Space, Time and Chicken Rice
By Kane Wheatley-Holder
I first met Christina on Sept 12th 2015 at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It was the same day my father died of heart failure. It was a long, drawn out ordeal for my family. I was glad it had come to an unceremonious end. His last words were, "Tomorrow I'll..." before his eyes closed his eyelids stopped halfway, like a rusty gate and he wheezed his final breath. My family stayed in my father's ward, in silence, contemplating his torn-off words. After the moment had passed, I roamed around and found another lobby far away. I sat among a row of stiff plastic seats and sipped a can of Milo. That's when I saw her.
She sat opposite me, between an old Chinese lady with an eye patch and a Malay man with a cast on his arm. She gobbled down spoonfuls of chicken rice from a takeaway tub. She acted as if it was her first meal in weeks.
"I recommend the chicken rice in the canteen," she said after a while. I looked up. A sticky grain of rice clung to her lower lip like a derelict ship. "I don't usually like hospital food, but this is good. I can't put my finger on why, though."
My mind was still reeling, lost in a torrent of thought. I refused to cry. This area was too public. I would wait until I went home and was in bed. Our eyes met.
She was probably no older than me 15 or 16 with short-cropped hair, a round pale face and lips that barely existed. She was tall and slightly gangly. She wore a dress with a duplicating pink orchid on it. Of course, I didn't know it was an orchid then. It was just a flower.
"Maybe it's the chilli," I replied after eight seconds.
"Cannot be. I think it's the rice. Maybe they steam it in a special way. The chicken meat is tender and moist, too. Damn nice."
"I wouldn't know. I don't cook."
"I try to. When I can," she said and finally looked at me. "Family here?" I looked back to my empty, crushed Milo can for an answer.
"Yea," I said softly.
"What are you here for?"
"My mother's diabetic. She fell down the stairs. She doesn't eat right."
"She's okay lah. She does it sometimes."
I remember numerous topics came up after that. We talked some more about what she was studying in polytechnic, why she loved chicken rice, and her fascination with flowers. She went to great lengths to explain it to me. Her favourites were Vanda Miss Joaqium (Singapore's national flower), Paphlopedilum Kobold's Doll (an orchid that looked like it had a bulbous pink tongue), and Cherry Blossoms at dawn. Time did not stand still. It moved at a brisk pace, all around me, making me feel like this was the right thing to do at this particular moment. I hadn't felt that in a while.
I asked her why. She stopped, as if she had forgotten what she had rehearsed. "I just think we could appreciate a flower a little more."
I agreed with her.
We started to go out a few months later. I don't know why we stayed friends for so long. Maybe it's because I lacked the experience. I hate bars and clubs. Introducing myself to a girl on the MRT is certain impossibility. I don't make small talk. My friends call me a 'stiff'. I agree.
Christina and I, on the other hand, didn't do traditional datey things. There were no fancy dinners or theme parks, nor where there any grand displays of affections with roses and written cards. Flowers were her thing. We went to Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay a lot.
"I've already signed on to the Air Force, so after I finish my Aerospace degree, I'm going to see where it takes me."
"Sounds like you," she smiled. "Aiyo, planes are all you talk about."
"No, I like that. Wait, here comes my favourite part."
We were watching a park performance of a Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach on the grass, along with about 50 other people. The air was thick and stuffy, but neither of us complained.
"I think I'm headed into medicine. I've always wanted to find a cure for diabetes."
"Researchers might be able to do it from what I've read. They've just discovered a hidden biological process within our cells that aids the healing process. If scientists can isolate it, or tap into it somehow, people could heal from injuries and diseases much faster. Damn cool."
"Jonathan Lim, that's the sexiest thing anyone has ever said to me."
"Sorry," I grinned.
"You really are bo liao sometimes."
"I can't help it."
She laughed and turned back to the play. I watched her for a few more moments. My smile lagged behind the rest of my thoughts. That's me in a nutshell really; I lag.
On stage, a giant peach levitated across tall metallic blocks that simulated New York City. We watched it for a while, remarking on the fact that we couldn't see any strings.
