Metal rasp of the letter box door. Wet clack, and the neighbours’ daughter’s stuck-out tongue as she strains to peer through the slot. Slide of tummy on cold corridor flooring where another person might have laid a welcome mat but Lyydi Nälkäinen has not. Tink open shut tink up down tink-tink-tink. Lyydi never supposed she would wish a urinary tract infection on a five-year-old.
I smell your coffee! Nikolett calls.
Lyydi had taken a cold shower, filled a cafetière and was reading the fine print of her flight itinerary. When you stick your nose in on people’s lives, she says quietly, you shouldn’t say what you smell.
Lyydi owns the upper house. Ágnes and Stewart have the ground-floor apartment, but their daughter considers the whole building her own. The post person doesn’t even enter, so this upstairs letter box is redundant. It’s as if they’d put it there on purpose, for the semblance of separateness; a trompe-l’œil of a grand entrance painted on a plaster wall.
I know how to use a screwdriver and I could screw these little screws out and then there’ll be a hole.
Nikolett speaks English with a Scottish accent because of her father; Dutch with a Hungarian accent because of her mother; Hungarian Dutchly because of living here in Holland; and all three for her wolf howls in the night. The pastiche protest of the non-citizen. Another culture might hear her difference and see her difference and congratulate themselves on not crying wolf. But, should a common good be served, the Dutch can simply point at a thing and name it. Small wolf, what a very big tongue you have. There is surgery available for that. They ask Lyydi, if she has been gravely mute: Where’s your tongue, mountain goat? You are introverted. You are Finnish. Yes, the Finnish are shy. It is conspicuous.
I get to water your plants while you’re on holidays, Nikolett calls wearily. It had been a full-moonish night.
Not holiday. Work.
Nikolett grunts, bodyboarding off the floor. You don’t work! You UN-work.
Lyydi stopped contracting for the UN a year back. Her primary client now is NATO. But it’s better that the neighbours have her wrong. I’ll suggest this to the boss for a recruitment slogan. If you can’t work, UN-work. She fondles the contents of her bedside drawer for nylons that could double as flight stockings. So many sins the nylons cover and not a one of them lust. A blood-vessel scribble on her thigh seems an over-the-skin vein, the way castings in the sand resemble the original lugworms – but it’s only their waste. Those worms swallow a cubic centimetre per hour: a fact Lyydi made note of, once, in the same thumbed corner of her mind where she’d made note of the sixteen people per square kilometre in Finland versus four hundred here. As a decimal, that’s 0.04 for 1. One person. Or 1 for 25, as a fraction. Each person should be less noticeable. She should feel negligible. He – her C-section so pale and convex as to be glaring – should crescent to nothing as the blackout from whence he hailed; should sensibly dwarf and eclipse.
As the neighbours’ door is bound to open, Lyydi descends the stairs armed with a tub of homemade hummus/conversational substitute. Ágnes glances at Lyydi’s luggage (a leather backpack and laptop bag) and says, Come see. We’re doing landscaping. I don’t want you to come home and go to your balcony and feel . . . discombobulated. It will look very different tomorrow.
Lyydi’s expression is probably inappropriate, but what was that word and how does Ágnes know it? That has no Hungarian basis. That is no language, but Motherese.
Ágnes draws her into the house to take her through to the back yard. The beginning of my dream. I’m old, I know, to dream so small. Six square metres! Pathetic.
Pathos is suffering. But is it suffering to realize a dream, however puny? They go past the kitchen, past Nikolett sucking air through a straw, through the living area, slovenly playroom and out the French doors to the garden where old cobblestones are being uprooted like turnips. A landscaper brushes soil from the stones, the pink undersides surprising as the sudden baring of flesh. Lyydi is far taller than Ágnes, so they’re seeing this differently. Ágnes’s thick-stranded hair has been falling out at such a rate what’s left is beginning to resemble black piano keys against a white scalp. And she’s short, so everyone notices. One’s hair can fall out during pregnancy. Lyydi tries not to scan Ágnes’s body. She turns to the worker on his knees in the weed-netted garden. Ungloved hands and hi-vis vest suggest opportunism. A roofer by trade? Can he be trusted to keep a plant alive, let alone a dream?
You’ll have to look out forever on this. So I wanted to give you chance . . . Ágnes throws up her hand as if swatting a lie. If you have childhood trauma involving hydrangeas? Near death experience in fountain? Veto it. Flower. Potted plant. You know. Phallic . . . shaped hedge . . . How’s it called? When they cut shapes? Műkertészet. Fallikus. Ágnes wears a sceptical expression always slightly out of keeping with what she’s saying. Speak now or forever . . . The effect produced among her colleagues at the university is one of amused bafflement. Forever? she addresses herself, buying Lyydi time. Who knows. Have allergic reaction. They stand there, facing the blowsy, cumulus day. Also, your guttering . . . drips down on pavement. This man he says he knows someone to fix. But it’s on your house, so we should agree we each pay half. Sound fair?
