This is my attempt at translating Xing Fu Lou (幸福楼), a short story by the Chinese Malaysian writer Zhihong Chen (陈志鸿), who’s given me permission to post my translation here. The story was published a few years ago in an anthology alongside some of his other works, which is still in print and can be found here.

Also, special thanks to my friends Robin and Jules, who helped proofread this translation, and Vincent, who was ever so patient with my endless questions about grammar and flow. It was a fun project, and I couldn’t have finished it without your help.

I.

It would not have been hard for the girl to find him if she ever wanted to, because all she had to do was look back. Look back, and return to where they were – where he still was, like a lost item waiting to be reclaimed by its owner. The girl rode countless trains across a third of Europe while he sat in his room, staring at his wardrobe. A wardrobe full of clothes that would never be packed into a suitcase, in a tiny room no larger than a railway carriage – a derailed carriage in truth; lost, unmoving, and forgotten.

The man often wondered why. Precisely why he never boarded the train, and in doing so, wasted away the best years of his life. It was not until he was married that he realised he had been afraid of ruining what he had – a dream so dazzling and perfect he could not bring himself to touch it. In this dream, he would hop on the northbound night train and get off at the second last stop, where her hometown was. He would step off the train to find her already there, having driven over in the wee hours of the morning for the longing embrace of a sleepy city boy she had not seen in two years. Together, they would return to the house with the lush, green lawn, and the man would curl up on the sofa in the living room, his back to the spiral staircase, falling asleep as the good old days crept back in. 

Alas, it took two to tango, so it was never going to come true. Not once did he unfold the blueprints of the dream that would have laid down the rail tracks for that fateful ride in the night. Let it stay a dream, he’d thought. Yet as he lay awake tossing and turning at night, the train soldiered on across the shadowy landscape of his heart. On and on it marched, always towards the place she called home, bringing the two of them closer with every stop it passed. During the day, the train remained still, yet there was an invisible line between them, which he trod carefully in his mind as he made his way towards her. A trail of love, barely discernible, connecting two distant dots.

Just like that, he kept his door open throughout the years, while hers remained shut, as the train rolled on and on in the night, pulling, time after time, into the station she never came to. And then he realised: this was just one of the best ways there were to pay his respects, to the memory of an eight-year relationship that had to come to an end. 

II.

The car pulled out of the driveway, an arrow in flight. Outside the front-seat window, a narrow road twisted its way out of the village. The oncoming dusk had lured some of its residents out of their homes and onto the street, where they stood around or sat on the back of motorcycles, chatting away. A momentary view doomed to vanish at nightfall, powerless against the passage of time, yet ferocious in its fleeting beauty as if urging them to take it all in while it lasted.

He’d felt it at times – a sense of foreboding, on days just like this one, as they raced down three flights of stairs, threw the car door open and settled down in their seats. The girl would look at him, with her delicate face and twinkling eyes, and ask where they were going to eat, only to quickly follow up with a “Wait, don’t tell me – let me guess.” She always guessed right. And then it would come – a suffocating feeling that swelled slowly till it filled up the whole car. Even the happy moments were tainted with guilt, he realised. It seemed now that they had squandered away the finite happiness that was given to them like a flower that, in its eagerness to flourish, ushered in its own premature death. 

The bowstring was released, the arrow fired. In the car, the man sat silent. He glanced at the girl, trying to capture her face with his eyes, all while knowing that she would vanish eventually – not today, but perhaps tomorrow. He considered suggesting that they stop halfway to fill up the car and then quickly changed his mind. The girl had the habit of doing that on her way home to pick him up, seeking the solace of the petrol station as she fueled up. It was hard for the man to fathom just how she’d felt driving into the petrol station alone before heading home to have dinner with him. After all, he didn’t even know how to drive.

Picture this: the girl driving into the petrol station and pulling up in front of a pump. She steps out of the car and heads straight into the convenience store, feeling the cool breeze brush past her as she opens the door. It wasn’t her first time doing this, so she knew the drill. Taking off her sunglasses, she begins browsing the shelves. She always ended up choosing the same thing, so at some point, it became less about how it tasted and more about remembering, in solitude, how it made her feel.

Once again, she decides to go with a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolate. She places it on the counter, tells the storekeeper the amount she will fill up, and pays for both – all with a relaxed ease that feels carefree yet resolute. Then she makes her way back to the pump, opens the petrol cap, and plugs in the nozzle. With her free hand, she rips off the wrappings and helps herself to piece after piece of sweet comfort. 

The scene changes, and now she’s back in the village, home. She calls their house number, and watches him emerge from the house. Sometimes she would tell him with a big smile on her face that she’d been to the petrol station and got herself some chocolate before he could ask about it; sometimes she wouldn’t. After all, what could he do about it now that it was all over and done with (and eaten)?

It was only after the girl had left that the man began to picture what those trips to the petrol station might have been like for her, or how she might have felt sitting in the car, savouring those chocolates all by herself. For a very long time, it did not even occur to him to try. It seemed now that what she wanted was a sanctuary, a respite from the bustling traffic – a place where she could rest, be alone, and think. Perhaps it was there she made the decision in the days leading up to their parting. Time after time she had sat there, pondering on the sweet taste of loneliness and a love that had grown stagnant until she arrived at the inevitable end. 

So began the farewell parties. One of them was held in a Chinese restaurant located on a hill, and by the time the meal was over, night had fallen. They took a one-way road coming up, and now before them lay the pressing task of finding another way down. The host was dressed in all white, with an ivory scarf tied around her neck in a delicate knot – a pale silhouette stark against the inky backdrop of the night. She walked them to the door and gave them some directions, but as always, with these things, it was just something they had to figure out on their own as they went. 

They opened the car and got in. The snowy silhouette in the rearview mirror turned around as they pulled out, the scarf trailing along like the wind. Following the host’s instructions, they kept to an upward-winding road, guided by the dim glow of sparsely placed street lights. Eventually, they found themselves at a three-lane roundabout. The girl pulled up and turned to look at the man. “Where do you think we should go?” she said after a while.

“You mean our future?” he asked. 

It did not matter much to the man which road they took since all of them were headed down, and in a sense, home. But so oppressive was the view before them that for a long time, neither of them spoke, silent in the face of what seemed to be an insurmountable wall. He could not leave with her, nor ask her to stay. He rolled down the windows, feeling stifled and as though he was teetering on the brink of something perilous. Air! He needed air, for a love unspoken was a love forsaken. 

Soon, this car would turn into a plane, he thought, and perhaps he should not be there when that happened. No need for tears nor hugs; why drag himself to the airport to see her off and witness the painful demise of their love?

Yet, he still went. He stood at the gate and watched as she slowly walked away, fading into the distance. It was in that instant he realised that the moment had truly passed. He had fired the arrow, and now it was out of his hands – a shadow in motion, headed to an unknown destination. 

The girl had left some things behind, but there were no more than empty shells, like the old skin of a moulting cicada in the summer. 

