By O Thiam Chin
It was a week after Susan's death, and three days after her wake, as I was dressing James up on the final day of the wake in preparation for the procession to the funeral house, that James told me he saw Susan in the kitchen.
"What?" My quivering voice betrayed my curiosity.
I stopped buttoning his short-sleeved plaited shirt, my hand came to a stop on his lithe concave chest. James looked up at me expectantly, as if I didn't manage to catch his words.
"I saw mama yesterday night. She was here," James reiterated, with a renewed emphasis, face animated, nodding his head as he spoke.
Looking at him, I saw traces of resemblance with Susan, the mocha-coloured eyes kindled with gentleness, the thin upper lip, the lonely dimple on his right cheek.
When James was much younger, Susan and I used to compare which part of James' body matched ours. While James possessed Susan's eyes, lips and dimple, he had my curly mop of hair, thick eyebrows and angular jawline.
These past few days I had found more and more traces of Susan in James, and it hurt to look at him for long.
I avoided his face as he spoke, and replied softly, almost in a whisper: "James, mama is no longer with us. Remember what I told you before, about how mama has gone to…" I hesitated to say heaven, "some place better."
"But I did see her. She spoke to me," James said, looking slightly defeated.
I let my silence speak the words I didn't, and couldn't, bear to repeat, and straightened out the wrinkles on his shirt. I stood up and pat him on his curly hair. James did not release his stare from me; he held it as if his life depended on the truth of what he was saying.
"She told me to listen to you, and not to misbehave at school," he said. I looked at my watch, feeling my patience running out, coming to a sudden brake.
"Stop it, James," I said, wearily.
"And she told me to tell you…." Immediately I cut him off; my angry words came out like a sharpened knife.
"James, I told you to stop it! Stop!" His face dropped like an anchor, crestfallen, and shimmering tears appeared and hovered dangerously on the edges of his big sad eyes. He turned away, raised his right sleeve and wiped away the tears.
"Let's go. We're late. People are waiting for us," I said and raised my hand to him. He put his tiny fist into my open palm, and I held it tightly, shaken, no longer sure why I did the things I do.
I took a month of no-pay leave from work and stayed at home to settle into the new life.
Every morning, I'd prepare a simple breakfast of buttered bread and Ovaltine for James and watch him eat it all up. I'd drink a cup of thick black coffee, no sugar, and chained-smoked, titling my head to exhale the smoke behind me, remembering Susan's warning about second-hand smoke. Then I'd walk with him to the primary school he's attending, a fifteen minute's stroll from where we stayed. Usually we'd walk in silence, hardly looking at one another.
After seeing him to school, I'd walk over to a nearby park and sit on the bench, feeling the sun on my face. A few hours would sometimes flee by, unknowingly, and realizing this, I'd quickly head back home or to the NTUC store to buy the ingredients for lunch and dinner. Unlike Susan, I could never get the amount of ingredients correct and would end up buying too much or too little, but somehow I'd always manage to come up with a half-decent meal.
After preparing lunch, a small pot of porridge, salted eggs, sardines with onions, and preserved pickles, I'd sit at the dining table and smoke, trying to work out the thoughts in my head, silencing them one at a time. And I'd stay like this for a long time; sometimes my mobile phone, in silent mode, would buzz like a noisy insect, and I'd switch it off, glancing briefly at the caller ID; after the accident, I had stopped picking up her calls.
The hours in the day passed faster than the night's.
After dinner, James would do his homework on the living room table while I watched television with the sound off. The house would be quiet, like a mortuary, except for the faint pencil scribbling, and the whirring of the portable fan.
At nine-thirty, I'd tell James to shower and prepare for sleep. He didn't want to sleep in his room after Susan's death, and asked to sleep with me instead. I moved his pillow and bolster to my bedroom. After coaxing him to sleep, I'd stay by his side, sometimes hugging him, watching the occasional twitch of his fingers or eyelash, eavesdropping on the short bursts of dream-talk. The light shampoo-smell of his hair never failed to stir up memories - vivid, painful and exhausting.
