There are no more fish in the sea

A short story for the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2018.

Jolin Kwok
12 min readApr 25, 2019
“Although it is often used in tsunami literature, there is no reason to suspect that Hokusai intended it to be interpreted in that way. The waves in this work are sometimes mistakenly referred to as tsunami (津波), but they are more accurately called okinami (沖波), great off-shore waves.” | Source: Wikipedia

Uncle Chin has a boisterous laugh. The kind that you do not take seriously because he does not anyway. His eyes are beady and small, yet round and soft, like an old dog — an aged hound — weary from living yet wanting of love. You kind of feel for him no matter how sleazy he might act.

Which is why I keep staring at the hovering coconut in the ombre sky as I catch him studying the creases of my white bikini top from the corner of my eye.

“Wow, you have a beautiful body,” he remarks.

I blink and blush, sinking into the emerald green, suddenly wishing that I am wearing something less revealing.

“Oh,” my head bobs as I sputter. “Thank you.”

Uncle Chin sits on a small log, his elbow propped against an elevated large cement slab, next to the pool. Decked in a thin white singlet and Bermuda shorts, his tanned face reflects a ruddy mixture of red and orange as he faces the setting sun.

“Do you swim a lot?”

“Not really.”

“Well, swimming is good,” he says, his beady eyes lined scarlet as he lifts a can of Calsberg at me. “And you picked the best spot.”

I smile and turn around to watch. The precipice of the pool hangs at 250 metres above sea level, like a cliff overlooking the glorious green borders of Seremban. The sun floats above the hills, shading the skies with thick layers of lavender, peach and tangerine. A flock of birds swipe past in black unison, from coconut trees to coconut trees. A silver of pale yellow curves unevenly through the horizon, framing a picturesque evening one comes to expect from a hillside theatre. Fiery orange turns to dusky red, and darkness begins to swallow.

“Dear!” Auntie Chin’s shrill voice slices through the lazy evening as footsteps
crunch across the pebbled walkway. I turn around again to see Uncle Chin landing his hollow can on the cement with a loud clunk.

Even in the looming darkness, Auntie Chin cuts a svelte contrast to Uncle Chin’s portly figure. Her long-sleeved cotton top, knee-length chino shorts, and PVC gardening gloves are nothing short of pragmatic although her greatest accessory betrays her homebody façade: painted in the palest of beige, her straw hat is wide brimmed and rimmed with a satin ribbon in the most tasteful shade of black.

This is no Martha Stewart. This is Audrey Hepburn on a botanical break.

“Aiyah,” she exclaims, one hand on hip. “I need rice! We don’t have rice! Please go and get — ”

“Okay, okay,” Uncle Chin groans, pulling himself off the stool. His voice carries
the grunt of a lazy guard dog, unlike the clipped sing-song octaves of his wife. In fact, it took me by surprise when I realised that this elderly couple run the whole place by themselves, and that the reservations lady is actually 57 — not 27 — years old.

“Hi, Auntie.”

“Oh, hi, Jane, I didn’t see you there.”

But there’s no one else in the pool.

I stare at her and her aquiline features stare back from the sticky fringe of her short black bob.

She must have done some opera when she was younger, I think.

“We’ll have dinner in an hour, okay?” she continues, her eyes not quite as soft as the setting rays. “Don’t stay too long in the water or your skin will get wrinkled.”


Auntie Chin proves herself to be an outstanding cook. Or she hires well. My eyes widen, studying the small but size-able feast on the long table by the main house entrance: there are thin and crispy Pie Tee pastry tarts, some succulent-looking pongteh chicken sensuously draped in thick gravy with soft chunks of potatoes, a plate of steaming luscious green morning glory leaves, and a few other traditional Peranakan small plates.

“We don’t usually provide dinner for our guests, but it’s your last night, so I thought it would be nice for you to eat with us,” Auntie Chin smiles kindly.

