Story by Lee Su Min
My mother and I in Lourdes, France in Oct 2014
Clever people don’t have sex. No, I am not a nun, yet. I was only an administrative officer at the Esplanade Methodist Church.
I am not there now, but at the time that I was working there, I was a secretary to three pastors.
I arrived at the large building just behind the Howard Shopping Centre, and I managed to find my way around only after I spoke to a guy.
“Hello, I have come here for a meeting with your director Mr Bernard Soo and how do I get to the church office?”
“It is on the fourth level. You can take the lift to get there.”
“Thanks, and how may I address you?” I found him rather cute looking.
“My name is Benjamin. You can call me “Bernie”.
I asked Benjamin if he could show me to the director’s office. He did not say a word, but merely walked towards the lift. I followed suit and when we arrived at the lift, I was a little annoyed that it stayed on the fifth floor for an unduly length of time, so that it made it necessary for Benjamin and I to make small talk.
“Working in a church can be quite complicated,” the director of the church Mr Soo told me when he interviewed me in his room full of potted plants.
I described his room as such as I have never seen such a large amount of plants in anyone’s room in all my entire life. Plants didn’t live very long under the roof without sunlight, so therefore I did not have plants in my apartment. But the number of plants I saw in Mr Soo’s room was enormous. If I were to make a count, I think it was at least seventy to eighty pots, big, medium and small.
I also had the chance to take a sweep around his office, and apart from the three watering cans, there was a large board with postcards pinned on it. And why he needed three watering cans I have no idea since they all served the same purpose. I dared not ask him at the time as it would have been impertinent.
Mr Soo was nice. He did not give me a hard time. What I said and described of myself, he simply nodded in agreement. He didn't even ask me for the names of my relatives. I felt quite happy after the interview and as the director of the church in charge of all the admin procedure, Mr Soo told me that if there should be any problems arising from my church work in the future, I could always call upon him. “Just knock on my room door,” he said.
The interview went on well and ended by Mr Soo telling me that I would definitely hear from him within the next three days, which meant that I was short listed, although I did not see anyone else waiting to go in after me earlier on. As I reached the first floor I passed by the sanctuary, but something told me that I shouldn’t go in, so I said a short prayer before I left the church compound.
The minute I walked out of the church, I took out my grandmother’s cross jade on my neck and put it back inside my handbag, which would have cost more than my salary. Retail therapy was still safer than travelling. The piece of jewellery was the topic of conversation at the interview and I thought that it helped me secure the job.
I told Mr Soo that I was applying for this job because I wanted to be “totally immersed in the Christian culture,” and “as I have just been baptised as a Methodist on 22 December 1996, this is what God tells me to do.”
Mr Soo told me that here were three bosses to whom I must report my work. As this was a church setting, I assumed that each and every one that I came across in the office henceforth was a Christian.
The first day at work I bumped into Benjamin again. Benjamin was a thin looking man with a large beard, his beard was not too long and the thought that came to my mind was why he couldn’t have shaved it off.
So, I asked Benjamin why he did not want to shave his beard. He told me that the beard was a disguise for his age.
“Do you want to look older or younger?” I asked.
And then I asked Benjamin why Mr Soo kept so many plants in his office.
“No reason,” he said.
“Does he talk to them?” I asked, just for conversation’s sake.
“Plants are living things, they hear, they see,” he told me.
“Of course, they eat and drink as well” I added, just to annoy him.
“Yes, every living thing needs food and water,” Benjamin agreed at once.
“Which means that they are as good as human beings,” I continued.
“Why do you think that Prince Charles likes talking to his plants?” he gave as an example.
And then when we arrived at the director’s room, Benjamin opened the door and strolled in. I guessed he went in there to water the plants.
The church director Mr Soo also had a vase in his office. The vase was large and stood on a table by the side of his window. I often marveled at it but never went up to take a look at the engraved pattern. It was the blue and white a piece of Chinese artefacts.
Further in there was a two seater sofe presumably meant for entertaiing guests.
When I first started work, I have to use Siew Lan’s PC. Siew Lan was nice, but there was something about her that chilled me. She smiled whenever I asked her to help with my typing, but she never talked to me directly. She did not look me in the eye. I found her an evasive character, but it never occurred to me that she could be a criminal.
One day, as I was going to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee, I heard two persons talking.
What are they doing here?
“How much do you think you can fetch from this?” the hoarse voice sounded like Benjamin’s.
“Ten thousand, or twelve at least,” another voice.
Then there was complete silence.
I heard the sound of a cellophane bag, like one of those Cold Storage bags that we had.
I was not a lawyer, but I had seen enough movies to know that there were some illegal activities going on here, right under my nose. I inclined my ear, and as I was standing behind the curtain, I could not see what was happening.
A piano was behind the curtain. But at this moment there was no connection between the two voices and the piano.
