Tuesday, December 20, 2005

NO! And I don't mean maybe, baby!

It's gotten so bad he can't sleep at night. It's not because of the divorce. Frankly that was a relief. She had stopped loving him a long time ago and you can only take so much abuse. It's something deeper than that, a profound disquiet in his soul. He reaches into the darkness for something to hold on to. His fingers close on nothing. Somewhere deep inside, he's weeping. He spreads himself out trying to cover this silence. But he's spread himself too thin. There is nothing left, nothing.

Echoes and emptiness.

Of course, in the beginning they stayed together because there were the kids to consider, but even the kids are better off this way. Oftentimes at night, they cowered in bed while she unleashed her fury:

"Ten years, I suffered, ten years, and all you care about is your fucking family? When they walk all over you, they walk all over me too. Who comes first Ranny, who? Us or them? Answer me! Us or them? I FUCKING HATE YOU, BLOODY SPINELESS WIMP!"

And he would end up on the sofa. Exhausted. Too many nights, too many fights.

And now the divorce is through. The kids with him while she has visiting rights. He works longer and longer hours trying to make ends meet. The kids are acting out of course. The boy hangs about with bad company and has recently started to smoke. The girl runs up thousand dollar phone bills. She says: "Daddy, I want... Daddy buy me ..." He hears: "If you don't, I wont love you anymore." And so many people have stopped loving him.

All he ever wanted was to make everyone happy. His parents, his brother and sister, his wife, his children. He said yes. And when he said no, he meant yes.

But something happened. Mother died. He paid for the funeral. Older brother said: "Sorry bro, wish I could help but business going badly." Older sister threw a tantrum and fought with his wife.

His wife had had enough: "This is our money you're forking out. Ours. Not just yours. Call them and demand they pay their share." He couldn't bring himself to. Anger calcified into contempt. Soon there was a lurking fire in her eyes.

Father had to be put in a home. Again he forked out. His wife said: "Call those bastards! He's their father too, and they can bloody afford it while we can't." She was right. With two kids and average jobs, they really couldn't.

But brother said: "Things haven't been going well with my business since 911, I'll try to see if I can send some money next month. Or the next. Or the next." Sister said: "I'll lend you some to tide you over, but I must know, when can you pay me back?"

A young man, getting greyer. His wife threatened for seven years to walk out. Held it over him like a sword of Damocles while she systematically destroyed him. Then she cut the thread.

Now he shuffles, bent over double, a soul-deep weariness in his eyes, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He loves them all. He loves them all. He really does. If only someone could understand.

We watch this shattered man place one weary foot in front of the other, on his lonely march to the grave.

And we wonder: will he ever learn the magic word?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Now children...

Sam and Lillias had been married for 10 years. They were a pleasant couple, reasonably well off. Sam's business was going well and Lillias quit her job as a schoolteacher to stay at home. She sat on the committee for various charities, went for flower arrangement classes, met up with her girlfriends for brunch. They lived, with their Filipino maid, Sarah, in a beautiful, spacious bungalow on Bangsar Hills.

Everything was just perfect. Except for:

"So, not thinking of having a kid ah?"

"How long have the two of you been married again?"

"Don't you long for the pitter patter of little feet?"

"I thought before I died I would see a grandchild...ahhh, such is my fate, my only son, some more..."

You get the picture.

It wasn't that they hadn't tried. And both fully expected the child to come along, sometime or other. And suddenly 10 years had passed...

One day Mrs John called. She ran a children's home and served with Lillias on various charitable committees.

"Lillias, I was wondering...we just received this baby boy and I thought of you."

Lillias was astounded. She and Sam had discussed adoption, the same way they had discussed IVF. Not seriously.

A few minutes later she was in her car, speeding towards the home in Petaling Jaya. And hour later, Sam's mobile went off:

"Yes honey, what is it?"

"I need you to come home now. You need to take care of the baby while I go out to get milk and diapers and all..."

Sam nearly fell over. What baby? When he got home, she thrust the squalling infant in his arms and scrambled off to get the necessaries. Sam looked at his new "son" and thought: "By God, this is the ugliest baby I've ever seen." A week later, he, like his wife, was utterly in love with the boy.

