By Yap Shi Quan
The principal's office isn't big enough to hold five people. It's the kind of office where, the minute you enter, the cleanness in the air dries up the roof of your tongue, irritating it, and you can't help but scratch it with the back of your tongue. The cold doesn't help either. Maybe this is how an interrogation room feels like, and that is exactly how it seems, as the principal switches his gaze between Mrs Ho, Marcus, me, and Jinny. He raises one eyebrow when Jinny refuses to look away. She believes to level her gaze towards another is a show a respect, but against an adult, especially someone of authority, staring back is akin to treason. That's how she is — she lacks tact that normal girls possess.
"I'm giving you a chance to explain, Jinny," the principal says. "What do you have to say for yourself?" His face is lean with a slight stubble forming along his jaws and chin. Behind him hang several certificates and two photographs, one of which is a photo of him with his wife and daughter, posing against the background of a snowy-tipped mountain, and another is a photo of him smiling in a blue graduation gown with green trimmings. It's the kind of smile a person wears when he thinks he knows everything about life, only for it turn into a frown when life throws inexplicable obstacles in his way.
"Wait, why aren't we letting Marcus explain first?" Mrs Ho says. Her left arm is draped over Marcus' shoulder, the silver embellished cufflinks on her white sleeve glinting. Dark brown hair curls down her neck. "Marcus, why don't you tell them what happened?"
Marcus, who has been pressing an ice pouch against his left cheek, looks up at his mother, frightened. "Ma, it's nothing. Can we let it go?"
"I'm not going to sit by and watch my son get bullied." She turns to me and says, "Aren't you going to say anything? Aren't you ashamed by what your daughter did to my son?"
Her accusation catches me off guard. Mrs Ho's voice carries weight, as though she has been trained as a negotiator or a businesswoman to show no hesitation in her words. I wonder if I should tell her that Jinny isn't my daughter but my niece, but doing so may invite unwanted questions and draw out the meeting.
"I'm as lost as you are," I say. "I think it's better if we make judgements only after we get the whole story."
"Does it matter what the full story is? My son's face is swollen. Is your daughter a delinquent or what?"
"There are no delinquents in my school, Mrs Ho," the principal says.
"I did nothing wrong," Jinny says, exasperated. "Marcus was bullying Weelin, he kept pulling her skirt until it tore. That's why I punched him. He deserves it."
Marcus tries to shrink back into his chair, but Mrs Ho's arm prevents him from doing so. A droplet of water trails from the arm clutching the ice pouch down to his elbow, before dripping onto his brown shorts. Mrs Ho taps her finger on Marcus's shoulder—once, pause, twice — then she says, "Marcus, is this true?"
"I don't know. I don't know."
"You don't need to be scared. I'm here."
"Of course he won't admit lah," Jinny says loudly enough for only me to hear. She looks satisfied, as though she has finally delivered judgement on Marcus, although she will soon realise she has no power over this crossfire. I know the outcome — because it takes much more energy to say sorry than to argue, neither side will relent, and Jinny will eventually bear all fault as the perpetrator.
So I say, "Whatever Jinny did, I'm sure she had her reasons. But she's still sorry for punching Marcus, right, Jinny?"
Jinny looks at me, confused. "Jinny, you know it's wrong to punch someone." I send her a look which I hope is assertive and pleading. She squirms in her seat and bites her lower lip. The coldness of the room trickles down our necks. After a while, she mutters a soft sorry.
"Sorry to who?" Mrs Ho says.
Jinny hesitates for a while before adding Marcus' name behind her apology.
"If it isn't Marcus' fault," Mrs Ho says, "don't think a sorry is enough."
The principal massages the bridge of his nose and says, "Jinny, do you know where Weelin is?"
"I think she went back home already."
"I'll call her later to get her side of the story. It should clarify things."
Then he stands up, straightens his grey checkered shirt, and walks to the side of the office where a bronze plaque is fixed onto the wall. Inscribed on it are words in black letterings: Integrity, Compassion, Respect, Resilience, and Adaptability. He says, "Marcus and Jinny, are the both of you exemplifying these school values in your actions? It's not just about who's wrong, but also how you present yourself as our students. Especially you, Jinny. It's unbecoming of a girl to be so violent, even if you were protecting your friend. Understand? Nobody likes a violent, inconsiderate girl."
A pinched sourness takes over Jinny's face. This is an expression I've seen often on her and Moyun, when they're determined to right the wrongs, to get back at people who have maligned them. But it's an infuriating stubbornness I prefer living without. If there's anything I hate most, it's when people cause trouble and drag me into it, and with Jinny, every trouble of hers automatically becomes mine.
