Glossy lips, upturned in a cheesy grin.
This is what I see when I think about the morning I left my country. The lips of a Ronald McDonald statue, painted red to match its garish hair and its clown’s outfit. Broad lips stretched into a smile that seemed much too bright under soulless eyes. I could feel their vacant stare on my back as I sat at a cheap Formica table, listening to my mother.
“Did you lock my suitcase?” she asked over empty coffee cups and the polystyrene plates that held our half-eaten Big Breakfasts.
“Huh?” I looked up to see the beginnings of a frown on her face.
“Did you remember to lock the suitcase after you closed it?”
I tried to recall if I had indeed, tumbled the combination lock on my mother’s black Samsonite after throwing in my toothbrush earlier this morning. But my pause was a second too long, and the furrow on my mother’s forehead deepened. She leaned back in her seat, folding her arms across her chest. Her lips, unlike Ronald’s, in a downward curve.
A nudge on my side came to my rescue; my son’s elbow brushing against me as he reached across the table for his drink.
“Do you want your Milo, Khay?”
I bent my head to watch my three-year-old drain his cup of malted chocolate milk. He slurped the last few drops with his straw, then let out a loud burp that brought a reluctant smile to my mother’s face.
“You had enough?” She stretched out one arm to rub Khay’s head as he nodded.
The table wobbled, and I looked up to see Ruth place a tray of drinks in front of us.
“More coffee!” My friend’s cheerful voice was a welcome reprieve, even if it made my heavy head spin a little. I grabbed a cup and watched its curl of steam dissipate, along with any lingering tension.
It was seven a.m. at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. McDonald’s was already busy, with travellers fuelling up on caffeine and Egg McMuffins ahead of their journeys. Overhead, the artificial glare of fluorescent lighting gave lie to the early time of day.
It had been dark when we left my parents’ house over an hour ago. Street lamps stood like sentinels along the road, their orange glow guiding our way. Fifteen minutes into the drive the sky turned a luminous grey, streaked with pink. Looking out of the car window, I recognised the stop where my schoolmates and I used to wait for the Number 12 mini- bus that would take us to the city. I saw the vegetarian restaurant where my family celebrated my graduation with a meal of mock meats and tofu. The church hall where I took Khay for his toddler playgroup. I stared hard, trying to lock the familiar sights in my memory.
Behind me, my son stirred in his car seat and my mother leaned over to check on him. She was travelling with us to England, where Khay and I would join Nick. My husband had gone ahead of us two months ago to begin his studies and to find us a house. Mum said she was coming along to help me with Khay on the 12-hour flight, but I knew she also wanted to see for herself where we would be living. To reassure herself that her only grandchild would be happy in his new home.
I turned to look at Ruth beside me, calm and steady as she focused on the road. I was glad for her presence. Glad she had insisted on driving us despite my protesting it was much too early for her. Glad to have one of my oldest friends take us to the airport this particular morning, instead of an impersonal taxi driver. Ruth was silent, having given up on a mostly one-sided conversation with me, but I knew she understood I was in no mood for chatter.
I had barely slept last night. It was past one by the time I got into bed, and while my eyes were shut my mind wasn’t. Random thoughts went round and round like a dog chasing its own tail: I hope I’ll be able to wake up in four hours’ time. What if I don’t? What if we miss the flight? Did I remember to pack everything? Will Khay fuss when I get him up so early? Will it be cold when we land? The beads of the rosary felt smooth, solid as I rubbed them between my thumb and finger. I wanted the rhythmic motion to lull me into oblivion, just as it had every night over the past few months.
But not this night. On the night before I left my country, I flitted in and out of wakefulness. It was almost a relief to hear my mother’s soft tap on my door at 5 am. I got up and went to wake my son, to tell him: we’re going on the plane today, we’re going to England, we’re going to see Daddy!
As I eased a T-shirt over Khay’s sleepy face, careful not to catch it on his ears, my mother whirled around the room. Pulling the sheets off the bed with one swift tug, throwing stray pieces of Lego into the toy basket, shoving Khay’s little chair back under his writing table. Her frenetic actions made my head hurt even more.
