By Lee Jing-Jing
You used to bake. Anything and everything. Pies, laden with brandy-soaked fruit. Lovely, light sponges that disappeared with a soft nudge of the tongue. Loaves of bread, twisted and thick, dusty with flour or else shining with glaze. You rose early every Saturday, shuffled out of the bedroom while the birds did their rounds, calling from the branches outside our window while I yawned and inched into the small, warm space you left behind. A little later I would wake, stretching, to a hot fog of smells. Sweet, heavy smells that ran over the square of kitchen and filled our little flat. I would wake and walk in to you, standing by the counter, hot coffee in hand as you watched your baking cool.
That last time, it was at my request. Something you hadn't tried before. A round, steamed cake - one my mother made for me when I was ten and ill and sulky with the mumps. We were in bed, cozy, with our paperbacks. I had pulled at your bit of the blanket and asked, Could you, would you?
"How? What did it taste like?"
"Eggy. And not very sweet."
You'd raised an eyebrow, "Eggy?"
"Yes. And it's a very light yellow in colour. And it was spongy."
"Eggy and spongy. Alright ... " You smiled and leaned your back into me.
The next morning I had stumbled into the kitchen, having forgotten about last night, blinked as you carved out a tender, perfect slice and fed it into my mouth.
That was almost a year ago. I remember now, how sick you had gotten the day after. At first I had thought it had been from the cake. Felt sure it was nothing more than a stomach cold. Foolish. Remembering, I cannot help but laugh out loud. The sound comes out strange, strangled. One of our neighbours, a little old lady who always seems surprised to see me - too tall, too angmoh for these parts, stops to smile. I return it, wondering at the effort of it, the muscles rigid around my mouth as I push at the door of your favourite bakery. The first time you brought me there, you told me you had known the place since you were a child, and I pictured you, five years old, tiptoeing to pick out a soft, sugared roll. Every week, we would stop by on the way to the market and look at the cakes on display. One of them would catch your eye and you'd spend the rest of the afternoon poring over your richly coloured cookbooks, your fingers dancing over the instructions to sift, fold, powder. There is, you always said, a cake for every occasion. Now, instead of the mixing bowls, instead of the gleaming racks and battle-scarred bread boards, instead of all that, are tins of enriched milk stacked on the kitchen counter, huge canisters of protein powder which you so hate, and a blender. White, plastic, plain. Ugly, but necessary for the concoctions I make for you every morning and afternoon. A bell chimes as I enter and walk across the green, floral tiles, faded and lined from years of use. The one customer, an elderly Chinese man wearing a short-sleeved shirt and murky gray trousers, looks up in the middle of pacing the whole length of the glass display. He stares at me for a second, then walks back and starts the whole business again.
Behind an old-fashioned cash register, the proprietress, silver haired and aproned, turns and looks up. Her hands, which she places before her, are small and covered with a fine layer of white. I see that she recognizes me. How nice, she had said, when I was putting in my request for the words, "Happy Lunar Eclipse" to be written across in icing.
"Hi, I'm here for my cake." I hand my receipt over to her and she takes it, looking at me over her gold rimmed glasses.
"Hello, yes, we have it ready." She nods and goes into the back where someone else is working, starts up a conversation in Mandarin.
The man in the corner has armed himself with a tray and a pair of tongs taken from the stack at the shop's entrance. He stoops to look in at the rows of single-serving cakes, invariably decorated with colourful piping and sprinkles of chocolate rice. Then he straightens himself and turns to look at me, smiling.
"Picking something for my granddaughter." He says, in clear, unhesitating English. "Her Ma's bringing her over to visit."
I say nothing, only smile back in return.
"You have children?" He asked.
I learned a long time ago to know that the locals thought nothing of asking personal questions. Did so with a warmth and a genuine curiosity which made me answer right back, surprising myself the first time.
"No," I say, thinking about the names you said you liked. Lara, for a girl. Mark, if it's a boy.
"Oh. But you're married?" He asked, his head slightly inclined.
"Yes. Just, not yet … " I give another smile, as best as I can. He is about to say more when the lady returns with a plastic bag. I am so relieved I break out into a grin and am about to take the package from her when she sets it down on the counter and lifts the lid of the cardboard box.
"Here it is," she says, pushing it toward me, the red of the delicate piping bright against the frosting. "Okay?" She asks, smiles.
Yes, I say, murmur my thanks and goodbye.
"Candles are inside," she adds. "Byebye."
I take the bag from her, careful not to let it tip sideways and turn to go. Behind me, the man clears his throat, asks the lady for some help please, he couldn't quite decide.
I check my watch as I walk home. Just past six. Over an hour to go. The birds are already calling out, squabbling for space in the thick trees. I look up and watch as a few scanty clouds make their way quickly across the blue. Fallen leaves, caught by a sudden gust, rustle, gather red and brown, around my shoes. It takes me less than ten minutes to walk back and soon, I am unlocking the front door. I call out, like I do every time I come home. And as with every single time, you call back, muffled, through the walls.
