Last-Time Kopitiam

This story first appeared in Fish Eats Lion, an anthology of Singapore-based speculative fiction published in November 2012 by Math Paper Press and available for purchase here.

 "Marc de Faoite contributes "Last Time Kopitiam," in which a young man unwittingly becomes a tool for urban renovation." - PublishersWeekly

As he stood alone in the near silence of the wood-panelled, carpeted elevator only the numbers on the digital display above the door and the popping of his eardrums gave James Sullivan any indication that he was moving upwards through the innards of the building. He was both curious and apprehensive. Juniors like him rarely even got to take the elevator to the CEO's floor, never mind meet the man in person.

"Sit down Sullivan. Tea?"
"Yes please," said James, as he took a seat on the opposite side of Prescott's huge desk.

Prescott had a coveted corner office. The two walls behind him were floor to ceiling glass with a breath-taking view of London and the River Thames that wound its way through Canary Wharf. The other two walls were panelled wood. One was decorated with framed photographs and certificates. The other wall held a single gold-framed oil painting that James guessed might be a Monet. An original perhaps. He didn't know how much one might cost, but he guessed a man like Prescott could afford it.
Prescott pushed a button on his desk and leaned forward.

"Tea for Mr Sullivan and myself, please, Joan."

Joan. That must be the old stern-faced guardian in the outer office. She had looked him up and down when he presented himself outside Prescott's office and made him feel like a disobedient schoolboy sent to the principal's office. He had felt himself involuntarily blush. Joan didn't look at him when she came in now and put the tea tray on Prescott's desk, but James gave an almost imperceptible involuntary shudder when she left the room. Prescott noticed and smiled.

"Tough old girl, that Joan," he said as he poured himself a cup of tea. "Help yourself. But damned efficient. Keeps the wife happy too, you know - she who must be obeyed. Wouldn't trust me with a twenty-year-old out there. Can't say I blame her," he said with a grin and a wink."I'd offer you a biscuit, but she has me watching the old waistline." 

James wasn't sure if Prescott was referring to his wife or to Joan.

"Anyway. No doubt you are wondering why I've called you up here."

James nodded halfway through a sip and almost choked on his tea.

"Yes, Mister Prescott."
"Oh, don't 'Mister Prescott' me. From here on in it's Tom and . . . James, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir."
"No 'yes, sir' either. We're colleagues here, not master and servant." Prescott took another sip of tea.
"So, James, you're single, or so I'm told. That right?"
"Yes, sir. I mean, Tom."
"Well enjoy it while you can. That's part of the reason you're here. We won't kid each other that you're the best man for the job, but you are certainly not the worst by any means. You might not see much of me, but believe me I take a keen interest in all our staff."

So there was a new job in the air, James thought to himself, but what did being single have to do with it?

"You want to send me overseas?" asked James.
"Clever boy, quick on the uptake. I like that. Yes, Singapore. We have a slot to fill rather urgently. Can't say for how long. Chap has burnout issues. On extended sick leave, so you might have to be there for a while. Can't risk sending a family man, it wouldn't help things at home, so it's come down to you. You'll be looked after - housing, overseas allowance, per-diem, all the usual stuff and a little raise."

James sat very still, but his mind was racing.

"A simple yes or no will suffice, but there's one condition." Prescott stared at him intensely, as if to see if he would pass some test. "You'll fly out there this weekend so you can hit the ground running on Monday morning. Sorry about the short notice, but it can't be helped. So are you in or are you out, James? Will you be our man in the East?"
"I'm your man indeed," said James, allowing himself a smile.

Prescott stood up and extended his hand. James stood and shook it. The older man's grip was firm and dry.

"Don't let us down now. We're counting on you."
"Don't worry, sir . . . Tom, I won't."
"Joan will give you a file with all the details. You can pick it up on the way out. Sign what needs to be signed and pass it on to personnel. And be a good man, take the tea tray out with you when you go. Best of luck. We'll be in touch."

That first month flew past. His predecessor had left him with quite a mess to clean up and James worked long hours with little free time to do anything other than eat and sleep. It didn't do to have a backlog when you traded in derivatives and futures. But now he was on top of his new portfolios and order had been restored.

