The autumn breeze grazed his left cheek comfortingly as his gaze was fixated on the rows and rows of ceiling lights above. The walls were an eye-piercing white, so painstakingly bright that every thing and corner of the office was so clearly noticeable. The cold hard leather files shelved in the wooden display cabinet, the various leaves of the fake plant in its corner pot, the dust left to accumulate on the window ledges and the crimson antique telephone resting heavily on the display stool. They all stood out equally, every one as exposed as the other. Nothing could be hidden in this place.
“Do you prefer coffee or tea, Mr Tang?”
“Uhm, tea would be great, thank you,” he answered the lady in violet as she smiled cordially before returning to the pantry and out of sight. Mr Tang. He had not expected that, although thinking about it made him feel silly. He glanced at his watch, an expensive gift made possible by his friends some years ago. 9.25am. She should be here any minute, he thought.
“Oh don’t be worried,” the lady in violet was back. “She doesn’t like it when someone is openly worried, you know?” She placed a porcelain tea cup with its saucer on the corner table he was seated beside, winked at him and left while he contemplated her words over and over again. He took another peek at his watch, this time less conspicuously. 9.29am.
“Hi Mr Tang! Sorry for the wait. I hope you’ve been attended to? I’m Claudia. Pleasure to finally meet you.”
The end of term was not marked by the alarming school bell that shrieked after 2pm like in secondary schools, but a soft tick of the hour hand in the clock on the wall of the silent tutorial room. Accompanying that was the incongruous sound of bags being packed, chairs being dragged and elusive chatter that would never sound like someone familiar. The lecturer took his leave even before the students, abandoning his ship like it was sinking.
It’s fucking over, someone somewhere was heard yelling at the top of his lungs intermittently. It’s fucking over!
He left the tutorial room with everyone else, diverged from the main passage way and out of the building with two friends. The skies were not bright orange or gleaming effervescently outside. There were no birds chirping passionately or beautiful nature commending the occasion. Instead, the clouds looked terribly moody and the wind felt harsh, bringing along with it various sand and dirt particles off the ground into zealous young eyes. It was nothing like in the films or stories, but over here, it was a heavenly time of the day, for at least they were not perspiring in their hoodies. Sam took out his skully bandanna while Joshua looked at himself in the pocket mirror as they strolled past fresh-faced year 1s and cranky year 2s along the open walkway. He reassured himself that he was ready to leave the campus.
“I’ve got literally nothing left to do in this place,” Joshua cheekily said. “I can finally sign on with the Army.”
“When’s that gonna be,” he wilfully questioned.
“Oh, y’know, when I enlist. It’s called expressing interest, they say. It’s a good thing, a great thing. People respect you for doing that, joining the forces.”
“Yeah! It’s dignified. It’s not like running some gay fitness centre for middle-aged, saggy-ass moms who go there to learn something that sounds as lame as Zumba,” Joshua sniggered ecstatically.
“Hey, fuck off. It’s pronounced Zoom-ba and it beats brushing your teeth in liquor every night,” Sam exploded cheerfully. “You’re not gonna be at our funerals, you know that right? Because we’re gonna outlive your unhealthy ass.”
“Yeah yeah, okay, fun-police. What about you rat-face? What’re you gonna do?”
“Nothing much,” he confessed. “Gonna take my time. No deadlines.”
“Uh-huh. How’s that gonna work? You need a job to support yourself.”
“And even if you don’t have one, you gotta pay the bills at home, yeah? Gotta contribute.”
“But I don’t wanna jump into just anything, y’know?”
“I’ll get by on part-time jobs. Odd jobs. I just need enough to pay for food and drinks. I’ll save up, quit, travel, come back broke. Then work, save up, quit, travel, come back broke again. It’s really simple.”
“Yeah, except girls here want stability. They want to be able to spend. They want a wedding, a flat, a kid, a car, and they want them all fast. Y’know it’s like th…-”
“Yeah! They do! They want everything in the magazines and commercials. They want everything, and they have many, like…milestones they wanna achieve,” Joshua paused for a bit. They had arrived at the bus stop.
