Lost In Malaysia

SJ Naudé

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

Daniel tends to avoid the southern suburbs of the city. To his mind, everything there is dank and mouldy. Of late, however, in the last few months, he’s had to spend many a day and night in Constantia to assist his father in his period of decline. It started abruptly, the deterioration: there was a fall, an operation, a memory apparently wiped clean overnight, a visit to a neurologist, an image of atrophy in the parts of the brain governing memory and spatial orientation.

The last time Daniel spoke to his sister, she said: Why don’t you go and live with him? You have the freedom and the flexibility, don’t you? Which is to say: unlike me, with my sacred duty as wife and mother to succour my blonde children and my surgeon husband—the guarantor of my custom-tailored existence—you have no obligation to anybody. Now do what you have to, you who have begotten no offspring, who have no real profession nor spouse, who owe your freewheeling lifestyle to your father’s finances. Our debilitated father is yours till he dies. She lives with her husband in a residential estate outside Paarl, a place with cluster-huddled houses, man-made ponds, a polo field, a distant view of mountains, and the silence of a psychiatric ward. She is also blonde, his sister. Her teeth are whiter than clouds.

He locks up the house that his father will never see again. The place, spacious enough to house three families, nowadays bears the scars of scanty maintenance: a gutter coming unstuck, weeds forging their way through paving. That’s how it will have to remain until the estate is being administered and every fixed asset or those manifesting as entries in the databases of investment firms have been liquidated. And if somebody wants to force a window to bed down in the sitting room or have a morning bath in the swimming pool, nobody will stop them.

Daniel hesitates, turns back. He unlocks the front door again, leaves it like that.

They follow the mountain’s sinuosities to the city. Daniel drives much too fast. His father lies back; below them the city and harbour dissolve in a wash of light. At his apartment block in Tamboerskloof he drives into the garage. Mercifully, there is a lift, and even though his father digs his fingers into Daniel’s upper arm, he can walk on his own. He settles his father in the second bedroom, with its view of Lion’s Head. He unpacks the suitcase that he packed for his father twenty minutes ago on the other side of the mountain. Enough to last him from laundry day to laundry day, and to the end of his days: seven pairs of socks, seven pairs of underpants, seven handkerchiefs, seven pairs of trousers, seven shirts. A jersey and a jacket. One pair of shoes.    

So now his father is living with him, here against this slope overlooking the city. And in this little bedroom is the last mattress that he will ever sleep on, surely, the last wardrobe door that he will open, the last bedside lamp that he will switch on.



Their routine starts to take shape, with few variations. His father generally wakes up early, takes a seat at the kitchen table, waits for cornflakes. Patiently. In the early stages of his dementia diagnosis, and when he started taking his neurological medication, he was racked with anxiety. He was seized with a great sense of urgency: by means of endless lists, on which items were systematically scored through, he tried to order the disordered catalogue of consciousness, tried to reprogramme the corrupt databases. He started phoning Daniel, with whom he would normally have spoken at most twice or three times a year, a dozen times a day to ask the same questions—about his investments, his bank accounts, the service intervals of his car (which he no longer drives), his doctor’s appointments. Questions that Daniel could only start answering once he had brought himself up to date on his father’s affairs and taken charge of them. But now his father is meekly eating cornflakes with milk, perhaps with a banana, perhaps a bit of tea. Shortly after breakfast he wants to go out, sit down somewhere for coffee. Then they return so that he can have his rest. Sometimes they vary the routine, have breakfast somewhere else. Lunch is generally at home. And after lunch they wait (in vain) for the heat to abate, take another walk, once again find coffee somewhere.

They have their morning coffee while the rest of the city is gearing up—in tower blocks magnetic strips are swiped to slide open office doors, computers are zoomed into life, faces are turned towards air conditioners. His father says nothing, drinks his coffee. Their time together is marked by boundless silences. There is a veil of mist separating his father from the world, and the two of them from each other. When Daniel asks his father how he’s feeling, he first has to reflect for a long time, then points vaguely at his forehead, mutters something about pressure, about dimness, about rain clouds. Even though the sky above is deep blue.

