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BUTTERFLY DREAMING

By Frank Chan Loh All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Drama

Blurb

A fortune-teller prophesies Albert will kill his father! A voice in his head urges: Go for it. His grandad, in his letters, advises: Love your dad. The voice or his grandad? Crikey, who should 17 years old Albert listen to?

Chapter 1

Butterfly Dreaming

Chapter 1

To tell you the dead honest truth, I didn’t believe in fortune-telling. I didn’t think it possible to foretell the future the way you could the weather. One day however without my seeking it, a fortune-teller bloke’s little bird made a prophecy for me, a prediction that struck me dumb and sure changed my future, I can tell you that. It shot out from nowhere like a haymaker, whamming me right in the kisser.

These fortune-tellers, these rip-off merchants with their fortune-cookie predictions, they were two-a-penny here in Kuala Lumpur especially outside the KL central market where they’d be bunched around the entrance. Some sat at termite-eaten tables; others on time-eaten carpets. Most of them were Indian, the rest Chinese. Usually folks, on their way to or on their way from the market, housewives mostly, skirted them; the Malay and Indian matrons flopping along in rubber sandals, the Chinese clopping around in wooden clogs.

On that fateful Saturday, I’d gone to the Cold Storage Eatery for a bite with my mate, Hong. This was our favourite hangout, after school or on weekends, when we’d ride the ten miles back to the city. We loved the nosh served there and I loved the café’s air-conditioning, a welcome relief from the heat and the mugginess.

In the Cold Storage Eatery, as usual, my thoughts turned to Narelle. This restaurant, that was the place where we’d had our first date. That date had turned out to be a disaster. That table next to ours, that was the table where she and I had sat the day I’d shown myself—I was now thoroughly ashamed of it—to be a sex-starved headcase.

Would she ever forgive me? Would we ever get back together? I tensed my jaw. I’d got to get her back. I narrowed my eyes. Maybe I wouldn’t bother. Then I heard in my head Narelle’s endearing laughter. I jutted out my chin. Yeah, I’d try and get her back. I pursed my lips. I’d just got to hang in there, that was all. I gritted my teeth. I’d ring her when I got home. If she answered, whoopee, my problems were solved; if she didn’t, rats, I’d have to try again another time.

Putting down my fork and spoon, I sighed and stared into the distance. Hong’s voice calling me brought my mind back to our surroundings.

‘Hey, Albert, something bugging you?’ Hong’s face was a snapshot of concern.

His solicitude touched me, I’ll have you know. Should I tell him the story of my short-lived romance? Nah, I didn’t think I would. It was too complicated and too long a yarn to tell. But he was my mate. I should tell him. Should I or should I not? All right, I’d tell him.

I looked at Hong. ‘Oh, some girl problem.’

‘Didn’t know you’ve got a girlfriend?’ He winked at me. ‘What’s her name?’

‘Narelle.’

‘She a white girl?’

Why must he straightaway get the idea it was a white girl? Just cause I was white? ‘Nah, she’s Eurasian. Mother Chinese, father Australian.’

‘When did you meet her?’

He’d kill me. I’d been keeping all this to myself. ‘Some time ago. At our school fete.’

‘At our school fete? And you didn’t tell me?’

I searched his face for a hint to his reaction. Was he pissed off with me for not letting him in on my secret? Better change the subject. ‘Listen, let’s not talk about it, shall we? It’s too knotty a yarn to tell. One day, I’ll tell you.’

‘Okay.’ He shrugged. ‘Tell me when you’re ready.’

I was thankful he was so understanding. ‘All right.’

I looked at the bowl of beef dumplings he was gobbling up. It looked delicious and gave off a warm, zesty, sesame oil smell that stirred up my flux of saliva. I felt peckish. I looked at my juicy dish of beef rendang—dark red, crumbly chunks of beef, coated with spices and curry powder. I felt even more peckish. I fell on my nosh. We scoffed our grub in silence.

After some time, I put down my fork and spoon and waved to catch Hong’s attention. ‘How d’you reckon the independence thing will work out?’

