|Proposed mock-up cover|
Updated, January 6th 2016
December 2 1976
It’s exactly 11 years today since Mak and I moved to KL. A lot of water have flowed into the Muddy Confluence since then. We’re now Permanent Residents, though not full citizens yet. We acquired our Red ICs, those clear plastic identity cards with hideous black and white photos of us, more than two years ago. With that, I was entitled to 45 ringgit scholarship while I was a Sixth Former at Samad, short for Sultan Abdul Samad Secondary School.
Although I was among the top 10 students (number six, actually) in the mid-year examinations, somehow I blew it for the actual HSC, Higher School Certificate, exams in November ’75. It confounded me no end how that could have happened. Had it been that excruciating toothache just the day before? Or Kak Hana’s kids screaming and knocking down my door when I tried to concentrate? Did I spot the wrong questions? Or was there a mix-up with another candidate’s results?
My English literature teacher said that I could request for a query. That would cost me a 100 ringgit. And I didn't have the money for that. I was shattered that my name wasn’t on the list pinned on the school’s bulletin board. My old classmates --- Zee, Nah, Non, Lorraine, Yap … they were all laughing and crying and hugging each other as I walked all the way to Kak Hana’s house in SEA Park. I was afraid to break the news to Mak. She had had high hopes. And I had crushed them.
Kak Hana let me sit on her patio for hours until I gathered the strength to face Mak. It was odd that she didn’t sit and talk to me. I thought I saw a glint in her eyes when she said she had to pick Rara up from school. But I told myself that that could have been my imagination.
To be honest, I didn’t really want to go to Sixth Form. All I wanted was to get out of my mother’s flat like Sherry did in February ’72. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I picked up my MCE results in March ’73 --- it was a Grade II! I filled out and sent the application forms for Diploma Programs in Banking and Business Studies at ITM (Institut Teknologi MARA) in Shah Alam. I stacked the jeans and smocks that Sherry gave me to wear for lectures. I looked forward to be free of my 6’ by 10’ cell and share a hostel room with college mates.
But Mak and Mat had to talk me into attending another two years of penitentiary in school uniform and school shoes at that notorious boys’ school up the hill.
Mak sat me down and told me at the dinner table, “I want you to go to university and study law like Moon.”
Moon is the youngest daughter of her eldest sister. She’s seriously smart --- with schoolmarm glasses and perfect English. But there’s a lighter side to her too --- she can play a mean guitar and belt out Helen Shapiro’s and Jose Feliciano’s numbers. Walking Out to Happiness and Listen to the Falling Rain.
And Mat said to me at the front balcony later that evening, “You should reach for the stars. So, even if you fall, you’ll land on the clouds.”
Yeah, yeah. That was easy for him to say. He copped out after he failed in his first attempt at SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) in ‘69. He didn’t even bother to re-sit for it the following year like his elder brother, Abang Tar, who sat three times for his Senior Cambridge exams before he finally gave up.
That confounded me too. That Mat failed in his SPM. Not just failed, but failed badly. Everybody expected him to get at least a Grade III so he could apply for vocational courses at IKM (Institut Kemahiran MARA). But an STP? Sijil Tamat Pengajian? A Certificate of Completion was an insult to a star student like him. He had been the top student of his whole school in JB when he was in Standard Six.
Naturally, he was sore at his results. He blamed the imported Indonesian science teachers with their nasal accents for using foreign terms that students like him had problems comprehending. He blamed the Sri Jaya bus for re-routing and caused him to be hours late for school. He blamed the Riots in May for making him miss precious weeks of classes.
When he was done fuming and seething, he packed his clothes and left for his hometown and worked at the dockyard in JB for two years until Abang Tar’s death in March ’72. When he came back to our flat, he had gotten the blues, played with a pop band and started to smoke weed.
