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Chuah Guat Eng was born in Rembau, Negeri Sembilan. She received her education at the Methodist Girls' School, Klang, and joined Form Six Arts at the V.I. in 1961. She was active in the drama field and took part in the V.I. productions Jonah and the Whale and La Machine Infernale. She continued her education at the University of Malaya, graduating with a B.A. in English, and at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich. Most of her working life has been in the advertising industry.
Her first novel, Echoes of Silence, was published in 1994 and is currently used as a text at IIU. She is currently writing her second novel.
Reproduced below is Chapter Two from Echoes of Silence and her short story Seventh Uncle.
ECHOES OF SILENCE
6 February 1974
I did not spend Christmas with the Templetons. I went home instead. My father, who had been in poor health for some time, was found to be suffering from cancer of the liver. The doctors did not give him long to live, and my mother wanted me to spend his last few months with him.
I wrote to Michael from my parentsí home in Kuala Lumpur to let him know the situation, and to inform him that I would see him in Ulu Banir before I returned to Europe. He phoned to say he would visit me. But I stopped him, saying my father was too ill and that I would be too preoccupied. I was mindful of the false impression I had given him of my familyís financial status and was anxious not to be found out.
My father died on Boxing Day.
I wish I could say that I grieved. I did not. I was only conscious of an overwhelming relief when he died. I hated having to visit him in the hospital, hated having to sit beside his bed, hated having to watch him hover between drugged sleep and pain-filled moments of wakefulness. I hated the smell of the hospital, the smell of his sickness, the smell of his impending death. I hated not allowing myself to cry, which was what I wanted to do every time I saw him on the bed, a fraction of what he used to be. I hated having to bear all of it alone instead of sharing the burden with brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, whoever.
It was my first direct experience of death and I could not grasp its relationship to me. I recall now only my anger and resentment, as if my father had got sick and died on purpose, just to give me a hard time.
I left for Ulu Banir on Chap Goh Meh, the last day of the Chinese New Year festival, travelling by train to Ipoh where, I was told, I would be met by Karuppiah, Jonathan Templetonís driver.
It was the first time since my return that I had had a chance to see the country. It had changed. There were signs of industry and prosperity everywhere. But I hated the red, wounded look of the foothills being cleared by crawling armies of earth-movers in the name of progress.
As the train moved out of the industrialized Klang Valley, however, I caught glimpses of a world I had seen briefly as a child and my thoughts flew to my grandmother.
I had hardly known her. My acquaintance with her had been limited to one brief school holidays spent in her home. Yet she had left me all her worldly possessions when she died, making it possible for me to leave the country and become, if I so chose, a citizen of the world.
I was an only child.
Although I was given to understand by my parents that I had a large circle of relatives on my fatherís side, I never had anything to do with any of them. On my motherís side, there was only an elderly spinster aunt who was so grim and had so little patience with children that I hardly ever saw her.
Once, when he was in an unusually communicative mood, my father told me that my Grandfather Lim, like many wealthy Chinese men in his day, had several wives and an unknown number of children. My father was the only son of the youngest wife. Soon after he was born, my grandfather died. My grandmother then returned to her parents with my father, and lost touch with the Lim family.
I should like to be able to say that my grandmother left the Lim household a rich woman. Or that from abject poverty, my father built himself a fabulous fortune. That is the stuff on which myths involving the overseas Chinese are made. But my father was not so obliging. He was a singularly dull man.
He was a government servant. My mother, also educated in English, was a school-teacher. While they were at work, I was left in the care of a long line of servants who came and went without making any impact on me. The only bright spot in my life as a child was the fact that we lived in one of a row of government quarters and I had the neighboursí children to play with.
My motherís being a teacher gave us some status in that small community, a status she was not reluctant to make the most of. I, a product of what was then the Malayan middle-class ó English-educated Government servants ó did better at school than many others who came from non-English-speaking homes. All that, and the knowledge that my grandfather had been rich, gave me a feeling of superiority.
Except for that one time when my father told me about Grandfather Lim, he had not spoken of his family. And since I had never met his mother, I assumed she was dead. When I was seven, however, my mother had to go for an operation. It was timed to coincide with my school holidays so that I could be sent away, presumably because the combination of her convalescence and my presence would have been too great a strain on the servant. I was told then that I would be spending the holidays with my Por-Por.
My father took me there. It was so far from where we lived that he had to hire a private taxi. After almost a day of travelling, we came to a stop along a small road. There was no house in sight and all I could see was a rough bridge made from planks and coconut trunks thrown across a large ditch. But my father asked me to get out and started to take my bag out of the boot.
He had to carry me across the bridge because nothing could induce me to walk on it. We came to a group of wooden shacks which I know now to have been squatter huts, built by someone who did not own the land but saw an opportunity here for a lucrative enterprise. He had built these poor homes out of wood and atap and rented them out, cheaply I hope, to those who were too busy scraping together a daily subsistence to see the same opportunities their dubious landlord did.
My grandmother took me to visit them once during my stay with her, and I discovered that the little community, exclusively Chinese and all vaguely related to one another, consisted of a trishaw pedaller, a lorry driver, two lorry attendants, and a couple who mixed bottles of coloured powder in large tubs of water, to be rebottled and sold to iced water hawkers in the nearby village. I liked their house best; it was fragrant with the sharp essences of chemical orange, lime, sarsaparilla and rose.
But on that day, my father and I walked right past them. We came to the beginning of a footpath leading into what I thought was a forest but was in fact an abandoned rubber smallholding. It was a world filled with movements and sounds. The tree branches above and the undergrowth below rustled and sighed. Birds sang, insects chirruped, crows cawed, unseen animals called and, occasionally, ripe rubber seeds burst in sudden, explosive cracks.
A town-bred child, I had never been near so much vegetation, earth, mud, and streams before. All I knew about forests was based on the English childrenís stories I had read. As the undergrowth became thicker, visions of wolves and bears came to my mind. I began to worry about witches, and children being abandoned by their hard-pressed parents. The question worrying me all morning had to be asked.
"Papa, whoís Por-Por?"
"Sheís your grandmother."
"Grandmother? I have a grandmother? Why have I not met her before?"
"Because she lives too far away, as you can see."
"Is she your mother, or Mamaís mother?"
"Sheís my mother."
"Then why didn't you tell me about her?í
"Whatís there to tell? Sheís your grandmother, thatís all."
"What about Mamaís mother? Is she alive too?"
I was getting my first inkling of how secretive, even deceptive, my parents had been.
"Your Mamaís mother is dead, you know that."
I did not, because no one had told me.
"Papa, I donít think I want to stay with Por-Por,"
"Itís too late," said my father. "Sheís expecting you and, besides, here we are."
