Saturday, December 30, 2006

A match made in Heaven

By James Ooi

I was just sitting at Starbucks on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It was drizzling softly, little raindrops just falling incessantly forming a translucent screen of water drops as I looked out at the quiet street outside.

For a place that's full of action in the evenings with people partying their guts out, Bangsar sure is quiet on a Sunday afternoon. Peaceful even. Across my table, there's this attractive Malay girl dressed in a beige dress that would have been demure if not for the plunging neckline which showed off her ample chest.

Quite a fair woman for a Malay lady, I must say. She highlighted her wavy shoulder-length hair in shades of brown and gold. Her face is serious as she types and peers in full concentration at her laptop screen, sipping occasionally from her steaming cup of coffee. She doesn’t smile much. Probably because she doesn't want to attract any unwanted male suitors.

But dressed as she is. How can any man resist talking to her, much less avoid looking at her. She bends down to collect a dropped pencil. I get an fortuitous eyeful of her full breasts. At that moment, I decided that I would try to get to know her and perhaps get her hand phone number as well.

What the heck man? The most I would get is a slap but that's provided if I am too forward. And the least I would get is, "Please go away." And what I hope for is a smile and the start of something new perhaps. Later on, a meeting for dinner. And who knows what else. My heart beats wildly in anticipation.

I look at her for a moment too long. She senses me looking at her. She looks up and our eyes meet. I smile at her. She smiles back at me. Irresistibly I wink at her. She blushes and that's my cue. I walk over to her table which is just five feet away from me.

Just five feet away from a relationship with her and God knows what else. It's now or never as Elvis used to sing. And for me, it was now. As I walked over to her table, I knew it was going to work.

This time.

We had been dating for the past year or so. Actually a year two months and eight days from the day we actually first met. I can still remember our first meeting, the smell of her scented hair and how she looked on that first day. Reading the first part of my tale here, you pretty much would have guessed it I must say.

In case I forgot to mention the fact, well I am Chinese and Maria my girl friend is a Malay girl. In Malaysia, well that's not a well-accepted thing and because of religious implications, well this kind of matches are by and large a rarity.

The first few months of our courtship was a very traumatic thing with our parents on both sides objecting strongly to the relationship. But we prevailed and after about nine months, plans were afoot for a wedding. So we had gotten engaged just after nine months of dating.

And I know that is was fast by any standards.

We weren't young. I was in my late thirties and she was in her early thirties and we were pretty sure and happy that we would be together for a lifetime if not more. Could we have been lovers in another lifetime? Could we have gotten to know each other previously? I don't really know. Just that we seem to click so well together.

Sometimes my brother Joe would kid around with me, "Koko, so now how? No more bak-kut-teh and your favorite pork sausages man? How about your daily char-siew-pau?"

I laughed and said, "Can still eat beef and other stuff wat. Also not forgetting my beef steak and thank God I can still eat roti canai and tosai man! If pork is something I gotta give up, I guess I can lah for Maria."

Then Peter my younger brother said, "Hey I heard you gotta sacrifice your foreskin to the butchers. You do already? Did it hurt?"

Grinning, I said, "During the circumcision, nah. After they sew you up, it kinda tingles a bit. But you better not get an erection because that could really hurt as the swelling can pull at the sutures and that’s when you can scream bloody murder."

Aside from the initial questions and stuff, everything kinda settled into the normal scheme of things. We got on with the plans for the wedding. Maria got along with my family and relatives well and they loved her and drew her into their hearts. As for me, things couldn't be better. My future in-laws warmed up to me after the initial objections and more than made up for it with the warmth and acceptance that came once they realized that Maria and I had decided to be together for life.

We went for the wedding photo shoot. A full day of posing and changing into different suits for the photo session. It was so tiring at the end of that day. You wouldn't believe how exhausting having a whole day photo session is. No wonder being an actor pays so well. It's a lot of hard work. And that also when you don't even say a single word.

Things were working so well that I was beginning to wonder. Did I do something right in previous life or what? I never felt so happy before in my life before. But I had this nagging feeling that one wasn't meant to be so happy.

I just couldn't understand why she didn't turn up at the wedding reception. She had been missing for the past few days. She must have changed her mind. At least she could have called me and told me about that. Rather than let me wait at the hotel with the crowd of guests there. I felt that it was a betrayal of the worst kind to me.

Groggy and in a state of vertigo, I looked up and there she was standing looking at me. She was standing there in her wedding dress. God, she never looked so beautiful to me. There were tears in her eyes as she tried to be brave and smiled at me.

"Honey, I am so sorry."

"Why? Why? Why? I don't understand."

"Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want it to. I had wanted so much to spend the rest of my life with you. I just want you to know that I love you with all my heart and I always will."

Reaching out to hold her, it was then that I woke up with a hangover in my apartment. Was it a dream? Did she actually come to see me? I couldn’t decide whether I had dreamed it or if it was figment of my imagination?

I had drunk myself silly the night before. I knew it was wrong to drink. I just couldn't help it. I was feeling depressed and broken-hearted. Lost and alone. I just couldn't cry anymore.

All cried out.

I heard someone at the door. Slipping the morning paper under my door. It was Maniam. He delivered newspapers from the mini market store of his, on the ground floor of the condominium. He was a very reliable guy and on time every morning.

Stumbling towards the door, I picked up the day's edition of The Star. Looking on the headlines, I suddenly sat down looking at front page. It just read, "Bride dies in Car Crash"

And outside the balcony the rain had started to drizzle again. Just like the first day I met her. It was raining then as it was now.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


By Zuraidah Omar

Sarah first saw him one morning when she was driving past the guard-house into the club-grounds. He was standing on the slope of the hill, oblivious to others, surveying the scene before him. She was mesmerised by his looks and the dignity with which he carried himself.

She saw him very often after that. He was usually at what must be his favourite place in the club, standing all alone by himself at the same spot on the hill-slope and looking as if he hadn't a care in the world. Who is he, she wondered.

It didn't take long for Sarah to find out. One day, she ran into one of her friends at the club's cafe. Ella was a longstanding member of the club and her level-headedness had made her the de facto counsellor in her circle. People turned to her for help, advice or just someone to talk to. Nothing went on in the club without Ella knowing about it. Sarah and Ella knew each other well enough not to stand on ceremony or indulge in small talk, so after ordering herself a teh tarik, Sarah joined Ella at her table and cut to the chase.

"Oh, him. That's Kelly," Ella said. "Why? You like him or what?"

"He's quite a looker," Sarah replied.

Ella smiled and squeezed Sarah's arm reassuringly. "I'm so happy to see you up and about again. I know that relationship of yours with Terence was a bit of a disaster."

Sarah grimaced, thinking of the rocky time she had with Terence, a trying time that stretched for almost a year. They had started off well enough when she first met Terence but it wasn't long before he showed his true colours. "I really did my best, you know," Sarah explained. "But he was so unpredictable and temperamental. I tried hard to love him. I think that he didn't trust me enough. I just couldn't cope in the end so I had no choice but to call it quits."

"It's like that sometimes," Ella consoled. "Some things work out and some don't. But don't let it get you down. Don't give up."

"I won't," sighed Sarah, thinking of yet another failed relationship after Terence. "There was Pancho, remember?"

"Oh yes, I remember. We thought you had a lot of guts-lah. First an Australian, and as soon as you pulled yourself together, an Argentinian. What happened with Pancho anyway? It was so short-lived. I thought you liked him."

"Yeah, one of those things. In Pancho's case, I got along fine with him but then someone else came into the picture and I didn't have a chance. I was quite miserable. That's why I stopped coming to the club for a while, and when I did, I saw you-know-who."

"Poor you but never mind, you will have better luck with Kelly. He's available but it won't be easy getting to know him. He's got a very protective mother and what she says, goes. She dotes on him like nobody's business. She's got to like you first before anything else."

"A mama's boy, eh?" Sarah became a bit unsure because that would just complicate things. But Kelly's magnificent image came into her mind and she knew what she had to do. "Never mind. I'll just go with the flow. Can you introduce me to his mum?" She asked Ella.

"No problem. She swims at the club-house very often. I'll call you when I see her. Just relax for now. He's not going to go anywhere."

Ella was true to her word. The next day, she called Sarah on her mobile phone. "Are you in the club? Kelly's mum is by the swimming pool. Come over quick." Fortunately, Sarah was nearby and she was by Ella's side in next to no time.

Ella pointed out to a petite lady with short hair sitting in one of the deck chairs. "She's quite a chilly padi, you know, so watch your step. Come on, let's go and meet her." The two of them sauntered over to the lady.

"Hi Sue," Ella called out. "How are you? Long time no see."

Sue looked up and countered, "What are you talking about? We just had lunch together not long ago."

Ella sat down on the deck chair beside Sue's. "Getting old already-lah. So many lunches, can't remember when or with who. Done your swimming?"

"Yeah, did a few laps. Got to go soon. What's up?"

"I want you to meet my friend Sarah," Ella said as she gestured to Sarah, who had been standing a little apart, to sit beside her. Sarah extended her hand to Sue and the two shook hands. "Pleased to meet you. Have you been a member here long?" Sue asked Sarah, who replied, "Quite some time but I don't swim much."

"Right! Let's not beat about the bush-lah," Ella interjected. "Sarah saw Kelly the other day and she has taken a liking to him." Sarah felt her face going red. Good grief, she thought. Doesn't Ella have any finesse? How could she just say it like that? She could just see Sue look at her in an appraising manner.

"He's quite good-looking and really tall," Sarah blurted, feeling more embarrassed and admonishing herself in her mind. What a stupid thing to say. That will really earn you points with Kelly's mama.

"That's what a lot of people tell me," Sue said.

"Just right for you-lah, Sarah," Ella cut in. "All your previous ones are rather short, if you ask me. Someone your size needs something bigger."

