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.

The Fixer

     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 the company’s founder.

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

     Inside, three cubicles crammed into the space flanked by two large glass cabinets full of trophies.     

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

     My colleague, Qian, cleared his throat.  The time on my phone showed 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.  Jam,“ she fretted.  I shrugged. 

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

     “Is E.H working today?” I asked icily, looking pointedly at my watch. 

     She stared meekly at the direction of the door. 

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

     “Hello sweetie.”

     I flinched as he tickled my palm with his index finger.  He gave me a knowing smile as though we were sharing a private joke.  I pretended not to understand.

     “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 noticed Qian mouthed something frantically. 

     “The big boss has asked me to introduce you to Lilly here.  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 reno–, “

     “Thank you, I am sure I will meet her sometime soon,“ I interrupted.

     “I am working on a proposal to unlock asset values in our investee companies either via a Real Estate Investment Trust, or an Initial Public Offering in the stockmarket,“ I smirked, noting with utmost satisfaction, the shocked look on Qian’s face. 

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

     I glanced at Qian.  He reddened. 

     Hmm..interesting..I don’t remember there being any shoplots in this company’s list of assets.

      “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 sneered, 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 nonchalantly.

     Qian jumped and pointed at me accusingly, “What do you mean by no dilution? This…is the only asset in the company’s portfolio.”

     He waved his arms wildly and glared at me darkly,  “Unless..Oh don’t tell me..  you are planning to relocate this factory 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,” he snarled, pushing his face mere inches away from mine and jabbing me at my chest. 

     He grabbed the sleeve of my blouse and frog-marched me out of the office. 

     The metal stairs shuddered as the door slammed.

   &&& 

     The stork balanced itself on the top of the lamp post as I waited for the pedestrian light to turn green.  Against the fiery sunset, the stork looked like a one-legged sentinel watching the traffic snarling below.

     I patted the Appointment Letter in my bag.  I will make sure that Qian is kicked out soonest.  

     Tonight, I am going to draft The Plan for the company. By this time next year, the company will be mine to twirl around at the whims of my beautiful fingers.

     Someone rushed by and shoved a flyer in my hand.

     Ladies Night.  That figured.  No wonder the pubs were crowded at this early hour.

     I turned instinctively and spotted two burly men watching me intently. 

     I quickened my pace; one hand clenching the sling of my handbag, another grabbing the pepper spray in my pocket. 

     One can never be sure in this parts.

     A policeman stood outside the police beat up ahead.  I shall ask him for directions to places I know to be on my left.  I want to have the excuse to stop and look around me.

     Something cold jabbed at my neck. “Walk on,” the voice growled, “One scream and you will be dead.”

&&&

     Few days of evening rain and the weeds have taken over the garden.

     “Hello Lilly.”

     “LILLYYYY!”

     I looked up from the weeds I was trying to pull out.  Their long stems were too strong for my limp hand with its four worthless stumps.

     A woman was peering over the wall.  She looked like the Michelin Man in pink staring down at me in the garden.

     “Lilly, the man buying old newspapers was knocking at your gate.  You know which one, right? The one in the van with the loudspeaker shouting kow kow poh chi.  Old  Newspaper.  paper lama.  bateri lama.  tilam lama.  computer lama.  You want to sell that or not?”

     I looked at where she was pointing. 

     A large pile of old newspapers sat on a patio chair.  Its pages warped from dried-out rain. 

     I glanced at the buckled page on the top.  23 Feb 2016.

     Was yesterday 23 Feb 2016?

     The woman at the wall continued talking. “There are two old newspaper man plying in this area.  One is tall and thin.  The other is fat and short.  I like the fat and short one.  He is more polite.  Calls me tai kar cheh.  Big sister.”

     What is the date today?

     “The old newspaper that you want to sell has no fixed price.  You must bargain. I can help you bargain if you wish,” the woman said

     I closed my eyes tightly.

     I was going home.

     Now I am here.

     I caressed the rough fibrous tissue running along the side of my face; from my forehead to near my ear.

     She waved at me for attention. “Lilly, before you open the gate, you must ask the newspaper man ‘How much?’ Then he will make pitiful face and say ‘Now the prices have dropped alot’.  Says the same thing everytime.” 

     “What day is it today?” I asked.

     “Huh? Today is Wednesday.  How come you don’t know what day it is?”

     “I mean, date.  What is the date today?” I demanded.

     She counted her fingers.  “Ten May”

     “10 May 2016?”

     “No.  2017! How can you forget?” She shook her head in disbelief.

     I turned to go back inside the house, dragging my useless foot with me.

     2017.

     2016.

     It is so confusing.

     “Lilly.. do you want to sell your old newspaper or not?” I heard her shout.

 

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 PA. 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.” 

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.”

