By Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong
Charlene shone in that white knitted dress. A warm smile glowed on her flawless face, her nose a little ruddy from the autumn chill. Wearing light brown gloves, she held up little Stacy's hands, their red windbreaker-cocooned toddler who, while not yet able to walk properly, showed much potential in the way she was shimmying and jiggling to the background music. Keith stood behind them, his hand on Charlene's shoulders. To the side of the picture, a jazz trio was playing some tune he couldn't recall but he remembered recognising the song when it was played then. The trumpet player's foot was suspended in the air. He must have had been tapping the ground with it as he played along. To all appearances, the picture spoke of everything the moment stood for. Yet, at the same time the picture emptied out everything that should be in it. The rose-scented smell in the air (or was it lavender?), the crisp chill on the skin (a pleasant change from the humidity) and the cheerful music wafting into the ears. Not least, the woman whom he had loved so much − the kiss he gave her on the lips, then bringing their daughter to their faces, playfully rubbing noses together, the toddler chuckling from the touch − just before they handed their camera to a passing tourist to capture the moment that now rested on Keith's bedside table.
Next, they had pressed on, driving along the windy roads hugging the southern ocean toward the Twelve Apostles that everyone came to see. Standing in the windswept place, the ochre-coloured rocks rising in the mist, she attempted to count the marvels that moved the world.
"I don't see all the 12 rocks," Charlene said, her sweet voice struggling to rise above the strong winds.
"There are more over the other side, my dear!" Keith pointed across from where they stood on the long boardwalk full of camera-toting tourists like themselves.
Then at that spot where more pictures were taken (now kept in the albums he carefully stored in his library), the waters were bluer than any blue they had ever seen before, the crimson rocks looked more ethereal than earthly brown, the waves frothed with might.
"One thing is for sure. The ocean swells will move the rocks one day," he said.
"Little else is cast in stone," she replied, as if she had a premonition.
After the Twelve Apostles, they drove on a little more to Loch Ard Gorge. They admired the picturesque beauty of the coastal cliff broken by the ocean swells, and at the same time, they detested the harshness of the landscape. They stood at that shipwreck spot in awe of the stories of those who had endured a long sea journey, only to end their lives there.
On the way back to Lorne where they were staying overnight, both Keith and Charlene were silent, deep in their own thoughts. Strapped down to the car backseat, little Stacy was fast asleep. The road was treacherous with many twists and turns. Keith wondered if a little girl had been roped in to draw up the Great Ocean Road. The light was fast fading out.
Occasionally, a strong wind tore through the road. He wondered where the wind had come from and where it was heading next with such destructive force, breaking and throwing down branches from roadside trees onto the asphalt. The Toyota Yaris shuddered sideways as Keith tried to keep it on the road. But Mother Nature was not the one that took away what was most precious to him. The oncoming car was too fast for him to react in any manner. The turn was a deadly one, a black spot, he was later told. He had seen the 'High Risk Accident Zone' signs warning motorists to exercise caution. Why did the other driver not exercise extreme caution? Why was he not able to respond in time to save Charlene?
Weeks after the funeral, Keith wondered about the last thoughts on Charlene's mind as they drove away from Loch Ard Gorge. Was she thinking of the souls who had perished in the shipwreck? Or against all odds, of the survivors who had leapt the insurmountable heartlessness of nature to live on? No matter how silly in hindsight, Keith liked to believe that if they had started a conversation and not sat there in the silence as the car twisted and turned down the Great Ocean Road, there was the greater possibility that what had happened would not have. Charlene would still be alive.
"Keith Chia! Pull yourself together. For yourself, for your girl," his sister scolded over the phone. Stacy could be heard crying in the background.
"Is she alright?" Keith asked.
"Stacy is fine, she's crying as she is getting her first tooth," his sister replied. "But I think you should come soon to bring her home. She needs you."
"I will. Soon," Keith said.
