Flash fiction – The Attic

     “What time are we going up to the attic?” I asked over breakfast.

     “Huh?” Percival regarded me suspiciously.

     “Don’t play stupid. You promised.” I shot my boyfriend the look

     “I was drunk. It is unfair to hold a drunk man to a promise.”

      “Wasn’t it you who said that a promise is a promise, no matter what?” I smiled.

     He lowered his eyes and stared at his fingers for a long time. Finally, he walked to one of the drawers and took out a bunch of keys. He chose the one with a small porcelain rose and walked up to the attic.

     He flicked the light switch.

     I gasped.

     A sepia photo of a lady in a heavily embroidered baju panjang stared at me.  Her white hair was gathered in a bun at the top of her head and clasped with hairpins of sparkling gems.  

     A chill pricked my neck.

     I saw the resemblance rightaway…the prominent jaw, the high hairline and the V-shaped dip at the centre of the broad forehead.

     Below the photo was a rich brown teak mantelpiece. On it stood an exquisite jade green Straits Chinese jar.  It had a phoenix and a pink peony on the front. On its lid was a crouching qilin, the mystical hooved chimera creature regarded as the Chinese unicorn.

     I touched the jar. It was cold.  

     Percival cleared his throat and said, “my mum sleeps in there.”

     I pulled my hand back and looked around the room. An antique writing desk stood to my right. It was made of mahogany with designs from the Edwardian era. I gently slid the roll-top. Inside were dried-up watercolour half-pans and sable brushes, sketches of flowers and unfinished artwork. I ran my fingers along the textured grains of cold-pressed paper.  An ache tugged my heart.  I closed the roll-top and stepped away.

     I turned at the smiling photo and ornate jar, clasped my hands and bowed deeply.

     Percival stood at the door. He looked sad and distant. I took his hand and led him out, gently closing the door behind us.

**

     “Percival showed me his mum’s resting place.”  I squinted for Bibi’s reaction as I squeezed lemons over anchovy fillets.

     Instead, the housekeeper continued prodding the pork roast in the oven, pretending not to hear me.

     “He looks like her,” I continued, noting her silence.

     She closed the oven door and lifted her arms backwards to stretch her back. Then, she opened the cupboards in quick succession.

     “What are you looking for?” I asked.

     She turned to look at me quizzically. “I forgot.”

     I laughed.

     “So are you going to tell me something about her?” I stuck my tongue markedly inside my right cheek.

     She sighed. “I think it’s better if Sir talks to you about his mother.”

     “I thought you were her primary care-giver?”

     “Yes. But I still think it’s only proper that you hear it from Sir,” she answered. 

     I looked at her wistfully.  “I have a feeling he doesn’t want to talk about her.” 

     She knitted her brows in a pained look and walked out of the kitchen.

     “Hey, where are you going? You haven’t answered my question!” I shouted.

     “Ask him yourself,” she waved the back of her hand at me impatiently, like she was swapping flies.

     Then, she stopped, half-turned her head to my direction. “Her name was Rosemary.”

**

     Last night I dreamt of Rosemary Fredericks, again.

     Her eyes were bulging in horror. There was blood spouting from all parts of her body.  She was screaming and struggling as giant tendrils engulfed her body. Then, she grabbed me and pulled me down with her.  

     I jolted as my shoulder was shaken violently.  Percival was peering anxiously at me.  I could not move my arms and legs. My lips were parched. My body bathed in cold sweat.  This was freaking me out. Same nightmare in two nights.

**

     Today was Bibi’s day off.  I opened the drawer to look for the key with the porcelain rose token. It was not there.

     I went into Percival’s study to look for it.

     “C’mon Rosemary, you have to help me here. Show me the attic key, please,” I muttered under my breath, as I tried the drawers at Percival’s desk. 

     Something caught my eye as I was leaving the study.  

     A piece of paper peeped from behind a photo frame which was face-side down on the side table. I turned it over and peered at the photo. It was an old black and white photo of Rosemary with a toddler on her lap. I tugged at the piece of paper.  The cardboard backing gave way, causing the glass front to slip and shatter on the floor.

     Damn!     

     My phone rang.

     Unknown number. Must be some cold caller.

     I let it ring.

     A text message beeped.

     “What are you doing in my study? Get out now!”

     Damn! I forgot the CCTV. 

     I called Percival.  “No! I will not leave until you tell me exactly what happened to your mother. Nobody wants to tell me anything.”

     “What do you want to know about her?” he replied

     “I dreamt of her twice this week. TWICE!  I WANT TO KNOW HOW SHE DIED,” I yelled.

     After a long silence, he said quietly, “You don’t have to shout at me.  You are very rude. 
 I will asked Bibi to tell you everything you want to know about mum.”

