, Mark was an exception. Hurt by the indifference of his friends, he’d come to see travel as a risky topic. Fearing further injury, he couldn’t be tempted into the fray.
Where open-ended questions had failed, beer had more success. After dinner, they each had a second bottle and then Trent went out for replenishments. From that point on, it was almost like old times. They traded gossip about their former colleagues (Lauren was now in Qingdao, married to an American businessman!) and poked fun at their former employer (have you heard about the school closures in West Jakarta?). Eventually Mark took his laptop of the armrest and gave them a slideshow of his travel photos from India. As keen travelers who’d yet to visit the country, Trent and Oliver showed unfeigned interest in the pictures, and Mark seemed grateful. Inspired by this success, Mark then showed them his iTunes music library, in which he took an inordinate sense of pride. He went to his ‘most played’ list and asked them to select a tune. While Trent was dithering between half a dozen indie titles, Oliver spotted something he liked, calling out, “Ça plane pour moi!”
“Plastic Bertrand!” cried Mark, apparently delighted by the choice.
As soon as the song started playing, Oliver got up from the sofa and started doing a frenetic jitterbug. As Trent looked on, utterly astounded, Mark gave a lopsided grin and then sprang up from the sofa to take Oliver’s hand. They then joined in a high-spirited performance, with Oliver twirling Mark around the room and shouting the words to the chorus. As Mark went whirling by, Trent looked on with the beginnings of dismay; he could feel things spinning out of control. But fortunately for him, they couldn’t keep it up for long, and they soon let go of each other, dropping back onto the sofa, panting.
When the song ended, Mark turned to Trent and said, “Your pick now.”
He surveyed the list of Mark’s most-played songs, finding Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil in the top spot, with a remarkable seventy-two spins.
“Song to the Siren, hey? Isn’t it the most gorgeous thing ever?” said Trent dreamily.
“Absolutely,” replied Steve, with tremendous gravity, “It’s the most beautiful song in this world.”
While Steve was usually guarded about his feelings, adding a layer of defensive irony on the rare occasions when he did discuss them, he spoke now with unvarnished sincerity and not a hint of self-consciousness. The change was due to how he perceived the matter. As he saw it, it wasn’t even an opinion he was offering: he was merely stating a fact. As such, there was no need to be ashamed of it.
“It must be up there,” said Trent uneasily.
“Is that your pick?” asked Mark.
While Trent found the song exceptionally beautiful, he also regarded it as exceptionally sad. It seemed to brim with a desperate, or even fatal, sorrow, as if the singer was in danger of drowning in her heartbreak. It just wouldn’t do, he thought, as a follow-up to a jitterbug.
“It’s great,” he said, “but it isn’t party music.”
So instead he requested Goddess on a Highway by Mercury Rev. While it wasn’t exactly danceable, it was much more cheerful than the alternative. But when Mark reached for the touchpad, Trent noticed, with a shock, that his fingers were thickly encrusted with scabs.
“What happened to your hand?” he asked, momentarily unaware of how compromising the question might be.
“It happened in China, a couple of weeks ago,” he said.
Leaning forward to get a better view of the scabby knuckles, Oliver asked, “Why? What happened?”
Though Mark obviously felt uncomfortable, he decided not to evade the question.
“I was at a train station in Xian, trying to get to Beijing. Anyway, they sold me a ticket, but when I got to the platform, the gate was already closed. They close it ten minutes before the scheduled time of departure. I was, like, one minute late, but they wouldn’t let me onto the platform.”
“Bummer,” said Oliver, “So what happened next?”
“I went back to the ticket window, lined up for half an hour, and when I got to the front of the queue, the woman wouldn’t give me a refund. She said I wasn’t entitled to one. So I lost my cool and started punching the glass.”
“Oh my god! Did you break it?” asked Trent, horrified.
“Nah, it was toughened glass – really thick. It didn’t even crack, actually. It fucked up my hand pretty well though.”
Trent and Oliver exchanged worried looks. Mark noticed, lowering his gaze to his injured hand, which was quietly convalescing in his lap.
“Did you see a doctor?” asked Oliver finally, making a belated show of concern.
“Nooo! There wasn’t any need! Look, I know I went a little nuts, but it only lasted a minute. Didn’t do any lasting damage.”
“What did the woman do?” asked Trent, “She didn’t call the police or anything?”
“Oh look, I think I gave her a shock, and she called the security guards over, but it wasn’t a big deal. They just escorted me out of the station. That was it.”
“Trent mentioned that you also had some trouble in India,” said Oliver matter-of-factly. His tone was so detached that he might have been discussing some unnamed assailant from a news report.
