The urine that leaked down from the ceiling smelled like pandan.

He lay on his side on his sturdy wooden bed with a mattress of cardboard and a thin bamboo mat, watching the yellow liquid drip down just inches in front of his nose. The drops were irregular, and he found it maddening— Drip. Driiip. Dripdripdrip.

Now the whole room smelled like the huge bush in the back of his house, from which neighbours trimmed leaves without asking, to make their kuih or red bean soup. Once, maybe, they had asked. But he had grunted his approval one time too many, and eventually the mothers told their daughters to just take, and the daughters told the granddaughters—

Drip. He thought it had stopped.

At dawn, after yet another sleepless night, he lifted his creaky bones off the warm cardboard, and shuffled to the bathroom for a rag. Above him, there was the pitter-patter of little feet, as the civet cat on his roof retired for the day.

His breakfast was of hot Milo and crackers. He reached for the container without having to look, screwing and unscrewing the red plastic cap with the slow and steady hand of experience. The water he poured from a kettle more grey than silver. The entire meal took two minutes to make and another two to finish.

The sun was just visible through the leaves of his nangka tree when he closed the wooden door behind him, and slid in the rusty lock he installed himself last year, when robbers made away with half of his savings. His motorcycle yawned, rather than roared, to life, just as a familiar bell rang down the road.

The young man delivering the papers had been just a boy a while ago. He cruised past on the faded blue bicycle, passed down for generations at the old newsstand in town, and tossed a bundle neatly over the gate, raising one hand in greeting without pausing for a beat.

The old man hesitated, and the motorcycle was left whining for another minute. A jingle of keys, a creaking of hinges – those needed oiling—and the papers were once more thrown unceremoniously into the living room. By the time he got back onto his motorcycle, the boy and his bike were gone, the bell ringing cheerfully down the next street in the quiet morning.

After a reluctant stretch to ease up loose bones, the man and his bike took off to the scrapyard.

###

“See you next Monday, Uncle.”

He hadn’t understood what his boss’ son—a lad of forty who inherited the shop years ago but will forever be the boss’ son to him—had meant by that. Everyone knew he never willingly took a day off work. It was only when he turned on the dusty radio at night and heard the festive blaring that it occurred to him Chinese New Year might be tomorrow.

The calendar hanging on the wall had been looking like a part of the wall for years, so he picked up the evening edition instead. The same young man always made a second round before he got home from work. Sure enough, the front page was mostly bright red, wishing all readers a happy reunion dinner.

When he went to hang his laundry at the back of the house, he noticed that a large chunk of the pandan shrub had gone conspicuously bald. It seemed one of the little girls nearby had been sent out on her first errand, probably armed clumsily with a blunt knife or scissors. The familiar fragrance seemed to waft in the still air at dusk, and he wondered which family was having dessert. The one woman who would occasionally bring him a treat had moved to Kuala Lumpur with her son two years ago.

He was about to turn back when he heard a rustle in the leaves. Frowning so all the wrinkles on his brow swam like waves, he picked up a rusty hoe leaning on the back wall of the house and warily pried apart the lush leaves, almost grey in the orange sunset.

It was a civet. A baby, too. So, there was a litter on the roof—no wonder it leaked so often.

The cub stared at him quietly, lying on its back. He lifted the hoe, ready to bring it down and end the creature’s misery, when an ominous growl from behind him stopped him dead.

It was his old friend, the mother. For some reason he had assumed it was male, a roommate of sorts. It took him a while to recognize that the feeling right then was disappointment.

He sighed, put down the hoe, and put up his laundry. The mother watched him go, and as soon as he locked the back door behind him, he heard a loud rustle of leaves, followed by an even louder pitter-patter of feet on the roof.

That night, the family on the roof seemed even rowdier than usual. He wasn’t even surprised anymore when the same leak woke him up an hour before dawn.

Drip.

Strangely, the smell of pandan wasn’t so overwhelming this time.

Dripdripdrip.

In fact, he could barely smell it at all.

The left side of his body felt numb. He tried to stretch it, move into a more comfortable position, where he would stay until well after the sun came up, since it was a holiday. Would the newspaper boy come today?

