The Secret by Marina Lewycka

Sometimes a journey of discovery can take you half way across the world and sometimes all it takes is a couple of steps across the hall.

“It’s funny,” thought Mrs Chan, “That my parents travelled half way around the world to settle among strangers, while I have never before even stuck my nose inside my neighbour’s house.”

In truth Mrs Chan did not even know her neighbour’s real name for most of the ten years she had lived across the hall, but always thought of her as Madam Wang Yan, meaning ‘Madam Glamorous’ on account of the great quantity of jewellery she wore, earrings like chandeliers and bangles that glittered when she waved her arms.  She did this usually at her husband when she said goodbye in the morning, and at the children, two whiney spidery  boys and a girl like a grasshopper, who had caused mayhem in the stairwell, before they had finally grown up and gone away, nobody knows where. Come to think of it she hadn’t seen much of the husband recently, either.

The strange thing is that Madam Wang Yan always had a red spot like a drop of blood in the middle of her forehead. Perhaps her husband beat her up in the morning before he left for work.  Well, it was none of her business.

Mrs Chan believed in minding her own business. It was a great invention of Singapore, which in her country was quite unknown, and she had learned about it from Madame Cockroach, Madam Wang Yan’s predecessor in the flat across the hall. It was Madam Cockroach who had told her there would be an Indian Family moving in when she left, and it was the little grasshopper girl who had shouted out that her former neighbour was a Cockroach.

It wasn’t just Madam Cockroach that gave Mrs Chan a good reason for minding her own business. No. The fact is that Mrs Chan had a secret, and the fewer people who knew about it, the more chance she had of remaining undiscovered.

Her secret was fat and dark, with squashed-up eyes, and a satisfied smile. He was hugely intelligent, but also hugely lazy. He was called Li Jie. He lived in a special blanket-lined box behind the settee in her sitting room. No, he was not the Governor of her home town, though there was a certain resemblance, which caused her to chuckle whenever he came on television, (the Governor, not the cat, who seldom ventured out of his box) but after her late husband, Chan Li Jie.

The only exercise Mao Li Jie the Cat took was to waddle every morning from the sitting room into the kitchen, where he stretched his fluffy tail and his fat legs behind him, scratched the mat with his claws, opened his pink mouth and miaowed.

“What is it, my little tiger?” asked Mrs Chan in a cooing voice. “Are you ready for breakfasting?”

Every morning, Mao Li Jie consumed an entire tin of tuna. His favourite was the brand that came in olive oil, but sometimes Mrs Chan cheated, and gave him sunflower oil instead. She was not sure he could tell the difference, he wolfed them down so greedily. Next he lapped a saucer of milk, splashing as he flicked up the creamy drops into his mouth. Then he sat down and stretched his paws out one at a time, and licked himself all over with his rough tongue, rubbing with his paws behind his ears where his tongue would not reach. Mrs Chan loved to watch Mao Li Jie’s display of personal hygiene. “Really, he is the most gentlemanly cat,” she thought. In this respect she found him far superior to his namesake Chan Li Jie, who only took a bath once a week.

After that, Mao Li Jie waddled back to his blanket box, Mrs Chan dealt with the litter tray, then she took her place on the settee in front of the television with a cup of green tea. It was her favourite show, and her main source of information about the world, in which people confessed the truth about their lives and relationships – really you would not believe the things some seemingly normal people get up to.  In the pauses between the foolish chatter on the screen (really where do these people get their ideas? a cat has more sense) she could hear his contented snuffling and sighing, and from time to time his tail or his paws would twitch as though he were hunting for mice. His snoring, if at all, was softer and more musical than that of her late husband, who had often kept her awake with his nasal trumpet blasts.

He was also cheaper to feed, despite his love of olive oil sardines. Nor did he drink baijiu.

Another important respect in which Mao Li Jie the Cat was superior to Chan Li Jie the Husband, is that he stayed at home, he did not go out every morning leaving her alone in the flat. Of course, Chan Li Jie the Husband had important work to do in the Security Department, keeping us all safe from terrorists, drug pushers and people who steal shopping mall trolleys, you would never believe the things people get up to in shopping malls. Every afternoon when he came home from work he would take her in his arms, kiss her and sometimes he pulled her into the bedroom and did such unspeakable things she had to turn away the face of Lady Mu Guiying who hung above the bed, who urged her women followers to be modest. It was a man’s right, Chan Li Jie used to say. Mao Li Jie the Cat had never claimed such rights.

