Monday, December 17, 2007


by Ari Methi

Sham's arms and hands twirl high over his head, darting flirtatious eyes at us. "I dreaming Egyptian belly dancers lah. Why you kacau me?" He is teasing. He knows our salary, like his, falls far short for such luxury trips.

"Wake up!" Din had shouted at Sham earlier, with a point, a light elbow jab to his ribs.

"Oi!" in a heartbeat space Sham had straightened his jacket, wiped the corners of his lips, missing a spot (I don't tell him, leaving the caked spittle on his beard fodder for a good laugh later, he's good for that, always) and began his dance.

Sham -- quite the squirrel -- proceeds to advertise he has managed another publisher 'sponsored' Egypt holiday this year. His 'creativity', condoned by our superior, is promoted by their silence. It is easy to see why as Sham paves annual 'study trip' for them. I hope not to hear where our betters are going again.

Hawaii. Sham declares, promptly describing grass skirted girls with ample chest, bare thigh and the 'entertainment' they provide with gusto. Sham has stooped teasing, he's seducing now.

Din succumb, listens rapt to Sham's return to tales of nubile young girls with smooth supple skin in shimmering skirts 'of light olive tones and western features whose hips move, sway and thrust better than dangdut superstars, better than Bollywood stars even'. I see Egypt in Din's eyes, now saucers that bare his desires.

We three late thirties men, under the pall of yellowed florescent light, look nearer to fifty. Confined to a room whose white partition has turned dusky with age, furnished in dog-eared furniture and devoid of any sense of time or place by want of any window are tasked with sanctioning next years school 'workbooks'. My voice sounds closer to sixty as I hear it.

"Our meetings have to restart. Breaks over. Need to get back to work lah." I chuckle to diffuse my interruption. "If we wanted to work, we wouldn't be here lah," Sham and Din chorus the unwritten motto. I add my laughter to their's with just enough zest, lest they think I take my job seriously. I am still laughing falsely when the next publisher knocks on the door.

Our drudge through the river of publishers resumes. Each drone their products as vital- that students need them. The same spiel rerun in infinite ways, buy my books. Listening to them I feel my brain shrivel to a prune -- the seedless type. They needn't try so hard.

All their titles will be bought, by us or someone we tell to. The directive on my orientation years ago was clear, support the printing industry. Children learn what they want anyway, my then superior preached. "Publishers are flies" she had added between giggles, "that infest our halls every year after budget day." What that makes us, I wonder? If they are flies ...?

I tune from that memory, to visit my fantasy refuge. Where tranquil beneath cloudless deep azure skies, I am sheltered by swaying palm trees, worries are drained away through toes sinking in soft giving sand, leaving me solace to savour sensual sea breezes whispering pass my skin. This is my Hawaii, Din and Sham can keep their grass skirted girls.

Then Serenity steps into the room and introduce herself into my life.

Her model silhouette, ebony silk hair and soft eyes framed by a face touched by half the lines women a decade younger barely begin her. "Call me Serene." slender wrist, soft palm, she offers a hand untouched by manual labour. She holds my hand longer than she does the others.

Serene's presentation declares she comprehends the syllabus. Innocently, she has shamed Sham. In breath and depth her knowledge exposes him as charlatan, pretender to his duties. So he attacks.

Her parries are nonchalant. Each reply bites Sham conscience, every concession made carves away pounds of his pride. Serene’s grace and dedication shames Sham, he rants after she leaves, labels her "Serene the Shark". I don't listen, feeling a void waxing within me; it's there for the rest of the day.

Our responsibilities discharged, adding further 'burden of knowledge' to next year's schoolbags, we end our workday. Leaving the room I finally pocket Serene's calling card. I switch off the lights, committing her cell number to memory as I go.

I dial her number. My emptiness wanes before her voice.

Three months of being together and the days have crept to the festival season. The subject of where either of us will be for the holidays is mutually made off limits by our common silence. One more matters for us to skirt around. She doesn't ask if I'm married, I don't ask about the stretch marks around her navel.

Serene, she doesn't call anymore. Once light with interest, hollow indifference now answers my calls to her. We whisper our feelings to each other when we meet (rarely now, after our first month of passion); her words sound distant, more to convince herself than declarations. She is pulling away.

"There's a book launching tonight," she suddenly calls to say, in the manner of one calling a pet. I agree to go, to be close to her, better to be an appendage over being forgotten. We meet at the venue, a popular upmarket nightspot. She sashays in with me in tow. I hope my desperation does not show, and if it does, not too much.

"You need a holiday," Yee tells me, obviously noticing my unease. Serene, who had introduced us, still well within earshot, turns and moves away. My eyes follow her to the writer, Jac, whose book is being launched. I notice Yee watching too. I am not surprised when Serene orbits Jac. Yee hands me a glass of wine, offers a cigarette and cocks his head towards the balcony. I take the cue.

The night air on the balcony is crisp, cold. I smoke my first cigarette in years. "She isn't easy to be with is she?" Yee probes. His soft, chubby (with a permanent cherubic smile) face lets him gets away with asking the question.

"You need a break dude, you are bone tired and worn out by her" presumptuous ... if the words weren't true. Yee continues, my silence giving him ample space to, "Everybody needs a life; she has a knack of making people dedicate theirs to her. When they do, she looks elsewhere. Why? Because one can't have a life while living theirs for her! ha ha ha hah” his laughter is braced with sad, bitter, humour.

"Did she dump you?! Is that why you are saying all this?!" breaking my silence. I hear my own raised voice, its defensive, weak-the voice of a child fearing his mother's rejection.

"Dump? Dude, she never allows her conscience to be soiled by doing that. She finds ways to make people leave her," calmly delivered, as though talking to himself.

He offers another cigarette as a peace offering. I take it, return to my silence and smoke slowly, the confrontation over. From the balcony we see Serene laughing, giggling to attract Jac. She once saw me worthy of such attention.

"Dude, when you decide to live again, call me ..." he offers his calling card, I see he works on a cruise liner "... can't promise you much, but my ships sailing to Langkawi next weekend, I can arrange a 'working trip' for you. Do some light work and you can sail for free."

"Why are you doing this?" my suspicions stirred by how casually we met, this strange conversation and now his sudden offer.

"If you think she set all this up, forget it. She didn't know I was coming. But I do need help on the ship, and for however she is, she is a good judge of character." He lightly punches my shoulder and forces down the rest of his wine -- to prevent himself from saying more?

Yee offers no further explanation. I don't pursue the matter, volunteering instead to refill our wine glasses. Making my way back to the balcony from the bar the host tells me Serene has left. Back on the balcony, as Yee takes his wine glass, I accept his offer.

True to his word, a phone interview the next day, an exchange of details and I'm a crew of Yee's ships for the coming weekend. The week passes quickly, my mind numb from 'work' without a call from Serene.

Yee is right, it is light work. My tag says 'steward' but my role is more of an Usher, deemed by the hospitality manager as appropriate due to my 'good English'. My thoughts are heavy though as I go about my duties. Yee, who I am deputised to as partner Usher, doesn't pry.

We are assigned to the main event, a fashion show cum competition that takes the majority of the two nights. We join the models after the first show in the ships nightclub. There, under rapid flashing lights and music too loud, Yee reveals.

"The liner provides the models, the fashion schools (there are so many nowadays) hold their students shows on board. The models later come to the club to get noticed by the high rollers from the casino (which the liner can only operate in international waters and its main source of income) and everybody gets what they want."

The school gets a venue for their shows, the models regular work, the liner passengers. Yee and I free trips as usher, and now chaperon. An arrangement so transparent, obvious, clear and far removed from the facade of my work. I luxuriate in its honesty and celebrate living life at face value, reveling the night away with abandon.

We call on Langkawi by morning and I take Yee's advice, checking into the same beach front resort as him for a day stay. We agree to meet up in the lobby after sunset-at seven-to leave for the ship together. He finally mentions Serene as we part at the elevator. "Did she cross your mind last night?" the etched polished metal doors closes before I can answer, leaving me staring at my scarred reflection.

In my room I draw a bath, turn on my cell phone and call her. Her voice asks me to leave a message, its tone as when we last spoke. I put the phone down after the 'beep'. A missed call is message enough between loved ones. Sinking into my bath, I allow the lightness from soaking in near scalding water rise to my head, I wait for her to call back, falling asleep, still waiting.

I dream of her, of work, of life, with many other thoughts, each a woven rope. All mangled into a tightening Gordian knot, threatening to tear itself apart under its own strain, me waiting at its side for a sword to cut it before it does. But I am no Alexander. I awake feeling suffocated by the room, in water long gone cold.

Stepping out from the bath I check my phone, no calls. I leave my room hoping for relief, from feeling cornered and head for the beach. I reach it still restless, uneasy in the company of families having picnics, children frolicking between the waves, couples cozy together on sun beds. Happy people, people who are not alone, who have lives and live it. Why do I resent them so?

I keep walking along the beach, away from them, from life, and watch sand pass briskly under my feet. My unease, this tightness inside that makes my head swirl and fingers tremble, if only it would go as easily as the sand. I wish to run but my breaths are short rasps. I lose track of time. I hear her music first.

"... don't carry the world on you shoulders ..."

A holiday taker jogging with an iPod strapped to her arm. In the prime of her youth, sensibly clad in loose t-shirt over swim wear, she’s passes me from behind. She turns, glances quizzically at me, continues a distance, stops and begins jogging on the spot with earphones out, the flicks of her short dyed blond hair catching the rays of the setting sun somewhere behind me. I look to my feet again, avoiding her, afraid to infect her with my misery and continue walking.

"Don't be sad lah." She flashes a smile, still jogging on the spot as I near her. "You in paradise mah." With that she picks up her pace, and continues her jog, taking her tunes away.

"... you'll be alright ...”

Unexpected kindness, unexplained, unasked but given freely. I observe her, replaying the event in my mind as I do, until she is around the cove and out of sight. Stock still, upright where she spoke to me, the thoughts behind her words surface, rise above my distress.

