"But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
By Clara Mok
Cool seawater sprayed onto his 60-year-old's copper face and dotted his spectacles, his sparse mop of hair trailing in the wind. A smile played on Ah Fook's lips as his motorised fishing boat cut into the waves at full speed, the front of its hull pointing upwards, heading towards his kelong off Pasir Ris beach.
His oasis in the sea loomed before him. The motor's whirring quietened to a series of soft sputters. With the grace of a bird landing on its nest, the boat glided into his home on stilts.
I am home, his heart told him. No jostling for peak hour traffic; no rushing to cross the electronic gantry before it takes effect. Waves crashing against his kelong beat up an adagio, a slow song of life he savoured, a reduced pace of life he treasured. The tempo of Ah Fook's life took on a regular beat of waves rippling, breeze swirling, heart beating, and fish splashing.
After securing his boat, Ah Fook heaved two giant sacks of fish pellets onto his kelong with a grimace, leaving five behind for fear of worsening his back pain. His feet adroitly avoided a plank loosened through exposure to the elements.
While Ah Fook hammered the errant plank in place with nails, he was reminded of the early days of setting up his kelong. Armed with an approval letter from the government, he secured wooden stilts into the sea, anchoring his kelong. Next, he welded long wooden planks together, running parallel across the living area. Then, he extended the floor area to house a discarded two-seater sofa and television he salvaged from his former block's void deck. With a sheltered flush toilet and a decent-sized bath, the kelong had all the modern conveniences he could ask for. For once, he did not curse his construction background.
In his Tampines flat, his careless elbow used to send his fishing nets crashing to the ground when he entered the storeroom. On the kelong, he could afford to lie out his fishing nets and equipment horizontally across the living area and still had ample space for walking, or even doing a jig.
Next to the living area, he built eight rectangular tanks in the sea to house his fish, each separated by nets. Planked paths lined sides of the tanks. Overhead, a structure of nets and canvases sheltered his prized catch against the monsoon.
The slanted glint of the sun cast long shadows over the kelong. Ah Fook slit open one sack of fish pellet and emptied the contents into a pail. Balancing the pail in the cradle of his elbow, he navigated the narrow rickety planks and scattered pellets into the tanks teeming with red snappers. The pellets plopped into the tanks like huge raindrops. He surveyed his fish with a deep gratifying sigh as they snapped up the pellets with delight, drawing up pearls of water in the air.
He pulled out an old photograph from his wallet. "Ah Hua…" His calloused fingers ran over Ah Hua, clad in a floral dress, glowing with motherly pride at their children aged four, eight and 12.
Ah Fook grimaced as he recalled the past 35 years of his marriage. To Ah Fook, his marriage was a commitment cast in stone, a belief ingrained in him since young. Although love, for most part, had waned, he was prepared to sacrifice for his wife and the family. His life with Ah Hua used to have a cadence that ebbed and flowed like the moon and the tide. The calm belied a storm that ripped the family apart.
When he gave up his scaffolding job to stay on the kelong, Ah Hua was livid.
"Stubborn old man. I'm done with you! Why did you choose to live here? So ulu! A place where birds don't lay eggs!"
"See, the air is so fresh!" Ah Fook said.
The thread binding their marriage had chafed and thinned through endless heated quarrels. Ah Fook scrambled to hold on to both ends of the thread and tied them into a dead knot by sharing child-rearing duties with Ah Hua. However, the strand around the dead knot gave way when their youngest got married and moved out. Ah Hua was finally freed from the tethers of Ah Fook's dreams.
"What is it?"
"I have cancer."
Ah Fook's hands carved through his hair, holding them back, then releasing them. "Are…are you going to… die?"
"Choy! Don't you dare curse me! I am sick. Who knows, I may live longer than you!"
For the next few days, Ah Hua avoided Ah Fook by confining herself in their Tampines flat except for doctor appointments. To Ah Fook, she kept tight-lipped about her diagnosis.
Ah Hua's illness struck the core of Ah Fook's being. In a panic, Ah Fook rang up his children one by one. "Do you know your mum has cancer?" One flew back from the States.
"Old man! What do you think you're doing, making them worried like that? I wanted to get a second opinion and keep it a secret from them!" scolded Ah Hua. Ah Fook gripped onto his fishing net till his knuckles turned white.
