Skip to content

The Girl Who Loves Prawn Mee

September 14, 2010

A story I wrote like maybe 4 years ago, post-MA delirium. I have since moved beyond such stories, but it was good therapy at that time.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Rash-inducing heat penetrated the windscreen and pierced her dermis, leaving behind a feeling of prickly itch. Jan Yee surveyed the cars on the lanes sandwiching her car. For an early Sunday afternoon, there were surprisingly very many cars on the road. Most drivers had a look of intensity and concentration in their faces. What is up with them, she wondered. But,she was as much in a hurry herself. They must be wondering the same thing about her. For her, it was about satisfying her craving for prawn noodles before going for her yoga class.

She could not quite remember where that restaurant was, since she had only been there once, about a year back. She had to depend on her instincts to guess at its exact location. No matter what, she must have prawn noodles for lunch. The shop she usually frequents did a very brisk business that morning due to the sudden increase of breakfast patrons and was already closing up by the time she got there. It was then that she remembered this restaurant a date had taken her to. She remembered that the prawn noodles there were not too bad, even if it was a tad pricier than her usual haunt.

Jan Yee had loved prawn noodles from the time she was a little girl. While growing up in Ipoh, she spent many of her school holidays at her maternal grandparents’ home, especially between the age of seven and ten. It was a double-storey house with a mansard roof, and a gable with an attic. The house held many old antiques; teak furniture, Ming vases, porcelain figurines, paper-and-clothe cherry blossoms, paintings done with Chinese ink, a grandfather clock with huge pendulums (to a child’s mind), Persian carpets and many other precious items. The house was never gloomy as there were huge bay windows that opened up into the bright sunlight. Jan Yee had spent many a happy afternoon, sitting on the long teak divan placed against the wall nearest to the windows in one side of the living-room, reading old children story books that had once belonged to her mother and her mother’s siblings, or drawing and colouring. Grandmother had put the books in a low-level glass-cabinet to make them more accessible to Jan Yee and her cousins. They were not only story books, but also various comic books, graphic novels, many of which were from England, as well as non-fiction titles. Jan Yee enjoyed pouring over girlie annuals such as Diana, empathizing with the heroines and their vicissitudes.

In her tenth year, her parents had to go away for eight weeks, as her father was sent by his company on a work assignment abroad. He was bringing along her mother so that they could make a holiday out of this trip. Jan Yee was their only child so it was decided then that Jan Yee should stay with her maternal grandparents since they were unable to accommodate her in this trip and her paternal grandparents were both dead. It so happened that the trip coincided with the year end school break, so there were no worries about having to send her to school everyday.

Jan Yee’s grandparents doted on her. They often took her out for dinner, to parks and for a drive around town to enjoy the sights. Back then, Ipoh had many unfurbished pre-war shop-houses, with old-fashion black and gold signages, reminiscent of turn of the twentieth-century Shanghai. On Sunday, they dutifully sent her to Sunday school at the church that Jan Yee and her parents attended, though they themselves did not attend, and picked her up when church service ended.

Among Jan Yee’s favourite treats were the prawn noodles her grandmother bought her for breakfast twice a week, for on the other days, she insisted that her grand-daughter had a more wholesome meal. Grandmother did not like her daughter to think that she had spoiled the child or kept her on an unhealthy diet. Jan Yee enjoyed the slippery yellow, noodles that swam in the hot, slightly spicy, reddish soup, together with chunks of pork slices, prawns, kang kung[1], bean sprouts and hard-boiled eggs. She used to wait eagerly for the “Prawn Noodles” man as he made his rounds, the bowl her grandmother gave her ready in hand, to dash out to him when he made his appearance on the street. She loved to watch him as he boiled the noodles with his ladle of wood that came attached with a small wired-basket at the end. She saw him swiftly picking at the required ingredients, and the steaming, prawn soup that he scooped out from the cauldron that was always boiling under the makeshift mobile stall.  No doubt, some of the reddishness and prawn flavour were induced by the addition of artificial paste and monosodium glutamate but that did not detract Jan Yee from her enjoyment and her grandmother often had to prevent her from lapping up all the soup.

