By Chan Ziqian
Twenty storeys above the ground, the flat is beyond the reach of even the tallest trees. But in the flat, a man sees shadows of leaves on the bedroom walls as he drifts in and out of sleep. The leaves he sees are in thick clusters and only when the wind blows do they move apart, allowing the white wall to breathe. In the same room, a woman closes her eyes. She sees a man in a pink shirt moving between the shadows. She knows that she will not answer his calls or see him again.
Brother and sister, they lie side by side on two mattresses on the floor. The division between them becomes indistinct as blankets overlap and legs stray across boundaries. The corners of their pillows touch, like children making contact at the fingertips. They begin to resemble their parents asleep on the bed next to them. When the man starts to grind his teeth at night, his sister reaches out and taps him on the jaw where a thin beard is forming. When she starts talking in her sleep, he pushes her in the arm. Their touches are always just right, jolting the other out of these activities without awakening. The bodies are never startled, being accustomed to the other’s touch.
Around the four sleeping bodies, shadows thicken and leaves multiply, plastering the walls and ceiling. Vines and branches spread and intertwine across the room, enclosing the bodies. It is completely dark, the faint light from the moon and streetlamps no longer reaching the room, as if colonies of bats had pressed themselves against the windowpanes. Nothing escapes either. Small insects trying to leave are trapped by the sticky sap covering the vines. Even the air would adhere to it. The four of them could be asleep in the middle of a forest where the air is hot and still. There might be the distant rustling of the topmost leaves but no breeze penetrates the dense layers.
The same air that leaves one pair of lungs now enters another pair. The five-room flat has shrunk to this single room for them. It is their entire world. Every morning, sunlight filters in through the leaves and they find their way out, but by nightfall they are lost in the forest again.
Earlier that evening the man had celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday. His mother was preparing a special meal for him so he had gone straight home after work. When he walked through the door, some of his favourite dishes were already laid out on the table – hot and sour soup, black pepper crab, deep-fried chicken wings – even though he had told her that something simple would do. His father had also bought a small chocolate cake but they were keeping it in the fridge until his sister got home. She was out on a date, as his mother had informed him that morning, with someone they had introduced her to, the son of one of their friends. They ate mostly in silence, as they usually did, and it was only when they got to the end of dinner, with only crab shells and chicken bones on the plates, that his mother started talking.
“I wonder what your sister’s doing now,” she said.
“Do you think she’s having a good time?”
“You can call her and ask,” he said, stacking up the empty bowls. His father got up as well and started clearing the table. It seemed that like him, his father wanted to get as far away as possible from this topic, and would remove himself from the room in order to do so.
“He seems like a nice man. He’s a teacher too, like your sister. Not very tall but taller than her.” His mother was still sitting at the table, watching her husband and son as they moved in and out of the kitchen. “I think he’s the same age as you. Born in ‘69.”
“Maybe,” she said, smiling nervously, “you should look for someone. Or I can ask someone to introduce you...”
“Ma.” He had heard this line before and everything else that came with it, the fact that he was the eldest child, the only son, the one who would either carry the family name or end the line.
“If your sister can find someone, then...”
“She hasn’t found anyone. She’s just met this person once.” It was the first time his father had acknowledged the subject all evening.
“I hope she likes him. I wonder what she’s doing now…” Distracted by the topic change, his mother forgot what she had been saying to him and smiled wistfully as she thought about her daughter’s date.
By 11pm, his mother had stopped smiling. His sister was still not back and they could not have cake together as planned. The candles were already on the chocolate cake and a box of matches sat waiting next to it on the table.
“Look, ma, you guys go to bed first. We’ll have the cake tomorrow. I’ll wait up for her. I have some work to do anyway,” he said.
“Why didn’t she call? What if something’s happened? That man’s a teacher as well. He should know that she has to get up early in the morning for work.”
“Ma, she’s fine. I’ll call her. Go to sleep,” he said, then picked up the phone and pretended to dial his sister’s mobile number. When his parents had gone into their bedroom and shut the door, he sat down on the sofa and stared at the cake in front of him.
Three large candles and five small ones. As he slowly picked the candles off the cake, he thought about turning 35, a milestone in this country, just like 18 and 21. At this age, he was finally allowed to apply for public housing without first getting married. Here, singles under the age of 35 were not eligible for public housing, thanks to what the government referred to as its ‘family-oriented policies’. This family that the authorities had in mind did not include homosexual couples or unwed mothers and their children.
