MAIL ORDER GROOM
Calliope, Winter 2011, Issue 130, America Mensa Ltd. View online.
THE CORRIDOR OF BROKEN MIRRORS
The Shine Journal, June 2010. View online.
Asia Literary Review, 2006, Print Works Ltd.
She loved birthdays. Birthdays used to mean big parties with balloons, confetti and cup after paper cup of Coca Cola. The smell of curry and kway teow; thirty kids crowded into her living room playing silly games like ‘Musical Chairs’ and ‘Simon Says’. Magic performances by her teenage cousin who looked vaguely like David Copperfield, and treasure hunt surprises inevitably hidden under the couches. Those were her favourite memories of childhood.
There was the birthday cake, of course. Each year, she would have one in a different shape and flavour. Sharmila was not like one of those fussy children who would demand chocolate or strawberry year after year. How boring! She remembered her eighth birthday when her mother accidentally spilled a ladle-full of fruit punch on her special Hello Kitty cake. Grandma was so furious that she refused to speak to mother for a week, only referring to her as ‘that Indian woman’ when she was in a better mood.
She could not recall the last time she celebrated her birthday. It was probably when she was thirteen, gangly and awkward. Or was it when she was fourteen? All she remembered was that she had crammed the cake down to please her mother, the fake smile frozen on her clown face. Deep inside, she was terrorised by her fear of growing fat. “I have fat Indian genes,” she thought, biting into the slice of Black Forest cake, “I am going to be as fat as my mother. I am going to be too fat for this tiny flat.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her father smile approvingly. He was sinewy with skin the colour of caramel, very much like the Chinese coolie she read about in her history textbooks. She remembered how comical her parents looked to her adolescent eyes: an Indian-and-Chinese version of Laurel and Hardy. They were good parents who tried their best to provide for her, but even then, she could not disguise the unmistakable feelings of shame she had felt.
It was a huge relief when they finally stopped asking the relatives over. It was not that she hated birthday celebrations. She just hated the same old conversations year in, year out. The Chinese relatives would comment on her dark skin tone and recommend the latest whitening products while the Indian ones would interrogate her on her disinterest in the Tamil language. “You have to remember your roots,” they would preach self-righteously, invariably forgetting that her so-called ‘roots’ were more complex and tangled than they could ever understand. Worst still, both sides would hound her relentlessly for the intimate details of her love life. Imagine if she had brought Jacques or Mario to the parties! These men whose bedrooms were the size of her two-room flat would never see her in the same light again.
After her lovers returned to Europe, she went through a brief period of mourning. She auctioned off the Cartier watch from Mario on ebay and found a part-time job as a manicurist. She had to cut her parents’ allowance by half but on her birthday, she made up for it when she took them out to dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Although they had chided her for wasting her money on the expensive meal, she could see that they were secretly pleased. Close to midnight, they surprised her with a home-baked birthday cake with kaya and mango chutney filling. It was a strange recipe invented by her mother, a curious fusion of the Singaporean taste with the Western method of baking.
“Do you remember when you were young, you used to steal into the kitchen at night to snack on the kaya jam?” her mother recalled fondly with a smile. “Aiyoh, so-- naughty!” The three of them sat huddled around the old rattan table where the cake was placed.
“This is a true-blue Singaporean cake,” her father said, his face beaming with patriotic pride. “Got Indian chutney, got ang moh cake, and Chinese kaya.”
“But no Malay taste, so it’s more like our family lah!” her mother retorted.
