A Lost Boy
By O Thiam Chin
My grandson loves to hang around young girls, especially those below 10 years old. He befriends these girls easily, giving them pieces of sweets or a small gift like a pencil or bookmark. They are usually my neighbours' kids, still in primary school. He likes to touch their hair and make them laugh. I thought it's common for boys to like girls, a fact of life, nothing unusual about it. He is only 13. Everything seems normal, at least, from how I see it.
I take care of my grandson because my daughter has to work two different jobs every day. My grandson takes his looks after my daughter: oversized eyes, thick soft lips and a petite frame. But how he talks and walks often reminds me of his father, who has deserted the family three years ago, with his latest girlfriend, hiding somewhere in Ipoh, his hometown. My grandson talks at a fast speed, as if he can't wait to get all the words out of his mouth, to say everything all at once, a condition which becomes worse when he's anxious or frightened. He is a good imitator, able to pick up the distinct nuances of voices and mannerisms of the people he sees on TV, a charming, disarming trait he uses to good effect, to his advantage. He likes to make people laugh, to feel at ease with him, to like him.
Especially, he wants young girls to like him, and to this end, he works in a determined fashion, with an unwavering eagerness to please. By skipping ropes with them, or playing catching. By telling them jokes and riddles. He likes to tease them, and to draw giggles from them by tickling their ears and armpits and pinching their waists. Sometimes, he hugs and kisses them.
My daughter thinks there's nothing wrong in a boy showing affection to young girls – "You want him to like boys, is it?" – just as long as there are limits and boundaries. What limits, what boundaries, I ask her, but she conveniently ignores my question. Her being blase makes me anxious, fidgety. A few days ago, I walked past by grandson's room, and through the gap in the door, I noticed that he was watching something on his computer, a grainy video with the volume set to low. It took a few seconds before I registered what the video was about, an act between a young-looking girl and two men. My grandson was so engrossed that he didn't notice my presence, his body hunched before the screen, riveted. When he started moving his hand in front of his shorts, I turned and walked away, my body recoiling from a deepening sense of shame and disgust. I had to sit on the sofa for a long while to gather my thoughts and whip my mind into a functioning state.
A memory surfaced, dislodged from the mass of conflicting thoughts, and presented itself anew in my mind: the image of a young woman, shoulder cropped hair with razor-straight bangs, a black-hole of a mouth, cosmos in her eyes. Her laughter, hard and cold, resounded in my ears, and try as I might, I couldn't block it out. In my mind, I had confused her with the girl in the video.
I came from a big family, with seven other siblings, and being the oldest child, my parents tasked me with the care of my younger brothers and sisters while they were at work in the vegetable fields. This was back in the early '70s, and we were living in a kampung, in a tiny wooden hut, surrounded by large families in similar circumstances, living with the bare minimums. During the afternoons, when my younger siblings took their siestas, I would get out of the house and take long walks around the kampung. Most of the huts would be quiet, since the adults were out at work and the children were sleeping off their lunches. The only sounds were the occasional dog barks and the erratic clucking of chickens kept in small compounds bordered with mesh wire. I liked the stillness of a drowsy afternoon, where all human activities took a temporary pause and nature exerted its lonesome presence – the gentle waving of leaves on knobby trees, sharp blinks of light through the latticework of branches, the humming of the forest. Everything seemed subdued in the heat of the day: the dogs that hid under the stilts of the huts, the laundry hardening on the wire clothesline. Walking through the kampung was like walking through a desolate place devoid of people, removed from time.
The hut next to ours was the Lims'. They were poultry farmers, rearing chickens, ducks, gooses and a handful of turkeys that, to me, looked like fatter, uglier gooses. If they were not around, I'd pick up one of their yellow ducklings from the enclosed compound and cup it in my palms, holding it tight while the duckling struggled to break free from my grasp. One time, I brought the duckling to a large earthenware jar and let it loose in the dirty water, testing to see whether it would stay afloat. It put up a wild, insignificant fight, its tiny wings useless in the water. I waited till the very last second – its body was almost fully submerged, giving up – before I pluck it out, wet and exhausted in my hand. I would pat it dry with my shirt and stroke its head with my finger. When I put the duckling back to the compound, it lay on the ground, too weak to move its webbed feet.