But most nights, I'd stay up and watch the late-night programmes on television in the dark living room. I couldn't remember what I watched most of the time, faintly recalling shadowy antics, fast movements, bright lights on these programmes, never the details. The slightest sound in the house made me jump - the flicker-sound from the refrigerator's motor, the creaking of the sofa-chair I'm sitting on. Feeling restless, I'd get up, walk to the windows overlooking the next block of flats, and look into each lit-up apartment.
When I finally crawled into bed, in the dim blue hours of pre-dawn, I'd feel James' body edging towards me, out of instinct, or perhaps warmth, pressing his back snugly to me, shaping it to fit the contours of my worn-out body.
After three weeks of insomnia, I started a series of sleeping pills – dormicum, erimin, benzodiazepine - taking a pill initially, then two or three, and continue to up the dosage as the cumulative effect began to wear off. To be completely knocked out, unconscious, floating out gently into a tranquil night-sea, I considered it a hard-earned blessing, the fortuitous closure of another long day.
If faith is the act of believing without seeing, I guess my lack of faith these days stemmed from a deliberate decision not to believe in anything.
Over breakfast, during a rainy Saturday morning, when we were having a breakfast of soya bean curd and yu-tiao, James brought up Susan again.
Nursing a bad hangover, from the previous night's cocktail of dormicum pills and gin, I took a sip of the lukewarm black coffee and massaged the sides of my forehead. The insides of my head felt like a bed of sharp needles, poking incessantly.
This morning, James had woken me up from the sofa, where I had fallen asleep, one firm hand on my arm, his eyes taking in what must have been a disheveled, pathetic sight: my face crushed with heaviness, wretchedness, in a drunken stupor.
I told him to go back to sleep.
Then I went to the toilet and stood under the hot water of the shower for a long time, until my skin became raw, prune-like, as if I could just simply shed this tiresome layer of hide, reptilian, and emerged somewhat new or transformed, no longer the same me.
Then I saw myself in the fogged-up mirror and knew that nothing had changed.
"I saw mama in the bedroom this morning. She touched my head and…" James was about to continue when I banged my fist on the dining table, gritted my teeth, and growled in a stranger's voice, emitting from deep inside me. My head buzzed like a hornet's nest.
"She is dead, James. Your mama is dead!" I yelled, and picked up another stick of cigarette, my hand shaking, having a life of its own.
"No, she's not, I saw her this morning!" He put up a strong defence, mannish, a piece of soggy yu-tiao suspended in mid-air, gripped in his hand, like a weapon. He held his stare, incredulous, exhibited a growing discomfort with this hard shell of hostility, newly uncovered, and in it, I glimpsed a flash of Susan, how she had looked when I told her what happened.
"I don't want to hear anything about this anymore, do you hear? Do you hear?" My voice began to crack, and I had the terrible sense of losing control.
"No, no, no. I saw her, I saw her…and she said…" He lowered his eyes, and dropped his guard. He suddenly looked lost.
"James, go to your room! GO!" I pushed my chair back, and sent it toppling to the floor with a crash. I went up to him, pulled him out from his chair, and dragged him to his room. He threw punches on my stomach, sides, and kicked my shins in defiance.
I locked him up, and sat outside his room, hanging my heavy head between my knees, until his cries of anger died down to a series of pleading; then there was silence. I could hear his footsteps behind the door, retreating, and his whispers, a soft platter of words. I strained to hear what he was saying. Then I threw open the door and peered in.
James was sitting on the edge of his bed, his hands held in front of him, prayer-like. He looked at me, his eyes swollen and mournful; his mouth gaped, as if caught in mid-sentence. There was no one else in the room.
I stood there, and wept like a baby.
"I think so; I read somewhere that babies can hear quite well at this state. Well, not exactly hearing, but more like feeling the words, the tone of it," I said, edging over to her on the bed, putting aside a paperback on early childhood that I was reading. Susan's body was soft and warm, and smelled of cold cream and talcum powder.
"Really? Then I must ban you from swearing and cursing around me all the time." Susan pressed her hands against the sides of her stomach as if shielding the baby's ears from any harsh language, and smiled teasingly at me.
