In Between Houses
By Zhu Yuan Laura
The first thing I noticed about the apartment was that the windows had no grilles. I peered over the ledge with Mother behind me and saw, for the first time, over the terraces, bungalows and low-rise cluster houses around Singapore's East Coast. Above that was cloudless blue sky merging with sea in the distance, playing up the vastness of the panorama disconcertingly unobstructed by familiar metal bars. My heart beat harder and faster; I had never seen the world from that high up before.
Mother was dressed for work in a khaki-green wrap dress and beige high heels. I took a moment to admire how much she resembled a doll with her large, kohl-lined eyes peeping out from under her dark blunt fringe. "Isn't is dangerous, Ma, without grilles?" I asked. She agreed but said that if I was to keep away from the window, I would always be quite safe. "What are we doing here, Ma?" She cast her eyes down on me, "Laura, come, meet my friend." For the first time I realised how sad she looked. It was an elegant, doe-eyed kind of sadness. I did not foresee that one day depression and anxiety would drain the beauty from her face and the once regal bone structure sagging under the weight of a permanent frown would make yellowed squints of her bright brown eyes.
Auntie Julia had short hair, a pleasant persistent smile, and looked older than Mother. I noticed her lipstick and asked "That colour is called 'berry' right?" She laughed, "You are a bit too young to know what that is!" I told her I read a lot of Mother's beauty magazines. She invited me to sit on the sofa, and offered me Ribena in a crystal mug. Mother hardly ever let me handle anything made of glass for fear of me dropping it. I accepted it with some anxiety and realised the drink matched her lipstick.
I took in the rest of the living room; it was airy and sunlight spilled in, casting no shadow. It bounced off the cream walls and the chandelier that hung over the dining table in the far left, throwing sparkle on the dark wood shelves with rows of even more crystal – plates, bowls and ornate glasses like the one in my hand.
Jie and I took seats beside Auntie Julia on her squashy black leather sofa. I noticed she had angry red marks all over her right arm and placed a concerned hand over them. "Did you get hurt?" She laughed again. She was laughing a lot even though I did not mean to be funny. "No dear, these are birthmarks. I was born with them. It's just the colour on this part of my skin and it doesn't hurt at all." I stroked them lightly before remembering what Mother said about touching strangers.
Jie sat with her cup of Ribena and looked thoughtful. "Your house is very nice." Auntie Julia thanked her. "It's good you think that, because you'll be living here for a bit." At this, my head snapped up towards Mother and she made an expression like she was in pain.
Mother might have explained that she needed time to deal with her problems with our father. Had she thought to see a psychiatrist she might have also been able to explain that she was going through a major depressive episode. I would have forgiven her by now. But she did neither. It would take years of tension and then more years of unconstructive fighting to learn that silence and separation was her misguided attempt at protecting us. By then the resentment had set in and turned to stone. She would finally pause to watch me break down over the way it made me feel but the apologies that followed would savour too strongly of self-pity, would feel like too little that came far too late.
At the door of Auntie Julia's condo, she hugged both of us once and told us to behave. Then she turned stiffly on us like it was an unnatural movement. I watched her through the metal gate as her high heels clicked and echoed down the corridor that led away from us.
Jie and I were given Auntie Julia's guest room. It had high shelves stocked full of board games and books. Below them stood rows of medals and trophies of all sizes – for track and field events – won by a boy named Jacob Chia. That must have been her son, who was studying abroad at the time. Jie was lying on his bed and I on a pull-out mattress on the floor. Our bags of clothes sat on his empty desk unpacked, we were not yet ready to make our relocation feel real.
I stared up at board games in the dark, trying to make the words out while sniffing absentmindedly at the t-shirt I was wearing earlier. Mother had a way of leaving her warm natural scent mixed with a woody and floral perfume – L'eau d'Issey or "Loo dizzy" as we called it – on everything she touched. My favourite item in the world was the cardigan she wore to shield her arms while driving. The heat of open-air car parks had baked the scent into its fibres; even after being laundered I could still bury my nose in it and imagine she was holding me. I regretted not swiping it from the car earlier. It would be several weeks before she came back for us.
