Thursday, September 3, 2015

Saint's Hill

Sultan Abdul Samad (Centre), Datuk Tunku / Tengku Raja Rahman (Left) Datuk Raja Ali (Right) 

Location: The Shrine of Datuk Gong in Klang, Selangor 
Source: Hangpcdua Malaya

KL, December ‘65
Bet feels like she’s been guarding her luggage for ages before she catches sight of a kuning langsat nymphet fluttering in through the haloed entrance (or is it the arched exit of the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station?) like a capricious illusion created by the morning mist.
The yellow-skinned young lady looks around the station platform and waves frantically as soon as she sees Mak making half-circles around their bags and boxes. The mother and daughter sentinels frown and blink. And frown and blink.
It’s hard to reconcile the image of this pretty lass in her black, shiny, tight sarong which splits in the center up to her light knee caps and her soft, pink chiffon blouse which ends just above the V-shaped creases which follows the shape of her now trim tummy with the picture of the wretched, pregnant teen in a drab, grey sack of a baju kurung when they first saw her on that white iron-wrought, garden swing at the Home for Wayward Girls on Jalan Rimau.
Like a Sergeant in an Army drill, Mak right elbow jerks up and jabs into Bet’s bony collar bone. Bet almost loses her balance and quickly checks her reflex to thwack her mother’s elbow. She marches straight towards Kak Hana, who deftly twists the wing tips of her black, shiny stilettos to make her way towards them.
Yes … it’s Kak Hana alright!
Now that Bet has adjusted her blurred lens to focus and register the present, and pleasant, image of this 20 year old damsel in control (she was 19 in ‘December ’64, she must be 20 now that it’s a year later), she quickens her steps lest this help-line might think she’s mesom, or ungrateful. She stops abruptly and stands at attention in front of Kak Hana, bends and grabs her slender, tapered fingers and brushes them gently against her button nose.             
“How was your train ride? Was it fun or horrible?”
The fair maiden finds this brown child’s awkwardness amusing and puts her right hand on her shoulder like a Real Big Sister who’s sincerely concerned.
“Parts of it were fun. Parts of it were horrible,” Bet says stiffly, trying to forget Mak’s endless prattle about Bapak, his friends and family all the way from Tanjong Pagar to Kuala Lumpur.
“Rides on night trains do drag on and on, don’t they? You can’t sleep and yet you can’t see the scenery outside!”
She seems to go along although she has no idea of ‘the horrible parts’ of Bet’s journey on the night train. Bet smiles bashfully and nods her round head like the mechanical, ceramic doll in a Chinese opera. To her surprise, the young woman grasps and holds on to her hand while they weave their way through the thinning crowd towards Mak by their bags and boxes.
Apa khabar, Mak Chik? How are you, Aunty?”
Kak Hana greets Mak with a wide smile that shows her two canine teeth, like Japanese melon seeds on both sides of her stained pink mouth, and three fine wrinkles which fanned off where her curled eye liner ends. She drops Bet’s right hand suddenly and swiftly picks up Mak’s and brushes it against her aquiline nose.        
Syukur … we survived the long journey in one piece!”
Mak replies with a histrionic raising of both her palms to thank Allah for our safe arrival.
Syukur that you both arrived safe and sound!”
Kak Hana clips Mak’s flourishes neatly and latches her sight on to a passing porter.
“Let’s get someone to carry your suitcases and stuff to the taxi stand outside!”
She raises and snaps her fingers to catch the attention of the burly Indian man in a khaki uniform that’s almost bursting at its seams. The porter freeze on the spot and his frog eyes glaze over at the sight of this charming young lady before him.
Ayya, kasi angkat beg-beg dengan barang-barang pergi taxi stand!”
Kak Hana commands him in her lilting voice.
Iya, Che’, iya!!”       
The dark, shiny face nods, black eyes swimming with desire and full lips dribbling with saliva at the wondrous sight and sound before him. 
“Wait!” Mak stops him at half-stoop. “I’ve to say goodbye to that young man first!”
