Dear friends, it has been a long time since I tried my hand at fiction. It is a genre I would one day like to get better at. I wrote this short story a few months ago when I was applying to some writing programmes. Any thoughts, good, bad and ugly, much appreciated. Thank you!
Ravi’s mum woke Connie every morning. 7:01, glowed the blurry red numbers in the corner. Just like yesterday. And the day before.
Soon the sound of distant water would stop, and Ravi would come scampering out, his black curls doused, his cheeks polished, his tummy’s folds flapping as droplets bounce off it, wearing only a tiny towel pinched by his fingers at his left hip bone.
As he rushed for his singing phone, right arm outstretched, Connie would stare at his toned thigh through the towel’s slit, and marvel at the anatomic anomaly in front of her: chicken legs propping up an oblong body. As if Ravi’s legs got sent down the wrong torso line at the Human Factory.
“GBC, babes, GBC,” was his blithe explanation. “Genes, beer, cycling. In that order.” Every aesthetic inquisition ended with that joke, as stale as his Saturday morning breath, yet Connie found herself repeatedly coaxing it out by indulging peoples’ interest in that oddity named Ravi. Her Ravi.
“Hi mum,” Ravi would say, raising his eyebrows while squeezing out a smile for Connie. “Ya, ya, good. Why do you need to call this early?”
Still talking, Ravi would then walk into the kitchen and turn on his new Italian coffee machine, leaving behind a musky cloud of whatever his mum last bought him. For the next few minutes all Connie would hear is grinding, frothing, steaming.
And then all would go silent and maybe, just maybe, the mattress will relent and that warm, soft hand will reach over and grab her bum while a cavalcade of wiry hairs tickles her whole body.
Connie closed her eyes and smiled, aware that the scene she had just played out in her mind was now unfolding. This morning cocktail of schedule and surprise was intoxicating.
When Connie opened her eyes again, Ravi’s handsome face was above hers.
At 8:30 Ravi dropped Connie off in front of the imposing white colonnade, through which suited lemmings were shuffling purposefully. She watched the red Honda speed off; once it had turned the corner, Connie walked to the back of the dour building and towards the concealed grey corridor guarded by two cameras and the sign, “ISD personnel only.” Inside, an icy silence had replaced the lobby’s humdrum. She stood in front of the machine as lights and lasers swept over her face and eyes, penetrating her being.
“Connie Lo. Female. Chinese. Atheist. Twenty-nine.”
It’s twenty-eight-and-two-months, jackass, Connie thought. Last week she had actually replied out loud to Pleasant Greeter No. 24, who contrived to delay her entry by ten minutes.
“Yes,” she said, her voice unlocking the final security code. The doors slid apart.
She walked inside the capacious hall full of empty cubicles. Her shoulders relaxed, then pushed backwards as she breathed deeply. Home.
Connie looked to the left and noticed a small congregation around Eddie’s desk. A flurry of hands was summoning her. She obliged.
“Morning! What’s up?”
“Check out Eddie’s new bike,” a voice gushed.
“Is that the new Folder X?”
Connie’s morning was getting even better. She stood there, transfixed, as Eddie folded and unfolded it. Even the fifteen-minute extended review by SuperGeek Shan, which Connie watched every day over lunch at her desk, didn’t do it justice. The Folder X was indeed Magical. And Mindblowing. And Mesmerising. Just like they had promised. And she hadn’t even sat on it yet.
“How fast?” Connie asked, breathlessly.
“Well, I’ve hit eighty.”
“That’s nothing,” Eddie went on. “I wasn’t even pushing it. They say one-twenty no problem.”
“One-twenty?!? Shan didn’t mention that.”
“Shan’s a dick. He just cares about distance-to-facial.”
They all laughed; even Connie, who was one of SuperGeek Shan’s one million SuperFollowers. For today Eddie, a braggart whose trust fund and gadgets helped nudge him over her line of acceptability, could do no wrong.
Connie held her smile, rocking her head gently. She had waited her whole life for the Folder X. Now she was ready to make the switch, to leave cars behind, to do her part for the planet. Finally she would be free. Free of the bus drivers, free of her parents, free of Ravi. Connie adored them all—and had fond memories of the red Honda’s black-cushioned seats—but she longed to be free.
The gaggle of Folder X groupies grew steadily till 9:29, then suddenly dispersed. By 9:30, when the flag appeared above and the Internal Security Department Song was piped in, all were at attention. Connie sang with a subconscious fervour. “Who keeps us safe? ISD, yeah! Internal Security, yo!” She looked around the room, pumped her fist in the air along with everybody else, and again felt her chest swell.
By 9:35, every cubicle was occupied, every screen flickering. Connie looked around at the blur of charts, bars and words levitating around her. Only she could make sense of it all. The thought calmed her. Her hands reached for the keyboard. When her fingers felt the plastic servitude of the keys, Connie felt complete again.
