Friday, 23 October 2009
The Lost Ticket
Fictional Short Story
Originally published in the Jakarta Post, 18/10/09
The police post floated alone like a candle flame in the humming Jakarta darkness at the southern entrance of Gambir train station. Behind it was the great black void of Merdeka Square where Monas blazed in a smudged strip of yellow light. The night was thick and heavy and full of mosquitoes.
A lone policeman stood in the open doorway of the police post, smoking and staring vacantly out at the streaking orange of the passing headlights. He had changed out of his uniform and was wearing dirty rubber sandals, a gray tee-shirt and a pair of blue shorts that showed thin, hairless calves.
“Pak? Selamat malam…” Viktor stood at the foot of the police post steps.
The policeman turned his head very slowly down towards Viktor. He had a lean, carved face, a slight hollowing beneath his cheekbones and a bristling crop of up-brushed hair. He raised the cigarette to his lips and flicked his head back questioningly.
Viktor shifted the rucksack on his shoulder. He could feel the narrow strip of sweat that had oozed down the length of his spine.
“Pak, I lost my ticket; they told me to come here to report it.”
The policeman turned his head and slowly blew out a long draught of smoke. The room behind him was a hollow of sickly yellow light. Viktor could see a shifting cloud of mosquitoes milling around the 40-watt bulb.
“Where are you going?” the policeman asked.
“To Semarang. I’m going home.”
He flicked the cigarette away and the little orange spark arced into the blue-black darkness. He narrowed his eyes for a moment and peered at Viktor, then a fraction of a smirk showed on his face and he turned into the room, muttering, “From Semarang.” He drew the S out and ran hard into the rest of the word.
Viktor followed him up the steps. The room was bare and the walls were dirty and cracked. In a little recess to the left of the door was a desk. On the desk was a typewriter. Above the desk, framed behind a piece of dirt-speckled glass, was a mildewed sheet of paper proclaiming the honesty, helpfulness and patriotism of the ideal policeman of the Republic of Indonesia. Another cloud of mosquitoes swarmed over the typewriter.
The policeman dragged his feet across the floor so his sandals slapped against the grubby concrete. “Which train?”
“Bromo Anggrek. Nine-thirty.”
The police post was open through and through with the back windows gaping onto the blackness of Merdeka Square. There was a kind of silence to the place, though the squealing and roaring of the trains and the ceaseless bleating of the cars and bikes was like a flood. Viktor and the policeman stood knee-deep in traffic noise.
The policeman fiddled in the top drawer of a gray filing cabinet in the corner. The metal beneath its grey lacquer had rotted and an acne of rusty boils had bubbled through. He took out a form, a photocopied sheet of limp, yellowish paper, and came slowly back across the room. He sat behind the desk with the typewriter. Viktor sat on the dirty orange plastic chair opposite with his back to the door. His clothes felt clammy and damp.
The policeman took out another cigarette. “Better to go by aeroplane,” he said.
Viktor looked at him. There was a certain grayness under his black eyes that came from drinking and not sleeping at home, but his face was strong and hard. He narrowed his eyes as he lit the cigarette and a hurried rope of blue smoke spiraled upwards in front of the framed proclamation of honesty and helpfulness.
“Flying is expensive,” Viktor said, quietly.
Even more quietly, looking down at the photocopied form, the policeman said, “Don’t be stingy, ya…” then looked up, and smirked. “Semarang, eh? Originally from Semarang?”
“Yes.” Viktor could feel his armpits sticking to his shirt with sweat.
The policeman shrugged. “Your ticket, was it stolen?”
Suddenly the ticket just wasn’t there. Viktor had been standing in the echoing hall of the station, on the lower level under the tracks where noise and voices washed off the walls in waves. With two and a half hours until his train, the ticket was gone. The little blue sheet, with perforated edges and the time and date and seat number all printed in pale gray, a centimeter to the right of the boxes allocated for them, wasn’t in his hand. It wasn’t in the wallet he kept on a keychain in the pocket of his baggy shorts. Or in the breast pocket of his short-sleeved shirt. Or in his rucksack on top of the folded pair of jeans. The hall had suddenly seemed very, very noisy. There were bright lights over the stalls where they sold chocolate-bread and water and peanuts, and girls in pink head-scarves were laughing at each other. The ticket wasn’t on the floor. It wasn’t in any of Viktor’s pockets, and no one had brushed against him – at least he didn’t think so.
Viktor phoned his mother and the whole roaring mass of Gambir Station turned around him in a whorl of dulled colors.
“Ma,” he said, cell phone clamped to one ear, finger pressed into the other; “My ticket – it’s lost...”
Five hundred kilometers away in Semarang she panicked for him for a moment, then abruptly told him to buy another ticket.
“I don’t have enough money, Ma.” Suddenly he felt lonely, and almost hysterical, and wanted very badly to be at home. He heard other voices in the background over the phone, coming, he guessed, from the space by the porch where his mother kept pot plants and liked to sit in her nightdress and drink coffee late at night and early in the morning.
“What… wait a minute…” and then, “Tante Susan says they’ll give you another ticket if you can remember your seat number.”