Lyydi nods. She wishes Ágnes would speak Dutch. Immigrate rather than expatriate. I should get the next tram. She glimpses movement in the extension that runs along the garden. Inside, Nikolett releases straw-sucked air in a long burp. I’m still hungry.
Right. Ágnes goes to get Nikolett a nectarine. Bring back sunshine from Southern Hemisphere.
Lyydi turns from the garden before Stewart arrives with his faux-naïve questions. He thinks she’s autistic and that the way to ease relations is to converse on the basis of informational exchange. Singapore is one degree above the equator, Lyydi tells Ágnes, who looks confounded, having gone to put a bowl in the dishwasher only to see it needs unloading. Basked in steam, she shuts it with her hip.
Right. Jesus. Hot. She blows her lips so they make a helicopter sound that pleases Nikolett. So, Ágnes says, you’re okay going Dutch on guttering? Just that drip is annoying me. You know? These small, fixable things?
Sheets from a stack of graded papers fluster onto the couch with the draft from the door. Stewart is singing his way into the house and Lyydi feels the fast, sick need to be gone. It never takes him long to ask about home, as if where a person has come from is a fulcrum around which they swing, entering the new place only to the extent that a shutter swings out into a fine day.
You know? Ágnes’s voice reaches her, over the blood-flush in her ears. We’re here, living below sea-level. And dams can break. She clicks her fingers. Sixteen-million people underwater. Her black eyes are lodestones, useful for navigation. But this gutter . . . dripping?
Lyydi thinks of insurance. Ice melt. The fresh water required to cool a data centre. How the overall temperature of water is rising. Cold water. New gold. La Nouvelle-Orléans.
You off, Lyydi? Stewart’s hands are on his hips. You’ll not be long, but? Or this lass’ll be gey cranky.
It’s a work trip. Heel kort, short, over and back. Sorry, I have to– Passing their frosted glass windows, skirting the puddle of water, Lyydi hears Nikolett squeal: She doesn’t love. She UN-loves. She’ll fall in UN-love. Her father must have said what good a holiday romance would do her. Her mother must have returned to the dishwasher, for it has to be emptied sooner or later. Her parents, who don’t hush her. Don’t ever. Let her have her gaieties. Play. Un-work. Languages. Letter box social services. What harm to let her have all that, as well as infinite progression? Zero. What harm in live and let live?
It’s shooter scenario training this morning at NATO, and Lyydi is glad to miss the single-purpose lessons: When to run. When to hide. When to throw things. Stress balls arcing through the meeting rooms as spoof grenades. Staples for shrapnel. Lyydi would use her body against a shooter. One way to be productive. The trolley problem is only ever a thought experiment. Besides ending personal suffering or lowering public spending on the elderly, death is never useful. It’s odd, in fact, that her colleagues are being trained to miss their one civic chance at optimization. It’s not that she’s suicidal. She does have aspirations: to become a person she can tolerate being. But an act like that would be more sure-fire than developing a whole new set of neural pathways. It would be tolerable. So many ball bearings to the gut might dishevel and disguise her own butchery.
It’s the first flight she’s taken since Helsinki to Amsterdam five years back. She hasn’t been home. She hasn’t stayed in touch with friends or invited anyone to Holland besides her brother two Christmases ago, with their tomb-quiet Lutheran father who would never visit again after enduring midnight-mass at an empty, echoey Episcopalian church in an unknown language he couldn’t bear the sound of. Whether he was dismayed or disgusted by his daughter, she didn’t know. She didn’t want to. He, too, was pitiable. Resisting his condition daily, now nearing his eightieth long, dark Oulu winter – a slew of them as a widower. Just because he’s male doesn’t make him the agent performing the verb: he didn’t widow their mother; unreachable code cannot be executed; the female Nälkäinens are the ones who take lives, even if only their own, their little ones. She doesn’t resent that he bequeathed to her social anxiety, alcoholism, a lame cerebral immune system; she doesn’t resent the peppered complexion and the odd mitosing mole, because there’s still the chance he’ll also bequeath the relief of late-onset detachment syndrome.
