I go to the post office with my neighbour, The Neighbour, from now on to be referenced to as “Neighbour”, to pick up my letter. The line stretches from the counter, past the doors, to the fence, where people are collecting their ASN or ASB – whatever it is – bunga, ha ha, flowers, savings interest.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait in the same line as the interest collectors. But there’s only two people working behind the counter, serving EVERYONE.
The postal worker behind the counter chuckles as he takes my letter for me. Khidmat Negara? he asks, as he clears the letter, stamping here, stamping there, sticking stickers in a tiny book and asks me to sign right there, yeah, right there, here, use this pen.
Excitedly, I rip open the letter outside the post office. I let out an excited squeak and squeal when I see the words I’ve been yearning for, the university!! I stare blankly at the words above it – kem … WHAT? What camp is THAT? What place? Never heard of it.
* * *
Neighbour and I head for the library to bask in the air-conditioning while filling up the health forms enclosed in the letter. The library is deserted, save for a twentysomething chap passes by our table and remarks, Khidmat Negara? He peers at the papers we’ve strewn on the table, asks Can I see your letters, and while he’s reading another chap passes by and remarks, Khidmat Negara?
The second chap laughs, and says, Lookit this guy, he points at the first one, After he’s done working at the Resort, he’ll be the one training you, ex-army man that he is, sarge, lieutenan muda.
The librarians behind their counter overhear our conversation, and ask us conversationally, Khidmat Negara?
The librarians look at our letters, and remark at the date printed on the letterhead, the 18th of December. They say, Weren’t the letters supposed to be mailed out on the 16th?
The librarians exchange glances. It says 18th printed on the letter, which means it got sent out, what, four days later? They shake their heads, and we don’t know what to say to this comment. Then they ask, When’d you get the registered slip, anyway?
On the 1st. The chop on the slip says it arrived at the post office on the 28th.
Man. They shake their heads again. Good luck.
* * *
We head to the Dispensary next, because Neighbour tells me Yah, gotta get it done today, see your letter, those pink and yellow forms, due on the 3rd.
At the Dispensary, we wait for the nurse behind the counter to glance at us and say, Yeah? It takes her quite a while to do this. Neighbour asks, but she turns us away. The doctor’s on holiday. You’ll have to get it done at the next town.
I’ve never heard of a Dispensary there.
Well, now you do.
I glance over the counter, and see yellowing folders and medical records, yellow and pink and green. Docket, the folders say.
* * *
We go to the buses outside the library, and locate the bus headed for the next town.
How many? asks the conductor.
Two, we say.
Two? Yeah, go in.
The bus is overloaded by one, and the conductor says to me, Here, girl, sit on the edge of this seat with them three people already there, you’ll be fine, you’re so thin ha ha.
We get off at the town, and find out there isn’t any Dispensary, just a clinic for Mothers and Children. Neighbour swears, Shit, and I call Rich and ask, Where is this dispensary anyway?
Dispensary? What dispensary? Unless you’re pregnant, which I hope you’re not, you gotta go to the OTHER town’s hospital.
* * *
After a quick discussion, Neighbour and I decide to head straight to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for the checkup, who cares about sodding other small town hospitals and doctors on holiday and infrequent buses. At the bus parking lot, we take the next bus to Kota Kinabalu, KK, the Big City, and groan, Damn, money going down the drain for bus fares.
Passengers go up and down, the bus stopping anywhere there’s potential passengers. At one stop, there’s two empty seats – one in a two-seater next to a woman, the other next to a man. The potential passengers, a young woman and her mother, both wearing tudungs, cram into the space next to the woman.
At the next stop, the bus overloads, and a passenger says, Eh, drebar, driver, your bus overload, tau! The bus driver glances behind, puzzled.
I keep count, I haven’t overloaded, he replies, annoyed. And then he notices the young woman and her mother wearing tudungs, stuffing a two-seater with another woman.
The bus driver says to the Indonesian who just got on, Sorrylah kawan, pal, you gotta get off, there’s a spot up ahead where the police just love to use as a checkpoint. The Indonesian says, No problem, and gets off.
Then the bus driver turns around and barks at the mother, Makcik oiii, would you please take that empty seat? The young woman and her mother fall into a quick discussion, and finally the mother grudgingly goes to sit next to the man.
