Ode to Joy


“That’s nice. Clean, clear notes, that’s what we want. Now play these eight bars again, paying attention to the wave of the theme. There’s a wave here that repeats itself, from the first to the fourth bar, then again from the fifth to the eighth. Can you hear it? Can you sense it, love?”


Can I hear the wave? Can I sense the wave? I know the wave by heart. I have heard it from somewhere. From a distance. From the past. Ode to Joy beckons me from the dusky roads outside No.9 Sembawang Road like a mother calling out hoarsely to her children to quit playing and return home for tea and kaya toast.


Fields of white, blue and green. Where white cotton sails across the blue ocean of a sky, held fast and still in opposite attraction to the rolling greens. Many a times I have wandered and played and laughed and sung in those fields. I have lain on the grounds to spit at the sky, only to be spat back at, with lashings of rain.


My best friend Kamala had this theory about rain. If you told a lie, it would rain that very day. I found this to be true. I lied to mummy that I had to go pick flowers for ‘show and tell’ in school. But instead I caught tadpoles in the slithery stream that snaked through the wasteland beyond the row of Colonial black and white bungalows, leading into the darkness of the woods. I was forbidden to venture out far. But I knew Kamala wouldn’t squeal on me, and so we went.


And it rained. The tadpoles squiggled away. I returned home shifty-eyed, empty- handed and wet to the aroma of freshly baked bread with sweet coconut and pandan jam, and a frowning mummy with a warm towel.


“Not bad. You demonstrate details in your playing, Kim. But somehow, you are not making it sing. This is Beethoven’s masterpiece. It’s being played all over the world by pianists, moving people to tears. Do you know how that happens, love?”


Kamala had this other theory about mangoes: that eating a mango makes things go crazy. You feed it to the chickens and they scamper. You feed it to dogs and they whimper. You feed it to goats and they bite your fingers along with it.


Mummy used to slice a juicy mango so fine it could make a grown man weep. At dinner that night, the rain pounded so hard on the rooftop that I could barely make out what my parents were saying. Also, Ah Hock kicked my shin under the table, which made my nose sting. The chandelier above the dining table rocked with the stormy wind, throwing shadows on the walls with dark and hypnotic movements.


“Pay attention to what daddy is saying, Kim,” said mummy, who suddenly looked years older. She reached out for a plump mango and inhaled the yellow skin deep. She held it out to daddy who stared at her as if she had gone mad.


“Smell it, Keong. It’s deliciously ripe.”


Daddy didn’t move. He stared at mummy who proceeded to slice the fruit with a gleaming knife, juices trickling down in tiny orange drops on the teakwood dining table. Tears streamed down his smooth face.


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