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W&N and UEA short-story partnership – third winner

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Amy Davies - August 28th, 2014

As we announced in January, over the course of this year we are partnering with the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme to showcase the best short stories written by its students. We will be posting four winning short stories over the course of 2014. Find out more here

stephanie ye by matthew phanOur third winner is Stephanie Ye. Born in Singapore, Stephanie went to college in Chicago before heading to the University of East Anglia to pursue an MA in Creative Writing (Prose). She is the recipient of a UEA Creative Writing International Scholarship, and also holds a bursary from the Singapore National Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals such as Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Esquire (Singapore), the Southeast Asian Review of English and Mascara Literary Review (Australia), as well as in anthologies such as Best New Singaporean Short Stories. At UEA, she has been writing First Light From the Farthest Star, a literary science-fiction novel partially inspired by the legendary cross-dressing woman warrior Hua Mulan. Stephanie is represented by Kerry Glencorse of Susanna Lea Associates.

Meat Bone Tea by Stephanie Ye.

The engineer’s plane is passing over the Bay of Bengal as Emma’s train emerges from the ground at Kallang. They are on the dark side of the planet and when each looks out the window they see a blurred face against the emptiness of the universe.

This is the year Emma turns twenty-five. Tonight is the seventh time she is eating meat bone tea at Singapore International Airport Terminal 3.

The engineer always orders for her, without asking. She’s fine with that. He’s the client, he’s paying and, anyway, the menu really only has one dish.

Singapore has been voted World’s Best Airport for the fifth consecutive year. The survey involved over twelve million passengers from more than one hundred and sixty countries. Its Transit area is famous for its diverting abundance. Passengers waiting to fly have a wide range of amusements: massage chairs, movie theatres, video game arcades, beauty parlours, swimming pools (including jacuzzi), napping rooms, a butterfly park, duty-free shopping and lots of restaurants, many of them outposts of international celebrity chefs.

That is what Emma has heard, anyway. As a resident of Singapore, she has never had cause to spend an extended period of time in Transit. It is travellers from elsewhere, waiting to go on to somewhere else, who enjoy the facilities. They leave with fond memories of Singapore without having once passed border control.

The meat bone tea restaurant is in Basement 2 of the public area, next to a 24-hour FairPrice Finest. The public area is unlike Transit. There are no swimming pools or movie theatres. There is no butterfly garden. There is lots of shopping, but the national duty applies. The public area is not frequented by the kinds of people who vote in World’s Best Airport surveys. Its corridors echo not with jet-setting tourists but residents of the nearby housing estates, who regard the airport as a shopping mall with plenty of parking and the novel sensation of wide open spaces.

The restaurant itself is small. The single, windowless unit accommodates five round tables, each of which can seat four people if no one has any luggage. The tables have been made to resemble traditional Chinese marble-topped ones with rosewood pedestals, but both the marble and the wood are plastic. The tessellated diamond-shaped black, grey and white floor tiles create the optical illusion of rows of cubes, and customers subconsciously mind their steps.

The skin of the Earth is a cracked shell. Its pieces are not man-made ones of culture and language, history and politics, but are plainly physical. The fragments float upon a subterranean ocean thicker than blood, are borne upon its languorous currents.

The pork is fatty and tender and slides easily off the ribs. The broth is bracing. The meat bone tea restaurant is packed with gourmands from dawn till dusk, especially on weekends. But whenever Emma goes, it is never crowded, because she goes at 11 p.m. This is when the engineer’s flight gets in from Berlin, Germany. He clears the border, then meets her at the restaurant. They spend an hour together before he returns to catch his midnight flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. It is the same process when he flies from Christchurch back to Berlin, except that then they meet at 1 a.m. and stay till the restaurant closes at two.

The first time, before she’d given up on conversation, she’d asked why he’d chosen meat bone tea and he’d replied, It is a unique food of this region.

There’s lots of local food in Transit.

