The Best of times - Alan Maley
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I am not frightened. No, not me. I'm terrified! I hate the smell of hospitals — that mixture of disinfectant and human waste and stale bodies — and fear. And I don't know what I'll find when I see her. My mother, I mean. Luckily, Auntie Swee Eng is with me. There's something comforting about her. She makes me feel safe, even when these terrible things are happening. Of course, she's old — but somehow that doesn't matter. I know that she'll help me to face whatever it is that waits for me behind that white door.
The nurse in her smart white uniform calls us over and pushes open the door to the private room. Auntie Swee Eng gives me her warm hand and together, hand in hand, we go into the room. Suddenly I think how strange it is — I'm only sixteen but I tower over the tiny figure of Auntie Swee Eng, who must be at least fifty years older than me. But, tall as I am, I'm still terrified. Thank goodness she's with me. She may be old and small, but she seems so strong. She's tough all right!
After the bright lights of the corridor outside, we find ourselves in the darkness of the room. It takes a few moments before I can see anything. Then, gradually, my eyes get used to the darkness, and objects start to come into focus — the bed and the bedside table with a glass on it; the plastic curtains open by the bed; the dark shape lying under the sheets with tubes coming out of its nose and arms, connected to the frame with a bottle hanging from it; the machine next to the bed with red and green lights; the small table with medicine bottles and metal trays on it; a chair by the bed; the temperature chart hanging on the end of the bed; the sink in the corner; the dark shape of a wardrobe next to the door. The dim outline of a window is visible, but the dark green curtains are closed, so it looks like a TV screen which has been switched off.
Auntie Swee Eng and I stand for a moment just inside the door. The shape on the bed doesn't move but we can hear the faint sound of breathing, and as our eyes get used to the darkness, we can see the sheets rising and falling. We move silently towards the bed. Auntie Swee Eng makes me sit on the chair. Is this my mother? All I can see is the pale outline of a face and the white hospital nightdress. Her eyes are closed. I can see a tube fastened to her arm and a tube which goes into her nose. I take her hand. Her skin feels like dry paper. There's no movement. It's like holding a child's doll, loose and lifeless. But, just as I'm about to let go, I feel her hand squeeze mine — a small movement but it's a sign of life. Yet her eyes are still closed. Her face still does not move. I feel as if she's on another planet, drifting away from me. Is this really my mother? Is this really happening?
How did this all happen? Why is she here, fighting for her life? Is it my fault? What did I do wrong? What did we all do wrong to come to this? I start to feel panic. I feel a mixture of sadness, hopelessness and anger. She must be very ill because she's in the intensive care unit. I feel sick and dizzy from thinking about it. I just cannot think straight. I cannot breathe. I need air. I can't stay here in this enclosed atmosphere any more. I have to get out.
And everything has happened so fast. They only released me from the police station this morning. It was Auntie Swee Eng who came to collect me and take me here. Now I've seen Mum, I realise just how wrong I've been about so many things.
'Come on, Chee Seng, I think we'd better go now,' says Auntie Swee Eng softly. She seems to know and understand how I'm feeling. I take a last look at the dark shape of my mother on the hospital bed, then follow Auntie Swee Eng into the blinding light of the corridor.
The nurse takes us to a cool, quiet waiting room. She brings us some cold drinks. 'Don't worry,' says Auntie Swee Eng. 'The doctor will come to see us when he finishes with his other patients.'
The best of times
As I sit there in that impersonal, white waiting room, I start to think about our life together. My family, I mean. What happened to us? When did things start to go wrong?
Until about a year ago everything was perfect — or at least, that's how it seemed to me. Dad was doing well in his job. They'd just promoted him to export manager at Intercorp, where he worked. At weekends we often went off somewhere together. We had a nice house in a green suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Subang Jaya. At weekends, Mum and Dad often had friends over for lunch or dinner or parties. My parents — Mr Sammy Yeo and Linda — were a popular couple. Whenever I think of our times together, they seem to be bathed in a golden light in my memory.
While I was growing up, Dad was really the centre of my world. He was a wonderful father and was always there for me.
Most days, after work, he would take me up to the park at the top of our street to play football or help me practise my basketball skills. He was always around to help me with my homework, especially maths. He was a wizard at maths, no wonder he'd been promoted. Most nights he would read to me in bed before I went to sleep. Once he read me the whole of The Lord of the Rings- it took him months to finish it! He taught me to swim too and arranged tennis lessons. Everything I remember about him glows with that warm, golden light. Even now, after everything that's happened.
So when did it all start? I think back to my last birthday. I was sixteen and Mum and Dad had organised a big party for me. Mum came from a large family and so did Dad, so the house was filled with uncles and aunts and cousins from all over the place. And that wasn't all, because both Mum and Dad had loads of friends too; who I called 'Uncle' and 'Auntie', even though they weren't really. Of course, Auntie Veena and Uncle Krish were there. They were Mum and Dad's closest friends.
Then there were my best friends from school — Dev, Faisal and Ka Choon. Dev, short for Devinder, was Indian-Malaysian. He lived just up the same street in Subang Jaya. Dev was a great sportsman, especially at hockey. Faisal lived just round the corner from us. He came from a Malay family. And Ka Choon was Chinese-Malaysian. He lived miles away in a very expensive neighbourhood. We were all very different, but that didn't stop us from being the best of friends.
Mum was a great cook and so were all her friends, so there were all sorts of special dishes that they'd brought to the party. Our Indian friends came round with samosas and curries of all descriptions. Malay friends arrived with satay and peanut sauce, and spicy beef rendang. Chinese friends and relatives brought along Hainan chicken rice, spicy Szechuan tofu and Peking duck served with paper — thin pancakes. Our Straits Chinese relatives, Auntie Swee Eng and Auntie Rosie, brought Peranakan dishes like asam laksa — that was one of my real favourites, with its sour tamarind taste and spicy fish soup. And to top it all, Mum brought in an enormous birthday cake with sixteen candles.
Yet, though everything was perfect, something didn't feel quite right. Once or twice I caught Mum looking strangely at Auntie Veena. Auntie Veena was Indian-Malaysian. She was really beautiful. When she was younger she'd been chosen as Beauty Queen of Selangor State, and you could see why. On my birthday she was wearing a dark red silk sari with a gold border, with white jasmine flowers in her hair. Mum was good looking too, but not in the same way. Uncle Krishnan was quite the opposite. He had a bald head and a big fat stomach. Sometimes I wondered why Auntie Veena had married him. But he was a lot of fun and he was Dad's best friend from school and university. Mum and Auntie Veena got on well too, always laughing and joking as they did things together. Before Mum married Dad, she'd worked in the company owned by Veena's father. That's when they first became friends. The four of them spent a lot of time together, especially at weekends. And that's why Veena and Krishnan were there at my party.
