The Thirteenth Floor
By Chan Ziqian
If he looked straight ahead, he could almost forget they were there. The ambulance, fire engine and police cars at the foot of the building seemed tiny from where he was on the roof, each the size of his thumb. Spread out before him now was a country he had never known, a landscape that was foreign to him although he had inhabited it for the last twenty-four years. Here was a sky unscathed even by the tallest buildings, and beneath it, an expanse of land densely covered by houses like so many shrubs. And just beyond the next block of flats was the main road, wide like a river. He could have ignored the flashing lights of the vehicles below, the large cushion inflated to break his fall, even the crowd gathered downstairs, except for the voice on the loudspeaker calling out to him.
The police would already be on their way up to the roof but the lifts were being upgraded and it would take them some time to climb the twelve-storey building. He closed the gate that led to the floor below and dragged some bricks and metal rods over the gate. He lay down on the small pile he had made and looked up at the sky. How low it suddenly seemed. If he turned on his side, one cheek would be flat on the concrete and the other pressed up against the sky. After a while, he heard fists banging against the gate. He wondered if it would rain tonight.
The rooftop was the last place he had expected to find himself. When he had left the flat that morning, all he had wanted was a place where he could fill out job application forms. The obvious choice, the first stop he had made, was the public library. It must have been exam season because on every floor most of the seats were taken by teenage students bent over textbooks and files. Those who occupied the remaining seats were distinctly older and asleep, some with newspapers expertly balanced on their laps. The floor was the only option so he sat down in a corner. When he was writing his name and address on the first form, a librarian appeared before him.
“No self-study,” she said, looking down at him.
“I’m not studying,” he said.
“Well, but you’re using your own things, not library material. Refer to our books.” She gestured at the shelves to show him where the books were. “This is a library,” she added. Her tone was convincing, if not her actual words. He quickly gathered his forms and stood up, bowing his head as he headed for the bookshelves. It was only after she had walked away that he began to wonder at this new rule. Fifteen minutes later, the librarian returned to find him in the same spot. Before she could speak, he pointed at the library book propped up in front of him, then looked up from his application forms and waited for her to leave. Her eyes flitted to the book and back to his face. “No sitting on the floor,” she said and handed him a leaflet with the National Library Board logo on it. No self-study, it said in large capital letters. So it was official.
In the face of this two-front attack, he decided to break for lunch. As he filed out of the library with the students whose similar attempts at camouflage had failed, he noticed that the sleeping figures had not been disturbed. His first instinct was to rail against the double standards but something about them silenced him. They slept with their legs spread, heads tilted back and mouths wide open, as if they were not in a public space but at home where there were no strangers to watch them. One man in his sixties had even come prepared for the air-conditioning in the library, swaddling himself in a thick jacket that would have been inappropriate for the heat outside.
Just outside the library was a patch of grass the size of a small carpark. Walking past it, he wondered when it would be turned into one. There was no fence around the grass or a sign that said to keep off but there might as well have been. Everyone kept to the concrete pavement, the cement a directive from the authorities to the people: permission to use this space.
When he had climbed up the ladder to the roof that evening and found the gate open, he had hesitated for a while. No signs forbade him from going up but nothing permitted it either. In the absence of both prohibition and approval, he was paralysed, unable to go up or down. He liked knowing exactly what was allowed and what was not, and it was for this reason that he had chosen to have lunch at that particular stall earlier in the day. Plastered on all its tables were handwritten notices which stated that the seats were only for patrons.
He had paid for a bowl of noodles and an iced tea, then sat down at a table for four in the corner, the three empty chairs forming fort walls around him. From behind them, he watched the stall owner who emerged now and then to clear away the empty bowls, making it plain that those customers had no reason to loiter. He ate slowly, letting the noodles grow cold, and when she finally came to remove his empty bowl, he grabbed his drink before she could reach for it. He lifted the cup while she wiped the table, then set it down again to mark his territory. The ice had melted and diluted the remaining tea but he bent the straw to his mouth and drank anyway. The stall owner glanced at him and walked away. Looking at her, he remembered the librarian who had not disturbed the sleeping figures, and realised the stall owner would not have bothered him even if he sat at the table all day. It was this that made him gather his things and leave, making way for the next customers.
His next destination was the cinema. At lunch, he had composed a list of possible sanctuaries that included underground bunkers at Fort Canning, abandoned swimming pools and furniture shops where he would try every sofa and chair. He had finally settled on the cinema for the two hours of peace in the dark, hopefully more. With luck he would be treated to hours of trailers and advertisements, and at the conclusion of whatever movie it was, endless credits acknowledging every extra.
He took the train to the city and alighted with everyone else at the interchange. When the escalator bore him up to the street, he suddenly stopped. Around him, everyone seemed to know where they were going, their heels making assured clicks on the ground. If they had all been moving down a single path, that would have been alright. But to his left were three women striding past some bushes, to his right a businessman with his sights trained on a point across the road. And somewhere in front of him was a young couple holding hands and staring up at the sky as if that was where they were going. He would have liked to follow them all and discover what secret places they were headed for – there must have been underground caves or containers on treetops, the addresses of which were concealed under their skins – but there was no way he could even make it across the street to the cinema now. Without a place of his own, he was exposed. They would see through him and realise he had nowhere to go. Even the space in his head and the thoughts it contained were public domain. He turned, letting the escalator gently carry him down to the train station. He shut his eyes and leaned against the side, comforted by these automated stairs that gave him direction, if only for half a minute.
