What people didn’t understand about me was that I returned only because I had no choice. They saluted me for coming back to the island, when my thoughts were with my local pub and Gemma and our half-heated flat on Parkview Avenue. It’s been five months since my visa expired. In the first few weeks, I sat in bed, turning the pages of my passport, touching the entry stamps, imagining the smell of icicles and of clothes drying on radiator tops. Slowly Gemma’s hand would enter the picture, a slim white hand adorned with beaded bracelets and sapphire bangles, moving to collect papers or to soak a teabag in a painted mug of boiling water. After the hand came the shoulders, skeletal and freckled, looking as though they would snap if they weren’t touched. Then her whole form would appear in front of me, like a sculpture. The hands, once flitting from papers to mugs to incense burners, stiffened. The eyes, green globes of stone, implied apology. She did not speak. More recently, she has disappeared altogether. Even her photographs no longer bring back her hologram. And she has stopped writing.
Over three years ago, Coal Island turned monochrome, every wall and tree, a variation of the colour brown. I moved between one friend, a set of parents and a sister who had just been diagnosed with manic depression and was therefore more important than I was.
One evening when we were drinking Jumbo Juice at a mamak stall, I said to my friend Kumar—who was also backhandedly dismissed in his household, in his case, for being a writer—”You ever think it’d be nice to leave this place?”
“Leave?” he replied, looking shocked. “Never, man. This island is bursting with stories.”
“That’s good for a writer, but what am I to do with stories? Damn it, lah. My life is one of those stories. You know what it’s like to live with a mother who keeps telling her daughter ‘Come on, lah, Mary darling, Mummy’s own special child, just eat one spoonful. Then you can go back to bed. Mummy promise, OK?’ And you know what that’s for? Just to make her eat four spoonfuls of porridge. Then she’ll talk all night. On and on she goes. Suddenly, she’ll stop and my mother cries in the toilet. She thinks I can’t hear her? And my father is patting Mary on the head, saying, ‘It’s OK, molé, just one word. I know you can do it.’ Go on. Take my life and write your story. But I tell you what, there’s no way I’m staying here much longer. And you want to know something else? When I leave, my parents will feel better because then they can really live together, just the three of them.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I’ve applied for a scholarship. England, Kumar, England. When I get there, I’m never coming back.”
“Take care, Kevin. No one should try to forget that much. You’ll come back for visits.”
“No way. Once I’m gone, I’m gone.”
It took the family nineteen years to realize that Mary was not just volatile. All the while, Mary’s tantrums were simply Mary’s tantrums. Once, she stared at a garden-plucked leaf for days, saying nothing to us and then announced, “I’m going to become a biologist. It’s the only profession that’s worth anything. That should be the only job in the world. And I’m going to have it.”
My father said, “It’s so wonderful to see that you have ambition, molé.” My mother said, “Aiyah, no need to be so…so…extreme, lah. Give it a few years. You might like something else.”
“No! Bloody no! Don’t you dare tell me what I will do in the future!” Mary shouted, running upstairs, landing a foot on every stair as though she were pushing a brick into an impossible hole. It was a relief when she began collecting dead grasshoppers in silence.
It went on like that—Mary professing an absolute opinion and then reverting to her dimension of wordless thought—until, one day, she found a way to multiply her absolutes and take them in, all at once.
“Listen to me!” she said, her voice bleeding with a rusty quality. “You have to see it all! All, OK? The morning glories! The squirrel! The storm! The spirits! God! God! God! He is everywhere! I have found the Lord! The Lord is not in the church. The Lord is here in this petal. Look. Take it.”
“That’s nice,” my mother replied, taking the purple petal from Mary and dropping it so that it floated like a temporary cradle before landing on the floor. “Pastor John will be glad to hear you’ve found the Lord but remember, the Lord is in the church, too. Mary, now you must be honest with me. Who is this boy?”
“Oh, and the sun talked to me today,” Mary continued as though my mother hadn’t spoken. “It told me that there is only happiness to be found here. Isn’t that wonderful? Just wonderful! And last night the moon said to me, ‘Even in darkness there is light.’ I am so blessed! Isn’t the world just the greatest place in the world?”
Then my father said, “Mary, why didn’t you answer your mother’s question? Who is the boy?” His eyes were gaunt and night-like.
