Short Story: That Night in Haw Par Villa by Elsa Mattson14 min read
Elsa Mattson’s short story focuses on a young Singaporean man who has a secret he desperately tries to hide and takes some inspiration from both magical realism and the southern gothic genre with a unique twist.
EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading for a week)
“Ah Boy, wake up!”
Robert arose from his long, delirious nap. A smell reminiscent of rose water, gula melaka, and sea salt hung in the air, disappearing when his chestnut eyes opened.
“Aren’t you going to take me around town today?” his mother asked, walking over to Robert’s bed stand. “I just got back from a very long trip!”
“Of course, Mom,” Robert said croakily. Ever since his sister gave birth to twins in April, his mother had been away in the United States for an extended holiday.
“Any ideas?” Emmaline Chia asked.
“Well…I know that Tulsa doesn’t have much chili crab. Do you want me to take you back to North Shore Seafood?”
Emmaline could hardly contain her excitement. “You know me well. I enjoyed all the Vietnamese and Tex-Mex food over there, but nothing makes me happier than our local food.”
“Alright then, let’s go!” Robert hurried past his mother and went to the kitchen. Emmaline was in such good spirits that she failed to recognize the look of fear straining her son’s face.
At lunch, Robert prompted his mother with various questions. How was Chinedu, his brother-in-law? Were his nephews doing well? Was Oklahoma really like the Wild West in cowboy movies?
Emmaline was a woman of many words. She gushed about her experiences as Robert mimed his way through the hour with a nauseating tightness in his throat. Robert forced the meal down with gulps of water, nodding occasionally. Emmaline was too preoccupied with her verbose statements to notice that her son was looking at her with blank eyes.
Before they left, Robert went to the washroom. He passed by the aquatic tank on the way. There, he saw four crabs, their shells bright and their eyes lively. One crab caught his attention. It stared at him directly as if perplexed by the sight of his face. He noticed that it had a small dent in its shell. He thought of this animal’s fate as it looked at him with beady eyes, devoid of hope, just moments away from a slippery slaughter. He continued to the washroom. The strong smell from the tank made him queasy, however, and he threw up once he got there.
That evening, Robert and his parents visited his grandmother’s flat. Mrs. Carvalho was a remarkable cook and greatly enjoyed spoiling her first-born grandson with homemade dishes.
“How is our young Abhishek Bachchan?” She pinched his cheek lovingly. This was her pet phrase for him, though Robert hardly resembled the actor.
“Good,” Robert replied, forcing a smile. Robert’s aunt went to the kitchen and retrieved a platter overflowing with fish head curry before filling everyone’s bowls. Emmaline helped bring in the rice and placed it on the table. Though fish head curry was his favorite, Robert was suddenly overwhelmed by the appearance of the spiced red snapper. He carefully pushed his dish to the side, hoping that nobody would notice.
Aloysius, Robert’s cousin, sat next to him and witnessed everything. “It’s not like you to refuse Grandma’s curry,” he said, gazing at Robert judgmentally.
“Oh, I just feel a bit full already. I’ll eat in a few minutes. How are your classes in Australia?” Robert asked, awkwardly switching to a lighter topic.
“So-so. But the Melbourne party scene is better than I expected,” Aloysius whispered slyly. Loudly, he said, “I want to take Robert somewhere after dinner. Is that okay with everyone?”
“Of course,” Robert’s father said goodnaturedly.
“Great, we’ll go once we’re done eating.” Aloysius smiled.
The sky was already a dark purple by the time the cousins left the flat. Mosquitoes swarmed around Robert as if he was a food stall at the pasar malam. “You should eat more garlic. Keeps them away,” Aloysius quipped.
Robert sat in the passenger seat. The nostalgic melodies of old-time Mandarin songs on the radio lulled him into a delicate sleep. Thirty minutes later, Aloysius parked the car. “Wake up, bodoh!” He yelled, poking Robert’s arm aggressively.