I saw ahead of us a little wooden hut with an atap roof. Next to it was a large shed, similarly roofed. In front of the shed stood a thin old woman in black trousers and a blue Chinese blouse.
"Ah Ma," said my father when we approached.
"Por Por," I addressed her in greeting, as I had been taught. My voice caught in my throat.
"Frightened of me, are you?" she said in Cantonese, and stretched out a skinny, wrinkled, large-veined, brown-spotted hand to stroke my head.
I shrank back and clung to my father.
"You see?" she said in a mildly reproachful manner to my father, "You never bring her to see me. No wonder sheís afraid of me. No need to be afraid," turning to me, "come, let me show you something."
I understood her only because I had learned a smattering of Cantonese from the servants. In fact, because the only Cantonese I had ever heard was spoken by servants and because my grandmother was dressed like one, I thought she was a servant. It was difficult to connect what I thought of as a lowly station with someone who was a member of my family. I think I began to reject her from that moment.
She took my hand which I was too frightened to pull back, and led me to the shed from which came a frightful noise and a worse smell. I started to resist the onward progress but she would not let me go. I turned around to look for my father and found him right behind me. Reassured, I allowed myself to be led into the shed.
There along one wall, each in its own pen, I saw my first live pigs. There were three of them, huge, hairy and ugly. My grandmother walked me past all of them till we came to the last pen. There I saw a sow lying on the dirty earthen floor, surrounded by squealing piglets. Their eyes were tightly shut.
My grandmother turned to my father, "Was she born in the year of the Tiger?"
"No," said my father, "Rabbit."
"Thatís all right then," she said and we went closer to the edge of the pen.
My curiosity got the better of my fear and I asked what would have happened if I had been born in the year of the Tiger. She held a gnarled forefinger to her lips and whispered, "Shh, Iíll tell you about it later. Itís a very long and interesting story."
She never got round to telling me the story, because I was too engrossed in the piglets, and after that the hogs and the sows. She took me out to a pond beside the shed, where I saw my first ducks and geese. She took me to her sweet potato and tapioca patch. She showed me her chickens and allowed me to hold the chicks. Then she took me into her house, which had no floor at all, only black earth worn smooth by feet and the broom. There she offered me some sweet, sticky cakes and a cup of hot Chinese tea. I found the tea bitter, but the cake was an interesting mix of new flavours.
Halfway through eating the cake, I began to look for my father. He had gone. I wanted to cry, this time at his betrayal, but I did not dare to. I was not sure what this old woman would do to me if I did. She started to stroke my head again. She even smelt like a servant; a mixture of stale garlic, medicated oil and unfresh breath.
"Donít cry," she said, "your father is like that. He is ashamed of me. But he will come and take you home as soon as your mother is well. Come, itís time to prepare the pigsí food. Want to watch?"
I did. We went back to the pigsí shed where I now saw some tall banana stems leaning against a wall. She laid one on the ground next to a massive chopping block made out of a tree stump, picked up a huge cleaver and started slicing up the stem. It made a crisp, crunching noise. I did not think she would allow me to handle the big and heavy knife, so I squatted beside her and watched as she diced the banana stem and then cooked the lot in a soot-blackened kerosine tin over a smoky wood fire. The pigs were lumbering about, snorting and grunting, impatient for their food.
By the time the pigs had been fed, it was dark. We went back to the house where she lit a kerosine lamp and, in its dim light, cooked us a simple dinner. Everything tasted strange, but I was hungry. Then it was time to sleep. No brushing of teeth, no bath. I just got into my pajamas and went to bed. Bed was a wooden platform a few feet off the ground and there was only a patchwork quilt which served as mattress and blanket. Another quilt, folded up, was my pillow. She lay on her back beside me, balancing her head carefully on a cigarette tin which served as her pillow.
The night closed in on us, a black cacophony of screeching crickets, croaking frogs, whispering leaves and whining mosquitoes. I remember waking in the middle of the night terrified by the sound of a tock-tocking just outside the window. I started to cry, and out of the darkness I felt her hand move to comfort me, I heard her voice tell me it was only a bird.
Later when I woke again, it was to the sound of a soft plopping outside. It was still dark but my grandmother was already pottering around, the kerosine lamp in her hand casting large, distorted, dancing shadows on the walls as she moved.
"Mangosteens," she said when she heard me sit up. "The ripe ones have dropped to the ground. Weíll go out and collect them later." And so we did.
Once I went to the market with her. We walked all the way, she pushing a handcart containing an assortment of roots and vegetables, and a small, roughly-made bamboo basket filled with squealing piglets.
To get to the market we went further in through the forest until we reached a railway line. Walking on a narrow footpath beside the line, we came to a little train stop. From there we got on to a road leading to a small town and an open-air market. There she sold her piglets, her vegetables and her roots. It was hot and the sun pricked my skin. But I was kept happy with a dollop of molasses on a stick bought from a man on a bicycle.
When she had sold her goods, we ate noodles at a stall, bought some thread and needles, some fabric remnants, some rice, salt, cooking oil, kerosine, soap, and toothpaste for me. Then she left her handcart at the sundry shop and we went for a ride in a trishaw pedalled by a man called Ah Tee. She told me she had looked after him when he was a baby. On the way home, she allowed me to ride in the handcart.
I do not know how long I stayed with her. The days merged into one another, filled with all kinds of things to do. We went into the forest to collect firewood. We picked the hard, grey seeds of a wayside plant, and strung them together like beads to make necklaces and bracelets. We collected fallen saga seeds. She gave me her rubber bands to link into a springy skipping rope. We made shuttlecocks out of chicken feathers and rubber discs cut out from the inner tube of a bicycle tyre. We picked smooth, round stones to keep. And she taught me how to play catís cradle.
My grandmother, the pig woman, was a better child psychologist than my mother, the trained teacher. She made me feel at home by making me a part of her life and there, away from my motherís rules and my servantís routine, I had my only experience of what I think people mean by a carefree childhood.
It was then, on lamp-lit evenings when we were left with nothing to do but talk to each other, that I learned more about her departure from my grandfatherís house.
My grandmother had been a bondmaid, sold to my grandfather when she was ten. Her mother had told her she would be the personal maid of Grandfather Limís eldest son, who was then thirteen or fourteen. But when she arrived at the house she found herself given the job of warming Grandfather Limís opium pipes. When she reached puberty she ended up warming his bed as well, and that was how my father was conceived.
