The Future Barrister
By Robert Raymer
"There are seven hundred barristers in Penang," Clark Gable announced in the Queen's English, "and I will be number seven hundred and one!" He raised his glass of Tiger beer and made a toast to himself. "A barrister!" His dark eyes flashed up at the ceiling, as if showering himself in future accolades. Returning to the present, he downed his drink.
I had an odd feeling that his being a barrister was more important to him than life itself. Or, at least as important as winning the national lottery, which he always seemed to be just missing, or so he claimed . . . . I didn't bother to ask his name, not that I'd remem¬ber a yard-long Tamil one belonging to a stranger I had just met in the dimly lit pub that used its address as its name – 20 LEITH STREET.
Besides, Clark Gable was good enough.
With his black mustache forming a perfect inverted 'v' over his lips and his sideburns trimmed meticulously level with his earlobes, he looked like a nicely tanned, well-groomed, younger version of the actor when he played Rhett Butler opposite Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Like Clark Gable, he swaggered in his seat, which emphasized his thick neck and broad shoulders. His dark eyes conveyed a mysterious, mocking quality; they seemed to laugh at you.
I lost count of how many beers we had, although I knew he drank two to my one, and there were several empty bottles already on the table when he invited me to sit with him. Despite his occasional slurring of his words, he was easy to understand because his command of English was excellent – perhaps better than my own, and I teach English at a private college here in Penang. From the way he pronounced his words, to how he styled his hair, to the clothes he wore, I would never have guessed I was sitting across from a Tamil from Malaysia. He seemed British through and through. Even acted like one – at least like some of the ones I had met in Malaysia, including their outdated, colonial attitude. He asked me where I was from, and when I replied that I was American, he guffawed.¬ He then jumped right into a one-sided conversation.
"I've been studying law in London, you know. Only one term to go, then I will be a barrister. Can you believe it? Me, a barrister!" His eyes relished the moment as he absorbed the full impact of his words. "I despise studying, I tell you; it is all memorizing numbers and cases. Some days I hate it so much I want to give it up." He frowned as though he had tasted something bitter, but it was too late to spit it out, so his only recourse was to swallow and flush it down, which he did with a long gulp of beer. He followed it with an equally long sigh.
I asked him why he was back in Malaysia, assuming he had a term break until I realized the month was February.
"Ran out of money," he replied. A queer, half smile crept onto his lips. "Actually, that was only an excuse. I got fed up with living in London. The weather was atrocious, always damp and cold, and the people at times were a bit standoffish – if you know what I mean. Some still have this colonial mentality about Malaysia, like they own us. Rubbish."
"Now I'm helping out at my uncle's law firm. Running errands, mostly. I plan to hit it big in the lottery soon. Have a system all worked out. Have come close many times. Many times. And when I do, I'll go back there – just got one term to go, you know." He grinned in such a frivolous way it made me wonder if this was part of some private joke.
He took a long drink and winked at the Indian ladies at the next table. The man was a good winker. He did it nice and slow. I suspected he practiced it often in front of a mirror, like an actor getting it right for the first take. ¬He winked again at the ladies, and two of them – there were five in all – winked back. Later, when I returned from the gents, I found three of them, all starry-eyed, hovering around the future bar¬rister as if begging for an autograph. I reclaimed my seat, and one of them rebuffed me for intruding.
"Now, now," he said to the ladies. "As you can see, I do have company – even if he is an American." He winked that slow, easy wink of his.
Gradually, and somewhat reluctantly, the ladies drifted back to their own table. One of ladies, even though she was from a different race, reminded me of my ex-wife, which suddenly made me feel lonely. Except for the ladies, who were celebrating someone's birthday, 20 LEITH STREET was mostly empty. It was still early. The pub was originally a colonial bungalow that had been abandoned for years; in naming it after its address, the owners immediate¬ly established its where¬abouts. It then moved across the street, opposite an indigo, nineteenth-century Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. This place, also the same blue, had belonged to the owner of the mansion; it was where the lesser wives or the concubines had stayed.
"Another beer?" he asked.
I nodded. A Chinese waitress in her thirties, brought over two more bottles and refilled our glasses. Clark Gable, in a low voice that should've been lower, said, "Notice the fake eyebrows. They are tattoos."
He shook his head and laughed.
The woman's eyes flashed at him. As soon as she finished pouring his glass, he downed half of it, and then polished off the rest.
A skinny boy entered the pub carrying a stack of newspapers. Gable flagged him over and slapped several coins down on the table.
"Straits Times," he said, and then turned to me. "I mean the New Straits Times – The Strait Times was the name of the newspaper before Malaysia, or Malaya, won its independence from England and before we kicked out Singapore. Singapore kept the old name, and we added "new" to ours, but the paper was nothing new. The same old government dribble."
