Back in February, I heard that local publisher Silverfish was accepting submissions for their new short story compilation. I've always wanted to get into some serious writing, so I sat down and wrote The Water Tower. Then I rewrote it again for another six times. But alas, the story was rejected. Oh well. Here it is anyway. I present to you, my first short story. Enjoy! (Please?):
Suresh once asked what I loved so much about exploring.
“Seeing new things, new places. Seeing what kids in the other neighbourhoods do in the evenings,” I had said.
“The kids elsewhere do the same thing other kids do lah,” he replied.
“No, sometimes they have different activities. What they do depends on what’s around them. And what’s around them is what I look forward to finding when I go exploring.”
“What do you mean, around them? Like what?”
“Like the airport. The kids in that neighbourhood play different games than in other housing areas. I think it’s the noise. Or the planes.”
“The airport! Now that’s fun!”
“And you go exploring every single evening?”
“You want to come along?”
“This of course I say yes.”
That was how Suresh started following me in my explorations. He was a close friend. Sat next to me in class. We used to talk about all sorts of cool stuff our crazy little minds would come up with, like speed-cycling to Taman Cempaka and back within 20 minutes (a most admirable feat), or perhaps discussing what fighting moves Masked Rider would execute when surrounded by evil monsters, or maybe even putting our hands into a bucket of icy water for as long as we could. He was the sort of person who nearly always had ideas for crazy, fun stuff to do, and one of the things he loved to do was to tag along when I went exploring.
We were in math class one day, doing the exercises from the Standard Five textbook, when Suresh leaned towards me.
“Hey, Rafeeq,” he whispered.
I ignored Suresh and tried to concentrate on the current math problem.
“Rafeeq.” He nudged me with his elbow.
I dropped my pen and glared at him. “What?”
“Eh, this evening going exploring aaa?”
I nodded. “What’s seven times six?”
“Sure lah. You never learn the times table is it.”
“Just checking.” Of course I learned it. I just didn’t have it memorised.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“Rapat Setia, to see if I can reach the mountains.”
“The mountains aaa? Sounds like fun, I’m following.” He gazed through the windows. “What you think we find over there ya?”
“At the mountains? Caves probably.”
“Maybe got something like Sam Poh Tong temple? That would be cool!”
The math teacher spun around on her heels and glared at us. We continued our exercises, trying to pretend nothing was happening.
Evening came. Suresh cycled to my house and called out my name. I was lying on my bed, reading a book I had borrowed from the Tun Razak Library. I’ve forgotten the title, but it was a children’s book about a boy stuck in a perilous situation. The boy, putting his nose where it didn’t belong, fell underneath the rotting floorboards of an abandoned house and subsequently got bitten by a poisonous snake. I found the book preachy, yet I had somehow managed to read it till the last chapter. I glanced at my alarm clock on the bedside table. Twenty minutes past five.
“You’re early!” I shouted from my bedroom window.
“Come on lah! Let’s go!” Suresh shouted back.
“Okay, okay! Give me a minute.” I rushed to change into the track bottoms that I loved to wear for cycling.
When I came down to the front gate, Suresh was nowhere in sight. He had left his bicycle, a mountain bike his parents had bought for him a few months back, lying on the road in front of my house. I wheeled my bicycle out and locked the gate.
Suresh popped his head out from the drain across the street. I think he had found it fun to inspect the drains while waiting for me.
“There you are. I was getting bored out here,” Suresh said. “Come on. Let’s go already!”
We started pedalling our way towards Taman Ipoh Jaya, the housing area that led towards Rapat Setia. “So what were you doing when I came?” Suresh asked.
“Reading a book I borrowed from the library.”
“That one in town? I hate that library. So silent there, and whenever I go, nobody. Scary.”
“You like the school library though.”
“The only place in school I can play Scrabble.”
“I’m surprised the teachers don’t mind you skipping classes.”
“I got excuse one. I say I practice for the inter-district tournament.”
