Penguins on the Perimeter
By Philip Holden
Spheniscus Orientalis, the Asiatic Penguin. Order: Sphenisciformes. Family: Spheniscidae. A small bird with white plumage, inhabiting water margins. Historically endemic to much of Southeast Asia. Hunted almost to extinction in the colonial period; now apparently returning to much of its former range. The only member of its order with the capacity for flight.
He used to see them as a child, the old man tells him. At Tanjong Rhu, with the light fading. A flock of birds like a long low cloud, each standing upright, lining the beach right up to the edge of the water. As if they were taking part in a ritual; waiting, clad in white, to slip into water that had become briefly molten, as brilliant as a mirror. Sunset would smudge them golden. And then a shiver would go through the crowd. It would crumble at the edges, and then begin to peel. The birds would take flight, wheeling east to roost. They would pass over his boat, and the sky would darken further, under a whir and a hiss of stubby wings.
David a.k.a. Da Wei, 12, squatting next to his grandfather on his weekly visit, knows that's not possible.
"Gong Gong, What kind of birds?" He stumbles in his bookish Mandarin.
But the reply is incomprehensible. A dialect word that he can't reduce to hanyu pinyin to tap into his dictionary.
"Gong Gong, can you write it down?"
The old man takes up the pen and paper eagerly, but then pauses, his forehead bunched up in thought. He begins, then stops. David looks. 鸟字旁: the radical for bird.
And then? The old man can't work it out. He rehearses the stroke, fishing with his pen in empty air. Once. Then once more. He begins again. 鱼字旁. Perhaps a fish? Still not right.
"David!" His mother is calling from the kitchen. It's his cue to set the table, to help bring out the dishes his mother and Yati have cooked. He stands up, flexing two calves that have gone to sleep. His grandfather puts the paper down, and the moment passes, submerged in the depths of Yati's chicken soup; hidden in the rice bowl, forgotten beneath the tangles of sambal kangkong and the flat red-scaled body of the steamed fish whose white flesh he loves, and yet whose name he also does not know.
During the next week he can't let the idea of the birds go. He thinks of Tanjong Rhu the last time he saw it. From the Sheares Bridge, with its battered shipyards, its jetties crumbling into the river among the green of trees. He remembers a sky darkened by thunder, not by birds.
So next Saturday he makes one more addition to the science fiction books he borrows from the library at Stamford Road. He wanders into an unfamiliar section of the building, cool, less crowded than the fiction shelves, searching for a call number he has noted down on a scrap of paper. He finds the book easily enough: Birds of Malaysia and Singapore: A Field Guide. He thumbs through the plates, looking for the species his grandfather has described, marking up the most likely candidates with carefully placed Post-it notes. On his way out, he stops at the children's section, and borrows two books for his sister Shuyun: animal books with bright pictures and big text. Make sure they're age-appropriate, his mother has said. He likes that phrase: he turns it over on his tongue, whispering it to himself on the bus, when he finds a place to sit at the back, over the rumble and bump of the rear axle. He repeats it like a mantra, so that he forgets where he is, and returns only when the small sliver of a ticket falls from his unclutched hand.
When he arrives at the house, his grandfather is listless. Whispers scuttle into the corners of the room. His mother reviews the medication, and asks Yati about whether the hospital appointments have been made. In the kitchen, the two women check through the pill box, with its seven rows of compartments, counting out capsules and tablets in red, white and pale pink. David retreats into the living room, where his grandfather is adjusting the lens on his camera.
"Gong Gong?" "Ah?" "Can I show you something?" The old man gives the lens a last twist, and looks up. "Da Wei?" "The birds you talked about at Tanjong Rhu? Can you show me?" Again that unknown word. But when he thumbs through the pages, pointing out the pictures he has marked, the old man just shakes his head repeatedly. Not that one. Not there. Bigger than that. White colour, not grey.
"David! The plates!"
His mother is calling again, asking him to get the table ready. He leaves the old man to browse the book. Useless. Back from the kitchen, bowls in hand, he sees that his uncle has given up on Birds of Malaysia and Singapore, and picked up the books he borrowed for Shuyun. On his next trip his uncle is excited, more animated than he has seen him for a long time. He smiles, beckoning his grandson over with his little finger.
