فصل 05

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فصل 05

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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.

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