We Never Left!

“don’t ask who is still here in 2021; we never left!”

Alex grinned as he commented on a Youtube video of a 28 year old song.  Since the pandemic lockdowns, he, like many others, sought comfort in the familiar.  For him, he took countless maskless trips down memory lane via the time machine that was Youtube.

Next to him, his wife Emma read an ebook while their 4 year old son slept between them.  He looked at his infant daughter, asleep in her crib next to their bed.  He smiled contentedly at his beautiful little family ensconced in their little home.  They were lucky to have gotten this place at such a good price as the previous owners had been so eager to sell it.

The silence of the room was jarringly broken by a pounding on their front door.  Alex started.  Emma gasped.  Their children, thankfully, remained asleep.  Alex hurried outside to see what the matter was.  He saw his downstairs neighbours through the peephole.  They looked furious.

“DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IS IT??!! PAST MIDNIGHT ALREADY!!  WHY YOUR CHILDREN STILL JUMPING AROUND LIKE MONKEYS??  I AM GOING TO CALL POLICE IF YOU DON’T STOP!!”

Without waiting for Alex to reply, they stormed off.  Bemused, Alex returned to the bedroom and asked Emma if she had heard any noise from anywhere.  She shook her head, equally bewildered.  They have never heard loud noises around, but their neighbours had been complaining about noise since they moved in…

“Uh oh, sorry we were too noisy.  We didn’t know it was so late.  We will stop playing now.  It was not that little boy, it was us – we never left!” said the little souls as they trotted after the angry neighbours in a vain attempt to explain.

The World at the Bottom of my Shoe

There’s a world at the bottom of my shoe, you know.
Everytime it rains, that’s where I get to go.
The cool waters of Mermaid Lagoon kiss my toes,
And the Great River of Narnia over my foot flows.

Ouch! That hurt! Something pricked me!
Oh, just a desert rose (so beautiful), now I see.
I look up at the stars dazzling in the sky;
Here in the wide open desert I can hear the jackals cry.

I feel cobblestones under my feet,
Wait, what? Am I here in Fleet Street?!
Where is that infamous pie shop, where?
Alas nowhere it seems, I only smell miasmal air.

Could I be walking on the Ring of Fire?
The ground is so hot it could melt a tire!
My feet are torn and blistered and burned,
But oh to scale Mount Doom, how I have yearned!

As we trudge along tropical hills and vales,
I regale my big sister with my traveller’s tales.
“There are worlds at the bottom of my shoe!”
Big sister smiles and says, “I know, I’ve been there too.”

School Spirit

Meiling pounded down the corridor, her pigtails flying out behind her.  As she screamed with laughter, she turned back to see if Nura was catching up with her.  While against the rules, playing catching in school is and always will be great fun.

The girls scampered down the stairs.  At the bottom, Meiling collided with Shuping, and both girls went flying.  “Are you two okay?!” Nura gasped.  Giggling, Meiling and Shuping got up, unhurt, and dusted themselves off.

“Are the boys fighting in the toilet again?” Shuping wondered as the sounds of scuffling and shouting reached the girls.  They walked to the boys’ toilets and stood outside, listening to the familiar voices arguing.  Jason and Han Ming were, as usual, flinging wads of wet toilet paper everywhere, and Vijay was trying to stop them.  

“Guys, let’s go! It’s almost recess time and everyone will be using the toilet!” At Nura’s urging, the boys left the toilet, sopping wet.  As she passed, Nura saw the fine mess the boys created.  She shook her head.  Some things never change.  

The group wandered over to the basketball court.  Siti, Preetha, and Joanna were already there, shooting hoops like the school team stars they were.  “Boys versus girls!” Joanna shouted, as Nura, Meiling, and Shuping went to sit on the swings to watch them.

Presently, Nura told the girls to look up – they could see lights flickering in an upstairs classroom.  “Faisal is getting very very bold,” she said.  Indeed, Faisal was blatantly disrupting an ongoing lesson! 

***

Light switches flicking on and off; sounds of students running along corridors; clean toilets inexplicably becoming wet and messy; basketballs bouncing around on their own; swings moving with no one sitting on them.  

They say every school is haunted – well, ghosts need an education, too.

Filial Piety

She had been slaving away the entire morning – pounding, blending, and chopping.  Now she stood over the bubbling pot, dutifully stirring its contents while they cooked.  This had been her mother’s favourite dish – braised pork belly – and she enjoyed cooking it as much as her mother enjoyed eating it, right until before her mother passed away.

Her mother had been a year shy of 80, but she had lived a long, fulfilling life and in her last moments, was at home surrounded by her beloved family.  Through all the grief and mourning, one should also recognize and celebrate the richness of the life lived.

Today, an elaborate ceremony of ritual, burnt offerings, and sumptuous food will mark the end of the 100-day mourning period.  But she was unable to attend.  She had a singing competition she and her friends had practiced half a year for.  No worries, this dish will satiate the appetites of all her family members, and her mother’s too.  