Mark glared at Trent, his eyes accusing him of betrayal.
“I said you’d had some problems with scammers,” fumbled Trent, “You said they could get a bit aggro.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Mark, “And there’s no such thing as a fair fight over there. Before you know it, you’re getting hit from all sides.”
Trent looked at him closely, trying to gauge Mark’s intent. His first thought was that this just bravado, an attempt to project a masculine image. But then it occurred to him that Mark might genuinely have felt aggrieved. After all, there was nothing fake about his scabs or the blows that produced them. Wasn’t it possible that Mark habitually thought of himself as the wronged party, the one on the receiving end of every species of mistreatment?
“It sounds scary,” said Oliver, “I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to go there now.”
Trent shot him an incredulous look, as if to ask, “You don’t take this nutjob seriously, do you?”
Mark gave a rambling response in which he spoke of the Indians as a disputatious bunch, prone to outbursts of senseless violence. As Mark would have it, there was no end to the pushing and shoving, and no conversation was really in earnest there, unless it was conducted in an angry tone.
Having noted Trent’s skepticism, Oliver didn’t pursue the topic, instead taking the opportunity to raise a still greater controversy: Mark’s firing from EH. Trent would’ve left the matter alone, considering it the most combustible of flashpoints – a long walk back in the hottest part of the day. Yet it was irresistible to Oliver, promising direct access to the bubbling substrate of Mark’s character, the lava-like feelings which boiled away, ever threatening their next explosion. What was it, he wondered, which made Mark so profoundly eruptive? What was the source of all his heat? By returning to Mark’s largest blow-up, the one which had demolished his life in Jakarta, hurling him outwards like a whizzing projectile, Oliver hoped that he might better understand him. If they were going to help the Englishman to reestablish himself in Jakarta, they’d need to grasp what had gone wrong last time.
“Well, I know I’ll be cautious if I ever go to India,” said Oliver, “but I’ve been curious about something else too. I wanted to ask about EH. I heard that there was a fight in the staffroom. Could you tell me about it from your perspective?”
“Well, you know Michael,” he growled, “What a twat! He was your typical ‘head boy’, always looking for extra responsibility. He wasn’t even Senior Teacher, but he’d try and boss the rest of us around. He’d give these ‘gentle reminders’, like, ‘Hey guys, this is a gentle reminder to return the CDs when you’ve finished using them.’ Or he’d give us a ‘gentle reminder’ to fill in the class notes. He was always getting on our backs. Anyway, one day I’d had enough, so I told him straight to his face. Well, he got real narky about it, and that was it. I hit him. In all honesty, a lot of the teachers were on my side. A few of them told me so later. He’d pissed off a lot of people.”
Oliver was greatly troubled by this speech. He heard in it the tedious drone of self-justification, made worse yet by a furtive sense of pride. As Mark had neared the climax of the story, he’d blown up like a puffer fish. To Oliver, this was an ominous sign, and his spirits sank accordingly; if the assault was a point of pride, Mark’s wrongheadedness was worse than he’d previously imagined.
“That may the case,” said Oliver coolly and primly, “but you must know what a mistake it was. You can’t solve problems by throwing punches.”
Mark looked straight at Oliver, his expression a mixture of shock and anger. What had he expected? Gushing praise? Congratulations on a job well done? As hard as it was to fathom, Mark’s reaction suggested it was so; he looked at Oliver slack-jawed, his eyebrows a steep pair of down ramps. Even after he suppressed these obvious markers of upset, his eyes remained searchingly on Oliver, as if looking for signs that he was secretly impressed. It took an uncomfortably long time before he saw that Oliver was in earnest, at which point he seemed to fall in a heap.
“No, of course, you’re right,” he said somberly, before meekly bowing his head.
Though it wasn’t immediately obvious, that was the end of the night’s festivities. Trent tried to engage the others in alternative topics, but nothing got any traction; the sense of rapport was gone.
“I’ve had enough of this,” said Oliver, turning a reproachful look at his bottle of Bintang, which was still about one-third full. With that, he went over to the sink and poured the rest down the plughole.
“I might head off to bed,” responded Mark, “How much do I owe you for the food and beers? Will a hundred thousand cover it?”
“You’ll even get some change,” smiled Trent, “but let’s work it out tomorrow.”
Over the next few days, the three of them settled into a kind of pattern. Each morning Oliver would set off to work around eleven. Not having a management position, Trent would leave considerably later, eating lunch with Mark and then heading off around one. When Trent walked out the door, Mark would usually be in the living-room, with his laptop open on the coffee table. More often than not, he’d still be there when the first of them returned, which was usually after seven thirty. How much of the intervening period Mark had spent on his computer was anyone’s guess, but he gave the impression that it was a fair chunk of each day. When they asked him about his activities, he did mention some excursions – trips to mini-marts, restaurants, and once even the shopping-mall at Senen – but none of these places were more than a few kilometres away. Moreover, none of them were likely employers of English teachers from the UK, a point which Oliver emphasized to Trent when they were lying in bed one night.
