Amber streaks of sunlight pierced gloomy grey skies, as dawn broke over the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur. It was July of 2020, and in the industrial hub of Balakong, in the precinct of Cheras, in the south of KL, factory workers eagerly reported for work after four months of Covid-19 lockdown. But first, breakfast. They had to have a hearty breakfast to give them ample energy for the long ardous factory shifts they were about to engage in.
“Haizz. Rat years are always bad,” the wizened old man in a grey technician uniform sighed, as he handed me fourteen Ringgit and seventy cents, the total cost of breakfast for himself and his colleague. Drinks included.
“Hmmmph? What are you talking about?” His colleague said. He wore the same grey uniform as the former, and he tucked heartily into his plate of bee- hoon goreng, topped with a fried egg and a slice of fried luncheon meat.
“Look at 2008. The financial crisis? And now in 2020, so many terrible things happened! First Pakatan Harapan fell in March, then this Covid thing! I can only pray nothing bad happens for the second half of this year.” The old man shook his head, as he sipped his Teh Tarik, before starting on his Nasi Lemak.
As I collected the money from the old factory worker, and bustled off to serve other customers at my mother’s Malay Breakfast stall, I could only silently agree with him. Malaysia had undergone a total lockdown of the entire nation in the previous four months, and my family had zero income during the pandemic curfew. If not for the B40 handouts given out by the Malaysian government to struggling families like mine, I shudder to think how we would have survived at all in this trying period.
As such, my mother and I were extremely glad to re-open our breakfast stall again after the coronavirus lockdown. I would not describe life as hard, but it certainly could be better. My family ran a breakfast stall serving local Malay breakfast to the workers toiling the morning shift at factories close to the Nissan after-sales service centre at Balakong, Cheras. We would set up the stall, bright and early at 5.30am, and by 10 or 11am, we would be sold out. Business was good: Staff ranged from blue-collar workers to engineers and mid-level managers from the various industrial plants and factories in Balakong.
Sadly, in a Covid-19 world, the number of tables we could operate has been halved, and we had been badly hit by this loss of revenue. Not to mention the additional costs of providing hand sanitizer, and setting up barrier tape around our stall such that there was only one entrance and exit, to ensure all customers signed in and had their temperatures taken before they entered.
Nevertheless, business was still quite good. Before we opened our breakfast stall just across the street from the Nissan Balakong after sales service centre, factory workers and other staff in the area had to take away breakfast from stalls close to their homes, so our stall provided a major convenience and much appreciated service.
In particular, factory workers who finished a gruelling all night grave-yard shift, and came out exhausted, looking forward to having some nice delicious Malay breakfast at the end of their shift, really appreciated our breakfast stall. I would not say we became rich from running this breakfast stall, but it did help pay the bills, and provide us a comfortable living.
The highlight of my day, was when we were washing and packing up after we finished, a large grey tabby cat would always, without fail, appear at our stall, meowing hungrily.
“Shida…Is it that cat again?” My mother asked in an exasperated voice, as she stacked the plates she just washed into large plastic box, and secured it into the back of our Perodua Alza. We took no chances: the economy was terrible, and rates of theft was high. Each morning, when we closed up, we would pack everything into our Perodua Alza, and lock up our stall, leaving only the tables and chairs which we folded up and chained to the stall, making it impossible for robbers to steal. Ayub, the Bangladeshi worker who cut grass in our neighbourhood, was employed by us to man the drinks section of our breakfast stall, and to make all the drinks ordered by our customers, was paid an extra RM15 a day on top of his usual wages, to help us pack everything into our Alza MPV.
“Poor thing must be hungry.” I said, kneeling down and scratching the cat’s ears. It swatted my hand away in irritation, and looked up at me with large yellow expectant eyes, and meowed again.
“Oh you’re hungry are you? Yes, you are.” I cooed. Standing up, I fetched some Ikan Goreng, or fried fish, that had been left unsold that morning, and I fed it to the cat.
“It seems to really like you. You dah bagi dia nama?” Ayub said, asking if I named the cat. He was in the midst of helping my mother pack the glasses of our drink station securely into a big plastic container, before loading it into the back of our Perodua Alza.
“Hmmmph? A name? I know! I’ll call you Tibbles! From today onwards, you’ll be called Tibbles! Hello Tibbles, how is the Ikan Goreng?” I asked, as I stroked the cat’s ears. This time, it did not swat my hand away, focused as it was on its breakfast. It attacked the food hungrily, chomping on the scraps and bones of Ikan Goreng, and swallowing in voracious gulps.