Thinking back, I didn't necessarily see my actions as bad or cruel; I did what I did, mostly out of curiosity, to see how far I could go before it becomes too late to change. I didn't mean any harm to anyone, not even Pig-Face Soo. How could one know the consequences of one's action at the moment when an act is committed?
Whenever I look at my grandson, I see a part of my younger self in him, a part that I wish I could eradicate, wipe it clean. Instead I look away, choosing to use reason and rationale to explain away my unspoken fears. I tried to distract him by encouraging him to play more sports, like basketball, during his free time after school. He played with the ball I bought him for a few days, to please me, but his heart was never in it. He much preferred his own company when he's at home, his face always behind a book or magazine. He was a quiet, solitary boy, which I somehow mistakenly equated to reticence and good-naturedness.
Because my parents worked most of the day, and I was put in charge of my siblings, I had to grow up fast, to take up certain responsibilities, even before I was ten. I was left to make decisions for my younger brothers and sisters, a role that I relished as it gave me authority over them, to make them do the things I said. Most of the time, they obeyed my instructions, and when they didn't, I'd slap their faces or give their thighs a hard pinch. If they cried, I'd threaten them with worse punishments, like throwing them down the deep well or locking them up in the chicken coop and feeding them chicken shit. Once, when my third younger brother refused to clear up a bowl of rice he had overturned, I heated a kettle on the stove and brought his hand to the hot surface. He yelped and cried until he passed out. Yet even after what I did, he didn't tell on me, but from that day, he kept his distance and avoided getting into any trouble.
In the same vein, this was how I had brought up my only daughter, Lena, with tough words and a strong, steady hand. I kept her by my side from young, telling her what to do and what not to do, lacing my threats with a few well-chosen words. When my husband and I were divorced, when Lena was nine, I came down even harder on her, not wanting her to take the blunt of my failed marriage. In a way, unconsciously, I was shaping her to become like me: firm, decisive, taking charge. It went well for a few years, but when she hit puberty, she became a completely different person, a shadow of the daughter I wanted her to be. She rebelled and resisted, contouring herself into something that was unrecognizable to me, and before she was sixteen, she was already pregnant with my grandson, the father missing.
So with my grandson, I felt I had a second chance to redeem myself, to make things right. I offered to look after him, to take care of him when my daughter looked for a job to support herself and the boy. I gave my full attention to my grandson, but this time, I made sure not to exert any rigid control over him, to give him what he asks for, but of course, always within reason and limits. It was already so hard growing up without a father, and it just didn't make any sense to deny him what was lacking in his life. In spite of this, he was an undemanding child, uncomplicated in the things he wanted – a watch, a school bag, a new Wii game. In many ways, he was much easier to bring up than my daughter, Lena.
In recalling the past about Lena, there is a pressing need, on my part, to make a confession, to set the records straight. I had Lena when I was sixteen, a decision that was hastily made and stuck to without much thought about what I was going to do with her, or what would become of us. Lena was the accident that happened after my luck ran out, a regrettable mistake. The boy who had gotten me pregnant was someone I had loved once, and later, grown a revulsion towards. He was the son of the owner of the hardware store in town, and he was the one who initiated me into the murky realm of sex and dark urges. Through him, I got the first taste of love, its longings and complexities, but also, later, of shame and guilt, the attendant servants.
Back in the days, sex wasn't something one talked about openly, definitely not at home or in school, which, naturally, became a point of fascination for me. I heard stories from friends in school about the numerous things a boy could do to a girl, but it was hard to match and reconcile the stories told with the images in my head. I knew, of course, what a penis looks like, since I had to shower my younger brothers every day, but to hear what it could do – swell, penetrate, spurt – was unimaginable to me. My close friend back then, Ah Kim, told me about the time she saw her uncle pulling 'his thing' in his room – "He looks like he's in pain, his face all scrunched up." I made the requisite sound of disgust, but inwardly I was curious. On some nights, half an hour after lights off, I could hear movements and pockets of noise coming from my parents, and even when I tried to make sense of the soft grunts and moans they were making, I was none the wiser at the end of it. But that's your charm, your sweet naivety, Chong, the boy, told me later, after we had been going out for a while.
