THE SINGAPORE SCHOOL OF VILLAINY: INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES (Chapter One)
Inspector Singh sipped his coffee. It was instant, sweet and milky, just the way he liked it. Singh was not one for those fancy coffee machines that steamed milk, ground beans and sounded like mini-construction sites. He preferred a kettle and a teaspoon. Not that he made his own coffee in the morning. That was a task for Mrs Singh. She always had his breakfast, usually chappatis with dahl, a spicy lentil curry for which he had a strong partiality, and the accompanying hot drink, on the dining table by the time he had successfully completed his morning routine. This began with an aggressive teeth cleaning with a fraying toothbrush, was punctuated by the swapping of singlet and checked, faded sarong for a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants and culminated in tying a turban around his large head. This last was not a task that could be done casually or without the full use of a mirror for fear of the point being off-centre, the turban lacking balance and symmetry or the whole thing looking like an enormous beehive.
Singh lumbered to the dining table and sat down expectantly. His wife carried a fresh tray of food in from the kitchen. Mrs Singh's air of domestic subservience masked the iron will of the woman he had married by walking five times around the Sikh holy book in the gurdwara on Wilkie Road. He had seen her for the first time on their wedding day. As she was brought to him, doe-eyed and downcast, his uppermost feeling had been one of relief that she was not burdened with a wooden leg or squint. After all these years, he sometimes felt that his gratitude was limited to the same things - that and her cooking, of course. The smell of warm ghee, as the chappatis were flipped on the skillet, was making his salivary glands ooze.
He turned his attention to breakfast. Singh ate with his fingers - tearing off pieces of chappati, dipping them in the bowl of dahl and shovelling them into his mouth. He scanned the newspapers, seeking any snippets of news amongst the advertisements for slimming products and cheap flights and grunted when his wife addressed any remarks to him.
'I was right,' she said.
The continuation of a conversation that had been going on for several days was a key feature of their marriage. Mrs Singh would relate one of several overlapping tales, involving the scandalous doings of one of their relations, and continue it over a series of encounters with him - at breakfast, as he dressed for work and when he came home in the evenings. The inspector typically listened with half an ear, confused all the separate strands and responded only if he felt the vitriol was too unpleasant to pass without some mild reproof.
She said again, more smugly this time, 'I was right.' And then continued darkly, 'I told you what would happen.'
Another element of these stories was the regular vindication of her views by unfolding events. Inspector Singh nodded a general agreement. He did not know nor care what she was talking about but prudence dictated that he agree with her diktat. He chewed on his food with small tobacco-stained teeth - pleased that the food was sufficiently spicy to tickle taste buds that had lost their sensitivity after years of chain-smoking.
'They let him go to America. To New York,' she added doubtfully, unsure whether her information as to location was accurate. 'None of our people are there. Now he has married an American girl.' She continued, triumphant at the climax of her story, 'He didn't even need a green card. He had one already!'
Singh mumbled an acknowledgement.
He pulled himself to his feet, using the edge of the dining table for support. He wished that Mrs Singh did not find it necessary to cover the lace table cloth with a clear plastic sheet. No doubt it kept the cloth clean. He was a messy eater and there was always a splattering of curry on the table when he was done. But the sheet was sticky and he found the gummy sensation when he removed his elbows disproportionately unpleasant. It reminded him of the clammy hands of the dead.
Singh washed his fingers, took his mug to the easy rattan chair and collapsed into it. A gaggle of mynah birds with glowing orange beaks screeched and quarrelled in the garden, fighting over some hapless worm. They reminded him of his sisters-in-law. He sniffed the air. A whiff of a ripening cempedak from a tree in their well-tended garden tickled his nostrils. He hoped his wife would deep fry the pulpy yellow fruit in batter for his tea. The policeman leaned over, gasping for air like a fish on land as his belly and lungs compressed, and pulled on his socks and shoes. The shoes were spotless white sneakers, the laces of which he tied in a careful double knot. It was one of the many things that annoyed his superiors about Singh - his refusal to wear a sensible pair of black shoes to work every day. He remembered the last time Superintendent Chen had suggested his footwear was not in keeping with the dignity of the force.
'They're comfortable,' he had explained. 'And it means I can chase down the bad guys.'
His boss had looked down at the short fat man, puffing slightly from the physical effort of standing upright and speaking at the same time, turned smartly on the heels of his own Italian black leather pumps and marched away.
Mrs Singh spoke again. Her voice was high and sharp. Singh thought she sounded like the vocal embodiment of a murder weapon. 'I hope you haven't forgotten that Jagdesh is coming for dinner tonight.'
Inspector Singh had not only forgotten that Jagdesh was coming for dinner but also who Jagdesh was. He said, buying time, 'Of course not!'
His wife was not fooled. Her arms were folded in a bright pink batik caftan so that only scrawny, dry-skinned elbows were visible. 'You don't remember, isn't it?'
Singh was the sort of policeman who always urged suspects to take the easy way out and confess to their crimes. He realised now, facing aggressive questioning from his wife, that it was terribly bad advice. 'I'm looking forward to seeing Jagdesh again,' he said unconvincingly, feeling in a pocket for his cigarette packet.
'You haven't met him before.'
He should stay at home and cook and clean and send his wife to work, concluded the inspector. She was far too good at cross-examining witnesses. He sipped his coffee and made a face. He had left it too long and it was lukewarm.
'OK,' he confessed. 'Who is Jagdesh and why is he coming for dinner?'
'My cousin's nephew from India - I told you about him!'
