Homecoming | a prose
The smell of fried chicken filled the air in the house. Constant chatter in the living room. It was a special day — my brother is coming back home after two years behind bars. Leaning against the darkened walls in the only bedroom, I heaved a sigh of relief. Better days are coming, they are coming I thought. This homecoming means an extra source of income to decrease the financial burden on my parents’ shoulders, an extra source of emotional support for us siblings through the hard times, an extra source of protection against the many temptations that will lead us down the path of regrets that are all over the neighbourhood.
We are a family of seven, living under a roof meant for two. We are a family of seven, with only a bed meant for two. My grandparents are bedridden, thus taking up the only bed in the house. This leaves the five of us to sleep on the floor, with only two blankets to keep us warm in the cold of the night. A mattress without a bed frame, a stove without gas half the time, two rusty pots, a fluorescent light that doesn’t light, an ancient and noisy fan, a pile of clothes and seven suffering souls make up the contents in the one-room rental flat in the heart of Jalan Kukoh, one of Singapore’s poorest neighbourhoods.
“Ryan! Hurry up come help me settle Susan leh!” My mother’s voice pierced through the thick smell of fried chicken and constant chatter. I snapped out of my thoughts and headed to the living room to ‘settle Susan’. Susan is twelve, but with the proper social interaction skills of someone half her age. Being the only female in our family other than my grandmother who is bedridden and my mother who works day and night to make ends meet, nobody taught Susan how to handle herself properly. She was never taught personal hygiene and grooming, only following us brothers in our daily routine of rushing through or even skipping our supposedly mandatory basic hygiene practices. Susan is due for Secondary school in a year, but she has yet to learn how to practice proper social skills needed to communicate with others her age. Growing up in this neighbourhood, Susan was exposed to multiple experiences which either involved a bunch of vulgarities hurled across corridors or violence with and without weapons. She picked up those speaking habits and became a tough young girl, something essential if she wants to survive here. This time, Susan was in an argument with our neighbour, a middle-aged, severely tattooed handicapped Malay man. I ran up to her and tackled her to the ground and dragged her back into our house, locking the door behind us. “Do you want to die young? Why you every time also want to fight other people?” I asked her sternly, but she only gave me a blank look. “Sorry.” That would have easily been the most insincere apology to the average joe, but to us, an apology is a huge blow to our pride. “Ben will be back soon, please don’t screw it up,” my mother lamented. We settled down onto the floor in the middle of the living room, desperately trying to not ruin the mood today, which is by far the happiest we have experienced in a long time.
My father, who is a chain smoker, alcoholic, drug addict and gangster is out of the house. Being heavily tattooed and almost two meters tall, he is a hard man to miss. He is always out of the house until the wee hours of the morning, where my mother, who is on her way to work, will find him lying on the staircase or the bench at the void deck with either a bottle of alcohol, a used syringe or cigarettes beside him. She would then carry him back into our house and then head off to work. During the day, he would either sleep or join Susan and me in our daily conversations about our hopes for a better future. When he is sober or clean, he is capable of imparting knowledgeable information about the outside world to us. Unfortunately, he is drunk or high more often than not. He speaks wisdom, but his actions prove otherwise. Not that it’s his fault, but he has little choice, coming from a completely uneducated background and being influenced from a young age, it is clear why nobody wants to hire him. However, he still provides some financial support for our family, although it is on an inconsistent basis. If you ever wondered where he got it from, being a gangster has its perks, although the risks outweigh them tremendously.
She sets up the homecoming meal. Although it is not much, she still tries to arrange it as perfectly as she can, placing the pot of fried chicken in the middle of the living room, and placing tissue strategically around the pot. “Help me go find your father leh, faster before Ben comes home,” she instructed Susan and I. We abide. “How are you feeling? What do you think Kor Kor will look like?” Susan asked. I silently walked, ignoring her question. I seriously did not know the answer to her question. So many thoughts filled up my head. Ben was involved in a gang fight, and the police came along soon after and arrested everyone at the scene. Surprisingly, I looked up to him. He was the closest thing to a hero in my world, and the way he could inflict fear into his enemies’ souls was mesmerising. In this neighbourhood, a hero isn’t someone who is educated and able to provide a voice for us, but someone who would keep us safe, safe from our own neighbours. Nobody can be trusted, especially in this neighbourhood, where illegal pedlars, illegal prostitutes, and snitches make up three-quarters of the population. We keep to ourselves, no talking to strangers, no acknowledging others who reside in the same block as us and no eye contact with drunkards, drug abusers or gangsters. Despite this, some part of me despised him. Although I have come to terms with accepting some of the bad as good, not all of the bad are good. Him being a gangster is something I will never become, and landing in prison is also somewhere I will never go. I still want a brighter future, no matter how slim the chances of it happening are.
He was lying on a bench as usual. As we approached him, we noticed a broken bottle of alcohol and a lit cigarette on the floor beneath him. “Let’s get him back yeah?” She nodded and the both of us lifted him by his arms and dragged him back into the house. “Is Kor Kor back yet?” I asked. I guess not, I muttered under my breath when nobody answered. We laid our father down on the floor and sat down quietly, waiting as if we were expecting a conversation to strike up. My grandparents were fast asleep, my father is passed out, and my mother is in the bathroom. Susan and I stared at the pot of fried chicken in the middle of the room. The smoke that was rising from the chicken is now gone, and the oil is starting to settle on the bottom of the pot. “Hey.” She sat down beside us and sighed. We could tell she was exhausted — there was two extremely obvious eye bags, a weak smile, and heavy breathing. I cleared my throat, “what if…” my voice trailed off. Both women stared at me, waiting for me to continue. “…What if Ben doesn’t come back? I mean did you contact him or talk to him to ask him?”
There it was. The moment of realisation struck all of them. My mother immediately broke down, and Susan went over to comfort her. It was true, what if Ben never intended to come back? Or what if he forgot about us and found greener pastures? We were waiting foolishly, without even getting a confirmation of his return. We were full of hope, even when there was nothing to hope for. We were prepared, even when there was nothing to be prepared for. Like the fried chicken, we were waiting, waiting for someone to end our misery. For the fried chicken in the middle of the living room, it was waiting for us to eat them, waiting for us to end its pain. For us, we were waiting for Ben, we were waiting for that extra source of income to decrease the financial burden on my parents’ shoulders, that extra source of emotional support for us siblings through the hard times, that extra source of protection against the many temptations that will lead us down the path of regrets that are all over the neighbourhood. We are the family of seven, the ones who struggle to make ends meet, the ones who are waiting for better futures, the ones who are stuck in the cycle of poverty, the ones who are waiting for the homecoming that will never come.