HE TOLD ME he’d meet me at the corner of the station where Citibank had a small office.
‘I’ll be wearing my Rocky T-shirt,’ he added.
I went through the ticket barriers and found him bunched and braced like a boxer in a ring.
He turned, bouncing lightly on his toes. ‘Yes.’
‘I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.’
‘Lunchtime, no? Come. We can have teppanyaki in the mall: top floor food court. Good calorific value.’
He led the way, side-stepping and sparring with his own shadow. He kept his head down and moved swiftly through the crowd. On the escalator, he zoomed up past a stream of young girls tittering into their hands, and prancing boys working hard with blue clipboards.
At the top, he asked me some quick-fire questions: how long had I been in Singapore? What did I think of the place? There wasn’t a lot to say. I had arrived the day before and only been on the MRT so far. Meeting up with Monty was top of my list.
Around us the food court was beginning to fill up. Heads bobbed like buoys released from the seabed into a tide of plankton.
‘I escape here to observe the crowds.’ He made a frame with his fingers.
‘Escape from what?’
‘I work on ballistics. Now and then you have to see how human beings really behave. You understand?’
‘For sure,’ I said.
Monty ordered for both of us. I waited for him to say something more but he sank into silence.
‘So, what is ballistics?’ I asked in the end.
‘We measure impact.’ He punched the palm of his left hand with his fist. ‘I am not at liberty to say much about it. In any case, it’s very difficult to explain to the layman.’
The chef attacked a pile of cabbage and onion with a pair of cleavers, chopping and scooping and spreading the mix about the metal hotplate.
I fished out a tightly wrapped parcel from my bag and handed it to Monty.
‘This is it,’ I said. ‘My boss said your mother wanted it delivered straightaway.’
He sniffed at the multiple layers of cling film and then tucked the parcel in his small leather rucksack. ‘She doesn’t understand I can get everything I want here. What is the point of homemade ginger cake?’
When the chef presented us with our sizzling plates, Monty immediately started to eat. He chewed fast as if pressed for time. I wanted to tell him to slow down: rushing doesn’t help. But then, I didn’t know the pressure he was under or the hopes of his parents.
‘I guess in your line of work, you have to keep thinking. You can’t let your mind rest, can you?’ I asked.
‘Correct. Your mind is always on the problem you are trying to solve. The problem is your life.’
‘A matter of life and death.’ He looked around to see if anybody was listening. ‘I am constantly working on the next move. You see, first you develop a projectile to penetrate x, then you work on x to make the material impenetrable. You go back and forth, shadow-boxing, trying to be one step ahead of the game. We are small fellows but this is the age of the nano-business. That’s really all I can say.’
‘Okay.’ I reached for the soy.
‘And you? Shopping?’
‘Actually, the opposite.’
‘Opposite of shopping. I am selling. Also to stay ahead of the game.’
‘This is the place for it. In Singapore, people sell everything. Fresh air in a bottle next. Price is paramount. My mother cannot understand it. In the old days, I suppose, niceties mattered more. What’s the product?’
‘Only an idea.’
‘Even better. No warehousing required.’
‘My boss wants me to meet some business people and persuade them to visit his factory – a sort of brand ambassador and tour guide all in one.’
He listened, head cocked. ‘You are selling a tour of a factory? People here will like a holiday like that – time profitably spent.’
‘The idea is to interest them in the whole package: the factory, the locality, the country. They can mix commerce and pleasure: do aromatherapy, water sports, business all in one. The rest of the team are all very production oriented. They are not comfortable with people.’
‘You enjoy meeting people?’ Monty looked incredulous.
‘When potential customers visit us in Sri Lanka, I am their host. I take them around – not just to the factory but down to the sea and the tea estates and the UNESCO sites. There’s a lot to see, no?’
After we finished lunch, he suggested we go Dutch and share the bill.
‘You will find this country educative. They do the tour business very efficiently here. I have a guidebook that will give you plenty of ideas. We’ll go to my apartment. You can have a look. I keep five-star coffee. My Indonesian colleague gives me a packet every time he visits. You must take one back to pacify my mother.’
He examined me with the eye of a man used to piling on commands in order to observe their effect.
‘You have met her?’
‘Only when I went to pick up the parcel from her office. Managing director, no?’
‘Her whole organisation is about empowerment, but the trouble is she can’t let go.’ He put down his chopsticks and arranged them in parallel lines. ‘A man should be free, don’t you think, to follow his own course without impediment?’
MONTY HAD A new Honda, which he said was a perk of the job. ‘It is a privilege to be able to drive here. Cars are very expensive. I don’t use it enough, but on occasions like this it is nice to be able to just hop in and go. The acceleration is not bad and the urban mileage quite reasonable.’
His apartment, also provided by his company, was located in the same small compound as his laboratory. There was no special security for the area. The board at the turn-off simply had a logo: a circle with the letters RLB held in it. Monty slowed down as we passed what looked like concrete bunkers.
‘Top notch lab. Cost a bomb.’ He laughed. ‘But very neat, no?’