A great believer in a country’s right to self-determination, I was over the moon the country would soon be gaining its independence.

Hong didn’t look up from his grub.

I said, ‘You know, the merrymaking, the day the country’s getting independence . . .’

Hong finally bunged his chopsticks down on the table and looked up. ‘Merdeka Day? What about it?’

I leaned forward. ‘Why don’t we come down to KL that day and the two of us can paint the town red and then stay for the handover ceremony at midnight?’ Would Narelle be back with me by then? Stop thinking of her, you berk. You promised yourself you wouldn’t.

I looked hopefully at Hong. ‘What d’you say?’

My mate raised his eyebrows in query. ‘Who’s coming to hand over independence? The Queen?’ He scooped up a spoonful of soup and guzzled it.

I didn’t see why it should matter who came, whether it was the Queen or her rep. On second thoughts, maybe it did matter. Any country getting independence, I reckoned, would want the head of the colonising country to come and hand over the instruments of freedom. I cleared my throat. ‘She’s not coming.’

Hong shrugged. ‘Busy, I suppose.’ His face brightened. ‘She could send Prince Charles instead.’

‘Prince Charles?’ I smiled to myself. ‘He’s only eight.’

‘When was he born?’

‘You work it out.’

Hong tilted his head. ‘Let me see. 1957 take away 8.’ He looked skywards. ‘So Prince Charles was born in 1949.’ He winked at me. ‘He can still come to do the honours. You think he can’t? He can walk and talk, can’t he?’

I shrugged. ‘I suppose he can.’

‘So,’—Hong raised a quizzical eyebrow—‘who’s coming then?’

‘The Duke of Gloucester.’

He went back to scoffing his soup.

I waved again to get his attention. ‘What d’you think then about my idea, about coming to KL to join in the celebrations?’

Hong raised his head. ‘Fantastic idea!’ His face broke out in a grin. ‘Let’s drink to that.’ He lifted his glass of sugarcane juice.

I grabbed my glass of grass jelly and clinked his glass. ‘Done.’

Later, when we’d trickled out of the Cold Storage Eatery, the warm air socked us in the face, crushing the breath out of us. Immediately the humidity went to work. I began to sweat. Hong’s glasses misted up, making him look like a panda. He took them off to polish them.

I hated the Malayan weather. There were no seasons here, I tell you, not like in good old England, where my father hailed from and where I’d lived with my grandparents when a nipper, from the time I was five till the time I was twelve and also not like in Australia, where Narelle came from. I ached for the English weather with its four seasons. In Malaya, there was only one. The weather here was a humdrum cycle of heat and clamminess. Year in, year out, without let-up, without change, it was the same, continuous, hot, ho-hum summer, sticky as Sellotape. There was no autumn, no winter, no spring—no renewal.

Hold on a mo, what was I saying? That wasn’t quite right. There were seasons. Two, take your pick. The hot season when the sun beat down like that was its only business, baking and steaming everything up. And the wet season when it poured and poured without a break like a kaput shower head, day after day, week after week, like nobody’s business, overflowing the streams, overrunning the rivers, flooding the land, spreading dankness and mildew over everything. It was like Noah’s time come again.

Hong and I soon came to the back entrance of the KL central market, a place that was as crowded and noisy as a stadium on Cup Final day and always glutted with a mixed bag of whiff. As we drifted past the dried food section, the burning niff of dried fish and dried prawns, fish paste and prawn paste, chilli powder and curry powder and all sorts of strange spices tickled our nostrils. And as we tripped past the other sections, the sight of all kinds of unbelievable produce, from exotic fruits to erotic foods, attacked our eyes. These smells made us sneeze; these sights made our eyes water. As we picked our way with dogged vendors hollering at us from all sides to buy their wares, we had to watch how we stepped around. Being perpetually flooded, the floor was always wet and slippery. If we weren’t careful, we’d slip and skid.