All five of us were in the living room; Jie, the maid and I were sitting on the sunken rattan sofa as my parents fought on the balcony. The maid brought to my mouth a spoon laden with steamed egg and rice but I squirmed away from it. It was hard to feel hungry when the air was thick with accusations; I could neither understand them nor feign deafness to the aural brutality. We ate in the living room because the kitchen table was full of boxes of Father's things. Looking back now, I should have known that Mother was trying to throw him out. Not that I would have known what to do. None of us on the sofa knew what to do or what this meant for our future. We just went about our days, grateful for the peace when both our parents were out at work. Otherwise, we stayed in and tried to ignore the sound of things breaking.
Father stormed in from the balcony and paused in front of us. For a moment he stared at me with wild eyes, as if trying to say something, but nothing came out of his mouth. Then he spat "I've had enough of this" and walked over to me. I felt a swoop in my belly from being picked up and I rode in his arms feeling surprised. I half-expected him to raise me up to the clouds and sing that I was an angel as per usual. But he did nothing of the sort. Behind us, I heard Mother's house slippers slap quickly against the tiles. He sped up towards the master bedroom and locked the door.
I could hear Mother banging on the door as he held me in one arm, unlatching the grilles to slide the window open with his other. "Pa, what are you doing?" I cried. Before I knew it I was half out of the window, hands gripping on the bars of the open grilles, and screaming.
It was like the colours of the world outside had been pushed to maximum saturation. The green of the rain tree leaves turned acid, the yellow paint on the avenue fluorescent, and the red brick of our building nearly pink. The sky had washed out into a sheer blinding white. Cars rolled by but I could only hear my own screams losing force and the repeated banging on the door. I could not decide if the pavement below was too near or too far. Father's hands were pushing me out towards it. "Papa, please stop. Please don't!" was the last coherent thing out of my mouth before I gave up and started to cry.
My arms went slack, my head jerked forward, but somehow I did not fall. Father was holding me, but tightly around my waist. His heart was pounding in his chest, against my back, as he pulled away from the window. The voice died in my throat as he carried me back out. Mother was not there. I found her in the living, after he had put me down, sobbing down the home telephone. I ran straight for her with aching limbs and she held me until the police arrived.
It was a while before I saw him again. After moving out, Mother had forbidden him to enter the house so we ate the Old Chang Kee curry puffs he brought me in the doorway. In the leftover fury from being caned by Mother the night before, because I had talked back to her, I told him that I hated her. He said something like "Don't say that, Mei, your mother loves you very much."
I could have asked him why it was so easy to hurt the people we love but was struck dumb by rage which burned and made it hard to swallow. I wanted to cry and kick him for saying that but instead I was silent for a few bites. "Why did you try to throw me out of the window?"
He stopped eating. A moment later he dusted the crumbs from his mouth and rolled up the yellow paper bag. I thought he was going to get up and leave without giving me an answer. That seemed to be happening more and more frequently. Instead he said "Mei, look at me."
If the neighbours had ventured out into the common corridor at that moment they would have found my pockmarked father cupping his spitting image, only much smaller and unblemished, in his hands. His grasp was tender but tight, as if holding my soft pale face together would stop his own from falling apart.
He had not meant to do it, He had only wanted to scare my mother, He had let his anger get better of him, He was wrong, He knew it, He had never regretted anything so much, He would never do it again, I had to please, please believe him. I read it like a social cue, the way one knows automatically to say thank you when someone holds the door open for them. Maybe being so young I had not yet learnt to withhold an answer, to disappoint. I nodded and a tear rolled down his face.
We had run out of things to say and I was suddenly impatient to be alone again. He told me he loved me and thought about me every single day. After a hug and kiss, he left. I watched him disappear into the elevator and knew that he was about to get into the car of a woman named Angela. I touched my face where he had held it and decided I was not moved.
When I was three, Father bought a piano. He stood it on the rickety parquet in the balcony, pushed up against the wall where we now have a grey corduroy sofa. A lot has changed about that part of the house. After she remarried, Mother had the white walls painted lime green and installed roller blinds to match. We moved the sideboard from the master bedroom out to the space underneath the balcony windows. Our two adopted ginger cats they took to resting on it in the patches of warm afternoon sun, their fur glowing more golden than their eyes.
