By Chan Ziqian
(It wasn’t first love. She was sixteen and there had been others.
There was the boy who had ridden the same bus all six years in primary school and a year after they had graduated, had sent her a birthday card a month early. On the front was printed a bunch of flowers on which ‘Love’ had been neatly written in black ballpoint, then crossed out and disguised as flower stems. She never replied or said anything to him. That was the first.
There was also the faceless boy who came in her dreams two nights in a row bearing sprigs of plastic blossoms. His was the real world, he had tried to tell her. It was no figment of her imagination. Their love was real and so was he. For two days she had drifted around in a daze like one possessed, held to a promise made in her sleep.
Then the stranger at the library with the familiar smile. The boy who had held her hand, and three months later, said he had met someone else. Nameless passersby on the street, whom she remembered, indexed, and filed away for some indeterminate time in the future when they would meet. Faceless names who gave themselves away in newsprint, confessing to multiple head-on collisions with Platform 10 at King’s Cross or revealing dreams of hotels on the moon. There would be a time when they would meet and she would be able to say, “I noticed you back then, even before we met. I always knew.” When that time came, she would be prepared.)
For the third time that week she awoke to that scent. She sat up in bed and stared out of the window trying to remember where she was. What that high twittering noise meant. Why there were white streaks in the sky.
She lifted her arm to her nose. She had never found it there before but still she drew long deep breaths and with each breath the strange tang of oranges and carrots faded away, flushed out of her senses and replaced by the April morning.
She knew where she had first encountered it but wondered how it had found its way to her again. It was as persistent as the smell of chlorine after an afternoon in the swimming pool. No matter how much she scrubbed at her body in the shower with soap and water, the chlorine remained buried in her skin and hair for hours afterwards. But this was a smell that she could not locate on her body, and it emerged only at night like a nocturnal bloom and wilted away under the bright morning sun.
It was bright, too bright even for a spring day. The sunlight was bleaching everything it touched, trees, roofs, her bedspread, draining all their colour away. She rolled out of bed and slipped into her jeans and jacket, still inhaling deeply as if straining to find the faintest hint of the smell, the one molecule that might still be lingering around somewhere.
Perhaps today she would go back; perhaps today would be the day. She would walk right into the store and perhaps she would pick up a bag of oranges. And when she got to the counter she would say –
When she was lost in thought as she was now, her entire body froze, devoting all its energy to the one image she held in her mind. Her eyes were fixed on a point in space, as if furious with something that only she saw.
She jumped, her right arm jerking the hairbrush from its position in mid-air. Her mother peered at her through a crack in the door. “Come have breakfast,” said her mother with an amused look. “Why are you posing there? Your mirror’s over here.”
“I’ll be out in a while. I’m not done yet.” She started brushing her hair vigorously. Her mother’s unannounced presence annoyed her though she wasn’t sure why. She gave her hair another ten vehement brushes before going out into the dining room where they were already seated.
“Ah, she’s finally up,” said her father, looking up from his toast.
“I was awake ages ago.”
“Sarah,” her mother started as she handed her a slice smothered with butter. She recognised the tone and her eyes quickly darted up and down again to avoid meeting her mother’s eyes. “Remember that art competition held by the bank? The deadline is in a month’s time. There’s a junior section and I was thinking that you could take part in that. Then we could submit our pieces together.”
“And what are you going to do?” her father asked. Sarah knew the question was not for her and she bit slowly into her toast while watching the melted butter pool in its tiny crevices.
“Sarah, why don’t you paint something? I’ve got canvases and oil paints. Or you could use acrylic. It’s got the same texture but dries faster.” She spoke with a faint quiver in her voice, almost a giggle. She looked at Sarah, ignoring her husband, and on her face was a smile that was seconds away from nervous laughter.
“I don’t like canvas.”
“Well, whatever it is the both of you do, I’m not hiring a lorry again this time. So if it’s installation art again, it’s got to fit into the back of the car or you’ll have to get it there yourself.”
Sarah did not look up. She was trying to remember the name of the molecule that gave butter its smell and taste. They had done it in chemistry class sometime ago. Diacetyl – was that it? She remembered copying the diagram off the blackboard along with other molecular structures. It did not have the aromatic rings of vanillin or limonene but still it was pretty, with four arms stretched out, a half-formed snowflake that was now melting in millions on her tongue.
The scent was not the first thing that she had noticed. It had crept silently into her hair or mind while she had been in the store and it only resurfaced later when the memory of how his nose fit in with his eyes and the timbre of his voice had started to fade away.
She usually bought her stationery and snacks from a place near her school. But it had been mobbed with customers ever since it had sold a winning lottery ticket a week ago, so she went a little further down the road until she spotted another store in one of the side streets. There was a green sign that said ‘GROCERS’ in large yellow letters, then its telephone number in smaller print below.
“Grocers. I wonder how many they’ve got,” she said to herself as she stepped in. There were crates of fruits and vegetables near the doorway, then a little further in, shelves of tinned food, cleaning liquids, and stationery. It was a small shop but not cluttered. Sarah paused before the rows of blue, black, pink, glitter, ballpoint, felt-tip pens – like a large extended family, she thought – before picking one and bringing it to the man behind the counter.
“Try some oranges?” he asked in a voice too young for his thinning hair. “They’re just in from Spain. They sort of open up in your mouth. Like little balls of crushed paper uncrumpling.” She did not hear, or did not want to reply. Sarah only stood there watching both his hands roll her pen into a length of brown paper, then fasten the ends down with a piece of tape. It reminded her of her dolls and the way her mother used to tuck them into their beds after she thought Sarah had fallen asleep.
