by Michelle Chua
Growing up, my brother and I spent a large amount of time in the kitchen, at our dark wood dining table. We were often huddled on the tiled floor, beneath that heavy, square table—our spy headquarters. In our HQ, we were special agents at the centre of a world all our own. Some days, we were officers in our United Nations. In our world, everything was clear in its cause and effect, so much so that when my mother washed the kitchen floor, we the UN had to face the crisis of a natural disaster, obliterating all within its flow.
The table was also where my mother had given me Chinese spelling tests in my first year of primary school, before she had to take a job - and then two - to make ends meet.
Our spy games were among an entire repertoire of games my brother and I played, including ‘mountain climbing’ down the long hallway. (In those days, everyone chipped in with ideas for games we could play. They were the best we had, until our oldest cousin got a job with toy company Tomy and got us test-sample toys to play with, toys we cherished.)
A favourite game of mine was ‘Hamburger’. ‘Hamburger’ consisted of us taking turns to be sandwiched and then flattened between layers of pillows, bolsters and blankets on our bed. The grand finale was the ‘jailor’ jumping on top of the pile, squashing the ‘prisoner’, thus completing the ‘human hamburger’. This move was one we improvised from watching our favourite wrestler on TV's World Wrestling Federation: Randy the Macho Man Savage.
My other favourite game was ‘Airplane’, taught to me by my brother. Till today, the feeling of being lifted above ground with my weight supported by his feet on my hips, is unbeatable in joy and freedom. In those days, it was easy to trust. Trust was not just an exercise, a skill I had to teach myself or learn from someone else. Trust wasn’t second nature to us. Trust was our nature.
Together, my brother and I made things happen. In those hours, we were in control. Sadly, what I wanted most of all, that I could not control, was for Father never to come home again. For us never to have to run and hide away our toys, our imagination and our voices the minute we heard his keys at the front door.
My father’s life away from us demanded so much of him that when he did come home, he was not a man my brother and I liked being near. My mother knew this early on and did her best to warn us if she heard him at the door. We were like hares hiding for our small lives.
The stress of working two jobs took its toll on my mother, as did the constant worry of her husband returning home, displeased by his children playing too loudly or in a home too messy for his liking. In the day, my mother prepared and gave out free food samples in a supermarket to sell new products; at night, she embroidered, beaded, sewed and mended other people’s expensive clothes, bridal gowns and evening dresses into the wee hours as her children slept.
One day, this all proved too much for her.
My brother and I came home to find our mother crouched on the floor in the living room in tears. She looked like she had been crying all day, and instead of asking us to go into the kitchen for the green bean soup she made to cool us down, she took in her hand the thick, leather belt her husband once wore, the one with a buckle like a small fist. We wondered what we had done. All we knew was something was very wrong that day. And whatever it was, our mother thought that the only way to fix it was to teach us a lesson. It was only after close to thirty years that I realised how near to the brink she must had been that day.
As an eight-year-old girl, what I wanted more than anything else in the world, more than the latest toys, was something not even every single dollar my mother worked for on her feet and with her wrinkled hands could give us: a home where the rule that children should be seen and not heard could forever be broken. A chance to clean the slate and start life over. A home with no one standing at the door in anger. Just my mother in the kitchen washing the floor, a pot of green bean soup on the stove, and my brother and I, in our HQ, ready to save the world from yet another crisis, the one we would always solve.