The screeching wheels halted my reverie.
I had been envying the green field’s breathing space under the open skies. Just across the Hang Tuah monorail station, the field counts its days before a soon-to-exist building pierces its heart with steely foundations. Old Pudu Jail is gone. On the platform, the passing train creates a small gust that cools down the tear-stained spots on my face.
On my way home towards the Tun Sambathan station, this monorail is my secret little pleasure. I hide among the passengers and observe the moving poetry of grimy old KL buildings and roads intertwining. Its large windows frame the changing scenes as we travel in the coach’s belly. The train announcements comfort me with a sense of predictability. You know what’s next and nothing changes.
The only thing that changes are the people. Passengers of all colours, sizes, clothing styles and smells depending on the time of day and weather, they walk in and out its sliding doors like restless spirits en route to different destinations.
I trace my reflection in the windows of the train. Two big eyes, a brown skinned face. A head full of wild curly black hair held back by a metal clip. My classmates used to fan their noses as if my hair oil made them sick. Which is why I refuse to use it now.
What happened today lingered in my head. I woke up as usual with a feeling of emptiness that often followed the thought of going to school. The emptiness felt like a thick, hollow, sewage tunnel with the stale air inside welling up in my throat. The smell is as metallic as the door grill of my house.
I don’t like going home either. There’s no one really at home, even if my Amma was there.
Today, it started again.
“Eh, tangga-chee!” she yelled while tapping my shoulders.
It’s thangachi, I corrected her in my head.
Why you still so black, black one?” she asked. “You serioul-ly look like what they leave in our school toilet bowls after school end liao,” she said.
I knew her full name – Chin Kwan Cheng. Also known as Ah Cheng Cher (Big Sister Cheng) among the rest of her ratty gang of girl followers who were there with her that day. I knew all their names, alright. Do they even know my full name?
“Lalitha bla-bla-bluekkhh. Hahaha! What ruuh-bish your parents eat ah, give you such a name no one cannot pronoun properlly” she said.
It’s Lalitha*. Daughter of Subramaniam. Sister of none.
“Your mother and father maybe eaten shit-lah and berak you out,” one of her followers said.
“No, no, your father eat shit lah,” the other one chimed in.
“She doesn’t even know who her father is!” I don’t know who said that because at that point, I felt heat rushed up inside of my head.
“You shuddup!” I finally shouted. “You bloody shut up!”
I heard it all before. Who’s here to protect you, they would ask, expecting no answer but their own voices saying, “There’s no one who could help you. Tsk! Tsk! Your father can’t help you lor.”
“Latlalithathalitamplong!” they chanted and laughed while laying their hands hard on my cheeks, neck and shoulders, wherever, each syllable conveniently rhymed with a slap.
Is my skin red? I know you can’t see my skin colour when I turn red from heat or pain. I wish it would show sometimes so people will notice. Maybe the teachers might say something if they happened to pass me by during perhimpunan.
“Oi, your turn,” I heard Ah Cheng said to her friends after trying to slap my face. I defended it with my palms but my body wasn’t so fortunate.
The sound of the drum beats being practiced by the school band flashed across my mind. Once, a group of people took us out to watch the Hands Percussion ensemble thanks to a few kind sponsors at church. I was so mesmerized by their rhythmicity that the memory of their performance stayed in my mind.
But how stupid that I can imagine that performance at this moment. My torso, chest, back and shoulders are now an instrument for these girls’ merciless hands. With no audience in sight. For a split second, remembering those drums, I forget the sharp and dull pain on my head, neck, face and shoulders. The taste of salty iron on my punctured lips.
I tried to move my hands to cover my face but they kept holding it while they hit me again and again across my face, neck and whichever parts of my body that pleased their hands. They seemed delighted with the sound of skin slapping against skin.
Then the sun became even more bright. The pavement and everything in my line of vision, especially the whites of their uniform’s sleeves, their school shoes were all bathed in a holy, angelic glow, serenaded by a sickly high-pitched ringing in my ears. My stomach was ready to give up my lunch.
As soon as they saw that I had spit out my vomit, they took my pencil bag away and one of my shoes.
“Please, please. Don’t take my things, please,” I finally cried out.
It wasn’t just the shoe but what was inside my pencil bag. I had saved up all my pocket money from weekend part-time jobs to buy myself a necklace, earring and bracelet set from Sungei Wang plaza. Every year, at the church, they have an annual party for our youth group. The youth pastor said it was to teach us how to be proper ladies and gentlemen to each other.
This year, my neighbor Athi’s name had been drawn from the lot to be my date! I had immediately imagined then what I would wear and how to do my hair. I had planned it so that the sparkly diamond-like jewelry set I would really make my old dress pretty. I hid it in my pencil bag in case my Amma saw it and asked questions. Stupid, stupid me.
Ah Cheng told me to shut my chibai face up among a string of words which I knew were referring to women’s sacred body parts in Chinese. As if their amma’s don’t have one too. They each slapped me again and removed my left shoe. Immediately, Ah Cheng smirked as she hurled it with all her might toward the rooftop. She opened my pencil bag, took a look at what was inside and immediately drew out my necklace, proceeding to drape it all over the other girl.
