The first time I took a bite of sand it was an accident. It had nothing to do with grief, but like everything else interesting in my life, it happened after my husband died. I was prepping a shipment, transferring it to a barge from a dune that crested over the tops of palm trees. Sea sand. Unremarkable. I couldn’t believe this was what Alan talked about with such reverence: the good stuff, the motherlode. Of course, I wasn’t transferring anything. I was extracting. The men weren’t monitoring the flow in the pipe and it sputtered to a stop like a moped engine. Alamak! I shouted, gesturing at them. They just stood and stared at me. My translator shrugged his shoulders, he did not know how to translate that into Khmer. It was my first day on site, sometime after the blood in my husband’s head had decided to harden, laying the foundations for a truly fascinating development. I peered my head over the opening of that pipe, and parted my mouth to call for the engineer. I aimed it like an eye over the opening in the pipe. I thought I had cleared my throat to spit, but it was the machine stuttering to life. A smooth digit of sand landed in the back of my mouth. An O. A zero. I swallowed it and it sank into the pit of my stomach, where it settled. It was nothing more than an itch back there scratched. The sand made a passage from my mouth to my stomach coated in a layer of sediment, so I was able to separate this organ and that organ as it travelled through me. It faded a few hours later. But I remembered the imprint that it left, the particles lining the shape of my insides, settling somewhere below.
And the weight stayed. It was the twin of the weight that opened in the pit of my stomach when I saw Alan lying on the bathroom floor. Face down. He died the same day the Straits Times reported the death of Lee Kuan Yew. He always wanted to slip beneath the radar, and I could not fault his timing.
People look so stupid when they’re dead, like they think you can’t see them. I rushed over and knelt by his body, shaking him (his cold, cold shoulders), taking his pulse (his carotid stiff and grainy), slapped his face that, when I turned him over, was very unfortunate looking (something running out of his right ear: I couldn’t tell if it was a liquid or a solid). And then a flicker of noise. The gurgle of a walkie-talkie that seemed to come from him. I thought he might still get up and begin asking how much I made at the blackjack table tonight, for he could be a surprising man. Honey, I’m dead! I leaned in and realized that the noise was coming from his Bluetooth headset. I unhooked it from his head and placed it in mine and the line went dead. A crunching. Gravel withdrawn down the line of the dial tone. I couldn’t find the phone that it was attached too. The next few weeks were vast stretches of things I couldn’t find. Passwords for his bank accounts, codes for whatever was kept offshore, access to his Central Provident Fund, the words to tell Jeremy, who was asleep when it happened. I didn’t want to go into his room and sit on his bed while he was playing one of his games and tell him only to watch his blank face return to the screen to continue clicking the heads off endless men with guns. I went from room to room until he got home from school. Placing things, replacing things, the things the maid, Neary, didn’t see, or had left to me, knowing in her tact the dim pressure points of marriage that ached tenderly. Wiping the beard trimmings away from the edge of the sink. Scrubbing the piss away from underneath the bathroom seat that had dried to a pale yellow syrup. Clearing the pile of toenails that my husband had been building behind the bedside table. When my son got home he went straight up to me and tugged at my dress, and told me that Yee Darn Loo had died, and I clenched my mouth with my hand to hold my face together and laughed at his poor little face. Taking a deep breath, I told him we were going to the beach. In the car on the way there he asked me why we were going to the beach on a school night, and I told him it was because his father had died, and I didn’t know where else to tell him. We walked onto the beach and stood next to a breakwater, watched by hundreds of ships, heavy with oil, glued to a horizon that didn’t seem to be the edge of any world but a thin sack slick with orange light and the sounds of engines. The tears pushed out of me as I hugged him close and he didn’t say anything. The ground crunched beneath our feet. This ground had not been here when my father died, and that was how it had always been. I had calls to make. This was the sand that my husband had spent so much time with, instead of us. I didn’t know what else to say so I told Jeremy that your father was a kind man who loved you very much, but as you probably know, he was of below average height, a small man, so when you grow up and you are not as tall as the other boys, that will be the reason why, but please don’t blame him, he lived a full life despite being a small man, and