By Angie Ho Guyoton
The minute hand eclipsed the number '4' just as Ah Hock emerged from a flight of stairs at the end of the car park. Mr Wong peeled his eyes from his watch, caught sight of Ah Hock and waved him over to his parked cream-coloured van.
"Morning Mr Wong. I'm not too late I hope," Ah Hock said, wiping his sweaty forehead.
"Good morning Ah Hock. No problem at all. I guess you're not used to getting up early," Mr Wong said, "how is Mei Yin doing?"
"Oh she's doing well. The baby's due soon," Ah Hock smiled.
"Good, good. Is it confirmed? - A boy or a girl?"
"A boy. I hope. Well, we're not sure. He refused to open his legs. All the scans were inconclusive. We don't know his sex but at least we know he's healthy."
"That's the most important," said Mr Wong, looking kindly at Ah Hock's face.
Mr Wong had agreed to take on his neighbour out of pity. Ah Hock had just quit his job at The Casino. He was desperate for work and money, especially with a baby on its way. In addition to his wife and two daughters, there were also his aged and frail parents-in-law to support. Ah Hock had turned to Mr Wong for financial help.
"Of course we take sick leave when we are ill, we need to rest in order to recuperate, festive season or not. I took far too many the management said. My foot!" Ah Hock had explained to Mr Wong indignantly. Instead of lending him money, Mr Wong offered Ah Hock a job as a painter in his small renovation company.
"Since it's your first day, you can do some minor scraping and painting. Someone more experienced will do the bathroom." From his van, Mr Wong retrieved a worn overall and gave it to Ah Hock.
"Change into this, you don't want dust and paint on your clean clothes. When you're done, help me lift this ladder out of the van."
Ah Hock did as he was told. With his toolbox in hand, Mr Wong locked his van, and seeing that Ah Hock could carry the ladder on his own, led the way to the old 3-room HDB flat. Heaving the ladder, Ah Hock hastened after the old man. Both men walked across a playground, past under a sheltered passage and on to the void deck of block 17. Ah Hock was already drenched in sweat before the lift took them to the 5th storey.
"Good morning Mrs Tan," Mr Wong said as a woman unlocked the padlock to her gate to let them in.
"Good morning Mr Wong. A new worker today?"
"Yes, Ah Soon fell sick last night. Had a fever apparently. Youngsters these days can't endure hard work. They want it easy - desk-bound jobs in air-con offices. Nobody wants to do renovation work anymore. Soon, I'd have to hire more foreigners," Mr Wong chuckled, "this is Ah Hock, my new apprentice."
"Good morning Mrs Tan," Ah Hock greeted the woman, who smiled and acknowledged Ah Hock with a little nod of the head.
"I hope the condition of my flat wouldn't scare this young man away," Mrs Tan added.
"Ha, ha, ha, don't worry, look at how sturdy he is. I'm sure Ah Hock can withstand hardship. He has nerves of steel," Mr Wong laughed and slapped Ah Hock on the shoulder.
Ah Hock examined the cracks – mostly peeling old paint that should be easy to scrape off. There was, however, a hole near the bottom corner of a wall. Ah Hock squatted to have a closer look – it was about the size of his palm. He ran his fingers over it and rubbed at its edges – the sides are shallow but the centre is deep, he would have to fill it in. Ah Hock made a mental note to ask Mr Wong for cement when he returned later. Mr Wong had gone to collect the tiles for the bathroom and had left Ah Hock alone to do the scraping. Ah Hock stood up.
"What business have you poking around here?" The voice was soft and distant, yet pristinely clear.
"Huh?" It must be the sudden rush of blood to his head, Ah Hock thought. He had stood up too quickly, or was it due to skipping breakfast. Not wanting to be late, Ah Hock had rushed off from home without having a bite. Else, he was giddy due to the stuffiness – it was a windowless room, a dingy cell really, concluded Ah Hock, partitioned off from a bigger room. The windowless room's only opening was a door that led to a bigger room with a tiny window and a door, and that door led to the living room area. Was it Mrs Tan? Ah Hock walked out the door, to the other door and peered out. The kindly woman was nowhere in sight.