Until one day Chan Li Jie the Husband did not come home, and instead Mrs Chan opened the door to two Polices, a lady and a man, who told her that her husband had been crushed by a loading lorry as it delivered a shipment of onions (Onions! He didn’t even like onions!) and he had been rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.

The very next day, Mrs Chan answered an advertisement she had long been eyeing in a shop window, and set out by bus to a faraway suburb to meet a young couple who were emigrating to Australia, and were looking for  a new home for their cat Pickles. Whoever heard of a cat called Pickles? What a stupid name. Of course, she did not say this to the young couple, who seemed delighted to find such a caring person to adopt their beloved pet – he was handsome and sleek, with a superior swagger in his step and a fluffy tail that floated high like a flag (he had not yet become fat.) Mrs Chan fell in love with him at once, but she did not let this show, and she left the young couple’s house in a taxi which they paid for with a flowering plant in a pot, actually they said it was an orchid, a big bag of washing powder that they could not take with them, an ornamental clock in the shape of an owl, a pet-carrier basket with Pickles/Mao Li Jie inside it (she had already renamed him in her heart) and $50 as an advance payment for his olive oil tuna habit. (Really, it was the young couple who had habituated him to this extravagant fare and she blamed them entirely.)

However, Mao Li Jie the Cat had one great disadvantage when compared with Chan Li Jie the Husband. He was illegal.

The HDB block of flats that Mrs Chan lived in had a ‘cat free policy’. That means no one is allowed to keep a cat. How stupid, since everybody knows that cats bring happiness, and prevent people from becoming involved in drugs, terrorism, and theft of supermarket trolleys. Only last year seventy-nine year old Mrs Hu’s Siamese cat had been discovered by a snooper, and she had been forced to choose between losing her home or having him put down. Yes, you were allowed to keep a very small dog, the type that keep their neighbours awake with constant yapping, or birds in a cage, small useless things that merely flutter about and make a bad smell. You were allowed to keep goldfish, but whoever would want a goldfish for a companion? Only someone who themselves has the mentality of a fish.

After the Mrs Hu episode, several of the block’s inhabitants including some of her friends, had, one at a time, moved out, without ever giving the reason, but you could put two and two together. Mrs Chan was not among them, but now she lived in terror that Mao Li Jie would be discovered. She kept him locked in the living room, which had a connecting door to the kitchen that she left open in case he needed the toilet. She never ever invited anyone into her flat, and she hurried out only briefly every day to the shops, while he was asleep, because it was unfair to leave him shut up on his own.  So, as the months went by, the companion who she had hoped would save her from loneliness became the chief cause of her loneliness.

The loneliest time of year was New Year, because that was the time when memories of all much happier New Years came hungering back. Mrs Chan and Chan Li Jie the Husband, had never been blessed with children, who are essential to a proper New Year’s celebration. Even so, they bought each other small gifts – a pair of socks, a bottle of hand lotion – which they wrapped and gave each other, then lit some candles and opened a bottle of baijiu, and Mrs Chan prepared a nice fat salmon, which, to tell the truth, is much tastier than the yu sheng which people in Singapore liked to eat.

Last New Year, which had been her first without Chan Li Jie the Husband, bless his soul, he had been a good man in spite of all her niggles, she tried to recreate the idyll with Mao Li Jie the Cat sitting at the head of the table. But things had not gone according to plan. Alas, Mao Li Jie the Cat, despite being a perfect gentleman, could not control his desires. When Mrs Chan placed the nice fat salmon on the table, he had leaped up, knocking over the bottle of baijiu, seized it by the tail, and dragged it under the settee, gripping it with his claws as he tore into the succulent flesh, growling and thrashing with his tail a she tried to shoo him away. By the time Mrs Chan was able to recover the salmon, less than half was left. She reprimanded him in no uncertain terms, and shut him in the sitting room while she finished it off on her own in the kitchen. It was all in pieces, with bones sticking out and there was not even any baijiu to wash it down. As a punishment she took away the catnip mouse she had bought him as a present. Of course it was not really his fault. He was just a cat. But she had hoped for something different.

