Short story collection


Suspicion

“It is better for all if we discontinue the tuition,” Mei Ling’s father, Kenneth Teo said, “Just take your pay and leave. Don’t ever come back or show your face here.”

All because he, Lam Kok Peng had asked his student Mei Ling when her menstrual periods were due. His statement had been taken out of context.  Ovulation and reproduction were normal subjects in biology and he had asked his student that innocuous question only to reinforce a point. Did any of his other students run to their parents to complain when he asked them, during the lesson on lungs and respiration, whether they had tried smoking? Was it not his duty, as a tuition teacher to impart knowledge?

“You are getting too familiar,” Mei Ling’s mother  added.

Normally, Kok Peng would have used the stairs to walk down six storeys from the tuition girl’s apartment. Although he was corpulent, the regular morning jogs and visits to the gymnasium had ensured that he had enough stamina to walk down.  At the deserted lift lobby, he pressed the call-button and waited impatiently. He could not help casting an occasional glance at the door of Mei Ling’s apartment. Was anyone watching to make sure that he had left? He just wanted to get away as quickly as possible.

He was relieved to enter an empty lift. He felt the lift descend and for a moment, he hoped that the door would open to a place far removed from this hostile world. Would Kenneth report the incident to the police? He had visions of the police leading him away in handcuffs. No, he consoled himself; these only occur in the soap operas on television. Not so comforting was the fact that the news of his ignominious dismissal was sure to get around and he would probably lose giving tuition to five of his girl students. That will leave him with the five boy students. It was only April, which would mean that he would be without that income for the next eight months of the year. Biology was not a sought-after subject for tuition, unlike English and Mathematics. He had opted for early retirement as a science teacher and depended on the tuition fees to supplement his income. Without the tuition income he would have to depend more on his wife’s wealth, not a comforting thought

He darted for the car when the lift door opened. He checked his reflection in the rear-view mirror, for any sign of anxiety in his face. He adjusted his shirt collar and tugged at the long sleeves. He had no wish to turn up for the next tuition appointment, which was in two hours time at four in the evening. He would think of some excuse. He drove straight to his only place of salvation, Harrys Pub at Boat Quay.

He parked his car in a basement car park. He felt the humidity engulf him as he took the short walk from the air-conditioned car to the pub. It was so heavenly to be in the cool atmosphere of the deserted pub. Seating himself comfortably on the heavily padded sponge cushion of the stool near the bar counter, he ordered a mug of cold draught beer.

“Rather early, Mr. Lam, a man of leisure. How I envy you?” Lingam said, while filling the mug to its brim.

You should not envy me, but rather pity me, thought Kok Peng, taking a large gulp of the golden liquid through the whitish froth. The beer felt good to his parched throat and deflated ego.. He avoided the salted peanuts that had been placed before him in a bowl. Retired life had lowered his high blood pressure and he had to be careful about his diet.

His eyes roamed around the heavily paneled wall, on which hung replicas of crests of various clubs. He searched his pocket for the three crisp fifty-dollar notes that Kenneth Teo had given him. On hindsight, it was stupid of him to have accepted the money so meekly. He should have returned them as a protest and reminded them that their daughter Mei Ling had only become an A-student because of his tuition. In his younger days, he would have stood up for his rights and got his way. He remembered  an incident, during his courtship of his wife-to-be, Lee Eng while both were residents at the Dunearn Hostels at the university campus at Bukit Timah, when he stood up to his father-in-law, who was an important man in those days. She had been visibly impressed. After marriage, he had gradually taken flight at the slightest hint of any confrontation. Is that what marriage did to men, he wondered?

In between serving other customers, Lingam kept topping up his mug. Kok Peng basked in the idyllic setting of that familiar haunt. It would only be a matter of time before his wife Lee Eng heard about the cause of his dismissal. Could their marriage survive any more knocks? He truly regretted that tempestuous affair with the dance teacher about two years ago. He had learned an invaluable lesson and he would keep clear of women. He still loved Lee Eng for herself and not for her wealth. Still, money came in handy and she had plenty of it given to her by her grandmother. If she divorced him, as she had threatened to, he could be in dire straits.

In between large gulps of the life-giving liquid, he turned the pages of a newspaper that he had picked up.

Under the obituary column, he espied the familiar face of Madam Lim Sulan, Lee Eng’s grandmother. It was a first anniversary tribute to the memory of the late benefactor who had passed away in 1991 from the Management Committee of Maha Bodhi Middle School. In his present state of mind, he completely forgot about that evening’s anniversary chantings at the Bright Hill Buddhist temple for grandma . Although he professed no religion , he was quite content to observe the Buddhists rituals of his wife’s family.

“Lingam, how do you get rid of the smell of liquor from my breath? I have to go to the temple in the evening.”

“In that case, you should have drunk gin and tonic instead of beer.  I will get you some spicy food to tone down the smell. Also, why don’t you apply some medicinal balm on your forehead? It hides the smell.” Lingam disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a white bowl filled with steaming chicken curry with a loaf of French bread ,a large glass of crystal clear ice water and a bottle of Tiger Balm.

