"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea" – Isak Dinesen
By Clara Goh
June's restaurant was flooded again. It flooded every evening, and every evening she would repeat the ritual of pushing water out of the restaurant using her broken mop. The water flowed to the edge of the floor and cascaded down into the sea below. June's restaurant was a humble beach hut situated on a planked surface that stood a little off the coast of Changi Beach. Ownership of the hut had been passed down from one generation to the next, and June was the current manager. It was a rickety old hut with a greasy smell that seemed to cling to the walls. The rotting wood floors sank when a particularly large customer came in. Over the years, it had started to sink lower into the sand bed, and now the floor was a mere few inches away from being submerged.
Today was different. At high tide, waves had come gushing under the railing of the hut as they always did. But in her twelve years working by the sea, June had never seen them behave like this. The waves seemed to come alive, as if consumed by an angry spirit, roaring and crashing into the hut with enormous gusto, sending sprays of salt water in every direction, nearly blinding her as she frantically lowered the ziplines and raced around slamming doors and windows shut. The sound almost deafened her as the merciless waves slammed over and over against her eroding hut, as if mocking her meaningless attempts to block all entrances. Crash and recede. Crash and recede…
As a child, June would watch her mother cook. She was never allowed near the stove, but it didn't mean she couldn't learn. Like a kitten watching her mother how to hunt, June would observe how her mother skilfully sliced vegetables and deftly peeled onions until she learnt how to do it on her own. Shortly before her mother's death, she left the restaurant to June. The first few years running the place had been decent work. The hut received a steady flow of evening beach goers, and June felt connected to the place where she spent her childhood. It was also a way for her to uphold the memory of her mother. Sometimes, when she was closing the restaurant, she would pause and close her eyes, and it would almost be as if she could feel her mother beside her. But June was now thirty. She was losing her culinary passion and she yearned for an air-conditioned office job, like one of those in the big banks that her friends loved to boast about when they met for coffee.
…With one last strike, the sea rose high above June's restaurant and curved at the top like a monster's claw as it came descending, pounding into the right piling of the hut. She would probably read about this in the newspaper tomorrow. White foam and clumps of seaweed swirled in the now flooded floor. Confused fish crashed into the hut with the tide, flopping around desperately before getting drawn back in by the waves. Wood splintered with a sickening crack as the piling severed, and the roof groaned as it plummeted down. The impact made the hut cave in at one end, and June nearly had a cardiac arrest as the ancient establishment started to fall to pieces and drift into the sea. Her livelihood was coming apart in front of her eyes. She let out a dismal cry and fell to the ground as the ruins floated further and further away, until she could no longer look, for she herself was falling. The floor had cracked under the impact of a piece of roof collapsing into it, and June was no longer standing on land but choking on salt water as her head fell below the surface of the water. June's arms flailed and her legs thrashed. Salt water filled her nose and lungs as she sputtered violently. Every time she broke the surface, she was slammed in the face by another wave. All her senses were dialled to 11. Her family's legacy was breaking to pieces around her, but if she didn't get herself to dry land, there would be no one left to mourn it.
June had never swum in her life, but she managed to make it to the shore of Changi Beach. The sand was dotted with broken seashells, fading footprints, indignant crabs, and the occasional half-built sandcastle. There she sat, drenched and numb from shock, knuckles white as she clutched her knees and stared blankly at the horizon. Her black hair hung in clumpy tendrils, and her uniform, a painstakingly pressed white blouse and brown skirt, now clung to her. She shivered as a chilly ocean breeze drifted by. The sun was setting over Singapore. The storm that had ripped her place to shreds showed no sign of calming, and big, mocking waves remained. They rolled towards land, right up to where June sat, only to crash in a salty spray right in front of her. The evening rays reflected off the surface of the sea, giving it a shimmery blue hue and sending triumphant rays of light in every direction. The sea looked vast from the shore. Under normal circumstances, the view was actually magnificent. But her restaurant was gone, and the sensory overload had robbed her ability to think. She started mutely at the horizon.
Her beach hut, made of wood. Wood that could float. And June who couldn't swim. Somehow, June was all that was left of the aftermath. Perhaps the ocean had decided to spare her. Perhaps she had survived out of sheer panic. Perhaps deep down, she wanted to live in a world where she wasn't the manager of a dingy beachside restaurant. Or perhaps she wasn't on a beach in the East Coast but at the bottom of the ocean. Either way, the restaurant was lost, and June lost with it.
It hadn't been a great restaurant. It hadn't even been a good restaurant. Her workers never stewed the dumpling soup long enough, and there were always complaints about the sandflies that nipped at her customer's ankles. But her grandmother had passed it down to her mother, and her mother to her, and it was the only constant in their lineage when the family seemed to get smaller.
Something came over June. She got up and waded into the water until she was neck deep. Sand squelched under her feet and her arms were buoyant underwater. She waved her arms in the sea, feeling the cold water move smoothly between her fingers, and back through. Forming tides and currents, and yet formless. The tip of her chin was touching the surface of the water. A slimy creature brushed her foot, but she pushed her panic to the back of her mind. It was probably a good idea to return to dry land, but June surprised herself by staying in the water. Her whole life, it had been about keeping the water out. Out of her restaurant. Away from the tables. For years of staring at the horizon from her hut, she had kept herself away from the water. It didn't make sense for her to go frolicking right next to her workplace anyway.
As the evening tide pulled the waves away from shore, June felt her body move with the pull. She leaned forward as the tide receded, then back as the waves came in. Forward again, but this time she leaned all the way until she tip-toed, and back again. As the pull got stronger, she let herself inch forward. She didn't have to turn back. If she held her breath long enough she wouldn't have to worry about anything.
Salt water suddenly rushed into June's nose, shocking her out of her reverie. She snorted violently, opening her mouth to inhale, but gulped down water instead. Seawater was unbelievably salty and she retched as it filled her throat. It was like an electric shock that jolted her back to reality. June let out ragged gasps as realized she had drifted dangerously far into the sea. What was she thinking? She was alive. Her restaurant had not survived but she had, and as long as she was alive, so were the recipes ingrained in her brain and the drive she had possessed even as a little girl. June had been desperate for an escape for a long time, but perhaps this calamity was a chance for her to start afresh, to build a new restaurant in place of her demolished beach hut, to start a new chapter for herself while maintaining her family's legacy.
She would rebuild. She would make upgrades, maybe finally invest in those expensive waterproof floor-to-ceiling ziplines and stronger air-conditioning. She would do away with railings for walls and build strong concrete ones. She would make an effort to market her brand as a unique seaside dining experience to leverage on her location. It was going to cost all her earnings, but if she played her cards right, she would be able to get by decently on her savings for a while. Most importantly, she wouldn't give up, because her grandmother had believed in this business, and her grandmother before that, and hers before that.
June flailed hard to keep her head afloat as she struggled in the direction of the beach, until she could feel sand under her feet again. "I must have swallowed the entire ocean," she said aloud. She gave the sand bed a hard kick for good measure. Then, she trudged back to the shore.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022