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It rained last night. Water covers the road, much of it.
Papa is driving our tortoise car. Jerk! We feel something. The car is sinking. Papa looks behind, and steps on the gas pedal.
The car shudders and chugs. The back tyres almost go missing in the mud.
Papa presses the gas pedal again, but it only sputters and coughs.
Nobody pulls over and offers help, even those who know Papa.
We are stranded.
An Englishman stops his lorry and asks papa what is happening in English. Papa looks at Mama and she starts explaining.
The Englishman smiles and orders his Iban workers to push our car. When they are pushing, Papa presses the pedal, and mud splatters all over them. Papa’s car is back to life. The workers cheer.
The workers tell mom something, and she nods.
Papa only grins at them. We grin too.
When the Englishman man and the other men are gone, Mama explains that the workers will clean themselves in a nearby drain.
We continue with our journey. Papa sighs, his shoulders relaxed.
The nearer we come to the Sungei Belait, the heavier my heart sinks.
But I feel relieved for leaving that school. Other children picked on me.
Thinking of where we used to live, my throat tightens. Aunties, the Churchill statue, Nanak, and Tutty. I will never see them again.
The road is bumpy, making me sick.
Ah Hui and Weng Weng are talking. Anything is new to them. Those things that we pass by..
Mama is silent. For days she has been like that.
My grandparents lived not far from us.
Every time on our trip back home on a bus, mama pointed somewhere. Our grandparents lived there.
I asked her questions – How do grandpa and grandma look? Why we never see them?
Mama did not explain why.
One time, when Papa was not home, Mama said we were going to visit our grandparents.
We shouted with joy.
We put on our best, and Mama smiled. In a few minutes, an uncle would come in his car and take us to our grandparents’ house.
All morning we had been taught the right things to do and say.
An hour passed, we started getting impatient. Mama did not say anything. No phone call could be made.
We had no telephone. From time to time, she peeked out the window.
We fell asleep.
When we woke up, Mama told us that we were not going to our grandparents’ house. We cried. But very quickly, we played again.
The wind beats against my face. How nice.
And I sing, singing Chinese kid songs. Mama hums along.
She has a nice voice. In Brunei, wherever she went, if she felt like singing, she opened her mouth and sang.
The wind turns mama’s hair into a nest. She doesn’t care.
Papa has been driving for hours. He looks ahead. Now the road is only wet, but not flooded and the customs office is not far.
The vehicles ahead slow down. They form a long queue. The sun beats down. Hot!
Mama gives Ah Hui a large bottle, and we take turns sipping from it. Mama passes us some sandwiches.
I love the salted pork in between. I love the grease.
Papa chomps down on two sandwiches, and very fast, they are gone.
The customs office is not far. But Papa’s car is moving like a snail. There are so many cars in front of us.
I look out the window. The road is like packed sardines.
My eyes are itchy.
I rub both eyes and look out the window.
Why? Everything has become blurred. Where are the cars?
Two shadows, I saw two, one old man and another a little girl.
The little girl is in the old man’s arms, playing.
The old man pats the girl’s head. But unexpectedly he coughs.
He coughs so much. He wheezes. Then, he falls and becomes a butterfly.
The girl is all by herself, and she is searching everywhere for the old man.
Then, she turns into a woman. She moves her arms and then turns her body around.
It turns dark, and a large room appears.
The woman is dancing with a man. They dance and dance.
The man soon loses interest. He leaves the woman alone. She cries.
Another man appears. They hug. They go into a house. Flowers fall on them.
The woman is pregnant. She gives birth to a girl. A butterfly flutters over her.
It vanishes and the woman’s stomach is again full.
A boy comes out through the woman. Then she is pregnant again. Another boy comes out of her too.
A family, they are a family.
Together they come to a house. But the gate is too tall.
The man and the woman try to reach for the latch, but they can’t. They cannot enter.
The family returns to their house.
The mother looks out the window. Very far away there are a lot of fruits in the house with the tall gate. They are all bundled up in a net.
At the end of the net, a knot is there, tied up tightly.
It wags its tail. The woman shakes and she screams.
The husband also growls, pulling his hair. The three children join in, too.
Their shouting turns into a large cobra.
It sticks out a forked tongue, hissing.
The snake coils up in the air, opens its jaw wide, and devours them all, then the house, and everything around it, and moves towards a distant patch of red.
The cobra crawls. And slowly, it begins twisting, rolling in the red and the scene is back – that of the jam-packed vehicles.
I look at the view in front of me, blink, and rub my eyes.
After parking our car, my family and I enter the customs office.
Many people are lining up.
Some tell us that they have been standing for a long time.
Papa smiles and says that is fine with him.
Fine with him? Look at the line of people, I gasp.
Thirty minutes have passed, and there are still no officers to do checking and we are almost turning into trees.
Mama looks at the crowds.
There is some laughter behind the counter.
The officers inside are talking and eating.
I look at the time. It is ten minutes past two.
An official comes out of the side door, his mouth still munching.
