by Julian Matthews
I remember when I was eight or nine, dad bundled us children into the Morris Minor 1000 and drove us to Port Klang. We were sending back a distant relative — an uncle with white hair — to Sri Lanka, an uncle my mother never liked hosting. She cursed him under her breath for being a kanjan, a word which even I knew back then meant stingy.
But we kids were excited to see the M.V. Chidambaram, an ocean liner, the size of which, we were told, was “several football fields” in length.
We were in good spirits, trying to pronounce the multisyllabic Chi-dam-bar-am with fake Indian accents and exaggerated headshakes, giggling excitedly like schoolboys did when the ice-cream man showed up outside the school gate; despite knowing that two adults and five children in a car no larger than an oven on wheels — and just as hot without air-conditioning — would stifle us to near-death even before we reached our destination. Unlike the Titanic, I thought, there would be no iceberg to end the suffocating mugginess of being squished like proverbial sardines in a tin can with the added ambiguity of a crowing cockerel on it. Perhaps it too was signalling to be freed from its labelling, as if to say: “No chickens in here, just us sweaty fish!”
(Ironically, the ship Chidambaram, which boasted of air-conditioning, was decommissioned a decade or two later after a fire broke out onboard fatally killing some crew and passengers before limping into a port in India)
The journey to Port Klang was uneventful — maybe we stopped for a fresh coconut respite — but what was memorable was turning the corner and gasping at the sheer size of the ship when it first came into view as dad parked the car. We tumbled out in awe.
By size, it was the closest thing to the Titanic, albeit less grand, but colossal by any measure, even bigger than the Seaview submarine in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a show on our tiny black-and-white TV back then. I wondered, deep within its bowels, if the ship might still contain a Flying Sub that could pop-out and fly, like its name implied, out of the sea and into the sky with the oh-so-cool David Hedison as Captain Crane in the helm.
I remember my paper-folding skills were quite advanced back then and I could make a flying sub, apart from cranes and sampans, from watching Origami With Robert Harbin every Sunday.
Unfortunately, I was not allowed on board, to find the flying sub, although we did get up the gangplank, like pirates off to a raid, only to be shooed away for being too small, or maybe, not fulfilling some height requirement — as while boarding a Ferris wheel at a funfair.
Or, maybe, there were just too many of us and the captain was worried we would cut ourselves with our cutlasses — and fall overboard.
We were reduced to just waving from afar portside to our departing relative — just like at the Subang Airport in the 1970s — but with one exception. I was introduced to the odd tradition of holding onto a roll of toilet paper. Yes, people on board were flinging toilet paper at us, while they held on to one end of the roll, by the ship’s rails.
I was allowed, tentatively by my older siblings, to hold on to a rapidly uncoiling roll as the ship pulled away, making sure it rolled off uniformly — like fishing lines tied to the end of a kite that picks up in the wind — although much more fragile. The slightest tug and it would snap. I held on gingerly until it sped up and reached the roll’s end and, with a final sad tug, did snap. And I watched as other rolls around us snapped, one by one, the ends curling in the wind in almost slow-motion waves signifying the metaphorical link that bound those on land and those on sea were now temporarily cut. With a turn, the giant ship, its foghorn bellowing like a hoarse whale, was gone. We then gathered the remnants of the paper, as I recall, half of it already in the waters, and discarded it at a nearby bin. Or maybe, we were delinquent and just left it. Environmental concerns were not top priority those days.
I was reminded of that tenuous, unfurling link of paper, as we viral-vulnerable humans on spaceship Earth today, hold onto the threads of this unfolding drama before us. Like the ship of those days, Life is floating away, severing our ties to the past and snapping us into a New Norm. Our carefully paper-parcelled lives up to this point, which was always anchored to some reality, even though we indulged in escapist divergences or substance-fuelled partying, are now losing its moorings as days float into weeks and weeks submerge into uncertain months. We are now unravelling like so much toilet paper, untethered from somewhat stable ground, into a surreal journey to unknown ports. Even the onboard entertainment has started to repeat, and the binge-fest of “free” entertainment has lost its novelty.
There is a quiet panic in the pandemic and I-told-you-so environmentalists are tut-tutting like lizards on the ceiling of our caged abodes, as if to say we are now paying for the sins of decades of single-use waste for all those portside farewells.
Hoarding toilet paper is now shamed online and deemed criminal. Even paper money has been dethroned so much so all delivery must be served “contactless” — as if that were even possible. And we must stand a reasonable six feet away from each other, or two meters if you prefer, the 17.12 additional centimetres making all the difference, or microdroplets will kill us.
We risk collapsing social distances through free Zoom-ing screens, even though we knew all along anything free — free lunch, free email, free wi-fi — always came with strings attached.
We connect relatives at new births, or funerals, through Facetime, changing the paradigm from womb-to-tomb to cradle-to-iPhone-to-iPhone-to-grave.
But when you cry, you still cry alone.
All “meetings” are oxymorons, even though the same persons keep showing up. But at least they aren’t breathing the same oxy-gen. In fact, they never did.
Some of us are on the verge of snapping, for real, and yearn for an avenging glove to restore our old masks. We harbour hopes — outdated pre-snap, pre-pandemic, even pre-pubescent beliefs — like nostalgic fools hanging onto false memories, that things would somehow return to the way it was.
But this ship has left the pier. The ground below us has shifted. The shore has permanently changed.
We look to the stars for navigation but they have faded and lost their lustre. Even the moon has paled and gazes at us and sighs. We can never, ever go back in time to fix the broken promises to ourselves — our fragile humanity — and to Mother Earth who hosts us.
Like that distant relative, we are overstaying guests who have lost our welcome.
We can only move forward by paying it forward.
Nature calls, and yes, we’re out of paper.
Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer currently exploring expressing himself in poetry, fiction and essay forms. He is based in Malaysia.
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