The Secret Reservoir
By Ash Lim
As their dogs sniffed each other, the jogger said hi, and Anthony realised he had been staring, trying to make out the jogger's features in the ghostly lamplight. Flustered, he stood up from the bench and stuck out his hand.
The jogger's name was Remy, and his dachshund was Ribena.
"Cute dachshund," Anthony said, and the jogger chuckled, breath still short from his run, his tank top damp and convex against the rising and falling of his chest.
Anthony was pleased he had said something amusing, until the jogger pointed out that Ribena was a Jack Russell Terrier.
"I see!" Anthony said, blushing. "My apologies, I'm not really a dog person..."
The jogger raised an eyebrow quizzically.
"Mr Darcy is more of my wife's dog," Anthony said. "She usually walks it earlier in the evenings... I take over only during the exam period, when she's busy..."
"You're married," the jogger said.
Anthony nodded, raising his hand, light glancing off his wedding band.
After a few more pleasantries, the jogger went on his way, and Anthony dropped himself back onto the bench, feeling inexplicably flushed.
A breeze sighed across the black expanse of the water.
Anthony did enjoy being here at the reservoir at this time of the evening, when it was so nice and quiet. The condominiums looked so far away from where he was sitting; he could barely pick out the small, shining square that was his apartment, in which Elizabeth must be at work still, diligently marking her papers.
The next afternoon, Anthony told his secretary he had to be out for a couple of hours, and drove off to one of those gentrifying clusters of shophouses near the business district. He managed to find the café, and was gratified that the jogger, from his station behind the espresso machine, remembered him, though mortified to be greeted by name, within the earshot of so many young, judgmental people.
Anthony knew about the café because it was tagged in the jogger's photos, which he looked up on Facebook the night before. He also knew, from having scrolled through the jogger's timeline, that the café was started by the jogger with three friends about a year ago.
"What a coincidence!" Anthony said after he paid up at the cashier. "I didn't know you work here!"
"Yeah," the jogger said. "How about you? Is your office nearby?"
"Oh, I'm in the neighbourhood for a meeting," Anthony said. "And I heard the coffee here is the best in town, so here I am!"
"You certainly heard right," the jogger said, tamping the grounds for Anthony's order.
"I read about Jack Russell Terriers last night..." Anthony said.
"Did you?" the jogger said, looking amused, as he slotted the filter into the espresso machine, his movements practiced and sure.
"Yes, they need to exercise a lot," Anthony said.
"That they do," the jogger said, and Anthony could hear the coffee begin to spit and sputter.
"And they can be aggressive to other dogs," Anthony said.
"Not yours though!" Anthony added. "I can vouch for that!"
"Yeah, Ribena's pretty friendly, just like her owner," the jogger said, placing Anthony's order in front of him. "Here you go."
"Thanks," Anthony said. "By the way, will I see you and Ribena at the reservoir later this evening...?"
"Sure," the jogger said. "How about you and Mr...? Sorry, what's his name again?"
"Darcy," Anthony said, picking up the demitasse.
"Cool," the jogger said, giving Anthony a wide smile before turning back to work. He remained busy through the rest of Anthony's visit, as Anthony finished his espresso and picked at his half-eaten pear flan, wondering when his mannerisms became so stilted, so square.
When Anthony got home that evening, he told Elizabeth not to worry about walking the dog until she was free to resume the responsibility.
"Why, this is the first time you're offering to do this without my asking!" Elizabeth said, glancing up from her work at the dining table. Anthony did not understand why she always chose to work there when they had a perfectly nice study with a perfectly nice view of the reservoir.
"That can't be true!" Anthony said. "Me and Mr Darcy? Hashtag: BFF."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and reminded him to watch out for the kids; Mr Darcy's tendency to get excited whenever it saw children had proven traumatic for the subjects of its interest – Mr Darcy was a large mongrel with obvious German Shepherd DNA, after all.
It was Elizabeth's theory ("My pet theory," she always joked) Mr Darcy's previous owners must have had a child with whom the dog bonded. So in spite of all the years that had passed since it was adopted from the pet shelter, it was still hoping to find back its little human.