When my grandfather died my father was barely a toddler and because my grandmother was only a bondmaid, both she and my father had a hard time from the sons of the other wives. Technically speaking, she was a slave and would never have been allowed to leave the house. But the tin slump of the 1930s affected the family so badly that when my grandmother suggested going home to her parents with her son, the family was happy to let her go. It meant two mouths less to feed. By that time my father was already in his teens, not a baby as he had given me to understand, and had to stop school and start working.
It was on one of those evenings too that I learned about my aunt called Bobo, short for Charbo, or "Female", then a common name for Hokkien girls. To this day I cannot think of a more effective way to depersonalize a child. But my grandmother insisted that Bobo, being the only daughter, was doted on by the whole family. Almost the same age as my father, she was the favourite of my grandfatherís eldest son by his first wife. Boboís own mother was the fifth wife, a convent foundling who had also started out as an opium maid for Grandfather Lim and ended up in his bed.
After my grandfatherís death, the eldest son had taken Bobo under his wing. Seeing himself as a modern man, he sent her to an English school for girls, and arranged for her to have piano and dancing lessons. When she was older, he took her to the Chinese Recreation Club. Sometimes he brought his friends home; then she would play the piano for them or dance with them to the music of gramophone records. It was an unusually liberal upbringing for a Chinese girl in those days. So, said my grandmother, no one was too surprised when, at the age of sixteen, she eloped with the Malay trumpet player of the Club band and was never heard of again.
Back at school that year, I learned deception and betrayal. I learned to deny my grandmother her real existence.
Why exactly I should have done so I do not remember. My fatherís attitude may have had something to do with it. When he turned up to take me home, he barely spoke to her. He merely gave her some money, and then led me to the waiting taxi. I assume he thanked her, but it was like a business transaction. And he never mentioned her again to me until after her death.
I had enjoyed my stay with her. I had even become fond of her in the short-term way children have of dispensing their affections. Once I was back in my milieu of small-town children from middle-class homes I was proud to say I had a grandmother. But some part of me knew that the farm, the pigs and the hut with the earthen floor had to be kept secret. What could be talked about was that my grandfather had been a wealthy man, and that I had a glamorous aunt who played the piano and danced.
In time, I forgot my grandmother as she really was. I did not see her again, did not want to see her again. Like my father, I conveniently pushed the truth of her out of my family history and my life.
Some years later, my father moved up in the hierarchy of the government service. We moved to a bigger house. Our status went up further. By the time I was in secondary school, we were living in a detached bungalow. The need to have an acceptable family history became more important. And I became a snob.
It was an attitude learned from my parents, and diligently cultivated as we assumed poses, behavioural styles and opinions from English books, Australian womenís magazines and American movies. One ate with the fork so, the knife so, and the spoon so. One turned up oneís nose at eating with the fingers and at roadside stalls. One sniffed at this and sneered at the other, so long as it had not been sanctified by what we had read or seen in books, magazines and movies.
And like all snobs, we lived in constant fear of doing something wrong. My mother, who never talked about her parents either, scoured the pages of her monthly and weekly magazines for tips on etiquette, for social niceties such as whether the Queen of England poured her tea before or after the milk. My father insisted on surrounding himself with British things, right down to his socks and shoe-laces.
Yet we were not mimic people, pretending to be white or British. We knew what we were: English-educated Malaysians of Chinese origin. But we were perhaps too conscious of being different from the more traditional Chinese, whose values and behaviour we found difficult to understand.
In my own case, I know now that my sense of separateness had much to do with that one encounter with my grandmother and the sudden awareness that things within my very own family were not quite right: my grandfatherís being an opium addict, my grandmotherís being a bondmaid, my unknown Aunt Boboís being given a name that barely acknowledged her value as a person beyond her sex. Indeed, my fatherís behaviour towards his mother.
As I grew older this unease became a part of my snobbery. My rejection of my cultural roots became no longer simply a matter of being ashamed of my forebears as individuals; it became a matter of being unwilling to be identified with an entire culture, simply because that culture allowed such dehumanization of people.
Whatever my parentsí reasons for breaking away from their past, the result was the same: stranded in a cultural vacuum, we began to absorb the only set of values and traditions made available to us by an understood language and its pervasive media.
We became westernized not by choice but by default.
The racial riots of May 1969 forced us to rethink our position. Besieged and beleaguered but emotionally unable to take sides, we came face to face with the misfortune of being Chinese without feeling particularly Chinese, in what suddenly appeared to be an anti-Chinese world.
Before the riots I had planned to study English at university. But now I could not see its value in the uncertain new world that would replace the one being destroyed before our eyes. After the riots, I watched my former classmates set off to study, train, work, take their places in a world wobbling into a new orbit. On what did they base their confidence, their sense of purpose, their faith in a future? All I was aware of was my own lack of the first prerequisite for a future: the ownership of a here and now.
Towards the end of 1969, we received a letter from Ah Tee, the trishaw man my grandmother had looked after as a baby. It was written in Chinese and we had to get a Chinese-school teacher to read it for us.
It was to say that my grandmother had died some months earlier, run down by a bus while she was pushing her cartload of piglets and vegetables to the market. He had found her on the road and taken her to the hospital where she had died a few days later. He had taken the liberty of arranging for her burial as he had not known how to contact us in time. He had further taken the liberty of selling her pigs to pay for the hospital expenses, the coffin and the burial ground.
A week later, we heard from the lawyers. My grandmother had left everything to me. Her contributions towards an old-age provident fund run by a Chinese association did not amount to much, although she had spent most of her life paying towards it. Her savings with the only finance company in the neighbouring town, however, came close to two hundred thousand ringgit.
I do not know what my parents would have made me do with the money under normal circumstances. But with the trauma of the riots still fresh in their minds, they urged me to use part of the money to travel in search of a country to emigrate to, a country where I could be safe and happy.
Few memories remain of my days as a wandering Chinese Malaysian in search of friendly soil to strike root. I travelled all over western Europe, but my experiences up to the time I met Michael Templeton are vague and random in my mind, like the blurry snapshots and studio photographs my mother had kept in an old Jacobís Cream Crackers tin for as long as I could remember. I recall my days in Munich best, possibly because it was the city I chose to study in, but probably because I met Michael Templeton there.
A child of the sun, I lived by its movements. On winter mornings I stayed in bed until the lightening of the sky told me it was time to rise. On summer mornings I was up at dawn and went for long walks in the nearby English Gardens, or the Nymphenburg palace grounds. On days when I felt more adventurous I rode in trams and buses, stopping as and when the mood caught me, to explore different parts of the city. On hot days, I cooled off in baroque churches. On cold days I kept warm in art museums. I spent hours in bookshops aching over rare books I never felt rich enough nor settled enough to buy. In time I overcame the fear of eating alone in public, and frequently stopped for tea and cakes at five oí clock, joining overweight German women and their dogs in gemütliche cafés all over the city.