This was my fourth week at work, and I still haven’t been introduced to my third boss Reverend Ha Hwa Kim. I was told that Rev. Ha spoke no English, as he was Korean. So, I went to the local bookstore the Paper Works to buy myself a dictionary. A Korean-English dictionary.
My job involved that of typing the church bulletin in both the Tagalog and the English. That was not too difficult as Tagalog was made of an alphabet language. I learnt that the Philippines language used mainly the letters “a” and “e” and “l”.
As I was typing my Filipino bulletin one afternoon, I felt someone standing behind me. The breathing was loud and accompanied by a tinge of smoke, but I decided not to look up as I wanted to show that I was busy with my work. I pretended to be busy until the shadow on my PC moved away.
I felt chilly. And then when I was stuck with the Chinese characters, Siew Lan gave me another one of her toothless smiles when I approached her to ask her how to type one of the Chinese characters. Siew Lan just got up from her desk and walked away. And yes, I was also typing the bulletin for the Chinese service.
Something is amiss in this church. I told myself.
It was confirmed when Rev. Ha called me up to go into his room. He said he wanted me to do accounts. Rev. Ha spoke good Korean and no English. He placed his little booklet on his desk right in front of me and asked me to take it, then he muttered something under his breath.
Rev. Ha Hwa Kim stood five feet eight inches tall, clean shaven, and has short hair, short enough to call it a durian head.
The pastor usually came in three times a week. On Monday, Thursday and Friday. So, when he appeared on Wednesday, I was naturally surprised. He asked me to follow him into his room as usual.
I was not quite happy about doing accounts, as accounts meant money, and money meant problem. I was being told that once you handled money you were likely to land yourself in hot soup, as accounts could never be clear. Unless it was your own money.
In any case, I never spoke to Rev. Ha as I couldn’t speak Korean. But that since he was my boss, I couldn’t refuse him outright. I have to be patient, sit, and wait for him to finish saying what he wanted to tell me before I opened my mouth.
Every time I went into Rev. Ha’s room, I would have to bring the booklet, placed it right in front of him, waited for him to write some figures on it, picked it up from him again, before going back to my desk to keep it inside my drawer.
There was a key provided for the drawer, but I did not lock it for I didn’t think that anyone in the church would want to steal. And a crumpled looking booklet at that.
Rev. Ha surprised me on the first Wednesday, but then after three weeks when he turned up on Wednesday, it suddenly dawned on me that he could be interested in Siew Lan, since Siew Lan sat next to me and he came by my desk to look for me. I could not see why Rev. Ha did not intercom me.
So, I set myself up as a detective to make some investigations.
I was happy today as Siew Lan broke the ice. She normally waited for me to start talking to her in the mornings before she got up to make herself a cup of coffee. And as a matter of fact, I found it very strange of her to have to wait for me to get my drink first.
Ok, she was talking to me now. So, I answer, “How’s your coffee?”
Siew Lan was holding her mug, and immediately she put it on her desk, and she said, “This is not coffee, it is tea, and if you want to know what brand, it is Earl Grey. E-a-r-l-G-r-e-y.”
That was very rude of her. And unwarranted. Nobody asked her what she was drinking, and I certainly was not asking her for the brand of her beverage.
Her mug had the picture of a dog on it. To be precise it was a bulldog, and a rather cute looking bulldog.
I was waiting for an opportune time to set up a meeting with Siew Lan for a heart-to-heart talk.
This morning I went to her desk and took her mug, went to the sink and ran it under the tap. I thought I forgot to take it and put it back on her desk.
That same day I went home, and I forgot about Siew Lan’s mug entirely.
The next day when I was at my desk whilst at the bulletin: “In the beginning there was light. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not recognise him.”
“Why did you remove my mug?” Siew Lan appeared.
How could Siew Lan know? I was sure that she did not see me take her mug. I tried to ignore her.
“Hello, could you stop typing?” the woman said.
I continued to ignore her.
She gave up after a while as she saw that I was typing the Chinese bulletin. I knew that she was afraid of me asking her for help on the Chinese characters.
Could Siew Lan have extra-territorial sense to know that I took her mug to the pantry yesterday? I was sure that no one saw me.
It did not take too long for Siew Lan to open up.
It happened on the day when everyone had left the office for lunch. I was still around as I haven’t finished tying the bulletin, and Siew Lan was still around presumably drinking her Earl Grey tea.
“He raped me,” Siew Lan began.
I asked Siew Lan who did that to her and how it happened.
“The devil,” she said, very calmly.
“He is a devil in disguise,” Siew Lan continued, her jaw clinched, and she gave out a false laugh. And then she flipped her hair aside to show off her beautiful earrings. She turned and smiled at me. I marveled at the speed at which she suddenly changed the expression on her face.
I used to think that they were only characters in the Bible, and not to be taken seriously. As far as I was concerned, they were tattooed and ugly looking.
And then I got chilled again, so I left her so as to stop her from talking. Recalling of a painful past could be devastating for the victim. I didn’t want to do that to Siew Lan.
