The woman with the umbrella
No Time to Die
Every morning I woke up thinking that today was yesterday.
I woke up this morning and found several people waiting for me. I didn’t know any of them.
I took time to survey the surroundings. The walls were wallpapered, the furniture a dark oak colour, giving the entire room an English Laura Ashley feel. I was no expert in interior designing, but I could tell that this was an expensive house.
“Rosalind! Ethan is awake.” A woman spoke to the other woman who stood next to her.
“Laura, not to worry, I will look after him from now on,” the woman said. I meant, Rosalind said.
“How do you feel?” One of them lowered his head and asked me. Then I saw three persons standing by my bed.
“Huh?” I whispered.
My entire body was weak and my head a cloud, as though someone had given me a bottle of Volka the night before.
I didn’t normally drink. In fact, I didn’t drink at all.
What did I do last night? I couldn’t recall.
So I looked at the man dressed in blue, and I said, “I need a glass of water,”
That was the best thing I could ask for. But then I added, “coffee is better.”
“No problem,” the man in blue said.
“I think he is out of danger now,” Rosalind said.
I remembered coming here before. I didn’t remember coming here before.
As I tried to recall where I was I looked at my surroundings - beige wallpaper with small flowers and a small clock on the wall. The clock was hexagon with a thick white frame. I almost felt like I was the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
“Tea will be served punctually at 3:00 p.m. every day,” the blue man said to me.
“Huh? What time is it now?” I needed to know if I were waking up from the night’s sleep or having just got up from an afternoon nap. I knew that I had been asleep for a long while, for as long as I could remember.
Who was the last person I spoke to before I went to bed? Gosh! I couldn’t remember.
I remembered the house that I used to live in. The sun shone over the trees and into the gardens without fail. Whenever you inclined your ears to the sound of life you could hear the birds chirping happily. The windows of the houses were shut so that the sunrays reflected from it and gave the entire house a feeling of warm hot air.
I didn’t normally go for walks but suddenly I felt the urge. I tried to get up, and the blue man caught my arm. I thought that he was trying to help me get out of the bed but actually he was just holding me to sit upright.
“No, you can’t go out like this, not in this state,” the blue man said.
I didn’t know him, and why was he telling me what to do? But I thought it best not to speak now. My throat was dry.
The other two just stood there, on standby waiting for instructions from him.
“Turn on the television,” I ordered the blue man.
Dutifully he went to the television set. The remote control lying by the console. He picked it up, and then he handed it to me when I thought he was going to turn it on.
Quite pissed off, I dropped the gadget on my lap. Just at this time one of the other two spoke.
“He is still having the concussion after the car accident,”
“Why not?” I asked.
The two looked at each other. I think they were Rosalind and Laura.
I didn’t know what time I went to bed last night. All I knew was that I had a good night’s rest. I woke up feeling quite refreshed, but I didn’t see anybody this morning when I woke up. And I saw a bear sitting on the sofa chair in the room.
A bouquet of mixed flowers was lying in a vase large enough to sit on the floor for some potted plants.
The thing that disturbed me was that there was no one here to greet me this morning. Maybe I woke up too late and that they had all come and gone.
I tried to move my legs a little but they were numb. Only the upper half of my body was working. I stretched out my hand to pick up the glass of water by the bedside, as that seemed to be the only thing to do right now. A long string with a bell attached was by the side of my bed. I thought of whether I should call for someone. But I didn’t want to be a nuisance right now.
Outside the sun was bright and I could see some trees a distance away. Just at this time, I caught sight of a woman knocking at the window.
“You want to come in?” I asked her but I was sure that she couldn’t hear me. So I raised my voice, “You want to come in?”
A woman in pink uniform came in immediately. “Sir, you called?” she asked.
I set the alarm for waking up in eight hours’ time. But when I woke up I found that I had overslept by another three hours so that my total hours of sleep for drinking alcohol beforehand was altogether eleven hours.
I went to the toilet and saw a woman scrubbing the floor.
“I want to go out,” I said.
“You could ask to leave but then the rest of the residents would say that you were mad.”
By mad I think she meant crazy. I forgot that I was recovering from a car accident. Was I the only survivor?
I told myself to be calm, “by dawn tomorrow I should be able to get out,” I was sure. But to where? I was in my own house!
Dinner was served not long after I woke up. The lady serving the food was systematic and had our names by the side of the tray. Tightly wrapped in cellophane the food was transported from some kitchen not located in these premises, if my guess was correct.
I was allergic to some foods, like oysters. They looked awful and have a strong iron smell. It was not that I have not tried them before. I did but I did not like it. So I never went near oysters again. Luckily the food was easily recognizable. You could always see some blood stains oozing out from the meat.
