There’s a pair who own a photography studio on Haji Lane, Ti and Kieran. I got to know them by accident, when I was striding down the lane one afternoon where the air is thick and still. The man was the one I first got to know, Kieran and his lopsided grin and slender wrists, not very handsome but slight, none too masculine but ever so charming when he laughed. I was holding onto a cup of mocha – Starbucks, because isn’t that the coolest thing to consume these days? – when he burst out of the door, hair sticking out and glasses askew, sneakered feet squeaking against the floor.
You don’t even notice the wooden double doors on normal days, when you’re too occupied with shopping to care about closed doors and shut windows. But this time the wooden doors knock the wind right out of me, mocha spilling all over my white dress and ten-dollar shoes, onto the grey pavement and sinking in, staying. Kieran, darling Kieran, he looked at me then with wide eyes and a picture frame in his arms, and he goes “sorry, sorry, sorry!”
That was how I found out that behind the wooden double doors - usually closed up with the blinds taped shut over the windows at its sides - was a photography studio belonging to Ti and Kieran. The office was dim, chilly, elegant; smelt of wood and tea and cinnamon. I was seated on a leather couch by a series of black and white photographs and Kieran fussed over me, and all I could think about at that moment in time was who is this weird creature?
“Sorry,” he gasped, passing me several napkins – “I’ll send your dress for drycleaning. I didn’t see you, Ms – “
“Wenjun,” I said.
I only met Ti when I passed by the studio a week later, when my friends disappeared up Soon Lee, one of the fashion shophouses across this one. She was standing outside the studio in the heat, a chocolate blend (Starbucks, of course) in the curl of her fingers. I didn’t remember thinking anything of her, to be honest, only that she seemed almost as though she had stepped right out of the thirties, red lipstick and dark, dark hair, sleek and pincurled under her ear. I couldn’t tell her age at all – she could be a fourteen year old trying to be an adult, a thirty-five year old who failed to age. When I got to know Ti better later, I would think she was as strange as Kieran was. A creature of Neverland.
“Kieran,” she repeated, when I asked if he was there. “Huh.” She raised her eyes to meet mine, and at that point she seemed almost friendly behind the veil of her cold exterior. I explained that I wanted to thank him for the drycleaning – he didn’t have to, really – and then she smiled, red lips pulled into pale cheeks.
“Then you can thank me, girl,” she said. “I foot the bill.”
They worked like night and day, Ti and Kieran. I dropped by every other weekend if I could help it, not just to see Kieran and his pretty little smiles, but Ti and her oddball fashion. She donned pearls and turquoise heels, gorgeous cashmere sweaters and it was that lipstick, always red. “You must love her,” Kieran said once, like a joke, but it was true to some extent, maybe. Only I loved him all the more.
Kieran was the photographer, his work beautiful and true. I knew little of photography, and Ti cared even less for it, but the difference between her and I were our reactions to Kieran’s pieces. He painted landscapes that went on forever, caught the breeze and the emptiness in the spaces. As easily as he found places he brought depth to faces, a child’s heartfelt smile and a woman’s wrinkled eyes. I loved his work almost as much as I loved him; I was in love.
“I really don’t care what he does,” Ti said curtly one evening, when I told her how much I adored his new series of landscapes. “What do you know about photography?”
I blinked, taken aback by her frankness. “How can you not care?” I asked then. “Aren’t you partners? He brings in the business.”
Ti craned her neck, fingers poised over the white keyboard of her Macbook. Her eyes were narrowed in an odd sort of smirk, and in the dim of the studio she seemed almost otherworldly. Like Neverland. “Wrong, darling,” she said. “I bring in the business. What do you know about photography?”
I paused. She hummed under her breath. Frank Sinatra, perhaps. She liked Frank Sinatra. We stayed quiet for a few minutes, her fingers typing away. I glanced at the screen. Concept shoot. Wedding. Appointment. Cost. “Exactly,” she murmured under her breath, and clicked ‘send’.
“I’d like to do my own projects,” Kieran said to me a month later, over coffee and shisha. “You know, I wanted to be a photo journalist. Travel the world. Maybe settle somewhere with open sky and never ending fields.”
“You still can do that,” I said, and maybe it was desperation in my voice but I didn’t care. “You don’t have to do wedding shots all the time if you hate them.”
“Ti wants me to,” he said, half distracted as he stared up at the smoke curling into the night air. “I just have to do what she says, you know?”
“I don’t. Not really.”
Kieran sighed and closed his eyes. I swallowed, slouched over so that our shoulders were touching, my fingers over his. His eyes fluttered open, doe-like behind his glasses. “Jun.”
“I love your work,” I told him. “I love you.”
Surprise flickered behind his eyes, something like longing and confusion and then a steady calm with his lopsided grin, the one I itched for, the one he gave me when he said “sorry, sorry, sorry!” those few weeks ago. My fingers curled into his. He didn’t take my hand, but he didn’t move away either.
“Wish she could tell me that sometimes,” he said at last.
“She hates your work,” I said, and I couldn’t explain the vehement jealousy in the base of my throat, so strong and bitter that I could choke with one more breath of shisha.
