by Anita Patel
My grandmother's house (rising up over a swaying fence of coconut trees and presiding, in colonial dignity, over a lush front lawn and sweeping gravel drive) has disappeared. It was demolished by the Malaysian government many decades ago—but houses live on in our dreams, and so I wander through that glorious ramble of rooms, verandahs and landings over and over again.
This was our place in the hot time.
A place of hide and seek mimicked by chi cha geckoes scampering, on wooden walls and ceilings, and leaving trademark tiny splats of pure white, like paint from a tube, on the beams above our netted beds. A place of black nighttime illuminated by the face of the Virgin Mary, staring stiffly from a blue lit altar at the end of the corridor. A place where time is measured by the sound of a cockerel and the mysterious beckoning toot of a train whistle trailing over a mess of lantana bushes, tapioca plants and "touch me not" at the back fence.
("Ayoh this thai ayam is taking over the back, lah. What to do?"
Thai ayam—chicken shit. The odour of dark pink and hot yellow lantana flowers mingling seamlessly with the stink of poultry droppings.)
Nothing for children to do but play in the hot time. Play in the garden until the heat reaches its glass hard peak in the middle of the day.
Then it is, "Hurry up come inside ! Too hot, lah. I tell you these children will get sick in this sun."
"Not just sick. Black also, lah."
"Ya! Ya! Better go inside and rest."
Our idea of rest is to lie around on the lino-covered floor of the sunroom upstairs and spy on the house next door. It is a large sprawling colonial mansion like ours, but it has a reputation. Women in tight sexy dresses and spiky stilettos slink in and out of secret doors. We gaze at their beehive hair and vermillion lips and whisper daring words like "massage parlour."
Some afternoons, when the house sinks into sleep, we sneak into Papa's office. Papa has been dead for many years, but this shadowy room curtained off from the fluorescent glare of the main living area is still known as his space. We finger dusty files and tap tentatively on an ancient, rattly typewriter, but we never stay long. This is an old man's room. We are curious children, and there are no clues here for us. Our grandfather is long gone and none of us ever really knew him except as a kind of legendary hero who came to a land, far from his own, and made his mark for a time.
When the day cools, we sit out on the verandah and wait for visitors. We are bathed and dressed for tea. Our hair is brushed back into bows and clips. We wear starched laundered dresses and socks and shoes. We squirm in "itchy poky" petticoats and long for our cotton singlets and shorts. We slide, sneakily, off scratchy rattan chairs and make our way into the garden.
Aunty Dolly is coming today with our horrible cousins, Eddie and Tina. Aunty Dolly is famous in our family because in her wedding photo she actually looks like a frilly, frothy white bride doll, not like a real person at all. We smile politely at Aunty Dolly and continue to poke hopefully into the bamboo to entice the hordes of red ants that reside there.
The crunch and smell of red ants spurts menacingly from the bamboo thicket. They mirror ominously, my cousin Eddie's stories of how blood drops sprinkled, ant like, on the earth under men hung and slashed during the Japanese occupation. We listen wide-eyed, not realising that the men were our own great uncles and that the women and children, buried alive, were our grandmother's sisters and nieces.
"Then the Japanese put salt in the big, big cuts in the peoples' belly. Can you believe or not …"
We stuff our fists into our mouths, in horror, and run away to Ah Mui's room.
"Aiya don't listen to that bad boy. He make so much trouble. Your nanny will hammer him if she knows what he says. Come Ah Mui give you some makan. I got the good kachang biscuit from the pasar."
Ah Mui's Room
In the cramped dimness of the servants' room, we squash on Ah Mui's bed and nibble crunchy squares of peanut kachang biscuit. Golden crumbs mingle with powdery sweet talc on stripy bedsheets, and we whiff the comforting fragrance of hair oil, cheap perfume and mosquito coil that floats in the warm air of all the servants' rooms.
"Ah lah Ma! Don't let me catch you sleeping in the servants' beds or I'll give you a thrashing. You will get cootoos in your hair!" We hear these familiar threats but never really pay much attention to them. The servants are our friends, and their rooms are our favourite places—full of kampong possessions, jars of "rubbish" snacks and chilling hantu stories—bristling with ghostly pontianak women waiting to steal us away and demonic spirits hiding in the mango tree. The best thing about the servants' rooms is that they are next to the kitchen.
Kitchen and Storeroom
The kitchen is the women's space. Here spells are woven to the music of gleaming choppers and grinding stones. This is the pulse of the whole house where East and West blend and curdle amorphously like eggs and butter, whipped soft and golden, in dull yellow pottery bowls imported from T.G. Green in England.
"What are you making today, Annie?"
"What do you all think? Go away from here. So busy … your nanny wants to bake the butter cake for tea time. Go and play somewhere else." Butter cake iced with thick butter frosting is a treat for afternoon tea. Mostly this cake is served at birthday parties with plates of coconut candy, miniature curry puffs and wafer thin sambal sandwiches. Someone important must be coming to tea if Annie is baking butter cake. Better not disturb her.
