The day was neither here nor there. Not too hot and not too wet. Not too bright and much too dull for delight. Which is to say the day sucked. The late afternoon offered not a hint of warm glow. Instead, a damp shimmer of grey cloaked the city in a flat veil of flaccid insouciance. You feel blue for lack of blue. Between the pale sky and dark shades of the road stand blocks of uneven monotone. They come in catalogues of off-white or tinted panes that stretch and scar one's vertical wall of sight with mockeries of reflected space. On such days of laden air, one could well ditch the retinal cones for a bounty of rods to better pierce through the shadows of pied contrast.
I stick religiously to this end of the street. For it tapers at the beginning to mark the embarkment of an adventure that plunged through heights of bliss only to flounder in prolonged despair. The larger lane remembers a once vibrant community of Caucasian origin. They launched grand dames and grew Vandas supreme but now languish in empty tombs marked by headstones rescued in limp haste. In perpendicular modesty is a smaller drive that honours a patriarch of Victorian eminence who would no doubt shudder in his starches to learn of the trades that traverse his sleepy streetsake.
Despite its occasional strainings against invisible leashes that guard this land from a descent into chaos, the preeminent powerhouse of the avant garde that threatens at times to spill its causes onto the public walkway is probably too much of a landmark to suffer a untoward demise. Likewise, an old bastion to Chinese heritage is now in the midst of a curatorial disembowelment to emerge reborn as a citadel for cultures of patois. The once living chapel that gave the road its name is now immutable in the way that monuments to the dead are, unburnished and unchanged, as still as eternity from the day they begin to serve as memorials to unmourned sacrifices. Lesser in fate but greater in commercial vigour is the once vaunted publishing house that now hosts a merchant to poshly furnished homes.
I came too late unfortunately for a final farewell to the dour kopitiam that straddles the two streets. Beneath three floors of the building that once lodged travellers of light means as the Mayfair Hotel the stalls are now silent. The corner lot's sliding doors of faded crimson planks envelope the shop space within in a shroud of steely ease. On the flaking walls with graffiti haste the former proprietors have given notice of their passage to more pimped up premises. I have not resampled the late kopitiam's fabled wanton mee for years (had it ceased operations earlier or was my timing simply bad?), but the vagaries of professional fate permitted some recent indulgings in the lardy char kway teow of baby boomer vintage. The wiry uncle who stir-fried the flat noodles had mastered an air of studied indifference to the request of patrons and the steady stream of orders that he receives even in the lull of mid-afternoons can lead to the concern that the man hath deemed thee unworthy of his culinary kungfu and swiped away all traces of your meek mouthings like the charred trimmings below his wok. The slight couple now hold court from North Bridge Road while their neighbours who prepared platters of five spice await emissaries from Hong Lim Market. There was also a drinks auntie averse to small change whom my duck once vexed to submission by futile struggles to unearth pennies from sedimentary pockets.
In the alley behind the kopitiam roam drain cats by the dozen. A lanky tom with swinging balls kept a wary distance throughout. More approachable were the slim queens who glared at my friendly duck with disdain, preferring to sniff rice and leftovers from the Muslim diners that are still open. A lean man with multiple bags of polyester and canvas strolled by and scattered what appeared to be tidbits of tandoor on the tarmac. Up from the ditch leapt two kittens who nibbled the parts, unaware of the dangers of cavorting with depressed fowl. A hasty car turned into the lane and my duck was forced to pluck one of the mangy things from her oblivious feast lest she join the food in messy splatter. She was rather smelly.
Signless doors on both the five-foot way and along the rear are ajar and from time to time, nattily-dressed individuals appear at the bottom of gloomy stairwells. The rooms above seem to be abodes for transients on an overseas tour of duty. Lines of laundered wear hang just in sight, and the tenements boast a good few years of vegetative growth. Besides the lichen and mould, ferns and figs thrust from cracks on the plaster or sit enthroned on ledges that have no doubt amassed a season of debris. A flock of young starlings mob a sapling on the top floor, spilling out from the branches in winged waves for a bird's eye view of the pauperish penthouse. In the months to come, feather, feline and foreigner alike will find themselves out of bounds from this halfway house of conserved development. The art deco facade will remain for sure (the building being a designated icon of built heritage) but it remains to be seen if the little pleasures afforded by this senior citizen would be swamped by more profitable ventures of greater exclusivity.
Alam Rasa is still in operation though and my dursty duck took time out from pussy wallows to grab a plate of mee rebus and banana-a-trois. The makcik who prepared the kuah says they are still unsure of their next move but hope to set up shop again in the vicinity for the sake of their regular pool of customers. On a chair outside, an Indian bloke of 72 (so he claims) railed about the evils of en blocking and the futility of faith. Back on the street, I found neither magic hour nor happy ending. The main gleam of gold that evening came from low-rise masts of secondhand gaslight. A cool surge of white emanated from the photography studio that once serviced embassy applicants who now flock to more secure zones. The day could do no more but depart. And desist.