“What would I do without you?” Kok Peng dipped large chunks of bread into the bowl.

The quiet of the pub was disturbed by an incessant beeping on his newly-purchased Motorola pager , strapped to his belt. He  felt sheepish when some patrons turned their eyes towards him. Quickly he turned the pager to the silent mode and looked at the bright display of the telephone number . It was not a familiar number . There was no convenient telephone nearby for him to call the number.

At six thirty, his car wound up the serpentine road to the house in the exclusive residential district at Jalan Kebaya.  He felt so good to be greeted with the lush foliage, which gleamed in the twilight, on both sides of the road. at the end of which stood their large bungalow. Was he going to be denied of all these luxurious surroundings if Lee Eng left him?

As the car neared the front gate, he sounded its horn. Flora, the Filipino maid appeared and opened the gates to let him drive into the spacious porch.

“Where have you been, sir? The tuition girl called twice. She said that you did not turn up.  I gave her your pager number. Madam has been worried about you.”

He felt cross that Flora had given away his pager number without his permission, but managed to keep cool.

“Where is madam?” asked Kok Peng.

“Dressing up to go for the temple. She has been very upset today,” continued Flora.

“Because I am late?”

“No, madam says that people still whisper that grandmother took an overdose and killed herself because of madam.”

The statement stung him. “Flora, I don’t ever want you to say such terrible things in the house. It has been a year and people can’t people hold their tongue.”

“Sorry, sir. I meant no harm.”  Flora disappeared into the spacious garden to tend to the flowers.

What audacity? What right had a maid to talk about such things? This is what maids do when they go out on their Sunday outings, gossip about their employers. He could not understand how Lee Eng, who was so picky about choosing friends, could trust this little petite woman from Manila. He had no cause to complain about Flora’s cleanliness. He could not stand her trying to rearrange his wardrobe, papers on his desk and worst of all his shoes. They all start very obediently during their first term. The problems start during the second term and Flora had been employed with them for two terms. He must remember to broach with his wife on the subject of renewing her work permit, which was due to expire in a few month’s time. He would prefer a new maid, a more obedient one

When Kok Peng entered the house, he saw his wife all dressed up as if for a party, ensconced in the armchair. Even though slightly plump, Lee Eng in her late forties still cut a pretty sight. He had been especially taken by her dimpled smile and in the earlier days of the marriage, he got up to many antics just to make her smile. Seeing her sitting there deeply absorbed in the woman’s magazine, he wanted to complement her.

However, his thoughts were cut short, when she looked at him and snapped, “Where have you been? I have been worried sick about you. Could you not phone up?”

“Well…,” he lied, “I went to buy some text books.”

“Kok Peng, I can see through you when you lie,” countered Lee Eng ,” You think I am stupid enough to believe that the smell of the balm means that you have a headache. You have been drinking.”

“I also dropped in at the pub,” he admitted meekly.

“What will the temple monks think when they smell whiskey? Unless, of course, you do not want to attend the chanting….. especially, after all the things that grandma has done for you.”

He noted the sardonic tone in her voice. They had a tacit agreement never to discuss how grandma had patched up their marriage, only by threatening to exclude Lee Eng from her will and leaving everything to her sister Hwee Eng ,if she divorced Kok Peng.  This was Lee Eng’s way of needling him.

“How can you say such a thing? Grandma has done a lot for me and I will not forget her,”

When Lee Eng faced him, he noticed that she had been crying. It reminded her of the time she broke down and cried when the gynecologist told the couple that she could not bear children. He felt a sudden tenderness towards her when he remembered what Flora had just said.

“I am sorry,” he said, “I will go and change.”

“There is no need for it. I will have to give some excuse to the monks and our relatives on why you are not there. And you better have an explanation why you did not turn up for the tuition at Mrs. Chong’s place. She called up.”  Lee Eng did not wait for his reply but just got up and left the house.

He was taken aback by her abrupt behaviour. Did she hate him that much? He heard the sound of the gate open and the car leaving. There was a lurking suspicion in his mind that she had come to know about the incident at Mei Ling’s house.

The next week was a disaster for his tuition job. He lost three of his girl students. All the parents were polite; they did not mention anything except that their daughters did not need tuition any more. What hypocrisy, he thought. The word had got around. He wondered how long it would be before his wife got wind of it.

He did not have to wait long. On Sunday morning, he set out is usual golf game with his four buddies. It rained so heavily because the monsoon season had started. The game was cancelled and when he returned, he was surprised to see Lee Eng  in the house. Normally, she would have been at the Ladies’ Luncheon at the Y’s club. She had started attending these regular luncheons after an absence of a year. How could he forget that one year, when she made his life miserable on each Sunday afternoon? She used to gripe that his affair with that “hussy” as she liked to call the dance teacher had spoiled her chances of becoming the President of Y’s club.

“They are now slandering me because of your shameful behaviour, they are asking how I can look after a club, when I cannot even look after my husband.”

However, she was not above slandering the candidates who would have stood against  her. How often had he overheard his wife and her coterie planning their strategies over tea and biscuits at the canopy in the garden in the evenings? There was a lot of bitchiness in the ladies’ conversations.

She was looking very stern.”I want to ask you something and I want the truth.”

“What is it?”

“Have you been losing many of your girl students?”

“Yes,” he replied, “and before you jump to any conclusions, I am losing girl students because one of my students is spreading lies about me.”

“That you have been making suggestive remarks to her. How can you stoop so low?”

“There, you are accusing me before you hear me out. That is what Kenneth Teo, her father did.”

“Flora says that she heard that you just took the money and left. If you were so innocent, you would have stood your ground,” countered Mei Ling.

“He did not give me a chance. And why are you bringing maids into this affair.” He was very angry that Flora was the rumour monger.

“Because even maids are talking about it at their Sunday outings. Have you no shame? Are you a pedophile?”

“I am innocent. I made a casual remark on the girl’s monthly period when I was teaching ovulation and reproduction. Is there something wrong with that?” he asked.

“Then you have to convince her father, not me.”

“I will do just that.”    He put on a brave front. Now he regretted that he had just taken the money and left. This did not leave him any room for maneuvering. Why was he so hasty?

“Kok Peng, grandma has been gone for a year now. We had our troubles and grandma was the one who did not want another tragedy in the house. That is why I agreed to keep the marriage together. I have kept my part of the bargain, but you have not. Why should we keep the marriage together?” enquired Mei Ling.

So this is what it has come to, Kok Peng concluded. He cupped his ears with both hands.

“We have gone through some bad times, we will get over it”

“The last two years have been especially bad. My first mistake was not to leave you alone when you retired. I enrolled both of us in the ballroom dancing class at Y’s Club and you start an affair with the teacher”, she started.

“That was more than a year ago. I have regretted it,”

“Let me finish….. my next mistake was to listen to grandma’s pleas not to leave you. Would you ever know what I went through at the Club?”

“You lost your chance to be President, I am sorry”

“I had to withdraw, I could not face anyone in the club, especially because I was the one who arranged the ballroom dancing classes,” she continued.

“You can still stand for the elections in this year”

She dismissed the statement contemptuously. “Fat chance.”

“Lee Eng, what happened to our marriage? We were happy when we were a simple middle-class family in the housing board flat at Bishan,” he said.

“I have watched you change from a confident person to one who is now indifferent to anything but his own selfish needs. That is what happened.”

“It was the money. We should have refused the money that grandma gave us from the airline insurance company. I told you that it was blood money from the death of your parents at the air crash,” he could not help saying this.

She cast a contemptuous glance, “Yet you had no qualms about enjoying the things that grandma’s money brought about.”

” The money did no good to grandma also although she gave some to charity. She spent most of it to ward off depression,” he continued.

“Do not blame the money. Blame yourself for not thinking of others. I see no point in putting up this facade of a happy marriage.”

“Does not twenty five years of marriage mean anything to you? I am surprised.”

“You should have thought about that when you started your gallivanting. You could not even stand up to your tuition student’s father. What are you , a man or a mouse?” Lee Eng taunted him.

“You may want to leave me and may also do that. But I will clear my name… just wait and see,” he stormed out thus ending the conversation.

Sleep did not come that easily at night. Between tossing and turning, he devised plans on how he should vindicate himself. The best way was to meet up with Kenneth to explain that it was all a mistake ,which had been blown out of all proportions. He would invite Kenneth for a sumptuous lunch at the Polo Club and settle the whole matter. He could not wait for morning to arrive. With a heart full of excitement, he phoned up to Kenneth Teo’s house very early in the morning. Kenneth had already left and he was given the office number which he could call after 9 am. At exactly 9 am , he called the office and invited Kenneth to discuss the matter over lunch.  Kenneth dismissed the whole idea saying that there was nothing to talk about. He had no wish to have any further contact with Lam Kok Peng, who tried desperately to continue the conversation but to no avail.

He waited for Lee Eng to leave for a charity bazaar before calling Kenneth’s office again. The secretary hung up the phone when Kok Peng announced his name. He spent the best part of the morning trying to talk to his adversary, but with no success. It was bad enough not to get to talk to him, but what irritated him even more was Flora trying to eavesdrop on bits of conversation. Why could she not have stayed in Manila to look after her daughter?

At lunchtime, he retired to his place of solace,Harrys Pub. Amidst the large lunch crowd, Lingam spotted him and waved to him. He took up a seat by the window and patiently waited his turn to be served. Patience was a virtue that he had picked up.  Amidst the animated conversations of the patrons, he noticed so many happy faces. How lucky were they all not to be confronted with troubles, or so it seemed.

Lingam came up to him with a large mug of draught beer and shouted above the din, “How did it go at the temple the other day?

“I did not go for the memorial function. I really feel bad because grandma was good to me,” Timothy confessed.

“Yes, you told me. Old people can be very nice”

Such an answer amidst the large swigs he took, brought back pleasant memories of grandma. Of all of Lee Eng’s relatives, she was the only one who was kind to him, and brought up in the old tradition that a man should be the head of the household. How often had she chided him for not standing up to Lee Eng?

