My Short Stories

Fiction

Story by Lee Su Min

I can't possibly quarrel with him

A Neighbour from Beyond

It was not uncommon for couples to quarrel with each other soon after marriage or even immediately after the wedding ceremony.

I could hear my neighbours quarrelling again. It was the woman who was shouting, as always. I couldn’t hear the exact words but from the tone of the voice I knew that this time it was going to last for at least an hour.

The last time they quarrelled was last night, at about 8:00 p.m., just after dinner. Tonight it was now 8:37 p.m., a little later. Yes, they have been on schedule. Like the local drama it came on every night regularly after dinner. They were behind schedule tonight.

The voice was getting louder. I could only hear the woman scream. No sound from the man. The man never argued with his wife. I have seen Emily before. She was a petite woman. I meant she didn’t smile at you even when you came into contact with her face to face. Of course I did not attempt to greet her. We met only outside along the narrow lane that ran along all thirteen houses at this terrace housing estate.

At first tonight I thought it was the end and that they were not going to quarrel anymore. The man has walked out on the woman. I could hear the car zooming out from their compound next door.

Emily was rather pretty if you asked me. I wouldn’t mind having a girlfriend like her. But then when I thought of her loud voice in their quarrels my mind started to doubt. You never knew a woman until after she has opened her mouth. But, on the other hand, she might not quarrel with me if I were her husband instead. Yes, it must be her husband’s fault. I was partial to Emily.

I didn’t know her at all. I knew her to be Emily because the postman delivered one of her letters into my letterbox. It was marked:

Mrs Emily Lim 9 St Sauveur Terrace Singapore 286913

I hoped the SingPost man hasn’t delivered any of my letters into her letterbox instead, too.

I often wondered whether I should intervene in their quarrels. Maybe one of us should ring their doorbell and woke them up to the fact that the entire neighbourhood could hear them. And frankly in heated quarrels like that, people did get carried away to the point where they simply quarrel for the sake of quarrelling without a purposeful object. I wondered if they ever remembered what they have quarrelled over. And was it over the same subject every night?

I was very curious as to the topic of their quarrels. I wanted to know what exactly they were quarrelling about, as I would like to be their mediator, to judge if the man or the woman was right. Probably both of them were in the wrong. In the first place, husbands and wives should not enter into any protracted arguments.

Have they taken their marriage vows? But on the other hand, marriage vows only told you, “for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health,” the solemniser never told you that you must not argue with your spouse. I have been married before and I could still remember those lines.

I looked at my watch. It was 9:45 p.m. They have been at it for more than an hour. I thought someone must stop her ugly outbursts. So far tonight the man hasn’t said anything and I was very surprised at his remarkable control. She was usually the one who was shouting. I have often wondered how the demure looking Emily could muster such a loud voice. She must have been very angry.

I was a divorce lawyer so I knew from experience that this couple must be estranged. Maybe one of them was having an affair and the other one was confronting him or her about it. It was more likely for the man to be having an affair rather than the woman. I have observed that Emily seemed to be a housewife for she rarely went out. The car belonged to the man and it was out early in the morning and came back before I was back by 7:00 p.m.

I was living at the immediate neighbouring terrace house. The other adjoining house was vacant, so I was the one neighbour who heard what was going on.

Actually I liked Emily a lot. I looked forward to bumping into her in Chancery Supermarket just outside our estate. It was a small setup and only the daily essentials were on the shelves. I went there every Saturday afternoon at about 6:00 p.m., just after I have woken up from my nap. The store was usually less crowded at this time for by then most people had gone out for their weekend dinner.

The first time I chanced on Emily I didn’t know that she was my neighbour. She was wearing a loose dress like she was carrying a baby but at the same time you could see that her stomach was flat. Her hair was loosely tied up and it gave her a lazy and trendy look at the same time. She wore a pair of high heels, which gave the impression that going to the supermarket was not the only activity for that appearance. I noticed her at once.

On my way back from the supermarket I met her again by accident. I usually took the long and winding road by foot, as it was not too far a distance. It took less than forty-five minutes one way. And then just as I arrived at my street, I saw her standing at the gate opening the padlock. That was how I knew the woman was my neighbour – Emily.

The next day promptly at 8:00 p.m. again I heard a woman shouting from inside the house. It must be Emily the same woman. Fact that she has the keys to the house showed that she lived there, and unless she lived there, she won’t be shouting at the top of her voice. You didn’t go into a friend’s house and started shouting. My logical deduction told me that the woman I saw at the supermarket was Emily my neighbour at number 9.

