While I was thus reminiscing, Tundah had, for 10 minutes or so, been pulling on the starter cords of the outboard engines. They remained lifeless. “Sudah rosak (they are broken down), Tuan,” he said breathlessly, finally admitting defeat. “Fix them,” I ordered, without turning my head. I felt that if I moved it too suddenly it might fall off. Time passed. I heard the odd clunk as Tundah busied himself with the engines.
The sun was coming up above the mangroves and it was getting hot. I was curiously comfortable however under my protective towel, as long as I kept my head absolutely still. “Ta’ boleh, Tuan,” said Tundah at last admitting defeat.
Very slowly and with immense caution I lifted the towel and turned my head. Immediately behind me, in his immaculate well-starched white uniform, sat Ah Chang. He was immersed in his Chinese newspaper. Beyond him was a chilling sight. Tundah, dishevelled and covered with oil, had taken the top off both engines and had dismantled them piece-by-piece into a pile of cogs, gears, springs, levers and pistons.
Had I been thinking clearly, I would not have permitted Tundah to touch the engines. When someone like Ibrahim pulled the starter cord of an outboard engine you knew that it would spring to life immediately. It would not dare do otherwise.
It is my belief that mankind, (and womankind as well, for all I know), can be divided into two distinct groups. There are those who can dominate machines and there are those who are dominated by them. I firmly believe that machines of all kinds can sense in some mysterious way into which of the two groups any individual falls. Tundah and I, alas, both fell into the second group.
Let me illustrate this: Before I was finally transferred from Malaysia to UK, I was sent by Unilever to a business course at the University of Virginia, in an attempt to turn me, in preparation for my promotion to London Office, from a hairy planter into a keen business executive. In Charlottesville I encountered the machinery phenomenon to a marked degree.
Life in the university campus, and probably in every other university in the US, revolved around the ubiquitous vending machines. Coming as I did, straight from life in the jungle, they were a source of wonderment to me, but my fellow students took them for granted. In return for the insertion of a varying number of coins, one’s entire gamut of earthly needs were catered for.
This was at least the theory. For me however, the whole machine culture was a disaster. The vending machines, in some mysterious way, could sense my inexperience and they showed me nothing but contempt.
To obtain my morning newspaper I would stick my quarter into the slot, press the button and wait helplessly for the machine to give a clanking noise followed by a sneering, whirring sound, which indicated that it had consumed my money but now had no intention of disbursing any of its contents. I would stand back and watch abjectly while the next passing American would march up to the machine, slap his quarter into the slot, pick up his paper and stride on, almost without breaking step.
I admired these young Americans for their casual domination of the machine world. They had been brought up from birth in the certain knowledge that vending machines are the servants of mankind. On very rare occasions I saw a machine falter, I noticed that the American concerned would give it a friendly open-handed slap – rather like a rider, lightly chastening a favourite horse. This invariably had the desired effect and the machine delivered up its goods immediately.
On one memorable, scorching Sunday in Charlottesville, on the Fourth of July, all the administrative staff, and all the American executives on the course, had gone home for the holiday. I was the only person in our group to stay on. I put my last coin into a machine on the deserted campus, in the faint hope of getting a cold Coke. Instead I got the usual contemptuous whirring noise.
In a blaze of fury I gave it a savage karate chop just where I had seen my American friends patting it. The machine gave a pathetic whine and began to vomit up cans of Coca-Cola, which spilled out across the ground. A group of young American holiday-makers came round the corner. They were whispering and pointing at me. I slunk off in shame. I felt as if I had beaten a dog in front of a group of RSPCA inspectors.