Across the street is a KFC. I see a lot of young people with motorbike helmets tucked under their arms go in there, pushing the glass doors inward and letting out a blast of air-conditioned air. I’m an old man now, so they say, but I still like to pay attention to what young people do, so that I can communicate with my grandchildren. My grandkids sure do like their KFC, although none of them are old enough to ride motorbikes yet. I’m not sure if I want to live long enough to hear about their first road accidents, actually. I know everyone has those; it’s part of growing up. But the way I see these youngsters weave in and out of traffic on their bikes. It worries me.
I pride myself on being much more open-minded than other men my age, really. The KFC, for one. I eat there sometimes, with my youngest daughter and her husband and children when they visit me. I can’t cook so much anymore, not like I used to. Tossing meat and vegetables in a wok the right way strains your wrist a lot. Besides, my daughter decided for me years ago that I hate cooking. She tells all her children the story of how I used to be a cook at the Rest House, where all the British civil servants liked to congregate and relax after work. She emphasizes how I could make pork chops and scones and all that English stuff, but could not pronounce the names of dishes “properly” because I was born in mainland China. She stresses this fact as if it were very important.
My daughter also uses that story to explain why she never cooks. She tells of how I always made her help out in the English kitchen, how terrible that was. Her story always ends with how happy she was when Merdeka was declared and the British left. I never knew she was that happy. She did not show it. Just a girl of five.
Anyways. I am a modern-minded old man, not like other men my age. For example, Ah Kao sitting across the table from me here. He has one leg up on the edge of his chair, twitching to some beat only he can hear. His once-white wife beater is pulled up to rest just under his nipples, exposing his Tiger-beer belly to the scant breeze. “It’s too hot,” he always complains. Whenever I tell him to stop exposing his crotch and put his leg down, he cackles and says: “At least I’m not wearing a sarong!”
Ah Kao has a good heart though. He’s just stubborn and set in his ways. His children and grandchildren don’t love him as much as mine do me. Another favourite topic of his is how his kin never visit him. I always tell him to try some KFC, just across the street from where we sit every day, but he always goes “Ahhhhhhh!” in an irritated tone and spits on the ground. He says air-con makes his skin itch. I say it’s because he doesn’t shower, and the others laugh. Our jokes repeat a lot, but I like it that way. There’s Ah Kao and me and Lao Ping and Mr. Yap. Sometimes Vasan takes a break from his roti canai stall and joins us.
“So, five ringgit today?” Lao Ping, ever eager, puts his hand in his pocket and asks. “I call five minutes past three!”
I look at the sky, thinking. It’s blue enough, but you can just see a tinge of black clouds in the direction of Ipoh, where the best chicken rice in Malaysia is. This is why I like sitting here every day with my friends. I can see the sky unobstructed, because there are no walls and no doors blocking my view, and Lao Ping’s cigarette smoke is carried away by the wind soon enough. I’m sure my grandchildren think roadside stalls are out of fashion, but if I am willing to eat at KFC, I’m sure they can tolerate the idea of me sitting in a big shed with an atap roof and wooden beams.
I look at the sky again. Then I look at the old clock hanging from a nail pounded high up on one of the wooden beams. That’s our official clock. Last year we had Mr. Yap’s son-in-law climb on top of two benches stacked together, with us holding the legs steady, so that he could hammer that nail in and hang the clock up. It was all because Ah Kao had cheated one day. Now we have an official clock that’s too high up for any of us to tamper with, and fair’s fair.
The clock says half past noon. I think about it a bit more, then take five ringgit out of my wallet: “Seven minutes before three.” Lao Ping gives me a look. I match it. Mr. Yap laughs. Lao Ping asks him if he’s putting money down or what.
We flag Vasan down the next time he’s passing by our table to bring some customers their plates of roti canai. “Betting again today?” He asks. Sure we are, we chorus. He laughs, nods and goes on his way. We can always count on him to be a fair judge, that Vasan.
It’s not even one o’clock. We have hours. Ah Kao had called half past three and Mr. Yap had said none today, a bold move on his part. So we sit on our benches, Ah Kao with his belly exposed again. My grandchildren always ask how I can sit for so long on those benches without backs. Doesn’t my spine hurt? I tell them that’s how I’ve always sat. My youngest daughter tells them to leave me. She tells them how lucky they are that they don’t have to stay on their feet all day in a hot, stuffy kitchen, making food for ghost people. I don’t want to be the kind of old man who says things like that, but I can’t stop her disciplining her own children, can I?
