فصل 06

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فصل 06

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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?’

‘Your friend?’

‘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.

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