Stuffy

by Lokman Hakim

Translated from Malay by Adriana Nordin Manan.

‘Stuffy’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

 

The stuffy city was like a small tin with the whole world squeezed inside. There were mice tussling with one another only to become strangled by their own tails. There were beliefs that did not trust other tins to distribute the world fairly within their own confines. I on the other hand, preferred to be here, in the silence of a coffee stall in the city’s fringe. The stall was so desolate, I had to make my own coffee. Fortunately, they had net crepes and chicken curry, served by an older lady with the head of a rabbit, who asked everyone to call her Big Sister Tina. Whenever she saw me at the stall, she would sit next to me and tell stories about the shop owner who had been cloistered in his room for so long. ‘Stuffy as my room is, the city out there is stuffier.’ Those were the words that the shop owner had uttered repeatedly to Big Sister Tina.

But this was all from five weeks ago. The shop owner, Old Man Ajis, took to a cloistered existence in his room. Only the unsettling sounds of him scuttling about the room could be heard. That’s if you believed what Big Sister Tina said. I couldn’t really tell if her stories were true or not. Maybe Old Man Ajis had already run into the city and became one of those mice always jostling among themselves for space that is no longer there. Not impossible. All his customers had already fled to the city. All job opportunities with their seeds once planted in the outskirts had been retracted to the city. Who knew how the new government wanted to plant the seeds from then on. I didn’t have the time to make it my concern.

But all in all, they wanted to unleash magic in the city. What other space did they want to drill? Did they want to build space within space? Or create perspective upon perspective so that the crowdedness could be denied? I became suspicious. Big Sister Tina was also at a loss on this.

‘Could you take me to meet Old Man Ajis?’ A request that without fail, made Big Sister Tina’s eyes open wide. You could see the unease on her face.

‘No I cannot! Old Man Ajis doesn’t like to be disturbed!’

Her buck teeth would immediately disappear into her mouth after that. Her long ears would droop, as if they knew she was hiding something.

‘Big sister, Old Man Ajis might be sick. We must take him to be treated.’

‘Old Man Ajis never falls sick! Believe me!’

Denial upon denial only heightened suspicion. I couldn’t allow such unaddressed suspicion. Maybe later that night, a mystery would be unravelled. I had something in mind. It required immediate execution.

I looked over the net crepes that morning. Where would Big Sister Tina get all the ingredients if all the nearby shops were closed? Although suspicious, it was a fact that her net crepes were among the best food I had tasted in the city fringes.

I immediately chewed and swallowed.

 

2.

The trip home was silent. Not a car nor pedestrian in sight. There was only me and the wind. Dust and the soft rustle of dried leaves. The closed shops were cloaked in dust. I had no issue with the dead city fringes. It was more peaceful. Looking in the direction of the city filled with rows of skyscrapers racing to touch the moon was quite distressing. Everything had to be built vertical and tall, to fit in the dense population. The city’s cries could be heard all through the night. Maybe that was just my sense.

Now and then I could see long rabbit ears crossing the window frames of my house. Big Sister Tina perhaps. Spying on my every move. She was adamant in not letting me meet Old Man Ajis. I suspected Big Sister Tina had done something bad to Old Man Ajis. Oh God, I must save the old man.

I ran out of the house that night, after the third sighting of rabbit ears across the window frames. I wanted to catch Big Sister Tina. This invasion of privacy was just too much. She needed to be given the proper advice. If she behaved oddly, it would be right to report to the police.

The shadowy figure quickly made its escape into the bushes behind the house. I reached for a machete in the kitchen. If I had to make idle threats, I’d just make idle threats. I was certain it was Big Sister Tina. I could see the outline of a human with the head of a rabbit running along the crooked trails between the trees in the bushes. Guided by the bright moonlight, I continued my pursuit. In one go, any tall weeds in my path were slashed. Luckily Big Sister Tina ran along an existing trail. Surely she didn’t want to become lost in the silent bushes.

I knew that after the trail, I would arrive at an abandoned village. Maybe Big Sister Tina would go inside any of the easily entered premises and hide there. I was panting when I arrived at the quiet village.

The moon shone so bright, you could clearly see the surroundings of each deserted house. In the middle of the rows of houses, I saw the rabbit-headed woman.

Big Sister Tina didn’t want to hide at all. She faced me. Stared at me without shifting her eyes for a second. The look she gave made me anxious. I could feel my hold on the machete loosen, but I immediately tightened my grip.

I pointed the machete at Big Sister Tina. She didn’t budge. Her eyes shone rays of red light. Frightening. I could not back down this time. I had to get an explanation that night itself.

 

3.

