A Tale from the Borneo Rainforest (Between Meals).

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[Previous instalments took place “By Day,” “By Night,” and “At Lunch.”]

Lavish sunshine, at once irritatingly glaring and pleasantly warm, was waiting for the Stewarts outside the doors of their longhouse that morning. Ellen felt only more personally overcast. You can live or die, it is neither here nor there, the sun seemed to proclaim, for I’m in the mood to shine. The pettiness of your life struggles will still have to be acted out in a world which is drenched in evidence of how merry I am!

Several miles behind them in the jungle path, Ellen and Rufus’ guide lay in two pieces. Throughout that morning his murder and decapitation had passed unmentioned, and neither had the Stewarts referred to their momentous conversation of the previous evening. At breakfast, they had scraped together the few bags which had not been left behind, and poured out their contents in search of food. Ellen had quickly abandoned this in frustration, but Rufus had seen it through to the bitter end. “Not a sausage!” was his definitive verdict, called down the longhouse to the chair where Ellen now sat with her arms folded.

They nonetheless complied with an appearance of breakfast, sitting down to face each other with a glass of water each. Ellen again turned over that question which her mind could not leave alone, like a clickable pen in jittery hands: how long would they survive? Protesters on hunger strikes sometimes went for weeks without food, but they were usually seated calmly in the lotus position, reflecting upon some noble, higher cause. The Stewarts would be trekking for miles across the jungle and thinking about nothing other than how hungry they were.

“When was the last time that you missed breakfast?” Ellen asked her husband.

He was bossy this morning. “I do hope that we’re not going to be wisecracking our way to the grave. Can we starve to death without the constant commentary?”

“It was a genuine question.”

Rufus blinked and then he smiled, surprised. “You know, I don’t think that I have ever missed breakfast.”

The jungle resumed and on it went, along the sides of hills and into nameless misty basins, with the whole thing now as repetitive to their eyes as an endless cement path. At midday, they stopped and drank their two glasses of water. It displeased Ellen that Rufus seemed somehow to sip his hungrily.

Before they rose, Ellen checked the guide’s smartphone to see whether it might have, by some miracle, procured a freak reception. The hopelessness of this was admittedly multi-layered. Even if Ellen could have phoned the police, what would she have told them? “We are lost in the jungle” would be as useful to any search party as “we are at the bottom of the sea.”

Rufus evidently wished to mention the Penan boy in some way. Ellen at last murmured her assent.

“Do you think he could have found any food for us?”

Ellen groaned and smiled. “Well, the jungle is supposed to be like a supermarket – decked out with bananas and asparagus and fish. But at the moment, none of it is leaping out at me, I’m afraid.” Rufus was probably recollecting a television programme that they had once watched together on an aeroplane, in which the adventurer Bear Grylls had scrambled energetically around the jungle, like a lonely boy playing by himself, to demonstrate how you could live by your wits in these situations. In one highlight, Bear had captured a snake and roasted it. The poor man always had to eat beetles and reptiles; if he ever munched on a nest of baby birds, his programme would be no doubt wound up and the helicopters would depart without him.

“The guide might have been able to locate some food, but this would have given him power over us. It would have been intolerable in the end. I’m aware that this might sound peculiar to you, but I couldn’t have watched him starve to death in a way that I could with you. Death is a lot more solemn, a lot less fun, when it enlists the young.”

Rufus started to splutter with derision, but she cut him short. “There’s less injustice with us. At our age, we’re surprised to have had such a generous deal.” She might almost be back to her old self, calmly philosophising whilst her husband was in a flap, except that this stance seemed artificial after her panic and woe of yesterday. She was still carrying around that revised sense of how brittle she really was, like a heavy, cumbersome rock in the pocket of her jeans.

The jungle was going through a stage in which it looked like it had been draped ineptly over everything. Masses of vines and vegetation clambered over the treetops, the foliage stunning in its volume.

After a while, Rufus began to look impressed by his own hunger. “This is hard going,” he chuckled, wincing. If he keeps this up, I shall say something, Ellen fumed to herself. The hungrier I feel, the fatter and more cheerful he seems to become.

The path had led them out of one of the periodic dips in the landscape and on to a handsome, sunlit shelf which overlooked the jungle. The Stewarts enjoyed a brief stroll in cooler air, with the canopy at their feet as dense as damp cotton wool. Suddenly Ellen was staring rapidly about the treetops, trying to hook her gaze on something which she feared she was in the process of missing. Rufus had crowed in triumph and now he was shouting again, his cry flung into the face of the jungle. He shook her shoulders as if to animate her. “Smoke! Over there, look! Smoke!”