“My wife is going to leave me,” he confided in Lingam.

Lingam seemed taken aback by the confession. “You know, Mr. Lam. It is worth trying to make up. My wife and I also have our own troubles, but we always make up in the end. There are always kind and nosy relatives who make it their aim in life to help to heal marriages.”

“If grandma were around, it would not have happened,” sighed Kok Peng.

” I believe in heaven and if your grandma were such a nice person, she would be there and she would surely help you. I have to serve others now. Cheer up. Things cannot be that bad,” said Lingam as he flitted away to the next table.

Grandma in heaven, how nice a complement. Then suddenly, he remembered. Yes, grandma in heaven is going to help me. Grandma, that benefactor of Maha Bodhi Middle School, in which Mei Ling was a student was going to help him.

Kok Peng rushed home and calmly planned his strategy. When he was sure that he had covered all angles, he made a telephone call to the Principal of  the school. Madam Chen Geok Ling was glad to hear from the grandson of the late Madam Lim Sulan.

Kok Peng started the conversation in a suave and confident manner

“Both my wife Lee Eng and I were deeply touched that you remembered the late Madam Lee Sulan’s anniversary and we thank you for putting up the condolences in the obituary column”

“The school is greatly indebted to your grandmother and the Management Committee thought it only fitting to remember her, ” replied the Principal.

“How is everything going on in the school?”

“There are many changes taking place and we are restructuring the syllabus. The Ministry has just proposed to drop the teaching of religious knowledge and  we are gathering feedback. We hope Mrs Lam will join us at the next Management Committee meeting”, said Madam Chen.

“I will remind her. I am calling you because I need some help to arrange a meeting with the parents of one of your students”

“Oh I would be glad to arrange such a meeting. What is the purpose?” asked the Principal.

“She is one of my tuition students and I would like to clear a misunderstanding that I had with the parents,” he said.

He felt confident at her demeanour.  He narrated all the unfortunate incidents that he had experienced, explaining all the minute details. He was surprised that he did not feel inhibited talking to her on the phone. He had met the personable middle-aged lady on one or two occasions when he had driven grandma to the school’s speech days. On those occasions, he had only exchanged perfunctory remarks with her.

“Mr. Lam. I see your predicament. I will help in any way I can, but Mei Ling’s father may not want to come for a meeting,” Madam Chen said after a few minutes of silence.

“He will if you tell him that you will also be around and that the matter will be in strict confidence,”

“He may not want to discuss it in front of the Principal and the student, I think,” she ventured.

“But the girl has to be around so that I can ask her what she thought I actually said,” he said,” but it will not be a cross examination.”

“Is your wife agreeable to the meeting?” asked the Principal.

Kok Peng felt irritated at the question because it implied that his wife called the shots.

“She knows all about it and she wants to clear up the misunderstanding.” He blurted out the last sentence unconsciously and then he was pleased that he did it. He was now making decisions for himself.

“Let me see what I can do. We owe a lot to your grandma. Do you know that she was a teacher here many years ago,”said Madam Chen

“Yes, she told me all about it.” That was a lie, it was the first time he was hearing it, but there was no harm in a bit of pretense now that things were going favourably.

A couple of days later, Madam Chen phoned and said that she had managed to persuade Mr. Kenneth Teo and Mei Ling to have a meeting with him and his wife Lee Eng. The Principal would also be present.

The lady was very efficient, he had to concede. But before he had time to thank her, she added’ “There is a condition, however. Mr. Kenneth Teo gave me their side of the story and they really feel aggrieved. He asked me to be the impartial judge. If I believed my student Mei Ling’s version, then he said that he would report the matter to the Police.”

She deliberated on the word “police”. It struck him off balance. He wanted to have nothing with the police, but he had to say something quickly, but his brain would not just work.

“Mr. Lam, are you agreeable. Of course, I have to be neutral,” Madam Chen said.

So she was doubting him. He was not going to stand for that.

“Of course, do you expect me to assume otherwise?”

“I am sorry,” she apologised, ” I did not mean it in that sense.”

He wanted to rub it in. “Then what did you mean? He can report to the police for all I care.” Suddenly he felt brave. He was innocent. The telephone conversation came to an end.

After the telephone conversation , he took some time to cogitate.  Did he really mean nothing when he asked Mel Ling intimate questions. Had he asked exactly similar questions to his other girl students? Did that question have to do anything with the fact that she was well-developed for her 16 years of age and that she was ebullient. He would never know and he decided to leave these unsettling thoughts from his mind.

There was conversation at the dinner table on that night. Usually both husband and wife ate in silence.

Kok Peng pushed the raw slices of fish into the steaming hot rice porridge in the pink red bowl and waited for the dish to cool.

“I am glad that I could get Madam Chen Geok Ling to arrange that meeting..

“That is only a first step,” Lee Eng replied, nibbling a piece of the pickled cucumbers,” Any way it is better to settle the issue once and for all.”

“I want you to be at the meeting,” Kok Peng said.

“Provided there is a meeting,” she said, “What good would it do to have me there?”