That was more than four years ago. He moved on to stronger and stronger stuff. When I was studying for my MCE in ‘73, he was sniffing gum. At the end of my Sixth Form in ‘75, he was Chasing the Dragon. He and his kutu friends from Flat Melayu had been rounded up by the patrol police countless times. All kinds of police officers from the PJ State Balai had raced up the stairs and waited for Mak at our front balcony. And she, in her state of panic, had waved her false hair piece and fake doughnut at their faces while she fixed her bun. At the police station, Mak had acted her role of the Long-Suffering Mother and begged the Dato’ in Blue to release Mat. After Abang Shid heard this sob story for the umpteenth time, he got fed-up and told Mak to let the police detain Mat once and for all and send him to Pudu or Kajang or Pulau Jerjak.
“But then, he’ll have a prison record!”
“Let it be. Let him learn his lesson!”
“What if hard-core criminals beat him up?”
“He’ll just have to toughen up and fend for himself then!”
I must confess that I was both terrified and relieved when he overdosed on heroin. One late afternoon, about eight months ago, when my best friend Hani and I were all dressed up in our suede Midi skirts, vinyl high kicking boots, Lulu wigs and spiky false eye lashes to watch the movies at Sentosa, we heard Mak shriek. We rushed from the front balcony with our boots on and saw blobs of clotted blood on the kitchen floor and back balcony. Mat had ran into the bathroom and left the aluminum door slightly opened. Hani and I stared at the trail of dark red spots the size of fifty cent coins.
“Mat, are you alright?” I yelled from the other side of the bathroom door. Then I felt stupid. Of course, he wasn’t. Or he won’t be shitting blood. I heard him wretch. My stomach clenched.
“Mat, let’s go to the hospital! Hani, go hail a cab from the main road! I’ll help Mat down the stairs!”
Hani scuttled out of the flat.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll just lie down ‘til I feel better,” he said as he pushed the bathroom door open. He bent his body slightly to clutch at the pain in his abdomen. His face was pale and his eyes glazed over.
“No, Mat, we’ve got to go now. While Hani is here to help me. Let’s go!”
I almost screamed as I propped him up on my shoulder to stop him from hitting the floor. I dragged him through the kitchen and the sitting room to the front balcony. I screeched at Mak,
“Pass me his slippers! I’ll put them on for him when we’re in the taxi!”
“Iya lah! Iya lah! Take off your boots and slip on your sandals!”
“I can’t! I can’t! He’ll fall if I let him go!”
I grabbed Mat’s slippers with my free hand and shouted at Mak, who was breathing hard into my face,
“Mak, hurry up, move aside!”
Thud, thud, thud. The sound of my black boots against the stairs as we made our way three floors down. Mat held on to the railings and paused at every landing. I stared at the steps below, looked at his frail body and prayed that he wouldn’t collapse on me.
We made it to the Emergency Ward at University Hospital. Mat and me and Hani. The taxi driver, the people at the emergency counter, the nurses and doctors … they all looked at us like we were aliens from Outer Space.
“I’m … I’m his sister. His adopted sister. This, here, is my childhood friend,” I blurted, hoping to wipe off the amused looks from their faces.
What were they thinking? Just what were they thinking?
That Mat was some kind of local Jimi Hendrix? And Hani and I were some perasan Janis Joplins?
Can’t they do just do their work without looking at us as if we were thrash?
After hours of holding him down --- covering him with our woolen ponchos when he shivered, wiping his runny nose and dripping saliva with Kleenex, fanning him with our Jackie magazines when he sweated --- I was glad that Mat was finally confined to a hospital bed, not a prison cell. Mak didn’t need to air her false hair in front of some long-suffering police constable no more. Abang Shid didn’t need to threaten to send Mat to jail ever again.
But I knew the doctors couldn’t keep him at the ward forever. Once he was discharged, he would beg, borrow or steal Mak’s money and go out to meet his friends and they would be rounded up and it would be another Roller Coaster ride for me and Mak all over again.
A month later, in May, I met this editor from Mingguan Perdana while waiting on tables at Restoren Bertam near the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka roundabout. It was a dinner function celebrating the winners of ’76 National Literary Award. Z. Hari was one of the Pemenang Hadiah Sastera Nasional with his novel, A Red Moon over the Muddy Confluence.