Since I have seen her, something compelled me to move in, to check on them. Quickly I grabbed my own set of house keys and I went to her front gate. I pressed the bell. I told myself if she asked me why I was there I would simply tell her that I was told that my mail was wrongly delivered to her house.

I rang the doorbell. I stood patiently waiting outside. If they had been quarrelling, they would not hear my visit, or rather intrusion, and a friendly intrusion out of concern. I wished I had a watch with me at the time. I came out of the house on impulse and it was just to the neighbour so apart from the Esprit t-shirt and shorts that I was wearing I carried nothing with me. My handphone was also left in my own house.

I didn’t know how long I waited, but after about fifteen minutes there was no reaction. I could still hear the woman shouting, and it was even louder from just outside the gate. I rang the doorbell a second time, this time a little bit more insistent. Still there was no answer. But on that night at that particular point in time I felt I had to gain entry.

So, I waited for a little while longer and when on the third attempt there was no immediate response, I tried to open the gate manually. All our gates were sensor operated, which meant that you usually use a remote control to open it. But you could also pull it open manually. Surprisingly when I stretched my hand inside and felt the latch, there was no padlock, which meant that the gate wasn’t locked at all.

So, since there was no opposition I walked in with trepidation. I had entirely forgotten about the word “trespass.” Inside the lights were on. Standing at the garden I could not see any figure there. I expected them to be at the dining room. They must have been in the bedroom, probably with the door locked. But then the noise seemed like they were situated on the ground floor.

The bedroom was on the second floor. I knew because I was the neighbour. I lived in a house built to the same architectural design. By this time I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer. I knocked on the front door and at the same time without waiting for a response I attempted to open the door.

To my surprise the door opened at the turn of the doorknob. I peeped my head inside and I saw no one. By now I could see clearly that no one was downstairs where the lights were on. But someone must be inside the house. No one would have left his house unlocked and vacant at the same time unless he was inviting a thief. I was very sure that I was not a thief, so I became bolder. I was just a friendly neighbour trying to settle a dispute between two persons who were married and who shouldn’t be quarrelling.

As I was thinking I walked up the spiral staircase that led to the second floor where the bedroom was. Still there was no one. Two doors faced me as I reached this level. I knew exactly which was the door to the master bedroom. This door was left open. The other door was also ajar.

With firmness in thought and spirit I stepped in, I had not prepared my speech I had no idea what I wanted to say. All I knew was that I had a mission to accomplish. At that time, I haven’t thought about the fact that I might be perceived as a thief. In any case I felt that I was just an uninvited guest.

No one was inside. The bed was a double bed, and the sheets a dark green. It was actually kind of awful. Most people chose a lighter shade and possibly linen. Then just as I was about to step out, I heard a sob in the bathroom. It was unmistakably clear that someone was crying. At this time, I did not know whom it was, but I knew that I had to look inside and saw to the person who was in need of sympathy. I walked in. And there I saw a woman with long hair, her hair over her face as she was sobbing away.

“What happened?” I asked her.

“My husband left me,” she said.

“But that is no reason to cry like that! Just file for divorce and ask for money,” I said matter of fact.

I was mercenary. I was a divorce lawyer and I handled a lot of these cases.

“No, I don’t want a divorce, not now,” I had forgotten entirely about the image of the Emily I met earlier at the supermarket.

She looked different under the dim bathroom light, and frankly she was not the firm strong character that I thought I knew. I took a step back and I told her I would like to speak to her again. This time properly.

“Wash your face first. Can I talk to you downstairs?” I ordered her politely.

And then I walked out of the master bedroom. I waited for her downstairs in the dining room, but she never came down. Half an hour later I decided to leave the scene to go back to my own house, my mind still thinking of the sobbing woman.

 

And then I walked out of the master bedroom. I waited for her downstairs in the dining room, but she never came down. Half an hour later I decided to leave the scene to go back to my own house, my mind still thinking of the sobbing woman.

My curiosity have been aroused and I couldn’t put the woman out of my mind. The next morning, I woke up feeling sleepy and I lay in bed for a long time before I could recognize my own room. Last night I went to bed thinking of the sobbing Emily and I placed myself there. I had momentarily forgotten that I was not living there.

The furniture in her house was arranged very much in the same manner as mine since we were in the same set of terrace houses. I was wondering what time it was when I left the house. I got out of bed wanting to rush over there again. But I needed my coffee first. I couldn't function without a cup of coffee in the morning. I liked the aroma of the beans.

