Co-published by Get YA Words Out and edited by Seth Malacari, An Unexpected Party brings together the stories of emerging authors from the LGBTQIA+ community.
Read a short story from the collection.
by Lian Low
I’m slumped in an empty toilet cubicle, saliva dribbling down my chin. I crawl to a cracked sink and pull myself up while waiting for the vertigo to pass. The door swings open; I hear laughter and voices.
Through my blurry vision I see two identical strangers swaying in crop tops and wearing fluoro pink make-up.
‘Need a hand?’ they ask.
‘Nah, all good, I think. Just a headache,’ I say.
‘No worries, darl,’ they respond as a toilet door slams shut.
I splash cold water on my face and slowly stop seeing everything in pairs. I push the door open to a room packed with sweaty bodies. The fashion is glitter, leather, fluoro, shoulder pads, denim, mullets; it’s the queer white community bopping their heads, rolling their hips and swinging their arms to ’90s dance music. As I enter the dance floor, the music cuts out and the room darkens until the only light is a mirror ball spinning on its axis. The spotlight shines on a performer on stage who is lean with cappuccino skin and thick, wavy hair. I recognise them: Naager.
A song from a place that I used to call home starts to play.
Ho ho ho balik kampung
Terbayang wajah-wajah yang ku sayang
I see people in the crowd turning to their drinks and talking to each other, ignoring the performance. The crowd is lukewarm as they try to make sense of Naager and the Malay song that my Aunty Ivy loves so much. Naager doesn’t seem to care — they’re dancing their heart out and miming the lyrics to Malaysia’s national icon Sudirman singing about returning home after a long journey and imagining the faces of loved ones. When the performance ends I clap rapturously, forgetting where I am. I’m sad that no one else gets the meaning of the song and why the song is important to Naager. When the ambient lights return the crowd come alive as they start dancing to Kylie Minogue. I try to stealthily move through groups of people to get to the backstage area to find Naager when someone slaps me on the back.
‘Fan-fucken-tastic mate!’ A giant burly man with a handlebar moustache bellows in my ear, lifting his glass of beer in salute. Some stowaway beer froth on his moustache jiggles when he talks.
‘Thanks,’ I mumble. He thinks I’m Naager. I decide not to correct him, afraid of sticking out even more.
I feel a damp hand on my shoulder and flinch. I relax when I see it’s Naager, their face covered in sweat, glowing happily.
‘You okay, my friend?’ they ask, drinking thirstily from a bottle of water. ‘I looked everywhere for you.’
‘Where are we?’
‘199 – what?’
The DJ amps up the dance music, so my voice drowns in the beat. Naager puts a consoling arm around my shoulder and walks me towards the entrance.
‘Stuck in time, my friend. I need to find Aunty. See, my watch is broken.’ Naager points to the broken glass on its face. It’s an unusual watch with multiple sets of dials moving at the same time, but I’m too confused to look closer.
‘That doesn’t explain … anything. A few hours ago, I was taking your laksa order in my aunty’s restaurant. We talked about Malaysia because ‘Balik Kampung’ was playing and you said it’s your favourite song. I said I’d like to visit Malaysia one day, because my family left when I was small and I don’t remember anything. You said if I go, you’ll introduce your friends who can show me around, including to that underground queer party Rainbow Rojak. Then you asked for the time, then the cops stormed into the restaurant and now I don’t know where I am!’ I start to sweat as the words tumble out.
‘Relax and stay close, okay? Otherwise, you’ll never get back,’ Naager says apologetically.
I take a breath and try to relax. Before I’ve finished the first exhale, whistles pierce the air like grenades and a body of blue uniforms swarm into the nightclub. Naager pushes me through the crowd as everyone scrambles for the exit, bodies on bodies on bodies. Over the top of screams and cries, we hear a commanding voice say repeatedly, ‘One hand on the wall, one hand behind your head.’