Then I remembered something else too. After we'd had the wonderful food and cut the cake, I went off to my room with my friends to play the video games they'd brought me as presents. All the adults settled down to relax and chat on the terrace outside and in the lounge. Some of them fell asleep in their chairs. It was that sleepy time after a heavy meal.
After a while, I decided to go downstairs to get some cool drinks for my friends. As I came out of my room, I saw Dad and Auntie Veena on the stairs. They were looking at each other in a way I'd never seen before, and Dad had his hand on her bare arm. He quickly took it away when he saw me. They looked embarrassed, and Dad went upstairs mumbling something to me as he passed. Auntie Veena hurried downstairs again.
We went back to our games and I didn't think much about what I'd seen. And I forgot about it completely when Dad came in later carrying a big basket. I heard a scratching sound inside, and when he opened it, there was the little black and white dog I'd wanted for so long.
'What shall we call him?' Dad asked.
'Let's call him Raj,' I answered.
Everyone clapped as Raj barked his agreement. It was a perfect day. And from then on, Raj was my best and most faithful friend.
But now, as I sit here in the hospital, waiting for the doctor and thinking about Dad, that other strong image blacks out my brain. The bedroom, the cries, the bodies moving on my parents' bed. I am powerless to stop that image from coming back. It is burnt on my memory like the mark an iron leaves on a shirt. How did it all happen? Why did it all happen? Why couldn't we have gone on living in the best of times for ever? These black thoughts flood my mind again. I feel the tears in my eyes. Auntie Swee Eng can see how upset I am. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. I look up at the clock. When will the doctor come?
The worst of times
The hands on the clock move so slowly as I sit on that uncomfortable chair in the waiting room. I keep trying to remember how things changed after my birthday party. There wasn't one particular thing I remember, but just a lot of small things. Teenagers pick up a lot — from the atmosphere and from what goes on around them. Sometimes it's just a vague feeling of unease, a feeling that something is not quite right, a feeling that things have changed in a way you can't describe, yet it's a feeling that's real. And that's how it was for me, I think, in those months after my birthday. It was like a virus — something sick in the air, invisible but definitely there. It's only now, when I think back on everything, that I can see the pattern. At the time, it was no more than a vague, nervous feeling deep down in my stomach, a feeling of threat, of insecurity, that gradually replaced my feelings of innocent happiness.
I noticed that Dad started coming home later and later from the office. Mum made excuses for him but I could see she wasn't happy about it. Neither was I! It meant that he was never there to play football or basketball up in the park. In fact, I hardly ever saw him. He left early and came back after I'd gone to bed. It felt wrong somehow. I was so used to being with him. It left a big gap in my life now that he was too busy to think about me.
'He's got a big new product coming out next month,' Mum said when I asked her. But then the next month came, and the next, and he still came back late.
One day I came back from school and Mum wasn't around to welcome me as she usually was. After a while, she came out of the bedroom. Her eyes were red and swollen, and I knew she'd been crying. 'What's up, Mum?' I asked.
'It's nothing,' she answered in a strange, tense voice. 'I just have a lot on my mind at the moment. It's OK, nothing for you to worry about.' She put on a brave smile. 'Now, let me make you some noodles with seafood sauce. Or would you like something else?'
She called Purissima, our Filipina maid, from the servant's room, and together they went to the kitchen. I liked Puri (that was her nickname; Purissima is too long to say all the time). She was small and neat, and always seemed to have a bright smile, especially for me. She spoiled me a lot — always making me my favourite dishes. I especially remember her voice. Her accent always made her Filipina English sound a bit American.
'What you want for your dinner?' she would ask, rolling the 'r' sounds in 'your' and 'dinner'. 'Today I make you something special for your dessert — from my home town. Made from taro. Is very sweet. I think you like.' And I always did like it. Whatever it was!
But these days even Puri seemed to have changed. She was quieter and didn't smile as much as before. Sometimes she even looked worried.
'Is anything wrong?' I asked her one day.
But she just smiled and said, 'Oh no. I get some headache, make me feel not so good. Is OK. I make you some special spaghetti, or you want a pizza? I can make for you. Special one.'
But later on that day, when I came down from my room, she was on the phone to her Indonesian friend Henny, who worked for a family in the next street. '… now the boy, he also see something wrong. I don' know how to do. What you think?'
There was a silence while her friend answered. Then she went on, 'Oh no. Cannot. Is bad for him. But Madam, she cry every day. And Master, sometimes he comes so late. Then I hear fight starting… '
Suddenly, she noticed I was there. 'Oh, I got to go now. I talk again later,' she whispered, and put the phone down quickly. 'OK, now I go make something nice for you, something special,' she said with an embarrassed smile, and rushed off to the kitchen.
* * *
As the weeks went by, I noticed how quiet the house had become. There were no more parties, and Uncle Krish and Auntie Veena never came over now. We never seemed to go anywhere together at weekends either, like we had before. Sometimes Dad was out all day on Saturday or Sunday. Other times he stayed in his study room with the door closed. I was uneasy and confused about all this, so one day I decided to ask Mum. It was a difficult decision because I'd always been closer to Dad. But now she was the only one I could ask.
'Mum, why can't we go out somewhere on Saturday, like we used to? I don't like to stay at home all the time.'
'You'd better ask your father,' she said angrily. I think that was the first time Mum had ever spoken to me like that. She made me feel as if I'd done something wrong by even asking that question.
'But why can't we?'
'I told you. Ask your father. It's got nothing to do with me.'
'Well, can't we ask Auntie Veena and Uncle Krish over? We never see them now. They haven't been over for ages. We never have any fun.'
The way she looked at me stopped me from asking anything else. Her eyes were flashing furiously and her whole body was shaking with anger.
'«Fun»? Did you say «fun»? Don't talk to me about «fun». You'd better ask your father about that too!' She almost spat the words out at me. 'And get that dog out of here. He's always under my feet!'
I felt so miserable that I went straight to my room. When I came down for dinner, my mother had already gone to my parents' bedroom.
* * *
A few nights later, I heard Dad's car in our drive. The car door banged shut and the front door opened. Then I heard Mum's voice. She wasn't shouting, probably because she didn't want to wake me up, but her whispering voice was really intense, like the hissing of a snake. I went to my bedroom door to hear better.
'How can you come back so late? Don't think I don't know where you've been — again!'
