Don’t Be Foolish
By Agnes Chew
Yulia couldn't remember the last time she cried like this—the way the anguish consumed her being, violently shaking her entire body, leaving her gasping for air as hot tears ran down her face, seeping into the yellowing fabric of the pillow case. She had wept the day she left her home in the village, clutching her bags, apprehensive about embarking on a journey that would take her away from her parents, her brother, her friends and everything that she had ever known, to begin a new life in Singapore—but it had been nothing like this. She stuffed the worn blanket into her mouth, trying to muffle the sounds of her sobbing in the darkness of the night.
Lynette remembered the first time her mother announced that they were getting a live-in domestic helper. Her mother had found a job and was returning to the workforce after a long hiatus, and someone needed to be home to do the household chores and take care of her and her younger brother. She was sitting at her usual spot on the couch in the living room, trying to feign interest in the nine o'clock drama serial on Channel 8 as her mother explained how the arrangement was not ideal but nonetheless necessary.
She couldn't help but to feel uneasy. It was the first time a stranger was coming to live in their flat, and they never had any domestic help before. Turning away from the screen, Lynette began firing questions at her mother.
"What's her name?"
"You can call her Yulia."
"How old is she?"
"She just turned 23."
"Where's she from?"
"Somewhere in Indonesia."
"What's she like?"
"She's pleasant. You'll get to meet her soon."
"When will she arrive?"
"The agent will bring her here this Sunday."
"Where will she sleep?"
"In the study room. Or do you want to share your room with her?"
Lynette wasn't sure if her mother was asking in jest, but didn't want to take her chances.
True to her mother's word, Yulia arrived on Sunday afternoon.
When the doorbell rang, Lynette hurried to her room and shut the door, but not completely—just enough to leave a gap through which she could peek. She was surprised to see how young Yulia looked. Dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, she didn't look a day over 18. The agent, a jovial middle-aged woman who wore her hair in a messy bun, was doing most of the talking. Yulia mostly stayed silent, wearing a faint smile on her face while looking down at the floor.
After some time, Lynette heard the main door close. Her mother began showing Yulia around the house, pointing out where everything was—the kitchen where she would do the cooking, the service balcony where she would do the laundry, the toilets which needed scrubbing twice a week—and now they were approaching her room. She quickly sat herself at her desk, pretending to be doing her homework. Her mother pushed the door open.
"Lynette, this is Yulia. Yulia, my elder girl, Lynette."
"Hello Lynette nice to meet you my name is Yulia thank you."
As the words tumbled out from Yulia's mouth, Lynette swivelled in her chair to face them. Tentatively, she managed a smile and mumbled hello.
Yulia set her things down in the study room. It was not a particularly large room. Of the four walls, one was lined with tall shelves filled with books of varying thickness. Across the room stood a mahogany piano, on which sat framed photographs of the family. Next to the piano were two writing desks for the children. The sleeping mattress that Madam had prepared for her was already placed in the middle of the room. On top of it lay a pillow and a square of blanket. She unfolded the latter to see that it was fraying at the edges. She lay down on the flimsy mattress, pulled the blanket over herself and tried not to think of anything else but the tasks that lay ahead of her.
When Lynette plopped herself down at the dining table the next morning, sulking over being awoken by a stranger, her mother seemed unusually pleased as Yulia had prepared the coffee and arranged their breakfast on the table without further reminder or instruction on her part. She became more annoyed as her mother—oblivious to her sullenness—started reminding them that it was her first day back at work, that Yulia would be the one accompanying them to school, preparing their meals and picking them up when the school day was over, that she would probably be home late and not to wait for her.
Five minutes later, her parents were done with their kaya toast and promptly left for work. Feeling cross, Lynette glanced first at her brother and then grudgingly at Yulia. Her brother was tilting his head backwards to catch the last drops of milo from his plastic mug, unperturbed by the presence of a new person in their home. Yulia was picking up their school bags, getting ready to accompany them to school. She still wore that smile on her face, although it seemed to have somewhat faded.