Without her straw hat, her wavy chin-length hair looks thick and unruly. I look at Uncle Chin on the other side of the table. His balding head gleams brightly beneath the hanging white bulb above us. I half-wonder if he might attract moths should he go trekking beneath the moonlight.

“Oh, thank you so much, Auntie,” I enthuse. “You really don’t have to — ”

“Nonsenss!” Uncle Chin says heartily, slurring slightly. “Your our guess. And
pretty girl like you musn eat alone — ”

“Come, come! Eat, eat!” Auntie Chin says, a little sharply. “I hope you like Nyonya food — ”

“I love Nyonya food — ”

“Good,” Auntie Chin grins. “Then you must eat some more… it’s your last night!”

“Haha, yes.”

We devour the dishes in revered silence, before Auntie Chin exclaims
apologetically, “I’m sorry there’s no fish. We used to make this special acar fish… but, too bad, the best fish was from the ocean — ”

“Aiyah,” Uncle Chin waves his chopsticks about. “You tink she care, meh? Is
already so long since we have no fish — ”

“One year is not a very long time, okay — ”

“Auntie, where did you get the recipe from?” I say loudly, making a show of
scooping up more pongteh chicken from the serving bowl.

“Oh, I learnt from my father,” Auntie Chin smiles. “My mother, she cannot cook, wan; but my father — amazing!” She curves her fingers to show ‘OK’.

“See?” Uncle Chin quips. “Sometimes you need a man to make things better — ”

“Haiya, what do you know? All you do is eat and drink!”

We all laugh. Meditative silence resumes, but not long enough for me to finish my food.

“How’s your stay so far?”

She has been asking me the same question since three days ago.

“It’s comfortable,” I repeat. “I like the hammock.”

“Yes, I helped adjust it for her — ”

“Yeah?” Auntie Chin’s voice rises an octave as she starts to pile more chicken onto my plate. “So… how’s the writing going?”

“Oh, it’s going.” I wish there is more rice for the amount of gravy flooding my

“Your boyfriend must miss you a lot.”

“Oh… no,” I chuckle nervously. “No boyfriend.”

Auntie Chin studies me for a moment as we eat in silence.

“It’s okay, Jane!” Uncle Chin cries. “Got plenty of fish in the sea — ow!”

He winces as he rubs his right rib. “What’d you hit me for?”

“You idiot!” Auntie Chin slaps him on his arm. “There is no more fish already, lah! The only fish left are the ones you haven’t sold to that stupid Najis down the street — haiya, thank God! All our ong would’ve been gone if you’d sold our koi fish!”

I cannot help but grin at the quibbling old couple.


I think I am pregnant. With rich, decadent, savoury good food from the good hosts of Cloud9 Retreat. The bed, and the chilly night air which hints at the foreboding storm are godsent right now, but in the name of digestion, I sit cross-legged with my laptop at the patio, with Popcorn Time playing The Big Bang Theory on Episode I-Don’t-Remember.

Right now, I just want to watch people who are comfortable with being socially awkward. Right now, I just want to forget the asshole who broke my heart.


I jump and turn around.

“Oh, sorry, I scare you,” Uncle Chin says, sorry-not-sorry.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I smile reassuringly.

“Ya, um, the storm is coming, so I come and help you close the shutters.”

He waddles towards all exposed corners of the patio to unhinge the ropes which bind the rustic rattan blinds, letting them roll downwards before locking them into place by hooking them onto the metal loops on the wooden floor. Not before placing a bottle of Shiraz on the kitchenette counter.

I take a closer look. Penfolds Max’s Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon. 2012. I widen my eyes.

“Oh,” Uncle Chin mutters, looking at me now. Beneath the moth infested lightbulb above us, his cheeks still look ruddy and his head looks shiny. “I juss wan to apologise about juss now. Sometimes I say silly things when I drink.”

“It’s okay, Uncle. Thanks for helping with the shutters.”

He says nothing. His eyes search mine, with the air of a lost child, and I wish he would look away. I gesture at the wine bottle.

“Good wine,” I say.

He walks closer, towards the table between us. “You drink wine?”