Lyydi’s ticket had been purchased on her behalf. Leaving Amsterdam at 11.15 a.m. and arriving in Singapore at 5.55 a.m., thirteen hours later. As there was ‘ample’ time (the secretary pronounced this word as if it belonged to the one coding language Lyydi didn’t know) to have meetings in the morning and explore Singapore for the day, the 11.30 p.m. return flight on the same day was possible. Unable to bring herself to ask to stay the night, Lyydi mumbled, Ja, dat kan. So she had to sleep on the flight. Because she had to, she didn’t. For seven hours she kept her eye-covers on, but consciousness persisted. She saw no dreamscapes; only the Dutch landscape that she’d observed before they pierced the clouds: brick roads that rippled like fish-scales; sand for soil; water being pumped from one narrowed canal into a widened one; offshore wind turbines; man-made dunes holding back the sea from the megalopolis. Everything that allowed the country to exist – the dams, sluices, levees, the storm surge barriers, the five kilometre bridge, a Goliath’s infrastructure farther south – she’d cycled along it countless times, in admiration. After the war, the Dutch had been wavering. Then, just like that, drowning. So they shut the estuary mouths, shielding seven hundred kilometres of dykes from the sea, as if the decision to transform – to exist, at whatever lifelong tax rate – was easy.
In Finland, culture has never had nature on a leash. There, nature trains civilization and landscape both – to bow, sit, fetch, freeze, shit itself, give a paw. In the dry recycled air of the airplane, she thought of the huge gritty eskers running like stratified scars across her birthplace; compressed, once, by glaciers. The land rebounding ever since from the ice heft. The country rising a centimetre a year; expanding by seven square kilometres; fresh ocean floor rising, sober and parched as a school of beached whales. In the dim cabin, her throat ached from wakefulness. And from fear of that soil, rising; the bodies that would rise with it to remind the living of our powdery razorfish bones – our scant chance of a fossil record. How many of us have there been? How many do we remember? She had gone to the northern throes of Lapland seeking petrification, or conservation, but she kept being pushed out like a body rejecting a transplant. Who can decide upon anything in such a state? Who can feel the efficacy of a decision?
The lights came on. The captain declared it a typical day. The meal served after lunch was breakfast.
The dental glare inside the Changi terminal made Lyydi’s head throb. Signs pointed to the Butterfly Garden. To the 12-metre slide. The koi pond for fish-feeding. She was directed to free tours of the remarkable Republic of Singapore, where the future is only ever a few steps away from the past. Going through the motions of abstaining, abiding procedures, heeding signs, she learned that the forecast was 93°F with 78 per cent humidity. A haze from bushfires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra would linger through the morning. She shivered in the air conditioning.
Nowhere in the literature had it said that taxis were expensable, so she took a train. The East–West line brought her within a stone’s throw of Samsung’s headquarters, and a stone would skim on the air. The heat – arriving first to her chest, then her cheeks – was a comfort after all that AC. She sat on a bench in Raffles’ Place and steeped in it. Skyscrapers encompassed her. Blue, green, silver, sepia. A brochure of glass, floor to ceiling. She searched between buildings for the glassiest of them all: the Marina Bay Sands Tower, with its three enormous towers, branched at their bases to resemble playing cards; its boat-shaped construct on top overhanging the northern tower as the world’s loftiest cantilevered platform, replete with jogging paths. Prepare to be schmoozed, a colleague warned her. If they really want us as a client, they’ll take you to that sky-high infinity pool. They’ll buy you cocktails called Cloud-Kiss. Lyydi had flushed, but the desire stirred in her was for engineering. For how preposterous a structure eight billion dollars could concoct. The prospect of being schmoozed gave her heart palpitations, but she would put up with it – whatever consorting it would cost her – to be taken to that deliberate place.
Refolding the blazer draped across her arm and ensuring her stockings weren’t laddered was all she could do to fit in to the mint, methodic business district. Nothing could be done about her height. She wore a black skirt (not a match with the blazer) and a peach-coloured blouse she hoped would be forgiving. She still had an hour to kill before her meetings. At street-level, there were only bank lobbies, business fronts, car parks and cavernous shopping malls. The city’s activity must be centred in the air. The atmosphere was otherworldly and chlorinated as a pool that made one want to swim to the edge. Finally, she found a Starbucks. Inside, she wore her blazer and cradled her laptop for warmth.
Her ears finally pop in the elevator down to Samsung’s basement car park. Though she met with several people, only one is taking her to lunch. Don’t worry. I won’t take you up the tower of cheese. He frowns at Lyydi, solicitous. You like seafood? You should eat seafood in Singapore.
I mostly eat vegetarian.
For real? Aren’t they chewy? He chuckles at himself in the car’s rear-view mirror. Is it the cruelty thing or the taste thing?