Forcing my breath to deepen, I take the kernel from her act and raise my eyes to the horizon. I turn to see that which I had missed, taken for granted and abused. I begin my walk back.

Steady measured steps under blue skies burnt by the setting sun, listening to palm fronds rustling unhurried in harmony to waves lapping sand. Breathing in sea breeze, I return to the resort past steps in the sand.

Past my steps. Steps that lead only to me.

Monday, September 03, 2007


by Xiang

His watch pointed to 12 noon. He was just on time. He was well-known for his habitual lateness, but with her, he was always miraculously punctual. They had a lunch date at Mum's Place, a restaurant well known for local delicacies, and the place where he first held her hand. Knowing her, she should be there waiting by now. His feet felt light as he walked towards the destination, a smile carved on his face. Meeting her has always been the highlight of his day.

Thinking back, they were not the most likely of two people in the world to become a couple. She had a tomboyish demeanour around her, frank and straightforward. And she was not one to take to fashion or make up. Not the kind of dainty ladies that he used to hope his girlfriend would be. He had always eyed the pretty girls in dresses and long hair. She only wore T-shirt and jeans.

There were often times when he wondered how it was that he came to be with her. They were not in the same faculty and never had same classes. She stayed in campus, and could be seen bustling all over it organizing events anytime of the day. He was the kind who stayed off campus and would only appear if he feels like attending classes, not that it was that frequent anyway.

However, on one rare occasion when he did come for class, he stepped out of the lecture hall only to collide head on with her running late for class. She bought him dinner that night, to apologise. They became friends after that. And much more after that.

She was there as he expected. She looked beautiful as always. He has learnt to appreciate her natural beauty, without makeup or trendiest of fashion, but it always warmed his heart when he looked at her. Being with her this past one year, he had come to appreciate her as she is. Dainty ladies? They probably wouldn't be as fun to hang out with as with her. He felt comfortable with her, just being himself.

He hid his right arm behind his back, concealing the flowers he had picked up on the way. She always said she never fancy flowers, but when she got them, it was as if he had given her a diamond ring. The way her face just sort of shone with happiness. He loved seeing that. He loved making her happy. And just thinking of that, his lips began to twitch upwards. It's so easy to smile, just thinking of her.

"Hello." He greeted her.

"Hello." She answered, with a polite smile. Then she looked away again, to some undefined focus in the space before her.

His mood weighed down a bit. Something didn't feel right. Other days, she would have leapt up to him, prancing around like a little girl and beaming all over as she replied 'hello'. Today... it felt formal, cold. Yes, she has always been fastidious about punctuality, but she had never been seriously angry with him on that before. Normally she would just nag him half-jokingly... Today, she looked more distracted than angry.

"What's wrong?" He sat down beside her as he had always done when she was feeling down. She looked a bit startled and shifted slightly further from him. Hurt pierced him like a knife in his heart.

"Do I know you?" She asked gingerly, with an apologetic look on her face. A kind of numbness sank in. It was the kind you feel when one receive news that someone close had passed away. Or the kind you get as you grazed pass a lorry on a highway in a narrow escape.

"I am waiting for someone here. It says so on my diary. This place, this time, today. But I can't remember who. I woke up this morning, and I couldn't remember anything at all. Then, I remembered some. I remembered a case when I was in high school, a girl suddenly lost her memory. Just like that. She spent three years to relearn everything from scratch again. I remember my name, I remember my parents. I remember half a dozen people who greeted me just now. But I can't remember who I was waiting for. And I can’t remember anything about him."

He sat there quietly, listening to her, not sure how to react. It was as if, like in the movie, a hideous alien had smuggled into his chest, slowly tearing it to shreds as it struggled to get out. A form of helplessness trying to get out. "She had forgotten me." he thought to himself.

"It felt as if I had lost something precious, important. And I couldn't find it again. A sort of emptiness ate at my heart. I found diaries written about this person. Full of happiness, fear of uncertainty and sometimes a little heartbreak now and then. But there was no name. I don't know this person that I felt so strongly about." She went on, eyes still focusing before her.

An urge to tell her that he was the one she was waiting for bubbled in his throat. Maybe she would remember. But on what basis was she to trust him if he told the truth? There was no name. She had mentioned heartbreaks. He would not want her to remember the heartbreaks she had regarding him. What about the happy memories? Those memories that he so treasured ...

"He must be someone very important to me. If so, why is it that he is the only one I forgot?" She was wondering out loud. He caught her eyes, deep with emotion, glistening moist, pining over the loss of someone she didn't know.

He remembered times when she cried. Their parents didn't approve of them being together. There were too many complications, they said. "She would not be happy if she married you," her parents said. His parents pointed out a lot of other girls that they deemed to be better, why choose this particular girl? And he had silently wished that she had never known him so that she would be happier. He would make himself go on without her, as long as she could be happy. Would she be happy? Seems not.

"It's strange." She smiled at him. "I don't know why I am telling you all this. I hardly talk to other people about my personal feelings, especially to someone I just met." She paused and looked into his eyes, with a sort of trust. "You just feel safe to talk to." When she smiled, her eyes looked like upturned crescents. He used to make her smile just to see that.

"Thank you for listening to a stranger rambling, I think I have to go now." She stood up, dusting her jeans. "It's been one hour since the appointed time, whoever it was must have already turned up and left by now." She said before walking away.

He panicked! If he let her leave, she wouldn't remember if he tried to ring her on the phone later. He jerked upright, and called after her. "Well, I've been listening to you for so long, I think I could be considered a friend? My name's Adrian, and you are?" He hurriedly offered his hand to her, but a bunch of flowers came out instead. He had forgotten them.

And she laughed. For a moment he was lost in her laughter, the usual carefree laughter, loud and clear. It always made him feel good when he made her laugh. She was still her, although she had forgotten him.

"Erm ... these flowers were for someone I'm going to meet ..." He rummaged through his brain for something convincing to say. "I think she's not coming today ... Would you, erm ... do me the honour of accepting them?"

"I can't ..."

"Really, I mean it. And you know what, I booked the table. It'll go to waste if I don't use it, and I seriously don't fancy eating alone. Would you care to join me for lunch?"

To his delight, she nodded.

She does not remember him, but he was determined to rebuild the relationship with her, even if it meant starting as friends again. He now knew that she was important to him, and he was as important to her, even if she didn't know it. He wanted to make her happy, just as he had tried all these years. For her, he was willing to take the chance.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Lost Laughter

by Ong Kar Jin

Inside the dilapidated house, the aroma of incense and ringing of prayers intertwined in the air. A question rang in the still atmosphere. " A diamond necklace?", asked Qalif to the man next to him. The two men rose from their prayers, and one bowed to Lord Ganesha. The candlelight revealed his skin to be as fair as Qalif's. " Yes, a diamond necklace. 24 karat I think.” he muttered through reddish-stained teeth.

"Eh machaan, it's pronounced carat. Anyway ... what you propose to do?". Grinning, Anirudha took the drawing of the necklace and crushed it in his gigantic fist. Slowly, painfully, as if in suspense, he opened his mouth. "We steal."

Sadly, all Qalif could bother about was just how foul Ani's breath was.

20 February 1989, Bukit Tunku.

The midnight sky glimmered with the radiant moonlight, its rays illuminating the bungalow ahead. There was a blue gate with flower motifs all over, and a withered, unkempt garden. The owners, a British couple were away. The two thirty-something sneaked towards the house, creeping like dieting women about to steal food from the forbidden fridge. Qalif was visibly distressed, perhaps still contemplating the consequences of this act. " Qalif! Stop whining or I'll hit you on the head!" Ani, on the other hand, was a block of cold ice: slippery, cool and fast to melt.

The pair worked their way through the useless alarms and fences of the Mat Salleh's house. They had toiled to obtain all the necessary information, concerning everything they could possibly think of. All courtesy of dear Mrs. Cornwell's maid. A quarter of the profit for her cooperation. Soon, they came to the one part they could not deal with: the dog.

Qalif was terrified of dogs. Ani wasn't exactly fond of them either. They were once chased by a mad mutt for half a mile, almost mauled, before help came through. This time, there would be no help. Nervously, Ani took their secret weapon, the bone. He waved it around, making sure the dog saw it, and threw it faraway. The naive canine ran after it. Unhindered, they made through everything else without much effort.

Finally, they made it to the dressing room. Qalif impatiently yanked open the drawer right below the make up accessories, as the maid had said. And for the first time in his life, he felt truly exalted. Their inexperienced eyes feasted on the shining gold chain, moreover, at the humongous sapphire. To them, it looked like heaven trapped in a priceless mirror.

In their triumph, they forgot about their debts, their miseries, their poverty, AND the fact that they were long overdue. To their horror, they heard sirens blaring in the night. The owners must have come back, and their maid had unwittingly chickened out. " Take it and run like a rampaging cow herd!" laughed Ani, attempting to cover his worry in stale jokes. Qalif did not respond. His face was blank, but he forced a wink with his scarred left eye. He was the serious one. It hadn't always been like that.

Qalif returned to reality. The harsh reality that they were no more than petty criminals trying to fill their stomachs. In that reality, his heart was thundering, in the midst of escape. Thump. They were out of the house, into the stolen Proton Saga. Thump. Ani stomped the accelerator, his fake driving license dangling below the rear-view mirror. Thump. The sirens were getting softer, they were outrunning them! Thump. They were on the slip road, in the bumpy hills. At the moment Ani decided to look back, a tree appeared into view. Qalif tried to take over, but it was too late.

BANG! The impact of the crash sent Qalif flying out of the car, and Ani hit his head against the cold metal. Qalif had injured his head and arm, but he miraculously still held on to the necklace. Meanwhile, Ani was still conscious, but he was trapped in the car, and was bleeding profusely. He would need Qalif's help.

