My phone rings constantly.
Sometimes they don’t tell me their names, or even say ‘hello’. They just tell me what their message is and who to address it to. Sometimes they give me specific instructions; “Leave my number and a message on the windshield of every black Honda Accord in Toa Payoh. How are things? I miss you.” or “Tell my mother I didn’t mean to let the cat out” or “Please scatter my accusations all over the doorstep of unit number #05-06, Blk 612, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 so that they cut their feet”.
I spent 3 days going about Toa Payoh searching for every black Honda Accord. The man tells me this is the only thing he remembers, the only thing he is certain of that can help him find her. I marked out every car park in the vicinity, visiting 4 car parks in a day, of course by the third day I have not fulfilled my quota. I tell the man I found every black Honda Accord anyway. That there are 29 black Honda Accords in Toa Payoh alone and although it is a relatively small number, it also means that the numbers are less saturated and I had to look even harder to find just one black Honda Accord.
The man called me on Monday, “I get calls sometimes too. Most ask, “Who is this?” Others tell me about their day, only one has ever told me they miss me too.”
If you asked me, I don’t think I can pinpoint the exact moment I started letter writing. I think I eased into it, like a hand fits a glove. Without it, I feel like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn.
It began with birthday letters. My roommate in University, Ming, would tell me about his mother, how when he was a child he always called for her from his bed and asked for a glass of water before he slept, when in actual fact he wasn’t thirsty. All he wanted was the person attached to the hand that was attached to that glass of water. He told me it was her birthday that week so I wrote a letter for him, addressed to his mother.
Soon it became Christmas cards, and when more students required my service, breakup letters too. I’d seal them in an envelope, then slip them into the slit below their door where the fluorescent light bled onto the corridor. After a few moments, there would be some disturbance in the light and the shadows dip, telling me that the recipient had indeed received a letter and that my job was done.
You could barely call me a writer. In fact I’m not good with words, whenever a client calls, the first thing I’ll ask is, “Who are you writing this for?” Usually there is no need for a second question. I listen to them, expounding and cursing their limited vernacular, tortured voices on the other line. Even through the phone, every decibel vibrates with sincerity.
“Its not like I don’t have the words, I do, I really do. It’s just that it feels like there is a lid you know… how to say, a lid or like a band wound around the part of the brain that prevents expression. I can’t express it eloquently enough. And I wouldn’t want her to misunderstand my intentions would I?” A man once explained this to me about 5 times during our conversation. Some people have too much pride. I just respond politely and try to direct him back to business.
“Who are you writing this for?”
Their answers are always different. The most common letters are for exes, letters soggy from over remembering. I know once the letters are delivered, my clients tend to be purged of whatever leftover nostalgia. Some are even embarrassed, asking if I could take it back like an undo button when you send the wrong email. “Of course not,” I reply, this isn’t the godammed Internet. But of course I tell them nicely. “I’m afraid that would be impossible.”
The risk of appearing like a self-loathing, clingy and cloying sentimental creep usually discourages my clients from leaving their names, so I send the letters anonymously. Addressed To: Ex From 20 Years Ago with no return address.
Mothers receive the most cards. Sometimes my clients send me a photograph of their families and have me write on the back of them. It is usually a family; teeth gleaming in wherever far flung location across oceans their mother has most definitely not been to before. Ridges in the background, faces backlit, but not dark enough to conceal that smile that seemed to say, “I’m getting by without you.” I think the guilt of not visiting prevents them from calling their Mothers or even dropping them a text. Mothers are not obsolete with technology you know.
“Who are you writing this for?”
Like I said, one question is all it takes for me to get my material. How it usually works- I just listen. They tell me all sorts of things, things I know they don’t talk about a lot because they all start crying about 1 minute into the conversation. Over choked gurgles and awfully long heaving pauses, is where I come in. I do my job by processing all these unprocessed cesspool of emotions locked up somewhere in them and translate them into words. Of course I don’t have the right words, but my clients like to believe I do. I empathise with them as much as I can, perhaps secondhand emotions can never be as genuine or raw, but over the years I would like to think that I’ve accumulated and expanded my emotional spectrum, by fleeting from one secondhand skin to the next. Understanding things from a fresh perspective, allows me clarity and resolve- to put to words what can’t be said. This hasn’t failed me once.
When I left University, Ming placed an ad the size of a 6cm by 6cm square in the Classifieds for me. I told him it was unnecessary since I already landed a full-time job in finance from the government sector. Ming did it anyway, saying it was for fun. “Take it as a graduation gift from me to you.”
My phone’s been ringing for 3 years now. In those 3 years I’ve written over 95 letters, 64 cards, 78 notes, 18 eulogies, 10 regular wedding toasts, and a lipstick on mirror note. In other words, you could call me a freelance writer, except I don’t write publications, I write for people. I did up a cost chart only at the end of my first year.
1) Eulogy - Pet $5 – Person $ 80
- 2) Wedding Toast - For bride/groom $35 – For bride/groom whom you still harbour feelings for $45
- 3) Regular Services - Love Letters $50 – Birthday Letters $45 – Holiday Greetings and Cards $30 – Break Up Letters and Notes (Regular) $50 – Break Up Letters and Notes (Stained with tears) $55 – Apologies $45
- 4) Special Requests Dependent on amount of skill, effort needed. Material, medium and length of message taken into consideration
Additional pages are charged at $2- 30 per page. Phone calls charges are dismissive.
I have a limit of special requests of course. Clients can’t expect me to write an entire fucking book or a 32-paged prenuptial. Most of the time I hardly raise questions, or turn down requests unless they break any laws. There was only ever one exception though.
The call came around 4pm on a Saturday.
“I need your help,” a voice hardly local, yet I was unable to discern what accent she bore.
“Hello. Uh, who are you writing this for?”
“I need you to help me break into an apartment.”
“Sorry what? I’m not sure if I am hearing you correctly, you want me to break into an apartment?” Not another one of these calls.
“That is correct. I need you to enter the do-“
“Hold on Ms, uh I’m sorry, your request is illegal. Um, I’m going to put down the phone right now. Thanks for calling.”
Break into an apartment? What? Some people think I can do everything. I got back to work- I was halfway through a break up letter, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that call with the strange lady. Nothing seemed to be coming out right, rereading my letter I sounded bland, insincere, completely stale. I scratched out the paragraph. I couldn’t write anymore, I’ll get back to this later.
It was humid that night in bed. Even though the air-conditioning unit was turned to 19 degrees Celsius, sweat still clung onto my forehead, to the sheets, splayed all over my back. All I could think of was the strange conversation I had earlier today, my letters crumpled up in a heap dumped unceremoniously in a corner. It felt like an animal crawled a hollow into my chest and was now clawing deeper at my sides. There was something unsettling about this absence, this abrupt illuminating existential discovery of inexistence.
I needed to break into that apartment.
Writer with a passion for translating electrifying ideas onto paper and watching them come to life. Daydreams of ramen 24/7. Takes lip sync battles very seriously.