By Tham Yoke Peng
We met in All Souls Church while looking for God but found each other instead – four lonely Singaporeans in cold foggy London. From the start, the friendship was forged by homesickness.
There we are in the photo, standing from right to left: Ken Tong and Hanling sharing some forgotten joke, myself looking like a dead octopus slung between two poles and Xenia Lo with the smile gracing this month's issue of Cosmopolitan.
Hesitantly I put my hand on the brass handle of the glass door. A woman in a high-collared knit dress stared at me. The black did nothing for her sallow complexion and the ribbed knit ploughed down her sides like panels on a barrel. It took a while before it registered - I was looking at myself.
I tried to ease down the collar with my finger. God, I could hardly breathe. Fashionistas advise the knit dress for an illusion of length. Elongation should help. Illusion, better. What is a little suffering? Sucking in my tummy, I pushed the door open.
The thought of seeing the gang unnerved me.
Who is rich?
After ten years, friends and enemies 'moved on', carried by time and tide to different destinies. Ken secured a job in a multinational finance company and disappears regularly into a stock market time warp. Hanlin struggles in the London art scene with his ocean on canvas. Xenia lives in the tabloids and I live in a dusty library, where my honours in English Literature got me.
It felt like Judgment Day, especially when I think about meeting Xenia and our last good-bye. Xenia - the girl who wore Oxfam castoffs like they were runway designs. When we were room mates, I categorised the boys for her convenience. The intellectual ones were useful for helping out with homework and projects, the dashing ones for dinner parties and the practical ones for the days when your shower leaked. But the truth was – I was greener than Shrek and Kermit combined. Which category did Hanlin enter?
I think Hanlin attracted us because he was sort of unreachable. He lived in a world of his own, a given artist's prerogative. If we needed a good listening ear, he was there but he never expected anything in return and we were given to understand that we should not expect anything from him either.
Xenia never graduated - by the second varsity year, Eve's International offered her a modelling contract. Studying is not my thing, I remember she said. That week, everything changed. Xenia disappeared to God knows where and Hanlin was nowhere to be found either. I put two and two together, cried into a pillow and went on with my life as if nothing happened.
There were some tears when Xenia packed to leave.
She looked pale and drained, as if it hurt. She ran a finger across the grain of the worn oak table and said, "Tell Hanlin."
She had no idea at all what she was doing to me. "Tell him yourself," I walked out of the room before she did. When I got back, the room felt so empty, I could hear the echo of my own thoughts. Just like that, Xenia left and never looked back.
"Joy! How have you been?"
"Hanlin?" My heart was pumping when I heard that familiar voice again.
"My old flame, wow, that's some weight loss!" His hand lightly touched the small of my back as I sat down. "Drool on," I laughed and relaxed.
"He can't make it. Wall Street's burning."
"Still on the shelf?"
"I dust myself regularly."
Hanlin laughed. There was a depth about his laughter which was very comforting, like it came from the sea in the belly of a concho shell. I know he is always laughing with me, never at me.
We felt Xenia's presence even before we saw her. She stood at the doorway in a silk tunic skimming her body like cream. When she spotted us, she smiled and glided over to our table, trailed by a million eyes.
"We are in the Glamour League. Behave now, the paparazzi's somewhere…" Hanlin whispered. His lips brushed against my hair.
"They'll probably think we are a couple of over the hill models," I decided to join in the fun, intoxicated by the smell of his CK One cologne.
When Xenia kissed me on both cheeks, I winced and hoped that it did not show.
"A long time indeed," she started. We traded histories. She did not marry but the tabloids were right, she is living with her manager. No kids, yet, though. Too inconvenient.
The waiter served our dinners. I had a light prawn salad with a Thai chilli dressing – in keeping with my low carbo diet. The salad disappeared swiftly but the wine seemed to last forever. Wine's calorie free, right? It better be. The glass magically refilled itself every time I emptied it.
The evening passed in frivolous chatter – who did what, where and why. Actually, it was mostly about Xenia because I did not have that much 'who did what, where and why' happening in my life. Finally, Xenia said she had to run – her manager's waiting and she, ha, ha, needed beauty sleep. We exchanged smothering hugs.
While leaning at the doorway waiting for my cab, the wine spread through my veins and brought on courage.
"You knew I loved you then."
Grammatical error. I mean I love him now.
His eyes held mine steadily.
"You're drunk. But if you did not know, you were loved too, in a special way."
"Really... All... seventy... kilos of me… in a very special wey?" My speech slurred and I tried to steady myself.
"I thought you had let go of that by now. Is this the only way you can define yourself?"
"I thought the cool Hanlin loved no one. But then Xenia got you of course and oh yes, we mustn't forget – and DUMPED you... "
"That's what you think. "
A curtain of fog hung above us.
"Enlighten me then."
Stubborn people dig hard to find knowledge of what could have been and learn to live to live with it later.
"Some things are better left unexplained."
"Not all things," I pushed.
"Remember the week before Xenia left the campus?"
"The week of rendezvous?"
"Some rendezvous. Your friend had an abortion. She was afraid of what you would think of her and so sought my help instead of yours. We drove to a private clinic in a seedy part of London to find this Indian doctor because he would it for a hundred quid, no questions asked. But then she bled for days and the outing stretched to a week and became your rendezvous. Now you know the truth. Happy? The choice was never between the two of you."
The street was subdued and I was suddenly more sober than I wanted to be.
"You never saw us you know: Xenia, myself or Ken. It was always you, your diets, your detox programs, your exercise regimes. Let it go, Joy. There are weightier issues."
We stood in the doorway, separated by unbridgeable silence.
"Look, I got to go, my friend's waiting. We'll meet again." With that, he ran across the street to a figure under a navy umbrella. Hanlin put his arm across the man's shoulders. He must have said something funny because they threw back their heads and laughed.
Just then the wind blew the umbrella upward. The street light illuminated their faces and I saw Ken.
Rain fell in smithereens that day, stabbing as hard as truth.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006