A most uncharacteristic, ignoble thought sprang to Qalif's mind. He could take the necklace all for himself. He would take too long a time anyway to help Ani out. " Qalif, I'm stuck. Tambi, give me a hand!" The sirens could be heard in the distance, in a sharp crescendo. Ani was his friend! After all these years, would he forsake his one true friend? It was now or never. Ani saw his hesitation, and understood. He let out everything at the top of his voice, not with anger or a cry, but a laugh. Ani laughed, a cold, sharp laugh and Qalif could only look on, bewildered. Why was he laughing? The sirens could be heard too clearly now. Puzzled and desperate, he made his decision.

He ran. Just seconds after running, he immediately regretted his decision. Too late. Qalif ran, he ran away from all his grief, from his friend, from his jail, from his death, from his life...

22 February 1989, Anirudha's family's home.

" Oh dear Qalif! It is kind of you to visit us. Ani would rest at peace with you here! I told him not to mix with those gangsters! He should have stayed with you, you would have saved him..."

Qalif could only suppress an urge to hang himself. By reflex he changed the subject, and read the newspapers to lighten him up with more political hypocrites.

[ The Star, Sunday, 22 February 1989]


By L. Arathi

BUKIT TUNKU: A 36-year old Indian man's dead body was found in a slip road through the hills yesterday in the early morning. The man has been identified as M. Anirudha, a known triad member.

It is believed that the man was involved in the burglary of The High Commissioner Britian, Mr. Cornwell's bungalow. The purported burglar's last words were apparently spoken to Mr. Cornwell's maid: "Don't tell. Tolonglah." Their maid is now suspected of abetting crime.

Fascinatingly, the only thing stolen was a counterfeit necklace owned by Mrs. Cornwell. The necklace was very similar to the famous original Enchanteur necklace, and the difference cannot be told apart without professional expertise. Preliminary investigations also indicate a second accomplice, believed to be a ...

Qalif stared into the nothingness, and then he let out a laugh. He now knew the meaning of that cold, sharp laugh. Now, he no longer cared for anything. He laughed, mad he was. He laughed as if laughing was all he knew.

(Ong Kar Jin, at 14, was the youngest participant of the Silverfish Writing Programme.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Beneath the Picture

by Adrian Young

My son called me up and ask me to get him an old family photograph, I kept wondering what the hell was he up to now?

"Pa, I want to tell your story," my son tells me, there was something in his voice he was serious about this pet project of his.

He specifically asked for a photograph from one of our old photo albums. The old black and white photograph is at least 50 years old and has survived the many silverfish that infest our ancestral home. The picture shows a smiling family, as any family photograph should. Every picture should on the surface portray that impression for it to be considered a good picture. But beneath every picture lies a tale. Beneath this picture lies silent story that has been hidden for many years. A story that is never discussed. Much like in all old Chinese families traditions, nothing is spoken. Everything is dealt with within the family. Only what the family shows on the outside is important.

Beneath the smiles, the picture holds much. It is a story of jealousy, pain and hate. I really wonder who invented the line that blood was thicker than water. The Chinese family always keeps their dirty linen well hidden deep inside the closet. I look at the picture again, there is my aunty, whom we called Yee Che which means Second Sister, she is actually Ah Ma's younger sister, Next is my eldest sister Ling Ka. Who is now unmarried, and has devoted her entire life to taking care Ah Ma and Ah Pa. Now her legs are stiffening and she has to undergo yet another operation. Another headache. Next to her is my third sister, the shortest of all my sisters, we used to call her "3 inch nail" in Cantonese or most commonly, Pik Ka. Next to her is my second sister, I was very close to her as she was the one who was in charge of taking care of me, when I had measles. She has a birthmark painted by God over her face. We now called her Maureen, her Catholic name from when we attended a missionary school. Next to Maureen is Ah Ma.

Ah Ma, my mother, the dragon lady of the family, now reduced to aged baggage regarded as burden by every single person of the family. It's amazing how a mother can bring up nine children but not one is willing to take her. It came upon my shoulders to bear this burden, but it was my wife who suggested we took mother in. All she said was "We have two sons also Pete. One day we'll be in Ah Dak and Ah Yip's mercy". True. Mother has survived one world war, a few recessions and many family squabbles that would put some of Chinese television dramas to shame. Dad was the melancholic man, one who toiled and worked as if there was no tomorrow, whereas Ah Ma was the sanguine one who oiled our family business. She was the competent communicator, the people person, she organized lavished dinners during Chinese New Year, commanded the children and relatives, adopted children, servants alike with military precision. General Patton would have been proud to have her as an officer. Our family was very liberal. We were business people. We survived the war because we adapted. My mother did business with the Japanese during the war, that’s how we survived, all of us. She did business with the British when they came back. I remember how she would walk to the resident's office and do her stuff. She was known simply as Madam Yong, no fancy title no nothing. She didn't speak a word of English but somehow she managed to teach the Resident's wife the finer points of quilt work. At 96, she can still entertain Chinese New Year guests with rather candid stories of her golden years.

Ah Pa on the other hand, was one who would to bury himself in work. Without Ah Ma as second officer of the ship, Ah Pa's business might not have flourished so much. Maybe he was worn down because of his second business squabble, the one that I had to intervened in. He could have picked the eldest son, but he didn't. He picked me. For what reason I will never know, the business was being torn apart in two by my second uncle. When it comes to money, there is no such thing as water or blood, just cold hard cash and victory. I had to come all the way back from Australia, I had dreamt of becoming a teacher there but fate took a different turn for me. I settled the business dispute for Ah Pa at 21. Gone was my innocence. Mum has always been behind me after that

That's when the hate began, almost 30 years that dad passed away. That night, after the will was read, my family and I became public enemy number one. My eldest was in his teens, the youngest only 5. Even after 30 years, their hate and jealousy still survives, sibling love being less attractive than hate. My empire that I built by my own hands was torn to pieces. How did I survive that? The younger siblings in the picture are on the first row. I am the one on the right. Behind me is my eldest brother. The rest were all too young to know the truth, all they new was appropriate half truths. I had kept myself dumb on the facts, for the facts were much too hurtful. It is better for one to suffer than all to bear that pain. Ah Ma knew, maybe that's why she has decided to follow me. Until she draws her last breath, she says. I smile, for every year she lives she, my wife and I jokes, takes two years out of us. I looked at myself in the picture again. Although my youngest son looks like his mother, his zest, his nature reminds me of myself. One of my few hopes that I cling too now.

He should have been the pragmatist but he's the idealist. The eldest is everything he should be as a son. But the youngest is adrift. I lost that at 21. He'll lose it too, when reality weathers and drags his flying soul down back to Earth. Sad but true. He graduated in marine biology, when I would have rather he became a lawyer. Now he's left his job. Says he needs to find himself. What will I do with this son of mine? Not to mentioned that he has never once brought a girlfriend home unlike the eldest. My wife and I wonder.

"Pa, I want to tell your story."

My story? Where do I even begin? I think, turning my glance back to the black and white photograph lying on the coffee table, I can only shake my head and shudder at the thought.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


by Ari Methi

Damn! My boobs are still uneven! Ann swears at the mirror.

Again, she adjusts her bra padding. Several more tugs and pulls, they are almost right. A few strategic squeezes and touches later, they are perfect. Her pride, she smirks as the brassiere tops frilled edges are raised to peeks over her tank top. Putting on her peek-a-boo jacket completes her sales uniform and she steps out of the changing room to start work.

Wan, her colleague is hard at work, adjusting lingerie displays. All in stylish black, Wan had given up regaining her figure after the baby. Months of diet and gym had only buffed her up in all the wrong places. Nobody dared tell her she didn't look that good in the first place. The only reason she got the job was to make the fuller clientele feel better.

They needed it, "Etiquette" paid unabashed homage to higher specimens of the female race. Seductively posed nubile women dressed in the stores wares graced the walls as stained glass windows adorned cathedrals. Ann thought back to the small church in her fishing village in Borneo often when the posters raised this image in her head. Ann longed for home.

Wan motions Ann to check the appointment register on the cashier station. Opening to today's date she notes Michael has made another appointment. He has asked for Natasha again. Natasha is animated when Ann calls to remind her. Natasha talks excitedly about the big tip she is bound to get. Ann filters everything out except Natasha's confirmation. Inside she steadies herself for the day, as she feels it darkening in the sterile glow of the shop.

Wan attends to a pair of ladies. Giving the standard spiel as if it was new to her, she directs them to the imported section.

"These are from France here, Sicily and Spain to the left ... feel the fabric! There are no wires or frames. The stitches are artistically on the outside so you feel only gentleness.", Wan coos.
Ann watch the play unfold in the stage that is the shop. The usual men gawk at the window mannequin on their way to work as flitting interventions in the storefront forming the backdrop. Some have grown from curious to lust in their stares; some obviously covet the lingerie for themselves.

Wan continues her practice run. They won't be buying anything. They talk and touch the material as if they would. But Ann can tell. Their clothes may be the latest fashion, but it is without the fashion sense of the truly rich and sophisticated. They are also wearing their bra wrong.

The ladies continue talking to each other as if Wan isn't there. Tales of hang nails and gorging at boutique restaurants are told as life changing tragedies. A far cry from needing to eating grasshoppers (there were no fish after the trawlers came) and bathing with laundry detergent, Ann reminisces on her childhood. The ladies leave with faux farewells, utterly unawares of their good fortune, blasé about their blessings. Ann would feel anger if she did not envy them so.

The rest of the morning passes slowly as Ann sets herself the entrance.

"Can I show you something?" she repeats to prospective customers. She squeezes her shoulders together and bows slightly, exposing more of her cleavage than her five foot two frame already does. She scores some sales by selling herself this way.

None take up her offer to of showing them how the lingerie should be worn.

In between sales, Ann gossips with Wan about the latest happenings in the neighbouring shops. Changing room shenanigans and unexpected pregnancies tops the list again (what do you expect to happen when you put a group of twenty year olds who are surrounded by images of sexuality together for twelve hours every day, especially when they are busy only for six?). The more sobering subject of sales figures and management politics spices the gossip, but not too much.

Ann knows Wan is counting down to the appointment also.

And it arrives.

Natasha is early, her body is lithe, her movements graceful, her skin taunt and smooth, her face angelic. She wears her youth for all to see. Nineteen and beautiful, she is in a hurry for the world to know who she is. She squirrels herself in the back room, waiting to be called.

Michael arrives casually; the girl with him is no older than seventeen. Her name is Esi, she giggles coquettishly at the introduction. The sight of her next to the middle aged man makes Ann nauseas but ...
"What can I show you?" Ann starts, presenting herself again.

"Do you have anything new? Ranges that you haven't unpacked yet?" Michael oiled smooth voice answers. Esi grips his arm harder, pulling herself closer to him.

"This way please, Mr. Michael." Ann leads them to the "Galleria". Explaining how valued customers are allowed pre-launch views of new products.

Michael absorbs Ann's attention smugly. It has the desired effect on Esi, she is awed by the attention Michael receives and how such service is natural to him.

They arrive at the padded room. The lush padding exudes luxury and sophistication that barely suppresses its decadent origins; its true purpose is hidden thoroughly.

Michael inspects the new products displayed on the leather covered table. Ann drones the sales pitch of each product. He encourages Esi to touch them, to hold them against her. She does as she is told. They make the selection together, and Michael calls for Natasha to come in.

Esi gasps at Natasha entry, Michael explains salaciously that Natasha is a lingerie model and she shall model the selected wares for them. Michael request that Natasha changes in the room, halting Ann's move to hands over the selection to Natasha. So that Esi can see how each garment should be worn.

This is going badly, Ann thinks. Natasha nods approvingly and whispers "big tip" as she moves deeper into the room past Ann.

Ann stands in the room for the first change. There is nothing to add to what had been said earlier. The undressing and redressing brings back uncomfortable memories, memories of why she had to leave her fishing village, of why she had to leave her family and her church. Ann leaves as Natasha undresses for the second selection. Michael's hands had begun wandering five minutes ago. Esi short skirt rises up her hip slowly.

Ann keeps herself busy in the shop, peak period is about to start.

Natasha walks briskly out of the shop without a word. Her neck is bruised, her lipstick smeared and she is wearing sunglasses and her hat. Wan is besides herself with restrained panic as she attends to a customer. Ann understands and makes way to the "Galleria".

The table is cleared, the lingerie are strewn on the floor. She can see clumps of Natasha's hair on it. Esi cowers in the corner, she is wearing whats left of selection four. He must have pounced when Natasha was distracted putting it on Esi. Esi is bleeding on the floor. Michael is wiping himself with lingerie.

Michael reaches for his pants, withdraws a platinum card from the wallet he retrieves.

"Charge everything to my card." He says with an air of invincibility.

He only feels the cold spreading out from between his legs, not the kick. Ann's knee meets his nose in mid air as he bowls over. It crunched flat. Michael loses consciousness as Ann finishes by slamming his temple against the table corner. The leather saves his life.

Ann covers a shivering Esi with her jacket and leaves the room, Good, Wan isn't with a client. They agree to close the shop for the moment.

Michael is bound. A fisherman's daughter knows her knots. Wan sees to cleaning up Esi and sending her on her way. Ann reassures Esi that justice will be done, and reporting to the police will only get Wan and herself into trouble.

They reopen the store after putting newly bought hardware equipment.

Michael tried to scream when he came to in the evening, but his mouth tasted of seared flesh and had no tongue. Ann held it in her hand over him.

"We didn't survive on grasshoppers alone." Ann said as she placed the tongue on a slice of bread already thinking of the salty warmth on her lips tonight, after work, after she find a way take him back to her place.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Friends for Life

by James Ooi

I could see them ending up fighting each other soon. Yeah. What a way to end twenty years of friendship from the time we were in kindergarten till now, a few years after university graduation.

I could hear them arguing. Siva was berating Roslan for having an affair with this married woman and well, telling him to stay away from trouble and not flirt with fire. But in the argument that followed, Roslan lost his temper.

Roslan shouted at Siva, "Babi punya keling! Jangan sibuk aku punya hal. Siapa kau nak nasihat aku? Kau dah lupa yang aku telah selamatkan kau dulu ya!!! Aku dan kau bukan kawan lagi mulai hari nie! Pegi mampos!!!"

[Loosely translated - "Pig of an Indian. Don't interfere into my matters. Who are you to advise me? You have forgotten that I once saved your life!!! You and I are no longer my friend from this day onwards! Go to hell!!!"]

Angered and deeply wounded at the racial slur, Siva walked off and didn't answer nor did he turn back. It was finally the last straw for him.

Ever since we had started going out again after a few years of absence because each had gone to their own separate universities, we had changed but for some of us even more. In particular Roslan had become kinda arrogant and racist in his outlook these past few years.

Sad to say that two decades of friendship finally had to end today. All because of an argument which led to an exchange of angry words and racial slurs. Ours was a friendship that was based on the fact that we lived in the same housing estate in Petaling Jaya and the fact that we had grown up as neighbors and friends who attended the same schools throughout our teenage years.

We were team mates in the local football team battling other teams not just on the field but standing by each other in some of the occasional fist fights which ensued after either teams lost. And there were many times when we came to each others aid when either one of us was in trouble. Together we became known as the three musketeers.

Funny actually it was. We were bosom friends coming from the three main races that made up Malaysia. A Chinese, Indian and a Malay. Kinda rare these days in Malaysia. But twenty years ago, this was not uncommon and we didn't have the racial segregation you see commonly occurring these days.

I guess when it comes to friendship, perhaps race does matter or does it not? Seems it does in this case. Sad to say. Seems that it does.

~ *** ~

I still remember my first day at the kindergarten. Mom had left me there alone. In the class of thirty other kids, some of whom were getting red eyed and a few were already bawling out in utmost misery, I felt miserable and didn't know what to do.

Suddenly this dark skinned tall boy looked at me and said, "You want some sweets?" Offering me a "Hacks", he smiled at me. I had never had a Hacks before and I popped it in my mouth with much thought. Within seconds the burning sensation hit my mouth and I spat the sweet out onto my right palm.

You know, for a kid aged five, spicy things normally consumed by adults are really unbearable for our delicate palate. Perhaps you may have forgotten this but I remembered it well because that was how we first met up.

I heard a laugh coming from my right side. I turned irritably to the right and there was this small sized Malay boy laughing at me. Pissed off, I handed him my barely eaten sweet saying, "Not funny, you try lah" With that the Malay boy popped the sweet into his mouth and his face suddenly contorted, "Yucks!!!"

Then we both turned onto the Indian boy and spent the next thirty minutes chasing him around the class screaming wildly. By the end of the day, we became friends and this was to be a friendship that would last the next twenty years.

Soon we found out later that we were neighbors and that we stayed nearby to each other. In the afternoons, we'd go to Siva's house for tea and his mom would fry curry puffs and fried bananas and sometimes we'd head off to Roslan's home for some pengat-pisang and later head off to watch the football game being played in the nearby field.

We hung out practically everyday. As we reached our teens, we looked at girls together and blew wolf whistles at the girls every afternoon as they walked past the football field after school. Friendship was just based on our liking for each other, common interests and the fact that we shared so much history over the years.

One evening at about the time when we were about fifteen years old, Roslan and I was walking back home from school and we saw that five Malay youths had surrounded Siva and it appeared that they were beating him. Quickly Roslan called out to some of his Malay kampong pals and we ran to the field with a crowd of ten other people behind us. Roslan shouted at them, "That's my pal. You better leave him alone or I'll get the whole kampong after you. This is our area."

Grudgingly, the five youths left and at that point in time, I really felt that ours was a friendship that transcended even racial barriers. Looking back, we were brothers in spirit even though we were of a different race.

Each of us that is.

~ *** ~

A few weeks had passed since that incident.

It seemed to me that Siva and Roslan had finally ended our two decades of friendship. I said 'we' because in a way the friendship that we had was a tri-party friendship. We did a lot of things together. Clubbing, football, eating and hanging out together.

So when the other two ended it, it seemed to me that I had lost both my friends.

That fateful evening, I met up with Roslan at the football field to talk with him and try to patch things up. It was late. About eight in the evening. Kinda dark and most people had left the field for dinner and prayers I guess.

Without telling both of them, I told Siva to come and meet me at the same place at about eight thirty later. I thought that I would try and reconcile the both of them. But I guess I could only try.

Roslan and I, we talked about the earlier incident and the clash between Siva and him. Roslan sighed, "I feel sad too. I just was too pissed when he interfered with my relationship with Mas. It's my personal matter and I know the risks of having an affair with a married woman. But it's my choice and he should leave it at that."

It was a dark night that day. No moonlight at all.

Suddenly we became aware that a group of six men had surrounded us. It was dark but through their lighted cigarettes and their voices, we knew them to be Malay youths. They were not from around the area and they were holding bottles and a few had sharpened parangs. Seeing the glinting blades in their hands, we sensed that we were in danger.

One of them spoke, "Bastard! You shouldn't sleep with another man's wife!!!" With that they started beating us. I tried to ward off the blows by putting my arm in front of me but to no avail. I felt myself losing consciousness with every blow that fell onto my head.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Roslan was lying and writhing on the ground in pain. I saw the ringleader lift up the parang to slash Roslan. I tried to reach Roslan in time but in my battered state, I could only look on helplessly.

As the razor-sharp blade swung rapidly downwards, I saw a dark silhouette of a man dive over Roslan's body. The man took the brunt and full force of the blow meant for Roslan. I could hear him groan and the gruesome sound of his neck being slashed by the parang. Despite being slashed over and over again, he refused to leave Roslan and continued to cover him with his own body.

Sirens blared.