But Mary went on, “The fresh leaves! The soil! The worms! The nests! Orange clouds! Rain! Pineapple! Cobras! Mudswampsfishaloeverawindandstorms!”
For two days, Mary sought the world. She went digging in the garden and collected a colony of earthworms which she left out on the front porch. She took the tudung saji from the kitchen and covered her worms with it—an original worm-tent. Then she plucked morning glories, hibiscuses, frangipanis and anthuriums and scattered them in the worm-tent. She jumbled them up, a distinct chop suey. Soon spiders, praying mantises, grasshoppers and dragonflies featured in the fusion. She didn’t sleep or eat. She sat by the complex tent, refusing our presence. I wanted to peer into that world she had created, but she was its constant guard. All I could see, through the gaps of the tudung saji, were colours. Brash, lonely colours.
“You see,” she finally said, “a voice did come to me. It told me that I have been chosen to rule the planet. What to do? I can’t ignore it.” She lifted the tudung saji. Joyous flies had joined her world.
“Now, here you see the big mix,” she carried on. “This big mix is a metaphor for the planet. So I was doing all the work, not knowing that I was actually preparing for my vocation. With my new job, I’ll have to have lots of meetings with the public. Daddy, can you arrange this for me?”
My parents secretly drove her to Dr. Poh, the only psychiatrist on the island. They took a convoluted route to “Bright Future Clinic” because in a place like Coal Island, knowledge of mental affliction is seen as more damning than, say, adultery or incest. You’d get more sympathy if you had broken a leg than if you were to admit that your life had been spent trying to ward off an unrecognized illness.
They brought her home that day, saying nothing. My mother made herself a tumbler of Ovaltine and played with her rosary while she stared at the only papaya tree in the garden. My father, having put Mary to bed with a handful of pills, was in the bathroom for hours. Left alone, I sat in my room with a few tins of beer that I had found in the fridge. Each time I looked into my drink and saw the bubbles lift from the base of my glass to gather and dissolve at the surface, I thought I understood why bubbles did that. A glittering string, not unlike golden thread, brought me closer towards the bubbles, the holy charms of Carlsberg, where, in that unity, I also understood that Mary and her diseased moods would now sit on the roof of this house and call out to us, asking for relief, for an ear, for our bodies to lie prostrate in devotion.
Mary’s illness became the third child and although I was the second child, I was promoted to first rank. Up there, you become a Hercules. The giant is fit to leave home whenever he chooses, is capable of exhuming any kind of resource presented to him and can survive with just his shadow for company. Mary would remain tucked in bed with stacks of pills and her parents’ four-dimensional vision that often translated into brutal love. I don’t mean brutal in the conventional sense of the word. Basically, they could not give her up. The rice cooker became a perpetual place for porridge, a calming food for the mind. The papayas on the tree were never given a chance to fall from maturity. “Eat this,” my mother would say, holding a spoonful of mashed papaya near Mary’s mouth, “it will soothe you.” Usually, Mary declined. My father found a new function for his credit card. He fitted a bookshelf in the storeroom and soon, it was filled with books on bipolarity which he repeatedly read and quoted from. Mary’s place was with her blanket and the hovering spoon. I don’t think she was even allowed to pour a glass of water and drink it.
Slowly, the glimmering string—the one not unlike golden thread—started playing with my new role as the first child, the giant. It knotted itself around me, garnering a lover’s warmth when I sat in bed with the bubbles that flattened by the hour, flattening as they did so, my supposed bigness. I was one of those rubber dolls at parades, plump and oily during the show, flying and waving up on the float for a day or two, before the demise begins. The contents, made only of air, cheap, accessible air, seeps away too effortlessly for the way it entered in the first place.
The bubbles and the glimmering string were inevitable friends whenever the weeping from my parents’ room became too audible for my liking or when Mary talked on a loop. “The radio is a beast,” she once said for two hours. My parents were at the market, buying mood-stabilizing foods. “What radio?” I asked after the first twenty minutes. But I never got to find out which radio she was referring to or why it was a beast. She seemed to be getting worse and I was beginning to detest her, or more specifically, her vague illness. It manifested itself in such diverse ways that I was never able to tell when it was Mary, the Person, talking. My parents returned from the market and placed a sleeping pill in Mary’s water. It was during those quiet moments, when Mary was asleep, that I saw their real faces, marked with lines, even little bubbles, popping up at all corners, anxious to be seen. They often looked beyond me, never directly into my eyes where I wanted them to meet me, because if they had seen what my eyes were made of, they would have discovered only half a son, something no parent wants to encounter.