“There’s a Scrabble tournament coming up?” I glared at Suresh. He knew I loved to take part in Scrabble competitions. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“No lah... where got one.”
“You... You didn’t lie to the teachers again, did you?”
“Relax. Small lie only.”
I kept quiet. I simply didn’t know what else to say. He had got into trouble many times before for lying and now, here he was, doing it again. I was amazed he could get away with so much lying and I was probably a little admiring of him for his ability to do so too.
After about 15 minutes of cycling, we reached the housing estate of Rapat Setia and cycled past the huge field that was its landmark. Every Wednesday evening, traders from around the city would come and set up their stalls on the field for the weekly night market. Today was not Wednesday, and the only people on the field were kids like us, playing football, rounders or just fooling about and chatting with friends.
Just a little farther up ahead from the field, were a secondary school and some houses, which we rode past. We cycled on until there wasn’t any road left. The mountains were still quite some distance away.
“End of the road,” Suresh said. “Now what?”
I got off my bicycle, let it stand on the side of the road, and enjoyed the unobstructed view of the mountains. Between the mountains and us was a vast, unused land of bushes and remnants of tin mining lakes. We were just kids, but already we had been told by our parents and teachers that tin mining land was dangerous. I may have loved exploring, but I was not about to attempt cycling through such terrain.
I noticed a little hut beside one of the lakes. A man, unclothed above the waist, but saronged below, came out of the hut and started to fish on the lake.
“Look!” I pointed towards the man. “There’s someone fishing over there.”
“Wow,” said Suresh. Though he was behind me, I could sense he wasn’t looking where I was pointing.
I turned towards Suresh and saw him looking around us and taking in our surroundings.
“Look, look!” He jumped up and down. “Come on Rafeeq! Stop looking at the half-naked fisherman, let’s go check that out!”
A short distance away, a behemoth of grey steel towered far above the rooftops of the houses that surrounded it. Suresh had discovered the Water Tower, the tallest man-made structure for miles around.
We cycled to the Water Tower and as I expected, it was fenced to discourage trespassers. I was content to look at it from outside the fenced area (the enormous structure was definitely a sight to behold). Suresh had other plans. He wanted to get inside. He inspected the gate to see if it was unlocked, which of course, it was, and then inspected the fenced perimeter to find a hole to crawl through. I was confident he would never find such a hole, so it was to much surprise when I heard Suresh’s excited cry.
I rushed around to the rear side of the Water Tower, and found him squatting in a drain by the side of the fence. There was a hole in the fence, probably made by wild dogs. Suresh had already crawled in through the hole and started wandering inside the compound. Not wanting to feel left out, I reluctantly crawled through and followed him.
There wasn’t much of interest inside the compound, apart from the thick, grey, steel beams that rose from the ground and the way they criss-crossed each other to support the humongous, rectangular water tank far, far above us.
“There’s a ladder here, going up,” I called to Suresh, who was examining one of the beams.
Suresh’s eyes lit up. “Wah! Let’s climb up. Imagine what we could see up there.”
“Probably a view of the whole of Ipoh City.”
“Maybe the whole of Kinta too. Go, go, climb. What you waiting for.”
I looked up the ladder. It really was a long way up. And the platform that ran around the Water Tower didn’t at all look safe. The railing seemed flimsy. I looked at my watch. Almost seven. I looked up the ladder again. Then I looked back at Suresh.
“Suresh, let’s not,” I said, “it’s almost Maghrib.”
“Aw, come on lah, we were just going to have fun, we go up there for short while only,” Suresh said.
“I have to get home.”
He sighed. “Okay lah. Tomorrow? Let’s climb the Water Tower tomorrow.”
“We have to hurry or it’s an earful from my mum.”
“Ya, ya, okay. Come on lah.”
It rained heavily the next evening. And the following evening, much to Suresh’s dismay, he had to go to his grandparents’s house.
On the third evening, Suresh phoned. “Get ready. No rain today. Now’s our chance to climb the Water Tower.”