Apparently someone had alerted the police. The youths ran for their lives. Under the headlights of the police cars parked around us, I saw Siva bleeding profusely from the many slashes on his neck and his back. Roslan held Siva in his arms as he bled continuously.

Murmuring with great effort, Siva said, "Remember the time you saved me from a beating all those years ago? Tonight I repay my debt to you, my friend."

Silent tears flowed down Roslan's cheeks as his friend died in his arms that night.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A chat with an abandoned toothbrush and friends

by Yanti

I woke up this morning, as usual went into the toilet to wash my face, brush my teeth and to take a shower. I couldn't help but to notice that today, unlike on other days, the Toothbrush was staring at me. Blank. Not blinking!

"Morning", I said, and continued washing my face at the same time.

"Morning", the Toothbrush replied in a very low spirited tone. It was too obvious, very difficult to ignore or to pretend that I had not noticed. It was fishing for attention.

So typical as was of me, I instinctively felt the need to ask Toothbrush what was bugging it, probably because I cared, as Toothbrush has been in my toilet for quite sometime - although we were not exactly buddies, we were very familiar with each other. Or probably because, despite all self-denials in the world, I sort of knew what was bugging it and that I was the only person who could relate to the problem. Putting down all defences and denials, I changed my mind about asking.

"You're going to be alright", I said in a very motherly tone, hoping it would help to ease the pain.

"It has been 46 days since he last used me", Toothbrush said in that same crestfallen tone. So pathetic! I did not reply.

"Why did he not take me with him? He used me everyday before that! Am I that easily forgotten? I was very sincere, servicing him all these while!", it suddenly got so emotional. I had to say something. It may hurt but hey, reality bites! I learned that the hard way too.

"He's got that other toothbrush, remember? The one he took with him whenever he went to the islands. He must be using that other toothbrush now". I knew what I said hurt Toothbrush's heart. I felt so cruel. I didn't like myself that way.

"Yeah…. the Island Toothbrush", Toothbrush let out a deep, long sigh. I felt even worse. But I pretended like it was nothing. This is a big bad world we live in - one needs to learn to be strong and accept ugly fate as much as one welcomes good fortune.

I glanced at one of the Pil Chi-Kit-Teck-Auns which looked like it was about to say something but immediately changed its mind. The rest of the audience, Listerine, Colgate, Darlie, Glasses, Shaver and Atomic Enemas also did not say anything.

It was the Small Plastic Container which decided to butt in.

"I remember our trips to the islands, they were awesome!", Small Plastic Container said, smiling and looking dreamy - as if it was recalling its numerous trips with him before. Great, rub it in! Poor Toothbrush must be crushed by that statement.

"I've been meaning to ask you, did he actually use any of the medications I put inside you?", I tried to divert from the subject a little. I have actually wondered about it all these while. I didn't know why I never asked.

"Once or twice. He took the Paracetamol this one time when his ears were ringing non-stop after the afternoon dive during last his trip to Perhentian before the season ended last year. He slept very soundly after that", Small Plastic Container said, sounding so pleased.

"Yeah, I remember that, he did complain about the ringing ears after he came back - said he consulted an online Dive Doctor about it and it was due to the underwater pressure or some kind of imbalance or something like that", I said, trying not to recall so much. I'm getting better at it nowadays.

"And this other time he gave Panadol Soluble, or was it Medicated Plaster, to his diver friend, so proud that among all divers he was the only one who had the supply. 'My wife packed it for me and put it into my bag each time, without fail', I remember he boasted with that smirk on his face", Small Plastic Container narrated with much enthusiasm. I swallowed the story, quietly.

"I wonder if he's got his supply nowadays. You know him, he's got a very weak stomach, always gets the constipation followed by diarrhoea and after that constipation again, and the diarrhoea again, it was never ending!", the Pil Chi-Kit-Teck-Aun finally spoke up.

"Yeah, that was how we became best friends, right Atomic Enema?", the other Pil Chi-Kit-Teck-Aun added. One of the Atomic Enemas nodded, tittering meekly. I knew Atomic Enema's job specification was not something you wanted to discuss out loud. It was much too embarrassing. I giggled together with them.

"I don't know. But he can find the supply himself. It's easy to buy you guys, all sundry shops and pharmacies sell your kind, you know that", I answered honestly.

"Like when he bought the Island Toothbrush?", Toothbrush who has been quiet for sometime suddenly snapped. Wow, so bitchy, I thought to myself, half-amused, half blistered.


"Do you miss him too?", Toothbrush broke the silence, looking directly into my eyes. I could not answer the question, so I awkwardly looked down to my feet. I should have known this was coming.

"I see you sigh in here, in front of the mirror, every morning since he left. You must miss him a lot too huh? How long have you been with him anyway? 8 years isn't it?", Toothbrush insisted.

I was tongue-tied. I sighed, still looking at my feet; my whole body trembled so hard I had to lean against the wall.

And yet again, I slowly bled inside.

I took a deep breath. I forced out a smile for them.

"It'll be alright, Toothbrush. It'll be alright", I said, petting Toothbrush's head, bid them all goodbye and quickly left the toilet.

I got a life that I had to keep on living.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

When There is a Will ...

The man is running on the beach in his red swim trunk.

I see his calf and thigh muscles bulging and contracting in the rhythm of his steps, his biceps and triceps screaming for attention in every swing of his arms, his naked torso glistening under the evening sun like the polished sculpture of a Greek god. His stomach was flat and taut, with not even an inch of flab. The heaving chest was boasting a pair of perfectly-formed pectoral muscles, and I could not pull my eyes away from it.

"Oh God, I'm staring at man-boobs!" I feel disgusted as I pressed the button on the remote control.

With a blink the television screen turned blank, wiping off the fantasy lifeguard. Only if reality could be turn off with such ease, I wished.

I was slumped on the sofa of my living room, with a cup of instant noodle in my hand. As I slurped away the last strand of the noodle, I sneaked a peek down my legs. The pair of pudgy limbs reminded me of snooker table's legs. Instead of a flat steely washboard, my tummy was a bouncing, rotund ball of flesh. I pinched the flesh around it, and held those two inches of flab between my fingers. And if there was such a thing as a male-bra, I probably needed a B-cup for the sagging twins.

"You too can have a dream body. Don't give up!"

I turned my head to the direction of the voice.

It came from the treadmill standing proudly at the corner of the room. I was totally freaked out when it spoke to me for the first time, but now I was used to it. The treadmill was no ordinary exercise machine. It was the top-of-the-range PTX3000 model with a grey plastic console that housed an 8'' LCD monitor and assortment of buttons. From a touch-sensitive heartbeat sensor to muscle-density measurement, it had more than enough tools to tell me how in or out of shape I was. It even had a DVD drive and built-in TV receiver to ensure endless hours of entertainment while I was sweating it out. The console was held between two white metallic arms, which looked like the twin neck of the machine that linked the console to the running mill below. The running belt was made of durable plastic with a layer of black soft rubber to provide cushion to the user. There was a handle at both side of the machine, clad in matching black rubber grip, and the handles were adjustable to the height of the user.

No doubt that the machine was engineered to provide maximum comfort and safety while pushing the user to the limits of physical perfection. Else I would not have bought it two months ago.

During the first few days I woke up an hour early than usual to jog on the treadmill. Then in the evening I spent another hour sweating it out before dinner. I felt so alert and alive for that few days, until day number five. That morning I woke up with chains of lethargy coiled around my body. Every movement of my limbs was accompanied by throbs of pain. Apparently on my way to the fitness nirvana, I got sidetracked into the hall of physical suffering. But that was not unexpected, considering I had not exercised regularly for five years. It would take time for my thirty year old body to adapt to this new rigorous regime. Not so easy to be back 'in the zone', so to speak. Thus I told myself to take it easy; not to overdo it and think of long-term.

"Don't learn to fly before you learn to walk!" I quoted the Chinese proverb to myself, and grinned. Not everyone could turn words of wisdom into weapon of procrastination.

So that day I lowered my expectation and revised the work out schedule. I rewarded myself with a one-day break between three consecutive workout days. The three to one ratio sounded good. Or at least for a week it did. One cold and rainy morning a week later, I pulled the blanket over my head, and revised my schedule to a more reasonable and humane ratio of one-one.

Once my will power wavered, the ratio became alive; fluctuating and changing on its own. As of this morning, two months after I first stepped on the treadmill, the ratio was at one-seven. Yes, it had been seven days since I last touched the machine.

"Mr. Chua, it has been seven days, four hours and thirty seconds since the last time you used PTX3000. Please do not give up. It's never easy in the beginning, but it's always worth it in the end," said the syrupy female voice from the console, coaxing me back onto the painful path to physical perfection.

Its advertising blurb was not lying when it claimed 'Having a PTX3000 is like having a personal trainer at home!' I just did not expect it to nag at me! It started two days ago, and the frequency of the advices had been increasing gradually. Worst of all, there was no way of shutting it up. I already pulled its plug from the socket, but apparently the treadmill came with an internal battery in its console. More than a few times I had considered using an axe to hack the machine into pieces, but its three-thousand ringgit price-tag killed that notion.

I was about to call them to complain when my hand phone rang.

"Good evening, Mr Chua," a familiar voice cheerfully greeted me.

"My name's Agnes, and I'm calling from Perfect Solution. We've been receiving feedback from Ir PTX3000 treadmill, and we understand that you're not actively using it."

"Are you serious?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes sir! We're very serious about our customer's fitness. Here at Perfect Solution we …"

"I meant the treadmill actually sent feedback to you guys?" I cut her off.

"Yes sir! Our treadmills are programmed to inform us if the customer is not benefiting from their investment."

Wow. Not only the machine knows how to nag me to exercise, it also can seek help from outside. I could not help but being impressed.

"We ran a thorough scan on your machine, and found no mechanical or software defect. So pardon us for being so direct, but we feel the problem is you, Mr Chua."

Guilty as charged, I said nothing.

