It was late afternoon, and Rita was in the kitchen. She was sweating through her sleeveless green blouse, which created dark patches on her chest and underarms. She wasn’t bothered – the humidity was nothing to her. It was the cold she couldn’t stand.
Sun poured in through the window, setting everything ablaze in gold and amber. Rita took her eyes off the small fish in the wok to watch dust fairies float in the air. Her eldest daughter, Hope, and her two grand-daughters would be here soon. They usually came over for dinner.
This made sundown her favorite time of day. She loved hearing her two grand-daughters shout for her the moment they got down from the car. “Ma-oh! Ma-oh!” they would call, mimicking their mother.
“Oy!” she would answer.
The best moment was watching all of them eat her food. Nothing made her prouder when they praised her cooking. Nothing in the world made her happier than when they took a second helping of rice. It made enduring the heat in the kitchen worthwhile.
A splatter of oil landed on her arm, waking her from her daydream. She switched off the gas and scooped the fish onto a plate. She brought it into the dining room and went back into the kitchen to bring out the soup.
When she returned, her daughter and grand-daughters were already seated at the dining table. She frowned. She had not heard them coming in. She looked at her daughter quizzically.
Hope’s mouth moved, but no sound came out.
Rita hadn’t noticed how silent the air had been all along until now. Not the clank of forks and spoons, nor the sound of the chair being scraped against the floor when Hope stood up.
Instead, there was a familiar sonorous beeping, which didn’t belong there at all. The hum of vibrating metal. Someone was groaning – a man.
‘Stop, stop, stop,’ she was saying, but she could not hear herself.
Rita’s eyes flew open. It was cold, even though she was wrapped in blankets. The lights were dim. She stared at the clinically white ceiling for a few moments before she remembered where she was.
She could hear the ECG device and the sound of trolleys being pushed. The man on the next bed muttered something incomprehensible and continued his raspy groan. It would last throughout the night.
She felt a tender hand stroking her forehead and her eyes focused on the face of Victor, her youngest son. He looked very sad. Rita wanted to reach out and touch his face, but she couldn’t. A tear rolled down his cheek and made a muted splash as it landed on her sheets.
Rita tried to sigh, but a gurgle came out instead. The itch on her belly was still there, a million needle pricks. Sleep made it go away, but she didn’t want to take her eyes off Victor. His persistent stroking finally made her eyelids grow heavy, and she couldn’t help but drift away.
She never left her seat behind the ticket booth between 8:00 p.m. till 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights, not even to go to the toilet. She might miss seeing the man.
He would come to watch a movie with a different girl each week. Rita never felt jealous. She just wanted to see his smile, the flash of his teeth. The way he’d wink at her when he paid for the movie tickets.
She’d avert her eyes abashedly, but one night, she smiled back at him. He always came alone after that.
He started hanging around the ticket booth until the movie started, and when it ended, he’d wait for her shift to end. Tommy, he said his name was. Tommy, she whispered into her own pillow at night. White shirt, white linen pants and smart shoes.
He’d walk her home, pushing his bicycle alongside. Sometimes he’d ask her what her favorite things were. Sometimes they’d walk silently. Sometimes he would stare at her.
She’d steal glances at him. The dim lights of the kerosene lamp posts made him all the more handsome. His hair was parted to the left and he had a kind face. His eyes always twinkled with mischief.
It wasn’t a long walk home. Rita wished she lived farther. He couldn’t see her to her doorstep – her mother would chase him off with a broom. He had to stop at the junction and wait for her to reach her front door before he cycled off.
Tonight, however, things were different. He leant his bicycle against the Flame tree and put his arms on her shoulders. It shocked her. She snapped her head up to look at him.
He smiled. His eyes shone with the brightness of the sun, and it hurt to look into them.
‘No, no, no, too bright. Stop,’ she thought, trying to avert her eyes. She couldn’t even turn her head.
Someone was prying her left eye open, shining a torchlight into it. There was a click, then darkness.
“She’s probably aware of her surroundings, so you could talk to her. Try to give her some encouragement. It helps.”
“Ma-oh,” a voice said softly into her ear. Her vision slowly returned and she saw that it was her young grand-daughter.
“Ma-oh. Get well quickly, okay? Then you can cook all our favorite food, and you can go out and play mahjong again.”