“He’s home by himself,” replied Trent, “For all we know, he could be applying for jobs all day.”
“You think?” said Oliver skeptically, “I reckon he sits around watching YouTube videos. Every time that I’ve got home first, that’s what he’s been doing.”
“If he isn’t looking for a job, what did he come back to Jakarta for?”
“Because we’re the only bunnies who would put him up! He’s just looking for a free crash pad! He’s been here a week now. Has he mentioned any job interviews? Has he even had a shave? He’s not serious about looking for work. I don’t know how you can’t see it!”
“You make him sound so scheming!” protested Trent, “I really don’t think he’s as cunning as all that. But I see your point – he’s checked out of the whole job search thing. He may find it very confronting.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Oliver, “but he can’t stay camped out on the sofa forever. How long were you planning on letting him stay?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” said Trent.
“Well, that needs to change,” said Oliver, “The clock’s ticking on his little holiday.”
“All right then,” said Trent begrudgingly, “Perhaps he needs a nudge in the right direction. I’ll bring it up tomorrow night.”
Around noon the following day, Trent and Mark went out for lunch. Sick of the Chinese-Indonesian place by the swimming pool, they left the apartment complex, heading to the Padang restaurant across the road. After a satisfying meal of rendang, singkong leaves and curried jackfruit, they started back to Trent’s apartment. As they re-entered the complex through one of several gateways, a taxi came rushing down the drive, forcing them to jump out of the way. Though Trent found this rude and annoying, he contented himself with an eye-roll. Weren’t Jakarta taxi drivers the worst? But Mark’s reaction was something else entirely. When the driver stopped at the bottom of the drive, waiting for some motorbikes to pass, Mark walked over to the taxi and threw a punch at the side-mirror. Just as Mark’s fist hit the glass, the taxi sped forward, the driver having spied a break in the traffic. Though this probably reduced the force of the blow, it didn’t save the mirror: a web of cracks spread through the glass. Trent’s whole body tensed, expecting an uncomfortable scene. He envisioned the driver slamming on the brake and leaping from his taxi, intent on confrontation. As the bloody-knuckled veteran of many a street brawl, Mark was unlikely to back down. If he flew into a scrunch-faced rage and started swinging punches at the driver, chaos would quickly ensue. It was likely, Trent thought, that Indonesian cabbies would have just as many friends as their Indian counterparts. Furthermore, if Mark were mobbed on the driveway, pummeled from all sides by indignant taxi drivers, his own position would be hazardous. He imagined the mob turning on him, Mark’s presumed accomplice. But then a minor miracle occurred: the driver kept going, completely unaware of what had happened. (His head had been turned in the other direction, which would’ve put Mark out of sight. As for the sound of the blow, it must have been disguised by street noise.)
Strutting back to where Trent was standing, Mark said, “Can you believe that idiot? He almost ran us over!”
“You punched the mirror!” said Trent, aghast, “Show me your hand!”
“No real damage done. Nothing permanent anyway,” Mark assured him, yet he held out the injured appendage regardless.
The old scabs had been cracked open, leaving the knuckles raw and bleeding. Though there was only a modest amount of blood, Trent was still unnerved. The hand reminded him of some strange and piteous creature – a bird hatchling, pink and defenseless.
“Come on Mark,” said Trent pleadingly, “You’ve got to take better care of yourself.”
But perhaps, he realized, this plea was disingenuous, for it was less an expression of care than a sign of his growing desperation. Doubtless due to an adrenaline rush, Mark seemed unusually jaunty, but this wouldn’t last. Whether viewed soberly or superstitiously, the cracked mirror was the bleakest omen yet for the Englishman’s chances in Jakarta. Aswim in traffic and humidity and a million minor frustrations, the city was no place for an expat with an angry disposition. Provoked by every slight and indignant at every rudeness, Mark was now a risk to himself and everyone else around him. Though Trent still wanted to hope, it was starting to feel laborious.
“Thanks for your concern,” said Mark, “but there’s no need to worry. It’ll soon scab over again.”
While that much seemed probable to Trent, he felt no great confidence in the scabs being left to heal. How long it would be before Mark next threw a punch?
