By Patrick Sagaram
Along the corridor, a group of boys are doing something to a cat. I hear a cry, a pitiful mewl. I pull back the curtains, slide a window open and stick my head outside. There are three – no, four of them – crouched in a circle under the flicker of flourescent lights.
They can't be older than 11 or 12. I see one of them pick the cat by its front paws, holding it like a wobbling toddler. He lifts it in the air and as he's about to send it over the ledge, I raise my voice at him to stop. Startled, he and his friends turn to my direction. Then I see the cat leap from the boy's hands and land on its feet, escaping.
I threaten to call the police but they tell me to mind my own business. One of them sticks his middle finger at me. I resist the temptation to say something in return because there's no telling what could happen next. Not wanting to worsen the situation, I retreat inside my flat.
In the bedroom, my wife stirs.
"It's those boys again," I say, meaning to tell her what almost happened. Only there's no point in saying anything. Claire wants me to think she's asleep, so I do. Lifting the covers gently, I lie next to her.
Somewhere in the room, there's a gurgle from the pipes. A house lizard peels out a few clicks. I turn my thoughts over to Claire feeling an urge to put my arm around her. Except I know she'll only shrug from underneath, inching away from me. I touch her shoulder but she doesn't move. She keeps her back towards me. So I roll off, clasp my hands behind my head and stare at the ceiling.
It will be hours before sleep comes but until my brain caves to the exhaustion and my eyes wink out, I keep worrying about things I can't control.
I'm showing a two-bedroom apartment along a quiet stretch of Upper Thomson Road. The entire property has a relaxed feel with its cool lawns and swaying palm trees. Its previous owners, both expats, had spent a sizable chunk of money renovating the entire place only to move to Beijing early this year. They need to let it go and it has to be done quickly. Now it's the perfect home for my prospective buyers, Audrey and Chee Keong, a young couple who during their initial meeting explained exactly what they were looking for, even mentioning they didn't have any children and intend it to stay that way.
I got in touch with Audrey through sheer luck. A buddy from reservist who is her colleague gave her my card, told her to give me a call. She sounded keen over the phone and we made plans to meet over coffee. One week later, I was sitting with her and Chee Keong at Starbucks. Audrey, slim, pleasant-looking and I'm guessing in her early 30s, was the one doing the talking. Her husband was nodding to things we said while his eyes kept shifting from his phone to the two girls in cropped tops and tiny denim shorts giggling away at the table next to us.
If anything, Audrey is the one to convince so that she can convince her husband. With the property market slowing on the back of unexpected cooling measures, chances like this don't often land on my lap. I've got to make this happen.
Audrey is quite impressed with the place, asks lots of questions. Is there a hawker centre nearby? How long is the walk to the MRT station? I explain everything to her, observing that Chee Keong doesn't say much except for a passing comment here and there.
The three of us are standing in the living room overlooking the pool. Earlier I made sure to keep all the windows open and now, thankfully, a slow breeze is causing the curtains to swell, making tiny waves in the cloth. Sunlight falls long and brightly along the polished tiles. Everyone is relaxed and chatting easily when my phone goes off.
"Where are you?" Claire asks.
"At a viewing," I say trying to stay calm. "Everything all right?"
My clients eye me with apprehension. Only moments ago they were admiring the sight of the pool. Now something in my face or my voice has upset them.
"Yes. Hmm. No. I don't know."
"I'll be home soon," I say, and Claire disconnects without saying anything further. Phone pressed against my ear, I give the impression everything is under control. But I can feel this enormous lethargy wash over me, as if my arms and legs weigh hundreds of pounds. In some ways this isn't as bad as the first time she called, in tears, her voice coming over the line in stutters, saying she couldn't take it any longer.
At this instant things slow down. I see this woman in the pool cutting through the water, arcs of sunlight trailing her. She reaches the wall, turns and kicks, pushing off on her side. Nearby on a white deck chair, a pale Caucasian man in sunglasses and yellow trunks yawns and stretches both arms lazily. A few feet away, two young boys run up and down the sloping lawn, rippling with laughter.
For some, this is a feeling of home. Residents lazing by the pool, working out at the gym, or squaring off on tennis courts. The 15-minute drive to Orchard Road.
For others, it's something else.
"Are you okay?" Audrey asks, her voice snapping me back to the moment. I force a smile, making as if everything is fine.