"Ella!" Sarah blushed again, feeling suddenly self-conscious about her weight.

Sue laughed. "Ella's quite a joker, isn't she? Anyway, Kelly has only just come to Malaysia, you know. He has been overseas all this while."

"Oh, no wonder I've not seen him around before," Sarah was still feeling tentative, not sure of what Sue was really thinking about Ella's sudden revelation.

Sue looked hard at Sarah. "I suppose Ella must have told you about Kelly and that I'm looking for someone for him," she said. "But he's very particular about people, you know. I am too. Ella and I have been friends a long time and I trust her judgement. So if she thinks you and Kelly suit one another, I'm okay with it. He's solid and steady. You'll feel very safe with him."

That's fast, Sarah thought. She hasn't gotten to know me well enough yet. "I think you will like Kelly," Sue continued. " But like I said, I'm very particular. I have to know that you're serious about him and that you'll take care of him the way I take care of him. He's very special to me."

The conversation was going too far and too fast for Sarah's liking. She just wanted to get to know Kelly and it was beginning to seem as if she was committing herself to a long relationship. Why is Sue in such a hurry to get Kelly out of her life? "Is there anything I need to know about Kelly?" Sarah asked carefully, hoping not to annoy Sue with her question.

Sue shrugged her shoulders. "Nothing really," she replied. "Being a big guy, he needs his space. But as long as you treat him right, he'll be good to you. I'm getting very busy with my business these days and don't have much time to spend with him. It's nice if he can have someone else in his life."

"I really should meet Kelly first, don't you think?" Sarah tried to bring the situation under control. "For all you know, he might not like me."

"Don't worry-lah," Ella assured Sarah. "I'm sure Kelly will like you. You are such a gentle person, with a lot of love to give." She then turned to Sue, "I fully recommend Sarah to you. You don't have to worry a thing about her. She's a very caring person."

"I'm sure you are, Sarah," Sue smiled and patted her on her arm. "But you're right. You must meet Kelly first. What about tomorrow at about 10am? I'll meet you at the cafe."

Sarah couldn't wait for the day to be over. That night, images of Kelly floated in her dreams. Sarah was sure that she and Kelly were kindred spirits, even soul-mates. She had sensed it when she first saw him. True, he had ignored her when she drove past him, standing on the hill-slope. Perhaps he had things on his mind. Well, they would be meeting one another very soon and he wouldn't be able to ignore her then.

Sarah was at the cafe well before 10am the next day, but when the appointed time came, there was no sign of Sue. Sarah wondered if Sue had changed her mind. She didn't want to order a cup of coffee in case Sue turned up, so she just sat at one of the tables, anxiously checking her watch every few minutes.

Sue walked into the cafe some time later to find an anxious-looking Sarah. "Really sorry, dear, to keep you waiting. Come on, let's go and meet Kelly. He's just outside." Sarah got up so quickly that she almost knocked the chair down. Sue laughed, "Don't worry, he won't run away."

And there he was, standing outside the cafe - the handsome hunk who had caught Sarah's eye. He looked even better at close range. He was tall but there was a calmness and steadfastness about him that was reassuring to Sarah. Kelly looked at her tentatively as she walked up to him. She reached out slowly and put her hand on his shoulder. His brown eyes softened.

"So Sarah," Sue asked. "Would you like to ride Kelly now or do you want to fix another time?"

Sarah nodded; she had met the horse of her dreams.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Spirit of the Swallow

by Yan Lai Peen

It was dawn and my pet chicken had just begun to crow.

"Shi Yan, wake up, Shi Yan." Someone was shaking me.

Through the slits of my half-opened eyes, I saw Niang sitting on the edge of my bed, peering into my face. Behind her was her maid holding a tray, looking like a dark, tall and imposing tree stump. At her foot was a basin of water.

Niang gently shook me again. I grunted and rubbed my eyes, wondering why I was having an audience. Her maid set the tray down at the foot of my bed and the glimmer of a pair of scissors caught my eyes.

Niang knelt down and cradled my feet in her hands, then dipped them into the basin of warm water. I was puzzled; it wasn't my birthday. I was still half-asleep when she dried my feet, rubbed them with peculiar powder and cut my toenails. I saw her take something - it looked like a roll of cloth - from the tray and unroll it. Then, she grabbed my right foot.

"Niang…" I protested groggily. My mother looked up but said nothing. She held the rough bandage to my foot and bent my last four toes all the way towards the arch of my sole, seemingly sparing my big toe. The cloth went tightly round my foot that I began to feel needles and pins. Then she gave a sharp tug around my heel. I yanked my foot at her chin, throwing her off-balance.

"Niang, why?" I asked in bewilderment, fully awake now, and tears already welling up in my eyes. Niang's cold and clammy hands clutched at mine and she whispered through gritted teeth, "It's for your own good, guai nu. You'll thank me one day. Don't cry." She avoided my eyes but nodded at her maid, who immediately shoved a blouse into my mouth. Then, her maid pinned down my wrists.

"Good girl, good girl." Niang muttered. Her hands moved deftly. When the bandage reached my toes again, Niang forcefully broke them, two by two. Crack! Crack! It thundered in my ears in the stillness of the dawn. Pain shot through my entire sweat-drenched body. I choked on my own cries and wailed through the gag while Niang continued to press my heel to what was left of my toes, swiftly completing another round, never once loosening the grip of the bandage. My pet chicken echoed my wails as though crying in sympathy, as though on my behalf. My eyes, wide opened in horror despite the gushing tears, slowly rolled up towards the ceiling, then rolled sideways. Niang and her maid looked grotesque, their faces contorted and grey. Every thing became grey, then black.
On the following day, Niang held a cane and flicked it in front of my face.


Sobbing, I tottered around the courtyard in searing pain until the sun was directly over my head. Niang was still flicking away, by then at my rear end. Beads of sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes; I collapsed onto the ground in momentum with the stroke of her cane.

"Get up!" Niang said. I saw several maids peeping at me from the corners of the walls and I reached my hands out to them.

"Leave her be!" my mother barked at the maids. "Otherwise she'll be just like you!" She turned back to me, "Get up!" Looming threateningly above me, she held her cane high. I stared defiantly at her. "Or you won't eat tonight," she said loudly enough for the maids to hear.

I looked away towards the maids and reached out my hands once more.

"Help me," I groaned.

Thwack! came down the cane on my thighs.

"Aaaaaaahhhhhh!" I screamed, tears pouring down my face, mixed with sweat and, as I then believed, blood. I fell flat on my stomach. My outstretched hands dropped onto the ground and my palms curled into fists. Thwack! again.

"Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" I wailed louder. In my blurred vision, I saw Niang walk away with her maid. The maids scrambled away. I was drenched in my own sweat and urine. I pounded my fists on the ground, pressed my wet face against the earth and cried until the sun set.

My childhood ended that day. I was only five years old. As compensation, Niang gave me a new friend, Xiao Yu. She was to follow me everywhere and spend every moment with me. I later learned that the young maid who attempted to come to my aid that evening with a bowl of porridge was Xiao Yu. She was given five strokes of the cane by my mother who had hawk eyes. Xiao Yu limped for three days.

Every three or four nights from then on, Niang commanded Xiao Yu to leave my room. On those nights, my feet were bound tighter than before as my mother chanted "san cun, san cun, san cun." Before she came in, I hid in a cupboard or under my bed hoping Niang couldn't see me and would go away. But she always managed to find me and dragged me out of my hiding place while I howled for release. When I knew my protests were futile, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, pressed my lips together and gripped the edge of my seat until my fingers were white and numb. And throughout the process, I clenched my jaw and thought of that day I fell on the ground in my own urine and ate dirt.

Every day for two years, I sat in the confines of my courtyard, learning how to embroider shoes for my then four-inch feet. From where I sat each day, I could see the hills beyond the courtyard walls and the swallows that flew above my head. I embroidered images of them onto my shoes while my brothers ran past me, carrying with them wicker toys. One day, they saw me gazing dreamily at the swallows and paused in their step.

"Look at you!" elder brother scoffed. "You're such a miserable sight! You'll be shut in here forever while we enjoy the warm grass beneath our feet!" I looked at their feet and then mine while they continued to laugh derisively. I glared at them and fumed. There was only one thing I could do; mustering all my spit, I did it.

"Xiao Jie!" Xiao Yu gasped, shocked. "They are boys and can do what they like. We must accept our fate." I stared at her with disbelief.

"No! That's not true! I can do what my brothers do! I will!" I heard my brothers' laughter in the distance as they ran off. "I've forgotten how it feels like to run and skip," I said softly, head bowed. "But one day I will fly away like a swallow."

The day came when I turned fifteen. Father announced that I was to be wed. For nights, I lay awake, thinking what would become of me. Then one night, I realised the time had come.

After the night's meal, I pulled Xiao Yu aside.

"Xiao Yu, we leave tonight." I whispered.

"What?" Xiao Yu exclaimed. "Where to? Why?"

"Shh! I am serious about this." I looked at Xiao Yu desperately. "I will soon be Merchant Wang's fourth wife if I stay here. He is older than father, Xiao Yu! I heard that he even beats his wives." The image of Niang holding the cane above my head flashed across my mind and my stomach lurched. "If we don't escape tonight, I'll be trapped forever. Forever, Xiao Yu."

"Escape?" Xiao Yu gasped. "Master will beat me to death if he finds out, Xiao Jie! I can't, I can't do this. How could we escape? They'll surely catch up with us!" She backed away and shook her head vigorously.

I seized Xiao Yu's hands and said, "Do you remember what I said many years ago that morning in the courtyard? I'll do anything to run away. Believe me, Xiao Yu, we can do this together, we can! You will help me walk. We'll go far, far away where they can't find us. This is my only chance! Help me. We will leave at midnight. There's no moon tonight; no one will see us. Xiao Yu, please, I can't do this without you, you must help me!" I began to drop to my knees.