“This cake is as rojak as me,” Sharmila laughed. “But mama’s recipes are always nice.” She was not lying; the cake was delicious. Later, under the cloak of darkness, she lay supine on her thin mattress thinking about the day that had passed. It was indeed a happy and carefree birthday, not dissimilar to the ones she had had as a child. She smiled to herself when she recalled her greatest fear as a teenager – that of growing fat. Back then, eating a piece of cake was like consuming poison. Luckily, that phase passed quickly. In her late teens, it dawned on her that she had inherited her father’s thin genes. She had gorged herself on chocolates and ice-cream in self-abandonment after breaking up with her then boyfriend. The punishing yet pleasurable routine went on for almost a month until she realised, to her own amusement, that she had hardly put on a single gram in weight. As she stood naked in front of the mirror examining the soft curves of her body, she saw with newfound clarity, an attractive young woman smiling back at her. The young woman had an aquiline nose, a small, full mouth and the most beautiful deep-set eyes framed by a pair of slightly-arched eyebrows. She was rather pretty, and she was as thin as a model! To Sharmila, it was a moment of pure joy.
She had not quite felt anything of that intensity since; in fact, she suspected that her quota for happiness might have just exploded and extinguished on that very day. The feeling that her life was like a leaking vessel began to take shape inside her. No matter how much happiness she had in life, it would always be slowly, but indefinitely leaking out of the half- empty shell. She tried to think of a solution to this conundrum but it only reminded her of those mental mathematical problems they were made to practice in school. If a fish tank was leaking at a rate of Xm3/hr, and water was being replaced at a rate of Ym3/hr, how long would it take for the tank to be half full? She had never been good at math; thinking about a complex problem like this in the middle of the night gave her a headache. She groaned in desperation. The only way to having a full tank of happiness was to have someone pour it in at a maniac rate. And that someone had to keep pouring and pouring and pouring…
+ + +
Exactly a month after her birthday, Sharmila met Dave. Although she remembered making a wish before cutting her birthday cake, she was not sure if she had wished for a boyfriend or a husband. She had gone back to working at ‘Angels’, the pub where she had met Jacques and Mario two years ago. The wounds from the break-up had healed and she needed more money. In any case, being a manicurist was not going to earn her much happiness in the long run.
That Thursday night, the bar was busier than usual because a customer had reserved half the bar for a Stag Night. The manager had asked the girls to perform a special routine for the party. There was nothing sleazy of course, just some extra moves thrown in to turn up the heat by a touch. Generally, the men who held their Stag Nights here were pretty well-behaved. Take the bridegroom for instance: he was so embarrassed by all the attention showered on him that by the end of the evening, he had practically withdrawn into the deepest recesses of his sofa. The other men, though dressed in well-pressed shirts and ties, behaved more like little boys on a school outing.
She danced near them all evening, only stopping for quick breaks to touch-up her makeup and adjust her two-piece sequinned outfit. She was not interested in the boys but rather the tall and well-built Caucasian man sitting with them. Blonde, blue-eyed, with a neatly-trimmed goatee to make up for a hairline that was conspicuously losing ground, he looked like he was in his early forties. Out of the corner of her eye, she observed him secretly while gyrating to the pumping beat. She figured out that he must be a senior manager of some sort. He was seated slightly apart from the rest, his body language hesitant. Sometimes he looked bored, but he was never unresponsive. Every time a game was concluded, he would raise his pint of beer and smile encouragingly at the younger men. She also noticed that he smiled encouragingly at her.
Later, during her break, she slipped out to the courtyard and sat next to him beneath the Frangipani tree. The night breeze felt cool and assuring on her moist skin. He offered her his Marlboro Light but she declined.
“You dance well,” he said, putting out his cigarette. “How long have you been doing this?” He sounded like one of those newscasters on BBC news.
“Ever since it was legalised in Singapore.”
He looked surprised. “Oh, that’s new! But then, I’ve only been here for a couple of months.”
“You’ll find many new things in Singapore then.” She smiled and touched his arm lightly. “My name is Sharmila and I’m here every night except Tuesdays and Wednesdays…”
“Well, Sharmila, I’m definitely not going to be here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays then! I mean, I need an experienced local to tell me more about this very bizarre city called Singapore, won’t I?”
She giggled softly. “I’ll tell you more about Singapore next time. But now I have to dance.” With that, she left him under the shadows of the magnificent tree as she returned to her forest of metal poles and male fantasies.