Unfazed, Ah Hock turned his attention back to the task at hand and walked back to the windowless room. He ensured that the plastic covering the floor was in place: Ah Soon had done a good job the day before given the shape of the room and its odd corners. Only the portion of plastic sheet below the hole needed adjustment. Ah Hock tore off some masking tape, got down on all fours and began to tape the plastic sheet back into place. He then set out his ladder and leaned it against the wall. He climbed carefully up three steps and began to scrape at some peeling paint. Dust filled the air and a whiff of mouldy stench tickled his nostrils. 'They really should air this room,' Ah Hock thought, pinching his nose, 'and I should have asked for a mask.'
"Get off my wall! " said the same soft and distant voice, this time angrier.
Ah Hock lost his balance and fell hard on his bottom. "Ouch!"
"Ha, ha, ha, that will teach you," mocks the voice.
"Who's there?" Rubbing his bum, Ah Hock stood up. His eyes searched the windowless room. Nothing. He called out for Mrs Tan. There was no answer.
"Where are you?" Ah Hock's voice echoed. "Who, or, what are you?" Ah Hock was surprised by his courage.
"What am I? I am the owner of this place. How dare you intrude into my sanctuary, leave my wall alone," the voice hissed.
'A talking wall?' Ah Hock was incredulous. Feeling more inquisitive than fear, Ah Hock said, "I'm just scraping for a living, I mean no harm." Then, overwhelmed by his curiosity, Ah Hock tapped at the wall.
"What are you doing?"
Ah Hock stopped short at the hole, squatted and poked his scraper into it.
"So there you are," Ah Hock said triumphantly, "now why don't you come out?"
"I would if I could," scoffed the voice.
'So it isn't a talking wall but a trapped spirit,' a bemused Ah Hock deduced. He stood staring at the hole, wondering what to make of it.
"Look, I won't harm you, so don't harm me. Just let me finish my job and I promise to leave you alone."
"I don't want to harm you. I want you to leave my wall alone."
"But I am leaving your wall alone, I'm not tearing it down or anything like that. In fact, I'm going to make it brand new for you – with a little scrape, fill up that hole, then a nice coat of paint, and I'm out of here. Promise."
"I can't let you do that. If you seal this hole, then I'd be trapped in here forever." Was it terror that Ah Hock sense in the voice?
"If I don't seal this hole and paint this wall, I wouldn't get paid, and then I'd be trapped in debt forever!" said Ah Hock, exasperated.
"If you seal this hole then I'd have to harm you."
"Can I get you out first? Tell me how."
"No you can't, it's beyond human," the voice sobbed.
"Shit, what luck? Why me!" Mulling over the dilemma, Ah Hock reached into his jeans' pocket for his packet of Lucky Strike.
"I'd be out of here soon. It's just a matter of time."
"When?" Ah Hock tapped a cigarette out of the box and fumbled for his lighter.
"I don't know exactly, but it's very soon."
"Look, I'm sorry about your predicament, but I need money, very soon, and I must finish my work by this week in order to get paid."
"Think of an alternative. Spare my wall."
"What do you think I'm doing then?" Ah Hock took another drag of his cigarette; the surge of tobacco sent a kind of lightness to his head. He felt better instantly.
"Alright, I'm not supposed to do this, I'll just put it down as desperation - I'll grant you a wish if you promise not to seal this hole."
"What, now you're a genie?" Ah Hock laughed, " How can I trust you?"
"You just have to," the voice affirmed, soft and distant.
"All right. I want two wishes: the first to win my trust; the second, for the promise of not sealing the hole."
"You humans are alike, nourished by greed."
"Now who's begging who? Do you want your freedom or be trapped in here forever?"
"As you wish. Remember, you must keep your promise."
"Wooo," the voice wailed.
Two days later, Ah Hock turned up for work with a bag of fruits and joss sticks. He was careful to hide them from Mr Wong and Mrs Tan. Like before, Mr Wong and Mrs Tan left Ah Hock alone to do his job. Once inside the windowless room, Ah Hock beamed at the freshly painted wall – the day before, with the scraping done, he had given the wall its first coat of paint. Whistling, he walked over to a corner and removed a piece of cardboard – the hole appeared, intact. He placed the fruits in front of the hole and burned three joss sticks.