There were only two possibilities: I was guessing that it was Peter Tan the IT guy, or Benjamin. Mr Soo was unlikely as he was the church director, so was Rev. Wong.
It became a habit for Benjamin and I to walk to Café 21 for lunch. For by which time we have more or less made perfect our standing instructions for order. It was either, one big one small or two smalls. Big meant roast pork meat with rice garnished with sliced cucumber and small was without the cucumbers. And then I would usually ask for chilli sauce. Benjamin did not take chilli sauce.
We watched the char siew lady stall holder pour the red liquid over my food. Benjamin looked at my plate with disgust and said nothing.
I continued with my food after Benjamin had finished talking, and then we brought our respective trays back to the stalls. The canteen usually had someone clearing the unwanted dishes, but they were always too slow. Today Benjamin took his unwanted soya bean juice and poured it into the plant next to the char siew stall. I felt pity for the plant.
On the way back to the office we walked past a set of low-rise shop houses and then the church was on top of the hill. The slope was not steep and the minute we arrived at the gate we stopped talking.
After that lunch with Benjamin, I began to like plants, and I went to the nursery and bought two such living things: Ixora and another called Ipomea, lavender in colour, the names of the plants I learnt from the nursery. The owner was reluctant to make delivery unless I paid her thirty-five dollars. I brought them into my Grab and lugged it into the lift.
“I bought two plants for myself,” I told Benjamin the minute I saw him the next day.
Benjamin was of course not impressed.
After that my job progresses, and I was made to look for and arrange the songs selected by the pastor of the Praise and Worship Service, who was Rev. Wong.
I took upon this duty gingerly, as it could be quite disastrous if the entire congregation worshiped contrary to the preacher’s intention simply because the slide was flashed in the wrong sequence.
But I was overjoyed, more duties meant more work. And that led to promotion. I was now the secretary to three pastors, and I hoped soon I would be the secretary to Mr Soo as well. Apart from Benjamin, Peter Tan took me out for lunch sometimes. And I must say that I was quite pleased about it.
One day, Peter asked me, “Hey, do you want me to teach you how to do Excel?” I knew what Excel was. It was a spreadsheet and seemed complicated.
After three sessions with Peter, I decided to use the spreadsheet to record the accounts. It was neater and I could print out the result. Peter had input the formulae for the chart so that I only needed to key in the amount I collected each Sunday. The total sum would automatically show just by tapping “enter”.
I was busy with the Excel one day when again I noticed a figure standing next to me.
The breathing was consistently loud, so there was no mistaken identity. It was the same presence that stood beside me four days ago. I did not look at it.
Is the Esplanade Methodist Church haunted?
Benjamin and I usually turned up at Café 21. It was the nearby food court. In Singapore we didn't call it a restaurant or a cafe, we called it a canteen, which was within an office building, and now we called them an eatery place.
Out of curiosity I attended the Praise and Worship Service. The church was already singing the song:
“As the deer panthers for the water, so my soul longed .... ” I found my place amongst the pew as I squeezed in.
After the service ended, I strolled up to the church office again, as it was my habitat. When I needed to get a hot drink to keep myself awake, I went to the pantry and then passed by the piano. The piano sat nicely, as though it was there merely as an ornamental piece. I was tempted to open it and play a tune on the instrument. I sat on the piano stool. And then I heard someone talking behind the curtains,
“Has she spoken to you?” a man’s voice.
Again, it sounded like Benjamin’s but this time I could not be sure.
“No, she said she would give us one more week,” the other voice says.
“How much does Siew Lan want?” the man says again.
“Am not sure,” came the reply. At this juncture I had to control myself so as not to intrude, for I didn’t want to be an accomplice to their wrongdoing. I went back to my desk and as I was typing my bulletin, I felt chilly again. Maybe it was a Sunday and that no one was around. I grabbed the remote control and I increased the temperature.
After attending the Praise and Worship Service and having gone into the Sanctuary to pray, I understood that the two services even though did not contradict each other, had different objects and were on different themes, if you knew what I meant.
“No, I don’t know what you mean,” Benjamin told me when I tried to draw his attention to this phenomenon.
“Ok then, how do you explain the fact that one sings in English, and the other worships in tongues?” I fired him at once.
Work was getting boring as by now I could almost type with my eyes closed. Siew Lan and I had reached a certain understanding – I didn’t touch her bulldog mug.
When the photocopier spoilt, I was being introduced to another guy. His name was Peter Tan. Peter was in charge of IT and he was tall and thin. His work was very relaxed because the photocopier, fax machines, computers etc. hardly gave any trouble. The only time we needed to call on him was when I accidentally put a stack of clipped notes into the feeder. The papers jamed at the roller and the paper got stuck in between.
“Help! Peter!” I yelled whenever it happened.
And soon I became pals with Peter Tan the IT guy.
