Singapore and Stories Day 3: of tea and pickles

Just to be different here is some Singapore street art from Haji Street. I’m encouraged by this sign of subversion


It I had this habit. Rather unfortunate for a leader of men. Well, head of a department at a rather large and self regarding law firm. It was that I kipped a fair bit. You know, took a nap, had forty winks, trotted up the wooden staircase.

Which on the train home, or on the sofa in front of Casualty is ok but at your desk? Less so. In a meeting? Not really. Interviewing a potential new partner? A definite no-no. But it happened to me, all of the above and the quick snooze – or power nap as I liked to think of it – became commonplace.

Younger lawyers knew to cough on entry if I looked like I was concentrating on my computer – the screen faced the door so my back was to the corridor. My given reason was it avoided glare from the sun on the screen but the truth was more prosaic, sadder. It was easier to have that short eyelid break and not be spotted.

But they all knew and said nothing. You didn’t.

So imagine my surprise, talking to the Lawyer who is working in Singapore, to be told that the resident lawyers often rest their heads on their arms and snooze. You see it in restaurants, too, one of a party of four having a quick break.

Rather than an admission of weakness, of one’s inability to keep going it is a recognition of dedication to the task that you sacrifice yourself so much for your job and your friends that you stay with it even if dog tired.

Our holiday in Singapore is in two parts, broken by 8 days in Cambodia. So this is our last of our first days and it focused around a rather splendid high tea at Raffles, a picture of which I shared yesterday.

The reason for the treat was to meet my great niece, the daughter of my nephew, the English Teacher and his Singaporean wife the Civil Servant. The First Of Her Kind is one in November and it seemed a lovely way to meet up.

Chatting to the new parents inevitably spilled into matters of differences, hence the tale of the sleeping lawyers. The Civil Servant noted that nearly all children in Singapore are myopic. This is not genetic but rather a function of overly ambitious parents who keep their children indoors studying and thus not getting enough daylight. Another downside of this culture of excelling at education is the heightened teenage suicide rate which is, alongside South Korea, another hot house, amongst the worst in the world.

Social and cultural differences and comparisons get played for political ends so often. We hear about league tables and where we are placed on subjects like maths. What we don’t often hear are the costs and the compromises that are made. For many the benefits are apparent but for those who slip below whatever line it is that is drawn the consequences can appear stark.

I’m curious to know how accurate these statistics are but they fuel easy stereotypes of tiger economies pressing to improve their place in a competitive world. The question I ask myself is how far you sense the locals are asking questions. No system works perfectly for all its citizens and while Singapore is a calm and safe place to be, clean and intriguing is it all it could be?

Perhaps that is a vital question for the future. For now it is very welcoming and enjoyable, but I come with cash to splash. For others, struggling maybe to achieve in such a dogmatically meretocratic system?

We saw a light show after our busy day

It was spectacular in the Gardens By The Bay and on Marina Sands Quay. Maybe the excitement was too much, maybe I was taking a leaf out of the locals book.

Or maybe it was a result of checking the cricket score… 

We can make some comparisons, perhaps as we head for Cambodia, a country with a far more difficult past, a recent past. It is stable by many of the regions’ standards and by reputation as welcoming if not more so, than Singapore. But it is poorer and with much more visible issues of life and death to confront. We will see.

Today’s story is prompted by the Pest Controller, the Vet’s boyfriend. This is the image

and his additional requirement  was to make it experimental or surreal. I wonder if I have achieved that?