One day, the man found a piece of chocolate sitting in the fridge, no doubt a leftover from one of the girl’s trips to the petrol station. There it was, unmelted, its memory still fresh. He decided to leave it for the moment and come back when he felt like remembering. Perhaps then he would finally peel back those layers, bite into that bittersweetness and understand, at last, the taste of being alone. 

III.

By then, happiness had already turned into melting ice, a growing puddle in their hands. The man and the girl had decided to take a trip to the island where they grew up to sort out things that needed to be taken care of before she left. They had been hoping to taste some of the food in their hometown, too. Just a meal or two, to give her something to remember. Something to come back for. 

They arrived to find House of Happiness – the restaurant they’d been keen to visit – closed down. The news was so shocking that it’d seemed absurd at the time, as if the restaurant had gone out of business overnight. But that was not true. It had happened while they were away, gradually and quietly, over the course of several months. And now, there it stood, an inexplicable ruin that seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

It seemed other restaurants in the nearby vicinity were doing fine, and House of Happiness was alone in its desolation. The man took a step closer to the door and listened, only to be greeted with complete silence. There were no signs on the door indicating its closure, either. Somehow, that breakfast they had during their visit here months ago became the last. 

The man could not bring himself to walk away; he needed explanations – perhaps more so now than any other time in his life.  

Just how exactly did this place close down overnight?

He started pacing back and forth outside the restaurant, which eventually caught the attention of the neighbour living next door. A small window on the iron folding door opened to reveal the wide face of an elderly woman, and for an instant they were children in a fairytale, standing outside a cabin in the forest. The woman offered no real answers, but she did tell them a story. It was said that one night, in the House of Happiness, a rat fell from the ceiling, and in its haste to scurry away, sent a pile of plates crashing down like dominos. The owner could not afford to buy new ones, and that was the end of the restaurant – gone for good, and all it took was a careless rat. 

The window snapped shut. But the man could not stop thinking about the story, to the point that he felt compelled to bring it up again in the car later, and the two of them shared a good laugh over it all – the rat, the plates, and how that turned out to be the final nail in the coffin for that poor restaurant. 

As soon as the laughter ended, however, silence fell, permeating the air between them. It was a silence founded on a mutual understanding that they would only talk about other people and never one another when they were trapped in the same space. Even the act of mentioning each other’s name would have amounted to provocation, like a gentle kiss that lingered in the air. 

There was no room for tender, loving words either, because when it came time for goodbyes, love would be nothing more than an obstacle. At night, they slept apart with their backs to one another, knowing that even the slightest warmth would have sent their plans going up in smoke. Or was it something else? No, it seemed now that all these walls had been their way of punishing each other – her for leaving and him for not asking her to stay.

One time, in the midst of packing, the girl looked up and stole a glance at the man. But just as quickly, she looked down again, her long, curly lashes lowering like a veil as she closed her eyes. Pity, too, was an obstacle, and she could feel herself tensing up at the idea of putting her future at stake. For a long time, they dared not to look into each other’s eyes for fear of seeing the resentment there. After all, this tragedy was their own doing. It was true that they resented one another – they had to. A lifetime of feelings stamped out, the passbook they lost, and the countless trips to the British Embassy… they had come too far to turn back, and now they must see this farce to its bitter end. 

Things were approaching the point of no return, and it seemed there was nothing to do now but to pull her into a desperate embrace. The man bent forward from where he was sitting and reached over the girl’s shoulders – shoulders he once knew so well but now stood beyond his reach, like mist-shrouded mountains in faraway lands. And he understood, in that moment, that there was no averting the inexorable; that he must let go and do so on his own accord; that he would soon – very soon – lose her. After all, what else could he offer her? Nothing, not even empty words. He had agreed to let her go; he had no right to change his mind now, to hold her tightly and beg her to stay. If he could stand letting her walk out of his life for two years, he could very well manage another night alone, couldn’t he? 

It was all so pathetic and ridiculous, thought the man as he felt his arms loosen and slump in defeat. It turned out all these years he had been nothing but a cage to her, and now she was, at last, free to take to the sky. 

Their own House of Happiness – one that belonged to them and them only – had melted away long before the real one closed down. They’d thrown out the old, lumpy queen-sized bed and replaced it with a single, and now, in about a week, the plane would swoop in like an alien spaceship to take her away. Every night, she would crawl into the new bed while he fell asleep on a mattress on the floor; close, yet forever out of reach. 

He didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. After all, he would have the whole house to himself after she left, and in any case, her comfort was far more important than some silly bed. Wasn’t it for her freedom (or perhaps his own) that he’d chosen to let go, so she could fly away, free to live a life of her own?

Perhaps the girl had known how much it would hurt him when she finally moved on and wanted to, in her own way, prepare him somehow. She had come home alone from a gathering one night and jokingly talked about how she had fallen for a guy she went to secondary school with – apparently an engineer, and about the same height as her. “Too bad he wasn’t interested,” she said, standing behind him as he typed away on his laptop.

The man stopped typing. Why was she telling him all this? To stir up waves in a pond that had not seen a single ripple in eight years? To make him jealous, even just a little bit, as punishment for not having asked her to stay (if he thought so, he would be overestimating the influence he still had on her)? Or was it out of love (also a gross overestimation)? A lie to save him from the pain of not being able to move on, to shatter the image he had of her, to tear down false hopes? He did not turn around to look at the girl. He chose not to, for now. 

He pictured the girl falling for that unknown man. For some reason, he found himself willing to accept, in that moment, the idea that she might have been telling the truth. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to leave if that man had returned her feelings. Perhaps all she needed was a word, an embrace, or someone who would turn around. But there were no ‘what if’s. The man – and the other man – had let her slip away. They had sat watching as time went by, as everything slowly unravelled to pieces, as Houses of Happiness both real and imagined crumbled and returned to dust until finally, the curtain had fallen on the cold, barren stage of their love. 

One night after the girl had left, the man climbed into the lone single bed that offered just enough room for him and his selfishness. He felt her slipping away into the distance as dreams tiptoed over and placed their heads on his feet, and the puddle froze over once more.

IV.

It was said that when a love was on its deathbed, people would pick out a place and mark it with a gravestone, so they might lay to rest a love that was no more. They had come to this quiet town thinking they needed a break. With the day of parting so close, the atmosphere between them had grown unbearably stifling amid weakening resolve and second thoughts, so they were both in desperate need of fresh air. They didn’t know it at the time, but what they really needed was a grave – a place to bury their dying love. 

And so they came. They set out at dawn and arrived at their destination before noon; it was a house located on a hill and a three-minute drive away from the nearest town. The whole journey took a little less than three hours. They parked right outside the fence gate as a pack of dogs raced down from the hillcrest to pace back and forth where their car was, their barks ringing in the air. 

The door opened, and a figure emerged and made its way down the hill, growing larger as it approached. It was the old man they had spoken to on the phone. He unlocked the gate for them. As they began to drive up the hill, the dogs cleared away, revealing a patchy path that looked curiously like a brown-and-green dotted line. Once at the hilltop, it opened onto a grassy lawn, where they pulled up. The dogs soon caught up, and they sat in the car for a while, eyeing the prowling pack warily. 