She felt a hand take hers. Another voice – Hope’s – urged her to squeeze her hand if she could hear her.
“She can hear us! She squeezed it, she squeezed my hand!” Hope shouted.
She felt herself slipping away, but she brought her eyes back to focus. Her children and grand-daughter clamored to get close. Another hand grabbed hers. It was coarse. The grip was tighter.
“Ma-oh! Ma-oh! Squeeze if you can hear me!”
Silence as they waited.
“Ma-oh? Ma-oh?” they chorused. Their voices faded as her eyes closed.
Tommy wasn’t home yet. Rita sat on a wooden straight-back chair in the dark living hall, waiting for her husband. Mosquitoes attacked her bare arms. They zipped past her ears, taunting her, making her rage rise. She gripped a broom with both her hands, stabbing it on the floor between her feet. In the dim light, she looked like a guardian of hell.
It hadn’t been easy finding out the first time. After all her crying and hair-pulling, he had promised to stop fooling around. But he had forgotten about his promise. He started coming home later and later, smelling of perfume and sweat. She shut a blind eye to it at first. At first.
Tommy loved to dance. So did Rita, but since she was pregnant with their second child, she had not accompanied him to the dance hall in the past few months.
Dances ended at ten. He was usually back by eleven. The clock showed one. There could only be one reason why Tommy wasn’t home yet.
It must be the girl with the short wavy hair. She would be Tommy’s second girlfriend since they got married. No woman could resist him once he turned his charm on.
The door opened noiselessly, and Tommy was there. The porch light shone behind him, rendering him an unearthly halo. His shadow was elongated – the tip of his head touched her toes.
When he saw her, he smiled sheepishly. Rita stood up and held the broom like a sword. She was going to let him have it tonight.
She held her breath as he walked over to her. She watched as his shadow engulfed her. She dropped the broom when he took her in his arms. She felt his moist lips against her ear. He held her back, then leaned forward and kissed her forehead. She buried her head in his chest.
‘I love you, why are you doing this to me?’
His reply was the Hail Mary, echoing in the darkness of the hall.
“Full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”
“Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is…”
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…”
The prayer group was gathered around her bed. Their heads bowed, rosaries in their hands. She looked at them one by one, trying to remember their names but failing. Her eyes fell on a man with white hair. Joshua? Yeshua? Joseph? She didn’t know. She moved on to the next person. It was the girl with the short wavy hair, now gray and wrinkled.
Rita could smile at the irony. After so many years, they had become friends, brought together by their mutual love of Tommy. Cecilia! Her name was Cecilia. Cecilia, who eventually married his eldest brother. If Tommy had met Cecilia first, he would have married her. Not only was she as charming as he was, she was the daughter of a textile merchant. Rita’s father was just a humble blacksmith.
As unfaithful as Tommy was, he never abandoned her. His entire paychecque was always laid on her dressing table, the first of each month. He never lavished his girlfriends – there had been quite a few. He stopped seeing Cecilia when his brother fell in love with her. He moved on to Rose instead. Somehow, Rita stopped protesting. Perhaps it was because none of Tommy’s girlfriends ever crossed her. Either they gave her the respect she should have as his wife, or they avoided her altogether.
Rita understood why Tommy did what he did. He really did love her tremendously. He just loved other women as well.
Her children, on the other hand, never understood. She looked among the faces standing by her bedside, but she couldn’t find them. She panicked. Coarse groans escaped her. Someone called for the nurse.
Rita had just finished washing up the dishes from lunch. The front of her blouse was wet with dishwater. She took her seat in the hall. The luggage bags were against the wall. One large case and a small one. They belonged to her second daughter, Constance – eighteen, fresh out of school and on her way to England to study. She had applied for the nursing scholarship despite everyone’s advice against it. She was strong-willed that way. The girl just wanted out of the house. She hated her own father. She hated him and all of his other women.
Rita wondered how far away England was. She wondered what the weather there was like in February. She hoped that Constance had packed enough warm clothing.
Victor was playing with his cousin. They were making forts out of the chairs in the hall. Hope was with Constance in the room. Tommy was seated across from Rita, reading the paper. His car was ready out front.