you can too. He was sitting cross-legged right below me, his hands sinking into the ground, not saying anything. This was not what I had in mind. I had so many calls to make. Hwei Fan on the East Coast and Mei Lan in Australia. Florists for the funeral: everyone was buying a bouquet for the Great Man, there were hardly any flowers left. The venue: would it be appropriate to hold a wake in or around the Singapore Island Country Club? My husband had spent many a weekend working on his handicap, which was quite good. The dress code: black or white? Flights for the girls: would business class be an inappropriate use of his air miles? I looked down: Jeremy was taking a handful of sand and pouring it in the exact same place. At first there was a tiny bump, but every time I looked down, it was bigger. It was the same pile every time, it never changed. It remained consistent. I got down on my knees and tried to see it happen. The handful of bits pouring down, creating a miniature landslide, the face of the mound falling and slipping away from itself, but the new particles slid into place and reformed. Jeremy’s pudgy hand dreamily scooped the sand, his eyes not even moving as he was doing it. After a while, he stopped. I had no idea how much time passed: the mound came up to my knees. Aiyoh, so smart, what a clever little shit. I took my foot and angled my big toe towards the mound. I dipped it right into the centre, where he had been pouring the sand. It collapsed: a crater opened, a mound of space worming its way down into the sand. The pile got wider, shrugging outwards to make space for the hole at the top, so what seemed like a magical space appearing was a reallocation of resources. Jeremy looked up at me, his face scrunched up: hey!
I unloaded my daughters off of their international flights, teary and tipsy from the business class champagne, wearing the bathrobes and slippers they had been provided with. And I was proud. I raised children who knew how to grieve in style.
We scattered the ashes over the Strait and watched it settle as a fine crust across the water, both my girls sighing at having to fly half a hemisphere for dispersing such a lump of dust. Were everyone’s ashes so paltry? He was a small and thin man, so I suppose it was to be expected, but I felt for Jeremy. There is nothing more disappointing for a son than discovering the miserable quantity of his father’s ashes.
I had no idea I wanted to run a family business that was highly illegal in principle and in practice, but two weeks after I found my husband dead on the floor of our condo, the phone started ringing. I wish I could tell you that I made a flawless transition from a full-time house wife (which mostly consisted of confusing our maid Neary by telling her to air the apartment without opening the windows, do the shopping while staying home for the electrician, walk our pet husky Sir Ranulph Fiennes (that was my deceased husband’s idea) but keep him in the air-con or he’ll overheat again, clean everything without moving anything, enjoy her day off on Sunday but do the week’s ironing by Monday morning, as long as it’s not too much trouble) to a licensed subcontractor managing millions of tons in excavated construction material and a fleet of barges, dredgers, and bulk carriers, but there were a few hiccups along the way.
My introduction to the business was somewhat inauspicious: a voice gargling gravel into the Bluetooth earpiece of my deceased husband. Laptops, tablets, devices that were inaccessible to me, their generic background screens leering at me behind their password boxes. But a few days after the funeral, I heard the ringing of the phone the Bluetooth earpiece was attached to. In his bureau. But the drawer the ringing was coming from was locked, so I thought whatever it was, it will stop. I had no desire to deal with it. It will stop being able to receive calls. I will sell my husband’s holdings and find a way of getting the children through school.
Then I realized it wasn’t the ringing that annoyed me at all, but the bureau squatting there in the office, polished within an inch of its life. It was horrigible. It betrayed the appalling taste of the man who would pay thousands of dollars for an overvarnished matchbox and drag it all over the world with him, paying ridiculous storage and transportation fees, that I organized, because he was oh so busy with his work. Coming home with sand in and around his nostrils, in the curl of his ear, deep in his bellybutton. Then I remembered that the lacquered bunker concealed a great many of my former husband’s mundane and (as I soon found out) highly illegal business dealings. And I also remembered that this was my chance to destroy that bureau.
So I took a hammer without thinking twice and I began hitting the lock of the drawer. The old termite-eaten wood caved in, while the lock remained spotless.
An ancient Nokia tumbled out, still ringing, and I picked it up.
—Is this Simm Enterprises?
—No, no, I mean, yes, I said.
—Can I speak to Alan?
