فصل 16

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فصل 16

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Picking up the pieces

So here we are, waiting. A doctor comes into the waiting room. He looks kind but he has a concerned expression on his face.

‘Good morning, I’m Doctor Ong,’ he says as he sits down with us. ‘I’m afraid your mother is still in a serious condition. We’re doing our best for her, but she took a very big overdose of pills. She’s stable at the moment but we won’t really be able to tell you anything more till tomorrow. I think the best thing you can do is to go home and wait till we call you. I’m sorry I can’t tell you any more than that for now.’

As we arrive back home, everything seems so familiar and so strange at the same time. I left here only two nights ago, thinking it was the last time I’d see it, and here I am back again.

And there, standing at the front door, to welcome us with her usual cheerful smile, is Puri. Puri is back! Apparently she came back last night, in the middle of all this trouble. ‘Hello, Chee Seng,’ she says. ‘I make you some special fish and chips, and banana fritters for dessert…’ Just like old times. And, of course, she says nothing about Mum. No one wants to mention what’s happened - yet.

Auntie Swee Eng has decided to move over here till we know what’s happening with Mum. She moves into the spare room, right next to mine. I feel somehow protected to know she is there so close to me. She unpacks her bag and comes downstairs to sit with me before dinner. She’s brought a few CDs with her, and puts one on. It’s a piece by Handel. I thought that Handel had written the Messiah and that was all, so I’m amazed at this piece called the Water Music. Auntie Swee Eng tells me the story of how King George I of England asked Handel to write it, and how it was played on boats on the Thames.

The telephone rings. We both rush to answer it, but it isn’t someone about Mum; it’s Jane. Jessica is out of danger and recovering in a private hospital. Would I like to see her? I say I’ll call tomorrow. Mum is my first priority.

Later, after dinner, I ask Auntie Swee Eng, ‘I’ve been wondering - how did the story of Mr Gana end?’

‘All right. I’ll tell you. Everyone likes to know what happened in the end, don’t they? Well, the British manager came back. Gana was due for leave. He was driving to Ipoh to catch the train to join me in Kuala Lumpur. It was evening and the road was dark. It was raining heavily. Somehow the car hit a tree and he was killed on the spot.’

I don’t know what to say. It seems so cruel. But there’s more to come.

‘My sister Rosie told me about it. She’d seen it in the newspaper. I couldn’t bear to read about it or look at the photographs of the crash. I didn’t sleep for days, and I think I cried till there were no more tears left in my body. My life was over.’

‘But you said you went to Singapore,’ I say. ‘How was that?’

‘I’m not sure I should be telling you this. I suppose I might as well now that I’ve gone this far. It’s many years since I’ve talked about it. Everyone in the family just wanted to forget about it all. But you see, soon after Gana was killed, I found out that I was expecting his child. Daddy had to be told. He was furious of course. He called a family meeting. They all agreed I should be sent to Singapore to get me out of the way and stop any gossip. So that’s what happened.’

There are tears in her eyes. I cannot ask her what happened in Singapore, and she doesn’t offer to tell me. Enough is enough, I guess. Some things are better left unsaid.

‘It’s getting late, Chee Seng,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve upset you with my story. It wasn’t the end of my life, you know. Who knows whether Gana and I would have been happy together anyway? Maybe not. And as for Daddy and the family, well, I forgave them long ago. But, as you can see, I cannot forget. I never married. Instead I became everyone’s aunt. All right. You’d better get to bed now. Sleep well, Chee Seng.’

She leans over and kisses me lightly on the cheek. As I go upstairs, she starts to play the Water Music again…

It’s late but I’m still lying awake in my bed. I can’t get Auntie Swee Eng’s story out of my head. I wonder how someone can live through what she’s experienced in her life without going completely crazy. But then I start to think of the rest of us too. Will Mum be all right? How will she cope when she comes out of hospital - if she gets better? How will Jessica cope with her life too? How will Dad cope with the crisis he’s caused? And how will I cope with the consequences of what I did? All the faces and actions and scenes go round in my head like the coloured shapes in my old kaleidoscope. They make one pattern, then, as I go on thinking, they break up and make different, changing patterns. At last I fall asleep, but the changing images go on troubling my dreams.

Next morning, there’s a call from the hospital. Mum has regained consciousness! She’s out of danger. We can visit her that afternoon. What a relief!