Old Mister Lim from Accounts Receivable had taken a liking to James and had befriended the younger man. Sharing a common caffeine addiction, they arranged to meet for coffee one weekend at a small place near the Singapore River. While waiting for their drinks to cool, Mister Lim handed James a little guidebook, small enough to slip into his pocket, called An Historic Guide to Singapore’. James noticed that the author's name was also Lim, and remarked on the coincidence.

"Write myself," said the old man, blushing slightly. "You can say history my passion. Young people nowadays don't know history, lah. Singapore young country only, but past forget already. You know Singapore only country get independent without try. Most place fight wars, lah. Singapore not even look for independence. Malaysia just say okay you go now, we don't want you anymore. I remember Lee Kuan Yew cry on television."
"So what was it like back then?" James asked.
"Last time? Last time was not like this, with all these skyscrapers and Shaw-Ping-Maws. Last time not so fast, lah. People take the time to talk to each other. Young people nowadays always such a rush. Never take time. Look at all these youngsters," he said with a wave of his hand at the other patrons of the coffee shop. "Nobody talk. Play with smart-phone only. Where got smart one, leh?”
"That's the same everywhere," answered James with a sigh. 

He had also noticed the growing trend towards submersion in the virtual world, though it did seem to be exaggerated here in Singapore. Or perhaps it was just the type of people who frequented these coffee places. But who was he to judge? He had a smart-phone in his pocket too.

"Apart from people, what else has changed in your lifetime?"
The old man began to chuckle quietly. 
"You really want to know what Singapore was like last time?"
"Well, yes, I'm curious."
"Then we go from here and I show you, lah."
"That's very kind of you, but I don't want to take up all your free time."
"I old man. No need rush. And anyway, what is time?"

They took a taxi, Mister Lim speaking rapidly to the driver in some Chinese dialect. James didn't recognize the streets, but then again all he really knew of the city was the bus route from his condo to work.

The taxi stopped on a corner. This seemed like an older part of town, with simple two-storey shop-houses on either side of the streets. In fact the area seemed quite run down. Mister Lim walked surprisingly fast and James found himself jogging to keep up and sweating in the midday heat.

"This place," Mr Lim said, stopping at the entrance to one of the shop-houses. "You must remember the name." 

A black wooden board with Chinese characters carved and painted in gold hung above the door.

"I'll never remember that. What does it say?"
"This place call Last Time Kopitiam. I will write for you."

Mister Lim scribbled the same characters on a scrap of paper, handed it to James and pushed open the door of the kopitiam. 

A little bell jangled somewhere unseen inside. James followed him in. The interior was dark and it took James' eyes a moment to adjust. The place seemed small, but the high wooden-beamed ceilings gave it a sense of spaciousness. Two ceiling fans rotated slowly, stirring the still air. It was very quiet, the thick walls blocking out any external sounds and keeping the temperature indoors cool despite the heat outside. Louvered shutters played the role of windows. As far as James could see there was no glass in the frames. There didn't seem to be any other customers either. They sat at a small round marble-topped table that was cool to the touch. He admired the dark wooden chairs.

"Nice to see somewhere that isn't made of plastic."
"Yes, all Singapore like this last time. No plastic at all."

James looked around. It was true, there wasn't a scrap of plastic to be seen. Even the old light-switches seemed to be made of ceramic and Bakelite.

"It's like a museum here. Just like stepping back in time. Thanks for bringing me."

A small stocky dark-haired man of indeterminate age appeared and brought them a pot of tea and three small ceramic cups.

"You eat dim sum?" asked Mister Lim.
“Sounds good,” said James.

Mister Lim squawked something at the waiter, or the owner, or whoever the strange stocky man was and after a minute or so he reappeared with a tray of steaming saucers and tiny bamboo steamers with a selection of tasty-looking morsels.

Mr Lim sipped his tea and looked at James thoughtfully.

"I must go now," said Mister Lim, standing up. "When you finish, you go and explore. My guidebook will help you see the old Singapore. Remember you must come back to this place again. Remember this place. You must come back here again"

James swallowed the dumpling he was chewing, shook the old man's hand and thanked him.

