All Those Dead Singers
By Dylan Kwok
When Ben started Primary One, his parents begged the principal to let him stay in school until they got off work and could pick him in the evening. But the principal had been firm. She ran a school, not a daycare. Her staff didn't have time to babysit Ben between grading homework and planning classes. Besides, she reminded them, she had done Ben a great favour by even letting him attend normal school. Most principals would not have been so charitable.
And so it was that every day after school, Ben's father would pick him from Pasir Ris Primary and drive an hour to deposit him at his grandfather's HDB flat in Queenstown, where he would stay until evening.
On the first few days Ben came over, the old man would prepare a sandwich for him, and then sit with him at the kitchen table while he ate, trying to make conversation.
"Ah boy, how was school today?"
"Ah boy, you got homework?"
"Ah boy, you want Milo?"
But Ben would just sit, small hands clutching his sandwich, eyes on his grandfather, with a lump in his throat.
Eventually his grandfather retreated to the safety of his JVC television soon after preparing Ben's sandwich, and would stay there for the remainder of the afternoon, watching reruns of oldies music shows on repeat.
One evening as he returned the boy to his father, he remarked, "Ben's very quiet."
His father tugged Ben's ear. "You hear that? Ah Gong says you need to talk."
His father, ignoring him, turned to his grandfather. "The doctors at KK Hospital said there's nothing wrong with his voice box, and even the psychiatrist at IMH said his brain was okay." He sighed as he eyed the boy. "I think he's just scared of talking."
The next day his grandfather handed him the loaf of Gardenia and the jar of peanut butter and said, "I go watch TV," before disappearing into the living room.
Ben sat in the kitchen, buttering his sandwich liberally, before carefully slicing off the crusts and tossing them down the garbage chute.
After he had eaten, he peeked into the living room.
His grandfather lay on the sofa, horn-rimmed glasses perched on the edge of his nose, one hand limply clutching the remote, and his slippered feet up on an ottoman. He was snoring gently.
Ben loped into the room right as 'Everybody Loves Somebody' hit its final notes. Plopping himself on the edge of his grandfather's ottoman, right in front of the screen, he waved. "Hi, Mr Martin!"
The man in the screen blinked before focusing on Ben. "My boy, you're here again!"
He stepped around his mic to get closer to the screen. "How have you been?" He peered beyond Ben with a mock tiptoe. "Oh dear. It seems I've put your grandfather to sleep again."
Ben waved a hand. "It's alright. When Mr Sinatra is on he falls asleep even faster."
Dean Martin chuckled. "You listen to Frank's music too?"
"Who do you like better, me or him?"
Ben thought for a moment. "I like Mr Crosby better."
The singer laughed. "Clever answer, young man." He grabbed his mic. "Now, what can I sing for you?"
"'Ain't That a Kick in the Head.'"
He waved to the musicians offscreen. "You heard the boy."
On most afternoons, at the stroke of six, Ben's grandfather would awaken. Most of the time when he awoke Ben would be sitting silently on the floor at his feet, and when he stirred the boy would shoot him a glance before refocusing on the television. But a few times the old man swore that in his slumber, he had heard what wasn't singing, but the voices of the singers chatting with what sounded like a child's voice. One time he even woke up to find Nat King Cole standing deep in the screen, a tiny figure far back on the stage. He had blinked twice before turning to the boy sitting cross-legged on the floor.
He asked, "Ah boy, you got see what happen to the TV or not?"
Ben looked at him, eyes wide, without response.
Finally, his grandfather shook his head. Picking up the remote, he smacked it. Nothing happened. Then he switched the television off and on again. With a snap and buzz, the singer reappeared front and centre of the screen, mid-song. He blinked, and eyed Ben again.
But the boy had resumed watching the screen.
It was Frank Sinatra who first asked Ben what his problem was. "Why don't you ever speak to your grandfather? Certainly he'd be better conversation than all us dead singers."
Ben shook his head. "Can't."
"What do you mean, can't?"
At this, his grandfather snorted in his sleep. Ben shot a quick look back. He put his index finger to his lips. Sinatra slowly slid back to his mic. Finally, his grandfather began to snore again.
Ben turned to the screen. "It's not just Ah Gong. I can't speak to Daddy, or Mummy, or Ms Tan either. Or any of my frie – classmates."
Sinatra gave him a look. "You're speaking to me, aren't you?"
"But you're different!" Ben tried to explain. "You're, you're, you're –"
Ben shook his head. "I don't know. It just works when I speak to you. And Mr Martin, and Mr Cole, and Mr Crosby, and all the others."
Sinatra nodded. "But not with real people."
Ben crossed his arms. "Just sing a song, please?"
By the time oral exams came and went in September – the principal refused to exempt Ben, making him the first student to ever score a zero – Ben and his grandfather's afternoon schedule had been perfected to a tee. Ben would let himself in, take a peek into the living room – where he would see his grandfather already lounging about in the chair, watching his programme – and then he would go to the kitchen for his sandwich.
On Monday he got peanut butter and Dean Martin, Tuesday was kaya and Bing Crosby, Wednesday, Nutella and Andy Williams, Thursday, pork floss and Nat King Cole, and Friday, jam and Frank Sinatra. His grandfather would sleep for three hours while Ben listened to and chatted with the television's singers, and when he woke up, Ben would fall silent until three o'clock the next day
One Monday afternoon after Ben had let himself in, he did his perfunctory peep into the living room, to let his grandfather know he was there. When he did, his eyes widened. His grandfather was on the floor, one leg on the ottoman, arms crooked, eyes closed. Ben rushed over and gave him a nudge.
There was no response. He nudged him again, then held his arm. There was a faint pulse. He turned to the television, where Dean Martin was singing.
"What happened?" Ben wailed.
Instantly the music stopped. The King of Cool pushed aside his mic, rushed to the screen, and said, "Your grandfather was trying to reach for the remote when he fell off the couch."
Ben wrung his hands as he looked at his grandfather.
Martin spoke. "You have to call an ambulance, my boy."
"But I can't!"
"I just can't!" Even as Ben spoke, though, he ran into the next room and grabbed the wireless handset, hands trembling. He shook his grandfather again. No response.
Behind him, the singer's concerned mutterings faded into the background. Ben stared at the phone. He hit nine. It's not that I don't know how to talk, but I just can't! Why can't people understand that? He hit nine again. What am I even going to say? Finally, he hit the five. He took a deep breath. It's the same as talking to Mr Martin. It's just a voice on the other end, right?
He hit dial.
Ben sat up when his father emerged from the ward. Father and son looked at each other. His father said, "The doctor says Ah Gong will be alright."
Ben's hands, sweaty from clutching the arms of the chair, finally relaxed.
His father continued. "They're going to keep him here for a few days. I've called Ms Tan, and she agreed to allow you to stay in school after class for the time being. But you need to listen to her, okay?"
Ben nodded, and they shared a look before his father turned away.
There was a long silence.
Finally, reaching forward with hesitant, stiff fingers, he patted Ben's head.
It was actually much longer than a few days after Ben's grandfather was discharged before he could take care of him again. But when he started Primary Two, the old man moved in with the family. Now in the afternoons Ben when came home, his grandfather would chat with him and help him with homework – first over the landline in separate rooms, but eventually in person in the same room. The old man had left his television behind when he moved, and Ben soon forgot all about his long and lazy afternoons with Mr Martin, Mr Sinatra, and Mr Crosby.
But sometimes, in his head, he could still hear them singing.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022