“Firstly, to give moral support and then I would like to prove that I am innocent in front of you”

“Getting all mushy, are we not?” said Lee Eng.

He felt hurt at the sardonic remark. That woman was bent on hurting him. She would never know that she meant quite a lot to him.

“You may have decided to break up the marriage. This is the last thing you can do for me,” he said.

Lee Eng did not reply. Both started on their food. Kok Peng had to admit that Flora was an excellent cook;  that was the only good thing about her. He did not want to lose the good life he had and he did not want to lose his wife. By vindicating himself, he stood some chance of doing it.

When they were eating the lychees, Lee Eng said, “I concede this much to you, that you had the resources to arrange that meeting. But, if you had clarified when Kenneth Teo accused you, this would not have been necessary.”

“At that time, I was all confused. Now I have to go through this unnecessary ordeal”

“What ordeal? I thought you were completely innocent, “asked a surprised Lee Eng.

“Of course, I am. That is why I want you to be at the meeting. To be at your husband’s last stand,” he added in a deliberate tone to check her reaction.

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, I will come with you.”

After the dinner, husband and wife retreated to their own bedrooms. Lee Eng had moved out of the master bedroom after the discovery of his adulterous affair, more than a year ago. Since then, she had started using her maiden surname – she called herself Mrs Lam-Ong Lee Eng. She had said that there was nothing left of the marriage. She had stubbornly refused to move back to the same bedroom even when grandma persuaded her. Now he felt that he may be thrown out of this bedroom also. In a settlement of a divorce, he might only be able to get a small settlement and he would have problems living on his exiguous pension and the pittance from tuitions. Anyway, for the moment, his only goal was to vindicate himself.

On the next day, the couple arrived early at the school. They were greeted in the general office by the vice-principal, Mrs. Amina Ibrahim.

“Hello Mrs. Lam Lee Eng,” she said, “This is indeed a surprise. It is so good for you to visit the school with your husband.”

“I am here to see Madam Chen”

“About some admission of students,” inquired Amina

Kok Peng was peeved and relieved. Peeved because Amina thought that they only came to ask for favors, relieved because nobody other than the Principal seemed to know about the purpose of their visit.

“No, it is about another matter , regarding the school,” replied Lee Eng.

“We were talking about you at the Y’s Club. Mrs. Bala’s term is running out at the end of the year. You should stand for election now,” Amina said.

Lee Eng just smiled and excused themselves to go into the Principal’s office.

Madam Chen got up from the chair and came over to shake hands with both of them. She then led them to the corner of the office which was furnished to receive visitors. Kok Peng surveyed the room, which had its walls painted in blue, making the room look smaller than it really was. The  air-conditioning had been turned on high and he felt cold. Madam Chen was wearing a sweater and Lee Eng a 3-piece suit. They would not feel cold, but then he wondered whether it was his nervousness that made him feel the cold.

He did not pay much attention to the small talk that the ladies were carrying on with. He was more interested in the daunting task before him, he had to pay full attention.

The waiting was getting on his nerves. He wanted to get over with the episode as soon as possible.

The quiet of the room was broken by the ringing of the telephone. Madam Chen excused herself and went to pick up the receiver.

Do not let it be Kenneth Teo cancelling his appointment, prayed Kok Peng. He had come this far and he wanted to close this chapter. The Principal was speaking softly on the  phone and with her back towards the couple. He strained his ears to overhear any snippets of the conversation , but without success.

When Madam Chen returned to the armchair, she was looking rather grave and this troubled Kok Peng.

“Mr. Lam, do you know a student named Tay Tahn Joo?” Madam Chen asked.

“Yes, I used to give her tuition last year , but not anymore,” replied Kok Peng.

“Is anything the matter?” Lee Eng cut in.

“Maybe nothing to it. But she also made some allegations,” continued Madam Chen.

“What type of allegations?”asked Lee Eng , getting up from the chair.

“As I said before, maybe nothing to it,” said the Principal evading their eyes, “She claimed that Mr. Lam here had also acted improperly towards her.”

“I am not giving tuition to her anymore,” said Kok Peng, “I don’t know what she is talking about?”

“She wanted to see me,” said Madam Chen, “But I will only see her after our meeting with Mei Ling and her parents.”

“Kok Peng,” said Belinda, “Can I have a private word with you?” He noticed that she had turned pale and was trembling slightly.

He had to put up a brave front and stand up for himself.

“I have nothing to hide from both of you. I categorically deny that I said anything improper to Tahn Joo , ” Kok Peng said.

“Mr. & Mrs. Lam, do you want some time to think over it. I can delay Mei Ling and her father for a while,” said Madam Chen trying to be helpful., “I can even cancel the meeting, if you wish so.”

“No, No, I want to go through with this,”Kok Peng said.

“Let us not be so hasty'” said Lee Eng, ” I think we should discuss this privately.”