"No need thank you, lah. You want see what Singapore like last time, now you find out."

With that he turned and left, the little bell jangling as he opened and closed the door.

James continued eating his dim sum and finished the scalding pot of tea. He had burned the tip of his tongue and now rubbed it against the back of his lower teeth. He reached in his pocket to check the time and was surprised to find that his smart-phone had no coverage. Must be something to do with the thick walls, he thought to himself. He decided to leave and stood, deliberately scraping the wooden chair across the floor to attract the owner's attention. The small man reappeared and James handed him a fifty-dollar note.

"Got twenty or not? Don't have so much small money, lah."

James took back the fifty and passed him two tens instead. The owner handed James a stack of still unfamiliar notes and some coins. He was surprised to receive so much change. He still hadn't gotten used to the prices in Singapore. Some things were more expensive than in London, while other things seemed ridiculously cheap. The notes seemed slightly different to the ones he was used to during his short time in country, but he pocketed them anyway.

Out on the street he was assailed again by the tropical heat, but somehow the air had a different quality about it, less polluted, more fragrant, with an underlying note of decay. He supposed it was because this part of town seemed more run down than the rest, and a strong breeze from the ocean could quickly change the city's air. But there was only a very slight breeze today and the sun beat down mercilessly. If he wasn't careful, his sensitive skin would be quickly burned pink. Two young women walked past him. They held black umbrellas as parasols. They were dressed in old-fashioned clothes, short-sleeved satin dresses with high collars, and their hair was styled short and wavy, like the movie stars he had seen in old posters. Perhaps they were off to a fancy dress party.

He noticed that the street was made of compacted earth and was surprised that he hadn't noticed the open drains when he had first arrived. He'd probably been distracted listening to Mister Lim. He really should have paid more attention to his surroundings, otherwise what was the point of trying to discover this city that had so suddenly become his new home?

He reached the corner of the street. An old man sat waiting with a trishaw. James had heard about trishaws, but hadn't seen one before. It was basically a bicycle with a shaded sidecar. It could be fun to see the old parts of Singapore in the old-fashioned way.

"Can you show me around the old parts of the city? The historic places? Maybe along the river front?"
"You wago claky boky?" asked the trishaw driver. James hadn't understood a word.
"Do you speak English?"
"Spik awleddy lah. You wan go cla key bow key."

And then he understood. Clarke Quay or Boat Quay. Perhaps he would be better off seeking the shelter of the air-conditioned shops around Clarke Quay just to get out of this punishing heat. He could feel the skin on his face searing under the unforgiving equatorial sun.

"Oh, sorry. Yes, take me to Clarke Quay, but show me the sights on the way."

James climbed onto the woven rattan seat and the old man started cycling. The little bit of shade and the breeze helped, but sweat still pearled on his forehead and his shirt stuck to him unpleasantly. Maybe the reason for Singaporeans' obsession with visiting shopping malls (or Shaw-Ping-Maws, as he had smilingly come to think of them from Mr Lim's description) was that it was just a way to avoid the heat.

An old car passed. James wasn't good on cars, but it looked like something from the nineteen-fifties. Must be worth a fortune. Amazing that things like that were still running. And another one. Must be some kind of vintage car rally going on today. There were very few people about. The few young men he saw were all very slim. He also hadn't realized that Brylcreem was so in fashion here. There were lots of things he still had to discover about Singapore. He had no idea that there were areas like this without a skyscraper in sight. In fact, few of the buildings were more than two or three stories high and many of them were run down and dilapidated. There was almost no traffic on the streets except for bicycles and pedestrians. He felt as if he had wandered onto a film set, but it all looked too real for that. These people weren't actors; he could see that many of them really were poor. And the smells from the drains wouldn't be needed on a film set either.

It seemed almost third World. This was nothing like the modern Singapore that he lived and worked in. Drying clothes hung on poles extended from out the upper windows of houses and many most of the children playing on the sides of the road ran barefoot. When was the last time he had seen a child barefoot? When was the last time he had seen a child play outdoors? Perhaps this was an area that was kept quiet about. A place that never made it to the glossy brochures.