Physically I was more active than I had ever been. But underlying the activity was a heavy muteness, like a lump in the throat that would not go away. I had not had enough experience of myself to recognize the feeling as loneliness. I did not miss anybody, never having got close enough to anyone to miss them. Nor did I feel a need to talk to someone; as in my childhood I was happy talking to myself.
But it was 1970. All over Europe young people were making it their personal credo to make love, not war. Everywhere I saw people in pairs and in groups. Everywhere young couples hugged and kissed with overt abandon and covert defiance. Even the elderly were affected. In summer, or on days when the Föhn winds blew warm down the Alps, fat old Hausfraus in the parks took off their knee-socks, rolled up their skirts, undid their blouses, and bared their bodies to the sun.
I alone stayed untouched by this wash of spontaneity. Or so it seemed to me.
The habit of alienation was a difficult one to break.
Reproduced from The Gombak Review, Volume 4, Number 2, October 1999, by kind permission of the Editor, Dr. Jalal Uddin Khan, Department of English and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia, 53100 Gombak, Malaysia. Please contact the Editor at tel: (603) 2056-5042; fax: (603) 2056-4870; email: firstname.lastname@example.org for subscription details.
The yellowness of his skin took Siew Hoon by surprise. And the waxen sheen. For one horrifying moment she thought she saw beads of perspiration on his upper lip, and was startled enough to try and look more closely. Peering through the glass window of the coffin lid, she moved her gaze slowly from his chest to his nostrils to his eyelids, just in case. Silly of her, of course. Heíd been dead for three days. They were waiting for Betty, his only child, to come home for the funeral. So even if there had been a mistake.Ö
Siew Hoon had always thought of him as a handsome man, this uncle of hers, husband of her seventh and youngest aunt. When she was a child, she used to think of him as the second handsomest man in the world, the handsomest being of course her father. Not too surprising, really. Until she was thirteen, Seventh Uncle was the second most important man in her life.
She and her cousin Betty were born into the family almost as soon as the War was over, the youngest in their generation; carried by their mothers through those final difficult months of the Japanese Occupation like talismans against death and despair. To her sister and her other cousins, all born before the War, they were "The Babies"; and still were, even though they were now both middle-aged and menopausal. True, some of their prewar cousins were old enough to be their parents. But Siew Hoon often thought that the real reason they would always be "babies" was that they never knew war, never had their education interrupted, never had to learn Japanese, and never had to eat tapioca every day. For their innocence of those particular hardships, they would undoubtedly be treated by their elders with protective kindliness until they died.
Siew Hoon spent many of her school holidays with Betty. She loved those holidays: eating out almost every day at different restaurants, each one chosen for a particular speciality; endless supplies of comic books; and movies almost every day because Seventh Aunt had a job with a local movie magazine and received an endless flow of complimentary cinema tickets. Strangely enough, she never grew particularly close to the family; and in the way relatives have of slipping out of oneís life, they slipped out of hers. Betty went off to boarding school in Ireland after Form Three. Her parents must have expected her to go on to University, but she got married instead and moved to Canada where she settled down. Siew Hoon joined the Diplomatic Corps soon after graduating from University, never got married, and never settled anywhere. And so they lost touch.
It was not until many years later that she saw her Seventh Aunt and Uncle again. It was 1990, and she was forty-five. She remembered the year because it struck her then as somehow significant that the century was exactly twice as old as she was. Throughout Europe, the Perestroika thaw was just beginning to set in. In Southeast Asia, the new "Tigers" were beginning to roar into action. Malaysia itself was moving out of a recession into a new age of industrialization. As for her, she was at a crossroads in her life, old enough to opt for early retirement, but not too old to hope -- that she might start her own small business, maybe even get married and settle down. The future had seemed so unusually bright at that particular point in time
On coming home, her sister Didi told her that Seventh Aunt had been unwell, and suggested that they called on her. Didi had always been very good about keeping in touch with relatives. During that visit, they learned that Betty hardly ever wrote to her parents, and had come home to see them only once in all those years. Having recently lost her own parents, Siew Hoon began calling on them whenever she could, trying to make up for Bettyís absence by assuming the role of surrogate daughter.
By that time the old couple were in their sixties, and Seventh Uncle in particular had not aged well. There were heavy, distended bags under his eyes, and liver spots on his face, hands and forearms. He kept his hair trimmed almost to the scalp, no doubt to camouflage the sparseness on top. Age and something elseóarthritis? degeneration of the bones?óhad pushed his head and neck forward from his shoulders into that permanent, painful-looking stoop that reminded Siew Hoon of drawings of the Neanderthal man. Yet the childhood impression remained. She continued to think of him as a handsome man. Maybe because of his own perception of himself.
He was a man very aware of style. Her aunt told her once, in the kitchen out of his hearing, how terribly upset he had been when the children of a new neighbour addressed himóquite properly and respectfullyóas "Grandfather". "Are their eyes covered with dog turd?" he had shouted as he stomped in from the garden, his sixty-odd-year-old face red with exasperation. And only a few months before his death, he had told her with great pride how much weight he had lost; why, he could even put on his trousers from ten years ago. "But cannot-lah," he had added with a grin, "too out of date now, the cut."
There was about him a certain glamour, an aura Siew Hoon associated with Hong Kong film stars. Another time, her aunt showed her his wardrobe. It was a congestion of handmade shirts and trousers. Most of them had not even been looked at for a decade or more, but they hung there as if waiting to be pulled into service any day now. All of them were in almost-new condition. "Never wore these more than half a dozen times, but he won't let me give a single thing away -- not even to the gardener or the church," her aunt had grumbled. Now, Siew Hoon thought, thereís nothing to stop her from giving everything away; except maybe sentimentality.
It was during those visits as an adult that she saw what a man of the world her uncle was. Like most Cantonese people he knew and loved his food. Every meal with him was an occasion, and it was amusing to hear his views on gustatory matters. On wine: "Never drink wine in this country. If you can afford it, itís not worth drinking; if you canít, itís overpriced." On the common practice of having a little dish of fresh-cut chilli soaking in soysauce beside oneís plate at every meal: "If the foodís any good, you wonít need additional sauce. If itís no good, no amount of sauce or chilli is going to help." And on the vulgar use of expensive cognac as a status symbol: "If people had any sense at all, theyíd offer their friends VSOP and keep the XO for themselves."
