Too little, too late

My childhood friend passed on today. Barely 50 and married with 2 adult kids.

Right now I feel wretched with guilt, because we were very close once. Inseparable. But over the years, we drifted apart as I moved away and pursued my dream relentlessly. She, on the other hand,  chose to get married right after university and became a stay at home mum. It was a vocation I had scoffed at that time because I felt that she was throwing her life away. This drove a wedge between us.

The last I saw her was at our school reunion. I must admit she looked frail. I had promised to catch up with her, but never did. She had sent me a text message afterwards saying how glad she was to meet me again and hoped that we will stay in touch.

I never made time to call. I never replied her message.

It’s too late now.

Flash fiction: Her story. His story

Her story

     I squeal and roll my body from side to side.

     “Shhhshh! not too loud,” you say, kneading the various parts of my foot.

     Certain reflexology points hurt like crazy, others are pee-generating ticklish.  Endorphins! That’s what you say you are trying to release. The body’s natural pain reliever.

     “Feel better?” you ask.

     I nod sheepishly.  Now I wished I hadn’t ridicule your foot reflexology idea.

     I look at you. You are studying my feet. “Your feet are really small. What shoe size are you? Kid’s size?”  I throw the pillow at you and dive to rub it against your face. “No! I am a UK size 4-half,” I protest.

     “Yup! Definitely kid’s size,” you wink, flinging the cushion away.

     You start rubbing the sides of my foot, along the Achilles heel and anklebone and down to my toes. Your touch is warm. You squeeze the sides of my big toe, rolling it between your fingers. A fuzzy, woozy, tingling sensation shoots up my leg. All the way up my thighs.

     My pulse races and I breathe sharply. A soft moan escapes my lips.

     You look up, startle.

     Our eyes meet. I lower mine and quickly look to my side. I feel the urge to say what I had been wanting to say to you but I hesitate.  You put my foot down slowly and run your hand across your shaven chin.  You stand up and stretch.  “Want some tea?” you ask, walking briskly to the kitchen before I could answer.   

 

His story  

    John looked longingly at Liny’s feet.  His breath quickened. He needed to touch them, feel the curve of her heel and softness of her arch. “Have you heard of foot reflexology? Perhaps it could release some endorphins to alleviate your pain.”

     Liny raised her eyebrows. “That quack thing?” she laughed. John felt his face turned red. She looked at him and grinned, “I mean, I have never tried it but yeah, go ahead.”

     The red banner announcing today’s marathon lay crumpled on the floor. Beaten like Liny who sprawled on the sofa with legs propped up on John’s lap.  She had grabbed the banner off the railings and wrapped it around her shoulders to run a victory lap.  That was before her legs buckled.

     Liny looked gorgeous even as she lay in this unceremonious position.  Her tangled hair covered with sweat along the braids. Her red lipstick smudged down the sides of her jaw. 

     John held her right foot firmly with both hands and massaged all the way from the toes to the heel.  He stiffened as she squealed and rolled from side to side in ticklish laughter.  Perhaps he was doing this all wrong. It was not meant to be ticklish. But then again, he was new at this foot reflexology thing.

     He studied Liny’s foot. “Your feet are really small. What shoe size are you? Kid’s size?” he remarked, looking up at her.  A pillow hit him, knocking the wind out of him. Before he could recover, he felt her lunged forward to rub it against his face.  “No! I am a UK size 4-half,” she yelled. He pulled the pillow away and winked. “Yup! Definitely kid’s size,” he teased.

     He asked her to calm down. He ran his thumbs down the side of her foot. His instructor had told him in jest during the last class — “If you want to arouse your partner, you should massage her heel along her Achilles tendon and press the hollow under her anklebone.”

     John jumped as Liny moaned. Oh my God, it worked!  He smiled inwardly and moved his hands to her big toe. He felt her quiver as he caressed the pad of her toe between his fingers.

     Suddenly, she jerked her foot. He looked up and saw her staring at him. She opened her mouth to say something but stopped. He knew he had crossed the line between workmates.  He let go of her foot and looked away, hoping that she would not catch the yearning in his eyes.

