By Jinny Koh
As usual, Ah Luan was the first to arrive at the restroom. The morning sky was still dark when she left her house that day, carrying her tattered black handbag with the broken zipper. In it were her daily essentials: her senior citizen train card, her floral umbrella, a small water bottle and her brown coin purse. She never took more than what her aching back could carry, especially after a long day of mopping floors and wiping sinks.
The restroom, located in one of Singapore's largest shopping malls, wasn't big. Ah Luan tended to the five stalls, three sinks, and potted plant every day. Even though the hours were long, she never complained, because it gave her a stable income to support her granddaughter. At the thought of her, Ah Luan's heart sank. Yi Xin, turning 16 soon, had demanded an iPhone for her birthday. When Ah Luan told her that she couldn't afford it, Yi Xin got angry and refused to speak to her for days. Ah Luan knew that her granddaughter was a good girl and was just feeling the pressure from her peers about owning expensive stuff. Still, Ah Luan blamed herself for not being able to give Yi Xin everything she wanted since Yi Xin had no parents to pamper her. They had died in a car accident when she was a toddler.
After putting her handbag in the cleaner's storeroom, Ah Luan took out a plastic pail and a mop. Her cleaning partner, Ah Kim, was late again and there was no sense in waiting for her to start. Ah Luan filled the pail with water, poured in a capful of thin yellow detergent and swirled the mop in it. She entered the first stall and was about to begin mopping when a sparkle caught her eye. As she bent forward to take a closer look, her blurry vision came to focus and she realised it was a diamond bracelet.
Picking it up, she examined the jewellery under the white fluorescent light. Twin rows of diamonds glittered against her dry, callused fingers, sending rainbow reflections to her eyes. She had never touched a real diamond before, much less a piece of jewellery studded with at least 50 of them. Immediately, she thought of Yi Xin. "I can give this to her as a birthday present!"
Ah Luan rolled the slender white gold chain between her fingers, checking for signs of tarnish, when she noticed the broken clasp. The owner must have dropped it here yesterday, she realised. Guilt stabbed her at the thought of the bracelet belonging to someone else, to a real person. In her 10 years as a cleaner, Ah Luan had never taken anything she had found. Purses, cosmetic bags, mobile phones… she had returned every single one of them to the Lost and Found department. Yet, this time, with Yi Xin's sulky face fresh in her mind, she was tempted. She glanced at her watch. Ah Kim would be bursting through the doors any minute now and Ah Luan didn't want her to see the bracelet. Ah Kim might want to keep it for herself. Quickly, she slipped the bracelet into the pocket of her black pants. "I'm not taking it," she told herself. "I'm just safeguarding it so that the owner can claim it from me later."
The hours rolled by like any other day. Women with babies strolled in and out of the restroom, leaving red stains and brown smudges on the toilet seats. A pregnant lady rushed in but couldn't make it to the toilet in time and puked on the floor. Ah Kim was particularly upset about that. While mopping up the yellow grainy mess, Ah Luan kept thinking about the bracelet. It was probably only a few ounces but it weighed heavily on her mind. Every 10 minutes, she would plunge her fingers into her pocket or pat its side just to make sure it was still there.
By four in the afternoon, the lunch crowd dwindled and still, no one came to inquire about the lost item. The longer Ah Luan waited, the more she grew attached to the bracelet. Now that she had more time to think, maybe she could even sell the jewellery, buy an iPhone for Yi Xin and save the rest of the money for Yi Xin's school fees. Yi Xin might even prefer that since she hated second-hand goods. Maybe Ah Luan would even have a little leftover to buy herself a nice handbag – the brown one with the silver buckles she had spotted at the market that day – to replace her black, broken piece. Maybe then, Yi Xin wouldn't be so embarrassed to be seen with her in public. Ah Luan's heart fluttered as she imagined the admiring looks on her colleagues' faces when she carried the new bag to work. So beautiful, so shiny. Ah Kim would be so jealous—
"Oi! Did you hear what I said?" Ah Kim's voice boomed in her ear. "You need to rinse the mop. What's the point of cleaning the floor with a dirty mop?"
Glancing down, Ah Luan realised that her white mop, with long strands of hair tangled in it, was now a dark shade of grey. Her first instinct was to apologise even though Ah Kim was not her supervisor. In fact, Ah Luan was Ah Kim's senior but she could never find the guts to argue whenever Ah Kim bossed her around. But that day, with the shimmery bracelet laying snug in her pocket, Ah Luan didn't feel so small anymore. She possessed something so valuable that Ah Kim would never have in her lifetime. "Ah Kim can order me around all day, but look who God chooses to bless in the end," Ah Luan thought. Ignoring Ah Kim's grumbles, she brought her pail to the faucet. Her shift was ending and the owner of the bracelet had not appeared. "Perhaps it's not important to her," she reasoned. "Anyway, the customers who shop at this mall are so rich that they probably wouldn't care for a piece of broken jewellery." It was through such rationalisation that Ah Luan decided she would give the owner the chance to claim it while she was on duty. Once she was off duty, she had every right to take it. "Finders, keepers, right?" she thought.
Ah Luan tried to keep busy for the rest of the hour, growing increasingly impatient and excited as the time to knock off drew near. After scrubbing every sink twice and refilling every soap and toilet paper dispenser, Ah Luan sat on the red plastic stool in the cleaner's storeroom. Ah Kim had already left, claiming that she had a stomachache. Ah Luan's heart pounded as she counted the seconds on her watch, her eyes following the hand that was slowly ticking its way around a never ending circle. Ah Luan had never left work early before, but that day, she decided to make an exception. With five minutes to go, she dashed to the restroom and signed her name on the roster sheet hanging by the door. She was about to leave when the door flung open and two middle-aged women, decked in designer clothes, strolled in.
With heads held high, they made their way to the stalls in an unhurried manner. Years of experience told Ah Luan that they weren't here to relieve themselves. They were here for the bracelet. She placed her hand over her pocket, as if they could see through the black cloth. She thought of running but was afraid she would appear suspicious.
The lady in a purple shift dress noticed Ah Luan's blue and white cleaner uniform. "Auntie, ah! Have you seen my friend's diamond bracelet? She lost it yesterday." Her face was painted with thick make-up and she smelled like roses. The other lady, towering over Ah Luan in her high heels, said nothing. She seemed content to let her friend be her mouthpiece.
Ah Luan swallowed hard.
"Did you?" The friend inched closer.
Ah Luan thought about Yi Xin, the iPhone, the brown handbag and the happiness she would finally be able to provide and receive if she lied. This was God's blessing for her, for Yi Xin. But in the face of those high heels and that smell of roses, the swelling confidence she'd felt in front of Ah Kim merely withered.
"Uh… yes, yes," she said, reaching into her pocket. "I was about to bring it to the Lost and Found department." Meekly, she pushed the bracelet into the lady's hand.
The lady took it from her and, for a brief moment, Ah Luan thought she saw disdain and doubt in her mascara-laden eyes. But if the lady had any questions, she did not ask. She gave Ah Luan a curt nod and left the toilet with her friend. As they walked out, Ah Luan heard the click-clacking of their stilettos and the lady's voice echoing along the corridor, "I wouldn't even have come back for this old thing if I wasn't around the area."
Back in the cleaner's storeroom, Ah Luan sat down on her red plastic stool. She waited 10 minutes, just to be sure that the ladies were really gone, before she picked up her handbag and left.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014