"I'm home!" Around you, I am cheerful, light. Jaunty, even. Around you, I have to be. I fill a glass with water straight from the kitchen tap and gulp it down. Get myself together before I go in and see you. Because even though it has been months now, being away for just a moment, an hour, makes me forget.
That first session at the hospital, I watched the young nurse, shaky and unsure, jam the needle in your arm, one, two, three times before she finally got it right. You had your eyes closed but your face was expressionless. Remained the same way throughout. The machine cranked up, wound on slowly, achingly. Soon you started to shiver. Said you were cold. I gathered blankets, heaped them on top of you. And still they hadn't been enough. You shook for two hours. Shook through it straight so that you were spent at the end of it. You fell asleep on the car ride home and I carried you in, got you under the covers. I made sure you were asleep before I went to the second bathroom, bent myself over the toilet and retched. Then I sat on the cold tiles until I heard you cough, and call out for me. Your voice had sounded like a dream.
That same evening, your friends came over. Yan, whom you had grown up with, brought out a dark gateau, presented it with a flourish and sang, "Happy first chemo, darling!"
I watched you stop. But then your eyes lit up and you laughed and clapped along with the rest of them. I just stood and watched, blistering with anger. You took a few bites, cautious little bites, before the nausea set in. After an hour, everyone exchanged goodbyes and hugs. I offered to see them out. As soon as we were a little way from the apartment, I grabbed Yan by his collar and started rattling him. I think I shouted, "Happy first chemo? Are you mad?"
Someone held me back then but it took a few moments for it to sink in. When I stepped back, I saw that Yan's face was flushed, his jaw tight. He gripped my shoulder and said, "Will, It's alright. It's alright," all the while looking everywhere else but at me.
Back inside you were already asleep. I quieted myself. Watched you as you breathed, your face luminous from the moon's soft glow.
I busy myself now, putting everything away. The cake in the fridge, my wallet and keys on the dining table covered with information leaflets, and support books dog-eared and worn at their spines. Then I walk the fifteen steps. That's how many it takes for me to get to you. From the moment I cross the threshold and get to where you are. Lying in bed, buried beneath the blanket, pallid, doll-like. I enter the room, feeling the red creep up my face. You look like a stranger. As if someone had replaced you in the little time I had been away. Taken over, so that a girl, shrunken and pale, with a scarf wrapped around her bare head in place of your rich, dark hair, is lying in our bed, watching me as I enter the room. Every time I go away and come back again, I feel I am trespassing, intruding into someone else's home. This is not our home. Not my place. Not our things, the countless inconsequential things that two people can accumulate in five years. Five years worth of books, clothes, bits of the beach - sand and stones and shells - in bottles. And photos taken with a blind hand, our faces, full of light, pressed next to each others'. Where's Elise, I think while I stand in the doorway. But the minute I get close and you reach up to run your hand over my hair, reach up and pull me in with your small hands and look straight into me with your dark eyes, I see you again. You're right there. Hidden beneath a mask of pale. You're in there.
"Hey baby, how is it outside?"
"Was okay.. a bit of wind though. We're going to have to watch the eclipse through the window, okay? Can't risk you catching a cold ..." I lean in, kiss you.
"Whatever you say ..." You return to your book and I get into the rhythm of fussing over your blankets, the pillows piled behind your head, before you shoo my hands away, tell me to take a rest, I've had a long day.
I sigh and relent, grab one of the many books stacked by the bed and let myself sink in next to you. I open it up at a page but simply stare at it, at one sentence, letting it run in front of my eyes over and over again. Soon, I hear you breathing deeply and look around to see you dozing, an index finger stubbornly marking the page where you last read. I sit up as the sky fires up into a brilliant mix of orange and purple, while dusk slowly sets in. Slowly steal out of bed and into the kitchen for the cake and everything else that we need.
When I come back, you're already up.
"Is it time?" You ask.
"Soon," I say, looking at my watch. "Just ten minutes to go."
I set about putting the box in front of you, laid out on a old plaid sheet we used to picnic with. I lift up the lid and we both lean in for a peep.
There had just been enough space for the words. 'Eclipse' had been curved into a smile, just at the edge of the creamy frosting. You laugh, tell me to put the candles in and light them up. So I do. We wait a little while more, watch as a dark shadow starts to creep in on the full moon and an amber sets in on the silvery white, until, eventually, a dusty ochre has taken its place. Until all that's left in the twilight is a crimson sphere radiating a dull blush from within.
"Look." You whisper, then blow out the flames.
I nod and reach for the knife, carving a straight line down the middle of the cake. And then another. Then I pass it over. A tender, perfect slice, onto your plate.
"Oh, red velvet," you say. "We've never had this before."QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010