“Why does M hate animals?” I ranted at my elder sister EK, after having failed to rescue my ex-pet chicken from the dinner table. “M” was the secret code that my six sisters and I assigned to our mother whenever we hatch our evil little schemes that tested parental limits.
It appeared that the tender loving care that I gave to my yellow baby chick has proven to be its death sentence. Once the little fellow managed to gain a most handsome and rotund figure, “M” wasted no time in testing her latest recipes that involved parts mostly supplied by a fat fowl.
At the age of 6, I could not understand how my mother could be so heartless. My sisters and I were all animal-lovers. We were overjoyed when my neighbours got a couple of dogs two years ago. We would visit them everyday to play, walk, feed and clean them. “Happy” was a Japanese Spitz. She was really intelligent. We trained her to “sit” and “friend” with her “left” or “right” paws. The other dog, “Fluffy” was a silky terrier. She’s kind of dumb and smelly. Can’t be trained like “Happy”, but we had to brush her hair, clean her ears and teeth, and feed her, since it was part of the bundle deal we had with our neighbours. OK. We loved “Happy” to bits and kind of tolerated “Fluffy”. That still makes us animal-lovers, right?
So it always puzzled me. Where did we get our animal-loving genes from? Certainly not from my father, who once described to me, with much gusto, how he swallowed little mice whole and showed me how they went up his arm and into his biceps. He even allowed me to pinch them and feel them move inside his arm as he flexed his muscles. Yucks. And “M” hated animals.
Anyway, it was love at first sight when I met “Brownie”. He just appeared one day at the edge of the field where I was playing Police & Thief with some of my sisters and their friends. As usual, I was the Police, which sounded great, but I had to run after Thieves who were already in Primary school, so you can imagine I didn’t do quite that well in my policing career. While I was taking a well-deserved break, bent over and panting with my hands on my kneecaps, I cranked my head up and saw this cutest little dog sitting right in front of me. He was panting with his tiny tongue hanging out, and cocked his head to one side as if asking what the heck I was doing trying to copy him.
“Well hello there!” I crooned excitedly. We don’t see many stray dogs around our place in Mattar Road. Rumours have it that most end up in some kitchen pot. Yet here was this sweet little short-haired brown coated puppy that obviously wanted to be my friend. My civic duties of cleansing the public of thieving nuisance forgotten, I started fussing over Brownie, scratching his ears and stroking his flank. He turned on his back to give me easier access to his skinny little belly to tickle. Soon, my sisters and friends started crawling out of the woodwork and crowding around me and Brownie.
“He’s so cute. Too bad we can’t keep him,” said EK. Since Happy got stolen by some creep a month ago and Fluffy got euthanised when she couldn’t recover from some skin infection, there was some emptiness in our lives that we have been struggling to fill.
“Why not?” I protested, even though I knew the answer. “M” would never allow that dog to step into our house. In fact, she would probably freak out if she knew we have been touching the little guy. We’ll be so bleached from all the soap and anti-cootie disinfectant that we’ll be as white and clean as the teeth of the guy of famed toothpaste brand. And we’ll be forbidden from stepping outside our house for an entire week.
So my sister went back home to pinch some cooked rice and chicken innards from the kitchen, and then went back and watched Brownie wolf down the food. After playing with Brownie a little bit more, it became dark and it was time to go home. The puppy wanted to follow us, and it was heart-breaking to make it stay where it was.
The next day, we ran back to the field, calling out Brownie’s name. Out popped Brownie from the wooden crate that we had placed there for him a day earlier! We were so happy that he didn’t leave and played with him all day.
The routine continued for a couple of weeks. Each day, my sister would pinch some food when “M” was not looking. Chicken innards, spare pork parts, white rice, whatever we can get our hands on. Then we would go out, bring the feast to Brownie, and play with him. Strangely, not only was the amount of “spare” food increasing, it was sometimes packed in a paper bag beside the sink that we could just bring out without having to thaw it from the fridge. “M” never suspected anything or asked us what happened to the food, which was unusual since she seemed to remember every eraser I had that went missing, much to my chagrin.
Then came the fateful day. We were fawning over Brownie in the field when PC came prancing along, sucking at a melting ice-cream while clutching a bag of barbequed meat that she had just bought from the nearby market. PC was the 10 year old daughter of my mother’s arch enemy, our Fourth Floor Neighbours who stayed at our block in Mattar Road. How the bad blood started, I was too young to remember, but our families seldom talked and when we do, it was to quarrel. It was quite unnatural as we do get along well with the rest of the other families in that kampong-like neighbourhood.
In any case, curiosity got the better of PC that day when she saw me and my sis huddled over something in the field. She stopped, and walked towards us, with her ice-cream dripping and her char-siew emitting a most enticing aroma that got me salivating as well. We held on to Brownie, hoping she would just go away and leave us alone. Just before she could look over our shoulders, Brownie yelped, excited at the arrival of a new friend and fresh food. He slipped out of our clutches, and lunged at her.
There was a piercing screech, and with a quick abandonment of ice-cream, delicious char-siew and one slipper, PC vanished like a magic trick; her cries of bloody murder still ringing in our ears as she flew up the flat faster than anyone I have ever seen. We sat stunned and horrified, while Brownie happily inspected his spoils of war, licking away at the discarded ice-cream and sniffing at the pork.
Needless to say, this brought our war with the Fourth Floor Neighbours to a new phase. They claimed that we had set a wild dog on their beloved princess on purpose, and refused to accept our apologies or the return of the packet of char-siew or slipper, saying that they have been tainted by the devil. They even threatened to call the police on us for owning a dangerous animal.
Obviously, after that day, we never saw Brownie again. My sister said she saw “M” take the crate and the dog beyond The Fence, to a place just outside Canossa Convent which was less than a kilometer away, but way beyond the out-of-bound markers set by my parents for us to roam. No amount of pleading and crying would change my mother’s mind to let us keep the dog. “Our family is full”, she said. “We have no space or money for pets in our lives.”
But from that day on, my mother would disappear for about half an hour everyday after lunch, carrying a small pot with her. She did this rain or shine for the next 2 years until our family moved to another place when I was in Primary 2. Sometimes when she was away, I could hear the excited barking of some dogs in the distance. She never spoke of what she did, and we never dared to ask.
When it was time to leave our flat at Mattar Road for our new place, I noticed that my mother had tears in her eyes. I would have thought she was sad at leaving our old place, but she was not looking at our house. She was staring in the direction beyond the fence where a dog was barking and whining forlornly.