The invitation taunted Sophie when she got home. She had left it on the side table just inside the main door soon after receiving it. She thought she'd eventually forget about it but, every evening, she had to walk past its heavy cream card, embossed with the logo of one of Singapore's most famous charities. Maybe she should have turned it upside down, so the heavy black letters couldn't be seen, but she hadn't thought of that when she'd first ripped open the thick envelope.
Your presence is requested...
The plastic shopping bags knocked against her shins as she headed for the kitchen. Lifting, she put them on the counter and patiently began unpacking the contents, moving each item to its designated place—fresh vegetables to the crisper, that brand of frozen wonton that she now considered her personal addiction to the freezer, various tinned goods to the overhead cupboard she'd designated as her mini-pantry.
Washing her hands afterwards, she pulled out a frying pan and set it to heat on one of the stove's gas rings.
It hadn't always been like this. At one time, the most difficult decision to make was which restaurant to eat at. But that was when Tim was around. Ambitious, astute Tim. When he was playing at investment banker, he could charm the birds from the trees.
“You have to play the part, Sophie love,” he'd say in his deep baritone. “There's nothing like success to attract success.”
And he was right. It had paid for a large black-and-white colonial house they'd rented in one of Singapore's most exclusive eastern suburbs. It had also paid for a driver and credit cards with unlimited spending. It had paid for photos in glossy social magazines, where she would always be seen in the latest fashions, direct from the catwalks of Paris or Milan.
What it hadn't paid for was the prescience to know when it was all going to crumble. Neither the gossip papers nor the fashion shows had intimated that there was an economic crisis coming that would engulf the small island-state like a paper tsunami, decimating careers with broad strokes of red ink.
Even now, several years later, Sophie still couldn't believe how their safe, dependable lives—ones that had taken years, decades even, to build up—could be obliterated in the space of a few weeks.
...at the Masked & Masquerade Ball...
With steady hands, Sophie quickly brought together an assortment of ingredients—the all-important garlic, chopped spring onions and greens, juicy prawns—and set them to fry. The smell of food hitting the hot oil filled the small kitchen. Even after years of living in Asia, the savoury aroma of it made her salivate. In quick succession, she added noodles, then an oyster-based sauce, mixed it together and slid the whole thing into a shallow, white porcelain bowl. There was a brief scramble while she tried to find a matching pair of chopsticks in the cutlery drawer, then she settled at the dining table.
When the economic crisis tsunamied over Singapore, more than Tim's job suffered. It was as if their entire lives had been crushed, squeezed, steamrollered, then held up to the light to see what survived. Not much had. Not even their marriage.
...to be held at the Singleton...
The bowl clinked on the glass-topped table. Sophie knew she should've retrieved a placemat to put her dinner on but, with only one person living in the apartment, how much damage could she do? She deliberately didn't switch on the television set, with its usual choices of a news program or eternal reruns of a popular—now tedious through constant repetition—comedy show. She appreciated silence while she ate. It helped calm her after the sometimes frenetic days at the business academy. Later on, she might spend some time watching an American medical drama. Or she might spend it reading.
A few years ago, she wouldn't have had such choices. It would have been dinner here, a few drinks there, and turning up for one important event or another every weekend.
When it all fell apart, Sophie had been forced to look across the dining table at her husband, night after night, and admit to herself that there was nothing holding them together anymore. From being something that Tim initially looked upon as duty, the constant entertaining had gradually morphed to become the focus of his entire life. Sophie didn't go so far as to think that Tim had ever cheated on her, but she knew that it hadn't really mattered who stood by his side in the latest designer gown, as long as it was someone with poise who dressed well and knew when to keep her mouth shut.
...on the first of December...
She finished her meal and took the dish back to the kitchen, washing it carefully and putting it on the rack to dry. Then she went to the fridge to pour herself a glass of wine from the half-opened bottle rattling in one of the door shelves.
On the way to the living room, she deliberately didn't glance at the front door, or at the side table, but could feel the weight of the heavy, cream card pressing on her mind, almost a physical presence. She settled into an armchair, sipping at her drink while she looked out the window. Her two-bedroom home was ten storeys above the ground, which afforded her a nice view across to the public housing in the middle distance—towers of flats, looking serene in the glow of their lights.
She owned the apartment outright—it was part of the settlement with Tim—and was content with her life. But the card on the side table nagged at her. Was it enough? Was this all she was? A middle-aged woman teaching English business courses, sharing her home with nobody? The truth was, when Tim told her that he was moving back to the United Kingdom, pursuing opportunities with well-placed friends, she was tempted to follow suit. Their son, Harry, lived in Jersey, with his wife and two children. Sophie hadn't countenanced anything as extreme as moving in with them, even as a temporary measure, but it might have been nice settling nearby, so she could spend her now copious free time playing the indulgent grandmother.
So what had made her stay, rootless and alone, in south-east Asia instead?Was it the latent wanderlust, the feeling that she wanted to achieve something in life, and how better than to spend some years living in an exotic locale, with opportunities to go travelling through the region, to be fascinated by food she had never tasted before, languages she'd never previously heard?
But while she was still mulling over her options, Tim made the decision to return to the UK. Alone. Sophie bought her condo and was settled in a life that was pleasant, rewarding but a little...empty.
“Come over here,” the card mocked her in the silence. “Pick me up. Read me again.”
Not that she needed to. She knew exactly what had been written, every word burnt into her neurons.
The invitation had come from George, of course. Jolly George Chua, fellow instructor at the academy. A friendly sort, who thought his mission in life was to interfere in everyone else's lives with the excuse of making them happier. Well-meaning, interfering Georgie. She didn't know he contributed to charities but a person didn't have to be in Singapore for very long to get to know everyone and, with his affable manner and friendly demeanour, she was sure George had met everyone of importance in the city-state years ago.
The problem was, as irritated as she was with George inveigling an invitation for her, Sophie had to admit the entire event sounded rather tempting. What did she have to show for her life over the past couple of years except for satisfied students, glowing performance reviews and a spotless flat? She was sure Tim hadn't descended to the depths of isolation, at least not from the snippets of news Harry relayed to her during their regular phone calls. So, really, was there any excuse for the living mausoleum she'd constructed for herself over the past two years?
“Oh, that's not fair,” she murmured, arguing with herself.
After all, didn't she have a group of friends she regularly went out with? Outdoor movies at the Botanical Gardens, book readings at the mega-stores, retail therapy during the annual extended sale period? Yet, she somehow felt that the cream card invitation mocked all of this, daring her to take a step out of her comfort zone.
She shouldn't reply. After all, it wasn't that she had anything to prove. It was just George interfering in her life, as he often did with everyone else who worked with him. And she didn't know the charity ball organisers. Chances were she'd end up standing, alone and forlorn, at the event, a glass of wine warming alarmingly in her hand.
Still, there was the chance to meet new people. To find a lover perhaps?
Sophie snorted, but couldn't quash the errant thought. The past few years had been barren in that regard as well. She had gone down to a well-hidden sex shop off Orchard Road and purchased a vibrator, but it hadn't been a good enough substitute. The shallow release she got couldn't compare to the touch of a man on her body.
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