"If it's convenient, we would like to invite you to our office tomorrow. We would like to work with you on an alternative plan, or at least refund your purchase."

Wow! While many companies out there promised refund, this is the first time a company actually offered me a refund on its own accord and initiative. No complain letter was needed. Without a single word of threat uttered. And it was not even their product's defect or anything like that.

Something was definitely not right.


The next afternoon I was at the showroom of Perfect Solution in MegaValley shopping mall.

"Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Perfect Solution," a young lad cheerfully greeted me as soon as I stepped into the showroom.

"Hi, good afternoon. I'm here to see Ms. Agnes Lim," I told him.

"Oh, you must be Mr Chua. Please follow me this way, sir!" The sales personnel escorted me into one of the consultation rooms at the back. It was a small rectangular room with a low wooden table in the middle, and a three-seat leather sofa at one side. An aquarium filled with myriad species of small colourful fishes was perched on a wooden cabinet on the opposite side of the room.

"Would I like some coffee or tea, Mr Chua?" he asked with a smile.

"Coffee will be great, thanks!" I answered. He nodded and left the room.

Barely two minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and a young lady stepped into the room. She was wearing a buttoned-down white shirt with black mini-shirt, which accentuated her curvy figures. Her hair was short, and tinted light brown to compliment the colour of her twinkling set of eyes. She found the perfect balance; looking very appealing without compromising her aura of professionalism.
"Hi, Mr Chua! I'm Agnes," she flashed a winning smile and held out her hand.

As soon as both of us were seated on the sofa, an elderly lady arrived with a tray of beverages and cookies. Everything seemed to operate with a clockwork precision here.

"Mr Chua, as I mentioned on the phone last night, we're very concerned about the drop of activity level in your fitness programme," her voice was soft, but firm. "And based on our latest anabolic and vital rates analysis, we do not believe that you have any physical difficulty to continue enjoying the PTX3000. Therefore, sorry if we're too direct, the problem is your mind. To be specific, you lack of the necessary will power to stay on the difficult path towards your physical well-being. "

That was a nice way to tell me that I was a lazy bum with no discipline to exercise. She flashed her million-dollar smile again, and I wondered who could ever get angry to that face?
"Well, I guess it's my fault. Sometimes I just feel too lazy to work out," I admitted.

"Don't worry, Mr Chua. That's why we're here today. I believe everyone can have a dream body. We'll help you with to achieve it. Just don't give up!" her voice syrupy sweet.

Suddenly I recognize the voice. It was the same voice from my treadmill console, but with a subtle yet important difference. Each word coming from that girl had the warmth of emotions, compared to the cold, robotic intonation by the machine. Perhaps that was something technology still cannot duplicate. Not yet, anyway.

"How are you going to help me? And how much do I have to pay?" I cheekily asked. There was no such thing as a free lunch.

She took out a piece of paper from her leather briefcase and handed it over to me.

"This is a cheque for three thousand one hundred ringgit. It's the refund for your treadmill, plus addition goodwill payment for all your troubles."

I paused for a moment, and then looked straight into her eyes, "So what's the catch?"

Her eyes suddenly twinkled with excitement, and the sweetness of her smile was raised to another level. It was so saccharine that I could have drunk the coffee on the table without a single pinch of sugar, and not noticed the difference. It would not be easy to say 'no' to her, whatever she was going to sell to me.

"The condition of the refund is simply; you have to try these on for at least 2 hours."

Agnes reached inside her briefcase again, and pulled out a silver envelope. The packaging reminded me of the facial masks that my ex-girlfriend religiously wore at night. She tore open the envelope, and pulled out a round silver patch the size of a fifty cent coin. It looked like those nicotine patch used by smokers to quit their habit.

"This is one of those medicine patches, right?" I asked.

She nodded, and explained, "Not quite, but it's something like that."

"You guys want me to try some drugs in order for me to get a refund?" The tide of anger suddenly rose inside my chest. I knew there must be a catch somewhere; most probably customized training programmes or other schemes that cost me money. But never in a thousand years would I have imagined their audacity to push drugs.

"We're not going to put any drug into your body, Mr Chua. Instead, the patch will imbue you with something that has been lacking in your system lately," Agnes replied calmly. The smile never left her face.
"And what may that be?"

She stared into my eyes, and gave me an enigmatic look.

"Trust me, Mr Chua. You're not going to believe if I tell you."


My feet felt as if I was running barefooted on shards of glasses. My lung was breathing in pebbles of fire, which were burning my spine. The world was spinning around me, urging me to end this torture; to collapse.

"Hang on there, Mr Chua! You're very close to your target, but not quite there yet," the robotized voice of Agnes gave me the encouragement.

"Yes, I can do it! I must do it!" my voice shouted inside my head.

About a minute later, I could feel the roller began to slow down, letting me warm down as I trotted towards my targeted distance.

"Congratulations, Mr Chua! You've completed a 2.5 km run today!" the voice came from the console three minutes and seven seconds later.

I wobbled off the treadmill and sunk down onto my sofa; indifferent to the disgusting fact that my perspiration had drenched the fabric cushion. With a practiced gesture, I flicked open a can of 100 Plus and downed its content with a long, slow but uninterrupted gulp. My body was sore and battered, but not my mind. I was happy, and frankly, insatiable. I felt like running another kilometer, but I knew the roller would not move another inch. That was another one of its high-tech features; it would push its user to the physical limits, but by using its complicated bio-metric sensors it ensure that he would not step over the line. I threw a glance at the workout chart on the wall, next to the treadmill. I had not missed a single day of the new fitness programme prepared by Agnes during our meeting eight days ago.

When she first told me about the patch, I laughed in her face.

"Oh, come on! I think this is one hell of an original idea. But, come on, you expect anyone to believe that?" I scoffed at her explanation. To her credit, her smile was as enchanting and sweet as ever.

"Honestly, this is the first time I heard of anything as absurd like this. Your marketing people get high marks not only for originality, but also bravery for even trying to pull this off. You're really insulting the intelligence of your customers! " I ranted on and on, hoping for a reaction from her. But there was none. In fact, the look from her eyes suggested that this was not the first time such accusations were thrown onto her face.

"Mr Chua, I know the concept is very radical. Your reaction is totally to be expected, and understandable," she explained calmly. She was good, very good indeed.

"This patch is the end product of many years of scientific researches by some of the top scientists in the world. It's touted as one of the biggest technology break-through in the past fifty years."

I threw a cold, skeptical stare into her eyes and she returned it with the conviction of an acolyte.

"You're serious?"

She nodded her head.

"Oh, hell! No use for me to argue this with you. If I put this on for two hours, I will get my refund back, right?"

"Yes. That is, if you still want to return the treadmill to us. Which I really doubt so," she was beaming with confident.

"No drugs or other illegal substances, right?" I needed more assurance.

"Yes, we guarantee that. It's stated in black and white in our Refund Form. Our patch has no drugs or illegal chemical." She pushed the piece of paper across the table towards me.

"It contains only pure will power," she proudly claimed.

There. She said it again. I did not hear it wrongly earlier. The patch was designed to imbue the user with doses of will power. It would increase our enthusiasm and fortify our mental strength to overcome laziness and reluctance. Just like the way those colorful pills at pharmacy counter help our body to produce vitamins.

"We always maintain the high quality of our products, so the will power in our patch is sourced only from proven athletes," she elaborated.


"Yes. From our research, we know that athletes have the strongest will power to perform daunting physical exercises. In search of excellence, most of them have to go through endless hours of training, and even overcome the pain-barrier to reach another level of physical perfection," she elaborated.

"I just hope you guys didn't source it from our local footballers!" I jested.

"No, sir, God-forbid! We always maintain the highest level of quality in our products!"

I smiled. It was an interesting concept, but I was still skeptical.

But that was eight days ago.

Today, after using a few packs of the patches, I am a believer. I had never felt so much enthusiasm and willingness, pardon the pun, to exercise as I did in the past eight days. Not even in the days of my youth. The Will Power patch was really a miracle product.

After taking a long shower, I picked up my hand phone and called Agnes.

"Mr Chua! It's so nice to hear from you again," she exuded enthusiasm, as usual.

"Yeah, same here. I just want to tell you that I'm really impressed with your Will Power patch," I told her. Of course I realized she must have already known it, since my PTX3000 was feeding them with my progress reports

"I'm glad that you're happy with our products. I believe you're getting the appropriate returns from your investment now. The samples we gave you were the extract from local athletes. When you're ready, we'll recommend upgrades to International Athletes, and finally to our Olympian Winners patch."

"Yeah, OK." I paused for a moment. "Listen, I'm really intrigued by this wonderful scientific breakthrough, so I'm wondering if there's anyway I can find out more about it."

"Sure, Mr Chua. There's a book titled Neuroscience Evolution by Prof. Alfred Milton. Outside retail price for the book is RM345, but for our customers we're offering a 20% discount."
"Huh? You guys are selling book on this subject?" my voice was layered with surprise.

"We've received so many similar enquiries from our clients. It's only natural for people to be very interested in such a marvelous technology, so our marketing department thought it would be sensible to include the book as our after-sales service," Agnes explained.

"Ok. I think I'll get the book. But it's written by this professor guy, right? I'm just a supervisor in a supermarket, with no degree or what-so-ever knowledge in this neutro-science stuff. Would I have trouble understanding the book?"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that, Mr Chua," she assured me.

"We've wide range of Intelligence patches."

Thursday, May 17, 2007


by Kow Shih Li

I have lived with my aunt for the past thirteen years. She is forty nine and on good days, she looks no more than forty. In forms with blank spaces next to 'Occupation', she writes 'Accountant' but I am much better at managing real money. Due to this simple skill, it is my duty to balance the expenses against her pay cheque and she depends on me to get the bills paid on time. For this, I extend myself a modest allowance every month.

Aunty is my mother's younger sister, born a year apart. My parents died, both in road accidents, five years apart. I was orphaned at seven and Aunty raised me as best she could, which was not too badly at all.