“Whenever I try to approach it, it hisses and bares its fangs at me.” Ayub said with a shudder.
“Shida, stop playing with the cat and come help! There’s still a lot of packing to do!” My mother chided. Her voice was muffled through her face-mask, but the irritation in her voice was clear.
“Yes Mak.” I obeyed, leaving the cat, and hurrying over to pack the rest of our utensils and plates we just washed into our purple Alza MPV.
Usually, Tibbles was smart enough not to ‘harass’ any of our customers, and only approached me for some breakfast at the end of our business day. But one morning, as it was sleeping peacefully by the side of our stall, an Indian factory worker accidentally tripped over Tibbles as he made his way to our breakfast stall.
“HSSSSSSSSSHH” Tibbles hissed at the Indian Man, and the angry grey cat sank its fangs into the Indian man’s leg.
“ARRGGGHHH!!! PUKI MAK KAU KUCING!” The Indian man cursed, his face-mask dangling off one-ear, as he hopped about in pain. When he had regained his composure, he cruelly stuck his pen that he kept in the breast pocket of his factory uniform into one of the Tibble’s eyes.
“MEEEEEEOOOOOOWWW!!!” Tibbles leapt away, but the damage had been done. Dark blood dripped on to the ground, and a blue pen stuck awkwardly out of Tibble’s left eye
“AIIIEEEEE!!” I screamed when I saw what happened. I rushed over to where Tibbles was. Tibbles tapered on unsteady feet, but was still hunched in an aggressive posture, hissing at the Indian man, who looked to be in his early twenties. Tattoos covered his long skinny arms, and he had vicious, squinty eyes. Several factory workers at the breakfast stall who wore the same light blue uniform as the young Indian man, rushed over to see how he was doing.
“AYUB! TOLONG JAGA STALL YEAH? SAYA PERGI DOKTOR!!” I shouted to Ayub to help my mum look after the stall as I brought the cat to the nearest vet.
As swiftly as I could, I swooped down on the poor cat and picked it up. After grabbing the Perodua Alza keys which my mother left by the fryer, I hopped into our MPV. I was eighteen, but I did not possess a driving licence. Still I could not care less. I observed my parents drive our purple Alza on numerous occasions, so I was familiar with the basic mechanics of driving. I started up the Alza, and rushed to the vet clinic in my neighbourhood.
“KAK WAN! KAK WAN!” I called out frantically, pounding on the door with one hand, the other clutching poor Tibbles close to my chest.
“What on earth is going on? Oh dear, what happened to this poor cat?” Kak Wan, my local vet asked, answering the door. She took one look at the grey cat, and from the pen sticking out of Tibbles left eye, and the blood dripping onto the ground, she knew at once that something terrible had happened.
“Some asshole at our breakfast stall stuck a pen onto the poor cat’s eye! Just because he tripped over Tibbles!” I said tearfully.
“Tibbles? Oh the cat’s name is Tibbles. Quick! Bring Tibbles into the surgery!” Kak Wan opened the door, and gestured for me to come in. Gingerly carrying the grey cat in my arms, I hurried as quickly as I could into Kak Wan’s surgery in her clinic. I left Tibbles on the operating room in her surgery, who by then had gone limp from the pain of the injury, and the severe loss of blood, and went outside to wait as Kak Wan, and her assistant, the young vet in training, Nik Azrul, or Azrul, as he was known to the people of my neighbourhood, desperately tried to save Tibbles life. Tragically, Kak Wan came out of the surgery half an hour later, with a sad look on her face.
“I’m sorry Shida. I tried my very best. But the pen was stuck in too deep. The injury was too severe. Tibbles just passed away.
I sank to the floor, weeping at the news. Tibbles was a smelly old cat. Bad-tempered and greedy. It only appeared when it was hungry, and most other times, Tibbles disappeared to God knows where. But I loved Tibbles, and I could feel, in some strange way, the grumpy grey tabby cat held some affection for me too.