"What did the second doctor say?"
"He confirms the diagnosis. Stage two of lymphoma cancer. I need chemo."
"Come back to the kelong. The fresh air will do you good and I'll take good care of you," Ah Fook beseeched. At first, Ah Hua refused. Upon probing, she revealed that she was wary of his offer lest it gave him any hope of reconciliation.
"You can pretend I'm invisible. Just focus on resting after your treatment," assured Ah Fook. Even then, Ah Hua tapped her feet on the planks when she mended the nets, then threw them aside, or lay comatose on her bed, only to wake up during mealtimes. Every day, Ah Fook made sure she consumed the freshest catch. He also plucked luxuriant leaves from kangkong plants he grew and threw into the wok for Ah Hua's dinner. An uneasy quiet settled between them. Ah Fook kept his side of the bargain and did not intrude upon her. After dinner, each retreated to their own rooms.
It broke his heart when Ah Hua said, "I'm leaving, Ah Fook. I feel like a prisoner."
"I'll send you to shore every day."
"So much trouble for you."
"No trouble. With you gone, I'll feel lonely here."
"You won't. Your work keeps you busy here."
"But… your cancer… Let me take care of you."
"No need. I can take care of myself."
Ah Hua's lips were tightly pursed, her eyes set in the direction of shore. Menacing clouds started moving in, hovering above them.
"Looks like a storm is coming. Wait a while."
"I want to go now."
A blinding flash of lightning cut across the sky. Powerful gusts of wind whipped blankets of seawater onto Ah Fook's lean body as he cranked his motorboat. The sorrow of goodbye stuck in his throat and he gulped. Stopping his motorboat along the shore, he clung onto Ah Hua's luggage in a daze.
"Hey, old man, pass that to me!" Ah Hua shouted above the roar of the engine and the clash of the thunder overhead. Ah Fook was jerked to the immediacy of Ah Hua's departure and handed over her luggage. He watched rain drops splotching the back of her flowery blouse. The splotches merged into an entire smudge. Before long, the trees on the shore swallowed her up.
Back at his kelong, Ah Fook plonked down on the sofa, a beer bottle in his hand. His kelong might appear fragile like a newborn's neck. After the raging storm had subsided, some nets required mending, having been tossed and twirled in the tumultuous sea. Otherwise, the structure of the kelong stood firm, unscathed by the ravages of the sea.
"Ah!" His heart lifted to see his fish growing millimetre by millimetre. "I'll sell them next week!"
Ah Fook relied on this prized catch of red snappers to pay for Ah Hua's medical bills. He wiped away sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand before scooping more pellets into his pail. Planks creaked under his weight as he made his rounds. His fish swam beneath his feet, their crimson bodies glimmering with anticipation. These red snappers were only two inches when he bought them from the supplier. Over one year, the fish grew up to 12 inches and weighed one kilogramme each. Watching his fish grow bit by bit gave him an innate satisfaction that his scaffolding job could not.
After putting down his pail, Ah Fook peered at his own reflection in the sea. He swept a few strands of hair to the left, then right, seeking the best angle to cover his balding crown. Then he raised his chin a little and his reflection folded away.
While he mended the nets, he could not shake off the image of Ah Hua's face buried in the sink, expelling the contents of her stomach after her chemotherapy treatment.
"Go away!" Ah Hua had said, holding a clump of her black hair in her fist.
"Go live on your kelong!"
"Come on, let me look after you. You're getting weaker."
Once, her weak limbs gave way and Ah Fook lurched forward to support her. But a grim determination was etched on her countenance and he was forced to let go of her. Ah Fook knew better than to cross her.
That night, he called his youngest to take care of Ah Hua. Then he made his way to the kelong, Ah Hua's cancer tormented his mind. Somehow, the waves in the sea were rougher than usual and the fish swam in a haphazard manner. He hoisted out five dead fish. Yet the breeze caressed his sun-kissed face, smoothening his worries from his crinkled brows. His eyelids twitched as he settled into a fitful sleep on an armchair.
