He was a young man when he met her; and she, though not exactly pretty, was quite presentable in their circle of friends. Neither of them was, in any sense, well-off. He was drawing a pretty meagre salary; and, as his wife, it was only expected that she had to make-do with the meagre salary. However, they were by no means poverty-stricken. They could, after some strenuous saving-exercises, afford such things as a little carpet-square for the bed-room, and the various ornaments, discreet in taste and quality, but displayed somewhat indiscreetly about. The better-off guests could discern some posturing in the wife when she affected to handle their few cut-glasses in a nonchalant fashion. The child they had, the only one, was quiet and highly manageable.

Then he made the great mistake of his life, incurring a bid debt in one fierce gambling session.

It worried them a great deal, of course; and it sickened the wife for a good few days. But he took heart and begin to figure out the means to clear himself. At the salary he was drawing, together with his wife’s paltry bit, it would take them some five years to annul the debt. But the debt, however, must be solvent at once. What could they do but do away with the few valuables they had, and the rest was a tug-of-war with the money-lenders. And then they found that they were paying nothing but interest-money. While the original sum never seemed within their earthly power to equate.

The wife, after her early hysterics, accepted the fact in rather good taste; she began scouting for odd jobs. Soon she found that a few families were willing to have her to do their laundry, and to scrub the floors whenever the mistress of the house got into a hygienic fit. It was a back-breaking job, but she stuck to it. Which was both a reflection of her fortitude, and also her undoing. He, for his part (and a great one), delivered papers before work, and at night he managed to find something at a printer’s. it was a blind-alley job, supplementary though it was; all he had to do was to cut up stiffish paper into certain prescribed sizes, count to a hundred, then bind the lot with a strip of gummed paper. And he began to despair that the debt would ever be cleared within the give years he set. Then he would jerk done the cutting-blade with a sharper swish. She, too, felt the futility of the situation; perhaps more so, for in all fairness she should at least have been at the table and helped to roll the dice. After the first year, she let herself drift; she did not bother to keep house in the presentable way that she had done. And her own appearance could not be said to be over-neat. Her child was gone to her people, which of course caused a gulf between him and his parents. Finally, he sold himself, soul and all to his grandparents in return for loads of candy and a little affection. When he was a little older, in the period of sensitive youth, he felt a little ashamed of his parents when he did not see them; and the few times he did see them, he felt uneasy and rather alarmed. They could have been his uncle and aunt, so wide was the barrier now. One day, after visiting the child, the wife returned to her room and put away her little carpet-square. Though she neither had time nor the wish for idle probing of the heart, she felt that in some way she, as a woman, was insulted.

Ten years later and they were still insolvent; and the situation could hardly be said to have improved in another five years. By then, they were tired and the early enthusiasm of the first year seemed so much a thing of the past. Then the two people went about their work in a cheerless and mechanical manner. Work and pay, then more work and more work; then everything went to the pockets of those obnoxious and terrible money-lenders. It was stifling routine, for there was always a sense of the frantic, of rush and of ant-like industry. Sometimes, when the wife had a free hour to herself, she felt strange; something very familiar was amiss. But the years, like a few gulps of water, were swallowed and worried through; and whether the debt was clear or not; it wasn’t very important.

By Arthur Yap