I’m tired. We have had a long day exploring, Alex and I, looking around, walking. This is a country where we all walk, like so many ants. We walk and walk our way to trains, to buses, to cabs, and even though most of the way we’re carried from one place to the other in air-conditioned comfort, it feels like a lot of walking.
As I lean back on my seat, I cannot see much across the maze of legs. But there it is: a peeping toe. The toe is painted a pale pink, with a thin, precise white line at the tip. It peeks, along with two smaller toes, similarly painted, out of mauve sandals. I can’t see much else,
but the toe looks like it is not used to the open road; it looks cosy and homey in there.
In Singapore it is very difficult to guess a person's age, especially if it is a woman: some of them look like schoolgirls, but actually have school-going kids. This is the guess you make when you can see the entire person. What if all you can see is a toe across a crowded train?
Must be in her thirties, the sandals are refined, grown-up, lacy. Can’t be returning from her office, not in those. Having lived here for some time now, I can pick out the strait-laced office goers from students in espadrilles or boho thongs, housewives in clumsy Birkenstocks, tourists in plastic Crocs and sneakers. She does not have Caucasian skin, nor Indian or black mahogany, so maybe a Chinese or Malay Singaporean. The crowd is starting to thin out, so I’ll soon be able to see the owner of those sandals. All I have to do is wait.
On the other side, in the corner seat across, there’s a young couple asleep in each other's arms. The girl in huge red sunglasses is leaning into the guy's chest, sitting on his lap, clutching the hem of his t-shirt. He is in small, really dark blue glasses. Since he is facing me directly, I can't help feeling watched.
When I first came to Singapore, I couldn’t get over these skinny Chinese teenaged boys in tight-fitted clothes screaming Versace or Moschino Cheap & Chic, with their bleached, multi-coloured, middle-parted hair, their headphones and hand phones, their necklaces and tattoos. But now I’m used to this Ah beng sort, the sort that hangs out with Ah lians—girls who live in make-up, dyed hair, short skirts, platform heels and fishnet stockings. A pair like this can stay glued together inside a train or on the roadside, and nobody would notice.
I’m pushing forty, and as I watch myself suck in my belly, and Alex, who has dropped off, mouth open, head lolling in time with the train’s movement, I can’t stand it. I can’t stand us, how we are together. I keep my eye on the couple across me and nudge Alex, who wakes up with a start.
That skinny little scum in dark blue glasses has a protective arm around the sleeping girl, but there’s something strained about both their postures. They’re putting on a show, a tableau of youthful, innocent love. A Singaporean Romeo and Juliet, asleep. My eyes slide away from their charade, and towards the toe. I spot it amid a throng of shoes, Jimmy Choo clogs, a tattered sandal or two, square-toed office boots, sneakers, floaters. Male shoes, female shoes, meshed together, yet standing apart. Much like Singapore itself, everyone leading his or her own life, in crowded isolation.
I wonder why the toe fascinates me. It’s not as if it has the elaborate stars, flowers, crystals or paintings usually laid on in Singaporean nail salons, where petite girls with blond-streaked hair and ever-smiling expressions pore cross-eyed over a woman’s foot or palm.
Men are equally conscious about grooming. I’ve passed a whole lot of exclusive spas for men but never quite picked up the courage to step into one. They’d only laugh at my over-trimmed nails. Besides, I’d rather look tough, and going to a spa won’t help with that. I know they won't throw me out just because they don't like the way my feet look, they like their money. But most Singaporeans can convey more disapproval by the barely perceptible rise of an eyebrow than other races can manage in an entire tirade. Girls, in particular.
This painted toenail, however, is the sort that would win praise from the girls at the nail salon. It is not old, I don't think, because I see no ridges. No tell-tale cracks in the paint either. This is a toe that is sure of itself. But maybe I’m making this up—I can't see the toe well enough to detect any blemishes. I peer at it while I nod away at Alex, whose words I barely catch. At the next station new people walk in, some go out. The air inside suddenly carries an overwhelming tang of musk. I look around, trying to figure out the wearer of the cologne.
It is the guy in the striped shirt, with that bloody annoying air of formal self-importance. He is tall for a Singaporean—a manager on the rise, not yet able to afford cabs or cars, but dressing the part. Out of nowhere, I think of him first in casuals, then in underwear, finally without any clothes at all. This man would act the same, I’m so sure, whether in his office trousers, in his shorts on the beach, or in bed: polite, very straight, no slouches, and always full-of-himself. Definitely stuffy.
I shrug off the mental image, and look at Alex, asleep. He looks so young. Well, he is only twenty-six. I don’t think I’ll find another like him again. It’s been three years since I came from India on a work permit as a fashion merchandiser, a good two years since I’ve moved in with him. I have my PR card now. Alex wants me to apply for citizenship. I don’t want to think about it.
I turn to the right. No toe! But then I relax, the foot had merely shifted, and is back now. I can see a bit of the leg. Is she wearing one of those short, skinny trousers or a skirt?
