I was perhaps five or six when I first remember my father fall.
My face pressed against the glass gripping the grilled gate
He had just been dropped outside by a friend
It was dark. One minute standing, his vacant eyes staring at me,
the next minute gone
My mum then called all my siblings
And organised the rescue
He lay on the wet grass, it was drizzling
We hoisted his heavy frame, stumbled up the stairs,
I remember the smell of alcohol, the sweat and rain, the slurred mumbling that made no sense.
And my mother patched him up.
Fast forward, I am 25.
I remember I was with my friend Pako
A bigger than life Egyptian scuba diver
And doing his doctorate in history
We had much to drink over some deep philosophical issues that neither of us would remember the next day.
We walked back in the rain after the nearby corner coffee shop had closed
It was drizzling and we had to cross a field
It was dark. There was a slope and we both fell.
We lay there for a bit.
My friend Pako had a favourite phrase:
“I come from the desert, we sleep under the stars”
As we lay in grass, giggling like two boys who just discovered the sex part in a novel,
The smell of alcohol, the stale sweat, the wet grass, the slurred mumbling
We eventually organised our own rescue
Hoisted each other up and stumbled back home.
And we patched each other up.
Fast forward it’s 2016
A schoolmates’ reunion, lots to eat and much to drink
It was 2 or 3am and I called a Grab
He was across the road and I decided to cross it and fell.
Into a hole. I didn’t see it and fell right through
I had to organise my own rescue.
Pulled myself out. Got into the Grab and headed home.
And I come home bleeding, bruised and through the smell of alcohol, stale sweat, the pong of a wet drain and the slurred mumbling that made no sense.
And you patched me up.
My father and my friend Pako have fallen for good now.
Into the abyss. And they are not coming home.
Some days are still dark.
And I am still falling.
But it is raining in my heart.
And if you go.
There will be no one to patch me up.
I wave my flag in thorny poems
Because I am too embarrassed to show you off in tatters
Stripped of your stripes
Your crescent eclipsed
Your pointy star blunted
My words are meant to prick
But they are not daggers nor keris
It’s not good for my constitution to keep them inside
It’s also bad for my heart
But if you look closely
You can see the patriotism in the whites of my eyes
You can feel the nationalism when they are bloodshot red
You can hear the anthem of my soul crying out when I am blue
You can sense the pride when I march in unison with my fellow yellows
(We link arms and sing the Negaraku because — hey — it’s our country too)
My poems are my battle cry for you
My rhymes are there to straighten their crooked lines
My alliterations are a raucous rallying rap to get us back on track
My puns are the stitching of your sides
My consonance are the higher thread-count of your fabric,
the higher ground we tread to discount their dread
My imagery yearns to return your colours that have run, insane
My metaphors are my longing to unfurl you in the sun, again
My Malaysia is a million valiant vigorous voices wanting to raise
a nation’s flagging fading fervour
Don’t need to stand at attention to appreciate it
Just pay attention
Because it’s freely given
And if they still can’t take the brave words of us poetic souls
Then they can just hang us from the nearest pole
TRANSLATIONS FROM MALAY AND OTHER NOTES
Benderaku = My Flag (Malay)
Keris = a traditional double-edged dagger in Southeast Asia often now wielded symbolically for ceremonial purposes
Negaraku = Malaysian national anthem
(First published in Borderless Journal )
A friend posted an old photograph of her mum and it reminded me of you
The ambiguity of a woman with Chinese features in a saree and pottu.
Coincidentally, her mother was adopted, like you, at a young age.
They say, just before soldiers die in trenches in battlefields, they call out for their mothers.
I am neither a soldier — nor in a battle for my life — at least not yet.
But like a child again in these restless times, wrestling with the not-knowing of how this is all going to end, I yearn for you.
I think of the families of millions now departed and the others battling to survive — some gasping for air in ventilators — and I wonder if they too are thinking of their mothers.
