An extract from a novel by Pamela Loke, with the working title I Don’t Have Much Time.
Monday 23 June 1997
The shrill ringing is persistent, and it is coming for us. It takes me a while to work out the source of the noise, which is the wall-hung telephone inches from my head. I groan and pick it up.
‘What are you doing?’ A voice splits through my sleep like an axe in a wall. ‘Do you know what time it is?’
Tim turns away from the blaring receiver. I turn the handset upside down and speak into the mouthpiece end, holding it like a microphone.
‘Come down straight away! Mr Lee is going to get a parking ticket.’
‘What are you doing in Penang?’ I raise my voice, my rising panic now matching Father’s agitation.
‘What am I doing? I am downstairs in the car with Mr Lee, that’s what! Do you want Mr Lee to get a ticket? Mercedes-Benz, white colour, okay? Out on the front.’ The line goes dead.
Tim sits up. ‘Who was that?’
‘My dad is outside with some Mr Lee. He’s asking us to go down.’
‘What?’ Tim bolts out of bed, tripping over the blankets and almost falling on his face. I get out from the other side, equally disoriented by the unfamiliar hotel room. We stand slack-jawed in our boxers and T-shirts, staring at each other.
‘Now?’ Tim asks as he tries to flatten his hair. ‘Have you arranged to meet your dad here?’
‘No, I haven’t! He doesn’t know we’re in Penang.’
That is obviously a stupid thing to say now.
I go into the bathroom and splash my face with water. Father was in Tokyo when we left Singapore for Penang yesterday. Now he’s downstairs.
‘Shit,’ I mutter as I shove a toothbrush in my mouth.
Tim starts to rummage in his rucksack for some clean clothes.
It is easy to find Mr Lee’s car because of the noise.
Father is drumming his fingers on the open window next to him, to the tune of his favourite number by Gene Autry. Some dead cowboy reminiscing about a girl he left behind, down Mexico way. The song soundtracked the desperate hours I spent mugging for my A levels in our tiny flat.
A man in his early thirties gets out from the driver’s seat and opens the back doors for Tim and me. We thank him and climb into the car.
Father turns off the music and launches into introductions, his voice too loud for the confined space.
‘This one Mr Lee, young Lee, okay? Old Mr Lee is his father, very well known in Penang.’
‘Hello Mr Lee, I’m Tim.’
‘Ya, Mr Lee, this one my son-in-law. From England. My daughter, younger one.’
The driver nods at us, and I tip my chin to return the acknowledgement. Father doesn’t have any friends, so he must be a client. If Mr Lee is too precious to open his mouth, then so am I. Just because my father is in his father’s pay doesn’t mean I am beholden to any of the Lees.
I pull out my tourist map and shove it back into my rucksack. We’ve not left the hotel forecourt and I already feel I may get car-sick.
‘Pa, why are you in Penang?’ I lean forward, putting on my polite-but-assertive voice.
‘Hullo, Tim! Welcome to Penang. My home town, you know.’ Father turns and offers a hand to Tim, who shakes it enthusiastically.
‘So nice to finally meet you, Mr Mok! Yes, Shan told me you were born here.’
‘You know the British ruled here? I was in the British army. Sergeant, I was.’
‘Shan didn’t tell me that! Did you enjoy—’
The car brakes sharply and I slam into the back of Father’s seat, which thankfully is upholstered in soft leather. Several vehicles are honking in protest as Mr Lee resumes driving.
‘Alamak, driving a Proton still want to speed,’ Father grumbles to Mr Lee in Hokkien, gesturing to the brown car ahead that is moving into the middle lane. So only luxury badges are entitled to overtake. This is funny coming from Father, who has never owned a car.
‘Really stupid of me,’ Tim mumbles as he fastens his seat belt. I catch his eye. You okay? I mouth. He nods, looking discombobulated.
In the rear-view mirror, I see Mr Lee raising an eyebrow when he hears the clicks of our seat belts. I assume he considers seat belts an insult to his skill as a driver.
Mr Lee’s entitlement as a road user is unrivalled, if we were to go by Father’s logic: his Mercedes-Benz has more chrome detail than any car I have seen. Tall, trim, and handsome, Mr Lee keeps his moustache brief and lofty, and clear of both lip and nose. His sharp cheekbones are topped by a pair of sunglasses rimmed in the thinnest band of gold. He is sporting a windbreaker, of a style worn by playboys in 1980s soap operas, while everyone else is sweltering in shorts and T-shirts. I sense that Mr Lee, young as he is, is the sort of man who finds proximity to women of child-bearing age indecorous—unless they are going to bear his children.
A Chinese woman with a white boyfriend is probably beyond the pale for someone like Mr Lee. If so, why is Father so obviously showing us off to his associate?
‘Where are we going?’ Tim asks.
