Fiction / June 2016 (Issue 32)


The Wedding Day

by Damyanti Biswas

A comb, a coiled viper, a lamp, a roasted suckling pig, a red veil: I begin my only daughter's wedding day sitting up in bed, calling up these objects from my dreams.

I work on balancing them over my palm, so they keep still. But the minute I glance at my bedside clock, they waver. The viper eyes the suckling pig and lunges towards it, the veil catches fire from the lamp and the comb melts.

Glancing again at the hand of the clock striking four, I return to my mental exercise. Having woken up this early, I still have time to get it right, to centre myself so things don't spin out of control. In Singapore, the sun rises late, unlike other countries I've lived in. I curl my palm into a fist and imagine cards suspended with string from each of my fingers instead.

This time I bid each of them to carry a name. My husband appears on the bland cream card suspended from my thumb, and my daughter, Lee Lian, emerges on the baby pink card on my index finger. A grey card on my middle finger, bearing the name of my mother. The pinkie holds the name of my daughter's groom, Melvin Lim Wee Pinn. The red card on my ring finger remains blank, but when I turn it, it shows me the name I've tried to forget the last thirty-seven years of my life: Ng Mei Sun.

***

We were inseparable, she and I, from the year I turned three till my nineteenth birthday. My mother says I didn't utter a word as a toddler. I gurgled and smiled after I'd pooed or when I'd eaten (her words, not mine), but beyond that, I never said a thing: no Ma, no Ba, no Pa. Nothing.

One night, my nanny ran away with a driver, so my mother had to take me with her to work. Mei Sun's mother came to the clinic for a visit with my mother that day, to get help with Mei Sun's temper tantrums, her mood swings, unusual and distressing in a four-year old. Mei Sun couldn't speak either, nothing other than "Ma." She toddled up to me that day and touched my face. I said, "Don't" to her, my first word ever. Apparently, I never stopped after that: I began speaking in clear, precise sentences.

My mother never said it out loud, but even as a child when I heard the story of "Ting talking for the first time," I knew she'd been ashamed of me earlier, hidden me away.

"Thank you, Doctor," her mother often said to mine. "If not for you, I'm not sure what I would have done. Look, they're like sisters."

We're not sisters, I wanted to point out, but Mei Sun was a legend in our family. You could only ever praise her.

"Mei Sun was our blessing." Mother habitually ended the story with bright eyes and a clap. "I took a cake home that day, to celebrate!" She didn't hug me at these times though, even when I reached for her. She looked more relieved than happy.

After that "miracle," both our mothers made sure we spent time together. Mei Sun came to speak my name, but not much else. She nodded her head to a silent beat and hummed from time to time, chattering and singing like a mynah gone mad whenever she saw me first thing in the mornings. My mother would let me stop by her place for a minute before going to school. I knew her silences, her murmurs, her shrieks. When I talked to her in my plain old voice I used with my parents and my siblings, she understood.

"Ting," she would call to me, "Ting-Ting-Ting!" when she wanted me near her. She used to lob a plastic ball from her perch on the cot. I had to bring it back, only for her to toss it out again with a squeak. I outgrew these games within a few years, but she didn't.

We both liked it best when I told her stories, and that never changed. She laughed and cried at the right places, and if she didn't like a character or setting, she made a sound like a finger running over the teeth of a large comb, her tongue stuck out a millimetre outside her even set of teeth. She specially didn't like anyone dying, and if I killed people, she clicked and chirped and screeched till I brought them back to life. Some evenings, I went on and on, inventing as I went along, till she couldn't keep her eyes open for all my droning, and tumbled back on her pillows, asleep. I stayed over at her place often, though I didn't live very far away.

When I started going to school, the other girls scared me, and if they gave me their pencils or lunchboxes, I shied away. I had the one friend I needed.

Funny Mei Sun, who never went to school, never read a book, never went out of her house, understood more of my stories than everyone else. She made me tell them again and again, even though I didn't know how to end some of them, the viper in a veil for instance: shy, misunderstood, unable to speak more than a few words, or find its match. Mei Sun loved that viper, wanted it to lift its veil, felt sad that it had no hands to do it with.

Hair unbound, she prowled from room to room, a feral cat, listening to stories, or playing fetch, protesting if her mother made her wear anything other than her uniform, a loose kaftan, or wanted her to take a bath.