After a long tussle with my digestion system I became sleepy but I didn’t want to go to sleep. Having to keep oneself awake was a chore and almost impossible when you were sleepy.
We all needed sleep, but not all of us needed so much sleep.
They said that when you were depressed you saw everything in grey, that for instance, pink flowers appeared to you as blue or lavender, that everything was exaggerated. In practical terms, it was as though you put a layer of thin colored film over everything you saw. The world was less happy, and the log cake less creamy.
I was no expert in the illness, in fact I didn’t think that depression was an illness at all. I just happened to turn on the television and I saw this documentary. And then just as I was about to turn it off the blue man came in. He said it was time he took my blood pressure.
I didn’t know what that was for and why I needed it, I rolled up my sleeve for him, before he had any chance to call the nurse to come in. I didn’t want too many people in my room. It gave me the feeling as though I was about to die, and giving my survivors my last words.
The blue man didn’t come in with his stethoscope so I was sure that he wasn’t a doctor. Doctors didn’t measure blood pressure. It was considered to be a menial task.
I called him the blue man as he never wore any other color in all of the appearances.
After all that fuss, my blood pressure appeared to be normal. No reason why it should not. My blood pressure had always been normal. And I have not been doing any exercises that would pump up the measure. As a matter of fact, I had been in bed since I woke up the other day.
After one week of confinement, I realized that there was no need to make any distinction between being awake and being asleep. I was in bed anyway.
I got restless. And I wanted to see the rest of the world there - outside my window.
The woman that knocked on my window has since stopped coming. And the stains of bird shit on the window had been removed without my knowledge.
Apart from watching television and having my meals, I had no other activity. All I wanted was someone to talk to. So I asked the blue man when he came in again, if I could go out and meet some of the other people staying here. He said yes.
This morning Rosalind came in with a smile on her face. I happened to be seated on the chair having my morning coffee. The manner in which she tidied up my sheets and arranged the pillows was very businesslike. I watched her in silence and then I opened my mouth,
“Are you new?”
I think she heard me but she did not answer. So I ventured again.
“Are you newly assigned to my room?” making my question clearer.
This time she answered.
“No, Sir,” and then she continued using her feather duster to clean the rest of the furniture in the room. There were very few pieces, so that by the time she was done with my side table, she had to come over to where I was seated to clean.
“I want to go out to the gardens,” I felt this to be the right time to be making my request. “No, Sir, you can’t,” she replied.
“Why not?” I asked.
She had no answer to that so she quickly dropped her chores and proceeded to the door. I almost wanted to get up from my chair to block her from going out. But I was too weak. My muscle wasn’t taking my orders.
I sank back into my chair and I think I wanted to call someone to complain.
I poked my head out of the large swing door and stepped back into my room when I saw a woman in pink seated at a counter. The heavy wooden door swung back into place and locked me in again.
No one told me I couldn’t go out. It was just that I didn’t feel it proper to do so. By proper I meant that I had no good reason to be outside. The room was contained and compact. It had everything that I needed – a television set and a sofa chair together with a bed and also that I need not go outside to use the toilet.
Oh yes, Rosalind hasn’t come in today to ruffle my bedsheets.
And that was what I had to go out for. But now I was back in. Since I remembered what I was trying to do, I made another attempt to go out again.
This time I ventured beyond the service counter. No one bothered about me. I was quite happy to be walking along the corridor and then I suddenly discovered that I had not brought my slippers with me. Immediately I rushed back to my room.
When I came back into my room, I found the blue man waiting for me. I knew what he was here for.
He wanted me to write my will.
Since that day, I have not seen the woman knocking at my window. I was actually waiting for her, since having someone causing a commotion in my area was an event that I looked forward to. I was getting bored. Having no pressing matters, anything was welcome.
Speaking of the devil, the woman appeared at my window again.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” I thought I heard her say.
I went straight to the window. There was no catch. All the panels were sealed tight. That was strange! Every window must have an opening. What was the purpose of a window when it could not open? I couldn’t think of a good reason and then I waved at the woman to acknowledge the fact that I saw her from inside. I wanted to ask her where she came from, and how she came to be here also.
I was happy to be here, as I couldn’t recall where I used to be staying, as though my life began from this room. Nothing in the past mattered. It was just too troublesome to recall.
This afternoon I found an oyster in my tray. I didn’t eat the food and so I had to call someone to remove it from my plate, although I could have eaten around it, meaning to say that I ate everything else on the plate and left the morsel untouched. I threw the oyster out and put it on the table.
“Sir, it hasn’t past its expiry date,” Rosalind commented when she came in later to remove the tray.
