Nasi Goreng and the End of Neverland

Aug 29, 2022 | | By Surya Gemilang

Photo: Falaq Lazuardi/Unsplash

A warung, or cheap restaurant, in Batam | 2,500 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Dan Benjamin

Eating at Warung Buana, I wish I had long ago been abducted by Peter Pan, to live as a boy forever in Neverland.

My three friends, Rudi, Ale, and Davina, no doubt would indulge similar fantasies if they set aside a little time to read Peter and Wendy amidst work matters – work matters which never fail to make drowsiness palpable in their eyes by 7pm. Our chats at Warung Buana – a warung is a casual restaurant – are always full of yawns, our mouths gaping open.

Warung Buana, the place where we lament our newly-minted adulthoods, occupies the ground floor of a two-level shophouse, lonely in its position squeezed between other shophouses which remain empty. The setup makes me imagine quintuplets all lined up, but only one, in the middle, alive: that’s Warung Buana.

There’s no occupied shophouse in the whole of the Buana Central Park complex in Batam that isn’t lonely. This complex opened at a non-fortuitous time, the beginning of the pandemic, and even now, relatively few shophouses have been sold or rented. My boarding house and workplace, a production house for digital content, are both within this complex, both operating out of shophouses identical to Warung Buana and every other shophouse I can see from the boarding house balcony and the office. Rudi and I moved here after we graduated from the Arts Institute of Jakarta.

Every morning at 8am, Rudi and I walk to work. First, we cross a bridge over a barely-flowing river. At the thirty-seventh step, we’re beside the line of shophouses in which Warung Buana is tucked. Then we pass other shophouse rows with plots of empty land inserted between them, areas where grass grows as high as my knee, and populations of grasshoppers jump and jump. After five hundred and four boring steps, the blazing heat of Batam has made my armpits and balls sweaty upon our arrival at the office, and I am ready to go to work with enthusiasm, so that I can return to the boarding house.

Every night at 7pm, when my head is pounding, Rudi and I, plus Ale and Davina – who leave behind their motorbikes in the office parking-lot – walk to Warung Buana. Our evaporated energy makes us look like we’re walking along the bottom of a lake. We step beneath the dim glow of a row of streetlights, intermittently blow cigarette smoke upwards into the sky, gossip about Bowo, an incompetent colleague, face down a brisk wind that infiltrates our clothes and freezes our bodies, pass the empty shophouses which now look like haunted houses and the empty plots of land which have come to look like graveyards, before finally arriving at our favourite spot at Warung Buana, a square table of light brown wood. A platoon of flies disperses as the four of us sit.


Apart from us, there are no other customers at Warung Buana tonight. 

A green banner with the warung’s name on it, which is hanging stretched above the entrance, is shifting in the wind: the photos of menu items immediately beneath its text appear to have been taken by an amateur. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ from Guns N’ Roses is playing through speakers. From the cashier table the Warung Owner approaches us carrying some menus, which he has only recently got laminated. 

The Warung Owner is a man in his mid-thirties who often wears T-shirts featuring legendary American rock bands which fit him tightly, making visible his round stomach and his nipples – and also making me not want to look at him long for fear that this represents my future body.

Photo: Surya Gemilang

Waiting for us to choose from the menu, the Warung Owner’s gaze goes to the inside part of the warung, beyond the roll-up door that’s currently been rolled-up, beyond the glass counter of displayed food where stinkbeans are hanging, until it falls onto a table where a fat kid aged maybe four or five is sitting alone and playing a game on his phone with a volume endeavouring to rival ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. Next to him is a plate of chicken nuggets with flies perching on them. The gaze of the Warung Owner is ultra-alert, as if this dark-skinned kid – who is his son – might suddenly explode.

Rudi and Ale, seated next to each other in front of me, order mie aceh noodles. I order nasi goreng kampung and Davina, who’s sitting beside me, gets the same. The Warung Owner retreats to the kitchen after promising us free sweet iced teas as an introductory promo – still on offer, even though this warung opened a full two months ago.

Rudi, Ale, Davina and I yawn as one. I take Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie out of my shoulder bag, place a Sampoerna Kretek cigarette between my lips, and the wind extinguishes my lighter’s flame several times. This sort of wind convinces me there’ll be rain before long: during the last month, this island’s weather is routinely baking me in the mornings and freezing me when night comes.

‘I think next month I’ll resign’, says Ale out-of-the-blue, while twisting the company lanyard which hangs around his neck. Reflexively, I stop my efforts to ignite my cigarette. 

‘I’ll do a Masters. So then I’ll have a reason to not be working, and Dad will go back to paying my way. Surya, give us a cigarette’. Without fanfare, the guy picks up my cigarette packet on the table and nicks a cigarette. He ignites his before I manage to ignite mine, as if the wind only has its sights set on me. 

