Thursday, 19 November 2009

T’was the Night after Christmas

I flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur  by Thai Airways and found my friend May waiting to take me to her house in her brand new white Suzuki jeep, or her “baby” as she called it. I took the opportunity to take a shower as soon as I arrived at her home to freshen up after my flight. At first, I found the bathing arrangements somewhat puzzling. There was a huge Ali Baba like jar of water and a water hose in the tiled room. Was I supposed to step into the jar? Suppose it broke? It looked as if it might be a tight squeeze. Fortunately I realised just in time that I just needed to pour water from the jar over me, using a small bowl or else use the water hose.

In the afternoon, May decided to take me to see round her offices. She worked in advertising and had popped over to England on a business trip a few months earlier to carry out some research, prior to launching a new product in Malaysia. She wanted to take back so many books she completely overshot her luggage allowance, forcing her to buy the equivalent of another business class ticket to fly them with her. That act of extravagance was very much in keeping with the entire trip. She was staying in a serviced mansion block in Knightsbridge, so close to the Iranian embassy it was possible to take a bath and waive to the clearly visible diplomat in the building opposite.

When May was in England we went everywhere by taxi and she paid for all the restaurant meals and trips to the theatre. Feeling some unease at not being able to pay my own way, I was surprised when May reassured me that I was a legitimate business expense and came under the heading of entertainment by virtue of keeping her company. All too soon May’s trip to England came to an end as did my own brief stint enjoying an all expenses paid lifestyle. It had been fun whilst it lasted. But it did give me a taste for taking taxis. That became my one special treat when I eventually made enough money to indulge myself from time to time,

Within a day or two of arriving in Kuala Lumpur I began to feel a touch of paranoia. It seemed as if everyone was staring at me wherever we went.
“They are.” May confirmed.
To encourage tourism the Government had run a campaign to persuade Malaysians to be especially welcoming to tourists by smiling at them. It was a pity there was not a similar policy in place to resolve the uneasy relationship between the different races. University places for Chinese students in Malaysia were strictly limited. As a result, students like May preferred to study in the West where they were not subjected to stringent racial quotas. I had been shocked to read about the terrifying race riots in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the 1960s, which May’s own family had unwittingly been caught up in. Being both Chinese and Christian made May feel even more vulnerable in her country of birth. Hence her overriding ambition was to marry a Chinese Westerner and be in a position to help her immediate family flee the country, if ever the political situation became untenable.   

On Christmas Day, religious animosities were forgotten. May’s mother had worked hard the day before to prepare a lavish buffet, which anyone who called around would be welcome to help themselves to. Chinese food was still very much of an unknown quantity for me so I found it all rather exotic. I was amazed to find that one traditional Chinese dish bore an uncanny resemblance to shepherd’s pie with its minced lamb and mashed potato topping.
“It is shepherd’s pie, “May said. “My mother asked me for an English recipe she could use to make you feel at home!”
I was touched by the kind gesture.

On Christmas Day morning May’s family went to hear mass at their Catholic church. In lieu of hymn books, the verses were projected on to the white washed walls. It seemed strange to me to celebrate Christmas in the heat as opposed to the usual overcast and damp day in England.

The next day May decided to take us both on the two hour road journey to the historic Malacca Town., later to achieve World Heritage Site status.  I was keen to visit the place, partly to admire the architecture and partly to see if I could buy more of the stunning jewellery May had bought from there on previous visits. May’s mother insisted on taking a picture of the two of us standing by her daughter’s jeep just before we got into the car and drove off.

At some stage during the journey I began to fall asleep. When I awoke I could see our car, in slow motion, moving inexorably towards the oncoming traffic. We served to avoid them only to end up losing control and plunging over the side of the road. The car rolled over until it landed on its bonnet. There was only a second of quietude before I felt myself falling towards the dashboard at a tremendous speed. This is when I die, I thought calmly. Then I felt a sudden counter-pressure as my seat belt jerked me back. I had little time to register any relief when I heard May below me yelling: “Switch off the engine, switch off the engine!” Now I panicked as the dreadful thought struck me that the car might explode into flames with May and I trapped inside. I tried desperately to unclip my seat belt and struggle out of the car.

Luckily the car did not catch fire and we were able to get out safely although I cannot recall how we managed it or if anyone had came to our aid. I was dressed all in white and didn’t sustain so much as a single scratch. May had suffered a few minor cuts and bruises to her arm from the shattered window on her side of the jeep. Once she had ascertained that we were both relatively okay, she began to wail in distress for her poor crumpled “baby.”

A police patrol soon arrived. May said the policeman had indicated that if she paid him a bribe he would not report the accident. Otherwise her license would be endorsed. On principle May refused to submit to such corrupt practices and we found ourselves having to wait at the police station for the tow truck to come and take us and the jeep back to Kuala Lumpur. We had witnessed the aftermath of car accidents both on our outward and return journeys. The tow truck driver had even pointed out a badly damaged car in the pound and explained the owners had died that very morning in a crash. Apparently at the time that highway had one of the worst accident records in the world.

I must have taken the picture of the smashed up jeep only minutes after I had emerged from the wreckage. I should have got Helen to pitch an endorsement deal with the camera makers.