 

 

That gnawing feeling…

     Yesterday, I was coerced to say a few words at a memorial service.

     Perhaps “coerced” is too kind a word. I was late for a memorial which I wasn’t scheduled to attend. I attended because the Big Boss called in sick.

     I arrived at the funeral parlour towards the tail-end of the memorial service; the part where friends and colleagues were expected to deliver a eulogy. All eyes were on me when the Pastor asked if anyone else would like to say a few words; someone from the office, perhaps.

     Totally unprepared, I started with the same old tired line: “I have known … have known…hmm…”

     The Pastor sitting near me piped, “Irene”

     “…Irene..for quite some time.” 

     “Irene and I worked together on M & A projects.  We spent many good nights arguing over valuations, complained endlessly over unreasonable timelines and cry when deals fall through?” 

     I knitted my eyebrows and tried my best to talk about a generic occasion or setting where Irene and I would have worked together; because frankly,  I can’t for the life of me even recall working with an Irene previously.

     Someone sobbed loudly.

     I looked up and saw a lady in the front pew, carefully drying tears off a shiny new gold-coloured smartphone with a balled-up tissue.

     Not knowing what else to say, I decided to end my eulogy by offering my condolence to the family.

     When I got back to my seat, my colleague leaned towards me and whispered, “I think you have got the wrong Irene. This is Irene, the office tea lady.”

The Mentor’s last stand

     “When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind,” my mentor points to the tv screen.

     The tv is mounted awkwardly at the corner of the bar. It has its sound turned down; a ticker tape showing falling stock prices races across the screen. All the big companies on the stockmarket are flashing their stock prices in red. Each flash a cent down from the previous. But my mentor is calm. You can only get bargains when there is panic and fear, he reminds me.

     I draw circles in the condensed droplets impatiently. He reaches out for my flask to pour cold sake into my cup. 

     “You should take the warm drinks instead of chilled. Too much cold drink is bad for health,” he chides.

     “Surely that’s not why you want to see me for, Sir.”  I wave at the bartender to bring me a bowl of stewed daikon.

     “I have the same,” my mentor concurs, “and I would also like some yudofu. Would you like some yudofu? You used to love the hot tofu.” 

     My heart skips a beat. He remembers

     The bartender’s wife places an earthern pot in front of us and lifts the lid, releasing a thick head of briny steam. Inside the pot are four blocks of freshly made tofu bath in kombu stock. I lean forward to inhale the savoury umami flavour of the seaweed.

     My mentor scoops a tofu block and places it into my bowl. He pours soy sauce and some of his sake onto my tofu before topping it with grated ginger and chopped scallions. Carving a piece off my tofu with his spoon, he blows to cool it down slightly. He gestures me to open my mouth. The hot tofu slides in; its soft custardy texture wobbling on my tongue like creme caramel. He hands me my bowl, “Itadakimasu. Eat. We talk later”

     I steal a glance at my mentor. We had worked together for 24 years. He employed me when I was fresh out of university. He introduced me to the seedy side of global investment banking; taught me how to seduce an investor by playing to his own greed. No qualms. No conscience. No what-ifs. Every successful deal closed was a huge jump in our annual bonus pool. 

     He laughs abruptly. I find myself laughing too. Not that I know what he is laughing about. His laughter is infectious; it comes out as a guffaw more than a chuckle; an echo that rises all the way from the gut.

     He turns sharply and catches me looking at him. I blush. He retrieves a cigarette from the case, taps one end against the counter top before lighting up. A slight tilt of the head. A long slow inhale. A coy smile as warm nicotine races down to his lungs. Later, sharp rushes on exhaling before ashes are flicked impatiently readying for the next puff.

     “Let’s go out for a walk,” my mentor suggests, after we had washed down our meal with the one more flask of warm sake. Our third.

     Outside the moon hangs low in the hazy sky. Spring is here. It will soon become hot and humid. But tonight, it feels chilly. I shiver in my white linen shift dress. I untie the cashmere scarf around my neck and drape it over my shoulders. My mentor takes off his jacket and wraps me in it. I resist the urge to press his jacket against my face.

     “How is he?”

     “Look! what a perfect round moon.” I pull the front of the jacket tightly.

     “Why did you marry him?”

     “Is this why you want to meet me for? To ask me why I decided to throw down my last card?” 

     He stops suddenly and turns to me.

     What is there to tell? That I am tired of innuendos at work? Or that my on-off boyfriend had issued the ultimatum? Or..or.. that I am tired of waiting, of hoping…

     “I just reckoned it was time.” 

     My mentor grabs me around my waist. He tilts my face towards him with one hand while the other holds the small of my back. He caresses the side of my cheek and parts my lips gently.

    C’mon, let me hear you lie to me again.

   “Silly girl. Didn’t I tell you that I am still trying to get a divorce?” he said