In the excitement of sighting the new, improved Kak Hana, Mak has forgotten about the lean, bespectacled youth who is still sitting patiently like a dried kelp in shirt and pants, and his slightly bulging eyes taking in the exchanges between mother, daughter and the pretty stranger from a wooden bench nearby. As soon as Mak notices his presence again, he rises and plants both his feet firmly on the cement floor to keep his concave spine from curving back like a coconut husk.
Terima kasihlah, ‘nak, angkatkan barang-barang dari keretapi … lepas ‘tu tunggu pulak sampai Hana sampai,” Mak thanks him profusely for carrying our stuff from the train and waiting ‘til our ‘host’ arrives.
Sama-sama, Mak Chik, bukan berat sangat pun. Lagipun, kolet saya tengah cuti, jadi takde nak tergesa-gesa ke mana-mana,” he replies, lying politely about the weight of our bags and boxes and probably telling the truth about being on college leave and not rushing anywhere.
Marilah kita sama-sama pergi taxi stand!”
Mak invites him to be part of our cozy team, and suddenly remembering something, she utters,
Eh, eh, lupa pulak! Ini Hana, anak angkat Mak Chik kat Kuala Lumpur. Oh, iya, apa nama anak ‘ni?”
In one flippant sentence, Mak announces Kak Hana as her adopted daughter (which makes her Bet’s adopted sister) and finally remembers to ask the young man his name.
Saya Rashid. Apa khabar, Hana?”
He introduces himself and extends his right hand to Kak Hana. The young lady graciously takes his hand in hers and rewards him with her twinkly, Japanese melon-seed smile.
She echoes Mak’s invitation to Rashid and all four of them troop after the portly porter. Kak Hana and ‘Abang’ Rashid in the second row, Mak and Bet in the third. Confident and awkward, confident and awkward.
Once they reach the taxi stand outside, Kak Hana turns to Abang Rashid, looks at him coyly and says, “We’re going to Kampong Datok Keramat. Which way are you heading?”
“I’m … I’m going back to my home at Guillemard Road. It’s … it’s close to the Parliament House,” he stutters.
 “Well, that’s the opposite direction! I guess we’ll have to hop on separate cabs. Why don’t you give Mak Chik Rabiah your home address and telephone number so she can visit or call you sometimes?”
Kak Hana gently commands the nervous young man, who couldn’t be that much older than her but somehow less adept in social skills.
“Yes, yes, of course!”
Abang Shid takes out a pink ‘555’ notebook from the back pocket of his slim, sharkskin trousers and scribble his home address and telephone numbers with a Parker pen from the top, right-hand pocket of his gauze, checked shirt. He almost hands the piece of paper to Kak Hana before he checks himself and shoves it into Mak’s opened palm.
Bila senang, telefon … jemput datang ke rumah ya, Mak Chik!”
He mumbles his invitation to Mak like an awkward teenager. He waits for Kak Hana, Mak and Bet to board the black and yellow city cab and half-waves when they turn their heads once they are settled in the vehicle.

Kak Hana sits in the front next to the driver. Mak and Bet plop onto the back seat. Kak Hana says to the driver: 
“Take us to Lorong Keramat 2!”
He nods, turns and glances admiringly at her beauty. Both eyes on the road in front of him now, he presses the pedal, revs up the car engine, releases the hand brake and steers his jittery taxi out of the slip road. He pauses awhile at the bus station, waiting for the traffic on the right to clear before making a U-turn at the roundabout to the opposite side of the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.
Bet looks at the drab, grey administrative building on her left and feels sorry that it has to do all the invisible work and stare at the bright open-faced orange brick station across the road which does nothing but look pretty and greet all the travelers, their send-off and welcoming parties.
A two-lane street going up a hill separates it from its spanking new concrete-cladded neighbor with her stylish, white, opened umbrella roof in place of the frumpy, black onion domes.   
Well, trust Mak to blurt out what’s on Bet’s mind:
“The train station and this other building have domes and arches but this new mosque has square terraces and sharp-edged umbrella roofs!”    
The taxi driver laughs at Mak’s offhand description and replies in the tone of an adult host:
“Yes, Mak Chik, the new Masjid Negara is different from those two old colonial buildings. Its design and construction was specially supervised by our Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.”