Briefly he contemplated giving the boy an angpau. But no, he wasn’t married, and besides, that was a woman’s duty. He had never given one in his life, and stopped accepting them long ago. No one expected anything of him, from him.

He tried to move. And couldn’t.

This was—His friends had warned him of it, the few of them that remained. He read about it in the papers sometimes, too. A stroke.

He opened his mouth, and instead of words, there was a garbled noise even he couldn’t understand.

Driiip.

This is bad. He tried to blink, and had that disorienting sensation when his right eye worked just fine while his left simply sagged. What to do in these situations? He had to call for help.

He never thought much for telephones, though. Didn’t have anyone to call.

He was going to die like this. Somehow, the idea didn’t scare him. Sure, he would have preferred to go without knowing, in his sleep. He might have done just that, if that dripping didn’t wake him up. Stupid animals.

He closed his eyes—his right eye. Might as well try to sleep now, and go in peace.

Drip.

His right eye flew open. It was Chinese New Year. Everyone would be on holiday for at least the first two days, including the newspaper boy. What if they didn’t find him for three days?

He remembered those articles in the dailies about bodies found days, even weeks after death. Dead and decomposing, causing a nuisance for everyone in the neighbuorhood. The neighbours would pinch their noses or hold their breaths and shake their heads, saying, “poor thing.”

He didn’t want to end up like that.

And his grave—what would they put on his grave? Like many his age, he never liked to give these things much thought. His parents and their parents had been buried on the hill a few kilometers away, so he assumed the same would be done to him without his saying anything. He hadn’t made a will because he had nothing to give and no one to give it to. Except the house.

For one wild moment, he thought of giving the house to the family of civets.

Dripdrip driiiip.

The dripping was driving him crazy.

Would they even know to put his name on his gravestone? Not the ridiculous one transcribed by the Malay clerk onto his birth certificate, but the name his parents gave him, the Chinese characters chosen in accordance with the family tome. Did anyone remember that name? He thought as hard as he could, his mind a tangled mess. All anyone called him these days was Uncle.

That wouldn’t do. He had to at least have his name on his gravestone, or his parents might not be able to recognize him.

There was some yellowed writing paper, torn from a colleague’s children’s exercise books and a blunt pencil he hadn’t touched for years on the little table beside his bed. The table was made of thick tinted glass with coffee stains and a sturdy rattan frame. At this rate, it might even last longer than him.

He reached out his left hand for it before he remembered. Slowly he tested the rest of his body, to see what still worked and what didn’t. His right hand was stiff, but he was confident he could write with it. His right leg… could still move, somewhat. He tried to shift himself to the side of the bed, the left side, digging his toes into the cardboard for traction and pushing off. Once, too short. Twice, better. Third time, a bit harder—

He rolled off the bed like a rag-doll, his right hand inches away from the table. His right leg was useless now, too.

Something wet slid down his face, the right side that he could still feel. It might have smelled like pandan.

They discovered him two hours later, when the newspaper boy stopped to deliver the last run before his short holiday and suddenly decided to wish the old man Happy Chinese New Year.

The Malay nurses at Hospital Pulau Pinang were still on duty, as were the doctors. By the end of the week they had done all they could for him, and a kind young nurse offered to wheel him to the state nursing home.

She exchanged a few words with the caretaker about what a stoic old man he was, staying strong despite the condition they found him in, and how he always seemed to be trying to say, or write, something. Just give him a pencil and a paper, then he’ll stay quiet as an angel.

It was only after she left, and the caretaker had pushed him into a room full of others just like him that he wept. A silent stream of tears from his right eye.

They gave him a pencil and paper though he couldn’t control his hand well enough to write anything halfway legible. All they could make out was his name, a common name many others shared, and what seemed to be a clumsily illustrated will bequeathing his old wooden house to a civet cat. But that couldn’t be right.

 

Wong Jo-yen

Wong Jo-yen is currently studying English Language and Literature at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Having grown up on fantasy and prose, she is now experimenting with other forms as well as realism set against her local roots.

View Profile Send Email

ADVERTISEMENT: