I will stay in this attic now, if she moves I will know. This is a small house and I live here with her. There are three rooms to this house, one for her daughter, one for her granddaughter, and one for herself. I am only given this small bed, which is leaned against the window, so that if I open the curtains my body would be exposed.
The flat is situated along the main road and I can hear the sound of the traffic at muffled levels, depending on the time of the day. At night it is slightly louder when you don't hear the rest of the background noises. In the middle of the day you can hear the children playing in the background if you happen to be in the other part of the house. And early in the morning you can hear the loud chirping of the birds. The birds migrate and gather together to make a lot of noise so that if you use your imagination you might think that you are in the middle of a jungle.
She doesn't know who I am. She thinks that I am her daughter. Sometimes maybe even her granddaughter. Other times she calls me by my actual name “Mei”. Whenever she calls me “Mei” I will answer her immediately, loud enough for her to hear it and to register it at once. She is a little deaf but often I find that she can hear every word that I say.
I have been speaking to her in my normal tone, not raising it to make it more audible. I often forget that she is an old woman for she looks like she is only in her early seventies. But her daughter tells me that she is already past eighty and suffering from dementia. And that is why I am here.
I like old people. I find that they have a certain charm because they are somewhat detached from this world. News of natural disasters doesn't seem to bother them, as though by the time the typhoon arrives they would no longer be around to see their houses destroyed. If you tell them that there is this new disease called the Ebola they would just ask you if you have gone for the vaccination. Nothing flusters them. They are as firm as rock.
She asked for a glass of water. I went straight into the kitchen and I poured out a glass. She likes the crystal glass and would only drink from that. I have tried serving her with the ordinary plain plastic cups that we have here and she rejected my water. So I don't think that she is suffering from dementia.
I watched her finish her water, then I took the glass from her and I brought it to the sink to wash. There were at least half a dozen dishes at the sink, unwashed, and I am tempted to run the water and soap on them. But I told myself that I would do it later. When Celine her daughter has come back she would attend to it.
Celine is a middle-aged woman with spectacles. I describe her as such because her spectacles define her personality. She changes her spectacles according to her clothes. She has about seventy pairs of different colors and designs in her wardrobe and she matches one with her outfit every day. The spectacles I know are not cheap. Most of them I think cost at least three to four hundred dollars a pair. I made a quick calculation of the amount she would have spent and it came up to around twenty-five thousand dollars. Gosh!
Compared to Celine, I think I look slightly better as I don’t need spectacles. But I don’t have a boyfriend. Celine seems to be engaged in an affair. I do not know whom she is dating but I know that the man seems to be very interested in her. Celine is not young; her daughter is already in the university.
I want to go to the kitchen and wash up but I dare not. I am waiting for Celine to come back before I take a shower. The weather is hot and I could really change into something comfortable like a pair of shorts and a loose T-shirt. No one told me to dress in this white nursing uniform but I decided that I must wear it in order to remind myself that I am at work. In a home environment it is easy to forget that you are doing the job of a caregiver.
I didn't have to apply for this job. I was already looking after the old lady in the hospice before I came here. Then when it looked as though the old lady wasn't going to die it was the most natural thing for her daughter to engage me to continue to care for her mother. It was easier when I had to look after the old woman in the hospice for the facilities are there. There were also nurses on duty who can relief me if I went to the toilet. I could take my shower at any time for instance.
Now I look at the clock. It is only three p.m. and is another three hours before Celine arrives. I always look forward to her cherry greeting as she steps in. "Hello," followed by "I am back!" she yells. Usually we don't answer, we just notice her walking in and we continue with our activities. She has her own set of house keys. Celine takes off her shoes and she walks straight to her own room. She plugs the cable into her iPhone and she charges it.
She does not switch on her computer; she collects her clothes then heads straight for the bathroom. I marvel at the speed with which she takes her shower. Within seconds she comes out refreshed and is ready for another long day at home. I call it a long day because the old lady doesn’t sleep early. She moves between the living and the dining rooms and she watches television. I have to pretend to be interested in the programs that she is following on the various channels.
I have followed Celine’s instruction to put everything on timetable and to run everything on schedule. It is as though the household were a plane running on autopilot. I am beginning to wonder if Celine wants to dispense with me. Once I finish compiling the entire timetable on how the household is being run, Celine can just use the list and hire someone else to take my place at no inconvenience to herself.
