Wednesday, May 28, 2014

(Prose) Tea (James Mogford Prize 2014 entry)

Tea

 
Weathered khaki shorts and thin white singlet. Wrinkled tan face and scarce white hair. No one knows his name, but one thing’s for certain: he’d always be there, rain or shine, sitting at his favourite spot in the coffee shop with a cup of tea.

 

A silent observer of the happenings around him, Ah Peh (as everyone had come to call him a very long time ago) was neither a stall-holder nor a cleaner. One would come to think that he was a permanent fixture of the coffee shop. No one knew how his cup of tea could last him for a whole day, but such a question was never asked: it was decided by silent consensus that a norm should never be doubted.

 

So it came as a great surprise to all when he failed to occupy his spot one day, the lack of a cup of tea complementing his absence. A commotion was stirred up amongst the stall-holders and regular-goers of the coffee shop, and numerous questions were fired between them. No one, however, had decided to pursue the matter, and life at the coffee shop continued on, now with the jarring absence of Ah Peh.

 

It was only after three months that Ah Hock, the drinks seller, decided to look into the disappearance of Ah Peh. Yun Xiang, the Yong Tau Foo seller’s young daughter, who upon learning of the investigation that was to be carried out by Ah Hock, readily volunteered to tag along as an excuse to get away from her mother’s stall, and to spend a little time together with her secret crush.

 

Unsure of where to start, Ah Hock heeded Yun Xiang’s suggestion of checking Ah Peh’s favourite spot for clues. Examining Ah Peh’s table and stool, Ah Hock soon discovered a weathered key hidden stealthily under the table. Testing it out on a whim, Ah Hock inadvertently discovered that it unlocked a well-secluded door among the stores at the back of the coffee shop.

 

What awaited them behind the door was incredible. Countless small brown pouches of tea leaves covered the fours walls of the room in its entirety, giving the room a pleasant fragrance of tea amidst its dimly lit interior. The sharp, calming, and faintly bitter aroma distracted Ah Hock from his investigation momentarily as he took in a deep whiff of it. The tea leaves he smelt were of a distinctly different type than that which he was using for the tea he sold. Yun Xiang, however, was more taken in by the sight of the room’s interior and drew Ah Hock’s attention to the room’s table.

 

What appeared to be a miniature laboratory was laid out on the long table, complete with several pestles and mortars, a burner, and test tubes filled up to varying levels with unknown substances. On the far corner, neatly stacked, were some books which upon looking into were discovered to be notes written most probably by Ah Peh. Yun Xiang read aloud slowly (she was not a really good reader) to Ah Hock some parts that she found interesting:

 

“…It is impossible to classify out all the tastes of tea. Most teas do not have just one taste but are an amalgamation of two or more of them. Then again, varying levels of each taste allows for an uncountable variety of teas…”

 

“…Tea has many uses. It is not just a beverage for enjoyment. It has medicinal purposes, is an important part of many ceremonies in different cultures, and is potentially a powerful social tool…”

 

Yun Xiang was interrupted by Ah Hock as he stumbled upon a puzzling diagram carefully drawn on the back of a shopping receipt that looked like this:

 

 

Yun Xiang’s brow furrowed as she stared at the diagram that reminded her of her mathematics homework. Ah Hock, however, had a sudden hunch dawn upon him, and checking against the diagram confirmed it. He presented his hypothesis before Yun Xiang: the rectangular units on the horizontal axis each represented a housing block, the six blocks representing the blocks in their housing estate, the first block being theirs. The vertical axis, on the other hand, represented a floor in each block, seeing how all the blocks had only eight storeys each. These were coordinates to a location that Ah Peh could have gone to.

 

With no other leads to follow, Ah Hock and Yun Xiang followed the coordinates gained, and were eventually led to a residential unit three blocks away from the coffee shop. It was not difficult to identify which residential unit they were finding: only one out of all the gates on that level was not boarded up.

 

The pair had easily found their way in through the keys that were hanging on the gate. Again, they were greeted by the familiar smell of tea-leaves, though the furnishing of the flat was barely more elaborated than the measly room in the coffee shop that they had just left behind.