Stuffy. Narrow. Smelly.  Old Man Ajis wasn’t interested in any explanation from anyone. Not from Big Sister Tina or any of the customers at the coffee stall she ran. So, he chose to confine himself to his room. Meditate there. Not mixing around with society.  He asked Big Sister Tina to chase away anybody who dared come close to his room, regardless of position or rank. As it was, hordes of government officials had been despatched to talk him into leaving the city’s fringes.

He would be provided a car at an affordable price. He would drive from a high-rise condominium. Squeeze against the other condominium residents. Queue up in every alley and road to arrive at his new workplace: an urban stall in front of a commercial centre, which guaranteed sky high profits because surely the workers at the commercial centre lots wouldn’t have the time to prepare their own breakfast.

He didn’t want to squeeze up against others. Traffic jams should not be his life’s pulse. Why were these soul-shrinking matters still being forced onto him? He was tired of avoiding them. He just hid in his room, keeping up with developments in the stuffy city via cell phone alone. Even then, it was not long before all communication lines in the fringe would be cut. They wanted to stuff everything inside the city, like a swollen sardine can. Waiting for the moment to explode. What craziness was that? Where did this craziness come from? He could not accept it.

That morning, there was a knock at the door. Big Sister Tina wouldn’t do something like that. He kept still and hoped the person would move away. But this particular guest proved to be stubborn.

There was non-stop knocking on the door.

‘Old Man Ajis! Old Man Ajis! Are you still in there?’

No response. Old Man Ajis became as silent as a mouse. He didn’t scuttle around as usual. He put out a cigarette that was still alight, in a drink can. Let it be completely silent. But the uninvited visitor didn’t move an inch. His shadow could be seen in the space between the door and the floor.

‘If you don’t answer, I will barge in. One, two, three…’

That was when Old Man Ajis lunged for the door and opened it. He had heard that voice before. But he couldn’t recall anything. Maybe it was one of the customers from his stall. Or maybe it was one of his children who had been caught in the stuffy city for years to the point they couldn’t drop by to visit even once. All he knew was, any stupidity like breaking down the door of the room could not be left alone.

‘You? Who are you?’

Old Man Ajis didn’t recognise the person. He looked sharply into the eyes of the guest. Let the person be shocked. True enough, the uninvited guest was stunned into silence when he saw Old Man Ajis. After being holed up in a dark place for so long, his skin was pale. His eyes red. Old Man Ajis was a picture of oldness, with his wild, long hair a blanket of white. The disappointment in the old man’s eyes was clear to see. But the guest did not know what had disappointed Old Man Ajis. He cleared his throat and tried to act calm.

‘Assalamualaikum dear sir. I’m Rosdan, I hadn’t seen you at the stall for a long time. That’s why I came looking.’

‘Waalaikumussalam….ah, I’ve handed it all over to Tina. Where’s Tina?’ he looked all around. There wasn’t a trace of Big Sister Tina. Dead silence.

‘Big Sister Tina, yes…she…she…’ Rosdan stuttered, attempting to finish his words.

‘She, she, what? Talk properly. You’re stammering like you just killed someone!’

Hearing Pak Ajis, Rosdan could feel his Adam’s apple moving up and down. But he quickly answered.

‘She’s run away to the stuffy city! There’s nobody left here.’

Listening to Rosdan, Old Man Ajis’ eyes narrowed. He didn’t trust Rosdan. Even though he was sure, this chap had dropped by his stall before.  He had seen that face before, that much he wanted to believe. But that was the extent of their relationship. Not all the stall’s customers are loyal to it. What more know the owner. Even if they knew him, who was to say that their intentions were good or bad?

‘So, what do you want me to do?’

Old Man Ajis spoke in a very rough tone. He was no longer the Old Man Ajis with his generous smiles for the stall’s customers. He had become grumpy. After being left behind by his children and seeing hordes of villagers forced to leave for the stuffy city, he had become deeply disappointed. He wanted to tear down the city, but he was only one person. Disappointment drove him to lock himself inside his room.

‘Come with me to the city!’

‘Are you mad? You can go alone. Why ask me?’

‘This village will be torn down. Tomorrow, the contractors will make a clean sweep. The excavators and bulldozers are already lined up outside the village. If you don’t believe me, you can wait here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Rosdan was peeved by Old Man Ajis’ rough treatment. He himself wanted to rush home. Pack up whatever was needed. No more favourite net crepes. No more special pot-brewed coffee. Big Sister Tina was also gone. He still remembered the events from the night before. Like a scene from a film noir. But how was he to tell it all to Old Man Ajis? He himself didn’t quite understand what had happened.

Paying no attention to Old Man Ajis who stood there dumbfounded, Rosdan immediately ran home. The tale of the contractor who wanted to tear down every dilapidated house in the village was true. He knew the contractor, who was in fact a son of Old Man Ajis. The eldest. Village traitor! To his mind, the village was just a city’s fringe that should be filled with condominiums. They should be allowed to reach the sky. He had forgotten completely about Old Man Ajis.