When we arrive, she’s sitting up in bed drinking something from a glass. The curtains are open and the room is full of light. They’ve taken away all the tubes from her nose and arms. She’s smiling weakly. She has black bags under her eyes, and her arms are bruised blue and yellow, but she looks more like her old self again.

‘Hello, Mum,’ I say, a bit embarrassed. ‘You’re looking better.’ Suddenly a wave of love sweeps over me and I rush into her open arms. ‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I cry. ‘I’m so, so sorry.’ She is crying too, but crying with relief. She looks at Auntie Swee Eng and says, ‘Swee Eng, thank you so much for everything. What would we have done without you?’ Auntie Swee Eng smiles and quietly leaves us alone.

Mum and me have a long talk. I try to tell her as much as I can about all the stuff that’s happened. I even tell her about Jessica - though not all of it! Thank goodness, she doesn’t ask. But most important, she’ll be coming home soon. Home.

Then she talks to me about Dad. ‘Did you know your father has been to see me? He told me he’s split up with Auntie Veena, you know. She’s gone back to Uncle Krish.’

‘No, I didn’t know,’ I say.

‘He wants to come back home,’ she says. ‘What do you think?’ I hesitate before answering. To tell the truth, I’m not at all comfortable with the idea of having him back. But I’m not sure how she feels, so I say, ‘I don’t know, Mum. I think about him a lot but… It seems a bit strange now. I mean, after everything that’s happened and… I mean, how would we get back to normal again?’

‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I’ve told him I don’t want him back. Certainly not right away. It’s too soon. And maybe I won’t want him back at all… after everything he’s done to us. I still can’t forgive him for that.’

‘No… ‘ is all I can say.

‘But he’s still your father,’ she says. ‘Maybe you should think about seeing him sometimes. I know he misses you a lot. It’s up to you though. Just think about it, that’s all.’

Now we live each day as it comes. Auntie Swee Eng has spoken to the school principal and they’ve decided it will be better for me not to go back to school, at least not till Mum comes home. I may have to repeat a year though. But every day Swee Eng gives me schoolwork to do - really interesting stuff - books to read that I’ve never heard of before, problems to solve. I hadn’t realised she’d been a teacher herself for thirty years! It’s a lot better than school actually. And every day we go to visit Mum. The doctor says she could be home by next week.

As we’re coming out of the hospital, I see Dad arriving, with a big bunch of roses. I feel confused about him. I’m still not sure I want him back.

In the evening, Dad calls me. He wants us to meet somewhere. I don’t really want to meet him but he’s very insistent. So we agree to meet the next afternoon at the kopitiam a few blocks from home. I certainly don’t want him coming over to the house! The kopitiam is quiet at that time between the lunchtime rush and the evening crowd of hungry families. We sit at a small table outside. He orders sweet teh tarik for himself and a large ice kacang for me; the broken ice stained with red and green juices. ‘I want you to listen carefully,’ he says, as we get down to the serious part of the conversation. ‘I know I’ve hurt you - and your mum. There’s not much I can do about that except to say I’m sorry. And I really am sorry. There’s no point in looking for excuses for what I did because there aren’t any. Maybe one day, like me, you’ll find you’ve started something that you can’t stop. You know it’s not right, but you’re too far in to stop.’

I think about me and Jessica. I think I understand what he means. I’ve been almost as crazy as him in my own way. And I’ve hurt Mum too, so I’m certainly not innocent. But I still feel angry with him for what he did. Maybe if he hadn’t run off with Auntie Veena, none of the rest would have happened. But maybe it would have anyway… I feel confused. As Swee Eng says, ‘Things happen.’

Dad is still talking. ‘I’ve asked Mum to have me back, to let me move in with you again. She says it’s too soon. What do you say?’ What can I say? I dig into my ice kacang, which is rapidly melting in the afternoon heat.

‘I don’t know, Dad,’ I mumble, without looking up.

‘Well, look. I’ve told Mum she won’t have to worry about money any more. So she won’t need to work and that will take some of the pressure off her. And we’re thinking about putting you into the international school, when the new year starts. You can have private teaching till then. I’ve told Mum I’ll pay for it. Meanwhile, I think you and I should meet regularly, maybe every weekend. We can do something together like we used to, if you like. What do you think?’ Does he think he can buy us back? I’m not sure I like this idea. And I hate him for talking with Mum about me behind my back. ‘Maybe, Dad, but not yet. Mum has to get better. And I don’t know about meeting.

