“All of us had English accents,” said my Grandfather in an English accent. Ooloovus. “That was how we learned, you know. From the British.”
Grandfather was known to have been employed by the colonizers as a butler, the only one anyone had ever heard of in the middling town of Butterworth, Malaya. But he wasn’t a butler. His employer had called him that both because Grandfather’s real name was hard to remember and because the British gentleman was forever exasperated by Grandfather’s inability to perform everything just as he wished.
“But there is no ice, sir. That is why lemonade is lukewarm.”
“But I was helping in kitchen, sir. I did not hear you call.”
“But I did not know what corned beef hash is, sir. I thought maybe there would be actual corn.”
The gentleman, pushed to his limits, stood up sternly and placed his palms flat against the dinner table. “But! But! But! That is always your excuse! Quite a perverse tropical ‘But’ler you are!”
And that is how Grandfather became known as a butler. His chief job was to soothe the trauma of World War II inflicted upon his employer. The Japanese had fled after their emperor’s surrender and the British had moved back in on their heels, much like years later Grandfather would stage a triumphant return to his house after fleeing a pest infestation, waving off rat poison fumes with both hands. He had saved up ever so many years to afford it, but when the British trudged back into town in 1945, he had nary a thought about ever becoming a homeowner.
In post-war Malaya the British decided they did not like what the previous tenant had done. Many buildings were reclaimed, repainted and renamed, including the “rest house” Grandfather knocked on for a job. Just a week prior the single-storey house had been a makeshift Japanese army headquarters. There had been uniformed people always rushing in and out of the place, and Grandfather had known enough to stay far away.
Now the soldiers were gone, and out had come rattan lounge chairs arranged haphazardly in the tiny garden fronting the house, wherever shade could be obtained. White men sagged the chairs with eyes closed and legs akimbo. Working around them, a Malay man replaced weeds with flora that would not survive the weather. A different brown man painted the outside walls with strips of red, white and blue. A plaque went up that said “Brittania.”
Grandfather would tell me these stories about his past whenever Mama went to dye her hair at the salon, which was once a week. When he first told me he worked at a rest house, I had felt shock and shame, because the image conjured in my mind was of my grandfather cleaning toilets, his sleeves and cuffs rolled up. But Grandfather had roared with his peculiar laugh and told me that nobody ever said “restroom” until after I was born, and anyway a “rest house” was a fancy place to eat, drink and nap for big shot British officials. Sometimes a missionary or two would visit too.
Grandfather had no inkling what work British men might want done, but he saw the Malay men painting walls and gardening, and thought he could do those things just as well as they could. So he borrowed a shirt and went to the rest house.
At his destination he paused with the tips of his shoes barely touching the cultivated grass, slyly scrutinizing the snoozing men on the lawn. They did not look like they would enjoy interruptions. Grandfather lifted one hand to shield his eyes from the sun. The rest house’s door was ajar, but he could not see more than a metre or two beyond the threshold because of the veranda blocking light.
He looked back at the garden, where the Malay gardener crouched as if preparing to pray, big fat sweat beads on his forehead. Grandfather envied him. It sure beat being a tin mine coolie. That stint had left his hands raw, nearly skinless, and he had heard men who worked there for too long died coughing blood. People said they hacked so hard their lungs exploded, and that’s why blood came up.
He strode quickly through the doorway, hoping he would run into a white man as near the entrance as possible. It would not do to be taken for a thief in an empty British fancy house.
There was no one in the first room he found. He scratched just above his belly button. He was not used to wearing a shirt. It sure was cool in there, almost breezy. He looked up and there was a vortex above sending down supernatural winds. He had heard of ceiling fans, but had never before stood under one.
Someone coughed behind him. Grandfather jumped. It was a white man, with a mustache and hair that looked like a hat.
“Saa,” Grandfather said quickly. He put his hand over his heart. He had seen this gesture, he could not remember where, and he knew it denoted respect.
