Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
When the riot burns the city-
Jazz up your city in a dapper pinstripe suite, ditch the slouch, the carefree attitude, you get yourself a city on the adrenalin, bloated with aspirations, ready to pursue at all costs what it takes to be the best. We love how the city competes, in this and that, rising steadily above all nations, big and small, on the global index, second to none. Then what next? How long can you keep the lid on sanity? Fifty, a hundred years? What becomes of the city? What becomes of you?
Hours before the riot in Little India stuns the city – of foreign workers burning and tossing police cars and ambulances around like some toys – life in the city has chugged along, as always, smoothly like perforated pieces of paper churned out of a machine that never seems to break down. The orderliness of the city operates much the same way as with Dr. Soon Wah’s life. He gets to the clinic at quarter to nine, ready to see the first patient at nine sharp.
But on last Monday, an hour before the clinic closes for mid-day lunch, Madam Soh, the clinic assistant, dashes into the room abruptly – he’s with his stethoscope on a patient’s chest – catching her breath, says quickly: “Emergency, doctor. Someone got knocked down outside. Come quick.” Without another word, Madam Soh disappears behind the door, her words ripple resolutely in the room.
The clinic is divided from the main busy thoroughfare by a canopied strip of rain trees and pink-blooming bougainvillea on an island of grass, lined with gutters on the side of the clinic, ready to challenge heavy downpour that can happen in a blink. Every thing in the city – inanimate objects or the living – labouriously put together, fight for space. In the tightness of the city, the planted trees, the green patches here and there, lend an illusion of space that’s never quite there to enjoy. The manicured shrubs and lawns, the neatness of it all can be off-putting.
As he jumps over the narrow gutter to reach the victim, cutting through the huddle of bystanders, he observes that the traffic also grinds to a crawl on both sides of the roads. Motorists peering out the windows, mindlessly watching (and what are they thinking really, Dr Soon wonders) on the collision of an inanimate object with the living in the tightness of space, made tighter by the anxiety of city life (and now the riot). What’s there to see? The license plate of the manacled car for 4D? Or the victim, whether alive or dead? Move aside, doctor’s here. Someone says before he needs to take it upon himself to say so.
As the crowd gives way to him, what comes into view is the victim lying unconscious on the grass patch by the side of the kerb; the head perched on a tawdry-looking purple lady’s bag, probably belonging to the victim. One bystander, an earnest-looking middle-aged woman, is kind enough to take upon herself to shield the victim from the sun with her umbrella. With the mid-day sun steaming, with the unpleasant smell of tar leaking out the roads rising up the nostrils, Dr Soon puts his left palm on the ground to support his weight as he kneels down to examine the victim. It isn’t the intense heat seeping up the bones that suddenly leaves him shaken. As he turns the victim’s head to face him, cold sweat breaks out on his forehead. Isn’t she the girl whom he has just fucked the night before? That can’t be her, right?
The blustery wind that momentarily commits the indiscretion – lifting up the victim’s turquoise halter neck mini-dress, revealing her lace-trimmed pink panties – leaves him in a fix. The night before, he has peeled the lacy thing off her, taking in the scent of her crotch before he crushes it with his hand when they both work it up in the bed. That sweet young thing.
Before the city burns-
What emblazons the worth of a person in this city is not tangible things but those intangible qualities such as grit, honesty, purity of heart, selflessness, and above all, the dare to dream. Unfortunately, he who is worth the salt must possess money and status, like the pleasurable chink of an elegant timepiece, not there to tell you the time but to show others that you have arrived in life. Dreams are too expensive in this costly city.
“Don’t ever be priced out living in your own country,” his father warns him when he mulls over whether to pursue journalism over medicine after his A levels. “You don’t want to become bitter when your peers drive a convertible, live upscale, and you get stuck in a rut. Dreams are expensive. Being lofty means you live high up in a HDB flat, not on freehold, a good class bungalow, is that what you want? You will be crushed if you coast along as part of the middle class in the country! A middling life at best, neither here nor there! Think before you leap!”