She typed in, slowly, “L-E-E”, and then hit Enter.
Since the last election, Connie’s job had both shrunk and grown. Shrunk in terms of letters. She no longer had to muck around with “L-E-E C-O-R-R-U-P-T”, “K-I-L-L L-E-E” and other weird formulations of terror.
Her job had been whittled down to three letters.
But the fewer the letters, the wider the search. In the past twelve months Connie had investigated a Chinese company called Lee Trading which imported jade from Burma and exported printers to Zimbabwe; questioned a group of six-year-olds who organised a weekend sale using the hashtag #LeemonadeBlast; and hauled in a Malay lady who for no apparent reason—rather, none that the Cold Room could squeeze out of her—called her father “Lee darling”.
Among the many duds were a few successes. “One a year pays for the rest,” her first boss had told her.
In the past few months, Connie’s work had led to the thwarting of a plot to pour paint on the prime minister’s car and the arrest of a tattoo artist who had inked more than twenty people with an impression of Guy Fawkes above the words “Remember, remember, the Lee man Dis Member.”
But her landmark professional achievement was last month’s success. It was the reason the older ones such as Eddie now respected her; the reason she now sometimes went home before her boss did; the reason she could now afford a Folder X; and the reason she felt she could lampoon Pleasant Greeter No. 24. Exactly thirty days ago in the closed court, Connie’s meticulous, two-year dossier on Frankie Siow, tycoon, gadfly and dissident supporter, had been instrumental in his conviction for sedition.
A day later, Connie was presented with a Service Excellence award by the Department Director, becoming the youngest-ever recipient. She placed the golden statue at the edge of her desk so that it—not she—would first greet visitors and help-seekers. She pinned a photograph of the award presentation on her cubicle’s felt wall, after removing everything else on it: her Primary School transcripts, her Salsa Dancing certificate, even the little red packet with a birthday message from Mum & Dad. They all came off, their worth dimmed in the shadow of that photograph of a smiling Connie and a smiling Department Director.
By 11:30, with no obvious leads, Connie turned to face the golden statue and the photograph, and realised she had already touched each of them twice.
Connie spent her lunch-break scanning her screens while eating the weekly staple which the old aunty had delivered to her desk. As she scooped parcels of chilli-laced chicken and greased rice into her mouth, Connie also noticed America’s first female president on the muted office flatscreen. What grace, what style, what stamina, Connie concluded, for somebody about to begin her second term.
We both cherish dynasties; at least yours has a woman. Connie immediately chided herself for that pestilent thought. She peered over her shoulder, and then glanced at the clutch of cameras by the corner pillar. She forced herself to remember what she had been taught: their system works for their country, our system works for ours.
She looked back at her own screens. Having seen the actual Folder X, she hadn’t planned to watch any more video reviews; but Connie then realised that being so close to it made her want it more. And so while nibbling on the last of the chicken bones she logged on to YouTube.
SuperGeek Shan was pointing out the various charging stations in the Ministry’s vicinity when Connie felt a tap on her shoulder.
She swung around, irritated, “There are still fifteen minutes left on..”
“Connie, you need to look at this.” It was Amanda, her boss, holding a sheaf of papers.
Connie pressed her bare feet to the ground and pushed, rolling her chair backwards, creating space between them. She glanced over at the golden statue, which Amanda had never won.
“Can it wait? I’m in the middle of my…”
“No Connie, I’m sorry, it can’t wait.” Amanda pinched her lips, which seemed to have caught something on the way out.
“OK, OK, fine,” Connie said, as her right foot swept the carpeted floor, like a metal detector, in search of her pumps.
In the conference room, Amanda began laying out stacks of coloured paper around a rectangular table, occasionally whispering to her hands, “And this goes here.” When she was done, Amanda looked smugly at her handiwork: the ten-by-two-feet tabletop looked like the floor-pad for a Dance-Dance Revolution game. She couldn’t wait to get started.
Connie sighed, dreading another anodyne lullaby. Why couldn’t we do this online, on our shared workspace? What a waste of time, of paper, of bright white lighting.
But as Amanda introduced the case, Connie grew more interested. The Department’s Quant team had discovered a pattern. For the past two months, a group of eighteen people—maybe more—had been communicating with each other on a variety of channels: email, chat, Facebook. They were constantly switching User IDs and physical locations, as if trying to avoid detection. As she spoke, Amanda motored around the table, picking up sheets with one hand, pointing at piles with the other.
The group’s lexicon was a veritable goldmine, including “meet”, “killed”, “prank” (street-speak for “sabotage”), “BloMin” (Bloody Minister) and “EelEelEel” (the Lee family).