When it finally happened – that is, sex – I was slightly underwhelmed. So this was it, I had thought then, this fumbling and tossing, the baring and penetrating, the whole works. The urgency of it, the stickiness of the bodies, the secretions – it was nothing like how I had expected it. The first few times I had sex with Chong, my mind was often adrift somewhere else, circumventing the discomfort and pain with thoughts of escape, of relief.
It took some time before I could wrestle any pleasure out of it, and when I did, I was living for it.
I wasn't surprised at what my daughter did when she was in her rebellion stage: excessive sex, hard drinking, lying, stealing. From where I stood in her life, always from a distance, I could understand some of the things she did, why she did them, and even then, it was hard for me to acknowledge this fact to myself, let alone to her. She would come home in the arms of a different boy every other week, drunk and occasionally high, and make a big show of her indifference and nonchalance. I'd put up a fight or slap her in the face, but nothing changed her. She would leave used condoms on the floor in her room, and later, pregnancy test kits, for me to throw out. She stocked up bottles of Jim Beam and Absolut in her cupboard, and filled up an empty fish tank with wine corks. She went about her life with a resolute recklessness that sometimes left me breathless with paralysing dismay, and also stupefying bewilderment.
On the other hand, my grandson is a different story. He never caused any serious problem – the only time he got into trouble at school was over name-calling; apparently a classmate had called him a dirty pervert for accidentally walking into the girls' toilet, and in retaliation, he had punched the boy in the face. When I asked him about the incident, he remained mum, not wanting to explain anything. At home, he keeps a tidy room, with everything in place. Whatever he does, he would clean up after himself, not leaving any traces of his past activities, and I would put it down as part of his nature, his fastidiousness, his need to maintain a certain amount of order and control. Maybe, I thought, some boys are born this way.
The walks I took when I was just a young girl, before things started to change, were something I looked back with a bittersweet nostalgia, in which nothing was asked of me, just observation and full immersion in the quiet moments where life was at a standstill. I walked with no purpose in mind, hours lost in the minutiae. Sometimes, during these walks, I'd come upon Pig-Face Soo, who, too, ambled aimlessly around the kampung. She was two years younger than me, but her body was already in the flush of puberty, her breasts like those of a nursing sow, huge and saggy. She had a giant head with two tiny slits as eyes, and was slow in the head. Because her parents were out in the fields, like my parents, during the day, she was allowed to roam freely, doing whatever she felt like. Nobody in the kampung bothered her in any way, though I had heard stories told by my neighbours of how Pig-Face Soo would let anyone touch her breasts as long as there was food in the bargain. One time, I chanced upon her peeing in the bushes, though she didn't see me at all. I was too stunned to move away, or hide myself, transfixed by the unruly black bush of pubic hair between thick swathes of pale, layered flesh. And in the weeks that followed, I gave her a wide berth, unable to lift my eyes to her.
A few times she had surprised me with her sudden appearances, when I was distracted with a stray thought or preoccupied with a task. She would giggle and mumble something unintelligible, and sometimes in her excitement, hop and gesticulate wildly. I'd calm her down with anything I had in hand: a candy, a flower or a song I sang to my siblings to lull them to sleep. She would grab my hands and put them on her face, in a gesture of unforced intimacy, and I'd keep them there for as long as I could. Sometimes she would slip my hands down to her huge breasts and move them around. The first time it happened I cupped one of her breasts abstractedly in my hand, feeling its softness, its fullness; when she did it the next time, I jerked my hand back and rebuked her, as gently as I could muster, saying no, no, no. She looked crestfallen, as if I had spit in her face. She would not have been able to understand her actions, but for me, it was enough to shake me up for a long time, this blunt, unthinking display of another woman's sexuality.
There was another time I saw her near the stream at the outskirts of the kampung, taking sips from the water, and out of an unexplainable compulsion, I decided to follow her. Though she didn't do anything out of the norm – the exact same things I'd have done on my own: plucking mangos or rambutans off the trees, chasing after butterflies and squirrels, talking to herself – the thrill of following her and taking in everything she did was strangely intoxicating, as if I were allowed a long uninterrupted look into another person's hidden life.