     He stood up and pretended to stretch. “Want some tea?” he asked as he rushed to the kitchen.

 

 

The meet-up

I am not sure who was the one with the itchy fingers (or was it idle minds? or both?) that started this whole meet-up thing.  With social media, the world has shrunk to a click. Click “Yes” to a friend request and you get to see A Day In A Life version of someone whom you have not heard from since you left school/ broke up/ remove your braces/ whatever.

Today, I had coffee with the ex-boyfriend and the woman he had cheated on me left me to marry.  

I won’t have agreed to meet, had it not been for this intense curiosity on my part to see what she looks like. What was it that she had that I hadn’t? In a twisted kind of way, I needed to see that one flaw in her; that one glaringly obvious shortfall that would correct this perception of perfection which has so plagued my insecurity for the last 35 years.

From the phone chats that preceded this meet-up, I was certain that the ex-boyfriend harbored same for my husband. He wanted to see what was it that my husband had that he hadn’t. And I knew that in the same twisted kind of way, he was trying to provoke me into giving him the pleasure of knowing that one flaw that my husband had; that glaringly obvious shortfall that will have the ex-boyfriend looking all dandy.

So at the last minute, I  decided to leave my husband at home because I knew it would be unfair on him. I do not want him to be collateral damage in a pissing match that could erupt between me and the ex-boyfriend (I am super competitive, don’t judge).

Since I have now seen what I have gone to see and he has not seen what he had come to see, I am all smug. Because for me, having that unfair mental edge is everything. LOL

 

The 50-something menopausal busybody aunty person

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I am writing this from a wobbly sun lounger made of colourful plastic stripes.

I swear that by the time I’m done with this post, my legs would feel all tingly and antsy. A quick fix will require a cautious stretch and a meticulous flip. When I finally get out of this chair, the back of my head will be flattened, with my hair squashed upwards and outwards. Indentions of thin stripes will firmly imprint my back from neck down. Not unlike a chargrilled steak.

The Husband, on the other hand, is down with leviathanitis — a non-life-threatening condition that plagues some males when they have to take an extended weekend from their workaholic lives to holiday at a place where spotty wifi signal would deny them the extensive use of their smartphone.  In the Husband’s case, he has morphed into a beached leviathan — a sperm whale, if you must know – with eyes glued to some boring movie on free tv.

Alas! there is a bigger reason why the Husband is more keen on watching tv than talking to me. He reckons I have turned into a “50-something menopausal busybody aunty person.”  

As you see, I have got myself in abit of a pickle this weekend.  I have become an unwitting confidant in someone’s affair. Ouch!

What would you do if someone whom you thought you knew so well, tells you that he is in love with another man, and that his parents have found out a few days ago and have threatened to disown him?

Between awkward pauses and hand-wringing, he is begging you to please, please talk to his mum and dad because I am his best friend and that we have known each other for so long, and that his parents think very highly of me.

arrggghhhhhhhhhh!

I hate to get involved in other people’s personal problems; simply because most times, despite all my good intentions, I always fall flat on my face and come across as being emotionally aloof, impatient, socially inapt, and at worst, pretentious and totally unsympathetic.

arrggghhhhhhhhhh!

Why on earth did I assure him that I will try my best when I have no intention to do so, preferring to let the whole thing play itself out and run its course? Have I gone all soft and nice? Or as the Husband has sarcastically phrased it — why am I starting to sound like some “50-something menopausal busybody aunty person”? 

arrggghhhhhhhhhh!

Flash fiction: The second best

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as i sat by the window
and watched the day unfold,
a quiet voice asked
   if he would always be second best.

hugging myself tightly around the knees,
i continued staring at the changing light.
not wanting to acknowledge the question.
nor eager to weigh an answer.

why do you ask? i sighed,

     finally.

          not particularly ready for the truth

your eyes are dead.
your heart is cold, said he

i daren’t face the voice behind
i daren’t see the hurt in his eyes

hugging myself tightly around the knees,
i continued staring at the layered hues.
not wanting to acknowledge the answers.
nor eager to face the truth.