‘Maybe English Literature, maybe Indonesian – both’ll be pretty easy, I feel’, Ale continues. ‘Or, who knows – the important thing is that I won’t feel dead like this from Monday til Friday’.

‘My parents’d slap me if I dared to do that’, says Rudi, while yawning. ‘They spent their savings on my college fees, and now I have to pay them back by working. Shit’.

Who knows what I’m supposed to do first: finish my dinner, or reply to my boss’s message. While a college student, this sort of thing would appear very simple: I’d prioritize food. But being an adult makes things that are simple into things that are head-splitting. 

Then Davina, while tying up her hair, says, ‘I’ll-’

‘Become a sugar baby’, cuts in Ale.


‘Would you just stop hoping to suddenly get married to some rich dude?’ Ale blows cigarette smoke through his nose. ‘A sugar daddy is far more realistic. You’re actually quite pretty, for sure you can do it’.

‘Thanks for the information’. Davina makes to hand Ale her handphone. ‘Can I have your Dad’s number then?’

Rudi splits his sides, while Ale forces a smile while sucking cigarette smoke deep into his lungs. 

I give up trying to light my cigarette. The platoon of flies is now buzzing beside my ear, and I shake my head to drive them away. From the kitchen the stove is hissing, the aroma of nasi goreng ingredients managing to just reach my nose before immediately disappearing, carried away by the wind. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ finishes and is replaced by ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’Rudi, Ale and Davina continue to discuss how easy life was as a college student, accompanied by the roar of an excavator from a nearby row of yet-to-be-finished buildings – construction sounds fill the air here from 6pm to 10pm – plus music from the game of the kid who is now frowning in annoyance while remaining glued to his phone. I draw a long breath: now is a good time to focus on Peter and Wendy.

I’ve only just got to Chapter 12, ‘The Children are Carried Off’, after almost a month reading this book. The pace of my reading has slowed dramatically: at college I’d without doubt finish this novel inside a week. Without interruptions from employers passing on demands for revisions from clients, or from my subordinates in the scenario-writing team who need assistance. Dinner-time is the perfect time to focus on reading, interruptions should only come from my own feeling of tiredness – then, out-of-the-blue, the Kid stands up, and drags his chair towards our table. Dammit, this isn’t a good sign.

Rudi, Ale and Davina are likewise aware that this is ominous. The three of them hush instantly at the eardrum-rupturing sound of the chair’s steel legs clawing the floor. Then they quickly reach for their phones and earphones. Ah, hell: I’ve just remembered I left my earphones behind in the office.

Photo: Surya Gemilang

Rudi hisses at me: ‘Your child has come’.

Crap: the kid shifts his chair right next to me, placing himself between me and Rudi. The stink of his sweat makes me want to cancel my nasi goreng order. He sits down and holds his phone out towards me. The screen is full of finger prints: I see the tips of his fingers are oily. Crumbs of food are in both corners of his mouth. 

‘Uncle, try to play this game’.

My three friends have been confirmed as betrayers: they are focussed on their own phones, with earphones plugged into their ears. Occasionally Rudi steals a glance my way; Ale purses his lips tightly to restrain laughter; and Davina shifts her own seat to get further away from The Kid. Crap.

The Kid always comes up to me, ever since we’ve started coming to Warung Buana – who knows why.

‘I can’t play games’, I say. ‘I’ve already told you that’.

‘Just try, Uncle…’

The Warung Owner arrives with our orders: two mie aceh, two nasi goreng kampung, four glasses of free sweet iced tea. And, inexplicably, he then returns to the back of the warung taking only his tray with him – without taking his child with him! See your son – you have no interest in stopping him harassing your customers?

The Kid shifts his phone so that it clashes against the edge of my plate, and says, ‘Come on, Uncle, play!’

Rudi, Ale and Davina start to eat, without taking their eyes off their phones.

‘I don’t know how’, I say as I swallow a spoonful of nasi goreng, which burns my tongue.

The Kid continues to speak, and my thoughts are launched far into the future. I am in a comfortable room, writing. Then, my child appears and forces me to play with him. And I invite him to go on a permanent holiday to an orphanage.

After I reject several times The Kid’s invitations to play, he suddenly runs to the staircase and up to the second floor – his family’s residence is there. Simultaneously, Rudi, Ale and Davina place their phones down next to their plates and remove their earbuds.

‘I don’t want children – locked in’, says Rudi.

‘But Surya seems like he’s ready to become Papa Surya’, responds Ale, and I want to take to him with his own lanyard. 

‘I think the kid’s cute, though…’ Davina shifts her chair closer to the table once again.

I blow on a fly who has perched on the end of my straw. ‘You are all abysmal’.

Who knows what The Kid wants to do on the top floor, but I swiftly scoop up my food, wanting this dinner to end quickly: honestly, work and then dinner is exhausting when you’re an adult… Then my phone rings. An incoming video call from Mama. I reject it. 