“Lee Eng, leave it to me”

Lee Eng kept quiet. The tranquility of the scene had been broken and each of them sat quietly waiting for the father and daughter to arrive. Kok Peng reflected on what had just happened. Had he made the right decision? He did not recall any incident when he had mentioned anything improper to Tahn Joo. Or had he? Now nagging doubts began to surface in his mind. Had he got himself into deep water? He felt confused and his throat felt dry. How he wished that he was in Harrys Pub quaffing cold beer and talking with Lingam. But such a respite would only be temporary, it would be better to be done with this affair which was ruining his peace of mind. To calm his mind, he looked out of the window to the concrete viaducts and the passing trains.

When Mr. Kenneth Teo appeared with his wife and Mei Ling, they all avoided his eyes and talked only to Madam Chen.

“I believe that we are all acquainted with each other and I hope all of us know what we are here for,” thus started Madam Chen, “Mr. Lam thinks there has been a misunderstanding and he would like to explain.”

“There is nothing to explain. My daughter has explained everything,” counterered Kenneth ,” I came out of respect for you, Madam Chen.”

“That is very thoughtful of you,” said Lee Eng and Kok Peng sensed her dislike for his accusers.

“And I hope that you have explained that I may take this up to greater lengths, if this meeting proves that my daughter is telling the truth,” said Kenneth. The menacing tone and the underlying threat were evident.

They all sat down, the Teo’s on one settee, the Lam’s on the opposing settee and Madam Chen on an armchair between them.

Madam Chen started, “Mei Ling, this is not a trial but a meeting to find out what really happened. Your parents are very upset because they believe that the tuition teacher Mr. Lam made some improper remarks to you. If this were indeed so, they have every right to be angry. Mr. Lam thinks that his remarks were taken out of context and he had no improper intentions towards you. If this is the case, then this is a case of an unfortunate misunderstanding. ”

“Mei Ling , please describe what happened?”continued Madam Chen.

Mei Ling  looked at her parents, “Must I?”

Her mother nodded.

“About three weeks ago, during the biology tuition at my house in the afternoon, Mr Lam asked me when my menstrual periods were. I felt shy and did not answer. He then smiled , tapped my hand and said something like, why are you so shy?”, said Mei Ling.

Lee Eng interjected, “What did he exactly say?”

Madam Chen  looked said, “Let her finish. Then you can ask the questions.”

Kok Peng suddenly realised that his wife was going to take over the proceedings if he did not act and that could be disastrous if she was thinking of leaving him. He had to take over.

“Then what happened?” asked Madam Chen.

“He changed the subject.”

“And the tuition continued?”

“What could she do? Leave the tuition. Both of us were out working,” said Kenneth.

“So you were all alone at that time in the house,” asked Madam Chen

“No, my younger brother and the maid were in the house. I did not leave the tuition because it would have been rude,” said Mei Ling.

“Did you report the incident to your parents immediately?”asked Madam Chen

“No, I only told them the next week just before the next tuition. ”

“Why did you not do it immediately?”asked Madam Chen.

“Look, what is this?” demanded Kenneth,” all that matters is that she reported it to us. Does it matter when?”

“Mr. Kenneth, let your daughter finish explaining the situation. Then you can give your opinions, “said  Madam Chen.

“Yes, dear'” said Mei Ling’s mother to her husband Kenneth, “let her finish”

“I was all confused and I wanted to think about it,” continued Mei Ling.

“Did you talk about it to anyone else before you spoke to your parents?” asked Madam Chen.

Mei Ling looked at the floor and hesitated, “No”

“And then you father stopped the tuition immediately, Did you talk about the incident to anybody else after you stopped the tuition?” asked Madam Chen.

“It was common knowledge by then”

“So you spoke to others”, continued Madam Chen.

“Yes, to my friends after that,” Mei Ling answered softly.

Kok Peng saw an opportunity to cut in, “Yes, everyone knows why my services were terminated”

“And for a good reason too,” said Kenneth.

Kok Peng’s first thought was to rebuke him, then he remembered that he had to remain calm.

“May I ask Mei Ling some questions?” asked Kok Peng

“I would like to start,” said Lee Eng.

“No. I want to do it,” said Kok Peng in a firm tone.

He asked, “Mei Ling, how long have I given you tuition in Biology?”

“For two years”

“Am I a good teacher?”

“Yes”

“How good a teacher am I?”

“What type of question is that?” interjected Kenneth.

“Good enough to get you an A for the biology assessment in March, correct?” asked Kok Peng, ignoring the comment.

“Yes, “said Mei Ling.

“What was I teaching you when I asked you that question about your menstrual periods?”

“Sex and reproduction”, said Mei Ling.

“No, it was about ovulation and menstrual periods, to be precise,” Kok Peng was growing confident by the minute.

” I think so”

“Have I ever touched you physically?”

“No. “said Me Ling.

“That is not correct. I have touched you before.”

“Can you explain that?” asked a troubled Madam Chen.

“Madam Chen, are there not rules about a man teacher touching a girl student?” asked Kenneth.

“Let me explain. Mei Ling, what are the radius and the ulna?” asked Kok Peng

“They are bones in my forearm”

“Very good. Did I touch your forearm to make you feel these two bones, when I taught you about bones?” asked Kok Peng.

“Yes”

“Did you feel upset over that?”

“No, I did not,” said Mei Ling

“Have I asked you very personal questions before?”, Kok Peng continued with renewed optimism.

