By Patrick Sagaram
Vicky is leaving tomorrow, going back for good and I feel as bad as the time my father died. After closing up for the day, I go upstairs to the coffee shop and drink too many Carlsbergs. At one point I lean sideways, cough twice and spit white froth on the floor. A sweaty, red-faced ang moh from the next table stands up and comes over. You orright mate, he says before landing a slap on my black. I wave him off, nodding my head. My throat burns as I light another cigarette and watch shiny black ants knot around the mess. I hear the ang moh bugger tell the fat woman sitting opposite him that I'm a harmless drunk. She flings a glance at me before turning away. They sip beers, complain about the weather and talk about places they plan to visit.
A harmless drunk? If only they knew about the time I almost put a man's head into a wall after he tried to be funny with Vicky. Except Vicky is no angel either. That's for sure. But I can't help myself. I've had a thing for her since the day she started working at the club. Until now I can recall the exact moment when I put my guitar down after sound check and turned around to see this girl with deep black hair, sitting with her legs tenting her dress. This was back when she first came here after escaping her town of a few hundred people fading like puddles in the sun.
The coffeeshop is almost empty by the time I finish my last beer. I stagger out and make my way to the MRT station, bumping into people, slurring apologies. In the packed train, I stand hugging a metallic pole. A string of drool hangs from my lip and I see this woman pinching her nose standing in front of me. When the train reaches my stop, I try and wobble past the woman who flinches as I head for the exit. Outside people elbow me aside and dash towards the escalators. I nearly lose my balance. I yell at them but they pretend like I don't even exist.
It's past ten thirty or eleven by the time I reach my flat. I change into my shorts and singlet and splash some cold water on my face. As I climb into bed, I hear my upstairs neighbours go at each other, fighting over money. A police siren echoes far off in the distance. Maybe because Vicky is leaving tomorrow all these sounds of the night drift in and out of my open window, sad and lonely.
Sunlight gathers around the edges of the curtains when I wake up, sweating all over the crumpled sheets. My eyes are tired and my throat is dry. I cough a couple of times, put my arm over my eyes before turning on my side, my face against the pillow once again. That's when I catch a glimpse of the lime green digits on my alarm clock. It's half-past nine and I've got to open the shop by 11. David likes to stop by now and then just to see how things are since we moved to Excelsior and he won't be happy if I opened late or showed up like I had one too many last night.
So I brush my teeth, gargle and spit blood into the basin. My toothbrush is pink. Wiping my mouth with my hand, I go into my bedroom and pull my pair of dirty jeans and a fresh T-shirt before heading out the door.
If it wasn't for David, I'd still be jobless. I was fired from Swee Lee after 20 years. Twenty years, can you believe it? Anyway, lots of old timers quit ever since management changed hands. Some young punk with family in the shipping business runs the place now. He looks barely 30. Walks around like money blew his head off. And he can't play a lick of music. Once I saw him mess around with this Strat, which cost an arm and a leg and I thought it was out of tune or something. Until I checked it myself and found it actually worked fine. I wonder if you can make such an expensive thing sound like shit, you're better off doing something else.
I knew it was just a matter of time before they kicked me out. For one thing, I could never meet my sales quota. Also, it didn't help I had the most number of complaints from customers because I never once smiled or let any of these retards who strolled in and out of the shop boss me around without buying anything.
After coming close to knocking the teeth off this asshole who refused to turn the volume down on the amp he was trying out – and this was after telling him politely to do so and he just refused to listen - the company said they had no choice but to let me go. I told them to go eat shit and die. By sheer luck, David called me up to ask if I was keen to work for him. I said, sure. And he hired me on the spot. I really owe him big time. It was my chance to prove I was better than what everyone thought of me.
Before I open for the day, I buy kopi from the coffeeshop where I spend my evenings drinking. Then I go to the shop, shake the latch on the shutters and raise the rattling metal sheet before unlocking the main door. First thing I do is pick up the remote and turn on the aircon because I'm sweating out last night's Calsbergs from walking under the scratching July heat, my T-shirt glued against my skin. The air inside smells of wood, lacquer mixed with mildew from the crusty carpet. My head spins like a top. I feel like puking.
I've told David many times to do something to clean this place up. He keeps nodding his head but he isn't serious, I know. This shop is just something on the side. His real business is providing backline rentals. All his time goes into supporting festivals and corporate shows. I've seen his posts on Facebook.