—Alan cannot come to the phone.
—Can you tell Alan that we are currently experience issues with concession holders in Cambodia, and so we cannot expect shipment to arrive on time.
—What does that mean?
—No more sand lor. And the ship brokers are very concerned, say Simm Enterprise owe outstanding payments on the lease for dredger and bulk carriers anchored outside of Cambodian waters, as they were the last shipment out of, where was it, Koh Kong? Perhaps you better talk to your, uh, contract-holder at the Authority, because unless you are liquid, cashflow will be a problem.
—But there’s still sand on the (and I had no idea where this came from), on the boats, correct?
—What? Two bulk carriers, yes, but they have cut off concession for good, something about optics and the formation of the Sand Committee, so you need to tell Alan to contact the Authority, I am just a subcontractor on behalf of Simm Enterprises and I am not licensed to officially liaise with the Authority my—
—Raise the price (the space). Double it (of a sigh), double the price (opening), triple the price (at the pit), quadruple the price (of my stomach). If the concessions have closed to us they have closed to other suppliers. And if this is a Council reclamation they do not have any sand stockpile. Do they have stockpile?
—So they need this load on time. Quadruple the price. Yes. Tell them Alan is out of town seeking other arrangements with concession holders. Quadruple the price otherwise the boats will not make it to Singapore.
—OK lah, I will relay your message. But seriously, how, how can you expect them to pay four times as much—
—Tell them if they don’t pay the sand goes back in the sea. If they have any issues, please tell them to ring this number.
I hung up and dropped the phone on the floor. It was exhilarating. I could hardly stop it once I started, the information that my husband had told me every tedious detail of in the dark, unable to sleep, repeating weights, dates, and deadlines over and over between longer and longer silences swelling the vein in his temple, hoping to make the pieces fit. I had absorbed it all, and instead of being forgotten or perhaps because I had forgotten it, it had settled in the back of my mind until I stumbled on it again, panting and sweating. Expanding. My husband was a company man, and used to doing what he was told, which made him an excellent husband but a poor entrepreneur. He always worried about making the pieces fit when he was actually in the business of supplying the material the puzzle pieces were made of. And these were men who dearly needed pieces for their puzzle, and no threat or command could change that.
There were details I still had to find out, and to do that I needed to smash apart the rest of the bureau. I trashed that piece of crap completely. I used the prong of the hammer to wrench open one of the filing cabinets, and documents came spilling out. My twelve-year-old son appeared in the doorway and didn’t say anything, just looked. Good, I thought: you did not like the desk either.
Sorting through the pages littering the floor I found registrations for vessels, manifests of shipments, coordinates that matched the location that the insolent chee bye was whining at me down the phone. I crawled on my hands and knees across the floor scanning the pages as I scuttled over them. The organization that my husband had been contracted by was a body corporate, capable of suing and being sued, of doing and suffering which I understood but all such other acts or things threw me off, because even if I was a gorblock who was a stranger to the business world these words made unkind sense to me as the acts or things were in reference to what a body corporate may lawfully do and suffer, as if those were the only two options for a body. And what was this body corporate constituted for but none other than the acquiring, owning, holding (which I thought tender) and developing (which I thought a piece of celluloid) or disposing (as in rubbish) of property, both movable and immovable, that seemed to me to throw the baby out of the bathroom, as I used to say to Alan knowing he would fall for it and correct me, no, it’s bathwater, because once you can own and dispose of properties movable and immovable, what is there left to hold? There was the word sand which was of no surprise at all to me, a fine aggregate in any building works, but the following words were, as they did not refer to any unwashed or unprocessed marine-dredged sand. So the sand my husband sourced by frittering away his precious hours letting his capillaries tunnel jaggedly towards the pupils of his eyes was not even sand legally. Not according to the law of the Authority. And then I saw the letters in red, their font bold, underlined: URGENT, URGENT, LATE NOTICE, my eyes slipping through the cracks of what PAYMENT DUE referred to, only able to scan LATE NOTICE, URGENT, URGENT, URGENT, and URGENT. The numbers I was glancing over that were adding up somewhere spacious and submerged in the back of my mind. I suppose he had a good reason why he didn’t tell me about any of this. The odds of bankruptcy, fines not exceeding $500,000 or imprisonment for a term exceeding 2 years or both, liquidation, and eviction were astronomically high.
