It was the darkest of gunpowder grey skies when we reached the toll plaza, perhaps an indication of what I should expect from making this journey. The lady in the booth shrugged when I asked if the traffic jam on the North-South Highway continued all the way to Bukit Mertajam.

“Find out for yourself, lah.” With a gloved hand, she handed me the change after topping up my Touch & Go card and slid shut the window.

We couldn’t do anything else, I suppose. After all, we’d been driving north of Kuala Lumpur for close to five hours.

Shoving the RM5 into the breast pocket of my batik shirt, I put the gear into Drive when the barrier was raised. Our car moved ahead only to come to a standstill 100 metres away when the traffic was forced to merge into two lanes on this country road.

“I told you not to make a big issue about the delay,” Malini quipped. “You knew, when we started that this was going to be a long drive. Luckily, I brought enough food so that we won’t need to stop unnecessarily.”

If she hadn’t delayed our departure by two hours because of the Zoom meeting with her staff that she’d forgotten to reschedule, we would have arrived at our destination much earlier. That was what I wanted to say. Instead, I replied with, “Hmmm…”

Once we were back to following behind a BMW at no more than twenty kilometres per hour, Malini reached for her phone. “Anyway, I found out from Google that this St Anne’s Church was founded in 1846 by French missionaries. It’s now called…Wait, ah…” She swiped the screen of her handphone and said, “It is now called the Minor Basilica of St Anne.”

“Yup. Like I sa –”

“Ya. Ya. Ya. No need to repeat,” Malini interrupted.

I sighed, silently recounting the family story anyway. In the 19th century, French missionaries decided to build a church, which we called “The Old Church”. It was some four kilometres away from the centre of Bukit Mertajam, a town in the north of the Malay peninsula. By the 1950s, there was a need for a newer church. The site chosen was on the main road opposite Lorong Bukit Satu, where my grandparents lived. I was born in this tropical cottage, which we fondly called the “BM House”, located at the foot of a hill.

Papa used to tease me that if I wanted to lose weight, I should climb this hill and then “seek God’s help” since the Old Church had been built on the other side of it. My grandmother defended me by reminding Papa of his “failures”. When he passed his medical exams in 1964, my enormously relieved grandmother donated funds to every religious establishment in town. Since then, every 26 July, those who rested at the BM House during the celebrations of the Feast of St Anne, were regaled with the unsubstantiated story that the source of the money for the cross mounted on the wall behind the altar was a devout Hindu.

This was the first time I was returning to the BM House after Papa sold it in the 1990s to fund a transfer to Kuala Lumpur and facilitate my grandmother’s cancer treatment. I suspected that had we stayed in this bungalow and found another way to raise the necessary funds, my grandmother may have lived longer. City life, I was certain, hastened her demise within six months of our move to a semi-detached house in the heart of suburbia. The new owner of the BM House swiftly converted it into a homestay and promised us free food and board.

When we arrived, our portly host eyed my wife of eight years, as most folks do. He looked at her bare arms and shoulders, tiny waist and buxom chest, dressed in the hot pink bandeau dress. The caretaker makcik stared at me. I recognised the look. When I had tied the thali around Malini’s neck on our wedding day, our guests were equally curious. The lengha-clad bride was unconcerned about baring her body from ribcage to pubic bone in a temple and the groom appeared to be struck dumb.

The thing is, my feisty mother had long drummed it into me that to disapprove of a woman’s attire wouldn’t be viewed as trying to protect Malini but as imposing my will and misogyny. So, I learned to keep my thoughts about what the women in my life wore – or did not – to myself. Now, I held the makcik’s gaze long enough to convey the message that I was still the man in this marriage, as though that explained everything. It worked, I suppose, because it seemed to be the catalyst for the makcik to pick up a tray and offer us a welcome drink each of iced lemongrass juice with honey.

An inky blue-black sky greeted us at the Old Church. A stranger agreed to take a photo of Malini and me with our arms around each other. With our backs to the centuries-old building, he was able to capture the majesty and antiquity of the Old Church in the background. Beggars from Rohingya lined either side of the steps leading up to the Old Church, capitalising on their half-naked, wailing and malnourished infants. Ignoring them, Malini walked over to three women who stood on the top-most steps. Dressed in monotone saris, they kept their heads bent when my wife dropped several ringgit into the dupattas they held out.

“I honour their vow to beg,” Malini explained when I reached the top step.

We bought a foot-long candle each from a stall nearby and entered the Old Church. Walking up the aisle, I noted the emblem of the Catholic Church and a symbol of Papal authority of the crossed keys of St Peter on the furnishings.

We lit our candles, held them up to the statue of the saintly matriarch who oversees the happiness of the family by ensuring the well-being of children and forging lasting marriages. “It’ll be placed near Mother until the flame burns out,” a volunteer informed us as she reached out to take our candles.Dressed in angelic white robes, she wore an intense look, as if she knew that we were lying even to God.

Outside, we walked around the Old Church, mimicking the circumambulation of a Hindu temple. Malini looked at a woman carrying a cherubic child in her arms, her yearning unmasked.

Oh, dear God! Please grant us this gift, which we’ve travelled all this way for.

I recalled what our doctor-cum-family friend had written in his referral letter to the consultant OB-GYN, Dr Suresh Thambyrajah: “Thank you for agreeing to see this couple. They are desirous of their own issue to complete the family. I have assured them the best treatment under your care, such as the possibility of IVF.”

Back at the BM House, makcik served comfort food of rice, kangkung sambal, and pomfret curry. We then bid our hosts good night and retreated to the guestroom. When I looked at the queen-sized bed, my recurring worry that the truth about our marriage would become common knowledge assailed me. Perhaps, I’d accidentally blurt it out when drunk. It never happened because Malini’s reminders were constant, like muttering the following at the Old Church prior to the photo being taken: “Smile so that people think everything is okay.”

While Malini lathered the night cream for her face and neck, followed by body lotion, I scrolled through my iPad and checked my Twitter feed. Even my Twitter handle – @fattybombom – was a source of discontent for Malini. Sigh!

When I saw her screw the cap of the Nivea Milk back onto the bottle, I shut my mobile device. I turned to the woman I adored. There was a time, at the start of our eight-year marriage, when she adored me in return. I knew it in my very bones. For the past five years, though, she insisted that it was in my head that she wasn’t reciprocating my emotions. Experts called this gaslighting, it seems. I wondered if it was still so when I’d already acquired proof of her infidelity. I stopped breathing for a moment.

What was so wrong with me that Malini didn’t love me? No! Now was not the time to think about these issues. Casting it and my self-worth aside, I reached out to touch her shoulder. “Ready?”

Malini first checked to make sure that all the windows were closed, the latch on the door was in its proper place and switched off the lights. Only then did I hear the rustling sound of her removing her clothes. Once naked, she poked my chest and whispered, “Like I said, we’re not making love. I am allowing you to have sex with me to save twenty grand on IVF treatment.”

In that moment of utter despair, before I gave in to our bodies, I choked back my tears. I once again begged the Almighty for a miracle so that my reality of unrequited love in a loveless marriage would pale into a minor issue if and when our baby was born.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Minor Issues’ in Tapestry of the Mind and Other Stories, Aneeta Sundararaj, Penguin South East Asia.