Back in the flat Daniel plays music for his father. Every day he wants to listen to the same list—Baroque favourites. Daniel streams it on his television—a sophisticated set that somebody set up for him, with a small sub-device synchronised with his iPhone. He controls the music from his phone, makes the items play in random order. He sits down at the dining room table without looking at his father on the sofa. He flips open his computer, tries to write.



A while after lunch—bread and fruit, of which his father eats hardly any—they take another walk in the heat hanging motionless over the city bowl. They stop for coffee as usual. When they are seated like that, facing each other, his father becomes apologetic, as if now feeling compelled to a modicum of interaction. ‘I’m sorry I’m such bad company,’ he says. ‘And oh, I really don’t want to be a burden to my children in my old age.’

‘That’s nothing,’ Daniel hears himself say. ‘And it’s no burden. All that’s important is that we’re here together.’ In fact he wants to get up and walk away, abandon his father here. Not back to the flat, but taking a shortcut up Signal Hill, past Lion’s Head, up Table Mountain. As far as he can go. Without looking down once at the lone figure seated down there at the little table for two.

Without planning to do so, he starts telling his father about a former relationship in London. Even though his father still recognises his children, there’s hardly a trace of memory left. Admittedly, what his father would previously have known about Daniel doesn’t amount to much; there was very little information there to shrivel away with the cerebral tissue. In at least a dozen years they have never discussed a single aspect of each other’s personal lives. His father would have known that Daniel was commuting at irregular intervals between London and Cape Town, that he sometimes penned bits of political and cultural journalism for British and South African newspapers, that he wrote fiction in the intervals. A peculiar kind of pastime for someone who, like his father the investment banker, spent his working life in the world of financial power-brokering. Years ago, when his father’s approval still counted for something, Daniel worked as a management consultant in London. Of the shape of the life he’s leading nowadays, his father would not have an inkling. Especially not his personal life.

What Daniel recounts now, he does because he knows his father will have forgotten it within an hour or two. And perhaps also to break the silence. It’s a fragment of the story of an old relationship. ‘I must tell you about Eamon, Dad. One of my ex-lovers up there in the North. An Irishman. Four years ago he moved in with me in London, and about eleven months later moved back to Dublin.’ His father just smiles. Daniel delves into the details of a trip he took with Eamon. Why Daniel should select this particular fragment he couldn’t say. He tells about their week in Eastern Ireland, where Eamon grew up. He observes his father’s frozen smile and blurred eyes while describing the Irish landscapes in detail. Then he tells about his and Eamon’s mornings in a poky guesthouse, adorned with Irish kitsch for the streams of American tourists travelling there to recover their family roots. He looks straight at his father while expatiating on the almost unbearable delight he and Eamon took in each other’s bodies in the mornings, there amidst shamrocks and grinning green leprechauns, while the sun rose over the Irish Sea.

He regards the passive figure facing him, the vacuous smile. He wants to grab hold of his father and shake him, shock his brain into action.


Today his father rests after lunch instead of going for a walk. The heat gets ever fiercer, a protracted heat wave is predicted. Daniel stands in the passage, where it’s coolest. He looks at the laptop on the dining table, at the sleeping screen. The old resistance has to be overcome. He can’t evade immersing himself in the discomfort. He must make his peace with the inexorability of that which has to be written, with its unbearable incompleteness. The importunity of stories, Daniel thinks—this urge—will one day be his downfall.


Sometimes, in the evenings, his father has a surprisingly lucid interval. It happens an hour or so after taking his medication, including a potent sleeping pill that’s supposed to knock him out. The first time it happens it comes as a shock to Daniel. It’s as if a ghost from the past is visiting him, here above the shimmering city and bay. His father is in bed already, but suddenly wants to talk. He is full of life and gestures. He makes recommendations about the managements of his assets, utters insights into recent political events—evidently he does absorb facts while paging, apparently unseeing, through newspapers in the morning. Somewhere information is temporarily stored, until a curtain opens at a chink and the brain can process it. And he descants on the past, on aspects of his own life that mainly exclude Daniel, such as his professional life and journeys, or, in a gentler voice, on Daniel’s late mother. Then also on his grandchildren, the surgeon’s well-fed spawn somewhere near Paarl. He doesn’t mention, as must also surely come home to him in these moments, that he hasn’t seen these very children, or his daughter, in months.

