“I suppose there’s a mess in the back seat,” Mrs. Koh says, her face flushed, her arms crossed as she stands in front of Johnny Leong’s terrace house. She shakes her head and waits impatiently for Koh and Tan to get out of the car. “You just had to volunteer our new car, didn’t you? Why didn’t you borrow someone else’s car like I told you, or wait for an ambulance? Now it’s ruined. Ruined!”
Koh doesn’t bother to respond. He stretches and then rubs his aching back. His attention is drawn to the mournful sound of someone playing the saxophone.
Koh and Tan are Johnny’s immediate neighbors. The Koh’s terrace house is on the left, while Tan, a bachelor, lives on the right. The medium-income housing area is new, less than two years old. Malays, Chinese and Indians live together in relative harmony – a mini Malaysia. The streets are narrow, though, and there are no sidewalks to walk on; because of the uncovered monsoon drains, neighbors have to walk in the street and chat there, too, moving aside to let an occasional car pass.
Across the street, Miss Chee, a secondary school teacher, unlocks her gate and lets out her white Pomeranian Spitz. Miss Chee is tall and thin with short black hair and razor-sharp bangs. Upon noticing Mr. and Mrs. Koh standing in front of Leong’s gate, she waves and crosses the street to join them. She’s halfway there when she realizes that Tan, the new math teacher at Penang Free School, is with them. She blushes, but it’s too late to turn back or he may think she’s avoiding him or being rude.
Mrs. Koh is bent over peering through the side window of the car. She doesn’t see any mess, though she’s convinced the evidence is just waiting for her to find. She looks up in time to see Miss Chee approaching. Before anyone else has a chance to speak, Mrs. Koh blurts out, “Hear about Johnny?”
Taken aback, Miss Chee asks a bit nervously, “Were he and Veronica fighting again?”
Mrs. Koh’s beady eyes light up like shiny new coins. “Did you hear them fighting this morning?” She turns to her husband with an I-told-you-so look on her face.
“Wait a minute, were they fighting?” Tan asks, glancing at Koh.
“No, they weren’t fighting,” Koh says, glaring at his wife. “I told you that already. I was outside all morning, and I would’ve heard them.”
“I didn’t think so,” Tan says, adjusting his glasses. “When Veronica and Lily passed by my house, they both seemed fine. In fact, they smiled and waved like they usually do.”
Mrs. Koh twitches her nose. “Veronica didn’t say where they were going, did she? Gambling, that’s where! Every Sunday she plays mahjong and I’m sure she’s in debt!” She pauses to catch their surprised reaction. To prove her point, she adds, “She once tried to borrow money from Koh.”
“She only wanted five ringgit-lah, to buy some vegetables,” Koh says, shaking his head. “She didn’t have time to go to the bank.”
“You’re not her bank either, otherwise she’d be borrowing from you all the time,” Mrs. Koh says. “Thank heavens you didn’t give her any.”
“You wouldn’t let me,” he says, “and she’s our neighbor!”
“It’s bad enough she’s always collecting advance money for her catering, and now that Johnny’s dead–”
Miss Chee’s mouth drops open. “Dead?”
“He’s not dead yet,” Koh says to his wife. “He’s still breathing.”
“Dead? Still breathing?” Miss Chee’s mouth goes slack as she looks from Koh to Tan for some answers.
“He’s as good as dead,” snaps Mrs. Koh.
“I don’t understand,” Miss Chee gasps in frustration. “Who? Who are you talking about? Johnny? Is he all right?”
“All right? He’s all wrong,” Mrs. Koh says. “Him and his whole family!”
“Johnny tried to commit suicide this morning,” Koh says to Miss Chee.
“Wah! But why?”
“Because Veronica ran up all those gambling debts!” Mrs. Koh says.
Koh glowers at his wife and says, “We don’t know that. We do know he drank weed-killer. He was drinking it with his beer.”
Mrs. Koh plants her hands squarely on her hips. “Drinking! That’s all that man ever did – sit around and drink. And that – that Veronica! The way she lets that daughter of hers run around like some tramp!”
Miss Chee’s eyes open wide. “Lily? She’s an all-A student.” She leans toward Tan and says in a low voice, “Lily is my best student.”
