Das ist Egal
By Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong
The hands of the clock are pointing to a quarter past 10 in the evening. The time is 4.15am in Singapore. The first nights after long-haul flights are always like that. They make one sleepless. It takes time to adjust the body clock.
Some say you scrutinise the hour hand of the clock more intensely when you suffer insomnia; or in my case, dying. In fact, time is just about to tip headlong over the edge.
"Do what you need to do. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too," I said. "How much time would I have?"
"The spread is rapid."
A meaningless pause later (a minute of my life wasted), my doctor, who looked incredibly youthful, creased his brows and thoughtfully added, "Hard to say. Maybe three to four months more."
"Maybe," he replied, his eyes sad but knowing.
So this was it. I've come so far to end so soon.
Standing there watching the doctor mouth the words in a business-like tone, I thought of how other people elsewhere were also fed the same narrative by their doctors.
I imagined sorry repeated many times, first by the doctor who broke the news and then those around who learnt about your fate.
Meanwhile, life around you went on as your world coiled slowly out of sync with the rest of the universe.
As I went to the reception counter to collect my painkillers, I saw the Channel NewsAsia news on TV. It was running a segment on the birth of the seventh billionth inhabitant on earth (I came to learn in the papers days later that there was a disagreement as to whether the seventh billionth person was born in India or in the Philippines.)
I returned to my office, handed in my BlackBerry and said I was quitting on the spot. I repeated I could not afford to lose a single minute, but my superior could not fathom the gravity of my situation.
Another meaningless pause (another minute of my life wasted) later, he offered a sorry. He then piped in his usual funereal voice, asking if I could stay until my replacement was found as the department was short-handed, what with the swelling pile of paperwork sitting on my desk.
I said no. Taking a last look around, I drank in the lunchtime quiet of the office where I had spent a quarter of my life, and then left. That was it.
Berlin looks different from how it was 15 years ago. When I first came to study at Humboldt, the Wall had just been torn down six years earlier. Now, I see gleaming new apartments and buildings all around. A stone's throw away from Hilter's bunker, Pariser Platz is a tidy square dressed in a dapper show of solidarity or schadenfreude, depending on how you see it. The old Brandenburg Tor stands sentinel between the US and French embassies as if in a long-standing trilateral dialogue. Further down the road is the resurrected Adlon hotel where Michael Jackson once dangled his toddler out of the window for the whole world to see.
Venture further from this surreal square, and one can easily appreciate the "poor but sexy" city. Vagrants go around looking into the bins for glass bottles to collect. During winters, they press on, pointing their torchlights into bins as the skies darken and evenings glower sooner than usual. In summers, women cycle in short sundresses without a care in the world. Yet Berlin is a poorer cousin of other more seductive world capitals. Many of its streets and buildings are badly lit and the vehicle lots between handsome buildings are dotted with potholes.
The day I received the unfortunate news of my impending passing I got an e-mail from my former lover.
Her husband, a physics teacher, was moving to Munich to teach rocket science to trainee teachers. As she would be moving there with her husband and two young daughters, she asked me if I would like to have the books I had left with her.
Fifteen years on, I have yet to find the time to pick up those books. They were initially placed in the attic of her parents' home, and then in her own apartment's loft when she got married.
So here I am in Berlin again, but this time to pick up the books and to say goodbye to her – for good.
Having lived together for three years, we now know each other's deepest secrets. I tell her about my medical condition – there was none of the usual awkward silence I have with other folk. We hug for a long while, weep, kiss a little, make some salad and chat into the evening.
"I'm surprised you've decided to get married."
"He came along, we fell in love, and the rest is history," she answers matter-of-factly.
"Does he know?"
"I don't think he needs to know," she replies.
"Was there anyone else after me?" I ask a question I've long wanted to ask her, but never dared to.
"No one," she said. "You're special."
"We are special," I reply.
The books I had left behind with her in Berlin are all prescribed readings at Humboldt, except the last item on the list. The list reads:
We had read the books together in bed, in the bathtub and on the couch. We shared our books like the way we had shared our wardrobes. Sometimes, we read them aloud to each other. And then we would go under the sheets.
"Do you think we are heading towards a century of boredom?" She says now, looking up thoughtfully from the Hegel book she is holding.
"We can't rule that out, can we?" I say.
"The Wall has fallen. Liberalism has won. That's the end of history."
"Perhaps so," I echo.
"Are you happy with yourself all these years?" She suddenly asks.
It's a difficult question to answer.
I'd like to say that life would be picture-perfect if we had been together. But looking at her family pictures encrusted in the Swarovski crystals on the mantel in her immaculate apartment, there is little more I could say.
The hands of the clock are pointing to a quarter past 10 in the evening. Light snow is falling. The Berlin chill snaps everything into clarity. People hurry through the streets. The snow on the cobblestone pavement is the colour of cream lattes.
On the other side of the world, millions will soon stir from their slumber. It is 4.15am in Singapore. Soon, it's going to be daybreak. People will seek out air-conditioned refuge in offices or shopping malls.
First nights after long-haul flights are always like that. They make one sleepless. I watch Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen on TV. It's running a news story on how the world is experiencing peace in a scale unprecedented in history. Deaths in conflicts and wars, the experts argued, have been reduced by a thousand times over the centuries. I wonder how the story of the seventh billionth inhabitant will unfold. Your guess is as good as mine. Für mich, das ist Egal.
QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012