Ah Huat squatted behind his mother’s food cart and peered through the spokes of a rusty, dented wheel. The pavement beneath his feet was dry and dusty, and an empty plastic bag with thin bright pink strings for handles flapped in the breeze, a damp straw sticking to the ground. Only traces of the Green Spot that had once been it remained, seeping at the edges.
Above him his mother whipped noodles around in a bluish-white porcelain bowl with amateurishly painted goldfish on its outside. Into the bowl she squirted soy sauce from a bottle, then flung in a tea spoon of chilli hastily scraped from a tub before dripping in thick, fragrant sesame seed oil. The noodles were stirred furiously until all was well mixed and slivers of white fish cake, fatty pork and scallions sprinkled on top. Mother balanced a spoon, some chopsticks and a small saucer of red chilli slices and soy sauce on top of the bowl and scuttled to a waiting customer. After collecting payment and issuing some damp change from her sweaty, puffy palms, she dashed back to the cart to fulfil the next order. Business was good and she barely had time to pay attention to Ah Huat. It was enough for her that she knew he was there, within sight and within earshot.
Her husband, Ah Huat’s father, had left them a long time ago. He was a gambler, a drinker, and had a habit of making promises he did not keep. He had trouble sticking to a schedule, and the last job he was known to have, a lighter man on the River, lasted only three days. The boss sacked Ah Huat’s father when he showed up four hours late, costing the boss a precious cargo run to a ship that had recently docked. When Ah Huat was born, the pressure of raising a child bore down on his father and he realised that he would have to organize his life if he were to have any hope of being a parent. The change was beyond him and thinking about it only reinforced his own sense of inadequacy. One day he quietly slipped out of the house and disappeared into the warren of gambling dens that in those days snaked through Chinatown.
For the most part, Ah Huat’s father lost himself in a haze of alcohol, smoke and dirty money, and thought little of his struggling wife and child. However, from time to time, usually when he was alone and in a stupor, pangs of guilt would pierce his heart and he longed for his child. Then he would crawl back to the hovel where Ah Huat and his mother lived, a room on the second floor of the shophouse which they shared with three other families, and crouch beneath their window waiting for a glimpse. Sometimes he saw Ah Huat’s mother, her hair plastered to her face, her trousers rolled up to her knees and a towel flung across one shoulder, a harried look on her face. Other times he saw his son, close to his mother, happy but thin, wide eyed and picking at one of his many scabs. He would look at them until he could no longer bear the shame of what he had done, and then he would crawl back down the dark alleyway he came and drown his sorrows.
On the afternoon that Ah Huat was squatting behind his mother’s food cart, a rather smart looking stranger came and sat at a table nearby. Ah Huat noticed him because unlike the ret of the customers he wore a collared shirt, leather shoes and carried a briefcase. Just the look of him made Ah Huat straighten up, as if he sensed this man’s importance. Another reason why this man caught Ah Huat’s attention was because he was glancing at his mother. Ah Huat’s mother carried on with her noodle production line, and did not notice the stranger, or at least pretended not to.
‘Fei,’ the stranger called out.
Ah Huat nearly fell over. The stranger knew his mother’s name! He grabbed the nearest spoke to him to save himself from landing on the filthy pavement and rattled the cart.
‘Ai! Huat, careful, or I’ll spill my noodles on you by accident,’ his mother said a
‘Fei’, the stranger called out again. ‘It’s me, remember?’
‘Huh?’, said Ah Huat’s mother, looking up. She saw the man who had called out to her and paused with noodle strainer and chopsticks in mid air. ‘Hello’, she said, ‘You are here.’
‘Yes, I came to see how you are?’, he asked, gently, as if aware that his presence was unexpected and might be unnerving. ‘How are you?’
‘Oh, I’m fine’, Ah Huat’s mother replied. ‘Same.’
‘Where were you yesterday?’ the man asked.
‘Oh, yesterday I took my son to school and then we went out’, she replied.
What!, thought Ah Huat. Yesterday was a holiday and he went nowhere near school. They did not go out either. They spent the day at home, she resting on their straw mat, he making kites out of bits of paper and string. He wanted to tug at her
‘I waited for you here’, the man said. ‘I thought I would see you.’
