Auntie Moh Leen

by Daniel Emlyn-Jones

“Not bad for 45,” Auntie Moh Leen murmured to herself as she peered at her face in the exacting light of the aeroplane washroom. Nivea Night and Day with masterly use of makeup had minimised the outward ravages of her recent divorce. She was travelling back to Singapore after a week emptying her sorrows to her sister in Yangon, but it was a magic flagon which refilled itself when empty.

“Stupid dog,” she muttered as she brushed an eyelash with the mascara applicator. She used to think he was ‘all fart no shit’ as the Hokkien expression goes, and laughed off his babyishly hidden nudie-mags, and Sunday afternoon trips to Yangtze cinema.

“Stupid Bitch,” she blinked into the mirror. She’d caught her with him in town once, looking like the cat who’d got the Char Siu Pork, not realising that she was dating the biggest dud on the market. A handsome dud it had to be said, and one who could persuade you that night was day and black was white, but a dud nevertheless. She’d never leave him though. He’d leave her when her pretty little face had wrinkles, her pert little butt had deflated and was hanging down in pleats, and the flower of her womb had withered fruitless.

“Who’s the stupid one?” she asked the woman looking back at her, and tears began to well, threatening to run down her face in big ugly black lines. She snapped her compact shut and forced herself to think happier thoughts. She had a mahjong game planned for the following day in Singapore, and mahjong with the kaki always cheered her up. She was on a winning streak, and one of the ladies also had a dumb-ass husband she liked to moan about.

Back in her seat she ordered a gin and tonic from a stewardess, realising in the expression of quickly veiled shock on the young woman’s face that she had barked the request. As she sipped her drink, welcoming the lifting of her spirits, she noticed the young man in the seat next to her, watching her glass like a dog eyeing a chunk of steak.

“You want a drink? You can order one,” she said in the broken Burmese she’d learnt from her sister and Burmese brother-in-law.

The woman reminded Maung of a rich and glamorous version of one of his old aunties, who when he was a child used to conjure sweet mangos from a wicker basket and smile indulgently as he messily devoured the bright flesh. He nodded eagerly at her question, and she beckoned a stewardess who quickly brought a can of Tiger beer. In Yangon Tiger was 2,000 kyat a can, but in the flying palace it was free, and as he snapped it open and emptied the fizzing ice coldness into the glass, he made the ‘ah’ sound he’d overheard white men make in the city. The taste was like chilled midden water, but improved when he calculated how many hours in the sweatshop each sip was worth, and as his muscles melted into his seat, he realised the real reason people like it so much.

Sooner or later it comes: the bit of luck, the nod from Buddha; every dog has its day, every mutt has its moment. Maung had seen pictures of Singapore in the scuffed glossy pages of discarded holiday brochures: a boat atop a giant tower, a building which looks exactly like a durian, and a huge pair of greenhouses glinting like glass boobs in the sun. Soon he’d be seeing these things for himself, and all thanks to Uncle Joe.

*

They’d first met in a forest clearing near the township. Maung had a rare day off, and was catching up on sleep in a hammock he’d improvised from a bit of old sacking from the factory. Dozing in the shade of a fig, he was awoken by the smell of cigarettes. He looked over the edge of his hammock at a man sitting on a fallen tree trunk a few metres from him, sighing smoke into dappled shafts of sunlight. He was good-looking and well-muscled in a sleeveless Che Guevara T-shirt, and Maung realised that he had seen him about town, though he couldn’t remember where or when.

“Catching up on sleep?” The man grinned, stubble coarse enough to light a match creasing at the sides of his mouth.

“Yeah,” Maung grinned.

“Your folks live nearby then?” The man tapped a clot of ash onto the floor. Maung wondered what the stubble felt like.

“It’s just me and my Mother now.”

“Oh?” His forehead creased irresistibly.

“The others are all…dead…” Abruptly there came to him the memory of his father staring like a broken animal; an arm that had once tilled the sun-baked earth pinned to the bed under its own weight, his breath coming in deep gasps as the rasp of a saw through a tree slows when it reaches the breaking point. Maung felt tears rise, but swallowed hard to suppress them.

He brought Uncle Joe home as if the man were a nugget of gold he’d discovered in the forest litter. As he entered their shack, Maung’s mother took in the smart T-shirt, fine grooming and faint fragrance of eau de cologne, and greeted him as if he were a long lost cousin. She boiled water for tea and Uncle Joe produced fine meat dumplings which filled the room with fragrance the instant the box was opened. Maung couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten meat; before his father died probably and then only on special occasions. Uncle Joe hadn’t been in the township long, and didn’t know of the cholera that had swept the community the year before, taking Maung’s father, along with a hundred other souls. The man had a magnetic way of listening, his eyes mirroring their sorrow, his voice certain as an estuary melding with the sea.

He hung around after that day. Now and then he had to leave on business, but he would always be back, a basket of food in one hand, nice clothes in the other. One night when Maung’s mother was sleeping, he confided to Maung that he was working for a secret organisation that fought cruelty and injustice. Maung looked at his friend, the man’s face a moon-darkened silhouette, and could contain himself no longer.

“Uncle Joe I…”

Uncle Joe swiftly placed a finger against Maung’s lips: “Those who say don’t know, those who know don’t say, I have a job for you.”