Two years later, Mary was practically bed-bound. They refused to let her exert herself in any way and my mother still fed her porridge in the afternoons and nights, pulped papaya in the evenings. I tried telling them that if they allowed her to do some things for herself, she would feel more alive, more herself. But my mother said, “This kind of thing, ah, Kevin, you better leave to the adults.” And so I did.
When I received the letter saying that I had won the scholarship to study History at the University of Manchester, I told my parents that I would be leaving them in a few months. My mother, who was sitting with her rosary in front of the papaya tree, said, “That’s good, boy. You sure you’re ready? Daddy and I will miss you very much.” My father nodded and looked away.
“I’m too ready. I can finally go be myself.”
“What do you mean, boy?” my father asked, his face still turned away from mine. He removed a handkerchief and dabbed what turned out to be a few straying tears. I had not realized.
“Nothing. Just that there comes a time when a boy needs to go see the world.”
My father turned to look at me. The tears were gone. “Yes. You’re old enough and you don’t need to spend your whole life with parents who have no choice but to give you…we…I…really…very…”
“We can all be freer now. Just a bit.” Nobody replied.
I left three months later and arrived in Manchester on a sunless morning, underdressed. The streets were wet and the sky seemed to have a grand stock of water for the next hundred days. I spent my first ten pounds on an extravagant taxi ride from the airport to my flat. The buses were for people who hadn’t struggled to get there. The taxi driver said to me, “Where ya from, mate? Someplace in Asia I reckon. But I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
He was white-haired, unshaven and had a complex map of wrinkles on his face. He made me feel as though when he looked at me he could tell exactly what I was running away from and would use that knowledge to amuse himself when he was waiting for customers.
“Coal Island, I mean, Malaysia.”
“Malaysia! Gorgeous place, gorgeous place. That’s next to Vietnam, isn’t it?”
“No, sir. It’s above Singapore.”
“Oh yeah, I must have been thinking of some other place. Thailand, it was, yeah, I was thinking about Thailand. Still, I bet it’s gorgeous out there. What you doing here, mate? Come to soak up our sun? Heh. Heh.”
“No, sir. I’ve come to study.”
“Well, good luck to ya. And try not to get too depressed. Manchester has that habit, you know?”
“No, sir, I won’t.”
The flat was small, cold and overcrowded. There were two bedrooms and three of us, which meant that I had to sleep on the futon in the front room where people passed when they needed to use the toilet. My flatmates were English boys who ate out of tins and imagined that we had a special fairy-lady who would one day come to clean the place. “Don’t worry, Kev,” Jon told me when I asked if we should prepare a cleaning rota. “A lady’s gonna come sort us out with this shit. You’ll see.” She never did come.
Jon and David were English Literature students at the university, but I rarely saw them leaving for class or talking about work and so I concluded that they were either idiots or geniuses. Whatever the reality, they made no effort to explain themselves and I spent less time at home, not really wanting to communicate with them or to witness the rapid build-up of their filth around me. To sleep at night and to forget about the sweat-tipped socks, the half-full pizza boxes, the scattered tins of baked beans, the randomly strewn boxer shorts, I sat in a pub down the road and drank four pints of Stella Artois which always prepared me for my dreams on the futon. Waking up was a different matter. Sobriety jerked me out of bed and I brushed my teeth twice, ignoring the temptation to touch the opened box of Rice Krispies in the kitchen which, if in Malaysia, would have already housed a cockroach or two and a lizard. Breakfast was consumed at my department cafeteria. I ate fried bread, bacon butties, chip butties, crisp sandwiches, anything that would suck the acidity out of my stomach.
At university, I walked on the stony pavements with a rucksack on my back, filled with clothes, a few books, packed sandwiches from the cafeteria, my passport and my toothbrush. I didn’t trust that I would automatically return to the flat every night, even though I had nowhere else to go. I did try to make friends with my course-mates but our conversations were limited. One of the first people I talked to was a boy named Jim who came from the south of England. “Hello,” I said, “I’m Kevin from Malaysia.”