"How can the poor thing know, that the child he loves is now a teenager?" was how Elizabeth would usually end her story, and that catch in her voice would sometimes touch Anthony, and at other times irritate him.
It was so typical of Elizabeth to believe the stories she told herself. For all they knew, the dog might simply have a thing for scaring children.
Anthony made his way back to where he met the jogger, and sat on the same bench with Mr Darcy panting patiently beside him. About half an hour later, the jogger – Remy, his name was Remy! – showed up.
"Not jogging today?" Anthony asked, leaping to his feet to shake hands again.
"Just walking," Remy said, as the Jack Russell Terrier greeted Mr Darcy by hugging the ground with its stumpy forelegs and thrusting its hindquarters into the air.
"Sorry I didn't have time to chat earlier today," Remy said.
"No, don't apologise!" Anthony said. "Work is important!"
As they fell in step, with their dogs trotting between them, Remy grumbled about the drudgery of running a café. "So, what do you think of the place?" he asked, turning to look at Anthony.
"The coffee's great and the place's cool... But what does an uncle like me know about cool, right?" Anthony said, laughing in what he hoped was a self-deprecating manner. "I mean, it's obviously popular with the kids. You guys must be doing well."
"It could always be better," Remy said.
"I once had a dream of opening a café too," Anthony said. "I think everyone sort of does, right? But I was worried about competition and overheads, so I didn't."
"That's a shame," Remy said, turning to look at Anthony again.
"Maybe," Anthony said, looking down at their shadows on the footpath: one cast by the lamp ahead, one thrown by the lamp behind. "I do sometimes wonder, how life would turn out if I had listened to my heart more and my head less."
"Don't you have to listen to both?"
Anthony grinned. "I suppose you do."
He could hear the gravel crunching beneath their sandals. The click and clack of their dogs' paws.
"This friend who wanted to open the café with me, Stanley... he's more of a heart person, you see," Anthony said. "So it all balanced out."
"When was this, Anthony?"
"Oh, a long time ago! When we were in National Service! We discussed opening a café-cum-CD-shop until we were in university…" Anthony paused, glancing at Remy to see if he was bored.
"CD shops were the thing then," he continued. "The big chains were here with their megastores. Cool little shops were mushrooming all over town... You can't possibly remember any of this, can you?"
"Vaguely," Remy shrugged. "I'm the owner of quite a few CDs myself, collecting dust in some godforsaken corner of my bedroom as we speak."
"Oh, what type of music do you like?" Anthony asked.
Remy mentioned a few bands that Anthony had never heard of. Or were they the names of solo acts? It was hard to tell.
"Anyway..." Anthony said. "It's a good thing Stanley and I didn't go ahead with our plans, don't you think, considering how all these shops wind up?"
"Maybe," Remy said. "So where is this Stanley now?"
"He's in the States. Boston, I think. The last I heard, he's married."
"Oh, like you."
Anthony wanted to say no, not like me. Stanley married a man. Some Vietnamese-American he met there during his post-graduate studies. "How about you?" he found himself asking instead. "No girlfriend?"
"No," Remy said.
Anthony was glad Remy did not correct or challenge the assumption underpinning his question.
"Hey!" Remy said, suddenly pointing at the embankment ahead. "That's where that corpse washed up! The one with its upper half missing?"
Ribena reacted to its master's enthusiasm by hopping and yelping around his ankles.
"You've read about it, right?" Remy asked.
"I saw it on the news," Anthony said.
Remy described how he was here with Ribena that morning, pointing out where the police tape had criss-crossed the tree trunks, the lights of the emergency vehicles – pulled up helter-skelter over there on the foothpath – sweeping the pre-dawn dark with their red and blue beams. Even at that hour, the scene had attracted onlookers, mostly elderly walkers in their pastel sweatsuits. Remy had joined them in time to catch a glimpse of something being carried away on a stretcher, while police officers milled about, listening to garbled instructions through the static of their radio.