Half an hour later I found myself in number 9 again. I didn't go up to the bedroom straight away. I paused in the kitchen first. The kitchen was large, much like the one that I had, except that this one has the most beautiful fridge. Her fridge has a mirror as the door. When you stood in front of the fridge you could see your own reflection in the mirror. And her fridge was full of magnets.

I stared at the picture of Emily in a magnet frame stuck on side by side with Mona Lisa. It bore quite a resemblance. She had this unmistakable mystique in her smile. I was tempted to take the magnet of Emily’s picture and “steal” it, putting it inside my pocket. Then I remembered Emily again.

I could see that she has not woken up yet. The kettle has not been turned on and the coffee percolator was empty. I already had my coffee next door before I came. But something told me that she was at home upstairs. I knew that she was alone for her husband’s BMW was not in the garage.

In any case I was not afraid of meeting her husband. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, yet. The front door was left ajar, so it was like an invitation to treat. I haven’t taken anything from the house. Until I removed the picture magnet from her fridge door, I was not a thief.

Automatically I took the kettle to the basin and I filled up the water to the brim. I put the kettle back on the kitchen top and I pressed the little red button at the side of the handle. It would take time to boil. Immediately the kettle gave the sound of water churning inside. I had the option of waiting for the water to boil or to go up to see if she was actually in the house. Invariably my curiosity got the better of me and I left the kitchen to go upstairs.

No one was in the master bedroom. I walked past the wardrobe to the bathroom where I last found her. Nope. The bathroom was tidy. No one was inside. Then I decided to walk to the other parts of the house to see if she was inside the other rooms. The other room on the second-floor room was vacant. I took the winding steps to the third floor.

Two rooms faced me. I peeped into the larger room first then the other one. Neither was there a soul. By now I could safely conclude that no one was inside the house. Then why had the front door been left unlocked?

I was alone in this house now. I could have taken anything lying on the table away when I left this house. And no one would know about it. But I decided not to be a thief. It was not in my nature. I was a divorce lawyer and a reputable one at that. As a matter of fact, I was handling the divorce case between Timothy Chan Meng Chee and Suzie Wong Ai Wen. They were both celebrities and the case was been sensational. Perhaps that was why I was here. I sensed that the couple living in this house needed a separation, and I was about to be the catalyst in the breakup. But then how did I bring about an explosion?

Suddenly something clicked. I went to the bureau and I tore out a piece of paper from the notepad. A pen lay conveniently by the side in a holder made of porcelain. I used the pen and I wrote:

“Be back late, don’t wait for me for dinner.” Then I took the paper and went into the kitchen. The kitchen was usually the centre of activity in any house. I took the time to decide which magnet I wanted to use and I chose the one of Emily’s picture.

 

I didn’t want to be a thief. If I wanted Emily’s picture I would ask her for it. I stuck my handwritten note under the magnet onto the side of the fridge near the kettle. No one lived in a house without having to use a kettle. Boiled water was an essential part of living. The water I added into the kettle was boiled by then. The note on the fridge would catch Emily’s attention when she came for breakfast.

It was about 10:00 a.m., and I walked out of Emily’s house under bright sunlight, proud of the fact that nothing had been stolen from the house, so far. I went home, dressed and changed to go to the office. The day was hectic, and I almost forgot about my neighbour and their predicament. This morning I walked out of the house leaving it unlocked, in the same condition as when I had walked in. After all I did not have the keys to the house. I couldn’t have locked it up for them anyway.

When I went home after work that night, I dropped by the Chancery Supermarket to buy a carton of orange juice. There was no sign of Emily as I walked home. The metallic grey BMW was prominently parked at the garage as I was walking past her house to come home, the round blue and white insignia glaring at me. I wondered if my neighbour had seen my note. I peeped in to see if there was any sign of activity.

The lights in the dining room were on as well as the ones on the second floor. They could very well be having dinner together or they might not be having dinner together. But there was definitely no sign of impending quarrels.

I decided to leave them alone.

I have a habit of bringing work home. Tonight, I sat in the library, which was the room on the third-floor, and I was trying to compose an affidavit for Justice Thomas. I knew what kind of approach he would like, and I knew that he liked the profile of my client. So, I was of the strong opinion that I would win this case for Suzie Wong.

But as I was typing the quarrelling from next door distracted my mind. I could hear the door slamming several times and then later on the sound of the engine revving up before the car drove out of the estate. I knew that it was the BMW.

And then I remembered the note I left on the fridge. Did she assume that it came from her husband and asked him about it? If I said he wasn’t coming home for dinner tonight, why would he be back? I wanted to walk into the house again to survey the situation. I still remembered that she was crying in the bathroom two nights ago.

