Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

The Wheel

by Clara Chow

 All day long, we spin round and round in our prison cells.

Noon, with the sun overhead, is the worst. The capsules, UV coating long since rubbed from their glass panes, are greenhouses. Air-conditioning, which once cooled tourists on 30-minute ‘flights’, exists only sporadically for us, inmates, condemned to decades and lifetimes here.

There are twenty-eight capsules, each the size of a small bus. They are glorified oil drums, rolling as the giant wheel spins—a clever engineering trick so that we are never upside down, nor reduced to hamsters on a treadmill.

Twenty-eight people in each capsule, walls of metal separating us into cells. Strapped to vertical gurneys, we sleep upright at night. The carpet has been worn bare in patches. In the day, we stand, shifting from balls to heels, heels to balls, trying not to touch anything shiny, metal, encasing our meat. Burns, when we get them, take a terribly long time to heal. The smell of seared flesh shades from fried beef to charcoal.

We travel at 760 metres per hour—all the better to keep us from escaping. We know our Foucault. The Panopticon has been turned on its side and sits above the city landscape. Each time a camera beams a picture of this city’s skyline to the world, we are in plain sight, surveyed by all and sundry. We are pinned, like butterflies, by your sharp eyes. We have no secrets. We have no lives.

When the giant ferris wheel went bankrupt again, years ago, people wanted to pull it down. Once the pride of a country, the tallest of its kind, the wheel had become a multimillion-dollar white elephant. But, then, a strange thing happened. Urban conservationists, who had once scoffed at the wheel as nothing more than a copy of another in an older, bigger city, leapt to its defence. Like a sordid twist in the tale, whereby a righteous hero grew fond of and missed a vanquished nemesis, the liberals now became the wheel’s champions. Where once they took the wheel to represent the zeroes in jaw-dropping business deals happening all over the corporate-run city, they now saw in it the perfect Zen circle of emptied desire.

Finally, a security firm had stepped in with an offer to buy and turn it into a maximum-security prison for political offenders. Keep your racks and iron maidens. No longer do you have to string the enemy up on your castle ramparts after quartering them. Why pike heads and leave fly-buzzing orbs out as deterrents? You can simply keep them alive for perpetuity, turning round and round on Catherine’s contemporary wheel for all to gawk at. A bright spark came up with the idea of charging admission. Come see, come see! We, the untamed, savage and unruly, inhabit an ordered utopia. The city is famed for its zoos, which win awards for disguising their true natures. It was only a matter of time before its jails followed suit.

But all that is ancient history.

All day long, we spin round and round in our prison cells.


My name is Mae.

I have been in this airborne jail for nineteen years and three months.


There is only one book here: A yellowed, dog-eared copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

They have given it to us because it is thick. Its 880 pages will last a long time as one-ply toilet paper. In a society where people only read strike-it-rich manuals, young adult fantasy romance, and trendy softcore erotica, a 19th-century English domestic novel must have seemed to the bureaucrats the antithesis of a subversive object.

This lavatory bible is passed among us. The sections deemed most dispensable have been excised. The whinier bits of Dorothea Brooke’s internal monologue have been torn out, leaving only jagged edges. We, inmates, are not afraid to make clear what we think is crap.


Sometimes, I miss those pages like phantom limbs. I think of handsome Dorothea, opening her mouth to say something, and then the shock on her face as the words are ripped from her—forcing her to settle for an undignified silence.

I was a young woman when I first came here. One moment, I was a carefree undergraduate, in my T-shirts and denim shorts, hair pulled back in a ponytail. The next, I was sentenced, cavity searched; clapped in an orange jumpsuit and into Cell F. After a week in close proximity with twenty-seven other unwashed women, you stop noticing the smell of sweat-damp groins and armpits, the fishy odour of vaginal mucus, and the iron-rust tang of oxidising menstrual blood.

I used to think that I would get married. Maybe to David… I haven’t thought of David in years. The last time I saw him, he had been in the dock at our pre-trial conference, thin, crew-cut, and silent. He smiled when he saw me, but we did not get to speak to each other. I was sentenced first—the lawyers pleading for leniency on the grounds of mental instability. All lies. My parents told them to say it. My parents, money-grubbing real-estate developers and public philanthropists, who could not bear to have their good names sullied. Beyond buying me laywers, they have not come once to visit me.

Those who have families live for Sundays, waiting for them to turn up on Sundays in a small, designated pen at the base of the wheel, the part with the safety net, and waving at you as you spin by. Sometimes, they carry placards with vetted messages: “We love you,” is a favourite; “We miss you”, a permutation. For obvious reasons, “Hang in there” is banned. There is no news in the wheel, beyond the newspapers and messages your visitors bring you from the outside world.

I never found out the verdict of David’s trial. I haven’t heard from him in years. I wonder where he is, what he is doing. In my fevered imaginings, he and I have a beach wedding. A steel drum band playing, tuxedoed by the surf. I might have arrived by speed boat, as he stood waiting, dapper, in white linen and sandals on the sand.

Rotating like spring chicken in a rotisserie oven, I’ve had plenty of time to map up the trajectory of our imaginary marriage: The daughter first born to us, solemn and studious; the son that followed, hyperactive, and cheeky. The heady first years, wrapped around each other in our king-sized bed in the dream house we would design for each other—His and Her sections, linked by a bridge. Then the frigid middle years, rigid with resentment as we pursued our own careers, having the occasional affairs, fighting over money and the perceived sacrifices made, the conflicting opportunities.

Marriage, at a time when I had my head out of the clouds, standing on thick earth, had seemed a boring bastille. To give up one’s dreams, and spend the rest of days serving as a maid to one’s husband and children just seemed totally unpalatable, counterintuitive. Biology was not destiny, right? You are not defined by your womb and fallopian tubes and other ob-gyn gee-gaws.

I once read, in another life, an essay in which the writer argued that Ripley trumped the alien queen in the final showdown in Aliens, the movie, because she could take off her metal exo-skeleton suit and avoid being sucked out the space hatch, whereas the alien could not shed her heavy egg sac and laying apparatus. I liked that. I believed in it. I was so much more than my reproductive parts. I respectfully declined the binaries available to me: wife/spinster, mother/monster. It made me want to run out and do what I loved. And I loved to build. To change the environment, to make statements in stone, wood, steel, glass, marble, concrete. Construction was political. An edifice was ego.

It might seem that way to some people, but it was never a case in which David led and I followed. We were partners. We held hands and hallucinated castles in the firmament. We lay naked in bed and drew, letting the blueprints fall casually to the floor from our fingers, until we seemed moored in an ocean roiling with paper waves. And shoulder to shoulder, we went out to cover the world with our vision.

And all that effort landed me in a transparent aerial slammer. My fear of being metaphorically trapped by matrimony led me into incarceration. And back to an inexorable confrontation with bodily functions and the reproductive cycle, magnified twenty-seven times.

Sometimes, I miss my phantom lives.

Editors' note:
"The Wheel" is an excerpt of a story from Clara Chow's Dream Storeys (Ethos Books).

ImageClara Chow is the author of story collections Dream Storeys (2016) and Modern Myths (2018).


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