Mak looks glum when she hears Tunku’s name. It must have reminded her of his spur-of-the-moment decision to cut Singapore off from Malaysia less than four months ago. She often blames him for causing her to uproot and seeking an unknown future with Bet here in Kuala Lumpur.    
A sense of dread spread through the vehicle as the cab rattles along the main road, past red roofs on pink colonial buildings up a distant slope and a nice-looking bungalow on a steep hill before it enters an underpass. Once out of the short, dimly-lit tunnel, the driver must have thought that it’s his duty to chase away the dreariness and point his passengers to the city’s landmarks.
“These blocks of tall, white building with the blue blinds on our left here, Mak Chik, is the Federal House,” he says as he twists his chapped, blotchy lips to the left as the traffic light several cars up at the end of the road turns red.
Kak Hana turns her head slightly to her right, looks at Bet and chips in, “Yes, that’s where you’ll find studios where they produce programs for Radio Television Malaysia. You know, all the drama series and entertainment shows!”
Bet turns her attention from a Moorish-design structure and the bustling scene on the other side and smiles politely at Kak Hana. Another Moorish-design building stands at the corner by the traffic light on the left. Bet observes Kak Hana watching people crossing the lanes to an open lawn with old English-style bungalows tucked away at the edge of the big, lush green field. Flags flap proudly in the morning breeze from the tall flag poles standing firmly on the front lawn. Flecks of bold blue, slivers of a yellow sickle moon and sharp tips of the flaring orb, folds of red and white stripes flutter against the bright blue sky next to flashes of red and yellow rectangles, white crescent and five-cornered star.            
“The Selangor Padang is where we raise the Malaysian flag on the eve of Merdeka Day, Mak Chik,” the cab driver quickly licks his dry, cracked lips before he resumes his commentary on the sights before them.
“Oh … Singapore celebrates its National Day in front of the Victoria Memorial Hall,” Mak sniffs in a snooty way as the taxi stops at the next traffic light after the Padang.
“Yes, Singapore may be small but its celebrations are usually on a grand scale!” Kak Hana adds, turning her nose up at memories of National Day celebrations in Johor Baru.
The taxi driver blinks as he tries to imagine the festivities in Singapore. Surely, that tiny island at the end of the Peninsular can’t beat Kuala Lumpur with our Agong saluting the Merdeka parade led by Polis DiRaja and Angkatan Tentera?
He jerks his head, as if swatting an invisible fly, and diverts his attention to the rows of shops on both sides of the road. Most are still asleep behind thick bamboo blinds on the lower floor and wooden shutters on the upper floors early that Sunday morning.
“Mak Chik, this is Batu Road, where KL folks go shopping!” He chirps happily, shaking off the stale air in his hired car.
Mak’s and Bet’s ears perk up at the word ‘KL’. Ah so! They mentally jot down the short form folks in Kuala Lumpur use for their capital city.
Ah ah, Chik Rabiah, this is KL’s High Street where you find Globe Silk Store and Chortimall!” Kak Hana’s face brightens up at the thought of shopping sprees, picking up new fabrics for tight sarongs, matching kebayas, ready-made dresses, skirts, slacks and jerseys.
“But surely they can’t beat Geylang Emporium and C.K. Tang,” Mak says, stubbornly loyal to famous shopping haunts ‘back home’.
“Of course lah … but the choices are not bad,” Kak Hana agrees, yet gives her own piece of mind. 
Bet silently notes that this is the third set of traffic lights that the taxi stops at after the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. A grey, square building squats at the right-hand corner of the intersection between Batu Road and Campbell Road. The word ‘ODEON’ tumbles down from the top to the bottom of its side panel. What a dull color for a cinema hall, she muses. 
Eh eh .. itu ke panggung Odeon kat KL ‘ni?” Mak asks as she taps Kak Hana’s shoulders, throwing tact and diplomacy out the window.
Ah ah, Chik Rabiah. Taklah grand macam panggung wayang kat Singapura,” Kak Hana seems to agree whole-heartedly with Mak this time.
The taxi driver looks at the young lady on his left and the middle-aged woman at the back seat, forms some words at the tip of his tongue but decides to swallow them back. He keeps his eyes on the road, deep in his own private thoughts.