The likelihood of me getting my children through their disgustingly expensive schools and universities, of keeping the three-hundred-and-sixty degree views of this flat, of keeping its lines and surfaces maintained in a pristine order through Neary, who in turn maintained a family back in a different country that I found too sad to think about and so didn’t, was slim, to say the least. But as a high-functioning gambling addict, those were the only odds I found hospitable for my future, for it meant I could use any means necessary. Fortuitous, even, that I came across a folder within which glistened photographs and newspaper cuttings of the Sands.
I had never been to a casino in real life before I went to the Sands. I began playing online blackjack when we moved to Shanghai. Something in the way that people would screw up their faces at my Mandarin and boggled their eyes at my Hokkien, in the sumptuous dirt of the city, made me want to click a small button that said hit me and lose real money in the middle of the night, within snoring distance of my husband, his credit card floating my wins and my losses. That was when I first saw a picture of that garish Integrated Resort and Casino. On the front cover of the Wall Street Journal right there on the coffee table and I didn’t think anything of it. The internal canal of the shopping center, replete with depressed gondoliers. Views from the Infinity Pool, empty and cutting a clear reflection into the panorama of the CBD. Views of the Sky Deck from below, lurid and dirigible, like it was ready to set sail for a pleasure cruise on the crowded strait. A picture of Lee Kuan Yew and Sheldon Adelson in tuxedos as handsome as bones draped in age-collapsed flesh can be. After that, it seemed to follow me around the world. Postcards of the Bay, with the Sands lurking over the freshwater reservoir that used to be where the river met the sea, sent to me by family and friends I had no idea had my new address. Pictures of the place I had seen all over the internet, splayed across the pages of my magazines with such frequency I could only suspect that it was trying to infest all memories of my home with its seeping vistas and rank hues.
To enter the Sands costs you dearly if you have a Singaporean passport. Luckily, while Alan was alive I was able to successfully apply for British citizenship. I would go with Serene and Gretchen, who I had little desire to see again once I returned to Singapore, but as the rest of my acquaintances would have had to pony up one hundred dollars (being Permanent Residents or full-blown citizens), they became an inexpensive alibi and not bad company, and, more importantly, good marks, peeking at their cards flush against the green felt, pulling at their jewellery and readjusting their hairdos when they had a bad hand.
At times, they were troublesome. Such as when they had finished playing eight hands ago and I doubled down on mine, even though I would have lost whatever came next.
—Soo Ling, come on, you have spent enough money.
Like hell I had. That was money I had earned. I used to take the awful gold and platinum jewellery he would buy me as an apology for his absence, his working late, his forgetting our anniversary, and exchange them for cold hard cash at the pawn shop, and exchange that for the buzz of cards being cut at the blackjack table, for the icy plummet in my stomach when I knew I was going to say hit me.