That was when I took her hand in mine. A wormhole of dread descended in my gut. I felt the pores in my palms open up, allowing a fresh batch of sweat to ooze out. I have sweaty palms. Irking her out would be a disaster. Who wants to hold onto someone who has wet hands?
"Come to my place tomorrow," she said without looking at me. "I want to make you something."
"Make me something? Like what?"
"Chicken rice. I think I've perfected the recipe."
"Ah the mystery continues," I chuffed. "You know, some things are meant to remain a mystery."
"Not this. I've been everywhere Marina Square, Katong, Jurong, Clementi, Orchard, hospitals, Poly's and eaten plates of it. I still can't get the taste just right."
"Experimentation is key."
"So tomorrow, for lunch. My mum will be around, but you can ignore her. She's always watching Korean drama in her room."
"Tomorrow it is then. Twelve?"
We watched the rest of the performance then took the MRT back to her place. I held her hand all the way there, but didn't dare risk anything else. I wanted to.
When we reached her stop, she turned to me, smiled, said "Goodbye" and was lost in a Nile of crisscrossing people. I should have kissed her. We were going out after all. How can you be girlfriend and boyfriend and never kiss?
I met her at 11.56am the next day. It was a Saturday. I made sure to dress up, wearing my favourite checked shirt, folded at the sleeves, and white loafers. I agreed to meet her at the lift lobby. A few of residents watched television at the voice deck, while others cheered a pair of men playing Chinese Chess. An old Indian man with a steel walking stick was approaching some sort of winning streak.
"I've done it!" she yelled from the lift as it creaked opened. She was wearing a knee length sapphire dress, with her hair tied back in a ponytail. I scratched my nose for some reason.
"You've done what?"
"I've perfected chicken rice."
"Perfection is a strong word."
"I'll show you. Come on."
We took the lift to the fourth floor. As we neared her house, I saw that she had decorated the outside of her corridor with numerous potted plants: cactus, spotted orchids, reeds and tall grasses on a throne of ceramic panels. She watered a small blue flower that had a tag on the pot. Its name was Chris.
Her house was a small, two-room flat. She only lived with her mother, so it was more than adequate. I wanted to greet her mother, as is customary, but she was so quick, ushering me to a clothed table in the kitchen, before pouncing on me with her creation.
"Here it is."
She passed me a plate with a symmetrical plate of chicken rice. There were two saucers of soy sauce and garlic chili next to it. The smell wormed its way through my nostrils, making my stomach muscles unhinge.
"Go on then. Try it."
"What about you? Is your mother around?"
"Try first, try first."
I took a spoonful of rice, with a little soy sauce mixed with chili, and topped it off with a thin chicken breast slice.
I can't say I am a foody type of person. I don't go out much, so I only really appreciate the culinary simplicity of a $2.20 nasi lemak in my local hawker centre. This was different. The chicken was tender, with a hint of salt that accentuated the slightly raw meat inside. The rice was fluffy and light. It was like nothing I had ever tasted before. I savoured it. Every mouthful.
"It's really delicious. You could sell it."
"You think so," she said, biting her lip and teetering on the balls of her feet. "I didn't overdo the rice? I steamed it overnight in some herbs and a dash of coconut milk."
"No, no, it's great."
She knelt down, cupped my face in between her hands and kissed me. I was still chewing. A tidal wave of blood flushed through my brain, tickling the space between my eyes. I watched her as she twirled on the spot, her dress looking like a blue carousel. That was when her mother came in.
"What's all this?" I stood up. Christina's mother stood behind me, arms folded.
"Ma, this is Jonathan. The guy I've been telling you about," Christina said. I smiled and nodded.
"Auntie. I've heard a lot about you."
"You have, ah? I hope all good."
Christina's mother was more like me. She stood straight, maybe too straight, and had a severe lack of expression on her face. She did not have the gift of free-spiritedness that could be glimpsed swimming beneath Christina's eyes. She probably got that from her father. I smiled nonetheless. Sombre Korean words, from her bedroom, filled the silence.
"Christina tells me that you like planes."
"I've always wanted to be a pilot ever since I was young. I hope to go to enter the Air Force during my National Service. Pays well." I don't know why I said it pays well. Maybe I wanted to show her I was a potential breadwinner. Christina's mother nodded twice.
"True. Especially with all these wars."
