On Sunday, Donita clutches her list from Mrs Fann and jostles with late morning shoppers in Marine Terrace market. The crates in the vegetable stalls are piled high with rippling green leaves of kai lan and sawi. The man who runs the fruit stall makes proud announcements about his crop of dragon fruits.
“Ripest in Singapore,” he declares, directing drifting shoppers to take in the blushing pink fruit and its curly green tendrils. In one swift move, he cleaves a pomegranate and prises it open to show the gemstone seeds gleaming within. Donita zigzags through the rows. If not for all these people who pause and ponder and bargain and suddenly shoot out their arms to pick up a lemon or collect their change, Donita’s shopping would be quick, and she wouldn’t be so worried about being late to meet Flordeliza. The market is a muggy, raucous maze, and the wet floor squelches under her black slingback wedges.
After each purchase, she also must ask for a receipt, which makes the vendors scratch their heads – what receipt? This is not a supermarket – which leads her to explain: “Just write the amount and the product on a piece of paper, please.” Some understand, and do this for her. Others, like Ah Seck the fish-monger, thinks it’s a trap.
“For what?” he asks, his chin jutting out. “No return policy, this mackerel. All sales final.”
“I do not want to return it. It is for my boss,” Donita says, but Ah Seck has already turned to another customer. Donita sighs and picks up the crinkly plastic bag of red snapper. A stiff tail pokes out of the opening and scratches her wrist. Every trip to the market is like this, and Sundays are the worst because Mrs Fann will return from church fizzing with nervous energy.
She will scrutinise Donita’s purchases and complain triumphantly – a-ha! – when they don’t tally up with the receipts.
“How do I know these sugar-snap peas cost three dollars? What if they actually cost two dollars fifty and you kept the fifty cents for yourself ?” Mrs Fann asked last week, waving the bag at Donita. “And these eggs? Did you really get them from the market?”
“Where else I will get them from? You see any chickens here, you idiot?” Donita replied. Although she and Mrs Fann communicated in English, she said the last part in her language – tanga – and it was satisfying to see Mrs Fann stare blankly to an insult.
“Don’t try to be smart with me. There was a maid in this block who used to keep the grocery money for herself and then just go around borrowing from all the other households. One cup of sugar here, a few eggs there; she managed to fool her employers. I. Will. Not. Be. Fooled. In. My. House.” Mrs Fann punctuated each word with a jab of her finger.
“Ma’am, if you think I am taking advantage, then why not you go to the market yourself and see how much is everything?”
Donita retorted. Mrs Fann’s nostrils flared in anger. She stalked off to the study. “You see what kind of attitude I have to put up with?” she asked Mr Fann, before launching into a tirade in Mandarin. Donita did not understand any of it, but the shrills of Mrs Fann’s voice suggested that she was urging her husband to get involved. He didn’t say much, but there was nothing unusual there. Mr Fann is the quietest man Donita has ever met. She has heard his newspapers rustling more than his actual voice.
Emerging from the market, Donita takes a gulp of fresh air and looks around. She spots Flor standing at the edges of the entrance, sipping from a tall plastic cup of orange juice. Two oversized gold-hooped earrings graze her slender shoulders, and the tips of her nails are perfect white squares. Donita always felt a mix of admiration and envy for women like Flor, who came home at Christmas basking in the sheen of their overseas salaries. The first time Flor returned, her lips were buttery with a shade of maroon deeper than anything Donita had seen in real life. Long-lasting Revlon, Flor had said, flicking a tube of lipstick at her. Gifts shot from her hands just like that – Mars Bars; souvenir T-shirts wrapped in rustling plastic; a toy electric guitar for her daughter, Josephina, who wore it around her neck for days.
“Donita,” Flor says happily, squeezing her with a hug. It feels so good to hear a friend say her name. “How are you?”
Donita shrugs and tries to brave a smile. She turns to show Flor her block. “That’s where I live,” she says, as if it will explain everything. It is strange, speaking in Ilocano about a place that she loathes calling her home. Standing at the end of this boulevard of white concrete apartment blocks, Block One breaks the sky. Even Mrs Fann doesn’t seem to like it in this neighbourhood of identical government housing flats.
Excerpted with permission from Now You See Us, Balli Kaur Jaswal, HarperCollins India.