"You are indeed real," cried Ah Hock happily, "a boy! Yes, a boy, finally! I could hardly believe it when I saw the scan yesterday. It didn't look clear at first, but the doctor was pretty sure it's a boy"
"So. Did I not grant you your wish?" said the soft and distant voice.
"Oh yes! Yes! Enjoy your treat. Now, as for my second wish..."
"You want money."
"Uh, how do you know?"
"Don't underestimate me."
"Oh no I wouldn't, and yes, I want money, lots of it."
"Then so be it," the voice sighed.
As instructed, Ah Hock kept his eyes fixed on the whirling incense smoke.
That night, Ah Hock's 4-D number came out third prize. He was disappointed that it didn't come in first, but nonetheless, he had won quite a substantial amount. He was glad that he took the risk of putting in a big stake by borrowing money from Ah Heng.
The next morning
After claiming his money, Ah Hock decided to call in sick. With a bag stuffed full of all his winnings, Ah Hock took a taxi and headed to The Casino. "I'll show them who has the last laugh."
Midday in the windowless room
"You no good son-of-a-bitch! Fraud! You made me lose! I should have known better than to believe you!" Seething with rage, Ah Hock pounded at the wall. "I've lost everything and it's your fault!"
"Excuse me, you wanted money, so I let you win 4-D. I didn't ask you to gamble it all away. Whose fault? You greedy ungrateful sloth!"
"Shut up! I kept my promise. You didn't! You ruined me!"
"You ruined yourself."
"Bullshit? After what I've done for you? I'm not wasting another second on you."
"You evil piece of shit! I'll show you!" With that, Ah Hock stomped out of the windowless room. He went into the bathroom, retrieved a pail, located a bag of cement, and began to mix his concoction. He returned to face the wall; He scooped up some cement and flung it onto the wall.
"Here's your treat," Ah Hock shouted, splashing more cement onto the wall.
"Scared now? You've lost your voice?" Ah Hock grinned into the hole.
"Take that!" Ah Hock sealed the hole with cement. He then added more layers onto it. The wall grew in inches, then feet, and eventually it doubled in thickness. Ah Hock raced back to the bathroom and returned with a huge sack, shouting and howling till he became hoarse.
The soft and distant voice remained silent.
"There, you asked for it. Here's your final burial ground!" He went on and on attacking the wall, till derision overcame him, and at long last, Ah Hock collapsed onto the floor, his mind and body swarmed by exhaustion.
Ah Hock was roused by the ringing of his mobile phone. Before he could answer it, it became the fifth missed call.
"Ah Hock, where are you. Quickly come to the hospital, Mei Yin is in labour!" That SMS sent Ah Hock flying out of the flat.
4pm in the windowless room
"I didn't ask for a mosaic wall," cried Mrs Tan, "this is supposed to be a walk-in closet! Mirrors! Not tiles!"
Mr Wong stared at Ah Hock's handiwork; he was speechless. He took his mobile phone from his shirt pocket and dialed Ah Hock's number. Seconds later, a techno tune resonated in the room - Ah Hock had left his mobile phone behind.
When Ah Hock got to the hospital, the baby was already born. He rushed into Mei Yin's room and saw her sitting up in bed, cradling the baby. A nurse was tending to them.
"Congratulations Mr Lim," said the nurse chirpily, "what a beautiful baby; big and healthy. She's going to melt many hearts." She then left the room to give the couple some privacy.
"She? A girl? Wait a minute. There must be a mistake." Ah Hock searched Mei Yin's face for an explanation. "I thought the doctor said...the scan showed...how can it be possible..." Ah Hock felt the room whirled.
"The doctor said sometimes scans are not 100 percent accurate. It's rare but," tears brimmed up Mei Yin's eyes, "I'm sorry dear."
Ah Hock stared at the baby with disbelief. Distaste choked at his throat.
"She is still our flesh and blood," Mei Yin began to whimper. "Dear, please." Mei Yin lifted the baby up to Ah Hock pleadingly.
Ah Hock buried his face in his hands and let up a big sigh. Slowly, he surrendered to Mei Yin's request and she gingerly placed the baby into his trembling hands. Ah Hock glanced at the baby's cringed purplish face, and at that moment, the baby opened her eyes and let out a cry - her voice: soft and distant, yet pristinely clear.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011