Between the buildings, trees and bushes grew to uniform specifications; the grass lay clipped to a regulation height, the edges trimmed with a scalpel. The air itself seemed ordered and still. Nothing ruffled the steady pulse of the water sprinklers spraying arcs of precisely measured drops.
‘Looks nice and calm,’ I said. ‘Everything so clean.’
‘For our kind of work, you need a clear head and a stable environment. You can’t be battling with nature the moment you get out of bed. Gravity is enough of a problem.’
‘You can concentrate on the important things here.’
‘Exactly. Back home, the walls go black with mildew overnight, the morning glory is all choked in the garden. My mother’s car is a rust bucket. Waking up to face the neighbours’ gargles, and mayhem of the day’s news, is enough to drive a saint insane.
‘How is it managed?’ I asked. ‘Such beautiful order.’
‘Efficiently,’ Monty said.
‘But who does all this?’
‘Properly managed support staff. Planning and management has to be excellent. You need cheap labour and forethought. Without it, the lab cannot function. We are here because we can operate at optimum efficiency in this location. You don’t get such meticulous attention to detail anywhere else, except maybe Switzerland. I was there for a while and, I have to say, the temperature here – constant 30 degrees centigrade – is a real boon. And the terms of engagement are very conducive. The money has to be competitive to attract the talent from America, China, Japan – as well as the Commonwealth.’
‘All your colleagues live in this compound?’
‘Only senior levels, except for the director who has a house in Holland Village. She’s from Australia. The world order has truly changed. I’ve been promoted – so I get a brand new apartment, all mod cons. There is a serious possibility of gaining citizenship next year. You can become an asset in this country, instead of a liability at home like my father.’
‘Is he not well?’
‘Retired. Sits at home twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the storm to come thundering in from the sea.’
‘He prays the future will be as good as the past but says he is not hopeful. No clue about the concept of progress. He thinks America has lost the plot. Climate change bothers him but, at his age, why on earth does he care?’
At the apartment block, Monty parked the car in the allotted parking space, fitting all his wheels neatly within the white lines. We got out and he locked the car with his remote. I couldn’t get over how still the air was; nothing moved, except us, as he led the way swiftly into the building.
‘We have to go up the stairs,’ he said, sprinting up ahead. ‘As it is only one floor there is no elevator. Designed for the able-bodied.’
‘I suppose if you broke a leg, you’d be moved to more suitable accommodation.’
He looked at me puzzled. ‘Why would I break a leg?’
‘In an accident, I mean.’
‘No, no. That wouldn’t happen here.’
While he unlocked the door and laid down the mat that was hanging on the wall, I took a peek out at the back garden. The whole area had been dug up and marked for construction.
‘Please leave shoes outside,’ Monty instructed.
The apartment was a purely black-and-white affair except for the grey kitchen, which I could glimpse at the end. The floor, the ceiling, the walls, the curtains were all white, and the furniture – sofa, loungers, dining table and chairs, TV – all black. The doors were black – I suppose so that you could find the adjoining rooms.
‘Very smart,’ I said.
‘Binary is best. Makes for efficient design. You don’t waste time thinking unproductively. You want coffee? Only black, I am afraid.’ He put the cake in a cupboard and hung his rucksack on a peg.
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘Have a seat.’ He padded over to the kitchen in his socks, but just by the door he yelped.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘It’s wet. There’s water all over the floor.’
He was standing at the edge of a puddle that had spread out of the kitchen into the dining area.
‘A flood up here?’
‘Must be the damn washing machine. New one they just fitted. I put it to go before I left to meet you.’
Monty took off his socks and rolled up his trousers. The freestanding washing machine was blinking a blue light. He touched one of the controls and it began to play a tune. He banged it to shut it up. He opened the top and pulled out a white shirt. ‘All dry in there.’
He tipped the machine forward and checked the hose at the back. ‘Looks okay. I better call the maintenance team.’
He called them while still standing in the puddle.
‘A man will come soon. Do you mind if I try to get this sorted?’
I told him I was in no hurry and, in any case, I was curious to know what could have gone wrong in such an ordered environment. The washing machine looked state-of-the-art.
He got out a box file from one of the cupboards and started searching it. I stood by the window and gazed at the empty street: the sprinklers had stopped; the grass verges sparkled.
Ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Monty flung it open. A young man stood at the entrance; his big eyes blinked. He wore a loose shirt and khaki shorts.
‘Water problem, sir?’
‘Flood,’ Monty said. ‘A flood in the kitchen from that washing machine that you fellows put in.’
‘Not maintenance, sir. Purchasing and installation put in.’ He slipped off his flip-flops and stepped in. ‘But don’t worry, I can fix.’
He didn’t have any tools with him; he carried nothing in his thin bony hands. With a shy glance at me, he made his way cautiously across the white floor. He made a tutting sound at the entrance to kitchen. He too had a good look at the machine and the hoses at the back.
Monty and I watched without much confidence. He looked like he might be more comfortable in the garden, pruning hedges or clearing leaves, but he was methodical and clearly had some theory in his head. He checked the inlet pipe fixed to the wall. Then he tested the taps, filling the kitchen sink about a third before letting the water out. The flood swelled.
