I am here at the Golden Future Clinic, in the Golden Future Mall, in the rainy city of Singapore. My mother is with me, she brought me here because of my fainting spells. I don’t know why I faint, nor does my mother, or father, or any of my teachers at the high school I attend or did attend or sometimes pretend to attend. And when I do? I faint. Perhaps it is because the classes are so difficult, particularly The Theory of Knowledge which Mr. Park teaches. If knowledge is a theory then it cannot be knowledge. Knowledge is not a theory; it is knowledge, of which I have none.
I do not know why I am such a ‘donkey’ as my father calls me. “I pay good money for you to go to that school and you do not attend. Do you think I can afford to waste my money on a donkey?”
My father manages a branch of Cold Freezer, the largest grocery chain in Singapore. All the Westerners shop there. The chain appeals to them because it favours their merchandise, their canned and conglomerate-packed boxes, apart from things like avocados and red grapefruit and big bananas. I have always preferred the smaller bananas, the sweet ones.
Father is very proud of Cold Freezer. “I built this branch from nothing,” he likes to say. To be honest, he inherited the position from his father and gradually, by shifty dealings, expanded the business. I don’t mean to say my father is a criminal, only that he is not totally honest. That is, he overcharges for certain ‘luxury’ items, sells fruit past its prime and indulges in other transactions that could be termed, ‘dubious’. My father has been called to the school many times about me.
“Your daughter is failing,” Mr. Parks tells him in his melodramatic voice. “She does not turn in her assignments.”
Of course, I do not turn in my assignments because I never remember having any. Even if I do remember, it is for a short while, and then I forget. It’s like a great pressure, that comes upon me, a black spell of sorts. I lose vision and feel myself falling. Before I know it, I am suddenly gone into that dark abyss they call fainting, from which I hope never to awake. I would like to be unconscious, permanently, so I never have to attend school again or see Mr. Parks and his Theory of Useless Knowledge or Mrs. Pearl with her un-pearly teeth.
“Do not resuscitate,” I tell my father.
He grows angry, his black eyes bulge. “Do not say such a thing.” He raises a hand to slap me. But I escape to my room and hide in the closet, my secret place. It smells of my older sister, Sara, who used to live here with her perfumed lingerie and expensive shoes but left us to practice law. She is very smart and lives in a huge apartment with a swimming pool overlooking the city. If I was as smart as Sara, all my troubles would disappear.
“Stay in the closet,” Father yells. “Maybe Sara’s smarts will rub off on you.”
My mother, God bless her, is bent to Father’s will. A simple look from him and she would disappear. She told me one day, that she had been beautiful, had many admirers, but chose my father because he seemed a man of substance whom she could depend on. Her own father had been undependable, taken to drinking and womanizing. She wanted a good man, a religious man, a devout husband. All the things my father is definitely not, although she thought he was at the time. My father never sets foot inside a church even when my mother begs him to, “You should set an example for your daughter,” she repeats.
“I have to work,” he grunts. “I cannot sit about in a pew and wait for my business to improve, for some miracle to occur.”
It is true that the economy is stressed in Singapore, as in the rest of the world. “When something goes up, it must come down,” Father grumbles as he reads the stock market reports.
A year ago he was very happy with the stock reports. He would slap the newspaper against his thigh and shout at Mother to bring his Ceylon tea with double sugar to celebrate the sunny events. But now the newspaper falls from his lap, his head rolls to one side and he dozes, almost as if he, too, had fainted. Mother brings his tea and sets it by his side as silently as a phantom.
“Cold Freezer is defrosting,” Father mumbles when he wakes. “We must close some shops, sack some workers.” He stirs his tea so rapidly it spills into the saucer. “We will close that shop in the Golden Future Mall first. The clientele is mostly working class. The profit margin is too low.” He slurps some tea. “I am hoping that once relations between the U.S. and China have restored to some amount of normalcy and the tariffs lifted, then Cold Freezer will be the pride of Singapore, once again.”
With that my father falls back to sleep. It’s as if he’s been addressing the Parliament rather than the Donkey and her mother. So we leave him to attend church and pray that my father will relent some day and bend to the will of the Almighty and join us. The Almighty occupies a vast space inside my head. But then again, it is impossible to imagine the Almighty in entirety. Who came up with such an idea? Such a dream, that anyone or anything can be so mighty as to be almighty? But I am confusing myself again, going round and round like the donkey my father calls me. I wonder how I can escape this circle of ambiguity, these crazy questions that I have?
The masked nurse beckons for us. Mother shakes the elbow I have been leaning on during the hour we had to wait to see Doctor Kim. There are many, expensive private hospitals here, but since the downturn my father sends me to the public clinic. This one has sterile white walls with little photos arranged, almost as if by prescription. It is only open in the mornings, so Mother hustles me here on the days I am too ill to attend school.
She knocks on the thin, wooden door that is the narrow entrance to Doctor Kim’s office. He is as thin as his door, with spectacles half way down his nose. His teeth are crooked when he smiles. Maybe that’s why he seldom does. “So why are you here?” he asks with one of his infrequent smiles. I don’t know how to answer. And yes, indeed, I am ashamed to answer so I hang my head and pretend to examine my sandals.
“She fainted again,” Mother tells him. “She has not gone to school, is behind in her studies, and will fail the term. My husband threatens to take her out of school and send her to a hospital somewhere until she recovers.”
Doctor Kim checks my heart, thumps my back, and examines my tongue. “You are in good health, Theresa. Would you like to try attending school, perhaps for a short while every day? Maybe it is too long a day and that’s why you faint.”
Doctor Kim is a kind, gentle and sweet person, and quite homely in appearance too. He makes no attempt to look like a movie star. His shirt is rumpled, his pants too big for his slim hips.. His warmth radiates like the sun that occasionally shines in Singapore. I wish he was my father, I knew I would never faint, never need to retreat into the black distance. I would bask in his tenderness and flourish like the tropics that once covered this island. Before the jungle of concrete choked us.
As we left the clinic, I promised myself that I will return to school. I will study hard. Then I will visit the hidden park near Golden Future Mall. I will rest in the shade of a banana tree, listen to the monkeys playing in the branches and imagine a golden future.
When we got home Father was waiting for us. He waved my report card in front of me. “She has failed her exams,” he yells at my mother. “She has failed again, and again. I have called the hospital. They have a place for her. She will stay there until this brain of hers improves, has some sense knocked into it.”
“You have done what?” Mother whispers. Her face is pale and her hands tremble.
“You heard me.” Father’s face is red. In his fury he has knocked over his tea. It dribbles on Mother’s polished wood floor. She bends to clean it with some paper napkins.
I hadn’t said a word at all. I run to my room and hide in the closet, locking the door. I press Sara’s lingerie against my nose. I tie her nightgown around my throat and attach it to the hanging rod above me. I will not be here when they come.
Elaine Barnard’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals. Her collection of fiction from her travels in Asia, The Emperor of Nuts: Intersections Across Cultures was recently published by New Meridian Arts and noted as a unique book on the Snowflakes in a Blizzard website. Last year she won the first place in Strands International Flash Fiction competition.