Photo by Nguan

The Ballad of Arlene & Nelly

Why didn’t Arlene go to the doctor when the lump first appeared?


It wasn’t always this good, and Arlene never lets herself forget that. This is why she hasn’t gone to the doctor’s yet, despite the burgeoning lump in between the end of her armpit and the beginning of her breast, on her left side. Arlene was deeply fatalistic. Leftwards, for her, was a jinx, where unpropitious things happened.

Nelly is back, Arlene hears her key through the door, imagines her slipping off her leather shoes, and those low, thin nude socks. It never ceases to amaze Arlene when Nelly comes home.


What is the history of Arlene & Nelly?


Three periods, over the course of thirty years.


The first:


When Arlene was ten, she fell into a canal outside the school gate. Nelly was right behind her. It is still strange to them both, how she fell in. Arlene would describe being lifted off her feet, then scrabbling across the gravel and mud only to find herself in the canal, the left of her frame scraping the sharpness of its maw. Nelly said it looked like she decided to jump in. Arlene would roll her eyes at this. Arlene remembers Nelly’s skirt billowing overhead as she scaled the sides of the canal to help her out, her white cotton underwear, Nelly’s fringe plastered to her forehead as she stretched out an arm, the afternoon sun behind her.

The scabs along Arlene’s left arm and calf were epic. Nelly walked up to her one recess-time: Can I peel them? The bell rang. Yes, Arlene said. For a while it was a game, and Nelly fussed over Arlene with tissue she wetted on her tongue every time she drew blood. She collected Arlene’s scabs in the groove of her classroom desk, where the other girls stowed their pencils. The other girls in class, noticing this, wanted to try too. No, Nelly said to them as she rolled Arlene’s sleeve up, She’s mine.

After Arlene’s wounds healed, their friendship grew boring. They drifted apart quickly, Nelly moving on to the company of the only girl in class who had a pager. Arlene’s scars took a decade to fade.


The second:


When Arlene met Nelly again, they were nineteen, at the state teachers’ college, a month before term commenced. Arlene stared and stared across the crowded room awaiting the pre-admission medical check-up, but Nelly never looked once in her direction.

Arlene had always been quiet by nature, but after they’d peed into tiny cups, pressed their breasts to X-ray machines and changed out of the medical-blue shifts, she went up to Nelly. She did not say hi; merely stood in Nelly’s way. They remained this way for almost a full minute, until Arlene rolled up the sleeve on her left arm. When Nelly saw the long scar, she started laughing a husky laugh, leaning forward to embrace Arlene in recognition. Arlene placed her arms carefully around Nelly. Nelly’s hair was damp and her shampoo smelled of lavender.

They shared a room at the National Institute of Education. By the end of their second year, it came to be known that they were more than friends. They’d never been seen displaying public affection, but a friend of a friend in their class had walked in on two spooning bodies one morning when she’d meant to return Arlene her tennis racquet. Their dorm-issue single beds were pushed together in the middle of the room, covered by a queen-sized duvet. The friend had slipped out quietly without waking the pair, returning the tennis racquet later in the afternoon after knocking on the door, but the revelation made its rounds.

There was the occasional lesbian couple in every cohort in every college, but there were always easy surface clues—a butch-femme dynamic, the laissez-faire of holding hands in public, superficial proclivities towards piercings or closely-cropped hair. The pairing of Nelly and Arlene, however, came as a surprise to most of their cohort-mates, because they both came across as inordinately conservative.

The truth of the matter was that although Nelly and Arlene were in love as they knew it, there was also the understanding that this arrangement would hold only as long as they were in college together. Rather, this was what Nelly had always insinuated, and what kept Arlene up at night.

As they went from freshmen to sophomores, there was an anxiety about Arlene that became increasingly pronounced. She never forgot that, each day, she was incrementally closer to losing Nelly. In her senior year, she found herself snapping at friends, crying whilst watching TV commercials.


