The Tooth Collector


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Chapter 1


Wondering when this rain will stop? Another hour—maybe longer. You can set your watch by these afternoon thunderstorms. You picked a good place to wait. Best kopi in all of Kota Kinabalu right here. This cafe is run by an old friend of mine. That's his sister, May, over there behind the counter.

Say, mind if I join you? Thanks. Another cup? It’s on me.

Don’t mind me asking—but are you British? How did I know? Well your accent I suppose...and your skin, you look like you’ve never seen daylight. Ha! I’m joking of course. To tell you the truth, and this might sound strange, but you look just like a young man I met right here twenty years ago. He was also from England. A student from London. Took a year off to have a young man’s adventure—you know, climb Mount Kinabalu, see the Sepilok orangutans, the nest collectors of Gomantong caves...

Adventure. A funny word don’t you think? Some people travel halfway around the world to see something new, try something different, and spend a lot of money doing it. Me, I come to this port cafe every afternoon and have an adventure, and it costs only a few ringgit! As a matter of fact, I had an adventure last night with the woman who runs the durian stand down the street. She’s a wild one, I can tell you, but that’s another story.

Ah, here’s my coffee now, terima kasih.

You’re a student too? Biology? Of course. Plants and animals, Borneo has it all. The exotic, the colourful—the dangerous...What do I mean by dangerous? Well now, that all depends on what you call ‘danger’. Say you travel upriver, into the heart of the jungle—a jungle filled with deadly snakes, poisonous spiders, man-eating crocodiles, crazed elephants. Dangerous right?

Not to me.

I spent ten years in logging camps on the mighty Kinabatangan River. Snakes in the roof, scorpions under the bed, leeches on my testicles. Got used to it. Had to. I had a family to feed.

But the jungle can be dangerous in another way—a way in which you might not think. It can mess with your mind. Far from home, family and friends, it crowds in on you, clouds your sense of what is right and wrong, it beguiles and confuses you, like river mist...I've seen men lose their minds. I’ve seen a grudge turn to a squabble, a squabble to a fight, then one man kills another because he believes that man was trying to do the same to him. Sure, you might have money, you might have God, but neither will save you when all others have lost their minds.  

Sorry. I’m rambling. What do I know? I’m just an old boatman. Ashok is my name. And you?


By god! That’s the very same name as the young man whom I met here all those years ago. Ask my friend, Man Tan, the owner of this cafe.

I guess you’re stuck here while this rain falls, so let us drink coffee and I’ll tell you a story. A story, I’m sorry to say, without a happy ending.

Sticky rice cake? May makes them herself. Here, try one.

Ah yes, Andy...the young adventurer. He was studying to be a dentist. Man Tan met him right here, as I have done with you now. Man Tan was a river trader back then, dealing in rubber, pots and pans, gasoline, sandalwood, birds nests. See that long boat tied up over there? It was Man Tan’s once and I was its pilot. I owe a lot to that man and his boat. They got me out of the camps.

You can’t see because of this rain, but across that gulf there is a river. The Sungai Sugut it's called, a twisting, winding brown torrent that begins in the mountains and pushes all the way to the Sulu Sea. Twenty years ago only orang sungai—river people—lived there. That’s when I first met Man Tan.

He was in trouble. The rubber trade was collapsing, world prices had crashed and he was almost washed up. But Man Tan loved the trader’s life and he knew that if he could help the river people, then the river people might help him. He had an idea...

Wow, see that lightning! Reminds me of nights on the Kinabatangan...

River tours. That was Man Tan’s big idea. Show tourists the true Borneo, the orangutans, monkeys, elephants and crocodiles, roaming free in the wild....

And the river people? Well, they didn’t need radios, alcohol or cigarettes because the loggers brought them in to barter for access to their land. No, Man Tan wanted to give them something meaningful, something that might actually help them, in return for access to their waterways.

And that’s where Andy came in.

