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Saul on The Road


When the snoring begins, Mr Liang tiptoes out of the bedroom. By the corridor, he begins his silent incantations. I’m floating. Light as a Silkie chicken feather… just a chicken feather. He places his right foot on the wood floor. In anticipation of a whining squeak, he grimaces. Miraculously, the timber cooperates.

With each step down the staircase, his heart gallops away. The mahogany front door looms within reach. He risks taking three steps at a go. Near the bottom, a screeching creeeeaaakk shatters the solitude. The snoring stops.

He freezes.

Any moment now, an inquiry will be launched from above. Due to a spate of divorces among her mahjong friends in Kuala Lumpur, Mrs Liang’s vigilance has surpassed the level of an FBI agent. He holds his knees from knocking together. Once more, the snoring resumes. When She-Who-Must-Know-Everything awakens from her siesta, she should be appeased by his folded note under the bedside lamp.

Honey, I’m checking on my investment property in Cempaka Estate. Your Darling Husband. He even drew a squishy heart pierced with a Cupid’s arrow. 

He reverses his Mercedes out of the driveway and slides onto Harmony Street. When he turns on the air-conditioning, the afternoon air blasts at him, rich with the aroma of ripe bananas. In a quarter of an hour, unleashed for the first time in three excruciating weeks, he will luxuriate shamelessly in his oh, so sinful ways.

 

Out of nowhere, a truck cuts into his lane. He hits the brakes. His chest smashes against the wheel, followed by a cruel snap on his neck. His fist is glued to the horn as if the wailing blast is a projection of his internal scream.

            The truck driver sticks his arm out of the window, waving his middle finger.

            “You rascal! Hope you catch syphilis,” Mr Liang yells at the grey cloud of exhaust fumes left behind. Luckily Straight Street was empty. His car clipped the pavement. A split second delay in his reaction and he could’ve been squashed. What a stroke of luck.

He revs the engine. The familiar grunt is a relief but Celine Dion is stuck approximating distances. Near far, nearfarnearFAR FARFAR, she sings. He jabs the “eject” button. NearFAR nearFAR nearFAR. The refrain mimics a thumping heart. He slams the “eject” and “off” buttons simultaneously. What an annoying song!

Then he feels a weight on his chest.

He kills the engine. The pressure below his ribcage evolves into a clenching pain. Sweat pours down his back. His fake Lacoste T-shirt, with its alligator logo pointing in the opposite direction, sticks to him like warm starch.

Nearfar nearFARFARFARFAR.

He flicks the switch to lower the windows. It’s as if God has reached inside him, squeezing his insides. He pulls out his cell phone but it snakes down the crevice between his seat and the gearstick. The pain evolves into a rhythmical stab, regular as a metronome. Each blow draws him closer and closer to...

The end?

Two teenagers cycle towards him from the opposite direction. They are racing, madly ringing their bells. They draw closer. He summons all his strength to scream. Aaaaaaargh. Shiny lycra shorts whoosh past him.

He slumps across the passenger seat. An opaque film descends over his eyes. It shields the inverted Y-shaped logo on his steering wheel. It evolves into an incandescent beam. A blinding light. Then darkness.

Throughout his life, he believed in a higher being. At different phases, the god had been Buddha, then Jesus (when he dated Mrs Liang), then Buddha again. Next, the goddess Kwan-Ying. He knew of Allah and Siva. In the matter of committing to a creator, he had sampled each one like a dish at a buffet and concluded he had no favorite. He respected them all.

Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins. I accept you as Lord and Savior.

Nothing. He tries again.

Buddha, please bless me for I wish to return as a man not a swine. O me dou fu. The clouds part. He feels the wrath of the sun.

Allah, have mercy on your servant. Insha-Allah. He cannot remember if it is Insha-Allah or Allah-Insha.

The Lord is my shepherd. What comes after that?

He takes sharp breaths in but is unable to exhale. He tries ripping off his T-shirt. Although worth only five dollars at the local market, the polyester survives the assault.

Please God. I’ll change. I swear I’ll be a better person.