Remembering Grandma on her 100th birthday

My mum reminded me to request Holy Mass for the soul of Gua Mah, my late maternal grandmother.  Gua Mah would have been 100 years old in a three weeks’ time.  For me, time usually freezes the moment a person dies, but my mum remembers every birthday and death anniversary of our loved ones like clockwork. 

My fondest memories of Gua Mah are of her and her friends squatting around a makeshift long charcoal stove, making kuih kapit – a popular traditional wafer snack – for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

 

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Kuih kapit

The ladies would get me to turn the iron waffle molds constantly up and down the length of the charcoal stove. The stove was a long metal grill placed on top of several rectangular old tins containing burnt embers.  After every second flip of the mold, they would expertly lift the cooked wafer out,  fold it into quarters and smear another thin sheet of egg batter onto the decorative mold for the next round.

When they were not making nyonya desserts or prepping those laborious nyonya recipes, Gua Mah and her friends would sit at the sunny back verandah of our house, embroidering handkerchiefs. My task was to pull out their gray hairs – especially the really itchy thick short ones, for which I was paid 2 cents per gray hair pulled.

There, I eavesdropped as they gossiped incessantly.  Often, they forgot that I was standing behind plucking gray hairs, until I interrupted their juicy stories with a laugh or a comment; and in which case, one of them would turned and warned me not to be a “kepoh” – a busybody

Gua-Mah was ahead of her time. While most girls growing up in pre-independent Malaysia in 1920s were kept at home and groomed to be the perfect housewife,  Gua Mah was enrolled by her father, a herbalist migrant from China, at a Catholic girls school where she spent most of her early years learning to read and write in English, arithmetic and needlework.

Hence, it was hilarious when in the later years, guys trying to chat me up were intimidated when Gua Mah answered the phone in perfect English and corrected their grammar as they dictated their messages to her for me.

Gua Mah loved singing Latin hymns and was an active member of the Church choir until 1965 when Catholic Masses moved from Latin to vernacular language.

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Church choir in 1960. Gua Mah is standing 3rd from left.

Her favourite hymn was Ave Maria and it was one of the first songs I learnt to sing, albeit imperfectly, as a child.  Being her eldest grandchild, she would nag, cajole and bribe me to sing that song in front of her friends.  

It would always begin softly. Slowly. Before their eyes misted over:

Ave Maria, gratia plena.
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus
Et benedictus fructus ventris,
Ventris tui, Jesus
.

Ave Maria.

As I ate the kuih kapit over tea today, I hear this song from a distant past in my head. It would always begin softly. Slowly. Before my eyes misted over.

 

The morning walk

I woke up early today to go for a walk. Rather unusual as Saturdays would normally find me in bed until almost noon; either recuperating from a hectic work week or a late night out, or both.

My cat Hugo studied me as I put on my walking shoes.  He ran from behind me and leapt onto the garden post, watching me go past like a sentinel.  I was afraid he would follow me because there have been reports of stray dogs lurking in the area of late.  So I shooed him off.  The moment I turned and continued walking, I heard the bells at his collar tinkling behind me and eventually, in front of me.  He meowed around my legs as I stretched and warmed up my muscles. Finally, he got bored and walked away. 

It rained during the night. I negotiated my way gingerly among rotting leaves and rain-sodden moss. I tried to jog but the road felt slippery under my feet. So I walked. Briskly at first. Heart beating wildly. It’s been awhile since my last outing. 

I slowed down as I ventured down the footpath and enjoyed my surroundings. It was so peaceful; like being in another world.  The air smelt sweet – of grassy dew caulked in the fermented giddiness of overripe fruits, half-eaten by birds and squirrels. Some fruits lay squashed on the ground. Their rotting guts spilling out to feed the army of ants and buzzing fruit flies.

A walk through the woods was often an excuse for me to work through the many challenges in my day job. Of late, I found walking through the woods to be a good remedy for my writer’s block, too.  I have been working in fits and starts on my first draft for ages. And recently, I seemed to have hit a wall, leaving my storyline languishing in a void, suspended between despair and misery.  I felt self-doubt creeping in.

I followed the familiar sound of water gushing down a stream until I arrived at this clearing.  This is my favourite place on earth. My piece of Heaven.

