"Memories like rain... gathering a river
By Aaron Lee
Two men sat facing each other in the darkened room. Outside the rain fell, as if from a great height, the way it does in the tropics. Its sshhh sound mingled with the inescapable urban roar ceaseless in the background, like an elusive memory lurking.
The light from the kitchen barely reached to where they were seated, in the living room of the three-room apartment. In its yellowish glow Q looked at the old man. It had been a long time since he had seen him. The years had not been kind. In the half-light he saw a grey-haired stranger. He looked to be in his seventies, although Q knew that this could not be so. The man's nose was short, eyes large and deep, and he had full heavy lips.
Q knew the old man had been drinking, perhaps quite a lot. The room was small, and he could smell the alcohol on his dank, sour breath.
The silence was unpleasant, bearing down oppressive as the warm muggy night. Through the open window they could both hear the sound of late night traffic 12 floors down. This residential neighbourhood was not particularly busy, but there was no escaping typical city sounds.
I'm not sure why you came.
Q did not intend his voice to sound so belligerent, and indeed he surprised himself.
The old man hesitated.
I – no reason. I know it's a little strange. After all, it's been many years.
He added sullenly, I don't want anything. He pulled at the hem of his shirt unconsciously. Looking at the table between them, he said I just came to see you.
Just cut the crap, Q said. He used the Hokkien expletive. I don't know you. And you don't know me.
The older man's eyes stopped him, although he did not say any more, for the moment.
In any case, Q was not afraid. The old man looked hard, but also bone-weary.
Q realised in that instant that what he wanted more than anything were answers. A lifetime of them, to satisfy more than a lifetime of heartache.
Sorry? Q's retort, when it came, was delivered in a cracked voice. Sorry for what?
The old man looked past him, at the window, or out of it. It was nearly 10pm, it was dark outside except for the streetlights disembodied above the rain trees.
You know, for everything. I tried my best. He coughed, a low wet sound. It was evident that he was gravely ill.
He felt a sudden urge to scream, wanted to stand up and rage, do anything except sit there and listen to these nothing-words. Instead he said nothing, looking at the man's dark face. Fragments of a song he had heard on the radio just the day before, came unbidden to his mind. Something about memories like rain, slipping past night after night, gathering a river in my sleep. It had a haunting tune, although he could not have sung it if he tried.
The old man reached across the table, took Q's crumpled pack of cigarettes and helped himself to one before Q could say yes or no.
You believe that everybody should have a chance to redeem themselves? To make right what they have done wrong?
Q shrugged disbelievingly. He watched the man take his lighter too, a cheap plastic thing that cost eighty cents, and light the cigarette. For a moment it seemed that they were two old and familiar friends, bonded in equanimity. Instead they were two strangers with nothing in common, except an unwanted past and an insurmountable mountain of regret.
The old man, uncomfortable that Q was not more receptive, visibly withdrew into himself. After a while he spoke up, carefully.
It's okay. Nobody owes anybody anything here.
The silence thickened this time, became an impenetrable wall. Q fixed his eyes at a corner of the worn calendar at the nearest wall. It had seen better days. A row of horses along the bottom of it, signifying the racing days.
If you say so. If that's all your pathetic life meant to you, so be it.
Q was conscious that his voice was shaking, with rage or longing, it made no difference. He wanted a cigarette himself, but lighting up one now would be wrong; too companionable. He found that his palms were wet. It would have been easier to have just grabbed hold of a changkol and dug a well straight down until he found the answers he wanted. He became aware that his heart was thumping painfully in his chest.He could not understand why he could not just vent his fury and tears, demand whatever it took for closure.
Minutes passed. The old man finally offered a weak smile.
You are accusing me of something, but you won't want to say it out loud. His tone was not accusing, just sad.
What did you think happened? he said, gently.
What do you think? snapped Q. I was thirteen, totally ignorant. Nobody had any answers for me.
I was affected too. The old man's eyes were round, he was seeking to be understood. It was the most difficult thing that ever happened to me.