‘Finding breakfast place,’ Father answers as we pass several restaurants and coffee shops already bustling with trade. I suspect he and Mr Lee are on a pedantic quest, for what they think is the best version of the same food that everyone is dishing up around us.
We pass old streets lined with shop houses, discordant districts with tired-looking malls, and cordoned-off areas where tower blocks and intersections are in the making. Construction dust plumes against bright blue sky. It reminds me of my school commutes back in Singapore, which were fraught with traffic jams and last-minute diversions.
I lean forward again to talk to Father.
‘Pa, we’ve not got a lot of time here. I need to visit Duar Erm and be back in time for Victor’s wedding.’
‘Huh? My sister-in-law? Can, of course, can take you.’
‘Okay!’ Father raises his voice, as if addressing a crowd. ‘We are here already. Tim, you can eat spicy?’
Mr Lee parks the car by a narrow lane. He gets out and opens the passenger door for Father.
‘I feel nauseous,’ Tim whispers as we follow the two men. ‘The headroom at the back isn’t great. What’s happening now?’
We stop at an open-sided canteen: four concrete pillars supporting a roof, with room for a handful of tables and a small kitchen. Rattan blinds painted with blue and white stripes hang in uneven lengths on the side where the sun is strongest. Coffee shops like this used to be commonplace in Singapore, but back then we could only afford to eat at home.
‘Are we near Duar Erm’s house?’ I persist.
‘The best laksa in all Mer-lay-see-yah!’ Father announces, as a man behind him sets down four bowls of the steaming noodles. Refined carbs drowning in saturated fat and MSG, which I haven’t touched for years.
I fumble in my purse. Mr Lee flicks a crisp note into the hand of the vendor, with a curt shake of the head that means change is not required.
I have seen this move in films like Shanghai Tycoons and Gangster’s Revenge. Does Mr Lee iron his bank notes?
While the rest of us eat the noodles, Mr Lee surveys the perimeter of our table like an alpha lion. When we finish, he pushes his untouched food in front of Tim. Turns out the fourth serving is intended for the big ang moh—who, according to Father, must have a big appetite.
As Tim works his way through the bonanza, I read the time on the overwrought face of Mr Lee’s Rolex. Ten minutes past eight.
‘Why did you get us up so early?’ I ask Father after Mr Lee disappears into the recesses of the canteen. Tim has gone to the toilet around the side, hopefully not to be sick.
Father widens his eyes. ‘You call this early? Got so much to do in Penang! Don’t worry, when we finish we bring you back to hotel. Isn’t this laksa the super best?’
‘I want to see Duar Erm. Can we go see her now?’
‘Will take you, don’t worry. Heh. Heh!’ He stamps his foot to disperse the stray cats congregating under the table.
Tim returns from the toilet, just as several cups of fruit juice are delivered to our table.
‘I didn’t know what you like so I got one of everything,’ Mr Lee says as he returns a clipper of ringgits to his pocket.
‘You must try everything, then you find what is your favourite!’ Father adds jubilantly.
The condensation on the iced plastic cups is dribbling off the table. Tim looks crestfallen. He cuts an ungainly figure among the flimsy furniture around us, as if constantly tangled by them. His hair curls into damp clumps in the humid air and heat rashes are beginning to appear on his neck.
Tim and I only manage three of the juices. I think of the sick-making car journey ahead of us.
When we get up to leave the canteen, I yank at Father’s sleeve and force him to slow down, so that we are out of earshot.
‘Pa, I don’t want to make you lose face with Mr Lee, but if I don’t get to see Duar Erm I won’t get in his car again.’
Father bares his teeth and clicks his tongue in irritation. He looks like he is about to break into one of his choice picks from the Hokkien vocabulary: weird cunt, silly cunt, stinking cunt. His expressions for mild annoyance back home, whenever Koon and I have to remind him to turn down the music or flush the toilet.
‘You won’t know how to get to her house if we don’t take you, so if you don’t get in his car you won’t get there, okay?’
He then heaves his shoulders to let out a sigh, as if about to deliver some bad news.
‘Ah, Mr Lee, we go now to see my sister-in-law, the one near Lockwood Estate. I borrow your hand phone? Will call her son now.’
When we reach the car, I tell Father and Mr Lee that Tim would like to sit in front, to better take in the sights on our way to Duar Erm’s.
Father says he is happy to swap. After settling into the back seat next to me, he takes out a crumpled piece of paper, squints at it, and punches a number on the keypad of Mr Lee’s mobile phone. He does this one digit at a time.
‘Ah, Gok Seng. Ya, coming to see your mother, okay? Bringing my younger daughter and her boyfriend.’
There is a pause. I strain my ear, but any discernible speech on the other end is drowned out by roadworks outside the car.
‘Har? Okay. Can, can.’
Father hangs up. ‘Cannot go today.’
