She lived with a broken man. He sat on a little stool, his thighs spilling over its legs. He seemed to float, held up by the rays of the TV he watched, or the snatches of song floating in through the window from the Rose Blossom Karaoke Club across the street.
Bukit Bintang never lacked noise, music, or conversation, but it used to be quieter. She turned her gaze up at the dark patch of sky through the window. A tropical thunderstorm. More noise and mayhem.
When Sungai Wang Plaza first opened its doors to the world more than thirty years ago, a mall with high-end shopping and gourmet food right down her street, she had invited all her friends for a meal at one of the restaurants. But these days, the Plaza had turned into a hotspot for grungy teenagers hunting for bargains on fashion items and electronics from China and Hong Kong. A lot had changed in Kuala Lumpur in the forty years she’d lived there. Their bungalow sat squat in the middle of the entertainment district, off Jalan Bukit Bintang. In the last few years, big-shot real estate developers had offered her millions of ringgit in order to ‘take it off her hands.’ She had refused them all.
All their neighbours had moved out, one by one, but she remained because she wanted to cling to that one familiar spot in a world gone alien. “When you stay in a place long enough,” her daughter said often, “it outgrows you, becomes different, and you turn into the alien. Move out, Ma.” She paid the girl no mind. The developers wanted to build a hotel on their property and had found a new way to flush them out: greasing up inspectors at the Fire Department. She’d received a Fire and Life Safety Inspection Notice after a ‘routine inspection’ the week before, a first in the four-decade history of her home. Notice paper in hand, she sat on the sofa beside her husband. Lounging around wouldn’t help with that, so, with a sigh, she picked up the notebook she’d dug up from under her writing desk.
“You must make lists, Ma,” her daughter had said.
It was the first step, according to the daughter, in solving this problem of the Fire Inspection Notice, which asked them ‘to remove obstructions from exits, corridors & stairs’ and ‘to eliminate fire hazards.’ She must do it if she didn’t want to lose her home.
“Must make headings on each page,” the daughter warned, “and under the headings, put names of all the things, why they’re there. If you don’t clear up, they’ll throw you out. This is our inheritance, remember?” And when she hmmed, the daughter droned into the phone, “Three rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs, besides the living room. You were a teacher, Ma, you can go through six rooms, sure you can.”
That music teacher bit seemed like a long time ago. A time when she and her man hadn’t put on these jiggling bodies, these rolls of fat that wiped books and knick knacks off tables without their knowledge as they moved.
She and her man used to cuddle. Her son and daughter slept in bunk beds upstairs in the room next to theirs; the television remote lay on the table and all four of them grabbled over it on weekends. There were arguments, laughter, music, yells up and down the stairs.
Those days, he never sat still for a minute, dancing his feet even when they ate dinner. On the rare occasions he stayed home, he fiddled with the guitar, joked around with the kids, or chased her up and down the stairs. These days, she let him be, not pulling him a chair, or coaxing him to the sofa so he could rest. She parked herself at the corner of the sofa, where her weight had carved a depression over the years. One of her large legs slumped over a cushioned footstool, she watched him watch TV.
The greasy aroma of seafood meehoon wafted in from the kitchen, and she waited for it to reach him. Just like the sound of her voice, and her touch on his wrist, the spicy-soy smell would float up to him, slow and easy, taking its own time. She imagined it entering his nostrils, rising up to his brain, winding down into his lungs, touching his palate, and setting the juices running.
When he began to drool she would rise, drag her own cumbersome body past his, hunt for a napkin in the pile of trinkets beside the idiot box. She would wipe his mouth and call for the maid to feed him his lunch while he watched the news on BBC. The remote went missing a long time ago. The man never liked the volume over a whisper and wasn’t aware of other channels. That’s how she referred to him now: ‘the man.’ Make sure you put in bacon bits in the omelette, she said to the maid, the man likes it. He wasn’t who she’d married so many decades ago. These days, he was tied to the flickering screen, almost a part of it.