And that was how Grandfather got hired at the rest house. The white man he met, Mr. Burgess, had been doubtful at first. He was a new arrival to Malaya, and it had been explained to him that for administrative tasks Indians were best on account of the pliant character of Macaulay’s children, while for manual labour a Malay would do, but they were by nature lazy and needed supervision, which explained the white men keeping watch on the lawn out front. As for Chinks, they were mendacious drug users and should not be trusted.
In the end, Grandfather was allowed to stay because Mr. Burgess had a daughter who was afraid of the Indians and the Malays working in the house. The tender flower, poor thing, would tremble whenever one of them walked past. They scrupulously avoided eye contact, but it wasn’t their gaze that terrified her so. It was because they were so swarthy. Grandfather, with his skin somewhere between yellow and orange, was very much less traumatic for young Miss Lily.
Miss Lily had hazel eyes and long wavy hair the color of straw. To Grandfather she was as exotic as a ceiling fan.
Mama didn’t like Grandfather telling me his stories. She said they would give me nightmares. I didn’t see how. Back then the things that gave me nightmares were Teletubbies, this new program on TV. Mama was adamant though. It was a good thing she needed to dye her hair so often, even though she was not even forty and people often flattered her by asking if we were siblings.
Grandfather became the only person allowed to serve Miss Lily whenever she visited the rest house. Mr. Burgess spent an inordinate amount of time there, reading and ordering dishes no one knew how to make, like pork chops and pudding. Miss Lily, on the other hand, was not difficult to serve. Most of the time she simply wanted some adult attention. It was easy enough for Grandfather to smile and say “Good, good” whenever she ran to show him interesting weeds cradled in her palms, even if he was slightly repulsed by her at first.
By the time Grandfather had more or less mastered English he knew that there was no Mrs. Burgess. There had been one, but she did not cross the ocean with her husband and daughter, whether dead or dead set against moving to the colonies Grandfather was never told.
Mama would get livid whenever she found Grandfather out. What are you doing to him! She would shout, pointing to me without looking at me, which made me feel stupid. Once she mentioned a name that sounded British, exciting my curiosity. Were there stories about other British people Grandfather had been holding back from me?
Grandfather had had a look of amazed anger on his face when she said it. And then he had looked confused.
The better Grandfather understood English, the more unreasonable Mr. Burgess’ requests became, to the point that after a few years Grandfather would sometimes pretend not to understand what the gentleman was saying. If Mr. Burgess showed signs of inebriety but drawled at Grandfather to bring him more port, Grandfather would whisper with the cook and emerge ten minutes later with a steaming dish of Chinese food.
“But I thought you wanted ‘pork,” sir. This is pork, you asked for it, very good, taste good.”
Or he would invent an excuse to bring Miss Lily into the room, slyly encouraging Mr. Burgess to put on his best behavior.
In time Miss Lily got over her fear of the natives, but Grandfather remained her favourite. She became fascinated with the dialect Grandfather spoke and often asked him to tell her stories about the land he had left in search of a better life. She asked him again and again to describe the poverty and the lack of hope, nodding in sympathy when he concluded, each time, with a resigned sigh, that he had had no choice but to leave home and come to Malaya.
She said her own father would never tell her why they had left England. He’d always put her off, saying that one day, when the time was right and she was old enough to understand, he would. But she felt quite old enough — did the British ladies not frequently compliment her on her beauty? What a graceful, pretty thing, they would exclaim. And indeed she cut a fine figure, standing as tall as Grandfather when she remembered to keep her carriage erect. The tropics had given her cheeks a roseate glow, and her demeanour was open and friendly because she had never yet met an unkind person in her life.
Mama cried so hard at Grandfather’s funeral that she could not speak. When I touched her and tried to comfort her, she grabbed and squeezed me with her arms, her two hands covering my ears on each side, pressing down hard. She muffled the world. I was baffled by the gesture. It felt simultaneously like protection and also like robbery.