‘Wait, why can’t we go?’ I ask.
‘He said they not in,’ Father says. ‘Go tomorrow.’
Mr Lee turns towards Tim. ‘We’re near the Snake Temple. Quite famous. Want to have a look?’
‘Yeah, why not,’ Tim says. ‘Sounds interesting.’
I would have put my head in my hands if I weren’t feeling queasy.
The star attraction at the Snake Temple is a hut occluded by incense, which is full of soot-covered snakes draped over poles and baskets. I say I’ll wait outside. Listing this way and that in the courtyard, I kill a mosquito on my leg and wish I still smoked. If I kick one of those brass urns overspilling with joss sticks, will it tip over? Or has it been cemented to the floor?
I had tried phoning Gok Seng from Singapore but there was no answer. Koon was certain Duar Erm hadn’t moved house—at worst it was an outdated telephone number, she said, but I could always find her at home.
Maybe I’ll just turn up later, take a taxi there.
The incense is insidious and cloying. I associate it with old people, uneducated people, and the brassy paraphernalia of the Chinese ghost month. It is the smell of Hell’s open gates, when the grass in our housing estate is ruined by braziers burning joss money. There are even dedicated pyres for mobile phones, karaoke machines, and Rolls-Royces, all fabricated from papier-mâché, for the enjoyment of relatives in the underworld.
In one shadowy antechamber, Father appears to be explaining something to the other men. There is a glow-in-the-dark quality about him. Perhaps it is the large, startling eyes, which stand out against his ruddy complexion, as do his thick, straight brows and full head of white hair. At school the kids told me he looked like Guan Gong, whose armoured figurines are a common sight in temples like this one. I cannot remember Father looking younger or getting older. His is an unchanging countenance, rather like Guan Gong, whose lacquered red face glowers from a million altars.
Children are intimidated by Father’s appearance, but to adults he is the picture of vitality, of the yang and the sanguine. This serves as apt promise of his prowess as a psychic fixer, a man who knows how to channel his life force through occult knowledge. People like the Lees, prosperous in worldly terms, rely on Father’s mystic vigour.
I am no stranger to this kind of patronage.
From a young age, we knew why Father was always invited to dinners and overseas trips that he couldn’t afford. We understood the meaning of the hand-me-downs that he kept bringing home: the achingly floaty dresses four sizes too small, the tricycle missing a pedal, stale confectionery that he boasted had cost more than a month of Koon’s salary. Other trophies were locked away as his own. We once glimpsed in his drawer the front foot of an alligator, so plumped up with stuffing that it looked babyish, which only added to its macabre allure. Not for casting spells, Koon reassured me, because she’d seen something similar in a shop window for exotic leather.
A pigeon scuttles across the yard to pick at a scrap of litter. I recognise Tim’s footfall behind me.
‘Man, it’s smoky in there,’ he says. ‘Why are snakes revered here?’
‘They’re not. It’s a gimmick for stupid tourists.’
‘Come on, Shan.’
‘I don’t want to be here. I’m not enjoying the company and I need to see my aunt.’
Tim changes the subject.
‘You dad seems quite knowledgeable about—’ He gestures to the altars inside the temple. ‘You said he’s some sort of shaman? Would it make enough money to support a family?’
‘If it did, my sister wouldn’t have left school at fifteen. But my dad had a day job. Was a hospital orderly for many years.’
The job was badly paid, but Father enjoyed the short hours and the infinite supply of yellow lotion and iodine from the medical stores—his cure-all for any injury. I remember the stains of those stinging liquids on my knees and elbows. The theft of hospital toilet paper was another job perk, and Father’s khaki work trousers were always bulging with the contraband. I never understood how Father’s clients, astute businessmen according to him, would have thought him much of a guru. As a child, I used to hold my breath whenever Father came near. He carried the stale smell of things held for too long, like crumpled bank notes in wet markets.
‘A shame Koon left school so young,’ Tim says.
I shrug. ‘Someone had to look after me.’
It is my boilerplate response and Tim has heard it many times. Koon would never spotlight the blame on me, but I can speak plainly.
Tim takes my hand. ‘And your sister did a great job.’
Father and Mr Lee are walking towards us, so I let go of Tim’s hand.
‘Thanks for bringing us here,’ Tim says.
Father inclines his head in gracious acknowledgement. ‘No problem, can bring you again.’
‘Great, I think we’ll return to the hotel now.’ I turn towards the exit.
The parking lot looks deserted even for a weekday. At the car Mr Lee closes his fist to cut the jingling of his car keys.
‘My father wants to invite you all to dinner,’ he says.
I shake my head. ‘He needn’t go to the trouble—’
‘No, no, you must meet the senior Lee!’ Father flaps his hand to make a gesture of swatting away my refusal but hits me in the eye instead. I turn sideways, half-blinded.
