The Cane




The Cane




‘Tell me about your family, Tiffany,’ Alicia Munro-Smith asked me in her gentle raspy voice. She’s dressed in a black blouse today with a necklace made of colourful felt balls. Very arty, I thought. Her grey trousers hid her chunky calves. She should wear trousers more often.

 

Not family again. Every shrink seems to ask this question repeatedly; I’m getting quite bored with it. What’s there to know? It’s family, isn’t it? You can’t choose them.

 

That’s what I told Alicia who peered at me through her dark-rimmed glasses; her eyebrows moved slightly upwards; I can’t decide if she’s questioning my response or was amused by it. She held my stare for a bit before looking away, repeating her request again. Her hair is styled differently today. She’s had a haircut and her hair now sits elegantly on her shoulders. She’d her roots done in a darker shade of grey, evening out the highlights on her thick bob. Very charming. Would such a shade of grey would suit me too? It might make me feel more grown-up, I reasoned. Alice cleared her throat bringing me back to the moment.

 

‘Well, yes, Tiffany, it is family—family of origin—that causes a lot of pain in many people,’ she said as a matter of fact, enunciating each word.

 

Well, I should know that, shouldn’t I? My right thumb reaches for its familiar spot automatically.

 

I took my time, recalibrating my thoughts, wondering where I should start or should I even start.

 

We’ve been skimming around some very important things since you’ve started your visits,’ Alicia explains patiently. ‘I think it’s about time that we get down to the nitty gritty, so to speak, of why is it that you’re so unhappy.’

 

‘Where would you like me to start, Alicia?’ I acquiesced even though I’m not sure I want to start talking about family.

 

‘Let’s start with your mother.’

 

‘Mummy!’

 

I know the drill. I can hear Mummy’s voice reminding me about dirty linens.

 

‘Yes, your mummy. Is that how you call her too, like most of us in England?’ Alicia was genuinely curious, I could hear that in her voice; she wasn’t being condescending. The question must’ve slipped out accidentally because she was shifting uncomfortably in her chair as soon as she’d asked it. Nonetheless, I still felt pretty put off by the question. What did she think? Why would I call Mummy differently just because I wasn’t English?

 

‘My mother’s name means clarity,’ I started slowly because I had to think quite hard to remember the meaning of her name. People say that the ability to speak another language helps in understanding another culture. Languages are also gateways to another world. That’s true, but what if it’s a world you don’t want part of? What if it’s a world where monsters lurk and demons haunt?

 

‘I was born in a shroud of love and under a cloak of shame. It was clear from the start that I will not honour the family as the stars have told my maternal grandfather, Ah Gong; the fortune teller had foretold that a girl child born to his daughter will be both stranger and kin for this girl child is unlike any girl she shall ever know. My palms reiterated this.’

 

I showed Alicia my left palm where a faint spot told the fortune-teller this bad news.

 

‘Ah Gong felt both stigma and pride that his first-born grandchild is the off-spring of a tycoon’s second wife. At my birth, Ah Gong cursed me for being a girl and blessed me at the same time for I was born with a golden spoon; Mummy would come to say that this was a compliment because a Chinese patriarch never offers praise without first pronouncing displeasure. He muttered that I shall suffer for the sins of my parents and prayed that my father’s fortunes will last more than three generations because as a child, I deserved more even though I was female. 

 

Mummy remembers this bittersweet compliment. She took it to be a compliment since her father never says a good word. His wrath is often expressed with the back of his hands or the lashings of vulgarity in his native tongue. For most of Mummy’s life, she cowered in the presence of her father or retreated in fear of his verbal abuse, even when she was married to my Papa.’

 

The scars on my arm tingle, as I recall this aloud. I could feel the onset of tears as my mind traveled to a place that I’d stopped visiting a long time ago. I squint hard to remember; the images coming in fragments. I am hiding in the cupboard as Ah Gong is slapping Mummy repeatedly for not giving him the money he’d come for; he’d lost in another Mahjong session. The cupboard door is ajar, I smell his anger—the acrid odour of brandy. I see Mummy standing still, and Ah Gong hitting her until she cries out for him to stop. She is speaking in their native language: ‘Don’t be like this Ah Pa! Don’t be like this, I beg you.’ If she had said this in English, how would she say it? ‘Don’t be like this’ does not STOP make, does it? She’s begging. The desperation in me rises as I burst forth from the cupboard and pushed him away from Mummy. I paid a hefty price for my insolence.

