By Yeo Wei Wei
I was looking in all the windows, going from floor to floor, until I found what I was looking for in one of the antique shops on the third storey. An ivory carving of three apples on a branch.
The yellow light in the display bathed the carving in a buttery glow. One, two, three – three life-size apples with faint pink shadows on a pale green skin. Father had a carving of an apple branch that looked just like this. With a gentle twist, each individual apple could be detached and cradled in an admirer's palm. They were heftier than real apples, of course. Yet I had the impression since the first time I saw them in Grandfather's room that if these fruits were submerged under water, they would float to the surface.
One of the apples on Father's branch disappeared from our home 20 years ago and was never recovered, not even when Father passed away a year ago. I was 12 when the apple went missing. That was the year my period began and I started to wear a singlet under my school blouse.
My hair was very short and many people mistook me for a boy. Once, an auntie told me off when she saw me in the Ladies: "No boys in here!" I remember thinking about that incident and wondering if I should have used the Gents instead. The first time I saw a urinal, I couldn't understand how anyone could sit on it to pee.
Mother had me when she was 42 and Father was nearly 50. They married late. I don't know what life would have been like if I wasn't an only child. Probably I would have moved out by now. And maybe I would have travelled or lived abroad. Who's to know? I was an only child who had the full attention of both parents and I couldn't imagine things being any different. I still can't.
The year I turned 12 was also the year Peter first showed up. From when I was little I hung out with the boys in the neighbourhood, cycling to East Coast Park and kicking pong pong fruit, scoring goals. After Peter came, I didn't care so much when they left me out of matches. I was okay too when nobody told me where they were all going and I saw them, my friends, on their BMX bikes zipping down the street past our house.
Peter knew how to make all sorts of things with paper. He made frogs that leapt when you pressed on their backsides, cranes with pointy beaks and wings, paper balls that looked like flat diamonds until you blew into a small hole and the sides filled out.
We played in Grandfather's Room because it was a spare room with a bed that nobody slept in and also because it was where the carving was kept. Peter said that it looked just like a real branch. The first time I let him hold one of the apples, I got him to close his eyes first, so that he would not know what I was doing. I placed it in the heart of his palm and closed his fingers around it. He held the apple close to his face and opened his mouth wide. His eyes glittered like shiny foil confetti fluttering in the sun.
We called the room Grandfather's Room because there was a photograph of Grandfather's face hanging on the wall. It wasn't his bedroom. Grandfather died when Father was only 16. Like me, Father was an only child.
From his high vantage point up on the wall, Grandfather beamed down at us, his eyes barely open as his ample fleshy cheeks pushed up against them. That was how big and powerful his smile was.
That portrait was displayed at the foot of Grandfather's coffin and at the head of his hearse during his funeral. The same picture was also used for his obituary in the newspapers.
I remember that it was that year, the year I turned twelve, that Father started to talk about China. "Things have changed. They are now saying, black cat or white cat, doesn't matter as long as it can catch mice," he said to Mother one day. He went back to our ancestral village in Fukien and after he returned, he told us about visiting the house where Grandfather was born and meeting Grandfather's youngest sister, the only one of his siblings who was still alive. She was in her eighties and she had lost all her teeth, but she could still tell stories about Grandfather's naughtiest pranks when he was a boy and his favourite food.
In the photographs taken at the village everyone wore funny-looking clothes and the women all had the same haircut. Father said that the children went to the one school where his Second Cousin was the principal. When you meet him, you will see for yourself, how much Second Cousin looks like Grandfather, Father said, his eyes all solemn and a small smile on his lips.
He showed me a photograph of two girls, one taller than the other, standing in the middle of a dusty road. Their hair looked like someone had put bowls on their heads and cut along the rim. Their feet were bare. They stood beside a wall of large roughly hewn rocks that extended into the blurry distance.
I recognised the clothes straightaway. The taller girl was wearing a tee-shirt with a cartoon print tucked tight inside denim jeans. The smaller girl was in a pink dress with a frilly hemline.
Mother had mailed a box of my old clothes, things I had outgrown or refused to wear, to the village a few months before Father's visit. Father said that all the children in the village had put on their best clothes to welcome him. He took this picture because he was very pleased to see that my clothes were put to good use.
The dress with the frilly hem was a present from Father for my birthday when I turned ten and I was made to wear it at my birthday party. Why had Mother sent it to China?
"You cried after we made you wear it and you never wanted to wear it again. It seemed such a waste," she said.
"It was mine," I muttered. "Bought for my birthday!"
"Those girls look strange in your clothes," Peter agreed. He was looking at me as I stabbed at the soil in the garden with a fork. I could not stop thinking about the dress. It was my dress! My birthday dress! Bought for me! By my father! I could almost hear the poor dress beseeching: Save us from these brown and dusty children, Save us!
But that was not the worst thing that happened after Father returned from his trip.