In the taxi, returning home from his grandfather's house, David tells his mother what happened. Those birds at Tanjong Rhu. Gong Gong insists they were... penguins. Impossible, David had argued, with the help of his dictionary. Penguins were a 南极洲 的种类. An Antarctic species, confined to the chill of the Southern hemisphere. But the old man grew truculent, brushing away any arguments to the contrary, and finally lapsing into silence.
The taxi is cold. When they turn into the road leading to their home, he slithers across the plastic of the back seat, squeezing his mother against the door. It's dark outside; he can see traffic cones and bollard next to a hole in the road; behind it, the wooden Malay house that still persists on its bare plot. Then he notices that his mother is crying. He will never forget this.
"Ma," he persists. "I was right, about the penguins."
She turns to him. Look, she tells him. At the roadworks. The longkang, with an elephant's trunk of a hose stretching downwards. If you go deep enough, what do you get? Sai. Shit. That is a dialect word he knows. That is what you find if you spend too much time digging into the past.
A long decade later, he returns to Singapore. On Sunday, sleeping in after that long intercontinental flight, he wakes to the sounds of cars horning and raised voices in the street outside. The churchgoers are here, his mother tells him when he stumbles downstairs. Parking is so difficult now. After ten minutes the noise subsides. He sits with her in the front room, drinking barley. Too sweet, he thinks, but then there's something in the texture of the drink. He stirs with the teaspoon, sips, and then sips again, feeling the grains bump up against his teeth. He's a child again, playing games with food: do you tilt your head back, and let the last barley grains go down in a single, explosive clump, or use that teaspoon, as your mother prefers, and spoon them gently into your mouth?
In the morning light, his mother seems older, more careworn. You haven't changed, he tells her. Not one bit. Not a single grey hair on your head. What's your secret? She smiles, girlishly. He is so convincing that this might just be true. But on this visit, after all the news has been updated, the gossip told, the relatives visited, they find that they have less to talk about than they expected. At times they will sit together in silence. Ani, the new maid, bustles in and out. He will read, but his mother will simply sit, without distractions. At times she will glance over at him. He wonders if in these moments she is searching for the son she once knew.
Part of this, of course, is inevitable. Children grow and become themselves, and they leave their parents behind. There's a photo that she still keeps of a thunderstorm, when he and the Malay boy from the house opposite carried on playing football, even with the water pouring down. She came out to tell them to go inside, picked up the ball and then, laughing, threw it back to them, water streaming through her hair, down her face, her long hair and blouse soaked through by the rain. Gong Gong had captured them together through his telephoto lens, looking into each other's eyes, laughing, wet through and absolutely happy. But they grew apart year by year: he entered worlds of his own, and closed doors behind him. He still loved her, but from a distance. What he remembers most now is the tension of those Saturday rides back from his grandfather's house: how they would sit, awkwardly separate, in the back of the taxi. And then the visits had stopped. There was a brief fluorescence, in which the lane outside the house grew a canopy, and bloomed with pale flowers. A flood of relatives and friends, many of whom he had never met. Peanut shells and packet drinks to be cleaned up, and then the slow procession to the crematorium. Then nothing: a shuttered house, an empty space, a new en-bloc development where his grandfather's home had been. No more taxi rides. And, just last year, after his most recent flight home, a final separation, when he had told her that he would no longer go to Mass. I just don't believe in it any more, he'd said. And then, when tears began to gather in her eyes, You know, you cannot believe in God and still be a good person. He had thought this emotional release might have brought them closer, but if anything it has driven them further apart. She has not spoken about it again.
But there is something else that he notices about her, something that has nothing to do with him. A rigidity. On the outside, perhaps, like a carapace. Or perhaps it is inside her: a slow hardening of the heart. She has taken early retirement, and as early retirees do, thrown herself into a round of activities and good works. She tutors for CDAC; she volunteers at the community centre; in the morning, long before he stumbles downstairs, she has already returned from her exercise class. And yet as this part of her life has opened, something about her has closed off. There is one incident in particular that surprises him. She tells him that she would like to go on some of the trips that the CC organises, but that she has no one to go with. Go with Ani, he says: you get on well together now, after those difficult first few months. And then she says something that shocks him.
I am not happy. I cannot bear it that she should be happy.
He finds himself clinging onto her words, repeating them to himself, as he did with other words a child. But this is different. It is as if you were out walking in the midday heat and came across something inexplicable: a well, perhaps, in the centre of the road, cold, frightening, infinitely dark and deep.
