I woke up with a start. I often did. More often than not because I had trouble sleeping. I generally don’t fall asleep till 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. And then I sleep too late into the morning. I dragged myself out of bed. The house was still as it always was by the time I awoke. The children were at school and my wife, at work. Despite her numerous complaints about my ineptitude as a suitable husband, she did what she had to for me. I couldn’t complain. My breakfast, though cold, was laid out on the table and the paper was left beside it. I picked up the paper as I walked into the kitchen to make myself some coffee. I always looked at the obituaries first.
Thankfully I didn’t have to rush off to an office somewhere. I had inherited S.S.R.Printing from my father. It was well known in his time among people who wanted their invitation cards, business cards and fliers printed. Now I rode on the foundation that my father laid and live reasonably well. But I don’t think there will be much for my son to ride on as I don’t work very hard. This was one of my wife’s complaints about her life with me, among other things. It isn’t that I am lazy, as she says I am. I just have no interest in the business. I never did. I wanted to be an artist. I loved painting. And, I could have been good at it if only my father had stayed in my life. But he chose not to and I resented him for that. And I chose to carry that resentment with me, even now. I blamed my father for the cloud that constantly hung over my head.
My father left my mother and me one rainy morning. I know; the rainy morning sounds cliché. But it was a rainy day. I remember the steady drumming of the rain on the roof of our verandah as I stood in the empty, cold dining room, wondering where my father was. I had woken up to go to school and it would usually be my father who would get breakfast for me and drive me to school. But that morning, there was no one around when I came out of my room dressed for school. He had left a note on the dining table under my plate of toast and eggs. “It simply read, “Take care of yourself, son. Work hard in school. Your education will help you in your life. Take care of your mother. She needs you.” I was about twelve years old then. I didn’t quite understand what he meant. I thought perhaps he had taken a trip somewhere. I was confused. But a sick feeling churned in my stomach and I remember sitting down in front of the food which was cold. I didn’t touch it. I had no idea how to get to school. I had never had to get to school by myself. My father had always been there. I simply sat and waited.
A couple of hours later my mother came out of the room, her hair disheveled and her eyes still swollen from a lack of sleep, or perhaps too much sleep. She stared at me like I was a stranger. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you go to school?” she asked as she reached out for the newspaper left on the shelf outside her room, walking slowly towards me and not particularly interested in my answer. My father had even done that, left the paper where he had always left it for my mother. I stared at my mother and handed her the note. She glanced at it without taking it, her eyes still scanning the front page of the newspaper. “What is that?” I just continued to hold it out to her. She took it from me and I will never forget the way her expression changed gradually and slowly, from disinterest to bewilderment. She continued to stare at the note and it seemed like an eternity before she snapped,” Where’s your father?” I just stared at her. She stared back and shook her head, tears pooling in her eyes. I had never seen my mother cry. But then again that was the only day I saw her cry. Later I realized that those tears had been tears of desperation for her future and not quite sadness. She walked quickly and randomly around the house calling out for my father, “Samy! Samy! Where are you? Don’t play games with me,” The silence that responded agitated her. Her voice rose to a shriek and by now my heart was thumping. My confusion had turned to fear. “Had something happened to my father? Did my mother know something?”
Then the vitriol and the venom spewed. I had never heard my mother call my father all those names, names that my father had told me never to utter. But they spewed from my mother like they were welling from a cesspool within her. I sat electrified, speechless. Until that moment, I had assumed that father’s absence was temporary, odd but temporary. It was odd because my father would never go anywhere without saying something to me even if it was just, “Will be back soon, son.” Until that moment, I was the center of my father’s world. He had always doted on me, from the day I was born. And now, without warning, I was cast out and I didn’t know where I was anymore. I just sat watching my mother who was seething. She hurriedly got dressed and grabbed me by my hand. I was still in my school uniform. My feeble protests about school and missed quizzes fell on dismissive ears. “Getting your father back is more important,’ snapped my mother.
