The King of Caldecott Hill
By Amanda Lee Koe
He doesn't exactly look the way he does on the telly and it surprises her that this surprises her because, obviously, showbiz is showbiz; and she's 21, she's come of age, she'd know better.
In a way, he has always been the leading male presence in her life. After her father left, her mother never stayed with one man for more than two years a pop, but the Channel 8 Chinese drama serials were always on at 7pm and 9pm. With his popularity, she could count on him to be on every other show. The separation was a matter of two months at most the TV station works on a 30-episode basis, generally.
He's barely gone to seed at all though he's verging on 50 now.
The King of Caldecott Hill clicks his fingers at her. She's been idling. She can't move, she's seven again, watching him on the telly when her mother waltzes in to the living room with a new man, just as the then fresh-faced King of Caldecott Hill announces to the baddie with the awful perm yes, the same sorry dude who always plays the baddie "我就以这十块钱赢你这家赌场!"
He's in a white shirt with a silver bowtie and a matching cummerbund. Her mother says, Say hi to Uncle, and she ducks to keep watching
Irrashaimase, she says automatically as she approaches him.
I've always wanted to know, what does that actually mean?
He speaks in Mandarin, she is relieved. She's heard the Channel 8 celebrities of his generation speak in English on talk shows and she's embarrassed for them.
It means, welcome. Can I take your order, sir?
He looks at her for a moment, perhaps ascertaining if she knows who he is. She wonders why he's alone; his wife is in local showbiz too, a second-tier actress.
Do you have any recommendations?
I've heard the salmon oyako kamameshi is good.
You've heard, but not tasted?
Well, your manager should see that his staff knows what their dishes taste like. It'll make you a better waitress.
She says nothing. She wants to say, But I don't want to become a better waitress; I want to believe I will do more with my life.
Very well, I'll try it either way.
She scribbles down the order, gives a small bow and makes her way to the kitchen.
She serves him the kamameshi.
She'd suggested this dish to him because it came with a performative element when served. The server had to place a tiny hourglass registering a minute of fine white sand atop the wooden box which concealed the hotplate, where the fish and rice would sizzle. It was just a gimmick, but one that was popular with customers.
You'll have to wait a minute. Be careful when removing the lid; the plate is hot.
She is turning to go, and he has steepled his fingers. She turns back.
You were always the good guy.
You were always the good guy in the shows. Even when you were the bad guy, you were the good guy.
He laughs. It's true.
I don't know. They decided I have a good guy face.
The directors, producers, demographers.
What are demographers?
They study society and trends to see what people want to watch.
The fine sand in the hourglass is up. She indicates this to him with a polite sweep of her hand, and he removes the lid.
O shokuji o o tanoshimi kudasai.
What does that mean?
Enjoy your meal.
He didn't finish the kamameshi perhaps it was a bad recommendation. She really ought to know this, she feels guilty. She places the wooden box and the cup on her tray, wipes the table with her rag, spreading the smell of damp.
He's gone, but what is she to do. It isn't an autograph that will make her feel better. It isn't as if there's any way for her to tell him what he was to her; is to her. If only she could remove her apron, roll up her shirt, show him the awkward scorch marks from where her mother used the iron on her a decade ago, the period of time coinciding with him playing the blind singer who loses his memory, if only he would say nothing but touch them lightly, trace all seven of them across her sternum, then unroll her shirt back down.
She takes the soiled dishes to the back, furtively spooning some rice and beef from his plate, with the spoon he'd used, shoving it into her mouth. The beef is overdone. She licks the spoon, using her teeth and tongue to scrape the congealed grains of rice and gravy on it.
Fifteen minutes from closing time a phone call to the restaurant's main line, asking for her. The manager hollers for her, trying hard to listen in, pretending to check off the day's reservations at the counter, but she is summoned over by a dissatisfied customer, whose omu rice is too soggy.
Hello. It's me. The one you recommended the kamameshi to.
How did you know my name?
Isn't that what your nametag's for?
Is there something I can help you with?
I'm in a suite in the hotel on top of the casino.
I'm not that sort of girl.
I'm sorry it comes across that way I just want someone to share the view with. Have you seen things from this high up?
Isn't it funny?
You were in a serial about a casino before there was a casino, and now you're in a hotel suite in a casino.
Life mimics art.
I loved you in that show.
I cried when you had to lick the bad guy's boot. Did you really, or was it a camera trick?
I did it. I was young and I wanted it to feel real.
You won Best Actor for that at the Awards that year.
I watch everything you're in.
The manager hollers for her to clear a table.
I have to go.
My room number is 2926. You don't have to come up if you don't want to.
It isn't that she wants to go up, but that she feels compelled to. When you've stared at something out of a box fibre optics, satellite signals, photons, a piece of furniture for so long and you're given the chance to feel its edges, the shape of it, it's difficult to not want to touch.
