Piece of Porcelain
By Timothy Ong
The porcelain plate slipped from Zhi Yu's hands and smashed against the white tiled floor. He heard the brittle sound echo in his head as he stared at the little broken shards that had spread across the ground, to the edges of the room. His lips ajar, eyes dark, empty, and strange. When he heard the boy's voice from the kitchen door, he quickly turned toward him. Though his bewildered look had twisted back into his usual stoicism, his eyes were wide like panes of glass on a window frame.
"Yang don't come in, you'll cut yourself," he said. "Go back to sleep."
"Is it okay?" The boy stood still. He looked blankly at the pieces all about the floor.
Zhi Yu crawled down the step ladder and carefully walked to the boy. "Everything's okay. It's late. Go to bed."
Though the boy did not seem to be paying attention to his father with his eyes still drawn toward the pieces on the floor, he quietly responded with a nod. Zhi Yu led him back to his room and tucked him into the bed. He sat at the corner of the boy's bed and gently patted his back as he fidgeted. The boy crumpled the blanket and bed sheets to have slight folds with shallow recesses. Zhi Yu spoke to him in a soft and tender voice for he knew that the boy responded better to softer sounds. He tried to resist saying the usual things that he would tell him, about being a good boy, about studying hard, about not caring what others thought about him for he imagined that the boy would be sick of hearing him repeat it time and time again. Instead, he told him an old story about what happened when he himself was a boy, when he was bullied in school, and the simple epiphany that he came to about his situation and what the boy could learn from it. "Though we are all people," he said. "Sometimes, we won't understand them, and they won't understand us and that's okay. We all come from different places." When the boy appeared to have fallen asleep, he shut the lights, the door and left.
He went to their bedroom. From the top drawer, he retrieved a small white package with the label, 'Quick dissolve sleep-aid, Diphenhydramine HCL,' written. He took out a strip of tablets from it and looked at the little white pieces in their clear plastic casings for a while before putting them into his pants pocket. He picked up the packaging box and re-read the instructions again before returning them into the drawer. He looked at the clock once more. It was another late night.
He shut the lights and walked out of the room navigating through the pitch darkness. He slumped onto the sofa. His eyes drifted upward to the ceiling where he could faintly see the slight gleam of the ceiling fan blade as it spun and spun continuously with a monotonous drone.
For the past month, she would return home late or leave the house promptly after receiving a message on her phone. She would text him half-hearted, jovial apologies that she would not be coming home for dinner or throw him some kind of look of reluctance after receiving the text, telling him that she had to leave for some work-related issue or outing along with a plea to take care of the boy. But as the days continued, he could no longer mistake the slight smile she had as she prepared to leave. He could not unsee the clothes she chose to wear. He would not stop thinking about her eyes that were glimmering and wide and happy. His eyes grew weary and he could barely keep them open. He watched the twirl of the ceiling fan.
Zhi Yu woke up when he heard a creak at the front door. He rubbed his eyes and rose from the sofa and watched her silhouetted figure arise in front of the bright hallway out the door and disappear back into the darkness when the door creaked and shut. When he moved off the sofa, the cushions rustled lightly, and she stopped in her unsteady stride and suddenly turned toward him. She leaned closer for a better look and when she saw that it was him, she heaved a sigh before continuing on to put away the house keys.
"You scared me, Zhi Yu."
"Sorry," he said.
She did not reply.
"I was uh... worried, Anne."
There was a brief pause before she turned to him. He could not clearly make out the expression on her face in the dark. "I thought I'd said before to stop waiting for me. I'm fine." Her voice was soft, her words pronounced precisely. "Is Yang asleep? He has school tomorrow."
"That's good," she said. "Sorry for all the trouble."
"Can't be helped right?" His voice was slightly raised. She looked at him for a moment but turned away and continued walking toward the kitchen. He followed behind her. With his eyes on her back, he watched the frail sway of her white blouse as she moved. He saw her creased collar, and as he went closer, he caught a whiff of alcohol from her neck.
"Did you drink?"
"Just a little," she said quietly. "We had some in the office and boss insisted."
