Jolene Tan

A Good Visit

I shouldn’t be here, I think, when my father answers the door, his face closing over with suspicion. But after a moment, and a grunt, he lets me in.

I hold out a bag of White Rabbit sweets—still his favourites, as far as I know. He takes it wordlessly and goes to place it in the usual cupboard in the kitchen. I remain standing in front of the television, which squirts daytime game show noises.

Pa returns and sits down in front of the set. He makes no move to turn it off or to lower the volume. He does not offer me a drink, nor does he speak: instead he snuffles noisily, and produces hacking sounds in his throat. None of this is unexpected, so it shouldn’t bother me, but, as always, it does.

We have managed, on occasion, to pass an hour or two in this paralysis, before I make my excuses and leave. Those are the better visits. With enough will, if you squint from the right angle, you can see in them a replica of old Sunday afternoons: my father dozing in his chair as I stretched my childish stick limbs out on the floor and watched animated cats and mice run in frantic, ritualised circles. Wen temporarily elsewhere.

Sometimes I attempt topics I believe to be safe. Fruits in season. The doings of neighbours. Items in the news. But the bright conversational voice of my adult life makes him tense. He is not accustomed to speaking like that, certainly not with me. In any case, the illusion of safety never lasts. Sooner or later, the web wefts round to our troubles: a neighbour, somehow still oblivious, has asked after Wen; or the papers make mention of crimes, of children, of upheavals. Beneath the peel, the fruit shows quick bruises on soft flesh.

 
It’s hard to believe now, but I once had fantasies about living like this. Just me and Pa, in unchanging silence, Wen magically erased. I embellished no further. It would have been unduly ambitious to add my mother, my concept of whom started and ended with a few browned photographs: full figure, large dark glasses, 70s perm. She could only be a blunt crayon doodle, spoiling the delicate realism of my daydream. But there were enough occasional hours without Wen that it seemed restrained, lifelike, to quietly airbrush my sister away.

I’ve since learned better. Even out of the foreground, Wen was the weave of the household canvas. Our furniture oriented itself along her ley lines; her breath mixed in with the steamy kitchen scent of our porridge. She was the circulatory system of our domestic body, and it was never possible to purge her bloodlessly. She could not simply be absent: she would have to be missing.

Now she is missing. And missed.

 
Two things happened, on the same day, when Wen was sixteen. I was born; and our mother died.

I suppose this changed Wen’s life in many ways. I can only suppose, because no one has told me much about things before. I know my father’s view. He has repeated it many times through the years, at first automatically, complacently, and then, once everything exploded, in furious disbelief. “You are so lucky to have such a good sister. She gave up everything for you.” But he offers only exhortation, not information. As a child I was too shy to put queries to our aunts and uncles, who live scattered over Borneo and peninsular Malaysia, and are spotted in Singapore only rarely, like wildlife or rainbows or leap years. It’s unlikely they know much in any case.

Wen herself volunteered nothing. Asking her was out of the question.

But I can sketch some lines of perspective for myself.

Before I arrived, Wen was a schoolgirl. She might not have enjoyed her lessons, but she didn’t struggle with them. In other circumstances, she might have gone on to polytechnic, a training college, perhaps university. I don’t know if she had an eye on the future, on jobs and qualifications; or if, like me at sixteen, she was more taken up with the treacheries of teenage politics and the embarrassments of teenage love. But it ceased to matter once I was born. Her days and her energy, her body and her mind, were all channelled toward cleaning and cooking, toward shopping and errands, and toward the care of a belching, mewling, matricidal infant.

Before I arrived, Wen had a mother. Whether this mother was reserved or lively, kindly or stern, languorous or quick, all of these things, none of them, she must have been made up of something, pieces from the infinite jigsaw set of possible human personalities. But that, too, ceased to matter. Once I was born, she was dead; and whatever she had been before she went, what she left behind was a role-shaped hole that Wen had to learn to fill.

