Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Promise

There was a phone ringing in the distance. It sounded like it was from a neighbor's house. It kept ringing but nobody picked it up. The sound came nearer after awhile. She stirred from her afternoon nap in the reclining rattan chair. Then she realized it was her own phone in the living room that was ringing. She got up quickly to pick it up. She tried to say 'hello', but her lips refused to part. Quickly she wetted her lips and said 'hello' again. It was a voice of a little girl on the other end. She was crying. She sounded desperate.

'Auntie, please come to the hospital. My mother is very sick. She cannot talk. They said they have to operate…' The voice trailed off and she only heard her uncontrollable sobbing.

She recognized the voice. The girl and her elder brother were siblings she used to baby-sit every now and then when their mother had to go to the hospital for her regular checks. The girl was then about 3 years of age and her brother was 5. Her mother's condition had been getting worse recently, but she single-handedly tried to raise the kids. The husband had been going after another woman who had now openly become his mistress. Too lazy to earn his own money, he preyed on women to fund his existence. 'What a parasite! She must have been blind to have married him. But what's done can't be undone. Poor woman. There wasn't even a relative that she knows of.'

When she got to her in the 3rd class ward, the woman was barely breathing. She wondered why she wasn't put on life support. She spoke to the doctor who was about to send her into the Operation Room. She pleaded with him to put her on oxygen because it seemed to her she wasn't going to last very long. He agreed to do it.

She went back to stay with her beside her bed. The woman grabbed both of her hands and said hoarsely, 'Please promise you will take care of my 2 children. I have no one else to depend on.' Her voice was almost a whisper. Her final effort to get an answer from her almost exhausted her.

Even as she tumbled the question over in her mind, she said yes. It was going to be a heavy burden on her. But how could she ever refuse a friend who's most probably making a last request of her life? She had no time to weigh the consequences of her reply. She said yes even though she was only 26 and had 2 small children of her own to raise while both she and her husband were struggling to make ends meet.

She said to the nurse, 'Please, the doctor said to put her on oxygen. She's very weak.' She'd noticed the distance to the O.R. was quite far and she was having difficulty breathing. She was afraid the woman might not make it.

The nurse said, 'Don't worry. This is our job. We know what we're doing.' She spoke as if the visitor was interfering.

They lifted her from the bed and wheeled her away on a stretcher. But a moment later she saw the doctor himself personally carrying the limp woman and rushing back into the Intensive Care Unit followed by the nurse and other attendants. They tried to revive her.

But she was gone. She held the girl close to her and they cried.

Just to convince herself she did the right thing, she called her mother and told her what she had put myself into. She said, 'How could you make such a promise? You think you can handle such a burden?'

'Mother,' she said defensively, 'what do you expect me to say to a dying friend's last request? She had no one. No family. I'm her only hope. I couldn't just say no.'

Even if she had said no, she would still end up with these children anyway. They had always looked to her for help had no other relatives that they could depend on. At least the mother died knowing her children will be taken care of.

Somehow, she found the will to do as she promised. She partitioned an extra room in her wooden house and raised the kids like they were her own.

They are now both grown up and married. The boy got involved with a Buddhist Charity Organisation and went to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims rebuild their lives. He and his wife are both still there. They are childless.

The girl met a young man who did not pass her approval but she stubbornly stuck with him. He inherited a fortune from his parents but he soon spent all the money. It seemed like she was destined to live her life like her mother did. The husband took no responsibility for the family. The brother sends her RM1000 every month to help put her children through school.

They're on their own now. She had kept her promise.

This is a true story.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why does a chicken learn karate?

He went to work part time in a shoe store.  There was this guy who was bigger in size working in the store with him together with a few others.  He didn't take too much notice of him at first, as he didn't quite like the way the guy swaggered, talked a little too much and too loudly.  So he kept a tolerable distance from him.  He kept to his work and twice a week in the evenings he would routinely attend karate class.

His dad's advice had been straight-forward: Work hard and stay out of trouble.

But life has a way of spitting in your face just to test your patience.  He knew that bragging about anything just wasn't profitable but like most teenagers he loved to discuss what he did in his spare time with his colleagues.  Word got around.  Big guy with the big mouth heard of his regular pastime. 

"So I hear you're the chop-chop kid, huh?  Wow… Let's see what you can do with bricks.  Chop-chop!". 