This New Year, something different did arrive. It was a card that read:

Who was this Mrs Surya Roy? Surely Roy is a man’s name?

At first she thought it was an invitation to the Seniors’ Club. She had been to a party of theirs once before organised by the false-Believers Church, when they had all piled into a minibus driven by a man named Roy who drove them to a miles-away church hall where they all sat around school-type tables wearing paper hats on top of their grey balding hair, eating dry stringy turkey, drinking tea and singing “Shanty”, by the Quests. What a beautiful song. She had once danced to it with Chan Li Jie the Husband. The memory of their long lives together brought tears to her eyes.  She had smuggled the turkey home in a napkin, and fed it to Mao Li Jie the Cat.

After examining the invitation from all angles, she realized from the address that Mrs Surya Roy must be none other than Madam Wang Yan.  Curiosity overcame her, and a pang of hunger for something she didn’t quite understand…no, not turkey… human connection, maybe.

She had replied on the little tear-off slip on the bottom of the invitation.

Dear Mrs Surya Roy,

Your Name: Mrs Chan Zhang Jing cannot attend  /is pleased to accept your invitation.

On New Year’s morning, when Mao Li Jie the Cat woke up and strolled into the kitchen miaowing, she opened a specially-bought tin of pink salmon, put it into a pretty porcelain dish and heated it in the microwave, 30 seconds, not too hot, so it would be like last year’s New Year salmon, he would never know the difference. She gave him the catnip mouse, which she had hidden away since last year, and watched him rip the wrapping off with his sharp claws just like a tiger. She mixed a drop of baijiu in his saucer of milk – not enough that he would notice, but enough to make him sleepy. When he had finished his personal hygiene routine, she carried him to the blanket-lined box in the sitting room – what a weight he was! – and kissed his fluffy fur.

“Goodbye my darling. Happy Christmas. Be a good boy until Mummy comes back.” (It did not seem strange to think of herself as his Mummy, as she had regarded Chan Li Jie the Husband, for what are men but big babies?)

Then she put on her best blue dress, which she had not worn for over a year, and a little dab of lipstick on her mouth and cheeks, and a left-over splash of Chan Li Jie the Husband’s aftershave behind her ears and under her armpits, which she hoped would mask the smell of mothballs from the dress. She looked at herself in the mirror. No one would guess that she was 69.

Just before she left the flat, a moment of panic seized her. Was it not customary on such occasions, to bring a little gift? Fortunately she had a bottle of hand lotion that Chan Li Jie had bought for her several Christmases ago, that she had only used once because she didn’t like the smell. She re-wrapped it in last-year’s paper and stuck it down securely with sellotape. No one would ever know. What about Mr Roy? In Chan Li Jie the Husband’s drawer was the two-years-ago pair of Christmas socks, still in their original wrapping. That would do nicely. Then she turned the key in the lock, paused for a moment to think her thoughts, took two steps across the hall and pressed the doorbell.

Ping ping!

Madam Wang Yan, whom she would think of hereafter as Madam Roy Wang Yan, came to the door wearing a long glittery wrap-around gown in bright silky material and chandelier-style earrings. Mrs Chan felt quite plain in her best blue dress, despite its lace trim at the cuffs, collar, and a smart fake-handkerchief sewn on where a pocket should be. Madam Roy Wang Yan held out her hands and grasped Mrs Chan’s.

“Very nice you could come, Mrs Chan. I am becoming so lonely since my hubby Sunny has passed away.  And children all gone away. Two for America. One for Australia. You remember Indra, Ravi and Sunil? Your hubby was always shouting to shut up when they were making noise on stairs. Now both hubbies passed away. Children all grown up far away. No noise. Too much quiet.”

Despite the passing away of Mr Roy, Mrs Chan observed that Madam Roy Wang Yan still had a small red spot in the middle of her forehead.  Could it really be blood? Did she have a secret lover who beat her up?  She had heard on the television that there were women who had such insatiable lust that they do such things.