All through the day, dark-suited men and well-dressed, pretty women with immaculate coiffure stared at him, and at each other. They smiled, whispered, were interrupted by scenes of violence or handshakes, of trapped animals or dried-up lakes, of young men with guns, or children glued to computers, or vice versa. Then the screen went back to grimacing formal men and women, their bodies cut off by a red stripe with large white letters scrolling right to left.
Thunder clapped outside, but the man didn’t notice. The green smell of rain floated in. Blessed relief. She picked herself up and started on the list-making round, notebook and pen in hand. She could start, and yet not have too much to do at a stretch, because soon she would have to call the maid in with the lunch.
Outside the air-conditioned living room, she began to sweat. She walked down the corridor, occasionally pushing a carton or bag out of the way. The maid complained she had to skip over bundles and heaps on her way to the living room, tray of food in hand. But where else could they put the daughter’s old bicycle and exercise books from school, or the shoes her son had worn when he brought home all those medals? Gleaming trophies sat on various shelves all over the living room: she made sure the maid polished them once a month.
If her son came to visit her some day, he might shake his dark, curly head and say, “Throw away all that trash now, Ma, I don’t even have time to go for runs these days. All of those won’t do any good, just clutter.”
“All this means too much to me to throw away,” she’d answer, “just because you’ve forgotten your mother doesn’t mean she has to forget you.”
‘CHILDREN’ she wrote on the first empty page of her black notebook full of old grocery lists and long-forgotten to-do items.
‘CHILDREN: Bicycle, shoes, exercise books, school clothes in the cupboard behind the bicycle (must tell the maid to put some naphthalene there), a carton full of the daughter’s fake jewellery and ribbons, letters and greeting cards from the son when he first went to Singapore for his studies (must sort these out: old bills and receipts folded in with cards).’
Her daughter had said last week it would help ‘de-clutter’ if she figured out what each article ‘represented’ and why it was there. Her daughter studied psychology in Singapore, but carried on like she was a psychologist already. “This place stinks of cockroaches, Ma. You live indoors all the time so you don’t realise. They call it Dysosmia, something wrong with your nose. You make lists, then I come help you clear, can?”
If only her son would come and help too, and not stick to his Singaporean wife all the time. He had a lot to learn about love. She leaned against the wall, catching her breath.
Look at her and the man. They had walked into an amusement park tunnel of love and emerged a few decades later with his silence, two children never around when you wanted them, a house as old and crumbling as their marriage. Now she stood poking about in it like some troll from an old tale, as if her home belonged to someone else.
Why had she left the children’s stuff in the corridor anyway? Why not in the children’s rooms?
She called the maid to serve lunch to the man and began the slow process of hauling herself up the stairs. When the maid objected that the man might not eat without her in the room, she brushed it off. “Do your job,” she panted to the maid, trying to keep her voice even despite the exertion, “It is your job to make sure he eats.”
When she reached the top of the stairs, out of breath, she paused. Years ago, she could climb up and down the stairs non-stop, running after the man or the kids. She walked to the three doors that stared at her from the corridor. One said ‘MY ROOM > ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.’ The others stood plain and grim. The room with the warning belonged to the daughter, who had thrown out her brother’s stuff once he moved to Singapore for his studies. She had wanted to keep that room as it was, so the son could come back to his own bed for the holidays, but the daughter said, “Why I stay in small room with the bunk beds when no one uses his room all year? You gave him best room lah Ma, I never complain that time. I’m sixteen now, cannot sleep on a bunk bed oredi.”
Three years later, the daughter had followed her brother to Singapore.
After the man’s accident, she had asked the maid to move his stuff out of the master bedroom walk-in cupboard. Drawers full of colourful briefs he no longer had use for, perfect-creased trousers he would never wear again. At the time, she had thought an emptier room might be easier for him to move about in when he recovered. But he’d never returned here.
She sneezed at the dust rising from her daughter’s room, and wrote: ‘LOVE: suits, pants, hair gel.’ Whipping out tissues from a box lying askew, she tossed a few away, till she found clean ones. She wiped the sweat running down her neck, and came to a halt in front of the shiny Italian suits her man used to wear to events. They hung in their plastic shrouds. His jars of gel and bottles of hairspray, magazines with his photos, stacks of them, and an entire cupboard full of shoe boxes. Waxed-shiny leather shoes coated with a thin film of dust (get the maid to come in here, she made a note). Awards for his singing, for acting, mixed with felicitations and certificates. Leftovers from those framed on the living room walls. He wore adult diapers, loose shorts, and singlets these days. His sole demand: the wooden stool in the living room.