Tan nods and smiles at her politely. Again he adjusts his glasses even though they are fine.
Miss Chee hesitates, but then she asks Tan, “What time did you find Johnny?”
“Just before noon,” Koh replies. “Isn’t that right, Tan?”
“Yes, about noon.”
Mrs. Koh nods. “Koh told me he heard Johnny groaning one hour after Veronica took Lily gambling. I just happened to look at my watch when they passed by.”
“I didn’t hear the groaning until after Tan called me from his gate,” Koh says, adding a salute to Tan. “If it wasn’t for Tan, Johnny might already be dead.”
“And you had to put him in our brand new car!” Mrs. Koh says. “Just imagine if he died there. All the bad luck it’d bring, and with the New Year around the corner! We’d have to sell it, and it’s not even two months old!”
Dr. Nathan, an Indian dentist who lives next door to Miss Chee, waves at them as he slows down his car. He stops in front of his gate, gets out and unlocks it before driving inside. Again he smiles and waves and crosses the street to join them. He extends his hand to Koh, one of his patients.
“A fine Sunday afternoon,” Nathan says.
“A fine Sunday afternoon,” Nathan says.
“Not for Johnny,” Mrs. Koh replies, “he’s dead.”
“He’s not dead yet,” Koh says, and shakes Nathan’s hand. “Tan and I just took Johnny to the General Hospital. He tried to commit suicide by drinking Paraquat. We managed to contact his son, and he’s over there now. Veronica and Lily haven’t been told yet. We don’t know how to contact them.”
“For heaven’s sake,” Nathan says, and looks as if he just pulled the wrong tooth. “I never realized. Just last New Year – yes, it was just last New Year Johnny had that party and everyone was there, having a grand time.”
“Especially Koh,” Mrs. Koh says, eyeing him. “He was so drunk I had to drag him home.”
“I was not drunk – just celebrating.”
“Celebrating, ha! That’s what you call it! You had a hangover and missed work for two days!”
“I was on annual leave,” Koh corrects.
“Same thing. You missed work!”
Nathan rubs his balding head and asks, “Who found Johnny?”
Miss Chee nods at Tan and says, “Mr. Tan did. He heard Johnny groaning.”
“I can’t take all the credit, Miss Chee. Your name is Miss Chee, am I correct?”
“Why yes, it is,” Miss Chee replies, her smile widening. “My friends call me Alice.”
“My friends and my patients call me Nathan,” Nathan says, and offers his hand to Tan.
Tan introduces himself.
“Anyway, it was Koh who was the first one inside the house,” Tan said. “He called the ambulance, too.”
“But we decided not to wait,” Koh says. “The hospital kept asking all these foolish questions that we couldn’t answer, so we took him in ourselves.”
“In our BRAND NEW CAR!” adds Mrs. Koh.
“Really? You have a new car, I never realized,” Nathan says. “I remember my first new car, a Proton Saga – the very year it came out, mind you. Our national car. We’ve certainly come along way since Independence, haven’t we?” Nathan’s smile overflows with pride. “Now Johnny, he was a good neighbor. Yes, a good neighbor, even though he stills owes me for treatment. Root canals aren’t cheap, you know.”
“That reminds me,” Koh says, “my tooth has been hurting again.”
“Oh, dear,” Nathan says. “You mustn’t wait, or you could find yourself in a lot of pain. That’s what happened to Johnny. He waited until the pain was simply unbearable.”
“Should I call your office for an appointment or just drop by?”
Two passing motorcycles drown out Nathan’s reply.
Miss Chee’s dog barks and feigns a chase. After a few frantic steps, it comes back to Miss Chee.
“Ramli’s kids!” Mrs. Koh says, staring down the street after them. “Race here, race there. And last week I saw one of them teaching Lily how to ride. I don’t know why Veronica lets her daughter – at that age – run around with boys. I’d never let my daughter do that! And today, of all days, she takes Lily gambling!”
Nathan scratches his left ear. “Oh dear, I never realized Veronica gambles.”
Mrs. Koh is nodding. “Every Sunday she goes to her cousin’s house in Air Itam. That’s where she gambles! Every Sunday!”
“You told me you had no idea where Veronica went,” Koh says, annoyed, frowning at his wife. “Johnny’s son was trying to reach her.”