”Leave it, Mum,” I called out. My mother stopped long enough to stare at me before she walked out of the room, her arms full of crumpled bedclothes. I had to strain my ears to hear her mutter:
“I’ll be away for three weeks. I don’t want your father to wake up and find everything in a mess.”
Her mention of Dad made me think of the previous night, when I had to say goodbye to him as he watched television. When I stood at his side and stared at his thinning hairline, telling him: “I’ll see you, Dad.” When I watched his head move while he cleared his throat to say: “You take care of yourself.” A quick glance at me before his eyes swung back to the screen. Both of us trying not to remember how he had cried on the phone, after I had told him I was moving to England with my family. I know you have no choice, that you have to follow your husband, Dad said. In all my life I had never heard my father break down like this. I didn’t have the heart to correct him, to tell him: I chose to do this too. Nick and I chose to do this together.
It was a decision we had finally made, after months of asking each other: Should we go? Should we not? When I said let’s do this, Nick stalled. A week later he’d turn to me to say, ok, I’m ready. Only to find I had cold feet. After yet another round of shoulds and shouldn’ts, Nick finally said: “I’ll regret it if I don’t go.”
I knew he was right. He would regret not taking the opportunity: A scholarship to do his PhD, to get the doctorate he’d always wanted. He was already forty; would such a chance come round again? This chance for a career change. To slow down and live abroad for a while, to get away from what had become a hamster-wheel of a life with too much time at work and not enough together as a family.
So we told everyone we were moving to the UK for four years. Some asked if we were emigrating. No, not yet, we said, we’re just exploring our options. But not everyone believed us.
“You’re selling your house, your cars. You’re not planning to come back, are you?” My father asked. I couldn’t give him an answer because I didn’t have one.
In a matter of weeks, we began to unravel the life we had made for ourselves in our country of birth. We dismantled a house filled with memories and mementoes collected over several decades. We put it on the market because we didn’t want to worry about a mortgage. We resigned from our jobs, giving up two comfortable incomes to subsist on a student’s stipend. Some friends said we were really brave. Others thought we were mad. My mother-in-law lamented the loss of my career, one I had built over the past sixteen years.
“Such a shame you have to give it up to follow your husband,” she said, echoing my father.
But I was more than ready to take a break from my job as a magazine editor. A job I loved but had come to resent since Khay was born three years ago. I wanted to watch my son grow up instead of hearing about it from my mother, who cared for him while I worked. I wanted to chase squirrels in the park instead of stories in a newsroom.
By that August morning, as we quietly loaded our suitcases into the car, I was bone-tired. Exhausted from spending the past few weeks finishing up at work and dealing with everything else on my own; sorting the paperwork for the sale of our house, clearing it for the new owners, selling my car a week before leaving. I was worn out from too many farewells. From trying to ignore the held-back tears behind the all-the-best and safe-journey wishes.
I couldn’t wait to get on that plane.
I don’t remember much else from that morning I left my country.
I would have said goodbye to Ruth, thanking her and hugging her tightly before letting go to walk through the departure gate. I would have kept myself busy with my son so I wouldn’t look back and see my friend watch us leave.
Once we were on the aircraft, I would have made sure we were all strapped in as we watched the safety briefing. I would have heard the plane hum as it began to taxi down the runway. Swayed with it as it juddered and picked up speed. Gripped my armrests as gravity pulled me backwards into my seat. Felt my stomach churn at the precise moment the plane’s wheels left solid ground and the world tilted outside my window.
What do you think about when you are leaving your country, not knowing when you’d be back next? Not knowing if you’d ever be back for good?
I could have thought about those I was leaving behind. My father, already waking up to an empty house. My mother-in-law, who had told Nick how her heart felt torn in two at the thought of us leaving. My soon-to-be-born nephew, who would make me a first-time aunt.
I could have thought of what lay ahead. Wondered what our new city was like, and whether I would like it. Or hate it. Worried about how I would cope without my friends or family. Without my favourite foods. I could have thought about the new experiences I would have, the new friends and memories I would make.
But once the plane was airborne, I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. The murmur of voices around me began to fade. I didn’t even need my rosary as I fell into the deepest sleep I’d had in months.