When we heard the planes flying overhead, we thought they were British but then the air base in Ipoh got bombed and we knew the Japanese had come. I did not see anybody die but I could hear distant rumbling like thunder. Aunty Lan, our housekeeper, said her brother’s house had been hit. I tried to imagine being ‘hit.’ Did the house suddenly break up into pieces? Did you die instantly if there was a bomb?”
‘Siew Ching,’ said Aunty Lan. ‘Finish up your mee hoon, you still have school.’
Over the next few days I heard about people who would mysteriously disappear. Fathers coming back from work. Sisters on their way to the tin factory. Since I was the eldest of my four siblings, I pretended not to be scared.
Ma and Aunty Lan acted as if nothing had changed. They made elaborate dishes for dinner, dishes that required painstaking preparation, like acar, which they meticulously chopped and diced and pickled. Braised pork and yam, spring rolls and dumplings you had to shape by hand. My job was to take care of the kids – Roy, Ping, Mei and Boy. I sent them down for meals. I braided Ping’s hair. I set out Mei’s clothes and made sure her clips matched her dress.
One day my mother called me to her room. Until today, I can picture that day with such startling clarity. The way the dark blue curtains stood at attention on each side and sunlight flooded through the window, casting my mother in a golden honey glow.
I could not see the expression on her face, but from the way she sat upright and still, I knew it was something important.
‘Siew Ching,” she said, beckoning me closer. ‘Remember what I told you about going away?’
‘What about the kids?’
She assured me they would be fine. It was the older girls they were worried about.
I didn’t have time to pack much. I took two dresses, and a rosary – it just seemed like something I should take – then I was bundled into Aunty Lan’s white Nissan with the crooked licence plate number PL78. I looked out the window and the house stared back at me, a large white building with a badminton court in front where Pa would hold his annual Christmas and Chinese New Year parties.
The indicator clicked loudly as we waited for the tofu vendor to pass. Everyone seemed to be watching and waiting, even the small rosary that dangled from the rear view mirror. Aunty Lan only had the windows down an inch as if afraid of the hot jungle air, or whatever lay hidden beyond the trees.
Mary, Aunty Lan’s daughter, was on the other end of the seats, clutching a bag. She pulled something out of it, something small and white.
I took it and we both sat there sucking the sweet, peppery blocks. Warm jungle air squeezed through the cracks of the car. The wind kept pulling at a strand of my hair, making it scurry all over my cheek, as the car engine rattled, like guns firing from far away.
I thought of the kids, of Mei, her hair wet after a bath, and Boy, doing his homework on the floor. I didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye. I wondered what Mary was thinking about. She looked so much older in her green lace dress. She said she’d sewn it herself. The hem fluttered, and kept fluttering in the gushing air, but she seemed unfazed. Her pale face was a like a doll’s, gleaming white against the dusty window.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to hide us in a mental institution but there we were, fifteen girls, to take up one half of the women’s ward. Mary and I stuck together from the start. In the evenings she would do my hair up in fancy styles. She said I had such thick, lovely hair. She showed me how she set her curls each morning with fat pink curlers. I found out she loved music. She was about to go to England to study piano when the Japanese came.
‘How about you?’ she said. ‘What do you like to do?’ I shrugged. I told her about the kids and our Christmas trip to Penang. She couldn’t believe I had so many siblings. She only had the one brother.
It seemed like church camp until the morning the Sisters told us to go to the backyard. We lined up in two lines, one going to Sister Agatha and the other going to Sister Rita. We had been told about this yesterday but I didn’t care. When it came to Mary’s turn, however she started screaming. Sister Rita had to put her scissors down and called for two other girls to help.
Mary cried the whole night that night. She spent the next day looking at the mirror and every time she did, tears sprung up.
‘It looks horrid,’ she said.
‘It’s supposed to,’ I said.
A few days later, I discovered Mary in the bathroom. She was facing the mirror, patting down her hair. When she saw me, she beamed. ‘What do you think?’ she said. I don’t know if it was the clips, the gel, or the sun-speckled room, but Mary looked like a movie star.
For a housekeeper’s daughter Mary knew very little about keeping house. I was the one who showed her how to slice onions and wring a mop. I showed her how to tuck away the corners of a bed sheet so you couldn’t see the fold. Mary in turn, was Mary. She read stories to the institution residents, she made them laugh. At night she opened up the piano and knocked out Bach, Beethoven and Bing Crosby. One night we sang Christmas carols all night and I wished the children were there.
A month later Aunty Lan visited us with a bag of bak chang. Mary and I ran to the kitchen and stared as if in prayer at the dumplings in front of us. We didn’t say anything, we just looked at the glistening triangles. Then we looked at each other and tore the dumplings open.
After every speck of rice and meat was gone, we went back to our chores. I did the dining room, Mary went to the bedrooms. Later in the afternoon, I went to the garden to check on my coriander. It was lying on the soil, looking a little tired. Every time I tried to prop it up it flopped down again.
Must be the weather, too much rain. The sky was again heavy with clouds. You could taste it in the air, that thickness of a storm coming; you could even smell it – the wet grass, the squelchy soil. I smiled, thinking of Boy trudging into the house covered in mud. He often played in the drains, trying to catch tadpoles – and that’s when I saw the shadow glide in.
I ran to the office, my lungs about to burst. Sister Rita was there. She told us to go to the jungle and we raced out towards the trees. I heard they came on bicycles but I’d never seen more than one of them at a time. I imagined a whole cloud of them coming over the hill and I ran as if they were right behind me.
