It was July 1960. Jason and I had been playing in the gardens – we were six. With my mother heavily pregnant and on strict bed rest, we were desperate to spend our free time outside as much as possible, away from the tiptoeing and hushed conversations of the house. We were always happiest in each other’s company, anyway. Born a minute before me, that was all that was needed to catapult Jason from my twin to the firstborn of the new generation: the heir.
‘Do you want a brother or a sister?’ I asked Jason.
We were lying in the shade of the trees on the grass ah-Suk so laboriously mowed. I watched the clouds making their way across blue-green skies, while Jason trailed his fingertips in a pond filled with golden carp.
‘Brother,’ he said, without hesitation.
I flopped over onto my belly. Jason was teasing the carp, wiggling his fingers in the water, then whipping them away before he could get bitten.
‘Why? Then you’ll have another boy to play with and you’ll forget all about me.’
‘Wouldn’t. And I already have you. Why would I want another sister?’ he said, brown eyes on mine, dimples in his cheeks.
‘You’re silly,’ I said, grinning.
‘Wanna play a game?’ Jason was leaning on both his elbows, chin resting in his palms, his breath tickling my face. I faced him, mirroring his pose.
‘Okay. What game?’
‘Hide and seek? You can hide.’
‘Count to 100?’
Jason buried his face in his hands, face-first in the grass and began to count, his voice muffled by the earth.
I scooted up, hearing his counts behind me.
‘Careful Miu-Miu,’ said ah-Suk as I ran past him, his long brown fingers pulling weeds.
‘I’m not a miu-miu, I’m Mui-Mui!’ I said, pouting, but ah-Suk just meowed at me, until I’d started giggling.
‘Okay, okay, you’re Mui-Mui, not Miu-Miu – just don’t fall into the water.’
‘I know, ah-Suk,’ I said. ‘I promise not to drown today.’
‘At least do it on my day off, okay?’
‘Promise!’ I called as I ran away from him.
Where to hide? We knew the gardens so well. A favourite spot had been around the pool, sometimes amongst the statues in the frieze below the pool house, sometimes in the pool house itself. We loved to imitate the statues of our gardens, pretending to be Guan Yu, the god of war, faces screwed up, holding our breath until our faces turned red, or Caishen, the god of prosperity, pushing our bellies out, round and turgid, beatific smiles stretching our faces.
I stopped below the steps of the main house, spinning in a wild circle. Jason’s counts in the distance were reaching the 80s now. I had taken too long to decide.
‘90 … 91 …’
There was only one choice left. I ran up the stairs, past the jade dragon, and into the house.
In the late-afternoon heat and with my mother resting, all was still. I tiptoed past my father’s study, pausing for a moment outside the door, slightly ajar.
I reached a hand out to push open the door – to tell my father not to let Jason know I was hiding in the house – but my Uncle Jimmy’s voice stopped me in my tracks.
‘Think about it, Bobby, it’s a good opportunity.’
My father’s brothers and sisters came and went from the family home constantly. There was Uncle Ted who looked after the books, small, thin and nervous; Uncle Jimmy who was large and loud, his laugh preceding him in any room; Uncle Fred who always followed behind Uncle Jimmy; Aunty Lulu and Aunty Ginger, who came as a pair, Lulu dramatic and always with a drink in hand, and Ginger, short, fat and accompanied by her little yappy dog Bobo. There was another, Aunty Lilian, but she lived in California and we’d never met her, though my father often received letters from her.
There was a sigh, and my father’s chair creaked. ‘That may be so, but it feels dishonest, and I don’t know that I trust them.’
I fidgeted. I shouldn’t interrupt. My mother often scolded us for not knocking on doors before entering. My uncle laughed – the sound was loud and harsh. ‘Really, Bobby? Are you one of their running dogs? Do you forget your own blood?’
I had been standing there for too long. My mother said she didn’t like the way I hovered, that I was sneaky. She said that good girls didn’t watch people the way I did, like I was waiting for them to drop dead.
