Stories on the Walls by Sunny Haslinger
Later my father worked to build up a business distributing powdered milk and canned goods through a chain of little shops. These shops were rebuilt. Earlier ones had been burnt to the ground after the Japanese landed at Sandakan in fishing boats, in 1941.
In August 1945 when the War in Asia ended and my parents and grandparents came out of hiding, they found that they now lived in a new crown colony, British North Borneo, which replaced the former protectorate. My mother’s younger sister and brother were ten and five, and her two daughters were one and three. The family lived frugally and saved. Five years went by and then my parents started a small business selling dried beans and rice, making a tiny profit from each bushel sold. By this time there were four daughters in the family and we could afford a house on the waterfront. It was more like the water’s edge, and was where lower middle class Chinese and upper middle class Malay households set themselves up.
These dwellings were a rodent’s dream. With plenty of food and water, they bred and went on breeding. At high tide armies of rats moved to higher and drier areas, daringly invading rooms and even nibbling the tender fingers of newborns. Everyone used animal box traps and mouse traps and most houses also had cats. They roamed freely indoors and out, giving birth to litters of kittens. Homes were overrun with animals.
Our family slept at the back of the shop. The walls were thin plywood nailed over the timber frame of the building. The gaps were stuffed with layers of stiff pasteboard, secured with nails and reinforced by pasting together pages from old magazines, calendars, posters and newspapers. All were cemented firmly to the wall with a mixture of cooked rice and flour glue. Most nights I could hear the mice nesting behind our wallpaper. A favourite spot was right behind Miss Japan, posing in her best kimono. The nest invariably housed a cluster of hairless, sightless, pink babies.
At three I could barely read a word. It took me a while to decipher the meaning of the many square Chinese characters my mother was teaching me. It took even longer to read the articles on the walls announcing weddings, births and deaths. I became fascinated by such information. Even though the newspapers were several years old, the obituaries, those brief biographies of the deceased, seemed like tiny stories. I would even take note of the number of surviving descendants, children like me, and was careful not to poke holes in the walls of stories.
At the far end of the bedroom I shared was a tiny altar covered with a faded floral tablecloth. An ancient crucifix was placed next to a corroded figure of the crowned Virgin Mary with the Christ child sitting on her knee. Above her hung a painting of Jesus with blood dripping from his heart. The gilded engraved frame was coated with dust, but the picture looked like a real man. Drip, drip. I would check for blood on the pale tablecloth each time I looked at Him. This picture had been expensive to buy and it dominated the space in which we lived.
Our beds were thick smooth heavy planks neatly mounted on wooden cases. Two beds were set at opposite ends of the room, with a long passage in between. I shared the smaller one with my older sister. The hand-woven rattan mat on which we slept and the mosquito net, roughly mended in several spots, kept us cool and comfortable all night. We woke refreshed, knowing that every day our family’s hard work was making us richer.
Our cooking area contained a wood stove set on the surface of a large flat stone above the hard-packed earthen floor. The kitchen opened to the outside. Imagine the difficulties my mother had trying to cook during monsoonal storms with their strong winds. Our only utility was the tap which brought us water directly from the mountain streams. Everyone knew that all water had to be boiled before drinking to kill the bacteria which caused diarrhoea. In long dry spells there was no water from the tap and my parents had to buy it.
At dawn every day, her eyes still heavy with sleep, my mother would slip quietly outside to build the wood fire, starting with thin twigs as kindling, scrunched-up newspaper and a single match. On top of the heap she would put two pieces of firewood in a criss-cross pattern. Once the newspaper caught fire, she blew on it gently through a metal tube until the flames were blazing brightly. My eyes watered from the smoke.
I also tried to use the tube to raise the fire but sucked up ashes instead. I coughed and spat and my throat and nose were sore for the rest of the day. My mother told me that as a young wife she had also coughed and spluttered. ‘I had never done any housework. Your Poh-Poh had to teach me how to clean and cook when I married your father,’ she told me. ‘But I soon caught on. I was surprised how quickly you can make a fire hot and bright. It just takes practice and patience.’
My mother was twenty-nine. That year she had her fifth baby.
As she waited for the water to boil, she would relax and smile and I would gaze fondly at her. I thought she must be very old and experienced not only to have produced four children and learned to light fires, but also to master the abacus my father used in his business. She found it easy to learn a new dialect or skill, and was clever at mathematics and problem-solving. She was also resourceful. If customers had no money for our sugar or flour, she accepted what they grew or fished, to help feed our family. Anything that was left she sold.
The stove was lit every meal-time. I can still hear the crisp snapping sound as my mother broke off the kangkung stems. This spinach-like plant flourished in waterways. She would clean the stems thoroughly and slice them up with fleshy purple eggplant, then fry them with onion, chillis and belacan, preserved shrimp paste.
Our outdoor toilet was a simple wooden construction sitting on a raised platform. The hut had a corrugated iron roof, three walls and a door with no lock. I learned very quickly not to go there after sunset. Every morning an old man carried the waste away and my mother doused the pan with milky disinfectant, killing germs as well as swamps of flies, mosquitoes and spiders.
‘One of these days I’ll build a top storey on our house so we can live in comfort,’ promised my father. ‘We’ll have a bedroom with a view of the ocean and the kitchen will be moved indoors.’
I loved him for his dreams and ambitions. We all believed he could do it. He was a substantial man with clear eyes and an intense gaze. His hands were plump and white. But whenever he saved money, he invariably gave most of it to our local church and to the poor. He would donate his last two coins for people who lived far away, in Africa or South America.
‘There’s always someone worse off than we are who needs a helping hand. The black and brown children don’t even have food and water. We at least have enough food to fill our bellies every day.’ The truth was that my father never considered himself deprived.
When the moon was full the tide would flood into our backyard, turning the floor into a swamp and chasing the coconut crabs up the palm trees. In those days, we did not know that these ugly crustaceans made delicious meals. Without enemies, they grew plump and elderly in the coconut groves.
I often stood on top of a metal drum which was used to catch rain and store water for washing. From this position on our back verandah I could see the island where I had been told lepers were sent to live, work and marry, away from our world.
We all knew that to suffer from leprosy was the worst possible fate. I heard my grandfather telling my older sister during one of his visits that infection was centred on the skin and nerves, causing a loss of sensation. I imagined fingers and toes dropping off. One day some lepers passed through the town and I saw a little girl like me, but with skin as white as lime and pink blotches and lumps on her face. She had two holes instead of a proper nose. Around her were cripples and men and women with claw hands.
I thought these poor people looked more like ghosts than human beings. I was not to know then that leprosy can be completely cured.
My mother hustled me away. ‘Stay inside the house. You’re not to come out until I call you,’ she said. Her breath was hurried and she steered me with both hands on my shoulders. ‘If you were taken from me, what would I do?’ she said in a small voice, her breath close to my hair. I didn’t answer but her words warmed me all over. I wondered if the little girl had been abandoned by her family.
© Sunny Haslinger
From work by Diana's authors, http://www.dianagieseeditorial.com.au/