One day Benjamin came up to me and started talking to me, “I have found from experience that in order to find the answer to a complicated issue, you must not confront the person directly. Facing an accused person one on one is very draining, as he would never tell you the truth.”
I was taken aback and stunned. For a while I thought that he was suggesting that I had done something wrong. So, I quickly put up my hands and said.
“I am clean.”
“Don’t accuse me of anything,” meaning that I did not take any money from Rev. Ha’s account.
And then the other day Benjamin came up to me and asked, “Why do you type with only your right hand?”
I was surprised, as I didn’t know that he was watching me all the while.
“My habit,” I said.
And I continued typing.
“In the beginning there was light, the light shines in the darkness, ……” I typed.
As a matter of fact, I was already getting quite bored with these phrases. I decided to stop.
“Do you want to type for me?” I asked Benjamin. I know I was a little rude.
And then I continued with my typing. Benjamin left his coffee mug on my desk and he walked away. I let it stand for a while then when I found it a nuisance, I brought it to the pantry to wash it and return it to his table. Since that day, it had been a habit for Benjamin to leave his mug at my desk for me to wash.
Here we left the office promptly at 5:00 p.m. sharp. We didn’t get overtime for staying on and actually we had too much time and too little work.
Once I reached home, I had a quick hot shower as the office temperature was always too cold for me.
As I had said, Siew Lan was not only chilly but strange. She walked with her left leg slightly longer than the right, and she often ate alone at her desk. I asked her why she did not want to eat with me at the food court, she said that she was too lazy to walk out.
By the sixth month, I more or less knew that they were likely to renew my contract at the end of two years. Benjamin dropped by my desk to put his mug there, Rev. Ha now left his receipts on my keyboard, and Rev. Wong just dumped his slides over my papers. And I was often asked to make photocopy.
I noticed that everyone in the church borrowed names from the Bible and used them as though they were real characters, as apart from Benjamin, Peter and Siew Lan, there was also James who worked for Rev. Baines and the receptionist by the name of Job.
But I almost flipped when I found out that the new Filipino guy who joined us went by the name “Jesus”.
Mr Soo explained to me that “Jesus” was a common name to be adopted by Filipinas, like “Mary” and “Joseph”. Come to think of it, if “Mary” and “Joseph” could be used, why not “Jesus”?
Today Benjamin decided to try out the Indian stall. I had no objections as I liked their cuisine as well. We arrived in front of the Indian man, he smiled, and we saw the items laid out on the hawker stall. I told Benjamin I liked the Chapatti the Indian bread and we both ordered a piece of the thick dough.
“I am sleepy now,” I told Benjamin after lunch as we arrived at the church office.
“So am I, and I can’t believe it is just the Indian food,” Benjamin said.
“By the way, what are the names of the dishes?” he asked.
“No idea,” I replied meekly. I just wanted to sleep.
We felt so sleepy as though we were drugged. So, I told Benjamin that the Indian spices did make people drowsy.
But why would the Indian man Rama want to poison us, why should he? He got nothing out of two sleepy customers.
I continued to eat with Benjamin. I wanted to find out the truth in Siew Lan’s accusations.
“Of course not!” The man exclaimed. “I could visualise Siew Lan in her naked form even before she takes off her clothes. Her hair was brown, frizzy and unkempt when let down. The moment I realised what was it was that she wanted from me, I ran as fast as I could.”
“What did she want from you?” I asked, pretending not to comprehend. This was the art of cross-examination.
“Omg! You are so stupid.” Benjamin raised his voice. I knew that he was annoyed. It was not my intention to annoy him. I just wanted the truth. At the time I didn’t think that Benjamin would tell Siew Lan about this.
“Did she make a proposition?” I asked.
“How could she? She said that I raped her right?” Benjamin replied.
So that meant that Benjamin had overheard my lunchtime conversation with Siew Lan. I was thinking that I was alone with her at the time. This meant that Siew Lan also talked to Benjamin. What was my response to her that day? Did I say anything that I shouldn’t have? I couldn’t remember now.
Ok, I knew a bit about the law. It was Siew Lan who said that Benjamin raped her, I merely listened. I was not there at the time when the case happened, so I was unable to verify the truth of the matter. But now that I was being told about it, and that Benjamin had denied the fact, it was clear that he did not wish to be responsible about it. The next question was – were there any off springs out of this relationship?
Now I knew why Siew Lan told me about Benjamin, she was hoping that by telling me about his misdemeanour, I would get a bad impression of Benjamin and stopped having lunch with him. It had become a habit now for us to walk to Café 21 for food. Sometimes we even brought back the locally made coffee with a special flavour.
I tried not to talk to Siew Lan as I didn’t want her to talk to me about Benjamin anymore. I couldn’t side her since Benjamin was my regular lunch partner. A friend in need was a friend indeed.
But after a while I realised that Siew Lan just hated me and wanted to get rid of me. And there was no solution to that except to resign. I needed the job it paid for my phone bill and my water bill. So finally I decided that I should talk to Mr Soo about it. Mr Soo was not surprised when he heard about it.