Campbell Road veers left into Jalan Hale, Bet observes quietly. Rows of concrete shop houses make way for quaint kampong houses, making her yearn for their old home at 38, Jalan Damai.
The taxi driver decides it’s a good time to break the uneasy silence in his vehicle, and says with a silly guffaw, “Mak Chik, kalau nak tau … inilah Kampong Baru, tempat hantu Che’ Yah Sha’ari merayau!”
Kak Hana shudders at this bit of ghost story but Mak’s curiousity gets the better of her.
Che Yah Sha’ari ‘tu siapa? Kenapa hantu dia merayau? Who is Che’ Yah Sha’ari? Why does her ghost wander around?”
“People say she practiced black magic when she was alive and didn’t have the time to pass it on to someone else before she died, so her spirit is still looking for somebody willing to take over,” he says, looking at Mak from the corner of his eyes and feeling smug that Mak cannot dismiss his account of the Ghost of Che’ Yah Sha’ari. Kak Hana shivers visibly on hearing this.
Oh …kalau macam ‘tu takut jugak eh nak jalan malam-malam kat Kampong Baru ‘ni!” Mak sums up the situation.    
“It’s best not to walk alone in this part of the kampong at night, if you’re afraid. But further up at Jalan Perkins, crowds of people are moving around like worms when the Pasar Minggu is on that the Ghost wouldn’t even go near there,” he jokes.
(Now, the Malays follow the Arabic system of calculating the onset of each day at dusk, so the Pasar Minggu, or Sunday Night Market would actually be Saturday Night Market according to the Western calendar.)
“Oh, even the Ghost is afraid of crowds, eh?” Mak asks, trying to ease Kak Hana’s obvious fear of wandering spirits.
“Of course lah, Mak Chik, even ghosts don’t want to be rubbed the wrong way by strange men along the Jambatan Gesel!”
A’ah, iya tak iya jugak! You bet! Just where is this Rubbing Bridge? In the middle of Pasar Minggu?” Mak insists on knowing.
“It’s over a small stream that divides Jalan Perkins from Jalan Chow Kit. Once you’ve settled in Datok Keramat, you should go to the Pasar Minggu Kampong Baru. You can find the best Nasi Padang in KL there!”
Mak’s saliva rushes up to gather at the tip of her tongue when she hears of the white rice with its variety of gravies – Rendang, Dendeng, Berlado, Masak Lomak – that the Minang people are experts in serving.
“Oh … how long has this Pasar Minggu been on Jalan Perkins?”
“Quite some time now … but I heard that it’ll only be officially opened by the P.M. sometime in the middle of next year,” says the cab driver, proud of his knowledge of local news.
“The Pee Em?” Mak queries.
“The Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman lah, Mak Chik,” the driver laughs.
“Oh … your Pee Em seems to have all the time to look into many things, iya?” Mak asks, with a hint of sarcasm. She’s still singed by Tunku Abdul Rahman’s unexpected decision to kick Singapore out of Malaysia while on medical leave in London four short months ago.
“Surely lah, Mak Chik. He has the welfare of Malay traders close at heart. He wants them to succeed like Chinese towkays!” The cab driver feels it’s his duty to defend the top most leader of his country.
Iya lah … but the Chinese towkays own tin mines, rubber estates and factories. Got ah any Malay rich man owning all those?” Mak suddenly snipes at the poor driver.
Kak Hana fidgets slightly and arches her right eye brow. She seems amused yet embarrassed by Mak’s question.
“Now not yet lah, Mak Chik. But, who knows, God Willing in ten, twenty years?” Says the driver, full of hope.    
Suddenly realizing that she’s picking on an easy target, Mak says, “Iya tak iya jugak … Who are we to say if Allah wills it, kan?”  
Kak Hana’s right eye brow falls back in place and she smiles broadly as she looks out the car window on her left. The temperature in the rickety vehicle is back to normal. Bet breathes out slowly. At the next traffic lights, the cab turns right into Princess Road. Along the road before the next intersection, Bet sees some charming single and double story bungalows at the end of long driveways which curves through well-kept lawns and neat, bricked-in circles and semi-circles of short, grass turfs. Seeing his passengers quietly admiring the nice bungalow houses arranged on their left, the taxi driver comments on this picture perfect scenery.