When we reached the coconut grove we dove into the ground, not daring to look up or move. Ling was beside me, her knuckles in her mouth. Two other girls were in the next bush, their shoes peeping out from the grass. It was then that I realised Mary was not with us.
My heart pounded and I felt like throwing up. I started to pray like I’d never prayed before. Rocks and snail shells ground under my elbows. The smell of mud was all around. Mud – I realised then it did not smell like salt, or the sea, or soil; it smelt like blood.
I clenched my fists and fixed my gaze on the shiny wet branches in front of my face. I must have said a thousand Hail Marys when the tall grasses parted. Ah Hong stepped out, the little boy who brought us sugarcane from town. He scuttled over to Sister Rita and whispered something into her ear.
We were allowed to go back to the building. Sister Rita told me to wait, but I burst through the doors. The only sign that the Japanese had been there was the dining table, littered with cake crumbs and empty bottles of root beer. There was a woman on the floor saying, ‘Agah, agah,’ but this woman was often on the floor saying that.
When I saw the piano open my heart sank. She was in the kitchen sitting opposite Sister Agatha. The moment I came in, she sprung up. ‘Is it safe now?’ she said.
Sister Agatha nodded and Mary dashed to the next room. She opened the broom cupboard and a man tumbled out. I found out then about her and Doctor Chen. I was surprised to see him because he was not someone who caught my attention. He was just someone who came to check on the residents every now and then.
Now that I thought about it, I had seen Mary with him a number of times, following him with a basin or speaking with him in the hallway. One evening I saw him go to the basement. Lucy said she heard someone groaning in there in the middle of the night. When we asked Sister Rita about this the next morning, she told us not to be silly and sent us off to clean the bathrooms.
Doctor Chen gripped Mary’s two arms as if to steady her. He looked into her face and I saw tears in her eyes. She clutched her elbows as if she was cold. Her face was even paler than it normally was, perhaps it was more an ashy green. I thought she might vomit, but instead she grabbed Doctor Chen’s hand and seemed almost angry with him.
The Sisters called for rest time and everyone went their separate ways. I went to the garden to work on my beans. They were the ones that were doing best. Strong, shiny beans that burst out of their nests regardless of the soil or the heat or what happened in the world. I examined the leaves for disease. The tendrils were tight and firm.
It was then that I saw them. Doctor Chen and Mary, her short hair in a beautiful mess, as if she had run through a hurricane. They sat on a bench outside the chapel. ‘Tell me,’ said Mary. ‘I want to know.’
Doctor Chen stared at the ground for a long time. Strangely, his voice was softer than hers. It travelled over the gravel and through the plants where I crouched. He spoke about the things he had seen, the things that were happening in the city. We sat there listening, Mary and me, about the boy who was strung from a tree, the heads on the fences, and the little girls that never came back the same.
By the end of the month my long beans bore fruit. And then my ladies’ fingers, and then it was time to go home. Aunty Lan came to get us in her white Nissan sedan, her crooked licence plate greeting us like an old friend. We bumped down the same roads and saw the same thick jungle as if nothing had changed, but when the car stopped in front of the house I knew everything had.
It wasn’t my mother who greeted us at the door but my father. He stood on the top step leaning on a stick. I could barely recognise him. My mother was inside sitting at the far end of the room. She looked frail and worn, in a faded floral dress. I gave her a hug and she smelt like yoghurt or bean paste, or something fermented.
The children came out, one after another, smaller and thinner. Even Roy was skinny, Roy whom we used to call Fatty.
‘Where is Boy?’ I said. No one answered me.
‘Where is Boy?’ I said again. The scent of magnolias floated through the window but I did not notice. I saw only the things that stood still in the room – the Ming vase, the floral carpet, specks of dust floating in from the window.
A few days later, I stood outside Pa’s study and watched him scrawling in a book. That was all he seemed to do these days.
‘Pa?’ I said. My voice made him jump. ‘Is the war over?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘They’ve stopped the raiding and Aunty Lan said they’re hiring people at the factory again.’
The clock on Pa’s bookshelf ticked. I never knew it made such a loud sound.
‘How is Aunty Lan?’ he said.
‘She’s good. She got a job at the school canteen.’
After school the next day I came home and found that Mum had forgotten to prepare dinner. I opened the larder and there was nothing inside except for a jar of pickled mango. The rice bucket was empty too. I remembered then the sweet potatoes I’d helped Aunty Lan plant a few months ago. I ran out the back and there they were, strong, green stems with thick bushy leaves.
Dinner that night was sweet potato, boiled, with a side of mango pickle. It would be days before we would have a meal as good. After dinner, Ping began singing a song. It was a strange song. The syllables slipped and slid over each other in a way that was almost beautiful. All of a sudden a voice said, ‘Stop.’ We turned around and saw Mum on her feet. ‘Stop!’ she said again. Her voice trembled on that one word and her eyes filled with so much anger I thought she would lash out at us. She blinked back her tears and fled the room.
I’m not sure when Mum stopped talking but it happened one day. She spent her days looking at the magnolia tree outside or wandering around the backyard. Sometimes she would stare at the bushes for hours. I knew why she did it. I too longed to be in my vegetable patch, where beans climbed over potatoes, potatoes climbed over beans, and yam leaves shot up into the air.
Mary wrote me a postcard once. She was in Penang on her way to England. She said she would send me another postcard when she got there. I never got it.