As they got out of the car, they saw a group of women walking toward them, smiling.
“I forgot to tell you, but I met some girls at the gym last week. I invited them to join us,” Aloysius said, smiling proudly.
Robert recognized the blue sweater on one of the women. He checked her face carefully. Despite the lack of light, he could put a name to that face anytime. “Lucinda!” he proclaimed, his face trembling as if he had suddenly encountered an angel.
“Robbie…I didn’t realize that you were Aloysius’ cousin,” Lucinda responded. “Long time no see.”
“Long time no see,” Robert replied mousily.
“Yes, this charming man is my cousin,” Aloysius laughed. “But before you get any ideas, while he may look like a young Abhishek Bachchan, he’s the Lucky Plaza version.”
Lucinda ignored him, but her friends stifled their giggles.
The five students entered the park. Robert and Lucinda stayed behind the rest of the crowd.
“How are you?” Robert spoke first.
“Alright. And you? I haven’t seen you in weeks!”
“Has it been that long?”
“Yes, even before that incident with Valerie Pillai,” Lucinda uttered the last few words quietly as if discussing something sacred. “You did hear about it, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Robert gulped anxiously.
“I pray for her every day,” Lucinda said empathetically. “I wonder if they ever found out what happened. Apparently, it looked very suspicious.”
Robert stared ahead, trying to focus lest he would say something stupid. “I feel so bad for her,” he responded.
Robert knew Valerie from a zoology course at university. He found her quietly confident and strange. He passed her often at the school Starbucks, where she could be seen holding a copy of the Shahnameh and drinking iced coffee. Her thin red lips looked misplaced on her wide face, but her eyes were focused and beautiful.
Robert asked her to see a movie with him in the middle of the term. He didn’t care for her romantically, but he found her interesting. By the time Robert realized he hadn’t really wanted to start dating again, he heard through the grapevine that Valerie was in love with him.
At first, Robert paid no heed to these rumors. He would do what he always did: make serious situations seem meaningless. It caused less cognitive dissonance. However, in the arena of public opinion, the two seemed to be an item. They met up after class several times a week, and they looked genuinely happy together. How could anyone have known that he was just using her to pass his free time?
Meanwhile, the actual object of Robert’s affection – Lucinda Khoo – started to give him the cold shoulder. He had asked her out multiple times that year, but with little success. Before he started seeing Valerie, Lucinda would at least engage him in conversation and text him occasionally. Now, she avoided him. He assumed that seeing him with Valerie had caused this reaction. Eventually, Lucinda stopped replying to his texts altogether.
Admiration for Valerie quickly turned to disgust as Robert thought about his failed opportunity with Lucinda. “Valerie dresses like a mat rempit,” he joked amongst his friends. “Not the kind of woman I want to meet my family,” he said. He felt bad afterward, but he cared more for his image than anyone’s feelings. Robert started to freeze Valerie out and blocked her phone number. She took the hint and spoke with him less.
Near the end of the semester, Robert walked past Valerie and Roshan, a classmate, in the university canteen. Robert felt a twinge of jealousy as he saw Roshan feed her ice cream. Even after the situation with Valerie was over, other women in the department ignored Robert. It seemed that overnight he had become undateable. Valerie looked wonderful and happy, but he was now a pariah. The situation was a bitter pill to swallow.
He had a strong desire to confront her directly. He knew not what he would say or do. Part of him wished to humble her. He wanted to tell her that despite her taste in books, she was not like those warriors and concubines in the epics that she read. She was just a nobody from Jurong East.
Within a week, Robert arranged a meetup with Valerie. The date was set, and the suggested locale was a quiet beach. All the correspondence was done in person. They met on a glorious, warm evening. As Robert waited, he saw Valerie’s tiny figure floating like an anxious dot across the sand, nearer and nearer to him. He grinned as she got closer.
