Lay Hoon was with child. As head of the English department for the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Primary School, it was tough going in the years she and Wei Liang wanted a baby.
Twelve hours a day punished her forty-five kilogram kg frame. Her nails were chipped from a regular diet of cup noodles from her office drawer.
Their hopes faded. On an occasion when Lay Hoon had what she thought was a stomach virus, the vomiting and dizzy spells didn’t go away. On drips in the hospital for dehydration, her gynaecologist broke the news. Lay Hoon thought her heart was going to jump out. And Liang, he was like a child with an overdose of cotton candy.
But Lay Hoon did not stop working. Her colleagues kept saying, ‘With the baby, you should live like a queen. A textile tycoon’s son can surely afford it.’
It was not Lay Hoon’s way. She would have none of his third-generation money or heirloom of traditions. And her in-laws.
She made Liang promise they would not live with his parents. A three-bedroom apartment, two streets away from Lay Hoon’s church was a fine start. No one in the neighbourhood drove more than a Daihatsu hatchback and you could stroll in the streets in your flip-flops.
Yet there was no escaping Mrs Lim’s social calendar. There was Chinese New Year, parents’ birthdays, anniversaries, Autumn Festival and All Soul’s Day. ‘One hour,’ was Lay Hoon’s standard reminder to Liang on how long she would stay each time they showed up for the occasion.
That was long enough for the dreaded question from the clan: ‘When is the baby coming?’
In desperation, Lay Hoon asked Liang: ‘How about moving to New Zealand? There should be plenty of places to hide.’
‘We’re not refugees. Besides, I can’t leave the business to Dad. You know he’s getting old.’
‘Promise me. No more of that nonsense from your mom, then.’
‘Don’t worry. I think she’s running out of ideas.’
Lay Hoon recalled the pre-baby days and how she got jumpy when the phone rang and Liang was often out of town on business. She let the answering machine swallow up that high-pitch sing-song voice. What now? Is it ‘I found a fortune teller to read your palm’ or ‘The Chinese doctor has this fertility brew.’ And there was a day when Mrs Relentless Lim showed up at Lay Hoon’s apartment with a man whose white beard hung down to his waist. He had teeth interlaced with gold and silver fillings and couldn’t stop raising his right eyebrow at her. Mrs Lim said she flew in the Fengshui man from Shanxi, China, to mitigate the imbalance of forces in Lay Hoon’s apartment.
He mumbled to Mrs Lim which translated to mean the couple had to move their bed with the bedpost facing the toilet door to ward off negative energy.
‘I’m glad we’re keeping the news from her. I could use a break,’ she told Liang after the doctor assured them the baby’s well at eleven weeks.
‘I’ve got to tell her before you balloon up.’
‘OK. But no visits. No calls. Just leave me alone.’
It was All Soul’s Day. Liang met his family before the peek of the sun at the cemetery to pay respects and spring clean the burial grounds of the ancestral plot.
‘Ma, you’ll have your grandchild next year,’ Liang blurted. Mrs Lim tipped over the last mandarin orange she had placed and the pyramid collapsed and rolled away from great grandfather’s marble altar. Liang believed it was the first time in his thirty -five years he enjoyed the crickets’ chorus on that gentle hill.
‘She’ll be in bed a lot. No phone calls. No visits. Please.’
‘Sure. Sure.’ Mrs Lim’s voice bubbled up.
‘I got to get back.’
It had been a while since Lay Hoon could see her toes.
The thirteenth day of Chinese New Year was the big night of the year where the Lim family send the sky gods home. She and Liang agreed it was time to show their faces. But after eight hours at school, her legs felt like concrete pillars.
‘Why don’t you stop all this hard work? What if something happened to the child?’ Liang chided. The Post Office was three blocks away from his parents’ home.
‘Is that all you care about?’
‘No, darling. It’s four weeks before the baby comes and you haven’t stopped.’
‘I’ll go mad obsessing over the baby. I need to keep busy. And your mom …’
‘I know. I know. She needs to stay away from you.’
Lay Hoon took a deep breath, lifting her enlarging belly.
In the past four weeks, there was this tightness under her left rib cage. And the sweating at night. ‘Anxiety,’ the doctor said. ‘Nothing to worry about.’
