With a scowl on her face, Henri’s teacher told me what had happened. ‘Your son is only thirteen, Madam. This is serious.’

‘I apologize on his behalf. I’ll have a talk with him.’

She sighed, seemingly dissatisfied. ‘A student’s education isn’t the sole responsibility of the school. The family also needs to take an active role.’

Is she trying to say I failed in educating my son?

‘Henri is still young. He needs plenty of guidance,’ she continued.

I mustered a smile. ‘I understand.’

‘Well then, thank you for coming.’

I bowed at her, and left. Henri was standing near the door, head hung low.

‘Let’s go,’ I said.

He nodded. We left the school and walked to the main road. The entire time, Henri was quiet.

‘Are you going to say something?’ I finally asked.

He looked at me. I was hoping that he would say, ‘Thank you for coming, Mum. And sorry for the trouble.’ But instead, he said, ‘You’re not wearing any make-up.’

I laughed. ‘I was sleeping when your teacher called, so I just grabbed a coat and left.’

He didn’t laugh. He wasn’t amused. The distance between us seemed to be widening. As Henri grew older, I’d more difficulty understanding him.

‘Let’s sit somewhere,’ I said. ‘We can’t go back yet. They’re fogging the apartment.’

Henri nodded. We walked to a nearby bench and sat. Neither of us said a word, and I ended up staring at the house across.

Two-storey building with a perfectly manicured garden, the house fashioned a white picket fence. How I wished we could live in such a place, instead of our dingy rented apartment. But what to do, I couldn’t afford better.

Soon, I heard piano sounds from the house. I’d no idea what the song was, but the melody was elegant, intimate and charming. I could tell that the pianist
was skilled.

Over here, the success of a woman is measured by her children. How are their grades? Are they active in clubs? Do they learn foreign languages and arts?

In that sense, I was a failure.

I turned to Henri and asked, ‘Do you ever wish to learn the piano?’

‘No.’ He shrugged. ‘Why?’

‘Just curious.’

‘Because you wanted to learn?’

He took me by surprise. How could he know? I’ve buried that dream ages ago

‘Mum, I’m sorry your life sucks because you gave birth to me.’

I forced a laugh. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You don’t have to pretend to be strong all the time.’

I felt overwhelmed by emotion. I wanted to cry, but I knew I shouldn’t. If I did, I would shatter the façade I’d been putting up for years.

Thrusting my hand into my pocket, I retrieved a box of Winston. I took out a cigarette and lit it up.

‘You bought that?’ Henri’s eyes widened.

‘A client left it as tip,’ I said, offering it to him. ‘Want to try?’

He took it and brought the cigarette to his lips. Narrowing his eyes, he slowly blew the smoke.

Unlike me, Henri’s eyes were deep blue. Like the ocean. They always reminded me of my hometown. Heaven knows if I’ll ever see it again.

I always imagined Henri’s father to be a lanky blonde guy with blue eyes. I’d a wide enough pool of blue-eyed clients to indulge in that fantasy. He could
be any of them.

‘Aren’t you angry that I smoked?’ Henri asked.

‘Well, I smoke too, but try not to do it at school. Or at least, don’t get caught again.’

‘I know,’ he said, sneering.

‘What kind of mother lets her teenage son smoke?’

He laughed. ‘The cool ones.’

And I laughed too.

‘But even if you say don’t smoke, you know I’d still do it. Just like you’re still working in that shop.’

I felt a lump on my throat.

‘But you know, Mum, it doesn’t make you any less than other moms.’ He returned the cigarette. ‘And you look better without make-up.’

I took the cigarette from him.

Strange, I didn’t remember his hand was that big. There was an indention in his middle finger, a result of his odd way of writing. I looked at his
fingernails. They were perfectly trimmed. Even now, I still check his nails when he’s asleep, and clip them at least once a week.

My son wasn’t a top student. He only participated in a soccer club and didn’t go to any enrichment courses. But he had tidy fingernails. And maybe, that
too, counts as success.

The smoke continued to rise from the cigarette. I closed my eyes and felt the warm afternoon.

Perhaps success isn’t black and white, but comes in many shades. And mine was somewhere in that spectrum. Not very obvious, but still there.