Uncle Song

After dinner, Simon goes to his room to do his homework. Without knocking first, Ma enters smelling like shampoo. Her hair is wrapped in a towel but drops of water still roll down her neck and shoulders and splash onto the desk. As she leans over his shoulder, her shadow blocks his light.

“Polynomials,” she says. “I hated Maths. I thought they only do Polynomials in Sec Three.”

“It’s not so hard,” Simon replies.

Ma smoothes down his hair and gives him a kiss on the forehead. The floral smell of her shampoo is so strong it could seep into his skin. He shifts but there still isn't enough space between them. “Good for you. You show them you’re the smartest boy in that school,” Ma says. She chuckles and as her body shakes, more water drops onto Simon’s workbook, blurring his ink numbers. Now his answers look wrong.

“You’re making my book wet,” he grumbles.

“Imagine if you win Top Student this year. I’ll come to the ceremony and make it a point to let your Principal see me,” Ma continues.

“I’m not the top in my class.”

“You keep working like that and you will be. It’s all about setting goals.”

“It won’t happen,” Simon snaps. “Gideon Chee won’t do anything all year and he’ll still win Top Student. He’s just smarter.” He searches his pencil case for liquid paper to paint over her mistake. Ma moves away from the light but she lingers at his side for a while, tucking stray strands of hair back into the towel as if she does not know what else to do with her hands. She tells him not to sleep too late before she leaves the room, drops of water plotting her exit.

*  *  *

During enrollment last year, Ma was shocked to find out that Simon was on the waiting list to attend Singapore Methodist Boys’ School. Simon had attended SMB Primary and his entry results were well above the required scores. She made an appointment to see Principal Chock and didn’t search for alternate schools for Simon. “I know what this is about,” she told him as she marched up the slope leading to campus. “What they’re doing is illegal. I’ll bring it to the newspapers if they try it.”

In the office, Ma must have been frightened into silence by the largeness of everything, because she did not remind Principal Chock of her rights or the newspapers. She answered his questions politely and tugged at the hem of her skirt to make sure it covered her knees.

“I’ve noticed an absence of information about your husband, Mrs. Lee,” Principal Chock said, peering over his oversized glasses into a folder.

“I do not have a husband,” Ma said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Principal Chock said, and then there was a very long pause as if all of them were mourning the absence of Ma’s husband. Then Ma spoke up.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said. “I am not a widow or a divorcee. I was never married to Simon’s father. I am Miss Lee, not Mrs.” She said this all very briskly, but Simon saw the words. They unraveled across the room like streamers broadcasting her sins.

Principal Chock shut the folder. He placed it on his desk and interlaced his fingers. “I hope you don’t mind sharing. Are you a practicing Christian?” Although the question was directed towards Ma, he didn’t take his eyes off Simon. Simon did not know where to look. His lips felt chalky but he didn’t want to wet them because it might look like he was sticking his tongue out at Principal Chock.

Ma said no.