The third:


When Arlene received the invitation card, she burnt it on her stove. Then she pressed her left palm cleanly onto the stove, the ashes swirling around. The blister was so large that a plaster couldn’t cover the diameter of it and she had to bandage her hand. It’d been five years, they were twenty-seven. She imagined Nelly deciding between lilies and peonies.

At the dinner reception, she was seated to the back of the ballroom. All she saw of Nelly was a head of coiffed hair seated upfront, bare shoulders glowing in an ivory gown. Throughout the dinner, there was a video projection of congenial photos of the bride and groom with their old friends. There were no pictures of Arlene and Nelly together. Her old acquaintances at the table tried to make conversation with her, but Arlene was silent. Course by course, the banquet servers cleared plate after untouched plate of food placed before Arlene.

Towards the end of the dinner, the emcee hustled everyone to their feet. Now everyone, it’s time for my favourite part – yam seng. Remember, the longer you hold the note yam, the more happiness to the bride and groom. The emcee took a theatrically deep breath.

Arlene didn’t even inhale, but she couldn’t stop holding the note.




– she’d gone on longer than everyone at her table, everyone in the ballroom, and the emcee, who’d gone a little blue in the face from trying to match her, was spluttering slightly.

Everyone’d turned to her, she sounded like she was screaming in anguish; finally there was no more breath left in her, and she stopped short, feeling as if her throat and heart were on fire. She turned squarely to look at Nelly, and for the first time that night Nelly looked directly at her, her face inscrutable under all that make-up. The emcee had finally caught his breath, he lifted a hand as if conducting an orchestra, trying to rouse the guests back to complete the toast –


Arlene excused herself from the dinner table, where a peach cream cake was being served. She found her way to the bathroom and locked herself into a stall.

There was a rap on the door. She opened it. Nelly entered the cubicle, cumbersome in the volume of her gown, and latched the door.

Why did you even invite me?

How could I not?

Why did you even invite me!

I hoped you would be happy for me.

What about my happiness?

It is yours to pursue.

Do you love him?

Stop talking like you’re in a movie.

Do you love him!


Nelly, I’ll let you walk away now. But if I ever see you again – I’ll kill you.


How is it they eventually came together?


It was in Sheng Siong, the most economical of local supermarkets, which had made them feel old – it’d been fourteen years, they were forty-one – and unglamorous. Arlene was out of her housing estate, ferrying her parents to the reputedly auspicious temple a little way down from the supermarket on their request, and had stepped in for a bottle of mineral water. Her parents had not mentioned to her the two things they were praying for: the safe passage of an uncle who’d gone back to Xiamen to visit distant relatives, and that Arlene not be left on the shelf.

Nelly was in the condiments aisle, on her tippy toes, trying to get to a can of sardines.

Arlene saw her from the back, and though fourteen years had passed, she knew at once that it was Nelly. Her breath caught in her throat. Nelly had put on a little weight around the thighs and hips, and her hair had sparse greys in it. She was in sweat pants and a t-shirt.

Arlene walked right up behind Nelly as if in a dream, then reached over for the sardines.

Remember how we used to have this with bread in the middle of the night?

Nelly turned. Somehow, her face carried no surprise. She said: Arlene.

You wouldn’t brush your teeth after, and your breath stank in the morning.

Arlene held up the can of sardines, and brought it down hard onto Nelly’s right cheek, twice in quick succession. Nelly let out an involuntary cry as metal connected with bone. Shoppers stopped to stare, trolleys in tow. Arlene raised her hand again.

Arlene, Nelly said, her hand on her cheek, swelling a brilliant purple. Arlene, I left him.


Why had Nelly left her husband?

Arlene had never asked this of Nelly. Nelly thought this was grace on Arlene’s part, but as time went by, she realised it was only because Arlene was hoping the reason was – her.

Nelly left her husband because he cheated on her, simple and banal. Nelly knew this reason would never be good enough for Arlene, and she feared the day Arlene would ask, but as it turned out, Arlene never did.


Did Arlene have any lovers in the (fourteen year) interim?



There were men who pursued Arlene for a time, but the consistency of her rejections would finally wear them down. Though plain, she was not unattractive, but she sought to downplay her looks.