His eyes crinkled, and godammit, how could he be so damn happy after what I just said? She hated his work. Probably hated him, too. “You don’t have to stay,” I hissed. “Kieran.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I don’t want to leave.”
So he went on like this, getting yelled at by Ti for his “aimless, pointless pieces of crap”, and for showing up late for his wedding photoshoots. I watched him shoot a couple once, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with their cheesy smiles and cutesy giggling and it took Kieran a deep breath and a patient sigh to work out a smile. “On three,” he said, and at the end of the day he’d wrap up his equipment and congratulate the couple and then he’d be looking at me with tired eyes. I wanted to whisk him away where he could do whatever he wanted, shoot his stories and capture his moments. Like Neverland.
It was Ti who greeted me when I came by the next afternoon, this time with a green tea blend. She looked even more fairy-like than usual, silk blouson and trademark pincurls. The lipstick today was mauve, a gorgeous shade against the whiteness of her skin. I got the impression she was waiting for me, although she certainly didn’t give any indication of this as she raised a graceful eyebrow at my direction.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” she replied. I glanced past her shoulder, and she smiled, although this time there seemed to be nothing beneath her cold exterior. Then she said, “I’d like you not to come by anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I only stared at her. She pursed her lips, her head tilting to a side. “How do I say this,” she murmured.
“Is this about Kieran?” I said then, and then suddenly everything about her was hardly fairy-like. Only despicable and hideous, even if I knew she was nothing but composed and lovely. Ti didn’t care for my reaction – a fourteen year old acting a little too mature, or a thirty-fiver with a child’s face. Instead she said, blandly –
“It’s always about Kieran, dear girl. Isn’t it.” She eyed me from under her eyelashes, then – “what do you know about photography, Jun.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” I snapped, “but it has absolutely nothing to do with you not wanting me to see Kieran. At least I appreciate his work more than you do.”
“How novel,” Ti said. If she had a cigarette, this would be the point where she’d flick it onto the pavement, a careless action to accompany the narrow of her stare. “It was funny for awhile, you know. To see these young darlings throwing themselves all over my husband like ants to candy…”
There it was, the vehement jealousy, as bitter as the bile in my gut and almost painful to keep down. “You are not – “ I began, but Ti only spared me a glance before turning her gaze to the empty stretch of road.
“Well, you can think what you want.” Her voice was icy now. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn what goes through your naive little head. You think appreciation can pay the bills, darling? You think you’re going to save Kieran today, tomorrow? Take him with you to a place somewhere away from the evil clutches of his job?”
I only stared at her, speechless as the blood rushed to my face. I wanted to find it in me to deny her words, but the truth of it hit my in the chest, straight where it hurt. Ti didn’t even look back at me; there was no gloating in her expression, only a mild impatience in the curl of her lip as she sipped her tea.
“Every girl he meets wants to save him, I’ll tell you this.” Her smile had turned into one of dry amusement. As if she had no time for this, as if she was merely humouring me now. “But nobody can save him except me, this is the truth. You know nothing about photography, darling.” Her words sank into the silence between us, caught in the humid afternoon air as she turned carelessly to meet my eyes - “and therefore you know nothing about Kieran.”
These days I sit on the white bench outside the fashion shophouses as my friends make their rounds with the stores. The wooden double doors have long gone, replaced by glass ones. I take a deep breath, one, two, three.
The space is the same; wood and tea and cinnamon. The woman by the counter is weaving peacock feathers into bowler hats, her tunic made of gingham and daisies. “Hello,” she says.
“Hi,” I say. I think that maybe I don’t have the guts to ask, but then I suck it up because I have nothing to lose. “Wasn’t this a photography studio?”
The woman looks up, surprised. “Oh, did you know the owners? That young girl and the boy, such a nice smile.”
“They’re an odd couple,” I say carefully. “You don’t happen to know where…”
“Aren’t they,” she says. “Rather young partnership.” She sets down her bowler hat as I casually browse through the dresses hanging off the rack. “Those are on ten percent discount. Opening sale.” She pauses, tapping the counter with her needle as she watches me. “The lady boss did mention they were moving abroad. A permanent honeymoon, those were her words.”
Honeymoon. I wonder briefly how I never saw it coming.
Were there signs I missed?
“Maybe they’ll take some lovely photos, if they go to somewhere nice,” the woman says finally, when I don’t reply to her statement. She shakes her head, returning her attention to her bowler hats. “How expensive that must be.”
I look through the dresses even if I don't see them, letting the woman's words sink in. Kieran, darling Kieran and his sunshine smile. How I'd wanted to be the one to save him even if in the heaviness of my heart I knew I couldn't, just like the girls who came before me, wanting to play heroine to his sweet gaze and handsome pictures. And Ti, who only watched in silence as we gave him our hearts - modes of escape, points of no return, chances he discarded one by one by one.
Kieran had chosen his heroine a long time ago, this Ti must have known.
I give the shopkeeper a polite nod as I turn to leave, the bell chiming as the door swung close. I stand there in the late afternoon heat, the air so stuffy I could hardly breathe. Maybe they could have their wedding on a pretty landscape, I think. Like Neverland.
Honeymoon - haji lane is a yellow brick road (and rabbit holes)
here's the stop sign.
04 October 2009 @ 02:50 am