Variations on the Theme of Coffee
A Breakdown in Three Parts
By Leow Hui Min Annabeth
There is a café in the city library, cool and filled with the scent of pastry. Rieu's Iliad is balanced carefully on my lap, Lattimore's on his. Between us is a half-finished plate of chocolate éclairs.
'Well,' I say, fighting to keep my voice from shaking. 'That's enough of Homer for today, I guess.' I set down the cappuccino, and lick the last bit of froth off the corner of my mouth. It feels inappropriate to be in here, in a city library all steel and wood and apparent modernism; to be surrounded by classics that despite my anglicised and literary upbringing I will never read; to be clutching in my nervous fingers a mug of coffee that cost more than lunch. There is a thin line between precocity and pose, between bourgeoisie and excess. I wonder sometimes if he ever realises this, or if he has never had the need.
'So,' he says, and his accent twists between something transatlantic and something Malaysian, which always makes me bite my lip in suppressed anger. 'Do you want to catch a movie, or what?'
His offer is an enticement, with the promise of a long afternoon in Orchard, window-shopping for books and geekery which he, not I, can afford. I get to my feet, stuffing E.V. Rieu into my schoolbag, my toes curling inside their soft cloth shoes.
'I'm sorry,' I tell him, making a show of checking my phone's calendar. 'I have to get back. I was supposed to be fasting today, even.'
'Dude.' He pouts. I know what he will say: that I don't believe, so I need not observe. It makes a logical sort of sense, but it's an argument I always forestall and do my best to ignore.
When I step out into the street, though, to find my way to the city parish of St Joseph's, it is like walking into a moist, warm cell. The sharp note of ozone cuts through the heat shimmer, and the imminent rain threatens to up the humidity even further.
I plead myself unprepared, flee back into the air-conditioned bubble, and spend the rest of the day amongst old books and the smell of caramelised Arabica.
When she wakes up in his bed the next morning, it is not quite dawn yet. She has always been an early riser, ever since her childhood, when her grandmother would wake her at four to attend the sunrise Mass and then to shop for groceries in the wet market. This stopped when her grandmother died, but by then she was getting up early to do the laundry and the chores, and later on to finish last-minute homework before school.
Now, she is a woman of twenty-odd, without any homework, with a maid at home to potter about cleaning at ungodly hours. But she still hasn't shaken the habit of an early start after late nights.
So she scrabbles away from his sleeping form, and clambers out of bed, shivering when her feet touch the cold marble floor.
One of her morning chores, in her childhood, would be to prepare breakfast for her parents and her maternal grandfather, her only surviving grandparent. Her grandfather would buy his coffee from a shop down the road, which called itself a 'coffee powder factory' out of nostalgia and sheer stubborn loyalty to the 1950s. The proprietor there took pride in selling the coffee powder in packets still hot from the grist.
She remembers when she was ten, and her parents finally thought she was old enough to drink coffee. She had snuck sips before, as a toddler, and made unhappy faces at the bitterness; but by the time she was ten, her palate had been rounded out with bittergourd and sambal belachan and other flavours which made coffee seem underdeveloped in comparison. It became a staple, the same way rice and salt were staples: something she subsisted on, but took no notice of.
His kitchen has no coffee powder. The discovery shocks her. Its absence in the house is as repulsive as the presence of a cockroach or a nest of ants. (She does not mind geckos, because cicak-cicak keep mosquitoes away.)
There are no packets of ground beans, or even the kopi o bags pre-packaged in Malaysia and laced with margarine to keep the grains from clumping. There is no instant mix. There is something that looks like a coffee-machine, but the kitchen – a tiny affair outfitted with excess of chrome – is terrifyingly exotic, since her approach to coffee has typically been as low-tech as Here is a strainer, a tin, and a supply of hot water.
She checks the shelves, therefore, only to find sauces (which her grandfather made from scratch), and liqueurs (which her family did not drink), and crockery in elaborate glass and porcelain (which were beyond her household's means and likings). She has slept over in nice houses before, with fairly amiable mornings-after, but even those homeowners stocked instant noodles and cheap tinned soup.
The loaf on the countertop is wholegrain, with streaks of cheese and dried fruit embedded in the bread. Idly she wonders where one even obtains such foodstuff. She helps herself to a slice anyway; but when she looks for kaya there is only butter and jam.
Holy Mary, she thinks, giving up and slipping out to see if there are such things as corner provision stores in pretty, suburban neighbourhoods.
When he gets out of bed, a little after nine in the morning, there's white bread, buttered and sugared, on the dining room table. There was cold beef in the fridge, too, but despite the lack of altars in his home she is uncomfortable with offending the nominally existing deities by whom she sets so much store.
The mugs beside each plate contain thick brew, topped up with liberal helpings of condensed milk. He quirks an eyebrow at this unfamiliarity.
She glances up from the day's papers and smiles sweetly. 'I like to feel at home,' she says.
I pick up the polystyrene cup. The liquid inside has gone tepid, and I know I have to ration the instant mix packets, but I need an indulgence every so often – carnal indulgences, not just plenary ones.
Someone walks up to me, passes me a white envelope of baijin. My face assumes that difficult expression of both pathetic gratitude and sombre mourning. We make small talk: 'I'll miss him, you know, we were in med school together' and 'Yes, I see, thank you so much for coming, then.' Then, when the stranger has gone into the hall, I discreetly open the envelope and make a dutiful note of the sum in my accounts book.
I don't like this sort of task. Not in the least. Not at all.
I pick up my cup again, where I have set it down, and take a pull of the coffee, a long draught to drain the cup to its dregs. It's sour. I make a face.
In his coffin he pretends not to notice.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010
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