The aphoristic way he expressed himself gave those statements the weight of universal truths. He uttered them with an arch glance in Siew Hoonís direction, so that she could never be sure whether he really believed them or were merely trying to show her, his globetrotting niece, what a sophisticate he was. Yet she could never consider buying a bottle of wine or cognac, or even watch people fill their side dishes with cut chilli and soysauce, without hearing his voice and seeing that glance. It was true that she hardly ever bought wine and cognac since coming home for good. But whether that had to do with Seventh Uncleís dicta, the exorbitant price of alcoholic drinks in the country, or her own meanness, she could never be sure. Probably a bit of everything.
Seventh Uncle drank a great deal more than he should have, and in the beginning, Siew Hoon assumed that that was the reason for her auntís perpetual air of subtle disgruntlement, of bearing him some deep, unspoken grudge. But shortly after she began to see them on a regular basis, she became aware of other possible causes. One evening her aunt made one of her rare phone calls to her, and spoke at incoherent length about some woman she accused of having designs on him. As Seventh Uncle was by then seventy-two, Siew Hoon did not take her aunt too seriously. It did occur to her, however, that that was probably why Seventh Aunt had always insisted on retaining her financial independence by working as a badly paid secretary, even though Seventh Uncle was obviously able to provide her with a comfortable life. Whatever the truth of it, that was one thing less for Seventh Aunt to worry about now that he was dead.
Lying on his back, Seventh Uncleís upper dentures sank into his skull, way behind his lower jaw, so that his own teethósuddenly too long, too solid, and too yellowójutted out in a grotesque underbite. Someone had placed a grey felt hat on his head. She had never seen him with a hat on while he was alive, unless she counted the photographs taken during a holiday in some mildly temperate country; Australia, probably. Whoever did it must have thought he should make his final exit the way he had livedóin style. But they had only succeeded in making him look like a parody of himself. And that caused the tears to spring to her eyes.
She felt a light touch on her shoulder and turned. It was Betty, her eyes red-rimmed, a little smile of greeting on her tired face; but otherwise composed, cool, correctly dressed, as Siew Hoon remembered her.
"Baby," she said, using the nickname Siew Hoon had refused to answer to since she was sixteen, "thank you for coming." They exchanged a quick, polite hug.
"You okay?" Siew Hoon asked.
"Yes, itís my mother...."
"I know. Donít worry, Iíll go and talk to her in a minute," Siew Hoon said.
"Thanks." But Bettyís eyes had already slid past Siew Hoon to Didi, who was standing behind. Suddenly unsure whom Betty was thanking, or for what, Siew Hoon was sharply reminded of the reason they had never got very close in spite of the amount of time spent together: she never liked me, itís as simple as that. When Siew Hoon was younger, she used to wonder why. Was it because she always did better at school? Was it because Betty thought her parents paid her too much attention? But even as a child, Siew Hoon knew she could never ask anyone in the family those questions; she would have been told off for being silly or unkind. In any case, once Betty went away, the questions became unimportant.
Seventh Aunt, hair uncombed and face unpowdered, was standing by the coffin directly opposite her. She was bending over her dead husband, engaging him in an earnest monologue. She was usually so taciturn and well groomed that Siew Hoon wondered if the pointless murmuring and neglected appearance were part of the role expected of a newly bereaved Chinese widow. She found she had to look away.
Next to Seventh Aunt was a woman about Siew Hoonís own age, maybe a bit older. She was dressed in black, which surprised her a little. Siew Hoon had always thought that only the children of the deceased were allowed to wear black at a funeral. A blouse of some silky material and a gathered skirt accentuated the overwhelming fullness of the womanís breasts and hips. Her hair, dyed an unnatural black, fell to her shoulders in loose waves. She had too much foundation on her face, her eyebrows were too well shaped, and her eyes too distinctly outlined. But her lips bore only the merest touch of a discreet shade of coral. She looked familiar but Siew Hoon could not place her; that is, not until she looked up and straight at her. And then there was no mistaking that look of vacant good nature. It was Noneh. Siew Hoon smiled, and she smiled back, uncertainly.
Siew Hoon had forgotten all about Noneh, her Third Auntís daughter. No-brain Noneh, they used to call her behind her back. Noneh was neither a prewar nor a postwar baby. She was born right in the middle of those difficult, unsettling years, while her father was languishing in Pudu Jail. A rich manís son, Third Uncle was unused to deprivation; and food, especially meat, was scarce. So when a neighbourís chicken wandered into his backyard one day, he did not stop to think about the pros and cons of having that bird for dinner. Unfortunately for him, the occupying forces took a very dim view of his un-Bushido-like lack of self-control and he was summarily hauled off to prison. But the real victim was Noneh. As a result of his absence during much of Third Auntís pregnancy and subsequent delivery, it was often whispered, albeit only within the family, that Nonehís real father was not Third Uncle at all, but a medical officer in the Japanese army. Hence, so the story went, her nickname. It was supposedly a shortening of anoneh, one of the few words the older cousins still remembered from their war-time efforts to master Japanese. Siew Hoon never found out what the word really meant.
Neither could she remember which of her siblings or cousins was relating that story of Nonehís paternity when she overheard it. As the youngest child in the extended family, the only way she ever learned about things like that was by eavesdropping; no one ever told her anything. But thinking about it now, Siew Hoon could not give the story credence, for one very simple reason: Nonehís fatheróher Third Uncle, that isówas from all accounts a being quite devoid of brains. Even the way he died suggested a total lack of common sense. He had not been tortured to death or anything like that; he survived his miserable, unheroic incarceration, right up to the day the British troops finally arrived. The soldiers brought freedom, food, and a warning not to eat too much all at once. Third Uncle brainlessly ignored the warning and gorged himself to death. Literally.
Now here, if further proof were needed, was his daughter, looking every bit the gourmand he was, wobbling towards her like a black Jell-O, working her way round the coffin without so much as a glance at the dear departed in it.
"Eh, who are you?" Noneh asked when she was maybe a yard away. Her words tumbled out drenched in that little throaty laugh Siew Hoon remembered so well; nervous, apologetic, self-depreciating. The laugh of a woman who had long accepted her role as the familyís near-idiot. "You look so familiar... I feel I should know you... but I canít seem to..." and she brought her right hand up to her temple with a fluttering motion startlingly reminiscent of Third Auntís during her last days, before she died of the brain tumour discovered too late for anything to be done.
"Iím Baby," Siew Hoon said, using the nickname she knew Noneh would remember her by.
"Oh my goodness! If you hadnít told me.... My goodness! If I were to see you on the street I would never.... Oh my! When was the last time..?" And before Siew Hoon knew it, she was being bustled out to the garden where an assortment of metal and wooden folding chairs had been arranged in rows for the friends and relatives expected to come and pay their last respects.
