This is where she sleeps. A cupboard. A bedroom. A windowless box.
She flicks the light switch and there is the bucket speared with mops, the washing machine and the mattress on the floor. The room is so packed that only a few of the floor tiles are visible. Sweat drips off her nose and splats onto one of them. The tumble dryer has fattened the heat; it’s been churning sheets and now there are clods of dust everywhere like she’s running a wig shop in here. She struggles to breathe in the hot, scarce air. The smell of boiled vegetables from the nearby kitchen makes her feel sick.
There’s a tiny table beside the mattress, clogged with photograph frames and drawings, and something small and beige and swirly. Her conch shell. If she stares at that shell for long enough, she can transport herself to some place far away. Beside the sea, the surf lapping and frothing over the pebbly sand, a child’s chubby fingers pressed into her hand, her feet soothed by the cool water. She keeps her eyes on that shell and her aching back starts to ease; her tight chest starts to loosen and she just breathes.
The sound of shouting slices into the silence then and she’s back in the room again, the pressure building in her head and the walls closing in on her.
She opens the door, and in the hallway mirror she sees a woman with lines around her eyes and grey-flecked hair. The voice grows more urgent now: ‘Girl!’
She feels the cold coil of the shell in her hand. She pushes it into her pocket and hurries down the corridor towards the voice that carries on screeching.
Greenpalms Condo, Singapore
Jules clips along the condo pathway, smoothing her fingers over the puncture wounds in her stomach. Music thumps through the 35-degree heat. Doof-doof-doof.
‘Maybe this time it’ll work,’ she says to her husband David, whose forehead is beaded with sweat. He glances at her, then his eyes find the concrete.
‘Let’s just wait and see. Anyway, at least this party will be a distraction.’ He grabs her hand and pulls her along more quickly. Tightly packed white apartment blocks tower around them. They look like City of London offices dominated by glass, except that there are balconies on these buildings. There is a woman on one of the balconies, sitting beneath a green canvas sun umbrella pressing a cigarette to her lips. On another, a pink towel is folded over the glass balustrade. There are purple-flowered shrubs on some balconies, garden furniture on others.The ten-storey blocks are punctuated by columns of smoked glass lift shafts, softened by clusters of lipstick palms with their slim red trunks.
The blocks encircle two blue-tiled swimming pools, one of them Olympic-sized, the other for the kids, shallow and triangular. There’s a splash pool too, edged with statues of frogs and snakes that fountain water, the constant rush of them accompanied by a chorus of tweeting birds. A child’s blue bike has been set down on the crazy paving path that frames the pools, its back wheel still spinning. Along each length of the big pool, there’s a wide decked area with sun loungers and tables and rattan chairs. A pair of goggles lie abandoned on the top of one table; a chair beside it has fallen onto its back. Flower beds line the pools at intervals with bursts of white spider lilies nodding their heads. At the bottom of each apartment block, there’s a town house with tall sliding glass doors, the upper half of them covered by horizontal metal bars. The party is in one of these.
It is starting to go dark and the air is violet. Bats are flickering overhead. A raucous laugh hacks the air and there it is, number 16. People are standing around a table in the yard, and through the open glass doors there are shadowed bodies, moving, twisting, dancing, pressing champagne flutes to lips. Here goes. Jules’ mouth gets ready to lift a smile. There’s no point in knocking, the music’s too loud, so she pushes the plain oak front door which she knows will be open. Hardly anyone locks their doors.
Their American neighbour Amber teeters towards them on navy patent wedges, her face sharpened by a pointed chin.
‘Hi there,’ she drawls. She air-kisses Jules near one cheek then goes to pretend-kiss the other one, but Jules has already pulled back. Their lips collide.
‘Girl snog,’ says Jules and raises an eyebrow, but Amber doesn’t laugh. Her long brown hair is tied into a ponytail pulled forward over her shoulder.
Jules follows her through the open-plan ground floor into a sea of dresses patterned with colourful squares, beaded appliqué and blue birds flapping across silk. David has gone in ahead of her and is already digging in to the crisps on a side table, tapping his foot to the music. The room is bright white and minimal, with globe-shaped lights hanging on metal wires from the double-height ceiling.
‘You’ll need a drink,’ Amber raises her voice over the music.
I wish, thinks Jules. ‘Something soft,’ she says.
This isn’t the first time Jules has been in this house; two weeks ago, Amber had invited her to a book group. Jules had read We Need to Talk About Kevin before, so she went along. But it was like she’d lost her voice that night. She was tight-lipped, her throat tight too. The other women were all so controlled, especially Amber; it made Jules want to say something outrageous. But maybe it was just her; everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves, marvelling over the chocolate cake that the helper had made. Not that Jules had seen the maid. ‘Oh no, she hardly ever works evenings,’ Amber had said, and flicked her ponytail onto her other shoulder. Perhaps it was just that Jules didn’t fit in – most of them had about three kids each, and only one of them worked, and their faces were made up, their hair shiny and tame, perfectly neat like this town house. Wooden stairs lead to a glass-balustraded landing, beyond which are the bedrooms. Another set of stairs lead down to the basement area. Amber gave Jules ‘the grand tour’ of the three-storey house during the book group meetup. At the back of the living room, there’s a kitchen with sliding glass doors. The two rooms are separated by a marble-topped island unit.
Amber takes a champagne glass from the maid who’s carrying a tray of them; she pushes it into Jules’ hand. Amber’s forced smile is packed with strong, even teeth.
‘Oh, no, I’m not—’
‘It’s a party!’ snaps Amber.
Jules opens her mouth to say something else, but Amber’s already walking off towards the maid with the tray.
The maid’s face is an oval of porcelain skin, but it’s her ears that Jules can’t stop looking at, pincushioned by gold hoops. That must have hurt. Jules touches her nose and the tiny hole that’s never disappeared. She went through agony for that ruby stud, but then she’d been a different person back then. She plonks the glass of champagne on a side table brimming with crisps and dips.
David is talking to Amber’s husband, Tor, a slightly crumpled Norwegian with a lone privet of silvery tufts on the front of his balding pate. He always seems to be in linen. He towers over David, who’s challenged in the height department with his spiky hair and red cheeks. Tor has to stoop to hear what David is saying, his steel glasses slipping down his nose. He must be at least ten years older than his wife.
The maid passes, carrying a new round of champagne glasses. There’s a frenzy of grabbing, of bubbles sloshing. The tray tips until there’s nothing left but liquid on chrome. She sees Jules’ empty hands. ‘Let me get a drink for you, ma’am.’
‘That’d be great, thanks. A lemonade, or, well, whatever you’ve got.’
The maid walks into the kitchen. She’s dressed in a knee-length black skirt, scabbed with pastry, a safety pin jutting from the side. She returns with a glass and an open can of 7UP.
‘Thanks,’ says Jules. She scans the room.
A man is staring at the maid, compressed features and a once broken nose, his eyes going up and then down. He should be so lucky. He catches Jules looking and strides over.
‘Lovely pair of pins,’ he says to Jules. He’s Australian.
The maid moves away.
‘What was that?’ asks Jules.