When Man Tan discovered that Andy was a dental student at a prestigious college in London, he made him a proposition. If Andy would agree to accompany him upriver on a field clinic expedition, then Man Tan would guarantee him the experience of a lifetime—and best of all, it would be free of charge. Two Malaysian doctors would be coming, and together they would help the river people. All Andy had to do was assist.

Assist how? Andy asked.

Dispense basic medicines, take notes, offer some dental advice, that kind of thing, Man Tan replied.

Well, naturally this excited Andy. Perhaps he saw it as a chance to prove himself, to have a story to tell his friends and family when he returned to England—to have an adventure!

Man Tan told Andy to be at the cafe in two days time. They would leave early and if Andy was not there, well, Man Tan would leave without him—no hard feelings, no problem at all.

You can guess Andy’s choice, or I wouldn’t be telling you this story.

We took that longboat, Garuda II, with her small cabin, outboard engine and shallow draft for river travel. We ladened her with tinned food, rice, and bottled water, and trunks of medical supplies—as much as we could carry. My job would be to pilot her up the Sungai Sugut, and with my assistant, a young Bajau sea gypsy named Ali, keep her fuelled and running smoothly.

We crossed the Gulf of Sulu at dawn and the going was perfect—calm seas, turtles and dolphins diving off our bow, all the way to Terusan, a fishing village at the mouth of the Sungai Sugut. This was to be our rendezvous point with the two Malaysian doctors, who would be coming by boat from Brunei.

But when we arrived, bad news was waiting. The doctors wouldn’t be coming. They had telephoned to say that family members of the King of Brunei had fallen ill and officials were keeping their best medical staff in the country. Well, this surprised Andy. But an even bigger shock came when Man Tan informed him that he would now be the sole medical staff on the trip. You see, it was too late to turn back. Supplies had been paid for, fuel ordered along the route, and headmen of four upriver villages were expecting them. Man Tan had invested every last ringgit in this venture. To him, one doctor was better than none.

Did I say ‘doctor’? Andy insisted he was not a doctor, not even a dentist. He was a dental student. But he could administer medicine and basic first aid, couldn’t he? said Man Tan. What kind of medicine? asked Andy. I’ll never forget his face when he opened the medical chests filled with packets of Panadol, bottles of iodine, bandages, malaria tablets, mosquito nets, brandy! Now, I’m no expert, but even a poor old boat captain like myself could see that this was playing a little amateur. Andy looked downcast. He hardly spoke. He spent the entire afternoon down on the jetty looking out to sea in the direction of Kota Kinabalu. Man Tan went down to talk to him and I remember Andy throwing up his hands and shouting at him. But there was little time for argument because the village headman soon sent for them. They had a casualty. A fisherman had been hit on the head by a coconut while bringing his nets ashore. The two men hurried back to the village, and sure enough, there in the hut sat the fisherman with blood streaming down his face and the most miserable expression I’d ever seen. They cleaned the wound and Andy somehow stitched the skin together. Man Tan handed the fisherman a bottle of brandy and sent him on his way.

The headman was impressed. He threw a small party. Man Tan looked happy. I think he saw this as a small victory. Even Andy seemed pleased with himself. He was getting ‘hands-on’ experience, and for the time being, he forgot his problems.

That night, as we drank arak and smoked local tobacco on the headman’s porch, I witnessed the most dramatic sunset I have ever seen. It was as if the whole western sky was on fire. An omen perhaps?

The next day, my assistant and I woke early. After we had changed the propellor to a smaller size for the journey upriver, we arrived back in the village to a big surprise. A line of people stood outside the headman’s hut. The story of the fisherman and the coconut had spread quickly. Inside a converted school house, Man Tan and Andy were hard at work—passing out painkillers to people with fevers, applying iodine and ointment to those with skin cuts and infections, and noting down the names of the most serious cases which would have to be sent to Kota Kinabalu.

