Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wake-up call

This is the morning that Michiko burns all her "before" photos.

This is the morning that Joe decides he will break up with his girlfriend if the weather report is good.

This is the morning that Jess converts the work slush pile into a table-full of origami pieces for her boss' desk; when arranged, the pieces spell out "I QUIT".

This is the morning that Alex gets his licence back and can stop faking his enjoyment of walking everywhere.

This is the morning that Tarek gets a text message from his accountant girlfriend, suggesting their relationship may not be "solvent".

This is the morning that Marina decides to increase her luck in life by kissing more inanimate objects - her bank card, her student ID, her train ticket.

This is the morning that Bernard will re-rehearse his lines for the last time before actually calling her.

This is the morning that Elsa starts to leave music boxes in random elevators across the city.

This is the morning that everyone wakes up to new bearings.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Paper trail

He used to leave her notes in the glove compartment. The first handful were simple 'thanks' for lending him her car. Then they became descriptions of stories he heard on the radio through the day: the secret home cinema found among the remains of six million bodies in Paris' underground catacombs; the guy who conducted studies of shadows for a living (his documents stopped council parks and historic monuments being darkened by needlessly tall buildings); the woman who crafted such convincing fake flowers for her garden that the artificial blooms even attracted butterflies.

Then he left curiously useful tips like which cafes had the tastiest soup and which bookstores had the best-looking boys at the counter. This was how she got addicted to gazpacho and met her husband.

Sometimes he left definitions of crazy words (CALLIPYGIAN, meaning having a nicely-shaped bottom) and strange records (the London couple who kissed for more than 31 hours; the rules meant they had to keep smooching even when they went to the bathroom).

It was a lottery of facts whenever she opened her glovebox.

She guessed he spent a lot of his time in traffic, thinking about things, as he drove around delivering pamphlets. Even though he returned the car in the evenings, she rarely used it. She considered even selling it to him, but then she became pregnant and knew being able to shuttle around in a car was a luxury she couldn't now give up.

He would fill her glove compartment with suggestions for baby names. They were all obviously exotic destinations covered in BBC World Service reports: Odessa (Russia), Tirana (Albania), Kericho (Kenya) and other cities dotted across the globe.

Then one day, he didn't return her car. She rang him until the dial tone exhausted her, with its clinical melody. She went to his house but his neighbours only shrugged when she approached them for clues and details. Reluctantly, she rang the police. They found her car two days later. It had been abandoned by the Cahill Expressway.

She gave birth to a boy whose name revealed no geographical origins whatsoever. She got tired of eating gazpacho - like her baby, she only ate vegetables that had been blitzed into easy-swallow goo. She never knew what was on the news, its mix of horror stories of kids decapitated by their dads and infant soldiers left her feeling unmoored and depressed.

Her glove compartment currently stocked only a spineless car directory and some takeaway menus.

One day, just as she was about to drive her son to childcare for the first time, she thumbed through her well-used directory to locate the street, and out sailed a piece of paper from between MAP J16 and MAP J17. It was a crinkled note and all it said was "Man conducting study of his own shadow. Not sure whether it will be in Odessa or Kericho. Hopes to find it soon." That was the last note he ever left her.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

At the end of the tunnel

They'd been driving through the tunnel for five hours. She kept reading the dash-dash-dash pattern of overhead lights as a distress signal - even though each flash above was unrelentingly even, nothing like the short-long alternations of Morse Code.

It had been at least two hours since they had seen another car.

"A world's scenic drive in the world's longest tunnel. Thanks for inviting me," he said.

She didn't say anything. It wasn't the world's longest - far from. It was one of those ugly construction projects that everyone complained about in public, but kept mute about when using it as a shortcut. The problem was she'd never taken it before - in fact, she'd wanted to avoid it, but he'd pressed her into it, just to avoid the toll slapped on the route she'd planned on taking. She relented because it meant she could get rid of him quicker - even though they were grown up, she always felt she were still babysitting her brother.

"At least if we were going through the Chunnel, I'd be in London by now," he added.

Of course he'd prefer being a geezer in "Kangaroo Valley" rather than be in the more appealing-in-every-other-way Paris, she thought. It was like he plotted his life itinerary around booze and partying.

"It's not even the world's longest tunnel, smartass," she said. "That's in Japan, between two of the islands. No one really uses it because it's cheaper now to just catch a plane."

