The Staircase In The Suitcase
By Barbara Kuessner Hughes
It wasn't clear to Chloe why Mummy had left the case in the middle of her bedroom floor, standing open upon its end, but she was glad it was there. Its halves gaped wide like a door, inviting her into worlds like the ones in her picture books, and spurring her to make discoveries.
"My gosh!" Mummy had said, when she'd first discovered the case inside a wardrobe in the apartment. "How ancient does this look? It's an antique! It smells of stale cupboard and rusty hinges! And look at that peeling paper lining! Still, it's better than nothing."
Now, after much labour using Chloe's pencils and crayons, the middle lines on the suitcase's tartan interior were outlined in green, the white stripes were blue, and there was red inside the boxes. Chloe was proud of the effect.
Being near the suitcase had an odd effect on her brain: time slowed and thickened like glue. She could spend ages, there was no way of knowing how long, hanging around it, and afterwards she'd have no idea how she had passed the time.
"What are you doing with that old suitcase?" Mummy had asked her more than once.
What could Chloe say? There was no way of conveying the sheer marvellousness of standing inside it. It was as though it had been made for her, a secret playhouse into which she fitted perfectly, and with several inches of space above her head, it made her think of a bat-infested cave which her parents had taken her to on their holiday to Borneo.
The suitcase was her favourite place apart from the balcony of her family's apartment. From there, she liked to wave to the elderly Chinese lady with auburn-tinted hair and a polka-dot blouse every morning. The lady, who watered her orchids on a balcony on the opposite side of the condominium's courtyard, would beam at Chloe and wave back.
Mummy had made it clear that she didn't appreciate Chloe's rapport with this distant stranger. "Chloe, come away from the balcony at once! You mustn't wave to people we don't know."
"Oh, come on, Vanessa," Daddy had said. "What's the problem? A smile from a little old lady, standing so far away? Maybe she's lonely lah. Maybe she'd like grandkids and she hasn't got any. You're so uptight, such a kancheong spider!"
So, Chloe still waved and smiled and received similar ministrations in return, but she was careful to do it when her mother was elsewhere.
After the suitcase and the balcony, her third favourite place in the world was the little playground which dominated the courtyard of the condominium. Chloe would look down from the balcony at the swing and seesaw, and especially if she squinted, they would appear to be decorated with stripes, the sun slashing them with shadows as it shone down between the fronds of the palm trees. The pattern reminded her of the markings on a zebra in a book, and the water in the communal swimming pool was the same blaze of blue as the sapphire in Mummy's ring.
When Chloe got bored with gazing out of that side of the building, she would cross to her bedroom on the other side of the apartment and watch small cars whizzing along River Valley Road far below, at the foot of the building.
Chloe often wondered where Daddy was; he went away for days at a time. Sometimes she'd hear Mummy explaining his business to other adults: something that sounded like "Port and port," with an "ex" somewhere in there.
"Of course," Mummy would add, "Singapore is the ideal base, isn't it? International crossroads, and all that."
When Chloe asked Mummy what "Port and port" meant, Mummy said, "Buying and selling things. To and from other countries."
Chloe didn't know what a country was, and she didn't ask, because Mummy was in an impatient mood that day. Whenever Chloe wasn't at kindergarten, Mummy would try to teach her to read. It wasn't going well.
"God, I'm bored," Mummy had said yesterday. "How many times?!" She'd pointed at the letter C. "That's 'C', not 'O'! Can't you tell the difference?!"
Chloe was spending more and more time in her suitcase.
In those vague, lost moments of late afternoon before the routine of supper and bed, Chloe would lurk around, leaning on the battered cardboard surface of her hideout and listening to the sounds of her mother cooking in the kitchen. Drawers opening and closing. The pounding of the meat hammer on the wooden chopping board as her mother tenderised a steak. Murmuring from the radio. Some restrained, even prim swearing when her mother cut herself. "Oh… Foghorns!"
Mummy used to laugh sometimes, but now the line of her mouth alternated between being a narrow line and a jagged one. Her chin-length, grey-streaked dark hair would get sweaty and droop. The circles under her eyes were almost as dark as her brown eyes themselves, and her face seemed to be getting narrower all the time.
She wasn't like Mrs Pryor next door, who was older than Mummy and had a round, pink face and a big, cushiony bosom. Mrs Pryor was Chloe's favourite grown-up after Daddy. She was English, like Mummy, but had lived in Singapore for decades. Even at the age of five, Chloe realised that Mrs Pryor's air of oozing contentment was unusual. The only person who ever looked nearly as happy as Mrs Pryor was Daddy.