After much thinking, Dr Soon reckons that his father has a point. It is very much the same point his father makes when he, then a ten year old boy, resists in going to the violin class, deciding to give it all up after four years of effort on the wretched instrument.
“You want to be ordinary like other kids,” his father warns. “Then go ahead and stop playing the violin.”
At that point in time, he resolves to press on with the violin, partly also driven by his eagerness to impress the girl whom he has become infatuated with in his class.
He remembers once how his classmates tease him when he declares his love for her, the girl a head taller than him: “You’re not special enough for her. Forget it.”
Determined to make himself stand out, he practices harder than before, begging for more practice sessions to the satisfaction of both his father and the violin teacher. By the time he turns fifteen, he is able to impress more girls than he can ever imagine with his adroit mastery of the strings, standing a head taller than most of his peers; a late quick spurt in growth making him more special than he asks for.
The final push that convinces him to become a doctor happens when he sits down reading his favourite car magazine in the toilet. His future, as he sees it, leaps out of the pages. Amongst the number of motor aficionados writing columns in the magazine, there is a general practitioner who writes a regular column on the latest works in town. From time to time, this doctor-writer gets to fly out to exotic destinations to review and test-drive swanky works, a BMW Z4 Roadster in Munich, a RCZ Peugeot coupe in Paris. Not too bad to be a doctor, and writes on the sidelines too. With the future frames as it is, the rest becomes history. He is more special than he ever can ask for.
When the riot burns the city-
Have you not seen it coming, despite all the success you whip up to show the world? The chaos is in the storm, the beauty is in the rainbow. The skies let up without mercy, but just wait; the rain will have to stop. There, you will see the rainbow, the skies no longer charcoal hard with soot and the burning retreats as the city restores the order and peace, so that we can all, heave and ho, as if nothing has happened before; and continue to burnish the city with greater success that we can all be proud of.
“Are you out of love?” The sweet young thing asks curiously, her dolled-up manga-mascaraed eyes searching him.
“Do you think everyone who sleeps with you is loveless?” Dr Soon gently fires the question back. In his line of work where medical prognosis is not always god-sent but science stabbing at the dark, he learns quickly to answer his patients with questions, not direct affirmations. Much like a polished politician, he takes the same seasoned approach every time girls whom he beds probe him.
“I watched a play recently and the prostitute in the play says that in the old days, what they sell is not their bodies, but the game of love,” the girl continues. “Something men lust for but can’t have it their way. Doc, you’re one of them. I want to confess to you something, Doc. I’ve been to your clinic once before. When you put on your listening thingy on my chest, I then saw in your eyes, how should I say, a purposeful look. Now, I understand what goes through your mind. A hunger for desire, lust for something that you can’t have. Am I right, doc?”
“What the heck? You’re my patient?” Dr Soon says, running his fingers tightly over his head sparsely sprinkled with hair. “We can’t do this. How can CK send you to me? Unacceptable.”
“Hush, Dr Soon,” the sweet young thing slips her soft hands around his neck, and continues: “You have had me for the sixth time already. Isn’t it a little too late to call it quits? But don’t worry, our dirty secret stays within these walls.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“In your eyes, a prostitute. You can’t deny that’s what you are simply thinking, that’s how you see me. But who am I? I aspire to be a writer, you know. Doc, one other thing I’m most curious about. Can you tell me why people like you who are in power, loves to fiddle with power, and fuck around?”
On the day of the riot-
What do you do when the city in the pinstripe suit burns, the dreams going up in flames? You ask for it, some say quietly. The economy is on the steroids for far too long. The riot is a mere figment among the varied distractions in our lives. But don’t despair. Dust the lint of madness off your dapper collars, for all is well sooner than you think. The city has far too many distractions to burn forever.
Dr Soon can’t remember when exactly that he started his loveless affair with prostitutes. What he remembers well though is that as the years go by, the curiosity that beats in his heart each time seeking out a new flirt is no longer as stronger. The tedium of work in the clinic at times pushes him forward to seek out the fresh bodies like letting in much needed fresh air into the staleness of his consultation room.