"No, Xiao Jie, no! Please don't kneel," Xiao Yu whimpered. She bit her lip and looked up at the sky. Then she slowly nodded, looking like a rabbit caught in a snare.

After everyone had retired to their bedchambers, Xiao Yu and I gathered our money and some essentials. We stole through the kitchen and past the outdoor waste chamber. The only sound we heard was the scurry of drain rats. I carefully unlatched the backdoor and stepped across the threshold.

"Don't look back," I said.

We started walking very slowly but we kept our pace. I leaned heavily on Xiao Yu and staggered on in silence. The air was heavy with fear. When we heard a clang in the distance, we jumped. It was the gengfu shouting out the time and clanging on his cymbal. We realised that we had walked for an hour. The gengfu's voice moved slowly out of earshot and silence hung heavily in the air once more. I dug my fingernails into Xiao Yu's arms like my toenails dug into my soles. The blood and pus that oozed from the ruptured boils seeped through the crevices of my feet.

"Let me carry you, Xiao Jie," Xiao Yu murmured. She bent down and I climbed onto her back. Her frail body quivered as she tried to secure me on her back and maintain her balance at the same time. Then, we continued our flight, slower now than before.

The wind began to howl, first like a lost child, and then it became louder and louder til it sounded like a hundred restless souls weeping. Leaves swirled around us as the strong wind blew. The dimly-lit lanterns which hung outside the doorways that we passed cast an unearthly luminescence on the walls as they swayed and creaked. An animal ran across our path. Xiao Yu let out a small yelp and staggered on.

Not long after that, we came to a bridge. Xiao Yu paused and panted. I saw a stone at the other end of the bridge but could not make out what was etched on it. I sucked in a deep breath and gripped her shoulder tighter.

"Don't look back," I said in a barely audible whisper as I breathed out. She carried me slowly across the bridge into an unfamiliar territory. We had left our village. We moved cautiously in the dark across the field and into another village. Lanterns were scarce. An animal yowled in the distance.

Suddenly, there was shuffling of feet behind us.

"Listen!" Xiao Yu gasped, freezing momentarily in her step. My hair stood on end and I darted my eyes to the left and right.

"Can you hear that sound? Is master catching up with us? We will die, we will die," she whined. Twigs broke on the ground behind us. I gripped her shoulder tighter. My heart pounded like a big magistrate's gong against my chest.

"Don't follow us. Go away, go away," Xiao Yu sobbed and wobbled forward as quickly as she could. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. "Faster! Faster!" I tried to say but only chokes escaped my lips. The sounds behind us came closer. In her panic, Xiao Yu stumbled on a hard object and all I saw then was the ground coming up and slamming on my face. I shook my head in shock while Xiao Yu got back on her feet as swiftly as lightning.

"Crawl! Crawl!" Xiao Yu almost shrieked. I looked up at her, dazed. She grasped me by my arm and pulled hard, dragging my knees over the stones on the ground. I whimpered but nonetheless clawed my way over sand, earth and puddles. We dared not stop to look back. I clambered on for what seemed like an eternity.

When we made a turn around a corner, Xiao Yu exclaimed, "Look!"

In the fog, I could make out the silhouette of a derelict temple. I heaved a sigh of relief and without letting my gaze leave the dilapidated building, I crawled towards it as quickly as my raw knees could endure.

Once we reached the step, we scrambled past the cobwebbed doorway and hid behind the front wall. There we sat huddled, panting and keeping as still as statues, as though a single movement would shatter the fragile calm. We remained in that position for a long time, listening intently for any more sounds. When we heard nothing else save for our own breathing, we regained our spirits.

"Xiao Yu, please get me some water," I said wearily and closed my eyes. Hearing no response from her, I opened my eyes and saw her gaping.

"Where…where from?" she stammered.

"There must be a well at the back of this temple," I sighed, fingering my foot gingerly. "Go quietly and be careful." She gaped at me with her wide terrified eyes. I squeezed her hands and said, "Guan Yin will watch over us."

When she had gone, I tenderly removed my shoes and unwound the soiled bandages. Upon her return, Xiao Yu stood still a few steps away, staring fixedly at my naked feet. Then she hurriedly dumped the bucket at my feet and shrank back. I heard her retch in a corner. I avoided her gaze; neither of us spoke a word. I cleansed my wounds and decaying feet, and cut away the rotten flesh while Xiao Yu made a fire, occasionally clutching at her throat when stealing glances at me.

"Xiao Yu, you are no longer my little maid but my dear friend," I whispered to her later as we huddled together, before sleep claimed us. I dreamed of swallows in flight above green hills and rolling waters.

When we awoke, my feet had dried and the fire was still kindling. I tossed the ten-foot soiled bandages and my three-inch shoes into the flames. The bandages turned into ashes and were carried away with the wind. The shoes blackened and shrivelled. I wrapped my feet with soft cotton cloth and pinned it securely. The sun was rising from the horizon when we headed to the jetty, hand-in-hand.
We boarded the boat just as it sounded its horn.

"Don't look back," I said.

We never did.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Someone Special

by Laura Bakri

I first noticed the little girl as I paused from setting up my stall with items stored overnight in drawers under the tabletop. She was hanging back a little near the automatic doors to the car park, just at the corner by the newsagents next to its stand of multi-coloured plastic handheld windmills and across from another retailer's rack holding row after row of plain white t-shirts emblazoned with bastardised logos and sly puns on famous slogans.

Her big brown eyes were huge in a tiny heart-shaped face as she looked intently past the hanging cotton blouses of the stall next door at my little white cart with its tiers of display shelves and red latticed panels. As I continued laying out earrings and bracelets of jewel-toned glass Murano beads and hanging up embroidered evening bags at eye level on hooks depending from the roof of my mobile display, I watched from the corner of my eye as she scuffed the toe of one shoe on the heel of the other, then took a step closer. Sensing that she was a little uncertain, I decided not to go into my usual mode of cheerfully making eye contact, smiling and beckoning over with friendly chatter and welcoming gestures potential customers attracted to my pretty goods.

Most such persons were female, teens to smart career women and shopping housewives, looking to buy a trinket or two. This child of about five or six years, dressed prettily in a white frock with puff sleeves and pink smocking on its bodice, looked much like any other little girl following her mummy shopping on a warm sultry midday, and for a moment, as others walking by obscured her, I wondered if she might be lost. Then, as she came into view again, a lady in a black baju kurung and white lace selendang straightened up from whispering in the girl's ear, patted her shoulder and handed her something, then moved away towards the travellator up to the main floor.

Scrunching her fists into her skirts, the small child carefully made her way over to where I was just putting out the last of the cute little handphone straps from Thailand, her tiny white shoes tapping daintily closer on the cream tiled flooring. A sweet voice piped, "Excuse me, Auntie," as I finally looked directly at my diminutive visitor.

"Hello adik, that's a pretty dress you're wearing!" was my cheerful greeting. It worked, as the first smile I had seen from her shyly spread across her face.

She took a further step forward, releasing her right hand and placing it on the edge of the lowest display shelf, tipping up on her toes to see the merchandise neatly laid out before her, now level with her chin.

"Are you looking for something special?" I asked brightly as she carefully eyed each item in turn. As she looked at me and nodded once, I stepped closer and handed her one of my small fabric floral hairclips, adding, "Something special for someone special?"

The suddenly troubled look in her eyes surprised me, but she quickly veiled it with thick black lashes and when she looked up again her face was resolute and smiling once more.

"Yes," she said clearly, "something special for someone special. Ibu says my kakak is going way soon to a beautiful country. She will be with new people and learn many new things, so I want to give her a present. Something nice so she will still think about me even though she's far away. Something nice so she won't forget."

She looked carefully at the flowered hair ornament, then raised herself up on tiptoe again to peer once more at the other items.

"I want kakak to always remember me, no matter what," she confided, raising her head to look up at the hanging display of handphone covers clipped to a wire strung across the centre of the cart. She seemed particularly drawn to one in red silk and black velvet, brightly standing out from the rest of its fellows in the middle of the line, and following her gaze, I released it and handed it to her, simultaneously relieving her of the purple orchid hairclip. She looked at the cover intently, then glanced up at me and nodded twice.

"How much is this, please?" she asked politely, her left hand in which I saw the flash of red bill notes finally leaving her skirts.

Glancing at the price tag high above her head next to the line, I replied, "Fifteen Ringgit," and looking at another tag on the shelf top, added, "And if you like the hairclip, that's only Eight Ringgit. Would you like both? I'll give you a special price of Twenty Ringgit, that's Three Ringgit off."

Shyly, she nodded thrice and confided, "Kakak loves orchids, so she will like the hairclip. Kakak also likes red and she's always talking on her handphone, so - " she suddenly paused and bit her lower lip, then looked up at me bravely and smiled once more.

Silently empathising with the little one, I rang up the sale. As I placed the handphone cover in a white box and began to gift wrap it with cream paper, she shyly asked me to leave the hairclip unwrapped. Puzzled but obligingly, after I tied a jaunty red ribbon on the cream parcel, I dropped it and the hair ornament into a small plastic bag and handed that over to the girl.

"Thank you Auntie," she smiled, then carefully turned and walked off. Bemused, I watched her taking quick little steps up the moving walkway, then driven by a whim, turned to my sales assistant setting out flowered slippers by the side of the cart and said, "Could you keep an eye on everything for a moment, please? I just want to pop up for a minute."

As I emerged by the side of the pharmacy, I caught sight of the little girl going up to the lady in black who was by a food stall. As I moved towards them, I saw the lady bend down a little, nod as the child mouthed something, and then take the hairclip out of the bag and place it in the little girl's hair behind her left ear. Straightening, she took the child's hand in her left, picked up a purchase in her right, smiled and nodded to the serving girl in her white apron and black tudung, and walked towards the entrance.

