A Dance Of Moths
A Dance Of Moths
Published in 1995 by Select Books, Singapore
In his third novel, Goh Poh Seng explores the complex lives and human relationships of two men in modern Singapore.
Ong Kian Teck, an advertising executive, epitomizes the successful Singaporean. Yet as his daily life enfolds, we see a man intensely searching, Kafka-like, for something, but not quite knowing what. In his quest, Kian Teck experiments with liquor, sex, the stock market – all the trappings of materialism.
The other protagonist, Chan Kok Leng, an accounts clerk, strives to free himself from the drudgery of his job and the pain of living with his struggling family.
As the two men search for the “light” that would illuminate their lives, their paths cross like the moths which flutter toward the bright flame.
A Dance of Moths won the 1996 National Book Development Council Award for Fiction. It has been used as text by Capilano College in British Columbia.
❧ EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER * ❧
HE ROSE UP slightly in the bed, supporting himself on one elbow, and stretched out the other hand (like the beggar he really was) for the handy glass of water. Ah water! Water! How he needed water. To dilute the alcohol. Last night’s drunkenness was still in his bloodstream, which danced and flickered, the crowded corpuscles like tiny hooked fish flashing in the tide, jostling against the vessels’ walls, particularly in those that delved deep inside his head. It was all too much, and he let his head fall, leaf-light, on the snow-white pillow, feather-puffed soft.
The drawn curtains hung stiffly in two solid columns one on each side of the wide window; the air in the room, dead. And the brightness served to accentuate the barrenness within. All was foreign — the roomful of air, the assorted pieces of furniture, and time; all somewhat defunct, having lost their identities.
They seemed to be waiting for someone to claim ownership. Yet Kian Teck doubted whether their identities could ever be restored. For he himself no longer had any rights. He had lost his authority, he guessed, maybe forever. He had no illusions about this. There they lay, like vessels to be filled, for life and buoyancy (the very stuff of which identity is composed) would come only when someone poured in a measure of grace, a touch of love, an act of kindness. Yes, loving kindness. The grace of loving kindness. That was what was needed. That was what he could not give.
Lack of authority brought about inertia, so he simply lounged in his bed, waiting (like the air in the room, the furniture and the hours) for something to happen.
He heard the door click open and saw Li Lian coming in. He watched her walk across the room towards the bathroom, tense, as if trailing electrical static behind her, sparking the air. It made him nervous.
It had been many weeks now since they had really talked to each other. In fact, not since his illicit tryst with Jay at Sedili. Illicit? Now that was a strange word. And adultery. As if marriage was still sacred! Which, of course, it was not. Just old-fashioned, Christianized, westernized shit! Foreign notions.
And yet, Kian Teck could not help feeling guilty about his deception — for simply, that was what it was — and his transgression of, not so much the rules, but the living spirit, of marriage. (Sometimes he wondered how old Peter could breeze through it all!) And he had discovered that deception was not fool proof.
His wife knew. No one had told her, he was certain of that.
They never spoke about it, never discussed it. But a silence had fallen between them, a void they could not close. On his part, he knew it could not be filled with lies, and he did not tell any. On her part, she did not recriminate, did not pick an open quarrel, but went about with a vigilant air, and sealed herself in. She carefully guarded her private world from him, so that, recently (as if by poetic justice), it was his wife’s silence that Kian Teck found unnerving, as she busied herself with the children, or went about doing her household chores, with muted accents, behind closed doors. It intimidated him to such an extent that without consciously thinking about it, he made himself as unobtrusive as possible. Small as a mouse in the house.
So there existed a constant tension between them as they gave each other quick, stealthy glances, taking care to avoid looking directly into each other’s eyes. They became quite adept at this. And when they had to speak to each other, they restricted themselves to topics which did not break, but preserved, this distance between them, their selective vocabulary merely empty echoes in the void. The worst was when night was upon them, when they would lie next to each other in the same bed, but so cold and apart (clamped in their shells) that they might just as well have been a continent apart. They had discontinued love-making. It was (paradoxically) one of those unspoken but intuitive agreements that only two people who shared a long relationship could reach. So he would lie next to her, and feel her growing colder and harder with each passing night, like the process of scarring (tissues hardening as the wound closes), and he had not found a way to salve this wound, of which he was the cause, this great hole of hers that he could fall into and get lost in. There were some nights when he had desired, but dared not touch her, thus losing the opportunity which only their bodies, their flesh, could grant them if they had acted – the boon of forgiveness.
He had grown insomniac, restless most nights, and more and more, he took to drinking to prepare for the nightly ordeal. He was now drinking with a compulsion, driven by his apprehension of their silent, chaste bed. There were nights when he got up in the late hours and went out to raid the drinks cabinet in the dining room. Avid gulps of brandy straight from the neck of the bottle.