Eight months later, Mrs John was on the phone again: "Lillias, this time it's a baby girl..." She didn't get to finish her sentence. Lillias slammed down the phone thrust Robin into Sarah's arms and made like a Malaysian driver, speeding all the way to the Children's Home.

From no kids in 10 years of marriage, Sam and Lillias were now the proud parents of two. She found that two toddlers, Robin and Rebekkah, incredibly close in age, took up all her time and almost all her energy. Although she loved her children to death, she found herself increasingly exhausted. And surprisingly nauseous.

Her husband suggested vitamins. Sarah, being the more astute of the two, said: "Ma'am, you're pregnant."

"Oh rubbish," Lillias replied. The doctor, however, confirmed Sarah's diagnosis. She was indeed pregnant. Seven months later, Ephraim was born. And exactly nine months after that, little Antonia made her appearance.

The doctor insisted on tying her tubes.

Sounds crazy, doesn't it? But incredibly, while I changed the names, this is a true story.

It's dedicated to...well, you know who you are. Don't stress about it. It'll come when it comes. Pray for rain, then go build your dam.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Memoirs of a Desperate Woman

So she walks into an anonymous bar that smells of Dunhill and Malboro Light and makes her way to the stool at one end. Here, screened by the large, thuggish Indian drunks, she gestures to the bartender. Gin on the rocks. She empties her glass in one motion, leans back and sighs. There is a slight easing of the painful knot in her belly. A few more ought to do the trick. She signals for another and the bartender nods impassively as he moves to get her drink. He's seen her type before.

Across the room, a man watches. He too has seen her type before and his nose quivers appreciatively. He notes her well-cut clothes and the gold card she proffers in payment. He notes the slight plumpness and he knows when he gets nearer, he will he able to smell her profound sadness. She'll do.

He buys her a drink. When she raises her glass in acknowledgement, he sidles over. Takes care not to touch her as they feel each other out with trite phrases. He lets her talk. Nods sympathetically like he's not heard it all before. Takes care to see her glass is always magically filled. With a little more firewater down her gullet she feels a wonderful lightening of spirit. He starts to appear attractive. Such a nice deep voice and so sympathetic. And still, practised as ever, he keeps his distance. Soon, she is touching him, a hand on the shoulder, now one on his knee. He refrains, managing to keep himself aloof but available, not an easy combination to achieve.

A month later, she's staking out a strange house because his car is parked outside. She followed him because she suspects. Sure enough, he emerges, looking satisfied, if sleepy, at about 4 in the morning. She revs up and they engage in a high-speed chase throughout the streets of Damansara. Her best friend, who has been dragged into this comedy against her will is screaming as the car careens wildly from side the side. Oblivious, she sails over the speed bumps like she's on some bad cop show.

He made the first move. She could have sworn he did. And he borrowed a tidy sum, more than she could afford to lend. There was some emergency, and it was only for one month, he had cashflow problems, he would pay her back first thing next month - it was now the 15th and he gets irritated whenever she brings up the subject. If money is not enough to keep a man faithful...

The smoke in the bar clears. She thanks him and stumbles out to her car, dropping her keys along the way. She shouldn't be driving anyway. All that gin. Chased with brandy. He catches her, picks up her keys and they smile at each other.

Sex in the car: it's uncomfortable but she's too drunk to care. It feels good to be touched again. Actually she's too drunk to feel, but you get the picture.

"A man wants me, a man wants me, a man wants me. Eat your heart out Simon, eat your heart out Tony, eat your heart out George, a man actually wants me!"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Immigration and Customs (The Sequel) or Situation Normal All Fucked Up

"Aaaarggghhhhhh!" I am standing at the KLIA cargo and the nice "customer service officer" has just told me that I need to pay him RM230 to "settle" with Customs. Apparently my boxes, just arrived from Perth as unaccompanied luggage, have contraband - as in my DVDs and a bottle of wine.

"But they are old DVDs, not even new, I brought some of them from KL to Australia."

"That's irrelevant. You need a permit to bring DVDs through cargo."

"And I thought we could bring in at least two bottles of wine..."

