by Steve Tait
It was never part of the plan. But here he was. It was meant to be South East Asia, that was the plan: perpetual summer, lazy days, tropical vegetation engulfing him, and the food! Curries and spicy stir-fries, fresh fish and tropical fruit. How could all that not be a winner? Lord knows he’d tried. He’d invested all he had. Not just the money; it was the energy, the effort, the determination to make a go of it, to build a life over there. But here he was.
Marius chained the dog to its kennel in the backyard and filled up her bowl with some kibbles and clean water. He had just returned from town, a twenty minute drive along the muddy back roads, after meeting with the manager of the big new supermarket. He’d gotten them to agree to set up a collection point for recyclables. It would be a place where locals could dump all those things that were best not placed in the homeowners’ regular bins – old computers and mobile phones, mattresses, chemicals, and so much else. He had the pieces almost in place. A bit more cajoling with the local council and it would be sorted.
Getting out of the car he ripped off his tie and pulled his heavy coat around him. Better get cracking, he thought. It would be dark soon. Marius hated all this, hated the chores, the weather, the impending darkness at barely five o’clock. Nevertheless, he grabbed the hose and stuck it in the 44-gallon drum. He stood idly, filling it up, preparing to splash some water on the veggies growing way down the back of the yard. He stomped his feet, stuck his hands under his armpits, tried to ward off the late afternoon chill. He would get the chickens back in their coop and then chop up a bit more wood for the fire. He was going through it now that winter had kicked in.
By the time he was ready to head inside an icy dampness had settling in his bones. He resented the cold, detested the freezing rain that often accompanied it even more. He had chosen this place in a rush. Arriving back from the home he had thought would always be his in Malaysia, his options had been limited. Australia isn’t a place to spend long in a motel, not if you plan on paying your bills. So here he was, two hours south of Sydney and twenty minutes outside the town of Berry. He figured it would do, at least once he got the locals sorted. The damned rubbish collection had been the first thing. Still using those broken old bins, rubbish spilling out everywhere, stray dogs and cats having a field day. No, that wasn’t on. He had a word with one of the councilmen, attended a few meetings, got a vote to go his way. Modern bins were introduced, easier to collect and easier for people to sort their rubbish. Other than that, it was a pretty clean town, not much litter, decent air quality, and not a lot of waste.
He threw off his boots and trudged up the five steps to the back door of his house, pushing through the creaking screen door and into the kitchen.
“Ah, bugger,” he said to himself. He had kept all the chicken bones from dinners earlier in the week. They were meant for the dog. “Well…”
Back down the five steps he went. He pulled on his boots again and made his way down the side of the house to the dog.
“Settle down, you old bastard.”
The dog was going crazy, pulling against her chain, twisting around, flinging herself into the air, body twirling, summersaults in the air, all the while barking its head off. He scattered the bones where she could reach them and turned back to the house. The dog was silent for a moment. Then the barking began again. He knew she wanted a bit of a pat but he wasn’t in the mood. He was too cold, too tired, too, well… It would take an effort; it would take the sort of open-hearted connection that he just didn’t think he could muster right now. He wasn’t sure he would be able to muster it ever again.
Back in the house, Marius stumbled around the kitchen, working on autopilot. He made the fire in the stove, piling in as much wood as he could, hoping to ward off that damp chill that always seemed to pervade the damn house.
“Oughta cook.” He said it to himself without conviction. He had gone through the chicken. There were plenty of vegetables around. He could fry up something, or make a soup. Instead he leant against the kitchen counter, his head resting on the cupboards. “Ah, what’s the point.” There was oatmeal on the shelf. He had had that for breakfast. “It’ll do.” He got to work, slowly, with heavy hands, each movement an effort.
He boiled water too, made a cup of instant coffee. “Maybe that’ll buck me up,” he thought. He let his eyes fall shut for a moment, somehow hoping it would all go away, everything, this whole damn life of his.
At the back of the cupboard he kept a bottle of whiskey for times like these. The bottle was all but empty. He noted this casually. It did not displease him. Nor did it surprise him. He added a shot to the coffee, took a sip, added another.