The house was perched atop a hill and surrounded by sprawling grasslands, offering stunning views of lush greenery. But it was small. Even its existence seemed like an afterthought, as if it was built for the sole purpose of watching over this vast, endless expanse of grass, like a lighthouse in the middle of an emerald sea. 

They got out of the car and turned around to look at the path. From where they stood, it looked like a grey river slashing through the verdant ocean, drawing a firm line between where they were and the mountains in the distance. Further ahead, the path split into two – the left fork leading to the town they’d passed through on their way here, and the right one to places yet uncharted (by them – though they heard there was an abandoned mine somewhere in that direction). 

The landlord seemed reserved, but he did manage a somewhat forced smile. In a room facing the parlour, they found Chinese calligraphy works displayed on the wall. Apparently, the landlord penned them himself, and potential patrons would occasionally come to see them. The adjacent room, which appeared to be the atelier, was locked. 

Their room turned out to be all the way at the back. The floor was raised high off the ground, so they were forced to haul their luggage over before climbing up, like clambering out of a boat onto land. As soon as they had settled in, the landlord turned and walked away, his feet marching to a straight line and his gaze fixed ahead. Word had it that he’d spent twenty to thirty years in prison for his left-leaning ideologies until he was finally released last year. He was a harmless old man now and of no threat to society, armed with nothing but paper and pen. 

They ended up having to trouble him again when they decided to head out in the afternoon and found their way barred by his snarling guards. The old man stamped his feet in silence and drove his dogs towards the wall, and suddenly they were as gentle as kittens, flattening themselves to the ground and tucking their legs in like a set of foldable chairs.

Then the old and the young went their separate ways – the landlord back into his house and them out onto the lawn. Their footsteps grew light with a childlike joy as they began to make their way down the sloping hillside. 

They closed the gate and turned to look at the house on the hilltop; even the house was silent. Behind them, the road stretched on, and they walked along it for quite some time before they saw a car. It whizzed past them, with its lonely rumbling lingering like a tail as an eager wind followed closely in pursuit. Meanwhile, the man walked at the front and the girl at the back. In between them, silence grew, paving a long, grey path. 

The man did not try to hold the girl’s hand, and the likelihood of him doing so dwindled as the town grew nearer and nearer. In a month, they would be miles and miles apart – he knew that, and he was afraid. Afraid of the secrets she might read from his hand and of asking her to stay. It occurred to him that he might be missing his last opportunity to reach out, here on the road, where they were alone. After all, the town was likely to be crowded, and there was no telling how its residents might feel about public displays of affection. 

The town was a shadow of its former glory.; they had heard of the story of its decline, and now they finally saw with their own eyes that it was true. It was home to a modest host of buildings – a church, a primary school, a secondary school, a pitch, a bakery, a market… exactly one of each, as was needed to accommodate the shrinking community. Most people got around on motorcycles, zipping in and out of town at a speed that rivalled the wind with hardly a helmet in sight. 

The man and the girl, both wearing hats, stood out like a sore thumb. They were each other’s only friend in the eyes of these strangers, whether they liked to admit it or not. Yet his hand never sought out hers, nor did hers reach for his. Their lonely arms swung hollowly by their sides as they walked, connected only by an increasingly sharp, audible silence. 

However, it quickly became clear to them that they needed to get out of the town as soon as possible. Everywhere they went, people greeted them with smiles, no doubt thinking they were a couple. After walking around, they went into a local restaurant for lunch. The meal was over-seasoned and way too salty. After all, this was a town of miners; they were no chefs here, and it seemed not much had changed about its food since its long-gone heyday. 

After lunch, they left the town in search of the abandoned mine they had been hearing about. At first glance, the entrance to the mine looked no different than that of a subway station, only it was surrounded by mountains and not skyscrapers. Yet from a certain angle it looked like a giant sea snail, a relic of a forgotten sea age, left behind when the ocean retreated. 

There was no telling how deep the tunnel was, so the man picked a stone off the gravel-covered ground, and threw it in. Then he stood there with the girl, holding their breath in anticipation. But no sound came. Perhaps it had been drowned out by the wind, they thought, as the man took a few steps away from the girl and into the mine. Then he threw another stone in, and waited for what seemed like an eternity – nothing. 

Perhaps the tunnel was extremely long. Perhaps the stone had merely landed on the ground halfway in its flight, and all that was accomplished was a minor, inconsequential shift in its position. Perhaps there was no water down there – no ponds, not even a puddle, only a desert-like underground wasteland that made no echoes. They could not fathom its depth, so they were helpless in the face of its stubborn stillness. Yes, even this tunnel was silent. 

They came across a few more mines like this as they made their way further up the road. The ground sloped up and down here, so the oncoming cars were often only visible from the ridge, bursting into view instead of approaching gradually in a steady procession. On either side of the road, old mine entrances sat quietly on green fields. But the man did not try again. The ground here too was covered in gravel, every stone a chip, ready for him to place his bets. Yet what was the point of betting on these forsaken mines? And if it was so pointless, why did they come all the way here? 

To go somewhere together, perhaps, now that they could no longer travel to the ends of the world with one another. Instead, they came to this deserted land, a place where everything seemed to have come to an end – their last adventure. 

The man understood now what those giant sea snails were. They were cradles that nurtured the community, which once thrived where there now remained nothing but a small, diminishing town. It felt almost surreal to stand where they were, knowing that there was a whole world right beneath their feet, a vast labyrinth of caves spread out far and wide like an intricate spider web. Even the ground felt soft, as if it were going to give way any moment.

In the distance, a young Indian boy was herding his sheep. They were scattered around, speckles of white against green, a welcome sight amidst the debris. It seemed life in this place had scaled back to more primitive terrains since the collapse of the mining industry. Perhaps the eternal paradise did exist. Here, for now.

The greenery did wonders for their mood, and the man found himself wondering if this was a good time to finally tell the girl how he felt. Yet there seemed to be something sacred about this hard-won moment of happiness; perhaps those words – words that he’d kept buried in his heart all this time – should remain unsaid. Could he be so cruel as to begrudge her even just a moment of happiness? Must he play the hungry wolf to devour her joy now that she knew, at last, the pleasure of walking freely in the meadow?

They went back to the town for dinner before nightfall and ambled back to their lodgings, guided by the headlights of cars headed in the opposite direction. With the night lurking so dangerously close, he must reach out to grab her hand now – and he did. She always had the option of playing the woman or the child, and this time, she chose the latter. They walked hand in hand, all while looking up at the hills on both sides of the road, searching for a lonely house with its lights still on. 

At last, they found it. They crossed the road and stopped at the gate, not daring to unlock it, while the dogs raced down to meet them, barking to announce their return. Once again, they had no choice but to wait for the landlord to come to their rescue. A car zoomed by as they stood waiting, briefly illuminating her small face before fading into the distance, and her face disappeared once again into the darkness. Then there was nothing left but the warmth of their hands, a faint echo from the past, bearing remnants of a dwindling flame. Like all lovers in this world, they too started with holding hands. 

