Two months after his wife was buried, it was rumored that Akim already had a new girlfriend. His friends were surprised yet happy.
Two weeks ago at 10 in the morning Akim, the boss’ driver, got married. Or remarried, to be more precise, after his wife had died eight months previously. When their second child had been born the doctor told Akim repeatedly that his wife—who was only 28 years old—must not have any more children. There was something wrong with her heart. But she anyway fell pregnant again. The doctor suggested an abortion. Akim didn’t want that. He said that matters of life and death are in the hands of God. One month and some days after their third child was born, having made some palm sugar and coconut pudding for her husband, Akim’s wife fell beside the stove. Her heart had stopped beating. It was over just like that.
All his friends at the office felt sad for him: Akim alone, taking care of three children, one baby not even 40 days old and two other children aged four and two years. But day after day Akim kept smiling as usual. His round cheeks stayed round. His hair, trimmed straight across his eyebrows like a young Adi Bing Slamet, was still trimmed straight across. He still wore a baggy shirt, over-long pants and thick rubber sandals. His friends did ask, “Aren’t you sad, Kim? Your wife leaving you so quickly?”
“Yes I’m sad,” he answered, “but you can’t keep on crying. Crying’s a waste of time. It won’t bring her back.”
Two months after his wife was buried, it was rumored that Akim already had a new girlfriend. His friends were surprised yet happy. Perhaps it was for the best that Akim had so quickly found a new partner. Poor man, without anyone to take care of his motherless children. And now, of course, there was someone to take care of Akim. After they’d been going out for one month, suddenly Akim’s hair style changed and his hair was cut short with a tuft at the front like Tin Tin. His loose clothing, had now been replaced by a tight black t-shirt that perfectly displayed his biceps. His baggy trousers were gone, replaced by jeans. And his thick rubber sandals were swapped for colorful sneakers. His fellow drivers wondered what was up with Akim.
“It was my girlfriend,” he said. “She told me that wearing a shirt was ugly.” He grimaced as he pulled at the neck of the t-shirt that sat taut around his thick neck. The office boy spread the word that Akim’s girlfriend had just finished high school.
Two weeks after the excitement about his tufted hair and tight jeans Akim became news again at the office. He had a new motorbike. The little moped he’d said was too slow and unreliable had been replaced with a Yahama RX King trail bike. His friends told Akim to be careful. Don’t let that RX King ride you! Akim frowned. Annoyed. And day after day all agreed that his hair seemed to be getting higher. His trousers tighter, and his stomach flatter.
“My girlfriend told me to exercise!” he said.
Then came other news: Akim was ready to marry. His friends were surprised and hurried to advise him.
“Kim, think hard if you want to marry. Will she want to take care of the kids? Does she like babies?”
“Eh, what does your mother-in-law say? You got permission yet?”
“Be careful, Kim! Don’t let the children have a mean stepmother!”
“The kids are what’s important, Kim! You come second to them.” Akim said nothing.
Three days after he announced his wedding plans Akim had fresh news. The wedding was off. His wife-to-be had no interest in living with the children from the previous chapter. If they were to marry all the children had to live with their old in-laws. “Well it’s difficult if the kids can’t come too. Better to find another, one who will love them all,” said Akim. His friends applauded him. Akim is great: he knows the children are more important than his own desires.
More than three months passed before the news broke that Akim was being forced to marry his younger sister-in-law. Akim came to the desk of the financial officer, me.
“Ma’am, sorry to disturb you. I want to ask some advice,” he said as his hands twisted the ends of his shirt, which was baggy once more. “I’m confused, Ma’am. My mother-in-law wants me to marry my deceased wife’s younger sister. Just keep it in the family, rather than looking for someone else, who might not even like the children… You see this one already knows them.” His eyes gazed at the floor. I said the proposition was worth considering. You know her, she’s shown she loves the children: all that’s needed is time to develop deeper feelings in the heart.
“But I don’t love her, Ma’am,” replied Akim.
“Ya, you don’t have to marry now. Later, when you do love her,” I suggested.
“But she’s already 25. She’s old!” he said.
“Goodness! Twenty-five is still young, don’t you know!”
“Well for you, already in your fifties, she seems young. For me?”
“You’re crazy, Kim! What age do you want? A 12-year-old? The one you had the other day didn’t want to take care of the children. What would happen with an even younger one? Your children will suffer later!” Displeased, Akim’s mouth pursed instantly.
“Kim, you’re a father. Think about your children. Right now, they’re who you have to put first. This is what’s called knowing your priorities, Kim.”
