It was slightly just after when we arrived. The front gate was locked and I had to gain entry to the rear compound via a neighbour. Somehow, the whole place was eerily quiet - there was no one at home. And the chicken house and coops are no longer there.
I could not have been more than 7 of age then. As dusk approached, I stood transfixed looking at the two elderly figure talking to each other. Can’t remember why, but perhaps it was the sight of the tall and slim figure of the man that mesmerised me. Perhaps, it was the sight of his bald head that did. Still, I remember blushing – as a child would when smiled upon – as this man would with all children. Yet, the smile was only there when he wants. Other times, he has a serious look that command respect. His life seems regimented by a daily routine which include reading at a table near his bed, deep into the early morning. Even then, it is not he which the adults seem to fear, but his wife; a stout 4feet 10inch disciplinarian whose body was literally dwarfed by the husband’s 6feet odd. In fact, one would be forgiven to take her as the military figure instead of her husband.
It has been a very long time since I even had a look into the rear compound. So much has changed since the old man and his wife passed away. The squatting toilet here had disappeared, as though it was totally uprooted by a hurricane. With the thickening layers of dry leaves, I could not discern its exact spot. But as my leg shift the leaves and sand, I found its unmistakably – a square slab of cement hidden by sands, pebbles and rotting leaves. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Here I stand on one of the two spots I dread most as a child. This particular spot now lay buried, complete with its own grave-mark. Gone too the intricate carvings of the dish-dryer placement that juts out the rear of this house. They do not exist anymore, except in the corners of my childhood memory.
At this particular time mentioned, the elderly couple had lived in this wooden house for more than 2 decades. The house comprised of 4 sections: the main house or ‘rumah ibu’; the kitchen; the middle section which housed one of the only two bedrooms; and the ‘serambi’ or what is now termed as the living room. The two latter parts of the house were a later add-ons while the kitchen was separated from the ‘rumah ibu’ – joined only by wooden planks that were rather loosely placed but with no roof of what-so-ever covering it; when it rains, the whole area would be soaked to the skin, and the kitchen seem, temporarily, a totally different structure altogether .
There used to be a small pond beside the kitchen. It served a dual need; one of a drainage system, the other as a duck pool. It is no longer there, again covered by sand, pebbles and rotting leaves. And a little further to the front near where visitors would park their automobiles, the rambutan tree still stands with its splendour of delicious yellow fruits. I plucked one peeling it open with my fingers. The tree still bore sweet and juicy fruits as I remember it.
Like most house of its era and location, it was built on stilts with attap roofing which was later changed to zinc, a supposedly a better material. But when it rains, even the roar of a Regimental Sergeant Major could not be heard over the din of water dropping on it. And when the sun shines – especially in – the house is more of an oversized oven rather than an abode. But, it was a beautiful house of split level architecture and steeped roof, and a lovely front staircase linked to the serambi giving it the distinct look of a typical Malacca house complete with an attic and that tangga Melaka.
I look around and notice the presence of a wider open space and soon realise that the kui – a tool shed cum small rice silo - is no longer present. My uncle and his daughters – the present occupants – had found no use of it and had had it dismantled only a year or two back. Its wood lay quiet beside the rubbish burning area. But in the minds of the many children that once crowd this house, the kui remains in our memory as the castle fought for in mock battles that children play world over.
As night approach, one of the old man’s children would light-up some 4 or 5 kerosene gas lamps for night use; Electricity would not reach this are for another 3-4 years, and like many villagers then, this house too turn in early each night. The humming sound of the lamp was romantically soothing. Together with the night sounds of a typical village, which include the sound of a tapping woodpecker or two, of crickets, the hooting of an owl, and the occasional buffalo’s grunt - its sleep briefly disturbed by some small creatures of the night; they were like an ensemble serenading us to sleep.
In the distant, I could hear voices; my uncle had returned from Alor Gajah for some grocery needs. As they walk in towards the house, I walk out towards them. It was like scenes from the past when families would greet one another especially during Eid Fitri. But this is not Eid Fitri. Some burglars had broken into the house and ransacked it. My mother and I had made the trip back out of concern for the only brother she has alive.
With little or no modern structures which absorb the day’s heat and release it in the night, a village night can be a very cold night. Children and adults alike pull blankets to keep warm especially as dawn approach. But for the old man, it is time to begin the day, faithfully awaken each morning by his wife to prepare for the dawn prayers. The wooden floor panels began to creak as more and more feet begins to shuffle, no doubt, they too were awaken by the old man’s wife.
The driveway is a path about 100 meters long and flanked on both sides by trees that still bear fruit till today. Rambutan trees of different colours and textures, palm, durian and the odd belimbing tree, stands testimony to the old man’s untiring effort to make the house a slightly more than decent home for his family. But it was his wife that put grace to the entire surroundings with flowering plants and pots of various sizes and shapes. How each morning she would sweep the entire compound while he was away teaching, and how the grandchildren were ‘press-ganged’ into her service by their parents.
When the war ended, the old man resumed his teaching post and was appointed the Headmaster of a school quite nearby to the village, a post he held till his retirement. Sometime in 1972, an automobile accident made him almost cripple and he was immobilised till his last breath sometime in early 1990’s, some 10 years after his wife passed away.
On our way out of the house heading back to KL, we passed several elderly people who had come to visit my uncle. My mum waved to the ladies and I could hear them saying: “Awa! Anak Cikgu Jetty…”, the rest of the sentence was lost as the car drives out of the gate.
To the people in the village, the old man will always be remembered as ‘Cikgu Jetty’. To the British Military, the records may show him as Lieutenant Jetty. But to us, his grandchildren, he will always be remembered as Datuk. And his wife as Encik.