All she needs to do is hand over my file and then the new housekeeper can take over. I feel a little uncomfortable at this. But Celine seems not to care if I am worried about it at all. Perhaps she is not thinking of replacing me, and hence it does not occur to her that I am feeling insecure. Maybe I haven’t raised any objections. I have only started working for her since April and it is only August now less than six months into the job. It is just time for settling in, still too early for a resignation. Probation is at least six months for most jobs at any organization. I decided to give Celine the benefit of the doubt.
Tonight Celine ordered pizza from the Pizza Hut on the telephone. The operator told her it would arrive within forty-five minutes and I was told not to cook. Relieved I was, for by the time Celine came home it was already six-thirty and the beef wasn’t thawed yet. Today is Friday and we have run out of food. I was given Wednesday and Saturday to go to the market and I had bought just enough to last till tonight.
By right I should have prepared the beef but I usually waited for Celine to give instructions before I take the food out from the fridge. So far she has given me the menu for Mondays and Tuesdays. On Monday nights she told me from now on it would be sweet and sour pork and fried Kang Kong (a Malay delicacy) and for Tuesday nights, Assam fish and broccoli with scallops. These were to be standard dishes until further notice. I know that once Celine is satisfied with my style of cooking the dish she would place it on set menu. This gives me less chance to maneuver.
So I was keeping the beef for tomorrow Saturday’s lunch, in case there was no chance to go to the market. At least then there is still food in the fridge. I should have bought some chicken but then I ran out of money. Anyway, Celine tells me that I should always check with her first before I started to cook, as sometimes she may not come back for dinner. If this were the case, then all I need do is open one packet of instant noodles and add boiled water to it.
I love instant noodles, especially the Korean ones. Their flavor is hot and spicy and it is enough to fill my stomach. I don’t eat much anyway. All I need is a cup of hot Japanese tea to accompany my meal and I am rejuvenated. Work here is not too demanding but needs a lot of initiative. I need to read the old lady and guess what she wants. She does not tell me.
I like this job. Compared to my previous job at the hospital this is a much better environment. No nasty colleagues and no wicked Let Me Stay Story by Lee Su Min 6 supervisor who gives you work just before it is time to rest. My hours are relaxed; so long as the old lady has gone to bed, I can do anything I like. Housework can be left undone for days on end. Nobody tells me what to do except Celine. And Celine is always polite to me. She never scolds me or treats me like a maid, which basically I am, now with the kind of duties I am landed with.
My official status in this household is that of a nurse but in effect I also perform the duties of a helper. Helpers are servants, but nursing is a profession. You have to go through a course in order to be qualified as a nurse but you don’t need to acquire any skills in order to be a housemaid. I am proud to be called a nurse but I am a little ashamed at being known as a maid. That was why I did not take on this job readily the moment Celine sounded me out.
I prefer sick people to old people. Old people are not always sick. With sick people the fact that they are ill means that they are incapacitated and that makes them harmless. I grew up in a family of four. My mother disowned me at birth for she tells me that when she was pregnant with me my father met with a car accident and died, so I was a bad omen to her. My siblings hate me because of that and are always trying in every way to outsmart me.
Whenever I have good news about anything they took it to my mother first so that I am being deprived of being the bearer of the good news. Apart from that they never speak to me. Decisions regarding birthday dinners and visiting of the relatives were always made without me and I am always told at the last minute. Sometimes not even told about it at all. Not surprisingly I wasn’t informed of the dinner celebration of my mother’s seventieth birthday. I had bought her two dozen pink carnations, her favorite flowers but when I arrived home from the florist I found that the vase which usually kept her flowers was broken. The carnations wilted away in the wrapper after one day.
The next month, my mother passed away of liver poisoning. Dutifully I made payments for all the funeral arrangements although I wasn’t the one who planned for the entire ritual. My mother left me with nothing but the watch that my father gave her. When she was alive, she used to remark, designed to hurt, that she was looking for the time on this watch when my father failed to come home on time, and later found out that indeed he would never come home. “Time had stood still for me since”.
I could understand her grief, as it was not just the departure of a husband, but also that of a shelter and provider. My mother never worked and she didn’t know how to earn a living. My eldest brother was about to enter university and because of that he had to go out and work and he enrolled as a police cadet. My mother often remarked that if not because of her fear in God she would have aborted me.
I don’t grudge her for that. That is the way in which my family treats me. In their own subtle hurtful manner, they tell me that I shouldn’t have been around. That is why I put my entire mind into my job, and now this family. I never asked Celine if she had any siblings, it seems that she is the only child.