"No, that's only in your luggage when you're flying. If you want to bring it in through cargo, you need a permit. Problemlar miss," He shakes his head worriedly and I feel my stomach plunge.

"Er... I kinda don't have the cash on me," I say, hoping for a reduction in terms.

He silently takes in my scruffy tee-shirt, hair untidily bunned up in a scrunchy, unwashed face. Then he glances over at my car. (Oh for crying out loud, it's only a Proton, how on God's green earth can you possibly mistake me for a rich kid?) He ponders the fact that I have just returned from Perth, which means I could afford to study OVERSEAS.

"No problem, I can direct you to an ATM."

I give in. Of course, I am getting ripped off, but what if he is right and Customs actually confiscate my stuff? There is my LOTR ROTK (extended version) and Hamlet (with Kevin Kline as Hamlet, a present from Charles, irreplaceable). And the one bottle of wine Katherine gave me before I left.

We collect the three boxes and one small suitcase from the Freight Forwarders. RM110 there, but I already knew about this fee in Australia, so it doesn't sting as much. My mobile goes off. It's the news director of a cable tv station:

"I got your number from Darla. So you're back. Whatchoo doing ah? Wanna come in and talk business?"

"Um, I really appreciate your call, but I'm kinda stuck in Cargo right now. Can I call you back?"

"Sure, fine, no problem."

The customer service officer flashes me a grin. "Was that your Daddy?" It's obvious that he has me pegged as some spoilt rich kid, the kind I personally despise. Note to him: A spoilt rich kid would have other people to do this for her. Or would be accompanied by some big shot from Daddy's office to smooth everything out. A spoilt rich kid would be driving Daddy's BMW. Or Volvo. Or Merc.

Then I drive over to Customs, to fill up a form. Actually, the friendly "customer service officer" (he doesn't tell me his name) fills up the form for me. He keeps up a lively chat on the way, telling me not to worry: "No problem one, I take care of everything." And I think, well, it's like hiring a consultant; you pay them to settle the hassles for you. But the fact is, having just arrived home, without a job, I'm still virtually penniless. I wouldn't be hiring no consultant, and honestly, can I afford to pay top price for one?

So he goes off to fill up the said abstruse form, kindly informing me that he is valuing all my goods at RM200 (that's RM30 less than the fee he expects). I swelter in the car for 10 minutes (aircon notwithstanding) and listen to Light and Easy trying to calm my nerves. The more this guy reassures me, the more anxious I feel. He returns, waving the form in my face. Same pleasant grin. "Service with a smile. We like to keep the customer happy, lalalalala..."

Then we drive to the Customs examination checkpoint, where he gets down again (in all this I don't get to see any customs officers, they're these stern, mythical invisible creatures) and comes back with a stamp on the Customs form that declares I will be subjected to a 100 per cent examination.

"You'd better take out the bottle of wine and put it in your knapsack." I do. Feeling more and more criminal. Why the hell didn't I just put it in my luggage to carry home with me?

We drive off to the 100 per cent examination point. He gets out and some things happen offstage as I wait for the officers to go through my "three boxes and one suitcase" with a fine toothcomb. None show up. He gets into the car, the form suitably stamped. I gape.

"Um, where are the officers? Nobody checked anything!"

"Don't worry, I settled with them."

"How much?"


He pauses. Then: "You can pay me now."

I fish for my wallet and count out RM230. His teeth practically blind me. Easy money. Soft mug. Christmas must have come early this year. I try and calculate how much this guy makes if he does at least two of this a day. The mind boggles.

One more hurdle before I'm home free. The exit, where they may just decide, proper documentation notwithstanding, to go through the contents of my car. Instead, the officers at this checkpoint flash him a knowing grin and smile sweetly at me. I wonder how many of them are in on it and how many will get their cut.

I am out of the cargo now. He alights and strides purposefully to the security guards at the entrance. I made the mistake of asking these guards what I was supposed to do when I arrived, having never collected anything from cargo in the whole course of my interesting life. I remember feeling a little surprised when the security guard in question offered me his seat, pulled out his mobile, made a call after which smiley guy emerged. Only the best service...