Police bark orders for people to stand in a line. A mastiff-like cop with huge teeth and angry eyes storms towards us. I don’t let go of Naager as the mastiff tries to force us apart. The cop pushes Naager hard and, as they fall backwards, I feel myself falling into nothingness.
I’m slumped in an empty toilet cubicle, saliva dribbling down my chin. I pull myself up to the nearest sink, slowly standing as the room spins around me. I hear the door swing open and some laughter.
‘You okay?’ I hear a voice coming from someone wearing a lot of denim.
‘Not again,’ I groan to myself.
‘Sorry, you okay or not?’ the person in denim asks with concern.
‘Good mate, good. Just a headache,’ I say.
‘Okay-lah,’ the voice says gently and walks away.
I splash cold water on my face as I hear Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. As the vertigo passes, I hear the same song play again with hoots of laughter. I push open the door to what looks like a big house party in a nightclub. An MC in a tuxedo and a top hat jokes with an older woman in a batik sarong at the front of the stage.
‘The first time I emceed, Aunty says to me, if you need to say ‘lesbian’ just say it once, it’ll go over people’s heads. But don’t say ‘lesbian, lesbian, lesbian’ too many times. You remember, Aunty?’ The older woman holds her drink up elegantly in a toast to the MC, then turns to the crowd and raises her glass again, laughing loudly. She has a face that reminds me of an eagle. In that one swift turn it feels like she’s taken in every face in the room. People in the crowd laugh along to the banter.
‘Don’t internalise the hate, people. We’ve been here since before the colonial empires. Across the seas in South Sulawesi, the Bugis acknowledge five genders: makkunrai or women, oroané or men, calalai or trans women, calabai or trans men, and the transcendent fifth that can be all or none – bissu. Now, let’s welcome tonight’s main act, Naager!’
Patrons cheer as Naager struts into the light to ‘Balik Kampung’. Spurred on by the adulation, Naager grows god-like on stage. They are dressed in an azure baju melayu, which is a loose shirt over similarly coloured trousers, with a checked sarong wrapped around their middle and a songkok on their head. The crowd sways in time, singing along to every word in the song. Naager feeds on the crowd’s energy; their gestures and stance are electric, radiating into the hearts of every single patron in the club.
When the song finishes, Naager bounds off stage with so much joy they look like they are flying. I can see them looking for me. Despite my annoyance at waking up in another toilet stall, I’m happy for Naager. Random people clap them on the back with congratulations, wanting to shake their hand and buy them drinks as they walk towards me.
‘We’re in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, Sammy! Woo hoo!’ Naager grins.
‘Naager, is this the Australian?’ asks a tall person in denim. Naager nods back with a thumbs-up, still catching their breath. ‘Welcome to Rainbow Rojak!’ the denim-clad person says to me.
Two other friends of Naager hug me. They wear matching outfits – pink singlets with a black star on the back over silvery white gym shorts, with knee high socks and leg warmers.
‘What was that about?’ I ask Naager, as the friends talk amongst themselves.
‘I asked my friends to look out for someone with an Aussie accent. You-lah! I told you I’d introduce you to my friends at Rainbow Rojak!’
‘When will this stop, Naager?’
‘I need to find the Aunty who the MC was talking to. She’ll know how to fix my watch.’
‘Look, I just want to go home. Aunty Ivy will be mad with worry.’
A police officer who looks like a muscled-up tiger heads our way, then stops in front of a long-haired femme with heavy make-up and a sparkly red dress.
‘If we can find the Aunty and she fixes my watch in this timeline, your aunty won’t even know you were gone,’ Naager says.
I’m angry at Naager: how can they just be so relaxed about all these time skips? But then I’m also elated that I’m in Kuala Lumpur at a Rainbow Rojak party. I’ve only read about them on the internet, but never dreamed that I would be here in my birthplace surrounded by other queer Malaysians.
I zone back into the conversation.