Grey clouds streak across the Friday sky as Jinny and I head towards the bus stop outside the school. She takes big heavy strides in front of me with her chin tucked in, lugging her bag on one shoulder and kicking aside pebbles or litter in her way. On the bus back home, she leans against the window, looking outside as the bus winds through Jurong East, passing by several HDB flats, a temple, and a pasar malam thronged with people and neon lights. Her pensive face is reflected in the window. Words are rarely exchanged between us, I've never felt the need to ask how her day went, nor she me, as though we've decided to only communicate the practical and the urgent. But this time, her silence is pregnant with discontent. I too have something to say.
"Please think before you act next time," I say.
"Who says I wasn't thinking?"
"You didn't have to punch him."
"Marcus didn't have to bully Weelin also."
Is this the infamous rebellious phase? I shudder to think what lies ahead as Jinny turns 14 next year. Jinny never looked for trouble when Moyun was alive. Perhaps if Jinny had an outlet through which she could vent her frustrations, like how Moyun had running, she might be able to channel outwards the energy that's quaking the lid of her muted life.
When Moyun and I were young, I followed her to the sports stadium six blocks away from our house in Bedok. We sat on the bleachers and watched sprinters fly across the track, the morning sun inching up our legs. The wide arcs of the sprinters' legs, like prancing ballerinas, earned Moyun's gasps and sighs. We inhaled the baked rubbery smell of the track, carried towards us by the warm breeze. "If only I could be like them now," Moyun would say every time, until she entered polytechnic with a sports scholarship, where she spent purple-tinted evenings razing the track and embracing the whip of wind with an unbridled smile, while I spectated from the bleachers.
A television fitted in the corner of the bus is broadcasting an advertisement for a vacuum cleaner. Below it, an old woman hunches over a cane, with wispy strands of grey hair peeking out of her bandana. She looks dazed and apologetic and 70-ish, as though she has only death to look forward to and everything else, the could-have-beens and what-ifs, trailing behind her.
"I shouldn't have said sorry," Jinny says. Her fingers are playing with the hem of her skirt.
"It was the fastest way out of trouble."
"So I actually wasn't wrong?"
"Look, Jinny," I say. "You can't go around punching people because you feel like it. Not even if the other person did something wrong. Why couldn't you have, I don't know, reported to the teacher? Or scolded Marcus? Like, anything other than punching. It's so vulgar. You're acting like big boys who think highly of themselves because they beat up smaller boys, or because they harass girls. You want to be like them?"
"But I don't want to be bullied too."
"So you rather be a bully?"
"I didn't bully anybody."
"Well, nobody knows that," I say. "People see what they see and come to their own conclusions. They'll never bother listening to what you say."
She pops her fingers, a habit she learnt from Moyun. It always surprises me how much Jinny takes after her mother, especially when they look completely different. Whereas Moyun had thin lips, detached earlobes, and a heart-shaped face, Jinny has fuller lips, attached earlobes, and a thinner face that tapers to a sharp chin. She probably inherited these features from her father, but I wouldn't know, since I've never seen him before; Moyun refused to tell me who he was, let alone hint. But if Jinny hadn't inherited from Moyun a pair of almond eyes, I would've been reminded every day that she might be a hand-me-down of her father.
When we reach home, Jinny beelines to her room and locks herself inside, while I change out of my work attire in my room. As I wipe off my makeup, I look in the mirror and am struck by the beginnings of crow's feet sprouting beside my eyes, the wrinkles developing on my forehead, and the sagginess of my cheeks. I comb through my hair to search for white hair, and when I find a strand, I yank, the sting familiar and bittersweet, leaving behind a sore scalp.
Several photographs peer over on the shelf beside me. In one of them, Moyun's holding up a silver medal for winning an interschool track and field competition, and I'm standing beside her with only my mother's arm on my shoulder, the rest of her body cut out after my parents disowned Moyun. In another photograph, it's just Moyun and me wearing party hats and celebrating my 16th birthday. Next to the photographs is a white plastic cabinet that contains receipts, ranging from groceries and toiletries to medical products and electricity bills, accumulated from the past three months. One whole compartment is dedicated to tracking Jinny's expenses alone, the receipts for her new bras and menstrual pads and acne cream piling up, so much so I have to cut down spending on my books, DVDs, and cigarettes to make sure we'll have enough for everything else.
After changing out, I walk out of the flat to smoke along the corridor, which overlooks a busy highway arching over tree crowns. I tap the cigarette over the railing, watching the ash crumble down to the first floor. I make a bet with myself sometimes, wondering if someone would walk out of the void deck and catch the ashes with the top of their heads. Not particularly exciting, but I only play games that I know I'd win.