And here the story

Simone Fiorenti and Susan Le Grand may have been separated by 100 years but they were linked in several ways, not that either knew it. For example both killed two men within a minute by the pressure of their right thumbs.
Simone lived in New York, in an Italian suburb, in a damp apartment. It was 1917 and America was off to war. Her mother, a seamstress, had sent the fifteen year old Simone to deliver a parcel of piece work. She returned to find her father and a strange man in uniform arguing in the parlour. As Simone watched the argument grew heated and the stranger pulled a gun. Screaming, ‘Daddy’ Simone ran into the room intent on saving her father.
Susan was twenty-seven and living in Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds. She loved trawling the antique and second hand shops for unusual pieces with which to furnish her small flat. One curio shop, in Lower Slaughter had passed her by but this Saturday was surprisingly wet and she darted into the gloomy interior to escape yet another downpour.
Simone’s family had already identified a husband and her marriage, at 14 was successful in terms of children if not a happy one. She had two sons and ten daughters and all were healthy and, in their own terms successful. However her oldest son married a Gambino, part of a large established Italian dynasty of entrepreneurs. They made a fortune from gambling, the prohibition and, later gun running and drugs. By the early 1940s they were run by Simone’s son Vere. In contrast her youngest hated what his brother did, and the compromises he made. He joined the NYPD rising to Lieutenant. As America resigned itself to another conflict that would take the cream of its manhood, Ronnie decided to join the Army, leaving his promising police career behind.
The shop felt oddly familiar as Susan wandered towards the rear. A trunk, similar to one her great aunt had caught her eye. It was so familiar. She lifted the lid and gasped.
Ronnie had learnt, the hard way, that having a brother in the Mob was no help to a rapid rise in the department. He attended family events but steered a wide birth when it came to the overtly affluent Gambino clan. This time, his mother’s 40th birthday, he found himself eavesdropping on a conversation between Vere and another man, boasting about the money to be made out of the war. Ronnie was livid and confronted Vere. Simone watched in horror as once more she witnessed two men, her children fighting. Then Vere pulled a gun.
The trunk was her great aunts. How could it have come to be here, Susan wondered? On top was the quilt, redolent of lavender and camomile, that she remembered from her great aunt’s winged armchair. She lifted it carefully and smiled at the next item, one her great aunt treasured above all others.
‘No. Stop. Enough. This family will not kill itself.’ Simone was in tears. ‘Not any more,’ she whispered. Her mind was filled with an intense flashback to that bright November day in 1917. As she ran into the room crying out, both men stopped and turned. The stranger’s face changed as he saw Simone, his eye’s watering. He dropped the gun and stepped towards her. She was quick, though, darting past him and snatching it up. ‘Bambino.’ The stranger kept coming towards her, his arms outstretched. She raised the gun, terrified.
Susan felt oddly guilty. The plate had hung on her great aunt’s sitting room wall. She had never been allowed to touch it as a child but it drew her gaze every time she visited.
Robbie and Vere hesitated. You didn’t argue with their mother. ‘Come.’ She led them to a small office and turned to confront them. ‘Will you stop this? You are family.’
Robbie sneered at his brother. ‘He’s a cheap crook. When I get back – if I get back – I will take him down. Sorry ma but he shames our name every day.’
Vere started to respond but the matriarch held up a hand. ‘This ends here. Now. Vere, are you going to change?’ A sharp shake told her all she needed to know. Sighing she told them to meet her at an address in Queens later that evening and left without a word. The young men studied each other briefly before going their separate ways.
Susan lovingly lifted the plate running her fingers around its edge. She always wondered at the men depicted in the pattern, both running in that stylised way. And the letters: ‘R’ and ‘Ve’. What did they represent?
The address was a Chinese laundry, tatty and filled with the smell of smoked opium pipes. Robbie was the last to arrive. In the back room his mother sat to one side. In the middle an ancient Chinaman spun a potter’s wheel slowly. Around him various pots bubbled and burnt. Vere stood, shifting nervously.
Susan’s fingers were drawn to the two running men. Gingerly she touched the first. It seemed to give to her touch. Similarly the second. A voice seemed to echo inside her head.
‘Will you, finally, stop this feuding and unite our families either on one or other side of the law? I don’t care which, just end this.’
The men held each other’s gaze. Vere spoke first. Slowly, quietly. ‘No, ma. There is no going back.’ Robbie nodded, for once in total agreement with his brother.
Simone let her head drop. ‘So be it.’ In the beat of an eyelid the potter had cut one then the other man’s hand and transferred the fresh blood to the clay where it was instantly absorbed by the fast spinning motion. Neither man had a chance to react before then slumped to the floor.
Simone opened her bag and placed one thousand dollars on the table. ‘How long will they be held?’
‘For the life of the plate.’
‘And then?’
The chinaman did not reply.
Simone knew she should care but she had to bring the family together and these two were stopping her. Once again she returned to that winter’s day. Her small thumb hadn’t meant to pull the trigger, nor had she meant to fire at the stranger but she had and watched in horror as his chest exploded in blood. She felt her father’s hand on her arm and turned. He looked guilty. But why? ‘Give me the gun,’ he said but she didn’t understand why he looked the way he did. What had he done wrong? ‘The gun, Simone.’ He tugged at her hand. Neither meant it but the frozen fear, the incomprehension and his tugging caused her to squeeze that thumb again. The explosion shook her and she staggered back, her face dripping in her father’s gore. As she slumped to the floor, her mother appeared. Simone watched as the woman took in the scene. To her surprise her mother ran, not to her father but the stranger, beating his chest. This man, who she’d never seen before, it turned out was her real father and not the man she had lived with and considered as such. She had killed them both.
Susan’s thumb hovered over the first man’s image. The voice, clearer now came again in an American-Italian accent. ‘Squeeze. squeeze.’ She felt the squidgy surface. It was like soft skin, creepily warm. The insistent voice reminded her of her great aunt and, using her right thumb she pressed.
As Simone moved to the exit the chinaman said in a soft voice ‘They will live 75 years. They will be at peace.’
At first there was resistance. Then a district pop, like something bursting. Her ears began to ring, a continuous vibration as if there had been a loud noise moments before. She moved her thumb to the second figure and repeated. As she did so, there was the same pop but this time the sound was over-laid with the soft sound of tears. Susan put down the plate and closed the trunk lid. She was overwhelmed with a feeing of peace, of release and of something finally ending. She turned towards the front of the shop, noting the sun was now out.
Inside the trunk the plate seemed to glow slightly. If Susan had looked carefully she might have noted the red patches that had appeared on the plate, over the hearts of the two men, as if blood had seeped from their chests into the glaze.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published two anthologies of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand and Life in a Flash. More will appear soon, including a memoir of my mother's last years. I will try and continue to blog regularly at about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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14 Responses to Singapore and Stories Day 3: of tea and pickles

