This one's for you, B. Thanks for believing in me.
The Interrogative Mood
What does Ohpa mean?
Why is that lady's hair blue?
Do fish sleep?
It never ended.
Why are they called lady's fingers?
Where do rainbows end?
Can we eat earthworms?
They kept up the relay, identical high-pitched voices piping in turn from three iterations of the same face. At least she could tell them apart, which proved her a better observer than even their own father, who had to identify them by the shapes of the birthmarks on their rumps. It didn't help at all that they had identical haircuts and wore the same shorts and T-shirts interchangeably for convenience.
Why is old-people skin like folded paper?
Why do we get old-people skin after we bathe?
Why don't you have old-people skin?
It was a tsunami of inquisitiveness that demanded endless explanations. 'Just ignore them,' their parents said, with their so-called experience; 'Kids don't really hear what you say to them anyway'.
She ignored the advice, even though she called them the FBI in mock exasperation. She'd never forgotten the feeling of nobody listening to her, of being left out of everything. She could even remember her questions that never got answered. What's wrong with mama? Where is the hoss-pee-ter? Will mama come home soon? Where will mama 'pass away' to?
So she did her best, aided and abetted by her friend Mr. Google.
"Because we shrink when we get older and our skins get too big for us. And because the water gets into your skin and makes it too big for you. And last of all, because I'm not old!"
They looked sceptical. They still thought alike, a reaffirmation of the one fertilised egg that had split into three to produce them.
"You're so many years old!" Woo Yong How announced. "More than all my fingers and toes!"
"She's only eight years younger than papa and mama," Woo Yong Wai pointed out. He was the middle one, and the most reasonable.
Woo Yong Huat—the youngest but by no means the runt—made the conclusion. "Yeah, and all of them are OLD – papa, mama and Weng!"
She shook her head, smiling ruefully. She supposed they were quite right; at twenty-eight, she was seven times their age. They should be calling her Er Yi (二姨), but she refused to let them do that—it sounded like 'crocodile' (鱷魚)— so 'Weng Ah Yi' it was, and 'Weng' when it was just them.
Alone at the supermarket, she had a brief respite from the barrage of questions. Her cart contained many unfamiliar items – chocolate-flavoured cereal (she hardly ever had breakfast at home), peanut butter (she didn't like how it stuck to the roof of her mouth), fruit yoghurt (plain was her preference) … and a jumbo pack of nappies for night-time wear (she wasn't taking any chances with one-off accidents).
All because she'd made a spontaneous commitment.
"I'll be happy to take care of them."
Her brother-in-law's response was a polite, if surprised, "You don't have to decide right now, Weng."
Her sister was much blunter, and to the point. "Sure? Six months is much longer than a weekend, you know? And you can't back out in the middle."
She couldn't retract her offer, not with three hopeful faces beaming at her. "We'll be just fine. They'll be at the preschool most of the time, anyway."
It hadn't taken long for the couple to take her up – which made her wonder, just a tiny bit, if they'd planned it all along, but even if they had, she was being willingly conned. Six months with the FBI while their parents did a consultancy gig in Beijing was an adventure that she rather looked forward to.
There was a long-ish line at the checkout, which gave her time to check her shopping. She'd bought some ready-to-eat fillets from the hot foods section. The kids had enjoyed it the last round, even if they had another barrage of questions about it.
Do fish have fingers?
Where is the head and fin and tail?
Can we eat goldfishes?
She broke into a wide grin at the memory, startling the woman in front into a tentative smile in return. The smiling caught on down the line, lifting the mood of the tired shoppers just that little bit. It was exhausting sometimes, living in a forest of question marks. But she'd learned a lot just looking for the answers. At least they didn't ask the kind of things that other adults did. Relatives, colleagues, sometimes complete strangers, they all seemed to assume that it was their right to subject her to an inquisition once they'd discovered her status. Regardless of gender, as long as they were older (or felt older) than her, they sang the same tune.
They asked well-meaning things like "Wouldn't you like somebody to take care of you? At least a companion in old age, haha..." and ones that weren't so direct like "Don't you get a little, you know, lonely, sometimes?" And more pointed ones like "You're being picky, right? Jacking up the price?" and even rather rude ones like "Why are you still single? Waiting for your expiry date?" or the most brutal to date, "Are you going to wait like your sister until you're too old to have children? Good thing she managed to make some test-tube babies!"
