Thursday, May 17, 2007

DON'T DEPEND ON ME

by Kow Shih Li

I have lived with my aunt for the past thirteen years. She is forty nine and on good days, she looks no more than forty. In forms with blank spaces next to 'Occupation', she writes 'Accountant' but I am much better at managing real money. Due to this simple skill, it is my duty to balance the expenses against her pay cheque and she depends on me to get the bills paid on time. For this, I extend myself a modest allowance every month.

Aunty is my mother's younger sister, born a year apart. My parents died, both in road accidents, five years apart. I was orphaned at seven and Aunty raised me as best she could, which was not too badly at all.

We live in a house which belonged to my parents. Upon their deaths, insurance was a blessing which helped avert financial insecurity during a time of sorrow. Since Mother had been savvy enough to leave a will, the house will be mine when I turn twenty one in two years. Until then, it is held in trust by Aunty. I guess you could say that I put a roof over Aunty's head.

The roof in question is a single storey house on the corner of a street with eight feet of garden on one side and a neighbour called Uncle Thomas on the other. The garden and Uncle Thomas have a love-hate relationship chaperoned by Aunty. The garden is now overgrown with stray vegetation, pandanus gone wild and rogue lemongrass. The beds of chillies and trellis for climbing beans have been overwhelmed by barb-headed weeds, light-sapping creepers and shrubs that turn overnight into trees with thorny green trunks.

I have tried for a long time to persuade Aunty to allow that man on a motorbike to bring in his machete, motorized grass cutter and towel around his face to clean it up. She refuses. The little jungle has its fingers now on the doorstep of our kitchen. It stays just outside the boundary of what is acceptable through Aunty's sheer force of will and the fact that she occasionally pours a jerry can of kerosene on the edge and throws a half finished cigarette on it.

There was a time not so long ago when we had fresh chillies to pound and pandan leaves to put in our desserts. Smiling neighbours up to ten houses away came to cut fragrant stalks of lemongrass from our garden. There were ladies fingers hanging from the trellis and watermelons pregnant on the vine under that. We even had two rows of spinach planted on raised beds.

That was the time when Uncle Thomas could be found in our garden every evening digging, trimming, watering and tending to the little plot while Aunty made tea and white bread toast with butter and sugar. They would sit looking at the chillies until the sky turned dark with crows flying home to roost.

Uncle Thomas never stayed for dinner. Maybe because Aunty never asked him to. She was not a very good cook. I tried hard to eavesdrop crouching low under the window near the kitchen but I never overheard a conversation. I think they hardly talked. Maybe that is how things are when you get older. The only sign I saw in my covert observations, like a view you get when a curtain lifts momentarily in a short breeze, was the one time I saw Uncle Thomas pluck a leaf from Aunty's hair. She put her heart in her eyes when she smiled at him.

After the visits stopped, Aunty tended our garden with a vengeance. "I don't have to depend on him,' she would say with anger breaking her voice. It was during this period of manic gardening that Uncle Thomas dyed his grey streaks black and brought his Vietnamese bride home. We saw his friends come for dinner and barbecue sessions. We were never invited.

The garden grew erratically under Aunty's rage. The chillies shrunk in fear and the ladies fingers dropped off before they were more than the size of a baby's thumb. The spinach, on the other hand, grew larger with coarse, defensive leaves that were inedible. The watermelons split open before they could ripen and soon, Aunty stopped trying.

Then, she started collecting men. Of all shapes and sizes. Men who rang our doorbell and opened their car doors for her. Men who called and stayed on the telephone line for hours. Men she never spoke about to me. Their names eluded me but I knew them by the cars they drove. There was the one in a baby blue Volvo 740, a gaunt man who always stood outside the gate finishing a cigarette while waiting for Aunty to step out in her high heels. One in a silver Ford Laser sedan with glasses and broad ties. Another in a green diesel Pajero who always said 'Hello, young man' if I answered the door. A balding dandy in a black two door Honda Civic hatchback, in jeans and white shirts. A chauffeured executive in a Mercedes Benz who never got out of the back seat, not even when Aunty was trying to lock the gate holding up her long dress in one hand and her purse in the other.

