Five Cents


Little Mei Mei loved to play at a cleared area in the grassy field just outside her Ah Poh’s shack in Tiong Bahru.


Every morning, after having a slice of white bread with butter and hot coffee, she would run off to play with San San and Ah Pui. Her Ah Poh (or granny as she lovingly called in Cantonese) would then step out for a few hours and return at noon to prepare a meal of rice and something for lunch, and it would always taste alright. Most of the time, the rice was watery and salty, and there would be a side dish of fermented beans. Ah Poh said it was good for Mei Mei’s muscles. At other times, the rice was firm and steaming from a bowl, and some fried anchovies and cut green chilies with soya sauce were shared between the two of them.


At the grassy field, San San and Ah Pui would dig into their pockets for some glass marbles to throw about. With Mei Mei, they’d squeal with their hits and misses. Ah Pui was called that by his mother because he was born a big baby and kept growing faster and bigger than most Singapore-born children in the 1960s. He was so fat that his trousers never quite fit him, always riding halfway down his buttocks. He was so fat that he had a double chin and when he ran, he waddled. He also perspired a lot, making him smelly.


But Mei Mei didn’t mind because he was her friend.


—                                                                                                                 *


Twenty-two years later, Little Mei Mei was not quite little anymore, but the name stuck. And she was still saving up for her education. After years of doing odds and ends, of scrubbing greasy restaurants, of dabbling in small businesses and failing, she took a loan for driving lessons.


With a shiny new licence, she rented a cab to drive passengers around by day and sometimes nights too. The Comfort Cab was new with powerful air-conditioning and a good stereo system, which made her happy because she loved to listen to the news in between the Top Ten hits.


She picked up a passenger from Bayshore Park condominium—a well-dressed woman in a hurry to get to the Shangri-la Hotel. She said she was late for a meeting. Mei Mei stepped on the gas pedal, not noticing the speedometer go past 80 km/hr, but noticing in the rear-view mirror how pretty the woman’s lips were in shimmering lip gloss. Wages were going up, according to the news broadcast, and Singaporeans were in a better state then they were before. Most owned their own homes and had a colour TV. The government reckoned it had done well in providing for its people. They enjoyed better health and were taller than their ancestors. Little Mei Mei, who was still short for her age, wondered how people like her didn’t make it into the statistics. She did not own her home; she was renting a place with co- workers, she had no TV (no time to watch it anyway) and her wages were as thin as gruel. She switched to a different radio station. Classical music. Ah, peace.


“So you work in big company?”


“Hewlett-packard. MNC.”


“Wah, very big ah. Got kopi machine?”


“Of course. Espresso too.”


“Wah, so lucky ah. Anytime you want, can drink kopi. I want to drink kopi also got no time. Must drive taxi from morning to night.”


If you studied well in school in the first place, you’d have all the time to drink coffee, you ugly bitch, thought the passenger.


What happened next? Read the rest of this short story when She Never Looks Quite Back by Mallika Naguran is out.