1st May 2013
Here I am again, though missing my Monday deadline. Trouble is, there is so much to do, being a writer. I am now doing the final edit of my next book A Chinese Odysey -The Ming Admiral.
Also in the pipeling is the sequel to the first book Memories in the Bone which will be called A Chinese Diaspora - Shifting Winds, Drifting Sands. At the moment this has the working title of A Life Divided, which a friend says is too boring. So there we are. And recording Memories in the Bone for audio books, for those who have less than perfect eyesight or who love listening instead of reading -- esp. on long car journeys.
so I apologise.
Next Tuesday, May 7th, will see me at the Takapun Library, a really nice one on the North Shore of Auckland, launching Memories in the Bone. So I am hoping there will be a decent turnout of folks to help me celebrate.
But before that The Auckland Symphony Orchestra of which I am a playing member, is performing To Russia with Love - a programme of Russian melodies that takes in the title of the programme as well as Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, etc. A very rousing performance is guaranteed and we play to full houses several times a year, including the lovely Town Hall in centre city.
Anyhow, I hope you've all been enjoying my 'stories for the soul' and will continue with the sad story of A Maid I Knew.
Lau Kiew went out every evening taking the cash earned that day from the tin box under the shop counter. One day, when the youngest was six months old, he bought an old blue Austin and announced to his startled family that he had quit his job at the Municipal Office and was now operating his own taxi service. “There’s more money that way, and it’s my own car to use anytime,” he told them, showing off the Austin.
Lau Kiew’s new venture made even less money. Frustrated, he took his rage out on his family. Grandma kept out of his way whenever he was home. She spent such times in the vegetable plot or took to her bed immediately after dinner with her prayer beads. The frightened children pretended sleep at the far end of the communal platform bed on which Lau Kiew, Linlai and the baby slept closer to the door. Bedbugs crept out between the slats at night to feast on them. Each morning they woke with tiny bloody sores all over their bodies and faces. But nobody complained. Bedbugs were part of their nocturnal slumbers as much as the mosquitoes and the heat.
Three months into his taxi business, Lau Kiew announced he was putting Lan out to service. “She must contribute towards the family,” he said, “she’s thirteen now.”
“But what can she do? She’s still a child,” Linlai protested before a thought occurred to her. “You are not going to sell her, are you? You are not going to sell her into prostitution? Not our daughter, not our first born!” She began wailing, clutching her last born to her bosom. The children in between started wailing too while Grandma and Lan looked at each other, petrified into silence.
“Shut up, all of you! I will not sell her but I will hire her out to a rich household as a servant. That way, she’s worth more to me.”
And that was how Lan came into my family. I remember well the day Papa drove home with her. I had run out to meet him and stopped short when he opened the back door to let this thin, deeply tanned, sobbing girl out. She wore a worn cotton dress of faded flowers and clutched a brown paper bag containing her belongings. Long greasy plaits hung down her back and she wore old flip flop rubber sandals on her calloused dusty feet. I paused to study this rude apparition. She saw me watching her and her snivelling stopped. We stared at each other awhile, me with the haughtiest look I could muster on my eight-year old face under which she withered.
“Say hello to Lan, Lengleng,” my father said, “she will be your maid from now on.”
I ran back into the house, yelling for Mother. “I don’t want that dirty girl for a maid!”
My mother chuckled and patted my head. “Don’t be silly, she’ll be fine after a bath and fresh clothes. Anyway, looking after you is just one of her duties. She can be trained.”
Mother was right. Kai Cheh, the housekeeper who had been with us since I could remember, soon had Lan scrubbed up. The next time I saw Lan, she was smelling of soap, floundering in a pair of Kai Cheh’s black cotton trousers and white blouse, fastened all the way down the front with small looped cotton toggles.
Mother smiled, amused. “I shall have some clothes altered to fit you very soon”.
Lan’s first duty was to serve dinner. Seated between my parents, I watched as she struggled with the bowls, chopsticks, and platters of food. It was obvious she had never seen fine chinaware before, or good quality chopsticks. She was clumsy and handled them as if they would break in her hands. The number of dishes awed her, I could see. Meanwhile, Kai Cheh’s yell from the kitchen -- “and don’t forget the water glasses. They’re in the second drawer of the sideboard,”-- rendered her into a state of acute nervousness.
Mother said, “Don’t worry, Lan, take your time.”
I watched but said not a word. I knew the difference between this maid and myself.
To be continued