Reaching the display of traditional Malay kueh, neat packets of nasi lemak and plastic containers of meehoon, I was surprised to see the serving girl, who sometimes pops by my stall during her breaks, surreptitiously wiping away a tear.

In response to my enquiring expression, she inclined her head in the direction of her recent customers, who were now getting into a dark blue BMW. "The family always buys kueh from me," she said, and added, "it's so sad, such a pretty girl, the adik will miss her kakak so much ..."

"Well, it's always hard for a little sister when the big sister she adores goes away to study overseas, but I'm sure they'll keep in touch, and her kakak will be back during the holidays, you know ..." I hastened to assure her, then trailed off as I received a blank stare in return.

"No, no, you don't understand - the little girl asked her mother to put the orchid clip in her hair so her sister could see her favourite adik wearing her favourite flower when they said goodbye. She also asked her mother to put her sister's handphone safe in the cover she just bought so that they could always be in touch," she explained, and at my continuing lack of comprehension, elaborated, "The mother had just been telling me her eldest daughter passed away of leukaemia last night and the burial would be soon, after Zohor, so she was quickly getting some lunch for her youngest girl before the funeral."

And as the azan sounded from the nearby mosque, I looked out to see the little girl's solemn face silhouetted in the passenger window as the car pulled silently away.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake

By Rumaizah Abu Bakar

Chef Chen sat calmly at the round table. His hands clasped in his lap. He looked distinguish in his tall white hat and matching uniform with his initial neatly sewn above the pocket. He waited patiently as the lady and two gentlemen took their seats at the table.

Seated on his left was the Communications Manager, Mimi, looking cheerful in her light gray suit and pink buttoned down-shirt. Her short wavy hair framed her youthful round face. With her Indian blood, she was dark for a Malay lady. "Hi Chef Chen, I can't wait to taste your lovely desserts," she chirped. That brought a smile to his lips. "And I can't wait to serve you, Ms Mimi," he quipped, equally good-naturedly. In her early 30s, Mimi was much younger than the others.

Max the new Director of Food & Beverage sat on Mimi's left, looking slightly nervous in his round glasses. He had on a formal navy suit with a light blue shirt and aquamarine tie. "Good afternoon, Chef Chen," he greeted the man with a faint hint of a German accent. "I'm sure you have a surprise dessert to dazzle us."

Chef Chen smiled widely, "Yes, Sir. I hope you will be pleased," he said with a slight bow.

At last, Justin, the Swiss blond curly haired gentleman in the black suit and mustard tie took his place on the Chef's right. The Chef got up and bowed courteously to his last guest before sitting down again. "Chef Chen, how are you today? All ready?" he looked at the chef and flashed his famous childlike smile around the table.

"I'm good, Sir. Thank you."

I stood quietly in the corner of the restaurant's private dining room. This is the best spot to observe the group. Chef Chen turned to look at me. "Chef Francois, shall we start now?"

"Yes, Chef Chen, whenever you are ready. It is your show, you are the boss!" I did not smile, I seldom did anyway, but I could see that my words had increased his confidence.

"Very well," he looked at the waiter. "Lim, please bring out our surprise," he patted the young man's shoulder.

"Certainly, Chef," Lim replied politely and tiptoed to the kitchen. He reappeared a few minutes later with two plates filled with the chef's dainty sweet creation. A waitress followed closely behind him, balancing a plate in each hand. They served the group.

"Ladies and gentleman, this is dark Belgium chocolate mooncake filled with chestnut and orange peel filling," he gestured for them to start.

"Hmm…this is good," Mimi put her thumbs up. "It is sweet and crunchy on the outside, and then the moment you bit into it, you'll be enticed by the softness and sourness within the crust," she said a bit dreamily. I quickly took out my notebook and jot down her comments, so did Chef Chen.

It was Max's turn. "It does look sexy on a plate," he winked at Mimi.

"Hmm..." she mumbled.

"However, the presentation can be improved," he commented. The packaging-man, they nicknamed him. To him, appearance or wrapping was more important than the content. "The colour is dull, there is no highlight. Perhaps you can include a tiny ice sculpture next to the mooncake. That will make the dish more elegant," Max added, obviously pleased with his idea.
I sighed. After years of working together, I could sense Chen's quiet discomfort, a painful expression in his eyes.

Justin did not seem amused. "How many of this do we need to serve?" he raised his eyebrows quizzically. Trust their Resident Manager to rescue them.

"We are serving 500 pax, Sir," Chen answered.

"For God sake! We can't make 500 miniature ice sculptures! Our staffs will not be able to do anything else. There will be like twenty functions happening at the same time. It is a busy day for the hotel, we can't afford this." Irritation was clear in his voice. "No, Sir, we can't afford it," I said curtly and immediately signaled to Chen.

"So, are you happy with this, Sir?" Chen asked Justin gently.

"Very good, Chef Chen. You have a winner," he complimented him. "No more food tasting after this. For the big gala dinner, Jade Restaurant's very own Chef Chen will present his Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake!" Justin chuckled, looking like a satisfied kid. He raised his cup of Oolong Tea for a toast, the others followed suit. Chen smiled slowly and nodded.

After finishing their tea, they quickly got up and left the room. It was a hectic day. The kitchen team has taken enough of their time and they were all eager to get back to work.

I pulled a chair at the table and sat next to the chef. "Don't worry, Chen, we are doing the right thing," I assured him. "I don't know, boss. I still don't feel comfortable doing this," he sighed. Chen was a man of integrity. He was brought up the old fashion way by his dim sum peddler father and dish washer mother in a village in Malacca. Come to think of it, I had the same upbringing by my retailer parents back in my hometown Lucerne. Only that we had turned out quite differently.

He seemed so troubled that I felt like patting his shoulders to assure him. However, that was not my style. I was known as a man of few words and even fewer sugary gestures. I have been told that our colleagues from the other departments feared me. However, my brigade of sous chefs knew me very well, and to them I would show a side of me that most people did not get to see. I wanted them to succeed. I care about their future and I would do anything it takes to see that they get the recognition that they deserve.

Unfortunately, doing anything it takes also mean camouflaging the truth, as Chen put it. I would simply pass it off as taking teamwork to a higher level. It was unavoidable. To succeed, one needed to make sacrifices and this included one's own pride.


I recalled the day Max broke the news to us during a daily kitchen operation briefing three weeks ago. "We are hosting a fundraising gala dinner for the cancer foundation. Four renowned Chinese chefs from prestigious hotels in Asia Pacific have been selected for this occasion. Each of them will prepare a dish for a four-course fusion dinner next month," he looked at the whole
kitchen team. "The good news is…," he paused for effect, "Chef Chen is one of them!" he hit the table in front of him with his hand.

A few quiet moments passed and then they started to cheer, "Chef Chen, Chef Chen, Chef Chen…" The jolly Chinese chef was everyone's favourite, he was the sunshine after the rain.

I looked at Chen, he was blushing. I smiled. "Chef Francois, can I see Chef Chen and you in your office now," Max asked me.

"Sure," I answered coolly. Generally, I could not stand the sight of my new superior but this time I was curious to hear what he had to say. He followed Chen and me to my tiny office located at the end of the main kitchen. I opened the door and closed it behind them.

My secretary was seated near the door, busy typing away. She looked up to wish Max good morning and then resumed her work. "Okay, gentlemen, you heard my announcement just now," Max begun, a slight nervousness in his voice. We both nodded. "We are expecting 500 guests. As the gracious host, I have requested that Chef Chen do the honour of closing the ceremony with one of his wonderful desserts. The committee has agreed to my suggestion. They have assigned the other dishes to the other chefs." He smiled happily at both of us.

I could not believe what I have just heard. "Did you say dessert?" I asked icily.

Max seemed startled by the coldness in my voice. "Yes. Is there a problem?" he asked me. He pushed his hair behind his ears nervously.

Chen stood timidly next to me. After a few seconds, I spoke, "You should have consulted me first. There is no masterpiece of a fusion Chinese dessert that we can prepare for 500 guests!" I retorted angrily.

Max seemed genuinely puzzled. "I don't understand," he mumbled.

"For maximum quality control, our hotel policy states that we are to prepare hot dishes no earlier than three hours before an event. This means that we are not able to serve a decorative Chinese fusion dessert for a large size dinner!" I glared at him.

Max cleared his throat "Well... I see. I'm sure we can work it out somehow," he laughed, his enthusiasm sounded faked. "What about chilled desserts? I'm sure these can be prepared earlier," Max persisted.

"Delicious as those may be, none is attractive enough visually. Our chilled desserts are definitely not meant for a showy dinner!" I snapped. Max did not say anything. "Max, if the other three selected chefs are going to use our kitchen on the same evening, we have to deal with triple egos, on top of everything else. That is not possible!" I insisted.

"Use your creativity; open up your mind a bit. Do it differently." Max urged on. "Come on, Francois! A man who made Executive Chef at the age of 29 should know what to do. I know you won't disappoint us," he swiftly dismissed me with his right arm, nodded at Chen and opened the door to step out.

I was fuming. The moment he was out of sight, Chen spoke, "What do we do, boss?"

"Hmm...I think we may have to resort Chef Philipp's Western fusion dessert. That can be prepared in advance," I said.

Chen looked shocked. "What? Really?" he asked me in disbelieved. "That means we need to ask Max to present Chef Philipp instead," he reckoned.

"No!" I said firmly. "This is your show. The Pastry Chef will have his turn.We shall pass Philipp's recipe as yours," I decided. "Max did ask us to use our creativity and do things differently."

He shook his head to the left and right in disagreement. "I'm sure this was not what Mr Max meant, boss."

"Oh, come on, Chen. This dinner only stages Chinese chefs, remember?" I reminded him further.