The night view here was intoxicating, far more so than in cities poisoned by light pollution. Yet still, he lay wide awake on the floor, drunk on the night, another sleepless man in a darkened house in this wide, uncaring world. If he was found dead in the morning, they would have thought he died for love. But dying was not an option. They must drive back, back to that house, and carry on packing and sealing boxes in the morning. In the interim, there was this town, a place where everything seemed to have perished – an opportunity for both of them to do something. But what more could he say to her?

It felt to him that the first words he uttered to her ought to be something important, after spending the whole day in silence. This was not the time for meaningless small talk. But what was the most important thing he could say to her? Should he confess to the quiet affair that had ended a year ago? No, there were times where he could feel that she knew – she knew everything, even the person he had cheated on her with – all without him saying a thing. She had been waiting for him to tell her, while he had been hoping that she would understand without him having to bring it up, just so they could keep their relationship going. The man stayed silent.

And then, suddenly, it became clear to him what this night meant. It was a gift from God, and it was up to him to seize it. Surely every man had known a chance like this at one point in time. He found himself terrified at the idea of regretting, in the morning after, what he was about to do. But still, basking in the glow of divine blessing, he started edging closer to the girl. He reached out, wrapping his arms around a warm, soundless body, and then with his heart in his throat, he said, “I hope this is the last time we’ll ever be apart.”

In saying those words, he refused once again to ask her to stay and confirmed what he’d thought was the inevitable conclusion – that she would and must leave. All he asked was for her to stay for good once she was back. With that, he arrived, finally, at the revelation that he’d been slowly inching towards throughout the whole trip: he was never going to ask her to stay, even though he’d believed he would.

She did not say anything, nor did she resist his embrace, but he could feel her getting smaller in his arms, like a chunk of melting ice. It turned out that they’d come all this way to this secluded town for nothing but this truth – that when it all came down to just the two of them, he would let her go all the same and wait passively for her to come back to him once her visa was expired, all out of his own selfishness. She was melting, and he felt a hint of wetness on his sleeve as her body began shivering in his arms, crumbling into water. He held her tightly; there was no need for words. 

In his mind, he saw the rocks at the entrance of the mine. They glistened under the sun, waiting to be picked up. He bent over to grab one and threw it – silence. The inscrutable depth of that deserted mine continued to elude them, so they stood quietly in the wind as if mourning the death of this mine and all others. And then there was nothing; he could not see anything after that. Let us bury it all then, he thought, let us bury it all here, everything that was and is. 

And that was how they found the place. There they lay down a gravestone, and engraved upon it the end of their love. Year of death: 2007. 

V.

As the older members of their family began to pass away, they found themselves stranded. Doors once open and welcoming were now closed, rendering them strangers in a familiar land, while memories became their only refuge. Back when they were still newly in love, the man and the girl often drove miles and miles from the city to see their elders, hoping to outrun death. They would visit them door to door, as if doing a routine check of a volcanic region, to see who was dead and who was still alive. 

And then later, when their love had grown overripe, they became afraid – afraid that death would triumph over love after all. Of course, in hindsight, that had been a sign of their waning faith in one another. They had kept a love story going for nearly seven years, and their elders had become so invested that they felt they could not pass in peace without at least seeing a happy ending. Yet there was no forcing one – not with something as important as marriage. Time after time they’d turned around, facing the land they called home, and pleaded to death for mercy, for more time – time enough for their love to mature and usher in the grand finale that everyone was holding their breath for. 

The visits to her family always began the same way: getting out of the car, going through a fence gate and a breezy green yard, and then finally through a small wooden door. And then it was into the two-storey wooden house where an old grandfather clock sat guard, counting lost time. 

Her grandmother, then in her eighties, was a senile old woman made docile by old age. There was something childlike about the way she sat in that low wicker chair, her hands clutching the arched handles on both sides, like a baby stranded in a basket, fearful of the looming waves coming to sweep her away. The girl would call out to her, and she would look up in confusion, her glasses slipping down all the way to the tip of her nose. If a relative was nearby, they would come over to help fish something out of that deep, old well of memories in her mind. “It’s so-and-so,” they would say. “They came all the way from the city, just to see you!” 

Sometimes they would just volunteer their names instead, to keep everyone from talking over one another and doing any more damage to that poor, old mind that was already scattering like ants. Grandma had been a clever woman in her days, known for her sharp mind and impeccable memory. But now that even a simple game of remembering (or guessing) the names of her visitors had become a struggle, they were often obliged to help her out with a hint or two.

There were moments where they had to console themselves by insisting that she did not forget them, that her memories of them were in fact still there, buried deep within the well; that they had always been there, left in the depths of her memory, where they became hard to retrieve. She was exceedingly polite during meals, oblivious to the fact the stranger she was talking to was actually her own granddaughter, home at last with her lover. She kept offering them more food, as she was wont to do when they received guests at home. In this gesture, the girl saw a glimpse of the grandma she used to know, who loved playing host when she was younger, and accepted the offers gladly. 

The years had stripped grandma of wrath and replaced it with gluttony. Like all old people, she had a perpetually ravenous appetite and ate with a ferocity that made it seem as if she was trying to stock up enough food for a long, long journey. Wielding her chopsticks like a bulldozer, she tore through bowl after bowl of rice, shovelling it all into her mouth at an insanely fast speed. She barely chewed, too, and swallowed drily as if she was stuffing cotton into a doll. 

Someone at the table raised their voice, sounding angry (or perhaps it was just to compensate for her hard of hearing). “Slow down, slow down,” said the person. They soon realised this was a bad idea as the old matriarch, having sensed the threat, started to eat even faster.

“Enough, that’s enough,” someone else said, “You have to stop eating now.” But she pressed on all the same, pretending not to hear them (or perhaps she really did not), guarding her bowl defensively as if it could be snatched away any moment. Meanwhile, her chopsticks remained single-mindedly devoted to their task, never once slacking in pace. 

“She’s like a child now,” everyone said. What they did not know was that despite this unexpected onset of gluttony, she was to become immensely generous on her last day. She had one meal in the morning, and left the rest to her children and grandchildren. 

With her mind muddled and her days more or less numbered, there was a great deal they could get away with not telling her. She asked no questions, unaware that someone at the table had come home with their mind made up to leave. The girl had only come to say goodbye, knowing that she would not see her grandmother again until after her two-year visa had expired. It was just as well that grandma no longer remembered who she was, she thought, because then it would only be a one-sided goodbye; no tears, no sadness, and then the only thing left to do would be to carry on living. 

Perhaps she should have stayed. She might end up having to turn back, anyway, in the event that grandma failed to outlive the two-year deadline. But the world today was a small place – she could easily hop on a flight and make it home in just eight hours if the situation ever called for it. So why not? Years of love had failed to culminate in a wedding, and now she had no choice but to risk missing a funeral. Just do it, she told herself, just do it and go. 

