Story by Lee Su Min
This is not My Brown Bag
I was told that when a person was angry, you should stay away from her for as long as possible and not talk to her until sufficient time was given for her to cool down. And I did just that.
So, the day when I started quarrelling with Sarah, I walked out of the house and went to the Harrods Bar for a drink. Harrods Bar was part of the Sir Raffles Hotel. I saw no point in protracting the arguments. I chose a seat at the bar and ordered myself a hot chocolate and a scoop of ice cream. And then I noticed a woman sitting at a corner table.
She was holding a cigarette in her hand and puffing away, her eyes deep in thought. It occurred to me that I might want to go up to her and strike up a conversation, for she seemed to be alone. After all, I was in a very foul mood. Instead of continuing to replay the conversations with Sarah in my mind and making myself angrier, I decided that I should distract myself in some other way.
I was only wearing a black polo shirt and a pair of jeans at the time, suitable attire for a hotel lounge setting, but perhaps not for picking up a woman. So, I hesitated, just at that time a man went up to her and sat down by her side. From the way she received him, I could tell that they were very well acquainted. I did not know what they were talking about, but they did not appear to me to be intimate enough to be lovers. After a while the man ordered a drink from the waiter.
I sat in silence, unsure of what I should do. In my mind I was wondering if I should continue to stay on and watch them. From what I saw, they didn’t seem like an ordinary couple. The man wore a black leather jacket with zippers that were purely cosmetic. Under ordinary circumstances I would have left them alone, as I was not in the habit of spying on other patrons. But tonight, I was in a very grouchy mood. I really needed an outlet. So, I continued watching them, and then I saw a brown bag lying by the side on the sofa seat.
I decided to order myself another hot chocolate. At the same time, I tried to listen to the piped-in music. It was some Italian song. My mind swayed with the tune and I was relaxed for a while. I noticed that the two were talking all the time.
The woman was facing me, and I could see that she was quite agitated. At one point she screwed up her face and used her hands to cover it up, altogether quite exasperated. I could see that they were engrossed in a topic, both having a common interest. The man looked well-seasoned and was drinking one beer after another. He took off his leather jacket and left it on the sofa next to the brown bag.
The lady seemed rather street smart. She kept long hair, and as she talked she swept it behind her ears every now and then. Her clothes were not too fashionable; it was just a shirt blouse. I could not see the rest of her attire. But she was wearing this long string of pearls, and they were quite a distraction. The pearls were very large.
I sat in semi-darkness in the dimly lit lounge, watching the two of them. I knew that they were unaware of my presence. I was anonymous. I had my handphone with me, and every now and then I was checking in to see if Sarah texted me to patch up. The last I heard from Sarah was “I don’t want you to interfere with my life,” which was quite unreasonable.
Sarah and I had been married for more than ten years. And if I were not supposed to tell her what to do, then who was to give her any advice? The quarrel arose out of the fact that she wanted to move to another foreign mission. Sarah was working with the Korean Embassy and she wanted to apply for a job at the U.S. Embassy. I told her it was unwise. Then she said that she had already contacted one of their staff in the U.S. Embassy and negotiations were underway. Maybe she found it hard to turn down the offer. She seemed to suggest that they head hunted her.
I was very upset. This was not the first time she wanted to do things her own way. Often, she made up her mind before consulting me, which made the whole exercise quite redundant. We were not wealthy, but not short of money. Sometimes I would try my hand at the toto lottery, when after I had made umpteen unsuccessful attempts at the Singapore Sweep.
I put some of my money from the CPF in the stock exchange. The moment I found that the shares were going up but before I had realized my gain, the price of the holdings went down. So, it had been a frustrating affair for me. I couldn’t think of any other way to earn more income. Nonetheless, I have not resorted to cheating. I still believed in hard work with a little bit of luck.
I was disappointed that Sarah did not call me as time went by. I logged into The Straits Times App and the Channel News Asia App to read the latest news to see if there was anything concerning the U.S. to support my argument that Sarah should not join them now. I wanted to score points with her.