Dave came back frequently to ‘Angels’ after that, though true to his words, he was never there on her off days. He would arrive at a quarter past nine and make his way to his favourite barstool which the manager had come to reserve for him. Occasionally he would chat with the bartender but most of the time he seemed contented just sipping his beer (always Heineken) and watching Sharmila dance. Five minutes before her first shift ended at ten, he would slip off to the courtyard where he would wait for her under the Frangipani tree. There were actually no rules forbidding the girls from chatting with the customers and the manager was more than happy to keep his customers entertained. However, therein lay the problem: she did not want it to be seen as ‘entertainment’. Outside the glass doors and throbbing red lights, she felt that she could talk to him as the real Sharmila, not ‘Sharmila the bar top dancer’. Of course, sometimes she did wonder if she was talking to the real Dave, but then she concluded that the details were really inconsequential.
Dave turned out to be much more garrulous than she expected. Since he dominated the conversation most of the time, she managed to find out quite a fair bit about him after a week. Dave was a senior manager at one of the big foreign banks (good news); he had been married for ten years (bad news), had two kids in London (bad news) but was now separated from his estranged wife (good news). He also drove a BMW and lived in a rented apartment filled with designer furniture near Orchard Road (doubly good news). Overall, Dave was definitely a piece of good news in her life.
As they got more familiar, Dave started asking her to accompany him out on weekends. He would always bring her to some quiet and expensive restaurant out of town for dinner; and this would be followed by a pub visit. They did not go to ‘Angels’ of course, but Dave would always know a good pub where he could watch ‘live’ broadcasts of football matches. Sharmila knew that Dave was as English as it got when it came to football so she always indulged him. When he decided to forgo a game to bring her back to his bachelor pad one Saturday night, she was over the moon. He told her he had just bought a new designer couch and asked her if she was interested in checking it out. She agreed, knowing that it was going to be much more than the couch. She saw it coming; she was only surprised that it took so long.
When Dave was in a good mood, he would encourage Sharmila to talk about herself. At his insistence, she would talk about her childhood, her love for baking and occasionally her contempt for her previous job as a manicurist. Except for her work as a dancer, the rest she painted in hurried, careless brushstrokes for she was always afraid that he might be bored of her rambling. Although she had never mentioned it to Dave, she was secretly ashamed of the way she spoke. It was her Singaporean accent. Grating and nasal, it sounded totally incompatible with Dave’s mellifluous and elegant baritones. One evening after dinner, Dave made a casual comment on her accent, on how she seemed to sound American one moment and Chinese the next.
“With a British lover and a Chinese mother, how else do you expect me to sound?” she asked, sounding a tad too sensitive.
“Chinese mother? Aren’t you Indian?”
“You don’t know I’m half- Chinese?” she asked incredulously.
“Well, you never told me, honey…”
“What do you mean? The other time we went to Bintan for the weekend, you were looking at my passport and asking me how to pronounce my surname. You kept pronouncing ‘Ng’ as ‘N-G’, ‘N-G’, like you were doing a movie retake or something! Don’t tell me you don’t remember that?”
“Of course I do, honey. It’s ‘Nnng’…” Dave grinned sheepishly and hummed through his nose. “I just didn’t know that ‘Ng’ was a Chinese surname, that’s all. Now don’t be mad. You wouldn’t know that McDonald’s a Scottish surname either, would you? Nnng?” He laughed again like it was the greatest joke on earth.
She felt hurt of course. She was just undecided whether she was more offended by Dave’s ignorance about her background, or his remarks about her mish-mash accent. As she walked out of the lushly landscaped compounds of his condominium and descended downhill towards the bright lights of Orchard Road, she wondered if she was doing it all wrong. Maybe she was just pursuing a fairytale that would never become a reality. Maybe there was no glass slipper after all. Only flip-flops and BATA shoes to get around the cracked cement corridors of the Housing Development Board estates.
