This is an excerpt of the novel ‘Lonely Face’, written in Chinese by Yeng Pway Ngon. It has been translated into English by Natascha Bruce.
‘I broke up with Qimin,’ you write, as though informing a faraway friend of recent developments. But, in fact, it’s a confession. To your father.
‘I’ve decided to divorce her,’ you add, then pause, letting your right hand rest against the paper, still gripping the pen. Its nib hovers over the blank page like a hawk.
You don’t know how to continue. There are a million things you want to tell your father, but every time you try to put them down on paper it’s like knocking over a case of movable type; the words jumble in your head, and it’s all you can do to piece together a few disjointed sentences. And now you’re stuck again.
You put down the pen and examine yourself in the dressing table mirror. A long, wan, gloomy face. Sunken eye sockets, concealing a pair of lifeless eyes, their murky whites threaded with cobwebby blood vessels. Greenish under-eye bags, bordered by deep, trench-like wrinkles. The skin is coarse and broken out in little red bumps.
You lean closer. Your eyes shift into sharper relief: the under-eye bags are leather pouches, rough as crocodile hide. And underneath are the pimples. It’s truly baffling, to be almost forty years old and still suffering from acne. You poke one gingerly with a fingernail and feel a sharp stab of pain; you take your hand away. Best not to touch them. You bring a finger to your forehead, slowly brushing away a stray lock of hair. You’ve just showered and your damp hair seems a little sparse; the white of your scalp shows through. Your hairline’s receding, and it’s especially noticeable at your temples, where the newly-exposed skin looks like a beach eating away at a forest.
Dizzy from too long pressed against the mirror, you shift to view your face from a little further away. Those tired eyes again. Lips set in a mournful line, some patchy stubble emerging from the pores around your mouth and chin. At these quarters, this long face is the spitting image of your father’s. You pull back in alarm.
There are two single beds behind you in the mirror, pushed together and neatly made up, each with its own pillow. The coffee-coloured bedspreads are matched with pillowcases the colour of under-brewed milk tea, and your reflected head appears precisely at the join of their two peach headboards. Two sofas in the same peach shade are arranged either side of a small table, by the window to your right. The curtains are yellow, printed with large, fiery-orange flowers.
‘She wasn’t a good wife, let alone a good daughter-in-law.’ Back to the letter, but this isn’t how it sounded in your head. You’ve often resented Qimin – she certainly wasn’t a good wife – but you’ve never tried to put this resentment into words. Perhaps out of fear that, once the words are on paper, they’ll rub at your old wounds. Already, you feel a little suffocated. You pick up your pen and put it down again, then look to the ceiling and straighten your back, as though fighting to the surface of water for a breath of air. Then you sit, frustrated, waiting for this latest wave of emotion to subside.
The dressing table is chestnut brown, just like all the other wooden furniture in the room. The top is inset with a light brown cork, covered in fine, leathery cracks. There are two drawers: one left, one right. The one on the right is entirely empty, aside from an unsightly scorch mark on the white drawer liner, the shape and size of a squashed cockroach. The left-hand one contains a few sheets of Highland Hotel writing paper, an envelope, and a notepad. The wastepaper basket underneath contains a ball of scrunched up paper that you’ve just torn from your notebook.
Cheer up, you sigh to yourself. So she’s left you. You’ll get through this. Time will pass and you’ll forget all about it. Time heals all wounds. The question is, how much time? A year? Two years? Ten?
Your small blue travel bag sits unzipped on a wooden shelf to the right of the dressing table. You’ve unpacked most of its contents, and now it sags into itself like an old man’s cheeks. To the left is a wardrobe and, a little further over, the door to the room. A red ‘do not disturb’ sign hangs from its round handle, featuring a picture of a cleaning lady covered by a big red cross. The bathroom is opposite the wardrobe. Its door is ajar, and you can see through to the pale yellow washbasin, and the toothbrush and toothpaste you brought with you. You think of the bath tub, how it’s old, with a faint, indelible ring of dirt around the top.
‘I’ve decided to divorce her.’ You stare at the line on the page, then snatch up your pen and write, suddenly resolved: ‘She let me down! She wasn’t a good wife. If it weren’t for her, I’d never have treated you like that…’
You’ve finally written it. Finally confronted it, challenged it to a fight. You’re a master boxer, sitting on the edge of the ring, panting and staring venomously at your opponent. But when you look up at the mirror again, a pale, nervous face looks back. Why do you torture yourself like this? Shaking your head, you smile grimly and stand up, dropping the pen and throwing yourself onto a bed, defeated.