In Transit I would stay in the Business Class lounge, for convenience. Business Class lounges are the same all over the world.

The engineer is tall and thin, with black hair. He has white skin and pale irises that remind Emma of the blind eyes of Greek statues, vivid paint eroded over the centuries to reveal hard, veinless marble. He always wears a dark grey, cable knit cardigan over a black shirt, and carries a brown leather satchel with the strap slung across his chest like a bandolier. According to the profile the agency sent her, he is in his early forties.

She had also asked, that first dinner: Are you designing quake-proof buildings? She had read about the Christchurch earthquakes in the newspaper, seen photos of the pieces of concrete and metal scattered about like hair clippings.

Quake-resistant, the engineer had replied. His voice was low yet clear, a lullaby. No building can be entirely quake-proof. Not any building on Earth.

Well, so much for safe as houses.

Why build for that big seismic event that only occurs once in a thousand years, when the building itself might only be in use for a hundred?

Why not? Better safe than sorry.

It’s expensive. Most countries cannot afford to put money into preventing something that might never happen. So you build for smaller events, the kind that come once in five hundred years, once in a hundred.

Okay, fair enough. It’s cost-benefit analysis.

We call it acceptable risk.

We?

I like that. Acceptable risk. A good enough standard to live by.

Until you don’t, he said, and picked up his chopsticks.

As they drift, the Earth’s fragments bump against one another like sailboats huddled in a storm harbour.

Emma usually makes an effort to keep up the chatter, to give her clients their money’s worth of words, but the engineer does not mind silence. In fact, that is his one and only declared Conversational Area of Interest. In that section of his profile, which listed twenty possible options such as (1) News / Current Affairs, (5) Travel, (6) Music and (15) Personal Technology, he had ticked (21) Others. In the blank box next to it, he’d filled in: To eat in silence.

I like the strong silent type, Emma had joked when she’d replied to her agent accepting the job.

The engineer has by far been Emma’s most regular client in the three years she has moonlighted as a dining companion. Yet, due to his solemn reticence, she doesn’t know him any better than those clients she meets only once. All she knows is that he is German, an engineer, and that he has been hired by the New Zealand government to help build quake-resistant buildings in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes.

At first, she’d tried various interlocutory paths:

Is meat bone tea very different from your German pork knuckles?

Did you know that a pig has the intelligence of a four-year-old?

The first time I saw a real-life pig, when I visited a farm in New Jersey, I was shocked that it was so big, the size of a pony!

Her attempts at small talk are always met with a close-lipped, patient unsmile, the corners of his lips going sideways rather than up. At most, he gives a one-sentence phatic response, something so anodyne it dissolves into the space between them without changing anything. He conveys the impression that he is the one humouring her, is the one tolerating her company, rather than the other way around. This annoys Emma on a sincere yet inchoate level. But she reminds herself that he is the client, and he is paying five hundred Singapore dollars for her to sit across from him and be ignored. She just makes sure to come hungry and eat slow.

The fragments jostle against one another, grinding down edges and building up strain.

Emma had signed with the agency upon graduation, after returning to Singapore from New York. The agent was a friend of a friend who had recruited her after sitting next to her at said friend’s wedding banquet. They had bonded while exchanging commentary on the multimedia slideshow; how the bride wouldn’t have chosen that sappy power ballad before she’d met the groom.

It’s not an escort service, the agent said over the shark fin soup. My clients don’t want sex. They’re just busy business people who don’t have time to socialise, but occasionally want to go out for dinner and interesting conversation, without the fuss of dating and all this (all this accented by a wave of a hand to take in the hotel ballroom’s floral displays, the white and gold linen, the five-tiered cardboard wedding cake, the door gifts of chocolate and Chinese tea cups).

But I’m a civil servant, Emma replied. I’d be in big trouble if I got caught.

What’s there to catch? It’s just dinner. Anyone can have dinner.