Christina changed. She was no longer the carefree person I had known. I could see her body quiver, as if she was folding in on herself before me. She regressed into someone else entirely.
"Let's not talk about that," she said and turned to the sink.
"There's an enemy out there and we need to protect ourselves," Christina's Ma said. "I'm glad Jonathan sees that. It happens la. Join us or be destroyed isn't that what they say?" I nodded my head and smiled. Christina was cut from her father.
"Well, that's why I want to help."
"Good. I've got things to do."
"Okay auntie. Nice meeting you."
She walked back to her room, shut the door and locked it with a heavy bolt. Christina looked at me, her eyebrows creasing into a forbidding line.
"She believes anything her friends share with her."
"My mother does that too. They overreact like crazy."
"It was really good? The chicken rice."
"Perfect," I said.
That was the first and last time I visited her home. She didn't offer to take me back.
It must have been a four years into our relationship. I was already two years into my National Service, training as an Air force pilot. The pay was good, and we did anything we wanted. Most of the time, we enjoyed lazing around in my bed and watching old movies. She loved Disney. I loved science fiction epics. It was the perfect mix.
One night, I had to stay in camp. She had called me the previous day and said she wanted to take me to dinner. I was stuck in camp and had to book out at midnight. There was no way I could have made it.
I was already halfway home, trekking along the sidewalk to my house. I knew something was up. She usually doesn't take that long to reply. I thought I would give it some time. I'd call her when I got back. She called me whilst I was waiting for the traffic light, five minutes from home.
"I need you," she said. Her words were cracked, barely audible, hardly there at all.
"Are you ok? You're crying."
"Please come. Now." Her breathing came in big, rasping gulps. For a moment I thought she was choking.
"Don't worry. I'll be there right away."
She hung up. I flagged the next taxi and took it. It was dark and there were hardly any vehicles on the street. When I got there, I rushed up to her house and found that the door was already unlocked.
She sat on the floor in front of the television, legs curled up to her chest, staring into the shadows. I fell to her in the darkness. The corridor's amber light washed over us, speckling light motes in the air.
"I'm terrible," she said, each word punctuated with a heavy wheeze. Her eyes were puffy and sore. I brushed two sweat soaked strands of hair away from her face. She didn't look at me.
"No, no you're not."
"I know," I said. I did know. I hadn't thought.
"I'm a terrible girlfriend."
"No you are not."
"You came all the way here."
"Why wouldn't I?"
Her breathing gradually calmed. Her eyes settled on a dark corner in the living room, and she focused on it, completely, until she was ready. After she seemed better, I helped her up, turned on the light and gave her another hug. I was still in my Air Force uniform.
"I have clothes."
"Not to worry. I'll stay."
We talked only after she showered, and we were back in her room. I didn't resent her for her anxiety attacks. She felt things that others didn't. She felt too much. I felt guilty for not feeling the same way.
As I lay with her, stretched out on a mattress near her bed, I thought about how I had no real friends, or family members that I was close to. I really was a stiff, someone who would never be dashing, or exciting, or funny, or brave, or dangerous or anything other than a stiff. But her flowers, chicken rice and fears made my foibles bearable. It made me better.
I remember thinking, just before sleep took me away, that people should listen to the voices in her heads more often.
Christina and I married when I was 25 and she was 26. The wedding was humble but dazzling in my memory, infused with all the soft orchids Christina had wanted. Not soon after, I began training to pilot the FX-601 Grey Fox, a new military helicopter. Christina was promoted to a supervising nurse position in NUH. We got a flat a year later, as I was studying for my Masters. In all those years, there was something that never faltered: Christina's love for chicken rice.
She would say, "Your chicken rice is in the fridge." She'd text, e-mail, online message and video call. She would make a different chicken rice incarnation every week. On some days it was Indian Chicken rice with various colourful herbs, spices and a curry sauce as the base. On other days it was Italian style, with meatballs and spaghetti on the side (not her best).
Her imagination for new mutations seemed limitless. My taste buds were not. I dared not tell her, after coming home from my numerous flight exercises, that chicken rice didn't excite me like it used to. I just ate it whatever she cooked for me. She was my wife after all.
