“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.
The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.
For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.
Today was no different. Like any other school holiday, my siblings and I were bundled off to our grandparents’ house in Penang, an island in Peninsular Malaysia. For my grandparents, it was quite a handful, having to deal with the four boisterous grandchildren they would later show off to their neighbours. For us, it was endless afternoons chasing chickens and playing ‘five stones’ under the mango tree.
However, being the eldest, I had a task that Tok got me to do every morning, after he had scanned the national section of the News Straits Times. Tok would give me a bundle of papers to read out loud. This usually comprised of names, addresses, exam results, lists of foreign universities, and more names. As these were handwritten, I read in staccato tones and stumbled over words I found hard to pronounce. Tok took no notice of my awkwardness. Neither did he stop to check the papers for spelling or clarity.
Click, click, click, click, zzziip, kling! Tok’s fingers would move swiftly like a pianist’s, not missing a beat. Sometimes, Grandma, whom we called Nek, would bring a plateful of sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. Or toasted bread with coconut jam. If she had the time, she would bring a plate of rolled crepes stuffed with sweet grated coconut. I wondered if she did this merely to feed her grandchildren or to break Tok’s monotonous ‘music’.
“Aida, come and eat something. All that reading will make your tummy rumble.” Nek would tell me.
One morning, Tok’s ‘music’ did come to a clackety halt. It was ten minutes to noon. As if on cue, I too stopped just before reading a postcode. Tok frowned and opened the carriage. He checked the levers and knobs and was rewarded with inky fingers. He grunted and mumbled, “Carriage not moving. Something’s wrong.”
Fifteen minutes later, Tok held the steering wheel of his Morris Minor while I sat next to him. The Remington typewriter sat obediently at the back, bundled in a bag waiting to be poked and pried upon so that it could produce more inky mischief on paper.
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