Speaking in Tongues
By Lydia Kwa
It felt awkward, with the four of us crammed into a taxi. Even though, strictly speaking, it was three of us at the back—Annie my Secondary Two classmate, Mom and me—while Dad sat up front next to the driver.
"I've never been to a Pentecostal church before," whispered Annie. I blushed from the pleasure of her breath tickling my ear. I pulled away slightly and studied her side profile.
I wondered how long it took her every day to trace that dark kohl eyeliner around her large, deep-set eyes; and what about those Afro braids that framed her astonishing face—she must have help from her mother or her older sister doing those! Her nose not quite aquiline but certainly having more of a distinguished presence than mine. Maybe Queen Nefertiti looked like this, I mused.
Annie was the tallest girl in our class, and our school's fastest sprinter. Some of the trophies proudly displayed in our TKGS administrative office had her name on it. Unlike my friend, I wasn't the slightest bit athletic, but we shared a few other things in common, such as our love of movies and BBC TV shows like Dr. Who.
On Friday afternoon, after school, Annie had offered me some deep-fried lima beans in a kachang putih paper cone, and asked if she could stay with me from Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon. Her parents needed to cross the Causeway to attend a funeral in Batu Pahat. Her uncle had passed away suddenly. Annie raised a finger to her lips and whispered, I hear he looks not only dead but all cut up from the autopsy, that's why my parents don't want me to go.
I was so shocked at the revelation that I didn't know what to say. I staggered to the Staff Room to use the telephone. Mom said yes, my friend was welcome to stay the weekend. So that was how it came to be, that Annie came over on Saturday morning and stayed over.
On the long ride to church, my father took to chatting up the taxi driver. Why do men talk about such boring things, I thought, as they covered everything from the monsoon season to how expensive a bowl of wantan mee was getting. Then they started snickering in common disgust over youngsters wearing bellbottoms.
"They're so ugly, hah!" hissed the taxi driver.
"You hear that?" My father turned around to glare at me.
I glared right back, and folded my arms. A few weeks earlier, Mom had finally bought me a pair of bellbottoms with matching top, from People's Park Centre. I loved the bright floral design with big yellow and orange flowers against a white background.
I turned my attention back to my friend.
Annie smiled sweetly at me, "I've never been to your kind of church before." Then she winked. I felt my face grow hot. We'd been talking about religion the night before.
After we had switched off the lights in my room, we snuggled up close and tickled each other roughly, to see which one of us would be first to yell for mercy. Afterward, somewhat exhilarated and breathless, we gossiped about the latest rumours--which ones of our teachers we thought had the nicest clothes, which other ones, the most fuddy-duddy.
"So, your parents, they're…um…" I wanted to ask about her dead uncle but I chickened out, and said instead, "…Protestants too?"
"We are sort of like, Catholic," she replied, sounding a little sleepy.
"Is that like, you have to whip yourself whenever you think about sex?" I asked.
She giggled softly, covering her mouth, "Oh, I don't know about those things." She added, " We're Kerala Christians."
"What's that mean? You can feel sexy and not be punished?"
But Annie hadn't answered because she fell asleep. Now, in the taxi, my mind was filled with all kinds of questions I wanted to ask. What about her dead uncle, for instance? I wish I had gotten up the nerve to ask her last night. Now I couldn't say anything in the taxi which, by this time, begun to feel like a prison.
It would be a while before we arrived at our destination. I had to think up a few distractions. I cupped my hands over Annie's ear and offered, "My father's the choirmaster."
She nodded, suitably impressed.
"Let's play with rubber bands," I suggested, pulling out a couple of them from my pocket and stretching them into star shapes with my fingers.
The church was packed by the time we got there. Operating out of a ground floor Toa Payoh storefront space, there was nothing fancy about the decor, just a few Bible verses written out on cardboard, pinned up on the walls. Extra chairs were being set out as more people arrived. Mommy directed us to a row of empty seats on the right, at the very back, where new chairs were sprouting by the minute. Papa walked up to the front to sit with the choir.
Both ceiling and upright fans were going full blast. Even so, you could smell the sweat of fear and repentance depositing like pillars of salty Sodom. Some women had pulled out their sandalwood fans and were briskly fanning their faces with them. Dark patches under armpits were in evidence. I sniggered. Yeah, it was hot all right. The organist was playing the refrain to This World is Not My Home in a pensive sort of way, while the choir members hummed along. It suddenly dawned on me how dramatic a stage setting this was, sort of like Masterpiece Theatre, except ours was a tropical, sweatier version.