“When was the expiry date?” automatically I asked.
“1st December,” as though I didn’t know the year, she added,
And then I went back to the television. There didn’t seem to have more than two channels. I was getting bored with just the Korean drama and the kids channel. What has happened to the rest of the world?
Have I just died? This seemed to be heaven - no need to report to work, no compulsory meetings, no need to record minutes. But hey, they said that heaven was a place where you need only sing and worship. I quickly grabbed the remote control to get the current news.
Ok, since I was in heaven now. When did I ascend? And then I suddenly remembered my Rosary. I groped for it under my pillow for this was the place I always kept it. Oh but that was not this bed. With a faint tinge of hope, I went to my bed and pulled out my pillow, the pillow had light pink flowers. But this was not my point, the point was that I saw my Rosary, right there staring at me.
Who put it there? As now I realized that I had not been sleeping on my own bed all along. Whose bed was this? Whose house was this?
Today my lunch turned out to be curry chicken. I remembered that at the beginning of the week, I was given a chart to choose my menu for the week. And I distinctly remembered that curry chicken wasn’t on the list. What happened to the pork chop and sour fish?
And then I saw a banana. No, it was not unusual to see a banana. We have bananas in Singapore, we are a tropical city. But that the one that I saw which came with my food on the tray was half black, almost ready to be thrown away. What made the kitchen staff think that it was edible?
All food on the tray must be eaten. Otherwise I might not be served again. I was told that throwing food away was a sin. Many people in the third world countries were starving and more die out of hunger. I looked at the banana, and the banana looked at me. Finally, I gave in. I took it, peeled out the skin and I started to eat it.
I swore at the cook. I swore at the lady who brought in the tray. I swore at the man who read the television. And finally I swore at my parents. And then I knew that that was it. It could not have been their doing as they were long gone.
What message was the kitchen trying to convey to me? Was the kitchen trying to tell me that I have been eating too much fruits? Or were they trying to tell me that I was a yellow banana, making fun of me for the fact that I spoke no Chinese.
Yes, I was English educated. I spoke only English even though I was Chinese. But that has nothing to do with my current state of affairs. I was here because I sold my house. My house was sold because I had to leave. But why did I have to leave?
Laura came to see me today. Nowadays usually I didn’t remember people by their names. It was hard. I could never remember from where I last saw them. And I often had to ask them for the context in which I last met them before I could talk to them properly.
She came with a set of papers for me to sign. I saw the document and remembered that I had to sign the same things before. So why this time again? And then I looked at the title:
The Will of Ethan Fong Seng Nam
Oh yeah, this was a will drafted by me. I scrambled for the date and found that it was 12 June 2015. I was to put my signature down for the sale of my property known as Bali Green. Bali Green was where I lived. So this was not Bali Green?!
“No, I don’t want to sign this,” I protested.
“But you had agreed,” Laura said.
“I don’t remember,” I put my pen down.
Laura’s face turned white, as she was completely flabbergasted.
Just at this time my tea came in. A scone set and a cup of tea. I had ordered English Breakfast. There were some black spots on the scones.
“Why the black spots?” I took this opportunity to raise an objection.
“Sir, they are raisins,” Laura looked at me with disgust. And I read her: are you an idiot?
Laura left without my signature.
Perhaps if Laura didn’t give me the document yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to recall that I had a house …. and that I was staying in a hospital now. But was this my new house? This place seemed like a hotel more than a hospital, too many people bubbling in here. For one, I didn’t have food brought into my room before.
Finally, when I had decided that I wanted to see Laura again, I informed the blue man. The blue man was handy. He was always ready to help me with my request. And the funny thing was that I still didn’t know what his role was in this entire set up.
I lived day to day. I decided it best not to ask too many questions. Life was tolerable if not wonderful. Everything seemed to be running smoothly. The lady came in and tidied my sheets every morning. She took my dirty towels out to wash. I observed her. She seemed quite happy at her job. She ruffled my sheets with a kind of enthusiasm that made one think that she will be amply rewarded afterwards. And she was rather fast at tugging the lines back into their respective corners.
I couldn’t say that I was happy about this state of affairs. Neither was I unhappy about it. I let things pass. I let the world go by. The news on television did not affect me too much.
And then news came that Prince Harry was to marry the American actress Meghan Markle. That cheered me up tremendously - not that I was going to be invited to their wedding ceremony. It was just a piece of cheerful news. I guess unless it affected the ordinary world, it won’t go into the news. But what was an ordinary world?
My house was sold, and therefore my world was different now. And then I met with a car accident during the course of the transaction.