She's changed out of her waitress uniform in the toilet. Her manager asked excitedly, impatiently: Who was that? Her manager has bad breath, yellowed teeth. Nobody, she said. She knows right after she leaves, the manager will go around telling all the other wait staff what a slut she is.
She ensures she isn't being followed, as she waits for the lift, as she steps in and presses up instead of down.
Top of the evening news the next day: King of Caldecott Hill Attempts Suicide in Marina Bay Sands suite. Everyone's talking about it, even the Malays and Indians, though he only appears on the Mandarin channel.
Depression, breakdown in marriage, fingers burnt on the stock market, bad investment, lost his life-savings at the casino, the rumours are flying. She doesn't care what the reason is, but how could she not have seen this coming?
She sees him as he was in the casino serial: confident and coasting in one scene; and in the next tearing off his clothes shouting "我服输! 我服输！我服输!" , humiliated yet a man of honour, keeping his word to the casino kingpin when he's lost the bet and forfeited a million dollars in a card game.
I could have saved his life, I could have saved his life, I could have saved his life.
The interrogation room, it's how it looks on the telly, the harsh white light, the one-way window. She's given a glass of water.
What were you doing in Mr Li's room?
We were talking.
What were you talking about?
About the shows he'd been on. I watched them all when I was a kid. About me as a kid.
What is your relationship with Mr Li?
We don't have one, in any way.
Why then would he invite you to his hotel room the night before attempting suicide?
I don't know.
You're not being cooperative here. Let's try this again. Why would Mr Li invite you to his hotel room the night before attempting suicide?
I don't know. Because I told him he was always the good guy?
What is this about?
He always played the good guy. On TV.
For how long have you known Mr Li?
I've seen him on TV.
For how long have you known Mr Li personally?
Just last night.
How did you meet?
I'm a waitress at the Japanese restaurant in the hotel. He had dinner there.
How did you end up in his room?
He called the restaurant at closing time.
And asked if I wanted to go up to his room.
Did you and Mr Li engage in sexual activity?
In physical activity, excluding intercourse?
Well I showed him my scars.
When I was a kid, my mother used to hit me. Sometimes, she used a hot iron.
Where are your scars?
On my ribcage.
Why would you show them to Mr Li?
Because you wouldn't understand. Please, please let me go. I haven't done anything wrong.
We're just trying to do our job here, ma'am. It looks like a suicide attempt, and we understand from the coroner that the time was after you left the room as per the timestamp on the CCTV, but we need to carry out thorough investigations.
You think I had something to do with it?
You were the last person to see him. We need to understand what you were doing in his room; the chronology of events. Back to the scars why would you show them to Mr Li?
When my mother hit me when I was little, I used to imagine that he was my, my father. Or my uncle. Or my older brother. Or my lover. It didn't matter which it was. He was a good guy. He was the good guy. He would have protected me. I watched every show he was in. It made me feel closer to him. I felt safe thinking of him. I could imagine him saying my name, putting himself between my mother and me, taking me in his arms, looking at my wounds.
Where was your father?
He left when I was seven. My mother had many men over the years as I was growing up.
Were you, or are you, in love with Mr Li?
(pause) What is love?
(pause) Did you hope to one day be with him?
That's not really love, is it?
(pause) Did you hope to one day meet Mr Li?
In my head I already knew him.
(pause) Did Mr Li exhibit any odd behaviour in your company?
No, besides that I thought that it was odd that he would want to talk to me.
Did he seem emotionally unsound?
What was his behaviour like?
He was calm. Charming. A little wistful.
Did you at any point see the gun, or were given the knowledge that he had in his possession, the gun?
Do you know that it is illegal to possess a gun in Singapore?
Do you know that it is illegal to be in the knowing company of someone in possession of a gun in Singapore?
What time did you leave Mr Li's suite?
I fell asleep and left around nine the following morning.
You shared a bed with Mr Li?
We were lying down and talking, yes.
Were you touching in bed?
No, not at all.
Were you under the covers or over the covers?
How is this question relevant?
Do you know that Mr Li is married?
That he has two children?
Still you thought it okay to spend the night alone with him in a hotel room.
We were talking.
The CCTV shows that Mr Li gave you money, in the lift.
He gave it me 20 bucks to take a cab home.
But you didn't take a cab you skipped the long line of cabs at the hotel lobby.
Yes, I took a bus home. I'm not rich. I'm not used to taking cabs.
How do we know this monetary exchange wasn't payment for your services?
Because if it was, I wouldn't be so fucking cheap?
Why don't you just check the sheets and his underwear for sperm?
And there were samples.
Of male ejaculated bodily fluids.
What? We didn't do a thing.
Why do you think Mr Li invited you to his room?
I think it was because he could feel it.
That I already knew him.
Did he say this?
Then why do you say this?
You asked me what I thought.
