Read time: 18 mins

Relative Distance

by Shih-Li Kow
10 July 2023

I had forgotten how steep the staircases were in these pre-war buildings. The Airbnb I had rented for our holiday in Bentong was on the upper floor of a converted shophouse, and Uncle climbed up unsteadily ahead of me. His feet looked old and clumsy in his buckled slippers, and I braced to catch him in case he tripped.

Uncle’s old panache had not held up well. He used to style himself as a cross between Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I. and Andy Lau in God of Gamblers. Popped-collar polo tees and Hawaiian shirts. Ray-Bans. Acid-washed, carrot-cut jeans with hems upturned over knock-off Nike high-tops. On special occasions, he wore a fake leather jacket that was scuffed in all the right places. As a kid, I wanted to be exactly like him, right down to the moustache.

Our annual shopping trips to Sungai Wang Plaza – the trendiest mall in Kuala Lumpur back in the eighties – were highlights of my growing up. Uncle knew the best shops to find the perfect red shirt, one that was appropriately red and loud for Chinese New Year yet fashionable enough to wear after the festive season. Once the shirts were secured, we raced Daytona cars at the arcade, browsed manhua comics that we never bought and watched lala girls at the skating rink until it was time to go home. Sungai Wang Plaza, too, had long since descended into kitsch.

When Uncle stopped to catch his breath halfway up the stairs, I said, ‘Walao, Uncle. You’re still wearing this macho-shit belt. Must be an antique already.’ It had an ace of spades silver buckle and rivets in the leather. ‘You walloped me with it once. Pain like nobody’s business.’

He said, ‘You deserved it. You shouldn’t have started hanging around those kelefe gangsters. I had to beat it out of you. That was my promise to your Ma. To keep you away from drugs and the triad.’

‘Job is done, Uncle. You kaodim me alright.’

‘You should come back for Qing Ming. We go to Ipoh, visit her grave, and you tell her yourself.’

Ma was thirty-two when she died, so sick she barely recognised me, and Uncle’s story about his promise to her was probably a lie. Before she died, my father had eloped with a woman to Songkhla or killed himself there, or maybe he did both. I never found out which account was true. Uncle had to take me in, a six-year-old shocked at how fickle the adult world was.

I fiddled with the electronic lock of the apartment. The keypad buttons were unwieldy, and it took five tries before I could open the door. Hello, Ikea! A Poang armchair and that familiar slipcover sofa were in the living room with the Lack coffee table that got cheaper every year. The place even smelt like an Ikea showroom.

Uncle said, ‘Not bad. Better than the chicken nest hotels opposite.’

‘How do you know they’re chicken nests? You got some action in there before?’

‘Just look at their windows. All tinted black. Whatever they’re doing, they don’t want daylight shining on them.’

We took turns looking out our non-tinted window at the other windows and down Bentong’s main street. Apart from some new telco shop signs, a few murals and lanterns strung across the street in front of the old Chinese Town Hall, everything appeared unchanged to me.

Bentong was home for eight years. Uncle liked this town. He said people here understood the worth of work. It was important to him that work was tangible – in the shops, restaurants, markets, farms, auto workshops – and not just talked about in offices or transacted on computers and phones. He held physical work in high regard as if it were holy. I did not.

I grew impatient with the sweaty slog of the same people working in the places he was so fond of and the way everyone slunk back to their homes when the sun set. Evenings were the most depressing: daylight faded, and the mountains turned into black walls. The only signs of life on the main street after eight were the mahjong halls operating under the guise of clan associations, a few coffeeshops, each with a single pair of old men sharing a beer and maybe a line dancing class full of copper-haired aunties from the market. The cinemas offered some escape, and I watched every movie that came along. Hong Kong cop dramas, Bollywood tearjerkers, comedies, action flicks, war movies and horror films. I watched them all.

We used to live in a plank house in a Chinese New Village, a remnant from the British colonial days when the Chinese were corralled in settlements. Two roads passed through our village; one ran two kilometres to town and the other to the ginger farms where I worked during my school holidays. Neither of those roads led me to where I wanted to go.