"Since then, Ribena and I have been on the lookout for the missing half. Surely it's a matter of time before it shows up?"
"You can't be serious?" Anthony said.
"This leads me to think, right, that the body must be hiding!" Remy continued, too caught up in his excitement to respond to Anthony's incredulity.
"Yeah, you know, sort of like laying low, biding its time? And then, at some pre-ordained hour, say on a night when the moon is full and yellow, it would claw itself out from the murky depths, dragging itself along this very footpath, trailing intestines and whatnot…"
"You watch too many horror movies!" Anthony said, laughing.
They resumed their stroll, chatting about zombies, and the gravel footpath was soon joined by a concrete one ascending a grassy knoll.
"I'm going this way," Remy said.
"Oh," Anthony said. "Okay."
After saying goodbye, Anthony watched Remy and his dog climb the footpath while he stood rooted to the spot, unsure for a moment in which direction he was headed.
That night, while Elizabeth slept beside him, Anthony found his thoughts chasing one another, and knew sleep would not be forthcoming. He got out of bed and went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Mr Darcy followed, its inquisitive eyes glittering in the dark.
Anthony squatted down next to the dog and laid his hand on its nape, where Remy had ruffled its fur earlier. The coat felt warm and soft against his fingers. He had tried to bond with the dog at first, but soon found its energy and hunger for attention exhausting. Also, he was not comfortable with being referred to as "daddy" whenever Elizabeth talked to the dog; he could often hear her chattering away somewhere in the apartment, in a singsong voice usually reserved for children, and the dog would bark in response, as if it could understand her.
Anthony finished his glass of water and put it in the dishwasher.
Slipping into the study, he turned on his computer but not the lights, and opened Facebook to check in on Stanley and Trinh. When Stanley had first added him, Anthony's instinct was to reject the "Friend Request", but his curiosity about Stanley's life won out. Since then, he had often lurked to look at Stanley's updates – dispatches from a life so far removed from his they might as well be transmitted from another galaxy.
Over the next few days, Anthony would sit at his bench, Remy would come by, and they would walk and talk. Mostly Remy talked and Anthony listened – about the neighbourhood, which Remy had grown up in; about Remy's new scooter, which he showed Anthony many pictures of; about a dog park Remy went to, which he recommended Anthony bring Mr Darcy.
"The four of us can go one of these weekends?" Anthony suggested. "We can all fit in my car..."
"Yeah, we should totally do that!" Remy said, but did not see any need to set a date or exchange phone numbers.
Once, Remy showed up after a run and sat down next to Anthony, the split hem of his shiny black shorts gaping across the side of his thigh. They sat in silence while Remy caught his breath, the spicy smell of fresh sweat thickening the air.
The weekend came, and with it, the fortnightly visit to Anthony's parents'.
Anthony wanted to cancel, but the thought of calling his mother and hearing her say okay in that small voice stopped him. He did not mind the alternate weekends at his in-laws' – a rowdy affair when it coincided with Elizabeth's sisters' visits, his nieces and nephews playing with Mr Darcy, his brothers-in-law fuming over the latest headlines and ribbing him over what they saw as his pro-government stance. Somehow, the narrow little flat accommodated them all.
In contrast, the atmosphere at his parents' was forlorn and grim – it had been that way since his brother committed suicide, all those years ago. Up until he first brought Elizabeth home to see his parents, Anthony could not remember ever catching either of them smile.
At his parents', a piquant, tangy whiff greeted them before his father opened the door, and it took him a while to recognize it.
"Are you okay?" he heard Elizabeth ask, and felt her hand on his shoulder.
He turned to see concern on her face, and realized he had been gripping the grille as if he was about to fall. He nodded and waved Elizabeth into the flat, even as she was tugged by a brisk and eager Mr Darcy, which knew his mistress's father-in-law had a treat waiting.
While Elizabeth and his father fussed over the dog, Anthony made his way into the kitchen, where his mother was toiling away at the stove. He stood in that pungent cloud of lemongrass and chilli for a while, feeling something twist inside him, before asking his mother why she was cooking assam fish after so long.
