By Rachel Fung
She blinked and a fish the size of her forearm was deftly dissected and distributed. Plates of its lush, pearly white flesh promptly appeared like a neat trick before her and each family member at the round table. Then as if in near perfect synchronisation, all nine other heads dropped to focus on their plates. Laughter and chatter blended with careful sounds of stainless steel on china. The precise cuts of de-boning. Yet she stared straight ahead still, right into the vacant glistening eyes, buried in the head of the skeletonised fish.
She picked up her fork and took a stab at a morsel on her plate. The fish was not fresh. She knew that within seconds of tasting it. Too fishy. The freshest fish conjured a sense of sunlight reflecting off the surface of the open ocean but not a notion of the fish itself. This was the illusionary paradox of eating fish. The less fishy, the better. The heavily perfumed proprietor of the seafood restaurant with her maroon nails peddled watery lies with a smile. She wanted to share this observation with the table but exclamations as to the exquisiteness of the fish echoing round dampened this urge.
She took her time to chew. Her teeth were not what they used to be and she was wary always of the threat of stray wisp of bone. For this dinner, she had been seated next to her youngest grandchild. Thirteen, pimply and sullen. She knew he would rather be anywhere but here. His seat tonight was positioned diagonally opposite to his mother. This small blessing meant that a world of mythical creatures and beasts could battle in mute from the iPhone partially obscured by tablecloth on his lap. She watched from the corner of her eye as an ogre pulverised the head of a well-endowed elf, but the eyes of the fish called her back. She had to take action. She stage whispered his name.
He did not stir. She tapped the table before him a few times but that elicited no response as well. She heard the door to their banquet room open and saw two waitresses in black and white uniforms enter and circle their table.
Desperate times. Watching the waitresses, she shovelled another morsel of fish from her plate into her mouth to signal that she was still eating. She then gave her grandson's foot a small kick. At this sudden movement the iPhone lost its precarious perch on his lap and tumbled into the shifting darkness beneath the table. Falling in place like a click. She felt a precise little slice in her throat. Like bone lodged in flesh. She coughed and reached for her pu-erh tea but knew it was too late. Her grandson was now bellowing at her; a few heads on the table turned in their direction, but noting its main players, soon turned back.
"WHAT DO YOU WANT, AMA?"
"The fish eyes," she pointed a wrinkled hand in its direction, "it's the best part. You should try it."
"Only old people like you like to eat that, I don't want." Scowling, he slid off his chair and curled himself into a ball to make a quick duck under the table and disappeared. The waitresses then swooped in and again like magic. The table was cleared in seconds.
She was sure of it. The tickle started at that family dinner.
Tickle. Scratch. Discomfort. She had not settled on what exactly she should call it but knew something was not right with her throat. Hence, she found herself sitting in the waiting room of the neighbourhood family doctor's clinic on a warm Wednesday afternoon. She was wearing her Sunday best – a poplin cotton lilac shirt and slacks to look presentable. She had decided to pair this with a small brown leather bag that brought her comfort.
The waiting room of the clinic had been freshly painted. A colour like fresh cream with a drop of coffee mixed in. Gone was the pale yellow that had provided the backdrop for her family's visits over the past 20 years. The nurses were different too. So quick, so slender, so young. They moved like silverfish. But none of the three had noticed that she had been standing at the counter for over 15 minutes, waiting for any one of them to have a spare moment, until she gave a small cough to shift the tickle in her throat and an "excuse me" escaped. Then the youngest-looking of the three looked up and passed her an iPad to "fill in your details." But she had to shake her head and apologise, her eyes were not good and would it be possible to do so on paper? The nurse swallowed a sigh and asked for her national identity card, then told her she could sit in the waiting room with the low plush beige chairs.
"Susanna Tan Geok Leng."
The nurse who had passed the iPad earlier was calling for her turn. She picked up her handbag and shuffled into the doctor's room. Once inside, the nurse closed the door swiftly behind her but not before she had realised that this was not her doctor. "Sit down please," directed the man in the room.
"Where is Dr Leong?" she asked.
"Oh he's retired already. I took over this practice. I'm Dr Soo." The man said this while tapping a few keys on his keyboard. "So what is troubling you today?" His eyes continued to flicker over towards his computer screen.