My overriding memory of that house was our main door splashed with red paint. Dollar signs were painted like bloody hexes on our walls and Uncle’s pick-up truck. Everybody in the village knew it meant only one thing – loan sharks.

Uncle had evaded them for as long as he could, running south from Ipoh to Teluk Intan and then to Bentong. With its proximity to the casino in Genting, Bentong had seemed like poor strategy, but Uncle swore he was done with gambling. The croupiers would never see his face in the casino again, he said, and the loan sharks would not know where to find him. He said hiding under their noses was the smartest thing to do.

Bentong lent us a few years of peace, but they found him eventually. Nobody could outrun a thirty percent monthly compounded interest rate. After the red paint, I came home one day to find our dog spread-eagled on the ground, barely alive. They had broken her back legs and hip.

Uncle surrendered. He gave up his Toyota Hilux and my Honda motorcycle as payment. The five thousand ringgit borrowed in a moment of greed and optimism at the casino had ballooned to a life-threatening, six-figure debt. A year later, they took the house too. That was my first money lesson: you either made a mountain of it, or it bit off your cojones like it did Uncle.

After the incident with our dog, I could no longer stay. Had I been home the day the loan sharks came looking for a messenger, I could have been the one with my legs smashed. I could not stop thinking about how they would not have harmed Uncle; they needed him whole to keep earning the money to repay them. I ran on the legs I still had. Uncle and my father had run, and I did the same.

I thought I had run far, that leaving the country was enough to make a new life. Yet here I was, getting wistful about the old days and sinking into this particular fuzzy-edged Bentong atmosphere that muffled all ambition. I told myself I would snap out of this fug and slough off the lethargy like dead skin once I got back to the city. Going soft was not an option.

I put two six-packs of Tiger beer in the refrigerator and set out snacks from Marks & Spencer on the kitchen counter: digestives and shortbread biscuits, fruit cake, mince pies, chocolates, nuts, gift packs of jams and teas. The spread had cost me a tidy sum at the store in Kuala Lumpur. I knew he would not eat any of it, but I needed to put on a show.

I said, ‘I bought these in London.’ I had scratched off all the price stickers.

Uncle asked about my flight. We had not spoken much in the car because he had slept most of the way. ‘A total nightmare’, I said. A runway glitch in Heathrow delayed the take-off. A long layover in Dubai. A friend in Kuala Lumpur lent me his car for a couple of days. I was flying back in a week. Work was hectic; I had a waiting list of customers. The make-believe details rolled off my tongue easily. Lying worked the same way as self-motivation. Once you convinced yourself, the rest came easy.

He said, ‘Your dog. Who’s taking care of your dog?’

I said, ‘We sent him to Vicky’s father.’

‘In London?’

‘An hour out of London. Her father lives in Watford.’

‘Do you get along? You and her father?’

It became easier. ‘Of course. He’s a nice guy. Even the dog loves him.’ I was even enjoying this a little.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Nick. I mean her father’s name is Nicholas. The dog’s name is Lightning.’ Lightning-fast, no hesitation at all.

I added a man named Nicholas who lived in Watford to my imaginary paint-by-numbers life in London which already had a terraced house with a fireplace, an SUV, a Labrador now christened Lightning and a blonde girlfriend who taught at the university and baked cakes on Sundays. Every year, I vowed to make notes to keep my story straight, but I never did. If I slipped up, like the time I said the dog was a golden retriever, Uncle never caught on. All of it was false except, briefly, a graduate accountant named Vicky and a maisonette in Watford that reeked of garlic and damp carpet.

For a year, Vicky and I had split the rent for that cold, airless house with two Malaysian post-graduate students, packed like two pairs of shoes in our boxy rooms. Vicky had an extended foreign student visa which allowed her to work. When she was not waiting tables at a tandoori restaurant, she applied for jobs and attended interviews in her one good navy-blue Next suit. As soon as she was hired by an audit firm, she left. There was no place for me in her new, white-collar life, and I did not blame her for it. One needed to make the climb without baggage, like a rocket shedding the booster that propelled it into space or a husband leaving a dying wife.