Despite Chen's repeated protests, I managed to convince Philipp to agree to my idea. We were close friends and Philipp trusted me. Moreover, he was still relatively young and had a long way to go. Chen, on the other hand, was meant for bigger shores; he was too talented for a small sea like this. The cancer foundation fundraising gala dinner was a prominent event. It would be graced by the country's top connoisseurs. Esteemed members of high society and celebrities
from Asia Pacific would be present, the Who's who, and with them came the regional media. There would be mass exposure on all the chefs on show. Chen would be noticed. One of the bigger fish would offer him a job at a renowned kitchen elsewhere. Although I valued Chen and knew that it would be tough without him, I had to do it. This was for the man's best interest. A genius in the kitchen like that should not be stuck here forever.

So, I asked Philipp to create a few of his magnificent fusion desserts, something with a touch of oriental. He slaved in the kitchen for a week, while Chen watched guiltily. "Don't worry, Chen. This is your day, I'll scratch your back and next time you can scratch mine," he winked at the man. Chen laughed. Slowly, he started to warm up to the idea. As the day got closer, miraculously we managed to get Chen's full consent


The dinner was a huge success. It was a memorable evening of glitz and glam. The four famed chefs took turns parading on the stage and bowing to the guests. In return, all the guests stood up and gave a thunderous applaud. Shortly after, the organiser invited the four gentlemen to step down and adjourned to the next function room for the press conference.

Mimi was already waiting for Chen near the door. She looked chic in a black evening dress. "Nervous, Chef Chen?" she teased him.

Chen smiled, "A little bit, Ms Mimi. Don't worry, I remember what we have discussed," he assured her as they proceeded to the next room. After briefing him in detail a few days ago, she had made him go over the answers to her anticipated questions over and over again. She knew only too well how important the event was to the hotel. There had been wide news coverage with feature articles on the chefs published in several publications in the region.

Chen noticed me walking quietly behind them. My presence was significant to him. It boosted his confidence when I was around. The chefs sat down behind a long desk, their white hats stood tall in unison. Placard with their names were placed in front of them. One by one the hungry media fired up their questions. Their main target was the charming award winning chef from Perth. He had a chain of fine dining restaurants in Perth, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.

I watched them carefully. The journalists tonight were an aggressive bunch, unlike the usual Malaysian press. Perhaps most of them were from other countries, I observed their accents and complexions, Australian, Hong Kong, India, among others.

Finally, the interrogative Indian broadcast journalist directed his question at Chen. His cameraman immediately zoomed in onto the chef's face. "Chef Chen, tell us how did you get the inspiration to create the Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake?" I watched Chen moving his eyes slowly around the room. I held my breath. "You can do it, Chen," I mouthed silently to myself. Why was he taking so long? My heart started to stammer.

I was relieved when he finally moved his lips; alas he was going to speak. "Ladies and gentlemen..." he began. "I'm afraid I can't take credit for the Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake." "It was actually the creative invention of my colleague, Chef Philipp Hanns," he continued in a small voice; he then shifted his gaze to the floor.

I felt my heart in my mouth. The audience gasped. The room was dead silence.

"No!" I saw Mimi, Max and Justin turning to look at me. In fact, all the people in the room were staring at me.

To my horror, I had screamed out loud. The chilling images continued flashing on my mind. I pictured Chen's 20 years of culinary career being flushed down the toilet; and with that went my own as well.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Grandpa's Funeral

by Chua Kok Yee

My grandpa passed away this morning, and now I am late for his wake.

Slowly I trudged towards the temporary awning that occupied the narrow street in front of my aunt's house. There were large white lanterns hanging on two opposite top corners, both adorned with Chinese characters with my grandpa's name and age. Despite my poor command of Chinese I could read the character of our family surname, and the numbers 'six' and 'five'.

Underneath the awning were a few rows of plastic chairs and three round tables draped in white cloth. The tables were occupied mostly by elderly guests, engaging in idle conversations while munching away on groundnuts. Sporadically, there were bursts of lively chatters that countered the supposedly solemnity of the occasion.

About ten members of a local Buddhist sect were chanting inside the house compound. Their chorus of incantation filled the night's air with a sense of calm sadness. It's a haunting tune that penetrated deep into the soul like a melodious spear of sorrow.

At the entrance of the living room, the huge black-rimmed picture of my grandpa smiled at the visitors from the altar. The golden urn in front of the picture was filled with joss-sticks, its smoke shrouding the altar in a thin white cloak. There were a few plates of fruits and vegetarian food offerings around the urn, all sprinkled with specks of dark ashes. My grandpa's wooden casket was behind the altar, occupying the middle of the living room. Its lid was opened, offering a final window for the mourners to bid him a farewell.

My mother and the rest of the family were standing in front of the altar in rows of three, holding a yellow booklet in their hands. An elderly monk in yellow robes said something to them, and they began to flip the pages of the booklet. Those who found the particular pages began to chant the Buddhist incantations; their hoarse voices disturbing the harmony of the sect members'.

I was contemplating joining them in the ritual when I saw him.

He was sitting at the back row, alone and isolated from the other guests. Wearing a white long sleeved shirt and a pair of beige pants, he looked as if he was going to the school where he washeadmaster for the past twenty-five years. His grey hair was neatly combed to the back, revealing the prominent forehead on his square face. His slanting eyes were hidden behind the thick glasses of his black-rimmed spectacles.

I walked over, and sat next to him.

He looked intently at the proceeding near the altar, without any hint of acknowledgement of my presence. Perhaps he was enjoying the unintentional comedy of my young nephew, who was obviously lip-synching the incantations as he could not read Chinese. Maybe he was trapped in the deep wall of his own thoughts. Or probably it was presumptuous of me think that he could see me just because I could see him. For a moment we shared a room of silence amidst the droning chatters and incantations.

"It's nice for you to come by," he turned his head and gave me a warm smile. There was a blissful calm in his voice which discomforted me. I was more accustomed to his loud voice, always with a hint of anger, which often sent fear into my heart when I was a little boy.

"Sorry I am late," I apologized.

"It's OK. A few minutes doesn't make much difference now, does it?" he replied.

There was a plump guy sitting in front of us, and he turned around to throw a puzzled glance towards our direction. I returned to him an assuring and comforting smile, but anxiety was already written on his pale face. Abruptly, he stood up and made his way to the crowded tables at the front row, clumsily knocking down a chair in his haste. Although most people do not have the gift, or curse, of vision beyond the living world, they still could sense it at an instinctive level.

"Hahaha, that guy was one of my students. During his younger days, his friends used to mockingly call him Fearless Lim. I guess some people never change," he chuckled at the plump guy's antic.

"Can't blame him. It took me years before I finally stopped being afraid," I put out a defense for Fearless Lim.

"It must have been hard for you. I always knew you're different ... special since you're young," he continued.

"Really? How did you know?" I asked. Not many people knew of my gift, and even less would understand it. Even my mother thought I was either lying or delusional when I told her about it. Even today she still does not believe me.

He paused for a moment, as if he was pulling out pieces of words from the recess of his memory.

"Your eyes. I've been a teacher for over twenty years, and seen thousands of kids growing up. But I have never seen anyone with eyes like yours."

"You have the oldest eyes pair of eyes I have ever seen."

I did not say anything, contented to let my raised eyebrows to implore further explanation. He took another long pause before he continued, "I could see that you had an old soul, even when you were just a young boy. I remember one day when you were about nine or ten, I looked into your eyes and i thought to myself; this boy had seen way more death and suffering that children at his age should."

I remained silent, letting his words to slowly caress my soul like a cold night breeze. I never knew that he understood the burden of the gift that had chained a shadow of gloom to my soul. His words, even if it was a bit too late now, felt like pillars that helped to hold off some of the weights in my heart.

"Why you never tell me this when…" I paused to reassess my choice of words, before rephrasing my question, "Why you never tell me this before, grandpa?"

"Perhaps the living is not granted with the clarity of the dead."

In front of the altar, even among the grieving members of the family, my eldest aunt was a picture of wretchedness. Her usually radiant face was now haggard and tears were streaming down her cheeks from her puffy eyes. Her voice was hoarse and dry as she recited the incantation between her sobbing. Grandpa pointed towards her and turned his face towards me.

"Do you think she's crying for me, or for herself?" grandpa asked me.

"Of course for you," I said, knowing well that was not the reply he wanted. It was an easy question that demanded a difficult answer.

"Maybe. Or she could be crying for herself. Her tears could be out of the regrets for things not said or done, while I was still alive and she had the chance to."

After a long, heaving sigh he continued, "My point is, we often realize the important things only after it's too late."

My grandpa and I sat in silence again, lost in our own mist of contemplation. At the crowded table a few metres in front of us, Fearless Lim was stealing glances in our direction as the colours of fear, doubt and confusion took turns to paint his round face.

When Grandpa spoke again, there were tears welling up in his eyes, "I should have done more for you. At least I could tell you that I understand your burdens. Perhaps it would have made some difference, and you would have not done it."

"It's OK, Grandpa. That's all in the past," I tried comfort to him, despite being stabbed in the heart by the truth in his words. I could have been walking on a totally different path if he had been there for me. Any word of comfort from him, or anyone else, back then could have been the barricade that held me from falling into the abyss of depression. A long, suffocating depression which eventually drove me to suicide at the age of twenty two.

The sobbing at the altar had become louder, at times even drowning out the incantation. A few friends were consoling my eldest aunt who was weeping hysterically, while the other family members were struggling to maintain their composure. My Grandpa flinched uncomfortably at the scene, as if every tear rained a needle onto his heart.

"Maybe it's time for me to move on," he told me as he stood up. There was a flash of reluctance in his teary eyes, which was swiftly replaced by a gleam of steely resolve.

He clenched his hands onto mine, "I'm glad that He sent you."

"It's an honour for me, Grandpa."