I exchanged the gifts that he gave me, traded for time missed, with money within which mine was collateralized by contract, inserted like a layer invisible to the eye but attested to by the firmness of the legal ground on which the deal was made. My time a shadow of his. His time a blueprint for mine. In ten years everything had changed. It wasn’t like the Marina Bay Sands had eaten my home, what a stupid thing to think. As if it had devoured it whole, when actually it had slipped inside of it and worn its skin. Closing my eyes to recall the moment Alan proposed to me on a boat floating down the then-filthy Singapore river I could sense the triptych of towers tickling the corner of my eye, fixing the horizon in place, retrofitted. Seeing it again and again in the intervening years. I thought it was a talisman when it was actually a poultice plastering the holes that riddled what I remembered:
Going with Mother to visit relatives in Khatib Bongsu to get away from the noise of our HDB. Soak in the whirr of crickets by the water. Lying flat on the deck near the edge and looking underneath. While my mother is talking to her sister. Looking underneath. Wondering how these discolored spindles of wood held the rotting and rickety floor above the tide. How it kept this entire kampong from sinking into the water. The mossy musk of the jade depth peopled by translucent prawns. Eyeing me with their beady black eyes before I even notice them. But it is the baby-blue tiled floor of the infinity pool that has gridded itself into alignment when I bend my neck to look beneath. The surface of the chlorinated water webbed together by dimples of sunlight. The patterns cast by feet or slow breaststrokes. Arms bracing the edge of the pool for a photo. I pull my head up and the blade of the infinity pool has slit open the dirty water to reveal the 57th-floor view from the Sands, just waiting to surface. A manicured hand pleating backstroke after backstroke into the pool, regulating the rhythm of the panorama. That’s it. The infinity pool a laboratory designed to monitor the progress of this First World that lay coiled within the Third. Twitching in and out of view, hidden in bad water. The buzz of the mist cooling system stitches itself inside the drone of crickets in the jungle that sheltered the ramshackle outcrop of jetties and zinc roofs I can no longer remember. Over the edge of the pool buildings are demolished. Cleared. Rebuilt. Binging and purging with an industrious dysmorphia. Each one lapses in and out of boniness as it is demolished and built back up, rising and falling. The bony grip of Hwei Fan’s (Helen! as Alan used to call her) fifteen-year-old hand in mine in our serviced apartment outside of San Francisco as she asked me why we had to leave? Why we had to leave when I had my whole life there?
I have been home for years now but perhaps after a decade of jet lag I have still to feel at home in my skin. I looked up Khatib Bongsu on the web: it is now part of a military installation, at the center of which lies dune after dune after dune of sand, guarded by barely pubescent boys with machine guns, squinting as the wind picks up.
The next day I sorted through the paperwork and found the contact information of companies that had only one employee: SIM Group, registered in Hong Kong; Lansim Services, registered in Penang; Simm & Sons, registered in Yangon; Asimptote Incorporated, registered in Ho Chi Minh City; they all had the same executive officer (my husband) and same handphone number: the one I had in my hand. A sweet man with no place in business. What kind of simpleton named their shell corporations after himself? The same beneficiary named for all the companies (me) in case of an unforeseeable event, such as one’s blood clotting to a halt, liquid become solid. This was all mine now, I thought. I used my power as executive to fire myself and nominated Serene and Gretchen as the new Chief Executives (it’s an honorary role, I’ve used the additional liquidity from Alan’s will to devote it to charitable causes, it’s what he would have wanted; it would be an honour if you could chair this company, it’s only a formality, I’ll take care of all the paperwork). I loved him dearly and was glad he was out of the way. He had no appetite for risk. I could finally get to work. The first step was to identify the blockage in the supply chain. After sorting through the pages by company and then by date I found the contact information members of the Sand Committee and the Head of the Sand Division at the Group, our upstream partners in Cambodia, clipped to a postcard of a picturesque beach in Sihanoukville.
With no other business to take care of on these shores, I messaged my liaison in the Group’s Sand Division, booked a flight to Sihanoukville using my British passport, and packed one suitcase with my some of my cashed-out blackjack winnings. On Google Images the white beaches of Sihanoukville look like paradise. In actuality it was a tacky resort town beset on all quarters by vacationing Australians, gap-year students, American evangelists and sex tourists. The beggars and street vendors were unable to keep up with the onslaught of tourists. I got to the hotel, an old colonial building of the kind my husband had always wanted to live in when we were in Singapore. It was getting dark outside. I used the phone at the bar and rang my contact at the Group. There was just a dial tone and then a click. Nothing. It must have been late.
I sat at on the stool by the hotel bar, my back to the grisly trail of sunset seeping into the sea framed by the columns of the balcony. This was what it was like to go on holiday. No luggage to lug and no children to keep in my eyeline. No activities plotted in advance with military precision by Mommy, to be derailed by Daddy, who decides it is the perfect day to explore, leading us in circles through the wilderness for an entire day. No husband to herd into a romantic walk on the beach or squeeze minimal pleasantries out of over an intimate candlelit dinner that I had booked myself. Just my hands around the glass of the drink I had finished. So empty and so cold. Without hesitation I ordered another.
—What are you drinking Madame?
—I already have a drink, thank you, I replied without turning my head.
—Her drinks are on me.