 

I don’t tell Alicia all this, even when she asks me why I’ve suddenly stopped. I don’t tell her how remembering this makes me feel. I tell her something else instead.

 

‘When I was born, the nation turned four. Papa, who is a son of the nation, turned thirty-four. By that time, he had been married for fifteen years to a woman four years older. We came into his life when it was still the best of times.’

 

Alicia nodded to indicate that she was listening. She doesn’t take notes, unlike some other psychoanalyst I’ve seen. There was Professor Mitchell, he had insisted that I refer to him as such, who wrote furiously into his lined pad for an hour. If I went too fast, he’d stop me to repeat so he can record what he’d missed. It was distracting to say the least. I never got to Mummy with him. I told him quite a lot about school, though. He seemed interested enough. Oh, and we almost got to the part about Paul—uncle Paul. I almost laughed out loud upon this recollection, and immediately felt the illicit pleasure of being able to laugh at my faux pas. Uncle, indeed! Not after what he’d done. I wonder if I should tell Alicia the little family secrets I’ve managed to hide, even from Mummy.

 

‘What do you mean by the best of times?’ Alicia asked, interrupting my thoughts.

 

‘Papa still had money and was growing richer, just like the nation.’

 

Alicia nods again.

 

‘I learnt years later that nations are made or built,’ I carried on. ‘This knowledge came to me as a surprise. I had never considered this concept before, thinking that nations have always been and just are. Like nations, the human being is also formed, conditioned one way or another. I started to associate my existence to that of a nation’s. How was I formed? Who were my parents before they became Mummy and Papa? Are my values theirs and theirs mine?’

 

‘That’s something we can unpack, for sure—values,’ Alicia promised as I paused to take a breath. 

 

‘When I was born, I already had four other siblings fathered from the union between Papa and his wife, a lady I was told to call side-mummy”. There was Adam, Aloysius, and the twins—Adeline and Andrew. Papa doted on Adam, naturally, Adam being his first-born son, he tolerated Aloysius, loved Adeline and acquiesced to Andrew. That was how things remained even after my return. 

 

Before a nation is born, it existed as another entity: the new nation could have been a state colonised by another nation; a nation bigger and stronger than it. Before a child is born, it existed in symbiosis with its mother; a being enveloping the fetus which it depended its life on. Everything has a beginning and an end…the beginning is always the safest place to be…it’s…’

 

‘We have to stop here, Tiffany,’ Alicia rounds up the visit in her raspy voice. She must be a smoker which is the only explanation I can give for this voice of hers. It’s not an unpleasant voice, I’d rather this than a voice that’s squeaky. Mary Holden had a nasally voice which was one of the reasons I stopped seeing her.

 

‘Alright, then,” I sighed. See you next week, Alicia.’

 

Well, of all places to stop me. I was just getting to the good bits. If she’d let me continue, I’d get to Mummy…eventually.

 

It can be rather annoying to be stopped in the middle of one’s recounting. I’m constantly annoyed by this. It’s hard for me to concentrate these days as my memory is getting fuzzier as the years tumble away. Why ask me to start and then stop me when I’m right in the middle of telling a good story? This has always puzzled me about counselling. I mean, what’s the point? I’m on a roll. I got so angry at Mary once that I told her to fuck off. I felt bad after, but she stopped me at the most crucial part when I was just about to tell her of the scars. Well, I didn’t return the week after. Serves Mary right for stopping me. If she really wanted to know, she’d have let me carry on. But, I know now after doing some research about counselling and psychoanalysis that the listener—the psychoanalyst—must hold all those emotions the client or analysand is throwing out. A pause is necessary for everyone to reflect on the things said and the felt experiences shared.

 

The week rolled away and it’s Alicia day again. I must admit that I was looking forward to seeing her this morning. I’ve gotten quite used to her now but I have bad days and good days. She likes to call our sessions ‘visits’ and I’ve just left it at that. Doesn’t matter what they’re called, does it? It’s an hour of me-time, a whole 60 minutes of feeling heard. Though the word ‘visit’ does often remind me of uncle Paul.

 

‘Good morning, Alicia,’ I chirped as she shuts the door behind me.

 

‘Good morning, Tiffany! You sound positive this morning,’ She greets me back with a smile.