He pointed at a drainage hole in the kitchen floor. ‘Blockage there. Water coming up, not passing out.’
Going down on his haunches, he prised open the little grill with his long yellow fingernails and examined the hole. He looked back over his shoulder at us. ‘Rubbish.’
‘What can you do?’ Monty asked.
‘Have to pull out.’
He opened the cupboard under the sink and found a plastic brush inside. ‘Okay to use?’ he asked.
Monty shrugged. ‘Whatever.’
The man proceeded to prod the hole with the brush handle. Something seemed to move, and the water level on the floor reduced a little. Then he put his hand into the hole and started to grope around. He was beginning to sweat. His arm sank down into the hole almost to his elbow. As he dug in, crouching, the gap between his wrinkled shirt and shorts widened. I could see his spine stretch and the indentations of his thin vertebrae deepen. The maroon waistband of his boxers had a bargain brand-name emblazoned on it. When his hand came out, he had some pieces of shrapnel-like concrete that he showed us. ‘Bad work,’ he said. ‘Rubbish from the new fitting.’
He pulled out a piece of plastic hosing, nails, and some soggy labels. More pieces of concrete. As they came out, the water began to drain away.
I asked Monty for a carrier bag and he fetched one from a bag-holder. I gave it to the man and he put into it the debris he had collected. He gave me a small sweet smile and a nod of thanks.
‘I shall have to complain,’ Monty said. ‘This is a very poor show.’
The man on his haunches nodded. ‘Happens all the time. Big rush to install. Do and go, full speed only. Target number to complete is all. Not the way to run a show.’
After most of the water had gone, the man stood up and had a look around the kitchen. I thought he was checking for more shoddy work, but he was only looking for a mop. He found one and started mopping up the last of the moisture, slowly and carefully in slow long sweeps. ‘Okay now.’
Monty went into one of the other rooms to find the complaints procedure.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked the fixer.
‘Good job,’ I said.
‘I come from Bangladesh.’
His face brightened. ‘You know, Dhaka?’
‘I’ve been once,’ I said.
He smiled again as though we had secrets to share. ‘Good job. $20 a day.’
‘But expensive here, no?’
He shrugged. ‘For my family, if I save half, it is already worth it. You are also joining the company?’
I said I was only a visitor.
‘My target is $300 a month. Then in six months, I leave the dormitory and go home to my wife and child. My mother and my father.’
‘Will you have saved enough?’
‘Only need enough to start my motorcycle maintenance shop. That is my dream.’ He looked at the drainage hole. ‘In my hometown by the sea.’
‘Yes, sir. By the sea, machines need regular maintenance. It will be a good life then. My family is waiting.’ He wiped his hands on his shorts. ‘I’ll go now, sir.’
As Monty was still negotiating the menu of options on the phone, I took out my wallet to give Razu some money.
He shook his head. ‘No, sir. No tip. Not allowed. Goodbye, sir. Thank you. I go now. Problem fixed.’
He slipped out of the door and collected his flip-flops.
I was chastened not to have found something better to say; rising water levels all over the world worried me.
‘NO ONE ADMITS the fault,’ Monty complained. ‘Always some other fellow. Not maintenance but installer. Not installer but supply. Not supply but manufacturer.’
‘The maintenance man sorted it out very efficiently.’
‘Sharp fellow. But at that level, what can you do?’ He went over to the cupboard and checked that his cake was still safe. He then selected a small silver packet from a collection lining the back shelf. ‘This is the coffee. Take please and give it to my mother. I can’t drink it. Cake and caffeine are no-nos.’
‘Except on special occasions.’ He paused, weighing up some options. ‘And that’s the book. You like to keep it while you are here? You can post it back to me when you are done.’
‘Yes, the postal system is very good. I’ll give you the address.’
He started to scribble on a piece of paper.
‘No, that’s okay. Let me just have a quick look. I can pick one up from a bookshop, if I need to.’
He looked surprised.
‘How much is it? $10?’
I turned the book over. There was a small white label with the price on it.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Then take it. I’ll get the office to order another one on expenses. They can do that. I have an expenses allowance.’
Although he spoke proudly, he didn’t look happy. I pulled out my wallet again and found him a pristine note. ‘You can’t order two, can you? Let me pay for it.’
He took the note and examined it. ‘Actually, that’s a lot easier than trying to explain the duplication to admin. You see, I try to get my expenses bang on the nail every month. Otherwise you lose out.’ He put the note in his pocket, breathing a little easier. He checked his watch. ‘Right, now let’s get you back to the station so you can get on with your tour. I’ll drop you. It’s en route to my gym.’
He rolled a shoulder and feigned a good-humoured jab.
‘Let’s go. No time to dillydally.’
As we set off in the car, I spotted Razu making his way along the sidewalk. He still had the carrier bag with the rubbish from the drain hanging from his fingers. He stooped and picked up a paper cup that had tumbled out onto the kerb; he put it in the bag and dropped the bag in the nearby litter bin, pressing the lid firmly down and securing it against any other sudden gusts of wind that might blow in from the coast.