The moment we burst out of the market through the front entrance, we heard a God-awful squawk like the sound of rusty brakes, so frightfully loud it killed all the din around us and nearly split our eardrums, for heaven’s sake. We turned to see what the hell was causing the racket—or who. That was when we spied the fortune-teller. He was a skinny Indian. Noticing his fleshless cheeks, toothless mouth and chiffon skin, I couldn’t help thinking that telling fortunes obviously wasn’t putting much on this seer’s dinner plate, the poor bloke. Dressed in a flowing, white, full-length Nehru dress, the bloke sat cross-legged on a crinkled, balding scrap of mat. I’d never for the life of me been able to work out how Asians could do that: sit that way.

Me, being English, understandably I couldn’t; not for love or money, I couldn’t. Hong, being Chinese, could, I was sure. Narelle, could she do it? She was half-Chinese. Maybe she could; maybe she couldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to find out; she wouldn’t talk to me. There I went again, thinking of her. I’d got to stop it. I shook my head to slough off thoughts of Narelle from my mind.

In front of the fortune-teller sat a birdcage, a little green parrot inside it. The bird was slightly larger than a budgerigar, the kind Indian fortune-tellers used to tell the future. It was this mini feather duster that was causing the hullabaloo. It’d gone mental. It’d squashed itself into a ball of excitement or was it fear?—beating its wings, squawking, yo-yo-ing, and shooting up and swooping down, now here, now there, now everywhere. Amazed, Hong and I stopped. With arms folded, we watched with interest the bird’s skylarking. Then the creature swooped down to perch on its bar and seemed to calm down, not flying madly around any more. It tilted its head and studied us. We, in turn, studied it.

‘Look,’—Hong pointed—‘it’s watching us.’

‘Yeah, it is,’—I smiled—‘like Big Brother!’

Then the bird let off another of its spiking squawks.

At once, Hong and I, in unison, slapped our hands over our ears.

‘Sure has a mighty voice.’ I laughed.

Hong nodded. ‘Sure has.’ He said to the fortune-teller in Malay, ‘Where’d your bird get such a strong voice? You trained it?’

‘No, no, Tuan, I never trained it,’ the Indian fortune-teller replied in Malay. ‘It’s never behaved this way before.’ He looked us over, respect stealing into his eyes. ‘Something momentous is about to happen in your lives, Tuan.’

‘Really?’ I replied in Malay. I’d better get the hell out of here.

‘No, no, this is true.’ The bloke motioned us not to go away. ‘Let me find out for you what it is.’

I was getting quite pissed off by the whole thing. ‘I don’t believe in these things.’

Then the Voice spoke, the one I kept hearing in my head. ‘Stay. Hear what the man has to tell you.

I found this voice in my head a pain in the arse. Here I was, talking to this fortune-teller, quietly minding my own business and there that fortune-teller was, talking to me, loudly taking care of his business and what did the voice do which it’d got no business doing? Barged into my thoughts like the KGB, that's what. The pain in the neck! It always did that, whenever I was in the middle of something. I usually pretended it wasn’t there but you think it’d leave me alone? Not on your nelly, it wouldn’t.

‘No, Tuan,’ the fortune-teller said, ‘there must be something special about you, else my bird wouldn’t behave this way.’

The bird started squawking again, flapping wildly. It’d gone completely bonkers.

‘My bird’ll show you you’ll do great things.’ The hopeful Nostradamus looked expectantly at us.

Hong squatted on his haunches like he was going to do Number Two. He asked the fortune-teller, ‘How’s it going to do that-lah?’

Crumbs, I wished Narelle were here; she’d certainly be intrigued by it all. I’d really got to get back with her again. I’d ring her the moment I got home. Nah, I should stop thinking of her. I brought my attention back to Hong. Desperate to slink away, I grabbed hold of my mate’s arm. ‘C’mon. Let’s go.’

Aiya, wait a bit.’ Hong, the dozy berk, he was curious; he shook my hand off. ‘I want to see what this guy’s bird can do.’

You should stay. Listen to what the man has to say,’ the Voice whispered. ‘What have you got to lose?

I wavered. The Voice’s suggestion made sense somehow. After all what did I have to lose? Besides if Hong didn’t want to leave, I couldn’t either. We came to the city together and we had to go home together; that was what we always did. What should I do? Should I go or stay? But this weird street show was beginning to tickle my fancy. Maybe I should stay. On second thoughts, maybe I should go. Nah, I should stay. Yeah, yeah, I’d stay.