I felt the same buzz, that familiar sickening knot in the gut, when I followed my grandson one afternoon after school. I had seen him at the void deck with a girl in school uniform, talking and laughing, and immediately hid behind a wall, straining to hear their conversation, which was mostly about the girl – her friends, favourite Korean bands, a new smartphone she wanted to get. I saw my grandson putting his hand on the girl's lap and later over her shoulder. After half an hour, my grandson led the girl to the stairwell beside the multi-storey car park. I kept my surveillance till the very moment before it became too conspicuous. They went up the flight of stairs and the last thing I saw was the young girl's Bata shoes that were pristine white. I waited for a long time, waiting for them to come down again, but they never did. And since I couldn't bring myself to walk up the stairs, I left and went back home, to prepare an afternoon snack for my grandson.
With Chong, I became a different kind of person, one that was separate from the life I had at home. With him, I discovered another side to my body, one that was sensual, secretive, pleasure-serving as well as giving. I drank deep from my body, yielding to its depth, thirsty beyond any understanding. I gave full rein of it to Chong, who though was only three years older than me, possessed a secret knowledge and experience that went beyond his years. He knew the right angle for me to arch my body when he wanted to enter me from behind, the spread of my legs to bring me faster to that elusive, explosive joy that always reduced me to purely nerves and flesh. Once, I brought him home in the afternoon, and we did it under the covers, beside my sleeping siblings. My youngest sister had woken up in the middle of our act, and stared at me with an open-mouthed puzzlement. I held her stare without letting go, not even after Chong came inside me. Finally, she forced her eyes shut, and turned away to face the wall. Later, when I tried to bring this up with her, she acted like she had completely forgotten about it.
When my grandson was six or seven, I'd often find him crying in bed after a nightmare; if the nightmare was worse than usual, he would run into my room, eyes swollen from the tears, seeking the safety of my body. He would hold onto my body as if it were his last refuge, and a stream of mutilated words would pour forth from his mouth, mostly about a bear or a tiger chasing after him, or a witch attempting to tear off his arm or leg. And then, there was this time he dreamt about my daughter, Lena, locking him up in a cage and throwing it into a well. "She doesn't want me, Ah Ma, she doesn't want me. She wants to throw me away. Why does Mummy want to do that?"
Without answering him, I cleaned his wet face with a towel and changed him into a dry set of pyjamas. I cooed to him, and patted his arm, getting him to sleep again. He struggled to stay awake, his flighty eyes gradually losing their intensity, and eventually he dropped off into the deep end of sleep.
That day was like any other day. Chong and I were lying on the grass patch by the stream, cooling off after one of our afternoon sessions. Out of the blue, he brought up the topic of Pig-Face Soo whom he had seen that morning at the kampung well, openly taking a shower. On my back, looking up at the leaden sky, I glanced at Chong who had propped himself up with his arms, a stem-stalk dangling from his mouth. Like boys his age, he had trained his face to be expressionless, tough.
"They should do something with her, and not let her run around like that," he said.
"Why? Who can take care of her? Her parents have to work, and her siblings are too young."
"They can lock her up at home, or something."
"They did when she was much younger, and she burnt the hut down, remember? I think it's better this way." I recalled the night of the fire, when I was eight, which my father, along with the other men in the kampung had to form a line from the well to the hut, passing along buckets of water, which did nothing to douse the fire. Everything was consumed in the end, blackened and skeletal.
"She's too old to behave like that, like a bloody kid," Chong said.
"She's one anyway, at least in the head." A cloud lingered over us, the shade a brief balm, before it moved away. The features on Chong's face darkened as he mulled over some thoughts in his head. Then he reached over and slipped his hand into my shirt, pulling at my nipple. Edging towards me, he climbed on top of me, breathing into my face.
"You want it again?"
"No, I'm tired. Let me rest, don't disturb me."
"You sure? Your body's telling me something different."
My nipple was hardened under his teasing. He lifted my shirt, and began to lick it. I pushed him away, with little resolve. My thoughts boiled down to a single carnal act – the flicking of Chong's tongue. From the undergrowth, a giggle sounded out. Chong stopped, and looked over his shoulder. I quickly covered myself, and turned towards the person who was trying to move away from us, a flurry of movements. Chong let out a curse, and gave chase. From the bulk and shape of the retreating figure, I knew it was Pig-Face Soo.