'Why don't you just shut up and go to bed?' My father answered back. It sounded hard and unpleasant. I'd never heard my parents speak to each other like that before. In fact, they always spoke to each other in a loving way. They always called each other 'abang' or 'sayang', which means 'beloved' or 'darling' in Malay. But as I listened, I realised that I hadn't heard any sayangs or abangs for a long time.
'I won't put up with this any more. You'd better make up your mind,' my mother hissed.
'Don't push me!' Dad's voice was full of anger. 'Who do you think you are? I look after both of you. You have this house, your car, money, everything. What more do you want? Think yourself lucky!'
I heard them coming upstairs so I quickly went back to bed. I could hear them still arguing in their bedroom. There was a loud bump and a slap. Then silence.
I didn't sleep until it was almost morning and time for me to get ready for school. Dad had already left. When Mum came down to see me off, I noticed that one eye was swollen and she had a red mark on her cheek. I didn't ask her any questions that time. There was no need.
* * *
The following Saturday, Mum had to go to Melaka to see her old Aunt Mei Ling, who was sick in hospital. Dad was supposed to be working, and it was Puri's weekend off. Mum had made arrangements for me to sleep over at my friend Ka Choon's place.
But it didn't work out like that. I had a silly argument with Ka Choon and decided not to stay at his place. Around ten in the evening I took a taxi home. Dad's car was in the drive but the house was in darkness, except for the light shining on the terrace. I found my keys and let myself in.
For some reason I didn't switch on the lights in the lounge downstairs. There was enough light from the terrace to see, and as I went up the stairs my eyes got used to the darkness. As I was going towards my bedroom, I suddenly became aware of voices — a man's and a woman's — coming from my parents' bedroom at the end of the corridor. For a moment, I thought maybe Mum had come back early from Melaka. But these were no ordinary voices. They sounded wild, out of control, a flood of cries and crazy laughter rising and falling in waves of excitement; and words — words I knew about but had never heard spoken like that before.
I walked silently to the bedroom door. It was half-open. I couldn't stop myself — I looked in quickly. In the dim light I could see the outline of two bodies moving on the bed. I can still see their shapes in my mind's eye, and hear their words and their passionate cries. They were too busy with each other to notice me, but I shall never be able to forget what I saw. I realised that the woman's voice was not my mother's — it belonged to Auntie Veena...
After that everything fell apart.
I don't know how I got through that night. All I can remember is going back to my room and locking the door. My mind was frozen. I was in a state of deep shock. I couldn't think. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the shape of those two bodies on the bed. It was like a film which goes on playing the same scene over and over. I must have slept eventually because when I woke up, Dad's car had gone.
I spent all of Sunday morning alone in the house. I felt confused, shocked, and disgusted — all mixed up together. I thought I should eat something but when I opened the fridge, the smell of food sickened me. I couldn't face going to the park to be with my friends. What could I say to them?
Poor Raj. He kept running around, crying and following me everywhere. He couldn't understand what was wrong. I turned on the TV and sat in front of it, my eyes staring, not really watching. Raj climbed on the sofa and put his head on my knee. I was still there when Puri came back at 5 pm.
'You all alone?' she asked. I nodded. 'Your dad gone out or what?' I nodded again. 'Never mind. Your mum will be back soon. I make you something to eat, OK?'
'No thanks, Puri,' I muttered. I tried not to cry, but I suddenly realised that the tears were pouring down my face and my shoulders were shaking uncontrollably.
'What's wrong with you, Chee Seng? Something happen?' How could I answer that question? I was too ashamed to tell her what had happened. 'Come on, it's not so bad,' she said, and gave me a big hug. I felt better with her warm arms around me. She had three kids of her own back in the Philippines, so I guess she felt motherly to me too. She sent me to the bathroom to wash my face. Then she sat me at the kitchen table, while she prepared some sliced mango with my favourite sticky rice. I started to feel a bit better.
* * *
Everything changed again when Mum came back at 8 pm. She rushed through the door like a tropical storm. 'Where's your father?' she demanded angrily. She didn't even greet me. I didn't answer. 'I asked you a question!' she screamed, 'Don't you dare look at me like that!'
'I don't know...' I mumbled softly. I felt sure she was expressing her anger with Dad, but it was hitting me instead!
'What do you mean, you don't know?' she went on. 'You've been here, haven't you?'
She didn't stay for an answer but rushed upstairs to their bedroom. I followed her quietly and stood outside the open door. She was standing by the window. The bed was still unmade, the sheets untidy. The drawers and the wardrobe doors were all open and clothing was thrown around on chairs and on the floor. I could see that Dad's suits weren't hanging in the wardrobe any more. And his laptop had gone from the table where it usually was. There was an open empty suitcase abandoned in one corner.
'So it's true, he's gone!' she said — to herself, not to me. 'My God, he's gone...' She started to cry. I wanted to go and hug her but something warned me not to enter the room. 'You coward!' she screamed. 'After all I've done for you. I can't believe it! Running off with that… dirty creature! And not even brave enough to tell me to my face, just leaving a message on my phone!'
She collapsed onto a chair, holding her head in her hands, crying uncontrollably. 'What am I going to do?'
I pulled together all my courage and went in to her. I tried to hold her but she pushed me away angrily. 'Get away from me! Don't you dare come in here. Get out of my sight. Now! Right now! Do you hear me?'
I'd never seen Mum like that before and I ran out of the room, shaking. I was suddenly afraid of this fierce stranger, a wild animal that threatened me in my own home, no longer recognisable as Mum. It was as if she was blaming me. I couldn't stand it. I ran to my room and locked the door.
A few minutes later I heard her speaking on the phone. Her voice sounded tired and weak. 'Swee Eng? Can I see you? I need to talk to you...' There was a pause. 'No, I mean now. I know it's late but it's important… ' Another pause. 'I can't tell you on the phone, I'm sorry...'
Her voice started to shake and I guessed she was crying again. 'I'm really desperate, Swee Eng. Please come over.' Another pause. 'Thanks so much. I don't know what I'd do without you. I'll see you soon.' She put the phone down.
Not long after, I heard Auntie Swee Eng's car in the drive. I called her Auntie but she was not really my aunt, although she was somehow related to us by marriage. I could never work out exactly what the relationship was, but I think her sister had married one of Mum's cousins. Auntie Swee Eng was a Peranakan nyonya like Mum, and very proud of it too. I don't know how old she was, but she always dressed very smartly in her kebaya blouse and carefully wrapped sarong. Her grey hair was always tied neatly at the back of her head.
She was small but full of intense energy, like a bright-eyed bird. I liked her a lot. She was one of those adults who always took me seriously, always listened to what I had to say, and always had a kind word of encouragement.
