It was the winter of 1981. The heating in my Malaysia Hall room had decided to go on strike; it always did on the coldest London days. At one point, I thought that my breath was going to actually form icicles down my nose. It didn’t, though. Bored, I kicked the radiator again just to see if it would start. It didn’t, too.
The knock on my door came as a nice surprise, a relief even. When I opened it, I found, Doc, the final year medical student from Sarawak looking very concerned. In his gravest voice he said, “I think you’re in big trouble. The new Education Attaché who’s just arrived from KL wants a word with you. Mind you, he didn’t look too pleased, chum.”
Huh? Why should he not be pleased with me? He doesn’t even know me! In any case, I had not missed any of my classes for almost two weeks now. On the other hand, I did get royally stoned on some good sh*t the night before. Could he have found out? No way!
Despite the improbability of him finding out about my little ‘adventure’ I had had the night before, my mind exploded with visions of being unceremoniously booted out of Malaysia Hall and back to Malaysia. In my short lonely walk to the Malaysia Students’ Department next door, I wondered what my future as a KL parking attendant would be like. Perhaps, I could get a job tossing ‘roti canai’ near Masjid India instead.
I got the surprise of my life when I found that the new attaché was actually my uncle! The overwhelming sense of kinship drowned out all the alienation I felt from being in a strange land. Like a good Malay boy, I went up to him and kissed his hand.
With his Aryan features and superb facial bone structure, my uncle was (and still is) a stunningly handsome man. Always witty and quick with a joke, he was very well liked wherever he went. But he was also a shrewd and efficient manager; firm, methodical and exceedingly stern when he needed to be.
“Are you doing drugs?!!” he demanded, even before I could sit down, his eyes glowing with anger.
My heart dropped. I could have died right there and then.
“I asked you a question, young man! Are you doing drugs?!!” he demanded again, this time much louder.
“No sir!” I replied. It was more instinctive than accurate, of course. I then spent the next fifteen minutes explaining that although I did hang out with a notorious crowd, I was merely a spectator rather than a participant when it came to acts of substance abuse. I wasn’t particularly convinced with my explanation and I suspect, neither was he.
Nevertheless, my uncle’s face softened and he actually smiled. I was relieved beyond words. He may have not been convinced, but I reckon he was satisfied that he had managed to get his message across. It came across alright. It came across loud and clear. Before he excused me from his office, he told me to meet him that evening at the Thai grocery shop at Westbourne Grove. He was going to get my aunt to cook up a storm. I think I salivated all the way to my freezer at Malaysia Hall.
That evening, carrying armloads of brown paper bags loaded to the brim with all manner of goodies, we walked together to his nearby apartment. Though the night was colder than any night I had ever known, I was all warm inside. The prospect of savouring my auntie’s superlative cooking never failed to have that effect on me. After all, it had been close to seven months since I’ve had a good, proper Malaysian meal.
As we trudged through the London sludge, I spied two very gaudily dressed ladies a few metres away. Considering the way they dressed, I surmised they could only be prostitutes looking to turn tricks. With the subtlety of a seasoned diplomat, I tried to get my uncle to cross the street, away from sex workers and any potential awkward incident. But he wouldn’t bite. He said it was ridiculous walking in the other side of the street where the sludge was thicker and the lights dimmer. He was right, of course
As we walked on, we got closer and closer to the prostitutes. I held my breath, hoping that either the prostitutes were going to pass us up as no-hopers, or that my uncle would cross the street pretty soon. No such luck! One of the prostitutes approached us. This was going to be awkward.
“Business?” she asked with a suggestive pout.
If the earth could open up and gobble me alive, that would have been as a good time as any.
“Uh…” My uncle hesitated and looked at the woman quizzically. This was going to be awkward, very awkward.
“Er… no. I am not a business man. I am a Government servant!” he declared politely. And we walked on.
Government servant? What kind of an answer was that? I would have rolled in the mucky London sludge with laughter all night, but then, I would have had to explain to my uncle what just happened.
I decided to keep it all in. Somehow, I managed.