Over time I realised the act of me eating seemed to heal her. Whatever we were going through, whatever things were grating at our minds, the food pushed it all away. Her anxiety attacks ceased. We didn't need to go out to fancy restaurants or bars. We were enough.
We kept to ourselves as a couple. I despised the act of meeting new people. Christina was different. She could shift and mould to any situation, making friends in an instant if she wanted to. I admired that about her. I hid in a shell of silence whenever I was in a large group. I'd like to say I grew out of my shell when I was with her, but that isn't true; I think she learnt to stay with me.
We only went out to visit orchid exhibitions at Gardens by the Bay, or the newest flower arrangements at Botanic Gardens. She lit up whenever she saw a new, colourful species.
"Aren't they simply perfect?" she said, her eyes capturing a lustre I saw nowhere else. She caressed their petals like they were precious jewels. They were just flowers to me. I had flight protocols and G-force training to worry about.
"You don't see it?"
"It's just that one looks like the other one."
"But they are not. Don't you see? Even though they look the same, there are, if you look closely, tiny differentiations. Like every one of us," she stopped, surprised. "Wow that was deep."
I peered into a large glass casing in front of me, at flowers rendered in mottled spots of grey, silver and blue. Some orchids looked like the rasping fingers of wild creatures, whilst others had sinuous chambers and tunnels that promised more hidden colours inside. To me, it was just biology.
When we were at a Kopitiam an hour later, she asked me how my training was going. I said it was fine, no problem whatsoever. She knew I was lying.
"It's tough. That's all. Nothing to worry about."
"Be careful. They might ask you to do things."
I knew what she was talking about. It was sprawled all over the headlines; uprisings and military coups; terrorism and cultural purgings; death tolls and executions. We had often talked about those headlines in other parts of the world, how they were about humans, but lacking humanity.
"My Commander says I'm doing well."
"That's because you have me."
I laughed. "You?"
"My chicken rice. It's good luck."
"Your chicken rice makes me a better pilot?"
That night we made love. I remembered why I married her. As she lay in my arms, the sheets washed with an inky stillness, I prayed. I'm not a religious man, but I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought about my father, and what he would have thought of Christina. I thought about my mother, reunited with him now, and wondered if she was sad for never having grandchildren. I even thought of Christina's mother, and why, even at our wedding, she didn't see a reason to show up. After I finished my prayer, a smooth calm drifted over me.
That night I dreamt of a block of flats consumed by glorious epiphytes, plants that joined every household in thin veins of green.
I was called into General Ishmail's office a few months after I received my Major rank. I was the youngest Major in the unit, after several humanitarian tours in Southern Africa, Afghanistan and operations across ASEAN regions. I was also the only married Officer with no children in the unit. General Ishmail greeted me at the door with a glowing smile.
"Take a seat. It's good to see you."
"And you too, Sir. We did well for the parade this year."
"Very well. A spectacular show. My wife loved it."
"Difficult manoeuvres to pull off. The team did great."
"They did indeed. Teh?"
I watched as the Gen Ishmail, a man I've met numerous times during my Air Force days, make a cup of tea for me. His chunky fingers looked almost dainty as he mixed the condensed milk into the cup. I waited.
"You might be wondering why I called you."
"Yes sir. Colonel Chen said I could take the day off to come here."
"Nice of him."
He finished making the teh, gave it to me, and settled in his leather chair. His eyes focused on a thick black folder in front of me.
"As we already know, there's been a lot a talk about security in the region. I don't need to tell you the specifics. You've read the emails and articles, attended the briefings and studied the Intel. We're a small nation that needs to look ahead. We need to source out problems before they creep up and bite us on the backside," he smiled.
He stopped and I nodded. He sipped his coffee mug with the words 'National Day Parade 2020' on it.
"Natural resources used to be the perennial problem. Not anymore. There seems to be a new enemy rearing its ugly head every month. If it isn't in the Middle East, they are in Europe, if it's not them, it's the instability of Asia. Thankfully, we have been relatively unscathed. We can deal with most countries in Asia. We now have to think about staying ahead."
I sipped my tea and nodded. This wasn't my first operation with a catered introduction. My experience with a variety of fighter planes and piloted drones was invaluable in sustaining order in conflicted regions. But this was different. His voice had an undercurrent of incredulousness to it.