Mrs. Koh crosses her arms in defiance. “It’s none of my business where she gambles!”
“You should never gamble with your teeth,” Nathan says to Tan, and passes him a business card. “If you ever need a reliable dentist, I live right across the street. You can’t get more reliable than a neighbor.”
Ramli, an elderly Malay who sells satay at the night markets, is walking down the middle of the street in their direction. His back is ramrod straight as he nods to Tan, one of his regular customers.
“My eldest daughter tells me Johnny hasn’t been at school the past three days,” Ramli says. “Then yesterday she saw him walking along the main road carrying a helmet without his motorcycle. Imagine that!”
Miss Chee asks Tan, in a low voice, “Is Johnny a teacher, too?”
“No,” Tan replies, “he’s a janitor at my school.”
“A dead janitor,” adds Mrs. Koh.
“Dead? Don’t talk about dead. No joke-lah!” Ramli gazes from face to face as if he missed the punch line to a sick joke, though he’s hoping someone will explain it to him. “So, who’s dead? Huh?”
“Johnny, but he’s not quite dead – at least not yet,” Koh says. “But he did try to kill himself by drinking Paraquat.”
“Paraquat? Ya Allah!” Ramli’s dark brown eyes roll upwards toward heaven.
“Koh heard him groaning around noon,” Mrs. Koh says. “One hour after Veronica took Lily gambling.”
“Wasn’t it Tan who heard the groaning?” asks Miss Chee. She glances at Tan for confirmation.
Koh nods. “That’s right. If it wasn’t for Tan, Johnny might already be dead.”
“It has to be about money-lah,” Ramli says to no one in particular.
Everyone looks at him.
“Why else would he sell his motorcycle?”
“He’s right-lah,” Koh says. “Why else?”
“Unless he’s involved with a woman!” Mrs. Koh says. “Wouldn’t surprise me!”
Tan and Ramli glance at one another and shrug as if suggesting that it’s possible.
“Gambling, drinking, womanizing – what a family!” Mrs. Koh says.
“Now I’ll never get that root canal bill paid,” Nathan says, and grimaces.
“I’m sure Johnny has some insurance somewhere,” Tan says, trying to be helpful.
Koh frowns as if he just found chewing gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
“Well if he does, he didn’t buy it from me,” Koh says. “I must’ve asked him a half dozen times. What good did it do me? And I’m his neighbor!”
“So am I,” Ramli says. “In fact, one of my sons offered to buy his motorcycle for its license plate number for good money, too. Now look at what he did, sold it to someone else. A stranger!”
Miss Chee watches her dog go back and forth across the street. She sighs in exasperation and says, “It’s a good thing Veronica has that catering business to fall back on, if worst comes to worst.” She catches Tan’s gaze. “Are you buying from her, too?”
“Well, no, not yet,” Tan replies, “but I was thinking about it.”
“It must be difficult living on your own like that.”
“I’ve been living on my own for fifteen years,” Nathan says, “and I can cook, too.”
Miss Chee smiles politely. “Now if Johnny doesn’t make it–”
“He won’t if he drank Paraquat,” Ramli says. “That one’s a sure killer.”
“Either way,” Miss Chee says, “I’m sure the good Lord will look after Veronica and Lily.”
“Are they Christians?” Tan asks.
“He has a Christian name, doesn’t he?” Mrs. Koh says. “Veronica and Lily, too!”
“Come to think of it, I don’t think they are,” Koh says, scratching his head. “In fact, I think they’re Buddhists. Or used to be. With Johnny, you can never tell. Besides, back in school many of us added Christian names but we weren’t Christian. Even you did, long before you converted.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Mrs. Koh says. “It’s misleading!”
Tan says, “Unless I’m mistaken, Johnny once told me he was a free-thinker.”
Koh laughs. “That’s Johnny for you. He liked everything free.”
“You should know,” Mrs. Koh says, “you were always there drinking his free beer.”
“You’re just jealous Johnny never asks you to come along.”
“I wouldn’t go over there even if Johnny and Veronica begged me to.”
Tan gazes at the round table not far from Johnny’s gate.