By evening, Yulia was spent. She had been on her feet since five that morning—preparing breakfast for the family, memorising the route between the flat and the children's primary school, finding her way back to the flat to begin sweeping, mopping, cleaning, doing the laundry and ironing, before picking them up again, preparing their afternoon snacks followed by dinner for the family. It might not sound like much, but it was gruelling, unrelenting labour that ate away at her. Yulia couldn't wait for the day to be over so she could lie down on the mattress in the study room, even though she knew that sleep would not come easily.
At dinner, Lynette peered at the dish Yulia had placed before her. It was a serving of rice—coloured brown from caramelisation—with pieces of cubed meat and vegetables and a fried egg on the side. She picked up her spoon and hesitantly took a bite. The explosion of flavours on her tongue took her by surprise. It was delectable and unlike anything her mother had ever cooked. Meals made by her mother mostly comprised variations of steamed vegetables and fish. Her mother claimed they were nutritious and good for health. They were also easy to prepare and wouldn't leave much of a mess in the kitchen to clean up thereafter.
Within a few minutes, Lynette polished off every grain of rice. She looked over to her brother, who had likewise wolfed down his meal and was now gleefully licking his plate. Satisfied with her dinner, she looked up to see Yulia standing quietly by the doorway of the kitchen.
"What's this?" she asked.
Looking surprised to be spoken to, Yulia mumbled, "Fried rice. In Bahasa Indonesia, nasi goreng."
An awkward pause followed before Lynette asked again, "Have you eaten?"
Yulia shook her head. "Yulia wait for Sir and Madam to eat. Then Yulia eat."
Lynette wondered what time her parents would return home. Her father usually got back late, long after they had gone to bed. She hoped her mother's work would be less demanding than her father's, so that she could still see her on weekday evenings.
She shifted her gaze back to the television, marking the end of the conversation.
After working for a month at Madam's place, Yulia received her first pay. Most of it would have to go towards paying off her placement fee, but still, it was money that she earned through her own hard work, the amount of which she had never before earned back home. Just like Irma, she would soon be able to start sending money home to help her family, she encouraged herself.
Irma was her cousin with whom she had grown up together in the village, who was also working in Singapore. In fact, Irma had been the one who convinced Yulia to come over, after she heard about what happened with Yulia's family. While the work was taxing, the money was good—much more than what they could dream of earning back home. She would be able to improve her life and more importantly, support her family financially if she worked in Singapore, Irma had persuaded her.
What Irma forgot to mention was that the increase in financial status came accompanied with a corresponding decrease in social status. Here, Yulia was nothing but a maid. Her circumstances never failed to remind her of that each day. Since arriving in Singapore, her identity had been stripped away from her. She was no longer the happy, carefree Yulia of her village. Scenes from her old life rushed over her. She swept them aside. All of that belonged to the past. Yulia understood that her present worth lay solely in the quality of her housekeeping and childcare—of which both the house and children didn't belong to her—so that Madam could be free for work and leisure, so that she herself could earn enough to ease her family's burden.
Since her mother started working three months ago, Lynette saw less and less of her. In her parents' absence was Yulia's unwavering presence. She was always there. She was there in the morning to rouse them from slumber. She was there in the afternoon, patiently standing in the sweltering heat, waiting to pick them up from school. She was always there throughout the day, helping them with anything and everything they needed help with. Clothes that needed mending. Cardboard boxes to be procured for a school project. Snacks to be prepared for an excursion. Over time, Lynette sensed the three of them growing into a comfortable companionship—herself, her brother and Yulia.
Although the children have opened up to her and both Madam and Sir have treated her well enough over the last months, Yulia couldn't help feeling like an outsider who could never belong here. Some days, she felt like a prisoner—trapped within the confines of the restricted spaces in which she was allowed to move, with minimal room for flexibility in her schedule. Her days were repetitive and her routine, boring. It was the usual grind, day in, day out. There seemed to be nothing to look forward to. Even the single off day that she was supposed to be entitled to each week had been denied from her. Madam always found a reason to make her stay in, so she did.