"We have a special operation for you. An operation that will ensure stability for a very long time," he said. "We just need a pilot."
"A pilot, sir?" I smiled. "A pilot for what?"
"Well it's not really a pilot at all. Wrong word," he said and laughed. "An astronaut. We need an astronaut."
I was sworn to secrecy. For a year I underwent a multitude of physical and mental tests to ascertain my ability to pilot the experimental shuttle. Due to the unprecedented nature of the trip, I had to start over. I studied under a Japanese and European scientist to study everything I could about Astronautics: orbital mechanics, space medicine, aerospace engineering, space engineering, as well as elements of astrophysics. There was even a class on relativity. I told Christina everything. She listened everyday like it was riveting bedtime story.
I came home one night after a particularly gruelling day. I was training under an American astronaut that had recently retired, along with various other Russians. For two months I had failed an emergency evacuation test, a drill that could save everyone on board if one of the fuel compartments blew. But on this day, I passed. I passed them all eventually. Christina had a theory.
"My chicken rice."
"Well I did eat yesterday for lunch. I think it was digested by the time the test came around."
"Yep it worked."
We lay in bed, looking up at the lights on the ceiling. A shimmering network of stars, emitted from a small bulb of glass, washed across the room every few minutes. I was glad we bought it.
"After you go up, what do you have to do?"
"Establish a satellite link. We haven't got anything up there yet. Once we know it works, we can ship up the real thing."
"Will you be safe?"
"As safe as I can be. Don't worry."
"How can I not? It's space."
"I'll see you as soon as I come back. Two days."
"I'll miss you."
"You'll have to eat those disgusting ration packs."
"I like them."
"But it's not like my food."
"No, it's not."
"I'll make you something. Something to put in your astronauto-super-star-trek-ship fridge"
"All right," I said and held her.
The day was Monday Nov 11th, 2032. The night before, Christina made chicken rice for dinner. We made love that night on the couch. As she slept I traced my fingers across her arms, through her long hair, in the grooves and shadows that told me she was alive. I listened to her sleep until the sun rose. When I was ready, I said goodbye to her at the gate.
"Put some of my cooking in the fridge okay? Warm it up. It won't go bad will it? In space, I mean."
"I don't think so."
"I won't. It's the first thing I'll do."
I held her for a few moments. There was no way I could bring outside food onto the shuttle. She knew that. When I pulled away, she smiled, bright and full, reminding me of the statistical perfection of an empty Milo can. We kissed until her smell clung to my lips.
When I got to the lift she had already closed the door and locked it. The drive there was nothing special. Cars honked across highways, people crossed the road and some drank teh si. It was Singapore.
When I got to the base, I met up with three Generals, five unnamed individuals in suits, three Russian and the one American astronaut I was travelling with. His name was Ralph. He had a family with five children. It was probably harder for him.
We got changed into our suits in silence. My silver suit was form fitting and metallic, meshed together at the shoulder blades with various heat resistant plates. Every breath, heartbeat and brain wave pattern was recorded through that suit. For some reason, it gave me little reassurance.
"Ready champ?" he said, nudging my helmet.
"As I will ever be. No pressure."
"There's always pressure. It's just how you deal with it."
We walked through the base's hanger until we reached the miniaturized shuttle. Around me a thousand different sounds melded into a steady din. I looked up and saw a rectangular window with a shaded plane of glass. I knew who was watching. None of this would be captured on the surface. None of this even existed.
I took my seat inside and waited with the other astronauts. I thought about nothing in particular, until Christina came to me, from a shroud of words and protocol.
"What are you smiling about?" Ralph asked, as we secured ourselves in and readied the launching procedures. The ship's computer consoles were already lighting up like a swarm of metallic fireflies.
"Space, time and chicken rice," I said with a corny grin.
They all laughed. I think it was the first time they had done that with me. I never crack jokes with people.
The shuttle launched as planned. Nobody knew. Nobody saw it. Nobody reported anything. When the charging roar of the shuttle calmed, we drifted up and past the upper atmosphere into space. I looked outside.
