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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gifts from a stranger

The Star
Wednesday December 22, 2010

Gifts from a stranger

MOTHER passed away on a December morning after a long illness. She was 68. About a month later my sister, 36-year-old Seck Neo, passed away suddenly. Somehow their lives were inextricably intertwined. Mother was pregnant with Seck Neo just after the Japanese Occupation.
The hardship and suffering Mother endured during the war had taken a toll on her health. Under-nourished and suffering from various ailments, Mother gave birth to a frail and sickly child.
Seck Neo excelled in her studies, but ill health forced her to quit school. Mother doted on her and a close bond existed between them. Later when we all got married and had children of our own, Seck Neo chose to remain single. Perhaps, she felt it was her filial duty to look after Mother in her old age. Did an incident that happened at our childhood home lend a hand in forging that special bond?

Our childhood home in Kuala Pilah was a typical colonial house. It stood on concrete stilts; its white wooden walls and russet-tiled roof juxtaposed against the thick green

Our childhood home in 2008

foliage of towering tembusu trees. I remember that day long-ago when our family moved into the long-abandoned house at the end of World War II. The house was redolent of musty jasmine petals. The white walls were discoloured with age and in some places the paint had peeled off.
As we entered the house, the loose, unpolished floorboards with narrow cracks creaked beneath our feet. At night, as we lay awake on a mat spread out on the floor, we could hear the wail of the wind that swept from across the field and feel the chill of the night air that knifed through the narrow cracks of the floorboards. Despite its shortcomings, we were glad to have a place which we could call home.
Among the many playgrounds of our youth, the space under the house was our favourite. There, my siblings and I spent many an afternoon playing in its cool shade. The concrete stilts with their dark shadows and the murky recesses strung with cobwebs provided perfect hiding places for our game of hide-and-seek. We also played masak-masak or lazed away the hours digging the loose dirt in search of beetles. Occasionally, we would unearth beads, chipped marbles and polished pebbles – relics from another childhood.

One morning when the older children were at school, Seck Neo was left to play by herself under the house.
Seck Neo and her childhood friend, Twinkle, at the side of the house.

 In the solitude and gloom of a detached kitchen, Mother was busy stirring a simmering pot of curry when she heard the patter of tiny feet behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw sister holding a matchbox in her outstretched hand. She calmly took the matchbox, expecting it to be filled with pebbles or discarded items. When she slid open the matchbox, she noticed it was filled to the brim with coins of various denominations.
Well, one of the passers-by must have accidentally dropped the box of coins, she thought to herself, as the dirt track beside the house was frequently used by pedestrians who took a short cut to school or the nearby town.
As she busied herself with the household chores, the morning incident was soon forgotten.
The next day, our sister played at her usual spot. Moments later she emerged with a matchbox which she handed to Mother. Thinking it was the same matchbox from the previous day, Mother asked sister to put it aside while she finished her work. She was clearing up the place when she spotted the matchbox. She picked it up. It weighed heavily in her hand. When she slid it open, she was surprised to find it filled to the brim with another set of coins.
A deepening sense of anxiety gripped her. Where did Seck Neo find the coins? Was someone trying to kidnap her by offering these gifts? Her curiosity aroused, she decided to keep a close watch on her child.
The next morning when Seck Neo went to play under the house, Mother crept upstairs to the bedroom. Going down on her hands and knees, she pressed her face against the floorboard and peered through the cracks.
From her vantage point she had a clear view of Seck Neo. She was engrossed in scratching the loose dirt and seemed oblivious to her surrounding. An eerie silence filled the morning air. Nothing stirred.
Then Mother detected a slight movement from one of the beams below the floorboards. The shafts of morning sunlight streaming through the cracks revealed something which made her hands tremble and sent chilly spasms through her whole body.
A hand with long fingers which were almost translucent was slowly emerging from behind one of the beams. Between its fingers was a matchbox. It was about to hand the matchbox ...
Mother did not wait to watch. Shuddering, she rose to her feet and with trembling hands and jellied feet, she staggered down the short flight of steps. She crawled under the house, grabbed my sister and carried her into the house.
When we returned from school that afternoon, we were warned not to play under the house. She did not give us any reason for the sudden decision and we did not ask any question. Although we did not venture under the house, we continued to play beside the house while Mother kept a wary eye on us, especially on Seck Neo.
Years later, after Father had passed away and we had moved back to Malacca did Mother tell us about the strange incident and explained to us why she had forbidden us to play under the house.
According to her the house where our house stood was the site of a former hospital. Could that have had something to do with the incident?
Today, a chill still skitters down my spine whenever I think of that incident which strangely brought a mother and child closer together and made them almost inseparable.

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