Her mind was so devoted to thoughts about whether her husband would remember to pick her father up for the ceremony that it did not even register what had made that awful clangour until the warm whiff of spices hit her.  

She gaped at the pot and its contents splattered around her otherwise spotless kitchen floor.  Rooted, she only looked up to meet the incredulous gaze of her son who had just gotten home and entered the kitchen by following the scent of braised pork belly.  

“Help me clean up,” she said.  “Sure, but I have to leave soon for the ceremony,” he reminded her, still unable to fathom how his neat-freak mother could have made such an almighty mess.  He tried hard to suppress a giggle.  

Shortly, she responded, “I know.  I’ll be going too.”

Caretakers

“My God, so creepy…”

“This is a cemetery, of course you think it’s creepy!”

“Yes, but what about all those…funny things that keep happening?”

“What funny things?  You mean you being clumsy and tripping over wires, misplacing our files and thumbdrives, knocking over cups and files and books and everything else from our desks?  Very funny meh?”

“Eh, you’ve also left your phone in the toilet and shorted the lights out ok?”

“Ya I did, but at least I know it was my mistake and not something funny.”

“Sigh.  How to explain to you.  Never mind.”

“Yes.  Never mind that.  Just do your work.  Two more weeks of plot enquiries and we are done with on-site duty.”

“Two long creepy weeks.  Sigh. Why must build a road across a cemetery?  Do we really need 2 roads to get to the same place?”

“Build MRT across nature reserve you never complain.  Build road across cemetery you whine nonstop.”

“These things are real ok?”

“Macritchie also got a tomb what.”

“That one is not affected.  This road has to exhume more than half the graves!”

“And all of them will come and haunt you! Woooooooo!”

*CRASH!*

“You see lah!  You pissed them off!”

“Who is them?  I kicked the wire lah…”

“Just be thankful it is nothing major!  Just finish up the report and let’s go!”

“Why would there be something major?  What major thing?”

“I don’t think it is all clumsiness, ok.  Something may be trying to harm us…”

“Ha!  And not really succeeding!  Hmm…maybe we have guardian angels?”

“Stop joking about this.  Just hurry up. I want to leave.  Now!”

***

“We take very good care of those 2, don’t we Papa?”

“Of course.  We benevolent spirits always protect the living from the bad spirits.”

*****

Feasting

The night air was thick with smells of food – sumptuous food – as the cooks bustled around preparing roast meats, frying up all the vegetables, baking all the cakes and cookies, steaming the rice and noodles, all for the great feast.

 

One could barely see the stars this clear autumn night with flames from the giant candles lighting the turf, and the intense spotlights banishing the dark.  On stage, the performers danced and sang with such zest, and the loud pumping bass made the ground quiver.  Coupled with the heady swirls of incense wafting through the air, the atmosphere got me off my front row seat and onto my feet, and I noticed others beside me doing the same.  Even the people seated in the rows behind us, old and young alike, were bopping along.  This was one hell of a block party, and anyone who happened by simply joined in the fun!

 

After what seemed like hours, the concert ended.  Everyone flitted over to the dinner tables to have a good tuck in.  This celebration only happened once a year, so everyone stuffed their faces before the night was over.  Midway through the feasting, the mayor went on stage to begin the auction.  Amidst riotous rounds of bidding, various bric-a-brac were sold, more bottles of beer and whisky were opened, and more food was wolfed down.

 

It was deep into the night when the last drop of wine was drunk, the last sliver of meat chewed up, and the last grains of rice swallowed.  As the people staggered back to their homes, we knew it was time for us to go too.  With the full moon beaming through the still night, we followed the candle-lit path, right back to our abode before the gates closed for another whole year.

 

Unmoved

Unmoved, the activist stood with her placard: “SAVE OUR CEMETERY PARK! SAVE OUR NATURE!”.  Behind her, annexed by blue netting, rose the cemetery, filled with old mossy headstones, old mossy bones, old mossy trees, and rather young egrets who had made it their playground.  The cemetery has also recently played host to excavators.

 

It was inevitable – the march of progress and of growth, and of the need for more space.  Space for living, for working, for playing.  For people, alive people, that is.  The dead, like the refuse, will be removed, incinerated, and their decimated remains stashed away.

 

It was unstoppable – the development had been in the pipeline for over 20 years.  Now, someone had drawn up actual plans.  Plans for hundreds of housing units, a mall, a transportation node.  It was all too tempting to stave off.  There were no alive people who would be adversely affected.  In fact, those nearby would welcome this new kid.  Why not?  He sounds like fun.

 

The men with hard hats streamed in.  The egrets swooped around in formation, wondering at the intrusion.  The excavators roared to life.  The egrets flitted away – where will you beauties go?  The trees sighed heavily; too old to be uprooted, but there was nothing they could do.  The crumbling headstones just sat there, their ghosts milling around listlessly, anxiously, fearfully.  Where will we go?

 

Unmoved, the destruction began as the first excavator lurched forward.  Unmoved, the lone activist stood firm with her placard.  Unmoved, motorists sped by and pedestrians walked on, pausing to take a peek or a picture for a latergram.  