With the gear stick poking into his flank, he wonders if he’s suspended in purgatory.

Make this quick. I’m a coward. I haven’t always been honest but my heart is pure.

He paws at the window, tries to compose a parting message for his wife.

 

Is his mind playing tricks?

The crushing weight dissipates. Mr Liang hoists himself up from the passenger seat. The outline of his glove box comes into focus. So does the pentagonal jade pendant which hangs from his rear mirror to ward off evil spirits. The bright light dims until it’s…

Gone. It’s as though scales have fallen from his eyes.

He angles the mirror. The same moon-face stares back at him except now he has flushed cheeks. He inspects his teeth: two intact gold molars. The familiar street is still empty except for a yelping puppy. This isn’theaven, is it? If he can still see a sky, then he must be alive. He leans forward and gazes upwards.

There they are! Fleecy clouds sail across the sun. Crows glide like miniature airplanes. I’m alive! How amazing to be alive.

At this exact moment—while he praises the heavens, transfixed by the beauty of the skies, giving thanks to Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Kwan-Ying and Siva in succession—three thuds of pigeon droppings splatter across his windscreen.

 

“Welcome back, boss!”

Stepping into the Golden Seaview coffee shop, he nearly weeps. The owner, Tauke Chan, holds his elbow and guides him through as if he is a returning POW. Passing by the tables, his mouth puckers to the whiffs of peanut sauce and satay piled on the ceramic plates. Tauke pulls out a plastic stool for his favorite customer. He flicks away a piece of choysum with a dishrag, giving the table a cursory wipe. He places disposable chopsticks on the rectangular Formica table scarred with rings. The chipped corner appears lethal.

“Long time no see. How come?”

Mr Liang shakes his head. “My dragon won’t let me out. A hint of diabetes and… I’m a fully-fledged vegetarian.”

Aiyah, grow some balls.”

“Eh, if I don’t have balls, why am I here?”

“Women must understand men need their fun,” says Tauke, wriggling his eyebrows. “You’re having lots of fun, eh? Look at your rosy cheeks.”

“Don’t get me started.”

When Tauke doesn’t take the bait, he launches into a tirade against the truck driver. Still shaken, he recounts his ailments, the strange loss and recovery of his sight.

Aiyah.”

“What?”

  “You had mini-stroke.”

Choi! Don’t joke. Bad luck.”

“Remember my cousin, Ah Kuan? He had attacks of blindness. I said go and see doctor. But he was too stingy. Six months later…”

Crack! Mr Liang jumps along with the chopsticks when Tauke smacked his knuckles on the table.

“Big stroke.” Tauke sighs. “Drop dead on the sidewalk. Doctor said earlier episodes were warnings. Mini-strokes.”

A stroke?

If anyone should have a stroke, it’d be Tauke who smokes two packets of cigarettes a day. His belly flops out of his “XXL” track pants like a slug. Mr Liang only wears size “L” pants. Sometimes he is more comfortable in an “XL” but if he really wants to, he can fit into an “L”. Tauke’s Michael Jackson “HIStory” t-shirt is a size too small. It barely covers his belly button, exposing the ballooning girth. The drawstring of his pants is knotted into a silly bow, on the verge of unraveling.

“Go! See doctor. Don’t dilly dally.” Tauke waves a finger at him. “Having the usual?”

He grunts.

Mini-stroke sounds like an item on a children’s menu. Didn’t strokes affect old people? Mr Liang is only fifty-two.

He taps the tabletop, squinting as he seeks a familiar face, hoping to casually drop a question about strokes, hoping to disprove Tauke’s diagnosis. The coffee shop is packed: strangers share tables like old chums, chatting boisterously. Many are transfixed by the news on the plasma tv. Businessman Teng was discovered floating in an abandoned tin-mining pool three nights ago, wrists handcuffed behind him.

“Screwing up the Finance Minister’s business dealings,” shouts a customer two tables away, “earns you a special swimming lesson.” There is a burst of laughter.