In the afternoon, he walks out onto a silent street. The churchgoers have long gone. The open drain has long been covered over: the street is neat, orderly, its pavements enclosed by concrete kerbs. There are orange signs telling you where you can or cannot park, and little parking bays marked out carefully with bright white lines. If he listens carefully, he can still hear the sound of water, flowing beneath a metal grid set into the pavement.
Children no longer play in the road. He struggles to remember it was like for him as a boy. Purposeless activity with friends; riding your bike here or there; improvised football games, scissors paper stone, guppies, spiders in the long grass by the drain; once, a dragonfly. The street is bare now, and seems hotter. Perhaps there used to be some trees that have now been cut down, but he cannot remember them, and there are no visible stumps. As he walks through the neighbourhood, in the next few days, he sees no one. Or not quite no one. The maid putting out the laundry or washing the car, exchanging quiet glances with the mail man; the work crew with hard hats digging up the road; early in the morning, on future strolls, a group of seniors practising taiji in a small sliver of park. Yet the owners of the houses stay behind locked doors.
After a few days that he realises the Malay house is no longer there. He finds he cannot quite remember it exactly. It was wooden, brightly painted, on stilts, with a set of worn stairs at the front, leading up to a door that was always open. The compound surrounding it had been quite bare, perhaps with a sealing wax palm in in one corner, or fruit trees behind the house. There was a fence. Or was there? In Malaysia he has seen similar houses, with new wire mesh fences, coated in green plastic. So now he remembers the house opposite as having such a fence, although he cannot not really be sure. The house, like his grandfather's house, has disappeared without leaving a trace behind: he is unsure which of the new dwellings has superseded it.
His mother points the replacement house out to him, almost directly across the street. By future standards, at least, it is still modest; two storeys, with the rough stucco walls and terracotta tiled roofs that are fashionable at this time. Its occupants, she tells him, are seen only infrequently. She does not know their names. They have built a wall next to the street, broken only by small peepholes with wrought iron bars that curve outwards. In the week before he flies away again, when he loiters, solitary, on the street, he sometimes catches sight of hints of life through these gaps in the wall; clothes flapping on a drying rack, a potted plant, a plump brown arm raised up and, once, an eye that looks back at him, winks, and then quickly vanishes.
In that week he stays with his mother, something about the house begins to bother him. If he goes close to the house in the daytime, or the evening when its inhabitants are not about, he can hear something cry out. He says "something" to himself because it is not quite human, although it has more variety than an animal. At times, he hears a low, drawn-out syllable, repeated ten or twenty times, rising in volume, and then falling again. If this is a word, it is not quite comprehensible, although he feels it should be: perhaps it is in a language he does not speak, but if so that language is raw and elemental, uncivilised. At others it is more musical, almost like a brass instrument, a tuba or a French horn, a snatch of the music that you hear at a wake that is too short to settle into a melody. And then, as he approaches the wall, the sound dies away, replaced by a scratching and shuffling, and the sound of beating wings. It is as if something is aware of him, through the layers of stucco and plaster, waiting.
He mentions this to his mother. She's noticed it too. A bird, she tells him, that they keep in a tiny cage, suspended from the eaves. A parrot, she thinks, or maybe a parakeet. He should try talking to it, to see if it will repeat what he says. One afternoon, he follows her suggestion. He sidles up to an opening in the wall, hearing the rustling, a creak of metal as the cage sways back and forward, out of sight. He starts talking, self- consciously, too fast, introducing himself. A pause. Then, in return, he receives that same old drawn-out syllable, rising up in intensity and then falling away.
"It's cruel," he tells his mother in the evening. "You should call the SPCA."
She shrugs. The bird is clearly mad, after its long confinement. If the door of the cage opened, would it really fly out? And where would it go? You cannot reason with a bird.
On the night he is to fly off, he takes a last walk through the neighbourhood. The sun has just set, and the houses are, for once, full of life. Lights have been switched on in ground-floor rooms; he can smell curry, fried chicken, hear the clatter of chopsticks, a Taiwanese soap opera blaring on television, and in one bungalow, upstairs, a piano played hesitantly. A few of the houses, he notices, are lit up in silence, odourless, marked only by the quiet hum of an aircon compressor. He turns into the road to his house. Frogs croak, and fall silent as he passes. And then he feels an overwhelming sense that he is being followed. Something behind him steps on the cover over the storm drain, making it clatter and vibrate. He quickens his pace. There is a patter on the concrete, on the tarmac, like falling rain, or the imprint of tiny webbed feet. He turns around. Nothing. An empty lane, with only the sound of a bird's voice that cannot possibly be human, rising and falling.