‘I’ve seen you in the pool and you’ve got a bloody gorgeous pair of legs.’ His tongue peeps out and glosses his lips with spittle all the way round.
Jules resists the urge to look at her knobbly knees. ‘Right, erm, thanks,’ she says.
She spots the dining table, which is packed with plates of beef-topped vol-au-vents, smoked salmon blinis and folds of red meat. There’s her excuse to escape.
‘I think I’ll just get something to eat,’ she says and hurries away from him. She picks up an olive and puts it into her mouth. The man slots himself into another group of people, but carries on ogling Jules. She looks away. The maid sets more bowls of food on the table.
‘What’s your name?’ asks Jules.
The maid smiles at her, says nothing.
‘I’m Jules, and you are?’
‘Hello, Dolly.’ Jules smiles; the name suits her pretty doll-like features.
Amber is beside them then. ‘We need more drinks over here,’ she says, an edge to her voice.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ says Dolly. She heads back into the kitchen. Jules chomps on a handful of ready salted crisps and peers at a lidless jar of jam.
‘Lingonberry preserve,’ says Amber. ‘Tor just has to have a taste of Lillehammer.’
Amber snatches up Jules’ wrist, crisps scattering. ‘I want to introduce you to someone.’ She drags Jules through the crowd.
A woman with brown eyes is dancing on the spot, making rhythmic up-and-down movements and puckering her lips. Her hair is done up in a chignon, but the kirby grips aren’t doing their job.
‘This is Maeve,’ says Amber.
‘Hi,’ Maeve says, continuing to dance.
‘Oh, and I’m Jules.’
‘Short for Julie?’ asks Maeve, a cockney lilt to her voice.
‘Just Jules. That’s what everyone calls me, apart from the other things.’
‘Oh? What’s that then?’
Twig. Professional worrier, she could say, but if Maeve is anything like the other women, her face will stay frozen and the tumbleweed will roll.
Jules touches her hand to her neck to choke the quip. ‘Oh, this and that,’ she says instead.
Maeve stops dancing and introduces her husband, Gavin, the lech from earlier. His eyes scope the room then he starts thrusting to the James Brown track playing in the background.
‘Jules is the newest recruit to the book group,’ says Amber.
‘Oh, yeah?’ says Maeve.
‘You weren’t there for Jules’ first time, Maeve.’
‘It’s The Help next, isn’t it?’ asks Maeve.
‘Yes,’ smiles Amber.
Jules is halfway through the book, but already she’s trying to think of reasons not to go. The music beats on. Jules gazes out at the dancers, taps her sandal.
‘So, where are your kids?’ Maeve asks her then.
Amber answers for her: ‘Jules doesn’t have kids.’
‘Lucky you,’ Maeve says in a blurt of a laugh. ‘Still, there’s time enough for—’ The end of her airy sentence is snatched by the rising beat of ‘Sex Machine’.
‘How many do you want?’ Amber asks Jules.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Children, of course,’ laughs Amber.
‘None,’ says Jules.
‘Oh, you say that now . . .’ continues Amber. ‘I didn’t have my second until I was forty-one.’ A wide smile splits her face.
Gavin slides away.
‘How long have you and your husband been together?’ asks Maeve, a V deepening between her sculpted eyebrows.
‘Eleven years,’ says Jules.
‘Oh.’ The V gets deeper still.
Jules starts jabbering over James Brown’s increasingly desperate entreaty to get on up.
‘David and I met at some crappy club in the London suburbs originally. We were just kids really. Both went off to uni and it petered out. Thank God for Google, eh?’
‘What do you mean?’ asks Maeve.
‘David tracked me down, the stalker!’ Laughter bursts from Jules’ mouth.
Maeve and Amber remain stony-faced. Still, at least Jules didn’t swear. Someone turns off the music briefly and jumbled voices rise. Another song booms from the sound system then.
Amber clears her throat. ‘Jules is in healthcare.’
‘Me too,’ says Maeve, holding her glass with both hands as she takes a gulp. ‘I’m a cafeteria assistant in a hospital – well, was.You know.’ She chuckles, leaning into Jules’ left ear to make herself heard. ‘Lady of leisure now. So what was it that you used to do?’
A small blond boy, a red blotch on his forehead, pulls on Amber’s arm, distracting them. The ice rattles in Amber’s drink as she moves away with him.
Maeve raises her eyebrows. ‘That’s Amber’s youngest. He’s probably complaining about his older brother, The Feral Child. He’s a real nightmare, punched my daughter in the mouth once.’
Another woman comes up to Maeve and they start talking. Jules zones out, taps her foot harder. Oh, how she misses her real friends, and the hospital in London where she used to work, with all those new mums holding their precious bundles for the first time, joy stirred into their eyes. She thinks of all the discarded IVF syringes in that yellow bucket in their new apartment here, and sighs.
In the kitchen, Jules drinks a glass of water while gazing at the wreckage of half-eaten hors d’oeuvres. The party has thinned out, but there are several people sitting in the front yard deep in conversation.
There’s a blue curtain at one end of the kitchen. Presumably, if it’s anything like Jules’ apartment, there will be a small passageway behind it which leads to a narrow toilet, and a cupboard with reinforced concrete walls and a thick metal door.
The estate agent, who showed Jules around the apartment they’re now renting, pointed at the cupboard, and said, ‘When you get your maid, she’ll sleep in there, the bomb shelter.’ Jules had said things like, ‘But there’s no window,’ and ‘There’s no hot water.’ And the estate agent had replied, ‘They don’t need things like that.’ Echoing that awful blog that Jules came across yesterday, by someone called Vanda. She’d listed all these ridiculous rules for having maids, like confiscating their passports and forbidding them boyfriends. Things are different here, that’s for sure.
A man’s Australian voice booms beyond the curtain now. ‘Oh go on!’
The curtain bulges and someone gets tangled there. A hand fumbles the fabric aside. Jules recognises the man’s weathered face. He is rubbing at his eye, and shaking his head. She tries to summon his name.
He notices her and shrugs. ‘Women,’ he says.
He drifts out to the yard and sits among the remaining group of people. It’s only then that she remembers his name is Gavin.
Dolly’s stomach constricts as she walks towards the shop that sells the illegal pills. The date for her health check is on the calendar at the town house where she works. Thursday 13th – Dolly’s clinic visit.
That’s eight weeks away. Ma’am Amber penned a red bubble around the words with a huge exclamation mark as if it was something to look forward to. But Dolly will have to take a test there like she always does every six months. And when the employment agency finds out she’s pregnant they’ll deport her, just like all the others.
She blows a clump of black hair out of her face and paces on past the shops – a tattoo parlour, and a store selling wigs.
There are shoppers everywhere in the brightly lit mall, plastic bags and mobile phones in hands, and men filling their faces with sotong balls. There’s a greasy circle on that man’s T-shirt; his chin glistens.The air is thick with the smell of steamed dumplings.
Saliva rushes up into Dolly’s throat, but she can’t see a ladies toilet, so she stops for a moment, tries to gather herself, sucking in the warm air and swallowing. The urge to vomit passes.
She tucks her bright yellow T-shirt, with the black line drawing of a smiley face, into her shorts and starts walking again, flip-flops smacking. The shop that sells the drugs is up ahead on the left.