She pictures the mounds of sautéed reindeer she ate as a child with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Feels her tongue retreat in her mouth. The global warming thing.
Ha! Yeah. You might notice it’s hot here. And we get our water from Malaysia. So, yeah. Respect to you.
You might be thinking I flew here, but it’s my first flight in years. Where others have multicore processors for these interactions, Lyydi has an abacus. She feels her awkwardness in his slick car that would cost her seven years’ salary. The sky is white and hazy. The roads, calm. She should bring up the bicycles in Holland. Save shop talk for lunch. Interesting, she says, there’s grass and trees and railing separating traffic. For a country without water.
He nods to the beat of his indicator. We reached peak concrete. So PAP introduced a greening policy. What’s paradise without the palm trees? Priorities. Hey, you play golf? Some of the islets off Pulau Ujong have sweet courses. I could’ve taken you this weekend. He jiggles his wrist so his watch unkisses his skin. Probably just as well. Don’t tell . . . but I’m interviewing Monday for CTO at Wealth Management of Swiss-Asia. He turns to her with raised eyebrows. Gotta SWOT up. They pull up to an elegant white colonial house, like a small embassy.
Lyydi says, But shouldn’t –
No guarantee I’ll get it. I’m young for the role. But Khey and Isabella’ll take good care of you. He’s opening his door, though they’re stopped on the road. Don’t look so worried. There’s a parking spot twenty metres ahead. He addresses the valet in Mandarin. Hey? he calls to Lyydi, as she emerges. Angry Birds is from Finland, right? Must be your biggest export?
It isn’t, Lyydi says. I would like to get my other bag. She stands by the boot.
He eyes the laptop bag on her shoulder. It’s safe. If that’s your issue.
It isn’t, she says. The valet looks to the driver for approval, but the boot is open. Flustered by how informally they’re interacting and how he’s making her feel like a foosball, she slings on her backpack. Hoi Kim, I should be here with someone else if you’re leav–
Please. Call me Kimi. He holds the door open and, as she passes, she says that’s her brother’s name. Are you serious? He halts her with his hand. That’s amazing!
Not if the name is common here.
It isn’t, he says. When I was searching baby names, I saw 1 per cent of all males in Singapore are called 4 Real. The digit. 4. Real. Me and your brother sharing a name is . . . statistically unlikely, Lyydi.
In the awareness of being teased, she takes the stairs by two, gathering along the way that there’s a tree theme and a Michelin star theme and the cuisine is French. Kimi wanted her to feel at home. She says her home is Holland. He meant European. If you came to Holland, Lyydi says on the landing, and I took you to a Vietnamese restaurant to make you feel at home, would you then be appeased if I told you that it’s Asian? Kimi scans the trophy-lined cabinets, as if for a male with whom to commiserate. Wealth management! In a country with no minimum wage, to facilitate competitive inequality.
They’re seated at a white-clothed table and Kimi runs his hand through his yard-broom-textured hair. He is exceptionally good-looking. Glacé teeth, dimples, eggshell-matt skin, liquorice eyes, carpenter-true proportions. These features don’t threaten Lyydi’s celibacy. He asks about her brother. She’d rather not talk family, but tiredness makes her lenient, so she explains that after mandatory conscription, he transitioned from the civilian to the armed forces. What with tensions over Russia’s exploits in the Ukraine, he’s moving to a rapid reaction unit, which is bad. His emails would make best-selling thrillers. He describes feeling the close shave of wind from Russian fighter jets that come bulleting up to the Finnish border, ripping upwards in the last metre of airspace. As if it’s a game, she says, the version of ourselves we put forward. I want him to transfer to a NATO peacekeeping mission while he can, but he jokes he wouldn’t miss the world air guitar championships – in Helsinki – for the sake of world peace. Kimi laughs. He’s funny, yes. Your namesake. Lyydi unfolds her napkin. He never says what he means.
Yeah, we got mandatory conscription too. But I dodged it. Kimi gives a bored expression and does air quotes: If you can prove that your loss would bring hardship to your family.
Lyydi glowers. Does every person not fit through this loophole?