We live in a house which belonged to my parents. Upon their deaths, insurance was a blessing which helped avert financial insecurity during a time of sorrow. Since Mother had been savvy enough to leave a will, the house will be mine when I turn twenty one in two years. Until then, it is held in trust by Aunty. I guess you could say that I put a roof over Aunty's head.

The roof in question is a single storey house on the corner of a street with eight feet of garden on one side and a neighbour called Uncle Thomas on the other. The garden and Uncle Thomas have a love-hate relationship chaperoned by Aunty. The garden is now overgrown with stray vegetation, pandanus gone wild and rogue lemongrass. The beds of chillies and trellis for climbing beans have been overwhelmed by barb-headed weeds, light-sapping creepers and shrubs that turn overnight into trees with thorny green trunks.

I have tried for a long time to persuade Aunty to allow that man on a motorbike to bring in his machete, motorized grass cutter and towel around his face to clean it up. She refuses. The little jungle has its fingers now on the doorstep of our kitchen. It stays just outside the boundary of what is acceptable through Aunty's sheer force of will and the fact that she occasionally pours a jerry can of kerosene on the edge and throws a half finished cigarette on it.

There was a time not so long ago when we had fresh chillies to pound and pandan leaves to put in our desserts. Smiling neighbours up to ten houses away came to cut fragrant stalks of lemongrass from our garden. There were ladies fingers hanging from the trellis and watermelons pregnant on the vine under that. We even had two rows of spinach planted on raised beds.

That was the time when Uncle Thomas could be found in our garden every evening digging, trimming, watering and tending to the little plot while Aunty made tea and white bread toast with butter and sugar. They would sit looking at the chillies until the sky turned dark with crows flying home to roost.

Uncle Thomas never stayed for dinner. Maybe because Aunty never asked him to. She was not a very good cook. I tried hard to eavesdrop crouching low under the window near the kitchen but I never overheard a conversation. I think they hardly talked. Maybe that is how things are when you get older. The only sign I saw in my covert observations, like a view you get when a curtain lifts momentarily in a short breeze, was the one time I saw Uncle Thomas pluck a leaf from Aunty's hair. She put her heart in her eyes when she smiled at him.

After the visits stopped, Aunty tended our garden with a vengeance. "I don't have to depend on him,' she would say with anger breaking her voice. It was during this period of manic gardening that Uncle Thomas dyed his grey streaks black and brought his Vietnamese bride home. We saw his friends come for dinner and barbecue sessions. We were never invited.

The garden grew erratically under Aunty's rage. The chillies shrunk in fear and the ladies fingers dropped off before they were more than the size of a baby's thumb. The spinach, on the other hand, grew larger with coarse, defensive leaves that were inedible. The watermelons split open before they could ripen and soon, Aunty stopped trying.

Then, she started collecting men. Of all shapes and sizes. Men who rang our doorbell and opened their car doors for her. Men who called and stayed on the telephone line for hours. Men she never spoke about to me. Their names eluded me but I knew them by the cars they drove. There was the one in a baby blue Volvo 740, a gaunt man who always stood outside the gate finishing a cigarette while waiting for Aunty to step out in her high heels. One in a silver Ford Laser sedan with glasses and broad ties. Another in a green diesel Pajero who always said 'Hello, young man' if I answered the door. A balding dandy in a black two door Honda Civic hatchback, in jeans and white shirts. A chauffeured executive in a Mercedes Benz who never got out of the back seat, not even when Aunty was trying to lock the gate holding up her long dress in one hand and her purse in the other.

I sometimes see Uncle Thomas do things I am not meant to see. Like when he checked Aunty's tyre pressure when the car was parked outside. Or the time he picked up our morning papers and put them under our porch because it looked like rain. Or oiling the hinges of our gate. Small signs of care or remorse, I did not know which. Aunty never noticed or pretended not to see.

I often wanted to ask Aunty if she was happy but we never spoke of such things. Like the other day, when the words were just behind my teeth. I opened my mouth and instead, told her that I was doubling my allowance, just for this month. It was so that I could go to Pulau Tioman with my girlfriend after the exams.

"Don't depend on me to take care of you," she said as she was wont to say these days. She knew I knew I did. I relied on her income to put me through school. On her presence as the only living relative I have. I depend on her to feed and clothe me the same way the garden depended on Uncle Thomas. To be stopped from growing wild and unkempt from lack of care. I do not understand why she says what she does.

Without warning, last Friday, she fell unconscious walking to the sink with the dinner dishes. When I called, Uncle Thomas climbed over the dividing wall in our backyard and carried her into the car. He drove like a madman to the emergency ward of the nearest hospital.

A tiny clot had grown in the one of her many arteries. Like a miniature stopcock, it blocked the free passage of blood to a part of Aunty's brain. Deprived of oxygenated blood to feed and keep it alive, this part of her brain died and along with it the nerves and puppet strings it was attached to. Aunty lost the use of her left side and her speech.

I saw frustration in her eyes and shame in the set of her head. When I fed her, her lower lip could not close over the spoon. Her eyelid sagged with her cheek as though her face was carved of butter and left out to melt. Her tongue lolled in her mouth and I knew it could not mould the sound coming from her throat into words. She could have spoken and I would have learnt to understand her but she stayed totally silent for five months.

I suspected that she tried to speak when she was alone, away from prying ears. No one would hear then that her consonants sounded like vowels and imagine her tongue like a wooden spatula filling her mouth. I guessed at this because when she did speak, it was clearly audible and the words were perfectly formed.

She said,"You can't depend on me now." There were no tears.

"It's OK, Aunty. You can depend on me," I said.

I wanted to hold her hand then but I did not. I wanted to say that I was so afraid she would die when she was at the hospital and I would be a seven year old again in a funeral parlour. But I did not. I said, "Uncle Thomas and I are going to start fixing up the garden."

Uncle Thomas and I tore up the wilderness in our backyard. We planted a carpet of soft, springy grass, a border of tiny star-like purple flowers and a climbing plant with bold yellow trumpet blooms which hugged the perimeter fence. The structured fronds of big palms shaded a multitude of plants with variegated leaves. Begonias on the ground and hanging pots of flowering petunias looked like candy kisses on some mornings. Our garden became a profusion of pretty things.

On some evenings, Uncle Thomas and I sit on the porch looking at the morning blooms close into themselves and put their heads down. Occasionally, his wife would come over with 2 cans of 100-Plus and dainty snacks laid out on a plate. She would sit with us for a while with a smile on her smooth, young face. Sometimes, we would just sit in the gathering gloom of dusk and wonder about what goes on inside my house.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Eating for Free

By James Ooi

Sitting down at my favorite hawker stall in Jalan Alor this morning, I was just about to tuck into my bowl of dry curry chicken noodles. The skinny guy sitting in front of me got up abruptly and just sprinted out of the shop.

Suddenly the lady noodle seller Ah Sim screamed and another guy selling snacks outside the shop started running and shouting in Chinese, "Hoi! Hoi! Kannineh! Pok Kai!!!"

Loosely translated that literally means "Hey! Hey! Fuck! Damn!!!"

Pandemonium broke out. In the ensuing chase, some tables got upturned and some plates fell to the floor and broke with a noisy piercing clatter. A minor scuffle ensued as the pursuer managed to catch up with the non-paying fugitive. Then the hawker guy sat on the fugitive's shoulder to keep him still and immobilize the bugger.

The other lady hawkers came and started batting him with brooms, ladles and kicking the shit out of him. I am sure it wasn't pleasant for that poor chap who was being bashed for eating and running off without paying.

Still I couldn't help but find it so funny.


I remember those days when I was a student and I didn't have much money to eat. I often thought of like eating and not paying. But somehow I never did that. It was not because I am a good person. It's just that from my early childhood my parents have instilled in me the idea of asking for something and paying for it.

And nobody ever asks for free food unless it's from their relatives or their own parents.

So what did I do when I had no money? I just didn't eat and just accompanied my pals and watched them eat and drink. Most times, they would offer me free food anyway. So it wasn't that bad.

About 30 years ago in Petaling Jaya, there was this supermarket called 'Thrifty' and at that time it was probably one of the few supermarkets in town. I used to collect card pictures of birds and animals that were free gifts coming with the condensed milk cans that my parents bought monthly.

As an eight-year-old kid, playing with these cards was a lot of fun. My brother and I would have endless hours just playing with them and we would often fight over them. Yeah, over nothing but plain old colored cards with pictures of animals. Silly huh.

So at the supermarket we would see these cans of condensed milk and the playing cards attached as free gifts. And the thing was it was so tempting to just reach out and take the cards. The more I thought about it, the more desirous I became to snatch a few. In the end, my brother and started stuffing our tiny pockets with these cards.

Two tiny would-be robbers. One aged eight and the other aged six.

We tore off the playing cards from the cans and stuffed our pockets with them until we would hardly fit another card in. We thought we had got away with it. Happily we ran off to find our parents.

But it was not to be.

Suddenly this huge gigantic security guard, a Sikh guy who appeared to be like a huge gorilla to us boomed loudly, "Stop!!!" We stopped dead in our tracks. At our age, a full-grown adult is so damn bloody huge and a hairy adult is also very scary.

We thought it was lucky that our parents were around. We thought we were safe but instead we got a terrible scolding and were caned until our legs bore red-caned marks on our calves. It was a lesson in honesty and perhaps that's why we never felt like stealing anything for that matter from that day onwards.

It was like if we didn't have money for it, then we'd forego it.


It was chaotic. People were rolling around in the street on this bright early morning. Struggling, thrashing and screaming. You can probably imagine the chaos.

There was a fight going on and the 'thief' was severely outnumbered by one man and five old women. A mass and tangle of hands legs and arms waving about wildly. It seemed to me that the hawkers especially the old ladies took perverse pleasure in pinching and kicking and touching the young man all over. If I saw it right, this old lady even grabbed at the guy's crotch. For what reason I just could not imagine.

