Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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Even the Air is Still

By Daren Shiau

Ah, there she is... sitting at the end of the blue carriage.

It’s not everyday that I get to see her. She’s usually on the nine o’clock train on the south line heading towards Marina Bay. Where does she board?

I nestle myself between two passengers.

Her eyes are closed and her head is against a panel, her hair on the glass almost as if she’s about to break out of her dream.

My heart is racing; I had promised myself that I would talk to her the next time I saw her. What’s a thirty year-old man like me doing... thinking about how to approach a girl who’s eighteen... nineteen at the most?

Today she’s wearing a khaki dress, so tight and fitting that I am reminded of my own age.

The young man who boarded at Kranji is eyeing her. The movement of his eyes as he stepped in was unmistakable; that momentary second look. I know that look. There are at least two other men in this carriage who have noticed her.

I know it’s ridiculous to feel jealous but I do. I feel like going up to them and saying: “Do you even know this girl? No, you don’t. (Even though she does not know me either, I know her better than you do). You do not know how she likes to dress (neutrals with platform shoes or dark heels), what she listens to on her portable radio (Class 95 FM) or when she opens her eyes to look around to see if it’s her station (once the train leaves the City Hall platform)”.

My mind is reeling with accusations against the other men (voyeurs, lechers) and excuses to myself for not going up to talk to her. The train is at Raffles Place. My station. My hands grow cold and I decide not to alight.

“Hi...” I lower my voice.

“Yes?” It sounds like a receptionist. “Who you looking for?”

“Um... I spoke to one of your officers the other day... the one with the long brown hair?”

“Who? Sara, ah? Who is that on the line?” I make up a name. “Hold on, I see if she’s around...” The line snaps into muzak. A familiar song; I think it’s Richard Clayderman.

“Hello...” the voice is hesitant. I cannot recall how many times I have tried to imagine how she would sound. I think I was quite close.

“Hi, my name is... Keith. I saw you on the train today... do you know who I am?”

“Um... no...” As if she would have given any answer. She sounds a little frightened.

“I just wanted to... get to know you.” I bite my lip. Do teenagers still get to know each other like that nowadays? “Listen... I know you’re at work and all and you don’t know me... so why don’t you give me your email address... I’ll drop you a note.” I am surprised that she agrees immediately. It’s a Hotmail account but I guess it’s better than nothing.

Tong is not around today - I can use his computer terminal; it faces a wall so no-one will be able to read my screen.

I write Sara a short email apologising for scaring her and trying to sound as innocuous as possible. I explain that I had trailed her to work and looked up the Yellow Pages for her company’s number. I wonder whether telling her that I am thirty is wise. Her friends will laugh at her I’m sure. It takes me the whole of lunchtime to complete the note.

Surprisingly, she makes no comment about my age in her reply. Instead Sara says she’s “eighteen this year”, meaning that she’s seventeen.

I spend the next few hours opening and closing the email box like a young lover. My work is literally untouched and the most I am doing is picking up the phone to extend deadlines. At a quarter to six, I type:

<Would you like to meet for dinner?>

I am surprised again that she agrees.

“Come on, she’s not your type,” Tong tells me the next day. I look around to make sure no-one has overheard us. “You’re someone who watches matinee plays on Sundays and who goes by the moniker of ‘Euripides’ in the chatroom. What are you going to do with her? Bring her to a tea-dance?”

“There are no more tea-dances,” I correct him.

“Or whatever... point being, I’ve seen you dating for the last three years and no-one has gotten you as obsessed as this little girl who cannot pronounce her ‘r’s. And none of it makes any sense to me at all.”

I stir my soup absently, not interested in hearing anything but affirmation. “But I am so happy when I go out with her...”

“No, no, no... you feel thrilled, maybe; exhilarated, probably. But it can’t be happiness...”

“Then what is?” I ask softly, not expecting a reply.

I like what they’re playing. Borders always has this great piped-in music. Tong said it’s called swing jazz . Feels very New York, even though I’ve never been there before.

“You like the show?” Sara asks, stroking my forearm affectionately. She has become so comfortable with me, in the space of a month.

I nod. “The ending was weak. But the plot was not bad.”

Sara takes my hand. People are staring at her as usual. Except that this time, they look at me questioningly as well. For the men I guess it’s envy; from the women, I actually sense contempt.

“You haven’t answered me – what kind you books you like to read?” Sara is flipping through Harper’s Bazaar. I’m holding her and looking over her shoulder. I catch the sight of our reflection on the window, superimposed on the metallic sculpture outside.

“Mainly European fiction. Russian, French stuff. I like Ivan Klima.”

“I see, I like Stephen King and those juicy stuff like Harold Robbins. Maybe you should read them and tell me whether it’s the same as those books you like... like Klim...”

“Klima...” I whisper. “It’s the same thing dear,” I said without a thought. “Believe me – It’s the same thing.”

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001


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Other Short Stories In This Issue

Jasmine's Father
By Paul Tan.

Frenzy and a Dinner from the Fridge
By Ng Shing Yi.

By Hongen.


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