At such times Daniel is struck dumb, his throat constricted. Is this his father of two decades ago being resurrected here before him? Or of six months ago? It unnerves him, this indeterminacy. Who is the man in this bed? Daniel feels as if everything he could now bring himself to say would be a secret betrayed, as if it could all be held against him. He experiences a kind of shame, guards against every word. His father steams ahead, unburdens his heart—cognitively and emotionally he is suddenly present, intellectually primed. Once again some or other former self. With abhorrence Daniel regards the man hoisting himself further and further out of the pillows, higher and higher against the headboard as his confidence burgeons. He registers his father’s own amazement at the clear stream of water rinsing his thoughts, at the sun shining in where for a long time it has not been.

 ‘Go to sleep now, Dad, you’ve long since had your sleeping pill.’

There is even a glimmer of humour: ‘So you just want to be rid of me, don’t you? Now that at last we can talk face-to-face.’ His father regards him with a knowing smile. You would think it had all been a show, the day’s disorientation. That this is his true father, one who devotes what remains of his life to playing a tedious trick on his recalcitrant son. Teaching him a lesson. There sits the older man: he gesticulates while talking, his voice excited, his sentences complete, his face animated.

But when his father appears in the kitchen the next morning in a state of confusion, the morning sun in his tousled hair, and asks ‘Where are we now?’, searching all over the rooms in which he’s convinced he’s never been before, then one realises in a flash that the bewilderment couldn’t possibly have been an affectation.



They’re in a dreary breakfast venue on the lower slopes of Signal Hill. His father says nothing, just sits, now and again touches his head. He is not totally absent: when Daniel speaks, he smiles, says something polite and vacuous in response. He inspects his father’s face. How do you make sense of the uneven course of the emptying of the mind, the way in which you cannot at any time judge with accuracy what is being ingested or processed?

The dimmer his father’s presence, and the vaguer his little smile, the more freely Daniel can talk. He expatiates on the theme of the series of failed relationships in London. The accounts get more and more intimate. It’s your fault! He wants to excoriate his father out of the blue, just after dwelling in detail on the Brit who also lived with him for a while. Josh—an architect, slightly built, Jewish, a decade younger than Daniel. That’s to say until Josh one evening after an argument shook his head and said: ‘What’s wrong with you isn’t anything I—and I daresay anybody —could fix.’ Then he walked out of the front door and never returned.

And, when his father says nothing, Daniel continues, tells of another one—the German with the tattoos on his hands and neck. ‘You wouldn’t have approved of him, Dad, that lover of mine. He worked as a ticket seller at the National Portrait Gallery. Udo was his name. And I don’t exactly know what went wrong there. When I think back to him, to Udo, then I think of our long weekend away in Devon. We went for a walk in a light spring shower. In a field blue with crocuses and harebells. Under some birch trees we stopped, chest to chest, and locked our hands around each other’s wrists. I thought, this is something now, or the beginning of something. A powerful current flowed between us. I could feel it. In my blood. And then, after the weekend, I never heard a word from him again.’

He looks into his father’s eyes, tries to locate something. ‘No wait, Dad, let me amend my previous statement. There is no lover that you would have approved of.’

His father makes a face, touches his forehead. ‘There’s so much pressure here,’ he says. ‘As if my head wants to explode.’


This time he has made his father walk a long way. They are sitting in a coffee shop in lower Higgovale. ‘Tell me news about yourself.’ His father smiles while talking—encouraging, kindly, replete with incomprehension. ‘How are you getting on, for instance, with your writing?’

Daniel is taken aback. On the one hand because his father remembers that he writes, but even more so because he is asking Daniel about it for the first time ever. Now that the synaptic sparks misfire so fitfully.