I didn't dare go downstairs after the way Mum had shouted at me. But I really wanted to know what Mum and Swee Eng were talking about. I opened my door carefully and walked quietly to the top of the stairs. I couldn't hear very clearly but I caught bits and pieces of their conversation.
'So when did all this start?' That was Auntie Swee Eng. I couldn't make out Mum's reply. 'Do you think he'll come back?' Auntie Swee Eng asked.
'I don't want him back!' That was Mum all right!
'But how are you going to manage?' Again I didn't catch Mum's reply. 'There's no reason to blame yourself, my dear. These things happen, you know. It's not your fault. But what about Chee Seng?' Again, I missed the answer. 'I'll do whatever I can to help you, Wei Fong.' It sounded strange to hear her use Mum's Chinese name. I only knew her as Mum, Dad usually called her sayang, and most other people just called her by her European nickname, Linda.
Their voices went on, rising and falling, but it became more and more difficult for me to follow what they were saying. I think I must have been exhausted from everything that had happened. Somehow, I fell asleep leaning against the wall at the top of the stairs.
I don't know what time it was when suddenly I felt someone holding me close, stroking my hair. I heard Mum's voice, this time warm and soft. 'It's OK, Chee Seng, it will be all right. I promise you. We're going to be all right.'
Sons and mothers
I must have slept well because I woke feeling rested and ready to face the world again. Mums words had given me new hope. I knew it would be a difficult day because I had to go to school and pretend that everything was normal. But it wasn't normal at all!
Somehow I got through the day. At school, I usually hung out with Dev, Faisal and Ka Choon during the breaks between classes. But that day I managed to avoid them. I knew they would ask all the usual questions about what I'd done at the weekend and stuff like that. How could I answer? I stayed out of their way that first day, and found a quiet corner in the library where no one would disturb me.
When I came out of school I was surprised to see Mum's car. She was waiting to take me home. Amazing! Normally, she never did that. I always took the school bus. On the way home she took me to the ice cream shop. That was something else she never usually did. And when we got home, she insisted on cooking my supper herself. Puri looked at me a bit strangely but she didn't say anything.
After supper, Mum came to my room and checked through my schoolwork. That was something Dad had always done. I felt a bit embarrassed by all the attention but I didn't say anything. I guessed she was trying to make me feel good; trying to make things seem normal.
In fact, it made me feel worse. Things were not normal. Dad was gone. And I didn't really understand why he preferred Auntie Veena to Mum. He'd left Mum but he'd also left me. That was hard for me to accept. He'd turned his back on me and I felt miserable and rejected.
I went to bed early but sleep wouldn't come. Every time I closed my eyes, my mind would start to replay the terrible scene in the bedroom. I kept turning from side to side. I was so tired from everything that had happened and my body was desperate for sleep, but my mind was still wide awake. It wouldn't release me.
I fell asleep at last, but it wasn't a restful sleep. I had lots of bad dreams. In one of them, I was on the sofa watching TV. Raj was lying beside me. Suddenly, he jumped on me. He looked like a devil, his eyes on fire and his teeth bared in a terrible growl. Then his face changed into my father's face. My father, in the shape of a dog, began to tear at my throat. I couldn't breathe… I was in a panic. I woke up in a sweat.
I slept again, but uneasily. This time, Auntie Veena came towards me wearing a long white dress. She looked so beautiful. She smiled at me and reached out to take me in her arms. But then I saw a big, black, poisonous snake uncurling itself from inside her dress. I ran away but the snake was getting closer and closer to me until… I woke up again, trembling and sweating.
I went down to the kitchen and took a pot of ice cream from the fridge. I stuffed myself till the pot was empty.
Then I went back to bed. I left my bedside light on and somehow I fell asleep again.
* * *
The days and weeks after Dad left us are only a vague memory now. Things settled down somehow but not into a regular, reliable pattern like before. Some days, Mum would be all loving and caring. Other days, she'd shut herself in her room all day or start shouting at me, and even at Puri, for no reason.
As for me, I pretended I was living normally, but inside I felt sick and frightened most of the time. The nightmares got worse. So did the sleeplessness. And I started to eat completely chaotically. Some days I would leave Puri's meals untouched, or I would just pick at them, only eating a few mouthfuls. She never blamed me or complained, but I know she must have been hurt. After all, her meals were always tasty, and she took a lot of trouble to cook all my favourite dishes. But then I would sometimes stuff myself with anything I could find in the kitchen — potato crisps, peanuts, chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, leftovers from supper — anything. Usually, I did this at night when I couldn't sleep. People talk about 'comfort eating', and I certainly felt better after I'd stuffed myself, but the good feeling didn't last. Sometimes I would feel sick after everything I'd eaten. Other times I just felt disgusted with myself. Most days, I'd get up in the morning and leave my breakfast untouched. Not the best way to start the day!
As I said before, as time went by, Mum's moods became more and more unpredictable, and so did her behaviour. Some days she'd be waiting for me outside the school gates, which frankly became embarrassing for me — after all, what sixteen-year-old likes to be treated like a child, especially in front of his friends? On other days, she would forget about me entirely!
When I reached home I got into the habit of just switching on the TV, or playing video games before I did my homework. Gradually, I spent more and more time doing that, and sometimes I didn't do my homework at all.
One day, I came home to find Mum waiting for me. I could see from her face that something was wrong. 'What's going on at school?' she asked accusingly.
'What do you mean?' I replied innocently, trying desperately to work out what was behind her question.
'I've had your class teacher on the phone for the last half hour. He says your work is terrible. Your grades have gone right down. You haven't been giving in your homework. He even hinted that you might have been copying work from one of your classmates. What's going on?'
'Nothing,' I mumbled. Trust old Mr Chang to go to her behind my back!
'What do you mean «nothing»? You got straight «A»s last term and now you're getting «D»s, when you take the trouble to do anything at all. That's not nothing! You've got your final exams coming up in a few months' time. You can't afford to fail them, you know. That would really be nothing. And you'd be a nothing too. And a nobody. You're old enough to take responsibility for yourself now. Don't expect me to run around after you, checking up on you all the time. I've got plenty of other things to think about.'
I wanted to tell her that I had plenty of other things to think about too, but I knew she'd go wild if I said that. Why were we both pretending that it had nothing to do with Dad? How could she expect me to concentrate when all I could think about was Dad and what he had done? I was trying to make sense of my world — a world that had turned upside down. I wished I could at least talk to him but I knew she'd go crazy if I did that. He had become a 'nobody', just like me. He wasn't supposed to exist at all.
