The Fixer

     The air-conditioner cranked loudly, blowing warm and cold air in cycles.  I sneezed.  This office smelt musty, like rotting carpet.  On one side of the wall, reminding everyone who’s the boss, was an imposing oil painting of the company’s founder looking so highfaluting it was comical. 

     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 large offices 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.  I spied the Accountant strolling 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 declared 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 daggers 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.”

     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 arched his back and puffed his chest out, glowering.  “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 that was in the pocket of my blazer.  At last, I am Top Dog.  That parasite colleague, Qian, is out.  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 eventhough it’s broad daylight; eventhough there are lots of people milling around; eventhough there are …

     A policeman was standing outside the small 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 pressed 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 hard to pull.  Their long stems were too strong for my limp hand with its four worthless stumps.

     A woman was peering over the wall.  She must be standing on a stool.  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.  It reads: 23 Feb 2016.

     Was yesterday 23 Feb 2016?

     “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.” Mrs Wong said

     I closed my eyes tightly.

     I was going home.

     Now I am here.

     I ran hand across my face and caressed the rough fibrous tissue running along the side of my face from my forehead to near my ear.

     “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.

 

The visitor

justwritelahwordpress_ondeh
Ondeh-ondeh. A Malaysian teatime favourite

     “Are you sure you’ll be alright?”

     “Don’t you worry about me,” I reply, “I am sure I’ll find something to keep myself busy.”

     “Alright then. Our numbers are on the fridge door. Call if you need anything. Remember don’t go outside if anyone rings the gate bell. There have been cases of ro…..hey! stop fighting in the car…” Helen yells, waving wildly as she runs to her big grey car.

     A frayed pillow lopes out of the car window. It sails towards me. I catch it in mid-flight. It limps in my hands, the bulky kapok stuffing languishing on both ends, its cotton cover smelling faintly of stale urine.

     I stretch upwards, close my eyes and take a deep breath. Fresh morning air. I miss this. I twist my body from side to side, gingerly ironing the kinks of sleep.

     “Hello Aunty”

     Her head is bobbing above the concrete wall. Her bandanna a streaky deep pink with sweat. She pushes herself up on tip-toes, her chubby fingers with their glittering nail polish grab precariously to the brickwork.

     “You must be Helen’s aunty. I recognize that thing on your face from the photo.”

     I give a tight smile. That thing… is a huge birthmark which covered my left cheek.

     “I am Kitty, your next door. You like nyonya kuih? I make ondeh-ondeh today. Very sedap one. I give you try.”

     Before I could protest, Kitty is in front of the house and commanding me to open the gate.

     “We have tea together,” she says, toddling right in and making herself at home.

     I walk into the kitchen to switch the kettle on.

     “My tea no milk no sugar ok. Kosong. I on diet”

     I roll my eyes.

     “I dunno why but I always thought you died long ago.”

     Her voice sounds suspiciously faint. I rush out of the kitchen.  The door to my bedroom is ajar. Kitty is peering into my wardrobe. I clear my throat loudly. “Oh, sorry..I thought the washroom is in here. Wow! what an old big jar!”

     I glare at her and point to the direction of the toilet. She waves dismissively and goes back to the dining room instead.

     I watch her pick up a coconut-coated ondeh-ondeh dumpling, tear it apart before slurping the thick palm sugar syrup tickling out.

     “So it is true..the stories about Helen inheriting a large antique jar.  Yunno, I heard that these kind of old jars have to be careful because sometimes roaming spirits like to hide inside.”  She narrows her eyes and taps her finger against the side of her nose. “And you know what else I heard? That kind of spirit will appear like a real person, like you and me.”

     My left eye twitches.

     “You shouldn’t listen to stories like that,” I chuckle.

     She pushes the plate of ondeh-ondeh towards me. I stab my fork into one, take a small bite and syrupy palm sugar gushes into my mouth. I purse my lips and run my tongue lightly across my hidden fangs, carefully avoiding Kitty’s snooping eyes.

     “This is so juicy,” I muse, eyeing Kitty’s soft chubby neck.  I clench my teeth to keep myself from drooling shamelessly. 

     “You don’t exercise?” she asks suddenly.

     “Huh? Oh yes. I mean No. I supposed I’d start soon.”

     “Me also first day keeping fit. You see this? My hubby whatsapp this picture to me yesterday. Although he said joke joke only, I feel that he is trying to hint something at me. What do you think?”

     I jerk backwards as she thrusts her phone in my face.

     “You think I am fat?”

     “No, not at all.” I lie.

     She pops another ondeh-ondeh into her mouth and chews noisily. “I want to teach my hubby a lesson. I want to exercise so that one day, I will surprise him with my slimness.” 

     She reaches out and clasps my hand urgently, “Aiyoh, yunno, this morning I wake up early to go jogging. That time when I start to run, it is already bright.  Then ahhh.. I saw got three pariah dogs.  So I pretend to bend down and pretend to pick up a stone to throw at them.  Usually dogs when they see people do that, they will run away one. But dunno why lah, this time the dogs start to bark at me pulak. So celaka!”

     She looks at me as if to check if I am listening. “So I say “shoosh! shoosh!” and look for stick. But they still bark.  Then I decide to walk and don’t care about them.  But I could feel they are following me.  Then, I saw Mrs Narasamy opening gate to throw her rubbish.  So I wave at her and faster faster run to her house.  Then ahh.. the dogs also start running. Alamak! mati me!”

     I giggle. Kitty nods her head knowingly and continues, “I turn my head to see how near they are.  Next thing I know, I crash into Mrs Narasamy’s  laundry rack.  Aiyoh, my whole body fell on the rack and altogether all fall on the grass.  Damn shy because whole family quickly rush out of house to help me.”

     I struggle to stifle a laugh at her Manglish rant. 

     She looks at the clock and stands to leave.  She leans towards me and says in a low voice, “Please  don’t tell Helen that I was here. It is our secret ok.”

     “Yes, it would be our little secret,” I smiled inwardly; relishing the day I will wrap myself around her chubby body and carry her with me into the old jar.