Just like that, the two of them quietly planned and executed a secret farewell, after which they were to disappear from the old woman’s life for two years, all without her knowing. They tried to do the same thing again on an afternoon several days later when they attempted to sneak up a flight of wooden stairs that hovered above the corridor she was sitting in. They had been afraid of startling her, but that fear turned out to be unwarranted. Years of hearing loss had rendered her deaf to their mischief, leaving them free to tiptoe across the creaky wooden piano overhead. 

The man and the girl made their way through empty rooms whose only tenants were now cobwebs and sunlight. Peeling back layers of old, yellowed newspapers, they weeded through the various items they had sent here over the years (by post and in batches) for safekeeping and rediscovered long-forgotten books that they’d thought were in their house all this time. 

Later, when they made their way back down to the corridor, they found grandma still sitting there with her head bowed, revealing the big, silvery bun on the back of her head. She would have slept through an elephant stampede as if it were no more than the quiet, stealthy slinking of a cat, that was for sure. But seeing her asleep was enough to strike fear into them; after all, there was no telling whether she was truly asleep until she woke up. So they sat on the wooden bench by the kitchen wall and waited, falling asleep themselves only to be woken up by the deep chime of the grandfather clock. In their grogginess, they felt the whole world coming back to life, yet the old lass in the wicker chair did not stir. She’s hard of hearing, thought the man and the girl as they tried to reassure themselves. Surely it was a good thing, for someone as old as her to be able to disregard time’s signals with such complete indifference?

There was somebody else they had to visit: a dear friend of grandma’s, who had braved the ocean with her to come to this land. She lived just two doors down the street, in a shiny new house all by herself. Her children, who were working in Singapore, had lavished good money on converting the old residence into a three-room, single-storey abode, on account of her bad knee – a successful investment that generated handsome returns in the form of free lodgings whenever they returned home from the Lion City during the holidays. They also had the yard paved over with concrete, so their mother – or as the girl called her, ‘great aunt’ – would not have to worry about the tedious chore of weeding, nor the threat of pesky mosquitos and deadly snakes that a grassy lawn would have invited. 

Great aunt spent much of her days sitting on a stone bench out front, silently declaring to all passers-by that she was, indeed, still alive. It was part of a contract she’d established with everyone else in the village, and her neighbours were all well aware of the grave responsibility that had now been entrusted to them. If one day, the bamboo door remained locked past noon and she failed to hobble out to the bench at the usual hour, any of them would be free to do her the kindness of opening that gate and stepping into the house. And so, to spare herself the tragic fate of dying quietly and rotting away in secret, she made sure to always start her day by walking out to the stone bench, where she would sit and wait for the morning sunlight to pour in and pay its daily homage to life. 

Sometimes, the stone bench would be empty when they came to visit, and every time this happened they felt their footsteps slowing down in hesitation before stepping warily into the house and loudly announcing their presence. And then amidst the echoes, they would hear, “Coming, coming,” her voice a soft, muffled thunder as she doddered slowly into their view like delayed lightning. But there were times where they received no response, and always in these instances they found themselves lingering in the living room, preferring to peruse the brand-new furniture than to venture into the heart of the house, terrified at the possibility that they might have arrived in the wake of death. They would stand around and wait until she eventually showed up, rummaging through her still somewhat coherent mind to find a name for the baby girl she once held in her arms some thirty years ago. 

And then there were days where they arrived to find her curled up on the bench, fast asleep, like an old dog guarding the house. They would call out to her, their hearts seized with fear at the idea of a nap that would give way to eternal slumber, and sigh with relief as she slowly began to stir. “Oh my, look at me, dozing off like this!” she would say apologetically as she sat up, her hair dishevelled, while they counted themselves lucky for having once again outrun death, spurred on by Cupid’s arrow.

The phone in great aunt’s house was balanced on top of a tower of Yellow Pages, between which jutted out little pieces of paper containing several phone numbers. The man and the girl exchanged glances, speechless – had things gone a bit differently, it would have been up to them to pull out one of those numbers and make the call.

They wanted to take a photo with her this time, but she said no, waving away the camera. “No, no, that’s for youngsters like you. I’m old now,” she said. They did not insist. In fact, they had half expected her to refuse. They decided then – and later – that it was probably for the best, remembering the fact that death row inmates too had their portraits taken before they were marched to the noose. 

On days where great aunt was in a good mood, she would tell them stories from her youth; today was one of those days. Inspired by the glasses of water they were both holding in their hands, she began to tell them about her time on the ship that brought her to this country. “We set out from Shantou, and the ship was rocking so badly, you couldn’t hold a glass of water in your hands without spilling it all over the place!” she said. “And then the Japanese came, not long after we settled down here, and we were left with nothing to eat, nothing but sweet potatoes.” 

The man looked at the girl as she sat listening to the story. He thought she looked younger – younger than he’d ever seen her, and younger by the minute – and suddenly it was as if she were a little girl, sweet and guileless. Great aunt, on the other hand, was remembering something important – grandma. “How’s your grandma?” she asked the girl, though it seemed what she really wanted to know was whether her old friend was still alive. It had always baffled the man and the girl as to why the two of them fell out of touch – was it true that once people got to a certain age they would just stop reaching out, even if they lived in the same village, or in this case, two doors away from one another? 

As always, they played the role of messengers, providing her with news of not only grandma but of other family members as well.  And then later, when asked at the dinner table, they shed their old persona and took on the identity of double spies, passing on the latest updates on great aunt. For a long time, this back-and-forth messaging kept the family informed on how the two old friends were doing. And while everybody knew death in old age was a virus transmissible by grief, they were all surprised when a funeral tent was erected two doors down not long after taking down their own. They did not find her lying on the bench. The gate had stayed unlocked well into the night, which had struck the neighbours as unusual, so they went into the house, only to find that death had come at last.

As it turned out, she too did not live long enough to see the girl come home. Yet she did not seem surprised at all when the girl told her, on that visit, that she was going abroad for two years. Perhaps she was already used to the idea, her own children having long relocated to distant shores. In fact, much of the local population had already migrated elsewhere, save for the old and infirm. Now that they no longer lived in an agriculture-driven economy, there was less demand for labour in the village. In any case, the girl had already moved away for college years ago, so what did it matter if she left for someplace yet further? 

She never asked about her love life, either, and often looked only at the girl when they were talking. Even then, she did not bring up the question of whether their long-distance relationship was going to work, and it appeared she would have stood by the girl no matter what she’d decided to do. Doubt was out of the question, as long as it was something she wanted to do. 

In the three to four years leading up to the girl’s departure, they visited grandma and great aunt occasionally, driving in miles and miles from the city, always happy and fearful in equal measure – happy to see them well and alive (a fact that was seeming more and more like a miracle by the day) and afraid to find out just how long the miracle would last. They laughed at their own folly, too – after all, their elders were not the only ones at the mercy of death. Young or old, they were all bound by the same contract of mortality, living their lives at the whim of a capricious master. 