‘Answer your Mama’, says Davina. ‘Last night you rejected a call from her, too’.

Oh yeah: she’s right. ‘I’ll do it later’, I say, ‘before I go to sleep’.

‘Send her a message, minimum’.


Suddenly, Davina snatches my phone from my hand. ‘Let me send a message to your Mama’.

I take a deep breath, then seize my phone back from her.

‘Davina only wants to be closer to her soon-to-be mother-in-law’, says Ale, while twisting some mie aceh around his fork.

‘You’ve got a lot to say’, I snap. ‘I don’t want a relationship, I don’t want to get married – to hell with adulthood.’

Now Rudi is kicking my leg. And giving me a sharp stare. 

In one short rapid movement, his eyes go to Davina, then back to me.

Oh, shit. 

I don’t want to look at Davina. To whom I have declared romantic feelings for. And who I’ve just told that I don’t want a relationship or marriage. I feel like chopping off my own tongue. 

I’m not brave enough to look at her. Perhaps she’s pretending to be unaffected while munching nasi goreng. Perhaps she’s staring at me in a rage.

But, fine… I only need to continue to eat. I only need to insert the nasi goreng into my mouth spoon by spoon – while saying to hell with this silly adult life.

I’ve only eaten half of it when a WhatsApp message comes in from my boss: there’s a mistake in my work today, and I had been too quick to leave the office before resolving it. Who knows what I’m supposed to do first: finish my dinner, or reply to my boss’s message. While a college student, this sort of thing would appear very simple: I’d prioritize food. But being an adult makes things that are simple into things that are head-splitting. 

The wind picks up again and I reflexively rub my hands together: the wind in the trees around the warung sounds like whispers. I want to go home, go back to my Mama.

Just as we finish our food, drizzle starts to fall. Davina walks quickly to the cashier counter and gives the Warung Owner some money. Then, without saying anything at all, she walks back in the direction of the office. Ale also quickly pays and follows after Davina looking anxious. Hopefully Davina is only like that because she wants to quickly go home.

‘It’d be good if you could reflect in the boarding house upon the meaning of love’, says Rudi, rubbing his chin. ‘Also, reflecting about work might be useful, too’.

‘You go ahead of me. I want to be alone for a while’.

Rudi just nods. He pays, then leaves for the boarding house.

And…silence. Immediately, I feel exhausted, and I feel like I want to cry. Then, thoughts start to hiss. 

I rejected a call from Mama: she for sure is disappointed. I ignored The Kid: he clearly is disappointed. I ignored a message from my employer, and there can be no doubt: he is disappointed. The silence now around me feels painful when I turn my thoughts to Davina: I ignored her genuine concern for me and Mama. Adulthood is a time full of disappointment. Who else will I soon disappoint?

I move to the inside part of the warung, sit at the same table where beforehand The Kid had sat, and video call Mama.

‘How are you?’ she asks. Mama is in her room in bed, leaning back against the bedhead. Her eyes are a little red and watery.

‘I’m tired’.

Mama gives a small laugh. ‘Older and older, more and more tired’.

‘That’s how it goes’.

‘I’m also tired’. Briefly, Mama coughs. ‘But at least I have you. That’s more than enough’.

It’s my turn to give a small laugh. Yet, I feel I shouldn’t be laughing at that… 

Photo: Surya Gemilang

After our small-talk is over I put my phone into my shoulder bag. I become aware that ‘Live and Let Die’ is playing through the speakers. Drizzle instantly changes to heavy rain. I light up a cigarette.

The Kid descends from the second floor, approaches his father, and shows him something on his phone. They laugh.

Who knows why, but my head feels better. My head isn’t pounding anymore. I am surprised. 

I think to take out Peter and Wendy, and read it while smoking several cigarettes and listening to Guns N’ Roses on the speakers. 

Perhaps a good novel, and some good songs, and a few cigarettes are enough to face down adulthood. Of course, the days will be better yet if occasionally I call Mama. But I suspect nothing will improve much before I reply to my boss.

Ah, to hell with all this. I want to read Peter and Wendy until the rain stops. 

Suddenly, I’m curious to know what Wendy does at the end of the story, so I skip ahead to the last pages. 

Wendy returns from Neverland, and grows up. 

© Surya Gemilang

English translation © Dan Benjamin

About The Author

Surya Gemilang

Surya Gemilang was born in Denpasar in 1998. He’s an alumni of the Arts Institute of Jakarta, where he was enrolled in the Faculty of Film and Television with a major in Directing. His books include Mengejar Bintang Jatuh (2015), Cara Mencintai Monster (2018), and Mencari Kepala untuk Ibu (2019), and his writing has appeared in Kompas, Koran Tempo, and Jawa Pos.

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