فصل 03

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فصل 03

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CHAPTER THREE

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.

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