Alas, he doesn’t recognize anyone. Now he regrets coming in. He should protest by leaving immediately. Except a turquoise plastic bowl balanced on Tauke’s palm has drifted out of the kitchen, accompanied by the rhythmic plong plong plong of his clogs smashing the floor tiles. The murky grey tiles are coated with years of grime. Even Tauke jokes that the secret to his delicious food is the sprinkles of bacterial colonies in it.

“Here, boss.”

Red beef curry. Seasoned with extra coconut milk and chopped red chili. The aromatic, spicy dish already brings tears to his eyes. The sweetish, sour scent of curry makes the hairs on his neck stand. Submerged in the curry are chunks of beef, succulent with strips of fat that melt instantly in the mouth. Yes, he likes his curry rich. Yes, he sees a gazillion fatty globules on the surface resembling an oil spill. Today is the last time he’ll eat it this way. Next time, he’ll insist on less coconut milk. If the gods forbade him to feast, then they wouldn’t have spared him today, right?

Tauke Chan scoops more rice onto his plate. His face lights up witnessing the erection of the rice mound. The steamed rice, seasoned with pandan leaves, is a perfect companion for red curry.

Tauke coughs. He fishes out a sticky tissue from his pockets, expels the phlegm, and shoves the ball of tissue back into his pants.

“Have you consulted my Dr Tan before?” asks Mr Liang. As he chomps, rice flurries down from his chin.

“Yours?”

“My best tenant at Cempaka Estate. You say I need to see a doctor. What about your everlasting cough?”

“All smokers have one.”

“Dr Tan is the best. Sometimes there’s a line outside his clinic…ouch, water, water, my mouth’s burning!” 

Tauke signals to his waiter for a cup of tea.

That Dr Tan.” Tauke digs a toothpick between his teeth and sucks on it. Mr Liang slurps the tea when it arrives.

“You’ve scared me, you rascal. After this, I’ll pay him a visit. I’m sure he’ll treat my… indigestion. I’ll pretend I was passing by and dropped in to say hello. That way, he won’t charge me a consultation fee.”

“Dr Tan too busy. He famous, important lung doctor. You need a neuro… neural… neuron doctor.”

“Even if there’s a line outside the clinic, I’ll wait. I’ve plenty of time.”

Tauke snickers.

“Of course got line.” Tauke nods a few times in an exaggerated manner, bringing chin to chest. “Dr Tan’s special cough medicine.”

“Yes, cough syrup is important. I must ask him for some complimentary bottles.”

Tauke wolf-whistles. Customers from the adjacent tables turn around and smile, keen to be let in on the joke.

“My wife and I suffer terrible coughs on long-haul flights. Must be the recycled air,” says Mr Liang. “Don’t worry, I’ll get one for you.”

“You’re a joker. Us? Cough syrup?”  

Tauke pats him on the back, excuses himself and attends to his other customers.

Is it him or is Tauke crazy? Maybe he’s had a stroke after all because Tauke made no sense.

Perspiration drenching his shirt, food completely demolished, belt loosened, he emits a foghorn belch. Where in the world can you get a scrumptious feast for four dollars and fifty-two cents? He summons a waiter. He pulls out four dollar bills from his wallet, counts and recounts them and places the exact number of coins on the waiter’s glistening palm.

A scrumptious meal, however, doesn’t dislodge a paranoia seeded in the mind. Damn Tauke Chan.

                                               

A decade ago, Cempaka Estate was a rubber plantation. Each morning, the Indian workers carved the barks, milking the rubber into ceramic bowls that huddled around the trees like hungry mouths. The bowls—faded orange and chipped—would catch the fat droplets traveling in a downward spiral drip, drop, dripping and these would be hastily rescued before the sun solidified and rendered them useless. Now only two hectares of nature reserve on the southern end remain. All the rubber trees have been cleared. None of the skinny, ugly barks with their claw-mark scars. No more squatters, those flimsy huts with aluminum roofs, stacked against each other, bursting with the families of rubber tappers where within those walls, the terror of daughters and wives remained unspoken as the men, drunk on toddy, committed heinous crimes.

