I own the best stocked supermarket on Coal Island. It belonged to my father who handed it down to me when he died. He was an angry man because he had no sons and was stuck with a single daughter. But, in his own way, I think he loved me. He used to scold my mother often. “Ramona, you good for nothing woman! Only a woman like you can’t bear boys!” he’d say and she’d stay silent while looking at her toes. No wonder she died years before he did. Who wants to be reminded that they’re worthless by their own husband? It was my mother who inspired me to remain a spinster. What if I had inherited her cold womb? Boys never liked me, anyway. They used to sing, “Fatty, Fatty, Fatihah, looking for food, pig smells good.” At the age of ten I weighed fifty kilograms. Now, I’m sixty years old and touching ninety. My fat keeps me warm and calm. What I look like doesn’t matter anymore since I’m a supermarket matriarch and am entering old age. Not once have I regretted taking on the shop. It’s the most revealing place on the island.
A large woman with soft, moist, safe eyes behind a supermarket counter is the best target for sad, lonely or guilty people out to buy a tin of tuna and a bottle of Coke. At times, from my corner in the shop, I can detect those who have come in for practical purposes and those who place a packet of Maggi Mee on the counter and want to tell me about how they had poisoned the neighbour’s cat or fought with their husband. I just have to say, “How are you?” and they begin. I listen but give no advice. I don’t want that kind of responsibility. But somehow, that’s enough for them. My presence is all they need. I learnt my lesson when Roseleana Khamis came in one day, supposedly for a box of Fab washing powder. After paying, she lingered by the counter for a while before saying, “Fatihah, I don’t know what to do, lah. I can’t stand working at the Club anymore. The people there…Ya Allah! I think I should leave. What you think?” I had heard many things about the Coal Island Club and I pitied her so I said, “Then leave, lah. Nobody stopping you what.” She quit her job and I hear the family can’t even afford to pay the electricity bill because she decided to go back to school. They live by candlelight. If I had said, “Keep the job. Think of your family,” at least little Rahman wouldn’t be wearing pyjamas to social functions. But it’s not always easy to say nothing. It really depends on what story’s being told. For instance, when Mrs. Teng comes in I know that what she has to say is not about her and so it’s fine for me to comment. She only talks about others and I’m not sure whether she speaks the truth. I will admit, though, that she’s a talented gossip and I’m always a bit excited when she drops by. Sometimes, of course, what she says can be upsetting but even more than that is how she does it. When she told me about Chan Hui Yong’s bastard pregnancy with a dirty smile on her face, I wondered how someone could be so happy about a lovely girl’s bad luck. But Mrs. Teng has been a source of some of the most intriguing pieces of news. Not long ago she claimed that Tan Pong Pong had announced three remarkable things. Firstly, that he was gay. Secondly, that he was Hindu. Thirdly, that he was a bat whisperer. “A what?” I asked Mrs. Teng who was laughing like a tickled child. “This man,” she said, “always so weird. That one we know. But who knew how weird, lah, Fatihah? You know, he’s been sitting in that temple for months with poor old Devaki Menon. People were saying they were making love in front of the gods. I think so he got fed up. Then he told Meenachi Muthu he liked men and was a Hindu so she should stop telling lies about him and Devaki Menon and stop asking him why he was going to the temple. Then suddenly he said that if anyone got bat problem to call him. He said that he found a way to talk to bats so if people got a bat in their roof or whatever, he can go ask them to leave. This kind of talent people call whispering. My daughter said, like the movie ‘The Horse Whisperer.'” At first I thought, people will do anything for a few extra ringgit. But Mrs. Teng said that Pong Pong wasn’t asking for money in return for his work. I found myself wishing for bats inside my roof.