"Yes," I say. "It's nothing serious," I say. "Shall we go downstairs to the pool?"
"That might be a problem," Chee Keong says, dropping his voice. "I've got another appointment."
"What?" Audrey says, giving her husband a slightly annoyed look. "I thought that wasn't until later this evening?"
"There's a change in timing. I have to leave soon."
"It's okay," I say in a bright voice, as convincingly as possible. "We can reschedule. Just give me a call. I'll work something out." I'm trying to show that my clients come first. I'm trying to show I care.
"Sorry about that. Looks like we'll have to talk it over and get back to you, okay?" says Chee Keong, extending a hand. Audrey offers only a smile.
"No problem," I say taking his hand, and we shake. "Hope to hear from you soon."
I've been in this line long enough to know the consequences of sending the wrong signal to clients. In the end the slightest mistake is enough for them to make up their minds about you causing the whole thing to fall apart. Judging by the tone of his voice, I may not get a second chance at making a good impression.
After walking them to the front porch, I go back to the apartment and shut all the doors and windows. After locking the front door, I press my head against the smooth grain of the wood, feel it solid against my skull.
When I reach home, Claire isn't in bed. The blinds are drawn and there's light against the frosted glass door of the bathroom.
"Hey," I say.
"Yes," she says in a tired voice.
"Can I come in?"
Claire doesn't answer.
"I was worried," I say, leaning my back against the door, closing my eyes and exhaling deeply. In a minute or two, I hear the flush go and the light extinguish. I go over and sit by the edge of the bed, massaging the sides of my temples.
Claire opens the door. She's wearing one of my old T-shirts, way oversized for her.
"I woke up and you weren't around. I got anxious," she says. "Sorry. Didn't mean to upset you."
Didn't mean to upset me?
Say something happened?
After the second thought enters my head, I realise her false alarm may have cost me the opportunity to close a deal. Now that lethargic feeling is gone, replaced by a thought so horrible, my teeth clench and my hands curl into fists. I want to say terrible things and walk away. I want to slam doors, break things. Except I say and do nothing. Like an idiot, I sit there and watch her crawl back into bed, her head finding a pillow.
And just as quickly, it passes. As tired as it gets putting up with all her small discomforts, I can't imagine what she is going through. And my anger trades for shame.
"Going downstairs to buy food," I say, turning to her. "Want anything?"
"No," Claire says, eyes closed. "You go and eat."
Later, I stand at the kitchen sink and eat, spitting fish bones into the metal strainer clogged with strings of noodles from days ago. In the living room the TV is going, sounds padding the silence. I think about the viewing earlier today and if there's anything I can do to fix it. But then I find myself thinking of another time when Claire and I would sit at the table and swap stories after dinner. I wonder how long this is going to be: me, alone with my thoughts, my half-empty plastic container.
I finish eating and toss the container into the plastic bag along with bits of gunk I dig from the metal strainer using my fingers. Then I go outside to the common corridor and chuck it down the rubbish chute.
Just then I hear mewling. Turning around, I spot the cat from the other day, the one nearly sent flying to its death. In the soft evening light, I get a better look at this tabby – his stripy orange coat, pinkish nose. He purrs, rubbing his head and body against my leg. I stoop on my knees to scratch his head. Again, he purrs.
I'm not a cat person, never got along with felines. As a boy I was hissed at, then scratched by one belonging to my neighbour. That was enough to seal my impression of them forever. Cats are too moody, too erratic. And you could never tell what's going on behind those shiny eyes.
But this one is different. He looks too well fed to be a stray. He reminds me of a lion cub. He moves like a ray of sunshine.
I go back inside my flat and into kitchen to find something for the cat. In the fridge, there's nothing but withered vegetables and expired bottles of sauces. A soft drink left in a pack of six. Nothing in the cabinets except packet noodles, canned soup and pots and pans all arranged neatly. When was the last time Claire cooked anything here? Or when we both went shopping for groceries? I can't remember. So I take my wallet and keys from the dining table and head downstairs to the provision shop.
The overweight woman behind the cash register points to the back of the store where two shelves are stocked with all kinds of pet food. I pick a random packet with an image of a kitten.
As I go and wait in line, standing in front of me is Doris who lives in the opposite block of flats. We've been friendly with her from the time we moved here 10 years ago. Claire used to tell me all the gossip she'd heard from her about our neighbours.