If she didn't like her meal, she picked up the big wooden rattle my mother had given her when she was a toddler and shook it, producing a noise of marbles clattering in a thick wooden box. This meant she wanted vegetable nuggets, her favourite food. She turned violent at times, sending books and plates crashing around the house, but this was only when her mother tried to tie her hair.

She let me comb it though. It rippled through my fingers like sea grass at the bottom of an ocean. I played with it, letting each cool strand fall through my nails, twisting it, braiding, while she rocked back and forth, warbling her tune of the week. She reached out and kissed me from time to time, I kissed her dumpling cheek, giving her hair a tug that sent her into giggles. And so it went on till the day I turned nineteen, till the afternoon I woke to our sweaty bodies tangled in her hair and little else. I ran that day, and didn't stop running.

***

Why does Mei Sun haunt me each time I face a big decision? I step out of bed and onto the balcony. It overlooks the street and the tree-lined park opposite. I need to feel rooted like those trees. I have to play wife and mother in this Now I have created for myself: respected and popular because I did good work and kept my mouth shut on issues I felt strongly about. Singapore values conformity.

No outward decisions needed today, just like my days on the school playground. Keeping to myself has proved a good way of staying away from hurt, and I'll stick with that. Lee Lian is going to marry that Wee Pinn boy no matter what. My daughter has made up her mind.

I should have known when Lee Lian joined her new office near Orchard Road, and came back talking about Melvin Wee Pinn, this strange, handsome colleague. I saw him for the first time two years ago when he came over for Chinese New Year reunion dinner.

He could walk onto the set of any Korean soap and land the lead role: muscular, tall, a better jawline than most lead males I've worked with on stage or screen and eyes that lit up when he smiled. Before dinner, he washed his hands thrice with the new soap Lee Lian had bought for him. He'd carried a white plastic plate to eat from, with compartments, so the pork gravy wouldn't touch the rice, nor the rice touch the abalone, or the vegetables.

"Has to be like this, Ma, to keep him happy and eating," my daughter assured me, and though the plate was an eyesore, clashing with my sky-blue cutlery, it was easier to let him eat off it than create a scene.

What hypocrisy, my fear of scenes. I've created my fair share of them in the past fifty-five years. I watched Melvin respond in monosyllables to my aunt's queries, hoping he wouldn't speak out of turn.

"He must sit between you and me, Ma, and your auntie can sit opposite. Make sure neither of you touches him," Lee Lian had warned me before we all sat at the table. "I'm the only one he is OK to touch. It doesn't make him upset."

Her eyes glowed with pride at that last bit.

My daughter wouldn't lack physical love at least. Not just physical love: I watched Melvin hang upon each word she uttered, his eyes never left her face, like a spaniel's from its master. She's my daughter, but I know she isn't one of those typical Singaporean spa-going pale beauties. She has inherited the square jaw from her father, his narrow eyes and blunt nose. Her body matches her face, squat, entirely lacking grace, both in movement and repose. Like me, she was never a lovable child, too quiet, squirming out of laps and running off to her room to be alone.

Maybe Lee Lian's marriage would last after all, like mine has, and not bring shame to her father's name of Tan. Nor to my name, which is not unknown in Singaporean circles: Tan Lee Ting, the name that figures on the opening credits of so many Asian, and some Hollywood, movies. The thing is, every time you're acting a part in a movie or a play, you have to cast off all your everyday masks. In order to play at being who you're not, you'd better know very clearly who you are for those moments, even though you don't like that Self. Every time I go on stage or in front of a camera, I embrace Mei Sun, sending her back into the darkness as soon as I have no further need.

Today, my act doesn't need her, and I'm grateful for that.

In the half-light of the morning, breathing in the damp air from my balcony, I assess myself. My Self today is very much a Mother-of-the-Bride. I'm not dressed as one yet, it's too early. I'm anxious, I want Lee Lian to look good, I want her groom to behave throughout, not shy away from people, though I must admit he's improved since that Chinese New Year dinner. On one hand, I want everything to go well, on the other, I find myself wishing Lee Lian would change her mind, or a minor miracle would make my future son-in-law as normal as he is handsome.

The gate creaks on its hinges. The porch blocks my view, but it could only be my mother this early in the morning, come to watch her only granddaughter dress up for her big day. I need to go down, but not just yet.