Then when I looked up, I saw that the two were gone. The beer mug was still on the table with the bottle by the side. The napkins were crumbled at one side on the seat where the man sat, and the brown bag was still there on the sofa seat, but the jacket was gone. This meant that the occupants intended to return. I was angry with myself for having lost track of them, and I decided to wait for them to come back to the table before I called it a day.
Fifteen minutes went by and there was still no sign of them. I waited patiently. My hot chocolate was almost finished, and I contemplated ordering another one. But I couldn’t be sure. I might want to leave the table to walk around to see if they were anywhere nearby.
Perhaps both of them had gone to the toilet separately. I got up from my seat and went up to their table. Something compelled me to sit down, and so I sat on the sofa against the wall. I stretched my hand out on the sofa to pretend to relax. I fumbled upon the brown bag. I touched it, and it was leather. Great!
But then I couldn’t help but see the stack of notes inside the bag. It wasn’t zipped up. How could the woman be so careless as to expose her money like this? At this point in time I dared not take the bag. The owner might return anytime to claim it, and then I would be mistaken for a thief. So now I was suddenly hoping that these two people would not return.
It took almost another fifteen minutes before I decided that they were not coming back. I became very curious. Where could the two of them have gone? They could not have left the lounge, as her bag was still here. Should I go and look for them? I started thinking about it and got up from the table and walked towards the toilets. I had been to this lounge before. I knew very well where the toilet was.
So therefore, I went up to the bar counter and told the waiter that I needed to go to the gents, and I gave my handphone number to assure him that I was coming back. So long as I left something behind, I laid claim to the table. I decided that I should not take her brown bag with me until I was certain that she had abandoned it. As I said, I was not a thief.
I walked around the compound. The area was quiet, as it was rather late at night. But there was no sign of either one of them. I peeped into the gents but only knocked on the ladies. It was a single cubicle, and after the door unlocked and a woman came out and left the door ajar, I could see that it was empty.
I couldn’t say that I was disappointed, as the brown bag would be mine if Pearl did not come back. Once I found that both of them were not in the toilet I quickly went back to the table at the lounge. I walked fast and regretted that someone else might have taken it while I was away.
When I arrived at the lounge, I was shocked. True enough, some other people were occupying the table now. It was a completely new scene. I looked around and found that another group of people were occupying my table. Where was the brown leather bag? I wanted the brown bag!
I went up to the people at their table and said, “Excuse me, I haven’t paid the bill,”
They ignored me completely. And then I went to the cashier and tried to tell them that it was my table.
“What did you order?” the waiter asked.
“A beer, no, two beers,” I said.
I didn’t count how many beers he had.
“It had been settled already, ” the waiter went on to attend to his other business after telling me.
I had no choice but to leave the lounge now. My object of getting myself distracted after the quarrel with Sarah had been achieved, as I was very upset with myself now instead of with her. Why did I walk away from the table?
And then my handphone rang with an unknown caller. I picked it up, thinking that it must have been Sarah calling to apologize.
“Where is my money?” the voice on the other side said.
“Huh?” I was completely taken aback.
I was standing at the lounge wondering if I should walk in and settle my own bill, as I had not paid yet.
“This is my money.” The voice over the phone was louder and more forceful.
I began to get worried. Automatically, I replied, “I didn’t take your money,” like any other person would.
I felt like hanging up the phone. This was a nuisance. But then there was some urgency in the voice, and it was a woman’s voice. Okay! It was Pearl! She wanted to get her brown leather bag!
So, I merely said, “I don’t know where it is,” unleashing a lead.
For this suggested that I knew what she was talking about. And I didn’t realize that Pearl sounded like this. I could now piece together the expressive face earlier on in the night while she was at her table and the voice now. I waited for her reply.
“I saw you take it away,” she said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Look, I am not going to spend the entire night arguing with you, I will see you here again tomorrow at the same time. Return it.” And the line went dead.
I was completely taken by surprise. How did all this happen? Now it had come to the point that I was acquainted with Pearl and was meeting her tomorrow night. The only problem was that I must produce another brown leather bag with some cash inside which matched the amount.
