KOUGAR - a novel by Shaz Johar
On Thursday, I saw that familiar face for the fourth time. It belonged to a fair man whose complexion was reddened by the sun. His sweat-soaked body made his pink shirt look like he'd got caught in the rain. The day before Thursday, he'd worn a dark purple shirt. It was a light gray shirt on Tuesday, and a greenishblue shirt on Monday. He was consistent with his choice of colour for trousers, though. I always saw him in long black slacks. Maybe he wore the same pair over and over. He entered the train at the Salak Selatan stop. His routine was unvarying every day. He would stand facing the window, with a pair of earphones plugged in, and admire the view outside. If he was bored, he’d close his eyes and try to sleep standing up, like a horse. But on that day, his routine was broken. He was standing up while reading a small English novel. I didn't know the title of the novel but the way his eyes followed the words told me it was the work of a very good writer. The train stopped at Chan Sow Lin, where a lot of the passengers got off. This would have given him a chance to sit down and rest his feet. I scooted a little in my seat to give space for him but he refused my generous offer. He kept standing, giving the seat to some other passenger. I indignantly took his refusal as an insult. He looked at me instantly, as if he'd read my mind. I hung my head in embarrassment. One second, two seconds, three seconds later I looked up and was relieved to see him looking the other way.
The train passed through a few stations. At Pudu, many passengers exited but he still chose to stand. Hang Tuah. The train stopped again. The carriage was now half-empty, providing him with a lot of seats but he chose not to take them. This happened in Plaza Rakyat, too. Once the train stopped at Masjid Jamek, I got off along with some other passengers and, just as I'd expected, he followed but casually dissolved into the busy crowd of people. He was gone. *** “Want to come to the fish spa with me after work?” asked Suraya as soon as I stepped into the office. I didn’t reply. I was focused on the digital clock on the computer screen. It was five minutes to nine. I got busy; no time to waste. The previous week I, and a few other colleagues, was called in to face the Big Boss to discuss the issue of tardiness and the frequent requests for sick leave among the employees. He wanted us to give a rational excuse before he issued warning letters. Only three warning letters would be issued before you had to clear your desk and leave. I had a lot of debts that I had to settle every month, and the time wasn't yet right for me to get another job in this uncertain economy. “Come on. Fish spa?” asked Suraya, again. I looked at her gleeful face and shook my head. “Why?” “It’s disgusting,” I lied. The truth was that I didn’t have as much money to pamper myself like I used to. I’d already spent a lot of last month's pay. Half my wage was spent on the seeminglyendless payments for my two-storey terrace house. The rest went to
groceries, bills, ASB savings and also my mother. The money I had left in my purse was chicken scratch. Yes, chicken scratch. “Oh, really? What about that ‘little fish’ that you feast your eyes on everyday in the train?” I smiled sheepishly. “He wore pink today! My God, he looked so cute!” “Gay!” My smile quickly dissolved. “So if a guy wears pink, he’s gay?” “That's right!” “You're wearing a blue shirt and black slacks. Does that mean you’re a dyke?” “I have three kids, how can I be a dyke!” Suraya raised her voice. “So, you want to go?” “It’s disgusting.” “Come on, it’s on me!” “OK,” I said. I cannot resist an offer when someone says the magic words ‘on me’. *** “Are you a lesbian?” asked Suraya as she observed the tiny fishes nibbling on the dry skin of her legs. “Yup, Suraya. I’m a lesbian. Will you be my girlfriend?” I asked, trying to control the ticklish feeling caused by the fishes. “How come you’re not married? Aren’t you 40?” “I’ve been asking myself the same question.”
“Your mother is fine with that?” “Maybe she’s tired of yelling.” “My mother told me that women find it hard to get pregnant if they marry late. After I had my second pregnancy, I understood what she meant.” “It’s different for different people. Mei Hua in our office lost her baby last month. She’s just 21.” “Don’t you want kids?” “Is this an interrogation room? Why are you asking me these questions? Which guy do you want to introduce me to?” “Abang Mat in Admin. He’s been divorced for some time now.” “Not him! He’s gay!” “What? He has two kids! Yes, he may be soft on the outside but he’s hard where it counts...” “But he’s still gay!” “What makes you say that?” “The whole office talked about it when he divorced. They say his wife caught him intimately chatting with a young man. You know, one of those 'little fish' types.” Suraya laughed. “Our office really knows how to make a good story. Those are just rumours. You believe them?” I shrugged. “Why don’t you marry him, then? You’re a divorcee yourself. You'd make a good couple. You'd get along swimmingly.”
“He’s sooo not my type.” “Mine neither.” I'd known Suraya since I first stepped into the office five years ago. She was promoted when I started there and I took the job that required me to clean up her leftovers. She was a very strict guru. She taught me how to be disciplined and focused when it came to work. “Be professional. Always.” she said every time I worked without due seriousness. The first couple of months, we treated each other like common colleagues. In the third month, she opened up a little to me. She suddenly talked to me in Malay instead of her usual English. In the fourth month, we went from being lunch partners to having dinner with people who were not from the office. In the months after that, I managed to tame the stern lioness that she was into a cute and cuddly kitten. A year went by and, without us realising it, we became best friends. Suraya had her first child over a year after we first met. She faced complications after seven months of pregnancy. After taking the doctor’s advice, given that she'd had a few miscarriages before this, she had a Caesarean delivery two months early. Her husband Imran was working in London and he arrived two days after she got out of hospital. Unfortunately, a week later, Imran had to leave the country again to resume the work he'd stopped when he left for Malaysia. Suraya was disappointed, but grateful that I kept her company every day. Over a year later, Suraya was blessed with a pair of identical twin girls. She was happy because, unlike before this, she didn’t face any complications during pregnancy. She celebrated the births
with thanksgiving gatherings for three days straight but on the fourth day, she had yet another problem. While she was walking to the bathroom, she noticed the blood on her marble floor. It was dripping from her vagina. She was terrified. A piercing pain spread from her body to her head. She passed out from the unbearable agony. When she came to, she found herself on a wheelchair in hospital, looking deathly pale. The doctor told her that she'd had a secondary postpartum haemorrhage. It was common for women who'd just given birth. However, the doctor wasn’t sure why her bleeding was so much worse than normal. After months of treatment, Suraya received terrible news. They'd discovered an infection in her womb and she needed immediate surgery. Suraya agreed. The surgery, however, would pretty much end her chances of ever getting pregnant again. Her mind reeled. She was depressed and confined herself to her house. As her best friend, I kept her company and tried to entertain her. Where was Imran? Working in Dubai, once again far away from his wife and kids. A year ago, Suraya told me something that any wife would dread. Imran had returned from a month in Italy with a new wife and a child in tow. Suraya had to agree to let the son be his heir. After a very chaotic discussion, they decided to end their marriage. She had been a single mother for a year come yesterday. I teased her sometimes, asking her whether she was looking for a man to replace her husband but she never replied. Maybe she was sick of love, or maybe she was comfortable with the way things were. I didn’t know.