“What do you want me to do?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
When Mr Soo came to the conclusion that the only way to solve my problem was to dismiss Siew Lan, he gave me a tip.
“You could come in and water my plants for me,” he advised.
More work! This is great! So I left the room.
The church office was small and it was not too far to get water from the tap. The watering can was in Mr Soo’s office. I had to fetch water from the tap which was located just behind the piano.
I arrived at the same spot again.
“She told me,” the voice said, same as the one behind the curtain the first time. Benjamin’s voice.
“So she knows,” the reply came from Peter.
In that case there was no need to cover up anymore,” the guy continued.
It’s me again! They are talking about me!
I realised that my position was precarious now as I was into some secrets. I waited for the conversation to end, and the sound of the voices receded into the background, before I carried the watering can quietly back to Mr Soo’s room to complete my task.
I knocked his door before opening, and then I pulled the knob, the door did not open. That was strange. I thought he told me to water the plants just now. Surely he must know that I would return soon. So I stood outside and waited. Finally the door opened and Rev. Ha walked out. He muttered something and signaled for me to follow him to his room. I knew that he wanted me to do accounts again.
I got the booklet and went in. I placed it in front of his desk again. He looked at it, smiled and he said, “Do you want me to show you the receipts?” This was strange as I had never asked to him to show me the receipts.
“No,” I reply.
Then he opened the booklet, he took out his pen, and he wrote a few figures on it, and he returned to me. I quickly walked out as I was afraid to start any conversation with Rev. Ha. I could never understand what he wanted to tell me.
And so it became a habit not to see the receipts with Rev. Ha. In any case the receipts were written in Korean so that when he showed them to me, I really had no proof if he was actually spending the amount as he declared. He could be visiting a brothel for all I knew.
OMG! Does Mr Soo know about this?
Come to think of it, Rev. Ha did smell of alcohol whenever he came into the office.
I decided again that this was not a matter that I should confront myself with. I had no means of knowing the truth. The answer was even more remote than Siew Lan’s case. I couldn’t drag Rev’s Ha’s girlfriend out of the closet, assuming that he had one.
So as they said, the only way was to pray about it, especially when the problem arose in a church setting such as this. I finally found a reason to visit the church sanctuary. I saw a few people scattered around the pews even if it was not during the worship hours.
If I did, then the first person that I would have to speak to was Mr Soo. Immediately I walked away from my desk to go to Mr Soo the director’s office. This was the second time I knocked on his door.
I heard laughter. It was kind of strange. The way they were laughing. Who else was inside? And what were they doing? I dared not open the door now.
Mr Soo had failed in his promise. He said so before that if I should encounter any problems I could always knock on his door.
“Mr Soo is on leave,” Peter Tan came by and told me.
My suspicion is now confirmed. The esplanade church is haunted. Otherwise, why am I hearing voices from inside the director’s room?
How come I do not know about it? I became upset. I walked back to my desk where Siew Lan sat beside me and she was watching me.
The next morning Mr Soo called me in to his room. After my coffee. I went in to water his plants before I opened my little notebook which I used to take instructions.
“I want you to take over the duty of collecting thighs,” Mr Soo said.
“That is not easy,” my immediate comment.
“No worries,” Mr Soo continued.
“And then do I also keep accounts of the monies collected?” my uppermost concern.
“Of course,” he said.
“You need a booklet?” Mr Soo continued.
“No, I can use this one,” I prefered to use my own stationary.
And then I walked out of the room, closing the door behind me.
Mother bought me a dress today.
She rarely bought me things so that I was a little surprised. I put it on to show her even though I didn’t really like it. Then I walked to the mirror to examine myself. It was a chequered piece, full-length, and Japanese style. I took it off immediately after I saw that it was too colourful for me.
But I wore it to work the next day. I didn’t know why.
There was nothing unusual at the office today, except that nobody greeted me.
“Hello,” I said to Benjamin.
He ignored me.
“Hello,” I greeted Siew Lan as I sat down.
“You had your Earl Grey?” I attempted conversation.
No reply came from her. She didn’t even look up from her PC.
Slighted, I felt deflated, but I continued to start on a new day. I opened my Excel and started work. I have to make sure that the figures tally.
Today I found another thirty dollars missing. I dared not report the shortfall to Mr Soo. I knew that Rev. Ha was a pastor and was presumed innocent. If anything they could instead accuse me of siphoning money. After all from the way at the sanctuary to the office I could have taken the money if I had wanted to.
I did not realise that CCTV was installed at the church premises.
This happened regularly for the last four weeks. By now I had calculated losses of ninety-eight dollars in my purse. And I was still waiting for a right time to report the shortfall of petty cash to Mr Soo. As a matter of fact the amount is significant enough to constitute misappropriation if I had pocketed the sum. So I left it in the drawer. Now I had decided that I must lock the drawer or bring it home. God! I forgot where I put the keys.