It was true they had not seen each other for many years. Siew Hoon was still a schoolgirl when she overheard her mother telling her father that No-brain Noneh had eloped with a Eurasian soldier. In those days it was unheard of for nice, well brought up, middle-class, Straits-born Chinese girls to get involved with men of a different race. So she heard no more of Noneh. Now, forty years later, she learned for the first time that Noneh had four sons, all grown, all professionals, all married; and two grandchildren, both girls.
"And your husband, is he..?" Siew Hoon asked, uncertain if he was still alive.
"Who? My old man? Oh, heís around. No, no, not here. Heís at home, looking after my younger granddaughter. Eh," a sudden, barely controlled giggle, "you remember how we used to exchange songs?"
Until Noneh reminded her, she had forgotten. As children, they had lived in the same town, gone to the same school, and travelled in the same schoolbus. Every afternoon as the bus wended its long, circuitous way all over town dropping the girls off practically at their doorsteps, the older ones at the back would start a singsong of the latest pop hits. Didi was too serious to indulge in this silliness, as she called it. But Noneh and Siew Hoon, then fifteen and twelve, were caught in its fever. They tuned in to every single request programme on the radio; sat with their ears glued to the speaker, paper and pencil ready in hand to take down the lyrics of the latest pop hits; and they compared notes and exchanged lyrics every day during recess or in the bus.
It so happened that at about the same time their mothers were going through a mahjong fever. In spite of his disapproval, Siew Hoonís father had no choice but to drive her mother to her mahjong session every Sunday, on the way picking up Third Aunt and dropping her off to spend the day with Noneh. So for a stretch of several months they became quite close.
By then Nonehís mother had remarried, and the new Third Uncle was a round-faced, jolly-looking man who loved having Siew Hoon visit, never tired of making her cups of hot Bournvita chocolate, and delighted in feeding her all kinds of cakes and puddings that he had made himself. He was a very home-loving sort of man, that Third Uncle, always smiling and always busy ó cleaning, sweeping, splitting thin bamboo for crab traps, tatting fishing nets, and, of course, baking and cooking. In that way he was the ideal husband for Third Aunt, who never quite got used to the idea that she was no longer the socialite wife of a rich manís son.
Noneh suddenly said, "Do you like dancing? I love it, you know. I donít know why, but I just love to dance. Maybe my mother danced too much when she was carrying me. They used to call her the Tango Queen, you know. Do you know the Hard Rock Café? I go there every Friday and Saturday evening."
The Hard Rock Café? Noneh? Fifty-god-knows-how-many-years old and she goes to the Hard Rock Café? Every Friday? And Saturday?
"What do you do there?" Siew Hoon asked with a small laugh, hearing in her own voice that tone of patient indulgence one adopts with near-idiots.
"Oh, dance a bit, drink a bit, listen to the music. I just love the music." She started humming; then, remembering where they were and why they were there, looked restlessly around before leaning over to whisper in Siew Hoonís ear, "What say you we get out of here?"
"Thereís a coffee shop at the end of the road, remember? Come lah."
Siew Hoon took in the carelessly applied foundation collecting in the creases of Nonehís skin, the teeth too perfect to be natural, the old-fashioned eye-liner painted on with an upward stroke at the outer end of each eyelid, the blue-black of the tattooed eyebrows. And she was overcome by ó protective kindliness, she supposed.
"All right," she said, "but just a while, okay? Theyíre leaving for the cemetery soon."
"Donít worry. We have plenty of time."
At the coffee shop Noneh ordered kopi-o-kau and roast-pork rice for herself. Since Siew Hoon was still full from the laksa she had eaten on her way to the funeral, she asked for a Nescafe Ice. While waiting for the rice to come, Noneh began spooning great dollops of ginger-chilli sauce onto her side dish.
"The sauce here is very good, you know. You should try it one day. "
"How can you taste anything else after all that hot stuff? " Siew Hoon asked, eyeing the side dish with disapproval.
"Donít be such an orang puteh celup lah, you. Itís the sauce that makes everything taste better. Thatís why we have different sauces for different things. See, with konlo mee, you eat green chilli pickled in vinegar. With hokkien mee, you eat fresh red chilli and raw garlic in thick soysauce, although some people like it with sambal belacan¼ ." And so she rattled on.
When her plate of roast-pork rice finally appeared, she said, with one of her little throaty laughs, "Actually I'm not supposed to eat any fatty meat you know, but donít care lah, eat first, die later, ha? "
"Aiyo," she continued between relished mouthfuls, "if my hubby were to see me now, heíd kill me, man. Actually heís quite okay lah, but to tell you the truth, I donít know how I came to marry him. All the time I wanted to marry a gwailo, you know. That time there were so many soldiers around, remember? But maybe you were too young. Ya, I used to go out with the British soldiers those days. But of all people I go and marry a Eurasian. Fate lah, all fate."
"But heís been good to you?"
"Cannot complain lah. You see, like now, heís looking after our granddaughter for me. When I go to the Hard Rock Café also."
"You mean he doesnít go with you?"
"No lah," Noneh said dismissively. "That fella hates going out. Old already, you know. Prefers to stay at home and play with the granddaughter. He can lah, but I canít man, I simply got to go out. Iíll die man, if you ask me to stay at home day in and day out like that. Why, I also donít know. From the time I was small you know, could never stay at home. Thatís how I got my accident lah, driving that stupid schoolbus."
Siew Hoon stared. A cousin of hers, a member of her family, a blood relation, driving a schoolbus. She fought down the urge to laugh out loud.
So who do you dance with when youíre at the Hard Rock Café?" she asked, instead.
Now she could laugh, and did. "Oh-ho, so youíve got a boyfriend on the side ha?"
"Not to say boyfriend lah, but heís always at the Hard Rock Café when I go, so we dance a bit, drink a bit, talk a bit. Old already, no more nonsense lah." A burst of throaty laughter.
"So how old is he?"
"Donít know, about sixty I think. Gwailo lah. Iíve always liked gwailo you know. But see? I ended up with a Eurasian fellow. But Betty married a gwailo, you know?"
The mention of Betty reminded Siew Hoon of the funeral. She looked at her watch.
"Weíd better be going back," she said, "what time are they leaving for the cemetery, do you know?"
"Donít worry lah, thereís plenty of time." A slight pause, and then, "Actually, I donít feel like following you all to the cemetery, man."
"Why should I go for that old fool?"
"You mean Seventh Uncle?"
"Ya lah, who else. The old fart."
Perhaps taking Siew Hoonís stunned silence for disapproval, she went on, "I know lah, Iím not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but you donít know what happened man, you were too young. You know he...? Ahh donít want to talk about it lah. All past and gone."
