By Jessica Tan
Before starting on his answer to her next question, Petrus pauses for a second. He places his pencil down on his desk and looks out of the window just before him. Beyond the little field right in front of his family house, he sees his parents walking home. They appear on the horizon with their tired feet right at the edge where the green fields meet the orange hued sky. He feels sad for them. They look exhausted from their long day at work. In the mornings, his ma and pa are up very early - packing basket loads of cabbage from their farm. In Johannesburg, a lot of folks make a decent living trading fruits and vegetables. Many are born into such family businesses. Petrus' family has a small stall at the market – where they sell their vegetables till there's none left on the table or till it's five in the evening. Whichever comes first. He calls out to his parents. "Mama! Papa!" He screams so hard till he turns red and breathless - till his voice turns hoarse.
"Mama! Pa!!!" He waves at them in vain. They cannot see him in his study room tucked away in the attic. The setting sun is in their eyes and the glare makes them only see a shadow hanging over the side of the rooftop of their family home – which from afar looks like a dot that morphs into a barn house as their feet draw them nearer.
Petrus gives up trying to get his parents' attention. He doesn't have much time left anyway. He picks up his pencil and continues with his very important letter.
As he ends his letter, he wonders whether it would be silly to add the words "The End" below his last sentence. He quickly decides against it - he would hate for Lynn to think he was a childish 11-year-old. Even if he was – she didn't really have to know. She's miles away will not know otherwise. Instead, he signs his name and writes the date. 18th July, 1987. He's seen his Ma do that in the letters she writes to her sister who lives in America. He folds the sheet of paper into half and repeats folding it into smaller halves till he's left with a tiny square in his palm. He sniggers at the prospect of sending an origami-like letter to his pen pal. He runs to his father's study on the second floor and places his folded letter into the spare envelope his father left him on his desk before leaving for work in the morning. He writes the address, carefully, as he's using a ballpoint pen. Then he rushes down to the front of the house to greet his parents.
As soon as he sees them walking through the picket fence, he runs to them. His father grabs him and holds him up in the air and swirls him around as if he were still baby. "Pa, did you get the stamps for me?" They laugh at his question, clearly tickled by his enthusiasm for sending letters to his pen pal. His father hands him R12 worth of stamps. Petrus grabs them and runs to his bicycle. "I'll be back in 30 minutes." And off he goes on his bicycle with his stamps in the right pocket of his trousers and the envelope in the front pocket of his jacket. He makes it to the post office just before it shuts for the day. He licks the stamps and gently sticks them on the envelope before slotting it into the red post box that has an old signboard above it saying: "OVERSEAS." His heart is beating faster than usual. He's pumped by the fact that the very letter his hands just parted with will soon be in the hands of his pen pal. Then he cycles home slowly. He meanders through the fields that shine like gold in the sun, he makes his way up and down the slopes, along the way passing by fruit orchards and finally to the cabbage fields his family owns. Then he waits for her reply.
And so the letter makes its way to a tiny island called Singapore that sits just above the equator at the southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It may not be your message in a bottle – but the sentiments are the same. It's a message in an envelope, in a tattered cloth sack, in a box, packed away in a ship that sails purposefully across the Indian Ocean for several days and nights, stopping only briefly at a port along the Straits of Malacca before it finally arrives at its destination. It's arduous, this journey it makes – hidden from everyone. But surely, the letter arrives. Intact. Packed with words bound to fill one's anticipated day. It will bring a message, it will bring some joy.