“Thank you for the invite,” Valerie said. “I miss those times when we’d visit this place often.”
“You’re welcome. Care for a stroll?”
Robert walked ahead of Valerie as she struggled to keep up with his pace. They were quiet for five minutes before Valerie nudged his shoulder lightly.
“Are you okay? You seem more quiet than usual.”
“Sometimes I just prefer silence.”
“That’s funny. I seem to remember that you were the one who requested to meet.”
Robert looked at her carefully. “My life has been miserable lately, and it’s all because of you.”
“Robbie…Where is this coming from?”
“Rumors haunt me every day because of you. You told people that you had feelings for me, and when I didn’t reciprocate, you told all the women you knew that I’m an evil person. I tried to forget this, but I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“That’s not true. I thought there was something between us, yes, but then I cooled it down after I noticed you weren’t interested. And all I told anyone was that I was ready to move on. I didn’t say you were evil. If there was anything I did that was harmful, I am sorry.”
“A bit late, don’t you think?” Robert handed her a mint.
Valerie sighed deeply. “The truth is that I didn’t try to paint you maliciously. You can accept it or not.”
They stared straight ahead. The sun retreated anxiously below the horizon, and now all they heard was the sound of insects and the waves gently crashing against the shoreline.
Robert walked near the water’s edge. Grasping at Valerie’s hand, he spoke, “How’s the new guy?”
Valerie scoffed, “Can we leave Roshan out of this? This is ridiculous. To hear you speak this way makes me regret ever seeing the good in you.”
Robert looked at her pitifully. “You’d choose him over me? Does he know that you have feelings for me?”
Valerie let out a long laugh. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “Me? Love you? Ha ha ha! I never loved you to begin with. I just liked the attention, not unlike you. And to think that you told all your friends that I was simply a cure for your boredom.”
Robert’s expression soured. “That’s enough,” he shouted. “Who do you think you are?” He chased Valerie into the water and pushed her aggressively before running away.
Valerie landed on her back and hit her head on a stone in the sand. The water itself was shallow, but suddenly a large wave took her in its stride, and she was swept further into the sea. Between the bleeding gap in her head and the cold currents, she felt too weak to swim back.
“Robbie!” Valerie cried out. Robert turned around. He had only meant to make her feel embarrassed, not to push her out far into the waves. In his anger, he had not even realized what he had done.
But as he approached, all he could do was stare at her blankly, as if he was watching a wrapper thrown out to sea, not a human. Thrashing about with her head underwater, Valerie reached out for his hand. Robert gazed at her stupidly, both arms glued to his sides.
Robert eventually came to his senses. He swam out into the water before dragging Valerie back onto the beach. But instead of administering CPR, he just left her there. Whether it was shock or disdain that caused his inaction, he was not sure. He just knew that she looked like a fish out of the water, and the image made him ill. He ran as fast as he could to the nearest MRT station, despite seeing her lying there in the sand, her lungs filled with liquid.
Twelve minutes later, a primary school student and his friends happened upon Valerie’s limp body. They called for an ambulance, but Valerie did not survive the ride to the hospital.
Robert wanted nothing more than to put that day from two weeks ago behind him. He gazed into Lucinda’s eyes. If he told her, would she forgive him? Would she share his secret with the police? Perhaps he would confess to her, and she would accept him just as he was. Maybe after a heartfelt discussion, they would kiss mindlessly under the gaze of the neon-colored statues.
But that night was hardly one for merrymaking, and after hearing Lucinda mention Valerie multiple times, he began to feel withdrawn.
As the group retreated deeper into Haw Par Villa, they passed by many grotesque statues. Everyone laughed at the amusing figures, most of which seemed too bizarre to be taken seriously. Robert was the only one who felt uneasy. The colors pooled together, and what looked amusing during the day was far more horrifying at night. The Dragon King and the mermaids and the woman with the crab’s body became haunting apparitions. Robert imagined that the statues were mocking him. They cried out to him with their distorted arms, screaming Valerie’s name over and over. In the land of the living, only forgotten objects knew the truth about his crime.
