Borneo, Borneo Rainforest, Bungee Jumping, Danger, Germaine Greer, Humor, Indonesia, Jungle, Jungle Adventure, Malaysia, Marriage, Rope Bridge Crossing, Short Story, Taman Nasional Betung Kerihun, Witch, Witchcraft
The jungle had arrived at the brink of a perilous ravine and a sheet of orange cardboard which simply read “Bungee.” “Absolutely not,” Ellen had replied before her husband could even put the question.
The Stewarts had been only two days in Borneo. On the first they had flown to the airport which served as a gateway to the wilderness; on the second they had chartered a helicopter out into the interior. The helicopter had pledged to collect them in eight days’ time, from a ring of huts about fifty miles south of their starting point.
Ellen had engaged the guide and the result was a Penan who was young enough to be their grandson. After paying the boy at the airport, they had had to wait for over twenty minutes whilst he bolted off and bought the new iPhone with the money. He would become absolutely infatuated with this device, constantly fishing it out to admire it. He did this so frequently, and with such urgency, that Rufus had begun to wonder whether it was really impossible to get a signal out here in the rainforest.
They had watched the helicopter trailing away over the treetops. Then the Penan had hoisted the largest rucksack on to his back and led them off into the jungle, with an air of apparent familiarity. Once the boy was sufficiently ahead, Rufus had grown cautiously sarcastic about him.
“I know that they no longer wear loincloths, but I hadn’t banked on so much designer clothing. For a jungle guide.”
“That’s why I hired him,” Ellen had answered lightly.
Thankfully, the Penan gave no signs of being aware that he was better dressed than they were. Rufus was clattering along in an excess of khaki and straps, following a splurge at an army surplus store; Ellen was wearing billowing trousers and a blouse that had not received an airing since art school. The Stewarts’ matching wide-brimmed hats were so new and clean that they could not help looking like items of fancy-dress. The three of them resembled partygoers who could not agree upon what the evening held in store.
They had covered about six miles that morning. Rufus had started to breathe hard and quick on an uphill stretch, as if his breaths were frantically wiping the air, and so Ellen had very delicately ventured that they should stop for lunch. They had found three companionable boulders to sit on. Rufus had eaten his doughnuts so greedily that Ellen had almost allowed that fence which held back all of her wild, wounding remarks to be trampled down. Rufus had sensed that there was some dangerous current in her silence. “The walking makes me hungry,” he had insisted plaintively.
Glancing back at the boulders, Ellen had been displeased by the crumbs and apple cores which littered the ground. The jungle will clean them away, she had told herself. The next time that she had looked back at the path, about half an hour later, there was a small brigade of animals following them: two pigs, a family of deer, and a capering monkey.
She had gestured at the Penan to chase them away. They had looked rather nonplussed by his attempts and he had returned without comment, scrutinising his iPhone.
Ellen consciously cleared her mind of the animals. They would leave them on this side of the ravine.
It annoyed Rufus how his wife refused to take an interest in the threadbare rope bridge and the bright, shaggy rug of treetops far below them. Four surly men were waiting for them on the wicker platform which was fastened to the middle of the bridge. It was as if all of this was a toy in a supermarket and he was a schoolboy who was trying to get his mother to pause and look.
Briefly, Ellen became alert. “Are you sure?” She glanced at him in such a way as to warn, your weight. But he would not acknowledge that he had received or understood her warning.
The rope bridge dipped like a little boat as it took his weight. The ropes stiffened ominously. Rufus was walking towards the men, down a kind of slippery wooden gutter, waving as if to rouse them.
Ellen took three cautious steps down the rope bridge and began to study the jungle below. It all beamed up at her, fresh and fair, with the rainforest soaring like a glorious anthem. Ellen’s next impression was of the absence of detail behind the effect. Trees pattered about everywhere in an aimless labyrinth, mostly as uniform in appearance as slate rooftops. She was somehow faintly reminded of being back on Blackford Hill, with a princely view of Edinburgh’s suburbs.
Rufus was presently conversing with the men with that strained, tinny note of command in his voice, nervously racing over the prices and conditions. The men were jabbering sourly. Ellen smiled to herself: if he was killed plunging off this bridge, on the end of a rope that turned out not to be attached to anything, she would be free to take the Penan boy as a husband. She imagined bringing the boy back to Edinburgh and trying to pass him off as Rufus. At dinner parties, she would respond to people’s startled questions by appearing to be more shocked and confused than they were. What’s wrong? Rufus has just lost some weight; retirement has given him a new lease of life, taken the world off his shoulders. Or maybe if she force-fed the boy pasta for weeks on end and drew wrinkles on his face with a pen, he would gradually slump into some semblance of her husband.
