By Cyril Wong
The morning after Serene killed her husband, she did not know what to do. And to curb her near-hysteria, she stumbled into a nearby supermarket and pretended to browse through the meat section in a desperate attempt to distract herself, trying to keep her mind from flying by weighing it down with the various prices of ham. Only last week, she had been slightly irritated by how much they had gone up over the years.
It was the weekend and Jeff was here too in one of the aisles buying toiletries on his wife’s instructions. There was no longer any bottles of shampoo at home and she had called him to buy more of the same brand they always used. Jeff was wondering when was the first time he stopped liking the smell of his wife’s hair when he saw Serene bending over the glass counter to look at some raw meat.
He only saw her profile. But Jeff recognised her straight away. She had been the prettiest school councillor at the Junior College where they both studied. They had been in the same class, but they never had a chance to really talk. There were always all these classmates between them, some of whom she had been a lot closer to and whom inadvertently prevented the two of them from getting close at all. He wondered if she still remembered him now. He had forgotten about her upon entering National Service and going to pursue his Mass Communications degree in Australia, until now. He remembered believing she had never truly wanted to talk to him anyway. He had not been as funny as the rest, or as good-looking, for that matter.
She looked up and saw him too. At first, she did not recognise him. But then she found him vaguely familiar, and started to walk towards him. Jeff realised he had not had anything interesting to say to her when they were in school, let alone now. He had always been afraid she would think less of him than she did of the other guys for his own lack of a memorable personality. All his other classmates had been personalities. They could crack a joke at which everyone else in the room would laugh. He was just the quiet, bespectacled geek who was friendly and who nodded at anything they had to say, laughing at all the appropriate places, but really having nothing of any interest to contribute in any event of a conversation. Also, he was the only one in the class who was not actively involved in some sports group or a school councillor. The reason he gave for not taking part in any of these activities was that he needed the time to study. A safe and boring reason. It was embarrassing when the others got about the same grades as he did at the end of the year.
Then Jeff noticed there was something very wrong with Serene, the way she was breathing so heavily, and how she looked like she was on the brink of crying. He decided he would say something first, “Hi, Serene. Long time no see. I’m Jeff, just in case (insert nervous laughter here) you have forgotten my name.”
“Please - please help me, Jeff. I killed my husband. He’s lying on the floor in the kitchen and I - I don’t know, don’t know what to do, what to -” she suddenly stopped and sobs began pushing their way out of her body, tears springing free from the corners of her eyes. She grabbed hold of both his arms and started to tremble. For a brief second, he liked how her fingernails dug into his skin, the way a wisp of hair got stuck to her moist, upper lip.
He freed himself from her grip and gripped her hands tightly with his own. To think he had been here to buy shampoo for his wife and then to end up holding the hands of a girl he used to have a minor crush, trying to stop her from sobbing, from trembling, and from breathing so hard. And she killed her husband. There must have been an accident or something. Why would she be telling him this if it had not been an accident? “Don’t worry. I’ll help you. Don’t worry. Let me help you,” he reassured her. “Did you drive here?”
She shook her head. And kept looking around as if finally aware she was making quite a scene, and wondering perhaps if anyone had heard what she had said. Her hands were very warm and felt good in his hands. His wife did not like to hold his hands anymore. They were only married for a year, and already they were having less sex than before. Even when they kissed goodbye every morning, or good night before they slept, it always felt like a formality, a matter of courtesy. He did not know what had happened to turn her into the pragmatic, no-nonsense woman that she eventually became. To her, any form of physical intimacy was like an aspect of disorder and messiness she would rather not deal with, but did, as if in due respect to the actuality of their marriage, their sharing of the same bed. She would rather work at her accounts at the computer, or finish up her latest self-improvement book, than simply take the time to lie next to him and think about nothing, other than the fact of his presence.
“Let me drive you home then, okay? Where do you live?” She shook her head and replied, “I live just around the corner.” And oddly enough, she started to regain a sense of calm. She wiped her eyes with a cursory swipe of her hand, which she withdrew from Jeff’s hand, and led him by her other hand out of the supermarket. Jeff had not even bought the shampoo yet.
Jeff wondered how ridiculous they must look, walking out of the supermarket like this. It seemed like he was the one in some kind of trouble and she was the one leading him out of it by the hand. And she was right. Her flat was only a few minutes walk away. She led him like that all the way to the lift.
As the lift went up, she kept holding on tightly to his hand, and struggled again not to cry. He had to soothe her, “Don’t worry, we will find a way to fix this.” She nodded. Another tear ran down her cheek. The hair was still at her lip.
She looked like she had not aged at all over the years. He remembered how great she looked when she won second place for the prom-queen competition. He recalled too that it had been her best friend from another class who had won, and how she had looked slightly annoyed at not winning. But she quickly hid her irritation when she had to laugh at her classmates’ jokes again, or hug her best friend by way of congratulation.
She brought him down a flight a stairs and into her flat at the end of a long corridor. The living room was tastefully furnished with pieces that looked like they came from Ikea. “So where is your husband?” he asked. And already he began to wonder what he must be like. Probably very handsome, with good skin and a fit body. Not like him: almost frail and possessing a boring, slightly asymmetrical face.
She brought him to the kitchen, where she let go of his hand to point at the body on the floor. This time, when she saw the body again, she burst out like she could not before in the supermarket. He wanted to hug her but she was too busy holding her face in her hands, as if to keep it from falling off.
Jeff went to the body and saw he was, indeed, handsome, except a little pale and his mouth was hanging open on its hinges. His eyes were shut. Jeff thought about what it would have been like to pour himself into the body on the floor, and then to wake up as this guy with his tanned skin, muscled body, and his broad mouth. While they both stood there before the dead husband, he realised there was a smell in the air, a combination of alcohol and gas, especially gas. Serene explained, after calming down again to the point where her sentences did not break up so erratically.
“We had a big fight yesterday. I told him I did not love him anymore, that I wanted a divorce. He called me a slut and said I flirted with other men.” Here, Serene caught her breath, and looked like she was to embark on another bout of crying, but got back her composure, and went on. “The fight got real bad, and he left. He came back when I was sleeping. He was very drunk. Then he went to the kitchen to get something, and just ended up sleeping on the floor. I went to see why he was taking so long and there he was, just sleeping on the floor. And - and I don’t know what came over me. I went to lock all the windows in the kitchen and just turned on the gas. Then I went out and closed the kitchen door. I even - I even got a piece of cloth and shoved it under the door so the gas wouldn’t escape.”
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002