فصل 11

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فصل 11

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A way of escape

I managed to speak to Jessica in a quiet corner of the library before we went home that day. ‘Jessica, I have an idea. But first I have to know one thing. Are you sure you really want to be with me? Are you sure you’d do anything not to go to Australia? I have to know because… ‘ She stretched out her hand and laid a finger on my lips. ‘I’m sure. Don’t ask me that again, OK?’

‘So, listen to my idea and tell me if you think I’m completely crazy… ‘

Jessica took my hand. ‘I’d do anything to be with you, crazy or not.’

‘I’ve been thinking about Ka Ting,’ I started to explain, ‘I think he could help us to run away together.’

‘Run away? But where to? They’d find us, and then it would be worse. Tell me, Chee Seng, where could we go?’

‘Just listen. Here’s my plan. We go to a party at Ka Ting’s place. Not this Saturday, the one after. That’s just before you’re due to leave for Australia. You can say it’s your going-away party. When everyone else is leaving, we pretend to leave too, but then we come back. We stay over at his place for the night, then take a bus up to Perlis. My uncle has a bungalow up there. He hardly ever uses it. I know where he keeps the key. We can stay there for a few days. Then we cross into Thailand. It’s easy! I’ve done it before with my parents. Once we’re there, we can find jobs. We both speak good English, so getting a job in a hotel or something won’t be a problem. No one will find us.’

‘But, Chee Seng, we’ll need to prepare everything. We haven’t got much time. I’ll sort out the things I’ll need to take. We’ll need money too. Have you got a savings account?’

‘Erm, no, I haven’t, but I think I know where I can get some money before we leave. Anyway, I’ll start sorting out some stuff to take as well. We’ll have to travel light, so no big suitcases, right? Just backpacks.’

‘And we’ll have to work out how to leave home without attracting attention,’ added Jessica. Obviously both of us were thinking practically about the details. But I wondered secretly whether our daring plan would work. Perhaps it was crazy. And we would have to tell Ka Ting too.

Every day that followed, Jessica and I would find time to meet and talk about how our preparations were going. It brought us even closer together. Even though I sometimes felt nervous butterflies in my stomach, the excitement of our secret plan made me feel more alive than I’d ever felt before.

At home, things were fairly quiet. I tried to do everything I could to behave normally and do whatever Mum asked me. That way, I thought, I would make her less suspicious, and it might be easier for me to slip away when the time came. I noticed she was looking very stressed and tired again. I wondered if it was something to do with her work but I decided it was better not to ask, in case she got angry again. Being around Mum was like walking on eggshells.

One evening that week, she came home late from work while I was upstairs doing my homework. When I went down, she was sitting at the table with some whisky in front of her. She had her glasses on and was reading through a thick file of papers, absent-mindedly picking at a plate of potato crisps. She looked tired. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn’t seem to notice me.

After a few moments, Mum looked up. ‘Come and sit down a minute, Chee Seng. I want to talk to you.’ I sat down facing her across the table. Now that I could see her properly, I noticed that her eyes were red, and her hands were trembling slightly. She didn’t look well. Maybe it was the effect of the whisky - Mum didn’t usually drink. I wondered why she was drinking now.

‘Listen, Chee Seng. There’s something I want to tell you.’ Her voice sounded tired and lifeless, and I suddenly felt a wave of love for her. For a moment, I forgot about how hard she’d been on me. ‘I’m having some problems at work,’ she continued. ‘I can’t explain it all right now but things aren’t going well. I’m not sure how long I can carry on working there. I just want you to know that because, if I have to leave, we’ll have trouble paying for everything.’

I didn’t know how to reply, but she had more to say. ‘I haven’t been feeling well lately and I can’t sleep properly. Dr Narasiman has given me a lot of pills to take, to help me relax and sleep. He says it may be something to do with stress. I hate taking all that medicine. It makes me feel even worse.’

‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I sympathised. ‘What can I do? Anything?’

‘No, not really. I just wanted you to know, that’s all.

‘I know it’s not easy for you now, but let’s try to get on as well together as we can, right?’

‘OK, Mum,’ I agreed.

‘Oh, and one other thing. Auntie Swee Eng has invited you over for dinner with her on Saturday night. I have to go to Melaka again - Mei Ling is still in hospital. I’ll be back late, so it’ll be good for you to have some company.’

I was really happy to hear this. I’d agreed with Jessica that we’d both be on our best behaviour till we ran away, to avoid creating suspicion. I hadn’t seen Auntie Swee Eng for a while anyway, and I always enjoyed spending time with her.

So that Saturday evening, Auntie Swee Eng came over to pick me up and take me to her place. The moment I saw her, I felt better. That’s the effect she always has on me. We sat on the terrace of her small house drinking mango juice and enjoying the cool of her garden. The jasmine flowers were releasing their sweet evening perfume. Life felt good.

‘I love this time of day,’ she commented with a smile. ‘It’s as if the world can breathe again after the heat and dust of the day. So how are things with you, Chee Seng?’