“No.” answered Mei Ling, now looking threatened.

“Wrong again. I asked you whether you had tried smoking cigarettes when I was teaching you about the lungs. I asked you whether you had tried taking drugs when I taught you about the effect of chemical compounds in the body.”

“Yes, I guess you did,” answered Mei Ling.

Kok Peng looked triumphantly at the congregation, “You see, that is how I teach Biology by using our human body as an example. That is why I produce A students. ” Then looking plaintively at Madam Chen, “he said, “I really meant no harm to this girl. It was only my method of teaching.”

Kok Peng looked at each one in turn. His wife smiled at him and he felt encouraged. He had put up a good defence. What will happen now?

“What do you say now, Mei Ling?” asked Madam Chen.

Mei Ling looked at her parents, hesitated and then said, “It was still not right for him to ask me that question.”

“Yes,” added Kenneth, “teachers should know where to draw the line between right and wrong. What Mr. Lam did was wrong by any account.”

Kok Peng felt drained of energy. He had failed to convince them of his innocuous intentions. But they were not accepting the information. He looked at Lee Eng and she smiled at him as if to say, never mind, it will be all right.

The silence was broken by Lee Eng, who asked,” Mei Ling, does anyone know about this meeting?”

“No, why do you ask?” asked Mei Ling.

“Are you sure that you have told none of your friends?” continued Lee Eng.

“Of course, she has told no one. We have told no one. I do not like my daughter to get involved any more in this incident. It is over and done away with, “said Kenneth.

“I am absolutely sure I have told no one'” reiterated Mei Ling.

“Have you told a girl called Tahn Joo?” asked Lee Eng. Suddenly , Kok Peng gleaned a ray of hope. She was taking a shot in the dark, would it work?

Mei Ling hesitated again, looked at her parents and then to Lee Eng and said, “No”

“Strange why she wants to meet the Principal about a similar complaint just after this meeting,” said Lee Eng non-chalantly.

Kok Peng saw the colour draining off Mei Ling’s face.

“So there are other girls who have similar complaints. What more proof is needed?”said Kenneth with glee.

“I did not want to bring up the subject. But Mrs. Lam has talked about it. Tay Tahn Joo has a complaint, but that has nothing do with this incident.,” said Madam Chen.

“On the contrary, it has everything to do with this case,’ said Kenneth.

Kok Peng only half-heard the comment because he was watching Mei Ling who was feeling very comfortable. Then it struck on him why Tahn Joo was saying such things about him. Why had he missed it?

Lee Eng  cut in, “Of course, Madam Chen will ask Tahn Joo how she found out about this meeting” and cast a glance at Mei Ling.

“It must be a sheer coincidence,” said Kenneth, “we have told no one. We are not accepting Mr. Lam’s explanation”

Kok Peng became agitated. “Mei Ling, are you sure you did not tell Tahn Joo about today’s meeting?”

“Look here. It has nothing to do with this case, that is what Madam Chen said”, said Kenneth.

“Yes, it has nothing to do with this case. But I want to ask this young lady whether she told Tahn Joo about this meeting. “said Madam Chen.

Mei Ling remained silent for some time. Then looking at the floor, she said, “Yes”

Kenneth stood up, “What ? I wanted to keep the whole thing out of public eyes.”

“She is my best friend, Father,” pleaded Mei Ling, “that is why I told her.”

Kenneth’ wife calmed Kenneth down. “Don’t get so excited, sit down”

Kok Peng pounced in for the kill, “Did you discuss the incident at your house with Tahn Joo before telling your parents?”

Mei Ling kept quiet. After a while, she said defiantly, “No, I did not”

“She has already told you that she did not discuss it with anyone before she talked to us,” said Kenneth.

“She also told us that she did not tell anyone about today’s meeting. Now she has changed her story,” replied Kok Peng.

Kok Peng watched Mei Ling squirming and he got a sudden sense of pleasure.

“My daughter is no liar,” said Kenneth getting all excited.

“Maybe not. But she bends the truth,” added Lee Eng.

They could see that Mei Ling was close to tears and looking at her mother helplessly.

Kenneth got up and asked his wife and daughter to do the same. “This has gone far enough. We are leaving. We do not believe Mr.  Lam. He has insulted my daughter. We do not want to have anything to do with him.”

“I am sure that there are many questions that Madam Chen would want to ask Tahn Joo when she sees her just after the meeting”, Lee Eng  butted in, stressing on the word “just after the meeting deliberately”

“That does not concern us. She has the same complaint. What kind of a teacher is Mr. Lam if all girl students are afraid of him'” said Kenneth, irritated at being held up from leaving.

“Correction, not all girl students, “said Kok Peng., “If you want to know why Tahn Joo fabricated the allegation, let me tell you”

Then he turned to Mei Ling. “Did your best friend tell you that last year, I caught her and some friends around midnight at Novena Station sticking chewing gum on door sensors of the trains. When I asked her why she was doing it, she said that it was their protest against the recent banning of chewing gum. I told her that she could be charged for vandalism. I told her that she had two choices – I will confiscate all her packets or I will tell her parents. She handed all the packets to me and left in anger. The next day she called up to stop my tuition; when I asked to speak to her parents, she said that they had agreed because there was no improvement in her grades. “

Mei Ling kept quiet.

