From the archives (March 11, 2016):
You change out of your school uniform into street clothes in the Bishan station washroom, then take the MRT to Lavender. Ten stops, one transfer. The east-bound train is packed, people’s folded umbrellas dripping water onto the floor, the seats, other passengers. This train is sponsored by an international bank, advertising the new savings programme it has cooked up for the Singapore market. On the windows are pasted large thought bubbles positioned to seem like they are emanating from the heads of the people seated on the benches that line the walls. “Will we be able to afford a holiday in Europe?” worries an Ah Soh wearing a quixotic amount of makeup on her wilting visage. She has long green fingernails and toenails, like the spikes of some exotic and poisonous creature. “Can I afford to take care of Mum?” ponders a sleeping Bangladeshi worker, whose bulging FairPrice plastic bag swings ponderously between his knees as the train jerks to a halt.
She is already waiting in the open-air carpark next to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority building, reading a paperback. You pull your foldable umbrella from your backpack, but it turns inside-out in the wind and you’re soaked anyway as you wade across the asphalt, your track shoes going squish, squish, squish. You can see the cover of the book, distorted through the rivulets running down the windscreen, as she lays it on the dashboard. It is one of those chick lit novels done up in violent pink with a large photograph of the author on the back. For a literature teacher, she has terrible taste in novels.
“You’re late,” she greets you as you open the car door and quickly shove yourself in, though not quickly enough to prevent large raindrops from spattering the fake leather upholstery. She twists to rummage through the backseat and tosses you a scratchy scarf-looking thing. You actually have a sports towel in your bag, but you use it anyway. It smells like her.
“If you would pick me up from school, I wouldn’t be late,” you reply. The windscreen wipers thrash to life with a thudding sound. You watch her profile as she puts the car into drive and navigates out of the lot, the way her pupil seems to float in a green lake when viewed from the side. You love to watch her drive. You feel so safe in the warm submarine stillness of the car, a tank against the raging monsoon.
“You know very well that’s out of the question.” She fumbles with the radio, the static crackling into the pushy voice of a DJ, exhorting listeners to call now, call now and you could win…
“Did you take a shower?”
“Well, that’s not very considerate of you.”
“Sorry. But the guys’ showers are like damn gross lah. There’s gunk and everything. I’m better off not going in there.”
She glances at you, you think to show some interest, then you realise she is checking her blind spot. “Anyway, isn’t it time you stopped playing so much football and started studying?”
“Excuse me, are you trying to tell me I’m a lousy student?” Of course, you know you are not; you are by no means the best, but you’re certainly not the worst either. If anything, you are solidly, consistently OK, which sounds pretty mediocre except that you’re in reputedly the best school in the city-state, meaning you’re at least the average of the best in Singapore. For what that’s worth.
“Of course you’re not lousy.” She slows as the car goes through a huge puddle with a mournful whoosh, blurring the windscreen with fans of water. “But if you’re serious about wanting to go to the UK for uni, you’ll have to do well for your As.”
“Not really. I really only want to go to Cardiff. It’s not that picky.”
“Oh, thank you for holding my alma mater in such high regard.”
“Don’t be so touchy lah.” You can tell she’s not really offended. “I just mean, it’s not, like, Cambridge or something. Anyway, I don’t know anyone else who wants to go there, so I’m sure they’d be happy to take me, the token Singaporean.”
“It’s not just about getting in — you’ll need one of those government scholarships — unless your parents have stumbled upon loads of cash they’d forgotten about? Have you thought about your applications for those? You have to be the cream of the crop to get one, right?”
Of course she’s right and you know she knows and so you don’t answer. You gaze out the window at the dark green rain trees by the roadside, sliding past, their branches like frozen bolts of lightning. It is afternoon, but the storm makes it seem like it is much later, or earlier: a timeless state.
“Then again, you have to ask if it’s really worth it,” she continues. “They pay for four years of uni, but you have to spend six years in the civil service – there’s obviously an imbalance built into that. I’ve always thought that was rather sneaky of them, wooing starry-eyed 18-year-olds with promises of a posh education, then turning them into indentured cubicle monkeys.”
“Better than not getting to study overseas at all.”
“That’s what exchange programmes are for. Besides, half the professors at the local Us are from abroad anyway.” She shrugs. “Even lowly A-level lit teachers like me.” She’s being self-deprecating; they only import ang mohs like her for the top junior colleges, and only for the humanities subjects, the theory being that white people can teach subjects that involve a lot of words better than the locals. Talk about a colonial hangover. But you have to admit, your favourite teachers are white. You find them more interesting to talk to.
