by Jonathan Tan
In the small hours of the night, Apelles Poh continues to ground his eyes on the road ahead of him and pray that he does not have to drive far to pick up the next fare. The passing shower that lets up as quickly as it falls dims the prospects of a quick catch. Earlier, he picked up a fare at the Changi Airport: a couple, much in love−he judged by how tightly tethered their hands were even when she reached her house at Tampines before he dropped the man in Hougang. From there Apelles works the road towards Sengkang New Town after a futile sweep in Hougang. I’m in the wilderness and I shall bear the cross, Amen, Apelles Poh tells himself, gripping the wheel firmly to show his resolve. As if satisfied that thy will be done, when he turns the corner onto Anchorvale Road, two figures pour out onto the roadside, earnestly flagging him down.
“Uncle, get us to Clarke Quay,” says the taller girl. “Get us there quick hor.”
As he moves off, the shorter girl adds, “Uncle, don’t look behind. We want to change.”
Before he can protest, the two girls leap into action, peel off their T-shirts and pants, their mid-rift tops and short skirts revealed, the look of the next-door girl recedes as they pad up with mascara and lipstick.
“Your half cup bra shows your nipple,” the taller girl chuckles. “See, you raise your hand, can see your nipples lor.”
“Say the same for yourself. Look, your bra is so see-through. I can see your nipples from a distance,” the short girl teases back. “But I like it. It’s so silvery and got glitter one. I want one too.”
“You gila lah,” the taller girl replies. “I add the glitter to it. You want some too. But wait wait, don’t want uncle to scold us for glittering his cab unless he wants some?”
“Uncle, you want some?” The shorter girl says; an octave of seduction in her voice.
“Do it when you leave my cab, can,” Apelles replies politely.
As the cab tunnels into KPE, the shorter girl asks, “You think we’re hot enough to get us somewhere real sleek tonight?”
“Have faith, we sure are hot and we rock,” the taller girl says laughing. “Ask uncle, he sure thinks we’re hot?”
Much as Apelles tries to shut his mind out from the conversation, the sweet perfume, the girlish chuckles, the insouciance penetrate him like a breeze much welcome in the deep stifle of the humidity.
“You hot? I blast the air-con more,” Apelles jokes.
“Wah, uncle, you’re good, you got sense of humour,” the taller girl replies.
As the cab pulls into the buzz of Clarke Quay, the loud music of the bars drumming the roads ready to swallow the swell of partygoers into the night, the taller girl bargains, “Don’t have $25, uncle. $15, can? I give you a kiss to make up the difference, can, uncle?”
Before he turns around to reply, the taller girl moves forward to the edge of the backseat, plants a quick kiss on his left cheek, her scent unfastens a weight of deprivation carried from an older place deep within Apelles.
What a night it is.
It is a fall he can’t forget. In the minutes following the fall, as he lies awaiting for help at the Defu diesel depot where cabs congregate to refill, the road sometimes wet and greasy, he thinks about how little he has to worry that his loved ones have to worry about him or that he has to worry for his loved ones.
Stripped to the bones because of breast cancer (or more likely from the chemotherapy), his wife passed away after five long years of battle on the night when Apelles made the second life-changing decision in his life. The first one he made was in his late thirties when he told his wife then that he no longer wanted to teach History in the secondary school. He decided to heed the calling to become a pastor at the church they were both active in since university days.
After his wife passed on, the resolve to execute his second life-changing decision becomes stronger. He believes his faith, somewhat shaken, can be best placed somewhere else, not in the confines of the church. He wants to continue to evangelise, in a different way. Besides, it has been more than a decade that he has worked as a youth pastor. At 55, he feels a little too old for it.
The idea of a cab driver appeals to him−the constant motion allows him to preach what he always tells his young charges, “Remember, we all move from point A to point B. Point A, your birth. Point B, your death. These two points are as certain as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. What’s important is that between these two points, you decide whether to hurry through your life or you take moments to appreciate God’s work for you. You’re here for a purpose. Find that purpose.”