Life without Charlene back in Singapore was surreal. Keith was grateful that his sister had volunteered to care for Stacy until he could get back on his feet again. He was so unsure if he could ever cope on his own with his daughter, despite being hands-on with Stacy since she was born. Charlene was always proud of him for being there for the little one − changing her diapers, sterilising the milk bottles, singing the baby to sleep with lullabies he learnt. He could continue to do these things for Stacy, but how could these actions make up for the missing presence of a mother?
Learning to live without Charlene was difficult enough. When Charlene was alive, she did most of everything. Keith hardly ventured into the supermarket. She would take care of the groceries. He would eat whatever that was put on the table. Charlene was a good cook. She made the most memorable tiramisu. She was as deft at putting together a thoughtful lobster roll for Keith to start his day in the office, as she could easily put together a soul-inspiring tom yam soup to spice up his appetite after a day at work.
Two months after her death, Keith made the first solo trip out from his home in Bedok. He drove to the nearby Cold Storage where Charlene used to frequent. Where would she have started, the fruits or the meat section? For a moment, Keith regretted that not once in their three-year marriage had he accompanied Charlene on grocery shopping. Finding himself in front of the shelf with all the teas − Twinnings, Gryphon, Lipton, Dilmah and many others − he wondered why things weren't alphabetically arranged. Charlene would have had an answer to his silly question, he thought.
Eventually, Keith returned to his apartment with a bag of groceries that he believed were things Charlene would have picked up. But he did not put away his purchases into the fridge or the cabinet shelf. Heading straight into the bedroom, Keith stared blankly at the king-sized bed. Then his eyes rested on the picture of Charlene in her wedding gown that hung on the wall above the bed. Shot in monochrome (as they both wanted it this way), Charlene sparkled in the picture. Her warm smile beckoned. He sought to reach out to her, raising his hand toward her. The bed was in the way. Keith felt exhausted.
A moment later, Keith walked to the wardrobe. He had kept all of Charlene's things as they were. Pulling out Charlene's blue night slip, Keith felt the lightness of the cloth in his hands. At that point, it was as if Charlene were within his reach. Undressing himself, he then slipped the nightie over his head, letting it fall to his knees. That night was his first restful, uninterrupted sleep in months.
Colin Berg looked across his desk at Keith Chia and queried, "So you want to go part-time?"
"Yes," said Keith, "I need more time out to settle things."
As Keith's immediate boss, Colin had been expecting this request for some time. He too had faced the tragedy of a partner's death and was aware that the demands of financial analysis did not allow one to cope with grief. Colin replied, "Of course. Let me talk with Human Resources."
When his partner died, Colin had uprooted himself from Sweden to Singapore. The long winters, depressingly subdued skies, the spires shrouded in the grey fog (especially when he took in the sweeping view from his house) carried weight that he could no longer bear. The lights of Stockholm and everything else that came with what was his home had become distant and cold. The depression that drove Karl to suicide could just have easily happened to him if he had stayed on. He could not understand why Karl (a year his junior in the same boys' boarding school where they first met, then lost contact, until when they worked in the same company years later on) could so easily have given up his life when he had Colin with him.
The move to Singapore wasn't easy either. From the harsh cold, he was thrown into the tropical heat that seemed like a constant furnace on his skin. But the exoticness of fresh surroundings, the warmth of the people, his new colleagues, all kept him from fleeing. And the contradictory attitudes of Singaporeans fascinated him.
During his first year at the financial firm, colleagues were quick to spot that he and Keith could be an 'item' for the company's annual dinner and dance. Not much older than Keith himself, Colin was a head taller than Keith. Colin carried confidently with him a well-toned physique, unlike Keith who had a delicate build. Colin had a deep set of eyes, narrowed and hooded. Unlike Colin's, Keith's eyes gave a light touch of youthfulness that held a certain attraction in men and women alike. Because of this contrast, colleagues insisted that they dress up and do a waltz at the event. Gamely, they took on the roles − Colin in a black-tie tuxedo, Keith in an evening gown – and danced to much applause.