Her parents would call thrice a week to check on her. Though she missed them dearly, she rather enjoyed the relative freedom at her grandparents to indulge in her imaginary world. Jan Yee was a dreamy child who preferred her own company to that of her peers. Her parents thought that her strong preference for solitude was too unhealthy for a child her age, and would often drag the reluctant child to various functions for her to meet other children. They were worried by the fact that she did not seem to have too many friends at school either, and that her schoolmates often picked on her for her dreaminess.

She had woken up a little later that Monday morning, as she had the night before been engrossed in reading a book of ghost-stories she found in a commode she discovered in the storeroom of the house. During brunch, her grandmother told her that she would have a playmate soon; a guest would be coming to stay. He was the son of her mother’s cousin who had married an American missionary when he came to Malaysia more than twenty years ago. The family had since moved back to the US but they had recently relocated to India and they thought that it would be good for their youngest son, the elder daughter having recently left for college, to come and get acquainted with the town of his mother’s childhood. His parents were not able to come now as they were busy setting up quarters in India. But they would come for him in six weeks.

Just before lunchtime, she saw her grandfather with the boy, whom he later introduced as her cousin, Oui Yong, otherwise known as Robin. He was older than she was by three years. She was tongue-tied during the introduction, being shy with strangers. He also looked a little apprehensive, but his eyes had a mischievous twinkle. She thought, despite his Adonis good looks, that he looked more like a pixie than a god. It might be because of his slight built. He was dressed in seersucker and khakis, a cap on his head.

During lunch, Jan Yee listened on as her grandparents conducted conversation with this strange, white, boy. It was weird to hear him called them “yi poh” and “yi gong”[2] , and he seemed able to speak Cantonese, though rather haltingly. With his cap off, and at a greater proximity, she could see that he wasn’t all that white. There was a hint of the Oriental in him; maybe it was the colour of his skin, or the shape of his face. She wasn’t sure.

Her grandmother, sensing that Jan Yee was feeling ill at ease, asked her to show her cousin around the house. Jan Yee lightened up slightly at that. Among the adults in her family, Jan Yee felt only her grandmother understood her and sympathized with her imaginary world. Her grandmother even told Jan Yee once that when she was a little girl, she had an imaginary friend but that she had to keep her friend a secret as her parents would not have approved of such flights of fancy. Traditional Chinese families are very strict with their daughters.

Jan Yee took her cousin around the house and showed him all her favourite spots, which she informed him she was willing to share with him. She was not amused when she saw him grinning, for she thought he was laughing secretly at her. Nonetheless, she showed him the commode in the store-room, containing all the old books she had recently discovered.

“I found this chest just last week. I came in here to look for some stuff, when I saw it,” she did not tell him that she would usually come in here to look for some old clothes and shoes belonging to her mother and her aunts to play dress up with.

“Do you often come into the store-room?” he looked around curiously.

“Sometimes.”

“Why?”

“Just to look-see.”

He opened each drawer and scanned the piles of paperbacks and hardbacks arranged neatly in them. Most of the paperbacks were extremely dog-eared or torn at the edges. Some even had covers that came off when picked up. The hardbacks looked sturdier, though their clothed covers bore signs of decay.

“Some of these books are meant for adults. Do your grandparents mind you reading them?”

“They don’t know. And please don’t tell them,” she finished somewhat defensively, not realizing that her grandmother already knew about her reading.

He smiled at her kindly, and she found that she liked his smile. It made him looked rather adorable. “Don’t worry. I have my own secrets.

She wondered what those secrets were.

“Why don’t we each take a book here and go to that arbour seat by the garden? Might help digest that superlative lunch we had just now,” he almost winked at her.

She smiled and nodded at him, though she had no idea what he meant by “arbour”.