Daddy was Chinese-Singaporean, but he'd spent many years in Australia and London before returning home two years ago, bringing with him Mummy and Chloe, who had only the dimmest memory of another country and her maternal grandmother, a pale, cooing face with gold-rimmed spectacles. Chloe vaguely recalled the feeling that English air was as chilly as the inside of a shopping mall, but by now, at five, she'd become a child of heat and sunshine, of fried rice, satay, steamboat and kueh, as though she had never been anywhere else.
She liked it when Daddy came home from his trips. Sometimes he'd bring her a costume doll. She had a doll wearing a kimono, a doll in a sarong kebaya, a doll in a Korean hanbok, which was her favourite; an exquisite face and a puffy cerise-and-turquoise skirt. Daddy would sit down next to her and ask her to serve him using her toy tea set. Jasmine tea, bubble tea. Sometimes, just for fun, they'd pretend to pour teh tarek through the air from cup to cup, as she'd seen it done in hawker centres.
"Good teh tareking, lah!" he'd say. "You got that tea flying through the air like a pro, young lady."
One Saturday, Mrs Pryor dropped around for a cup of coffee while Daddy was at the gym. Since it was the weekend, Chloe wasn't at kindergarten, and her toy doctor's kit was spread out all over the living room floor; the plastic stethoscope, hammer and test tubes, the thermometer which she'd been strictly forbidden from sticking into any part of her playmate Sammy's anatomy.
"Clear up this rubbish at once," Mummy said, as Mrs Pryor was winding her rotund way towards an armchair.
"Oh, I don't mind it," Mrs Pryor said in her jovial way, ruffling Chloe's soft, wavy brown hair as she passed her. "It's only toys. And a doctor needs her kit, don't you, Chloe?" Chloe nodded. "How are you going to look after sick people otherwise?"
Mummy pressed her lips together. She left the room and reappeared with a tray bearing coffee cups and a cafetiere. Meanwhile, Chloe kept on doing what she was doing, measuring her dollies' temperatures and hammering their kneecaps.
"Got any sugar?" Mrs Pryor asked Mummy. "You know me – I need at least two teaspoons to keep me going in the heat."
Mummy looked disapproving and enthusiastic at the same time. "Oh, the heat! Don't get me started!"
Mrs Pryor spoke more quickly than was usual for her. "Oh, I like the heat. Wouldn't want to be away from it, after all these years. But I need a bit of extra fuel. It's really no wonder the local kopi is so sweet."
Mummy said nothing for a while, just sat looking around the living room, which was plain and modern, with a large black corner sofa and a few framed photographs of Chloe. Chloe wondered what Mummy was thinking about. Whatever it was, she didn't seem to like it.
"To think…" Mummy said eventually. "I gave it all up for this."
"It doesn't look that bad to me," Mrs Pryor said. "But you could always move to another apartment."
"No, I don't mean that. I mean, I gave up my career – a really good career – for this." Mummy waved one of her hands at the overspilling toy box in the corner. Just at that moment, Chloe dropped one of her dolls and became the target of Mummy's grimace. If she didn't play silently, she'd be banished. She didn't want to hear bad things about Mummy's life or about Daddy, but she didn't want to be sent away either, so she started work on the quiet project of a jigsaw puzzle. It showed a big smiling sun with a countenance as cheerful as Mummy's face was morose.
"You know, your life would be some women's dream," Mrs Pryor said without reproach. "Have you thought about looking for a job?"
"Oh, yes, of course! But it's not that easy, you know? Everyone's so highly qualified here. They don't need the likes of me. The government's only let me in as a sort of appendage, as long as I don't take up too much space. It's fine for Simon – he's a citizen. I mean, it's not easy for him; business is very competitive. But he's got a role. I'm just expected to lie by the pool or wander around shopping centres or something. I don't know. I'm no good at that kind of thing. And there's no support, you know? I've left my family behind on the other side of the world. And…" Suddenly Mummy's face seemed to cave in. "My mother… She's dying. I'm here and she's there, and there's nothing I can do to help her."
"Oh, I'm sorry, dear." There was a pause. Mrs Pryor bit into one of the biscuits Mummy had provided, chewed, swallowed, took another sip of tea. "But you'll get through it. You need to find yourself a hobby. Or maybe do some charity work?"