“But there’s a great new cartoon on today,” I said.
“What? Hey, forget that. Come on, Water Tower!”
“Can’t you go alone?”
“Eh. You scared to climb is it?”
“I’m not scared.”
“Yes, you are. I call you and you give this excuse la, that excuse la, and--”
“Okay, okay, okay! I’ll follow you.”
When we returned, the hole in the fence was still open, tempting us to enter and climb the Water Tower within.
“You go first,” Suresh said when we reached the ladder.
I looked up and once again I saw how high the Water Tower was. “No, you go.”
Suresh looked up and he too realised exactly how high the Water Tower was. He hesitated for a while, and then as soon as he placed his foot on the first rung, we heard a shout.
“Hoi!” It was an adult. “What are you kids doing? Get out from there!”
Trouble! We swiftly crawled back out the hole, grabbed our bikes, and cycled off before the adult could reach us.
“Spoilsport,” Suresh complained later.
The next evening, there was another heavy downpour. But much to Suresh’s delight, the rain stopped before half-past five, allowing us to return, once again, to the Water Tower. I had initially refused to follow, but Suresh was so adamant to reach the top of the Water Tower, he couldn’t stop talking and talking about it, so I acquiesced. Again, we crawled through the hole in the fence, this time carefully making sure nobody was around.
The moment I stepped inside the compound, a feeling of dread engulfed me. This was not a good idea. But Suresh would have none of it.
“Climb lah! Don’t want to see the view aaa?” he would say whenever I complained.
I offered to climb first. I had to get it over with as soon as possible. To avoid having second thoughts, I made sure not to look up the ladder before climbing. When I grabbed the rungs, they were still wet from the rain. I climbed up a couple of rungs. Then I lost my footing, and slipped. I didn’t fall. I managed to hold on tightly to the ladder. Climbing the Water Tower was definitely a bad idea.
“Hey, careful up there!” Suresh called up. “You’ll fall!”
I pursed my lips and started to climb back down.
“Rafeeq! What are you doing?”
“I’m coming down,” I said, “the ladder’s too wet, too slippery and too dangerous to keep going up.”
“What! Don’t let a little thing like that stop you! We’ve got a mission! A mission to get to the top!”
“I’m not going on a suicide mission, Suresh.” I stepped foot on solid ground.
“Don’t want to see the view aaa? Afterwards you regret.”
“Better regret than dead.”
“Aw, come on! We wait so many days for this chance!”
“I don’t care. It’s slippery and we might fall and break something. And besides, it was you who waited for so many days. I didn’t even want to come in the first place.”
“You break my heart.”
“Don’t start getting melodramatic with me.”
“You know I don’t understand your big words, okay?”
“I’m going home. You coming with me or what?”
“Well, I’m not going up without you. What fun is that?” Suresh had the most disappointed look I had ever seen him with.
We cycled home with nary a word between us.
I had thought that this would be the end of it, that Suresh would now stop pestering me to climb the Water Tower. But when I received a phone call from Suresh’s father late that night, I realised I was wrong.
“Rafeeq? Could I speak to Suresh, please?” Suresh’s father asked.
“Suresh? But uncle, he’s not at my house,” I answered.
“Suresh told us after dinner that he was going to your house for a short while. But it’s been two hours and he’s still not back.”
“I’m sorry, uncle, but he really isn’t here.”
“Would you have any idea where he could be?”
I remembered Suresh’s disappointment when I climbed down from the Water Tower. “I think so.”
Not long after, Suresh’s parents came over, and my parents and I got into their car. I showed Suresh’s father the route we had cycled to the Water Tower, and when we reached there, the darkness made the Water Tower looked ominous.
We found Suresh’s bicycle lying on the ground outside the hole in the fence. We crawled through the hole into the compound. He was nowhere to be seen but we found another clue to his whereabouts not far from the ladder. His right shoe.