 

It’s so nice to have someone smile at me. I looked at her for a moment and let the smile register. The creases around her hazel eyes indicated that her smile is genuine. I’ve missed seeing a genuine smile. Children always smile sincerely; with adults, it’s harder to tell. Seeing Alicia’s smile warmed my heart.

 

‘Shall we start where we left off?’

 

‘I can’t remember where I left off, Alicia.’

 

‘Well, then let’s start with how you’re feeling today.’

 

I really can’t remember what we were talking about last week. Nonetheless, I always have something to say to Alicia at every visit.

 

I told her about my week, what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been thinking about. Brexit has been on the news again because May is trying to negotiate better terms for Britain. So, we spoke about that for a bit. I told Alicia what I thought about the whole thing. It’s a divorce, isn’t it? Some people will mourn and others will rejoice. There are sides to this. Just like when Papa chose us over them. I kept the last bit to myself.

 

‘Tell me what you remember about your Mummy,’ Alicia changes the subject.

 

I knew that was coming. It’s Her raison d’être, after all. Why do shrinks like to talk about mums and dads so much? Professor Mitchell was quite obsessed with Papa, apart from my being educated by nuns.

 

‘My earlier memories of Mummy are these: Mummy is seated at the edge of the bed. Aunty Betty is seated next to her. They are whispering and Mummy is tearful. I hear the name ‘Pauline’ and I asked who Pauline is. Mummy is holding sheafs of paper in her hand; I see blue handwriting in a beautiful cursive script. A mirror is mentioned and I hear that it has broken into a million pieces. I tell Mummy that this is bad luck; I have heard so many times that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, I said. Mummy scolds me for talking nonsense. Mummy had seen my childish words as a curse over her.

 

Mummy violently angry. I’d had a test. It was a math test. I scored nine out of a hundred for the test and I hid the results from Mummy, too ashamed to tell her that I’d failed. When she found out from Mrs De Souza, the math teacher, she chased me round the house, belting me furiously with a long, thin rattan stick as I ran away from her; only she was faster and each stroke that found a place on my back left a welt.

 

‘You wanton, lying bastard,’ she screamed. ‘Who will want to marry you?’

 

‘How did that make you feel, Tiffany, when your mother called you a bastard?’ Alicia took my pausing as an opportunity to ask about my felt experience; felt experience is something she mentions very often.

 

‘Well, I never considered it properly, really. I guess I am one, in the real sense of the word, that is.’ My voice had started to quiver at this point. Alicia’s question had stumped me.

 

‘Hamm, it’s very interesting where your mind went to, Tiffany. Do you really see yourself as a bastard?’

 

I couldn’t answer that one. So, I just looked at the backs of my hands. Green veins streak across the left one and a liver spot rests like an old friend on the right wrist where the knuckle is. It took several seconds before I could continue again.

 

‘I remember Mummy shouting that she never wants to hear me mention side-mummy” again. I found out much later that side-mummy” has a name—Pauline. My earliest memory of Pauline is as a child in her house. Every other week, Papa would visit Pauline’s house. During that week, when it was Pauline’s turn, Papa would stay over. He took me there sometimes and I would stay over too, sleeping next to Papa on their water-bed. The bed was round, not like the one in Mummy’s house. It also wobbled when I moved. Pauline would tie an embroidered linen over Papa’s pillow. She had told me once that Papa’s hair is oily from all the Brylcreem he uses. The linen was to absorb the oil from his head and keep the pillow case clean.’

 

‘So, let me get this right: Pauline, she is your father’s first wife?’

 

‘She’s my father’s wife, full.stop.’

 

‘Yes, yes, carry on,’ Alicia prompted. I could see that Alicia is getting quite interested now. Who wouldn’t be to a juicy tale of marital saga? A thought popped into my head: what would Alicia feel if she found out who uncle Paul is and what he did? Mummy’s voice reeled off about not washing. My left leg started twitching like it used to when uncle Paul would come close to me when nobody was looking. Why do I even call him uncle?

 

Alicia cleared her throat.