I got up from bed almost immediately, wanting to go back to my own house. I meant, my old house. My favorite furniture was there. They followed me from the other old house. And from the older house to the old house. My Barbie doll my best companion had disappeared. I had not seen her for weeks. What had happened to her? She couldn’t have walked out on me, she couldn’t walk!
Immediately I made plans to go back to my old house to look for her. Even if my house were sold there must be someone living in it. There has to be a new owner. And my doll must still be there, waiting for me to fetch her. I became excited. I went to dress, no, I needed to call for transport first. I started pacing up and down my own room, and then I tripped on the table leg and toppled over my jug of water. It was left there for me - I was supposed to finish one jug a day. The blue man said that the doctor told me that it was good for my health.
Doctor! I was suddenly acquainted with the idea of a doctor. Since when? The word just slipped in. I didn’t remember seeing a doctor. Was I ill? Since when? And what could be the illness?
I remembered that I had chicken curry yesterday. And then this morning I had two pieces of French toast for breakfast. What did I do yesterday?
Like a phantom she appeared to me in the dark. I saw her face. It was white and her cheek bones were very high. She had makeup on, like one of the actresses in a horror movie. I opened my mouth and asked her,
“What do you want from me?” but I think in reality she couldn’t hear me.
My words were soft and powerless, as though it were just a thought. I said it many times and only after several times did she obey me. And before she left, she threw me a sentence,
“My name is Elaine,” and then I woke up. I lay still, frightened.
I was hundred per cent sure that some supernatural being was in my room, on top of me. But that since no concrete evidence could be found, I couldn’t tell anyone about it.
When the servant came in to tidy up my sheets, I told her to bring them all out to wash. I wanted to wash the unseen being away. Elaine was definitely from the evil side.
Of course I complained to the blue man. I was fast in making complaint. The blue man had this to offer me: get a priest to bless your house.
It seemed like a good idea except that I didn’t liked priests. It was just my own prejudice and a strong belief that sex played a major role in a man’s life - any man - and if you avoided it, it was like avoiding food and drinks. For those who have not had sexual experiences, how could they understand the temptations of the flesh, and be able to offer advice accordingly?
And so I rejected the blue man on the spot. He didn’t seem to be offended. He merely told me,
“Let me know if you change your mind,”
“No, I don’t want anyone to take control over my house,” I gave him the reason.
“He is not taking control over you or your house, he is just here to lend the presence of the Holy Spirit to ward off the evil spirit,” the blue man said.
“How did she come in?” I followed after him.
“I think she followed you home from outside,” the blue man said.
Lying in bed that night I cracked my head over the spot where I last saw Elaine. Where could she have followed me from? Could Elaine have been the lady with the umbrella and followed me back from the gardens? Yes, I went for a walk in the gardens two days ago. And as it was raining I took shelter with the lady who had an umbrella. I did not ask her for her name before I dropped her and rushed back into the sheltered walkway …
I began to look forward to the walks in the gardens. The garden was not too far away. Just two blocks and you could see several rows of multi-colored flowers. I told myself not to bring an umbrella so that I could borrow from the lady.
When you can’t remember anything at all you really couldn’t remember anything at all. I walked around the garden, from the sheltered walkway to the pavilion. I sat down and I got up. The woman did not appear with her umbrella. But of course, it wasn’t raining!
I saw several people alone by themselves. I had an urge to go up and talk to them but I had no decent topic to offer for conversation. The only way I could probably start was: hi the weather looks fine today.
And then I looked at my watch. It was almost 12:00 p.m. Time for lunch. I hurried back to my house and true enough the blue man was waiting for me.
“Where have you been?” I was surprised he asked.
“Just out for a walk,” I wasn’t going to tell him about the woman with the umbrella. Especially since I had met with no one.
“You have any siblings?” He asked.
“Someone was here to see you today,” the blue man said.
“A lady by the name of Ruth, she said she was your sister,” he continued.
I remembered I was an orphan. I had no sister.
My parents left me at a convent when I was very young. According to the sisters, they were supposed to come back for me. Money for lodging with them was paid regularly until one day when the money just stopped coming in.
I started getting less food on my plate, and I was not given a new set of clothes to change into for the new year. I couldn’t account for the reason as I was very young and didn’t know the intricacies of the adult world.
Two persons, a man and a woman, used to come to visit me at regular intervals. Only when they stopped coming then I was told that they were my parents. I had no idea.
So who could this Ruth be?
If they said that Ruth was my sister, then so be it. I have no problems with that. For after all if I could accept the notion that two strangers were in fact my parents, then I should similarly be able to accept the notion that Ruth was my sister. The only question was, what could Ruth want from me? I was poor I had no money to offer her.