I switch on the lights, NETS machine and open the door to the backroom. My tools are in a corner, all neatly stacked. David also stashes the high-end vintage stuff here. Old guitars worth more valuable than luxury watches. My '68 Tele hangs on the wall. I sold it to him for next to nothing because I needed money to buy that necklace for Vicky hoping to make her happy.
You should have seen her face light up like a Christmas tree when she unwrapped the packaging and opened the box. For a while, we were like any other couple. Late night suppers. Lots of back and forth texting. You know, that sort of thing. Even held hands while queuing for tickets to catch a movie one Sunday afternoon.
A month later she began to turn cold. Wouldn't reply to my messages. Began avoiding me at the club. Only much later I found about him, this much older guy. He looked as if he needed a double dose of that magic pill to keep the dream alive. Let's just say even after all my begging and pleading nothing could change her mind.
When I think of her, I think of flashing lights on the dance floor, tossing of hair and sweat drenched panties of girls who dance and drink with middle-aged, balding men moving like slouching bears. Except these buggers were loaded. You should see them toss out their credit cards, open bottles of Martel. It's the only reason girls like Vicky go crazy over them.
I sip my coffee thinking what my father told me years ago. A fool, he said at the time I told him about my plans after leaving school. Stupid bloody fool, he said once more, spit flying out of his mouth. Who the hell would want you? You're so bloody useless.
What a thing to say because as it turned out, I was the one who kept an eye on him after his heart attack. Even bought him this expensive recliner so he could be comfortable with two tubes of oxygen sticking out of his nose. All day he sat watching Wrestlemania on cable TV, punching the air with both fists or catching an imaginary opponent in a sleeper hold.
That's it, he would say. Kill that bloody bastard.
Business moves slowly on weekdays. Excelsior is deserted in the morning except for one or two tourists who pop into the shop from time to time. Even so, it's seldom they buy anything. Around lunch, I get some walk-ins from the office crowd nearby but they don't usually hang around long enough to buy anything. On weekends or holidays it can get quite crowded. Mostly kids whose parents occasionally tag along with them when they go shopping for guitars. Quite pathetic, really. I've also had it with kids coming and strumming three chords on a guitar or step on a pedal before saying, I'd have to think about it. C'mon, you like it or you don't. What's there to think about?
Partly, I'm also to blame because I'm either too impatient or simply can't be bothered to acknowledge them when they walk into the shop. Most of them take one look at me with my hair down to my shoulders and ink carved on my arms and they start having second thoughts. Even David told me many times to be less grumpy and more cheerful.
You're scaring all the customers away, he said.
If they're such pussies, I replied, they should go to the toy store upstairs next to 7-Eleven.
Surprisingly, I make a sale when I least expect it. Just last week I sold a ridiculously expensive Martin acoustic to this retired schoolteacher. Didn't think much of him when he walked in all wide-eyed looking like a kid again. Until I caught a peek at the Rolex on his wrist. It was really something. Chucking aside the stack of receipts into the drawer, I put on my brightest voice and asked if he wanted to try anything. He pointed to the guitar and I walked to the display, rearranged a couple of microphone stands and pulled it out with one hand by its neck and the other on its body.
Before passing the guitar over to him, I strummed the opening riff to Helplessly Hoping. Oh, that's nice, he said taking the guitar from me, and sat down on a stool to muddle through a series of chords for the next 15 minutes. I left him by himself and went back to the counter thinking maybe he'd pass it back to me and leave. To my surprise, he decided to buy it. Thing was he didn't even ask for a discount although I would have gladly given him one. Just made small talk, paid up and left. Couldn't believe my luck because David promised me a cut if I made sales on the high-end stuff.
It appears like it's going to be another slow day. Not many people around. All the other shops aren't open yet. So I break open the boxes the DHL guy delivered yesterday. I check everything against the invoice, stamp prices on guitar strings, patch cables and other accessories and arrange them on display. Then I take a broom and sweep the dust off the door. Once I'm done, I go to the backroom and start work.
A few guitars are due for a complete set up. First thing I do is to remove the strings before cleaning the instrument. Hours of playing leave sweat, grease and dirt all over the fretboard. Afterwards I check the neck relief because some guys like the neck to be dead straight, others prefer it to be slightly bowed. Depending on the condition of the instrument, I do fret levelling and crowning and polish the frets one by one. Can be quite tedious and could take hours to finish. Not many techs out there can do this properly and this is one thing I do well. So I've got my regular customers who keep coming back and some full-time musicians who won't go anywhere else, which is a good thing. It just proves my father wrong. I can be good at something.