She wore her hair in a dowdy crop that was neither feminine nor masculine, merely utilitarian. She steered clear of make-up, and stuck to a staple of neutral-coloured blouses and shirts tucked neatly into dark pants, paired with sensible shoes.

After just three years, the pursuits ceased altogether. As a teacher, it was easy to get stuck in the same routine, and the only new people she met were students.

She thought of getting a pet, but it was difficult for her to imagine forming attachments to a living thing. Finally, she taught herself to paint, from books. She was terrible in the beginning, but she kept at it, because she knew she needed something, any one thing, to hold on to, to invest in. After a year or two, she became fairly proficient with watercolours.


What did Arlene paint?


Arlene painted faceless women. That is, she painted women who were looking away from her, who had hair obscuring their faces, who were reclined so far back their faces were never visible, whose profiles were in shadow, etc. There was always an excuse to call upon.

Outwardly, she told herself she did this because she couldn’t paint faces to save her life – too much detail, she couldn’t imagine rendering eyes, noses, lips. The lines of bodies soothed her. They weren’t difficult to perfect, and it was faintly erotic to put on finishing touches around breasts and thighs, the way light fell on the source paintings and sketches she used as references.

Inwardly, she knew that if she ever tried to paint a face, it would look like Nelly, and she could not afford to see Nelly ever again.


Did Arlene have sex in the interim?


No, but she subscribed to a virtual private network and streamed ample amounts of independent Swedish porn.

Whenever she masturbated, she felt guilty. Not as a matter of prudence, but Arlene felt compelled to keep herself perfectly chaste. It wasn’t that she thought Nelly would one day return to her. Arlene merely wanted to hold on to the certainty that she’d met the only person she wanted to emote to in this lifetime. That person had gone away, but Arlene thought that was a poor excuse to slip up in the emotional and physical sanctity of that certainty. She wouldn’t even allow herself a cat. Arlene tended and guarded the altar of Nelly she had in her heart with care, in the manner of the most faithful, who have no prayers they want answered.


How long did it take Arlene’s condition to deteriorate?


It took seven months before it became impossible to hide.

During these seven months, however, Arlene paid utmost attention to every last detail compounding Nelly. The spot of pigmentation at the tip of her left cheekbone that so bothered Nelly, but that was, really, barely more than a freckle. The differentials in the pitch of her sneeze, depending on whether it was her sinus or something more incidental.

Casually, she asked Nelly about her bucket list, which was conveniently short. Nelly was always a decisive woman. She laughed when Arlene came to her with the pencil and paper. She stroked the back of Arlene’s neck: Are you afraid we’re getting old? We’re only fifty-two. I want to live till I’m a hundred and ten, with you. We’ve a whole life ahead of us.

They did what they could within those months – some were simple enough: the tattoo of a crane, perpendicular to the base of Nelly’s spine, a teenage whim that never materialized; a month’s worth of a raw vegan diet, Nelly posing as Venus of Urbino on their living room floor, Arlene sketching her, trembling as she painted in the details of Nelly’s face.

The trip to the Galápagos – two weeks, the longest they could reasonably afford during the June holidays – Nelly screaming in delight as a waved albatross nipped her ankle, running back to Arlene, having gone on ahead and sighted a bale of the famed giant tortoises. They could walk hand in hand as two women, fearless, in Ecuador. This was an unspoken part of the trip: to go somewhere far enough, that would be safe for them to be as they were. Here they pecked one another’s cheeks on the cobblestone; on the coast, watched only by iguanas and mockingbirds. The days and nights seemed endless in the inn. They skipped the tour of Wolf Island on the last day to stay – quite alone – in the inn. As their fellow guests pointed cameras at fur seals and vampire finches, Arlene and Nelly made covert love in the hot afternoon, buoyant in the deep-end of the kidney-shaped hotel pool, hands slipping under wet lycra.


Did Arlene get better?


