Short Story The Other Mother
Patti never mentioned her own daughter. I realized she was a little broken too, like the rest of us. She had a tender point she hid from us, from me: the enemies.
They come in droves, buzzing in the wet air. They are soft, young things, their bodies half-formed, all ﬂeshy globes of baby fat and brown eyes. They smell of the sea: salt-licked and clean. They do not speak.
These domestic helpers, our bun mui , swim in these waters with naked, alien tongues, recite a fractured language not theirs. They sand down their mouths, cauterize the wound of conversation with woollen fear: No, ma’am. Yes, ma’am . Or transmit a mute, dazed shake of the head. They are afraid. Kailangan kong mabuhay. I must survive. I must. I.
In the day, they congregate in the kitchen, whispering and chopping scallions till their ﬁngers run raw; they glide over the floors and windows of our homes with mops, vacuum cleaners, eyes always on the next spill, the next distraction. They fetch our children from school. They drive our pearled cars, collect our packages, cut our fruit, dust our picture frames, rub our currency between their fingers, hoping that these exchanges—their lives for ours—will reveal its purpose in time.
Their evenings are radio noise mingling with gossipy steam. They are permitted to listen while preparing supper, an event that aligns fortuitously with a programme in their native language that is broadcast at six pm every day. But only for an hour. They sing the music of home as they sauté, slice and fry our dinners. They have skinny, naked voices, their singing a memory of another time.
Sometimes, the connection is lost. Static burrs the walls of the kitchen, and the hour is over.
We call them idiots when a plate is dropped, or a shoe misplaced.
Not idiots: Girls. Homesick women.
On Sundays, all along the bridge walkways of the city you ﬁnd them sweating in cardboard boxes, in makeshift eyries crammed with salty rice casseroles, magazines, photographs, shoes, chemically pastel-dyed prawn crackers, hair combs. Some of them sell books. Some of them write books. For all their muteness six days of the week, they are brighter on Sundays: They laugh-scream and chant and dance and push each other with their clammy palms, wanting to feel the space around them. Their cardboard archipelago of territory is minced ﬂat with clam juice, hair oil, footprints and rain.
Nobody goes home because home is work and work is home. I avoid these walkways, these bridges, these territories in the park. It makes me uncomfortable, so many women barricading themselves from their enemies, from us, from me. I think, I am not your enemy . But of course, I am.
I only had one bun mui growing up. Her name was Patti. She oiled her hair always in a fat, pastry-like braid down her back; she wore loose shirts and pants and weaved bamboo slippers favored by ancient Chinese herbalists.
When I was three years old, she learned to read and write English with me. “A?” she asked as I scrawled the dribbling red letter with my felt tip onto the page. I would nod, solidly. Then later, as she tucked me into bed, she would whisper stories in her own language, about the wild jungles in her dreams; inebriated sailors who ended up in another century; a red-striped tiger who could predict the future. She would swing my yellowed toys across my bed, make them tiptoe across my pillow. I would tug at her, clutching the hem of her cotton shirt, please please tell me more . And when she left the room, I’d lay still in the silence, the glow of her stories fading until I eventually fell asleep.
My parents started extending their time away from our home when I was six years old. “Business,” my father would mutter distractedly, pulling smooth the greased hairs on his head with his hand as his heels smacked against the marbled floors on his way out—Patti close behind, but not too close, with a yielding cloth to polish out these sudden ruptures, her warm knees on the surface like two boulders hugging. My mother, shortly after, would leave too, on her own misguided adventure.
I wasn’t afraid of typhoons, but I pretended to be. Sometimes the wind would come snarling through the window cracks, the rain a steady silvery frying sound. And the whips of thunder. Patti slept in my room those nights, often settling herself on the floor before I had even brushed my teeth.
“Ready for story?” she would ask, closing the blinds hurriedly before the next shock of white blinded the sky.
School was often cancelled in these storms. I’d watch television and drink Milo; Patti in the background, cleaning, buffing, always.
Once, I passed out asleep on the sofa, and Patti picked me up. When she tried to lay me down in my bed, I woke, eyes seamed shut, scrabbling, and in my confusion placed my hands on her chest, as if to weave myself into her body. It startled her. She dropped me and plucked at her shirt, ballooning the fabric to hide her breasts. I saw her discomfort, made visible by the red maps spreading over her cheeks, but found it nothing more than a curiosity, ceding once more to the heavy flow of sleep.
Later, I found the first bright stain in my shorts and felt the prickling swell of my own chest. At this numbness twinned with shame and confusion, I understood Patti had not felt autonomy over her body, or her self. Yet I refused to further burrow into the past, preferring instead the holes in memory.
When I was ten years old, my mother unexpectedly threw me a birthday party. The last one, she said, as if there had been others. I spent an uncomfortable day at the salon, a stranger arranging my strands into stiff meringue peaks. Five minutes before guests arrived at our ﬂat, mother applied lipstick in rouge bows, then dabbed my lips with the red too. She kissed me, lightly.
“Big girl,” she smiled glassily.
Patti was manic. She reﬁlled dishes of food and poured drinks, shooed children out of my parents’ bedroom while the adults drank bitter plum wine and crashed jade mah-jong pieces in the living room. The silver doilies on the table refracted light onto the ceiling. I sat in the corner in my dress and my hair and a smear of lipstick. I had no friends.
Hours after everyone left and I had been put to bed, I awoke with a moth in my throat. A thirst that itched. Too much cake or too much birthday.
I went to the kitchen. Patti was sitting very still and upright in a chair, her eyes shut. I could hear my mother talking on the phone in another room. I poured myself water and, as I was drinking, Patti began to stir.
