|The resident band at the Cellar|
With school over, I was free to wear my tailored clothes that I paid for from scrimping on Chik Rabiah’s catering budget. Now that I had the whole day free, I started looking for a proper job that could buy me ready-made outfits from Lin Ho, customized shoes and matching handbags from that shop in Petaling Street, just like Kak Hana before she left for England, Biba make-up from that pretty cosmetic counter girl on Batu Road, and perhaps – just perhaps - sun glasses and accessories from Robinson’s like Ummi’s and Kak Hana’s.
“But you need to enroll for typing and short-hand classes like I did before I got my job at the travel agency,” Kak Hana told me point blank.
Underneath that cloyingly sweet façade and tone of voice, she could be cruel and sadistic. Well, I wasn’t going to let her burst my bubble. I was determined to get that Cover Girl Look that I scrutinized daily on Seventeen, Elle and Cosmopolitan.
“So, when can I enroll? Should I ask Baba to pay for my fees?” I asked, undeterred by her skepticism. I will NOT resign to staring at the splatters of burst bubbles around me.
“Well, most people enroll in January. So, you’ve six to seven weeks to save up for the fees. You know that Baba’s business is down since he’s not well, don’t you? And forget Ummi. She’ll expect Abang Tar and Mat to provide for you,” she said, obviously having the upper hand.
“So, what am I going to do ‘til January? The university students are on term break now. I won’t be getting any money from Chik Rabiah when there are no students to cook for,” I wailed in despair.
“You can help mind Rara. You’re better at taking care of her than Nana. She’s so kampungan! I don’t want my baby to end up talking like a village girl! I’ll ask Abang Shid to give you some pocket money for the typing class in January.”
“Oh, sure … I can do that in the meantime …” I said. “Thanks, Kak!”
I felt a surge of genuine gratitude. Who else could I turn to now that Baba’s unwell and Abang Tar’s jobless? Mat? His pay at the dockyard was just enough to cover his own expenses.
Now, Kak Hana can be very, very nice if you go along with all her wishes. She set aside a pile of her cast-offs – almost new cotton and voile dresses that I had to tuck in two sizes smaller – to get me excited about baby-sitting Rara. Sure, she had two helpers – Busu to cook and clean, and her niece, Nana, to mind Rara. And Chik Rabiah spent weeks at her place to teach Busu to cook Johorian food and to take care of Rara on Nana’s off-days.
Kak Hana had been going to JB often to see Baba and she took Nana along with her. I guessed that was why she needed me to babysit Rara. Anyway, staying at their sea-side government quarters in Kuantan was almost like being on a summer holiday in the South of France or the Mediterranean … like those fashion shoots and travel stories that I only read about in Jackie and Teen Beat.
Abang Shid’s status as an officer got them membership at the Beach Club. At the Club, I could sit for hours by the pool and ordered whatever Rara, and I, chose to eat. I normally ordered sandwiches, cakes and fruit juices. I figured I could always get Sotong Kangkong, Fried Kuetiau and Lin Chee Kang at the hawker stalls in State and Section 14. And the Yong Tau Fu and Dim Sum at Ampang and Petaling Street were unbeatable.
Having Rara tagging me everywhere like my own little shadow was a small price to pay for my elevated life in Abang Shid’s and Kak Hana’s big bungalow. Abang Shid was happy to see Rara, who used to knock her head against walls and floors when she didn’t get her way, showing her sunny disposition whenever she was around me.
I reckoned Kak Hana’s life was just like Ummi’s. The big bungalow, the beautiful garden, the Peugeot 504, the boutique dresses, the hairstyle by Leo Bernard, the servants, the holidays in Singapore. Like all those lucky housewives and society ladies in Her World and Australian Women’s Weekly that I stumbled upon - on her coffee, kitchen and pool-side tables - the few times that I was at her house.
I entertained the thought that, maybe, who knows, I would have a life like theirs too … not if, but when, I meet the Right Guy. A Good Provider who would protect me from a Hard Life, like Chik Rabiah’s. Poor Chik Rabiah … strung along, for years and years, without a proper divorce! Had to raise her daughter all by herself, rescued Kak Hana from her quandary, took Mat and I into her home and, goodness me, even asked Kak Hana to set Chot and me up. In spite of her acerbic tongue, she really had our best interests at heart.
To Chik Rabiah, Chot was Mr Perfect. A Dream Husband. He might not have come from a high-class family but he was brainy enough to get a scholarship to study Accountancy in the UK. Just like Abang Shid. Hmm … just the mention of his name filled me with shame and regret. Little did Chik Rabiah or anyone else, at that time, suspected that Abang Shid and I had our own Little Secret. Oh, how I hated myself for having to sneak around with my own sister’s husband! But she was the one who two-timed him in the first place.
“Do you think I’m a fool to believe that those frequent visits to JB are to see your Baba?”
Abang Shid said one evening after I’ve tucked Rara to bed.