Rosdan didn’t understand the stuffy city. In fact, he himself kept a distance from that stuffy city. He was thinking of a way to not be forced into entering it, because many had lost their minds once they moved to the city.

He needed to sort out Big Sister Tina. Yes, she hadn’t actually left for the city. She was still around. In her house. Maybe even at Rosdan’s house. Or some other house belonging to God knows who. Maybe Big Sister Tina had already descended upon the contractor and sabotaged every machine. Her love for her net crepes and Old Man Ajis’ stall knew no bounds.

Yes, he had to return to his house. Put an end to a problem that was still unresolved.

Before the machines roared into action the next day and swallowed up everything that used to preserve…humanity.

 

4.

The broken machete was just left there, with its handle, on the table. Half its blade had vanished, the victim of the night’s events. Big Sister Tina was sitting cross-legged in a chair, exposing a bit of her fair, smooth and thin calf. At times she would stroke her smooth cheeks, her ears twitching. She had been waiting for Rosdan. Memories from last night came back.

I didn’t know how to proceed. Big Sister Tina didn’t attack. She just waited. Her eyes didn’t wander elsewhere even once. She was also aware of the threat. It was no ordinary machete in my hand. Its sharp blade was clearly illuminated under the bright moonlight.

I didn’t know how I was able to even bring myself to wield the machete.  Instinct, perhaps. Big Sister Tina didn’t come by that night as a friend. She was spying. She was openly investigating me. This bothered me. In fact, she had also stopped me from meeting Old Man Ajis. There was no way I thought something pleasant was going to happen. Seeing her suspicious movements, I pictured in my head Old Man Ajis’ body, lying cold and still. Poisoned or tortured. Ah, there was nothing pleasant playing in my mind.

‘Big sister, you’d better tell the truth. Why were you spying on me? Why didn’t you want to tell me what happened to Old Man Ajis?’

Big Sister Tina was jittery. She reached for a cigarette. Lit it up.  And then put it between her big teeth. Inhaled the smoke deliberately. Let it shoot up to her brain. Let the memories of last night disappear.

‘I don’t understand, little brother. Why is it that, you as the narrator….have to come here. To this stall. In our lives. Why? You….know everything. You….don’t have to say anything about us.’

She coughed. Couldn’t take it. Smoking destroyed her body. It yellowed her two big front teeth. Rosdan still hadn’t arrived. I had to explain the current situation. They were desperate. They shouldn’t be here.

‘I had to, big sister. This village, that city and all the spaces in this narrative, are stuffy. Soon, the machines will enter and tear down everything, so building after building could be erected, huddled together. More cramped. Stuffier. I have to save what needs saving.’

Big Sister Tina flicked the half-smoked cigarette out the window. It landed who knows where, and was met with a groan. Rosdan had arrived. Unfortunately the cigarette, still alight, fell on his body. Perhaps. I hurried to the window and saw Rosdan groaning and groaning. He saw me and puzzled, he stopped. There were small marks from where his clothes were burnt by the cigarette. He pointed at me. His eyes were wide open.

‘You…You! Why are you here?’

I replied. ‘The city is too stuffy. Very stuffy, until I had to enter this space. You guys’ space. We need to flee.’

‘And go where? There is no place.’

‘You’re right. Imagine the world has become cramped. The city and its fringes have become cramped. Until the narrative that tried to describe it was also forced to enter this story and squeeze together. The truth is, we cannot escape.’

‘So?’

I wanted to answer the question, but suddenly felt the broken machete blade on my neck. From the corner of my eye I could see Big Sister Tina, with her red eyes, gripping the machete handle neatly. She then answered Rosdan’s question.

‘Our city is stuffy because of this guy! Yes, him! Our dimensions are cramped because that story cramps us in. I will kill him and then we can push the narrative walls wide open. Look!’

I didn’t know how to begin to tell the story of everything that had happened to the stuffy city, Big Sister Tina, Rosdan and Old Man Ajis, when my head fell and rolled onto the veranda. I did not know. My knowledge was limited. But I realised, the stuffiness of a short story would become crushing without a narrator.

They would jostle inside a space that shrinks into a dot. Dwarfed. Becoming smaller.

Smaller.

Smaller.

Smaller.

Smaller.

Into a dot.

 

 

Imagefilm still taken from ‘Metropolis’ by Fritz Lang.

 

About the Author

Lokman Hakim

Lokman Hakim is an author of several books, comprising of novels, collections of short stories and poetry, with genres spanning from science fiction, thriller, young adult and fantasy written in the Malay language. His short stories have been published in local newspapers, literary websites and national literary magazines. He works as an infrastructure engineer for a construction company.

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