With a quick stab of his fork, Trent claimed the last of the kailan, bringing dinner to a sudden close. A couple of minutes later, Oliver gathered up the Styrofoam boxes and dumped them in the plastic bag which was hanging from the cutlery drawer. Returning to the kitchen table, he wiped it over with a wet sponge while noticing how tense Trent had grown. To Oliver, the cause of this was immediately apparent: Trent was preparing himself to ask Mark about his jobseeking activities. Feeling anxious himself, he decided to keep busy until Trent started the conversation. In the end, he didn’t have long to wait.
“Have you given any more thought about whether you’re going to stay in Jakarta?” asked Trent, affecting an air of casualness.
Mark was initially startled by the question, but his expression soon evinced a more revealing emotion: guilt. In perceiving it, Trent drew an unfortunate conclusion; Mark had either abandoned his job search or not even started in the first place.
Seeing that some sort of response was required, Mark managed, “Er, I had a look on Dave’s ESL Café, but, um, most of the jobs were at EH.”
“How above the other ones?” asked Trent, with a contrived air of cheerfulness.
“Most of them were international schools,” he said, his voice flat and unhopeful, “I just don’t have the qualifications.”
“I see,” said Trent, with a studied sense of disapproval, “So where to from here?”
Mark gave him a panicked look. He thought he was being asked to leave.
“I mean, what’s next in your job search?” asked Trent, a smile fastened to his lower face.
“Um, well, I’m not sure,” stammered Mark, “What do you think I should do?”
“Why not knock on some doors?” prodded Trent, “Print out your CV, rent a car and driver for the day, and go around the language schools. You’ll often get a better response if turn up in person.”
Mark nodded curtly, evidently displeased with the advice.
Trent glared at Oliver, hoping for some moral support. He knew that his efforts were faltering and had no idea how to set them right.
“I can vouch for that as a manager,” said Oliver, “Where I work, I’m not allowed to do phone interviews. They want people who are already here in Indonesia.”
“But I haven’t got any referees,” protested Mark, “No one’ll hire me without those.”
“So you’ve already given up,” Oliver coolly observed, “What’s left to say then?”
Trent shot him an imploring look. That isn’t going to help, it implied.
“Oh all right,” snapped Mark, “I’ve outstayed my welcome, have I?”
“No, look, it’s nothing like that,” pleaded Trent, his previous collectedness now looking ragged, “We’re just trying to help.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” asked Mark sarcastically, “It’s a good thing you told me then, because it looked like you were snooping.”
“And I’m glad you told me you were job-hunting,” snarled Oliver, springing to the defense of Trent, “because I could’ve sworn you were goofing off on Youtube.”
“Oh I see,” said Mark bitterly, “You’ve had enough of the freeloader in your apartment. If that’s all this is, you should’ve just told me. I said from the start that I was happy to stay elsewhere.”
“If you were honest with yourself,” said Oliver with icy detachment, “you’d admit that you do want a job. That’s the only reason you came back to Indonesia. But now you’re faced with looking for one, you’ve found it’s all too scary.”
“The way you said that, you sounded exactly like my father,” jeered Mark, almost exultant with contempt.
“Can I make a suggestion?” asked Trent, latching onto an idea that he’d hitherto disowned, “I think you might like it.”
“What is it?” asked Mark, cautious and defensive.
“I know the manager at Premier English in Kelapa Gading, and I’ve heard they’re short of teachers at the moment. If I put in a good word, she’d probably give you a shot. You would need to do a demo lesson, but I could help you with the lesson plan.”
Oliver stood there stony-faced, evidently sick of the whole business.
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” asked Mark.
“I don’t know. The pay’s pretty basic. Just seven or eight million a month. I thought you might want something better. But if you’d like me to reach out to her, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Yeah, all right then. Thanks,” said Mark, but the note of reticence was unmissable.
Dian, the Academic Manager of Premier English, was glad to hear from Trent. She said she’d been finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain expats. Trent explained that Mark was certainly not ‘a star teacher’, but he was familiar with Indonesian culture and was keen to stick around. She asked for his contact details, saying she’d like to meet him next week. At Trent’s prompting, Mark called her straight back, teeing up a meeting for the following Tuesday. It must have gone well enough, because she invited him back to give a demo lesson on Thursday. On the next two nights Trent sat up with him, poring over some resource books and helping him to write a lesson plan. On Wednesday evening, it was Mark who finally called it a night.
“Let’s not make it too good,” he urged, “Best not to get her expectations up.”
“I think it’s good enough anyway,” said Trent, “There’s a nice mix of activities there.”
When Trent left for work the following day, Mark was still in the spare bedroom. Trent knocked on the door and poked his head inside, asking his guest if he was nervous about the demo lesson.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said, “but I should be okay. I’ve got the start of a cold as well, so I thought I’d just rest this morning.”