Daniel ignores the question. He starts telling another London tale, of two Serbians he befriended earlier that year. He tells of his meeting the two—Oliver and Jugo—in a museum. At a retrospective of Agnes Martin, the American minimalist. He tells how they became friends, how they moved in with him in his flat in Borough. His father’s smile vanishes.

‘It’s a different story, that,’ his father says, shaking his head, ‘from what I want to hear.’

‘Perhaps it is,’ says Daniel. ‘But I want to force it in here. Or rather, it insists on forming part of our conversations.’ The more his father forgets, the more Daniel wants to remember. And he wants to make his father know that he remembers.

His father gets to his feet abruptly, starts tottering away. Daniel pays the bill, follows.


Early evening, dusk. The moon rises, a sluggish gravid ball. Behind Daniel the baroque music is playing to his father, who is sitting on the sofa with his head thrown back, only half alive. Daniel himself is leaning over the balcony’s glass balustrade. His life—so delicately balanced between two countries, he thinks, makes it possible to approach South Africa as a stranger. No, as somebody from another planet. To observe everything as if from a space ship. He can write and expound on the politics here, stay attuned to its finest nuance, but he need never get close to it. And that’s what the lights look like tonight, like something contemplated from a great distance. And yet, should he extend an arm, he could touch the face of the city with his fingers. He keeps his hands in his pockets.

His father is awake, walks out onto the balcony. He doesn’t gaze out over the wide expanse of lights, but up at the neo-modernist cubes against Signal Hill.

‘The language of rain,’ his father says. Daniel sniffs the air. It’s warm and bone dry. His father now turns, facing the city’s silver glow. ‘Look how the landscapes of glass glitter,’ he says. ‘The evening is upon is.’

Indeed, Daniel thinks, here it is—the respite of darkness in this town that he finds so depressing. So over-illuminated, so overwhelmed with sun: city of guileless, languid joys, of cocktails and damp swimming trunks, of joggers on mountainsides.

The music still playing indoors spreads a suave sheet over the buildings beneath them. Daniel closes his eyes, tunes in to the dusk, to the soothing undertone of seaweed in the whiff of night. Beneath his feet the balcony floor is still lukewarm. When he opens his eyes, his father has sat down inside once more. Daniel sits down next to him, the balcony door still ajar. The television’s screensaver is showing cities from the air while the baroque music plays on: at the moment it’s Los Angeles, City of Angels, segueing past ceremonially. A nub of freeways, processions of cars in slow motion.

‘Where are we now?’ his father suddenly demands loudly.

‘My flat.’ Daniel speaks softly. The screensaver has now segued to Dubai’s desert towers with their rooftop swimming pools. An ex of Daniel’s who had lived in Dubai for a while once told him that the desert air warmed the swimming pools so much that the water had to be cooled electrically to refresh the swimmers. Another story for a coffee session, the one about the Dubai ex.

‘Yes, but which country?’

‘It doesn’t matter, Dad. This country, that country . . . Or rather, your instinct is spot-on. Here is as good as nowhere. For you, but also for me.’ Daniel grins. ‘That’s the one thing we have in common.’ Here they are then—stranded together on their elevated platform, above the cool shimmer of an amorphous city.

Daniel thinks how he told the neurologist about the lucid intervals his father sometimes experiences (he didn’t add that the lucid father was more of a stranger the than the befuddled one). The doctor was sceptical. Whatever the case, tonight is not one of those nights. His father is amiably obtuse, his face adorned with a feeble-minded smirk.

Daniel gives his father his medicine, withdraws into his own room. He switches on the ceiling fan, lies down naked on his back. He dozes off as if slipping into one of Dubai’s chilled rooftop swimming pools.



The pressure in his father’s head intensifies. Exponentially, it seems to Daniel, an unsettling progression. And he eats less and less, baby food by now: mashed banana, yoghurt, pawpaw, oatmeal porridge, rooibos tea with honey. On the television newscast his father watches an item about a train conductor in Kalk Bay who was stabbed in the head with a knife by a passenger. His father’s hands involuntarily find his own head. ‘I could swear,’ he declares, ‘I have a blade in my skull.’   