Early one evening, when Kian Teck had taken his children to play in the Kampong Java Park, he had strolled (lapsed jogger he) near the rim of the pond. It was a clear, still evening and the pond was a smooth mirror that reflected without distortion the sky, the rolling white clouds, the old, tall tembusu trees growing on the bank. He saw the lovely pink brow of twilight inclining over the water. Truly, a mirror. He leant over, trying to peer at the fertile depths of the pond, and at those hidden things, fishes, weeds, beneath the surface, with their unseen, deep (suspicion of) sleep. But his attention was distracted by several insects, long-legged, which skimmed across the surface of the water, like ice skaters. They moved smoothly, swiftly, criss-crossing the pond and setting tiny, trailing waves in motion, lines rather than waves, so fine, in their nameless dance, darting here and there, but never touching, or meeting at all, their movements never in unison. Watching them, he thought how he and his wife had become like these water insects, moving independently of each other, skimming on the surface of each other’s lives, and never meeting any more (two balloon worlds receding). Thus he interpreted the meaning of the long-legged water insects (suddenly recalling an apt line of Yeats’s … “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/ His mind moves upon silence.”)
He watched them, waiting for them (a wish, somewhere?) to sink down into the depths of the water, claimed by preying fish, but they just continued moving blithely across the surface, oblivious of any danger. Finally he turned away from the pond, despondent.
Li Lian came out of the bathroom and he glanced sideways at her, at her stride, which, though small, flowed strongly and brightly. She was wearing a yellow T-shirt and a pair of beige jeans. Bright as a flower.
“Are we going to the beach today?” he asked, before she could leave the room.
“No. I’m taking the kids to Mother’s.”
“They don’t want to go to the beach?”
‘We’d planned to go to Mother’s earlier in the week.” Her demeanour, he detected, meant it was final, but she said, to soften, “I can’t let Mother down. She’s not been too well.”
“Is it something serious?”
“It’s her back. Her rheumatism. It’s getting bad.”
“So it’s only her back?”
“Yes, but 1 must get the boys ready now.”
Even on the subject of her mother’s health, it seemed Li Lian would not be drawn out. Not that Kian Teck was truly concerned about his mother-in-law.
But she really was OK, a harmless, mild-mannered old bird. Never made any demands on them. She lived quietly with Li Lian’s spinster elder sister in a large, ramshackle pre-War bungalow on East Coast Road, just beyond the old Marine Parade. The house once faced the sea, which had been reclaimed during the past couple of years, and high-rise HDB apartments, built by the Government, had sprung up on the reclaimed, flat land. It was an old, wooden bungalow, one-storeyed, but raised a few feet on concrete stilts, in the fashion of the seaside bungalows of those bygone days when life was more sumptuous and gracious. Now widowed, the old lady had taken in four or five lodgers. Old bachelors, as if to go with the large, antique pieces of furniture, so strongly built and of such fine hardwood that they had withstood the years, the white ants, and the generations of children. The large garden was full of old fruit trees, rambutans, mangoes, chicku and chempedak; they shed a perpetual miasma of over-ripe and rotting fruit into the warm air, which lingered in one’s nostrils. The children loved the place, loved running about the large grounds, playing amongst the trees, munching the air swollen with the scent of ripened fruit in the warm and brooding glow of the afternoons. They also loved to roam through the big rooms of the house – some of which had not been used for years – with their stale, musty air, and cobwebs in the corners of the high ceilings, and the broken furniture, hunting for, or being hunted by, ghosts. Grandma never scolded, even when they made a racket, but sat in her rattan armchair and smiled gently, her face white with the “cooling” bedak sejuk rice powder, serving everybody Nonya kuehs and tea from the silver tea set at four o’clock. Yes, Grandma was a nice old lady, in her sarong kebaya, and with the long gold chucok-sanggul hairpins in her grey-chignoned hair.
So Li Lian and Kian Teck used to take the kids to visit their Grandma, usually on Saturday afternoons. But this was a Sunday, their own day, and yet Li Lian was taking them to Grandma’s. It wasn’t stated in so many words, but he was not invited to accompany them (big, bad Daddy that he was). He was being left alone, abandoned on a Sunday.
Soon after his family had left, Kian Teck (who was attentive to the minutest sounds of their going) got out of bed. He went from the bedroom, across the living room, into the kitchen and got himself a glass of cold water from the fridge. He threw back his head and drank it all down in one go (he had to hurry, now that there was no need at all to do that!) Then he walked about the empty flat, like a vagrant wind, blowing from room to room, sweeping in and out and about without aim. Outside, the day lay in wait, hard and bright, that suddenly excessive day, with its stretch of superfluous hours. He winced from the glare and found that he had no will, no aspiration, to go out. What was there to aspire to anyway? Only somehow to contrive to while the excess day away. That was all.
So be it! He decided to have a wash. Get ready.