‘Shan! Are you alright?’ Tim dabs at my watering eye with a handkerchief that already feels damp. I wave him off and try to look dignified as I address Mr Lee.
‘It’s very kind of your father, but I am already committed to seeing my aunt. I’m sorry.’
‘Not to worry at all, we pick you up after you’ve seen your aunt. We will wait.’
I keep a grim silence as I get into the back seat with my hand over one eye.
Tim asks Father what music he was listening to earlier, and the crooning of Gene Autry resumes. I am grateful for the respite from conversation. We pass roundabouts lined with bougainvillea, and I can make out elegant boulevards with green lawns in the distance. It looks like the colonial quarter.
The Penang Free School must be nearby. Duar Erm was a cleaner and washerwoman there for more than twenty years. According to Koon, she worked overnight when everyone slept, which was the only way she could earn an income while caring for her husband and Gok Seng.
When did that factory blow up? Koon reckoned it was two years after Duar Erm came to us in Singapore. I can’t imagine what Duar Pek looked like when they pulled him out of the fire. Did Duar Erm ever resent trading in the life of her younger son for the puckered and maimed husband left to her care? For someone of Duar Erm’s generation, it would have been uncanny for her husband to survive his injuries while her healthy boy died in Grandmother’s custody. A life for a life, or some other mystical claptrap to excuse Grandmother’s negligence.
Mr Lee punches the car horn with the base of his palm, triggering a chorus of parps from the traffic around us. I grab the handlebar on the roof. We are crossing Penang Bridge at more than a hundred and forty kilometres an hour, according to the speedometer. I can also see Tim squaring his shoulders—his nerves must be frayed by Mr Lee’s demonstration of manly motoring.
But why are we crossing the bridge?
‘Aren’t we going to the Holiday Inn?’ I ask.
‘On the way there must eat some lunch because no good food near the hotel.’ It is Mr Lee who answers, and Father concurs with a sagely nod.
We ate breakfast less than three hours ago. I let out a long breath.
‘What a bridge!’ Tim enthuses, perhaps to compensate for his nervousness or my irritation. ‘An amazing engineering feat.’
‘Yes, hard to keep it up, you know,’ Father shouts from the back seat next to me. ‘Keeps falling down, not enough heads.’
‘Ah, do they need to add more columns?’ Tim asks.
‘No, columns come down without heads, need more power.’ Father sweeps his hand across the vista. ‘Penang sea current too strong.’
They continue to talk while I look out of the window. And then I tune back in.
‘Children ones. Adult heads harder to get, you see.’
‘What are you talking about, Pa?’ I ask.
‘Ya, Tim, here they make bridge strong with human heads,’ Father says, beaming.
Has he delayed this disclosure for maximum impact?
Tim usually walks out of the room when the conversation turns to the paranormal.
‘Gosh—okay,’ he says politely. ‘What do they do with the heads?’
‘Put them under the concrete, make it strong,’ Father answers.
‘Like using magic?’
‘Yes, yes, like magic in England, but not the same as fairies or witches.’
‘Do they buy the heads from hospitals or morgues?’
‘No, have to be taken from live people to have power.’ Father slaps his fist into the palm of the other hand.
‘They go to places you know, take heads from people not their friends, outside town, like Singapore. Take from Chinese and Indians, not their own. Mostly children lah, easier like that.’
‘You mean murder the children? Did the police not notice?’
‘But they cunning! For example, ya, the head-hunters burn a lamp using human fat. It burning with an invisible flame, but when you can see it, hah, you will see blue fire, by that time you gone case already, you go to the flame like sleepwalker like that, then they wait with a parang—gone!’
Father straightens his hand and slices it across his throat, drawing his mouth into a grim straight line.
‘With that lamp they can get adult heads also, the contractor pay more for those, one adult head hold same weight as four children heads.’
My stomach clenches with another swerve of the car. Does Father equate politeness with weak-mindedness? Can he not see that he is belittling himself to his future son-in-law by telling such ridiculous stories?
Mr Lee parks on a busy street and leads the way towards a row of shop houses with Father. I pull Tim back to let a convoy of cars pass before us. Mr Lee stands on the other side of the traffic and signals to us the chosen eatery, before following Father to find a table.
‘You shouldn’t encourage my dad like that,’ I say to Tim.
‘Just go with the flow, Shan—what’s the harm?’ Tim threads his fingers through mine. ‘You didn’t tell me your dad has a sense of humour.’
‘He is a fool and he talks rot all the time, if you call that funny.’
‘You’re being harsh.’
‘It’s fine for you because he’s not your dad. But it’s okay for my dad to behave like a clown because it’s entertaining for you?’
‘Woah, Shan, where did all this come from?’
I drop Tim’s hand and dart through the traffic to the other side of the road.