I groaned loudly enough for the room to hear, and began to shift from my seat, when two fingers landed lightly on my wrist. A wide face, the faint curve of a smile, a yellow tie, a cheap suit. His fingers were soft.
—Unless you are on holiday, I believe we have business.
—Ah! You are with the Group? My apologies. How did you know I was here?
—You rang. Would you kindly like to finish your drink and follow me?
—Outside. Please bring your luggage with you.
As he went outside I leaned over the empty bar and grabbed a fruit knife, dropping it in my handbag, and followed him out. Down by the resort’s private beach was a jetty that extended into the sea, a yacht moored at the far end. Men in fatigues holding machine guns on the deck looked out over the water.
—We know that the interruption in supply has put considerable pressure on your business. Of course, all we want is for everything to happen smoothly. This is a delicate matter.
—Where are we going?
—To our offices.
A deckhand ushered me aboard without a word. My host led me through to a spacious living room below deck as I felt the yacht pull away from the jetty. He ushered me to sit down on a repulsive pleather sofa and I complied.
—I apologize for being underdressed. If you had given me some time I could have changed out of my travel clothes.
—No need to apologize, Mrs. . . . ?
—Sim. And you are?
—A representative of the Group’s Sand Division and the government’s Sand Committee.
—Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
—It is how we do business. I am just a representative.
—I am aware of how you do business.
I took the briefcase and laid it out square on the coffee table between us. I looked at the frayed tulle curtains. Cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Dust peppering the glass of the table. The windows grimy. Was I supposed to be impressed by this crappy company yacht?
—Ah, a gift, how kind! But we should wait until we reach our offices.
—I thought this was your office.
—It is in Koh Kong, a short journey away. This is a nice tourist town. You should really come back here for a holiday. It is an area with lots of natural beauty. Excellent beaches that I am sure you would enjoy. But this is not a place where business is done. I suppose you are in a rush.
—Time is money.
—Your colleague that we worked with before, he never met with us in person. He preferred intermediaries.
—Simm Enterprises has changed its priorities. We are committed to resolving difficulties in the upstream sector with our partners.
A man entered, wearing a vest and a bow tie, served two glasses crammed with ice with a layer of brown liquid at the bottom. A lizard eyed us from its perch on the far wall. It moved whenever it wasn’t being watched.
—The Sand Committee appreciates the gesture. But, at present, we can’t be seen to be allowing any further sand exports from Koh Kong to your country. There have been disturbances. Activists trying to subvert the development of the country. Tricking villagers into thinking they are on their side. Aided and abetted by their affiliates in the independent media. Some people dislike the idea of progress. They do not appreciate that we found a buyer that would pay hand over fist for their worthless dirt. The Authority who subcontracted you.
—They do not know I am here.
—Of course, they cannot be seen to be dirtying their hands. And we cannot be seen to be dirtying ours. We are going into an election year. Can you imagine how this will look, if we have boat after boat after boat, like a line of ants, going from our poorest province, laden with our precious land, to go to your country?
He cradled a glass of brown liquid in his hands.
—You should open your gift.
—Please, I think we both know what is in the briefcase, that can wait until tomorrow, when we arrive at our offices. There are suitable accommodations made up for you.
—Just open it, take your bribe, and read my proposal lah! Do you know how much of a hassle it is to get this amount of money in cash?
I opened the briefcase and pushed it towards him as he wriggled to readjust himself. I clipped maps of routes to the upper half of the case, while on the lower half I laid a file containing the proposal over a stack of American paper money that filled the lower half of the case.
—So one of my contractors already relayed to me the situation regarding optics in this sector. Primarily because every operator in your sector is a siao jialat that has no idea how to do their job without making a mess.
—You must understand that as welcome as your gift is, we simply have to stop all exports to Singapore.
—Then stop exports to Singapore! If that’s what looks so bad, these ships with your precious land on it going to this tiny rich country, that you are selling millions of tons of out from under the feet of your citizens, then why not send the boats elsewhere?
—Send them elsewhere?