“Oh, not really. Just sometimes.”

“Come, come. You muss try dis! Bryan brought it back from Australia. Penfolds is a good brand, you know?”

I stand up immediately, uncertain whether to let my host serve me a drink I did not ask for, or to stop another woman’s husband from drinking with me, alone. The man may be older than my father, but I cannot help but feel he may see me as more than a daughter.

Before I can say anything more, Uncle Chin is already popping the cork and pouring us a glass each.

“Uh, thank you, Uncle,” I say, holding onto the long glass stem.

“No need to thank me,” he says, clinking my glass and taking a seat adjacent to
mine. “Thank you for coming! And thank Bryan!” He takes a large sip.

I savour the drink deliberately, hoping for the downpour to drown out our
conversation. I also wonder who Bryan is.


“Hmm?” I murmur from my glass.

“Did you come here to forget a boy?” His eyes are fixed upon me.

My lips still. It may appear as if I cannot get enough of my drink. I decide to man up and hold his leering gaze, and for a moment his presence feels like it is pressing the air out of me.

Thank goodness for my windbreaker and pyjama pants.

Eventually, I say with a small smile, “your place is beautiful enough to forget
anyone back home.”

Uncle Chin looks like he is starting to melt, and then his smile lifts and drops almost at once. “That’s good,” he says sheepishly, gulping his wine.

The storm roars on, and we both say nothing for a while. By the end of his second glass, I am still finishing my first, and Uncle Chin asks me what I am writing about.

“Oh.” It is my turn to be sheepish. I tapped at my keyboard mindlessly, shrinking my Internet browser for no apparent reason. Uncle Chin is still slouching against his chair at a safe distance with his third glass in hand, facing my laptop cover, his eyes hovering between my eyes and my lips. “It’s just some project I’m working on.”


“Yes, but I can do that later,” I smile quickly, taking a swig this time. “So, how long have you been running this place for?” I look about into the howling darkness between the flailing blinds.

“Oh,” Uncle Chin says, breaking out of his stupor. He adjusts his posture, setting his glass down. “Did you know that my son built this place?”


“Yes, Bryan. He’s an architect. He designed all our buildings here… the chalets.”

“Wow, he’s very good. You must be proud of him.”

“Yes,” he said poignantly. “He’s very good. Helped to built this place from scratch. 15 years now.”

“So you live here then, with Auntie?”

“Yes,” he blinks and clears his throat. “Most of the week. Then we drive down to the town.”

“To the shops?”

“Yes, to do some shopping… run errands… go to church…”

I notice a small silver cross hanging off his neck. He catches my eye, and I look at my glass.

“We’re Catholic.”


There is a brief silence, filled by the distinctive buzz and white noise of the cicadas and miscellaneous symphonies of the night. Thankfully, just as quickly as it came, the heavy rain eases into a quiet drizzle, pattering palpably against the tin roofs above us. The buzz of the beautiful, supple red I just finished now envelopes my senses; I feel gravity’s pull, and the damp freshness of the night beckons me to the warm sheets in the room next to me.

“I tink I’ll call eet a nite,” I smile with heated cheeks.

“Ah.” Uncle Chin gathers the glasses, and puts them in the sink nearby. He picks up the wine bottle, and turns to look at me with his red, beady eyes. Steam seems to emanate from his skin in the cold night air. Right then, I wonder if he might have looked at me differently if he could still taste fresh fish.

“Tanks for de wine,” I quickly say.

“Oh, dun mention it.”

We look at each other.

“You like hammocks, right?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say, “dat’s why I ask for dis room.”

“And stargazing?”

“Yea,” I say, thinking I must have mentioned it in passing.

Uncle Chin chuckles. “Well, it’s quite windy here, so if you’re lucky, you might get clear skies in about an hour or so.”


“Yes, yes,” he says, looking pleased. “Come to the pool by the main house in an
hour, and I’ll show you the other room where you can have a better view of the stars.”