My mother seemed to have an idea of where to look for him. It was like he had told her that if he ever went missing she should look in the homes of certain people. Her search for him seemed to be purposeful. She went from one home to another with the same grim determined look on her face. I was surprised by the different people she met. I had not known that my father had so many friends and relatives. I had never seen them before. And, I wondered when my father had met them because when he was with us, he spent all his time either at the shop or with me or at home. I realized that these were friends and relatives had been a part of my father’s life before he had married my mother. The hostile and frosty reception in many of those homes especially the relatives’ homes, led me to believe that my mother had had a strong hand in deciding who should be in my father’s life. And so, she didn’t get much help. In fact, many were openly rude and asked her to leave. Some seemed to have a smile for me despite their open contempt for her. I was in a daze. I did not know these people and I did not quite understand the connection between them and my parents. I merely stared back.
My mother continued to show no signs of sadness or despair. She was just furious. I watched her with wonder tinged with anxiety as I had never seen that side of her. When my father had been around, she had been playful and in many ways not like a parent. What I had never noticed when my father had been around was that he had done everything for me, for the home and actually for her too. It was my father who got me my meals, and ensured that I went to school on time and did my homework. It was my father who came to my school to meet my teachers if they needed to see a parent. In short, it was my father who acted like the parent. My mother was an acquaintance who came around when she had a spare moment, just for a laugh and it was after my father left that I discovered what it was like to have a parent or, actually, to have no parents.
At that time, I did not know where my father had gone. All I knew was that he had left my mother and me and that my mother hated him for it and I grew to hate him. Strangely, it was after my father left that I really got to know my mother. In the early days, I accepted her as my mother. As I grew older, I accepted her as a difficult person to love and to live with. Simply put, my mother was not cut out for mundane bonds like husband and child. But like a child that resisted adulthood, she demanded a great deal. The fact that I had to suffer the brunt of my mother’s impetuosity fueled my anger against my father.
I learned as the years went by through talk and gossip that my parents had met at a neighborhood beauty contest in which my mother had been a participant and my father, one of the judges. Apparently, my father was smitten by my mother who was the prettiest girl in his neighborhood. My mother who had won the contest had with stars in her eyes, cherished dreams of shining on bigger and greater platforms and perhaps even catching the eye of a movie director or something like that. What she had not realized was that her good looks were not impressive enough to win contests outside the little town in which she lived. The town was so little the postman worked out of his home and handed you your letters out of his window when you walked past. My father would laughingly say that it was an “is was” town. If you were driving past the town, even before you could completely say, “This is the town of…” you would have to quickly correct yourself to say, “That was the town of…” What my father did not include in his stories about his little town was that he had been a much married man when he had met my mother and had left the little “is was” town and his family hastily and stealthily with my mother when she had become pregnant with me but he had never married her. My mother was his mistress and I was the son of his mistress.
I discovered all of this as I was growing up, during my mother’s frequent angry outbursts after my father had left. “Went back to that hag, I know!” she would snap, out of the blue, disconcerting me as I tried to do my homework on the dining table after a dismal dinner of instant noodles. My mother had never been much of a cook or housekeeper. Most days we managed with instant noodles. Some days when she was in the mood she would dish out a fried rice or some curry. Some days we made do with bread and butter. Money was shorter than it used to be when my father lived with us but we had enough. My father made sure of that. A money order would arrive every month, promptly on the first. But the money order came from my father’s relative who ran my father’s printing company in his absence. It was clear that my father had planned his exit because my mother and I later discovered that he had organized everything very neatly, without mess and with no room for anyone, his relatives or my mother to interfere with the ownership of the business. The business belonged to him and there was no uncertainty about that. Some years later, when I was an adult, the business came to me and everything happened with clockwork precision. My father had been a meticulous man when it came to paperwork and administration. I learned this as an adult. In the same way, he had ensured my inheritance of the house in which we lived. Perhaps he was afraid that my mother would sell the house to support her lifestyle and drag both of us out into the streets. His fears were well founded because a couple of years after he left she tried to do exactly that but found out that the house belonged to me and that she only had the right to live in it. He had laid out his plans very well.