Be prepared. Etcetera. In the bathroom, he filled up the washbasin with water and submerged his face in it. Then he saw his face in the mirror, dripping wet, his eyes with their tangles of angry blood vessels. God, I’m getting careless with myself, he thought. God, this degeneration of the body, this green liver of mine! Green liver? It’s probably purple by now. He could taste disgust on his soiled and furry tongue. Must look after yourself, man, however imperfectly you do it. Otherwise …
The question was left unresolved that Sunday.
Yes, Sunday. And then, Monday, and then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and back again to Sunday. They’d just keep recurring, these days of the week, like thirst, like hunger, like sleepiness, like the urge to piss and shit, like lust, like the urge to fuck. What is life but a cycle of these urges and habits?
Sunday. And yet, one day is, and should be, indistinguishable from another. Sunday. There was really nothing that made the day a Sunday. The day itself did not give any clue. It was only man-imposed. Why? What for? It was unnatural. Animals, for instance, don’t distinguish a Sunday from a Monday. They do not care, nor ask, for one day to be different from another. At least, they wouldn’t ask! Man, the only asking creature in the world! Yes! Ask! Ask! Ask! Arse! Arse! Arse! Ach! Ach! Ach! and — cocking his right fore finger like a gun and aiming it at the side of his head — Ack!Ack!Ack!Ack! he drilled it full of imaginary holes.
The following evening was grey and threatening, a sky of iron, thronged with clouds through which a feeble light filtered. There was only a vague opalescence showing where the sun should be setting.
Kok Leong was walking home from his bus stop, but then, for some reason, he deviated, maybe blown off course by the strong wind, into the Toa Payoh Sports Complex. It was almost deserted at that hour. He sat on a bench facing the black, bitumen-covered running track, lost in thought. Above him, the swollen rain clouds tossed and churned in turmoil, in disequilibrium, in tune with his mind. And there were the birds, tiny black swallows, questing, in aerial free play, as though turbulence was their element. The sight of the birds made Kok Leong feel restless, and perhaps it was this, or some other strange, mysterious compulsion, which prompted him into action. He was suddenly seized by an urge to run.
He took off his black leather shoes, placed them with his socks under the stone bench, then rose to his feet and began to run.
This activity was so unorthodox to him, he would have faltered had he paused to contemplate it, but was sufficiently self possessed to leave off rationalising, just giving in instead to this mysterious compulsion.
So he ran on, and soon had gone about half a turn round the track; then the effort began to show. He found his formal clothes constricting, hindering a fluency which, he felt, was almost realisable. Yet something spurred him on, and he ran headlong, and soon there was less resistance, and greater ease and freedom. He was in solo flight!
It was heady for one who had never soared before, and he rushed and entered the space of air before him as if he were plunging into an ocean, the misty air giving way, parting its sinews of wind. He went on and on, tearing through the dense air. After a time, he felt all ambiguousness, all uncertainty dissolving away. It was an intense sensation of being.
After doing one round, he thought: “Great!” and proceeded to set himself a target. It was completely arbitrary, but once formulated, became an imperative, an unshirkable quest. “Eight rounds! I must complete eight rounds! I must strive to do more than the other joggers. Nothing less!” He jutted out his chin, and set off again; indeed, Kok Leong was ready to run on to the stars.
But by the third round he was tired, and his legs began to hurt, his breath escaping in audible gasps. Still, he felt in good accord with life, with the world. When he had completed his fourth round, the sullen sky trembled, shaking off a fine rain which fell, without direction, blown hither and thither by the wind. The external world was soon blurred, lost in a grey amorphousness in which Kok Leong was marooned. With the rain, the sense of a contracting universe increased until only the hammering in his chest was left. A doubt began to grow. Four more rounds!
But he must dispel this doubt, at any cost, or else victory would forever be outside his experience. He ran on, driving himself, and pain anointed him with a certain innocence, lent him courage.
He laboured on until the sixth round, when his pain could not be ignored, nor, it seemed, endured. There was a vise in his chest, his muscles were tearing, his bones groaning. It was difficult to coordinate his limbs, his sinews, they quivered so much, he had so little control over them. But Kok Leong forced himself to be firm, determined to scale this great and terrible mountain, and drove himself as if more than his life depended on it.
“I will, I must endure! it is my only purpose!”
The rain grew more intense, lashing at him now, and he teetered, clawing the air before him for purchase. There was nothing to sustain him now except a weakening will, when it had been his will that he had wanted to strengthen at the initiation of this mission. Now there was nothing left to summon up, but still he went on, his bared teeth sinking into the bitter air. The track before him seemed to be interminable.
One more round to go!
“If I should fall, it would absolve me from this terrible task. Oh, let me fall!”
But he did not fall, and he went on running, transformed, as if his mind were gone. His breath was coming in desperate grunts, but an exquisite sense of ordeal, and of victory, accumulated, and miraculously he finished his course, his head and chest exploding.
LATER, reeling and drunken in the rain, Kok Leong laughed. The next time he saw Emily, there would be no carefulness, no inconspicuous tactfulness. The next time, he would not be put off.