‘I’m sorry but you don’t feel like the same person to me any more… ‘

He doesn’t insist but he’s clearly disappointed. What does he expect me to do - jump up and kiss him or something? He still doesn’t know that I saw him in the bedroom with Auntie Veena. Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t find out. Before I leave he says, ‘What do you want for your birthday this year, Chee Seng? It’s coming up next Sunday.’

I’ve forgotten all about my birthday, what with all the things that have happened. Again it sounds as if he’s trying to buy me back. I hate that. Anyway, I can’t think of anything I want. ‘Don’t worry about it, Dad,’ I say.

As I walk away, he calls out, ‘I’ll call you, right?’ I nod but keep on walking without looking back.

The days slip by so fast now. It’s already Friday, nearly a week since Jessica and I planned to run away. I call Jane. I like Jane and I’ve been thinking a lot about Jessica. It seems she’s out of danger now and will soon be going home. Then what, I wonder.

Jane picks me up the same afternoon. On the way to the private hospital, we talk. ‘So, Chee Seng, how are you now? How can I ever thank you for saving Jessica’s life? If you hadn’t dived in, she’d have drowned.’

‘It was just lucky,’ I say. But I’m really thinking that it’s lucky Jane doesn’t know everything!

‘Lucky? Maybe. Did you know she almost died from the mixture of pills she took? But I wonder where she got the drugs from. Not from you, I hope?’

‘No, not from me.’

‘The police are still holding some of the suspects though, including Ka Ting, and that Suresh character… a nasty piece of work. In fact, both of them are.’

I change the subject. ‘How is Jessica now?’

‘She’s over the worst,’ says Jane. ‘They say she’ll be able to go home early next week. Mum and Dad will take her to Australia in a couple of weeks’ time when she’s well enough to travel.’ I don’t reply. I just let the information sink in. Strangely, I feel almost relieved to know that Jessica will soon be gone.

Jessica is in a room of her own at the hospital. She has a lot of pillows behind her. Her face is so white, and her eyes have dark rings around them. She smiles as I come in. Jane tactfully finds an excuse to leave us alone for a while. I wonder how much she actually knows about Jessica and me. ‘How are you, Jessica?’ I ask. It’s a stupid question but what else can I say?

‘I’m all right now, Chee Seng’, she replies, with a tired smile. ‘I ache all over and I was being sick a lot at first, but now I’m basically OK.’

‘I’m glad,’ I say. But I realise that I don’t really care so much about Jessica any more. I wonder how she feels about me.

‘Chee Seng, they say that you saved my life. I still don’t remember properly what happened at the pool… but thank you. I really mean that.’

‘Well, somehow you must have been pushed under the water with all those people. You’d had quite a lot to drink, I think, and too many different pills. Anyway, you were behaving strangely all evening.’

‘I’m sorry, Chee Seng. I think it was all the pressure about running away. Funny to think that we really thought we could run away to Thailand, isn’t it? It was just a childish dream really.’

‘I suppose so,’ I agree, ‘but it didn’t feel like it at the time.’

‘Not for me either. Now they’re going to send me to Australia anyway. Maybe it’s best after all. What do you think?’

‘Maybe,’ I say, but there is still a question burning my tongue. I have to ask her. ‘What about Suresh? Is he the man you had the trouble with last year?’

She reaches out and takes my hand. ‘Yes, he is. I don’t know what got into me that night. It was so stupid after the way he treated me before. I don’t know why I did it. Why would I act like that? I still don’t understand it myself. I still… I like you, you know.’

‘I like you too,’ I reply, but we both know that things will never be the same between us. And I think we are both relieved.

As I get out of the car outside my house, Jane touches my arm. ‘Chee Seng, I know what happened. I don’t blame you. But I think it’s best for everyone if Jessica goes away. It’s time to grow up now. But don’t be angry with her, or with us. And do stay in touch. We like you. And Jessica will miss you. Don’t forget us…’ And she drives off.

The next day is Saturday. I notice a lot of whispering between Auntie Swee Eng and Puri, and they go out to the market and come back loaded with bags. Then there’s a lot of activity in the kitchen. Something’s going on.