I say hello and she starts chatting. She tells me how much she misses her grandkids, especially her youngest and most playful.
"How's your wife?" Doris asks. "Haven't seen her in a while."
Her question catches me off guard. I suppose she has observed that my wife doesn't leave the house anymore. So I tell her what I told everyone. That she was busy at the office these few months, deadlines and all. Except our families and a few close friends, no one else knows the truth.
While it may appear like she cares, she could also be prying. In my weakness, I must be careful not to go into details. If I leaked something out, all the neighbours will know because Doris has a big mouth. Can't really blame her because there is so much a 65-year-old can do after her husband dies and her children visit once in a blue moon.
"Tell her not to work so hard," Doris says.
I nod my head and smile.
"Next," says the woman behind the cash register.
"You take care," Doris says, putting her things down before reaching for her purse. She peels out a 50-dollar note, hands it over to the woman who deposits the money into the cash register before returning her change. She folds the bills into her purse, picks her bag with one hand and with the other waves goodbye before slowly walking out of the shop.
Cat food in hand, I step out of the lift and walk along the corridor leading to my flat looking for the kitty. I walk up and down a few times, looking left and right but he's nowhere to be found. I try the floor downstairs and then I walk two storeys up. Nothing. Looks like he vanished. After a while, I give up and feel stupid standing around with cat food in my hand. Besides it's getting dark, the sun dipping below the line of flats as lights come on along the corridor.
I go back to my flat, jiggle the lock at the door with my keys before palming it open. Inside, I walk into the kitchen and chuck the packet into a cabinet. I crack open the can of soft drink from the fridge and flop on the sofa with the remote.
I surf channels. On the screen, a python wraps itself around a crocodile, an MMA fighter chokeholds another, Bruce Willis runs barefoot, shooting bad guys. Half-heartedly, I settle on Bruce Willis.
On the TV console there are photos of Claire and myself. Baby photos, photos when we turned 16, photos taken when we were dating. There is one particular black-and-white one with the two of us kissing in this flat when we first got our keys. When this place was just an empty shell of cement and concrete. I'd taken that photo with my old Nokia, angling it with one hand, the two of us laughing, kissing. Now it reminds me of a time before it got crazy, before everything became a test.
I nod off with that thought in mind and the next thing, I'm shaken out of sleep by my phone ringing.
I glance at the screen. It's Audrey.
"Hi," she says. "Hope it's not a bad time?"
It sounds like she's calling from a restaurant or something. I hear ambient chatter, laughter all around.
"No," I reply, stifling a yawn. "Not at all."
"It's about the place. I'd like to see it again."
"Fantastic," I say, sitting up. "When is good for you?"
"How about tomorrow?" Audrey giggles. "Around noon, perhaps?"
I was thinking of giving her a day or two before contacting her about the place. It's a good thing she's still interested because I wasn't expecting her to call so soon and so late on a Saturday night, sounding slightly tipsy.
"Sure," I say. "I'll make arrangements."
Light looms around the edges of the curtains when I awake. Claire is not in bed. Her side of the bed is cold. No sound of her stirring in the bathroom like before. For a moment, I blink my eyes before I go into a mild panic. I open the door, head for the living room.
"Claire?" I say.
The front door is open and she is squatting along the corridor, hunched over something. She's wearing a fresh T-shirt and running shorts, clothes I hadn't seen her wear in ages.
"I'm outside," she says.
"What are you doing?" I say and then realise why when I see her with the cat from yesterday. It sits upright, head erect, paws tucked underneath. Claire strokes it with the back of her hand. I huddle next to her and rest both hands on my knees.
"He came back," I say.
She looks at me, puzzled. So I tell her what happened. I'm careful to leave out the part about Doris. Claire hates it when others talk about her. It could be out of concern but my wife thinks it's hard to tell when concern turns to speculation.
"Wait," I say. "Be back in a minute."
I go back inside our flat for the packet of cat food. I tear open the packet, emptying the contents into a bowl. I bring the bowl to Claire.
"Here," I say, handing it to her. "We have to be quick."
Claire sets the bowl in front of the cat. He makes a small mewl before digging in, lapping up everything from the bowl.
I kneel next to her, put my arm around her shoulder. I feel her relax. And I feel tears coming so I clench my jaws to stop myself. This is for better for worse, in sickness and in health. This means loving someone no matter what.