If only she knew the truth about school. Some days, I felt so tired after a sleepless night or a night full of bad dreams, that I would fall asleep in class. Other days, I would sit daydreaming while the teachers talked on and on about physics or chemistry or history.
I don't know what I would have done without Dev and Faisal and Ka Choon. It was easy to meet up with Dev after school because he lived just up the street. His dad was some sort of accountant in a big law firm in the city. I liked his dad. He was a big man, who never seemed to worry about anything. He was always laughing and joking. Dev's mum made the most delicious samosas I'd ever tasted. Dev was tall and thin and told the funniest jokes ever. I think he must have got them from his dad. He was a great hockey-player too. He even played for the Selangor State junior team.
Faisal was a neighbour too. His mum was quite strict with him. As a Muslim, he had to be back for his evening prayers, so sometimes he couldn't join us for our games. He was really good at drawing and painting. I especially loved the cartoons he drew of our teachers! Sometimes we went round to his place to do our homework together — that is, when I did any homework! His mum was a widow. Maybe that's why she was so strict with him, but she was nice too. Anyway, it always felt very friendly round at Faisal's.
Ka Choon was quite different. He was short and fat with thick glasses. His dad was a very wealthy businessman in the building industry, and they lived in a really expensive housing development in Mont Kiara. They had a fantastic apartment with a big terrace, and had the use of all the club facilities like the swimming pool, fitness centre and games room. But Ka Choon's biggest interest was computers.
He was a real expert when it came to the latest programs. He was really good at maths too — a mathematical champion. He used to help me out sometimes. It was as if his brain was some sort of computer — all you had to do was put in the problem, and the answer came straight out. I used to go to his place and sleep over sometimes, but after Dad left us, Mum wouldn't let me out of her sight.
It's funny really that we got on so well. We could hardly have been more different from each other. Dev; tall and athletic, dark-skinned and always joking. Faisal; quiet and serious, and into art in a big way. Ka Choon; short and fat, with his moon face and serious glasses, his mind like a maths calculator. And me, an average-looking Malaysian boy with a talent for writing poems — at least that's what Miss Kumar, our English teacher, said. But we really did get along very well together. They were a great support for me in those first weeks after Dad had gone. I remember telling them about it in the end. I couldn't keep it bottled up inside me any longer. And there was no one else I could talk to.
It was about a month after Dad left and we were sitting up on the playing field after school. I must have been looking miserable because Ka Choon suddenly asked, 'Hey, man, what's up with you? You look as if you've lost a year's allowance. Cheer up!'
'There's something I need to tell you,' I said without thinking. 'Dad has run away with Mum's best friend, and I...' I felt so miserable I couldn't go on. There was a long embarrassed silence. I guess they didn't know how to react.
Dev was the first to speak. He put his arm round my shoulder and gave me a hug. 'Oh, man! I'm so sorry. I knew something was wrong. You've been looking so bad, but… What can we do? Is there anything we can do to help?'
'Not really,' I replied. I felt the tears starting inside me but I forced myself not to cry.
Faisal was really understanding. Maybe it's because he'd lost his own father. 'I know what it's like, Chee Seng. When my dad died, I thought it was the end of the world, but it wasn't. As time goes by, it gets easier, even if you never forget. It's tough but you'll survive. Just hang in there.'
Ka Choon looked uncomfortable and kept taking off his glasses and polishing them nervously. Finally, he spoke. 'I guess every family has something. My dad hasn't run away, but he has two «minor» wives. I know Mum doesn't like it but we pretend all the time that nothing's wrong. But I'm so sorry, Chee Seng. I really am.'
'Come on, guys, let's go back to my place,' Dev broke in. 'Mum will make us some Punjabi snacks to cheer us all up. I think we all need it. And don't forget, let's all agree — this stays between us, right? No gossip at school, OK?'
* * *
After the incident about my school grades, Mum seemed to be always looking for something to complain about. Often, it would be, 'Have you finished your schoolwork? Don't forget what I told you.' Other times, she'd be after me about my meals. 'What sort of rubbish are you eating now? Why don't you wait till Puri cooks you some proper food?' Or 'I told you not to drink so much cola. It's got too much sugar in it. Have some orange juice; it's better for you.'
Often she'd complain about me not tidying my room. 'How many times do I have to tell you to pick your clothes up from the floor? You can't expect Puri to wait on you hand and foot, you know.'
But most of all, she went on and on about Raj. Somehow, all her bottled-up anger seemed to be concentrated on my poor dog. 'Keep that dog off the sofa. There are dog hairs everywhere. And anyway, he makes the house smell bad.' Or 'I don't want to see that dog on your bed again. He'll bring some terrible disease into the house.'
And so it went on, day in, day out, until I was sick of the sound of her voice. Sometimes, I thought she was going insane, especially when she looked at me in that weird way, with her eyes rolling and her hands waving about like the branches of a tree in a storm.
Things came to a head a few months after Dad left. I was missing Dad more and more. He hadn't even called me and there were so many things I wanted to ask him. So many things I wanted him to tell me. Even if it hurt me, I wanted to know.
I had this dream that came back again and again. In my dream, I was standing on a street corner. Traffic was streaming past me. No one would stop for me. Then I saw Dad in a big red sports car. He waved to me and slowed down. I thought he was going to stop but, as I ran to get in the car, he drove away from me. Then he slowed down again. I tried to catch him up but he drove away again. Then, suddenly, there were no other cars, just Dad's. He looked round at me, waved, and drove away in a cloud of dust, like in an American film.
In the end, I felt so bad that I knew I had to speak to him. I waited till I was alone in the house. Mum was at Auntie Swee Eng's and Puri was at the market. I used my mobile and called Dad's number. No reply. I tried his office number but I only got a secretary.
'Hello, can I help you?'
'Can I speak to Mr Yeo? Mr Sammy Yeo?' I replied.
'He's in a meeting,' she explained. 'Who's calling please?'
'This is his… oh, never mind...' I put the phone down. I wanted to talk to him, not his secretary. I tried his mobile again. Still there was no reply. I gave up.
Later, after Mum got back, we were having tea and snacks in the kitchen when my mobile rang. Without thinking, I answered it.
'Hello, Chee Seng? It's me, Dad. You called me. How are you?' His voice sounded tense and unnatural.
'Um, oh… I… er, can I call you back?' I mumbled awkwardly. Mum must have noticed immediately that my voice sounded odd.
'Who's that?' she demanded. Then, seeing my guilty reaction, she grabbed the phone from me. Dad was trying to say something but she screamed, 'Leave my son alone! He doesn't need you. Stay out of our lives.' Then she switched off the phone, threw it onto the table and stormed out.
