By Philip Holden
They come on a rainy afternoon. Chu San, the third day of New Year. I'm in my study, writing. I get to the door just as the notes from the doorbell die away. In the peephole, their faces jostle up towards me like hungry koi in a pond: a middle-aged couple and a girl in her early teens. At first I think they must be selling something, and decide not to open the door. But then, just when I begin to turn away, the girl lifts up her hands, as if in prayer, and I can see that she carries two oranges, smooth skinned, red-gold in the darkness of the corridor. They are visiting me, then.
I pull down my sleeves, open the door and welcome them in, ushering them to the sofa by the coffee table. In the light of the flat the couple seem to expand, as if they are thawing out. Their skins are waxy, I notice, as if they've been hiding for a long time underground. Only the girl is perfect. Fourteen or so, I guess, brimming with life. She passes me the oranges, and then leads her parents to the couch, where they sit down in pallid solidity. When I go to the kitchen to get the titbits ready she is right behind me, dodging the red paper pineapple that dangles too low from the ceiling.
"Can I help you, uncle?"
And so I show her where the love letters are. Can she open the tin, put them out on the plate? Careful with the knife now: use the blunt end. Just a few, unless she thinks her parents would like more. And the pineapple tarts--in the jar there. These are the best in all Singapore. Yi Ming gets them from a small shop in Katong: if her mother likes them, I'll give her the address. She tastes one and crumbs catch in the braces on her teeth. I pour two glasses of white wine for her parents, and bring them out to the living room. When I come back, she is arranging kueh bangkit, a constellation of small, pink-white stars on the blue of a plate.
"It's fine, uncle. I'll get it myself." And when I struggle to peel the tape from another jar she gently takes it from me, teasing up the leading edge with the slender nail of a long forefinger.
"I'll do it. You go out and talk with them."
I've been avoiding going out into the living room. Truth to tell, I still don't know who they are. I sit opposite them, seeking a handhold on their faces, something where memory can grip. But the thawing is complete: their complexions are smooth as porcelain, dimpled with eyes and nostrils above the thin crease of their lips. Something in them turns away from me, like preserved ducks that hanging sadly on skewers. At one point I feel I am on the verge of recognition. Relatives, perhaps? Some long-lost branch of the family: cousins twice removed I've met at a wedding banquet or a wake a decade or so ago, and who remember me much better than I remember them? We fence with questions.
"And school?" I nod towards to the open kitchen doorway, the clattering of plates the girl is taking down from the drying rack. If I said your daughter without naming her it would be as good as admitting I don't recognize them.
"Oh, she likes it," the father says. "Much better than the old school. Less pressure."
"Sec three now?"
"Sec four. Just started."
"Not too far to travel in the morning?"
"Oh, no. I can drop her off before work."
I give up, gesture to them with open hands. "Please. Please."
I offer them love letters, and then the bak kwa that the girl has cut and arranged artfully on the plate. Her mother reaches out with pincer fingers and takes a piece.
"It's very kind of you to invite us into your home," she says, "especially these days. With the risk of transmission."
I nod. Yellow flesh at the armpit flaps as she withdraws her hand. The man's eyes reach out like hooks, dragging me into acquiescence.
"This virus," he says. "We are very troubled by it. For the sake of our family, of course. What do you think about it?"
"You think it's a virus?" I say.
They stiffen. I've got that wrong.
When the government first announced it, of course, we assumed it was a virus. The way that those bouquets of flesh suddenly bloomed in a body. It couldn't be natural. At first, it only happened internally, in the darkness of the body cavity. Doctors the world over using the latest probes would find small areas of disturbed flesh, like knitted rainbows, lodged in a breast, a buttock, the spare flesh of the abdomen, or often in the forearm, pressing upwards against the surface of the skin. The World Health Organization issued an alert. Our government was particularly scrupulous. Scanners were installed at airports, surveying incoming passengers for the elevated body temperatures characteristic of the incubation period of what we quickly came to call a disease. Hot-blooded foreigners were given the choice of a return flight or a week's enforced rest at a holiday resort ringed by barbed wire fences and guard houses, free daiquiris and a regime of daily full body scans. Returning citizens created greater problems: at first those with confirmed infections were asked to stay at home for a period, and not venture out. Yet their numbers grew, and at last they were released into the community, with admonishments to stay away from the very young and the very old.
