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.


Anonymous said...

Well done Laura, a touching story. I enjoyed reading it and could see the story playing in my mind. My only other comment is that some of the sentences are rather long. It would help readers to catch their breath if there are commas or if the sentences are shorter. Zu

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it, Zu :) And yes, you're right, the sentences are quite long - thanks for the feedback and tip. Did notice as I read the story out loud to test for rhythm and cadence (excellent tip, Raman); after a few revisions though, decided to leave it for this round and try again for my next edit/story. Laura

Rumaizah said...

I see that you've made some changes to the earlier version that you read to us. It does sounds smoother, and I think adding in the 'kueh lady' was a good idea. Hope to see more:)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rumaizah, had good input from the group during that first reading, glad to know the changes arising from that have improved the story. Laura