فصل 12

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فصل 12

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The best plans…

I felt a bit guilty about using Auntie Swee Eng, but if I went to her house the following Saturday, it would give me the perfect way to get to Ka Ting’s later in the evening. My plan was starting to look possible after all. I would go to Auntie Swee Eng’s, return home before Mum got back, pick up my things and meet Jessica at Ka Ting’s.

On Monday, Jessica and I met to discuss things as usual. She’d also worked out how to get away. She would take her backpack to school on Friday and give it to Ka Ting to take to his place. I spoke to him and asked him if we could stay the night after the party. ‘No problem!’ he said with a knowing smile. ‘Stay as long as you like.’

‘But no one else must know, OK?’

‘OK, cool.’

I don’t know how we got through that week. I could feel myself getting more nervous as each day passed and Saturday approached. And Jessica was showing signs of stress too. We even had a few arguments - nothing serious but we were both on edge. The slightest thing would set us off.

At home, I was careful to behave as normally as possible. I made sure I did my homework on time, and that I was always around when Mum came home. She was still looking very tired and sick. Her face was always tense and her skin was an unhealthy grey colour. She was still taking her medicine but that didn’t seem to be helping her much. I was worried about her, but my mind was occupied with Jessica and our plan to run away together. I tried to stay off the topic of Mum’s work when we spoke, which wasn’t often. But just when things seemed a bit calmer, she started to complain about my schoolwork again and we had another fight. So I didn’t feel so bad about leaving, after all.

On Wednesday evening Mum got home later than usual. I came down to sit with her as she had her dinner. I had this strange feeling. Everything felt normal, yet I knew that in just three days I would be leaving her alone, and we would never sit together like this again. It was as if I were two people at the same time - one playing the loving son, and the other the rebel who would desert her. And each of these two people could see the other and was wondering just how they could exist together in the same body.

She asked me about my day. ‘So how did you get on?’

‘Not bad,’ I answered. ‘I got an “A” for my English essay, and a “B plus” for my maths project.’

‘That’s an improvement,’ she commented with a sad smile. ‘Oh, and by the way, Auntie Swee Eng called to ask me to remind you that you’re going over for dinner again on Saturday. It’s a real help to me. I’ll have to drive down to Melaka again to see Aunt Mei Ling. I won’t be back till late, and Puri still won’t be back for another week.’

‘No problem for me,’ I said, feeling really relieved that everything was happening just as I’d planned.

‘Good. It’s late now, Chee Seng. Maybe you’d better go to bed. I need to work on some papers for tomorrow. I’ve got a really important meeting with the board of directors. Sleep tight. I’ll look in to see that you’re asleep a bit later.’

As I lay down, the two Chee Sengs in my body did not feel very comfortable with each other. I had a job to silence their conflicting voices before I could sleep.

At school that Friday, Ka Ting was full of excitement about the party he’d planned for Saturday.

‘It’ll be the best ever! I’ve even got a band coming over. And this time some of the big guys will be there - they’re the ones with the really hot stuff - plenty of fun for us all.’ He laughed in a way that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I realised that, half the time, I didn’t really know what he meant when he talked about ‘hot stuff’ and ‘fun’, but I was fairly sure that some of it was illegal. But, for me, the party was not the main attraction. The most important thing was my plan to run away with Jessica. Everything else was just a means to that end.

I met Jessica in the library again before going home from school. ‘Is everything OK for tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘No problem. I gave my backpack to Ka Ting and he’ll keep it for me. Jane will drive me over for my going-away party around nine…’

‘And I’ll leave Swee Eng’s a bit later, pick up my stuff from home, and take a taxi to Ka Ting’s. I should be there by about ten thirty. Don’t forget your passport. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.’

‘Me neither,’ she replied, and squeezed my hand as she left.

As I think back on the days that followed, the events seem to crowd in rapidly, one after the other. My memories are like a fast-moving film with one image flashing onto the screen for an instant, then being pushed aside by the next image.

Auntie Swee Eng picked me up at seven on Saturday evening. We spent another enjoyable evening together. She’d made me a special chicken curry with lots of tasty side dishes, and she played me some more classical music - this time Haydn and Bach. I began to understand how important music was for her. It was really part of her whole life, not something you just put on as a background. I wished I could learn to listen to it the way she did - with her whole self. One thing she said stuck in my mind. ‘Music is such a comfort when you live on your own. You never feel lonely if you have great music.’

I was curious about the story she’d started to tell me the last time. ‘I’ve been wondering about Mr Gana,’ I said. ‘How did you meet him?’

‘It’s funny how these things happen. I’m sure Daddy would have been horrified if he’d thought he’d been the one to blame. But in a sense he was.’

‘How come?’

‘Well, before he retired, he did one last tour of the country, looking at various agricultural projects, like rubber, oil palm and sugar cane plantations. I was on holiday so he took me with him to Perak, up north. We spent a day visiting the rubber plantation where Gana was the assistant manager. That’s when I took the first picture you saw. The British manager was away in the UK, so it was Gana who showed us round, and gave us lunch. As we were leaving, we looked at each other, and we knew. We knew that we loved each other. It sounds stupid and childish, doesn’t it? I was only eighteen, not much older than you are now, but I knew I loved Gana, and all I could think of was how to spend the rest of my life with him. Later on, when we became lovers, he told me it had been the same for him. I wonder if you can understand that. Of course you can. Oh dear, where was I… ?’

‘So what happened then?’

‘I wrote to him. He wrote to me. No emails or text messaging then! We had to be very careful, of course. Things were very different in those days. For one thing, most people didn’t approve of marrying people from other communities. Gana was Indian, I was a Peranakan nyonya. Daddy would never have agreed. For another, people strongly disapproved of girls who had affairs with married men. Oh yes, Gana was married. His parents had arranged his marriage with a girl from back in India, Kerala I think. It had been a disaster. They didn’t live together any more, but legally they were still married. I didn’t think it mattered that much, but I knew it would cause a lot of trouble at home.’

‘So what happened?’ I asked. This story was starting to sound like a TV soap opera, a surprise every minute.

‘Well, there was a big celebration at the golf club that year and a dance in the evening. I got a ticket for Gana. We spent the evening dancing together, talking… and I ran away with him the same evening! Can you believe that? How stupid I was, but how happy too. I stayed with him on the plantation for a month. It was the happiest time of my life - perhaps the only time I’ve ever been truly happy. We planned to set up home permanently together, so I went down to Kuala Lumpur to buy some things we needed. Gana was going to come down later. Daddy wouldn’t let me come back home, so I stayed with my sister Rosie. She’d just got married. We were very close… we still are.’

‘So did Gana come down to join you?’ I asked.

She suddenly looked sad. ‘I think we’d better leave all that for another time,’ she replied. I thought I saw tears in her eyes and I didn’t insist. We sat silently for a few minutes. Then she saw me checking my watch.

‘Oh dear. Ten o’clock already. Time to take you home, young man.’

When we were in the car on the way home, she suddenly asked me, ‘Are you all right?’

‘Oh, yes,’ I answered, but something in my voice must have sounded false.

‘Are you sure? You seem a bit nervous this evening. If there’s anything wrong, you can talk to me. I hope you know that. I don’t want to stick my old nose into your life but… ‘

‘No. It’s OK. I was just thinking about Mum,’ I mumbled, hating myself for this lie.

‘Well, if everything’s really all right, fine,’ she said. ‘But don’t forget, I’m always there if you need to talk about anything - anything at all. Now, here we are. Sleep well and come and see me again next week.’

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