Once again Daniel takes his father to the neurologist, who speculates that, apart from atrophy, there may also be a building up of fluid in the brain. They do balancing tests—they make him stand with eyes closed, push him to see if he falls over, then catch him when it happens. They also do a memory test. One aspect of this involves reading his father a random name and address to reproduce ten minutes later. Harry Barnes, 10 Orchards Close, Kingsbridge, Devon (It must be a British test). When the occupational therapist asks his father, after a series of other tests, to recall the address, he looks at Daniel forlornly. He could whisper something, relieve his father’s bewilderment and humiliation. His father’s gaze becomes a plea; Daniel’s lips remain sealed.

Back home they lapse more or less into the familiar routine. On the television, while Dido’s lament from Purcell’s opera is playing, the standby screen once again shows aerial views of cities. Hong Kong reflecting in its own black bay, Dubai’s glass towers with their sky-high swimming pools.

They find themselves in the late afternoon in a coffee shop, high up, in one of Tamboerskloof’s quaint Victorian streets. There is nothing, Daniel thinks, that he cannot tell his father. All obstacles have been dispelled. The psychic space between the two of them is like a salt pan in a desert. White and flat and almost frictionless. Nevertheless Daniel does not utter a word today.

Teaspoons clink against saucers. His father points out birds pecking at crumbs on the pavement. On the way back his father is withdrawn, as if combatting the discomfort in his skull demands all his energy. He walks as if unseeing, two fingers to his temple, one foot in front of the other. Suddenly he stops and points at a power line. Dozens of pigeons are perched there. ‘Those are carrier pigeons,’ he says. ‘Who knows to which planets they’ll carry their messages.’

Shortly after they reach home, an Egyptian goose skirls, one of a breeding pair that has settled in the swimming pool of the school across the way. His father flickers up, hurries to the window, hypnotised by the birds down there. He seems to have eyes only for winged creatures now, big and small. He looks up, slits his eyes, scans the sky in vain for flocks.


The neurologist books Daniel’s father for a lumbar puncture. He is admitted to a former Catholic hospital in the southern suburbs. There are still empty niches here and there where effigies of the Madonna must have stood; a cross is hewn in stone above an entrance, the wards still bear the names of saints. But the habits of nursing nuns no longer swish down the corridors, the institution now resorts under one of the big hospital groups, has been corporately sterilised. He sits reading next to his father’s bed. They wait; the hours pass. The doctor is dealing with an emergency in intensive care, says the nurse. Daniel and his father are instructed to wait. And to wait.

There is one other patient in the ward, a tall, thin man with one blood-red eye. When Daniel sees him for the first time, it looks like an empty socket. Daniel quickly averts his gaze. When he glances back surreptitiously, he sees that the eyeball is there after all, but severely bloodshot.

They come to collect his father for an electro-encephalogram. The technician drapes a handful of wires over his father’s head, wiggles the wires into a node over his forehead. The wires trail from the back of his head like seaweed. On the technician’s screen graph lines throb in febrile patterns. Now and then there’s a sudden simultaneous trough in the striations. The technician shakes her head. ‘I’m getting such a lot of artefact today along with the impedance,’ she says, as if Daniel should understand what she means.

His father turns his head, points at the screen. ‘Does it measure the flight of electric birds? Of robot flocks?’ Some of the electrodes drop off. The technician shakes her head, replaces his arm on the bed, tells him to lie still. She gets up and repositions a handful of electrodes, repeats her measurements.