They drove on for another hour, making intermittent attacks at each other like twitchy snipers. She didn't know what made her madder - her brother, or the red flare of the "no petrol" warning, or the Groundhog Day-like tunnel. This bare, unending road would keep spooling on and on forever, until the crack of doom, she thought. Then another hour passed before her car clunked out entirely.

"Thank for chauffeuring me around on an empty tank, genius," he said.

"Looked pretty full when we left, asshole."

" Well, trust you to have a street directory from the Middle Ages, Miss Know-All - this tunnel's not even on it."

She got out. The tunnel was stifling and frigid at the same time. She was probably the first person to breathe in all this pollution-sifted air.

There was no reception for her phone. There hadn't been anyone for hours. She was stuck with her desert island nightmare.

"I'm gonna stick by the ve-hi-cle," he said. "You never know, might be safer. Me protecting your wheels.'

He'd love it to claim it as his own, she's not stupid. God knows he'd be too lazy to ever afford anything vaguely adult as a car. Adult to him meant porn, not unglamorous responsibility.

She was going to walk on - even though she was probably going to keel over from inhaling years of accumulated tunnel soot or some other killjoy airbone disease.

It was funny, as a kid, she had loved tunnels - zipping through dark passages that sent their family hatchback into a landscape unlike the one they'd first entered. Beaches, airports, foreign suburbs. It was like a slow and technically-crude version of teleporting.

She also dreamed of cruising through those massive redwood trees in California - the ones that had huge tunnels cut out of them. There was one that was designed for horse-drawn carriages to go through, that was how old it was. But it eventually fell down and now was just a historical note.

When she was 28, she sat in the back seat as her then boyfriend navigated their hire car through the Italian border to the Swiss Alps. The open-close bursts of monumental mountain scenery then tunnel monotony made her feel intensely alive. It made her think how much she liked tunnels - how you were forced to move forward, there was no other way to go - there was no room to change your mind and U-turn back. Unrelenting like life, in a way.

And now she was going to find out how this all ended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fame is a dog

One day his dog would be discovered in a shopping mall and become famous enough to pad down a red carpet. That's what Bob hoped for, every single ticking second. Thanks to his life-long diet of Disney happy endings and magazine fairytales, this seemed like an uncrazy idea. In fact, this goal seemed as normal as a bowl of Chum.

From all the glossies and weekly rags he read, it seemed scouting agents were a native shopping mall species - seen only at food court escalators and nowhere else. They lived only to pounce on unsuspecting teenagers, these physical overachievers so blinkered about their own good looks that someone actually had to tap them vigorously on the shoulder and say, "you've got a face that can pay off my mortgage, and a mansion or two. Have you thought about just flashing a look in the right direction as a career?"

This kickstart to fame happened to the most dopiest of soapie stars and eating-disorder-a-dozen models, so why not Fido? He had more cutes than that Brazilian supermodel - the one discovered in a shopping mall in her teens - who now earned $1000 a footstep.

Bob imagined his dog becoming the face of fast food endorsements and kids cereals; sipping puppacinos and wearing gold-plated tags. He'd have his own doggy entourage and get his own dog-style holiday ranch. He'd smoke dog cigars and not cause too many litter-paternity scandals, hopefully. All it would take was one well-placed glance from a dog talent agent - she'd fall in love with Fido and it would all shoot off from there.

So when Bob wasn't installing and testing fire alarms, he spent his time circling the malls with Fido. Technically, he wasn't allowed to bring his dog into any of the shops, but Bob found that dogs had a licence to do anything, if they were cute enough. Lots of giggly kids would hone in to pat Fido's fur, which Bob felt mixed about - they were obscuring his presence, yet their racuousness and squeals also turned heads in the right direction too.

The years would zip by, and Fido grew older and no more famous. Bob began to get anxious. He considered entering him in a dog show - then dismissed it as showy and a cheat's way to score fame. Turning him into a rescue dog was another possibility - after all, Drew Barrymore's Flossie was a plain stray but ended up with a $3 million trust after saving her from a fire.

The only long-term result of the power walks around the mall turned out to be Bob's need for new runners. The days became one long dull repeat of the others. And eventually, a store owner asked Bob if Fido would like to sit in his window and help publicise a new kids book about a runaway dog that becomes a superstar - as written by the Brazilian model who was proving her mettle as the serious writer of 8-page picturebooks. They could dress up Fido in fake-bling and give him an inflatable dog mansion to sit in - he could pretend to be at the top of the canine A-list.

