Train Ride to Malaysia

Alfian Bin Sa'at


Remember us,
on the platform, sitting on luggage
with our Casios and sweaters
playing hand-games, picking flat cigarette butts
and having mother scrub their soot off our fingers
with gruff tissue. Then recall
how we'd grope the bags like birthday gifts,
feeling for snacks, the biscuits you proudly packed.
Then, tugging father's sleeves, you asked:
"Are there cows in Malaysia?". A nod triggered
a glimmer of milk teeth, and you peering at the rails
that stretched into the infinite night. Such moments:
sleepy footsteps, a passing boy's yawn, the water-stained pebbles,
forgave us for what we were,
mistaking the train's hoot for a far-flung moo,
the thresh of its wheels for a clamour of bells.


There was a man, in a PVC jacket,
and shades petalled with fingerprints,
vampiring marlboros, oozing
phantoms. Cheekless and cheerless
he clutched a brown PVC bag
with a yellow-nailed hand as mottled
as the bag. The ring on his finger
gawked at us like the eye
of a crocodile.

There was a woman,
green-eyebrowed, self-permed,
who beat her son for peeling
skin off his lips. When he bawled,
the speckled sores stretched open
and cried like little mouths.

We shrank a little,
but never found it in our hearts
to judge.


You exchanged your seat with mine
because yours could not recline.

You waved at the station-master, expecting nothing,
but he winked back at you.

Hair cream had misted the windows
as passengers coughed and shoved.

Outside, someone's washing rustled
soft against the huddling trees-

a picnic of ghosts. The train hummed
a restless tune, impatient for the first piston-heave.

But we patted the insides of our pockets,
clutching tickets like fireflies.

Published in One Fierce Hour (1998)

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Alfian Bin Sa'at