Sometimes they would drive across the ocean to the island, too, where yet another door awaited. They always went bearing gifts – usually a bag of dim sums from House of Happiness. A feeble gesture, they knew, remembering an old saying as they felt the dim sums going cold in their hands. It went like this: “a simple life together beats sumptuous offerings in the life after.” 

The house was old, a two-storey relic from pre-war days. The man and the girl climbed up a long flight of stairs and emerged into a hallway, where old sewing machines lay abandoned. Overhead, nature’s weavers – now the only seamstresses in the house – were busy at work. 

They always went in feeling guilty, like two criminals turning themselves in (for the crime of still not getting married). It was also a way to offer his grandmother, who was already in her sixties then, the latest update on their love saga: love, for now, was still on their side. 

The two of them sat down on the red sofa against the green wall, while granny sat in a red armchair, her hands tapping gently on the flat armrests that stretched out like padded board splints used for keeping broken bones in place. Her eyes were smiling. 

It was like looking into a mirror, standing before their elders, and seeing the smiles on their faces. Smiles that reminded them of the fact that they were lovers still, in the eyes of everyone but themselves; behind closed doors, of course, the spark was gone.

They handed her the bag of dimsums, looking apologetic. The dim sums had gone cold, which meant she would have to reheat them later. It did not occur to them at that time that they could have just given her a call earlier and taken her to breakfast. She accepted the gift, however, and went straight to the point. 

“Now, when can I expect to drink that wedding tea?”

It was a fair question. Why else would he keep bringing the girl to her if he did not intend to marry her? It was probably best for him to do the answering. 

“We’ll see in two years when she’s back,” he said. Even he would have found it difficult to believe that any marriage vows could be truly binding at this point. Surely they would be no more than empty words at an altar, a fleeting mirage of happy-ever-after. He had had his chances; she’d brought him the marriage license application forms at least three times over the years, and he’d let her down every single time. And now they had no choice but to put their relationship to another test. Two years, and if they still loved each other at the end of it all, then perhaps they would finally be able to serve granny that cup of tea she was owed.

Granny looked at them sadly. Perhaps she’d known then how it would all end. “Why aren’t you going with her?” she said with a frown, her tone chiding. 

“I still have school, granny.” said the man, now a boy. “Let’s just wait for two more years.”

In saying that, they (or he) made a promise. For the three of them – granny, the girl, and him – to wait for two more years. What he really wanted to say was: please don’t die, granny, hang in there, just for another two years. But of course, those words had to be left unsaid. And every now and then, when no one was around, he would catch himself murmuring, “Two years aren’t that long. If thirty years could go by in a blink…”

And now it was finally set in stone. They walked down that long flight of stairs, bid the house farewell, got into the car, and left the island. Back in the city, they begged death once again for more time, time enough for them to see this last act to its very end. But granny did not live to see the promise fulfilled. She was killed on a morning, they said, knocked over by a motorcycle.

Three funerals were held in the year after the girl left. She said her goodbye, and they said theirs, although unlike hers, theirs offered no deadlines to look forward to. She kept her promise of not coming back no matter what happened and saved the mourning for later. 

When he finally saw her again, she told him why. “Facing all those deaths wouldn’t have been hard at all, actually,” she said, “But then I thought of coming back to face you, and it all felt so impossible. So I chose not to.”

Looking at his old lover, the man had wondered – could they still be together? But it wouldn’t have been the same. Things had changed, and already he was looking at a stranger he used to know. Years later, as a married man, when he thought of what they had lost and all that had seemed inevitable, he found himself asking a slightly different question. Why couldn’t they have gotten back together?

For years, he lingered in the treacherous whirlpool of memories, hoping to salvage some fragments of the past that might put his doubts to rest once and for all. And he found it: it was too late for a happy ending now that the people who wanted it the most were gone. What could they do, mere mortals as they were? They could not snatch the pen out of death’s hands and rewrite fate; their love had died with their loved ones, and that was the end of their story. A wedding might have offered some comfort to the living (such as their parents) but would have been, ultimately, of no importance to the dead. 

And with that, any phantom connections he still had to her were finally severed. The doors had closed, and now there would be no one hobbling down the stairs to answer the door if they show up with a bag of dim sums. They were strangers, doomed to wander the streets as houses of memories passed them by; waiting, and waiting, until the dim sums turned cold in their hands at last.

VI.

The woman had unwittingly planted a seed of love before leaving this place, and when it took root, so did she. She had said it herself that there was no point in getting pets or even having potted plants in the house if she knew she would move on to somewhere else in three to five years. That way, when it came time to leave, she would be able to do so freely – no strings attached.

Yet she was the type to crave the company of others. She couldn’t stand having meals alone, which, as it turned out, was what set in motion the events that were about to come. She might not have known it at the time, but in asking the man out, she was sowing a seed that would grow into yet another tree. 

Clearly, she was used to this: leaving behind a trail of saplings that would one day grow into towering trees, doomed to watch helplessly as she faded into the distance. She was born to keep others waiting, and as such had consigned all the men in her life to the fate of quietly counting the days till she came back. She’d told the man when they first met that someone was waiting for her elsewhere, an eight-year-old tree she must return to in three years. It was also, of course, a good way to keep the men she asked out at a safe distance – something she was free to do now that she had regained her freedom temporarily.

As for the man – he’d known from the start that the woman’s past was a picture that had been tucked away, something only a select few were privy to, so whenever the woman did divulge bits and pieces of her past, all he did was smile and listen. She talked mostly about the friendships that had slipped away as she moved from one place to another and the sorrow of having no one to call now that she was finally back home. She had been out of touch with her friends for far too long, and the years abroad had changed her. She was no longer a child of the land of eternal summer, now that she had tasted the melancholy of autumn and winter. There were things they would never understand, things she had no choice but to keep hidden in her suitcase, unspoken, unheard. 

And then one day, something changed. Finally ready to unpack, the woman decided to invite the man on a trip to a casino. Fortunately, neither of them was young enough to have been strangers to the gamble of love. In the car, the man turned to look at the woman while she was driving – the second woman in his life to take the wheel – and found himself struck by a peculiar feeling that something greater was at play. Who was this woman? She had left a man abroad to come home, like a river that flowed backward, and now she was sitting next to him, as the car raced steadily towards their destination – the biggest casino in the country, where gamblers of every stripe convened day and night. 

What did the other man look like – the one she’d left behind? The man looked at the runaway in the driver’s seat and found himself thinking of the love he’d let slip away – the sweet, innocent girl, who also ran away and never came back. What he saw through the woman that night was perhaps a glimpse of what the girl’s life might have been in those faraway lands – a harmless chat over dinner with someone new, and then finally, a trip to the casino. 