There’s the question of the sex of the baby. She and Liang decided they didn’t want to know. She did not want to feel worse at the prospect of not producing a male child for Liang.
‘What’s going to happen tonight?’ Lay Hoon said staring out the window at a group of boys playing football in an open field.
‘It’s just another get together. I’ll make sure nothing weird happens.’
As their midnight blue hatchback swallowed up the driveway of the Lim’s residence, a few firecrackers popped in the distant. The quiet, million-dollar-a-house neighbourhood was interrupted by the last stirrings of Chinese New Year. This night, the ancestor-worshipping Taoists pay respects to the sky gods who guarded over them and their families. The spirits of wealth, harmony, prosperity and peace have done their work. They now return to heaven home with their coffer of favourite foods, paper money and incense.
It was hazy all day. The pregnant clouds ushered in wind hissing at the travellers’ palm trees. The stars astrologers foretold futures by are staring at the expectant guest. The stars of Lay Hoon’s God alerted the shepherds of a baby to be born. And what of the spirits of the Lim family? What would they be gossiping tonight?
A wave of incense brushed by her. She fingered for her inhaler in her handbag.
The altar table held a fan of chrysanthemum flowers. Candles etched with the phoenix on one and dragon on the other guarded the four corners. The fattest roast pig headed the table. Two chickens and two ducks flanked its sides like bodyguards. And the gods. Sweets appeased them – lotus cakes, peanut candy, almond cookies, honeyed melon, red date cup cakes. It was told that they must have a taste of the earthly brew of Chinese wine fit for the Emperor. And only tea, the leaves picked by virgin girls pleased them.
The kitchen god, the earth guards, the house guardian have their portions. It was the fortune god who claimed centre place.
Mrs Lim beamed at the showcase cabinet holding her husband’s collection of cognacs from around the world. On the top shelf was the tin trunk, no larger than a pillow, where he brought hand-embroidered Chinese linen from Canton to Malaysia. Twenty-five years since, he has claimed the title of textile king of Asia.
Tonight, Mr and Mrs Lim pined for a different fortune. A male heir. One to flourish the Lim business. One to uphold the family name.
That hope was ballooning in Lay Hoon, their daughter-in-law of their only son.
Lay Hoon toddled her way to the family ancestral room. Ten pairs of eyes on the wall haunted her. There’s great -grandfather, great-grandmother, third grand-aunt and Mr Lim’s parents staring from the Thai teak wood frames on apple white walls.
The plumes from the incense sashayed into a gentle cloud. Lay Hoon’s eyes welled up and she breathed harder. Puff! Puff! A quick take of the inhaler to ease the airways.
Liang held her hand.
She lumbered her way to greet her father- and mother-in-law sipping Jasmine tea from their rosewood chairs.
‘We haven’t seen you for eight months. Look how big you are,’ Mrs Lim said to the tummy. ‘Is he kicking well?’ He. Why did she have to use ‘he’ like she knew. Or did she?
‘Twenty-eight more days, right? Let me see.’ Mrs Lim laid her hands on Lay Hoon’s tummy and rubbed it as if she was marinating a chicken. ‘Quite round. Quite, quite round.’
Cindy, Liang’s second sister, shuffled over and did the same.
‘What was that for?’ Liang butted in.
‘For good luck,’ said Cindy. ‘If it’s a boy, I could win the lottery. Better to believe than not.’
Lay Hoon saw great-grandfather’s portrait moving towards granduncle’s. She grabbed Liang by the elbow. He hooked her up from the underarm and led her to the nearest chair.
When her head was steady, she issued obligatory nods and smiles to her sisters-in-law. They were spread around the hall busy folding gold paper ingots as offering to be burnt later.
She looked surreptitiously at the clock. 9.30 pm. Two and a half hours more before the ceremony. She promised Liang, just this time. She heaved.
Amy, Wei Liang’s eldest sister came with her tray of paper and sat beside Lay Hoon.
‘Need a pillow?’
‘No thanks. It doesn’t help the kicking.’
Amy looked as mothers would. ‘A feisty one, huh?’