Dolly wants to get it over with, so she strides faster, past a souvenir store selling Merlions trapped in glass globes that fizz with glitter when you shake them, and drink mats shiny with Singaporean flags. A Katy Perry song pounds from the open doors.
There it is, looming with the poster outside dancing in the air con: Reflexology, Indian head massage and Tui Na. Rows of teapots decorated with Chinese letters, and packets of pills and jellies line the shelves on one side. On the other, there are bouquets of rubber gloves and checked carryalls covered in flowers.
‘You like?’ the woman shop assistant, with cropped hair, asks. A sharp hair sticks out of her nostril like a bristle.
Dolly digs into her pocket and touches the 100-dollar note that Gavin gave her, with a mumbled, ‘There’s no way my wife can find out about this.’
‘I’ve got gastric problems,’ says Dolly, keeping her eyes fixed on the torn linoleum floor.
The woman looks outside, but there’s no one around.
‘Follow me.’ She swivels on her high heel.
The checked overall strains across her back. Dolly kicks the woman’s ankle by mistake and the woman tuts. They dodge a pallet on the floor brimming with floral soaps. On the shelves above, there are pots of vitamins and herbal teas, but nothing as strong as what’s behind the steel door that the woman is pulling open now.
The room is dark inside. The woman flicks a switch and the light flashes on then off until the room’s blazing. The steel door closes with a click. There are no windows. Dolly’s heart vibrates like a trapped fly. Nameless glass bottles, some with their lids off, are stacked on a cabinet.
‘So, how far gone are you?’
The woman’s brown eyes bulge towards Dolly; she has to look away. She’s been so damn stupid, but she had her reasons, and it’s not too late to fix this mistake then things can go on as they were.
The woman sighs, pulls open a drawer and pushes two chalky white tablets from a blister pack, the word Cytotec printed across it twenty times over. She scrapes the tablets across the metal table towards Dolly.
‘Seventy-five dollars,’ says the woman.
Dolly puts the pills into the pocket of her shorts and passes the woman the money.
The woman riffles through the pocket of her apron and gives Dolly the change. She turns off the light. Dolly stands there in the dark before the woman pulls open the door and the light from the shop threads its way in. Dolly just wants to be out of here.
She doesn’t look back. She walks so fast that she’s breathing hard by the time she gets to the escalator. She pulls her purse from her beaten handbag and opens it up. A small photograph of her daughter stares up at her. The black pigtails, the whole of her chubby face beaming with gappy teeth, and the brown eyes taking everything in. It’s been two years since Dolly saw her last. She pushes the red notes into the slot at the back of her purse then shuts her bag. She’s going to have to be more careful in future. Her daughter’s depending on her; she can’t afford to make any more mistakes.
She climbs off the escalator and passes a ride-on car swaying beside the open door of a toyshop. A little girl is clutching the wheel of the car, a moon-faced Filipina standing over her. The shop window is furnished with Despicable Me characters – a Gru and a group of yellow Minions. Dolly goes inside and grabs a Minion from the window. She uses the change from the pills to pay for it. A rare gift for her daughter.
She goes out of the mall then, and the heat swallows her up. On the other side of Orchard Road, there’s a huge shimmering shopping mall that looks as if it’s covered in a sheet of diamonds. She turns to the mall she’s just left. The ‘Plover Plaza’ sign above the open doors burns bright green. Filipina, Indian and Indonesian women surge up and down the steps. We’re all here for the same reason, thinks Dolly. Looking after somebody else’s kids to give our own a future.
When Dolly first arrived in Singapore, Ma’am Amber was pregnant with Sam. When he was born three and a half months later, Ma’am brought him home and put him into Dolly’s arms. Dolly’s heart grew heavy as he cried. Ma’am Amber sat in a chair, plastic cones on her bare boobies. ‘Don’t look at me,’ she said. A yellow machine droned and the cones pumped, and milk spurted into a small plastic bottle beside her. ‘What a racket!’ Ma’am Amber said. ‘So goddamn stressful.’ And Dolly looked at Sam with his peach skin and his heart-shaped mouth. Was it the baby that was stressing Ma’am Amber out, or the machine? Dolly wasn’t sure.
She opened her mouth to ask, but instead of speaking, Dolly took a deep breath and held it. Then she sealed up her mouth like one of those Ziploc bags that Ma’am Amber buys in bulk from Ikea, and she carried on swaying Sam in her arms.
Two days later, that machine was in a plastic bag by the front door. And Ma’am Amber told Dolly to sleep up there beside Sam because she was ‘a bit beyond all this nonsense’.
And so Dolly cradled baby Sam during those sleepless nights, him with his skin all Nivea cream and her desperate to be in the same room as her own baby again. She put the bottle into Baby Sam’s mouth and watched him suck, and willed herself back home.
Sometimes she’d hear Ma’am Amber snoring through the wall, and it was like a hand closing around her throat. ‘Keep breathing,’ she said to herself. And so she did. In and out through sinking-mud mornings, and grey afternoons despite all that sun. And now Sammy is five years old and he just about fills up Dolly’s heart with that smile and his eyes different sizes, and his hair as silver as water in the light. He follows her around, jumping into her little-me shadow.
Dolly had her daughter, Mallie, ten weeks before she left for Singapore. She gave birth in an almost silent room full of women on trolleys. Their faces were red and screwed up as they pushed. Others held new infants in stained towels while a midwife rushed between them. The pain pressed Dolly’s insides, threatening to break her open, but she bit down and braced herself. ‘I can do this,’ she whispered.
Mallie’s father Nimuel had gone by then, so it was only Mama and Mallie who Dolly had to say goodbye to at the bus stop. She closed her hand around Mallie’s tiny, clenched fist and kissed it. She kissed her nose, and her mouth, and she breathed in her vanilla smell. She collected each of Mallie’s little features in her head and told herself she’d take them with her across the miles she was about to travel.
She tried not to think about how she’d never see this baby face of her daughter’s again, never smell that new skin, but it punched her in the gut. There might be Skype calls and photographs, but the next time Dolly was with her daughter, the girl would be different.
It was as if someone was wringing out the cloth of Dolly’s face, but she swallowed down the tears. Because all the other women who’d left on the bus before this one had cried, but the bus had carried them away from their kids anyway.
She climbed on board, found a seat. The window got fogged with her breath, so she wiped a hole and stared. Mallie’s brown eyes, her button nose, that stupid woollen hat that Mama had insisted Mallie wear even though it was 33 degrees out there.
The bus started; the engine roared, matching the noise contained by Dolly’s skin, her ribs. And Mallie got smaller and smaller through the glass, until she was nothing at all.
All over that living room, Ma’am Amber goes now, her finger furry with dust. The phone is pressed to her ear and she rolls her eyes backwards.
‘No, Mom, four weeks is not going to work in July. I mean, we’ve got a trip to Siem Reap planned then.’
She walks over to Dolly, points her dusty finger in her face and shrugs, her forehead crinkling into an angry frown.
‘Yes, we’ll have to think about August, though I’m not sure it’ll—’
Ma’am Amber paces then stops and cups her hand over her head. ‘Anyway, I’m real busy right now, Mom . . . Yes, okay.’