Later that day, I'm on the phone with a friend: "Bloody bribery and corruption."

"Honey, don't be so harsh. It's called distributive wealth."

I laugh. "Don't they realise I have no wealth to distribute?"

"Aiya! Welcome home to Malaysialar!"

Friday, December 09, 2005


When you come home what you gonna do
Oh brother, oh brother
Don't you try to deny
What you know to be true
The same mess of misery that you done been through
Standing in line
And it's waiting for you
One kiss leads to another
Brother when you come back home

Oh Brother, James Taylor

Here I am, stuck between worlds. I have left Perth, but am not quite back in Kuala Lumpur. Head in the clouds, waiting for the aircraft to land, the wheels to touch ground, that harsh jolt of reality.

Most days, I drive around in a daze, wrapped in cotton wool, a sheet of glass between me and real life. Maybe it has to do with being broke and not having a job yet. I can't go out and buy stuff, hang out in cafes, do anything.

But what's even worse is that I'm not looking for one. A job, that is. Content to lie curled up in bed while storms rage outside, lost between the pages of some ancient children's novel.

Evadne Price, Richmal Crompton, Anthony Buckeridge, Jane Shaw...

When people ask me if I've applied to so-and-so newspaper, wire service or magazine, my eyes become unfocussed and I tell them I'm sending out good thoughts. They regard me in a puzzled fashion.

"We always knew she was peculiar, just not this peculiar. Australia must have seeped away what little sanity she has left."

I smile vaguely at them and turn to walk away. It feels like I'm swimming through the steamy air. Nothing seems real, I can't make it real, I'm floating three feet away from my body.

"So have you started on your novel?"

"My what?"

"Well isn't that why you went there? To learn to write novels?"

"Er...no, not exactly, it was a kind of time-out from life. But I guess I could, write novels that is, except that I don't feel like doing anything once I'm here."

"Grow up girl!"

I get so tired of sensible advice. So I walk away.

Nothing seems real. I can't make it real.

Christmas cheer all around as I sit wrapped in my customary rags, waiting, waiting, waiting...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Everything melts in this heat

So, it was not a dark and stormy night, and the plane landed, when it landed, on grey dust. And the airport was full of perfume smells and chocolate and whisky-flavoured memories. I sighed and clasped my two obligatory boxes of Corica apple strudel to my chest, tried to balance my laptop on one shoulder, my backpack on the other and my duty free shopping bag of Macallan's single malt in a spare hand. (As Roy Cohn put so beautifully, in Angels in America, I wish I was a fucking octopus) I would have to continue my juggling act until I could get a trolley (which was not anytime soon, seeing as I had to pass through Immigration first).

OK, there is one thing I absolutely love about Malaysia. If you're Malaysian, you actually get to go through the autogate, where you plunk your passport into this reader thingy and put your thumb on the required spot. It verifies that you are you, and kazaam, you're through customs. No waiting around for surly immigration officers to stamp your passport and forget to welcome you home.

Finally, I arrived at the baggage claims and my suitcase actually made it out there quickly. Oh, better and better. And when I went through customs (Green Lane, but of course) the officers, whose eyes I met steadily, barely gave me a second glance. The joys of being a scruffy, unprepossessing student-type.

Another thing I love about Malaysia is my family waiting to greet me at the airport. I get lost in a flurry of hugs and smiles as they take my suitcases - we proceed to the car and unload them into it. I chatter nonstop and my brother, who is driving, hands me the phone. It's Mom.

"I'm glad you're back, Jenn. When you coming home to JB?"

I tell her I have to wait for my unaccompanied luggage to arrive and she worries about the fate of her apple strudel. Corica is legend in my family, ever since, during my first-year holidays, when I brought back a box and forced everyone to have some at midnight.

I meet up with one of my best friends for breakfast: "Angel child!" she screams as she hurls herself on me. We go to Strudels in Lucky Gardens for breakfast and have clove and cardamom teh tareks. Nice. From where we're sitting we get a perfect view of the continuous stream of traffic coming in to have breakfast or brunch or do some shopping.

"Honestly, it's nine on a Tuesday morning. You'd think these people would be at work," she remarks.