But Mummy didn't seem to be listening. She was pursing and un-pursing her mouth, which reminded Chloe of the twitching, pulsating sea-bottom creature Daddy had pointed out when they were on holiday in Borneo and went on an outing in a glass-bottomed boat. The sea-bottom creature had clenched and unclenched its vivid neon-coloured extremities to a thrusting underwater rhythm which Chloe couldn't hear but longed to be able to.
"I don't understand my husband at all," Mummy said suddenly.
Mrs Pryor half-laughed. "Now, how many women have I heard say that down the years?"
But Mummy didn't look amused. "I've got absolutely no idea how Simon fits in in this country. He hasn't got any of that Singaporean briskness, you know? Any of that air of efficiency. He moves at half the speed of everybody else. It can take him all day just to walk along Orchard Road! And he's so unacademic. He was a complete failure at school – by his own admission. He doesn't have many material desires. He isn't very ambitious. He's more of a creative type than a business one. He even says it himself – "I'm not very kiasu for a Singaporean." And yet now it's 'The Big Homecoming'!"
"Funny. And I always thought he was an Aussie!"
"I find it baffling – he's starting to behave as if he'd never left Singapore for more than a minute, and every day he uses more and more Singlish when he talks to me. He never used to do that when we first met. Sometimes I have no idea what he's saying! It's as if he's trying to prove something. I think he doesn't want to be accused of being a fake. Or a 'banana', because he was away for so many years." Mummy frowned. "What was that expression he used the other day?" She clicked her fingers. "I know – an 'ang moh pai'. He doesn't want to be like that."
"I see. Well, Singlish is only a patois, dear. You can learn it. It's nothing to be frightened of."
"I am trying to learn it."
"And tell him how you feel? He seems such a gentle soul."
"Hm. Well, I can see why you'd think that." Mummy wafted her hand about. "Drifting around like a cloud, looking daydreamy… But believe me, that unworldly air of his is deceptive."
Chloe pictured herself going to her suitcase and being enveloped, wrapped up inside a cloud like the one she'd goggled at from the aeroplane window on the way to Borneo, that vast, soft, inviting expanse which she'd wanted to bounce on and couldn't believe she'd fall through, even when Daddy told her it wouldn't take her weight. The cloud would be like the soft white bed in their hotel, the one she'd wanted to loll around on for hours.
Daddy had insisted that she left her cloud-bed. In the end, when she hadn't wanted to budge, he'd scooped her up in his arms and carried her off. "That's enough of that, young lady. We've got fun to have, Chlo, now we're here. We've paid a lot of money for this vacation. You can't just nua on the bed all day."
"Simon isn't always gentle," Mummy was telling Mrs Pryor now.
Chloe knew this was true. Only the night before, he'd raised his voice at Mummy. "You're being damn guai lan, you know? You and your fantasies, you and your suspicious mind! Can you on your common sense for once? If I'm so bad, where's your proof?"
"I don't know how you think you can get away with this!" Mummy had countered, her voice as sharp as the crab's claw which Chloe had found on the beach. "You treat me as if I'm an idiot!"
"Well, you act like one, confirm plus chop!" Daddy had said.
"You know…" Mummy told Mrs Pryor now, in a jarring, tangential way. "I got a suitcase out of the cupboard the other day. But I haven't done anything with it. Yet."
Mrs Pryor put down her coffee cup. It clicked into its place on the saucer. "You'd only swap one lot of problems for another."
"Yes, but… Some things are unacceptable."
Mrs Pryor sighed. "Don't be too hasty."
Mummy stared at Mrs Pryor. "But what if I'm right?"
Mrs Pryor sighed again. "Well… It does happen. I'm sure my Mike has stuck his hands in one or two places he shouldn't have over the years."
Chloe remembered Daddy on the beach, pointing to a large log of driftwood. "Never stick your fingers in holes, Chloe. There might be nasty things in there that can hurt you."
"In the end," Mrs Pryor said, "I never really felt it mattered that much. As long as Mike didn't leave me."
"But I'm not like that. It does matter to me." Mummy sat there musing for a while, her lips tensing and untensing. "I read it on his phone. Sandy…"
Chloe thought of a yellow beach, of her bucket and spade, and Daddy gazing out to sea.
"A business associate?" Mrs Pryor suggested. "He must make a dozen phone calls a day!"
Mummy went on in her not-listening way. "Probably a stunning Chinese girl. They're so gorgeous, so slim, so cute, I wouldn't blame him for being tempted. I mean, look at him – he's so handsome. And me – I look completely haggard!"
