by Wan Phing Lim
Mohammad Shahril bin Iskandar and Roslyn Chee Shi Min had made a pact between themselves that they would travel together and see the world after they graduated from university, but whatever they did in between with their own lives was entirely up to them. Before they got on the plane from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Heathrow Airport, they had agreed on a “time-out” from their four-year relationship since high school and agreed that they would be in a non-exclusive relationship from then on. They were free to date whoever they might meet in Manchester, for it was an entirely foreign and different world to navigate from their hometown in Alor Setar where they had both grown up.
But as relationships go, the best of intentions never went according to plan, and least not for his side, because by the summer of their first year in 2005, Roslyn had moved in with Tran, a Vietnamese student from another university she had met at an R&B club while Shahril was still stuck hanging around her, asking her out for dinner and coffee or even to stay over at his dorm. She obliged sometimes, for one always went back to the familiar on not so good days, especially to bodies that you were comfortable with.
Over that summer he had decided to stay on in Manchester in order to be with her and spent most of his scholarship money on second-hand Lonely Planet guidebooks from Oxfam while working a part-time job at the Whitworth Art Gallery to earn some extra cash. Shahril had given up his room at university halls and moved into a £60 a week rented room on Oxley Road in Rusholme with three other Malaysian students, and on the wall of his room was a world map which he stared at every night before he went to bed after thinking about Roslyn.
Roslyn’s relationship with Tran in his eyes was a pretty dysfunctional one, and in their conversations he referred to Tran as “Uncle Ho” for she had said that he was from Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as Lonely Planet liked to refer to it as. Shahril decided to keep his mind focused on their graduation trip and their life together after that, probably buy a small villa somewhere on an island in Bali, for it was hedonistic enough to have mountains, sea and rice fields, yet near enough to home if any kind of shit happened, like a medical need or a family emergency.
He didn’t think so much even of his studies, for he really didn’t care about his BA in Economics and Social Studies at the University of Manchester. It was all paid for by the government and all Malaysian students under the JPA Scholarship knew that if they wanted to defect on it after, all they had to do was ignore the warning letters of “employment contracts” to serve the nation and repay the government. Besides, his father was Dato’ Iskandar Zulkifli, the Minister of Rural Development in Northern Malaysia. Theirs was a family that was able to pull any string.
Shahril’s dream was to be a painter, but he knew that if he applied for a BA in Fine Arts his father would have thrown him out of the house. The many nudes on charcoal that he had painted of Roslyn was kept in a tube roll underneath his bed, after he had managed to coax her into sitting still on a chair in his dorm room. It was she who had suggested the “time-out” but he who had negotiated the graduation trip after agreeing with her that England might change both their perspectives on life. But the thought of sharing Roslyn with a guy like Tran, and possibly many other guys, made him nervous. He would make her honour the grad trip promise no matter what, in return for her freedom to date other guys in the meantime.
It was a stroke of genius that came one day when Shahril was in the shower that he would approach Tran for a job because Roslyn had casually mentioned that he was looking for a runner to do odd jobs. What sort of odd job exactly? Roslyn had shrugged when they had met up for dim sum in Chinatown over the weekend. Shahril could never get his mind off her pouty lips and wavy long hair, which was unusually beautiful for a Malaysian-Chinese girl like her. Roz, as he liked to call her, as it sounded more Malay, gave him Tran’s number and the two young men started to communicate via Whatsapp.
The pay was £50 a trip to Royal Mail, and all he had to do was pick up the documents from a shop called Kim’s Nail Palace on Piccadilly Street and post it on Second Class. The return address? Anything from university halls and a different one each time. Shahril never questioned the addresses, though he knew that they were British passports as Kim from Kim’s Nail Palace sometimes did not glue the flap properly and Shahril had seen what was inside the brown envelopes.
After six months his side income had grown and so had his plans for the grad trip, which had expanded into a full-blown life plan to open an art gallery in Ubud and to marry Roslyn on a beach in Bali, possibly in Jimbaran for he had read about a temple located cut above a rock on the ocean called Puri Uluwatu that blessed all marriages regardless of race nor religion. But he was no closer to Roslyn than he had hoped, for not only had she moved in with Tran, she was going to Saigon with him over the Christmas holidays to meet his family.
In the first week of December just before the start of the Christmas holidays, Shahril received a text from Tran to go to Kim’s Nail Palace after closing hours. He had said to bring along a large gym bag, nothing too conspicuous that would attract attention but that could contain a large amount of stuff. When Shahril entered Kim’s Nail Palace, he was surprised to see Kim, with his small frame and spiky dyed blond hair, tugging away at a black rubbish bag in the back room.