I didn't know what compelled me, but I walked in again. This time the house looked as though it has been through a hurricane. Books were thrown all over the floor. But thank God the kitchen magnets were still intact. I could see the note I left behind. But beside it there is another:

“I know that you are gone, I will meet you at the 101st Floor for Saints.”

The 101st Floor for Saints was the most expensive restaurant in town. It was right on top of the King’s Cross Building and the tables were arranged at the edge of the balcony so that you got the feeling as though you were sitting at the tip of the cliff dropping 300 meters to the seashore. The only danger was that the lights were dim and you have to be very careful where you were walking. But the decor was laid out in such a manner that you have no chance to walk out of the 101st floor unless you climbed over the tables.

I knew by now that I have unwittingly entered into the lives of Mr and Mrs Lim, but I was not so sure I would want to pull myself out at this stage. I had not formally met Mr Lim. From what I knew, until now, he seemed an absent husband more than anything else. All the while I was hoping to catch a glimpse of him but of that I was unsuccessful. Emily it was the woman I had seen at the supermarket and that night in the bathroom.

At this point I still had the option of turning away and walking out. But I was too intrigued and perhaps too weak to walk away from this house now. I went upstairs to the bathroom again. The bathroom was messy. An eye shadow was left open, with the rouge by its side. The basin was full of traces of foundation, as though she had spilled a bottle of toner on it.

There was still a lingering smell of the perfume that she wore before she left. I took my time inside, wondering if I should clean up the mess. Then I knew what I had to do. I walked out of the bathroom and I went back into the kitchen downstairs again.

I went to the fridge and there I saw the note:

“I know how to jump like a cat.”

I knew I didn’t make that note. This was not my own handwriting. Of course I could recognize my own handwriting. It belonged either to Mr Lim or Emily – I assumed they were legally married. And then I went to the bureau again and found the notepad. This time I noticed that on top of the bureau were a few pictures of a man and a woman together but they were very old photographs.

One of the drawers of the bureau was left open as though no one bothered to close it back. I used the same pen and I wrote on another piece of paper:

“Do you want a divorce?”

Then I grabbed it and I stuck it on the fridge, again using the magnet with her picture on it.

I knew that the couple had begun to correspond via the notes on the fridge by now. And then I walked out of the house, enjoying the cool mint air.

It took only three steps to walk back into my own house. I took out a cigar from my drawer in the living room, originally meant for my guests. I wrapped up the leaves carefully then and I puffed out the smoke before I actually inhaled it. I was certain that Lim would see my note when he came back this evening.

I thought by now I have created a sufficient rift between the couple and I knew the next thing that I must do. Tomorrow before I went to work I would drop off one of my name cards in their letterbox as I passed by their house on the way to work. And then I would wait for the phone call. I didn’t know the Lim’s number so I must pick up any call that came in. I checked that my phone was not on silent.

I was prepared to act for either the husband or the wife. But I was just wondering who would initiate the divorce proceedings. In this case, the grounds for divorce were not totally clear. I ran the list down quickly in my mind. Adultery, desertion, insanity …. I supposed they would have to wait for a three-year separation.

For this I would have to interview either one of them personally myself. Once that happened I would be privy to their lives and the conversations that went on every night. I couldn’t wait to go home during the day, and I did all of my tasks in a haphazard manner. No calls came in.

The gate to my house was usually locked. I did not drive so the front porch was bare. I didn’t have green fingers but I tried to keep a few plants in the garden so that my house did not look too different from those of my neighbours. Mrs Han who lived opposite had her garage filled with palms and azaleas. I was told that she worked at Sentosa Island and came back only in the weekends.

This morning I did not padlock the gate as I was waiting for the gardeners to come in to attend to my little patch of garden. They came in once a fortnight and usually on a Sunday when I was in.

It was a sunny day. And the air was humid and dry. The temperature was a 32 degrees celsius and it put people in a bad mood. I offered Ah Hock the gardener a drink and he came in to sit down for a short while.

“Do you want me to help you get the contract for the neighbours as well?”

It occurred to me that since Ah Hock was doing the work for my patch of lawn, he might want to do the neighbouring lawns at the same time.

“You mean number 9?” He sounded quite surprised. I caught his expression so I was wondering if he knew them already.

“You know Mrs Lim?” I asked.

“Err, as a matter of fact, yes,” he replied.

“I know her too,” I affirmed.

