Short story collection


“Kohoutek’s here,” Rahim announced at dinner .

Mother was ladling thick chicken curry on to mounds of steaming rice cooked in coconut milk on three stainless steel plates. She placed cucumber slices on the side of the plate.

“One of your friends?” she asked, passing a plate to him.

“No, it’s a comet.”

” Will it hit the earth and destroy us?” Mother asked while pouring warm tea into three glass tumblers.

Rahim took his place at the round table with the speckled marble top. He was exasperated with her question. That was the trouble when mothers were interested only in gossiping or exchanging cooking recipes with other mothers.

“No. Comets go round the sun. They don’t fall to the earth.”

Mother mopped her forehead with the tip of the sleeve of her dark blue baju kurong, “That is a consolation.“

“Kohoutek has been around for sometime, hasn’t it?” Father who arrived at the dinner table after the maghrib prayer joined in the discussion.

At least, Father has heard about Kohoutek, thought Rahim as he tried to juggle the steaming rice with his fingers. Dressed in a white sleeveless singlet and a batik sarong and with a small paunch developing around his waistline, Father hardly looked like the partner of a trading company arranging for haj and umrah tours to Saudi Arabia and budget tours to Malaysia and Indonesia.  But he had never been meticulous about his appearance, unlike Mother who had the knack of enhancing her youthful appearance with the decorous choice of clothes.

“It has been around for the past 8 months and …….,” Rahim said.

“Seen it yet?” asked Father in between taking in mouthfuls of rice.

“Not clearly. It’s too dim. They’re arranging an excursion to Mount Ophir next Saturday night.”

“Who?” asked Father.

“Our science club.”

“Where’s Mount Ophir?” asked Mother who was now seated opposite him.

“It’s in Johor, a few hours bus ride from here. We have to observe Kohoutek from a high point on a clear night. That’s why … Mount Ophir.”

“Are you going to trek up? It will take a few hours,” asked Father.

“We will only go as high as the bus takes us- about half way up, I think, ” said Rahim.

“That means you have to stay overnight,” said Father throwing a quick glance at him.


“Are you going?” Mother butted in.

“I have to,” Rahim took a sip of tea from the tumbler.

“You have to?” Mother continued.

“I’m the secretary of the science club.”

“Oh yes, I remember,” Father said. Father had always shown keen interest in his school activities. He served as a member on the Parent Teacher Group of Victoria School.

Rahim noticed Father and Mother throwing glances at each other. They understood his predicament. There was an awkward silence.

Mother pushed a bowl half full of sliced cucumbers towards Rahim, “Eat more vegetables.”

“It’s like eating grass,” he said.

Father said, “Of course, you can go if you want to.”

Rahim gazed out of the window into the warm Saturday night, “I’m not sure yet.”

“Ask them to go to Bukit Timah Hill. It’s high enough. And you need not stay overnight” Mother said mashing a piece of potato between her fingers.

Rahim pretended not to have heard that inane remark.

“You have added too much chili in the curry,” he said, taking another sip of water.

“I think you should go. It’ll be good……” Father continued.

“And embarrass himself?” Mother stopped eating and cut in.

“Look, the boy has to get over the problem sooner or later,” Father said.

“He will get it over with in his own time.  Mrs Rajendran was saying that her son Prakash sleepwalks. She has to hide the house keys at night.” countered Mother emphatically.

“You discussed my problem with her?” asked Rahim

“No, no. She just mentioned it when she came for the Hari Raya visit,” said Mother.

Rahim would have given anything to be like other fourteen- year olds who would have no problems spending nights away from home. Alas, not for him, who still had the nasty habit of bed-wetting during sleep at night. He recalled painfully the suppressed giggles of his girl cousins when he had spent a recent weekend during the March school holidays at the seaside bungalow with his uncle’s family. He was looking forward to spending a few days with that family during the June school holidays when the World Cup Soccer matches would be shown in colour for the first time. His uncle had said that he would be buying a colour television set. The March holiday experience had paid put any such hopes.

Of late, to spare Mother from doing the unpleasant task, he had started clearing up his soiled bed sheets, the rubber mat and sarongs each morning.

“I’ll think about it,” Rahim said.

Mother gazed gently at him, “If you don’t want to go, Father’ll write a letter asking that you be excused. Have some more curry on………”

“I said I’ll think about it,” Rahim repeated loudly, “the potatoes are overcooked.”

“I take all this trouble to cook just to hear complaints,” Mother said with a sigh.

“I’m only saying ……..”

“If you’re not hungry, better to keep quiet,” Father came quickly to her defence.

The conversation came to an abrupt end and the three of them ate silently, avoiding all eye contact.  It was seldom that the family sat down together to take dinner. He should not have vented his frustrations on Mother.

As he was leaving the dinner table to wash his hands, Mother called out, “There’s ice cream in the fridge.”