‘More or less all right,’ I replied.

‘How’s school? Or maybe I shouldn’t ask that. You must get fed up with adults asking you about school. As if nothing else was important! I used to hate that question when I was a girl. So what else is going on with you, Chee Seng? You know, I worry about you and your mother a lot. She’s having a hard time at the moment. What do you think?’

‘I think you’re right,’ I answered. ‘She’s got some sort of problem at work, and she told me she’s taking a lot of pills for stress and because she can’t sleep. I’m worried too.’

‘Oh, so that explains it. She’s been looking unwell for some time now. I’ll talk to her. I think she needs another woman to talk to. As for her work, she did mention some problems to me a while ago. You know, Chee Seng, it’s worse than a jungle in some of these companies. People will do anything to get promoted. Thank goodness I’m retired!’

The way she said it made me realise that she’d probably had a similar experience to Mum’s. Anyway, I was glad I’d mentioned it. If anyone could help Mum, it was Swee Eng.

We spent a lovely evening together. She’d prepared some delicious asam laksa, and some gula melaka for dessert. She played me some of her CDs - Mozart and Schumann. I never usually listened to that kind of music, but with her it seemed quite normal, and not like showing off. She loved classical music and showed me what it was like to get deep enjoyment from it. I even started to feel moved by it too.

Later on, Auntie Swee Eng started to tell me a bit about her own life. She got out some old family photograph albums. They were full of pictures - brown with age - of couples getting married, babies, and family photos from many years ago. ‘That’s your great-grandfather and grandmother,’ she said, pointing at a man in a formal black jacket, white shirt with a high collar and black bow tie. He looked very serious. He stood behind his wife. She was wearing traditional Peranakan dress, with small decorated shoes, a long sarong and a kebaya. Her hair was tied back and she wasn’t smiling. It seemed incredible that these had been real people with real lives, and real problems just like us. Looking at the photos with her I started to understand how I was part of this network of roots stretching back. I wondered how my own grandchildren would think of me when I was dead and gone.

Then she opened a page with just one photograph of an incredibly beautiful young woman. I realised with a sudden shock that this was Auntie Swee Eng when she was younger. ‘Is that you?’ I asked, just to make sure.

‘It is. What a change the years make, don’t they?’ She sighed and turned the page. There was a picture of a handsome Indian man, wearing white shorts and an open-necked shirt, standing between rows of rubber trees and smiling into the camera. In the next picture the same man was standing with Swee Eng. She was wearing a light cotton dress and looking up at him. They were holding hands. They both seemed completely happy.

‘Who’s that?’ I asked. Auntie Swee Eng didn’t answer immediately. She seemed to be lost in the photograph, and her eyes were far away.

‘That’s Gana,’ she eventually replied, without moving her eyes from the photograph.

‘Where was the picture taken?’ I didn’t like to ask anything more personal, though I’d have loved to have known more about this man and Auntie Swee Eng.

‘That was on the rubber estate in Perak,’ she explained. ‘Gana was the assistant manager. There was still a British manager even then. It was not long after independence.’

‘How did you meet Gana?’ I asked.

‘Well, in those days, it wasn’t easy to meet young men, especially if you came from the sort of background I was brought up in. You know Daddy, that’s your Great- uncle Lim, held an important position in the Ministry of Agriculture. He was fairly well-off - though not like some of these new rich around today. I was one of six children. There’s only me and your Auntie Rosie left now. We were brought up very strictly. Study, study, study - we were all expected to be top of the class. There was church twice on Sunday. No parties, no dances, and no drinking. We were made to believe that our community was somehow better than others. We were the top of society and expected to prove it by being the best at everything.’

‘But when was that?’ I asked

‘Well, Daddy was doing very well before the war - the Second World War - until the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941. That was the year I was born. We had a hard time. I don’t know how my parents managed to raise six kids.’

‘So what about after the war?’

‘Well, Daddy got his job back, and we thought everything would go back to the way it was before, but it didn’t. After a while the movement for independence started up. We finally got it in 1957. That was an exciting time. I was just sixteen and preparing for my school leaving exams.’

‘Did you pass your exams?’ I asked, thinking about my own miserable performance earlier in the year!

‘Oh yes. I got distinctions. Everything was planned for me to do my A levels, then go to London to study law.’

‘And did you?’

‘Did I what? Pass my A levels? Yes. Go to London? No. Something else happened. I went to Singapore instead.’ She looked again at the picture of herself with Gana.

‘I see.’ It was a stupid thing to say.

‘You do, do you?’ she said, with a sad smile. ‘I doubt it. Anyway, after independence things got more difficult for Daddy. They were trying to promote more Malays in the civil service. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but Daddy didn’t feel he could stay on. So he retired while I was in my last year at school. But not before I met Gana.’

‘How did you meet him?’ I asked her.

She sighed. ‘Maybe we should leave that for another time. Come on. I’ll take you home.’

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