“Probably a good idea,” said Trent, “Text me later and tell me how it went.”
The lesson was scheduled from four to five, which was a busy time at the ‘language mills’. But when Trent had his break at quarter to six, he looked at his phone and found that there weren’t any messages from Mark. Feeling inordinately disgruntled (didn’t Mark appreciate the support he’d given?), he thrust the phone back in his pocket, his face a grimace of resentment. However, during his next class, he came up with an alternative explanation: Mark had fluffed the demo lesson, submerging him in a black depression.
The truth, however, was a much simpler thing: citing his head cold, Mark had called in sick!
When Trent found out, he was astonished, and not positively. Hadn’t he used a personal connection for Mark’s benefit? Given up the last two evenings to prepare a lesson plan? As he saw it, the non-appearance was a rogue move, the action of a shameless ingrate. If Mark had shown a modicum of embarrassment or regret, Trent could have been appeased, but he announced it matter-of-factly, as if it had been the reasonable thing to do.
“Don’t worry,” Mark added, “I rescheduled for next Monday. I can still use your lesson plan.” Though Trent acknowledged this with a single nod, he retained a grim set of mouth.
But when Oliver got home, his reaction was something much less constrained. Returning from the main bedroom, having put down his bag and taken off his tie, he immediately asked Mark, “How did the demo lesson go?”
“It’s rescheduled for next Monday,” he said.
“Oh,” said Oliver, crease-browed, “Did the manager postpone it?”
“Nah, I’ve got a cold,” said Mark, his eyes fixed on the screen before him, “I wasn’t up to it.”
“Really? Since when?” asked Oliver, his eyebrows signaling ironic detachment.
“I’ve had one since yesterday,” said Mark, “Do you want me to show you the medical certificate?”
“No I don’t,” said Oliver calmly, “because if you’re determined to blow it a second time in Jakarta, then it’s really none of my business. But I do think it’s time you got a hotel. I’d really prefer that we didn’t argue, and it’s getting harder to bite my tongue.”
“I’ll move out now if you want,” said Mark, with a pungent whiff of resentment.
“You can stay tonight, if you want,” offered Oliver, “but it’s probably for the best that you go in the morning.”
“No, I think I’ll go now,” said Mark, “Just give me half an hour to pack my things.”
“Up to you,” said Oliver, with an expression of profound boredom, “Don’t forget to leave the keys.”
And with that he went into the main bedroom, the door clicking shut behind him.
When Mark finally left, Oliver emerged from the bedroom and sprawled himself across the sofa. Turning his gaze on Trent he said, “It’s nice to have our own place back.”
“You were sick of him,” said Trent, more questioning than accusatory.
“What a loafer!” snorted Oliver, “He’s been here for three weeks and hasn’t gone to a single interview.”
“You didn’t buy the head cold?” asked Trent.
“What a joke,” scoffed Oliver, “You sat up two nights doing his lesson plan, and look how he’s repaid you.”
“It did make me angry,” admitted Trent, “I’d gone to a lot of trouble.”
“He isn’t worth it,” said Oliver, “He’s a waster. He can’t commit to anyone or anything. He’s given up on life. I’m not sure why you can’t see it.”
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” said Trent, “It happened the other day.”
“I don’t like the sound of this,” said Oliver, already summoning likely catastrophes.
“It doesn’t affect us personally,” said Trent, rushing to reassure him, “but I should’ve mentioned it earlier.”
He then related the tale of the side-mirror, ending with Mark’s bloodied knuckles and jaunty triumphalism.
“Thank God he’s out of the apartment,” said Oliver, “I mean, how long until he gets into another punch-up? If he’s determined to self-destruct, he’d better do it somewhere else.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Trent, “but I really felt guilty watching him go. In spite of his bravado, he’s vulnerable underneath.”
“He’s a complete egoist,” countered Oliver, “He’s never shown the least remorse for his actions. In fact, he always thinks he’s the victim. And that’s how he’ll see this little interlude too. We’ll be the nasty bullies who threw him out on the streets of Jakarta.”
“Do you think he’ll turn up on Monday?” asked Trent, not quite ready to write off his investment.
“I’d be surprised if he did,” said Oliver, “He may not realize it yet, but he’s already given up on Jakarta.”
But contrary to Oliver’s expectations, Mark did make it to the demo lesson. While his degree of seriousness would remain a bone of contention, his arrival at Premier English was never in dispute. For on the very evening of the demo lesson, Dian called Trent on his mobile phone and broke the news herself. In short, Mark’s lesson had been strange and bewildering and she couldn’t consider hiring him, not even on a casual basis.