She entered the master bedroom, where she’d spent all her married life until his accident. The accident changed everything: paralysed him below the waist, struck a deathblow to his declining career, made it impossible for him to walk upstairs. He had now spent ten years’ worth of daylight on that stool.
After he’d returned from the hospital, she’d arranged his bed in one of the two guest rooms near the kitchen. She’d tried to keep to this master bedroom, but he yelled her name in the middle of the night. He never settled back down from the throes of his nightmares until the maid came up to fetch her. To avoid walking down the stairs each night, she had gradually nested in the guest room beside his. She now shunned these rooms upstairs, the same way she kept at bay her relatives from Penang, who only ever got in touch when they wanted ‘a helping hand, a small loan.’
The master bedroom stayed shut other than on weekend nights the daughter decided to visit. The daughter probably told her new friends that they were a fat old couple who’d lost it. To those who knew who her father was, there was no need to explain.
The door opened on silent hinges, and she made her way past the sacks, plastic bags, and cartons piled all over the floor. She took in all the items strewn or stacked, covering every available surface. She had long forgotten what she’d asked the maid to stash up here. She poked into one of the boxes. She found a fat diary with a lock—he had bought it for her on one of their trips to Europe. At least this room hadn’t gathered as much dust because of the weekends the daughter sometimes spent on the king-sized bed. She averted her eyes from the neat, un-creased sheets.
Drawing her eyes back to the notepad, she wrote, ‘MY SELF.’
Under that: ‘Old cassettes, my old Motown records in the biscuit box.’ She found an unmarked cassette. Slapping away the clutter from the surrounding tables, she uncovered a cassette player. The plug felt pitted and powdery in her hand and her fingers left marks on the dusty player. Rain pattered on the wooden shutters as she pressed PLAY and sank down on the bed to listen. A youthful, breathy, girl’s voice lilted over the drumming of raindrops, ‘They try to tell us we’re too young.’
Her man had made her sing, and asked his team to make a recording when her son was a month old, and she’d refused to travel with him. “This way I’ll always have your voice with me,” he’d said, “so I can pretend you’re singing to me as I dress for the show.”
‘That was me,’ she wrote in her notebook, then crossed it out. She had to make a list, several lists, not write a diary. She scribbled down: 'Old Vogue and Tattlers, boxes and bottles of L’Oréal make up, Chanel perfumes, marriage album, old family albums, greeting cards in bunches, the son’s leftover wedding invites.’
‘That’s not MY SELF,’ she wrote, forgetting this was not a diary, her feet tapping in time with her own old voice on the player. ‘I’m myself, the one inside me. How come no one can see who I am, this flirty chit of a girl?’
She pulled off the grey curtain the maid had used to cover the mirror. She dropped the notebook on the dressing table and gathered her breasts in her hands. No bra could restore their pert glory. When she turned to check her profile, she could see her tiered stomach and massive behind pushing out from underneath her orange-flowered blue silk kimono.
“Must wear bright things, Ma,” the daughter said, “to give you a positive outlook, you know. So depressed all the time.”
Sucking in her stomach didn’t make any difference, but she tried. ‘I want to get back to that slim lass inside of me,’ she wrote, ‘YEARNING. Exercise videos, gym clothes, diet cookbooks, hair products, make-up, nail polish.’
The young girl who’d married him for his voice, had gone crazy knowing he’d chosen her: her, a music teacher, from the throngs of girls from richer Malaysian families who threw themselves at him. She’d married a Malaysian icon, a movie star who broke all records and not a few hearts. She wanted that old body, the one that had caught his eye.
‘APPEARANCES,’ she wrote, ‘to show what is not, really. I’m not this clumsy body, not this unplugged treadmill with cartons stacked on it (contains hair curlers, manicure sets, some old junk jewellery).' Reminders of so many trips all over the world.’ She didn’t need them after his accident. No more parties, functions, or ribbon-cutting dos.
