Authors: Liz Rosenberg
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Cultural Heritage
NOVELS BY LIZ ROSENBERG
The Laws of Gravity
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2014 Liz Rosenberg
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Laura Klynstra
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014935284
TO DAVID. ALL MY LOVE, ALL MY LIFE.
“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
Introducing the Palace
have always lived in the crumbling Kampong Glam Palace. Istana Kampong Gelam. Because it is white, with rounded arches in a row, it has the look of an ancient wedding cake. It has always been falling apart, as long as I have known it. Even my nighttime dreams are always set inside the palace compound. Unlike friends and schoolmates, who share exciting flying dreams, where they sail away over the tiled rooftops through surging gray clouds beyond tiny Singapore, in my own dreams I skim low through the rooms of the palace, barely above the ground. I see the patterned carpets, the wooden floorboards worn to the smoothness of satin. But never have I risen above the level of the palace ceiling, not even in my dreams.
“This is a sign you are a realist,” said my Uncle Chachi. He said it with satisfaction, as if noting some rare form of genius within the family. I was only Agnes, an ordinary seventeen-year-old girl, the last of her line. But it was also true—realists are rare in our lineage.
The oldest Singaporean families are mixed up mutt-style like ours, with extended families living together for generations, even now in the 1920s. But the family history descended of Sultan Hussein Shah of Jahore is more complicated than most. These complications make our family a handy emblem of Singapore—not that anyone looks to us this way. It was best, as Uncle Chachi often reminded me, if they did not look too often or too closely. We were no longer supposed to be here. We continued only because we occupied so tiny a corner of the British Empire that they had forgotten about us altogether. So we seldom spoke of our past. I learned things as children do—by a slip of the tongue, a phrase spoken in the heat of anger, an ear pressed to a door. I trained myself to be the keeper of our convoluted family history. Here, then, is the central cast of characters:
Uncle Chachi is actually my paternal great-uncle. He is my grandfather’s youngest brother—a crucially important fact in this family history. He was and is the last living male heir. My paternal grandparents are both deceased, as are my mother and father. They died in the flu pandemic of 1918, along with several uncles and aunties, two cousins, and my older brother. It happened long ago, I tell my school chums; I was a child, too young to ride a two-wheel bike, too young to remember the details, I’m not the only one, and you needn’t feel sorry for me. In fact, there are two other flu orphans in our school. Then I glare at my classmates, to make it clear that pity was not merely discouraged but forbidden.
Uncle Chachi’s late wife was called Nei-Nei Up.
is Chinese for grandmother, but after my real paternal grandmother died, my great-aunt insisted on this moniker. Until I was fifteen, when she passed away, I had to address my great-aunt as Nei-Nei Up. This was galling to my maternal grandmother, who was called Nei-Nei Down because she lived downstairs with the British Grandfather. It made for many uncomfortable moments, this distinction between Nei-Nei Up and Nei-Nei Down.
“It is a bad thing,” Nei-Nei Down would grumble. “They pretend it means nothing, but
means lower. I am treated like an underling in my own house, only because my husband cannot climb the stairs. What’s more, she is not your true grandmother; she is merely your great-aunt. You should call her Nei-Nei Never-Was-and-Never-Will-Be.”
Yet no one grieved harder when little Nei-Nei Up passed away—not even Uncle Chachi, the widower. Nei-Nei Down was fiercely inconsolable. She visited the Buddhist temple on Eng Hoon Street three times a day, lighting red candles and saying prayers. She lost so much weight she looked like a little white bird, swallowed up in the robes of mourning.
“She was my best friend!” Nei-Nei Down keened. “She was my Chinese sister, my little darling! No one will ever understand me as she did.” This was probably true. Their passionate quarrels, their petty jealousies, their tender truces—no one in the household knew what to make of them. The two old women argued, fought, and made up together in a Peranakan Chinese language all their own, like the language of twins, and the rest of the family could make out only a word here and there—“gremlin” or “extreme beauty” or “monkey brains.”
Nei-Nei Down was lost for a time, without her nemesis. Her people, those of her generation, were dying out. And I kept forgetting that I no longer needed to call her Nei-Nei Down. She was now my one and only Nei-Nei. Still, the habit stuck.
“Nei-Nei D—dear,” I would say. Or “Nei-Nei D—darling.” But I could never pull it off.
“Never mind the endearments,” Nei-Nei would say, tapping hard on the back of my hand. Her fingertips reminded me of a woodpecker’s beak. “Just call me Nei-Nei. That’s easy enough to remember.”
And Grandfather, her husband, would chuckle softly. He was born and raised in the posh West End of London, in the nineteenth century. He still carried a brolly whenever he went outside, even when he was rolled out by Nei-Nei Down in his wooden wheelchair. She treated him like a precious baby. She never let him go out in the rain, though he carried a lifelong fondness for damp weather along with his umbrella. Most often, he ended up using it as a parasol against the hot Singapore sun.