—Simm Enterprises has a number of shell companies linked with our subcontractors and project partners who report to me. They are based in Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia. Boats registered under these companies will dredge and transport the sand. Their destinations will be the countries where these companies are registered. The boats will then stop in open water outside these ports, where they will be met by vessels registered with Simm Enterprises, which will be returning from Singapore from a country where sand export is still legal. These are further away, so we just make the minimum purchase, overstate the tonnage, and transfer the cargo from one ship to the other. The losses of one company wiped out by the gains of another.
—From one ship to the other.
— Sand for reclamation does not need to pass any tests. As long it’s for reclamation, they do not care where it comes from, as long as it arrives nice and quietly. There is no way it can fail.
—That is an interesting proposal. I will have to take it into consideration and consult the rest of the committee. I am just a representative, an intermediary. But luckily we are convening a meeting tomorrow morning. Please get some rest. We will review your proposal at our offices in the morning.
I accepted the hospitality and lay down on the bed in my room to try and get some sleep. I should have felt in danger. I heard the tinkling of insects against the light I left on in the bathroom while trying to sleep, unable to sleep because of the tightness of the tucked-in sheets. I got out of bed, noticing its cheap valance, I was instead reminded by the beige enclosure of the all-inclusive resorts I had spent so-called holidays in, each slipping irrevocably into decline, and was simply irritated at the drabness of this pleasure vessel. Closing my eyes, the minutes threaded coarsely through the gigantic tent of my snoring until light stared through the cheap curtains of my room. I parted them. Mangroves were all around us. We were following the river. The trees extended identically in every direction, the same height, a wall of leaves lining the water. As the water widened out we passed a village. Houses on stilts above the water. Boats lying in the mud of low tide. A row of roofs sloping to face the water. I must have woken into a dream. How could miles be converted into years and recovered, I thought, subtracted from the existing ones? To be so far away in time and distance but somehow the magnitudes of both slid over each other and became odds. As we passed closer I stayed near the curtain, even though the window was tinted. A woman standing in the doorway of one of the houses stopped picking through hundreds of feet of fishnets and looked towards the yacht. She was looking towards the window I was looking out of. I crouched beneath the desk. A knocking at the door. There was no way she could have been looking right at me. A knocking at the door; it could have been a dream so easily. I could have woken up and muddled over how strange it was and wondered whose eyes I was looking out of, staring back at a time-bleached photograph of my aunt’s seaside village, imagine the creak of the rotten wet planks and the smell of the mud in the heat. In a dream the woman’s hands would have been moving deftly through hundreds of feet of my intestines, but she kept picking through nets for bits of wood and clumps of dirt and drift. If it was a dream I would have said I have come to eat your land because mine has eaten itself from the inside out but I said nothing and sat on the floor, with my back against the desk and the window that she was looking at. After a moment I peeked over the desk: she got smaller, framed by the dark of the doorway, staring at me. But how? Another knock at the door and I turned.
—A fishing village. They have been causing difficulties.
—What do you mean?
—Blocking our boats. Sheltering activists. Making difficulties. No matter. We must continue to move forward, to progress. That is why your country is so great, so rich. You had a leader who knew the sacrifices that had to be made. Life is getting harder for them now. Some have already moved to the city. More will follow. But we have to progress, and develop, don’t you agree? Leave behind this old way of life. That is what your country did. An exemplary model.
—An exemplary model.
Turning a bend in the mangrove, a dune slipped into view, like the pale belly of a snake sunning by the river. Further up was a wiry structure of blue metal, conveyor belts rising over it and descending to some point further in. We stopped by it and boarded a small dingy that brought us to the shore of the dune. Walking up the first dune I felt its surface jitter and resettle under my feet. At the top of the dune I could see that it extended far into the forest, as if the river had herniated an entire desert into it. I could see conveyor belts extending to other dunes on the far side, where the river coiled back around, all of the belts descending to the centre, an immense warehouse, trucks driving back and forth between it and the dunes. It was as if beneath each section of mangrove there waited a construction site to be unearthed, replete with men in hardhats and trucks and machinery waiting to work. We were picked up in a Mercedes which drove to the far side of the staging ground that I could smell was towards the sea. As we neared it I spotted a large one-story building. Not a factory or warehouse, but a sleekly-cantilevered structure, with floor-to-ceiling windows reflecting what could only be described as a desert on all sides, with a carpet leading from the entrance to a helipad across the road as we arrived in front of it.
