This story is by Ayesha Harben and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It seemed like an ordinary Monday morning. Only it wasn’t. She was about to close the door on almost 20 years of her life. There was no perfect time to do it. Now was as perfect as it would get.
FeiLin looked at the almost pitiful quantity of her belongings. Two suitcases lay open against the only wall in the room that didn’t have a piece of furniture against it.
Her clothes sat in neat piles on the double bed that she shared with her husband Kee and Sam, the younger of their two sons. Julian, their fifteen-year-old had only recently graduated to a mattress on the floor. At the moment, it was untidily propped up against the wall below the bedroom window. Automatically she picked up the dirty sock lying beside it and dropped it into the laundry basket.
The room was crowded. How could it not be, with four people and their possessions crammed into less than 11 square meters?
There was no room to spread out in her in-laws’ home. Kee’s parents had the master bedroom in the two-storey link house. His younger brother, now 26 and working, was still living at home.
When Julian was born, it was easy enough to put a cot into the room. Then Sam came along and took over the cot, and Julian moved into their bed. It had been all happy and cozy.
She remembered the sweet after-bath smell the babies brought to the bed. Now it was sweat-soaked school uniforms and smelly socks.
She heard Kee’s steps on the stairs. He always took those stairs in a steady, measured way, so they would register accurately on his Fitbit towards his 15,000 steps-a-day target. He was endearingly single-minded about some things.
Kee came in. His eyebrows went up as he took in the chaos.
“Aren’t you going to work?” he asked.
“I’ve taken the day off.”
“Really? Are you coming with us to visit Aunty Peng?
“No, no. Since you are taking your parents out I thought I would tidy up. It’s very messy in here and…” she trailed off because the explanation sounded so lame. He didn’t notice.
“I came to tell you Ma wants you to water the garden. Her back is playing up this morning.” And he was gone.
She wished Kee and his parents would leave. It would be easier to get this over with and be on her way to a new life with all its inviting possibilities. She dumped a pile of clothes into the suitcase and began stuffing them in with a furious energy.
Living with her in-laws had never been easy. Pa was a cold, taciturn man who kept mainly to himself. His sons could barely hold a conversation with him. She couldn’t remember him sharing a single tender moment with his grandsons. When at home, he barricaded himself behind newspapers or in his room with his Chinese serials. At least he was quiet.
Ma on the other hand, was full of chatter and chuntering. There was little difference between her complaining or sharing information about someone or something.
She was a terrible cook. But she ruled over the kitchen, brushing off any offers of help, and turning up bland, tasteless meals. When the boys grew old enough to complain, she would launch into a tirade peppered with “ungrateful,” “disrespectful,” “spoilt,” all the while looking askance at FeiLin.
She was also an avid, if incompetent gardener. Chaos and confusion reigned in the small front garden, thanks to her insistence on cramming it with as many vegetables, flowering shrubs and tropical greens as she could.
Once, in the early days of their marriage, when Ma was away holidaying with her friends, FeiLin decided to re-design the garden as a welcome home gesture. Her best friend Lisa, a wonderful gardener, helped with the landscaping. She waited eagerly to surprise Ma with the transformation.
It was FeiLin who was surprised. Shocked, actually. Ma had launched into a furious tirade about abuse and insult from “outsiders” who didn’t know the first thing about gardening. Don’t ever touch my garden again, she’d said.
And once, when FeiLin had wanted a pretty pot plant to liven up their drab, overstuffed room, Ma declared the plant wouldn’t last as the room was too far away from the earth’s energy. Her words had fallen like withering leaves on FeiLin’s heart.
As the boys grew more independent and preoccupied with friends, laptops and mobile phones, she began to spend more time at work. At home, she retreated to the bedroom earlier and earlier while Kee and the boys watched movies or played computer games with endless enthusiasm.
The sense of disconnection with Kee had been growing. He was still kind and gentle, but between the demands of his job as a car salesman, and his parents, too many things kept getting in the way. They had both accepted the emotional distance that had crept up over the years. A distance deepened by the absence of intimacy. She struggled to recall the last time they had made love.
Once she suggested they find a place of their own.
“You know that’s impossible Fei. Who will look after my parents? They are getting old,” Kee said.
“Your brother is here. Why can’t he take care of them?”
“I am the eldest son. They are my responsibility. Why do you want to move anyway? There’s plenty of room here for all of us. And look at how much we’re saving.”
“Four people crammed into one bedroom. Is this what you call plenty of room? And look at the state of our stuff.”
“I will fix it up. I’ve told you that.”
For years he had talked about getting a new cupboard or one of those sleep-promoting mattresses, but the subject would be dropped without anything being done. The wardrobe became shabbier, their mattress got lumpier. And now the springs were beginning to poke through.
She tried shocking him out his complacence. “If I had known what kind of life I would be living with you, I never would have married you or agreed to live with your family,” she declared. It met with mild amusement.
Slowly resentment had seeped into her. She kept it at bay with rationalization and excuses, and her love for her three boys. But now it spilled out, impossible to restrain. It was much easier to escape.
She began to spend hours on her laptop scanning through images of beautiful apartments and homes. ‘One day….’ she would promise herself dreamily.
“Mummy, you are terribly grumpy nowadays. Do people get grumpy when they get old?” That innocent remark a couple of months ago from Sam drove her to begin scouring the Apartments for Rent section in earnest. She circled the ones that appealed in bold, vivid red, as if that would give her the courage to take the next difficult step.
She pulled the brochure the property agent had given her out of her jeans pocket. Charming. Spacious. Beautifully furnished. Three bedrooms. What luxury. Lots of space for Kee and the boys. The choice was theirs.
Kee’s tuneless whistle – it was beginning to grate on her – distracted her from her thoughts. She tried to stuff the brochure into her pocket, but it dropped to the floor.
“What’s going on?” He stared at the packed bags standing neatly beside the door, frowning.
Her silence forced him to look at her, really look at her. She saw awareness slowly well up in his eyes.
“You are going away….” He was suddenly motionless. His eyes were on her face, as if in fear that if he shifted his gaze, she would disappear.
Still she was silent, watching him as he struggled to say something. He shook his head.
“Why? You cannot… You aren’t serious? Are you?”
Sudden panic welled up inside. She couldn’t bear the look on Kee’s face as he stared at the crumpled brochure on the floor, registering its contents. It felt like the room was closing in on her. She glanced out of the window at the gnarly frangipani tree, its flowers rotting unswept on the grass.
He turned and left the room.
Mechanically she finished tidying up. She gazed around the room. It looked the same as always. Would anyone realise she had ever been here? She dashed the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand and picked up her suitcases.
Footsteps again on the stairs. She recognised the heavy tread. Ma stood framed in the doorway. She looked frail and weathered, like an old photograph.
The old woman’s milky brown eyes were unusually bright. Tears? Impossible. FeiLin had never seen her cry. Not once in 20 years.
In Ma’s hand was a potted jade plant, its bright evergreen leaves cradling soft pink flowers. It trembled in her hands as she held it out to FeiLin.
They gazed into each other’s faces. Slowly FeiLin lowered the bags to the floor.