"I found back my recipe book!" she replied.
Anthony had difficulty processing this. "You mean the recipe was simply misplaced all this time?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied. "This used to be your favourite, do you remember?"
Anthony had assumed the dish was so inextricably linked to that afternoon it was last cooked, his mother simply stopped cooking it altogether.
Was it possible his parents had long forgotten what happened?
Anthony could not accept that.
Sometimes, a door only had to be opened a certain way for that click, made by a negligently unlocked knob twisting free from its latch, to be brought back with horrifying clarity. A click that precipitated Stanley's frantic exit, followed by days of Anthony not answering Stanley's increasingly fraught messages on his pager. A click that Anthony was still hearing when he finally called Stanley back, to tell him he did not think it was a good idea for them to hang out anymore, that he was dating a girl he intended to get serious with.
But that was later. That was jumping ahead of Anthony staying locked up in his room all afternoon after Stanley left, ignoring the knocks on his door, emerging only late at night to find his parents already asleep, the rest of the flat dark, a cone of light on the dining table, illuminating a plate of assam fish under a food cover, next to a rice cooker set to "WARM", and him sitting down and starting to eat, shoving chunks of flaking white flesh into his mouth, slowly at first, and then recklessly, no longer caring if there were bones, or if the gravy and rice dribbled, the taste of cold fish mixing with hot tears.
Sitting now at the same dining table, looking at the plate of assam fish in front of him, he could feel his face and ears burning. "Anthony loved this dish very much when he was a boy," his father was saying to Elizabeth. "His mother used to say, I will have to teach your future wife how to cook this one day. Who knew the woman would go and lose the recipe before that could happen..."
Elizabeth smiled "Yes, Ma, you must teach me, it's so good!"
Neither she nor Anthony was much of a cook; their kitchen had remained as pristine as a showroom for most of the year, except around Christmas, when it would be taken over by caterers.
"Anthony, you've been quiet all evening," his father said. "Is anything wrong?"
"No," Anthony said.
"But you've hardly touched your food," his father said.
Elizabeth was again looking at him with concern.
"I..." Anthony began. "It's just that... Elizabeth and I..."
His mother had also stopped eating to look at him, her chopsticks poised in the air. She was looking so frail these days. And as grateful as Anthony was for Elizabeth's constancy as a companion, he knew that she – with her sunlit childhood and carefree family life – would never understand the sadness of a family like his, a family whose line was condemned to die with him.
Looking at his mother, he wondered what kept her going – was there anything she looked forward to? He recalled the love he had for her when he was little; it had filled his heart to bursting. Was that love still somewhere inside him, or was it gone? Back then, it had not occurred to him that he and his brother would ever cease to be boys. This future that he was now living had been unimaginable. But here he was. A husband. A home-owner. A director at a manufacturing firm dealing in semiconductors. How difficult could it be to now steer this future to its logical conclusion?
"We have changed our minds," Anthony said, forcing himself to smile. "Elizabeth and I are going to try for a baby."
Elizabeth did not speak to him throughout the rest of dinner, although she smiled and responded amiably to his parents' elated queries. "Oh, we're just talking about it, there's nothing definite yet," she told them. She maintained her silence as they got into the car, simmering throughout their journey while Anthony switched from radio station to radio station, looking for nothing in particular. Only after the car was parked in the basement of their block did she break the silence. "You could have discussed it with me, Anthony."
"But you've always wanted a child, haven't you?"
"I could've changed my mind, couldn't I?"
"Well, have you?"
"No. But I would like to know what changed yours? After all this time!"
"The assam fish!" Anthony said.
"What are you talking about?!" Elizabeth said, opening her door and getting out of the car. Mr Darcy stood up in anticipation and watched her through the windows.
"I'm going to walk Mr Darcy," she said, opening the rear door and leashing the dog. "Why don't you go up first? We can talk when I come back."
Anthony glanced at the clock on the dashboard. "You're walking the dog at this hour?!"