I remembered when I first arrived there were a pair. I took one and left the other hanging by the side on the key hole. Which meant that anyone could have taken it, so that even if I locked the drawer the other person still had access to the money in the drawer. What could I do now?
I can’t be losing money like that!
I yelled from the bottom of my heart. A bright idea came. I decided to collect the rest of the money, kept it inside a special purse, and dumped all the money inside, then I tied up the purse and put it inside my drawer. By this time I realised that I would need to lock the drawer. I proceeded to look for the key …
I had to bring the special purse home now, and then waited for an opportune time to bring the matter up to Mr Soo.
So today I took a taxi home. From outside the church it was not difficult to get a taxi. It was on a slope and then after 5:00 p.m. the drivers had just changed shift. I was able to bring the cash home safely.
Back at home I put it in my wardrobe straight away.
The next morning I woke up forgetting about the special purse. I got to work as usual, taking bus number 174.
Mr Soo called me in straight away the moment I arrived. It was as though he was waiting for me.
“What happened to the money?” he asked.
“What money?” I replied.
“The money you kept in the drawer,” he said.
I became nervous I quickly said, “Oh ok, Mr Soo.”
“Let me have it,” he ordered.
I brought him to the desk, opened the drawer for him, forgetting that the special purse with the money was no longer inside.
“Hey, I thought I put it in there!” I screamed.
Mr Soo looked at me, and he said, “You took the money,”
“No, I didn’t steal it!” I denied it at the top of my voice.
And then I realised that he couldn’t have known that there was money inside the drawer. I never told him about it.
I looked hard at Mr Soo. What was it that he was trying to do? To frame me? Why on earth would he want to do that?
I was in a dilemma now. I knew that I might have to resign now. If I did, I would have to return the money which I had no intention to take in the first place. But if I were to return the money to the church now, I would have a lot of explanation to do. Maybe I should just let the money lie in my wardrobe at home. As they said, let the sleeping dogs lie.
Immediately I walked away from the man. I headed straight for the entrance to the lift, took the lift down to the first floor and then took my steps on the pebbled floor with my head held high.
The next day, I went to work as usual. At the office, everyone behaved as though nothing had happened. Not a word was mentioned about how I stormed out of the office yesterday. I went to the pantry to get my coffee as usual, and I did not fail to say hi to Siew Lan. Siew Lan’s mug was on her table, the bulldog staring at me as though to tell me to keep quiet.
Benjamin was in a mask. Looked like he got the flu. I decided to keep quiet for the rest of the day. In my mind I was thinking of the ninety-eight dollars.
And then when I went to the pantry to make myself another cup of coffee, I heard the same two voices:
What is happening here?
“Has she spoken to you?” the hoarse voice, belonging to Benjamin.
“No, she lost her temper,” the softer voice, Peter Tan.
OMG! That is me! They are referring to me!
So, I sat on the piano stool again waiting for them to leave.
Five minutes later when I was certain that they were no longer there, I pulled open the curtain and walked out of my hiding place at the piano.
And then suddenly it dawned on me that I could do something – I could return the money inside the piano stool!
… and tell Mr Soo that I have found it there. He might ask me how I got to know that there was money there. I would have to make up a story.
“Will you be free tonight?”
“I thought that was the last time,” Siew Lan’s voice.
I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation. I stood still. If they opened the curtain they would see me at once.
I held my breath, waiting for the conversation to end, and waiting for the other side to leave the pantry area. There was another way out through the main kitchen door. No one came in here unless he wanted to play the piano, and I was not intending to strike the chord now. All I wanted was to have my coffee.
I recognised the voices to be that of Benjamin and Siew Lan. So, Siew Lan lied to me. All along I had thought that she submitted to Benjamin against her own free will. The conversation I heard proved that she not only consented to the sexual relationship, she was also a willing party.
Oh dear! This was a matter that I must attend to. I was not the admin manager of the church, but non-marital affairs must be stopped at once. Didn’t the Bible tell us that adultery was a sin against the law? I remembered correctly that it was the seventh commandment.
But in order to prove that there was adultery, I must be certain that one of the parties was married. So far, both appeared to be single to me. I went home deflated and I told myself that I must attend service this Sunday.
Once I reached the first floor I knew that I was safe. I then remembered that the money was inside my purse at home.
How do I return it?
This afternoon when I went to the pantry to get coffee I found Benjamin there. There was a stool next to the fridge, and he was sitting on it. I emptied the contents of the 3-in-1 into my mug and added hot boiling water. And then I saw Benjamin looking forlorn and unhappy. I gave him one packet of the 3-in-1 instant coffee and I took the lead.
“Would you like to walk me home tonight?” I asked. My voice a little soft.
“What?” Benjamin asked, sounding almost rude.
“No, I was thinking if you’d like to walk me to the bus-stop. I repeated myself.