In some ways, today feels like the day I left Singapore for the first time, at nineteen: leaving a familiar territory for the unknown. Mei Sun had chased me around the house, wailing, swinging her mane, without a stitch of clothing on her pale, flabby body. I'd thrown on my clothes and escaped. I never saw her again; shocking both mothers. I'm grown up, I told my mother, can't hang out with an idiot all the time. My mother slapped me. But she thawed when bowing down to her dreams of sending me to Oxford, I accepted the scholarship I'd been resisting for months.

I quit my degree midway to join the theatre. Through the years of my acting career, those last moments with Mei Sun found their way into my work. The emotions were different, men and women yelling, scenes set in Singapore or abroad, but the shame, the confusion, the pain, all came from that afternoon. I hated her. I hated Mei Sun for getting to me, for not letting me go. I hated myself for hearing her voice each time someone called my name. I refused to listen when my mother spoke of supporting Mei Sun when Mei Sun's mother lost her job.

Did Mei Sun understand what we were doing? Was it love or curiosity that drew us together that time?

Those are not questions I need today. I have to play the part of the approving Mother-of-the Bride, though everyone in the family knows I'm not, including my mother. I'll make this a happy, normal, matter-of-fact wedding, if such a thing exists. I can hear steps on the stairs now.

"Ting! You up yet? Ting! Lee Ting!" My mother's quavering voice rises as she navigates each step. I slip from the balcony into my study and meet my mother as she opens the study door leading to the stairs. I'll look like this spry old woman in a few years.

"I've given the smaller guest room on the ground floor to an old friend, asked the maid to help her settle in." She speaks in smooth Cantonese, still convinced she can improve my command of the language of our ancestors.

Typical. She walks into my home, orders my maid around, installs her guests, all without asking me, and then tells me all about it afterwards in Cantonese. This is why my husband resents his mother-in-law. Will that Wee Pinn boy resent me, too? Not if I can help it. The first thing I have to do is think of him as Melvin: Melvin, my son-in-law, my son-to-be. I must dress up as the new-mother-in-law. War-paint, the demure and classy dress I brought back from Paris this year and an as-good-as-genuine smile. My mother is wearing her cheongsam, in preparation for the tea ceremony after the marriage in the church.

"I'm going to Lee Lian's room," says my mother, still in Cantonese. "Her friends are not here yet, and she needs someone around. You really should install a lift in this house, you know. Cannot keep climbing three floors to see my granddaughter at my age."

I doubt the wisdom of her visiting Lee Lian, but at least she'll be out of my hair.

"Yes," I reply, in English. "Lee Lian should be awake."

It's a good thing she doesn't climb to the upper floors all that often.

I wonder who's helping Melvin get ready. He hasn't introduced us to his family. He has a mother, but she isn't invited, and that's all we've been told. He has made my mother happier than a Hungry Ghost during the Seventh Month by requesting the traditional tea ceremony.

On the way to my bedroom, which is right below Lee Lian's, I hear a rattle in the kitchen. The maid must have put the kettle on to boil, and will be looking for the right cutlery for breakfast, and for the tea ceremony much later. I have trained her for just such occasions, so I needn't worry about her messing things up.

In the semi-darkness of my bedroom, I look in on my husband, who, like any responsible father, is snoring away on the morning of his daughter's wedding. I will wake him up once I've showered, so he can have our bathroom to himself while I dress. I drop my clothes and am about to step into the shower when I hear the noise again.

It reminds me of everything I've been mulling over all morning, but I can't have it now. I must get my head empty, shampoo my hair, scrub out all memories.

The noise becomes a commotion before I can turn on the water. I hurtle down the stairs in my damp bathrobe, skipping steps. When I reach the bottom, a lampshade flies out.

I yell for the maid and hear her muffled but urgent, "Ma'am, ma'am," from the cupboard under the stairs.

"Who's in the guest room?"

"Grandma ask her to sit there."

Of course, my mother has to be behind any kind of pandemonium that besets my house. But did she have to cook up something on my daughter's wedding day? A bamboo basket flies out of the guest room and lands a few feet from me, spins a few times and comes to a dead stop near the wall.

I waver between calling my husband and dealing with this myself, but in the end, the big heavy umbrella leaning inside the cupboard decides the question. I pick it up as my sword, and the bamboo basket for my shield.