Together, we walked towards the blinding, pure light.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Shopping can be Hazardous

by James Ooi

I am writing this because I am asked to do this. And in thirty minutes. So I'll just write about last week's class where we were asked to go to the nearby mall to talk to someone there and write about it. Raman, my writing class instructor suggested that the class do it as a creative writing project.

Ok lah, he's the boss so here goes.

Damn! It was a hot afternoon. Just walking out of the bookshop and onto the road, I could feel the blistering heat. My hand and arms felt like it was sizzling onto the grill being barbequed to a crisp. Hurriedly, I strode along the weather beaten road and into the cool air conditioning of the mall.

So I had to find someone to talk with. Yeah, hopefully some hot girl is gonna respond to my advances. Or I might get a slap and have to turn back in to class with a red face. I could probably say it's sunburn or something.

Or I could chat up a guy and get punched in the face for propositioning him. Maybe I should send Raman the medical bill for getting us to do this zany exercise. Okay, okay. I'll look for the first gay guy I see and just chat him up. This way I won't get slapped or punched in the face but I'd probably get molested instead, I guess.

Walking along the busy and cluttered upper ground floor, I chanced upon this rustic and ambient arty-farty shop selling some earthen pots with water flowing out of them. Yeah, what a rip-off. RM800 for an urn and water flowing out of it. I could probably buy the same stuff at the local pasar malam.

But still, the shop was nicely decorated and it had a warm rustic feeling to it. You have some statues of Buddha around, a couple of beautifully painted artwork of Buddha's head. I almost bought the painting. And the shop owner, who was gay, was a very handsome guy who came over and started telling me in a very fascinating manner about his shop.

Let's call him Gary. Gary's a clean-cut guy, handsome in the guy-next-door kinda manner, nice short-cropped hair and a smile that girls would probably swoon over. But he is gay. How the heck do I know? I know, I just know he's gay.

I guess even though he wasn't exactly the feminine type but he has some unmistakable mannerisms that actually made me realize that he was one of them. My cousin's gay so I know how to recognize one. Especially after the incident one night of drunken partying at Rum Jungle when this long time friend of mine just grabbed me and gave it straight to me on the lips with some tongue action man! That was so sick that I puked and I washed my mouth with Listerine over and over again when I got back.

Gary had a very interesting manner in the way he spoke. You kinda felt that he was paying attention to you and you alone. It was very hypnotizing and I didn't feel much of a regret as I parted with about a hundred ringgit for some souvenirs.

Suddenly, he said to me conspiratorially, "Say, I just have this feeling that I want to share something with you. It's about your future."

Incredulously, I joked, "What?? I just parted with a hundred ringgit buying stuff from you. You want me to place a standing order for strange Thai artifacts from your shop every month issit?"

Gary laughed, "No, nothing like that. I have some skills in tarot reading. I just felt led to do a reading for you."

Intrigued, I said, "Ok cool. Let's do it."

Sitting at his table, he passed me a deck of cards and told me to shuffle them. I shuffled them and handed it back to him. Gary cut the deck, split the deck into three piles and put the lowest pile back on top of the other two. I was then asked to select 9-cards from the shuffled deck.

Placing a 9-card spread onto the table, Gary said in a low mysterious tone, "The first three cards represent the past, the next three - the present and the last three - the future."

"Looking at the past, I see that you have had many relationships which have started well but ultimately ended as just friends. I also see that you have had 5 serious relationships. It seems to me that you have yet to find the soul mate in your past life."

Impressed I said, "Amazing. That's absolutely true. How do you do that?"

"The present cards tells me that you are now searching for that someone new. And the future tells me that you will find that someone but it will be something that you will not expect it to be."

"Do you believe in reincarnation?"

I replied, "Yes, I do."

Gary grasped my right hand and gazed directly into my eyes, "I have this revelation that I feel I want to tell you but I don't know if I should. How would you want me to do this? It might be traumatic for you, you know."

Feeling more curious and even a bit suspenseful, I said, "Tell me lah. After all, you have gone too far to stop now."

Then Gary smiled suggestively to me, "What I am telling you now may surprise you. I am your wife from your previous life. You and I are meant to be together in this life."

Monday, October 30, 2006


by Kow Shih-Li


Today, I am at the bank, as always. The fluorescent lights throw a flat, white brightness on everything including the plastic potted palm standing by the grey blinds. Everything is sterile and inorganic, including me in my starched, white shirt. The continual whirring of the bubble jet printer is unrelenting, printer-head grinding its teeth on accordion-folded, four-ply paper. I am as accustomed to this background noise as I am to the sound of my own breathing but today, its dogged busyness jars my senses. The inescapable dreariness of mechanical efficiency is distressing.

I have been sleepless for three nights now. Some non-existent pump in my gut is pushing adrenalin through my body. Continually nervous, I feel as though I am standing on metal grating in a high place through which I can see the long fall down. Maybe it's the tea-lady's coffee, maybe it's Her.

Work is a distraction. My shirt collar chafes the back of my neck, the tie presses against my throat like the cliched noose. I have to plan for bigger things now. I have to plan for Her. It is impossible to concentrate. The dotted lines awaiting my signature float in and out of my field of vision randomly as I try to focus on the loan approval forms. Fuad had better be diligent checking though the paperwork.


I am told I have an analytical mind. A way with numbers, never misses details yet always sees the big picture. The powers that be tell me that in my annual performance appraisals every year, without fail. Of course I have a bloody analytical mind. What other kind of mind would a dean's list accounting student with a Masters in International Finance have, the morons?

Today, this exemplary mind is taxed by the thoughts of Her and lunch last Saturday. It was Japanese, always safe for a first date. No sharing of food, no clumsy cutting, no splattering gravy, no messy servings and prawn shells strewn on table cloths wet by tea. Only convenient, bite sized pieces on individual plates that you could transport into your mouth without appearing undignified.

So, we ate, sitting across each other at a small table, a young couple on the other side of the fake rice paper screen. Conversation ebbed and flowed with the tea. Her hands were beautiful, curled around the glazed teacup. She smiled a lot and laughed a little. She would be away, she said, for a few days. Would I call her when she got back?


The framed poster in my office proclaims, "A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline. -Harvey Mackay-" I did not know who this Mackay was but plan I shall.

It has been 5 days since we first met. I could not remember her face, only the fact that it was pleasing enough. The prospect of seeing her again tomorrow excites me. I plan an agenda for the next two months. Ten dates tabled under the headers Date, Meal Type, Restaurant Options and Other Activity. I had vicarious pleasure with Other Activity. Date-plan.doc is saved in my Personal Folder on the computer.

Friday - The Second Date

Her favourite steak place was a dimly lit colonial bungalow. In the candle-illumined gloominess, we talked about work. Listening to her voice lilting around narrations of difficult clients and the tiredness of being on the road, I drank 2 beers and felt the nervous anticipation of the week drain away from the base of my spine. She had red wine with her medium rare. God, I love a woman who eats red meat. When we finished, she touched my arm with her beautiful hand as she got up from her chair. A fleeting two seconds, a slight pressure burning a hole through my sleeve. I thought she was heaven sent and hot as hell.


The bank has me in its confines again. Lee Mei, my assistant, is driving me crazy with her rational explanations of why every problem she brought to me had a right to exist and was impossible to solve. Fuad has been sensible enough to stay away and feign independence. The slowness of time makes me increasingly crabby.

I type out an imaginary conversation with Her, save it as Conv-plan.doc and mark as 'Done' Date No. 2 in my dating schedule.

Tuesday - The Third Date

I had an Other Activity planned; an artsy Chinese movie with subtitles. Her closeness in the darkness of the cinema was discomforting, the space between our shoulders hung like a tangible mass. The movie was filled with grandly coloured scenes but I barely heard the dialogue. I was too busy rehearsing, in my head, the witty conversation that I had concocted yesterday. I would use that over teh tarik and thosai after the movie.

It worked brilliantly. I brimmed with charm and she was adorable in her compliance to my scheme to win her.


She calls and we speak on the phone in the privacy of my office for twenty-five minutes. I spend another forty-five replaying the conversation in my head, reinterpreting for clues. Someone less pragmatic would have called the analyzing cold-blooded; I prefer to think that I am searching for a way into her beautiful mind.

Two cursory knocks on my open door. "Good morning, Andrew. Where's that monthly loan status report you were supposed to give me yesterday?" I am startled but the matronly bulk of Mrs Tan is already lowering itself into my visitor chair. Chain-smoking, audit tyrant from HQ. I didn't know she was at the branch today. Shit.

"Hey, Mrs Tan. I didn't know you were coming today. Fuad! Somebody, get Fuad please and tell him to bring the loan status report."

Mrs Tan lights a cigarette. That woman has no decorum at all, and it is against branch regulations to smoke indoors. My coffee cup turns into an ashtray. I hated her stubby fingers. They were so inelegant compared to Hers.

"Come on, Andrew. You're slipping up. You always meet your deadlines and now you've missed three in 2 weeks. This is not going to look good in your appraisal. What's wrong? You lovesick or what?" she said, emphasizing 'not' with a little pause and puff of smoke.

"No'lah, Mrs Tan. Everyone is just a little overstretched. That new loan scheme HQ launched last week is flying and we're just trying to cope with the response. I haven't had a good break since I don't know when."

"Is that so? Well, maybe you should take some time off when you sort out this mess." She steals a glance at my computer screen. Thank god I had just opened a busy looking Excel file to work on.

Fuad comes in with the loan status report, looking mousy in a beige shirt. Mrs Tan is diverted, she has fresh prey.

Saturday - The Fourth Date

It went exactly as planned. We spent the whole day together. Shopping, eating, another movie. Her closeness was no longer a thing to be conscious of. We held hands and it was perfectly natural.

Over dinner, I told her about Mrs Tan and the people at work, making Mrs Tan uglier and the rest more incompetent than they actually were. It threw my own competencies into clearer relief, I thought. She laughed, said "You're so mean" and slapped me on the arm. What would I say to my friends about her? I told her and she fell silent.