**

     The newspaper cutting was dated 20 April 2009. Eight years ago.

Socialite dies in freak accident

BY CATHERINE YEW 

20 APRIL 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, April 20:  The body of reclusive socialite Rosemary Fredericks, 72, was found yesterday lying in a pool of blood with a broken neck in her rose garden. According to house staff who had requested anonymity, Mrs Fredericks was trimming her prized white roses when her pet dog, a Golden Retriever called Matt, chased a stray cat and crashed into the wooden plant support structure; causing it to topple and collapse onto Mrs Fredericks.

Mrs Fredericks who was believed to be recovering from breast cancer, died on the spot.

     I closed my eyes and breathed sharply. 

     Taken away without a goodbye.

     Is that why she looked distressed in my dreams?

     Is her soul wandering aimlessly in the garden?

     “It was Sir’s idea to have that plant support structure,” Bibi said.

     “Who? Percival? Is that why he blames himself?”

     She nodded.

     I looked out to the front yard. “What happened to the rose garden?” 

     “Sir took a machete and slashed everything to the ground.”

###

Advertisements

Oops!

     “How did your workshop go?” I asked.

     “Fine.” My daughter stabbed at the silky rice rolls slathered in crispy chilli paste.

     “Doesn’t sound like Fine to me.”

     “Ma, what did you expect? I was in a room full of feminists. They discussed about destroying the shackles that taboos and rituals imposed on women. Then, they argued over the need for female archetypes. What’s an archetype anyway?”

     “A representative character.. yunno like when you think of care-giving, Florence Nightingale pops to mind,” I answered. 

     “There you go. Stereotyping. That’s exactly what they were saying — Why aren’t there strong female role models like a female version of a Superman or Ironman? Why are women always classified as care-giving and nurturing?”

     I smiled indulgently at my daughter.  

     “It is not funny, Ma.”

     “But I am sure you had fun.”  

     I picked up a punched up lump of clay. It looked oddly like a man with a hollowed out eye at the forehead and a gaping mouth. “This is interesting.”

     “This,” she grabbed the lump from me and balled it up, “was their idea of fun. You free yourself from the taboo shackles by forming them in clay and then punching them down.”

     She forced-fed the balled clay into the ashtray, stabbing its surface with impatient imprints of her index finger. 

     “What should we do after lunch?” I looked dreamily across to the shoe shop. 

     “Ma, are you not going to apologize?”

     “Whatever for?”

     “Whatever for? For signing me up for the workshop without my consent. For wasting my whole morning with a group of people I don’t like, discussing things I don’t understand. Need I go on? And don’t you dare laugh about it. It is not funny.”

     “Calm down. Look, I honestly didn’t expect it to be a feminist thing. The brochure said.. wait–”

    I fished a crumpled piece from my handbag and held it up triumphantly. I lifted up my spectacles and peered at the fine print.

     “OK. here it is.. An interactive performance workshop on invoking and reclaiming your inner goddess through story-telling and ritual magic.”

     I grinned sheepishly. “I thought that it would be fun, especially the ritual magic part.” 

     My daughter glared. “Do you know how much I hate that word – interactive?

     “Oh, c’mon. You know all those rituals and taboos, right? Like, don’t trim your fingernails at night, or whistle at dusk, or dry your clothes outside at night just in case you attract wandering female vampires.”  

     I laughed wickedly.

     She scowled and said, “And does that also include – don’t leave any food on the plate otherwise you will marry a man with pockmarks on his face? Or don’t sing in the kitchen, otherwise you will marry an old man? Ma, this is 2017, not 1917.”

     I nodded. “What those women at the workshop are saying is that these rituals and taboos are designed to keep women subservient: Do this and you will end up with an ugly husband. Do that and you will become an old spinster. These are all scare tactics.” 

     “See, you should have been the one attending it; not me. You always have an opinion about everything.  I didn’t know what they were going on about. When my turn came to say something, my mind was blank. I have never felt so stupid in my life.”

    “Anyway, I am sure you have learnt something from this workshop, right?”

     She gave me a strange look and huffed angrily. 

     “Ma, are you saying that you have been feeding me with all these superstitious rubbish to keep me in check?”

     “Hey, don’t judge me. Tell me about it when you have a daughter next time.” I grinned, recalling this same accusation I had hurled at my mother many years ago.

Flash Fiction – Dog’s breakfast

     I looked at the dish in front of me, “it looks dead.” 

     Mike snorted, “Of course, it’s dead! What are you expecting it to do? Moo?”

     I shifted the overcooked vegetables around in my plate and gingerly lifted the steak on its side. It slipped off my fork and flipped over with a thud, revealing uneven leathery dry spots on the underside. Freezer burn

     Mike cleared his throat and hissed, “Can you please stop playing with your food and eat? People are watching us.”  

