All Lonely Roads Lead to Old Sembahnang

by Elizabeth Wong

There were roads in Sembahnang that had not felt the hum of
cars in a while. These roads were now cracking apart into hexagons, with weeds
pushing, forcing themselves into broken spaces where hot bitumen was once laid.
Now, the mangrove swamp encroached. No one has used them, not since the flood—no
one, other than runners, scientists, Scout troops on expeditions, and of course,
themselves.

The two of them had spent many a Saturday on the green glass
beach, when they were younger. They took the road Jalan Changkat Beruas that ran
through the artificial rivers and lakes of Mr. Tan’s prawn farm and passed by a
row of makeshift huts—zinc sheets slapped together to form homes for Mr. Tan’s
Burmese workers. The zinc sparkled in the afternoon heat and scorched their
hands when they touched it. And then, the road wound around a cluster of fish
warehouses, where the fish were manually sorted before being carried away to
capital, in shoals of ice in dirty grey styrofoam boxes. In the morning, wooden
boats powered by diesel engines brought in the fish and hoisted their catch
with slings into the warehouses by noon. The two of them would stop at the
warehouses to help with the manual sorting. Big fish goes in one pile, medium
fish goes in another, small fish goes in another, weird fish goes in the weird
fish pile. Their hands, shoes, and clothes would be stained with fish ooze, but
they got a free lunch—packed nasi lemak with a fried egg and anchovy bits.

After their lunch, Jalan Changkat Beruas would take them
further, away from people, to an old railway line that led onward to the beach.
They used to skip unevenly across the wooden sleepers, from one row to another.
Their entire journey took forty-eight minutes one way, according to Kevin,
reading off his black Casio wristwatch with a tiny calculator (he got his watch
when he was eleven for doing well in his exams). If they ran all the way there,
their journey only took twenty-eight minutes. But their return home took much
longer as they walked home carefully: otherwise, the beach glass would break
and they would have gone there with nothing to show for it. Nothing but a
memory of their day—scouring for, selecting, and saving the best pieces of
beach glass.

She had visited the green glass beach only once ever since
she had come back from the capital after finishing university. There was
nothing lonelier than walking on a forty-eight minute trail, once with company,
now by herself.

Nowadays, she spent her Saturdays volunteering at the
Buddhist Children Playgroup (BCP), a ten-minute drive from her home. It was not
a perfect substitute, but the feeling of helping another person could offset
memories, or at least helped her forget. At the very least, she was too busy
handling the kids to think about anything else. Last year, sometime in May, she
and another regular volunteer (it was that woman with the jutting chin, whose
name she could never remember) had taken a group of BCP kids out to the green
glass beach. Bringing lunch, first-aid kits and handphones with them, they
walked the same road that she and Kevin had once walked every Saturday. The
kids spoke too loudly; their blaring voices overwhelmed the whispers of the
mangrove, the sighs of unanswered footprints. When they arrived at the beach,
she explained to the kids where this beach glass comes from, and how they were formed.
She taught them how to choose the best specimens and was horrified when they
collected the flattest ones only to skip them across the water.

She never took them there again or suggested the green glass
beach to anyone else. Her cousin and her ang-moh boyfriend had stopped by
Sembahnang two months ago, as they were doing a grand tour of amazing Malaysia
and wanted to visit a quaint charming place in the rural countryside. Something
not too touristy
, her cousin had requested, and so she pointed them in the
direction of a beach resort twenty minutes away.

At any rate, no one went near the green glass beach unless
they were scientists or foreign tourists. People said that it was haunted, a
“dirty” place. You should shower after you go there to get rid of any evil spirits
that have clung to you. You should never read messages in a bottle, because
that is how spirits try to communicate with you. She didn’t believe in the
superstitions, but she understood their essence, how they came about. There is
something about sitting on the green sand, waves lapping at your toes, the
whole sky unfurling wide-open over you that breeds a belief that there are
things (forces) in the world bigger than you are. Everything that has happened
in the entire history of the world—every death, every flood, every job, every
farewell, every childhood love lost—lingers in the surrounding hills, in the
drowned valley, in the green glass beach. What was she, then? A microscopic
glimmer in a world where nothing ever changes? In many ways, she was comforted
by that realization.