 

It was a small studio flat, quaint yet minimalistic. There was an ornate Chinese-style sofa, made of glossy dark lacquered wood, shiny mussel-shell carvings, and cool grey marble-stone seats, pushed to a far corner of the flat. On the other end, there was a single mattress, quite flattened and dirtied after numerous years of use, and another miniature table-lab with a stack of note-books. Yun Xiang eagerly grabbed a note-book, flipped through a few pages, and began reading:  

 

“…It is interesting to note that almost anything can be used to make tea. Different cultures and climates have given rise to different types of tea, and different ways of drinking them: how the English drink their tea is starkly different in many ways from how the Chinese drink theirs…”

 

Ah Hock pondered over Ah Peh’s research, which had allowed the old man to gain a deeper perspective on tea. To Ah Hock, however, it had always just been a necessity at coffee shops, a drink consumed by numerous generations from time past; a drink from which income can be earned.

 

Walking over to a dresser, Ah Hock spied a lone photo-frame, a thick layer of dust collecting on its top. The photo displayed was of a familiar young man donning what looked like a Japanese Military uniform, hair smartly combed beneath his jockey cap. The resemblance in the angular cheek bones and tanned skin was uncanny: Ah Peh, it seemed, was an ex-Japanese soldier in the past who most likely took part in the Japanese Occupation.

 

A thought struck Ah Hock: this was Ah Peh’s home. So that was what the heart on the diagram meant. Home is where the heart is. However, was Ah Peh’s heart really here? The flat looked like it was in desperate need of a cleaning…

 

Ah Hock’s thoughts were interrupted by Yun Xiang’s exclamations over at the toilet. Walking over to see what she had found, Ah Hock himself was momentarily stunned by what greeted his eyes.

 

A thick arrow, pointing downwards to the basin, was prominently drawn on the bathroom mirror. It seemed that it had been drawn a while ago after steam had distilled on the mirror, but the thin layer of grime on the mirror’s tarnished surface helped retain the shape enough for it to be seen long after the steam was gone.

 

Ah Hock’s eyes followed the arrow down, where he was greeted by a scrunched-up leaf-ball in a small plastic basin directly below a tap. On a whim and before Ah Hock could stop her, Yun Xiang flicked up the faucet, causing clear, cold water to flow and collect onto the plastic basin. The steady flow of water slowly accumulated on the plastic basin, causing the leaf-ball to absorb the water. And like a beautiful flower, the ball unfurled slowly and majestically, finally spreading out in full over the shallow water collected in the basin. Only one thing was written in striking red ink on it:

 

“林”

 

It took a while before Ah Hock and Yun Xiang could recover from what had literally unfolded before them. The old man never ceased to amaze them. Snapping out of her daze, Yun Xiang studied the word, the Chinese character for forest, and instantly remembered the forested area nearby which she had frequented, against her mother’s wishes of course, when she was much younger. Sounding her thoughts to Ah Hock, the pair agreed to search that area.

 

Their search led them to a lone run-down shack in the clearing of the secluded, forested area, light barely passing through as the result of a thick canopy of tall trees. Yun Xiang shivered slightly from the chill: the place was significantly colder than it had been in the past. Ah Hock noticed several shrivelled shrubs surrounding the shack and immediately identified them as tea plants: the leaves were of similar appearance to commonly used tea leaves.

 

Pushing aside the shack’s wooden door cautiously, Yun Xiang withdrew instinctively from the loud sharp creak that it gave out. Ah Hock held her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze before the pair entered the shack to face whatever, or whoever, was inside.

 

As expected, the walls were once again covered with pouches of tea leaves, giving the room the distinctive smell that Ah Hock and Yun Xiang have come to know and, unconsciously, love. This time however, the floor was littered with a thick layer of mushy, decaying forest leaves of varying browns, a sign of a lack of housekeeping. The room lacked any form of lighting, relying only on the little light that penetrated through the canopy outside, causing the room to be poorly lit. Yun Xiang clung desperately to Ah Hock, the shack’s interior before her reminiscent of a scene in the horror movie she watched just a few days ago.