"Isn't this the time you usually walk him for the last few days?!" she said, letting the dog out and slamming the door.
Maybe she would bump into Remy – would he recognize Mr Darcy and introduce himself to her?
"No!" Anthony said, getting out of the car and shouting across its roof at Elizabeth. "I'll walk Mr Darcy! Let me have the leash!"
"I'm doing it! I miss walking him! And I need to calm down!"
Anthony could not summon the energy to go after her, so he watched passively as she took Mr Darcy up the stairs to the ground-level gardens. After they were gone, he walked towards the lift lobby, checking his phone for notifications: he had a "Friend Request" and a message from a Remy Chua on Facebook.
That stopped him in his tracks, his steps echoing in the cavernous space.
"Hey, I was thinking you, me, Ribena and Mr Darcy should really do that dog park!" the message read. It was signed off with a phone number.
For a moment, Anthony contemplated calling to ask if Remy was out walking the dog, before realizing it did not matter. So what if Elizabeth ran into him? Anthony and Elizabeth were going to have that baby.
He resumed walking, deleting Remy's message and "Friend Request" as he entered the lift lobby, which the overzealous air-conditioning had turned into a morgue. Emboldened by this new sense of purpose, he scrolled down to do the same to Stanley's messages, the last of which was dated two years ago. Moving on to unfriend Stanley, he saw what was posted at the top of Stanley's timeline: a black and white photo of a German Shephard, trailing messages of condolences.
Anthony hesitated. Was the dog ill for a while or was its demise sudden (he tried to remember if it was in those farmers' market photos he saw days ago)? Whichever the case, Stanley and Trinh must be devastated. Should Anthony offer his condolences too?
No. No, he should not. Just then, the lift doors opened and he saw his reflection in the mirror inside, pasty and gaunt like a cadaver. Tapping the command to "Unfriend", he stepped into the lift.
Anthony did not run into Remy again until a year later, when Elizabeth asked him to accompany her on a stroll to the reservoir one evening after supper. The obstetrician had recommended regular exercise to help build stamina for delivery, which was due in a couple of months. Anthony was standing with her near the water, over which a full moon was suspended, when a familiar voice called out his name. He could feel himself stiffening as he turned around.
"Hey Remy!" he said. "Long time no see!"
He introduced Elizabeth, who immediately exclaimed, "Such an adorable JRT! What's her name?"
"Ribena," Remy said, scooping up the dog so Elizabeth could pat it.
"It's a she, right?" Elizabeth said.
"Yeah," Remy said. "Where's Mr Darcy?"
"Ribena and Remy are friends with Mr Darcy," Anthony felt he needed to explain. "We got acquainted after we bumped into each other here a few times."
"Mr Darcy has gone to doggie heaven," Elizabeth said.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Remy said. "My condolences."
"Thanks," Elizabeth said.
"It was almost a year ago now," Anthony said. "Some degenerative disease. It all happened really quickly."
"I'm so sorry," Remy said again. "Mr Darcy was a good dog."
Anthony thought he should change the subject, as Elizabeth appeared to be on the brink of tears. He did not have to cast about for a topic; it was the first thing on his mind when he looked up at the sky this evening.
"Hey, Remy, look," he said, pointing at the tumour of a moon above the water. "I think tonight will be the night you and Ribena finally get to meet that corpse. The one with its upper half missing?"
"Oh, you remember!" Remy said, chuckling.
Discomfited by Remy's bright-eyed regard, Anthony turned to fill Elizabeth in. She frowned when he was halfway through and told him the story was not appropriate for pregnant women.
Later that night, after Elizabeth fell asleep, Anthony got out of bed and crept into his study. The air was a warm sludge after the crisp chill of the air-conditioned bedroom, and opening the window did nothing to help. The full moon was nowhere in sight. In the distance, the water of the reservoir trembled, its periphery silvered with lamplight, its vaster body opaque and unknowable.
Anthony did not know how long he stood there, looking at the water. At some point, he must have pulled the window shut and slunk back to bed.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018