Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Ponti: An Excerpt

by Sharlene Teo

 I was eight years old, a quarter of a century ago. One afternoon in September, it rained so hard the mud by the roadsides rose and swelled. As I looked out from the windows of my school bus the big longkang along the main road coursed with drain water the colour of milk tea. By the time I got home the sky had ruptured into a torrential monsoon shower.

We lived in our old flat back then, in our old life; this was just before my father’s business took off. It was on the third floor of the block. I tried the front door and it was locked. I pressed my ear against the window and heard the flat thrum with unmanned smugness. I shivered and rattled the brass handle as if it would budge. My mother must have forgotten that choir practice was cancelled and I would be coming home three hours earlier.

My parents had recently fired Melati. She was our maid, a quiet twenty-one-year-old from Indonesia who had probably lied about her age to her agency and was eighteen at most. I adored Melati because she was funny and kind to me, but she had one fatal flaw. She could not stop eating sweets all day. This snacking habit was considered unacceptable even though she worked hard and the boiled sweets and chocolate were bought with her wages, and she sometimes shared.

Without Melati the door was a dead end. I shivered outside the double-locked door, shit brown with a green grille. I tried to rattle it even though I knew my efforts were useless. My fists felt soft and weak. I must have stood there in my soaked pinafore for over half an hour, school bag by my feet. I stared at my Bata shoes, and then at the dirty concrete, and finally the rippling grass two storeys below. I thought of the unthinkable pain I would feel if I jumped. I anticipated it as abstractly as adult romance. How my legs would crumple. How my body would fold.

I kept to the sheltered walkway, one foot in front of another, a game, pretending I was on a zigzag balance beam instead. My school bag sopped through my back, my textbooks heavy and useless. I felt hungry and cold. I went all along the corridor and then up the stairwell. I couldn’t have climbed more than a few floors. But later on, when I tried to get the events straight, it was like something in my brain just couldn’t compute. The corridors and identical dun-and-apricot-coloured blocks merged and warped into an infinity of stairwells and hallways, like an M. C. Escher drawing.

Being on the other side of our block of flats, which Leslie and I hadn’t bothered to explore for a while, was enough to unsettle me. The floor I found myself on looked just the same as our own, down to the brown bristle welcome mat a couple of doors ahead, and the single potted plant in the corridor.

A door opened halfway down to the right, exactly where our flat would be, except this wasn’t our floor. First the inner lock, and then the grille came unlatched. An auntie popped her head out. She had white hair and a foggy face. She reminded me of a turtle because of her slow, reptilian stare and the sagging skin of her neck.

‘Ah girl. You’re Circe, aren’t you?’

‘How do you know my name?’

‘Your mother told me to let you in if you were locked out,’ she said. ‘Don’t just stand there, you’ll catch cold.’

I stayed where I was, even as she came out and beckoned. She stood opposite me, arms akimbo. She was old, and quite fat. I could see the lumps of her tummy where her blue blouse clung to her, and the dappled flesh under her arms.

‘Your ma told me to look for you. Glad you came here.’

‘You know my mom?’

‘Yes, of course. She said to have you over for tea.’

She spoke like a teacher who had been educated overseas, yet it was hard to place where her accent came from. I guessed Hong Kong or Taiwan.

I peered behind her and into her flat. It was dark in there, not even a TV on. I could see the floral edge of a sofa, and the floor was speckled. Now I must say here that I’m not stupid: I remembered what we had been taught since kindergarten about dangerous strangers, even if Singapore is one of the safest places in the world. The instructional videotape told us to refuse everything offered and to step away slowly, claiming parents were close. I felt flattered that if this woman was a kidnapper, I was deemed worth it and cute enough for criminal calculation. Usually the missing children on TV were British or American, blonde baby beauty queens or mop-fringed cherubs.

‘Come in, lah,’ the woman said. ‘Stop dilly-dallying. Your ma Magda told me to take care of you. I know her from Bible study. She never say? I’m Madam Chang, by the way. Nice to meet you.’

Madam Chang herded me in. Her living room was dingy as hell. She gestured towards a rattan chair. The room’s only illumination came from a small aquarium in the corner. Algae grew across the top and bottom of the glass. Two big, bloated goldfish with ragged tails drifted about. They were pearly white with a tinge of red, as if their scales had faded. One of the fish had cataracts.

‘Would you like some juice? Or some Milo?’

‘Maybe some Milo,’ I replied. ‘Thanks, Auntie.’

She went into the kitchen. Through the din of the rainstorm I heard the pad and hum of the fridge door. She returned with a cold carton of Milo. I took it from her, and suspecting that it could be spiked or poisoned, dropped it on the floor. Madam Chang picked it up and gave it back to me. Again, I let it fall. Making the same mistake twice seemed to upset adults and teachers.

‘You are naughty,’ Madam Chang said as she placed the carton on my lap, but she smiled as she said this and her yellow teeth shone. She sat on the rattan chair beside mine, with her hands placed flat on her knees.