In the outside world, medicine and science moved rapidly. The disease—if it was such—did not seem to be particularly infectious: or at least its mode of transmission was mysterious and indirect. Tests on preserved cadavers in Western China indicated that it had been present in the human population for decades, if not centuries. Some studies went further. Far from being symptoms of a disease, the lesions in the flesh seemed to give an advantage to the bodies of their hosts: these people were if anything stronger, and aged less slowly. One scientific paper claimed that the contusions were in fact a new kind of organ, a further stage in human evolution. The WHO revised its policies, and the world relaxed. People got on with their lives: residual discrimination, after a few last twitches, subsided. Young people, my nieces and nephews tell me, now spend money on tattoos or temporary make-up, applied to their forearm, in the hope of imitating that hint of a rainbow shimmering just below the surface of the skin.
Only our government remains unmoved. It recognizes the scientific evidence, of course, it tells us, but the fact is that the majority of our citizens are not yet ready to accept it. We are a conservative society, after all, and respect has to be paid to our traditions. We have to move slowly. And so any reference to these tiny, knotted rainbows of flesh is carefully monitored in our media, and often filtered out of foreign television shows that might be watched by the impressionable.
"And then there's our Book," she said, eyes like needles, the bak kwa poised just below her lips. "Have you read what it says about the virus? And the marks?"
I cough, the kueh bankit suddenly dry in my mouth. And then the girl comes to my rescue again.
"Ba, Ma, let's not talk about this. Uncle wants to take a photograph."
And so I take out my handphone, line them up on the sofa so they form a blunt pyramid, the mother in the middle. The girl, I notice for the first time, takes care to never quite touch her mother, until a hand stretches out to pull her close.
The girl grins easily through her braces. Her parents unfurl rows of perfect teeth in something between a smile and a grimace. I show them the picture, and they agree it is very nice. A small, perfect family. But I excuse myself temporarily. In the bathroom I text Yi Ming with the photograph. Who are these people? They won't go. Then I flush the toilet and step out.
They won't go. They circle, like a pride of lions, velvet paws prickling with the fiercest claws. Not literally, of course. They sit immobile on the couch, eating their way through the pineapple tarts. If they stay long enough they may devour the whole flat. It's their conversation that circles, always, back towards this virus, this thing they cannot let go.
"It's beautiful here," the father says. "Your view."
The rain has softened now, a thin veil over the silent trees of the hill.
"Would you like a tour?" I ask. "I don't think you've been here before."
So I lead them to the master bedroom, with its ensuite bathroom. They admire the carved bed from Indonesia, the dark wood wardrobe, the false shelves in the wall cabinet that conceal the bomb shelter. So impressive, the mother says, to have done so much with so little. Our spare bedroom is narrow, and they press in behind me, husband and wife, with their bright, sharp eyes. The mother moves past me, blocking out the light from the window. I feel a sudden panic, a sense of suffocation, as though her body has swollen up, paper thin, to fill the whole room.
"About the virus," she says, a little out of breath. "Better safe than sorry, wouldn't you agree?"
"My study," I say. "You'll like it. Next door on the right."
But when we go inside, she pins me against the bookcase, transfixed like one of those insects in cases at the museum.
"If there's one thing I can't stand it's apathy. We need to act. For our children's sake."
I swallow. I try to keep my voice level.
"But what would you do? It's normal now. For so many people."
There are drugs, she says, that you can inject directly into those swellings in the flesh. And other, more modern methods of erasure: lasers or ultrasound, focused invisibly beneath the skin. Or body wraps. The husband chimes in. There is also faith. And the laying on of hands. And here he touches me with his creamy, waxy fingers, lightly—but I feel as if they are digging into my flesh.
