WRIT LARGE: Ch 3, Part 3
The Studded Mask
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The Oriental Elixir is like an old-fashioned curiosity shop. I almost expect to see sawdust on the wooden floor and pickled fingers and eyeballs in the jars on the dusty shelves. It is such a contrast to the heat and vibrant foliage clinging to the residential buildings of Singapore, that it is as if the staircase has led us through a glitch in time rather than to an upstairs room.
My initial reaction is that this is not the kind of establishment in which I would expect Leann to be comfortable and yet she climbs onto a barstool and waits eagerly for the mixologist to recognise her. He air-kisses both cheeks and clasps her hand to his chest. The gesture inexplicably brings tears to my eyes and I widen my smile to distract the man’s attention.
“This is a cocktail bar with a difference,” says Leann. “The cocktail, in your case a mocktail, will be chosen for you, depending on your mood.”
I am intrigued to taste the outcome. The mixologist chats, while he mixes, as though he could prepare cocktails by touch alone, and I make a mental note to pursue that idea for a future novel. He tells us about the man who taught him everything he knows about mixing cocktails.
“He was a tattoo artist too. He practiced on his wife, but eventually he became world-renowned for his tattoos that could affect a person’s mood simply by looking at them.”
I ask if that is what he hopes to achieve from his cocktails.
“Wait until you try them,” says Leann. She sips her cocktail through a metal straw, her lipstick leaving the faintest imprint. Maybe it is my imagination, but her shoulders seem to relax instantly, tiny lines appearing at the corners of her eyes when she smiles. I ask her to describe the effect to me and she shrugs. “What can I say? It is as though the day has suddenly become brighter, as though a light has been switched on.” She peers at me from above the straw and winks. “As though you just told me I am the latest member of your Writer’s Guild.”
Beside me, Jasmine and Cheng laugh. I am excited to experience the magical brightening of my day as described by Leann, although now I feel that I have hyped it up too much in my head and it is bound to be a disappointment. The mixologist slides a tall glass towards me. I take a deep breath, rest my lips on the glass rimmed with herbs and salts, take my first sip. And something inside me warms, a window opens and all that is vibrant about Singapore, the trees, the sky, the people, fills me to bursting. All eyes are upon me and all I can do is nod, take another sip, enjoy the moment.
While I adjust to this newfound lightness – not dizziness, but rather a lightening of gravity as though my arms would raise of their own accord if I allowed them to – I ask the mixologist to choose a tattoo that would best describe us.
He continues to fix drinks for Jasmine and Cheng.
“For you,” he says to me, “a kite, for the way you look down at the world from above and acknowledge all that takes place. And for this lovely lady, Leann, a door.”
“A door?” She appears amused.
“It would appear either open or closed depending on who was looking at it.”
Haji Lane is alive: in the sense that it is thriving, buzzing, vivid. People walk no faster along Haji Lane and yet they thrum with energy. Conversation flows from outside restaurants and shops and is contagious to anyone passing by.
We stop to look at giant, garish fans painted with Asian symbols, silk tasselled cushion covers, tiny Buddha figurines, engraved metal bowls, jewellery, trinkets, clothes. There are stalls selling Tiger Balm and cigarette lighters. Women offering to decorate your hand with henna. People sit outside restaurants eating chilli-crab and drinking beer, and their toes touch the road, which is filled with more people wandering and watching.
We choose a bar, a table outside, that is practically in the road and yet still beneath the awning should a rain-shower appear with no warning. Jasmine and Cheng are a little tipsy. They order beers, the ice-cold bottles arriving with tiny droplets of water trickling down the outside. Leann tips her head back and takes a long swig from her bottle.
“Even I enjoy a cold beer occasionally,” she tells me. “I love it here.” Jasmine and Cheng agree, admitting that they love mingling with the tourists. “It is like vanishing for a short while,” says Leann. “Existing in another world, watching other people live, and breathe, and laugh, before returning to reality.”
I understand what they mean. Although the sky is dark above the restaurant awnings, it could be any time, day or night. It is as though time has stood still. And then I notice a child watching me from a nearby table. She must be no older than eight or nine, with dark shiny hair and eyes round as buttons.
Leann speaks to the child and I ask her to translate for me.
“I asked her why she is staring at you,” she says. “And she replied that you have a funny accent. I told her that she should not be rude to strangers.”
I laugh and tell Leann that I do indeed have a funny accent and that the child should not be reprimanded for speaking the truth. I ask Leann to put herself in the child’s shoes and imagine how it would feel to be spoken to by someone like herself. She watches the girl for several moments and peers around us at the open-fronted shops. She rises abruptly.
“I will be back,” she says and heads in the direction of a shop selling brightly painted wooden elephants and trinket boxes.
“Where did she go?” asks Jasmine. I shake my head.
When she returns, Leann hands the child a paper bag containing a gift. Inside the bag is an eye-mask painted in red and yellow and green, with diamantes studded around the edge, and ribbons hanging from either side. The child looks at Leann wide-eyed and shows the gift to her mother who thanks Leann profusely.
I ask if the mask was for the child’s benefit or her own, and she replies, “What do you think?”