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Mother’s love had no bounds, which was pretty much how Richard Mogumbirak came to be the size that he was today.

His vital statistics read as follows:

– Height: 1.75 metres;

– Weight: 138 kilos;

– Waist size: 46 inches;

resulting in a BMI of over 40, a belly that jiggled and spilt over the entire circumference of his belt and flabby thighs as big as a batang pokok pisang.

And Richard had a non-existent chin. Or neck. It was hard to tell. It wasn’t so much of a paunch – if it was possible for a neck to have a paunch; it was more of a case of the chin bypassing the neck to connect directly to the upper chest, thereby eliminating the existence of a neck altogether.

But Mother’s love had no bounds and that was why he was called Handsome Boy at home. This was truncated to Ham Boy by the school bullies when he entered primary school and like most childhood nicknames, it stuck.

Now at 26, Mother was questioning why her Handsome Boy didn’t have a girlfriend like so many of his friends.

That was easier said than done, thought Richard as he alternately shoveled generously cut chunks of pork belly braised in soy sauce and white rice into his mouth, half-chewing and half- swallowing as he went. The recipe belonged to his half-Hokkien grandmother; a special treat that Mother reserved for every second and fourth Sundays of the month.

The pork belly was always tender, juicy and steeped in an intensely flavorful soy sauce. The taste was complex, sophisticated, addictive and utterly delectable. It was hard to imagine that any other dish could ever taste more delightful than this!

A little bit of the braised pork juice dribbled down the side of his mouth, prompting Richard to hastily wipe it away with the back of his hand and which he promptly licked off. It seemed wasteful to wash it off.

Mother was asking him about Ada Wong, a girl he met three Sundays ago at the All Saints’ Cathedral, the Mogumbirak family’s home church. A newcomer to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur, the much younger Ada was pursuing her degree in geology at Universiti Malaysia Sabah. The two had become fast friends – Ada because she was new and didn’t know anyone; Richard because he was alone to avoid getting taunted by his church-going peers.

Richard had taken Ada around to all his favorite haunts, which were basically the best places to eat in Kota Kinabalu according to his books. Whether halal or non-halal, to Richard, it was inconsequential. As far as he was concerned, semua pun boleh ba.

This was a good sign for Mother, for this was the first time that she was seeing Handsome Boy in the company of a female. As far as she was concerned, the more time he spent with Ada, the better. Her three elder sisters had already achieved grandma status; she couldn’t wait for the day when she could show off photos of her future grandchildren on Facebook too.

Father didn’t share Mother’s enthusiasm for an early holy matrimony for their only son. He was a man of few words and spent most days trekking in the jungle to hunt for wild boar and other game since his retirement two years ago. He was seated at the dining table today, sipping hot oolong tea after having his fill of pork.

“Catherine, your son is fat,” he said in his usual matter-of- fact way, causing his wife of 28 years to drop her spoon in shock.

“What a thing to say about your son! How is it possible that Handsome Boy is fat – why, he, he’s merely big-boned!”

Richard took in this exchange with muted humor.

At least he wasn’t that delusional to know that he was fat, although ‘fat’ in this context was just a really kind way of saying ‘extremely obese’.

Father let out a loud exhalation of breath.

“You feed the boy like you would a pig. And this” – he pointed at the 16-quart stainless steel pot in the middle of the table – “is why Richard is the tub of lard that he is today.”

This time it was Richard’s turn to drop his spoon.

Ouch! Time and experience had made Richard immune to jibes revolving around his body shape, weight and size but this new comment from Father was so hurtful, so stinging that he felt a pain gripping his heart as he had never felt before.

He looked to Mother for help, his eyes doleful and neck-chin wobbling in unison with his trembling lower lip.

Father and Mother were squabbling now with Mother squabbling more than Father since he was a man of few words after all. Abruptly, Father stood, noisily scraping the legs of his chair against the marble floor as he got up.

“Catherine, the boy must lose weight,” said Father.

And that was that.

***

Three weeks was all it took for Richard to feel like he wanted to run away from home. He knew he was being juvenile but he couldn’t handle the strict menu he was put on.

Oats for breakfast, oats for lunch and oats for dinner sprinkled with a handful of raisins and a light dusting of cinnamon powder. Thank God for his workmate, Edward Manjun, who pitied him by sneaking him a kueh or two for tea but that was all the respite he got. Every day, Father would get him to step onto the brand new, super high-tech Omron digital scale and had his weight taken down to the last gram in a log book. Any (excessive) cheating was a sure-fire option that would send Richard straight to hell.