"Oh, come off it, dear. You could perk yourself up a bit. New hairdo and a bit of makeup? They can work wonders." Mrs Pryor was silent for a moment. "Be careful. I'm not sure this has got much to do with him. I think the main problem is, you're unhappy with yourself."
But Mummy was somewhere else. She wasn't really in the room with Mrs Pryor or Chloe. Chloe followed the direction of Mummy's eyes. They seemed to be focused on the living room wall. "It's definitely a local. Not an expat."
Mrs Pryor sighed once again, and the sound seemed to summon Mummy back. She swivelled around on her chair and fixed Chloe with a look. "Chloe, go and play in your room."
But it was too late. Chloe didn't understand everything, but she could taste her mother's bitterness on her tongue. She ran into her bedroom and pressed her face against the coolness inside her suitcase, inhaling the funny odour, finding comfort in it.
As Mrs Pryor was leaving, she stuck her head around the door of the room. "Chloe…"
Chloe left her haven and ran up to Mrs Pryor, who pressed Chloe against her for a second. Heat and softness. Nice, if a bit suffocating. "You can come next door and have an ice cream with me anytime you like." She gazed down at Chloe's face. "Don't look so sad, dear. I can't bear it."
Chloe returned to her suitcase. She pretended it was something cocooning: Mrs Pryor's warm, fragrant hug. She stood there, inhaling the powdery, dusty paper scent until Mummy called her to come and eat supper.
The following night, Daddy came home for the first time in several days, and Mummy emerged from the kitchen, smiling so widely that Chloe was disconcerted. Mummy had spent ages in the bathroom that day. When Chloe had asked what she was doing, she'd said, "Grown-up things which little girls don't need to know about." The details of her mother's activities might be mysterious, but the results were clear: she looked prettier than she had in a long time, all shiny lips and thick black eyelashes a-flutter like butterflies. She wound her arms around Daddy's neck. "Oh, darling, I'm so glad you're home!"
Chloe watched Mummy kiss Daddy's face. It was a sight which didn't look right at all. Chloe edged between them and threw her arms around her father's waist.
"Don't bother Daddy right now," Mummy said, trying to prise Chloe away. "He's had a long, exhausting business trip, and now he wants to relax!"
But Daddy made a small shrugging gesture, pulled his arm away from Mummy, and allowed Chloe to take his hand and lead him into her room. A strange kind of moan came from the hallway behind them.
When Daddy's eyes alighted on the suitcase, a line like a crooked road crossed his forehead. "How long has this been here?"
"I dunno. Daddy, look!" Chloe walked into the case and spread out her arms to demonstrate its roominess. "Look, Daddy, it's big!"
"Yeah, Chlo. What is it? A castle? A space rocket?"
"No, it's the sea. And sometimes it's a bed."
"Well, that's shiok, isn't it? Sibeh shiok! It can be anything you want it to be."
Mummy appeared in the doorway, her face so irritated that it looked like crumpled origami paper. "But, Simon, I've made dinner specially…"
Daddy stepped away from the suitcase, moved towards Mummy, and his voice dipped. "Vanessa, your eyes look…"
"Sparkling? Pretty?" Mummy's voice was sharpening into a little point. "Oh, I know how much you're dying to pay me a compliment!"
"You've been drinking, lah. You shouldn't drink alcohol when you look after Chlo. I know you're feeling sad about your Mum, but that's rabak."
"It's Chloeee, not 'Chlo', and for goodness' sake, it was only one little glass of beer! You try slaving away in a hot kitchen in these temperatures! I was trying to make a nice dinner for you! And you know the air con's broken."
'So why not use the fan, lah?'
"I do use the fan, but… Oh, what's the…"
Daddy strode past Mummy, pulled Chloe out of her suitcase, lifted her up into his arms and carried her to the living room sofa.
Chloe was often a little overwhelmed by the physical presence of her father, and this was such an occasion. Sometimes he would sit on the floor next to her, like a huge boy with shiny black hair, and it felt like being in the shade of a friendly hill. Chloe would find it hard to speak, and she'd stare at him until he started to laugh.
"What are you looking at, ah?" he'd say. "Didn't Mummy tell you it's rude to stare? You're not a little ankle-biter anymore, you're a young lady."
But this time, sitting on the sofa, Chloe was too concerned to be tongue-tied. "Where did you go this time, Daddy?"
He was smiling again. "KL, Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong…"
"That was a long way, Daddy!"
"Yes, it was. I'm very tired. Now I need to lepak."
"I made you a picture, Daddy."