For years he had thought of his as the perfect family, not simply because they fit the government’s description of the model family with two parents, one of each sex, and two children, one of each sex as well, the elder preferably male. Unlike his classmates who stayed home and played computer games or hung out at shopping centres, his family went on outings to the library, the science centre, the botanical gardens where they examined different flowers and trees. Even as a teenager, he had felt slightly superior to his friends who spent weekends playing football while his parents brought him and his sister to the art gallery. His parents had been special. They were real people who did interesting things while everyone else had parents who worked too much and spent their free time either in front of the television or at shopping centres. As a teenager, he had watched his friends go through their rebellious phases, fighting with their parents, and was thankful to have escaped that cliché. He looked at the cake and candles before him now and wondered when it had all changed.
Sometime later, just before midnight, a woman walked into a lift accompanied by a man. They had been laughing before and walking close enough to let their sleeves touch but upon entering the lift, she shrunk into a corner away from him. The effects of the wine had worn off and she was sober now.
“You okay?” he asked, looking at her in her corner.
“I’m just tired. It’s late,” she said, attempting a smile.
Perhaps it was the fluorescent light in the lift. She was suddenly afraid of being with him in this small enclosed space. It seemed as if the bright light was alerting everyone to this latest development in her life. She remembered the story her parents had told her years ago about the person who crouched on top of the lift, watching through the ventilator for people who littered or urinated in it, and she looked up now, almost expecting to see someone up there, watching them both.
She liked him, she really did, especially after what had happened at the mini-mart. Walking back from the train station, they had stopped for some water and as they stood in line at the shop with their bottles of mineral water, waiting for the cashier to put in a new roll of receipt paper, she started laughing for no apparent reason. When she turned to look at him, he was laughing as well, and it was at that moment she knew she wanted to see him again. But this was the lift she had taken everyday for the past three decades, the lift in which she had measured the changes in her height by the lift buttons she was able to reach, and now she was in it with someone new. She stared at the blue walls of the lift, conscious of the stains.
“It is late. I should’ve brought you home earlier,” he said.
“What classes do you have tomorrow?”
“English, maths, health education. They make you teach every subject in primary school.”
“Yeah, I know. But at least you get the kids at a nice age. I was posted to a primary school when I started teaching. Impossible to keep them quiet for more than ten minutes and they always wanted to use the toilet. But on good days the kids made me wish I had one of my own. Do you get that?”
“What, wanting children?”
“Yeah. Not that I’m asking you to have any,” he added. He caught her eye, then smiled and looked away.
She returned the smile but did not reply. Instead, she stared at the different buttons that lit up as the lift went up the block of flats. Everyday in school she watched the children running around and she did like them, even at their most annoying, but she had never wanted any of her own. They would grow up and it would be like going through a health education textbook, tracking the various changes in their bodies as they went through puberty. She had often felt like that, a case study in a textbook, being watched by her parents and their adult friends. Once when she was twelve, an aunt had leaned in too close to her and whispered, “So, are you a woman yet?” At that time, she did not understand what her aunt meant but something about the way her aunt said ‘woman’ made her sure that she never wanted to be one. It was the same with the word ‘mature’, which in Chinese also meant ‘ripe’. It made her think of the papaya, that red bloated fruit and its nest of small black seeds within.
Growing up, she had always felt that she was being watched in the same way a child might watch a green bean on a piece of damp cotton wool as it went through the different phases of growth. She flinched under the gaze and resisted the prescribed stages. She would be 62, then 11, but never the age she was supposed to be. As a teenager she never went out with her friends and would stay home on weekends instead to read the papers from cover to cover, including the classified ads, then crouch in the sandpit downstairs and play with ants. But there were things she could not control, like the monthly blood and the hair. When the first period came, she kept her distance from her father and brother, ashamed of having betrayed them, of having taken sides with her mother against them. To make up for it, she spent hours in the bathroom, meticulously removing each hair so that her body was as smooth as a child’s.
As they approached the flat where she lived, she saw that the light in the living room was still on and thought her parents must have waited up for her. Before they reached the door, she stopped and turned to him.
“Hey, you don’t have to walk me to the door. It’s late. You should probably go before you get caught by the midnight taxi surcharge.”
“It’s not that far, it’s just over there. Five more steps,” he said, smiling and preparing to demonstrate.
“Okay, if you insist. I’ll call you?”
“I’d like that.”
After they said goodnight, she watched him walk to the lift. The back of his pink shirt was still smooth and straight at the end of the day.