When Andy received his first toothache case, he asked for the dental kit. But when he opened it, he flew into a rage. He told Man Tan that this was the 21st century and that no-one used antique tools like these for modern dentistry. What could Man Tan do? He’d borrowed them from his eighty-year-old cousin, a retired dentist, in Sandakan.

In soothing tones, Man Tan coaxed Andy into proceeding with the worst cases. The first was an elderly woman with an abscess. They gave her a small glass of rum, then while Man Tan held her down, Andy pulled the bad tooth. And so it began. The village people left the schoolroom holding their mouths and jaws and looking miserable. But not one complained. Again, the headman was happy. He threw another party. And as word spread along the coast to other fishing communities, more cases began to arrive, and it might have continued that way if Man Tan hadn’t pressed on with his plan.   

Under a dawn sea mist we left Terusan with its fisherfolk clutching their swollen jaws and watching us from the shore, perhaps wondering where their teeth had gone. When Man Tan asked him, Andy pulled an old coffee tin from his bag and gave it a shake. The sound carried across the water like a witchdoctor’s rattle. One hundred and three teeth—almost three per person! Why was he collecting them? asked Man Tan.

For research, said Andy.

Odd behaviour? Certainly, but my concern was to pilot the boat safely upstream to the village of Sungai-Sungai—not to worry about a tin full of teeth. We travelled for five hours under the hot sun, up that great slow-moving mass of muddy water, and every twist and turn, every river bank and towering tree looked the same as the last. Once, Andy shouted and pointed at some commotion on the far bank. We turned to see a crocodile thrashing among the reeds—a baby pig in its mouth.     

The jungle enthralled Andy, captivated him with its sights and sounds—the hornbills which glided over the treetops, the howler monkeys, bearded pigs and monitor lizards which roamed the shore. Later there were elephants, and Andy clapped his hands and laughed like a child, watching them trample the muddy bank and disappear into the forest as we motored past.

When Man Tan spotted a fisherman in a wooden skiff, he directed me to cut the engine so he could buy river prawns. While we waited under the hot sun for the two men to do their business, a sudden splashing sound came from the bow of the boat. My assistant shouted that Andy was swimming! The fisherman looked up, also shouted and gestured wildly. Man Tan dropped the prawns. He rushed to haul Andy back inside the boat and I will never forget the sight of that young Englishman, lying there like a big, stupid white catfish, smiling while Man Tan glowered down at him. The old fisherman shook his head. His son, he said, had been taken by a crocodile while swimming eight years ago.

What it is about youth that make them so fearless. Do they really think they are invincible? Or are they just stupid? You may laugh at my question—but I’ll tell you, there are things a young man will learn the hard way and not without regret. Ready for another coffee?

May! Kopi dua lagi!

When we reached the village of Sungai-Sungai on sunset, a man with a gun was waiting. He sat on the jetty, bloodshot eyes watching us, until the headman arrived and explained that pirates were active in the area. Two outboard motors had been stolen a week before and Kota Kinabalu had sent a ‘policeman’ to keep watch.

Andy became an instant hit—the younger villagers had never seen a European. The older ones remembered them vaguely, from the time of the Borneo Trading Company, before Sabah gained its independence, they said.

That night a stormed rolled in. Like a deaf orchestra on the tin roof of the headman’s house, it crashed and bashed all night. I’d never heard anything like it. None of us could speak it was so loud. So we ate and drank until the morning, and when we awoke there was a line outside of sick and injured that stretched all the way from the headman’s house to the jetty.

They came with heartburn, hookworm, chest pains, back pains, burns and breast infections, and at the end of the line, a young girl stood holding a stillborn baby goat in her arms. The blood pressure device we had brought stopped working after a few minutes. Man Tan said it was the humidity, but Andy found that the batteries were old. My assistant and I helped dispense medicines as best we could, but Andy seemed preoccupied. He asked the villagers about their teeth, inspected their mouths, and soon he’d set up a chair inside the headman’s house and was pestering Man Tan to make an announcement. After Man Tan complied, a second line quickly formed.

