In partnership with the Singapore Literature Prize, we took local fiction stories and interpreted them as movie posters. Here is a short story written by Leonora Liow.
BY Leonora Liow | Dec 29, 2017 | Books
What would local fiction stories look like if they were adapted for the big screen? Esquire partnered with the Singapore Literature Prize to interpret four authors and their fiction stories into movie posters. Starring actors Shane Mardjuki, Michelle Goh and a special appearance by the frontman of Stopgap, Adin Kindermann, there’s a psychological thriller, a romantic comedy, fantasy and horror. Here’s a short story by Leonora Liow from Moth Stories.
The box was almost insignificant, in coarse brown wrapping, taped down with masking tape. It was placed by the usual sheaf of letters, addressed in a cramped, barely legible hand. He had stared, annoyed. At his station in life and especially not here, he did not pick up a phone, much less open his own mail, not in the building of his corporation. Squinting, he made out the words scrawled in a corner: “Personal”. He turned it about—no return address. He eased the tape, the paper fell apart and it tumbled out.
A brown velvet box, bald in patches, worse for wear, its lid held in place by a clasp fretted in an ornamental design. There was no need to pick at it: it gave way at a flick of his nail and they tumbled out.
The cufflinks glinted, two perfect ovals of startling blue, set in slender silver rims worked in delicate filigree. The stones were artificial but their blue the blue of seas he had seen over the years. Off the coast of Spain, in the Mediterranean. He swivelled his chair around sharply, catching his breath, the objects hard and insistent in a clenched palm.
A placid horizon returned his gaze in shimmering colours. Ships were small black dashes of morse against the dark line of the horizon. Low humps of land dotted the immaculate waters in the distance. In between stood the bulky forms of neighbouring buildings that, by some omission of town planning or circumstance, had yet to obstruct his view. This was the backdrop against which he closed deals or rejected unviable ones, received visitors and made decisions that caused fluctuations on the stock exchange. When he said, I see the islands every morning, it was no idle boast. But the vision was blurred.
The sea before him, proof of his achievements; the sea in his palms betokening plans and promises he had failed to keep. We will go to Greece. We will visit Italy.
Dully, he could only think one thought: they could not have come from her. They must have been sent by Ah Kei, her husband. Or, if Ah Kei were dead, by some kindly person entrusted with one last discreet task.
The gift had been made to someone else. To a young man he had put aside. Not consciously, but by the passage of events, calls made on him, responsibilities placed on his shoulders. He had married, had proven himself, both personally and professionally, had heeded a greater wisdom, the paternal words as fresh as if the old man were still alive and right next to him. I have eaten more salt than you have rice.
He is himself a grandfather now and finds himself saying the same words to his sons, his grandsons. It has led the way from a landing space on a river’s edge to this building bearing crest and name of one of the largest construction concerns of the region.
And she, she too had married. Happily or not, he could not say. But suddenly the sight of these almost clumsy-looking objects made the years fall away, and he is stilled by guilt and emotion. It is a relic from their last night together. A night when so many things happened. How could he have forgotten these, and why did she keep them for so long?
And how could he find out more? Neo’s wife Lily, herself from those days, had done all she could.
Cradling the objects in his palm, he is brought up sharply against those previous lives: a young man again, pulse racing at a narrow escape from the round-up lorry that lumbered off to the beaches with so many young men; standing by his father under a weak lamp in a tapper’s hut negotiating with surly Indian tappers; stock-still with fright barely a street away from a bloody clash of races. An utter stranger to this world of position and role and substance. His father is long dead but past and present come together and he cannot swallow for the lump in his throat. It was as though you had emigrated to another country, acquired a different identity only to find yourself drowning in so much memory at the smell of some familiar food, you could weep right there and then.
Anonymity had ceased to be his from long ago, as also intimacy with any beyond an immediate circle of friends.
The old man had been proven right. Take care of today and tomorrow will take care of itself.
That first small concern on the banks of the river was no more than a generic description, pretty and charming, a line on a tourist flyer, a mention in a history book. The lives that moiled away at it are no more. A humble concern had run the gauntlet of precarious times and been husbanded to a prosperous present. The term “money” could now be replaced by “wealth”. Wealth had steadily accumulated since, and he himself had been rewarded in all aspects of his life, the professional, personal and civic. The very proof of it lay in this building, bearing a name grown august, and the stock exchange listings of the various arms of his construction conglomerate with its logo of an eagle soaring over a summit.
The days of relishing reports on himself are long past. Most successful, head of one of the largest construction conglomerates—he no longer bothers. His days pass in a peaceable retirement, himself honorary head of the behemoth he has built. The helm has passed on. His sons run his empire, presidents of its many concerns, his daughters are his company secretaries, chief executives, chairmen. His leisure is filled in the only way he cares for: with friends from the old days of bullock carts, pushcart hawkers, and persistent penury. Wu has gone but Huat and Neo, the remaining members of his circle, are still delighted to get together, in spite of infirmities—arthritis, clogged arteries, assorted aches. For the best friends are those you made when young; the worst the ones you made when rich.
Those days come flooding back as he cradles these objects, but one thought persists. What happened to her, beyond the fact of her marriage to Ah Kei and the two sons—or was it three—they had? A wild thought comes but is instantly crushed. He could search for Ah Kei, but Ah Kei himself might be dead, taken, for all he knew, much earlier, by a consumptive cough that was obvious even then.
