Mum’s run away again. I don’t mean run away in the conventional sense. We went to visit her brother in Klang; when it was time to leave, she didn’t. As usual. And now, Dad’s not around. I woke up at half eight; he was gone. His car’s missing. I’m all alone.

I’m used to it though, not afraid or anything, just a bit hungry. I wish Mum would check to see if there’s food in the house before she stays away. I mean there’s a bit of bread but I can see some green furry bits through the plastic bag so I’m not even going to open it. I hope Dad buys something to eat when he returns from wherever he’s gone, whatever time he comes back.

I clean my teeth and take a shower. I’m not allowed to boil water so I can’t make a hot drink and my stomach’s rumbling so I go open the front door, climb up the chain link fence and call out to Auntie next door. Her glass sliding panel has been pushed all the way back; only the metal grill is locked in place which means she can hear me.

“Auntie! I’m hungry. Can I have breakfast with you, please?” Auntie bustles to her door as fast as her dodgy knee will let her. I climb over. Fierce-eyed, she’s whispering to her husband. She’s simply no good at speaking softly. Her voice carries and besides, I have sharp ears. She whispers in capital letters, “Never came home at all. The moment she goes off, he takes off and who cares about the kid?” I pretend not to hear. It’s better this way.

Auntie wears her hair bundled up at the back of her head with a long clip but the frizz always escapes. Her hair’s grey with streaks of deep brown or burgundy or whatever colour she’s chosen as dye of the month. “It’s a losing battle, boy,’ she moans. You think I’d have inherited something better than the grey hair gene from my mother, but no – no.”

At home, Auntie’s always in shapeless loud caftans that make her look fatter than she is with rounded bits sticking out here and there. Her breasts are droopy. Often, she hugs me and it is a warm, soft place to bury my face in because Mum is bony and it isn’t comfortable to let her hold you tight.

I slip into her house. Picasso, Auntie’s mongrel pup, waylays me. He leaps at me; I fall to the ground wrestling him away as he pulls at my shirt, licks my face and finally stands on me, all the time barking like the mad dog he is. It’s a daily ritual. Picasso (because he’s the ugliest dog ever) knows I love him to bits but there’s a gnawing in my insides when I see Auntie kiss him or when he jumps onto Uncle’s lap. My eyes stop smiling, I can’t help it. In a moment, Uncle crooks his finger at me. I jump onto his lap as well. Picasso protests indignantly and wrestles me for the comfiest spot. We soon settle in, me on Uncle’s lap, Picasso on mine and Uncle’s arms around us both. Auntie brings me toast and eggs and makes me a hot Milo.

“Eat, eat. You won’t be hungry so long as I am here.” Her voice is indignant.

“Thanks, Auntie.” Mum’s very particular about good manners.

“I don’t know where Dad’s gone. Woke up this morning and he wasn’t there.”

Auntie turns to Uncle: “GONE THE WHOLE NIGHT. The Most Irresponsible Parents . . . “

It’s not that, not really. Auntie doesn’t understand, not the way I do. Mum works all hours taking on overtime every single day so when she returns home, she’s only good for a quick meal in a stall somewhere, a bit of TV and then bed. Dad works just as hard. I usually try to get in all my school news and requests at dinner. They listen with half a mind; if I reach out to touch them, I can almost feel the bone-crunching fatigue that flows from their bodies and washes away their appetites and smiles. Weekends, Mum can hardly steer out of bed, for she’s got to face the washing and cleaning and tidying and cooking so going to Klang is a real treat for her.

See, she’s the youngest in her family. When she goes to her brother’s, Mum’s a little girl again. Her voice is just a wee bit squeaky with a lisp. She talks and laughs like some of the silly girls in my class, forever sucking up to the teacher. Mum and her brother, they cook their favourite dishes, then sit and chat and watch TV. She’s always so contented like she’s in a safe place where she’s completely taken care of. A place where she doesn’t need to make difficult decisions. If she’s not there, she goes shopping. She’s got wheels on her feet, Mum has. She can’t stop at a place for long, especially if that place is home.

I finish breakfast and help Auntie wash up. I play with Picasso. Maybe I’m delaying returning home. Home is silence even with the TV on at full blast. Home is dirty dishes in the sink and on the dining table. Clothes lying everywhere, overcrowding the laundry basket, newly washed clothes spilling over the chairs, falling over the sofa, covering the beds. Clothes Mum has no time to fold. I can deal with the small stuff but the shirts and blouses are way beyond me.

I’m not complaining, mind you. After all, Mum did ask me to stay back with her in Klang. Dad pushed me to stay too. But I wanted my own bed. I remember Dad being silent the whole journey back home; he didn’t once talk to me. His mobile rang.

He barked: “I’ll be there! Give me fifteen minutes!”

When we reached home, I was nodding off. He picked me up gently enough and carried me to my bed. He tucked the blanket around me and kissed me. I stirred. He hushed me. He switched on the night light. I was out already. Then I woke up this morning and he wasn’t there.

“I’ll go back home now, Auntie,” I announce.

She grins. “Maybe I should adopt you so I can look after you properly.”

“You are already looking after me, Auntie. You’re my second Mum.” Then I casually bend down to scratch Picasso under his jaw. Obliging, he licks my face so my voice is muffled. “See, I got to look after them.”

Well, Auntie’s got sharp ears too. As I climb back over the fence, her whispery voice floats up loud and clear. “Nine years old – and how come he’s so mature and his parents are not?”

Dear Auntie. There are things she doesn’t understand, perhaps because she doesn’t have children herself. Like how my Mum’s eyes are too often sad or my Dad’s shift here and there, his brows knitted in a straight line. Like how they both scurry around everywhere and fill their spaces with anything on hand so they won’t need to spend time together. I have to take care of them. There’s no one else. Dad returns home. Oh goody, he’s carrying a packet of nasi lemak. I smile broadly as I unlock the gate.

“Hey you!” He rumples my hair. “Up already? I went for a walk this morning. Thought you’d still be sleeping when I got back.”

My mouth stretches so wide it hurts. His bed wasn’t slept in. He’s wearing the same shirt and pants as he was last night. He isn’t sweating one bit after the walk and I catch a whiff of something like faded perfume.

“We’ll go to Klang this afternoon and fetch your Mum, okay?” Dad puts his arm around my shoulders as we walk to the house.

“Sure, Dad.”

I can sense Auntie behind her door grill. I can almost hear her snort.

Excerpted with permission from My Mother Pattu, Saras Manickam, Penguin South East Asia.