Maybe Wen and my father discussed this arrangement: maybe there were entreaties, counterproposals, understandings. Wen’s fate could, in theory, have emerged from some process of negotiation, simple or complex. But I doubt it. My earliest impressions of our life as a trio had the impermeable solidity of children’s wooden blocks—square edges, primary colours, the suggestion of eternal forms. My father did what he did; Wen did what she did. It had ever been and would ever be so. It’s true that when I went to primary school, Wen got a job checking out groceries at the local FairPrice. But this changed nothing for my father, who glided along as always, with unspoken inertia. If you put aside my brief and disastrous enlistment, job or no job, Wen continued to do all the housework and the childcare for the next ten years.

It surprised me how well my father adjusted to life’s practical demands after Wen left. Sure, the flat lacks my sister’s extra touches, and he’s not an attentive housekeeper. Lavishly gilded cartoon roosters still smile from the calendar over the kitchen stove, though it’s well into the Year of the Pig. But everything is clean and in good repair. It’s clear that Pa has always been capable of scrubbing his own toilet, preparing his own dinner, and mending his own shirts. It just wasn’t something you did if a daughter was around to take care of you.

A good daughter, that is. A bad daughter is a whole different story.

 
Wen is the good daughter. This is still the case despite her absence: but then, in my father’s eyes, her absence is not her fault.

My father is not liberal-minded, and I suspect Marcus’ arrival, and the mystery of his paternity, gave a shake to Wen’s good daughter status. But they did not dislodge it. My guess is this is because Wen is not liberal-minded either. She made no secret of her view that Marcus was her punishment. I can easily imagine father and daughter in tearful conference in the inner sanctum of his bedroom, Wen excoriating herself without reserve, lending a muted backup to their harmony of sorrow. Such a ritual of self-abasement would have fit with Wen’s ideas about her place in the world. She was not the daughter with an inconvenient sense of pride.

It must have helped that my father continued to come first with Wen. Even in the last, heavy weeks of pregnancy, and the first few sleepless months of Marcus’ life, Wen was as punctilious as ever in her attention to domestic duties. Between his origins and his impairment, my nephew could never be the golden grandson—but at least he was never allowed to pose an inconvenience to my father’s comfort.

Was pleasure involved, for Wen, in Marcus’ conception? Was love? I cannot think of my sister in connection with either. My mind didn’t go to such things at the time; I simply absorbed the prevailing emotion in the family—one of high tragedy, and of shame. Now, in the safe berth of Simon’s arms, I wonder about tragedy and shame of a different sort. I wonder if Wen, at least once in her life, longed for—perhaps even tasted—and then lost—or was cheated of—the easy bliss that I have come to know. The possibility strikes me as terribly sad. It makes me feel sorry for her. But then I have always felt sorry for Wen, and it has never made me hate her less.

 
Shortly after she became pregnant, Wen began to examine my body.

It happened more than once, but how many times exactly, I can’t say. Three? Ten? The episodes blur into a haze of interrupted sleep, yellow lights beating down in the fog of my vision. I was twelve, and had just begun to wear prescription glasses, so Wen’s face, at the other end of the bed, was smudged around the edges. But even through my incipient myopia, it was clear where she was looking—at the triangle where my legs joined, open to the warm night air. She had put two fingers into the elastic of my pajama pants and my underwear, and half-pulled, half-stretched them down.

I was aghast. “What are you doing?”

Her gaze flickered up, briefly guilty, and then hardened. “Nothing.” She removed her hand. “Go back to sleep.”

I didn’t want to obey—my heart was thumping irregularly as she turned off the light and slid back into her own bed—but the night’s tired logic overtook me, and I slept. In the morning, I didn’t doubt it had happened, but I had no idea what it meant. Wen had always been aggressively indifferent to my desire for privacy: the one time I asked her not to come into the bathroom while I was using it, she stared in incredulous contempt. “Please lah, you were baby that time, I got wipe your backside how many times before, you know or not?” And while her beatings ordinarily took place in immediate response to my offences, sometimes the initial punishment did not exhaust her anger, and she would burst in on me later, in the shower, to lash with the thin cane at my naked, soapy flesh.

