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Verena Tay
Verena Tay

A Singaporean theatre practitioner for over 25 years, Verena Tay has published three collections of plays: In the Company of Women (2004), In the Company of Heroes (2011) and Victimology (2011). An Honorary Fellow at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa (Aug–Nov 2007), she now writes fiction, conducts the occasional creative writing workshop, and is studying part-time for an MFA in Creative Writing (City University of Hong Kong, 2012–14). Spectre: Stories from Dark to Light (2012) is her first collection of short stories.


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Fast Food, 1979: Portrait of an Old Lady


She had heard the place was popular. It had only opened a few weeks ago. Yet she was not prepared for queues and queues of people stretching from the counter and beyond the glass front doors.

 

What am I doing here, she thought, I don’t belong here.


In those few moments of doubt, she became a rock around which potential and satisfied customers had to flow around. She sensed their irritation and felt all the more that she, an old woman, was not welcome in this day and age, that she should just dissolve and disappear through the cracks of the tiled floor beneath her feet so that they could move past her with youthful ease and speed.

 

She tightened her jaw and clutched her handbag tighter to her chest. No. I will try this. They will not stop me. This is 1979! I have my rights! Carefully, she descended the stairs that led to the front door of McDonald’s.

 

She joined a queue filled with school uniform-clad teenagers, all chatting careless nonsense. Beyond, other bouncy youngsters behind the counter received orders, dashed about rows and rows of shiny metallic kitchen equipment collecting food and drinks, and then filling the trays back at the counter. To her right in the eating areas, all the tables and seats were filled with even more people. From squeaky styrofoam boxes, they picked up and stuffed meat-filled bread into their mouths, biting off huge chunks. From oil-soaked paper containers, they picked up greasy yellow strips and threaded them also into their mouths. From striped straws, they sucked unknown water from paper cups.

 

It was a long wait. Her knees protested. She persisted. The longer she stood, the more overwhelmed she was. Strange smells surrounded her: the sweating teenagers in front of her stank in the crowded heat (despite the air conditioning), the walls and ceiling and plastic furniture breathed out whiffs of new paint and construction glue, the kitchen area and the yellow strips on people’s food trays seduced with the aroma of fried oil, a child had puked and the acrid reek of vomit shot out for a few moments before an efficient staff member cleaned the mess away. All around her were talking and laughing people, and the latest ungraspable American pop music blared from overhead speakers.

 

She felt giddy. Releasing the top button, she reached beneath her blouse for the handkerchief that she always kept secured under her shoulder strap of her bra. From her bag, she brought out a bottle of hong you. She was so busy dabbing medicinal oil on her handkerchief that she did not realize that it was her turn to be served, especially since the fresh-faced girl at the counter addressed her in English, ‘Good afternoon, ’Mam. Welcome to McDonald’s. What would you like?’

 

She raised her head from her task only when she realized that there was a strained silence around her: the uncomfortable pause in the efficient services of the girl at the counter, and the annoyed impatience of the teenaged army boy behind her. She tried to open her mouth and respond. Not a word came out. The counter girl tried again to speak to her in English. She did not understand her at all. An older girl, a supervisor, came to check the cause of the hold-up. This girl was wiser and asked, ‘Ah Umm, le ai xi mi?’


She pointed at the tray of food being carried by the businessman walking away from the counter in the next queue. The wait staff and supervisor conferred in English and punched the right buttons in the cash register. The supervisor said, ‘Ah Umm, gor kor gau.’


She was shocked. So much money, more than she spent at the market for a week’s worth of meat and vegetables. Slowly, she opened her purse, determined to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. From her beaded purse, she carefully unrolled dollar notes and tipped out coins. Within seconds of surrendering her money, she was holding a tray filled like other trays with a styrofoam box, a waxed paper cup, a striped straw, free white napkins, a paper container of greasy yellow sticks and two small rectangular packets of sauce.

 

‘Ah Umm, chia zei!’ called out an elderly man as he got up from his seat to depart with his two hyperactive grandchildren. Thankfully, she sat down at the old man’s table. A service staff zipped by and cleared away the debris from the family’s meal. She placed her own tray in front of her. She looked around carefully to see what others were doing. Like them, she opened her styrofoam box. It squeaked. She could not understand how the lump of minced meat between the two slices of bread amidst her fingers could be so delicious that so many people would pay so much money for it. Slowly, she picked up the burger and bit into it. She gagged. It was beef. She could not stand the heavy odour. Grabbing one of the napkins, she spat what was in her mouth into the white paper. Trying to wash the taste away, she took a sip from the waxed cup. She made a face: How can people drink such thick cream? She sniffed at the yellow sticks. They looked and smelt a little more familiar, like yow char kuay. She picked up a piece and threaded it between her lips like how everyone else was doing. Ah … Potato. These were edible. One by one, she placed each fry into her mouth and chewed and swallowed, while she continued to gaze at the people around her, this younger generation so comfortable with this new kind of eating style.

 

When she finished her fries, she looked at her uneaten burger and un-drunk milkshake. She really did not want them. Then she remembered she had spent $5.90 on the meal and felt pained by the expense. Taking a deep breath in, she brought the burger to her mouth and took another bite …

 

It took her at least another half hour to finish her meal. To overcome her nausea, she took out her hong you and handkerchief again. She found scant relief. She longed for home. Anyway, it was time for her to catch her bus before the rush hour crowd started. As she stood up to leave, she sat down again. The empty burger box caught her attention. Throughout her meal, she had seen service staff throwing away trays and trays of these styrofoam containers. She could not waste hers. Using the unused portion of her remaining free paper napkin, she carefully cleaned dripped mayo and lettuce shreds away from the squeaky styrofoam. She placed the two unopened sauce packets inside the box and the box within her handbag. Her bag bulged. Although it was uncomfortable, it was the right thing to do. She could at least pour the sauce over her rice during some future meal and wash, dry and reuse the box to hold some small knickknacks in her one-room flat, making the most of what she had spent that day.


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