“No oranges today then. Is that all?” he asked as he handed the pen to her. She could smell the fresh carrots on his fingers.
“Yes, just the pen. This pen – it’s good?”
“I think so. Looks reliable though I’ve never actually tried it.”
“Oh. Because the pen I was using today – ” Sarah wasn’t sure why she was doing this but she took the pen out of her pocket and held it up so he could see it. “You see the nib is completely bent. Ninety degrees.”
He looked at it and laughed. “You must be very strong. Or very angry when you did this.”
“It just happened suddenly in class. I wasn’t even pressing down hard.”
“Well then, you must be the next Uri Geller. You’ll be needing new spoons next.”
“I’ll be careful with the spoons.”
When she stepped out of the apartment building after dinner it was eight in the evening and still bright as day. Her mother had left for a haircut and her father was at his parents’ place. On the bus, Sarah swayed gently in her seat while thinking of the green and yellow sign, the fragrance of carrots, his fingers like paintbrushes stained orange and green from weighing melons in his hands and packing cabbages into paper bags. When the bus reached her stop, she got off and walked. It must have been nearly sunset but there was no sign of that in the milky light that draped itself over pigeons and trees and people in chairs outside cafes.
She tugged at her thin cotton jacket though the evening chill had not set in yet. It was the sunlight that she seemed to be afraid of, the day stretched so bright and taut and unreal. Then it appeared, the green sign with its yellow words, its solid colours unfazed by the sunlight. She walked past the crates of oranges and apples, then down the first aisle, barely registering even the colour of things on the shelves. She went down the next few aisles like that, not looking at anything, only walking, as if this were a maze she had to find her way out of. Then there were no more aisles left, only the counter.
“Looking for something?”
Sarah watched him stir a mug of hot chocolate. She did not look up.
“Spoons. Do you sell spoons?”
“No we don’t, but there might be some old stock left. Let me go check.” When he put the hot chocolate down, the teaspoon chimed softly against the mug. The steam rose up into the air and brought with it a dark sweet fragrance that settled on her skin like delicate lace. She knew the molecules did not actually resemble the stick diagrams she copied in class, but they were prettier that way. She liked the scents best. Menthol. Cinnamaldehyde. Most of them had aromatic rings in their structures, perfect hexagons with little spikes and hooks extending from each of the six corners. They were all part of things solid and real like sticks of peppermint or cinnamon, and yet how fragile they looked in those diagrams, all that empty space in each molecule.
“The hot chocolate’s for you.” She looked up. He emerged from the back room nudging a young girl with pigtails in front of him. “Sorry, I guess I was wrong about the spoons. No spoons back there. There is another shop two streets down. I think it’s directly opposite the post office. You could try that. Come on, sweetie, drink up.” Sarah watched the young girl pick up the mug with both hands and suck at the drink through the gap where her two front teeth should have been.
Sarah turned. She strode down the street, pulling her jacket more tightly around herself, fiercely guarding her body against the unrelenting daylight. So much empty space, she thought, this body, these bones, the skin wrapped around them. A faint breeze whistled through her perforated chest and she shivered. She was as vacant as that white plastic chair, or that brick wall. If she tried hard enough, she could pass a finger through that lamppost, all that empty space around and within the atoms.
It wouldn’t be as simple as slicing through water, of course. She would start first with a finger against the surface of a table. It would be a slow and tedious process, navigating the corridors of space between the lattice structures. And it would hurt, perhaps, when her finger took a wrong turn in the wood, leaving tiny pinpricks of blood barely visible on her finger when she withdrew it. She would practise for hours each night, locked up in her room, and in the morning, she would take the tissues speckled with blood to the rubbish bin outside. But all it would take was time. Soon she would be walking through walls, learning the serpentine dance through brick, plaster, and paint. She would be as vulnerable and fearless as the magician’s girl prostrate under the whirring blade. She would take strolls at night, roaming the floors of the building, uncovering secrets that had rolled behind wardrobes like stray grapes. The residents would hear strange noises in the night and emerge with flashlights and any weapons they could find – penknives that had earlier been used on wrists, half-empty bottles of wine, large and ancient mobile phones the size of bricks. Mousetraps would be set and the exterminator called, but no one would ever find out.
“Where have you been? Look what I got you.” He held up a large square frame with white canvas nailed onto it. She must have smiled at her father but she wasn’t sure. “Paint something. Peacocks. Or butterflies. Those designs you did last year.”
“They were ugly.”
“You could come up with something else. The deadline is still a month away,” her mother joined in.
“Can’t I just use cardboard?” She wanted to go to her room but they stood there grinning widely at her, blocking the way. “And I don’t want to take part in this.”
“Nobody uses cardboard. I’m telling you, you could win something. It’s just the junior section.”
“Degas. Toulouse-Lautrec.” She slid sideways through the gap between her parents, then turned back to ask, “So what are you going to do?”
She did not wait for her mother’s high uneasy tittering and went straight to her room, shutting the door behind her. She shrugged off her jacket and slid into bed, running her bare arms and face over the cool cotton sheets that were still too warm for her. She needed something cold, something that would remain cold and not take on her heat. She raised an arm above her head and pressed it against the wall behind her, cooling the fleshy palm, then the sides of her fingers. It was cold and unfeeling and she rose up to press the length of her body against it. Heaven, I’m in heaven, she softly sang, the swaying of her body almost imperceptible. Cheek against the wall, she clung to it as she went on singing. She could stay like that forever, or else buried in its unyielding coldness. She would press hard against the wall until it gave way and took her in, bricking up the empty spaces and plastering them over.
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003