By Elaine Chiew
This morning, Ka Men discovered a transparent-bodied snail, huddled blindly against the rim of the terrace door. Half of its leech-looking body still in a gap that had filled with water. Shell like a droplet of white chocolate banded with brown. Tiny like a water bubble. Ironic that growing up in Shatin, she used to prise their shells off. She had no respect for homes then.
The boiler had conked out yesterday morning, and her husband Ming had yelled at her to get it fixed. She could hear him clomping down the stairs now. Not being able to shower this morning, he was probably enraged. When he first taught her to time his soft-boiled eggs to three min max, she thought give or take a few seconds shouldn’t matter. She was wrong then too.
Ka Men threw up the lid of the trash can, rummaged around and came up with the empty sachet packet for the chicken ramen from last night. The paper was glossy, thick enough to suffice as a raft. As shelter.
She felt her husband Ming breathing behind her more than heard him.
Rain lashed in when she opened the terrace door. Valentine’s Day today, their first.
“Hey, what do you think you are doing?” Ming yelled. He could speak to her in Cantonese, but it was always English. She needed to stop sounding like a country bumpkin from China, he said.
Her aunt, the matchmaker, said she’d saved the bonanza guy for her. Out of 21 photos, he’d picked her. Ming was a Golden Mountain Sugar Daddy, she said. Such a catch. American passport. University degree. 5-figure salary. Spoke Cantonese. You’ve won the lotto, Ka Men.
She stumbled outside.
The coldness hit her bones. Out of ten matchmakers, nine will lie. True Chinese proverb. When Ka Men met Ming for the ‘seung-tai’ – the dual looksee – he’d told her she was pretty, he hadn’t expected that. She thought he looked like a police officer, with his buzzcut and brawny arms. But she’d liked his intelligent eyes. She hadn’t liked the watch he’d given her – the words “gift of watch” synonymous with attending the departed in Cantonese.
The sky was eternally grey; there was no getting used to this. In the dark of early dawn, she slid the empty packet underneath the snail and lifted it up. So white, so translucent, so tiny. White snail, she thought. That’s what I’d name it.
When she came with Ming to London, his colleagues called her a mail-order bride. How quaint of Ming! How old-school! She’d gotten pregnant so quickly. And lost it so quickly. Ka Men stopped and lifted her face upwards. The rain stroked her face with heavy violence.
She looked around. Saw the pipe for hot water running along one wall. Drenched already, she gently placed the paper and the snail right underneath. They fitted snugly. When she turned around, Ming was peering at her with one hand cupped to his brow. He’d closed the door to prevent rain from puddling inside the apartment.
He gestured at her with palms upturned.
She beckoned. He shook his head, incredulous.
“Come outside!” Ka Men yelled.
Ming’s expression turned into disbelief.
Ka Men started spinning around in one spot. Spun and twirled. Hopped on one leg. Crazy dizzy movements that made her burst out laughing. The snail was still there, under the pipe, motionless, curled up away from the rain.
Something a little bit like fear was etched now in Ming’s downturned mouth.
Her warmly lit apartment. The sagging window, the chipped paint, the blackened chimney. Now the broken boiler. All these inherited burdens. Her mail-order husband. Unbeknownst to her aunt, Ka Men had stolen her aunt’s book of clients, had paged through. Her gaze too had alighted on Ming. Was the only reason she agreed to the ‘seung-tai’.
The streetlight had finally winked out last night. A new light would be put in soon. Or maybe not. This was not the kind of neighbourhood where the council acted swiftly.
Separated by the barrier of glass, she threw her hands out in a wide arc — he in she out, he dry she wet — and let her body soak.
Elaine Chiew teaches, edits and writes short fiction. She is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted and longlisted in several other competitions, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and named Wigleaf Top 50 twice. Her most recent stories can be found in Unthology 10, East of the Web and New Flash Fiction Review. She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.