Saturday, Dec. 27, 2008 - 12:56 a.m.
The whirr of the machine's motor belt and the high pitched scratching sound of metal being shaved by a spinning grinder hardly registers in Little India. Around him is the cacophony of voices belonging to the twenty-six Indian dialects, voices in the middle of ordering Naan bread, recognizing a friend from the same village, bargaining with a prostitute, trying to make a sale - a long distance calling card, an impure gold ankle bracelet, a sprig of expired spring onions.
Without looking up from his work, he pinches the grimy, black cylindrical handle of one of the drawers and pulls it open. There is a pile of silver and bronze blank keys in it. He retrieves a blank key and sets it down beside the machine. The blank key is infinite possibility. It has the potential to be the perfect fit for any lock in Singapore, to open any door in the country. The wooden surface that the blank key rests on has been worn smooth by years of use, of resting of hands and keys. It is impregnated with machine oil, the soot from passing cars, and on some days, the faint smell of the perfume of its previous owner (the drawers keep the memory of her handkerchiefs and her tragic story).
As the old man grinds away at the blank key, as a unique formula of grooves, angles and recesses appear on the edge of the metal, the infinite possibilities slowly collapse until only one outcome is left. He picks up the duplicated key and inspects it. It is ephemerally duplicated again as a twin reflection on each of his spectacle lenses. He blows once at the cut edge and some loose metal filings explode away at his breath. No one has ever seen customers at the old man's stall. He is just there every night duplicating keys, leaving a part of himself in every key. Tonight, the duplicated key will be inserted into a lock somewhere in the known universe.
The key, if it works, may open the wooden door to a newly purchased flat in Sengkang where a young girl writes melancholic songs on her guitar about lost love, or to one of the many rooms in the brothel down the road, the one advertising the 'Sensual Thai Oil Massage', where many strange things happen inside. Or it will be the last happy moment for a woman, whose family waits with the news of her son's drowning on the other side of the door. At the wake, she will remember turning the key very clearly. One last possibility: it fails to open the trawler's cabin door, where the rest of the crews' wages are kept, thwarting the sailor's plan to get rich and buy a plot of land back home in Indonesia. He does not know that the key he tried to duplicate was a fake one planted by the captain to throw off successive sailors with the same dream of land purchase in their heads. In frustration he flings the duplicate key overboard. It falls through the black water, finally coming to rest at the bottom of the South China Sea, lying next to a bed of similar keys, which open no doors at all.