“Did she tell you about this ?” repeated Kok Peng.

“Whether she told my daughter or not is not an issue here,” said Kenneth.

“I was merely asking whether her best friend told her of her about the incident,” countered Kok Peng.

“We are leaving. This is leading nowhere,” said Kenneth.

Madam Chen who had been quiet and watching the accusations and insinuations passing to and fro spoke up.

“May I say a few words before you all leave?”

Kenneth sat down, “Of course”

“We met here with an intention to come up with a conclusion. Mei Ling and her parents believe genuinely that Mr. Lam behaved improperly towards her. She is of an impressionable age and this is natural. Mr. Lam has demonstrated that his way of teaching biology, which has resulted in good marks for his students was correct and he meant no harm. I would like to inform him that his method may be correct in a class full of students but may not be appropriate when he tutors a teenage girl student. He is sorry that it happened.”

Kok Peng saw this as a way out, but his thoughts were rudely shaken by Lee Eng, who said, “Mr. Lam is not apologising for his way of teaching. What he is saying is that it all started as a result of a misunderstanding”

“Then I stand corrected,” said Madam Chen. Kok Peng looked blank because he thought that if his wife had not intervened, Kenneth may have come to see reason.

Madam Chen turned to Mei Ling, “Mei Ling, do you think that Mr. Lam behaved improperly towards you or is it a misunderstanding?”

Kenneth said, ” The girl has told you many times that Mr. Lam behaved indecently.”

“Let her answer, Mr. Teo,” said Madam Chen.

“Mei Ling, tell her what you told us and we can leave. I am going to take this up at other levels,” threatened Kenneth.

“I don’t know what to think. I am all confused,” blurted out Mei Ling.

“Don’t let them confuse you. Tell them what you told us,” said Kenneth.

“No, father. I am confused. I might have read more into Mr. Lam’s actions.”

“Are you changing your story now? After putting us through all this'” chided Kenneth.

“Don’t be hard on her. Let her speak on how she felt,” said Madam Chen

” Madam Chen, after hearing everything, I feel that the whole affair could have been a misunderstanding,” said Mei Ling and broke into tears.

“Don’t be swayed by what happened at this meeting. Tell the truth Mei Ling'” advised Kenneth.

“That is the truth, father. I am sorry to put all of you through this trouble,” sobbed Mei Ling. Her mother went over to her to comfort her.

Kenneth stood up again and said, “Madam Chen , this is how it has ended and I want to close any mention of the incident. But you did say that Mr. Lam should have been more careful in teaching teenage girl students. I will not take him back as a tutor.”

Kok Peng felt enraged, “I would not come back even if you doubled my salary. I have had enough.”

“Another thing, Madam Chen. I want to keep this meeting confidential. Is that possible? Can all those who attended not go and talk about it outside?” said Kenneth.

Kok Peng could not believe his ears, this man and his family had no compunctions to spread the word of his dismissal and he lost three students. Now when they were beaten, they wanted to hide the news. He was not going to agree.

Suddenly, Lee Eng spoke up; “Of course the meeting and what happened will not come out of Mr. Lam’s and my mouth”

Kok Peng wondered what his wife was up to. Would she not even offer him a chance to redeem his name?

Kenneth lost no time in shaking Madam Chen’s hand and trooping out with his wife and daughter without giving even a glance to the Lams. Kok Peng was in no mood to talk. He had won a pyrrhic victory. How would the world out there know that he was clear now?

“Thank you, Madam Chen,” Lee Eng said, “You handled the meeting very well” Then the couple took leave from the room.

As they came out, they saw Kenneth’s car driving along the driveway. Mei Ling was not with them, so he assumed she had gone back to class.

Mrs. Ibrahim was still in the general office, at the photocopying machine.

“How did the meeting go?”

“It went off well. As for the President’s post at the Y’s Club. I might give it a try this year,” said Lee Eng

“Good, I will muster up support for you,”said Mrs. Ibrahim.

“That is kind of you. We have to leave now,” said Lee Eng.

They were walking to the car Lee Eng leading with Kok Peng looking crestfallen.

“Kok Peng, I saw the fire in you today. You were calm and steady,” said a smiling Lee Eng

“I had a lot of help and support from you,” said Kok Peng, ” and you believed me”

“Of course, I believed you.”

“But why did you agree to keep quiet about the whole matter?”

“I only agreed that you and I will not spread the word around,” said Lee Eng.

“What do you mean?”asked Kok Peng.

“Come on Kok Peng, don’t be so dumb, let me call the maid first.”

With that she went to the public phone on the school corridor, slotted in a coin  and dialed a number.

“Hello, Flora, we will not be back for lunch. You go ahead and eat. We are going to a posh restaurant. When I come home, I will tell you what  happened at the meeting. You will not believe it,” With that Lee Eng placed the receiver down.

[All characters in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]

Advertisements