“I remember it; it was 13c in coach 6…”
After that he had shouted though slats of rough-cut glass at the information counter and a man with thick glasses told him to go to another office. Then there had been a low room with brown walls and a television showing a soccer match through a cataract of interference in the corner. There were two tall girls with glossy hair arguing with a man behind the low counter. Another official with a moustache and a white skullcap was watching the television and speaking into a heavy green phone at the same time. Viktor sat there, and other people came in and out and the girls were still arguing shrilly with the man behind the counter, and the man in the skullcap made more phone calls and watched the soccer and three times he raised an abrupt finger to Viktor and said, patronizingly, “Be patient, ya…”
When there was only an hour and a quarter until his train Viktor had sat forward and said, as firmly as he could, “Pak?” and the man had looked away from the soccer. He sat right back in his chair, tilting the white skullcap on his head to show a threadbare hairline and a purple bruise and said, bluntly, “What?”
Tante Susan was right: they could give him a slip to replace the ticket, but first he needed to report the loss to the police and bring the report sheet back to the office.
The policeman sighed and pulled himself upright in his seat, cigarette fuming between his lips. He slotted the photocopied form into the typewriter. The mob of mosquitoes above the desk danced wildly and shifted their whining black thunderhead closer to Viktor. Some of them broke off. He could feel the frantic nettling where they bit at his bare legs. He rubbed at his calves with the edge of his sandals. The policeman was also wearing shorts, but he was not itching or scratching.
“Identity card,” he demanded from the corner of his mouth.
Viktor passed it to him; he glanced at it and began to type, very slowly, with stabs of his rigid index fingers.
The policeman read out the lines to himself, speaking more slowly when he had to type in the details. “On today – fri-day se-ven Dec-em-ber – this person, an Indonesian citizen-slash-foreign national…” There was a clatter from the typewriter as he blanked out one of the options.
“Name – Vik-tor Tan-jo-no.” There was a punching noise as the keys smacked onto the paper: thwack, thwack, thwack. “Place-of-birth – Sem-ar-ang, date of birth – nine-Mar-ch-19-89,” thwack, thwack, thwack.
The policeman punched harder at the keys as he worked down the page. The mosquitoes went wild. “Religion – Chris-ti-an; occupation – stu-dent,” THWACK, THWACK, THWACK.
Outside the night was roaring. Another policeman, in uniform, came through the doorway. He was flabbier than the man at the typewriter and his shoulders slumped beneath his epaulettes. He looked at Viktor then tilted his head questioningly at his colleague.
“Lost ticket,” he said, smirking.
The new policeman shrugged. “Better to go by aeroplane.”
The other sniggered. “Didn’t want to. Stingy.”
Viktor felt that same lonely hysteria that he had felt when he had stood on the station concourse and called his mother. He itched his legs more frantically.
The man in the uniform passed through the room and out of the open back door. “Up to him,” he said as he stepped outside. Viktor could see the firefly of orange light where he stood smoking in the gloom.
The policeman had filled in the details of the “lost baggage”.
“It’s not baggage,” said Viktor; “it was a ticket.”
“No problem.” The policeman took up his cigarette again. Slowly he unrolled the sheet of paper from the typewriter and laid it on the desk before him. He signed it on the right side and then, with a backwards nod and pursed lips, he twisted it towards Viktor. Viktor glanced over the form as he signed on the left. The policeman had spelt his name wrong and none of the typed-in details met the photocopied lines.
The policeman took back the form and straightened it with theatrical care, then he took out a chunky rubber stamp and a bleeding inkpad from a drawer and laid them delicately alongside it, like a doctor preparing for surgery. He did not stamp the sheet, but he folded his hands together and leaned forward and looked directly at Viktor’s sweating face for the first time.
“Now,” he said, gently; “I cannot give you the form until you show me the replacement ticket from the station office.”
“But they said in the station that they can’t give me the ticket until I have the report!” As Viktor spoke he heard in his own voice the shrillness of a man accused of something he didn’t do.
The policeman leaned back in his chair and smiled slowly. “What can I do?” He opened his palms. “How about if I give you the report, and you’re lying, and you didn’t really loose the ticket?”
“But Pak, why would I do that? They told me in the station I had to get the report sheet first; the ticket can’t be replaced until I have it.” The mosquitoes had bitten the thin skin on Viktor’s ankles.
“You have no evidence.”
“Better to go by plane.” The voice came from behind him; Viktor hadn’t seen the other policeman, the flabby, uniformed man, come back into the room. “Flying’s small money – for you. But you were stingy.” He sniggered.
“But how can I get the replacement without the report?”
The policeman rocked right back so the chair was against the wall under the framed sign and his knees were hooked under the lip of the desk. He slotted his hands behind his head and repeated, gently, “What can I do?”
Viktor understood, but suddenly, and unexpectedly, he was angry. He said again, holding himself very carefully, “But how can I get the replacement without the report?”
The policeman said again, “What can I do?”
“Better to go by plane,” said the other policeman from the back of the room.
There were forty-five minutes until Viktor’s train. The policeman leaned against the wall. Viktor sat on the grubby plastic chair, the mosquitoes swarming around him. The report form, unstamped, lay on the table between them, and the police post floated alone like a candle flame in the night.
© Tim Hannigan 2009