As Miss Lily blossomed, Grandfather transitioned from being almost a nanny to being a bodyguard of sorts for her. He wasn’t quite a chaperone, but he could facilitate the increased independence expected for a young woman from a good family, by conveying her to recreation clubs, music lessons, tea parties and the like. He purchased trinkets to which she took a fancy at local stores, so that she never had to worry about carrying her own money.
Meanwhile, Mr. Burgess was giving serious thought to the advice he had received regarding his daughter’s future. She would fare a better marriage in London society, and although the education she had received from her English tutors here was not lacking, Lily Burgess would still benefit from mixing with more young people of her own kind. He had listened at the club, drink in hand, to all the well-meaning matrons who took pity on the motherless girl. And he was well set on heeding their counsel when Lily disappeared.
By this point it had been five years into his move to the colonies, and Mr. Burgess had thought all possibility of danger long past. He had been uncommonly paranoid and suspicious of calamity the first year, watchful over his property and his daughter, but to have danger strike now, when he felt almost at ease, almost sure of himself in this strange land! Even his body had adjusted to the climate, no longer sweating torrents at the slightest contact with the outdoors. It felt like an unfair ambush.
A search party was quickly organized, every white man in the area having volunteered. All work stalled; nobody, British or otherwise, could focus enough to do anything. It was like the days when airplanes flew noisily overhead, dropping propaganda, when speculations literally floated in the air and everybody clamoured to make predictions, trying to outsmart what would become history.
Where could she have gone? Everyone’s worst fear was that she had run off with a native beau, heaven forfend. But nothing could be gained from questioning all the gardeners and cooks and shoe shiners and such. Suppose she had gotten wind of her father’s plan to move them back to England, and had felt somehow reluctant to leave, having formed an attachment to her residence of the past few years? But what fashionable young girl would forfeit the interesting bustle of London for a tropical outpost?
They searched the nearby hills and their waterfalls, their brooks and streams. They parted foliage and whacked their way through wild bushes. Grandfather led them into parts of town where no white man went, translating for them the replies of bewildered men, women, and children in oversized rags, except most of time they were emphatically shaking their heads anyway, smelling trouble.
It took just one night and one day to break Mr. Burgess. He was yet reasonably contained when the search party agreed by consensus to suspend its efforts, due to the darkness of the night. But the father went wild when morning came and Miss Lily did not turn up. He accused anyone he saw of abducting his daughter. Grandfather got the worst of it, because he stoically insisted on serving Mr. Burgess his meals and fetching him his papers just as before. When Mr. Burgess hurled all kinds of insults, calling him a scoundrel, a blackguard, a ruffian, Grandfather simply averted his eyes and coaxed his employer to eat in a monotonous voice void of emotion. For once, he had no “But”s to offer.
Grandfather persisted. He thought having his usual routine would help poor Mr. Burgess. When that didn’t work, Grandfather did what he could to introduce distraction, risking insolence to ask for recipes of classic English dishes from the flow of visitors now coming every hour to see the man placed under such painful trials.
“But it will make Mr. Burgess forget,” he would say. He never said “happy;” it was always “forget.”
“Be strong and put your faith in God,” the visitors advised Mr. Burgess, the ladies making sure to be standing at least three feet away on account of his aura of intoxication.
Time passed, and the visitors stopped coming. She must have left town, perhaps even the colony, they said. Sometimes young people lose their heads, a few commented. On the other hand, there were hushed whispers about white slavery, a horrible fate. Were there not still living Sultans in this barbaric land, even if they had been stripped of power and had to pay tribute to the British? Mrs. Windshuttle’s cousin’s secretary swore on a true story, about a girl just like Lily who was now in chains and feeding grapes to an obese old chieftain of some sort in Borneo, across the waters.