“So let’s break it down for you. The typical temptress gets a job at 22. She wants you to have the same best before 25, after NS and Uni. That three years they have ahead of you, they’re going to expend on whatever the hell they want. Snails, even. Then, when you start, they will tell you they want a flat by 27, a wedding in the same year, then a honeymoon and some time together in the new flat, then a car before 29 and a baby before 30.”
“These are all very very real man. They are. I’ve heard them too. So to get all these, you have to get proper work asap, so you don’t lose out.”
“Right. Who am I competing with exactly?”
“But you have to do it. It’s just one of those things. And it’s only fair for the women.”
“Not me. I don’t give a shit about other people’s deadlines.”
“Don’t you want a family?”
“Can love be rushed?”
“So, let’s just say a girl wanted to adhere to those ridiculous deadlines, yeah? Let’s just say. Would she break up with the person she’s been seeing at say…26 – a year from her self-imposed wedding deadline – if she learned then that her partner wasn’t genuinely right for her? That he didn’t love her properly? Or that she didn’t?”
“We don’t know that…bu…-”
“No, make a guess. From your experience. Would they?”
“So you’re telling me that this hypothetical relationship gets a kick in the ass into marriage because…of a deadline, and you’re perfectly comfortable thinking about and perpetuating it?”
“Alright, what about your parents then? Aren’t they struggling?”
“They are, but that’s different.”
“You can’t follow someone’s footsteps when you know they are walking blind.”
Another pink slip was forced into the flat through the bottom of the heavy main door. On it was the stamp that read “urgent” in red ink and bold capital letters. He hadn’t seen one of those in three weeks. And there he was, thinking it had meant that the situation was more or less resolved.
The agonising waltz to the brown fire-rated door began to take shape once again. His steps paused with a seasoned sigh upon reaching the door mat. There was nothing he would have felt less like doing in the world, but he had to be the only one in the living room then, exposed to all of existence’s whims. As if mustering courage, he heaved another wearisome sigh before bending down to retrieve the familiar pink slip.
He had never, however long and hard he had tried, opened the slip himself. Every time it was delivered, he only saw the opened letter a day after, sitting menacingly on the couch like a guilty purchase from the mall no one at home was willing to use. For once, he felt like he was actually close to ripping it open and then to shreds. An effluvium of tension and anxiety had broadened his mind to seek redress. Both hands responsible for holding the letter had begun turning red from their tight clutches. His knuckles paled while his pupils dilated. He felt his heart ache uncontrollably again.
Right then, a motorbike sped into the parking lot downstairs, bringing along with it volumes of unwanted mechanical shrieks. It snapped him out of his fiery stupor and reminded him of what a coward he was. He placed the letter on the couch’s arm and was determined to get himself a pretend bottle of wine when his father startled him.
“What’s with you?”
“I was sleeping.”
“I didn’t wake you.”
He tried to ignore his repugnant presence on the couch by grabbing that drink he sorely needed from the slightly leaking refrigerator. The door swung open with his pull, clinking the glass bottles inside incessantly. He stood rooted and gazed inside. Nothing edible was on the shelves. No fruits were in the fruit compartment, no meat was in the chiller. There were just bottles and bottles of water standing side by side, greeting him in unison whenever he yanked at the door.
His father was now in the kitchen with him, holding the pink slip in one hand while tapping the broken screen of his phone preposterously with the other. He tore the letter open and clumsily dropped his phone, sending it crashing onto his right toe.
“Fuck!” He then threw the opened letter on the table top and bent down to massage his red toe.
“Why don’t you get a job already, eh? What’s wrong with you? You like staying home?” he maligned obtrusively while bent over, still wincing.
“I…don’t know. I need time. To think.”
“What’s there to think about? You just go out there and work to bring money home. Be self-sufficient.”
He kept silent and composed in his corner, wondering how else his father could have been hurt, accidentally.
“Don’t waste your time. Just do what you need to do,” his father remarked again before shutting the bathroom door noisily behind him. He took a few cautious steps forward, his hip kissing the edge of the table top gently. The letter was only half opened and now chucked aside, neglected like how his feelings were.
