A Red Book and Carbolic Acid

By: Leila S.Chudori


“It’s sour,” said Suwarto, putting down his glass of orange juice. Marwan was away in a world of his own. He was gazing at the wall, transfixed by the swarms of ants scurrying back to their nests laden with crumbs of bread. He imagined them accumulating all the food and then enjoying a communal meal, the spoils divided equally among them all.

One particular ant was struggling with a big piece of bread. A few of those coming behind him stopped to help, and in an instant the piece of bread was divided into four. Marwan was impressed by their initiative.

“What is it?” said Suwarto, sensing Marwan’s captivation. Marwan didn’t reply. He merely squinted in concentration as he observed the antics of the tiny insects. This was a sure sign that he was miles away, absorbed in his own thoughts. Suwarto bit his lip. He was annoyed, but he didn’t want to disturb Marwan. In fifteen minutes he had to be in the darkroom, finishing off some photographs for the next issue of the magazine. Finally, clearing his throat, he looked meaningfully at his watch. For added effect, he pushed his chair back noisily—a sound that usually grated on Marwan’s nerves. It worked. Marwan glared at him.“Just come around to my place tonight. Go and do your pictures now,” said Marwan shortly, sensing Suwarto’s agitation.

“But if…”

Marwan didn’t hear. He was back in the world of the ants.



Marwan didn’t answer the doorbell when it rang. He lit up a cigarette, and only when it rang a second time yelled out, “Come in!”
Slowly Suwarto pushed open the front door. The first thing he noticed was the overpowering smell of carbolic acid. It made him feel nauseous. It was so strong—Marwan must have used a full can in one hit.

“Come on in, Suwarto!” called Marwan. Suwarto went through to the lounge room. Marwan frowned when he saw the expression on Suwarto’s face.

“What’s the matter?”

“Did something die around here?”


“In the front room… What did you do, use a whole can of carbolic acid in there? Are you off your rocker? Can I open a window?”

Without waiting for a reply, he opened both the windows next to the desk where Marwan was sitting. Marwan didn’t respond. He was enjoying his cigarette.

“There are germs everywhere, Warto, so I have to make sure I’ve always got a supply of carbolic acid on hand. It’s my only weapon against the germs.”

Suwarto looked uneasily at Marwan, his editor-in-chief. His mind was obviously on germs—a special breed of germs, no doubt, not just the common garden variety.

“What are you talking about?”

Marwan didn’t elaborate. He enjoyed making his journalists second-guess him; it drove them all to distraction. But, despite his strange habits, Marwan was widely liked—for his humility, for his common touch (he regularly ate in the canteen with the driver or one of the cadet journalists), for his generosity, for his (albeit sometimes misplaced) idealism. And one other thing they liked about him was that he refused to let anyone call him Sir.

Translated by Pam Allen

(Excerpt from Anthology of Stories: The Longest Kiss, Lontar Foundation, 2013)