The boy, whose head barely reached the table, handed him the paper. He fumbled with the coins, trying to pick them off the table one by one.
"Here, here," Gable said, and brushed the boy's hand aside. He grabbed the re¬main¬ing coins and shoved them into the boy's hand and shooed him away. "Noth¬ing but a bloody nuisance," he added, with a sweep of his hand. "The whole lot of them."
He opened the newspaper to the national lottery results and retrieved a dozen or so tickets from his shirt pocket. He checked and rechecked each one, and then tossed the tickets over his shoulder with the reckless insouciance of a perennial loser.
Except the last one.
The ticket must have been close for he studied it from every conceivable angle, both up close and far away. In drunken desperation, he even tried turning it upside down before slamming his fist on the table.
"Damn! So close," he muttered. "Always so close. Got all 5s and 3s but too many of one and not enough of the other," he said, and shoved the lottery ticket toward me. I gave the upside down ticket a cursory glance, as he showed me the results in the newspaper. Sitting on top of a column of numbers was the winner: 5355353.
"How much would you have won?" I asked.
"Half a million ringgit."
A sizable chunk of money, I thought, as I watched him refill his glass. Some beer spilled on the table. Using the edge of his palm, he made a clumsy, futile effort to wipe it away, and in the process knocked over the bottle, spilling more. He laughed as he shook the beer off his hand – to the amusement of the ladies at the next table. He winked and laughed with them.
Turning his attention back to me, he said, "You know, I would never waste my time on any of them. Local women have never interested me. Back in the U.K., I had a real girlfriend. Her name was Sara. She was special all right. High society. Steeped in history. Her uncle was a Lord or something. I think he was knighted. When she found out I was studying to be a barrister, she latched right on to me, even calling me, 'Mr. Barrister'.
"She was the type of woman I always wanted to marry," he continued. "Lots of fun. The problem was her father, the bloody bastard. He was a racist. Seems he was over here during the Emergency Period. He was always bashing the Malay¬sians, Indians especially. Luckily he didn't know where I was from."
"Didn't Sara tell him?"
"She didn't exactly know," he said, and picked at the Tiger beer label with his thumbnail. Since the bottle was wet, it came off easily. He tore the label into tiny pieces, and then looked up at me. "See, I told her I was a British subject, born right in the U.K., though I kept it all sort of vague. When you throw a little money around here and there, people tend to believe most anything you tell them. I figured once we got married I would tell her the truth. Then again, why bother? Once I had my British passport, I would have been set for life." He sighed wistfully. "But things never quite worked out, so I dumped her for someone else, and that was that."
I bought the next round.
Several customers drifted in including two Chinese couples and a pair of French sailors. The ladies at the next table gave the sailors an eyeful. The sailors smiled in their direction, and the ladies giggled and teased one another. The sailors briefly huddled together and then approached the ladies. They gestured to the dance floor, and the ladies giggled and looked at one another. Four of them agreed to dance while the fifth volunteered to keep an eye on their purses.
The music was turned up; on the weekends there was a band, but they rarely started before ten or eleven.
Another group of Wes¬ter¬ners appeared, two men and three women. The tall blonde, who had her hair pulled back into a short ponytail, caught Gable's eye. He traced both sides of his mustache with the side of his index finger as he stared at her. Twice he winked to get her attention. The blonde glanced his way before she sat down with the others.
They ordered their beer and started chatting, and Gable kept eyeing the blonde as if he knew her – knew her well from a past life. As luck would have it, the others at her table got up to look at an elaborate Tiger Beer poster near the bar. Since it was the Year of the Tiger, the Tiger Beer marketing people were calling it the Year of the Tiger Beer.
Gable excused himself and sauntered over to the blonde, who was left sitting alone. He introduced himself and made a gesture towards me. He invited her to dance and she accepted.
I glanced at the woman guarding the purses at the next table. I still couldn't get over how much she looked like my ex-wife. After working up the courage, I smiled and made a gesture to join her. She rebuffed me, so I drank up.
Gable danced well – even twirling the blonde around – but the small dance floor was too cramped for them to maneuver. After a while they gave up. Drenched in sweat, he led her back to her table, and then wrote some¬thing down, which I assumed was his telephone number, and passed it to her.
After returning to our table, he gulped down a glass of beer to quench his thirst.
"She reminded me of Sara," he said. "Sara loved to dance . . . . We would dance nearly every night till one, two in the morning. It was hell on my studying, though."
He began picking at another label but found some resistance. It ab¬sorbed all of his attention until he got it off. He tore the label into pieces and piled them with the others.
A tall Tamil, an old friend of Gable it seemed, called from across the bar. He came over to our table.