Some nights, Yulia allowed herself to cry to sleep. She wondered how her parents were coping with the situation back home, how big her brother would have grown by now, how her friends were doing. When she tried to imagine their faces in her head, she found that their features had started to become blurry with time. She longed to be home, to be with her own family. She missed the feeling of being doted on by her parents. She missed carrying her baby brother in her arms as he gurgled with his twinkling eyes. She missed being under the open skies with the expanse of land all around her, and the sense of vastness and freedom they had afforded her.
When would she be able to return home?
Over time, Lynette and her brother began to enjoy Yulia's presence at home, for they managed to negotiate for perks that would not have been possible under their mother's previously strict supervision. After school, Yulia would sometimes accede to their requests of stopping by the playground or mama shop on the way home and allow them to pick a small snack each. It had to be under two dollars, for Yulia had a tight budget from their mother each week for grocery shopping. Nonetheless, it was always a delight for Lynette and her brother to pick from the range of tantalising treats.
Often, Yulia also relented and allowed them extra time in front of the television. "Just half an hour more!" Her brother would cry out, his eyes glued to the screen. Yulia would then smile and walk away, leaving them in peace. Lynette also noticed that Yulia would try to prepare healthier versions of their favourite snacks for them, snacks that were usually frowned upon and forbidden by their mother. Baked chicken nuggets. Sweet potato fries. Frozen banana milkshakes.
Increasingly, Lynette found that her mother's absence during the week weighed less and less heavily on her.
Time spent with the children gradually became the highlight of Yulia's days. She enjoyed being with them. Somehow, it made her feel less alone. The children reminded her of her own brother back home, and she found herself caring for them as she would for her younger sibling. At times, she almost forgot about the circumstances that had led her here.
One night, after everyone had gone to bed, Yulia lay on the mattress, wide awake. Instead of closing her eyes and awaiting sleep to come as she usually did, she stood up and walked towards the wooden shelves, her fingertips tracing the spines of books that she would arrange in order every now and then. In the day, she would see the children poring over them, as if they contained the great secrets of life.
Yulia couldn't read particularly well in English, but that didn't stop her from picking up a palpably thick volume. Pausing for a moment to feel its weight in her hands, she flipped the book open. She turned the pages carefully, her eyes following the trails of words that ran across each page. The sensation of crisp paper between her fingertips felt comforting, as though soothing the sorrow that ran in her veins.
Two days short of her 12th birthday, Lynette got her first period. She had just returned home from school when she discovered it—the unmistakable stain of reddish-brown against the pure white of her cotton underwear. It was only when she heard Yulia knocking on the door of the bathroom asking if she was fine that she realised how long she had been inside. Mumbling a reply, she washed her hands and stepped outside.
Their eyes met. Lynette didn't have to say a word for Yulia to realise what had transpired. Immediately, Yulia went to gather the necessary supplies and guided her through her first steps into womanhood. By the time her mother got home that evening, Lynette was already in bed with the lights turned out.
That night, the women in the flat lay preoccupied in their beds.
Only one of the three was not thinking about the others.
Nearly a year passed before Yulia was allowed to have her first day off.
It was Sunday, and she had arranged to meet Irma. Although it had taken so long before she could see her cousin again, Yulia had always felt comforted by the thought of Irma's presence here since the day she arrived in Singapore. Irma had suggested meeting at Paya Lebar MRT station, and Yulia appreciated the comprehensive instructions offered by Irma on how to get there.
When they finally saw each other, Irma called out Yulia's name excitedly, rushing forward to embrace her. It felt so surreal, as though they were both back in their village again, except they were now surrounded by concrete, token greenery and some curious, if not disparaging, stares. It took some time for Yulia to recover from her surprise and disbelief before she wrapped her arms tightly around her cousin, who looked somewhat different from how she remembered her to be. "Irma!" she exclaimed, the shrill tone of her voice sounding foreign to herself.
After a short walk, Irma found a spot near a shopping mall and sat down, stretching out her legs. "Come, sit down!" her cousin urged, before rummaging through her bag to fish out a selection of snacks—bananas, cookies, packet drinks—and offering them to Yulia. According to Irma, they were given to her by her employer.