Of his six commercial properties, this is his favorite. When the rental market boomed within two years, he abandoned thirty years of teaching organic chemistry to high school students who were sometimes so reckless it was a miracle that the school hadn’t burnt down.

He is grateful for his comfortable existence. Sure, he does not live in an eight room mansion like businessman Wong, who made his fortune selling counterfeit Prada handbags, but he has a bungalow in a respected suburb. He cannot afford monthly trips to Shanghai like Minister Krishnan, who has his expenses paid under the table by local investors scampering for favors, but at least he takes an annual overseas vacation. He likes Miami Beach. He likes Gloria Estefan. Indeed, there are many routes to achieving wealth. He congratulates himself for possessing a conscience that bobs up like a messenger bottle in the vast sea of dishonesty.

He pulls up in the public car park. Today must be his lucky day. No one is standing outside the clinic.

The glass frontage is tinted like a bruise. He presses against it, making a tent above his eyes with his hands. He spots the intercom by the door and presses it.

“Yes?”

“Ah, Mrs Tan. It’s me, Mr Liang.”

The sliding doors open. He steps in.

Mrs. Tan rises from behind the front counter. Her fringe falls in an immaculate straight line. She must start each day with a ruler and a pair of scissors. While she has retained her China doll bob from two years ago, he is startled by her lips which resemble a duck’s beak. Her formerly flat eyelids are now engraved with extra creases, and her porcelain face—what happened to her freckles?—is wrinkle-free. She might as well have been wearing a bikini rising from the ocean, instead of her white nurse’s uniform, because he is drawn to her upsized breasts.

“Oh Mr Liang! What a surprise,” she says, toppling the desk calendar as she reaches out to shake hands. She combs her fringe with her fingers and then sits the calendar upright. “How are you? What a surprise.”

She is well into her seventh decade but has obliterated two of those decades. She reminds him of his own wife: a meek, docile woman who, abruptly, as if the wedding was some sort of spell, morphed into a Dragon Lady once the ring was placed on her finger.

Wah, you look younger and younger each time I see you,” he says with genuine awe.

“These neutraceutical supplements,” she says, pointing at the shelves behind the counter, “work wonders. Here. Compliments of the house.”

She pushes a bottle into his hand labeled “Mega Multivitamin for the Professional Man” with the photo of a shirtless Fabio standing, arms akimbo, as the forlorn female sits by his feet, a Tarzan and Jane-type pose. Does she think he’s a backward country bumpkin? He has strolled past cosmetic surgery clinics in Miami promising total makeovers. Maybe the little lies we tell ourselves become truths. She said it with such conviction.  

“Thanks. I’ll try it.”

“So what brings you here? I hope we’ve paid our rent.”

“Of course! You’re my most reliable tenants. My favorites,” he says. “I was just passing by.”

“I see.”

“So I dropped in.”

  “Ah.”

“Hope I’m not disturbing.”

She shakes her head. Her lower lip quivers.

He last stepped inside the clinic two years ago. The dispensary has widened. He recalls a letter from Dr. Tan requesting permission for a minor renovation. Previously, there had been a sitting area along the corridor facing the four consultation rooms, but now it is only wide enough to walk in single file. No wonder patients loitered outside. He is intrigued by the low hum of machinery operating behind those enclosed quarters. There is the occasional guffaw, probably from the nurses working in there.  

As if his eyes needed to adjust to an optical illusion, he notices for the first time, the patients in the waiting area. The stillness of the clinic, reminiscent of school exam halls, had camouflaged them in the background. A youth huddles in a corner, a beanie stretched down his face, shivering. The bones along his wrists and shoulders almost pierce through the skin. A Eurasian woman—you can tell she’d been beautiful from the way she tilts her chin and crosses her legs—twirls her hair with her pinkie. When she smiles at him, her teeth are smudged black as if she has been chewing charcoal. Bruises, the size of postage stamps, line up along her neck. Every patient in the room, it becomes apparent to him, has a universal body type. They are cadaverous. Has he stepped onto a movie set filming a zombie apocalypse? The stench of Dettol makes him queasy. The room sways. 