"Is that really you-lah? You look so – different. Like a Mat Salleh," he said, and glanced at me. I didn't let on that I knew the Malay slang word for "white man".
"As you can bloody well see I have company," he said to the man. "I will catch up with you later," and he dismissed him, like the paperboy, with a disdainful wave of his hand.
"Bloody social climbers," he muttered to me. "When I become a barrister, I will put these people in their places. You Brits were right about one thing; you never mixed with the locals."
I was going to remind him that I was an American, but I decided to let it go and took a drink.
"These people only bring you down," he added. "Honestly, I have no idea why I came back here in the first place."
Half way through the next glass, he said, "I was not exactly truthful when I said I dumped Sara. She left me for some white guy – no offense. I tried calling her after that but she was always out. She never returned my calls either. I thought if I showed her an expensive engagement ring she would come around. But I needed money first. My roommates were no help, so I tried the lotteries, buying as many tickets as I could afford. Sooner or later I was bound to hit it big.
"All I needed was one good win. It never came. Never. Plenty of small wins mind you. But not the big one. Finally I had to write to my family." He half smiled, half scowled, before blurting out, "God, I miss her."
He drank the remaining beer. With his head still back, he shook it twice – to dislodge Sara's image, I presumed. He poured himself another drink and downed that one, too.
He was about to order yet another round, but since I was a bottle behind, I offered him some of mine. He poured himself a glass but instead of drinking, he paused to study the ginger-colored beer; or perhaps through his drunken gaze, he was mystified by his own reflection. He downed the glass and helped him¬self to another.
I didn't object.
"Everything was going wrong," he said, glistening with sweat. "The money never came from my family. I was behind in my studies, and Sara refused to return my calls. Who did she think she was? They're all racist over there. The whole bloody lot of them." He was clutching the edge of the table with both hands, causing the glasses and the bottles to shake. He drank up, then looked forlornly at the beer remaining in the bottle. I passed it to him, and he squeezed out half a glass.
"One night I went out dancing, fully expecting to see Sara. Sure enough she was there all right, dancing with two or three other chaps. They had their eyes all over her. So I got drunker and madder by the minute."
His bloodshot gaze cut through me.
"Later I saw her walking off the dance floor alone, so I hurried over and grabbed her by the hand. I told her how much I loved her, how much I wanted to marry her. Do you know what she did? She laughed at me. The bloody bitch laughed at me. She laughed at me like I was nothing. Like I was dirt.
"I guess I went crazy and shook her a couple of times. Maybe I pushed her or hit her – I don't know. I don't remember exactly. The next thing I knew she was lying on the floor by the stage. I kept calling her name, trying to get her to respond, but then some woman began screaming, so I got out of there fast.
"I have no idea how I got home, but I was there the next morning with a bloody hangover. Right away I went to one of my professors and told him a cock-and-bull story about my brother getting killed in a car accident. Told him I had to return to Malaysia. Half my stuff is still over there," he added.
I waited for him to continue, but he seemed content to stare across the pub at the blonde. So I asked if Sara was all right.
"Sara? Oh, no she's dead. I read about it in the afternoon papers. That place was so crowded and poorly lit, no one had a clue as to what had happened. Some woman was quoted as saying she thought Sara fainted from too much dancing and hit her head on the stage."
In his eyes was that mocking gleam of his.
He peered into his glass. It was empty, and so was mine.
He sat back in his chair and winked at the ladies at the next table as they returned from dancing. They giggled and smiled, but he was soon tired of them and shifted his attention back to the blonde.
Having had enough of his company, I made a move to leave, but then my gaze fell on the lottery ticket. I must have been staring at it for quite a while because my eyes were starting to play tricks on me. As Gable continued to ogle the blonde, I turned the ticket around and looked at it properly. The numbers were printed so close together the 3s and 5s seemed to blend into one another – it was difficult to tell where one number began and the other left off. No wonder he had such a difficult time reading it. I had to compare the ticket to the winning number in the newspaper three times to see if the 3s and 5s were in the correct sequence. Sure enough the numbers were exactly the same: 5355353.
He hit it big this time. I could just picture him gloating in his Clark Gable smugness once he realized his good fortune. Perhaps with the winnings he would return to England and finish his studies. Perhaps along the way he would get side¬tracked with another Sara.
I contemplated the lottery ticket and even considered taking it for myself – I could use the money as well as the next man. I figured the gentle¬man sitting across from me would never know the difference. But alas, I was no thief.
I must have been smiling at my thoughts, because Gable, in his drunken stupor, suddenly smiled at me. In fact, he was still smiling as he watched me tear his lottery ticket into tiny pieces.
I was glad I didn't know his name.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 2 Apr 2008