Learning Institute for Empowerment
Or Else, the Lightning God
Catherine Lim (1980)
Whenever Margaret didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Suan Choo in the office about the problems with her mother-in-law, she telephoned her friend in the evening. And she did so now, reclining on the bed, freshly bathed and talcumed. Eng Kiat wasn’t home, and the old one was in her room downstairs, so it was right to speak as freely as she wanted to Suan Choo. Suan Choo had a mother-in-law too, equally troublesome, and so understood her problem perfectly. Margaret knew that the old one, though she spoke no English, understood the meanings of certain words when she heard them; her small eyes would flash, she would look up sharply when she caught words such as “mother-in-law”, “money”, “servant”, “nuisance”, convinced that she was being talked about and criticised. So, Margaret, in her conversations with Suan Choo had evolved a new set of terms intended to put the old lady off the scent. “Mother-in-law” became ‘dowager’ or “antique”, “servant” was “domestic”. Sometimes failure to find appropriate alternatives forced Margaret to spell out the word, but the element of unnaturalness introduced into the conversation in this way made the old lady, who was very sharp indeed, pause to listen suspiciously.
“Suan Choo, guess what I saw when I came back from work today,” she said, managing to light a cigarette with one hand while holding the receiver with the other. “Or rather, what I smelt. There was a foul smell coming from the kitchen. I rushed to see and there was an earthenpot of the Dowager’s herbal medicine a-brewing as usual. The stuff had boiled over and was trickling down the sides of my poor cooker. Luckily I came back in time. Otherwise, that wretched thing would have ruined my whole kitchen. This is the third time this week, Choo, that the Dowager’s left her Chinese medicine brewing while she goes off I don’t know where. Later she came back and had the audacity to ask who had turned off the flame when her medicine wasn’t yet properly brewed!”
Suan Choo was able to furnish a similar story of outrageous mother-in-law behaviour, and the two laughed loud and long over the phone. Margaret’s cheerful mood was due partly to the doctor’s assurance, when she paid one of her regular calls that morning, that he thought her chances for the baby were very much improved by the administration of the new drug. “When Doctor Lee told me to relax and have plenty of rest, I nearly said, ‘You must be joking, Doctor. How can anyone relax with a mother-in-law like mine about the place?” said Margaret and she laughed again. Not all complaints ended on such a cheerful note.
“Suan Choo, would you believe it, the Dowager actually invited a medium to my house?” cried Margaret shortly after, cluthing her friend’s arm. “A temple medium, one of those weird men who go into a trance and froth at the mouth? She actually made arrangements for a séance in my house! It seemed she wanted to communicate with my dead father-in-law. Imagine my fury. To make my house a den for those eerie people with their joss-sticks and prayer paper and I don’t know what else! A good thing I came back in time. I nearly threw away those horrible prayer things of theirs.”
No less than a full delivery of her tirade could have eased the pressure of mounting anger, and after Margaret had finished giving an account of the offence, she went into more details.
They were going to use her room for the purpose. I saw a table already laid out with those evil-looking candles and joss-sticks and glasses of water and what have you. My father-in-law’s photo was on the wall – you know, the one taken of him a month before he died – that unnatural ghostly look – you remarked once how eerie it looked, and how the old man’s eyes seemed to be following...
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