This is our FINAL NOTICE to you on the above mentioned account. We regret to note that you have yet to settle the above account outstanding amount – $9,898.40. Please note that the above mentioned bank has given us instructions to proceed with further action if the matter remains unreso…
He shifted his gaze to the fridge and then all around the kitchen like a lost child in the woods, burdened and isolated. It was at this point when his grumbling stomach cried out to him. The warm urge rising from within his body signalled that it was lunch time, and yet he felt like denying himself. He pulled the handle of the fridge once more to reveal the inadequacy within, stared at the warm light source, then dragged himself back into his bedroom. There, he snatched his flimsy cardholder from the bedside table and rearranged the coins stuck in the slots to figure out how much he had. $2.80, he counted aloud and thought he might save it for tomorrow or some day when he would be in the right frame of mind to appreciate an actual meal – something with the necessary nutrition in its myriad contents.
For now, he just wanted to get his lunch over and done with.
“So where does he go all day?” her questioning gaze fell upon him, her tone of voice reigniting his concealed prejudice. “What does he do?!”
His lurking shame scrambled to hide itself.
“He does many things,” he pretended. “He goes around looking for friends to ask for jobs. He rests. He goes into Johor to pump up. He negotiates with the banks.”
“Tell him not to bloody go out if he can’t support himself! Fancy him spending even more than me in a day! For fuck’s sake, tell him to fuck off! We don’t need him! I don’t fucking need him! He’s an excuse for a man!”
The hollow wooden door slammed shut and the walls were heard trembling, very much like his hands. As he raised them towards his face, he could hear nothing but a faint, monotonous ringing in both ears, ironically but gradually calming his senses. He looked over at the empty couch, unkempt and despicable, and snarled in his head. It should have been you who had to listen to that. It should have been you.
“My entire family is asking me about this bloody shithead! My brother, my father, everyone is poking me and everyone thinks he’s a lazy bastard! Why can’t he just drive a fucking taxi?! It’s just temporary! Why can’t he just drive the bloody thing?! I don’t have money to get groceries and I still have to pay for his bloody car, for him to drive around every stinking day doing nothing! What the fuck?!”
Indistinct screams continued to emanate from behind the shut door of the master bedroom. He walked around and about the darkened living room, from the window grilles facing the car park downstairs to the balcony extending above the neighbourhood park, mildly cringing in despair. It was nothing like the conventional family tragedy where one cheats on the other while the rest pretend not to know what’s going on. It isn’t even a tragedy because there was an obvious course of action that would alleviate this unpleasant tension for good. It could all go away in no time, so it did not qualify them as a woeful bunch, and yet he seemed to discover, day after day, a deep-seated resentment towards his father.
Her driving was nothing close to amateurish, but it was far from comfortable as well. It was a sort of bizarre fusion between adrenaline-addiction and outright indifference. She did not care about the people inside of the car when she drove over humps, down slopes or into sharp bends, but she snatched the car keys every time she had the chance to drive, like it wasn’t the burdensome chore it was.
Back home or anywhere outside of the driver’s seat, she seldom spoke. Even when in talks about a topic she had much interest in, she would waltz around mellowly attending to her guinea pigs in their gargantuan cages, whispering sweet nothings to each of them while remaining completely oblivious to the human conversations around her. When her parents quarrelled, she would be in her room humming the tune of her favourite Korean commercial or singing along to her pop idol’s single.
Her walls were drawn on with a normal paint brush used for much smaller canvases, detailing the fluffiness of white clouds and the contours of the words Love and Dreams with emphasis on its clarity and straightforwardness. She was 25 and the older, working sister.
“Have you been giving him money again?” he probed. “Have you?”
“I have no more money to give to anyone,” she murmured resolutely.
“Why do you always come back during dinner time but without dinner?” No response came. “Do you know how harmful these instant noodles are? You trying to kill yourself?” His tone had migrated from a curious spur to a worried accent, yet no response appeared to meet him. Just the considerately silent slurping of Korean noodles and soup.
“Can you stop doing this? I have some money. Just take it and buy proper food next time.”
“I don’t need money,” her reply shot out deafeningly. “Give it to Daddy if you have spare. He needs money for petrol and food.”