I stood around the main refreshment table with the other waitresses to make sure that there were enough food and drinks. The person who gave the speech hailed the Big Names in Malay Literature. A. Samad Ismail, Kris Mas, Usman Awang, Arenawati, Ashraf. I remembered Mak mentioning Ashraf’s name many times before. He was a distant relative, bau bau bacang … faint scent of a mango. His wife, Timah Ashraf, was a journalist with Majalah Bintang, an entertainment magazine published by P. Ramlee at the height of his fame in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Pak Samad --- A. Samad Ismail --- and Abang Man --- Usman Awang --- lived up the hill on Jalan Sudin when we were in Kaki Bukit. Mak said we were distant relatives of Pak Samad. And our neighbor’s wife, Kak Ha, was Abang Man’s sister-in-law.
That night, I wore my kain wiron – center-slit, pleated sarong - and kebaya to work to match the restaurant’s theme of Malay kampong cuisine. I pulled my thick, wavy hair into a French chignon with wisps falling down the sides of my face to slim down my cheeks and hide my square jaws. Sherry had shown me how to look sophisticated without resorting to ‘ugly’ Lulu wigs. I hung my thick glasses on my cleavage, just above the top button of my kebaya bodice and peered at the guests like a short-sighted Mr McGoo.
A medium height, dark, skinny guy with curly hair and blemished skin walked towards the buffet table and chatted me up. He must have thought that I was making eyes at him. He asked me if I was interested in working as a reporter for Mingguan Perdana. I said, “Why, yes, of course.” Like, sure, any other job is better than waiting on tables at Bertam!
A moment later, I told Z. Hari that I had actually applied for a job with Berita Harian, called for written tests and interviews and was waiting for them to mail the appointment letter. He asked me to come to his office on Monday anyway and that was how we started to date. He asked me about my family. I told him that I lived with my mother. My adopted brother had just overdosed on heroin last month. My best friend and I took him to the Emergency Ward at the University Hospital, where he was treated with methadone. Z said he knew the Minister in charge of Drug Rehab and he could help to secure a place for Mat at the Centre.
I told Mak and Mat the good news. The four of us – Mat, Mak, Z and me – jumped on the train to the small town where the center was. And that was one of the reasons why I felt indebted to Z. Not counting the dinners and movie treats and fabrics from the Thai border and presents from countries he was sent for overseas assignments.
Today is my twentieth birthday. It marks seven months of me ‘going steady’ with Z. I have never dated anyone that long. All my previous dates were short-lived. Mak had nipped them all in the bud. I didn’t know how I could have gone out with someone so different for so many months. He’s not my type at all. Not that I know what my ‘type’ was. Perhaps someone like Hak, the student activist who rented our room, during his second and third year when I was in Form Four and Form Five. Someone with a noble cause. Someone who was willing to go to prison to fight for the rights of the oppressed – the poor peasants, the landless, the rubber smallholders, the fishermen who lived from hand to mouth … kais pagi, makan pagi, kais petang, makan petang.
In early ’74, while I was waiting for my MCE results, the newspapers’ headlines were full of reports about student activists being arrested for illegal demonstrations. When Hak didn’t return from Baling, where he joined the others in a sit-in protest against famine, his room-mate told Mak that he was one of those hauled in along with student leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
Hak would have been proud of me if he knew that I enrolled at Samad for my Sixth Form a few months after his arrest. Though we lived in the same unit, we kept to our rooms when his room-mate or Mak wasn’t around. If Mak was around, he’d accept her invitation to sit and talk at the dinner table and I’d join in. Otherwise, he’d just say ‘Hello, how are you?” if he saw me standing at the front balcony on his way out or on his way in to his room.
He was always rushing to tutorials (he skipped most of his lectures), meetings at Restoren Amjal at Pantai Baru and protest demonstrations all over --- KL, JB, Baling. Unlike the Kakak-kakak Stylo with their micro-minis and thick make-up, who rented our room before and took me and Sherry to Saturday Night Balls and Screaming Contests at the DTC, Hak inspired me to want to be part of a worthy cause, a conscientious movement for ‘equality and justice’. I looked up to him as one of my heroes, along with Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Kassim Ahmad.
