Given Another Life by Jonathan Tan
Born and raised in Singapore, Jonathan has worked and lived in Berlin and London. He once bungee-jumped and climbed a volcano to reason out the meaning of life. He is currently cobbling together his first collection of short stories. His stories have appeared in The Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Literary Yard (India), New Asian Writing, BananaWriters and Fat City Review.
Given Another Life
Five minutes to three in the early hours of the morning, Adinda sat upright on her bed, wiped the sweat staining her forehead with the back of her small bandaged left hand. Clutching the glass of water beside her bed, she took a sip tentatively, waiting. At exactly three, she took the cell phone beside the glass of water, dialed the number she now remembered 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 on, a familiar female voice barking down on the end of the line filled her ears. Without saying a word, Adinda breathed down hard in response. That was when she then hung up, feeling good that justice has been served.
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 has sought to make a better life for herself and her family; now it was all broken and her future had become dimmer than before she set foot in Singapore.
By the time the calls persisted for the ninety-seventh time – 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?”
. . .
Given another life, Adinda would not want 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 sufficiently up her nostrils.
“It was the smell from your home lah,” her madam’s mother-in-law said.
She missed the sarcasm at first, but learnt later that the smog blanketing the island emanated from her homeland. She marveled at how the fires raging in the part of her world were suffocating those living miles away.
High over the city-state hundreds of windows embroidered life stories of which one of it was now her own in the flat 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 as she stole time to stare out of the windows was a curiosity to find out what went behind those windows opposite hers that she cleaned daily; a morning chore before she prepared breakfast for Sir and Madam and their toddler son. Given another life, would these people want to be where they were? Then she thought about herself, would she want to be where she was?
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 neighbour and friend Ainul would sit with her chatting outside their homes, taking in the bustle of villagers coming and going, exchanging hellos and words with other neighbours passing by, looking up at the stars stitching their brilliance in the skies. Here, Adinda soon learnt 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 the night fell.
In her homecoming, Ainul’s fruits of labour 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, no longer to endure hunger.
What scared her were stories of fellow maids falling to deaths from the high-rise flats while extending themselves perilously out on the ledge to clean the windows. Thankfully, her Madam had specifically forbidden her to climb out on to the ledge. Her madam said: “Just clean the inside can already.”
Her Madam’s mother-in-law was the demanding one. She would give Adinda a makeshift stick made of half-cut bamboo pole with a cloth tied around it, 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 just being punished 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, cut some slack with her maid. Besides, however remote history has seemed for her generation, the forefathers settling on the island were coolies and labourers seeking a better life. Lynn reasoned there were no grounds for her to get upset over trivialities with her new maid, brushing aside horrid stories she gleaned from friends about maids who slacked, stole things, or worse took things into their heads and did silly things like falling to their deaths performing seemingly harmless chores, or hooking up with a man.
Given another life, Lynn wouldn’t want 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 around 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 padded 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-change, the unreasonably shrillness of her newborn crying, the dull routine that trapped her in the flat. No longer was she able to steal time in between lunches to do up her toes or hair, get a dress or a pair of high-heels, catch up with gossips over lunch before heading back to the office. Work in itself wasn’t always pleasurable but it offered pleasant distractions, moving her mood along the way, in a spectrum that was unavailable to the life with a newborn at home.
After her newborn was hospitalised for weeks with a viral infection, after her mother-in-law’s insinuation that she shouldn’t have brought the boy out to shopping just because she was bored, after her husband’s rationalisation that she might feel better ditching the role of a stay-home-mum, Lynn decided to hire a maid. The arrangement was that her mother-in-law watch over the maid who in turn take care of the daily needs of the boy – plus – to complete all the household chores as humanly possible each day. In the search for the perfect maid, Lynn and her husband stated specifically that they wanted someone who was good with toddlers, able to cook simple meals, clean and tidy, hardworking, strong but pleasant-looking, without body odour, for that matter, no unpleasant traits or habits of any kind. No mention was made on whether the ideal maid was one who could tolerate their nonsense or that of their mother-in-law’s antics.
Nodding her head knowingly, the maid agent reassuring Lynn and her husband that they had just the perfect maid for them, said: “Just look here ah. This folder contains some of the best maids we have from Indonesia. You smart. Cheaper to have them than Filipino maids. Also, they don’t ask for rest day every week. One month rest one day, can already.”
“Isn’t that against the law?” Her husband, always the law-abiding kind asked.
“Get the maid to agree can already. Not against the law lah. Also, some maids don’t want off. Want to earn more money, send home mah.”
. . .
Adinda had a fitful sleep the night before she was sent off to Singapore. She dreamt about how clean Singapore was that the pavement could be eaten off if she was too hungry. She was on all fours, licking the pavement that tasted like 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 any step forward, stuck in the rags piling high up as the skies gave no sign of letting up. That humid morning as Adinda left her dreams, woke up soaking wet with sweat on her back and forehead, she was lost to the future lurking ahead.
The circumstances were such that no one in her family dissuaded her to work in Singapore. She won’t be the first or the last in her village to set foot in the city-state to work as a maid. Other than her friend Ainul, she could recount at least a dozen others from her village who had worked in the city-state. She considered Jakarta. But the idea of being somewhere foreign, good money, clean and modern that she has heard so much of, excited and scared her at the same time. She was terrified by the prospect of living somewhere perched high up without the grounds beneath her feet, terrified by the unknown life that was to become part of her for two long years.
To raise money for her passageway to 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 ten months would be tough in Singapore, getting little more than thirty dollars each month from her employer, the rest going to the agent for the fees in bringing her to Singapore.
But seeing her neigbours returned home, laden with goodies and modern appliances from Singapore, it strengthened the resolve in her to go out there to make a better life. She pictured herself returning home with the latest handheld game for her adik, a wardrobe of nice clothes for her kakak, a brand new Yamaha motorbike for her abang, a good quality TV for her ailing orangtua already in their seventies always squinting their eyes to see what’s 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 it would come to their village, slowly but surely.
. . .
“You clean like that, not clean. Must clean like that.” Impatience rising up the mother-in-law’s voice as she snatched the mop from Adinda’s hand and demonstrated to her.
Then she ranted on again: “Thought they teach you how to clean before you come Singapore. Did Ma’am show you how to clean the floor? She didn’t scold you?”
As the weeks followed, Adinda was quick to realise that 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 on to 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 toilet 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 in the A&E 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 got hurt also. Lucky. I can cope with the boy on my own. Now your this one stupid, cannot do things properly.”
Since the maid came 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 of coaxing her boy to take naps, rested squarely on her shoulders: teach her, manage her, tell her. Lynn was sick to be the one telling the maid what to do.
“Why can’t your mum just tell her properly what to do,” Lynn said to her husband.
“Mum 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 heavy in her heart. But she acquiesced, hoping to put to rest her mother-in-law’s non-stop complaints about the maid. The inconvenience of a maid was perhaps too much to manage, as if life hasn’t put enough on the plate.
One morning in the following week while she was getting ready to clean the windows, 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 ruffling through her personal stuff. “Just to make sure she didn’t steal anything,” she said to Lynn, ignoring Adinda who stood by and watched on clueless.
At the airport, her Madam pressed two fifty-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 touch with so much money since coming to Singapore.
“For me? Thank you, Madam,” Adinda said gratefully, resolved that she would bring home and show her family how a fifty Singapore dollar note was like. Then she asked, “Why am I going home?”
“We’re going on a holiday. You balik kampong 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 tired than sincere. Since the maid left, she had to face up to the music of coaxing her son to sleep, a task she never had 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 ninety-eighth 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.