My father looked up the ladder and said, “he must have gone up.”
“I’ll climb first,” Suresh’s father said.
“I... I can’t take this much longer.” Suresh’s mother hid her face in her hands.
“You better stay in the car,” Suresh’s father said, “you don’t worry now.”
“I’ll follow,” my mother said. She held Suresh’s mother’s hand and they both returned to the car.
“Rafeeq, you stay here and don’t you dare follow us,” warned my father.
I looked up, seeing the two men’s figures getting smaller and smaller as they climbed farther and farther up. There was a flash of lightning and the sky was illuminated for a brief moment. Was it going to rain again? I looked at the car. Squinting, I could barely see both Suresh’s mother and mine, looking up at the Water Tower and their husbands who were climbing it.
I looked up again. The two men had finally reached the top. I could hear their footsteps clanking as they walked on the metal grating of the platform above. All I could hear were muffled voices. Then more clanking. More muffled voices. Then silence.
I walked around, trying to catch a glimpse of the two parents. It was too dark.
“What’s going on up there?” I called out.
My father’s voice replied. “Hold on! We’re coming back down!”
“Did you find Suresh?”
“Don’t worry about him.”
A few minutes later, I could see my father, followed by Suresh’s father, climbing down. I squinted again to see if I could see Suresh but they were still too high up. The two figures descended slowly down the ladder. I wondered why they were taking so much time climbing down.
Another flash of lightning. It was brief, but enough for me to catch a glimpse of Suresh. His father was carrying him, not on his back, but in front and this was making their climb down slower. Suresh’s eyes were closed and for a split-second, a thought of how lifeless he looked crossed my mind. I shoved the thought away, not wanting to think the worst.
When they finally got back to the ground, my father spoke to me. “Don’t worry about Suresh. He’ll be all right. In the mean time, I want to have a word with you.”
He was going to blame me. I just knew it.
“Rafeeq, what have I told you about going to places you‘re not allowed to enter?”
“That... That they’re dangerous?”
“So why did you and Suresh come to this water tower? You do know that this is a dangerous place, right? That one of you could easily fall off and die?”
“But, Bapak, Suresh was the one who found the Water Tower and wanted to climb it. I did tell him not to.” Would my father listen?
My father was quiet for a moment. He sighed and said, “Thank Allah you’re alive. Promise me you’ll never do something like this again. Promise me.”
“Yes, Bapak. I promise. Sorry.”
We hugged each other. Suresh’s father--still carrying Suresh--was looking at us, waiting for us to get back in the car.
“Come on, let’s get back home,” Suresh’s father said. “It’ll start raining soon.”
“Yes, yes. Let’s,” my father said.
Thunder growled in the sky. Suresh stirred. He looked around, dazed and confused. Then he saw me. “Rafeeq! I did it! I climbed the Water Tower! It was beautiful!”
“Hoi! You good-for-nothing idiot son! Somebody’s getting in more trouble than he can imagine!” Suresh’s father shouted. He continued with a stream of endless Tamil scolding.
The next day at school started out sombre. Suresh kept to himself and was unapproachable. Even during recess, he remained solitary. But after a plate of nasi lemak, he began lightening up and soon, he was his old self again.
“Suresh? You okay? You feeling better now?” I asked.
“You know what?”
“Ipoh is so beautiful at night. The most beautiful sight I have ever seen.”
“What happened up there?”
“I... actually, I... aaah, fell asleep.” Suresh blushed.
I slapped my forehead. “I don’t believe it.”
“It was the view lah. So beautiful, it make you want to go to sleep.”
“What about your shoe? We found your right shoe on the ground.”
“Oh. I drop it.”
“It came off your foot while you were climbing?”
“No lah. I drop it to see got sound or not when it fall on the ground.”
I groaned. “I really hope this was all worth the trouble you got into.”
“Oh, it was. It was.” Suresh smiled wide, his pearly white teeth flashing brightly. I think it was the biggest smile Suresh would ever make.