The waiter arrives to speak with Kimi. Lyydi lifts the info-card by the branch pronged through it. Octaphilosophy. Preparing herself to ingest octopuses for their brainpower, she reads a gibberish justification for why the pricing will be inversely proportionate to portion size. There are no starters or main courses but all dishes are there for a reason and are equally important. Each dish is built up around an Octaphilosophy concept and finds its ultimate expression in the dining room setting. Of the eight words comprising the philosophy, Lyydi reads just one. Memory. Use your memory to enhance your practice of hedonism. How vile . . . to assume a person’s memories would enhance anything. Tuna sashimi, the colour of a biopsy. Oyster, the texture of placenta. Feast. Personal, spontaneous, emotional. The food promises to be. Lyydi considers declaring an allergy. Kimi pockets his cufflinks, then folds and tucks his shirt sleeves like a bed sheet. He explains the loophole had to do with his parents dying suddenly and his having six siblings. Lyydi tries to heed what he’s saying – that his father was Chinese from Malaysia and became a Singapore permanent resident, but his father’s father was British, so some say he’s ang moh, but Eurasians are a big part of the population and, in the census, you can only put two races, and I’m Anglo-Chinese on my father’s side and my mother was born here but her parents are from the Philippines, so, yeah, I know who I am and that’s what’s important – but it’s taking all her concentration not to stare at his newly-bared arms: black and blue with tattoos. The impulse is to tell him to lift them, lest they stain the tablecloth. But the Blancpain watch confuses her. His dimples are the scars of old piercings. There are hollows in his nose, philtrum, and one earlobe has been darned shut like a cleft lip.
Who are you? said the caterpillar to Alice; only, Lyydi is a moth-caterpillar rather than a butterfly. The consequence is physical. It’s inescapable. We think we are more like code: rewritable; editable; able to be made more efficient and operative, should we have the skills and work ethic. We think the essence of ourselves is optical, digital. Instead we are physical, magnetic, susceptible to the dust and grit of the data-centre air. Every moment of who we have ever been, of what we have ever done, exists somewhere as a back-up tape. The data centres are every place we’ve visited. The tapes cannot be so easily destroyed or deleted. We are well backed up. Tape is cheap.
Part one of their emotional meal arrives and Kimi tries the wine pairing. He seems aggrieved when Lyydi refuses it. The wine served here, he says portentously, you can only get in this restaurant. The waiter hovers.
That’s unusual, Lyydi says. I’ll have water.
We also do non-alcoholic pairings, ma’am, the waiter says.
Lyydi takes up her glass. He has wine, I have water. It needs no miracle.
The glass trembles in her hand, so she sets it on the table and – before her throat closes off completely – tries to act normal. Tell a funny story. Be blasé. The thought of backups had brought to mind an incident from her time at the UN. One department at the ICT had purchased this two-million euro NAS, she says. Kimi breaks into his morsel-bouquet and chews each bite exhaustively. It arrived one day with this big double-server cabinet. Too big, but they could use one half to house other equipment. It was this impressive thing and they were very pleased for knowing about it and getting the order approval. But then another department . . . they saw this and wanted the same. So they approached me, requesting their own NAS. I explained that one NAS would service them all; that is the very point of a NAS. It just happened to be situated elsewhere. There were tutorials explaining. But they weren’t satisfied with this and took it higher up. A month later, their own NAS arrived, but with only the normal cabinet required to contain it. But they wanted the same as the other department, exactly, so they ordered a second cabinet to sit beside it. Empty. Lyydi has never told this anecdote aloud but often recalls it as a cartoon example of the UN’s dysfunctionality. It’s what happens when you make it easier for people to spend two-million euro than twenty.
Kimi finally swallows what he’d been chewing and looks pained, as though the food had been barbed. That’s disgusting.
What is it? Lyydi forks what is in fact a dry, aged scallop with kombucha granite and vegetable demi-glace. She washes it down with water like a huge tablet.
That waste, Kimi says.
Thus, the bohemian emerges from behind the plutocrat. Just as she’d thought. Yes! she says.
Two-million euro that could have gone to South Sudan. To Yemen. It’s absurd.
The inefficiency. Kimi shakes his head. You’d never find that waste in the corporate world. Incompetents wouldn’t last a day.
Sometimes Lyydi feels her own eyes moving like trackballs. They’re running from his one apocryphal dimple to the other, which are unsmiling. He doesn’t find foolishness funny. Is he Libertarian? No. He’s not talking private versus public. He’s not even talking economics. Singapore has the lowest child mortality in the world, he says. Not everything has to do with trade. He’s talking about ideology, these institutes based on idealism. If you’re an egalitarian with the democratic freedom to do a terrible job of equality, what good is the grand ideal? Lyydi tries to decode this, but her thought-process is overridden by an image that has nothing to do with trade. A child on the floor, posting her gaze through a letter box. Her unsober self would interrupt his doctrine to ask why he’d said what he’d said, about children. But this is rhetoric. That la-la-la language by which questions invite no response and it is the recipient who is answerable. She would take a bill now for however large a sum, to pay up and be done.