“There, there.” Kak Wan said, bending over and patting me on the back. She smelled of dis-infectant and the plastic rubber of the face-mask she wore, but the warm comfort of her vet’s coat, and her person did provide some much needed relief in the after-math and shock of Tibble’s death. I badly wanted to report that Indian Factory worker to the Cheras Municipal Council for animal cruelty. However, due to Covid-19 restrictions, and my father’s health problems, I could not move about, and had to stay at home and look after my father during the time we were not operating our stall. Thus, I had to suck my pride in, and continued my daily routine, praying all the while that some sort of retribution would befall the Indian guy who killed Tibbles.
Not that my interactions with cats lessened by any degree after Tibbles death. In fact, it actually increased.
“Huh? Apa ini? Is there a cat around?” My dad wondered, with a cough. With a grunt of pain, he got up from his favourite armchair in our living room one evening, grabbed his walking stick, and hobbled over and looked out the window.
“Huh? There’s nothing around.” my mother remarked, as she went to look out the window with my dad. They looked up and down, and all over, but they could not see anything. But as soon as they returned to their respective couches, we all heard the same sound again. More insistent and demanding this time.
“This is very strange.” My mom got the keys, opened the door, and went outside to see. She looked around, but she could not find anything. But I knew better.
“There is a hungry cat outside.” I explained. I proceeded to the kitchen, where I retrieved a small metal saucer from the kitchen cabinet. I then went over to the fridge, and took out the carton of milk by the fridge door, and poured a little milk into the saucer.
“Hey, that milk is for my morning coffee.” My dad protested. But I was his only daughter, and he humoured me on this.
“Don’t worry Pak. It’s just for today. Tomorrow I’ll buy some cat-food. Promise.” I assured him. Wearing my face-mask, I carried the saucer of milk, and left it outside our door. After that evening, it was not every day that we heard meowing outside our home. But whenever we did, I would leave milk or some cat-food outside, on a small saucer. The next morning, the saucer would be empty. My parents were quite indignant at me feeding this mysterious cat that was roaming outside our house, as we were poor, and could hardly afford to feed ourselves, much less some cat that came and went as it pleased. Nevertheless, I loved cats, and begged them to let me continue to feed this ‘mysterious invisible cat’. In the end, they relented, and they took out the money for feeding the mysterious cat from my mobile phone credit budget, which I gladly agreed to.
Not long after, I over-heard a conversation one morning whilst working at the breakfast stall, that greatly peaked my interest.
“Did you hear what happened to Samy Gopal?” One factory worker said to his companion, as he tucked into Mee Goreng. I could not help but eavesdrop on their conversation, even as I bustled about, serving other customers at separate tables. The two men were both dressed in the same light blue technician uniforms as the Indian young man who killed Tibbles, with the name of the plastics manufacturer they were employed by proudly emblazoned across their left breast. In their right breast pockets, where that Indian man had kept the blue pen he killed Tibbles with, the two factory workers had kept their face-masks, as they tucked into their breakfast.
“What about him?” the other worker asked, as he chomped down on some Nasi Goreng.
“He just died in a serious accident!”
“Huh? When did that happen?”
“Last week. He had a major accident. You know the major shut-down in the late-night shift? It was caused by him!”
“Really? What happened?”
“It was said he heard some noises and went to investigate. But then his uniform got caught in a machine. He was dragged in, and was almost cut in half!
“Oh shit…And he was trapped in the machine, that was what caused the shut-down?”
“Yup.” The former nodded with a grimace, and his companion shuddered.
“Well, he won’t be missed. He was an asshole. It was only a matter of time before he was
“You know what the rumours say?”
“What do the rumours say?”
“When they found him, there were many scratch marks on his face.”
“Scratch marks. Like he was scratched by a cat, right in the face.”
“But how did a cat manage to get into the factory?”
“No idea. The funny thing was, his co-workers on the same grave-yard shift heard the cat’s noises as well. Samy Gopal volunteered to search for the cat and remove it from the premises and…well, you know what happened next.”
The two workers finished the rest of the meal in silence, and left soon after. I was rather shocked by their conversation, and I had strong suspicions about who was the culprit responsible for this ‘Samy Gopal’s horrific incident. Soon, my suspicions would be confirmed.
‘BAM BAM BAM’
“What’s going on? Who is banging on our door so early in the morning?” I asked, opening the door, my eyes still trying to adjust to the lights. My father limped behind me, and my mother tried her best to support him, putting an arm around his waist and trying to prop him up.