Soon, they were chatting and laughing like they did in their previous lives. They exchanged anecdotes about their experiences working in Singapore, and took the opportunity to air their grievances as well. Irma offered her advice on how to better manage her employers. "Smile and perform your tasks in a lively manner, even when you're feeling tired or terrible. Don't speak until you're spoken to. When your employers get upset, always apologise even if it's not your fault. But I'm sure you've learned a thing or two on your own by now," Irma said, squeezing her shoulder.
The hours flew by and before Yulia knew it, it was time for them to part. She held onto her cousin for a long time, even after Irma had released her grasp, as though Irma were a life buoy amid treacherous waters, capable of saving her life. Irma laughed and stroked her hair. "Don't worry, Yulia, we'll meet again. Next time, I'll take you to meet my friends. They're all very nice. You'll feel closer to home." Yulia nodded. She didn't know anyone else here, and wouldn't know how to spend her day off anyway.
Having recently started secondary school, Lynette was learning to come to terms with the simultaneous shifts in her life. Her blossoming body. Her new school environment and schedule. Her evolving interests and priorities. She was the only one from her primary school to have enrolled in her current secondary school. Not recognising anyone in the sea of faces on her first day, she had to learn to make new friends and navigate the complexities of her budding adolescence.
In a time of such tumultuous transitions, she was secretly glad to have the steadfast companionship shared among Yulia, her brother and herself. She found herself beginning to share snippets of her day with Yulia as she prepared their meals or folded the laundry. Yulia always smiled so encouragingly at her when she was talking, and knew to express disappointment or feign fury at all the right moments.
One evening, after they had finished dinner, Lynette went into the study room and sat herself at the piano. It has been some time since she last played. She detested the way her piano teacher used to rap her knuckles with a wooden ruler and how she always seemed to have an unending supply of criticisms about Lynette's playing, regardless of how much or how hard Lynette had practised her scales and arpeggios. Shortly after her mother returned to work last year, Lynette managed to quit the lessons altogether.
But what Lynette didn't tell her mother was that she actually enjoyed playing the piano, she simply hated the way it was taught to her. Holding her breath, she gently lifted the fall board of the instrument to expose the ivory keys beneath. She played a note, then two. A chord, then a melody. At the sounds of the vibrating strings, her brother came running into the room. "Jie, you're playing the piano again?" She smiled and called out for Yulia to join them.
When there were three in the room, Lynette began playing the one piece she knew by heart. Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9 No. 2. After some time, as the final notes reverberated in the air surrounding the trio, she caught Yulia's gaze and whispered, "It's my favourite one."
The next time they met, Yulia was introduced to Irma's friends. They were all her fellow countrywomen who were also working as domestic helpers. Some of them have been here for over a decade. Yulia couldn't imagine being away from home for so long, and secretly hoped that she wouldn't end up doing the same.
Taking a seat next to her cousin, Yulia joined the circle of women as they began chatting. One of them, a 23-year-old named Sumini, started expressing her frustration over her employers' behaviour. Sumini described the way she was being oppressed in the house. Her employers were constantly giving her orders and dishing out commands, even in the wee hours of the morning after she had fallen asleep. They had also installed surveillance cameras around the house to monitor her every move. Every fortnight, she was made to clean the houses of her employers' adult children and wasn't given any additional pay for it.
Another of Irma's friends, Wati, began nodding vigorously. "It's as though we're slaves!" She began sharing with the group about how her employers rationed her food, gave her a separate set of utensils to eat with and forbade her from sitting on the couch and chairs in the house. While the family enjoyed their daily feasts of meat, seafood and vegetables at the dining table, Wati was allowed to eat only a single bowl of rice while seated on her stool in a corner behind the kitchen.
As another of Irma's friends related her humiliating experience of being scolded by her employer's child in public. "You stupid idiot!" He had jeered at her before running in the opposite direction when she tried to fetch him home from kindergarten—Yulia thought about Lynette, her brother, Madam and Sir. She found herself telling the group that her own experience so far hadn't been so bad. The children were quite close to her and she treated them like her younger siblings.