“Do you want to see a picture?” she asked me. Her English was almost ﬂuent by then—she had adopted my British inﬂections, which I in turn had adopted from my British school teacher. She slipped out a photograph from her trouser pocket. It was a booth strip; three over-exposed images. A little girl smiled at me, eyes and hair dark. In the last image, her eyes were crossed, a wandering pupil reaching one direction while the other pointed away.
“That’s my daughter,” Patti said.
I blurted out, “How old is she?”
I was embarrassed then. I had never seen Patti before as her own person. Within my closed halo of youth I saw her as family, someone to entertain me and be there for me, and to love me. I was her child without being her child.
“Ten years old. The same age as you.”
Patti glanced away brieﬂy then and smiled. She never mentioned her daughter after that. It was later I realized that she was a little broken too, like the rest of us, and that she had a tender point that she hid from us, from me: the enemies.
On Sundays, she would go to those walkways. She’d call out: I’m going! and then she’d be gone, in her wake my mother, moving slowly out of her bedroom, clutching her silk dressing gown around her.
But she’d always come back to make us dinner. On Sundays, we had ﬁsh. Patti would serve us, placing steamed towels on the table for us to wipe our hands, and then hide in her room to wait for us to ﬁnish. Sometimes I’d get up during the meal and go to the bathroom, which was wall to wall with Patti’s room. I’d hear her singing, dimly, her voice as high as an oriole’s, and I’d wonder what she’d seen, who she’d talked to that day.
When I was twelve, we moved: Me, my mother, and Patti. It was the start of a new school term, a hot September still recovering from the ﬂustered boil of August. My parents had separated that summer. We were looking for a smaller place, something more central and closer to school. We spent endless weekend afternoons looking at ﬂats that were identical in shape and size. This was back in the seventies; colors of lavender and ecru were favored, as were Venetian blinds and leather sofas that resisted with soft plosive noises when you sat on them.
My mother would always ask these questions in succession: “So where is the master bedroom?’ “And my child’s room?” “And the kitchen?” “Anything else?” Although she never speciﬁcally said “maid’s room,” the estate agent would always know where to direct our attention after the kitchen.
“And here is the bun mui ’s room.”
It was the same in all the ﬂats. A sliding panel revealing a rectangular living space, the false ceiling miserably low. There would be a bed pushed right up against the four walls, sometimes the blanket neatly tucked in the narrow gap between bed and wall. In rare cases, there was either a small bedside table at the foot of the bed or a window. But most often not.
The possessions in those rooms were sparse and odd, as if they belonged to human birds who hoarded small nesting things: a bright shiny pin, a button, two inches of sellotape hanging off the bedpost. A nest without a window; a nest without a sun.
Twenty years later, when I was looking for a ﬂat of my own, it finally dawned on me that these rooms were formerly cupboards, traditionally used for butter and milk before the invention of fridges. Now, they stored women.
As a child, the times when I did go into the kitchen to fetch a glass of water or wash my hands, I always saw the sliding door. I knew it led to another place. There, my thoughts ended: Where or what was behind that door was not the concern of a child who had not ever needed to earn the attention of the woman who slept there. I would see Patti disappearing through a gap, making sure to tightly pull her barricade back into place after. This is where she—my other mother—had lived in our ﬂat: a cupboard.
When I was young, I often, perhaps deliberately, forgot that Patti was paid for her services—that every glass of milk, every bath she ran or coloring pencil she sharpened for me was not for me: She was clocking hours, and clocking hours meant a thin envelope of cash at the end of the month, and the thin envelope of cash meant her own daughter and family wouldn’t drown. She had her own story; her own body.
When I was thirteen, Patti told my mother she had to go back home to look after her ailing father and the next day I was standing in the kitchen, making my own dinner.
She never returned home to me. A year after she left, I found out, through eavesdropping on my mother, that Patti was back in Hong Kong and with another family. Another little girl; another job. My mother was furious. Patti had become the enemy. We fed her , mother would say to her sympathetic friends. She lived in our home; we gave her hot water and electricity.
I could not reach her—I had known nothing and would continue to know nothing. I thought about her. Sometimes. Not as often as I should have. When I was fifteen, I was sent to boarding school and life became an endless routine of uniforms, alarms, laundry and self-sufficiency.
Patti died ﬁve years ago. I heard from a friend whose bun mui was Patti’s friend. By that time, I already had Adam and another on the way. My second child was difficult, clingy. Her growth was a messy protest, a cry: don’t abandon me don’t abandon me don’t abandon me . My own mother rubbed my belly and fed Adam candied ginger. It seemed that late in life, she had finally found her way to love another.
We never talked about Patti.
It was hard to explain to my mother—she who had never tucked me into bed, never sang me a song, or read me a book—why I stayed in bed for days on end, why eating offended my body, why I stopped talking to my friends. I tried Zoloft and Prozac, cramming my empty body with drugs that swam around the problem.
But I knew I could only heal by reaching into my childhood and looking over memories, now so soiled with the truth and my wretched inaccessibility to this woman. I would make them selfishly pure again: Patti tucking me into my bed. Patti making me breakfast. Patti waiting for me by the school gates. Patti scolding me when I made a mess. Patti comforting me when I cried, when I had a nightmare.
My mother tries to invade those childhood memories too late, perforating the pictures with her lipsticked smiles. Remember you used to love this fruit? She ﬂips through photo albums, tapping at photos where she’s squeezing me, brushing a damp curl off my cheek, feeding me fat watery lychees.
Perhaps she does not remember her choice—Patti’s life traded for her one—or has chosen to rewrite my childhood, just as I have. But the clues are there: my mother’s stiff smile, her ﬁngers pushing the fruit into my lips, my baby eyes glazed with confusion, staring not at the person gripping me, but longingly at the woman with the camera, who was fussing the lens so the focus was just right.