After they’d settled down near the mango tree he picked (she had made up her mind to write down that new word in her little journal and to look it up the dictionary so that she would not appear stupid to this foreign cousin), they became engrossed in the novel they had each selected. Two hours later, the grandmother came by with some murukkus[3] and cranberry juice.

“This is really good. I’ve not tried it before,” as he munched on his third piece.

“Do you travel much?” she was curious about his family, whom she had never met.

“When I was much younger, yes, though I was too young to remember much of what I’d seen. By the time I was five, mom and dad had decided to settle back in Florida, dad’s homestate ‘coz he was offered a ministerial post. Then he went to work at a community college before getting into the textile business…which I think he is going to let his business partner run now. My big sister, Jill, just entered college, when they decided that they wanted to go back to mission work and that was how they ended up in India. I got shipped here ahead of them so that I wouldn’t get in their way as they make preparations over there. I don’t mind as I’ve never been to Malaysia before.”

“Won’t you…won’t you miss your friends?”

“I guess. But I think the two people I would missed most would be Luc and Luce. They’re twins and great friends of mine. Their father’s French and they were about to move back to France when my parents decided on India. Luc was much fun to be with, we spent many hours cycling about, jumping through small ravines, swam in a nearby creek….we also did a lot of skating. Luce usually joined in too. Best of all, the three of us would sometimes sit around and make up stories to scare each other. Or we would role-play. Luce makes the perfect princess.” For some unexplained reason, Jan Yee felt a pang.

“Was she pretty?”

“Just like a fairy. Very picturesque with her dark curls, violet eyes and cream-coloured skin. And she’s got the loveliest eyes I’ve ever seen. I would miss them terribly….”

“How old is she?”

“Oh, they’re my age. She’s the first girl I’ll say is sort of my girlfriend…”

Jan Yee discovered that Robin was very well-read, with a great love for old folk-tales. He promised to tell her some of them during the course of his stay. By dinner time, the two of them had become somewhat more comfortable with each other, though Jan Yee was still a little shy. At night, lying in bed, she thought of the beautiful Luce. She knew that she was no great beauty in any way, and nobody had ever called her pretty. She looked at herself in a mirror on the wall and could not discern any particular outstanding feature on her face, except perhaps for her pointed nose. Beyond that, she looked like any ordinary ten-year old Chinese girl. This was the first time she had seriously considered her looks.

The next few days were a period of discovery for the both of them. She discovered that he did not think her fancies silly and that he himself had a great gift of the imagination. He told her that he hoped to be writer when he grew up. She had not then thought of writing as a profession, though she had spent much time penning captions to the pictures she drew. He did not think it above him to play her games with her. She had introduced him to her favourite dish, and they would take turns to wait for the man as he came down the street on his motorcycle. The only difference was that he preferred mee hoon[4] to yellow slippery noodles. He too loved the soup, though he found it a little spicy. However, he disliked the bean sprouts and nothing could induce him to touch them. Jan Yee didn’t like them any better, but because she had taken their existence in the dish for granted, she ate them anyway.

While eating prawn noodles, they would sometimes play cats-cradle or a board game of checkers. He also taught her chess and found her a quick study. Sometimes, they would make up stories as they ate. She, thinking that he would be more familiar with the western stories she was so fond of reading, told him Malaysian folk-stories she had learnt in school, and had read in the school library. She also told him ghost stories that her friends had told her, as well as that gleaned from her readings. When they went to church together, many of kids looked at them in interest.

Jan Yee had passed the traffic lights and was wending her way into the suburb where the shop was located, if she had remembered the location correctly. There were now less cars going in the same direction as she was. As she drove on, she looked at all the sign boards on the left. She also read the various advertisements on the ubiquitous billboards. More housing developments were coming up.

It had been two years since she returned to Malaysia. Upon graduating from a university in Australia, she had worked over there for six years. Then, she came back to Malaysia to visit her father who was then ill, and had gotten herself a job at an international advertising agency here. She wanted a change of environment as well, especially after having broken off with her Aussie boyfriend of seven years. The other reason was because she wanted to write a book, a novel maybe, and the novel was to be based on her homeland.  She had written a number of short stories while working as a copywriter in Australia, and most had been well-received, earning her a modest reputation.