She makes a kissing sound into the phone and hangs up. She lifts the framed photograph of her family then – the stern, seated father with the beard sashed around his chin and no moustache, the sparrow-bodied wife standing beside him, along with Ma’am Amber’s elder brother, now a multi-millionaire living on Long Island. The young Ma’am Amber is spotty with tightly braided plaits and a sad smile.
‘Goddamn it, Dolly, why do you keep putting this one back on display?’ She shuts the photograph into a drawer.
Dolly keeps rubbing the butter into the flour. The kitchen counter is already piled high with cupcakes. Ma’am Amber comes into the kitchen and stops. Is she looking at Dolly’s stomach? Dolly turns herself away. Ma’am starts writing on the list of jobs stuck to the fridge.
‘Stupid pen.’ She shakes it and tries again.
She’s all worked up about the playdate she’s arranged today for her ten-year-old son, Colby. Some of the Western women in the condo call Colby ‘The Feral Child’, but Ma’am Amber won’t admit there’s anything wrong.
Her breath is fast like when she comes back from running in the condo gym, her cheeks red like the raw beef Dolly buys for Sir Tor. Ma’am Amber’s lost weight over the past few weeks, her cheeks hollower than they were before, her frown line more gouged out. Short grey hairs spiral up from her parting like the leaves on top of a carrot. But she fancies herself up every day. Make-up on as soon as she rises, hairdryer humming. Designer clothes. The wardrobe door barely shuts with all the dresses she has, and she’s got more pairs of shoes than Imelda Marcos. She’s two sizes bigger than Dolly, who always tries on Amber’s new pairs – the flat bejewelled sandals, yet another pair of wedges, the latest ones red.
Ma’am Amber’s like so many other white women, doing her best to make herself glamorous in rainforest heat that she wasn’t made for. Maybe that contributes to Ma’am Amber’s stress. Maybe that’s why her lip goes tight over her teeth when Sammy Bean says, ‘Play catch, Mommy,’ and Colby says, ‘I hate you,’ and Sir Tor says, ‘I’m working late again.’
Ma’am Amber spots the cakes on the counter.
‘You can’t keep baking all these cakes. I don’t want to get f— I mean, I don’t want the children to get fillings.’
She fans herself with a magazine. ‘You people, I don’t know how you can stand this heat.’
She picks up the air-conditioning control and switches it on. In front of the mirror now, she moves her head from side to side examining her teeth. She pulls back the skin on her face and stares at her tighter reflection. She sighs.
The house is bright white around her, not a thing out of place. The living room is tall, with no wall at one end, just sliding glass doors and through them palm trees and the largest of the swimming pools. It’s like the Fullerton Bay Hotel with its marble floors and wooden stairs.
The family go to the Fullerton every other weekend for an all-day brunch. Ma’am Amber drinks champagne and laughs harder than she usually does. And the children lean into their elbows on the table, until Dolly takes them to the playroom. As the computer games churn out gunfire and electronic music, Sam sometimes sits on Dolly’s knee and she examines the labels in his clothes. Ralph Lauren; Armani Junior. When he grows out of them, she’ll make sure Mallie gets them. Mallie’s six months older than Sam, but she’s much smaller.
Dolly opens the oven door now and pushes in the next tray of cakes. At the end of the cramped kitchen, a curtain hangs. Behind it is a short hall that leads to her closet-sized bathroom with its concertinaed plastic door. Inside, there’s a toilet and a broken showerhead fixed to the wall above it which spews cold water only. When Dolly turns it on, the water covers everything – the disinfectant bottles on the floor, the mop and the toilet.
Dolly’s cupboard room is the next room along. It’s a bomb shelter, with no windows, and a poster stuck to the thick metal door. This room is a civil defence shelter provided under the Civil Defence Shelter Act 1997. The room is stuffed with Dolly’s things, a narrow bed pushed against one wall. A thin cupboard where she keeps her clothes and books. Cardboard boxes under the bed, and photographs on a corkboard. Overhead shelves run the length of one wall, and despite the air vent close to the ceiling, the cramped room is stifling.
The oven pings and someone knocks on the front door. Ma’am Amber opens it and Rita is standing there with her hands on a boy’s shoulders.
‘Oh, yes, hi there, Roy,’ says Ma’am Amber, a rictus grin on her powdered face.
The boy, his hair shiny black, walks in with a big box clutched to his chest like a shield. Rita manages a wave before the oak door slams shut in her face.
‘I’ll help you with that,’ says Ma’am Amber, tugging at the box.
The boy tugs it right back.
‘Colby, honey! Roy’s here!’ shouts Ma’am then throws out an airy laugh.
Footsteps pat the stairs.
‘Sam!’ shouts Roy and runs towards the stairs, the plastic counters rattling inside the cardboard.
The strained smile on Ma’am Amber’s face has gone now and she turns to Dolly.
‘You’ll have to take Sam out, take him swimming or something,’ she hisses. ‘I mean, Roy’s meant to be here to play with Colby, not Sam.’ The veins in Ma’am Amber’s neck are standing to attention.
‘Roy, he’s closer in age to Sam,’ says Dolly. ‘Those two, they quite often—’
‘Just take Sam swimming!’
Ma’am Amber’s eyelid flickers and she’s breathing hard and fast. Dolly puts a hand to Ma’am’s bare arm, but Ma’am bats it away and strides towards the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Dolly follows. She stops at the door of Colby and Sam’s room, her nose full with the smell of sweaty sneakers. The air con’s at refrigerator levels, its slats tilting up and down. The window stretches the width of the room and has a ledge underneath with a long red velvet cushion on it.There are posters of cartoon faces all over the wall, and that picture that Dolly bought of a little boy kissing a rabbit that says ‘Be Ye Kind’.
Ma’am Amber is kneeling on the floor, her white dress rising up her squashed thighs. There is a dark fur of hairs on them. Colby is sitting at the end of the room on the bottom bunk. The fringe of his brown hair is wonky, his face showered with freckles. The birthmark on his nose is the shape and colour of a dollar coin. He glowers at Sam who is unloading the counters from Roy’s Connect Four box. Colby’s scabbed knees dance about.
‘I need a wee,’ says Roy, hopping from foot to foot.
‘Colby’s got a Wii, Roy,’ says Ma’am Amber. The sore smile is back. ‘A Wii with Mario Kart and everything. Haven’t you, Colby?’
‘It’s coming!’ says Roy.
‘Come, Roy; I’ll show you where the toilet is,’ says Dolly, stretching out a hand.
Roy walks quickly towards her, but doesn’t take her hand.
‘No, no, I’ll show him,’ says Ma’am Amber.
She pushes herself up and goes out of the door, bumping Dolly sideways. ‘You just get Sam’s swimming things ready and take him out.’
‘But I want to play with Roy!’ says Sam, his eyes swirling with teary anger.
Colby glares at Sam.
‘Are you all right, darling?’ Dolly asks Colby. He carries on glaring. ‘Colby?’
‘I’m staying here,’ says Sam, folding his arms, legs akimbo.
