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Catherine – The One Who Left but Stayed in My Heart


By: Wendy Loh

I remained motionless. Nothing could have distracted my attention and pulled me


away from her, not even taunting remarks from my classmates. “Lame duck!
Lame duck” echoed in my ears but these words left me woundless. I watched as
she crossed the street. I have never felt the rushing of blood in my body, not the
way it pumped whenever I saw her.

She stopped men on bicycles and rickshaw pullers. Even the rich bald man, the
only person who could afford a sports car in Rembau halted and stuck his shinny
head out to look at her. But sadly all pretended to look at the stone or the pillar
that was next to her.

Wherever she passed by, everything stopped as if time paid homage to her silky
smooth beauty.

However, beauty was the angel that defamed Catherine. Yes, that was her name.
Catherine Spencer, the honorable lady of the British resident officer, Mr. Arthur
Spencer who was posted to my village to educate and help the people. Mr.
Spencer was a tall man and he always wore a hat and a tie. The weather as far as
I could remember was scorching hot and Mr. Spencer would perspire so badly that
his shirt was drenched in sweat. He still wore a tie because he said he was a first
class gentleman.

After World War II, there were many pieces to pick up, many things to grow back
and many cuts to heal. I was 14 years old and the year was 1950. Amidst the
recuperation from war, I had my first crush. Like my old man used to say, “A boy’s
got to do what he’s got to do.”

Along the cluttered road, I followed Catherine to the saloon where she curled her
long blonde hair. Sometimes she would realize that someone was tailing her as
she slowed down her pace and turned to look behind only to find me petrified by
her dazzling blue eyes. She must have wondered what this skinny buck-teeth
Malay boy was attempting to do.

“Azmi,” my mother shouted at me from the coffee shop, the place where she
spent the afternoons after cooking lunch and cleaning the house. I swore that I
heard her but I did not respond.

Suddenly, I felt a strong thud on my head and my left ear was on fire. My mother
showed no mercy whenever I failed to answer her call especially when she caught
me staring intently at the ‘White Devil Woman’. The women for some strange
reasons disliked Catherine.

Not that the men liked Catherine since they only wanted to sleep with her. I was
strictly warned by the head of the religious department in my school to not talk
about her and to deny what I naturally felt. It was hypocritically entertaining to
see the morally right male representatives of the society glancing away in disgust
whenever she passed by. But they did speak of her. They did speak of their inner
desires in my house. They were just not aware of my knowledge about their club
meetings because my father sent me to bed. They did not see me packed neatly
behind the curtains.
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The women believed vehemently that she was a threat because she tempted their
husbands. My cousin sister thought Catherine was beautiful and because of her
sensuality, it was difficult to stop her husband, a good-for-nothing peddler from
dreaming about her. But these women never understood that loyalty was earned
and not demanded. Jealousy was a hazardous gift that came free without any
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purchase.

I wish I was old and strong enough to protect Catherine. In my memory no one
cared about her except for me, a love-sick strange kid who was constantly lurking
in the dark. She did not do anything wrong to deserve such treatment from the
folks in town. She merely lived her life. If she was permitted to, she would have
helped the orphans and the homeless. However to each place she went, the male
and female parted in to two groups each passing judgments on her. Funny how no
one saw that she was a gentle and kind soul and that God bestowed her with the
beauty they deemed evil.

I knew a lot about Catherine and I was the only one who saw how she left. The
rest of the inhabitants wanted her to leave the way they imagined. Just like how
they perceived her to be a “White Devil Woman” because of their own
insecurities.

Catherine spent most of her time reading or painting. She hardly spoke to anyone
not because she was arrogant but the folks refused to say more than necessary.
On one particular occasion, she went to the tailor and made herself a stunning
night gown for the New Year’s Eve party held at the Multipurpose Hall. No one
turned up because she revealed her back and cleavage and thus sinful for
viewing.

Mazlan was my childhood friend. We grew up together, went to the same school
and were harassed by the same bullies. He detested the sight of Catherine. He
always complained that I will go mad if I continued talking and thinking about her.
But he didn’t identify with me because to him love was a wonder in heaven and
heaven didn’t exist. Only the barren land called Earth surrounded him like solid
rocks. He was, armed with a pen knife to carve out some warmth from this
strange emotion called love, which he was stingy to give. However this dear
companion of mine was friendly to all who knew him. But at heart, he was close to
none.

“She flirts with her driver! Everyone knows that,” Mazlan told me seriously one
day while we were sitting underneath a mango tree.

I was stunned by his remark but did not show it on my face. Instead I kept
straining my neck hoping to catch a glimpse of Catherine coming out from the
theatre.

“Are you listening to me? Quit wasting time on women, will you? Don’t you see
she is a devil? What’s the big deal about her?”

Bereft of any expressions, I turned to look at Mazlan who skipped school for two
days consecutively to do nothing. “She is a good person.” I answered.

Mazlan shrugged his shoulders and shifted his eyes to gaze at the family of ants
tunneling the ground. “You are different from us. You always protect her. Why?”
He asked.

“Because I want to. I made a vow I would." I replied and continued to look out for
her.

“You are getting more sick by the minute.” He smiled showing me his stained
teeth.

“Maz, why do you always smile? Is that to hide your own shame?” I should have
stopped there but I didn’t. I continued and I somehow didn’t know why I allowed
my speech to betray my friend.
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He stood up glaring at me. His eyes were set to a blaze. He clutched his fists and
a ruthless punch landed on my nose in a fleet before I could defend myself.
“Never speak of my mother again.” He straightened his pants and walked away
leaving me feeling dizzy.