There was no doubt that my father had gone back to his first wife and children. Later on, when I was older and when I sort of kept in touch with some relatives of my father they confirmed it. My mother never went in search of him to that little “is was” town. It could be, as my father’s relatives said, she was afraid and embarrassed. It was such a small town that everyone knew her and everyone was on the side of my father’s wife. My mother was the home wrecker. The other reason which niggled me but which I had to uncomfortably accept was that my mother was happy with the money that arrived every month and that while my father’s disappearance was something that had angered her initially, it was not exactly something that bothered her after a while. In fact, after the first couple of months, she went back to her old lifestyle of dressing up and going out with her many friends. I was often left to my own devices. Sometimes she would leave me with old Mrs. Maniam next door but sometimes I would just be by myself. It was clear that a cloud only hung over me, not her. Perhaps a long time ago she had realized that as a mistress, her life with my father was precarious and that at any point he could choose to return to his family. I only wish I had known that my relationship with my father was as temporary.
For about a year or two after my father left, I persisted with doing well in school and doing my best to make my father proud. Those were the days when I was hopeful that my father would return. I didn’t want to disappoint him when he came back. But as the days wore on and there was no sign of him, hope wore thin and enthusiasm faded. My teachers scolded and asked for my mother who would come sometimes but more often than not she would just ignore the note. When she came she would listen attentively to my teachers, scold me in their presence and then it would be forgotten. Soon the teachers too realized that the meetings were pointless. My declining grades and I slowly ceased to be much of a priority. My teachers would merely shake their heads when I came up for discussion. I dragged myself through high school and barely made it by the skin of my teeth. On the day I graduated, I thought of the conversations I had had with my father who had nurtured a hope that I would get the degrees and diplomas that he could never achieve in his little “is was” town. While he spoke and I would nod in agreement to make him happy. I myself had secretly nurtured a desire to become an artist. I loved drawing and painting. But that was then. The years that melted away, took those dreams, my father’s and mine, with them.
After I finished high school, I had no desire to continue with my education. My father’s printing press was my only option. His relative ran the show while I learned the business. By now, I knew where my father was and I could have at any time gone to see him or even called him. But my resentment stuck. He had abandoned me and that was the only thought to which I clung. Although, my mother wasn’t ideal and there were many times when I wished old Mrs. Maniam next door was my mother, I held firmly to the fact that the woman my father left one rainy morning was my mother. For that reason I never called or attempted to speak with him when he called. As flawed as she was, she only had me and I stood by that.
I married and had my children. Although I always seemed to fall short as a husband, I did my best. My wife rarely spoke with me. She preferred to snap. Again, I resented my father for this. I was convinced that it was what he had done to me that made me a poor husband. I loved my children dearly and they in turn adored me. I was the fun parent. And I smugly thought of how I was doing a far better job as a parent than the man who had abandoned me. My mother died one fine day. As an old woman, her disillusionment had showed on her face and in her manner. I suppose as the years slipped away, taking with them her youth, she had realized that the beauty contest that she had won in the little “is was’ town had not given her much. Even the man whose eye she had caught had abandoned her. Her disillusionment was more fodder for resentment. I placed a huge obituary in the newspapers for my mother. I secretly cherished a hope that my father would come. But he didn’t and I was disappointed. But a niggling fear sprouted in me. He was old too. And, it was from that day that I took to scanning the obituary section in the newspapers. Despite the grudge that I held close to my heart, I had always felt secure in the thought that he continued to live somewhere.
This morning, like many other mornings, I was sure that there would be nothing in the papers. But I was wrong. There he was. Staring back at me from the papers. He had died yesterday while I was asleep. He was eighty-four. I stared at the picture trying to find the man that I had known as my father in it. He had been a handsome man when he had lived with us. This man that stared back at me was old and withered. There was so little left of the man that I resented in that picture. But there was no doubt that my father was dead. Still staring at my father’s picture, I sank into a chair. I breathed heavily and ran a hand over my eyes. My fingers felt warm dampness. I sat for a few more minutes before standing up purposefully.
It was almost too late by the time I reached the little “is was” town where my father had lived. The funeral was almost over. When I walked in, the few people who were gathered there looked at me knowingly, like they knew who I was. An old woman stood by my father’s casket. I knew who she was. She was the woman my father had gone back to, leaving me and my mother. As soon as her eyes rested on me, she smiled the gentlest of smiles. There were no questions in those eyes or hesitation in that smile. In that instant I could see why my father had returned to her. I looked past her at the younger man and woman who stood behind her. They returned my stare with a little curiosity. But very quickly my sister stepped up to me and held out her hand drawing me to the family, my family.