Celina sat on her penthouse balcony and watched the city below shudder and splutter its way into the working day. If she craned her neck and squeezed her eyes she could see the shapes of tiny creatures cramming the roadsides, fighting each other to get on the new busway elevated above Jalan Sudirman. The death toll was rising daily, she’d heard, as people anxious to get to work on time, slipped between the platform edge and the bus door, and fell into the slow traffic lava flow beneath. Splurt! Flattened like unfortunate frogs under silver wagon wheels carrying their owners to lunch in a new mega mall half a day’s drive from their leafy homes. And while ibu-ibu sipped jasmine tea at a new-found exclusive seafood restaurant with views across a formerly ‘down at heel’ end of town, drivers would be busy down in the car park cleaning off the splatter and making the duco look like new.
‘Don’t worry, real estate prices will be hitting the roof over there in no time,’ Celina remembered her father’s fat friend announce as they chatted in his study high above the clouds – the same man she heard tell about the unavoidable accidents on the busway. ‘And all the scum will get marched out of there quick smart,’ he continued on, ‘they’ll round them up in buses, lure them in with a box lunch and new t-shirt and drop them in the countryside near a local garbage dump where they can live well on the pickings and be kept warm at night by the smouldering rubbish burn. It’s much healthier for them out there in that clean country air.’
‘Ssh’ her father had motioned to him, as Celina brought in their morning coffee. He didn’t like her to eavesdrop on his conversations with old colleagues from Down Below. After she left the room the old developer chuckled and clapped his hands together anticipating the boom that was about to burst in his lap. ‘But we’ll keep a few tramps around just for colour,’ he chortled.
‘The rich like to think they are slumming it. After all that’s what made this area popular in the first place. They think it’s quaint that people still use kerosene lamps – they’ll pay through the roof for one,’ he guffawed, ‘and they can’t even use them – makes the smoke alarms in their apartments go off, big time!’
Not that Celina would know about kerosene lamps. She’d never been Down Below, as her dear mother and father used to call it before they passed away. And that was only after she pressed them to give it a name. In front of her they didn’t like to talk about it at all, as if it was a country they had left behind, never to return to – not even to die.
Her mother called where they lived at the top of the tallest apartment building in Jakarta City ‘Close to Heaven’, and indeed it was – well, pretty much closer than anybody else in the city anyway. Up here the air was as pure as it could be, away from the choking smog that hung like a damp curse over the low Jakarta swamp. Her father, a non-smoker, who followed her mother to the grave not long after, blamed their virulent lung cancers on the toxic smoke from the fires of their childhood.
As a young boy, every morning in the kampung, he and the girl from next door would skip and hop behind their mothers as they swept the debris from their yards into the laneway gutter. When they lit the pile of rubbish and paused to gossip through the smoky haze, the little friends would play between their legs, taunting the fire with twigs and adding all the plastic they could find to make the flames flare and spit.
Years later that girl became his wife and with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work they were able to leave the smoky gutters behind and move up in the world. From owning a first floor room, then a second floor bed-sit, next a third floor apartment; story by story, they went all the way to the top. One day they owned a skyscraper, then another, then another and another. And when they felt they had found the perfect sky nest, they made Celina.
On the day she was born they didn’t have to drive to the hospital. They had everything they needed right there in their building – shopping centre, doctor’s clinic, hospital, health spa, beauty salon, art gallery, school, mosque, gym, chapel, cafes, nightclubs, vet, even a corner store, so if you didn’t want to, you never had to go Down Below.
When Celina’s parents first introduced ‘Vertical Kampung’ as a selling point for their skyscraper apartment blocks it was deemed a radical and extreme concept. But soon people embraced it as a practical solution to their city’s major design flaw. Traffic was always a problem in Jakarta City but when trips to the next district that once took two hours, began to take five, a significant percentage of the population became afflicted with a newly recognised medical condition called ‘macetphobia’. Many hadn’t left their houses for years, and most certainly could never be persuaded to get into a moving vehicle ever again. Public servants, business people, workers, rich and poor alike, even sinetron celebrities, were crippled by the horrible illness.
For Celina it was never a problem. She had never experienced the murderous macet as she had no need to go Down Below. She went to playgroup, kindergarten, primary school, even high school, without ever leaving the building. And it wasn’t because she was forbidden to. She just never considered it. Not until her father’s last dying breath did they ever discuss it.
‘Promise me one thing Celina’ he whispered, as soft white clouds nudged the big picture window beside his bed, ‘that you will never go Down Below. Your mother and I built this empire so you could have the quality of life you deserve. Don’t throw all our good work away....’
‘I promise Bapak’, I have everything I need here. I have no desire to live the life of the underworld. Don’t worry, I want to stay close to you and mother... Close To Heaven. ’
And as she spoke her father slipped into a peaceful sleep and never woke again.
Celina didn’t cry. She accepted her parents’ death as she did everything else about her life. She accepted not having a little brother or sister because she knew due to her mother’s fragile state of health, it was a miracle she was even born. She accepted that most of the friends she grew up with in the sky nest left home and made new lives in the underworld. She had no contact with them once they were gone, unless they phoned, which they usually didn’t, as who did that anymore? Her parents, you see, didn’t own a computer or plasma screen or a mobile phone. Even though they lived at the top of an expensive, high tech high rise, their penthouse was simple and old fashioned, filled with books, paintings and the cosy things of life. In fact every spare length of wall was lined with paperback, hardback, out of print, rare edition, coffee table and conversation piece books. So when Celina wanted to know about the world below, she could read about it (with her parents’ subtle censorship), for until his death, her father selectively ordered from glossy catalogues that arrived each week in the post. Now Celina could order anything she wanted – all the books on flowers, plants and trees that her parents never seemed to let her have before. Perhaps because they were reminders of their former life, Celina mused, as she unwrapped her latest coffee table book Rare Mountain Orchids and The Lost Rainforests of the Amazon.