My mind made up, I said to Hong, ‘Oh, all right, we’ll stay.’

On cloud nine, Hong turned to the budding prophet. ‘Okay, do your worst. Here’s your chance. Show us how clever your bird is.’

By this time, a crowd had gathered like a chatter of monkeys to gawp at us getting our fortune told. By this time too, the shuttlecock on two legs seemed to have completely calmed down. It wasn’t squawking and thrashing about any more.

The fortune-teller picked up a pack of cards lying in the centre of the mat. They weren’t your ordinary playing cards, mind you. Nah, they were larger, their backs flowered up with Hindu writing that looked like bean sprouts.

‘First,’—the seer raised his index finger—‘I’ll cover the cage so my bird can’t see what you’re doing.’

‘Great!’ Hong rubbed his hands in anticipation. ‘Do that.’

The fortune-teller plucked out a black cloth and chucked it over the birdcage. He asked Hong to pick a card. Hong did and then flashed the card at me and winked. Itching with curiosity, the crowd craned their necks to peek at the card. It showed the picture of a Hindu god with four arms and an elephant trunk for a nose.

The fortune-teller asked us to remember the picture. We nodded. Then he told Hong to return the card to the pack and to pull up the cage door. Hong did what was asked of him but you think the bird would step out? Not on your precious life, it wouldn’t. The onlookers yelled come-ons but it didn’t even flicker a slip of feather or twitch a fillet of muscle.

Hong was thoroughly pissed off. ‘Why won’t your bird come out?’

‘Don’t know.’ The bloke scratched his head. ‘It’s never behaved like this before.’ The fortune-teller snapped the door shut. Then he eyed me, not saying anything, just quietly eyeballing me.

What was he gawking at? I was about to ask him why he was gawping at me when he said, ‘Maybe my bird wants you to let it out.’

Me? I laughed to myself. Me? The chappie who thought all this was a bucketful of hogwash? I gestured no.

Yes, you.’ The Voice became bossy once more. ‘Why don’t you open the door?

I ignored the Voice.

‘I don’t want to.’ I waved a dismissive hand at the fortune-teller. ‘I’m the bloke who doesn’t believe in all this, remember?’

‘C’mon, open the door.’ Hong winked at me. ‘Do it for a laugh.’

The crowd joined in, urging me to unlock the cage. Undecided, unsure what to do, I glanced around me. I folded my arms and closed my eyes, breathing in deeply. What should I do? Should I unlock the cage or shouldn’t I? I didn’t have anything to lose. I’d do it.

I opened my eyes and said to the fortune-teller, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’

The crowd cheered. Hong beamed. The fortune-teller smirked.

I whipped away the black cloth. I yanked up the cage door. The bird strutted out. With head held high and wings pressed against its sides, it straightaway goose-stepped towards the pack of cards.

The crowd held its breath.

Using its beak, the bird scattered the cards, swinging its head from side to side, flinging the cards left, right and centre like fallen leaves in a rush of autumn wind. Then it chopsticked one of the cards, carried it to its master and peacocked back into its cage.

The fortune-teller snapped the door shut. He flipped the card over and showed it to us. When the crowd caught a glimpse of the card, they uttered oohs and ahs. What d’you know? It was the one with the image of the Hindu god with four arms and an elephant trunk, the same card Hong had chosen earlier.

I was flabbergasted.

The Indian wobbled his head. ‘You believe now my bird’s got magical powers?’

I was dumbfounded. Overcome I stared stupidly at the fortune-teller. I rubbed my eyes as if wiping away the sleep from them. ‘How much?’

The fortune-teller held up his hands and fanned out his fingers. ‘Ten dollars.’

‘What!’ Hong screwed up his face. ‘Ten bucks just to tell your fortune? Aiya, that’s a bit steep. C’mon, let’s beat it.’ He pulled me by the arm but I resisted.

The crowd too muttered that it was a swindle.

