Novel No. 1 – Chapter 2: Winter, Spring – and Fall

Tom Hugh Architects hatched from the teenage defiance of two late twenties men – Tom, the older one and architect of the firm, wanted away from the inherited baseless flattery, and Hugh, the interior designer, wanted to go wild and explore freely. So they hastily quit the top architectural firm. Tom Hugh Architect emerged as a website; and four years later, it grew and they moved into a fully functional albeit a small-sized office in Raffles Place. Now in their early thirties, having fiercely surpassed past criticisms, the two boldly charged on to overcome new expectations.

The small office is exceptionally accommodating – there is a personal corner for everyone, made possible by the two rising talents. So, Tom and Hugh have separate rooms; the receptionist has her space at the entrance; Priscilla and one other staff have their customised working cubicles. There is even a cosy meeting room for the guests. The entire unit is white from the floor to the ceiling with special glass panels carving out the rooms; the panels will turn opaque for privacy when powered up. The main walls have windows cut out at appropriate points to invite enough natural light for the illusion of space. At the end of the unit, a miniature garden grows quietly, accompanied by a tiny bar to soothe the congested minds. The entire place bears the zen of winter with the cheerful vibes of spring.

To enter, one has to go through the thick extra-wide glass door and be greeted warmly by the receptionist – a nice mid-forties lady with the charm of a pubescent. In her bright bubble-dress and bubbly personality, she earnestly greets all who comes through the door and perseveringly attends to all requests.

The receptionist loves the company, and of course, adores the younger boss. The slightest sight of him would instantly make her a wild screaming K-Pop fan. Hugh was the exact opposite of her – while she loves loud vicious colours, Hugh keeps to black, white and blue (or hues of them) from shoes to his hair; while she laughs at the slightest tickle, Hugh merely lifts the corner of his mouth; while she speaks like a machine gun, Hugh uses only essential words. But, this didn’t stop the receptionist from reaching out for the stars. No matter how great the gap, it can be closed with perseverance.

Should a reporter asked the receptionist to describe Hugh, she would gladly rattle on that Hugh is a fashionable man with a handsome face; he has skin as white as snow and as soft as cotton and cheeks that glow like fresh apples. What about Tom? The reporter might suddenly help her recall, which she would obligingly respond that he is….

And Tom burst through the glass door, rudely snapping the receptionist out of her thoughts. She frowned at the skyscraper looming over her and knitted her brows – her common sign of disapproval. The expensive suit and tie failed to impress her. If Hugh was winter, then this man would be spring. Tom is always in any colour except black, white and blue; he is bold with his words and tends to give passionate speeches that usually coax the receptionist into a deep sleep; his laughter is a full stop to every sentence he says. The receptionist paid the least attention to Tom as he will always be in a suit and tie and a perfectly shaped army’s man hair cut. But, Tom cares about her well being more than all her past employers combined, so she still bears a soft spot for him though he doesn’t excite her as much as Hugh does.

“Has Hugh come in?” Tom spoke in between deep breaths.

Slightly disturbed by his panting, the receptionist leaned back with knitted brows and answered, “No. He hasn’t. He said he’ll come in late today.”

Her disappointment went undetected. “Did he say what time he’ll be in?”

Her head shot up, “Yes, ten.”

Again, her enthusiasm was overlooked. Tom held up his wrist and muttered in confidence to his watch, then he beamed at his staff once more, “Thank you, Jane. I’m going to get some coffee, what do you need?”

“Black with sugar, please.” Jane returned with newfound confidence.

“Black with sugar it is!” And he stormed off with a hype uncommon to him.

***

As soon as Hugh stepped through the glass door, a bear attacked him – or so he thought. He was crushed against a hard, mattress-like surface so he couldn’t even catch a glimpse of the bear. He didn’t have time to worry about the fact that he would never know how he died as thick steel arms circled him by his shoulders and his face flattened like a piece of dough. Next thing he knew, he was lifted like a child receiving an aeroplane spin by his parent, then squashed like an orange for that last drop of juice.

Miraculously, Jane’s voice pierced through the bear’s body. “You’re choking him! Goodness!”

Miracles seem to happen twice, for as soon as he heard Jane, he caught a familiar woody scent off the bear. His heart froze: a bear in Giorgio Armani perfume? Reality whacked his brain and he eagerly pushed away from the suspicious mattress-like surface. He prayed desperately that he had guessed wrong.

Of course, God always tells the truth and nothing but the truth. As soon as he saw Tom and his excruciatingly handsome grin, he wanted to find the deepest hole to hide. He quickly turned from him in the best effort to hide the truth.

But, nothing escapes Tom’s eagle eyes. Hugh felt his huge hand on his shoulder and got goosebumps. His rich deep voice made it worse. “Bro, you okay? Your face is red, man.” Tom’s hand now on his forehead. “Are you sick?”

Hugh froze again. His eyes rolled up to glance at the hand on his forehead, then they widened with shock. He shook off the hand, then backed away as if scalded by it and shook his head. “No, I’m okay. Just…”

“Shocked? Of course, you’d be shocked!” Jane jammed in like a mother hen almost spreading her wings. She turned to Tom, hands on her hips, “Seriously Tom, you need to control yourself. Look at our dear Hugh – he’s so red now! Poor dear.” Her hand reached out slightly only to retreat again when Hugh shifted away.