On the day her Ah-ma died, she had found a bottle, washed up
on the beach and hidden in a cluster of phragmites. The bottle was battered,
but there was a message inside, smeared, almost unintelligible. But she could
very nearly make out the top, 1859, which would make it over a hundred and
fifty years old. A hundred and fifty years of floating in the ocean. It seemed
almost meant for her—that she should find it on the day her grandmother died
when all life seemed transient.

She and Kevin had never told their families where they went
on Saturday mornings, because they wouldn’t let them go there. Her mother would
tell her that all these bad spirits would try to find a place in your soul and
control you and you’d never be free.

Looking back, their families had probably let the both of
them do whatever they wanted on Saturdays because they were hoping that they would
fall in love, get married. He is such a nice boy, her father would tell her, so
filial and obedient. Respects his elders. He would make a good husband.

*

They had gone to the beach for the sole reason of collecting
beach glass. Every Saturday, they emptied their backpacks of schoolbooks and
used them to carry beach glass home.

Beach glass is ordinary glassware—beer bottles and glass
jars—that has found its way to the sea. There, it is whipped by waves, and
crushed against rocks and passing ships, before being left behind on beaches
far away from where it came from.

Imagine: you find a seemingly perfect green sphere. It is
the size of a marble; it is sitting on your palm, still. It is the product of
everything, everything (!) that has happened until this very moment: blown in a
glass factory somewhere, used by someone, found its way into the sea, churned
around in storms, washed up on a beach and now picked up by you to sit on your
palm, still. It has seen fish, bits of wood and household rubbish floating in
sea surface eddies, weed.

Crystallographically-speaking, it is unnatural: minerals do
not naturally grow into spheres. Its crystal system is not in the charts.

Microscopically-speaking, it is flawed: glass is a
supercooled liquid with no long-range structures, no symmetry, no order.
Although glass may look solid, it is actually a liquid and can flow at very
slow speeds, unnoticeable to the naked eye. After several millennia, this glass
sphere will have flowed into another shape altogether.

But, in terms of a human lifetime and to human eyes, this glass sphere is perfect.

*

In any case, she hadn’t been back to the green glass beach
ever since she returned— except for that one time with the BPS kids—until one
day in December, when Kevin returned to Sembahnang. He stopped by at her house
three days after he returned, while she was out at work. She called him as soon
as she found out that he had stopped by and asked whether he would like to go
walking the next day, out to the green glass beach.

He said yes, and continued with, “Are you still collecting beach
glass, Min? Do you still have that jar filled with green marbles? Do you still
arrange them by size when you are bored?”

On her dresser was a jar filled with beach glass spheres
that she had collected over the years. Whenever she was bored, she would empty
the jar, arrange them by size and then place them back in, one by one.

“Of course not,” she told Kevin. “Why do you ask?” She
listened to the flat dial tone after he had put the phone down.

The next day Kevin came to her house and they walked on
their forty-eight minute journey on Jalan Changkat Beruas, as always.

“I can’t stay too long at the beach—I’m leaving tomorrow,
and I haven’t yet spoken to my parents about Michelle. They’ve been busy with
the shop and everything for the past three days,” he told her, just as they
started walking.

“What do you have to speak to them about Michelle for?”

“She’s leaving for the Netherlands soon. She just got posted
there on a two-year assignment. You know what happened there, right?”

“No…other than the fact that the one of the princes got
married. The good-looking one,” she told him, smiling a little.

He smiled too. “There goes your dream of becoming a
princess.”

“Yeah, too bad about that.”

“Don’t be too sad,” Kevin poked her with his elbow. “I’m
sure there are other princes you could marry.”

“But all of them are married now. Or too old.” She made a
sad face. “Their families and government and countrymen won’t like it if I
chased off their wives.”

He laughed.

They passed Mr. Tan’s prawn farm, the Burmese workers’ huts,
the fish warehouses, then they came across the old railway line, where they stepped
carefully from one wooden sleeper to another, neither of them energetic enough
to skip as they once had. All around was a bit of raised land, with mangrove
trees fringing the edges. Here was where seas and rivers mingled. Her heart
felt light and heavy at the same time.

“A large storm hit their coast. The floodgates, dikes and
dunes were all breached. The waves reached eight meters high in some places and
flooded at least several low-lying villages,” Kevin said.

“Did anyone die?”

“At least twenty. And thousands evacuated.”