“What I find most interesting, and puzzling,” Amanda mused, aware that Connie was by now ensnared, “is their use of the telephone.”
“It seems like they use the telephone only once a day. In the morning. And every call is made by the same person to a different member of the group.”
“Yes. It is almost like a morning roll call from a Queen Bee to her workers.”
Connie smiled. Poor Amanda. Calling one of the workers a Queen.
“The Queen Bee uses different phones,” Amanda continued. “That’s why it took them a while to piece this together.”
“What time do they make the calls?”
“They start around 7,” Amanda said, “and go on for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes a bit longer. All subsequent communication is online.”
Connie smiled yet again. Could it actually be, she wondered, that at the precise moment Ravi and her were making love in the mornings, enemies of the state were hatching a plan? She felt goosebumps pop on her arm.
“So what do you want me to do?” Connie asked, earnestly.
“For now, why don’t you focus only on this group’s communication. Scan it for everythi..”
“Sure, I can do that.”
“Yes, make sure it’s thorough, one never knows what the Quants might have missed.”
“I’m always thorough,” Connie said placidly.
“Yes, well, do remember to check for the Eel-Eel-Eels, not just the..”
“I check every permutation,” Connie shot back. “Every. Single. One…Amanda.”
“Great,” Amanda said, as she collected her papers. “That’s why you’re the best at your job!”
Connie clasped her little black notebook shut, got up and started to walk out.
“Oh, there’s just one last thing,” Amanda remembered. “I’m not even sure it means anything.”
“What is it?”
“The workers, they have this weird way of referring to the Queen…”
“Yes, well, they usually call her ‘Mother’.”
“What?” Connie felt rice grains slide in her stomach.
“We don’t know if it’s a He or a She or a It. It may not even be the ‘Queen’ for all we know, just the coordinator. Anyway, the group members call her ‘Mother’.”
Connie had stopped, and was staring past Amanda. Blurry red lights flickered in her mind.
“Mother, Ma, Mum, Mummy. They’ve used a few different words.”
“Huh..I don’t get it..why would they all…”
“Call the same person the same thing? Yes, it’s a bit strange. May not mean much. Or it may be a ruse, who knows. Just keep an eye out.”
Connie’s mind was racing. Amanda, her words, and the multi-coloured stack she was cradling, were all dissolving into the satin afterglow of the bright white lights.
When had they first met? When had she first slept over? Who, actually, were those two French men with whom they had been drinking last Friday? But hang on. Connie had met his mother. She was real, she was a sweetheart. But would she really call every morning?
“Connie, Connie,” the voice echoed, from another dimension. Ravi, Ravi, her mind whispered back, just like it had that morning.
“Shall I leave the lights on? Connie, Connie.”
Amanda was standing next to her, one eyebrow raised.
“Oh sure, thanks,” Connie said, straightening her back. “I’m just chasing a thought.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Amanda said, nodding at Connie’s notebook, open again in her hands.
Fifteen minutes later, at 13:30, Connie felt ready to leave the meeting room. Her notebook was decorated with dates, places, names, arrows and little stars. The chronology of Ravi was a slice of her own life, no matter how small. Connie resented this intrusion of the personal into her professional world. Armed with her notebook, she strode back to her cubicle, ready to interrogate every ghost, unsure of how or where she would find peace.
Two hours passed. Then two more. Connie had scoured the catacombs of her three hard drives without once stepping off her chair. The green tea leaves slouched on top of each other, in a heap at the bottom of her plastic flask, were used to hourly hot water baths; but on this day, unwanted and forgotten, they were drying up.
Who were these eighteen people? Connie had no idea. As per protocol, their identities were hidden from analysts until absolutely necessary. But in this world names meant nothing anymore, society adept at functioning in a blur of anonymity and pseudonyms. It might not even be eighteen actual people—maybe more, maybe less. Knowing their “names” was never important. Much better to study movements, patterns, language. Many dots had emerged in her mind, but Connie was looking for that one, elusive connection.
17:30. It was time to send Ravi a text message, late enough such that it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary.
Connie: Working late. You carry on. See you tonight.
Ravi: Oh, really? I guess another train line is down? Hmm, was looking forward to dinner. Oh well. See you!
What was the point of “Hmm” and “Oh well”, Connie wondered. Did he want to appear bothered, upset? Was he trying to convey confusion, uncertainty? Coming after all that, the “See you!” seemed unnecessarily chirpy. She started to think about how often he said “Hmm” and “Oh well”.
17:31. Connie stared at the communication logs as they were updating. Nothing. No SMS transmissions anywhere. Final confirmation that Ravi’s number was not floating among the eighteen.
There was no relief, no celebration, because all that meant is that of the countless trapdoors Ravi might fall into, one had been shut. He wasn’t one of the eighteen, but maybe one of the others.