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I closed my eyes and raised my arms to feel the warmth of sunshine filtering through the branches. A string of phrases and words rushed through my mind:

Have you ever felt so happy

… that it tingles like static racing through your skin?

.. that it allows a burst of joy to escape your lips?

… that it tastes so delicious, it sends a chill down your bones?

… that you hold your breath to register the moment?

Have you ever dared to feel so happy that it hurts real bad?

Perhaps this was what has been holding me back.  The inability to let myself go; to dig deep into my vulnerability and show it in my writing. To dare to feel so happy and naked and raw that it hurts.

 

Flash fiction – Dear One,

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Dear One,

There are a couple of things going on in my life at the moment which I am not too happy about.

There have been times, one too many of late, where I catch myself sighing in despair and numbed by indecision.

I hear you when you say that I am passively living my life. I hear you when you say that I am living a lie. I hear you when you say that you feel sad for me.

Because I feel all of that too.

As I wandered in the fields of my dream, I see another me who is living the kind of life I wished for but daren’t pursue. The moment I stretched out my hand to touch that other me, it evaporated, leaving neither a trace nor a scent of what could have been.

Tomorrow, I will dream again. It’s the same dream but with a tweak here and there,  twisted and embellished by time to suit whatever my sub-conscious wished to perceive.

I hear myself telling you that you should try to walk in my shoes. I hear myself telling you that I wish things were different. I hear myself telling you that I feel tired and restless. I hear myself telling you that I love you.

 

Little things that mattered

Sometimes you get lucky in life because life gives you a second chance to revisit your past and allows you to make amends in the present before it is too late.

Sometimes a chance conversation will dredge up little things. Things which you have forgotten; of images buried deep in the recesses of your mind.

When that happens, it’s like reopening a window and peering into the past. And once that window is opened, it’s like being shoved into a giddy vortex. How far down you go or how quick you resurface largely depends on how much you dare to delve.

Memories can be dark things. Murky stuff that shows up in clear light.

Ever since I started writing on this blog, I have found myself actively seeking out memory-markers – things, events, words, pictures – which could trigger some kind of recollection of my past.

The funny thing is that, regardless of the years, we tend to remember very well — the bad, the shameful, the hateful, the loathsome. We shudder at the recklessness, the what-could-have-happened-but-Thank-God-it-didn’t scenarios. We scowl at the cruel words hurled; careless, cutting, deliberate.

But it’s the little things that slip through the shutters.

Little things like, how my grandmother would help me hand-sew the fussy hems and trimmings for my Home Science assigment just so that I can have the extra time studying for my exams (which I promptly squandered reading a Mills & Boons novel instead).

Little things like, how my father would insist on assuming control of my school science projects, resulting in something that was so over-designed and over-the-top, it was embarassing.  I was the only kid in class and possibly, the whole school who handed in a 3D topographic map with an exploding volcano which was made possible by pouring vinegar onto the baking soda placed inside the volcano.

Little things like, how my grandfather would sit next to me and insist that I learn how to write in old-fashioned cursive “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” until I get it perfect.

Little things like, how my mother would wake up at 5AM to wash the clothes, hang them to dry, rush to make breakfast, see us off to school before hurrying off to work; most days, I now recall, with breakfast in her bag. And on some days, she would come home, breakfast still in her bag, which she would hand over to me to devour greedily while she prepared lunch. It never occurred to me to ask why she came home with breakfast still in her bag.

These are the little things that now matter the most to me. Because I realized today how much they were sacrifices of love.

Today’s chance meeting with a stranger made me regret the unkind words, the impatience, the indifference. It also reminded me that I am loved very much eventhough love shown by my closest and dearest, is not overtly in a way I know how, but in a very subtle way; purely because that is the only way they knew how.

 

Elevator pitch

I was in the elevator on my way to a brunch appointment.

Next floor up,  a couple walked in with a fancy three-wheeler stroller. A toddler sat snugly inside watching Peppa Pig on the mounted tablet. The stroller took up half the elevator’s space. 

Up another floor, a family of five entered. Promptly lined themselves along the sides with their shopping bags, filling up every available space.