“Kevin? That’s not a very Asian name, is it?”
“It can be. We have Jims there, too.”
“You don’t say,” he replied and returned to his book.
I didn’t understand the abruptness of their sentences, or the way they called me mate when they had no plans of inviting me out for a pint. And apparently there was something in the way I spoke that made them feel too close to what they really weren’t close to.
Once I nearly made a friend. Greg, a course-mate, said to me while we were waiting for Professor McAdams to arrive, “You’re pretty quiet at tutorials. Do you have a problem understanding?” I didn’t think my presence had been analyzed at all. Somebody had taken the time to watch me and conclude something.
“Oh, no. I can understand things. I’m just not comfortable talking when I don’t know much.”
“That’s not the point though. Everybody’s got to have an opinion, mate.”
“What if you don’t?”
“Then something’s wrong.”
“Wow. I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. Listen, mate, a bunch of us are…” His eyes shifted to a group of boys and girls who were standing by the water cooler, arguing, it seemed, about Hitler. He watched them for a while and then said, “If Germany had won, how would that have impacted Asia?”
I thought about it. I didn’t know much about the Second World War. I tried to think of a deceptively informed answer but I couldn’t.
“Right then, mate,” Greg continued.”That’s OK.”
“What were the bunch of you going to do?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Really, mate, no worries.”
“You can come to my flat if you like. I’ll cook.”
“Seriously, mate, no worries.” Greg joined the water cooler group and, after that, we communicated through smiles.
I started reading up on European history and recreated various battles in my head, imagining that I was Nero or Henry VIII or Napoleon. The more I read, the more I remembered the giant I had been.
Every day I would buy a different chocolate bar and write home about it. “Dear Mummy and Daddy,” I wrote in one e-mail. “It’s a shame that you don’t have Aero chocolate in Malaysia. They put bubbles in it. Blimey. One of the benefits I suppose of living in England.”
When I discovered Bounty, I wrote, “Dear Mummy and Daddy, Here’s an irony for you. We grow the coconuts but the English have perfected the best coconut chocolate in the world. Wish you could try Bounty. Truly wicked.”
I wanted them to know that I was here, surviving, thriving, involved in every domestic speck of existence in a land of castles, swords, efficient trains and good chocolate. Despite that, I knew that to really flourish, I would have to at least attend a party, tell a successful joke, go to the shops with someone, even—if I could flourish that much—wake up next to a white body. But Jon and David, the only real English people who spoke to me (if only to find out whether the milk had gone sour or if I had a spare razor), were too self-contained to welcome me into their world of processed food and exhibitionist masturbation. Besides, we had known each other for almost a year and to throw my friendliness at them after so long would be like producing a delayed reaction to a piece of tragic news.
I had lost my chance at university as well. I was the shy Asian boy who was able to impersonate rulers of the past in a creepy way, and I could not undo that impression. The local pub I frequented, The Horse and the Kettle, was often empty and even when there were people, they were men over the age of sixty. I ran out of chocolate bars to test and I moved on to Cornish pasties. But this strategy of thriving or flourishing or whatever it was that I was hoping to achieve through my supermarket experiments was depressing me.
Then I gave up the tasting sessions and Gemma walked into The Horse and Kettle on a late Thursday night. She was small for an Englishwoman. She had the build of a Chinese girl, but she was pure white, like a jasmine flower or fresh milk (not the powdered kind). Her eyes were hard green but they produced a soft effect, making them out to be something like floor pillows. She sat next to me at the bar and ordered a glass of red wine, all the while, I imagined, aware of my presence. I could see her fingers tapping on the counter top and at the base of her glass while her eyes pretended to stay focused on the beer taps in front of her. But she was watching me with eyeballs that could sink to the lowest region of the eye and spy from there.
I remember saying before I could stop myself, “Good evening, Madam. It’s a pleasant night.” The tapping stopped. Without looking at me, she replied to the soiled pub air, “Is it?” She twisted a few tendrils of her ginger hair and drank her half-full glass of wine in one apparent gulp.
“Another?” I asked.
“Sure, why not? I did come here to get plastered, after all.”
When the next glass arrived, she finished it within a few minutes and I felt compelled to buy her another and another until her lips became blackened with the red of the wine and her mouth gave off an odour of rancid fruit.
