Monday, October 01, 2012

Flight MH72

Flight MH72 by Krish Ram

Susan has managed to find an empty table after hovering around a couple with large Coke in one hand and a bag of french fires in the other, and waiting for them to leave, at the McDonald’s outlet at the departure lounge of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

She looks around her as she nibbles on a piece of deep fried spud, feeling lonely seeing all those others who have come to send off families and friends but, at the same time, she’s glad that she’s alone. Her children are in school, and know that she’d not be home when they return in the afternoon in the same bus, for they are aware that she's leaving to Hong Kong for a job.

“Two years? Why so long? Can we come and visit? Hong Kong has Disneyland, you know?” Mei Ling is only seven. Kar Jin, her boy, who is fast becoming a teenager at nine, had simply shrugged like he knew everything, but didn’t. Or, did he?

We’ll see, darling, she had said, giving her a hug and a peck on her cheek and turning away quickly as she fought back tears, whilst pretending to shout out homework instructions to her son who was already on his way out to the bus-stop. She had cried miserably after they left, while her husband watched her wordlessly from the living room couch. At least, he had lowered his newspapers.

Only her husband knew, and she had had his approval, not that it mattered much. It had not been his idea and had hardly offered an opinion. He had increasingly withdrawn into himself ever since the restructuring exercise in his company. It was a choice between taking a pay-cut and voluntary retirement. He had chosen the latter, and it didn’t take him long to understand what the 8% national unemployment figure meant. He had too much pride to take a job that paid less than his earlier one. That was three years ago, and he has not worked since.

Susan thought she should have seen the signs. She had wondered about the increasing numbers of ‘Bank Lelong’ notices along the roads around Bangsar, written with marker pens on packing-box cardboard, and stuck to lampposts. She had once said to her husband that they should seriously think about using these bank auctions as a means for home upgrading. He had smiled and remained silent. Then, she started noticing the notices in banks, too. She once took a hefty printout, and browsed through it while waiting for her number to be called by the teller. She had been mildly surprised at the number of houses being foreclosed. She had shuddered, and had been glad her family was not part of that statistic. “Poor things,” she had thought. “Where will they live?”

To be honest, she had never understood when friends talked about ‘the economy tanking’, although she had shown sufficient concern, nodding and agreeing vigorously when they talked about the bursting property bubble, or the crashing stock market, or unemployment figures, or the plunging ringgit. To someone like her, who’d been a home-maker most of her adult life, these were mere numbers that existed in a parallel universe, like video-game scores. Sometimes it would get heated, particularly when they discussed politics, at which point Susan would quickly go into her kitchen and return with nonya kueh she had bought from the auntie outside TMC that morning. “ Anyone for kueh bengkang?”

Then they got a notice from the bank. Her husband had not paid the mortgage instalment for almost two years; nothing, since he lost his job. Maybe there were other notices that she had not seen. She doesn’t know why she had opened that letter, because it’s not like her to open her husband’s mail. She had slit open the envelope and had started reading it absent-mindedly before realising it was addressed to him.

They had argued that night. Well, she did. Him, not so much, his stony silence saying everything. Then, she had sobbed for a long time, thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. He said calmly that they should sell the house. She had argued and sobbed some more at that. It was almost paid for, she had cried. “We can’t repay the mortgage any more,” he had said. “I don’t have a job.” Well, if you were not so damned stubborn she had wanted to say, but had bit her tongue. He had worked so hard for so long before. They had been living on his savings all this while, he had said. He had not serviced the housing loan because he had not wanted to affect their lifestyles.

“What were you thinking? What happens when we run out of money?”

That's what happened, finally. The house was sold at an auction; they got some money back after the bank did the sums, and they rented a seven-hundred-square-foot flat in Taman Desa.

She thought she’d get a job; she did have a masters degree in English Literature from the University of Malaya, after all. She tried running tuition classes. She got a few students, but only made enough money only for utility and grocery bills. There were far too many unemployed graduates, and they were all running these classes. Schools were not hiring; not even kindergartens. She was willing to work as a clerk or a secretary, but she got no calls for interviews. She was over qualified for them, they said when she inquired. The unemployment figures were now at 9% and rising. No one had expected it to get so bad so quickly. Meanwhile, they kept eating out of their piggy bank. Once, she thought she was desperate enough to flip burgers at the local MacDonald’s, but her pride would not let her. What if I’m seen, she had thought.

Then, she saw the advertisement by an agency. She applied for the position, a job overseas. She was desperate. She was interviewed, and selected. The pay was good; almost RM3000.00 plus when converted back. But she didn't speak Chinese. The agency told her not to worry about anything; they’d be given training and language lessons before they left. It was also the agency that suggested she changed her name to Susan from Wei Fern. It was easier to say and remember it, they said.

So, here she is in the airport, waiting for her flight to Hong Kong. She had chosen to fly on her own by Malaysia Airlines. Let me at least save a little of my dignity, she had decided. The others were travelling in a group on a budget airline, but Susan was afraid someone might see her. We’ll meet in Hong Kong, she had said, lying to them about some prior commitment.

“Malaysia Airways flight MH72 to Hong Kong is now ready for boarding. All passengers are requested to proceed to Gate C11 immediately,” she hears over the PA system. She sees some people grab their bags, and their children; some hugging, some kissing. She decides to wait out the rush.

Finally, on the third announcement, she gathers her bags and heads to the immigration counters to begin her two year contract as a domestic maid in Hong Kong. The couple have two children and I have a masters in English; maybe I could be their governess, she’d think sometimes, before real visions of toilet brushes, scrubbing pads and mops crowded her mind, and a sob ran up her throat. Anyway, she has decided tell that to her friends on Facebook and that she’ll mainly teach English to little Chinese brats in a palatial home on the island. I’m sure they have a big home.

It was only three years ago that she had had her own live-in Indonesian maid in Bukit Damansara. She remembers how she had complained to her neighbour when her husband took the maid to Pantai Hospital for treatment when she collapsed suddenly.

“No need to waste so much money, mah,” she had told Mrs Khoo. “She's only a servant, what?”

She, suddenly, stops in her tracks. “Oh my God; what if they beat me?”