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Tuesday, Feb. 07, 2012 - 9:35 p.m.

Note: This version was re-written on 25 Nov 2011, 00:49 am. The original was kept, as a document from 2005

The cruise ship carves through the dark water, up the Gulf of Thailand under a starless glassy sky. There is a man leaning against a railing at the ship’s bow talking into his handphone. He holds up the phone to the air momentarily, with the mouthpiece facing a point above the bow's triangular apex.

Can you hear it, he asks—the blackness of the sea. He talks for a little longer and then wishes his wife goodnight.

Two deck-chairs away, a woman is resting her elbows on the cold metal railing. But she is not looking out at the sky. She is staring at the wake of the ship, the broken patterns of water that once held the ship's reflection. She wonders how well the water holds the memory of the ship after it has passed.

The man and the woman walk past each other on the way back to their cabins. Each body does not know the other. Fragments of the man's conversation with his wife had been chopped up and strewn by the sea wind. Some fell into her ears, but she did not hear them.

The clink of silverware interweaves with the disconsolate cries of children at the breakfast buffet. Holding a plate of quivering scrambled eggs and shiny, oiled sausages, the man looks around the room for an empty seat.

Excuse me, can I sit here, he asks.

The woman looks up, covers her mouth with her hand, and nods. She finishes chewing the rest of the honeydew quickly.
He puts his plate down and turns his neck to call for a waiter, to order some coffee.
As he wonders why a forty-ish woman with a ring on her finger is eating breakfast alone, she asks him, are you a photographer?
He is surprised at her perspicacity, and asks her how she knows.
She takes a sip of tea and smiles—when you turned your head there was a strap of paler skin around the back of your neck.
Then they started talking.
She was right. He was a photographer.
An ad agency was putting together print advertisements for the cruise company, and had sent him out here to take photos of the cruise from Singapore to Phuket.
She says it must be great to take a free holiday, but he shakes his head.
He says this is just for the money. I’ve just turned twenty-five and got married last year.
She says nothing. She knows better than to congratulate him.
To him, her silence was the right answer.
Then she says, ‘You look like the kind, who shoots with a fifty-year old Russian range-finder.’
'You hate digital cameras,' she says.
He nods. He saws the sausage slowly as the morning light glints off their glasses of water.

You look like the kind... He ponders the accuracy of her last statement as he chews on the sausage.

He explained how the digital image was made up of electrons, mercurial and un-reliable, hazy as memories. Any single spinning electron could represent any pixel of light. And that’s not even talking about quantum entanglement. The picture was always changing into something else. But film—the metamorphosis of the silver oxide was permanent—irrevocable. The image then means something.

He preferred travelling alone, to the secret places of the world. The fewer people around him the better. He had discovered this during National Service, when he got separated from his army unit in a Brunei jungle. He wandered the jungle alone for a week until the helicopter found him. I would have stayed in the jungle if the god-damned mosquitoes weren’t so fierce.

After the army, he went travelling for two years. Slept under the Iranian desert sky at Kavir-E-Lut. Tried to bottle the mist at Macchu Picchu. He had gotten lost in abandoned, mining towns in the Andes. Just me, and the quiet of the images.

She says she is envious.
There was a map on the wall of her university dormitory room, with little red pins. They marked the Magicians' slum in Delhi. The Tea-Horse road made of broken stones, that led through the Himalayan clouds into Tibet.

She was going to visit each little red pin after graduation, but that was almost twenty years ago. Then work and marriage came too quickly, and now she has two children. She says it is a terrible thing to know such places exist, and yet never to be able to see them yourself.

There is silence as he thinks of how much he agrees with that. They had each gotten further into the conversation than either had expected.

He finds a way of asking where her husband is: so where are your children?
She says her children were at home with her parents. Her husband's best friend was finally getting married at forty-five, and had decided to have the wedding on the ship. All the men were still hung-over and would only wake up in the evening for more drinking. She shakes her head mockingly, all these post-menopausal men, re-living the lost days of their youth. She surprises herself when she says it to him. You're young, don't ever forget that.

The restaurant empties out, but they keep talking because they realize there is no good way to end this breakfast of strangers. But finally the waiter comes and says that they need to leave.

They walk to the swimming pool just outside the restaurant and he notes that it is water inside the water of the sea. She smiles, and thinks her husband would never have noticed something like that.

When they grow tired of watching the sea, they enter the bookshop, arguing about where to find the best frog porridge in Singapore, and the dialectics of Kodak film.

'You know, I've always thought that I would meet my future wife in a bookshop,' he says. ‘Reading what?’
'Lu Xun. She’d be leaning against a shelf with the book in her hand, and I would say something un-bearably clever.'
She accuses him of elitism, and he replies, saying he would have also accepted any modernist from the North American canon.
How did you meet your husband?
I wish I had met him travelling.
I know. But where did you meet him?
In a supermarket. He ran over my foot with a trolley.
The man laughs.