He scans the throng of people awhile, makes a tsk-tsk sound, and then vanishes behind the door again.
The cardboard sealing the hole at the counter is lifted, followed by the booming voice of a woman, “What are you looking at? Can’t you see I’m busy? You, lakas!”.
The throng at the front moves forward.
One by one, the people have their passports stamped.
But when it comes to the ninth person, it stops moving again.
I scurry out of the line and peek into the hole.
Where is the woman? In it there are a few magazines, a large book that is open.
The scrawls in it are hard to read.
Mama rushes over and pulls me back into the waiting line.
After a while, the line is in motion again. Everyone is quiet. Only the woman shouts here and there. My legs are tired, and so I kneel down.
When it is our turn, Mama rushes forward and speaks to the woman.
The woman stamps our passports and we move on to the next checkpoint.
In front of the officers, the people unzip their luggage, pour out the contents, and lift them up. Some officers glance over the luggage bags, ruffle up the insides before declaring them safe.
“I’m feeling so bored!’” I complain. “Chin Bang!”
“That’s life,” Mama whispers. “We’re here to suffer. If you’re able to swallow all the bitterness of life without batting an eye, you are a man among men.”
My pupils become large.
It is not easy, and after a long time, our luggage is checked.
Out of the gate, we enter another customs office.
It has more booths. We go through the same things, but much faster.
We are back on the road, passing a stand of dry trees.
I ask Mama what happened to them, but she is deep in thoughts again.
Ah Hui takes the only magazine in the car and flips through it.
A dress catches her eye.
She tells me that being a fashion designer is her dream.
“When I big,” Weng Weng exclaims, “Wa ai cho garbage collector.”
This wakes Mama up from her silence.
“Weng, what are you saying? No way can you be a garbage collector.”
“But Mama,” Weng Weng said. “Wa….”
“Nonsense!” Mama cuts him short. “My family has a long line of doctors, teachers, and engineers. Study hard and you will find yourself among them.”
Weng Weng pulls a face.
Papa looks sideways at Mama.
He wants to say something but gulps it all down.
Mama’s hands are tightly clenched.
She squeezes a handkerchief, the one with three children embroidered onto it.
Ah Hui and Weng Weng are now playing a game of rock, scissors, and paper.
Their fists are above their heads. They swing them down, showing what they turn out to be. They laugh. They groan. They shout. And they laugh again.
Mama’s face is still like a wooden board.
Upon arrival at the ferry point, I breathe inwardly.
The sea lies side by side with the river, not blending into each other.
We take in the view of sampans and speedboats along both sides of the river.
Papa is hugging Mama from behind.
His palms clasp over hers, but Mama looks blank.
The air smells of diesel, and I cover my nose, almost retching.
Mama is looking to the south.
She grabs Papa’s hands and suddenly yanks them down, leaving him bewildered.
She runs away, heading the south, not bothering to pick up the handkerchief that she has thrown.
The handkerchief lays on the grass.
Papa picks it up and runs after Mama.
I am quite worried. I call Mama out loud.
A few times in the past, Mama did the same thing. While we were out on the town, she told us to wait for her in one place and disappeared for hours on end.
At first, we were excited, playing hide and seek or other games.
But after some time, Mama’s long absence had alarmed us, and with our hands held together, we cried aloud for Mama.
Just as we were starting to draw attention, she appeared and quickly took us to the bus station.
I run towards Mama. One slipper of mine slips off and I run back to pick it up.
By then Mama and Papa have disappeared somewhere along a line of stalls. I cry and behind me, Ah Hui and Weng Weng are gaining up, shouting, “The ferry’s coming. The ferry’s coming.”
A short distance away, some children are walking around barefoot, laughing.
Their mothers follow closely, scolding them.
They carry on their backs handwoven cylindrical baskets with motif designs.
Their faces are sweaty, and their mouths are busy chewing something that stains their teeth red.
On the other side of the road two men—skin rough and lined from the sun, are puffing away on rolled cigarettes.
Some young men stroll as they crack jokes and nudge one another. Dark, spiralling, wavy tattoo lines make their muscular arms and chests appear bigger.
I am unable to speak.
Ah Hui and Weng Weng are asking me what is happening.
Minutes later, Papa and Mama reappear.
Papa’s hand is patting Mama’s back. Mama is weak.
Our car goes on board, and very soon, the ferry starts sounding its whistle.
All our eyes gaze towards the bank far opposite, Miri.
Papa’s eyes are bright and shining. Mama’s are half-shut, blinking and watery against the sunlight. Ah Hui only has eyes for her shoulder-length hair.
She is playing with it when suddenly Weng Weng’s eyes widen and he points, shouting, “Kua, over there, Er Yu!”
The crocodile is bobbing like a log near the bank, its wide-open mouth a V-shaped cup against the sky. It is playing with a buzz of flies.
Mama tells Papa that she needs some fresh air and gets out of the car.
Mama straightens her back and leaning her elbow on the rail, she looks down the side of the ferry, as if counting the splashes of water against it.
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