By Amanda Lee Koe
The boy grew up thinking the world smelled like chocolate, for he lived adjacent to a chocolate factory.
It was only during the last round of Chinese New Year visitations to the east and the north that he'd realised that the rest of the island did not share that same heady scent of confectionery. This out in the west, there was always the smell of chocolate in the air.
As a boy it was something he was grateful for, an invisible daily treat he did not tire of. It reminded him of something his mother said about ghosts feeding on the scent of food offerings. He'd knelt by the altar in the kitchen once, wanting to try the domed orange sponge cake, with the red dot in the middle so much like the bindi on the forehead of an Indian girl in his class. Both times, he'd reached out a hand, and he was told not to touch.
When he became a man, he hated chocolate. The smell of it made him sick. When gifted, he couldn't even bear to pass it on to someone who might enjoy them. Instead, he sent them down the chute of the condominium he couldn't afford. At 30, he'd gotten a loan officer to jump through hoops for his mortgage by constantly complimenting her on her complexion, buying her business lunches in French restaurants. He would spend the next 35 years—through two divorces and right up to his retirement—paying off the bank loan, but there wasn't a day where he thought it wasn't worth it—the relief, the pleasure he felt—to be able to offer his clubhouse as a plausible locale for a class reunion, to say, Ah, yes, my place, private housing. Right off the edge of town. It was to his chagrin that he could not afford a car, but this he quickly postured as a conscious decision to go green.
Chocolate came to remind him of the tiny three-room flat in the west, his mother squinting at receipts for household expenses and penciling them into an old notebook, the squatting common toilet, sharing a bunk bed with his younger sister, the lack of air-conditioning in their flat. Sometimes when he was bored or if it was too hot to fall asleep, he would lean over the top bunk to watch his sister sleeping below. Often her ratty class T-shirt would ride up to expose her ample, bare chest.
Presently, though, the boy was young, and he was pegging laundry onto the bamboo pole with his mother. His mother praised him for his dexterity with the clothes pegs. His father stood by the kitchen window, smoking a cigarette and without a shirt on.
Tien, the father said in Mandarin, without turning to regard him, Do you know where money comes from?
The boy was eight. He'd never thought about this. He did know though that he never had enough coins to buy a drink and a meal during recess every day of the week. An exercise in choice. He loved the fizzy kick of Sarsi and would sometimes skip the meal so he could get the drink instead. Sometimes he would allow himself two cans. For the rest of the day, if he burped on an empty stomach, the air that resurfaced would carry with it the flavours of sarsaparilla and licorice.
He shook his head, and the father beckoned him over. He scooted over and the father put a thick, warm palm on his shoulder.
There, he said.
The father clenched the cig at the corner of his lips and lifted the boy under his armpit. It was ticklish and the boy squirmed. The father pointed towards some flatted factories, separated from their block by a wide road, large trees and a canal.
There — that's where they print money, would you believe it? The national mint. All the banknotes and coins in there in heaps. Mountains, really. Right there.
Can we go?
Tien, there's no such thing as a free lunch. You learn it good.
The father was putting the boy down. Already, he regretted starting the conversation. He hadn't actually meant to ask the boy the question, but he was finding that he'd forgotten how to do monologues following the birth of his son.
The boy understood this was a form of rejection. He went back to squatting on the terrazzo floor to sort the laundry out. He fished out a pair of his white school socks nestled in the crook of his mother's beige underwear.
His mother was hoisting a bamboo pole out the window, and inserting it into the standard-issue cylindrical holder on the exterior of their sixth-floor flat. The boy could never understand how it was that the pole never fell to the ground. It was heavy when laden with clothes and bed sheets, and there wasn't anything to hold up the other end of the pole.
The father was tapping ash into the kitchen sink. Will you stop that, the mother said, running the tap. And didn't you say you ran out before lunch? She moved to the laminated-wood dining table and passed him the heavy glass ashtray. He placed it on the edge of the sink.
I went down to the mama shop to get a new pack.
When you were in the bathroom.
How much does a pack cost?
Don't get me started again.
No, really, how much does a pack cost?
He waved her away and cracked the bones in his neck from left to right.
If you smoked less, we could get Tien a tuition teacher.
Bringing the kid into the picture.
I'll tell you what's underhanded—bringing a kid into the world when you can't give him enough.
The father moved his hand. It was a broad, sweeping gesture. It was hard to tell, even to myself, if he had meant to dash the ashtray to the floor in anger, but he did. Narrow as the kitchen was, it hit the boy—still squatting and pegging up the smaller items onto the pale green laundry carousel—on the back of his head before landing on the floor with a thud, without shattering.
Out of reflex, the boy's hand reached for the back of his head, but he paused. These fights occurred often enough for him to understand the implication. It wasn't that they did not see the ashtray hit him, but that his exhibition of any sign of pain, of having been struck, could tilt the whole thing over into chaos.
Sometimes, he thought, if you are lucky, when you stay perfectly still, the world remains suspended with you.
The boy saw the father's feet cross from the area in front of the sink back to the window. He knew he could move now. He stood up.
Tien, do you know what that factory is?
This time the boy carried with him a plastic stool. He stepped onto it. The father was pointing at a smiling man on a billboard across the expressway, further north from the mint. That's an air-con factory — 'The Carrier man can,' remember hearing that on TV?
And that, the father continued, is a luxury-camera factory. The boy tried to make out the word on the building his father was pointing at: Leica. And that, the father continued, is a sports car showroom. The father didn't bother pointing out the chocolate factory.
When he was 20, the boy would walk past the sports car showroom to take bus no. 30 from the expressway stop. It was a straight commute to the university. There was a girl in school he had his eye on, and there was a boy whose car she stepped out of every morning. It was some months later before he realised that the boy's car was the same make as the one he walked past in the factory showroom every day, only that the former was in a flashier colour, a lime green that was larger-than-life.
He went up to the back of the car and read the brand name in the classic Italian logotype, committing to memory the name of a foe: Lamborghini. One day, he would finger his house key and run its jagged edge across the body of the car, in the faculty car park. Campus security replayed the footage and the owner of the car was called in to identify the perpetrator. The owner didn't recognise him, but the girl, who'd accompanied him, did. He's in my HS101. I thought he was a nice guy. The boy had to pay for the damage, with all the money he was saving up to buy the girl a designer jacket for her birthday. He'd seen the jacket flash on a website on her laptop while he sat behind her during lectures. But all this would be years away…
Isn't it funny? The father was saying. He was lighting a new cigarette.
What is funny, Pa?
That they're all around us.
The boy was silent. He didn't think it was funny but he knew it wasn't the right time to ask why. The sky had been clear before, but a light, steady rain was starting up. Chaocheebye, the father said, and he leaned out to bring the bamboo pole back in. The boy stood on the stool and they settled the bamboo pole onto curved metal grooves attached to the kitchen ceiling. When the clothes were hung indoors, there would be a musty smell about them and which the boy disliked.
The father was shutting the windows. The windows were tinted, and in them he saw the reflection of his mother on the floor cleaning the ash from the fallen ashtray. By the time father and son turned around, the ashtray was back on the dining table, and she had taken out a small cut of pork to thaw for dinner.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013