The only light in the room came from the green numbers displayed on the digital clock by the bedside table. The numbers 3:47 were barely enough to cast a pallid blanket over the nose and forehead of the man sleeping on the bed. The only sound came from his breathing, which accompanied by the slow rising and falling of his chest under the blanket, also provided the only movement in the room. The girl lying next to him was silent and still; her thick black strands of hair spread across the pillow, stretching out towards him. Heavy curtains not only blocked out the orange glow of the city outside, but kept the room undisturbed from the sharp gliding sounds of taxis and the occasional drunken black car against the wet asphalt. The numbers on the digital clock clicked to 3:48. The man slowly sat up, as if he had responded to the ever so slight change in the room. He had been staring at the ceiling, and no longer finding it of any interest, now found himself searching the dark square outlines of the furniture scattered around. Soundlessly, he got up and moved towards the window where he pulled the curtains back to let in the glow of the streetlamp. He should have gone back to the ceiling, but instead turned the handle and stepped out of the cold air-conditioned room, on to the balcony. It wasn’t very high up, but he could see a fair amount of the city. The monstrous skyscrapers loomed over him in the pathetic menace of their palely lit and empty offices, and the great condominium buildings in the distance faded sadly in the background – their inhabitants had long since switched off the lights. He felt his naked body drenched in the humid air, and was suddenly aware of the thousands of windows, the bright and blind eyes taking in the sight of him. But the street was empty below, and the man seemed to exist only in the blind spot of life, and of all that was still awake at this time of night. He lit a cigarette, meaning to savor the quiet and watch the way the purple sky swelled up with each passing minute. He only took a few drags though, before deciding it was too hot, and going back inside.
The girl still lay motionless on the bed, her closed eyes and mouth were peaceful, yet her coiled up body on the bed was guarded. She did not stir as the man made his way around the bed to the bathroom, his path still lit by the drawn curtain. It was a dingy, old-fashioned one, though you could see they had made an effort to renovate. The toilet seat was wooden, and it had all the supplies of your regular hotel bathroom. He opened the plastic seal of the shaver by the sink, and began to wet his face, watching how the mirror guided his reflection. He didn’t understand why he’d come there to shave, and decided it must have been an excuse to watch himself in the mirror. And so, wet faced, he went back to the sleeping girl. Yet, in the mirror his reflection remained. Still dripping from the chin, still watching, eyes now staring out into the empty bathroom. The reflection continued to wet his face, and then stopped, as if he’d come to realize that the man was not coming back for him. He leaned closer to the edge of the mirror, closer to us, as if waiting for something to happen – whether it was in his world or ours. But nothing did. The man had gone back to lying on his back, but the girl had moved in her sleep, and turned her face towards his, so that he could look at her.
He had chosen her for her small eyes, even though it was in fact for her small hands that he wanted her. Perhaps it was an obsession of his but he never saw it as such. There was merely something about girls with unnaturally small hands. Skimming the rows of women neatly ordered online, one can never see their hands. They never think of that stuff. But in his experience, girls with very small eyes often seem to have the smallest hands. And so he had chosen the girl with the smallest eyes staring back at him from the bright screen. He hoped his face didn’t show too openly the incredible relief he felt as she pulled out her hands from behind her cheongsam, revealing their minute and infantile delicacy. He might have walked straight out of the hotel lobby if it turned out she had brought with her big red lobster claws – that would have been embarrassing.