Grandfather made sure none of this gossip reached Mr. Burgess. He thought it a good thing that Mr. Burgess’ people had stopped coming around, prying and disturbing the peace. He had acted as a shield as best he could, but anyone could see Mr. Burgess had no fight left. He drank at all hours of the day and did nothing except scour newspapers and local pamphlets for signs of his girl. When he got into one of his dark moods he abused Grandfather until he tired himself out. Grandfather bore it all.
“But sir is drinking too much,” he would venture. Sometimes he even wrestled bottles away, holding them in custody and promising Mr. Burgess “But if you eat as much as you drink, you can drink as much as you want.”
Once I asked my parents why I had no brothers or sisters. I was feeling lonely, with no one to admire the Lego castles I painstakingly built, or to be jealous of my newly acquired rollerblading skills. At my question, Father and Mama fixed their eyes on their plate, their mouths making chewing motions. They ignored me.
Everyone knew Miss Lily was dead when the rest house became haunted a year later. Spoons flew across rooms and headless geckos turned up in all corners of the place. An insistent, regular thumping could be heard in the afternoons, the sounds of someone methodically climbing up stairs, except the rest house was single storey and had no stairs to speak of.
The fact that Miss Lily had become a ghost surprisingly gained ground without resistance among all communities, from hired labour to enlightened colonizers. It spanned cultures and beliefs and experiences and intellects. The visitors once more took interest in That Poor Man, including new arrivals who had not been around for the previous year’s heart-rending drama.
Mr. Burgess was by now greatly changed. He had ceased to leave the rest house months ago. He looked as sallow and sleepy as a lotus eater, except the lotus he ate was full of bitter sorrow. He alone had to be taught that the supernatural events around him were proof that his daughter was no more. Because of his dilapidated state everyone assumed that he had long ago accepted his loss and therefore the news could not add so very much to his pain, but they learned their mistake when Mr. Burgess shot himself in the chest with a pistol.
Luckily the wound was not mortal. Naturally it fell upon Grandfather to treat Mr. Burgess’ injuries and to nurse him back to health. Even the white doctor summoned from the next, bigger town conceded that Grandfather was doing Mr. Burgess good. “Keep changing those rags,” he gruffly instructed, though he could see with his own eyes that it was precisely what Grandfather had been doing on his own initiative.
Grandfather liked to say that this was when he had acquired his stooped back, from constantly bending over a prone, moaning Mr. Burgess. I would get piggyback rides on Father’s, sometimes even Mama’s shoulders, but Grandfather never gave me any rides and I had been told that it was because he had a bad back.
“But I can do it,” I remembered Grandfather saying.
My parents never relented.
Grandfather latched on to the idea of a funeral to motivate Mr. Burgess. As ideas went it was a strange one, but Grandfather could think of no better. In his mind, if Mr. Burgess could not be induced to get well and leave bed for his own precious daughter’s funeral, nothing would do the trick. And so Grandfather set to work making preparations, airing out what he judged Miss Lily’s prettiest dresses and searching through Mr. Burgess’ trunks for a photograph.
But Mr. Burgess could not be moved. He groaned and tried to shift positions in bed, which simply set off more waves of pain — perhaps that was what he wanted, to feel pain.
“Do whatever you want,” he finally growled, clenching half his teeth and baring the other half.
Grandfather shook his head. “But funeral is for Miss Lily,” he said.
Mr. Burgess managed to turn himself over and lay facing the wall, panting.
So it came to pass that Miss Lily’s last rites caused a great commotion and upheaval among the town’s residents. The British community was aghast at the handwritten “invitations” that turned up on their doorsteps, informing them in almost but not quite impeccable English that a wake would be held at the rest house — at the rest house! The note also begged their pardon and asked them to “please excuse the different pastor.” It was plain that the messages had been written by Mr. Burgess’ butler, and the thought that Mr. Burgess had slipped so far brought a fresh wave of visitors to his sick bed. To no avail did they try to dissuade him from entrusting everything to his butler, who was after all not of their kind. A few men and women even volunteered themselves, deigning to overstep the boundaries of convention for the sake of not having Mr. Burgess humiliate himself further. But he turned them all down.