"Ah, Yulia, don't be foolish! You're not part of their family and never will be. Don't forget that. You're just paid to do the job, and to do it well. Watch how they'd treat you if you were to make a mistake that upsets them someday." Irma suddenly retorted. Yulia glanced at her cousin, her expression clouded over. She fell silent, and didn't speak for the rest of the afternoon.
Later in the evening, as the group was dispersing and bidding their farewells, two young men approached them. One of them was Wati's boyfriend, Sabbir, who was picking her up. The other was Sabbir's friend who was working at the same construction site as him. He shyly introduced himself as Kamrul. His eyes met Yulia's and they exchanged a brief smile before parting ways.
Instead of finding boys revolting, Lynette has started to develop an interest in them. In particular, she found herself drawn to one of the boys in her class. She caught herself staring at him from time to time, and thoughts of him followed her wherever she went. She would replay every interaction between them, however fleeting, in her mind, carefully analysing every word he used, parsing every sentence of his for possible hidden messages.
One evening, after her brother had fallen asleep and Lynette was lying pensive in bed, Yulia knocked on the door and appeared with a bowl of freshly-sliced mangoes. She set it down on the bedside table and glanced at Lynette, before asking what was on her mind. There was a long pause before Lynette replied.
"Yulia, have you ever had a boyfriend?"
"No, Yulia no boyfriend. Why? Lynette got boyfriend?"
"No! At least, not now. But, well… There's this guy in my class…"
"What his name?"
"Caleb, his name is Caleb."
"Ah, Caleb. What Caleb like?"
"I don't actually know him that well yet, but he seems smart, funny and kind. He's quite cute, too."
"Lynette talk to Caleb?"
"Yes, sometimes. No, not really. Just the usual conversations between classmates. Nothing special."
"Maybe Lynette talk to Caleb…"
"Maybe, maybe… Let's see."
Irma said she had exciting news for Yulia the next time they met.
Apparently, Sabbir had told Wati who then told Irma that his friend, Kamrul, was attracted to Yulia but was too shy to ask her out. They wanted to arrange a date for the both of them to get to know each other better.
Initially, Yulia brushed it off, telling Irma that she just wanted to focus on doing her job well so as to earn the money she needed and head home as soon as she could. She didn't want any distractions, and besides, the agent had specifically cautioned them against becoming romantically involved with any men here. It would be sure to lead them to some sort of trouble or other, the agent had said.
As the weeks went by, Yulia found herself frequently thinking about Kamrul and his bright, gentle eyes. She wondered what he was like, what had led him to Singapore and how his life had been before he came here. Coupled with Irma's persistence, Yulia eventually relented and agreed to have a meeting set up by Wati and Sabbir.
Yulia and Kamrul met on a Sunday afternoon at the Botanic Gardens.
It was Yulia's first time there. At the beginning, Yulia felt extremely uneasy being there with Kamrul, as though they were trespassing on someone else's land. After some time walking in silence along the pathways, they reached an open clearing, where groups of women were relaxing on picnic mats. One group was laughing and talking over Filipino music that was playing from a portable radio, while a woman in another group was strumming a guitar and singing in Bahasa Indonesia. Yulia found herself recognising the song and subconsciously began humming along. Smiling shyly, Kamrul pointed to a spot in the shade, where they sat and started to chat.
The only common language between Yulia and Kamrul was English, which wasn't the first language for either of them. At first, they struggled to make conversation, but soon found ways of expressing themselves that could be understood by the other. Like Yulia, Kamrul hadn't been one to seek out city life. His family circumstances had left him with no choice but to come to Singapore at the age of twenty-two, in search of a better future for his family and for himself. Unlike Yulia, he was more realistic about his prospects. He understood that the odds were against him, and as much as he missed home, he didn't have any hopes of returning anytime soon—not until he had earned enough to pay off his family's debts, build them a proper house in the village and set up a small, self-sustaining business in Bangladesh.
Sitting there with Kamrul in the open and watching him as he related his story and aspirations, Yulia felt a strange sense of calmness—and perhaps, if she allowed herself to be honest, even happiness.