"No, I don't. When did I last curse or swear?"
"Just now, before you come into bed, when you hit your toe against the leg of the bed. You forgotten already?" I recalled the incident, and laughed.
"Okay, I will watch my words from now on," I said, planting a light kiss on her cheek.
"You better. I don't want him to grow up to be like you, foul-mouthed…"
"No he won't la, he will be just like you, like mother and son." I placed my palm on Susan's stomach and tried to imagine what the baby was thinking, as he felt these words on his skin, the tone reverberating in the silent watery chamber. He remained still, suspended, a finger's distance from my touch, perhaps brooding over his own tiny thoughts. Yes, I want you to be like your mother, just like her.
"Why are you smiling to yourself?" Susan asked, putting her hand on mine, gazing into my face.
"Nothing, I just feel happy," I said, bending over to kiss the soft skin of her swollen stomach.
The police report was factual and extremely detailed, dispelling any shadow of a doubt.
The driver claimed that the woman was crossing the road when the light was still flashing red. He started sounding the car honk twenty metres from the traffic junction, but the woman didn't seem to notice or hear it. She seemed distracted, her eyes were on the ground, and she simply walked into the traffic, without checking her left or right.
By the time he jammed the brakes, it was too late. The woman had hit the window-screen full on and rolled over the length of the car, and landed on the hard tarmac.
Coroner's report: The victim died from a sudden rupture in the isthmus of the aorta and a fractured spine.
And the inane thought that flitted through my head when I heard the news: There are so many ways to die from a broken heart.
Grief sometimes played hide and seek with me, rearing its head in unexpected places, places I never thought to look.
Vacuuming behind the sofa one afternoon, I picked up a single earring, made up of two tiny silver entangling loops and wondered where I had seen it before; I ransacked my memories of the time I had seen Susan wearing it but came up with nothing.
I threw it away and two days later, while watching television, it hit me. I bought it for Susan during the Bali trip we took a year before James was born. She saw it at a makeshift roadside store in the night-market in Kuta, but refused to buy it after the store-owner quoted her a higher-than-expected price.
Discovering the earrings in her jean pocket the day after, she chided me for paying a ridiculous price for it. But when we went out for dinner that night, she was wearing it, and against her smooth, freshly-tanned skin, the earrings glittered with the sparkle of blinking night stars.
This memory remained stuck in my head for the rest of the day. I had to down a bottle of Beefeater gin, and several Corona beers, more than usual, to keep the memory at bay, vague and unthreatening.
Shortly after, I decided to throw away all the things that belonged to Susan, and I had to do it while James was in school.
Filling up bag after bag of her clothes, books, cosmetics, bags, shoes, photographs, I kept at the task with a dogged determination, hardly pausing except to get another bag to fill up more of her things. By the time I was done, I had eight big bags piled up in the living room. I took it to the nearby rubbish disposal and dumped everything into it.
Then I came back, scrubbed everything - the empty spaces, vacant drawers – with Dettol, took three pills of benzodiazepine and went to sleep. I slept through the whole night without any dream, for once.
When I woke the next day, James was sleeping behind me, his hands gripping the tail-end of my shirt, his face on my back, leaving trails of hardened saliva on me. Soundlessly, I slipped away from him, and left the bedroom.
In the kitchen, a jar of kaya spread was left uncapped, and a platoon of ants was marching to and fro the bread crumbs. Another pool of ants was congregated around the stained spoon. I cleared up the mess and started the day.
Over time, I established a certain routine to the days, and things seemed to flow in predictable clockwork.
With James in school in the morning, I went grocery shopping, did the laundry, vacuumed and mopped the rooms, and prepared lunch. When he came back around one in the afternoon, we'd have lunch together, and after that, he'd take his siesta while I bring in the laundry, smelling richly of sunlight and fabric softener, iron, fold and put it aside. Then I'd wait patiently for James to wake up.
Depending on which day of the week, I'd either bring him to the library or for a swim in the nearby public pool or to the park for a walk or run. James never objected to the plans I made, and went along with a cheerful demeanour.