‘Sammy Bean, we don’t have to go swimming. Let’s try the playground instead. Just for a little while,’ says Dolly.
She takes his hand; he takes it back again. She walks out, hopes he’ll follow. The door slams behind her, the handle rattling. A high-pitched scream gores the air.
‘Dolly!’ Sam shouts through the wood.
Dolly touches her hand to the oak, tries the handle, but it doesn’t give.
‘Do-lly!’ Sam’s voice is broken by a sob.
Ma’am Amber is beside them then, her body stiff, her head jerking. ‘What the hell’s the matter?’
‘It’s Colby, ma’am, he’s locked the door.’
More screams. The landing is a gathering storm of Ma’am Amber’s panic.
‘I want to go home,’ says Roy, who has just returned from the toilet. A strand of his hair has fallen into one of his eyes.
‘Just wait!’ snaps Ma’am Amber. Her feet are broad on the marble floor. ‘Open the door immediately, Colby Moe.’
‘Mommy!’ cries Sam.
‘Now!’ shouts Ma’am.
‘Colby, darling, just open the door, let me in,’ Dolly says in her loud voice, which isn’t that loud at all.
They stand there, silent, suspended, waiting. Then Sam starts to scream.
‘Just open this fucking door!’ shouts Ma’am Amber. The loose long sleeve of her dress has fallen off her shoulder and a bright white bra strap has made a red incision.
‘I want my auntie,’ says Roy.
‘All right, darling,’ says Dolly. ‘Just give me a minute and I’ll take you home.’
‘Do something, Dolly,’ says Ma’am Amber, her eyelid twitching.
Dolly heads down the steps, opens the cupboard under the sink and brings out the big wallet of keys. She pulls one out with the label underneath that says ‘kids’ bedroom’ then goes upstairs again, her feet carrying her towards the sound of Ma’am Amber’s muttering.
‘Hurry,’ says Ma’am Amber, her voice hoarse. She snatches the key from Dolly’s hand and wiggles it in the lock.
But she hasn’t pushed it in far enough and the key fails to turn. ‘Son of a bitch!’ she snaps.
Dolly glances at Roy who bites his top teeth over his bottom lip. Exasperated, Ma’am Amber puts her head into her hands. Dolly pushes the key right into the lock, turns it, and pulls it out; noisy air gushes out of Ma’am’s throat.
Dolly opens the door then and there is Colby with his hands in Sam’s hair. Sam is kneeling on the floor. Ma’am Amber’s bare feet slap across the marble, her whole upper body lifting and swelling. She pulls Colby off and raises her hand like she’s about to serve in her twice-a-week tennis lesson. She slaps Colby’s face. He groans and runs towards the bunk beds.
‘You little shit. What is wrong with you?!’
Sam runs to Dolly and clings to her leg. ‘All right, Sammy Bean.’
She lifts him into her arms and hugs him, touches his hair for blood, but there’s none. Ma’am Amber is reaching for him and he clings harder to Dolly. She is wrapped with his crabbed legs, his arms.
‘Come to Mommy,’ says Ma’am Amber.
‘I want Dolly,’ he says.
‘I want to go home,’ says Roy again, pulling at Dolly’s shorts.
‘Yes, yes, Dolly needs to take Roy home, Sammy,’ says Ma’am Amber, moulding her mouth into a neck-clench of a smile.
Dolly unlocks Sam’s arms from around her neck and tries to put him into Ma’am Amber’s arms. He kicks his way to the floor and runs off. Ma’am Amber rushes after him, the hem of her dress folded up on itself.
‘I don’t like it here,’ says Roy, clinking the Connect Four counters back into the box.
Colby is face down on the bottom bunk, a pillow squashed over his head. Dolly goes over to him, lays a hand on his shoulder. ‘Colby?’
She smoothes her hand over his back and lowers her face to his. Heat radiates from his sweaty neck and some emotion strangles Dolly’s stomach, but not just for him. It’s been too long since she last saw her daughter and when she did go home, the girl didn’t seem to understand that Dolly was her mama.
‘You’re okay, Colby,’ Dolly says.
‘I’m going,’ says Roy.
‘Wait!’ Dolly sits up, takes her hand away from Colby’s shoulder.
Roy marches down the stairs, the counters in the box scraping like pebbles in a cup. Dolly keeps pace just behind. He pushes on his blue Crocs at the front door and goes outside, walking faster, the distance between them stretching. He trips, but rights himself just at the condo entrance where she manages to catch him up.
He’s out of breath, his twisted mouth preparing to cry.
‘I’ll call Auntie Rita, tell her to come and get you.’
Roy stands there sniffing his snotty disappointment back in and mashing a bare foot on top of his Croc.
Dolly pulls her mobile phone from her pocket. There’s an unread message on it.
Let’s meet tonight.
She ignores the message and dials Rita’s number, pressing the phone to her ear.
– Vanda’s blog –
Life as the Employer of a Foreign Domestic Helper
Essential House Rules for Foreign Domestic Maids
Rule 1. Security: Maids can be a real security issue. That’s why it’s essential to keep your maid’s passport locked away, especially if she is looking after your children.
Tala is sitting on the single mattress on the floor of the utility room which doubles as her bedroom. She eyes the whizzing fan suspiciously, her bare back hunched. She’s been asking for air conditioning in here for the past six years, and yesterday her landlady Mrs Heng finally gave her a second-hand fan. It barely makes a dent in the thick humidity. The tumble dryer, next to the separate washing machine, spins and drones. Sweat bursts on Tala’s forehead. A strand of her glossy black hair is matted to her cheek.
Her beige bra sags under the weight of her pendulous bosoms, her bread-dough stomach spilling over her pleated orange skirt. It doesn’t help that her younger sister Dolly keeps on baking those cakes and Tala can’t stop eating them. Thank God for elasticated separates.
She lifts her old black laptop onto her considerable thighs. One of her former employers gave her this years ago and though it’s slow, and sometimes whirs like a plane at take-off, it’s loaded with Skype, so she can speak to her two sons twice a month, and keep tabs on the venom that Vanda blogger spouts on a daily basis.
Tala types in the address and the Vanda blog papers the screen with red butterflies. Life as the Employer of a Foreign Domestic Helper. All this flowing writing like the title page of a historical novel. The way Vanda goes on, she does a good impression of someone living 200 years ago.There’s a new post: Essential House Rules for Foreign Domestic Maids.
Tala delves into her gadget-filled bag – and there amid the tape measure, miniature scissors and screwdriver are her glasses, a gold chain dangling from the shut legs. She unravels the chain and pushes the specs on, oversized black frames that curve into exaggerated points at each side of her face. She stares at the computer screen.
Keep a logbook of your maid’s mistakes. Get her to sign it, acknowledging that if she repeats a mistake, forgetting to lock the front door for example, you’ll have to fire her.
Just who is Vanda? Tala’s been asking herself that question ever since the blog went live eighteen months ago. It’s someone with a lot of time on their hands, that’s for sure; Vanda posts almost every day, opinion pieces about how easy it is to sack a maid as well as interviews with annoyed employers. But the worst posts are the ones Vanda dedicates to bad maids, putting up their photographs, their names and their work permit numbers and listing all their mistakes. Tala has made it her mission to find out who Vanda is. She’s been snooping around the houses of all the women that she cleans for to work out whether it’s any of them, but she’s still no closer to discovering Vanda’s true identity.