Big guy came up with some discarded bricks and stacked up a few in the store's backyard where the guys sometimes hanged out during their breaks.  He ignored him and went back into the store.  Stay out of trouble.

Big guy followed him in and said, "Hey, what's the problem?  Hands too soft or what?  Sissy's shouldn't learn how to fight!"  

He looked at big guy and said quietly, "Look, I don't think I need to show you what I can do with my hands.  No point chopping bricks.  Doesn't prove anything." 

But Big guy didn't want to give up just yet.  Every now and then he would make some taunting remarks.  He had this notion that with his size it was enough for him to push little guys around.  And nobody's going to push back.  Not even karate kids.

He kept reminding himself of his dad's words: Stay out of trouble, stay out of trouble, stay out of trouble …. 
The pressure eventually began to build up.  His nerves and senses got more and more tensed day by day.  Every word, every gesture the big guy made rang louder and more obtrusive each time.

He was up in the store-room getting a pair of shoes for a customer.  Big guy came up later and was rummaging around looking for something.  And the remark came rather casually, as if two old friends were discussing the weather.

"Why does a chicken learn karate?"

There was an exchange of words, loud and harsh, back and forth.  Big guy lunged at him with a fist.  He dropped the shoes he had in his hands.  By the time he had done with him, there were shoes and shelves all about the room like a cyclone tore through it.  Big guy had a badly mauled up face and he couldn't see where he was going.  His size didn't help him after all.

For a whole week he couldn't sleep peacefully.  It was pretty easy to whack the daylights out of someone.  The bigger the size the larger the target.  But he worried about what the other guy would do next time they meet.  He feared for his safety in case the guy were to hit back at him unawares.  He wished he had been more patient.  He'd learn that solving a problem with violence seemed to create more problems.  He stopped going to work. 

That was until the day the big guy showed up at his front door with his head still in bandages, a solemn smile on his face and offered his hand.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The tailgater

Every time we hit the expressway our main aim is to move into the fast lane.  It has become a habit.  The slow lane isn't inviting at all because there are the 'too slow drivers' whose fastest is around the region of 80 kph.  You make yourself tired more quickly weaving in and out between lanes.  On top of that is the bumpy ride.  Having slow-moving and heavy vehicles on that side all the time probably wears out the tarmac faster.  There are always rough patches coming up barely a few months after each resurface.  So we keep on the fast lane and make way for speedsters when they show up in the rear-view.  Not quite a safe strategy, but then, out on the highway, when's it ever safe?

I was in the 65% seat as usual.  That seat is dubbed 65% because the vulnerability in case of a crash is roughly in that region.  My colleague was driving, and his usual speed was 110-130 kph.  Morning traffic around this time on the expressway was normal and easy-going.  But that morning our driver was a bit edgy.  I soon noticed why.  He was grumbling under his breath about some crazy guy behind us.  A tailgater.  He speeded up slightly.  The tailgater followed suit and kept sticking to our behind.  For us normal guys that's uncomfortable to say the least.

We braced ourselves for some quick change in our situation.  Soon enough, we noticed about a kilometer further down the road there appeared to be something not quite ordinary had just happened.  Our driver reduced his speed slightly but was on the lookout for a gap in the next lane.  He was an occasional tailgater himself, but he knew the hazards pretty well.  As soon as he got one gap that gave him enough clearance he cut in to it. 

The tailgater zoomed pass us.  He found himself staring at a couple of glaring red tail lights which were moving at less than half his speed.  Surprised, he swerved right with his tires emitting squeals and smoke.  His fender grazed the center guard rails and bounced back into the lane and 'swayed his dancing hips' a few times.  Somehow he managed to avoid major damage.  We could have given him a standing ovation, only we couldn't stand up.  We just clapped our hands as we cruised past him.  It was too dark for him to see our brief jubilation anyway.

By this time, in front of us was the site of an overturned truck with it's load of fruits and vegetables spilled all over the tarmac leaving only a small gap for us to pass through.

See ya Mr. Tailgater.  We may never meet again, but then there are your relatives who behave just like you out there somewhere.  They may not be as lucky.  That goes for us too, but we hope they give us a sign so we can avoid them.  We're not too eager to compete with them anyway.  We're allergic to sudden stops.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Change Of Mind

The boy couldn't swim. So he rented an inflated tube and used it as a float. He leaned back on the float and paddled with his hands and feet. He floated around by the beach, not daring to venture too far out. He enjoyed the rise and fall of the waves, the cool sea breeze and the warm sun. He could hear the laughter and screams of pleasure of other kids along the beach and the splashing of bathers around him. He listened to the occasional calls of seagulls. It was very relaxing. It was like sleeping in a cradle. He almost fell asleep.