They let her off after three more hours of grilling. They ask if she has anyone to call to pick her up and she says no, she doesn't. On the public bus home, she thinks about his calm smile, his warm hands. The way he propped himself up against a pillow. She thinks about the sperm staining his underwear.
She wants to speak with his wife, to tell her "我们之间没有发生任何关系..."  just like on the telly. She wants to bond with his wife over him, to grieve with her.
Five years later.
the way time goes by so conveniently in the last episode of the series, near the end, to make a point, to contextualise a plot-turn, to ambiguously tidy-up a convoluted and improbable end. Most often it ends with the lead character standing on a breakwater, looking out to the dirty sea
Just like in the drama serials, he lay in a coma.
Unlike the drama serials, he never got better.
She quit bussing tables at the Japanese restaurant right the next day. The manager had called her to let her know there were reporters and photographers lying in wait for her. The manager tried to pry details from her "Well I have to tell the press something, don't I?" and she hung up. She didn't bother to chase down her last paycheck.
She took a second-class degree at a private university and started on a marketing job soon after, marrying a colleague two years later. He was a quiet man who loved her gently. She was happy about this; all she wanted was someone who would never hit her.
Every year on a certain date she would excuse herself to go to the hospice where the King of Caldecott Hill lies, asleep. In all these years, a new King had not been crowned. There were Princes and Queens, but no Kings. There'd been no funeral, no eulogies, no farewell, since he wasn't properly dead.
Sometimes in the afternoons, at odd timings, they would still play reruns with him in it. Him at 19, at 23, at 30, at 41. The skilled gambler, the patient surgeon, the stoic husband, the anti-hero special agent. Immortalised on film reels, his naturally tanned skin pulled over those cheekbones, the intensity of his gaze. She looked out for these reruns in the telly guide. She'd set a timer recorder for them. When her husband worked late or met up with his army buddies for a drink, she curled up on the sofa and watched them back-to-back.
"不管天长地久，只须曾经拥有，" the King of Caldecott Hill whispers, tears in his eyes as his lover draws her last breath, courtesy of a car accident; a brain tumour. She pauses, rewinds, replays.
Half his face destroyed by the bullet, it lies in a craggy, floundering mass of skin. His left eye socket droops beyond a non-existent cheekbone, while much of his jaw and lips are a blown-out shipwreck.
His appearance hadn't shocked her at all, from the outset. She'd asked the nurse if she could touch it. The nurse had asked about her relationship to him; she said it was complicated. She touched.
Over the past year his hair had begun turning white. She finds this alarming, and brings with her on her next visit a box of hair dye from the pharmacy. The nurse accedes, proffering old towels to line his shoulders, and a C-shaped shoulder-resting basin to catch drips.
As they wait for the hair dye to be absorbed by his roots and it is wondrous to imagine that in there, a part of him is still capable of absorption, as it is the nurse says to her in an undertone: This will mean, though, that she will know there's someone else who visits him.
She hasn't thought of that, to be honest. She's always feared bumping into her at the hospice, but she always manages to convince herself to chance it. On every visit, she makes sure to position herself with a view of the long corridor, and she's long familiarised herself with the swiftest exit route from the other side of the room.
How often does she come?
Once every two or three months. She comes with the children.
What do they do?
Talk to him a little, talk among themselves; show him old photographs. They stay around 20 minutes each time.
Tell her you did it, won't you? That you coloured his hair; it was a leftover from another patient's and you didn't want it to go to waste.
The nurse is silent, but it feels like acquiescence. They both watch the King of Caldecott Hill, breathing measuredly via the respirator. Sometimes when she watches him for too long, she thinks she sees his finger twitch.
In every Chinese drama serial, there will come a point where the male lead raises his eyes to the heavens, holds up three fingers and attempts to swear his eternal love for the female lead. Lest he proves untrue, he invokes, with a Chinese idiom, celestial retribution and certain death "如果我, xxx, 向 xxx 做出任何对不起的事，天打雷劈。" The female lead, being Chinese and superstitious, fears the attraction of misfortune and never allows the male lead to complete the utterance of this line, often pulling down the raised hand coyly, in feminine concern mixed with shy delight at his willingness to demonstrate devotion.
Doesn't he look better now, she says as she gently towels his hair dry, the smell of ammonia permeating the ward, still so handsome, isn't he? The nurse bites her lip. Don't worry, she says to the nurse, I'm not kidding myself that he'll ever come to.
She touches her scars through her blouse, all seven of them, one by one, each with a different finger. That was how he'd done it when she was 21, when she'd lifted up her shirt, as if he'd sat down to a piano to practise a scale. She swallows and remembers the stock line she'd seen and heard the King of Caldecott Hill utter so many times, through the years, as his onscreen lover draws her last breath, courtesy of a car accident; a brain tumour; a knifing by a psychopath, that misty glaze to his eyes, the same way his voice would catch in the back of his throat each time: "不管天长地久，只需曾经拥有。" 
 I will use ten dollars to win your entire casino!