I thought, maybe in time, he would forget what had happened, and then I'd notice something - a moment of silence, an accidental word, a flash of sadness in his eyes – and it dawned on me that he too was trying to cope with grief, in his own ways.
Susan read the message in my mobile phone while I was in the shower. Before I had a chance to explain, she flung the phone at me. I ducked in time and the phone landed on the bed with a bounce.
"Let me explain. It was nothing at all…,' I said, going up to her, my arms extended in petition, struggling with the right words.
"Why?" She backed away, hunched, like a trapped animal, a look of unbelief and bewilderment swept across her face. "Why did you? How could…"
"It didn't mean anything, really, I didn't mean to…' I took another step towards her. Susan flung out her hand and hit me hard on my right cheek, scorching the skin. The slap resounded in the bedroom like a loud crack of the whip.
"Fuck you, bastard! Fuck you!"
With a shove of her shoulder, she pushed her way past me, and left the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Silence dropped like an anchor, weighing everything down.
That day she came home late and went straight to the room without saying a word to me or James. I lied on the sofa, closed my eyes but could not sleep; my head in a constant loop, running monologue after monologue of apologies and regret.
Then I stared at the sliver of light through the slit of opening under the door, watching the dance of shadows as Susan paced restlessly around the room. After a while, the lights went out and the shadows disappeared.
The next day I went to work and in the afternoon, the police called me at my office.
In the dream, I saw Susan when she was much younger, her face aglow with a supple freshness, earnestness. She was smiling and pulling my hands, leading me down a narrow path. She laughed, without a sound, and I drew her to me, kissing her fully. Then she cupped my face in her palms, silently mouthing a few words I couldn't quite make out. Then Susan let go of my hands, and fell backward, as if her body was pulled against her will, into a flowing river, a shimmering surface of lights. I plunged in, and landed on hard unrelenting ground.
Something touched me on my arm, soft as a breath.
"Papa, papa, are you okay?"
I peeled my eyelids back slowly, one at a time, the light piercing my eyes, like a blind man regaining his sight. The figure standing in front of me flickered like a blurry apparition. James.
I tried to lift my head, punctured with sharp blades of shrapnel. I had to unglue my face from the floor, sticky and caked with tiny bits of food. The stench of alcohol and sour vomit reached my nose. I winced, closing my eyes again.
"What?" The word escaped from my mouth, like a fugitive.
"Are you okay, pa?" James' solicitous voice, reaching me.
"Yes," I said, lying back on the floor, looking up at James, his face looming near mine.
"Why are you lying on the floor?" he asked, and sat down next to me.
"It's cooler here, on the floor." I lied, and finally managed to sit upright. Shafts of dusty light came in through the window, and the bedroom was bathed in a warm, hazy radiance. I narrowed my eyes, and massaged the sides of my head. "Don't you have school later?"
"It's a Saturday, pa, no school today," James said, still keeping his stare on me, studying me like an exhibit. He lifted his hand to stifle a yawn, and the sunlight caught the sharp glint of something he was wearing on his finger. I looked closer. It was a ring, and he was wearing it on this left thumb, loosely. I reached and pulled his left hand to me, and realized what it was.
Susan's wedding ring.
"Where did you get this from?" Still gripping his hand, I glared at James. Stupefied, he tried to retract his hand, but I held it firmly, like a newly-discovered evidence. "Where, where?" a growl issued from my mouth, savage and insistent.
"I found it in the drawer, I found it there," he replied, pointing to the cabinet of drawers near the bed, his fearful face searching mine for clemency. 'I didn't mean…to take it," he began to stammer, his voice turning watery.
I sat staring at him, and knew he was lying, badly. I made him lie to me.
I had put the ring on Susan's finger on the day they put her in the casket. I had kissed her hand, cold as marble, and slipped her stiffened, unyielding fingers between mine, crushing my strength into it.