“I see,” said Trent, “Could I ask what was so bad about it? I guess I’m kind of curious.”
“He had a very detailed lesson plan,” said Dian, “but he didn’t follow it. He just wandered around without any focus. To be honest, some of his behavior was peculiar. He mostly just sat at the teacher’s desk and gave his instructions from there. He didn’t try and engage with the students. He didn’t even ask their names.”
“Wow, that really sounds terrible,” said Trent.
“Actually, I spoke to the students afterwards and some of the girls found him ‘creepy’. That was the word they used.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Trent, now determined to minimize the fallout, “I knew he’d been having some personal problems, but I couldn’t have dreamed of something like this.”
“Yeah, I mean, there was one point where he was just sitting there and laughing to himself. As far as I could tell, nothing funny had happened. I think that’s what creeped out the girls.”
“Oh wow,” said Trent, with deepening mortification, “Well, enough said, Dian. Message received loud and clear! I won’t recommend him to anyone else unless I’m sure he’s sorted himself out.”
“Yeah, look, no problem, Trent, but I thought you should know.”
Jalan Jaksa was in a state of flux. The street had first risen to prominence as a backpacker haunt on the hippie trail. Though never a rival for Bangkok’s Khao San Road, nor even Delhi’s Paharganj, it was locally famous for its inexpensive lodging houses and range of ersatz eateries. If you were looking for cheap beer, bangers and mash or a second-hand bookstore full of dog-eared novels, Jalan Jaksa was still a reliable option. Yet in spite of these impressive assets, its low-budget heyday was coming to a close. With every passing year, fewer travelers visited the strip and more businesses closed their doors.
A variety of different culprits were fingered. Some blamed the Millennials, a generation who were reluctant converts to the delights of backpacker grime. Others pointed to the budget airlines; you could now fly right over Jakarta on the way to Yogya, Bali or a host of other appealing options. A further group blamed terrorism. These wizened critics claimed that years of hotel and embassy bombings had taken the gloss of Jakarta’s tourist image. Whatever the true explanation, Jaksa’s fortunes were well past their zenith and an era of decline had arrived. And it was that shabby, down-on-its-luck street which was Mark’s final stop in Jakarta.
In the evenings, he would flee his stuffy room to linger in one of Jaksa’s bars. He most often went to Ya Udah, partaking of the cold beer and free Wi-Fi which were always on offer there. He’d sit at one of the tables by the street, checking his email and peering out at the passers-by. For the curious traveler, the street attracted an eclectic mix of people. Apart from sandaled backpackers and down-market expats looking for cheap drinks, there were bootblacks, trinket-sellers, and troupes of tone-deaf buskers. Later in the evening, they’d often be joined by waria – the local name for transgender women. They were especially prominent on Jaksa, viewing it as an auspicious place to meet a foreign lover.
In this milieu, Mark was a subdued presence. Unlike the buskers, he wouldn’t strum a guitar or shake a tambourine, nor was he known for breaking into song. Though he’d sometimes spoken to other travelers, he was rarely judged an engaging presence, so he mostly found himself alone. However, on that, his sixth night in Jaksa, he was expecting visitors. Since moving out of the apartment, he’d stayed in contact with Trent, though only via text message. After the botched demo lesson, Trent, taking pity, had suggested that they all go out for dinner together. Mark had been openly skeptical, presuming that Oliver had already disowned him and wouldn’t agree to come. Trent had assured him that his worries were misplaced, but they turned out to be prescient. When Trent had spoken to his partner, he’d pronounced the relationship an ambulant corpse and suggested that they brain it.
“Come on, Olly,” pleaded Trent, “I know you don’t like him, but all I’m suggesting is dinner in Jaksa.”
“That isn’t all you’re suggesting,” corrected Oliver, “He’ll be there. I’ll be expected to speak to him.”
“Think of it as a farewell dinner,” said Trent, “He can’t have much longer on his tourist visa. I can’t imagine he’ll do a visa run.”
“Why don’t you go by yourself?” suggested Oliver, “You can send him my regards.”
“He’d see straight through it,” said Trent, “He already thinks you don’t like him.”
“He’s right!” laughed Oliver, “I can’t stand the sight of him.”
“We needn’t stay long,” persisted Trent, “An hour should do it.”
“An hour it is,” said Oliver, “and I’m going to hold you to it.”