But these nocturnal observations were a different beast: her usual casual disregard replaced with intent scrutiny. As far as I know, she never touched me, only looked. She always slunk away wordlessly if I awoke, though after the shock of the first time, I never found the voice to challenge her again.

It was impossible to speak of these events. Even if there was anyone to approach, even if there was anything they could do, even if the embarrassment of referring aloud to my own genitals didn’t kill me—the mysteriousness of Wen’s motives added a layer of unreality which guaranteed my silence. What would I be complaining about? The meaninglessness of her acts made a nonsense of my discomfort.

Only later, when dark hairs fuzzed over my pubic area, and my breasts began to round out, did I realise she had been checking for signs of puberty. She stopped once she found them. Presumably she considered this surveillance part of bringing me up, though it was never clear what good it was meant to do. Her actual communications, when she found the first blood stains in the laundry, were anti-climactically limited. She came over with a strange air of satisfaction, and thrust a packet of thick sanitary pads into my hands. “Make sure you wrap in tissue before you put in dustbin,” was the full extent of her explanation and advice. “It’s very shameful if Pa can see.”

 
I told Simon about this yesterday, almost by accident. “I love your skin,” he was saying, his fingers tracing small circles on my inner thigh. “It’s so soft.”

“My sister used to look at me,” I said without thinking. “At night. I think she was looking for pubic hair.”

He sat up abruptly. “You know,” he said after a moment. “Sometimes I think I’ve figured out how screwed up all of that was, and then you say something like that, and then I realise I have no idea.”

“Sorry.”

“Why are you saying sorry?”

“Sorry to make you hear all of this screwed up stuff.”

He shook his head. “You don’t have to apologise.”

But I do. It should all stop with me, in me. He doesn’t need this to mar his world. I imagine Simon’s life extending backwards in endless, unbroken serenity, with all the perfect stillness of our shared present. For we pass days, entire days, without anger or incident. Jokes over breakfast; evening and weekend strolls. I sit for afternoons with casual friends and talk lazy, inconsequential talk about pleasant, inconsequential things. Some of my degree work is interesting and some isn’t—I am sometimes bored. But of all the negative emotions available, boredom, in its simplicity, is a luxury.

I have not yet succeeded in stopping it all with me. I have long, blank stretches on the sofa. Some days it is a challenge to leave the flat. When term began, I was often too tired to listen to lectures; but I forced myself to attend without exception, mechanically joining the dots into a night-sky sketch of functionality, afraid that if I let even one slip, it would all be lost to black infinity. At night I still wake, occasionally, in panic, but Simon is there to stroke my hair and wrap my fingers in his.

It’s Simon, of course, who makes this possible. When I fled it was to his open door. I earn small wages, helping a bespectacled eleven-year-old with English and maths for a few hours every week, but that is hardly enough for the comfort I enjoy.

Simon and I have only talked about money haltingly, once or twice. He prefers to talk about love.

Simon loves me—I don’t doubt it. He is a veteran of happiness: he knows what he is talking about. For my part, I tell him that I love him, but I’m not sure he should believe it. My emotional surfaces are abnormally calibrated—super-sensitive to kindness, prone to flaring at its slightest approach. I might just be having an allergic reaction. A convenient one, too, which pays the rent. Sometimes I look at Simon and I remember how much Wen did for me—the school uniforms cleaned and ironed, the cooked dinners on the table—and I am afraid of what that means.

 
I do help a little around Simon’s flat. I load and hang and fold the laundry. After dinner he does the dishes and I wipe down the kitchen surfaces and the table. A cleaner comes in once a week for the rest.