The woman’s past was, after all, a picture that had been hidden away – the man knew this, which gave him an advantage (only he must keep it a secret for the time being) before the first round of games even began. So he decided to play the fool by getting into the car and letting her lead the way. In doing so, he would be following her into a world that she knew well, where he would be left completely at her mercy, yet he had no fear of losing – after all, what was life but a gamble? Man or woman, young or old, they were all unwilling participants of the same game – a game where time was the only currency, and the stack of chips dwindled with each passing day. They had known from the moment he said yes to her invitation (despite having known her for barely half a year) that it was going to be more than just a night of pokers and roulettes.  That just under the surface, a gamble of extraordinary proportions was taking place. They both knew, yet neither of them said a thing. 

The plan was to gamble away the money they had pooled together and then call it a night. They had promised each other never to set foot near an ATM, mostly to keep the woman from getting swept away in the adrenaline rush and the man from being pressured into funding what would be a very expensive night out. Over and over again, he reminded her not to cross the line – and the gentle beast that was his heart not to be tamed so easily – until she decided she’d had enough of the lecturing and rolled down the windows to let the wind in. It flooded the car and pelted his face relentlessly as if slapping him on her behalf. 

They ended up having to fork out for lodgings before they even scored their first victory of the night, since the casino was located on the peak of a mountain. The journey to the top was long and arduous, and after an hour of driving in the dark, they decided it was best to rent a unit in one of the serviced apartments and worry about making their way down the next morning. In this way, the house ensured it always won the first round, yet it did little to discourage those who would brave these treacherous roads time after time for the chance to win it all back and more. Fortunately, they had the whole night to try. 

The man soon found out what type of gambler – or person – the woman really was. She preferred simple, straightforward games that revealed the outcome quickly, and had little patience for those demanding a certain level of intricacy and suspense. The man followed her lead; they sat down at a table of her choosing and won some, but it was still too early to retreat to the apartment, so they switched to another table. Luck was on their side, and soon, the man found himself relegated to the role of a bag carrier, trailing after the woman like a servant after his mistress. She would pick up the chips and hand them to him, smiling, while he stuffed them into the glossy black handbag that was now his to watch over. 

But he didn’t mind. He was happy to leave the gambling to her and split the winnings, and if she lost it all, well, that would be on her. He had never been a big gambler, so he was more than willing to bet on her instead by taking the backseat and letting her play on his behalf. And while it was true that he could have just turned her down and saved himself the hassle of coming all the way up to the top of this mountain, he had always had trouble saying no to her. Earlier, before entering the casino, they each withdrew their share from the ATMs, and when the woman told him to exchange their cash for tokens, he found himself obliging dutifully. “Hurry along now, kiddo,” she’d said, “Go get us some tokens. A rookie like you could certainly use the experience.” 

At first, the woman played safe by limiting herself to the money they had won to keep their hard-earned savings untouched. But playing only with their modest winnings would mean wasting the night away on cautious calculations, which would ultimately bring them meager gains – an altogether tedious affair and an absolute waste of time. So she decided to go all-in, only to lose all their winnings with an unsuccessful bet. Desperate to win it back, she started digging into her handbag (which was supposed to be off-limits) and ended up losing a huge chunk of what was left as well. And then finally, as the dealer pushed her last stack of chips towards the other end of the table, she sighed and turned to the man. 

“Looks like Lady Luck has abandoned us. Any chips left in that bag?” she asked.

It seemed there was no leaving this place until they exhausted the money they’d come here with, so the man emptied what little that was left in the bag, feeling suddenly as though they were comrades on a battlefield, united against a common enemy. Cashing in now would be out of the question – better to lose it all than to run home with scraps and their tails between their legs. 

A sweeping defeat, but there was still some time left till dawn. The man and the woman left the casino and started navigating their way through a maze of escalators, determined to make it to the other end of the resort without stepping out into the cold, biting air outside. The place was huge, a sprawling warren of shiny boutiques and bistros, like the insides of a giant beast made of steel and glass. And when they finally made it to the exit, they found the same windy, misty night waiting just beyond the automatic sliding doors. 

The man walked at the front this time. The woman might have known her way around poker and love, but she was terrible with directions. It was better for him to take the lead, lest they spent the whole night shivering in the cold while she stopped to consult every passer-by on which way to go. 

It turned out that the apartment had been their Plan B all along, a shelter to retreat to just in case they failed to last till the morning. “It’s no wonder we lost”, thought the man, his smile bitter in the chilly night air. They had come expecting to lose, and lose they did.

There was something intoxicating about walking down a road wet and shiny from the mist, like taking a moonlit stroll on the beach. A few times, as they turned a corner, the milky white veil rushed in to drown out the night and conceal the way forward, like a bird with wings so vast they blotted out the sky. They waited in its shadow until the path resurfaced from underneath the ghostly waves before resuming their journey, taking in the view as they went. The night sky had regained its clarity, and in the distance, cities and towns glittered like jewels.  

In the wind, the woman called out to him. “Hey, catch this!” she said, tossing him her jacket, a striking burst of pink against the black of the night. He caught it. “Down to T-shirt and jeans. I really went for broke, didn’t I? ”

He tossed the jacket back to her and marched on ahead, hugging his arms around himself. 

The road was empty save for the occasional silhouettes headed in the opposite direction, barely visible under the streetlights. They seemed to be in a hurry, no doubt bound for the casino. Later, by the elevator in their apartment, they came across a few more people heading out. The pair stood and listened to the sound of chatter and footsteps slowly fading away, feeling hollow all of a sudden. 

The man thought he could have told those people how their night would end, if they’d asked. And suddenly, he felt different – altered, somehow, now that he’d tasted both victory and defeat in one night. 

They spent the rest of the journey up to their unit in silence. Once at the door, the woman took the key out of her handbag and slid it into the keyhole, but no matter how hard she tried to turn it, the lock refused to budge. When she pulled it out again she saw that it was covered in rust, and remembered how much time they spent wrestling with the door earlier on their way out. The landlord had warned them as much. “It’s an old key, so it might take a while,” said the old man in the blue knitted sweater as he handed them the key with a knowing smile on his face. “You just need to be patient.” 

They had rented the room in haste, thinking they would be spending most of the night in the casino. Key in hand, they’d stepped into the apartment without even taking their shoes off and given the place a cursory scan before deciding to take it. And then all that was left to do was put their luggage down, lock the door, march down to the reception and pay for the night in full. 

Alas, the night was still young, and now they had no choice but to settle in and make do till morning came. They might have gone in expecting to lose all their money eventually, but they did not count on losing it so quickly. The defeat was so utterly swift and resounding that there was no recovering from it, forcing them to retreat to this shabby apartment where they must now wait out the night. 

The man did not mind losing; he had agreed to come along for the experience, and that was exactly what he got. He knew he was there mostly to keep the woman company, and in any case, he never really understood the appeal of gambling. The way he saw it, at his age, everything in life was a gamble; there was no point in driving all the way up a mountain for it. 

“Come with me. I’ll show you how it’s done, and we’ll win some money – just in time for the New Year,” the woman had said. The man thought he would probably end up with more money by saying no, but she wasn’t entirely wrong – taking risks could potentially yield greater gains. The woman, on the other hand, knew that the man tended to err on the side of caution when it came to money, so when they lost, she did not pressure him to keep playing and made straight for the exit as she’d promised. 