 

‘In Pauline’s house, the routines were different,’ I started again. ‘In the evening, near dinner time, Papa sat in his reclining chair and Pauline served him a large glass of iced cream-soda. I know it’s cream-soda because I sometimes helped her pour the liquid from its F&N can into a rounded beer mug. That’s how Papa liked his cream-soda—very chilled, in a beer mug. Then, he sat me on his lap and sipped his cream-soda while I talked to him. I don’t remember the things I said during our time at Pauline’s house, but I can hear myself talking whenever my mind takes me back to this memory of Papa and me. I also don’t remember where my step-siblings were during this time. But I do remember a time when I stepped into Aloysius’ room, fascinated by the model aero planes hanging from the ceiling. I made sure to stay still and quiet as I watched the model planes sway against the slight breeze blowing from the floor-standing fan. Their swaying made me sway too; I felt light and ready to fly off. Aloysius was busy putting pieces of another model aero plane together.

 

‘Get out, you bastard,’ he growled at me when he saw me swaying there.’

 

‘How did that make you feel, Tiffany?’ Alicia asks. I detect a slight note of urgency in her rasp.

 

‘I did wonder what bastard meant,’ I admitted.

 

‘How old were you when this happened?’

 

‘I don’t remember. Maybe when I was about 7 years old?’

 

‘Would that be around the same time as when your mother caned you for not telling her about the math test?’ Alicia really has a knack for cracking my skull.

 

I tried casting my mind back to where I was living at that time. We moved so much after the robbery, that I often get confused about timing. My memories to how old I was at a point in time were linked to the houses I lived in. When Papa took me to Pauline’s, I had just started primary school, so I’d have to be around six or seven years old then. At that time, we were still living in that big house with a long driveway leading to the garage.

 

‘I should say yes,’ I replied nonchalantly. What does it matter how old I was?

 

‘At Mummy’s house, the routines were different,’ I continued. ‘Papa didn’t drink cream-soda at Mummy’s house. Mummy’s house was also my house where my sisters and I lived, sometimes with Papa and sometimes without…’

 

‘It’s time to stop, Tiffany,’ Alicia reminded me gently that today’s visit had come to an end.

 

I stepped out into the mild autumnal sunshine. Alicia’s practice is situated in a little terrace house that had been renovated to accommodate visiting rooms for various counselling practitioners. I think the other counsellors working there must schedule their client visits so that we never cross paths with other analysands.

 

Walking along the high street, past Daunt Books, my thoughts started to drift back to side-mummy”.

 

When I realised that Pauline was Papa’s wife, my world crumbled. I figured that Mummy mustn’t be so special if daddy has another wife, and he is still living with her. I must’ve been around seven years old. I don’t remember being seven very much but I remember feeling that we were not so special ourselves when I found out that Mummy is Papa’s other wife. I thought about what ‘other’ meant for a long time, even after I’d returned home.

 

My mother was the other woman; it didn’t make her bad. Neither did caning me, I would rationalise to Alicia in a later visit. Mummy loved me, but just didn’t know how to show her love. Alicia was puzzled, at least I thought she was, when I’d said this. ‘What do you mean, she doesn’t know how to show her love?’ she questioned.

 

How can I explain this without explaining about an entire culture that still abides by millennia-old adages steeped in proverbial sayings, filial piety and ancestor worshipping?

 

Filial piety?’ I knew Alicia would ask this. East and West: the t’wain shalt ner meet.

 

Mummy explained with each stroke of the cane that she was caning me for my own good. I’m a girl and girls are not supposed to behave the way I’d behaved. I shouldn’t have pushed Ah Gong. What if he had hit his head and died? Worse, died in our house? His ghost would forever haunt us, never leaving us alone because how can his spirit rest knowing that he has such a disrespectful grandchild.

 

‘But Mummy, he was hurting you,’ I protested helplessly. ‘I was only helping you.’

 

A stroke of the rattan lashed my calves as she belted me for back-talking.

 

‘I’d be an unfilial daughter if I’d let you get away with this insolence,’ she yelled as she hit me again and again.

 

Finally, exhausted, she collapsed into a heap next to me, sobbing. She’d made me lie flat on the parquet floor so that she could cane me without having to chase me around the room, like when she had to for lying about the results of my math test.

 

There had been a few attempts to stop Mummy from abusing the thin rattan cane which she kept in the umbrella stand. The porcelain stand hid the cane well amongst the tall umbrellas, only the cane’s angry red hooked tip peeked out slightly. The tip is hooked because the owner is meant to hang the cane on a nail inserted into the wall. The cane is meant to be visible to the child or servant in the house as a warning not to misbehave.