The sun's ray scattered across the atmosphere, endless and powerful, like a thousand tiny prisms bathed in gold. The clouds were pure and stainless, content in their space. I tried to process it all the beauty, the colour, the wonder, the idea of me in this moment. We were only a few feet from the atmosphere, but this new perspective consumed me. Christina would have loved it. It was a pity I couldn't take pictures with my phone.
The shuttle roared.
My ears popped. My head jerked. My helmet rammed into the ship's headrest.
Thrum, Thrum, Thrum.
A cold liquid trickled down my ear and across the back of my neck.
"Mission control, do you copy? Something has hit"
The walls moaned like a dying beast. The ship's warning systems blared, consoles sparked, glass shattered. I turned to the computer's schematics, but found only a panel of buttons immersed in flames. I lifted the visor of my helmet just as three globules of blood, a perfect triangle, drifted past my eyes.
What felt like a blade cleaved into my head, sending me tumbling away, away, further than I have ever known.
Ralph screamed. The others shouted for help, adjusted their communication equipment, mumbled to their Gods. I turned to the vacuum-sealed glass.
Outside a pastiche of shimmering colours, strands of celestial web, caught hold of the ship. The crackling of the ship was consumed by a shriek between my eyes.
The darkness seized me without a fight.
I remember seeing my father, standing by his wheelchair, tapping a rolled up newspaper in his hand.
I remember seeing a cup of Teh Peng, resting in the hands of a faceless man.
I remember seeing a Vanda Miss Joaqim with rosey-voilet petals. In its fiery orange centre, resting on its spotted lip, the Universe swam in a droplet of water.
I felt the tingle of blood pulsing through my veins. I opened my eyes. My vision unfolded, like I was far away, unconnected to my senses. It took me a while to process the light streaming into my eyes. Faces birthed from sheets of white before me.
The sounds of monitoring systems came first. A heartbeat monitor, electronic voices, the squeaky wheels of chairs...
I looked down and saw my left arm and legs were in casts, the rest of me dressed in an operation gown. I felt no pain. A metronomic thrum ticked back and forth between my temples.
"Major Lim? Can you hear us? Blink twice if you can."
It took weeks for my injuries to heal. A team of doctors saw to my every whim. I didn't ask any questions. They all seemed Singaporean: an Indian surgeon, a Chinese doctor, and a Eurasian neurologist. I picked out the way they spoke, the things they said, the way they said them. My recovery was paramount to them.
After two months and five days, I was up and about. This was not normal. Medicine had advanced, but this was something else. I felt nothing. No shock, no twinges of pain from fractured bones, no streaks of discomfort from ruptured organs. No one said it was a miracle. The lag in my head disappeared.
"He'll see you now."
I walked into an oval shaped room. It was large and comfortable, with frames of awards, military hardware and pictures from magazines adorning the stark black walls. I recognised none of it. A huge mahogany desk stood before me, and in a chair, a man in a uniform I did not recognise.
I studied him. A badge on his right sleeve said: SINGAPORE. His eye brows looked like hooked commas, his forehead stained with wrinkles.
"Major Lim. Jonathan. It's incredible to see you."
I stared at his name badge.
"I'm sorry. I'm Admiral Theodore Liang. Singapore Air Force."
"Your uniform is different."
"Yes, yes it is. We changed it."
"Would you like something to drink?"
He turned to a small table beside him. On it was a machine I did not recognise. There were paper cups. Teh. I wanted some Teh.
"No thank you."
"Very good," the Admiral took a deep breath.
I watched him. His fingers jittered on the edge of his seat, tracing the lines of the stitching inside.
"We wanted to debrief you sooner, but your health was important to us. We needed to know that your body could take it. You've made an amazing recovery."
"What happened to the shuttle?" I said.
The Admiral nodded. He came forward in his chair and looked at an open file on his desk. He took a moment to compose himself.
"Your shuttle reached the upper atmosphere as planned. Your objective was to secure a communication's link we could use for military surveillance. You remember your fellow astronauts?"
"Raphael Long, Veronika Edita Zakharovna, Sobakov David Svyatoslavovich--"
"Yes. There were five of you," he waited a while. "I'm sorry. They didn't survive."