I had a Lonely Planet for every country in Asia. Under my bed, a suitcase of weed. I had time . . . to make mistakes, to think. My father never had these things. Then overnight, I no longer had them. Six scared siblings. A lot of needs, costs, and – how I see it – only two choices. It’s quick learning, the consequence of failure. You get a hanging for drug possession. And ideas! I had so many I lived by – but if you’re poor and you try to feed on ideas, they dissolve on your spoon like shaved ice. Look around. What makes sense? What’s here every day after the storm? Corporations. Technology, upgrading. Tropical gardens in concrete is not waste. Growth, Lyydi. It’s a miracle to believe in. Kimi points at the ceiling. There’s a fizzing sound and Lyydi looks up for rain. Why not? An indoor water feature. But it’s a flute of champagne effusing at the next table.
Part two of their emotional meal is served. Raw oyster tartare with cured lardo in shima-aji and pork trotter broth. How is it? a waiter asks. Is everything okay, ma’am? Lyydi keeps her fork steady by loading it. The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings. Mémorable, she manages to say. C’est mémorable.
Any moment it will rain. The clouds are sweat-stained at their edges. Lyydi’s blouse is no longer peach but apricot and pasted to her skin from two hours’ walking Singapore’s districts. Four more hours before she can reasonably return to the airport. Walking to stay awake is falling in slow motion. It’s the crackle of a needle dropped onto blank vinyl, overlaying the background noise with a loud lacquered silence. The waking muscles are located behind the ears, the brows, the pulmonary trunk, the temporal lobe. Sweat streams from behind her backpack into the dell of her spine and drips between her buttocks like the guttering. Without her nylons, her thighs would chafe. Cold with sweat, she eyes a stall where a child is running her hand through scarves like a waterfall. The girl’s waist-length hair is tied in a plait and, ludicrously, she’s wearing a hairband that has blonde pigtails attached to it. Lyydi has the urge to follow her . . . but the father takes her hand and they turn for Pagoda Street, whose crowds Lyydi has just escaped.
It’s the tidiest Chinatown in the world – lanterns zigzag between pastel-coloured colonial shop-houses; prodigally ornate temples house line-ups of Gods and gilded donation caddies; hygienic, state-run hawker centres serve intense-smelling, fisheye-mottled food; vendors arrange trinkets in awning-shaded stalls; tea-drunk rowdy seniors play Xiangqi (no more than five may convene publically without a permit) – but, despite the order and commerce, Lyydi knows that atrophy and poverty and humiliation is there all the same, behind the kitsch bead curtains. The seafloor that had to be dredged for those oysters. The limbs that had to be pried apart for the vinegar-gnarled pearl. Even a smile can be stretchmarked. The labour, though, is real. It is every day and every muscle. Worse than inertia, because we do not continue automatically in our state of rest. We are not a mechanical system. There must be a will to continue. Her vision fogs like glass, as if her eyes are just another pane of it; no one looking in, necessarily. No one, necessarily, looking out.
Lady, let me help.
She has closed her eyes to the dizzying stink of spices, raw fish, marinated pigeons – dead and alive, custardy durian fruit, bakkwa jerky, batches of snake oil, nail polish taking ages to dry in the salons. And then, a narrow oasis of bliss: jasmine, lavender, orange, sage. Lyydi leans into it and feels a finger brush the base of her chin. Starting at the contact, she sees a woman whose wedge-heels bring her within kissing distance searching her face as if for a poisonous spider. There, she says, dabbing Lyydi’s damp cheek with the pad of her pinkie finger. And that one, she says. This, yes. In her other hand is a mirror showing Lyydi the moles she’s concerned with. Five dollars each, gone, no scar. Come. No pain lasts. Her skin looks kilned. It’s warm and dry as powder. Her hand is sure, taking Lyydi along in the wake of her scent as if through a safe, fresh tunnel.