But I can see that she has someone else. Celine is not married now. I mean that she is not the one who makes decisions on most matters. She tells me one thing, and then she walks away. Half an hour later she comes back either to change her mind or to confirm it with me again, as though what she said earlier has no weight. Yes, Celine likes to make impromptu suggestions that are to be ignored.
Between Celine and I there is no friction. Our roles are clear. She is the lady boss and I the subordinate. I don’t mind it even if her friend Steven, who lives downstairs, thinks that I am her maid. But actually I did mind it. That is why I made sure that I put on this white nursing uniform all the time to demonstrate that my role is that of a nurse, although housework is also part of my job. No, I don’t get paid extra as a housekeeper. My salary as a nurse is quite a substantial amount. Celine tells me that she will share the household chores with me.
Like now, I am waiting for her to come home so that I can move away from the old lady and wash the cups and the dirty plates from this afternoon’s lunch. I am getting a little bored listening to the BBC. The news announcement has come on the second time on the same news events.
It is good for the morale to be looking after sick people because they seem so helpless, being incapacitated by their illness. Old people fall within this category because they either cannot hear or that they cannot move around easily. Sometimes they are also forgetful. In a more severe form we call it dementia. There is also a disease called Alzheimer’s; I can’t quite distinguish between the two but I was told that the old lady suffers from one of the two.
Frankly speaking I don’t think that she is ill at all, difficult maybe but not ill. She seems to be lucid all the time. And I am beginning to think that she calls me “Celine” deliberately. Last night I stayed by her and listened to one of the BBC plays until midnight and at the end of the story I asked her if she knew who the “uninvited guest” in the play was in order to test her. She answered very well, which means that she understood the plot from beginning to end. So her concentration lasted for three hours, which was remarkable.
Which reminds me, I am also supposed to do a report on the old lady’s sleeping hours. I can write down her waking hours and the time when she decides to go to bed. But times when she just dozes off it is difficult to pin down. I must do it more conscientiously. My salary is good and I don’t want to lose this job. But something nags at me, as though something bad is about to happen. I don’t know what it is but I am getting more and more uneasy as the days go by. For instance, Celine telling me to make a menu for the entire week and then repeating the same dishes the next week. And then why would she want to know exactly when her mother falls asleep? I put the thought aside and decided to talk to Celine about it tonight to ally my fears.
Tonight Celine came home after we’ve had our dinner. It was a Monday night and so we were having the usual sweet and sour pork from the menu. Nothing unusual happened except that she was late, which was unusual. I toyed with the idea of telling Celine that we could use with a steam iron. But Celine stayed in the bedroom for quite a long while before she came out with a set of clothes to change into. I saw her holding the set of clothes; they were a pair of jeans and a long sleeve blouse, which means that she is going out again.
It is not right of me to ask her where she is going, as I am just an employee. But she rarely went out at night, not after a long day at work. Often she is on the telephone with someone, or in front of her PC doing work. But this time Celine came home before midnight.
Last Friday night the Pizza man came without fuss punctually at 7:30 p.m., within forty-five minutes of our placing the order. By now I recognize the deliveryman as the same Muslim guy who comes around to this area at Bukit Timah. He dresses in a bright red short sleeved shirt with the Pizza Hut logo and a pair of black trousers. I tried to take the box of pre-packed pizza from him but Celine rushed out from the bedroom and took the box from him directly and gave him the payment on the spot.
He took the money and I could see that he was surprised that it was the exact change. The amount I saw later on was 17 dollars and 65 cents, which Celine prepared in advance. People don’t usually have that amount in small change. I saw Celine take the pizza away and put it on the dining table for the old lady who was just sitting down on one of the chairs. Celine had told me to leave this dinning chair always pulled out for her mother so that she could sit on it without having the trouble to pull it out first. I found it very thoughtful of Celine.
There are many ways in which Celine manages the household, which made me admire her. I have come to the conclusion that she is a very organized person. She seems to run her life according to a preset timetable and she prepares a schedule for every event. I wonder if you could call her after 10:00 p.m. and invite her out for a heart-to-heart talk at the bar. And yes you could. There was one night that Jonathan rang and she left almost immediately after his call.
Jonathan is the guy whom Celine talks with over the phone almost every night. I have not met him in person and so I do not know what he looks like. I guess him to be a man of about forty and well educated. On Valentine’s day I saw Celine come home with a bunch of peach roses and later on when she went for her shower I was curious enough to keep at it and I found this name “Jonathan” on the card stuck to the stems. I wished someone would give me something like that too. But that does not seem to be my luck.