When Trent and Oliver arrived at Ya Udah, they found Mark at a table near the entrance. There was a bottle of beer before him, and it struck Oliver as an ominous sign, a partial validation of his roiling dread. Although he’d already been anxious in the taxi, the feeling had been a formless thing, a kind of turbulent, black miasma. The bottle lent it shape and substance, suggesting an evening of drunken despair. Yet what really pushed Oliver to the brink of panic was the figure cut by Mark himself. On first seeing their former house guest, with his slouched shoulders and sunken expression, Oliver became convinced of the Englishman’s despondency. They were already too late, he thought. With Mark in such an agony of self-loathing, their visit could do nothing to rouse his spirits; it might even serve as a fresh source of torment. He should have been firmer with Trent; the whole thing was a ghastly mistake.
Yet they sat down across from him. Despite this, Mark’s awkwardness remained acute. He barely lifted his eyes for an instant before letting them drop to the tabletop.
“Hi! How’s it going?” Trent asked with forced cheerfulness.
“Yeah, all right,” said Mark in a voice bleached of expression, his gaze stuck to the dull tabletop.
Oliver shot Trent an impatient, even accusatory look: it was you who made me come.
Keen to relieve the awkwardness, Trent went searching for likely topics of discussion. At first, he thought it was going to be easy, but then the options started to narrow. He went to ask Mark how the job hunt was going but immediately remembered the disastrous demo lesson at Premier English. Though it was not impossible that he had applied for other jobs, Trent judged it highly unlikely; there was not a whiff of hope about him. Judging employment a decidedly unhelpful topic, he examined possible alternatives. He considered asking whether Mark had done any sightseeing. Perhaps he’d gone up to the observation deck at Monas or visited the Elephant Museum. But he quickly saw that this was hopeless too. Curiosity is rarely the defining trait of the depressed, and Mark’s mood was remorselessly bleak. For a brief moment, travel outside Jakarta seemed like a viable topic, but then Trent remembered the state of Mark’s finances. In seeing this option deflate like the others, he confronted an unpleasant reality: all the spontaneities of true friendship were gone, leaving only the social niceties, the mere machinery of habit and custom.
With grim resolution, Trent made an attempt at small talk. He asked where Mark was staying, what his room was like, where he’d been eating and so forth. Though the Englishman answered, he did so briefly, perfunctorily, as if these details of his daily existence were of no real interest to himself. He’d clearly arrived at that desolate state in which the presence of others merely heightens your sense of aloneness.
“I’ll get us some menus,” said Oliver, eager to foreshorten the agonies of the evening.
He waved at the waitress, who’d been standing at the rear of the restaurant, watching a soap opera on the TV. Taking the cue, she came across with some menus and an order pad. Though he felt like having a burger, Oliver ordered fried rice instead, judging it the faster option. Trent was slightly more adventurous, ordering the goat satay with lontong. Without even looking at a menu, Mark ordered the fish and chips.
“Mau minum apa?” asked the waitress.
“I’ll have another beer,” said Mark, tapping the side of his empty. It was the most life he’d shown since the Australians had arrived.
“Are you going to have one?” asked Trent.
“Let’s just share a big bottle of Aqua,” said Oliver meaningfully.
Though he would have liked the encouragement of alcohol, Trent took the hint and agreed to water. Yet by the time the drinks came, he was deeply regretting it. The inhibitions between themselves and Mark were now so numerous and densely clustered that the going was impossible. He would’ve welcomed anything which could help to blaze a new pathway.
But with only bottled water for inspiration, he made for a dreary conversationalist. Though he offered some reminiscences about their EH days, he gave a listless performance and earned an even more lethargic reception. His subsequent offerings (a meandering discussion of the president’s re-election chances and a plodding account of their recent trip to the Malukus) weren’t any more successful. With that, he gave up and asked Oliver about his day, speaking to his partner in a confidential tone which implicitly excluded the Englishman.
Yet it wasn’t clear that Mark had noticed. He was more focused on drinking his beer, chugging it down with unusual abandon. He’d finished it before the mains arrived, promptly ordering another. Oliver cast a disapproving look but Mark didn’t catch it; if he rarely made eye contact with Trent, he assiduously avoided it with Oliver. Yet it was precisely this avoidance, this careful sidestepping of Oliver’s judgmental gaze, which revealed the nature of Mark’s insecurities. While neither of the Australians had gone there hoping to launch an inquisition, it was this which Mark feared. The incongruous note of the beer aside, he’d sat there like a defendant in the dock, his downcast gaze making him look guilty.
Things briefly looked up when the mains came. It gave them a reprieve from labored conversation and painful silences. When Oliver first crunched on his outsize prawn cracker, it had the sound of relish. Mark was less obviously pleased with the food, taking a couple more gulps of beer before starting on his chips, but at least it got his gaze unstuck from the pale flypaper of the tabletop. The battered fish was a more comforting presence than his former colleagues. Nevertheless, it didn’t slow the pace of Mark’s drinking and within ten minutes he’d finished another bottle and was waving at the waitress to order a replacement.