And hear you tut-tutting and saying: “Paavam pileh” like when I fell sick or hurt myself or came back soaked in the pouring rain.
And I think of those stranded, with no one beside them, curled up on cardboards, on cold, hard floors, in foetal positions, longing for mothers long gone — who once fed them from tired breasts and cradled them to sleep on relentless hot nights like these.
Like you did for me.
And I think of all the mothers worried about their own children on medical frontlines trying to help others survive. And the children cut off from their own mothers — near or far — because of the lockdowns.
And I think how fortunate the few of us are — the very few us — who still have mothers alive and well and smiling. Ever-smiling.
And I think of your smile now, Mum
An oft-repeated anecdote at a family gathering
Your laughter loud and full on
Joyful tears that flowed after
Just being you
As I lie here. And whine and ramble.
Entombed in this anti-viral crucible.
This chrysalis of isolation.
This sealed dome.
This unhatched egg.
This pregnant pause.
Hoping to emerge again. Alive. To come visit. Outside your gate. And call you by name: “Mum!”
But you won’t be there.
And I will still be here.
Without the sun of my eastern mum.
It’s late in the Scrabble game
My father-in-law is in his sarong and his striped shirt
the one with the holes — it’s his comfort-wear
He is the master of the three-lettered word
He’s pushing a 100
I’m slightly more than half his age —
yet slightly less than half the man
He came to Malaya at 19 from his beloved Ceylon in 1938
He lived through World War 2, the Emergency, the Confrontation, curfews, racial riots, death
On the wall, is a black and white photograph of him
in a shiny suit, slicked hair, receiving an award from the Sultan of Kelantan
As a government hospital assistant, he saved lives
As a medical man, he embodied the principle:
First do no harm
He is hunched over, scrutinising the board like a surgeon
He plays fast, laying down words even
before I can add up the last score
He eschewed two hearing aids, defaulting to
—only listening to whom he chooses
Glaucoma sacrificed one eye,
Dr Gill saved the other
So he can still read the daily newspaper
with the aid of a magnifying glass
Still see the glow of the young faces of his five grandchildren
through lit birthday candles
Still make out the yellowing, rosewood tiles on this board,
the red triple-word scores, the blue triple-letter scores—
in the hardscrabble of life
he plays to win
We still make trips to the Hollywood barber in Ipoh
His hair still outgrows his youngest, a full head of vintage ivory on top, his moustache silvery, his beard like stringhoppers, sans sodhi
After each cut, he humours me with a smile for the camera, purses lips to hide his missing teeth, knowing full well the photo’s social reach
He has relatives from New Zealand to Norway
Much of this countryman’s DNA courses through the veins of the many in Germany, France, Italy, Canada, England, India, Singapore, elsewhere
His humility and love had no borders—
Nations may divide but we are all connected
in some way
He has outlived his son, his wife
All his siblings back in Sri Lanka have now passed
Prabakaran is now dead, though he may not believe it
The war is lost, but the fight remains
Never fault a tiger for his endangered convictions
I pull the remaining tiles from the bag
And the letters on my rack read E-M-P-A-T-H-Y
There is no space for a bingo on the board
No way to connect with words left unsaid
No place, this late in the game,
to settle imagined
Words are just words
None are meant to hurt
He puts his three tiles down
Looks up at me with a satisfied grin,
his eyebrows upturned,
then reaches into the frayed bag
which is now empty—
And I am lesser for it.
(Remembering M. Devasahayam, Nov 18, 1919 ~ Apr 17, 2021)
Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer finding new ways to express himself in the pandemic through prose and poetry. He was most recently published in PoetryandCovid.com, Borderless Journal, Nine Cloud Journal, Second Chance Lit, Poor Yorick Journal, Wingless Dreamer and the anthology Unmasked: Reflections on Virus-time (curated by Shamini Flint and available on Amazon). http://linktr.ee/julianmatthews