I turned to go and the floorboards creaked. The conversation halted, footsteps, and then the door opened, the shadow of Uncle Jimmy in front of me. His figure took up the whole door frame.
‘What’s this, eh? A little insect, listening at the door?’
‘I was … we’re playing hide and seek.’
‘Hide and seek, eh?’ Uncle Jimmy’s top lip curled upwards on one side. ‘Well, this doesn’t look like a very good place to hide.’
‘Jason’s outside,’ I said, unable to meet his eyes.
‘Why don’t you run along and find somewhere else to hide, hm, little insect?’ He leaned in close, tobacco on his breath. He reached yellow-stained fingers towards me, pulling a dollar coin from behind my ear and pressing it into my hand.
‘Who’s at the door, Jimmy?’ asked my father.
Uncle Jimmy smiled. ‘Nobody important.’
He stepped back and closed the door in my face. I slipped the dollar coin into the pocket of my culottes – there was an imprint in my palm from where I had been gripping it – and then turned and ran up the stairs.
I pushed open the door to one of the guest rooms. In the corner stood a big traditional chest, hand-carved and made of camphor. The chest had been part of my mother’s wedding dowry. She’d told us how the days leading up to the wedding saw endless piles of gifts left at the family home.
‘Of course,’ she’d told us, ‘we weren’t to keep most of it. We returned it to them.’
‘Why?’ I’d asked.
My mother’s lips were a tight, straight line. ‘Do you think it would’ve been better if they’d thought we were greedy?’ She’d scoffed, adjusted her jade bracelet. ‘The shame of it, Evelyn.’
I traced my finger along the chest and opened it, smelling mothballs and my mother’s perfume, her clothes carefully wrapped in layers of tissue paper. Surely this was the perfect spot to hide. I swept aside the gold coins and climbed inside, pulling the heavy lid closed.
I was wrapped in my cocoon, the outside world muffled. In the soft warmth, I waited for Jason and wondered about the new baby. Would I prefer a brother or a sister? Why did we need a new baby, anyway? Jason and I had each other, and our parents had us. Wasn’t that enough?
Jason would find me soon, I was sure. I closed my eyes and waited for him, counting dogs. They were small and yappy, like Aunty Lillian’s Bobo, but with Uncle Jimmy’s head.
‘Are you a running dog?’ asked the Uncle Jimmy dogs in unison.
‘I don’t want to be a dog,’ I said.
‘Too late,’ said the Uncle Jimmy dogs, nudging a screaming bundle towards me.
‘But I don’t want to,’ I said, trying to back away, but I had nowhere to go.
‘You don’t have a choice. It’s time to wake up, Evie. Wake up.’
I opened my eyes in darkness. Where was I? It was stiflingly hot. Paper rustled. I was blinking, trying to recall, sleep and heat making my brain fuzzy. My hand reached out, feeling the hard wood around me. The chest. I was in the chest, hiding from Jason. That was right, we were playing hide and seek. So where was he?
I put my hands above me and pushed, heaving the heavy wooden lid open, and sat up. It was dark outside – I had been asleep for hours. I smiled: I had finally found a hiding spot to outwit my brother. Hopping out of the chest – my body had left an imprint in my mother’s clothes – I walked to the door and opened it to chaos.
There was wailing coming from downstairs, and I could hear footsteps running through the house.
‘Did you check the ceramic boat? They like to play there sometimes.’ It was my mother. The wailing was ah-Dzeh.
‘Jason, think: when’s the last time you saw your sister?’ asked my father.
I felt like I’d swallowed a mouthful of icy water, the cold spreading through my body, into the tips of my fingers and the roots of my hair. It was me. They were looking for me.
‘We were playing hide and seek …’ Jason was crying.
‘We’re going to have to dredge the waterways,’ someone said. It sounded like one of my uncles, though which one, I couldn’t tell.
I tiptoed into the hallway, then across to the bedroom Jason and I shared. Overcome with guilt, I hid behind the door, peeking through the hinges.