“We’ll head off soon,” announced Oliver, “It’s been a long day and I’m almost ready to crash.”
“Suit yourself,” said Mark, with all the pique of a jilted lover, his gaze hardening and narrowing. Yet what bothered Oliver wasn’t so much the stony look which Mark arrived at but the hint of woundedness which had preceded it. The idea that Mark was somehow the wronged party here seemed absurd to him, a kind of injury all of its own. Hadn’t they come out on a work night to see him? And how had he responded but with a further display of teenage surliness? It confirmed his sense that they were pursuing a lost cause, making him keener than ever to leave.
He didn’t have long to wait. Looking at Trent’s plate, he saw that he was down to his last two skewers; they could make their escape any minute now. But before it happened, Mark managed a superlative encore performance.
At just that moment, a petite waria had appeared outside. Though she was probably heading to one of the Jaksa bars (the billiards room at Absolut was still popular with expats), she stopped outside the restaurant first to ask a passing backpacker for a cigarette. If she had failed to bring her own, it was probably due to a lack of pockets; this, it seemed, was one of the drawbacks of stepping out in a halter top and pleated skirt. The backpacker obliged, also giving her a light. She then stood there, puffing luxuriantly on her cigarette and gazing out at the passing traffic.
But her moment of jouissance was not to last. Something about her presence had attracted the notice of Steve. He regarded her with a mixture of amusement and derision, his face transformed by a huge, leering grin. Then the catcalling began.
“Hey, cantik,” he called, before lapsing into a fit of laughter.
Oliver started at these improbable rumblings of life, these volcanic intimations.
“Hey cantik,” he called again, even more raucously this time.
The woman turned, cigarette in hand, and coolly appraised the Englishman. To judge from her detached expression, she was far from convinced of his sincerity. Deciding that Mark was indeed a detractor, she raised her chin to look down her nose at him. Her dignity thus restored, she immediately went back to smoking, her movements still fluid and graceful.
“Cewek cantik,” cried Mark, more boisterous than ever. He then burst into a hysterical cackle, which pronounced him far drunker than the Australians had reckoned.
“I’m going to get the bill,” announced Oliver, all but issuing an evacuation alert.
“No need,” said Trent, “Our part comes to less than seventy thousand. I’ve got some fifties. Do you have a twenty?”
Oliver pulled out his wallet and withdrew a couple of ten thousand rupiah notes. They were the violet ones, with the likeness of a sultan on one side and a rumah limas house on the other.
“Here you are,” said Trent, holding the money towards Mark. However, he stared straight ahead, smiling a crooked smile. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that he was finally starting to enjoy himself.
“Just leave it on the table,” said Oliver, nodding in Mark’s general direction.
Trent made a neat pile of banknotes – one fifty and a pair of tens – as if careful handling could yet save the whole affair. Yet Mark just stared unblinkingly.
“All right,” said Trent, “We’ll be off then.”
Though Mark didn’t respond to this directly, he turned his head to look out the doorway, promptly resuming his catcalling. It was, Trent decided, a message of sorts: it really was time they were going.
Having long since reached the same conclusion, Oliver picked up his satchel, slung it around his neck and headed towards the door. The waitress called after him, asking about payment. She’d clearly been unsettled by Mark’s drunken jeering.
“Uangnya dengan dia,” he said, gesturing at their onetime colleague.
The money’s with him.
She nervously looked at the Englishman, who was eyeing the smoker with such an unpleasantly damp expression that it conjured the smell of mould.
Observing the waitress’s reticence, Trent decided to offer some advice. Turning to face her, he said, “Tendang dia ke luar, mbak. Sudah waktunya dia pulang.”
Kick him out, miss. It’s time he went home.
At first, the waitress seemed shocked by his words, but on realizing that he was serious, that this wasn’t some further mockery, she nodded soberly, slowly coming around to the suggestion.
With that, the Australians walked out the door, heading into the moist enormity of the Jakarta night. They passed the uncowed waria, who was enjoying the last of her fragrant cigarette; its tip glowed as bright as her hopes for the evening. The street beyond her was clogged with traffic – honking cars, the leather-hooded auto rickshaws known as bajaj and motorbikes angling through narrow gaps, inadvertently worsening the congestion. Upon seeing this, the Australians decided to walk a little. They made their way along the crooked footpath, passing dim guesthouses, cheap eateries, a mini-mart blazing with light and, right towards the end, a popular nightspot. There was a live music in the main bar, which drifted out into the street. Though the night was heavy and thick about them, the music arrived like a sudden whiff of breeze.