"You idiot, come back!"
Chong leapt at Pig-Face Soo and knocked her down, putting his full body weight on her. Despite her size, Pig-Face Soo was too weak to put up any resistance, her face grinding on the rocky ground. She coughed a few times, in an attempt to scream. Chong slapped her hard on her cheeks, and silenced her.
"Sneaking up on us? How dare you?" Chong grabbed her hair and slammed her head to the ground. A line of blood appeared on Pig-Face Soo's forehead. She started to whimper. I stood apart from both of them, feeling removed from the scene before me, like a third party intruding an intimate encounter.
"Chong, let her go. Just let her go."
"No, she spied on us, this stupid whore."
Turning her body around, Chong straddled Pig-Face Soo's chest. He looked down at her, his eyes crazed and fired-up. Then he grabbed the neckline of her shirt and tore it down the middle, exposing her huge breasts. She let out a gasp. Chong grabbed the breasts and kneaded them roughly. A confusion of looks streaked across Pig-Face Soo's face. She stopped sobbing and looked at me, as if hoping to read an answer from my stare. I turned away.
When Chong started to pinch her nipples, Pig-Face Soo closed her eyes, a blush blossomed across her face. Her nipples became erected, and a strange expression took over her face. When Chong brought his mouth to them, I saw her mouth break open into a perfectly-shaped 'O'. Everything at the moment felt unhinged, unfettered to any semblance of reality, as if I were watching something terrible and life-changing taking place before me, slow frame after slow frame
"Come here," Chong threw his words at me. I edged towards the tangle of bodies. "Hold her," he said. Without any comprehension, I held down Pig-Face Soo's arms, which were clammy with sweat, cold. By then, she was offering hardly any resistance, her arms limp by her sides. I could have let go, and she wouldn't have done anything. But still, I did exactly as I was told, as if it were the only thing I could do.
When Chong pulled down her shorts and did what he did, I was no longer there. I had slipped away somewhere in my mind. When Pig-Face Soo tried to catch my eyes with hers, I couldn't bring myself to look away. In the dark, dead pits of her eyes, I caught a reflection of myself, enlarged and distorted, filling her vision. What did she see? Whatever she saw in me, she didn't flinch or relent to it; instead she took it in and made it her own, swallowing it whole.
I left the kampung shortly after what happened, sent to live with a distant auntie in a new housing estate in the north, to pick up the skill and trade of dressmaking from her. My family needed the extra income, and I couldn't wait to leave the place, to start anew. At that point, Chong and I had not spoken to each other for a while, which seemed to me inevitable yet necessary.
Some months after I left, I heard the news from my mother. Pig-Face Soo had gone missing one night and was later found in the well. It was naturally assumed that she had accidentally fallen in and drowned. Her family hushed up the whole incident, and she was given a quick burial, on a small plot of land outside the kampung. Nobody spoke of her again. She was a mistake from the start, my mother said, and now that she's gone, it's for the better. What do you mean? I had asked my mother. But she didn't explain, and I couldn't bring myself to ask any further.
The past is a beast that comes at you from every direction, waiting to eat you alive. For years, I have made myself forgetful, to let my mind skim lightly over the surface of my memories, so that I could be at peace with the person I have become. But sometimes the past can sneak up so suddenly, so ravenously, appearing not in a nightmare or a random thought or a suppressed fear, but as a person, in the acts of a loved one, abominable, inexplicable.
When my grandson came back home that afternoon I had followed him, the first thing he did was to wash his hands thoroughly with the liquid hand soap. He saw me looking at him, and told me he was hungry. I set the plate of ham-and-cheese sandwich before him on the dining table, and asked him about his day. It's fine, I had to stay back in school for a project, he said, taking a bite into the sandwich. I stared at him, and I sat at the table until he had finished everything on the plate.
I waited, as if for a reply, though I had not said anything while my grandson was eating. When he was done, he walked up to me and gave me a kiss on my forehead. Thank you for everything, Ah Ma, he said.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013