As she brooded over the wandering jungle, a distant memory came to her of Germaine Greer speaking on a highbrow arts programme some time back in the last decade. Greer had insisted, with her usual strenuous sincerity, that she loved teenaged boys because their semen ran like tap water. Ellen looked up at the serene blue sky, suddenly conscious that both the sun and the moon had risen, the latter as thin and colourless as the paring of a fingernail. Though currently lurking above different ends of the world, they were evidently gathering to observe the spectacle that Rufus was about to make of himself.
He was returning to report to her and she stepped back off the bridge, her face hard with distaste. He was smiling with that feeble mimicry of happy excitement and she noted that his hands were twitching violently. He was really going to do it. She knew that it would only provoke him if she tried to resist, but she wanted vaguely to find a place for her wisdom in all that was going to unfold.
The Stewarts were the first customers that the little men on the bridge had seen for several weeks. The men needed the publicity and so they would charge only half price if Rufus wrote a grateful review, in polished English, to display on their website. Only one of these men spoke any English and this was only a few words. The men possessed a hoard of somewhat superstitious ideas about Google, one of which being that it penalised websites with “bad” English.
“Your toyboy has his smartphone. I’m going to write the review here and then they can see it going live.”
Why are you so excited?, she wondered bitterly. Are you honestly this unsophisticated? A bungee jump is a simulation of death; it’s no coincidence that the handsome young man (it’s always a handsome young man) who is now dutifully preparing the rope looks so much like a hangman. You swoop down to kiss death on the cheek and then just as you fear that you might have leapt too far, the rope pulls back and you are pulled back to the land of the living.
She was repulsed – her husband was almost boisterous, energetically striding about on this shuddering rope bridge, no doubt anxious to convince the pitiful handful of spectators that he was not too small for this big feat.
Ellen ventured further down the rope bridge, marvelling that there was only this sliver of ancient wood, as dainty as a human wrist, between her and all that air. You could drown in so much air.
Aside from the very handsome young man who clearly did all the work, there were two depleted little men in faded tee-shirts who were sitting cross-legged on the floor of the platform, and a flabby old man with a bare chest who was apparently supervising from the bridge. On a whim, she decided to make contact with the old man.
The world fell silent and she asserted that tiny clear voice, directing it at the patriarch’s aura. “Greetings. You are the one who speaks English?”
He did not seem to react. Then, craftily, he glanced at her, his eyes flickering like a snake’s tongue.
When his voice came it was high and abrasive. “You a witch? Powerful witch?”
“Is my husband safe? You see how fat he is?”
“If husband die, you meet with me in jungle? I can take you to heaven baby. And we become king and queen – king, queen of jungle. Howabout it baby?”
She almost cackled out loud and quickly put her hand up to her mouth. The bare-chested old man continued to sit there, impassive, ponderous, and magisterial.
“I can tell you are afraid,” she pursued. “My husband is too fat? The rope will break?”
But he was still quacking deliriously in her head about his fat ten inch cock and how she would be transported to heaven. She stepped out of the spell and then tottered back down the bridge.
Once again on terra firma, she requested to consult the Penan’s iPhone. The boy had taken her to one side, dithering and anxious to have her all to himself. He seemed unusually agitated.
“What’s wrong?” she murmured. Amazingly, the phone had indeed secured a faint but definite reception. She looked up and stared around the landscape with incredulity.
“Lady, am I ugly?” he implored. “You think I’m ugly?”
He stood there and posed for her, jutting his chin out, as tense as somebody who is about to receive an injection.
“No,” she replied. “You’re handsome in your own way.” Christ, why did she always bring out the needy side of every man she met? Unless you are as limp as a dishcloth, they constantly want to take all of the world’s injustices to your lap.
After a lengthy period of smearing things around on the screen, she managed to locate the men’s website. It showed a photograph of four men squatting on the rope bridge beside the bungee apparatus, in a scene unnervingly unchanged from the one now in front of her.
Suddenly the conviction struck her that her husband was the first person to ever use the bungee facilities. These unemployed men had been sitting here mildly for years, waiting for somebody like the Stewarts to turn up.
Her husband was calling for her in a strangled voice. She returned and found him with his ankles tied together, frozen on the brink of the platform’s stunning drop. His hat was nowhere to be seen. He looked immensely proud and a little mad and his face was so pale and slimy that she thought he might black out. “Kiss me,” he urged.
“Not in front of the men,” she replied quietly.
One of the men shot up with startling, nimble energy and plucked Rufus’ glasses from his face. “No for you!” he announced in a voice like thunder.
The handsome young hangman looked apologetic. Rufus was raging. “Give me them back! I can’t see anything!”
She made contact once again with the inscrutable patriarch. “Put the glasses back,” she appealed. “If not, I shall shrink your penis to the size of a cashew nut.”