His floating tube was suddenly yanked from under him and he found himself in the water. He yelled, but he heard no sound from his own mouth. Water rushed into his throat and his nose. His feet couldn't find the friendly sand at the bottom. He opened his eyes even though they were stung by the sea water. He struggled and reached out with his hands towards a pair of legs he saw in the water in front of him. The waves tossed him about and the legs kept trying to move away. He managed to grab hold of one of the legs. He didn't know who they belonged to. He didn't care. He had to get out of the water. He had to breathe. His ears were ringing, his lungs were bursting and his heart pounding against his chest.

Somehow, he did not die. Someone had grabbed him by his hair and pulled him to shore. When he came to, he kept throwing up salty water. It was a crowded beach and no one had paid much attention. They just watched quietly and went away to whatever they were doing, more immersed in looking after their own pleasure. When he got home later, nobody asked him what happened because nobody knew about the incident.

It has been forty years since then. The man was having an idle chat with one of his older neighbors at his local haunt. He didn't know why, but something the other man said prompted him to talk about the past and he mentioned to his neighbor that he once almost drowned when he was a kid. He recounted all the little details that he remembered. He then said that even if he found the guy who had saved him, he would not thank him for it. He should have let him drown and spare him a life of misery and suffering.

The older man sat and listened quietly while he complained. When he'd finished telling his story, the older man nodded knowingly and said he knew what happened. He was the one who had rushed into the water and pulled him out. He was a life-guard. He saw how it happened. He knew who the other kid was who pulled the float from under him and caused him to fall in the water. The other kid was a big sized half-wit who didn't understand rules. He was watching him and he thought maybe this kid could do something nasty. And as if on cue, he did just that. He was in time to save him because he was running and diving into the water even before the kid went down.

The older man also added that on that same day, at that same moment, somewhere on that beach another boy drowned and nobody saw what happened.

The Angel of Death had a change of mind at the last moment.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Bone-setter

Kim looked on with great sadness as her father lay on the bed immobilized by straps, tubes and needles all over his body. The regular beep of the heart monitor comfortingly reminded her he was still alive. The accident was almost fatal. His right thigh-bone was split diagonally from the knee to his hip and his left shoulder bone and upper arm was fractured in a few places. There was a crack in the back of his skull. Miraculously he survived.

The first time Kim's elder sister saw her father's condition she fainted and collapsed right in the door way. After she recovered she stayed around in the ward to help look after him. For someone who'd lived most of her life in a village, moving around in an ICU ward was like living in an alien territory. Once, she clumsily stepped on something while moving around the room and the heart monitor which normally went beep.. beep.. beep.. suddenly went beeeeeeeeeeeee....... All at once nurses and doctors were swarming all over the ward in panic and yelling questions.

After he was discharged from hospital Kim's father was confined to the wheel-chair. Before they sent him home, they measured his right leg and found it was shortened by two inches. He tried to walk but it was more like a crouching and standing routine without much forward progress. And it was painful. And he couldn't lift his left arm.

One day they received a phone call from someone who claimed he was an old friend of Kim's father. They'd grown up together in the village near the jungle. During the Japanese occupation he joined the resistance movement. At the end of the war they wouldn't allow him to leave so he remained in the jungles to fight the British and later, the Malayan armed forces. The Emergency was long over but he still lived in the shadows. He learned of Kim's father's condition. He recognized him from a photograph in a newspaper article about the accident. He wanted to help an old friend. They made arrangements to pick him up from a bus station in a town 50 miles in the north.

He came. The two friends had an awkward reunion. They didn't have the chance to talk of old times. The job at hand was urgent. He made measurements of his friend's wounded leg, hip, shoulder and arm. Before they dropped him off at the local bus station, he left instructions for them to buy a free-range chicken, several large bottles of Wu-jia-pi wine and a list of herbs. The chicken must be male, perfectly healthy and exactly one kati in weight, not one tahil more, not one tahil less. They had to enquire at a few kampongs nearby before they found a chicken of that exact weight. The bill for all the items came to a few ringgits short of one thousand. Then they waited for the friend to call. This time, he asked to be picked up from a bus station in a different town.