Bentong town was bleached white in the late afternoon glare outside. With the air-conditioning in the apartment humming at eighteen degrees, I dozed off. Bentong dulled me as if the cottony mist that hung on the mountains had wound itself around my head. I woke up several hours later in a dark apartment. Uncle was watching television with the sound muted.

He pointed at a plastic box on the dining table. ‘Chicken rice from Ka Heong. The old man’s daughter is running the shop now.’

‘You walked there?’ I felt a pang of guilt about the stairs and his arthritic joints. I should have booked a hotel with a lift.

‘No, I grew feathers and wings. Can fly, like some people.’ I deserved that jibe.

‘Sorry, I should have gone out to buy dinner.’ This was supposed to be a holiday for him, a short break away from his girlfriend’s house where he lived now.

‘You must be jet-lagged.’

‘Yeah. Is your aquarium still there at Ka Heong?’

He shook his head. ‘They let out the space to a bubble tea stall. That tank was a beauty. Eight-millimetre top-grade glass. You can’t get glass that clear anymore, these days.’

Uncle was an aquarium maker. He made fish tanks for seafood restaurants, corporate offices and hotels. Commissions from architects and interior designers in the city had kept him in the money until it was no longer fashionable to have saltwater aquariums in the lobbies of hotels and offices.

His business in Ipoh was called Soon Seng Aquariums. He could not resist naming the Bentong one Soon Loong Aquariums. He liked recognition for his work, and I was convinced this craftsman’s pride had led the loan sharks back to him. His aquariums, with little steel plaques of the maker’s name in one corner, were as good as calling cards. That and his inability to keep his head down with people. All the women in the market knew Ah Soon, the lengchai aquarium maker with the Tom Selleck moustache. Every bookie and mahjong group knew our telephone number, the registration plate of Uncle’s black pickup truck and where we lived.

I poured garlic chili sauce over my rice. The roast chicken piece was a drumstick, my favourite cut. I said, ‘Chickens must be shrinking these days’ and immediately regretted how ungrateful I sounded.

Contrite, I offered, ‘What would you like to do tomorrow, Uncle?’

He said, ‘I want to go to the barber. Mimi is hopeless with the clippers. She uses them like a vacuum cleaner, as if I got a carpet growing on my head instead of hair.’

‘Alright, let’s do that. Let’s both get our haircuts tomorrow.’ Our old barber was just down the street.

He turned up the sound on the television, and we watched a Premier League football match. I did not ask if he had a bet in the game. I drank two cold Tigers and went to bed.

The next morning, I was woken by the whistling of swifts wheeling outside the window. The streetlights were still on; it was not yet seven. Uncle had left the apartment.

I sent a text message, Gone where?

When there was no reply after ten minutes, I headed out. The barbershop was still shuttered. I searched among the vegetable and food vendors in and around the market in vain. No one recognised me; I had gained weight and shaved off my copycat moustache. It was just as well because I was in no mood for small talk.

I checked my phone again. There was no blue tick against my Whatsapp message to indicate he had read it. My calls went unanswered, and I became increasingly annoyed. He could be visiting his mahjong buddies or one of his old girlfriends. I wondered if he had felt an urge for a woman in one of those chicken nests. Or maybe he had gone to see our old house and our neighbours at the ginger farms. He could have left a message. His silence felt planned and manipulative.

I took a table on the five-foot way of a coffee shop and ordered breakfast. I thought of accidents, heart attacks and broken hip bones. I remembered that the government hospital was at the bottom of the main street, and if he had trouble anywhere in this town, anyone with a car could get him to a doctor in less than ten minutes. I relaxed into the morning bustle of people and the sounds of Bentong coming to life for the day. Uncle could play his games; I refused to worry.

When I paid for my food, it became instantly obvious where he had gone. Fifty ringgit was left in my wallet in place of the five hundred I had the day before. I should have guessed. The temptation of the casino in Genting just a short taxi ride away must have stirred up his old appetite for a reunion with the gambling gods.

I could drive to Genting, find him at the roulette or blackjack tables and drag him away before he lost all my money. Five hundred ringgit worth of chips could disappear in two minutes at the tables. Maybe it was already gone. Maybe the loan shark runners already had a chain and ball around his ankle. I was not going to bail him out. No way. He could arrange his own fucking funeral.