She attempted to clear her throat and started to tell him about the tickle. Starting at the family dinner, how stale the fish was and the insidious bones it carried silently within, a grandson who preferred the company of ogres and the loss of the eyeballs. Throughout this account, the doctor met her eyes once and had continued typing whilst staring at his screen for the remainder of moments. Behind his head, hung a poster of a family walking in a park and a drug which accounted for their healthy bones and happiness. She found it helped to focus on the father in the poster, for he looked a little like her late husband and was looking straight at her while she talked.
Before the end of her last sentence, the doctor stood up. "Okay, let's have a look at your throat," he said, strapping on his medical headlight. He had a very round head and the headlight contraption appeared to grip it tightly. He told her to tilt her head back and open her mouth wide, so that he could spray a bitter numbing medicine before inserting a scope with a camera on its end. She held her handbag in her lap tightly and attempted to focus on the number of recessed lights in the ceiling. She experienced what felt like a cough in reverse, pressure applied-released, and then the examination was over. The doctor snapped his light off, removed the scope, and told her, "Your throat is clear. There are no fish bones stuck in there."
She blinked at him and swallowed slowly for her throat was dry after keeping her mouth open. Then she asked, "But what about the tickle?"
The doctor had sat back down in front of his computer. "It could be a phantom sensation. There may have been a bone lodged there initially but the consumption of food after can sometimes help to dislodge it. Anyway, it's nothing to worry about, you're clear."
She had not realised but at some point during her examination, the nurse from earlier had returned to the treatment room and was now propping the door open for her to take her leave. She thanked the doctor. Then gathering her small brown bag, she shuffled out as quickly as her feet could move.
At the counter outside, the most senior-looking of the three nurses presented a bill to her, placed on a smooth black lacquer tray. She took out her cloth purse and counted out the correct number of bills to make a payment. After the payment was processed, a receipt was placed on the black tray again and one of the nurses pressed a button, which made the glass doors of the clinic open in a swoosh.
Then she was back out on the five-foot way of the row of shophouses with the heat clamouring around her. And she walked all the way back home, sweat slowly dyeing the back of her shirt a shade of mauve, with a tickle in the back of her throat.
She first heard about the Twin Tornado Twisters from grandson number two. "Like my insides got garbled up, squeezed tight and turned inside out. My friend vomited after too," was how he described the experience to his younger cousins, who listened eyes wide in wonder-horror. As did she.
"I heard someone died riding it. Got heart attack," added another grandchild. "But it was all hush hushed after. They paid off the family a lot. Like winning grand 4D prize kind of money."
"You should go ride and die la. Then the rest of us can become rich."
"Shut up. You go die la."
"Eh, Ama can hear. Later she tell Ma." Five pairs of eyes swivelled round to her, then turned back and gathered close. The whispers dropped a few decibels. They closed ranks fast.
She turned the name on her tongue, twisting its t's round her tongue. She felt its syllables drilling rhythmically deep into her brain. With no one paying attention to her, she recited it repeatedly as an incantation, committing it to memory. Thus when the taxi driver asked where she wished to go on the following Monday afternoon, she rolled its name out, neat, like a perfectly rounded piece of rock candy.
"The one in the new theme park?" the driver asked.
She nodded her head. "You going yourself?" he asked. She told him yes. With this double confirmation, he started the meter and they rode the rest of the ride in silence with no further questions exchanged.
The long interlinked green and black bodies of the twin roller coasters stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the theme park's pastel-coloured rides. She stood a distance away, in the shade of two tall inflatable tube-men that were dancing wildly in the air, and charted the ride's path. Every dip and turn and loop, perfectly mirrored in a duet-like battle, even its pauses synced perfectly. It was beautiful to simply watch in motion. An engineering marvel.
The line for the ride was also the longest in the park. This was its beating heart, through which all passed through and were funnelled and pumped out again – reinvigorated or depleted. She joined the back of the line, behind a family with 3 boys and in front of a couple enwrapped in their two. The sign at this point of the line stated in all capitals: ESTIMATED WAIT – 1 HOUR. She took out the crumpled theme park map from her bag and fanned herself slowly. She was prepared to wait.