British Grandfather was our most distinguished family member. I was foolishly, vainly proud of him. When he could still walk, he stood nearly six foot four in his stocking feet, which made him stand out shockingly in Singapore, where the people were short and small boned. I was named Agnes after his mother. Agnes was a strange name for a Singapore mixed breed like me. I am one-half Chinese, one-quarter Indian Muslim, and one-quarter British, so you can imagine what I look like. Dark-haired, petite, with a small mouth, strangely pale gold skin, and dark grayish eyes that changed with my mood and the weather. Singaporeans had trouble pronouncing the name Agnes, so it was shortened to Aggie. Not by British Grandfather, however. He remembered to call me Agnes even when he had forgotten everything else he had been, done, or wanted. Once, he asked me if I was the pretty young nurse sent over by the hospital. Even then, he called me Agnes.
British Grandfather was the happiest member of our extended Kampong Glam family. Even when we were dead broke—and we always were—he seemed not to know it. His pale-blue eyes crackled with life, and he was always effusing over something that he’d seen through his bedroom window or up in the sky, or lying in the gutter of Arab Street.
One day, it was a stick of gum, wrapped in foil. Probably it had fallen out of the coat of some American. But I snuck it into the pocket of Grandfather’s cashmere wrapper and made him promise not to put it in his mouth.
“Can’t chew,” he said, clicking his teeth at me with a grin. “False uppers.”
“And lowers,” I reminded him. British Grandfather cupped his hand protectively over the gum wrapped in his pocket, as if it were a pet.
The Istana Kampong Gelam, our palace, decrepit as it is, now and then houses a stray uncle or auntie or cousin who has left home, or suffered an extended domestic dispute, or has nowhere else to go. They could easily live in one of the smaller Kampong-style houses that surround the palace and make up the larger compound, but we Singaporeans like to crowd together. We never knew when we might stumble over an unannounced relative stirring pepper pot in the kitchen, or drawing a lavender-scented bath.
Kampong Glam Palace contained fourteen bedrooms; it was impossible to keep track of them all. The relatives were the nonpaying guests. Others were boarders, essential to the meager finances of our household. These boarders, too, came and went, but with more regularity.
That November, our paying guests consisted of three young men. Uncle Chachi rented only to males. I’d argued forcefully about this with him, but so far it had been to no avail.
“Men are more trustworthy,” he told me.
“Ha!” said Nei-Nei Down.
I think he hoped one of them would turn out to be a prince who would ask for my hand in marriage. That did not seem likely. One of our boarders, an old childhood friend, was Dawid, a plump Raffles schoolmate, whose parents had given up their business here, returned to India, and allowed him to finish his education in Singapore. No doubt they bragged back home that their son lived in a palace—never mind the peeling wallpaper, the chipped cornices, or the roof that leaked like a colander. Dawid was no trouble, though his appetite was prodigious. This only endeared him more to Nei-Nei Down, the family cook.
“I do not trust a man who does not eat,” she would say, looking pointedly at skinny Uncle Chachi.
Another of our palace boarders was Wei, a quiet Chinese student at King Edward College of Medicine. Despite all of his medical training, Wei did not want to become a doctor. He lived in the hope that the newly established Raffles College might someday offer a degree in mechanical engineering. His passion, if so it might be called, was the designing and building of bridges.
Our last and newest boarder was a sullen young Muslim named Omar Wahlid. He is not a student, nor does he work. Even Uncle Chachi cannot coax a word of explanation out of him. Therefore, he is charged the highest rate in the household.
Our family’s survival depends upon these three boarders, on British Grandfather’s military pension, and on the still smaller pension Uncle Chachi inherited through his honored ancestor, the Sultan Hussein Shah of Jahore. The pension was long ago officially rescinded by the Crown, and yet the check continues to arrive each month, by way of some fortunate government inefficiency. Eventually, it must stop altogether. We know this, but we pretend not to know.
Prices jump up and up, while our resources stay the same. We economize as best we can. No one complains. We have gone from nobility to genteel poverty to near-desperation in a few generations. We buy only the cheapest cuts of meat and the scavenger fish that other people scorn. Chiefly we survive on rice and the vegetables we grow at the back of the palace, where no one can see. Nei-Nei Down dresses in a way one would most kindly call shabby. Uncle Chachi has given up cigars and coffee. British Grandfather is reduced to wearing only his robe and slippers, bent and folded at the heels. I do not dare ask for a new school uniform, though the old one has grown scandalously short. We have let go all but the most essential servants—and kept those few that remain only out of pity. Without our help they would be homeless and destitute. A few months ago, one of them passed away, leaving the elderly Sanang the only housemaid living under our roof. We paid for the funeral ourselves, scraping together our last dollars and coins to do so. The gardener comes and goes as he pleases, mostly out of pity. His paying job is on the other side of the island.
In short, our days under the leaking roof of the Kampong Glam Palace are numbered, and each of its residents—with the possible exception of British Grandfather—knows that fact only too well. Time, the great deceiver, is no longer on our side.