The kitchen lights flickered about after she triggered the switch. She saw the mess on the white tiled floor and the rusty step ladder that sat flushed to the kitchen counter and could not help but heave a sigh. "I'm already so tired," she said. Standing beside her, Zhi Yu saw the broken pieces of porcelain. The shrill sound of the porcelain plate when it smashed against the ground echoed in his head once again. "I, uh, accidentally... I forgot to clean it up."
"Where's the broom?"
"I'll get it." He carefully watched the shards scattered about the floor as he went across to the end of the kitchen to take the broom and pan hidden in the tiny slit between the wall and the refrigerator. When he returned, he saw her kneeling. The edge of her pencil skirt rubbed against the ground as she reached for the broken pieces. Sweat dripped off her powdered cheeks, and thin strands of her hair, loose, dried and frayed, dangled off her fringe. She let the pieces she picked up sit on her bare palm.
"Stop it, you'll cut yourself."
"Trust me, I won't. Bring the pan over."
Zhi Yu went to her, and she put the pieces into the pan.
"Which one did you break?"
"The big one."
She sighed. "We got that one from my parents, right?"
"I think so," he said.
"That one's quite old. It'll be hard to find another like it."
He swept up the pieces while she held the dustpan and followed wherever he went. He moved the broom carelessly, making slight glances at her as she looked toward the ground to trace the movement of the broom. When she looked up, their eyes briefly met and after a moment's pause, she gave a slight smile. He could not help but return it.
"It's like we just moved in." She chuckled. "Do you still remember?"
"Years ago... We weren't as busy then for sure."
"That was long before we had Yang."
"Yeah," he said.
"You were so cute back then, you know? Yang really resembles you."
"Don't you remember what you were like in uni?"
He chuckled. "I would prefer to forget. I did some embarrassing things."
"I still remember it though. You were very innocent."
She gave a brief chuckle. "Oh, well... I don't know what I'm saying." He watched as her eyes dimmed and her smile went faint. "Maybe it's something to do with how content you were about being alone. You didn't care what anyone thought about you. You didn't know anything about other people. You didn't care about loneliness. Or maybe it seemed like you didn't care. It was like you didn't understand people."
"You're overthinking things," he said.
"I thought you were so helpless. I wanted to help you change."
"Is that why you bothered me so much back then?'
"I liked to help people."
"You did help me a lot," he said.
"My number one victim." She laughed. "Still remember how we first met?"
"No, not really."
"You were at the table eating alone and I came to you to introduce my friends. I think you were eating… was it chicken rice?"
"You still remember what I was eating?"
"Only vaguely, I think. Do you?"
"Not at all."
"Well, I guess it wasn't so important to you then. For me, there was something memorable about it. I... I thought you seemed so lonely eating alone. But when you looked up, you had such an innocent look about you. Like you didn't care about loneliness at all. You were content. You could not understand why I was approaching you, why I wanted to befriend you, why I even wanted to help."
"Honestly, I barely remember," he said as he eyed the tiny bristles of the broom as it brushed over the floor.
She laughed. "You're so cold. Didn't you tell me that it was the best time of your life?"
"Did I?" His voice was soft and gentle. "But maybe you could say that."
She had her eyes on the little porcelain pieces in the dustpan. "He's more innocent than children his age. He just can't understand people." Her voice was low and quiet.
"Yes," she said.
"We need to teach him. I can't do it alone. I'm not good with children and he's..."
"I know." She interrupted. Her eyelids were loose and relaxed, her lips had a slight curl to it. There was a resignation in her easiness.
"I'm just tired, you know?"
"Sure," she said. "But it's more than just that. There are some days where I want to lounge around. Where I want to have everything taken care of for me, and everything thought of for me. Some days, I just don't want to do anything."
For a while, nothing was said. After the silence had lingered longer than a comfortable pause between words, he could not help but say the first thing that came into his mind. "I thought you said you liked helping people. Isn't that why you stuck so closely to me then?"
She had a slight grin on. "I'm an old lady now, don't you know?" Her eyes trailed off to the ground and her voice grew soft. "But really, sometimes I wonder just how much I've changed."