Constance came down into the living hall, followed by red-eyed Hope. Tommy put the paper away and began to take Constance’s luggage. Constance stopped him. She picked her luggage up and went out to the gate. They all followed her outside. Rita squinted against the glare of the sunlight.
Tommy rushed ahead first and opened the boot of his car for her. Constance walked past him to the side of the road and stood waiting.
Tommy gestured to his car, but Constance ignored him. A taxi arrived. The driver got out and helped Constance with her bags. Tommy looked animated as he argued with Constance. Rita stood helplessly. She could see his spittle flying everywhere. The driver rubbed the back of his hand and tried to be inconspicuous. Finally, Tommy stormed back inside the house. All the while, Victor watched on, a slight frown on his brow.
Constance began saying her good-byes. No, Rita thought. Make peace with your father. Despite all his women, he has been very good to me. And to all of us. Make peace with your father, Rita urged. On his deathbed many years later, he asked for you. You weren’t able to say good-bye. At his funeral, you wept until your eyes were swollen.
The afternoon sun was beating down. Constance hugged her. She thought that if she tried not to move, the moment would last forever.
“… the surgery must have been too stressful for her.” It was Constance. She was speaking to another person.
“But you knew about the aneurysm?”
Rita recognized the other voice. It was Lucy’s. Rita’s heart skipped. She opened her eyes. Constance was right by her bed, speaking to Lucy and Lucy’s husband.
“Yes, she’s had it for, oh, twelve years? Never acted up. We took our chances. It was either remove the cancer and risk the stroke, or, well, the cancer.”
Good old Constance. Ever strong and nonchalant. If there was anybody Rita could count on, it was Constance.
“Did the stroke happen immediately after?”
“Oh no. After the surgery she was alright, but her wound wouldn’t close. She’s got diabetes. We had to disinfect the open wound twice a day.”
Lucy cupped her hands over her ears and walked away. Her husband remained.
“But wasn’t the surgery back in October?” he asked.
“Yes. The stroke only happened last Thursday.”
Thursday? Rita wasn’t sure about the days anymore.
“And the wound?”
“It’s closing up nicely. She was very strong. Two months she endured the treatment. At least now, in her state, she won’t have to suffer anymore.” Constance touched Rita’s forehead.
“Will she come out of it?”
“God knows. It’s entirely up to her. Where’s Lucy?”
Lucy’s husband turned and looked around. “Don’t know. Where did she go?”
It was early morning in the living hall. Rita was sweeping the floor when Cecilia entered, gently rocking the child in her arms.
Rita turned away. Sometimes it was too painful to look.
Only after marrying Tommy’s brother did Cecilia realize that she was barren. Rita, on the other hand, already had three children. She couldn’t help but feel Cecilia’s growing sadness . Although she was Tommy’s ex-lover, Cecilia was bright and warm and Rita couldn’t help but to like her. The two were close, so when Cecilia suggested adopting the growing child in Rita’s belly, Rita thought that it was a good idea. After all, they lived together under the same roof. She’d still be able to see her own child, able to hold it whenever she wanted.
Besides, her unborn child would grow up knowing how good life is. Tommy’s brother was a high-ranking government official. It was his house that they lived in. It was the right decision. She hadn’t imagined that the pain would be so immense when they took her newborn daughter away.
Her daughter, in Cecilia’s arms. She must resist the regret in her chest. She must sweep it away just like she swept the dust out of the front door.
She must not shed tears when the child learns to talk and calls the other woman ‘mother’. She must learn to be nothing but an aunt to her own daughter.
She looked over at Cecilia. Rita couldn’t hear her cooing to the baby, but she didn’t care. Instead, she wanted to reach over and snatch the bundle away. She wanted her child. She threw the broom down.
But before she could do anything else, someone was calling her.
It was a woman’s voice. She sounded familiar, but it couldn’t be that person. She would never call Rita ‘mother’. Perhaps it was just another dream. If she kept her eyes shut, she might be able to go back to that balmy morning in the living hall.
The woman’s touch startled her. Rita could not recognize those soft hands, yet they felt so familiar. She opened her eyes and Lucy was there, calling her over and over again.
All her life, she had never accepted Rita as her birth mother. The truth had always been out in the open that she had been given away, just like a second-hand dress. Although her life really had been good – new clothes each new year, piano lessons, an education abroad – she never felt completely happy.