Sunday - The Fifth Date

The walk back to the car from the restaurant was secluded. I kissed her and she leaned in.

It was a triumph of planning and execution. The Kiss was 2 dates ahead of schedule.

I allowed myself to think about a future involving a diamond ring of a certain size. This was The Big Picture.


I stopped planning dates because there was no longer a need. We were calling each other several times a day, and meeting as often as we could. I started planning a little holiday away. A 3-day rendezvous at the beach, probably Langkawi. I booked the AirAsia tickets from the office and filled out an Annual Leave Application form.

The people in the office say I look good. I agree. A spring in my step, a sparkle in my eye. Work was no longer a burden. In fact, I excelled - I was incisive, emphatic, even warm and connected. Fuad and Lee Mei flourished under my effectiveness. Mrs Tan would have no reason to visit again.

Food tasted better.

The Holiday

She was surprised when I told her about Langkawi. Not as happy as I expected she would be but she said was tired from the pressure of meeting quotas. The month was coming to an end and she had to sell more insurance policies to make her numbers.

"Why don't you sell me a policy? How short are you on your quota?"

"I couldn't. It's not right. This is too personal, you can't bail me out all the time."

"Why not? Anyway, I don't have one of those medical cum life cum unit trust type of fancy schemes you have. "

The monthly premiums could have paid for a small car but what the heck. She would love me for it. I was doing well at work and my transfer to HQ would come through in 6 months.

In Langkawi, I gave her a necklace with a little diamond heart. Just to let you know you're special. Oh, I love you, she said, with tears in her eyes. The sun set behind her, an orange globe swallowed by the single line of the horizon. I had a right to be smug. It was perfectly timed, perfectly planned. The sky flushed a rosy pink. All was right with my


I had another preoccupation now. Planning a marriage and a new life after. I was filling in the colours of The Big Picture.

The structured demands of a HQ career worked well for me. My name cards have been reprinted twice, each time with a title bearing more letters and hyphens. A real plant with juicy, verdant leaves sits next to my office door. There are no printers within earshot. Bliss.

An October wedding would be ideal. We'd have Christmas together for a honeymoon and be comfortably acclimatized to face Chinese New Year in January as an angpow-giving couple together.

The Proposal

I made reservations at an expensive French restaurant. A resident four-piece string quartet would provide a suitably romantic ambience, I was told.

The half-carat ring is in my pocket. I had taken care to wear dark trousers so that I would not have a stain on them after I got up from bended knee. The menu would be light and delicate. Salads, pates, fish, soufflé, wine, mousse.

On the way to dinner, she disgorged the daily complaints about work and her boss. It was tiresome to listen to but it was her routine. I let it wash over me. It would be another coup; I had the perfect evening planned. She would say yes, the strings would play and I would be on my way to a perfect, married life.

After the cheese and before the dessert, the quartet moved close. It turned out to be a Filipino mariachi group, all grinning broadly. What the heck. The only strings were the six on the guitar. The bongo playe had the drums hanging
down to his shins. I pushed my chair back. I have something to ask you. Down on one knee, smoothly practised.

"Will you marry me?" Ring box clacked open decisively, the diamond was a triumphant, multi pointed sparkling star.

She had a strange smile on her face. It looked almost pained. I noticed then that she wasn't dressed her best. It must have been a rough working day. I didn't remember what she had said in the car. Her shoes had a ring of dried mud around the soles and her make-up had lost definition.


The word quivered in the air. I saw us frozen as in a still photograph. She in her chair, me in the ludicrous pose, the guitar, the bongos, the tambourine and the maracas in attendance. The 'No' written in thick strokes hanging over our heads.

The music faltered, leaving the singer unaccompanied for an awkward second, his voice unadorned. He wavered, picked up the song again and started to walk to another table. The rest followed the cue. My chair felt like it was a million miles away.

Dessert arrived, chocolate mousse with strawberries and sugar dusting in the shape of a heart. It all seemed so contrived now, like a Valentine's Day gimmick.


"Because…because this has all been about you and only you. You don't know me. I am not an acquisition merger joint venture whatever. What am I all about? What did I dream of today? What do I want? I am not a scheduled timetable to be followed and executed. Not a target to be met, to help you achieve a goal of marriage before you turn 40. I am not incidental. I refuse to be."

Quietly aflame, her tone was low and her face controlled but I did not see her. My excellent and reliable mind was already reacting, making a list of counteractions to deal with this. Plans for finding a substitute, for apologising, for trying again, raced through my consciousness. The logic machine was moving in full gear. Yet I could almost, almost but not quite see, like a speck of dirt on my glasses that wants to be ignored, something in there crumbling like a house of cards. That speck, in its quietness, knew that something would break and would not heal but I do not accept that. Planning and effort conquers all. There would be no failure. Grief was not permitted.

"And happy birthday, by the way. It's next week isn't it? Turning 40 isn't so bad," she said.

She got up to leave, putting both her beautiful hands on the table. When she was gone, the Langkawi heart was left on the table where her hands were. Small and encrusted in glassy stone.

I tried to drink, swallowing was painful. Breathing hurt but all I needed was another Plan. Mr Maracas' curious eye was set on me, he was singing back up. Bloody musicians

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Satanic Cult Mamak Shop

by James Ooi

I must be insane.

It's a hot afternoon in Bangsar and here I am sitting in a mamak coffee shop with my fellow classmates from the writing class. And we're seated right at the back of the restaurant, right in front of the sizzling grill, frying wok and the areawhere they cook. The fumes from the area are really killing me.

There are three youths standing right in front the kitchen area. One is frying some Indian rice-cakes called vadei and another is frying some noodles. The other chap is just standing dispensing food for the waiters to distribute.

I am drawn to the guy frying the noodles. The scraping, screeching and banging from his cooking is very distracting and I look at him. He's tall, I have to arch my head back to have a look at him. Bony thin, I can see his fingers and it looks like he's just bones covered with a thin layer of skin. He has a red cap on his head and it's turned the other way, he's got a long sleeve denim shirt on and a pair light blue jeans which looks almost white in color and a blue apron draped upon his belly or crotch if you like.

Let's call him Sam. Sam has a moustache and a beard. He kinda reminds me of Osama bin Laden. He works furiously on the wok dishing out fried noodles. He's so thin. I think his ribs would stick out like guitar strings if you ripped out his shirt and took a peek at him. He has on a silver ring? Is he married or does he belong to some secret society that's about to bomb the place down? I don't know and I don't care.

Sam is a very alert person. Every now and then, he looks up and around from just frying his noodles as if he doesn't want to miss a thing. He seems hyperactive. He looks like he is in a hurry to finish his work. Perhaps he has a hot date waiting for him somewhere. Or perhaps he's planning to detonate a bomb somewhere in KLCC.

Who the hell knows?

It is hot here. This kinda weather would just drive normal people nuts. I am going nuts with the fumes from the cooking. The fans whirring above me is not cooling at all. It is dispersing the hot air all over my ears.

I am going bonkers.

Stuck here, I look again at Sam. He has that potentially violent look on his face. His big eyes stick out like lamps out of his bony mustached face. He looks sullen, scrappy and kinda like someone who woke up from sleeping in the gutter last night. His shirt is open, a few buttons at the top and I can see his chest hair sticking out of his shirt. He reminds me of a hairy gorilla but a malnourished hairy gorilla.

He is totally absorbed with his work. Now Sam is working on some egg rolls, then he goes about again frying another plate of noodles. On and off, he turns around and looks here and there. He seems cool in this busy and chaotic place. He doesn't seem like he belongs here.

Sam is too thin. He doesn't look like one of those nerdy guys who lack experience. Sam looks like he's a street-smart guy. I think Sam is on drugs. I think there's more to him than just being one of the cooks hanging around this restaurant. His eyes. They are too alert for a cook. I'll have a plate of his noodles. The smell of it, the fumes floating around the place; it's making me hungry and I think I'll have to eat or go mad here.

Sam is handling the steel spatula, which he uses for cooking in a unusual manner. The way he twirls it around is like holding a knife and stabbing someone with it. It would not be difficult to imagine that he is a killer who just last night slashed some unfortunate person and cut up the body into eighteen parts and disposed of it in the Klang river.

No, that wouldn't be likely.

The noodles taste delicious. The curry served with it is creamy and the color is very appetizing. I can smell the meat in it. Could that be human meat? I have heard on the National Geographic channel on TV that human meat tastes very sweet, somewhat like pork.

Perhaps Sam killed someone and he cut up the pieces and cooked curry with the pieces. Slashing the body into minute parts and cooking the parts until the flesh falls apart from the long hours of boiling and cooking.

The kitchen had just been cleaned recently. The floor just isn't as dirty as it was normally. I could just imagine the victim screaming in terror and agony as Sam decapitated her arms, then her legs and finally her head. The screaming stopped when her head rolled onto the floor. Her blank eyes just staring out and her bloated tongue stuck out from her mouth. I could see the blood flowing and just gushing out on the floor, spreading in a dark red unholy carpet all over the kitchen floor.

Finally, it hit me. I suddenly realized that Sam's look and the way he behaved strangely reminded me of a satanic cult in which I had once been involved in. And the ring, the unmistakable silver with a the glistening silver tree engraved on it - it was the mark of Culthas satanic cult, a long established satanic cult that specialized in human sacrifice.

No wonder he wore that denim long sleeve shirt. From what I know of the Culthas sect, all members have a black tattoo of a snake encircling a nude woman on the inner part of their forehand. And the expression of the woman in the tattoo is one of indescribable agony as if all the tortures of the damned were being experienced by her.

