Bedtime Stories for a Grieving Child no. 4: Royal Holloway on Fiction

His wrinkles were gone. His crows’ feet only just starting to set in, the laugh lines around his mouth less pronounced than what I was used to. He wore his starched white business shirt, sweat faintly dripping down his brow, his hair just starting to recede. There he stood in his stiff work clothes, a handkerchief just peeping out of his pocket. 

“Well? Aren’t you going to invite me in?” Dad said, a hint of playfulness creeping into his voice. I smelt the cigarettes off his breath. There was pandan in the air somewhere. I tasted the ash in my mouth.

He accompanied me all the way to the hospital, making small comments about the old photos that I found in his old apartment, even after he separated from Mom. He kept the different rings that they wore during their marriage, tucked into a dusty corner of his cupboard. The ring he wore was the first one they wore, a zinc ring, made from the same materials of the roof he and Mom used to sleep under. It seemed like the heavens themselves were heaving and sobbing. Rain fell in a torrential downpour, and the earth stuck to the soles of our shoes, a cloak of mosquitoes and rainflies clinging onto us the whole way.

I met Jie at the taxi stand, and I asked her if she could see Dad. Her voice hitched and she looked away – I don’t understand why, he was right next to her – and she nodded. Along the way to the ward we talked quietly about life, walking slowly and savouring the oppressive humidity that crept into the corridors even with the endlessly slaving air-conditioners. I didn’t know there was another person following us, one who had to shuffle slowly with a walking stick, his back hunched from years of work, the scent of cigarettes long clinging to his person even after quitting so long ago. I didn’t know Jie carried another ring, this one made of gold; the same thing our parents would talk about in our kampung. 

“Please, come in. She’s not conscious just yet, but you can still see her for just a bit,” Dr Rajiv said quietly. 

Mom’s ward was private, with warm yellow light breaking the monotony of the sterile fluorescent white lights littering the hallways. Fresh jasmine flowers sat in the corner of the room. I took one out of the vase and looked out the window. Jie sat next to Mom and started talking. 

Singapore is always moving. I used to say that the national animal of our country wasn’t the lion or merlion, or whatever fabricated nonsense the government fed us. It was the crane. That huge yellow unsightly arm perched over a tropical rainforest, caging birds and selling us dreams of class mobility. The smell of the jasmine reminded me of my time in the Army, not of the purity and love that old wives tell each other what flowers mean, but of sweat, blood and fear in a jungle. A jungle that was home, but not, and of warnings of the ghosts of young wives who died in childbirth. I never understood why Mom liked it so much. Or Dad.

“-if you hadn’t left. Why did you leave? You left us all alone, left us to rust and rot here. Were you ashamed of us? Or were you just too afraid to confront whatever demons you have? You know you can turn to us. Just speak to me. Speak to us, please. Kor!”

At that time, I couldn’t tell who was speaking. When I turned around, I saw a withered corpse in the bed, four white chrysanthemums in hand. I saw Jie furious and frustrated, mascara running slightly, standing up and looking away. I saw Dad smoking a cigarette in the corner, lipstick at the corner of his mouth, staring at the ground. I saw myself at the door, backpack slung over my shoulders, hands and arms not of my skin pulling at my shirt. I looked down at my hand. I had crushed the jasmine.

Dr Rajiv ushered us out soon after. There were words that promised another visit, soon. The words still couldn’t pierce the haze that had befallen me. That had befallen us. Jie couldn’t stand to look at me. I couldn’t stand to look anywhere else but the sky. When we reached the taxi stand, the rain started to let up a bit. 

Jie looked at me and jabbed two fingers sharply into my side. 

“Kai should be done with school by now. We can have a drink at mine,” She said, looking away just as I winced and turned towards her. 

At the kopitiam beneath Jie’s flat we picked up lunch and drinks. Her flat was small, but plants and flowers crowded the entrance. It felt like we were back in Lye Kwee, when things were simpler. A single diploma hung on the wall, framed up. We ate quietly and quickly, not talking or forcing anything. We talked as I cleared the dishes, Jie pouring the drinks into mugs. 

We stopped talking, interrupted by Kai walking into the flat, dropping his schoolbag on the floor and groaning a quiet assalamualaikum, peeling his shoes off. He ran to hug Jie, only to be shoved away. 

“Socks off! And you smell. Are you forgetting someone?” Jie said pointedly. Kai sighed and smooched my hand loudly. I couldn’t help but laugh. I don’t know whether it was disbelief that my sister was still Muslim, or if it was because I felt a sharp pain in my heart. One that felt too much like the past.

As Jie nagged at Kai, I looked over to the kitchen counter, and saw Dad as I left him close to over a decade ago. There was no cigarette now, and he was smiling at the counter looking at the drinks we had bought. 

“My favourite. Kopi C siew dai. You still remember?”

“Of course, I do. It’s our favourite too. It’s not hard to remember that.”

“I’m glad.”

Photo credit: Photo by Thyla Jane on Unsplash