The Man Who Invented The Washing Machine
By Alfie Lee
It was precisely because of this that he had dreaded coming home.
The sun hung low over the horizon. Peter and his father were caught in a slow procession of shiny cars. They were on their way to see his grandmother. She was dying from cancer.
They had barely lurched a meter forward when the light at the junction turned red again.
They were going to be late and Peter could hear what was coming.
"No brain these people," began his father, one hand in a broad sweep, the other on the steering wheel. "Many of them are graduates, you know. Don't know what they teach them in university."
Peter said nothing and turned away the blast of cold air from the air-con vent that was blowing straight into his eyes, drying them.
Let's see now, Peter thought to himself, last time...
"Last time," Peter's father said. "For the driving test we all had to learn manual. Not like now." He said, turning to Peter. "But if you can't even operate manual gears then how can you be allowed to drive a car?" he asked. He was pointing out the windscreen at no one in particular. "I tell you, some of these people! Damn stupid!"
Peter had heard it many times before.
It was getting old, he thought, and smiled quietly at his own pun.
Someone in the distance started honking.
The sun had dropped out of sight and everything was a dull yellow and indistinct. Peter could see clouds gathering overhead.
He was pretty sure he wasn't going to get the contract. The meeting had started out fine and he thought he was doing well. But somewhere along the way he could feel the board members losing interest. And then it was too late. After a certain point it becomes too late. He had that sinking feeling. He tried to rescue it. He had a feeling that made it worse. He hoped he didn't let his desperation show. Well, whatever. It's too late now. He was pretty sure he's lost the contract. He was pretty sure he wasn't going to get the call.
Peter really didn't feel like meeting anyone for dinner. But he had promised his mother. She had been staying at his grandmother's in Bedok.
He was really feeling tired.
He slouched farther down the front seat of the van, pulled his satchel with the proposals to his lap and closed his eyes.
"Wah! This jetlag. Damn sleepy man," he muttered.
Through his half-closed eyes, Peter could see his father turn to him and start to say something. But he stopped short. As the first drops came raining down on the windscreen.
What Peter missed most while living in London was the food.
Sure it was a cliché but there's always some truth in a cliché.
Actually it wasn't the food so much. They did quite a lot of cooking. Bak kut teh, tom yum soup, fried baby kai lan in oyster sauce and so on. With the amount of food pastes and mixes he would stow in his luggage to London, it was not much of a stretch to eat Asian. Not to mention the stuff you could get in Chinatown.
But there was never so much of it spread out on the table like that. In London it was just Joanne and himself and always just two dishes to go with the rice. But here, there was always more and the food tasted richer somehow. Maybe it was the weather. He couldn't quite tell. Or maybe some psychological thing.
He fished out a leg from the salted-duck soup. The meat from the thigh fell in steaming chunks as he lifted it onto his plate. Peter could taste the soup through the air. Salted vegetable, plum, ginger, tomato, some red-cut chili, duck. Slowly simmering in a crock-pot over a lazy afternoon. It made his mouth water.
Grandmother used to make it. She was so proud of it. And rightly so, Peter thought. Whatever else she was, she made good soup.
But ever since Grandmother came home from the hospital it was Uncle Mike who did the cooking. Now she just sat in the wheelchair slowly sipping the salted-duck soup. Soup that she used to make. The tightly clenched spoon unsteady in the air.
They still let her smoke. A lot less of course. One or two sticks a day.
Just for the taste, they said.
The cancer was terminal after all. No cure.
Peter's mother decided that with the six months the doctors gave her, Grandmother should get whatever she wanted.
She really did seem to enjoy having a cigarette with Uncle Mike and Uncle George. Both Peter's uncles smoked. The three of them would sit around the table huddled around the ashtray. Smoke rising towards the tungsten light, coalescing in a cloud of lazy whorls.
No one said a word. Anyway, what was there left to say? The cancer had worked itself from the lungs to the liver and brain. The unreachable part of the brain, the oncologist said. Besides she was too old for that major an operation.
She's not blameless. She's been smoking her Dunhills all her life. For 50 odd years. She was a complaining woman who was quick to judge and rather selfish and, despite the good soup, not particularly maternal or grand maternal.