Robert felt a tug at his chest, and he began to hyperventilate. Aloysius and the others circled around him in concern. They asked him what was wrong.
“The air in here is musty,” he lied.
“Let’s take him to a more open area,” Lucinda suggested.
“No, no. Please, it’s too crowded,” Robert begged.
By now, the group had already reached the Ten Courts of Hell exhibit. To avoid the crowds outside, they took Robert in so he could sit down.
Lying on the ground, Robert looked up for a better view of where his friends had taken him. He looked at the statues, each depicting the fate of evildoers in the afterlife. His eyes were drawn to the figure of a righteous young woman walking across a golden bridge, her red smile grinning wistfully. She had been one of the lucky ones. Her countenance was uncannily familiar to Valerie’s, he noticed painfully.
Robert felt sick to his stomach and his body experienced a crushing sensation. He cried out. “Tell us what you need,” Lucinda pleaded.
Robert crawled towards her and she kneeled, caressing his head in her arms.
“Do you think Valerie deserved what she got?” He asked, his heart beating in his throat.
Surprised, Lucinda responded, “No. Why would she?”
“She turned everyone against me. She was more complicated than people think.”
“Robbie, I have something to tell you.”
“I saw how you treated her. I saw how easily you turned against her. How could I be your friend after that? Your girlfriend, even? Someone like you would turn against me at the drop of a hat. I overheard you make fun of her once and told my friends about it. I was the one who told Valerie to move on. She didn’t say anything bad about you. She didn’t turn anyone against you. I’m sorry that it caused you to stress, and I wish I could have handled it better. But I regret nothing. Valerie and I had been friends since we were little girls at church camp. And now she’s gone forever.”
“I can’t believe this,” Robert said.
A deafening silence filled his head, and he felt like he would combust. He tried to focus on Lucinda’s face, but another vision caught his eye instead.
Robert looked again at the displays on the walls. He saw the figures of people being punished in the afterlife for their cruel deeds. Their brightly colored faces seemed greasy from this angle, their faces gazing in horror at what was about to befall them. He imagined them turning towards him and staring in disgust and disappointment. Robert saw the stern face of King Qingyang as he decided the fates of each mortal, one by one.
The images were too much for Robert to take. He knew that he had hurt someone irreparably. He was the reason that Valerie was dead. They had dined together and taken many walks together, and now it was all for naught. There would be no more chats at Takashimaya or meetups at Pret A Manger. Valerie may not have been his ideal woman, but why had he scorned her friendship in the process?
Though Robert didn’t believe in the scenes that he saw, he felt that in an alternate reality, he was no better than any of the evildoers crying out in front of him. Even at that moment, he was weak and couldn’t tell his friends about what happened and his role in it. “What a coward I am,” he thought, seconds before his heart gave out.
Robert passed away at 7:45 PM. An ambulance arrived at the scene ten minutes later. Some speculated that his death was caused by overexposure to the heat and stress from running around the park that evening.
The community reeled from the untimely deaths of two beloved students in one month.
If Lucinda suspected anything about Robert’s involvement in the tragedy, she kept it to herself. As everyone mourned Robert’s death, Lucinda gave thought to Valerie and the beautiful life she might have lived, if not for the cruel intertwining of human selfishness and the sea, among other things.
Cover Image Source: Haw Par Villa Walking Tour, Singapore – Klook
Elsa Mattson is a Singaporean-born amateur writer based in the United States. Her writing touches on the shared humanity between people of different cultural and social backgrounds. As a multiracial Malaysian American, she writes with a special interest in APAC stories. Some of her previous publications include “The Soil Has No Sons” (Anak Sastra), “Older Sister Says” (Dragon Poet Review), and “Rooted Up” (HookMagazine).
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