He pulled out his smart-phone again and tried to log on to Google Maps to find out exactly where he was. Strange. Again there was no network available. Perhaps there was something wrong with his phone. He looked at the map in Mister Lim's little guidebook and recognized some of the buildings around Clarke Quay, but all these old cars and buses he had seen on the way left him perplexed. He stepped down from the trishaw and handed the old man one of the five-dollar notes he had received from the owner of the kopitiam.

"Too much lah. Sixty cent owny."

Sixty cents for a fifteen minute trishaw ride, when a cup of coffee at "Stabbers" (as the locals called Starbucks) cost him more than five dollars? It didn't make sense. Neither did the money. He noticed that the note bore the inscription Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and British Borneo. The man at the Last Time Kopitiam had obviously short-changed him by giving him an old out-of-date note. He looked at the other notes and saw that they were all the same.

"Sorry, my money seems to be no good." James pulled out his wallet and took out a fresh note.
"This one no good lah. Firs one good."

It didn't make sense. Was someone playing a joke on him? He handed the driver one of the dud dollars and told him to keep the change. The driver smiled and shook his head, muttering something about Ang Moh.

Coffee at Starbucks, yes, that was a good idea. It would be air-conditioned, it would have wi-fi and he could get out of this heat. He was sure there would be one somewhere around Clarke Quay. He checked his smart-phone again, but there was still no access to any network.

He walked around and looked for a place for coffee, but the area seemed to be filled with warehouses that stored the goods that barefooted men brought back and forth from the boats anchored along the riverfront. He found a simple hawker stall where an Indian man in a sarong made coffee for him in something that looked like an old sock. It was a terribly bitter, but he drank it all the same. He needed to add extra sugar just to make it palatable.

A young Chinese man with round black-framed glasses and lacquered hair sat at an adjacent table reading the Straits Times. The newspaper shook slightly in the wind but James managed to read the main banner. It which said 'The Straits Times wishes its Muslim readers Selamat Hari Raya Haji’. Then there was an article quoting someone called Tengku talking about troops in the Congo. James hadn't realised that today was a feast day. Perhaps . . . but no, that still didn't explain all the odd things he had noticed.

"Would you mind if I took a look at your paper for a moment?" James asked the young man.
"Oh, you can keep it if you want. I've just about finished reading. It's always the same old news anyway."

The young man spoke perfect English, with just a slight trace of Asia in his vowels. He folded the newspaper and handed it to James.

"Having a day off work?"
"Yes, first real day off since I got here. Still kind of trying to get to grips with Singapore. What's with all the old cars?"
"Old cars? they're not all that old. Hardly less modern than British cars, but then again it's true that a few years have passed since I came back east. Anyway I must get going. Don't want to be late. Meeting my fiancée for a date at the cinema for the afternoon show."
"There’s a cinema near here? What's showing?"
"Yes, the Kings theatre. Not too far from here. Perhaps a brisk twenty-minute half-hour walk. No idea what's on. Some silly American romance I expect, but if it keeps the lady happy . . ."
"Well, thanks for the newspaper. Oh, you wouldn't happen to know where I could find Starbucks by any chance?"
"Starbuck? You mean like the character in Moby Dick? Don't know anyone of that name. I'm afraid I can't help you. Does he work near here?"
"Never mind," said James coldly.

The young man stood up, slung his jacket over his arm, put on his hat and waved over his shoulder.

Smart ass, thought James. Never heard of Starbucks. Yeah, right. He picked up the paper and read about Malayan troops in the Congo. This was an odd newspaper. The advertisements were all drawn to look old. Mint-flavoured Bird's Eye peas at Cold Storage. Modern glasses that looked anything but. Singapore was taking this whole retro thing very seriously today.

Then he glanced at the top of the page. The date caught his eye. Thursday the 25th of May? 1961? What on earth?

Then things all started to fall into place. Why the young Chinese man had thought the cars were modern. Why the trishaw ride had been so cheap. The strange banknotes the kopitiam owner had given him. Mister Lim's voice echoed in his head: You really want to know what Singapore was like last time?