Orchard Road was suitably crowded even for a Wednesday night. Despite the heat, the shoppers were out in full force, as were the people-watchers who had given up the comfort of the air-conditioned shopping centres to dine alfresco next to the pedestrian pavements. Waiting at the traffic junction, she stared enviously at the number of luxury cars that inched past her on the road. A young woman in a revealing top drove by in a silver Porsche. “She looks no older than me,” Sharmila thought, “But she’s driving a car which I’ll never be able to buy. How unfair life is! All these talk about a meritocratic society is just bullshit. If you’re born poor, you will never be exposed to all these opportunities that the rich people have at their fingertips. Rich people, even if they’re stupid, get to go to famous Australian universities. But poor people? They end up in Starbucks, serving coffee to these rich people who may be stupider than them.”
As she weaved her way through the crowd, she thought about Jenny’s theory on the poor-rich divide in Singapore. Accordingly to Jenny, the world would always have ‘Very Rich And Beautiful People’ and ‘Very Poor And Ugly People’. If you were very lucky, you would belong to the first category; but if you were very unlucky, you would be born amongst the very poor. Better still, you would look ghastly. The majority of the population, however, would fall in between. To illustrate her point, Jenny took a coaster from the bar and drew two intersecting straight lines to indicate the X and Y-axis of a graph. She wrote ‘Population’ next to the vertical line, and ‘Amount of $’ next to the horizontal line; then she drew a convex bell-curve smack in the middle of her graph. “See,” she said pointing to the point closest to the intersection of the X and Y-axis, “That’s where we are.” Society, accordingly to Jenny’s theory, was never fair. The rich and beautiful would always marry within their own elitist circle, leaving the poor and ugly to marry the even poorer and uglier people left on the shelf. The only exception to this was when one was poor but beautiful. Then, and only then, would one stand a chance of moving eastward along the X-axis. “To all those girls who dream about marrying rich men, I say take a look at yourselves!” Jenny snorted in disgust. “Unless you are model material, forget it!” But there was a third way: go international. After all, the government was always advocating for the locals to look beyond Singapore.
Jenny was an entrepreneur in international dating; during the three years that Sharmila knew her, Jenny had never dated a single Singaporean man. It was a surprise initially as Jenny had never been thought of as someone particularly attractive. With her teardrop eyes, birdlike nose and bee-stung lips, Jenny was plain by Asian standards. She was also extremely tanned for a Chinese, a fact she had come to accept in recent years. Ironically, for every Singaporean male who scoffed at her looks, she had a white guy lusting after her ‘sexy exotic features’.
“Don’t you want love?” Sharmila had asked her.
“Don’t you want to get out of ‘Angels’?” Jenny retorted.
“Sure, but I want love just as much.”
Jenny sighed impatiently, her perfectly manicured fingernails tapping indignantly on the lacquered bar-counter. “You can’t have your cake and eat it,” she said.
+ + +
She did not report for work the next week, only sending the manager a text message which stated “Flu, can’t dance”. It was really her mother who needed the medical attention. That night after the quarrel with Dave, she returned home to find her mother sprawled face-down on the bathroom floor. She was unable to move herself after she a dizzy spell had caused her to slip and fall while cleaning the toilet. The next few hours passed in a blur. The doctors at the Accident and Emergency declared that her mother had had a mild stroke. But it was a lucky thing that she was fat, they said. Her fat had cushioned her from the fall and she escaped with just a broken arm. “There will be transient numbness in her limbs and a loss in strength. But otherwise, she is very, very lucky,” they said confidently. It sounded as if a broken arm was the best thing that could ever happen to an overweight woman. As if to emphasise how fortunate her mother was, Mrs Ng was discharged after a day of observation.
For the next few days, Sharmila washed, cleaned and cooked for her family. It was therapeutic really. The harder she scrubbed, the less time she had to worry about the bills and her mother’s condition. Although the doctors were optimistic, she could not help but notice her mother’s occasional incoherence and intermittent memory lapse. It was as if someone had secretly extracted some crucial ingredient out of her mother’s spirit.
On Sunday, she finally met Dave. But only after he drove up to the car park under her flat and disturbed the elderly neighbours with his sporadic honking. Worried that someone might call the police, she rushed downstairs in her shorts and old school T-shirt. It was the first time she had ever appeared in front of Dave sans mascara.