Emma has not had trouble with clients. They can only contact her through the agency’s website, and the agency also collects on her behalf, depositing her payment directly into her bank account. Emma herself takes precautions. She uses an alias. She meets them in public places, and she never lets them drop her home, even if that means an hour’s ride on the train. But none of her clients has ever behaved inappropriately. Not the shy Australian banker who loved Japanese food and Broadway musicals. Not the hairy Spanish entrepreneur who took her to Restaurant Andre and interrogated her about Singapore’s defamation laws (remaining undaunted even after she professed no particular expertise in that area). Not the Ecuadorian bond trader with the flared nostrils and snaggled grin, who regaled her with tales of his adventures all over the globe. They ate chili crab with their hands and swigged Tiger beer as he told her that he had always wanted to visit Singapore because it was the antipodes of his own country.

Her clients are decent, they are (mostly) fun to talk to, and the money isn’t bad. It’s better than going home in the evenings, back to the half-dark flat she grew up in, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, her reheated dinner resting on a stepstool, its sauce glistening in the flicker of a sitcom. Like most unmarried Singaporeans she still lives at home, partly because she can’t afford to move out and partly because it’s expected, the filial thing to do. She isn’t complaining: her father still runs the pub on Tanjong Pagar Road, working at night and sleeping during the day. She usually has the flat to herself and he’s always been respectful of her space. But after four years in New York, it is surreal to return to her old bedroom with the strawberry-pink walls, the frilly counterpane, the cased cello lying on its side in a corner. She still has a bookcase full of soft toys and A-level textbooks. In bed, she can’t masturbate without feeling like a pervert. The mattress presses up so heavily against her.

At conservative boundaries, the fragments scrape past each other in a blast of noise and heat. At constructive boundaries, they move apart, and the hot soft inside of the Earth wells up to heal the seam. At destructive boundaries, the fragments collide. Sometimes these masses keep pushing against each other until they buckle, birthing between them mountains, volcanoes. At others, one yields to its opponent and is forced under, crumbling into the hidden ocean.

Tonight, the seventh time Emma meets the engineer, she arrives first and sits at a table in the corner, its surface glistening with damp swirls from the cleaner’s rag. He arrives five minutes later, heading immediately to the counter to order from the yawning boy with cheeks like rising dough. The only indication that the engineer has seen her is the turn of his oval face, the slight nod.

Now they are eating their meat bone tea. The fluorescence of the overhead lighting is harsh and makes the engineer look slightly ill, though Emma knows it does no favours for her either. She watches as he pulls the membrane from the rib with his teeth, the way his cheek dents and undents as he masticates. His mouth is clean and curved and this somehow embarrasses her, so she looks away.

There’s a family at the table next to theirs, parents and two children. The father is the only one travelling, judging from the one rolling suitcase with the large fleece-lined coat draped over its handle. Emma catches the mother shooting her a hearty glare of hatred before turning to scrape pig grease from an offspring’s chin. There is any number of superficial reasons why the mother could hate her on sight, and Emma does not begrudge her a single one. She is comforted by this revelation of a depth of feeling.

Some five thousand kilometres from the meat bone tea restaurant, thirty kilometres below sea level, the fragment bearing the Indian subcontinent is plunging beneath the one carrying Europe, most of Asia and, indeed, Singapore. It has been doing so for centuries at a pace of a few centimetres every year, similar to the growth rate of a human fingernail.

Emma gnaws on a knot of cartilage as she watches the engineer handle pig pieces elegantly with his chopsticks. His fingers are long and white and make her think of candle wax; the nails are short and neat. She can see those fingers manipulating a set square, a protractor, whatever mathematical instruments an engineer might require in his work. They are precise-looking fingers. What her aunties would call musician’s hands, though her own fingers, honed by a girlhood of cello lessons, are themselves nothing remarkable.