He was forever talking about Cheng Chi, one of Second Cousin's sons. Cheng Chi was two years younger than me. He was going to arrange for Cheng Chi and his father, Uncle Tian, to come and visit us. It would be good for Cheng Chi to see what the world was like outside of China.
"The boy is very bright and well-mannered, he will go far in life," I overheard Father saying to Mother one night.
"Won't he get homesick?" Mother said.
"Children are very adaptable," Father said. "Especially the bright ones. He will be distracted by all the new things he is going to experience here. Think how good it will be for Ping to have a brother! They will go to school together and play together, and she won't be so lonely. I always wanted to have a brother or a sister when I was little."
The first time Father showed me a photograph of Uncle Tian and Cheng Chi, his eyes were bright with merriment as if he was about to tell a very good joke.
Mother did not say anything. She was using forceps to remove wisps of down and feathers from translucent gelatinous fronds of birds' nest that had been soaked overnight. The sweet scent of pandan leaves simmering in a pot wafted from the kitchen.
"Ah me, my poor eyes," she sighed, not looking up, "When they come where are they going to sleep?"
"In the spare room," Father said, gesturing towards Grandfather's Room.
"My jewellery is in that room," Mother said. "And Ping's clothes too . . ."
"Second Cousin is family, not an outsider. They don't arrive until next month. Plenty of time to move your things to a different place if you are worried. Do you think he and Cheng Chi are interested in wearing our daughter's clothes?"
When I told Peter that Father had arranged for Cheng Chi and Uncle Tian to come and stay with us for a month, Peter shook me by the shoulders.
"Don't you know what's going to happen?" he whispered. No matter how hard I begged, he refused to tell me.
I knew what Cheng Chi looked like because of Father's photographs. But when he and Uncle Tian arrived, I was surprised by how small his body was in contrast to his big and round head.
"Does he remind you of someone?" Father asked me in Mandarin.
"He looks like Grandfather," I said, sensing that this was what Father wanted me to say. Actually, he reminded me of Grover, from Sesame Street. Big round head and small body. Grover with yellow skin and slitty eyes.
"Cheng Chi was born in the year of the dragon. Which year is Ping?" Uncle Tian. Father had said that Uncle Tian could understand English but he preferred to speak in Mandarin. During the month of their stay, Father had said that we must speak only Mandarin at home. So that Uncle Tian and Cheng Chi would not feel left out.
"Tiger," Mother said.
"I didn't know I was a tiger," I said in English. "I thought I was a human being. Like you and Father."
"Mandarin, Ping," Mother said softly.
One of Uncle Tian's eyebrows went up half a centimetre like a caterpillar arching its back.
"We are talking about the Chinese zodiac," Father said.
"Girls are more sensitive, more understanding," Uncle Tian said, reaching out to pat my head. He used the phrase "dongshi", knowing about things.
"Cheng Chi is a dragon," Father said. "And your other sons?"
"Ox and goat," said Uncle Tian. Uncle Tian's voice sounded as if he was laughing secretly at something.
"Would you like to learn English?" Father asked, putting his arm around Cheng Chi's scrawny and unfurry Grover shoulders.
"English is a useful language," Uncle Tian said. "It would be very good for Cheng Chi to learn it."
"If he moves to Singapore, I'm sure he will pick it up very quickly. He's a bright boy and he will learn it from having to use it every day."
"His mother and I would be very happy if he can speak English as fluently as Ping," Uncle Tian said.
"We have been speaking to Ping in English since she was a baby," Mother said. "We didn't want her to be confused, so she only started to learn Chinese when she went to kindergarten. Some families let their children learn Hokkien so that they can speak to their grandparents, but for us, that's not really an issue."
"Would you like to come and live with us, Cheng Chi? Your English will become as good as Ping's, maybe even better," Father said. "And you can help Ping to improve her Mandarin."
Cheng Chi was looking at something in a Singapore Zoo pamphlet. I peeped over his shoulder to see what he was gawking at. A rhinoceros.
"Do you know what it's called?" I asked.
"Xi niu," Cheng Chi said.
"The English name, silly," I said. "Who cares about the Chinese name."
"Ping, don't be rude. I bet you didn't know the rhino is called xi niu in Chinese," Father said.
"Ping is so intelligent, Cheng Chi will learn a lot from her," Uncle Tian said, patting my head again.
"I am not a dog, why does he keep patting my head?" I said to Peter later on when I found him in the garden. I went to look for him to ask him what animal sign he was. He was sleeping, curled up like a cat under the mango tree.
"It was so boring," he said. "Dragon this, tiger that. And my ears felt like they were going to drop off from all that Chinese."
"Bet you didn't know what a rhinoceros is called in Mandarin before today!"
"As if you did!"
"Anyway, I just want to say: Dragon my foot! Doesn't Cheng Chi remind you of a lizard?"
"Better not let your father hear you."