When I get up on Sunday morning, Auntie Swee Eng has already left. Puri says she doesn’t know where she’s gone, but I’m sure she does really. Meanwhile, Puri is busy in the kitchen preparing I don’t know what. Around midday, ‘Auntie Swee Eng comes back. She opens the passenger door of her car and out steps… Mum! Mum is back! Puri runs out to welcome her. I carry her bag into the house and upstairs to her room.

Mum and Auntie Swee Eng and Puri stand in a line in front of the kitchen door. Delicious smells are coming from the kitchen. We’re going to have a really special lunch, that much is sure! Then Mum hands me an envelope with a card in it. ‘Happy birthday, Chee Seng,’ she says, and gives me a warm hug. Then she points at a package on the hall table. ‘Open it. It’s your present. I think you may have lost the other one…’

I obey, and untie the string and unpack… a state-of-the-art laptop. I feel my face glowing hot with embarrassment. I left my laptop at Ka Ting’s that night. I never got it back. Maybe it’s somewhere in the police station. Maybe it’s still there along with my backpack. But how did Mum know it was missing? And I wonder how much Auntie Swee Eng knows. Maybe Sunderam told her about the one I left behind!

Now it’s Auntie Swee Eng’s turn. She hands me a package wrapped in red paper and tied with gold ribbon. ‘Happy birthday, Chee Seng. Open it.’ I carefully untie the ribbon and unwrap the paper. Inside there’s a leather-covered photo album. I open it to the first page, and there’s the photograph of my great-grandparents. I turn the page and find a picture of my grandparents. Then of my parents, my uncles, my aunts, myself as a baby… There is just one picture of Auntie Swee Eng with Gana. ‘I thought you might like to keep it going,’ says Auntie Swee Eng, with a smile. ‘We’re in this together, don’t forget. There are plenty more pages to fill.’

I feel like crying but I just give her a big hug.

Then Puri holds out a small package wrapped in brown paper. ‘I bring for you from my country’ she says. ‘I hope you like. My sister she make for you.’ I open it carefully. Inside there is a beautifully decorated cotton shirt. ‘You try maybe?’ she suggests.

I go to the bedroom and slip it on. It fits me perfectly, and I feel like a prince in it. ‘It’s lovely,’ I say, and I wear it for the rest of the day.

We have a wonderful lunch, cooked by Puri and Auntie Swee Eng, all my favourite dishes. Sotong with ladies’ fingers and a lovely red pepper sauce, curried chicken, asam laksa, steamed sea bass with lime and garlic, roast duck with thin pancakes - there is hardly room on the table for all the food. And the meal ends with a cake - and what a cake it is! It’s made with a rich mixture of raisins, nuts and spices like cinnamon and ginger. The covering is cream. It’s a dream cake! We attack it till nothing is left.

A bit later in the afternoon, I’m surprised when Faisal, Ka Choon and Dev come by. I feel bad about the way I treated them. But they have presents for me too. Dev has brought me a brand-new basketball. Faisal has framed one of his paintings for me. Ka Choon gives me the latest computer game. I feel great. They are my real, true friends, even if I treated them badly. We go up to the park together and play basketball till it starts to get dark.

Just before dinner, when I get back, there’s a ring at the door. Puri goes to answer it. It’s Dad. He comes in carrying a small bamboo cage. He puts it down carefully and undoes the door. A small puppy jumps out. He’s like a ball of soft wool, warm and playful. He looks a little bit like Raj, and my heart aches as I pick him up. I thank Dad. Mum’s upstairs but doesn’t come down until Dad leaves.

Now I’m seventeen. I know that my family loves me. I have a dog again - and this time I’ll take better care of him. And last, but not least, I know that I’m part of a long history of happenings, some good, some painful. I know that things are not always what they seem. I know we all need to be forgiven for something. But I know that we can sometimes forgive, yet be unable to forget. I know that love is not always what it seems to be. I know ‘things happen’ but I also know they happen to people, and people are sometimes strong enough to rise above events. And I know, above all, that I do not know what will happen next… I’m seventeen now and there’s plenty of time left for things to happen!

Later in the evening, Dad phones. ‘Chee Seng,’ he says. ‘Happy birthday. I love you, you know, whatever you may think. Can we have lunch together next Saturday? I’d really like that.’

‘Let me think about it,’ I say. ‘Maybe.’

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