Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties.
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile,
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
I’d been my Baba’s and Siddi’s Blue-eyed Boy as far as I could remember. When I was eight, I completed all thirty juzu’ of the Qur’an three times over. When I was twelve, I made Baba’s sad eyes glisten with tears of joy when I was announced the Over-All Best Student of Sekolah Rendah Melayu Johor Baru.
Just ten months before that historic accomplishment, Baba’s had shed tears when Ummi fled with the Scotsman she met at the JB Lake Club. Baba knew that he shouldn’t have followed his heart and disobeyed Sitti’s wishes when he married that Perempuan Habshi (Abyssinian Woman) twenty-two years ago in 1942. Ummi had stolen his heart the moment he laid eyes on her at his cousin’s wedding reception. She was the singer with the famed Tanjong Puteri Quartet.
Ummi was sixteen and Baba was twenty-three. They had special nicknames for each other. She called him Skar, her special acronym for Syed Karim, and he called her Gyp, short for Gypsy. She thought he’d always be her fair-skinned and light-eyed Lawrence of Arabia. He knew she’d always be the husky-voiced, dusky-skinned, dark-eyed Gypsy Jezebel with that untamed curly locks. But twenty years, and four children later, he wasn’t the Lean and Hungry Machine that she fell in love with. All the scars from sailing the choppy waters of the Johor Straits and the South China Sea for antiques and curios were now covered by unsightly rolls of Folds and Flabs.
Gyp couldn’t help but yearn for the Young Skar. She longed for the Youthful Body and the Adventurous Spirit. Instead, she had to slip into the covers and lie down next to an Old, Gunny Sack, night after night. Staring at the ceiling next to a Broken Spirit, chipped away by frequent setbacks in running Arjuna Antique & Curios Shop.
An old friend alerted her of a vacancy as a Resident Singer at the JB Lake Club. The extra income would help shore up his dwindling profits. Gyp had written down a long list of ‘The Children’s Needs’. Syed Muchtar needed to pay the fees for his third attempt at the Senior Cambridge Examinations. Sharifah Hana needed the fees for her typing and short-hand classes. As a mother, she couldn’t just sit by and twiddle her thumb while her eldest son and daughter toil away as delivery boy and sales girl at their Baba’s ailing Antique & Curios Shop. They needed the paper qualification and the skills to ‘go out into the real world’. The two younger ones – that bright spark and full-of-potential Syed Muhammad needed pocket money for his books and Boys Scouts’ uniform and activities, and the not-so-bright and not-so-promising Sharifah Maimunah needed hers for her Girl Scouts’.
With a heavy heart, Skar let his vivacious wife be the Resident Singer for the JB Lake Club. Things were great for the first year. There was more than enough money for ‘The Children’s ‘Needs’ and everyone was happy. But dark clouds gathered in the second year of Gyp’s contract with the Lake Club when a certain Scotsman started to patronize the Club’s Bar and Lounge. He had lost his blonde blue-eyed wife and still-born baby prior to his posting to Malaysia and was still drowning his sorrows in Vodka and Bacardi. During his inebriated evenings spent at the Club, he was intoxicated by Gyp’s sultry voice and sensual charms.
“Heck, like how old are these Oriental Ladies anyway? They don’t look a day over twenty-two!”
As she regaled her guests, Gyp saw her escape hatch from Old Gunny Sack while she perched precariously on the high stool of the normally deserted bar. Robert McLeod was his name. A young widower at thirty-four. Three years difference is no gap at all. Tall, muscular, blonde and blue-eyed. Such a sight for sore eyes. And a thick wallet to boot!
As she sat at the bar next to him in her black lame evening dress, a glass of pink Baby Champ delicately balanced between her gloved slender fingers, Gyp talked Bob (they had gotten to first name basis by then) into applying for a transfer to KL.
“That’s where you’d want to be. And that’s where you should be. Where the bright, neon lights are. Not in this dingy, damp watering hole!”
“You think so? You really think so? I’m thinking of doing that. Yes, I’m going do just that!” He said, peering at her through his light, blonde eye lashes.
With each tinkling of her dainty champagne glass against his sturdy Vodka tumbler, with each trail of her light laughter against his gruff guffaw, his resolve to take her away with him to the capital city grew stronger.
Baba was stunned to find his beloved Gyp gone when he returned home on February 14th, 1964. He simply couldn’t believe that, after twenty-two years of what he thought was a happy marriage, she could just pack up all her newer clothes, shoes, handbags and stuff into her big Baby Blue Samsonite hard-shell suitcase and leave with Bob in his cream-colored Volvo 124 to KL while everyone else was away at the shop and school.