Suddenly we remember that hospital isn’t for outpatients, so we head for the Klinik Kesihatan Luyang, Luyang health clinic, specially for the outpatients.
We enter the clinic and are directed to Room 14, a cramped room of janitor’s walk-in broom cupboard proportions. A table, a weight scale, a mirror, a couple of chairs, an eye chart, a filing cabinet, and jammed with people. We stand and wait a full hour for the six people ahead of us to complete chatting with the two young Malay hospital assistants, get their eyesight checked, get their forms, everything.
A Chinese couple usher in their young son, for an eye test. The hospital assistants tell us, Okay, step aside, let this kid have the eye test. We cram to one side of the room, one of us having to stand on the weight scale due to lack of space, so that the kid’s view to the eye chart is clear.
Kid, what’s this letter?
Oh! says the mother, He hasn’t gone to school yet, so he doesn’t know his alphabet.
The assistant stares at them. You mean, the kid’s five years old and doesn’t know his alphabet?
My husband and I are busy, we can’t stay home and teach him. The mother’s lips grow thin. Don’t you have any eye charts with meow meow and woof woof, that one he can.
None, says the assistant, Tiada oh. He thinks, then gives the kid a letter E, and flips to the eye chart with a variety of upside down, left, right E’s. The kid squirms in his seat, smiles shyly, puts the E in his lap and puts his hands on his cheeks cutely, smiles.
Oh, he can’t do that either, says the mother. He hasn’t gone to school yet, you see. He’s going soon, and I think he may need glasses.
The assistant says, Right, and stands in front of the kid, puts up three fingers, and asks in Malay, Kid, you see my hand? How many fingers?
The father says, Ah, no, we’ll translate. You see, my son doesn’t understand Malay, he only speaks Chinese.
Surely he knows Satu, Dua, Tiga? Kid, you know Satu, Dua, Tiga, One, Two, Three?
We’ll translate, the father interrupts quickly. A little too quickly.
The mother translates for the son, but the son only squirms in his seat, smiles shyly, covers his eyes, giggles Hee.
Okay, says the mother, I’ll bring him back in six months after he’s learnt his alphabet and numbers, would that be okay?
The assistant says Sure, then pauses and asks, What about school? If his eyes are bad, they’ll get worse, what with him squinting at the blackboard five days a week.
I’ll bring him back in six months. And with that, the Chinese couple take their son leave.
* * *
Finally the hospital assistants turn to us. New? Khidmat Negara?
Let’s see your official letter.
We show them the letter, and they nod and say, Here’s your forms, fill ’em up.
They scrawl numbers on the forms, and give them to us. Go to the rooms with these numbers, they say.
And we’re out of Room 14 in three minutes.
* * *
We go for our urine tests. The woman at the counter taps on the counter with a click pen, arms draped luxuriously across the counter, relaxing and listening to OAG and Misha Omar on the radio, kerana percayakan Siti tercetus bunga-bunga cinta.
We show her our forms, and try to ask her, Di sini kah… Is this where…
The woman wordlessly jerks her head in the general direction of small white paper cups with Kementerian Kesihatan printed in red letters on them.
We take the cups.
She jerks her head again to her left, our right, a door next to the counter. Inside, there are two more doors – one for females, one for males.
She jerks her head again.
* * *
I go into the door marked for females, and worry, what if the paper cup gets damp and my pee soaks through? It’s hard to collect, what if I can’t aim correctly and my pee gets on my hands, yuck?
The toilet is a squatting toilet, and that doesn’t help at all. Finally, I pee standing up.
Once I’m done, I hide my cup underneath my forms, ashamed of my shade of yellow, and quickly slide it towards the wordless woman. She finally makes a sound, grunting Mmph, which means Okay.
* * *
Next is the X-ray department. A man, the X-ray technician, walks in and out with huge brown envelopes, singing out names. Some other boys are sitting around the waiting area too, and together we fill up the eight grey waiting seats, while the others stand and lean against the walls, waiting for a seat to be free. The boys snicker at the way the technician calls out names in his singsong voice. They whisper out the called-out names, trying to copy the tech’s tune, while the receptionist looks on disapprovingly.
