By Michaela Anchan
She leaves work early, mid-afternoon. The sun is shining, the sky is blue. She has the feeling that something extraordinary could happen. She walks in long strides and her hair streams out behind her in the breeze. She reaches her favourite café, takes her favourite seat outside, and enjoys a cafe latte and a piece of carrot cake as she watches the other office workers tumble out of their office towers. They are a blur of black pants and clacking heels, gaggling groups gossiping about their Friday night plans. A toddler and his mother walk past, hand in hand. He is easily distracted and slow. His T-shirt is pale blue and in big letters says 'I'm with stupid'. There is an arrow pointing to his careful mother. She smiles into her coffee cup and watches the pair as they disappear into the crowd. The shadows are growing longer as she finishes up but the sun is still strong enough to sparkle off the ocean by Marina Bay as she walks by.
As she walks she thinks about the new business she is planning, the shop she will open. She pictures her handsome husband greeting their happy customers. She can see the walls of perfect, handpicked items, all placed pleasingly to create maximum desire. She can hear the sound of the small bell at the door ringing cheerily with each new customer.
A cyclist crosses the pavement in front of her, ringing his bell. Excuse me! she calls, but he is already gone, head down like a charging bull on wheels.
She walks under the Esplanade Bridge. The underpass is a wide expanse of light-coloured concrete. Glimpses of blue sky smile down in the gaps between the road-bridges. A glorious sea breeze follows her inside, fanning her blazer out and swirling a pile of leaves in messy circles.
At the other end of the underpass she sees heavy grey clouds in the distance, rolling towards her. For now they are caught in the glow of the setting sun, the last golden fingers reaching out to kiss goodbye to the world.
She crosses the road to the restaurant. A couple walks past, laughing, holding hands and leaning in towards each other. They are tall, with good teeth and sensible shoes.
She reaches the restaurant and joins her friends, old high-school friends she no longer sees very often. They sit at an outside table, three on one side, three on the other. They all have mobile phones out and spend a lot of the time clicking and swiping and posting and tweeting. She had returned her phone during the meeting today and feels as though she's had a limb removed. Ivy, who works in her office, in finance, asks her about the meeting, and what had happened but she waves the questions away. Nothing, nothing. Before their meal arrives the sun sets completely – that Singapore trick where the sun seems to drop suddenly, exhaustedly, out of the sky when you aren't looking. The restaurant lamps fill in the darkening shadows and a waiter lights a small candle in the middle of the table. The friends laugh about a weekend trip they had all gone on without her, to Kuala Lumpur. She tells them more about her business plan which they all think is fabulous, really interesting, and fun. Dessert arrives, and with it a breeze blows up, sending dust and dried leaves into their sundaes. When it comes time to pay the bill she hopes no-one notices she was one dollar short.
They decide to go clubbing afterwards and insist she join them. Ivy offers to buy her a drink and so she agrees. They walk there, down an empty pavement next to a sports stadium. A row of posters advertise a rock concert, the lead singer's handsome chiselled face stares out at her blankly, mouth open mid-croon. Below his face, on each poster, there is a sticker with the large red words CANCELLLED, in bold.
The queue at the entrance is about 50 people long. She almost leaves but Ivy, feeling obliged perhaps, keeps her close, and she doesn't find enough of a pause in the conversation to say Well I think that's it for me tonight, so she stays. Inside, the darkness is overwhelming at first. It is punctuated by strobes of white and green and around the edge of the two large rooms small yellow arcs of light shine on couples mid-kiss, mid-fight, mid-SMS. She finds the darkness comforting and shrinks away from the pockets of light. I got fired, she tells Ivy eventually. I thought so, was all Ivy says in return, and squeezes her hand. Ivy buys another round of drinks for the two of them and she knows they are guilt-drinks but she drinks them anyway.
She leaves the bar well after midnight, escaping with relief, closing the door on the noise and the thump-thump of the bass. Ahead of her is a long alleyway, a dirty concrete road, lined with back doors of bars and restaurants along the Quay. Door after door, some open, some closed. Her feet scuff over a deep crack in the concrete. Outside an open door a fat chef is sweating into his cigarette and tapping on his phone. A red chair strains under his weight as he reaches down for his mug of water and ice and sucks hard from the straw. He doesn't see her as she walks by. She notices his apron, which has red hand trails on each thigh. Bloody remains. She imagines all the tender fillet mignons now digesting in stomach acids all over the city.
At the next door, two bus boys lounge against the wall – it's close to final clean up time so they're out for a coke and a smoke, waiting for the last of the drunks to stumble out the front door. She walks on. Two bar girls blow smoke in her direction. They are lost in their bubble of gossip. They've had a good night – their back pockets are fat with tips, eyes shiny and lips freshly glossed. One turns to watch her walk by, eyes tracking her up and down before dismissing her entirely.
At the corner, before she turns towards the river, a rubbish bin has been overturned. Two ginger cats pick over old take-out containers. They both freeze mid-chew as she walks past. Their muscles poised for flight.
Opposite, an old man sits on a chair alone, watching her. He's sitting on one of those red chairs, balanced on just the two back legs, leaning back against the door. At first she thinks he is staring past her, down the alley, absently watching the night. Now she sees, beneath his low-pulled cap, he is watching her intently. His eyes are small and expressionless.
She is very close to him now, just a few metres away. He continues his stare, direct and blunt. Good evening, Uncle, she says quietly, trying to sound polite and dismissive at the same time. The man drops his gaze and gives a lift of his knees. His chair cantilevers down suddenly, the front two legs hitting the concrete with a thud. He places his heavy feet solidly in front of him and he slowly, silently, rises up from the seat. She is face to chest with him and she realises she has been holding her breath all this time. In her pocket her left hand is nervously rubbing two coins together. She looks up into his eyes, they are dark and watery. She wonders if anyone else can see the two of them, if anyone would notice if she just disappeared. With a grunt and a small lift of his chin he turns around and picks up his chair. He rattles at the door lock then opens the old green door. Inside is pitch black. A few seconds later he has disappeared into the darkness and the door is closing behind him. She exhales and continues. To the river.
The river runs wide and dark about two metres below the promenade. The steps down are scattered with detritus from the evening – a wine bottle and plastic cups, newspapers, takeout containers with stubbed out cigarette butts inside.
A group of loud, drunk twenty-somethings stagger past, giggling, arms slung across each others shoulders. High heels in hand and shirts unbuttoned, they are weaving to and fro across the wide walkway. One looks at her, standing on the steps, and pauses, halting all the others too. He raises a hand and tries to focus his eyes in her direction. "Hey! You're that girl…!" is all he manages before stumbling into the girl next to him, and they all laugh sloppily. He regains his footing and looks up again. He begins to say something, his mouth starts to form the words, when he realises she is gone. "She was that girl…" He is confused. The steps are wide and empty, save for a river rat, scurrying among the cigarette butts. It leaps away quickly as a soda can bangs down the stairs in a gust of wind and drops soundlessly into the water. The first few spots of rain are decorating the surface of the river as they throw their heads back and laugh.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017