Nothing yet prepared them, those who dressed up for the wake out of curiosity or some last shred of pity and respect, for the shocking spectacle awaiting at the rest house. For it was not at all the proper Christian rites due to an innocent girl taken in her prime by the Lord, who caused everything to happen for a reason. What greeted them was instead some kind of barbaric ritual, the rest house suffused with incense smoke and the toxic smell of things burning. Besides Grandfather, who was doing things the only way he knew how, there was a heretic dressed in yellow robes fussing with his silly hat in the corner. Wait — was he — was he putting on makeup?
Preposterous! Some of the guests turned on their heels and left immediately. Even sympathy had its limits, and God helped only those who helped themselves. Mr. Burgess was obviously a lost cause.
Bowing at everyone who walked in, Grandfather ignored the glares and mutterings directed at him, busying himself instead with various small tasks, something which was after all his job. He straightened and re-straightened the huge framed black-and-white of Miss Lily near the entrance, the first thing anyone would see when they entered, providing their eyes had adjusted to the clouds of noxious smoke. Miss Lily was not smiling in this picture. Her expression was mock serious, as if obeying a cameraman who had asked her to look dignified.
“It smells like an opium den in here,” whispered a woman to her husband, glancing meaningfully at Grandfather. “I dare say,” murmured the husband in response.
About half a dozen stayed on, because at the end of the day they could not entirely abandon Mr. Burgess; astray though he was, he was one of them. And of course there was the morbid need to see for themselves what would happen. At least they outnumbered the heretics who had hijacked the wake — perhaps they could even override the two? They could quickly nip back for a Bible, or dispatch someone—
But no such luck, for here came an entire village more of barbarians, bent on ferrying away the poor girl’s soul. A few of them were recognizable as rickshaw drivers or washerwomen whose services had previously been contracted, but for the most part the throng looked strange and yet oddly familiar, by dint of their resemblance to one another. They stuck fresh joss sticks in the incense pot, crowding it until it looked like an overused, horizontal archery target.
A coffin stretched out behind Miss Lily’s framed face. Someone had hung a garland of white and yellow flowers over the photograph, forming a second frame. Grandfather beckoned at the guests to come forward. But there were so many bodies squeezed into the space. The white people felt it would not do for them to rub shoulders with the newcomers, whom they gathered were hired mourners paid to stand in as Miss Lily’s family and friends. Disgraceful!
Eventually some kind of system was forged out of the chaos. The British watched in amazement as the disingenuous actors formed a single file and walked one by one around the coffin, anti-clockwise. In turn they each paused at the head of the box and peered down, presumably at an opening where Miss Lily’s beautiful face would be. But there was no body, was there? They never found her.
From a muted commotion among the hired mourners the British guests hazarded that the savages were–believe it or not — also shocked by the unconventionality of the wake. Indignant, the British traded hypotheses among themselves, growing pink with exertion. What, were made-up prayers and false gods too good for a white woman? They should know it was the other way around!
Then they, too, wended their way toward the coffin. Here the incense haze grew thicker. Someone sneezed. “God … !” said a Mrs. Maycock. She had meant to say “God bless you,” but once the first word was out she realized that she had not seen the sneezer, who could very well have been one of the heretics.
“Lord have mercy!” The first white person to reach the head of the coffin had stiffened back in horror. Mrs. Maycock, disregarding the measured shuffling of the anti-clockwise procession, pushed forward, looked down and gasped.
The coffin indeed had a viewing panel of sorts at the head, offering a neck-up look at the deceased. Except instead of a serene face, Mrs. Maycock was staring, upside down, at a different picture of Miss Lily, this time smiling broadly, and she would have looked like an angel had someone not coloured her stretched lips with a garish red, an amateur hand that barely stayed inside the lines. This picture was unframed, and at its bottom it was joined with the collar of a frilly white dress, smoothed out and laid flat.
