I arrived at Heathrow Airport on the 12th of September 1981, resolute on undertaking the mission that had been mandated to me by MARA. I was to read the law, came back to Malaysia, and do my part in improving the economic lot of the Malays. Not too long after that, though, life intervened.
I shall not go into the lurid details, but within three days of arriving, I found myself in a position where I had to go out and get myself a packet of condoms. Since I was still an innocent babe-in the-woods at the time, I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to go about doing this (Hey, I was still barely 18 then, OK?).
However, I was reliably informed by a very exasperated female companion that all I had to do was walk into any chemist (what the Brits call a pharmacy) and declare, “May I have a packet of three condoms, please?”. Upon saying this, the chemist would, she assured me, magically produce the item in question. I would then have to conclude the purchase, rush home, and vigorously put the product to their intended use.
But when I arrived at the local chemist, my palms began to sweat and I began having an anxiety attack. All of my 18 years had been pretty much celibate and I was somewhat bashful about having to come up to a complete stranger and tell them I wanted (needed?) some condoms.
As luck would have it, the chemist was having a pretty busy day. I had to pretend to be browsing the aisles for a very long time before the coast was finally clear. It was now or never. Besides, I realised that I had been in the sanitary towel section for the past twenty five minutes and was beginning to look mighty suspicious.
I drew a deep breath and took several feeble steps towards the counter. The person at the counter, a kindly old lady asked me cheerfully, “And how can I help you today, luv?” My heart sank when I saw that she looked exactly like my mother (or was this my imagination?). I think I mumbled something in reply, all the time looking at my shoes so that I wouldn’t have to look at her.
“You’d have to speak up, sweetheart.” she urged.
Still looking at my shoes, I tried again. “May I have a packet of …” The word condom could not come out of my mouth.
“Sorry, luv. I couldn’t make out what you said. What was it that you wanted?”
I swallowed hard, summoned all my courage and still looking at my shoes, blurted out my question – in a barely audible whisper: “May I have a packet of three condoms, please?”
“Oh! Is this what this is all about? Of course you may have a packet three condoms, young man. And what size would you like, luv?” she asked, flashing her very professional smile.
Huh? I don’t seem to remember my female companion saying anything about sizes. She did say that these things came in packs of threes – but that was all. Nothing was said about sizes. I broke into a cold sweat. What was I to do?
I tried to appear as nonchalant as possible, smiled at the chemist, and feebly offered, “Small?”
At this, she broke into a fit of laughter that she needed a full minute to recover from. After recovering her composure, she explained, “Sorry, luv. I couldn’t resist; these things don’t come in sizes!”
That was how I earned the nickname Tiny at that particular chemist.