“No, Mother, I’m full,”

“Some pineapple then?”

“No, your food was good. I am sorry,” he said, patting her gently on the shoulders before attempting to leave the dining room.

“Are you not going to watch the Dean Martin show on tv?” Mother asked

“Not tonight, you  watch Sandiwara,” Rahim replied and left the room.

Alone in his bed room, Rahim changed into his sarong and singlet before cogitating on the ill-luck that had befallen him. Father had brought him to see the family doctor when the bed-wetting problem persisted beyond primary school. Talking about bed-wetting to a doctor as a child might have been cute, but as a teenager,  it was humiliating. The doctor could offer nothing other than an advice not to take fluids and to empty the bladder before bedtime. But this strict regimen, which he followed scrupulously, yielded nothing. He was assured that he was not the only one with such problems and that he would soon grow out of it.

His grandfather had opined that bed-wetting would stop after his circumcision ceremony. Father wanted it to be done at the clinic, because it was hygienic but grandmother and Mother decided to hold a joint ceremony near the surau at their village in Pahang because four boys in the joint family were coming of age. Although he was terrified when Tok Mudim placed him on the banana stem with his legs astride to remove the foreskin after reciting a prayer, he had managed to block out the pain by imagining how good it would be to be rid of the habit. He was the only one who did not yell and he had won praise for that.  He was the envy of the other three boys until the bed-wetting started after the wound had healed. That was two years ago.

Father and Mother were equally concerned. He was the only child and they doted on him. Mother had two miscarriages after his birth and the gynecologist advised that the couple should not try to have any more children. Rahim was a good son- he was sedulous in his studies, he was respectful most of the time, he was adept at Malay and English, he was in the school sepak raga team, he fasted during the month of Ramadan and observed daily prayers.

A family friend had advised Mother to seek out a pawang who had prescribed an extremely bitter herbal tonic concoction,, which also did not have any effect. When he overheard Mother discussing the uses of acupuncture over the fence with the  neighbour Mrs Christina Wong one day, he begged mother not to consider it at all  because he was scared of needles.

Then he decided to be scientific about it. Since the unfortunate habit was not a daily occurrence, he kept tabs to discern any definite  pattern and then tried to predict what would happen each night. He gave it up when this caused him great anxiety, especially when he was proved wrong.

The thought of going to bed each night filled him with consternation. It was the loneliest feeling to get up at night drenched in urine. He felt very envious whenever his friends mentioned how nice it was to sleep late on a cold rainy day.  He had his share of teenage woes- facial hair, body odour,  pimples and teenage crush on a couple of girls ; he did not bargain for this additional problem. He went to sleep with a troubled mind that night only to be  awakened when he found himself lying in a pool of water.

On Monday morning, the science teacher gathered an eager group of boys, in white shirts and khaki shorts.  In a preemptory tone, he announced that the observation trip to Mount Ophir was off because the weather prediction for the coming weekend was for cloudy conditions and light rain. This was met immediately with jeers of indignation. Rahim felt a pang of guilt when he joined in the jeering.

He could sense the look of disappointment on the face of  the middle-aged lanky Teacher, who had awakened the inquiring attitude in him.  How could he forget the first science class that Teacher had taken? “Fortune favours an inquiring mind” – he had written in bold capital letters on the blackboard. He had a special affinity for Teacher ever since he praised his article in the school newsletter on why comets got their name from the Greek word “kometes” which meant long-haired. That is how comets appeared to observers- a bright ball of fire with a long tail.

When he announced that the trip was off, Father had merely said, “I hope that you’ll get to see the comet.” Mother gave a sigh of relief and offered some silly remark that there would be other comets that would appear in Rahim’s lifetime.

On Tuesday morning, Teacher summoned a bewildered Rahim to the Teacher’s Common Room and told him , “The trip is on. Ask the students to see me at the laboratory during recess to sign up for the trip.” Teacher was notorious for his fickle-mindedness. Rahim could not concentrate on his lessons; the geography teacher was saying some thing about the effects that the recent Arab oil embargo would have on the economy of nations.

During the recess, Rahim remained in the classroom. He hesitated to march to the laboratory or the tuck-shop. If only the comet had been brighter, he would not have needed to make this unhappy trip. Kohoutek had been hailed as the comet of the century when it first appeared in the middle of 1973, but it had been a disappointment. It was expected to be visible without telescopes in the first few months. Instead its brightness fizzled out and stargazers could not see it without high-powered telescopes from high altitudes. At the same time, the  thought that Kohoutek would not come this way for another thirty thousand years thrilled him. His hair stood on end at the very thought on where he would be at that time. This was his chance to observe, describe and write about it in the school magazine. Maybe he was acting silly at being angry at the comet. He was in two minds whether to sign up for the trip or to offer an excuse not to join. Once or twice, he rose up from the chair, but his legs felt heavy and he sat down again. He decided to give the trip a miss.