And so you disappeared. Q challenged. Totally disappeared from my life. Your own parents also. They passed away not even knowing whether you were dead or alive.
I did not want that, said the old man. I... did not cope well. After she — it happened, I just made one wrong decision after another, until there were so many that there was no turning back.
Did you have anything to do with it? Did you find who did it? Where were you the whole time, when the police...
Q's voice trailed away as the questions tumbled out in a gush. They were in some ways the questions he most wanted answers to, but even as he heard his own voice asking, he lost the desire to know.
It doesn't matter now, the old man said. He sucked at the cigarette stub one last time and then put it out on the ash tray even though it was nowhere near finished. Maybe I will tell you about it later. Slowly.
I want to know what happened to you, he continued. Tell me everything. Please.
Why, Q challenged.
The old man looked away for a moment, and Q suddenly almost understood him, even though he knew absolutely nothing about what he had been through all these years. He was not sorry for him, but the anger left him.
Q took a deep breath. His voice was trembling.
Just now you said you want to make right what was wrong. What did you mean?
The old man was looking out the window again. Too many things...
He shrugged, and it was hard to tell whether he did not know, or did not wish to say anything.
I think you are a liar. Or worse. Q said it softly, staring at the older man. He saw fatigue, despair, deepening under his eyes. He closed his eyes, raising his hands to his face.
They fell back into silence, each wrapped in his own thoughts.
When Q looked closer after a while, he realised that the old man was asleep. He was so still that he looked like a worn-out dark piece of cloth, crumpled on the chair. He must have been exhausted, or very sick, or both. He slept like the dead. His chest rose and fell unevenly, accompanied by a small high-pitched, rattling whisper.
Q was not sure why but something seemed to have come over him. Not only anger, or regret. These had been part of him for most of his life, boon companions. They had utterly ruined him, broken his marriage, sucked him into downward spirals of depression, addictions and sleeplessness. He knew them well.
All these emotions were not what he felt now as he looked at the other man slumped unconscious in his chair. Q slowly understood that some pieces, many pieces actually, of a puzzle were slowly shifting in his mind. An understanding of what he had to do now, to end it once and for all.
Q looked past the man sitting opposite him, into the middle distance, as if focusing on something that might trigger memories of happier days. There were none. Except perhaps for one.
Q remembered his father taking him to the bowling alley at Kallang. It had been a school day, but he had assured him that it was okay. His father had bowled well after, won a carton of 555 cigarettes. He had opened it as soon as they left the alley, even lit one for Q and let him take a few puffs. He had been 13. The next year his mother had died, a violent death at home one afternoon, never explained. And everything had changed.
He could remember hardly anything of the days before she died. And now he had nothing, not even a photograph of her. His whole life was nothing.
Q sat there, regarding the old man for many minutes. It was as if he was out of his own body. He saw himself and his father together in the room, a rock in a stream. Time seemed to flow around them, the way a stream flows around a rock. Falling, gathering in my sleep...
The clock showed that it was ten minutes to 3am. He was not sleepy. It was very quiet now, as quiet as it could get in this residential suburb.
Q picked up the telephone, just held it, looking but not really seeing it. A sullen tone emanated from it. After a while, he had to tap the receiver button with his finger to get the dial tone again. This time he made the call, pressing the three numbers easily.
Q spent a few minutes speaking in a low voice. He kept to the facts, pausing patiently as he was transferred to another person and then repeating himself. In return, he received a few terse instructions. After ten minutes the conversation ended. He hung up and leaned back in his chair.
The police had said that they would hurry of course, but in any case nobody was going anywhere. Meanwhile, Q found his thoughts wandering to his mother. He had hardly visited her grave at Lim Chu Kang over the years. He decided that he would go tomorrow. He had no idea what her favourite flower had been, but vaguely knew that he should bring her some.
I am the rain, Q told himself, as if, after an interminable journey, this was finally an answer to his own question. An answer he could live with, or die for. Words from the song embedded in his head. I am the rain, falling tonight.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011