She had not heard about this. She stopped reading the
newspapers a year ago. “Their system was so geotechnically-advanced,” she said.
“I remember the prof. telling us that they have these giant storm surge
barriers to protect their coasts—huge
ones, six to ten meters high. If we have had that here, in Sembahnang, the
flood wouldn’t have happened.”

“It was one of those freak storms, a one-in-fifty-thousand-year
storm. Crazy, isn’t it? You would think, one-in-fifty-thousand-years—what are
the chances of an event like that happening during my lifetime? Zero…except, it
isn’t really zero. It has a one-in-fifty-thousand probability, and it could
happen today, and tomorrow, and the day after, because that is all the number is,
a probability.”

“Probabilities fail when you want them to work the most.”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “Michelle was asked to be a
project manager on their reconstruction project, by protecting whatever
coastline is left, and then to pump out and drain the area. She is flying out there
in three weeks time.”

“Congratulations,” Min said.

*

Fifty years ago, their families used to live in Old
Sembahnang, a town that once lay in the valley. It used to be a swamp, but over
time, the swamp was drained by electric pumps, and protected by a system of wooden
dikes. Old Sembahnang was two—maybe three—meters below sea level, but the sea
was kept out and it stayed dry. During one monsoon season, storm surges
breached the dikes. Several of the barriers broke down. Water from sea and
rivers spread into the town, slowly. “You would have thought that once the
barriers were breached, the whole town would be flooded in an instant,” Min’s Kong-Kong
said. In reality, it took time to drown the entire valley.

There were puddles of water on the roads at first, filling
potholes, then these puddles connected into a murky deluge that swept away
anything left on the ground, kettles on wood-burning stoves, children’s toys,
broken half-cups, a five-hundred word History essay on the fall of Malacca to
the Portuguese with loose ink running off the pages. The residents tried to
carry away whatever they could, grabbing spare fishing boats and stacking them
up high with their things.

There was even one fishing boat that had sunk under the
weight of its load. It was owned by Tauke Chong, who owned the town’s only
sundry store. He was too greedy and tried to pile his entire store in. He
thought he had succeeded in saving everything, up until the very last second, when
the boat gave a last sigh and disappeared under the water. Cans of Milo drifted
away, too beautiful to watch, hundreds of electric green cans bobbing in the
brown murk. Some had even opened to let its contents mix with the seawater. Within
a twenty-meter radius of the sinking boat, you could have had a
chocolate-flavoured Milo drink.

Days passed and the waters kept rising, until you could only
see the tops of houses, and then not even that. Min’s Kong-Kong and family,
like the others, moved into the next town further south and renamed it New
Sembahnang. The dikes were never repaired, nor was Old Sembahnang ever drained.
The mangrove swamp grew between the ghosts of the abandoned town.

Old Sembahnang, transient and fleeting, existed for all of a
generation.

If you were to try to visit Old Sembahnang today, all you
would see are the surrounding hills, the mangrove swamp, the drowned valley,
the green glass beach.

*

As they went along the old railway line, sometimes they
would talk; mostly they would walk with the tips of their fingers occasionally
brushing. She thought she heard footsteps—not hers, not Kevin’s, but a third
person’s, a millisecond or two out of beat with theirs. She looked around
whenever she heard the footsteps, but they would stop just as her head turned.
Eventually, she realized that the footsteps were actually her water-bottle bouncing
off her backpack as she walked.

Suddenly, Kevin threw his head back and laughed to the sky. He
said, “Remember that one time when we found a bottle at sea with a message in
it? We were out at the beach, and it was the day before your grandmother’s
funeral. It was drizzling and I had slipped on the rocks. Remember? We were so
excited. We actually thought it was a hundred and fifty years old.” He laughed
again. “So gullible.”

“Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it a hundred and fifty years old?”

“Min, you trust everyone and everything. The cork is not
airtight. Humidity and salt would have long destroyed the paper. The glass
bottle wouldn’t have survived a hundred and fifty years of being thrown up by
the waves.”

She was disappointed. The dull ache in her heart grew.

“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you must have known. The green
glass factory was flooded just fifty years past, and only the green marbles
have survived to today, because they are smaller than the other pieces. And one
day, those green marbles will be broken up too.”

*

They heard it all the time when they were growing up. Get
married. After all, weren’t they childhood sweethearts, in a way? He kissed her
on her cheek several times, and even a quick peck on the lips, once, when they
were both fifteen and it had seemed like the thing to do at that time. Kevin had
knelt down, clasped her hand to his ear, and mock-proposed to her. She felt
deeply thrilled by his mock proposal, although she took care not to let it
show. But, all this happened in the context of a small town where there was no
one else but them. When they both went to university, in the big capital city, their
shared experiences diverged.