At primary five – after almost a full year of reading all the Nancy Drew books she's been able to borrow at Marine Parade National Library, Lynn is finally sick of the protagonist. She seems too perfect. Completing her high school even before she hits sixteen? Like who does that? Lynn finds herself asking that question many times over whenever she walks home from school or Chinese tuition classes. Not only does Nancy drive, she's able to steer motorboats through narrow canals in foreign lands. Add to that list of wonders: she's a pro at both golf and tennis. She is as comfortable in a kitchen as she is in a chemistry lab. She sings, sews, bakes and paints. Some 20 Nancy Drew titles on, Lynn begins to doubt the plausibility of such a character. It's impossible, she thinks, and unrealistic that Nancy – a mere teenager – is able to jet set around the world, solving crimes and mystery cases. In her rare private moments in her crowded home where she lives with her four siblings, father and mother who's always having aunties and uncles over for marathon mahjong sessions, Lynn's been plagued by her obvious lack of Nancy Drew abilities. What special abilities does she have? She has gone so far as to create a list on a sheet of paper titled with grand words. "My Top Five 'Talents'" She doesn't quite understand why she's used quote marks for the word 'Talents.' But she just did. After almost a week of pondering, she gives up trying to come up with her Top Five 'Talents.' It's depressing. She's obviously isn't a Nancy Drew. She knows that. She does have this special ability though. She has sharp ears that allow her to be overly sensitive to sounds. For instance, she's able to tell which neighbour has just walked past their three-bedroom HDB flat unit without even looking out of the windows or the door. Even with the TV volume switched on full blast and with the mahjong tiles clacking away as her mother and kakis wash the tiles with each new game, she still picks up the walking swish swoosh sounds of her neighbours – each neighbour has a different spring in his step, each has different shoes that make different noises. Best of all, she likes how she's able to use this talent of hers to tell whether the postman has arrived. It's possible because her family lives on the second floor of Block 87 at Marine Terrace and at the wing where the letterboxes are located at the void deck.
It's not the kind of talent that one usually brags about. And so Lynn keeps it to herself. But it does come in handy at times. Lately, she's been obsessed with the postman. Lynn's just started writing to a pen pal. They've written a couple of letters to one another, so far. She's just sent her third letter. Petrus is his name. He lives in South Africa and he's born in the same month and year as her. October, 1976. His hobbies are soccer and stamp collecting. His favourite colour is blue. He is 150 cm tall and weighs 42 kg. He is the only child in his family. So far, Lynn likes how the friendship is growing but she just wishes it didn't take so long to get her mail. Today, like the past ten days – she's been waiting for the postman to bring her a letter from South Africa.
The promise of the postman's daily arrival at Block 87 has a song. It's sung by the cackling sounds of a scooter that coughs in spurts as if its engine were trying to clear its throat. And when it finally does – it's only because the postman pulls the plug. He's arrived at a spot just next to the letterbox.
For Lynn, it's this song that transcends the ambient HDB hustle and bustle of kids screaming, mothers yelling, Filipino maids chatting hurriedly with each other in Tagalog as they walk the dog and slippers slapping against the cement floors as dwellers traverse the journeys of their daily lives. Today, as she hears the call of the postman's imminent arrival, Lynn scrambles out of her room, past the mahjong table where the usual suspects have lined up, and hobbles down to the letter box. She slides out of the flat without anyone noticing.
"You again?" The postman, a Malay uncle, looks down at Lynn, who's standing beside him, watching him sort out the letters. "What's your number again? Uncle old already, cannot remember."
"Not yet do that section, la. Wait can?"
Lynn nods and makes her way to the stone table and chairs nearby. There's an old man wearing a white singlet and blue shorts sitting there too. He's just sitting there doing nothing. It's one of those granite tables that are attached to the ground with a chessboard painted on its surface. Usually the old uncles in the block gather around the table with chess seeds displayed in a manner that creates a lot of excitement for them – it's an excitement she doesn't understand. She doesn't know the rules of the game. The only board games that make her excited are Snakes & Ladders and Scrabble. But this uncle is alone, with no chess seeds in sight, Lynn observes. She tries to make some eye contact with her fellow tablemate. Obviously he doesn't want to make eye contact. It takes him a few minutes to realize that Lynn's been looking at him. Finally when he concedes with a glance, Lynn musters a soft greeting: "Uncle." The old man nods.
"I'm waiting for my letter," she tells him – feeling the need to explain why she's sharing the table with him.
He nods again.
"I have a pen pal. He's from South Africa."
He doesn't say anything, this old man. So, Lynn stops talking. Though the silence at the table tortures her and she wishes that the postman could hurry up and get his job done.