"What I do with my life is my own decision, okay, and anyway can't I be happy by myself without a man around?" She kept that answer, and others like it, to herself; she was a nice person and nice people didn't go around provoking arguments.
Perhaps worse that all these were the requests at work, politely framed as questions and sweetened with flattery. She hated them, requests that she had no way of refusing without confrontation or worse, injuring her career; she felt powerless, like she had inferior rights compared to her married and reproducing counterparts.
"You're such a team player, Weng, so you can come in this weekend, right, since you don't need to find a babysitter?"
"Is it alright if you come in two hours earlier to take the overseas client's call? Everyone else has to send the kids to school, you see… thank you in advance!"
"Would you mind staying back today to finish off those applications? I have to rush home to cook for the husband and kids. You can claim overtime pay for that of course."
It gave her immense satisfaction to answer, for the first time, in the negative. "Sorry, I have to pick up my nephews from their preschool."
She took the boys to the company's Family Day lunch the following week, proving that they weren't imaginary and solidifying her new immunity from extra duties. In between demolishing the cakes and turning up their noses at the salad (except for carrots, which they liked crunching), they charmed the colleagues with their unique style of triplet-talk, finishing each other's sentences and sometimes speaking in unison without apparent planning. One statement in particular put a thoughtful look on several faces.
"Weng Ah Yi is very on time…" began Yong Wai.
"…to take us home," continued Yong How, "better than mama, she's always late because she said…"
To be finished off by Yong Huat with "…she has to work. I cry when mama is late!"
And then all three chorused the ultimate vindication, "But Weng Ah Yi is never late!"
She shushed the kids out of politeness, but what she really wanted to do was hug them and tell them "My heroes!"
They settled into the new single-aunt life. She'd been living with them all along, so there was no physical change in their living arrangements. The three tots already had quite an efficient morning routine set up by their mother, so she had no problem with the whole process of waking up, cleaning up and eating up 'brekkie' before she sent them to the preschool. Happy Valley Kindy actually had a split personality – it was a preschool in the mornings and turned into a creche after lunch for the benefit of working parents, or in her case, a working guardian.
The kids could only skype with their parents on weekends, due to the time difference, but they didn't seem to miss them all that much. Now that the FBI spent the greater part of their day with her, they seemed to have less questions for her. Instead they talked about their day at Happy Valley. In the course of one week, she followed the Woo version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears over three drama-filled days, gained detailed knowledge on the petting preferences of Paws the resident cat, and learned why we have to eat all our beegee-tables, not just carrots. She felt like she was attending preschool together with them.
A new name began to appear in their conversations.
How old is Teacher B?
Does Teacher B like carrots?
Where does Teacher B live?
The children called all the staff at Happy Valley Teacher, and she knew their regular caregivers – Teacher Ann and Teacher Mary, but she hadn't heard of this new Teacher before. After having to answer "I don't know" more times than she liked, she decided to try some investigation of her own.
"What is Teacher B's name?"
"Teacher B's Name?" Yong Huat echoed doubtfully.
She thought perhaps the concept wasn't clear enough. "You know, Teacher B has a name, like my name is Weng and your name is Yong Huat?"
Yong Huat nodded enthusiastically and pointed at his brothers. "And his name is Yong How and his name is Yong Wai!"
"Right, so Teacher B's name is…?"
She got a deafening chorus of "B!" that made her cover her ears, which in turn sent the trio into a fit of giggles.
Her interrogation skills having been found severely wanting, she tried to steer the conversation to more familiar territory. "Did you all pet Paws today?"
Yong Wai stopped giggling. "Yes, but Paws likes Teacher B the most."
"Why does Paws like Teacher B?" asked Yong How, and "Does Teacher B have a cat at home?"
She had to confess her ignorance again. The triplets gave her reproachful looks.
"Why do you keep saying…" Yong Huat plopped himself on her lap.
"…I don't know?" Yong How followed suit, wriggling in beside his brother. "You should know…"
"Everything!" Determined not to be left out, Yong Wai joined his siblings on top of their aunt. "You can ask Mr. Google, right?"
She doubted that a google search of 'Teacher B' would yield very much. Immobilised—but luckily still able to breathe—under the pile of children, she gave in to a mild bout of resentment that the triplets were more interested in some other woman than her, and muttered, "Why do you like Teacher B so much anyway?"