The headman and his ‘policeman’ looked on, watching the villagers enter one by one—young and old, men and women, some who’d walked for hours through the jungle, barefoot, with babies on their backs—and watching them leave with jaws cradled in their bony hands, faces contorted with pain and misery.

Ah, here’s the coffee now. Terima kasih, May.

When we left Sungai-Sungai at dawn, Andy and Man Tan were quarreling. I heard nothing over the roar of the engine, but watched as Andy moved to the bow of the boat, where he sat,  with the coffee tin and dental kit between his knees, all the way to Lingkabau.

Man Tan was sullen. Slumped in the stern, scratching his belly, he pretended to read the old newspapers which our food and supplies had been wrapped in. When it rained, he retreated inside the cabin. But Andy never budged, and just as well—he hadn’t bathed since we left Terusan. He just sat there, allowing the torrents to sluice him while I did my best to navigate through the frenzied water.

Lingkabau came and went. Another village, another clinic. And all the while Andy’s coffee tin grew weightier. The river grew narrower, the current faster, the eddies more perilous, demanding from me my total concentration.

We reached the village of Salulgong exhausted, and after tending to the sick and injured, ate dinner and retired to bed in a longhouse. Sometime in the night I was woken by men quarreling outside.

Through the chinks in the bamboo wall, I saw Man Tan. Heard him accuse Andy of neglecting his duties.

Duties? Andy cried, half naked in the moonlight. He accused Man Tan of not listening. He wasn’t a doctor, he was a student!

Then why was he pulling so many teeth? asked Man Tan. The headmen in the last two villages had pressed him with the same question.

How can a student learn without experience? said Andy. Besides, he’d been promised an experience of a lifetime, hadn’t he?

Man Tan growled. He withdrew to brood and again the longhouse fell silent.

On the fifth day, we arrived at Kaingaran near the headwaters of the Sungai Sugut in the early afternoon. The headman was eager to see us. A man had appeared from the jungle that morning to say his pregnant wife was sick. It would take five hours on foot to reach her and bring her back.

Andy was not feeling well—a bout of diarrhea he said—so Man Tan, myself and my assistant set off with the father and a team of village men. But something was bothering Man Tan, and though he didn’t speak it, I suspect it was his uneasiness at leaving Andy alone. When reached the woman, she was feverish and weak but still breathing.

It was on sunset when we arrived back in Kaingaran and the village was dark save for gas lamps glowed like fireflies against the blackness of the jungle. A boy hurried towards us. He was breathless..

Come! hurry! he said.

Man Tan rushed forward, following him to a small schoolhouse on the jungle’s edge where a single lamp glowed inside. At its threshold, Man Tan hesitated. Then came a sound I hope never to hear in my life again.

Shouts and screams and crashing noises sounded as Man Tan dived inside. Then all went dark. Village men pushed by me, shouting. They emerged with the headman in their arms, his jaw bandaged, his face bleeding and swollen.

When Man Tan appeared, his face was grim, his gaze glowering. In one hand he clutched Andy’s can; in the other, a set of bloodied dental tools. He went quickly to the river, and at the end of the jetty, with the villagers looking curiously on, he cast the tools out into midstream. Then he held out the can and shook it...   


The rain has stopped. I should go. My lady friend, the durian seller, she’s expecting me. Oh dear, it seems I’ve left my wallet...Look, I’m ashamed to ask but would you mind? I’m sorry. You’re very kind...

And Man Tan? What of him you ask? Well, let me say this—he sold his boat, bought this cafe and never returned to the Sungai Sugut. As for Andy, well, you might say that he never left. The boy from the village said he saw him hunched naked at the river’s edge that night, talking to himself, clawing the water, searching the mud for something.

The next morning they found only footprints. The Kota Kinabalu police said he’d drowned. They always say that. But you know what I believe? I believe that a bigger set of teeth had collected him...

Thanks for the coffee.

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Tony Hall

Really enjoying this story.


You might like Simon Rowe's other books...