“You aren’t avoiding me because of the Chinese-slash-Indian faux pas, are you?” he asked as she got in next to him. She shook her head. “It was insensitive, I admit, but it wasn’t a crime! Hell, I’m sorry and I’ve been thinking about us, about how I should make it up to you.”
“It’s okay, Dave. I’m just busy with things at home and making ends meet, you know…”
“I know I have taken you for granted, Sharm… I mean, you’re not like those other girls, always talking about settling down and all that rubbish… but that doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to take care of you…” Her heart skipped a beat. She threw a sidelong glance at his shirt pocket but could not detect any angular bulge.
“Look, you remember Robert who stays in the next apartment block? Well, he’s going back to Australia for good. Now, Rob’s got a really lovely place, a one-bedroom… not terribly big, but exquisitely furnished. So I thought to myself, why not rent the place for you? It’ll be great for us being in the same estate and you can even use my car if you like,” Dave took her hands and squeezed them excitedly. “And you don’t have to worry about the bills or anything, because you know what, jewel? I’m going to give you an allowance, a generous one too. You don’t even have to dance anymore.”
“But isn’t it cheaper if I moved in with you?” She was confused. It was not what she had expected.
“You know how terribly busy I am…and sometimes, I do have to entertain at home. You won’t like it if you had to put up with the noise and small talk all the time…and what if my people start thinking that you’re my maid? I’m sorry that’s a bit crude but it has happened before. To Yann’s Filipino girlfriend, that is. Believe me, this is a much better option for you.”
She thought about her mother asleep on the easy chair upstairs, her broken arm slung close to her bosom like she was feeling cold.
She thought about the girl in the silver Porsche on Orchard Road and the familiar fragrance of the Frangipani tree in ‘Angels’.
“Okay,” she replied, “Okay.”
+ + +
‘Convincing’ her parents out turned out easier than she had expected. It was an elaborate lie she told but one that everyone was better off with. With the generous allowance from Dave, she quit her job and became her mother’s caretaker.
There was no verbal agreement but Dave would pop round two or three times during the work week, usually after nine. She would fix him a quick snack while he showered. When he was in a very good mood, she would cajole him into going down to the hawker centre. She knew that he disliked the blackened tiles, the humidity and the heartland crowd (he had called it a ‘communal kitchen’), but secretly, she hoped that with constant exposure, he might grow to love the unique atmosphere and variety of food that it offered. Even though he hardly seemed to touch the food she ordered, she felt contented just seeing him in an environment most familiar to her. But those excursions were few and far between; most evenings were concluded in the bedroom.
She loved the weekends best. Other than Saturday afternoon which was his golfing session with the other expatriates, they would spend time together doing things like shopping for groceries, watching television or simply just lazing in bed with the papers. Weekends were the time when she could almost pretend that they were happily married. Not because he was especially nice to her but simply because they were doing the boring things that most married couples did.
The month that Dave was back in London, she drove his BMW to Chinatown to meet Jenny for dim sum. It had been more than a year since she left ‘Angels’ and she was keen to catch up with her vivacious friend.
“I’m glad that Dave’s treating you well,” Jenny said, signalling furiously at the dim sum trolley which had by-passed their corner. “So he pays for your apartment, gives you an allowance and lets you drive his BMW… what next? Marriage and babies?”
Sharmila giggled, “We’ve not talked about it but I do find myself fantasising about baby names sometimes.”
“Exotic! But girl, I was just joking…you really mustn’t think of such things.”
“Why not?” Sharmila challenged. “There are more and more expats marrying local girls, aren’t there? I always see them with their kids hanging out in Great World City.”
“Yes, but that’s different. Men like Dave live in a parallel universe. His is a White Man Singapore. I’m not sure if he’s willing to cross over to our version of Singapore.” Jenny sunk her teeth into the egg tart. “Has he ever had dim sum anyway?”