“What’s…who’re you?” she demanded while she rested her head on my shoulder.
“Kevin. Madam, do you live close by?”
“Some…where. Over there, you know. Close? I dunno. I’m Gemma. Maybe. I’ll be OK.”
I took her back to my flat and put her to bed on the futon. I slept on the floor dressed in four jumpers, long johns and two pairs of trousers, but I still shivered and so I decided to stay up. I sat in the dark, thinking about Gemma, the only woman to have felt the rough fabric of my futon and who breathed like a child who’d had a long day of play. She was older—I guessed maybe fifteen years?—but she was more beautiful than any girl my age I’d known and not known. I was still thinking about her when she woke up and asked me if we had slept together.
“Of course not, Madam.”
“Oh, would you please stop with the Madam? I know Asians are into the whole respect thing but, frankly, it makes me feel old.”
“Alright, Gemma. What would you like for breakfast? We have baked beans and tea. Out of bread, I’m afraid.”
“Boys. They just can’t bear to live decently, can they? How about I take you out for breakfast as a thank you for not letting me sleep on a park bench like a regular tramp? And get me a glass of water, will you? My head’s killing me.”
Gemma and I ended up spending the entire day together at the cafe, talking. “So, Malaysia, huh?” she said, her floor pillow eyes fixed on the sky. I couldn’t see what was so grabbing there. It wasn’t blue. It had no clouds. She must have been associating it with something else, something finer, more delicious.
“Yes. Have you ever been?”
“No. But someday…I have this vision of me with a backpack, trailing the hot streets of Thailand, Malaysia, India, buying sweets at stalls, drinking tea with men and women who don’t understand what I’m saying, but that would be the least of their concerns, you know?”
“You can do that in Malaysia, on Coal Island. I’ll show you.” Her thighs were pink and shiny. She could endure the cold even when they were that bare. I let my hands fall on them, taking in her warmth.
“Really? You would? You’re such a sweet boy.”
“Of course I would. I can take you to the night markets and the villages and you can drink all the tea you like. We have pulled tea. They stretch out the tea. Up and down it goes.”
“How marvellous. You’re really very handsome, you know. Like a Hindu god.”
‘I’m half Chinese.”
When the cafe closed, we returned to the Horse and Kettle and drank as we had done the night before, but Gemma insisted on going home despite her condition.
“What if you pass out?” I said, stroking her arm. She squeezed my upper thigh and then, in a dash, landed her hand on my crotch.
“Well, my love, I simply can’t afford to faint along the way. My husband will be wondering what’s happened to me.”
I couldn’t imagine Gemma being married to anybody. If she had to be someone’s wife, she’d be mine. Perhaps they were on their way to an amicable divorce.
“You weren’t home last night. He didn’t call or care. Why’d he bother tonight?”
“Oh, John’ll care, of course he will. Last night he was in Paris for a conference. Tonight he’s expecting me by his side.”
“But…you mean, you’re happy with this man?”
“He’s my childhood sweetheart, so yes. Been together twenty-five years.”
“So you do this often then? Flirt with other men and then return to dependable John?”
“Never done it in my life. Feeling the guilt now of course. I’m not sure what this is but my poor John. He’d…he’d…oh, I don’t know what he’d do if he knew what I was doing. But I dunno, there’s something about you. It’s like we’ve been together in a past life. I could’ve been Asian.”
“You liked kissing me?”
“Yes. Now I must go. I really must.”
“Can we meet again? Please, Gemma. You’re my…I’ve never felt like this, like a man…who’s…who’s looked at by a woman.”
“Oh, dear god. I don’t know what I’m doing. John’ll…John’ll…I don’t know what John’ll…I want to. I do, I do want to see you again.”
“Then meet me here tomorrow night.”
Her face looked like a flower that moves rapidly through the stages of transition from a mere bud to a fully realized thing of its own. I knew she wasn’t lying and yet the situation was impossible.
“Yes. OK. But why don’t we just meet at your place? I’ll bring the wine.”
After that, whenever John was out of the house, Gemma came to the flat. Usually, we sat on my futon and talked. She was a housewife who loved baking bread but hated other domestic activities. John didn’t mind. He laughed off her homemaking inadequacies and even when they found out that she had a hostile womb, he explained that it wasn’t her womb that he had married. Every time she mentioned him, I felt something cold and sharp spin around in my body, but there was nothing I could do to stop her from admiring her own husband. When she wasn’t talking about John, she mentioned her various ambitions: to travel and eat breads from around the world, to live in a warm climate, to write her own cookbook, to be free.
