The air conditioning had fizzled out and Ai Lin’s limp black hair hung in clumpy strands around her sweaty neck. Perspiration coursed down her chest and formed a deep pool in the cleft between her breasts. Her white spaghetti strap top was drenched through and the outline of her purple polka dotted bra was clearly visible through the soaked material. She knew this, because a group of Mat Rempits racing through the streets in crazy zigzags had stopped right next to her car, pointing and winking devilishly. By now, she smelt and looked like sour milk and couldn’t imagine how her day could possibly get any worse.
And then it did.
“Shit, shit, SHI…I….I…I…T!” she screamed. Her rickety old Proton Wira made a valiant attempt to sputter back to life, but the 40-degree heat was clearly no match for its weakening innards and it stopped at a dead halt right in the middle of a vicious Kuala Lumpur traffic jam.
It was a Friday afternoon, so midtown KL was teeming with people. The longer lunch break meant that traffic density bordered on the manic. A nearby mosque crawled with worshippers who had haphazardly parked their cars along both sides of the road, reducing the sprawling 4-lane street to a mere two lanes, one of which Ai Lin’s car was now hogging.
Ai Lin’s panic levels escalated when the clock struck 2 pm and mosque attendees begin filing out mass-exodus style. The men, most of whom wore songkoks, seemed energized by their midday spiritual escape and took to their cars and motorcycles with vigour, revving up engines and joining the surging artery of traffic with the enthusiasm of marathon sprinters.
The line behind Ai Lin’s stagnant car grew longer and longer and the curses increased in pitch and vulgarity. “Bodoh betul,” yelled someone in a huge green Pajero, showing her the finger as he inched forward in the congested lane. Ai Lin felt her spirits dip into an abyss. She rang her mechanic Ah Kow repeatedly, leaving heated voice mail messages each time she got the ad nauseum refrain, “Please leave a message at this tone.”
“Ah Kow, this is Ai Lin. I need you to come tow my car away NOW!” But fifteen minutes later, he hadn’t called back and even the local touts, notorious for miraculously arriving within nanoseconds of an emergency, weren’t circling her like vultures. Her dad and boyfriend were both out of town and the cheap car insurance company that she’d signed up with put her on hold for twenty minutes, before she was shuffled from one nobody to another until a harangued employee finally hung up on her. And then, her mobile phone, having had quite enough for one day, called it quits and flat out conked. It soon became apparent to Ai Lin that this interminable day was going to get even longer.
As she sat in her car, bowing her head to avoid the venomous glares of other drivers, and longing for the sweet escape of air conditioning, a motorcycle stopped right next to her car and honked. The driver, donning a bright red songkok and matching crimson baju melayu, waved and smiled, and then motioned for her to get out of the car, indicating that he wanted to help her.
Ai Lin had read all sorts of alarming newspaper headlines about the increasing rates of snatch thefts in the city and the ingenious new methods the devil-may-care criminals employed on their unsuspecting victims. Her cousin, a doctor in a local hospital had even told her about a woman who had had her fingers chopped off, when she refused to hand the thieves her bag!
It was clear that while crime rates in KL were ascending with stupendous alacrity, there was still a fine line to be drawn here. If paranoia plagued the denizens of KL, how was one to differentiate friend from foe? Would everyone flee from a difficult situation simply because someone else had suffered a less salubrious fate in similar conditions?
Besides, the man looked friendly enough and Ai Lin reasoned that someone who had just come from a mosque could only have God on his mind. So, after playing a game of snakes and ladders in her head, she decided to throw the dice and hope for the best.
The instant she nudged her car door open, he lunged in, pinning her to her seat. Clasping a hairy hand over her mouth, he growled in her ear. “Don’t say a word or I’ll stab you.” She felt the sharp edge of a knife press into the base of her neck and knew he meant business. As he reached into the passenger seat for her oversized Topshop tote bag, she smelt the odour of stale cigarettes and unwashed armpits and flinched involuntarily.
The whole scene played out like some sort of out-of-body experience that she couldn’t get a hold on. She knew what she was supposed to be doing but her whole body had turned numb and icy and every single muscle seemed to have stiffened and contracted.
“Look your attacker in the face. Show no fear,” bellowed Master Jun, her taekwando teacher of eight years. A black belt and fifty-six successfully broken planks later, she couldn’t seem to rise to the occasion. Fear flooded her veins, and spilled over into her lungs and heart, constricting her breathing and forcing her to take shallow, raspy breaths against her perpetrator’s meaty, smelly hands.
Feeling her ragged breathing against his hand, the motorcycle bandit released his grip on her face, balanced her bag in his other hand and in one swift motion, deftly reached out and squeezed her breast hard.
At that, Ai Lin completely lost it. She sunk her teeth into the fleshy tendons near his elbow, brutally forcing her molars and incisors down until she tasted blood on her tongue. When she looked up, she saw his eyes roll back in his head as he yelped in pain. A second later, a knife sliced through her right arm.
She screamed in horror and he reared back, panic-stricken. They stared at each other for a wild second before he scampered off on his motorbike, weaving madly through the maze of traffic. Nursing her bloody arm, she yelled wildly at the apathetic crowd. “Help me! Tolong saya!” she screamed.
She had been robbed, molested and stabbed in less than three minutes, and even though the street was overflowing with people and cars, no one seemed to have noticed a thing and worse, inertia seemed to be plaguing those around her. As her screams neared hysteria, she felt warm, feminine arms wrap around her. “Don’t worry, adik. Just hold on. I’ve called the ambulance and they should be here soon.” Ai Lin looked up at the kind eyes of a bespectacled Malay lady resplendent in a pink tudung.