He put a tablet into a mug of water and watched as the little white bits slowly dissolved into tiny bubbles. When he saw that the clear water had turned slightly pale and chalky, he twirled it vigorously with a teaspoon and put some ice cubes into it, attempting to mask the slight colour. Then, he picked it up and went to the bedroom where she had been at her desk scribbling notes on some scrap paper for the past half hour. He put the mug of water on the table beside the laptop which cast a harsh glow on her face within the dimness of the room. After writing her sentence, she turned to him with a slight and weary smile.
"I thought work was all done," he said.
"There's always more work," she replied. "It's never ending."
"What's this?" She picked up the mug.
"With ice," she said with a smile. "Why the premium service?"
"Thought you would like it," he said.
"Very thoughtful of you. The weather is too hot nowadays, even when it's so late."
He nodded quietly and watched as she took a sip.
"How was sleeping on the sofa? Was it more comfortable than the bed?"
"Nope, my back's still aching."
She smiled. "I appreciate you staying up for me then. Maybe I can recommend a good chiropractor?"
"I'll be fine."
"How about a new sofa? Might be easier on your back."
He forced a smile. "Why not."
She could not stop yawning after fifteen minutes. Barely able to keep her eyes open, she closed her laptop and stumbled toward the bed murmuring something about being unusually tired. Zhi Yu helped her onto the bed. His hands trembled as he held her. He wanted to say something, he wanted to reassure her, but when he tried to express it, he could not think of any words. As she adjusted herself to lie comfortably on the bed, the rustling of the bedsheets filled the silence.
He reached out his hand to her cheek, and his fingers shivered slightly as they hovered above her skin and then gently grazed against them. After a while, he tapped her lightly on the shoulder and when he saw that she did not wake, he did it again with slightly more force. She was fast asleep. He walked over to her purse hanging on the lower hook of the coat hanger stand and he dug into it for her phone. Then, he went back to her as she lay on the bed asleep and gently took her hand and pressed her finger against the screen. He sat on the floor and looked through the contents with wide, unblinking eyes. He looked through her photos and videos and read her messages.
There were photographs of hotels, presents, and wine. Words of affection between them. Videos and recordings of intimacy. There were some moments of fear as well. He was married too. She had told him how tired she was, and he gave her affection in return. In their conversations, the boy and him were not explicitly mentioned, but in her brief and vague words, they lingered as problems. He eyed the scratches and the slight discoloration on the parquet floor. It had been years since they moved into and renovated their home. The scratches were from that time he dragged her desk to the corner of the room against the wall to make way for his own worktable and chair. The discoloration came about years back when she broke a bottle of wine after attempting to open the bottle with a kitchen knife.
When was it that she showed so much of herself to someone else? What was it about him that made her decide to love him? Why did she go to an outsider?
He put it all away and stood. He walked out of the room with his legs shaking. He could not walk straight so he clung to the walls when he could. He sat on the sofa in the living room and watched with his weary and tired eyes the shadows as they moved with the slight shift of the light from outside the window. And then he put his palms to his face to hide. Through the gaps between his fingers, he peeked through them like they were light from between the wall cracks of a dark and desolate cave.
He left the door ajar when he let himself into the boy's room. Spilled from the outside, a faded streak of light marked the floor. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, but even then, he could barely make out the boy's face. His hand trembled slightly as he reached out, his eyes lingered at his pale, thin neck. He laid his hands on his throat. He could feel the minute movement of his flesh and muscles as he breathed. His lips were wide apart and so were his eyes. His hand could not stop shaking and his fingers convulsed and flexed as they felt the slight chill of his skin.
He did not know when he had retrieved his hand but when he looked at them, his fingers were stiff like they had been submerged in snow. His lips had loosened to a thin ajar line and his sight had a slight blur to it, his eyelids kept dipping and he had an urge to rub them blind. He touched the boy's head and felt the soft ends of his dark hair when he combed through the strands. He felt the shape of his skull and the soft frailty of his skin.