It took a while but he eventually grasped his dear sister’s heart during a trip to the airport one evening. He was the only passenger then as they headed to Mommy’s office to pick her up. The journey was as nerve-wrecking as it was on any previous occasion. When they arrived at the pick-up point of the office, Mommy, who was supposed to be there then, wasn’t. This had caused a minor jam in the enclosed area that is the pick-up point as cars behind had already picked up their passengers. A few honks were directed at their vehicle before Mommy came dashing out with high heels in her hands. His sister unlocked the doors just in time for Mommy to yank one open and hurl herself in. She sped off before the door was completely shut and swerved onto the main carriageway with the audacity of a drive-by.
As Mommy and him were mildly thrown about in their seats, the urge to speak crept up on the both of them.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you guys…we have decided to sell the car.”
“Oh,” he remarked while his sister remained focused on shifting them in their seats. “Come to think of it, that’s a really great move. One of your best.”
There wasn’t silence in the car not because of anyone’s reply, but because of the poor soundproofing in the exhausted Japanese sedan. “Yeah, it’s sounding a lot better by the second, in my head. I can already imagine the wonders that will do for us, without having to pay for bloody petrol all the time, the car loan repayments…what is it, like, eight-five-zero a month?”
“700. on every 15th of the month.”
“Ah…well, we will be free from that! And the money from the sale of the car…”
“Eleven thousand two hundred and forty,” she indicated nonchalantly.
“Wow, that’s good isn’t it?! We can use it to clear part of his debts! Yeah? Yeah!”
While not a single utterance surfaced after that, Mommy turned slightly to face her window, gazing out into the vast tarmac. With a subconscious nod to herself, a candid smile gradually emerged in the reflection.
Coincidentally, no one was shifting in their seats anymore. Only the consoling sound of the rubber tyres hugging the tarmac could be heard now.
He was now inside another office, an office within an office – the office of this lady who called herself Claudia. Her workspace was clearly different and she did not have any windows slightly ajar, so the breeze was now non-existent and the air-conditioner was not wasted. When he sat down, he sat on a grey fabric couch, not one of those fancy office chairs outside.
Claudia was a different kind of office lady. Her wall shelves had nothing on them but pristine white paint. Her empty white cabinets looked like they had their doors removed after the purchase. Her air-conditioner was of a silver-grey, one that he had never ever seen in real-life and that blended in unconditionally with the bold grey wall.
Did you paint that on your own, with the help of a contractor, or did it come like that?
That was what he’d have asked if Claudia hadn’t diverted his attention to the grey laminated desk now in between them with a slight accidental thud of her toecap on the plastic bag left underneath.
Claudia had a distinct charm that felt as if it’d go unnoticed to the common and imperceptible eye. She wore her lipstick like her clothing – natural and loose. She strolled very convincingly in high heels without over-weighing on either foot, which extinguished any unruly noise that accompanied her gait in heels. The essence of her footwork was very elegant and possibly an underrated form of art, in a broad sense of the word. She carried her walnut hair in a straightforward and no-nonsense bun with unadulterated curls hanging on one side. He guessed if the side alternated.
She proceeded to flip open the folder placed neatly on the desk – the only thing on the large desk – and feasted on its contents unreservedly, almost shamefully, in front of him. “Do you want some more tea?” she suggested. “I can get Violet to bring you more.”
A tiny guffaw hid itself inside him. “Violet?”
“Yes, that’s her name. We gave her that name.”
“Oh I see…yes of course.”
“Violet,” she spoke into the box on the stool beside her desk. “Could you get another cup of tea in for our guest, thank you.”
“Thanks for that, I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. Shall we begin?”
“Good. Here at the Bank of Singapore, we are on a constant lookout for talented individuals with a drive to succeed in life and surpass all their deadlines. I’ve taken a keen interest in you after going through your resume. I think you’ll be a great fit,” she started.
Chester Tan is a travelling writer on his RTW trip. He writes from village to town, city to country, sometimes in a semi-posh country house, other times in a tent in the mountains. He gets easily excited by English literature and humour, has had seven cats to date, and is on his way to leading the van life across the globe. His fiction has been published in the UK and Singapore.