WAGGING a tobacco-stained finger at me, the driver admonished me to sit still and told me he’d be back in a jiffy. “Diam diam duduk ya, sikit jam saya balek!” he said, and went off with his basket of kueh (Malay cakes) towards the police barracks to sell them to policemen’s wives.
Here I was, five years old, left in charge of this great big four-wheeled horse carriage!
The Sitiawan Courthouse in 1920 was a solitary brick structure flanked by government-issue wooden bungalows on concrete stilts. My horse carriage was parked on the dirt road bordering a very large padang (lawn) in front of the Courthouse and government quarters. To a five-year-old, the padang seemed like a vast lake of friendly, inviting grass on which one could safely gambol.
Those who could afford it sent their children to school in a private rickshaw drawn by a bonded puller. Others depended on the horse carriage, and there were two types – smaller ones with only two wheels, and huge ones with four.
“Sikit jam,” my driver had promised. Well, since he was taking longer than “a jiffy,” I began to get restless. Soon I had eased myself through the tiny window and onto his seat. What a very different perspective on the world! I picked up his whip and took hold of the reins and did what I had seen the driver do countless times: I gave the horse a whack. It began to trot. I delivered another whack and, ha! it started to gallop, faster and faster.
Someone saw what was happening and shouted. I didn’t know what he was yelling about, but in a few moments I saw my dad running out of our house in his sarong, a look of horror on his half-shaven face. Soon the driver also appeared, and several policemen, also in their sarongs, and they all came running after the carriage.
It was fun having such a comical-looking group shouting and hollering and trying to chase after me. Of course they couldn’t catch me – but now I wonder why no one had the common sense to cut across the padang and intercept the “runaway” carriage, instead of trying to capture it from behind!
Having completed my circuit of the field, I hauled on the reins and yelled, “Whoa,” exactly how the driver did it. The carriage halted directly in front of our house. I beamed at the sweaty and breathless adults who had caught up with the carriage. I saw no reason to feel guilty or anticipate punishment (my parents had never beaten me or even raised their voices against me, so I really believed children were privileged beings). And the grown-ups were too relieved to be angry with me – except the driver, who nagged me all the way to school.
The next year, my sister and I had to go to our school in Kampong Koh by two-wheeled carriage. It was terribly uncomfortable, since there were three of us (including a neighbour’s child) all squeezed into the single narrow seat. The other two resented my taking up half the seat (I was a plump and jolly six-year-old) and, besides, a two-wheeler always tilted backwards, so the three of us were flung together and could barely move. I suppose the two-wheeler would have been a good ride for an adult with his or her feet firmly planted on the carriage floor.
It was a different driver, I think, but they all had other business to attend to on the side. One morning, as usual, we were left in our two-wheeler while the driver disappeared for what seemed like ages. We three small passengers began to squirm about and wriggle in an attempt to get ourselves upright; a quarrel broke out and the struggle got more intense. This startled the pony, who seemed particularly jumpy that morning; she reared up in her harness, legs flailing, and the carriage began rocking back and forth quite violently.
By now we were in a panic, but held on for dear life. The pony whinnied and snorted and kept jumping up on her hind legs until one of our neighbours noticed what was happening and shouted for the driver. He came running as fast as he could and started talking to the pony in a soothing voice, then he caught hold of her bridle and began to stroke her, all the while uttering words of endearment. This calmed her immediately – and off we went on our merry way to school, as if nothing had happened.
But as soon as my dad could afford it, he bought a rickshaw and found a puller who bonded himself to our service for several years.
Many decades later, I was told that there was a four-wheeled horse carriage on display in the National Museum. I simply had to go and see it, but oddly enough it wasn’t what I’d expected. In fact, I was shocked to see how small it actually was. The one on permanent display in my memory is absolutely enormous!