“Will you stay with me?” she appealed to the stranger.
“Of course. I’ll stay until the ambulance comes, okay? What’s your name, adik? I’m Aminah Hussein, by the way.”
“Ai Lin,” she mumbled, feeling light headed and woozy and very thankful for the hefty presence of Aminah.
“Okay, don’t worry, Ai Lin. You’re going to be fine,” said Aminah and then turned to a short, dark man behind her, who was straddling a baby in one arm and holding the hand of a toddler in the other. “Sayang, you take the kids back inside the shopping centre, okay? I’ll call you later.”
The man nodded, and lumbered off with both kids in tow. Aminah squatted down on the pavement and placed Ai Lin’s head on her lap. Rifling through her bag, she produced a giant pink handkerchief and a spotted fuchsia shawl. She wrapped the shawl lightly around Ai Lin’s arm to stem the bleeding and then placed the kerchief over her semi-exposed chest.
Turning around to face the widening group of curious onlookers, she yelled, “Buat apa sibuk ini? There’s nothing to see here!”
Ai Lin smiled and her eyes fluttered close.
“Bleeding has been contained. Patient has stab wounds to the right arm but no other visible injuries,” someone yelled into a mobile phone.
“Where am I?” whispered Ai Lin.
Aminah Hussein’s brown eyes peered into her own. “In the ambulance, dik. There’s a very bad traffic jam, but we’ll be in the hospital soon, don’t worry, okay?” she replied.
“You came with me, kak Aminah?” asked Ai Lin.
“Of course, dik. How could I let you go to the hospital alone?” Aminah said.
“W-what about my car?” asked Ai Lin, remembering that her Wira had been abandoned smack dab in the middle of the frenzied city centre.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. The police will handle it. I brought your phone here too. The ambulance has a phone charger, so I’ve been charging it, in case you didn’t wake up and I had to call your family to tell them to go to the hospital,” said Aminah, as she handed Ai Lin her phone.
“T-thank y-you,” stammered Ai Lin, overcome by the kindness of this lady. Aminah seemed embarrassed by the attention and turned to face the window, craning her neck to see what was causing the bottleneck outside. Failing to find a suitable explanation, she began interrogating the ambulance driver.
“Why are we going so slowly? This poor girl is bleeding! BLEEDING!”
“Sorry, kak. There’s been an accident on the road. The police are dealing with it, but traffic’s moving at snail pace, so we’re stuck,” said the ambulance driver.
Aminah tutted and sighed and then stuck her head clear out of the ambulance window, determined to get a better idea of what was really going on, the ambulance driver’s explanation notwithstanding.
Suddenly, she shrieked, startling everyone else. “Ya Allah, there’s a man lying on the road and he looks dead!” she wailed lustily.
At this, the paramedics and driver stuck their heads out too and Ai Lin shifted her position on the gurney, sitting up to get a better look. Still, she couldn’t see a thing.
“How do you know he’s dead, kak?” she asked.
“He’s not moving, dik. And oh my God, they’ve just started covering his body with newspapers. My brother is a reporter and he’s always telling me how they cover deceased accident victims with newspapers, so he must be dead!”
“That’s just terrible,” moaned Ai Lin, for whom the day was turning into all shades of awful.
“I know, and I think he was coming from the mosque too,” said Aminah, before pausing mid-sentence to shout at someone in the crowd outside, demanding to know the full story.
Ten breathless minutes later, Aminah turned to Ai Lin and gave her the rundown of what had allegedly taken place. “Apparently, this guy was on his motorbike and was darting in and out of traffic like a mad man, when an SUV knocked him down. He was killed on the spot,” said Aminah, her mouth wide at the horror of it all.
Ai Lin’s heart fluttered in her chest. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. “You said he was coming from the mosque, kak?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m not sure, but I think he probably was coming from the mosque. I saw a bright red songkok on the ground and he was wearing a baju melayu as well.”
“W-what colour was his baju melayu?” murmured Ai Lin, shell-shocked.
“Oh, bright red also. Why?” asked Aminah.
“Nothing, nothing. I was just wondering, that’s all,” said Ai Lin, trying to steady her racing heart.
“Poor thing, that man. What a horrible way to die! Straight from the mosque to his grave!” said Aminah.
“Yes, poor thing,” agreed Ai Lin, folding her hands in prayer and thinking that karma really was a bitch.
The strains of Beyonce’s ‘Run The World’ started playing in the background, and after a moment, Ai Lin realized that her phone was ringing. Picking it up, she heard a nervous voice on the other end.
“Miss Ai Lin, ah? I’m so sorry I didn’t call you back earlier. My son had his taekwando championship and I had to go…”
“Never mind, Ah Kow. Everything’s okay now,” said Ai Lin, clicking off her phone, before falling into a deep, contented sleep.
ad nauseum: something that is repeated until it becomes sickening (Latin)
adik/dik: younger brother or sister
baju melayu: a traditional Malay outfit for men
Bodoh betul.: What an idiot.
Buat apa sibuk ini?: What are you looking at?
kakak/kak: older sister
Mat Rempits: commonly a group of motorcyclists who pay no heed to traffic regulations and are a menace in Malaysia
songkok: a cap worn by Muslim males
Tolong saya.: Help me.
tudung: traditional head scarf worn by Malay Muslim women
Ya Allah: Oh my God
Illustration by Alan Van Every
About the Author:
Abirami Anne Durai is a 28-year-old Malaysian magazine editor whose previous short story was published in Matahari Books’ best-selling anthology, Body2Body.