The possibility had crossed my mind the last couple of days. So had the possibility that the enemy had captured me. Perhaps I was a prisoner of war right now. I allowed my face to return to its stoic exterior. It was easy.
"We monitored you from the mission control and had you up there for a full 11 minutes. Then you went off the map."
"We don't know."
"Then where did you find me?"
"In the South China Sea."
"In the shuttle's landing pod?"
"It's the only thing that survived."
"I need to talk to the people in charge of the operation."
"Jonathan I don't know how to say this..."
"Stop calling me Jonathan."
"Major Lim," he cusped his head in his hands and breathed. He stayed still for several moments. "Time has passed." He looked at the file on his desk, turned back to me, as if it was futile to read from it. "The year is 2136. One hundred and four years have passed. We don't know how or why."
His calm facade crumbled. His voice trembled into an incoherent void. "We just don't know how this happened."
I didn't take his word for it. I'm trained not to. They showed me records, video and military reports detailing the incident. Thirty people visited me. I didn't ask about Christina until the day I realised it was true.
Singapore was no longer the home I knew. The roads were now thin stainless steel tracks. Buildings were reinforced chasms of glass. The whole island was encased in an unsullied bubble. The sky was pale bronze, as if viewed through a rheumy patina.
They assured me that no news would break. I would be alone. I requested to take the first manned car out of the base and into the heart of Woodlands.
A young man in a dark suit introduced himself as Nigel. He was tasked to accompany me, and was silent for the entire journey. As we drove, he performed a ballet of either looking at notes on an electronic tablet, or fastidiously readjusting his suit.
The details of where I lived were sketchy in my mind. I remembered the lift lobby, the smoky smell of the staircases, the occasional yip from our neighbour's dog. When we arrived, Nigel assured me that we were at the right place from his records. My old home.
It was a building, but it was nothing like my flat. Gone were the grilled windows, long corridors and gated doors. There was no signs or signboards to identify the flat number. It was now a mammoth chute of silver, like a sleek pack of cigarettes.
I made my way up to the eighth story, where our unit was, and found that I could go no further. Each house needed to be buzzed. I peered out of the lift's windows and saw a small rotating camera at the top of each door.
"We told you that. Your block had been torn down and rebuilt twice," Nigel said. He noted something down on his tablet. "We knew that it might take some time. This has never happened before. A certain degree of post-traumatic stress is understandable."
"Where is she?"
I followed Nigel back down into the car. He closed the door, locked it and returned to the tablet on his lap. He didn't say anything for the rest of the journey.
I passed a few sights I recognised along the way: tall blocks, with roofs that resembled reinforced domes; various gated mosques; pyramid-shaped churches; and a MRT track that was hardly there at all. I saw crowds of people along the streets, some talking, some reading electronic tablets, some dressed in outfits that looked similar to what I used to wear.
We stopped at a car park 30 minutes later. I got out and found that the air was cool, fresh, nothing like the humidity I used to know. A girder displayed a sign above us.
Nigel informed me that Christina was granted a digital gravestone after I had disappeared. Gravestones now were no longer allowed. I didn't ask why.
Her burial site was a steel pod buried partially underground. On the dried, dusty soil were small electronic cones that flashed orange every minute. There was no need for stones or coffins or urns anymore. Everything was electronic. Even in death.
Nigel told me to press the button on the cone when I was ready. He then walked back the way he came and waited for me at the entrance.
I pressed the button.
She appeared before me in a veil of light, flickering, as if the machine hadn't fully warmed up yet. Her face was drawn in sketchy strands, before converging and blooming into a formed face. The background was an open field at Botanic gardens. I had taken the picture. Below her face, details were shown.
As I watched her flicker, a storm of voices churned in my mind. Her glistening eyes, her thin lips, her cropped hair. She wore a dress with daffodils and buttercups. A few pixels were damaged. Five black blocks bored into her right shoulder.
I found that I was shaking. I forced myself to stop. My stomach clenched, until I could taste the vile acridity of my bile shooting up in my mouth. I vomited as far away from her as I could. When I got back to the car, Nigel turned to me. His face was a mask of stone.
"We have one last stop."
"Your wife contacted us with specific instructions. You needed to come to terms with this first."