Hey, wait! Who had been paying for my expenses here all the while? I remembered that I paid my own utilities bill, my own telco bill, and I had my own letterbox. And …. what happened to my emails? Yeah, WHERE WAS MY LAPTOP?
I remembered that the Mac was on the right side of my bed, propped up on a side table, the side table I rolled it to one side when I went to bed. I distinctly remembered that I logged it off last night before I went to bed and didn’t touch it until I woke up this morning. But then I could not find it now. Where was it? I looked right and left, up and down, even at the ceiling - there was a fan hanging there - and finally I landed myself on the bed under the sheets. No, it was not there!
No use looking. I have lost my Mac forever. If it were around it should have been here, right under my nose. I decided that I must lodge a report with the blue man right away. I walked out of my room, went to the counter and spoke with one of the staff. I saw a man putting some pills in a box, and I saw Rosalind counting the pills on a tray. They were busy!
“Err, excuse me, I lost my Mac …” I started tentatively, a little timid. They continued with their activity, as though they didn’t hear me. Frustrated, I walked away, back into my own room. And then I realized that my house wasn’t my house. For otherwise, why would the entire place be flooded with so many people? And then, apart from my Mac, where was my doll? I had her on my chair all the while. Oh yeah, the fabric of this chair in my room was different! This time it was a blue material, mine was a beige all the while.
I was shocked beyond comprehension. My world has been turned upside down. This world was a new world. And where was my old world? My old world consisted of the doll. Who can help me find it? Yup, the blue man. He was always around. He was the solution to everything …
I took my steps one at a time. When I reached the door I looked up, and there I saw 103. What 103? Was this a room number? I remembered my house number was 49. Why 103 now? I began to panic. I was not living in my own house!
I started walking backwards, one step at a time, without looking back, and as I reached the wall. I stopped. I sat down on the floor and I looked at my feet. No shoes! Oh yes, I came out barefooted. I never used to wear slippers in my house anyway …
“What are you doing here?” a voice said, rather stern. I stood still.
It was the blue man. Today he was in a white shirt. I have begun to recognize his face now. And I could see his name tag: Dr Tan Yee Chong, Harry.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. He has this therapeutic effect on me.
Tonight I saw her again. Since she said that she was Elaine, so be it. Ok, I saw Elaine. This time she didn’t put her hands on my neck. She sat on the blue chair. In fact, I had difficulty finding her, as when I stood up and walked to the chair to look for my bear she had disappeared by the time I reached the chair.
Stumbled on nothing. I stood in the dark, wondering where the switch was. I gave myself sometime, and then I remembered where the standing lamp was. Slowly I walked towards the lamp … ouch! I tripped over something on the floor. Hey, it was a car! Why was the car there?!
Oh but it was only a toy car. I chuckled at the thought. And then I decided to go back to sleep. “Tomorrow night she will look for me again,” I told myself as I flopped onto the bed. The bed was welcoming and I crawled back into the sheets which had been ruffled just earlier.
I never saw Elaine in my room again. On the contrary I saw the lady in the garden again. She was wearing a hat, and she was reading a book when I saw her at the bench. This time she didn’t carry an umbrella with her.
I knew that I couldn’t talk to her anymore. She was Elaine. And Elaine was from beyond.
In life there was a limitation to events. Time was a commodity we borrowed from God. We repay Him by being kind, by being patient, by giving love to those around us. We lived in this world, we did not exist alone. We might seem alone, but God was watching us, always, visible or invisible.
I tried to look for Elaine again when I saw the same umbrella at the entrance to room number 104. Upon enquiry I found out that the umbrella belonged to an “Elaine” and that the room was vacated abruptly last night.
I tried again.
And then I stopped trying.
I never knew that that was the last time I was given a chance to talk to Elaine. And I couldn’t remember what we said to each other. God had conveniently erased it from my memory. But I couldn’t say that I missed Elaine now, all I remembered was that she had decided to leave.
If she were a human she had decided to leave.
If she were from beyond she was reborn.
Death was a path to which we walked alone. They said that two angels will accompany us to heaven when the time came. I walked up and I saw the door to the gardens and I pulled hard to open it. No one was on my left, no one was on my right. The other side that greeted me was a fountain. No longer the benches.
I went up to the fountain and was moved to cup some of the water in my palms. I drank it and felt rejuvenated. Again, I wished that I need not have to die. Again, I realized that there was no heaven.
I came, I saw, I conquered. Fear was what I needed to conquer. Fear was what made me come.
I meant, I was back on earth again. If you still feared death, then you could never enter heaven.
I still have to die. Perhaps another day.
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