"Just a little more time," Claire says, looking up as if reading my thoughts. "I need you to be patient with me."
The cat laps up the last bits of food, licks its tongue and looks up at Claire. She shrugs, lifting both hands outward as if to indicate there's nothing left. And I see her smile. With a swish of its tail, the cat turns and dashes down the corridor.
"I forgot to tell you," I say.
"Tell me what?" Claire says.
"I have to work later."
"You'll be all right by yourself?"
Claire gives a slight nod.
"Let's go back inside," I say, taking my wife's hand.
All morning I laze around the house as Claire slips back into bed. I drink coffee and surf the Internet. Around noon, I go take a shower and get dressed for my appointment with Audrey and Chee Keong.
Audrey is waiting for me at the lobby by the time I reach the condo. She is wearing a flowy white dress, hair pulled back into a ponytail. Chee Keong is by the side of the apartment block, cigarette clamped between his teeth. He doesn't acknowledge me, keeps puffing away. I shake his wife's hand.
"So sorry," she says, "for calling so late last night."
"No problem," I say.
"Is everything all right?"
"Fine," I say. "Everything's fine." Perhaps there is something in my voice indicating I don't want to go into it. So she doesn't.
"Last night I was out with my girlfriends," Audrey says, " and one of them told me her uncle and aunt used to live here."
"Yes. She said nice things about this place."
"Right," I say when Chee Keong flicks his cigarette to the ground and grinds it with the heel of his shoe. "Shall we?"
The three of us make the rounds in the apartment again. I walk them through the living room and two bedrooms, pointing to the high ceilings. I mention how roomy this feels, unlike the newer properties. When they go back to the master bedroom, the two of them spend 15 minutes in the bathroom arguing if people use long baths these days. After we step into the kitchen and into the adjoining yard where the washing machine and dryer is located, Chee Keong struggles with the retractable plastic door. He complains it's flimsy while she tries to explain that the door can be changed. Somehow all this is making her lose faith in the apartment, I can tell.
"Do you think a washer and dryer can go in here?" Chee Keong asks.
"Of course," I say, "if you stack one on top of the other."
Audrey nods, keeps her arms folded.
"Sure or not?" he asks. "Won't topple?"
She says, "It won't. You're being paranoid."
Clearly wounded, he gives her this cutting stare. The kind you give when you're being put down in front of others. I intervene before this escalates.
"Let's go downstairs," I say. "We haven't seen the tennis courts."
"Sure," Audrey says, perking up a little.
"You don't even play tennis," Chee Keong says.
"We better go," I say.
I take them to the tennis courts and we stand by the sidelines to watch a game. They nod politely and force smiles as I compare interest rates for home loans. Yet the more time I spend with them I can guess what this is about. I have seen enough of these types to know there is something else going on. There's nothing wrong with the apartment, nothing to find fault about this place. What's wrong is what each of them wants for themselves. Maybe what Audrey wants isn't just the apartment. Maybe it's what every other girl has in her circle. And maybe Chee Keong wants the way things are, and not to worry about another mortgage, not to think about money. I can picture them fighting over the smallest things.
"Well," I say after walking back to the open area by the pool, "that's about it. By the way, the Thomson-East Coast Line is under construction so this area has upscale potential."
Chee Keong says, "I'm going for a smoke. See you at the front porch?"
Audrey slings this look at him, shakes her head. Only he doesn't bother.
"Sorry about that," she says.
"It's okay," I say.
"Somehow it felt different the other day," Audrey says, looking confused.
"Let's sit down," I tell Audrey, pointing to some plastic deck chairs. I'm buying time but I've run out of ways to convince her. Her interest is gone and we both know it.
Overhead, a swirl of clouds and sunshine and midday heat. In the water, a toddler on a pink flamingo float gurgles with laughter as his father splashes him playfully.
"He's a cute boy," Audrey says.
"Yes he is," I say.
"Do you have children?" she says.
"No," I say.
What I want to say almost comes out of my mouth. I picture the words coming out easily. I want to tell her what we're going through, Claire and I. I want to tell her about the weeks after it happened. How Claire began to spend her days on the sofa with the TV going, staring into the screen with those dull eyes. Then came irregular meals, not showering and finally the bed, where she lay coiled up sleeping or pretending to sleep. I want to say all this because I feel my insides being split apart, atom by atom. Except I don't. I do what I've been doing all this time, which is to choke it down.