How was it possible? Remember, you must come back to this place again. Remember this place. You must come back here again. The kopitiam. That was the key.

James felt a rising sense of panic. He had to get back there. He winced as he drained his cup of acrid coffee. His heart was beating fast. He took a few deep breaths and massaged his temples. Think, think. So he was back in 1961. What did Mr Lim's guidebook say about 1961?

He leafed through the pages. Singapore wasn't fully independent yet. That would explain the writing on the banknotes. Lee Kuan Yew was already prime minister. Hold on . . .

May 1961, the Bukit Ho Swee Fire. When was that? Oh shit. That was today - the afternoon of
the 25th of May. James read on.

The fire started at 3:30 p.m. in Kampong Tiong Bahru behind the King's Cinema and cost the lives of more than 7,000 people.

The only explanation James could figure was that Mr Lim had given him this information for a reason. But why? Perhaps he was meant to stop the fire and save those people. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became.

"What time is it now?" he asked the coffee stall owner. He couldn't trust his smart-phone anymore.
"Nearly three o'clock. You all right, boss? Not looking very good, lah."
"Yes, I'm fine. It's just the heat. Can you tell me where the King's Cinema is? Oh, hold on, it's okay."
"I mean, it's all right. I've seen someone I know."

The young man with the glasses who had given him the newspaper was still in sight. He jogged to catch up with him, but the young man walked fast and stayed ahead. He decided to follow James followed him from a distance. 

He checked the road signs. He was on Havelock Road. The young man turned left and after a long while James saw him meet a young woman in front of the cinema. He needed to warn someone what would happen, about the fire.

"Hello again," James panted as he approached the couple. He was quite out of breath and sweat had gathered on his forehead, but the strong wind that had picked up helped to him to cool down.
"Oh hello," said the young man, looking strangely at James' dishevelled state.
"Listen, I need your help. I need to warn people about a fire that's about to start."
"What do you mean a fire that's about to start? What are you talking about?"

The young woman backed away, looking at James fearfully. She tugged the young man's sleeve and whispered something in his ear.

"I'm sorry. I can't help you," the young man said and the couple walked away.

James read the entry in the guidebook again. The fire started at 3:30 p.m. in Kampong Tiong Bahru behind the King's Cinema . . . 

It had taken him almost half an hour to get here. Perhaps he could ask a policeman for help. However, the police would probably think he was mad, just like the young couple seemed to do. He could call the fire brigade, but his phone didn't work and he didn't know the number anyhow. Would 999 work? He looked around for a phone box but couldn't find one. 

James jogged down the narrow alleyway beside the cinema and entered into a maze of wooden shacks with simple palm-leaf roofs. Which way to go? What was he going to do, anyhow? There was only one thing for it. He ran through the narrow laneways shouting at the top of his voice.

"Fire, fire, FIRE! Leave your homes. Take your children and your valuables. Fire, fire, fire!"

He felt quite ridiculous, but what more could he do? He was surprised when people started to react. Families fled their homes, dragging their dirty-faced children behind them. Some carried bundles with them. Most seemed so poor that they owned nothing of value worth trying to save. Hundreds of people fled down the hill towards the cinema and the wider road beyond, calling out to their neighbours, warning them of the fire.

One old woman stood sobbing on the little veranda of her home. 

"You have to leave here, please!" shouted James. "Everything will burn down."

The old woman said something in dialect and pointed into her house. James bounded up the two small steps and went inside. The interior of the hovel was dark, but in one corner, lit by a kerosene lamp, James saw an old Chinese man. He was lying on a grass mat upon the bare planks of the floor. The old man looked at him helplessly and raised a hand in a gesture that could be interpreted as salutation, dismissal or resignation. The old woman stood in silhouette by the door wringing her worried hands. James stooped down and gathered the old man in his arms. He was incredibly light. James recoiled at the fetid breath that issued from the old man's mouth and took an involuntary step backwards, knocking over the kerosene lamp.

