cambridge book review

Telling Time

Lee Jing-Jing

An excerpt from the novel, If I Could Tell You (Marshall Cavendish Editions 2013)

[When nothing is really yours, not even the flat you grew up in, just where do you call home? The residents of Block 204 have a few months before their building is torn down, before they are scattered throughout Singapore into smaller, assigned flats. All of them know they will still be struggling to fit their lives into the new flats years later but no one protests. No one talks about it even as they are slowly being pushed out of their homes. Not Cardboard Lady, an eighty-year-old woman who sells scraps for a living. Not young Alex, who is left homeless after a falling out with Cindy. Not Ah Tee, who has worked at the coffee-shop on the ground floor of Block 204 for much of his adult life, and whose reaction to the move affects his neighbours in different ways. For some, the tragedy that occurs during their last days in Block 204 is a reminder of old violence, aged wounds. For others, new opportunities transpire. If I Could Tell You is about silence, the keeping and breaking of it, and what comes after.]


They hear everything from the windows. From the time they wake up, to the time they lay on their beds, pressing their faces into familiar-scented pillows, trying to shut out the yellow glow of the lights right outside, lighting up the corridor, sneaking in through the thin film of their eyelids. Trying to shut out the sounds they can’t help hearing through the open window, it’s too warm to sleep with it closed.

IfICouldTellYouThey can tell time from the different sounds if they had to. Morning brings sharp, quick twists of birdsong, the creaking awake of bones and pipes and doors. Sounds of people in their homes—the shrill cry of kettles, alarm clocks, the yelling of parents and children to hurry up hurry up they’re going to miss the bus the bell the shutting of the school gates. The heavy rolling-in of school and factory buses. Cars and motorcycles starting up and moving away, the smoky vibrato and rat-a-tat-tat fading off slowly. And then a deep calm for a while. The moist heat lulling everything into a stillness, a sticky quiet, clinging to the tarmac, to the concrete and brick and paint coming off the walls of the building. The ones who are not at school or work—the stay-at-home mothers and their young children, the elderly and the ill—they fill in the quiet by putting on the radio, the television, even if no one is watching or listening, it’s just good to fill in the space next to them while they’re closing up a wound in a skirt pocket, watching grandchildren trace out daydreams with crayons held tight in their fists. There’s the fleeting echo of nursery rhymes from the preschool a little away from the block, whisked through the open window and chased up by the wind. Then, as evening sets in, the buses and cars which left quietly in the early hours come back, letting loose the caged up, shut up voices of children and teenagers from before.

They hear it in birdcall. The trees full of crows and mynahs squabbling for a place to roost. The Asian koel with his long, woeful lament, pouring his heart into a resonant koo-woo, a parting song for the sun which he repeats every day. It is to this repetitive cry that the walk from the bus stop the train station the car is made. That doors are unlocked and swung open. And calls made to ask what to do about the evening meal, where to go and what time. It is to this cry that lone, passionless meals are consumed, eyes blinking in the glow of their screens’ covert flicker.

They hear even more with the settling in of night and the accompanying quiet. TV sets oozing their cloying, dramatic dialogue. Children howling from the flick-and-whoosh of their parents’ cane for homework left undone or lies uncovered. They hear it, lying in bed, the click and buzz of wires and metallic parts all around. The gathered, living hum of their home, their building, sending them to sleep. They don’t wake when it rains—when the roof threatens to tear open with the force of each heavy, determined drop. It is in their bones, this rain, the turbulent, frantic sound of it. They don’t wake.


Lee Jing-Jing was born in 1985 and grew up in the working-class Singapore neighborhood of Jurong West, in a public housing block similar to the one described in If I Could Tell You. She moved to Europe in her early twenties and eventually gained a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from Kellogg College at Oxford University. If I Could Tell You is her first novel and was supported by a grant from Singapore’s National Arts Council. She currently lives in Hamburg, Germany, and is working on a new book that continues the story of Cardboard Lady.

June 20, 2013 - Posted by | fiction, novel | , ,

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