A few stray patches were suspended above the jungle. Ellen stood and watched them, at a loss. It was definitely smoke.

Next, in a great roll, her heart had quickened, staggering. “Why would there be a house or a village here?” she protested after Rufus. “There’s nothing for miles around – no roads, no shops…”

Rufus waited patiently for her to catch up. She would have to come with him – she would never consent to be left behind. “Let’s stick together,” he urged.

And so they proceeded arm-in-arm, with their four eyes peeled and covering every angle at once. But Ellen was registering that horrible urgent strain within her stomach, the sliding emptiness. If there were really people down here, and a fire, then there would surely be food? She wanted to hurry through the encounter, the greetings, the explanations, until they were finally waved hospitably towards the campfire and a sizzling platter. It could hardly be this easy, of course. In the very least, the Stewarts and their prospective hosts would have to listen to each other’s jungle stories before it was proper to think of eating.

After descending, they skirted a small prominence to arrive on level ground. The buildings had their backs to them, but even from here they looked dirty and ruinous. The Stewarts pushed on into the settlement and a sort of natural courtyard. People were standing about restlessly, scratching their faces and gazing absently at them. At first the smell of this colony had amazed Ellen – her eyes were watering before anything had the chance to catch them – and then her senses were in automatic retreat. It was the rich manure smell of a working farm. Next, however, she had perceived the squalor, the stains on the ground, and the detritus strewn everywhere. There was a distant click in her mind and her mouth dried up. There was not going to be any food here.

A man approached them and then froze comically. His edginess had the look of youth to it and yet he was tottering along with the huddled posture of an elderly man. The pink and grey skin on his face was so shiny that it could have been scrubbed. Dusty ginger hair covered his head, like the wisps on the shell of a coconut.

“You’re an orangutan,” Ellen sighed. Her heart seemed to finally tumble down a flight of stairs. She wanted to weep bitterly.

The ape’s hands and hand-feet were constantly searching, meandering all around in the air and the dirt, whilst his noble, tragic face floated in the midst of this restlessness. An older, portlier orangutan stole towards them, the hair gliding in fronds from his body and trailing along the ground.

She looked up at the creatures’ buildings. Great armfuls of branches and sticks had been apparently pulverised into the vague shapes of houses. Walls hung in tatters and vines had been slopped over them, or heaps of sticks had been dumped on top, to produce roofs.

Rufus snorted in disgust. “What is this? Do they have any food?”

“Ask them,” Ellen said sarcastically.

A female orangutan was staring at them from a doorway, half-aggressively. Her doorway was in fact a gap beneath the point where two sagging rows of sticks clung together. Turning, Ellen observed a gang of three of the apes lolling on the ground and slurping on cigarettes, with devoutly appreciative expressions on their faces. The remains of a tyre were burning a little way off, and the orangutans were obviously keeping this alight for their fags.

Ellen started to look in on several of the houses’ interiors from the safety of their entrance points. Piles of squidgy bananas were visible in the occasional corner, but they were all brown or blackened. Ellen heard the sharp scuttling of rats. The orangutans began to screech timidly and pace about whenever they thought that Ellen was taking too great an interest in their bananas.

Confirmation of this colony’s lack of food came finally when Ellen saw an orangutan pause, as it ambled along, and then pluck a lump of excrement from the ground. The ape popped this into its mouth and chewed on it contemplatively.

“Oh my God!” Rufus was all of a sudden running, all frantic knees and elbows. “Look! A telephone!”

“It’s just a toy,” Ellen called after him. It indeed proved only to be a plastic toy. “Who’s going to phone them anyway?”

Rufus flung the toy on the ground, enraged. “Christ, I hope the whole bunch of you go extinct!” he bawled at the orangutans. They were now hobbling away in a panic.

Ellen could not help exclaiming as a small clod or lump of dried excrement tapped her smartly on the skull. “Darling, leave them,” she appealed, pulling at her husband’s arm as he bore down on the ape responsible. “It’s not worth it – they won’t understand what you’re doing to them, for one thing. Besides, I’ve seen something that might be very useful to us.”

“You’re going to tell me that they have an internet cafe?”

“Mistletoe. Over there on that tree. And that one too.”

“This is useful… For your religion?”

“Let’s leave the monkeys,” Ellen sang, with a sudden and thrilling lightness in her voice. “I want to discover a grove, a grove full of mistletoe.”

Following the displays of mistletoe, which were worn on the jungle trees like huge beautiful brooches, they found one almost immediately.

[The next (and final) instalment will take place “At Tea.”]

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