“Oh, ok, I have no problems with that,” I was happy with his answer, I felt a certain elation.
I looked at my watch almost every fifteen minutes that afternoon, until it reached 5:00 p.m. Then I left the premises and arrived at Benjamin’s room. Benjamin had his own office. He was the church admin officer. And there was only one admin officer.
We said nothing to each other on the way from the church to the bus-stop, which was actually half the journey as when we walked together to and back from the Café 21 during lunch hour. Except that this time we both knew that we could adjourn elsewhere.
Nothing happened after we arrived at the bus-stop. By now I had concluded that Benjamin was actually more interested in Siew Lan than in me, which was a defeat for sure. Whether he was having an ongoing relationship with Siew Lan I really did not know. Now my only concern was that Benjamin might tell Siew Lan about my special purse.
“Look, you won’t tell her what I told you today, right?” I opened the topic, just before my bus arrived.
“Who is her?” he asked.
“Siew Lan, of course,” I said.
“I thought you meant Judy,” Benjamin said.
“Who’s Judy?” I followed suit.
“My wife, I thought you knew that I was married,” Benjamin said, genuinely looking surprised.
Hold it. Benjamin was married! Which meant that he and Siew Lan were not supposed to be sleeping together. It was against church laws to be sleeping with someone else’s spouse.
I had every reason to break up this union between the two of them now. Once I procured Benjamin’s home address I could inform his wife about his relationship with Siew Lan, and then he, Benjamin would get the sack. And then the next thing was – I would get the promotion – to take over as the admin officer replacing Benjamin.
“Where do you live?” I asked, immediately.
My mind works very fast.
“East Coast,” he replies.
“Look, my bus is here.” Benjamin hurried off.
And then I saw Benjamin going up the bus and leaving me standing waiting for mine. I knew that he was upset, I saw him in the pantry on the stool this afternoon.
The minute I arrived at home, I rushed to open the wardrobe. Thank God! The special purse was still there with the money inside. Now the problem was how to return the cash of ninety-eight dollars back to the church. They belonged to the parishioners and it would be dishonest to keep it. It was a matter of law and not of morality nor of good behaviour.
I spent the entire night holding the Rosary and praying. Esplanade was a Methodist church, but I was used to praying with the Rosary, as it had become my habit. I liked the crystal like beads as they exuded a special charm when I held them.
By now I could safely tell you that my credit and debit balance was in a complete mess. I glossed over my balance sheet, and I started using colour pens to help me trace the net balance. The plus and minus was inconsistent so that I could even decide how much money I would have to add in order to make it appear that I had done a good job of keeping accounts.
All I knew was that I did not take any money out of the purse for my own use. There was no reason to. I was not short of money. I was only trying to protect my honesty, which was to prevent someone else from suggesting that I stole. It began with the stupid key. If only I had known where I kept the second key.
If only I had locked my drawer right from the start.
I was really stuck now. What could I do to prove my innocence?
There was only one person with whom I could talk to – Benjamin. “Look, if you refuse to admit that you stole there is nothing I can do.” This was Benjamin’s reaction when I told him about the purse situation.
“You are not committing me.” I argued.
“I can prove it to you by circumstantial evidence,” Benjamin said plainly.
“How?” I got slightly curious.
“Look, I am going up to the church office, and Siew Lan is there.” Benjamin ended the talk there.
Ok, if you say so, I think to myself. I was quite sure that Benjamin won't find any incriminating evidence. For one, I didn’t steal, and his confidence was infuriating. I walked away to get some fresh air. Three minutes later I came back and he was gone.
The special purse I was bringing it back to the church this morning. And whilst waiting for a taxi I saw a policeman getting into his taxi which was “on call”, so I was a little surprised that a policeman was out in his uniform taking public transport. Shouldn’t he change out of his uniform before he left the neighbourhood police post?
But then I told myself that he did not know about the money hidden in the special purse. The policeman was just happening to be waiting for his transport. He was not there to spy on me.
I was going to return the special purse to the piano stool today.
My printer was spoilt again, the printer could not print. I had to call Peter Tan for help again. I picked up the mouthpiece and pressed Peter’s extension.
“Hello, what is the problem again?” the guy sounded reluctant.
“Hi Peter, my printer is spoilt, please come and see.” I said.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” “No paper,” I added.
“No paper or I don’t know?” Peter Tan asked.
“Hey, could you come and look at it?” I was getting impatient.
The problem was imminent as I needed to print the chucrh bulletin.
“Ok,” he put the phone down.
I waited. Ten minutes. No sign of him. I gave him another ten. Still no sign.
Just as I was about to give up and ring Benjamin instead, Peter Tan appeared at my desk with two packets of A4 size paper.
“Again?” first things he said.
“What do you mean by again?” I fired him back.
“This is the first time this has happened.”
“Oh, I see.” Peter Tan shut the printer and turned it on minutes later.