Sometimes, he allows himself to listen in more keenly to the stories of these girls after he penetrated them, lying spent, looking up aimlessly at the ceiling of some hotel room. Most girls are in the work for the money. Occasionally, there is the odd one out – like the sweet young thing, aspiring writer, educated in a top school as far as he is told by her – bent with willful resolve to prostitute herself as a way to enrich the febrile mind, to open her eyes to a different world out there.
“How to become a great writer if I’m not abused?” The sweet young thing muses. “Our city is far too clean, too many rules. It’s driving me nuts some days thinking about how the goddamn city’s every street and corner, every building and hideout, are penciled with a ruler that extends right onto the doorstep of my home. Where’s the inspiration?”
In more ways than one, Dr Soon understands the motivation of the sweet young thing to sell her body. If he can, he will probably let go of his body for a fraction, get abused by someone for once. But who wants him, flabbily-built at forty-four this year, average-looking, a common face in a crowd firing little imagination, lifting little inspiration for women, or men to throw him a second look?. . .
After the city burns-
Sometimes you have to put a distance between yourself and the city, to better see what becomes of the city, what becomes of you. It’s hard to see the changes, especially in a season less city like ours. It only gets hotter by the day, cools a little in the evenings, then back again to the insufferable heat when the morning breaks. The glare during the day is sometimes too strong to see clearly what exactly this shiny city is made of; the skyscrapers reflecting too much light to see what’s beneath the veneer of this unbeatable city.
Two days after the accident, Dr Soon appears uneasily in the eight-bed patient ward, eyes searching in the half-lit room for the sweet young thing. As he scans the room, the ceiling fan twirling the septic air around, to his relief he realizes that most of the beds are empty. Opposite the sweet young thing, a silver-haired scrawny-looking granny hook up on a tube loop around her nose occupies the bed; the blue blanket-like curtain half drawn to keep the outside world at bay. Dr Soon relaxes a little; the last thing he wants is to draw unwanted attention to the girl and to himself.
“You’re here,” the sweet young thing says, beams at him, and then starts picking restlessly at a loose thread on the cast that wraps around her leg. “A broken leg, but should be fine. I’ll be out in a week. Miss me, you?”
“What were you doing outside my clinic?” Dr Soon asks, no longer able to contain his annoyance. “I said before, don’t visit my clinic. It’s not right.”
“I’ve just wanted to warn you that CK has been arrested by the police,” she replies.
“CK? What has he done?” Dr Soon asks.
“He’s been arrested for having underage girls working for him.”
“You risk your life and limb just wanting to tell me this that day?”
“I have a confession to make,” the sweet young thing says quickly.
“I’m weeks shy of eighteen.”
“You’re what?” Dr Soon’s voice notches upwards, stirs the air around, the old lady moves in her bed, the creaks from her bed add to the noise, slowly seeping back into the world getting ready for a new day.”
“You mean you are not even eighteen. But CK says you are. You look to me all of eighteen. More like a sweet young thing in your early twenties.”
“Dr Soon, you always call me sweet young thing. Do you know my name? I’m very fond of you. With you, I feel secure. That’s why when I learn about CK’s arrest, I rush to tell you. But I believe the police won’t get anything out of CK. They’re too busy with the Little India riot.”
Without saying a word more, Dr soon stands up, steadies himself against the side of the metal frame of the bed with one hand, rubs the side of his temple, as he looks out of the window frames a sky slowly stitched with streaks of scarlet-orange. He straightens the lapel of his grey blazer, his mind blank and unable to decide what he should do next. Another hour or so, he will be back at his desk, ready to see the first patient of the day, even if the city burns for another day for all he cares.
* 4D – 4 digit; refers to the lottery system in Singapore.
Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong works in the field of international relations, and believes in the power of words to bridge understanding in global affairs. Born in Singapore, he has lived and worked in Berlin and London. He once bungee-jumped and climbed a volcano to reason out the meaning of life. He is currently cobbling together his first collection of short stories. His stories have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Literary Yard India, Fat City Review and Banana Writers.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)