She wants to say it is the smell that’s making her teary, but the tears don’t stop streaming. She wants to say that she’s tired. That she didn’t sleep on the plane. That she doesn’t sleep. But the woman is seating her in a reclined beige chair, draped in white towels. It is a tiny beauty clinic, windowless and curtained shut, with shelves of nail polish, aromatherapy oils, a foot bath and many elaborate, single-purpose machines. The one she rolls over to the chair is a laser device for pigment removal. This is explained in exaggeratedly bad English. I am Yu, the woman says, dabbing Lyydi’s face with a tissue. To put on your eyes. She hands Lyydi two blue-plastic eyecups. For protection. Lyydi recalls being six or seven and writing to Santa Claus – whose postbox was within driving distance from her home – asking for a cream to dissolve her freckles. She feels diesel generator-heavy. There is a clacking sound before the machine has been turned on, which scares her. But it’s her own teeth chattering. Don’t be nervous. Is over so fast. Yu puts her hand on Lyydi’s jaw to steady it and comes close with the laser pen. Her mouth is the shape of a magnolia leaf. Lyydi closes her eyes, giving her weight to the chair, and feels Yu’s breast on her arm. Then the pricking pain of the laser on her cheek, which is just as Yu says, like elastic bands snapping on the skin. A high, headache-y pain. Yu gives no soothing talk for the couple of minutes it takes to do four moles. Lyydi’s eyes stream. The pain quenches like absinthe. She wants it to go on and on, taking all the pigment until she is gone; knowing well the consequences – that this is a bad thing to do; that she will be susceptible to cancer. Not bad, was it? Yu takes the eyecups and dries Lyydi’s face, then dabs it with aloe vera. Now I check body? No one enters. But keep underwear.
Lyydi sits up to face Yu but sees stars. She bats at them. How did she get here? The laser make snow. There is snow on her skin. Snow in Singapore. Lyydi cannot make sense of this, or anything. She shudders in the cold sweat of her clothes. Her eyelids feel swollen and baked as hot pastry. You need water. I get water. You take off clothes. Yu disappears through the curtain and Lyydi feels for it along the genetic material of her blood: detachment syndrome. She unzips her skirt, unpeels her tights and unbuttons her blouse without taking it off. It reminds her of saunas. She won’t look at her body. Yu can look. It will only have to be once. No letter box to haunt her. Returning, Yu hands Lyydi a plastic cup and sits on her pivot stool, squinting at Lyydi’s clammy feet and shins, knees and thighs, pelvis, stomach, chest. The empty server cabinets, just for show – to have the same as the others. Yu doesn’t ask to see her arms. She knows they hold no import. The drink is not water, which makes Lyydi weep. Does she have to ask? If it’s alcoholic? Sugarcane juice. This helps. Feel better. Qǐng. Yu takes Lyydi’s free hand in her grasp and makes eye contact. You work today? Not the question Lyydi had been expecting. You work in finance?
No, Lyydi manages. I’m finished today. I’m a systems engineer.
That’s good. Good for you. Drink. Not too sweet. Lyydi swirls the straw in the yellow-green juice and sips, wondering if it will transform or poison her, or do nothing. Her body must appear as wet cardboard to Yu, who is so light and smooth and tidy she could be carbon fibre. She places her palm on Lyydi’s abdomen like a stamp. A gasp. A rush of warmth and fear. This. This is what makes you a ghost.
The pattern of Yu’s amber eyes is recursive; an infinite iteration of fractals. Her pupils – the colour 000 – is the promise of relief. Nothingness. The only part of oneself that’s unseeable.
So tall. Yu makes a large gesture, then thrusts her hand flat as if posting mail. But see-through.
Lyydi feels the vibrations inside her slow down, as if all along she’d been a wave, unobserved, and now she can collapse into particles. Or soon – not yet. Can you get rid of it?
Yu traces her finger along Lyydi’s scar, assessing the damage, but she is shaking her head, reprehending. No. She says something in Chinese that doesn’t chime of a proverb. Sets her gaze to the wall of air behind Lyydi’s shoulder. Qì escape here. Why you it let out?
Some of Lyydi’s tears land on Yu’s arm, but they go unnoted. Yu doesn’t draw her hand from Lyydi’s belly even when Lyydi says what she says.
I killed him. First I just hurt him, while he formed. Then I kept drinking until he died. Inside me. I am an alcoholic.
Yu shakes her head very slightly and her tongue clicks when she opens her mouth to sigh.
They took him out. Blue. Lyydi chews on the soft inside of her lip, seeing glaciers retreating. I find it hard.
Yu barely nods.
It’s statistically likely. For alcoholics. I was warned.
Mmm. Yu removes her hand from the scar and wipes her forearm with a tissue. Not good past time. She doesn’t hand Lyydi a tissue. Instead, she gets up to retrieve a thick folder from a shelf, which she sets on her lap. She addresses Lyydi’s abdomen. You want a new one?
No. She never wanted one. It happened in a blackout.
It happened to you?
No, Lyydi says. It wasn’t rape. I did it. Others don’t miss me when I’m not there.
Yu glances over to an ornament on the shelf. A red plastic cat whose left paw is raised. It won’t go away until you do. Her English is now in full sentences. You don’t want to go yet? Yu pauses so the question is not rhetorical. We must put this in ink. Not to hide. But to bury. I can do it. I do it for you. But it is not my hobby. It is not my favour. And here, you get only two choices.