Tala clicks on her hotmail and there’s an email from her eldest son, Ace, with an attachment called ‘Your First Grandchild’. She clicks and in front of her, like a fleshy hot-air balloon, is an oversized photograph of a stomach that belongs to Ace’s pregnant girlfriend. Tala’s first grandchild is probably going to be a whopper; Tala’s boys, Ace and Marlon, were both around the ten-pound mark when they came out. She looks at her bulge, silvery with stretch marks, then slams the laptop lid shut.
Riffling through her bag again, she brings out the pot of Pond’s and starts rubbing it in circles over her neck. There is a small canvas propped on the table beside her bed. Stripes of sand and sea, the paint built up and rough in places.There’s a passport-sized photograph of the artist, which has blown face down in the breeze of the fan. She turns it over. Her youngest son, Marlon, looks her straight in the eye: the cleft chin, the sparse scattering of freckles over the nose, and the height – though, of course, this head-and-shoulders picture doesn’t show that. Marlon – the artist of the family. He draws and paints on any available space: bits of old wood, the inside of cereal boxes.
Oh, but it’s hot. She presses the high setting on the cordless fan and the gale force sends her hair spinning, a chunk of it sticking to her face like a beard. She peels it away and switches off the fan.
Something doesn’t feel right about that fan. Just why has Mrs Heng given it to her after all this time?
The ‘I love Singapore’ sticker on the side of the fan is so worn away that what it actually says is ‘I love por’. Well, poor is top of the list of things Tala doesn’t love – followed closely by cooking. She digs into her handbag again. There’s the yellow savings book, now containing four figures, alongside that special metal pendant which gets rid of the garlic smell from hands. Shame it only works for garlic. She glances accusingly at her feet. Then her hand finds what it’s looking for, the little screwdriver.
She fiddles and creaks and the fan ends up in two parts in her lap, a mess of wires spewing out of it. She slaps her hand to her chest. There, staring up at her is a miniature security camera. She sits taller, sucking in her stomach, the gold crucifix glinting on her chest. My God, Mrs Heng has been watching her for the past hour. The pieces of the fan clatter to the wooden floor as Tala hauls herself off the mattress. She shimmies over to the stained wood door, the camera shut firmly in her hand.
She opens the door and a drift of fried fish fills her nostrils. She takes two steps backwards, picks up her T-shirt from the bed and yanks it over her head. Her stubby fingers, the veins in relief, are itching to point through the air at Mrs Heng and give her what for.
Tala strides along the hall, passing three badly painted terracotta tiles on the wall depicting warriors with big hair in various stages of a punch-up. Mrs Heng is a budding yet terrible artist. Tala clenches her fist tighter.
Her heart’s beating too fast, the sweat dripping out of her, down her back, her thighs. Her feet squelch across the marble tiles and arrive on the brown living-room carpet. She sniffs the burn of sandalwood incense, her eyes filling with the darkness of mahogany-stained furniture and the wallpaper patterned with green fleurs-de-lis.
Mrs Heng is standing in front of a bureau with her satin pink back to Tala, banging the top of her silver Apple iMac. Tala’s angry heart fizzes, but she needs to keep this place to live, so she’ll have to zip it. Then again she’s taken the miniature camera which Mrs Heng will find out about soon enough. Tala pushes the camera into the pocket of her skirt.
‘Stupid thing!’ The bureau trembles with Mrs Heng’s wrath. ‘Ta ma de computer!’ she shrieks.
Tala clears her throat and Mrs Heng spins around on the heel of her elasticated knitted pink slipper. Her mouth, a graveyard of yellow teeth, falls open when she clocks Tala. She shuffles sideways like she’s doing a warm-up in an old people’s exercise class, her eyes darting.
‘Look at that!’ She lifts her bony arm, the short sleeve of her shirt riding up, and points at the spread of darkened windows. ‘They’re dirty!’
Her grey hair sits bushy on her shoulders, her face speckled with age-spots. Her matching shirt and three-quarter-length trousers are covered in large brown flowers.
‘Well, what are you waiting for, girl?’ Her nostrils flare in her snub nose.
Tala retreats to her bedroom to get the bucket and ladder.
She stumbles back into the living room, sets the ladder up and climbs it, going through the motions with a wet sponge.
‘Make sure you get that huge stain there!’ shouts Mrs Heng.
‘There’s no stain there, ma’am.’
‘Right there!’ Mrs Heng points a gnarly finger.
With her other hand, she prods at the brown spot in the crevice of her teeth. She climbs up the ladder behind Tala. Mrs Heng rips the sponge from Tala’s hand and throws it at the pane, drips scattering.
‘Are you blind, girl? There, like a big greasy cloud!’
Tala retrieves the sponge from the now damp carpet and tries again, wetting the glass that’s already shiny. All around them, on little round tables, there are jade feng shui dragons and trees. A battery-operated gold cat waves its arm backwards and forwards, filling the room with clicks.There are three easy chairs patterned with red velvet flowers and leaves.
‘No, no!’ Mrs Heng shouts. ‘Go right!’
It’s time to bring out the big guns.Tala climbs down the ladder and heads into the tiny kitchen. She pulls a bottle of vinegar from under the sink and douses a cloth with it. The stink makes her eyes water, but she pins a smile to her face and climbs the ladder again.
Mrs Heng’s face is frozen in wrinkled contempt, unaffected by the vinegar stench. Just like her selective hearing, her nose doesn’t seem to do the job it was made for. Tala slides the cloth in circles like her arm is riding a bike.
‘No, there’s still that bit there,’ says Mrs Heng.
Tala’s smile is as limp as a week-old lettuce leaf left out of the fridge, but at least this is giving her flabby upper arms a bit of exercise. She stops and climbs down.
‘It’ll do, I suppose,’ says Mrs Heng.
Tala heads back down the corridor, the ladder clacking on her shoulder.
Mrs Heng and Tala have got an illegal arrangement. In Singapore, foreign domestic helpers are meant to work for a single employer, but Tala got sick of earning so little doing that, and Mrs Heng agreed to help at a price. Tala cleans and cooks for her, lives with her and cleans at eleven other homes where the people pay cash in hand. Mrs Heng has told the Ministry of Manpower that she’s Tala’s only employer, and in return Tala pays her a percentage of her monthly earnings. ‘Mutually beneficial,’ Mrs Heng said. Mrs Heng makes a fat profit from what Tala pays her. But who else is going to pretend for Tala?
Inside her bedroom, Tala drops the little camera to the floor, pushes on one of her diamanté sandals and crushes it underfoot. She goes to sit on the mattress, but it’s lower than she thinks, and her legs shoot into the air like an upside-down turtle’s.
She scoops up the computer, opens Vanda’s blog post again and starts to type in the comments box. She stops, takes a deep breath then deletes what she’s written. Vanda hasn’t put up a single one of Tala’s comments. There must be some other way to get her point across.
