by Paula Tan
Trudging feet, trudging feet…how heavy one’s feet felt when they were heading in the direction opposite to that of school. Not many other children
shared the same sentiments, but then, they weren’t her, Phaik mused as she dragged her reluctant feet down the long driveway of the Irrawaddy Road
government quarters she shared with her parents and seven other siblings.
The only really high point of coming home was seeing her mother. Mama was
the only person who really cared, and Bee Bee Chee, she knew, but the latter
had left for England several months before, meaning that the lonely Phaik had
lost a much-needed ally.
She heard the old metal gate finally creak shut behind her, almost a full ten seconds after she had opened it on her way in. She stood momentarily on the verandah, looking out at the sunshine seeping its way into the cracks on the parched cement of the old driveway. It was covered with fallen leaves. Huuh…she sighed inwardly. Another task – after washing the rice, an endless list of other miscellaneous jobs, feeding Papa’s birds and cleaning their feathers with the rice water that she had to blow into their wing feathers. She hated the sourish, powdery taste, but she loved the birds, the friendly burung merbuk, and the glossy mynah birds with their red eyes that Papa bred for singing contests, gatherings where the cages were strung up high on poles and bird lovers came from across the state to pitch the singing skills of their
birds against the others. When the birds sang, Phaik’s spirit took flight with them, into the blueness of the sun-filled sky, away from the commoness, the drudgery of being just another daughter in a large family where it seemed that only sons were the ones who counted.
The afternoon she had been born, one humid, grey morning in March, 1940, her father had been waiting outside the house with his friends and his box of cheroots for a son to be born. When Phaik was delivered, bawling at the top of her lungs, he had left the house on his bicycle in a fit of frustration, berating the gods for presenting him with yet another daughter. Had he not been patient? Had he not spent enough time and money feasting the deities in the hopes that this time, just this once, his wife would have a son instead, a feisty little boy who would grow into a fine man, one who would bear the family name proudly, the way it was meant to be borne.
Sweat poured off his brow as he peddled furiously down the lane towards his favorite kopi tiam. The temple medium had assured him in a state of joss-stick induced fervor that this time, it would be a son. For sure. And now, another girl…what was he suppose to do with another girl? It wasn’t as if she was exchangeable. He grunted his displeasure and left his bicycle leaning against the peeling paint of the neighboring house, not even bothering to put down its stand before he strode toward the zinc-roofed kopi tiam to greet the snide remarks he knew his friends were going to make.
Phaik stood cooing to the birds softly as she wiggled her fingers through the cage wiring. They seemed slightly more excited than usual, flapping up and down in response to her voice. She checked their drinking water, then to see if they had run out of food, looking around nervously to see if there was a cat lurking nearby, waiting to pounce on the prized merbuks. If anything were to happen to the birds, Papa would probably cage her instead. She grimaced at the thought.
The road in front of the house was quiet except for the faraway drone of a passing car. Phaik sat at the dining table completing her literature assignment, occasionally glancing at the old green clock on the wall. She could hear Mama’s voice, softly talking to Ah Lan, the old servant in the kitchen. Out in the back garden, the birds were chirping furiously, a sure sign that Papa was not far away. She fidgeted a little, thinking of her report card that Papa would have to sign.
Her grades for the term were, as always, good, mostly perfect scores and the few that were not were still within the nineties. Excellent, by any parent’s standards – but not Papa’s. Her younger brother Keong came prancing through the kitchen door holding a dead sparrow in his hand. He waved it in her face as he skipped by and she pushed him away, wrinkling her nose at the rank smell of damp feathers on the small, stiff corpse. Outside, the slow creak of the old gate signalled Papa’s return. She waited… on eggshells that she could almost feel cracking beneath her for his shadow, large and imposing, to appear at the door. A Thomas Cup badminton player standing at a full six feet, he was a Goliath to her David, a huge and seemingly menacing force that could snap her spine in two with a single meeting of those bushy silver eyebrows. She averted her eyes to avoid meeting his as he came through the front door, holding his tiffin carrier in which Phaik’s mother packed his daily lunch.
“Pa…” she greeted him softly, only to be rewarded by complete silence. The shiny tiffin carrier he had left at the bottom of the bannister reflected the anxiety in her brown eyes. She could hear his steady footfall on the stairs as he made his way up toward the master bedroom. Never mind, she thought to herself. She would ask him to sign her report card after dinner – an event that invariably left her aching with the need for some form of encouragement, a simple word of praise to show that she mattered to him – one which never came.
He would simply glance at the results, scribble his signature and toss the card back in her direction with a curt, “You can do better than that.” Throughout her entire life, for as long as she remembered, he had been indifferent, not entirely uncaring, simply… indifferent.
