Short Story by Jonathan Tan (The Jakarta Post, December 04, 2017)
Five minutes to three in the early hours of the morning, Adinda sat upright on her bed and wiped the sweat sticking to her forehead with the back of her small bandaged left hand. Clutching the glass of water beside her bed, she took a sip thirstily, waiting.
At exactly three, she took the cell phone beside the glass of water and dialed the number she now knew by heart. She did not put the number on speed dial because she wanted the pleasure of punching in the numbers on her phone in the dark. It took a while for the connection to get through − a number for Singapore. Ten rings in, a familiar female voice barking down on the end of the line filled her ears. Without saying a word, Adinda breathed heavily in response.
The first couple of nights, the voice on the end of the line — jarred with bewilderment — bellowed exasperatedly, “Hello? Hello, who is it?” Adinda held her silence. Then came the familiar note of annoyance, flaring in the voice each time she did not carry out the tasks to her satisfaction, bridged to a not-too-distant past where Adinda had sought to make a better life for herself and her family. Now it was all broken and her future was dimmer than before she had set foot in Singapore.
By the 97th call — a day short of her entire stay in Singapore — Adinda broke the silence and spoke: “Why you do this to me? Why you made my life susah [miserable]?”
Given another life, Adinda would not have wanted to be where she was. Easing the curtain to one side, she took in the muggy haze outside. Even without opening the window, she could smell the stiffness of the air permeating her nostrils.
“It is the smell from your home lah,” her madam’s mother-in-law said.
She missed the sarcasm at first, but learned later that the smog blanketing the island emanated from her homeland. She marveled at how the fires raging in her part of the world were suffocating those living further away.
High over the city-state, hundreds of windows embroidered life stories of which one was now her own in the apartment she would have to call home for the next two years. As she wondered hard how things were back home, in the same breath of thought, she stole time to stare out of the windows with curiosity to find out what went on behind those windows opposite hers that she cleaned daily — a morning chore before she prepared breakfast for Sir and Madam and their toddler son.
Adinda wasn’t sure life was any better in the city-state with the constant frowns that creased Sir and Madam’s faces as they returned home after work. Back home as evening fell, her good neighbor and friend Ainul would sit with her outside their homes chatting, taking in the bustle of villagers coming and going, exchanging hellos and words with other neighbors passing by, looking up at the stars stitching their brilliance into the skies.
Here, Adinda soon learned that Sir and Madam retreated behind the shut door, the curtains drawn as hundreds of windows, not dissimilar to theirs, were torched with lights. The whiteness shone through the darkness with dissonance as night fell.
In her homecoming, Ainul’s fruits of labor in full display — modern goodies, money to rebuild her dilapidated, rotting wooden house into something sturdier — awed Adinda. She pictured in her mind the kind of life that could possibly lie ahead of her in the city-state. More so, the better life she could have in her own homecoming, to deal with her immediate wants: to patch the leaking roof over their heads, to fill sacks of rice in the lumbung (rice storage), to no longer endure hunger.
Her Madam’s mother-in-law was the demanding one. She would give Adinda a makeshift stick made of a half-cut bamboo pole with a cloth tied around it and asked her to extend herself out of the windows to clean the outer panels. Arching her hand against the window panels as she extended her body outwards, Adinda tried to suppress the giddiness rising up her head, resisting to either look upwards or worse, downwards, keeping her eyes peeled over to the hundreds of windows on the opposite block.
She wondered at the obsession of having the squeaky-shiny cleaned windows that served little purpose since the curtains were drawn shut most of the time. Was she being punished just because the soot from the forest fires burning back home had stained the windows?
Before she had the maid, Lynn Tan reminded herself not to be too fastidious, to cut her maid some slack.
Given another life, Lynn wouldn’t have wanted to get a maid at all. Having someone else living in their midst was the last thing she wished for. As it was, being out and about, working long hours five days a week, she wanted the freedom and quiet in the evenings and weekends to move about in her home.
The slightest noises intruding upon her shook her with annoyance: the closing and opening of wardrobe doors as the maid placed the folded laundry back; the clattering of the plates and cutlery as the maid washed them; the dull, plodding sound of footsteps as the maid stomped heavily across the floor to pick toys up. Her presence was everywhere; Lynn did not like it at all.
But a year into taking care of her newborn, Lynn was exhausted by the never-ending regime of diaper changes, the unreasonable shrillness of her newborn’s crying, the dull routine that trapped her in the apartment. No longer was she able to steal time in between lunches to do up her toes or hair, to put on a dress or a pair of high-heels, to catch up with gossip over lunch with colleagues before heading back to the office.
Work in itself wasn’t always pleasurable, but it offered pleasant distractions, moving her mood along the way, along a spectrum that was unavailable to the life with a newborn at home.
After her newborn was hospitalized for weeks with a viral infection, after her mother-in-law’s insinuation that she shouldn’t have brought the boy out shopping just because she was bored, after her husband’s rationalization that she might feel better ditching the role of a stay-home mom, Lynn decided to hire a maid.
The arrangement was that her mother-in-law would watch over the maid, who would in turn take care of the daily needs of the boy, and also to complete as many of the household chores as humanly possible each day.
Adinda had a fitful sleep the night before she was sent off to Singapore. She dreamed about how Singapore was so clean that the pavement could be eaten off of if she was hungry enough. She was on all fours, licking the pavement that tasted of roasted pine nuts, the air sticky with cotton candy, the sun warming a toast of rendang curry.
