|Oct/Nov 2004 fiction|
The rickshaw squeaked as Meng Choon angled it into a tiny space between the front of his house and the road. Flicking away his sweaty fringe, he brought it to a halt.
"I'll warm up your dinner," said his wife Soo Lan as soon as he entered the house.
She set down her sewing and went to the kitchen. The children were in bed, so she tiptoed, conscious that the floorboards boomed twice as loud in the stillness of the night.
As he lifted his arm to remove his sweat-drenched shirt, his hand hit the light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the bathroom. The room seemed to spin. He cursed under his breath and stabilised the bulb. Plunging the bucket into the urn, he scooped up water and splashed it over his body. He'd feel better after the wash. His sense of perspective would return. Wasn't it like this everyday? A long day's work, a wash, a meal and sleep. Sleep that eased away the ache in his bones. And while the calluses on his palms showed no sign of softening, his body always felt less stiff the next morning. He could even lift the bars of his grandfather's rickshaw.
Yes, things would work out. He would not allow the news to cloud his vision. Besides, tonight was a particularly hard run. Four people on board his last ride: two parents, seated, and two children, squatting, a combined weight of some 400 pounds, the father nearly one and a half times his size. He normally would not take so many passengers, but it was one for the road and he didn't feel like arguing. And it was another 80 cents in earnings.
As he soaped, Meng Choon heard Gopal's words of earlier in the day echoing in his head: "About 300 taxis, Meng. By next year. Heard it on the radio last night."
A rickshaw rider as well, Gopal sat at the edge of his chair. "What are we going to do?"
"We'll just have to see what happens," Meng Choon said.
Meng Choon thought about his four children. It would be three years before his eldest son finished school, before he could start working and contributing towards expenses. When the taxis hit the streets, who would want to use rickshaws anymore? Taxis went six, maybe even ten times, faster. How long could he continue riding his rickshaw?
The chicken livers appeared blurry as he picked them up with his chopsticks. Meng Choon's hands were broad, heavily-veined, coarse to the touch. As he slumped over his rice bowl, his shoulders drooped as if weighed down by a heavy object.
Eyes fixed on the table, Meng Choon ate his dinner, his wife by his side. The sound of a clanking spoon interspersed with occasional burps. The walls, bare save a cheap calendar with a picture of a Chinese maiden and perforated date pages, seemed to watch over them.
As lizards zigzagged on the wall and scampered under fluorescent tubes, thoughts swirled in Meng Choon's head. He could learn to drive. But even if he passed the driving test at 45, he wouldn't be able to afford to buy a taxi. How would these things work? He had no idea. All his life, he'd made a living as a rickshaw rider. His father, as well as his grandfather, did the same. Having fled China under the Qing dynasty and settled in Kuala Lumpur, his grandfather used to cart hand-held ones. On his feet all day, dragging the rickshaw loaded with passengers with his bony hands. He ran over dirt tracks, sweating and puffing, his pigtail swaying in the wind. Until he literally dropped dead at 76.
Meng Choon remembered the neighbours carrying his grandfather's body back to the house after he collapsed on the road. He was only six then. Peering through the window, he watched the commotion. His grandmother's cries were hysterical as she stared at the limp body being lifted over the front steps.
A sudden gloom hit him. Two generations later, in 1966, he was still in that same rut. The only difference was that while his grandfather toiled on foot, he now pedalled.
"We might not be able to buy that fridge after all," he said, peering across the kitchen. The meat safe was a wedding gift. His long time wish was to replace it with a modern electrical appliance.
"Moh siong kon," Soo Lan said. "The meat safe is still good. Why waste money?"
Other things he'd wanted to get—a television set, and a sewing machine so his wife could sew a dress in two days instead of a week—now seemed even farther away.
Soo Lan poured jasmine tea from the teapot and placed the cup near his bowl. As he took a sip, she smiled at him. Her skin no longer looked fresh. Tiny specks appeared on her face and hands—they spoke of a life of struggle. But to Meng Choon, she was still the doe-eyed beauty of twenty-five years ago. He still recalled the first time he set eyes on her. In the privacy of their wedding chamber after the ceremony, he lifted the red veil over her elaborate headdress and saw her face for the first time. Barely sixteen, she smiled at him coyly, then turned her face and averted her eyes. From that angle, he took in her fine cheekbones and upturned nose. He was instantly enchanted.