"Thanks. Want to go get your storybook?"
"But what about dinner?" Mummy interrupted, more forcefully this time as she came into the room. "It's going to get cold!"
"Thank you, but I'm not hungry anymore."
A few seconds later, the door to the master bedroom slammed, and Chloe realised that Mummy was on the other side of it. There came a peculiar sound, rather like a wail, then silence.
Chloe ran to her own room to fetch her favourite book, but by the time she got back to the sofa, Daddy was out on the balcony, frowning down at the floodlit swimming pool. Chloe had seen that expression on his face before, when they were on a beach, and they'd come across the corpse of a deadly sea snake.
He swivelled his gaze around to her. "Be a good girl, Chlo. Mummy's going through a hard time right now. Tell her I'll call her."
"But where are you going, Daddy?"
"To visit a friend. See you soon. Bye-bye."
With that, he walked out exactly the way he'd walked in, still in his work clothes and clutching his travelling case.
Chloe went to her suitcase and leaned in against its comforting inner wall, thinking of their family holiday in Borneo. Daddy had talked a lot on that trip. He'd shown her orangutans and a pygmy elephant and flowers that could eat bugs, and he'd laughed and smiled the entire time. Mummy had even giggled sometimes. And looked much younger.
Daddy had taught Chloe how to float on her back in the sea, supporting her with his large hands. He'd shown her how to relax her body and entrust its weight to the water, demonstrated how to let the current nudge her gently to and fro. Leaning against the inside of the suitcase, Chloe tried to imagine that she was giving herself to a soothing vertical sea.
When Daddy reappeared at the apartment three days later, he looked his usual calm, smiling self.
"Oh, thank God, darling!" Mummy exclaimed. "I'm so relieved to see you! Where have you been? I've been frantic with worry! Why on earth didn't you phone?" She rushed towards him, then jerked backwards as if she'd hit a force field. "You- You smell of perfume!"
Daddy walked past Mummy, further into the flat. "You're crazy," he said in a humorous tone. "Why you so blur? This is gong gong only lah."
"I'm not imagining it! I said, you smell of perfume. It's… flowery, for God's sake."
Daddy looked as though he were viewing a sea snake again. "I don't know what you want from me."
Chloe sniffed the air. She couldn't smell anything, but then, she didn't really know what perfume smelled like.
Mummy had that sea-beast look again. A hundred micro-flickers were hijacking her face, making her appear as though things were restructuring themselves just beneath the surface. Seeing her anguish made Chloe feel like flinching as well. And yet, there was also a determination about Mummy. As when a flying ant throws itself at a light bulb, and there's only one conceivable outcome. "Hm… What could it be? A little something by Kenzo? Anna Sui? Or maybe Jo Malone? It's smeared all over you! And to think I used to believe you were sweet and loving! I used to think you were so sensitive! But you're enjoying playing games with me!"
Daddy walked a few paces, then turned around. "I can't put up with much more of this. You and your delusional mind. You're crazy lah! I feel like I'm living in that old Elvis song. I buay tahan."
"Well, I'll suppose you'll have to go, then, won't you. To Sandeee."
"What the- I told you, lah, again and again, Sandy is a business contact!"
When Mummy had done some shouting and Daddy had rushed around the flat grabbing things and throwing them into a bag and then Mummy had stopped shouting and started weeping and Daddy had stopped saying anything at all, Chloe started crying, huge juddering sobs because she could feel it, she could feel it, Daddy was going away and he might never come back, and then Daddy left the flat without saying goodbye to her properly and Mummy sagged onto the sofa and slumped there clutching her head and Chloe felt so exhausted that she could hardly move. Nevertheless, she made her way to her suitcase and stood looking at it.
She remembered something Daddy had said. "Staircases in buildings that I don't know are fun. They're exciting! Much more than elevators. Like the pictures of winding paths in your picture books, Chlo – you never know where they might lead."
It would be great if there were a staircase inside her suitcase, a shadowy stairwell for her to descend. She would jump down the steps bravely, and they would lead her away into other realms. They could be heading anywhere at all, and she wouldn't mind, as long as it was somewhere else, somewhere nice, where people were kind to one another, and her parents would be happy once again.
Lovely things would be waiting for her at the bottom: a pair of flippers to wear at the beach, her favourite tangy sweets and a costume doll of a Thai temple dancer, like the one Daddy had promised to bring her.
Chloe closed her eyes and thought hard, and she could see the steps, stretching dimly down into the darkness.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023