She’s even taken Xiao Qiang. You should have made her leave him behind. If she had, you wouldn’t feel so lonely. But, then again, perhaps you’d be suffering even more; perhaps you’d simply be projecting your resentment onto Xiao Qiang. Poor Xiao Qiang.
You reach across for the pillow on the empty left-hand bed and hug it to your chest. Now that bed looks even emptier; the coffee bedspread stretches out like a desert. At home, you’d also be alone in an empty room, but there it would feel even worse. Every single thing in the house reminds you of the life you had with Qimin and Xiao Qiang. You slept together in the bed, and the pillows and the mattress still smell faintly of the two of them. The talcum powder you shared still stands on the dressing table; the soap and toothpaste are in the bathroom. Xiao Qiang’s tooth glass and little toothbrush are by the sink. You’re the one who used to make sure he washed his face and cleaned his teeth every morning. After Qimin took him away, you entered the bathroom and froze at the sight of that glass and its little toothbrush: for a few moments, you believed Xiao Qiang was just being naughty, out messing around with Qimin, waiting for you to come and tell him to get washed up. But the house outside the bathroom was deserted. Silent, aside from the monotonous sound of neighbours opening and closing doors, calling out brief morning greetings. You couldn’t help yourself – you squeezed toothpaste onto the little toothbrush, filled the glass with water, and balanced the brush carefully across the top. Then you stood by the sink, staring at them anxiously.
With Qimin and Xiao Qiang gone, everything in the house is a weight on your nerves. Memories are stirred up at any moment, without warning, and they gnaw at you like termites. You aren’t at home now – you’re in a strange room, lying on a strange bed – and those gnawing memories ought to be a long way away but they aren’t: they attack just the same. You’ve brought your father with you, too. Dad, how did you handle the loneliness? Teach me.
You stand at the slot machine, mechanically insert a two-cent coin, and then pull the metal lever on the side, staring raptly at the spinning pictures. The reels whirr around and around, then come to a stop. Nothing.
You have your own special system: six goes with one cent, five goes with two, four with three…and so on. There’s no real reasoning behind it, but you like applying yourself to a set of rules, stuffing your brain full of meaningless calculations so that it can’t think of anything else.
Inside, the casino feels decadent and slightly surreal. A cloud of cigarette smoke hangs beneath the fluorescent white lights; the crimson carpet is resplendent as a coral reef. People dart around the game tables like shoals of fish chasing dangled bait. You were like that, too, when you first arrived, tempted by every single diversion. You wanted to dive in and start playing – not because you expected to win, but because it might have distracted you from the loneliness. A kind of masochism urged you to gamble away all the money you’d brought with you, like a little kid hurting himself just to prove a point.
You went from one table to the next, examining the players. Almost all of them had thin, drawn faces. They looked lonely. Gambling chips slid rapidly back and forth across green tabletops. A few players exuberantly snatched them up and went to claim their winnings. Others pulled out wallets and, pale-faced, went to buy more chips. Gambling is certainly a thrill; it’s like playing with fate. And when a gambler plays with his fate, he can’t feel lonely, because he’s too busy listening to his racing heartbeat. You desperately wanted to sit down and join in, to become another chip on the green battlefield, dashing, spinning, fighting. But you only had a little over four hundred dollars. Not an insignificant amount – at least, not to you – but tossed down on a game table, it would barely last two rounds. And after that you’d only feel emptier.
That was when you left the tables, and went to break your dollars into small change for the slot machines. Brilliant colours, flashing lights, the entrancing melody of the sound effects. The machines are arranged like a bank of dolled-up women, batting their eyelashes and casting alluring glances at every passer-by. Their noises reverberate through the hall, turning it into a kind of frenetic disco: the metallic scrape of the lever, the frantic whirr of the reels, the thrilling ding of the winner’s bell, the silvery clatter of coins into the metal dispenser tray. Shouts of dismay. Sighs.
You lose yourself in the disco music just like everyone else. You pull wildly on the arm of your dance partner, transfixed by the colours flitting across her face. Four bars, three stars, two 7s, a red cherry, golden bell, purple lemon (is it a lemon? It certainly looks like a lemon, but it’s purple). You find yourself shouting at the pictures as your coins slowly vanish from the change tray. When the bell finally sounds and more coins come clattering down, you rub your hands in delight, beaming proudly at the players on either side.
To your left, there’s a middle-aged man in a yellow batik shirt, hair slicked back, piggy eyes, a mole on his cheek sprouting thick black hair. He looks like some kind of loan shark sidekick from a gangster film. His lips are pursed, and he yanks aggressively on his lever; every so often, he mutters something under his breath. Not a friendly prospect. He seems ready to beat the machine to a pulp if she won’t give him more coins.