Yet, despite her small literary success, Jan Yee had kept mostly to stark realism. Her short stories mostly depicted an unforgiving society. As an adult, Jan Yee was practical and sociable, and knew how to manoeuvre her way around. She had lost the dreaminess of her childhood. Life had taught her that silk and gossamer were too unrealistic for the day-to-day. ________________________________________________________________________

Robin had been there for more than three weeks. It was a Saturday evening. The air was cool and the sun was beginning to set; it was also less humid than usual. They were talking of all things sundry, when they came to the secrets that they kept from their families.

“You said you had secrets, when you first came….” she began and trailed off.

“Hmmm?” his eyebrows rose. She thought that he looked adorably wicked.

“Erm…nothing…” she looked at her fingernails.

“Yes sweetheart. I remembered what I said when we were in that storeroom. I can’t tell you the secrets, or they wouldn’t be secrets anymore, would they?” he said quietly. Her breath caught when she heard him called her “sweetheart”. No one had ever called her that before, except her father when she was younger.

“You don’t tell anyone….at all?”

“Well….I’d told Luce a couple of them….but not all….” She could not explain the slight twinge of jealousy at the mention of Luce. But he had called her “sweetheart”. Still.

“Do you still keep in touch with Luce….and Luc?”

“Oh, I wrote them a few nights back. Just posted the letter.” So that was what he was doing when he disappeared for awhile.

Then, grandmother came to tell them to get ready as they were going out for dinner.

________________________________________________________________________

One afternoon, they were both up in her attic room, role-playing with the figurines grandmother had taken out of storage for them. The jalousies opened out to sunshine dappled across green fronds, providing shade for the room. As the ceiling was low, grandmother had put in a squat fan, which was now perched on a cheap, plywood chair bought for such purposes. Grandmother had said that these figurines were sent from Amsterdam by an artist friend of grandfather’s who was currently residing there. Grandfather didn’t think they were appropriate for setting out since they would be difficult to dust and clean, but he thought Jan Yee and Oui Yong might like to go through them. He always referred to Robin as Oui Yong.

“Jan…….” he looked at her. She liked the way he drawled out her name.

“Emmm…..” she was preoccupied with preparing some figurines for their next role.

“Marie-Antoinette and Louise are busy discussing their next banquet while the rest of the ministers are busy meeting about the current state of the country,” she said, looking up with satisfaction. They were both playing out the history leading to the French revolution. The two said historical figures were represented respectively by an elegantly dressed lady with pompadour, and a dandy with a pomade, stockings and heeled shoes. The figurines came with various changes of wardrobe, the miniature costumes representing the evolving fashion of Western Europe from the Middle Ages until the early part of the nineteenth century. There were not only clothes, but true-to-life accessories, including tiny wigs.

“And we call them the heads of State,” he said ironically, “Leave them for awhile, dear I would like to tell you something, about a dream I had last night, about the secrets I once mentioned. I’ve been thinking since you asked me that question. Perhaps I can tell you.”

She obediently dropped her game. He continued.

“I have psychic ability…..”

“You…..what?” she looked at him in surprise. She had looked up that word in a dictionary, though she was never entirely sure of its connotation.

“I think I have the gift of foresight. And they usually come in dreams. Most of the time, when we dream, that’s when I am just dreaming ordinary dreams, however clear the dream might seemed while I am dreaming it, they usually become a jumble of events that I could never put together when I wake up, or couldn’t quite figure out even while dreaming it. Sort of like a misty film reel…”

She nodded, curiosity piqued.

“I am not saying that psychic dreams would be as clear as colour TV. They are just different. Sometimes, even dreams that were revelations of sort come in metaphors…”

“Metaphors?”