It’s strange how I only discovered who John was two months into our affair. She talked about him at great length, but I never asked her any questions about him until one day I said, “So what is it that John does? You know, for a living.”
“Oh, he’s a professor in History at Manchester Uni.”
It was my fault, I suppose. We could have found out sooner if I hadn’t banned the subject of my studies from our conversations.
“Please tell me it’s not John McAdams.”
“That’s the one.”
He was the gentlest, cleverest man I had ever met. In fact, his were the only classes I loyally attended and he had been the one to assert that I had the intelligence to write a concise History of the World. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I accepted the compliment and went away delighted.
“So poor John is your professor,” Gemma said, “and here I am playing nookie with one of his boys. How awful. But I can’t help it. I love you, Kevin. And I love John.”
“You know you can’t have both. This whole thing isn’t healthy.”
“Of course I know that. Look, now it’s become worse…worse than when I was just keeping a secret from John. It’s a larger secret. An infinite secret.”
“And what now?”
“I’m going home and running myself a bath. That’s where I do all my thinking.”
I let her go, feeling desperate, contained, stunned. I wanted to write to my parents to tell them that my life had become a life. Instead I wrote to Kumar.
You’re not going to believe this. I don’t know how it happened. The whole thing is crazy but…here it is: I’m involved with a married woman! I met her at my local pub and she’s twenty years my senior. She’s gorgeous. Pale skin, green eyes, red hair. Damn exotic. Now, you’ll never guess who her husband is. Wait for it…my history professor! This all seems like it belongs to a movie or a novel but believe it or not, it’s my life. What should I do?
After two days, Kumar’s e-mail arrived:
Kevin, I know you’re excited about this soap opera but we’re talking about actual lives here. Don’t do it. You’re ruining more than you think.
But one week later Gemma announced that she was divorcing John. “We’ll get a place together,” she said. “I’ve some money and…if things get bad I can always go on the dole and get housing benefit. This is a new life for me, for us, two people from different countries, two different age groups, two different…different everything. This could be good, Kev. I just have a hunch about it. East and West. Me and You. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
We moved into a one-bedroom flat and when Professor McAdams found out who his wife had left him for, he stopped speaking to me. Surprisingly, my grades remained the same. Life with Gemma was a life I had never lived before. The flat became a place for everything that the outside world was too weak to give. There were the occasional weeping sessions for John and I pretended that those sobs and sniffles didn’t exist because every time they emerged, I became nothing at all. But, on the whole, we were happy.
In my final year at uni, I said to Gemma, “Not long left till my visa expires. How’s this going to work?”
“You’ll get a job.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I don’t know then.”
“I can’t. I’m still legally married to John.”
“Why is that taking so long?”
“These things take time.”
“When it goes through, will you marry me?”
“Oh, please don’t make this hard. I don’t think it’s advisable to jump from one marriage to the next.”
“You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?”
“I’ll always love him. Twenty-five years. It’s not easy to just drop everything and move on. I didn’t leave him because I stopped loving him. I left because I fell in love with someone else.”
“What am I to you?”
“You’re my lover.”
“Then marry me.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It can be. Please, Gemma. What if I can’t stay? I’ll be in Malaysia and you’ll be here. How can I be your life if I’m miles away?”
“I’m too old for you.”
“You’ve never been too old for me. Why start now?”
“Reality’s reality. John’s mature and secure, I mean, financially. Look at us. We’re struggling.”
“But that’s love.”
“I had love with John too and we didn’t suffer.”
“Then go back to him. Why do you have to waste our lives if you’re planning to be stuck on him until you die?”
“You need to grow up. When you’ve spent twenty-five years with someone, then you’ll know.”
“I plan to do that with you.”
“But I’ve already done that. Can’t you see? I’ve already experienced what you’re waiting to experience. Maybe this won’t work.”
“But I love you.”
“And I love you. You were born too late, my love. It’s sad. It’ll always be sad.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’ve been thinking. John says he forgives me and things are so uncertain with you and me. You might not even be in this country for much longer and I need a life, a real one, Kev Kevs. We’ve been good together but…”
“I get it. You’re going back to your husband. You’re leaving me. You don’t care. You don’t give a damn what happens to me. I could rot on Coal Island for all you care.”