I couldn’t say I wasn’t infatuated with Pearl. She looked very stunning in that string of pearls. And I liked the way she flipped her hair. By now I had completely forgotten about Sarah. I didn’t even want to go home. I walked to the nearest taxi stand at Orchard Towers and waited there behind some people already in the queue.
The Sir Raffles Hotel was just nearby around the corner. If all the shops had not been closed by then, I would have gone on straight to buy a bag and gone to the bank to withdraw the cash.
I told the driver to take me home.
At home I kept the cellphone with me and brought it into the toilet when I went to shower in case Pearl rang again. Sarah was already asleep. Good woman, I thought to myself. I also made sure that my phone was not in silent mode and that the “do not disturb” function was not activated. Throughout the night I was only half asleep. I was not normally a light sleeper. At dawn I woke up without the alarm.
Straight away I went into the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee. Sarah was already out, and I had the entire day to myself. This was the Christmas week before school began in January. I was a secondary school teacher of mathematics. Figures and numbers were my cup of tea, and I liked counting money. I started to think of how many pieces of notes I must procure for my appointment tonight at the Harrods Bar.
When I arrived at the Standard Chartered Bank I was ready with the figure. “Five thousand dollars, fifty pieces of hundred,” I told the bank cashier. I was putting up my entire month’s salary for the gamble. If Pearl did not show up tonight I would just keep the cash and put it back in the bank account. If she appeared, then I would pursue her. I refused to entertain the thought that she might just grab the brown leather bag with my money inside and left immediately after meeting me.
Once I got the money I went on to Takashimaya to shop for a brown bag. There were several expensive shops there. I told myself that if I bought a designer bag similar in color and design, Pearl would just be too happy. She was unlikely to be annoyed. All she wanted was the money. The bag was secondary, just a container for the money.
So, I took my time browsing and finally found one that I would like. I paid for it by credit card, as I had exhausted two-thirds of my funds. I walked out of Takashimaya at 2:25 p.m. and went home to prepare for the evening.
As I was showering I reproached myself for not having bought a new tie at Salvatore Ferragamo at the same time when I bought the new bag. I wanted to impress Pearl. The outfit for tonight had to be casual but not too cheap looking. I was not a rich man, but as I said, I was not poor, either. Keeping a mistress was within my means. But actually, that was not how I began. I didn’t begin wanting to sleep with Pearl. I had in fact wanted her money.
Now it was role reversal. I was collecting money for her. What a change! At no time did I entertain the thought of not showing up for the meeting at the Harrods Bar. She knew my number and could call me again and pester me if I didn’t show up tonight. And I didn’t want Sarah to pick up the call.
I found myself sitting at the same table again. Then I suddenly remembered that I had not paid for the bill last night. Two hot chocolates would come up to at least twenty-five dollars. I dug into my wallet and found several ten-dollar notes.
The waiter came up to me, “Hot chocolate, sir?”
I smiled and really appreciated the fact that he knew me by now. So, I fished out three ten-dollar notes and offered to pay. “For last night,” I said.
“No, sir, we closed the account already.” He carried his tray and walked away.
I looked at my watch and the two hands told me that it was 8:00 p.m. I remembered that I was here at 9:00 p.m. last night, so I was at least an hour early.
I kept the brown leather bag with me by the side, guarding it carefully.
Pearl did not let me down. She arrived on time, promptly at 9:00 p.m. She saw me before I waved at her. I was glad that she was alone. The hot chocolate was almost finished, and I immediately ordered a pussyfoot for her. I didn’t want to make her drunk. She sat next to me without a word. Tonight, the string of long pearls was gone.
“Pearl,” I began, “This is your bag,” I pushed the bag a little forward, closer to her.
“Oh, this is it?” She glanced at it and sat there waiting for her drink to arrive, as though her purpose here was to have the pussyfoot.
She didn’t object to my calling her “Pearl” . Or did she hear me? I started wondering if her name was indeed Pearl.
Then I opened my mouth again, “What makes you think that I have your money?”
“The bag is here, isn’t it?” she replied.
“Yeah, but it is not the same bag,” I had to confess.
“Then you do not have my money?” she looked at me in bewilderment.