As I smoke, I call my company to take the day off. I'm sure nobody will need or miss me, except maybe Angie, but even our friendship is confined to work, never elsewhere. I edit children's books as a living, spending my days making sure the tales are entertaining and educational. Although I don't particularly enjoy editing them, I see their appeal, since they are straightforward and they tie up neatly with a simple moral lesson. There's a running joke between Angie and me that I should receive baby bonuses for birthing so many children's books after 13 years of editing.
Angie sits in the office cubicle beside mine. She has a round attractive face, and when she walks, her blue bracelet tinkles, which annoys most colleagues. She believes that the secret to living a great life is to be honest with one's emotions, even at the risk of upsetting other people, a belief I find admirable but also dubious.
Once, she asked me, "Liyun, you don't feel lonely without a boyfriend meh?"
I've dated thrice in my past 46 years — one when I was 19, one when I was 24, and the last one when I was 31. I liked the emotional intimacy and sex, but somehow, the initial thrill of a relationship always fizzled out after a year or two. I said, "I think I got used to the loneliness after a while. It's so troublesome to date anyway."
"Huh. I can't imagine not having a girlfriend," she laughed.
A part of me wondered if it wasn't about getting used to loneliness, but more of not having the time for it. The three of us, Moyun, Jinny, and me, had lived together, but most of the time it felt like just Jinny and me. I would see Moyun briefly in the mornings, unresponsive to my voice and eyes unfocused, and after I came out from the toilet she would have already left to train young sprinters. It would be 11pm when she returned from her second job, shoulders slouched and hair frizzled.
Every Friday, Jinny and I would stay up to wait for her return. We would have our dinner late, me cooking at 9pm with Jinny's help preparing the ingredients, and we would leave the dishes in the microwave. As we waited, we watched The Little Nyonya or reruns of Phua Chu Kang while sharing a blanket, even if there were dead pixels blacking out parts of the actors' faces. Jinny watched eagerly, her voice lilting as she asked questions about the show, her squeals of laughter piercing through the night when comedic segments came on. We left the door wide open, inviting wind that was indifferent to our plight, inviting curious stares from passers-by. At that time, Jinny was reminiscent of the past Moyun, and I saw keenly the disparity between the Moyun that used to be clear-eyed and cheerful and confident, and the Moyun that was red-eyed, scraggly, hollow. But both Moyuns are gone now — one gone for four years and counting, the other a husk of her past self, ruminative and quiet ever since the former's passing.
Till today, we still watch shows together every Friday night. Whether it's because we got used to it, or we want to remind ourselves of Moyun, or some other reason, I'm not sure.
Late afternoon, I'm awakened from my nap by low, growling thunder. The ceiling fan in my room spins lazily, and the curtains billow. As I sit up, the telephone in the living room rings and I go and receive it.
"Hello?" I say.
"Is this Madam Wee?"
Still drowsy, it takes me a few seconds to recognise the sharp voice. "Mrs Ho? How did you get my number?"
"The principal gave it to me just now. He couldn't get through your phone earlier, so I suggested I'd call you instead."
"Is anything wrong?"
After a brief pause, she says, "I'm sorry, Madam Wee. And Marcus is too."
I let the surprise sink in and say, "So Marcus really bullied Weelin."
"I hope you can forgive him. We've been going through a tough time lately."
I'm not sure what to say. It's not every day someone apologises so readily, especially when she was so convinced of her son's innocence earlier. Then she says, "Don't worry. I'll definitely punish him."
"It's okay. As long as he knows he's wrong."
"He's such a handful." Then she says, "How did your husband react to this whole thing?"
I listen to the static of her breath, and I say, "Jinny doesn't have a father."
She becomes silent. Another low rumble of thunder. I wonder if Jinny is going to shut the windows and bring in the clothes drying outside. The wall behind the sofa has a different shade of white from the other walls, repainted years ago after Jinny graffitied it. Moyun's trophies and medals are displayed in a small glass cabinet, together with Jinny's trophy for a painting competition she won in primary school. On the dining table is a loaf of bread and a bottle of peanut butter.
She says, "I'm sorry to hear that."
"You don't need — "
"No, I understand. We just lost Marcus' father too."
"Oh," I say.
"It must've been tough for you," she says. "The other day, Marcus was complaining about how my cooking doesn't taste as good as his father's. I was already tired from work, so I accidentally snapped at him and told him to live with it, and he refused to talk to me the whole day because of that."
"Is Jinny a picky eater too?"