“Christ.” Marius turned, whipped the thin lace curtain from the window and threw it open, all in one hostile movement. The cold hit him like a blow. “Shut up, you mongrel!” he yelled. “Quiet!”
The dog took no notice, a long procession of indefatigable barks. She could go on like that for hours.
The knock on the front door was as surprising as it was unwanted. He figured it would be a neighbour, although he’d vowed not to speak to neighbours ever again, not after the Malaysian debacle. Still, he dragged himself to the front door, opened it a crack.
“Hi there. I’m Marjorie. From down the back there? Just thought I’d, you know, come and have a word.”
She even smiled, standing there on the porch. It took his breath away. In a single flash he relived it all, saw it in all its brilliant tropical hues, felt all the old emotions ravage him.
* * * * *
The east coast of Malaysia, north, up towards Thailand. Industry hadn’t made it there yet, nor palm oil, nor rubber plantations. Nature still held sway, paddy fields and crops doing battle with the jungle. He’d made his home in Pasir Puteh, a small town, a small house. Shorts and T-shirts year round. Slacks and shirts for work, four days a week in town, teaching the little ones their ABCs. It would do. Birdsong at dawn, mornings spent in tea houses with the local men, the cheap little restaurants for lunch, shopping for fresh fruit and veg in the market. And late afternoons spent walking through the villages, all fruit trees and streams, coconut palms and banana plants, tree-covered lanes and shady groves. He thought he had it made, he really did. Those villages shrouded in green: a canopy of leaves and fronds above, a carpet of grass and vines below, the sounds of children playing, the smiles and waves and offers of rambutan or mangoes. He loved it all.
Except for the litter.
He didn’t understand, couldn’t make sense of it. The candy wrappers, the crisps packets, the milk cartons and soft drink cans. The cigarette packets and ice cream wrappers, plastic bags and plastic bottles. It was crazy. Crazy!
He told them too. Of course he did.
“Hey you,” he would yell across to the youngster who had just dumped the chocolate milk carton from his perch in the jackfruit tree. “Pick it up. Don’t just leave it there!”
Their games would stop, the boy and his mates turning to stare, mouths agape. Then the smiles would follow, the nervous giggles. And as if on cue, they would run, laughing wildly, galloping across the village and into their homes.
With the adults he would go one step further. The aging man with the grey goatee, battered white songkok, the Muslim cap, on his head. The cigarette packet discarded as he walked. Grinding his teeth, Marius would bend down, retrieve it, catch up with the man and return it. The man, cigarette dangling from his lips, would accept it, bemused by the bulky Westerner’s action. But Marius would smile, as he had been told, a taut stretching of the lips, an awkward showing of his teeth. He would walk on, leave the man scratching his head, too wound up to even look back, not daring to see how the drama played out.
The smoke was even worse. That was what had sent him over the edge. Sitting in his yard, under his mango tree, enjoying the lengthening shadows as the day wound down, he would smell it before he saw it. He would feel it wafting over him on the gentle breeze. His idyll ruined, he would retreat inside to pace through the house, seething. He knew full well who the culprits were, the regular offenders as well as the occasional miscreants who just couldn’t help themselves. Imagine it! In this day and age – open burning! Why? What was the point? On steamy, windless evenings it would hang over them all, a thick pall of poison, ash littering his house, finding its way into his rooms, into the darkest reaches of his soul.
And then Mr. Habib from two houses down had gotten into the act. Forty-two years old, father of five, bureaucrat at the local Ministry of Rural Development no less. The grass from the afternoon’s mowing, the branches and leaves from a day spent tending to his trees, the rambutan and jackfruit and mango, all of it piled up and set alight. Everything but the litter still strewn in front of the house. Well that did it. It was a step too far.
“Mr. Habib,” he said, his voice a little louder than was necessary, “you’re burning. Leaves and branches and stuff. Seriously, look at the smoke.”
Mr. Habib did so, watching the plumes of dark smoke disperse as they rose into the air, his eyes then returning to the red hot flames beneath.
“It’s not on, Mr. Habib. Look at the air. It’s bloody disgusting. All that pollution. For what?”
Still no response. Mr. Habib, holding his rake loosely in his hand, tidied up some more, moving the leaves closer to the flames.