She was surprised at how handsome he was. He was more than twenty minutes late, and she normally would have left after fifteen minutes. It had started to rain though, and she did not have enough cash on her for a taxi back. She would wait until the tropical weather had calmed; after all, it wasn’t too bad for a hotel lobby. She had found a comfortable seat on a velvet sofa in the corner, where there was an ashtray and she could hear the radio playing. It was one of the younger stations that played American music that had leaked through the censorship. She lit another cigarette as Donny Osmond’s ‘Puppy Love’ came on. She let her fingers drop from her lips to the armrest of the sofa. Looking up at the revolving door once more, and then at the small round clock that ticked on above the reception counter, she tilted her head back. She swayed a little to the music, but only ever so subtly, so that you really had to pay close attention if you were to notice. On the low table in front of her, a large glass ashtray with the mandarin characters for ‘luck’, ‘prosperity’, ‘health’, and ‘happiness’ decorated each of the four sides in a thick golden varnish. The characters twinkled up at her, as she leaned across to ash over them. Who knows how much ash of how many waiting girls they had collected over time. She became irritated with her cigarette, and stubbed it out before the song was over, but soon regretted it. So she lit another.
She really should have brought an umbrella, she thought to herself as she put down the plastic lighter. From the moment she had gotten up that morning, she knew it was going to rain. Not that that was news – it had rained everyday for the past four months. But this morning’s particular heavy air carried with it the promise of a really good raining down on. Not a storm, but the kind that purges the sky of everything it’s got left. That’s why she had left for the funeral earlier in the day. She had decided to go to East Coast Park, that way she could bury the box in the sand by the beach, or perhaps under a tree next to one of the barbeque pits.
The night before, a strange noise from the kitchen had woken her up in the middle of the night. It was the sound of big paper wings flapping. Walking through the dark to the kitchen doorway, she flipped the switch that turned on both the light and ceiling fan simultaneously. As the light came on, she saw it drop. The fan had hit a giant flying cockroach. Still standing in the doorway, she watched as it flapped around on the floor, until finally, it stopped. There was no more noise. The cockroach was big – the biggest she had ever seen. It would be a shame to simply throw it out the window, so she grabbed an empty shoebox. It was almost too big for the box, and she ended up breaking its hind legs as she forced it in. She had forgotten the umbrella because the cockroach was still on her mind when she left her apartment that evening.
“I almost didn’t see you hiding here in the corner.”
She looked up to see who had spoken but didn’t meet his gaze until she had scanned up his brown suit. “You’re late,” she stated as their eyes finally met.
“Yes, I know, I couldn’t find a parking space.” His eyes drank her in, but not with hunger or desire. It was a slow and observing gaze, the way one might look at a painting by an unknown artist on a museum wall. He watched the way she watched herself in front of him, like she could see herself through his eyes. Her cheongsam was a dark green, with the traditional detail in yellow and black. The flowers and dragons danced around on the satin fabric that hugged her breasts and waist, and though it was long, the slit went far enough up her thigh so that he could see where her pale skin went translucent.
“Should we move to the bar, or would you prefer a drink in the room?” He always asked this question. Her answer would make it clear if she was shy, not that it would be a problem if it turned out that she was. It didn’t make a difference to him.
“The bar is fine; I hear this place has good cocktails.”
He offered her his hand to help her up, and as she took it, he ran his thumb up her middle finger towards her wrist. She thought it strange, but quickly forgot about it when his hands found a natural resting place in the curvature of her waist.
The hotel bar was through a narrow passageway lined by LED walls that shone behind gigantic red fans, making the light seem red. A cheap and innovative alternative to buying red LED lights perhaps, as every now and then the sharp white light snuck in between the fans to blind the couple as they walked past. There were similar attempts made in the bar to add a ‘traditional’ touch, which were made less elegant for practicality’s sake. The space was furnished in a dark wood, and the dim lighting disguised the cheap and generic paintings of South East Asian landscapes on the walls – so the hotel bar ended up looking like any other. Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ was playing from a speaker somewhere, and only two of the tables were occupied.
“Your English is good, are you Singaporean or from mainland?” he asked as they sat in a booth at the back of the room.
“My family came here from mainland China two generations ago, so I guess you could say I’m basically Singaporean,” she said with an appreciative smile.
They went through the expected conversation topics over the course of the next thirty-five minutes. He continued to question her on her life, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She thought that perhaps it was his way of not allowing a lapse into awkwardness, and was both amused and impressed at his persistent questioning.
“What about music? Any musical talents?” he asked.