Mak Chik, adik-adik … in case you don’t know yet, that nice double-story bungalow house at the corner is the official residence of Dato’ Haron Idris, the Selangor Chief Minister. And, in case you don’t know too, his wife, Datin Salmah, is originally from Singapore,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, certain that he’ll be in Mak’s good books for that last bit of news.
Oh … iya ke?” Mak looks at the driver keenly now that he tells her that even the top-most leader in the state has the good sense of choosing a Singaporean as his wife.
“That’s what I heard people say lah,” the man at the steering wheel says good-naturedly.  
Mak decides she should be nice to the poor chap, so she says,
“What’s the name of this long road that cuts across Kampong Baru?”
“Oh … that’s Circular Road. It’s the longest road in KL, Mak Chik, spanning all the way from Jalan Pahang to Jalan Sungei Besi. After this traffic lights Jalan Gurney, Jalan Padang Tembak and Jalan Keramat.”
“So, we’ll be reaching Kampong Datok Keramat in a few minutes then?” Mak asks eagerly.
“Looks like it, Chik Rabiah, since the roads here are usually clear on Sunday mornings,” Kak Hana chips in.
After the taxi crosses Circular Road into Jalan Gurney, it speeds by a school field and a few big, orange-brick bungalows reminiscent of the ones at Katong. Then it veers right into a winding lane with more modern bungalows on both sides before turning left where half-concrete, half-wooden houses stick out like sore thumbs among rows of Malay stage-houses.
Bet wonders if this kampong has a shrine of the Grand Saint that it’s named after, with yellow satin curtains and velvet green covers like Keramat Habib Noh on that solitary hill on East Coast Road. But she doesn’t see any sign boards or markers indicating a shrine or a tomb like that of Raden Mas’ on the edge of another hill which looks out to a healing stream. 
The driver turns to Kak Hana and asks, “Lorong Keramat Dua, kan?”
Iya!” Kak Hana assures him.
He slows down, winds down the car window and waves his right hand out. Once he sees no cars coming from the front, he quickly drives across into a short, narrow, gravel lane that divides some wooden houses partly-hidden by some fruit trees.
“Oh, finally!” He says, assured that he’s going to drop his three passengers safe and sound.
He presses on the brake pedal and pulls up the hand brake by the side of the wooden stage house. There is a half-concrete, half-wooden extension at the back. A small, thin lady in long kebaya and batik sarong looks out of the open window and smiles. Kak Hana flashes her Japanese melon-seed smile, deftly opens her door and swivels her way out of the front seat. Once she’s upright, she dips her right hand into her dark pink, half-moon mengkuang woven handbag and takes out some notes from a shiny, black plastic purse.
Seeing that, Mak scrambles to open her door and get out of the back seat. Bet presses the lever to open her door and almost jumps out of her seat to rush to her mother’s side before she gets a telling-off.
Alah, Hana! Let me pay for the taxi fare,” Mak waves to let Kak Hana know that she has enough cash to pay for their cab ride.  
“It’s alright, Chik Rabiah. I’ll pay. You need money for rent deposit and God-knows-what-else!” Kak Hana insists.
Mak gives in. Much as she hates owing people favors, she knows when she’s licked.
The taxi driver happily tucks the currency notes into his cloth wallet. He hums as he opens the car boot and carries their bags and boxes to the bottom of the stone steps that lead up to the sitting room.  
The landlady opens the front door and invites them in. On the low, oval table in the center of the rattan settee is an enamel tray with a light green porcelain serving plate with neatly stacked banana fritters, a light green porcelain coffee pot and four light green porcelain cups placed mouth-down on their round saucers.
They sit around the coffee table, nibble at the banana fritters quickly before they get cold and limp, sip the black coffee that’s also getting cold, make small talk about the train ride from Tanjong Pagar to KL, the Ghost of Che’ Yah Sha’ari, the Jambatan Gesel at the Sunday Night Market on Jalan Perkins and the nearest wet market at Kampong Datok Keramat before Mak finally notices tiny red squiggles running all over the washed-out white of Bet’s eyes like cacing kerawit.