I sometimes see Uncle Thomas do things I am not meant to see. Like when he checked Aunty's tyre pressure when the car was parked outside. Or the time he picked up our morning papers and put them under our porch because it looked like rain. Or oiling the hinges of our gate. Small signs of care or remorse, I did not know which. Aunty never noticed or pretended not to see.

I often wanted to ask Aunty if she was happy but we never spoke of such things. Like the other day, when the words were just behind my teeth. I opened my mouth and instead, told her that I was doubling my allowance, just for this month. It was so that I could go to Pulau Tioman with my girlfriend after the exams.

"Don't depend on me to take care of you," she said as she was wont to say these days. She knew I knew I did. I relied on her income to put me through school. On her presence as the only living relative I have. I depend on her to feed and clothe me the same way the garden depended on Uncle Thomas. To be stopped from growing wild and unkempt from lack of care. I do not understand why she says what she does.

Without warning, last Friday, she fell unconscious walking to the sink with the dinner dishes. When I called, Uncle Thomas climbed over the dividing wall in our backyard and carried her into the car. He drove like a madman to the emergency ward of the nearest hospital.

A tiny clot had grown in the one of her many arteries. Like a miniature stopcock, it blocked the free passage of blood to a part of Aunty's brain. Deprived of oxygenated blood to feed and keep it alive, this part of her brain died and along with it the nerves and puppet strings it was attached to. Aunty lost the use of her left side and her speech.

I saw frustration in her eyes and shame in the set of her head. When I fed her, her lower lip could not close over the spoon. Her eyelid sagged with her cheek as though her face was carved of butter and left out to melt. Her tongue lolled in her mouth and I knew it could not mould the sound coming from her throat into words. She could have spoken and I would have learnt to understand her but she stayed totally silent for five months.

I suspected that she tried to speak when she was alone, away from prying ears. No one would hear then that her consonants sounded like vowels and imagine her tongue like a wooden spatula filling her mouth. I guessed at this because when she did speak, it was clearly audible and the words were perfectly formed.

She said,"You can't depend on me now." There were no tears.

"It's OK, Aunty. You can depend on me," I said.

I wanted to hold her hand then but I did not. I wanted to say that I was so afraid she would die when she was at the hospital and I would be a seven year old again in a funeral parlour. But I did not. I said, "Uncle Thomas and I are going to start fixing up the garden."

Uncle Thomas and I tore up the wilderness in our backyard. We planted a carpet of soft, springy grass, a border of tiny star-like purple flowers and a climbing plant with bold yellow trumpet blooms which hugged the perimeter fence. The structured fronds of big palms shaded a multitude of plants with variegated leaves. Begonias on the ground and hanging pots of flowering petunias looked like candy kisses on some mornings. Our garden became a profusion of pretty things.

On some evenings, Uncle Thomas and I sit on the porch looking at the morning blooms close into themselves and put their heads down. Occasionally, his wife would come over with 2 cans of 100-Plus and dainty snacks laid out on a plate. She would sit with us for a while with a smile on her smooth, young face. Sometimes, we would just sit in the gathering gloom of dusk and wonder about what goes on inside my house.

7 comments:

King Siong said...

Hey, keep going ! This is so promising - I was captivated right from the first para. I like how well you convey so much with just a few selected details, and how you keep so well controlled the narrator's sense of humour and intuition.

Iolanda said...

truly touching narrative. loved it.

MayaKirana said...

A gorgeous story that's simple and provocative. Looking forward to more of these wonderful 10-minute stories. Congrats to the writer. You had me at the first paragraph!

Kathie "Moomykin" Yeoh said...

I was totally absorbed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your time and comments. Glad you enjoyed the read. :-)SL

aimy said...

hmmm, this short story 'touched' something in me that I thought had been successfully ignored after all these years since my Nenek's death... :( Jarang tau, to have a story that does that to me...Good story...

Anonymous said...

I was totally enchanted with this story. So much so I actually found myself a little worried for the aunt's well being at the end. COngratulations, you have a gift of engaging the reader, I think.