People liked Kevin. At dinner, they came around in groups,
clustering, grouping, wanting to sit next to him. They felt unlucky if they got
a place at the other end of the table, away from him. When he proposed seeing a
movie, everyone wanted to come along. Kevin never walked in the hallways alone.
Third-year students would ask him questions like, “What do you think of today’s
lecture?” followed by a question on what he was doing for lunch. Or, what about
dinner? All of them, the ambitious engineers, the hierarchical computer
programmers, the idealistic humanities students, the cool kids. Even professors
liked speaking to him.

Kevin would ask her to join him at the parties he went to,
only that she inevitably ended up sitting in a corner and sipping at her drink,
slowly, so she would look like she was busy doing something. She observed Kevin
a lot from her corner. He was oblivious that life could be different for other
people; he was always happy, sometimes cruelly so. From time to time, Kevin
would walk up to her and have a private conversation or shout her name from
across the room. Everyone would turn to look at her. She was flustered, but
there was nothing more flattering than being linked to Kevin. Once, as she was
sitting on the couch, watching everyone else dance, Kevin approached her with
another guy whom she knew from her classes.

“Min, meet Heng Lee. Min’s from Sembahnang too,” Kevin said,
before he disappeared into the crowd again.

She panicked—the light was too strong, the voices were too
loud—but then she told herself that Heng Lee was just another person.

“Have we met before?” Heng Lee asked her.

She wanted to say, yes, you borrowed one of my pens during
Structural Design and never returned it. Instead what she said was, “I think
you’re in one of my classes. Structural Design.”

“Seriously? I usually sleep through it. It’s too early in
the morning.”

“Yes. So, where are you from?”

“Bangsar,” he answered. “Not too far from here, not like
Sembahnang, I guess.”

“Yes, Sembahnang is about eight hours away.”

“They make those green marbles, right? That famous green
glass factory.”

“The factory was closed a long time ago. It was destroyed in
a flood.”

She couldn’t think of anything more to say. She sipped at
her drink again and smoothed her skirt. She wished Kevin were here. When she
looked up, Heng Lee was still sitting at the other end of the couch.

“Where are you from, anyway?”

“You already asked that question,” he smiled.

“Oh…ha…that’s right. Yes. What do you think of this party?”

“It’s a nice apartment. We are in Bukit Tunku, after all.
Probably one of the most expensive places to live in capital. Like Kensington
or Chelsea in London.”

Min shook her head. She wasn’t sure what he was referring
to.

“Have you seen the view?” he said.

“No,” she answered. The windows were far from where she
stood, and besides, there were too many people standing by it.

“Come on, I’ll show it to you.” Heng Lee took her hand, and
they walked to the full-length windows. The sixteenth-floor apartment overlooked
the entire skyline, the city pulsing with light. She could see, beneath her,
the capital city, the horizon and the sky of stars beyond.

“Kuala Lumpur,” he said, sweeping his free hand in an arc,
as if unfurling the glittering streets and all of the city’s deepest quietest
secrets.

“I need to go to the toilet now,” she said, and left.

In their final year, Kevin got himself a girlfriend, and her
name was Michelle. When they held hands, it was the most natural thing in the
world.

*

Everything in Old Sembahnang had revolved around the green
glass factory. Before the flood, the green glass factory had produced some of
the world’s finest glassware. They made everything from goblets to pitchers to
vases to art glass to chalices, all in monochromatic gradations of green:
pistachio, jade, lime, forest, olive, emerald, avocado, Lincoln, Nile, sea—and
no other colour. They were especially famous for their green glass marbles.
Each marble looked like little frosted balls of green, covered in scratches—except
when you looked closely, the scratches were actually intricate patterns on the
surface, carved by men like her Kong-Kong. Too expensive to be played with, these
marbles were bought by collectors.

Old Sembahnang would not have existed without the green glass
factory. Min’s Kong-Kong moved to Sembahnang for a job at the green glass
factory, where he learned the skill of carving tiny patterns with a scratcher.
Min’s father had expected to find a job in the green glass factory too.
Schools, clinics, restaurants, hawkers, tailors clustered in the town and Old
Sembahnang grew into a thriving community.