“We better make a move. This girl’s eyes look like tiny worms are swimming in them!”  
Kak Hana picks the cue and dips the tips of her fingers in the finger bowl before dabbing it dry with the hand towel provided. Mak digs for the envelope with the room deposit out of her handbag and hands it over to the lean lady in kebaya.
Terima kasihlah, Kak Rabiah. Here are your room keys. You and your daughter must be tired from the long journey and need a really good rest,” says the wisp of a landlady.
Sama-samalah, Che’ Mah. Ah ah, the sun is already high. We really should get out of yesterday’s clothes and wash off this revolting smell from the whole night-long train ride.”  
Bet trails Mak and Kak Hana down the grey, concrete steps like a shadow, buckle up her shoes when they slip into their sandals, pick up her suitcase, leaving the boxes to be picked up later and make their way to the back extension. There are four pale yellow doors and Mak stops at the third from the front or second last from the end. Her mother turns the key and it opens to a light brown linoleum-covered floor of the sitting room which will double up as sleeping and dining area. In the middle of the room, a new mattress with a tan cover, double the size of her old kapok with the green cover in Jalan Damai, lay carelessly on a light yellow pandan mat.
If I could only crash on to the tilam and sink my head into the pillows and cover my eyes with that blanket!
As Mak and Kak Hana put down the big bag and box behind the half-opened door, Bet carefully slide her suitcase by the side of the wall right under the glass shutters. A second later, she’s sitting on the floor, pressing her skinny buttocks and soles flat, bending her knees to quickly unbuckle her t-panel leather shoes (Kak Hana calls them Mary Janes but they’re too boyish to be called that) and setting her feet free of her only pair of nylon socks with lace trimmings.
“Oooh …”
It’s such a soothing feeling to let the cool air flow in between the spaces of her spread out toes. The breeze gently envelops and coaxes them back into their original puffy shapes while it sweeps away whatever traces of hot sticky sweat that lingers.
Wah! Bukan main lagi budak ‘ni! No time to relax yet, girl. Get up, look for your new Japanese slippers and help carry your box of precious books from under Chik Mah’s front steps!”
Mak’s voice cuts short her breather. Bet quickly flips onto her knees to unclasp the metal latches and retrieve the clear plastic bag with her new rubber slippers at the corner of the gartered pouch bursting with singlet and undergarments. The tip of her index finger nail tears as she struggles with the tightly wound rubber band that strangles the neck of the plastic bag. A short, tiny line of blood seeps slowly into the fleshy part. She looks away and licks the clear, dry crust on her upper lip and sinks her front teeth to bite into the unyielding red rubber band.
“Eeuw … this taste awful!”
She mutters under her breath and swallows her bitter spit. She turns her face to make sure that her mother and her ‘adopted’ sister are busy unbuckling the belts around Mak’s suitcase and untying the raffia strings around the big box of kitchen utensils. She grinds her incisors onto the outer strands of the band, pictures Gnasher the Dog in her head and bites fiercely until the rubber threads snap and break.
She whispers to herself and pulls the slippers out of the plastic bag. Putting them side by side so it’s easy to slide her feet into them, she clambers up and puts them on. Mak stops untangling the raffia strings, turns her head and asks Bet to straighten her new leather shoes next to her suitcase. Kak Hana turns sideways to look at Mak through a curtain of shiny black hair. She wants to say something to Mak but decides not to.
“You don’t want leave your only pair of good shoes lying around for some bajingan to steal them, do you? And throw that smelly socks into a pail in the bathroom. Don’t be tucking it into your shoes again!”
“I’ll do that soon as I carry my box of books in, Mak!”
Bet dashes out the door before Mak could delay her rescue mission of her precious reading materials. Kak Hana uses that opportunity to straighten herself up and moves towards the glass shutters. She must be feeling suffocated in her tight sarong by now and is dire need of some fresh air. The levers screech, meekly protesting the pressure of her yellow fingers.
When Bet is back at the door, heaving and panting with her box between her skinny arms, the mid-morning sun’s rays are already streaming through the shutters and onto the floor and the dust modes are dancing and chasing the stale air to the back of the unit. Kak Hana smiles as she lightly taps on the dust which gathers around the tight spool of curtain wire.