Yet the gambling did not stop there. Every moment they spent together was a risk taken, and the stakes were growing by the minute. The man believed no one could opt-out of the great game of chance that was life, and the more time he spent with the woman, the more certain he was of this idea. In the time he’d known her, she had proved to be someone who lived in the moment, a firm believer of the concrete and tangible. The subtle, moment-to-moment gamble in everyday life could not satiate her appetite for adventure, which was why she would come here every now and then, for the thrill of testing her luck against something real and solid – wheels, slots, and cards you could hold in your hands. 

Perhaps owing to the gloom cast upon them by their early defeat, they thought the apartment looked dingier than it had in the daylight. The wallpaper, for one, looked old and grubby – though it might have just been the poor lighting (it was hard to tell). The place was clearly in a state of severe disrepair, yet who cared? Most guests, like them, just wanted a place to spend the night. Plus, with the humidity levels up here, nothing could escape the dampness that permeated the air – not even a key. 

They found the floor littered with little bits and pieces of wood that clung to the bottom of their shoes, and the wall covered in a fine layer of green mold that was visible upon close inspection. When they went to check on the bathroom, they were greeted first by the sound of a steady dribble, which turned out to be from the toilet’s tank. It was leaking, the water dripping down the flush handle into a growing pool on the floor. 

The woman sat down alone in the living room. She then turned the TV on with the remote and started rummaging through several plastic bags and pulling out snacks and bottles of water. Like everyone else, they made sure to stock up in a petrol station at the foot of the mountain, so they would not have to resort to paying exorbitant prices for everything (another win for the house) once they got to the top. The man had quickly offered to pay when he saw the woman getting out of the car, rushing into the convenience store before she could say anything. Through the store window, he could see her pushing the nozzle into the side of the car. He made the payment, picked up a few more things, and just when he was about to leave, he saw her walking towards him, the window casting a sheen on her approaching silhouette, just like the moment he first laid eyes on her all those years ago, in that glossy picture. 

The woman’s past was not as mysterious as she’d thought it was – even an enigma such as her had classmates. Her secret past was a picture that had been hidden away, something only a select few knew about; it remembered her, even though she’d forgotten the people that were in it. She found it one day in an album of yellowed photos. She handed the album to the man, now her husband,  saying, “I think this might be where you said you first saw me years ago. They were taken when I was in college. There’s me and her – your ex.” And then she stood up and walked away, leaving him alone with those pictures.

He flipped through them, searching for the familiar faces until he found them in three group pictures arranged in a column. Heart-shaped face, rosy cheeks, and a beauty mark right under one of her cat-like eyes – the girl he used to know. Here, she was in the full bloom of her youth, radiating a beauty that would slowly wear away in the eight years she was with him, little by little, until eventually, he forgot that she was young once, too. The best years of her life were wasted on him, and it was a debt he could never repay. 

As for the woman – she had slender eyes and an oval face with a high forehead. She was tall, too, so she stood in the last row, as she always did in group pictures. More than a decade ago, these girls – who would become extremely significant presences in his life – went to the same college in the same city, and spent two months there before they were accepted into foundation courses in their own hometowns and later into different universities. Sometime after the woman left the country to study abroad, so did the girl, and eventually, the two fell out of touch. Neither of them knew they would meet the same man; life was funny like that. A mysterious game of chance of unimaginable scale, in which every one of us was a player whether we realised it or not. When the cards were revealed, at last, all the woman could do was marvel at the synchronicity of it all. “What a coincidence,” she said. “That we ended up falling for the same man.”

They came to him at midnight – answers to all the questions that had plagued him throughout the years. The woman, it seemed, was destined to fill the hole that the girl had left behind. Perhaps the girl too ended up sowing a seed that grew into a tree and stayed for it. At times, the universe might appear chaotic and impervious to reason, yet there was a certain logic in the way it worked when he thought about it. The wheel of life turned, and now they found themselves standing where the other once stood. He became “the other man,” and now that he’d been in her shoes, he found it easier to sympathise with her choice. But still, there were times where he would look at the woman that was now his wife and feel a sense of unease, as if he was looking at a stolen treasure. After all, didn’t he subject another man to the same pain by stealing his lover?

When midnight came, they were no longer a pair of gamblers but a man and a woman no different than any other couple in this world. Side by side they lay, like husband and wife, under the cover of the night. Somewhere in the shadows, the Puppet Master pulled His strings. In the years that followed, they would often look back to this moment and marvel at His work. The girl left, and now the woman had taken her place. Had there been any signs over the years, an invisible line that foreshadowed this passing of the torch? Just like in a children’s colouring book, the dots had been there all along, scattered in a seemingly random fashion, waiting to be joined so they might reveal the contours of truth. The man reached out in the darkness and, with some difficulty, found the hand that’d been waiting – two distant dots, connected at last. 

They had spent so much time trying to make sense of the coincidences, in hopes of a glimpse of the unfathomable force behind all this. Yet in that moment, as he lay in the dark, the man found himself willing to believe it all began with that picture once upon a time – a seed that had since grown into a tree.

“I can’t promise you ‘forever’ anymore, you know,” she said in the dark. “I’ve lost half my chips.” 

“Me too,” said the man. 

Their ‘forever’ had been cut short and broken into pieces both big and small; parts of themselves given to loves that were no more, and years – one or eight – that they would never get back. All they had to offer each other was the rest of their lives. If they each had sixty years to live, they would have been exactly halfway into that journey, like a piece of paper that had been folded in half, and everything on the other side of the line was now nothing but memories. A few more folds and it would be a paper airplane, poised for its one last brush against the blue sky. 

Their elders, who had so desperately wanted to see them get married, did not stay long enough to see the old chapter end and this one begin. Alas, they could not bring back the dead nor change the story they had taken with them to the grave. But perhaps it was for the best. This way, they would be able to truly begin their relationship on their own terms, free from the weight of expectations. The world was new, the page yet unwritten, and from a distance came the dove; it was her, the woman he now called his wife, and she landed next to his pillow, whispering glad news in his ears. “The Great Flood is now over,” she cooed. “It is safe to love again.”

A voice had woken the man. “Come on, stop sleeping,” it said, as he opened his eyes to find himself in the old, run-down serviced apartment and the woman standing alone by the floor-length window. She noticed him stirring and turned around, her face outlined against the silver morning light. The man watched as she turned her back to the rising sun and gave him a sheepish look, telling him to look outside the window. He was about to point out that no view was worth waking up at such an hour when he saw her pink jacket on his chest. His gaze fell on the woman, then on the view behind her, and a quiet calm washed over him. Behind her, dawn broke over a glimmering sea of mist that rolled gently over the dark green hills. 

The woman stood quietly as the man stared at her backlit silhouette in silence. Across the bed where he lay, a wooden wardrobe stood with its doors flung wide open, baring the three empty iron hangers in its heart. 

“I’ve seen you before,” said someone, placing a bet. “A long, long time ago, in a picture.”

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