She does a bit of research, googling the words ‘maid’ and ‘Singapore’. She clicks and she reads. There are more than 200,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore. The majority of them are from the Philippines and Indonesia. Tala can’t find specific figures, but smaller numbers of women come from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh too.That’s a lot of women for Vanda to shame, and where can they tell their stories?
A thought takes hold, something thin and insubstantial.Tala clicks on Vanda’s blog again. It’s one of those free ones on WordPress.
Tala clicks on the WordPress home page and reads up about how blogs need a theme – Hemingway; Independent Publisher; Relief – she could do with some of that. She sits there, reading about how to set up her own blog.Then stands and paces, tapping her mouth with her finger, sweaty footprints patching the floor. Maid in Singapore. Maid Trouble. Maids for You. No, no, none of those are right. They sound like a bunch of employment agencies. Voice of the Maid. Help for Helpers. Maidhacker.
Maidhacker – that’s something, isn’t it? Maidhacker.
She types the title. She creates a menu too. I’ll show you. She keys in her first post. It takes her a long time, using a single thick finger, but out the words come.
What It’s Like to Be a Domestic Helper
Lights, Camera, Action!
I love a good nosy at other people’s lives, don’t you? That’s what doctors’ surgeries are for. When little Agamemnon (expats choose even weirder names for their kids than us Filipinas) has a drippy nose, I take advantage and dive into Woman’s Day, or Simply Her! J-Lo with a sliver of olive wedged between her two front teeth; Madonna tripping up a stair – it’s all there.
But it’s not just the rich who are stars.
Look up at the ceiling where you live and you might just see a little red light flashing in the corner. That light’s unlikely to be part of a security system – I mean, you’re in Singapore, where the worst thing that could happen to Mrs Fawcett-Smythe is chipping a nail, so who needs a burglar alarm? No, that light could be your boss spying on you with a hidden camera.
This isn’t me – Maidhacker – trying to be as sensationalist as those glossy magazines. A survey has revealed that one in five employers in Singapore uses surveillance cameras to sneak a peek at their maids while they’re in their own rooms (slash cupboards, slash the sofa in the lounge). And with more than 200,000 of us maids here in the Lion City, that’s a whole lot of spying going on.
So next time you’re using the sponge for the toilet seat to give the toothbrush cup a once-over, stop and get batting those eyelids because bosses don’t always put cameras in the most obvious of places.
A new ornament in the shape of a budgerigar in little Araminta’s playroom? A camera – you mark my words! Kitchens, toilets, bathrooms – nowhere is off limits.
Think before you take a squidge of Ma’am’s Aveda shampoo, or scrub out the wok with Clorox, because Big Boss is probably watching.
Be watchful, ladies. And wave.
She presses ‘post’.
Take that,Vanda!The thought pumps through her veins alongside another one. If anyone finds out it’s her who wrote that, there’ll be consequences.There always is for people who criticise Singapore. And there’ll be questions. The Ministry of Manpower might discover that she’s working illegally. She’ll be thrown out, or worse still, she’ll go to prison.
She snaps her computer shut and gives her feet a dousing with her Scholl Odour Control Shoe Spray. She sits there in the fog of it, wondering how she’s still managing to breathe.
Tala is dusting Ma’am Maeve’s guest bedroom when she notices the silver laptop open on the desk where there’s a packet of red Marlboros, and a shiny box with the words ‘Sonic Purifying Brush For Men’ emblazoned across it. She gives the mouse a little shake and the screen comes to life. Ma’am Maeve’s voice drifts in from the living room. Should she? She pulls the bedroom door shut, the smell of Pledge sifting through the air. She should. She clicks onto Firefox and moves the cursor around until she finds the browsing history. Commodity Trading Prices. Daily Mail. Vanda’s Blog.
She clicks the Vanda blog link and peers at the screen, her smudged glasses in need of a bit of Pledge themselves.The editing function on the blog is closed; no one’s signed in, but that doesn’t mean Ma’am Maeve isn’t the author. She might just be signed out.
There’s a grinding of wood on wood and the door to the en-suite bathroom slides open. And oh, there is Sir Gavin with a folded-back magazine in his hand, pictures of tanned, muscled men on the page. Tala turns away, presses the nozzle on the polish so that it foams the desk. The smell of the natural shine formula mixes with another more powerful pong.
‘Oh, have you been there the whole time?’ asks Sir Gavin, slamming the bathroom door shut behind him.
Tala looks up at him; he is dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, sweat circles forming in his muscular armpits, an electric blue tie.
‘I, erm . . .’
Sir Gavin goes over to the desk, picks up a square bottle of aftershave and sprays it onto his thick neck then into the air between him and Tala.
‘Having a surf on the interweb, were you?’
She sends out an overenthusiastic laugh, more of a shriek really. ‘I don’t know anything about computers, Gavin.’
‘Sir’ll do, thanks all the same.’
‘Yes, yes. I mean, sir. Sir Gavin.’
He looks at her copper wedding ring and winks at her. ‘That husband of yours is a bloody lucky man.’
‘Bit of make-up, bet you scrub up all right.’
He turns away and starts examining the thinning crown on his tiny head in the full-length mirror, the white shirt stretched across his back.
‘Don’t want to keep you,’ he says, twisting towards her again, a smirk plastered on his pale face.
Tala bails out of the room and down the corridor. She heads into the main bathroom and locks the door behind her. Everything’s gold in here. Enormous mirror framed in gold, gold taps, even a gold flusher on the toilet, and marble this and that. She stares at her reflection.
Her hair’s slick, black and long, her mouth bracketed by lines. Not that she’s old. She’s forty-eight, but doesn’t look her age. And her front teeth, wide and white and straight, well they’re something to smile about. Oh, but now she’s boasting. Still if a woman can’t give herself compliments . . . Her husband Bong rarely gave her any, that’s for sure. The machine gun, that’s what he used to call her, nodding that head of his, eyes drifting to some place over her shoulder. But whatever he said about her talking, God threw the listening gene into the bargain too. Listening to all her friends like she does. Drinking in every detail of their troubles then writing everything down later in her logbook.
Her friends call her ‘the rescuer’, but she shrugs it off. She just tries to help women who are domestic helpers like her, that’s all. She’s been here longer than most. She knows how to play the system, to speak up and out. She warned off Rita’s obsessive ex-boyfriend who kept following her after she’d finished with him. And Tala’s got lots of passports back from employers who locked them away – putting on her best skirt, knocking on their doors with her glasses perched on the end of her raised nose as if she were someone important from a charity that stands up for domestic workers’ rights. She held that clipboard to her puffed-out chest, her shaky voice reaching pneumatic jackhammer levels.
Just like it did when April Joy fell to her death from the window of the apartment she worked in. Nine floors up. April Joy had been complaining to Tala for months about her employer forcing her to teeter on a ledge so she could clean the outside of the windows. ‘Just refuse, girl!’ Tala kept urging. But April Joy didn’t. After her death, Tala took the logbook, with April Joy’s details, to the police station, but the man behind the desk rolled his eyes and said that no, of course he wouldn’t photocopy the pages. That hasn’t stopped Tala trying to get April Joy’s employer arrested, though.
