Cheuk Bun Chan + Karen Lim

Going Back

The smell of burning incense – that still sticks with me. I used to visit him every weekend, up until three years ago. I have not stepped into that place since then. I would like to visit again, if only to relive those memories.

The apartment was not particularly handsome – it was a modest four-room flat, the old kind; the kind no one would want to purchase because the wind slipped in even when the windows were shut.

I would smell the incense first, and it would make me feel strangely at ease. The white paint on the metal gates had peeled along the corners the last time I went, and the gates produced a creak when you swung them open. It was not the creak of the main door of a haunted house; but a happy creak, like when a swing is swung at the playground by a child.

I would go in and the first thing I would see was the traditional cushion-less chairs made of teak so dark it was almost black, lined in stark contrast against the pale walls. The chairs had ivory carvings of phoenixes and dragons along the back. As a young child, I used to trace my fingers over the carvings. A table stood between the chairs and me; a matching set. In the corner was some sort of potted plant that was taller than I was. Cherry blossoms I think, and plastic.  On hindsight, I recall that it was there every time I went. Who buys plastic flowers? Perhaps the elderly for whom real flowers offer too much reality with their withering each passing day.

Upon stepping into the house and noticing the chairs, the table and the potted plant all at once, I would turn and see my grandfather on my left, in the rattan chair he would be sitting in without fail.

I had never been close to him, not in a communicative sort of way. We barely spoke five sentences to each other each time. “Ah gong,” I would say, “Grandfather” in Teochew, and he would smile and nod. Then, it was always him saying, “How are you?” and “Have you eaten?” and “See you again”, and me replying in my horrible grasp of the dialect, “Fine,” and “Yes, eaten,” and also, “See you again”; the last of which did not sound like anything he had just said to me. He was truly a man of few words.

Still, I recall him fondly. When I smiled at him, he would grin back in all his toothless glory. It did not really look like a smile, without the teeth, but I could see that twinkle in his eyes that said he was happy to see me. Then I would sit on one of the hard traditional chairs, pull myself up near him and sit there enjoying his company. Just like that. No words. Just him and me, watching television programmes in silence.

I could not understand the television serials that Grandfather liked to watch and my grasp of the subtitles was regrettably slow. So, sometimes, I merely watched him. He was a patient subject. Not once did he protest or stare back at me. I suppose he knew I was staring at him – at his balding head with his remaining grey strands of hair clinging on to his scalp; at his many crow’s feet that decorated his eyes and which crinkled when he laughed at something I did not understand; at the way his upper and lower lips wrapped around his toothless gums like curry puffs, opening only slightly when he was engrossed in his show. I was staring at his wrinkled and age-spotted skin that covered his forearms and showed his veins in painful detail, and at the way he sometimes used his heel to scratch at his other leg. I watched him, even as his head got shinier and his crow’s feet had children of their own. I was watching him die slowly, but I did not know it then.

I suppose it is hard not to notice a child who has her face turned towards you week after week, year after year. But Grandfather allowed me this indulgence. Perhaps this is why I want to visit his apartment again, to remember him better and the place he had lived in, and to smell the incense that I sometimes get a whiff of in my dreams.

Ah Gua

Those words cut deep. They had it all wrong, he wasn’t one.

*

At Scentz, you were surrounded by beautiful women. Women spritzing scented waters, women being spritzed by scented waters. Even if they weren’t beautiful, the strong scents lent them an air of vaporised beauty. The hot and humid climate of the tropical city meant that women flocked to the store daily, keen to sample the newest fruity scent that’d mask the faint odour emanating from their pores. They needed the scents, rain or shine, as both extremes of weather always resulted in sticky underarms.

When you’re a man who worked at Scentz, being surrounded by women was a great secondary incentive, if not the first. Not for Norman. He hated the grin he adopted when facing a customer, practically forcing the new Dance With Givenchy upon a long-haired Asian ballerina. He hated how the perfumes congealed into a pungent atmospheric mass that clogged his throat and made his eyes run by five o’clock every day. And most of all, he hated how he had to flail his wrists, sniff the air daintily and proclaim the curvy bottle in his hand “the next Chanel number 5”.

Norman’s only solace was lunchtime. He dropped the exaggerated swing in his skinny hips, adopted his usual gentle gait and headed into The HMV Building to the Kopitiam Cafe, which offered him a satisfactory meal at a nominal price. A bowl of stir-fried beef rice and a Coke added up to just under his preferred six dollar maximum, which surged to nearly sixteen dollars if he opted for cigarettes too. Sometimes, the woman with the crazy curly hair and ample waist would throw in some free fishballs if he chose Marlboro over Salem. “For you, you loyal customer,” she’d say, displaying a grin more genuine than his store grin, despite her missing front tooth and decaying others. She never judged him for his choice of low v-neck cotton t-shirt, tight pants and chin-length hair. More often than not, that was his only human contact not associated with perfume. He tried to hang on to this lunchtime normalcy for a bit. Norman took a seat at the outdoor area despite the searing heat, to welcome the silence, savour his beef bowl and appreciate his cigarette. As he ate, he watched the woman creating her sweet and sour pork chops, envying the ease at which she could pick the remnants of her lunch from her teeth while cooking. People accepted that.

After lunch, he stubbed out his cigarette and the same tired flamboyance surged again. He masked the cigarette stench with a randomly chosen bottle from the shop shelves and the rest of the day at Scentz saw him enticing women to his wares. Teenage schoolgirls who’d saved up for three weeks were just able to afford the smallest bottle of Rihanna’s Parlux, while the corporate bitches from the nearby Raffles Place offices strolled in and snapped up the new Ferragamo Incanto Bloom. Norman was tolerated by these females while he exclaimed shrilly and clapped his hands together, exalting the loveliness of the scents. But the moment they turned away, he spied either a smirk on the faces of women who came alone, or raised eyebrows and the exchange of amused looks on those who came in pairs or groups.

These patronising, scornful expressions reminded Norman that he existed in the siberia of the Island City, the remote, landlocked space which housed people of his kind. People with different preferences but who either had to embrace social norms for acceptance, or who like him, chose to throw themselves onto society’s stage and put on, quite literally, the performance of their lives.

Most days, Norman found enough strength to ignore the prickle of discomfort which surfaced on his ears. Other days, he wondered what exactly had made him choose this path. But, he always knew. He remembered all too clearly the horror on his parents’ faces when he’d told them; how they’d failed to notice the desperate begging in his eyes.

Ah gua? Can’t be! What did we do wrong in our previous lives?” his mother had wailed while falling to her knees in front of the Laughing Buddha statue.

Gay, yes. But ah gua?