“Metaphors are like symbolisms that represent a particular reality. You will find them aplenty in poems, like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, where the albatross around the neck of the mariner symbolized his burden of sin and guilt. Remember that poem I read to you a few days back?  Perhaps I should give you a Biblical example, since that would be easier to understand. Remember how Jesus told the rich man to give up everything in order to follow him? He didn’t mean that the rich man have to live in complete penury to be considered faithful. What he meant was that the rich man should place little importance on his material wealth, and be willing to sacrifice them, should he need to, just to follow Christ. Many of the prophets of old and Jesus usually spoke in metaphors. I always thought Paul was the plainest speaking of them all,” he smiled impishly at her. She grimaced at him.

“I’ve always had dreams that foretold something that would happen. Sometimes, it would be something that would happen in a week, sometimes, a month, or even up to a year later. Some of the dreams were never too clear about what the event was to be, but when that particular event happened, I would have a feeling of déjà vu. The events usually involved someone with whom I have a strong connection, spiritually or emotionally. Yesterday night, I had a dream. Actually I’ve had this dream before, a few months back. That was the first time I had dreamt it. In that dream, I saw myself walking in a rather strange looking place, but it was certainly somewhere in the tropics. I’d never seen that place before, except that there were lots of houses, and there was a row of shops. I was trying to look at the names on the boards or signs, but they were a blur. I saw myself walking in one direction. It was as if I knew where I was going, though I didn’t, actually.  You know how things are often fast-forwarded in dreams. Soon, I found myself standing in front of what looked like a restaurant. It looked like a Chinese restaurant, but I wasn’t sure since I didn’t see any Chinese-looking words. I walked up the steps. Nobody seemed to notice me particularly, and I saw what was inside. There were many people there. But as I was standing by the entrance, everyone suddenly melt away. They are there, but not there. Strange, I know. It was as if something, or someone, wanted me to focus on something. Sure enough, I saw a young woman, an adult woman, sitting on her own. She was wearing a yellow top with beige pants. She had shoulder length hair. I could not see her face. Just when she was about to turn her face to me, the dream vanished. I didn’t place much importance on it until I had the dream again yesterday. I still could not see her face. She was wearing the same clothes. But I had now ventured a step closer into the restaurant and was about to sit down when I saw another lone figure sitting by himself at another table. Then I woke up.”

She was looking at him so pensively that he felt sorry for her. He touched her cheek gently.

“Nevermind, my little one. It was just a dream. Let’s go back to our game…”

That night, she dreamt of the lady, but superimposed with a face that she had imagined it to be of. Luce’s face. But much older.

They continued in their games and camaraderie for another week. Then, Robin’s parents came and stayed for a few days. His father took them hiking near the limestone hills. Soon, it was time for the family to leave. On the day before he left, Robin presented her with a paper origami that looked like a prawn. He had done it himself, the night before, as he wanted to give her something by way of remembrance, since he did not know when they will meet again. He thought a prawn would be a fitting gift to the girl who loved prawn noodles, grinning as he said that. He promised to write whenever he could. They corresponded regularly, then less regularly, and then the correspondence petered off. She never saw him again.

_______________________________________________________________________

After much difficulty, she found the row of shops, with the restaurant. Her heart sank when she saw the crowd in the restaurant. Now service was going to be much slower. She debated on leaving, but decided to go in since she was already there.

After almost five minutes of waiting, they found a table for her. Not wanting to wait for the waiter to take forever to return, she quickly placed her order and settled back on the chair with a sigh of relief, glancing around. It was a tastefully decorated restaurant, done-up in old Peranakan[5] style. There were families everywhere, out for their Sunday lunch. Suddenly, she was aware of someone looking at her from a table nearby. She surreptitiously glanced at that direction and sure enough, a Caucasian man was looking at her with interest while eating a dish that looked like Mee Siam[6]. He is handsome in an androgynous way and deeply tanned. When their eyes met, she quickly looked in another direction before bending over the newspaper she had carried with her. She had not the time to read it this morning. Around fifteen minutes later, her prawn noodles arrived. She forgot about the man for awhile as she savoured the noodles. When she finished, fifteen minutes later, she noticed that the man was still sitting there, and was now drinking coffee. To her surprise, he looked up at her again, smiled, and came over so quickly that she did not realize it until he was standing in front of her.