Recess time was about to end, when he heard a gruff voice of Teacher behind him.

“Abdul Rahim, There you are. I was looking all over for you.” Rahim said nothing.

“Fill up your name and hand this to the school clerk” said Teacher handing him a sheet of paper. Rahim gulped on hearing the instructions which he carried out perfunctorily. He consoled himself that he could still get out of the trip by feigning sickness during the coming weekend.

Mother put on a brave front, although behind that façade, he knew that she was worried.  Father was proud of him. During the school assembly time on Friday, the Principal announced the upcoming trip of the science club to Mount Ophir. He ended up by urging all students to read Rahim’s article on comets. Rahim was embarrassed by such fulsome praise, but now he could not withdraw from the trip.   And he had to hatch up a plan quickly to get through the night without his secret being found out.

On Saturday morning, Mother started packing items for the trip at their house in Kampong Kembangan, but Rahim was insistent that he should do it himself. She advised him to observe the prayer times and to ensure that he only take any meal if he was satisfied that it was halal food . Other than that he was to ensure that he did not stray from the group and that he obeyed instructions of the teachers.  Father assured him that all would be well and that they would pray for him. All students were to bring two changes of clothes, a towel,  a warm sweater and a large water bottle filled with water. The school would provide telescopes, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, mosquito coils and Petromax lanterns.

Saturday afternoon saw a group of twenty raucous adventurers dressed in corduroys or denims in a bus bedecked with camping paraphernalia, heading for the mountains. Teacher looked so different in jeans, much to the amusement of the boys. There was boisterous laughing, singing and clapping as the bus wound up the serpentine road. Teacher, who appeared so stern in school, joined in the merriment.

When they were nearing the end of the journey, the temperature dropped and the boys brought out their sweaters. This innocuous event made Rahim edgy. He recalled that sleeping during the cooler months worsened his bed-wetting condition. For a moment, his confidence was shaken. Before he had time to worry about this unhappy turn of events, the bus had reached the camping site. They found a flat piece of ground with wild mushrooms sprouting in the  surrounding the area.

Teacher barked out precise orders, “We’ll set camp here for the night. Look out for red ants and mosquitoes.” Rahim by the virtue of his Boy Scout’s training was a natural leader in organizing the teams. By the time the group had laid canvas sheetings on the grass and pitched the five tents around them, the night had fallen and there was constant chirping of crickets all around them. The sky was dark and clear except for the stars that came into view. The strong smell of kerosene emanated from the Petromax lanterns set up to light up the camping spot. Teacher made a hurried inspection of all the tents to ensure that the mosquito coils were lit up. He remarked that here had been many cases of malaria in recent months. After the group started a small campfire, Teacher said, “Take dinner and spend the next four to five hours to observe the comet.”

The boys gathered round the fire for warmth and wolfed down a hurried meal of cold bread with tinned sardines and washed it down by lemon squash. Rahim was careful to keep his liquid intake to a minimum. He found it discomforting not to have running water to wash his mouth to rid it of the smell of sardines.

The boys set up two telescopes and took turns to track the tiny movement of the dim and elusive Kohoutek.

“Look at the milky way. There must be life somewhere out there,” Teacher pointed to the stars. The eager group crowded around him to listen to lucid explanations of the marvels of stars and their origins. His exposition about the celestial sphere, the northern star Polaris, Sirius the brightest star and the southern-most stars of the Southern Cross fascinated Rahim.  It seemed so different from the mundane way in which he taught science to them.

Rahim’s heart palpitated when he watched through the telescope the tiny movement of the small speck of light with its tail, which was shorter than what a normal comet should have had. In between his turns to track the comet, he jotted down notes. Was there life on Kohoutek and if so, was there someone on it watching us, he wondered? When it returned in thirty thousand years time, he was sure that mankind would have progressed enough in space travel to visit the comet. Why not? Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon only years ago and NASA was preparing for a Mars mission. The Russians were also not far behind. His report on Kohoutek for the school magazine would indeed be very special. Father would proudly circulate the magazine article in his office, as he often did. Feeling relaxed, he allowed himself the luxury of listening to the night sounds of the forest, which until now had escaped him in his excitement. The mellifluous sounds of Karen Carpenter’s song “Top of the world” from his transistor radio made him feel elated at his situation.

Yet, once in a while, the nagging doubts on the night ahead troubled him. Then he reckoned that five hours of observation meant that the group would only have two hours to sleep before dawn. He would just skip the sleep and pass his time reading a novel. He would leave his pocket transistor radio on. When the muezzin’s call for Fajr prayers sounded  around dawn , he would get up. Teacher would not object to that.

