Near a village in Borneo there lived a man with a tremendous thirst. I knew him because I lived there at the same time, although I was working in the jungle and he only drew a pension. He was supposed to work too but he never did. He drank. His few coconut trees could go to hell, for all he cared. His was only a small kampong on top of a hill, where he had, years earlier, built his little shack. The coconut trees were yellowish in the dry season, and during the rains they turned green. The coconuts grew in little clumps. Sometimes he had people—Dusens or Bajaos from the neighborhood—knock them down, cut them up, and spread them to dry. He didnt do much himself. He didnt like the odor of the copra drying: perhaps it interfered with the smell or taste of his whiskey or gin or rum, whatever he was drinking. Sometimes he drank Coca-Cola too. When he was on Coke the whole village knew it, and over in the sports club they would have a pool on how long it would last. When he was on Coke he was either mad or very nice, depending on how you found him. But that was not unusual, because when he was drinking whiskey he might be nice or mad too, depending on how you found him. The only real difference was he drove better drunk—or perhaps not better, but more luckily. Whenever I went up to see him I asked him what he was drinking, and made a note of it in my mind. So many days on whiskey. So many on rum. Then Coke. Then gin, or back to whiskey. But he never really told me what he was drinking, I would have to look and see myself. When I asked him, drunk or sober, he would only answer foolishly. I’m drinking the sun, he would say. I’m drinking my sadness. I’m drinking the night.
He was a big man, and a little crazy. He would take out pictures and show them to me.
See this? he said. Know what this is?
An elephant, I said.
No, by god! Not an
elephant! This is the dirty bugger I had to chase in Tawau! All through the filthy scrub, by god. The bastard bloody near killed me.
When was this? I asked.
He waved his hand.
Before your time, he said. Before your time.
He had a picture of the elephant running through a kampong, and another of it taking a village apart. In the end there was a picture of the elephant lying dead, a small gray mountain, and him standing next to it with his big rifle.
That’s me, he said. See that? I killed the beast. Never felt so bad in all my life.
Except maybe now. Hand me that bottle, boy.
What are you drinking? I asked.
I’m drinking the moon, boy. Dont ask stupid questions. I’m drinking the moon down, tonight. Cant let the old lady go by herself. Here, have a glass.
He could easily drink three fifths of whiskey a day. He had whiskey for breakfast, whiskey for lunch, and whiskey for supper. And at tea time too. And always in-between. It was usually Scotch whiskey, because he had a good-sized pension coming in: he had been Resident on the east coast, and I think he had money coming from the Army, too. He had once been held prisoner by the Japanese. That was how he lost his eye. One eye was glass now, and no matter how wildly the good eye rolled about, the glass eye never moved.
The evening he showed me the pictures of the elephant, he also brought out some old snaps of him when he was in the Service. He was young and handsome and dashing. It was only to be expected, I would never have thought otherwise. When young he was a devil, or a bastard, or whatever you wanted to call him. He wore a Guard’s uniform, but I dont remember which one. I dont even remember what rank he held. But he told me he could have been a Brigadier. Could have been a goddamn Brigadier, he said, snarling at the picture. Why in goddamn hell I didnt I’ll never know. Should have stayed on. Dont know why I stayed in this bloody place. To hell with Borneo. But it used to be good, damn you. Before these pissants came along. To him all the new District Officers and Residents were pissants. They were younger than in his day, or seemed younger, and wore white shirts. They were always very polite. I used to see our D.O. and his wife stroll through the market place, smiling at the people. The Assistant D.O. was a Chinese. When independence came, he would probably take over. The would-be Brigadier muttered to me: Goddamn chinks. The Dusens are bad enough, by god, but the chinks are worse.
I dont know if he really meant that, about the Chinese, because his woman was part Chinese and part Dusen or Bajao, I cant remember which. I could never keep the two apart. Dusens and Bajaos. Or Kadazans, as the ones in the towns called themselves. Maybe there were Dyaks, too, and Malays mixed in with them. And there were always a few Filipinos around, some Moslems from the Sulu Archipelago, and some Christians from the islands further north. But the woman was definitely part Chinese, her English had a Chinese cast to it, the words twanged harshly like a tightly stretched wire. And sometimes she cursed him in one of the Chinese languages. Hakka, I think. They mostly spoke Hakka there. Her Malay rose and fell just like her Chinese. When they went at each other there was Malay, Chinese and English all mixed together. She was old and yellowish and thin, but she had a shrieking voice. One night she came in when he was drunker than usual. I had come by to return some books, and borrow some more. He had just gotten word that an old friend of his, a man he'd used to hunt with, years ago, had died in Singapore. He was nearly in tears, so I kept his bottle within reach. Otherwise he would lose it, and go tripping over everything trying to find it again. When he did that he was like an elephant himself. I’m drinking the goddamn night, he told me, I’m drinking the whole goddamn bloody night, that’s what I’m doing, the bastards! The Chinese-Dusen (or Chinese-Bajao) woman came in with packages under her arm.
What you do, you crazy man! she screamed at him.
His good eye was rolling, he had spilled whiskey all over his clothes, and half the room was overturned. He had been searching for whiskey bottles before I came.
What you do, you crazy man! she screamed, dropping her packages. You beast! You goddamn crazy man! Ai! Ai!
Goddamn your yellow hide! he roared. Shut up and leave me in peace, or I’ll skin you like a goddamn cow!
Crazy man! You crazy! she screamed, and snatched at his bottle. He leaped to his feet.
Where’s my rifle! he shouted. Goddamn it, where’s my rifle! I’ll shoot your bloody head off!
Ai! Ai! Ai! she said.
He went blundering around the room, knocking up against the walls so the whole house shook. She ran and darted away from him, screaming at him in Hakka, Malay, and sometimes English. She held his bottle tightly in her hand. Sometimes she used it to taunt him, she laughed in his face and then jumped away before he could grab her. Ai! Ai! Ai! she went. Crazy man! Ai! And he shouted and bellowed and cursed at her, raving about his rifle and what he would do to her. She would be strung over an ant hill. She would be hacked to pieces. He would twist her neck off, and throw her to the dogs. But he couldnt last very long. I didnt dare help him, and I wasnt sure if I should. They quarreled all the time, with never more harm than bruises and scratches. But he was old, and had no wind, and his bulk was too much to carry about. In the end he fell to the floor and lay there panting. The woman poured what was left in the bottle over his face, leering at him. He tried to lick it up with his tongue, but he couldnt even do that. His face was red, and his breath hoarse. Goddamn, he panted. Bitch. Kill you. But he couldnt get up, and then he started moaning. Billy, he said. Billy, you old bastard. Bill. Youre gone, Bill. Goddamn it, it’s all gone, Bill. Billy, you old bastard.
The woman said: Yaaaah! Crazy man! Look at you! Coconut all rot on tree! Ai! Ai! Drink, drink, drink! Who want crazy man like you!
She went into their bedroom and slammed the door. I put a pillow under his head and left. As I went out I could still hear him.
Billy, he moaned. Billy, you old bastard. We’re all gone, Bill. We’re all gone.
NOTES: The Man Who Drank the Night was written in British North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia)
in 1963, and published
in Meanjin, the UCR literary magazine, in about 1976. Like several other of my stories, it is a near-exact recounting of a real event.