Next floor, a big tour group was waiting to enter. A guy holding a flag in the front of the group was issuing instructions in a foreign language.

Someone inside the elevator quickly closed the door, but it re-opened.

The big group insisted on squeezing their way in.

The elevator buzzed.

Overload.

Someone had to leave, but the last group in refused to budge.

So we waited; whilst Miss Unclear-On-The-Concept from the last group stabbed the “Close” button repeatedly.  Duh!

I guessed that was when someone decided to let a fart ripped.

A big one.. with a full-bodied throttle.

A heady mix of gas from whatever-he-ate-over-the-weekend. Chokes!

Never seen so many people rushed out of an elevator in record time.

 

Oh! the places you will go..

“The more you read, the more places you will go,the more places you go, the more things you will learn.” 
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

I sometimes wonder:  had I not stumbled into investment banking 25 years ago, what career path would I have pursued?  An English Literature teacher, a writer, or both? I love to read. I love to write and of course, I always have lots to say about everything and anything. LOL

For me, books are the most magical things. They allow me to live vicariously in another life, another place and another time at each turn of a page.  I love the excitement of opening a book and finding a great first line that leaps off the page and stabs you in the eye. I love the musky smell of paper, yellowed with age. I love the sharp crisp smell of ink. It is like comfort food. Like having a bowl of soupy ramen noodles on a winter night miles away from home.

When I was younger, there were alot of things we couldn’t have on a whim. I grew up in a small town in Malaysia. There was only one bookstore which stocked a limited choice of storybooks, novels and flashy magazines.  Most of these books especially by my favourite writer, Enid Blyton, were expensive imports from the UK.

Hence, storybooks were something my parents could not really splurged on us whenever they felt like it. To this day, books are always associated – at least in my mind – with a blessing. A gift. Something treasured. A special occasion.

For a small town girl, books flew me to places which I could only dream of, and embarked on reckless adventures which my parents frowned on.

When I was 9, my friends and I  converted a space in my dad’s garage into a secret meeting place after reading Famous Five storybooks.  Things came to head after a neighbour complained to our parents about us snooping in his backyard.  

When I was 12, a couple of my friends were sent to boarding schools in UK.  I begged and cried and nagged my parents for weeks to allow me to go too. When they finally asked me why on earth would I want to leave the comforts of home for a boarding school, I told them about how fun I thought boarding schools would be — just like Whyteleafe School from The Naughtiest Girl in School storybooks. “But it’s not real school. It’s a s-t-o-r-y,” my mother rolled her eyes and groaned.

When I was 16, I went to college and befriended Nell. Nell was from the City and she was worldly. She would change into street clothes after school and wore lipstick. We were in awe of her. More importantly, Nell introduced us to Mills and Boons. She had an endless supply of these deliciously naughty books with pictures of couples french-kissing on the covers and with their clothes way too tight, too low-cut, too scant.  I would carefully wrap these books with the dust jackets from some hardcover reference books, just in case someone came into my room (cue: nosy pesky sibling)

Regardless of school week or term holidays, my parents were a stickler for early bedtime and would demand lights off by 9PM.  I would read with a torchlight under the blanket way into the night so that my parents can’t see the light coming from under my bedroom door. 

Now nearing five decades since my first book, my love affair with books have not wane one bit. There’s always a quick skip in my heart when I have a book in hand.  I still love reading a book under the blanket with a mini reading light clipped at the top; until my better half decides to fart under the blanket.

 

Flash Fiction – Killing two birds with a stone

     The air-conditioner cranked loudly, blowing warm and cold air in cycles.  This office smelt musty, like rotting carpet.  On one side of the wall was an imposing oil painting of E.H, the company’s founder.  Three work cubicles crammed into the office space flanked by two large glass cabinets full of golf trophies.     

     On the production floor below, metal cutters screeched, grinders rasped and compressors hissed.

     Someone was walking up the perforated metal stairs; the sharp clacking sounds from the metal tips typical of expensive shoes echoed up to the top floor. 

     My coworker, Qian, cleared his throat.  I checked my watch. 11.45AM.