"That's great." After a moment of silence, she says, "But maybe he's right. It was just simple stir-fried dishes, y'know? Even a teenager can probably do better than me." She sighs. "To be honest — don't tell this to anyone, okay? From mother to mother — I've always felt like I'm not as good of a mother as my husband. Funny, right? I really think he was a better mother. He attended Marcus' PTM, he took care of chores while I was out dealing with clients. And when I returned home, it would already be late at night. I really want to spend more time with Marcus, ask how his day went, play games with him. But it never feels enough. You get what I mean?"
Do I? I've always held back the urge to ask Moyun if raising Jinny was worth it, not only because I was afraid of asking, but also I knew that no matter her answer, I would think of Jinny as a metal ball chained to Moyun's ankles, bruising and cutting into her flesh as she dragged her feet to two jobs.
It has never made sense to me why Moyun wanted a child. "She's my girl," she would say every time I offered her money, "I don't want to trouble you, Mei." The way she said it with a determined smile, undeterred by the difficulties that lay ahead, left in me a vague, stormy feeling. She wore the same smile when she told me she wasn't going to abort Jinny, that her dream of becoming a national sprinter was on hold: "I'm not giving up on anything at all. I'm not giving up on life." Perhaps she believed that raising a child to become someone capable of curiosity and judgement would be fulfilling, and she passed away still believing that. But for me, to become a mother is to live multiple lives and none of them at the same time. It's the worst compromise I've ever seen. And I thought I knew her well enough to know sprinting was her biggest priority, only for it to be so easily usurped. That's why betrayals from the people you love the most feel like fistfuls of grief in your chest — facts crushed into questions, familiarity crushed into strangeness, and love crushed into bereavement.
"I think you're doing great, Mrs Ho," I say.
She laughs. "Thank you. You are too."
"Don't say that. I'm sure you love Jinny." Then she says, "Where's she anyway? I want to say sorry to her too."
I tell her to wait, and I knock before entering Jinny's room. A bare room reveals itself with two waist-high cupboards, an unmade bed, and a study desk piled with books, paintbrushes, colour pencils, and drawing papers. But Jinny is nowhere to be seen. I holler her name, search for her everywhere in the house. A cold dread sinks in my stomach. It doesn't take me long to realise where she may have run off to. I tell Mrs Ho an emergency has come up and run downstairs.
The canal comes into view as I rush out of the void deck, and I slow to a halt at the running track right beside the canal. Matte grey, the colour of dried cement, pools the sky. On the other side are industrial buildings. One end of the canal disappears underground, beneath the highway, while the other end stretches further along high-rise flats and more industrial buildings. From the track, a short flight of stairs leads into the canal. A strip of ankle-deep water glides in the middle, carrying debris like leaves and plastic bags, while empty cigarette packets, used lighters, cardboards, and the like sink. Tadpoles swim near the water surface, creating a flurry of ripples across the stream like fireworks blooming against a still night sky.
I immediately spot Jinny in the canal with her purple shirt, her bowl cut hair tied into a short, bristly ponytail. She wasn't supposed to go down alone. Often, I came down to smoke and she would tag along as well, and she was allowed to explore the canal only if I was around to supervise. The gusts of wind fan the anger inside me, and I'm about to scream for her before I realise what she's doing. She's tiptoeing towards a greyish-brown, long-legged bird, crouched as though she's a lioness prowling towards her prey. Her gaze is trained on it, her world pared down to between her and the bird. She flexes her fingers. The muscles in her thighs, however meagre, tighten. The smell of canal water, rusty and stale, scurries around me. The bird is still unaware, and every step Jinny takes, every little jerk or head tilt the bird makes, my breath hitches a little. Then, without warning, Jinny pounces, her feet springboarding off the ground with hands stretched out as though in a mock embrace. But animal instincts prevail and the bird flies away, while Jinny lands in the water, splashing it everywhere until it slathers all over her shirt.
A smile, a laughter carried away by the wind away from me, towards the overcast sky.
Snapping out of my reverie, I scream her name. She turns around, her smile diminishing when she sees me. "Come back now," I shout. "It's going to rain."
To my surprise, she obeys and climbs back to the track. I drag her to the void deck, her wet footprints trailing behind.
"You are not allowed to watch television, meet your friends, or use the computer for the next two weeks," I say as she wrings her shirt, squeezing out droplets. "And you're going to wash your clothes yourself. I'm not going to help."
She doesn't reply. "Jinny, you understand?" I say.
"I don't understand. All of this doesn't make sense. So Marcus can be violent but I can't? He can get away with tearing a girl's skirt but I have to be punished and scolded for punching a bully? This fucking sucks. And why didn't you believe me, like how Marcus' mother believed him?"
