By: Jonathan TAN Ghee Tiong
“The heat had beaten the senses out of everyone,” Ashad’s manager said after the brawl.
Ashad could have knocked the man over with his knuckles. Or he could just walk away and rise above it all, which he did. He had learnt to discipline himself, exercise some self-control, determined not to return to his heady days as a gang member, clashing with other gangs over trivial incidents. So he held himself back on the strength that he would one day make it as a boss of his own car-wash company. One tightly tethered to his ultimate goal – driving a Lexus.
“I can’t let the heat get to me,” Ashad reminded himself, wiping the stubborn sweat staining his forehead. By then, the small motley of motorists that gathered has dispersed. Winking a knowing glance at him, Ashad’s manager patted him on his back and said: “Customers are customers, you can’t fault them even with a bit of blame. I scolded you in front of him for show, you must know.”
To a normally slow-start on early Sunday mornings, Ashad did not expect anything to sully the day. People slept in nursing yesterday’s hangovers, or those who were up and about were either in the churches or the parks. Getting into a quarrel was the last thing on their minds to wreck the sanity of Sunday mornings. Most drivers would have seated themselves in the cherished cool of their car without bothering to get out in the humidity to see their cars wiped dry. But this was not with the driver who got into the altercation with him. Stepping out of his Audi A6, Ashad caught a quick glance at the driver.
Looking scrappy, washed-out, the man with the flattish acned face was dressed in an army green long-sleeved polo shirt. Could easily pass off as one of those in the knot of sweating grim national servicemen with their backpacks at the Pasir Ris bus interchange, released for the weekend from their military training camp in Pulau Tekong, an island off the northeastern coast of Singapore. On every Friday evening, Ashad has to jostle with them for the buses.
His unkemptness was in contrast to the sleek works, even more so on the inside. Spotless and immaculately kept, the interior reeked neither of cigarette smell nor alcohol. Hanging on the rear mirror was a necklace with a cross on it. On the windscreen was a decal of the Virgin Mother Mary. Before he could think of what the driver do for a living, Ashad’s reverie was broken by the booming voice of the man.
“What’s this?” The man said, his eyes locked fiercely on Ashad.
“What’s what?” Ashad replied, his eyes showing no sign to challenge him more than just asking.
“You call this clean and dry?” The man said, raising his voice a notch higher.
“It’s clean, Sir,” Ashad added the Sir with a deliberate oomph of deference.
Swiping a finger across the bonnet, the man then wiped it hard against Ashad’s face. “You really call this clean?”
“Brother, why are you treating me like this?”
“Treat you like what?”
“Doing what you just did if you believe in God,” Ashad said, glaring hard as he wiped his face with the back of his hand.
“So are you challenging me or challenging God? I want to see your bloody manager,” the man said.
Ashad could still remember the last words tumbling out of the man.
“Know your place,” the man said to him before he slipped back defiantly into his Audi after the manager interceded.
As far as Ashad could see, his work as a car washer subjected him to the constant humiliation of rude and hostile customers who looked down on him and his menial job. Despite the gleaming new marquees that gave his customers a status of satisfaction in life, there was little generosity or patience in them to be nice to people like him. In fact, the more expensive the car was, the more unreasonable the customers behaved towards him.
Yet, he did not mind wiping down the long overhangs of these cars that gave them a purposeful presence on the roads. Opening the doors to wipe down the side scuff plates, the whiff of newness from within promised him a better life on the horizon. In those gratifying moments, he cherished the draft of happiness welling up within him even if it was as momentary as the morning dew soon dispatched into the thin air by the sweltering sun.
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