Nelly rode in the ambulance with her, but when they got to the emergency room, the nurse asked if she was kin, and Nelly sputtered no. How are you related? We’re, we’re friends. I’m sorry ma’am, you’ll have to wait outside then. Nelly’s fists were bunched up in the shape and size of her furious beating heart. She clenched and unclenched them, lub dub lub dub. The counter nurse was asking her to fill up a form with Arlene’s particulars. She sat down on the blue plastic seats. The counter nurse was picking up the phone, calling immediate members of Arlene’s family.

They’d spent so much of their life avoiding each other’s family members, it was difficult being in the same room. It had never been conclusive, whether their Chinese-educated parents, both sets in their seventies by this point, understood the relations between Arlene and Nelly. Flatmates and childhood friends, they would say. Arlene’s sister, seven years younger, duly married in her early twenties, had eased the pressure valve on Arlene when she delivered twin boys. The old woman’s face was crumpled, the old man holding a trembling arm around her. No one spoke to Nelly. She excused herself to the bathroom, pulling down the lid of the WC and sitting there, wiping her eyes with toilet paper.

When she came back out, she saw the anguished huddle before the operating room, Arlene’s mother clutching her husband for support. From afar, she saw the doctor shaking his head. Nelly’s legs were giving way as she joined up, her movements mechanical. The doctor, in scrubs, was explaining the terminal condition and the complications in the surgery to Arlene’s family.

I want to see her, Nelly said in a flat tone, splicing through Arlene’s mother’s sobs and the doctor’s jargon. They turned to her in silent surprise. Arlene’s sister was the first to regain her composure, snapping: How come you didn’t know anything was wrong with her! You see her every day! The doctor was holding up his hands as if to say, I’m done here. He was untucking his shirt, gesturing to an attendant nurse to take over.


Was there a specific moment when, indeed, Nelly should have known that something was wrong?


Before they got into the kidney-shaped pool in the Galápagos, they were reclining in deck chairs, soaking up the Caribbean sun. For once, Nelly wasn’t obsessively reapplying sunblock to her pigmentation spot, or angling her visor to shield the most of her face. They were languid and laughing when Arlene said, I could die happy here, right now. Nelly looked over at Arlene and said: I wish we never had to leave.

What if we didn’t?

You can’t be serious.

Well, what if?

We’d need jobs.

We could teach English here. Or sell I Love Boobies souvenir t-shirts on Avenue Charles Darwin.

I’m sure the paperwork and permits are more complicated than that.

Yes, but I’ve never been happier.

Me too, Nelly said, and then she splashed some water onto Arlene with her foot. Arlene bent over and tickled Nelly till she couldn’t breathe and they were both gasping with laughter, and then they went into the pool.

When Nelly thought back about it, she knew there was no point in blaming herself. These were things people said on holidays. What she did regret, though, was not asking Arlene what her bucket list was in turn, that evening at home on the couch.

The accompanying truth to this, though, was that, had she asked, Arlene would have told her that her – Nelly’s – bucket list was, in fact, her – Arlene’s – bucket list. That is to say, Arlene was happiest when she could service Nelly’s wants. Arlene was happiest when Nelly was happy.


What happened after Arlene died?


It took half a year.




For Nelly to reconnect with her ex-husband. It started non-descript and easy, the ataraxia of email, progressing on to the natural gratification of catching up over coffee, once they’d both ascertained that the other was no longer with the alleged previous lover, for whatever reasons, a point of conversation they fudged copiously, complicit. It’d been seven and a half years; it was easy to let things slide, to find graceless yet intransigent comfort in that old, disenchanting familiarity. Nelly was fifty-three and her husband was fifty-five, neither held the illusion that they had better long-term options. Neither spoke about the gulf of the seven and a half years – Nelly kept mum about Arlene, and her ex-husband never once-mentioned the ex-mistress’s name. They regarded each other, from separate far ends of the impassable gulf, comfortably. They re-married in a quiet civil ceremony and remained childlessly, placidly together till the end of their days.


Why would anyone title this The Ballad of Arlene & Nelly?


They would do so for Arlene.


For Arlene?


The deaths – tiny ones, false ones, real ones – we undertake in the name of love are the closest that we ever come to greatness.


This story is included in Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram Books).

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