Mother protested that Father was being cruel but Father wouldn’t have any of it.

But where could he possibly go? He thought with a shudder as his mind replayed a memory from his younger days of Father tying him up against the coconut tree outside their old house and whipping him with a rattan stick for attempting to shave the neighbor’s dog with a stolen Gillette razor.

The incident was a painful one and Richard still had the scars on his bum to prove it.

So rather than running away from home, the next best thing he could do was to escape Father and his oatmeal tyranny for a little while. This involved skipping out on the Sunday church service by pretending that he was down with a tummy ache.

It would be nice to have breakfast that wasn’t oats for once, thought Richard, as he heard Father’s old Proton roll out of the driveway. His mouth watered at the thought of a steaming bowl of Sarawak-style laksa from Kedai Kopi Yee Fung, located a stone’s throw away from the Gaya Street Sunday market. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to sneak out for a small bowl? He had some hours before his parents came back anyway, knowing how they liked to spend time chatting with the other parishioners.

***

Knick-knacks, thingamajigs, fluffy yellow chicks mislabeled as anak itik. There was always something to catch the eye and capture the interest of the hundreds of people who thronged Gaya Street every Sunday.

His hunger temporarily sated (Richard had slurped down the noodles, soup and all in a record 10 minutes), Richard thought that it would be a good idea to burn off the calories by taking a walk around one of Kota Kinabalu’s star attractions.

Richard weaved in and out of the crowd of bodies trawling up and down the street as best as he could given his size, taking a cursory glance at the open tables selling trinkets that were interesting only to the tourists and a few lingering minutes at the ones selling good things to eat.

It was the same sights and sounds (and smells) but the market never failed to perk him up.

Feeling a little out of breath, Richard stopped in front of a random table. It was only when he managed to catch a few gulps of air that he noticed that the table was lined with two rows of stone pestles. There was also a small sign hand-written in black marker pen propped up against a little wooden easel that read:

“Beli la saya supaya kau kurus. Nda paya pil, diet pun nda paya. TIGA PULUH SEJAAAAAAA.”

The old lady at the other side of the table eyed him with the bored look of a seasoned seller.

“Ai aunty, lesung batu ba ni. Buli ka kurus pakai ni?” asked Richard.

“Ish, bukan lesung batu ba ni. Ni batang megik,” said the old lady.

Now that just sounded wrong but but before he could bring up that point, the old lady continued: “Jadi? Murah suda ni batang megik ni, tiga puluh ringgit seja. Cepat lagi ko kurus pakai ni daripada ko exercise.”

Richard stifled a laugh. What a riot! Did the old lady think he could be fooled?

But just then a good-looking young man in his mid-twenties dropped by at the table. He had an athletic build; the kind that boasted of an active, healthy lifestyle and hours spent lifting weights.

Richard looked on with a pang of envy.

“Aunty! Betul oh yang kau cakap. Mimang berkesan betul ni batang. Suda sa try semua tapi ni juga la yang dapat bagi sa kurus. Megik oh!”

What! For real?

“Are you saying this thing works?” Richard blurted out.

The man turned to face him.

“Man, I thought the same thing like you when I first saw this. I thought no way, you have got to be kidding me but you know what?” said the man and dropped his voice to a whisper. “This shit is real, bro. It’s fucking magic.”

Thoughts raced through Richard’s mind faster than a bullet train. Fuck! Magic? If that… batang megik could make him shed half his weight, that was more than miraculous already.

He had to find out more. More! This was the solution that will give return his two breakfasts, lunch, tea and dinner back to him. And more importantly: No more oats. Plus, if he was lucky… maybe, just maybe he would have a chance to impress his only lady friend and ask her out for a date…

Words were swapped and money changed hands.

The old lady fanned herself as she watched Richard walk away, batang megik in hand.

***

To be honest, Richard did have his doubts the moment he reached home with his find of the day. Seated on the floor of his bedroom, he turned the batang megik this way and that, paying close scrutiny to any tell-tale sign of magic.

But oh, come on! What was he expecting? This was real life; not some Harry Potter movie! Still, didn’t Walt Disney say something along the lines of, “Magic happens to those who believe”? In any case, it was worth a shot.

Besides, it was only thirty ringgit.

***

Two weeks later and with just two kilos of weight loss achieved, Richard was forced to accept that he was a victim of a con job. He felt let down but not because he had lost thirty ringgit; it was because he had done what the guy had told him to do – to carry the, err, batang megik with him at all times and it would magically help to shed the weight like crazy. He had it strapped onto his body and it had remained hidden from prying eyes for it was safely tucked beneath the folds of his tummy.