 

I know because I had asked Mummy once. She was in a good mood then and saw the question as a teaching moment. I asked her when I’d be too old for the cane. She looked cross which caused a Pavlovian shudder. I thought I might’ve stepped out of line then. But she smiled and said ‘soon’. I wasn’t convinced nor did I feel any warmth radiating from her smile, not like when Alicia smiles at me.

 

Papa hid the cane once. When Mummy found out, she hollered at the top of her voice at Ah Ping, our maid, thinking that it was she who had misplaced the cane during her cleaning duties. I saw Ah Ping quiver, head bent, trying to tell Mummy that she really doesn’t know what Mummy was going on about. It finally transpired that Papa had taken the cane into his study as a way to tell Mummy how he felt about its presence among the umbrellas. It didn’t take very long before the cane was returned to his usual place. Mummy has a way with Papa that nobody has.

 

She must have a way with Ah Gong too. When Papa lost all his money, it was Ah Gong who gave us a roof over our heads. I heard Mummy speaking sotto voce to Papa in the master bedroom that Ah Gong had given up putting up Papa and Mummy, ‘See, if it wasn’t because I’ve been a filial daughter, do you think Ah Pa would let us stay here? How shameful it is for a daughter to return to her paternal home like this, do you know?’ They must have thought I was already asleep on the mattress by their bed.

 

‘Do you think Ah Pa would’ve let me marry you, if you were not wealthy?’ Mummy continued, distressed. ‘If it were not for her, do you think I would agree to take second place?’ I know her meant me. She has told me on several occasions, especially when I’ve been wayward, that she’d have sooner squashed the blood clot that I started out as if she’d only known how naughty I would become. As I remember this, I remember too the exact way she’d said it: with her teeth clenched together and lips drawn back till her gums showed. In menacing anger, she’d hiss, ‘I could’ve crushed you with my bare hands, just like this’, as her thumb and index finger on her right hand squeezed together tightly.

 

‘Where is she now, I ask you? Is she sharing your bed, the bed of a poor man?’ Mummy’s voice had risen an octave by now. Her distress is causing me to be anxious. I forced sleep but it wouldn’t’t come.

 

I shivered as a light breeze caused a pile of dead leaves to swirl on the pavement. When Alicia asked me to talk about my family, the leaves on the trees lining the cul-de-sac had begun to brown. Some had fallen, signaling the arrival of autumn. The leaves are browning again, and it’s starting to feel chilly without a coat. It was difficult to talk about Mummy at first but after about eight weeks of skimming the issue, I finally got round to her.

 

I’d come to a point when I started to feel that there’s just too much dirty linens to carry around with me. The load is getting much too heavy for my advancing years.

 

I’ve learnt from Alicia that it’s not about good or bad; it’s about naming one’s felt experience. ‘Can you see that you’ve lived a life of abuse, both physical and emotional?’ This time, Alicia’s voice was softer, and much less urgent.

 

It has taken me some time to let the word abuse roll of my tongue. I was convinced that culturally, caning a child can’t be considered abuse. Why should it be? It’s done for the good of the child, as Mummy had told me often. ‘To scold is to cherish the one you love. To beat is to love the one you cherish.’ as the old Chinese adage claims. To call her caning me as abuse would mean I am an unfilial daughter.

 

I’ve come round since. It.is.abuse. Beating the smithereens out of any child and calling her horrible names is abusive, and there’s no other way to describe it. Such a method of loving a child leaves scars that don’t heal, can’t heal, which some children physically inflict on themselves because their pain is just too awful to bear. I know this. My right thumb rubs the mangled scar tissue on the inside of my left wrist, as I reconcile and embrace the word ‘abuse’. The blunt knife I’d used left gashes as I sawed into my veins. The calluses mirror my internal ones. The scars on my upper arm tingle as I remember the searing sensation left there by bunched incense sticks before they were inserted into Ah Gong’s prayer urn.

 

I’ve come round too because there’s nothing more cathartic than calling a spade a spade. Alicia showed me how to do this. Recognising someone for who they are is a grown-up way to be. I don’t need a head of grey to do this. She gave me a safe space to fight my demons. I’ve thrown Mummy in Hell where she belongs; Hades can take care of her now. And, I figured that if I had to carry these linens for much longer, I’d be better off carrying clean ones than soiled sheets. But there’s still the issue of uncle Paul.
 
Eva Wong Nava
 
Eva Wong Nava is a writer, founder of CarpeArte Journal and author of Open: A Boy's Wayang Adventure. http://www.ethosbooks.com/sg

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