"Stay behind," I order the maid, to ensure she follows me.

"Yes, ma'am," she mumbles, her Filipina eyes large in her fair rounded face.

I duck just in time to avoid a terracotta vase that shatters, its broken pieces pelting my ankle. It makes me jump and my motion carries me half way into the room. I drop both the umbrella and the basket when I catch sight of the attacker. The umbrella thuds to the floor.

Bringing her here, after all these years, on the day of my daughter's wedding. My sainted mother is capable of anything at all. No wonder I had those dreams.

The figure is flabbier than I remember, but I haven't forgotten the shape of Mei Sun's kaftans. She holds a book in her hand, which she must have picked in order to lob towards the door, but now she peers at me through the half-curtain of her hair. My thoughts are slurred. Does she recognise me?

I spent years trying to erase her—in London through night-long "tea-parties," where mushrooms were the only tea served and scones came laced with marijuana; through slovenly hours at part-time jobs, the hours of frenzied miming at countless auditions—but there she stands.

"Ting? Ting-Ting!" the voice and accent have remained the same. It hauls me back from London. On her face is that unchanging toddler's smile I remember so well—whether I picked up a toy for her, told her a story or in our tender moments together.

Mei Sun lowers the book in her hand, and lurches a step forward. Next to her on the coffee table is the offending bowl of cereal. My maid's shoes scrape near the door, and without taking my eyes off Mei Sun, I ask, "Do we have any vegetable nuggets in the freezer?"

"Ma'am?"

"If there are any vegetable nuggets, fry them quick and bring them."

"But ...?"

"Just do it first," I tell her, "and take this with you." I shove the bowl of cereal into her hands.

The maid scurries out the door, and I'm alone with Mei Sun.

All this while, my eyes have stayed on her, without once looking straight into hers, just as years before. In the periphery of my vision, I notice that her eyes have crow's feet. Her forehead is smooth, but her cheeks have sunk into jowls which wobble as she approaches me, as if her flesh were a poorly attached mask on her skull, and would come off if shaken hard enough. She smells of old cheongsams kept too long in steel trunks.

She's drawn closer now, I can touch her. But it is she who stretches her arm out of the flapping recesses of her blue-brown kaftan, to stroke my face in a gesture I knew so well from my childhood.

"Ting?"

"Mei."

"Ting-Ting-Ting!" her face has not lost that steady grin, and I'm helpless before it. My hand touches the mottled skin of her face, runs over her brows. Under my fingers, her hair feels like the metal scrubs my maid uses to scour burnt pots. Matted dreadlocks hide amongst the tangle.

Turning her towards me, I lead her to the armchair beside the bed. She grabs my left hand and moves in front of me before sinking down. Her body is slower now. She grabs a tea coaster from the coffee table and flings it across the room with a birdlike squeal, in line with her appearance of a crazy matron, but also at such odds with it. I ignore the look of expectation on her face and drag a small chair to sit down beside her.

"Ting?"

"I'll tell you a story. Remember how much you like them?" I ask, falling into the easy, sing-song rhythm of the conversations of those years long ago. Simple words, half-poem, half prose.

I run my fingers over her hair as I chant. Mei Sun begins to hum, that half-rhythmic buzzing drone. It brings back afternoons spent in her room, playing games.

The maid will return with the vegetable nuggets soon. I'll leave the room as soon as Mei Sun has got her nuggets, and while she's busy, I'll confront my mother. I'll let her explain herself, prepare her to tell my husband and daughter about their new guest.

My mother will take over when I tell her I need to get ready. Lee Lian will search for me, and end up here, too. My husband will stand behind them with sleepy, questioning eyes. I imagine them at the doorway, peering in.

Mei Sun's hum enters me, percolates in my lungs, where it settles, and I breathe it out, a little at a time. I tell her about the viper and the veil again, because this time I know how the story ends. I watch her rock as she croons. No running for me now. I'll sit here a while yet, combing Mei Sun's hair.

 

 Damyanti Biswas's short fiction has been commended at the Bath Flash Fiction Award and her novel-in-progress was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition and Bath Novel Award. Her stories have appeared at Bluestem, Griffith Review, Lunch Ticket, among others, and anthologies in the USA, Malaysia and Singapore.

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