‘You’re lucky in Australia because you have laws. You’ve got politicians, academics, scientists, big shot people who are open about being queer or trans. In Malaysia, we’re told that we’ll die by god’s wrath, we’ll die by lightning. You believe or not?’ Naager’s friend smirks at me.
‘Don’t scare my friend, otherwise they won’t connect with their roots,’ Naager says.
‘I feel blessed. My Aunty Ivy runs a restaurant called Blue Rice that has a cabaret night every month that is queer,’ I say.
‘Now my friend is here because this watch is broken. Aunty di mana?’ Naager asks their friend.
‘Aunty? Don’t know. I find for you. Then after, we go to the mamak stall and get some noodles, okay?’ Naager’s friend gives them a kiss on the cheek and winks at me.
‘Who is the Aunty?’ I ask.
‘The Aunty is very, very old and very, very wise. She helped me run away. I was in a bad place. But now, because the watch is broken, I can’t stop running,’ Naager says.
I glance down at the watch. ‘What did you do?’ I ask, unable to help myself.
Before Naager can reply, I hear a commotion at the entrance and a few people yelling ‘Polis! Polis!’
‘Stay close and hold on to me, Sammy. We don’t need to get into trouble. Again.’
A police officer who looks like a muscled-up tiger heads our way, then stops in front of a long-haired femme with heavy make-up and a sparkly red dress.
‘Mana MyKad? ID?’
The femme cries while the police officer checks her identification card. The officer laughs, then grabs her arm roughly to handcuff her.
Naager yells in anger and pushes the police officer, who raises his baton and whacks Naager hard on the head. As Naager falls backwards, I catch them and then both of us get pulled through the floor into liquid darkness.
I feel a heavy wet mass slumped against me. Groggily, I push with my shoulder to straighten up, slowly opening my eyes to see Naager leaning on me. Saliva and blood dribble from their mouth as their head and torso slump forward.
‘Help! Anyone! Help!’ I yell as I hold Naager up.
Voices, then footsteps bound down the stairs. The fluoro lights flicker on and I see Aunty Ivy running to us, her flowing pyjama robes are like fairy-wings.
‘What happened?’ Aunty Ivy asks. ‘Oh my god. I’ll call the ambulance.’
As Aunty Ivy runs up the stairs, Naager slowly opens their eyes.
‘It’s okay, Sammy,’ Naager says softly and gestures to their watch. ‘Take it. Please.’
I gently unbuckle the watch strap and wipe the blood away on my pants. I place the watch in my pocket.
‘Naager baik. Hati girang. I’m happy, Sammy. Going home. Balik kampung,’ Naager says gently, before fading into smoke.
For three weeks, my throat burns. Every time I swallow, I feel like shards of glass are crawling down my oesophagus. I can hardly keep my eyes open. All I want to do is sleep. When I’m hungry, I heat a tub of rice porridge from the freezer. When Aunty Ivy checks in on me, she updates me on where my parents are in their Tassie caravan trip.
‘Your mum says that the wombats in the caravan park they are staying at are too bold searching for food. It seems they smell bad,’ Aunty Ivy laughs.
‘Thank you for taking care of me, Aunty.’
‘You get one hundred percent better, Sammy. I need all the help I can get in the restaurant,’ Aunty Ivy smiles.
We don’t talk about what happened that night with Naager. Aunty Ivy doesn’t ask. It’s like they never existed.
When I’m well again, I return to my job at Blue Rice. Aunty Ivy gets me to do a bit of everything — cash register, waiting on tables, washing dishes, buying groceries from Footscray Market across the road. Working and staying with Aunty Ivy means I get to save up during the holidays, before I head into first year uni. I don’t wear Naager’s watch, but I carry it with me in my pocket wherever I go. At night, after my shift, I take it out and look at it, the hands all ticking in different directions.