I work past one, think about taking my lunch break but I don't have any appetite. If I don't eat, my gastric pains can be quite bad. I rip open a bag of peanuts and crack a Coke from the mini-fridge. My hands are dirty but to wash them I'd have to go to the toilet by the corner, which always stinks of piss and vomit and there's always some bugger getting high inside one of the cubicles. Sometimes they do too much and shit all over the place and the cleaners never do a proper job. So I wipe my hands on a dirty rag and munch on my snack.
Just then I hear the sensor go and Boon's voice call my name.
I'm inside, I say.
I hear him drag his foot and his head pops into the entrance of my room. He's got his hands crammed inside his pockets, tattered T-shirt and pants. Looks like he hasn't slept in days. Under the buzzing fluorescent lights, his face looks like a corpse.
Let's go, he says, yawning. Pulling up his T-shirt, he makes a big show of rubbing his stomach. I haven't eaten all day.
Mmm, I say. Sure.
I suck the salt off my fingers, take a pull of Coke and put the out-for-lunch sign with my mobile number because David wants me to be contactable at all times during business hours. Last time I skived on the job, some cockanathan wrote on our Facebook page about waiting outside the shop for hours and kicked up a huge fuss and David wouldn't speak to me for a week.
OK, the reason why I wasn't at the shop was because Boon had talked me into huffing butane gas he had squirted into a plastic bag upstairs on the fourth floor opposite the massage place run by the China girl. Apparently I'd been taking turns jumping around and playing air guitar and unzipping my jeans to wave my dick at the girl, Boon told me later. Can't remember anything, really. And Boon, he tends to bullshit sometimes. All I know is getting sick afterwards, my brain feeling like a frozen bleach bottle.
We go upstairs to the coffeeshop and order two bottles of Carlsberg and I drain my first glass quickly while Boon crams down a bowl of soggy noodles, slurping away. Now and then he pushes a comma of crusty hair that hangs over his forehead. His eyes are red and scrambled.
Let me guess, I say. Wife kicked you out again?
Boon nods, goes on eating.
What happened now?
You know that waitress I was telling you about?
Now my wife knows about her too.
Boon looks up at me, puts the chopsticks down on the bowl before wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Checked my phone, he says. Read all our messages.
I shake my head.
If you're thinking about it, I say, lighting a cigarette. The answer is no.
I know, Boon says, grinning. I don't blame you after the last time.
Let me guess, I say. You're staying with your brother?
Yah, been sleeping on the tilam, Boon says. I'm aching all over.
Serves you right, I say.
I inhale deeply, let smoke tumble out of my mouth. Boon is the horniest bugger I know. Even now his eyes are on the girl who brought our beers. Every time she came over to clear our empty bottles, he shot me this look, pursed his lips and started to whimper.
He peers at me over his glass. Why the long face, Boon asks. Through I seldom mentioned anything about Vicky and myself, two weeks ago I told him she was leaving for good.
It's Vicky, I say. Her flight leaves tonight.
I stare at the bottles of Carlsberg, condensation drooling drop by drop. Then I start peeling off the label, turning wet paper into balls. I flick them in the air with my finger.
Cheer up, Boon says. Why don't you come down to JJ's tonight?"
I'll see how, I say.
C'mon, Morais, he goes. You can join us for a song or two. Just for fun.
Back then we used to jam at this bar at Far East Plaza. I even made flyers for our band, The Tipsy Magpies. Pencil sketches of two birds dressed like hippies, smoking joints and riding Harleys.
Now all I see is clean-cut kids with fancy gear and three-minute-happy clappy pop songs. Makes me just puke.
These days Boon doesn't play often since he's works as a soundman at the Esplanade. Once in a blue moon, he'd call me up to hang out at JJ's but I know that gives him another excuse to chase girls.
I can't show my face at the club after what happened. It was a Friday night, I recall the place was overflowing with girls, beer and shouted conversations. I was on stage, about to start our set when I saw Vicky making her way to one of the tables with a tray of drinks. There were three of four guys seated there with other girls and they began passing the shot glasses around, each of them pinching a wedge of lime.
After the second song, one of the men, this fat fucker began swing-dancing with Vicky, rag dolling her around but she'd snap back into step him, just in time. The rest in the table clapped and cheered and I saw his face, sweaty and breathing tequila. He looked happy and I hated him instantly.
