Although my eyes felt heavy, it was hard to doze off on the hard plastic seats with not much room to stretch my legs. Outside, in the pitch black night, I could only trace the shapes of trees, bushes and railway quarters as the train whooshes by, picking up speed on straight stretches, and slowing down on crooked ones. Inside, the bright yellow lights, the whirr of the overhead fans and the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of coaches in motion kept me awake. As we drew near the Grand Station in Kuala Lumpur, I could not imagine how our lives will be like in this capital city that Mak and I had often passed by on our way to visit my grandparents in Klang.
Will we be living in a big house with a large compound and kind neighbours like we had in Kaki Bukit? Or will we be huddled up in rented units with strange neighbours like in Lorong K? I missed the expanse of the compound in Jalan Damai. Although the soil was too hard and the grass too scrubby to call it a garden, we found pleasure running around and climbing the tapioca tree on Pak Seman’s side or the guava tree on Mak Cik Mani’s. If the afternoon sun was too scorching hot to climb trees, play 'police and theives' (a different version of catch) or 'teng teng' (hopscotch), we would hunched on the bench under Mak Cik Mani’s house to be regaled by Nek’s scary tales of pontianak (a banshee who died at childbirth and nailed at the neck) and penanggal (a female spirit who flew around with just her head and entrails), hantu galah (a ghost that was as tall as a bamboo tree) and hantu tetek (a female spectre who hid her victims between her voluminous breasts). When Cikgu Jalal’s house, a grounded single storey modern bungalow next to Mak Cik Mani’s, acquired a television set, we would peek through the wavy, cream coloured grills and half-closed shutters to catch glimpses of Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny or The Flinstones on late afternoon shows. But as soon as we catch a glimpse of Abang Hatta walk down from the bus stand at the end of the road, we would be scurrying home to open our school books to pretend to read or do our homework. Abang Hatta may have sat three times for the Senior Cambridge (SC) exams before he finally passed but he had such a thirst for knowledge and wanted to inculcate the love of reading and enquiry in Jamal, Yat and I. He would read books like Animal Farm aloud to us on nights when he was not working and regularly subscribed to Readers' Digest, National Geographic and Psychology Today.
Being the eldest son and with Bapak absent most of the time, Abang Hatta took on the mantle of the major breadwinner, protector and disciplinarian. He was the epitome of the loyal first born son, who would never talk or fight back even if Mak were to scold him or Bapak were to smack him for wrongs that we did. Old photos of him at Bukit Tinggi, Geylang Serai or Klang always had him hanging his head down, looking sad and solemn. While Kak Aida got away with mischief, Abang Hatta was never spared the rod. There was a sephia tone picture of them with Mak, Bapak and another young family in Bukit Tinggi where he sullenly twirled a rubber band around his wrist. And another of him in kain pelikat (plaid sarong worn by men) and a Pagoda singlet standing glumly by Kak Aida, who was in a shabby dress which hung over one shoulder pulled by the weight of the infant Jamal on her hip, set against the dreary backyard in Kebun Ubi. And yet another of him in a simple Baju Melayu (traditional Malay outfit for men) at the end of a row of male and female cousins who were dressed in newer and shinier Arab-style garbs in front of the colonial style bungalow in Klang. Being the straight and steadfast grandson, he stayed back and endured the abuse by callous aunts and cousins after Kak Aida ran off to Singapore by train. He only returned to Singapore when Mak went to fetch him at the end of that year after he had a serious fall from a tree in the yard.
He continued his education at an English-medium secondary school while Kak Aida was enrolled in night classes to study shorthand and typing skills. When he failed his SC exams after completing his Secondary Five education, he applied for work with the Police Force and became a Mat Kampau (police constable). We became accustomed to him dressed in stiffly starched khaki shirt and culottes, calve-length socks, black leather boots, a thick belt and a wooden baton by his torso, like the law enforcers in P. Ramlee movies. He always had interesting encounters with the public that he shared with us at the kitchen table.
We too had our high points whenever there was a ‘shooting’ at the big, cream coloured house across the road from the bus stand, where we usually got on. We would beat the traffic to cross the main road and join the crowd of children gawking at the white vans, the white umbrellas, the cameras, the lights, and the movie stars - Latifah Omar, Roseyatimah, Malik Selamat, Tony Kassim. There was an indoor scene of Roseyatimah in Rumah itu Duniaku (That house is my world) that remained etched in my mind. I felt my memory violated when I heard a snide remark from a jealous cousin that she was not a big star because her legs were full of scabs. Secretly, I empathised with her since I knew what it was like to have scars all over my legs from insect bites and falls from trees!
After the director had called it a day, we would disperse and walk along the trees that lined the main road, where the buses plied, to pluck flat, green beans that produced soap like fluid. We never ventured far ‘til the last bus terminal at the end of that long road. But I remembered taking the bus with Mak ‘til Barrack Hitam (Black Army Barracks), where the last bus stop was on the hill. There was a yellow mosque, a community clinic and a youth activity hall (4PM) as soon as you got on the hill. The narrow roads, part tarred part dirt, that branched off from the main bus route were named after local leaders who had struggled for Independence, like Jalan Ambok Solok and Jalan Sudin. The main road – Jalan Eunos – ended at the intersection with Geylang and Still Roads, passing by Central commercial area, Yat’s primary school on the right and the Buddhist temple on the left. Central got its name after the cinema where Abang Hatta had taken us to watch Animal Farm. I had photos of me with an iodine-smeared knee and a half-eaten cup cake on my right hand sitting on velvet-cushioned rattan chair, sitting on Mak’s lap with my siblings and, the most recent, wearing matching new light peach dresses with Yat, holding plastic pears and grapes, taken at the photo studio. Mak had bought our dresses and shoes and had our hair cut at the hair salon along the same row. There were also rare trips riding on the bar of Abang Hatta’s Raleigh bicycle at night whenever Mak craved and could afford spicy, mutton soups and hot teh tarik (frothy milk tea), packed in emptied condensed milk cans and balanced precariously on the handle bars. And, of course, last Hari Raya Puasa (the celebration after Ramadan), when we blew our ‘duit raya’ (money collected from the houses that we had visited) on ‘ais kepal’ (flavoured shaved, ice balls) and candies.