Stephanie Ye


an excerpt from The Billion Shop

THE elevator of JJ’s block, which for some reason was lined with collapsed cardboard boxes, smelt like wet trashbags. His flat was near the end of a corridor cluttered with potted plants and bicycles. As in the case of many HDB households, its front door had been left open for ventilation, the doorway barred by a metal grille. To its left, a plastic rack sagged under a pile of track shoes. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to yell, so I stood on the scuffed doormat, featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse cavorting before their enchanted castle, and rang the bell.

A voice answered indistinctly, then a woman in a samfoo strode out of the gloom. She was not that old, maybe in her early 50s, and she was still handsome. She was tall, taller than me by about an inch. Her skin was the warm gold colour of tea with condensed milk, and her hair was graying but thick. Her nose was sharp and just slightly too big for her face, and she had large, very dark eyes with long lashes. Her resemblance to JJ was so great that I was taken aback.

“Thank you. Come in, please,” she said in the slow emphatic English of her generation as she unlocked the grille, after I had stammeringly introduced myself in Hokkien.

I had intended to just give her the two packets of char siew noodles and leave, but I couldn’t very well decline her invitation, so I kicked off my trainers and followed her in. The small flat had an economical layout, narrow and long, built back in the day when having your own apartment with an indoor bathroom was already a big deal. You entered into a living/dining area, with an archway at the far end leading into the kitchen. Next to the archway, an ancestral altar stood at chest level on a wooden shelf, two black-and-white visages peering sternly out from behind a pyramid of oranges. On the right were two doors leading to two bedrooms – presumably one was JJ’s and the other, his parents’. He had been an only child.

“So sorry to intrude, auntie,” I said as she steered me to a table with a faux-marble pattern on its plywood surface.

“No need to say sorry. You are doing me a favour, I was getting lonely.” She was opening the Styrofoam food packets in the kitchen; most people would have eaten straight from them with the disposable chopsticks provided, but she transferred their contents onto china plates. She took one and stepped briskly into a bedroom, moving with a slightly off-kilter grace. “Teck ah, one of Johnny’s friends has brought us dinner. Eat this, okay,” I heard her say. I didn’t catch any reply. There were some clattering sounds as she moved things about the room, then she emerged, shaking her head. “My husband, whole day stay in bed. So I only have myself to talk to.” As she handed me a pair of lacquered chopsticks and a porcelain soupspoon, I realized I was expected to stay for dinner. “I hope you are hungry, because I am not.”

© Math Paper Press

by Stephanie Ye
from The Billion Shop (2012)
published by Math Paper Press