After the flood drowned Sembahnang, the green glass factory
was moved to a large industrial park down south, where they now produce
glassware of many different colours and no marbles. The glassware remnants from
the factory were swept up with the flood, broken up by the waves and thrown up
on the shore. The green marbles kept their sphericity, but their distinctive
patterns were erased with time.

And that is how the green glass beach was formed.

*

They approached the green glass beach and stood, facing the
surrounding hills, the drowned valley. The glass spheres moved around their
feet. There was no one other than them, not even the occasional Saturday
runner. The shuffling noises their feet made echoed throughout, so loud,
unanswered.

She picked up a seemingly-perfect glass sphere from the
ground and cradled it in her palm. “Are you ever going to come back and live in
Sembahnang? Not now, obviously, but sometime in the future. Perhaps when you
retire,” she asked.

“There’s nothing left here, with everyone moving away. No
jobs, not for a civil engineer.”

“So, you’ll be staying in the city then, in Kuala Lumpur?”

“Yes, or another city. Oh, I wanted to ask you whether—”

She cut him off. “It’s beautiful here,” she said, agitated.

Min wanted to tell him that there was nowhere else she would
rather be, that everything in the world is linked to here. When she saw green
glass vases in anonymous street cafes, or on display at a receptionist’s desk,
she was reminded of this place where waves lapped at her toes. Living anywhere
else meant that she would live each day knowing that something important was
missing in her life, something that whispered her name even when she walked
along the busy Petaling Street with people pushing at her elbow, wanting to eat
a bowl of laksa from the most popular street cart. Something that whispered her
name even as the neon signs buzzed in her ear.

She wanted to tell him that the entire history of the world
was contained here, in the miniature pictorial scratches on green glass marbles
that men like her Kong-Kong had carved. But, she didn’t know how to say this to
him, so she repeated herself, “It’s beautiful here.”

“It is beautiful,”
he sighed, “but that’s all it is. There’s no future here—it’s some backwater
place, Min.” Kevin waved a hand at the mangrove swamp, “And I mean it
literally: backwater. The sea’s slowly reclaiming the land, the mangrove swamp
is spreading. New Sembahnang is dying small town. We weren’t meant for anything
more than the glass factory, and even that’s been gone for fifty years.”

“But this makes it worth living here, for now.”

“Ah, Min, the ever hopeful one,” he said, placing an arm around
her shoulders. “Sembahnang is too small for you, and it will only get smaller.
Don’t let changes act on you. No one can give you a destiny to follow. This is
life and it is not a fairy tale; there is no deus ex machina, and there is no prince
that can sweep you off your feet.”

“But isn’t that what love is? Isn’t love a type of deus ex
machina? Love is an unexpected, transformative power that sweeps people off
their feet and makes everything right. Love is a happy ending, a gift of grace
bestowed on two lucky people, where just one kiss makes the world go ‘round.
Isn’t Cupid a god and doesn’t he shoot his bow on two unsuspecting people?
Isn’t it all so random who gets it, this gift?”

Kevin said, “No, that’s not it. Maybe, you could call that an
infatuation. Because love is something you seek and build and create, an
experience that you might be scared of, but push yourself into anyway, nervous,
but excited, because you and the other person could build new worlds. Together
as a whole instead of as imperfect halves, worlds that you could have never
built on your own. It is transformative but the transformation comes from
within, it is not imposed or forced upon the walls of your soul; rather, you break
down your own walls because you want to break them down, even though you don’t
quite know what is out there yet, and even if there is a chance that there is
nothing out there after all.”

He took her hands in his. He said, “Get out of here before
it’s too late, before you drown too.”

She was calmed by the touch of his hands.

They stood there a while longer, before he said, “Well, we
should head back. I need to get back early to talk to my parents about the wedding
and all that,” Kevin said, as he slipped his hands back into his pockets.

“You’re getting married!”

“Well, we were talking about it. It seems a little sudden,
but we thought that it might be good if we got married, so that I could go to
Holland with her. She’ll be there for two years after all.”

The green glass sphere that she was cradling seemed to melt in her hands.


Elizabeth Wong grew up in Malaysia, majored in English and Geology at Yale University, and now lives in London, UK. During the day, she works as a geologist, exploring stories of how the world used to be. She recently completed her first novel, We Are Stardust (longlisted in the Bath Novel Award 2018 and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2019).