“Maafkan saya, gangur you so late, but a dead body was reported just behind your house.” A tall officer addressed us in an apologetic voice. His voice was muffled via the blue disposable face-mask he was wearing, and behind him, red and blue police lights flashed. I noticed from the corner of my eye, a few police cars parked in front of our home
“A dead body…huh?? Who reported it?” I asked.
“I did!” Our neighbour who lived in the house located in the row behind us, Cik Norsmah, popped up from behind the officer.
“Cik Norsmah? What happened? Why did you report a dead body behind our house?” my mother asked in a shocked voice
“It’s the Bangla gardener, Ayub! Come see!” Cik Norsmah said. And she and the tall police officer proceeded to lead us to the back of our house. They strode in quick strides past the police officers gathered around our house, who all had blue-disposable face-masks on, shining bright torch lights everywhere, in search of some killer who ‘eerily vanished’. Cik Norsmah and the police officer ducked under the blue and white police barrier tape barring regular citizens from entering a crime scene that had been erected around the back of our house, and entered the scene of the crime.
To our horror, we found Ayub lying on his back. His head was twisted in an awkward position, and he wore a look of pure terror on his face. His eyes were wide, and his mouth opened in a wide ‘O’. He was dressed in a loose grey shirt and long brown pants, and some distance away from the body, I could see where Ayub’s Liver-pool fabric face-mask had fallen, the aqua-green of the fabric glowing in the darkness of night.
“What happened?” My dad asked, hobbling forwards, casting a horrified look at Ayub’s body. Beside him, as she supported my father as he walked, my mom wore the same expression of shock and disbelief when she saw what happened to Ayub.
“Looks like he climbed on top of your roof, and was trying to find a way to break into your second floor window. But somehow, he slipped and fell.” The tall police officer informed us, pointing his flashlight at Ayub. To our grim realization, we noticed many scratch marks on his face, and arms. There was even a tuft of grey fur on the ruffled grey shirt he was wearing.
“Ayub had been asking us for money these past few weeks. Because of Covid, he gotten really desperate. He earned zero income from grass-cutting during the Covid-19 lockdown. On top of that, Ayub said his mother had fallen ill, so he needed more money for her medical bills. But I refused to pay him more than his daily wage. I gave him RM150 last week, but I informed him I couldn’t give him anymore, because we ourselves were very tight. But this morning, after we closed the stall, he was adamant he wanted more money from us.” My mother explained, shocked.
“He knew we kept a lot of cash in the house from our breakfast stall, so he tried to rob us in the middle of the night.” I said, realising the horrible truth. I was aware he was desperate because of Covid-19, but to try and rob us in the middle of the night. I really did not expect that at all.
“Looks like a cat leapt out of nowhere, jumped on him and gave him the shock of his life. Scratched him pretty badly too. That caused him to slip and fall backwards. He hit that ledge over there, on the opposite house, and broke his neck.” The tall officer deduced, surveying the ‘crime scene’. The houses in our estate were built back to back, giving us a great view of the park at the front, but a not so great view of the rear-end of our neighbour’s houses at the back.
‘So that’s why Ayub’s neck was twisted into such an awkward position.’ My dad said, leaning over, and peering at the corpse.
“If a cat jumped on him… then where is the cat now?” Cik Norsmah wondered, looking up at the roof. My parents and I knew what happened, but we held our tongues. We saved up some money to install iron grills on all our windows after that incident to keep burglars out.
After an exhaustive search, the police failed to find any evidence of foul play, and classified Ayub’s death as a tragic accident, and the case was closed. Ever since then, we never hired an outsider to man the drinks station of our breakfast stall, choosing to give the job to a relative, or a close neighbour. We did not blame Ayub for the choice he made, choosing to attempt to rob us in the dead of night because he was so financially desperate, but still. It made us extremely wary towards foreigners and outsiders we were not familiar with. However, we still pulled together some money, and donated two hundred Ringgit to Ayub’s foreign worker agency to send to his sick mother back in Bangladesh. It was all we could spare.
More importantly, my parents no longer protested whenever I left a saucer of milk, or some cat food outside when I heard meowing sounds at night. Sometimes, when it was dark, I would catch a shadowy glimpse of Tibbles within my peripheral vision, licking its paws, or stretching. But whenever I took a closer look, there was only mist, and shadow. In the end, I believe, Tibbles has 9 lives, and grouchy old Tabby that he was, he still returned to watch over myself, and my family, for which I am extremely grateful.