It could have been the wine, or the lull of sweet night air, moist and fresh from the rain. Or the fact that this might be the only time I can stargaze on a hilltop in a jungle, snug inside a cosy cotton hammock, no less. I find myself staring at the late evening sky, stretched wide in hues of indigo and black, with a hint of industrial noise far in the horizon below. Countless specks of celestial white and blue gleam brightly from above: some muted in the background, some flaunting boldly upfront. Ethereal gems of nature.

I’m so lucky, I think. You don’t see this in Kuala Lumpur.

Uncle Chin stands near the hammock. We are two doors away from my chalet, away from his home, alone once more.

Together, we look at the sky. Seconds pass into minutes into what feels like hours.

Moments before darkness blankets completely, I might have heard “yes, I’m fine” and “sleep well”; I might also have felt a really warm, woolly cloth covering my body and wet lips pressing into my forehead and a coarse hand caressing my hair.

It must be the wine.


I stir from my sleep feeling sore, with the strangest feeling like there were eyes
hovering over me. I blink and stretch, swaying slightly in the hammock, smiling softly at the cool, misty morning. The balcony I find myself on overlooks the rainforest valley like a green amphitheatre that is surrounded by bamboo groves. At 250 metres above sea level, I may have the best view of the jungle.

Yet, like the annoying leech, what happened last night is stuck in my mind, draining my face of blood as I recollect with bemusement.

Food. Wine. Stars. Kiss — Shit, ew, gross!

What the fuck do I do now?

I lay still in the hammock for a long time, staring at the sky until the sun starts to burn my forehead.

I get up, feeling blank with just one recurring wordless question floating in my

Do I tell her?

I let the ominous inquiry stew in my mind. Maybe a good stroll around the resort might clear my head. Maybe last night did not happen after all, and it is just some perverse call for attention. Maybe the unnecessary quiet of the house and the stern look on Auntie Chin’s face as she arranges that flower bouquet on the table where we had dinner last night are all a figment of my —

“Good morning, Jane.”

I almost jump out of my skin. I have walked right into the dragon lady’s lair.

“Good morning, A-auntie Chin.”

“Did you catch a cold or something?”

Shit, she’s sharp.

“Oh, no, Uncle Chin was very nice to, um…”



“Oh, I mean, luckily he showed me before how to, uh, unroll the shutters for the storm.”

“That’s good.”


I see that she is rearranging the same flowers over and over again.

She pauses and catches my stare.

I smile and look away quickly.

Seconds tick loudly from a cuckoo clock nearby, and as I look at it, I notice a hanging sculpture of Jesus beside it with a framed picture beneath: a sepia photograph of a young couple perched on a large window of a wooden chalet. The balcony they are facing looks an awful lot like the one I found myself on this morning. Except that it is decorated with plenty of jasmine flowers and banana leaves, and they are smiling tenderly at each other as they hold a hand-painted sign which reads ‘TILL DEATH DO US PART’.

“Do you like butterflies?” Auntie Chin asks.

“Yes,” I say, noticing a monarch or some other, milking the stigma of a hibiscus
near her bouquet.

“Did you know that male butterflies die after about six to eight weeks after

“Oh… no.”

“Yes,” she continues nonchalantly. “But that’s after using up all their sperm mating with a lot of other females. She could be the one, and he’d still do it.”


“And the female will die after she lays all her eggs. Hundreds of them.”


I shift my weight uneasily, and start to pull at a tendril of a random plant before me.

“Funny, isn’t it? But that’s life.”

She looks at me with a half-smile, poised as ever, smiling at me as much as she is at herself.


Also known as Phoenix Li,
Jolin Kwok is a Chinese Malaysian scribe by profession and a storyteller by vocation.
Her storytelling style is experimental, egalitarian and viscerally evocative at best, and
is not limited to poetry or prose or creative non-fiction.

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kindly “clap” up to 50 times — or more — on each of her Medium posts (so more people can read this), and please
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Jolin Kwok

"There's beauty in everything, and art in some." Malaysian scribe for hire. More