Trying to cope
Because of the incident with the telephone, Mum got more and more watchful and suspicious of everything I did. Every day we played a game of cat and mouse. I would try to get away with as much as I could, and she would try to catch me out.
'Why do you leave your computer on the whole time?' she asked me one day.
'Why not?' I replied, without thinking.
'Don't you start answering me back all the time,' she complained. 'I have to pay the electricity bills around here. And I notice you never turn off the lights either. You leave the TV on even when you're in your own room. I can't stand all this waste.' I mumbled some sort of apology and started to go back to my room.
'Hey! I haven't finished with you yet!' It was really aggressive, the way she spoke to me, getting worse every day. It made me feel angry and defensive, and I was finding it hard to hide how I felt.
'When do you intend to do your homework, by the way?'
'I'll do it when I'm ready,' I replied.
'You'll do it when I say so!' She was getting really angry.
'No, I won't,' I said. 'Don't keep telling me what to do and when to do it. I'm not a child, you know.'
'Well stop acting like one, then! All you do is lounge about in front of the TV all day, and when you're not there, you're on your computer doing goodness knows what...'
'What's wrong with that?' I challenged her.
'You need to get some exercise,' she complained. That was a new one. She'd never liked it when I'd gone to the park with Dad. And she never took any exercise herself either!
After that, I made a point of going for long walks with Raj. We would hang out with Dev and some of the other kids, kick a football around, sit around chatting. Then I'd take Raj with me all around the small lorongs near our house. It gets dark around 6 pm, and sometimes it happens quite suddenly. One minute it's light, and the next minute the sun has gone and dark clouds cover the sky. I usually got home by six but one day I kept wandering the streets till long after seven. I could hear thunder, and occasional flashes of lightning violently lit up the sky. The palm trees in the gardens were tossing their heads in the wind. Soon the rain would come pouring down. It was already dark when I got home and Mum was waiting for me at the front door, hands on hips and a dark frown on her face.
'What time is this to come home?' she shouted. 'Your supper's been ready for the last hour, and you haven't even thought about your homework. I don't understand you — always running about the streets with that dog.'
'I thought you said you wanted me to get more exercise.' I replied, feeling the now-familiar anger rise inside me.
'Don't answer me back!' she said. 'Get inside right now. Have your supper and start your homework.'
That's more or less the way it was every day, with her finding things to criticise, and me getting angrier and more rebellious every time. I hated the way she spoke about Raj. She should have known how much I cared about that lovely dog, but all she did was complain about him the whole time.
It was a relief when finally Mum got a job. I was upstairs one evening when the phone rang. As usual, I tried to listen in when I heard Mum talking to Auntie Swee Eng. That's how I found out.
'Yes, they called me this afternoon, Swee Eng. I got it! Thanks for putting a word in for me.' There was a pause. 'No, I'm. sure it made all the difference,' she continued. 'Sorry? When do I start? Next Monday. They seem to be in a hurry.' Another pause followed. 'What was that? Oh, the pay's not so good to start with, but they said they'll review it after a month's trial.'
It was only later that evening that she actually told me about it. 'Chee Seng, I've decided to go back to work. The money your father gives us to live on is just not enough. So I'm starting a job on Monday.'
'That's great, Mum,' I said, and I meant it. It would be good for her, and even better for me! It would give her something else to think about instead of criticising me all day long. 'What sort of job is it?'
'Oh, it's assistant to an advertising executive in Maha Projections,' she explained. 'It sounds quite challenging, but I already know something about the advertising business. Or at least I did before I married your father, and gave up my job to become a full-time housewife!'
I thought it was time to change the subject, so I just said, 'Good luck, Mum. I bet you'll be a big success.' I meant that too, actually. Mum was a very efficient woman, and I knew she'd get on really well. But of course, I was secretly pleased that I'd now be left on my own, without her constantly complaining about me or Raj.
But life never works out quite as you think it will. I imagined being on my own with Raj, with Puri there to take care of my meals and everything. Things took a different turn the weekend after Mum started work. I overheard her talking to Puri in the kitchen. 'But how will we manage, Puri? You know I'm out all the time now. I need someone here in the house to take care of things. And Chee Seng needs someone to take care of his meals now that I'm not around.'
'Madam, I tell you, is not for long,' Puri explained. 'But my sister, she say my kids in trouble. Is like I tell you, my mama get sick. Need medicine, maybe operation. Cannot take care of kids now.'
'But can't you ask your sister to take care of the problem?' Mum asked.
'She also got her problem, Madam. Her husband run away with some younger girl. You know is like this back, home. I have to go, Madam. I stay maybe two, three weeks only. I beg you...'
'But how am I going to manage? I can't take time off from work now; I only just started,' Mum replied.
'Madam, maybe my friend can come sometimes?'
'Yes, Madam. You know my friend, Henny? Is Indonesia one. Maybe she come sometimes for help you out?'
'I don't think that will work, Puri. I don't need someone to help out; I need someone here all the time to look after the house.' Mum replied.
In the end, Mum had to let Puri go. I can still see her now in my mind's eye, a small figure holding just one small bag, waving to us as she got into the taxi. Somehow, Mum managed to get a temporary replacement maid from the agency. Her name was Esther, and she was from Indonesia, like Henny. But I didn't like her a bit. Her cooking wasn't tasty like Puri's and she was always on the phone to her friends. We didn't talk much, not like with Puri, but at least she left me alone.
* * *
Because Mum wasn't around much, I spent more time with Dev, Faisal and Ka Choon. Mum seemed to like her new job and her mood improved quite a lot. She was more relaxed. She even trusted me to sleep over at Ka Choon's one Saturday night. And she let me invite Dev over to stay one night too, even though he only lived just up the street. Life seemed to be getting better again. Of course, nothing lasts though, does it? Sometimes I think it's just as well that we can't see the future. It would be too depressing.
Anyway, Mum being out a lot meant I spent even more time with Raj too. It's funny the way Raj and me got on together from that very first day when Dad gave him to me. Raj had lovely dark liquid eyes, so full of expression. I know sometimes people laugh when I say this, but I could swear Raj knew what I was thinking before I said anything. He would turn his head to one side and look at me with those eyes full of expression as if to say: 'It's time for us to play football, isn't it?' or 'Shall we go and see Dev now?' or 'How about my supper? You haven't forgotten it, have you?'. If only he could have talked!
He wasn't a very big dog, and goodness knows who his parents were! He was black with white spots. Or maybe he was white with black spots. It was hard to know which! He was perfect for me. His coat wasn't too long and was always very glossy because I used to brush him every day. People always admired him in the street because of his lovely shiny coat.