Mr. Spencer visited our only brothel, “Funland World” very often. Everyone knew
about it and so did Catherine. A White Devil Woman was entitled to having a
flirtatious husband, so the crowd cheered. It was her fault that her husband spent
many nights drunk in the smoky daze of vice. It was her wrong doing because she
seduced the gardener, the postman, the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer, the clerk,
the banker, the accountant, the breadman, the engineer, the rubber taper, the
bus driver, the shop keeper, the butler, my father, my brother except for Mr.
Spencer.

The incident that drove Catherine away freed her from captivity. In my little own
ways, I celebrated her exit from hell. On the end of the pole, I was sad because I
couldn’t see here anymore.

Catherine and Mr. Spencer lived in what was known as the rest houseat the Lake
Gardens. It was a huge colonial styled mansion, painted in white with pine trees
surrounding it like a prison. I passed by her luxurious cell everyday after school
since I had to walk to my father’s law office and waited for him to finish work.
Whenever he was busy attending to clients I would sneak out making my way to
her house. On days when I was lucky, she sat in the back garden sipping English
tea and reading “Oliver Twist”. I later became very fond of Charles Dickens
because he was also her favorite author. I read every piece of literature by him
although my best pick is always “Hard Times”. I wonder what was hers.

On that faithful day, I crept out in fear from my father’s workplace; afraid that he
may realize I was no where to be seen and the algebra equations were unsolved.
However, as much as I hoped to see her drinking tea and flipping through pages
of “David Copperfield”, I was disappointed. The insurmountable need to catch
even a glimpse of her countenance could not be repelled.

I had the malicious urge to again climb over the fence and trespass into her
private land. Slowly, I made my way up without pausing to look down. When I
reached the top, I gently spun my right leg over watching out for the barbwire and
my virility. A scratch on my pants was enough to get me grounded for a week.
Swiftly, I descended onto the green grass that Catherine threaded on.

Quietly, I made my way to the kitchen because it was protected from the hustle of
the main road. I whiz passed the servants’ quarter and I hid behind a bush. At that
moment, I thought to myself “What am I doing here?” I was not very clear of my
intention nor did I have any plans. I only wanted to be in her presence.

Just as I was about to leap out I saw Mazlan entering through the back gate. He
had a key! I was puzzled but was soon sidetracked by two voices rejoicing over a
feat. I peeped from among the leaves and saw it was Ah Ming the gardener and
Kassim the driver talking to each other.

“Kassim, since you are my friend I can tell it to you now. But it is something I
would not say during our club meeting.”

“Sssshhh, be careful. If it is about her you better keep it until later. You know the
rules.”

The odd couple looked around speculating if the over grown pine trees were
spying and reporting on them.
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“Ah Ming, can you whisper in my ears then?” Kassim pulled Ah Ming by his shirt
as he squatted on the grass behaving like a toddler begging for sweets.

“Yes. But promise not to spread this around ok?” Ah Ming sat down and leaned
closely to his friend. “I touched her hand yesterday afternoon while transferring
the orchids into the pots.” He rubbed his hands in glee. In the meantime Kassim
too claimed he touched her hand before.

Liars!

Yesterday afternoon Ah Ming was dozing and stealing time from work the whole
afternoon behind the same bush I am hiding now. When Mr. Spencer reached
home, Catherine was dressed to leave. He was half drunk as usual with scratched
marks on his arms. The girls were wild apparently.

While Kassim never touched Catherine because the time he declared he did, she
was painting in the shed. It was a vivid recollection because she was drawing a
self-portrait through the reflection of a mirror, naked.

I held back my anger and shut my ears from the lies that these men sung without
limits. Every time I infiltrated the for males only meeting sessions, I heard the
same stories. Sometimes two men came into physical contact with her
simultaneously. One claimed to have stroked her hair when she passed by and
the other boasted to have felt her slim waistline. Surprisingly I saw Catherine in
the saloon.

I was getting impatient. Until and unless Kassim and Ah Ming moved I couldn’t
come out from my hideaway. As predicted they giggled and observed their
imaginary victories shamelessly. I was very tempted to hit them even if it meant I
will be caught, punished and humiliated.

Breaking me out of condensed rage was a scream from the house. It was
Catherine’s. My heart stopped. Both Ah Ming and Kassim ran to the back door and
dashed into the house. Responding to the scream, Mr. Spencer shouted, “Get out
now!”

I raced into the kitchen through the back door and stowed my boney body behind
the refrigerator. Kassim and Ah Ming were standing near the staircase with their
jaws on the floor. Catherine was sobbing like a child against the wall. Mr. Spencer
was half drunk. But I saw another person. It was Mazlan. His pants were
unbuckled exposing his rather well-endowed manhood. He was Mr. Spencer’s
comfort boy.

Sometimes this episode comes back to haunt me like a gory scene from a horror
film. However no one spoke about it ever again. Mazlan was sent away to his
relative from the East Coast and the last I heard of him he became a school
teacher. Mr. Spencer drank himself to death fifteen years after Malaysia obtained
her independence.

As for Catherine, she followed her calling and returned to her motherland. I
remember that I waited for her at the railway station, wishing for one last look. I
bought an apple with my weekly pocket money and presented it to her. My hands
trembled as she received the apple. She thanked me, smiled and boarded the
train never to come back.

I am 60 years old now and was married twice and have had many girlfriends. But
deep within me the gentle strokes of Catherine’s painting left a permanent mark
in my soul. Whenever I was asked, “Who is the most special woman in your life?”
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My reply will always be “She who left but stayed in my heart.”