“Pardon me, mademoiselle. My apologies for intruding on your Sunday lunch. Could you be so kind as to sign this?”

He held a book in front of her, opened to a page. She glanced down and saw a short story of hers that was published in an anthology a year back. She smiled at him and beckoned him to sit down.

“Where did you get this book?” she asked as she took out a pen. She froze. How did he know who she was? There were no pictures of hers published in the book. She was not profiled in any newspapers. Nor had she done any public readings.

“How did you know me?” she narrowed her eyes, looking at him suspiciously.

As if reading her mind, he smiled even more broadly.

“Let’s just say that a very dear friend had apprised me of you and your work. I didn’t know of it until recently, when he showed it to me. I bought this book when I was in London a few months ago and read it. I found your story quite good, the plot ingenious. Maybe you know this friend of mine. He said he is a cousin of yours. Robin Williamson.”

Something stirred in her mind. Robin? The companion during one childhood holiday at her grandparents, both whom had since departed this world and the old house sold. That well-kept memory resurfaced.

“Is he here? Wh….where… is he?”

His eyes, which she noticed was blue, clouded momentarily. He then took something out of a little satchel he was carrying. It was a white envelope. He looked at her and said solemnly

“First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Luc Dupère. I am sorry to tell you that Robin had passed away recently, a fortnight ago, because of cerebral haemorrhage. He knew he was going to die as he had this brain tumour for the past three years, though he was on remission for almost a year before he got worse. He told me that he had dreamt that I will be in Malaysia and that I am going to meet a young lady whom he had thought of for a long time, but was not able to meet. He gave me this letter to give her. He showed me a picture he had sketched of you. At first, I was going to do it but he’s a dear old friend and this is his final request before he passed on.” He passed her the letter and excused himself for a smoke to let her read in peace. She was still blushing slightly as she unsealed the envelope.

Dearest Jan,

This letter may take you by surprise and I hope you have not forgotten me, who was once your companion for six weeks. It is true that we have not met since. But, I will never forget that sweet child, now woman, especially when she has regularly visited me for the past three years. Remember that dream I told you about so long ago? I never got to see the woman’s face until two months ago, and finally, also the face of that lone man sitting at the next table. I saw the calendar hanging on the wall, not far from where you should now be sitting. The date is 27 March 20XX. Perhaps it is God’s way of telling me that my time is up.

I first came across your writings five years ago, when one of your short stories was published in the Literary Review. I searched the Internet for lists of your other writings and came across more. However, I was not able to uncover a single picture of you. Somehow, that did not matter, because I could see the way you looked from my mind’s eye, and from the picture you sent me years ago, which I still kept. You are now a lovely young woman.

Dear, though your stories are very good, you seemed to have neglected the gift that you showed yourself to possess as a child. I might have the gift of foresight, but you have a different gift, which is insight into human nature. You have not used another gift you that you have, which is the ability to elevate the mundane and bestial into the ethereal. Don’t neglect it, dear. With it, you can transcend beyond your current talents and weave yourself stories that would attain posterity. Of that I can assure you. You will succeed where I could not.

I love you.

Your destiny brought you this letter.

Forever yours,

Robin Oui Yong

She was shaking a little. She felt a lump in her throat and the same void she had felt when he left, years ago. She knew, instinctively, why he had not contacted her. She whipped around towards the cashier’s counter. She saw the calendar hanging on the wall just behind it, the date writ large.

27 March


[1] Water spinach.

[2] Chinese terms of familial reference that roughly translate to grandaunt and granduncle.

[3] Crispy brown-coloured Indian snack made of fried flour and specked with embedded black pepper.

[4] White, stiff noodles made of rice.

[5] Straits Chinese, many of whom came to Malaysia during the period of the Malaccan sultanate.

[6] Spicy Thai noodles.

Advertisements
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: