The Cheekovit by HM Aziz
The child is eavesdropping on her parents again. She’s seated cross-legged under the dining table, monitoring the situation in the kitchen.
That’s her father pounding onions and chillies for a sambal. Her mother goes TUK-TUK-TUK, TUK-TUK-TUK, TUK-TUK-TUK. Like it’s actually work.
‘Mama, get me some limes.’
‘They’re right next to you, KJ.’
The child’s mother has always called the father KJ. The father used to call the mother Marie, but he’s started calling her Mama. This is one of the mysteries the child is trying to solve.
‘Cut the limes, Mama, and don’t forget the pips. Then toast the belacan. Try not to burn it like you did last time.’
Marie says she can’t think straight when KJ’s in the kitchen. Fortunately he only goes there when he’s in the mood for tongue. He slipped off to the market this morning and returned with a beauty, a real beauty. The child refuses to eat tongue. She can’t. Not after what KJ told her.
The first time he brought a tongue home, she found him in the kitchen, standing over the pressure cooker. The lid was off and he was flapping steam to his face with quick, greedy gestures.
‘Come see the biggest tongue in the world,’ he called when he noticed her watching him from the doorway. She sidled in.
‘One, two, three, lift off!’ They peered into the pot together.
It was lying on its side, thicker than her arm and humped in the middle, as if caught mid-chew. ‘Is that the top?’ she asked, pointing to a stretch of white velcro that looked like her tongue first thing in the morning.
She sniffed. Meat perfume.
‘Yummy eh? Came from a cow.’
‘Did the cow mind?’
‘The cow was in heaven when she gave us her tongue.’
‘So it’s a present?’
‘Sort of. Her last words were, “I really hope you enjoy this.”’
‘Because you can’t talk without a tongue.’
The child saw the cow chomping grass, curving her plump tongue around a fresh tuft, never guessing that other tongues would taste hers, that other teeth would bite it to bits.
She thought of not being able to say anything. Ever.
‘Let me down Papa!’
‘Are you afraid Ham? It can’t hurt you.’
Grownups said such strange things.
The air is a giant’s fart. Mama is probably holding belacan over the gas ring. Not actually holding it, of course. It’s stuck on a fork she’s turning over the flame.
Ham doesn’t understand why Papa loves belacan. It smells kind of interesting, but only the way your own farts smell interesting. It looks a lot like dark poo. Mama says that’s because it’s made from dried prawns that have gone a bit off.
She bends to inhale the front of her t-shirt. Belacan all the way.
The smell from the kitchen is changing. There’s a metallic edge to the farts. The dark brown wedge is turning grey, is even, perhaps, catching fire as the fork plays hide-and-seek with the flame.
‘Stop, Mama, that’s enough!’
The stove clicks off. Papa has flicked the belacan into the mortar. She can hear him squelching it into the onions and chillies.
‘Done!’ crows Papa. He comes through the doorway, sarong swishing around his ankles. She flinches as he plonks the mortar on the table, just above her head.
‘Come out Ham. You don’t know what you’re missing!’
He swishes back to the kitchen. When he returns, his feet come to the edge of the table, and pause. A hand appears with a plate covered in slices of soft, bruised flesh.
‘See, it doesn’t even look like a tongue.’
‘But it is, Papa! It is!’
‘I hope you’re reading down there,’ calls Mama from the kitchen.
Ham tries for an ambiguous ‘Uh!’. She’d like to forget the uncanny time when the dining table was also the DINING TABLE, and Mama stuck bits of paper on almost everything. CHAIR. DOOR. FLOOR. LAMP. BED. The labels came off after a while because Mama used boiled rice as glue. Now Ham’s older, Mama reads to her every night from Ham’s favourite book, What? When? Where? How? Why?.
‘Yum, yummy, yum!’ Papa screeches a chair out and harrumphs down. Ham moves to his end of the table to examine his toes. Mama says Ham’s big toes are like Papa’s. Mama also says Papa’s a crook. She used to say it with a smile. Ham lines her toes up against Papa’s and tries to decide, once and for all, if her toes look like the crook’s toes.
‘What’s this KJ?’
Mama’s pulling a pink plastic bag from behind Papa’s briefcase.
Krak. Kraak. Kraaak. Papa must be scraping the last streaks of red from the sides of the mortar to spread on some tongue.
‘This, what’s this?’ Mama’s feet move closer.
Papa keeps chewing, squish-squashing past Mama’s question.
Mama rustles the bag open. ‘There’s a present here.’
Ham sticks her head out and sees a boxy something covered in yellow wrapping paper with small pink balloons. A tiny card is dangling over the side on a strand of pink. Mama catches it and turns it over.
‘It’s for Ham?’
The child lurches to her feet. ‘Can I open it now?’
Mama twiddles the pink string between thumb and forefinger. The card twirls faster and faster. ’Why is Cindy giving Ham a present? They’ve never even met.’
Ham’s toes creep under her feet. ‘Why didn’t you give me my present Papa?’
Papa stabs a slice of tongue and flips the fork so the tongue hangs from the prongs. ‘Sorry, I forgot.’
‘So I can open it now? Please?’
‘KJ?’ Mama says. ‘KJ?’ The present is back in the plastic bag and Mama is swinging the bag in front of her, tick-tocking it on her fingers like Grandma’s clock.
Papa puts down his fork. He’s looking at Mama, looking at the bag, looking as if he’s waiting for the tick-tocking to stop.
‘Well?’ says Mama.
‘Ding dong bell, pussy in the well,’ replies Papa in a cheerful singsong. Ham stares at him. Doesn’t he know Mama’s angry? Why is –
Papa’s on his feet holding the plate of tongue, and suddenly Mama is standing over Ham, making a cave for her, covering her ears as the floor explodes.
’Go to your room and close the door,’ Mama whispers. Then, more loudly, ‘Be careful of the broken pieces.’
They’re doing it again. They’re shouting at each other even though they’re in the same room. Do they want her to hear them?
She goes to her little desk and opens her drawing pad. She will write the important words, the words that sound like kicks or punches.
How DER she the CHEEKOVIT
YUR mad U U U
Mama’s voice cracks at the last ‘You’. Silence, then footsteps. The door to Mama-Papa’s room opens and shuts. Ham waits for the lock to turn. When she looks down there’s a hole in the paper and the point of her pencil is missing.
Night is melting her room into monsters. Her feet scrabble against each other, scratching mosquito bites. She wants to switch on the light, the fan. She can if she drags her chair to the wall, but she feels like something that has never moved.
Papa’s in the kitchen, smashing more plates. She thinks she knows why. She does it too sometimes, but not with plates. It’s like when a splotch spoils your painting, and you feel so fed up you can’t help making it worse.
The front door bangs her hands to her ears. She keeps them there. The tyres will be next.
She wants to go to Mama, but can’t. Not yet. There are bits of her all over the room. When they return, she grips the sides of her desk and pushes herself up.
The corridor is dark, smoky dark. She lets the wall lead her to Mama-Papa’s door and pulls down on the handle. Still locked. ‘Mama!’ she cries, palms on door. Palms hitting door.
She stops and presses her ear to the wood.
‘Ham, can you hear me?’
‘Mama isn’t feeling well.’
Mama’s right behind the door so why won’t she open it?
‘I’m going to bed early. Don’t forget to brush your teeth. Don’t go near the dining room and kitchen. D’you hear me? Don’t go there. What did I say?’
‘Don’t go near the dining room and kitchen. Are you OK?’
‘Be a good girl and go to bed now.’ It comes out in a gasp.
The child lies in the dark thinking about presents. The real difference between a good present and a bad present isn’t what’s in it. That’s for sure. She fingers the knobbly corner of her pillow. She hopes Mama’s forgotten about the present. She doesn’t want it anyway, not if it’s going to make Mama and Papa quarrel.
Later that night she opens her eyes and sees someone standing at the foot of her bed. She squeezes her eyes shut. Waits. Tries again. It’s still there, tall, shadowy, still. So still.
It’s Papa. It must be. ‘Papa! Papa!’ she rasps. The weight of its gaze shuts her eyes. She stops breathing and counts to ten, then adds another ten, just in case. Gone.
Papa has never looked at her like that. Not even when she said something which reminded Mama of the old word for babies.
‘Papa, I think the people in your office must be very lazy.’
‘Because you have to stay late to finish their work.’
‘Out of the mouths of babes,’ said Mama quietly.
Papa laughed too loud and too long. When he saw Ham’s smile warp, he put his arm around her and said, ’You’re too bloody clever, like your mother.’
No, he’d never stared at her as if he was making up his mind to hurt her, and that made him sad, and he was going to do it anyway.
The taxi is juddering in the heat. Mama’s shoulders were shaking like that as she knelt in front of her big grey suitcase and packed.
Ham touches the panel where the taxi driver’s name and address have been painted in stiff black letters. She yelps. It’s iron hot.
She watches the driver carry Mama’s suitcase down the steps and wonders if he noticed Mama’s red eyes. She hopes he doesn’t say anything. People who stop crying can start again quite suddenly if you ask questions or try to be kind.
Mama opens the back door of the taxi. Ham climbs in and moves across the divider to make room for Mama. The liver-brown seat burns her thighs. She stuffs her hands under them. They’re slippery with sweat.
Mama clangs the door shut. The back of the taxi bounces as the driver loads the boot, and heaves again as he slams it shut.
‘Where ah, Aunty? Dispatch only say near Ulu Klang.’ The driver has turned to look at them. Ham loves the way his hair lies plastered to his scalp in neat comb tracks. She knows he likes combing it. The top of his comb is sticking out of his shirt pocket.
Mama’s voice sounds clogged. Ham bends to count the squares in the waffle car mat. She wishes Mama would too. Papa might not like it if he drove up and saw them leaving. She reaches twenty-eight before a pothole spoils everything and she loses her place. She feels like vomiting. She wants to hold Mama’s hand but Mama’s hands are on her handbag, so she reaches for a dark patch on the seat instead. Someone has tried to mend a tear. Mama has something like it on her tummy. It’s where they cut Mama open so Baby Ham could get out. Mama says it didn’t hurt, not really, but Ham finds that hard to believe. She soothes the jagged stitches with her fingertips, there now, there now, you’ll –
‘If someone asks you who you want to live with –’
Ham snatches her hand from the stitches. ‘Who will ask me?’
‘Who’s the judge?’
‘The person who decides.’
‘Because Mama and Papa will live in different houses. The judge will ask you to choose. He’ll say, “Ham, do you want to live with Mama or Papa?”. What will you say, Ham? Mama? Or Papa?’
‘With you, Mama, with you.’
Mama sits up. ‘It will be fun at Grandma’s. There are lots of children down her street.’
Ham nods. She wants to ask Mama why Mama and Papa wanted her in the first place. She wants to know what the game is about. That’s the first thing you should tell anyone who joins a new game.
Mama looks out of the window, but her hand reaches for Ham. Ham presses it to her face. Mama sighs.
’Who do you really want to stay with? Don’t worry about making Mama sad or Papa sad. Just say who you really want to stay with.’
‘With you, Mama.’
Mama’s hand slips away. ‘Pretend Mama isn’t here. Pretend you’re alone with the judge. Who do you want to stay with, Mama or Papa?’
Why does Mama keep asking her the same question? What would happen if she said ‘Papa’?
They’re passing a police station with blue and white flower pots, blue, white, blue, white, in a neat line behind a wire fence. The flower pots look happy. They look as if they know what, when, where, how, why. Especially why.
‘Papa?’ Mama hunches against the door, twitching like something inside her has come loose.
‘I meant you, Mama, really I meant you. I was looking at the flower pots and they… they tricked me.’
The child flings herself at the crumpled body and buries her face in Mama’s tummy. Mama’s hand is stroking her head. The child stays there, the taste of blood and the sharp edges of broken things in her mouth.
HM Aziz grew up in Kuala Lumpur where she attended a school founded by doughty Plymouth Brethren missionaries. She is a recent graduate of City, University of London’s MA in creative nonfiction.