Wednesday, 29 May 2013
I must say, I am tardy yet again, Smack! Smack! but life has been a bit full these days. I have finally put A Chinese Odyssey - The Ming Admiral - into a pdf file and sent that to my greatest critic, my daughter Melanie who doesn't mind telling her mother where to shove it. And she likes it!!! So am most encouraged and am thinking of entering it for the Kobo Writing Competition. Apart from the prize money, which will fund my next research trip to Malaysia, it will be great on the CV, won't it?
Don't know about you people up in the Northern Hemisphere, but way down here in old NZ we are freezing! In Auckland, I drove through a hail and sleet storm just two days ago. And right now am writing this dressed in 3 layers of woolies, two pairs of socks and am sitting in front of a radiator with a rug over my legs.! At this time of year, I long for summer. Am thinking of India.
Anyway, here is the final episode in A MAID I KNEW. I must tell you, she is based on a real maid I knew when growing up in Malaya. Wherever she is now, I wish her well, even though I know she has no English and would not be reading this. I hope you empathise with her.
Continuing A Maid I Knew.
When I was ten, my parents took a vacation abroad – to New Zealand. “We’ll be gone for only three weeks,” Mother told us before they drove off to the airport. “Kai Cheh will look after you.”
Well, Kai Cheh decided to take a holiday too -- from cooking. Most days she told Lan to take me out for meals, paid for from the housekeeping money. Lan was growing bigger by the year and her chest had expanded until she could fit Mother’s cast-offs without any alterations needed. It seemed my parents’ absence was the nexus she needed to blossom into the glamorous young woman she secretly hankered to be.
These frequent outings necessitated in her dressing up – but not in Mother’s cast-offs. She raided Mother’s wardrobe and vanity, and turned herself into a small-town’s replica of the current leading movie stars from Hong Kong. We sneaked out as Kai Cheh snored on, caught a bus into town and wandered the streets window-shopping; with Lan preening at her reflection in the shop windows we passed. I followed her self-appraisal, watched her painted face; powdered, rouged and lip-sticked and attracting a lot of strange attention. I worried about being discovered.
“Lan, look,” I would whisper, “that man’s staring at you. What will we do if he approaches us?” I would tug at her, or rather, Mother’s dress.
“Let him try,” was the pert answer as she flicked her hair, fingered Mother’s costume jewellery around her neck or from her ears and we would move on. Each time, I fancied, her gait became swingier and her hips swayed more provocatively on Mother’s high heels as the eyes followed her.
Somehow, most of our evenings would end with dinner in a small eatery with a newly acquainted ‘uncle’ who paid the bill at the finish. I would concentrate on eating, trying to be oblivious of the noise around us – the clanging of the woks, the loud conversations of the other diners, the shouting of the cooks’ assistants as they relayed orders to the back. Lan and her new friend concentrated on each other, oblivious to everybody else, including me. Then when it was time to catch the bus home, I would be given a trinket by the friend and a ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ instruction by Lan.
My parents’ return was greeted noisily by Kai Cheh who assured them of my good behaviour. Mother did not notice if anything in her wardrobe or vanity had been tampered with. I was happy and very relieved that I could eat dinner at home as normal. Lan did not have the chance to dress up for town again. Not that I knew. But her night-time stories became less frequent.
Two years later my family re-located to Wellington where Papa had a job at the city council. Mother opened a flower shop on Lambton Quay, specialising in Ikebana displays for hotels and restaurants. I was put into Wellington Girls’ High. It seemed their holiday in New Zealand was to reconnoitre as to the suitability of the country to emigrate to. Obviously, New Zealand had won them over. I had bidden Kai Cheh and Lan a tearful farewell but since neither of them could read or write in any language, I could not write to them in the only one I could, English.
My new life provided many wonderful diversions which soon recessed Lan into the memories of my childhood. Three years later, we went back for a holiday during which Mother and Aunt Lily took me shopping at the bazaar. There I spotted Lan, fully made up, teetering on high heels, hand in hand with a man.
“Lan! Lan! It’s me!” I waved excitedly and ran across to them.
“Oh, Lengleng, how are you?” Her off-hand, flaccid greeting evaporated my joy.
I saw the look pass between them and any curiosity about him died in my heart. Then I waved across to Mother and Aunt Lily, whose disapproving face plainly told me she was talking about Lan. I saw the shock on Mother’s.
That evening I overheard Mother tell Papa, “…it appeared that soon after we left, the poor girl took to prostitution…”
Lan had sold herself for a life of cheap cafe meals and colourful bibs and bobs.
A new story next week. I hope you have all enjoyed this.