Noneh had finished her rice by now and, picking up the little, short-handled china spoon, began vigorously to stir up the sugar at the bottom of her kopi-o-kau. Not knowing what to say, Siew Hoon watched her in silence. All of a sudden, she let go of the spoon so that it slithered all the way into the coffee, and began to knead the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. Her eyes were tightly shut but that did not stop the tears from seeping out. Impulsively Siew Hoon took hold of her other hand, now twitching rather alarmingly where it rested on the table.
At her touch Noneh looked up and tried to smile.
"I know, you know. I know you all call me No-brain Noneh behind my back."
Siew Hoon opened her mouth, realized that to protest would be adding insult to injury, and closed it again without speaking. But Noneh did not seem to be expecting any kind of reply.
"Just donít think I donít know, okay?" Then, after a brief pause filled with heavy breathing, "Thatís the whole trouble lah. Just because I have big breasts," and she thumped her chest most violently, making her whole frame jiggle, "just because of these big, stupid tits, people think I have no brains, cannot feel pain, cannot feel shame, cannot feel anything, cannot cry, cannot speak up, cannot tell the truth!"
Siew Hoon tightened her hold on Nonehís captive hand and tried to stop the violent twitching. This was alarming. True, they did call her No-brain Noneh behind her back, but she had never heard anyone using it in a malicious way. On the contrary, the name was always used with a great deal of affection, paradoxical though it seemed. In any case, no one had called her that for years; it was a phase they had gone through when they were in their teens. And she was sure that none of them would have been so unkind as to call her that to her face.
"You know how I know? You know how I know?" The words came out almost aggressively. Siew Hoon said nothing, waited for Noneh to answer her own question.
"It was that bastard, that ugly bastard lying in that stupid coffin! He thought I would never tell Seventh Aunt, but I did. Then he tried to deny it, said she shouldnít believe anything I say because everyone knows I have no brains, thatís why all my cousins call me No-brain Noneh, that my father also had no brains, and my mother, that no one even knows for sure who my father was, that Iím a bastard and ó oh my god, Iím so glad heís dead!"
Quickly pulling her chair closer, Siew Hoon put an arm around Nonehís shoulders, as much to shush her up as to comfort her. They were the only customers in the little coffee shop, but Nonehís voice had risen to such a pitch that it had drawn the proprietress from out of the depths of her kitchen. She now hovered about, trying not to look as if she was watching them. Siew Hoon did not think she would have enough English to understand everything that was being said, but the violence of Nonehís distress transcended language.
"Come, Noneh, this isnít the place to talk of such things. Let me drive you home. Wait. Iíll get my car."
So that was how Noneh and Siew Hoon missed their Seventh Uncleís funeral.
"When and how did all this happen?" she asked Noneh in the car.
"You remember that time when my mother went mad over mahjong? She and your mother used to go and play every Sunday, remember? What you donít know is that on weekdays too she would go off and play and leave me alone with my stepfather. That was when it all began."
Good heavens, Siew Hoon said to myself, not Third Uncle as well. It was difficult for her to imagine that her Third Uncle, who looked like a Laughing Buddha, could have done what Noneh seemed to be suggesting.
"That stupid fat old fool. When he died I didnít even bother to go to his bloody funeral. After all, by that time my mother was already dead. Ya, he too thought I wouldnít tell my mother, but I did. And she threatened him. She said if it ever happened again she was going to tell the whole family. But to be on the safe side, she made me go and stay with Seventh Aunt, thinking Iíll be okay there. But men, theyíre all the same. So the same thing happened. Once, when Seventh Aunt was working late. That bastard came into my room."
"And you told Seventh Aunt."
"Ya," she sounded angry, "but what could she do. She had to work, sometimes late. So I started going out every night. Tried to find a nice gwailo to marry. And then what happens? I end up with a Eurasian chap. Only half a gwailo!" She burst into a peal of near-hysterical laughter.
Siew Hoon suddenly found herself wondering about Betty. Betty who never let her guard down and never allowed her to get close, who was sent off to school abroad at the age of fifteen, and who hardly ever came home after she found her gwailo.
It wasnít until she had dropped Noneh off at the block of low-cost flats where she lived that Siew Hoon remembered Didi, who was depending on her to drive her home. When she got to Seventh Uncleís house, everybody had left for the cemetery except for Didi and a couple of distant relatives. It was clear that she was furious over Siew Hoonís unexplained absence, but since she was not allowed to lose her temper on account of her blood pressure, she resorted to a stiff silence as they drove home.
Siew Hoon did not particularly mind. She had a lot of thinking to do. Jeeze, she thought, what a lot those two uncles had to answer for, especially Seventh Uncle. How could he? Far from being glad that he was dead, she wished very much that he was alive. She wanted to confront him with this new knowledge. How could he have said all those things about Noneh to her face, even if they were true, especially if they were true? How old was Noneh then? Very young, that was for sure. She was barely out of her teens when she ran away to get married. No, the whole thing was too vile for words. What she found particularly unforgivable was the way he had taken the lighthearted strands of their childish jokes and twisted them into that evil whip to scar Noneh with. That was vile. That was like making them party to his crime; accessories before the fact, if there was such a thing.
"Which one of you lot started this business of calling Noneh ĎNo-brain Nonehí, anyway?" she burst out at last as they turned into the road where Didiís house was. She suddenly felt a need to have it out with Didi before it was too late.
"What are you talking about?"
"Come on, Didi. You know that you and the older cousins used to talk about her as No-brain Noneh. Donít deny it because I overheard you people laughing over it. I just want to know which was the wise guy who started it. "
"Why? Did you go and tell her?"
"I didnít. But someone else did. And itís been hurting her all these years. Did you know that?"
Didi fell silent after a little click of the tongue. Siew Hoon could guess what was going on in her mind. She was undoubtedly appalled at this breach of the family tradition of showing protective kindliness in front of each other, never mind how cruel one might be behind the personís back.
"Actually," she finally said, "I donít think it was any of us, I mean the cousins. If I remember correctly, it was Seventh Uncle. Who started it, I mean."
"Seventh Uncle! When was this?"
"You remember the time Noneh went to stay with them after failing Form Four for the second time? She was supposed to be looking for a job. Instead she spent all her time hanging about with British soldiers, coming home late and all that. He was upset. Naturally. I mean, I would be too, if I had the responsibility of looking after someone elseís daughter but had no authority to control her. Thatís what he told some of us when he invited us to dinner. It was at Lee Wong Kee restaurant, I remember, and it was in honour of me, because I had just graduated. You werenít there; you were at home with Mama. And Noneh wasnít there either; sheíd gone out on a date, with a soldier I expect, and I think that was what made him so angry."
"You mean it all began as late as that?"