There was something odd about the Pizza man and Celine. It seems that Celine always had the exact change for him, and Celine does not allow me to accept delivery of the fast food. I noticed that instead of having her shower immediately after she comes home, which is her habit, Celine sat by the living room and waited until after the man has come and gone before she went into her shower. So Celine remembers that every Friday night we have pizza for dinner and she was always home on time on Fridays at before 6:30 p.m.
The flowers, which Jonathan gave Celine has wilted and I was told by Celine to go out and buy a vase. “Not too tall and square,” Celine specified. Vases are usually round and cylindrical, square ones are hard to find. Nevertheless, I managed to get one for her at 46 dollars. I made her pay for it, as I know that it was meant for Jonathan’s roses and frankly items like this are too extravagant for me. In my mother’s house we never had fresh flowers, or flowers for that matter. I am envious of Celine my boss.
Since then the flowers came at regular intervals. “Mom likes peach colored roses,” Celine remarked and she put the vase in the old lady’s room. Three days later Celine went on the Internet and placed a standing order for ten stalks of roses every week for one year. I saw her make the online payment when I peeped into her computer screen when I was supposed to be giving her a cup of hot green tea. My boss likes Japanese tea as much as I do.
As I was always curious as to Celine’s activities, I linger a while to enjoy the nice cool breeze of her air-conditioning. I wished that I could change places with her, that I led hers and she led mine. I very much want to change out of this set of nursing uniform and wear the fashionable dresses that would make me look glamorous. Although I am not pretty I think I fare better than Celine, with and without makeup. For one I don’t wear spectacles.
“Maybe Celine thinks that I am interested in the Pizza man,” I told myself.
Otherwise why would she intercept me whenever I want to deal with the guy? It is just a matter of collecting the dinner and sending the guy off. And in any case, isn’t she involved with Jonathan? No, Celine doesn’t tell me about her love affairs, she doesn’t even talk to her mother at all. Most of the time the atmosphere is silent and awkward, except when the television set is on.
The television comes with a large LCD display and dominates the entire living area. I would love to lower the volume in case it is too loud for the neighbors. But Celine told me not to change the settings on the remote control. So I usually turn on the television and then leave the remote control with the old lady and let her use it to change the channels and to turn it on and off. These days nobody uses the on-off power switch anymore.
The days go by and the household is getting more and more organized. The menu from Mondays to Sundays has been set and I know exactly what to cook for the three of us. Fridays the Pizza man comes and we eat out of the box. Celine arrives home at between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. and she does not go out anymore. Jonathan hasn’t been calling since he bought her the roses. And the old lady watches television if she is not asleep on the chair. Whenever I find that she has fallen asleep on the sofa I would wake her up and ask her to go and lie down on the bed, to catch a good proper snooze.
Often I wish that I could change the menu, or get the Kentucky Fried Chicken man to come instead of the Pizza man, to change out of the monotony of things. Celine now has my salary increased and paid directly from her bank account instead of giving me a check, thus giving me the indication that my salary will not be raised for at least sometime. As I said, I’d rather work here than in the hospice. I have only just one patient to contend with. But that is also no good, as I am solely responsible for the wellbeing of the old lady.
If something bad happens to her I am the first one to be blamed. Thank God she has been healthy so far. And I have given up trying to determine if she can remember who I am. If she thinks that I am Celine her daughter that means that she is pleased with me, and if she calls me by her granddaughter’s name I take it that I looked too young that day. So I have dropped the habit of pinning my name tag with my name “Mei” onto my white nursing uniform. And on my first anniversary April 6, I have stopped wearing my working clothes and instead I put on my casual outfit. That day, I waited anxiously for Celine after work to see me in an ordinary yellow T-shirt and jeans. She took no notice of me.
I have been saving up quite a bit of money. I do not take my rest day since a year ago, as I have no home to go to. My mother is deceased and she was the only person whom I cared about in my family. As I mentioned, my siblings and I have very poor relations and I would be surprised if anyone of them rang me up for a meeting. I treat Celine and the old lady as family and like them I am looking forward to the return of Celine’s daughter, the old lady’s granddaughter, from the U.S. I was told that her parents divorced when she was a year old. Celine never makes any reference to her ex-husband.