Tom held the back of his head and sheepishly said, “Sorry bro.” He clasped both hands together in prayer and his head dropped behind them. “I really need to talk to you, please!”

Hugh inhaled sharply and looked away. “It’s okay. I’ll – I”ll settle down for a bit, then I’ll go to your room.” His reflection showed a bright fuming tomato wearing a grey mop of hair – it was not good.

At his suggestion, Tom lifted his head and stretched his grin one ear to the other. He boomed, “Sure, sure!” Then, he grabbed his bro’s shoulders, ignoring the lack of fat in his frame, and cried. “I’ll go to your room in ten!” He turned and shoved Hugh into the office.

***

Hugh sat in silence throughout Tom’s retelling of his proposal to Priscilla. He kept reminding himself to relax his facial muscles so his blush would stay away. This morning was really a code red. If not for Jane, he would have a hard time explaining his blush.

Six-thirty and he left the office quietly, letting only Jane know that he’s leaving for the day. He couldn’t spend another minute with Tom; he would be completely drained. Damn his fair skin and his stupid blush. Lucky for him, Tom left for three meetings after their talk, returning very much later in the day – Hugh had a lot of time to work things out before his next face to face with Tom.

When he reached home at seven, he headed straight to his bedroom in the dark and plonked himself on the bed. He turned to lie on his back, stretched out an arm and observe his hand in the faint light reflected from the moon.

He has never despised his fair skin until this morning. He had been kind all this while, he wondered its betrayal – of all the times it had to go red, why this morning. A dry laugh escaped from his throat and he turned to lay on one side, facing the door.

His mother loves everything about him. He thought she preferred a girl but she insisted that it wasn’t. Though she once commented that with red lipstick, black tresses and a white gown, he’d be Snow White. Hugh never had black hair ever since. Red comes naturally to him so he reckoned there’s nothing he can do about it except avoiding red clothes and accessories.

Priscilla cried when she thought Hugh was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. It was the first time his mother brought him along to visit her best friend, Priscilla’s mother. Best friends since high school, both women often visited each other’s homes, even after marriage. Mostly, they exchanged tips. Occasionally they shared juicy gossips and embarrassing laughs. When Priscilla’s family moved to a unit below Hugh’s, such visits increased. When his mother brought him along the first time, Hugh was five and Priscilla was four. Priscilla had glanced at him, took his wrist and pulled him into her room for a tea party with a group of Barbie dolls. Hugh didn’t understand the social etiquette of the situation so he played along. He didn’t want to hurt anyone especially his mother. He grew more puzzled when she repeatedly asked about his shorts and taught him to wear skirts. But, new to the circumstances he stayed quiet. When she finally learned the truth, her shrieks nearly burst Hugh’s eardrums and shook her infant brother. Hugh smiled at the memory of little Priscilla crying the girl’s anthem that they should only play with girls, then rubbing her swollen moist eyes while taking his hand, promising that she would be his friend forever even though she has a boy’s body.

His arm started to ache and Hugh turned again to lay on the other side. Priscilla understood his every blush. Hence, she was the second person to guess his secret – his mother was the first. But, Priscilla didn’t know about Tom and Hugh didn’t mention Tom with Priscilla, so he is still safe. Both can never know. Never.

Tom has always been fascinated by Hugh’s fairness. In their early acquaintance, Tom often marvelled at Hugh’s complexion, calling it ‘porcelain skin’, which drove Hugh into redness and amazed Tom even more. As they become more familiar, his blushes become a guide for Tom’s consideration. Soon Hugh found himself looking forward to seeing Tom every day. They do everything together and almost seemed inseparable – until he saw something new forming in Tom’s eyes when they first laid on Priscilla.

Ding Dong!

Hugh blinked at the window.

DING DONG!!

He blinked again and stirred. One hand on the sheets, he lifted his chest and twisted towards the door. Looks like a lot of work to walk over and open it. Ah – heck it then. He dropped back onto the sheets, laid a wrist on his forehead and shut his eyes.

DING DONG!!! DING DONG!!!

The person doesn’t seem to get the hint.

DING DONG !!! DING DONG !!! DING DONG!!!

The person is growing impatient. His wrist moved away as his eyes opened. There can only be one person at his door this time, ringing the bell like an idiot. He smiled – the first relaxed one since last night.

Scrambling unwillingly to his feet, he strolled towards the door with a smirk, which turned into a knowing smile in response to the incessant ring. As he turned the cold knob, planning various ways to strangle the disruptive intruder, the heavy wooden door pulled back to reveal a bottle of red wine.

Hugh’s brows knitted for a while until an unmistakable voice came abruptly from behind the bottle, “A drink?” Hugh smiled again and leaned against the doorframe with folded arms, one leg across the other.

The bottle lifted like stage curtains and revealed the handsome face of Hugh’s neighbour for twenty-seven years – the son of his mother’s best friend, Priscilla’s brother.

“Hmm?” The sickeningly cheerful uninvited guest gave a knowing smile and raised his brows to increase the temptation of his idea.

Hmmm what?” Hugh feigned ignorance.

Undefeated, the manboy continued the smile and started swaying the bottle slowly in a luring way while flicking his brows repeatedly like a man in woo of a hot babe.

Finally, with a chuckle, Hugh shook his head and said, “Stop that, you idiot.” And moved back to let him in.

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