فصل 07

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فصل 07

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A new friend

I know it was stupid, but somehow I blamed Dev for what had happened to Raj. Why had he run across the road before us? If he hadn’t waved to us, Raj might have still been alive. I felt so angry. Of course, I was just as much to blame as he was. Why hadn’t I used the footbridge? Why hadn’t I held on to Raj properly to stop him running out into the road? But, although part of my mind knew it was really my fault, I still blamed Dev. He was terribly upset too, of course, but it was too late. After that, I stopped seeing him. I couldn’t face playing football with the memory of Raj always in my mind. I stayed at home instead.

The news about Dad leaving us got around eventually, of course. It always does, I suppose. People are attracted to other people’s misfortunes like insects to a candle flame. I don’t mean they always enjoy the bad things that happen to other people, but they are certainly fascinated by them. Bad news spreads like a bad smell. Someone smells misfortune in one corner, and before you know it, the world is full of it.

Of course, everyone in the neighbourhood knew about it soon enough. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice that Dad’s car had gone and that he was never around. And the maids’ gossip made sure that the news spread all over the neighbourhood anyway. It’s not that Puri had betrayed us or anything like that. After all, how could we hide what was so obvious anyway? But maids love to talk to each other about their employers. So it was inevitable that Puri had told Henny, and Henny had told her friend Risti, and Risti had told… so pretty soon everyone knew. But my school was a long way off and no one had been told about my family problem there, except my closest friends.

Yet somehow, the news eventually reached school too. That was more surprising, to me at least. I couldn’t work out how my bad news had got around the school but it had. I couldn’t believe Dev or Ka Choon or Faisal would have given me away like that, but who else was there? I noticed them standing together one day, whispering and glancing at me nervously from time to time. They were obviously talking about me. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I noticed some of the other kids in the class looking at me a bit strangely too. I thought I could read pity in some of their looks, and a sort of superiority in others. I hated both. I didn’t want anyone to pity me, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to look down on me.

I started to avoid my friends. In my mind, I was convinced that they were the ones who had spread the story about me. I didn’t trust them any more. I felt more and more that I was on my own. There was no one I could rely on any longer. It wasn’t a good feeling, yet I felt almost pleasure in my self-pity at being victimised and isolated. It was ridiculous, of course, but it gave me a feeling of something like heroism to be all alone, with the whole world against me - Dad, Mum, my so-called friends, my teachers - everyone. And then, on top of everything else, there was no Puri to look after me, and no Raj to keep me company in my misery. It was a pathetic state of mind to be in, but it seemed quite logical and justified at the time.

Of course, no one said anything to me at first. It was just their looks that told me that they knew. Then one day, something happened to change all that.

It was one of those days in the monsoon season, when the dark clouds would build up as purple as a mangosteen, and suddenly the skies would open and the rain would fall like someone emptying a lake in the sky. School had just finished but old Mr Chang, our class teacher, had kept me back for some reason. By the time I came out, the school bus had gone. I had no money for a taxi, and there were never any taxis free in weather like that anyway. I was stuck in the pouring rain. I stood in the main doorway of the school feeling lost. Mum was at work so I couldn’t call her to pick me up.

Just when I was losing all hope, Ka Ting came through the door and spoke to me. ‘Do you need a ride? My dad’s driver will be here in a minute. I can drop you home if you like.’

It was a really good piece of luck. And totally unexpected! I knew Ka Ting slightly because he was in the same class, but I’d never had much to do with him. In fact, a lot of the kids avoided him. He was from a very rich family. His father owned all sorts of factories and hotels, and he lived in the really upmarket suburb of UK Heights. The rest of us didn’t like him much, or his friend Chee Lick. There were all sorts of rumours about them - problems with girls and drink and stuff like that. But anyway, it was really nice of him to offer to drop me home, so I accepted. There wasn’t much else I could have done in the circumstances. It was far better to ride home in a car with him than to stand there in the rain.

‘That would be really great,’ I replied, ‘but I don’t think it’s on your way. I live in Subang Jaya.’

‘Don’t worry about it. I’m not in a hurry, and the driver has to go wherever I tell him anyway. Here he comes now. Let’s go.’

A shiny white car had just pulled up in front of the door. The uniformed driver, complete with cap and gloves, jumped out of the car and opened the back door for us. I got in without another thought.

‘Just tell him your address and relax,’ said Ka Ting. I must say that I was quite impressed with the confident way he acted with the driver, whose name was Bala.