In the still of the night, he was cruising the dark sea when deafening thunder roar overhead sent him cowering in his fishing boat. A mammoth figure emerged from the sea, casting a menacing, reddish glow on the horizon. Towering above Ah Fook was the harbinger of doom, a demonic Sea God of a colossal proportions. Thick-matted hair fanned out of his face, resembling the Chinese legendary ghost-catcher, Zhong Kui. Bearing judgement on man's trespasses, his blazing red eyes bore into the hearts of mortal men, commanding his swarm of slimy maggots to invade Ah Fook's body. Ah Fook winced and writhed on his boat as droves of maggots plunged their antennae into every inch of his skin and devoured his flesh, leaving a trail of blood and torn tissues.
Letting out a maniacal laughter, the terrifying Sea God unleashed its tempest upon the sea. A chain of cataclysmic waves ascended to the height of a 10-storey building before crashing with impact upon Ah Fook's tiny fishing boat, tossing his maggot-infested body overboard.
As he wrestled free of his nightmare, his eyes flew open. Cold sweat broke on his brows and his pulse quickened. The dank stench of death punctuated the air. The regular rhythm beating in tandem with his heart and his fish was missing.
The sea was eerily quiet: no flapping of fins, no swiping of tails.
With a sense of foreboding, he rose from his chair. A ghastly sight greeted him. Thousands of fish lay belly-up, floating on the sea, their lives siphoned out of them. Desperate, he scurried from one tank to the other, using nets to hoist out the fish, praying for one flap of a fish's tail, one wave of the fin.
Frantically, he sprayed the water jet on the surface of the water, introducing oxygen to the air-starved fish.
No flap of a fish's tail, no wave of the fin.
Fully clothed, he plunged into his tank. At close range, his fish took on a nightmarish quality. Gleams from their eyes faded into dull whirlpools of nothingness, their fins tinged with blood, flapped out in sombre farewell. He dived deeper, only to have his hope flushed down the depths of the ocean. He tore himself from the underwater hell and gulped for air, bobbing in a sea of carnage.
"Arrrrrrggh!" a deep guttural growl escaped his throat.
The cry of anguish echoed through the sea, like a father mourning the loss of his children. Drained, he heaved his wet body up onto the planks, his mind in a whirl.
"Give me back my fish!" he hollered, but his cries bounced off the surface of the waves and vanished beyond the infinite sea.
On that cold windy first night, with nothing to look forward to anymore, arthritis attacked his limbs without mercy and his back pain whipped him with a vengeance where once hope muted his pain. He hung up his yellow boots and sighed, "I won't need these for a while."
Those first few days after his fish died were a blur. He recalled scooping up their lifeless bodies one by one into bags and ferrying them by boat to be disposed into giant containers provided by the Fisheries Department near Changi Point Ferry Terminal. He had no recollection of how many trips he made. Ah Fook was told that his ill-fated fish were wiped out by Red Tide – plankton bloom draining the seawater of oxygen and choking the fish. Numbed by the pain, Ah Fook moved into the flat with Ah Hua. He limited his visits to the kelong to weekends when his children took over the caregiving duties. On weekdays, he took on short-term scaffolding projects to pay for her medical bills. He missed the caress of the breeze on his skin and the spray of salt on his face.
At night, he administered Ah Hua's medicine and cooked her nutritious meals. Some days, Ah Fook would massage Ah Hua's limbs to help her relax after her chemo sessions.
"Why are you doing this, Ah Fook?"
"I'm here to take care of you."
"What happened at the kelong?"
"I spent enough time on the kelong. Now I need to be with you."
"But you look miserable here."
"Yah, I need my cigarettes."
"You don't need to lie to me. I read in the papers about the dead fish."
Before he knew it, two years had flown by. Ah Fook did his best to cheer Ah Hua up while he was by her side. Gradually, she regained her strength. One day, Ah Hua came back with news that her cancer went into remission.
"Thank the Heavens and the Earth!" Ah Fook rejoiced. "God has given you a new lease of life! I must give offerings to Tua Pek Gong."
But Ah Hua's face folded into her don't-mess-with-me expression, causing Ah Fook to shudder. "Ah Fook, I'm leaving you."
"Why? We've been through so much."