The shop was quiet for a few days. Only one or two minor incidents happened like Vani Muthu referring to Mrs. Mano as a bitch but refusing to say why and Pak Cik Khamis slipping a tin of corn into a torn plastic bag. When the tin fell out, I pretended not to notice but unfortunately, just at that moment, Mrs. Teng walked in and reported Pak Cik Khamis to me. I simply said, “I told Pak Cik to take it, lah.” I still felt guilty for his daughter’s return to school at the age of forty. Mrs. Teng had not much more news to broadcast or any updates on the bat whisperer. Whenever the island has no gossip to offer, you have to be careful if you happen to see Mrs. Teng. The woman has a way of asking questions to get the answers she needs so that her gossip tank will be refilled. In the days before the bat whisperer was heard of again, she came into my shop every morning. She would smile sweetly, scan the row of biscuits and chocolates, glide her hand across the wrappers, pick up a packet as though she really needed more Julie’s Sandwich Cream Wafers and stand in front of my counter, still smiling, waiting to spill her curiosity all over me. “So Fatihah,” she said recently, “not bored, ah? Everyday also sit here and wait for customers. You should get a hobby. Collect stamps or something, lah. Actually, if you get a pet is better. Now I think of it ah, you also alone at home. Wah, how you do it?” I had never doubted that living and working alone was my fate. I didn’t want a pet cat to change that. Besides, I had seen how lonely people became so attached to their kept animals that they would slowly forget to love human beings. “No lah, Mrs. Teng,” I replied, “I’m quite happy where I am. But thanks for asking.” The smile grew an inch shorter. “I see,” she quickly said. “How come you never marry, ah?” It didn’t take much for Mrs. Teng to rip the layers of social politeness that we take pains to maintain. For her, they were just pieces of unimportant decoration. I knew the game she was playing and so I answered, carefully, “I never wanted to get married. That’s three ringgit and twenty cents for the cream wafers.” By that point, the smile had vanished altogether and she handed the money over with a cold hand. I thought I wouldn’t see her until another round of Coal Island headlines needed to be told but she came back the next morning with the usual smile on her face and the same fingering of the biscuit and chocolate section. “Eh, Fatihah,” she said as she handed me a packet of Kandos chocolate for kids, “you’re one sneaky woman! You never tell me you had a boyfriend long time ago! Ya, I bumped into Mrs. Kumaran. She about your age what. Said she remember the time when you were hopping and skipping with one young Malay man. What happen to him, ah?” So, I thought, she went digging. I hoped that Pong Pong would fly in, flap his wings and say that he had turned into a bat. I was in no mood to start talking about my youth and even if I was, Mrs. Teng was not the person I wanted to say anything to. “Oh, that was my cousin,” I said and made an excuse to visit the storeroom. There was no need to lie, of course. I had been in love once. His name was Faiz and he broke off our engagement before leaving the island and jumping off the Penang Bridge. But that was forty-two years ago and it belonged to a different life. I had no pain left for an early heartbreak and a lover’s suicide. Still, I did not want to discuss my spinsterhood with a woman who absorbed sensation even when she was asleep.
Thankfully, the first case of bats inside a roof arrived the next day. Mrs. Kumaran claimed that she had been awoken by screeches and loud scratching noises as if somebody was making a drawing with their fingernails on her ceiling. Pong Pong was immediately notified. A few people gathered at Mrs. Kumaran’s house that afternoon, including myself because I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing the only known instance of human-animal communication on the island. The bat whisperer entered the premises dressed in a black cape and Japanese slippers. People started laughing, saying, “Looks like we got our own Batman on Coal Island.” But Pong Pong was serious. He didn’t smile or greet anybody and looked at the ceiling as though he could see what was going on inside it. Then he brought out a fluorescent orange whistle (I think he got it from the Beach Shop) and blew it. Phreeeeet. He lifted his arms like a hawk about to catch a rat and brought them down again. Phreeeeet. He chanted, “Olaoh. Olaoh. Olaoh.” Phreeeeet. He closed his eyes and when he opened them he said, “They say they no want leave. They like it here. They have house and they feel warm.” Mrs. Kumaran jumped off her seat. “Listen to me,” she shouted, ‘you tell them that the house is mine! My husband didn’t build it for bloody bats! Ask them to go to someone else’s roof to feel warm and cosy! Cuddle up and shit and mate and do whatever it is they do inside another roof!” The bat whisperer nodded. “OK, Mrs. Kumaran,” he said, “I go tell them.” Phreeeeet. Olaoh. Olaoh. Olaoh. Phreeeeet. He closed and opened his eyes. “They ask if you got recommend another place. They no want make mistake again like last time,” he said. The house went silent. People wondered if Mrs. Kumaran would be heartless enough to move a family of bats into someone’s home. She looked around the room and smiled. “Well,” she said calmly, “I’m happy that they’re willing to compromise. I think I know just the place they’ll like. Tell them they’ll have a nice five star hotel.” She paused and we waited. “OK, Mrs. Kumaran,” said the bat whisperer, “they ready.” She called Pong Pong to her and revealed the new location in a whisper that none of us could hear. Phreeeeet. Olaoh. Olaoh. Olaoh. Phreeeeet. “They say,” Pong Pong announced, “they go look see tonight.” We demanded to know which house had been selected for the bats but both Mrs. Kumaran and the bat whisperer refused to tell us. We would have to find out ourselves.
I returned to the shop, amazed that Pong Pong could talk to bats and I wanted to know whether he could communicate with other animals too but before I could conduct my research, Mrs. Teng came in, puffing on her asthma pump. “What miracle, hah, Fatihah? You think so Pong Pong lying or he for real?” she said, wheezing and coughing in between her words.”Looks real to me,” I said. “The way he chanted and all that. We’ll see, lah. If Pong Pong is called to a house tonight then we know.”
Bats have lived on the island probably since it was created. They flap about at twilight, often flying as low as swallows, and hang from trees but sometimes they choose to live in houses. In the past, there had been a couple of cases of bats inside roofs and the pest control people were called. The bats were killed and it wasn’t pleasant to have their spirits haunting homes. At least now we had a person who could talk to them and deal with the situation kindly.