‘Aw, sorry I wasn’t here,’ Ah Huat’s mother said politely but awkwardly.
‘No, no, it’s okay’, the man replied earnestly, ‘anyway, you are here today.’
Ah Huat was bursting. Whoever this mystery man was he was obviously expressing an interest of some sort in his mother. He didn’t know how to react. On one hand he was burning with curiousity and excitement, and on the other hand he felt suspicious.
The comely stranger opened his briefcase, reached into it and pulled something out which he concealed in a fist. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘This is for you.’
Ah Huat could not quite make out what it was the man was offering, but it looked like money. Fei took a step backwards and turned her eyes away from the man. ‘No, no, no,’ she muttered. ‘No need, no need.’ She obviously knew what the man held in his hand but was refusing it.
‘Please,’ the man replied, rather gently. ‘Take it, it’s the least I can do.’
‘No,’ Ah Huat’s mother insisted again. ‘I feel bad.’
‘Don’t,’ said the kind stranger. ‘You have a son right? Take this for him, it will come in useful for his school fees and what not.’
Ah Huat’s mother fell silent. The money would come in useful. It had been tough for them to manage on her meager earnings from her noodle stall and she longed to give him a better life than he had. But the thought of accepting a hand out filled her with burning shame and only served to reinforce the reality that she was dirt poor. Ah Huat saw his mother’s brow crease with strain as she pondered this decision, and noticed her fidget with her soiled apron.
At last she sighed and nodded heavily. ‘Ok,’ she said softly. ‘For my son.’
Silently he handed over a wad of cash to her, pressing it into her palm. As he let go, their hands brushed momentarily and a pain unseen to anyone else seared Fei’s heart.
‘Thank you,’ she said, barely getting the words out.
The man stood up and held his briefcase in one hand. ‘Take care Fei,’ said the man, looking at Ah Huat’s mother in her eye. ‘I’ll come by again sometime.’ And he turned around and left. Ah Huat’s mother stood stock still, crumpled dollar bills in her hand with a faraway look in her eyes, the look of someone who knew much more than she was revealing.
As Ah Huat watched this little drama unfold before his very eyes, he was too mesmerized by the whole episode to think about why all this was happening. It was only when the stranger was out of sight did intrigue fill him. But how could he ask his mother about who this stranger really was? This was clearly something that caused her a lot of pain, a truth that even nine year old Ah Huat could discern.
The man left the row of food stalls and found himself by the old jinricksha station. Bells cringed shrilly, trishaw riders jostled for space and spat on the road, while the usual assortment of hawkers, peddlers and coolies crowded the pavement. In the air the delicious smell of freshly cooked food mingled with the stench of the day’s refuse, left to rot in the open. Packs of alley cats scavenged freely from the many piles of rubbish lying around, the only creatures to grow fat from the spoils of the streets.
Decidedly tolerant of the noise and filth, the gentleman made his way down South Bridge Road to one of the side streets that ran off it. On those streets, the shophouses were built so close together and housed so many people and so many businesses that the streets in between the houses were swallowed up in a torrent of sweaty, shirtless, human beings, poles of laundry, sacks of rice, baskets of vegetables, bales of cotton, chests of tea and a myriad of other things that were traded there everyday. Through this all wafted the unmistakable pungent odour of opium. Scattered the belly of this bazaar were numerous opium dens, dingy sickly places filled with yellow eyed, hollowed out human beings who never saw the light of day.
As soon as the man plunged into a side street he disappeared into this sea of life and death and his movements are only known through the writer’s privileged eye. He wound his way past a coolie house where men were queued up by their towkay’s desk for their day’s wages. He squeezed past the crowd gathered in front of a teahouse waiting for the evening’s singsong performance to begin. He stepped over bags of coffee beans stacked up in the five foot way of a merchant’s shophouse and as he walked past a brothel dodged the many prying hands of girls that peered out from behind window grills.
Finally he reached a pale wooden door, half opened.
The Tale of Ah Huat
Written on 9 August 2004; unfinished