Bitter Leaves

By Tabatha Stirling

A novel that will bring you to the dark heart of Singapore's maid culture


20 Sabre Green

When I came to Singapore, it was with such happiness in my heart. I knew I was doing a good thing, making my parents proud. The girls that go to Singapore and Arabia are spoken of with reverence and as good, dutiful girls.

Sawtoh, the skinny girl from my village, she married a Western man and now they live in Singapore in a palace with beautiful children and swans. I hear her bed is made from gold and she has many servants. I wish her luck but I never like her much. She was cruel to animals and the younger children. Would pull pigtails and tear clothes and kick the dogs around the village when the mood took her. My Ebu says the devil is inside her mouth.

I don’t disagree with Ebu but I think that she is just very selfish. Most of the girls who marry Western men are cunning but until they have a ring on their finger – they play it very sweet like Bubur Candil. Sawtoh must have been kicking many puppies in private to be able to mask her real self. I feel sorry for that Western Man. He went to the market and bought a duck but it turned out to be a fire ant.

It is very dark here at my Madame’s house. I am expected to wash the car before the family wakes up. As I stumble out with sleep still in my eyes and weary bones that sigh I see the other black shapes washing other cars. We might smile and nod but we never call out. The maids that wash cars know better than that. We are divided between the maids that speak and the maids that do not.

I see the happy girls wander down the road carrying shopping and chat-chat on their cell phone and I think how good do you have to be in the eyes of the Lord to deserve an employer like that?

One that gives you freedom and maybe one day off a month like Ebony Ma’am? And I steal a glance next door to reassure myself that she is still there.

If the dog barks after a certain time at night then I have dollars taken from my wages. How am I to keep the dog quiet? Bind its mouth? Speak softly to it like I do with the piglets back home? The dog is excitable and hot tempered. It does not get enough exercise. I tell Madame at the beginning that I would walk the dog for hours. I would run the dog and laugh with the dog and we would take off with Happiness and fly back on a cloud to my village. But Madame says No! Sometimes I think she says ‘No’ so much that a ‘Yes’, might kill her.

Madame gets angry very quick and I learn not to speak, not to ask and not to be. I am forbidden to speak to anybody outside of the household and am only ever allowed to talk to them if I bow first or they ask me a question. My Madame is very particular and old-fashioned about such things.

She is from a province in China but my Sir, he is from Singapore. Madame is very pale and she refuses to go out in the sun. I am expected to hold a parasol over her head when we go out in the day. But I am also expected to walk slightly behind her. It is difficult and when I first arrived I would trip and stumble. But when we are out I can look at the world around me. I see the big houses and the even bigger buildings. So much glass and light.

Only sometimes does Madame take me into the city but when she does I study everything so I can’t forget. I watch the sky the most and remember that my Ebu and I share the same sky every day to make me feel less lonely.

The kind woman next door is also brown-skinned and her skin is like honey roses and she has green eyes like a watermelon rind that glow with health and sweetness. She is full of love and smiles at me when she sees my tired spirit. I call her Ebony Ma’am because she shines like the polished roots of the wood tree that grow near our village.

After Ebony Ma’am caught my employer slapping my face Madame makes me do it to myself now. Ebony Ma’am was very cross with my Madame and shouted very fast and when she shout at my employer and I heard ‘Police’.

So now Madame makes me take a shoe in my hand and hit my own face with it. If I don’t hit hard enough she makes me do it again and again. At least it is a flat shoe. One of her spike heels that look like a spear would hurt much more. The children watch and their faces are full of bitter leaves .

I don’t tell my parents about these sad things. It would only worry them and what would they do? Old people worry more, it is well known. My mother’s health is no good. They need the money I send home. And I am happy that they can’t see my teardrops and blood drops. I am not allowed a phone so I could only make a call if Madame was out. But who would I phone? The village I come from doesn’t have telephone lines or electricity. My Ebu and Bapa sleep on the floor on mats. There is more room now I have gone. But that is little comfort and they are expected to grow hashish on their land. A man from the Government came and shouted at them. My Bapa shouted back, ‘Why would we want to grow something we can’t eat?’ and the man hit Bapa across the face and spat at his feet.

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