One after another, the hours passed as he sat at the station watching trains go by. He only boarded one when the security guard walked by for the third time and asked if there was a problem. When the train emerged from the underground, he stared out of the window, the scenery like a single fluid picture. The flow would be broken when the train pulled into a station and afterwards resume again. Like the train, he had spent most of the day trying to get from one place to another, and when he finally got there, would have to take off again. Like the train, it seemed he belonged in the wide gaps between the stations.
He would have liked to stay on the train and keep on going after everyone else had alighted at the last stop. The train would hurtle off the tracks, plunge into the Straits of Johor and cross the international border. And if they made it across the water, go deep into the Malay Peninsula.
But here he was, not in Malaysia, but on the roof of the block where he lived. The banging against the gate beneath him persisted, and the longer it sounded, the more remote it seemed. He wondered if his parents had heard the commotion outside and if they knew it was their son on the roof. He thought about his mother and the dinner she would have prepared. He did not mean to make them worry. He knew it would only lead to incessant questioning from his mother and silent looks from his father that were hurt and angry at the same time. But for some reason, instead of stopping at his floor and going home when he had returned earlier in the evening, he had continued climbing the stairs to the highest storey. The corridor was small, made narrower by the things people left outside their flats – shoes, umbrellas, potted plants – as if to claim this public space as their own. Or perhaps the four-room flats were not large enough to contain the lives of these people, squashed as they were by other flats on all sides, so that they spilled out into the common pathway. In front of one flat was a large mirror framed with elaborately carved wood. He glanced at it and the surprise of seeing his reflection made him hurry away.
Most of the flats had their doors closed and curtains drawn shut but as he strolled down the corridor, he noticed a middle-aged woman watching him from behind the window grilles of her flat. Her stare was unwavering and unembarrassed, following him like eyes in a portrait. He looked down at the floor and continued walking, then turned to find her watching him from the doorway. He walked quickly to the end of the corridor and was about to go down the stairs when he noticed the ladder leading up to the roof.
Rooftops had always seemed like alien terrain to him, just like the bottoms of swimming pools, places that people hardly set foot on. Once he had found an abandoned pool and wanted to walk down the stairs and stand at the bottom, something simple enough, but the empty pool had seemed like an inverted room, its clear bottom the ceiling. If he had walked down and stood at the bottom, it would be as if he had walked up a wall and onto a ceiling. He had the same uneasy feeling now as he stepped onto the rooftop, as if he might fall off at any moment.
It was hardly as spacious as he thought it would be. Most of it was occupied by a large water tank. He took the application forms out of his bag but did not look at them. Instead he leaned against the water tank and thought about swimming pools. Once he had swum to the deep end and held his breath at the bottom, watching swimmers go back and forth, their bodies bobbing at the surface like duckweed. It had been quiet and empty at the bottom of the pool. He thought about being up here on the rooftop, the thirteenth floor, a place which did not really exist. The numbers on lift buttons always went from eleven to twelve to fourteen. Perhaps it had once existed and one day vanished, all the thirteenth floors and their inhabitants falling through an opening in the air. He thought about disappearing, like those people, slipping through a gap in this world.
The banging on the gate had finally stopped. It was quiet again, the way it had been at first, before someone had reported a possible suicide attempt. He wondered if they had given up and gone home. He got up and looked over the edge. The crowd was still there. So were the uniformed forces and inflated cushion. He then saw ropes extending from the twelfth storey to the rooftop and men in dark uniforms climbing them. Soon they would be all over the roof. According to the law, those who attempted suicide could be imprisoned or fined or both. There was no mention of those who succeeded. He wondered if they were taken away in handcuffs like criminals. Even the space between his shoulders, this body of his, was not his own, even in death.
He watched the men climbing the ropes in their white helmets and matching gloves. He was not sure how he had arrived at this point. Various forces had been mobilised, and at the foot of the building was a large cushion like a podium waiting to receive him. He had only wanted to sit down somewhere and not be disturbed but had summoned what seemed like half the country. He laughed softly and pushed the metal rods and bricks away from the gate, allowing the policemen to open it. One of them grabbed him and another snapped on the handcuffs.
“I’m not going to jump. I wasn’t going to jump,” he said, trying to sound pleasant even though the policeman’s grip was hurting him.
“Then why were you up here? Why didn’t you go down when we told you to?”
“I just wanted to be alone. Be by myself.”
“On the roof?” One of the policemen gave him a look while the other scanned the surrounding area as if to check for a hidden stash of illegal magazines or small children. He would not be surprised if they thought he had made his way up to contaminate the water tank. Anything he told them now would be more plausible than the truth.
“Fine. I came up to kill myself. I was going to throw myself off this building because I have no job and no money so I can’t move out of my parents’ flat. You’re right,” he said. “I was going to jump off the roof. So what is it, jail or a fine?”QLRS Vol. 4 No. 4 Jul 2005