At first, the idea of an arranged marriage seemed ridiculous. He was only nineteen, having worked three years as a rickshaw rider. You will grow to love her, his mother advised him.
His mother was right. Looking at her stacking up the empty bowls now, he wanted to pour out his anxiety to her, to unburden his fear that soon he may not be able to bring food to the table. But he remained silent. His fingers tightened around the chopsticks. She had enough to worry about. Raising four kids, taking in garments to wash and iron for some side money.
Suddenly she got up and stood behind him. Placing her hands on his shoulder, she started to massage him. The tension of his muscles loosened to her touch. She pressed her thumb along the ridge of his nape. The aroma of jasmine tea drifted around them. As she tightened her grip on his shoulder, Meng Choon shook his head from side to side, unable to contain his emotions.
The light patter of footsteps outside signalled wake-up time. Old Ah San was as regular as clockwork. Just before the crack of dawn, balancing two buckets on a pole straddled over his shoulders, he would come to collect "night soil" from outdoor toilets. Meng Choon slipped out of bed, careful not to disturb his wife.
Last night he went to sleep resigned to his situation. A world of change was taking place. Hadn't he observed young women around town wearing mini skirts instead of sam foos and cheong sams? And young men sporting long hair, flairs and tight-fitting shirts? Plastic packaging was replacing banana leave, jute and newspaper, and those who rode bicycles were saving up to buy cars.
The city crawled into life as he circled the Central Market and Central Bus Station. He had trained himself to spot customers like a hawk: frazzled housewives carrying vegetables and meat, and minding toddlers; tired bus passengers from out of town, anxious to get home. Engulfed in the noise of city, he wondered how much he would take home tonight.
As he dropped off his tenth customer for the day, he caught sight of a sign outside a provision shop, one of the largest in town. Soo Lan shopped there sometimes. Scribbled in handwriting it said: shop assistant wanted.
When he met up with Gopal for teh tarik at the Mamak stall in the afternoon, he mentioned the sign.
"Ya, kah? I wonder if many people will go for a job like that," said Gopal.
"Don't know," said Meng Choon. "You been looking too?"
Gopal stirred his tea with a teaspoon. "Just asking around a little bit. Nothing so far."
"Young fellow like you don't need to worry so much." Meng Choon slapped him on the shoulder and chuckled.
Gopal glared at him. "Who says? Just because I don't have a wife doesn't mean I can live on sunshine and air."
For days, Meng Choon thought about the sign. He didn't know the first thing about running a provision shop. He'd know how to weigh items such as rice and flour, and he was strong enough to unload sacks of provisions from the lorry to the shop. But he had no clue about display and keeping stock.
When he discussed it with Soo Lan, she said, "You sure you want to change jobs now?"
Again, he couldn't bring himself to own up to his fears. Filling his pipe with tobacco, he said, "Getting old, you know. Might not be able to ride the rickshaw for long."
At the back of his mind, he wondered if she'd noticed the decrease
in the amount of money he'd been giving her for groceries and upkeep
of the house. As if a premonition, his earnings in the last month had taken
a dip. He couldn't tell why. A temporary setback, he hoped.
But she never complained and never even seemed to notice. Whatever amount he gave her, there was always food on the table.
"Hmm," Soo Lan said. "Just try then, see how it goes." She pierced the embroidery needle through the pillowslip.
Two weeks passed before Meng Choon finally gathered up his courage. He would convince the shop owner that he was hardworking and a fast learner.
At lunchtime, he rode to the street where he saw the sign. It was unusually
busy. Slowing down, he tried to snatch a view of the front of shop amidst
a flurry of bodies. He noticed that the sign was no longer there. Rubbing
his eyes, he looked again. Nothing. He pulled up, hopped off, then trotted
to the doorway. He was about to ask the man minding the till when he caught
a glimpse of a figure in a far corner of the shop. His back towards Meng Choon
and partly hidden by shelves, the man was stacking up boxes against the wall.
His dark skin drew Meng Choon's attention. A long queue was forming
at the till, and bundles of food and groceries clutched under arms pushed
against him. Craning his neck, he looked in the same direction. Within moments,
he realised that the dark-skinned man was Gopal.
A silent pop went off in his head. Meng Choon turned on his heels and stormed back to his vehicle.
The bastard. The snake.
The sight of Gopal in the provision shop churned through his insides. This was why he had not been around at the Mamak stall in the afternoons. The betrayal sent a torpedo through his brain. Meng Choon punched the seat of his rickshaw as he waited outside Capitol cinema for the afternoon matinee to finish.