“Help me here, man,” he said, catching his breath.
They both tugged at the rubbish bag, the thin material starting to split at the seams as they tried to squeeze it through the doorway. Emptying its content into his gym bag, Shahril had never seen so many £50 notes. Its purplish blood orange colour reminded him of the kind of colour seen on bruises. Shahril slung the bag over his left shoulder and felt the weight of the money on his being.
The road outside was reflective silky and shiny and it had started to drizzle a little. Pulling up the dark blue hood of his university hoodie, he made his way out from Kim’s Nail Palace towards 29 Acomb Street where Tran lived. In the bus he took out his phone and looked for Roslyn’s name.
“I am a man of my words,” he typed, and then backspaced it. “I’ve started planning for our grad trip. How about Prague? I’ve always wanted to see the clock tower.” He typed, “I miss you” but backspaced and deleted the entire message.
The smell of fried spring rolls filled the hallway as Roslyn opened the door and let Shahril into their two-up two-down home on 29 Acomb Street. He walked past two large suitcases at the side of the hallway staircase and went straight to the back of the house. Tran was at the kitchen, slicing away at a few tiny red chillies, or cabai burung, the bird chillies as they called them in Malaysia. He used a huge cleaver, the type seen only in wet markets or Chinese restaurant kitchens back home. With his small hands, Tran placed the cut chillies into a small bowl of fish sauce and went back to his spring rolls which were slowly browning in the wok’s heated oil.
“Where do you want me to put this?” Shahril asked.
“In the room,” he said without looking up.
This was the first time that Shahril had been to Tran’s place and seen the bedroom he shared with Roslyn on the ground floor living room. She stood with hands on her hips and watched as he made his way into the room and set the bag down.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Delivering some cash.”
“Shaz,” she said, grabbing his hand. “What are you doing? Are you working for Tran now?”
“Just the odd job here and there.”
He liked hearing her call him Shaz, but she frowned and let go of his hand.
“Getting ready for your Saigon trip?” he changed the topic. Roslyn was silent and avoided his eye.
“Shaz, you should go. I’m with Tran now.”
“But we’re still going on our grad trip?”
“What?” she asked.
“You promised, remember? I’ve started planning.”
“Shaz,” she shook her head. “We need to talk.”
And he knew at that moment that something was not right.
Shahril was not a man of many regrets, but he certainly wished he had negotiated for a summer trip instead of a grad trip because the waiting was killing him. But his plan was to travel by train, and see all the different European towns before embarking on the Trans-Siberian Railway that would take them back into Asia and down the continent.
“Roz, we need to talk,” he typed.
“Go date other girls,” she replied after a month of silence, so he used some of the money that he had been saving for their graduation trip to buy a gun from one of Kim’s friends in Chinatown. By this time it was a month to graduation and he was still running the Royal Mail errands and the occasional money drop, a few crisp sheets which he managed to pull here and there. When Roslyn finally said she was moving to the United States with Tran, Shahril decided that he would ask Kim to make him two new passports, for he knew that that was Kim had been doing all these years for Tran in the back room of his nail salon. Without asking too many questions, Kim obliged and two days later the front page passports for both Shahril and Roslyn’s new identities were laminated with a clear plastic layer with the words British Citizen over them.
That summer of 2008 was the wettest July that England had ever seen, so he mustered the courage to pick up the gun and point it at the bay window of 29 Acomb Street, pulling the trigger at the taller figure that he could see from the shadow of the curtains. He heard Roslyn’s screams and after calming her down in their ground floor living room-bedroom, he went to bury the weapon in the back garden of the home. With a swoop of his arm, he picked up the money drop from the day before, which was still lying in a black gym bag by the side of the room and rushed her out of the house.
The train that left for London Euston took only two hours on the Virgin Pendolino from Manchester, and that night Shahril and Roslyn crossed the Channel Tunnel with only a hardcover suitcase and a backpack each. In the underground train, they saw each other’s reflection against the windows. They had divided the cash, a huge sum of almost £200,000 if he had counted correctly, half on him and half on her, in order to split the risk.
At Gare du Nord, he bought her a pair of scissors and made her cut her hair boy short in the toilet before they took the TGV-Lyria to Zurich, where he would later buy a bottle of bleach. Shahril was careful to do away with credit cards and not leave any electronic trails behind. Every train ticket and every hostel would be paid for by cash.
There were 17,508 islands in Indonesia and they could choose to live in any of them. In fact, it was not that difficult to buy an island with that amount of money on them.