“You think all these will make you look pretty, ah? You dream on lah, tanggachee. I keep this. It’s your payment now to me for daring to open your big mouth to that prefect in your class. You think I stupid? The next time you open your mouth again about our homework deal, I know where you live and where you always lepak after school. Today is just a warning. You HEAR me or NOT?” She slapped my left and right cheeks while two girls held my hair and arms to make sure I understood her.
The afternoon azan echoed in the distance.
I clutched my school bag. I placed my right shoe in it. They didn’t take my socks so I walked in them. I ran and I ran to the monorail to go home with my socks lapping up all the dust of Jalan Hang Tuah.
I didn’t notice that the sun had hidden itself and allowed the clouds to reign in the skies. I walked back to the monorail station. I need to go home. But first, I had to cry, right there in the station. I could never cry at home because the neighbours and our two tenants could hear. And Amma would only have questions for me which I couldn’t answer.
That evening, I saw Athi on my way down to get some dinner. He’s my neighbour’s elder brother. His name is Athikunan but his family and friends call him Athi. It was Athi who had invited me last year to join his church’s Tamil youth group meetings on Saturdays. Athi always walks me to the meeting. Two years ago, his whole family had gotten rid of their Hindu gods and joined the church. I wondered what came over them after the death of his grandmother.
Since then, Athi has seemed more happy and calm. He really takes care of me whenever we go out together. He’s the only guy that had ever asked me how my studies were and how I was at school.
But I know in my heart that we will never, ever get together. His family is better than mine in many ways. He will never accept me if he really knew what sort of family I come from and the sort of person I am deep inside.
He sent his sisters home after the meeting and took me out for tea. He does that sometimes. It makes me feel special but I know he only treats me like one of his sisters.
“Is everything okay, Lalitha? You look a bit different,” Athi said. Kalavuler, he must have noticed.
“I’m okay, no problem today,” I said, trying hard to look as calm as he usually does.
He wasn’t convinced. He looks quite cute when he wrinkles his forehead in a serious demeanour, especially when in doubt.
Before he could finish asking about my mouth, I told him I fell while running during recess time. That my friends and I were talking about practicing for sports day and we decided to race each other back to class. I couldn’t believe how effortlessly I could create a story for him. But he mustn’t know how pathetic I was in school.
He seemed to buy it.
“Ah, only the Indian girls, especially a thangachi like you in your Chinese majority school get picked lah,” he chuckled. If only he knew what had happened that day.
Then my mouth continued to speak. I asked him if I could borrow money from him. RM90 as I was buying my new sports shoe from Bata, along with some new socks. So little, he said. Is that enough? My heart melted and curled into warm caramel when he asked me that.
I needed only RM50.00 to replace the jewelry set but if I had asked for that little amount, he might not believe it’s for sports shoes.
He reached out into his pocket and took out his wallet. I suddenly felt a chill that grew from my belly. It slowly crept all over my chest and my shoulders. My heart was knotted as he wished me all the best in my race.
“Athi, I can’t…I can’t thank you enough,” I said. It was as if I was watching myself receive the money when he gave me the money. My heart sank with guilt.
He smiled as he said I could pay it back to him any time. That I could go over to his house and to be his aquarium cleaner for seven years like a slave. He really knew how to make me forget my life for a while.
I didn’t know what made me open my mouth further but I asked if he would like to accompany me to Bukit Bintang to buy my shoes, even though I didn’t really want to buy shoes, but I wanted to go downtown. It would be perfect if he went with me. We could have dinner together and look at the lights.
Maybe I was afraid of meeting any of the girls in Ah Cheng’s gang. Maybe I had become less shy with him this evening.
He said no, as he had to see someone for dinner. I pretended to shrug it off and smiled. I was suddenly aware again of my bruises from that afternoon.
Nevermind who it was that he had to see. I could see the faces of the girls he knows at our apartment block. In the youth group. Maybe at his school. His part-time job.
I went on the monorail alone.
I learned similes in my English class two weeks ago. When the teacher asked us to list examples for similes, in my homework, I wrote – ‘My thoughts are like capsules for medicine’. I kept bitter secrets in my thoughts. They look like the yellow and blue capsules which I often look at whenever I feel so down.
The yellow and the blue halves seem to hug each other so securely. At least the two parts have each other. Sometimes, especially today, I think of swallowing some of their secrets so that they may take me to a better place, somewhere faraway for a long, good night’s sleep. They can take me away from them.
As the train moved into dusk with my thoughts, I could still see the trees lining up, bidding me hello while passing through another station. Schools with football fields where remnants of players dot the greens. Building windows, the murky Klang river caught up with the train at some points as if for a quick teh tarik session. The shiny five-star hotels. Glinting minarets, regal churches steeples, old Indian temples under construction, office blocks which stood like giant cereal boxes. Clubbing strips, shopping streets, flats and apartments, streets that make the dwellings of invisible inhabitants.
The evening sky was closing in. There were more working people than tourists in both coaches. Everyone was wearing tired faces and worn out perfumes. The train meandered towards its last stop.
I thought about the upcoming youth group dinner. Athi again. The jewelry. The homework that I had to do. That Ah Cheng. Those girls. The money. School. Everything.
Who could I turn to? The woman with the kind face next to me was sleeping.
And then I heard the announcement: “Stesen berikutnya… Next station…”
This short story was workshopped during the first edition of the UnRepresented KL writers programme.
Illustration by Lyn Ong
*Lalitha means beautiful lady, or elegant