In any case, I know that Jonathan is her boyfriend now. But lately there is no sign of Jonathan. I can see Celine talking on the telephone every night as before and I am sure that it is Jonathan on the other end. But my boss’s love affair is none of my business. So long as he doesn’t call her out late at night after dinner I don’t really care. If she goes out late at night I would have to wait for her to return before I could lock up and go to bed.
Tonight is Friday night again and I am glad I did not have to cook. I sat down by the old lady and waited for her to finish her glass of water before I poured her another one. I made sure she drinks enough water for 70% of our body constitution is made of water. Without water we cannot survive. So the old lady is given water throughout the day, apart from her regular meals.
Soon Celine will be home and she would take care of the Pizza man. My job is simple today. We eat out of the box so all I needed to do was to throw the box away and clear away the Japanese tea that I serve for dinner. I felt quite relaxed so when Celine came home I didn’t even take notice. The television was on and the screen was flashing news of the Ebola crises. Many people are told to shun travel.
I thought I heard the water run in the shower. And I thought I saw a man in red T-shirt and black pants come and go. Then I saw the box of pizza on the dining table. This doesn’t seem congruous. If Celine had accepted the pizza, then she couldn’t have been bathing at the same time. Who paid the deliveryman? The old lady was asleep in her room. As usual she dozed off at 5:00 p.m. It would be cruel to wake her up just to have her meal. Old people need sleep and if I were hungry I could start eating first. But it is not polite to do so.
And so I waited. I decided to turn on the television, to let the sound from the television to gently wake up the old lady. I know I am not supposed to adjust the volume so I went to shut the door in case it is too loud for the neighbors. Then I realized something strange. The door should not have been opened.
Why was it unlocked? Oh yes, the Pizza man came. But I thought he was supposed to be the same guy? The one who usually delivered pizza was not the same one whom I saw just now. This guy was not Malay looking. That seems strange. And the water in the shower is still running, shouldn’t Celine have finished her bath by now? Slowly I let the sound of the smooth running of the water draw me to the bathroom, and something made me knock on the door.
“Are you alright?” I spoke in a raised voice, above the sound of the running water in case she couldn’t hear me.
I found the door slightly ajar, which was unusual if someone was bathing so I pushed it open a little, then a little more. No one was inside!
Celine has left. That was the first thought that occurred to me. This woman has left her mother with me, and she has run off with the Pizza man. Then I thought that it could not have been the Pizza man, it must have been Jonathan. Celine created a pattern whereby someone comes around every Friday night so that when Jonathan himself came I won’t have been alarmed. She needed Jonathan to help her with the luggage.
Jonathan delivered the pizza personally tonight and collected Celine at the same time. Whatever it is, I am now left with the old lady in this house. The clock on the wall showed 8:20 p.m. The food is cold by now. I must have waited for at least an hour before the realization took effect. I have been deserted.
Slowly I shut the front door and locked it at the same time. Then I went into Celine’s room to tidy up. I know that she would leave a note or something for me. True enough, there was a piece of pink paper with some words scribbled on it:
“I have left with Jonathan. Don’t tell mom. You can take my place from now on. I will be back for Christmas.”
This was only April. The first thing I did was to check on her spectacles. Most of the seventy pairs were gone. In slow motion I unfolded her nice fluffy quilt and I climbed underneath to lie down for a while to enjoy to snuggly feeling. Then I took the remote control and turned on the air-conditioning.
The temperature has always been set to 22 degrees C. The cool air satisfied me. And then I got up and I walked straight to the old lady, who has the remote control of the television by her side. I took the little gadget and I lowered the volume. If the television had not been so loud I might have heard the Pizza man come and go. I might even have met Jonathan and seen what he looks like. But would it have prevented him from taking Celine away?
No, I do not regret any of this. As I said before, I don’t have a family. This benign old lady is my family now. Thank God she didn’t die in the hospice.
Today is Boxing Day, if Celine is to return she would have been here by now. And I am happy that she did not. Come next April my second anniversary at this job I am going to get myself baptized as a Catholic and I am going to give myself the Christian name “Celine”. Who knows? Celine may never come back.
I am sure that in Jonathan she has found a new lease of life. They have probably gone straight to the U.S. from Singapore to meet with Celine’s daughter. And now I have once again found my mother, the mother that I have always wanted, one that accepts me as I am and never blames me for her husband’s death.
The fact that this old lady also has half a million dollars in her savings account is immaterial.
Hope you enjoyed the story you've just read. I wish to write more stories to amuse my readers!