"Don't," I say. "Don't talk back."
"You know what? Ma would have — "
"This isn't about Marcus. It's about you disrespecting me now."
Then she says, "None of this would have happened if you didn't force me to say sorry."
"Jinny," I say, unable to control myself, "why do you like to torture me?"
Perhaps torture is an exaggeration, but it feels apt in the moment. Her eyes widen. Then she looks down at her bare feet, fists loosening and clenching as though they're pumping tearful frustration out of her body. The air reeks of onset rain, clammy and earthy. It smelt the same the day Moyun collapsed on the running track beside the canal. She took a day off work, decided to jog in the evening, and even though she was overworked and malnourished, her legs quivered with desire and screamed at her to sprint, and she caved. Nobody was there to help her, and by the time someone did, her heart had given up, swift and uneventful, probably full of pain in the first minute but mostly painless. I've tried to tell myself that maybe it was noble to die doing what you loved. But I can't. In truth, I think it was incredibly selfish of her to have deserted me and Jinny in favour of her love for running, and I wish, day after day, I were more forceful with offering her money, so that her death wouldn't have come so soon, so suddenly.
The thunderstorm starts the moment we step into our flat. We retrieve the drying clothes and shut the windows. Jinny bathes while I prepare chicken noodle soup. I stew cubes of chicken breast in the chicken broth I made a week ago, add dashes of pepper for the cold weather and a drizzle of sesame oil for Jinny, her favourite condiment, before throwing in yellow noodles. I keep the soup on low heat until Jinny comes out. We eat in front of the television, a shared blanket draped over our shoulders. I tell her that Mrs Ho called to apologise, half expecting her to be smug about it. Instead she keeps quiet and slurps on her noodles.
"Can you promise me whatever happened today won't repeat again?" I say.
"Do you know how I felt when I punched Marcus?"
"So don't do it again."
"No. I will, if I need to." Before I reply to that, she says, "But I'm sorry, A-yi. For running to the canal."
I offer to wash her bowl when she's done eating, but Jinny refuses, stands up, and heads over to the kitchen by herself. A clatter, followed by a gush of water. The living room is brimming with shadows, with light only from the kitchen. Occasionally, someone outside walks past, and the shadows will rearrange themselves, as though fighting back against an intruder, then returning back to their original shapes. The trophies fling crystals of light onto me. A chokehold of stillness hangs in the middle of the room. I've never noticed the stillness before. In hindsight, it was never here in the beginning, but it snuck in and took up vacant spots, and now it's everywhere, belittling me. The blanket weighs down on my shoulders. My bowl is still clutched in my hands, the warmth dying. A fresh wave of rain stutters against the windows, and wind whistles through the gaps. When I become much older, the day will come where Jinny will walk out of my life. I won't need to check if she has overslept, I won't need to wait for her return in the evening to eat dinner, I won't need to tend to her needs and worries. Friday nights won't exist anymore, and the stillness will take over her spot. Of course she'll want to leave. She's exactly like her mother — they are most breathtaking when they are undaunted by the felicities of life, when they refuse to accommodate to what everybody demands from them.
But I know what awaits her. She is plunging headfirst into tragedy, just like my sister once did. This world does not look kindly upon girls who want to be free and indulgent and selfish, and will smother them with a deluge of expectations. Is that not how I've survived? Playing by the rules, keeping to my lane.
Jinny comes out of the kitchen, and before she retires to her bedroom, I say, "I believed you, by the way."
"I believed you were helping your friend. I just didn't like the way you did it."
"Oh," she says. As she's about to push open the door, she turns and asks, "What do you think Ma would've done?"
"To Marcus. If she were me."
Half of her face and body are inked by shadows. She levels her gaze on me, a gaze sharp with wonder, as though daring me to tell the truth. The stillness in the house is deafening. I look away and say, "She would do the same thing as you. But don't be like your Ma. She was brave, she was reckless, and look what those got her. Understand, Jinny? Don't make the same mistakes as your Ma."
It's not a bad trade-off, I think. Between a prudent Jinny and a free-spirited one, I'm willing to forgo the latter.
I imagine the canal is flooding with rainwater now, the torrential surge sweeping the tadpoles away and banishing them to somewhere dangerous and foreign. Jinny opens her mouth to say something, but suddenly, a bright flash leaps through the living room, and a snap goes off. In that flash, I see in my mind Jinny and Moyun flying gracefully through the air and their bright smiles, before the house trips into darkness, drowning us in the long, quiet night.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022