“What are they for … then? With Nana as chaperone and all!”
I wondered aloud, both perplexed and bewildered, and at the same time annoyed that he should question my sister’s fidelity.
“You knew about her old flame, Husni, didn’t you?”
His voice ruffled in the stillness of the night.
Rara turned in her sleep. I put my index finger on my mouth, as a reflex.
“I was eleven then …” I stuttered.
“But old enough to know about the birds and the bees. No?” he insisted. His gaze was sharp and intense. There was pain in his eyes.
“Yes … I guess … over the years … I did put two and two together …” my voice tailed off as my throat tightened. I felt suffocated by the tense atmosphere in the bedroom.
My head started to plead. Please don’t drag me into your marital spat. I’m only seventeen. I wouldn’t know what goes on in the mind of my twenty-five year old sister. Leave me out of this. I just want to earn some pocket money for my typing class in January.
But his breath was hot on my neck. My hair stood on ends. And I felt a strange, sensual awakening deep inside me. That irresistible arousal that seared like a flame within the inner recesses of the heroines in Denise Robbins’s torrid romance novels.
Oh! I wish I hadn’t allowed compassion and vulnerability get the better of me!
But what’s done is done. It cannot be undone. No amount of blame and shame and remorse could redeem me as the Traitor and Home-Wrecker. I had to bear the brunt of the fall-out while Abang Shid got away with a light slap on his wrist. He was, after all, a man. And a man was supposed to be weak in the face of temptation. Hogwash!!
Never mind that he had used me when Kak Hana rekindled her affair with her old flame in JB. Never mind that he had promised to marry me and have his baby in London. Never mind that Kak Hana only came back to cut her losses. She must have figured out that a bird in hand is better than one in Someone Else’s Bush. And, suddenly, Abang Shid was the Helpless Husband who fell into the clutches of the Temptress. Me!!
God only knew how I survived those Dark Days After the Scandal was discovered. If it hadn’t been for Anne Danker’s family, I would have just walked up Bukit Gasing and hurled myself down. Everyone, everyone … Ummi, Chik Rabiah too, cursed me for being the Scourge that brought problems to a Happy Marriage.
“All marriages have their ups and downs. Do you have to be the Third Person to drive a wedge between your sister and brother-in-law?”
Ummi reprimanded me. That was rich … coming from a woman who abandoned her husband and children for a younger, richer foreigner!
“You should have gotten them to reconcile. Instead, you dreamt of taking her place. With all the men in this world that you could’ve an affair with, you had to steal your own sister’s husband!”
Chik Rabiah was outraged. But, of course, her loyalty was with them. They were the embodiment of family stability – responsible husband, trophy wife, animated child. They would be the ones that she could fall back on during hard times. How could I, an unemployed eighteen-year old, be of help to her and her daughter?
I swallowed the bitter pill. Betty helped me to pack my bags and walked me to the Dankers’ single-story terrace house, across the street from the block behind hers. Anne had found me a job as a telephone operator at Jaya Puri which helped pay for room, bus fare, meals and off-the-peg office attire from Lin Ho.
When I had some extra from my third month’s salary, I took Betty to shop at Petaling Street to pick up some cheap bargains – long suede pants, long-sleeve knit top, fake leather fringe bolero, denim bell bottoms and an African Dashiki Poncho. I bought myself an orange floral chiffon see-through blouse, a purple satin studded hot pants, sheer-sucker bare-back tops and Girl Biker faux leather skirts.
“I saw you reading about the Red Indians and the Negroes in America, so I guess you’d want to dress like them. Though these aren’t real suede and leather lah!”
“They’re not Red Indians and Negroes! They’re Native Americans and Blacks, Sherry,” Betty corrected me. “But it’s really kind of you to buy me all these clothes when you could’ve just spent it all on yourself.”
In the mornings, while I waited for Bas Jalan Barat to work, I got to know Nuwal who lived two streets behind. She was constantly sucking on sour plums that I gave her a secret nickname, Budak Asamboi. The Sour Plum Girl then introduced me to her next-door neighbors - the JB Sisters – Nona, Dona, Noni, Hani, Nani and Pon, and the Kuantan Sisters - Mawar and Lis. They were The Party Girls of Jalan 17/2.
Jalan 17/2 was one funky street. It’s motto, at that time, was "Let's Party". Mawar’s and Lis’ mother was a childhood friend of Nuwal’s mother. They were school teachers who invited ‘business-minded’ housewives like the JB Sisters’ mother to their Tuppaware Party on Sunday afternoons and talked about opportunities to earn pocket money by selling colorful plastic containers, Holiday Magic cosmetics and Corning Ware dinner sets.