"The kitchen," I bleat. "We have the latest ceramic hob. This way."
They troop out. As I leave the study I turn back. The girl hasn't followed us. She's standing at the open window, looking down. I go over to her. The rain is even softer now, as thin as combed hair. When we look down we see cross-sections of lives identical to our own—open windows, shut cupboards, a mobile phone lying on a few rumpled inches of bed—diminishing steadily in size towards a square patch of ground, twenty stories below. Her knuckles are white on the window frame. She sees me, shrugs and sighs, and follows me back through the doorway.
They like the kitchen: the gleaming stainless steel, the grey tiles that are so easy to clean, the powerful extractor fan with its filters that can conjure away cooking smells in an instant.
"More love letters?" I ask, my hand on the tin, and she looks at him uncertainly. When he nods imperceptibly she acquiesces, and the girl, whose fingers are smaller than ours, extracts the brittle rolls and lays them reverentially on a plate.
In the living room we sag back into our accustomed positions. The girl refills their glasses. I try to think of a topic that they surely cannot get their teeth into. The weather perhaps? The rain has stopped, I point out. So much rain this time of year: good for the plants.
"They say water makes it easier to transmit the virus," the mother says, but she's fading, deflating on the sofa, a weariness creeping into her voice. And then, just when I'm gathering my breath, the husband speaks, like a relay runner taking the baton. Perhaps I know someone with the disease? That would explain my reluctance to talk about it.
He persists, across the table with its neatly divided plates of delicacies, the fan turning silently above us. The sun is shining now and an oriole passes the open window, a bullet of brilliant yellow. The girl sits quietly, her face blank. Having rested, the mother returns to the conversation. They hang on me like lampreys: when I reply to them I breathe slowly, keep my voice level. I do not know why I let them continue like this, biting ever deeper into my flesh.
"Uncle," the girl says when the conversation pauses for a moment. "I think you just got a text message."
She's right, although I've missed the tone. Yi Ming, texting back in full sentences, always the English teacher.
I think I knew them once. But no longer.
"Nothing serious?" asks the father.
An opportunity like an unexpected exit sign.
"It's Yi Ming. I'm sorry: she's just reminded me that we have to visit a friend."
The father purses his lips.
"Ma," the girl says. "We should go. To let Uncle get ready." Her mother exhales interminably, like the hiss of air from a punctured tire. Then silence. Finally she stands up. Her husband shakes my hand, presses a pamphlet from the slip case he carries upon me.
"Read this. You'll understand. We know you're not from here originally. And Yi Ming spent such a long time abroad."
On the doorstep, I give her oranges, placing them firmly into her yielding hands. As they step out into the corridor and put on their shoes, they shrink again in the darkness. A careworn couple, descending reluctantly into old age, returning underground. I might even know them.
Then they realize the girl hasn't followed them. The mother bends down to undo her shoes again, while the father opens his mouth to call out.
"Don't worry," I say. "I'll get her."
She is standing in the study, at the wide open window, her back to me. The rain as stopped and the late sunlight streams into the room in heavy slats of gold. Her hands reach forward, towards something I cannot see. For a moment I am terrified: I think she is going to jump. I move towards her, silently. Then she rocks backwards slightly, and I relax. A smell of crushed oranges. She is holding up a book to the light, its black covers pulled together so that the pages flap open, like wings. But she's not reading: she is looking through the paper, at the light that saturates the smudges of print.
She must have heard me, because she turns and smiles, places the book down on the desk. I don't recognize it: I want to ask her where she found it, to show me the shelf she took it down from. But she reaches out, instead, for my arm, tugs at my sleeve, showing the contusion that threads up towards my wrist, the twisting of colours beneath my skin.
She holds up her hand. The sun is even stronger now. Her fingers part like the segments of an orange: the webbing between finger and thumb is translucent, molten with light. I can see it now, the beginning of a rainbow, held within the darkness of her skin. She keeps her hand there for a second, and then another, illuminated, while her parents scratch and scuffle in the darkness of the corridor outside.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010