After he had gagged into the sink, he found himself staring into the mirror. His cheeks were wet, his lips were pale, dry, and parted. He washed his hands and then wiped his cheeks and lips. There was something still burning in his throat and so he coughed into the sink, but nothing but phlegm came out. He looked into the mirror again and what he saw were the bits of himself that looked like the boy. The thinness of his lips, the cut of his eyes, the curve of his cheeks, his dark thin hair.
He climbed onto the bed and lay curled like an infant beside her. With his face pressed against the strands and folds of her hair, he took in the fading smell of her shampoo, the heavy scent of alcohol, and her familiar perfume that she liked to put on during special occasions. He put his lips against her neck. Felt the softness of her white cotton blouse. Felt the slight coarseness of the back of her hand. He held her hand softly at first, but his grip began to tighten and tighten. It was as if he were clinging for his dear life.
It was a warm morning. Someone had put the comforter over him and so his shirt had been drenched in sweat. As he lay stiffly on the bed with the right side of his face pressed against the pillow, he could hear light footsteps from outside the room. His body felt heavy. He could not find the strength to raise himself off the bed. Still, he dragged his feet off to the ledge and when he planted them to the ground, he managed to stumble upright. When he exited the room, he saw her seated at the dining table nursing a cup of coffee. The boy was beside her with a porcelain spoon in his mouth and a little bowl of soft-boiled eggs with soya sauce on the table. His little legs dangled about the chair.
The pendant ceiling lamp of an old bulb encased in a pale blue cup shook and creaked lightly as a slight breeze came through the window. The dim sphere of light from the oscillating lamp above shivered and revolved timidly on the dining table's glass surface. Her back was slouched as she leaned her elbows against the table. She daintily held onto her cup by the thin handle as she repeatedly twirled the teaspoon, gently, softly, to stir her morsel of plain coffee, seemingly without any other reason other than to move her hands. She wiped the bit of moisture off the edge of the boy's lip with her finger and then cleaned her hands with the tablecloth. The boy barely responded.
"Sleep well?" She saw him walking out.
"I'm alright," he said.
"Want some breakfast?"
He dragged himself to the table. While she prepared a bowl of soft-boiled eggs, he looked out the window at the sky and clouds that though were lightened grey, still held that cold and still blue. The boy was quiet as usual. There was barely any egg left in his bowl, but he kept scooping against the white porcelain curves.
"What's the first lesson?" he said instinctively.
"English." The boy held the spoon in a fist. "We got test."
"Did you study?"
"That's good," he said quietly. The muscles about his throat felt tight. They were tense and clenched up, seemingly pushing against the walls of his larynx like there were hands pressed against it. Speaking had suddenly become difficult, but he muttered his usual words to the boy anyway. "Be a good boy, study hard. Don't worry about what others think."
She placed a bowl of soft-boiled eggs on the table and sprinkled some pepper and drizzled a healthy flow of soya sauce into it.
"Thanks," he said.
She sat beside him. "Did you sleep late?"
"I guess." He tried to not make any eye contact. "Why?"
"I woke up earlier than you today, so I thought you had worked late or something."
"Not really," he replied.
He ate. He did not notice but his hand, as it held onto the porcelain spoon, was shivering slightly. He took a moment to gather his thoughts before deciding to ask her. "Did you sleep okay?"
She had a slight smile on her face. "I slept really well." Resting her cheek on her palm, arm propped upright, elbow pressed against the table, she had her head to the side, toward the framed portraits on the wall. Her gaze was fixated on the photographs. At the faces, at the glimmering eyes and wide smiles posed for the camera. "It's been hard to sleep lately, but I slept really well, you know?"
When she had finished her cup of coffee, he picked up her cup and went to the kitchen basin to rinse and clean it. Water ran from the tap, and he scrubbed the inner curves of the cup with his bare hands.
He said, "From now on, I'll take Yang to school."
"You sure? It's on the way for me."
"You're busy," he said. "Let me do it. Besides, orders have been slow for me lately so... I'm quite free."