But it wasn’t all work and business. On Saturday nights, they were out wining and dining at Officers’ Functions or boozing and dancing at the Army Messes. Che’Gu Timah and Che’Gu Rose … they were modern and open-minded mums … not frumpy and prudish like Chik Rabiah. They let their daughters invite friends to Dark and Smoky House Parties where Chik Rabiah would show up, screeching and dragging Betty away. Poor Betty! What luck to have a mother like that! She’d never learn to dance or have boyfriends. She’d never grow up to be part of the Young, Swinging Couples like Abang Shid and Kak Hana who danced the nights away at Dazzling Discos in KL, JB and Singapore. She’d forever be their kids’ baby-sitter.
The Asamboi Girl, Mawar and Lis and the JB Sisters … they all had groovy boyfriends who were musicians or Band Boys. There was this band that they were mad about … The Jay Be Blues. Those boys lived above the motorcycle shop by the roundabout up the hill. It was at one of their Blues Parties that I met their singer, Joe Blues.
Joe Blues’ Favorite Number was Yellow River by this UK group called Christie and he taught me to do the Bump and the Hustle. He took me to Sunday tea dances at The Cellar, and when he was ‘loaded’, to discotheques at the Glass Bubble, Time Tunnel, Tomorrow, The Cave and Tin Mine. I loved moving my body the dance floor. It made me forget about Baba’s illness, Ummi’s selfishness, Kak Hana’s falseness, Abang Shid’s betrayal.
But being Joe’s Steady Girlfriend stifled me. Whenever we weren’t dancing, he’d want to neck. So, I would persuade Betty to go out with us whenever Chik Rabiah was away in Kuantan or Singapore. Anyways, that girl need to get out of that musty flat and learn to be a Groovy Chick.
But Mat confronted us at the stairs one night and told me to leave her alone.
“She’s too young to be taught the Facts of Life. If you want to be a Wild Party Girl, that’s your choice. Don’t be a bad influence on other people’s daughter!”
Wow! That was rich of him to preach to me like that. Like he was an Ustaz or sumthin’. Betty told me that she had seen him burning and sniffing some white stuff in the back room. But she was afraid that her mother would freak out if she were to tell her. Sure, he’d want her to stay home. Like Kak Hana, he’d just want her to remain Dek Gemok, Fat Lil Sis, the family helper who washed and ironed his clothes, cooked his Maggi Mee and made his coffee when he came home from jammin’ at 3 o’clock in the mornin’.
Betty deserved better than that. She deserved to have her own life. To meet other young people and have fun. To dance away her loneliness at tea dances and trendy discos.
The Fat Fly on the Wall
In the dim lights, I watched the round studded chandelier whirled, casting mosaic bits of white light, and the music from the band boomed from the dance floor.
To be really honest, I was content to let Sherry be the Life of the Party and the Undisputed Dancing Queen. There was never competition any between us. And there will never be. I accepted her as an outgoing, fun loving person. And Sherry regarded me as a bookworm who needed to get out of my shell.
I smiled as I gazed at Sherry’s tan, slender limbs shimmer under her see-through orange chiffon blouse and her purple satin studded hot pants. It didn’t matter how many plates of fried kuetiau she consumed, she’d still be slim and trim.
I pulled my long-sleeve, cheese-cloth jacket over my black five ringgit halter top to hide my burgeoning bulges. I leaned against the wall, crossed my arms and my legs. My red clogs peeked under my flared, matching Oxford pants. If only I could shed some pounds!
Mak had made a big deal of me wearing halter and crisscross tops that I never leave home without a jacket. She mocked at me when I had my faux leather Midi skirt on.
“Are you going to expose your Toilet Post Legs to the whole world?”
And Sherry’s brother, Mat Flat who fancied he was Jimi Hendrix, had mercilessly teased me about my short hair, round face, thick glasses and excess weight. He had merrily called me Dek Gemok.
He was lucky not to pile up the pounds. Perhaps that was why he took that white stuff. To keep his weight down? I wondered.
Under the flabs and folds, I consoled myself, It’s safer to be Bessy Bunter. To be left alone in dark corners than to have boys ask me to dance. What next after that? Out on dates that’d got me into a hot soup when Mak’s home.”
Anyways, there are tons of Slim and Sexy Girls around. They were all eager to dance and be out on dates. No boy gave me a second glance, let alone ask me for a dance.
Imagine if they had asked? I mean, the Fast Numbers were alright. It was the Slow Numbers that scared the beejeebers out of me. When Boys pressed their bodies hard against Girls and Girls played dumb and endured it. Or the witty ones would crack a joke, sumthin’ like Mae West’s famous one-liner, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Eeuw!!
At every house party, tea dance or disco, they would play this favorite Slow Dance Number … Whiter Shade of Pale by this band with a strange name … Procol Harum. They said that it was named after a pedigree cat. But it evoked anything but pedigree behavior. I had seen too many flushed faces glued to each other, their eyes heavy in lust, the bodies pressed hard against each other while they inched to its sluggish refrain. No, I didn’t see couples swept to “the safe shores like Vestal Virgins”. More like drowned by its melancholy. Even more shameless and suggestive was that sexy French number, Je ‘taime.