“So, Fatihah,” Mrs. Teng continued, “to change the subject. You really know how to hide thing, ah. Hai. Hai. Hai. Why want to keep secret like this, lah? That boy wasn’t your cousin, isn’t it? Before everybody came to Mrs. Kumaran’s house, I went early to see her. She say he was engaged to you. Then he break your heart and go kill himself. Wah! Fatihah, so sorry all this had to happen. You still think about it?” I couldn’t believe she had not let my life go. The phone rang at that moment and even though it was just the bread delivery man arranging for an earlier time to bring his load in the next day, I kept him on the line for a full twenty minutes, going through with him the quantity and type of every bread and bun that I stocked in my shop. Mrs. Teng lost her patience and attention, especially when she spotted Pong Pong outside fluttering his cape with his hands, like a bat in flight. She ran after him. I admired her energy and dedication in making sure that the island’s stories were never neglected and, most of all, that they were kept alive through spreading. I didn’t have much to hide. She did already know about my only relationship with a boy who, when we were together, said he liked my fat. It took me years to accept that Faiz had decided to stop living and I was touched that the final lines of his suicide note read: “Fatihah, I’m sorry we never got to have a family. I’m doing this not because I want to make you unhappy but because I know I never can.” It’s morbid, I know, but I was glad to be remembered during his last moments on earth. After my broken engagement and Faiz’s suicide, life became quiet. I worked for Abah in the shop. Ibu passed away a few years later and I was sad for a year but I was getting good at recovering what was habitual and carried on, with Abah, in making the shop the best on the island. Slowly, without my realization, the days became years and I was a petless, spouseless middle-aged woman who was skilled at business and lived above her shop where she went only to sleep. I remember thinking, on a rare day when I dreamed about the past and tried to glue it to the present, that I probably had the quietest life anybody could have. Nothing ever happened to me. The chaos was in the shop, in the conversations and confessions of other people. I was proud that I had no conflicts.
The morning after the bat whispering, a small crowd arrived at Mrs. Kumaran’s house. I locked up the shop and joined them. I wanted to know if the bats had moved and if there was going to be a fight. I imagined the new bat host saying to Mrs. Kumaran, “You sick bitch! How dare you?” The bats, it turned out, had left but no one was accusing Mrs. Kumaran. “Eh, eh,” people said, “then where they go? Must ask Pong Pong.” The bat whisperer was summoned. He came with a cryptic face and only said, “Bat give me message they going where they is needed.” No one was satisfied with his answer and we demanded an exact location. He said he didn’t know. The crowd dispersed unhappily but a new respect had formed for Pong Pong. “So he really got special gift,” people said, “even though he gay.”
For days no one knew where the bats had gone. Soon, everyone started talking about other things such as Mrs. Mano’s latest vision in which the Virgin Mary had appeared to tell her about the Our Lady cake which, if baked with a pure heart, could cure all illnesses. My shop swarmed with people who came in to buy flour, eggs, butter, milk, cinnamon, raisins and chickpeas. “Chickpeas?” I asked. “Ya,” replied one customer, “that one is the secret ingredient. This cake going to go cure cancer.” I let them believe what they wanted to. After all, I was taking in quite a bit of money and people needed faith. While the island was busy making their godly goodies, I heard it. It was a dull, quiet scratching noise coming from the roof. I went upstairs and listened. So, the bats had chosen me. It’s hard for me to identify the feeling I had when I realized that living above me, like little hovering guardians, was a group of winged animals that were breathing at the same time that I was when I was asleep. The years I had spent disbelieving in pets suddenly became void. There was life in my home even when I wasn’t there.
I didn’t tell anyone that the bats had moved into my roof. If they knew, Pong Pong would be called and I wouldn’t have them anymore. For the first time, in twenty years, I sat on my bed, not to sleep, but to exist in my apartment. I looked up to the ceiling and said softly, “Welcome. You know, you’re the only ones I’ve allowed in here. I think we can be friends. Finally, something new has come.” They scratched the roof in reply.
I started closing the shop early to sit upstairs and talk to them. I wanted to tell them everything but I realized that I had very few tales. So I repeated the early stories of when Faiz and I were together, how he broke my heart and killed himself. But after a while, even the bats were getting bored of my voice. They stopped scratching the roof and I feared that I was losing them. When they became completely silent, I panicked. Then something clear came into my head. I said to myself, “You gone mad or what? You think the bats care? How did you end up being alone and talking to bats about nothing? You call this a life?”
Pong Pong came the next day and my roof returned to being empty. Mrs. Teng was the first one to ask me. “Oh, Fatihah,” she said, “hiding again, ah? How come you never tell us about it?” “Because,” I replied, “there’s nothing to tell.”
For once, she was silent.
This piece was featured in “Cha: An Asian Literary Journal”, click here.