In one of the satanic rituals of the Culthas, is the very act of consuming the victims' blood as she is being decapitated. The effect of such an atrocious evil is the karmic deterioration of one's health in which the body becomes ghostly thin and the bones of a person appear to stick out like a morbid corpse which has been exhumed from the grave after a year. All covered with a thin layer of skin, just like Sam.

Another unmistakable trait is that the eyes are red, red like blood. Something very common with drug addicts in which the veins are swollen and they bleed over the whites of his eyes. Like a film of red, dashed across a screen of virgin-whitecloth. A terrifying aura of madness exuded from Sam as I looked at him.

It is not the first time my psychic powers have revealed to me the dangers that surround me. I must leave this place. They have been hunting for me and they have found me again. Yet, I must not lose my calm. I will escape again and I will be free of them. I will be free of their enchantments and their madness.

I am the Mad Monk.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Powdery-scented Envelope

by Farah Mahadi

It's early and I don't want to get out of bed yet. I'd been working so hard all week and just wanted to rest more. But then my mobile phone begins to ring. The kind of shrill that irritates you. The ringtone is always constant, it doesn’t change, but this one felt different somehow. It had a sense of urgency to it. I could guess who it was, without checking the phone screen.

"Hello?" my voice croaked.

"Along, are you up yet? Come on, be a responsible girl, you're twenty-seven now for god's sake. Did you receive The Card?" probed my mother, drawing emphasis to The Card.

"Thanks, mother, I'm fine thank you. And how are you?" I responded blatantly.

"I'm fine, dear. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

Goodness, was she persistent this time of day. Typical. My mother. The doting mother. The nagging mother. Okay, I'll cut her some slack.

"What card are you talking about, mum? I didn't receive any card," I replied.

"Of course you know what I'm talking about. It's your cousin. She's getting married! Before you, I might add," she said with a tinge of disappointment.

"Does it matter? Anyway, I'm not going."

"Oh, yes you are. You'd better! What would the kampung folks say if you didn't?" she agonised.

"What would she think if I came? I don't think so."

Beep. That's right, I hung up on my own mother. Truth is, I think I did receive the Walimatul Urus card from my once-revered cousin Fatin. But after what happened between us some ten years ago, I have not spoken to her since. I couldn't bring myself to it. It's just too painful.

What was it that's so bad? Imagine, your whole life you grew up in a close-knit kampung where everyone knows everybody and they're nice to each other. So nice that I had once befriended the toast of the town, the dishy Khairul. And like everybody else, he was nice to me. Really sweet and kind, too. With all the other half-wits of a guy running around (you see, not everybody's that nice), he was naturally the best choice of almost any dreamy-eyed girl there. And guiltily enough, I was the biggest dreamer of them all.

We had been dating for about year; all along he would read aloud to me personally-penned poems, he was such a romantic. Always the gentleman, never demanding and pretentious or expecting any favours in return. Pretty much a guy beyond his years. Until I began to hear stories of him courting another girl. I was flabbergasted. How could my Khairul do this to me? So one fine day I confronted him.

"What in the world do you think you're doing sneaking around behind me? I thought you were better than that," came my acerbic inquisition.

"What are you talking about? I'm not going out with anyone else other than you," he answered back, defending his innocence.

"But ... buuuttt ..." all of a sudden I was faltering.

"Look, if you can't even name the girl, then forget it. Obviously it's just the rumour mill talking," he shot back with confidence.

At that moment I left it on status quo. Even when we dated, he was still quite popular with the girls. And one too many times I observed Fatin acting besotted silly around him. But I never suspected the chain of events leading from that giggly barrage.

Before I knew it, Fatin had landed her grubby hands on him. I couldn't believe it. The betrayal, her insolence. What's worse, she snubbed the fact that he used to be mine. Later, I learnt that those choking chortles, as I'm wont to call them, were practically the only quality that had attracted Khairul to her. Every time I attempted to confront them about what they had done to me, her secret weapon, that wicked laughter rolling out in peels, infected him too. Insofar both acted as if I never existed anymore.

To me, this should be reason enough why I'd decided not to attend Fatin the Watin's (this is what I used to call her) wedding. Except now it would be Fatin the Crackin' (insert your own expletive). I know it all seems aeons ago, but when it involves your first love, you can't truly forget. Puppy love, people called it. That's an overstatement. Your firsts aren't ever puppies. They're kittens - because it's all cute and cuddly and charming ... puppies are supposed to be loyal. And that, he clearly was not.

So what am I to do now? Just sit whining at home all day, flashing back to those wayward times ... not a chance, I'm a woman about town and it was time to paint the town red. I had so many other worthwhile friends to keep me company, folks who knew how to party. Not that this was my weekly weekend jaunt. Nowadays, it seems, I'm more apt at curling up at home reading a good book.

I didn't feel like going out today. So I slogged around sloppily, trying to do some cleaning, pruning, whatever. I was windexing the windows until my nose caught a whiff of a scent that was definitely not Windex. It smelled powdery. The odour became stronger and stronger as I inched forward. Eventually, I found the source. There on the floor laid a pink envelope. It was addressed to me.

I had received this in the mail a week ago, and it was still unopened. Suddenly my mother's revelation hit my face like a hot iron. However, I'd decided to ignore this pink thing. I just wanted to rip out her insides rather than the envelope, every time I thought about her. Sordid, I know; that's how bitter I felt. But what if it's not her?

Are any of my friends getting hitched? Not that I heard of. So it's got to be her. Though I couldn't for the life of me think why she'd send me an invitation. Oh, yes, I get it now. It was through the sheer force of family. Blood ties. Grannies, uncles, aunts, cousins, and of course our own set of parents whom would've persuaded her to send me an invite. "Because you're cousins," they'd grill at her.

The rest of the day, I just lazed around, feeling miserable, not wanting to go out and see anyone. Not miserable because my arch-nemesis of a cousin was getting married and I didn't even have a boyfriend to pore over, but because of the drab that life has become. I felt hopeless. I opened the television, and as usual, there was nothing interesting, so I switched it off. I began to read a book that I'd just purchased, titled The Devil Wears Prada.

Just as I became engrossed with the book, suddenly the wind outside grew so strong that I had to shut the windows. When I came back down to sit on the settee, there laid the pink envelope. I was stupefied to silence, lifeless as a statue. What was this, a sign? Did God really wanted me to go? To patch things up with her?

With a swipe of a hand that could cut like a razor, I brushed it away. I sat down again to read. A trickle of red fell on page 57. I shrieked. I looked at my pinkie on my right hand; no wonder a brief moment ago it felt a slight singe which I gallantly ignored. Sure enough, it was bleeding from a cut. The envelope's undoing?

It seems that the powers that be really didn't want me to turn aloof towards this piece of paper with a card inside. The one thing I wanted to shrug off, yet I couldn't. Immediately, I went to the bathroom to clean up the mess on my finger and bandaged it. Then I called my mother.

"Mother, I'm so sorry to hang up on you like that earlier. Just that, I wasn't feeling myself ..." I had to give an excuse.

"It's okay, sometimes all of us has a bluesy day. I know it's hard on you, the relationship with Fatin," she said gently.

"But ... I thought you didn't know ..." I said, surprised.

"Well, word travels fast, my dear. And what was that, ten years ago? I'm sure she will not ignore you on her own wedding day. She can't be that bad. People change over the years, you know," said Mother.

"Well, some people for the better, others for the worse. I wonder in which category she falls into," I jested.

"Over the many years, I visited her family often. She always asked me about you. In fact, she was the one to tell the story about you two. And every year during Raya she'd ask for my forgiveness about that incident. She's grown up now, Ila. Just come back," Mother's comforting way of cajoling resonated through my ear like a slow beating drum.

"Are you crying?" mother asked.

"No, no," I sobbed.

"See you in two weeks time, okay my lovely Ila. And I promise I won't pester you about your own life plans. It's a time to rejoice, be happy, merry. And I hope both of you will talk again when you're here."

And that was that.

Even though every year I'd balik kampung for Raya, strangely enough in all that time we never cross paths. Perhaps she saw me a few times but was too abashed to come and see me.

At this point, I had no idea how her life was; the fact that she asked for me through my mother endeared her to me, to say the least. I had no idea who she was getting married to. In all of ten years, could it still be Khairul who captured her heart?

I made my big move. I picked up the envelope from the floor and sniffed at it. It had a sweet, lingering scent, not the tacky kind. Even with my bandaged pinkie slowing the process, I managed to open it. My eyes remained closed while I slid the card gently upwards and out. I opened my eyes again.

Then I saw it ... inside a heart-shape trimmed with lace, my cousin's name appeared, "Nur Fatin bt. Mohd. Deraman" and…below her name..."Mohd. Khairul bin Ahmad Tajuddin ..."

With my mouth agape, I plonked down hard on the settee feeling dazed, confused, left to ponder. Is he my Ex, Khairul? After erasing him from my memory bank ten years ago, I had virtually forgotten his full name. I frantically searched a box labeled 'Memories' wherein I kept greeting cards from occasions such as birthdays, farewells, graduation, get-well, Raya. Then I remembered that I had burned all the love letters he gave me.

I kept on searching, until I came across a page of poetry which I remember explicitly was penned by him. No name, just words, not even a date. I turned the paper around. He had written it on used paper. It was an application form of some kind. Under 'name', it was stated as, 'Mohd. Khairul bin Awang'.

What are the odds! I felt a sense of relief awash over me. I had practically stopped breathing from the time I opened the envelope until the point of discovering the poetry note. Now I can exhale again, knowing that Fatin and Khairul Awang didn't make it that long.

This also brings with it a wish for, at last, a reconciliation for me and Fatin. I'm definitely packing my bags a fortnight from now to head back from bustling Kuala Lumpur to my serene kampung up in Kelantan, where the Sandiwara-style drama of my early life took shape. It may have distressed me all these years, but now I can finally bring it to closure. Fatin the Watin, here I come, clutching the one envelope that will transform our lives from this moment onward ...