Yet in Singapore, some children storybooks in a public library were nearly pulped because they were deemed to contain objectionable material and some religious authorities called on people to don white against the Pink Dot Movement that had arisen to support the LGBT community. Although things seemed to be changing, some things were still too much a taboo to display openly. Colin wondered how Karl would take to the place if he were still alive. Too straight, too strict. He could imagine Karl grieving the loss of his rights to be who he really was on the island.
"What do you make of these issues," he asked Keith one evening when they went for a drink after a day of countless meetings.
"Mountains out of molehills," Keith replied. "Now, the library has been given a new meaning, a place where books are pulped, not read. Thank god for the protests against the pulping. And people should remember pink is as valid a colour as white."
Colin appreciated that Keith had never once asked him about his sexual orientation. Was this lack of curiosity part of the typical Asian discreetness? Still, he had hoped that Keith could ask him about it. But Keith never did. Needlessly, some things did not have to be articulated.
A year after Charlene's death, Colin finally appeared at Keith's home one evening. Since Keith went part-time, Colin had only seen Keith for half the time they would usually see each other in the office. Gone were those shared moments of working intensely into the nights before the major global financial markets opened half way across the world and the regular business trips they would make together to catch the constant changing market sentiments on the ground.
"My wife's complaining," Keith blurted out one evening as he sipped his sake. "I'm spending far too much time in the office and travels with you than with her at home."
"But you like being here with me, don't you?" Colin replied firmly as they watched the melting pot of neo-lights from where they were seated at a riverside pub; Osaka's famous Glico Man – its classic masculinity – beaming at them across the bustling Dotonbori.
Keith did not respond then.
Both knew those shared moments working overtime in the office or on their extended trips had become more than just work routine. The adrenaline of their fast-paced work and the exchange of views with someone similar to his thinking on how the world is shifting under their feet were intellectually gratifying for Keith. There was just something that Keith could not quite place his finger on that he found attractive in Colin.
On that evening when Colin turned up, they both sat and chatted about how life had brought them to a fork, what directions it would take, that it might all no longer matter as long as it was lived, meaningfully and deeply with affection. Much like the nights they had spent working overtime in the office, it was a conversation that brought them deep into the night.
Since that evening, Colin became a constant presence in Keith's home. After work, he would drop by, cooked a little, took little Stacy out for walks and talked deep into the night with Keith. Sometimes, they would just sit in the living room after little Stacy was asleep, drank the silence, not hurried to fill the void with words.
Keith had come to a realisation that the absence of silence would not have averted Charlene's death. It was meant to be.
They had both recognised the futility to fill conversations that lapsed into silence with meaningless words or questions just to keep up with the momentum. Why were some people so afraid of silence? Why would they feel awkward about the silence and in the process they would rather make themselves ask something or say a word to which they were obviously uninterested in asking or saying in the first place?
Colin and Keith were not such people.
Keith cut a delicate presence with the cashmere sweater and brown corduroy pants that he had on. The earnest smile on his stubbly longish face wasn't perfect but it was genuine. His nose was ruddy from the autumn chill. He held up Stacy's hands; the girl, cocooned in a blue windbreaker, cheekily shimmied and jiggled to a soulful tune. Colin's hand was on Keith's shoulders. At the side of the picture, a couple was playing Bach's 'Air on the G String' with their violins. The bow of the female player was suspended in the air. She must have lifted her bow for a touch before it met the strings. To all appearances the picture spoke of everything the moment stood for. Yet, at the same time the picture emptied out everything that should be in it –A glimmer of knowing, of understanding that drew them together, of forgiveness that the personal losses are not their faults. Not least, the man who had stood by, with a depth of feeling for him − the kiss he gave him on the lips, then bringing the little girl to their faces, playfully rubbing noses together, the little girl chuckling from the touch − just before they handed their camera to a passing tourist to capture this picture-perfect moment.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016