"Nolar, we're Malaysian. Eating is our national pastime. You could go to the stalls at four in the morning and you'd still see people chomping away."

We laugh. It's hot. I am steaming in my tee shirt.

Everything melts in this heat.

I take five baths in less than 24 hours. Finally, I simply drench myself in cold, cold water and lie naked under the fan. The family are all at work or else I wouldn't. We don't do nudity here. My cousin calls:

"Whatchoo doing?"

"Lying naked under the fan. Too hotlar."

She giggles nervously. We don't talk about such things in our family.

We agree to meet for dinner. And I have a lunch appointment today. And dinner. And so on, for the rest of the week.

"Wow, you're efficient," she says. "It took me a while after I got back to meet up with people."

"Not efficient, just bored. Sides, it will be nice to see everyone again, let them know I'm back for real."

"What about the ones you don't wanna meet?"

We pause for a while. Even before hitting the tarmac, I have received calls and invitations from people who give me a pain in my solar plexus. In Australia, I only hang out with the people I like. I don't have to pretend. Over here I seem to fall into the path of least resistance. There is a certain integrity lacking: I smile at people I can't stand, do time with people who make me feel tired and unhappy, chat with people who I would rather cross the street to avoid.

I need to say: "Listen carefully. I don't want you to call me again. I don't like you and refuse to pretend that we're still friends."

If only.

I'm so afraid of losing my soul again.

Everything melts in this heat.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Love, uninterrupted

The human spirit is not dead. It lives on in secret... Albert Schweitzer

I read once in a book, that when you're drowning in sorrow, look around and try to make someone else feel better. What goes around, comes around.

I was like any arrogant young person, secure in my impeturbability. I thought I could handle anything life threw at me, without breaking down, showing a reaction, acting like a girl. Then when the dark night of the soul showed up, it was like... a living darkness, I could not plumb its depths. It was like being thrown down and crushed upon the ground over and over again. Every time I picked yourself up and thought, OK that's it, I can begin to rebuild, the darkness would hit and there I would be, cracked glass shattering all over again.

You will never stop falling...

Of course, if you asked me then what the value of this experience was, I would have said, absolutely nothing at all. Suffering doesn't strengthen. It turns us into bloodless shadows. But when I came out on the other side, I found I suddenly had compassion. Gone was the youthful arrogance of: "Oh, get a grip."

I knew now that some pain went too deep for glib solutions. So many Eleanor Rigbys out there thinking, if I were to die, who would know, who would even care? A pine box, some earth, and it will be as if I never lived.

An old lady sat next to me on a park bench. She started by asking me about where I came from and went on to tell me the story of her life. I bought her a coffee and listened. It was like someone had unstoppered a dam. She couldn't wait to get the words out and I don't think I have ever met someone so lonely, hurt, abused and yet, innocent, childlike and trusting. I know if I had met her before, a part of me would have been scornful at her lack of self-control, her eager confidence in a complete stranger. Now, I saw only a deep pain and a loneliness so profound that it threw all natural caution to the winds.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from...

I don't know where they come from. I just know they're there. Broken people. Like us. We're broken too. You know what I mean...

And sometimes the misery slams you against a wall and you know you're gonna crack right open. But your skin holds together. That is the miracle of skin. It doesn't crack under pressure unless you help it to.

To be broken is to know that nothing is right and nothing will ever be right again. You know what I'm talking about. You know that you can look at a Van Gogh and just want to curl up into a ball on the floor and scream silently. You know that however much you cut yourself, you can't bleed it away. Or dull it with wine. Or sky-coloured pills.

And nobody understands. Nobody will EVER understand. Remember that. And just keep on shattering. When God arrives to sweep up the pieces maybe you can finally ask why.

But being broken ourselves, we do understand. Being, 'there, but for the grace of God, go I' we can help.

I came upon a doctor who appeared in quite poor health. I said: "There's nothing I can do for you that you can't do for yourself." He said: "Oh yes you can. Just hold my hand. I think that would help." So I sat with him a while then I asked him how he felt. He said: "I think I'm cured." Conor Oberst

It's called love. It goes a long way.