Although she would never admit it, Lynette heeded Yulia's advice and made the first move to speak to Caleb. One conversation led to another, and soon they found themselves texting each other and chatting on the phone daily. Within a few weeks, the news travelled to the rest of the class—she was officially Caleb's girlfriend. Lynette was elated. Caleb was her first boyfriend, and would surely be her last. They had so much in common and she could already envision the both of them eventually getting married and spending the rest of their lives together.
Since they became a couple, Lynette would hang out with Caleb instead of heading home after school. They would go to Orchard Road, walk around in the malls, huddle together in their usual corner booth seat at McDonald's, catch the latest blockbuster movie—remaining in each other's company until dusk fell and he accompanied her home. Her mother didn't know about Caleb. She would be enraged if she found out. Yulia knew everything that was happening, but Lynette knew that her secret was safe with her.
Yulia and Kamrul continued to see each other after their first meeting. Yulia felt an affinity with him, and with each Sunday that they spent together, they developed a growing affection and closeness to each other—so much so that one day, Irma started teasing her about having a boyfriend. She blushed and tried to shrug it off, but her cousin was indefatigable. It reminded Yulia of the times they had giggled while talking about the boys in their village, discussing who was the most handsome and who they were likely to marry when they grew up.
Yulia confessed that she enjoyed Kamrul's company very much. He was a kind, honest and hardworking person who could empathise with her internal struggles, and she admired those qualities in him. But she was unsure about getting into a relationship here. The notion of it seemed so out of bounds to her, and she didn't want to put her job at risk.
Irma snorted. "Yulia, you're only young once. Who knows when you can return to our village? It's difficult to find a good man, be it in Indonesia or in Singapore. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. If you like Kamrul, you should go for it!"
Stirred up by Irma's words, Yulia decided to be less restrained with herself. She began meeting Kamrul more often and in her state of exhilaration, even agreed to meet him at the void deck of her employers' block some weekday evenings, for a short while, after he had finished his shift for the day and before Madam and Sir returned home from work.
Once, when Lynette was confiding in her about her relationship with Caleb, Yulia, in her exuberance, accidentally let slip about her own budding relationship with Kamrul. Like Irma, Lynette was excited for Yulia, insisting that Yulia tell her all the details. As they exchanged stories of their experiences, a thought crossed Yulia's mind—it felt as though she and Lynette were sisters. At the end of the evening, Lynette promised that she, too, would keep Yulia's secret safe from her mother. Yulia trusted her.
Lynette couldn't understand why, but over the last weeks, Caleb seemed to have become more and more distant. To her dismay, they spent less and less time together—he claimed to have to return home after school to help run unspecified errands for his family—and she received fewer and fewer text messages from him until one day, he broke the news to her: he wanted to call it quits. Disconsolate, Lynette wanted to talk things out but Caleb simply ignored her. Beyond the absence of his replies, what was most mortifying to Lynette was the nonchalant way he acted in class, around their classmates, as though it were perfectly normal that they were suddenly no longer on talking terms.
To say that Lynette was devastated was a gross understatement. Caleb's rejection of her ripped away the last shreds of pretence that she had previously swathed herself in, exposing the bitter truth that everything and everyone she had ever loved, would ever love, would eventually leave her, be forcibly taken away from her—an acute reminder that she was, in the end, unworthy of love. She watched as her life fell apart. She lost interest in everything. She began locking herself up in her room after school. She stopped eating. Yulia's attempts to make her feel better did nothing to assuage the despair in her heart.
One morning, concluding that it no longer made any sense for her to go to school, Lynette decided to stay home. Her parents had already left for work, and Yulia was accompanying her brother to school. She went into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. The thought of Caleb, of her mother and her father made her retch. She wanted to purge herself of it all, to rid herself of the toxicity in her life, once and for all.
When Lynette eventually stepped out of the bathroom, unable to rinse the sourness out from her mouth, she saw Yulia standing there, staring at her. She knew that Yulia knew. Just like before, Yulia always knew. Lynette paid no heed to her and started walking back to her room. Yulia followed after her.