That her clients are paying for her company sometimes bothers Emma. In a way, paying for companionship betrays a greater social dysfunction than paying for sex. Sex is a bodily urge that usually requires some amount of emotional investment to obtain for free. Paying for it is a way to satisfy that bodily urge without getting sentimental. Companionship, however, is an emotional urge that by its very nature requires emotional investment; yet paying for it means there can be no possibility of a genuine connection. You can pay someone to fuck, but can you pay someone to feel?

The fragments bulge and warp as they catch against each other, shuddering with frustrated motion. Something has to break, any time now.

Savagely, Emma imagines the engineer’s beautiful fingers skimming across her body, measuring it, slipping inside it. She will have him study her interior, feel her from within. She will make his flesh the same temperature as her blood. Her heart pounds with spite and it takes a while for her to register that her meat bone tea is trembling, the soup sloshing over the lip of the bowl.

It’s not just her bowl but the table, the room, the building. She can hear the walls creak like the hull of a ship. Air pulses like water. The nearby family is fumbling, the parents gathering their children up in their arms. The bread-faced serving boy’s yawn has transformed into a shriek. Someone runs in from the hallway and dives under the counter.

The engineer is still sitting and holding his chopsticks, but he has reached across the table and placed his other hand lightly on Emma’s arm, and he keeps it there until the quake is over. News reports later say the tremor lasted for under a minute.

The engineer is speaking. She asks him to repeat himself.

The epicentre is probably in the Indian Ocean, off Sumatra.

It must be a big one for us to have felt it here. Singapore never gets earthquakes.

Around them people are pulling out their phones and tablets, no doubt texting their loved ones and updating their social networks, seeking remote affirmations for what each has individually experienced. Only Emma and the engineer aren’t looking at gadgets. He still has his hand on her arm and now he slowly withdraws it. Her skin is cool where his fingers had been.

Once in a thousand years, he says, and resumes eating his meat bone tea.

The force of the quake knocks the planet off its axis, shifting it six inches – about the span of an octave on a piano. This causes the Earth to rotate faster and shortens the length of a day by one-millionth of a second.

A week before their next scheduled dinner, when the death toll has stabilised at two thousand five hundred and stories about relief efforts have disappeared from the front page, Emma receives a message through the agency:

I have decided to explore Transit this time. Sorry to cancel.

That is the last Emma hears from the engineer. She thinks about asking her agent if he’s still a client but decides not to give him more attention than he deserves.

Not long afterwards, she finds she has lost her appetite for meat bone tea. The texture of the pork on her tongue makes her gag. Soon, she develops a loathing towards other meats as well. She becomes a vegetarian. She stops working for the agency as it is hard to find clients willing to accommodate her dietary restrictions. Her friends assume she abstains for ethical reasons and she does not correct them. Indeed, over time, she comes to espouse the anti-cruelty philosophy as that is easier than trying to understand her own reasons. Her physical aversion transforms into moral fortitude.

Twelve years pass, and Emma is travelling from New York to Singapore. At check-in, she discovers that years of loyalty to the same airline have paid off: she has been upgraded to Business Class for both legs of her trip. Transit is in a Middle-Eastern city whose gleaming spires wick from the reservoir of liquefied fossils beneath the desert. Its airport has been voted World’s Best for the third year running, relegating Singapore to second place. Emma goes to the Business Class lounge. She heaps her plate with complimentary profiteroles and sits at a table next to the calming water feature that separates the dining area from the lounge. She looks through the sheet of wet-streaked glass and sees the engineer.

He is alone in an armchair. His face is as white as she remembers, but his black hair is tinted with grey. He is talking on the phone. He is smiling and talking and talking and smiling. What on Earth could he be talking about? And to whom? Through the rivulets she watches that smile that is not for her, that is for an unseen person, somewhere else.

The buried ground is subsumed into the subterranean ocean, joins the swirl beneath the skin. Some time afterwards, a millennia later, the current finds another exit, surges up and congeals, becomes surface once more.

 

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