GETTING CLOSER – 30 MINUTES
NEARLY THERE – 15 MINUTES MORE!
At the 10-minute checkpoint, the atmosphere in the waiting room took a turn. Conversations of the people around her had mostly been exhausted by this point and screams from the ride above carried through into the room where they shivered with nowhere to go. It was here that the staff members started conducting minimum height checks on children and rattling off the standard health and safety guidelines that they had memorised by heart.
Eventually her turn came and a skinny staff member approached to ask if she was riding alone. When she said yes, his brows drew a little closer and brief clouds passed across his eyes, shielding and dimming them. He brought out a laminated health and safety warning sheet from beneath the clipboard he was carrying and asked if she would mind going through it and then if she could step to one side for a moment. Holding the laminated sheet in her hands, she heard him speak softly and rapidly into a walkie-talkie by his side, as his eyes looked over and through her for someone else.
She glanced over the sheet. It was mostly the same warnings she had heard rattled off to all the other riders before her for the past 10 minutes. That you had to be in good health, were you pregnant, any heart problems, issues of vertigo? She turned the laminated sheet over so that its warnings faced the ground and watched the skinny staff member guide the family with three boys and enmeshed couple to their individual seats. Then a bell sounded whilst the laminated sheet slipped down to the ground through her sweaty fingers, and when she looked up, they were gone.
She had visited the beach once before, when she was much younger, after her third child, before her fourth. The sand under the noonday sun felt like it could burn holes into the soles of her feet but she wanted to get as close to the vast blue expanse as it was possible for someone who could not swim. Sitting at the break line, where tiny waves of froth lapped at her ankles, she stared at the light dancing off the surface of the ocean till her eyes watered. But she willed them open to drink it all in. Then in the unpredictable nature of the ocean with which she was still unacquainted, a tall wave crept up and broke over her head. Swallowing her body momentarily in the full force of its breaking. And then, she wanted to go home.
She looked back down again at the sheet near her feet and felt tremendously tired. Her head felt wet and heavy now. The receding water took something of her with it. Something essential. She took out the crumpled map from her handbag to unfold it and find the closest toilet. She would need it before the taxi ride back anyway. The lines of the map in her hands squirmed, wavered and melded into each other. While she dug around in her handbag for her reading glasses, a balding man with a perfectly round crown had walked up to her, and was now bending down to pick up the laminated sheet at her feet. When he stood up, she saw that a tarnished gold coloured nametag with "YUSOFF" printed on it hung off his left shirt pocket. He held his hand out to her and introduced himself as the supervisor of this ride. He then asked if she had familiarised herself with the sheet and guided her to a bench to begin the health and safety questioning. She re-folded the map carefully in her hands as she answered him.
Yusoff was missing a left incisor and she could not help staring at this little chasm as they went through the routine questions. After she had confirmed that she did not have heart problems, he put the laminated sheet aside and smiled at her. She thought it was a very nice smile despite the small loss that it carried. Then he asked, "Since you missed the last round, which seat would you like for the next one?" After hesitating for a moment, she pointed to the first row of the next carriage in waiting.
He walked over now to the barricade ropes drawn between them and the carriage, waved his hand to the first row, and with his imperfect beautiful smile, told her, "All yours."
The seat felt smooth and cold beneath her. She looked straight ahead whilst a thick metal safety bar was brought down across her body. She gripped this tightly until the tips of her knuckles gleamed white. Then she heard a bell ring in the back of her head. The carriage shot out in a jerk but then began a smooth glide-like ascent to reach its first peak. She felt the organs in her body slide to the back of her frame the higher they climbed. Words, cuts and tiny bones came loose and tumbled freely within her. The carriage reached the peak of the first hill and teetered there in a collective breath held. She forgot how quiet the world got this high up.
Then they were falling. The wind washed the seawater, all traces if it, from her head, hair, eyes. And slowly, one by one, she saw her fingers float off the safety bar in front of her like they were underwater. She felt her body absorb the force of the ride, each twist and turn unfolding, and she gave in to it. Hands above her head, she opened her lungs, and the tickle disappeared.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022