"Zhi Yu, if it isn't working out, I could help you get a proper job. I have a friend who works for a bank, and they are looking-"
"It's alright," he said. "I'll just take him to school."
He packed the boy's bag for him. Made sure that his pencil case and textbooks were in his bag. He did not particularly care whether the boy understood that he had to bring them, he just wanted to do his job. When the boy stepped out of the house, he could not help but watch him with some disdain. He could not muster any more strength to speak, he could not think of anything else to say to him. So, without a word said, he stood and watched the boy as he sat on the ledge to put on his shoes in the familiar way that they had taught him how to.
"Zhi Yu, are you alright?"
Her words caught him off guard, but he kept a smile on when he turned to her.
"You're unusually quiet," she said.
"I'm still tired. Maybe I'll buy some coffee later on the way home."
"Take care of yourself." She closed the gate. It creaked as it moved and clicked when the door latch met the frame.
"Will you come back tonight?"
"Should be," she said. "If I don't have to do overtime."
"I'll wait for you."
She chuckled. "Don't be stupid. If I'm late, eat first."
They took a bus to the school. There was an empty seat, so he let the boy take it while he stood near him trying to balance himself with the grab handle as the bus trembled and jerked sporadically. He passed the boy his bag at the school gate and told him, "Be a good boy, study hard. Don't worry about what others think." After the boy had nodded, he walked through the gate.
When Zhi Yu came back, the house was empty. He sat on the sofa and laid his head against the rest and closed his eyes so that he would not be able to see a thing. He sat there for a while. Though it was quiet, he was unable to fall asleep. Still, he was content with laying there with his eyes shut. When noise from a car alarm began blaring unceasingly from the kitchen side, he became unable to continue his rest. He opened his eyes and staggered off the sofa and dragged his feet as he walked across the kitchen floor toward the source of the sound. He looked through the window and watched as a middle-aged man quickly ran toward his car as it made the noise and blinked red repeatedly. There were threads of orange among the brightened spots of the sky and the sun was still partially hidden behind the clouds. Soon, the sound stopped.
As Zhi Yu turned away from the window, he felt a sharp, piercing pain in his left foot. He gave in and cried as his leg muscles convulsed and twisted. He clashed against the floor and his forearms shook and rang having braced the impact. He struggled to crawl up. Flailed his limbs about the white tiled floor, sliding and pushing against the hard slippery surface to get himself back upright. Left were smudges of crimson spread thin. He limped as he walked, and a trail of blood followed behind.
Water ran from the tap, down the drainage and down the pipes it echoed. He found himself staring into the mirror, leaning against the curved corners of the white porcelain sink. He washed his face and then wet a ball of toilet paper he had pulled from a roll with the intent to use it to clean the wound. He sat on the toilet seat cover and pushed his back to rest against the tank and there, he sat with his left leg stuck outward, the heel of his bloody foot precariously placed on the floor to balance and lift his pained sole upright and exposed to the air. In his hand the wet ball dripped from the gaps between his fingers.
It must have been a piece of porcelain. Missed out a shard when cleaning the mess yesterday, he thought.
When he bent slightly to try to look at the wound, the intense scent of blood, of what seemed to be the pungent smell of sewage water, put him off, and when he readjusted the way he planted his foot, the wound ached like the air had turned hard and his resting flesh had suddenly spread and shifted. And so, he left it as it were.
His breaths grew steadier the longer he sat in that manner. He no longer felt any pain, merely the sensation of discomfort, the feeling of something unnaturally lodged into his flesh, into something which he used to push against the ground and let himself stand. No longer could he rely upon it to hold himself upright again, but at the very least it was bearable. He shut his eyes for a moment and when he opened them again, the ball of toilet paper had dried and there did not seem to be any blood dripping from his foot. So finally, he shifted slightly and twisted his head to take a closer look. He paid no mind to the horrid scent which he was now used to. He felt no pain, only unease as he moved. There was a gash in the wrinkles and creases of his sole. It was like a crack on an aged pavement. There was dried blood about it, the pale and pink of his sole had turned into a deep red. No matter how much he looked, he could not see any piece of porcelain lodged inside.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022