     I smiled mischievously at my co-worker. I tilted my head slightly to glance over my shoulder to see if people were indeed watching us.

     The place was dimly lit although it was early afternoon. Streaks of sunshine streamed intermittently through gaps in the heavy brocade curtains.

     There was one other booth that was occupied. Three men in suits, huddled over a large blueprint.

     I shook my head. I can’t see how this restaurant was going to last till the end of the year. Best to turn this old place into one of those artisanal-whatver joints which are fashionable with hipsters now. 

     “I hope you are not going to do what I think you are planning to do,” he said in a low voice, pointing his finger at the no-camera sign painted on the side of the booth.

     “Hey, can you please hold up your napkin in front of you for abit? Pretend that you are wiping your mouth,” I chuckled. 

     “We are going to be thrown out of this restaurant for this,” he protested, obediently holding up the napkin which I was going to use as a diffuser.

     I angled my small mirror against Mike’s napkin to bounce off some soft light.  I took a couple of quick shots on my smartphone before bringing it down to my lap to review. 

     “Satisfied?” Mike huffed. 

     I nodded.

     “I like you, yunno.  You are not like my husband, so grumpy whenever I want to take photos of my food,” I said sweetly. 

     I raked the garnishes off the top of my main course and made sawing motions as I sliced off a small bite.  I held it up to my nose, closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.  Then, I put it into my mouth and swirled it around my tongue.

     “This is so good,” I moaned theatrically,  “like hav —.”

     Mike coughed lightly. I opened my eyes and nearly choked on my food.

     The young chef was grinning at me. “Is everything alright, Madame?”

     “Yes, yes,” I said hurriedly, scratching my brain for a “politically correct” compliment. 

     “This…” I pointed at my dish repeatedly, “wasn’t what I expected.” 

     He looked at me anxiously.

     I stared at my dish as if to find the right words. “It’s …hmm.. interesting!” I decided, finally, in a measured tone.

     He gave a slight bow and said, “Thank you for your kind support,” before hi-fiving his way back to the kitchen.

     Mike looked at me and started laughing. “You are a bloody soft Aunty person underneath, ain’t you?”

     “No, I’m not!”

     “C’mon, say that you will give this place another chance.”

     I shook my head.

     “That bad, eh?”

     “How can you even think of serving meat with freezer burn? At least I won’t feel guilty when I sign the eviction letter. I’ll splash these photos over social media if they threaten to sue. Anyway —,” I sighed, reaching out for an empty doggy bag in my handbag, “the dog would be delighted to have this.” 

Flash fiction – The writing class

When Allen heard Mother yawned in bed, he ran to bring her breakfast which he’d made – pancakes slightly crusted at the edges and generously doused in warm maple syrup.

   “Class..what is wrong with Drew’s story?” You ask. Someone at the back mumbles.

   “I can’t hear you. C’mon we have been through this before.” You look around. “You should not start a story with …what?”

   “A wake up scene,” someone finally quips.

   “Yes, you have to start the story as close as possible to the action. Stop going round and round with I wake up. He wakes up. My mum wakes up, and stretches, and yawns…,” you shake your head and continue reading the student’s writing assignment out loud to the class.

He was hoping that Mother is in her good moods.  The piano lessons were getting tiresome.  Besides, he had promised Grandma that he would help in the garden. Allen hated working on the compost heap; but it was miles better than piano lessons.

   “Are these details really necessary?” You ask again. No answer. You walk quickly to the third row and flicks at an ear. Jason wakes up with a start.

Mother smiled when she saw the breakfast tray.  She was wearing her favourite nightshirt; the one with tiny bluebells.  She had let her hair loose, and it caught the glint of sunlight.   Allen thought how pretty Mother looked when she was not fussing over something.

He watched her intently as she put the pancake in her mouth.  She closed her eyes and chewed slowly.

“Lovely” Mother said, licking the syrup off her fingers.

Allen stared at the floor, tracing his toe along the crevice of a tile.

   You lift your arms in mock despair. “You! come out here and continue reading this.” You point to Vivian and wave the three-paged story at her. She continues to stare at the upright book in front of her. The boy sitting behind her stretches his foot and kicks her chair, causing the book to fall and reveal a handphone. 

“Is everything alright, dear?” Mother was looking at him.

Allen stiffened.

“I..I.. wa.. was.. won.. wonder.. ing.. whe.. whe.. ther.. I.. could.. could.. go.. to.. Gra.. andma’s.. to..to..day”

   Vivian deliberately reads the stammer in a singsong way.  Then she purrs:

“Take a deep breath, son.  Look at me and say it again slowly” 

   The boys at the back of the class thump their palms against their desks in appreciative glee.