No journalist had crossed their threshold in ten years. She dreaded the day of his death. The media would descend on her home like a bunch of crows over an overflowing dustbin. For a dustbin it had become, she now saw. This house, all rooms and corridors brimming with stuff. The daughter was right. She had to make this list, so they could handle each pile of trash, one by one.
Her boy could have helped; it wouldn’t have been this bad if he and his wife visited once in a while, bringing with them their son. A grandson can help you forget how you look, or not care. He can make you keep things in order. If you watched your grandson stumble over a heap, you would scrap it right-away. But that was the reason his son didn’t visit even on Chinese New Year, why he kept her from her grandson, though he didn’t say it. It was this house, this dump.
She trundled down the stairs and called for the maid. Sweat had stuck the kimono to her back. She gave it a tug and a shake. The grandfather clock in the corridor declared 3pm. It kept haphazard hours, so maybe it wasn’t past lunchtime yet. Hearing no answer to her call she headed towards the kitchen. She would find herself something to eat, then begin the purge of trash from her home.
Stopping by the guest bedroom that had now become hers, she saw her quarters with new eyes. Clothes everywhere, hangers on the floor, magazines left open on every surface, the gaping cupboards, the clothes and papers inside them fighting gravity best they could.
She snaked out the thick gold chain that hung around her massive neck, and the steel key hanging on it. The key screeched with each turn inside the almirah’s locker. Little bits and pieces of jewellery the daughter had declared safe to be left in the house, and not sent to bank vaults, lay scattered inside it. She spotted a packet the daughter didn’t know about: letters from another, the man’s long-time mat salleh friend, who had not visited since the accident. A fleeting middle-aged romance between a neglected housewife and an ageing bachelor, when the man of the house was busy with his life of movies and music, and possibly, other women. A year at most, not that the man would care if he found out now. If he understood. But she must think of her own mortality and the daughter finding the letters.
‘Must get rid of papers, gifts from—’ she wrote in her notebook. And underneath it, she scrawled, 'GUILT.'
The rain had sighed to a stop, and other than distant rumbles of thunder, the house was quiet. She hollered for the maid again, and when the bleary-eyed Indonesian girl showed up, she asked for a duck pâté sandwich. The lunch meehoon would have grown soggy by now. She wrote, ‘slabs of cheese, char siew, pastries, whisky, cakes: all things on the list the GP has forbidden me must go out of the fridge. That was the last pâté. No more, no more.’
She would tell her daughter tonight about the completed lists. As soon as she finished lunch, she would tackle the rest of the rooms. She would have to copy out the lists in another notebook. This one had become a mess.
She munched on the sandwich. Notebook in hand, she ticked and underlined. She dreamed a home where her grandson could run down the corridors, slide down the banisters. The daughter would visit each weekend, and she would follow the daughter’s diet. Salad and steamed chicken for dinner. The man would wake up, shaken out of his torpor by the sudden buzz of activity in the house.
Like their GP said to her every time he checked her blood pressure after visiting the man in the living room: “You have to be patient with him. Let him do what he wants, ah. One day he suddenly wake up from this. Like from sleep, you know. He might even walk again. There is hope.”
She swallowed the last of the sandwich, gulped down the coffee that the maid brought her unasked, with every meal, and picked up the notebook. From tomorrow onwards, no coffee. Just warm lemon water. Time enough to copy everything: four days to the weekend. The rain had washed away the unbearable heat of the last few days, leaving the air humid but cool.
She switched on the fan, swept aside a few things from her bed, and lay down. She could nap this afternoon and begin afresh the next day. Before she flicked the notebook shut, she drew a line beneath all her scribbling, and wrote: ‘There is HOPE.'
Damyanti Biswas' short fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Ambit, Smokelong, Litro, Griffith Review Australia, Pembroke magazine, and other journals in the USA and UK. She serves as one of the editors of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her debut literary crime novel You Beneath Your Skin was published by Simon & Schuster India in autumn 2019, and optioned for TV adaptation by Endemol Shine.
Photograph by Ali Rizvi