Apelles is glad that his only child, Chris, is managing well with his life and career in the US. He only wishes that he doesn’t hurtle himself down the rabbit hole of a banking career too quickly to miss the beauty of God’s work for him.
By the time Chris gets wind of his father’s mishap, Apelles is recovering just fine with a broken shin, into the first week of his two-week stay in the hospital.
“Don’t worry,” Apelles says. “I’m fine. How’s the weather in New York?”
“Weather’s holding up fine. Cooling. It’s spring time.”
“Most pleasant time of the year,” Apelles replies. “Stop and smell the roses.”
Much as Apelles wants to say more to his son or listens to what his son has to say which sometimes gets both father and son into a quibble over the fact that life is not much of a bed of roses, Apelles simply says, “Expensive to talk too long over the phone. Take good care. Talk again next time.” With that he ends the conversation, fearing the more he chats, the lonelier he feels.
The only visitor Apelles receives at the hospital is a representative from the cab company to assure him that part of his expenses will be taken care of. Truly, the road on the depot is objectionably greasy at times and it’s being looked into, measures will be put in place to ensure such mishaps will not happen again. Apelles appreciates the young man’s presence−with the cropped hair and the sharp earnest jawbones, his face bears resemblance to Chris whom he has not seen in person, for like what (Apelles works his memory), a good two years. Is Chris, 29 or 30 this year? Apelles can’t quite remember himself.
Neither can Apelles remember the soft touch of his wife on his body. It’s been eight years since her passing. In the leafy Mandai Columbarium where endless rows of whitewashed niches meet the skies, Apelles visits it without fail every year. Looking no less like HDBs for the dead, a walk through the airy corridors of the Columbarium brings him face to face with numerous marbled-clad epithets, many of which speckle with plastic flowers, little cards and tchotchkes. The living memories of the dead on dignified displays: the clay-made favourite food of the deceased, the key-chain teddy bears or the occasional withered flowers since the last visit. Each time Apelles uses a clean cloth to wipe the niche, replaces the wilted flowers with fresh ones. He lingers a little longer, begins a conversation or rather a monologue about Chris, himself and things in general leading inevitably to point B, where all things shall come to rest.
After the drop-off at Clarke Quay, it doesn’t take a minute more for Apelles to get his next fare. A young woman (perhaps a few years older than the two bubbly girls he ferried earlier) in a red drape-long flowing dress jumps into his cab, instructing him, “Uncle, Pasir Ris, please.”
No sooner than she settles in the backseat, the woman asks, “Uncle, have you always been a taxi driver? Aren’t you fed up driving around the island all the time?”
“No, I’m not fed up at all. What good is there to feel fed up?” Apelles says, ready to seize the opportunity to share a few words on God and life. “I used to be a pastor and teacher.”
“Really?” The woman says, raising her purple pencilled-eyebrows, interested. “So what made you become a cabby?”
Using his well-rehearsed joke, Apelles says, “Once when a priest and a cabby die and go to heaven, the cabby is shown a beautiful mansion. He is told that will be his new home. Expecting that his rewards will be far greater than the cabby because he carries out God’s work, the priest is shocked when he is led to a dirty shack and he’s told it’s his new home. Then he asks the guard bringing him there why he’s given such a lousy place when the cabby gets a fine place. The guard replies, ‘When you preach, everyone falls asleep. But when the cabby drives, everyone in his cab prays.’”
After the laughter dies out, in the next 20 minutes of the cab ride Apelles readily shares his views on God and life. As he tunnels the KPE for the second time in the night, he feels the soundness of the raison d’etre for why he is where he is, why he is doing what he is doing between Point A and Point B of his life.
When the cab pulls into Pasir Ris Drive 3, the woman says gratefully, “Uncle, thanks for the nice conversation. I hope you don’t charge me the fare since we chatted so much. Treat it that I have provided you a service by chatting with you and in return you provide me with one too, can?”
For the second time in the night before Apelles can reply, the girl hitches up her dress, pulls out her undies, thrusts it into Apelles’ hands, then says, “This will do it, I hope. God bless.”
Shortly after the woman leaves the cab, Apelles sits undecided for a brief moment on what to do with the undies clasped earnestly in his hands.