After each song ended, they glided back toward the table for another shot and then back to the dance floor and I could see him having a slur in his movements, a little drunk wobble now and then while Vicky threw her head back, laughing. She looked awesome that night in a tiny dress, which showed off her long legs. And the way she floated from spot to spot like she was under the spell of some fairy tale.
Until today, she tells me I made it all up in my head. But I know what I saw. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I unslung my guitar, letting it slide it on the floor. Feedback squealed away as I waded through the crowd towards their table. Maybe if he hadn't jabbed a finger on my chest or called me a loser, things would have turned out differently. Except it was too late, I guess. By then the screams of the girls started in a strange slow-motion kind of way, bottles began to fly and I saw lights on the stage twinkling and twirling and it was this dreamlike feeling of things going beyond your control and nothing you can do to stop it.
Hey, Boon says clicking his thumb and middle finger in my face. Listen, the band comes on around nine. So I'll see you there?
I'll see how, I say. I take one last drag before knocking out the cigarette under my shoe. It's so hot I can't even think properly. My shirt is stuck to my skin. It feels like the sun is everywhere.
Look, he says, glancing left and right before pulling out a tiny plastic packet. Look what I brought for you. He holds in between his thumb and forefinger, swinging it playfully. A stupid smile across his face. Then he pushes it across the table to me.
I glance over him and thought about the last time, of what I could still remember after the free-for-all on the dance floor and way she yelled at me in front of everyone. When all I did for the next couple of days was hit the bottle hard, like the world was going to explode and blow all of us to pieces.
To take the edge off, Boon slipped me some K which I snorted immediately. And I felt a holiday in my head, of white beaches and lagoons where the water was so clear it sparkled like diamonds. When the waves came crashing into the shore, it made a foamy cream.
Boon, I really shouldn't, I say. But he waves me off, tells me no charge. Slapping me on the shoulder, he gets up and glances at the girl one last time before leaving me to settle the bill.
After lunch, I go back downstairs to the shop. In the backroom, I sink on my chair and close my eyes. I should be staying straight I think to myself knowing about the packet of K in my pocket. I stare at wall of guitars, at my old Tele, which I know I can't afford to buy back. At that moment, I thought of all the things I could do if I wasn't broke and washed out, living day-to-day in a haze of cigarette smoke and beer.
So I begin clearing stuff on my table, put away my tools and keep the guitars I'd repaired earlier into the cases. I pull out the packet, tap out the contents and make a line evenly on my worktable. I snort everything up in one single take. I feel a slight burn in my nose. I put an old Willie Dixon record and hear his scratchy, gravelly voice as the bass growls in the background as the snare clicks away like falling rain.
By the third song, what I had inhaled had cast me into a sweet warm ocean. I realise that I find myself in one of those moments in my life where every damned thing seems possible if I made the right choice and stayed straight. For the next few minutes, I hazily consider changing my life. I could see myself back playing gigs with my band once more. Everyone would praise me, perhaps even forget all the shit I'd done.
And I picture myself with Vicky once more. We're on the beach, our toes touching the water. Racing up and down the sand, her hair trails in the wind as the sun yo-yos between puffs of clouds. She's telling me if we're in a dream, she doesn't want it to end.
I wake up, feeling lost and confused. I'm cold from the blast of the aircon and the hum of harsh fluorescent light overhead hurt my eyes. My stomach feels a little cramped. It takes me a minute or two before I can figure out that I'm back in my workroom, back in my life once more.
At seven-thirty sharp in the evening, I start closing up for the day. First thing I do is lock up the cash box. Then I shut down the computer, NETS machine and turn off the aircon. Didn't make much today but maybe it doesn't matter because David didn't call or check up all day. Must be busy with all the backline work.
After closing up I go upstairs and smoke a cigarette before making my way to the train station. Just then my phone goes off, I see Boon's number flashing on the screen. I consider picking up but after four or five rings he gives up. He's probably calling to see about going down to JJ's later. I take a deep drag, blow bluish smoke watch it linger before mingling with the warm evening air. If I go and hang out with him then by the end of the night, I'd end up huddling around guys like me, drunk and miserable. I'd had enough of that. Besides, I'll probably see a girl who reminds me of Vicky and start thinking of where she is tonight.
I decide to go home instead. It's been a while since I'd listen to my records on my father's old turntable. I love that old warm sound. Reminds me of a time long ago. At some point my neighbours upstairs would be at each other's throats again. By that time I would have taken down the drawing of Vicky I made and tacked on my fridge. I would have torn it up and thrown it away.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021