Peter was never very close to his grandmother. She lived with Uncle Mike and Uncle George. Peter wasn't sure if they had actually told her what the doctor said but he guessed that she's guessed. Grandmother was getting more attention than she ever got in her life. Her daughters, who used to visit her only occasionally, have literally moved in with her. A day nurse waited on her, hand and foot. Every dinner was like a banquet with the main dish being whatever it was that she had craved – and asked for - the night before. She's not stupid, she must know.
Peter stole a quick look at his grandmother across the table. The cancer left her face parched and sallow and her unbrushed hair made her head appear small. Her mouth was lax and hung loose and her eyes were lifeless and glassy. She had been overweight all her life but the illness had eaten away most of it and the flesh from her arms now hung down in scaly flaps of skin.
Later, after he had gone back to London, Peter's mother wrote him that on the morning of his flight, his grandmother had sat up with a start and announced to no one in particular that "Peter has left. He has gone off to London already."
Peter's grandmother passed away three months later. He did not fly back for the funeral.
After dinner, when the plates had been cleared away, the family would sit around the dining table, drink coffee and talk. They had been gathering almost every night like this ever since Peter's grandmother got back from hospital.
There was Uncle Mike and Uncle George and Peter's father. All shirtless. All with bodies that were once taut and muscled from labour and pride but now flaccid and paunched. There was Aunt May and sometimes Aunt Pam after her shift at McDonald's and his mother once she was done in the kitchen. At the end of the table, sat his grandmother in her wheelchair, staring straight ahead at nothing.
They would talk about what groceries to stock up. What Grandmother would like to eat the next day. How it was raining all the time. Who had called to ask about her health and so on. Then, invariably they would talk about the past. How it was so much better. How much fun it was. How much cheaper things were. And how, even though they were dirt poor and were living in a leaky one-room shack in Serangoon, things were better.
The whole idea was to try to involve the Old Lady in the conversation. To stimulate her brain, as Uncle George put it. And once in a while there would be a flicker of a smile on Grandmother's lips.
But eventually one of his uncles or aunts would turn to him and ask "You remember? Peter?"
He would have been around five at that time. And actually he did remember a lot of it. He had fond memories of the strip of dirt in front of his grandmother's shack where he and Uncle George used to spend afternoons playing with marbles. He had been quite close to the youngest uncle, George, when he was a boy, on account of his Uncle George being just four years older. He remembered the carpenter's shed across the lane from his grandmother's. How they would sneak in, when the old guy was out, and squeeze into the half-finished cabinets and pretend they were in a submarine silently scouring the depths of ancient seas.
He could still see the pools of light cascading through the cracks in the roof, leaving vortices of dust suspended in their wash, drowsily drifting across the bare floor boards of his grandmother's shack with the arc of the sun. And the red pails suddenly sprouting like toadstools every time it rained. And how the rain rapping on the zinc roof and dripping into the rapidly brimming pails would swell into one ferocious roar, drowning out the thoughts in his head and filling him with waves of dread.
Of course in time it would weaken. And finally it would peter out. And the gloom in the shack would again lift with the sun.
Peter remembered his grandmother from those days.
She was a totally different person. For one thing, he remembered her up and about and moving. Peter realized that it had been a long time since he'd seen her not in a seated position.
And this trip back, he has hardly seen her moving at all.
Peter's grandmother was brought over from Penang at 16 to be married to a sailor from the Teochew province she had never met. Her mother was a powerful medium at the Serangoon temple and an influential elder in the kampung.
For some reason, from day one, Peter's grandmother hated and was constantly fighting with his grandfather. Peter's grandfather came from a family of landowners in Mainland China, and had attended school. But she only saw him as a lazy good-for-nothing.
They argued all the time. Often coming to blows. She was a big woman and Peter imagined must pack quite a massive punch with those big arms. He remembered scurrying behind a door once as his grandparents exploded into a fight. One minute he was lining up his matchbox cars in preparation for a race on the bare wood floor and the next he was cowering behind the door fearful for his life. They were screaming at each other at the top of their voices.
Then all hell broke loose. They started to use their fists, to punch, to shove and to kick each other. It was the first real fight he had seen.
Another time when his grandparents were fighting, Peter recalled seeing the dull flash of a chopping knife. It cut through the air in a terrible staccato motion, punctuating each accusation and angry outburst. It put great fear in him and he felt his skin crawl from the display of violence. Through his tears, he heard his grandfather going "Damn you! And damn your mother! And damn your father! Damn you!" And his grandmother, always with a look of hurt on her face, going "Drop dead!" And "I wish you were dead!" Or something to that effect loosely translated from Teochew.
