Some periods of our lives see big changes: awakening sexuality, unrequited love and moving countries. Some times are touched by Enid Blyton.
Lucky was the handsome-dog Casanova of suburban Kuala Lumpur.
He would escape through a hole in the fence and roam all night, chasing the lady dogs; some would follow him home. Every time my father covered the hole, Lucky managed to dig another one.
Lucky arrived from a neighbour, the family living adjacent to us. My father, a high-school teacher, had brought me over to their double-storey terrace, where we visited as a family annually during Deepavali. He caught up with chitchat while I chose the puppy with the wavy caramel and white hair from the litter.
When I was very young I felt the pain of broken love whenever a heartbreak song blared from my grandfather’s multimedia unit, which comprised of a turntable, radio and black-and-white TV. My dad’s Sunday ritual was to switch the radio on while he showered after spending the morning buying groceries at Chow Kit Market.
At seven, I was already a romantic loner, unknowingly portending my future, miming the drama of heartbreak as I clutched my fist to my chest. My grandmother found me crouched on the kitchen floor like this one day, and peered curiously at my display of unrequited love.
On weekends, my brother and I would be dropped off at the local children’s library. I would beeline for Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and brought their adventures home with me.
In the tropics in the 1980s, the closest proximity to an English feast was a hardboiled-egg sandwich.
When I first read about George, I immediately knew we were kindred spirits. She was an unapologetic tomboy with cropped hair. My dad always took my brother and me to the barbers for a haircut, so I always had short back and sides.
George didn’t like her name Georgina and she never wore dresses. She even preferred that people addressed her as Master instead of Miss. I disliked dresses or anything pink. Oh, how I wished dearly that my caramel and white mongrel Lucky would listen to me and be as smart as George’s dog, Timmy.
No one seemed to care that George was a tomboy in the stories, even though various family members of mine often teased me for not wearing dresses, for not being a proper girl. No one would blink twice if my father bared his tanned tubby torso while tending to his orchids. No one cared because he was a man. Girls, on the other hand, had another set of rules, and the yelling from my father that would accompany my naked torso wasn’t worth the effort.
One day, my parents dropped my brother, Sam, and me off to the library. I went to painting class and Sam went into the library, hiding in a corner to read. After the class ended, my parents weren’t waiting for me, and I couldn’t find Sam. I went to the playground, sat on the swings and walked along the middle of the seesaw, balancing it horizontally and then letting each side fall with a loud bang. Being a middle-class child meant that walking to and from destinations under Kuala Lumpur’s blazing sun wasn’t something condoned by my parents. I could count on one hand the number of times that I’d sat on a public bus. My parents drove us everywhere. I decided to walk home. It was an act of bravery that George would have been proud of.
I walked alongside heavy traffic and then cut across my school onto a creaky bridge across a stream. I was familiar with the route because I BMXed my way around the neighbourhood after school every evening. It was the only time that my parents would willingly let their only daughter out on her own.
When I arrived home, in my parents’ absence, I whipped off my sweat-drenched T-shirt in the family room and wiped myself down, happily satisfied at my own adventure.
I loved how George’s cousins – Julian, Dick and Anne – always had her back. I wished I belonged to a Famous Five. When my cousins Soon and Siang came over for a visit, I would take charge and direct them and Sam to venture forth into our garden of papaya and mangosteen trees and orchids.
Sam was a year younger and a foot shorter than me. He often obeyed me whenever I barked an order. Once, when he accidentally stepped on a cockroach in the bathroom, I told him gravely that he had to pray for forgiveness, and being a sweet trusting soul, he did.
Having my brother and cousins follow me around the perimeter of the garden was my version of a Famous Five in Kuala Lumpur adventure. There were no high-stake treasures to find or children to save, but still I armed myself with a bum bag that had the essentials – screwdriver, twine, torchlight and blade.
Sometimes we played hide-and-seek, sometimes it was a matter of circling the property like slapstick security guards. We’d accidentally bump into each other as we try to avoid accidentally squashing snails underfoot, or while tiptoeing over a slug across a slimy green drain. We stayed away from the back fences as that area was usually full of dog shit.
I would pretend that Lucky was a really smart dog who happily woofed along like Timmy. The truth was Lucky only came bolting when I whacked his food bowl. My cousins, who did not have a dog, were also terrified of him, so he seldom accompanied us on our night patrol.
I wondered what it would be like to have a rucksack full of hardboiled-egg sandwiches, cold ham, jam tarts, wobbly blancmange, chocolate éclairs, freshly baked scones, farmhouse butter, cream cheese, crisp lettuce and fat red radishes. With lashings of homemade lemonade and ginger beer. The picnic items were so exotically English; was a blancmange a jelly? Éclairs sounded like they would taste like fish eggs. The Famous Five’s picnic spread was so far away from the curry puffs, popiahs, BBQ pork char siu, pandan cake and all the nonya kuihs that I would carry in a plastic bag for my picnic. In the tropics in the 1980s, the closest proximity to an English feast was the hardboiled-egg sandwich. When I bit into the white on white, I tasted escape – rowing a boat towards a misty island, cycling along a rugged coast, or along green rolling pastures.
One day, for English class in my Malay language public primary school, I had to write an English composition about place. I imagined a landscape of green rolling hills filled with daisies and buttercups, a warm sun waking sleepy butterflies. My English teacher, Mrs Govindasamy, who always gave me high marks, scored me poorly this time.