"Lynette, Yulia know what you do. You can't do this. It's very bad for you."
"It's none of your business. Leave me alone."
"Lynette, Yulia help you. Please, don't do this."
"Help me? How could you possibly help me? You don't know anything at all."
"Lynette, Yulia know. Please, stop. If Lynette don't stop, Yulia no choice. Yulia must tell Madam."
"Who do you think you are to interfere in my life? Know your place, you're just a maid! You want to tell on me? Sure, I'll first tell your Madam about your boyfriend. Let's see how you can rat on me after that."
Lynette slammed the door behind her. Within the safety of her room, she collapsed to the floor, boiling with rage.
Two days later, Kamrul asked to meet Yulia at the void deck. He had something to tell her, he said. Yulia was in low spirits, and the thought of being in Kamrul's presence sounded comforting, especially after the last days of Lynette's cold, stony treatment. She agreed.
That evening, she collected the bags of garbage and left the flat, making her way to the central refuse chute of the block. Before she rounded the corner, someone tapped her on the shoulder. It was Kamrul. Stepping furtively into the shadows of the stairwell, a boyish grin lit up his face. He had something for her, he whispered, carefully taking Yulia's hand in his. He opened one clenched fist to reveal a thin chain, from which a pendant in the shape of a heart hung.
Seeing no immediate reaction from her, Kamrul began mumbling. I know it's not much, he tried to explain. Yulia shook her head. I love it, she gestured, squeezing his hand. Gently, he put on the piece of jewellery around her neck. Then, he stepped back to admire her. "Cantik, cantik," he murmured, his smile widening further. She smiled back. He leaned in. She closed her eyes. He kissed her—for the first time, claiming her first. Her heart exploded in her chest.
"Oh, my goodness!" A woman's screech broke into their reverie. Yulia involuntarily turned to see Madam standing at the top of the stairway. "So what Lynette said is true, you've been fooling around all this time, shamelessly meeting strange men instead of caring for the children and the flat! To think we'd trusted you and treated you so well, so this is how you repay us. I've heard so many horror stories about terrible maids, but I thought you were different, I thought you were a good one. Oh, how you've proven me wrong. I'm going to call the agent right away!"
The accusations from Madam pelted down in torrents. Yulia was in a daze. All at once, she felt Madam seizing her arm and forcibly dragging her away from Kamrul. She saw a flustered Kamrul pleading with Madam, attempting to explain that the situation wasn't what it seemed to be. She heard herself crying and desperately begging Madam to give her a second chance, all the while knowing that this was a wish that would not be granted to her.
When the sounds of the commotion came through the door, Lynette knew that she had won. Later in the night, she found out from her mother that Yulia would be sent home the very next day. A sense of guilt crept into her heart. Lynette shrugged it off. It served Yulia right for threatening her that way.
She switched off the lights and went to bed.
Yulia couldn't remember the last time she cried like this—the way the anguish consumed her being, violently shaking her entire body, leaving her gasping for air as hot tears ran down her face, seeping into the yellowing fabric of the pillow case.
She thought of her family's probable reaction to her premature return. She thought of Kamrul and the way his lips had touched hers. She thought of Irma, Wati, Susumi and all the rest in the group, not knowing when or if she would see them again. She thought of Lynette and her brother as she looked at the shelves around her, carrying the books that had offered her so much solace, within the flat she had grown to become so familiar with, one which had given her so many memories.
Now, it's all over.
The next morning, the agent arrived as per Madam's arrangements.
Yulia's bags were packed. She didn't try to explain or put up any protest.
As she stole one final glance around the flat, Lynette's brother began sobbing at her feet and hugging her knee, asking her why she was leaving, why she couldn't stay. His mother hastily pulled him away. Lynette was nowhere to be seen. Yulia gave the boy a feeble smile. She didn't dare to speak, for she didn't want to weep. Not anymore.
As she stepped through the gate for the last time, walking out of one phase of her life and into another, she heard Lynette's brother wail:
"I love you, Yulia!"
Yulia didn't turn back.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021