Years later, he returns to the street again, in middle age, to look at the new house he has been building. Five storeys, on the site of the old Malay house and its dumpy successor. The building is nearly complete. A long steel gate, not yet operational, will roll open on a touch on his mobile phone. Granite paving by the entrance; enough space for three cars. The Bangladeshi workers who are putting finishing touches to the garden are asleep in the shade of the car port, bodies in dirty blue overalls scattered like discarded clothes. One, he notices as he steps quietly past, has a smile on his face, sleeping as effortlessly as he once slept as a child.
He enters the doorway to the marble hall, with its long bare wood staircase spiralling upwards. There are rooms upon rooms up there: an apartment for his mother, reached by an elevator. In her early 70s she is still spry, but it is best to be prepared. For now all she has to do is move across the road. Rooms for his two children, cool, safe, full up with all the things he never had in his childhood. The girl's room, he imagines, will be a parlour for a princess, full of pink cushions and plump, stuffed hearts. The boy, a year younger, will choose something more austere: posters of footballers, a gaming laptop. Higher up, a home theatre with padded seats: this is where the family will gather in the evening, or on slow weekends. And then, on the top floor, the master bedroom, that his wife has spent so long in furnishing: from catalogues, they have picked out a baroque dressing-table, a four-poster bed, and white, billowing curtains for the long, wall-length window that looks out over the city.
It is only when he pauses at the foot of the stairs that he becomes aware of the smell. At first it's very faint. Sweat, perhaps, or a touch of mould? Of course the air is trapped here, unable to circulate through the house: things will be very different when the air conditioning is installed. And then he remembers what the foreman said to him: something about drainage in the basement being a problem, how water gathers there, after storms. He walks forward, towards the kitchen and the top of the basement stairs. The smell is stronger now, like an uncovered drain in sunlight. He opens the door to the basement, and cups his hand over his nose, nauseated. It's rancid, as if something has died in there, far below ground. With his one free hand he fumbles for the switch of the temporary light the workers have rigged up. Light floods the basement. It is worse than he feared: the stairs lead directly down into dark, brackish water. He takes a step downwards, then another, trying to figure out how serious this is, how deeply the room is flooded. Disgust turns quickly to anger: he should never have trusted the blandishments of the contractor, with his proffered cigarettes and easy smile.
When he turns to go he hears a splashing in the water. There's something in here with him. A fish, perhaps, washed in from a storm drain. But it seems to be bigger that that; out of the corner of his eye, in the darkness, he sees a flash of white, a flicker of what might be a fin or even a wing. Then a call, a single repeated syllable from the darkness of one corner, which is answered by other voices from other recesses of the room, and then a flutter, as if wings are being outstretched. He turns, scrabbles up the stairs, and bolts the door after him.
Clean it out, he tells the contractor on the phone. Fix the drainage, or there'll be trouble. And bring in pest control. When he finishes talking he is sweating. Around him the Bangladeshi workers stir, look at him in puzzlement, and then turn their eyes quickly down. He realises that he has been shouting. The contractor, of course, deserves this. But he still feels ashamed. Where, he wonders, does this sudden anger in him come from? Where does it hide, and what brings it so quickly to the surface these days?
When he returns home he is calmer. He swims laps in the condominium pool, one after another, and then calls to cancel an afternoon meeting. Then a shower, and the steel and glass of the elevator, rising upwards. Home. The apartment is empty in the early afternoon. He looks out, across the basin to the new National Stadium, glistening in the sunlight.
Yet he still feels uneasy here, at this moment time has stopped, snatched out of everyday routine. He walks the long corridor to the master bedroom, step by step, slippers on marble, trying the doors of his children's rooms. The girl's is open: the bed neatly made, a notebook computer perched, almost decoratively, on an overly-tidy desk. Framed pictures in heart-shaped frames. In one, the girl blows a kiss to her schoolmate, Nadia, the tomboyish one with the shorter hair, the one she listed as "married" on Facebook. Perhaps they should talk to her about whether this is appropriate? He closes the door, pads further down the corridor. The boy's room is locked, and he rattles the handle, feeling the anger in him rise. What does the boy have to hide?