She gazes at the letterboxes and the back of the postman – almost half hoping he'd be able to sense her urgency through her gaze. Not that she has anywhere to go to after this. Life's pretty boring for 11-year-olds in Singapore. Kids have no say at home or in school or pretty much anything that they do. It gets painfully boring. Strangely enough, she finds some comfort in the swift sounds of letter slotting. The postman has a graceful rhythm that flows through his entire body as he goes about his doing his job. As he slots, his hand and leg movements are in sync with the hundreds of letters he dispenses. It almost looks like a martial art, she thinks. A faster-paced version of the Tai Chi practised by the aunties and uncles at the nearby basketball court every morning. His gestures are forceful yet agile – until he finally finishes the lot. As the last letter flies out of his hand - his body begins to droop like a sigh. He turns around.
"Sorry la girl – you got no letter today. Maybe tomorrow."
"Oh... Okay." Lynn tries, but cannot mask her disappointment.
Teardrops threaten to swell up in her eyes, but she controls herself as the uncle is still at the table. She doesn't know why it's taken so long for Petrus to reply. The last time, it was only two weeks. It's now been almost three week since she sent him her reply. She wonders if her letter got lost at sea. Maybe she didn't stick enough stamps on her envelope. She doesn't know. Maybe tomorrow, it will arrive.
"Don't be sad. Your letter will arrive. South Africa very far away."
Lynn looks across the table.
The old uncle does have a point. South Africa seems terribly far away. She looked it up in the atlas at the school library last week and saw that there was this entire huge ocean that stands between South Africa and Singapore. The letter has to travel through Indian Ocean that's so much bigger than that tiny dot of an island she calls home.
"Uncle used to work in the post office, so uncle knows. South Africa. Very far away."
He finally gets a smile from Lynn.
"Okay -- which post office you work at before?" she asks as if the location mattered.
"Very long ago, way way before you were born. At the General Post Office at Fullerton. Uncle was a clerk there for a few years."
Lynn hasn't the slightest clue where Fullerton is but it does sound vaguely familiar. She wants to believe him about her letter arriving soon. She should, she thinks. After all, he has worked at the post office before.
The next day, the letter still doesn't show up. It's the same no-show for the next couple of days. Every evening, Lynn will sit by the stone table. Every single time the postman takes up his last stack of letters, her heart will skip a beat – only to sink whenever the postman finishes the lot, turns around, and shakes off his raised hands as a signal to her.
Unlike the letter, the old uncle is more reliable. He's always there by the stone table every evening. With each passing day, their chats get more interesting.
Over the week, Lynn finds out that the old man's name is Uncle Boon. Uncle Boon is 71 years old. Other than being a clerk at the post office before, he has a whole string of other uninteresting jobs: chauffeur, cleaner, encyclopedia salesman and school janitor – that was his last job. They are the kinds of jobs that Lynn's parents would scare her with as they illustrate their lessons on jobs to avoid and the importance of doing well in school. Uncle Boon is a widower, who now lives with his son and his family.
"Why are you here at the void deck all the time, Uncle Boon?" Lynn asks him once.
He doesn't know how to answer this little new friend of his. No one's ever asked him that before. Where does he even begin? He's never told anyone this before, but he feels useless at home. He feels uncomfortable at home, like he doesn't belong. There's hardly any room for him in the tiny flat at home anyway. He feels awkward sitting around the flat where there are three young grandkids, a domestic helper and his daughter in law. The room that's been given to him is more like a storeroom – where boxes of T-Shirts are kept and collecting dust. His son runs his own T-Shirt printing business at Queensway shopping centre and doesn't have enough storage space in his shop. It's all dark and dusty in his bedroom. He only goes in there to sleep every night. Everyone is always so busy, but he has so much free time.
"Waiting lor." He answers.
"Waiting for the postman too or what?"
After eight days, the letter from South Africa finally arrives. Lynn tears up the envelope right at the void deck – as soon as the postman gets onto his bike and scoots away. She holds up the one-page letter in her hands as if she's just won a prize and flaps it in the gentle breeze that often sweeps through Block 87. Uncle Boon laughs so hard that his eyes disappear into tiny slits. Lynn reads the letter standing just by the letterbox. When she's done, she walks over to Uncle Boon.
"His parents are cabbage farmers," she proudly announces. She passes him the letter. Uncle Boon reads it and says he's impressed with Petrus' standard of English. "He writes very well."
Every three to four weeks, they wait together for letters from South Africa. Even Uncle Boon gets excited about the letters now – though he refrains from showing his growing liking for the South African pen pal. But the photo of the mountain of cabbage Petrus sends breaks the ice completely. "We must send Petrus something funny too," Uncle Boon says one evening.
