By Phan Ming Yen
On the night his car crashed, Father was on his way to visit his mistress.
I am certain that when the villagers pulled him out from beneath the wreck, my father was still alive. You can read about it in the newspapers. He died in hospital, in the early hours of the morning after. That's what the coroner's report said.
I can tell you – just as I was told later – that for some time after, the villagers avoided walking on the side of the road where his car overturned. They also tried to wash away the skid marks. The black curved stripes remained there until the road was re-tarred and widened.
I can also tell you – just as I was told much later – for many nights after that, joss sticks, sometimes accompanied by a pair of candles and paper offerings, were seen at the accident site.
But I cannot say that when Father's car skidded as he swerved to avoid something he saw on the road, he was on his way to visit a girl he was in love with.
Upon his return alone to Singapore from England where he had just spent his home-leave with his family, Father must have left the house immediately to visit his mistress.
He arrived at his Singapore house, our house, at around 5pm. He was very happy. He showered. That's what our amah told the journalists. You can read about it in the newspapers. Then he went out for dinner.
You probably want to know what everyone thinks: That my father was secretly relieved his son had to return to England to start his schooling and that his wife would be accompanying his son.
One time I asked Mother about Amah. This was when I was old enough to understand. She just replied that Amah was a bad person who talked too much. She never spoke about Amah again. You can work the sequence of events out for yourself. The accident occurred close to midnight. That's in the papers.
I was in my bedroom on that day. I imagined myself as a mountain range, sitting on the floor encircled by the tracks of the toy train set my father had bought me. Then I saw my mother at the door. She stood for some time before she entered. She knelt beside me and said my father had gone to a place where he can better look after us. She said it was a very special place and this would mean that he would have to spend all his time there. I remember asking if it would be like how he sometimes went out in the nights to help sick people get well. She nodded and said except this time, he would be with the sick always.
But I cannot tell you that Father desired the girl he was in love with so much that he could not wait.
There was a village down the road from where we lived and the locals would come up to our house in the evenings.
They would stand in line outside the gate and wait for my father to come back from the clinic. I was very young then and the first memory I have of the queue was that of fear. I was playing in the garden when I saw one local standing at the gate. He was tall and old and dark. His eyes looked as if he was about to cry. Then I saw another one like him behind him, and then another. I thought they were going to come into the house. I ran to Amah and Mother who were in the kitchen and told them that we were being attacked by monsters. But they just laughed.
Then I heard the sound of the gate creaking and Father's car coming up to the porch. They had followed the car into our garden.
Till today, I always have a memory of father sitting out in the garden, talking with them, holding their children in his arms, giving them things from the leather bag which he took to and fro from home each day and making them laugh.
I cannot remember now how often this happened. I always start my memories from that day when I first saw them and then felt fear and then anger at why father was spending time with them before spending time with me and Mother.
Mother told me every day after the accident never to forget that father gave free medical treatment to the locals.
You would not know all this because the newspaper reports never spoke about what Father did for the people.
No one can imagine what enters the memory of a child who has lost a parent. I remember the voices. Fragments of conversations that had somehow slipped out from the hall and found their way through to the top of the staircase where I sat. This is what I think they said.
"Maureen… We cannot let you go back alone. Let me come with you." Uncle. He always spoke slowly and gently.
"I lost my husband, your father, out there. Now, you have lost your husband, my son-in-law, out there. I can't bear to lose anyone out there anymore. Can you understand this?" Granna.
They were all of mother's family after the war. Mother told me later that her father had sent them back just before the war began: she, a five-year-old child, my Uncle and Granna.
"Mother, I am not just going anywhere. I am going out there to bury my husband." Mother.
Just before I hurried back to my room when I heard the sound of footsteps suddenly come out from the hall, I heard my uncle's voice again: "Maureen, if you must go, then don't believe everything they will have to say."
These are things a child wakes up to: nightmares, whisperings.
Mother did not go back to Singapore alone. Uncle went back with her to Singapore to bury Father.
During that time, I remembered staying with Granna and Aunt, who was Uncle's wife. I do not remember anything else from those days except for what the photographs tell. There is a photograph of myself with only a towel wrapped around me. The few strands of hair on my childhood face look damp. In the background, blurred, is a large washing tub. There is a photograph of me, standing in the garden of Granna's house. It is a badly taken photograph. You can see the legs of the garden chair. And you can see the legs of the person who is holding my hand. I was told it was Aunt. I do not know who took the photographs.
After Mother came back, we continued to live with Granna and Uncle. That was when I started waking up in the night to Mother talking to me, whispering to me. I cannot remember for how long this went on for. I don't know if she knew I was awake because I kept my eyes closed.
When you wake up from a nightmare, sometimes it goes away. But the whisperings, the words, they remain, written into your memory, written into your body.
And it was written into my bones by Mother that Father was a good man; that when I grow up, I would one day hear things people have said about him; some of these things would be bad things; some of these things may be good things; and all of these would be true; but I had to believe that he was a good man.
Perhaps for now and for some time to come, you will be still too young to think about what the dead leave behind. Or what they do not leave behind.
I remember him holding the children of the villagers. I remember him holding an old man who was so weak until he could not even sit up on his own. I remember him holding the man until he stopped breathing. And even then, my father continued to hold him.
But I cannot remember Father's touch. I don't know if his hands were rough or smooth, or if his grip was firm or gentle. I have no memory of his touch except for two photographs.
In one photo, he is holding me in his arms, and we are outdoors, in the garden of our house in Singapore. We are on the driveway and standing by one of the trees lining it. Further in the background, you can see the pillars of the porch. Father is wearing a shirt and a pair of trousers. You have to look through the unfocused mesh of light and shadows to see that Father is smiling.
In another, we are at the patio which opened out to the garden. I remember we had a set of rattan chairs and a table, and in afternoons after he returned from the clinic and was not spending time with the villagers, he would sit at the patio and drink the tea that mother had prepared.
He is leaning back into one of the chairs and I am sitting on his knees. He's half-hidden by me and once again, you have to look hard through the blur of light and shadows to make out that he is smiling.
These were the only times my mother took pictures of her son with his father.
Mother did not tell me where Father was buried. She just left behind a photograph – one could have been taken anywhere around the world. It is a black-and-white photograph of a cross that is perched on top of a hut. Inside the hut, there is a small statue of an angel with her hands outstretched. It is only when you take a closer look, and even then you may need a magnifying glass, that you see Father's name, Mother's name and my name engraved on the cross.
After we went back to our own home, Mother stopped talking about Father and we saw Granna less and less. Uncle and Aunt visited us during Easter and Christmas.
One night, when I was older, I had woken up in the night and was going to the kitchen for a glass of milk. I saw light coming from the hall and I heard voices. Mother, Uncle and Aunt were talking. They did not know I was awake.
That's when I heard the things that had been said about my father.
Many years later, we passed by Singapore when we were on holiday in Asia. We decided to stay over for a few days. I could not recognise anything.
I showed our tour guide the photograph of Father's gravestone. I asked her if she knew where in Singapore such a gravestone could be found. She replied that she did not know and that we would not have time to visit cemeteries.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017