My days are filled with work. Customers come and go but I don’t forget Naager. One morning while making a durian smoothie, I see the Aunty that Naager was looking for enter the Blue Rice. When she walks through the door, I feel like something heavy is sitting on my chest, pushing all the air out of my lungs. She sits where Naager sat when I first met them. She is dressed in a batik sarong that features red phoenixes in battle. I’ve never seen anyone in Blue Rice wear batik. Even my parents and Aunty Ivy don’t wear their sarongs in public. Once I saw Mum wear hers for her fiftieth, but that was it. The Aunty holds my gaze calmly. I look away, embarrassed that I’ve been staring, and quickly grab a notepad and pen and hurry over to her table.
‘Hello, Aunty. What can I get for you?’ I stutter, not looking at her.
‘May I borrow your notepad and pen?’ Her voice is low like a cello.
‘Okay,’ I say, nervously placing the notepad and pen on the table. I feel my palms becoming sweaty as I wait to see what the Aunty writes.
The Aunty scribbles ‘N-A-A-G-E-R-?’ on it.
I shake my head. The tight feeling in my chest grows. ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you, Aunty.’
She scrawls lines over Naager’s name, then writes ‘N-E-G-A-R-A’ and points to me.
‘Sorry, I don’t understand.’
She gestures to her wrist and taps it. She opens her hand, palm facing upwards. Her fingers are long and thin like the claws of a giant bird.
I feel for Naager’s watch in my pocket.
‘Naager gave it to me.’
‘I know. I gave the watch to Naager. The watch has called me here. My queer families are suffering. The authorities call them a deviant cult, a free sex party, a threat to national security, and corruption from the West,’ Aunty says. ‘Naager was a good messenger. But you’ve seen how dangerous the work can be. They got caught in the middle of a fight gathering evidence about human rights abuses that the authorities perpetrated against my queer families. The watch broke, and that’s why they’re gone. The work is dangerous, but I can fix the watch, and I will need a new messenger.’
‘Why can’t you be the messenger, Aunty?’
‘I’m the Watch Keeper, not the messenger. Naager gave the watch to you. When the watch works, it can take you wherever you need to be, at the precise time, date, hour and year. Your family will never know you’ve gone because you can always return here in this time. But if the watch gets broken, your life will be in danger, like Naager’s. There will be a glitch, and you will be stuck repeating an action, and you won’t be able to control time. Then you must find me, to fix the watch. And you must find me in time.’
‘It was too late for Naager, wasn’t it?’ I say. The weight on my chest returns. I see storm clouds gathering outside Blue Rice. I place Naager’s watch on the table.
‘You don’t have to say yes. This job is not for everyone,’ the Aunty says as she carefully places the watch into her clasp bag.
‘Is there good pay?’ I say, trying to lighten the conversation.
The Aunty doesn’t reply but looks at me seriously in return. ‘Truth is like fire that will never go out. It will burn until the end of time, until the truth is told. Will you be the new messenger?’
I nod, on instinct. All my worries about uni, about the future, they all lead here. This is what I’m supposed to do. ‘Yes, Aunty. I’ll do it.’
She stands up to head to the door. ‘I’ll be back when the watch is fixed,’ she calls over her shoulder.
‘Wait!’ I say. ‘What is NEGARA?’
Aunty turns, her smile radiating like sunshine cutting through the storm clouds.
‘Negara means country.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lian Low (she/they) is a Kuala Lumpur born writer of Peranakan- Chinese-Malaysian heritage, currently based in Footscray on the unceded lands of the Kulin Nation. Lian has work published in Growing Up Asian in Australia,Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, a story podcasted on Queerstories and was a previous editor of Peril.
They created site-specific spoken word pieces for the Melaka Art and Performance Festival, Malaysia from 2013-2015. Lian has been a recipient of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and of their inaugural Next Chapter scheme to work on a young adult speculative fiction novel that is a paranormal romantic twist on a migrant coming-of-age story that traverses Footscray, Melbourne and Malaysia.