“It sounds like a lovely place. Why do you hate it so much?”
“People pretend to care and families are corrupt there. I’ll go back to parents who can only think about their mad daughter. They’ve rarely mentioned her in the three years I’ve been here and I’ve never asked. I can only imagine. She’s gone madder. The last thing my parents said about her was that she’s been wanting to murder the iguanas in the drain. How can I go back to that? Tell me.”
“Maybe she has good reason to murder iguanas. Has anybody ever asked her why? Anyway, you’ll start your own life apart from your family. You’re a big boy now. You’ll find a girl your own age and get married like John and I did.”
“Kev Kevs, don’t make this hard. I’ve made up my mind. I’m going back to my husband.”
When I returned to Malaysia months later, my parents seemed grateful to have me back, but I was not able to feign interest in them or in my sister. I didn’t feel ready for a job. I didn’t think working with a maimed heart would get me very far. So I stayed in my room and dreamt about England while the monochrome wheel began turning again and the glimmering string reappeared.
One day when my parents were out visiting a relative I went to see Mary. My task was to feed her lunch and then tuck her in but she was talking. Mary’s talking was not simple talking. It was talking upon talking.
“One iguana. Two iguanas. Sitting in the drain. Causing me this pain. Kevin, please get them, please, please, please. One iguana. Two iguanas. Sitting in the drain. Causing me this pain.”
“What have the iguanas ever done to you?” I thought about what Gemma had said. Maybe all someone needed to do was to ask her why.
“They eat our shit in the drain. I don’t like that they know what I taste like. They lick our shit and they eat our shit and they shit our shit. And I don’t like that they know what I taste like.”
“That’s true, I suppose. But what are you going to do about it?”
“Listen here. They are dirty. They have no respect. Our shit is not meant to be their food. We have to catch them.” Her voice had turned hard. Suddenly, she looked fierce, secure, determined through understanding.
“I can’t just catch them. I don’t know how.”
“Iguanas can be fast when they sense danger so you must look innocent. Take a rope, make it into a lasso and throw it over them when they cannot see you.”
She had thought the whole thing out. She said she had been planning it for the last year. I could not, even if I tried to, see her madness. What I saw was a girl who was upset that a part of her was exposed to underground creatures. It was as if she believed that her soul lingered in her shit and because the iguanas were eating her shit, they were also getting at her soul. All she wanted to do was to recover herself.
“You have to do it, Kevin, for both of us.”
“Why both of us?”
“We need to be ourselves again.”
That afternoon I performed my sister’s instructions. She even followed me to the garden, something my parents never allowed her to do, and we waited for the iguanas together. We sat for hours while the reptiles loitered invisibly beneath us.
“Why aren’t you happy?” she asked.
“I hate this place. I hate Coal Island. I want to be back in Manchester.”
“What are you running away from?”
I was surprised at her question.
“The island, lah…and all of its…stuff.”
“What’s so great about Manchester?”
“I was free and I had a person who actually saw me like she saw me and liked what she saw.”
“I like what I see when I look at you.” We heard the movements of the iguanas. They were rising.
“What do you see?”
“A boy who can’t see himself. A perfectly formed stem that cannot take the wind and so must be protected.”
“How can you see like that?”
“They think I don’t know. It’s not madness. I’m just a little bit…touched, that’s all. Sometimes I can see inside everything.”
The iguanas were making their way to the centre of the drain, a few inches away from where we sat.
“Slowly now,” she whispered, “take the lasso and gently throw it over. You take the left one. I’ll take the right.”
The creatures didn’t put up a fight. We tightened the lassos and tied the iguanas to the porch pillar.
“What do you want to do with them?” I asked.
“Sell them to Mummy’s side of the family. The Chinese will eat anything,” she said.
I laughed. “Better still. We cook a curry out of them, send it to Daddy’s side of the family and tell them it’s chicken. The Indians are too stupid to know.”
She laughed. We decided to release them back into the drain so that we could sit in the garden with our lassos the next day and repeat the catch. It would be our new game, as though we were children again.
This piece was featured in “Cha: An Asian Literary Journal”, click here.