But that was almost three years ago. I wasn’t even sure if he was interested in me as a girlfriend. Even if he did, I wouldn’t know where to look for him.
If Sherry had been around, she would’ve urged me to ditch Z. She would’ve said that he was ‘too kental’ – too square – for a groovy chick like me. But she had flown off to Paris last summer, to be with Pierre. And this December, she will experience her first winter and touch her first snow flake. In her aerograms to me, she marks her calendar according to the seasons in Europe and sends me photos of herself in tartan skirts, thick sweaters, woolen caps and knitted gloves.
And here I am … stranded in this tropical heat and dust with a brown-skinned Caliban by my side. Not that I’m angry and bitter at her and Kak Hana for avoiding Abang Tar when he was jobless and Mat when he was stoned. That’s just the way they are. Just like their Ummi. They can’t face problems in their lives. Not like me and Mak … we confront them and find ways to solve them. They’ll flee, sweep things under the carpet and pretend that everything is hunky dory.
Well, I shouldn’t lump Sherry along with her mother and sister. I’m pretty sure she would have helped put Mat in Rehab if she hadn’t had to avoid Kak Hana and Abang Shid. Whatever it is, I’m glad that she finally found someone to protect and provide for her. Never mind if he’s a White Man from a former Imperialist Power. Pierre is a good, responsible person. I could see it in his clear, blue eyes and tall, strong built. Plus, Sherry had made up for her absence by paying my registration fee so I could sit for my HSC exams for the second time.
“You really don’t have to, Sherry. I’ll get a job and pay for it myself,” I told her when she visited Mat at University Hospital.
“It’s alright. You’ll miss the closing date if you wait too long!”
That’s just like her. Prompt, efficient, firm.
Unlike Mak who flips flops all the time. One day, she’s thankful that Z got Mat into Rehab. The next day, she calls him Si Kudut, nitpicks on his Rambut Gondrong, Berokry skin tone and facial features. I can’t exactly argue with her on those scores. Z is skinny. His hair is coarse and wiry. His skin is dark like an estate boy. And he does look like the Ambonese singer, Broery Marantika.
Just what do you see in him? Mak badgers me about my poor choice. He’s nine years older. He just finished Form Two. He’s from some Ulu place that we’ve never heard of. And he tells lies! He said he attended an English school but he couldn’t even speak a proper word of English!
Sure, he’s just the opposite of the Townies – the JB and PJ boys - that Sherry took me on double dates with. Forget the scruffy Jay Be Blues band boys. But Mak had also disapproved of those squeaky-clean Eurasian boys who had picked us up in their sports car. She said I was too young then. And they were Kafirs. That was true too. I was only fifteen. And different faiths could cause problems later.
Since Sherry moved out in ’72, I had buried my nose in books and burnt the midnight oil for exams after exams. Mak hardly let me go out. She even had Abang Tar beat me up after I went to watch the Taman Petaling Netball Team play the Assunta Girls at the Samad school field.
“You’ve to control your only daughter. You wouldn’t want her to be like Hana and Sherry!” Abang Tar’s eyes were fierce as he looked at Mak and twisted my arm behind my back.
I was mad. I was really, really mad at Abang Tar for hurting me. I wriggled my way out of his clutches, slammed the door of my bedroom, which was actually a storeroom, and locked it. I stood behind the door and I shouted at both of them at the top of my lungs.
“I didn’t do anything! I just went for a netball match! Why didn’t you hit Kak Hana and Sherry? You just beat me up because they’re not here!”
I flung my body onto the steel bed and stared at the slats of light through the small window up the wall. I turned and saw a pair of scissors I used to cut hand-me-down pants from Sherry. I grabbed and felt like plunging it into my chest. But I couldn’t pain, the sight of blood and the thought of burning in Hell.
Later, much later, when all the tears had dried up, and when Mak shouted to me that Abang Tar had left for JB, I dashed to Anne’s place and complained to Sherry. Sherry was appalled at her older brother’s behavior.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that he took his anger at me and Kak Hana on you. And all that those years of job-hopping must have turned him into Rasputin!”