“Mr Liang!”

He grabs onto the countertop. Mrs Tan dashes over, grabs around his waist and ushers him to a seat. She yells Dr Tan! Dr Tan! Another nurse runs out from the dispensary. He informs Mrs Tan about the truck driver but his tongue goes rogue. Iss huuh… wee uh… wee argh. The more he struggles, the more panicked she looks.

“Call the ambulance!” she shouts.

She lays him down across a bench seat. The stillness in the waiting room barely a minute ago transforms into a hive of activity. A door slams. The bespectacled Dr Tan hovers above him, muttering don’t worry, you’ll be fine. He barks out instructions, look over here! And here! as a pocket torch burns into Mr Liang’s pupils. An icy stethoscope lands on his chest and neck. A hissing oxygen prong invades his nostrils. Stroke… quite stable… blocked carotid. Dr Tan must be talking to the paramedics on his cell phone. The nurse from the dispensary pats his cheek, saying stay with us. Wake up. When he turns to look beyond Dr Tan’s frame, Mrs Tan is at the counter with a patient. Why isn’t she attending to him? She exchanges a brown paper bag for one, two, three, four of the green bills. Two hundred dollars for medication? Even in his dazed state, he is startled by the transaction.

In what seems like his next conscious moment, paramedics lift him onto a stretcher and carry him out of the clinic. The ambulance siren attracts many people who’ve rushed out from the surrounding shops. 

Busybodies! Are their lives so dull they find my misfortune entertaining? 

As the wafer-thin paramedics struggle with the stretcher, one of them misses a step. Bang! The stretcher hits the ground. Mr Liang’s spine is jolted; he feels an electric shock shoot down his leg. Some jerks snigger. The paramedic balances himself just in time and Mr Liang is saved from the humiliation of slipping into the adjacent drain. An oxygen mask straps over his nose and mouth as he slumps like a wide-eyed dummy. He manages a feeble wave to the Tans who nod reassuringly from the entrance of the clinic.

At the hospital, Mrs Liang bursts through the curtains of the ER sobbing. Seeing her scrunched-up face as if her heart has broken into pieces, he succumbs. Remarkably, his speech recovers. He confesses.

She gasps.

“You deceived… me?”

Her wails escalate. A trio of ER nurses encircle her, offering a box of Kleenex while shooting dirty looks at him.

“Ok. From now on, I’ll only eat whatever you put on my plate. Promise.” The tears stop. Immediately, he regrets it.

They are relieved when the ultrasound and CAT scans confirm a mild blockage of his carotid artery with no bleeding in the brain. He would only require a short admission and anti-coagulants. When the neurologist advises a complete overhaul of his dietary habits, Mr Liang pulls the blanket up to his nose, pretending to be drowsy. His wife nods along to the recommendations, with the triumphant look of a wife proven right. Goodbye Golden Seaview. With the blessing of the neurologist, her dictatorship has been legitimized.

“By God’s grace, you were at Dr Tan’s clinic when it happened,” she says, stroking his head as if he’s one of her teacup poodles. She’ll maintain a vigil by his side the whole night, rosary beads in her hand, because that is the kind of wife she is. Indeed, he has been blessed on many fronts. If Tauke had not alarmed him, he may have driven home, crashed his car and died at the roadside. His life had been twice returned.

“Sleepy?” she asks.

            He shuts his eyes. He knows sleep will not arrive until the wee hours of the morning.

 

            For the last hour, he has been cooped up in his car. With the seat tilted back, it would seem to any passerby that Mr Liang is taking a nap. From that vantage point, he lifts his head up every minute or two, to spy on the comings and goings at the clinic. Five patients had left the clinic since he commenced his vigil. Assuming they had all come for the same thing, Mrs Tan would’ve collected an easy one thousand dollars. Four drove off in their cars. One left on bicycle.

Why hadn’t he seen through them before? A medical specialist earns a good income but Dr Tan traded in his Jaguar every other year. They lived in a mansion in Quest Park, where the average house price was one-and-a-half million dollars. All three children boarded in prestigious private schools west of London.