"We?" Lynn asks.
"Yes, we. I have a pen pal in South Africa too."
Lynn laughs. "Yes, we do."
Sometimes, Lynn lets Uncle Boon read some passages of her letter to Petrus. After writing all about her hobbies and likes and dislikes, Lynn progresses to more personal stuff. Like how she hates her class monitor Xiao Ping because she's always boasting about her ever-growing Barbie Doll collection. Or how she's terribly afraid of her Chinese teacher at school who once threw pieces of chalk in her direction for talking to her neighbour during a spelling exercise. But the bit that Uncle Boon loves the most about her confessions to Petrus is how she never gets to eat the chicken drumstick at home.
"Chicken drumsticks in Chinese families are only for the boys. My brothers always get to eat them. So, I pretend to like chicken wings instead," she writes in one of her letters once.
Week after week, their friendship deepens, right at the void deck of the block of flats where they live.
"Uncle Boon, I'm also like you, waiting. Waiting, so that I can leave this place and go far away."
"Why you say that?"
"Cos I wanna eat chicken drumsticks too."
They both laugh.
"And South African cabbage?" Uncle Boon adds.
"Ya lah and South African cabbage. It's all study study study now. So boring. I want to be old enough to travel around the world."
"That's what I said too when I was younger... But now I'm too old to travel around the world. I don't know what happened in between."
"You're not too old Uncle Boon." As soon as she says that, Lynn feels awful. It's an obvious lie, Lynn knows, yet she doesn't know what else to say. The man sitting across from her is old. The skin on his face is so wrinkled that the lines bunch up together whenever he smiles or laughs. His hands and legs are frail and weak. Looking at him, she feels uncomfortable for him. She wonders how it must feel like to be active in your mind but trapped in a failing body. Lynn feels awful about lying.
Still, Uncle Boon nods.
She senses he didn't believe her either.
"I think I will send Petrus my family photo next week," Lynn says, changing the topic.
"That's a good idea."
It's been almost nine days since she last saw Uncle Boon. Lynn's worried. Every day, even before the postman arrives, she hangs around at the same spot at the void deck – waiting for Uncle Boon to appear. On some days, she's full of fear, thinking of the worst news that might come in the shape of white tent. The white tents she so often sees at the void decks of HDB blocks. Every day, she waits, but he doesn't appear. Even the postman doesn't know anything about Uncle Boon.
"Sorry girl, I don't know who you're talking about."
"That old man I used to talk to every day... you mean you don't know him?"
The postman shrugs and goes on with his martial art.
Lynn's upset. Waiting for Uncle Boon to reappear again is worse than waiting for Petrus' letter. At least, she knows that only the Indian Ocean separates Petrus and her. Uncle Boon has just disappeared into thin air. He cannot even be placed on a map. She's beginning to lose hope and even wonders if she perhaps imagined Uncle Boon.
The next day, Lynn hears the postman's scooter plying her neighbourhood blocks. She's no longer excited. She continues to sit on a stool by her mom – watching her play mahjong. She doesn't understand the game much. She cannot understand the excitement that bubbles and fizzles around the square table. She's only sitting there because her mom has asked her too. It's her way of spending some time with her daughter. When Lynn finally gets bored, she makes her way down to letterbox. The postman's left by then.
There are two letters waiting for her. One from South Africa. One from China. The postcard from China is a picture of a beautiful crystal clear aquamarine blue beach. It has the words Sunny Sanya, Hainan Island on it. She grabs the postcard and flips it.
There's a message: "In Hainan Island on a holiday. Just had the best Hainanese chicken drumstick! I'll bring home one for you. Uncle Boon."
She folds her short letter neatly and slides it into her perfumed Hello Kitty envelope. She needs to get this to Petrus quick. She doesn't want him to worry about Uncle Boon, too. The stamps her sister bought for her have pictures of colourful tropical fish. They look hilarious next to Hello Kitty, Lynn thinks, as she walks to the postbox by the next block. She slots the letter into the box with the sign that says: OTHER COUNTRIES. As she parts with the letter, Lynn wishes that some day soon, she'd too be able to travel across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and beyond just like her letters. But for now, her letters go before her. Then she walks home. Then she waits.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009