As he slumped himself on the leather Ottoman he ordered from Cairo and sighed:
“How am I going to break the news to your brother and sisters?”
How would I know, Baba? I just turned twelve. I thought you were The Most Loving Couple in JB. I’d never, ever thought that Ummi could just walk out on you … on us all!
“Abang Tar’s World of Football, Training and Body-Building, Motivational Pep Talk, Readers Digest, National Geographic and Psychology Today, would be shattered,” Baba continued. “Do you think he’ll be able to pick up the pieces and recover from this scandal?”
You should know him better, Baba! You’re his father! The voice in my head screamed.
“Kak Hana would be devastated … Who’s going to remind her now that Her Face is Her Fortune, that Good Girls Go to Heaven but Fair, Pretty Girls Go Everywhere?” Baba smiled wryly. “Do you think she’ll blame her Baba for not being Man Enough to keep her Ummi from the clutches of a brawny Scottie?”
Again and again he was looking for answers that I didn’t have. Or, perhaps, he wasn’t. He was just voicing his thoughts aloud. But I was filled with hate and rage for Ummi. I wanted Baba to get up and bring her back home!
“You can’t just sit there, Baba. You’ve to track her down and drag her home. Make her repent for her sins!”
But Baba’s butt was glued to the Ottoman. His face was still resting on his palms. And his eyes fixed on the Tree of Life motif on the Persian carpet Siddi bought from Isfahan, long before I was born. I promised myself then that I wouldn’t forgive him if he didn’t redeem his reputation as a Cuckolded Husband. Suami Dayus … Such a vile word on my tongue!
But he just shook his head and rambled on.
“Sherry … carefree, little Sherry … would be wondering if she had been a Horrid Little Girl that her Ummi, like the mother in Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup, decided to just leave her for good. Will she blame herself for this?”
I couldn’t stand another second of this soliloquy. I got up, clutched my school satchel and walked to my room. I locked the door and sat at the edge of my bed. Silent tears of anger --- of frustration --- welled up at the corner of my eyes.
It turned out that my siblings reacted differently to Ummi’s departure. Abang Tar grew more sullen and withdrawn. Kak Hana bolted off to Singapore like an angry mare. When she was tracked down at her best friend’s place in Opera Estate, Baba had to comply with the Family Court’s ruling that she be sent to the Home for Wayward Girls.
I threw myself into my studies and Scouts and excelled beyond everybody’s expectation. I had to prove to Ummi that her ditching us didn’t bother me one bit!
And Sherry, Knuckle Head Sherry, struggled on with her homework and her Qur’an reading classes. Sometimes, at the silent dinner table, she’d wonder aloud if Ummi will ever come home.
Abang Tar finally surrendered after his fourth attempt at the Senior Cambridge Examinations. He fell behind in his training and had to forsake his chance to play with the Youth Football Team. He left Baba’s business and settled for a job as a police constable with the PDRM --- Polis DiRaja Malaysia. Kak Hana gave her baby up for adoption and moved to KL, where a rich relative found her a sales job at a cosmetic counter in Robinson’s. I was selected into the Science Stream and continued to shine. And stupid Sherry had to deal with puberty problems with help from her dim-witted friends.
Five years had passed since Ummi left. Baba’s body and spirit grew weaker by the day. Ummi, on the other hand, went on with her new life with alacrity, promptly getting a proxy divorce from the Qadi’s office at Jalan Othman, Petaling Jaya, and marrying the newly converted Bob at the same office three months and ten days later. Nine months later, she delivered his child at thirty-nine.
After my devastating results in March ’70, I’d been back and forth between PJ and JB, working at the dockyards and quitting whenever I needed a break.
Finally, when Abang Tar’s bloated body was fished out the water tank in March ‘72, I simply couldn’t bear to be in JB with Baba and his relatives who had callously let Abang Tar to wander aimlessly in life and ended up working as a menial laborer at a laundry shop.
Once Abang Muchtar was interred six feet underground, I hopped on the train to KL. I swore that I’ll never to return. I was angry that Baba let his health deteriorate and ignore Abang Tar’s pain. I was angry with Abang Im for being preoccupied with his Nyawa and neglecting his Best Buddy. I was angry at all my relatives who could have done something to stop the slippery slope into depression and despair. The anger festered like a boil that had to be assuaged, first by weed, then by acid, and in the end … speed.
Someone, somewhere had to pay attention to my pain. Save me from my path of self-destruction!
Someone, somewhere had to have a conscience … to feel the pangs of guilt, to apologize and compensate me for all my sorrows and disappointments!
As the train sped through the night, the lyrics of The Marmalade’s Reflections of My Life played on my mind, over and over again.
All my sorrows,
Take me back,
To my own home ...