In Just Thirty Minutes by Jemimah Wei
Time is of the essence in Jemimah Wei’s flash fiction piece, “In Just Thirty Minutes.” The story opens with the narrator, June, visiting her terminally ill father during the height of the pandemic in Singapore and explores how the constraint of time presses against their previously estranged relationship with one another. Wei embraces the Scheherazade model of storytelling (see her author’s note)—the father’s last wish is for June to transcribe his stories, yet never quite complete them before their daily thirty-minute visitation time expires. Both understand his unwillingness to finish telling a story is a futile attempt to trick Death; yet their conversations, although constrained, breathe new life into their relationship, a whispered second chance.
Each fragment of “In Just Thirty Minutes” is numbered according to relational time. Wei says in her accompanying author’s note, “The piece can be read either in the order I’ve presented it, or in ascending numerical order—both options will cohere narratively.” While you read and enjoy both narrative versions, see how the father’s story about the mud crab works metaphorically throughout the piece. And don’t miss the author’s note for an extended discussion on how Wei approaches time and the pandemic in her work. —CRAFT
7. And They Lived Happily Ever After
Every day, her father begins with the end.
He draws out their meetings like he is Scheherazade, and Death the king. It’s so transparent, but June simply holds her iPhone out. Recording. In the evenings, after she’s left his hospital ward and fought with the authorities over the phone, June transcribes and copyedits the stories, dates them, and backs everything up into multiple folders on separate cloud storage systems.
He clears his throat and begins again.
Once upon a time…
It’s been like this for a week.
There was a little mud crab who harboured big dreams. It resided in the mangroves of Pulau Ubin, under the window of a girl who lived by the shore. Each morning, it listened to her reciting texts aloud for school. From her, it learnt of Scylla and Charybdis, Homer’s female sea monsters, and the little mud crab believed that it, too, could be terrible.
Traditionally, the fishermen of Pulau Ubin made a living by trapping and exporting mud crabs to the rich Chinese folk in Singapore, where they’d be fried alive as a rare delicacy…
June cannot help herself.
And the little mud crab saw this, and schemed…
If there’s anything you want to say to me, please say it now.
I already told you—
The tracker beeps.
Wait, what happened to the mud crab?
See what happens when you interrupt me?
June is thirty-two and her father can still make her feel inadequate, with a couple of well-placed words. It was this feeling she’d always fled from, that now draws her close to his bedside. Ignoring the ache in her ankle, June rests her cheek slowly against his chest. He raises a hand and drops it on her head, his thumb stroking her ear.
Her phone starts ringing, too.
See you tomorrow, he says, quite cheerfully.
3. Revocable Permissions
At first, June can’t comprehend his request. Her father repeats himself, and she frowns.
We only have this much time, and you want—
You to make sure my life dream is fulfilled. What’s so hard to understand about that?
Since when was it your life’s dream to publish a book of stories?
Since forever; you’d know if you’d stuck around.
Sorry, he whispers.
The tracker is about to beep.
Thanks to the pandemic, only a certain number of people are allowed in the building at any one time. The unique ankle tracker each visitor receives upon touchdown in Singapore, she’s told, keeps her safe. Keeps them all safe. That the marriage of strict regulation and technology makes these visitations possible at all is a gift, June knows, but still. A kind of electronically induced rheumatism flares in her ankle, a premonitive second of dread—
If the tracker doesn’t register her leaving the building in two minutes, June’s phone will ring. A warning.
They both ignore it for a precious moment. Then he says, gently, I’m tired. You should go.
See you tomorrow.
See you tomorrow.
5. Simple Arithmetic
If you subtract the four hours June spends sleeping, the half-hour visitation allowance, the twenty-minute cab ride to and from the hospital, the nightly Zoom session with her daughters, Frances and Avery, back in Taiwan, and the three hours being put on hold at different call centres, minimum, that leaves about sixteen hours. With this time, June tries to wrangle answers and concessions out of anyone who will listen. What June wants to know is, what kind of arbitrary number thirty minutes is (it’s protocol, ma’am); who came up with it (information redacted); who has the authority to extend it (no one); if they think she flew all the way to Singapore for a holiday (respectfully, ma’am, these rules apply to all incoming visitors); do they understand it doesn’t matter that there’s a pandemic, do they understand there are holes opening up in her father’s stomach every day, do they understand he is dying.
They do, they all do. Still, her situation is not unique. She has their condolences.
Stop it with your stupid book.
It’s a gift from Grandpa.
How dare you.
Why the fuck should I listen to Grandpa when you bloody didn’t—that’s right, I heard you and Mum talking, you drove him to his grave—
Frances is fourteen. When June slaps her across the face, Avery watches, learning.
The story of the mud crab ends with it saving the little girl’s life. It involves a secret cave, a typhoon, and a promise of peaceful coexistence between crab and man thereafter. The happy ending is so unrealistic that it’s all June can do not to weep.
14. Take It from the Top
Once upon a time, there lived a stubborn little girl named after the sweetness of summer…
Heartbroken by the loss of his wife to childbirth, the father swore to protect his daughter always…
June starts crying.
But his love blinded them both—
If there’s anything you want to say, please just say it now. Tell me straight.
Her father falls silent.
No, he says quietly. I’m not ready to go.
June teeters. Why this story today?
He smiles, confused. I don’t know.
Okay, I’ll bite. How does this story end?
He looks pleased that she’s playing the game.
I’ll tell you tomorrow.
The tracker beeps.
See you tomorrow, he calls.
June is sixteen when her father opens the door to find her pretzeled up with Natalie from next door. Natalie isn’t the first and certainly won’t be her last, but it is Natalie who definitively changes things for June, the one for whom her relationship with her father will splinter. The barbs planted then will bloom when June moves to Taiwan, marries, and adopts the girls, drawing blood again, again, and again.
15. When the Phone Rings First:
305. What If / If Only
Many years later, June still worries the first and last days over in her mind. But what families are free of tribulation? How else could this story have gone?
JEMIMAH WEI is a writer and host based in Singapore and New York. She was recently named a 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellow at Columbia University, and is a Francine Ringold Award for New Writers honouree. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, received support from Singapore’s National Arts Council, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Smokelong Quarterly, and AAWW’s The Margins, amongst others. Presently a columnist for No Contact Magazine, she is at work on a novel and several television projects. Say hi at @jemmawei on socials.
Featured image by Jeremy Kwok courtesy of Unsplash