“I was.. won..der..ing if I.. I.. couldgotoGrandma’stoday”

“What day is it?” Mother looked around the room and reached for her Blackberry.  “Nine messages from the office? What is going on?”

Mother’s face turned moody.  Allen shuffled out of Mother’s room and went to his, tears welling up in his eyes.

   “Class, has the story answered your 5Ws so far? Can you feel any tension in this story?” You rap the desk loudly for attention. The front row students nod hesitantly. 

Clacky was watching him from the shoebox.  Allen stretched across the bed and released the hatch which held the flap like a drop door.  The lizard crawled out slowly onto his hand.

“We are not going to Grandma’s today”, he cooed.

Allen brought out pancake crumbs from his pocket. The lizard flicked its tongue greedily.  Allen ran his finger along the lizard’s leathery back.  The lizard loved to be massaged this way because it always went clack! clack! clack!

   Vivian enunciates the words “loved to be massaged.”  The class erupts.  

How nice it is to be a lizard, Allen thought.  No piano lessons.

The thought of piano lessons jolted him.  He looked at the clock by his bedside. Another 15 minutes to go and that terrible woman would be here. Why? Why? Why? he cried as he punched the mattress and buried his face in the pillow.

Just then, he heard footsteps.  He put Clacky in his pocket, and propped his head on his elbow.

“What was it that you wanted to tell me, son?”  It was Mother.

“I hate piano lessons. Can I stop?” Allen was surprised how easily the words came out of his mouth.

   “Teacher, this is so boring. Can I stop?” Vivian wails. You wave at her to carry on. 

Mother looked at him strangely. “Nope! But I suggest you wash up and get ready for Miss Cheong”

Then she walked away.

“Oh.. and another thing”, she was back at his door, “Thanks for the pancakes. They were lovely. Be good!”  He heard her blow him a kiss and was gone.

   You look at the clock above the whiteboard. Five minutes to go before the end of the class. Six hours to the end of the school day. You wonder what had possessed you to accept this temporary teaching job. You should be at your desk, writing your novel. Not this. With these pubescent kids who don’t give a damn.

   “Teacher, can we do the skit instead, please..please?” a voice implores. 

   You look around the restless class. “Right. Can I have three volunteers: one to read and two to act as Allen and the piano teacher? Drew, you are the writer of this story. Please lead the skit.” 

   Drew stands up instantly. He picks Ben, and a girl who you know he fancies. She flashes a V sign as the class chant, “Mira, Mira.” 

   “Who is going to do what?” You ask. Drew says he will do the reading. He says he sucks at acting.

 

“Let’s start from the top.” Miss Cheong’s voice was frosty.

She had her hair pulled severely into a bun.  She had plucked her eyebrows and they sat stoically on her face, above her eyes like two forbidding wire arches.

“NOOO! Wrong! Wrong!” she yelled.  Allen flinched as her ruler struck his knuckle. She shoved him aside, and bore down the keyboard furiously.

“You are such a waste of my time.  I have never taught anyone so STUPID!”

Allen could feel the sobs swelling up his chest to his throat.
….         No, I mustn’t cry.
       ….          She’ll laugh at me.
                 …        She’ll call me a cry baby.

 

   Drew stops reading abruptly and looks at you. “Can I change places with Ben, teacher? He reads, I act?” You shrug your shoulder. You wonder briefly over his change of heart. Drew runs to his desk, takes out his waterbottle and runs back to the front of the class. He takes a big gulp to calm his nerve and sets it on the table, with its lid open.

 

“Eeekkk!!!” Miss Cheong leapt and wiggled her body vigorously.

Allen stared and then, remembering Clacky, reached for his pocket. His heart sank.

He ran behind Miss Cheong and started patting her.

   You gesture at Drew to stop patting the giggly Mira all over.

   Now, you wish you had read the rest of Drew’s story before agreeing to this skit. The boy is clearly getting ahead of himself and taking advantage of the situation.

She jumped in fright, startled; and swung her hand at him.  He could hear Clacky squirming wildly in fear and panic.  He took a glass of water and splashed it down her back.

   Splash!

   “You shithead!” Mira screams. Water streaming down the back of her school uniform. She grabs Drew’s shirt and shoves. He stumbles onto the floor and curls up like a ball. She starts punching his back. You rush and pull Mira away. She spits at Drew.

   Ben raises his voice above the uproar and continues reading.

“You idiot!” she screamed as the lizard fell out of her dress and onto the floor.

“Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!” she chanted as she stamped her foot repeatedly on Clacky.

   “Mr Vincent!” The Headmistress is standing at the door. She looks as though she would combust. You follow her out meekly as Ben reads the final part of the story.

Allen looked at the floor and saw the mangled mess of his best friend.

“I… I.. ha…ha..hate… you”

“I… I.. ha…ha..hate… you”, she mocked. “I AM LEAVING.”