 

Ah Hock let out a slow breath as he stepped into the shack, Yun Xiang in tow. Looking around intently for anything resembling a clue, Ah Hock was instead greeted by something else altogether as he approached the only table in the shack.

 

There on the table, were two steaming cups of clear, fragrant tea.

 

Yun Xiang’s fear was completely overtaken by her curiosity as she left Ah Hock’s side to examine a cup. Picking it up, she almost dropped it: the tea was piping hot. Pushing aside all her doubts, she gingerly took a sip of the tea. Then the sip turned into a gulp, which eventually led to her downing the whole cup. Ah Hock watched, speechless, as Yun Xiang returned the cup to the table with a satisfied sigh. Under Yun Xiang’s unrelenting requests, Ah Hock hesitantly sipped from the other cup.

 

It would be a little difficult to illustrate the experience that Ah Hock when through following the tea’s connection with his taste buds, but it was none the less a dance of enrapturement. Bitter, yet having an aftertaste of sweetness; a slightly spicy sensation following the tea’s full exploration of the tongue, accompanied after that by a fulfilling warmth as the hot tea travelled down the oesophagus to the stomach. It was no wonder that Yun Xiang sought after the next drop. A small sip had left Ah Hock wanting for more.

 

A faint rustle and a movement at the corner of his eye snapped Ah Hock out of his short moment of euphoria, and Yun Xiang instinctively let out a sharp scream which was soon muffled by her own hand. A piece of paper flitted down through the shack’s window and into the room, resting soundlessly on the bed of leaves which covered the floor. Ah Hock picked it up:

 

“I hope that you two have enjoyed the cups of tea that I have left you. You have just experienced what tea can do to the drinker: invoke intense feelings. Never underestimate the power of anything simplistic and common: tea is a powerful tool that can produce extraordinary results when utilised well.

 

You may be interested to know what tea it was that you have drunk. Well, it’s a result of my extensive research into tea. I cannot tell you how I made it, or it won’t be a secret recipe any more, yes?

 

 

A crackly rustling of dry leaves outside the shack gave Ah Hock and Yun Xiang quite a fright, and suddenly, the room they were in didn’t seem as bright as it was before…

 

“So why have I made you go on this extensive ‘treasure-hunt’? Well, for one, the culture of tea is dying in this modern age, and I have found it my life’s duty to preserve and further it.

 

“I am well stricken in age, as you should be very well aware of, and thus I would logically need a successor in this endeavour of mine. I needed someone still filled with enough curiosity to delve into this world of tea where there is still much to discover and uncover, and such people would be you two, Ah Hock and Yun Xiang.

 

“Well, I have no right to force upon you two this responsibility, as it had been solely an initiative on my part. Yet, I earnestly petition to you that you take up this task. Tea is not only about the drinking, but very much so about the making as well. This effort into research may pay off well in your trade Ah Hock. Many can enjoy a great cup of tea, but it would be meaningless if there aren’t any to enjoy. Take joy in making a drink that many can savour, and your life will find new meaning.

 

Anyway, about the tea you just drank, I mixed in a good amount of the stuff you are stepping on right now. Accounts for the slightly grassy taste, doesn’t it?”

 

Ah Hock and Yun Xiang gagged upon reading the last statement, but their disgust was shortly interrupted as a raspy crackling laughter echoed from the trees outside. Ah Hock and Yun Xiang ran out of the shack just in time to see a flash of white as it darted away into the trees, taking the Ah Peh’s laughter along with it.

 

********************

 

Rickety old stool. Weathered wooden table. Day in, day out, they remain unused and unoccupied. No one knows why, but the question is never raised, as hawkers go about their daily business and customers come and go. However it can be assured by both seller and buyer, that no matter what the day, no matter how the weather, it’d always be there: a small steaming cup of tea, as if waiting for someone to return.

 

 

 

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