     The door opened and the Accountant strolled in with a cup of coffee.   She looked up, startled. 

     She made a sharp turn and walked out again, hollering at someone to hurry up before re-entering.

     “Hi.  I didn’t know you were coming.  Traffic jam,” she fretted.  I shrugged. 

     Excuses.  It would be a cold day in Hell before the city roads were free of  roadworks and traffic jams. 

     “Is E.H working today? It is 11.47AM,” I asked icily, looking pointedly at my watch and making sure that I stated the time loud and clear. 

     She stared meekly at the direction of the door. 

     E.H entered the meeting room with an exaggerated swagger. 

     “Hello sweetie,” he said with a wink.  I flinched as he tickled my palm with his index finger.  Then, he gave me a knowing smile as though we were sharing a private joke.  I pretended not to notice.

     “Good to see you, buddy,” he bellowed, slapping Qian on the back. 

     “Thanks for the stock tip the other day.  Made shitloads,” he continued. 

     I spied Qian mouthed something frantically. 

     “The big boss has asked me to introduce you to Lilly Tan.  She is his new Fixer for our investee companies, although I don’t see the point because she is managing his small personal stuff,” Qian said pompously, vigorously rubbing the arms of the sofa with his hands.

     E.H wagged his finger at me, “Sweetie, you should meet my wife.  She is driving me crazy with her endless renov–, “

     “Thank you, I am sure I will meet your wife sometime soon. For your information, I am not the Fixer. I am the new Managing Partner of the Fund,” I cut in.

     “She’s your new Boss, eh? A lady boss! She’s gonna put you under her thumb.” E.H laughed at Qian and made a show of pressing his thumb on the table.

     “We are going to reorganize all the real estate assets in our portfolio companies. All the factories, the offices and warehousing facilities. Some of these will be put into a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) for public listing.  I am sending an Associate here soon to compile a list of all landed assets in this company.” I announced firmly, noting the sneer on Qian’s face.

     “Hey, Qian. Maybe we can get rid of those retail lots we bought by injecting into this Trust, eh?” E.H growled. 

     I glanced at Qian.  He looked away.  

     “Hmm.. retail spaces. You mean, the ones you bought with Qian?” I fished, feigning surprise. So the rumours around the office water cooler were true after all. That there were conflicts of interest between Qian and this portfolio company.

     “Qian told you about it?” E.H looked at me in disbelief and then, at Qian.

     “My friend, REITs are con-jobs…only the managers make money.  I won’t be too happy if I were you.  Mark my words, your shareholding in this company will be majorly diluted.” Qian laughed nervously, his unsmiling eyes glinted dangerously at me. 

     I drummed my fingers on the table impatiently and stood up to leave. 

     “Well, we won’t know for sure if there will be a dilution as yet.” I said casually.

     Qian jumped and pointed at me accusingly, “What do you mean by no dilution? This…this factory and this land are the most valuable assets in this company.”

     He waved his arms wildly and glared at me darkly,  “Unless..Oh don’t tell me..  you are planning to relocate this factory to some remote area and sell this prime land.”

     E.H glowered at me. He arched his back and puffed his chest out. 

     “Nobody is going to touch any of my company’s assets. This factory and all the land around here was bought by my grandfather with his hard-earned money,” he snarled, pushing his face mere inches away from mine and jabbing me at my breast. 

    I swung my arm at him. He grabbed my shoulders and frog-marched me out of the office. I screamed as loud as I could and turned to elbow and knee him at the balls, but he was too strong for me. He lifted me up and dropped me on the doormat outside. The metal stairs shuddered as the office door slammed.

     I picked myself up and tucked my blouse back into my tailored pants. Once in my car, I dug my hand into my pocket and gingerly switched off the recording device. I closed my eyes tightly as I half-slammed the car door against my calf. That would do. A big ugly bruise here and another there. Sufficient evidence to threaten E.H for physical violence and keep Qian on a leash.

     I looked around at the land surrounding the factory and smiled.  Qian was right. This land is the most valuable asset in this company.  Five acres of land right in the middle of the City.  Relocate the business. Sell the land. I pumped my fist. It is always important to close the first deal in any new job, fast.