—Our marketing suite. We sense there is great potential for this area of outstanding natural beauty to become a great asset. One of the biggest mangrove forests in the world and only one in eight Cambodians have been here. The sand mining is just the very edge of our operations. A Chinese firm has paid us quite a pretty penny to develop this into a premier seaside resort. This is the marketing suite for the development. Holiday homes, times shares, that kind of thing. In a few years everything will be different.
The glass doors slid open, and we entered. The placeless balm of air-conditioning. Scale models of terraced sea-side condominiums lining a coast encased inside plexiglass, the to-scale replica of a unit behind a glass wall to the left. Brochures in English and Chinese. A concierge behind a desk, smiling.
—These are your offices?
—We have a boardroom that we find useful for pitching to clients and convening meetings of the Sand Committee.
—You fly them in, why didn’t you fly me in?
—Are you planning on buying? We thought you would enjoy the scenic route.
My host opened the double doors onto the boardroom, revealing two aisles of faces and a faint sweet mist of Johnnie Walker.
—If you would be so kind . . .
And with that, the business was up and running. All it took was a personal touch. But I didn’t want to do it remotely, a Bluetooth headset nailed to my ear, cowering in my underwear in the middle of the night. I wanted to be more hands-on. I wanted to subcontract in person. I contacted the captains and told them there would be changes in the company, now that there was someone in charge who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty. When I’m on the dredger, I think of my husband, what he would do, how he would command his men, how they would laugh at his miserable Malay or terrible Khmer. But he wasn’t on any of the boats, he simply subcontracted them. He was mostly down at the Singapore Island Country club playing golf with Beng Soon, who would tut at Alan if he cast so much as a clot of turf skyward with his driver— no respect for Singaporean soil, this one. Beng Soon knew that waging a war with land was a lot more profitable than waging war for land. Our ground trembles at the incoming cargo scouring the waters. Quivers at the untouched tons secreted beneath the water. Jiggles at the square feet cupped tantalizingly within inlets. Twitches at the cubic meters buffeted by the immense cusps of waves. Salivates at each bespoke grain shaped by gigajoules of oceanic force, as if it had nerve endings. It’s growing, day by day, I tell Beng Soon on the phone: isn’t it alive?
I am a bad guy, in business with bad people. I told myself I didn’t have time to question what was happening, I had to take care of my family. But that changed with the first bite of sand. It was an accident (I swear), swallowed like an oyster (a delicacy I never much enjoyed). The second bite of sand chewed with a crunch so loud I thought I had blown out my eardrums and shattered my teeth (a growing pain). The third, flawlessly executed, simply consumed for the coarseness of its flow against my esophagus.
It has settled quite nicely. I can feel a little bump in my belly. Empty and floodlit. Not a pregnancy a decade late, or a little cancer multiplying in my bowels or my liver, but the space that the sand carried with it, I am sure of it: porous. I can place my hand on it and close my eyes. The surface of the sand is still but through the skin of my palm I feel lines traced into its surface as clear as the murk of movement on an ultrasound translated from the trembling of liquids into light, the sound melting and dripping into a skull like a sloping droplet of mercury, murmurs and gurgles sifted through for the comma of a penis, a boy, finally a boy, Alan saying lovingly to the squib of light on the screen a decade ago. But the sound in my stomach is steady, numbers being crunched. Lines drawn on a surface. An infrasound. A point of depression in the middle and particles flowing to fill it. Lines extracted from the surface threaded through the anus of an hourglass into a giddy nothing I can only describe as anticipation. Perhaps if I procured enough sand this city-state would saturate its own sell-by date, and level to a plane that would stretch from the northeast to east to the west coast, to a handful of islands stitched together by sand and renamed, their histories re-imagined. And at the point where it seemed complete, the sand would slant beneath the surface of its skin and its transplanted earth slur. I am waving goodbye to this island I no longer recognize, ton by ton, its crowds, its gentle hum of anxiety, its selective memories poking out of the skyline and eclipsing the sea. Because if time is what it took away from me, time is what I could drown it in. And lacking time, sand will have to do.