But it is hard to leave the kitchen—a place full of sound and action where vivid screaming chickens are hacked to death and glistening live crabs scuttle threateningly across the wet floor. The rhythm of the kitchen beats as constantly as a human heart. It sounds in the hammering of mortar and pestle—tumbuk buk buk—as scarlet chilies are crushed with freshly roasted shrimp paste, belacan, each day. The hot pungent smell of this sambal belacan is an ever-present reminder of my grandmother's Eurasian heritage. The tiny shrimp, or geragok, were caught and prized by her ancestors on the beaches of Malacca four hundred years ago.
When the hairy, white-skinned Portuguese arrived on the shores of Malaya, they brought their strange words, their religion, with its idols and rituals, and their food. They brought all these things in ships that flew across the water, and men—with names like Monteiro, Lopes and De Sousa—stayed and married Malay girls from the kampong. And so a new creole culture—with its own flavours, language and superstitions—was created. The people who were born into it became known as Eurasians, Kristang, Mesticos, Serani or Geragoks.
After our foray into the kitchen, we creep into the storeroom with its tiny barred window, icebox and neatly stacked shelves. Regimented British biscuit tins (patterned in the cosy, cottage colours of Huntley & Palmers or the stylish grey green of Jacobs Cream Crackers) line the top shelves. Each proudly bearing the British coat of arms and the slogan: By Appointment to His Majesty. Tightly lidded and packed with crisp coconut love letter wafers, sooji shortbread cookies and rich wedges of Christmas cake. Glass jars of colourful achar pickle, pineapple jam and rose syrup, glow like jewels on the lower shelves. In the locked cabinet are bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label, VSOP brandy and Bristol Cream Sherry. Branches of seasonal fruit (mangosteens and dukus) hang in a corner, and maybe tonight Uncle Joe will bring a couple of durians.
Jimmy Boy's Story
Upstairs in his room at the back of the house is my cousin, Jimmy Boy. He is older than us—black-skinned and seriously funny. (So many skin colours in our family. Amber and coffee cream, nougat pale and deep chocolate. All different but somehow the same, packed neatly side by side, like an assorted selection of Huntley & Palmers biscuits. A pleasure to look at, really, when you prised the tin lid open.) We roll around on the floor, laughing at Jimmy Boy's jokes. He can swivel his hips and sing like Elvis Presley. We love this cousin—thin as a whip—with muscles, bulging in his biceps, which impress us out of our minds.
"Jimmy Boy is very strong, lah! He killed the cobra in the mango tree with his bare hands." Bear hands, furry black paws. But Jimmy Boy is hairless like smooth dark chocolate—Van Houtens from the corner stall. Hairless except for his shiny black Elvis quiff and snazzy ducktail—brylcreemed and polished, with a wicked looking knife-sized comb.
"I don't know with that Jimmy Boy. His hair is so long it looks like a gangster."
But we cherished his hair, his tight black jeans, his tattoo, his guitar and his record player. This was our Jimmy Boy, who lived in Nanny's house because he had no home of his own. He swung us into the branches of the rambutan tree and taught us how to swim underwater in the lagoon at Port Dickson. He cheeked his elders and winked at us when they shouted at him. He killed cobras, bigger than his bulging arm, in the mango tree.
We never asked about his parents. Carefree, cotton clad children that we were. We never knew about his handsome father Benny from Kerala. A Christian man—black and jolly with a laugh that bounced off the walls and ceiling—who'd married Pearl, a pretty rose pouting Eurasian girl, in red culottes and a polka-dotted blouse. We never saw them waltz around the room and swing their hips to the music of the thirties.
One evening, during the war, Benny gets a message. The Japs are on their way to his house. In the balmy stillness of twilight, Pearl comes home and sees a shadow on the floor. She pushes the children—two small boys and a toddler—out of the door and faces her happy, laughing Benny hanging from the ceiling.
Pearl struggles through the war. Her oldest son Ronnie dies in a typhoid epidemic that sweeps through the country. She clings to her other boys. Her mind cannot cope with reality. She yearns for her frivolous girlish past—the music and dancing, the sound of a loud manly laugh. One Christmas, just after the war, she is at a party. There are many men—white men. British planters. Drinks flow—gin slings, brandy sodas.
It was an open top car that crashed into the truck of Tamil coolies heading home to the rubber estate after a night on the town.
The boys, Ernie and Jimmy, go to the funeral, but they cannot see their mother's pretty face. They are orphans and Ernie runs away. Jimmy Boy stays at my nanny's house and dazzles us with his Elvis the Pelvis haircut and suave dance moves.
Long after the hot time, Jimmy Boy vanished without a trace. Some people said that the police came to Nanny's house looking for him (but maybe that was idle gossip). Jimmy Boy did not cast a shadow. He hid with the hantu in the cobra infested mango tree. Hid until nighttime and then he left. We heard that he married a German girl and that he lives in Germany. I cannot imagine him in a land of snow and apfelstrudel. He belongs to the hot time but that is over now.
Anita Patel was born in Singapore and lives in Canberra, Australia. She has had work published in Canberra Times, Summer Conversations (Pandanus Books, ANU), Block 9, Burley Journal and by Wombat Books. Her children's poems were included in the anthology Pardon My Garden published by Harper Collins and she won the ACT Writers Centre Poetry Prize in 2004 for her poem "Women's Talk". Patel has performed her poetry at many events, including the Canberra Multicultural Festival and the Poetry on the Move Festival (University of Canberra). She was the feature poet for the Mother Tongue Showcase at Belconnen Arts Centre in June 2016.