“You!” Mrs. Maycock said, whirling around and almost pointing a finger at Grandfather.
He winced. “Makeup is tradition,” he explained apologetically. He knew his hand had been shaking. He was sorry; he felt sorry for everyone.
Mrs. Maycock wanted to pick it up with him further, but the decked-out heretic in the corner advanced forward with a dinging handbell, waving her and everyone else away from the coffin by flapping his robes.
There was a long, creepy pause as he made his eyes big and surveyed the crowd, seemingly looking into everyone’s eyes by turn. Then, without warning, stentorian streams of chants emerged from him, accompanied by spasmodic handbell rings. It must have sounded like a strange tongue to the outsiders, with its long plains of steady tones suddenly giving way to peaks of plaintive cries. The hired mourners got to work almost immediately, echoing parts of the voodoo sounds at intervals. A few of them had a different task, that of wailing insensibly and performing grief.
Nobody left, even though it was a truly eerie scene. After about twenty minutes of chanting and ringing, the mercenary mourners all got up and stood side by side in a line facing the coffin. At a gesture from the costumed man they all bowed to their waist as one. Whenever they bent their bodies, their heads and shoulders and backs gave way to Miss Lily’s unsmiling visage, revealing it to the spectators at the back of the room, only to obscure it again when they straightened. Reveal, obscure. Reveal, obscure. Three times they repeated this part of the ritual, and then, finally, quiet. One after another the hired mourners now silently lit stacks of paper on fire and dropped them into a wide but shallow metal basin.
“It looks like counterfeit money,” someone said in a hushed, awed voice.
Then came paper mache houses, cars, horses, even a pair of people, man and woman. The British guests gazed in heightened amazement as these, too, were set on fire in turn. “She must have loved the arts and crafts, bless her soul,” they said.
Fed by those offerings the fire blazed, shaking loose thick grey smoke that undulated upward to intertwine with incense clouds. Soon it formed a screen separating the living from the coffin.
Quite a show, some of the visitors would later say, as casually as they could. It was the talk of the town for months.
Grandfather told me this story four times, always when Mama was out dying her hair. I liked this story because Grandfather would slip into a kind of trance, delivering the narrative as if it had happened to someone else, or as if he were a stranger talking about Grandfather’s life. I could never tell if he was proud of what he had done. All but one time he went into a reverie after finishing the tale, staring fixedly at his creased palms, his head bowed by his hunched back. The time that was different he ended the story by saying that the haunting had stopped sixteen years ago, and that I could go see for myself at the rest house, still standing in the centre of town. Then he gave me a long look and asked if I wanted some ice cream.
Once at the dinner table I asked about my grandmother, who had died long before I was born. Was she pretty?
A silence expanded like a smoke bomb. After a while Grandfather smiled weakly at me. He leaned over and pinched my chin. And then he stared for a long time into my eyes, his irises two hard kernels. He looked like he wanted to say something important, but perhaps it was nothing more than another one of his entertaining stories. When his mouth finally moved, Mama made a loud sound, something between a cough and a grunt. Grandfather let go of my chin. I suppose he thought I was asking because I was insecure about my looks, especially my eyes. They are not like other people’s eyes, which are black and uncomplicated. My irises have two or three colours, depending on the position of the sun or other light source. They contain shades of brown, and sometimes they become like glass, fragile and watery. I hated them. I didn’t want to be different, a freak.
And now Grandfather has been gone for two years, and Mama more silent than ever. She no longer bothers dying her hair, which is naturally tainted with odd streaks of rust, as if her hair were just like real metal and required regular polishing.
I miss Grandfather. I often think about his stories– how intoxicating they were because they were forbidden, made taboo by Mama. But now that I am an adult I can do whatever I want. I told her I am going to England in a week, a trip made possible by my inheritance from Grandfather. She did not ask me the reason for my visit. But she did ask, “How far must you go?”
London is more than ten thousand kilometres away, I said.