By Serena Lim
Keong blinked hard at the sunlight as he emerged through the exit of the MRT station at Orchard. “Excuseme” someone bumped against him to get past and then another from behind. “Excuseme”. He could sense the irritation of those thronging around him. What right had he to stand there, still, blinking at the sun, while they were all about rushing to lunch, rushing back to work after lunch, rushing to get their Christmas shopping done. He was in their way. There were only two more shopping days to Christmas. Even in the mid afternoon sun, he felt cold.
Looking ahead down the stretch of Orchard Road with its Christmas trimmings gleaming and bouncing off streaks of lights, the whole place was teeming and afrenzied with activity. Yet as Keong started to walk slowly, anachronistically along the pavement, he couldn’t help feeling he was caught up in his own dazed bubble, set apart from all the dash and rush that was going on around him. Even the Jingle Bells blaring from the loudspeakers overhead came through to him in a muted fashion as he caught snatches of it through his bubble.
“Would you care to donate to the Salvation Army, sir” A short bespectacled boy manning the charity counter came up to him. Keong smiled weakly and dug into his pockets, recognising the irony in the situation. He fished out a fifty-cent coin. “I’m afraid that’s all the change I have on me at the moment,” he offered and gave it to the boy who beamed, “Thank you, sir - any amount counts.”
How naďve. He wouldn’t know the value of money, would he? What did he look like, perhaps no more than ten! All of a sudden, he panicked and reached for his other pocket - it was there. He unfolded the crumpled cheque. His paycheck for the next month, except that it wasn’t really a paycheck. He knew the moment the manager called him into the office. He knew it from the uncomfortable look he had, the one he was trying to conceal beneath his bland and composed expression. Both men knew the inevitable and yet were trying to avoid it.
“Mr Toh, here’s the project you gave me. I’ve finished it, long before the deadline, actually,” Keong tried to laugh, knowing that his attempt to impress was not going to go anywhere, but he felt that, still, he had to try. “What about the new project we were discussing last month?”
“Keong, don’t make this harder than it is.” Mr Toh found his courage to speak.
“So that’s it, then! Jus...just like that! Why me - I have brought in so much business for you. I have done overtime work for you almost everyday for the past five years! I’m your most loyal employee and I’m also your... friend, and also - ”
“- Keong, I have to close down the business. Everyone has to go. I’m sorry. Please, I hope this helps a bit.” Mr Toh handed him the cheque. “You know how competitive things are, and now with the economic crisis going on, we’ve not been able to stay afloat. I’m wrapping up operations here and moving to China to help in my brother’s company there.”
So that’s what it feels like to pack your career in a box. He had started to pack his belongings when he was overcome with a complete sense of meaninglessness. Leaving the box behind, he made his way out of the office.
What would Irene say? Did she have to go back to packing goods at the supermarket? What about his darling Mei Mei. She was going to start kindergarten in about two weeks’ time. He had yet to buy her bag and books. “I want Powerpuff, daddy!” She had pointed to the plush toy on the shelf. Keong looked at the price tag. “What about if I get you the Powerpuff bag? Do you want Pebbles?”
“There is no Pebbles, daddy. That’s from Flintstones!” Irene had laughed.
“Okay, then get you Peach.”
“Blossom! Aiyah, daddy so blur!” Mei blurted in exasperated humour. “No, I want Buttercup, that’s my favourite.”
“Okay, Christmas, daddy get for you, okay. You must be a good girl, you know.”
“Sorry sir, you can’t get the money right now. You’ll have to wait two working days for the cheque to clear.”
“But that’ll be after Christmas. Can’t I get the sum now, or maybe later? I can wait. I’ve queued up for forty-five minutes already.”
“I’m sorry but those are the bank procedures. Anyway, sir, next time you can use the bank’s quick-cheque deposit box located just outside the bank.” And to stop any more queries or pleas from Keong, she pressed for the next customer - Next Please.
Keong looked at his bank balance. They would need that for house payment and groceries, not forgetting Mei’s kindergarten fees which had to be submitted by the next morning. And what about next month and the next? The job market was getting tighter each day. Would he be able to get a new job soon? What about all the payments to be made, what about their daily expenses, what about Mei’s Christmas gift? Perhaps I can still get Mei a gift. Not Powerpuff, but something else. Already, flashes of her disappointment struck him. He so hated having to go back on his word, and having to watch her lovely small face smile at him and thank him for the toy, whatever it was going to be, knowing that the sweet girl was only trying to hide her disappointment.
There was a big toy fair in the shopping centre atrium. Keong wandered aimlessly along the rows of basket after basket, trolley after trolley of toys! Each year, there would be a toy that was THE TOY! The must-have of the year. Once it was the Teletubbies, then Pokemon. He enjoyed getting them for his daughter. He wanted to make sure that she got all the toys that others had. In some way, it was perhaps a way for him to remind himself that he had arrived. He couldn’t buy the big houses and flashy cars that his contemporaries owned, but at least he could get his girl the toys that other kids had. He knew in a way that he was being silly, yet that had made him feel better. That was why he felt crushed to not be able to buy Mei her Powerpuff, not even the bag for her kindergarten class.
There were some parents who seemed to have bought up everything! There were people there with trolleys of toys, waiting to be gift-wrapped. The queue snaked down the line, filled with impatient faces. At the other end, harried sales assistants anxiously tore wrapping paper and busied with ribbons and tags. This was Christmas.
“Hurry up girl, choose your present. I don’t have all day! Stop playing with the balloons!” A trendily-clad young mum was tugging at her dolled-up daughter and pulling her away from the teenager giving out coloured balloons to advertise yet another new mobile phone service. “I say quickly, ah! Do you want Powerpuff, Barbie, or Playstation? Do you want mummy to get you Playstation?” she cooed. The girl pushed forward to the balloons - “No, that one is free one, just a balloon. Quick, I buy the magic bubble maker for you, see the balloons come out from the truck - look, it can move too! So what do you want, quick, choose and then we can gift wrap.” The girl was evidently not interested in what her mum had to say. She pushed her way forward through the crowd to the balloon boy and reached out her hand. As he passed her a red balloon, she reached out for it with a twinkle in her eye, like it was the most precious thing she had ever set her eyes on. “I want this one!”
“You silly girl, I let you choose any gift you want, you can buy any expensive toy you want and you want this!” The young mum hissed, embarrassed by her daughter’s choice, “Okay, then, you can have it and don’t ask me to buy you any more Christmas presents! That’s it! Let’s go!” Her mum’s punishing remarks did not register with the girl who continued to be enthralled by her new toy.
For the first time in weeks, Keong smiled, relieved.
“Would you like a balloon, sir?”
“Yes, thank you.” Keong held the string pulled upwards by the buoyant red balloon, and smiled again.
Things were going to be all right.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002