He clears his voice and says to Miss Chee, “We used to sit there and talk. The very night I moved in – even though I was a total stranger – Johnny invited me over. We must’ve sat up half the night philosophizing about everything under the sun.” Guilt creeps into his eyes. “Just last night I was over there.”
“I saw you.” Miss Chee blushes as Tan looks at her with surprise. “I happened to glance down from my bedroom window.”
Tan looks up at the window and then at Miss Chee.
“I think Johnny was just a lonely man,” Tan says.
“You think he’s lonely?” Nathan says. “My wife has been dead fifteen years. Fifteen years! Johnny can’t be lonely, not with a wife and daughter at home. And his son comes visiting often enough.”
“Johnny has a son?” Ramli ponders this. “I thought he only has a daughter.”
“Danny’s his name,” Miss Chee says. “He was one of my first students. A bright student at that.”
“Yes, we had a long talk at that New Year party,” Nathan says. “Danny’s a good boy with a good job.”
“Good boy, ha!” Mrs. Koh says. “Ever since he became a big shot at the bank, he certainly acts like one – living in town and wasting money paying extra rent. What for? A good boy would stay at home and help his father pay the bills, especially the way Veronica gambles and throws away money on Lily. Always buying her the latest styles.”
“At least Veronica works,” Koh says.
Mrs. Koh twitches her nose. “Her food isn’t much to talk about. So bland! And she’s always asking for advance money. Why can’t her son give her some of his money? Huh?”
“I wish my elder two sons would settle down and find good jobs like that,” Ramli says. “Before I was twenty, I had a job, a house and a wife! Back in those days, boys had more responsibilities.”
“It sure would be nice if your sons stopped racing up and down the street,” Mrs. Koh says. “The noise is deafening!”
“See! See! That’s what happens when grown boys stay at home,” Ramli says, and raises his arms in surrender. “They get restless! Only a wife will settle them down. A wife and a job will teach them some responsibilities. If you ask me, Johnny had it too easy. Too easy. He has a working wife and only two children. One living on his own like that. Look at me, six of them, and a mother-in law at home who’s driving me crazy! You don’t see me committing suicide, do you?”
Mrs. Koh stares past Nathan’s shoulder to one of the houses further up the street.
“Who’s playing that – that thing, anyway?”
“It’s a saxophone,” Koh says. He fingers his mole hair and listens more closely.
Mrs. Koh says, “People shouldn’t play those things unless they already know how!”
“If he doesn’t practice,” Koh says, “how can he know how? When I was a boy, I had an old trumpet and would practice all day.”
Koh smiles to himself and closes his eyes, remembering.
Ramli strains his neck to see around the others. “Here comes Veronica.”
All of them turn to look.
Veronica and Lily are walking side by side, each carrying several plastic bags.
Koh turns to his wife. “Looks like they didn’t go gambling at all! Just shopping.”
Mrs. Koh twitches her nose in defiance. She peers around their car to get a better look.
Miss Chee asks, “Think she knows about Johnny?”
Mrs. Koh shakes her head. “I bet she was too busy spending all her money on that daughter of hers to know anything.”
“If you ask me,” Ramli says, “Johnny had it too easy. Too easy.”
“I hope they don’t move,” Miss Chee says. “Lily is my best student.”
“Don’t even mention it,” Nathan says, “or I’ll lose two more patients.”
“Of course they’ll move,” Mrs. Koh says. “Wouldn’t you move if your husband commits suicide in your own home?”
“I’m not married,” Miss Chee replies, and glances at Tan.
“Hey, what time is it?” Koh asks. “There’s a football match I want to watch!”
“Oh my, it’s nearly two,” Nathan says, glancing at the time. “I haven’t had my lunch yet. No wonder I feel hungry.”
“Two? Already? I got to run-lah,” Koh says, and hurries next door.
Tan asks, “Who’s going to tell Veronica?”
Miss Chee looks down at her dog. Ramli and Nathan both shrug as they return to their respective terrace houses.
“Not me,” says Mrs. Koh, leaving before Veronica and Lily arrive at the gate. “It’s none of my business.”
# # #*I posted this to replace the older version from my previous website since it was no longer available and I had links to the story in a dozen "Neighbour" related blogs. This is the revised version, after the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited, in present tense.