Despite my rage, Uncle stealing from me felt like a final settling of an old score. After the incident with the red paint, I had sold two of his prized golden arowanas for the price of a one-way air ticket to London. I eventually understood that it was neither the arowanas nor my running away that antagonised him. On the contrary, he was perversely proud that I had made something of myself in London as an illegal worker who flew in and never left. My arowana story was often repeated as a boast to his friends; all the market ladies knew about Ah Soon’s ‘plane jumper’ nephew and wanted Uncle to tell them how I had pulled it off.

What he resented was that I had not helped him with his debts. He said I had left him to die and deserted him when he needed me. I had forgotten that he had raised me, he said, but I could not have saved him from the loan sharks. I was a skinny, jobless twenty-three-year-old who knew nothing about anything except Hong Kong movies. I could not bind my own shallow life to the mess he made of his.

At six in the evening, back in the apartment, the electronic door lock beeped. I heard him curse. I let it carry on for a good ten minutes, relishing the inconvenience it caused him and the satisfaction of childish revenge.

At last, he relented and called my cell phone. ‘Let me in. I forgot the passcode.’

I opened the door. ‘Where did you go?’

‘Up to Genting.’ He looked me in the eye, challenging me.

I took a deep breath. I had resolved not to bring up the matter of the money missing from my wallet before he did. I would be the bigger man. I would be the adult when the old man misbehaved like a child. I said, ‘You should have told me. I would have driven you there.’

A pause. His face softened. He pulled out a stack of notes from his pocket and started counting out hundred-ringgit notes. ‘Payment with interest.’ He slapped down the notes on the table in front of me. One thousand ringgit.

‘You won?’

‘Seven thousand ringgit. Roulette and the slot machine. I’ve still got the magic touch.’

‘Nia ma. What the fuck.’ I could not believe his luck.

I was glad I had not escalated the matter into a full-blown row. Perhaps it would have turned ugly if he had lost my money, but he had not. For now, it felt like a clearing of the air between us. Like a settlement for the arowanas, the air ticket, the leftover bitterness of the past years.

I cooked dinner: Maggi Kari instant noodles with eggs, a small head of Chinese cabbage and some tofu stuffed with minced pork and chives that every shop in Bentong sold.

He said, ‘First time you’re cooking for me.’

‘Sorry, this is the best I can do here.’

‘Not bad, not bad. Mimi won’t let me eat this. She says the wax on the noodles chokes up the intestines and makes you constipated. I tell her hers must have been choked up a long time ago.’ We both laughed as if it was the funniest thing we had ever heard, and we clinked our beer cans. I never liked Mimi. I suspected he did not either. He had just run out of time, money and choices.

We ate, slurping loudly. The steam and curried MSG soup made my eyes water. I listened to him talk about the mundane local news of recent months which I already knew. I was tempted to tell him everything that had happened to me in London. How I had ended up in a hustle running errands for the elderly. I bought their groceries, takeaway dinners, train tickets and prescriptions. I called their rides, paid their bills, took their pets to the vet and changed their lightbulbs. When they needed help with their cell phone settings, computers and Zoom calls, I was there. They often made me tea. I listened to them talk about their illnesses, the weather, their children, their politics, their faith or disbelief and their youth. That was my London reality: contiguous impressions made up of countless dreary Tube rides, the loneliness of old people and tea that cooled too quickly in dim, underheated rooms.

My errand-boy service was popular enough that a social worker heard about it and accused me of preying on senile seniors. My business was illegal, they said. I told them it wasn’t a business. I charged nothing. I did not advertise. My customers tipped me what they wanted, and if they were generous, it was no fault of mine. They reported me to the immigration officers who found me guilty of overstaying my visit, and I was deported. I could not admit to Uncle that I had failed, that the two golden arowanas and his abandonment were not redeemed by success, sterling pounds and a UK permanent residency stamp on my passport. I too had run out of time, money and choices.

I ended up in Kuala Lumpur and decided I would come clean when I had made enough money. He could come to live with me when I had an apartment of my own, maybe a place like this with two rooms and a lift, better furniture and a decent kitchen. Until that happened, I would keep up my harmless deception, and Uncle would not know I was just an hour’s drive away from where he lived.

