He was waiting at the carpark downstairs after all. Siok Yin had left her sister’s at ten-thirty, half an hour after the agreed time. He had not called and she did not want to leave the flat, unsure of what she would do if he were not there. All evening, she had remained in her seat, hardly moving except to get more food. If she had gotten up her body would have flown apart and smashed the countless porcelain figurines that lined her sister’s shelves.
“Lee Siok Yin.”
She got into the car and shut the door. She let it catch her skirt so she would not have to look at him as she tugged it free. “Sorry. They wouldn’t stop talking. You should’ve come up.”
He smiled as he started the car. “I’d rather wait here. How was the food?”
“Where were you today? Chin tried calling you.”
“I thought I told you. Foo’s mother died. The wake was tonight.”
“Oh. I forgot. Did you have dinner? I brought two popiahs back. One for you and one for Chin,” she said, waving the plastic bag at him. She sank back into the seat, then realised she had not fastened her seatbelt. Her fingers shook as they fumbled with it and tried to strap down her pounding chest. It seemed so silly now.
“I bought some food as well. I got here early so I went to the shop nearby.” He nodded towards the bags in the backseat.
She smiled at him and hugged her bag of vegetable rolls, feeling their warmth against her stomach. The night was turning out fine after all. He was here and the dinner had been alright, even if her sisters had talked too much, especially about the one who had not been present tonight. They said she was – not mad – mentally unstable. She saw things, they said, in newspapers and magazines, imagining that the articles were all addressed to her. Siok Yin looked out of the car window at a construction site they were passing. It was late at night but some workers were getting out of the back of a lorry, preparing for another shift of work. Only the piling had been completed so far and the grey concrete stems rose from the ground like tombstones.
Her second sister, the one who had not been at the dinner, had lived through the Second World War with her head shaved and dressed in boys’ clothes so that the soldiers would not know that she was a girl. She had lived through that, and in the years that followed, the numerous riots, and at the end of it all, after she had married, had children and retired, she was afraid to leave the house because everywhere, in lifts and on walls, graffiti attacked her. “Eat books, bitch,” someone had told her in thick black ink.
“Cold?” He was turning down the air-conditioner.
Siok Yin shook her head.
“Actually I’m a little cold myself,” he said.
“Maybe it’s going to rain.”
“Maybe. You know, I’ve shrunk. Honey.” He gave a strange laugh.
“Me. There was a free health check-up at the office today. Took my height and weight, checked my blood pressure. I’ve shrunk a whole centimetre. Not enough calcium. Not enough milk. It’s not anything terrible, not like cancer. I mean, with luck I’ll die before I turn into a midget.”
“You’re not going to be a midget.”
“I know. I know.” He looked straight ahead at the road, his hands gripping the steering wheel. They were thinner than she remembered. She looked at the soft thick veins nestled under his brown skin.
“Oh well,” he said and laughed, a sound hollow like his bones.
Brittle bones, she thought. The words would chip her teeth if she said them aloud. She wanted to touch his arm but was afraid to. His bones were porous like dead coral, fragile like lumps of sugar that would at any moment fall apart. She had only been frightened like that on one other occasion, during their first year studying in England. On the first day of summer when it was finally warm enough to go without coats or sweaters, he had stood waiting at her door in only his T-shirt and jeans and she had been frightened by how thin he appeared without his coat. Perhaps that was what she had fallen in love with, not his smile or his kindness, but the way he was solid and strong in his long black coat. That day, he had taken her hand in his and it had been large and warm as it led her to a patch of grass where they lay for hours in the sun. When it was nine in the evening, the sky was still a very bright white and she remembered how the sunlight had seemed to pass right through them. If a giant tidal wave had come crashing along that day, it would not have been out of place, nor would she have been more frightened than she already was.
The house was dark when their car pulled up.
“Maybe she’s gone to bed,” he said, unloading the bags of food from the car. Siok Yin reached over to take one of them and realised that it was crammed with different cheeses and yoghurt. One of the bags he carried appeared to contain five cartons of milk.
“Maybe,” she replied. “She seemed better today though. But I wish she’d stop working and take a break before term starts.”
“Sometimes I wish we could go back. To have all that ahead of us again.” When they went in and turned on the lights, they saw Chin sitting at the top of the stairs in her pyjamas.
“Not asleep yet? We’ve got some food here.”
“Have some milk before you sleep.”
Chin did not reply but went down and sat at the table. There was something odd about the way she walked, with one arm behind her as if to conceal a surprise in her hand.
“I’m not hungry,” she said, but picked up the popiah anyway. The sweet sauce and the liquid from the vegetables had soaked through the rice skin and they trickled down her right wrist. She ate quickly, trying to finish the roll before it fell apart in her hand.
“You are hungry,” her father laughed. “Have some fruit as well.”
Still licking her fingers, Chin picked an orange from the fridge and started peeling it. She dug her fingernails into the leathery skin, making small moons in it.
“Oh, don’t. It’ll get stuck under your nails. Just get a knife,” said her mother.
“I don’t like knives.”
“You have to start learning. What’s going to happen in the future?” her father said, reaching for the orange in her hands. Her left arm, he realised, had small red scratches running across it, not deep enough to draw blood but enough to hurt and scab. He did not say anything, only got a knife from the kitchen and sliced the orange into quarters. Chin looked away. She knew that if she did not, she would take it and swing it down on her arm.
They ate the orange in silence, Chin trying to manage with only her right hand, and her father thinking how sour it was, how acidic. When they had each finished their slice, they looked at the last piece. No one wanted it so Siok Yin threw it away.
“I’m tired. Long day.”
Chin thought her father looked thinner tonight, smaller. “I’m going to bed too,” she said. When she got up, her father reached over and held her left arm, something he had not done in years, touching the inside of her arm where the skin was raised and rough.
That night Siok Yin awoke, thinking that she was either going deaf or mad. A long loud cry sounded in the dark and even when she brought her pillow around her ears it did not go away. It seemed to come from within her head. Perhaps someone in the neighbourhood had installed a new burglar alarm because it was not the familiar two-tone wail but a shrill insistence on a single note. Still, no one ran to turn it off or call the police.
Somewhere else in the neighbourhood a five-year-old was in bed with his eyes shut far too tightly to be fast asleep and his teeth and fists clenched as if to fight off the piercing scream, far worse than his sister’s when she leapt out of bed at night, raving about falling shelves and crushing weights. In another house an old man was hearing again after sixty years the sirens singing out of tune when the first bombs fell and took both his legs so he could not fight the invading army or later the men who came to take his brother for an unnamed indefinite crime. Elsewhere a woman was turning on and off taps, trying to silence the ringing noise which she would hear again years later for the rest of her life, a note bright and hard and impossible for the human vocal chords to sound (and if anyone should try, he will find lodged in his throat a small lump of gold so that all future words spoken or sung or whispered will emerge empty like an underwater scream) and like a bird, like a plane, the sound travels, like electricity in the wires, it enters every room in every house, until that moment when like a light that will not be turned off, it has every person sitting up, waving white pillowcases in the air, saying, “We give up, we surrender, now leave us in peace.”
[Page 1 | Page 2]
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004