Then it began to rain in her dreams. The skies opened up: rags after rags of damp fell, some slapping on her head, shoulder, body with a disapproving thud. Soon she found herself unable to move forward, stuck among the rags piling high as the skies gave no sign of letting up. That humid morning, as Adinda left her dreams and woke up soaking wet with sweat on her back and forehead, she was lost to the future lurking ahead.
In Singapore, her family pawned whatever little valuables they had, borrowed from their relatives too. Grateful, Adinda promised herself that once she was able to pay off the loan owed to the agent, she would start to remit as much of her wages as she could back home. She knew the first 10 months would be tough in Singapore, getting little more than 30 dollars each month from her employer, the rest going to the agent for the fees in bringing her to Singapore.
But seeing her neighbors returning home, laden with goodies and modern appliances from Singapore, it strengthened her resolve to go out there to seek a better life. She pictured herself returning home with the latest handheld game for her adik (younger brother), a wardrobe of nice clothes for her kakak (older sister), a brand new Yamaha motorbike for her abang (older brother), a good quality TV for her ailing orangtua (parents) already in their 70s, always squinting their eyes to see what was on the TV.
Sitting in the newly renovated home, she would regale her siblings and parents of life in the city-state, of the people there, of their secrets, of their success, of the modern conveniences that someday, somehow would come to their village, slowly but surely.
“You clean like that, not clean. Must clean like that.” Impatience rose up in her mother-in-law’s voice as she snatched the mop from Adinda’s hand and showed her how to do it.
Then she ranted on again, “Thought they teach you how to clean before you come to Singapore. Did Mum show you how to clean the floor? She didn’t scold you?”
As the weeks went on, Adinda was quick to realize the reassuring smiles that welcomed her soon ceased to bracket their faces. The voice grew harder, harsher each time she did something wrong or what they thought was wrong.
When the bowl slipped out of her hand — crashing onto the floor, sending the half-eaten rice all over the corner where she sat on a high stool to eat her dinner in the kitchen — Adinda went to bed that evening hungry.
Slipping into the bathroom to relieve herself when everyone in the household was asleep, she drank from the tap to dull her hunger. The wound stitched between her left thumb and index finger glistened in the dark as she unwrapped her bandage to take a closer look.
“You are very stupid. Why use your hands to pick up the broken bowl? Use the broom to sweep it up,” her Madam’s voice quivered in anger, as she stood with her at the accident and emergency department at Changi Hospital to get her wounds treated.
“Just send her back lah,” her mother-in-law said the next day. “If your boy is near her, he could have gotten hurt also. Lucky. I can cope with the boy on my own. Now this one stupid, cannot do things properly.”
Since the maid had come into the picture, Lynn was annoyed that her mother-in-law and even her husband presumably made her the custodian of the maid. Any fault with her, any complaints about her clumsiness, her inefficient cleaning that left ant trails, the inability to coax her boy to take naps, rested squarely on her shoulders: teach her, manage her, tell her. Lynn was sick of being the one telling the maid what to do.
“Why can’t your mom just tell her properly what to do,” Lynn said to her husband.
“Mom doesn’t speak much English or Malay. How to communicate? She needs you to instruct the maid,” her husband replied, conveniently brushing aside any responsibility.
That evening, when the decision was made to send her home, Lynn felt heaviness in her heart. But she acquiesced, hoping to put to rest her mother-in-law’s nonstop complaints about the maid. The inconvenience of a maid was perhaps too much to manage, as if life hadn’t put enough on her plate.
One morning the following week, while she was getting ready to clean the windows by wetting the cloth to tie on the bamboo stick, Adinda was asked to pack her belongings stuffed in the storeroom, where she also slept. The Madam’s mother-in-law then quickly did a thorough check by ruffling through her personal belongings.
“Just to make sure she didn’t steal anything,” she said to Lynn, ignoring Adinda who stood by and watched on cluelessly.
At the airport, her Madam pressed two 50-dollar notes into her small hands and said: “Use it to get something you like inside.” It was the first time that she came into contact with so much money since coming to Singapore.
“For me? Thank you, Madam,” Adinda said gratefully, resolving that she would bring it home and show her family what a 50 Singapore dollar note looked like. Then she asked, “Why am I going home?”
“We’re going on a holiday. You balik kampong [go back home] first,” said Madam’s mother-in-law, her face crowded with a disapproving glare.
“Why? You send me back to agent I can still work in Singapore. Why you send me home? You lie. Why?”
On the other side, Lynn uttered little more than a sorry — one that sounded more tired than sincere. Since the maid left, she had to face the task of coaxing her son to sleep, something she had never been good at.
Despite her mother-in-law’s assurances to help out, Lynn came home mostly to unwashed laundry or dishes — the menial tasks that were once forgotten and relegated to Adinda. She had to take it upon herself to do it.
“Stop calling, Adinda,” Lynn begged. “I’m sorry, as I said.”
It was barely past three in the ungodly hours of the morning when Adinda let out a loud sob on the end of the line. The 98th call, the number of days she was in the city-state. Long after she hung up, the sob stubbornly sat, ringing restively deep in the air.
Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong works as the head of the Culture and Information Division at the ASEAN Secretariat.
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