So many women. Some are like Tala and Dolly, and have left their children at home. Others are the family cash cows, their fertile years melting away like an ice lolly in the heat while they’re maiding.
Tala’s boys have been far away for the past eighteen years, but she’s held them right here in her chest, their roars and their running.
Ace and Marlon were ten and eight when she left. She’s a talker, but in the days leading up to her leaving Tagudin, she was a woman of few words. She packed that canvas bag then turfed everything out of it. She couldn’t do it; she couldn’t leave her boys. She tucked three photographs of them into her purse and tried to memorise their faces. Taking hold of their cheeks, tracing the surface of their noses, their lips, with her fingers. The truck pulled up outside and Marlon hugged her. ‘I want you to stay,’ he said. ‘There’s no other way,’ she replied. She stepped towards Ace who let her hug him then she heaved her bag into the back of the truck.
As she climbed into her seat, Marlon put something into her hand – a shiny, beige conch shell. ‘It’s my best thing,’ he said. They looked at each other then – him with his thick eyebrows knitted together in a frown and his eyes empty of light, her with a throat full of river stones. She touched his young face one more time and slammed the door, and the truck juddered away.
She takes a card from the back of her shorts now: it arrived for her yesterday. Smudges of pink and green charcoal. She has to stare at it for a minute before she sees herself – her hair tied back in a thick pink band, the stretch of fields behind. Marlon has stitched white thread around the edges the way he’s come to do lately. He could have been someone. The thought sucks away her smile.
She pushes the picture back into her pocket then sprays Clorox onto the his and hers sinks. Oh, there goes another empty bottle of it into the bin. The smell of pretend lemons fills the air.
She heads into the living room, gold-rimmed glass coffee tables here and there with wooden figures on each of them; it’s as if Ma’am Maeve’s in competition with Mrs Heng’s feng shui specials. Ma’am Maeve and her friend sit with their legs crossed, facing each other, muttering words Tala doesn’t catch. They look so overdressed for drinking tea. Gold bangles decorate Ma’am Maeve’s wrist, her hands laced together on top of her puffball skirt. The other woman scratches her face with a diamond-encrusted finger, her lashes so false and long it’s like a couple of redbacks have climbed onto her eyelids. Tala collects the women’s plates, dabbed clean of cake crumbs, but the women don’t say a word.
‘Bird’s Nest’, that’s what Tala calls Ma’am Maeve, her hair all done up in that bun with bits sticking out. Ma’am Maeve often has her hair in rollers when Tala is around, but that hair is not for taming. It’s as wild as that open-mouthed lion statue standing on its hind legs outside the front door. Sitting there, in her leopard-print top and leopard-print pumps, she wouldn’t look out of place at the Singapore Zoo. Tala dusts off one of the pictures hanging on the walls, a heart made from locked-together red and pink English words like ‘kindness’ and ‘family’ and ‘children’.
Tala’s mind ticks away as the women talk. She worked for seven families, living backstage in their homes, cleaning and cooking for twelve years, before she had her big idea. That’s when she took the room at Mrs Heng’s and started to make a living by doing illegal part-time jobs.
Ma’am Maeve gets hold of her own face and pulls the skin back until her lips turn into a stretched flat line.
‘Just eat more. Putting on half a stone’s better than surgery,’ says her friend.
Sir Gavin saunters into the living room in his slip-ons. ‘I’m off.’
He leans down and kisses Ma’am Maeve’s cheek. Her face sucks tight like she’s peeled a lime and eaten it whole. She wipes her scarlet fingernails over the place where he kissed her. The varnish wouldn’t be that pristine if she was tapping on computer keys every day, but Tala’s not ready to rule her out of being Vanda just yet.
The front door slams. The two women exchange looks.
‘What was he doing home?’
Ma’am Maeve keeps her voice low. ‘His irritable bowel is playing up again.’
‘Oooooo.’ The woman shakes her head. ‘Things any better between you two?’ she asks.
‘Could you do the bedroom?’ snaps Ma’am Maeve. ‘We’re talking here.’
Tala heads into the main bedroom, a marble square with a bed against the wall and this gold carved board where they put their heads. There’s a big light on the ceiling, gold too of course, with all these little lampshades. It’s the ugliest thing Tala’s ever seen. Even the bedside cabinets are painted gold. The place has got more gold than Australia.
Tala sets to, folding and tidying the clothes on the floor. The bra, so small Tala wonders why she bothers, the dresses – a strapless black one and a short thing with thin red straps. Tala sniffs cheese. A stilton or a camembert melting. She should have put the Scholl Odour Control Shoe Spray into her bag.
Ma’am Maeve’s voice filters into the bedroom.
‘Black hairs all over the floor when she’s gone. I caught her using the en-suite once. I was so annoyed. I mean, I don’t want her minge anywhere near my loo seat.’
Echoes of laughter.
Ma’am Maeve continues: ‘She should come with subtitles. Tell her to do something and it’s all “What?” “Disgusting”, and Gad this and Gad that.’
‘Gad?’ says the other woman.
‘Gawd,’ says Ma’am Maeve.
‘You know, Gawd.’
‘Oh, God, yeah!’
Tala picks up a photograph beside the bed and buries Sir Gavin’s head in a dollop of polish. She tries saying ‘God’ the way Ma’am Maeve did.
She tucks her gold cross into her T-shirt and pats it. There’s loose change on the bedside cabinet and she dusts around it, picking up a photograph of Ma’am Maeve in a white dress and Sir Gavin, with his crushed, twisted nose. They’re both smiling, though neither of them looks happy, even then. She sprays polish onto a photograph of the children.The tall teenage daughter and the much younger son.
Tala goes to get her duster from the living room. She feels their eyes on her and the silence smacks the walls. Where has she put that thing? There it is on the table, yellow, worn and filthy.
‘Oh Christ, stuff this,’ says Ma’am Maeve. ‘Shall we start on the vino?’
The other woman looks at her watch. ‘Well, it is a quarter to twelve,’ she says.
And credit to Bird’s Nest, she doesn’t ask Tala to do the honours. She gets the wine from the fridge herself. All she has to do is screw the lid off after all.
Tala moves on through to the bedroom again and the women murmur.
‘She looks like a Filipino Barbie doll,’ Ma’am Maeve says.
Tala listens hard.
‘Well, Dolly is rather beautiful.’
The bedroom can wait; Tala goes into the hall and starts polishing a window that’s already clean, her ears expectant.
‘Aw no, I wouldn’t say beautiful; pretty in a little girl sort of way,’ Ma’am Maeve says, in a voice that curls at the edges.
‘Yeah, but would you trust your husband with someone like that? If she was living in, there’d be plenty of opportunity,’ says the other woman.
‘I bet he’s a randy old goat, that Tor,’ says Ma’am Maeve.
Ay nako! They’re talking about the man Dolly works for. Is she having an affair with him? If Ma’am Amber finds out, she’ll sack Dolly for sure.
There are shrieks of laughter from Ma’am Maeve and her friend.
‘Want another glass?’
‘Oooh, yes please.’
‘Taylor!’ Ma’am Maeve calls.
Even after all this time, she hasn’t got Tala’s name right.