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On top of a phone booth at the edge of Jalan Raja Uda, opposite a row of wooden shop lot, a crow was flapping its wings rigorously, removing drops of moisture from its feathers in the cold and wet Sunday morning. Eventually, it squawked horribly to its fellow species, signalling that it’s time to fly away and do some racketeering in other parts of the so-called beautiful city of Kuala Lumpur.

The year was 1990 and the inhabitants of Kampung Baru were just finishing their breakfast either at home or at the local Javanese or Minang coffee shops. No souls were seen at the guiltless, run down phone booth for the time being.

Minutes ticked by. At 8:30am, a young teenager named Mail was hastily and anxiously walking towards the phone booth. The handset was lifted. He dug deep into his tight jeans pocket and produced a handful of coins that was then hastily inserted into the coin slot. After dialling, he waited. A mere few seconds of the ringing tone felt like a lifetime.

“Hello?”

“Is it you Lin?”

“Yes, this is Mail”

“How are you?”

“No, I’m fine. Have you had your breakfast?”

“Hey, how about we go out later today?”

“Anywhere is ok”

“It’ll be fun. I promise”

Little that he knows, a fat middle aged lady was standing behind him for a good five minutes through his conversation. Makcik Mon was looking a bit restless. There was a frown on her face, maybe it’s because she was eager to use the public phone or maybe the morning sun was directly shining into her face.

“Dik, can you please hurry up? I have an important call to make”

Mail was stunned by the sudden interruption of his romantic conversation. He turned and looked at Makcik Mon’s chubby, frowning face and signalled with his free hand an internationally acknowledged signal of ‘wait a minute’.

“No, there’s somebody here to use the phone”

“So, 11 o’clock at the Coliseum Theatre?”

“At the main entrance, yes”

“Can’t wait to see you. Bye”

Mail replaced the handset to its holster and walked away from the phone booth with a smile on his face, gleaming from a cut-short, yet satisfying conversation with a young girl living just at the other end of the road from where he was staying.

Makcik Mon opened her purse and began inserting several pieces of coins into the public phone’s coin slot.

“Hello Tipah, this is Mon”

“You know my neighbour Peah right?”

“Well yesterday, she bought a set of brand new furniture you know”

“Last week she bought a new refrigerator, today it’s the furniture. I wonder where she got all the money to buy those stuff. Her husband is just a low level clerk at the General Hospital”

Makcik Mon paused and looked around the perimeter of the phone booth, making sure that nobody was around listening to her gossiping. When the coast is clear, she continued.

“Even if combined with her income of sewing baju kurung, I don’t think she can afford all those things”

“I bet it’s all instalments. Typical Peah, trying to act rich, but burdening herself with debt”

“I pity her husband! Hahaha!”

Makcik Mon laughed so hard that a stray cat wandering nearby jumped on its feet and ran away as if it was chased by a pack of stray dogs.

As Makcik Mon was inserting more coins into the coin slot, the gossiping topic changed to the midnight nagging of Cik Embam towards her husband that could easily be heard by the neighbours in the vicinity radius of fifty metres. By the time the Cik Embam topic was reaching its climax, a man in his late 30s, was already standing behind Makcik Mon. Like the people before him, he too was showing anxiousness on his face. But his anxiousness looked more like a person extremely frustrated at something.

The man cleared his throat loudly, signalling that gossiping time was over for Makcik Mon. His aura of male dominance was too much for Makcik Mon to argue with. Maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s just because Makcik Mon preferred not to gossip in the presence of other people.

Makcik Mon replaced the handset to its holster and walked away from the phone booth with a smile on her chubby face, gleaming from a satisfying dose of early morning gossiping fix with another middle aged housewife living just at the other end of the road from where she was staying.

Karim was the next patron at the shabby phone booth. At first he was inserting coins into the public phone. Then suddenly, he was banging the phone’s innocent body because a coin was stuck inside. After a few bangs (and a few curse words), it seemed that the phone was back to normal. He then dialled and waited.

“Hello Ali, it’s me, Karim”

“Have you checked the papers?”

“My Magnum 4D number didn’t come up! I put 3512 and can you believe it that the first prize number is 2153?!”

“Yup, my number backwards. No damn luck brother!”

“I didn’t even get the consolation prize”

“OK, that’s all. I’ve got to go now. We’ll meet tonight at Teratak Dangdut. 9 o’clock sharp. Don’t be late”

Karim walked away from the tattered phone booth with a slight grin, somewhat satisfied after blowing off steam with his best friend, Ali. He then headed to a Javanese coffee shop situated at the opposite wooden shop lot. He would later sit there in the coffee shop drinking cups of kopi ‘o and loafing with the other patrons mindlessly until midday. During that time, the VHS player at the coffee shop was for the umpteenth time, playing a recording of Wrestlemania VI where The Ultimate Warrior defeated the incumbent champion, Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship.

*****

“Mail, I’m sorry”

“I can’t meet you today”

“My mother met Makcik Mon earlier. Makcik Mon told my mother about our supposed meeting today”

“You know how my mother forbids me from befriending you right?”

“Again, I’m sorry. Oh, how I really, really hate Makcik Mon and her big mouth!”

Lin replaced the handset to its holster and walked away from the exact same phone booth without a smile on her face, gloomed from a short and less satisfying conversation with a young boy living just at the other end of the road from where she was staying.

She walked slowly, dragging her legs reluctantly towards home. In her hand was a bag of kelapa parut that her mother asked her to buy from a grocery shop at the wooden shop lot, opposite the shabby phone booth.

It was already 10 o’clock in the cold and wet Sunday morning.

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