It doesn’t take long to learn, it turns out, when someone explains, without screaming, which chemicals suit which task, and no one calls you a spoilt madam or digs their nails into your arms for confusing the compartments in the cutlery drawer. Maybe one day I’ll even cook, though probably never very well.

“My sister’s is very good,” I said once, as Simon ordered us a plate of Hainanese pork chop. “Better than any coffeeshop.”

“You should have asked her to teach you,” he said.

I almost laughed. “That’s such a weird idea.”

“Why? She wasn’t angry all the time, right?”

“No, but.”

It ended there: but. But what? How do I explain what I know? That Wen would not have let it happen, not without complication anyway. The chores were her chains, but she clung to them jealously. “You are so lucky,” Pa said to me. “No need to work also got food on the table. See what a good dinner your sister cook for you.” He would hear nothing against such a sister; and Wen’s own speech came to echo his: “Talk back until like that. You think go junior college very clever, can look down on your sister, issit? Rice also don’t know how to cook. Everything also need me to do for you.” As I contributed nothing, was capable of nothing, it was my duty to obey. I felt the force of this claim, even if I resented it. Certainly I had no great teenage desire to change Marcus’ nappies or to scour the kitchen sink. My uselessness was part of an established order, which, in some ways, it suited everyone to maintain.

 
When I reached the block, I went first to the mama shop in the void deck to get the sweets for Pa. In the half-light between the dusty stacks, Milo tins and instant noodles jammed next to toilet brushes and plastic swords, I was filled with something new: nostalgia for this place, once home to small joys. My pocket money had sufficed for occasional haw flakes, fruity chews, glittering sheets of stickers. Handing coins over the counter had been glorious. I may have rushed out of my hated past, but even in it I had real treats. They were child treats, of course, fifty-cent trinkets; but my pains, by that token, were child pains, too.

I should be fair, I thought, as I sifted through my coins: tiny circles, thick milled edges, dull gold octagon faces. The pleasures had their own weight. Small things add up. Leaving had its loss.

I had already paid when I saw them hanging by the entrance, slim and straw-coloured, with bright long hooks for handles, orange, blue, green. The old anger, stone cold, shifted in my gut. The blows always felt like acts of the moment, the cane to hand like a bird answering a call, drawn by the fleshy bait of my wrongs. I’d never thought of the cool practicality of it, the preparedness. Wen acquiring the instrument between other bits of shopping: bin bag, face cream, toothpaste, cane. As she wrote her list or stood in a store, I was absent, still innocent; the fault had yet to be committed. And still she thought: I will beat her sometime.

I used to think I understood. Her thumb twisting hotly in my upper arm, the roots of my hair shrieking, as I tried, uselessly, to wriggle away. I hated her, I hated this, but it made a kind of sense, didn’t it? Why shouldn’t she hit me? I was a burden she had never wanted. She was not my mother.

She was Marcus’ mother, of course, and she hit Marcus too, more than she hit me. She dealt him broad slaps across the face, wrenched with vicious fingers at his ears. But that was different. Marcus was different. He keened wordlessly, his eyes tilted in different directions, he had no father. I had begun the job of ruining Wen’s life; he had finished it off. Both of us were—I had thought—special cases.

But the careful display in the mama shop said something else. Smooth sticks fanned out neatly at one end, bunched together with clean pink raffia at the other. They were made by patient line workers in factories, and stocked by shrewd shopkeepers, before mothers and fathers took them home. At each stage, someone thought: we will beat them sometime. The old mama shop woman in her deep peach blouse, white tendrils of hair framing the dark skin of her face, had given me a gummy smile as I’d paid. Coins for sweets or for instruments of pain, it was all the same to her. Simon calls my old life screwed up, but cane sellers know it is simply ordinary.

 
As my father stares at the screen, he picks at a largish scab on his forearm, just beneath the elbow. I latch onto this as something to talk about.

“What happened to your arm?”

He glances at me and then at the wound. “Bang on door.”

“Oh,” I say.

“Be careful,” I add.