It is also where my potted orchid used to live. I sat with that plant, talked to it and cared for it without really knowing how. I watered it depending on how thirsty it looked. When the flowers fell, I faded with them. I flooded the pot until water spilled onto the parquet, but it did not revive. Mother told the maid to throw it out. I fought her and lost because of how dead it looked.
Years later, upon discovering Google, I would learn that orchids are barren most of the year. You simply had to love them that way in exchange for a few short weeks of brilliant green and purple gratitude. I still recall my lonely pot sitting by the trash bin at the lift lobby and feel sorry for not fighting harder.
Many things died on that balcony. I still pause sometimes to look at the lively yellow corner and remember the Young Chang upright piano that once stood there, dark varnish stark against the white walls. I still think of the way Father woke us up on weekends with cheerful playing no matter how determinedly we slept. He, like all his siblings, had been forced to take lessons. He, unlike his siblings, had stopped taking the graded exams because syllabuses were beneath him. He had planned to teach Jie and I how to play but it was poorly timed. Between the fighting and divorce was not very much space for music.
My parents were circles in a Venn diagram with only one overlap; the only passion I ever saw them share was in in tearing each other apart. Aside from that, what one loved the other had long become entirely indifferent to. Without use for music, the piano went silent soon after Father moved out. It did come in handy in some ways, I hid my homework in the stool once or twice and posed on it for one of the few remaining photos of me from that time. I was in my hand-me-down kindergarten uniform and pigtails hung on either side of my chubby face where split a smile revealing a perfect set of milk teeth.
While Jie and I had for some time plonked around on the piano, Mother never engaged with it until she announced that she had called for movers to take it away. It was only then, at eighteen, that I remembered the beauty it once brought us. With just minutes before the movers were due, I stretched my fingers over the keys. I imagined Father's callused and hairy hands flowing confidently and gracefully across them. I suddenly felt that I did not want the piano to go. I heard Sunday mornings of years past and remembered how he had once saved me.
It was a year after the piano arrived; I had just gotten home from school when Jie called for help. A pencil had fallen into the small space between the piano and wall. Far too big herself to reach in and get it, she asked if I could try instead. The space was a tight squeeze but I was pleased when my hand closed in around the pencil. I had pushed quite hard to reach it, and was ready to pull out when I realised that I could not. "Jie, I think I'm stuck."
I was not pleased when she started to laugh but on hindsight I can see why she did. I was frozen in something like a sideways lunge, my legs spread crab-like and ending in lace-trimmed socks. Jie, being all of eight and wirily thin, failed to push the piano aside. An ache was developing in my head and neck and I began to cry.
It occurred to my five-year-old brain that remaining stuck forever was highly possible. Anxiety manifested in a sudden urge to pee and not wanting to make a mess on the floor I held it in. I was so vexed that mucus and saliva began flowing freely with my tears. Jie tried to calm me down as she pulled on my hand trying to extricate me, but it only made my head hurt more.
Just then, a click in the door told us that someone was coming into the house. I heard Father before I saw him. Indeed, all I could see was white wall and hardwood floor. Jie had barely explained the situation before he pulled the piano aside and freed me.
The doorbell rang. Mother beckoned the movers to the balcony. Instead of asking for another moment with it, I found myself pushing my seat back to get out of their way. They hoisted the piano onto two trolleys and collected payment from Mother. My eyes followed them to the front door until the dark varnished wood turned the corner and out of sight. Mother returned to her office deeper within the house. Everyone left as quickly as they had come.
I was still perched on the piano stool, feeling slightly out of balance because of how quickly the space in front of me had been emptied. Late afternoon sunlight streamed in through the window illuminating dust swirling in the air where the Young Chang had stood. Metal grilles cast harsh lines on the aging parquet upon which I saw a young father, bent double, massaging his daughter's head. Cupping her small face, he pressed multiple stubbly kisses into her forehead before she looked up. At the sight of her chubby cheeks squashed between his hands, shining with tears and dribble, the father's eyes crinkled, his lips pursed and his shoulders began to tremble from the effort of trying not to laugh.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017