Even then, there’s a lot of things she just doesn’t get. Like the whole wanting to go abroad to study thing. An expat like her should understand the need to live someplace else for a while, to just get the hell out of the place you were born. Or maybe that’s not even a consideration for her; maybe she’s just getting paid more to be here. You can’t really blame her like that. But how to explain? You can’t find the words to unravel the knot of emotions suddenly swelling in your chest. This feeling of cosmic and cruel injustice, that of all the random places in all the world to be from, you had to be from here. This place so tiny. Insignificant. Unsophisticated. Hot. Except when it rains.
“I’m just sick of Singapore, I guess,” you finally say. The car has stopped at a red light, and for a while the two of you sit in the burble of an ‘80s power ballad as you watch some unlucky pedestrians pirouette across the road, swaying under umbrellas and open newspapers like high- wire acrobats.
“Cardiff’s not going to be all that different, my dear. I don’t know what romantic notions you’ve got in your head, but it’s very much like Singapore. It’s a city. All cities are essentially alike.”
“Cardiff’s not the same as Singapore,” you say firmly. “It gets seasons.”
“True,” she admits. “I suppose if there’s anything I miss about Cardiff, it’s the change of season. An eternal summer can get quite tedious.”
Summer. You slowly drag a finger across the windowpane, as if you could brush away the raindrops on the other side. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Otherworldly markers for the passage of time, in a city on the edge of the equator.
She books the room for three hours, saying she has to be home for dinner by eight. Back when this all first began, you were a little depressed by the bare-bones efficiency of these rooms – just a bed, a TV, a lamp, an electric kettle, two Boh teabags. The curtains are thick enough to shut out the murky sunlight, but crashes of thunder, the tapping of rain and the blare of horns on Bencoolen Street filter through the glass. It is not a space to stay in for long. But over time you’ve come to see that it is elegant in its economy. All a man needs and nothing more. You kick off your track shoes and take off your wet clothes and hang them to dry on the back of the door, then take a quick shower. When you get out she is watching Channel NewsAsia, the weather report. Rain is general all over South-east Asia.
You are always surprised by how fair she is. It isn’t that pallid fairness that Chinese girls are, a pale yellowness like tea-stained teeth. Her skin is luminous, almost bluish, and completely without any scars or blemishes, as if her girlhood in Cardiff had been free of sports, vaccinations and other mishaps. As you make love, every inch of her body turns from blue to pink, and her green eyes take on a faded, watercolour quality. Even the rain must be softer in Cardiff.
Afterwards, she lies on a towel and continues reading her book while you try to take a nap. Rain usually makes you sleepy, but the drumming on the windowpane seems exceptionally loud, and you end up watching her instead.
It still amazes you, being so close to her. You remember that first day when she walked into class, she was wearing a light blue blouse made of some kind of satin and a black form-fitting skirt with heels, not the slutty kind but rather geometric and eye-catching, like high-tech gadgets. Her dark hair was twisted up in a knot and she was wearing a brownish-pink lipstick. Your whole class, both guys and girls, fell dead silent. She is that beautiful.
“For a literature teacher, you have terrible taste in novels,” you say.
She harrumphs, not taking her eyes off the page. “Shut up. Wait till you’ve spent all night marking essays on the Mill on the bloody Floss.”
“Are we that bad, Mrs. Williams?” you ask, reaching out to stroke the back of her thigh.
You feel the impact even before you register that about 400 pages of pulp romance and fashion swaddled in pink have just descended on your head. It hurts, but you know you deserved it and so you don’t move, don’t say anything.
“I told you not to call me that when we’re here,” she says evenly.
Your head throbs to the beating of your heart. You put your hand back on her skin, still warm and slick. You close your eyes. “I’m sorry,” you say. You are, really. But you don’t open your eyes to see if the apology is accepted. Instead, behind your eyelids you fly over the sea and through the sky, punching the turbulent thunderclouds and shrugging off the raindrops, heading for Cardiff.
Reprinted by permissions from publisher and author, the story first appeared in Mascara Literary Review, and then was collected in the chapbook The Billion Shop by Stephanie Ye (Math Paper Press, Singapore).
Stephanie Ye is the author of The Billion Shop (2012), a chapbook of four linked short stories, and the editor of From the Belly of the Cat (2013), an anthology of cat-themed Singapore short stories, both published by Math Paper Press. Her work has been staged as a dance performance in New York City, translated into German for an art exhibition in Berlin, and used as an O-level examination text in Singapore. She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing (Prose) programme at the University of East Anglia in 2014, where she held a UEA Creative Writing International Scholarship and won the Weidenfeld & Nicolson Best of UEA Short Story Award. An honorary fellow in writing of the University of Iowa via the International Writing Program, she is a recovering journalist.