The electrodes are removed. His father is returned to the ward. The patient next to him, with the blood-red eye, has constant visitors—there is an endless rotation of physiotherapists, occupational therapists, neurologists, ophthalmologists. Each is treated to the poor man’s story: he is a commercial pilot. Six weeks ago he was in Malaysia for a few days, where he was attacked in the street and left for dead. A Good Samaritan took him to hospital. He was unconscious for three days and then in hospital for five weeks. He had broken bones in his face, cuts and bruises everywhere, as well as cerebral haemorrhage. He remembers nothing of the incident, and only part of the stay in the hospital afterwards. His flying licence was automatically suspended on account of his injuries; now he has to try to get it back. Hence all the tests. The therapists and specialists keep circling, each with his own test or examination. Each with a file or clipboard in his hand. Frequently the curtain around the bed is drawn, according to a slightly different ritual. Time and again the story is repeated, each time with the memory lapse at the centre. The same occupational therapist who assisted Daniel’s father comes to administer a cognitive and memory test on the former pilot, asks the same questions. His father lies with closed eyes; Daniel mutters the answers under his breath: a list of words starting with ‘p’ (‘peacock, pink, pad’), nouns to repeat (‘lemon, key, ball’), the address of the Brit in Devon that has to be regurgitated at the end of the test. The man with the red eye gets few of the answers right, remembers hardly anything. Daniel bites his lip, has to shut himself up.

‘He’s not going to fly again,’ Daniel’s father announces loudly, without opening his eyes. Daniel startles. He was under the impression that his father was asleep, or at least dozing. From behind the curtain there is a few moments’ shocked silence, before the occupational therapist hesitantly proceeds with the test. The ex-pilot now speaks more softly; his answers are even more desperate.



The neurologist at last pays a late-night visit to his father’s bed. He makes the octogenarian curl up, knees drawn up, reduced to a foetus. Then the doctor pushes a thick needle into his lower back. The cerebral fluid surges up into a pipette; the meniscus indicates pressure. Then the doctor drains off several flasks.

‘Nice and clear,’ the doctor says. ‘A good sign.’

Daniel drives home, goes to bed in his flat on the other side of the mountain. He considers letting his sister know, in her soundless white house near Paarl, that their father is in hospital. No, he thinks, he won’t disturb her. Such a friable existence, one so effectively excluding the world of raw experience, should not be unsettled. His sister would certainly prefer him simply to evanesce, their father, to vanish into the ether without this bothersome process of corporeal dissolution. She sees to it, in any case, that she does not have to witness the disintegration. Let them rest, Daniel decides, his sister and her husband, there next to Paarl. Let the mountain breezes breathe fresh air over her and her husband’s sleeping bodies.


The following morning there are two visitors for the ex-pilot whose life was destroyed one evening in the Far East. Apparently his parents. They draw the curtain around his bed. Daniel is sitting next to his own father’s bed, a book in hand. Though he can’t help listening to the muffled conversation. Nurses are chattering in the corridor. Cleaners laugh somewhere. He overhears only floating fragments of the conversation.

‘. . . how they found you . . . three weeks . . . ’, says the pilot’s mother.

‘I only remember from about week four or so,’ says the pilot. A sentence or two is lost in the hubbub.

Scraps of the maternal voice: ‘Nothing on Facebook. It was . . . She let us know there was a website. Only when we posted a message and your photo . . . the hospital’s name. Then we contacted your airline . . . let us fly across. . . First the hotel, only your toothbrush lying there, your flight uniform. Neatly laid out for your flight back . . . Pair of clean socks.’ She is sobbing now. ‘. . . and then to the hospital.’

‘Which website?’

A cleaner laughs uproariously in the corridor, a sister (perhaps one of the last remaining nuns?) silences her. ‘On lostinmalaysia.com,’ says the pilot’s mother, ‘. . . went through strings of names . . . without it we would perhaps still be looking. Nobody could get an address or names from you . . . And at last, at last, they found you there: in a white bed in a hospital in Malaysia.’ The nurses and cleaners are silent now, as if listening. ‘With three broken bones in your face and bleeding in your brain.’ The woman sobs when she says ‘brain’.

‘But now,’ declares the pilot, ‘everything is fine again. Just the last few tests.’

Daniel’s father wants to get up, take a walk in the hospital gardens. Daniel takes him by the arm, steadies him, walks with him to prevent him getting lost somewhere among the shrubs. As his father sits down on a bench and looks up, he says: ‘Where are they? I can feel the wings.’

translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns

Click here to read an essay by SJ Naudé on self-translating his book, The Alphabet of birds, from the Winter 2015 issue.