Accompanying the shouting would be the banging of tables, flying pots and chairs smashing. And the terrible noise would reach a crescendo like in the final act of a Teochew opera. Their children, Peter's mother and uncles and aunts, would be standing around in a daze in the audience of neighbours who had gathered to watch. They would plead "OK enough" or "Calm down". But their feeble voices were drowned out by the railing. They had no idea what to do. Everyone could see they both had a point.
Grandmother was an obstinate self-centered woman who would really rather be playing mahjong than do anything. The shack would not be cleaned for weeks and she would sit at the doorway, fanning herself from the heat, leg shaking, smoking her Dunhills.
He too was a piece of work. An opium addict like so many of his generation. He would spend his days lying on his side in a corner of the shack. One leg crossed over the other. Drawing precious breath through that blackened pipe packed thick with opium brewing over a slow fire.
But Peter did remember that his grandfather would sometimes work, when he was really desperate for money, on cargo ships as the chief engineer.
One time he brought Peter and his Uncle George out to his ship anchored off Clifford Pier. Peter's grandfather brought them below deck and showed them where he worked.
The engine room was deep in the bowels of the ship beneath the waterline. It was hot and the diesel fumes made it hard to breathe. Peter was surprised to see how everything was wet and half eaten by rust. The sound of the bilge pump constantly bailing out water from the hold was deafening. Peter remembers his grandfather shouting, to his horror, that ships are never totally water-tight. Without that pump, the ship would quickly sink to the bottom of the sea.
Later, in his grandfather's tiny cabin, Peter saw row upon row of canned sardines, and through the one dirty porthole, water lapping treacherously all around them.
Peter's mother always believed Grandfather was a genius. That he could do anything if he set his mind to it. She believed he had invented the washing-machine in 1955.
As described to Peter, Grandfather's washing machine was a big wooden tub cleverly connected by levers and gears to a small diesel engine sitting at the back of it. It operated exactly like the modern washing machine. You put in the clothes. You put in water. Added detergent. Fired up the engine. The tub would go up and down and round and round.
It didn't come in a nice white box shape with a porthole. It was an oily, smokey, noisily sputtering contraption. But in principal, Peter's grandfather had invented the washing machine.
Such a machine was unheard of in 1955. It was a marvel and drew curious visitors from the neighbouring kampungs. They would stand and squat around and watch the family's laundry being washed. When pressed for the inspiration for such a modern marvel, Peter's grandfather said it was to stop his wife's incessant complaints about having to wash his clothes.
The legend of his grandfather's genius extended beyond his invention. Peter's mother often spoke of how his grandfather had built a car entirely from parts he salvaged from a junkyard. Out of nothing, almost. Like magic. A convertible no less. And the envy of the kampung. Peter's grandfather would take all his kids out on car rides with the top down. He would let Peter's mother toot the horn. It was the highlight of her childhood.
Through the years, Peter's mother would always bring up his grandfather to make her point.
"He was a very clever man. But he never push himself, Pete." His mother would say, looking him in the eye. She was always obvious that way.
"It was the opium. He'd lie in a daze for days. Such a waste. Otherwise we'd be so much better off. He was so talented." She would go on.
"But he didn't push himself, Pete. Otherwise we'd be loaded. He let it all waste away, Pete." She would say before trailing off.
Peter also learned from his mother that during the time his grandfather was lying in bed coddling his opium pipe instead of working, Peter's grandmother had been forced to work. She was a maid in a house in Sembawang. But with her love for mahjong, that didn't last very long. Soon enough their children had to work to support themselves. Only George, with his older siblings' help, had gone to school.
It was late. Peter's grandmother had taken her medication and asked to be put to bed. Everyone sat quietly as Peter's mother and Auntie May wheeled her into her room and closed the door behind them.
The medication had no actual medicinal value. They were just to make the pain bearable and hold down the feeling of nausea. In particular was the shot of morphine, to be taken orally. It was an orangey thick liquid and it was dispensed in a little cup. Set aglow by the light from the tungsten bulb it looked like orange jello. Peter thought it was cruel, whoever it was that made the oral morphine, to make it look like orange jello. It ought to be black. Like cancer.
Later, back at the table, his mother would say softly. "Poor thing la. She's had a hard life."