Stuffy, meanwhile, stands a little apart, in a cloud of musky cologne. He holds the handrail for support with a faint air of distaste, possibly thinking of how hard he will have to wash his hands and then scrub in the shower to cleanse himself of the proximity of so many people. Behind his head, I see a poster near the train’s roof. “Keep Singapore Clean,” it says.
I snort, and Alex looks at me, puzzled.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” I don’t want to talk to him. He has been trying to tell me something about our new quarters, how it should be airy with a lot of natural light. I agree with that, but in my trance, the snort at Stuffy and at Singapore, becomes a snort at Alex. I’m unsure about the apartment, about everything. My feet ache, though I’ve been sitting throughout. I can’t wait to put them up.
“Oh, okay. I thought the ones we saw today too dark one. The last one ah, third floor...when we say, quite clearly, ah, we want apartment above the ninth...”
Instead of speaking up, I nod. Sometimes, Alex’s native Singlish gets to me. I know I have an accent too. Singapore does that to you: you have to conform, be ‘assimilated’, but that does not stop me from hating it. I’ve had to lose all the grammar my expensive private school in India had drummed into me. I don’t want my thoughts to go down the road of Singaporean citizenship, not again, so I check on the toe instead. Still there.
One station further along, the sleeping Romeo and Juliet come awake just as the mechanical female voice declares, “Doors are closing. Next station, Raffles City.” They’ve missed their stop. Maybe they did actually fall asleep in the end. A hushed conversation in Singlish follows, everyone turns around to stare at them, and the couple gets off at the next stop. Stuffy sits down on one of the corner seats they vacate. He keeps his briefcase on the other, as if daring anyone to sit beside him.
Everyone is listless once more. All the seats are taken. There are dozens of people standing in the compartment, holding bars and handrails, reading books in Mandarin or English, or listening to music on their headphones, a few salesgirls in uniform on their way home, giggling amongst themselves. I almost get up, then hold myself back. If the toe doesn't move before we leave the train, I will go over there and look. It is not like me to obsess over a woman’s foot. I turn to check on it again.
I wish I hadn't. Hadn’t turned, that is. Because seated beside Stuffy, who now looks apoplectic, a faint purple tinge on his reddish neck, is the most unnerving sight I’ve ever seen. Straight from B-grade horror movies or meat-fuelled nightmares is a woman, one of her eyes shut closed by a humongous wart.
A Lady Medusa of warts. Each visible square inch of her skin is covered with boils; shiny, squishy, big, pink-beige boils that look on the verge of bursting. Warts between her thinning hair, warts crawling into her sleeve, warts down her aging neck, warts up her wrinkled feet: I pinch myself to check I haven't dozed off. I find I haven’t. She is quite real. She is nodding off, bending towards Stuffy. I can almost hear him above the hum-and-swoosh, furiously thinking of a way to get up without brushing against his neighbour.
He doesn’t have to, because at the next stop the Lady Medusa alights, and in that small pause the train allows on each station, I see a fair, tall, broad-shouldered man step up to greet her, and extend his arm to lean on. Stuffy seems to have recovered now that he is quite isolated again. But when I turn back, I do not see the toe anymore.
Relax. No one except the Lady Medusa left at the last stop. The toe must’ve just shifted, and will come back soon enough. More people board our compartment; some barely make it inside the door. A man stumbles on my knees, apologizes. Despite the air-conditioning, it is now hot in the train. I can’t breathe.
I become a little frantic as the next stop approaches. What if the toe disappears without me ever getting a proper look? I stand up in order to post myself close to the nearest door.
“We already there?” Alex mumbles.
“Nope, I’ll just stretch my legs. I’ll call you when we get to our stop.” I walk off.
A girl quickly takes my seat. I step near the door, keeping my eyes peeled for those mauve sandals, and that toe which has me curious for no reason. I feel ridiculous.
The train comes to a stop once more, and Stuffy makes an exit. Though I keep a keen eye on every foot that leaves, I see no mauve sandals. Announcements over, doors close and the train sets off. The compartment is a little emptier now, so I decide to walk along the length of it.
But after a few steps I realize I’m attracting questioning stares, and go back to leaning against a panel near the door. A man can’t suddenly go for a stroll in the middle of a train in Singapore. Unless he is an Ah beng, of course. The next stop is ours. Alex is looking at me, questioning. I nod back, and try to locate that toe for one last time.
Just as the train halts with a small jerk, I see it.
There is the toe I’ve been obsessing over, part of a dainty foot, cased in those soft mauve sandals. And for the first time, I see the entire person. She is leaning back, the sudden curves on an otherwise hard body relaxed in sleep. It is not a lady, as I’d imagined, but a katoey. She could easily be mistaken for a woman.
I’d heard that Thai lady boys are respected and accepted in Singapore, and here is a perfectly well-groomed, short-skirted example. As I leave the train, there’s a stirring between my legs. I feel myself shake.
“Why you trembling? You ok or not?”
“I’m fine. The station is warmer than inside the train. Let’s go, I’m tired.” I just want to get away before I let on any more. As I walk down the station with Alex, I wonder if he would paint his toenails pink, just to please me.