Pastor stood at the pulpit, eyes tightly shut and tall body swaying like lallang lilted by the wind. He likely would claim it was the Holy Spirit moving him. His right arm was stretched toward Heaven. His left hand clutched a massive red-and-yellow batik hankie, which he used often to wipe his sweaty forehead and the edges of his salivary mouth. I felt a twinge of sympathy for the limp, wet hankie. Several members of the congregation stood up from their seats, waving their hands in the air, bodies swaying in tandem. A few moans parted the air.
This kind of thing unsettled me. I knew what was coming. I fidgeted in the seat, and my guts began to churn.
Pastor unleashed a torrent of incomprehensible sounds. His forehead rimmed with fevered sweat while he was in the throes of charismatic revelation. The congregation's voices rose in passionate response, "Yes, oh yes, Lord…yes…"
I always felt nervous, whenever people started speaking in tongues. I never understood what it was all about. At least I had a friend with me that day. Wasn't I showing off my church to her? Like the host of some TV show exploring UFOs or unusual scientific phenomena. Perhaps, I mused, as I straightened up--could I even consider myself Annie's chaperone on a mini safari through the rare landscape of human souls?
Souls troubled and ecstatic all at once.
Annie's large eyes widened further, "I…I thought people in church were like…very quiet and reverent…" Her voice drifted off and she lowered her head, as she grew reflective.
"Not our church," I replied.
"So like a movie," she exclaimed, raising her eyes to meet mine.
This made me think about The Exorcist. Just released in the United States, post-Christmas. Once the movie gets to Singapore, how much of it would really be that scary, after the censors do their snipping?
"Hey, do you think they'd let us teens in to see The Exorcist when it comes here?"
I cupped my hands over Annie's ear, "I said, do you think they'll let us see The Exorcist? My brother says that there's a terrific three-sixty degrees head turning scene."
That was the nice thing about having a much older brother who was now away in Australia studying at University—I got all kinds of tidbits about the newest movies hitting the big screen out there in the Western World.
Annie giggled, closing both hands over her mouth.
Mommy flashed us a glare.
Pastor continued his sweaty trance while my father conducted the choir in a rendition of another gospel hymn, Is Your All on the Altar?
Mrs Da Costa and Mrs Yeo in front of us started to wave their arms in unison as they chanted, 'Praise the Lord…" They'd been standing right from the early part of the service, while Mom, Annie and I remained seated.
Suddenly, Mrs Yeo's body jerked wildly and collapsed forward. Her bird-like frame made a brief slapping sound as she landed against the young man sitting in front of her. He turned around abruptly and gently pushed her body back down into her chair. Mrs Da Costa frantically waved an open hymnal in front of Mrs Yeo's face. Then in further desperation, she dropped the hymnal down on her chair and cradled Mrs Yeo's face with her hands, stroking Mrs Yeo's cheek while murmuring, "Come back, sweetie. I'm waiting right here for you."
In that beach scene in From Here to Eternity, where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were so hot together, had he stroked her face and murmured sweet nothings to her? I couldn't remember. I narrowed my eyes to scrutinize Mrs Da Costa more carefully. There was no sign of obvious romantic ardour coming from her, but who knew what lurked beneath her tight, violet blue sleeveless silk dress?
I stared down at Mrs Yeo. Her eyes were glazed over; the whites of her eyes much more prominent than her pupils. Was there something we needed to do? What if she didn't recover?
No one else in the church seemed to notice Mrs Yeo's dramatic swoon. There were two kinds of vortices in the room--one centred around Pastor, and the other, if only momentarily, around a knocked-out Mrs Yeo.
Annie grabbed my arm with both hands. I felt nicely possessed, if only momentarily. Waves of delight passed through me. There was no way I could explain what just happened to Mrs Yeo. Was it the Holy Spirit? Or low blood sugar? Where was the line between spiritual transport and passionate faint?
A few minutes later, Mrs Yeo slowly came to, and sat up from her slouched position. She smiled meekly at her friend. Mrs Da Costa began to stroke Mrs Yeo's back.