The next morning, at the barbershop, we sat in adjacent chairs. The barber, a new man I did not recognise, laid a strip of toilet paper around our necks and fastened white cloaks around us. Uncle grinned at me in the mirror, and I smiled back. Our blood ties did not show on our faces. The past years had marked us, and he surely saw the changes in me as clearly as I saw them in him, under the fluorescent lights of the barbershop. I looked away and picked up an old magazine.

I wanted to breeze through our holiday. Keep things light, and leave with no tears and no emotional drama. Distractions were not good; there was too much to be done back in the city. I was dabbling in bonds and stocks that I had to watch. I had a side hustle selling unit trust investment schemes and life insurance. I was meeting the right kind of people and learning how to talk money. Hawk-eyed people with interest rates and investment yield numbers running through their heads did not reminisce about Sungai Wang Plaza and arcade games.

I called myself a financial adviser. I had a knack for convincing retirees. That was the one good thing I had learnt in London. I knew how to talk to old folks. There was money to be made with time and a little luck.

With our necks loosened by the barber’s massage and dusted with talcum powder, we drove in search of durian to celebrate Uncle’s casino win. We found a roadside stall with signs that said, ‘No Good, No Pay’ and ‘Guarantee Can Eat’. Uncle approved of every fruit that the vendor jimmied open with a chisel. We gorged on two hundred ringgit worth of choice durian: Musang King, Red Prawn, D24. The complex sweetness and alcoholic bitterness of the creamy, golden pulp did not disappoint.

The rest of our time together was passed in a companionable series of meals in coffee shops and watching Die Hard movies in the apartment. I acted out my nostalgia for Bentong and pretended I missed the food that I had always found mediocre. I said what a shame it was the old Lido where I watched all those movies had been turned into a supermarket. I complained about the heat as if I were a stranger to it.

When I drove him back to Mimi’s, we hugged goodbye awkwardly. Mimi came to the car to say hello. She said, ‘Better buy an iPad for your uncle. Get Netflix so he can watch his movies. He got nothing else to do. I don’t want later he gets itchy and starts gambling again. I’m not responsible for any trouble, you know. Your uncle is not my problem.’

I disliked this woman. I moved away to unload the bags of ginger that Bentong was famous for. She trailed me around the car and said, ‘Come back more often to visit him. Remember what I said about the iPad. Remember, I’m not responsible.’

Mimi’s insistence about the iPad felt at once like a set-up and a criticism. I gave her the bags of ginger and uneaten Marks and Spencer snacks. I slipped five hundred ringgit into her palm and drove away without waving, suddenly annoyed at both of them. The brief pleasures of the past days curdled into a sour feeling that made me feel I had wasted my time.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, I found a roll of hundred-ringgit notes tucked into the bag I had taken to Bentong. Five thousand ringgit. More than enough to buy that iPad himself. Tied with a rubber band around the notes was a slip of paper, the type printed out by queue numbering machines in banks. I remembered that the casino had a dress code, and I wondered how he was allowed in with his slippers and old Hawaiian shirt. Maybe the casino trip was a lie, and he had taken the money out of a bank for me.

Maybe he had seen that there was not a single British pound in my wallet; that all my credit cards were from the local Maybank; that I did not have the pallor of overseas returnees; that I never showed him photographs of Vicky or London or my Labrador. Maybe he had seen right through me like aquarium glass and knew that everything I said was too good to be true. The money was him telling me he knew, that I had been found out. Instead of red paint on my door, the message was a roll of notes in my bag.

But I did not want to think about all that. There would come a time to set things right, but not yet. Not when the up-down spikes of stock market charts demanded my attention. The city throbbed with opportunities, and beyond the skyline of skyscrapers, Bentong’s mountains were distant enough not to cast a shadow.

About the Author

Shih-Li Kow

Shih-Li Kow is a former chemical engineer and mall manager. Her novel The Sum of Our Follies was published in 2014 and the French edition (translated by Frederic Grellier) won the 2018 Prix du Premier Roman Etranger. Her collection Ripples and Other Stories was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her […]