We are a happy family, he pictures himself telling his son in the evening. And so we should have no secrets from each other. Correct or not? Life has a rhythm now. On weekdays, work, then tuition for the children. On Sunday church: not the Catholic church of his childhood, but a new building, as luxurious as a cinema. He is buoyed up by his new-found faith: his family accompany him, and the girl sings in the choir. He returns, refreshed, to the house. And yet he has an uneasy sense that something is missing in this house that is so full of things. Or perhaps there is something that should not be here: loneliness, persistent, like the echoes of a distant bell. Today, his wife and his children return, one by one, and the house fills up with noise again. He tries to talk to his son about the locked door, but the boy looks at him, and then turns his eyes down, just as the workers did. Anger flares again, but he forces it back, and does not probe further.
At night he dreams of birds. Not sparrows, or minahs, or bulbuls. These are heavy birds with stubby wings and sharp beaks. They crowd around him, shuffling on tiny feet in an elaborate tango. One of them pushes him: he falls, and the birds collapse on him, like dominoes. They rub against him, slobbering and slithering, so that he is drowning in a basement of wet, bloated, fishy bodies. He wrestles himself to the surface, to the bottom of the stairs. But he cannot not move: the birds are wait for him, lined up on the higher treads, looking at him with cruel, hard eyes. Every now and then one reaches forward and pecks at him experimentally. Strangely enough, this tickles him more than it hurts, and he suddenly has the urge to laugh.
At two o'clock he wakes, his mouth dry. He exits the bed quietly, pads to the kitchen, and pours himself water. The apartment is flooded with moonlight. In the living room, he looks out over the city, gleaming silver. Then he checks e-mail and social media on his mobile phone, scrolling down and down, looking for distractions. An hour later his wife comes in search of him, and leads him back to bed.
The birds again. They have escaped from the basement, but they seem to have showered, and been blow dried. They ambush him in the carport, on the flattened boxes left by the Bangladeshi workers. They are huge and fluffy; one lumbers over and presses him against the wall. He is frightened that he might suffocate, but just as the feathers reach his lips he feels them dissolve into something sweet and infinitely dry, like kueh bankit in the mouth. He bites, almost involuntarily, and something sticky oozes over his tongue. He sucks and nibbles away, gnawing his way back into memory. And then, finally, two hours of dreamless sleep.
He wakes again a little after six, tired out, but his mind active. Sunday, and the house will still be quiet for hours. He gets up quietly, feeling in the wardrobes for a t-shirt and shorts. A short walk, to see the sunrise.
Outside the condo gates, he moves quickly along the road, flexing his shoulders, but unable to shake off a stiffness that encloses him like a carapace. As a young man, he never realised how middle age would ambush him. Not so much physically, but emotionally. Here you are at the prime of your life, a career of solid achievement behind you, loving and loved. And yet you feel fears that you never felt before. Let's say you are asked to speak in front of a crowd. You used to enjoy this: to build rapport through a few jokes, some easy deprecation, and then to inspire. This has always been second nature to you, even though in conversation you are often tongue-tied: speaking is a talent, people say, and one that you have made full use of. Yet when you get on the stage now, to the applause, you feel a trace, somewhere of panic. You push it back, hide it, start to speak. The moment passes. And yet, five minutes later, you find that a word or a memory overwhelms you with emotion. Your voice breaks, you tear: you cover your confusion by coughing, taking a sip of water.
How do you respond to this, in speaking but also in life? Mark out those boundaries around yourself and the ones you love. Live inside them. Do not think of the past, or of what might lie outside the wall. Seal up the basement: comfort yourself with what you know. You may not be entirely happy, you may not be happy at all, but you will be safe. It does not matter if you hurt yourself. Insecurity is a scab that you pick at, a wound that you always, deliciously, want to keep open.
Perhaps it's not so simple. There's a memory there, on the tip of his tongue. He turns the corner of the road, walk out onto the embankment by the water, with its railings and slender bridge. Across the Kallang Basin the city is growing lighter, although the sun has not yet quite risen. What was it his mother said, of Ani, all those years ago?
I am not happy. I cannot bear it that she might be happy.
He shivers. There's a faint breeze, and the light is growing. For a moment, land and water merge. And then, as the sun rises, the sound of wings overhead. A single bird first, then another, then many more. As he looks up the sky darkens, but not with the threat of rain.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014