An old memory came to me today when Mei and I went cycling in Balik Pulau. After 2 months of being cooped up in our flat, it was great to be once again in that semi-rural part of Penang, cycling past padi fields, rivers and swathes of mangrove, breathing in unpolluted air as the birds swooped around us and the hills framed our view in verdant green.
We’d done a very short ride, easing our long-idle muscles back into cyclic effort. After just under 6 kilometres, we returned to where we’d parked and began to pack the bikes back into the back of the car.
We were in the shade of a few large trees, in a little clearing where a lady usually runs a small drinks stall. The roofless structure from whence she dispensed coconut water and canned drinks belied her true standing in the area - in fact she was the owner of the 14 acres of padi fields on either side of the lane that ran past this little stall. She had horses which she said she had no time to take care of so she had a friend care for them. And every year or so the stall would become deserted when she took off to spend 3-4 months with her family in Australia.
Today the stall was indeed deserted. The Movement Control Order had probably forced its closure. The clearing, though, was a convenient place to park.
On one side of the road, the fields had been planted with fresh padi and a number of workers were busy spraying pesticide. On the other side of the road was Sungai Burung, a narrow canal that lent its name to this area, then more fields. These had not yet been sowed but would soon be, if the tractors churning up the soil in the distance were any indication.
Opening the boot of the car, I spied one of my catapults tucked into a side pocket. I have two - the other lies disassembled at home. An effort to use car inner tubes had failed. Modern tubes are of a synthetic material that does not have the elasticity of rubber.
This catapult, though, was bought complete with sturdy square-section rubber lengths that seemed to do the trick. On an impulse, I took it out and looking down, realised there was gravel aplenty beneath our feet. Picked up a roundish stone, stood on the edge of the road to have a go. Mei wandered over to have a look. I pointed to a piece of wood floating along with the current, took aim, and smacked it loud and hard with a perfect shot.
“Wah…’ said Mei.
Late 70s. Port Dickson. I must have been 13 or 14. We were on holiday with some of our extended family including my good buddy in those days, my cousin Winston, who is a year younger. That seaside town was a favourite school-holiday destination for our families when we were young. The waters were clear then, and the beaches clean. We snorkelled, fished, built sand castles or wandered around picking up shells. We got sunburnt and we gathered memories to last years.
Both Winston and I were pretty good shots with our home-made catapults. The ammunition we used were flung hard and fast when the wound-up force of stretched lorry-inner-tubes was released.
These tubes were carefully cut to a consistent width and length, bound by rubber bands to a leather pouch on one end and the smooth wooden Y of the catapult on the other. When newly assembled, the rubber required great strength to stretch but with repeated pulls they became more pliant.
Winston and I were walking along the beach, picking up rounded pebbles and letting fly at all sorts of targets. For some reason our aim that day had been less than perfect. Unbeknownst to us though, our peregrinations had attracted the attention of some kampung boys who were trailing us, each also armed with a catapult.
Winston and I chatted as we walked, and shot at things rather aimlessly. At one point, I spied the empty shell of a small crab just a few feet from me. I took aim and let fly, only to see my stone bury itself in the sand 6 inches from its target.
As I chastised myself quietly ‘useless…’ a stone whizzed past me at knee height. It smacked right into the crab shell I’d just missed.
Winston and I whirled around and that was the first we saw of the kampung boys, 3 or 4 of them, roughly our age or younger. They wandered over and silently issued a challenge by picking up a stone and placing it on a small rocky outcropping on the edge of the water about 15 feet away.
Still wordlessly we accepted the challenge. Winston went first, his pebble missing by a foot or so. The boys went in turn and all missed, some by not very much. My turn came…
Then I looked down and at my feet was a discarded packet drink carton. To this day I have no idea why I picked it up, walked to the rocks and placed it behind the stone, a further 3 feet back.
The others took turns at the new target and everyone missed. Then came my turn. I picked up a brown pebble, burnished round and smooth by the waves. Placed it in the leather pouch, pulled back on that until the rubber was taut with restrained force. Using the right fork of the Y as a guide, I aimed for a few seconds, breathed out steadied my arms then let go…
The pebble flew fast and straight into the first target, smacking that stone aside then ploughing right on into the drink packet 3 feet further behind, sending that flying off the rock and into the sand below.
For a moment, no one said a thing then I muttered a quiet ‘Yes!’ followed a moment later by the whooping of the kampung boys. They crowded around us and were suddenly all smiles and laughter.
The eldest boy said to me ‘Nak ikut kita? Pergi buru tupai…’ ‘Join us? Let’s hunt squirrels…’ so off we went, suddenly the best of friends.
We didn’t spot any squirrels and eventually Winston and I took our leave. Waved goodby at the boys and headed back to our holiday chalet, still flushed with our little victory. ‘Not bad lah - two hits with one stone…’
We came back from PD that trip each with a huge back of nice round pebbles. At some point thousands of years in the future, some geologist will wonder why that part of PJ is littered with stones that once rested on the bottom of the sea a hundred miles away.
The stones in Sungai Burung probably didn’t come from the sea. They are not round enough and I didn’t hit anything else besides that piece of wood.