He'd come prepared with pieces of bamboo, cut to size to fit perfectly his friend's body and limbs. After he'd checked and verified every item in the list, he was ready. He asked Kim to prepare the kitchen and get him a knife and a good sized wok. Then he told Kim to leave. She must not look. But she was curious. She peeped through a gap in the partition between the adjacent room and the kitchen.

He grabbed hold of the chicken, chanted some verses for a while and left it standing on the table. Curiously, the chicken did not move or try to run away. It stood on the spot quietly while he sharpened a knife and started a fire in the stove. Then he declared to no one in particular, This has to be done right. If I fail to do this right, I'll have to abandon this quest to heal my friend.

He raised the knife and sliced the chicken into two halves from the head to its feet while it remained standing, spilling its guts, blood and feathers on the table. He raised the knife again. This time the chicken was quartered, one piece in each direction of north, south, east and west. He gathered the pieces and threw them, guts, blood, feathers and all into the wok which he'd heated up on the stove. He poured in the wine and threw in the herbs. He stirred and stirred and stirred until after many hours he was left with a paste-like concoction. This he scooped from the wok and laid out on some old newspapers to let it cool.

He tore up strips of old clothes and tied Kim's father by his good arm, his good leg and his body to his iron bed. The whole family was asked to stand by to hold him from struggling and be prepared to listen to a lot of cursing and screaming from the patient for the pain would be unbearable. He then applied the concoction to the pieces of bamboo and tied them on to the wounded parts of the patient's body with strips of cloth.

Kim's father had very little education and most of his vocabulary consisted of the best of words never found in dictionaries. That night, for hours on end, the whole family had to put up with a whole string of expletives. He spat, he hissed, he cried and laughed, and he cursed everyone while the pain racked his whole body. But they kept silent and determinedly took turns to hold him down, wiped away his sweat, saliva and tears, while the man of the jungles told of how he once suffered a gunshot which broke his arm and had to heal himself with the same method with the help of his comrades.

At dawn, they found him sleeping soundly. The man removed the bamboo casts and threw them away. Again, they sent him off and he asked to be dropped off at a different location. They never heard from him again.

On their next visit to the hospital, Kim's father walked into the doctor's office with a slight limp. They measured his leg and found it shorter than the good leg by a mere half inch. The doctor pulled Kim aside and asked her endless questions. But Kim would never tell him the truth. She promised the man that it would remain a secret. She went home to look for the recipe but she couldn't find it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Affair with Golf

I love golf balls.  I don’t play golf though.  Did a number of tee-off shots while I was in Genting’s Awana club some years ago just because I got challenged by our CEO.  I’m kind of suspicious he doesn’t take kindly to people who don’t play golf.  Anyway my only relationship with golf is that I keep a golf club by my bedside.  One that a neighbor wanted to throw away.  That is for adjusting the air conditioner flaps manually.  If you think that’s for security, my opinion is that it wouldn’t serve any real purpose if there’s an intruder in the house.  I believe the better answer would be to make as much noise as possible, like triggering the car alarm for example, to scare him away rather than confront him.  But it's still better to keep something handy just in case.

My only other involvement with golf is I’m in the habit of picking up stray golf balls in, of all places, football fields.  I think there are some budget conscious wannabe golfers who find the tee-off practice ranges at the clubs are charging too much for their pockets.  So they do their stuff at housing estate football fields.  I think they pose a danger to kids and other residents, but so far I haven’t heard of any complain yet.  The drawback is that they lose their balls often.  I must have picked up at least 4 of these around the fields in our four adjoining housing estates.

The 5th one cannot be counted because the guy was still practicing at one corner of the field.
That was one early morning when we were passing through the field.  I said to wife, 'Someone just lost another golf ball'.  I picked it up and slipped it into my pocket.  Someone said, 'Aah!'  Then I saw him.  He was standing near a clump of trees in a far corner of the field with a club on his shoulder.  Embarrassed, I said, 'Sorry. I thought it’s someone’s lost ball.'  I placed it back on the ground.  He said, 'It’s ok, you can have it.'  Generous guy, I thought.  I said, 'No, thanks.' 

I think nobody’s doing tee-off practices on football fields after that.