The curtain surges as if in the wind. A large person passing. Laminated pages jut from the folder on Yu’s lap, tattoo designs. Where had Lyydi heard that before? That there would only be two choices? Evidence suggests that any information contains a one or a zero, a wave or a particle, a death or a life, a yes or a no, but Lyydi spent a decade trying to be neither one nor the other.
Yu’s nails are painted the deep purple of Lent. Only certain services chip them. Your choices, she says. You can have flowers. Or you can have bones.
Again, the curtain surges, this time with a real wind. Lyydi feels the cool aloe vera on her burnt skin where the moles had been. She feels her skin tighten weirdly where the tears had been. She’s thinking of a joke to do with cats that would probably fail in translation. She can’t tell jokes. Both, she says suddenly. Can I have both?
It was the sort of sleep about which there was no choice, and it lasted for the thirteen-hour flight. Walking from the tram stop to Copernicusstraat, she feels foolish not to have changed back into her skirt-suit from the clothes Yu purchased on her behalf: floaty drawstring trousers and a blue cotton T-shirt with Singapore’s merlion. Yu had insisted on these to protect her tattoo, healing behind a pane of film.
Though she’d only had one long day in Singapore, she’d left on a Wednesday and now it’s Friday. It’s after nine, so the neighbours should be gone. She’s been too afraid to look in a mirror to see if there are raging sores in place of her moles. What with that and the clothes, she doesn’t want to bump into them. The gutter-puddle on the pavement is drying. But when she looks up, she sees water trickling from another spot.
Lyydi! Ágnes pushes open the front door. She looks harried. I won’t hug you – people smell of socks after long flight. It’s not personal. And you probably want to go sleep . . . But before I let you, I need your analytical eye for moment. We have to tiptoe, she whispers, as Lyydi drops her backpack in the hallway. Nikolett got a chill. She’s in bed. Her fourth cold this year. She puffs exasperatedly.
She lies in the hall outside my door, Lyydi says, surprising herself. Speak now or forever –
Come off it! Ágnes says, sounding particularly Scottish when she whispers. That’s dreadful. She can be nosy little bitch sometimes. I tell her stop. I promise. Come on.
They go through the house to the French doors that lead to the garden. Before opening them and before Lyydi can speak, Ágnes asks her to not to say anything. Just to look at the landscaping job.
She wants Lyydi’s honest, unfiltered opinion. Is there anything she would change. Is there anything not right. It’s odd, seeing a place so drastically transformed, overnight. As if it’s been that way for years: a Tetris-like cobblestone path with full bushy plants and brambles in all the corners – flowers only here and there – leading down to a L-shaped garden lounge that faces Lyydi’s balcony. Looking toward her small balcony and living-room. She already thinks she should put the place on the market. She can say she’d like to be close to the sea, rather than beneath it. Ágnes’s eyes don’t roam Lyydi’s face as she studies it for a reaction. The scars must not be so obvious. She uses her thumbnail to draw nectarine strings from between her teeth, but it comes off as nail-biting.
It’s very charming . . . and you shouldn’t get wasps.
Thanks but come on, Lyydi. If there was one thing you would change. Ágnes is now scratching her scalp and Lyydi notices a hair fall. If there was one thing standing out?
They must look like mosquito bites, the scars. She’ll later see they look like blood blisters. Well. I don’t see anything wrong. She pauses. But if you’re pushing me.
Maybe . . . are the hydrangeas a bit pink?
Ágnes thumps her on the arm and Lyydi flinches to protect her tattoo. Lyydi. That was my biggest insecurity about the garden. She lets out a heavy sigh and Lyydi sees now how the flowers do look wrong. They stand there a while, Ágnes whispering all sorts of chatter, before Lyydi makes her excuses. On her way out, she unzips her bag and places a red plastic cat on the kitchen counter. For Nikolett. It’s for luck.
Ágnes tilts her head at it, then taps the paw so that it waves. Jesus. That’s thoughtful.
When Lyydi gets upstairs, she lies on the couch and tries not to dwell on the orientation of the garden furniture. She thinks about being underwater. Then, about being on sand. The land reclamation that’s enlarged Singapore by a quarter, by hauling marine sand to its shores. Why is that less brave than Holland’s dams? Who is meant to live? She thinks about being under earth. The freehand tattoo that revealed Yu to be not just a soothsayer but an artist. In the background is a faint, shaded-grey tombstone and, in the foreground, a plot teeming with blue-and-lilac irises. There are lines and shadows; what’s literal and what isn’t. Lyydi places her hands on her belly, getting comfortable, as if to hold herself to a less provisional state.