Heong Lim silently waited for the last customer to finish his evening meal. Wearily leaning against a greasy table, he blankly gazed around the untidy food court. He ignored the permanent pungent smell of the still air but the surrounding scenery of dirty tables and stinking leftovers disgusted him. Few minutes had passed before the last customer calmly looked at his watch, lazily stood up and left the food court. Heong picked up a filthy, wet mop and slowly began to sweep the floor. He sighed deeply as he saw the man step into his car and disappear among the traffic in the busy night street. A distant painful memory suddenly flooded his mind. He remembered he had too once owned a car.
A gentle breeze was slowly drifting in the quiet streets of Singapore. Heong and his beloved wife Mei were burning joss paper money in a metal barrel in front of their house to celebrate the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Their fathers had been practicing this custom for centuries.
Heong perched on a rickety wooden stool and observed the rising dense acrid smoke from the burning paper money. He was deeply frustrated by the sight. Although he recently borrowed money from a bank and bought a car, he desperately needed more money. He had become increasingly anxious to buy an auspicious car plate. The thought of having lucky numbers at the front of his car endlessly haunted and tortured him.
"How about four nines?” thought Heong, "This means longevity and eternity? And four sevens? Together they add up to twenty eight… A lucky number! Eight! My favorite! That´s fortune and prosperity!” An endless flow of intriguing thoughts continued to flash through Heong´s restless mind. His eagerness to purchase an auspicious car plate was rapidly overgrowing into a fanatical desire. "Thirty-two means business in Cantonese. And that´s what four eights add up to! Wonderful! And four sixes signifying happiness and success? They wouldn´t look too bad on my car either!”
"I know what you´re thinking about…” said Mei solemnly as she passed Heong, "But we don´t have enough money.”
"We will,” calmly replied Heong.
"What do you mean? How?”
Heong closed his eyes and smiled innocently, "Just wait and you will see.”
Mei looked at Heong a little suspiciously and replied, "Honey, I would truly love to have an auspicious car plate but I really think it is too expensive. "
"You have no idea what you´re talking about,” stubbornly answered Heong.
Mei looked at Heong in astonishment. His response was only a deafening silence. Mei softly breathed out and walked off into the house in a huff. Heong slowly stood up, lazily stretched his back and yawned widely. He gently kicked the wooden stool aside, comfortably lied down on the grass in front of his house and curiously looked at the azure sky. As he gently closed his eyes, his wandering, inquisitive mind retrieved a fading memory of an old friend.
His name was Tee Yew. Six years ago, he randomly placed a small bet in the local lottery. He was incredibly lucky to win an auspicious car plate. The lucky numbers on his car were immediately noticed by the locals and he soon became a favorite dinner guest. His business was also lucky to repeatedly yield large, annual profits and Tee Yew now lives in a luxurious house in the city centre.
A cold raindrop suddenly fell on Heong´s sleepy eye. The thin trickle ran frantically down his cheek. Heong gingerly opened his eyes and nervously glanced at the vast black sky above him. He quickly rose up and unnoticed slipped into the house. After a while he came out dressed in an elegant suit with a bulging leather wallet in his pocket…
The stormy sky was as dark as a dungeon and the relentless rain furiously pelted on the drenched land below. A tremendous pounding besieged Heong and Mei´s house. Inside reigned an oppressive silence. Surrounded by a tuneless buzz of a murky electric lamp Mei nervously sat by the glass table in the middle of the living room. A swinging pendulum of an antique clock casted a depressing shadow over the room. Mei gave up all hope of calling Heong as he seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
All of a sudden, Mei overheard a loud tinkling of keys and Heong appeared at the door. They exchanged a quick look before Mei furiously began her endless row of questions.
"Where have you been?”
Heong paused for a moment for a slow breath, "I was out shopping.”
"Shopping? And why didn´t you even tell me you were leaving?”
"Because I was in a real hurry to buy something.”
A wide, winning smile appeared on Heong´s colorless face. He slowly pulled out something from his bag and brightly replied, "This.”
"What´s that? A car plate?”
Mei´s glazed, shocked eyes were immediately nailed to the auspicious object. There was a brief moment of absolute silence as Mei disbelievingly stared at the new car plate.
"Well, it does look quite nice,” she uttered.
"It´s one of those I wanted right from the start. Four eights,” replied Heong at once.
"How much was it?”
"I was quite surprised actually… I thought it would be even more expensive. It cost forty thousand dollars.”
"Hahaha,” laughed Mei sarcastically, "We never had that much.”
"I am not joking,” answered Heong, "I borrowed the money from an old friend.”
"I can´t believe this Heong,” screamed Mei hysterically after a while, "Do you think you´re a millionaire that you can buy such expensive things? Ordinary people just don´t spend forty thousand dollars on four numbers!”
"Could you please be quiet for a while?” cried Heong indignantly, rudely interrupting his wife.”
Heong sighed heavily and took several deep and shuddering breaths. A single cold tear escaped from his eyes. He looked helplessly towards the floor while tapping his foot impatiently. After a while he slowly raised his head and looked at Mei who was standing stiffly and silently in the middle of the living room.
Heong cleared his throat, "My father worked as a botanical scientist. When I was young, he was the perfect example for me and the only man whose path I wanted to follow. I just loved how he analyzed the tropical, fragrant flowers. But as I grew older, I realized he had one terrible personal weakness. He always wanted to be rich and really wanted people to realize that he wasn´t just someone ordinary. But except working, he never seemed to do anything else. I clearly remember him always idly lying on the sofa in our small flat. He spent hours blankly staring at the ceiling and dreaming of wealth and fame. He repeatedly promised me a spacious room in a large, private house. But my entire childhood I shared a tiny, dimly-lit room with my brother. He constantly talked about summer holidays in Europe but I can only recount our uneventful, weekend trip to Malaysia. When I entered a university, my dad began to think he no longer had anything to live for and became a heavy alcoholic. I do not want my life to be an identical copy of his. Just dreaming and promising. I want to achieve something. I want to change the family history. And the numbers will change everything. People will surely think of me as someone wealthy and prominent. I will be widely regarded as a rich and powerful man with intimate connections in the politics. I will drive my car through the bustling night city. I will be graciously invited wherever I come. Casinos will fight fiercely to have me as an honored dinner guest. And everyone will deeply admire the numbers in front my car. ”
Six months had passed. A severe global economic crisis had caused an enormous wave of lay-offs. Heong had been unemployed for many weeks. His situation was increasingly problematic as his financial reserves were hopelessly depleted. His house was as empty as space. He had to sell almost all of his furniture and electronics to pay the enormous debt for the car plate. He eventually sold his house and car as well to gain a new source of cash.
Heong desperately tried to seek a new employment but all his interviews were a failure. He began drinking heavily. Mei felt extremely stressed and endlessly tried to help Heong to overcome his alcoholism. His drinking only came to an abrupt halt when he suddenly realized Mei had packed her suitcases and left the house.
Another six months had passed. With loan-sharks on his back, Heong was forced to sell his car plate under value to pay the remaining debt. He found an employment as a cleaner in a food court. He rented a small flat in a block of flats. Except when at work, Heong spent most of his time idly lying on the sofa, blankly staring at the white ceiling and dreaming.