Of all the kids, I was closest to my stepmom growing up, and when I was about 13, she started to loosen the reins by granting me more freedom to take part in extra-curricular activities. Maybe she thought I deserved to have a bit of life outside of The Odeon – she even told me I didn’t have to work the afternoon shift at the canteen if I had after-school activities on.
So I took advantage of that by signing up for a bunch of school clubs – including the Literary, Debating and Drama Society, basketball and most significantly, the school choir.
She also let me hang out with friends on Saturday mornings as long as I made it to work at the canteen before the first movie session started.
With my new-found freedom, even though we’d since moved to a house in Temiang, I spent a couple of hours every Saturday morning at the Templer Flats with friends from school who happened to live there and in that general vicinity.
We were at the age when we were just discovering boys, and I started documenting our teenage crushes in a personal diary. They were basically swoons over crossing paths with some cute boy or spying some dreamboat at the shops or trying to figure out who the mystery guy was who sent me a note etc. – pretty lame and innocent teenage stuff.
During the week, I had choir practice; persuaded by one of my best friends, Norfatin, to audition to join, we had both managed to secure spots in the group – a high honour, since the Convent choir was one of the best in the State, and possibly the country.
We trained hard for competitions, led by excellent teachers and song leaders, and through a lot of blood, sweat and tears, we bonded into a tight-knit group – that was also how I met one of my other best friends, Mona – an exquisitely beautiful girl in the year above us.
She was practically royalty among her peers thanks in part to her stunning good looks and, I guessed, to her genealogy (her family were descendants of the Islamic prophet Mohammed).
When we were in Form Three, our team, along with all the best school choirs in the country, converged on the campus of Universiti Malaya for about 5 days of practice, culminating in a TV broadcast of our singing.
Despite having chaperones and curfews, we still managed to have a ton of fun; the three of us called ourselves some goofy names including The Fantastics and Charlie’s Angels.
And we made friends with members of other choir teams, notably a group from KL, and the mostly-male choir team of Penang Free School (PFS). I loved PFS’s dramatic rendition of ‘I, Don Quixote’ from the musical The Man of La Mancha – I still remember most of the lyrics – (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYXpnFm1YRQ&feature=related ).
It didn’t take long before Mona acquired an ardent admirer, a Chinese boy from PFS – a bit dorky looking, with soulful, melancholic eyes – he wrote her some incredibly flowery poems that sounded so profound and well-written I was convinced they were plagiarized.
I think he even composed a song and serenaded her with his guitar. One of his best friends was this other guy, Alex, who was an accomplished athlete at the national level – and he was interested in me. It was a dizzying five days, and at the end of it, he had stolen a kiss from me, so, at 15, I had my first ‘boyfriend’. All this I recorded faithfully in my diary.
I was brought back down to reality when we returned to Seremban. Sometime after the trip, one of my brothers, recently returned from his overseas studies, discovered my diary and read it. He hit the roof, and told my stepmom the contents – ie. that it mentioned boys.
I was in my bedroom at night and he banged on the door, demanding I let him in. When I refused, he broke down the door and tried to force himself in, whilst I pushed back on the other side. I was terrified. Things settled down at some point, and I was allowed to go to bed.
I stayed up all night and pondered what was going to happen to me from now on. I had evidently betrayed my stepmom’s faith in me – I had used my newfound freedom to develop an interest in the opposite sex.
I didn’t know what kind of punishment was in store for me the next day, and what constraints were going to be placed on me from then on. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like facing the combined wrath of my dad and my brother. I felt I had only one option left – so, at 4am, I packed a bag and sneaked out of our house – I was officially a runaway.