And then he pulled the tray out from the printer. He put it on my desk and tore the wrapping apart. Then he added a random stack onto the tray. He put the tray back into the slot and he left without a word.
This man is rude! But I told myself that he helped me, and I didn’t know when I would need his help again.
“Would you like to eat with me tomorrow afternoon?” I heard Peter Tan say before he walked away.
And then just as I replied he was not there anymore.
Since I had arranged for lunch with Peter Tan, I had better cancel my lunch appointment with Benjamin. I went up to Benjamin and said, “Hi Benjamin, I can’t have lunch with you tomorrow.”
“Fine with me,” he replied.
I left Benjamin and went to look for Peter Tan. Peter Tan was nowhere to be found.
At 12:30 p.m. sharp, I intercomed Peter Tan but there was no answer. I dialled his extension again and this time I let it ring until the line was cut off. When after the second time, I walked up from my desk and left for Café 21 by myself. When I arrived at the canteen, I looked around and did not see Benjamin. And then I decided to take the one small.
“Only one?” the char siew lady asked. I was slightly annoyed as I was being made to confess that I was alone.
So, I was having lunch by myself today. After lunch I made sure that I collected a packet of coffee so that I won’t feel sleepy when I returned to work. Coffee always helped. As a matter of a fact, coffee seemed to help me in every ailment that I suffered from. No, I didn’t have diabetes.
And then I also went to the sanctuary to pray again. This time I went after lunch, as by now Benjamin had broken off his lunch engagement with me. We no longer ate together as a matter of course. I had also stopped eating Indian food. The upside was that I stayed alert and did not feel sleepy anymore.
The person I liked most at the church was still Mr Soo. I knew that I could always count on him to bail me out. I was considering going into his office to tell him that I had encountered the unknown kind.
“Mr Soo, I thought that the place is haunted,” I began.
Mr Soo was writing something, his head bent, and holding a pen. I was thinking that I was annoying him.
“What makes you think that the place is haunted?” finally he looked up at me and said.
“I feel chilly,” I continued.
“You mean the air-conditioning is too cold for you?” he asked.
“No, Mr Soo, I have no right to tell you what temperature I wanted for the air-conditioning,”
“The temperature is at 20 degrees all the time. If you made a request, I could increase it,” Mr Soo said.
I counted with my figures under my desk. I had been here for four months, eighteen weeks to be exact. Asking the church director to adjust the temperature of the central system seemed a little bit too demanding, so I quickly shaked my head. I got up from my chair and I walked towards the door.
“Meet me at the pantry behind the curtain, you could sit at the piano and wait for me,” Mr Soo’s voice trailed after me.
I opened his office door and walked out without looking back. I knew that he knew that my special purse with the money was inside the piano stool, and he was giving me a chance to return the money. Hooray!
At the pantry behind the curtain.
“You know that Judy is our old staff,”
“She is Benjamin's wife,” I volunteered the information, and then I added,
“You told me yourself.”
“Yes, she used to work at the Esplanade with us,” Mr Soo elaborated.
“So, they met in church,” I see.
“And then she resigned and got married whilst I joined,” I thought I got the story.
Mr Soo cleared his throat, and then with some reluctance, he opened his mouth, “Judy is dead.”
“What?” my eyes widened.
“Was she his wife before or after she passed?” I was a rather curious person.
Mr Soo got up from his seat then walked to the piano. He opened the stool, and he took out the stack of ten-dollar bills beneathed a pile of piano books. He flipped open one of the piano books and rest it on the capo bar, and then he stood up and walked away without another word, presumably back to his office. I was visibly distressed by Mr Soo’s actions. As by now, it was pretty clear to me that he knew that I had handled the thighs and I had no good explanation to pardon myself. The only option was to wait for him to fire me. My contract was not due to expire in another eighteen months’ time so that if they didn’t want me, they would have to dismiss me for reason.
There was no proof that I had taken any money from the church. I started to think of the grounds. The contract agreement was not with me. But I was sure that it would fall under “dishonesty”, which was a “criminal breach of trust”. I had read some of those cases in the newspapers before. I panicked, and immediately I walked towards Mr Soo’s room. I did not knock on his door before entering. As I thought he was seated at his desk. I headed straight for the watering cans and as I picked them up, I said,
“Up to you,” then I sauntered out of his office, and I came back to the pantry area to fetch water. I brought the two watering cans back to the office, like I was doing a Jack and Jill at the same time. The water spilled when I carried them as they were full. When I reached Mr Soo’s office, the door was ajar and I strolled in casually, as though nothing had happened. Then I put the watering cans on the floor and closed the office door behind me.
“Mr Soo, I know that you have been waiting for this for a long time.” I whispered.
“Oh yes, my little angel,” the man got up from his chair and walked towards the sofa on the other side in his room. That was the first thing I noticed when I was at the interview six months ago. And then he said, “these roller blinds are especially installed for you.”
“So that no one can see us here?”
I told you my mind works very fast.
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