I laughed when she said that. Abang Tar, the Mad Monk! Sherry could be really funny, if she wanted to. A few weeks later, though, when he drowned in the water tank, we felt terrible that we had called him that.
I thought that, in Mak’s eyes, Z’s induction into the Malay Literary Hall of Fame had outweighed his shortcomings. If she had admired famous writers who had dropped out of school, why can’t she accept Z’s lack of formal education? Surely, she didn’t expect me to date a square like Abang Shid? I would be bored to tears if I were to go out with a Stiff from an Upper Class family like him. And, after what he did to Sherry, I had lost all respect for him!
I made a mental list of Z’s redeeming qualities. He’s disciplined and diligent. He subs during the day and writes his novels at night. He told me not to slack in between news assignments and gives me pointers on how to cover and report news stories when I got the job as a cadet reporter a month after we met. The newspaper office in Bangsar was only twenty minutes away by bus from Section 17.
I didn’t bother to follow-up on his job offer at Mingguan Perdana. It would have been awkward to work in the same office. I would have felt smothered. Plus, the pay at the Daily News was 150 ringgit monthly, with transport allowance, overtime and double pay on public holidays … three months bonus plus ex-gratia. Mingguan Perdana never could have offered that much. Thank God, finally, I was earning a decent sum. I was able to give Mak half my pay. The other half I spend on transport, lunch, clothes and shoes.
Mak is wrong to say that my Love is Blind. Or that Z has put a hex on me. I do notice other boys, and men as well. Like, there was this hunk of a reporter at the newsroom. He was just a few years older than me. English educated. A Townie. Khai would have been my type. He loved to wear stylish leather jackets and hang around my cubicle when he had turned in his news reports. Whenever he talked to me, I wished I hadn’t dated Z before I met him. When he walked me to the canteen or the hawker’s stalls, I wished I could be cold-hearted like Sherry and dump Z in a jiffy. But I’m cursed with this foolish sense of gratitude that strangles like a choker around my neck.Somehow, Z sensed that I was losing interest. He started to call in sick at the office and left messages with the operator when I missed his calls. When I went over to his flat in Sungei Besi, he looked gaunt and unshaven. I felt guilty for entertaining thoughts of leaving him. When he asked me about Mat, I felt like an ingrate for forgetting his Big Favor. Then he told me that he’ll take me to the Immigration Office for my Blue Card. I wondered then if Khai would be faithful. Would he lose interest when he sees a new rookie in the newsroom? Wouldn’t it be awkward to bump into him after we break up? I thought of my old school friend, Idah, who lived at the Railway Quarters on Jalan Travers. The next day, I suggested to Khai that I’ll introduce him to her. He went along like a good sport. He knew, and I knew, that deep down inside, I was a Scared Cat, clinging on to a Safe Bet.
Preamble to Into the Valley
I was a wet-behind-the-ears nineteen year old when I was called for interview as a cadet reporter for Berita Harian in mid '76. Pak Samad was the Managing Editor at that time. He lived up the hills at Jalan Sudin when we were at Kaki Bukit. And he lived across the road from our PKNS flats in the posh neighbourhood of Section 16. But Mak never asked me to see him before my written tests and interviews. So, I never did.
When I was hired, he had just been awarded the National Laureate. And not long after, I was watching his televised confession in the newsroom.
I felt that I was witnessing the end of the golden age of journalism and the ushering in of the era of mediocrity. And true enough, editor Samani encouraged me to aspire to be a popular entertainment columnist like BAM. I wasn't sure whether that was a compliment or an insult. I had hoped to be given opportunities to cover hard news ... you know, crime, court and so forth. But I was assigned to soft news or fluff ... society, women, culture. And my excitement over my first by-line was snuffed by an error over my last name.
After three months of probation, I was transferred to be part of an editorial team under the subsidiary company, Berita Publishing. I learned to write features, profiles and interview pieces for a variety of magazines - women, entertainment, business, sports.