He was 22, she 25. She had been shy of her age at first, refusing to tell him. But then afterwards, when you have no more secrets of your body, you have no more secrets of the facts of your life. She had told him with that look of mingled anxiety and indifference. How it had moved him, seeing her worldliness evaporate at this simple confession. It had made no difference to him, for just being with her gave him a freedom that he had not imagined possible. But she would never be given the chance to believe that.
New World, Happy World. Today they were condominiums, shopping centres, cinemas, filled with the alien race of a modern age. When someone said gloomily, I’m 60, it made him want to laugh and say, Oh, to be 60 again!
The four of them had played truant together, had shared the forbidden smoke in the back of a toilet when school was out, narrowly risking expulsion. Those were the days when you never gave a thought about who came from where the differences marked only when you made fun of one another’s parents. Huat’s father, a bus driver, was conjured up by spread arms and clenched fists turning an imaginary wheel; Neo’s, a doctor, was represented by a fist held to a chest and two fingers going tap-tap in imaginary auscultation; Wu’s, a pawnshop owner, by fingers rubbing an object and a greedy, appraising look. And his, a dried goods merchant, was extravagant sweeps of the arms, skyward and sideways with cries of siam! siam! as bales were lowered.
But now those feckless days were over. Huat was halfway through medical school. Neo was working in a trading company as a clerk. Wu oversaw the warehouses for a British company. He himself counted bales for his father as they were loaded and unloaded. They were wage earners, responsible young men. Entitled now and then to their freedom as young men. Entitled to young men’s larks.
And he perhaps had needed to blow off more steam than the others. His father had given him an ultimatum: the business or you continue studying. He wanted neither. But then he could not say what he wanted.
The business was a dusty, odoriferous godown on the bank of the river, much shouting going on, and huge gunny sacks of dried shrimp and anchovies and mushrooms being hoisted to and from barges at water’s edge. He, with his brother and sisters, had not lacked, but there was never more than just enough, his mother always prone to brooding moods and a grudging discontent which only later would he learn stemmed from the fact of his father’s second family.
But then he saw no further than the resentment of his days, that he had so little choice, that it must be this awful business or none at all. However many showers he took at day’s end never seemed to remove the daily reek of low tide and carcasses and the occasional bloated corpse. But his father had been obdurate. Suffer when you are young, enjoy yourself later.
His only relief was at day’s end, getting together with his mates to go bowling, or fishing, or, as one of them had the bright idea of suggesting, going to one of those Worlds with their dances and pretty girls.
Its tea-dances bright with jazz, and rhumba and swing in the air, the festive mood heard even before it was seen when you paid for your tickets.
They had all taken especial pains. Got dressed in proper shirts with sleeves. He had even made himself one that required cufflinks. It had cost a goodly amount of the measly wage his father paid him. They had laughed at him, at this affectation, but he had been defiant. There had once been a photo of some visitor in the papers, some big shot white man. His arm was held up and a sleeve showed some object. His tailor explained it. Then gave him a pair in a spontaneous gesture, picked from a drawerful of buttons, perhaps taking pity on his young man’s yearning. They were two plain coins, cheap and tinny looking. But he felt poised on the brink of manhood.
They all knew, despite Wu’s casualness, that that trip was not Wu’s first. They had known it when Wu’s eyes had searched the clusters of girls eagerly and then had spent the whole afternoon dancing with—yes, Sally. They all had shaken their heads at first when he confessed at last. He was in love.
It would go nowhere, they said. Wu’s mother was as old-fashioned as the day was long; his father was a taciturn man who wore his shirts buttoned up to the neck, whatever the state of the weather. Sally was, well, a taxi-dancer. People had a certain idea about places like these. Ah well, they said to each other knowledgeably. Wu would see for himself.
Sally was a pretty girl with large doe-like eyes and pearly even teeth. Her hair was done up in rolls on both sides of her face, framing it like that movie star. She was small-boned and danced like a butterfly. She had beautiful manners. She gestured to her friends. Annie, Su Fen, Ming.
He had been annoyed at first. Why did they have to be introduced like this? Could they not just find their own girls? But before he could make a polite excuse, the girl named Su Fen had put her hand out.
She was taller than Sally, with a regal way of carrying herself. Her face was oval, a little wider at the temples than ideal. But her eyes looked straight at you and when she danced, she stretched her arms further out than most of the girls around them, as though to send a signal: she was not like the others. He had thought of that dance as an obligation that, discharged, would free him. He was, in fact, eyeing another girl at the end of the hall, a girl with a face like a flower. He braced himself. He was 22 but this was the first time he had danced with a girl. Thank you very much. He rehearsed the words and gestures mentally as they bobbed and wove their way across the floor. Allow me. He would lead her back to her seat. Take a step back. Bow, but just a tiny bit. And then disengage, lest there be an expectation. He had not expected to be at the receiving end of just the conduct he had planned. He had even been slightly offended when she had said, with a raise of a hand, indicating the room, Have a nice time, and given him a cool and distancing smile.
He had not expected that he would ask her for the next one, and then the one after that, and he certainly had not expected that they would all walk up the street for a supper of frogs’ legs and porridge. He came with Wu after that, and the time after that, and then one day when Wu said he could not make it, he went anyway.
The short story, “Cufflinks” by Singapore Literature Prize shortlisted author, Leonora Liow, can be found in Moth Stories. Reprinted with permission from Ethos Books, Singapore and republished in the November issue of Esquire.