“Apek was a carpenter. We gave him a room in our house,” I said. “You know,” I added, giggling, “because we lived in a Chinese taman (housing estate), everyone thought that he was the owner and we, the Indians, were his servants.”
I expected my friend to laugh. Instead, he frowned, looked at me and said, “You mean, he lived inside your house?”
“Err… yes. Inside. We had a room downstairs. We used it to store stuff, yes, but he stayed there when he visited.”
I could see the confusion in this man’s face. I imagined his thoughts: This girl’s family was odd. They allowed a stranger to stay with them. He wasn’t even part of the family. He wasn’t even Indian. A Chinese.
Until that moment, for 25-odd years, I’d never thought it was odd that this ‘stranger’ lived with us. He wasn’t someone of questionable character to us … ever. To me, he was always, and will continue to be, Apek.
I cannot give you an exact date when he started to live with us because it was a natural progression. Way before I was born, I was told that my grandfather in Bukit Mertajam (BM) used to call him to get some odd jobs done like create that unique driveway of little squares of cement surrounded by patches of grass. He made all the built-in cupboards for the house.
In our house in Alor Setar, when my father needed some carpentry work done, we always called him. He would turn up when he was free, stay with us for the duration of his work and leave when he wanted. Our photo frames and even our beds were made by Apek. I used to wonder why his work took so long when people installed beds in their houses in less than a week. Then I learnt about his ‘basah-kering’ technique – every slab of wood had to be left out in the open to endure the rain and sun for at least a month. That way, by the time he was ready to mould the wood to his liking, the wood had already been baked and was warped. Whatever furniture he made after this would never go out of shape. There was a finesse about Apek’s work. He knew that you never shaved wood across the grain. He knew how to measure things so accurately with his basic tools. He knew how to apply Shellac so that the eventual effect on the wood was smooth and there were none of what I call ‘paint grains’. Indeed, 35 years later, all the furniture that Apek made is still as good as new.
It wasn’t all about carpentry. He taught me that it was wrong to steal the eggs from a bird’s nest. Instead, I should observe them daily, wait for the eggs to hatch and watch how effort the bird made to feed her chicks. He taught me to cook simple Chinese food.
All these memories suggest that Apek was a learned man. He must have had some sort of education. But, we have no way of ascertaining any details about him. All we knew was that he had a ‘place’ in BM. My mother calls it a ‘lean in’ and describes it as an extension to a house. I never went there and can’t describe it, but my parents say that it was so small that his feet used to stick out when he went to sleep. Perhaps, ‘hovel’ is a better word to describe this place at the back of a tyre shop across the road from my grandmother’s house. No wonder Apek preferred to stay with us.
Today, I have many questions which none of us can answer. When he was not working with us, did he stay with others? Did he have a wife and children? To be completely honest, I don’t even know his real name. I don’t know how old he was when he died in 1987. And we don’t have a single photo of this man. We took him when he came to us and asked no questions. We accepted him as he was and he lived with us until the day he died.
Now, I can see that we became his family. It was Daddy who conducted the last rites during his cremation and placed his ashes in a columbarium in a Buddhist temple in Alor Setar. If I could go back in time, I would like to meet Apek again. I’d like answers to all these questions, I suppose, if only to strengthen my memory of the man.
Do you have a being in your life that is almost an enigma?