            The sliding doors open. He leans forward. A woman in denim overalls exits clutching a paper bag. She heads to the rear of the block.

            He gets out of his Mercedes.  

The woman is scurrying away. Energetic. Excited. Purposeful. He has been left far behind already. She disappears into the nature reserve on the fringe of Cempaka Estate.

            After another minute of chasing, he stops, palms on knees, to catch his breath. Palm trees encroach around him, devoid of hummingbirds. Searching for a trail, he forces through some bamboo shrubs, gritting his teeth when the twigs claw into his neck. He arrives at a clearing which is divided by a stream. Should he traverse it? Flat rocks line up across the stream, shimmering like wishes.  He listens for footsteps but only hears the steady, bubbly flow of water. Something glides through the air like a miniature Zeppelin, before spiraling down. He catches the ochre paper bag which blew in from the northwest. He heads off in that direction.

On the trodden path, shards of glass crunch beneath his heels. A few steps ahead, he picks up a discarded bottle. The label is missing. He sniffs. It has a milky odor. He pushes on. His socks grow damp from the moist weeds brushing against his ankles. At the end of the path, he arrives at a glade. The surrounding canopy cordons off most of the sunlight. He shudders when the breeze sweeps past the nape of his neck.

He can’t decipher if the moan is one of anguish or ecstasy. On the ground, the stranger writhes, hips and back arched, as if possessed. Her eyeballs are rolled back and her jaw is clenched. She resembles the skull masks donned for Halloween. A strip of cloth strangles her arm, an improvised tourniquet. Nestled in her elbow crease, a syringe. She cuddles the empty bottle on her breast.

He opens the door to his house. The sizzling from the kitchen is punctuated with the gunshots of pop! pop! pop! when the sesame oil mixes with water. It’s bok choy and broccoli night.

Again.

“Yes, oh yes.” His wife blabbers on about some garlic recipe.

He drops onto the couch. Salty bile rises up to his throat. The pitted scabs on the stranger’s face oozed with pus. He had stayed with her for a while to ensure she was safe. He sought that face for signs of familiarity. As a former teacher, he routinely studied young people, hoping to recognize ex-students, curious about what had become of them. Often, he is relieved to discover most had become respectable citizens with predictable occupations. He is always touched when they expressed their gratitude, sending him cards and small gifts on Teachers’ Day, especially now, years later, when he had nothing to offer them anymore.

That woman was a total stranger. As a child, her mother must have cradled and imagined her a bright future. Today, she survived. But how many more hits and near misses until the end?

He is only a landlord. He cannot be held responsible for how the premises are used. In a country where the possession of marijuana lands you the death penalty, how can this happen?

He must terminate the lease. Give Dr Tan two months’ notice as required by law. That is within his realm of control.

“Hold on. He just stepped in.” She sprints out from the kitchen with the cordless phone clamped between her shoulder and ear. She covers the receiver and whispers, “Mrs Tan. Quickly!”

She shoves the phone into his palm. He tries to say what’s going on? with his arched eyebrows, but she disappears, beckoned by a rattling pot. She is so excited she hasn’t noticed the mud stains on his legs.

“Good evening, Mr Liang. You darling wife says you’ve made a complete recovery. How wonderful.”

Her speech is steady and affectless, as if she has rehearsed this several times. He replies that he’s almost back to a hundred percent and thanks them for their excellent medical care. Unlike her, his voice warbles.

“Strange thing,” she says. “I spotted your Mercedes in the parking lot this afternoon. I kept waiting for you to drop in.”

His immediate thought is to deny it but even he knows it is futile to pretend. He listens to his panting.

“Look, we’re very fond of you and your wife. We’ve been your reliable tenants for many, many years,” she says. Good manners automatically kick in and he thanks her for her loyalty.

“I’m glad we’re in agreement.”

She stirs her teacup. He anticipates the soft clink when the teaspoon is placed on the saucer. However, it’s the thud of a falling guillotine that echoes in his head.