The next second Rufus was gone. There was a faint moan like the wind swinging around a house and down an alleyway. Ellen felt no urge to peer over the platform to search for him.
“It is the rule,” the old man said, his voice strangely calm now that he was speaking out loud. “The glasses fly away – into the jungle,” he added with a swift expression of mischief, joining his fluttering hands to make a butterfly. “Then my men take the ten days to look for them and get them back!”
They all faced each other for a moment and then everything plummeted straight down. Ellen’s heart was jammed into her throat and mouth, a thick shard of ice. She blankly assumed that the bridge had been torn in half. They all slid helter-skelter, over and on top of each other, until they finally gelled together soundlessly in a puddle of waving arms. Next the world was hurtling upwards and they were weightless in the air high above the bridge, as if they were jumping on a trampoline. They plunged again with the bridge.
Ellen reached out for the rope and it whipped through her hand like a dagger, making it roar white-hot. She crashed on to her side and her body buckled and then lay exposed to the air like a herring on a plate. Yet she held on tightly until the bridge finally settled into a queer, strained, twanging stability, as if a spillage which had been pouring everywhere had been for the moment contained.
“I hope that you haven’t dropped the glasses,” Ellen remarked acidly. The men were wheezing and gasping. She watched her cowboy hat tumbling down to be swallowed up in the treetops.
“We used to this, lady,” the old man bleated back.
The shape of the bridge was now radically altered. Its flooring dropped down almost vertically to form an improbable V in the air. Ellen’s eyes fell on the rope which her husband was attached to and for the first time that she had been in this jungle she felt real alarm. It was instantly recognisable as an ordinary garden hose. The sort of kit that you would purchase in Homebase.
They each continued to cling helplessly to the nearest rope, but the handsome young hangman had daringly extracted himself and he slithered down in a heap on to the shell of the hose. Next he started to wind away energetically. As Ellen had feared, rather than pulling her husband up, the bridge began to be stretched down.
The bridge was like a spider’s web which had caught a wasp. The silken threads were too weak and they would be stretched torturously until finally, with an airless pop, they were gone.
The wooden channel became ever more vertical and remorseless. Ellen’s spare hand kneaded the wood of the flooring, which now looked her in the face, but there was no reliable grip. All she could do was to hang precariously to the rope at the sides.
Ellen realised that if the bridge broke in two, she would swing with dangerous speed, like Tarzan on a vine, straight into the ravine’s cliff-face.
Then she relaxed. It was as if the wind had changed and good news had arrived on a fresh breeze. The youngster was continuing to wind up the hose but the bridge was now detectably rising. The ropes were losing a little of their wire rigidity. She listened carefully, still nervous, to the steady sawing sound of the hose being coiled. The men began to chat to each other, like sailors hanging in the rigging on a fair sea.
They had fished her husband out of the air. “Oh God, that was incredible,” he snorted.
Once his ankle binding was ripped away, Rufus staggered and almost took a step back off the platform. The young hangman caught him in his arms as quick as a shot. His handsome face looked nauseous at the closeness of the escape.
Pawing his way blindly to the bridge, Rufus’ feet paddled desperately in the wooden gutter and he then crashed to his knees. The men were hurrying to restore his hat and glasses.
Ellen’s voice stopped them dead. Suddenly the men were standing to attention. Even the bare-chested patriarch looked disconcerted.
“I shall write the review. I will compliment your professionalism – to which I owe my life – but I will explain that there must be weight restrictions. This system that you have is extremely foolish.”
Rufus groaned at hearing the word “weight,” his eternal nemesis.
Ellen strode away and Rufus, the Penan, and the Bungee men all followed her sheepishly along the bridge to the far side of the ravine. She was annoyed by how petulant she had sounded and so to make the peace, she retrieved a bottle of Scotch from the largest rucksack. Everybody was given a dose in a plastic cup. The Penan received a bare spoonful, just enough to stun him for a minute or so.
Ellen did not sit down to write the review. She stopped typing after less than fifty words.
Once the review was on the men’s website, they gazed at it with pride and gratitude, though they couldn’t understand a tenth of it. They smiled at the stars: she had awarded them four out of five.
The blue sky gleamed above them like a sharpened razor. The Stewarts and their guide waved goodbye and then they were once again wrapped in the stifling coolness of the jungle. On turning the first bend in the path, they were faced with the same gang of animals, only there were more of them this time: countless deer and swarming pigs, monkeys hopping everywhere, and even an emerald-green snake rearing upright. The animals fled to a safe distance as the Stewarts passed, before reconvening in the path to follow them.
[The Stewarts appeared previously in “Unmann’d by Folly.” Part 2 will take place “by night.”]