“No,” she responded, looking down, “I love music, don’t get me wrong, and I did try and learn the piano – the guitar as well – but could never get through it because of my hands.”
“Why? What’s wrong with your hands?” he frowned.
“Well, they are obviously way too small! I could never reach across the piano keys, no matter how much I stretched. With guitar it was the same story! And my fingers are so skinny there isn’t enough strength in them to press down the strings. You know I probably could have been a great musician if it weren’t for these hands!” She held them out in front of him for them both to look and laugh at.
“I don’t believe you for a minute. You know Jimmy Page apparently has tiny hands, and the solution was just to get a smaller guitar! You really should have persevered.” He playfully shook his head at her.
“No, no, that’s not fair. It just wasn’t meant to be… it was probably determined from my birth; my biology simply would never allow me to play an instrument! I have accepted my sorry fate.” She smiled and shook her head in unison with his.
It was the cold on her legs that woke her. Her sleepy mind confused at the sensation felt the cold first, then the wet. The wet had turned cold with the blow of the air conditioning. Reaching around in the sheets, the dim light did not give away what it was that provided the discomfort, but her searching fingers found that strands of her hair had stiffened into hard matter. Untangling herself from the sheets, she sat up and, in the darkness, saw the black pools swirling and swimming in the bed. She did not have to turn on the light to know it was blood. At first she thought it might be her own, then saw what it was that had leaked. She turned her head sharply, as the numbers on the digital clock clicked to 6:23. Something had fluttered through the window that had been left open and landed on the clock. It was the great big flying cockroach. She could have sworn it was the same one she had buried in the park, but all cockroaches look the same.
“Did you do this?” asked the cockroach, his eyes glancing over the man’s lifeless body.
“No, I think he did it all on his own… look there.” She nodded towards the disassembled shaver and blade next to the clock.
“It really is a disgusting mess, isn’t it?” The cockroach shook his head.
“I guess… but what are you going to do, you know?” She looked around after her underwear and dress. “Do you mind?” She raised her eyebrows gesturing towards her modesty.
“Oh yes, of course, I’m sorry… I’ll leave you to get dressed,” he replied apologetically. She thought about asking if it had been him she had jammed into the shoebox, but then decided against it. If it was, it might be rude to bring it up again.
“And don’t worry, miss, I’ll tell them you had nothing to do with it.”
“Thank you, but I really must go now.” She smiled at the cockroach with her small eyes, partly hidden by the bloody hair. She felt forgiven. The cockroach flew out the same way he had come. The girl found her dress, and after finding a wet paper towel to wipe off whatever might be visible, took her money and got in a taxi, just as the purple sky began to soften.
Matilde Sorri Petersen
Image – Singapore City by zephylwer0 from Pixabay
4 thoughts on “Far from Geylang by Matilde Sorri Petersen”
Interesting blend of realism and surrealism. The roach struck me as a fine perversion of Jimminy (however it’s spelled, goddam red-line) Cricket. Easy, early recognition of what was going on makes the world a terrible place. Really. Stuff like this has been going on forever and no one has ever done anything about it yet.
You have given us some lovely dark imagery to think on.
I also think Leila’s comment about the blend of realism and surrealism is quite correct. From that, we realise that this has quite a dreamlike quality, but on the other hand, it feels voyeuristic.
This all makes this a very accomplished piece of writing. Lesser writers who try to mix traits into their work only fall-short. You don’t have this problem, the tones only enhance.
All the very best.
Kind of reminds me of reasons not to take hallucinogenic drugs. Reminds me of the atmosphere in the sci fi movie “Blade Runner.” The emptiness of the man is well written, and the description of the shaving. The young woman remains enigmatic, nice to have a supportive cockroach friend in such circumstances. After that, I’d treat them better. The idea of the small hands is interesting.
I read this piece during my lunch and found it absolutely mesmerising. The sense of atmosphere and images the writing conjured up in my mind was fascinating.
I would love to read more of this type of work.