They enter the empty bubble lift. The casino is two floors down. As the dulled, bronze lift-doors close, he watches their reflections appear like a photograph under the red light in a dark-room. A man, and a woman are standing next to each other. She is looking out the glass at the gambling floor below. When the lift doors open, the reflected rays of light are broken and their image disappears. They walk out and the lift rises, carrying away the memory of the image.

They stroll on the garish purple carpet, past people hunched over baccarat tables and pots of plastic palm trees. She says she never gambles, but she likes to come in here to watch the people who do. She teaches him a game, one that her English professor in university taught her.

Pick an unusual looking person and make up a story about him. The better one wins. It's that simple.
He asks her how they will know which story is better. She says that they will just know.
There, she says, that Chinese man at the blackjack table, the one with all the moles on his face.

It quickly becomes late afternoon, and she needs to attend a dinner in the evening.
He tells her that the cruise ship will anchor at a remote island the next morning for day-trippers. He was going with them to take some photographs of a waterfall—would she like to come? She thinks of the prospect of further conversation with him, and agrees.

Early the next morning, a speed-boat skips over the waves of the diamond sea towards a small island. He can see no buildings on it through the viewfinder of his camera, just a beach and some tree covered hills. She is looking out to sea, shielding her eyes with one hand. As he glances at her, he wonders about the years between them. How much more than him had she lived already? But she is not thinking about years and what all those years contain. She is thinking about the cruise ship behind them, the two of them getting further away from it, leaving, leaving.

They follow the line of sweating bodies on a narrow trail into the jungle. He walks in front of her, pushing aside vines and the big green slaps of banana leaves so that she can have a clear path through the trees. They reach the waterfall after half-an-hour of trekking. It is a small one, about two-storeys high, pouring green, obsidian jungle-water into a fish-less rock pool. She drinks from a mineral water bottle. Some start taking pictures, while others strip off into their swimsuits.

She sits on a huge flat piece of rock by the water and takes off her shoes. The man walks to different points on the edge of the rock pool to frame the waterfall with his camera. He pans the camera around and finds an image of her: her feet in the water, her body arched backwards and propped up by her straightened hands. She is staring at the sky.

He finishes his photographs of the waterfall and sits down next to her. His shoes come off and his feet slide into the water beside hers. He asks her, what is it like to have kids? He says that he fears he will one day look at his child, and realize that he married the wrong person.

She laughs, and says that he would never think that. Each child is so different from his parents. He is a new creature who did not exist before, and one who will never be repeated again. Then what about marrying the wrong person, he asks, how do you know that you've met the one? She thinks for a while, and then says that she has no answer for him.

She has never had conversations like this before. For a while neither of them feels like they need to talk to understand the other, and there is silence between them. There are small rainbow-ed arcs where the drifting mist of water at the waterfall's edge splits the light.

On the speed-boat back to the cruise ship, the man thinks again about years. She is seated in front of him, her hair racing in the wind. A few strands occasionally slice across his cheeks, but he does not move. The black lines of her hair flutter in transient sine-waves and hyperbolic curves, criss-crossing, interweaving, and then drifting apart, like possibilities. He does not move because from this view, the woman in front of him could be anyone—even the twenty-five year old version of herself.

He lifts the camera up from his lap surreptitiously. The lens frames this image of her from behind. An anonymous head of flowing black hair looking out at sea.

He is tempted, but in the end he does not press the button that would open the shutter and expose the silent, waiting frame of film—an action that would permanently capture this light-constructed image of her. His finger hovers over the polished silver button, but it does not move. He puts the camera back onto his lap, feeling like he had been defeated at something. The shutter's folded metal petals remain closed. This un-taken photograph is how he remembers her.

What if he had met this younger version of her? He might have married her. Become a father to two children. But the line of the sea back to the cruise ship was the gradual addition of years back to her life. Though he will never know it, she was thinking of the exact same thing. The unassailable addition of years.

After the ship docks in Phuket, he will never see her again. He walks down the bouncing wooden gangway with five rolls of exposed film in his backpack, and one photograph that he never took.

They were two points on the map of space-time that ended up marrying other people. They will each wonder why they were allowed to meet and talk for three days, and then never to see each other again.

For him, the understanding will arrive one Sunday afternoon weeks later when he is with his wife, walking the circular concrete path around a pond in the Botanic Gardens. He will look out over the pond and then remember the image, of his foot next to hers in the water. Their feet were so close, centimetres apart, but they never touched.

She comes to that memory, and the same epiphany. It unfolds one bright afternoon, as she stands against a cruise ship's railing, watching him walk down the wooden gangway with a backpack slung across his left shoulder. He goes further and further away, and never looks back. She thinks of the image of his foot next to hers, floating in the water. Then, like him, she will realize that their meeting was perfect because the ending was unattainable. It was transient and unfinished, the undeniable way things should be.


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