“Not yet. But that doesn’t mean he won’t come round to it one day, right?” She regretted her defensiveness immediately. If Jenny detected her plea for assurance, she showed no signs of it. As she stared at the steaming bamboo baskets, Sharmila started to doubt her own claim. The siew mai looked too ‘Chinese’ for Caucasian taste. ‘Too oily, too yellow’; she could almost hear Dave’s disgust in her head. “Of course,” she said hurriedly, “He’ll need time to adapt.”
“Drink a little but don’t get too drunk,” Jenny said in her usual insouciant manner. “Anyway, I’m happy for you.”
+ + +
The days passed slowly as she waited anxiously for Dave’s return. Jenny’s words have been haunting her ever since the dim sum lunch and she desperately wanted Dave’s reassuring baritone voice to drown out all the white noise in her head. She spent many evenings in Great World City Shopping Centre. When she ran out of things to buy, she would sit in the cafes and count the number of interracial couples strolling by. As Great World was practically populated by expatriate men and their local spouses, she would have no problem spotting more than ten such couples a night. The sight of these happy couples, sometimes with a baby in tow, would invariably fill her with a curious mix of jealousy and hope. It reminded her of those Saturday nights not so long ago when she herself was strolling down the supermarket aisle with Dave, picking out the most exotic cheese she had ever seen in her life. Previously, she had thought that cheese was solely produced by a company called ‘Kraft’.
About a week before Dave was due to return, she decided that she should try to get into shape. It had been ages since she had made use of the swimming pool downstairs. Ten laps later and completely exhausted, she climbed out of the pool and made her way back. Walking past the clubhouse, she almost squealed in joy when she spotted him in the distance. “Dave!” she called out excitedly and ran towards him. He turned, his face lighting up with the familiar smile when he saw her. Then she saw the thin, blonde girl standing next to him, staring at her. It was then that she realised what a sight she was, dripping wet and waddling awkwardly towards them like a penguin in flip-flops. She stopped. “How come you’re back so early?” she managed a squeak as they approached her.
“Who’s she?” the blonde girl asked and looked Sharmila up and down behind her fashionable aviator shades. She was half a head taller but looked like she was about the same age as her.
There was a slight pause before Dave introduced the two of them. “Wendy, this is Sharmila,” Dave said casually, putting his arm around the girl’s freckled shoulders. As it turned out, Wendy was Dave’s daughter who was in Singapore for a week-long visit. “Sharmila is my neighbour. She’s Indian, like, like that Bollywood actress, Aishwarya whatever.”
“Nice meeting you, Shuh-mee-luh,” Wendy said without offering her hand.
“Hi,” she whispered weakly at the pair, her hair plastered to her cheeks. She tried to think of something clever to say to Wendy but it felt like she had left her brain at the bottom of the pool. “Hi,” she repeated.
Dave looked slightly annoyed. “You should go up and get dressed,” he said. “You’re shivering.”
Later in the day, Sharmila got a call from Dave apologising for not informing her of his early return. It was a last minute decision to bring his daughter over for a short vacation. She would be back in London in a few days but meanwhile, they should keep all contact minimal as Wendy was a ‘very sensitive teenager’.
“But you will come over on Sunday, won’t you? I mean, your daughter would have gone back. It’s your birthday and I really want to celebrate for you…” Sharmila asked anxiously over the phone. Dave laughed and assured her that he would remember his own birthday, told her how much he loved her before hanging up on her.
+ + +
It was a painfully long week. So when Sunday morning finally arrived, Sharmila greeted it with an expectant smile on her face. Dave was coming over for lunch and she had plans to make his first birthday in Singapore his most memorable. Although her first instinct was to cook him her favourite local dishes, she changed her mind and bought a book on fusion cooking instead. After studying the recipes studiously, she decided on curry pasta as the main course and green tea ice-cream with red bean topping for dessert. However, the highlight would have to be the cake. Not just any cake, but the kaya mango chutney cake that she had learnt and perfected from her mother.