My name is called, and the boys whisper/sing my name amongst themselves, laughing. I am sent into a tiny room to change, a room with two doors, one on either end. There’s a green smock hanging on the wall by a hanger, another empty hanger, a mirror, and some instructions. The instructions say, take off your bra, tie the strings, tie your hair, lock the doors.
The green smock has to put on, so I take off my clothes except for my knickers. At first I put it on the wrong way around, back to front, then I realise my mistake and correct it. Nobody’s there, but I’m embarrassed anyway.
It’s hard for my hands to go through, because of the tiny elastic openings for the hands, and the very long green sleeves. I bunch up the sleeves, and push my wrists through. My hair is put up by twisting it around a pen, and after I’m done, I realise I forgot to lock any of the doors.
I open the other door and a boy is standing next to an operating table, fully dressed. Where’s his green smock? I go back in to wait, surely I’ve made a mistake. I wait a few seconds, re-open the door, the boy’s still there. I go back in, wondering what I was thinking – that he would disappear if I went back in?
The tech finally sings out my name again, and I re-enter the room with the operating table. The boy’s gone.
The tech makes me stand in front of a white panel. Chin on top, yes very good, and he pushes up the white panel until my chin is thrown up and my back is straight. Okay, hands behind, bagusss, yes very good, he says, and places my hands at my hips, wrists on my hips, palms away from my body. The way someone with baking flour all over her hands might put her hands on her waist.
The man disappears into a room, and calls out, Tahan nafas~~. Hold your breath. I do, and finally he says, Okay. I head back, get confused which door is the door I came out from until the man points it out, “The one that says ‘Perempuan’, Females, on the door,” he says pointedly. I turn a brilliant shade of crimson, get in, change out of my smock, get out of there, quick, quick, just get me out of here.
I ask Neighbour if he had to put on a green smock, and he says No. He just took off his shirt and took his X-ray.
But you can’t just take off your shirt, because you’re a girl, he tells me.
We wait in the waiting area, and the technician comes out with my brown envelope, sings out my name. The boys aren’t there anymore, the place is closing up, the nurses are packing up.
We go back to the laboratory to get our urine results, but the place is already closed. The singing man passes by, tells us, Oh, just look in that little box on the counter, your results should be there.
We dig around in the box but don’t find any results. Suddenly, the wordless woman comes out of the door and spots us.
Oh, it’s you two. I’ve got your results, wait here.
She goes back into the laboratory, and we see a few technicians, still working away. She comes back out with our results. We thank her, and part our ways.
My urine pH is lower than Neighbour’s, meaning that it’s more acidic than his. I could pickle cucumbers with my urine, so I could. He gets this superior look on his face and I grumble, Okay, okay, I insaf lah this, I repent, I’ll drink plenty of water from now on.
We hurry back to Room 14, still open.
The assistants give us a quick eye test. Can you see this number? No, it’s an eight, but never mind, you wear those glasses anyway, right? Yeah, good, fine, we’ll just say you have perfect vision. They write down the results, perfect vision, and some others. 75 beats per minute, heart rate.
But you didn’t check my heart rate.
That’s okay, you’re normal, right? Oh, yeah- colorblind?
Okay. The assistant writes down the information on the forms. He gives the forms to us, and says, Fill out the rest yourself, okay? Name, height, weight, all that stuff. Here, I’ll sign at the bottom, just fill up everything else on your own.
The other assistant checks a diary, and says, You’ll need a check-up with the doctor, but not today, we’re closing up now. Tuesday the sixth or Thursday the eighth?
But the letter’s due on the third.
They extended it to the fifteenth.
We think for a moment, then decide, Tuesday. The assistants frown and say, Tuesday’s busy. Thursday’s better, Thursday the eighth.
Neighbour and I quickly discuss this, then say Never mind, we’ll go on Tuesday.
I’m tellin ya, Tuesday’s busy. Go for Thursday.
Okay, okay, Thursday, I say, and wonder why they gave us a choice in the first place anyway.
Thursday, good choice. Smart kids. Where are you posted, by the way?
Neighbour tells them where he’s posted. I tell them, I’m going to (my camp).
What? Never heard of it. Where IS that? Tempat baru kah?
I come home and take a quick look over the letter. For those with medical problems, letters are due on the fifteenth! Letters are due on the third for those without! I feel like strangling Neighbour, but unfortunately for me and fortunately for him, he’s not there.