He releases a small snort, and says nothing.

We have never been chatty. My father used to juggle a meagre handful of questions: was I keeping up with homework? How had our netball team done? From Wen he solicited reports on wet market stalls and appraisals of my behaviour. (The concept of behaviour was not applied to Marcus.) On more loquacious days, he recounted trivia from the workshop: a Jaguar come in for service, a colleague’s close brush with success in the lottery. All conversation was routed through Pa in this hub-and-spoke form, since Wen and I had nothing to say to each other. (The concept of conversation was not applied to Marcus.) However you scrape these bits together, they don’t add up to much.

And what is there now? Pa has no interest in my coursework. Any reminder that I am at university only highlights how unjustly I have profited from ruining my sister’s life. He also refuses to acknowledge Simon’s existence, though my boyfriend’s fancy desk job and politeness, his nice car and big flat, are daughterly achievements for which Pa would once have claimed credit. That leaves only fruits and news.

Still, the change for me is not the silence, which we’ve always had, but the thickening of the unsaid. The air is crowded with the insistent shadows of questions I keep back. Despite everything, I feel I should ask after Wen. I didn’t go to the hearing, and I haven’t been to see her afterward. My father must visit her sometimes. I want to hear about Marcus, too, although I’m not as certain Pa has anything to say on that score. I assume the carers report to him, but even when they shared a home, his interest in his grandson was limited at best.

I can’t unlock either topic without driving my father to rage. He would receive it—my concern, my curiosity, whatever you call it—as deadly impertinence. I had authored their sufferings: how dare I play at pity? My father would think that I am trying to have my betrayal cake and eat it too. And I’m not sure he’s wrong. I hate Wen, but I don’t wish her ill. I hope Marcus is okay. But no information about them could change my mind about what I did. I destroyed my family. I freed myself. And if I had the choice, I’d do it again.

 
I didn’t do it because I wanted what came next. I did it because of the ropes.

I came home early that day. Evening was just threatening, pink and orange tinting the sky. Simon was busy. For some weeks I’d been meeting him in the evenings and then slipping home after dark, pleading late netball practice. Wen had glared, unconvinced, but I was too giddy, my head too awhirl with Simon, to care. As long as she didn’t touch me, I didn’t care. I went to the kitchen for some water and found her standing by the sink, slicing string beans.

“Today so early? Got eat already or not?”

I shook my head.

“Every day also changing, one day early one day late, how I know need to cook or not? Coming back never earlier say. Never learn how to use telephone ah? Simple thing also don’t know, go to school for what. Then tomorrow eating dinner or not?”

“I’m not sure,” I mumbled.

“Not sure.” She moved the beans into a plastic bowl. “You think I’m a maid and this is hotel? Go out come back anytime you suka-suka, your sister do everything for you, anytime you want dinner I make for you.”

I recognised this: a scolding temper, not yet a beating mood. I sensed I was being urged to cries of gratitude, but my artless tongue couldn’t shape them, I couldn’t bring them out. In any case I knew they could buy only a hollow peace, because it wasn’t gratitude she wanted, not really, but submission. If I entered a dialogue on my failings, it would only deepen, like quicksand.

Silent retreat offered the best chance of safety. But today, restless, irked, I was annoyed rather than frightened.

She doesn’t have to speak to me like that, I thought.

It was a ridiculous thought. She had spoken to me like that on every day of my remembered life. This was the stuff that made the tie between us; and tugging could only twist it into tighter and more painful knots. All my old instincts were to move gingerly—to keep what slack I could—but now I was changing, unfolding, in the unnatural light of Simon’s regard. I was getting used to kindness, and it made me greedy for more.

“Like I said, I’m not sure. You don’t have to cook for me if it’s so difficult.”

“I never said it’s difficult. You don’t anyhow say I said it’s difficult.”

“I just meant that you don’t have to cook for me. If it’s easier for you I can eat outside.”

