We made the mistake of choosing a table right in front of Heng Huat's stall, and the lunchtime crowd offered no chance of a second seating. A hipster with a skateboard and unruly beard occupied the next row, sandwiching us against the lone Malay stall in that section of Pasir Panjang Food Centre, whose owner was calling it a day, having disposed of his morning stock of curry puffs, sweet potato fritters and assorted kueh-mueh. We made a mistake, for every minute or so, after Ah Huat had stirred a plate of kway teow and smothered it with an unnaturally thick crown of lightly fried chye sim, he would grab hold of a whistle and blow the bojangles out of it. Each shriek easily reaches the far end of the food centre and slaps down all conversation in Ah Huat's corner. It silences the nasal whine nearby and bounces off an ageing port worker in overalls who dribbled gravy on the floor as he slouched by with a hand of Hokkien mee. Ah Huat blows and beckons without apology until he catches the eye of each customer, who bears the burden of ignoring persistent calls to pick up their order pronto and put paid to the din.
Maps indicate the presence of a park beside the food centre, but forget to add that it is now a lot more paved. Still, mature sea almonds tower above the vehicles and offer shadows that make the mid-day slightly less maddening: smokers, nappers, drivers and other slackers cluster in the shade to wash down their meals, wait for the next delivery or let their minds wander in a space that is more gray than green. Weaver ants, dislodged by the breeze, land on random heads and are brushed off shoulders onto the wayside, where grass blues flutter and fight over coat buttons, goatweed and touch-me-nots. The street directory also fails to fully mark out a canal that runs behind the food centre, separating the cars from the wharves and bridging the woods of Kent Ridge Hill to a long-buried beach. The public side of the waterway, once named after the nypa that must have lined its banks, is guarded by a low fence that allows curious bucks to lean over without taking leave of their senses. The railings hail from a sadder time; the stakes are modest and rough hewn, a dirty wash of white, stained by lichen flakes and infested by salticids, some bearing setae that mask their flanks, others sporting bars that holler at mates. A shiny solitary wasp hovers and halts, but she posed no threat to the spiders, being a fiend only to vermin from the gravy train.
There are few tidal drains these days, when the Kallang Basin and Singapore River flounder and drool in their dotage into a bay of fresh water and financial plenty. But ditches on the peripheries of the island still suffer regular invasions by the straits and Sungei Nipah offers a view of the front line. Figs loom over the water, harbouring in their branches families of scaly breasted munias which descend when the coast is clear to hop on algal mats and pluck at loose filaments. A scarlet-backed flowerpecker and two yellow-vented bulbuls swoop into the trees, drawn perhaps by clumps of tropical mistletoe. Painted jezebels also lurk by, seeking the hemiparasites not for their fruit but their foliage. Plain water and salty deposits also lure a spotted dove and striped albatross to these confines, where they sip within sight of crescent perch that play in rivulets on a bed of sand and urban sediments. A bright red dragonfly, possibly Urothemis signata, stands guard, with his tail to the sun, from a twig that forms a miniature arch above the stream, but later abandons his post when post-noon shadows engulf it. Another odonate, Pantala, floats nearby, gliding, cruising, banking, braking, pushing the limits of its wing loading and straining against the elements that meet, mingle and melt into each other in this zone of convergence and confusion, of flux and fluctuating concentrations of salinity and sweetness, of brooks forced to abide by right angles and granted no chance to linger and wonder where it all went wrong.
Tiny flats have formed among the flotsam and crumbling ledges on the flanks of the canal, and in this landscape of bottles, boards and other broken things play little crabs and lithe mudskippers, which amble in silty pools and dine from man-made lookouts. A house shrew patters through the gaps on the concrete, while a polyclad flatworm with the colour and composure of phlegm slides over shards of damp goo. Just a few metres downstream of the dragonfly, a population of creeper snails appears on the mud, marking the point where the stream dries up and the sea begins. Something caught the eye of the men by the fence: two blue-spotted mudskippers, noticeably larger beasts than the gobies on the fringes, were foraging close to the current, swiping their gapes from side to side as they inched forward on stubby pecs. The larger of the pair raised his flag every now and then, whenever the other crawled towards him. But both fish were more concerned with lunch than love, and gave just lip service to the business of courtship, which on this lonely stage offered meagre competition and modest reward, the promise of all too familiar faces in a circle that has grown so narrow there is little left to discover other than the scraps of faults entrenched.