“Too much quiet.” Mrs Chan nodded and sighed. In fact Madam Roy Wang Yan’s flat was not at all quiet. The daytime television was on full blast in the living room, where the table was set, but above the clamour she could sometimes hear another noise she couldn’t place, a faint person-sound, like somebody crying. The secret lover? An illegitimate child? Maybe she kept some of those useless canary birds to keep her company. Probably it was that. A goldfish would not make such a noise. Her mind flicked momentarily to Li Jie, snoozing in his blanket box, and she felt a wave of satisfaction reflecting on how superior he was to any of the permitted creatures.

Madam Roy Wang Yan indicated a seat for her at the table, which was spread with all manner of unfamiliar brightly-coloured dishes that carried a strange smell. She surveyed them with dismay. Was there anything she could eat? Was there even anything to smuggle home for Li Jie?

“We two lonely ladies must celebrate together. You drink champagne?”

Mrs Chan nodded eagerly. Things were looking better, until Madam Roy Wang Yan reached  on the sideboard for a bottle that clearly said, “Non-alcoholic sparkling fruit beverage.” She eased off the cork, which flew up to the ceiling with a thud. For a moment the sound of crying seemed to intensify.  Where was it coming from? Then some celebrity came on the television and there was a round of applause and shouting. Madam Roy Wang Yan joined in.

“I admire her extremely,” she said to Mrs Chan as she poured out the sparkling beverage into two tall-stemmed glasses. “She is example of person coming from humble origin who make big success in their life. Do you like?”

Mrs Chan was not sure whether she was referring to the drink, which was rather too sweet and sparkly and lacked the punch of baijiu, or to the celebrity, whom she had never heard of. But she nodded enthusiastically and said, “Cheers!”  And a tear crept into her eye as she thought of the times she and Chan Li Jie the Husband  had downed a bottle of baijiu between them, saying “Cheers!” at every glass. Even if you don’t know much English, you can always say, “Cheers!”

To prove it, Madam Roy Wang Yan raised her glass and said, “Cheers!” Their glasses clinked. “To absent hubbies. To lonely ladies!” Madam Roy Wang Yan pointed to the food display. “Please, eat up. Everything vegetarian!”

Mrs Chan’s heart sank some more. Whatever hopes of human connection she had held when she crossed the hallway vanished at that moment. It seemed a terrible betrayal of everything her parents had always striven for but never achieved – to eat meat every day. Her parents had died skinny when they were in their fifties. Even Mao  the Cat knew that you must eat meat to be healthy. Or fish.

Maybe it was not her fault. Maybe in India people are too poor to eat meat and she did not know how to cook it. Maybe Mr Roy was too mean to give her money to buy meat. Once on television there had been a husband like this.

She resolved that she would invite Madam Roy Wang Yan to her flat and cook some chicken for her, and give her baijiu to drink. Mao Li Jie the Cat could be locked away for one afternoon. But what Madam Roy Wang Yan said next surprised her.

“But I know you Chinese must eat fish at Christmas.  So I cook one fish special for you.”

With a smile, she stood up and disappeared through the connecting door into the kitchen, which up until now had remained closed. There was that sound again. Mrs Chan pricked up her ears. Not a child. Not a lover. Not a canary. It sounded more like a dog whining, and now it started to bark excitedly. Then there was a noise of an oven-door slamming, a scuffling and banging, and a shriek from Madam Roy Wang Yan.

“Get down Sunny! Naughty boy!”

Then the door from the kitchen burst open, and out rushed a large brown dog holding something in his jaws, followed by Madam Roy Wang Yan.

“Put down immediately Sunny! Naughty boy!”

But the dog, which was far too large to belong to one of the permitted breeds, ran under the sideboard with an entire fish, and did not emerge until it was all gone. Madam Roy Wang Yan was crying and rubbing her eyes with the corner of her gown.

“Very sorry, very much sorry, Mrs Chan. You are very good friend for me. You don’t tell nobody. He is naughty boy. Only puppy. I get him when hubby passed away. I call him Sunny same name as hubby. Please. Sorry. I will cook again for you.”

“No, Madam Roy Wang Yan,” said Mrs Chan, shaking her head resolutely. “No, next time you must come in my house.”


The End


A short story adapted to Singapore’s context by Marina Lewycka
© 2018 Marina Lewycka.