It was more than an hour since the train chugged its way from Kluang Station. Although it was in the middle of night, there was a sense of excitement as it approached the interchange at Gemas, Negri Sembilan. Unlike Kluang and other minor stations, Gemas had tracks that led to the East Coast. Passengers heading for Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan would disembark and board another set of coaches. The stop was longer than at other stations, so most people would disembark to stretch their legs, sip some coffee or go to the washroom. The dining coach was at the end of winding coaches and the train washrooms usually stank, so passengers would dine in or ease themselves only as a last resort. For those who chose to stay put on their seats, there would be vendors who boarded the coaches to sell samosas, curry puffs, some other Malay kuihs and bottled drinks.
Mak took out a thin Good Morning face towel, dampened it in the sink at the kopitiam and wiped the layer of oil and grime from my face. She fed me with a warm steamed red bean pau and hot Ovaltine. I felt stuffy in my new brown, plaid cotton dress with its high, round collar and short, tight sleeves but I kept quiet since all our loose pyjamas were in the big baggage on the top rack above our heads. Being the youngest child, I was the apple of her eyes.
Mak doted on me to the chagrin of Kak Aida, who loved to scare me with stories about me being adopted and that Mak kept a toyol (a cherubic devil that steals at the owner’s behest) that she would pass on to the youngest offspring upon her demise. She must have been upset with the presence of three younger siblings after seven years of blissful childhood in Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra, where she was born at the end of World War II, and Ipoh, where Bapak had a printing press which was confiscated for printing anti-colonial publications. Those were times of plenty for my parents and the two older children. Bapak and his partners were said to roll 50 ringgit notes as cigarettes whenever they painted the town red. There were cabarets in Ipoh where they could listen to musical quartets and pay for the dancing girls. Photos of them in Bukit Tinggi and Ipoh had Bapak well turned out in dark pantaloon, light long-sleeve shirt, a broad tie, a white smart jacket, dark sunglasses and dark hair thickly gelled with Brylcreem. Mak looked demure in her Javanese batik sarong from Pekalongan, embroidered kebaya of ‘kasa rubiah’ and a transparent shawl over her Indonesian-style bun. Abang Hatta was usually in neatly-pressed short-sleeve shirt and short Oxford trousers while Kak Aida looked pretty in floral print dresses, patent leather shoes and attractive hair accessories.
It was painful then to compare those photos with the ones at Kebun Ubi, where they and the infant Jamal looked forlornly into the camera dressed in drab attire and set against a ramshackle outhouse. When Ra’ayat Trading folded, the family moved back to Singapore where they lived with Ustaz Jalal’s family in Geylang Serai, a haphazard traditional settlement unlike the more organised Kampong Melayu Kaki Bukit. By the time Yat and I were born, we had moved to different rented units until Ustaz Jalal, Siddi’s former student and Bapak’s adopted father, was kind and generous enough to allow us to live in his house at 38 Jalan Damai.
My thoughts flew to the veranda and the broad stone stairway, where we would put on our shoes before we leave for school in the early or late mornings, depending on the session we were in. My school uniform was a saffron orange, knee-length starched linen skirt with broad pleats that accentuated my rounded belly and exposed my blemished legs for everyone’s scrutiny. The transparent short-sleeved shirt made me feel so conscious of my budding top that I always had plain or ribbed chemise on underneath. On Mondays, I had to put on an ugly orange tie for the weekly assemblies that made me feel more like a tomboy since Mak had my hair cropped short to prevent me from contracting lice from scruffy class mates. My name must have been registered late for me to be admitted to the last class – 1F - and some of my class mates from the squatter areas were generally unkempt. But I made good grades and was promoted to 2C and 3A. It didn’t help though that Yat was tall, slim, fair, with soft wavy hair that complemented her dimpled cheeks. I felt like a Gollywog next to Shirley Temple, especially when my siblings and relatives started calling me ‘Budak Muka Lipas’ (Cockroach Face Kid), 'Kaki Tiang Jamban' (Toilet Post Legs) or teased me with taunts of:
Betty, Betty bom-bom,
Malam-malam curi jagong,
Masuk rumah pasong”
(Betty, Betty bom-bom,
She stole corns at night,
The cops caught her,
Put her in the lock-up)
Yat attended the primary school at Jalan Eunos, which was closer to our home than Telok Kurau, and her school uniform was more flattering too – a dark green pleated pinafore with a belt which created a slimmer silhouette. To make matters worse, Mak would buy bulky boys’ laced-up shoes for me and dainty, streamline girls’ shoes for her.
Since her school was closer to home, she got to ride on an orange van driven by a prune-faced Javanese man. I had to wait for Mak, Abang Hatta or Jamal to take me to school either by trishaw, bicycle or by bus. Since I never attended kindergarten, Mak waited at the canteen with other protective parents to accompany me and other timid pupils during recess. It took me many months to wean off Mak’s warm bosom and adjust to regimented school life. Luckily I had gentle and kind teachers in the shapes of Miss Suppiah and Miss Tan, who were very patient and understanding. Mrs O’Hara, the principal, was just the opposite - strict and merciless. She would shoo off the parents waiting at the canteen to go home:
“Balik, balik! Apa tunggu lagi di sini?” (Go home! What are you all waiting for here?)
In my second year, Abang Hatta would give me a ride on the bar of his Raleigh bicycle taking the short cut through the bumpy, back road crossing the shanty homes and pig farms in Chai Chee. In my third year, I had to take the bus either with Jamal or on my own and walked the extra mile from the junction of Jalan Eunos and Geylang Road to reach my school. I was often late and Jamal had to accompany me to explain to my class teacher and walk back to his school near Still Road. We never figured out why Bapak enrolled him in a Malay school when all four of us attended English schools. Never mind that Abang Hatta had to sit three times for his Senior Cambridge or that Kak Aida dropped out from school when she ran away from her grandparents’ house in Klang.
Although Kamal was protective of me as his little sister, his relationship with Yat was competitive. Yat had always been resourceful, looking for coins that fell in through the cracks between the planks in the living room to rest on the supporting planks outside. When she had gathered enough to buy Wall’s or Magnolia’s stick ice cream - not the cheap ‘ais krim potong’ (wafer ice cream bar) from Sun Sun - she would show off and allowed us just one lick. One hot afternoon, when Jamal tried to get a bite off her tangy orange ice cream, she pulled it away and, before we knew it, fell into the small drain that ran around the house and hit her shoulder blade on the jagged outer rim. Jamal turned pale and ran off to hide while I alerted Mak, who got Abang Hatta to call the ambulance. Yat was warded for a few days and when she was discharged, she had to wear a sling until her fractured shoulder blade mend completely.