“Stop it. Would you just stop it?” He was yelling now. He grabbed the man’s rake, threw it aside. “All this pollution. It’s insane.”
“Mr. Marius. Only cleaning up, lah.”
“Bullshit. That’s bullshit. You’re all fucking addicted.” He swung his foot through the burning remains, sparks flying, smouldering leaves and grass scattering across the man’s yard. “You don’t give a shit. You don’t!” His chest was heaving now, blood coursing though him, temples throbbing, a heavy sheen of sweat covering his face.
“It’s okay.” Mr. Habib reached out, two fingers on his arm, kindness in his eyes.
“It’s not fucking okay.”
A moment, time hung between them, inches separating them.
“What?” said Marius. “Didn’t you hear me? The fire…”
“Come.” He turned towards the house, picking up the rake and leaning it against the trunk of the mango tree as he went. “Marius,” he said, turning back to his neighbour, “come, please.” Mr. Habib spread an arm, gestured towards the open front entrance of the concrete house. “Please. You are my guest.”
“Look,” said Marius, following the man up the tiled stairs to the small porch, “We’re in this together, okay? We’ve all got to breathe this stuff. And it’s deadly, it’s killing us.”
But Mr. Habib had gone, retreating into the bowels of the house, returning to the bare front room with assorted family members in tow. “Please. Please sit.”
He was shown to a hard wooden bench, an ornate hardwood piece of furniture occupying pride of place against the back wall.
“My wife.” A solid woman still adjusting her hijab was brought briefly into the room, her smile warm and kind, her self-consciousness evident. Words were spoken, kind words between husband and wife, before she ducked behind the curtain and out of sight.
“And my two boys.”
Marius stood, shook their hands, led them through some simple English conversation. Sitting again, Mr. Habib regaled him with tales of his boys’ school life, his hopes for their future, the challenges in the face of a rapidly changing world: the gadgets consuming their attention, the crime, the drugs he had heard were available in town. By then the food had arrived, Mrs. Habib loading the table with platters of rich chicken curry, yellow noodles, sweet pastries. A plate was filled, handed to him. Using his fingers as he had been taught, he dipped a noodle roll into the curry, took a pinch of chicken, loaded it into his mouth. Marius loved this stuff, loved the richness of the food, the earthy way of eating, the joy these people took in seeing another enjoy their food.
But he would not be distracted. Finishing the curry he went to stand.
“Thank you, Mr. Habib. And your wife, she’s a great cook. Please thank her for me.”
“But please. You must try the curry puffs. My wife sells them to the local primary school you know.”
“Another time, Mr. Habib. But look, you say you love your family. You’re proud of them and all that. But you’re killing them, poisoning us all with those fires. It’s got to stop. You want your kids to grow up healthy, don’t you? Well, use your common sense.”
“Coffee. Before you go. Sugar, yes? Rahinah!” he called, summoning his wife.
“No. No coffee. About your burning. You have to promise. You’ve got to be more responsible. You say you love it here but with your burning, well, it’s like you hate the place!”
“A cold drink at least. A cola.”
“No. The burning!”
“Some sweets before you go.”
“This one. We call it ondeh ondeh. It’s green glutinous rice, but inside, brown palm sugar. Very sweet. You will like it.” Mr. Habib slid the plate towards him. “A local favourite, you know.”
Marius stopped the slide of the plate, pushing the desserts roughly to the far side of the table. He could feel the pressure building in his body and mind. He recognized the tension in his neck and shoulders, the clenching in his gut, the tightening around his jaw. He had subsumed it for an hour now. When it all finally let go, there was a moment of deep relief. All the holding, the restraining, everything giving way at once. Some distant part of him knew better but, well, the natural way of things had taken over. What could he do?
“I don’t want your fucking desserts or your drinks, okay? You can shove it all. What I want, what all you morons should want is clean fucking air. What I want is for you dickheads to grow a brain and stop fucking up the environment. You hear me? Huh?” He was on his feet, back covered in sweat, hands shaking. “Lovely family and all that. Great. So go ahead. Kill them. Serves you all right.”