The FBI spilled off her and got into a huddle. She rubbed her sore midriff and watched them whispering and gesticulating excitedly.
They all came up and stood beside her. Putting one hand on her shoulder, Yong How said gravely, "Don't be jealous, Weng."
Yong Wai patted her other shoulder. "You must make friends with Teacher B."
Finally came Yong Huat, who planted himself in front of her with his hands on his hips. "Then everyone will play nice!"
She felt like laughing at how she was being taught a life lesson by three pre-schoolers, but she kept her face straight, and nodded submissively. Disillusioning a four-year-old wasn't one of her life goals.
Monday was well on the way to being a really good day. It'd started off really well, no early morning tantrums or sleepyheads. It being wear-your-own-outfit day, she'd put the triplets in jeans and their customised Ts that said 'Mama really wanted me!', 'Mama really wanted me too!' and 'And I'm Mama's bonus!' And she'd beaten the morning rush and gotten them to Happy Valley fifteen minutes earlier than usual, so she'd even had time to drop in on Starbucks before work.
The good vibes continued. There was a glut of paperwork to deal with, but for a change, the burden was evenly distributed among everyone and not just pushed to her like it'd been three months running. By giving up her lunch hour to slurp a cup noodle with one hand while working with the other, she was able to set the last document in her 'Out' tray with great satisfaction 5 minutes before the end of the day.
And then it was off to Happy Valley.
She was rather surprised that the FBI weren't already waiting at the gate like they usually did if it wasn't raining, backpacks and all, so that they could hop into the car and strap themselves in during the one minute it took her to smile and exchange pleasantries with the staff member on gate duty. As she drew up to the gate in her sister's sedan, a mild commotion started up at the preschool's main entrance. She shifted into neutral. She could see a small crowd—taking the adage of two's company and so forth–moving down the driveway. A frown took over her features as she recognised the Woo triplets making up the larger part of the group.
They were dragging an adult with them, but it wasn't any of the staff she recognised. The adult was, in fact, a young man, an unusual sight at any preschool, and unusual enough to make her cut the engine and get out of the vehicle.
She gave the young man a tentative smile while the FBI surrounded their prisoner, smug grins on their faces. He was much taller than her, and had the evening sun behind him, so she had to kind of look up while trying not to squint.
"Our Weng Ah Yi," Yong How said loudly, "wants to ask you many questions."
She felt her scalp prickling as an embarrassing possibility took shape in her mind. The young man pushed his spectacles higher up his nose. He had a nice nose, which went with his nice face.
"So that you can be friends," added Yong Wai.
The possibility in her head grew stronger. Her face was growing warm. The young man smiled. He had a nice smile too.
"And maybe she'll like you, Teacher B!" finished Yong Huat.
It was confirmed. She felt like covering her face, which she was sure had turned red. She took a deep breath instead, to slow down her heartbeat. A few too many seconds passed, putting politeness at stake. He'd think she was staring at him.
"Pleased to meet you," she blurted out hurriedly, and then more slowly, "I, uh, wasn't expecting you."
"I'm sorry I'm not what you expected."
She didn't know what to make of that reply. Suddenly worried that perhaps he'd felt that she was insulting him in some way, she made a quick explanation.
"I mean, there aren't many guys working at preschools that I know of."
He laughed, a warm, no-offence-taken-at-all sound. "Well, I wasn't expecting you either."
She didn't know what to make of that reply either. Was he implying that she wasn't up to whatever standard he had?
"Some people," he said, and then stooped to put his arms around the giggling triplets before continuing, "said you were an old lady."
She burst out laughing. While the boys wriggled themselves free and loaded themselves into the car, he straightened and held out his hand. She noticed—and mentally pinched herself for being so nosey—the absence of a ring.
"I'm Teacher B, and I'm very glad to meet you."
She shook hands hurriedly. There was another parent pulling up, and she had to get out of the way. Between negotiating heavy traffic and a sudden squabble in the backseat, it wasn't until fifteen minutes later that she realised something…. she still didn't know what B stood for. She laughed, setting off yet more interrogation, including several more questions about Teacher B. But that was okay.
She had a feeling there'd be plenty of time for her to find out the answers to those.