Their friendship was finished.
Spitting into the ground, Meng Choon decided not to bother waiting for passengers. He rammed his rickshaw over the dirt track. The vehicle bounced and lurched over mounds and potholes. Clouds of dust rose and trailed after him. Spitting again, he made a quick exit from the cinema grounds.
As he turned a corner, a cart carrying fruit suddenly appeared in front of him. Meng Choon swerved to the side. But it was too late. Wham. Sparks flew from metal-to-metal contact. The collision sent oranges, chikus and mangosteens tumbling. Some rolled into open drains.
A sharp pain shot through Meng Choon's leg. When he looked down, he saw a gaping wound. His leg had been caught between his vehicle and the fruit cart.
The fruit vendor jumped off his cart to retrieve the fruits. "Stupid idiot, don't you look where you're going?" he yelled.
Cursing and muttering something to the fruit vendor, Meng Choon pulled over. Blood oozed out from his calf. He dabbed the wound with a dirty towel and checked his rickshaw. Apart from some scratches, it wasn't wrecked. Passers-by gathered, nudging one another and pointing at the spectacle on the street. By-standers stared in shock, their mouths forming Os, words coming out of their mouths in dribbles. Like a nest of bees, the commotion swarmed him.
"What are you looking at?" he barked at them.
His calf still bleeding, he jumped on his rickshaw, wanting to escape. That was it for the day. He pedalled as fast as he could, the pain ripping through him, not caring about lost earnings. About a mile out he slowed down. As he wiped away his sweat, the fruit vendor's harsh voice pounded in his ear.
By the time he reached home it was nearly seven. His calf was by now throbbing. Crouched over in pain, he pedalled the last few yards. He was manoeuvring the vehicle to a standstill when he saw a woman in the distance. She looked just like Soo Lan. He strained his eyes, keeping them glued to her. She was heading towards an alley. There was no mistaking—the swagger was recognisably hers. What was his wife doing combing the streets at this time of the evening? He got off his rickshaw and followed her.
Her steps were quick, and because of his limp, he struggled to catch up with her. Panting, he saw her making a right turn at the end of the alley. He stumbled to the same spot, but there was no sign of his wife. In front of him was a deserted street lined with parked cars. Ahead, the cityscape unfolded, awash with hues of grey and pink, the sun descending behind buildings.
A thousand thoughts played in his mind. Earlier, it was the chance sighting of Gopal, now this. What on earth was going on? He couldn't take it anymore—he would head home. As he limped, he detected smells of fried garlic and roast pork wafting out from somewhere, followed by voices. They were coming from the back exit of a restaurant kitchen. He heard clanking of dishes and pots amidst the low hum of a crowd. The sounds became louder as he approached the doorway. Peering in, he caught sight of his wife standing beside a man. Shocked, he backed off, and immediately hid behind the doorway. Glued to wall, he strained to listen. A male voice uttered something about more dishes to be washed.
"Thirty extra people here tonight," the man said.
Meng Choon pressed his ear against the wall, straining to catch every word. Soo Lan's voice travelled out through the doorway.
"… sure, sure, no problem, I'll start straight away."
Emotions flooded his head, his body. He inched away from the doorway, careful not to make any noise. As soon as he was sufficiently cleared from the exit, he turned around and headed back.
Night was setting in. As Meng Choon walked home, he became aware of people and things that escaped his attention earlier. He saw hawkers folding up formica-top tables, stacking them up roughly beside the stalls. Their wives dipped the last of dishes into buckets of murky water, and threw the water into open drains. Shop owners pulled down roller doors, turning keys in locks, and pavements were soon cleared of human activity. Stray dogs sniffed around, feeding on leftover food, snarling as another approached them.
When Meng Choon reached the last stretch of road, his body felt light, and a numbness replaced the pain in his calf. It was now quiet and still. As he walked past stalls covered with blue and red striped tarps, he lost himself in the dimness, in the emotions that swarmed his body. Above him, the hazy glow of streetlights fused with the muted shades of dusk. As he pondered on the steadiness of his breathing, the wonder of life loomed huge in him. Before tonight he thought he couldn't grasp it. But now, feeling the wind in his face and soaking in the evening air, it was as clear as the silhouette of rooftops against the pale sky.
As he opened the door to his house, the lingering smell of home-cooked food and the tenderness of Soo Lan's touch as she massaged him each evening enfolded him like a mist.