Bob said no. Fido was too good for a mere suburban mall window and this faux-fame was a knock-off when Bob craved the genuine thing. Fido would go further than this, there was no doubt. Someone just had to flash him a look in the right direction.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Awkward Steps

“How is work going on the giant mobile phone?” she asks.

They’re walking through the art gallery, and he’s mentally tallying how many tourists have worn away its floors over the years.

She squeezes his hand and repeats her question.

“Sure to be finished soon,” he says, snapping out of his footprint census. “We’re working how to place it into the gallery.”

He’s working on a huge mobile phone that’s inspired by the ‘Dance On’ Floor Piano at FAO Schwarz in New York: his project is a gadget with a monumental number pad and screen that will insert into the floor of the gallery here. The idea is that visitors will hop from number to number to key in the phone sequence they want - or to create a text message that will be projected across the gallery walls. Or just silly meaningless emoticons to add some digital whimsy to a sober museum visit.

“You’re here in 3-D shape and form, but your mindset is some frequent flyer miles away,” she quips.

They turn the corner and head past the Egyptian Antiquities department. It’s true, he’s a bit foggy since returning from New York. In fact his brain feels as old as the stone reliefs they are pacing past.

“I’m about 14 time zones behind,” he admits. “And there were some strange things I did while I was away.”

She doesn’t feel like pushing through that ugly-sounding door and learning what he means.

They keep their silence until they enter the Impressionists wing. And he stops.

“That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? God, my brain is just so scrambled today,” he admits. “I’m totally totally scatty, I’m so embarrassed.”

She pretends to be hyper-focused on the light brush strokes of a woman’s bonnet in the nearest painting.

“You know what I had to do while I was away - I had to learn how to dance on the FAO Schwarz floor piano.”

She admits herself a smile - after all, he’s such a groove-disobeying klutz. His body never can keep to any metronomic beat, or hip-shaking melody. He’s the guy who checks his phone messages when everyone else swarms to the dancefloor.

“Just by yourself?” she asks.

“No, they have a choreographer who teaches you. Complete with the emphatic wind-wiper arm gestures and foot-swivelling moves. I think I was his toughest case,” he concedes. “Anyway, we’ve got this old-timer jazz dancer helping us with our giant phone installation. He’s going to teach gallery visitors how to hop and jump and, uh, shimmy from number to number on the key pad - if they feel like it.”

She moves onto the next picture - a paintstroke-hazy windmill by a river.

“Anyway, people don’t have to treat the phone like a dancefloor, they can just .... tap away some silly thought. Though we’ve rigged it up so that anyone who texts ‘where R u?’ will be surprised by a ringtone of shame.” He laughs. Then, embarrassed by her silent response, tries to bulldoze past his failed punchline.

“So, have you ever thought of making any art yourself? I mean, if you could make anything, what would you make?”

She stops in front of a bronze statue of a ballet dancer.

“If I could make anything, well, it would be an installation that would, I guess, simulate how your life would have panned out if you had taken certain different choices. There’d be some computer you’d have to feed a small amount of crucial but not entirely incriminating data and it’d fire up some algorithm that could display your alterna-life,” she says. “Though it’d probably be easier just to cast some ballerina in bronze, wouldn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to accept your past?” he asks.

She lets go of his hand and moves towards a portrait of some stuffy dame from yesteryear. She’s slightly embarrassed by him, it’s true. And she’s not sure whether she’s right to be. She has to think about it for a while but she walks back to squeeze his hand anyway.

“The past is easier to swallow when you realise how unchangeable it is, that’s certain,” she says, trying to be positive.

They’re near the exit now. She’s going to collect her bag and jump on a nearby tram.

“Why don’t you give me a call tomorrow? Maybe stamp out a melody on your big unwieldy phone.”

He smiles and doesn’t say anything. Maybe she’s too harsh - his brain is probably jelly after that delayed entry back to normal non-New-York hours.

“I’m curious as to how you will be tomorrow,” she says. Then she decides to be generous: “Don’t worry, I’m using the future tense, so it means I still want to see you.”