“What? Every day also eat outside? Never earn money already know how to spend.”

I flushed. Simon, of course, had been paying.

“Know how to spend money but cannot even cook. Only know how to go out and enjoy yourself—”

“I told you, it’s netball.”

She turned angrily. “You don’t talk back.” My gaze traced the tired red veinways of her eyes and it occurred to me that I was taller than her now, with a longer reach. She lifted a hand and I took a quick step back, out of range.

This was breaking the rules. I had never stopped her before.

We stood staring at each other, and then she raised the bowl and threw it at me. I lifted my hands to shield my face. Beans and water scattered as the plastic rang on the tiles.

“Get out of my kitchen.”

In the corridor my stuttering heartbeats filled my head. Everything seemed grainy and grey, equal parts sickness and victory. I leaned against a wall and tried to calm down. When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t just my own ragged breath: a low, rasping, sob-lined moan. But no—it was something else—it rose and fell to its own demands. It was coming from the store room.

Of that whole evening I remember most clearly the moment when I stood with my hand on the doorknob, making myself wait. The light metal cool against my palm, the wood paint a cheap gloss white. I wasn’t hesitant or afraid. I knew that I would go in, and I knew who I would find. But I wanted to mark the second before.

It was Marcus, of course, but not in his bed, or the thin mattress that we gave that name. He’d always been small for his age, but bent over in the chair he looked even smaller. Lurid blue ropes criss-crossed his body, looping over his shoulders, pinning his wrists to the seat and his arms to his side. He was whimpering slackly now, but he must have been wrestling before, because all over his forearms and legs his skin had opened in raw irregular patches of friction burn. When he saw me he began to howl.

My first thought was of backing out, shutting the door, going away. Business as usual: I’d burrow deeper into a magazine or study the pattern of grills over the window while Wen slapped Marcus, pinched Marcus, pushed him into a wall. If I would do nothing, there was no point seeing anything; and since I saw nothing, I did nothing. This time there were ropes, but it wasn’t so far, was it, from blows to ropes, I could stretch to cover it, couldn’t I?

I couldn’t. There were ropes.

I had had evenings, curled on Simon’s sofa, of stories, fingers brushing, whispered trust; and here were leaking, ham-coloured sores, the dark lines of scabs ripening among newer, brighter, bloodier ovals. These things could not go together. One would destroy the other.

I undid the knots quickly, without fumbling, and then he was shrieking, up and out. I heard him crash through the flat, flailing, knocking things over in his temper and his upset; and then Wen’s voice joined his in an unwinnable contest of unreason. A body rammed against a wall and the door behind me shook on its hinges. I looked at the stained blue cords, limp on the chair. The thought—not a plan, never a plan, I moved too swiftly for that—the thought formed very clearly in my mind.

Pa arrived home first. I saw his face pull into a familiar half-frown at the strains of the duet in the kitchen. He accepted whatever needed to be done with Marcus—it was Wen’s business, Wen’s burden—but he reserved the right to view it with distaste. He disliked commotion. And it was worse than usual, he could see that, as Wen stumbled out into the living room and fell to her knees, the boy wriggling and jerking in her arms as she tipped him onto the floor.

He remained there, prone, wailing, as she got to her feet. “I told you already to stay there! Worse than a dog, at least you tell a dog, it will listen to you.” Pa sighed loudly as she went to the storeroom and returned with the ropes and the chair, setting them down grimly next to Marcus. “—punish me like this, not like I killed someone or what, even killed someone also don’t have to be cursed with this kind of stupid, useless son—”

She tried again and again to haul Marcus up and fold his limbs back into their earlier prison. Her son bucked and arched and slid off the chair, screaming—“Don’t want, ma, don’t want”—and all the while unease built in my father’s features. Pa shook his head—he clucked—he made impatient, guttural sounds. He wanted his dinner.