“Chik Rabiah, I’ll help clean the window frames and shutters once you get hold of a rag. And you need a thick curtain to block the morning sun out.”
Ya, ya. I’ll look for an old cloth to turn into a rag. And I’ve some curtain panels somewhere in my suitcase. Or is it in yours, Bet?”
Bet tries to recall as she struggles to crouch and place the heavy box on to the floor.
“I don’t remember, Mak.”
Apa aje yang kau ingat? Just what do you remember?” Mak chastises her.
Seeing her cringe, Kak Hana saunters over to the door at the end of the all-purpose room and gingerly lifts and slides the squeaky latch, careful not to break a nail or smear a finger with dust, or (horrors!) grime, and gently pushes the kitchen door. She turns to her right and disappears behind the room partition made of coated sawdust.
Still crouching over the heavy box, trying to catch her breath and reeling from Mak’s reprimand, Bet could only see the path to the back door. She helps herself up by pushing her palms down the sides of the box, remembers to pick up her socks before she walks over to the kitchen and look for the bathroom.
Kak Hana bends slight forward to slide the window latch up to catch a view of the backyard. Even with her leaning towards the windows, Bet has to turn sideways and say, “Excuse me, sister!” to get to the bathroom at the end of the narrow aisle. There’s just enough room for two persons to rest on their haunches - Mak to boil, steam or fry fish and simmer vegetables over the kerosene stove, and she to wash the bowls, pots and pans in the built-up area.
Before the shower curtains, stands the common fixture in most kitchens or bathrooms - the tempayan with the fierce Naga with its bulging eyes and long whiskers. Later, she’d have to rinse the heavy, porcelain vessel of mosquito larvae before storing up water for cooking and washing utensils. Bet tells herself that she must avoid brushing against Mak’s backside at all costs and irritating her mother whenever she’s in the kitchen or on her way to the bathroom.
The green shower curtain separates the tiny kitchen from an even tinier bath room. When she draws the plastic partition, she sees a red round basin with an orange rubber hose which coils down from a copper tap. On the far right corner is a blue plastic pail for soaking soiled laundry. She throws her socks into the blue pail and notes that there’s no flush-type or squat latrine pit.
“Looks like I have ‘to do my business’ over the black bucket at the outhouse by the bushes at the end of the lane,” she mutters under her breath.
It’s not that far really, just a unit away. Still, she wishes they have a private toilet to themselves. She turns on the tap, pulls the rubber hose out of the red basin and washes the smell of her socks from her hands. Then, she washes her feet. Aahh … at least the water from the pipe is cool and refreshing. She feels like pulling her dress over her head and takes her shower there and then. But she has to retrieve her towel from her suitcase first. 

Kak Hana waves her right hand in mid-air and stops Bet in her track. She’s leaning against the opened door and standing by the threshold, propping her other hand over her forehead and peering through the tall lallangs that grow wild by the banks of a gurgling brook ‘til her big brown eyes look like tiny black slits.
“Look at how clear the water is in spite of the showers last night. They should cut the lallang so people could see the stream!”
Bet shuffles towards the threshold and scans the landscape for the brook.
“Yes, yes. They should!”
She exclaims once she spots the clear water in between the tall reeds, though not sure who ‘they’ are that Kak Hana is referring to.    
Looking directly beneath her, she sees clear rivulets of last night’s rain rushing through the moss-sprinkled, shallow drain by the kitchen. Beyond the jagged edges of the drain is an unkempt hedge marking the boundary of Che’ Mah’s compound. Its tentacles almost claw at the tall, wild lallang which encroaches into the elbow of the clear stream. Snug within the stream’s arms, a narrow grassy bank juts out from the school yard with its big football field which dominates the compound and edges the all-purpose cemented court and the standard three-story building which houses the office, teachers’ lounge and classrooms to the right margin.
In between the tiny, red bursts of petals and green sprigs of leaves of the flame of the forest that line the fringes of the school compound, a thin, metallic strip – an asphalt road – peeks through. An acrid smell of rotten fruits and vegetables, pickled and dried fish, anchovies and prawns whiffs through the late morning air from what must be a big, wet market hogging the side of the road.

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