So, two kilos. Richard had at least 62 kilos more to lose if he wanted to get into the normal BMI range. He imagined that the next 20 years of his life would be dedicated to eating oats thrice daily. It was enough to make him blanch.

Still, thirty ringgit was thirty ringgit and on principle, Richard wasn’t about to let some old aunty get the better of his lack of wit and money.

And so, just as it was a fortnight earlier, Richard made his way to the Gaya Street Sunday market and was surprised to see the same man at the same table.

“Bro! I knew you would come back!” said the man, all excited. “I forgot to tell you something important that will help to lose all the weight!”

The old lady, seated at the other side of the table, looked on wordlessly with what Richard supposed was her signature bored expression.

“Ok, so let’s have it.”

“You have to run. That’s it. A 10 kilo sprint through the forest. That’s when it works best – you know, in nature. It takes in all the energy from the forest spirits. Oh and you have to make sure to hold it in your hand. Two works perfectly – one for each hand for double the power.”

Of all the crazy…

The man clapped his hands onto Richard’s shoulders. They felt firm. Strong. Convincing.

“Bro. Believe me. If anything, I’m living proof that these babies are magic.”

The old lady fanned herself as she watched Richard walk away, another batang megik in hand.

***

The preceding weeks were a time filled with rubber pounding against hard ground and the wind breezing through Richard’s hair. Running with the two batang megik was no easy feat but with a little bag carrying a bottle of water and an energy bar secured against his back, everything seemed doable.

After all, he had magic on his side.

And the weight, it did shed like crazy like the man said it would, spurring Richard to add an extra kilometer to his routine by the week.

Mother had even stopped pestering Father to let him have more food. In fact, seeing the determination his son was putting in to lose weight had softened up the old man so Richard was starting to see a little more variety in his diet. Why, just last week he was allowed to have two pieces of pancakes with a small pat of butter for breakfast. Victory!

It was truly magic and everybody noticed the difference – so much that instead of the usual taunts, Richard received words of encouragement from his colleagues at work and the parishioners at church. He was no longer Ham Boy; he was Champion. And Edward Manjun now gave him an energy bar for tea instead of kueh.

Nobody was prouder than Richard when his father logged in his weight loss progress six months later – an amazing 50 kilos gone. The achievement made Mother to shed a few tears and Father conceded that it was all right for Richard to have a bowl of his favorite pork belly braised in soy sauce, his first bowl since he was forcefully put on a weight-loss journey. After all, it was a cause for celebration, said Father, but Richard enunciated that he would prefer to have it in a smaller bowl.

As for Ada Wong? Well, Ada started dating a guy from church – a bookish-looking man with a shy smile called Raymond. Richard felt a little bad for disappointing Mother but in place of a girlfriend, Richard gained a new friend and a running buddy in Raymond, further cementing the friendship Richard already enjoyed with his first true friend from church.

In any case, Richard’s weight-loss journey was far from over; he still had 16 kilos more to go until he achieved his ideal BMI. Most of the fat had converted to lean muscle mass, giving Richard a runner’s build that he could only previously dream of, though there was still a softness to his belly that stubbornly clinged on. Still, compared to where he was half a year earlier, Richard was certain that it would be a breeze for as long as he had his batang megik…

An involuntary smile crept onto Richard’s face as he recalled the time when he first came across the old lady selling the weight-loss promising batang megik and the subsequent visit he had made. It seemed almost funny when he looked back at that memory. The experience had shaped him to become wiser:

There was no magic item in the world that could guarantee weight loss; just grit and self-discipline.

Yet, perhaps out of habit, the batang megik became Richard’s faithful companions on his runs.

Or perhaps he saw them as a sort of lucky charm, with one held in each hand…

After finishing his small bowl of Sarawak-style laksa at Kedai Kopi Yee Fung, located a stone’s throw away from the Gaya Street Sunday market, Richard decided that he would like to take a walk around the entire stretch and see if there was anything that could catch his eye and capture his interest.

He almost laughed out loud when he spotted the old aunty selling lesung batu marketed as batang megik but not before he spotted a young man, who was fat in every sense of the word, looking at the rows of heavy tools with rounded ends with a skeptical expression on his face.

Richard instinctively knew what he had to do.

“Aunty! Betul oh yang kau cakap. Mimang berkesan betul ni batang. Suda sa try semua tapi ni juga la yang dapat bagi sa kurus. Megik oh!”

And thus, Richard’s magical weight-loss story came full circle.

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