We arrived at the restaurant not soon after. It was called JASONS. A glowing neon sign at the front displayed a grinning Chinese man eating a plate of noodles. Nigel said we were in Clementi, an estate area that was rarely visited anymore.
The inside was an enormous banquet hall, holding at least 20 tables. A red altar, burning incense at the corner of the lobby, gave the air a musky character. In the background, a crackling radio played a Mandarin ballad that tickled my memory.
The owner, a tall man in a black and white uniform, met us at the lobby.
"Hello Mr Chiang. Good to see you."
"And you. You got my call?" Nigel said.
"Yes, we have it ready."
I followed them inside and took a seat at a large circular table. I looked around. Nobody was here to eat. The only thing that moved was the random flicker of a fluorescent light several tables down.
"Why did you take me here?"
Nigel ignored me. He positioned his tablet in front of his eyes and took a picture of me. I rubbed my eyes from the flash. Then he went right back to reading some notes. I got the message. I watched the staff count stock and clean tables until he was ready.
"I think it was in the year 2034, early January," he began. The tablet was on and he was reading from it, taking moments to meet my eye. "There were many technological advancements. New discoveries opened doors in the areas of medicine, neurology, transport, eco-friendly fuels and electronics. The food and beverage business was understandably next. As disease and bouts of famine struck numerous Asian countries across the world, a Singaporean businesswoman called Mrs Carey Ong, took it upon her to think how food shortages might impact Singapore. She was responsible for the development of numerous clean water technologies and had an invested interested in food research."
He waited for a few minutes. A waiter eventually came back with a tray.
"She soon got backing for a patented technology known as Freezol. Essentially, it was a chemical agent with the ability to flash freeze organic matter at a molecular level. It eradicated the development of mold and the need to refrigerate food. We were granted the unique ability to store food indefinitely, while other countries suffered."
The waiter served Nigel a plate of nasi lemak with ikan bilis. I knew that dish anywhere. For me, the waiter lowered several.
It was a plate of chicken rice, along with a small container of soy sauce and chili.
I peered into it. The steam twisted and furled, as if I was watching a spirit made of silk. The smell washed my senses clean. For the first time in weeks my stomach ached.
"Over the next couple of years, people began to use Freezol to store and keep food. Some employed large companies to do it for them, you know, just in case we were ravaged by an unexpected war. The rich used it mostly. The war never happened. Fifty years later, a lot of the foods were either forgotten or sold away. Today only a handful of old restaurants, like this one, use the forgotten stock to create a more authentic culinary experience," he stopped, pointing to his food. "Your wife was a frequent visitor here. She arranged this with our help."
Nigel turned to the waiter and smiled.
"And one kopi, siew dai. Jonathan?"
It took me a while.
"Very good sir."
The waiter left. I turned back to my chicken rice. The fork felt like granite in my hand.
"Makan," Nigel said, nodding towards my plate. He began eating.
I lowered the fork and took a lump of rice and chicken. I dabbed it in the soy sauce, allowing some of the chili to trickle down over the side. Steam still rose from it, thick and full and strong.
I tasted it. The rice, the meat, the sauce I had tasted it before, some time, some place, when it used to mean something. I took my time to chew. The tastes slowly pieced together, like clouds after the rain.
I savoured the meal, bite by bite. It made me feel like this was the right thing to do, at this precise second. My eyes burned, but no tears came. The delicate trembling of my fingers stopped. My soul was torn apart and reborn in chicken rice with a hint of coconut.
"How is it?" Nigel asked me.
"Good," I finally said.
I touched my chin; a grain of rice was stuck there. I licked it up.
When I was done, I thanked the waiter and Nigel. There were many questions he wanted to ask me. What would I do now? How would I adjust? Would I even do anything at all? I told him I wanted to go to Gardens by the Bay. That is, if it was still there.
"Oh yes. It hasn't changed much. May I ask why?"
"I'd like to see some flowers," I said.
"Flowers?" Nigel said quizzically, and turned back to his tablet with a crooked smile. "I don't see a problem with that."
As he drove, I looked out of the car window, at buildings that pierced the sky like iron spears, at cars that made no sound, at a sky that held no clouds, and thought, without any doubt, that I would stay with the orchids for the rest of the day. I had time.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014