 

There are going to be hundreds of housing units, hundreds of new homes.  The ghosts glanced at one another.  New homes for all of them.  In the same old place.  Unmoved, they are.

 

The Broken Rice Bowl

Seng Teck trudged wearily along the common corridor.  He was 45, but felt decades older with this new burden.  In his mind flashed the faces of his family – his wife of 20 years, her lined face still displaying the tenderness that stole his heart in the first place; his son, a solemn, dependable lad of 17; his older daughter, the 14 year old free spirit responsible for her mother’s grey hairs; his younger daughter, the apple of his eye, aged 10 and the family’s source of joy and laughter.

He sighed heavily, recalling the sparkle that disappeared from their eyes when they received the news 2 months ago.  He felt helpless, and could only watch as his wife pulled everyone together, working herself so hard and wearing herself thin.  He watched as his son became ever more serious, struggling to balance his studies and a job, taking on the role as man of the house.  He felt sad watching his older daughter act out, arguing with her mother, playing truant, hanging out with ‘friends’ who would buy her things her family could no longer afford.  His heart ached seeing his little girl lose her childlike wonder, wondering why her family was falling apart.

Seng Teck gazed down at the pieces of the broken rice bowl strewn at his feet.  He looked up sharply as a door creaked open.  His wife stepped out onto the corridor, carrying a fresh bowl of rice.  Placing it down next to the candles and cup of tea, she stuck the pair of chopsticks into it.  She then swept up the broken pieces and spilled rice and went back into the house, but not before shedding a few tears.  Seng Teck smiled wryly – at least one person in the family would not go hungry today.

The Title

I gawped at the palatial mansion that could be my new home as I stared awestruck at the giant double-doors ornately decorated with gilded jade dragons.  I tapped impatiently at my ipad screen, waiting for a copy of the title to load.  My grandfather had put me down as joint-owner.  In the worst case scenario, I’ll have to pay rent, but then I’d have to wait for my money to come in.  The screen was stuck at my eviction notice…

 

**

 

There were hardly any traces of sorrow or grief on their faces as they carried my remains, cremated and neatly packed in a stone urn, through the columbarium.  Of course not, it had already been 15 years.  And 15 years is the duration of my ‘burial lease’ in the public cemetery as the land was needed for real estate development – for the living.  In an elaborate ceremony, my urn was placed in the family niche, alongside my grandfather’s, my grandaunt’s, an uncle’s and 2 cousins’.  

 

“Here, sorry for the disruption, my darling.  Enjoy your new home, and say hi to grandfather for us”, my mother said softly as a sad smile crossed her lined face.  She then joined the rest of my family at the furnace into which they gazed solemnly as their offerings were slowly consumed by the fire.

 

**

 

“Got it!”  I waved the ipad triumphantly in the air and handed it to the official.  He glanced at the title, handed it back to me, and led me up to the great doors of the mansion, unlocking them with a large golden key.  As they opened, I saw my grandfather, grandaunt, uncle and 2 cousins waiting for me alongside a sumptuous feast no doubt prepared by my family.  I sighed in relief.  Finally, I’m home.

Snow White – an office fairytale

She couldn’t stop sneezing.  This blasted haze was causing her sinuses to act up, and against her pale skin, her nose was red and raw, and it was only 8 in the morning.

She reached for her coffee mug and staggered to the pantry for her regular cuppa.  She had been up until 3am, the victim of a vicious, over-caffeinating circle.  Sleepy and groggy, she pulled the lever for the hot water – all over her own hand.

She yelped and dropped her mug in the sink where it shattered.  She doused her hand in tap water, wincing in pain.  Good thing there was a doctor on the second floor.  And at least she was awake now.

She wrapped her hand gingerly in some paper towels and went to tell her colleague she was off to the clinic.  “Siiiigggghhhhh, ok then, I’ll complete the report myself.  It’s due at 10AM”.  My, my, someone was being a grumpy little witch.

She was ushered into the exam room immediately.  Mildly embarrassed, she explained what had happened, all the more bashful as the handsome Dr Costa examined her hand closely, his face etched with concern.

She applied the cream gently to her hand – it was not serious, fortunately.  She had also popped those badass painkillers that Vera, Dr Costa’s pharmacist, had given her, more to deal with the raging headache caused by her colleague and that darn report.  The meds were working.  She started to feel dopey – fuzzy and light.  Spaced out, she glided over to the washroom, wishing she could remain in this blissful state.

She blinked hard.  Why was Vera standing in the toilet?  Vera held out an apple.  “Hope you are feeling better.  Here.  This will keep the doctor away”, Vera said with a little laugh.  She took the apple and stared from it to Vera.  “We’re all happy here…”, Vera intoned.  

She bit.

***

An email message from Office Services appeared in everyone’s inbox that afternoon:

…The plumber removed the toilet and found an apple, which was bitten into.  This blocked the pipe and caused the choke.  We would like to remind everyone not to throw anything other than tissue paper.  Seriously, an apple?  What in the world was this person thinking?  How in the world does this happen…