Connie looked up at the cameras in the corner. Did they know about Ravi and her? She started to think back on their six-month relationship. Where they went, what they wore, whom they met. How they looked whenever they drove past the security guards standing listlessly under the Frangipani tree by the entrance to her apartment complex. How many peanut pancakes they bought from the old couple at the stall near Ravi’s house, the only ones who still made them the old way, slowly hand-stirring the nuts and sugar into the batter, infuriating the Automation Officers at the Ministry of Productivity. Which friends were present when Ravi gave her the new pink leather handbag, the one that had been sitting in her online Wish List for a whole month. And which colleagues had best hidden their envy when she carried it while accepting the golden statue.
Did they know about Ravi and her? Somebody surely did. But that person was in a different department with a different remit and a different assholic boss. Chinese walls separated them. Whoever knew about Ravi and her did not know about Ravi and his mum.
But what if Amanda did? Was that why she had assigned this task to Connie? Was it a test? Ever since Connie won the golden statue, others had been jealous. Starlets are celebrated, Connie had learned, up till the point they make more money. Perhaps somebody wanted to bring her down, and what better way than to expose her affair with an enemy of the state? Somebody was sending Connie a message from up above.
“Goodnight Connie. Anything yet?”
“Oh, no, Amanda. I’ll let you know. Goodnight.”
20:30. Two more hours before Connie could claim a free taxi ride home.
It was past eleven by the time Connie reached Ravi’s front-door. The cabby had seemed eager to chat, but her mind was somewhere else. As she tip-toed past the bedroom in the darkness, she peered in and made out a chicken leg lying along the edge of the bed, exposed from the calf down.
Sweet Ravi—he’s again pushed all the blanket over to my side. But Connie stopped herself. Half a day of work had failed to turn up any leads. She had nothing to either vindicate or implicate Ravi. Perhaps he just enjoyed sleeping with one chicken leg in the open.
The uncertainty was gnawing away inside her. Connie had always been able to place the people around her. Good, bad; hardworking, lazy; honest, shady; patriotic, seditious; handsome, ugly. Within an hour of first meeting Ravi, she had him figured out: tall, handsome, Indian, Hindu-outside/atheist-inside, GBC. Now she felt those old certainties crumbling like pillars in an earthquake.
Connie walked over to the wooden cabinet in the far corner of Ravi’s living room. She opened it, pulled out the first bottle she could feel, uncorked it and poured into one of the small tumblers on the cabinet top. A smoky, medicinal aroma leapt up at her nose. Connie recoiled, lamenting Ravi’s ongoing love affair with peat. “Pour a bit more, then you can get the proper high,” she recalled Ravi’s advice the first time she tried his malt whisky. “That’s one shot, pour a double.”
As she sipped, Connie felt her body relaxing. She looked around the moonlit living room, across which images, people and words from weeks gone by were dancing. Ravi and her, slouched on the faux grey leather sofa, watching whole seasons of British television serials as the afternoon rain beat down. Ravi’s buddies, clinking glasses with her, high-fiving her, stumbling around the room, screaming along as the ball flew into the net. And Ravi’s mum, pouring herself a cup of tea, a necessary condiment for her nightly cigarette.
Those emollient memories lubricated Connie’s soul as she fell asleep, after she had showered and crept into the bed next to Ravi, who under the boom of his snore was none the wiser.
Connie couldn’t tell which came first: her racing heart or the ringing phone. Both were at full-speed when she opened her eyes and looked across the room. 7:01.
She heard the shower head cutting off, followed by the piak-piak of footsteps on a wet floor. Then the phone stopped ringing.
“Hi mum,” Ravi said. “All good, all good. Why do you need to call this early?”
Ravi’s mum called every day at the same time and yet he still always asked her why she calls.
Connie had always seen this as reflexive banter that soul mates engage in. A sort of “Love you. Love you more. No, I love you more.” for the Indian mother-son universe. But this morning Connie wasn’t so sure. Why did she call this early?
Connie heard the coffee brewing and knew that in a matter of minutes Ravi would return to bed. He always returned the morning after a barren night. She rubbed her legs together between the crumpled sheets.
She lay back down and closed her eyes. But instead of Ravi, Connie saw the Folder X. Then SuperGeek Shan, showing how kind the Folder X was to office clothing. Then Connie saw herself, riding on her brand new Folder X without using her hands, which were occupied, each gripping a golden statue, her arms stretched out wide, her head tilted up to the sky. Then Amanda appeared, somehow menacing in her mediocrity, as she asked, “Who is Ravi?”
Startled, Connie opened her eyes and stared at the blue ceiling, her mind as clear as it was the morning before. She looked at the blurry red numbers in the corner—7:03.
With the aromas of coffee and cologne getting stronger, Connie slipped out of bed. She knew that if she left right away, she could reach the office before anybody else.