He never got it. I didn’t see what Marcus did to make Wen holler in pain and push him to the floor, as I was busy answering the thin metallic whistle of the doorbell, which I’d been waiting for, but which no one else had heard. Pa saw them as they entered, his eyes widening; but Wen, submerged in punishment, didn’t notice until they’d crossed the room, stopping just half a step away from her and the question-mark curl of her weeping, bleeding child. I watched her take in their careful stances, their trained scrutiny, the crisp midnight blue of their uniforms, and then she turned and looked at me with total hatred.

“You,” was all she said. “You.”

 
Now the flat is filling with afternoon heat. My hairline is beading sweat, my neck filming damply over. The tower fan is working squarely on Pa alone. I can’t think what to do. Turning it would probably annoy him. I might be able to discreetly set the louvres going—but they wag so slowly, through such a miserly angle, that I’m not sure that’s really of any use. And it might annoy him anyway.

I don’t want to stay in this steam bath any longer, but I can’t decide if I’ve stayed long enough. I’m thinking about reaching for my bag when he speaks.

“So when will you stop this nonsense?”

This is unexpected. The established custom, some months old, is that he won’t start on me without a misstep. I get a headstart—a shot at outrunning his displeasure—and only if I stumble, foot in mouth, will he pounce. And I don’t think I’ve gone wrong today. It’s true I’ve barely spoken, but that’s never been an offence. And there’s something strange about his tone, something harder and more decided than usual.

“So? When are you coming back?”

“Coming back? You mean, back—like here?”

He nods.

“Like—moving back?”

“Yah, otherwise where? Don’t tell me so fast you already forget your own father.”

I open my mouth, and then close it. Surely he remembers telling me to get lost. That there was no room for an ingrate who thought herself too good for her family—who ate the rice that her father bought and her sister cooked, yet presumed to sit in judgment.

He must remember. He has said it enough times.

“End of the day, I am still your father, correct? Or is it your sister never teach you properly, set bad example?” He sighs. “You remember that time I also forgive—with that Marcus—but actually she showed already, right, what kind of woman she is, don’t know what is right, what is wrong. But still I overlook, her crazy son I also allow in my flat. She act like xiao char bor, whole day fighting, shouting, I just quietly tahan. Then on top of that she make all this trouble, go jail, I also help her—you also know what, I always say to you, I never blame her. I give her how many chances already in her life, she also don’t appreciate.”

I feel dizzy. It is as if an enormous electric coil around us is reversing its current, inverting every settled instinct, drawing north through itself to point its innards south. Pieces of the world are detaching and sliding into foreign slots.

“I do so much for her and now she come out already, she just throw her father to the roadside.”

“Wait—Wen has—come out? How long has she—?” I have no idea what her sentence was: I have never dared ask. And now, it seems, it is over.

“Yah, make don’t know what gangster friends in jail, then come out already she suddenly want to stay with them. Her father is how old, she also don’t care.” His gaze turns on me. “Ning, you still very young, sometimes do things also rash. But this I can understand. You have feelings. And you always care about your father one, right? Not like your sister, from young already hard-hearted. Her own son she also don’t know how to show love. Underneath, in your heart, you are a good daughter, won’t just leave your father here by himself.”

I close my eyes. Somewhere in me—an old, still place—there are untouched strings that his words have set humming. Only now that I have heard it do I realise that I have been waiting for this music for a long time. Perhaps all my life. And I never once thought it would sound so tinny. So terribly brittle.

In every previous lecture, I have been the traitor. And now—

Now, something whispers behind my ear, now it is him.

 
Clouds are massing as I step out of the flat. I automatically shut first the wood door, and then the grill with its satisfying click. I often think, at the end of a visit, about how many times I have made this departure over the years—leaving for ten minutes or fifteen, or the fullness of a day. Months out of a suitcase. But I won’t think about that now. The corridor is quiet as I set off along its narrow length, toward the lifts that will take me to the open spaces of the ground floor. As my sneakers brush the concrete I can hear their low scrape.
 

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