Sunday, September 17, 2006

Twelve and not stupid

by Zuraidah Omar

Papa is late again. It has been two hours since school ended and I feel so foolish, standing here in my school uniform, in front of Kong’s Mini-Market. This is where I wait for Papa to pick me up after school; it is just across from the road that goes down to the school. Papa is often late but not as late as this. People entering the shop glance at me, standing here by the entrance with my school-bag tucked between my feet. They appear surprised to see me, still standing here, when they leave the shop. Mr Kong, who is already familiar at the sight of me standing and waiting outside his shop, has a look on his face that seems to say, “Poor girl. Where on earth is her father? How can he leave her waiting for so long?”

I see his car coming up the road and I feel so relieved. For a while, I did think that he had forgotten to pick me up. It did happen once. By the time he came to get me, it was almost evening and I was already in tears. Mama had been out with her friends and was worried to find me not home when she got back. She had then called Papa. If only Mama could drive me to and from school, life would be so much easier for me. She does have a driver’s licence and used to drive when we lived in Seremban. But that was so long ago and we now live in KL. She doesn’t like driving in KL where people, she says, drive like maniacs.

Papa’s car slows down as it comes up to Kong’s Mini-Market. It stops and I am just about to jump into the front seat when I notice that there is somebody already there, a woman whom I don’t recognise. She looks about the same age as Mama and her skin is as fair as Mama’s, except that Mama is Malay and this woman is Chinese. Her long hair is tied in a bun and she wears glasses. I get into the back seat of the car and she turns to smile at me. “Hello Sasha,” she says in a rather sweet voice. “I am Auntie May.” I am surprised that she knows my name because I know for certain that I’ve not met her before.

As I am not saying a word and must be staring hard at her, Papa looks at me through the rearview mirror and says, “Don’t be rude, Sasha. Salam Auntie May.” She extends her hands to me in between the two front seats and I take them in mine. She turns to face the front as Papa drives off and I am left looking at the back of their heads as they talk to one another in low voices. I feel confused as they appear to know one another well, but then Papa and Mama, both very sociable people who like going out to parties, have many friends and Auntie May must be one of them.

When Papa and Mama go out to a party, they look very striking indeed. Papa is an attractive man, with thick wavy hair and his eyebrows are also thick. He dresses smartly, coordinating his long-sleeved batik shirt, pants, socks and shoes very well. Mama is almost as tall as Papa and, with her slim figure, she looks good in anything she wears. Her hair is dark and long and she wears it in a bun, just like Auntie May.

Waiting for Papa and having to stand for so long has made me tired, and I can feel myself dozing off. The slow rocking of the car as Papa makes his way through the busy KL traffic lulls me to sleep. I don’t know how long I have been sleeping. When I open my eyes, I find that the car has stopped but we are not at home. We are instead parked outside a one-storey terrace house. Auntie May gets out of the car and, as soon as she has let herself into the house’s compound through the gate, Papa drives off. As he does so, he glances at me through the rearview mirror and sees that I am awake. “When we get home, don’t tell Mama about Auntie May, okay?” I want to ask why but Papa has a stern look on his face and I dare not, so I just nod my head. “And if Mama asks why you are late coming home, tell her that you had a school activity and you had forgotten to tell her about it.” I nod again, wondering why he wants me to lie.

It is evening when we reach home. I can see that the lights of our bungalow house are on as Papa parks the car under the porch. The front door opens before he has switched off the car engine, and Mama comes out. She must be worried, wondering why I wasn’t back home from school. As Papa and I are about to get out of the car, he gives me a look and I remember the lie that I must tell Mama.

Of course, Mama isn’t happy at all that I hadn’t told her about the so-called school activity. “I’ve been worried sick thinking about what could have happened to you,” she scolds. Papa also gets a scolding, “I called your office but your secretary said you were out since morning.” I look at Papa as he shrugs his shoulders, “I had some outside work.” Mama turns her attention back to me, “Don’t do this to me again, okay? I almost called the police. Now, go and take your bath. We are having dinner soon.”

As we eat dinner together, Papa and Mama talk to one another as they usually do, and Mama hasn’t any idea at all about what actually happened. Mama is no longer angry and is enjoying his stories and jokes. But I eat quietly. I don’t like having to lie to Mama and I can’t help but feel angry at Papa for making me feel so strange. I may only be twelve years old but I’m not stupid. There must be a reason why I have to lie to Mama and that reason has something to do with Auntie May.

“Are you sick?” Mama looks at me in a concerned way and puts the back of her left hand on my forehead. “You’re very quiet.” Papa gets up to wash his hands, “She must be tired. She has had a busy day.” Mama gets up as well. “You’d better go to sleep early and have a good rest,” she tells me. Papa keeps his eyes on me as I leave the table, wash my hands and go upstairs to my bedroom.

I try to go to sleep but as soon as I close my eyes, I see Auntie May in my mind. Who is she? Why can’t I tell Mama about her? The questions give me a headache and I think that it would be good if I do get sick and not have to go to school tomorrow. Who knows? If I were to go to school, Auntie May could be with Papa when he comes to pick me up after school and what do I do then? Would I have to lie to Mama again?