Now, the thing I noticed about golf balls is that they’re made to near perfect symmetry.  You can place one on a flat surface and the tiny flat area on top of the ball would be exactly central and directly opposite the tiny flat area on the bottom.  That’s how I could clamp one on a bench drill and make a hole right through the center of the ball.  4 balls drilled this way are enough for me to replace the 4 pesky casters on my wife’s clothes drying rack. The original rubber casters came with fine American inch-thread fittings for which I couldn’t find replacements anywhere after running through every hardware shop and supermarket in town.  Almost had to throw away the whole rack just for want of some spare tires.

So, it’s thanks to budget conscious golf players.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Some old place... some old story.

Every time you mention a place someone comes up with a story behind it.  A colleague asked about my kids.  I said the youngest is in National Service camp.

Where?  She asked.

Sik.  A jungle clearing on the edge of a kampung. A place called Kem Rimba Taqwa.  I said.

Oh...  That place is not very clean.  She said.  It's an ex-army camp.

Yeah, you're right.  They haven't started the clean up job yet.  The facilities aren't quite up to expectations.  You know, maintenance isn't one of our strong points.

No, I don't mean that.  I mean, that place is spooky.

How do you know?

My father-in-law was a staff sargeant stationed there many years ago.  One night the captain was reading in his room by candle-light.  Suddenly, he noticed that the candle was moving slowly from one end of his desk to another.  He ignored it.  The candle moved again slowly back to its original place.  The third time it moved, he decided he's had enough.  He drew his pistol and cocked it. 

"Do that again and I'll shoot," he warned.  The candle stopped moving.  He finished his reading and went to bed.

Next morning, on his way to breakfast, the captain fell down a flight of stairs. 
On his hospital bed he vehemently declared that someone pushed him.

Well, it's been many years since then and many national service trainings have been carried out in that camp.  Any old ghost would have shied away from that place.  I don't think they feel comfortable staying around humans either.  But it would be wise not to challenge them.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How to get rid of village bums

A certain rich man in a village lost a chicken. Just a chicken out of his backyard coop full of chickens, but he went ballistic and had to blame someone for it. So who should happen by but a village bum, a young man who had nothing better to do but spend his days hanging around the village shrine, fishing by the river or playing with the kids.

The bum argued and yelled and said he didn't even know there were chickens around the place! A crowd gathered round.

The rich guy was adamant he got the right man. "Show us the proof then," said the villagers.

The wealthy one couldn't get any proof, but he refused to let the young man go.

Then the young man had an idea. He suggested they go to the village shrine and ask the Tuapehkong. He thought the Tuapehkong would favor him because he was always there taking care of the place. The rich guy agreed on one condition. If the young man was found guilty he will be banished from the village. The bum said confidently, "OK, let's go find out the truth."

Tuapehkong decided in favor of the rich guy and the poor bum was thrown out of the village. He had nowhere to go, so he hiked to the next county.

The folks in the next county were fighting a war with several of their neighbors. The young man was immediately drafted into the army. They trained him. To his own surprise he found he could do lots of things he never knew he could. He learned fast and he fought well with different weapons. He was always suggesting strategies to his captain and they kept winning battles against their neighboring county. And they kept promoting him until he became a general. Then they won the war.

Years went by and the emperor heard about the young general of the county. He summoned the young man and made him a general of the imperial army. He won campaign after campaign, until the whole country was united under one emperor. The wars ended and the emperor made him a governor of his own county. It was good thing. The guy had a desire to visit his home village again.

The first thing he saw upon entering the village gates was the little shrine and the Tuapehkong staring at him. He stared back. He ordered his men to tear the shrine down and throw everything into a vacant lot nearby. That night he had a dream.

"I want you to build a house for me right in the vacant lot where I am now." said Tuapehkong.

"Who are you to order me to do things?" asked the governor. "You didn't stop them from throwing me out of the village years ago, remember? They still think I stole that chicken."

"I did that on purpose. If I'd told the truth you'd still be a village bum today. But look at you now. A word from you and things will be done."

The governor bowed his head when he realized the truth of that. When he woke up the next day he ordered the temple to be built.

The rich man who lost the chicken protested. The vacant plot of land belonged to him. The governor said, "I shall now pass a law that says all land not occupied or planted with food crops shall belong to the government."

Soon the rich landowners began to lease out their lands or hired laborers to plant crops instead of leaving them to grow weeds or became jungles.

And that was how the poor of the village finally got some land to plant their own food.

Moral of the story: Some people have the potential to be great. They just need a boot in the butt to get them going.