I hesitated. Ten dollars, that was a lot of dosh, I knew. My dad’d kill me if I threw away ten dollars just for a fortune-teller reading. What should I do? Should I refuse to pay and scoot off? But this teller of fortune had knocked me dead. By now I was really hooked. Also I wanted to find out what he could tell me about my future. All right, I’d hand him the ten dollars. I hoped Dad didn’t hear about this. Nah, I didn’t think he would. Hong wouldn’t tell. I was sure of that.

I dug bravely into my pocket and instantly came up with a ten-dollar note. When the onlookers saw me fish out the dosh, they gasped in alarm. I could understand their interest: they’d shovelled so much time into the whole business that they now felt they’d earned the right to cheer or jeer.

Hong flicked his hand as though swatting away flies. He said to me, ‘You’re crazy, you know that?’

Pleased with himself, the fortune-teller laid out my money on the carpet and smoothed it out.

I did what the bloke told me. I jumbled up the cards and placed them on top of my ten-dollar note. I lifted the birdcage door. The crazy twitterer sprang out. It messed up the cards just as before. Then it picked a card and beaked it to its sahib.

When the fortune-teller glimpsed the card, his mouth fell open. He gaped at it. It showed a scowling bloke, a wavering halo of flames circling his head, glaring at him with hostile eyes. The aspiring prophet frowned. Fear bleached his face. As if he’d touched a scorpion, he dropped the card.

What was eating the bloke? I raised my eyebrows. ‘Something the matter?’

‘No, Tuan, it’s bad.’ The Indian jerked away his hand. ‘I’ll get my bird to choose another card.’

Bad! What the hell did he mean by bad? I shook my head. ‘It’s already picked one.’

‘No, no, Tuan. This card’s very bad.’

What game was the bloke playing? ‘It’s all right with me. Why don’t you read it?’

‘No, Tuan, let the bird pick another.’

One card was as good as another as far as I was concerned. What the hell was going on? ‘This one’ll do me just fine.’

Some chatty smarty in the crowd yelled, ‘He wants that card. Read it for him.’

Hong tapped me on the shoulder. ‘C’mon, we should’ve vamoosed.’

‘Nah, wait,’—I raised my hand—‘I want to hear what the card says.’

‘All right, Tuan’—the fortune-teller shrugged— ‘if that’s what you want.’

Of course that was what I wanted. Couldn’t the dozy berk see that? Had the dippy geezer gone off his head? I waited patiently for him to pick up the card and read it for me.

The teller of fortunes bent over and carefully retrieved the card he'd dropped earlier. His hand was shaking like a pneumatic drill.

‘The card says, Tuan—’ the fortune-teller’s voice quivered ‘—very bad, very bad.’ The bloke swallowed hard.

Why the heck was he faffing around for? Anyway I felt a sudden stab of fear. Oh, my God, don’t tell me he really saw something bad in the card. ‘Well, what does the card say?’

The soothsayer stared at me. I looked away, my heart pounding with fear. The fortune-teller’s face softened. He joggled his head as though clearing his earlier shock from his mind. Trying to steady his hands, he stretched them out in front of him, the card in his right hand. The tremor in his hands had now stopped. He brought the card close to his face. This time he stared at it without flinching. A weak smile crept from his lips.

The fortune-teller looked up at me. ‘You’ll do great things, no doubt about that.’ His smile blossomed. ‘My bird’s right. You’ll achieve greatness. But . . . but—’ doubt seeped into his voice again; his smile began to wither ‘—this isn’t the kind of greatness I . . . I . . . was thinking of.’ The bloke’s voice trailed off. His smile died.

What the hell was going on? The senseless git, he was really scaring the shit out of me. ‘Give it to me straight. What’s this great thing I’ll do?’

The bloke swallowed hard once more. His eyes grew large till they were about to pop out of their sockets. He looked me straight in the eye. I looked him straight in the eye too. Fear was drying up my mouth, I can tell you that. When the fortune-teller spoke, his voice shook again and his hands trembled.

‘The card says . . . it says . . . you’ll . . . you’ll kill your father.’

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