It has been weeks and there has been no Auntie May in Papa’s car. Papa has not said anything about her to me and it is as if I have never met her. I am, naturally, curious about her but Papa doesn’t look like he wants to say anything. Papa has never been one to tell me things; it is Mama who keeps me informed about plans for the family, what we are to do over the weekend, where we will be going for our holiday. People have told me that Papa is reserved and doesn’t talk much. Which is true; whenever Grandpa, Mama’s father, comes to visit for a few days, he and Papa can sit in the living room together for hours and not say much to one another. But then again, when his friends come by, Papa is not reserved at all and is often the most talkative in the group. So Papa does have many sides to him and I wonder how he is with Auntie May; is he reserved or talkative with her?

It is a Saturday afternoon and Mama and I are at home. Papa has gone out with his friends. Mama is busy with her embroidery, something that I’m not particularly interested in. I prefer to curl up with a book rather than tediously stab a needle into a drawing on a piece of cotton material. We are both in the living room, she sitting in an armchair and me lying prone on the floor, my chin cupped in my palms as I read the book opened in front of me. She glances at me and says, “You really should sit up properly when you read. You will spoil your eyesight reading like that.” I don’t reply but carried on with my reading.

She continues to look at me; something seems to be on her mind. From the corner of my eye, I can see her mouth opening as if she wants to talk to me but she closes it, shakes her head and turns her attention back to her embroidery. Mama is a very correct person who gives a lot of thought to what she says or does. And I am constantly taught about how to behave in the company of other people, making me one very polite young person. That’s what her friends say when they meet me, “My goodness, she is so courteous for her age.”

Presently, Mama puts down her embroidery and tells me to take a bath and get dressed. “Papa will be home soon,” she says. “We’re going out for dinner, remember? Make sure you wear something suitable. We’re going to a Chinese restaurant.” Papa and Mama like eating out, and they both particularly like Chinese food. I do too and have surprised many with my adeptness in eating with chopsticks.

We arrive at the restaurant, where Papa has obviously reserved a special table, because the waitress leads us towards a room along one side of the dining area. She pushes back the sliding door, we enter the room and I am shocked to find Auntie May already seated at the table. With her is a boy who looks like he’s about ten years old. I don’t know what to do or say. Shall I pretend that I haven’t met her before? If it looks like I know her, Mama will wonder why and will find out about the lie I told her so many weeks ago.

Auntie May gets up as we enter the room. If Mama is surprised about our dinner guests, she is not showing it and she waits for Papa to introduce Auntie May to her. They salam one another and Auntie May then looks at me and I salam her, not saying anything. I feel grateful that she has not given any indication that we have met before. She then puts her hand on the boy’s shoulders, “This is Kassim”, and Kassim gets up and salam Papa and Mama. We all sit down and Papa must have pre-ordered the food, as it doesn’t take long before the waitress comes into the room with a big bowl of shark’s fin soup. I eat and listen to the adults talking, and they talk as if Kassim and I are not in the room.

“May called me some weeks ago,” Papa is telling Mama. “That’s how I found out that Yem had married her without Jah’s knowledge. May is still married to Yem, this boy is their son. She came to me because Yem has been neglecting her and the boy.” Yem is Papa’s older brother and Jah is his wife.

“Oh dear, my husband told me that there’s a family problem relating to Yem but I didn’t know that it is this complicated,” Mama says to Auntie May. “But what do you want us to do? This is a family thing, between Yem, Jah and you. I don’t think we can get involved, especially since Jah doesn’t even know. She is my closest sister-in-law and I don’t want her to get hurt by this.”

Auntie May shakes her head. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt. But I have my rights too as Yem’s second wife. He can’t just let us be. I haven’t seen him for months. Fortunately, I have a job. Otherwise, Kassim and I won’t have a roof over our heads. I pay for everything, the house, our food. But Yem is my husband and he is obligated to support us.” Kassim looks at Auntie May at the mention of his name, and I wonder if he understands what’s being said. As for me, I may be twelve but I’m not stupid. Auntie May continues, “All I’m asking is that you remind him of his obligations towards Kassim and me. If he doesn’t want to see us again, he should at least divorce me.”

“I think we have no choice but to help,” Papa says to both Auntie May and Mama. “Yem is doing a lot of wrong here, first by marrying without Jah’s knowledge, then by pretending that he hasn’t a second family and, even worse, neglecting this second family. Knowing all this, we can’t just keep quiet about it. We will be in complicity with him if we don’t do something.” Auntie May looks at Papa with relief and Mama nods her head in agreement. “You’ll have to advise him,” she tells Papa.

After our pancake dessert, Papa pays the bill and we all get up. As Auntie May and Kassim had come to the restaurant in a taxi, Papa offers them a lift back to their house. Everyone is quiet during the drive. When we reach the house, Auntie May opens the rear door but before she steps out of the car, she thanks Papa and Mama for the dinner and their willingness to help her. She then looks to me, “I didn’t invite you into my house the last time. It’s late now so I can’t invite you in this time. You must come again and get to know Kassim better.”

Mama turns her head in my direction and one of her eyebrows is lifted in a question-mark.