And right then, she lets go of his hand and heads towards the bag-check.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Just Ten Things

These are the 10 things that Anton thinks about on his long walk home from work on September 14:

*The Existence of Weird Hobbies That Actually Have a Legit and Lengthy History (Teabag Folding would be number one, especially after his chat to Lou in the office kitchen)

*People He Can’t Figure Out (Lou would top the list: how come she so frequently talked to him like she’d wither if they verbally broke away from each other for even two seconds; and yet so often, answer his questions so baldly and without emotion, like she was being cross-examined against her will?)

*Can You Be Polite To The Point of Being Rude? (Is Lou just being polite to him? Is she just tolerating him out of some straitjacketed sense of courtesy? And if so, isn’t that kinda rude and offensive and dishonest?)

*On The Topic of Bogus Things, Whatever Happened To Alex Winter? (And while he was thinking about it: Dana Carvey? Must be weird playing second fiddle to actors who later had careers that eclipsed yours in every way. And Samantha Mathis, who only ever had bit parts really, but hell, she was quite foxy!)

*The Number of Animals He’d Never See First-hand (One, aardvarks: but probably because he never really knew what they looked like - even though they always had early appearances in alphabet picture books. Zebras, on the other hand, were very distinct-looking, but unlikely to cross his path to work. Also on the list: polecats, polar bears and porcupines. Sharks, hopefully never. Killer bees as well. It’d be a safe bet that he wouldn’t be nodding any salutes with velociprators though.)

*Pets Are Usually Kept By Boring People (Maybe Lou would hang out with him more if she didn’t have two hamsters and a slobber-happy dog.)

*Pi is The Only Freaky Number People Know, Besides The Obvious Ones (Are there any other fancy numbers besides pi? Pi is totally at the top of the food chain of mathematical numbers that aren’t just boring whole numbers.)

*Distraction Is Not A Bad Thing (Sure, his mind flipflops all over the place, but that’s just curiosity and a keenness about the world. And anyway, he really does listen to Lou, in fact he listens to everything she says, and nothing kills him more than when she doesn’t say a word.)

*Money is Often The Only Reason People Interract With Each Other (After that long silly chat about teabag folding in the morning, he didn’t see Lou again really. His only excuse for dropping by her desk - the only one he could conjure that wouldn’t totally weird her out - was to drop off some change for tomorrow’s coffee run. It felt dumb and impersonal to fall back on that, but it was the only available currency he could use to detour so obviously out of his usual way to find her desk. And then he chatted to the people in Accounts, ‘cos, shit, you have to be nice to them because you’d never want your pay to be late.)

*Isn’t It Weird and Fascinating That Everything Has A History? (Even the coins he left on Lou’s desk were steeped in years and layers of finger prints and time spent cushioned in different wallets and back packets. And even abstract concepts (the number zero, for instance) or boring unnoticeable things (like dust), they had had books dedicated to their time-spanning existence. And even if this - what would you call it? - thing with Lou had no future, it definitely had a past that flittered around him like the leaves that enveloped the streets on his way home.

Monday, September 24, 2007


She left him in the second hand bookstore. He was too lost in the dust-soup of the shop to notice. The leather-bound classics and the cheap paperbacks were his flimsy alibi, she knew the real reason he came here so often - to see if his ex-girlfriend’s books remained unsold (chemistry books written entirely in French: little dazzle for the local bookworms who only coughed up for old Penguin editions and well-thumbed bestsellers). The proprietor must have had a soft spot for the ex-girlfriend, or been swayed by her must-get-rid-of-everything desperation to even bother adding her unsellable texts to the shelves. They’d remain clogging up the science section until some art student bought them to make a papier-mache blob covered in French descriptions of Bose-Einstein condensates and the molecular orbital theory.

She had always felt slightly queasy in second hand bookstores - all the oldness and dust seemed to squeeze out her lungs; she found it hard to breathe, like she had ventured into some foreign altitude. Funnily enough, that’s how she felt when she’d first met him; but the feeling wasn’t a wheezy horror, it was a sharp, short-of-breath intensity. But over time, when she realised she was being pitted in an unwinnable contest (against an invisble ex-girlfriend who ironically was everywhere), her breath returned to its dull, easy rhythm. Like someone finally regaining themself after a long race they had lost.

She hated bookstores, because she hated the romance accorded to the fading volumes. Only the suckers and sentimentalists would fall for the fantasy that these shelves were packed with “pre-loved” items. “Pre-loved”, as she knew too well, was merely a euphemistic word for “unwanted”.