All her other sisters and brothers received reasonable amounts of pocket money for school, but her father seemed to begrudge her. With hardly any allowance each month, most of her spending money came from the odd jobs that she did, like polishing door knobs and brass ornaments for the RAF officers’ wives who lived in Jesselton Heights, the upper crust of town. When her other siblings received new clothing on birthdays and Chinese New Year, all she ever received were hand-me-downs. Even her textbooks had been provided for her by a well-meaning teacher via the scheme for less fortunate students. Her father seemed to view her more as a neighboring child who was staying over long-term. She had lost count of the times she had spent, hurt and confused in bed at night, crying over childish remarks her sisters made about her having been picked out of a rubbish bin.
In those days, she wondered how she would ever manage to please her father, but try as she might, it continued to remain a near impossible task.
After she had completed her secondary education, Phaik took a temporary teaching post at her own school. With only five dresses to her name and a meagre salary of forty dollars a month, Phaik made the most of her teaching skills to educate the teenage girls she had been instructed to tutor. Even there, however, sheer ignorance and youthful arrogance made her task a difficult one. Her students cast lots to see which dress Miss Tung would show up in the following day. The sniggering and crude remarks were hard to bear, but she needed the income, so she stayed.
Wearing old capris and her brother’s shirt, twenty-two year-old Phaik made her way toward the rusty old mailbox one blue morning. From the verandah, she could make out the corner of an envelope that was obviously too large for the mailbox and had probably been forced in. As she moved towards it, wondering how she was going to dislodge the envelope without tearing it, she caught sight of an Australian postage stamp. It stopped her abruptly in her tracks, and as she slowly began toward it, a small pulse began to hammer in her temple forcing her into a swift walk, then an all-out sprint toward the box. With trembling hands, she carefully retrieved the brown paper envelope from the confines of the box. It was what she had only dared to imagine, something that she had almost begun to force herself to dismiss as an unachievable dream, another fantasy – like her father’s affection. But it was real, solid and bulky in her hands, an answer from the Committee of the Colombo Plan Scholarship that provided opportunities for deserving students to further their education in Australia.
She had applied months before, but was afraid to think too much about actually being selected. Now, the wait was over. She had proven her worth to a group of complete strangers, but most importantly, she had proven it to herself.
Clutching the large envelope to her chest, Phaik gave a small leap of glee and ran back into the house.
The weeks that followed were full of activity. There were things to pack, her passport to apply for, a million things to do, time to spend with her much-loved mother. Yet…, none of these things involved being with her father, or even telling him about her scholarship, or her plans. She was uncertain that he would care. In the quiet spaces that fell between these spells of activity, she thought about her life, about the direction it was taking and where it would lead her – and once every now and then, even though she tried not to think about it, she wondered if it would take her back to her father.
The day of the departure eventually arrived, and Phaik set about her usual chores, feeding the birds once last time, taking more time than usual to say goodbye to her favorite ones. When she finally came back into the house, she saw Papa sitting in his deck chair, smoking his cheroot and reading his newspaper. She stood there for a moment at the kitchen door, watching him, taking in the silver eyebrows knitted in concentration as he took in the news article, the curve of his arm where her other siblings so often nestled, but for her, was an unfamiliar place. There was no more point in wondering, she thought as she walked towards him. No point in thinking about reasons why he had never quite welcomed her as his child, or why he so rarely expressed love or concern towards her. She no longer knew how she felt on the matter. Nor was she certain how much it really mattered anymore. Walking up to his chair, she stood in front of him and said in a clear voice,
“Pa, I’m leaving for Australia this afternoon. I’ve received a Colombo Plan Scholarship.”
For one seemingly endless moment, he just stared at her. She thought he would either hit her, or congratulate her, but he did neither. Then, he rose from his seat, threw the newspaper on the table with an anger that she could not understand and stormed out of the room leaving her white and silent, still standing beside the deckchair. Moments later, she jumped as he strode back into the room, slammed a ten dollar note on the table and promptly stalked out again.
In the plane that evening, she stared out of the window at the families in the deck waving their children goodbye. For a fleeting moment, she thought of Papa, but she pushed the thought away and concentrated on her mother instead. Soon, the rumble of the engines drowned out her thoughts as the plane began to taxi out onto the runway. The faces on the deck were becoming a blur in the distance, like her thoughts. As the ascent began, the ground faded beneath her, further and further till she could no longer see the small Penang airport. Leaning back in her seat, she took a deep breath. This was the way fate was leading her. If it took her back to her father, she would be glad, but for now, a new life waited – one she would greet it with all the joy and acceptance of her being.
It would all begin the minute she arrived at her destination, the second she set foot on the soil of this great new land they called Australia.
Phaik smiled to herself, and looked around her for the first time since she had boarded the plane.