"Ya. You donít think we could have thought up such a name for Noneh when we were kids? We werenít as smart as children are these days. Besides, before you and Betty were born, during the war, when we were all staying with Granny in the big house, she was everyoneís darling. Even the Japanese doctor who came to give her her smallpox vaccination adored her."
So it was far worse than she had thought. Seventh Uncle had not borrowed the strands for his whip from them; he had actually spun the strands himself, woven the whip, wielded it, and then passed the weapon around to make sure that everyoneís hands would be stained with the blood on it. Siew Hoon felt so contaminated that she unconsciously took her hands off the steering wheel and rubbed her palms on her skirt.
"Listen," said Didi outside her house, "if youíre not doing anything, why donít you come in? Stay for dinner? I only need to put the chicken in the microwave."
"Iíll come for dinner, but there are a few things I must do first," Siew Hoon said. "Iíll come by around six-thirty. All right?"
While driving home, quite unbidden a scene flashed through her mind: a hot, still afternoon; she in a room with Seventh Uncle, Betty outside banging on the door, shouting to come in, and Seventh Uncle putting one finger up to his lips, and holding her hand tightly to stop her from opening the door. Did I, though? Did I open the door for Betty? She could not remember. Another scene: the three of them in a room playing Snakes and Ladders. But was it the same room? And the same afternoon? Did I open that door? She willed herself to remember, to see herself wrenching her hand free, getting up from the floor, running to the door, opening it, and seeing Betty there ó an angry Betty, a Betty declaring that she didnít want to be her friend any more. But her mind remained stubbornly blank.
Why couldnít she remember? Why that mental block? How old was she then? Could it be that there was in fact nothing to remember? Was this merely a figment of her imagination, suggested into existence by Nonehís story? Then why the wordless panic rising in her gorge?
Once back in her condominium apartment, she changed and went down to the swimming pool which, she knew, would be deserted at that time of day. She swam until she thought her lungs would burst. Then she had a long, thorough shower, switched on the air-conditioner in the bedroom, set the alarm for five oíclock, drew the curtains, and crawled into bed. All the time a mantra she had learned as a child repeated itself in her head: Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum ó hail the dew upon the lotus, hail the dew upon the lotus Ė and she had no idea what it meant.
She was late arriving at Didiís.
"Whatís this?" said her brother-in-law, Ben, as he relieved her of the bottles in her hands while she slipped off her shoes at the door. "Wine. And XO! Have you struck a lottery or something? What happened to all those famous rules about not drinking wine in this country, and keeping the best cognac for yourself?"
"Just shut up, enjoy, and count yourself lucky, okay?" She did not feel she had to explain why she was jettisoning Seventh Uncleís commandments for stylish living.
In the kitchen she got some fresh chilli out of the fridge, sliced them, put them in a small side dish, drowned them in soysauce, and set the dish in the middle of the dining table. Didi watched with a bemused expression on her face but said nothing. Siew Hoon had always scoffed at her when she did the same thing.
What with Didiís cooking, her wine, and Benís near-legendary accomplishments as a raconteur, dinner was a happy, if somewhat noisy, affair. No one looking at them would have suspected that the two women had that very morning just missed burying their Seventh Uncle. Then Siew Hoonís hand-phone began to bleat.
It was Noneh, sounding very far away, very puzzled, and very nervous.
"Hallo. Who is this? Can I speak to¼ ?" A pause before she said uncertainly, "Siew Hoon?"
"Speaking," Siew Hoon replied. "Is that you, Noneh? Is anything the matter?"
"Ya, ya, Iím fine, but who are you? I found this business card in my purse¼." Siew Hoon remembered the name card she had pressed into Nonehís hand just before saying goodbye to her, "Öbut I donít know anyone by this name."
"This is Baby, Noneh. Thatís my Chinese name." Siew Hoon was not surprised that Noneh did not know her Chinese name, she did not know Nonehís Chinese name either. As with most Straits Chinese of their generation, their Chinese names were on the birth certificate for official purposes only, never used by the family.
"Oh, then you must be Second Auntyís daughter. When did we meet ah? Aiyo, I canít seem to remember anything these days¼." Siew Hoon could almost see Nonehís right hand fluttering up to her temple.
"That was Noneh," she said at the end of the most disjointed telephone conversation she had ever had. It was strangely exhausting, as if she had spent a few hours trying to throw a lifeline out to a drowning person buffeted about by the waves of a great stormy ocean of forgetfulness, always slightly out of reach. She turned to Ben, the doctor in the family.
"Do you think Noneh might be losing her sanity?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you know. Her mother died of a brain tumour, didnít she? What if sheó."
"Nonsense lah. Sheís always been a bit of a scatterbrain, you know that."
"Ya, butó well, she doesnít even seem to remember that we met at Seventh Uncleís funeral, that we had a chat, and that I drove her home. And this morning while we were talking she kept rambling on about...." Siew Hoon stopped. How much, if anything, did Ben and Didi know? "Or do you think itís Alzheimerís?"
"Rubbish!" barked Didi. In recent years, she had become less and less ready to believe that people younger than her could be capable of suffering from the diseases of old age. "It must have been her accident lah!"
"She did mention an accident, but what happened actually?"
"She almost died man. That was the time she was driving a schoolbus. So silly. Why she had to go and work as a schoolbus driver Iíll never know. Itís not as though Cyril couldnít support her. Apparently she lost control of the bus and it crashed through a road divider and overturned. Fortunately there were no children in the bus. I only knew about it because Cyril phoned to ask us to donate blood. I went to see her in hospital and my god she was a mess. Did you notice sheís wearing dentures? Lost all her teeth. I wouldnít be surprised if the impact has affected her brain as well."
"So youíve met her husband," Siew Hoon said. "Whatís he like?"
"Cyrilís an angel, lah, I tell you. He was there day and night. Practically lived in the ward, looking after her. I tell you, in his place, I would have left her years ago. Sheís darn lucky to have married him, if you ask me. Mad, she was, running away from home and all that before sheíd even finished school."
"You know why she ran away from home?"
"Ah, you know Noneh. Never thinks twice before doing anything. Itís not as if her life was so terrible at home. Third Uncle was always so nice to her. So much so I once heard Third Aunty complaining to Mama that he had spoilt her."
Spoilt her? What did she mean, spoilt her.
"But wait, wait. She didnít run away from home in the usual sense, did she? She went to live with Seventh Aunty, right?"
"Ya, and you know something? Of all the nieces and nephews, she was the one Seventh Uncle loved the most. But I guess you were far too young to remember, huh?"
Copyright © Chuah Guat Eng. Kuala Lumpur, June 8, 1998
Last update on 10 April 2007.