He turned when he heard his name.
“I had a really good time,” she said.
When she unlocked the door and walked into the flat, she realised that the person in the living room was her brother. He was lying on the sofa, watching a game show on television with the sound muted.
“Hey, you’re still up. Happy birthday, by the way,” she said.
“Why didn’t you call? What’s wrong with you?” Her brother turned off the television as he sat up and looked at her. He had never seen her dressed like that, in a red skirt and what looked like new shoes. She also seemed to be wearing lipstick. He found himself channelling both parents, repeating his mother’s words and wearing his father’s grim expression.
“What’s your problem?” she replied, picking up the black heels she had shaken off and heading for her room. She noticed the candles and the box of matches on the table in front of her brother, and wondered how the evening had been for him.
“Do you know how worried they were?”
“Look, I’m 32. I wasn’t about to call home. And this was someone they wanted me to go out with, remember?”
He looked at his sister standing barefoot in the middle of the living room. He wondered what the man had looked like, what they had talked about, and why the man had not walked her to the door. He wanted to wipe the lipstick off his sister’s mouth and find out, without asking, about this man she had just met. He said nothing for a long time.
“Just let them know when you’re coming back next time,” he said quietly as he stood up.
“I don’t need to report back to them. They want me to get married, don’t they? Marry me off and get me out of the flat?”
Her voice grew louder but she was not really angry anymore. Her brother was standing before her in his trousers that ended well above the ankles, his hair sticking out at the back where he had lain on the sofa. Her brother had turned 35, same as Daniel, and he looked like a little boy except for the long hairs that had grown on his face ever since he refused to partake in the male ritual of shaving. She was three years younger and yet she felt like the older child, the one who might leave first and abandon the old home. With the back of her hand, she tried to rub off the lipstick she was wearing. She wanted to apologise for not being home tonight, for leaving him to spend his birthday alone with their parents. She had not even wanted to go out tonight but Daniel would be busy with a school camp for the rest of the week, and her mother had insisted on them meeting as soon as possible.
She was suddenly ashamed of her red skirt, bright feathers she had worn like a bird during the mating season. Here at home was the only person who understood the ball games they had invented as children to accommodate the flat, the only person whose nuances and inflections she knew so well. He would say something and she would see, without looking, the smile or the frustration in his eyes.
In the master bedroom, their parents had heard the voices and woken up. Their mother started to cry and she tugged at her husband’s arm, gesturing to him to pull out the spare mattresses. He did not say anything but got up and did as he was told, unable to bear his daughter’s anger. Their mother then got out of bed and opened the door to find her two children staring at each other in silence.
“Girl, don’t be angry. We didn’t mean to spoil your evening. You too, boy. Don’t argue anymore,” she pleaded. “How was your evening? Was he nice?”
The woman looked away, trying to hide from her mother’s gaze. She shrugged. “It was okay.”
More tears welled up in her mother’s eyes as she imagined that the night had gone badly. “Don’t worry if it doesn’t work out. We’ll find someone else. Plenty of men out there.”
The light from the living room shone into the master bedroom and both brother and sister saw the mattresses laid out on the floor next to their parents’ bed. These were conciliatory gestures, peace offerings they could not reject.
When the lights in the bedroom had been turned off, the man lay there in the dark and thought about this flat, the only home he knew. Now that he was 35 and eligible for public housing, he was more certain than ever that he would never leave. Even before, he could have rented a flat or a room elsewhere but that first act of telling his parents seemed impossible. And should he have managed that first step, he would have been reminded of his betrayal every time he returned to visit. He wondered how he had ever managed to commit those other firsts – the first time showering alone, the first time crossing a road without holding a parent’s hand, or the first time pulling his hand away from theirs when they tried to hold his. He knew that they must have taken place sometime but did not remember when or how. These were firsts that went unrecorded and uncelebrated, even though they required more courage than a first step, more effort than a first word, and were more keenly felt than a first tooth.
Next to him, his sister thought about the walk back from the train station with Daniel. The night had been dark and quiet and seemed so full of promise. She had looked up at the sky and seen a new moon, curved and slender like an eyelash. She must have had a bit too much wine at dinner because she could not stop smiling at him. She thought about how they had walked to the foot of the building and how he had asked her to point out the flat where she lived. She remembered how he had followed her gaze, then smiled and said, “So, the highest room of the tallest tower.”QLRS Vol. 4 No. 4 Jul 2005