Remembering how Dave had come into her life shortly after she had celebrated her birthday with this cake, Sharmila was convinced that it would be doubly lucky to have it for Dave’s birthday too.
Dave came over at noon, after sending his daughter off at the airport. When he saw the table laid out with the curry and cake, he threw his arms around Sharmila and danced her around the room.
She laughed. How she loved it when he acted like a boy! Somehow it made her feel that their relationship was much less complicated than it actually was. “Wait a sec,” she said and popped into the kitchen to set the kettle on. It didn’t take too long for her to reappear with the teapot, but Dave had already started on the cake, carving little bits off the top layer of sponge and feeding himself with the knife which she had left beside the cake.
“Dave! Aren’t we supposed to cut the cake together? Or at least you’re supposed to cut it after I finish singing you your birthday song? You didn’t even make a wish!” Suddenly, his boyish antics were not that funny anymore.
“Hey, how old am I, baby? How old are you? Give me the cake but don’t you even dare ask me blow out those multi-coloured candles! Speaking of which, I’m glad you haven’t got any with you!”
“C-Candles?” She thought of the box of candles she had bought yesterday and felt somewhat embarrassed. “No, no…I don’t do candles. I just thought it’s a British thing,” she said, handing him a cup of tea. David took the cup with his left hand while his right hand was still busy defacing her creation.
“I like your cultural explanation, honey, but I like your cake even better. The texture is spot-on, you’ve done it exactly like that fantastic bakery in Chelsea.” He scooped up the final piece of the top layer with the knife and popped it expertly into his mouth. “There! I’ve had half the cake, so don’t complain that I don’t love you enough to sacrifice my waistline for you,” he said, looking very pleased with himself.
The birthday cake with its top layer depleted looked pretty miserable. The thick layer of kaya and mango chutney paste originally sandwiched between the two layers of sponge cakes had been exposed and speckled by yellow-coloured crumbs. It bore little resemblance to what Sharmila had produced from the oven just half an hour earlier. “Dave,” she tugged at his sleeve. “You forgot to try my special kaya and mango chutney paste.”
“Oh that. You can have it you know. You like that Asian stuff, don’t you?”
“I do. Don’t you want to try it?”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure it’s delicious…I’m just not sure how it tastes as a filling in a birthday cake.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because… because you don’t just mix things like that. It’s like, I love marmite and I love roti prata. But that doesn’t mean I like marmite on prata...”
“It’s not a very good example.”
“No?” he paused. “Right, why don’t we take the example of sushi then? Ever tasted mozzarella sushi, or fish and chips sushi?”
“Surely nobody can stomach anything so weird? Sashimi jacket potatoes, green tea croissants, the list goes on! I could do this all day but you get my point, yeah?” He stood up to switch off the television and motioned towards the bedroom.
“No, I don’t.”
“My point is, east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet! They are too different. Birthday cakes with kaya and mango chutney…I’m really not sure about that.” He sighed and tried to put his arms around her. But she squirmed away from his clumsy embrace like a quicksilver and retreated to the corner of the living-room. “What now?” he put his hands up exasperated, “Taste is personal, Sharmila. What do you want me to do?”
Outside the floor-to-ceiling glazing of the fifteenth floor apartment, the thick layer of seasonal haze had descended on Singapore, wrapping itself around the panorama of Orchard Road like a vagabond’s grubby blanket. For the first time, the shiny glass and granite facades of the modern shopping centres looked dreary and dull, like monolithic concrete blocks inserted mindlessly into the flat urban landscape. Around them, as if on conveyor-belts, the tiny cars moved in perpetual motion around the hot and humid city. Stop and start, stop and start. The city was on remote-control. Standing there high above it all in her glass tank of artificial cool air, she felt suddenly suffocated by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. In this glass tank, she was slowly losing her senses.
“Nothing you can do, Dave. In fact, there’s nothing we can do for this relationship.” She moved towards the front door. Hand on the handle, she paused. “Maybe I just leave a bad taste in your mouth.”
In the background, the hum of the air-conditioning was unmistakable.