On the right, there’s a young guy of around twenty, wearing a loose white shirt with a skinny red tie. His lanky frame sways from side to side as he plays; he’s clearly enjoying himself. He keeps leaning over to see where your reels land, wanting to share the fun.
At long last, you hit the jackpot with four 7s, and the machine doles out two hundred dollars in small change (such a pity, why didn’t you bet more in the first place?). The youngster’s already gone, and the man in the batik eyes the money pouring into your tray. You shoot him a quick, pleased glance, then press the red button on your machine, trying to make the money come faster. There aren’t many coins left in his tray (sorry, old chap: some of us are just luckier than others). Suddenly, you think of Qimin. If only she were here. You came to this casino together once and you won then, too, and the bell sounded just as sweet. Coins poured from the machine like water from a burst dam. She jabbed frantically at the red button, clutching your arm in excitement, gripping so hard you yelped in pain. A happy pain. How long ago was that? Xiao Qiang had just turned one, and was still too small to pester you. You’d left him at home with the nanny.
The machine spits out the last few coins, then stutters to a halt. You sigh, scooping the money from the tray and carrying on. You came to Genting to forget about Qimin, but you can’t. Even when you focus all your attention on playing, you still can’t forget her. Qimin. You whisper her name out loud and instantly regret it, casting a panicked look at the middle-aged man. He’s just lost the last of his coins; he gives his lever a final, angry yank, and marches off. A man in a grey suit has taken the spot to your right. He’s about thirty, squinting, has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He calmly takes a coin and drops it into his machine.
You crawl out of bed, sneeze several times in a row, and watch the goose bumps rise on your arms. Your head feels heavy and your nose is stuffed up, as though you’re getting a cold. You dig out the tiger balm from your suitcase, and smear some across your nose and temples, inhaling deeply. A burst of icy peppermint bores through your forehead. That’s much better.
You sit down at the dressing table and look at your watch. Three in the afternoon. Aside from your letter, with its few short lines of laboured handwriting, the table also contains your wallet, glasses, tie, ballpoint pen and a few stray coins. There’s also, you notice, a fire safety manual. It spells out, in Chinese, Malay, and English, what guests should do in case of fire. You rub your bleary eyes, only to find them instantly burning shut. The tiger balm – of course. Once it subsides, you look in the mirror: your nose is red and your eyes streaming, as though you’ve been crying. You wish that was so. Agitated, you pick up your pen and start to write: ‘Dad, I know I’ve broken your heart. I treated you terribly and, when you left, I didn’t shed a single tear. I didn’t even feel sad. I let you down. But, believe it or not, I miss you now more than ever. I missed you especially on the night Qimin left, when I felt like crying but I couldn’t. I couldn’t make the tears come. Dad, I wish you were here. Where are you?’
Dad is dead. Dad’s ashes are in the Kong Meng Columbarium.
You throw down your pen, unable to carry on. Avoiding the misery of seeing yourself in the mirror, you go over to the window.
A small brown beetle clings to the white curtain liner. Viewed through the sheer cotton fabric, the world outside appears shrouded in a fine layer of mist. You can see down into a little garden at the foot of the building. On either side of the garden are two spherical metal frames, painted yellow, a little see-saw inside each one. There’s also a pond, a wooden footbridge, and a rock sculpture that, viewed from a distance, vaguely resembles a human.
Dad is dead. You listen to yourself say it. Abruptly, you spin around, grab your jacket, and pick up the tie lying on the dressing table.
This excerpt was featured in the anthology Living In Babel, published by Canopy.
Yeng Pway Ngon is a recipient of the 2003 Cultural Medallion for Literature. He has published 26 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, and literary criticism in Chinese. In 2013, he taught novel- and short story-writing at Nanyang Technical University’s Chinese Language Department, under the Chinese-Writing-Residency Project. In the same year, he received the South-East Asia Write Award. He also won the National Book Development Council’s Book Award for 1987-88, and the Singapore Literature Prize for 2004, 2008, and 2012. His poetry and novels have been translated into English and Italian.
Natascha Bruce is a Chinese-English translator, whose short story translations have appeared in Pathlight, Wasafiri, The Asia Literary Review, BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology, and elsewhere. She was joint winner of the 2015 Bai Meigui Award, for translation of a story by Hong Kong surrealist writer, Dorothy Tse. In 2016, she was the recipient of the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship for a Singaporean Language, working with mentor, Jeremy Tiang. She is currently working on a translation of Lonely Face, a novel by Yeng Pway Ngon, forthcoming from Balestier Press. She lives in Hong Kong.