"What about the both of you?" I say despite knowing her situation.
"My husband doesn't like kids," she says.
"And you?" I say. "Do you?"
She doesn't say anything at first. Then she says, "I don't know. Maybe."
In the pool, the boy on the pink flamingo float paddles towards our direction. For a moment he diverts our attention by thumping his hands on the water, squealing in laughter. His father swims behind, keeping watch over him.
Audrey says, "Chee Keong and I have our problems. But we hide it with work. We bury it with distractions. This place is my distraction."
I let her talk, surprised by her honesty. A while ago, she was just another client but now, suddenly, I see her for the first time, really see her. And I see how her world is just as scary and complicated as my own. So I decide to say what's on my mind. It will cost me but if what I say make her consider what matters most?
After saying goodbye to Audrey and Chee Keong, I go and sit in my car staring at the windscreen, staring at spots of dried raindrops and dead leaves. I think about them, a young couple finding their place in this world. All I know is any marriage except your own is one thing you'll never know. The conversations, silences and moments of doubt all happen in private, out of anyone's light but our own.
"It will be okay," I say tightening my grip on the wheel. Before I can stop myself, the tears come fiercely. And I let them.
I reach my place, park the car and walk to the coffee shop to get dinner. I go to the cai png store and buy a few dishes, ask the lady for less rice because for Claire, it's hard to tell if she wants anything. The lady hands me two plastic bags and I pay her. Then I walk back to my flat and wait for the lift.
Upstairs, I hear muffled sounds of television leaking from locked doors. The afternoon heat replaced by the evening breeze. I walk along the corridor towards my flat.
Then I see him, the boy from the other day. The one who pointed his middle finger at me. He's got both hands on the ledge, standing tiptoe with one leg flattening the tail of another cat. His other leg is in midair about to bring it down to crush its head. And his face, an obscene satisfying gaze at the terrified creature. At this moment the bags slip from my fingers and my legs carry me towards him.
I catch him by his collar, pull him away and spin him around. I take him by his arms, squeezing until he flinches. Then I shake him, forcefully. If there is any order to this universe, I'm trying to find it. I'm trying to find out why people get to raise kids who end up like this while Claire and I got nothing.
For reasons I can't explain, I recall the way my father was when he wasn't drunk. Those times he took me to the playground opposite our home and put me on the merry-go-round and made it turn so fast my vision swam diagonally. And all the while he would call me affectionately, laughing. It was so long ago when I was a child and hearing him that way, I became less afraid and more hopeful about the future.
I relax my hold on the boy's arms. He sobs uncontrollably, wiping his face with his hands. He begs me not to call the police.
"Sorry," the boy says, trembling. "I'm really sorry."
"I won't call the police. But don't ever do that again," I say. "Do you understand?"
"Are you sure?"
"It's already late. You better go home."
I nod my head, signaling him to leave. And he turns and bolts away, relief unspooling behind him.
Unlocking the front door, I let myself in the flat. I drop the keys on the dining table and go to the bedroom.
Claire opens the bathroom door. Her hair is damp and she's wrapped in a towel. Her head is tilted towards her shoulder, clearing water from her ears.
"I thought I heard you," she says. "Outside a second ago. Were you talking to someone?"
"It's nothing," I say with a shrug.
"So how did it go?"
"I don't think they are going to buy the place."
"Oh. Sorry it didn't work out."
"It's okay. It wasn't right for them."
"Is there any chance they'll reconsider?"
"I don't think so."
A lock of wet hair has come loose and she brings a hand to her forehead, rearranging it.
Claire says, "Someone else might be interested. You never know."
"Maybe," I say, shrugging my shoulders. 'We'll have to wait and see."
"Have you eaten?" she asks.
"No," I say, thinking about the debris of rice and gravy outside.
"Let's go out for dinner," she says rubbing her stomach. "I'm feeling hungry."
"Sure," I reply, somewhat surprised. "What do you feel like eating?"
"I don't know," Claire says. "Let's go for a drive. We can decide later."
I pull her close, run my hand over her hair. She shivers, rests her head against my neck. At some point, we'll have to have it, the talk to see if we're willing to try again. To be sure we are prepared for everything when it didn't work out the first time. But we won't talk about that tonight.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020