"His eyes remind me of a lizard. Those slitty single-eyelid eyes. And his face is always expressionless. Just like a lizard!"
"All the children in that village have expressionless faces. Even when they smile for the camera, their faces look blank."
"Ugh! Don't remind me!"
"If Cheng Chi were a girl, he would be wearing your pink dress."
"That's a stupid idea," I said even though I knew that Peter was right.
Uncle Tian and Cheng Chi slept in Grandfather's Room. Before they came, Peter and I often went inside the room to look at the ivory branch. Sometimes we took the branch out and placed it on the bed. We rubbed our faces against the smooth cheeks of the apples. We pretended we were magicians, detaching and re-attaching the apples to the branch.
"This is exquisite," Uncle Tian exclaimed when he saw the carving for the first time. Cheng Chi was kneeling down and pressing his face against the cabinet's sliding glass doors. His breath made a halo of mist appear and disappear on the glass.
"It was a present from a Japanese client," Father said. "My father didn't have many possessions. He sent all his money to China."
"Without him we could not have built the school. He helped the village a lot," said Uncle Tian.
"Look at how excited Cheng Chi is," Peter whispered in my ear. I was standing behind Father, but I could tell that he was beaming. From his place high up on the wall, Grandfather was beaming too.
Uncle Tian patted my head as he spoke, "Ping, you must forgive him. Cheng Chi has never seen such a beautiful object before."
"Looks like your father is going to show your brother how to detach the apples," Peter whispered.
"Father is happy to show the trick to anyone who is interested. Anyway, what do you mean my brother? He's not my brother."
"You had better get used to the idea. It's definitely on the cards."
Seeing the smiles on all their faces increased the tightness inside me, like the tightness in my leg in the throes of a serious cramp. I would look at the leg and wish the cramp would ease, getting panicky at the thought that I couldn't move, that I mustn't move or I'd make things worse.
"All that's needed is a small hint," Peter said. "Something to make it clear to your parents that the idea of this person becoming your brother is just ludicruous."
"My mother won't allow this to happen," I said. "She's always told me that girls are just as good as boys."
Peter whispered in my ear. I shook my head and pushed him away. I ran to the kitchen and that was when I knew he had told me the truth.
"What are you doing?" I asked even though I could see that Cheng Chi was using the forceps to remove the wisps of feathers and other dirty particles from the soaked birds' nest.
"Cheng Chi is my assistant today," Mother said. "His eyes are very sharp."
"I have sharp eyes too," I said. "I want to help out too!"
Mother laughed. "Are you sure?"
"Yes! Why didn't you ask me? You are my mother! I want to be your assistant!"
"How lucky I am to have not one but two assistants," Mother said.
And that was why I went along with Peter's plan. It started off as an innocent prank. To hide one of the apples and let everyone suspect that Cheng Chi had taken it. It wasn't supposed to go on for more than a day or two. We would put the apple back after Cheng Chi had been punished.
But the plan changed along the way. I had no say in the matter, it was Peter's plan and that was how things were with him.
We buried the apple in the garden. In the dark the silhouette of the mango tree looked like a paper cut out in a magic lantern. We dug a shallow hole with a spoon snucked out of the kitchen. From the loosened earth came an earthy scent with sharp spikes of moistness.
I felt the weight of the apple in my palm as my dirty fingers covered over its smooth hard roundness and I bit my lip.
I memorised the spot by measuring the distance from the tree trunk in hand spans.
After Uncle Tian and Cheng Chi shortened their stay and went back to China, things went back to the way they were and it felt as if the visit had never taken place. Mother removed the carving from the glass cabinet and hid it somewhere so that Father would never see it again.
Two years ago, when Father's health started to fail and he had to be hospitalised, I brought him cut apples on my visits to his ward. We ate the apples together, crunching sometimes in sync, half listening to our own silence and to the hum of voices and TV programmes that came from neighbouring beds.
One day Father asked, "Do you know why we chose the ping from ping guo for your name?"
I nodded, chomping at the apple in my mouth, mashing it into something shapeless, something that could be swallowed and forgotten. I took another slice and went at it, filling my ears with the sound of teeth working hard to break down the apple flesh, take it apart.
Father's lips were moving. I couldn't hear him but I nodded and I kept on chewing. I knew that Father was telling me that he understood everything.
To be honest, until today, I had forgotten all about Grandfather's branch until I saw it in the shop window.
"Shall we go and have a bowl of noodles? Let's have something hot and soupy, something to warm you up."
Peter! Back again after all these years! And he looked the same, still a boy, the boy who disappeared the night we buried the apple.
Peter was a blanked-out space in my life after he vanished, like the missing apple. But here he was, back again, he had only to resurface and the erasure was reversed. It seemed impossible that twenty years had passed.
"It will find a new owner soon. Another child perhaps who needs a bit of help," he said.
"What about the father?" I said. "Fathers need help too."QLRS Vol. 14 No. 2 Apr 2015