Every afternoon when I came back from school, Raj and I would run up to the park at the top of the road to meet up with Dev and the others. It had become a routine now that Dad was gone and Mum didn't get back from work till late. But one day, none of my friends were there. I guessed maybe they'd gone to the proper playing field on the other side of the highway. So I set off with Raj to join them.
Now five o'clock in the afternoon was a bad time for traffic in Subang Jaya. There was a main road joining the Federal Highway and the road to the airport, full of cars as people tried to beat the rush hour and get home.
On one side was the leafy old suburb where we lived. On the other was USJ, the newer suburb, with bigger, more modern houses. And that's where the playing field was. There were two lanes on the main road, separated by a division planted with bougainvillea with its purple and orange flowers. I wondered how the plants survived the pollution from the cars, trucks and motorbikes. There were traffic lights here and there and some footbridges for pedestrians, but a lot of people just ran across to save time. When we came to the road, I took one look and decided we'd better not risk it. I walked with Raj to the nearest footbridge and crossed that way.
As I had thought, Dev and the others were playing football. Raj ran ahead of me to join them, barking and running around. He loved to jump in and steal the ball, and the kids didn't seem to mind much. We played for about an hour till it started to get dark, then we all set off back to our own neighbourhood on the other side of the main road.
I don't know why but I just followed the rest of them, instead of using the bridge again. Dev went first. We stood waiting for a gap in the traffic so we could cross the first lane safely. We all made it across just before the stream of traffic started to speed up again. Now we were on the narrow middle division between the two lanes. The traffic was coming from our left and it seemed endless. Cars, taxis, motorbikes, trucks — a stream of vehicles as far as the eye could see. I couldn't see any way we could get across. But now we couldn't go back either. We were trapped in the middle. I wished we had taken the footbridge.
I was holding Raj's collar, when suddenly there was a small gap in the traffic and Dev ran quickly across to the other side. I hesitated, and then it was too late. Dev waved to us to hurry. Before I could stop him, Raj had pulled away from me and rushed across the road towards Dev. But he was too slow. A speeding taxi hit him. He bounced once on the road and landed like a bag of old clothes at the side of the road. The traffic suddenly slowed and I was able to run across to him. A stream of blood was running out of his mouth, and his lovely eyes were expressionless. He moaned once, and died in my arms, there at the side of the road.
A new friend
I know it was stupid, but somehow I blamed Dev for what had happened to Raj. Why had he run across the road before us? If he hadn't waved to us, Raj might have still been alive. I felt so angry. Of course, I was just as much to blame as he was. Why hadn't I used the footbridge? Why hadn't I held on to Raj properly to stop him running out into the road? But, although part of my mind knew it was really my fault, I still blamed Dev. He was terribly upset too, of course, but it was too late. After that, I stopped seeing him. I couldn't face playing football with the memory of Raj always in my mind. I stayed at home instead.
The news about Dad leaving us got around eventually, of course. It always does, I suppose. People are attracted to other people's misfortunes like insects to a candle flame. I don't mean they always enjoy the bad things that happen to other people, but they are certainly fascinated by them. Bad news spreads like a bad smell. Someone smells misfortune in one corner, and before you know it, the world is full of it.
Of course, everyone in the neighbourhood knew about it soon enough. You didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice that Dad's car had gone and that he was never around. And the maids' gossip made sure that the news spread all over the neighbourhood anyway. It's not that Puri had betrayed us or anything like that. After all, how could we hide what was so obvious anyway? But maids love to talk to each other about their employers. So it was inevitable that Puri had told Henny, and Henny had told her friend Risti, and Risti had told… so pretty soon everyone knew. But my school was a long way off and no one had been told about my family problem there, except my closest friends.
Yet somehow, the news eventually reached school too. That was more surprising, to me at least. I couldn't work out how my bad news had got around the school but it had. I couldn't believe Dev or Ka Choon or Faisal would have given me away like that, but who else was there? I noticed them standing together one day, whispering and glancing at me nervously from time to time. They were obviously talking about me. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I noticed some of the other kids in the class looking at me a bit strangely too. I thought I could read pity in some of their looks, and a sort of superiority in others. I hated both. I didn't want anyone to pity me, and I certainly didn't want anyone to look down on me.
I started to avoid my friends. In my mind, I was convinced that they were the ones who had spread the story about me. I didn't trust them any more. I felt more and more that I was on my own. There was no one I could rely on any longer. It wasn't a good feeling, yet I felt almost pleasure in my self-pity at being victimised and isolated. It was ridiculous, of course, but it gave me a feeling of something like heroism to be all alone, with the whole world against me — Dad, Mum, my so-called friends, my teachers — everyone. And then, on top of everything else, there was no Puri to look after me, and no Raj to keep me company in my misery. It was a pathetic state of mind to be in, but it seemed quite logical and justified at the time.
Of course, no one said anything to me at first. It was just their looks that told me that they knew. Then one day, something happened to change all that.
It was one of those days in the monsoon season, when the dark clouds would build up as purple as a mangosteen, and suddenly the skies would open and the rain would fall like someone emptying a lake in the sky. School had just finished but old Mr Chang, our class teacher, had kept me back for some reason. By the time I came out, the school bus had gone. I had no money for a taxi, and there were never any taxis free in weather like that anyway. I was stuck in the pouring rain. I stood in the main doorway of the school feeling lost. Mum was at work so I couldn't call her to pick me up.
Just when I was losing all hope, Ka Ting came through the door and spoke to me. 'Do you need a ride? My dad's driver will be here in a minute. I can drop you home if you like.'
It was a really good piece of luck. And totally unexpected! I knew Ka Ting slightly because he was in the same class, but I'd never had much to do with him. In fact, a lot of the kids avoided him. He was from a very rich family. His father owned all sorts of factories and hotels, and he lived in the really upmarket suburb of UK Heights. The rest of us didn't like him much, or his friend Chee Lick. There were all sorts of rumours about them — problems with girls and drink and stuff like that. But anyway, it was really nice of him to offer to drop me home, so I accepted. There wasn't much else I could have done in the circumstances. It was far better to ride home in a car with him than to stand there in the rain.
'That would be really great,' I replied, 'but I don't think it's on your way. I live in Subang Jaya.'
'Don't worry about it. I'm not in a hurry, and the driver has to go wherever I tell him anyway. Here he comes now. Let's go.'
A shiny white car had just pulled up in front of the door. The uniformed driver, complete with cap and gloves, jumped out of the car and opened the back door for us. I got in without another thought.