“I have the money that you want,” I said,
“but it is my money.” I emphasized.
“And this is not my brown bag?!” Pearl raised her voice,
“You are a con man!”
Without another word, Pearl got up from the table, and without taking the brown leather bag she walked away. I went after her.
But before I could leave the coffee house the waiter caught up with me. “Sir, you can’t do this again tonight,” he advised me.
Flabbergasted, I fumbled for my wallet, dug out my credit card, and gave it to the man. I knew that I had to sign for it and it would take quite a while, so I told the waiter, “I need to use the toilet; I’ll be back.” He relented.
This always worked. I rushed out of the hotel lounge in the direction Pearl had gone. But when I came out there was no sign of her. A car sped by and left a loud thud. I was completely lost.
I went back to the lounge again. Slowly, I looked for the waiter, hoping to sign for the bill. I returned to my table. Luckily, it was still empty; no one had taken it. I remembered that I had left something behind. But it wasn’t there anymore. Pearl left in a huff. She didn’t take my brown leather bag with her, and neither did I.
Oh, God, it is stolen! I looked under the table, almost climbing on the floor. No sign of anything vaguely brown. The waiter found me and presented the bill. Just as I was signing for the credit card, my handphone rang: unknown caller. I knew that it must be Pearl again. But I could not resist picking up the call.
“Where is my brown leather bag?” the voice said.
I could recognize Pearl’s voice by now.
“Huh? What brown leather bag?” I tried to deny its existence, for by now it was very clear that I had lost it.
“My brown leather bag, the one that you showed me just now.” There was urgency in her voice.
“Okay,” I said.
“Meet me here again tomorrow night and return it,” Pearl ordered firmly.
By now I concluded that all she wanted was the money she lost the first time and nothing to do with the brown bag. Even if my Ferragamo bag wasn’t hers she had decided that she wanted the money in the bag now. I certainly did not take her money.
I let her hang up the call and walked to the taxi stand once again. I took out my handphone and I switched it off. I told myself that tomorrow I should get myself a new phone and a new number. I didn’t see why I should have anything more to do with this crazy woman.
One month later, Sarah joined the U.S. Embassy. I quarrelled with Sarah again, as she did not tell me before she signed the contract. Naturally, I arrived at the Sir Raffles Hotel. I walked into the Harrods Bar and was pleased to find my usual table vacant. I sat down. After I had settled down, the waiter came. I recognized him, even if he had forgotten my face.
“Sir, I am here to return your property,” he said, holding out two brown leather bags, one more worn out than the other.
“I believe they are yours,” he said. I stared at the bags.
“I tried to call you several times but was told that your number is no longer in use,” the man tried to explain, which was totally unnecessary.
“Can I have a hot chocolate?” I ordered, taking the two bags from him, and then,
“Yes, these are my bags,” I proclaimed.
“Oh, yes, that night after you left, the female friend of yours came back and asked for you, and I gave her your number,” the waiter continued calmly before walking away,
“Was wondering why she needed your number since you came with her in the first place.”
Ah, so this waiter mistook me for Pearl’s earlier male companion, the well-seasoned man. It seemed clear to me now that this waiter had taken the two bags on both occasions when his diners went away, intending to return to us all along.
“The lady friend of yours had been patronizing this joint every night until the last time you were here with her,” the waiter began.
“She seemed to be a social escort soliciting business and we were contemplating installing CCTV to track her movements, for if she touted a client successfully by right she should bring him up to our hotel rooms, but often they left for the neighbourhood instead.”
When I arrived at home that night, I took out the money from one brown bag, counted it, and found three thousand dollars, whereas the other similar bag had five thousand dollars. If you asked me whether I could remember which one belonged to Pearl originally, I couldn’t tell you but for the fact that I recalled that the one I bought was a Salvatore Ferragamo bag.
However, I still couldn’t tell you if the waiter had filched any money from Pearl’s first brown leather bag. Anyway, the Ferragamo bag cost five hundred dollars, and my net gain was two thousand and fifty dollars.
This was my money now. There was no doubt about it.
Hope you enjoyed the story you've just read. I wish to write more stories to amuse my readers!