Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sugar. Honey. Honey.

We were gathered around the table last week for our usual Thursday night gathering, when the subject of comic books came up. Our faces lit up with recognition as we named some of our favourite comics - the all-American sweetheart Archie and his motley crew of friends, the Beano comics headlined by Dennis the Menace and his sidekick dog Gnasher, Dandy comics with Bananaman! and so forth.

Comic books were a constant companion to us - we read them under the blanket with torchlights, or on our toilet bowls or sprawled out over our couches on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Uncle R was saying how he wished he had kept his comics from last time, because they would be worth a mint now. I thought about my well-loved Archie collection and about how brown, creased and dog-eared they all were from repetitive reading and wonder about how much they were worth. Perhaps to an old newspaper vendor.

If you go up to my bedroom in Malaysia, you will actually find a row of translated-into-Malay Japanese comics like Slam Dunk and Doraemon and some tattered Archies.

Call it a refusal to grow up, but whenever I am home on holidays, it's always fun to just reach out for a comic, and then lie down to read it.

For the brief few moments before sleep claims me, I can escape this world into one where the American redhead tries to figure out his love triangle between the rich brunette or the homely blonde; where the Japanese redheaded rebel finds his place on the basketball court and a little Japanese boy's everyday problems are solved by a futuristic cat with wonderful marvels from his fourth-dimension pocket.

Random Memories: Nine Years Old

The cupboard stands before him in his Auntie's house, towering twice the height of his nine-year-old self. Sitting among the many decorative paraphernalia from their family's various trips overseas were rows of books neatly lined up - detective stories, choose-your-own adventure series and an entire row filled with Archies.

Double Digests, Single Digests, Betty And Veronica, Lil' Archie, Jughead - an entire bookshelf row of Archies.

He thinks about the four or five copies he had at home and how he had read them so often he knew them by heart. At RM 5.95 for a Single Digest, these were luxuries his family could ill-afford.

He is only allowed to read the comics when he is there, and never dared to ask if he could borrow one home. The visits are often not long enough for him to get through a single digest.

Take one home, the Little Lawyer whispers.

But that's stealing! the Sunday School voice says.

They won't notice it's gone, and then, you can put it back the next time you're here. Little Lawyer was pretty convincing.

The two voices bickered for awhile. His eyes trailed over the toy cars from the Netherlands, the intricate fans from China and the kimono-ed dolls from Japan, carrying echoes of foreign lands, which in his nine year old mind, he will never be able to visit.

He makes up his heart and he reaches for two Archies, and, quickly peering over his shoulder, he stuffs two of the books into his gawdy yellow button-up shirt.

He turns around and his heart stops in his chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees his auntie in the distance, standing at the bottom of the staircase leading into the landing, a silent witness to his brazen theft.

Head bowed, he quickly walks past his auntie, thinking magically somehow that if he pretends not to see her, then she wouldn't be able to see him.

He walks to the couch downstairs and plops down next to his Mum. His bowed head stares at the telltale boxy corners angling from his too-small shirt, poking directly into his nine-year old conscience.

His auntie walks slowly down the second flight of stairs, deliberating how best to deal with this situation.

She starts of by continuing a conversation with her sister - his mother, as if nothing had happened. He is relieved. Maybe she didn't notice.

Just as they were standing to leave a few minutes later, his auntie looks at him and says, 'Maybe you'd like to return me the comics before you go.'

His Mum turns to him -'What comics?'- initially quizzically and then with horror as it dawns upon her what he had done. He unbuttons his top buttons and pulls out the comics one by one, his ears and cheeks burning with shame. He half expects the ear-twist or slap but it never comes.

Instead he follows her sheepishly to the car, and she is strangely quiet. It is only when the doors are closed that she turns around and raps him smartly on the knees.

'Why did you do that, hah? Haven't I taught you better than that! You bring shame to the family, you know!'

She is furious, and continues to lecture him on how stealing is wrong and how he should be ashamed of himself. The drive home is a tempestuous one. 'If you wanted one, just ask and then we will buy for you lah!'

He knows she is just saying it to placate him.  He knew comic books, amongst other luxuries, were never going to be a priority in this household. Just for once he wished that he could have something when he wanted it. Through his tears, he yells out in exasperation, 'Liar! As if!'

They are quiet for the rest of the drive home, each still seething from guilt and shame.

He is surprised when she turns into the shop houses on the way home. She stops outside the local stationary shop in his Taman (suburb) which sold the comics.

'Nah,' she hands him a red ten-ringgit note. 'Go get your Archie,' she says quietly.

He sits there stunned for a moment, unsure how to react.

He slowly reaches for the note and manages a thanks mum, before bursting out of the car and racing up the steps to buy his comic book.

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