We drove around Georgetown to check out the enchanting and fascinating Penang street arts and wall paintings by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. One of my favourites, the one which captivated me most was the “Little Children on a Bicycle” at Armenian Street.
The bicycle reminded me of our Black Beauty, and the two kids my late brother, Tok Hwa, and I. The expressions of the boy, both excited and scared, were the very feelings I experienced and Tok Hwa as confident each time we rode our Black Beauty, “Warp speed”. Fond memories, and one painful, very painful one would flood back each time I gazed upon that drawing.
Tok Hwa will always be in my heart even after going into the night some four decades ago. He was the gentlest of souls in my life. We grew up together. We did many things together. We shared many mischievous adventures together. We laughed and cried together. We were never separated, inseparable. And, he never raised his voice in anger at me, never.
We shared the same pet cockerel, a mighty fearsome beast indeed. It wandered freely in our home coffeeshop, Chip Seng, amongst the tables and chairs, and feet of customers, pecking on any exposed toes as grubs, and occasionally even cats as intruders. Whilst others reared pet dogs we were happy with our pet guard cockerel, and alarm clock.
How could I forget our first “Harley” tricycle. We pedalled everywhere together. Tok Hwa provided the pedal power from the back seat while I piloted. We would weave around pedestrians and shoppers, honking and screaming frantically for our right of way along the 5-foot way of Jalan Dewa Highway. We were as swift and as noisy as any true blue “Harleys”. We were a damn cool looking pair even without leather jackets and boots.
Only at nightfall with no traffic on the road were we were allowed ride on the real road, Jalan Petri, our highway, only in the quiet of night, and always under the watchful eyes of mum. We were still very young then, and knew not and cared not for any dangers lurking on the road. We were as carefree and born free as any younglings. We lived only to play. O what thrill, what excitement, such unforgettable fun we enjoyed together.
I owed Tok Hwa my life. His calm resolute countenance saved me from the watery night at Kapitol Theatre when I almost drowned in one of the foundation pits that fateful day. Yes, I still remembered his face vividly till today, the face that saved me, and gave me a second chance to life. Superstitious ones claimed that I was saved from the malevolent water spirit, still prowling unsatisfied till today.
We went to the same school, St. Theresa Primary whilst the rest of our brothers Ibrahim Primary. We travelled by trishaw until we were old enough to buy our very own 2nd hand bicycle. He cycled whilst I was only passenger and bags bearer. We had to save our pocket money just to buy that bicycle. We painted her mighty black, Black Beauty, we fondly named her. We cleaned her, shined her, polished her, oiled her and kept the tyres fully inflated. Black Beauty was our pride and joy. We rode to school mighty proud indeed.
One fateful morning, we woke up late for school. He complained that he was still feverish. I could not wait, so I walked to school. He said he will catch up in a bit. Unbeknown, that morning would be the last morning, and those words would be last I would ever hear from him. I would not have a chance to say goodbye. He did not turned up at school. I searched for him during recess. I was frantic and worried.
I rushed home after school quick time. I was still panting, adrenaline charged, when I reached home. I saw Mum’s troubled and worried countenance. I immediately knew something dreadful had happened to my brother. I asked for his where about for I did not see him at school. I received only a silent teary reply. Tears began to swell in my eyes. I held Mum’s hands. They were trembling and cold.
I pled for an answer. I could see Mum was trying hard to control herself but her eyes were welling over. She bent down and hugged me tightly, and whispered haltingly that she would fetch me to the hospital later that evening. I was horrified at the mention of hospital. My brother was quite fine in the morning when I left him. All he needed was a Panadol or two. Why was he in the hospital? My mind was confused, my emotion amok-ed. Then I understood my mum’s grief.
Barely audible, Mum whispered that they found Tok Hwa lying unconscious next to our overturned Black Beauty. He was already in uniform with his school bag. How long he was unconscious, no one knew. They quickly sent him to the hospital. He was in fits, in seizures, unconscious delirium by the time he was warded into the hospital. His prognosis was bleak. I was to find out some years later it was that wretched Meningitis that took my brother away. I was in shock.
I cried that evening when I saw Tok Hwa from outside the ward. I was still not of age to be allowed into the ward. I wished I could go in, to be with him, to hold him, to hug him, to share his pain and to whisper to him not to give up. I just want to be near him. I still had so many things to say and share. I could only hold my mum’s hand ever so tightly as I cried my heart out silently. I was desperate. I wanted a miracle. I wanted my brother back.
Heaven was ominously silent that day. My brother went into the night the following dawn. I was awoken that morn into grief and sorrow. My heart almost stopped when I heard of his passing. So sudden, so fast, I had not said my goodbye yet. I closed my eyes tight and tried to wish the nightmare away. The wailings that morning jolted me, and my nightmare was not a bad dream, and heaven was indeed silent.
We hurried to the hospital to fetch my brother home, or so I hoped. However, traditions dictated that he should not be allowed to come home for fear that his soul might linger on and not leave. So cruel, so cold and so heartless were the traditions.
I managed to wriggle myself beside my brother’s body as they were dressing him up. I wiped away a streak of tears from his eye. I bade farewell. I tried to pry open his already cold and rigid fingers. I wanted to hold him. I willed him to open his eyes. I wished for him to wake up and come home, a miracle. “O please God, where are you?”
We were asked to turn our backs to him as they encoffined him. Again, traditions dictated so that he would not be encouraged to follow us home, again so cruel so cold and so heartless. He was to be immediately buried, no fuss, no wake, no in case he miraculously wakes up. Again, that damned cruel, cold and heartless traditions, and my parents were not allowed to say their final goodbye. Damn those traditions.
I was inconsolable for almost two weeks. I cried each time I thought of him for I missed him dearly. Mum’s grief was worse and deeper. Part of her died that day. Time, only time, began to heal our grieving hearts, and we slowly picked up our lives. In a blink, four decades had gone by, and I still vividly remember those fond memories of my “bestest” and dearest brother, and still feel the pain of his sudden passing, too early, too young.