Possibly she hasn't had sex for years I guessed after looking at her age and haggard looks. And this was the moment that she can finally touch some poor bastard's cock without fear of retribution. Thinking about it. What's the problem with paying for three-ringgit worth of noodles? Don't have the money, just wash plates lah. For God's sake man!!

I think getting your privates molested by some horny old hawker is much more dehumanizing than just washing plates or getting told off for not having money to pay for food.

It really doesn't pay to abscond after eating a meal and not pay. If you have to choose, then abscond from a pretty hawker. That way when she beats you, you can scuffle with her and cop a free caress or cuddle rather than get some old lady having her horrid way with you.

But that's just my point of view lah.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The L-word On the Beach

by Chua Kok Yee

Lisa was ten years old when she found a message in the bottle.

She was on holiday with her family at Pulau Pangkor, and strolling along the beach with her eldest sister, Mabel. The sun was sinking into the ocean, leaving fading layers of orange across the graying sky. The ocean shimmered with reflections of the remaining sunshine; a welcoming prelude to the twinkling of the stars arriving soon from high above.

Lisa was shuffling her bare feet along in the soft sand, when she came across a half-buried bottle.

"Ah Jie! Look, there's a bottle there!" she pointed it to her sister. Mabel, who was seven years older than her, picked the dark green bottle up, and dusted away the sand. Then she pulled out the cork, and fished out a roll of brownish paper from inside.

"Is it a pirate's treasure map?" Lisa asked anxiously. She was already wearing an eye-patch and holding a long sword in her mind.

"Hahaha, no, it's not! It's just a message in the bottle," her sister told her.

"A message? What does it says?" Lisa studied the note in her sister's hand.

Both of them were standing at the edge of the water as Mabel's slowly unfolded the roll of note. Even though she squinted, her eyes lightened up when it traced through the lines of the note. Her lips sculptured a smile, and she read the message in the bottle to her little sister. Those simple words seemed to glide across the paper, sailed through the air before it anchored inside Lisa. That evening, under the embrace of the tender sea breeze and vanishing daylight, young Lisa received the first love letter of her life.

If you're holding a small piece of my heart; no matter where you are , I will never be alone again.

Twelve years later, Lisa wrote her first love note on a beach.

"You sure you're OK?" Mabel's voice over the hand phone was soft and tender, with a hint of concern.

Of course I'm not. I just found out that ex-my boyfriend is a pretentious jerk who has been cheating on me all this while. I gave him everything; treated him like a god and asked for nothing more than his love. It hurts like hell when I found out that the person I genuinely love think of me as just another conquest. When we kissed for the first time; I was thinking how special it was. But it must have been just another routine for him, another steps in his scheme to get into my pants. It made me feel so stupid; I'm so frustrated and angry with myself!

"Don't worry, Ah Jie. I'm OK," Lisa told her sister. Her pains were entrenched too deeply inside that she would not be able to share it even if she wanted to. Besides, she knew that she must overcome the pain on her own; only she could stitch back the pieces of her fragmented heart.

"When are you coming home?" her sister asked, but Lisa knew the question was from her mother.

"I'm not sure yet. Most probably next month or so after the results come out." At that time, Lisa was working in a beach resort in Cherating while waiting for the results of her university final examination. But Lisa did not go home the following month.

Upon her graduation, the management of the resort offered her a permanent position. Since she has always loved the tranquility of the seaside, she decided to stay on. From the day she arrived at the beach, she had been religiously taking slow walks along the beach late in the evening. She loved the sound of the waves as it gently rolled over the sand, and then slowly recede into the sea, taking along all the regrets and hurts of yesterday.

During one of her evening strolls, she saw a young girl working building a huge sand castle. The girl, most probably about seven or eight years old, was diligently scoping out buckets of sand with her plastic spade, and then patiently re-shape them as the walls, towers or blocks of her castle. The castle was quite impressive for a young girl to build on her own, with a tower on each of the four corners of its square wall, and a huge tower in the middle of the courtyard.

"Hi there!" Lisa squatted down near the east tower, and waved at the girl. The girl has a pair of huge eyes, and her brownish hair was tied neatly at the back. She looked at Lisa for a moment, then her little lips curved to a smile before she continue to pile wet sand onto the basement of the centre tower.

"That's a nice castle you have there," Lisa tried to coax a conversation.

"Thank you. I hope she'll like it," the girl barely lifted her eyes from her castle.

"Who is it for? Is it for me?" Lisa teased her.

"No, you silly! It's a present for the Mermaid!"

"Oh? You know the mermaid too? She's my friend too. I think she'll love it!"

"Really?" the girl eyes widened with joy.

"Yeah. It's a very nice castle," Lisa assured her.

"I hope tomorrow she will come visit the castle, and we can play together," the girl said, her face brimming with hope.

Lisa stood up, and looked further out towards the sea. A heavy feeling of dread came to her heart as Lisa confirmed her anxiety; the girl has built her castle too close to the edge of the water. When the high tide comes in the morning, the castle will be washed away. Tomorrow the girl would come back to the spot with great hopes, only to be disappointed by the disappearance of her castle. But how do we tell a child that, sometimes in life, our honest toil and pure intentions worth very little?

Lisa stood in silence as the girl put small flags on the top of the towers.

"What if tomorrow when you come here the castle is gone?" Lisa asked. She felt she had to gently prepare the girl for the impending disappointment. The girl continued to adjust one of the flags as if she was ignoring the question. After the flag was straight and flapping in the evening breeze, she returned a question to Lisa,"How can the castle be gone?"

Lisa unconsciously bit her lower lips,"Maybe some bad people steal it?"

The little girl stared at her for a moment, before she gave her a smile that seemed too wise. Then she told Lisa,"It's OK.

"You won't be sad your castle is gone?"

She shook her head as she flattened the western wall with her spade, "The mermaid don't like it anyway."

"How do you know that?" Lisa did not quite understand her. Her bafflement must had been comically obvious on her face, as the girl giggled at her expression.

"You're so silly! If the mermaid really likes it she will protect it. No one can steal it then!"

Lisa would not had expected that answer in a thousand years. She stood there for awhile, slowly contemplating the words, while waiting for the girl to complete the castle. Later that evening, after sending the girl to her hotel room, Lisa returned to the sand castle. She brought along a chopstick, and scribbled the words from her heart onto the wet sand next to the castle. That night, Lisa wrote her first love note on a beach.

If you're holding a small piece of my heart; no matter where you are, I will never be alone again.

Three years later, someone finally replied.

That evening, Lisa was strolling along the beach as usual when she noticed a peculiar shape on the edge of the water. Under the fading light, it looked like a huge semi-circular wall of an abandoned sand castle.

"Oh, no! Another grave for the pet!" Lisa moaned. In the past, she had a few cases of kids burying their pets on the beach. She had nothing against kids paying a meaningful last respect to their beloved pets, but a hastily-dug grave on the beach usually meant floating carcass when the tide is high.

But as she walked closer, she realized that it was not a grave. The pile of pebbles and rocks were arranged carefully in circle, with a layer of plastic sheet wrapping the inner wall. It was quite crude, but the two feet high circular wall played its role to perfection by preventing the seawater from invading inside.

Lisa stared unbelievingly at the words in the centre of the circle.

In her heart, she was hoping that a man will find the words she left behind on the beach, and he will keep them in his heart to protect them from being washed away by the waves. Then one day, he would look into her eyes and then return them to her, word by word.

She had never expected, or dared to hope for, anyone to actually physically preserve her love note on the beach! Now she did not know what to do!

Shall I leave my hand phone number or what? Or maybe email address too?

Lisa pulled out her chopstick, and wrote down her phone number underneath the original message.


Lisa turned around and saw a girl. She was a tall girl, with a fashionably short and spiky hair. Her large almond eyes were diamonds that sparkled on her smooth round face. The white singlet she wore accentuated her womanly curves, and her slender legs looked great in a pair of khaki shorts.

"Hi!" Lisa replied, feeling the color rising in her cheeks. She has written so many times on the beach, but always alone in the dark. No one has ever caught her doing it before, and she suddenly felt vulnerable. It was like reading aloud the most intimate poem in her diary in front of a stranger.

There was a wall of awkward silence between them, before she pointed to the writings on the sand.

"You wrote those?" she asked, her eyes wide with anticipation.

Lisa nodded her head.

A wave of disappointment washed over the girl's pretty face, and sluiced out the lustre in her eyes. She withered, with her slumped shoulders and bowed head, like a morning rose under the afternoon sun.

For a moment Lisa was perplexed by both the girl's question and reaction. Then the cursed needle of realization slowly drilled into her heart, and injected bitter doses of reality into all the sweet possibilities. Lisa searched for the stranger's eyes, demanding the answer to an unnecessary question.

"I'm sorry," the girl apologized without lifting her head.

"It's OK," Lisa lied.

"Really. I'm sorry. I didn't know who wrote it, but it was so romantic. I thought it was by a guy, so I.." she explained.

"It's OK," Lisa said, this time she meant it.

The girl and her were so alike; both victims of their own lonely heart. Inside, they built an incomplete puzzle of love, and waiting for the arrival of the final piece. It was a cruel twist of fate that they heeded each other's call, even though they did not have that final piece.

"Thanks," Lisa said. The girl lifted her face, and stared at her with eyes as clear as that morning's blue sky.

"Yeah, I wish it was a guy, but at least you get it. You knew what to do, and that means a lot to me," Lisa told her.

She nodded, and beamed a sunshine smile that Lisa thought was the sweetest she had ever seen.

"At least now we know there are still some romantics out there, and we can always hope, right?" she replied with the words that were lingering on Lisa's tongue.

"Yes, we still can hope," she murmured to herself.

That night Lisa and the girl sat together on the beach and shared stories of loves, heartbreak and hopes. When the morning came, they hugged each other, bid farewell and never see each other again in their lives.