  1. stevetanham says:

    And fabulous photography. Loved it!


  2. Mary Smith says:

    Ooh, that’s a great story, Geoff.
    Looking forward to reading about Cambodia. I’ve never been. I was working for Oxfam in the UK during Pol Pot’s time and very much involved in campaiging against his regime. Margaret Thatcher was, I believe, the first western leader to recognise him! I have visited Vietnam, which I loved.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ritu says:

    I think you totally hit the prompt His Geoffleship!
    And tea at Raffles, how posh!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Experimental? Tick. Surreal? Tick. Well done sir!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. No wonder you retired early 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. They do indeed question the system, they’re only human! I think the power nap at the desk may be a far eastern thing – many of our Chinese students and researchers have a quick nap at their desks after lunch. Great idea. I used to have a quick doze in the loos, but they have recently renovated them and the new ones have no lids, meanies!

    Singapore’s wartime experience was dreadful, although some 30 years before Cambodia. I don’t blame Lee Kwan Yew for working to make sure that the country would stand on its own feet and be prosperous and if that meant a certain amount of conformity, then so be it. I liked it.

    Their museums are second to none and don’t all consist of weird stuff 😄 And the wildlife reserves and walks and botanic gardens are amazing. Sorry, I feel I need to stick up for them! A good education can be hard to come by in parts of SE Asia. Also it’s safe for women to go out jogging at night, you don’t get malaria, very little poverty etc etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      All fair points and I too get what he did and why he did it. But I believe that only takes you so far. It’s about growing up as a nation. Human rights are bags of sweets to be given out by teacher, at least that’s my view. Picking and choosing will only lead to frustrations which economic benefits and safety alone don’t buy off.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I mostly agree with that too, just wanted to balance it out a bit. But I mean, it’s not as if this place is a sea of contentment, is it?!

        50 years isn’t that long and things will change there, I’m sure, so I wouldn’t worry too much about them.

        Enjoy your templing!

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Youll be pleased to know Linda thinks like you and i should know better than to opine so!! I’m always hopeful. And goodness there are times when I’d welcome a bit of social paternalism here – Brexit anyone?


  7. Lovely photos, Geoff. Singapore seems a very lively and interesting place.
    I loved the way you used that image in your story, even though it was a bit gory!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a beautiful visit. The whole thing, yes, but meeting your grand-niece. 💕
    So interesting about one tiny difference in perspective of “sleeping on the job”. That always fascinates me. Cultural differences. (Gorgeous light show and lovely way to end the day.)


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