“Here’s our proposal. Dr Tan and I would like to purchase your shop lot. Your wife is happy to accept our offer. A generous twenty percent above market value.”

Twenty percent? That amount is sufficient for down payments on three properties in up-and-coming suburbs. He would be a fool to decline this.

“You must understand that we’re comfortable working on these premises and want to secure it for the long term.”

His wife has begun her stir-fry judging by the grating of the skillet against the wok.

When he says my property is not for sale, he thinks he’s channeling Mel Gibson in Braveheart, because the indignation that springs forth is completely foreign to him.

She laughs.

“You drive a hard bargain. What about twenty-five percent? Let’s make it thirty. Cash. You don’t even need to pay an agent’s commission.”

She thinks he has a price? And by throwing money at him, he’ll let them off the hook?

“I’m afraid this has nothing to do with the price. In fact, I was going to call you myself.” He clears his throat. “To… to inform you… I must end the lease.”

There, he said it! It feels right. He would lose his rental income for a few months while he looks for another tenant. So be it.

She sighs.

“Don’t be rash.”

“I’ve been thinking about it since I—”

“Think of your wife. She feels that this is an exceptional offer. I’m sure you agree it’s a fantastic return on your investment. When you offload the property, with such a healthy profit margin, you’ll never have to hide out in your car again. Snooping around.”

How dare she belittle him?

“You might want to think this through. Very… carefully.”

Her tone darkens.

“Surely you must realize there are higher powers involved.”

He nods.

“Because we know you are good people, we don’t want you to get mixed up in matters that do not concern you. I’m sure you understand what I mean. Others are not as kind.”

“Are you threatening me?”

There is a prolonged silence.

“No.”

He suddenly realizes she is with company.

  “I can only offer my advice. I never like to speculate. But say, if an accident were to occur to your lovely wife, I’m sure you’ll never forgive yourself, right?”

As if on cue, Mrs Liang steps out of the kitchen, beating eggs in a bowl, signing, how’s it all going? He gives her a thumbs-up and waves her away. She vanishes again. She turns on the microwave. No matter how many times he has warned her against using the microwave and the crock-pot simultaneously since it trips the circuit, she never heeds his advice.

“Mrs Tan,” he says. His hands are shaking. “I need some time to consider all this.”

“Of course. I didn’t expect an answer from you right away. But,” she says, “I’ll need your assurance within twenty-four hours. We have all the contracts drawn up. Good night.”

He turns off the phone.

“So, what’s your decision?” his wife asks.

He jogs up the stairs.

“Let me wash up first.”

He flicks on the bathroom lights and undresses, tossing his clothes into the laundry bin. With the low carbohydrate dieting, his face has developed angles. He even feels lighter.

He turns on the shower. The pipes vibrate, then clang as if they are about to explode.

I am only a landlord.

If he reports them to the police, what evidence can he produce? Would the powers backing the Tans, maybe a minister, interfere with the investigation? Absolutely. If people in the community like Tauke knew, then the police must know. If anyone should have the courage to shut down the operation, surely it’s the local law enforcement. But they’ve chosen to look away. If he lodges a police report, all he would achieve is to endanger his family. Perhaps weeks later, he will be the news headline.

RETIRED TEACHER DROWNS IN ABANDONED TIN MINING POOL. 

As he steps into the shower, the light bulb flickers. Pop!  He is engulfed in the pitch-black night.

Aiyah, the switch tripped again,” she says. “Where’s the torchlight? Honey?”

A cold jet of water hits him. He shivers. He taps along the wall as if he’s reading Braille and finds the bar of Lux soap. He runs it over his face, arms, torso and legs. The minty fragrance calms him. He imagines the rivulets of mud and dirt sliding down his knees and ankles, swirling into the drain and disappearing.


 

Originally from Malaysia, Sik Chuan Pua is a playwright and fiction writer, now based in Sydney, Australia. His short fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review, Willow Springs, Overland, Gargoyle and Puerto del Sol. He was a finalist in the Patrick White Playwrights Award and the Griffin Award, the two major playwriting prizes in Australia.

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