And the older Lucy grew, the more she couldn’t see Rita as anything more than an aunt. Rita waited year after year for any signs of acknowledgment, which faded with each birthday card she received addressed to ‘Dear Auntie’. Perhaps it was Rita’s pride – she couldn’t be the one to make the first move. It could have been Lucy’s awkwardness – how do you begin to call someone ‘mother’? Suppose it should be now. Better late than never.
Rita wanted to reach out and give her the hug she had always been meaning to give. Instead, she lay there with tears rolling down the sides of her face.
Eventually, the walls turned blue with the breaking of dawn. Lucy had fallen asleep by her bed. A sudden thought dragged Rita out of her contentment, and it clawed at her heart. It was the thought of her eldest son, Lawrence. The one whom nobody mentions.
Rita tried to wake Lucy up, but the noises she made were too soft to be heard.
Rita awoke in her own room. Her pillow was wet. In a sleepy daze, she groped for the bedside clock. Ten p.m. She must have fallen asleep after dinner. Tommy wasn’t next to her. He must be spending the night at Barbara’s – he usually spent Wednesday and Thursday nights there.
The stillness of the house made Rita’s hair stand on end. Did she lock the front door? Could a burglar be downstairs? Or worse, were there ghosts in the house? She had never been the brave sort, but the older she got, the less courage she had.
It used to be such a merry house until one by one, everybody moved out. Eventually, only Tommy and her were left. Tommy, her, and occasionally, Lawrence.
He had his father’s charm with women. He did not, however, have his father’s sense when it came to money. He spent his paycheques on gambling, and whatever he had left, he spent it on his women. He’d come back whenever he was broke and his girlfriend threw him out.
It shattered Rita’s heart whenever she saw him. If only he had a better head on his shoulders. She always tried to help him out. If she came into any money, she’d give most of it to him. She constantly complained of being broke to Victor. She knew that she shouldn’t – her sad financial state made Victor detest his older brother. It was so bad that the two of them weren’t talking anymore.
She opened her room door and peered into the darkness. The landing was empty. Hope had once seen the ghost of Rita’s dead brother-in-law standing there.
She quickly switched on the light, which bathed the staircase in an eerie orange glow. She must ask Tommy to change the lights to those white fluorescent ones. At least the shadows wouldn’t be so menacing.
She tip-toed down the stairs clutching at her chest, as if doing so would give her more courage. When she reached the bottom, she slowly, cautiously turned to face the living hall. She moved forward one step at a time. Her heart was beating so quickly, she could hear nothing else.
She reached the archway of the living hall. In the dim, bluish light, she saw a man seated on the rattan chair, facing away from her. She could only see the top of his head. It looked like Lawrence’s head. She felt almost relieved.
He stood up abruptly. Rita wanted to call out Lawrence’s name, but when he turned around, she wanted to scream instead.
His face was a blank. Where his eyes, nose and mouth should have been, there was nothing but taut skin.
He staggered towards her, holding his hands out. “Ma-oh, I’m home. Help me.”
‘Help me.’ The words echoed in her skull. She took a deep breath and screamed, but no sound came out.
She opened her eyes and saw the old wooden ceiling, the hanging lamp and the orange glow of the light. Lying on her back, she heard the tick-tock of the bedside clock.
She breathed in the familiar scents. Tiger Balm, Chanel no. 9, her sweaty sheets. The wall was to her right. Her rosary would be next to her pillow.
She sighed with relief. It was just a bad dream. Lawrence had stopped gambling and fooling around. He wasn’t in financial difficulty anymore. She remembered him telling her that he’d found a job. Trouble was, she couldn’t recall when he had told her that. Last week? Last month?
Her throat felt dry. She tried to get up to go to the kitchen, but she found that she couldn’t move her body.
She tried her legs. They felt like meat anchors. She was deadweight on her mattress. Fear attacked her, and she felt her bladder go.
How could this be another nightmare? She’d just awoken from one!
Someone opened the door. Footsteps approached her bed. She strained to see who it was, but the person had bent down. She felt a hand touch her groin. She wanted to squirm at the intrusion.
“Again?” the person asked. It was a woman.
She felt herself being moved. She heard the tear of adhesive tape. A rancid smell permeated the air. The dampness in her groin was replaced by a liberating coolness.