It took us quite a time to negotiate the heavy traffic. Bala was a skilful driver, but even he couldn’t do the impossible. It was still raining heavily. We moved slowly forward, stopping and starting, overtaking trucks and buses, taking shortcuts wherever there was a complete traffic jam.

‘Sorry to hear about your dad,’ Ka Ting said. ‘It’s tough luck.’ Obviously he knew too and I was angry for a moment. Then I thought that it was hardly his fault if he knew what everyone else knew too.

‘Thanks,’ I replied stiffly. ‘It’s OK now. We can manage.’

‘Maybe life’s not so much fun though? I mean, what do you do in your spare time?’ I’d never really thought about the idea of spare time. Till then, time was time. I went to school. I hung out with my friends - till recently anyway. I stayed at home and watched TV and played video games.

‘I don’t have that much spare time,’ I said, ‘what with schoolwork and my mum, and everything…’ It sounded pretty pathetic, I knew, but it was true.

‘How about parties? Don’t you ever go to parties?’ he asked.

‘Of course I do,’ I lied. I hadn’t been to many teenage parties, and I felt pretty sure they were not at all like the parties Ka Ting had in mind.

‘I mean real parties. You know, when you go out on the town, go to a disco, then go back to someone’s house, go wild for the night… Don’t you ever go to that kind of party?’

‘Um, well, sometimes,’ I said, hesitatingly, ‘but not very often.’ I knew it sounded sort of stupid but I couldn’t think of anything better to say.

‘Man, you should start to live. I mean really live. Do you have a girlfriend?’

‘Um, no, not really… I’ve never, I mean, it’s never happened that…’ I was tongue-tied again.

‘Wow, man. That’s not cool at all. You need a girlfriend to have some real fun. Know what I mean?’ He looked at me knowingly, and grinned. ‘I mean real fun, OK?’

‘Yes, well, I don’t know how… I mean, I don’t have anyone I like that much.’

‘You don’t have to marry them, you know. Just have some fun. How about Jessica? Now she’s really special. I think she likes you, you know. That’s what Wendy told me anyway. She thinks you look romantic.’

Jessica was a girl in our class. She was really pretty, but I’d never thought she would be interested in someone like me. It was a funny feeling to realise that maybe, just maybe, she might think of me in that way. Could I have a chance with her? I didn’t want to ask Ka Ting any more about her. Anyway, I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with the direction our conversation was taking. Ka Ting went on with all sorts of hints and suggestive comments about girls and getting high and stuff like that. I was relieved when we arrived outside my house.

‘Thanks a lot, Ka Ting. See you tomorrow.’

‘OK,’ he replied, ‘and don’t forget we must fix a party date soon, right? How about next Saturday?’

‘Yeah, maybe. I’ll check it out,’ I said vaguely, as the car sped off into the rain.

I noticed Auntie Swee Eng’s car in our drive as I ran in to the house. She was sitting in the lounge with a large glass of beer in front of her!

‘Hello, Chee Seng.’ She turned towards me with a bright smile. ‘Your mum called to say she’d be in late tonight. They have some sort of special event at work and she asked me to come over till she gets back. I hope that’s all right.’ She must have noticed me looking at the beer. ‘Oh, sorry,’ she said. ‘I was really hot and your mum told me to help myself, so I did! There’s nothing like a nice glass of cold beer when you feel really thirsty.’

I smiled. There was something faintly odd about this respectable little old woman with a mug of beer. Maybe she could read my thoughts, because she said, ‘You mustn’t always worry about what people think of you, you know. I’m old enough now to do what I like, when I like, and to hell with what anyone thinks - or says for that matter! Anyway, how are you, Chee Seng? I hope things are a bit better now.’

I didn’t quite know what to say. Why would things be better? Dad was gone. My dog was dead. Mum was still acting half-crazy sometimes. My school friends had betrayed me. And there was no Puri to look after me. Better? Again, it was as if she could read my mind.

‘Listen, Chee Seng. It may seem that things are not getting any better for you. I know you’re still upset about your dad. And I heard about your dog, Raj. That was a terrible thing to happen. I felt so sad, such a lovely dog. And I know Mum is sometimes a bit hard on you. But try to understand her too. She’s going through a really bad time herself. She loves you so much, you know. Never forget that. I don’t know what’ll happen exactly, but I have a good feeling about you and your mum. You’re going to be fine. And don’t forget, I’m there too, if you need me. Any time. Now, let’s have something to eat, shall we? I brought over some asam laksa for that girl to heat up for us. I hope she at least knows how to cook noodles!’

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