The fervour in the room diminished to a low hum. Members of the congregation who had been standing, now sat down. Pastor began his sermon. "Whoever among you that is without sin, cast the first stone," Pastor intoned in his booming, baritone voice. A voice that sunk into a dark deep place as he emphasized the heaviness of the word stone. He flung his batik hankie down on the pulpit, leaned forward and stared at the people in the first row, his sharp gaze half-accusing as he suspiciously eyed them.
I shivered. The Pharisees were gathered in a circle around the hapless prostitute covered with dust as she lay there on the ground. What kind of clothes would she be wearing? Certainly not brightly coloured bellbottoms. I shook my head roughly to get myself to return to the ancient scene.
Jesus appeared, full of anger and tenderness. His whole manner, the way he stood rooted to the ground, the way his presence acted like a protective shield between those holier-than-thou guys and the terrified woman.
I couldn't help wondering if The Exorcist character in the movie was a Jesus type figure. Had to be. The world was being divided into Good versus Evil whether we liked it or not.
I caught sight of movement in front of me. Mrs Da Costa leaned toward Mrs Yeo, wrapped her lovely brown arms protectively around her diminutive friend, and gave her a slow, firm squeeze on the shoulders. That made me smile. Later, I mused, they might get closer, but in private, of course.
After the service, I overheard Pastor ask my father if they could discuss the upcoming New Year's Eve service over lunch. He and his wife took us out for dimsum in an air-con Cantonese restaurant. The place was jam-packed, buzzing with customers. After a wait of some twenty minutes, we were shown to a table in the middle of the enormous room. The waiter brought us steaming hot hand towels that smelled of 4711 Cologne. I threw one over my face and sighed before peeling it off. I was impressed by the steady stream of carts that came around to the tables with goodies. But even more impressive was the fact that this restaurant had an aviary along one side--a panel of glass windows divided us from the birds. There were a few canaries, some parrots, and several other birds I couldn't identify. But there was only one cockatoo, its body white as snow. I perked up my ears to listen. There was the din of people talking at tables, but sometimes, I thought I caught the occasional twitter or chirp coming from the other side of the glass.
"Eat, eat!" commanded Pastor as he inhaled a couple of har gow in rapid succession.
Pastor and his wife ignored Annie. They looked past her, while asking me a few questions about school and if I was looking forward to Secondary Three next year. I was quite choked up, feeling my ears burn with irritation. My jaw clenched up. I said the bare minimum and looked away soon after I answered their questions. Papa and Pastor discussed the hymns they wanted the choir to present during the New Year's Eve service. Mom was quietly smiling at Pastor's wife and making sure that food was in my bowl and Annie's.
I kept looking at Annie, trying to guess how she was feeling, and what she thinking about. But her face, usually very animated and expressive, was now blank.
Annie found my hand under the table. It was difficult to stay calm and not blush. I felt pleasure as well as anger. Felt like bolting out of my chair and slapping the Pastor and his wife. Maybe even get away with saying I was momentarily possessed. Surely no one would cast a stone at me, after that sermon?
I took a deep breath. "You know…" I began, in a tremulous voice.
The adults stopped eating and looked at me.
"My friend Annie here is very smart and is our school's champion sprinter."
Pastor stiffly turned his head and fixed his gaze directly at Annie. He laughed and exclaimed in his loudspeaker pulpit voice, "Well, Praise the Lord! I do hope you are born again."
Annie's mouth dropped open, but she was speechless. I guessed that she didn't understand Pastor's comment so I had to think of something fast.
"Definitely. Very. Born again." I knocked my thigh against Annie's, as a sign to keep quiet.
Pastor nodded, appeased. Just then, the cockatoo in the aviary gave a most brilliant squawk, "Wraak! Wraak! Blimey, mates! Pass the bloody ammunition!"
A titter went through the crowd, everyone suddenly aware there was a foreign sound in our midst, a non-human voice that interjected into our conversation, mimicking our language yet eerily alien.
Our waiter, his hair thickly pomaded with Brylcreem, tilted his head in the direction of the cockatoo and remarked proudly, "You hear, huh? That one! Buay pai. Not shy lah! She come from Papua New Guinea just last week and look how she talk her head off, like she know Singapore!"
He turned to look at the aviary, squinting his eyes. He made a few cooing sounds, as if telling the cockatoo that he was pleased with her vocal display.
Somewhere, in another dimension, Linda Blair did her three-sixty degrees turn. I felt its potent spell travel down from the top of my head down to my toes.
I quietly squeezed Annie's hand.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014