I released James' hand, and he pulled it back in a recoil, pushing his body away from me at the same time. He didn't move, but sat in a trance, waiting for my next move, shielding the hand wearing the ring with his other hand. The barrage of pain felled like axe-strokes on my head as I struggled to my feet, accidentally kicking the empty beer cans aside.
"Give me the ring," I said, extending my hand. James hesitated, looking at the ring, twisting it around his thumb, and removed it. I took it from him and said, "Go get ready; we will go out for breakfast." James fled the bedroom without a word.
I clenched the ring tightly in my hand, a beast-burden of guilt and remorse, and I brought it to my lips.
I brought James to the Choa Chu Kang cemetery where Susan was buried. The weather was cool, after the early-morning showers, and the path leading up to Susan's tomb was wet and slippery. We had taken the short-freight bus from the bus interchange and dropped off at the bus stop nearest to the Christian cemetery. It was a Sunday, and small groups of people, couples and families, were cluttering around the tombstones, offering flowers, fruits and prayers. James looked at them with a patent interest, and asked me what they were doing. He was holding a bouquet of giberas that I had bought at the wet market this morning; he insisted on carrying it.
Susan's tomb was situated at the far-end of the cemetery, being only recently deceased, in the newly-expanded plot of land just beside the forest. From the main road, we had to walk for almost half an hour. James swatted away the mosquitoes from his legs and scratched the bite marks, indenting cross-marks on these tiny swells. I offered him a drink, from the bottle of mineral water, and he drank lustily, spills of water wetting his Pokemon t-shirt.
"We're almost there," I said, replying to his unspoken question, and he looked up, flashing a wide grin. He hopped to the next tomb, carefully to sidestep any display of flowers or food offerings, standing close enough to stare at the thumb-nail picture on the tombstone. His expression was a strange mix of wistfulness and curiosity. Sometimes he would nod his head, as if in acknowledgment to some hidden conversation he was conducting. Sometimes he would burst out in a smile, but when he registered the corresponding look on my face, would immediately wipe it off, and run further down the path.
He got to Susan's tomb without my help. Waiting at a polite distance from the tombstone, he looked at me, waiting for me to catch up. He moved his weight from foot to foot, his cheeks aglow with a rosy sheen. "Pa, pa, hurry up…"
"You can put the flowers down," I said, as I finally walked up to the tomb. The picture that I had chosen, taken soon after Susan graduated from the university, while she was looking around for a job, was still new, though it had lost its initial glossiness. I wiped away the dust with a piece of tissue paper. James laid the bunch of giberas before the tombstone, stood back with an appraising look, and readjusted the positioning of the flowers, propping it upright against the tombstone.
We stood in silence and lowered our heads. I took out the ring from my pocket and stared at it. James drilled his eyes into me, an open expression on his face.
"Now, I want you to return this to ma." I pushed the ring to him. He picked the ring from my hand and let it slip down his forefinger. He pondered long and hard over what I had said, his face stern with concentration.
He turned to me, and said stoically, "Ma says she wants you to keep it."
I looked over at the picture of Susan on the tombstone, as if waiting for Susan to confirm her request. Her smile remained fixed, distant.
"Pa, pa…" James moved nearer to me and I could feel the body heat emanating from him, like the warmth of a small furry animal. He slipped the ring back into my hand, and clasped his little hand to mine. A storm broke inside me, and I drew in a few sharp gasps, hungry for air. When the moment finally passed, I lifted James off the ground and held him by my waist.
He cupped my ear with his hand and began to whisper into it, "Ma said…"
With a clear voice, James went on to tell all the things I needed to hear, the unspoken words that lay buried with Susan when she died, and my heart leapt like a wild fire, and a savage longing, lapping up greedily at each word, like a red-hot coal of penance, mercy in my mouth. James spoke on and on, the words pouring out of him like a gushing geyser. By the end of his delivery, he was weeping openly, his head on my shoulder, his small body trembling like an injured animal.
"It's okay, it's okay," I said, and looked at Susan's tombstone for a long time. I gazed straight into her eyes in the picture, and held her look. Something in me stirred alive, ached terribly and died again.
"I miss you too," I said.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 1 Jan 2009