Shenton Way. The financial district of Singapore where the most savvy of the population congregate. Along this expensive stretch of commercial real estate and inside one of these claustrophobic aluminium-clad towers is where Peck’s daughter, Lynn, works as a lawyer.
The evening peak period has officially begun twenty minutes ago, a silent alarm signalled by the jump in the rate on the ERP gantry guarding the enclave. An additional surcharge is now slapped on top of an already expensive taxi fare. Office hour is officially over but the building lights will be lit until past mid-night. The roads are nearly empty—motorists deterred by the high entrance fee. Frustrated queues at taxi-stands are a welcomed sight for Peck. She turns on the Uber Driver App on her phone. The high demand means an unusually high fare. Peck relishes this opportunity to recoup the trip into CBD just to deliver home-cooked dinner to Lynn.
In three seconds, she gets a rider. Without hesitation, she taps to accept the job and drives two minutes to where the rider is waiting. The Caucasian man wants to go to the airport, which is in the opposite direction of Peck’s house in the west. He gets in the front next to Peck and slides the seat all the way to the back. Even then, his legs fold awkwardly against the glove box. Her Toyota Vios has suddenly shrunk in his presence. They travel in silence, since Peck is not very conversant in English.
The drive to Changi Airport has been worth the thirty dollars. She keeps her Uber App switched on, hoping the next few journeys would eventually bring her closer to home. Unfortunately, the next few pickups circle the north-eastern part of Singapore. She hates the Sengkang-Hougang loop, as she calls it. The riders there never seem to travel off that radar range. Peck is ecstatic when she finally gets a ride into Boat Quay near midnight. She gives a little prayer—even though she left the church the day she divorced her husband. Please let someone be going to the west. Her next ride is located at a pub nearby.
Peck drives slowly along the one-way street flanked on both sides by three-storey pre-war terrace building. Large neon signs screaming Martell and Hennessy adorn the façades of the buildings, announcing a different kind of commodity business from the rice, coffee beans and tea leaves traded by towkays during the colonial period. Silhouettes now crowd the five-foot walkway. Peck winds down her tinted window and peers out. The towkays are still present, in the form of portly men with large watches and ringed fingers holding cigarettes. Their arms encircle the slim waists of their bored-looking long-haired companions, another transacted commodity imported from the same countries favoured by past colonial towkays.
A couple emerge from one of the units and wave to Peck. The man opens the back door and immediately the leathery-new-car scent of her three-month-old extravagance is supplanted with the sooty-vomit odour of cigarette smoke and hard liquor. Peck watches the lady as she enters the car. She struggles to pull her red skin-tight mini down her bare thighs while shifting to make room for the man. She looks young, too young in fact, to be out at this time of the night, much less exiting from these pubs. But Peck concedes to being an overly-protective mother—the kind of mother who still delivers dinner to their adult children.
The girl’s companion is dressed in a typical executive attire of white long-sleeved shirt and black pants. He could be in his thirties, perhaps slightly older than Peck’s eldest son, Leon. Leon, a bank analyst, would not be caught dead in such sleazy places.
Peck taps on the Picked Up button on the app. The next destination is Clementi, her housing estate. Her prayer has worked.
The Vios drives out of Boat Quay into CTE. Behind, Peck hears giggles and a smattering of conversation. The man nuzzles the girl’s neck. God knows where his hands are. He promises to buy her something from duty-free when he returns from Vietnam. He’s a building-material salesman entertaining clients on his company’s account at the nightclub, who has snagged a reward for himself.
A shrill ringing interrupts the giggles.
‘Sorry. I need to pick up this call,’ Peck says and answers the phone without waiting for their response.
‘Mom, where are you?’ Lizzy, her youngest daughter’s voice calls out loudly through the speaker.
‘I will be home soon. You sleep first. Tomorrow you need to wake up early for school.’
‘I’ll wait for you, I can study some more. Bye,’ says Lizzy and the line cuts.
At the back, the giggles stop. Peck hears the gentle snores from the man. In the rear view mirror, his head tilts back on the headrest. The girl is looking out of the window, her face blank.
‘Girl, he your boyfriend is it?’ Peck starts.
‘Auntie, mind you own business.’
‘You look to be my daughter’s age. Lizzy, who just called. She’s taking her A’levels this year.’
The girl keeps her sight on the passing vehicles without replying. Peck wonders how old she is, and how her mother would allow her out so late, but knows better to keep her mouth shut.
The Vios arrives at the open-air carpark at Block 322. The girl shakes the man. He grunts and continues sleeping. His breathing shallow and loud.
‘Tony, wake up,’ she tries again, giving him a harder shake. When that fails, she opens the door and steps out.
‘Hey, wait. Where are you going? Your boyfriend is still in my car.’ Peck rushes after her.
‘What boyfriend? He’s just someone I met at the pub. Anyway, this is my house, not his. You try to wake him lah.’ With that, she turns and walks towards the block.
Peck watches as the girl disappears into the lift. She returns to the car. Tony’s head has rolled to his front, hanging on the seat belt as if being strangled by it. His baggy shirt hides a plump body. He has gone eerily silent. Peck shakes his shoulder and his head rolls back. She gives his round face a few gentle slaps and calls loudly, ‘Tony! Tony!’ There is no response. She moves closer and almost gags at the odour. She puts a finger under his nose and could not detect any airflow. She presses two fingers to the side of his neck like how she has seen done in Korean dramas. His pulse at the neck is weak. She gives Tony another few slaps on both sides of his face, harder this time. His alcohol-flushed cheeks glow even redder but he remains motionless.
Peck’s heart palpitates. What if he dies in her car? Her brand new car which she still owes the bank eighty-one more months of instalment. She shakes her head to banish the gruesome thought. She stretches across Tony to the front to retrieve her phone from the holder. Her hands shake as she presses 995.
‘Hello, there is an unconscious man in my car. What? No, I don’t know him. Name? Tony. I don’t know his surname lah. Address? 322 Clementi. Hurry hurry!’
She turns to the comatose man beside her. His face has dulled to an ashen in the dim light. Peck jumps out of the car. She looks around, hoping for someone to come by but there is no one in sight.
‘Oh God, please don’t let him be dead,’ she mutters.
Above head, the sky flashes a few times and a loud clap of thunder follows. Large drops of rain pelt down mercilessly. Peck rushes into the back seat next to Tony. Outside, the sky pours.
The acrid air is suffocating within the closed confinement of her car. She turns on the interior light. Her hand creeps towards Tony’s face and she is relieved to feel some warmth. She tries for his pulse again. Nothing. Perhaps her fingers are in a wrong position. She crouches over and moves her fingers gingerly beneath his jaws. Nothing. She releases his seat belt and shakes him violently. He slides sideway and now lies on the backseat. The windows mist up rapidly, enclosing them in a vehicular tomb.
She curses the slowness of the ambulance. It’s been five minutes since her call. He mustn’t die in her car. She must do something. What if the man lying here is her precious Leon? Her heart aches at the thought and she is now crying. She pulls Tony onto his back and tries to recall what she has seen on television. As if possessed by another spirit, she repeatedly pounds on his chest, alternating with pinching his nose while blowing hard into his mouth. Suddenly, he coughs and heaves.
In the distance, she hears the siren.
Vicky Chong is doing her MA in Creative Writing at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore. Her works have been published in Readers’ Digest, The Graduate and Singapore Marketer. More recently, her short stories were published in two anthologies by Singapore’s National Library Board. Her short story, Chun Kia, is one of the ten selected for 2017 George Town literary Festival Fringe Zine.
Image credits: Rica Espiritu