A strong cool breeze bringing with it a batch of clouds put out the campfire. The group shuddered. Teacher passed around glasses of hot cocoa from a large thermos flask. Rahim did not drink the full glass. When it became clear that the clouds were not going to blow away, a few boys started yawning.

Teacher gathered the group and said, “You had two good hours of observations. The watching’s over for the night. It might even rain. Get into your tents,  rough it out for the night and catch some sleep.”

There were some howls of protest, but Teacher, being the martinet he was, would have none of it. Rahim was devastated. He would have a longer colder night to spend in bed. He developed doubts on his preparations for the night. The Petromax lanterns disappearing one by one with the boys into the tents accentuated his loneliness. Only a single solitary lantern was left standing in the middle of the camping site to keep away any curious wandering animals. He resolved to stay out and to wait for the clouds to blow away. He had enough warm clothes to brave the cold breeze. His throat was parched because he had avoided drinking any water from his water bottle. When he felt thirsty he had merely wetted his lips and had to be content with watching the others sipping water from their water bottles constantly. He would probably come down with a sore throat.

“Rahim, get inside or you‘ll catch a cold,” Teacher’s familiar gruff voice rang out from the tent. Despite his pleading to be left outside as a watchman to alert the group when the clouds cleared, Teacher was emphatic that he should get some sleep. “I don’t want parents to blame me if any of you fall sick.”

Rahim walked towards the excursion bus using his torch hoping to search for a safe place to spend the night in it, away from prying eyes. The leather seat felt so cold and uncomfortable. Besides, he did not relish in the idea of being so far away from his group in the dark of the night.

Thoroughly dejected, he relieved himself in the nearby bushes before creeping surreptitiously into his tent. It was dark, but the gentle snoring told him that his three student mates were fast asleep. He changed into his pajamas. He had to put his contingency plan into operation now. With the aid of the torchlight, he removed a set of clothes, a rubber sheet, a black bed sheet and a tin of talcum powder from his traveling bag. He placed the rubber sheet on his sleeping bag and covered it with the black bed sheet. Then he folded the clothes neatly before placing them beside the bed. If he were to fall asleep and wet the bed, his plan was to quickly change into the new clothes and discard the soiled clothes into the bushes. He had reserved the sleeping spot next to the entrance, so as not to disturb any of his mates. He would use the water from the water bottle to clean himself and dabs of the talcum powder would remove any unpleasant smell. Feeling satisfied that he had made sufficient preparations for any emergency, he sat down on the bed, placed a blanket over his feet and started reading a novel ‘ Aku di sa-buah Pulau” with the aid of the torchlight.

“Switch off the light,” growled a sleepy voice, “I want to sleep.”

“It’s not shining on you. I’m reading a book,” Rahim responded, lowering the intensity of the torchlight.

“Read some other time”

“I always read before going to sleep,” Rahim replied in agitation.

“Shh, get to bed” came other agitated voices. He switched off the torch.

What could he do now? How would he keep awake in this semi- darkness? He sat on the bed and covered himself with the blanket. The warmth was so soothing that he had to rub his eyelids regularly to keep them open. Notwithstanding his preparations, he still had a premonition that his terrible secret would be revealed. He would dwell on pleasant thoughts to keep awake. He would be the star player at the school sepak raga competition that was due to start during the next month. He imagined hearing the joyful cheering of his school mates as he used his acrobatic skills and agility to smash the cane ball over the net with his upturned foot.

Joyful images appeared in his mind. He was with his friends at a carnival where he met clowns of many shapes and sizes. They all looked fuzzy except one with a sad face who gave him candy floss, which stuck to his teeth. Wishing to see how he looked like , he entered the hall of mirrors but could not see his own image. Thoroughly puzzled, he ran out to sit in a roller coaster which whizzed on a wooden frame through the grounds making rattling sounds. He laughed his way throughout the ride until the coaster came to a sudden halt in a pool of cold water which splashed on him and made him shudder.

Rahim woke up with a fright and sat up. The blanket had rolled off his feet, He could feel cold water on his pajamas around his left thigh. It was pitch dark inside the tent. He dipped his fingers in the pool of water on his left and brought them to his nostrils. It did not have the usual noisome stench that he was accustomed to. Just to be doubly sure, he felt the bed sheet with his fingers. It was dry. He searched for his torchlight and shone it towards the pool water. The tipped-over water bottle lay next to his thighs. The lid had not been properly screwed on and the water had seeped out.  He glanced at his watch; it was nearing dawn and the muezzin’s call for prayer to the faithful would soon emanate softly from his transistor radio. His companions were still asleep. The night had passed off uneventfully. It was time to get up. He quenched his thirst by gulping down the left-over water from his water bottle.

He crept out of the tent using the torchlight to lead his way to the bushes to relieve himself . Even though the clouds still hid Kohoutek, he looked up and winked at the comet with a smile.

[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]