He didn’t look back, couldn’t. He was aware of Mr. Habib taking a step back as he strode through the front entrance. He was aware of the two boys in the yard, both standing still, keeping their distance. He was aware of the lace curtain in the side room pulled back an inch, a pair of eyes peering through. He didn’t care, he didn’t care.
“Useless throwbacks,” he mumbled beneath his breath, head down, marching towards his house. “Dumb as shit. Try to help them and all they want to do is eat. Eat and smile and talk about nothing. Try to raise an issue, try to improve their lives and what do you get?” He locked the door behind him, strode through the house: the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, around and around. “Serves them right. Can’t help them, you just can’t. Bullshit smiles and nods and all you get is another chicken curry. Nothing changes, nothing ever will.” On and on he went, around and around the house, muttering, mumbling, until, night closing in, he fell onto his bed, face down, and pulled the pillow over his head.
He knew. Quiet at last he knew. He pulled the pillow more tightly around him, acknowledging exactly what he had done. It was all over with now, nothing more to say, nothing that could undo what he had done. He stayed like that most of the night, sleep refusing to take him, unable to prevent the horrible truth of his situation from swamping him completely.
He was gone the next day. A suitcase packed, rent paid, an early bus to the city, a flight back home. He’d pushed and pushed; the country had pushed back harder.
* * * * *
“Marjorie,” he repeated, one hand on the door, the other on the door frame. He shook away the memories, calmed his thunderous heart. “From down the way, you say.”
“Yeah. Just over there.” She pointed with her chin, somewhere over Marius’ left shoulder.
“Okay…” He knew what he should do, new neighbour and all. But he could see how that would go. No, better here at the door. Keep her out, keep it all at bay.
“Listen, the new bins?”
“Yeah? What about them?”
“They’re good. Can close ’em up tight. Keep the animals out. Keeps the place clean.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Yeah.” Marjorie shuffled her feet, pulled her anorak a little tighter around her, kept her arms folded. “Yeah, well it’s good. ’Preciate it.”
“Yeah. Got another problem though.”
“Sorry lady. Look, I got dinner on the oven. Could we –”
“Yeah. Daisy, is it? It’s not on.”
“What’s not on?” Marius took her in. Short, but well built. A weathered face, a solid fearless gaze.
“It’s called noise pollution. That damn dog yappin’ day and night. Keeps people awake. Ruins their sleep. Specially the little ones.”
“It’s a dog. It’s what they do.”
“It’s what your one does, anyhow. Got to put a stop to it. There are laws. You don’t take care of it, you might lose her. See what I’m saying?”
Marius felt it all: the outrage, the contempt, the seething anger. Then he felt it all slip away, as if through a trap door right there below him. He opened him mouth, closed it again.
“Right,” Marjorie said. “That’s about it then.” She turned to go, took a single step down from the porch. “Oh, one other thing.” She nodded towards the roof, hands dug deep into the pockets of her jacket. “The fire. You burnin’ wood? We’re going with solar around here. Solar, gas for cooking. Thought you’d know that.” She touched the brim of her woollen hat, offering a departing salute of sorts. “Good night to you then.”
Marius shut the door quietly. On numb legs he stumbled back to the kitchen. The oatmeal had burnt, the pot still bubbling on the stove. He let it bubble, his eyes seeking out the coffee cup, still full on the kitchen counter. He reached for it, his hand shaking, violently, uncontrollably. Raising the cup he watched the dark liquid spill over his fingers onto the Formica counter. Clumsily, he put the cup down. The whisky-laced coffee ran across the countertop, drips falling to the floor, one, two, three. He reeled back, landing heavily in a hard wooden chair, his face ashen.
“My God,” he said, his voice taut with despair, his eyes wide with horror. “My God. I belong here. I always have. I belong here.”
Editor’s Note on Recycled:
Recycled is not Steve Tait’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:
- Moving was published in the inaugural issue of Eastlit in December 2012.
- Finding a Vein was in Eastlit February 2013.
- A Few Thin Jackets appeared in the August 2013 issue.
- Busy it Up featured in Eastlit January 2014.
- The Breeze was in Eastlit September 2014.
- Cheese and Crackers featured in Eastlit February 2015.
- Backed up in a Bubble was published in Eastlit August 2015.
- Black Coffee appeared in Eastlit May 2016.