In our roadside stall we wait for the occasional breeze to shift our positions. Now and then we look at the sky. We have hours to go. The smell of fried oysters behind me jostles with the smell of grease from KFC. I like my spot, right here on this particular bench, because I can always choose which smell to take in. If I concentrate on fried oysters, the KFC smell goes away, and vice versa. I like that.
A strong breeze blows. The raintree right next to our table shudders and sheds a few leaves onto our table. One leaf falls into my milo kosong. I pick it out and let it drop its wet weight to the ground. This is what we get for moving our table so close to the edge of the stall, but Ah Kao always complains that it’s hot, so we do it every day unless it’s already raining by the time we arrive.
Almost half past two. We start paying more attention now, perusing the clouds, checking the visibility of Maxwell Hill on the horizon. Mr. Yap plucks a leaf off the raintree next to us and rubs his finger back and forth across its surface. He always says it’s his secret method and I always say “Just look at your track record, it obviously doesn’t work.” The others always laugh. We like our old jokes.
The glass doors of KFC open. The breeze has died down, so my bare thigh feels a slight hint of the air-con. Two white people come out, a man and a woman. I wonder why they’re here. The last white tourist I saw was years ago. It was a man alone with his very big backpack. See, there’s nothing to do here in Taiping. These two, they look like they are in their forties. They do not have yellow hair. One of the most common misconceptions of white people is that they all have yellow hair, while the truth is that most of them have brown hair. I know this because I used to work in the Rest House.
The white people stand outside the glass doors for a while, talking and blocking the way when a few other people try to get out of KFC. They apologize and move to the side. Suddenly the woman looks up and catches my eye. I shift my glance away quickly. When I next try to sneak a look at them, they are walking across the street, headed straight for our table. Mr. Yap and Lao Ping are arguing about something. They don’t notice. But I see that Ah Kao, too, is looking at them warily. I wish he would pull his wife beater down.
“Excuse me,” The man stops a foot away from the raised edge of the stall and asks. Having no walls can be a bad thing after all, I think to myself.
“Excuse me, could I ask you gentlemen a question?” The man tries again. My brain will not work, even though I have heard “Excuse me” plenty of times before.
“HALLO!” Ah Kao says. What is it about people raising their voices when they don’t know what they’re saying? I wish he would at least put his leg down.
“Hi there. Hello.” The man looks a little taken aback. “I was wondering if you knew the way to the jail?”
Lao Ping starts sniggering. He leans over and gives me a shove, speaking in Hokkien: “Eh, he’s talking to you!”
“He’s talking to all of us,” I point out.
“You’re the one who used to work for the ghost people, right?” He sniggers some more.
I look at Lao Ping’s face, and I don’t like what I see, so I turn to the man and say: “I know.”
“Great!” The man looks relieved. “How do we get there?”
I hesitate. The words come slow, but they come, and soon they are coming faster: “I know how you can go to jail, but why you want to go there?”
The woman chuckles a little. The man turns to her and smiles briefly before talking to me: “We’ve heard that it’s the oldest jail in Malaysia. Is that true?”
I tell them yes, and I tell them that we also have the oldest railway station, the oldest museum and the oldest zoo. I tell them everything used to happen here in Taiping. They have a little difficulty understanding me, but they nod a lot to make up for it. I tell them how to get to the jail. And then I tell them to buy an umbrella because it’s going to rain seven minutes before three. They laugh as if it were a joke, not a bettor’s instinct honed by years of sitting right here.
Ah Kao is jealous. I can see it. “What did you tell them?” He asks as soon as they start walking away.
I look at the clock. It’s almost ten minutes to three. “I told them it’s going to rain soon,” I look square into Ah Kao’s eyes and say. Mr. Yap laughs and Lao Ping calls me a traitor of my own people, jokingly.
“You’ll see,” I smile and say. I am confident that I will win the bet today. The rain will fall at exactly seven minutes to three. I will laugh and scoop up the money in the middle of the table. Ah Kao will try to guilt me into buying him a cup of teh tarik before we leave, and on my way home, I will buy my grandchildren fried chicken.
This short story first appeared in Issue 3 (May 2008) of Cha