‘Ya. I don’t know which is worse. The non-stop circus inside or …’
‘A male child for Liang would be a circus, alright. You know. The son of the first son nonsense. Never mind them. Boy or girl, you still need to feed them, clothe them. And Liang…it’s about time this boy cuts the strings from my mother dear.’
Lay Hoon raised her eyes at Amy. Then, cast her a weary smile.
‘Thank God I have none of these ancient heads on Steven’s side.’
Time whittled away with Amy. Lay Hoon had an annual report of Amy’s three kids, husband’s travel schedule and gossip from her mahjong friends.
Minutes before the auspicious midnight hour, Siew, an old maidservant, appeared from the kitchen with a basin of water flooded with jasmine buds.
‘It’s time,’ Mr Lim announced. He washed his hands in the basin to greet the gods with respect.
Six families filed in order of rank. Each took their turn in front of the altar table. They bowed. They clasped Chinese paper dolls representing members of their family, lifted it sky high and mumbled their thanks and slipped in their wishes. The pact was sealed as they planted three incense sticks into a brass urn.
Lay Hoon and Liang stood by the side of the hall as their expression of respect. No one bothered this church couple about family rituals.
For the sake of Mrs Lim’s going to the temple for the past months - more times than she went to the hairdressers - to offer gifts and prayers and chantings to the gods for her grandchild, it was the least they could do.
Lay Hoon held her husband’s arm and leaned on him as she watched each family complete their tasks.
Wouldn’t Jeremy do? Lay Hoon watched Amy’s 6-year-old boy. Amy belonged to Steven’s family and had done her duty. What was she thinking? Of course it wouldn’t do. Lay Hoon knew that in her father’s and grandfather’s time, the fault was always said to be that of the woman, and she could be put away if she could not bear any male children. And yes, the son of the only son in this family is a grave matter.
But could she be spared of this moment?
Mrs Lim flagged Lay Hoon and Wei Liang to the altar table. Lay Hoon saw the pictures on the wall move again.
‘You said nothing weird will happen,’ Lay Hoon grunted.
‘I’m sure it’s nothing.’
Mrs Lim lit a yellow strip of prayer paper, which she had earlier gotten from the temple medium who etched black inked words on it. The prayer paper burnt, the ashes dropped into a bowl of water.
‘Come. Come. Drink this. Good luck for baby.’
Lay Hoon stared at a bowl of water with charred bits floating on the surface. She gripped Liang’s hand and gave it a tug. Liang tugged back.
‘Drink now before baby comes.’
‘Ma, you know that we don’t do such things.’
‘Then, you be responsible if I don’t get grandson?’
Lay Hoon’s dressed stuck onto her back. Trickles ran down her neck. She squeezed his hand tighter. Liang whispered: ‘It’s only water. A little dirty. But it’ll get her off our backs.’
‘You said. Nothing.’
‘Drink. Drink,’ Mrs Lim egged on.
Lay Hoon picked up the porcelain bowl. The residue of the ashes had settled. Mrs Lim stuck her finger in and gave it a stir. The bowl was shuffed up to her lips and before Lay Hoon could push it away, she found herself guzzling down the water. With Mrs Lim’s firm hand, Lay Hoon finished it to the last drop.
‘Good. Good. Now, we see what the spirits say.’ Mrs Lim studied the collection in the bowl.
Hail Mary, Mother of God… the lines raced in Lay Hoon’s head.
‘Are we done?’ Liang asked, breaking his mother’s gaze.
Lay Hoon stormed out of the house, clopping hard on the marble floor with her sandals.
Liang dashed after. On the grass fringe of the porch, Lay Hoon arched over her belly and belched. She squatted and tucked her head between her legs for air.
‘It’s good to get it out of your system,’ Liang squatted beside her.
She spat a piece unburnt paper stuck under the tongue. She planted her bottom on the grass, drew a big breath and said: ‘This is my baby. No one. Not your mother. Not your father. And not you, Lim Wei Liang, will have anything to do with it. ‘IT’ is mine.’
On a rainy Friday, 13th March, Lay Hoon became a mother. She picked the name Olivia. It meant peace. And she would be strong to her Chinese name - Shengyin - a woman of principles.