I smiled at her primly and shrugged. As I sipped the Milo I stared at the goldfish with the cataracts, bobbing unsteadily. It looked like it would go belly-up any moment.

‘You’re looking at my jinyu, huh? Guess how old they are?’


‘Come on, guess.’

‘Two?’ I took another sip, making a small gurgling sound with the straw. The Milo tasted slightly bitter.

‘Wrong!’ Madam Chang said, and grinned at me. ‘Try again. Come on!’

I shrugged.

‘They are both 150 years old. Husband and wife, you know. They lived through the war and the British people. If I had more space these fishes would be the size of ducks. Or even pigs.’

I said nothing and looked at the tiled floor.

‘Do you like school?’

‘It’s okay,’ I replied.

‘Don’t say like that,’ Madam Chang said. ‘Okay only? You’re lucky you get to go. I never got the chance. My father made me stay inside all day. My sisters, some of them so clever, but they weren’t allowed books, they had to cook and clean and sew. I had to learn everything on my own. Don’t say the government bad to you to make you go to school.’

I rolled my eyes internally. I knew what pattern she was: Preachy Propaganda Auntie. I loathed being lectured.

‘Can you read? Can you do maths?’ I asked, because I hated both those things. ‘I’m good at maths,’ I lied. ‘I got full marks for my last test.’

‘Wah, so clever,’ she said. ‘Are you hungry?’

‘I’m okay,’ I replied, but Madam Chang got out of her seat. It cost her a great effort.

I stared at the pile of women’s magazines neatly stacked on the coffee table. Madam Chang returned with a plate containing some love letter biscuits. I took one just to have something to do. When I bit into the biscuit it crumbled completely and scattered all over my uniform.

‘How come you know my mom?’ I enquired, as I helped myself to another. ‘I’m in the yard all the time. I’ve never seen you.’

‘I keep to myself,’ Madam Chang replied.

I was about to ask her why when she fixed me with a serious expression. Her eyes were very shiny, and very black. All of a sudden she seemed sad, and her sadness sucked the light out of the room. It had a weight to it, a heft.

‘You are a very special girl, Circe,’ she said. Her voice was brittle. ‘Not everyone is like you.’

The aquarium light shifted from purple into teal and the walls took on a waving quality. In a matter of moments, Madam Chang seemed to grow younger as the room turned the green of cartoon slime, nuclear waste. Now she didn’t look any older than fifty. She had this serious, yearning expression. She reached towards me, made to touch my cheek, and I flinched, not because I thought she would hit me but because when her hand got close I felt a force I can only describe as extreme vertigo, or what I would find out years later is called a hypnic jerk, that jolt you get when you’re falling asleep.

In the laser-green light, Madam Chang told me she was thousands of years old. I can’t remember her exact words, just the gist of it. Even her voice changed. She had a storyteller’s rasp now, almost theatrical. She was born in the Qin Mountains, forever ago. When she was very small, five priests and an astrologer came to her house. They had searched the land for someone like her for a long time. They inspected her body and declared that she met all the requirements. She had twenty perfect teeth and a neck as curved as a conch shell and lampblack eyes and bovine eyelashes. She was five years old. The men took her to a giant room full of the fly-ridden heads of slaughtered animals. They snuffed out their torches and left her there, locked in the darkness alone. At the crack of dawn, when they found her sitting calm and cross-legged amidst the carcasses, they declared her a goddess.

From then on she could only leave her chambers for ceremonial occasions. She only saw her sisters. She was considered so sacred that her feet could never touch the common ground or her powers would leave her. She was carried everywhere on an elaborate beaded palanquin and people wept when they caught a glimpse of her. They made her offerings of giant fruit, rice, flowers, sometimes crayons, even though everyone was dirt poor. Happy and reverent tears looked just the same as sad ones. She was lonely and sick of making people cry. Her legs grew soft and weak as stalks. Life carried on this way until she shed her first blood and she was told that, just like that, she and her family would return to the anonymity of their own village.

The men who married goddesses like her were cursed to early deaths, but she didn’t want to believe it. She grew up, fell in love. Her husband, Mr Chang, worked in a mine. They made joy for each other for four perfect years, and then he fell ill. He had dust in his lungs and the sinseh could do nothing to help. One night, when the moon was so full it flooded the window, Madam Chang woke up with a gasp. She remembered that trial night with the bloodied buffalo heads staring into her soul, their victims’ eyes and long, dusty lashes. How moving, how cold.

Editors' note:
This is an excerpt from Sharlene Teo's Ponti (Picador), published in 2018.

ImageSharlene Teo is the winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer's Award for Ponti, her first novel. She was awarded the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship to complete an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she won the David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Award. She is a 2014 Sozopol Fiction Fellow, a 2017 University of Iowa International Writing Fellow and was shortlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize and the 2018 Hearst Big Book Award.
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.