Akim stayed silent.
“You’re free to dislike my words. But it was you who asked. If it doesn’t suit you, well no need to follow my advice.”
Akim’s mouth remained pursed. When he felt I had said enough, he stood up, mumbled a thank you, excused himself and closed the door behind him.
One week after the ‘advice’ session, Akim spread the news that he had a new girlfriend. More beautiful and a little more mature than the most recent one. A student at a computer academy, aged 22. His friends, once again, reminded him about the children. Akim—whose hairstyle now resembled the vocalist from the pop group Radja —said everything was taken care of. All was safe and sound.
Last month Akim was back before me again. His face was crumpled. The RX King motorbike that he’d used as a magnet for his first girlfriend, was now parked at his friend’s place: the friend was certainly happy to be riding it. Akim had pawned it to his friend.
“What for, Kim?”
“I needed the cash, Ma’am.”
“Was it much?”
“Two million, Ma’am.”
“Oh, what for?”
“Well Nengsih [the name of his girlfriend], asked me to buy her a camera phone, like her friends have.”
“And what’s the problem now?”
“I want to borrow money from you to get the bike back. If I don’t use the bike, I’m always late at the office, see? Catching three different rides, traffic jams. And it’s a heavy cost, Ma’am.”
“Why don’t you just borrow it directly from our Boss Lady?”
“I can’t, Ma’am. I’ll be told off again. It’s such a headache!”
Then he told me how when he wanted to buy the RX King, the Boss had already offered to buy him a small four horsepower bike. For free. But Akim knocked her back completely. He just wanted an RX King. Rejected like that, the Boss was offended. Now he was too embarrassed to borrow money from the Boss.
“I’m sorry Kim, I can’t lend you that money. You already owe a lot to the office. How many times have you asked for advances. If your wages keep getting cut you could end up with no take-home money.”
“I’ll just borrow from you. Please help with a little, Ma’am? My money’s spent on paying off the bike and pawn installments.” I shook my head, refusing Akim’s request. He got up from his chair. Without turning around, he left the room.
Well, yes, two weeks ago Akim got married. The Boss Lady was only told that her driver was getting married on the Saturday before the wedding. He didn’t invite any of us to come. On Monday the office boy who used to keep Akim company arrived with a story: that on his big day Akim had paid for a dangdut band to perform at the wedding. Unfortunately, said the office boy, no one had been able to sway to the beat of the band with its shapely all-female singers. Once the instruments had been taken off the truck, the village security forces arrived. Everything had to put back on the truck again; the band was not allowed to continue. Akim had forgotten to take care of the public disturbance permit in his wife’s kampong. But the marriage and the feast were allowed to go on. Songs flowed from the tape player and speakers borrowed from a neighbor.
On Thursday Akim did not come to the office; he said he needed to be with his wife, who was feeling unwell. The next day Akim still did not appear.
The Boss’ secretary rang Akim’s cell phone. His new wife’s older sister answered. She said she hoped they would understand that Akim had to stay longer at home, because he’d been forbidden to leave by his beloved wife who was still filled with longing. They wanted to enjoy their honeymoon a little more. The secretary lost her temper. The boss’ driver had already agreed that his leave for his second marriage would only amount to three days, so he had to show up on the date he’d agreed. The new wife’s older sister was startled: “Akim works as a driver? How can that be?”
“He’s a salesman in an import export company, Madam!” said the secretary as she imitated the outraged sister-in-law: Akim had claimed to be a childless widower whose wife had died. The secretary who had never in her life been known to apply the brakes when spreading around the news of anyone’s private life, immediately gave a full account to the person holding the phone at the other end: Akim, who had just married her younger sister, actually had three children. One of them was still a baby. Where they were now, the secretary did not know. The call cut out.
Today Akim came to the office with lank, greasy hair. Once again he wore a baggy shirt and over-long trousers. His face was crumpled. Akim no longer lives in the same house as his new wife. We heard he’d been told to stay away by his wife; she’d asked for a quick divorce. When he returned to the house of his old in-laws, he was not received. Akim had given up his rights to the three children when his girlfriend asked him to marry her. Tonight, and for the next several nights—who knows till when—Akim will sleep at the office.
Reda Gaudiamo was born in Surabaya in 1962. Working in the corporate communications sector, she is a leading Indonesian magazine editor and publisher, as well as a prolific writer of short stories. She is also known for singing the poems of Sapardi Djoko Damono and setting them to music; she has released two CDs: Gadis Kecil (Little Girl) and Becoming Dew.