Singh had given up subterfuge. He glared at his wife and shrugged fleshy shoulders to indicate his complete failure to recall the conversation.
'They're worried about him.'
'His parents - he's already thirty-something and not yet married, can you believe it? They think he might find a Chinese girl in Singapore.'
'Are we to prevent him doing so?' asked Singh mildly. 'Perhaps we should lock him in the spare room when he arrives.'
For a moment, he was concerned that his wife had taken him seriously. Her expression was thoughtful. Her thick black eyebrows formed a straight line. He realised that she had, as was her habit, disregarded his sarcastic soundtrack to her thought processes. She was still wrestling with the knotty problem of an unmarried thirty-year-old.
'What's he doing in Singapore anyway?' asked Singh, feeling even more irritable.
'He has a job at a big law firm - he's very successful, very rich. And still no wife!'
'Lucky bastard,' muttered Singh under his breath.
This time he was not fortunate enough to be ignored. 'You're always so unhelpful. The boy is coming for dinner. I'm going to introduce him to all the nice Sikh girls in Singapore.'
'Are they coming for dinner too?'
Her eyes were like car high-beams. 'I'm sure that would make you very happy!'
Singh thought this was an unfair accusation. He was not the best of husbands by any stretch of the imagination. But, as a general rule, he did refrain from making a fool of himself over pretty young things. In his line of work, he had seen too many corpses that were the products of relationships gone awry. He didn't want any of his wretched colleagues investigating his death at the hands of some angry boyfriend or husband. Singh reached for the cigarette perched on an ashtray and dragged himself to his feet. He would need a portable crane soon if he didn't lose some weight. The policeman caught a glimpse of his round belly in the tinted glass sliding front door. He had to admit that his loyalty to his wife was probably not entirely a matter of choice. Inspector Singh sucked in a deep lungful of tobacco-laden smoke and headed for the front door.
'Always you're smoking - I don't know where to hide my face!'
His wife and his doctor were of one mind when it came to his cigarette habit, thought Singh ruefully. But their motivations were completely different. He gave his doctor credit - he nagged like an old woman but he probably had Singh's best interests at heart. His wife on the other hand was just embarrassed that he was breaching one of the fundamental tenets of Sikhism - that tobacco was off limits.
His wife said warningly, 'Make sure you come home for dinner.'
Later that evening, a plane descended to a thousand metres above sea level. It flew in low over a sea that was as smooth as a plate of glass. Beautifully detailed miniature ships were dotted on its surface. The coastline was littered with high-rise office towers and homogeneous apartment blocks. Annie Nathan had her eyes fixed on the Asian Wall Street Journal.
There was the sudden clatter of the undercarriage descending. A few minutes later the plane touched down at Changi Airport. Annie disembarked and hurried towards the arrival hall, ignoring the headache-inducing blend of fluorescent lights, patterned carpets and busy shop windows. She paid no attention to the mass of humanity corralled into waiting areas, watching television screens with slack mouths. She flashed her green card at the indifferent immigration officer, a middle-aged Malay woman with tired eyes, and walked to the limousine taxi rank, bypassing baggage reclaim. Climbing into a black Chrysler with ostentatious front grilles, Annie sighed with relief. She was pleased to be back in Singapore - it had been a long working day in Kuala Lumpur.
The taxi swung out onto the Pan Island Expressway and then the East Coast Parkway - a six-lane elevated highway running parallel to the coast. The concrete super-structure was draped in moss-green creepers. Turquoise waters dotted with ships - tankers, cruise ships, yachts - spread out to the left. A couple of grey warships, gun turrets and antennae protruding, looked like silver pincushions. A thin strip of muddy brown, a sliver of the Indonesian archipelago, formed part of the horizon. In the middle distance, the city of Singapore gleamed and twinkled as the setting sun reflected off the glassy skyscrapers. She could see the rows and rows of cranes at Singapore's massive port facilities, looking like long-necked metal birds peering anxiously out to sea. The same cranes and the enormous ferris wheel, the Singapore Flyer, were visible from her office windows on the sixty-eighth floor of Republic Tower.
Singapore's cityscape never failed to awaken Annie's most ambitious spirit. She enjoyed the brief sensation that she, a junior partner at the international law firm of Hutchinson & Rice, was a small but necessary cog in a massive capitalist wheel. She suppressed a quick smirk. Such thoughts were singularly out of fashion in an era of bank bailouts and erratic stock markets. Greed was no longer good but - truth be silently confessed in the back seat of a luxury limousine - it hadn't done her any harm.
Across town, Mark Thompson, senior partner at the firm of Hutchinson & Rice, sat in silence and in semi-darkness. Only his desktop monitor cast a pale blue light, throwing his angular face into sharp relief and darkening his hazel eyes. His curly mass of prematurely white hair receded from a high forehead and curled around his ears. A shaggy moustache, still a youthful brown, encroached on his upper lip like an untrimmed hedge. Australian by birth and Singaporean by residence, he looked like the popular image of a successful attorney in the American South. He would have appeared natural in cream linen and a bow tie, holding forth under whirring ceiling fans to a sweaty, overweight jury of his inferiors. Instead, he wore a dark suit and a heavily embroidered cream silk necktie. His hand reached for the telephone and hesitated. He pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk and took out a silver hip flask. A long swig settled his nerves. Mark Thompson squared his shoulders, bracing himself for the ordeal ahead. He picked up the telephone.
THE SINGAPORE SCHOOL OF VILLAINY: INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES Copyright © 2010 by Shamini Flint