‘Go down to the pool. If you need to, start draining the ponds. I’ll check the bedrooms again. Rosie: sit down, you’re supposed to be on bedrest,’ came my father’s voice again.
His footsteps came up the stairs and I pressed myself against the wall, watching him approach. I let out a sob, and he stopped. I saw his eyes, blinking at me through the gap.
‘Evie? Evie, what are you doing there?’
I began to cry.
‘Evie, it’s okay. Come out.’
I shook my head, crying harder. My father crouched next to me and took my hand in his.
‘It’s okay. You’re safe now.’
He wrapped his arms around me, and I collapsed into him, sobbing, the smell of his 4711-cologne spicy and pungent. I clung to him as he carried me downstairs, face buried in his shirt, hands clasped around his neck.
‘You found her?’ my mother said.
I could hear disgruntled muttering.
‘Where was she?’
‘It doesn’t matter. She’s okay.’
I gripped my father tighter. He was protecting me, though he didn’t know what I’d done, and it was then I knew that no matter what, he would always protect me.
‘Will someone take Evie, please?’
‘No!’ I cried. I felt arms trying to pull me away from him, and I wrapped my legs around him tighter. ‘No, no, no! Baba! Baba!’ I could see Jason also holding onto my father, his face red, tears and snot running down his cheeks.
Aunty Ginger’s dog, Bobo, yapped and jumped, trying to bite fingers. Aunty Ginger was shouting, ‘Bobo! Bobo! Daa sei nei! Stop that! Bobo!’
‘Evie, darling, stop.’ My father’s voice was soothing, prying my fingers from around his neck. I sobbed harder, Aunty Vivi pulling at me, finally managing to remove me from him. She held me by the arm with one hand, Jason with the other.
‘No! No! Baba!’
Aunty Vivi was coaxing me to stand up, be a big girl, stop now. Bobo was dancing around us, growling, yapping, nipping.
Aunty Ginger’s voice and mine were competing for attention, Jason and I were still trying to reach for my father, ah-Dai was murmuring, telling me, Little Miss, Little Miss, stop now, stop now, while ah-Dzeh wrung her hands, still crying, Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Fred nudged each other, their eyes accusatory, saying, Kids, eh? Who’d have ’em?
My mother got up from her chair, her round belly protruding forwards. She walked over, reached out her hand and slapped me.
The room went silent. My hand went to my cheek and I looked up at my mother. Her eyes burned, though her face was pale and there were beads of sweat on her forehead.
‘Stupid girl,’ she said. ‘How dare you. Do you have any idea—’ My mother stopped. She closed her eyes, wincing, and her hand went to her engorged belly.
‘Rosie?’ My father stepped towards her. ‘Rosie, what’s wrong?’
She held a hand out, stopping him from fussing over her. ‘Nothing,’ she said, but then she took a sharp breath in and bent over double, holding onto her belly with both hands.
My father held her by the elbow and called out, ‘lao-Bai! Get the car!’
‘No, Robert, it’s too soon,’ my mother said.
‘Come on, we’re going to the hospital.’
She shuffled towards the door, towards the car.
We had been forgotten. Red tail lights snaked down the drive, through the garden and out into the night, carrying our parents, aunts and uncles away.
‘Come on. Let’s get you two into bed.’ Aunty Vivi guided us away from the door and handed us over to ah-Dzeh.
‘We thought you were dead,’ Jason said, a whisper in my ear. ‘I looked for you for hours. Where were you?’
I didn’t respond. ah-Dzeh led us upstairs and ran a hot, steamy bath. I held my arms over my head so that ah-Dzeh could remove my top and singlet, then stepped into the bath together with my brother, back to back. ah-Dzeh’s rough hands scrubbed our bodies with a bar of soap. She poured water over our heads and I closed my eyes, but all I could see was my mother’s face, glancing back at me as my father helped her over the threshold of our home into the car, the look that so clearly said, This is your fault, Evie. You did this.