She sighed, ‘Swee Lian, I wanted you to write about your environment. Your story is good, but the landscape is not Malaysian.’
When I was ten, my brother and I celebrated our birthdays at McDonald’s. As a treat, all the birthday party kids were taken to the back of the store and allowed into the giant McDonald’s freezer. I blew warm air from the back of my throat creating small steam puffs. Sam, Soon and Siang did the same. I imagined this was how winter would be in Melbourne – crisp and fresh, like biting into frozen lettuce.
Melbourne was where some of my relatives lived, where my ‘Waltzing Matilda’ singing koala and the family’s boomerang souvenirs came from.
An aunty said, ‘You’ll enjoy school there. The Europeans don’t do so many exams like here.’
I believed in the magic of the Famous Five because I wanted to have cousins who had my back and a dog that was my true best friend.
One evening, I decided to take Lucky out on a walk, just the way George could. Just the way I saw all the white kids take their dogs out on walks in their neighbourhood on TV.
Unlike George and Timmy, I knew that if I let Lucky out, he would dash ahead of me without a leash. I snapped a cold, heavy, metal leash around his neck. He pulled and strained at the opening at the gate, wheezed and panted his way to the nearest shit to wee on it. We only made the nature strip.
We tussled for a good ten minutes, my hands sore and red from the exertion as I used all my body weight to drag him back into the compound. I never walked him again. He was not a character from a book like Timmy; he could never be textbook obedient.
Still, I believed in the magic of the Famous Five because I wanted to have cousins who had my back and a dog that was my true best friend.
While my love for Lucky was easy and unconditional, my feelings for Angeline Lim were painful and secret.
Every time I thought of Angie, I thought of a Richard Marx song, ‘Right Here Waiting’. I would wait for Angie, ‘Whatever it takes, or how my heart breaks, I will be right here waiting for you’, the lines of the song played over in my head.
I imbued the lyrics with the meaning I needed, which was my unrequited feelings for her, even though the song was about the singer missing his wife due to his overseas tours.
I would spend evenings squatting next to Lucky parting his thick fur to look for ticks, find the juiciest ones fattened from his blood, pluck them quickly in disgust and squash them with my slippered feet. Sometimes the ticks were so engorged they could hardly move. After a tick-picking session, I would rest with Lucky and then daydream of Angie among tick carcasses and blood spots.
Why did I start liking Angie? She was skinny, had shoulder-length hair held together with a clip, a neat fringe, light-brown eyes that she sometimes hid under big square, plastic, frames. Everyone liked Angie.
Maybe it started when we played chess for the first time. We sat opposite each other, clock ticking away, and when she realised she was going to lose, she made jokes but was really sweet about losing. She was like an aloof cat that became friendly all of a sudden, allowing me to stroke and play with her as she gently purred.
But Angie was in love with big, goofy David, the class clown who everybody loved because he was so affable and he could play the theme song to MacGyver on the piano.
Unlike Angie, I was below average on the popularity scale. My piano playing was also limited to scales, a simplified version of ‘Für Elise’ and exam pieces. If I wasn’t playing chess at lunchtime, I would be in the library reading a book.
One day, while on the way to the library, I found myself in Angie and her friends’ company and immediately became self-conscious of my face full of zits. Angie and her friends looked like they had stuffed marbles in their mouths and didn’t want to speak in case those glass balls fell out.
Then one of them, Sui Cheng, turned around and said, ‘Lesbians, you know what they are, don’t you?’
I just shrugged my shoulders. Then Angie jumped in, ‘You know, girls with girls.’
Everyone screamed with laughter. I felt a warm burn under my skin; it was like they were laughing at me, they knew this about me. I hugged my folder with my pictures of Lucky, Australian penguins and animals closer to myself. Everyone else walked the other way, holding onto their folders with pictures of Luke Perry, Jason Priestley, New Kids on the Block.
Thankfully I didn’t have to stay in that international high school for long, where everyone seemed to have a confidence that I lacked. My parents had placed me in the school because they wanted me to better my English skills before we embarked on our new life in Melbourne.
After all the orchids were removed from my house, and only the fruit trees were left in the ground, when all the shelves were empty, the furniture nearly gone, and what was left was just our beds, the RSPCA truck arrived at the front gate.
I knew it was coming.
When I bade goodbye to Soon and Siang, I was full of well wishes. Saying goodbye to them wasn’t as difficult as saying goodbye to Lucky, because with Soon and Siang, I knew that I would see them again sometime in the future.
I gave Lucky a pat, and a long hug. And I started to tear up. You don’t hug in Malaysia, not even family members, let alone a dog, and besides he was an outdoor dog. An aunty said to me, ‘In Australia, they treat their dogs like children.’
My parents wouldn’t let me take Lucky because they didn’t want to bear the cost of bringing a tick-infested mongrel to our new home. My mum, who I’d never seen display any affection for Lucky, burst out crying. I snapped the leash around Lucky’s collar, and walked him to the gate where the RSPCA attendants were waiting to muzzle him and carry him away.
I turned from his whining and agitation, dragging my feet and heart on the ground as I walked on, sobbing. George would never part with Timmy, but I had to go on the biggest adventure of my life without my best friend.