Writer: Zedeck Siew
Published: Fri, 02 Dec 2011
She always tried not to think nonsense-thoughts, but nonsense-thoughts always came to her, unbidden. That morning, yawning in the passenger seat of their red hatchback, Pn Rubiah thought: I want to go on a holiday.
Her husband was driving her to work. They had breakfasted at dawn, then set out at 7.30. Her husband didn’t like the radio on because he said it was distracting, so they sat in quiet air-conditioning.
Rubiah watched the skittles of the onramp recede.
I want to go to the beach, she thought.
Developer oversight meant that their neighbourhood, a late-Mahathir-style, sparsely occupied township built in the middle of palm-oil country, only had road access to the coastward direction of the highway – the direction leading away from her office.
So Rubiah’s husband had to: drive to the end of the highway and exit; make a U-turn at the traffic lights; get back on the highway; drive all the way to the other end, passing through the toll gate; exit and turn around; re-enter again; and drive back to the highway’s midpoint, where there was a rest-stop complex.
Besides its empty toilets and shuttered, untenanted food stall lots, this rest stop also contained the Tourism Malaysia Holiday Beaches Info Centre, where Rubiah worked eight to five.
Rubiah knew that going to the beach was nonsense-thinking. She couldn’t do it – not while being as pregnant as she was. She could barely walk, much less frolic in wet sand.
Silly me, Rubiah thought. She was only feeling this way because they hadn’t done anything exciting for many months.
Her husband yawned. To get to town, where he worked, he would have to repeat the circuit: all the way down the length of highway and all the way back again. The toll operators let him through, free of charge, because they had come to recognise his red hatchback.
THE office had a chronic damp-carpet smell, and by late morning this smell – today as on every other day – was making her head ache.
She heaved herself from her seat, turned the air-conditioning off, and lumbered to the office entrance. There was a gust of wind and dust from the highway when she opened it.
She stood there awhile, enjoying the warm, moving air. She looked at her shadow, in its doorframe of sunlight, on the two racks of state- and district-level tourist brochures. She had arranged the brochures according to size and type first thing that morning.
Rubiah felt some pride. She was particularly pleased with the cut-out letters that spelt “Welcome to the Holiday Beaches” on the wall; she had done them by hand, and glue had not smudged at all.
There was another shadow in the door. The man had milk-chocolate skin and close-cropped hair; he wore a pair of wraparound sunglasses.
“S’ammualaikum?” he said, one boot on the step.
“Mualaikumsalam?” Rubiah straightened the apron of her tudung over her swelled belly.
The man’s pepper moustache lifted into a mischievous grin.
“Yes, anything?” Rubiah asked, adjusting the forehead-arch of her tudung.
The man came in, looking around, fists on hips, holding a cigarette pack in one hand and a bunch of keys in the other. “What place is this?”
“Oh? It’s a Tourism office,” Rubiah said, as the man fingered the brochures on the counter. “Encik can take that, it’s free. Encik is going where?”
“To nearby the beaches. This Teluk Kemang, is it good?”
“Oh, it is very nice, Encik,” Rubiah said, moving back behind the counter. “Encik can camp, ride jet skis, even ride the banana boat.”
“Banana boat?” said the man, propping the sunglasses on his crown as he flipped the pamphlet apart.
“Yes, banana boat. It is yellow and long and many people can ride on it at once. Good for families. If Encik–?”
“Abang Zul,” the man said, smiling.
“Encik Zul, does Encik already have a household?” Rubiah asked. She thought he had a nice, adventurous air about him.
“Haven’t found my match yet,” the man answered.
“Oh, like that,” Rubiah replied, fiddling with the crystal tassel of her tudung. “Encik is holidaying alone, then?”
He laughed. “No, no. I drive a trailer. I’m on a job. Taking air for a while, because I was feeling drowsy. This highway is too straight, too smooth! Very dangerous. Easy to fall asleep.”
“My first time using this highway,” he explained. “Interesting place for a Tourism office, ya? You are quite far away from the beach.”
“Well, the beaches are only about 20km away,” Rubiah said. “At the highway turnoff after next, Encik will already be there. We are here so that we can provide information to travellers.”
“Do you get many visitors stopping here?”
“Ah.” He put his sunglasses back on. “I go first, then.” He looked at the brochure he was holding, then waved it. “Thanks! I can take this, ya?”
“Yes. Come again,” Rubiah said, half-heartedly.
The man gazed out at the highway, intently, as if he was making some serious decision. Then he slapped the pamphlet on his thigh and wandered off.
Style like a tourist! Rubiah thought to herself, making sure her brochure display was in order. Turned out he was just a truck driver.
AT five, Pn Rubiah locked up the Tourism Malaysia Holiday Beaches Info Centre and waited on a bench outside. The red hatchback arrived a half-hour later. They were eating out tonight. There was a tom yam restaurant in their neighbourhood, but she had gotten food poisoning there once – so this meant her husband, fresh from town, would have to: pick her up; drive past the turn-off to their housing park; go right up to the end of the highway, exit and turn around; drive the entire length of the highway back; and drive into town again.
Her husband did not complain. They were going to a café that served expensive meehun and cheesecake for dessert: his favourites.
This is just like a date, Rubiah thought. I should feel excited about it.
She saw the many streetlights of the town come into view, and idly wondered whether Zul, that truck-driver man, would use her brochures and visit the beach.
After ordering dinner, to break the silence, Rubiah’s husband told her about how one of his colleagues had missed a deadline and was yelled at by their boss.
They ate quietly, absorbed with chewing. Soon Rubiah’s husband had his hand up to call for the cheesecake. She picked at her plate.
“Biah?” her husband said, suddenly, tentatively, as if a train of thought had completed a loop in his head. “I was wondering whether Biah would like to go to the beach this weekend. For so long we haven’t gone, isn’t it? I think it might be fun. Just two of us, like we used to.”
Rubiah giggled aloud. “What nonsense are you talking, Abang? Look at me. How am I supposed to go to the beach like this? I can’t fit into my swimming dress. I can’t even walk properly.”
“Ala, we can do it,” he said. “It will be fun. It will be like we are dating.”
She frowned playfully, then shook her head. “Don’t want, Abang. Don’t want.”
“Come la. With me.”
“Don’t want,” Rubiah answered. “Nonsense la you.”
“All right,” he sighed, but not without mischief. “Later I go with some other woman, then you know.”
Rubiah pinched his arm. They laughed about it. After sharing a slice of cheesecake, they paid for dinner, got into the car, and started heading for home in the middle of palm-oil country.
Her husband yawned, and said nothing.
Pn Rubiah told herself: I am happy.