Peter thought his mother looked old and worn under the harsh yellow light. She had taken no-pay leave to stay with his grandmother and went home only one day a week. "But her appetite still good!" said Uncle Mike, trying to lighten the mood. "Yesterday she asked me for yam with gingko nuts for dessert!"
Knowing smiles broke out around the table.
Yam with gingko was a Teochew dessert and because it was difficult to prepare, it was quite hard to find these days.
"How? You call already?" Peter's mother asked, turning to Uncle Mike.
"Ok. Everything settled already," assured Uncle Mike, tapping his Marlboro on the ashtray, smiling. He had been delegated with the task of booking the spot at the columbarium for his mother.
The family had decided that, when the time came, they would place Peter's grandmother next to his grandfather's ashes at the columbarium. Of course his grandmother had emphatically stated that she wanted her remains to be placed as far away from that good-for-nothing as physically possible. But it was decided by the family that it would be more convenient for everyone when it came to paying their respects at Qing Ming. After all, the columbarium that his grandfather was at was quite nice and peaceful. It was not too crowded and reasonably priced. Plus, Uncle Steve was there.
Uncle Steve, Peter's second uncle, had fallen to his death when he was just 34. His family had locked him in his room to wean him off his drug habit. It was the last resort. They did not know what else to do. They had run out of ideas. Then, one sunny Friday morning, Uncle Steve's wife was roused from her sleep on the sofa by the sudden lack of banging and screaming to be let out. When she unlocked the door, light from the wide-open window flooded the empty bedroom of the 12th storey flat. It smelled badly of stale laundry and faintly of bleach. The window grill had been pried from the wall.
"Settled. No problem," repeated Uncle Mike.
Uncle Mike was the eldest of the brothers. He was an easy-going, sometimes bumbling man of almost 50. He wore large black framed specs and still had his hair permed in curls. He was always smiling.
Uncle Mike operated a fish-soup stall at a coffee shop near Paya Lebar MRT. And though nobody talked about it, he had been a bookie and a loan-shark and had gone to prison for beating up some guy for not making his payments. And before that he had also been a drug addict.
But that was then. Now he runs his stall with his wife and has two teenaged kids.
Once, when Peter was 7 or 8, he went with his mother by ferry to see his Uncle Mike at the drug correctional centre on St John's Island.
It was a big open-air area under an overcast sky with endless gates and human voices. His Uncle Mike was in an ill-fitting brown uniform waiting for them on a picnic bench. Peter's mother put the packet of Jacob's crackers on the table. Around them sparrows twittered incessantly fighting for scraps. A sea breeze was gently blowing bearing the sound of waves. Except for the barb-wire fence and the guards and the table being bolted to the floor, it could have been a scene at a picnic.
Uncle Mike was bobbing slightly, looking past Peter, in the direction of the breakers stretching out to sea. His leg, crawling with tattoos, heel barely off the ground, moved rhythmically up and down.
"I'm OK. No problem," Uncle Mike said, running his hand back and forth over his crew-cut, breaking into an easy smile.
But that's history. That is water under the bridge, as his mother was fond of saying. Still it came as a shock to Peter when he realized later on that it must have taken his mother a long time to build up the courage to take that ferry to St John's.
It was Peter's mother who had turned Uncle Mike in to the police.
Peter remembered it was particularly hot and muggy that morning when he and his mother took the Number 92 bus to Serangoon. But they did not cross, as they usually did, the main road to get to his grandmother's kampung. Instead they sat down at the small coffeeshop just down from the bus-stop.
Across the road, the nest of shacks lay haphazard before them. Peter tried to pick out his grandmother's shack but he could not. The kampung had been built on the edge of a marsh. It looked hastily put together and tiny from where they sat. The shimmer off the zinc roofs made the houses look like pots boiling on a fire.
Peter couldn't remember how long they were there at the coffeeshop. But he was happy for the Coca Cola his mother had bought him. Back then it was a special treat. Pools of condensation quickly formed at the base of the glass of Coke that was coolly fizzing its way up past the cubes of ice. His mother didn't have any to drink herself. She kept looking at her watch. She did not say a word. Peter remembers sitting there feeling bored and trying to keep the sweat on his brow from getting into his eyes and almost falling asleep and kicking himself for finishing his Coke so quickly and trying very hard to stay awake and sitting up straight and trying again and once more and again and suddenly startled by a ferocious clap of thunder. His mother's hand was on his shoulder. Rain was starting to fall. When they reached his grandmother's shack, they were drenched. They found her sitting at the doorway, Dunhill wavering in the air, a look of defeat on her face.