'Just tell him your address and relax,' said Ka Ting. I must say that I was quite impressed with the confident way he acted with the driver, whose name was Bala.
It took us quite a time to negotiate the heavy traffic. Bala was a skilful driver, but even he couldn't do the impossible. It was still raining heavily. We moved slowly forward, stopping and starting, overtaking trucks and buses, taking shortcuts wherever there was a complete traffic jam.
'Sorry to hear about your dad,' Ka Ting said. 'It's tough luck.' Obviously he knew too and I was angry for a moment. Then I thought that it was hardly his fault if he knew what everyone else knew too.
'Thanks,' I replied stiffly. 'It's OK now. We can manage.'
'Maybe life's not so much fun though? I mean, what do you do in your spare time?' I'd never really thought about the idea of spare time. Till then, time was time. I went to school. I hung out with my friends — till recently anyway. I stayed at home and watched TV and played video games.
'I don't have that much spare time,' I said, 'what with schoolwork and my mum, and everything...' It sounded pretty pathetic, I knew, but it was true.
'How about parties? Don't you ever go to parties?' he asked.
'Of course I do,' I lied. I hadn't been to many teenage parties, and I felt pretty sure they were not at all like the parties Ka Ting had in mind.
'I mean real parties. You know, when you go out on the town, go to a disco, then go back to someone's house, go wild for the night… Don't you ever go to that kind of party?'
'Um, well, sometimes,' I said, hesitatingly, 'but not very often.' I knew it sounded sort of stupid but I couldn't think of anything better to say.
'Man, you should start to live. I mean really live. Do you have a girlfriend?'
'Um, no, not really… I've never, I mean, it's never happened that...' I was tongue-tied again.
'Wow, man. That's not cool at all. You need a girlfriend to have some real fun. Know what I mean?' He looked at me knowingly, and grinned. 'I mean real fun, OK?'
'Yes, well, I don't know how… I mean, I don't have anyone I like that much.'
'You don't have to marry them, you know. Just have some fun. How about Jessica? Now she's really special. I think she likes you, you know. That's what Wendy told me anyway. She thinks you look romantic.'
Jessica was a girl in our class. She was really pretty, but I'd never thought she would be interested in someone like me. It was a funny feeling to realise that maybe, just maybe, she might think of me in that way. Could I have a chance with her? I didn't want to ask Ka Ting any more about her. Anyway, I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with the direction our conversation was taking. Ka Ting went on with all sorts of hints and suggestive comments about girls and getting high and stuff like that. I was relieved when we arrived outside my house.
'Thanks a lot, Ka Ting. See you tomorrow.'
'OK,' he replied, 'and don't forget we must fix a party date soon, right? How about next Saturday?'
'Yeah, maybe. I'll check it out,' I said vaguely, as the car sped off into the rain.
* * *
I noticed Auntie Swee Eng's car in our drive as I ran in to the house. She was sitting in the lounge with a large glass of beer in front of her!
'Hello, Chee Seng.' She turned towards me with a bright smile. 'Your mum called to say she'd be in late tonight. They have some sort of special event at work and she asked me to come over till she gets back. I hope that's all right.' She must have noticed me looking at the beer. 'Oh, sorry,' she said. 'I was really hot and your mum told me to help myself, so I did! There's nothing like a nice glass of cold beer when you feel really thirsty.'
I smiled. There was something faintly odd about this respectable little old woman with a mug of beer. Maybe she could read my thoughts, because she said, 'You mustn't always worry about what people think of you, you know. I'm old enough now to do what I like, when I like, and to hell with what anyone thinks — or says for that matter! Anyway, how are you, Chee Seng? I hope things are a bit better now.'
I didn't quite know what to say. Why would things be better? Dad was gone. My dog was dead. Mum was still acting half-crazy sometimes. My school friends had betrayed me. And there was no Puri to look after me. Better? Again, it was as if she could read my mind.
'Listen, Chee Seng. It may seem that things are not getting any better for you. I know you're still upset about your dad. And I heard about your dog, Raj. That was a terrible thing to happen. I felt so sad, such a lovely dog. And I know Mum is sometimes a bit hard on you. But try to understand her too. She's going through a really bad time herself. She loves you so much, you know. Never forget that. I don't know what'll happen exactly, but I have a good feeling about you and your mum. You're going to be fine. And don't forget, I'm there too, if you need me. Any time. Now, let's have something to eat, shall we? I brought over some asam laksa for that girl to heat up for us. I hope she at least knows how to cook noodles!'
During the break at school next day, I noticed Ka Ting with his friend Chee Lick talking excitedly to Jessica and Wendy. Wendy was obviously Ka Ting's girlfriend from the way she looked at him. Jessica kept glancing at me. Was it really possible that she was interested in me?
Now I look back on it, I guess I was incredibly innocent for my age. I mean, all the books about teenage boys say how their minds are completely full of sex. But I can honestly say I never thought about sex all that much. Well maybe I did, but it wasn't tied to someone real. It was all in the imagination. Of course, when boys get together, they talk a lot about it, but I think most of it is just talk. It's all about wanting to impress your friends with how adult you are, how much you know and how far you've gone with your girlfriend. That sort of thing. I knew about all the technical stuff — how babies were made and all that — but it all seemed very vague and unconnected to me. I mean, of course I'd wondered what it would be like when it happened, but nothing definite. Things were changing for me though. First of all, I'd seen Dad with Veena, which had certainly shaken up my awareness of sex. And now, I had to admit that I felt that Jessica was really something special, and that maybe...
She was tall like me but the most impressive things about her were her hair (jet-black and hanging almost to her waist), her figure and her eyes. Her eyes were classic Chinese eyes that sparkled when she smiled. And now she was smiling — smiling at me! She stopped me on the way out of school that afternoon and turned her amazing smile on me. I felt as if the world had suddenly stopped turning...
'Wendy says you might come on Saturday,' she said. 'I hope you can. We're all going to Pop Inn for the disco and then back to my place. It's my seventeenth birthday. Please come. I'd really love you to.' She smiled again and walked away. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
Somehow, I managed to talk Mum into letting me go to the party. 'But I want you home by midnight,' she said, 'and I want to know where you're going. Make sure you give me their telephone number. I don't want you running about the city on a Saturday night. You hear me?'
* * *
Pop Inn was over in Bangsar in a street full of restaurants and bars and discos. Bangsar is one of the centres of nightlife in Kuala Lumpur. It's always bursting with life, especially at night. Foreigners like to go there too so there's always an interesting crowd. We'd arranged to meet outside Pop Inn at eight