The hot glass cracked easily and the dry grass mat immediately caught fire. James tried to stamp out the flames, but it wasn't easy with the old man in his arms. The fire spread to the sun-dried wooden planks of the wall and almost instantly the hungry flames set the palm-leaf roof alight. The roof crackled and the room filled with smoke. James stumbled out of the little house carrying the old man, and followed the old woman down the hill as she joined the crowds fleeing from their homes. A look over his shoulder confirmed his worst fears. The fire had quickly jumped from one impoverished house to another. Soon the entire hillside was burning down.

He laid the old man on the ground opposite the cinema. He stood and watched the inferno with the crowds that had gathered there. Dark smoke filled the air and formed a cloud that blacked out the sun. Grey wisps of ash were falling everywhere. Oddly, James seemed to smell roasted coffee. He needed to get away from here before someone found out that he was the one who had started the fire. James made his way back towards Havelock Road and managed to flag down a taxi. He showed the driver the scrap of paper where Mister Lim had written the name of the kopitiam.

The bell jangled as he pushed open the door and stumbled into the gloom. Again there were no customers inside. He took a seat at one of the round marble-topped tables. His sweat-soaked clothes reeked of smoke. The fans in the high ceiling only lightly stirred the thick air. The sunlight that filtered through the shutters hit the tiled floor in segments of parallel lines. James lowered his forehead against the cool white stone of the table. That felt good. He let out a sigh and felt tears well up in his eyes. He had caused the deaths of more than seven thousand people. People he had tried to save.

When he raised his head again the owner was standing beside him.

"Can you take me back?" James asked.
"I have to take you back," said the man, sniffing the smoky air. "I have no more choice than you have. Don't feel bad about it. You have done what needed to be done, lah. It has always been this way. If you had not done your duty, then the time you came from would no longer exist," said the man and poured James a glass of tea. “Everything affects everything else.”

James took a silent sip from the glass.

"You must return the rest of the money I gave you. You can't take anything back or leave anything behind."

James emptied his pockets and gave the man the few coins and crumpled notes that remained.

"I'll leave you now. When you finish your tea you may go." then the man smiled and
chuckled. "Take your time."

Back in his own time and his own apartment, James took a long shower and changed into clean clothes, but although he had washed away the ash and sweat, he could still smell and taste the smoke from the fire. He poured himself a generous glass of Jameson while he waited for his laptop to boot up. He swallowed a mouthful of the whiskey. It sent a shudder through his body, followed by a warming glow. Then he clicked and typed and looked up the details of the Bukit Ho Swee fire.

The strong winds, wooden housing, and stores of oil and petrol ensured that the fire spread rapidly. Narrow lanes and the gathered crowds impeded access by the fire department. All told, two hundred and fifty acres of housing and shops were completely destroyed, as were three timber yards, a school, some warehouses, and a coffee mill.

Well that explained the smell he'd detected.

Sixteen thousand people were left homeless. Over the following four years, over eight thousand new flats were built by the Housing Development Board and all those who had lost their homes were relocated. The cause of the fire, whether arson or accident, was never discovered. Despite the massive scale of the devastation, only four people died.

It eased his guilty conscience to read that the real figure had been four deaths and not the seven thousand mentioned in Mister Lim's guidebook. So he had saved those people after all. Or had he? Had Mr Lim exaggerated the figure to spur James into action? Try as he might he couldn't make sense of it all.

The next morning at the office, James looked for Mister Lim, only to be told that the old man had left for a long business trip.

His smart-phone rang, startling him. An unlisted number.

"Sullivan. This is Tom Prescott here."
"Oh, hello, Tom," he said shakily, not really in the mood to speak to his boss in that moment. "How are you?"
"Never mind about me. How are things with you in Singapore? Had a good weekend?"
"Not bad, I guess. A bit hot."
"So I hear. Listen, James. There have been some changes. We're going to bring you back to London. It seems that you've done all that was needed there in Singapore. One of our clients, with what you might call 'long-term development investments' is very happy with the work you've done over there. You are obviously quite adept at handling futures and derivatives. And there's a new opening for you at HQ. Can't give you the details just yet. All in good time, James. All in good time."


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