"Pete did you manage to find the photographs?" his mother asked. She was looking from across the table at him. She had asked him to look for a suitable photograph to be blown up and used for his grandmother's wake when the time finally came.
Peter was what they call a serious amateur photographer, and all matters photographic in the family were thrust upon him.
But he had spent an afternoon searching and they were either too small or they were full body shots or group photos.
"Why don't we use her IC photo?" suggested Aunt May.
"Ya. Ya. I'll get it," Aunt Pam offered. She was soon back with a two inch by two inch, passport-sized photograph.
"How?" Peter's mother asked. "Can?" She was looking at him.
Peter took the photograph. His grandmother looked almost slim in the small black and white headshot.
"Can la. Any photolab also can," he said.
It's true. Almost every mini lab is equipped with a scanner these days and can produce a good quality eight by ten inch photograph from a passport-sized photo.
"Ok," Uncle Mike offered, smiling. "I'll do it at the lab downstairs."
"No. No. Pete, you do it," Peter's mother said. Her voice sounded muffled, like it had come from far away.
In truth, Peter felt that he had a lot to do the next few days and was pressed for time. He was going back to London the coming Monday and he still had to meet some clients. He wasn't looking forward to the long flight. He hadn't packed. He still needed to get some stuff on the list that Joanne had given him. Food pastes and some credit card forms and Giro forms for the phone. And he had to go to StarHub. He had to settle his income tax and go to the bank too. And he was pretty sure they were going to turn him down. He had a feeling they were going to. Of course he was hoping they wouldn't. He had a feeling. But he hoped he was wrong. He was really tired. And he wasn't even sure if he had recovered from jet-lag from the flight from London.
"Your friends can do right?" His mother was referring to the photo lab he used to patronize. But he hadn't been back there for almost two years. He hated to admit it but he felt bad that he had left for London and had made no mention of it to the guys at PixPro. At one point he visited them almost every week. They had always been on good terms and they had helped him out, especially Tim, with his credit. They were friends almost. But he had been so busy with packing that he had left without dropping by. And now, silly as it sounds, it seemed like unfinished business that had passed the point of no return. And he knew going back this time with his grandmother's photo, they would do it for free. But Peter was feeling guilty and he did not like explaining himself. And it wasn't a good time to be asking his "friends" for a favour.
"Peter you do it," his mother said, nearer this time. "Last time you did for Granddad right?" she said.
"Did I?" Peter couldn't remember.
That was years ago. His grandfather had died of cancer too.
In the hospital, at the end, Peter's grandfather lay with unblinking eyes gasping for air like a fish out of water. He was so wasted by the cancer he was nothing but bones. Except for the ears. He had large lobes like Buddha.
"I don't remember. Did I?" Peter could not understand why his mother was being so stubborn about it. Anyway what does it matter? He couldn't possibly cancel his meetings. It's been so long since he last saw Andy. And almost three months of e-mail to set up the meeting with JetBack. He still had a lot of errands to run. And things were in a mess. And he was spending every night here. I hope the stupid tax website won't hang again tonight, he thought. And really, it's not like PixPro will do a better print. A photo's a photo a photo. "I don't think I'll have time," he heard himself saying. "Anyway nowadays the mini-lab can do a good job."
"No," his mother insisted. "Peter you should do it," she said.
And louder still. "You should do it Peter."
Peter could not understand why his mother was shouting at him. He was doing all he can. Anyway it was all the same. And there was just so much. And it was endless. So many errands. He was drowning in them. He wished he was back in London. Away from here. There just wasn't enough time. He just needed some breathing space. What was he going to tell Joanne, now that he's lost the contract? He's pretty sure he's lost the contract. He wished he hadn't come back. If he didn't know at least there's still some hope. Now he didn't know what else to do. He was doing all he could to keep his head above water. He was doing all he could and still he felt trapped and he felt like he was going under. He couldn't breathe. It will never be enough.
He looked down at the photograph in his hand. His grandmother was sitting in front of a white wall. Her hair was freshly coiffed and the points of light in her eyes from the studio flash made them come alive.
She was smiling broadly. And she looked really happy.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006