I wanted to ask him if he ever saw the husband and wife together but before I mentioned her husband, Ah Hock said,

“Do you know that she is a widower from KL?” he continued,

“apparently her husband died three years ago in a fishing trip in Penang …… his boat never returned.”

“Ohh?” My mind went blank.

I thought she had a man inside her house?! Don’t tell me she was the one driving the car all this while. Come to think of it, I never saw her husband whom I assumed to be Mr Lim. I always heard the car being driven out of the garage but I never saw the driver.

“Recently she has begun to say that he is back,” Ah Hock continued.

“What do you mean he is back?” I thought he just said that Mr Lim was dead, that was the whole point of the conversation.

“No, I mean …. ”

“What?!” I was getting very perturbed and agitated now, and I was inside the story as one of the characters.

If he were indeed dead, then who was writing all these notes to me on the fridge?

“No, she has been saying that his spirit is back, and that he is in communication with her now,” Ah Hock carried on, oblivious to the look of horror on my face.

The notes!

I must retrieve my notes on the fridge!

What if someone else has seen them? Has she passed it to other people? Who else has seen them apart from Emily herself? It was not meant for other people. The notes were meant for the occupants of the house, specifically she. I was pretending to be Mr Lim writing on his behalf. Gosh! So I had become her late husband. Since when?

To correct this misunderstanding I must act at once. Immediately I walked away from the gardener straight to number 9. I opened the gate, which had the padlock on hanging open. The ease with which I opened the gate and the fact that I did it without attempting to ring the bell beforehand made it all quite implausible.

I knew that Ah Hock must be watching me. But I wanted to take my notes back. I must. I could not be seen as a late person. I was quite superstitious. Some terrible misunderstanding had taken place and I must correct it at once.

I went straight to the kitchen where the same beautiful fridge stood in front of me. This time it didn’t look so beautiful to me. All the magnets were still in place. They look just the same and surprisingly they were still in the same order of arrangement as I last saw it. By now I knew that the orange was placed on top of the night scene of Paris and the handbag was on the left of the frog. I was amazed at the number of magnets she had on the fridge and the designs were all so unique.

I remembered where I put the note where I wrote the words: “Do you want a divorce?”

I knew that if Emily had seen the note and did not intend to go to King’s Cross Building she would have written another note and placed it by the side on the fridge. The fact that my note was still in there meant that there was hope. But she was not at home now.

How did I prevent her from attending our meeting if she had already seen the note? How could I have been so careless as not to see that the poor woman had a death wish when she said that she knew how to jump like a cat? Oh God, how could I ask her to divorce her husband? Was she going to kill herself? If she jumped down from the 101st floor of King’s Cross Building it would be my doing and my doing alone. How I wished I had not been talking to her like this.

But I supposed no one could accuse me of any criminal wrong doing. There was no criminal intent in the first place. If she leaped from the 101st floor and died the verdict would be recorded as suicide and that was all. I didn’t push her over and I certainly would not do so. In order not to incriminate myself I must avoid the King’s Cross Building at all costs until tonight well after the restaurant on the 101st floor has closed business for the day.

And I must pick an alibi immediately. Right, Ah Hock would be the right person. I quickly walked out of number 9, and I went back to Ah Hock continuing to chat with him about the weather and how the recent spike of dry spell has been damaging to our plants.

Ah Hock has finished with my lawn and he was still waiting. I knew that he was waiting for me to pay him. In order to detain him I decided to tell him that I had no cash with me and I asked him to follow me to the nearest ATM for me to withdraw cash. And then I wanted to go to an ATM where next to it I could sit down and have a cup of tea with refill all day. I would sit in a public place until nightfall.

Once I paid Ah Hock he left me to go to another job. I sat in a twenty-four hour café and made sure that I kept the receipt, which I paid by credit card. I took a taxi home and I also kept the receipt. By this hour any diner would have ended, no matter how protracted it might be. I made sure that the taxi stopped right in front of number 11 my own house.

As I tried to open the gate I realized that this morning I had forgotten to lock it when I was distracted having left the house with Ah Hock. I had also forgotten to lock the front door. But no harm was done. Nothing was amiss. Every piece of furniture was in place. In any case I never left any cash at home.

I was a little thirsty so I went to the fridge to try and get some water. Ice water was always a better thirst quencher. Then I noticed a magnet stuck on the door; it has a picture of Emily. And beside it was written the words:

“A sum of twenty thousand dollars has been found missing in my drawer. Ah Hock is a witness to your house breaking by day this morning.”

And all along I thought I was a clever lawyer.

Hope you enjoyed the story you've just read. I wish to write more stories to amuse my readers!