The young Filipino boy trailed after Jing as she walked briskly along the beach promenade. He was holding up a short stand which was attached to a broad reflective panel, a mirror, on the face of which was affixed dozens of pairs of sunglasses clipped onto little plastic hooks. Soon, a pair of local girls selling sarongs joined the boy. All three vendors bungled after Jing, like dogs that had picked up a scent.
“Slow down,” Su-Chee called out after her friend. “What’s the hurry? It’s a holiday, remember?”
“I’m not in a hurry,” Jing halted abruptly and the procession of little brown children almost came to a calamitous crashing halt behind her. “This is just the way I walk.”
Jing was about to say something further when the boy with the sunglass stand positioned himself so that he was holding the mirror directly to her face. Momentarily distracted, Jing paused to observe herself, “fine, here, I’ll take this one and this one. And the green one. There, that’s eight pairs.”
“Eight hundred pesos ma’am,” the boy was beaming.
Su-Chee watched Jing’s features crease in outrage, “you must be joking, right? Even with the currency exchange that’s too expensive laa! Haven’t you ever heard of bulk discounts? I’ll give you six hundred.”
Su considered her friend’s reflection in the mirror as she haggled on. She was loathe to admit it but even after all these years, Jing had managed to keep her skin looking, well, rather fantastic. In fact, she appeared younger now than when they’d first met, back in their student days at UNSW.
At the time, the pair had been living in adjacent apartments of the same complex in Woolloomooloo. (Woolloomooloo; she always remembered the name fondly, someone had once told her it meant place of plenty). Even before they were properly acquainted, Su had already been nursing a growing fascination with the glamorous neighbour across the hall, thinking of Jing as an asian Holly Golightly, the building’s resident Hepburn. It seemed like there was always a different luxury car idling away for her downstairs, or a new hairstyle; an endless rotating parade of fashionable young Korean boys escorting her up and down the stairs. Further to that, it was rumoured by the other tenants that Jing was the much favoured niece of Victor Tang, latest member of the Forbes’ billionaires club and owner of Lotto-Boleh, Burger King Malaysia, and the Cardiff City football team. (Su-Chee’s own family only ran a modest diamond jeweller back home). One night the young woman had come banging on her door, hysterical, “you have to help! You have to help me. My uncle will cut me off if I don’t pass this semester. Then I’ll have to go… student housing!” It seemed the stories were true. Jing did come from a lot of money and had been sent to Sydney for her degree in International Business.
Since that first meeting, the two women had become inseparable. Ski trips, pump classes, restaurant-hopping and detox diets, Su and Jing did everything together; they were even dating brothers, twins in fact, one each. But as close as they were, lately Su-Chee had begun to sense something between the pair was not quite right. It was a notion which she found difficult to articulate. Perhaps the best example was what had occurred recently. She recalled the conversation:
“I entered this online promotion for that new Nouveau product, you know the one with the papaya extract and glutathione skin bleaching formula? Anyway, are you ready for the surprise of your life? I won. I won, I won the competition! First prize is an all-expenses paid shopping spree for two in Boracay!” Su-Chee waved the tickets in front of Jing excitedly, “buy one product, get one entry. I entered eighty-seven times!”
“Boracay? Isn’t that,” and Jing screwed up her face ever-so-slightly, “the Philippines?”
“It’s an island resort. It’s a shopping spree in an island resort!”
“There’s not much luxury brand in the Philippines, isn’t it? Singapore and Hong Kong have the LV and Gucci factories, no? And Prada too, lah.”
“Don’t you want to go?”
Jing had pulled a face.
The street vendor’s mirror tilted and captured the glinting sunlight for an instant, blinding Su in a white flash. Iridescent blue and purple spots danced across her vision and, as she peered at Jing, a warbling black blot settled over her friend’s face.
“I’m not paying eight hundred! I’ll give you six.”
“No ma’am. That’s too cheap ma’am.”
“I’ll just go over to that guy there and get them for six hundred.”
“No ma’am please. Seven hundred.”
“Alright here, here’s six-fifty. No don’t hold them by the lens you idiot! Now they’ll have fingerprints all over them!” Jing turned to Su-Chee and continued on, “it’s all just massages and cheap-o Raybans here in Boracay. We should go to Hong Kong, or Singapore laa.”
“Jing?! What do you think you’re doing?!”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“You put those back. I saw you Jing. You give them back right now.”
Su-Chee grabbed her friend’s wrist, the hand of which had been snaking surreptitiously into her purse. Su yanked it back out and twisted the fingers up rather viciously, “I saw you take these extra ones, you give them back. Right now!”
“Su-Chee? Quiet down, you’re making a scene,” and Jing hissed desperately, “it’s only a few pesos. Shut up. People are looking!”
Soon, a small group of curious locals had gathered around the women. It appeared as though Su was making more of a fuss than she’d intended. But by then, the floodgates had opened up all the way:
“How much is enough Jing? You’re such a cheat! That’s right, a cheat! If everyone was like you, the world would be unbearable! You don’t think I know the things you get up to?! I mean, all those bogus travel insurance scams, or that time you dented our neighbour’s car and just drove away! I know as soon as you got your permanent residency, you went straight onto Centrelink, even when your uncle gives you thousands a month. I even know you’ve been sleeping around behind Henry’s back. I mean, don’t you believe in anything?!”
The locals wooped and laughed.
“And I will be damned if I let you walk all over this poor boy. This poor, poor boy. Who probably lives in a hut and has to make his own shoes.”
Su-Chee wrenched some notes out of Jing’s hands and tried to stuff them into the boy’s shirt pocket.
“No, no, is okay ma’am,” he said to her, handing back the notes. “It’s okay. Here take it back, don’t fight. This is Boracay. Mabuhay! Enjoy, enjoy!”
“But you’re so. Disadvantaged.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Su felt like an idiot.
“I don’t live in a hut ma’am,” the boy laughed. “And I don’t make my own shoes. I wear Converse Platinum and I have the new Nike Hyperdunk with the yellow strip. The ones that Lamar Odom wears.”
A few in the small crowd snickered. Su-Chee looked at the young boy blankly for an instant before bursting out into laughter herself. Even Jing managed a nervous giggle, though she seemed utterly confused, asking timidly, “Lamar? You mean the guy that married Khloe?”