She felt affronted, but relieved at the same time. A comforting smell – Johnson and Johnson’s baby talc – replaced the stink. The woman dabbed at her crotch with a wet cloth and put something dry underneath her. The tearing of adhesive tape again. The whole act vaguely reminded her of something far back in the recesses of her mind. When it was finally done, she almost wanted to gurgle.
“Time to turn you on your side.”
She could not recognize the face when the person came up next to her. It was a young lady, wearing a nurse’s cap. She looked pleasant. Her hands were soft.
“One, two, three.”
Rita found herself facing the wall. She closed her eyes cried silently for Tommy.
She was walking through a cemetery. There was a strong wind, which blew on the ground and made the grass look like waves. The jutting tombstones were like seaside rocks.
Blue sky stretched out above her and the sun seared her skin. She could almost hear the rustle of leaves on the trees in the horizon. She passed by countless somber faces peering from their portraits embedded on gravestones. She walked on. She knew exactly where she was going.
She stopped in front of a fresh grave. The wreaths surrounding it were only starting to wilt. She was aware of the scent of rotting flowers, which made her bile rise. The mound of earth was still loose, and a cross marked the ground above where the body laid. The tombstone would only be ready in a few weeks.
Etched on the cross was his name, date of birth and date of death:
14 February 1930
7 July 2002
She fell to her knees at the foot of the grave. Fat tears ran down her cheeks.
‘How could you leave me? How could you do this? Come back to me!’ she wailed.
She began to dig at the mound, scattering red earth all over. A hand on her shoulder stopped her. She didn’t need to turn to know who it was.
He said, ‘Soon, darling. We’ll be together again.’
‘Soon? Do you promise?’
He gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“There, done. Now you’re all clean,” someone said.
The slushing sound of water in a bucket, the door being opened. Hands lifting her torso as they dressed her in a clean blouse. They did the same for her sarong. Cheerful voices filled the room.
“Did she tell you about the time when Papa was courting her and they would sneak off to dances together? Grandma found out and chased her around the neighborhood!”
Yes, she remembered. She had told the story to Hope.
“When she gets better, I need to learn her recipes. I couldn’t possibly survive abroad without her sambal.”
She always made sambal, a type of chili paste, for Constance – carefully sealed in a Tupperware so that it would last for months.
“Well, I’ll bring her for a nice dinner – baked chili crabs – when she gets better.”
Whenever Lawrence won after a gambling session, he’d bring her for a sumptuous seafood dinner.
“I love chili crabs, too. No mistaking it, I’m her daughter.” Lucy, finally back in the fold. “What do you say, Victor?”
“Okay. But Lawrence, you’re paying.”
They laughed. When Rita looked up, she saw the faces of her five children gazing down at her.
“Ma-oh,” they called. They were all together again. Lucy was there. Lawrence and Victor were actually in the same room.
Rita thought that it was the best thing she could have done. She felt peaceful. Everything would be alright. Her children would be alright.
Tommy had said soon. Perhaps it was time. Everything was perfect now. Perhaps it was time to go to him.
She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.
It was her best friend, Ah Moy, seated opposite her. Rita was at her usual place at the mahjong table. They began to shuffle the mahjong tiles. The click-clack sounded like a storm.
“Just lucky,” Ah Moy said. Ah Moy had been dead an odd decade now, yet here she was, sprightly as ever.
“You know, we’ve been missing a fourth player for a long time,” Ah Moy said with a smile. “We’ve been waiting for you. Ah Sim, Geok Lin, all of us.”
“I hope you’ve all been well,” Rita replied unsurely.
A pair of hands rested on her shoulders. It was him. She turned and looked up. He beamed at her. The sun was behind him and he was radiant. He was wearing a pressed white shirt and his signature white linen pants. His hair was a comb-over to conceal his balding head. He smelt of talc and familiarity.
“Is this another dream?” she asked him.
“No, darling. Not a dream,” Tommy said, his voice deep and luxurious. He bent down and kissed her on her cheek.
Julia “Bubba” Tan is a 27-year old Malaysian currently living in Oxford, England where she hopes that a bit of Tolkien and Lewis magic would rub off on her. When she isn’t meandering along the river or reading under a tree, you can find her sitting in a dark corner of a pub.