Soon Celina was ordering in not only books, but live plants and soil to grow them in. Where once just a few dry prickly cactuses languished in pots near the swimming pool, soon a forest of exotic leafy bushes and vines crowded and climbed the walls around them. The staff were not impressed.
‘It just creates more mess for us to clean up,’ they grumbled.
‘You don’t have to do anything. I don’t need any help,’ she insisted as they watched her dragging bags of earth and rocks in wheelbarrow loads from the service lift to the swimming pool deck. When they tried to assist she barked at them to get back to their household chores saying. ‘I don’t want your help, I am fine, thank you very much.’
They could see that she was fine. In fact Celina was becoming so strong she couldn’t fit into her petite modest dresses and demure slack suits and took to dressing like a workman, in shorts and tank tops which made the staff ‘tut tut’ even more. But when she decided to fill in the pool and turn it into a rainforest, they really hit the roof. Several staff resigned and while Celina was sorry to see them go, she knew there were plenty waiting to take their place. The new job description however, required applicants to have considerable experience in rare plant propagation, endangered tall wood species and regeneration of high altitude orchids, along with the usual duties.
At the interviews Celina passionately described her mission. She told how when she read about the destruction of high altitude forests around the world she knew at once what she must do. With her accumulated knowledge of high winds, precipitation, migratory flights of birds, clouds, temperature, and all aspects of high altitude weather, she at last understood the life task she was born to carry out.
Celina, the new CEO of Vertical Kampung called a meeting of the board of directors. She would modify the concept of Vertical Kampung and rename it Alpine Green. Still retaining eco versions of the same facilities, she would make it her business to replicate high mountain forests and their endangered species, not only on her sky nest but in all the apartment skyscrapers she now owned across the city. Her new developments with tiered cantilever design would create forest platforms on each level so recycled water falls would cool the length of the building. Each building’s energy needs would be supplied by solar panels and hot earth technology. Waste chutes would convert organic matter into compost, recyclables into paper product and non recyclables into methane energy which owners could sell to the energy grid, offsetting their property investment. The only condition imposed was that each resident would be asked to care for a particular rare species of orchid, bush or tree.
There were objections at first from the city planning commission but because by now Celina was one of the richest women in the country, there was never any delay getting her proposals approved. Soon neon blared from just a few lone bald apartment towers. The skyline of the city began to look like the Guatemalan jungle at Tikal and rang with the songs of rare mountain birds once believed to be extinct.
Scientists, architects and experts of all kinds flew in from all around the world to hail Jakarta as a leader in rare forest regeneration and urban eco planning. Government and business, massaged by international acclaim and the smell of the eco dollar took up the cause and decided it was time to seriously tackle the city’s traffic and pollution problems. They asked Celina to head a number of creative brainstorming committees which would require her to visit the worst pollution sites in the city.
‘I am very sorry,’ she replied by letter from her sky nest. ‘As you may know I have lived a sheltered life. My promise to my father does not permit me to travel Down Below until it is free from the toxic smoke that caused my parents’ premature death. I can however give you some simple advice. If you plant a tree for every car wheel that turns on the road in the place where it turns you will achieve your goal. If you give every person a bicycle to ride and a better paying job at a distance close to their home, your workers will always arrive at work happy and full of energy for the day ahead. If you turn the tols into market gardens, clean the swamps and rivers and turn the canals into recreational boating channels – your people will be healthy and relaxed. If you find you cannot do any of this, then in the memory of my dear parents I ask that you do one thing – say ‘No’ to plastic. If you must use it please dispose of it in a safe and useful manner. And for the health and safety of yourself, your children and the planet, please don’t burn it in the street.
Yours sincerely, Celina Arinato.’
This letter was published in all the major newspapers along with the story of Celina’s unusual upbringing and the sacrifices she and her parents made to live a pure life. The television networks ran with a fairy tale story of a modern princess carrying out her father’s promise to live in seclusion in her self-made forest hermitage. Overnight she became a people’s hero and her ideas were embraced and adopted across the country. Women’s organisations in every kampung began following her advice and demanded the Government provide laws and facilities for dealing with plastic. Business leaders, nagged and harrassed by their wives, came up with viable solutions. Government soon followed, liberating billions of rupiah earmarked for defence, and engaging the army in clean-up activities across the archipelago.
The media, desperate for a sighting of the new people’s hero, camped out on the street in front of Celina’s building, hoping to extract information from staff as they came and went through the thick glass security doors. They sent repeated requests to Celina for interviews offering ridiculous amounts of money, and when that didn’t work, they promised in writing to further publicise some of her causes. As shy as she was, after much negotiation, Celina eventually agreed that a single camera crew could visit her sky nest on a date in three weeks time. Observant journalists noted later it was the tenth anniversary of her father’s death.
When they arrived at the penthouse apartment they found the staff in a state of shock. They reported that Celina had been feeding her rare mountain eagles on the rainforest canopy deck. When the big birds spread their wings and took off in flight, Celina had followed.
‘What,’ the television journalist asked, ‘you mean she jumped and fell?’
‘No’ they replied. ‘She spread her wings and flew with them into the sky. Look, over there.’
The crew squinted into the distance. They saw a formation of mountain birds soaring high, playing on the wind currents. One, larger and more awkward than the rest, followed fearlessly, as with every slow euphoric flap of her vast wing span, she rose higher and higher, closer to heaven.
(c) Jan Cornall 2007
First published in gang re:Publik
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