Maung was excited by the idea of seeing the great island city of Singapore, and being paid more than he could earn from the sweatshop in a lifetime. He had never ventured further than nearby Yangon, so when Uncle Joe told him that the organisation could only afford one ticket, and he would have to travel alone, he became frightened. Uncle Joe put an arm around him, grazing Maung’s forehead with his chin. “Just do as I say and everything will be fine.”

*

Auntie Moh Leen stole glances at Maung under the pretence of looking out of the aircraft window. There were several things about him that didn’t add up. She had enough experience of Burma to know that Maung was from the poorest of backgrounds, and people like him didn’t go on international flights. Their meals were served, and he ate the green curry with coconut rice as if he hadn’t eaten in months. Auntie Moh Leen liked to see people enjoying their food, but watching him was giving her indigestion.

“So, what you doing in Singapore?” She finally asked. They were both staring at the bare carcasses of their meal trays, and she tried to make the question sound as casual as possible.

“Important secret business.” Uncle Joe had instructed Maung to tell everyone he was visiting family, but the beer had gone to his head, and he’d just been watching a dubbed version of Mission Impossible II.

Auntie Moh Leen didn’t like secrets. In her experience they meant someone was up to mischief, and she was a master at extracting them. In Maung’s case she chose a humouring approach rather than one of attack, putting on an expression of demure femininity that had served her well at crucial points during the first years of her marriage. “You can tell me. I swear on the Buddha tooth I won’t tell a living soul.” She nodded her head piously to the relic distantly enshrined in gold.

Maung was pleased with how seriously he was being taken. “I have to deliver some parcels to a man in Singapore. Secret parcels,” he whispered.

She clapped a manicured hand to her mouth. In a fraction of a second she understood precisely what was happening, and realised that as usual her nosiness had bought her a major dilemma. She could easily mind her own business; order a third gin and tonic and listen to her favourite Chinese songs on the entertainment system. She wavered for a moment, seeing the danger she might put herself in by trying to help him, and then decided. “I’ve always been a sucker so why change now,” she thought. Besides, the adrenalin was making her forget the pig-dog husband. She first checked the seats in front and behind them. The occupants were either asleep or hooked up half-eyed to their entertainment systems. Maung was wondering if she had taken ill as she put a hand gently on his arm.

“They’re drugs. You’re being used to carry drugs,” she whispered.

Maung gawped.

“Do you understand?”

Maung shook his head.

“You carry drugs for them into Singapore. But you know what happens if you get caught?”

Maung shook his head again.

“You probably get hanged. Who told you to do it?”

“Uncle Joe.”

“Uncle Joe? Ah yes. Very nice Uncle. Well, Auntie Moh Leen tells you different.” She was getting angry, and it was an effort stopping her voice from erupting in shrill staccatos.

Maung began to cry. Auntie Moh Leen got some tissues out of her handbag, and doled them out to him one by one.

“I’ll explain to the people in Singapore,” he whimpered.

“No good. They won’t believe you didn’t know. You can’t prove it. Where are the parcels? Hand-baggage or check-in?”

“Check-in.”

“OK. I’ll help you, but you must do as I say. Let’s hope the sniffer dog has a cold.”

*

As they passed together through Singapore immigration, Auntie Moh Leen knew that if Maung was caught at any point she would have to melt into the crowds of other passengers, and deny all knowledge of him. Maung’s fake passport must have been good, because they were still together at the Changi baggage reclaim area, waiting for the blue rucksack Uncle Joe had given to him that morning. Auntie Moh Leen’s suitcase arrived in minutes, a red ribbon tied around its handle, but as the crowds dwindled and the amount of baggage on the belt thinned, there was still no sight of the rucksack. She looked around at the security guards in the hall: lank youths with machine guns hanging limp on their arms. They looked bored silly. Maung began to weep.

“Pull yourself together,” she hissed, handing him tissues. “You’ll draw attention to yourself.”

He couldn’t stop, so she put a hand on his shoulder and spoke more gently, dabbing the tears from his face with a tissue just as she had done for her younger brother when he was a child many years earlier. She realised then that if he was caught, she wasn’t going to melt away into the crowds, but would give those officials a piece of her mind. Just as she was thinking this, Maung gasped: the blue rucksack had glided onto the belt.

“You know what to do,” she whispered to him. Hoisting it onto his shoulder, he walked slowly to a nearby lavatory, and in the privacy of the cubicle removed the packets. He had to use his teeth to pierce the tough outer packing, and beneath that layer, sheet after sheet of plastic wound off and accumulated as growing detritus on the cubicle floor. Just when Maung was wondering if Uncle Joe was smuggling nothing but plastic wrapping into Singapore, bags of white powder fell out. He tore at them, the powder cascading into the bowl, and pulled the flush again and again just as Auntie Moh Leen had told him to, washing his guilt into the Singapore sewerage system. He gathered up the packing and pushed it into the bins by the sinks, and then re-joined her in the baggage reclaim area.

They passed through the nothing-to-declare exit of the customs, and straight out into the airport car park. Auntie Moh Leen’s car was parked in the shade of a large rain tree whose great sprawling branches nestled countless ferns and epiphytes. She directed Maung into the passenger seat. He could go shopping with her, and then she’d fix him some chicken rice. Her husband never appreciated her chicken rice, but something told her that Maung would.

Auntie Moh Leen by Daniel Emlyn-Jones was first published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

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