"I'm doing this for your own good, Ah Fook. I know you. You need the sea as much as the sea needs you. Go back to the kelong. I'll always remember how good you are to me."
Ah Fook scrambled to boil liver porridge for Ah Hua but she pushed the bowl away. "You have to realise something, Ah Fook. I just want you to be happy."
Heartbroken, Ah Fook sought solace in his kelong. He kept replaying Ah Hua's words in his mind. "I know her kind intention, but…" Opening up a creaky drawer, he groped around for a while before he touched a packet of Marlboro. With shaky hands, he opened it, pulled out a cigarette and attempted to light it up with a match. The flame went out. Hands shaky, he lit up another and it, too, died off, mocking him. On the third try, the match finally burst in a spark of bright orange luminance and he took a deep draw.
Ah Fook plonked himself down on the wooden boards of the kelong. He would stare at the sea for hours, inviting its gentle lapping to lick his wounds. He whistled a lone tune, yet the ruthless wind carried it far away. He fiddled with a transistor radio bought at the Thieves Market at Sungei Road, but it cracked and crinkled like a grouchy old man. Resting on the deck chair, the sea breeze lulled him to sleep. In the background, the television blared in a flurry of distorted images and static. Nothing had felt right since he parted with Ah Hua.
To numb his loneliness, he drank and feasted with his kakis at Changi Village every evening, waking up at noon the next day with a throbbing headache. In the past, he was up before dawn, watering his plants with rainwater collected in blue plastic barrels and patching up broken nets with Ah Hua by his side. Where he used to have back muscle strain, he would squat down for half an hour to hammer charcoal into fragments for his mini vegetable garden and hear Ah Hua's voice telling him to rest.
Ah Fook's feet trod the same path as he had done in the past. The putrid smell of rotten flesh clung onto his body, refusing to let go. Drained, he plonked down on the walkway and squinted against the glare of the merciless sun. He sighed, lamenting how nature had made such wonderful creations, only to wrest them away.
"Why did I keep so many then?" he chided himself. "All gone!" The loss triggered a sharp prick to his heart, the spot which ached after his wife left him.
Before he recovered from his loss, another tragedy hit him in the gut. A hospital nurse informed him of Ah Hua's passing. "I thought she recovered from her cancer? You're lying!"
"For the past few months, Ong Ah Hua, has been coming regularly for chemo. Unfortunately, her cancer cells attacked her lungs and breathing…"
"Ah Hua lied to me? It's impossible!" he kept mumbling to himself. The sting of Ah Hua's deception and anger at his own gullibility punctured him. When Ah Fook joined Ah Hua's cortege, his eyes blurred from the sorrow of losing his beloved. He walked aimlessly like a corpse without a soul.
After Ah Hua was cremated, he drove his motorboat to sea and let the waves take over the rocking of the boat, a lone cigarette perched on his mouth. His cap askew, he hauled nets into the sea in a bid for crab trapping and stingray baiting for that night's dinner, but ended up empty-handed.
As he peered into the sea, Ah Hua's image appeared before him, her voice soothing to his ears. "You need the sea as much as the sea needs you." Her image, uncharacteristically benign, dwelled for a while on the surface of the cobalt sea. He sat up ramrod straight, wanting to capture of the image of her in his mind, even if it was only for a millisecond, to revel in the warmth of her presence. But her image folded away, leaving him with his own lonely existence.
Ah Fook straightened his cap and cast away his cigarette.
"I'll battle this out!" he said, clenching his fists. With Ah Hua's words spurring him on, he summoned his courage from the depths of his being and cast his net out once more, seeking investors to finance a fresh batch of red snappers. With the grace of Gods, close acquaintances from scaffolding projects pooled a sum of money for his venture. Perhaps they supported him for old times' sake. Perhaps they saw the glow of determination in his eyes.
Ah Fook started fish-rearing with fervour, gaining his second wind. Before dawn, he was up and about, clearing his tanks of debris, buying small fish and transporting them from Malaysia to his kelong. The sorrow of losing Ah Hua weighed his pail down as he tossed out the pellets into the tanks. He trudged on, bent on nurturing a new batch of red snappers to full term.
The tempo of Ah Fook's life took on a regular beat of waves rippling, breeze swirling, heart beating, and fish splashing once more.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022